2019 in Review: The Best and Worst Movies

After many delays – some of which were my fault, some of which were beyond my control – I present to you the best and worst films of 2019.

Chris Galust and Lauren "Lolo" Spencer in Give Me Liberty
10. Give Me Liberty (dir. Kirill Mikhanovsky)
If you haven’t heard of this one, don’t feel bad. It won me over at Sundance, and only got a brief fall release from Music Box Films. But as it hits home video and streaming this year, you should absolutely take a chance on this moving story from a first-time filmmaker. Alex Galust plays a bus driver having the worst day of his life: His family is in town for a funeral, he’s running late, and protests have closed off his normal routes to pick up his fares. The film takes us on a chaotic but life-affirming journey that I want to share with everyone.

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers
9. Hustlers (dir. Lorene Scafaria)
An expertly crafted con artist movie from one of our best directors, with effortless sexiness and cunning insight into which financial scams are deemed legitimate. Jennifer Lopez is absolutely electrifying as the mentor who inevitably pushes this dangerous scheme too far. If someone must take up the mantle of New York crime movies from Martin Scorsese, let it be Lorene Scafaria and not Todd Phillips.

The cast of Little Women
8. Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)
I was certainly pleased with Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel the first time I saw it. But the second time, when its back-and-forth rhythm finally clicked, it absolutely wrecked me. Every cast member is terrific, with many of them giving their best performances to date. It’s a lovely, deeply effecting film that shouldn’t be dismissed as “been there, done that.”

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once upon a Time in Hollywood
7. Once upon a Time in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
And speaking of films that didn’t click until a second viewing, Tarantino’s ode to the L.A. of his childhood is among his most vulnerable films. Yes, there’s still some extreme violence and a lot of bare feet, but this is one of the best movies about male friendship I’ve ever seen. And even with limited screen time, Margot Robbie is magnificent as Sharon Tate, bringing to life an actress who died too young.

Jue Huang in Long Day's Journey into Night
6. Long Day’s Journey into Night (dir. Bi Gan)
One of the most incredible theatrical experiences of the year, Bi Gan’s immersive mystery features an hour-long single take. While its U.S. release was only shown in 2D, I was blown away by its technical wizardry, but its haunting story hooked me long before that shot.

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What I Watched This Week: 19 Jan 2020

The Outsider – “Dark Uncle” (B+)
As Chris and Andy mentioned on The Watch, this is an exposition-heavy episode. But because it’s shot and delivered with such panache, it’s completely captivating. The arrival of Cynthia Erivo portends good things, because she’s already shown such humanity in a character that’s seemingly not big on emotion.

Curb Your Enthusiasm – “Happy New Year” (B+) / season premiere
A little baggy in its first half, but by the second half, my sides were hurting with laughter from so many great sight gags, including Larry donning a MAGA hat to get out of talking to people and Cheryl gagging on talcum powder.

Schitt’s Creek – “The Job Interview” (A-)
The section of the episode where the titular action occurs was a scream, with Larry Air serving (I assume) as Canada’s answer to Spirit, where there two cornerstones are “No seat switching and ‘complimentary’ is not in our vocabulary.” One hopes Stevie wouldn’t settle for such an obviously crappy job, but there’s still plenty of season left for her to find her bliss. Bob’s obliviousness makes him even more of a poor sap, but Roland and Jocelyn showing up in a sacrificial way for Johnny and Moira is what this show is all about.

The Good Place – “Patty” (A)
A trip to the real Good Place rights last week’s wrongs. They’ve reached paradise but of course there’s still another challenge. This time, it’s not sabotage from the Bad Place, but the limits of eternal comfort. The last scene, between Chidi and Eleanor absolutely wrecked me. Heaven isn’t about having instant access to pleasure, but about getting to spend enough time with the people you love.

The Good Place – “Mondays, Am I Right?” (B-)
Easily the weakest episode the show has ever done, and the while the plot is necessary to get through, this is the least breezy it’s ever felt.

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What I Watched This Week: 12 Jan 2020

The Outsider
“The Incident” (B+) / series premiere
“Roanoke” (A)
A solid procedural with just enough eerie stuff on the periphery to keep it interesting. But then it delivers a jaw-dropping twist in its second episode, taking this from a good show to a must-see one.

Jeopardy!: The Greatest of All Time – Week 2 (A-)
Ken closes out the tournament with an aggressive game, capping off one of the most entertaining special events in recent TV history.

