Oscars 2018: Hope, Hype, and Hysteria


As promised in January, here is my list of the best films of 2017. with links to my reviews. Just in time for Oscar night on March 4. My list is better than Hollywood's.

1. Silence—the film Marty Scorsese has been trying to make his whole life
2. Florida Project—what it’s like to be poor in a sea of commercial vacuity
3. Shape of Watermagical realism meets the Creature from the Black Lagoon
4. Faces Places—more humanity in a single sequence of this film than all of the UN
5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—not for the moral certainty crowd
6. A Ghost Story—weird, provocative, and asks big questions
7. Loving Vincent—if film could paint like Van Gogh
8. Maudie—Sally Hawkins scores twice in ‘17
9. Certain Women—overlooked because these women are real
10. A Quiet Passionno other film surprised me as much

Holy Shit! This is so meaningless.

Before commenting on the Oscars, two obligatory rants:

 First, my top film, Silence, was technically a 2016 film, as were Certain Women and A Quiet Passion. That’s because Hollywood dates a film from when it opened in either a sports bar in New York or a poolside cabana in California, not when it opens in a place called the United States.

Second, the Oscars do not honor cinema’s best; they exist to perpetuate the myth that Hollywood is the center of filmmaking. It’s really only a center of check-totin’ coke snortin’ capitalist cowboys who think they are important, but let’s please not confuse that with quality.

I shall comment only on the so-called “Big” awards because most people have never seen (and never will) the nominated live action shorts or documentaries. I’ve yet to see any of the films in the Best Foreign Language category. See Rant # 1 above. I will say that I hope Faces Places wins for Best Documentary Feature because it should be in the Best Picture category. And why the hell isn't Dolores nominated?

Best Picture:

Should Win: The Shape of Water. It’s by far the most innovative thing on the list.

Shouldn’t Be Here: Everything else on the list except Three Billboards and Phantom Thread. The rest is either way overhyped (Darkest Hour, Lady Bird) or just dead ordinary.

Stiffed:  Florida Project. Guess it doesn’t fit into the Hollywood Dream Machine.

Best Actor:

Should Win: This is the weakest crop I’ve ever seen, but I’ll go with Daniel Day-Lewis as he’s by far the greatest actor on the list.

Shouldn’t Be Here: Pretty much everyone else on the list, but let me say that I simply don’t understand why Gary Oldman has drawn raves for playing Winston Churchill. He was outdone on TV by John Lithgow.

Stiffed: Damned if I understand why people who occupy more screen time than those with top billing are called Supporting Actors. I’d give a shout to Christopher Plummer who in a single month rescued All the Money in the World when Kevin Spacey was excised from the movie.

Best Actress:

Should Win: Frances McDormand. Simply astonishing—just what we’d expect from an actress with chops instead of glamour.

Shouldn’t Be Here:  Margot Robbie for a joke of a movie. Meryl Streep, who only got a nod to pad her most-nominated record. I love Saoirse Ronan and she will win an Oscar someday, but it should be for a role meatier than the one for which she’s nominated this year.

Stiffed: Cynthia Nixon for bringing humanity to Emily Dickinson. Who knew Nixon was this good? Or are you going to try to pull the 2016 film dodge on me? Okay, you want 2017, how about fiesty Brooklynn Prince for The Florida Project or the radiant Gal Gadot for Wonder Woman?

Supporting Actor:

Should Win: This is the strongest category by a mile. I think Willem Dafoe will win to make up for stiffing Florida Project, but either Sam Rockwell or Woody Harrelson is worthy and, as I said, Christopher Plummer should have been in the Best Actor category.

Shouldn’t Be Here: Richard Jenkins is a terrific actor, but his role in Shape of Water isn't special.

Stiffed: Gil Birmingham in Wind River. If Hollywood wants more diversity, how about celebrating this fine performance from a Native American?

Supporting Actress:

Should Win: Terrible film, but Allison Janney was the only thing that kept me from bolting I, Tonya.

Shouldn’t Be Here: Octavia Spencer is a terrific actress, but her role in Shape of Water was your basic sidekick shtick. Mary J. Blige isn’t an actress, so not her either.

Stiffed: Yeah, yeah, Certain Women is a 2016 film. It wasn’t actually, but that’s what they say. Lily Gladstone gave a heartbreaking performance that quietly cut to the essence of what loneliness really means.

Best Director:

Should Win: Guillermo del Toro for Shape of Water.

Shouldn’t Be Here: The only other name that belongs at all is Paul Thomas Anderson. Sorry but Greta Gerwig gets no love for directing a coming of age film for her debut. Few liked Dunkirk and Jonathan Peele got a nomination for a movie few have seen so Hollywood can say it nominated a black director.

Stiffed: Sean Baker for The Florida Project.Taylor Sheridan for Wind River.

The Rest:

The Cinematography nominations are mostly for big-budget and f/x laden films. Meh! The best job I saw was from Ben Richardson in Wind River. Predictably, he wasn’t nominated. If you want to nominate someone for remarkable technological work, how about Tristan Oliver for Loving Vincent? Ooops—he wasn’t nominated either.

