Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day 11/11/18

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly.

My latest post on these themes is "The War to End All Wars," because it's the 100th anniversary of the Great War's end, the armistice.

Back in 2009, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

"The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

"The Battle of the Somme" (2017)

I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

The War to End All Wars

Today, 11/11/18, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the Great War, the supposed War to End All Wars that unfortunately didn't. I've always been struck by how eager nations were to go to war at the start and how horrific the reality often was. By the end, by most estimates, about 8.5 million soldiers were dead and the total casualty count was about 37.5 million. Add in a couple million civilian deaths from fighting and several million more indirectly from disease and hunger, and the toll is just staggering. The death count would be exceeded in World War II, but it's hard to overstate how devastating the "Great War" was to the world, especially Europe.

The Imperial War Museums (a set of five museums in Britain) has posted an excellent collection of first-hand British accounts on the armistice 100 years ago. Follow the link for the audio, but I've copied some key accounts below. Not everyone got the news about the armistice, and even for those who did, the final hours could be tense:

The news travelled at different speeds, and was delayed in getting to some places. George Jameson’s unit read about it.

When the war actually ended, we didn't even know about it. We knew that things were getting pretty critical, we knew that we were doing well and nobody wanted to cop out on one when the war might be ending tomorrow, sort of thing. It was the wrong time to get wounded or hit or anything, you see! So we were pretty careful. But we were moving forward with the idea of taking another position when one of the drivers shouted up to somebody, ‘There's a sign on that,’ it was an entrance to some house. He said, ‘There's a sign on that thing marking somebody’s headquarters and it says the wars over.’ Don’t believe it. Nobody would believe it. The war couldn't be over; it had been on for years, nobody would believe it could finish! It’s a fact; it says there the war was over. So somebody rode back and read this thing that said, as from 11 o'clock this morning, hostilities have ceased. And we then realised the war was over.

Fighting continued in some places as the news made its way along the Western Front, and men still lost their lives on the final day of the war. Jim Fox of the Durham Light Infantry remembered one such incident.

Of course, when the armistice was to be signed at 11 o'clock on the 11th of November, as from 6 o'clock that morning there was only the occasional shell that was sent either by us over the German lines or the German over at our lines. Maybe there was one an hour. And then, about 10am, one came down and killed a sergeant of ours who'd been out since 1915. He was killed with shrapnel, you know. Thought that was very unlucky. To think he’d served since 1915, three years until 1918, nearly four years and then to be killed within an hour of armistice…

William Collins clearly remembered conditions on the morning of the 11 November, and noted the significance of where he was that day.

On armistice morning, I remember the fog was – it was a Monday morning, November the 11th. The fog was so thick that visibility was down to 10 yards. And as we moved and moved on, we found ourselves at about 10 o'clock that morning we were up with the infantry patrols. And of course, when we found out that they were the closest to the Germans, we stopped and we stood in that place until… must have been oh, half past 12, one o'clock before the order was given to retire. A silence came over the whole place that you could almost feel, you know, after four and a half years of war, not a shot was being fired, not a sound was heard because the fog blanketed everything, you see, and hung really thickly over… We were north-east of Mons, whereas I'd started the battle four and a half years before, south-east of Mons. So there I was, back where the war started after nearly four and a half years of it.


For an exhibit, the Imperial War Museum in London recreated "the last few minutes of World War I when the guns finally fell silent at the River Moselle on the American Front" using WWI seismic data that the Smithsonian explains well. Take a listen:



(It seems the birds were added as an artistic choice, and I think they come in too early and too loudly, but it's still a fascinating piece.)

( Paris.)

In the field, some soldiers celebrated the armistice with gusto, while others were simply exhausted:

Charles Wilson of the Gloucestershire Regiment was delighted when he heard of the armistice.

Well of course there was tremendous jubilation, I can remember. We had just come out of this battle and the armistice was on the 11th of November. We were doing battalion drill back in some village in France when we formed up and the commanding officer made the announcement: an armistice was signed at 11 o'clock today. Of course there was a swell of excitement amongst the men and our only interest then was to find something to drink to celebrate it and there was nothing to be had, not a bottle of wine or anything else! However we soon put that right…

But Clifford Lane was just too physically and mentally shattered to celebrate.

Then as far as the armistice itself was concerned, it was an anti-climax. We were too far gone, too exhausted, really to enjoy it. All we could do was just go back to our billets; there was no cheering, no singing, we had no alcohol – that particular day we had no alcohol at all – and we simply celebrated the armistice in silence and thankfulness that it was all over. And I believe that happened quite a lot in France. There was such a sense of anti-climax; there was such a… We were drained of all emotion really – that’s what it amounted to, you see. Then it was a question of when we were going to get home…


( Trafalgar Square, London.)

More reactions:

Mary Lees, who worked for the Air Ministry, was caught up in the scenes of jubilation that day.