Schitt’s Creek – “The Incident” (A)
An absolutely hysterical episode that ranks among the show’s funniest episodes.

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2019 in Review: The Best Albums

This is probably the last year I’m going to publish a list like this. A lot of new music hasn’t held much interest for me, as I’ve been far more into exploring all the great music of the past. So enjoy this eclectic top 10.

Watchmen Vol. 01
10. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – Watchmen 
Their best score since The Social Network. At times ferocious, melancholy and propulsive, it’s staggering we got this much from them in one year, not to mention their score for Waves, which dropped in December.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
9. Various Artists – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
In a way, it’s the best soundtrack for any QT film, at least in the way it’s transporting and not merely a collection of great songs. The interstitials – instead of choice dialogue – are old KHJ drive-time bits and vintage ads, perfect for a drive to reminisce and possibly feel nostalgia for a time and place you were never a part of.

Miranda Lambert - Wildcard
8. Miranda Lambert – Wildcard
An explosive batch of exhilarating country songs, with Lambert delightfully out of fucks to give. With catchy tracks like “White Trash,” “It All Comes Out in the Wash” and “Too Pretty for Prison,” it’s “Pretty Bitchin'” indeed.

Tyler, the Creator - Igor
7. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR
One of the most stunning evolutions for any artist this decade, the provocative rapper went from immature but impressive to deeply sensitive and evocative. Album closer “Are We Still Friends?” approaches the best songs of his former cohort Frank Ocean.

Jenny Lewis - On the Line
6. Jenny Lewis – On the Line
You never know when Jenny Lewis will pop up with an album, but you always know it will be a knockout. Her latest is more of what we’ve come to expect: delicious pop-rock melodies with whip-smart lyrics.

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Reactions to the 2020 Oscar Nominations

Biggest Snubs (in order from most to least egregious)
1. Us – Actress
There was one acting nomination for a person of color (Cynthia Erivo), so technically it’s not an all-white line-up. Still, it’s pathetic, specially when they had the best performance by a leading actress staring them in the face and they just ignored it. Lupita Nyong’o gave that performance – the best of her career – which includes her Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years a Slave. I’ll be pissed about this one for a long time, and I’m not even the biggest fan of this movie.

2. Apollo 11 – Documentary Feature, Film Editing
I had a sneaking suspicion this might happen, especially after this branch snubbed Won’t You Be My Neighbor? just last year. But this is frankly inexcusable. It should have walked away with the Oscar for Best Film Editing too, but was never really in contention. And that great score? Wasn’t even shortlisted.

3. Hustlers – Supporting Actress, Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design
Jennifer Lopez giving her career-best performance somehow wasn’t enough against four blondes and Kathy Bates. That’s the real sting. But when Joker was somehow nominated in all these other categories, with its focus on people marginalized by society, I have to wonder whether they even saw Hustlers, which did all of that much better.

4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Cinematography, Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Costume Design
Getting passed over by Les Misérables for Best International Feature Film by its home country of France really crippled its chances. That body and the Academy are going to regret not nominating one of the best romances of the decade for anything, most importantly the year’s best cinematography.

5. The Farewell – Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Picture, Actress
I thought if nothing else, it would get the former two awards. But Lulu Wang’s lovely bilingual dramedy got absolutely nothing. Baffling.

6. Uncut Gems – Actor, Film Editing, Original Screenplay
I long thought that Uncut Gems would be absolutely repellent to a large majority of the Academy, and it appears I was right. Still, Adam Sandler absolutely should have been up for Best Actor, and the editing kept you on the edge of your seat. The Safdies may one day be nominated for Oscars, but not today.

7. Dolemite Is My Name – Costume Design, Make-Up & Hairstyling, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay
I knew it was going to be an uphill battle for Eddie Murphy to get nominated, not to mention Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Alexander & Karaszewski, who have never been nominated (not even for Ed Wood!). But snubbing Ruth E. Carter (who won just last year) is inexcusable.

8. Little Women – Director
All of its six nominations were well-deserved. But this really stings. Not only is it a better-directed film than Joker, it’s a better-directed film than the one Gerwig got a nomination for (Lady Bird). It was an especially strong year for women-directed films, and not even a nod to the easiest choice is absurd.

9. Pain and Glory – Original Screenplay, Director, Costume Design
At least Antonio Banderas got nominated (more on him in a minute), but there were plenty of other places to honor the film outside of a default nomination for International Feature Film. Almodóvar’s script and direction are top-notch. He’s been nominated before. Why they left him off this time is a head-scratcher. And the costume design branch never nominates contemporary costumes, so I’m not surprised, but the work on this film is exquisite, with plenty of eye-popping color.

