Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • The Stats of the Furious - A thorough accounting and visualization of a series that only kinda-sorta-deserves this kind of scrutiny. Also of note, Sonny Bunch's ranking of the Fast/Furious films. All of which is to say, these are fun films, but let's not overthink it.
  • The Silence of the Lambs as a Romantic Comedy - This sort of thing is old and I don't think anyone will ever approach the already-produced Platonic ideal of Shining, but this one works pretty well.
  • seriously, the guy has a point - You know that "Fearless Girl" statue that appeared in front of the famous "Charging Bull" on Wall Street? It turns out that it's a cynical advertising ploy, while the original "Charging Bull" was actually guerrilla art.
    In effect, Fearless Girl has appropriated the strength and power of Charging Bull. Of course Di Modica is outraged by that. A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art. That would piss off any artist.
    Indeed. This is one of those questions that has many answers, all right. Art doesn't exist in a vacuum, but you can detach it from its context to interpret it in interesting ways. The "Charging Bull" is an interesting example, most people interpreting it in ways the original artist didn't intend. Similarly, the "Fearless Girl" seems to have taken on a life of its own. But origins are origins, and I don't think either piece should ultimately be able to shake their context completely, which is a good thing.
  • Dyatlov Pass Incident - The mysterious unsolved deaths of nine ski hikers in Russia under suspicious circumstances.
    One victim had a fractured skull while another had brain damage but without any sign of distress to their skull. Additionally, a female team member had her tongue and eyes missing. The investigation concluded that an "unknown compelling force" had caused the deaths. Access to the region was consequently closed to amateur hikers and expeditions for three years after the incident (the area is named Dyatlov Pass in honor of the group's leader, Igor Dyatlov).

    As the chronology of events remains uncertain due to the lack of survivors, several explanations have been put forward as to the cause; they include an animal attack, hypothermia, an avalanche, infrasound-induced panic, military involvement, or a combination of explanations.
  • The Incredible Intuition Of Professional Chicken Sexers - Some professions are weird:
    ...the strange nature of chicken sexing. This is the valuable process of separating female and male chicks as soon as possible, because each sex has different diets and endgames (most males are just destroyed). The mystery is that when you look at the vent in the chick’s rear, some people just know which are female. It is impossible to articulate, so the Japanese figured out how to teach this inarticulable knowledge. The student would pick up a chick, examine its rear, and toss it into a bin. The master would then say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on his generally correct observation. After a few weeks, the student’s brain was trained to masterful levels.
    A lot of what we do comes down to intuition, and I'd be curious how much of it could actually be more formally defined. This is going to be a thing in the next century, as we all start training our robotic AI overlords how to do stuff like chick sexing. Or maybe our intuition can't be replicated. Only one way to tell, and I guarantee someone will do so in the nearish future...
  • The Black Knight satellite conspiracy theory - I'm generally not too keen on conspiracy theories, and this one doesn't exactly change my mind, but it's a pretty fun one. Basically, there's a satellite in a near-polar orbit of the Earth that UFO enthusiasts believe is of extraterrestrial origin. Tons of stuff out there about this, most of it unconvincing... but fun! At the very least, a good way to see how conspiracy theories work...
And that's all for now...
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Weird Movie of the Week

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we covered some Holiday Horror (a film that turned out to be not quite as weird as desired, alas). This time, we return to the Bigfoot realm with a movie that has one of the greatest titles I've ever heard: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then Bigfoot. Produced by indie statesman John Sayles (who is probably best known for his serious work like Lone Star or Eight Men Out, but got his start with trash like Piranha or Alligator) and starring Sam Elliott, this premise sounds like a hoot:
The story follows a legendary American war veteran named Calvin Barr (Elliott) who, decades after serving in WWII and assassinating Adolf Hitler, must now hunt down the fabled Bigfoot. Living a peaceful life in New England, the former veteran is contacted by the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to lead the charge as the creature is carrying a deadly plague and is hidden deep inside the Canadian wilderness.
Sounds glorious. These things don't always pan out that way, but I think this one is worth the stretch.
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The 2017 Hugo Award Finalists were announced this week, so I guess it's time to start the bitter recriminations and whining. Assorted thoughts below:
  • The novel ballot looks pretty good and indeed, I've already read three of the nominees, all of which were pretty good (and two of which were in my nominations). Ninefox Gambit is the clear front-runner for me, with its intricate worldbuilding and simple, pulpy plot. A Closed and Common Orbit ranks a distant second, but I liked its focus and positive attitude enough to throw it a nomination. All the Birds in the Sky has a great, whimsical tone to it, but of the novels I've read, it's the one that could fall behind some of the things I haven't read yet. Speaking of which, Cixin Liu returns to the ballot with Death's End, the conclusion to the story begun in the Hugo-winning Three Body Problem and the one I'm most looking forward to catching up with (even if it requires me to read the second novel, which I never got to last year). Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning has been on my radar for a while, but I never pulled the trigger. It sounds like it has potential for me. N.K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate rounds out the nominees. A sequel to last year's Hugo-winning The Fifth Season, a book that I have to admit that I did not enjoy at all. Well written and executed, but it felt a little too much like misery-porn for my liking, and thus I'm not particularly enthused about reading the sequel. I realize this puts me in the minority here, but it's got me seriously considering not actually participating this year. I really don't want to return to that gloomy world of suffering and despair, as well written as it may be...
