Thursday, January 5, 2017

2016 Favorites

My Three Favorite Books I Read In 2016

3. Graduates in Wonderland, Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale
I won this book in a giveaway, and it languished on my shelf for a few years before I finally threw it in my bag to read on the plane. A few pages in and I couldn't put it down. The book is comprised of the real-life emails between two friends and recent college graduates, and it was so reminiscent of the missives sent between me and my own friends. Granted, I never moved to China or New York, but the universal feeling of loneliness and attempting to scratch out a brand-new life applies as much to moving across the state and away from your friends as moving across the world.

"Sometimes I think I really don't know what's best for me. Getting what you want can be the worst sometimes."

2. The Anne of Green Gables Series, L.M. Montgomery
(Books 1-5, except #4, because Audible didn't have it.)
Before this year, I'd never actually read Anne of Green Gables. So when I saw that there was a new version of the book narrated by Rachel McAdams, I jumped at the chance to finally get on board. After that, I just had to read the next book and the next, falling in love not only with charming characters like Anne, Marilla, Gilbert, et al, but also with Montgomery's brilliant writing. Her descriptions of beautiful flowers and foliage, hilarious town happenings, and new characters around every corner were completely captivating. I think my favorite of the four I read is Anne of the Island because her college years were so lovely and nostalgic, but I do love the story of sweet Miss Lavender in Anne of Avonlea, and I also have a soft spot for Captain Jim of Anne's House of Dreams. If you've put off dipping a toe into these sweet stories, let me encourage you to go ahead and jump headfirst into these idyllic Avonlea waters.

“In imagination she sailed over storied seas that wash the distant shining shores of 'faëry lands forlorn,' where lost Atlantis and Elysium lie, with the evening star for pilot, to the land of Heart's Desire. And she was richer in those dreams than in realities; for things seen pass away, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

1. The Martian, Andy Weir
Engrossing. Funny. Smart. Thrilling. Suspenseful. Funny. (Not a mistake. It's actually that funny.) I don't think I've been this absorbed in a science fiction novel since... ever. Granted, I don't normally delve into the genre, but reading one so based in reality (What would it actually look like for someone to be stranded on Mars?) and based on a movie I thoroughly enjoyed was the perfect entrance into the sci-fi world. By the end of The Martian I was so riveted to the story I was practically having to blink and shake my head like a cartoon character to break the spell. Every heartbreaking misstep, every complication on Mark Watney's long journey home was keenly felt, and when I think back on reading this book I mostly remember the feeling of holding my breath. But it wasn't all strife and setbacks! I want to emphasize the fact that Mark Watney is a truly hilarious narrator, and this book will make you smile, and maybe even laugh out loud. Read, read, read this book.

“He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”
LOG ENTRY: SOL 61 How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.” 

Honorable Mention

Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe
Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick
The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion, Fannie Flagg 
Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
Talking As Fast As I Can, Lauren Graham

Overhyped: Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins (A better book: anything by Agatha Christie)

I set a goal to read 30 books in 2016. I fell short and only read 25. But in the wise words of Aaliyah, "If at first you don't succeed, Dust yourself off and try again, You can dust it off and try again."

I'm coming for you in 2017, 30 books!

My Three Favorite Movies of 2016

3. Moana
Make way, make way! Readers, it's time you knew: Moana lives up to the hype. Wait, has there been hype? I don't even know. I saw it four times, so clearly I was picking up exactly what Disney was putting down. What's not to like about this movie? The Rock was hilarious. The animation was stunning. The music was incredibly catchy and I can't stop listening to it. The script was smart and original. And... I don't know, did I mention I saw it four times?

2. Undrafted
There's a line in a musical called "Title of Show" where a character writing a musical sings, "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing, than a hundred people's ninth favorite thing." That's how I feel about Undrafted. This is a film that was released with very little fanfare and didn't receive great reviews. It's not for everybody. And yet, sometimes you find something that is just your exact sense of humor, that packs unexpected emotion that hits you in just the right spot, and that you find inexplicably endearing. It's a simple story: Aaron Tveit plays a character who despite being an exceptional baseball player, has just been passed up for the draft. He and his summer league teammates work through this disappointment over the course of a single baseball game, and... that's the movie! Simple, yet character-driven and heartwarming — not to mention based on a true story. It's also incredibly funny, and features an argument over who's the best Backstreet Boy, pre-game ice cream cones, and a particularly hilarious rendition of the Full House theme song. What more could you want?

1. La La Land
How could it be anything else? A movie musical starring two of my favorite actors? YES PLEASE. Is it an oxymoron to say there should be more unique movies like this? When you can create a film and make anything happen... why wouldn't you? Why not have your leads dance while floating through the air? Why not involve an 80's cover band? Why not break out into song every now and then? Why not completely enchant your audience with music and dance, bright colors and glitter, classic jazz and classic silver screens? This movie put a spell on me, and it's one that I'm not eager to have lifted.

Honorable Mention: Arrival, Captain America: Civil War, Ghostbusters

(Note: Last year I made my list of 2015 favorites before I'd seen "Spotlight," one of the best, most moving, brilliant films I've ever experienced. If I'd seen it before creating my list last year, it definitely would have warranted a spot.)

