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Top Ten Films of 2013

Posted on 2014.03.03 at 19:36

An epoch, a year, has passed since I last wrote one of these—an impossible accumulation of hours gunking the automatic motivations of pride, lust, foolish rightness. The exhaust of former days encrusts us chokingly, insulating and incensing ambitions to blackened husks—trophies of divvied attentions. Such is time. But time is also the hunted. It is we who with our histories and our fixed hours attempt to net every moment in place, to hold it where etiquette has told us it belongs. What a mask! We are toothless ants specked on a wet mammoth, our shuffling dance our only glorious protest. Fee fi fo cha cha! Just another year, and again I need this stock taking. I need to place everything in context, to two-step over the great brown spines of mammoth hair and spin my partners (you) away. We need this, together, for it to do its work on us too, for it to fix us in our right places just as assuredly.

Is that why we write? Why we make decisions and commit solid opinions to paper until they form something of a nest of truth? It’s one reason. It is the reason this year. And so now that I’ve whisked you darkly into the right state of mind, let’s look at my top ten movies of 2013.

10. Frozen –This last spot here was definitely mushy. The next nine films were easy, sure. Any number of movies could have ended up number ten, but when the buzzer went off today, I put Frozen here. I wasn’t sure at first what was going to differentiate Disney animated films from Pixar animated films after the former acquired the latter, but the music is obviously the big difference. This film is chock full of catchy songs, and while that is not usually a selling point for me, I neither found them annoying nor insulting (as they can so often be in kids’ films). Furthermore, the songs were not just filler or recaps of the thoughts and actions we already learned—they presented new information, in fact showcased key plot turns. This is how real musicals should be done. The plot itself was a nice change of pace as well, mercifully devoid of damsels in distress or unnecessary explanations (for the magical stuff). The movie is about how we deal with the love we have to give, how to responsibly reach out to people without hurting them or ourselves. It’s a lesson that never gets easier to learn, priming open-minded adults to get as much out of this movie as kids. Great pacing and plenty of chuckle moments don’t hurt either.

9. Frances Ha – Where are my arts majors? Come on, let me see your talons. Ding ding ding! You chose wisely! You will graduate with a rounded and worldly curriculum under your belt—top of the class. You are smart—as smart as (possibly smarter than) anyone studying business. You understand Hegel. You know when the Han Dynasty rose and fell in China. You go to museums. You are not boring. You will NEVER read a self-help book to improve your influence over people or any book coopting quotes from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to tell you how to behave in a board room. Lame! You can place things in their proper historical context and thereby evaluate your own worthlessness better than anyone! You will move to New York. Someday. You’ll make rich friends but they’ll be cool liberal people too that will treat you like you deserve. You’ll scratch and struggle but you’ll find success. Someday. Then you’ll be rich and an artist. Win! If any of this sounds familiar, watch Frances Ha. Like other Noah Baumbach films, it focuses on academic hipsters that may grate on your nerves, and so often those types of characters can be oh so quirky, because quirky is unique and isn’t our movie memorable and I’m a good writer because I can write people that are really weird in a specific way . . . . But Baumbach understands this all too well, and while his characters are quirky indeed, they’re often trapped by that in a way that’s even more personally limiting to them than simply annoying the audience. It becomes something they want to outgrow—a perspective shift that frees us up to romanticize about being young in New York without the awful and inconsequential taste of indie overpowering everything.

8. Gravity – As much as I loved this movie, there’s really not much to say about it. Its story is a specific and well-planned contemporary space nightmare. (As such, I wonder if this movie even falls into the realm of science fiction. I mean, nothing magical or futuristic happens in it at all. It’s just a story that happens to be set in space. Is that enough of a qualifier?) What makes this film work so unbelievably well is the beautifully composed symphony of long takes and sound design. Everything is bent on making you feel like you are floating around in space with these astronauts (at times even in their suits). The camera is free in the same way you probably dreamed up adventures as a kid, zooming your action figures in front of your face and whooshing them into greater and greater perils. Even the film’s serious theme, though not obfuscated in the slightest, was integrated with the action enough that it only rarely feels heavy-handed. Besides, they have me in their camp anyway. Any film that charges head on into the overwhelming mass of the universe and our inevitably and futility therein is one that fluffs my inward honesty.

7. The Act of Killing (Jagal) – What’s so strange about The Act of Killing is that it often feels so not strange. In case you don’t know, this is a documentary about a bunch of low-level gangsters that rose to prominence by leading anti-communist death squads in the purges of the mid ‘60s in Indonesia. The men at the center of the film are still around today, each of them have personally murdered—by hand—hundreds of people. And they walk around freely in their home country, heroes and figurehead leaders in the political party / paramilitary organization, Pemuda Pancasila. The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, must have known as soon as the idea for this film came to him that it was brilliant. It couldn’t fail to be. Tell all of these murderer-heroes to get together and make a movie showcasing reenactments of their (in)famous deeds. And who will play the young fiends? Why, the older versions of themselves, of course. Some of them are vaguely haunted by what they did, others possibly unbothered or with any guilt so deeply buried they have been able to go on with full lives, worry manifested only in an inability to sleep. This sounds heavy, and it is. But trust me, it is not a laborious sit. It sounds like it will be horrible and graphic and difficult to watch—and the naked emotion is indeed awkward and difficult at times, but like I said before, what it makes it so eerie and conversely so watchable is how normal it all seems. What so many serial killer films try to get it in some satanically mad way this film reaches all too easily, by using the real thing. I would be fascinated to see another follow up that shows the reaction of these men to seeing the actual movie that Oppenheimer made.

6. Before Midnight – They said it couldn’t be done the second time. Before Sunrise was a quintessential wandering soul kind of movie. It doesn’t get any better for the intellectually curious, emotionally hungry twenty-something than romanticizing about a perfect one-night-stand through philosophy with a beautiful girl (or handsome stranger, coming from the other perspective) on the streets of Vienna. Indeed it doesn’t get any better for those who can remember being an intellectually curious, emotionally hungry twenty-something either. Watching Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke fall in love over excited musings of endless possibilities is one of the great romantic comedy experiences. I guess I’m going to tout the whole trilogy here. Who wasn’t flabbergasted on first hearing of a sequel in production nine years later? What were they thinking? This small indie gem was the last kind of film that needed a cash-grabbing sequel. Surprise! Before Sunset turned out to be not at all what people expected, catching our leads in completely different—and separate—places in life, in the kind of complicated and messy way we do find ourselves ten years gone. Nothing is easy; and no matter how much you want to you can’t go backwards, though that doesn’t mean all is lost. Now, nine years further along again, no one seemed to have many doubts about the second sequel. Of course they would figure out a real reason to check in on Céline and Jesse. Of course we’ll soak in some beautiful, exotic landscapes. Of course we’ll be drawn in by intellectual debates and self-reflections—would love having these people at our own dinner parties. Of course . . . of course there will be some things we don’t expect. This trilogy of films offers the chance to see a story take place over a lifetime. Wherever they are in nine more years, I will be lined up at the theater to see. If you haven’t watched them and you are even mildly afflicted with romanticism, seek out these films.

5. Like Someone in Love – Abbas Kiarostami, acclaimed Iranian director, surprises me by finding his way onto my top ten list for the second time in as many of his films as I’ve seen. Certified Copy was a comfort film—a languid trek through the Italian countryside and personal history or fancy (maybe). Like Someone in Love is a spikier trip through the social spokes of Tokyo. Here we sit in at the crossroads, the meeting points between classes, ages, genders, walks of life. This is a film about how people rub together, and their discoveries of each other. Unlike so many films that need to present us with a point for their own existence, however, such exterior explorations do not necessarily lead inevitably to self-discovery in this one. Can we, in fact, change ourselves in such ways? Can we break through our isolation, or is anything else just a delusion?

4. Nebraska – Alexander Payne has been hit or kind-of-hit for me over his career. So of course I wondered whether this film would be more Sideways or more About Schmidt, two other road trip movies he’s made. At number four on my list, I obviously loved it, so yes, it’s more of a Sideways. He knows how to balance believable with funny with true. I guess it’s really a trick of perspective. Most of life’s drudgeries and results are pretty funny seen from a kind of tired, wry point of view. Hell, this movie manages to get chuckles out of the idea that one woman’s son is a possible rapist. I probably have a soft spot for it though too, being from the Midwest. It’s a bit deflating how much the family gathering scenes (watching TV) remind me of visits to the old farm in Oak Harbor, OH. Of course, Bruce Dern deserves every accolade for his performance as well, never letting a desire to play “old kook” get the better of him.

3. 12 Years a Slave – What a lucky year for moviegoers! I have to say that from this point on, any of my top three might be interchangeable. I love all three of these movies for different reasons, as they are very different films and difficult to truly compare. Ultimately, of course, any list such as this is pretty meaningless besides giving us a reason to think about why we like the movies we like and to talk about them. 12 Years a Slave is the most serious of the three. It’s definitely the one that would scream “Oscar bait” but that it seems to be above that somehow. Steve McQueen makes movies about harsh subjects not because they attract accolades, but because he seems fascinated with explorations of human extremism, because out there on the fringes, we find the stuff most of us keep hidden in our pedestrian lives. Out there, starving to death in prison; out there, going to any lengths for the next orgasm; out there, putting human beings to work like farm animals, we stare down things we don’t even want to glace at. This confrontation with true things gives us a feeling of accomplishment. Yes, from watching a movie. And maybe we do accomplish something. With the right reflectiveness and a deft touch, a subject like slavery can show us shades of things we maybe hadn’t considered. Solomon Northup certainly isn’t perfect. He would like to be able to stand up and be himself, but often it’s easier to ball that up inside and do what needs doing. This makes him surprisingly unsympathetic to some of his fellow slaves. I loved this about him. Chiwetel Ejiofor and the writers (both Northup and the screenwriter) make him a real person, with flaws. So too for all the characters, from Paul Dano’s smarmy cowardliness to the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf routine between Michael Fassbender’s slave owner and Sarah Paulson as his wife that frighteningly uses their human property as pawns in a cold war. The danger with a movie like this is that it will become exploitative torture porn—that we will watch human beings so miserable and broken that we will dread the next scene. This movie is better than that. It certainly contains those elements, but Northup’s impassion shelters us a bit. The scribbled cotton landscapes also ease beauty into the mix. Such restraint is what ultimately makes the film so much more powerful.

2. Her – There are four things to really recommend this movie:
One is the vision. I am sucker for technology and well-done sci-fi can really grab me. Here the future vision is a not-too-distant Los Angeles and some kind of post-hipster world where the mustache has become a normal accessory once again and things are rich, colorful, muted, square, and wooden. We interact with our tech largely through voice, and we are never without it. It’s really just a tweak to our own world, but it’s enough of a tweak that it seems novel. In fact, it coats the world with the sort of revamped sheen that attracts us to things like new operating systems . . . .
Number four, the conceit. This is the kind of high-concept idea sure to have caused plenty of eye rolling—a romance between a lonely man and his operating system. Plenty of eye rolling—at least until you hear that it was written and directed by Spike Jonze, of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are fame. Not exactly a résumé of predictable films. Just like those others though, there’s something real under all the bizarre imagination at work. When it comes down to it, the relationship at the center of the film is the relationship of every movie, is the relationship we all have (or had, or want).
Secondly, the acting is great. Joaquin Phoenix could have played lonely as a sadsack, as a loser, or even as a more charitable loveable loser. But he isn’t. He’s actually kind of funny and an interesting guy that probably could get a human girlfriend, making his relationship with Samantha, the A.I., not one of desperate necessity but one of choice (at least as much as any relationship is free of desperation).
The third ingredient that makes this cocktail do is woozying work is the humor. That’s it. The movie is just plain funny. Both the romantic leads (yes, even the disembodied voice) are funny. Much of the time intentionally so. In fact, there’s only one character in this movie that seems to be without a sense of humor. No one likes him. I’ll leave it at that because I really don’t want to get any deeper into the plot or the messages of the movie. It should be experienced as blindly as possible. Enjoy!

1. The Wolf of Wall Street – Much of the time these lists are stuffed with pretentious foreign meditations and tough sits. I had some of those this year. But fully half are comedies of one sort or another, including, surprisingly, the latest from Martin Scorsese. That’s not to say this year’s crop is pointless. Comedians have been teaching us for years that good jokes are funny because they are unexpected; great jokes are funny because they tell us something true about the world around us—about ourselves. Scorsese did comedy successfully in the ‘80s, of course, with The King of Comedy and After Hours, and many of his gangster films are certainly aware of their ridiculous characters, so this shouldn’t have been a total surprise. But for some reason, hearing that Scorsese was doing a movie about Wall Street, I assumed it would have fewer masturbation jokes. Of course, the film deals offhandedly (hehe) with ideas of pride and ambition, the long gap between what people know and what they believe. But Quaaludes. Coke. Every hooker in New York. The simple truth is that I had more fun with this movie than with any other this year. I had a smile on my stupid face for three full hours. Simple test. Did you think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was funny? Good, then you should watch this.
Is it sad that this film made me want to join the one percent? Maybe. I’m not sure what that says about my moral compass, but I think it was also intentional on the part of The Wolf of Wall Street. The film invites us to join in the debauchery, as alluringly as Jordan Belfort goaded his people into following his completely irresponsible ways, as he was goaded into them by the promise of living above everyone else.


All Is Lost – Yay, a shipwreck movie! A guy stranded trying to survive alone! We get these every now and then, and they always seem like they’re going to be a chore to sit through, but I’m always surprised when they are not. Go figure. Redford is good in this.

American Hustle – I’m having trouble figuring out why I didn’t like this movie more. It certainly plays like a tribute to Scorsese. And Christian Bale’s performance was more than a weight-gain gimmick. His character was more than the butt of a joke. Maybe it just felt like it was trying too hard, for lack of a better explanation. I did enjoy it though.

Beautiful Creatures – Surprisingly good, silly horror/romance/comedy. I mean on paper it sounds terrible, and it does get a bit long in the tooth, but really kind of a promising film for some of its young stars.

Behind the Candelabra – Kind of a left-field project for all involved. Soderbergh directing this HBO movie about Liberace, starring Michael Douglas as the man and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorston. It’s very well done on the relationship and history, if very creepy when it comes to the plastic surgeries and the tacky taste, though these may be read as symptoms of some emptiness in Liberace.

Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d'Adèle - Chapitres 1 et 2) – This Cannes Palme d’Or winner is really transportive. Takes you to a different place in a kind of travelogue way, and to a different life in the way good literature can do. We live with Adèle. We feel like we truly know her. It is the moments that make memories of love what they are.

Blue Jasmine – Really powerful performances. Interesting that both Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese took on the one percent this year, but there it is. Obviously owes a huge debt to A Streetcar Named Desire, but I suppose this movie does kind of stand on its own. Impossible not think of that one though, and while Andrew Dice Clay was good, he’s no Marlon Brando.

