The Critic: S&N’s 2019 Oscar Picks


By Spencer Davis. At this year’s Oscars, it seems like the focus will be less on the awards and more on the half-assed, throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks approach that the Academy and ABC have taken to stave off their ever-spiraling decline in viewers. Now I’ve already spent plenty of word count suggesting one novel approach the Oscars might take—nominating movies that people have actually fucking seen—and apparently the Academy listened, nominating blockbusters like A Star Is Born, Black Panther, and Bohemian Rhapsody for the top prize (along with more accessible fare like BlacKkKlansman, Green Book, and Vice, which—while not box office hits in dollar terms—are at least the kind of movies you can enjoy even if you lack a film history degree from USC or a subscription to Cahiers du Cinema).

Unable to just leave a good thing the fuck alone, though, the Academy has also clumsily ushered in a slew of changes to the telecast in an effort to woo back disinterested viewers with a leaner, three hour show. They’ve axed the host (in part because they couldn’t find anyone who wanted the job). They flirted with having only two of the Best Original Song nominees perform (before Lady Gaga threatened to walk, forcing them to recant or lose their biggest star). And perhaps worst of all, they tried to relegate “less important” categories like Cinematography, Editing, Makeup & Hairstyling, and Live Action Short to the commercial breaks, only to backtrack on that too when the all-too-predictable backlash ensured.

All this in a quixotic effort to attract people who have never liked watching the Oscars, at the expense of those of us who actually do. If that sounds a little bit like one of those formulaic 90s rom-coms where the girl spends the entire movie desperately chasing after some self-absorbed douchebag who treats her like shit, while all the time overlooking the faithful best friend who loves her just the way she is … then congratulations, you’re smarter than anyone who runs the Academy these days. With that said, if the Oscars are really so insistent upon “fixing” things, here’s a few more sensible ideas from someone who’s watched every Oscars ceremony since 1980. Continue reading

The Year In Movies 2018: Spencer’s Picks

By Spencer Davis. While I introduced my 2018 Year In Music picks by contemplating why today’s songwriters have mostly failed to tap into the political pulse of this extraordinary moment in history in which we live, I can’t at all say the same thing about the world of film. From the racial divisions tearing apart our elections and our borders to the tectonic shifts still shaking our long-stagnant perceptions of the treatment of women, this year’s best movies seemed utterly oxygenated by the hashtag social movements that have dominated our discourse—and they burned all the more brightly for it. Of course, hovering over all of this has been the constant specter of the Trump Administration, and it should be no surprise that liberal Hollywood chose to challenge this presidency—and everything it means for the life of our democracy—head-on. No film better captured the complete insanity of living in the shadow of rising authoritarianism than The Death Of Stalin. Continue reading

The Projects: Still More Horror Flicks That Don’t Suck

By Spencer Davis. Every year, I give you a new batch of overlooked Halloween movies to get you through the night—or if I’ve done my job properly, keep you awake through it—and this year, we go in some new directions. Some might say the world we live in right now is scary enough! And yet it’s perhaps no coincidence that the past two years have brought horror into a new era of acclaim, with hits like Get Out and A Quiet Place being named as serious awards contenders. Even the remake business is being taken a lot more seriously, with bold new visions of Halloween and Suspiria taking over the theaters and proving themselves to be more than cheap cash grabs. But if, like me, you think the best place to seek out your scares is in the darkness of your own living room, then enjoy these under-the-radar film frights. Continue reading

The Contrarian: An Ingenious Solution To The Oscars’ Popular Film Problem


By Spencer Davis. I can trace the exact moment I fell in love with the Fast & Furious franchise to a particular scene in Fast Five. A friend of mine, already indoctrinated in the idiotic joys of the series, suggested we catch the midnight showing on opening night. It was an idea just stupid enough to be brilliant! About half an hour in, there’s a chase scene that culminates in Paul Walker and Vin Diesel going over the edge of a cliff in a Corvette convertible, climbing onto the trunk of the car in midair … and with perfect timing, leaping safely into a river just before impact. As this all unfolded in glorious slow-motion, someone in the audience shouted, “Academy Award!!!!” and the entire theater erupted in laughter. I was sold for life.

If you heard yesterday’s announcement that the Oscars will be unveiling a new category, Best Popular Film, then you probably know why I bring this up. Everyone knows the impetus for this is the telecast’s spiraling ratings, and the best and the brightest minds at the Academy have apparently decided that the way to pull viewers back in is with a shorter, 3-hour show and a new category dedicated to the shitty blockbusters that make all the money.