My Three Favorite TV Shows of 2016

Favorite shows I started watching this year:

3. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
I like to say that Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a lot like Veronica Mars, if Veronica was less angry and lived in 1920's Australia. So, basically the same, right? Phryne (with the Australian accents I initially thought her name was Franny, but it is indeed Phryne, pronounced Fry-nee) Fisher is a smart, fearless, headstrong detective in post-World War I Melbourne. Each 60-minute episode follows Miss Fisher and the local police, with whom she has an amiable and banter-filled friendship slash rivalry, working to solve a case. Accompanied by her sweetly naive maid Dot and numerous other employees and friends (I'm partial to taxi driver Bert), every case is brilliantly solved with plenty of fun along the way. Full disclosure: I only just started watching this show last month, so I'm only a handful of episodes in. I suspect I'll only come to love it more. 
Stream it on Netflix

2. Stranger Things
If all you know about Stranger Things is that it's set in the 80's and it has something to do with Christmas lights, I can't encourage you enough to go ahead and press play and see what all the fuss is truly about. During the course of marathoning this show over the course of a weekend, I screamed and covered my face with a blanket, laughed out loud numerous times, and put forth MANY theories and guesses attempting to untangle the mysteries held in this magnificent, funny, suspenseful, layered show.
Stream it on Netflix

1. Agent Carter
I love the character of Peggy Carter. I adore Edwin Jarvis. I have such a soft spot for Daniel Sousa. And that's exactly what draws me to all of my most favorite TV shows: a deep affection for the characters. Add in espionage, romance, real stakes, brilliant dialogue, jaw-dropping story twists and turns (not to mention a setting in the late 1940s—my favorite!) and it's not hard to see why this show is so dear to me. Please find a way to check it out. There may only be two seasons, but if you're looking for a fantastic show with a fierce, capable, smart, dynamic, driven female lead, Agent Carter is for you. (And don't say anything to me about how you don't want to watch a show named after a female character. I will be forced to handle you as Peggy would.) 
Stream it on Amazon

Honorable Mention: Agents of Shield (I loved the first few seasons of this show, and am heartbroken at how different it is now. But I'll love you forever, Agent Coulson!)

My Three Favorite Variety Specials of 2016
These are things I LOVED this year that didn't make it into any other category, but need to be mentioned.

3. Songs from The Lion, Ben Scheuer
You've no doubt deduced that I listen to a lot of show tunes. The reality is that I listen almost exclusively to show tunes. (As I write this, the title song from "Merrily We Roll Along" is playing. So.) That being said, in my list of most listened to tracks on Spotify this year, only two songs are not from a musical, and both from from Ben Scheuer's album. The songs are beautiful, complicated, and, at times, gut-wrenching. Check out my favorite song, accompanied by delightful, "Up"-ish animation.
Watch the entire album here.

2. The Comeback Kid, John Mulaney
John Mulaney is my favorite comedian, and his latest stand-up special is absolutely hilarious. Released only a year ago, I have watched this special no less than four times. And looking up clips to find a good one to embed had me giggling and wanting to watch it all over again. He's much cleaner than other comedians (although there is a small amount of cursing, full disclosure), and his talents as a storyteller are extraordinary. I can't recommend this enough.
Stream it on Netflix

1. Grease Live
I didn't particularly care for The Sound of Music Live or Peter Pan Live. I wanted to like The Wiz, but it wasn't for me. Grease Live, though? I LOVED Grease Live. From the smart production choices by director Tommy Kail ("Hamilton") to perform before a live audience and stage numbers outside, to the near-perfect casting, to the fun/genius costumes, to the extraordinary re-imagining of several numbers, this performance was just non-stop. And when Hairspray Live came along and took a page from Grease with the live audience and outdoor sets, I thought they'd cracked the code and I'd find another live musical to love. Alas, the magic wasn't there. But we'll always have "Those Magic Changes."
Stream it on Netflix

My Three Favorite Events of 2016

3. Flagstaff
In October, my parents took my siblings, my nieces, and me on a wonderful, fun, relaxing, unique vacation to Flagstaff, Arizona. I got to see the Grand Canyon for the first time, actually enjoy hiking in the mountains (no really) (like, for real), play so many games and have so much fun with family, and so much more. It was luxurious to go on such a well-planned vacation with every detail taken care of. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Bonus: Morbyland Campout (check out the video!) and Christmas break (check out the video!)
2. Broadway Serendipity
Every year for the past several years has seenits share of Broadway shows, touring productions, and theater fun. This year, however, had an extra spark of serendipity.

This summer when we went to New York, Emily and I were blessed to see and love "Waitress," "An American in Paris," "Shuffle Along," and "Fiddler on the Roof." And as amazing as all of those shows were, there was a small pang of regret that we were in New York several months too early to see one of our favorite Broadway performers, Bryce Pinkham, star in "Holiday Inn." During the trip we caught a glimpse of the show's bright and colorful marquee, and joked that we should go hang out under it and hope to just run into Bryce. We didn't do that, because we are not insane. Fast forward to Saturday night, when we walked up to the Music Box Theatre to see "Shuffle Along." And who was standing outside the theatre also about to see "Shuffle Along"? Bryce. Pinkham. (I know, I still can't believe it either.) After Emily and I conversed and decided that approaching him would not make us crazy fans, we walked up and actually ended up talking with him for a few minutes. He was so incredibly kind, charming, and continues to be a favorite of ours. Thank you so much, Bryce.

Serendipity 2: Guess who was performing a show at BB King's while we were in NYC? Our old friend Ramin Karimloo! As I'm sure you remember, Ramin is the Tony-nominated Broadway star who surprised Emily at her school in 2013, and we've been lucky enough to see perform a few times since. He appeared on Broadway as Jean Val Jean in "Les Miserables," and will soon be back on the Great White Way in the brand-new stage musical, "Anastasia." This concert was extraordinary, as his talent is just through the roof, and he sang so many beautiful, meaningful songs. Plus, thanks to Emily's friend Debbie being friends with Ramin, we were even able to go backstage and visit with him for a few minutes afterwards. And we got hugs and free t-shirts and now I am just a skeleton typing this out because my soul hath since gone straight up to Jesus.
Video I took at the concert. WATCH IT!

Serendipity 3: My all-time favorite Broadway show, Newsies, unfortunately ended their two-year tour in October. And of all the numerous locations they've been to (65 total cities!), and out of everywhere in the world they could have ended their tour, where did they close it out? Austin, Texas. Seeing the show one more time before it closed was absolutely unexpected, and I'm so incredibly grateful that it happened.

1. Lucia Jeanne 
The world is a brighter, lovelier, more sunshiney and snuggly place, and that's all thanks to the grand entrance of one precious, pink, and full-cheeked girl. Welcome to the world, my gorgeous and cheerful Baby Niece, Lucia Jeanne! Only seven months old and the Lord is already blessing our socks off through you. (But if you could go ahead and start blessing us by sleeping through the night to save your parents' sanity, that would be GOLDEN.)