Captain Phillips –Tense movie, good action. Great acting. Indeed Hanks is great.

Computer Chess – Bizarre little movie about a computing convention in the 1980s. Sort of a funny, nerdy, Napoleon Dynamite-meets-Linklater kind of vibe.

The Conjuring – Good horror films are hard to come by, so I was pleased with this. Very ‘70s vibe to it without grinding that aspect into the ground. It just is.

Dallas Buyers Club – McConaughey gives one of those Oscar bait performances as a man dying of AIDS in the 1980s. He’s not a very likeable guy though for most of the movie, and it builds realistically. You know certain characters have to come together in certain ways, but it’s free of overpowering coincidence in making that happen. By the end, you will root for them too.

Drinking Buddies – Yeah, the movie certainly feels like it hails from mumblecore, and thus a lot of the comedy gets pretty awkward, but it also feels pretty real, pretty lived-in.

Enough Said – Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini star in this great rom-com for grownups. The kind with kids and responsibilities. A very nice movie. Gandolfini shows his versatility, playing an honest, sensitive man with a sense of humor and Louis-Dreyfus stretches out into more serious territory than she’s known for. Refreshingly, both of them actually play their ages too.

The Grandmaster – A bit hard to follow, I would love to see the Asian (longer) edit sometime. It definitely felt like some things were left out and the ending was pretty abrupt. Still, enjoyable.

The Great Gatsby – Surprisingly enjoyable. I say surprisingly because the book is so good, and while the movie is not something I will probably ever watch again, it was luscious to look at and DiCaprio actually made Gatsby come alive in a way I didn’t see him before. And Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. No one else really added anything new to their parts though.

Inside Llewyn Davis – I’m afraid I might be wrong about this movie. Not just because critics loved it and I didn’t, but because I felt the same way about The Big Lebowski the first time I saw it, only to watch it again a few years later and appreciate it for one of the greatest comedies of its era. So what am I missing here? The music is good, but John Goodman’s character levels a particularly singeing critique at it with which I have to agree. I don’t know, watching the ups and (mostly) downs of this guy’s pathetic struggles was frustrating and not particularly insightful.

Leviathan – This talked-about documentary was very boring. Part of me wanted to succumb to its silent rhythms and join the artsy crowd, but I just couldn’t go that far. Sorry, I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I just don’t think it’s that clever. Some of the shots can be interesting. For the first minute or two.

Man of Steel – This script was: is there a word that means worse than terrible? The Krypton part in the beginning was actually kind of enjoyable. I liked the design and the society it set up. Everything else was a turd. Case in point. We learn all about Superman’s history and the war on Krypton and whatnot in the beginning. Bam. Backstory. Covered. Guess what. We have to sit through an explanation of the whole thing again when Clark Kent finds the ship and learns about it. WHY? This is the kind of mistake that anyone working in Hollywood should have been able to easily see, right there on the page in black and white. The fact that they didn’t—or chose to do nothing about it—is indicative of the quality of this whole movie. I like Costner, but why he was getting praise for his role in this movie I cannot understand either. His performance is a bizarre single note of “hide your powers, don’t use them, EVER!” He’s utterly non-human. The movie is so hokey, it has Costner sacrificing himself to a bloody tornado instead of just letting Superman use his powers. And why? Oh yeah, for the family dog. Guh! In fact, no one in this movie is anything other than an unrealistic outline of a caricature of a person. Some Super Bowl spots have characters with more depth. That being said, I disagree with critics who say it was just a bunch of explosions. I wanted more explosions. The fight scenes were great, the characters had the heft you might expect from their superpowers and they also managed to be visually inventive and considered, not to mention somehow harrowing in spite of, yes, the superpowers. I guess I’m saying, please find a new writer, but keep the director.

Much Ado About Nothing – Interesting staging. I like making the characters all happy alcoholics in a modern setting. Somehow Dogberry doesn’t really work as a modern policeman though. Maybe the timing of the jokes was just off or something. Overall I still prefer the Kenneth Branagh version from 1993. Look, it has Kate Beckinsale, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, and Michael Keaton!

Mud – Shades of Huckleberry Finn and magical realism mix together in this story about growing up. The kids are just as good as the adults in this. Jeff Nichols will be up for an Oscar someday if he keeps this up.

Oblivion – Again, I’m a sucker for sci-fi, and this one was pretty enough to pull me in. The plot worked well enough too. I don’t want to spoil it, but it takes a bit of a silly turn. It could have gone so much worse though, so it does get some points back.

Only God Forgives – I’m pretty sure the only reason I got any enjoyment from this movie is because I happen to like slow, dark, violent, depressing movies. Even for one of those, it’s not very good. Disappointing.

The Place Beyond the Pines – I liked each of the sections of this movie, but how they sit together as a whole left me underwhelmed. Not to say it’s bad.

Rush – Not even on my radar, but I heard good things so I watched it. I am happy to say that although I find most Ron Howard movies mediocre at best, this one falls into the ranks of his good ones.

Side Effects – Very good movie. Surprising turns make this kind of a thriller and kind of a mental illness drama. I don’t want to say more except: see it. Supposedly Soderbergh’s last time in the director’s chair. We’ll see if that holds up.

Spring Breakers – I get that the vapidity of the girl’s lives in this movie is intentional. I get that their pinings to escape trapped lives is supposed to invoke the same clichéd discoveries even the dimmest of us make at some point in our pathetic lives. I get that finding the solution to their existential angst on spring break is supposed to make us feel sorry for them. All of this works well. It’s all the stuff with James Franco in the second half of the film that—while entertaining—is much more predictable and less interesting than the first part. The movie plays out like a leveled descent into every parent’s worst spring break nightmares—the kind of scenarios that make you roll your eyes at your parents because nothing like that ever actually happens. I found the ending weak because of the lack of real danger or concern we had for the protagonists by that point. Counter to that, the best scene is a robbery that we get to see twice, telling a very different story each time; one telling is stylish and the other kind of really horrifying. If only the rest of the movie could have blended these two elements better, or excelled as well at either.

Star Trek Into Darkness – I’m getting exhausted just thinking about how I want to tear into this movie. Just watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan instead. I thought some of the critics were being harsh on this movie at first. Then I did go back and watch the old one. Nope, this movie sucks in comparison. I actually like this cast, but there’s no emotional pull at all when one of the characters sacrifices himself to save the rest. Why? Because we’ve only spent ONE OTHER movie with these guys. Oh yeah, also because we totally know it’s bullshit. Why? Because we’ve seen Star Trek II. I just don’t get it. Why not make a new story that belongs to these new actors and builds up their lore instead of rehashing the best movie of the originals? Enjoyable moment-to-moment though, so I guess if you’re not a Star Trek fan you might like this movie. There was some other stuff too but I saw this movie a year ago and I’ve made myself forget now.

This Is the End – The movie starts out really, really strong. Then tapers. Loved the party sequence. They spend too much time trapped in the house in the middle though. And then we never settle in and get a lay of things once they leave.

To the Wonder – Terrence Malick is on a tear. I’m not sure this movie knew what it wanted to be though. It feels like Javier Bardem’s priest character is just kind of thrown in to the pot to see what happens. Other characters bubble up from time to time, but the only thing I will take away from this film is that I could easily see how someone might fall in love with Olga Kurylenko.

Upstream Color – Um, what? I’m glad I saw it, but if you are not into out-there movies with nontraditional structures, stay away. I would probably have to watch this a few more times to really understand what happened. Or maybe I shouldn’t even try for that.

Warm Bodies – Entertaining film that manages to find a new angle to the zombie story. Not bad for a rainy night at home I guess.

The World’s End – Funnier than Hot Fuzz, but not as shattering as Shaun of the Dead. The filmmakers are older now, and they deal with slightly different issues. Also, having Simon Pegg and Nick Frost swap roles as the man-child and the straight man makes it interesting. Pegg is hilarious (and seriously a bit sad).

Top Ten Films of 2012

Posted on 2013.03.09 at 14:48

Every year my top ten list assumes a different character. I can’t decide if it’s a clever actor or just trying to shock my boredom by stripping off layers like a tart on stage. In any case, this turned out to be a rather artsy, foreign type of year for me overall, despite liking some of the standard popcorn flicks that reared up as well—although it seems that for every Prometheus there were two or three Dark Shadows or Les Misérables…es. I got to most of the movies I wanted to see though, so overall I count 2012 as a success.

10. Jeff, Who Lives at Home – What I so loved about this low-budge effort is that, like a screwball comedy, it raised the stakes throughout the film while maintaining a kind of rooted, real-life feel. Written and directed by the Duplass brothers, who hail from last decade’s mumblecore movement, this kind of ratcheting intensity is a welcome change to the slack, improvised feel of the early movement. Not that there’s anything wrong with those progenitor films, but it’s still nice to see something new. The movie also features some very strong performances of some very flawed characters living in a Middle America that actually feels more like Middle America than Hollywood’s usual idea of the place. Finally, it is a comedy, after all that, and it just made me laugh.

9. Django Unchained – While Django Unchained retains Tarantino’s usual stagey sets and showy characters (see the opening scene), I found that Django, also as usual, still found enough real unbelievable human circumstances to ponder to make it a very worthwhile experience. I also loved seeing the depictions of day-to-day southern plantation life, where black slaves typically outnumbered their white masters. Yet it was also a time when slavery was such an unshakable institution that a free black bounty hunter could indeed be considered more of a curiosity than a true threat. Even the love story that on this outing drives Tarantino’s old revenge tale works. On top of so much heavy material, we also get the one-time-wunderkind’s usual coating of ridiculous violence and shock, a great ‘60s Spaghetti Western-ish and Blaxploitation soundtrack (that I will say got to be a bit too much at times), and Tarantino doing some kind of god-awful seizing kangaroo accent. The thing that really makes his films stand out though, after all this time, is that every scene plays like its own short movie. That’s not to say they are disconnected or that they don’t build together, but that each one has that something extra—tension and release—that make them memorable. Howard Hawks used to say a good movie was three great scenes and no bad ones. I count about twice that many great ones in Django.

8. This is Not a Film – Slightly boring? Yes. We watch filmmaker Jafar Panahi tool about his luxurious apartment in Tehran and then talk to the garbage man. That’s it. I’m almost always a formalist critic in that I see a film as an island and ask myself how it works as self-contained art. I don’t need to know anything about lawyering to get into Michael Clayton; and despite the reams that have been written on it since, Star Wars employs its own logic that people understood just fine in 1977. However, This is Not a Film is all about context. You need to know that Panahi has been banned by the Iranian government from filmmaking or public interviews for 20 years and sentenced to jail for six years for propaganda against the regime. Fortunately, all of this information is revealed in the course of the narrative here, and it elevates everything Panahi does in the film by emphasizing everything he’s not doing. The story is that the film was smuggled into Cannes on a flash drive inside a cake. It feels like flouting the law just to watch this movie (and it indeed it would be in Iran). What’s it about though? Art, of course; why it is made, what it means to its creators, and ultimately, by viewing this film, what it means to the rest of the world.

7. Holy Motors – There is a movie somewhere in Holy Motors. Or maybe several movies. Whatever they were originally though, they have been shattered and left in writhing pieces fondly across a timeless 115 minutes. Mr. Oscar twists across a mo-cap stage. Mr. Oscar picks up his “daughter” from a party. Mr. Oscar takes part in a musical number and he turns into a savage beast. None of it, of course, comes with much explanation (it is French, after all). It’s a deconstructionist absurdist look at the individual components of a film, without context, and most of them work. Though it’s about acting for the screen, of course, it also says something about the roles we play in our lives and, through Céline, the limo driver, the real connections we might manage or miss. It’s also a comment on the evolution of surveillance and connectivity to the point where Mr. Oscar is never really sure when he is or is not on.

6. Skyfall – Returns to the quality of Casino Royale after the lackluster Quantum of Solace. Of course, they did have an absurdly long time to work on this entry to the franchise with the Bond name tangled in the legal red tape of MGM’s bankruptcy. Maybe that gave the script extra time to marinate. In any case, the Bond we get in Skyfall is a slight return to the jaded, wise-cracking hero of the early films. Thankfully, the filmmakers don’t overplay that card to as others have in the past, but we do get to see 007 washed up and cold, banging beautiful foreign women with all the passion of a dildo and slamming scorpion shots until he passes out. As if we could possibly want his life more. Skyfall manages to be globetrotting and classic (villain’s private abandoned island city, Istanbul, Shanghai, etc.) without turning into parody or the ridiculous action of the latter Brosnan movies by getting the pacing right. I’ve always said the best Bond films have a more deliberate pacing than a typical action movie. While it does clip along with chases and explosions, they are spread between equally entertaining conversations, investigation scenes, and private perils. Speaking of action, that aspect worried me the most going in, but Sam Mendes has proven those worries unfounded. Finally, this movie goes deeper into the Bond mythos and history than any of the previous films, and his relationship with Judy Dench’s M takes center stage, all to great effect. Unfortunately, it’s all kind a one-time trick, so while I am once again worried about the next movie in the unending chain, I will gladly watch this one again any time I can catch it.

5. Looper – Good time travel movies are so few and far between that I was going to enjoy this as long as it didn’t totally suck. Fortunately, it does even better than that. With dastardly villains, future drugs, geeky time travel details, superhuman powers, dark violence, and peppered-in moral philosophy, the whole thing plays like it was adapted from some heralded graphic novel. Jeff Daniels is great in the unlikely role of a crime boss, and both Emily Blunt and Pierce Gagnon add grounding and depth to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe. The “alternative timeline” sequence where we see Bruce Willis’ origins not only becomes essential to the story, it is exquisitely crafted. I love the future vision we get here, where parts of future Kansas City don’t look futuristic at all, they look just run down. It’s a nice change, considering most of the stuff you see every day was probably not created in the last year, especially in poorer neighborhoods. I’m not totally sure how everyone’s memories would be affected after the ending of the film, but whatever, it’s a time travel movie. One explanation is as good as the next as long as there is an internal logic.

4. Amour – Yep, it’s as depressing as you might expect, given the subject matter. In fact, it seems like easy material for a manipulative tearjerker, but Michael Haneke brings his trademark austere bleakness, sapping it of oversentimentality. That’s not to say that Amour is a cold movie. In fact, the constant awareness of death saturate each scene with plenty of drama. Even better is the realistic appraisal of people—that they are not good or evil, especially under the microscope of rotten circumstances.