  • For the shorter fiction categories, the only thing I've already read was Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric and the Shaman, which I enjoyed, but which I feel is inferior to its sequel, Penric's Mission (perhaps because that came out late in the year, not enough people caught up with it?) In fact, now that I've caught up with the latest Penric & Desdemona book, Mira's Last Dance, I can say that Penric and the Shaman is my least favorite in the series. And yet, I'll wager that I'll like it better than most of the other nominees. Only one way to find out, I guess.
  • The only out-and-out trolling nominee (in the fiction categories) is Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, which, ugh, why bother? I'm so over this Rabid Puppies trolling and I really don't get it. Their point was made, now they're just being gluttons for punishment. We know exactly how all the Rabid Puppy nominees will fare this year (at least there were less of them). The Sad Puppies seem to have faded away, which is fine I guess, but while I never really joined forces with them, I did have a certain sympathy with the type of fiction they claimed to enjoy. Of course, many of their nominees didn't really bear that out, but the idea was solid. Except that this whole three year affair has ended with a really polarized field of nominees, which again makes me wonder if I should participate again this year. A good amount of the nominees in short fiction categories are available online for free, which is nice and could allow me to get a better feel for the tenor of these categories.
  • The Best Series award is new and experimental this year (and could be made permanent next year if people like it) and they've generated some interesting nominees. Chief among them is Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, which might be my favorite series of all time. Of the other nominees, I've only read one book from James S.A. Corey's The Expanse, which frankly did not impress me very much. I've recently had Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence recommended to me by an independent observer, so I may get to that at some point. I really enjoyed Naomi Novik's Uprooted last year, so I'd wager that her Temeraire series could also strike a chord with me. That Seanan McGuire's October Daye series made the list is interesting because I don't think any of them have previously been nominated for a Best Novel... The Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch is the only one I wasn't really familiar with at all, but it sounds interesting enough. Those last two are both Urban Fantasy, a sub-genre I'm not a particularly huge fan of, and not something traditionally awarded by the Hugo crowd, so this is an interesting list... That being said, this category has some rather high logistical hurdles facing it... If you haven't already read these books, it'll be difficult to pack them into the next couple of months (along with other Hugo reading). Some of these series are short, but most are very, very long. I'm a huge Vorkosigan fan, so I have something to root for here, but I don't think it'd feel right to vote on this award without giving a fare shake to all the nominees, which is probably not going to happen...
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form has a clear winner for me in Arrival. Deadpool and Rogue One made the cut, neither of which is particularly surprising. Season one of Stranger Things showing up here (as opposed to one of the episodes in the Short Form category) is a pleasant surprise. Ghostbusters is a profoundly mediocre blockbuster and it's surprising that it made the ballot. I'm disappointed that The Witch couldn't draw enough nominations, but it's not your typical Hugo fare either...
So there you have it. Still not decided with whether or not I'll actually vote this year, but I will probably read a bunch of stuff on the list in any case, so look for some reviews in the next couple of months...
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So this meme has been going around for a while and I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring because this could be interesting. N.B. the meme sez "favorite" and not "best" and also, I've got a moderate amount of years to get through here, so I wasn't particularly choosy, picking the first movie that really jumped out at me. Sometimes I'm really boring, sometimes... not. I appear to have some biases. That was harder than expected and I'm absolutely positive that I'm leaving out tons of great films that would probably have made the list if the quick searches for each year revealed them (particularly foreign films)...
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SF Book Review: Part 26

Just recapping some recent Science Fiction reads... Some Hugo nomination phase fodder here, but mostly just catching up on older SF.
