Final 2020 Oscar Predictions

Best Picture: Parasite

Director: Sam Mendes, 1917

Actor in a Leading Role: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Actress in a Leading Role: Renée Zellweger, Judy

Actor in a Supporting Role: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Actress in a Supporting Role: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Original Screenplay: Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Wong, Parasite

Adapted Screenplay: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

International Feature: Parasite

Animated Feature: Toy Story 4

Documentary Feature: American Factory

Original Score: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Original Song: (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again, Rocketman

Cinematography: Roger Deakins, 1917

Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran, Little Women

Editing: Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, Ford v Ferrari

Makeup and Hairstyling: Kazu Hiro, Bombshell

Production Design: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Sound Editing: 1917

Sound Mixing: 1917

Visual Effects: 1917

Animated Short: Hair Love

Live-Action Short: The Neighbors’ Window

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Documentary Short: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

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Kobe Bryant Taught Us How to be Great

I think it would be an understatement to say the past few days have been tough. I feel it. Many of you have felt it. The entire world has felt it.

We all cope with tragedy in different ways. Often times, we try to cut ourselves off from it. We make an effort to get it out of our minds. But with something of this magnitude, a helicopter crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others including John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and Payton Chester, Chrstina Mauser, and pilot Ara Zobayan, you can’t run from it. It’s everywhere you look.

I’ve tried to cope by sharing my thoughts with the millions that are mourning on social media, retweeting every tribute and posting every picture to my story. I’ll be quite honest, that hasn’t helped, which is why I’m sitting here on my laptop at midnight, trying to make sense of what I’m feeling.

I, like so many, was shell shocked Sunday afternoon. I didn’t want to believe it. I thought it was a sick joke. But as the news confirmed the worst, I felt my gut sink deeper and deeper. It rocked me.

I’ve never quite experienced something like this. It’s a strange thing, to feel as if you’ve lost a family member when in reality, you’ve never met the person.

But I think that’s what is so special about these larger than life figures that have the power to become household names around the entire world. They find a way to touch us. They grow beyond their calling, they send a message, they instill something in us that will last a lifetime.

Sure, Kobe made his name by being one of the greatest to ever grace the hardwood. But what he gave us was so much more.

His determination. His competitiveness. His drive.

Many players, coaches, executives, and public figures have been paying tribute to Kobe over the past couple of days. They’re telling stories of their battles on the court and their friendships off the court. But the one constant, the one thing that has rung true in each of these, there was no one that worked harder than Kobe.

We all know the memes. We all shout “KOBE!” when we ball up paper and throw it into the trash. But what’s most omnipresent, the one thing that it seems everyone carries with them is the “Mamba Mentality.” The killer instinct. The willingness to be confident in ourselves. The commitment to being great.

I’ve always been and always will be a Cavaliers fan. So, naturally, I’ve found myself entangled in more Kobe vs LeBron arguments than I can count. And I think because of this connection with LeBron, I’ve never had the opportunity to properly expressed what Mr. Bryant means to me.

I started watching and playing basketball shortly after the reign of the Laker Dynasty that won three straight championships at the start of the 2000s. Near instantly, our household became a basketball house. Each and every night, we’d sit down together and watch games, a tradition that has carried through today.

But of course, at the time, the Cavaliers were still a middling eastern conference team. And while LeBron certainly got some ESPN airtime, there was no star that I saw more of early on than Kobe Bean Bryant.

He was a titan. Sure, the commentators and analysts let us know it. But Kobe also made sure we knew it.

Being a nervous sixth grader who cowered in a corner before each and every practice, I aspired to be great, confident, clutch, dominant, known, like Kobe.

I’m sure that my younger brother can attest, he inspired both of our games when we were first getting started more than any other star.

And this is just us, there are millions of others that he had just as great, if not greater an impact on, from here in Northern Virginia all the way to India and China. His reach, his legacy, is profound.

What’s even more devastating is that Kobe Bryant, at 41, was just getting started. He was an entrepreneur. He had just won an Oscar. He was beginning a life as a family man, so beautifully dedicated to his wife and daughters. President Barack Obama put it best, “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act.”

It’s a sad time for a united basketball fandom. But we as a whole cannot fathom what the friends and families of those that lost their lives that day are going through. And, despite what we may feel, there is no way we can comprehend how this tragedy has shattered those directly impacted.