3. Zero Dark Thirty – Perhaps no movie was more written about this year. I honestly just fell for the procedural aspects of the film. It’s hard to imagine how the controversial torture scenes could have been handled with pissing someone off. As it stands, I think they settled on a pretty good spot. The fact that none of the characters involved seem to have any moral doubts or objections to torturing is fine with me because I don’t think the movie needs to call extra attention to something that will be going through everyone’s mind while watching anyway. Spielberg this is not. Furthermore it means the characters don’t get an easy out or get to score easy points for moral doubts. I will say that the lack of dead-end torture could be interpreted as a pro-torture stance, but as I mentioned, this is a procedural. There are a lot of dead ends over a ten year period that it doesn’t track. It’s all a difficult nut to balance. Maybe someone else should make a movie all about the horrors of torture, but I do think there’s enough of it in here that if you already have an adverse opinion of the practice, your feelings will be justified. Finally, after all that thread-chasing, we get the best action sequence of the year in the harrowing final raid. It’s difficult, given the subject, for this not to be a little jingoistic, but Zero Dark Thirty tries not to play that note too hard.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild – Wonderfully sweet story of life and its flipside set in the poorest reaches of the Louisiana bayou with touches of magical realism that are more symbolic than plot-essential. The music, the narration of Quvenzhané Wallis, and the gritty, pretty apolypscape combine for an absolutely unique, lyrical experience. I felt nothing like it at the movies this year, or perhaps in any other. Such discoveries are the highs that keep me optimistically plopping down my money at the box office for another year.

1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – I really, really regret that I didn’t see this movie in the cinema. The gorgeous, slow shots of the central Turkish landscape are just one reason to soak in this film though. It’s very talky and philosophy filled, though not in an overt Matrix/Waking Life kind of a way. A bunch of guys from different walks of life come together to search for a dead body over a night. While not much happens for most of the film, for the kind of person who is willing to ignore that and fall into the hands of a capable filmmaker, a great tale of the tragedies in opportunities arises out of the silences between its characters. I’ve only seen it once, but I can tell that subsequent viewings will reveal a little more to me each time. I can’t wait.


The Amazing Spiderman – I know every film should be judged on its own merits, but I couldn’t help thinking about the absurdity of restarting a franchise after just one decade. Give it a rest for a while first. Also, I liked the high school romance, but the movie overall was pretty mediocre, which further begged the question: why?

Argo – I actually liked Argo quite a bit. It’s probably in my top 15 or 20. The ratcheting tension toward the climax rang a little hollow. It was a fun time, but it was hard to take it too seriously.

The Avengers – I liked it more on the second viewing, actually, though there’s a huge plot sink in the very long and stupid flying fortress part. Pretty enjoyable though.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Pretty nice little movie that your mom will like. Feeds my wanderlust and made me think of the retirees here in Mexico.

The Bourne Legacy – Some cool action setpieces, and manages to not totally mangle the already twisted plot of the other films, but nothing to write the internet about.

Brave – Pixar strikes again. Minor though.

The Cabin in the Woods – Clever writing and some good gags. Batshit third act is what really makes it though.

The Campaign – Only really funny at the very end.

Chernobyl Diaries – As one of two horror movies I have seen from 2012, I have to say this is the worst. The climax wasn’t interesting enough.

Compliance – This is one of those stories that only works because it is true. If it had been invented, no one would believe it, and in fact, because the protagonists seem so dim, audiences found it frustrating and difficult to root for anyone. What can one do? It actually happened. Pretty much just like this. In Kentucky. Those unfamiliar with Milgram’s famous psychology experiments would do well to read up before watching.

Cosmopolis – Feels very much like a play, even though it never was. I think that’s not a good thing. It’s the kind of quirkiness that tries to come off as clever, but it gets more interesting as it goes along.

The Dark Knight Rises – Better than The Dark Knight, but I’m on record as really disliking that film, so that doesn’t say much. I actually LIKED the much derided over-the-top score that pushes this movie along, and we got the Bane voice, so it’s not all bad. Once again, devoid of surprises though.

Dark Shadows – Dear Tim Burton, have you seen any of your good movies—the ones from, like 20 years ago? Please, give it a rest. Dear Eva Green, call me. I’m seriously.

The Deep Blue Sea – Oh god, just do it already. I liked the period setting though. Reminded me, for obvious reasons, of the far, far better Brief Encounter that I had just watched.

Dredd 3D – Everything it was cracked up to be. Great 3D, for once—the novelty was back seeing 3D splattering blood and broken glass and druggy slo-mo. Also, it makes no bones about what it is, which is great. Spoiler: AND Dredd never takes off his helmet, even once. Awesome.

Flight – Really entertaining movie. Best opening scene of the year. Denzel is great as usual. Wish they had removed the penultimate scene though and reworked the falling action to be less preachy and obvious.

The Grey – Liam Neeson fucks up some wolves. It’s also a pretty in-your-face meditation on death with a very powerful scene in that regard. Good movie.

Haywire – Very entertaining action film from Soderbergh. Gina Carano does a pretty good job for her first starring role.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jouney – Too much Radagast the Brown on his CG rabbit sled. Also, everyone in the world has seen the other trilogy, so it would have been nice if we had gotten a different take on Middle Earth this time instead of following the exact same vision as last time. Case in point: spoiler: we go to Rivendell at one point. We get almost the same epic, sweeping view of the city and some conversations in Elrond’s spacious palace. Why couldn’t we have emerged from the sewer in a busy market instead? Too bad we didn’t get Guillermo del Toro’s Hobbit. This is not The Lord of the Rings, it’s a story with a much different scope that requires a different feel and a much shorter running time. The only really good part was the conversation with Gollum, which came straight from the book.

The Hunger Games – I liked it. I wish the actual hunger games part had been more violent, like Battle Royale, but oh well. I also didn’t get a good feel for the world, it’s size and scope, how there is just one giant city and what daily life is like there … would have liked more of that kind of stuff.

John Carter – Perhaps because I caught up with this film well after it had been so lambasted and my expectations were lowered, or perhaps because I was just in the mood for a PG-13 type of light adventure that night, I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. Really didn't see what was so wrong with it.

The Kid with a Bike – Slow movie about the difficulty and helplessness of being a kid. Above average.

Killer Joe – This movie just missed my top ten. It’s a bloody and entertaining tale of ignorance, and immorality. The most interesting part is that I can’t tell which the bigger offense is.

Les Misérables – Blah. I thought I was over my childhood distaste for musicals. Guess not. Or this was just really boring.

Life of Pi – I didn’t care too much for the magical tale at the heart of this movie, or rather, I found it kind of meh, despite being very beautifully filmed. I really liked the ending climactic conversation though (although I thought the writer’s answer was WRONG).

Lincoln – I enjoyed watching the political machinations of the era, and of course D-Day Louie is superb as Ol’ Abe. Very self-important, though not humorless.

The Master – I am still thinking about this movie more than probably any other I saw last year. It has stayed lodged in my brain—as ponderous, lost, and indigestible a morsel as its main character, Freddie Quell. Loved the period setting and the obvious Scientology-inspired history that gets at the nature of belief. It seems to be saying something about how Dodd can’t turn off the faucet, the act, the ridiculously transparent lie even among those closest to him; about how he needs to prove himself to absolutely everyone he crosses, even the completely irredeemable Quell. I really need to watch it again though. Perhaps on subsequent viewings, as with previous P.T. Anderson films, it will raise in my estimation.

Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson’s best live action movie in a long time. Really captures a young summer romance.

Prometheus – I liked this latest entry in the Aliens franchise, even though it was a bit ridiculous. Michael Fassbender is interesting as the android this time around. Also, we don’t get enough dark, rated-R sci-fi movies with a slowly crumbling ensemble cast.

Searching for Sugar Man – Very good documentary about music and art and the bizarre nature of fame.

The Secret World of Arrietty – In my top 20. Wonderful children’s movie adaptation of The Borrowers. Beautiful animation. Unfortunately I could only find it dubbed in English L.

Seven Psychopaths – I found it very enjoyable, and I absolutely loved In Bruges (same writer-director). Usually I like a bit of self-awareness and referential filmmaking, but this leaned too heavily that way.

Silver Linings Playbook – Am I the only one that keeps hearing this film title as a possessive? I know, it isn’t. Anyway, I wanted to run away from these people the whole time, but I guess that means it did a pretty good job of depicting the claustrophobia of mental illness. A little silly and predictable toward the end, but enjoyable.

Sleepwalk With Me – Had all the makings of a great comedy with a lackluster climax. Still, fairly funny and worth watching.

Snow White and the Huntsman – Not offensively bad, but not good either.

Take This Waltz – Wasn’t too fun watching these crunchy granola wholesome people and their love problems. Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman were good though.

Ted – I’m not tired of Seth MacFarlane’s humor yet, and sans the interruptive flashbacks of Family Guy, the narrative moves along nicely. Hilarious party scene.

To Rome with Love – Lesser Woody Allen, probably, but I still laughed a lot. The opera scenes were ludicrous, and the contrast between the American and Italian families was pretty spot on.

Wanderlust – I didn’t laugh that much.

Wuthering Heights – This was perhaps the best any faithful adaptation could do with the original material. That said, I wanted every character to kill himself all the time. I was thinking maybe I just hated the book because I read it in high school and I was immature. It turns out it was because it sucks.

There you have it. Happy filmgoing in 2013! See you next year.

Top Ten Films of 2011

Posted on 2012.03.03 at 12:00

This is the year. I finally did it. Allow me to give myself a hearty slap on the back and cop a congratulatory feel. I have my (ahem) annual top-ten list out just after the Oscars!

While 2011 wasn’t brimming with great films, it certainly left me fatted enough on flickering spells to feed my more filmic appetites. I count just 35 movies (from 2011) run completely before my senses this year, down considerably from the 50-60 so in each of the last five years. Maybe there are still about twenty out there waiting for my audience, but I count fewer than ten yet to go with any urgency.

I’ve been unappreciatively lax in seeing documentaries this year. Ditto for animation. Hollywood has played well, though, in its annual shrieking tear-streaked fireworks display. Enough blockbusters, thrillers, and action films reached a craftsman’s competence on that perch above ridiculously disbelievable and condescendingly boring to draw smiles across the faces of filmgoers jaded as I. There aren’t really any one-timers on my list this year, so the main metric I used to sort them was how readily I would watch each film again.

10. Super 8 – The most Spielbergian thing about J.J. Abrams’ unabashed homage to the master of the blockbuster mode is certainly not the big sets and special effects. Michael Bay can do that. Nor is it the almost-corny family struggles motivating characters to reach into alternative avenues of adventure. Wes Anderson can do that. No, what Abrams really manages to capture better than all but the very best of the genre is Spielberg’s uncanny ability to take you exactly where you didn’t know you wanted to go. For instance, when the kids at the center of this film enlist the help of a stoner photo store clerk to drive them back into a place they shouldn’t be going, it feels like precisely the right turn for the film. Perhaps that’s because each scene is entertaining enough to keep minds from considering too rigorously what SHOULD be happening instead. In this, as in classic Spielberg, there’s rarely an opportunity to scream at the screen, “No you dumbass! Why would you ever do that?!” That’s what makes the best action. Characters at least as smart as the audience, breathless close calls, iconic images, and an ability to show what is desired, but not what is expected.

9. The Ides of March – With The Ides of March, George Clooney takes another engrossing look into an insular world of fringe characters and button-up rebels. Yes, it is a cynical indictment of our political system, but that didn’t take the movie’s focus. Rather, it served as a realistic backdrop to a scrabbling menagerie of characters, all of whom were great fun to watch. Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, and even Marisa Tomei play varying degrees of deliciously egohappy political cogs. The script manages satisfyingly to root an otherwise tangled plot in clear, unambiguous character motivations. I guess it didn’t hurt either that it’s 99 percent detail-accurate to my hometown.

8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – I haven’t read the books and I haven’t seen the 2009 Swedish film (so far, and only because this version scored three tenths of a star higher on imdb). While David Fincher’s last two projects both initially caused a lot of head scratching, they also both turned out pretty good films. With this one, he’s back to psychological crime thrillers, carrying the torch of disturbed ‘90s hyperrealistic genre films like The Silence of the Lambs, L.A. Confidential and his own Se7en. Of course, most of the credit for the absorbing mystery and all the dark guilty revenge pleasures has to go to the novel by Stieg Larsson. The material’s best commentary comes to something of a Machiavellian vigilante question that I enjoyed so much only because it gets no direct attention at all. I can only hope this holds true for the two sequels. My only qualm came with the denouement. After the climax, the movie takes another 15 minutes to wrap up the secondary plots of some characters and while it felt physically like the right length of time in a movie of this size, there was a lot of ground to cover and it still felt rushed. It’s a testament to the magnetic power of the film that it took me until that point to notice.

7. Certified Copy – Long conversations can be as captivating as chasy, explody, gunshot filled, vomiting, screeching, mad sprints to the apocalypse. Case in extreme point: My Dinner with Andre. What’s more, a conversation doesn’t even need to achieve totally legibility in order to leave a clear trail of psychological communication between its participants. Good political thrillers and science fiction understand this. So, even when the relationships between the two lead characters in Certified Copy begin to tilt into (intentionally) confusing territory, the emotional text of the story reserves the right to impact the viewer as though all the ulterior details were perfectly lucid. The real joy is in watching (and rewatching—trust me) the playful give and take between Juliette Binoche and William Shimell take a serious turn or two, tottering on, but never falling over into the abyss of drama.

6. The Artist – Of course I fell for this homage to the silent films of yore. What cinephile didn’t? Apparently just Jaime N. Christley of Slant Magazine, who takes umbrage with the film’s dismissal of the scope of the cinematic landscape during this seismic transition. Yes, there are volumes of more interesting period material to be mined, but interesting material isn’t the point of The Artist. It isn’t that deep. It does throw out commentary on the limelight and the importance of autonomy, but mostly it’s great fun, and full of the visual storytelling cues often left behind in the modern pursuit of some verisimilitude that encapsulates whatever life outlook hipster filmmakers deem worthy of protracted exposure. The dancing, the broad gestures, and the nearly constant music rarely leave a moment here unpolished. Every scene is an opportunity for a visual struggle of some kind. The movie does slow a bit toward the end of the second act when it puts on a more serious hat, but the actors never stop commanding empathy. In addition to the charisma of the two leads, actors like John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, and James Cromwell siphon off their share of attention. The Artist is a bit shallow, but shallow doesn’t have to mean unoriginal or monotone. And if after a few Oscar wins it gets a few people to realize silent films can be great entertainment, so much the better.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – James Bond may claim lordship over the spy film, but he has had a wide variety of competition and colleagues for a long time, at least since 1965’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold famously challenged 007’s playboy globetrotting method of international incident resolution (original novel written, as the novel on which this film is based, by former MI5 and MI6 employee John le Carré). We’ve had parody, thriller, war, cold war, corporate, ensemble etc. spy movies, but I can scarcely recall another in which there is so little Action (in the big, exploding sense) as in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. That’s not a bad thing. It’s on this list for a reason, after all. However, the fate of the world is not hanging in the balance, the hero barely does anything short of shuffling around some documents, and the villain is…well…I won’t give that up. You’ll have to torture me. I loved this movie because it refuses to hold hands and refuses to explain what it’s doing or to translate any of the lingo. Instead, you just have to hang on and hope you catch enough information to keep hanging on.