I have a modest counter-proposal: NOMINATE BETTER FUCKING MOVIES. Continue reading

The Year In Movies 2017: Spencer’s Picks

By Spencer Davis. In the four years since Shadows & Noise launched, my year-end film picks have been all over the map: a heartfelt coming-of-age drama, a sci-fi think piece, a classic Hollywood musical. That kind of schizophrenia isn’t just a function of diverse tastes; it’s a sign of the scattershot directions in which film has been evolving in the past half-decade. With streaming supplanting the theater as our preferred way of watching, with Netflix and Amazon now acting as movie studios in their own right, and with the quality line between television and movies so blurred now that we might as well just call it all “film,” we’re at an inflection point in the history of the moving picture. Indeed, in 2017, we’re finally seeing film critics include shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Twin Peaks: The Return, and even Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War on their year-end movie lists. But while I could easily list the likes of Legion or Mr. Robot here—shows that are every bit as cinematic and structurally innovative as anything on the big screen—I’m still limiting my picks to movies for just one reason: the difficulty of making meaningful comparisons between a finite film and a television show that is still an ongoing work in progress. It wouldn’t seem fair to list a show here that might, before it’s all over, take a major nose dive. But make no mistake, film and TV now bear equal claim to the mantle of creative greatness. So without losing sight of that, here are the twelve movies that defined my 2017. Continue reading

The Projects: Even More Horror Flicks That Don’t Suck

By Spencer Davis. This is always one of my favorite columns to write every year, because October horror movies are like the gateway to fall for me. It starts getting dark a little earlier each night, and with Halloween around the corner, there’s no more perfect way to enjoy that darkness than with a good scare. And sure, in a year where horror movies like Get Out and It are dominating the box office—and even earning Oscar buzz—there’s no shortage of great options out there. But once you’re done with all of the more obvious choices, take a dive into the deep cuts with these underrated and sometimes forgotten screen terrors. Continue reading

The Podcast: Movies That Matter Discusses Dunkirk

By Nicole Funari & Spencer Davis. In the latest edition of the Movies That Matter podcast, we discuss the critically-acclaimed World War II film, Dunkirk, from director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar). It’s a decidedly unconventional summer blockbuster; though the subject matter and the production values put it squarely into Oscar bait territory, it plays like an action movie or even a disaster flick. Nolan’s pedigree as the thinking person’s crowdpleaser of choice make him the perfect filmmaker to tackle this topic, and he once again plays his usual tricks with time, utilizing a complex intersection of three different timelines to reframe the narrative on the key theme of cooperation in a time of crisis. The result is perhaps the first truly modern war picture—a complete stylistic break with the past. And the movie raises fascinating questions about how our history is written, how we talk about the virtues of military service and heroism, and the basic value of human lives during times that sacrifice them so cheaply. You can download the podcast here or via iTunes.

The Projects: Foreign Films That Don’t Suck, Vol. 2


By Spencer Davis. One of the appeals of exploring foreign cinema is seeing how filmmakers from other countries are free to entertain story ideas that would never get the green light in Hollywood. It’s not necessarily that foreign directors are given more leeway to take risks; it’s that a plot device that seems absurd to us may, in the eyes of another culture, make total sense. With that in mind, let’s look at five more pictures from around the globe that redefine the boundaries of what movies can do. Continue reading

The Projects: Foreign Films That Don’t Suck

 
By Spencer Davis. Yes, there will be subtitles. That’s the first hurdle you need to overcome when opening your mind to foreign film. But trust me, it’s worth it. You see, when you’ve only watched Hollywood movies, you unknowingly—through sheer repetition—become conditioned to believe that movies have to look and sound and feel a certain way. But popular art is influenced in all these subtle little ways by the culture that produces it. And just as there are distinctive stylistic differences between, say, American and British literature, or Italian and German opera, or even Japanese and Chinese food, the movie repertoire of a particular country takes on its own unique essence, flavored by the language and the history and the cultural values of the people who made it. That’s the magic of exploring foreign film: discovering how something so familiar as the American movie experience can, in new hands, become fresh and provocative and unexpected. Continue reading

The Critic: S&N’s 2017 Oscar Picks

 
By Spencer Davis. In a lot of ways, this year’s Oscars figure to tease out the divide in taste that I examined in my Best of 2016 list: between movies that focus on grand visual spectacle and ones that prefer a more intimate, character-based approach. The battle between La La Land and Moonlight is one that is largely subjective, asking you to choose between films that are so different in their end goals that meaningful comparison is impossible. Which one you choose says more about the person you are than it does about the respective merits of the two films. And whichever film ends up taking home the Oscar won’t truly have claim to being the “best picture” in the long run; it will just be the one that struck the right nerve at this particular moment in time. Continue reading