10. Wild Rose – Original Song
It was the year’s best original song, with a great backstory, and an opportunity for breakout star Jessie Buckley to bring down the house during the show. They blew it.

11. The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Waves – Supporting Actor, Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography
I knew it wasn’t happening. A24 had put what little muscle they had behind The Farewell and even that wasn’t enough. But these two films about race and home should have been contenders just about everywhere.

12. A Hidden Life – Cinematography
Days of Heaven. The Thin Red Line. The New World. The Tree of Life. All of these Malick films were nominated for Best Cinematography (with the former winning). But they ignored this gorgeous film shot by Jorg Widmer.

13. Once upon a Time… in Hollywood – Film Editing
It got 10 nominations, so I can’t really complain. But after the death of Sally Menke, Tarantino has finally made a film with editing that doesn’t feel off. The Spahn Ranch scene alone is a masterclass in tension, impossible without great editing.

14. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Once again, a great action franchise is snubbed for the technical aspects that make it so thrilling. At least it’s in good company with Mission: Impossible.

15. Midsommar – Actress, Production Design
Florence Pugh is up for Supporting Actress at least, but she was even better in this horror flick. The production design was also astonishing.

Pleasant Surprises (in no particular order)
The Lighthouse nominated for Cinematography
It was a long shot after missing the main category at ASC, but this branch at least got one this one right.

Frozen II snubbed for Animated Feature
I have not seen Frozen II and don’t plan to. The success of the original is one of the most baffling phenomena of the 2010s. The sequel got its money (and unfortunately a Best Original Song nomination), but missed here.

Antonio Banderas nominated for Actor
He’s always been a reliable and charming on-screen presence (and source of one of the best GIFs ever), but he finally got nominated for his career-best work.

Knives Out nominated for Original Screenplay
It wasn’t a Best Picture nominee (which I predicted), but at least Rian Johnson got a long-overdue nomination in this category. He’s deserved it at least twice before (three if you’re generous), but better late than never.

Hair Love nominated for Animated Short
Matthew Cherry is a great Twitter follow, a former NFL player, director, author and now an exec at Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions. What began as a Kickstarter project is now an Oscar nominee. It would be hard not to root for the guy.

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2019 in Review: The Best Songs

Sometimes, making my best albums list can feel like a chore. There’s so much music out there, and narrowing it down to my 10 favorites sometimes feels pointless. But I often feel like my best songs list is better representative of my taste. There’s a lot more stuff to dance to, for one, and it usually just comes down to one criterion: Did I enjoy listening to this?

Aimee-Leigh & Baby Billy – “Misbehavin’ 1989”
(Sandy) Alex G – “Gretel”
Angel Olsen – “All Mirrors”
Bear and the Beasts – “City O City”
Beck feat. Robyn and The Lonely Island – “Super Cool”
Best Coast – “For the First Time”
Beyoncé – “Before I Let Go”
Bon Iver – “Faith”
Jessie Buckley – “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)”
Charly Bliss – “Chatroom”
Clairo – “Bags”
Gary Clark, Jr. – “This Land”
Miley Cyrus – “Slide Away”
Lucy Dacus – “Forever Half Mast”
Lana Del Rey – “Doin’ Time”
Far Caspian – “A Dream of You”
FIDLAR – “By Myself”
FKA twigs – “Cellophane”
Friendly Fires – “Lack of Love”
Frou Frou – “Guitar Song”
Gang Starr feat. J. Cole – “Family and Loyalty”
Georgia – “About Work the Dancefloor”
HAIM – “Summer Girl”
Helado Negro – “Running”
The Hold Steady – “Traditional Village”
Brittany Howard – “History Repeats”
Jimmy Eat World – “All the Way (Stay)”
Miranda Lambert – “It All Comes Out in the Wash”
Lizzo – “Juice”
Damon Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble – “The Colors That You Bring”
Maren Morris – “GIRL”
Mount Eerie and Julie Doiron – “Love Without Possession”
Róisín Murphy – “Incapable”
Nas feat. Al Jarreau and Keyon Harrold – “Jarreau of Rap (Skatt Attack)”
The National – “So Far So Fast”
Neon Indian – “Toyota Man”
Maggie Rogers – “Light On”
Mark Ronson feat. Angel Olsen – “True Blue”
Sturgill Simpson – “Mercury in Retrograde”
Sigrid – “Mine Right Now”
Sonsi – “Problems”
Sufjan Stevens – “Love Yourself”
Harry Styles – “Fine Line”
Taylor Swift – “The Archer”
Tyler, the Creator – “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?”
Vampire Weekend – “Harmony Hall”
Sharon Van Etten – “No One’s Easy to Love”
Kanye West – “Selah”
Wilco – “Quiet Amplifier”
Thom Yorke – “Dawn Chorus”