4. Midnight in Paris – I’m hardly a Woody Allen expert, so where this film fits in his oeuvre, I’m not prepared in the least to say. Out of that context, though, this lovely swing back and forth in romantic Paris does enough on its own to beguile viewers into a sort of wander trance, no doubt helping them to conjure images of thousand personal Xanadus. The usual Allen themes are present (existential crises, what have I really accomplished? What can I accomplish? So what? Does any of it matter in the end?), but here he adds a new one: where (when) should I be? This is enough to give the old tricks new lease. Rather than characters twisting themselves up in verbal histrionics over their neuroses, these personal dilemmas are given at least a partial manifestation and some screen presence in a wonderful Narnia-like comforting escapism conceit. The movie has a big blemish in the ridiculously unlikable fiancée character that makes it perfectly convenient for us to root against her and buy into Gil’s (Owen Wilson) irresponsible schemes, and her parents are pretty flat too, something a friend of mine noted when he said that Woody Allen isn’t as good at writing WASPS as he is at Jews and white ethnics. That being said, I keep coming back to the captivating feel of Paris, the guilty historical nostalgia and Owen Wilson’s take on the Woody character’s constant reflections of my own fears and doubts. As this movie spun around my head for weeks after I saw it, it temporarily bent my life goals toward a desire to resemble any part of the adventure I got to witness here.

3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes – No. Why would I want to see another Apes? Tim Burton surely proved the death of all things with his last contribution to the franchise (in which Mark Wahlberg discovers the Aperaham Lincoln Memorial—that’s right, I spoiled it to save you some bloody misery). No. I certainly didn’t think I would be seeing a genetic-experiment-gone-aright story that managed to avoid cheese. No. I didn’t foresee the shift to prison-break film that comes about halfway through. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, needless (though inevitable) to say, surprised me. I kept waiting for the characters to forget their motivations, jump to illogical conclusions, wind up in random places, or pull any of the other action movie services to writers who can’t think of better ways to generate conflict. Such disappointment did not find me here. Andy Serkis and the visual effects team’s Caesar led a smart character-centric action film forth in a torrent of empathy running beneath satisfying bouts of action (in the most universal sense of the word).

2. Drive – It’s the coolest movie this year. The coolest since the first Matrix, actually. Nicholas Winding Refn drops a vibey mix of Scarface eighties slow ultra-violent cheese pop with the quiet isolation and imposing frames of a Kurosawa picture. The violence, while realistically shocking, does not litter the film red. Instead it serves as a reminder of certain characters’ inability to relate to the world completely divorced of it, despite their intentions otherwise in some cases. Drive is the type of movie made for rewatching—like a Tarentino film, except that this one rides farther outside the exploitation line than something like Kill Bill.

1. Meek’s Cutoff – Never before has an educational video game from the seventies been adapted with such a severe eye for bleak realism. A couple of wagons creek across the flat lines of nowhere, brown. The men in the front muffle hesitation with hushed swagger—what to do, whether it’s time yet to send someone to scout ahead. The women whisper uncontested worry behind. What now? Quiet. Creeking. Slow. Tension. Dangling weighted from a naked rent by the last sinews of impoverishing muscle, Meek’s Cutoff. When the small band of men and women throwing their lives to some phantasmic prophecy follow boldfaced Stephen Meek on his shortcut to the promise land, they wind up in a fool's paradise. When it comes time to put their trust in another…well, I won’t ruin it. It’s also kind of an exercise in priorities, wherein the true value of gold is weight directly against baser rungs of Maslow’s famous hierarchy. Ultimately, the faceless body of nature, of time and this wide existence brush up against the infinitesimally feeble probings and suppositions of a shared determination. I can’t talk about the ending except to say that the last shot will be etched like an iconic painting on my mind for years to come. In it, Kelly Reichartd explores the sliding gap between ignorance and the unknown and gives us a clear victor—at least in the short term.

Other Notables:

50/50 – Apt title, great balance between comedy and a realistic look at a young man with a rare form of cancer. All the characters around him fill out nicely by the end. I didn’t even feel that bad about or for the ex-girlfriend, even though the film wanted to make her the villain.

Beginners – Christopher Plummer just won the Oscar for his turn here as a man who decides to come out of the closet at 75, a few scant years before his death. (I’m not ruining anything the movie doesn’t tell you in the first few minutes.) While that part of the film—told sort of in flashback—is really sweet, the focus is on the loneliness his son (played by Ewan McGregor) experiences afterward. It balances out the heavy problems with light moments, and by the end I cared about the characters as much as any this year.

Bridesmaids – Maybe it was a case of high expectations, but I was pretty disappointed by Bridesmaids. It was cool, and I enjoyed most scenes, but I just didn’t find myself laughing out loud very often.

Cedar Rapids – It was funny, and I really enjoyed some of the unexpectedly heavy adultness, but the lamo smalltown white dude thing wasn’t exactly for me.

Contagion – Pretty much exactly what you might expect. A tense, globe-spanning medical thriller in which a cast of disparate characters affect and are affected by a new disease. Outbreak, Soderbergh style. Don’t take any hypochondriacs to see it.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. – The play between Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling is genuinely amusing most of time. Worth seeing on a lazy day.

The Descendants – I didn’t like it as much as Sideways, but there were a few outstanding scenes. Loved how the setting was an important part of the story, but held in check by the elephant always in the room.

Fast Five – I can’t believe I watched this. There’s nothing I can say to add to or detract from this film. The Rock is still cool.

Friends with Benefits – I actually liked this film a lot. In fact, it may be my favorite romantic comedy since Knocked Up. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good at letting out little slivers of neurosis from under his wry go-with-the-flow California veneer. Mila Kunis is still so, so hot. I don’t know much about designing websites, but I’m pretty sure the version that happens here is ridiculous.

The Guard – If you liked 2008’s In Bruges, you will probably like this not-quite-as-good kooky Irish comedy with a similarly absurd sense of humor from the younger brother of that film’s director. Starring the great Brendan Gleeson as a small town Irish cop and Don Cheadle as an FBI agent.

Hanna – Good action flick. Great protagonist. Enemy and overall conflict could have been better. I would go to a sequel.

The Help – I’m just going to paraphrase my Facebook rant: The performances were okay to really good, but director Tate Taylor loved to hold on the actors, wringing the end of every scene for one last spasm of emotion. Most of the conversations were pretty good, and Viola Davis did her best to bring the understatement the rest of the film was crying out for. It was so...affected, and crowd-rousing, and always with the soft piano leading you in to scenes that were going to be emotional.

As far as historical racism goes. Well done, Hollywood, you are a half century late and you still missed some of the details.

Even more annoying to me was the antagonist. It was so convenient to put all of the villainy and the orchestrations into one character over which the hero could triumph rather than to depict the nebulous, ubiquitous evil of a whole class.

I mean, I know not every German in 1938 was heartless and evil, and not every white person in Jackson was in the 1960s either, and there is a lot to be said for peer pressure, but the movie made it too convenient and forgiving on the white characters who went along with the status quo because they were all shown to have qualms about it. I’m coming down pretty hard on the movie here, but my actual response was more like, “meh.”

The British website The Shiznit said it all in fewer words than I can:

Hugo – When I heard it was a children’s movie with automatons in early 20th century Paris, even Scorsese’s name couldn’t stop thoughts of a blockbuster quest to recover some ancient artifact and some kind of climactic magical battle between emerging supernatural forces. Thankfully, we instead got a story focused much more on washed up filmmaker Georges Méliès, his works, and a boy who lives in a train station. Sacha Baron Cohen plays his character well, but it’s a bit of a silly antagonist only because the film needs him. I much preferred the Méliès stuff.

Melancholia – If nothing matters, is despair the only honest response? Lars von Trier takes us inside depression from within, then without.

Moneyball – I’m not a baseball guy, but I enjoyed this one. In fact I thought the scenes with Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt, when they were (literally) talking inside baseball were the strongest in the film, and I actually wish we had gotten more of that nitty-gritty on Billy Beane’s revolutionary management system. As it stands, I found it fine popcorn fare.

La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) – I saw it in the theater without subtitles, so I had some trouble following, as it’s not the most straightforward movie in the world. Music was great, I was taken a little aback by some of the more bizarre bends (in a good way). Obviously, it explores identity, but it also delves into all the grey degrees of sin.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – Wha? That came out this year? I vaguely remember it causing fewer mind hemorrhages than the previous two.

Red State – Wow, if this is what happens when Kevin Smith branches out, I can’t wait for more. (Don’t retire!) Parts were genuinely scary, and the narrative stays remarkably tight. It even comes complete with a very Coen brothers ending.

Source Code – Inexplicable plot. I usually don’t get too hung up on ‘realism’ or whatever, but the plot holes here were far too big. So, they are able to reenact the last few moments of the train wreck perfectly using the memory of this person…but what happens when Jake Gyllenhaal tries to do something that isn’t in the memory, get off the train, etc.? Where the hell does that part of the memory come from? If his subconscious or computers or whatever is filling in those details, then they are useless toward reflecting what they want to discover. And when he goes back and tries to fix things, isn’t he only fixing a reality that exists in a computer and his head? I would have been content if the movie let dangle the question of what that really means, but it goes out of its way to convince us that that reality is just as valid as any other. And how does he…after the final leap… never mind. A shame because Moon was pretty cool (see my Top Ten Films of 2009).

Take Shelter – Barely missed my top ten. A guy in small-town Ohio (lots of Buckeye movies this year) Tries to protect his family from the apocalyptic visions he’s having. What I liked about it is that the character recognizes that he may just be going crazy. Great performances.

The Tree of Life – All the critics loved it. I liked it pretty well too. You won’t find a better meditation on childhood—a pastiche of images that, though disconnected, seem to surmise the most primal memories of a man. The ending was a bit of a letdown with the white shore thing.

War Horse – This one I’ll pull from my Facebook post too: My geeky side enjoyed letting the period piece historical fiction atmospherics run over me, but the whole time I couldn't help thinking, "It's a goddamned horse..." It was like being at a party where everyone is too polite to point out that the host isn't wearing any pants. It doesn’t take a great stretch to imagine…well, let’s just say I was reminded way too much of the sheep in Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask. Yes, it’s that absurd. I did really like one sequence in the middle of the film with a girl and her grandfather, and the way that resolves at the end.

Warrior – The fights were really cool, the acting was pretty good (especially Nick Nolte), and enough of the history left to imagination. It’s too bad the plot was so predictable and schmaltzy. (If I don’t win this fight, they’re gonna take our house!)

Weekend – Great performances by the two leads in the story of an important relationship that develops between two men over a weekend. It took me a little longer to appreciate Tom Cullen’s Russell, but I’ll call that good reflection of character. By the end I was rooting for both members of the couple, together or not.

X-Men: First Class – When this film isn’t being big, it works extremely well. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are great as heads of the X-Men universe’s two main philosophical factions. Don’t get me wrong, the action works well enough, it’s just not where this movie shines.

There you have it. Happy filmgoing in 2012! See you next year.

Skyrim Week

Posted on 2011.11.09 at 00:05

I’ve made comment on it before, back when Oblivion came out, I know. It’s worth mentioning again though, and perhaps expounding on a bit, that I love the books in the Elder Scrolls games. Now, many games have had in-game things to read before and since. The codex in Mass Effect was pretty good. Any old adventure game was almost all text. There are two factors, though, that exalt the literature of The Elder Scrolls well above that of any other game yet to run across my fickle horizon.

1. The writing of the in-game books is so good I would have been happy to check them out from the library. So often, video game stories, video game writing, and video game acting get praised as “good” when you would never waste your time reading or watching it outside of that game. Bioshock: The Movie? No. Thanks.

2. The second is that you actually have to find the books in the game to read them. Like real life for those of us that can recall the black days before the internet/god/mother freed us all from our own destructive curiosities (and replaced them with unspeakable depravities). The books, like all other objects in the Elder Scrolls, can be used (read) on the spot, picked up and moved, or packed away for later use (or display on your bookshelf at home). And they’re totally optional. It’s strange to think so much great reading material is just sitting there quietly, hoping that you will deign to pick it up. So many other game developers would consider it wasted work if they don’t force you to see everything they created for their game.

I fell in love with this game’s lore at the exact conjunction of these two factors. I must have been in someone’s house or a shop or maybe even a cave in Morrowind, and I chanced upon a series of books on a shelf. I was pretty deep in the game, and had noted a few of the books to try to read later, but here was a complete seven volume set of the Dance In Fire story. “What the hell?” I thought. After more than fifty hours of gameplay, my inquisitiveness opened the book.

And here’s what happened. Do you know that senile moment you get when you have just finished an engrossing article or good story, or a movie? You turn back to your own life and you look around with a blear of confusion at the room and you say, “well, what now? Oh yeah, I should get some dinner soon.”

I don’t know how long it took me to read all seven volumes of Dance In Fire (a half an hour? an hour?), but it was long enough. After more than 15,000 words, I put the last book down. It had been sensory, kind of deranged, and well-written. It was time to come off it though and back to…back to… I closed the book and stepped back out into the game world. I squinted at the fire flickering off the bookcase in front of me and turned around. Now, what was I doing? Oh yeah, I came in over there. And I had to go find this guy over on the east side of the island somewhere… I stepped out the book, and now I could go and explore the world of that book.

And that is why I love The Elder Scrolls. No other game has ever put so much care into building a world—complete with objects that all have weight and value and mobility—and at the same time realized the importance of production value and great lore. It’s not just about making a video game where you can shoot stuff. Like any immersive art, it’s about bringing your senses and your imagination to a crescendo—about taking you in wholesale and allowing you the sorts of moments you’ll remember until your last day.

P.S. Again, I’ve said this before, but it’s worth mentioning again if you want to see for yourself. Head on over to The Imperial Library’s Morrowind Books section and do two things. First, read the three volume Biography of Queen Barenziah for the official story. Then, read the much juicier (and more humanizing) five volume The Real Barenziah series. It shouldn’t take too long. If you do, please let me know what you thought!

On Caring

Posted on 2011.10.24 at 00:32

Godbless our parents. Many of them, anyway. They give it a listen when you burst home from school yammering about Decepticons and Cobra Commands or Funshine Bear and Bowser or pizza Fridays or Matt’s birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese or the best rentals to jack your Gamerscore or how many Pokémon you still need or how you are so going to make the best science project this year or next month’s field trip to Space Camp or how you absolutely need new clothes or how you will definitely be an archeologist someday—or when you start jibber-jabbering about Emma’s new shoes or your layup in gym or your mad skills in math class or whether you’ll make varsity or whether you’ll go to prom or what to wear or how the cute boys never care or who you want to rush or how today’s movies are so stale compared to anything made in the seventies or how much you want to bench by the end of the summer or the underappreciated role of the bassist in any band with more than three instrumentalists—when you snivel and wail and gripe and fuss and contrive and hurrah and squawk and blubber and boohoo and weep and stammer and guffaw, they listen.

