Ian Thomas Malone

Monthly Archive: March 2024



March 2024



Staying the Course

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Five year Estradiol Illusions anniversary! Ian talks about what she’s been up to this year, mostly writing and trying to get over yet another breakup. Life is a tricky game. Best to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with things.

Thank you to everyone who’s listened to the show over the past half-decade! We don’t do as many new episodes as we used to, but it’s always fun to catch up. 

Ian is far more active on her two preferred platforms, Facebook and Threads



March 2024



The 2024 Oscar Nominees for Best Picture Ranked

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

2023 was a fantastic year for filmmaking. The nominees for the Academy Award for Best Pictures have several contenders that would have been worthy winners in any of the three years since the pandemic. Of course, awards don’t work that way. Best Picture winners are forever immortalized, even in the years when any number of films could’ve eked out a victory.

Art is subjective, an inherent flaw of awards shows. Any number of people could rank the Best Picture nominees in a thousand different ways. My list reflects the way each filmmaker’s storytelling landed for me. Your list would almost certainly be different.

As a critic, I’m primarily interested in two elements of filmmaking: craftsmanship and messaging. All ten Best Picture nominees feature exceptional acting, an element of the art form that can often be found in complete turkeys. It is a far more daunting task to elicit genuine emotion from the audience toward perspectives quite foreign to their own. Art reminds us all of the inherent relatability of the human experience across the boundaries of space and time.

Here is my list, ranked from most deserving of Best Picture to least deserving. Your thoughts on the nominees and my ranking are encouraged in the comment section.

1. Anatomy of a Fall A legal drama has not won Best Picture since 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. Anatomy of a Fall does not seem likely to break that trend, but Justine Triet’s intimate depiction of a writer on trial for the death of her husband presents one of the most captivating treatises on language depicted on film in the modern era. Sandra Hüller plays an eminently cold individual who manages to draw sympathy from the audience almost through a force of gravity, a gripping slow burn. Alternating between French and English, Triet constantly plays with the nature of identity and the agony of a human heart at war with itself. Few films manage to capture the claustrophobia of marriage without pointing fingers. People are often awful to each other. Life is not a scorecard, except in places like the courtroom, where everything is on the line.

2. Past LivesFew films capture the quiet, painful dignity of heartbreak quite like Celine Song’s work. Greta Lee delivers a performance of eloquent nuance as Nora, a South Korean expatriate whose journey to America separated her from her childhood crush Hae Sung, played by Tae Yoo. For all of us, the passage of time is full of what-ifs, moments that could consume an entire existence if one allows it. Song handles her material with such grace, a style reminiscent of French romanticism and the best elements of the 2000s mumblecore wave. Few films capture the humanity of loss with such a restrained approach. No other Best Picture nominee captured the pain of love quite like Past Lives, a marvelous feat of filmmaking.

 3. The Zone of Interest The greatest triumph of Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Martin Ames’ 2014 novel of the same name is the way the film communicates the horrors of the Holocaust so vividly without ever depicting them on screen. The narrative focuses on Rudolf Höss and his family’s comfortable life in Auschwitz, with a single wall separating their idyllic existence from the atrocities just beyond their backyard. The cinematography puts quite a bit of distance between its subjects and the audience, though Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller, the latter nominated for Best Actress for her work in Anatomy of a Fall, put forth commanding performances in the lead roles. The Zone of Interest is a tough film to watch, but Glazer deserves a lot of credit for his innovations in a well-trodden genre, an experience that leaves you completely drained by the time the credits roll.

 4. Oppenheimer Oppenheimer will almost certainly win Best Picture. Christopher Nolan’s work is both larger than life and strangely intimate, anchored by a tour de force performance from Cillian Murphy in the lead role. Few films with three-hour runtimes move with such deft precision, using Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 biography American Prometheus as its lodestar. The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon represented a singular convergence of blockbuster filmmaking and genuine art. Nolan’s split timeline non-linear narrative has the weird effect of taking the film outside both its subject and his bomb, a dynamic that starts to shrink Oppenheimer as the story progresses. Oppenheimer loses a bit of his mystery as a man when the narrative shifts to Los Alamos, appearing more like a traffic conductor or a politician than someone who rather singularly transformed the entire world.