But I can hope that reflecting on such an astounding legacy and seeing how far someone’s influence can reach brings those suffering some comfort.

There’s a saying, “Legends never die.” I feel that rings most true here. And while right now, each tribute, each speech, each eight and 24 second violation brings me to tears, I know that it is a testament to an athlete who means so much more than basketball.

To the friends and family of the nine victims of the tragic helicopter crash on Sunday, January 26, 2020, I pass on my deepest condolences.

To those that lost their lives that day, may you all rest in peace.

And to the Black Mamba, thank you.

2020 Oscar Nominee Predictions

Hi all! I just wanted to throw up some Oscar nominee predictions prior to Monday’s official announcement. I listed who I thought might get in, plus an alternative that could take one of those spots.

Additionally, I did not predict a chunk of the craft categories, because I in no way feel qualified enough to predict some of those categories.

Anyways, enjoy and thanks for reading!

(NOTE: Most categories are organized alphabetically. Best Picture is organized in terms of likelihood to get nominated, because of the criteria that allows UP TO 10 nominees.)

Best Picture
1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
2. The Irishman
3. 1917
4. Parasite
5. Marriage Story
6. Jojo Rabbit
7. Ford v Ferrari
8. Joker
9. Little Women
10. Knives Out
Alternate: The Farewell

Director
Bong Joon Ho – Parasite
Greta Gerwig – Little Women
Martin Scorsese – The Irishman
Quentin Taratino – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Sam Mendes – 1917
Alternate: Noah Baumbach – Marriage Story

Actor
Adam Driver – Marriage Story
Antonio Banderas – Pain and Glory
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker
Robert De Niro – The Irishman
Taron Egerton – Rocketman
Alternate: Leonardo DiCaprio – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Actress
Awkwafina – The Farewell
Charlize Theron – Bombshell
Renee Zellweger – Judy
Saoirse Ronan – Little Women
Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story
Alternate: Lupita Nyong’o – Us

Supporting Actor
Al Pacino – The Irishman
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Joe Pesci – The Irishman
Song Kang Ho – Parasite
Tom Hanks – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Alternate: Anthony Hopkins – The Two Popes

Supporting Actress
Florence Pugh – Little Women
Jennifer Lopez – Hustlers
Laura Dern – Marriage Story
Margot Robbie – Bombshell
Scarlett Johansson – Jojo Rabbit
Alternate: Zhao Shuzhen

Original Screenplay
The Farewell
Knives Out
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Parasite
Alternate: 1917

Adapted Screenplay
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
The Two Popes
Alternate: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Animated Feature
Frozen II
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
Missing Link
Toy Story 4
Alternate: Weathering With You

Foreign Language
Atlantics
Honeyland
Les Miserables
Pain and Glory
Parasite
Alternate: The Painted Bird

Documentary
American Factory
Apollo 11
For Sama
Honeyland
One Child Nation
Alternate: The Cave

Score
1917
Joker
Little WOmen
Marriage Story
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
Alternate: Avengers: Endgame

Song
Glasgow – Wild Rose
I’m Gonna Love Me Again – Rocketman
Into the Unknown – Frozen II
Spirit – The Lion Kong
Stand Up – Harriet
Alternate: I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away – Toy Story 4

Cinematography
1917
The Irishman
Joker
The Lighthouse
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Alternate: Ford v Ferrari

Editing
1917
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Parasite
Alternate: Marriage Story

Raj’s Favorite Movies of the Decade (2010-2019)

50. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Magnolia Pictures

49. The Town

Warner Bros.

48. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Warner Bros.

47. About Time

Universal

46. The End of the Tour

A24

45. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Lucasfilm

44. Creed

MGM

43. The Social Network

Columbia Pictures

42. Moonlight

A24

41. Brooklyn

Fox Searchlight

40. Good Time

A24

39. Stronger

Lionsgate

38. A Ghost Story

A24

37. Hereditary

A24

36. Get Out

Universal

35. Annihilation

Paramount

34. Silence

Paramount

33. Paddington 2

Warner Bros.

32. The Conjuring

Warner Bros.