But of course, I mean, Armistice Day was fantastic. You see, you visualise every single office in Kingsway pouring down the Strand. I should think there must have been about 10,000 people. There was no traffic of course. It was solid, like that. And you see, when they got to the end of the Strand of course it opened up, like that, into Trafalgar Square. And still Trafalgar Square was packed. Well, we didn’t get back to the office, to our work, till about half past three, four. And, when I came to get my bus back in the evening, the people had been careering all round London on the buses. But nobody would go inside because they all wanted to go on top and cheer. I forget how many it was in the papers the next morning, fifty or sixty buses had all their railings broken, going up the stairs on the top.
For many, the moment of the armistice was a time to reflect on all the lives that had been lost during the war. Ruby Ord was serving in France with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.

I think it was a bit of an anti-climax. Suddenly you thought about, you see, all the people you had known who were killed, etc. They were just in the war zone, and they could come home in your imagination. But the Armistice brought the realisation to you that they weren’t coming back, that it was the end. I think that it was not such a time of rejoicing as it might have been. You were glad the fighting was over and that not more men would be killed. But I do think it was dampened down very much, in France. I think they had all the enthusiasm probably in England, but I think we were too near reality to feel that way. I didn’t, certainly. I did not go out of camp on Armistice Day.

This remembrance seems the best to end on:
After the long years of hardship, suffering and loss, it was no surprise that the news the war had finally ended was received with such a mixture of emotions by those who were immediately affected by it. From shock and disbelief, to relief and jubilation, men and women around the world had their own reactions to the armistice. Basil Farrer served on the Western Front during the war. He was in Nottingham on 11 November 1918 but found he couldn't join the cheering crowds in the city that day.

I remember Armistice Day and I didn't know at the time but in every city, everybody went mad. In London, they were dancing in the streets, the crowds, in all the cities, in Paris and in Nottingham too. In Market Square, it was one mass of people dancing and singing. I did not go there. I do remember – for some reason or other – inexplicable, especially in so young a chap as myself, I felt sad. I did – I had a feeling of sadness. And I did remember all those chaps who'd never come back, because there was quite a lot, nearly a million – not quite a million. As a matter of fact, in Paris I remember the Prince of Wales inaugurating a plaque in the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris to the million dead of Great Britain and the British Empire. And I did have a feeling of sadness that day.


Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing, Belgium.)

(Notre Dame de Lorette, also known as Ablain St.-Nazaire French Military Cemetery, France.)

(Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, France.)

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(Poppy on a Canadian grave.)

Saturday, November 03, 2018

California and Los Angeles Voting 2018

Get out and vote on Tuesday, if you haven't already! This post will collate some California and Los Angeles County resources.

California voters should already have received the official voter information guide in the mail, but it's also online and available in multiple languages. Unfortunately, some candidates don't include statements, but the guide is particularly useful for seeing who's supporting and opposing the ballot propositions.

Local NPR station KPCC (89.3) has a great Voter's Edge feature that allows you to look up your ballot and compare candidates and positions on the ballot measures. (It seems to be specific to the Los Angeles area.) Another local NPR station, KCRW (89.9), hosts the same feature and has a good page collating all their interviews with candidates and other election coverage.

The Public Policy Institute of California hosted conversations between U.S. Senate candidates Dianne Feinstein and Kevin de León and between State Superintendent of School Supervision Candidates Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond.

The nonpartisan California Choices site collates the ballot proposition positions of state newspapers, the political parties, not-for-profit organizations and unions. It's useful to see them

For endorsements, here's the Los Angeles Times, the California Democratic Party, Los Angeles County Democratic Party, and if you're curious, the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. (The Green Party made no endorsements for statewide candidates, but did make recommendations on ballot propositions.)

The Los Angeles County Bar Association rates all the judicial candidates on how qualified they are. I find it quite useful, in conjunction with checking out the endorsements. (Finding good information on the judicial candidates is often the hardest.)

The progressive Courage Campaign has a voter guide in a slightly interactive format and a PDF.

Meanwhile, local pal David Dayen has inaugurated The Every Other Year Political Podcast, a funny, hour-long discussion with a former comedy partner, stand-up comedian Mark Champagne. They go through the ballot together, from state races all the way down to local county and city issues.

We'll give the last word to Willie – vote!

Monday, September 03, 2018

Labor Day 2018

Happy Labor Day! These videos are repeats, but they're good.

Here's Robert Reich from 2013, about celebrating labor on Labor Day.



This a Woody Guthrie classic, performed at the Pete Seeger 90th birthday concert:



Given the latest pushes from conservatives to further concentrate wealth and power with the wealthy, to let wages stagnate, and to slash the social safety net, it's a good time to think about labor and the quality of life for the majority of Americans versus a select few.

My most in-depth post to date for Labor Day and related issues remains this 2011 one. Feel free to link good pro-labor posts in the comments.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Capitals Win the Stanley Cup


The Washington Capitals have finally won their first championship, in their forty-third season! It's also the first championship for DC in one of the four major sports since 1992 (although soccer team DC United has won four times in that span). I do most of my sports posting and commenting on fan blogs and social media, and I'm not going to post the 50 plus links I've collected, but I felt obliged to post something here. (The celebration parade was today in DC.)