How? Methinks in my slightly advancing age what a task that must be to pretend to care about any of the consuming fires of another mind. But they do the job because, well, if they didn’t what kind of people would they be? A parent’s greatest feat must be this, to put up some show of interest, even when they have to borrow it against their dwindling stock of youth.

But still you get older, and then it really hurts when you can no longer even pull your friends down the rabbit holes of your latest obsessions. You are all alone now with your vinyl collection of Velvet Underground albums or your meticulously manicured poodles or your acquisitions spreadsheets and your headphones turned up to the Act V opening of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Some of us know music. Some can pop off quotes from the annals of literature’s B-listers. Some can name every player on the 1985 Chicago Bears roster. Some are happy to point out the 12 easy ways Twilight could have been a decent movie. Whatever the hobby, the habit, the holy monument into which we drain our every true moment, it’s a verity that’s kept apart from the other one—the people for whom we most ravenously care.

Remember that, and do something nice for someone you love. Pretend to care. You are one of the banks which lend their life meaning. You therefore have enormous power to bestow some of that meaning on the places they spend their passion, or conversely, to leave them wondering why they waste their time.

Running in Places

Posted on 2011.08.24 at 19:37

South Carolina, sweltering. No, but thick. Pregnant and wet, the air leaving streaks on my lungs, fingernails digging in against the sharp upward pull of my exhale. Mexico wasn’t like this. South Carolina clung to me, needful, threatening. The fading asphalt bent slightly ahead, pulling around a slow hill on its long way toward some bigger avenue—creeks to rushes to rivers. My shoulder hounded me with jabs at every other rhythmic stride, the second of two outward breaths. Out out, in in. Out out, in in. Over a decade ago I learned, if not to ignore them—no, impossible, that couldn’t be completely done—at least to push them away, on a good day to use them, those pangs and empty aches that compound over a long run. The first assault were the sharper complaints from the big muscles—concrete thighs or doubling abs. Then, these, like this sore shoulder, or throbbing knees, or sunlight ripping through the eyes. Yes, I made peace long ago with these sometime inmates of my body. Though they may slow me more than they once did, they do not seem to kick so hard either. We are growing older together.

So I drag them along and bring them out, particularly when I am distant. I am no Anthony Bordain, but I travel when I can. Touring the grand edifices of a people tells you what they think of themselves. Eating their food might impart something of their character. Spending time on their buses or trains, in their kitchens, weaving through their markets or malls, stumbling around their bars, dancing at their weddings, and romancing their women will show you more about your own culture than you might have guessed. Nothing has ever brought me closer to a place, though, than running. The sharpness of it, the rudimentary bestial simplicity and the evergoing struggle and the rhythm bring me down inside the city itself. On the ground, crawling by its manses or hovels, little shops and tree lined boulevards, or fast intersections and loitering denizens. The first run in any place is a revelation—nothing spiritual. Yet, a contrast cuts in, between what I didn’t feel before and how much my perception of the place hardens thereafter.

The roads in the suburbs of Columbia, SC were thrown like a loose net over the terrain, turning here and there and wrapping their way over the weak hills. It wasn’t a grid, but rather a patchwork of somewhat perpendicular thoroughfares with smaller branches filling the spaces between almost regularly, organic—grey veins crossing a bumpy red expanse, sunk in among airy pines and deciduous sprouts, sticky light nearly scraping the red and brown floor between them. Pollen was a field of stars hanging low over the uncut grass along the road. Traveling down one of them was much the same as traveling down another. Now and then a subdivision broke off to the side—Dutch Ridge, Quail Hollow, Piney Grove, Hope Ferry Plantation, Long Creek Plantation, Chestnut Hill Plantation—and after a few miles they struck up indistinct intersections with others of their ilk, until at last they came rattling up to the five-lane commercial hubs. I stuck out my right arm on an inside left turn so that any oncoming cars would see it a precious few split seconds before the rest of me. It turned out to be unnecessary. Running in South Carolina is solitary. While their Starbucks and their malls cry out for company with the same vigor as anywhere else in this land of comforts, the roads under the heat of the late afternoon content themselves with passers every minute or two.

I was in my first house in Mexico for a few weeks before I tried running. It was in a packed little neighborhood dominated by a neo Gothic church near the center of Guadalajara. In my ignorance, I struck out east through downtown and the working class neighborhoods beyond, close streets choking with pedestrians, traffic, the occasional vendor, and crumbling or twisted sidewalks. I remember holding my breath running by a building full of nuns wearing surgical masks. I stopped a little further on. The sidewalk had dropped to dirt and besides there wouldn’t be enough room for me and the man ahead to pass at the same time. It wasn’t until I moved to a higher rent area on the west side that the city let me through her as fast as my two legs could carry me. Though still cramped in urban planning terms, the streets there didn’t try to shake me off. I knew the city in many other ways: walking around, eating the food, listening to the music, talking to new friends at parties, riding the bus, and countless more. However, passing hundreds of quaint middle class homes, Oxxos, and one of shops and restaurants, fading yellow curb paint, palm trees stark against the sky, languid bus stops, frying street food, and zany careless drivers all distilled through the purity of endurance, of survival, burned these things deeper into me. It’s the way I will always remember that part of town.

In the same way, I still feel that hillside pathway in Reno where I went for a cold morning run when I was seventeen. Angling alongside the subdivision, the sparse shrubs all around gave a clear view all the way down to the waking valley of shopping plazas and homes below. I had never felt air so clean and brittle.

Or that time I ran back and forth along the long crescent of the beach in Sayulita, feet slipping sideways toward the ocean, grinding sand with every short stride. My friends lay in a cluster near the hotel, but I got to see a mile of little beachfront campsites and palapas, heeled closely among the thronging palm trees by colorful compact rustic houses, some with red tile roofs, one with a small fountain in back, one symmetrical orange thing that might have been a split house, and finally, the craggy grey and green rocks at the end buttressing the sort of charming white cottage that would have made a fine French restaurant. From the small black crabs on those rocks to the dilapidated fishing boats on the other end, that beach is almost as much mine now as it was that day.

Or the times we ran down Dixie highway in the summers during high school—a road normally experienced through the viscous flow of afternoon shopping traffic. The air coagulated heavy with exhaust and August heat. The acres of parking lot along the road bleached nearly to white, with tufts of grass poking from corners and crevices; and the muffler shop and banks and plazas that normally fit together like a long diorama to 80s commercialism became buildings with a fire hose on the side around the corner or in need of new concrete to repair the chips in the sidewalk out front.

Or the treadmill run I forced on myself near the hotel pool in Monterrey. Still tired from a late night in the Barrio Antiguo, that little grey room with all its mirrors hummed softly, while outside the Sultan of the North in its vibrant clustered neighborhoods and heavy, cutting roads busied and bustled.

These and many more have running given me over the years. I can see a place by touring. I can hear it in its issues and its history. I can smell it dissipating and acclimating me to a new sense of home. I can taste it in every dish, song, sculpture, color, or tome it belts forth. And I can feel it, two feet pounding under me, breathing. In in, out out. In in, out out.

Music of 2010 Roundup, pt. 3

Posted on 2011.05.06 at 18:53

Wow. It’s finally finished. If I do this next year, I’ll either start much earlier (like now), or think of a way to limit it. As it is, this project seems to have eaten up my movie list for last year. Well, enjoy. Please.

41. Rihanna – Loud

There’s plenty here to like. If you support Rihanna and her brand of rhythm pop, you should have Loud. If you just like dance music, it’s a fair consideration too. Of course, you’ve probably already heard about half of the album on the radio. Oh well. It’s fun, it’s dancy, it’s perfect for helping people hook up. Although, the sentiments expressed by the lyrics lag behind the great beats. She’s trying to be a PG-13 provocateur, and the results in those moments are kind of embarrassing. The idea of S&M probably wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow in middle school hallways today. She takes a swing and a miss at modern pop-country with “California King Bed.” It just doesn’t fit on this disc. Tunes like “Man Down” though, with its big reggae style (and reggae dilemma), and “Fading” with its Enya introduction show a hint of Rihanna’s maturing musical palette. I welcome it, and I look forward to the full blossom.

My Favorites: S&M; What’s My Name [ft. Drake]; Only Girl (In the World); Man Down

Listen: On the dance floor

42. Salem – King Night

Have you ever wanted really dramatic weird slow-mo hip hop? How about if an ominous space ship collided with a marching band drum section and a chorus? “King Night” opens the album of the same name as a warped, high-flying, club-darkened version of Christmas classic “Holy Night.” This is the kind of music to which a modern Tony Montana would listen when slouching down into himself, isolated in some glossy Miami Club. The dirty bass often spills out over the melodies, threatening to obscure them behind an oppressive sheet of drum machines. When you find yourself in the middle of one of these tunes though, leaning forward, struggling to make out what the soprano might be singing, (or wait, was that just a synthesizer?) it can be as memorizing as any trance. Even when we get rap, it’s slowed and twisted to a laborious pace. No doubt this is the kind of music that gives up a little more with each listen, like a blossoming lover. Should you take the time to get familiar, that is.

My Favorites: King Night; Frost; Traxx

Listen: As I said, like Mr. Montana

43. Scissor Sisters – Night Work

Maybe you remember their cheesy take on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” or perhaps you heard the memorable “Tits On the Radio” a few years ago. If not, allow me to explain. The Scissor Sisters have collected a following through playful, often quirky, gay glam electropop via Jamiroquai. With Night Work they start from their home position of Devo-like New Wave synthpop, but from there, things get interesting. They’ve always shown a love of many musical styles, and they manage open up the palette a bit more on this latest album. “Fire With Fire” is a power ballad to make Toto proud. A lot of the other songs would still be more at home in the club, but they aren’t exactly the mindless dance fuel of most club artists. They have stories to tell, they have musical statements to make. The soundscape is littered with humorous Frankensteins made up of pieces starting with disco and ending with house music. The breakdown transition from “Skin Tight” to “Sex and Violence” comes on like a sedative, struggling unsuccessfully to hold down desperate hungers. “Nightlife” might have been equally at home Off-Broadway or on MTV in the days when that would have been possible, showing off in equal measure melodic choruses, back-and-forth singing, and electric heartbeat dance build-up. “Invisible Light” signs the album off with a soliloquy delivered among such an uproariously celebratory synth climax, only Sir Ian McKellen can give it the gravitas it needs to overcome the din. It’s this playful sense of the theatrical that gives the Scissor Sisters their spot in my rotation. They’ve skipped all the filler on this one. Night Work is their best album yet.

My Favorites: Fire With Fire; Running Out; Sex and Violence; Invisible Light

Listen: Hmm. Dramatic but fun…? Glitzy downtown is the only thing that comes to mind.

44. Shakira – Sale el Sol

As a career microcosm, Sale el Sol is apt, cycling between Hispanic fusion club beats and the fringy Latin rock sound that sets her quite apart from her diva contemporaries. Here, she backs off the electropop experiments of Loba (She Wolf) to return to her wheelhouse. That’s not to say she’s gotten lazy, especially when those experiments didn’t have spectacular results. She plays with a song by indie group The XX with “Islands,” turning its shoegazing introspection into more of a cloudgazing stiff dance ditty. She also goes a little too Coldplay-world-rock with “Antes de las Seis” (complete with ill-fitting Asian instrumentation), while this approach certainly works better on the appropriately sizable “Waka Waka (Esto es África)”—you know, from the World Cup. Besides the obvious language difference, Anglophones will find plenty of body kinetic flavor in upbeat dance tracks like “Loca,” “Addicted to You,” and “Rabiosa.” “Gordita” plays exactly like a Calle 13 song—all plodding, inevitable beats and sex, with elements of electronic, dubstep, and Latin club genres and perforations of horns (and maracas?). With deep roots in genres like rock (en español), Latin dance, reggaeton, and world music, the songs on Sale el Sol are tight—none of them eclipsing four minutes—betraying Shakira’s true genre, pop. She’s honed her raw exuberance into twelve very exacting and mature examples of pop songs—each with an unwavering aim. When you’re not a-movin, spare a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship.

My Favorites: Loca [feat. El Cata]; Gordita (feat. Residente Calle 13); Devoción

Listen: Wherever you can make the weather hot

45. Sia – We Are Born

Australian pop singer Sia doesn’t slow up on this backyard pop record. Her voice slides along on bubbles of R&B and early 2000s downbeat over simple, unobtrusive guitar rhythms and synth melodies. There’s something wrong if you don’t swing around a little bit to the musical march of “Stop Trying”—something wrong with you. There are other cheery clap-clap anthems to keep the energy up throughout We Are Born, including “Bring Night” and “Never Gonna Leave Me.” With hints of sixties girl group fervor, nineties ironic pop cheer, and Motown drama, Sia may seem like someone’s perfect music factory design, but she does it all so naturally you probably won’t even notice.

My Favorites: Stop Trying; Be Good to Me; Never Gonna Leave Me

Listen: Bopping about in your poster-covered bedroom

46. Spoon – Transference

Long live the kings of the indie rebel 2-step swaggering beats. The songs on their seventh studio album, Transference, stagger with almost-pauses and stripped down riffs and march infectiously onward, accented by the occasional errant bend or symbol crash. Like Britt Daniel’s fine grade sandpaper voice, the tunes here capture the rough, raspy, wizened side of the dreamer. Imbued with enough youthful energy and an almost electro repetitive sensibility to the songwriting, it makes for an irresistible combo. There are simple moments here that come off like a kid playing with his Christmas present, discovering cool sounds or rhythms and just pounding away. All that being said, these guys have been here before, and while there’s not exactly anything wrong with that, they could probably keep making albums like this for the next two decades that would sound like the ones from the last two.

My Favorites: Is Love Forever?; I Saw the Light; Nobody Gets Me But You

Listen: Weekdays

47. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens doesn’t much alter his bright quirky indie songwriting for The Age of Adz, but like the glossed up title, his usual instrumentation has received an overhaul. Now, in place of French horns and triangles, his low-key uplifting melodies are laced with electronic hisses, fizzes, and pops. Some dramatic orchestral stingers still round out the music’s languid, floaty beats with high-flying early Disney flair. Some of the tracks here get pretty personal. They are the score to some internal egocentric play we get the opportunity to puzzle out.

My Favorites: Now That I’m Older; Vesuvius; Impossible Soul

Listen: Inquisitively

48. These New Puritans – Hidden

College indie minimal experimental orchestral instrumentation meets M.I.A. style songwriting. The beats are big and heavy and repetitive. It may take a few listens to really ‘get.’ While it isn’t really danceable, it has enough bump to maybe make you bounce a bit. What Hidden really provides us with is a possible slice of an indie future. It’s like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in its cohesive wall-to-wall reactionist experimental sound. It’s fed on the avant-garde music of the last decade and regurgitated this—this dull pounding aggressive call to some sullen playground, where the battlements have been armed and the combatants are wistfully laying out plans. There are moments in songs like Three Thousand or 5 as cinematic as anything by Radiohead. What my several listens have really impressed upon me though, is the rapid change in perception the album takes from sparse, dark, repetitive noise on first listen, to music on the third or fourth, to carefully arranged elegance by the sixth or seventh. I find myself wondering how it will evolve with me over the next few.