 5. BarbieThe defining blockbuster of 2023 is a worthy awards show contender. Greta Gerwig managed to transform a doll designed to be everything to everyone and deliver a message that felt both personal and universal, a sentiment best expressed through America Ferrara’s Oscar-nominated supporting performance. Robbie and Gosling are quite delightful in the lead roles, shuttling between the plastic world of Barbie and the plastic world of Los Angeles. Barbie gets a little cutesy when awkwardly poking fun at itself, but Gerwig’s work is well-deserving of a nomination, even if the film is unlikely to walk away with many trophies.

 6. Poor Things ­­– Few filmmakers can elicit genuine shock quite like Yorgos Lanthimos. An adaptation of the Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, the film follows Bella, a woman who was revived after her suicide when a mad scientist implanted her unborn child’s brain into her body. Emma Stone is absolutely captivating in the lead role, easily the best performance of her career. The film possesses the best set design of all the nominees, with gorgeous steampunk aesthetics, but the story loses a lot of its power as the narrative wears on. Lanthimos’ most beautiful film is quite compelling in its own way, though its quasi-feminist messaging leaves a lot to be desired.

 7. American FictionCord Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure is an absolute delight that marches to the beat of its own drum. Jeffrey Wright delivers a commanding lead performance as a writer/professor who finds unexpected success with a satire of stereotypical Black narratives that pander to white audiences. A powerful and necessary scathing rebuke of the publishing industry’s treatment of marginalized authors. Jefferson’s work struggles a bit down the stretch, but it’s a delightfully charming film. Sterling Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Issa Rae deliver strong supporting performances.

 8. The Holdovers There is a lot to like about The Holdovers, a charming 1970s period piece about a Massachusetts boarding school. Paul Giamatti showcases his leading man chops as a hapless curmudgeonly teacher, bolstered by strong backing performances from Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa. Director Alexander Payne plays it a little too safe with his narrative that borrows too heavily from filmmakers of the time period. Giamatti would be a worthy upset over likely Best Actor winner Cillian Murphy, but The Holdovers itself is hardly Best Picture worthy.

 9. Killers of the Flower Moon ­The framing for Martin Scorsese’s epic western centered on the 1920s Osage Indian murders is a complete disaster, focusing on a woefully miscast Leonardo DiCaprio instead of the far more compelling Lily Gladstone. Nominated for Best Actress, Gladstone finds herself sidelined for much of the unwieldy 206-minute runtime. Robert DeNiro and Jesse Plemons put forth strong supporting efforts. The cinematography is superb, but Scorsese’s exceedingly relaxed pacing undoes almost all its dramatic tension.

 10. Maestro – Bradley Cooper shows off his ample technical skills as a director in his sophomore effort, while also exposing some glaring flaws as a storyteller. Cooper’s first film, A Star is Born, was the third remake of the 1937 classic. Maestro presented no easy crib sheets, a meandering slog that feels much longer than its 129-runtime suggests. As an actor, Cooper disappears into the role of Leonard Bernstein, but he doesn’t have anything compelling to say. Carey Mulligan does her best grasping at straws for material amidst this poorly conceived avant garbage.



March 2024



Dune: Part Two is a worthy adaptation of unwieldy source material

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There’s a simple reason why one of the most popular science fiction books in the history of popular literature has struggled to find a worthy film adaptation. It’s not exactly accurate to say that Dune is unfilmable, but the book and its sequel are exceedingly heady philosophical exercises that don’t play well to adaptation. Denis Villeneuve’s first Dune took an admirable stab at the novel’s first half, often succumbing to the unwieldy weight of exposition and the sheer scope of the cast.