Sports fandom can be a bit of a silly thing. Most of us inherit our favorite teams from parents or other relatives. Maybe we develop fandom from where we live or once lived. And dedicated fans feel excitement and disappointment, sometimes significant amounts of it, all based on the actions of a person or group of people we can't control. Fans can pour enormous time, energy and money into following sports, which might be better spent elsewhere. It's pretty irrational, really.

But fandom can still be glorious. The main reason we watch sports is because it can be entertaining and thrilling – watching two teams (or people) in opposition, with set rules, but an uncertain outcome, makes for good drama. (Brecht once observed, essentially, that bad theater wasn't as gripping as good sports, and theater should strive to be at least as engaging.) And some athletic feats are just impressive. There's a beauty to a good pass in football, soccer, basketball or hockey. Fandom is often communal – gathering with friends and family, celebrating and commiserating with fellow fans in a bar or in online communities during games. And surely sports are a healthier form of competition or even aggression than, say, war or other actual fighting.

As a lifelong Packers fan, I was thrilled to see the Packers win the Super Bowl in 1997 after a 29-year drought and several years of serious contention. Their underdog run in 2011, winning six games in a row just to make the playoffs and then winning the championship, was also amazing. Likewise, as a lifelong, masochist Cubs fan, seeing the Cubs win the World Series after over 100 years was astounding. Both fandoms have entailed considerable heartache due to playoff losses. (I never fully celebrate a Packers game until it's done, having seen some heroic finishes but also last-second defeats.)

But the Capitals' championship is particularly special because it's their first. And they are – or were – serious contenders for heartbreak kings. The Caps have been really good for a significant amount of time without winning a championship, facing epically bad luck or just not pulling it off. As The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell puts it:

In the past decade, the Caps lead the NHL in regular season points with 1,019, ahead of the Penguins (1,008) and the Chicago Blackhawks (988). Nobody else is close. In those 10 years, the Penguins and Blackhawks have won six Cups — three each. In the NHL’s luck-laced playoffs, no one team, no matter how good, is assured of winning a title in any particular year. But sustained excellence for so long, as Pittsburgh and Chicago illustrate, is usually rewarded.


(The rest of the column, explaining more Capitals mishaps and how this season was different, is well worth the read.)

The Stanley Cup is easily the coolest and most storied trophy in sports (at least in North America), and it's arguably the hardest to win, with luck playing a significant role in addition to the usual skill and grit and all the sports clichés one can summon.

I first started following the Caps in 1998 or 1999, after their first Finals appearance. I didn't follow them at all as a kid; their TV ads in the DC area were cheaply made, the team didn't seem to be that good (I know now they did make some playoff runs), it seemed a bit silly to me that hockey was being played in a fairly Southern city, and I played soccer as a kid. But one day during a brief return stint in DC, I read a piece in The Washington Post about the Capitals making the Finals – and being swept – but how they had exceeded expectations and were actually pretty good now. I thought it'd be interesting to finally check out a game. The next season, I went down to the then-MCI Center and got the cheapest seat possible – a $10 or $12 "Eagle's Nest" seat, which meant the last one or two nosebleed rows at the ends of the arena. In theory, they're the worst seats possible, but you can see the action developing pretty well, especially odd-man rushes. I saw the Capitals play their arch-rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, losing 4-3 in overtime. But the game was exciting and amazing. It had the gorgeous passing and weaving I loved in soccer, but it was accelerated, in a condensed space, and with the potential for sudden reversals when one team pressed and missed and the other team could potentially break out the other way. I was hooked. I dragged some family members to a game, and even though I was moving out of town, I got a partial season subscription that year, picking games when I could be in town and the most interesting matchups otherwise, and gave those game tickets to my father. (He kindly repaid me for those tickets, although I told him he didn't have to.)

Some years I was so busy I couldn't follow the Caps well, or they were so bad I didn't have the heart to check in constantly. But for the past several years, I've followed every single one of the 82 regular-season games, listening to most of them on the radio app on weekdays, possibly catching the end of the games when just getting home, watching recaps, and celebrating and commiserating on fan sites. I've attended a game or two every time I've been back in DC during hockey season, and for a few years have attended the Caps-Kings game here in Los Angeles (which makes me feel slightly bad, because the Kings are my second or third favorite team). The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy for most points/best record in the regular season the previous two seasons, and have done that three times in the past 10 years. In those seasons especially, it seemed like they would finally break through and win a championship. But they kept on getting bumped out, in the past 10 years by the Flyers, Canadiens, and Lightning once apiece, the Rangers three times, and the Penguins three times. The screwy playoff system of the past few years, which eliminated reseeding after rounds, meant the Caps and Penguins kept meeting in the second round instead of the conference finals, even though they were arguably the best two teams in the Eastern Conference (possibly in the league, but certainly in the top four or so). As a fan, you can tell yourself that, statistically, your team should win eventually (hey, the Cubs finally did it again after more than a century), but life as a Caps fan has meant plenty of thrills during the regular season, and excitement and agony during the playoffs, finishing with crushing disappointment and despair at the injustice of the universe (or as head coach Barry Trotz might put it, "the Hockey Gods").