31. Lion

The Weinstein Company

30. Your Name

Toho

29. Sicario

Lionsgate

28. The Big Sick

Amazon

27. Blindspotting

Lionsgate

26. Nightcrawler

Open Road

25. Spring

XYZ Films

24. Looper

TriStar

23. Warrior

Lionsgate

22. Dunkirk

Warner Bros.

21. Coco

Pixar

20. Gone Girl

20th Century Fox

19. Interstellar

Paramount

18. Sing Street

The Weinstein Company

17. A Star is Born

Warner Bros.

16. Logan

20th Century Fox

15. La La Land

Summit Entertainment

14. Parasite

Neon

13. Lady Bird

A24

12. Before Midnight

Sony Pictures Classics

11. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Lucasfilm

10. Spotlight

Open Road

9. The Witch

A24

8. Steve Jobs

Universal

7. Inside Out

Pixar

6. Ex Machina

A24

5. The Wolf of Wall Street

Paramount

4. What We Do in the Shadows

Madman Entertainment

3. Arrival

Paramount

2. Toy Story 3

Pixar

1. Inside Llewyn Davis

CBS Films

Raj’s Favorite Movies of 2019

It feels like I say this each and every time I make one of these lists, but this year was genuinely a very special one for movies. There was so much incredible art put out by such a wide variety of filmmakers. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much trouble picking my favorites, and I think any of the movies I list below (even the 25-11) would have made my top 10 in another year.

That all said, I’m so excited to be able to celebrate my favorite movies from 2019. So let’s go ahead and get right into it!

25. Star Wars: Epixode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve made it quite clear that this franchise holds a particularly special place in my heart. It helped shape my imagination as a child and continued to teach me valuable lessons throughout my life. To see this 42 year arch come to a close was an unforgettable experience. I know it is a flawed movie, and I can certainly see why many were disappointed with it. But this is a movie that I accept despite it’s flaws because of how meaningful it is to me.

Disney

24. Wild Rose

I’ve been backing Jessie Buckley since I first saw her in Beast a couple years ago. An incredible breakout performance that unfortunately few people saw. Luckily, with Wild Rose, it seems more have caught on to this star in the making. This movie is a beautiful tale of passion, love, and family with a heartwarming message and an ending that will have you in tears. And, of course, I can’t go without mentioning the incredible song, Glasgow!

Neon

23. Ad Astra

In a year of great Brad Pitt performances, this may very well be his best. James Gray takes an intimate character piece and sets it in the broad reaches of space, making for both a personal but also very thrilling experience. Much of this movie is on Pitt’s face, and he carries that weight with immense class, and when Gray (and the exceptional Hoyte Van Hoytema) decide to move the camera, it is to plus us into innovative action sequences that we’ve ever seen in a movie set in space.

20th Century Fox

22. High Flying Bird

Steven Soderberg’s criminally underseen drama is one of this year’s best movies. Exploring the dynamic of players, coaches, agents, and owners in the world of professional basketball, Soderberg takes us behind the scenes of one of today’s hottest topics in an incredibly engaging and informative way. What’s even crazier, he shot the entire thing on an iPhone! This one is on Netflix now and I urge you all to support it because it deserves your attention.

Netflix

21. Midsommar

Ari Aster made a statement with his directorial debut, Hereditary, a terrifying, contained family drama. With this followup, he flexes his filmmaking muscles and cements his place among the most exciting up and comers working today. The visuals, the camerawork, the scale, on a craft level alone this thing is impressive. It’s elevated to even greater levels by the nuanced storytelling and a forceful lead performance by the incredible Florence Pugh.

A24

20. Joker

I guess this is another controversial pick. Oh well. While not perfect, I think Joker is an astounding piece of filmmaking. Similar to the aforementioned Midsommar, the craft behind Joker is thrilling, immersing you in this version of Gotham in an extremely effective way. Then, of course, you have the transformation of Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance is among his best (which says something, considering he is one of our greatest working actors). Also, Joker has my favorite score of the year, and I wanted to give a massive shoutout to Hildur Guðnadóttir.

Warner Bros.

19. The Mustang

I’ve talked quite a bit about the two lead performances in Marriage Story this year. I think Matthias Schoenaerts delivers just as elite a performance in The Mustang. And in her feature directorial debut, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre constructs one of the most striking and moving character studies of the year. This is one of those emotional roller coasters that left me speechless immediately after, as I sat in my seat in the theater and soaked in everything I had just seen as the credits rolled. The Mustang is a truly beautiful movie.