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers - The Wayfarer is a hyperspace tunneling ship that's seen better days. We join the crew through Rosemary Harper who has the exciting job of... clerk. But she's trying to escape a checkered past and the boring and relatively peaceful work of a hyperspace tunneling job hits the mark. Things are livened by a diverse and alien-filled crew. So this was sorta billed as Firefly meets Ursula Le Guin, which is a comparison that doesn't really do this book any favors. It's not that this is a bad book or anything, just that expectations were probably set too high. To be sure, what we really get is character-driven and episodic in nature (not too far off the mark there), but it doesn't quite cohere into more than the sum of its parts. Each character is well drawn and most experience some sort of conflict, it's just that many of these episodic elements just sort of fizzle away. The crew does exhibit a refreshing lack of gritty cynicism and angst, and it's very nice to see a group of people be supportive and nice to one another, even if the close quarters and cross-cultural differences can cause some friction. Even though I felt the stakes of most conflicts were underwhelming, I was having a pretty good time hanging out with characters I genuinely liked. The ending setpiece is the best in the book and actually does manage to generate some stakes and tension (where most of the preceding do not); this strong finish does help a bit too. Ultimately, this is a very enjoyable read that bucks a lot of negative trends in the SF genre, but it never quite reached the dramatic heights I was looking for. A nice introduction to the universe though, and I was curious enough to revisit the series with the most recent entry:
  • A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers - This novel tangentially picks up where The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet leaves off, focusing in on one character (and a former side character) instead of following the crew of the Wayfarer. Spoilers for the previous book! But this could also be a standalone! Lovelace was the AI of the Wayfarer, but got some circuits fried during a particularly dangerous mission. While her core functions were saved by a total system shutdown and reboot, her memories have all been lost. As a result, relationships with her crew have degraded, particularly with the Engineer Jenks, who was in love with her. Not wanting to cause such disharmony, Lovelace is loaded into a new body (unusual for an AI meant to live as a ship) and takes off with her new friend Pepper, a specialist in this sort of thing. Lovelace needs to adjust to her newfound mobility and independence while finding her place in the universe. Meanwhile, Pepper is struggling with her own conflicts, and the Lovelace sections are crosscut with her backstory, detailing her difficult childhood and affinity for AIs. Chambers manages the same optimistic, positive, and supportive character-driven tone for this novel, but the focus on two characters with dovetailing themes really benefits the story. The stakes still aren't sky-high and I miss some of the characters from the previous book, but the story is overall more cohesive and entertaining too. Not exactly diamond-hard SF, but it's still a pleasure to read and an improvement over the meandering of the previous book. I liked this enough to throw it a Hugo nomination, though I think there's probably only a low to middling chance that it'll become a finalist...
  • Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp - American archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting 1938 Rome during a peculiar thunderstorm. So peculiar that when it's over, he finds himself in 535 AD. As an archaeologist, Padway is intrigued by living through history, but quickly accepts his fate. As he does not want to spend the remainder of his life watching the Dark Ages fall upon Italy (as happened in our timeline), Padway adopts an ambitious course of technological improvement. Starting small with copper stills and distilling brandy, he eventually works his way all the way up to printing presses and even telegrams. Of course, Padway's mysterious inventions and enlightened attitudes eventually necessitate political wranglings... It would be another millennium before Machiavelli wrote The Prince, but it turns out that politics of this era can be just as cutthroat at this time. While not the first Alternate History story, this appears to be among the most influential. John Campbell is famous for his work editing Astounding Science Fiction magazine, but he also edited Unknown, a magazine for more fantastical flights of SF and Fantasy. This is where Lest Darkness Falls was originally published, what with it's simple time travel premise. That being said, once that premise is established, de Camp does a remarkable job keeping things grounded. Yes, Padway is able to accomplish a lot in very little time, but he's beset by complications at nearly every turn. He doesn't just invent the printing press. He does so and then realizes that no one makes ink that will work for it. Then he uses up all of Rome's paper supply to print his first newspaper, so he has to invent better paper production facilities. And so on... Comparison with Mark Twain’s 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is inevitable, but despite the similarities of their premise, the books are quite divergent. Twain was more interested in satire and social commentary of his own time, while de Camp was more interested in getting the history and technology right. Both stories will make you think, but de Camp's will obviously appeal more to the hard SF mindset. It's a short and entertaining read that holds up well and might make a good introduction to SF for younger readers. The book I bought featured several additional stories inspired by de Camp's work, by authors like Frederik Pohl, David Drake, and S. M. Stirling, but these are somewhat less successful in my mind. Still worth the purchase for the original story though!
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - The story of Offred (literally Of-Fred), a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic dictatorship established in what used to be the United States. In this society, human rights are curtailed and women's rights are even more restricted. Handmaids are a class of women kept for reproductive purposes and assigned to various bigwigs who want children. She is currently assigned to a man named Fred, referred to as "The Commander", and she tells this story in first person. She describes the world as it is now, occasionally remembering what it used to be like before the revolution, her failed escape with her husband, and so on. These sorts of dystopian visions rarely strike a chord with me, and while that's also the case here, it does have some interesting speculations. Atwood claims that the grand majority of the book is based in reality, whether it be from history or from current theocracies in the world. I'm always wary of the criticism of "that couldn't happen here", but at the same time, while Atwood has created a chilling society, she doesn't do the greatest job describing how that society was created or maintained. It is mentioned offhand that an attack on the government, killing the President and most of Congress, led to a theological revolution that immediately suspended the Constitution under the pretext of restoring order, but it feels pretty flimsy. There are a couple other mechanisms discussed, but we don't really get much about how power is maintained in this theocracy, instead focusing on personal relationships within the household. This is well done, of course, but then, there's not a ton of plot going on here either. This does call to mind Orwell's 1984, which this book is clearly indebted to (right down to the structure, with the epilogue establishing that the story we just read took place in the past, and that we've moved on from that dystopia, though Orwell's epilogue is less direct in that notion). I suspect both books are seeing an uptick in sales due to our new orange-skinned overlord. While neither book really explains what's going on today (we live with stranger problems), it's still worth a look. Personally, I prefer 1984, but you could do worse.
  • Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm - In the wake of environmental disaster (global cooling you guys!) and global infertility, a large family sets up an isolated community in an attempt to survive the coming apocalypse. To combat the infertility, they resort to cloning with the thought that after a couple generations, the clones will regain the ability to have children the old-fashioned way. The only problem is that the clones don't really see it that way, rejecting the plan and researching ways to keep the cloning viable indefinitely. Soon, it emerges that the clones have an abnormally strong emotional and mental connection with each other, such that they lose a certain sense of individuality. This makes travel and separation exceedingly difficult, and the realities of post-apocalypse society begin to impinge on the clones' plans. They find themselves losing creativity and unable to maintain much of the equipment they use to survive, and so on. Enter Mark, a child of sexual reproduction and individual to the core who threatens the clones' way of life. I don't know why I went through this period of reading dystopias and post-apocalyptic novels, but hey, I actually really enjoyed this one. It helps that there's some actual science in this fiction, coupled with an actual plot. It's not the most page-turning narrative, but it's got a lot of interesting ideas that kept me reading. This novel won the Hugo in 1977, so it has that going for it as well.
  • Starplex by Robert J. Sawyer - Ah, now this is more like it. Space opera comfort food. Humanity has made it to the stars with the help of a giant network of "short cuts" (basically wormholes), made contact with two other races (and a third that wants nothing to do with anyone else, called the Slammers), and set up a cross-species exploration vessel called Starplex. After mysterious green stars begin floating through the shortcuts, the crew of Starplex is about to encounter revelations about the shortcuts and who set them up, along with a host of other challenges. So this is basically throwback Golden Age SF adventure, and it's a lot of fun. There's not a ton of character development, and what there is kinda misses the mark (notably Keith Lansing's midlife crisis and desire to cheat on his wife or something - fortunately, this resolves itself and winds up not being as much of a drag as I initially thought), but the ideas are great and they just keep coming. The alien races are well drawn and thought out (and indeed, their relationships are a lot more interesting than the human ones). You could argue that the story goes a bit too far and makes everything work out a little too pat, but after having steeped myself in misery and disaster with the last two books, this one was a real breath of fresh air. It captures that sense of wonder that makes SF so exciting and it's got quite a few well-executed setpieces and action sequences. Well worth checking out, and I'm most certainly going to read more Sawyer when I can...
I have a few others in progress right now, but we're also heading into Hugo season, so I'll probably start in on the fiction categories shortly after they're announced in April...
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Link Dump

Well, the weekend just sorta got away from me, so here, enjoy some links culled from the depths of ye olde internets: That's all for now!
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Teddy Roosevelt versus anti-Semitism

In Theodore Roosevelt's autobiography, he recalls a story from his time as Police Commissioner of NYC:
The many-sided ethnic character of the force now and then gives rise to, or affords opportunity for, queer happenings. Occasionally it enables one to meet emergencies in the best possible fashion. While I was Police Commissioner an anti-Semitic preacher from Berlin, Rector Ahlwardt, came over to New York to preach a crusade against the Jews. Many of the New York Jews were much excited and asked me to prevent him from speaking and not to give him police protection. This, I told them, was impossible; and if possible would have been undesirable because it would have made him a martyr. The proper thing to do was to make him ridiculous. Accordingly I detailed for his protection a Jew sergeant and a score or two of Jew policemen. He made his harangue against the Jews under the active protection of some forty policemen, every one of them a Jew! It was the most effective possible answer; and incidentally it was an object-lesson to our people, whose greatest need it is to learn that there must be no division by class hatred, whether this hatred be that of creed against creed, nationality against nationality, section against section, or men of one social or industrial condition against men of another social and industrial condition. We must ever judge each individual on his own conduct and merits, and not on his membership in any class, whether that class be based on theological, social, or industrial considerations.
Certainly a better solution than, say, lighting fires in the streets and threatening violence against those who promulgate ideas we find heinous.
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Link Dump

Time is short this week due to what's know as Fat Weekend, an annual gathering of portly gentlemen that involves much merriment. For you, we've just got some links to tide you over:
  • Nightmare Photography - Nicolas Bruno is a photographer who suffered from sleep paralysis and started recreating his nightmares using photography, leading to some wonderfully ominous photos. There are more on his Instagram, too.
  • Finding the most depressing Radiohead song - Someone used Spotify and Lyrics Genius' APIs to calculate a weighted average of valence (a measure of how sad a song sounds from a musical perspective) and lyrical sentiment, all to find out what the most depressing Radiohead song/album is...