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What I Watched This Week: 5 Jan 2020

Jeopardy!: The Greatest of All Time – Week 1 (A)
The one and only time I’ll feel superior to these guys is that I got Final Jeopardy! (about 21st Century Oscar Winners) and none of them did.

Schitt’s Creek – “Smoke Signals” (B+) / season premiere
It’s only been a couple months since I left the Roses in a mostly successful place (except Moira, still traumatized that Crows has been shelved), and this is mostly just catching up with them and setting up the final season (which will include a movie premiere and a wedding). As such, it’s perfectly fine, but hopefully this season doesn’t coast.

The Good Place – “You’ve Changed, Man” (A-)
A fast and incredibly funny episode that yet again upends everything we know. There’s a new way, but will it be better? We’ve got three episodes to find out.

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Final Oscar Picks 2020

The hardest part of predicting this year, is that in just about every category, there are four locks or near-locks. But that fifth slot? There are anywhere from 3-10 likely candidates to take it. That means there are likely to be a lot of surprises, and given the awards landscape thus far, they’re probably not going to be pleasant.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Once upon a Time in Hollywood
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Dark Horse: Bombshell 
Long Shot: The Farewell
Total Shock: Knives Out
The skinny: As usual, the question is: Will there be eight nominees or nine? I’m sticking with eight because if there’s nine, there’s no telling what it could be. Is it Bombshell, which got major love from SAG (and as we all know, actors are the most represented branch in the Academy)? Maybe, but the film hasn’t done well at the box office and is unlikely to get any love outside two of its three female performances. Is it The Farewell, which has rightly received a ton of critical adoration and would go a long way in a year that’s (again) mostly white? Maybe, but that August release date now feels like a lifetime ago. And while Knives Out is a hit with critics and audiences, I think voters may find it too lightweight to be one of the year’s best movies? (They’re wrong.)

Sam Mendes, 1917
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Dark Horse: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit
Long Shot: Todd Phillips, Joker
Total Shock: Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The skinny: I’m currently predicting Noah Baumbach for that fifth slot, despite having no rational basis for doing so. He hasn’t been nominated for any major precursors save the Critics’ Choice Awards, which don’t count for much here. But he’s a stronger choice than Todd Phillips, and it feels impossible to gauge the support for such a divisive movie like Jojo Rabbit. Of course this means no women in here once again. That’s especially a shame this year in which there seemed to be an overabundance of great films made by women, including Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers) and Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). But if the directors’ branch were to do something odd this year, and go way outside the box and nominate a well-respected international director who has never been nominated, they should look no further than Céline Sciamma.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Dark Horse: Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari
Long Shot: Robert De Niro, The Irishman
Total Shock: Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
The skinny: This category is insanely stacked this year, meaning one of the best actors of all time in the lead role in a guaranteed Best Picture nominee is considered a long shot. Antonio Banderas is giving his career-best performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, but it’s subtler, and could easily be overshadowed. If he’s out, it’s likely Christian Bale drops by again. He’s picked up a SAG nod, and if the film ends up being a surprise Best Picture nominee, that increases his chances. It’s just too bad that Eddie Murphy won’t be able to find his way in, despite giving his best performance ever. (Yeah, I went there.)

Renée Zellweger in Judy
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Lupita Nyong’o, Us
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy

Dark Horse: Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Long Shot: Awkwafina, The Farewell
Total Shock: Florence Pugh, Midsommar
The skinny: This feels like the category that could experience the most shake-up, despite appearing the most set. I would say the only sure things are Zellweger and Johansson, and then all bets are off. Bombshell has strong support among actors, but less support overall, which could hurt Theron (who missed recognition for Mad Max: Fury Road and Young Adult). Lupita Nyong’o got a crucial SAG nod, but Us came out seemingly years ago and won’t get love anywhere else. And Cynthia Erivo is giving biopics a good name again with Harriet, but the, ahem, demographics of the Academy suggest we could be looking at an all-white slate again. Saoirse Ronan is the closest to finding her way in, with Little Women on the ascent. It’s too bad her co-star Florence Pugh won’t be nominated here for her phenomenal work in Midsommar, which in a perfect world would be getting attention for its production design too. And then there’s Awkwafina, who needs a boost in support for The Farewell, which still might not be enough.