My Favorites: We Want War; Three Thousand; Hologram; Attack Music; Orion; White Chords; 5

Listen: On high quality equipment

49. Tinie Tempah – Disc-Overy

Who’s that making the club go crazy? It’s that new English rapper, Tinie Tempah. Furiously blending elements of the club from hip hop to house to dubstep, Mr. Tempah’s debut…

Nevermind that. I can’t stop dancing. This shit is in me. If you needed a party anthem, you wouldn’t do better last year than “Pass Out,” with its wavy intro and soft staccato synth harmonies that build up to a furious dubstep up-down finale. Everybody sing along, “Yeah, we bring the stahs out, / We bring the women an the cahs an the cahds out, / Let’s have a toast a celebration ge’ a glahss out, / And we can do this until we pahss out.” No doubt, many have.

My Favorites: Pass Out; Frisky [feat. Labrinth]; Miami 2 Ibiza [feat. Swedish House Mafia]

Listen: C-L-U-B

50. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

I have already given this album a full lengthy review you might check out here or here. If you’re lazy, let me para-summarize:

Bombastic. That’s the word here on The Monitor, the second full-length album from new New Jersey group Titus Andronicus. Some punk attitude, some southern rock riffs, some Conor Oberst style vocals, and some very high concepts jangle and crash at once on this album, named for the famous ship of the American Civil War, the USS Monitor. They forge an album that spends a fair share of its sixty-six minutes on seamless transitions, head-thumping choruses, and buildups to head-thumping choruses. It’s all mixed within established rations of the concept album, complete with long segues and voiceover clips passed through some old-timey filters. Too much? On paper. So what saves it?

The Monitor is just so damned catchy and FUN. It’s the first album in a while I’ve had to restart immediately after I finished it. It’s like they’ve found glee in settling, in simply throwing up arms and singing. Not since 2006’s Arctic Monkeys debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not have I had such excitement over such a promising young band. I could have chosen any of several albums I’ve really liked over the last year or two about which to write. Here though, I’ve found a manifesto with the ambition and forward drive of American Idiot, the personal and self-deprecating lyrics of Johnny Cash, and plenty of rally cries that could be at home in a crowded Irish pub. Hell, they even throw in a few references to that New Jersey musical icon, the Boss—it’s that kind of Americana.

My Favorites: A More Perfect Union; Titus Andronicus Forever; Richard II; To Old Friends and New

Listen: In jeans and an old shirt

51. Two Door Cinema Club – Tourist History

A band so of their moment they couldn’t exist in any other era. Two Door Cinema Club just seems to manifest the sound of this latest decade, like The Animals in the sixties or Huey Lewis and the News in the eighties. The songs here are a lot of fun, all of them under four minutes, and all of them packing kinetic high school party atmosphere, and all of it completely suburban. It’s like Is This It on a backyard merry-go-round, updated with higher-pitched vocals and whiny guitars for the next generation. They really enjoy playing with the layers of every song, especially circling different guitar riffs in and out around the bass line. In spirit they remind me perhaps of someone like VHS or Beta, glossy cosmic pop-rock that gets right to the catchy point and gets right back out. At just 33 minutes, you really have no excuse not to give this album a listen or two.

My Favorites: This Is the Life; Something Good Can Work; What You Know

Listen: At an old-fashioned house party

52. Vampire Weekend – Contra

We all remember Vampire Weekend as the break-out college afro-beat indie rock band from a few years ago (think Paul Simon’s Graceland). Songs like “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” signaled any gathering of hipsters, then frat kids for the next two years. And now, the new album? Well, it certainly continues the world beat rock from the first, but Vampire Weekend find plenty of leg room here to stretch into a variety of tempos. The whole thing goes down like a smoothie, without any dark spots to slow you up. The songs range from furious and light (“Cousins”) to soft and light (“Taxi Cab”). They play with electro-bendy vocals, yodeling, and punchy synth lines. Most of what they do feels like it’s just crashing and tumbling from shelves into a delightful pile of uplifting musings. As before, the bass lines lead to consistent surprises, and the whole thing is filled out with triangles, xylophones and other light percussion. This isn’t just music for summer—it’s a way to bring the summer with you anywhen.

My Favorites: Horchata, White Sky, Cousins, Giving Up the Gun

Listen: Under a palapa in the Caribbean

Music of 2010 Roundup, pt. 2

Posted on 2011.03.20 at 21:17

Music overwhelms me. I will never feel like I can keep up with all the good music I want to hear. There are probably hundreds of decent to excellent albums from all different genres and countries every year that just go right on by me. I’m sorry, but I’ll never feel like an expert in this field. As such, I have not ranked my music list. I just hope I can turn some other people on to some of the albums I did get a chance to enjoy last year. Oh, and I’m almost done with the final part already, so while I won’t promise anything, it may be coming much sooner than this one did.

21. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

Plastic Beach is a house of cards. You have to wonder how much longer Damon Albarn can keep collecting and adding genres to his sound before it all topples. He hasn’t let it happen yet, though, and the result is a marvel of pop song manufacturing. He maintains the same downhearted delivery in his own vocals on this album as on previous, and still pushes hip hop artists and minor key industrial coolness. This time, however, he adds orchestras, out of place lighthearted breaks, and soul singing. It doesn’t seem as cohesive as Demon Days, but it also feels slightly less calculated. Absurd commercialism runs throughout the album, coming to the fore on tracks like “Superfast Jellyfish,” a neighborhood groove that recalls the weirdness of The Chemical Brothers’ “The Salmon Dance.” The album really takes off when the morning-after-the-apocalypse meditation of “Empire Ants” breaks out into a slick synth march. No one brings the cloud dream misfit pulse like Albarn, and that really shows (with the exception of “Sweepstakes’” bawdy vibrations) on the second half of Plastic Beach. Nowhere else will you find music that’s just so damned COOL.

My Favorites: Empire Ants [ft. Little Dragon]; Melancholy Hill; Plastic Beach [ft. Mick Jones and Paul Simonon]

Listen: Starring off the aft deck, lights closing together in the little port behind

22. Jack Wall – Mass Effect 2 Soundtrack

Filled with slow minor keys and repeated note patterns that function similar to arpeggios, instrumented at times by an orchestra and at others mainly by a single instrument, and wanting so much to reflect the dark space docks, racial mistrust, and galactic gravity of the game for which it was composed; the soundtrack to Mass Effect 2 rings with all the glory of the seventies and eighties sci-fi films that inspired it. Like the best of movie scores, it often gives the impression there may be something worth discovering (or something threatening) just around the next bend. It’s replete with old scoring techniques like stingers and sudden stops, but the best moments here are the haunting contemplations featured in tracks like “Humans Are Disappearing” or “Reflections.” Go to “Normandy Reborn” for a quick taste of the triumphant highs of which it’s capable. It’ll be easy to compare this to something like Vangelis’s Blade Runner music, but I also hear bits of Risky Business, The Rock, and even smatterings of The Riders of Rohan theme from The Lord of the Rings. Like a lot of film scores, schizophrenic theme switching is a bit of problem, sometimes allowing just enough time to adjust to a new tempo before changing again within the same track, but I suppose they fit the dramatic needs of the scene for which they were created. It isn’t the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard, or even the most catchy video game soundtrack (Nintendo or Final Fantasy probably win that), but while I didn’t see a single film last year with a soundtrack I had to seek out, I knew before I was halfway through Mass Effect 2 that I would late be able to relive so much of its claustrophobic hope-against-odds inky sci-fi vibe through its atmospheric soundtrack. I was right.

My Favorites: Humans Are Disappearing; New Worlds (the badass music from the Galaxy Map)

Listen: In very spare, clean, shiny, dark surrounds

23. Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid

Yes, this. This is the one that takes The Love Below to the next level. If someone took every good genre from my playlist and mashed them together, it would be incoherent; but then if someone refined that mash into an album, it would be Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid. It begins with classical notes, and moves to cinema, funk, jazz, big band, hip hop, folk, sixties pop, and psychedelic rock, and even what sounds like a bit of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” all with an R&B pop sheen. The vocals are perfect, Ms. Monáe pulling off many phrases with the confidence of a jazz master like Esperanza Spalding. She gets a bit of a chance to show her inner Joplin too on “Come Alive (The War of the Roses).” “Cold War” will have you soaring with an unsentimental celebration of love. “Tightrope” just may find you tapping along. Paul Simon could have written “57821” for himself and Art Garfunkel in the late sixties. “BaBopByeYa” might have fallen off the print of an old Bond film. Do you see what I’m doing here? While you might expect it to be inconsistent and jumpy (and in some ways it is), there’s something so Bourbon Street cool holding everything together, while a Broadway sort of production polishes it off. Oh, and it’s also a concept album and continuation of her first EP that follows a robot woman in a future Metropolis-like society who falls in love with a human and has to go on the run, eventually becoming an icon of robot civil rights in the process. No wonder I love this album. On top of fantastic songwriting, its production and themes make it a paradise for film and music nerds. While I didn’t actually order this list, I have no doubt that The ArchAndroid would be in my top five albums of the year. I will hold a grudge against everything until Janelle Monáe becomes a superstar.

My Favorites: Dance or Die [ft. Saul Williams]; Cold War; Oh, Maker; Suite III Overture; 57821 [ft. Deep Cotton]; BaBopByeYa

Listen: with friends

24. John Legend & the Roots – Wake Up!

Where has all the good music gone? Well, the Roots have been holding on to some of it for the last twenty years, and John Legend has done his fair share in the last ten. Here, they team up to literally bring back several classic songs in fresh skin. Harkening back to the soul of artists like Curtis Mayfield, the beats here are all funky guitars, sporadic horns, desperate vocals, and pent up drums. It also recalls the social message soul of that era too in the questions it poses about (and to) America. The sparing use of rap lends extra gravity when a verse does come in. This is a very good and tasteful update of a handful of great songs that will hopefully expose them to new listeners.

My Favorites: Hard Times [ft. Black Thought]; Our Generation (The Hope of the World) [ft. CL Smooth]; I Wish I knew How It Would Feel to Be Free

Listen: Wherever home is for you

25. Julieta Venegas – Otra Cosa

I don’t know a lot of Mexican artists to be honest, but it was hard for me to escape Julieta Venegas’s last album, Limón y Sal. With this follow-up, she’s back to quirky, jumpy little grooves and upbeat arrangements, even if the themes deal with the sad side of love. It’s catchy, and her quick delivery is refreshing as any good pop.

My Favorites: Amores Platónicos; Si Tú No Estás; Eterno

Listen: In a good mood

26. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Mr. West has certainly ramped up the noise after the experimental luxury crawl of 808s and Heartbreak. He’s taken that disc’s electro sounds back into mainstream rap here on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, resulting in a departure from the sped-up soul and remix sounds that he used to cultivate his early career. Can rap be gothic? We’ve learned it can certainly at least be decadent, and he packs this album with an embarrassment of overboard technical feats, from “Dark Fantasy”’s sudden rap breaks to the operatic choruses of “Power” to impossible list of contributors on “All of the Lights” to the excessive finale of “Runaway.” This album is gaudy. It’s also fantastic. While Kanye lets the songs bleed all over the disc, he’s not entirely unrestrained. At a lean thirteen tracks, it follows his tendencies since Graduation. Instead of churning out discs with twenty-plus tracks, he’s giving himself room to fully explore his ideas before moving on to the next, and in turn the pace leaves you feeling like you’ve had a more rehearsed experience.

The name My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sums up that experience. While we do get anthems like “Power,” it’s more of a sweaty fever dream than the upbeat Yes We Can of “Through the Wire,” “Jesus Walks,” or “Family Business.” There’s no tongue-in-cheek cuteness like “The New Workout Plan” or “Drunk and Hot Girls.” Instead we get mistakes—his big fuck-ups, his worries, his demonic desires, and his compromises. His flow is cheeky as ever, even if the subjects are capital S serious. He’s isolated and uninviting, but you don’t want to turn away from the spectacle. Maybe it’s just Mr. West and I, but it seems we’re living in a time of greater self-doubt and personal neediness than I can remember. If we are all spiraling down into ourselves, it’s comforting to know the world is going alongside us—and that makes this latest album as apropos to its time as any of his previous efforts.

My Favorites: All of them

Listen: Any time

27. Katy Perry – Teenage Dream

I like Katy Perry. She sings about kissing girls and partying and she looks good doing it. She stuffs this newest album with a few really catchy songs, some about love, some about partying, some about too much partying. The songs are modern pop. She’s got a lot of life, and the best of these songs inject energy into the room. Electro drums, vocal athletics, and a rotating cast of funky guitars, synths, and the occasional violin or piano. She’s always been good at the provocateur aspect of the Madonna pop diva persona. Here she continues to demonstrate this frankness—her willingness to put music to our thoughts. In “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” she puts her tongue in her cheek and sings about the partying that doesn’t stop—to the detriment of bank accounts and personal pride, and it all rounds out with an unexpectedly cool saxophone solo. “Peacock” would be better titled without the Pea (though she confuses me a bit with the line about “rainbow looking treasure”). Whatever the case, ambiguity isn’t something she does much of. “Circle the Drain” sees her fed up with a guy who takes too many drugs. “The One That Got Away” is about…well I think you can see. If this sounds like your thing, you’ll probably find yourself drudging up a few tracks for those weekend pregaming get-togethers.

My Favorites: Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.); Firework

Listen: On the weekend, with your girls

28. Kings of Leon – Come Around Sundown

Were Kings of Leon really cooler when nobody else had heard of them? Yes and no. No because the music is almost exactly the same now, and yes because the music is almost exactly the same now; and yes because for people who take these things seriously, mainstream popularity redistributes unique wealth to the mob. The album opens on a sexy smooth slow roast with “The End” just as “Closer” opens Only By the Night. Low distortion spreads out from electric guitar trills, Caleb Followill’s cigarettes-and-tobacco throat cuts through it, the rhythm section starts you swaying, and the landscape is littered with pauses that narrowly avoid pregnancy. Picture all the smoke rolling in from the sides like lenses when their brand of introspective alternative blues rock pierces the night. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really take off from there. All of the songs are more or less the same pace, and could also be described as above. If you like these guys, yes, you will like this newest album. If you haven’t heard of them, go for Aha Shake Heartbreak for your dose of indie-neo-southern-rock -with-a-dash-of-Talking-Heads-arena-pop instead.

My Favorites: The End; Mary

Listen: Driving I think. Yeah, driving.