  • The Myth of Apple's Great Design - Ian Bogost challenges the conventional wisdom that Apple is great at design. Perhaps a bit too contrarian, but he does make some good points. On a personal note, the latest iPhone I got looks as great as ever, but the stupid lack of a normal headphone jack is annoying and iTunes is garbage. I mean, it's always been garbage, but in this case, it had trouble recognizing the new phone, syncing, backing up, downloading pictures - all of these things were a disaster when the phone first came out. Some of these have been fixed by recent iOS upgrades, but it's still janky. Now that Android's pretty much caught up (and/or surpassed), I'm guessing my next phone will be one of those more useful devices.
  • Overwhelmed by Mutants - Interesting strategy for playing Defender:
    One day Burrell started doing something radical. He immediately shot all his humans! This was completely against the goal of the game! He didn’t even go after the aliens, and when he shot the last human, they all turned to mutants and attacked him from all sides. He glanced in my direction with a grin on his face and said “Make a mess, clean it up!” and proceeded to dodge the swarm of angry mutants noisily chasing after him. “Burrell’s not going to win this competition” I said to myself. “He’s not going to last long with a screen full of mutants!”
    Only he did. Interesting story about turning a weakness into a strength...
  • Riding Light - A 45 minute video depicting how slow light is. Of course, light is obscenely fast in terrestrial terms, but against the vastness of space, it's awfully slow. (That's why we need Ludicrous Speed!)
  • Why Does Your Sandwich Come With a Pickle? - The answer may shock you! Or probably not, but still a funny question.
  • Dénouement 2016 Part 1: It’s OVER! - Alright, I'm late to posting this link dump, so this two month old recap of 2016 video games from Kaedrin friend Shamus Young is a little old, but it has some nice insight on the year in general and video games in particular, like his take on VR:
    Some technological problems still haven`t been solved. For example, nobody can make a VR setup that won`t make you look like a giant dork when you`re using it.
    Nailed it.
  • Tasting Notes Through the Years - This is directed at beverage nerds (SKU is a whiskey guy, but it's equally applicable with only minor changes to my preferred vice, beer, and I'm sure most others as well), but it's probably broadly applicable to a lot of human endeavors.
  • 10 Halloween Urban Legends (Can You Tell Which Ones Are Real?) - Yeah, yeah, another link that would probably have been more relevant half a year ago, but still, this is a pretty great list of creepy Urban Legends...
And that's all for now folks. Hopefully more substantial posting will resume next week...
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The Oscars

The paradox of the Oscars is that no one claims to care about them, yet they spend a lot of time and effort in order to inform you of this. I don't think I'll ever write a better intro to the Oscars as I did a few years ago:
The funny thing about the Academy Awards is that your opinion about them is pretty boring. You think the Oscars are just a cynical circle jerk of self-satisfied Hollywood elites? Boring! You're outraged at [insert snub here]? Super fucking boring! You're genuinely excited about seeing films receive the recognition they deserve? You are both naive and boring! But the one thing that unites us all is the abject hatred of the short films categories. I think we can all agree on that.
This year promises to be vaguely more interesting giving that we're living in the age of Trump and thus celebrities will be falling all over themselves to make "important" statements that will be parsed to death in the following week. I guess this is a good thing, but only in the "May you live in interesting times" curse sort of way.

On a more personal level, I just like to drink a few beers and make fun of celebrities. Making predictions can also be fun, though I do tend to fall right around the same 80% or so success rate every year. This year's picks are below. Back in the before time, the long long ago, I used to do this thing called "liveblogging". For the uninitiated, back in the "dark" days before Facebook and Twitter, people would just update their blog every 2 minutes and we'd just sit there hitting F5 to see what people were saying. A few years ago, I finally got with the times and took it all to Twitter. And to be honest, I'm not that interesting, so I usually end up just retweeting a bunch of people who are funnier and more incisive than I am. But hey, if you want to chat, I'll be on Twitter @mciocco saying dumb things. If, for some ungodly reason, you want to see a decade's worth of previous predictions and commentary on the Oscars, check them out here: [2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]
  • Best Picture: La La Land. This appears pretty close to a lock. Critics are agitating for Moonlight, but I suspect the Academy will think that throwing it an award in one of the lesser categories will be enough. Still a chance for backlash, I guess, but it's small. Arrival would be my pick, but the Academy famously doesn't go for SF, though this seems better regarded than most. Similarly, Hell or High Water is well liked (including by me!), but is unlikely to really strike a chord with the Academy. Manchester by the Sea and Hidden Figures have some cred, I guess, but their chances seem vanishingly small (and may be rewarded elsewhere). Lion only got the nomination due to customary Weinstein wrangling and will thus probably not have any real chance of winning (regardless of the film's quality). Hacksaw Ridge is just an acknowledgement that Hollywood is giving Mel a chance again. In the end, it's La La Land or Moonlight or bust.
  • Best Director: Damien Chazelle for La La Land. Historically, Best Picture and Best Director tracked together, but they've diverged over the past few years (perhaps because of the expanded Best Picture category). That being said, La La Land has the momentum and will probably run the board. I think we're due to return to these two awards being tied together. Still a chance for Barry Jenkins to take it, though. The other nominees have approximately no chance. Denis Villenueve would be my choice. Mel Gibson and Kenneth Lonergan should just be happy for being out of director's jail.