Focus Features

18. The Peanut Butter Falcon

With shades of Rain Man, this buddy adventure is the feel good movie of the year. This is not the last time I will mention Shia LeBeouf on this list, but the actor I really want to give credit to is Shia’s co-star, Zack Gottsagen. While he provides some excellent comedic relief, the actor with Down Syndrome is the heart and soul of The Peanut Butter Falcon, giving the standout performance in a movie that is filled with some incredible talents. Seek this one out, you definitely won’t regret it.

Roadside Attractions

17. Marriage Story

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are all time level great in Noah Baumbach’s best movie to date. As heartbreaking as it is uplifting, few movies transition so seamlessly between gut bursting humor and devastating drama. The fight scenes are so raw and real, they will have you sinking into the back of your seat, and by the end of the journey, you will be in tears as Baumbach explores divorce through the lens (and beauty) of love. Another Netflix watch that must not be missed.

Netflix

16. Rocketman

I love a good musical. La La Land, Moulin Rouge, Singin’ in the Rain, they’re all right up alley. Rocketman, without a doubt, joins those ranks. There is only one way to tell Elton John’s story, and Dexter Fletcher nails it with this fantastical musical. Taron Egerton, who I think we’ve all known is extremely talented, reaches new heights here with his complex portrayal of the iconic musician. And, he sings all the songs (dare I say, some even better than the originals)! Lastly, Jamie Bell, who plays Elton’s long time collaborator Bernie Taupin, should be nominated for an Oscar and it’s a shame no one is talking about this performance.

Paramount

15. Blinded by the Light

A story about a brown guy learning to find his voice as a writer while trying to traverse the traditions and norms of his culture and family. I don’t think any movie has ever hit so close to home for me. Bend it like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha captures this experience so vividly, one can only assume that she faced similar trials growing up as her main character, Javed. This movie is hilarious, emotional, and most of all, inspiring, and while I have little prior connection to Bruce Springsteen’s music, Chadha opened a new door for me to appreciate his work all while so perfectly showing me a character who I see a lot of myself in.

Warner Bros.

14. Tigers are not Afraid

Issa Lopez’s striking blend of Pan’s Labyrinth and Sicario is a masterful genre experiment that shows us the terrifying truth of drug wars through the lens of a fairy tale. It’s finds a unique tonal balance between the supernatural and a gritty realness that makes for one of the most unique movies of the year. What may be most impressive, however, are the astonishing performances that Lopez gets from her young actors, most specifically Paola Lara and Juan Ramon Lopez.

Shudder

13. Dolemite is my Name

Eddie Murphy is back with a bang. In the same vein as Ed Wood and The Disaster Artist, Dolemite is my Name tells the inspirational story of a passionate creative (who may not be the most talented person) who won’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of his art. It is the kind of movie that makes you want to get up and make something, no matter the quality or resources available to you. And of course, Murphy is astounding, turning in his best performance since the Oscar nominated Dream Girls.

Netflix

12. Doctor Sleep

As a new class of horror filmmakers emerges, Mike Flannagan sits near the top. From his innovative home invasion thriller, Hush, to the astounding Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, this man consistently delivers win after win, and he continues that streak with his The Shining sequel. Tasked with the difficulty of balancing the book of The Shining with the very different movie, Flannagan finds a clever way to pay respects to both. But what is most impressive of Doctor Sleep is the shared attention to both very human problems and the unflinching brutality of this universe’s horrors. A monumental ask that Flannagan hits out of the park.

Warner Bros.

11. Uncut Gems

I have always been a fan of Adam Sandler’s more serious work, from Punch Drunk Love to The Meyerowitz Stories, and was recently turned onto the Safdies Brothers following Good Time. This pairing is a match made in heaven. This may very well be Sandler’s best work, pairing his unique sensibilities as an actor with the anxiety inducing style of the Safdies. A roller coaster ride for sure, which raises tensions to the highest extremes, making for one of the most thrilling movies of the year. Also, KG giving the best NBA player performance since LeBron in Trainwreck!