The Podcast: Movies That Matter Discusses 20th Century Women

20thBy Nicole Funari & Spencer Davis. In the latest edition of the Movies That Matter podcast, Nicole and I discuss writer/director Mike Mills’s latest film, 20th Century Women, starring Annette Benning as the single mother of a teenage son in 1979 who enlists the help of the jaded teenage girl he loves (Elle Fanning), an artistic punk rock photographer (Greta Gerwig), and a quiet hippie handyman (Billy Crudup) to teach him the ways of women, men, and life. It’s an ambitious movie that’s rife with big questions about the gender roles we impose on one another and the inability to connect across generations, and as Nicole and I agree, it only partly succeeds in meeting those ambitions. We talk about that and plenty more, from the “end of men” to online dating to the status of marriage and divorce in America today. You can download the podcast here or via iTunes.

The Year In Movies 2016: Spencer’s Picks

lalalandBy Spencer. While there’s been an unsurprising amount of consensus about 2016’s best music, this year’s slate of movies asks you to make some hard and very personal decisions about what exactly takes a film to the point of greatness. Do you care about first and foremost about the story? The acting? The direction? Is it bold innovation or flawless execution that moves you? Does it have to make a statement, or can it simply revel in quiet humanity? While smaller, more intimate films like Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, and Toni Erdmann have their fierce advocates among the critics, there’s another kind of picture that achieves greatness by going for broke on the magic of cinema itself—a place where impossible fantasies can be given sight and where we can delight in the color and framing of an exquisite series of images that transcend the mundane details of what we call ordinary life. This year, it was a film of this type, a film where dreams constantly intruded upon the real world, that ultimately captured both my heart and my mind—and that film was La La Land. Continue reading

The Podcast: Movies That Matter Discusses Arrival

cp8v8n0vmaadzn6-jpg-largeBy Spencer. For those who love our movie coverage but think there’s way too much reading involved, you’re in luck. This week, all you have to do is listen! I’m guest hosting the latest edition of the movie podcast, Movies That Matter, which focuses on “films going above and beyond the call of box office returns to boldly explore a social issue affecting people’s lives.” On this edition, host Nicole Funari and I share a wide-ranging conversation on this month’s surprise art-house sci-fi hit, Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, and directed by Denis Villenueve (Prisoners, Sicario). It’s a movie full of big ideas about communication, the nature of time, grief, and the things that bring us together as human beings. And naturally, we couldn’t help but get into a little political conversation as well, with some of the film’s themes proving timely in the wake of an election that exposed deep failures of communication between red and blue America. You can download the podcast here or via iTunes. And stay tuned to Movies That Matter, because they’ll be bringing in a number of other guest hosts over the coming weeks to explore some of the best year-end Oscar fare.

The Projects: More Horror Flicks That Don’t Suck

thewitch4

By Spencer. If you hate costume parties as much as I do, then you’re probably in need of a few quality scary movies to watch on Halloween night after the trick-or-treaters are gone. Last year, I gave you a few of my favorite lesser known options, from It Follows to Suspiria to The House Of The Devil to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. And if you haven’t watched all of those yet, you’re making a grave mistake. But if you’re looking for even more horror flicks that don’t suck, then fear not, because I’ve dug up a few more—headlined by Sundance 2016’s haunting indie horror breakthrough, The Witch. Continue reading

The Projects: Interesting Failures

batman-v-superman-trinity

By Spencer. By now, many of you have already seen Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice—and been disappointed. I haven’t. Putting Superman and Batman together in a movie was an easy lift, and yet it’s been obvious from the very first trailer that director Zach Snyder completely and utterly blew it. And I just can’t keep rewarding this kind of mindlessly shitty filmmaking with my dollars. See, that’s what they count on. They think that all that matters is the brand. They think that if their marketing campaign can establish it as an “event movie,” that you will literally have to plop down your fifteen bucks to be a part of it. They think they don’t have to earn it anymore. And of course this phenomenon is strongest in the area of franchise movies—where the perception that they have a guaranteed fan base inevitably breeds laziness.

Look, making movies is an incredibly difficult craft, and there will always be more bad ones than good ones. I get that. Even with a premise as exciting as pitting our two most popular American superheroes against each other, there are all kinds of things that can go wrong. But there are movies that fail for the wrong reasons and movies that fail for the right ones. Movies that fail for doing too little and movies that fail for doing too much. Movies that had the best of creative intentions and movies that shrugged that off in the name of making a quick buck.