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2019 in Review: The Best Performances – Television

It was another strong year for TV, but as usual I gravitated toward comedy, which made some of these picks difficult, while trying to fill out the other categories was a challenge to find enough worthy candidates. Once again, I won’t be repeating winners from previous years, even if they were terrific.

Ensemble in a Comedy Series

The cast of Fleabag accepting their Emmy
Everyone rightfully focuses on Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott as the “Hot Priest.” But everyone in this cast upped their game, delivering heartbreaking monologues and side-splitting looks and one-liners. Even cameos from the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw are phenomenal.

Actor in a Comedy Series

Tim Robinson in I Think You Should Leave
Tim Robinson, I Think You Should Leave
Robinson rarely got a chance to shine on Saturday Night Live. But here he can let his freak flag fly, regularly playing characters committed to making awkward situations even more awkward. In sketch after sketch, he makes himself the butt of the joke, delivering solid laughs every time.

Actress in a Comedy Series

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll
Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll
Russian Doll certainly has a fascinating, if familiar, hook. But the show absolutely wouldn’t work without Lyonne, with her acerbic wit and self-destructive tendencies. She sells the befuddlement and dedication equally well.

Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

Anthony Carrigan in Barry
Anthony Carrigan, Barry
I could go on and on about the saga of the No. 2 Chechen mobster and his quest to rule organized crime in Southern California, or I could just share this dance.

Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

Edi Patterson in The Righteous Gemstones
Edi Patterson, The Righteous Gemstones
For the first half of this year, I was going to give this award to Sarah Goldberg in Barry. But then came The Righteous Gemstones and Patterson blew me away. She’s magnificent as the most ignored child of the Gemstone clan, and takes that out on everyone. In the finale, when she gives the best sitcom monologue since George walked into the ocean, she took more than earned this.

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2019 in Review: The Best Comedy Shows and Specials

While there was no shortage of stand-up specials in 2019 (and not just on Netflix!), there weren’t enough I loved to list five. So I expanded the criteria a bit to include some extremely clever sketch comedy and parody for a lovely list of shows that hit me right in the funny bone.

Anthony Jeselnik in Fire in the Maternity Ward
Anthony Jeselnik: Fire in the Maternity Ward (Netflix)
Any ideas that Jeselnik would change anything about his style or demeanor evaporated the second you saw the name of the special. Even in an era of heightened sensitivity, Jeselnik is as ruthless as ever. He doesn’t bitch that he’s “not allowed to joke about certain things,” he barrels ahead in a way different from some of his less enlightened peers. Still, there was a surprising tenderness to the centerpiece of this set: a monologue about taking a friend to have an abortion.

Taran Killam, James Urbaniak and John Mulaney in Documentary Now!
Documentary Now! (IFC)
This was the first season of the brilliant parody series that I’ve been able to watch as it aired, and I was so glad I didn’t have to wait. Even without regulars Fred Armisen and Bill Hader available all season, co-creators Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas forged ahead with another unforgettable season that tackled cults, performance artists and professional bowlers. But its highlight has to be its Sondheim tribute “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” which documents a marathon recording session in which nearly everyone loses their minds.

Tim Robinson (in hot dog costume) in I Think You Should Leave
I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix)
While SNL was still floundering with weak political comedy, ex-player and writer Tim Robinson was getting delightfully weird on Netflix. Each episode was barely 15 minutes, with sketches running exactly as long as they needed to. It’s certainly not for everyone, but admitting to that is “stinky.”

The cast of John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch
John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch (Netflix)
“I don’t have kids, and that’s by choice. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘I don’t have kids yet,’ but that’s just to appease certain people.” Thank you, John Mulaney, for speaking for me. But seriously, this parody of kids shows like Sesame Street and Zoom (think a kinder, gentler Wonder Showzen) was a source of delight right as the holidays rolled around.

Seth Meyers in Lobby Baby
Seth Meyers: Lobby Baby (Netflix)
As I just mentioned, I don’t have kids, but Seth Meyers’s hilarious special focused on having two kids, and I still was in tears watching this on a plane because it was so damn funny. His bits about marriage and politics hit even closer to home. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s the pretty much the platonic ideal of an hour of stand-up.

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