Oscar’s most consistent category is for Original Song. Every year they manage to pick five songs that make viewers wish there was an app that allows you to fast forward real time. I’m sort of grateful that the songs are so uniformly awful—for one night I’m okay with being hearing impaired.

Shall we pretend that we care about adapted screenplay, original screenplay, sound mixing and editing, film editing, and production design. Let’s just call the whole thing off. Makeup and hair and costume design exist to remind us that Hollywood’s beautiful people can be made either more so or less so, so let’s give these a miss too. Original score goes to Hans Zimmer or John Williams. Whose turn is it this year? The Visual Effects category exists to give awards to big budget summer blockbusters that people flock to see, but which Hollywood would be embarrassed to put in other categories. The masses who saw these films will not be watching the Oscars.  


D L Rossi: February 2018 Album of the Month

D L Rossi, Crooked Love, Vol. 1

There's no such thing as too far down if you're a songwriter. I feel bad about what happened to D L Rossi, but I have to say that seldom has pain sounded so good as Crooked Love Volume 1. The songs come out of the dissolution of his marriage and the fact that Volume 2 is in the works tells you that he didn't choose what happened and he's not over it. There's no anger here—just honest and raw emotion.

It's hardly news that heartache and music go together like cold and winter, but this hurts-so-bad EP stands out because of Rossi's honeyed vocals, his careful song crafting, and the stellar band that backs him. (Rossi's pretty darn good as a solo act as well. ) He's originally from Detroit and now lives in Nashville, but there's more Tom Petty in his grooves than cookie cutter industry processing. The other good news is that the sheer joyfulness of Rossi's music indicates he has crossed the healing border is emerging out the other side.  Or, as he puts it, "Figuring it Out/The best I can." The shimmery and watery tones in that one come off as hopeful and alembic.

Rossi constructs earworm tunes, but of the kind you're glad to have rattling about in your belfry. You could dance to "Like a Heart Needs Beats" and the melody line is positively infectious, even when he sings lines such as: When the fire burned out/Cool came down/Searching through the darkness/Looking for a way out. And who can argue with sentiments like: Passion should could from way down deep/You should need it like a heart needs beats. This arrangement and several others go big, but they never overwhelm the vocals. It's not easy to steer a tune that's simultaneously sweet and muscular, but Rossi pulls it off. Add to this his uncanny ability to write lines that just grab you. The album title comes from "Round and Round," which opens with a plaintive recap: Four walls and I'm brokenhearted/ All we had from the start/You are who you are/You're stubborn as hell/And you're all that I want. Eventually the composition builds to the confessional: But I wouldn't change a thing/About our crooked love. Check out the short but blistering electric guitar riff that follows, then a dial back. Rossi expresses his psychic journey musically: calm, storm, calm, storm… balance. The same blend of desire and sunny days ahead comes across in "Everyone." And, later, the truly honest reminder that some days are harder than others: You wake up a ghost and start a haunting. Is the ghost lost love, or Rossi? Yes is the only possible answer.

This album has all the elements I look for in great songs: authentic emotion, hooky melodies, robust instrumentation, catch-your-attention lyrics, strong accented beats, and a vocalist singing like he means it.

Rob Weir 

Here's a solo acoustic performance


Gilmore, Way to Egress, Riverside, Ranky Tanky, and Others


It happens a few times a year: so much music pours into my review bin that a few things slide, not because they’re unworthy, but because I got sidetracked. Here’s my 2018 midwinter cleanout of artists you should check out.

Thea Gilmore, Run

Thea Gilmore is a treasure. Last year she dropped a new LP titled The Counterweight and NoiseTrade heralded it by offering Run, a five-track Gilmore sampler. Gilmore, though well known in the UK, where she has recorded 17 albums and a passel of singles, isn't as familiar to North Americans. She's the real deal, folks. (Among other things, the Sandy Denny estate contracted her to write melodies for ten unfinished Denny originals.) Gilmore mixes dark and light, but mostly favors the shadows and the tones of her voice are colored with faintly Gothic hues. Check out "I've Got to Run," with its syncopated strum and edgy vocals. In Britain, Gilmore is known as both a rocker and a folk artist; the five tracks on Run highlight the second persona. Try "Think of Me," as well. Don't be fooled by its quiet ambience; the theme of this one is "I will be moving on." Gilmore has a fantastic voice—sultriness mixed with hints of danger. That mix is palpable on "Something to Sing About," so much so I'm not sure I believe her when she goes sweet on "Several Angels."