So whenever we talk amongst ourselves about bad movies, I think it’s crucial that we maintain a dichotomy—between the truly terrible, and another category that I’ll call the “interesting failures.” Continue reading

The Critic: S&N’s 2016 Oscar Picks

 
By Spencer. This year’s Oscars will barely be about the movies themselves. It’s pretty clear by now that the controversy over the lack of racial diversity among the nominees is going to be the storyline that hovers over this year’s entire ceremony. That, combined with the lack of a picture that feels like a truly historic achievement, leaves these Oscars feeling more than a little flat. That’s a shame because we’re seeing one of the most competitive years in recent memory, with several races looking like potential photo finishes. Here’s a look at how I’d vote—and, setting aside my own subjective favorites, who I think the Academy will ultimately reward. Continue reading

The Projects: Great Music Moments In Film History, Vol. 1

pulpfiction

By Spencer. As a website devoted to both music and film, there’s an obvious cross-section we’ve been ignoring up until now. Sure, we once featured some movie musicals that don’t suck, but that’s only the most glaringly obvious marriage of music and film. Today, we kick off a series devoted to another kind of on-screen music moment: those stand-out instances where the song just makes the scene, where it perfectly captures the mood or plays an integral role in the development of the story. Where music takes over the movie at a crucial point and accomplishes what no bit of dialogue ever could. These are the moments when song and script combine effortlessly to form an unforgettable movie memory. Continue reading

The Projects: Westerns That Don’t Suck

By Spencer. I grew up in Texas, so maybe the constant presence of cowboy culture is to blame—but I grew up absolutely hating westerns. Or perhaps timing was a factor. The 80s might have been the lowest decade for westerns; due to the lingering impression that westerns were kid fare, a hokey bygone of those carefree 50s and before, not a lot of westerns were made anymore. They were a dead genre, and I liked it that way.

In the early 90s, that started to change. First Dances With Wolves and then Unforgiven won the Oscar, reviving interest in a more modern, more realistic take on the time period. And since then, we’ve seen a number of great westerns that have embraced grittiness and given more honest portrayals of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the period—acknowledging the racial tensions, for example, and de-romanticizing the outlaw violence and vigilante justice that pervaded. The result is a fundamental divide between old and new—between those who still prefer their heroes in white hats and their villains in black ones, and those who want to see reality on the screen.

Whichever style of western you prefer, this list has a little of both, and it’s your starting point for a tour of all the ways in which this genre has achieved movie greatness over the decades. Continue reading

The Year In Movies 2015: Spencer’s Picks

exmachinaBy Spencer. Complaints that the number of quality roles for actresses in Hollywood pales in comparison with the material written for men have been as old as Hollywood itself—and rightfully so. But if there was a trend among the slate of great films that 2015 had to offer, it was that, for the first year in movie history, women were actually rewarded with richer, meatier roles than their male counterparts. Charlize Theron managed to steal a Mad Max movie from Mad Max. Amy Schumer (Trainwreck) and Alison Brie (Sleeping With Other People) helped reinvent the romantic comedy. Jennifer Jason Leigh of all people was the most memorable part of a Quentin Tarantino movie (The Hateful Eight). Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche shattered the Bechdel Test with two layered, complicated female characters in Clouds Of Sils Maria. And thanks to Daisy Ridley, a whole generation of young girls now dreams of becoming Jedi! Women, not men, are now doing the most exciting work in film, as you’ll see in my list of the movies that made 2015 worth watching. Continue reading

The Projects: Horror Flicks That Don’t Suck

itfollows

By Spencer. I don’t do costume parties. When Halloween comes around, the only acceptable form of celebration for me is to dim the lights, raid the bowl full of candy I bought for the trick-or-treaters, and watch a classic horror film or two. I say “classic” because, right now, mainstream horror flicks are in the biggest rut we’ve ever seen. In the past fifteen years or so—really ever since Wes Craven brought the genre back from the dead with Scream—horror movies have devolved into a pastiche of terrible cliches. From the torture porn of Saw to the shaky cam “found footage” pictures that come out seemingly every week, it doesn’t feel like Hollywood is trying anymore. Horror is there just to make a quick buck, with films done fast and cheap and according to a formula that guarantees several dozen jump-from-your-seat moments and not a second of genuine fear.