And Because I'm a Fool for Twitter
Super excited for...
Retweets: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and Sean Lowe.
Quote tweet calling my comment hilarious: Newsie Chaz Wolcott
Likes: Aladdin's James Monroe Iglehart, Iain Loves Theater, Hamilton's Renee Elise Goldsberry, Newsies Ben Cook and Joshua Burrage, Undrafted director (and Jurassic Park child star!) Joe Mazzello, Matilda's Lesli Margherita, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Gentleman's Guide's Bryce Pinkham, Gilmore Guy Kevin Porter, The Tony Awards, Annoying Actor Friend, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Aladdin, Fiddler on the Roof, and School of Rock.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Scattered Thoughts for a Stars Hollow-day

It's late November, so naturally it's time to think about family, Thanksgiving, the inevitable Christmas shopping, and of course, the return of Gilmore Girls.

I'm quick to tell anyone who will listen that I have four all-time favorite television shows, and I absolutely love them all. But there's only one show that I fall asleep to each and every single night, and that's Gilmore Girls. I'm somewhat of a Gilmore historian now, with more trivia and facts about the show packed into my brain than you might believe. I own two books about the show, I used to frequent online message boards about the show, and I'm currently an avid listener of the Gilmore Guys podcast.

Hi, I'm Valerie, and I'm a Gilmore Girls addict.

And yet.

And yet, I am a bit wary of this Friday's release of four new 90-minute episodes. Yes, Amy Sherman-Palladino is back.* But remember: Amy was still involved with season six, a series of episodes that saw Rory and Lorelai be separated for "five months, three weeks, and sixteen days,"** the introduction of fan-favorite April Nardini (j/k everyone hates her), the introduction of dog Paul Anka (Who honestly believes Lorelai is a dog person? To quote season one Lorelai: "That's it! We are not animal people! Period."), the introduction of doormat Lorelai (the Lorelai of seasons past would have spoken up and voiced her opinions to Luke long before things built to an ultimatum), and an increasingly insufferable Rory (I could write an entire additional blog entry about the inappropriate way she badgers her way into a job in The Prodigal Daughter Returns.)

All that to say, if Gilmore Girls Colon A Year In The Life feels more like season six than the show's heyday (aka everything that came before season six), I will be a bit disappointed.

But. I'm still really excited, and can't wait to check back in on Stars Hollow and my favorite characters.

Incidentally, here are my favorite characters:

5. Brad Langford
4. Jess Mariano
3. Brian Fuller
2. Dave Rygalski
1. Lorelai Gilmore

Gilmore Girls has always been a warm fuzzy blanket to pull around my shoulders. It has always been more than the base-level question of which of Rory's boyfriends she should end up with. It's a honey-colored hug, and a visit to a familiar, hilarious, quick-witted place we ALL wish existed in real life. I love the character of Lorelai so, so much. Positive, clever, caring, independent, capable, sparkling, and smart-- so much to aspire to.

The show is obviously well-known for the speed and wit of its dialogue. But I think some of its funniest moments are actually non-verbal, or at least only funny because of the way the actor performs it. Here's a not-so-comprehensive list:

  • Teach Me Tonight - Lorelai tries a brownie to which Luke accidentally added too much chocolate. Lorelai tries a bite, looks like she's going to spit it out, then considers and says, "Mm, that's good!" The way Lauren Graham performs this line has always cracked. Me. Up.
  • Bridesmaids Revisited - Rory, heartbroken over Logan being the worst, goes to a bar and gets drunk. A waitress clearing dishes picks up Rory's beverage napkin. This incenses a tipsy Rory, who immediately starts berating the waitress. "Don't take what's mine. These came with MY drinks." She ends it with the kicker, "Sick of people touching my STUFF!" I realize this is not at all funny on paper, but the line reading Alexis Bledel gives it is absolutely hysterical.
  • They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They? - Jackson is upset about Sookie and Lorelai discussing his and Sookie's personal life. He yells, "My child-bearing arrangements are between me and Sookie!" Then Luke interjects, "And the Lord." Scott Patterson's deadpan here is pure gold.
  • Keg! Max! - Brian's freaking out before the band's first-ever gig. Zach hears that it's heartburn and insists, "I told you, dude, it's your citrus intake. Stop eating oranges." What high school-aged guy says this to another guy? Hilarious.
  •  Let Me Hear Your Balilaikas Ringing Out - Luke has unknowingly become the sponsor for a soccer team full of violence-obsessed girls. After a winning game, one cherubic-looking player gleefully announces, "She went one way and her knee went the other!" Then all the girls cheer.
  • The Third Lorelai -Tristan is incredulous at the fact that Rory would suggest he date Paris. Please re-watch the way Chad Michael Murray says, "Are you serious?" It KILLS me!
  • Say Goodnight, Gracie - It's the morning after the disastrous party at Kyle's house. Lorelai learns that Rory was the cause of an enormous fight that broke out and says, "So not only did you go to a cop-raided party but you started the raid?
    Rory: Yes.
    Lorelai: This fence is broken because of you, this crap is on the ground because of you.
    Rory: What's your point?
  And then, immediately, this:

And now, two slightly controversial opinions.

  1. Jason Stiles was a great boyfriend. He came the closest to matching Lorelai's wit and pace of dialogue ("Take a poll! No one in this room has any idea what this crazy old man is talking about!"), and he really cared about her. Plus he was way more FUN (and Lorelai is all about having fun!) than Max, Alex, Christopher, or Luke. Let's go.
  2. April Nardini is not the worst character on the show. That honor belongs to her mother Anna: an unreasonable, spiteful, and joyless human being. Stay in New Mexico forever, Nardini!
Finally, I'm not above acknowledging one of Gilmore's biggest weaknesses: continuity. Specifically, its utter lack of any type of understanding of time/anything that's happened in the past. How long did Lorelai live at her parents with Rory before she moved to Stars Hollow? How long has Luke actually known the girls? Don't think about these questions too hard! However, the most egregious offense to me is an off-hand exchange between Rory and Jess in A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving. 