A24

10. The Irishman

It feels as if Martin Scorsese’s entire career has led to this film. This is one of our greatest directors working with three of the greatest actors ever, each operating at the top of their game. Scorsese’s three and a half hour mobster epic is undeniable, bringing together the most elite levels of craft, storytelling, performance, and film making to serve as a reflection on his life and storied career. I have seen this thing twice now, and could watch the entire thing over and over again with exponential rewards, it is absolutely masterful.

Netflix

9. Booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is not just one of the funniest movies of the year, but one of the funniest of the entire decade! With a perfect mix of subtle yet smart humor and laugh out loud raunchyness, Booksmart is an immediate entry into the essential comedy canon. Beanie Fedstein and Kaitlyn Dever are note perfect, hitting each beat of comedy dead on, while also communicating the years behind their characters’ friendship. This is a director/actor(s) pairing that I hope we see more of very, very soon.

Annapurna

8. Knives Out

I stand by my statement that Rian Johnson has not made a bad thing in his career. From Brick to Looper to his episodes on Breaking Bad to even The Last Jedi (gasp), this man is one of our most prized filmmakers. And, ladies and gents, he’s done it again with Knives Out. What is so great about Johnson is that he jumps from genre to genre, but is so skilled at putting his own stamp on what he does. With Knives Out, he deconstructs the whodunnit, only to rebuild it in his own clever way. This movie has one of the year’s strongest scripts, and is anchored by standout performances (in an all around exceptional cast) by Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig.

Lionsgate

7. Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi, what a gem. I would only trust material this sensitive in his hands. Telling the story of a Hitler youth who learns valuable lessons from those around him, Jojo Rabbit is extremely sympathetic of its subject matter, appropriately doling out comedy and drama where most appropriate and effective. As he’s done in the past, Taika puts us in the vulnerable position of a child, and allows us to grow with our characters as they begin to understand the world around them. This may be Taika’s strongest script to, considering the delicate balance of drama and humor that he finds. And a special shout out to his outstanding cast.

Fox Searchlight

6. Honey Boy

When Shia LaBeouf went to rehab a few years back, he was tasked with writing out his thoughts and feelings. What resulted from that exercise was an unfiltered, stunning portrayal of family and redemption. Honey Boy feels like an exorcism of sort, an attempt to cast out the demons that paved a rocky path for a child star, largely produced by his father. It also feels like an appreciation, however, for the experiences that made Shia come out stronger on the other side. So personal a script (written by LaBeouf based on the rehab exercise) directed by the astonishing Alma Har’el, and transcendent performances by Noah Jupe, playing the Shia figure, and LaBeouf, who potrays his own father, makes this autobiography one of the year’s most powerful watches.

Amazon

5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s latest is one of those movies that just sits with you, and grows better with time. Having seen this movie three times now, each additional watch has been a more rewarding experience. While Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is scarce in traditional plot, it makes the nearly three hour runtime feel essential, and you are left wanting to spend even more time simply hanging out with these characters on the backlots of sets or while they run their day to day errands. Similar to The Irishman, this movie feels like a reflection, but it also feels like an appreciation, a love letter to an era that shaped Tarantino. And of course, the final sequence is perfection.

Sony

4. Little Women

Greta Gerwig is not just two for two with Lady Bird and Little Women, but in my opinion, she’s has only hit home runs in her young directing career. This is an astounding achievement, as Gerwig not only makes this century old story feel fresh and modern, but also relatable and necessary for everyone and anyone. Each character is so well defined, which is extremely difficult to manage when so many different stories are colliding. Gerwig is without a doubt one of the most exciting and innovative new voices in Hollywood, and I cannot wait to see her continue to grow into one of our most storied filmmakers.

Sony

3. Waves

This movie held my number one spot for close to two months after I saw it in mid October, and while it slipped a couple of spots in ranking, I still consider it one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen recently. It is also one of the most unique movies I’ve ever seen, in that it feels like it is two movies in one. The first half is a pounding on the senses, beating you down with tension and trauma. The second half is a calming redemption, rebuilding a broken family. The performances are exceptional all the way around, but the standouts are Sterling K. Brown and relative newcomer Taylor Russell, who cap off their archs with one of the most emotionally resonant moments of the year. Waves is a very special movie, and a triumph for Trey Edwards Shults.