29. Klaxons – Surfing the Void

Finally, a sequel to the Klaxons consummate debut album, Myths of the Near Future. So, how is it? Huh? How is it? Noisy. The first thing you’ll notice is the relentless wall of sound. It’s like swimming in a choppy ocean of hard synths and guitar noise. Just try to grab onto those jutting drum beat rocks without hitting them too hard. This is the way to get amped. They still round out the sound with goofy falsetto backup vocals. On “The Same Space,” the main beats land like the footsteps of a lumbering clockwork elephant, tinting the track with a slight (slight!) hue of Survivor’s hits. Elsewhere, however, the breakdowns favor a Mars Volta level of hardcore chaotic. Nothing here will have you floating around as with “Golden Skans,” but they do lace some tracks with eerie warbling pindrop synth sounds, and at some point (“Valley of the Calm Trees”) we get to breathe a bit. Mostly though, this stuff was made for parties. Get ready to show your ups. You’d probably be right to think it might be difficult to endure such a full on assault for long, but the album clocks in at a slim 38-some minutes. I’m really not sure about that new rave fuss, but this group has made a modest career of paranormal crunchy fiesta beats. Beer me!

My Favorites: Echoes; Surfing the Void; Twin Flames

Listen: Why not get some glow sticks? It couldn’t hurt.

30. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

LCD Soundsystem brings the shimmy-shimmy. Most of the nine tracks here start very slowly, adding layer by careful layer until we end up with a groovable triumph of balanced beats and anticipation. James Murphy’s voice strains characteristically like a robotic nervous breakdown, but the inventive music is the real star. Supposedly, to the informed, his songs are chock full of homage to bands most people have never heard of. Well, neither have I, so I won’t be too helpful in that regard. “Dance Yrself Clean” opens cold, taking a full four minutes before we get to the synthesizer funk jam, filled out with claps, fizzes, and tin cans. The only short track on the album, “Drunk Girls” is just as laughably silly as you would think. “One Touch” could command an ‘80s fashionista club like Grace Jones , with background tones climbing steadily higher and instrumental phrases that fade out only to return with a later tide. It’s hard not to hear David Bowie’s “Heroes” in the opening to “All I Want,” but before you know it you’ve forgotten all about Bowie. The guitar here prefers to hang in the air, in front of the vocals a bit, mixing things up from a pure pop perspective. Possibly the coolest part of the whole album though is on “You Wanted a Hit,” where “Silent Running” xylophone/glockenspiel/whatever chimes gradually give way to a simple staccato pattern followed by some grating, one-note solo work.

What James Murphy does as a musical history revivalist I’m not qualified in the least to say. All of that provides though, even for an amateur listener, the type of depth that will give these tunes new life fifteen, twenty, forty listens in. And if you’re a fan, you will be listening to these tracks and their other two albums that many times, because LCD Soundsystem has recently called it quits. So, get in on it while there’s still a mite of relevance hanging around them.

My Favorites: All I Want; You Wanted a Hit; Home

Listen: Nerd Dance!

31. Lil Wayne – I Am Not a Human Being

As far as Lil Wayne albums go, you could do much better. This feels like a quickie. Of course, anything would be better than that rock album he tried last year. He goes deeper into his alien weirdo rock star persona on this album, with a lot of the songs slow and dark and spiritually taking us back to the gangster rap of the nineties. He does push things a little bit on the title track, wherein Beastie Boy style guitars provide the main beat. “Single for the Night” is a slow Drake-style beat with a nice twist at the end. “With You” is his new “Mrs. Officer.” He’s still clever, still may leave you scratching your head for a moment before you figure out the metaphor. I don’t see any of these songs making his greatest hits album though.

My Favorites: Hold Up [ft. T-Streets]; What’s Wrong With Them [ft. Nicki Minaj]

Listen: Sometimes you’re just in the mood for Lil Wayne

32. Los Campesinos! – Romance Is Boring

The title says it all. They are indie rock, full of clever wordplay and thoughts of death and unhappiness. Their schtick seems to be slice-of-life wry observation—everyday young adult situations. They are more interested in explaining what’s wrong than trying to correct it. Sonically they are rather more upbeat, with mostly fast, short tunes with lots of group chorus singing, and bouncing guitar licks. Through its 50 minutes, Romance is Boring almost never lulls. They’re trying their damnedest to make sure this album at least, is not boring.

My Favorites: Romance is Boring; Straight in at 101; I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed, Just So You Know

Listen: At College

33. M.I.A. – Maya

It’s digital! We’re digital! M.I.A.’s latest seems to have more in common with her choppy first album than with the more melodic and commercial Kala. Any sound can be part of a beat here, from drills to voice samples to clinking glasses. We know who she is now. This is her moment. As evidence, the album is appropriately big. She sings about love of course, but also about items in the typical purview of rap, like getting money and clubbing. She also frequently references the new internet—Twitter, posting pics, smart phones, and keyboards. On “XXXO,” she sings of a powerful physical romance, developing through such means, and ultimately proclaiming, “I can be the actress, you be Tarantino.” She lays down a little of that Sri Lanka (I’m assuming) sound on “Story to be Told.” “It Takes a Muscle” gives us her take on feel-good reggae. Six years after her first album, she’s still the only one doing what she’s doing. Her songs are still instantly recognizable and different from anything else out there. If you are not into her music already, it will probably take you a while to get there, but it’s definitely worth the investment of time to be able to experience music that’s so transportive.

My Favorites: XXXO; Story to be Told; Meds and Feds; Space

Listen: At any kind of party

34. MGMT – Congratulations

To the mix of psychedelic pop that was their first album, MGMT has added a decidedly sixties campiness. It’s most evident on tracks like “It’s Working,” in the backup vocals or the whacky Monster Mash breakdowns of “Song for Dean Tracy.” I read somewhere that “Someone’s Missing” sounds like a Jackson Five song, and I have to repeat that here because it’s so apt. Of course, other eras come into play, including a bit of 80s B-movie soundtrack (complete with Scarface-like drums) on “Lady Dada’s Nightmare.” We get epic lengthy classic rock on “Siberian Breaks,” followed by a ballad to music producer Brian Eno. Unfortunately, there’s nothing quite as catchy as “Time to Pretend” or “Kids” on this whole album. Sophomore slump? Technically it can’t be (it’s their third album). I mean, it’s not bad and it’s not a waste of your time or money, but if you loved Oracular Spectacular, this is a bit of a step down.

My Favorites: Someone’s Missing; Siberian Breaks

Listen: Just lazing around

35. My Chemical Romance – Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys

It’s hard when you make a perfect album. What do you do next? Well, I should have hoped something better than this, but I kind of suspected it would happen. My Chemical Romance takes the concept album concept even further with Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, where they’re an alternate band (the Fabulous Killjoys) who dare to rock on in some post-apocalyptic wasteland. If that weren’t enough, they even enlisted a “DJ” to tell us all these things between songs. The songs themselves are catchy. They’ve always had a knack for that, but whereas on their previous album, The Black Parade, the songs had enough classic rock in them to really shine, here they all sound like they should be in bad teen comedies. That being said, they still do a good job layering the melodies. You probably will find yourself wanting to sing along after the first time through. It’s fine throwaway rock; they’re just leaning a bit too much toward cheesy on this one.

My Favorites: Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na); The Only Hope for Me Is You; S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W

Listen: Crying about your first breakup

36. Mystery Jets – Serotonin

Something about the way Blaine Harrison reaches for the notes make them all—no matter whether it’s true or not—sound like they lie just outside his register, as if expression were a trial of individual mettle. There’s perhaps something Neil Young in that. Unlike Young, though, there are few real characters here. The music stretches out often enough, with different blends of guitars, keys, synths, horns, whistling and various percussion, but the lyrics focus on the personal—I, you, us. Many of the tracks build up to an 80s dance rock sunshine choral reef of bright guitars and sing-along back-up vocals. They are the guardians of romance—maybe not exactly the lost starry-eyed kind, but something pure and worth defending nonetheless.

My Favorites: It’s Too Late to Talk; Melt

Listen: Pool party

37. Nas & Damian Marley – Distant Relatives

“As we enter / come now we take you on the biggest adventure.” And it is. Thus opens the joint album between traditional gangster hip-hop star Nas and reggae hip-hop fusion artist Damian Marley. The album weightily philosophizes over the state of Africa and its diaspora, expanded to include the current plight of all peoples, and the transience of life and each person’s isolated relationship to it. The music has enough reggae sensibility to lay back on tracks like “Leaders” or “Land of Promise,” and enough party punch to burn the blood on tracks like “Strong Will Continue” and “In His Own Words.” Marley’s raspy Jamaican delivery provides a perfect complement to Nas’s heavy, articulated New York club voice. I’m really taken by this conscientious, reflective hip hop/reggae fusion effort. Peace. Love. Give it a listen.

My Favorites: Tribal War [feat. K’naan]; In His Own Words [feat. Stephen Marley]; Patience

Listen: Heading straight for your next objective

38. The National – High Violet

I kept hoping after getting into their album The Boxer that The National would maybe learn to mix up Matt Berninger’s Quaalude delivery with a bit of life. Well, that hasn’t happened. He has a great voice, but he’s gone a half of a Leonard Cohen too far toward the weather broadcast. The tunes, however—the tunes will feel like ice cool therapy to anyone in the mood to for a bit of pity. They are beautiful, slow, thickly layered post-indie rock (if that’s a thing) anthems to the neurotic troubles of the examined life. It’s really difficult not to think of myself when I hear “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” The band’s thin connection to Cincinnati will probably always hold my interest, but for now, I don’t need such an excuse to keep these brooding drum patterns pumping through my headphones on a rainy night. I might even be getting used to Mr. Berninger’s nuanced monotony.

My Favorites: Anyone’s Ghost; Afraid of Everyone; Bloodbuzz Ohio; Conversation 16

Listen: You heard me. On a drizzly night.

39. Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday

Maybe it’s a case of high expectations, but Nicki Minaj’s debut album seems to suffer from sophomore slump. It’s not terrible. There are songs here to be enjoyed, but she seldom deigns to unleash the hellfire we’ve seen from her spotlight-stealing moments on songs by contemporary heavyweights like Lil Wayne, Drake, Kanye West, and Usher. The production too is riddled with fault, the musical travesty of “Check It Out” topping the list of grievances. Pink Friday styles a bit toward Mariah Carey pop beats from twelve years ago—not exactly what I hope for in my hip pop. Guests on the album do a good job though. Minaj really steps it up for “Roman’s Revenge” with Eminem. She goes for the inspirational too on tracks like “Fly” with Rihanna or the opener, “I’m the Best.” She takes time to reflect on her rise to stardom and the self she left behind, and to make sure we know she’s staying. Even though the beats here may lack punch, I like her rhymes, and I look forward to see what she can do on her subsequent albums.

My Favorites: Roman’s Revenge [ft. Eminem]; Fly [ft. Rihanna]; Blazin [ft. Kanye West]

Listen: Late afternoon

40. No Age – Everything In Between

It’s been a while since a new punk group has made it big. While I wouldn’t say these guys are stars, I have seen this album around quite a few record stores. Less lung-busting angry punk than shoegazing paranoia, Everything In Between nonetheless has plenty of rockable moments. The vocals sound distant and echoed, and the guitars take prominent post, working on simple two and four chord punk progressions, then adding the occasional effect noises to cut into the first layer. They seem intent on deriving the maximum possible variations on guitar noise, introducing a lot of cinematic transitional moments. The album is timeless enough that songs like “Common Heat” could be rearranged for performance by The Byrds, maybe “Skinned” for The Kinks. Their sound is muddy, and even though like most punk it’s a lot of complaining, by this act they belie a kind of hidden California optimism. It isn’t hopeless. It’s life.

My Favorites: Common Heat; Valley Hump Crash; Chem Trails

Listen: Desert highway and jeans

Music of 2010 Roundup, pt. 1

Posted on 2011.01.27 at 18:20

Writing about music is like dancing about…screw that. We’re in the age of YouTube. If my thoughts here are inadequate, go listen to the damned songs yourself. Or better—do it anyway as you follow along. The internet never slinks off in a taxi in the dead of night. You can touch it whenever you want to. I’m going to break this post into three parts, so look for the dark middle chapter, coming soon!

Note these are not ranked.  It’s just alphabetical order.

1. 22-20s – Shake/Shiver/Moan

Over very competent and sincere rock beats, the 22-20s open “Heart on a String,” assertively building tension, and the kind of longing for release therein that has by now resulted in decades of white kids bouncing around bars and living rooms in something akin to dancing. Most comparable on this list to someone like the Black Keys, these young Englishmen deliver ten songs that range from the dragging rock life capsule of “Bitter Pills” to the Beach Boys regretful happy “Ocean” to the delicious sinister formations of “Latest Heartbreak.” In all, there’s really a late ‘60s British invasion sensibility to the songwriting (with maybe a dash of Interpol or Franz Ferdinand on tracks like “4th Floor”), though none of the tunes actually sound like they were produced in that era. We live in a time of great musical revival, and the classic rock of Shake/Shiver/Moan is excellent proof.

My Favorites: Heart on a String; Latest Heartbreak; Shake, Shiver, and Moan

Listen: Anywhere you’re free to get into it

2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Where can they go after the soaring catharsis of Funeral and the desperately instrumental social worries of Neon Bible? On The Suburbs, Arcade Fire get personal again, in an allegorical way, for how many of us grew up in that same wasteland of homogenized culture—how many dwell there still? The more conventional instrumental arrangements of this album failed to hook me at first. The lush violins, brass, and choruses have been pushed further into the background in favor of pianos, guitars, and drums on this effort, but they also bring in the synthesizer to excellent effect on tracks like “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains”—one of the first to catch my attention for its wonderful aural tug-of-war between threatening bass and gently dropping vocals. Then one month, something happened. I found myself listening to the opening three tracks every time I fired up iTunes. What blew by me as simplicity at first had come back as some of the most well ordered melodies in recent memory. Just as with any of Arcade Fire’s previous hits, they get so much better when you learn to anticipate the sudden emotional breaks or the contained fervor of a guitar solo. It’s new nostalgia, bittersweet. It feels, as always, as though Arcade Fire are celebrating the end of the world by themselves, taking a moment here and there to just look back. Amazingly, they’ve maintained the same sense of quiet wonder and boisterous faith in each other across three albums now, without treading over the same sounds. Was there any better band to be this year?

My Favorites: Ready to Start; Suburban War; Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

Listen: Always

3. Beach House – Teen Dream

I can’t get over the atonal bent synth of “Norway.” Something about it does remind me, if not emotionally, then at least intellectually, how it was to be a teenager and wanting so much everything that was so far out of reach. If I heard it in a particularly vulnerable moment it could easily turn the microscope inward, blowing up feelings of all kinds. The rest of the songs are very fine, five minute pop tunes. None are particularly catchy, though I mean that as no insult. While some moments soar and some call out for a little head dancing, Teen Dream is certainly not an album of hooks. It invites you to open whatever poignancy you harbor to the sparse beating of its hazy yearning.