Jess: It's not the first time a couple’s broken up.
Rory: It is for us.

Uh... in what universe is this the first time Rory and Dean broke up? Apparently the writers temporarily forgot that they were broken up for like five episodes in season one. And two of those episodes were ALL ABOUT the break-up! Literally! There was an episode called The Break-Up Part 2! And Dean and Rory even discuss that storyline in season two! ("Breaking up, not for us.") And I know what you're thinking. 'Val. You're obsessing over a reference made by two fictional characters from an episode of a television show that aired 14 years ago. Get over it.'

Well, that's something that's just between me and the Gilmore Girls.

And the Lord.
*Sherman-Palladino, the creator and voice of the show, famously left after season six. Season seven was produced without her, and it's pretty universally agreed-upon that this season is a bit sub-par. (Jason Mantzoukas: "I felt like I was watching a show that I love be haunted.")

**What a weird way to say that amount of time. Would this not actually be six months, one week, and two days? I mean, far be it from me to correct Lorelai, but... what??

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Lin-Manuel Shouldn't Win The Tony

Scattered thoughts on the Tony Awards slash the current Broadway season. Way more than you want to read, but you should anyway. Because reasons. Let's go!!!!

  • Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of my favorite people. "Hamilton" is the best piece of theater I've ever seen in my life, hands down. He should win every single creative Tony award he's up for, from score to book and everything in between. He's created an AMAZING piece of art, and what he's done deserves all the acclaim it's received.

    BUT. I don't think he should win the Tony for Best Actor. He's bested in this category by Leslie Odom Jr., who consistently stops the show as Hamilton's foil, Aaron Burr. Odom's voice is out of this world, and he's just a very skilled performer. Lin would be the first person to tell you that his voice is not as strong as some of his co-stars, and I just don't think he deserves to win in this category. But he will, because the Tony voters can't not give it to him. I mean, he wrote the thing! They'll probably check his name every time his name comes up on the ballot. And every other time, he totally deserves it. But in the Lead Actor in a Musical category? Lin-Manuel shouldn't win the Tony.

  • It's no secret that I'm a big fan of "Hamilton." I love that so many people who wouldn't normally be musical fans are head over heels for a Broadway show. I just hope that the audience "Hamilton" brings to the Tonys on Sunday night will take note of the many other wonderful productions currently on Broadway! "Hamilton" is being hailed as a gateway to Broadway. I just hope people will actually walk through it!

  • The person I'm rooting for the MOST? Daveed Diggs. I want him to win more than I've wanted any one person or show to win a Tony since I was pulling for "Newsies" back in aught twelve.(Gives the side-eye to "Once.") Anyway, Daveed is an incredibly magnetic performer. This is his FIRST theater experience (not just Broadway), and he NAILS IT. He's hilarious, he raps faster than anyone else (he spits 19 words in three seconds), and he masterfully takes on two incredibly disparate characters: Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. I could watch him perform all day!

    Also it doesn't hurt that he is super attractive.

  • Did you know that Danny Burstein, up for the same award as Manuel and Odom, has been nominated for a Tony a total of FIVE times now? And he's never won. Any other year and his acclaimed role of Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" would probably be awarded with the spinning trophy. Too bad "Fiddler" had the unfortunate timing to open in the same season as "Hamilton." He'll soon be in the company of Broadway soprano Kelli O'Hara, who was nominated five times before her sixth time out finally netted her the long-deserved award. Let's just hope Burstein also strikes gold in his next role!

  • Laura Benanti won't win, but that's okay. She's already won once before, and she's definitely won the heart of the internet, with brilliant and HILARIOUS videos like this and this being consistently released! 

  • You know who might win in her category? Not the "Hamilton" actor, shockingly enough. But I really think Cynthia Erivo might win this one! She's supposed to be phenomenal in "The Color Purple."

  • Alex Brightman is super fun to follow on social media. He just seems like a really cool person! It's no wonder he's been getting rave reviews for his role in "School of Rock." (Also: Dude runs the equivalent of 3.5 miles EVERY SHOW! Whaaaaaaat!) This isn't his year to win, but I'm hopeful that he'll take home the big prize another year!

  • "Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed," you guys. This same I've got to experience this show, I need to know what everyone is talking about feeling I have about it is exactly how I felt about "Hamilton" a year ago. (Fun fact: "Shuffle Along" producers submitted the show to the Tony committee as a revival, since it's based on a 1920's show of a similar name, in order to get out of the way of "Hamilton." No such luck -- the show was ruled an original musical.)

  • Audra McDonald, Billy Porter, and Brian Stokes Mitchell ALL IN ONE MUSICAL ("Shuffle Along"). It's almost too much for me!!! I mean, Audra is the QUEEN and it would thrill my heart to no end to get to see her in this.  Billy Porter gave one of my most favorite Tony acceptance speeches of all time, and it never fails to make me tear up! And Brian Stokes Mitchell's voice pours out of him and just makes your heart soar. Between Sarah Brown Eyes and This Nearly Was Mine, this man is just the ultimate Broadway singer.

  • Savion Glover, of "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" (and Sesame Street!) fame, choreographed "Shuffle Along," is going up against Andy Blankenbuehler, whom I love. This will be a tough category.

  • I love Megan Hilty. I hope she wins. 

  • "Waitress" seems like a magical musical. It certainly has a magical cast album! Check it out if you've not had a chance to listen to it yet. It has some beautiful (and funny!) songs composed by Sara Bareilles.

  • RIP but props to "Tuck Everlasting," "American Psycho," and "Dames at Sea," who have already closed their doors after short runs, but still received at least one Tony nomination! You go, Glen Coco.
Here I am with all of my Tony-nominated pals at the top of the Empire State Building yesterday! Wow, what a crew. Thanks again, guys! I'm so glad we're all best friends forever!

The Tony Awards will air Sunday at 7 on CBS. Don't miss it!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

9th Annual Oscar Picks

I can feel it, people! This is my year! I'm about to correctly predict TWENTY-FOUR Academy Award categories. A thing that will totally, TOTALLY happen, because I've never been wrong before ever.*

(Previously: 201520142013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008.)