So this Halloween, forget the theaters. The best horror movies are the ones playing at home: The Exorcist, The Shining, Halloween, Night Of The Living Dead, Carrie, even the original black-and-white Frankenstein. You don’t need me to tell you about those. Instead, I’ll give you some less conventional picks you can stream from the darkness—and safety—of your own couch. Continue reading

The Projects: Musicals That Don’t Suck

golddiggers1

By Spencer. This is a website that celebrates both movies and music, so you know an article like this was inevitable. In revisiting our ongoing Movies That Don’t Suck series, it seems like the perfect time to look at the movie musical—the bane of the true music fan’s existence. Maybe our generation has such trouble accepting the musical because we were the first to be raised with movies that actually aspired toward realism—and there’s nothing realistic about spontaneously breaking out into song. But for the first half-century of filmmaking, the musical was Hollywood’s go-to crowdpleaser. And you don’t have to look beyond Bollywood to see that, even today, other cultures don’t share the modern American disdain for this genre. Continue reading

The Theorist: Ending Franchise Continuity (As We Know It)

starwars

By Spencer. A recent piece on io9 examined the contrasting ways that two mega-franchises—DC Comics and Star Wars—have recently attempted to make their sprawling backstories more accessible to new viewers and readers. After rebooting their entire comics line in 2011 with the “New 52,” DC is un-rebooting its universe with the Convergence event, bringing together competing visions of characters like Superman and Batman from different continuities in another confusing reshuffle. Meanwhile, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens coming to theaters this December, new franchise-owner Disney is simplifying things. They are wiping the slate clean on the huge Expanded Universe of books, comics, and video games that, over the past two decades, has mapped out several thousand years of history in that galaxy far, far away. Now, only the movies and the two animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels, will be considered “canon.”

The question you’re no doubt asking right now if you’re not a Comic-Con-attending cosplayer is, “who cares?” But I’ll go you one better, because I think it’s time that even the most obsessive fans start asking the same question. Why, if at all, does continuity matter anymore? Is it time to leave the whole concept behind? Continue reading

The Critic: S&N’s 2015 Oscar Picks

By Spencer. Back in July, I boldly predicted that the Oscar race was already over: Boyhood would be winning the Best Picture trophy, end of story. But the media has a funny way of making a horse race where there is none. And so what started out as an early victory lap for Boyhood—the near unanimous picture of the year among the film critic circles—has now found room for a late charge from Birdman. It’s a fascinating contest, because the two movies are so very different from one another: a subtle, realistic, and heartwarming character piece about the wonders of ordinary life versus a biting, surrealistic, and somewhat disturbing satire about the horrors of celebrity. If you follow the momentum trackers in the entertainment media, Birdman has been steadily gaining on Boyhood in the last few weeks. Will the upset happen? We’ll get to that. First, S&N’s pick for who will win (and who should win) the top Oscar categories on Sunday. Continue reading

The Year In Movies 2014: Spencer’s Picks

boyhoodBy Spencer. Ranking the best movies of the year isn’t nearly as simple a task as writing a year-end list for music. None of us at S&N are professional critics, so we’re limited to the movies we managed to see during the year—and as you might imagine, thanks to the time demands of visiting a theater, we consume a lot fewer movies than albums. There are a whole slew of films I wanted to see this year, but still haven’t had the chance: The Imitation Game, Whiplash, Unbroken, Birdman, Nightcrawler, Mr. Turner. So bear that in mind when reading my picks for the best movies that I personally watched in 2014. Some are art-house obscurities and some are summer blockbusters, but all of them impressed me in their own way. And no movie, of 2014 or probably the last decade, impressed me as much as Boyhood. Continue reading

The Historian: Twenty Years After Pulp Fiction

movie-poster-pulpfictionBy Spencer. Today, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, turns 20. And it’s not hyperbole to suggest that no more influential film has been made in the two decades since. Seriously, name one. You can’t. Pulp Fiction may have borrowed much from Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, 70s blaxploitation, 40s film noir, Saturday morning cartoons, MTV music videos, Jerry Seinfeld, and even M.C. Escher—but the fact that I can seriously describe one movie incorporating all those influences is signal enough of its place in history. Quentin Tarantino reinvented the techniques of moviemaking on a level we hadn’t seen since Orson Welles, and haven’t seen again since. The non-linear chronology. The omnipresent pop culture references. The hand-selected, retro soundtrack. The use of nostalgia as a stylistic device. The extremely naturalistic, conversational execution of completely absurdist dialogue. Tarantino may not have invented any of these techniques, but he’s probably the person most singularly responsible for bringing them into commonplace use among filmmakers. And a film that had every reason to feel dated by now is, twenty years later, even more rewarding than it was in its youth. Continue reading