My Favorites: Norway; Lover of Mine

Listen: At sunset, preferably at the beach within, or in the wake of, love

4. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

Big Boi brings his brand of big bass beats and wry wit out again on this, his first official solo album. He opts for an informal backyard dance style rather than overly-glossy club sounds through most of the album. Don’t get me wrong; sex, money, and self-promotion still feature prominently in the lyrics, but Big Boi has always been good at sprinkling funny observations smoothly among the more typical themes of the genre. It’s precisely because of this one foot kept in traditional dirty south rap that the more novel aspects of the production don’t suffocate its party savvy.

My Favorites: General Patton; Hustle Blood [ft. Jamie Foxx]; Fo Yo Sorrows [ft. George Clinton, Too Short, and Sam Chris]

Listen: Pre-gaming, or just gaming

5. Black Eyed Peas – The Beginning

Any summary that starts with a declaration of how much I enjoyed the last album can’t go too much higher. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how I feel. I got The End very early in its life, and despite never being what I would call a real fan of BEP, I was very impressed with the way they had pushed the hip-hop/electronic music blend that had been building through the decade to new limits. In short, I enjoyed the hell out of it for what it was—a great club record to get bodies shaking around the globe. So, what’s wrong with more of the same? For one, that’s all you’ll get with the appropriately continuously-named The Beginning. For another, for all he’s good at, is certainly no Diddy when it comes to reviving ‘80s tracks. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” grated my nerves even before I had developed musical tastes for much beyond Mr. Rogers. Between this and his Buggles update on Nicki Minaj’s latest album I think Mr. should lay off the Reagan decade for a while.
While The End didn’t take too much time to slow down the dance party, it did let several of the tracks breathe, namely “Boom Boom Pow,” “Meet Me Halfway,” and, of course, “I’ve Got a Feeling”—the hits. BEP crafted tracks on that album with much more dynamic ramp-ups than we get here. Too much electro-cheese has caked The Beginning with a very even, unexciting cadence. The places where it does slow up, like “Whatever,” could have been cut off any pop diva album from Faith Hill to Pink. There’s no passion here. It feels like she’s just dancing with you not to be rude.

My Favorites: Don’t Stop the Party

Listen: You will. Loudly. In every club for the next two years.

6. The Black Keys – Brothers

Do you like rock music? Blues rock, with electric guitars, performed through smoky vocals that oooohh all the way out to the Friday night street? The Black Keys fall in the Zeppelin province of the rock landscape, with plenty of rocking guitar riffs and slow confessions poured over big blues drums somewhere dim. On this album The Black Keys treat love like it hurts, no matter how it happens. And like any good blues men, whether it sounds rueful, skeptical, or desperate, you never doubt they’ll be right back in the same spot tomorrow, singing about new heartbreaks and old desires. They’re the tough on the outside, sensitive on the inside types that ladies swoon over.

My Favorites: Everlasting Light; The Only One; Too Afraid to Love You; I’m Not the One

Listen: At night. Nowhere crowded.

7. Brandon Flowers – Flamingo

So bad I deleted it from my computer. Congratulations, The Killers are firmly cemented as my most disappointing band of the ‘00s. I’m curious to see if they can get worse.

8. Broken Bells – Broken Bells

James Mercer of The Shins with Danger Mouse? Yes, please. And it delivered. A wave of catchy, atmospheric indy-pop washes over us all. Danger Mouse’s production is clean and neo vintage as usual, pulling out plenty of fifties and sixties era pop sounds and braising them into songs that will certainly remind you of The Shins—all peaceful rock and brilliant bridges.

My Favorites: The High Road; October; Mongrel Heart; The Mall & Misery

Listen: Sunday afternoon at home

9. Bruno Mars – Doo Wops and Hooligans

It’s capable pop, if lyrically insipid. His voice has a good sound, but I’d like to hear his songs stripped of their production. As it stands “Grenade” sounds like it would be perfectly at home promoting an African lions documentary on the Discovery Channel. For all the younger folks: this is exactly what the artists on adult soft rock stations sound like when they debut. I don’t know how often I’ll go reaching for the Bruno Mars in my playlist, but it’s fine as a dash of pop in the musical diet.

My Favorites: Uh…any are okay I guess

Listen: Sparingly

10. Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer

One of the most unique singing voices on the scene just got its best showcase. Cee Lo is definitely the feature of this wonderful collection of soul pop songs. His voice sounds more powerful and pitch-perfect than ever. Even a song like “Fuck You” that might be seen as a crass grab at some shock value, is musically very impressive. It’s a song about (what else?) heartbreak, updated for modern speech patterns—and it’s true to the spirit of the slang characteristic of classic soul, R&B, and Motown. It’s there because that’s what a modern man says to someone who cruelly breaks his heart. Anything less would be disingenuous. Most of the songs here have uplifting melodies, regardless of subject—a testament to the belief that music should move you, heart and body. Its production is James Bond cool throughout. Here’s one more example of the renaissance of musical styles from the sixties to the eighties that’s touching almost every genre these days.

My Favorites: Bright Lights Bigger City; Fuck You; Satisfied; I Want You; Old Fashioned

Listen: Dancing in the sunshine, with shades

11. The Chemical Brothers – Further

It’s not built for club punch like Push the Button; nor is it chilled out quirky space music like We Are the Stars. Further, with its zealous experimental moments, is more for, uh, zoning out. It’s still far too melodically sensible to come close to psychedelic trance, but it harbors that spirit of music as a journey. The nearly twelve minute “Escape Velocity” will have your head slowly bobbing before you even realize what you’ve been doing—then it goes into a two minute denouement so you can ramp up for the next one. “Dissolve” sounds like the duo dusted off an old, misplaced Quadrophenia era Who song. Elsewhere the album shows the big beat hallmarks that should be familiar to any Chemical Brothers fan. Tracks like “Another World” and “Swoon” are the most out there, with drumless trance sections that will send the dance floor into a sway. At least these guys aren’t getting lazy.

My Favorites: Escape Velocity; Dissolve; Swoon

Listen: While working, or otherwise seeking escape

12. The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards

Whether The Dead Weather are actually threatening some vague misdeed (“Blue Blood Blues”), struggling to get away (“Jawbreaker”), weaving religious threads into the framework, or just bitching, they at least seem comfortable with the macabre, even if we never do. I don’t know if gothic blues is a thing, but there’s enough lonely dark imagery here to—when coupled with an indistinct profane bent—provide a menacing musical freefall. Random guitar scratches and other off kilter noises pop up and down, creating a bed of jagged needles in which the choruses declaim the intentions of a distraught righteousness (“I’m gonna teach you / and keep you for myself,” “I’m gonna take you for worse or for better / to my grave,”). Behind it all there’s the solid songwriting we’ve come to expect from any Jack White project, a seemingly off-the-cuff sort of genius. Even if you’re never allowed fully into the music, you can at least rock right alongside these guys.

My Favorites: The Difference Between Us; Old Mary

Listen: Working on your car engine while waiting for your daughter’s boyfriend to pick her up

13. Deadmau5 – 4x4=12

Club music, very purely. Punchy-punchy poundy beats get you in a zone and little warbling flourishes throw off the groove just slightly. The whole production is very exuberant, full of claps, high pitched whines, and other noises that remind you this is music for massive rooms that disregard ceilings. A few singers—notably SOFI—provide a nice pacing break from the unglamorous progressive house that clips along at a groovable 128 beats per minute. This isn’t your euro beach vacation house though. A lack of violins and harmonious hooking vocals leave the album a bit grindier, maybe a bit more city freak vixen than Ibiza bombshell. It wants you to dance, and if you’re so inclined, you’ll find plenty of body fodder here.

My Favorites: Some Chords; Right This Second

Listen: Trying to push your way through a heady throng of third shift space revelers

14. Devo – Something for Everybody

They are doing it again, making self-referential pop so much about superficiality and coolness, it might be easy to miss the tongues in cheeks—to take them superficially. Anyone who really knows Devo knows they’re just having fun. They certainly haven’t abandoned their core sensibilities in the twenty years since their last album. Most of the songs are packed with chants and repeat hooks that will probably have you doing your best new wave robot voice after a few listens. Yeah, it sounds pretty retro, but lots of things do these days, so it’s not as much of an anachronism as it might seem.

My Favorites: Please Baby Please; Later is Now

Listen: Driving around town in a packed convertible

15. Drake – Thank Me Later

Ok, he can sing. Drake is a much better rapper though. While I appreciate what he’s getting at with the slower, champagne crisp piano romance solitude, the album would be better served using it as a baste rather than a batter. Everyone wants to be the next The Love Below or Electric Circus genre-bender; however, I can only stare meaningfully into my lover’s eyes for so many songs. Fortunately, when he does take off, Drake’s eloquent, descriptive flow takes you in its confidence. Like all rappers, his world is pretty egocentric and insular, but he makes enough confessions and accusations to throw an adequate dispersion on the greeds and self-doubts that carry us to every new stop in life. The guest spots are all on target, with Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z turning in particularly strong verses. Most of the open beats have a measured sizzle–part of that new crop of slow R&B-as-rap production prominent with contemporaries like Kid Cudi. Despite a few shoutouts to the party life, and plenty more to the single life, Thank Me Later always feels like a close conversation in an empty, bleary bar. There aren’t many big choruses or dance hooks, but you’ll get ample refrigerator philosophy and sound bites to keep you awake anyway, just chilling.

My Favorites: Fireworks [ft. Alicia Keys]; Up All Night [ft. Nicki Minaj], Light Up [ft. Jay-Z]

Listen: In a high-rise apartment at night

16. The Drums – The Drums

Among the many retro sounds coming from modern bands, I didn’t expect warbly sixties surf pop, but that’s exactly what we get with The Drums debut album. They round out the sound with a compressed, midrange lo-fi production that forces you to turn it up loud. It’s a glossy Peter, Bjorn, and John without the heavy neediness. Infectious light steely guitar licks bounce up and down in the background, while the bass lays down a staccato sound bed. They deal with problems like loneliness, the death of a friend, abandon, and social anxiety with a cheery shuffle-dance attitude that might make The Smiths proud. The simple instrumentation may masque the copious depth of exploration on the first listen, but keep trying. This brief album yields some of the best tunes of the year.

My Favorites: Let’s Go Surfing; Book of Stories; Forever and Ever Amen

Listen: Please

17. Eminem – Recovery

Like good punk, he tries to tear down all convention, and in the process builds up something rather inspirational. It’s hard to believe Eminem is 40. He still brings the cleverest metaphors and the most off-the-wall demented digressions in the business, although he has now become concerned with his life or the threat of a lack thereof, and we’re all privy to this druggy midlife crisis theater. As with the last several albums, though, none of the songs feel as musical as he clearly wants them to. I can’t put my finger on it, but rarely since The Eminem Show with all its fastidious Dr. Dre production have any of Eminem’s melodies really caught. They’ve felt mostly like some no man’s land between the dark carnival quirk of that disc and some kind of rock trip hop march. Here, they take another step in that direction, albeit too timidly. Sampling helps (“Going Through Changes”, “No Love”), but it would be nice if the originals could stand up as well. His flow continues its unparalleled ability to spin heads with intra-line rhyming, assonance, slant rhyme, and relentless meter that somehow manages to sound like natural speech. This time he’s augmented his formula—like most everyone else these days—with Lil Wayne style non sequiturs that add stops to the rhythm. His artistry has always lain in his willingness and ability to challenge expectations with cunningly placed honesty, and in that sense he is back on Recovery. There’s a moment on “Won’t Back Down” where the producer turns down the volume and Em responds in stride. He’s still trying to catch us off guard, and though we may have gotten used to his lightning storm verses over the years, if you do attempt to follow along this time, you’ll no doubt get struck again.

My Favorites: Seduction; No Love [ft. Lil Wayne]; You’re Never Over

Listen: In public with headphones, feeling badass

18. Foals – Total Life Forever

A sweet kind of wailing uncertainty pervades this second album from UK group Foals. Touches of indie dance sensibility balance their tendency toward ethereal musings. There’s a desire here to languish, in spite of the music’s calculated drive forward. It’s a lovely sort of push/pull that somehow recalls both Grizzly Bear and Hot Chip. Spacey waves of sound copulate with shoegazing slow chord progressions on the nearly seven-minute “Spanish Sahara.” Elsewhere the melodies layer amid slightly schizo-paranoid levels of sound, from jumpy guitar licks to disco-savvy drum bits to falsetto backing vocals to electro pops. There’s a sad cinematic wonder to it all that recalls Radiohead, but without their thundering buildups. What to make of all this? It’s really good, that’s what.

My Favorites: Miami; Spanish Sahara; After Glow

Listen: On your back, gazing at clouds

19. Girls – Broken Dreams Club

Few modern bands can produce the absolutely timeless rock pop of Girl’s debut album, Album. Here on this EP you can get familiar with their brand of heartstring debunked romance. It’s an outstanding bite sized sample of what they can do. While lacking in the harder rocking tunes of Album, it moves the soundscape over a bit, with horns and expectant guitar solos. I can’t wait to hear what this group does next.

My Favorites: The Oh So Protective One; Heartbreaker; Alright

Listen: Surrounded by ugly, old furniture

20. Gogol Bordello – Trans-Continental Hustle

If you’ve never gotten into this band, get a hold of their 2007 album, Super Taranta! After that, get on to Trans-Continental Hustle. As with the previous disc, you will shake. You will dance. You will laugh at lines like “I’m a little chavo / but I learned one thing / girls they like the kissing / as much as we do.” Though most of the lyrics are in English, they write in their own idiosyncratic Eastern European voices, grammar mistakes and all. Violins and accordions bring a load of flavor to the rocking guitar sounds that form the base of this gypsy punk album. Singer Eugene Hütz very candidly gives himself over to the music, voice straining with emotion and force from the thumping choruses to the closer tender pleas of songs like “Sun Is on My Side.” They’re concerned with romance and life, sure, but they also expound on themes of revolution, education, immigration, and religion. Though the lyrics are sure and full of wisdom, Hütz manages to convey a sense of chaos and postmodern doubt underneath. It’s really this coming-apart-at-the-seems audacity that gives Gogol Bordello their mesmerizing hold over our attention. In the music of Gogol Bordello, there’s a great push for liberation, a push that will doubtless find you out on the dance floor.

My Favorites: Pala Tute; Sun Is on My Side; Raise the Knowledge

Listen: At your next Eastern European wedding party


Posted on 2010.11.17 at 23:07

It sneaks up on you.  You don't suddenly start listening to different radio stations or wearing different clothes. You think you’re not getting old yet because you don’t do old person things like your parents or grandparents. That isn’t how it works. Instead, the things you do—your habits, whatever you think is important—become old person things. Really, who still listens to the radio?

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