Best Picture: I've not had such a difficult time picking the Best Picture winner since... well, since last year. And I was wrong last year. But who's keeping track (nervous laugh)? Anyway, with apologies to all of the other nominees, I think this race comes down to "The Big Short," "Spotlight," and "The Revenant." But despite the critical love for "The Big Short," I just don't think this one is remarkable enough to take the top prize. That leaves "The Revenant" and "Spotlight," which is truly one of the best movies I've ever seen. If I was voting, Michael Keaton and his team would get to go up on stage to accept the award. Unfortunately, I think the tide has turned, and the votes are going to come down in favor of "The Revenant." Good job, Alejandro. Good job, Leo. Good job, bear.

Best Director: Speaking of Alejandro: Congratulations, Alejandro Innaritu! You are about to become only the third director ever to win back-to-back Oscars for Best Director! Sorry, George Miller. Better luck in another 30 years!

Best Actor: Okay, yes. After four fruitless nominations, this fifth should stick, as it is finally, FINALLY Leonardo DiCaprio's year. And we're all very happy for him. (Particularly Kate Winslet, which makes me tear up every time I think about their sweet friendship.) But if we're not careful, Matt Damon could soon be in the same boat: come Sunday he will have lost three times! So. Fair warning, Academy voters, of which doubtless scores of you are reading this. Don't let what happened to Leo happen to Matt! Anyway, the question now is this: is Leo winning because this is truly the greatest performance of the year? Or because OH JUST GIVE HIM ONE ALREADY, HE ATE A DEER CARCASS (or whatever it was)? Spoiler alert: it's probably the latter.

Best Actress: All things being equal, and every Oscar year being a clean slate, Cate Blanchett might actually be in the running for this award. But all things are NOT equal, and the Academy has a very good memory for anyone they've honored recently. And unfortunately for Cate, she's just won too recently to have a fighting chance this year (the same fate that's befallen Eddie Redmayne). All of this to say: Brie Larson will be the one to win. An Oscar for you, Brie Larson! You go, Brie Larson! (And none for Gretchen Weiners, bye!)

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvestor Stallone all but has this one in the bag. If somehow it doesn't go his way, though, look for one of the Marks (Ruffalo or Rylance) to steal it away.

Best Supporting Actress: Kate or Alicia? Alicia or Kate? As much as we'd all love to see a "Leo/Kate with their Oscars" photo op, I think Alicia Vikander is going to win. (Although let's be honest: she already won big when she starred in one of the best films of 2015, "The Man from Uncle," amiright?)

Animated Feature: I don't believe there's a universe where "Inside Out" doesn't win. But if something strange happens with time and space and Pixar DOESN'T scoop up this award, I suppose "Anomalisa" could possibly upset.

Production Design: I think this one probably comes down to "Mad Max: Fury Road" or "The Revenant," not that I believe "The Martian" is any less deserving. In the end, however, my money is on "Mad Max."

Cinematography: "The Revenant" being shot all in natural light makes a pretty good case for it to win for Best Cinematography (along with, I'm sure, plenty of other... technical... cinematographical... reasons). Interesting side fact: this will be Emmanuel Lubezki's third straight win in this category!

Costume Design: One of my favorite things about "Cinderella" was the glorious, gorgeous costumesparticularly those worn by Cate Blanchett's character. However, it's facing stiff competition from both "Mad Max" and "Carol." At the end of the day, I think we'll be seeing a win for the innovative designs of "Mad Max."

Film Editing: Conventional wisdom would have me pick the Best Picture to win in this category as well. But with the Best Picture category so up in the air this year, conventional wisdom is in shambles. Look for "Mad Max" to pick up yet another award here.

Makeup and Hairstyling: Tra la la, "Mad Max" again. Sigh.

Original Score: Man, wouldn't it be great to see John Williams win for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"? (Would that make Lin-Manuel Miranda a winner by extension?) Too bad, though. Ennio Morricone will be winning for "The Hateful Eight." (Likely that film's only award of the evening.)

Original Song: 2016 is off to quite a start for Lady Gaga! First she won a Golden Globe for her work in "American Horror Story," and as of Sunday night she'll also be an Oscar winner for her song from the movie "The Hunting Ground."

Original Screenplay: Oh, I hope I hope I HOPE that "Spotlight" wins this one!

Adapted Screenplay: To me, this field seems wide open; any of these movies could win! And while it would be so wonderful to see the lovely "Brooklyn" scoop this one up, I think it's going to "The Big Short."

Sound Mixing: Honestly? I have no idea. Probably either "The Revenant" or "Mad Max"? I guess? Sure, "Mad Max." HAVE ANOTHER.

Sound Editing: See above. "Mad Max."

Visual Effects: "The Revenant's" bear. "Star Wars'"... battles and aliens. "Mad Max's"... mad... people. This one could go to any of those three. And at first I was going to pick "Mad Max" AGAIN, but the more I think about it, the more I think that this is the one category that "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" could reign supreme.

Documentary Feature: Once in love with "Amy," always in love with Amy!

Documentary Short: Dang. These categories could not be more difficult to predict, and I won't pretend to have ever heard of these films! It's a total crapshoot, and crap... I'm going with "A Girl in the River."

Foreign Language Film: Some years you hear buzz about some of the Foreign Language Films, but this year? I've never heard of any of these titles. Whoops. Well, apparently Academy voters were pretty enamoured of "Son of Saul," so I'd imagine that's the big winner!

Animated Short: I recently watched "World of Tomorrow" on Netflix, and it was so incredibly creative and inventive and strange and sad and intriguing and... I'm out of adjectives. But it really was fascinating (oh, there's another one!), and-- who knows?-- voters might be up for picking something a little different! If not, though, they'll probably instead throw their support behind a safer bet: Pixar's "Sanjay's Super Team."

Live Action Short: Frankly, my dear... I have no idea. But the Academy seems to like to pick more serious fair, so with a short about war on the list, I think I'll go with "Shok."