As a result, in recent years, my Caps devotion has probably been my most intense or at least tumultuous fandom. I do follow every Packers game, and can get engaged enough to live and die with every play, especially come playoff time. But there are only 16 games in a season, plus the playoffs. And the Packers lead the league with 13 championships, and won one in the past 10 years, all of which honestly has taken the sting out of some pretty brutal playoff disappointments, at least for me. It's unrealistic and greedy to expect a championship every year, and healthy fandom necessitates enjoying the ride. Meanwhile, for the Cubs, I periodically check in on the standings, look at the scores, and will put a game on in the background in the rare event it's on, but I don't study in detail every recap of their 162 regular-season games and typically save following closely until the playoffs loom and if the Cubs have a chance. I've been diehard with the Caps, and this Stanley Cup run and win will probably be the zenith of my fan experience with sports, because it's the Caps' very first championship, and for both players and fans, it represents a host of demons slain. (I'm reminded of a good friend who's a lifelong Angels fan and finally got to see them win the World Series in 2002. Likewise, unless I have other rooting interests, I always cheer for the team that hasn't won a championship or has the longest drought.)

Most NHL pundits and fans thought the Caps would compete for a playoff spot, but few thought they would win the division. This Caps team was not as talented or deep as were the teams of the previous two seasons, but somehow, it was the one to win the championship. Why? Lower expectations? More youth and speed? More adversity and working through it? So much was improbable. Defenseman Brooks Orpik scoring a game-winning goal in the Finals after last scoring on February 26th, 2016 (yes, 2016). Jakub Vrana and Andrei Burakovsky both being scratched in games and then each coming back and scoring two goals in later games. Devante Smith-Pelly scoring only seven goals in the regular season and then scoring seven clutch goals in the playoffs, including a game-tying goal in what wound up being the series finale while being tripped and falling down. Beating the Penguins on the road with Backstrom and Wilson out and playing a bunch of rookies. Evgeny Kuznetsov leading all players in the playoffs with 32 points and scoring gorgeous, silky-smooth goals, including winning the series against the arch-rival Penguins in overtime. Goalie Braden Holtby shutting out the excellent Tampa Bay Lightning in two successive elimination games, and in the Finals making a jaw-dropping stop known as The Save. Backstrom being quietly productive as usual. Ovechkin scoring through skill and persistence and being a force of nature. The Caps winning all four series after being behind, and winning all four on the road, and winning all four games when they could eliminate an opponent. Ovechkin winning the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP (both Kuznetsov and Holtby also would have deserved it), and more importantly, winning the Stanley Cup, silencing the largely inane, idiotic criticism he and the Caps have been subjected to for years. This postseason was nerve-wracking and thrilling and magical.

Here's the official NHL recap of Game 5:



The Capitals put together a nice video from their perspective on the game, including "backstage" footage, "We Are the Champions":



Here's the handshake line, one of the great traditions in the sport:



Then there's the presentation of the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin accepts the Conn Smythe, but watch the footage and you can see that this is one he really wants. Just look at Ovechkin's unbridled joy. And the first person who gets the Cup after him, of course, is Nicklas Backstrom:



Video of the team photo, with two late but important additions:



Now that the season's over, it'll be nice to have more time back for other pursuits, and less stress, but I'm glad to have gone through all of it. The St. Louis Blues are probably now the most overdue team for a championship in hockey, but I hope every devoted fan in every sport gets an experience like this.

Monday, May 28, 2018

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Blowing Things Up

Today is Memorial Day, which is meant for remembering those who died in military service. It's also a good day to reflect on war in general.

Back in May 2017, John Quiggin of Crooked Timber made a good observation about Trump bombing Syria and the pundits this impressed. Quiggin:

Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve, unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it's correctly recognised as cowardly and evil. The most striking recent example (on "our" side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump's bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there.


Last month, Quiggin wrote a follow-up about "another round of bombing from Trump, and yet more instant applause." These dynamics aren't limited to Trump, of course; they have a long history in the U.S. and other nations.

Some wars may be necessary. Others definitely aren't. In theory, every pundit or government official and most citizens should have heard the saying that "war is hell" and should know the truth behind it, thanks to schooling, listening to veterans, and all the good documentaries, feature films and books on the subject. Anyone who wants a war is an idiot or a scoundrel. Yet even when military action is pretty clearly a bad idea or at least pointless, some people who should know better will still cheer it. They'll hail it as a sign of leadership or being decisive or tough or manly, while virtues like wisdom and careful thought are ignored if not vilified. (And many in this crowd will try to claim patriotism while they do it.) Surely one of the points of Memorial Day is that we shouldn't add to the numbers of the dead unnecessarily. But our national political discourse, on matters of war as with most everything else, is too heavily influenced by idiots and scoundrels.