The back half of Dune is a bit more of an intimate affair. With Leto (Oscar Isaac) dead, the exiled Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) find a new home among the Fremen, who dedicate their lives to disrupting the spice production now returned to House Harkonnen after they usurped House Atreides. One of the Fremen leaders Stilgar (Javier Bardem) is convinced that Paul is their messiah, quickly inserting Lady Jessica into the mechanics of their political world as the new Reverend Mother.

Dune is a very dense text. Villeneuve does an excellent job breaking the material down for casual audiences, even if much of the nuances of groups like the Bene Gesserit is lost in the pacing. The women of the film, particularly Lady Jessica and Chiani (Zendaya) provide most of the emotional backbone of the narrative, often exposing the flaws of the White Savior trope in the process. Herbert’s writing spent a lot of time focusing on prophecy that a film doesn’t really have time to explore. The book has the luxury of presenting Paul’s ascendency over hundreds of pages as a matter of fate. The abridged runtime makes for a far more awkward presentation of a young teenager as the messiah of this rich world.

Villeneuve shows off his confidence with a relaxed sense of pacing, leaning heavily on the exceptional cinematography to carry the narrative instead of Herbert’s densely packed plotting. Part Two cuts a lot of stuff out, often to the point of making you wonder why the first film spent so much time on unnecessary exposition. There is something beautiful about the way Villeneuve focuses on the beauty of Arrakis instead of trying to cover as much material as possible.

The film does buckle under its obligations to function more like a blockbuster film than an exercise in philosophy. The limits of its 165-minute runtime are quite exposed when the narrative leaves Arrakis for a bit to focus on the Emperor (Christopher Walken) and House Harkonnen. Feyd-Rautha is a flimsy, underdeveloped villain, a shame given Austin Butler’s obvious enthusiasm in the role. Stellan Skarsgård does an admirable job as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, making the most of a limited runtime, but there’s an obligatory sense to the villainy that the film never quite shakes.

The action sequences are a bit of a mixed bag, much like the first film. The individual fight choreography is quite good, but the broader battles leave a lot to be desired. The cinematography of the actual fighting pales in comparison to the simpler frames showcasing the planet. The sandworms themselves aren’t given the same beautiful care and attention as they received in the first film.

Many popular science-fiction films have riffed off Dune’s basic premise over the years. Paul suffers from the weight of so many who came before him. Villeneuve never truly sells his lead as this necessary messiah figure, a reality exacerbated by the excessive amount of parental figures he has in the film, including Lady Jessica, Stilgar, and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin).  All three work hard to sell Paul as a figure of destiny, but Chalamet is rarely given much space to run with the ball. Zendaya is a much more satisfying emotional care of the film, an awkward reality that the source material can’t really compensate for.

Villeneuve spends so much time capturing the feel of Arrakis that he sometimes forgets that the audience needs to feel something toward Paul, perhaps the weakest character among the principal cast. It’s not necessarily Villeneuve’s fault that audiences are bound to be familiar with the Luke Skywalker’s and the Neo’s of the world who owe so much to Herbert’s work, but the headiness of Paul’s character is quite lost in the shuffle. One has to wonder if some of the time spent on characters who only appeared in the first movie might have been better allocated to the newcomers in Part Two whose introductions feel quite rushed.

Dune probably needed three movies to get everything right. As it stands, Part Two is a very good film. Casual moviegoers may find themselves checked out at times, especially when Florence Pugh’s Irulan swoops in for what’s essentially an important extended cameo, but Villeneuve delivered a worthy adaptation of Herbert’s work. Some of the material’s inherent flaws are products of its time, as well as Hollywood’s reluctance to invest in newer work. Paul’s weaknesses as a messiah somewhat reflect the reality that our society has moved beyond some of the confines of Herbert’s sandbox. Villeneuve has crafted a beautiful film that will likely go down as the definitive take on the franchise, while also exposing many of the flaws that demonstrate why it took so long to get made in the first place.