*Oh, what's that, Bob? I'm wrong all the time? Got it!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

2015 Favorites

My Three Favorite Books of 2015

3. Mr. Kiss and Tell, Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Rob Thomas is a master at spinning clever and compelling mysteries, and his second Veronica Mars novel is no exception. Despite the fact that I liked this one a bit less than the first, Mr. Kiss and Tell still captivated me and kept me guessing. The authors have done a remarkable job transplanting the jaded, film noir quality of the show from the screen to the page, and I was so engrossed listening to the story that at times it was as if I'd been watching Kristen Bell herself. Veronica is a fascinating narrator, and the balance between the case she's working and the tumult of her personal life makes for a very compelling book.

“Not that I like having my direst preconceptions about humanity confirmed or anything. But I was right.”

2. For the Right Reasons: America's Favorite Bachelor on Faith, Love, Marriage, and Why Nice Guys Finish First, Sean Lowe
There's never been any shame in my love of The Bachelor, so it should come as no surprise that I immensely enjoyed Sean Lowe's first foray into writing, For the Right Reasons. This was just an incredibly fun, engrossing, and informative book, detailing Sean's personal background as well as his time on The Bachelorette and The Bachelor. I ate up every detail about both shows, how he and Catherine fell in love, and most importantly, how they wove the Gospel into their wedding knowing it would be televised to millions of people.

"Soon, word spread that I had daily devotionals, and guys started showing up. I really liked the guys, and being in such a strange situation bonded us together. Even though most of our time was spent lounging around waiting for datesor recovering from themthe mornings were dedicated to our little devotionals. Without ever meaning to, I found myself leading this Bible study on the set of The Bachelorette."

1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
I adore Agatha Christie, and I have a particular fondness for her highly intelligent character Hercule Poirot. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd did not disappoint, and Poirot is still my favorite little Belgian detective. To say much of anything about the plot of this book will be to say too much, because half of the fun is the dawning realization of what Christie has pulled off (its ending was virtually the first of its kind when this book debuted in 1926). The Murder of Roger Ackroyd ranks quite high on many lists of best mysteries, and while it's not my favorite Agatha Christie novel of all time, it was still a very engrossing read.

“It is completely unimportant. That is why it is so interesting.”

Honorable Mention:
Paper Towns, John Green
As If: The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew, Jen Chaney
A Murder is Announced, Agatha Christie
Evil Under the Sun, Agatha Christie

Thumbs Down:
Dante's Inferno. Alright, I'll say it: I enjoy Dan Brown novels (particularly Deception Point). But this one was doo doo.

Also, there are two main reasons that I read fewer books than usual this year, and their names are Kevin and Demi. Once I discovered the Gilmore Guys podcast, my usual audio book listening took a serious nose dive. So instead of listening to literary classics (like my number two favorite), I was listening to segments like Pop Goes the Culture and Where You Tweet I Will Follow.

(It was awesome.)

My Three Favorite Movies of 2015

3. Brooklyn
I was so surprised by this sweet and unexpected little movie. The story of Eilis and her immigration to America from Ireland was in turn heartbreaking, suspenseful, and ultimately hopeful. And "pleasant" sounds like such a boring, vanilla word to describe a movie you loved, but it fits this one so well. So if you're looking for a nice, pleasant movie, be sure to check out the effervescent Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.

2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I stayed away from most trailers, articles, and reviews of The Force Awakens before I saw it, and I'm so glad I did! Going in dark, not knowing any theories or opinions ahead of time, helped me manage my expectations and end up being so thrilled with the entire experience. I thought the characters were so well-drawn, and I loved that Rey and Finn were played by virtual newcomers so that we could really focus on the characters and the story. The music was fantastic, the practical effects were outstanding, I laughed a ton, and the whole thing was FUN but still packed an emotional punch. Plus, I think I have a crush on Adam Driver now? Maybe. Is that weird?

1. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Every time I tell someone that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was my favorite movie of the year, I get a blank stare, and usually a puzzled, "Wait, what's it called again?" It's a shame that most people seem to have missed this one, because it's just SO. MUCH. FUN. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are an incredibly entertaining pair (not to mention easy on the eyes), and the entire movie is a sleek and playful ride from beginning to end. The 1960's wardrobe, music, and technology are truly immersive and make for a super fun atmosphere. I could watch this one again and again (and now I can, since I got it for Christmas!), and I find myself quoting it more than I ever thought I would ("He's trying. To stop. The car."). Plus I had the hardest time not using the word "fun" about five dozen more times in this paragraph than I did. Don't miss this one!

Honorable Mention: The Duff (both Jimmy Fallon and I loved this movie, so you can trust the pair of us), The Martian, and Aloha (I know it wasn't popular but I just liked it!)

My Three Favorite TV Shows of 2015

Favorite shows I started watching this year:

3. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
I think I may have been the very last person to discover the brilliance of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But just in case there's anyone out there reading this who hasn't yet seen it: you've got to check this show out. Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Chelsea Peretti and the rest of the police precinct make for a hilarious team. One of the things I love most, however, is that it's not just joke-joke-joke-joke (although it IS just about the only show to make me laugh out loud on a regular basis), but all of the detectives are actually incredibly capable officers, and it's just awesome to see Jake, Amy, and the rest take down bad guys again and again.

 2. iZombie
Another title met with blank stares almost every time I mention it! I'm so glad I finally sat down and caught up with Rob Thomas' newest show, one I've wanted to watch ever since it debuted on The CW last year. A high-concept cousin to Veronica Mars, iZombie is a brilliant mash-up of a simple case-of-the-week mystery with a dash of the undead: our protagonist Liv Moore is a zombie. As an assistant medical examiner, each episode finds her eating the brains of a murder victim and using the visions those ingested brains provide her to help solve the mystery of their death. I hope that sounds more intriguing than confusing, because it really is a supremely enjoyable hour of television. Come for the clever story-telling, stay for Rahul Kohli's charming, incredibly endearing forensic pathologist Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti.