It makes sense for Memorial Day to be a day of reflection or getting together with friends. But maybe it can also spur some civil engagement later in the year, whether it's working for veterans or food banks or some other worthy cause, such as registering people to vote and getting them to the polls. It's relatively easy to blow something up, and generally both harder and more worthwhile to build and sustain something positive with others.

People talk about Iwo Jima as the most glorious amphibious operation in history. I've had Iwo veterans tell me it was more similar to Peleliu than any other battle they read about. What in the hell was glorious about it?...

My parents taught me the value of history. Both my grandfathers were in the Confederate Army. They didn't talk about the glory of war. They talked about how terrible it was.
– WWII veteran E.B. "Sledgehammer" Sledge (1923–2001)


Monday, April 30, 2018

National Poetry Month 2018: Fire and Ice

April is National Poetry Month. As usual, I'll promote the wonderful Favorite Poem Project. Unfortunately, the associated Summer Poetry Institute for teachers ceased last year, but the site still has resources for teachers or anyone else who wants to host a favorite poem event.

This year, I'm going to feature a short piece, whose dark wit always makes me smile.

Fire and Ice
By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.


A friend of mine in college would sneak trays out of the cafeteria, write short poems on them, and stealthily return the trays to the stack. It was awesome. This is one of the poems she picked.

Feel free to link or post a favorite poem in the comments.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

St. Patrick's Day 2017

I've posted this song before, but it's one of my favorite picks for the day. Here's Dead Can Dance (with Lisa Gerrard singing) performing a striking rendition of the 19th century Irish tune, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley":

My copy of the The Irish Songbook says:

This is an excellent example of many songs that serve both as love lyrics and rebel song. The scene described refers to the 1783 rising. The words are the work of Robert Dwyer Joyce, a professor of English Literature at Catholic University at Dublin. In danger of arrest for rebel activities, Joyce fled to the United States. He later returned to Ireland and died in Dublin in 1883.

Wikipedia gives some more information, including a nice list of the many bands who have recorded the song. (Ken Loach's 2006 film takes the song for its title.)

Feel free to mention or link any favorite Irish songs or poems in the comments. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 05, 2018

2017 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Reviews

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Top Four, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2017 was a decent year for films, with a solid crop of noteworthy movies. Many of the best were genre pictures, including the usual superhero flicks, but also a science fiction film, a western and a monster movie.

Jimmy Kimmel did a good job overall hosting this year's Oscars. He offered (and delivered on) a jet ski to the winner with the shortest speech. His too-long-and-unnecessary gag last year was a Hollywood tour coming into the theater, and this year it was the Oscar attendees surprising moviegoers across the street. Other than that, though, the ceremony didn't have that much extraneous padding. The themes for this year's show were very consciously about diversity and inclusion, plus several nods to the "Me Too" movement to end sexual harassment. (This also made for awkwardness when Kobe Bryant's film won Best Animated Short, given the rape allegations against him.)

Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani, both immigrants, had some funny banter, then gave a shout-out to the "Dreamers," the children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants. Nyong'o's was a doubly good choice, given her Oscar acceptance speech in 2014, about holding onto dreams, one of the more memorable ones of the past several years.

The set was spectacular – 45 million Swarovski crystals that changed with the lighting – but also a little distracting.

As usual, the Oscars' montage game was strong. The acting categories had great little montages of previous winners, and a longer piece celebrated 90 years of Oscar-nominated films. Native American Wes Studi (who's a Vietnam vet, it turns out) introduced a montage honoring veterans, and even said some words in Cherokee.

Some of the older presenters (Eva Marie Saint and Christopher Walken) were preceded by a clip of their Oscar-winning work, which was both smart for younger viewers and a nice reminder for the older set.

Allison Janney probably had the funniest acceptance speech, thanks to starting, "I did it all myself." She waited for the laughter to die a bit, then gave gracious thanks, including a nice shout-out to Joanne Woodward for encouraging her to continue acting. Other winners flashed some wit as well: Lee Smith, who won the Oscar for editing for Dunkirk, said, "I'm trying to wrap this up; I'm an editor, I should be able to do this."

Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph arguably were the funniest presenters, arriving with the heels in hand because they said their feet hurt, and assuring the audience that the Oscars hadn't become too black, because they had seen plenty of white people backstage.

In a cool gesture, screenwriter and actress Rachel Shenton used American sign language in her acceptance speech for Maisie Sly, the deaf child lead actress of the Best Live Action Short, The Silent Child. The director (and Shenton's fiancé), Chris Overton, mentioned they'd gotten funding on Indiegogo. (It's neat to think that an Oscar short was crowd-sourced.)