This Way to the Egress, Onward Up a Frightening Creek

And now for something completely different. Listen to the song "Voodoo" from This Way to the Egress. The accordion, blarting tuba, Dr. John-like growling vocals, the edginess, the mysteriousness…  You'll assume that these folks are either from New Orleans or are missing from the set of Sweeney Todd. Now try "Ode to Bukowki's Women," which sounds as if it might be the theme song for a cable TV after-midnight horror series. Then watch them live as they perform "Mark of the Beast" and maybe you'll think of some really offbeat kids channeling a little Gogol Bardello. Except Bardello doesn't flirt with social commentary like this band does on "See No Evil."  Now here's the real shocker: the rooftop concert footage is from Allentown, Pennsylvania—not exactly a hotbed of voodoo culture or New Orleans boogie music (or anything else, really). These folks are from the town next door, Bethlehem, PA. If you want to take a walk on the wild, weird, and oddly seductive side, This Way to the Egress is certainly not your play-to-formula group. I love this band!

The Riverside, Appalachia in the Morning

Don't be deceived by the title of The Riverside's latest; it's just the name of song and the band is actually from California, a state they honor is a pastoral mando-led song that evokes unhurried meanders through the countryside. The Riverside is the flip side to bluegrass bands that come at us with lacerating energy. Instead, this six-piece unit (four women, two men) takes a velvet glove approach and deliberately keeps things quiet and simple—as in "Dakota"—with an aim of making studio efforts parallel what you hear live. Listen to the above tracks and then the stage performance of "Starry Night," and I think you'll agree they achieve that admirable goal. Lead vocalist Jake Jeanson has a calming voice that melds beautifully into background harmonies. This is what a fresh, sun-dappled morning should sound like.

Ranky Tanky, Ranky Tanky

Fresh Air fans might have heard of this band; Terry Gross did an interview. This Charleston, South Carolina ensemble mines Gullah traditions; that is, the hybridized West African/Christian/communal culture that emerged along the ante and postbellum Southern seaboard. Musically it has a Stax-meets-gospel flair—the pedigree of folk, splashes of jazz, the muscularity of rock, and a lot of blues. Listen to the get-right-with-God "That's Alright," a song infused with trumpet, a thick bass groove, and big vocals from Qiana Parler. If that impresses you, listen to her go BIG on "Been in the Storm," where she trades chops with Kam Franklin. It's just the two of them, some backing percussion, and brace-those-walls power. Then try the quieter "Sink 'em Low," with mellow horn, and dialed back guitar, bass, percussion, and voice. Say amen!

Michelle LeBlanc, A Man Like You

Born in South Carolina into a family in which her dad is a musician, LeBlanc moved to New York and got involved in a bad relationship. A tarot card reading told her she should move to Nashville and follows her father’s path. Okay, I can hear your eyes collectively rolling from that last phrase. For all I know, she may be a tad flaky, but her new EP indicates promise. I really liked “Loving a Hurricane,” a solid piece of Americana wrapped in country pop wax paper. She has a nice voice and has lots of energy. The downside is that its easy to confuse her with a cover singer of the same name. I did so because this LeBlanc has songs with titles that suggest covers from the other, including one of John Hiatt's "Lovin’ a Hurricane.” Similarly, our LeBlanc’s “Highway” is an original, but it’s also the title of an Ingrid Michaelson composition that the other LeBlanc covered in a video! How does one compensate for such confusion? My recommendation is more originality in titles,  more bottom to the voice, and the development of a signature sound that leaves no doubt.  It's a crowded scene out there and LeBlanc needs to make waves distinctively her own.

Rob Williams, An Hour Before Daylight

If you gave a Virginia-born songwriter a Ph.D. (educational leadership), a rough-to-smooth voice, and a band, he’d probably sound a bit like Rob Williams (not to be confused with the English pop singer). He is sometimes compared to Jason Isbell or Josh Ritter, which is to say his is an Americana blend of roots rock and (slightly) twangy folk. He came by the first from listening to older sibs play 60s rock (Beatles, Rolling Stones) and later discovering REM and John Prine, to give him a down home folk twist on his rock and roll. “Icarus Dreamt” is a reminder that high hopes are important, even when they have consequences. For something with alittle pain, there’s the barstool confessional/warning of “Broken.” Williams also likes history and gives a little surf rock echo to “Lucy, You’re Lovely,” homage to an ancestor. And speaking of Lucy, he does a nice cover of the Lucinda Williams (no relation) “Blue.” Tonally, I’d prefer a bit fewer mid-range vocals, but this is Williams’ third album and I suspect he knows what he's after.

Peace Worshipers, Peace Worshipers

This three sarod collaboration with violinist Elmira Darvarova, a Metropolitan Opera Orchestra mainstay, is the brainchild of 74-year-old Amjad Ali Khan, one of the world's masters of the sarod, a non-fretted, lute-like instrument of 17-25 strings that's a staple in Hindustani music. You'll often see it played in conjunction with the better-known sitar because the sarod usually has just 4-5 melody strings and the rest vibrate sympathetically to give it more reverb than the sitar. This is contemplative music suitable for yoga or quiet reflection, not zumba   or pillar-to-post tasking. Try a shorter composition such as "Romantic Ecstasy" and work your way up to longer pieces like "Gentle Sunset."

 Rob Weir