A24

2. Toy Story 4

Anyone that knows me knows that Toy Story is my favorite movie of all time. To have seen this franchise grow with its audience has been magical. But when they announced a fourth installment after the perfect Toy Story 3, I questioned why. But now that we’ve seen Toy Story 4, I understand. This is a movie that we didn’t think we wanted, but actually needed. It takes that extra step to bring Woody’s story to an appropriate close, showing development and growth in a toy more fully than we see in most humans in film. The script is whip smart, the animation is beautiful, and the ending will have you bawling.

Pixar

1. Parasite

This is Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece. Parasite is undeniable. What starts as a comedy transitions to a family drama before becoming a heist movie and closes as a horror thriller, all wrapped within social commentary. And it’s all seamless. I have not thought about a movie as much as I have Parasite in quite some time. Certain frames are burned into my brain. I’m still unpacking its many dense layers. The cast is pitch perfect. The story is unpredictable. Just when you think you have it figured out, it takes a sharp left and puts you back on the edge of your seat. I love this movie so much and can’t wait fore more people to discover it.

Neon

Dear Star Wars, Thank You

I’ve loved movies as long as I can remember. Before I could read, I had amassed a collection of videos that I could identify, simply by the design of the text printed over the tape’s surface. 

I have a handful of vivid memories of those movies that had a particularly lasting impact on me, from Buzz and Woody’s awe inspiring flight at the end of Toy Story to Heath Ledger’s terrifying reveal as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. These memories have lived with me. They have shaped me.

Of this group, there is one memory that stands far above the rest. 

I was about 5 years old, and I had grown particularly fond of the podracing Nintendo 64 game, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer. Like most kids, I was obsessed with racing games like Mario Kart, but there was something special about this one. Seeing these sleek, high-tech vehicles race through the desert had some sort of hypnotic effect on me. I was hooked. I needed more.

I was too young at the time to see The Phantom Menace in theaters, but when it finally landed on VHS, my parents were quick to rent a copy for me to watch at home. I popped the tape into my cassette player and sat back, unaware of how my life was about to change. 

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

Suddenly, I was transported. Everything around me went dark as the large yellow letters, “STAR WARS” engulfed the screen, and the iconic John Williams score boomed through my living room. The crawl text continued to scroll. I did not comprehend a single word. I was overwhelmed. I had never felt anything quite like it, but I knew that it was special. 

And that was just the first 30 seconds. It only got better from there, as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi entered, wielding magical “laser swords” that were unlike anything I had ever seen. I had no idea what a lightsaber was, but I was convinced that it was the coolest thing ever (honestly, I still feel this way and probably always will).

Over 2 hours of action, mysticism, and humor that was perfectly catered to 5 year old Raj. I loved seeing my video game come to life in the forever incredible podracing sequence. I was captivated by the menacing Darth Maul and his two sided lightsaber. I was enamored with Jar Jar Binks, simply because his name was mine backwards…and twice. I worshiped the droids, creatures, Jedi, and The Force.

It sparked a sense of imagination and creativity in me that I had never felt before. I purchased lightsabers of every color and reenacted the battles with whatever friends and family I could convince. And when they said no, I had action figures that I could use to recreate my favorite scenes on my own.

I acted as if I had The Force, and tried to move things by sticking my hand out. It instilled in me the willingness to believe in something grander than what the world had shown me, an idea that I still, to this day, carry into each of my creative endeavors.

All of this and I had no idea at the time that there were 3 other movies out in the world that had been released 20 years prior. It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 when I was introduced to the original trilogy, and my fascination morphed into an obsession.

I will admit now that I was one of those kids who hated older movies. Even with Star Wars, I was hesitant to watch movies from the 70s and 80s. But thinking back on it now, I’m glad I caved and watched them, because I think this is when my love for the franchise really crystallized.

The magic, the allure of the galaxy far, far away was more potent than ever. Admittedly, I even watched the movies out of order. The Empire Strikes Back was the first of the original trilogy that I watched. I was even more spellbound this time than before. Maybe it was the practical creatures and settings that made the viewings more immersive, maybe it was the greatest movie villain of all time, Darth Vader, dominating each scene he was in, or maybe it was just the storytelling, which amazed me with visuals and ideas that surprised and amazed me at every turn. I can’t quite pinpoint a particular reason, but something about the experience was religious, life changing even.