The screenplay categories were even stronger than usual this year. I haven't seen Call Me By Your Name yet, but it was lovely to see 88-year-old veteran filmmaker James Ivory become the oldest winner in either of the writing categories. He gave a gracious speech thanking the book's author and his long-time and now deceased filmmaking partners, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant. I cheered when Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, and would have been likewise thrilled if The Big Sick won.

Although a fine actor, Gael Garcia Bernal was unfortunately out of tune when he started to sing eventual Best Original Song winner, "Remember Me," but luckily when the chorus came in, single-named singer Miguel took over lead vocals and rescued the melody. Sufjan Stevens and his band also sounded a bit off on "Mystery of Love," although it's a pretty song. The performance of "Mighty River" by Mary J. Blige (also nominated for acting!) was solid and those for "Stand Up for Something" and "This Is Me" were boisterous.

For the last several years, the Montage of Death has been accompanied by a good chanteuse, and it's worked well. This year, Eddie Vedder delivered a fine performance of the late Tom Petty's "Room at the Top," which made for a nice change of pace.

The most memorable speech of the night was probably from Best Actress winner Frances McDormand. She started with, "I'm hyperventilating. If I fall over, pick me up because I've got some things to say." She proceeded to give a fiery speech, calling on every single woman nominated in every category to stand with her, and then addressed producers and studio execs: "We all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Invite us to talk, and we'll tell you all about them." She ended by saying, "two words: inclusion rider," which is a contract provision that requiring some degree of diversity in a film's cast and crew.

As far as the awards themselves, I'd have given Best Sound Mixing to Baby Driver over Dunkirk, which deserved its Best Sound Editing win. As much as I love Allison Janney, who was great as usual in I, Tonya, I thought Laurie Metcalf gave a meatier and more varied performance in Lady Bird and should have won Best Supporting Actress. Roger Deakins winning for Best Cinematography after 13 previous nominations for great work was long overdue. I've been a big fan of Sam Rockwell since he showed his versatility in 1999 as both a creepy killer in The Green Mile and a panicked goofball in Galaxy Quest, so I was happy to see him win. Likewise, Gary Oldman has been amazingly malleable in his roles and consistently fantastic, but due to much of his work being in genre flicks instead of "prestige" films, he hasn't always gotten recognition. It was nice to see him win. I think my favorite, though, might be Guillermo del Toro's double wins, because he's an imaginative, intelligent, generous, enthusiastic fanboy of a director, and The Shape of Water deserved all its awards, including Best Picture.

Here's del Toro's acceptance speech for director (video):

I am an immigrant like [fellow Mexican directors] Alfonso [Cuarón] and Alejandro [G. Iñárritu], my compadres. Like Gael [García Bernal], like Salma [Hayek] and like many, many of you.

In the last 25 years I've been living in a country all of our own. Part of it is here, part of it is in Europe, part of it is everywhere. Because I think that the greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.

The place I like to live the most is at Fox Searchlight because in 2014, they came to listen to a mad pitch with some drawings and the story and a maquette. And they believed that a fairy tale about an amphibian god and mute woman done in the style of Douglas Sirk, and a musical and a thriller was a sure bet.

I want to thank the people that have come with me all the way: Kimmy, Robert, Gary, Wayne and George. And my kids. And I wanna say, like Jimmy Cagney said once, 'My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my brothers and sisters thank you. And I thank you very much.'

Here's del Toro's acceptance speech for Best Picture (video):

Growing up in Mexico as a kid, I was a big admirer of foreign films, from films like ET or Willy Wyler or Douglas Sirk or Frank Capra; and a few weeks ago, Steven Spielberg said, “If you find yourself there, if you find yourself in the podium, remember that you are part of a legacy, that you’re part of a world of filmmakers and be proud of it.” I’m very, very proud.

I want to dedicate this to every young filmmaker, the youth that is showing us how things are done, really they are, in every country in the world. I was a kid enamored with movies. Growing up in Mexico, I thought this could never happen. It happened and I want to tell you, everyone that is dreaming of a parable of using genre of fantasy to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today, you can do it. This is a door. Kick it open and come in. Thank you very much.

That's good stuff.

On to the reviews. As usual, I try to avoid spoilers and label them, and also follow the rule: if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler. The reviews are split into three sections: The Top Four, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2017 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

The Shape of Water: Much like Pan's Labyrinth, probably still Guillermo del Toro's best film (and the second film reviewed here), The Shape of Water is a fairy tale both dark and wondrous. It's 1962 during the Cold War, and mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works the night shift in a government lab with her friend, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who translates Elisa's sign language for others as needed. They're tasked with cleaning up the mess after an amphibious humanoid creature (Doug Jones) attacks Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the menacing and authoritarian figure running the facility. Elisa dares to try to communicate with the creature, first by offering eggs, and then by playing music. They slowly build a bond, despite or perhaps because of the lack of a shared verbal language. Elisa confides in her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic artist struggling due to underemployment, alcohol and being gay in the 60s; the two of them share a love of musicals. The Soviets learn of the creature and are interested in obtaining it, thanks to their spy Dmitri Mosenkov, known in the lab under his alias of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). But Strickland, cruel by nature already, is under pressure from his boss to deliver knowledge that will give the Americans an edge over the Soviets, and decides over Hoffstetler's objections that they will vivisect the creature. Elisa learns of this, and is determined to rescue it from the lab.