  • Best Actress: Emma Stone for La La Land. My initial thought was that Natalie Portman would take this for Jackie, but her buzz seems to be waning while La La Land waxes. Moderate chance of an upset here though. Isabelle Huppert rides the dark horse with her performance in Elle and a few wins in other awards this season. Ruth Negga seems a tad behind that, and Meryl Streep is only nominated because she's always nominated. It's Hollywood law, or something. With Streep's exception, it's a pretty strong lineup though. I don't really have a preference.
  • Best Actor: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea. He's been the clear frontrunner for a while, but Denzel Washington snagged a SAG award and has been generating buzz, so he has some momentum. Virtually no chance that the other nominees will win (maybe Gosling, riding on La La Land's momentum), though it's still a decent lineup. No real preference from my perspective.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis for Fences. Seems like a lock, though I guess Michelle Williams could spoil because she's great in the short amount of time she's on screen in Manchester by the Sea. Naomie Harris is a longshot, and the other nominees are pretty much out of it. Seems like Davis' to lose.
  • Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight. This is a near lock, and it should be.
  • Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea. Welcome back to Hollywood's embrace, Kenneth Lonergan. But don't get too excited, it's eminently possible that La La Land will run away with it on momentum alone. No real chance for anyone else, even if my vote would actually go to Hell or High Water.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight. This is probably a makeup for not giving it best picture (and it's probably not a bad choice). Personally, I'd go with Arrival, but that's just because I'm a nerd and I know how difficult it was to adapt that story...
  • Film Editing: La La Land. Seems like a pretty safe bet.
  • Cinematography: La La Land. Yuuup!
  • Visual Effects: The Jungle Book seems favored and is actually pretty deserving. I can't believe Rogue One: A Star Wars Story even got nominated (most of it is great, to be sure, but zombie Tarkin seems like a pretty clear disqualifier, no?)
  • Makeup: Star Trek Beyond. I guess? I mean, sure, why not?
  • Costumes: Jackie. It's got that iconic flair, I guess. Still can't rule out La La Land though.
  • Musical Score: La La Land, because it's a juggernaut.
  • Best Song: “City of Stars” from La La Land, because it's a juggernaut. I suppose there's fair chance that having two songs from the same movie nominated could split the votes and allow something like Moana to run away with it, but I'm not counting on it.
  • Best Animated Film: Zootopia seems to be the frontrunner, but Moana or Kubo and the Two Strings should probably also contend here (I would probably vote for the latter over the former).
  • Best Documentary: O.J.: Made in America, and it probably deserves it too. The only caveat is that it's so long that maybe the voters will get fed up and go with something else. Don't think it's likely though.
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Toni Erdmann seems to be the thing most critics have talked about, but The Salesman has enough buzz that it might pull through.
That about covers it. There are some missing categories, but these are the ones I pick each year and I don't feel like figuring out which categories I neglected (though I do know that two of them are short film categories, which we've already established are hot garb). Again, follow me on Twitter @mciocco for inane commentary throughout the ceremony.
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Favorite Films of 2016

We continue our recap of the year in movies with our top 10 list, only a month and half late! But I snuck it in before the Oscars, so there is that. This marks the eleventh year I've posted a top ten, which is pretty hard to believe. For reference, previous top 10s are here: [2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]

Summing up the year in movies and compiling a list of 10 favorites is an arbitrary exercise, but it's something I enjoy wrangling with. A couple years ago, I observed that Hollywood had really pulled their shit together and put out a pretty impressive slate of blockbusters. Well, those stars are all misaligned right now, because this was a positively dreadful year for blockbusters, lead in particular by a never-ending series of sequels and remakes that literally no-one was asking for (and which did about as well). The Huntsman: Winter's War, Now You See Me 2, Mechanic: Resurrection, Inferno, and Ben Hur, just to name a few. Marvel managed a couple solid entries, and there was a decent Star Wars flick, but otherwise things looked pretty bleak. It's tempting to say we've reached "peak sequel", but that's just wishful thinking. The real problem this year was that all these sequels were just so bad. In 2015, we at least had movies like Creed or Mad Max: Fury Road (two long-gap sequels no one was really clamoring for, yet which turned out fantastic).

As a result of these underperforming tent-poles, us movie dorks had to put on our archeology hats and dig deep to find the real gems. It usually takes some effort to round out the top 10 by delving into the offbeat and obscure offerings of the year, but this year moreso than others. My favorite stuff tended to be the middle-tier (budget wise) offerings that seem to be an endangered species in our current movie environment, but they're still there if you know where to look.