1. Awkward.
This is the first show in quite a while that I've been so invested in that I had to watch the next episode right away. Next episode. Next episode. Next episode. This show makes me feel like I'm a teenager again, reliving high school and completely engrossed in the world of Jenna and Matty, the guy that makes my inner 15-year-old blush. But that's not the only reason I love it. It's incredibly clever and witty with words like flirtationship and carefrontation, Tamara's "slanguage" deserves its own blog entry. The characters are all so well-developed and endearing (by the end even "Darth Hater" Sadie had carved herself a spot in my heart), the story lines are always unpredictable, and it just feels DIFFERENT. It's incredibly original, and doesn't feel like any other show I've watched. I can't tell you if YOU would personally like it after all, it is an MTV show, and all that comes along with that. If you're not a teenage girl... or me... this one might not be for you. BUT if a hilarious and heartfelt teen dramedy with whip-smart dialogue sounds appealing to you, definitely check this one out!

Honorable Mention: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Great British Baking Show

My Three Favorite Events of 2015

3. Family Birthday Bash in Galveston
There's nothing in the world more fun to me than to have all seven (soon to be eight! #cimibaby) members of my family all together in one place. Add in an amusement park, daily trips to the beach, games, and MY BIRTHDAY, and you've got the makings of an amazing dream vacation. It was pure bliss, and I wish I could relive it again and again.

2. Sweet, Sweet Adoptions
2015 saw the addition of three precious babies into their forever families. I've watched the long, long road the Nicholses and Redfearns have had to travel down to bring their children home, and it's been frustrating at times to witness just how long this entire process can take. But now that we're on the other side, it's such a thrill to get to see the joy that Adelay, Micah, and Cade bring their respective families. Welcome home, kiddos. You are SO loved.

1. Broadway Baby
I feel like I need to pinch myself when I look back and realize that in one year I got to see:
  1. My all-time FAVORITE musical not once, not twice, but THREE times.
  2. My beloved "Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" with its original, Tony-nominated stars one last time before it closes later this month.
    (2b: Bryce Pinkham Skyping my roommate's fifth grade classroom out of the kindness of his heart! From his dressing room on Broadway! And I got to witness it all. Still pinching myself.) 
  3. The greatest musical I've ever seen on stage: "Hamilton." Five months later and I still have no words for what I saw.


And because I'm a fool for Twitter, I also got super excited when my tweets were favorited liked by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, former Jack Kelly Corey Cott, Hamilton actors Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr., Gentleman's Guide star Bryce Pinkham, Veronica Mars and iZombie show runner Rob Thomas, Hamilton composer/conductor Alex Lacamoire, author Tim Federle, and Newsie Chaz Wolcott.

Party. Rock.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Movie Marathon

Last January, I decided to embark on a quest. It would take a lot of time, and it would take a LONG time.

I would watch all of my movies in alphabetical order.

Okay, so it wasn't learning a new language or anything. But I own over 200 movies, and I've never before attempted something like this. Sure, I'll decide to watch a movie here or there, but I realized I'd left some languishing on the shelf for years. It's not because I don't like them, but because I just don't often say, "I think I'll watch 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' today!" I don't think I've ever gone, "You know what my day needs? A little 'Curious Case of Benjamin Button.'" Both good movies, but not go-tos for me.

So it was decided. One at a time, from A to Z. Or rather, from '2 Days in Paris' to 'Zombieland.' 

Some of my movies.
A little background on my watching patterns: I have a television in my room, and I always have something playing on it (usually a TV show) while I get ready for work, fold clothes, get ready for bed, etc. I decided to instead use this time to chip away at my movie collection, and really take stock of the DVDs that I own.

I ended up getting rid of the very first movie that I watched: '2 Days in Paris.' I couldn't see myself watching it again, and I also couldn't imagine anyone wanting to borrow it. So congratulations, Goodwill! Another DVD for your illustrious collection.

From then on I kept plugging away, going through roughly one movie every two days. Sometimes I was away on vacation and didn't take any movies with me, other times I worked on a project in my room and watched more than one movie in a sitting.

One of the most entertaining aspects of this venture was that every so often my co-workers would want to play "Guess What Movie Valerie is Watching," and I'd give them different clues, leaving them to try to come up with what movie might come between.

Fourteen months and 227 movies later, I'm finally done! It was a sad moment when the credits for 'Zombieland' finally rolled – so much so that I immediately watched the entire movie again with commentary. 

In not-so-shocking news, I made several lists as I watched. Sometimes I forgot to write things down, so it's not as comprehensive as I'd like, but c'est la vie. ("La vie." –Woodchuck Todd, 'Easy A')

Standout Scenes (Or: Scenes to Make Your Soul Soar)

Almost Famous: Tiny Dancer
Big Fish: Daffodils
Casablanca: Marseilles
Finding Neverland: "That is Neverland"
Gone with the Wind: The End: Scarlett at Tara
Little Miss Sunshine: Olive puts her head on Duane's shoulder*
Return of the King: "You bow to no one"
Moulin Rouge: 'Come What May' Finale*
That Thing You Do: Good and kissed*
Up: House on Paradise Falls
Waitress: Dr. Pomatter Hugs Jenna
The Way Way Back: Owen shields Duncan from Trent**

*Terrible video quality, but it's all I could find, sadly. Still-- SO GOOD.
**I can't even find even a PICTURE of this moment, so here's a trailer instead.

Movies Better Than I Remembered 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
First Knight
Gone With the Wind
Notting Hill

Movies Less Awesome Than I Remembered

The Phantom of the Opera

Movies I Own That Take Place in 1899

Moulin Rouge
The Prestige

Funniest Movies I Own

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Hot Fuzz
Waiting for Guffman

Favorite Teen Comedies

10 Things I Hate About You
Easy A
Mean Girls
Never Been Kissed
Can't Hardly Wait

Actors That Are In More Than Five Of My Movies

Tom Hanks
Kate Winslet
Joseph Gordon-Levitt

ZOMG This Is My Childhood

3 Ninjas
Charlotte's Web
The Chipmunk Adventure
Gulliver's Travels
The Last Unicorn
The Rescuers Down Under

I Just Really Want You To Watch These Movies

Blast from the Past
Return to Me
The Way, Way Back

My Top Five Favorites

Almost Famous
A League of Their Own
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Moulin Rouge
That Thing You Do

So there it is. The movie marathon that took over a year.