As usual, del Toro brings a sense of magic and a visual flair, with a production design full of greens and blues and a camera that is often moving or at least floating, if subtly. Alexander Desplat's score emphasizes the wonder and menace. Hawkins is always good, but is particularly impressive here, using her facial expressions to tell most of the story. As the creature, frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones needs to covey emotion mostly with body language, and shows once again why he's one of the best prosthetics performers around. It's nothing new to see Shannon as an unsettling villain or Spencer as an amusingly no-nonsense character, but they're excellent in their roles. Stuhlbarg captures the torment and sensitivity required for Hoffstetler, and as Giles, Jenkins also narrates the film with a gentle sense of awe and affection. (By the end, we know which character is the "monster" he refers to.) The film works because we buy the relationships between the characters, most crucially between Elisa and the creature, and we care about them. We'll willingly enter this fantasy world, which includes a lovely musical number and some welcome female sexuality. As he always does, del Toro even humanizes his villains, bringing some moral and narrative complexity to the proceedings. Pan's Labyrinth was meant to be paired with The Devil's Backbone, but I think Pan also goes very well with The Shape of Water. I'd still rank Pan as the slightly better film, but it has an intensely sad side and is more of a tragic fairy tale with moments of wonder, whereas The Shape of Water is more of a romantic fairy tale with moments of darkness. As a few people have observed, it's too bad that Universal Studio's silly "Dark Universe" initiative to retread their monster movies yet again didn't hire del Toro and like-minded writers and directors instead, but maybe all the Oscars The Shape of Water justifiably nabbed will make the Universal suits reconsider their approach.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn't a perfect film, but its strong performances and original touches make it welcome viewing. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is mourning the rape and murder of her daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), and comes up with the idea of renting three billboards to pointedly press local sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for justice. Her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is embarrassed by it all and Mildred's abusive ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), blames her for their daughter's death. (He's taken up with a much younger woman, Penelope, played by Samara Weaving.) The townspeople may be sympathetic to Mildred, but most ultimately side more with Bill Willoughby, because they know he's dying of cancer. Willoughby's most aggressive defender is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist cop who's alternately bumbling and menacing. Be warned that this is not a feel-good romp, as some of the ads suggested; it's a drama with some comic moments, and much of that comedy is dark.

This is Irish-British writer-director Martin McDonagh's third feature, and his most complex and substantial. His first, In Bruges (the ninth film reviewed here), is mostly a fun buddy film with violence; his second, Seven Psychopaths (the sixth reviewed here), is more uneven, often going for flash over substance, but has a few great scenes (the best one starring Sam Rockwell). McDonagh seems to have an uneasy relationship with America, and I'm not sure he completely understands it – In Bruges has a ton of digs, some of which are funny, whereas his latest two films occur in the States. More specifically, Three Billboards… is set in McDonagh's mythic idea of middle America, where the characters can shift from ungrammatical folksy dialogue in one scene to poetic eloquence in another (most notably with Willoughby – "I don't think those billboards is very fair."). I'd characterize McDonagh's work as a bit self-indulgent but still interesting and entertaining (for instance, the lengthy title seems unnecessary). In the case of Three Billboards…, the virtues of the film far outweigh the flaws and there's plenty to like.

The main characters possess depth and complexity, and our views on them shift over the course of the film. Mildred Hayes is sympathetic due to her terrible loss, and her feistiness is admirable to a point, but, for instance, she doesn't give a damn about due process, which Willoughby reasonably points out is not a workable system. As we see in flashbacks, she was emotionally damaged even before Angela's death. She's not always kind even to the people who help her and she takes increasingly extreme measures to achieve her idea of justice. Mildred's flaws make her much more interesting, and her redeeming quality is that she herself is generally taken aback when she sees the negative consequences of her actions. Likewise, Jason Dixon is a multilayered character. He starts off as mostly comic relief, but then we see he can be violent and legitimately dangerous. His desire for redemption seems sincere but also doesn't excuse his past excesses (nor does McDonagh suggest it does). It's a challenging role, and Sam Rockwell puts his likability to its most extreme test to date. I thought both performers deserved their Oscars; McDormand's won before but is reliably good and brings weight and nuance to the role. As for Rockwell, I've been a fan of his versatility since he first appeared on the scene. These two characters really become the core of the film. If there's a third lead, it's Willoughby, who starts as kind of a bureaucratic villain (because we see things from Mildred's eyes) but our notion of him significantly changes as we get to know him better. Meanwhile, almost all the secondary characters have at least a good scene or two. Robbie's exasperation at his mother is refreshingly real. Penelope is played as a ditz for most of the film but then says something fairly profound. Peter Dinklage has a minor role as a would-be suitor to Mildred, and is given a nice moment sticking up for his dignity. The characters aren't always likeable, but they're consistently interesting.