By this point, the entire prequel trilogy had been released, and most of my cousins had at least been introduced to the franchise. One summer, every time we got together as a group, we watched at least one of the Saga films (again, out of order). It became a bonding experience, on top of the personal relationship that I had already developed with the films.

I very clearly remember watching Revenge of the Sith for the first time at a cousin’s house and staying up all night talking about the movie and having invisible lightsaber fights. It was a pivotal stretch of time at a defining point in my life.

But that, of course, was the end of the story at the time. I experienced what those who lived through the original trilogy felt in 1983, disappointment that it had all come to an end. And in 2005, we definitely did not think there would ever be a new Star Wars film.

They had told Luke’s story. They had told Anakin’s story. The prequels had connected the two series together. That was that. I was not ready to leave it. I even tried to get into comics and books from the extended universe, but nothing came close to filling the void that the end of the movies left.

So, as you’d expect from a pre-teen/teenager with a desperately short attention span, as the franchise faded, so did my love. As other things like sports and video games came to the forefront, Star Wars drifted to the back of my mind.

And of course, with this distance came some clarity (or maybe just cynicism). I began to see the prequels — the movies that just years prior felt “life changing” — as lesser. As an immature middle and high schooler, I was critical of the acting, dialogue, and characters, as if I even knew what that meant. I had turned my back on something I loved so much.

I’m sure a lot of this was also due to peer pressure, on top of my own naivete. Seeing those around me bashing these movies and calling them “dumb and childish” made me feel foolish for once loving them. I also felt that I might be considered a “geek” for liking something like Star Wars. It was “cool” to hate on Star Wars. So, as one does at that age, I followed the crowds and didn’t question the decision of leaving such an important part of my childhood in the past.

Then came the fateful day towards the end of 2012 when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced that they would be bringing the beloved franchise back to life. I had heard the news, but due to my distance with the films, I was only peripherally engaged.

I had little interaction with the casting cycle (or any announcements for that matter), which for me, was very unusual given how closely I follow the industry. Besides the inclusion of the original cast, I knew very little about what this reboot would entail. I was so out of the loop in fact, that I didn’t even buy my ticket for The Force Awakens until 5 minutes before I went into the movie.

I guess it’s also important for me to say here that 2015 was a very important year in regards to forming my genuine passion for movies and film making.

So, despite the last minute plans, I did end up at the theater on the night of Thursday, December 17, 2015, about as unaware as 5 year old Raj sitting down to watch The Phantom Menace as to how important this moment was going to be. Then, it happened.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

Cue the crawl and the iconic theme, and I was 5 years old again. I was immediately overcome with emotion. I hadn’t felt this way in years. I was taken back in time to the first time I experienced Star Wars, and as if the past 10 years hadn’t happened, I was taken back to the place that showed me the importance of wonder and imagination, a galaxy that taught me to dream big. A place that I had regrettably left behind.

I feel like even if the movie had not landed, that moment would have been unforgettable. But with The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams and Disney recaptured the magic of Star Wars. They understood and expanded the galaxy. They not only reunited us with characters we loved, but gave us just as beautifully formed new characters to latch on to. They told a story of identity that made an epic space tale feel close and relatable. They gave us something to believe in, they gave us something special.

To feel that again was amazing. It was something that I so desperately missed.

But, almost immediately after walking out of the theater, I heard the takes. “It’s just a remake of A New Hope.” “These characters don’t make sense.” “It’ll never be as good as the originals.”

I didn’t understand. I loved everything I saw. I was confused by the backlash. I, once again, felt lost. I began questioning myself. Did I actually like it? Why did I like it? Should I tell people, or should I lie?

I sat on my thoughts for a few days, unfortunately questioning myself as I did with the prequels. This franchise has persisted, it has lasted for 40 years. Why is that? Then, it dawned on me. It has taken multiple generations of viewers on journeys that have left an undeniable mark on our culture, and has given so many people across the world a persona, a theme, a character, or an idea that they understand.

Episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 gave me that, and Episodes 7 and 8 (plus some spinoffs) made me understand that.

Do I love the prequels today as much as I did when I was 5 years old? Of course not, I can certainly admit to their flaws. But does that mean they were not an essential piece of my childhood, and should that mean that I should leave them in the past? Absolutely not, they shaped me and are a part of who I am today.