Roll credits.

Final note: Five is a lot of 'Twilight' movies to watch in a row.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

8th Annual Oscar Picks

It's the most wonderful time of the year! Oscar weekend! Let's predict some winners, shall we? And remember-- I am NEVER wrong. Ever.*

(Previously: 20142013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008.)

Best Picture: A few weeks ago, I would have said that "Boyhood" was a lock. Now I'm not quite so sure. "Birdman" has been climbing up the prediction charts, and they are a serious threat to Richard Linklater et al. However, I don't think you can ignore the scope of filming the same film over the course of TWELVE YEARS, plus the emotional punch it packs at the end. That's why I think that "Boyhood" will be the one to ultimately walk away with the gold.

Best Director: If "Boyhood" does indeed take home the big prize, Academy voters are going to need another way to honor "Birdman," and I believe it will be in the form of Best Director going to Alejandro González Iñárritu. However, I certainly wouldn't be mad if Richard Linklater won.

Best Actor: Man, this is a tough one. Even as I'm typing I just don't know how this paragraph is going to end. Either you give it to Michael Keaton, thereby rewarding a long career and a Hollywood veteran (not to mention a remarkable speech-maker), or you go with Eddie Redmayne, the rising star with a masterful turn in a critically lauded biopic. They've each won their share of awards this season, but the thing I keep coming back to is the fact that Eddie Redmayne is still so young, and probably has plenty of chances to win this award in the future. In the end I think voters will want to honor Michael Keaton and his go-for-broke performance in "Birdman."

The one thing that makes me nervous about that pick is the fact that Redmayne won the SAG Award, and for the last 10 years the winner of the SAG has gone on to win the Oscar. I may live to regret ignoring this indicator...

Best Actress: This category has basically been a lock for the past couple of years, and this year looks to be no different. Julianne Moore all but has this one in the bag, and it's about time! Her nomination for "Still Alice" is her FIFTH, so this one is a long time coming! Treat yo'self, Julianne Moore!

Best Supporting Actor: We're all thinking J.K. Simmons, right? J.K. Simmons? Cool, let's do it. J.K. Simmons!

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette has been picking up every single award from the Golden Globe to the Critic's Choice, so come Sunday she'll have another one to throw on top of her pile!

Animated Feature: It's completely insane that "The Lego Movie" wasn't nominated, and it kills me that we don't know WHY it was passed over. However, that doesn't mean that "How to Train Your Dragon 2" or "Big Hero 6" are completely undeserving of the honor. I would be surprised if anything in this category wins over those two, and in the end I'm going with "How to Train Your Dragon 2."

Production Design: Wes Anderson does a lot of things very well, chief among them the creation of beautiful and meticulously created cinematic worlds. I can't imaging anything winning in this category over "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

Cinematography: They filmed Birdman in a style to look like it was all one continuous shot (much like Hitchcock's "Rope"). That creativity should be enough to allow Birdman's Emmanuel Lubezki to win this award for the second year in a row (he also won last year for "Gravity").

Costume Design: It's usually a safe bet to go with the movie that has the most corsets and giant historical dresses. This year we also have a lot of fantasy thrown in, with their own capes and giant dresses and horns to deal with. That makes this category a bit of a head-scratcher for me, and I'm down to either "The Grand Budapest Hotel" or "Into the Woods." Gosh I'm bad at this category. Okay, I'm going bellhop. Let's say "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

Film Editing: My go-to method for predicting this one is typically to choose the best picture winner, so why mess with something that's been working for me? I'll go with "Boyhood" here, not only because I think it will win best picture, but also because–can you IMAGINE how much footage they had to go through? Unreal.

Makeup and Hairstyling: Why do these things have to share a category? They are done by totally different people! This is dumb. Anyway, when I saw "Grand Budapest Hotel" on the ballot, I was only thinking about Saoirse Ronan's facial birth mark, and kept moving on to "Foxcatcher" and "Guardians of the Galaxy." Then I remembered TILDA SWINTON, HELLO. So this one also belongs to "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

Original Score: Gosh I loved Hans Zimmer's music for "Interstellar." Unfortunately all of the buzz in this category seems to be surrounding "The Theory of Everything," so I'm predicting a win for Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Original Song: This will probably be the only award of the night for "Selma."

Original Screenplay: On the other hand, it looks like this will end up being a pretty BIG night for "The Grand Budapest Hotel!"

Adapted Screenplay: There's a pretty interesting story on why "Whiplash" is listed in this category rather than Original Screenplay, which it is–even the Writer's Guild had it listed in their Original Screenplay category. Either way, I think it will still come out on top of its biggest competition, "The Imitation Game."

Sound Mixing: I think it's probably either "American Sniper" or "Interstellar," with "Whiplash" thrown in as a dark horse. Let's go with "American Sniper."

Sound Editing: Let's just say "American Sniper" again.

Visual Effects: What a packed category! All of these films have a tremendous amount of computer graphics, and it's hard to pick the best among the best. I think it will almost definitely be either "Interstellar" or "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," with "Interstellar" just eeking out a win.

Documentary Feature: It looks like "Citizenfour" is the front-runner here, and who I am to argue with popular knowledge?

Documentary Short: I first read this one as "Chris Hotline," rather than "Crisis Hotline." I don't know what a Chris Hotline would do. Maybe connect you with famous guys named Chris, like Evans, Pratt, and Pine? (Note to self: look into setting up a Chris Hotline.) ANYWAY. Winner: "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1."

Foreign Language Film: Poland's "Ida" is not only nominated in this category, but also in cinematography. Along with being a well-reviewed picture, this double nomination for a foreign film is a good indicator that "Ida" will take this win.

Animated Short: "Feast" was so creative and adorable. I hope it wins. If it doesn't, look for "The Dam Keeper" to be the one to stage an upset.

Live-Action Short: Obviously I am an expert in this category. Despite the fact that that is absolutely not true, I think "The Phone Call" will win.

*Upon further review, it seems that I am, in fact, wrong quite a lot of the time.