As of this writing, I have seen 78 movies that could be considered a 2016 release. This is about on-par for me, more than your typical moviegoer, but less than your average critic. Not exactly comprehensive, but enough such that a top 10 is actually a meaningful segment. Standard disclaimers apply, let's get to it:

Top 10 Movies of 2016
* In roughly reverse order
  • Tickled - Ostensibly about a journalist's attempts to get to the bottom of a mysterious ring of online tickling competitions, this documentary quickly pivots to an odd and more relevant exploration of online abuse. While this particular story only covers a tiny chunk of people impacted, it has broader implications. Perhaps not as formally inventive as its subject matter, it nonetheless makes an impression that is hard to shake.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Love & Friendship - Jane Austen period costume dramas are not exactly in my sweet spot, but this movie pleasantly surprised me. I attribute a big part of this to an excellent lead performance from Kate Beckinsale, wry and manipulative. The witty writing from Whit Stillman also deserves recognition, and the movie as a whole is a delight. Comedies, especially unusual ones like this, often get left out of the end-of-year conversation, so I'm really happy to point to this one...
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Green Room - Jeremy Saulnier's tense thriller really knows how to ratchet the tension. Excellent performances all around, but the standout is the menacing Patrick Stewart (he didn't win the Best Villain award for nothing, folks). Not an easy movie, but very well executed.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople - Taika Waititi is quickly becoming a Kaedrin favorite. This tale of a rebellious kid (a "bad egg") taking off with his foster-uncle (a gruff-looking Sam Neill) turns out to be a heartwarming treat. Most descriptions make it sound overly familiar or cliched, but while the overarching skeleton may appear that way, the details and execution are on point. It doesn't come off anywhere near as cliched as you might expect.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Nice Guys - Writer/Director Shane Black didn't invent the buddy comedy dynamic, but he's made a career out of tweaking the formula. A pair of irregular private detectives try to locate a missing girl and get wrapped up in a convoluted conspiracy surrounding a murder case.
    The Nice Guys
    Great performances from Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and Black's sharp script helps too.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Hell or High Water - One of the quiet surprises of the year, this tale of West Texas bank robbers and the policemen on their tale is well paced and clever. Writer Taylor Sheridan produced a real gem here, with the best dialogue of the year servicing a complex and culturally relevant plot.
    Hell or High Water
    This is a prime example of the sort of endangered mid-budget movie I mentioned in the intro, and it would truly be a shame to miss out on movies like this. Well worth your time.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
  • The Handmaiden - Chan-wook Park's latest and among his best, this tale of a Korean handmaiden attempting to pull a con on a Japanese heiress is twisty and turny in the best way possible. Great performances and visually gorgeous to boot. It's surprisingly funny too. Perhaps not for everyone, but I loved it.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Weiner - This portrait of Anthony Weiner's self-destruction is made all the more remarkable due to the extraordinary amount of access the filmmakers had during Weiner's doomed mayoral campaign. It's got its tragic elements, but also enough pathos to soften the blow without shifting blame or sugarcoating anything. An unflinching look at a train wreck.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Witch - An exceptional exercise in verisimilitude... except for one key detail: Witches are real! This actually represents a clever twist on your typical Witch Hunt narrative, one that makes it much more relevant to today's climate than you would initially think.
    The Witch
    Chilling and fascinating, this is a movie that really stuck with me.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review]
  • Arrival - I'm often hard on science fiction films because it's so rare to see what I love about SF literature captured on screen. What's more, when you read Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, you are not immediately struck by the story's cinematic potential. But Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer managed a near miracle in adapting Chiang's complex tale of language and motherhood. They add some geopolitical wrangling to spice things up, but they don't devolve into typical Hollywood alien invasion shenanigans and still manage to evoke the same, more personal feelings and questions I had while reading the story. It also arrived at a politically opportune moment, giving it an added dose of relevance. One of the best pieces of cinematic SF of all time, and certainly the best of the year.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner] [Full Review]
Special Jury Prize
Awarded to the movie that doesn't quite fit the traditional notion of a movie and thus does not make the top 10, but deserves recognition beyond Arbitrary Awards or Honorable Mentions nonetheless.