And similar to the prequels hitting a young child at the right age, capturing his imagination and putting the magic of movie making on full display, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi gave a young man who had recently transferred college, had few friends, and, quite frankly, felt lost, something to connect to. The characters were flawed, and in many ways, experiencing feelings similar to mine, but they were also strong willed, determined, and aspirational. They fought through these struggles, and helped me feel as if I could as well.

By this point, I’ve accepted that being a Star Wars fan will never be easy. That was hinted at with the reception to The Force Awakens and solidified with the exhausting discourse behind the controversial The Last Jedi (which I personally love).

What this up and down relationship with Star Wars has taught me, however, is to be confident and proud of what I feel, and to celebrate the things that I love, as opposed to tearing down things that I don’t.

At a young age, Star Wars introduced me to the potential of our imagination. It inspired me to want to create things of my own. It showed me how movies (or art in general) can inspire awe and change our lives.

Today, it teaches me how to carry these positive sensibilities into other aspects of my life. It reminds me why these films have lasted for over 40 years through generations of viewers. It continues to take fans like myself on exciting new adventures to places we never thought we would go.

I think it can be difficult to remember how impactful this franchise has been on people of all ages for 42 year at times like now, where it seems like even the smallest bit of Star Wars information can cause the internet to erupt.

But I am reminded how important these films are when I’m surrounded by thousands of passionate fans at Star Wars Celebration, or when I see a young girl looking at Rey with a sparkle in her eye.

And now, with The Rise of Skywalker, the end of an era, just days away, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on what is probably the most important single series of movies in my life.

I am thankful for each and every memory that Star Wars has given me. Sure, my relationship with these movie has changed through the years, but I can confidently say that each one holds a very special place in my heart, and thanks to the lessons I’ve learned.

And no matter what happens with The Rise of Skywalker, Star Wars will always be a bright spot in my life, and I will always champion positivity around these movies. I owe so much to each and every chapter in this story, and know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

Thank you for reading, and may the force be with you.

DMV, Go See Waves this Weekend!

Image from A24

I have not been paid by A24 to do this. I promise! If you live in the DMV, Waves is expanding to our area this weekend, and I urge you to seek it out!

As I’ve mentioned before, I had the pleasure of checking this one out at Middleburg Film Festival, and not only was it my favorite of the fest, but it’s looking like Waves will claim the top spot on my best of the year list.

It’s pretty difficult to talk about Waves without spoilers. What I can say about it is that is an exploration of a traumatic time in a particular family’s life, examining their unraveling then working to rebuild a sense of normalcy connectedness.

This is Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults finest work, and while he’s very young and has only made three features, this one feels like the fulfillment of a promise that he made with his directorial debut, Krisha, of a master filmmaker right on the edge of making a masterpiece. Waves is that masterpiece.

If you’ve listened to Shults speak in interviews, you can tell he is an extremely emotional guy, and that comes across so clearly in Waves. He bares his soul and leaves it all on the screen, crafting one of the most engaging and heartbreaking emotional rollercoasters I have ever seen.

And of course, such a delicate story would not work nearly as well if it was not anchored by such exceptional performances. It’s almost impossible to even pick a standout, because each player in the film’s core family is so pivotal, and each actor’s performance packs such a punch.

The “lead” of the film is Kelvin Harrison Jr., who Shults has worked with before, and this is turning into one of those Director + Actor combinations that I hope continues to work together for many, many years. The character Harrison Jr. plays is wildly complex, and his performance makes the tragedy at the center of the film all the more effective.

The breakout here, however, is Taylor Russell. I had seen Russell in Escape Room earlier this year, and could instantly tell she was talented, but in Waves, she is given a mountainous task, and she hits a home run. It is remarkable, and I feel as though her performance will be one we talk about for a very long time.

And of course, Sterling K. Brown is notorious for being exceptionally great at making us cry, and this may very well be his finest moment. I also want to give a shoutout to Alexa Demie and Renee Elise Goldsberry, whose roles are a bit smaller than the aforementioned three stars, but whose emotional impact on Waves is just as essential as any of the other characters.

So, if you live around Washington D.C., PLEASE make your way out to the E Street Cinema in the city, or the Angelika Film Center in the Mosaic District in Fairfax and support this beautiful movie!