The film drags on a bit in the final stretch, but I'm glad McDonagh picked the ending he did. And although I have my quibbles with McDonagh (who I've followed since his playwriting days), I'm glad he's making films. Not everyone can write and direct roles like this. And whatever else Three Billboards… is, it is not a cookie cutter movie. A little originality plus performances this memorable are always welcome.

Logan: One of the best movies of the year just happens to be a superhero movie. For stretches, as Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor X/Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) verbally spar, it's easy to think we're watching a more conventional but still really good drama about aging, mortality and regrets. (I'm going to assume readers are at least somewhat familiar with the X-Men and these characters.) Logan's healing power is finally starting to fail him, and he doesn't help it any with heavy drinking; he just can't recover from external or self-inflicted damage as fully or quickly as he used to. Meanwhile, Charles remains one of the most powerful mutants on the planet, but he can't always control his telepathic powers anymore, which (we infer) lead to disaster at some earlier time. Logan as the best and most savage warrior on the X-Men and Charles as the most idealistic and pacifist always made for some interesting dynamics, and Jackman and Stewart embrace the opportunity fully, delivering two of the best performances of their respective careers. Add a stunning, dynamic feature debut by young Dafne Keen as the feral wild child, Laura, and you've got one memorable film.

Be warned that Logan is extremely violent, although it doesn't feel gratuitous. James Mangold's previous outing with Logan was The Wolverine (reviewed here), a mixed bag of a movie and pretty bloodless (thanks to censors) despite the depicted violence; in Logan, less is left to the imagination and we see more of the effect of Wolverine's claws. This feels necessary, though, because the film is so strongly focused on the idea of consequences and their continued weight; at this stage in his life, nothing comes easily anymore for Logan. Logan the film is, in the end, a story about an aging warrior, friendship, mentorship and choosing one's legacy. Genre snobbery seems to be slowly dying, thankfully, with more critics willing to acknowledge that Logan actually has better performances at its core than many a "straight" drama. If you know and like these characters, it's actually one of the most moving films of the year. (One quibble: one of the trailers used Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt," which was an absolutely perfect choice, and I wish the ending credits had stuck with that. Meanwhile, the disc has a black and white version of the film, Logan Noir, which I've yet to see but have heard is pretty interesting.)

Hostiles: It's been a few years since we've had a really good western. It's 1892 New Mexico, and Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is nearing his retirement from the U.S. Cavalry. He's given one last assignment – escort the dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their tribal lands in Montana. Bale refuses; he's fought native tribes for years, and has lost friends and comrades in the process; he's filled with bitterness and hatred, which he views as well-earned. But his pension is at risk if he doesn't comply, so he reluctantly agrees, taking with him a few men, most notably his friend, Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), who's as world-weary as Blocker or more. Blocker also insists on putting Yellow Hawk and his family in shackles as soon as they're out of sight of the fort; the two share a history. Along the way, Blocker and his party encounter Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a severely traumatized woman whose entire family has been massacred by the Comanche. Yellow Hawk urges Blocker to be unshackled, pointing out that the Comanche will kill them all, even the Cheyenne. Blocker is gradually forced to trust Yellow Hawk somewhat, and their relationship shifts over the course of the journey. Most notably, Rosalee's plight awakens compassion in Blocker, and he's genuinely kind to her; serving her awakens his humanity and over time eases his bitterness.

Centering on a journey, the plot is unsurprisingly episodic. A memorable section involves Blocker (after stopping for resupplies) escorting a cavalry officer to trial. Sergeant Charles Wills (Ben Foster) is due for hanging for brutally killing a Native American family. Blocker knows Wills, and the hate-filled Wills insists the two are exactly alike. Throughout the film, Blocker is confronted with moments like this, of facing who he was and who he wants to be, giving the film some moral complexity.

Bale always commits to his performances, and he's excellent again here, making Blocker's shifts and gradual overall transformation plausible. Pike likewise sells a difficult role, playing a woman who's understandably been driven beyond sanity but has increasing moments of lucidity and is, like Blocker, ultimately a survivor. Wes Studi has been one of the go-to Native American actors for decades, and he's very good here; it's interesting to contrast his performance as the dignified Yellow Hawk with his breakout role of the villainous-if-understandable Magua in 1992's The Last of the Mohicans. Western buffs will pick up on echoes of several classics, most notably with the film's final shot, which works on its own but has an added emotional punch for viewers who get the reference.

I've read some criticism that the story doesn't work for the depicted era; on the other hand, Hostiles has been praised for working to get the languages and other aspects of Native American culture right. I liked Jeff Bridges' performance in one of Scott Cooper's earlier efforts, Crazy Heart (the second film reviewed here), but was less impressed by the movie overall. I found Hostiles to be better and more moving than I expected. More in the:
(SPOILERS)