  • O.J.: Made in America - At almost 8 hours long, it's hard to consider this documentary a traditional "movie"... and yet, it's so well done that it deserves some form of unique recognition. It covers O.J.'s life and times leading up to the infamous murder trial, but it also delves into much of the social and political context for the trial. It never feels like pandering, but it doesn't flinch at difficult subjects either. It's certainly an achievement and well worth watching.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
Honorable Mention
* In alphabetical order
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane - One of the year's baffling long-gap sequels that no one was really looking for, this one is actually a standalone tale (barely connected to its predecessor) and perhaps that's why it succeeded where so many other sequels failed. A tense, bottled story, an unhinged villain, and some deft twists make this thriller well worth your time.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Captain America: Civil War - The premise behind this story, while a time-honored tradition among comic book fans, is one of my least favorite tropes. Pitting heroes against one another is fine in isolation, more problematic in context. Nevertheless, Marvel manages to pull it off in fine style here, in part because they are able to acknowledge both sides of the argument and then delve into more interpersonal conflicts. It's certainly not a perfect movie, nor does it live up to the previous installment in the series, but it was still wildly entertaining, which is all I really need from these movies.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review]
  • Doctor Strange - Another Marvel shot in the dark that manages to hit its target, one of the things I love about the MCU is their willingness to take a chance on more obscure or out-there characters like Doctor Strange. As I understand it, they maybe softened the edges a bit too much, but there's plenty of weird stuff here, some interesting visual cues, and a relatively clever climax that kinda subverts the typical blockbuster explodey ending.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Don't Breathe - This tale of a group of hoodlums attempting to rob a blind man, only to have him turn the tables on them, is one of the best horror movies of the year. Tense, well crafted, and thrilling, it suffers from a third act twist involving a turkey baster. A little more care in that (rather gross) situation could have easily put this in the top 10, but alas, that was not to be.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Hail, Caesar! - Howard Hawks famously described what makes a good movie: "Three great scenes, no bad ones." Well, this movie does have three of my favorite scenes of the year: A studio executive discusses God with an assortment of priests and a rabbi. "Would that it 'twere so simple." And a group of communists calling themselves "The Future" discuss class conflict as it relates to the devision of labor on a movie set. Or maybe the Channing Tatum-led musical number. Or Scarlett Johansson's synchronised swimming bit. Or about ten other scenes. Nearly a top 10 pick (i.e. Hawks isn't wrong here), but it falls just short because all these great scenes never really coalesce into more than the sum of their parts. This could change with a rewatch and further consideration, as sometimes happens with the Coen Brothers' more unruly efforts, but for now, it remains an honorable mention.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Invitation - A man goes to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband. Soon, he starts to suspect something more sinister is going on. Director Karyn Kusama's deliberate, meticulous thriller builds tension slowly but steadily, lulling you in until violence starts to break out. Then things escalate even further, culminating in the slowly dawning dread of the its final shot. A strong contender for a #10 slot, and on another day, it might have show up there.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Kill Zone 2 - The best action movie I saw all year, this also aspires to a bit more with a script filled with interlocking coincidences and missed connections being discovered. But still, the real reason to watch this is the fight choreography and the execution from the likes of Tony Jaa. I'm not an expert in martial arts, but this is the best action I've seen since the last Raid movie.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • La La Land - I'm not a huge fan of musicals and while this movie didn't completely convert me, I did find myself enjoying it quite a bit. I didn't find myself taken by the music itself, but rather the filmmaking. The opening number, filmed to appear as one long take. Or the bittersweet montage towards the end of the film. Director Damien Chazelle clearly knows what he's doing and I have to respect going against the grain like this. That being said, it doesn't quite stack up against the classic musicals of yore that it clearly intends to evoke.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Manchester by the Sea - A subtle study in grief centered on the notion that someone who is broken by tragedy might not be able to recover, I found myself respecting and admiring this film more than feeling for it. Not an easy movie to shake, and Casey Affleck's central performance is deserving of praise, but it all left me feeling a bit cold. That's kinda the point, and I do like the very end, which gives a well earned glimpse of hope. Still not sure it needed to be as long as it was, but writer/director Kenneth Lonergan clearly knows what he's doing, and even the extraneous bits feel exquisitely observed (in particular, the "band practice" scenes are probably unnecessary, even if they're brilliantly conceived and executed).
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Mermaid - Stephen Chow's latest certainly fits his particular brand of manic nonsense. It's funny (I particularly enjoyed the police sketch artist bit), even if some of the gags don't quite survive translation and the tone (especially towards the end) is a little unsteady.
    The Mermaid
    Still, Chow's kinetic genius is on full display, and this is well worth a watch.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Moana - Disney continues a strong run of animated hits of late, and this Polynesian-inspired tale of adventure hits the mark. As musical numbers go, this one has more memorable bits than La La Land (if not quite as numerous), and a more exciting story too. It's a lot of fun.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Moonlight - A character study divided into three sections, titled "Little," "Chiron," and "Black," each a name our protagonist adopts at a different stage of life. It's strongest in its first third, anchored by Mahershala Ali's performance as a drug dealer who helps out a kid ("Little") being chased by bullies. Impeccably crafted and empathetic, this is the critics' choice of the year, and I can see why, even if these sorts of movies don't appeal to me as much.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping - Comedies get short shrift in the end-of-the-year hustle, but this one seems to have struck a nerve. Another musically inclined film that deserves recognition, and it's quite funny too. Pleasantly silly and sharp. Well worth a watch.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Sing Street - Of the musically inclined movies of the year, this one is the most joyous and entertaining. Writer/director John Carney has carved out this niche of musicians discovering one another through collaboration, and while this tale of a young boy starting a band to impress a girl might seem cliched, it still works. It was a great movie to catch up with after wading through depressing end-of-year fare (not to mention the election). It's on Netflix instant and it's a big ball of fun, watch it!
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order: Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen 78 of this year's movies (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with: That about covers it! Stay tuned for some Oscars commentary next week, after which we'll probably return to some SF and books...
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