Monday, December 26, 2011

Rolling in the Deep: A Look Back at the Music of 2011

In almost every field, outside of cinema, I am hopeless at chronicling what my favorite pop culture items of the year are. It's not that I am out of the loop when it comes to television, or books, or tonight's subject, music, quite the contrary; I tracked the rise and fall of many of the new shows on TV, like the Mad Men rip off that was The Playboy Club, to the titanic abortion that was Kardashian wedding (which I glimpsed through the corner of an eye while catching up on this season of Breaking Bad). I read five books that came out this year, not because I only read five books this entire year, but because many of the novels I chose were longtime members of my bloated Must Read List (but I'd be lying if I didn't say that Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, The Marriage Plot was on that list the minute I heard he was writing a new novel). So as you can expect, I did not keep track of the Music of 2011 as much as other people did. I was there when Skrillex transformed into one of the most popular acts of the year, launching the term 'dubstep' into the public conscious. I've never listened to Odd Future, despite the fact that for a month they were the only group that anyone talked about in Boston (I'll get to Tyler the Creator in just a bit). And yes, I know that 'Pumped Up Kicks' is about killing hipsters, and will happily tell you that I was at the Foster the People concert, and don't care if you hate them.

So, the question remains, what did I listen to this year? To be honest, as I scroll through my Spotify, I'll have to answer "the same old shit I listened to in 2010". Well, that's not exactly fair, because it discredits the artists that I did discover through their work in 2011, some that compelled me to look at their older music, or if I was already a fan, it was enough to hook me for life. This is not a Top 10 of the year, because it would be both short and really unfair to compare everything I listened to, so I'm going to give the things that I really liked (or in some cases, didn't like) their own category. It's a different list than most, so I felt like making it extra special. Enjoy.

Album of the Year: Wild Flag (Self-Titled)

I am going to be honest and say that this album is a sentimental pick, but in the months since listening to the en tire album and seeing Wild Flag in concert (!), not only does it get me sentimental, but it's a fucking terrific album. Most of my friends know that I am a die hard Sleater-Kinney fan, and their break-up in 2006 was both devastating and unforeseen. Since announcing their indefinite hiatus, I've been waiting for a sign, digging deeper into the S-K archive, and building my love for the band as a result. So to hear that not one, but two members of Sleater-Kinney were forming a new band, the reaction was one of bliss and enthusiasm. And to be honest, it could have been an average vanity project and I would have still gotten excited and paid to see them in concert. If you listen to any of the tracks, from the incredibly catchy single, 'Romance' to the album's crowning achievement 'Racehorse', it's as if S-K never died, they just took a bathroom break. The album is fun to listen to, but even better when heard live, and I will forever remember Carrie Brownstein sticking her guitar in my face. I believe it deserves the distinction of Album of the Year 110%.

Favorite Under the Radar Album: Feist-'Metals'

I use the term 'under the radar' to describe the new Feist album because I've heard nothing about it since
it's release. Nothing. No mentions on end of the year lists, or at least, nothing significant. It's as if all of the love and
adulation that Feist received for '1234' vanished, and peopl
e forgot she existed after the iPod commercial. And frankly, I'm okay with that, because this album is not '1234'
material. It's much better. 'Metals' has Feist doing what she does best, crafting gorgeous, folksy, sleepy indie music that is both romantic and haunting. She's not going to land an iPhone commercial this year, which is just fine. I'm glad that it's
under the radar, because it means I can enjoy it all of myself, but I wish more people could recognize it's beauty. It's different, but different in the best way possible.

Favorite Song of the Year: M83-'Midnight City'

I'd listened to a few songs off of M83's 2008 album, Saturdays=Youth a while back and liked the John
Hughes vibe I got while listening to them. I knew that they had a new album out, but did not give it a listen to, and instead, found myself drawn to Saturdays again, this time more intensely. So, how I discovered this song is simple, but magical: I heard it at a party and fell in love, long before finding out that it was, indeed, M83. 'Midnight City' is beautiful in such a unique, triumphant, and nostalgic place in my heart. It's a song I can listen to four times a day and not get tired of it. It hits every note spot on; listening to it feels like the end to a really great movie from, you guessed it, the 80's, only it's even better than that, because the listener themselves, is allowed to create the memories and images. Anthony Gonzalez, the lead member of M83, calls this song his '1979', and I feel like it is more
than worthy of the title.

Film with the Best Soundtrack: Drive

I fucking loved Drive. I saw it twice, and the second time, it held up perfectly. It's the rare film that could have been made in almost any decade of Hollywood, and still be an amazing film. Part of what made Drive so fantastic was the soundtrack, particularly Kavinsky's song 'Nightcall' which plays during the opening credits and College's 'A Real Hero', which appears twice, and closes out the film. Both songs feel, like the entry above, as if they were taken out of a really cool film from the 80's. 'Nightcall' establishes the slick, sexy, dangerous world that Ryan Gosling's character has plunged himself into, or is about to, while 'Hero' feels both glorious and ironic, considering the protagonist and his emotional detachment with most everything else in the film. I went to many college parties this semester, and I'd be lying if I did not say that almost every one of them had
one or both of these songs on the playlist.

Guiltiest Pleasure (TIE): Kreayshawn "Gucci Gucci" and Rebecca Black

As humans, it is in our nature to derive pleasure from things that are, for lack of a better term, 'so bad, that they're good'. It's why The Room is such a successful midnight movie, or why the Golden Raspberry Awards exists. We all know the power of Youtube, especially among teenagers and tech savvy adults, so when our schadenfreude joins forces with the internet, we turn songs like 'Gucci Gucci' and 'Friday' into mega hits. Sure, we all hate these songs, and are more than will and Facebook, espec
ing to denigrate Rebecca Black for sounding like a nasal robot, or for Kreayshawn's rapping skills, but we were never
asked to listen to either of these songs. We only listened to them because someone said how bad the song was, and then, in many cases, we were compelled to share it with other people, who shared it with others, and so forth. And both songs had a strong impact on pop culture. Numerous people covered 'Friday' on Youtube, and people blasted it on radio stations, all the while trashing it. And I heard my fair share of friends at college, myself included, singing basic bitches who wear 'Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada'. Sure, both songs are mindless and obnoxious, but I love them. Deep down.

Best New Artist: Washed Out "Within and Without"

I was disappointed that Washed Out did not get very popular by the end of 2011. Listening to "Within" and
their EP "Life of Leisure", I was pulled in by their relaxed, romantic sound, which incorporated plenty of synthesizers and hipster cred. "Within and Without" is a solid debut, and has a number of stand out tracks, my favorite being "Amor Fati" which is one of the happiest and most blissfully romantic songs of the year. "Leisure" is also fantastic, and marks the sign of a talented and interesting artist. It's a short album, but it demands to be played more than once.

The 'Hot New Artist' That I Hate: Tyler The Creator

Tyler The Creator is one of the few artists who, after I listen to them, I feel like I need to take a long, hot shower. His music is just so unpleasant, so unrelentingly hateful and just gruesome without bearing any actual substance. Rap is a genre I have never personally connected to. Being a queer feminist, why would I want to listen to a type of music that is notorious for bashing both gays and women? Needless to say, not all rap is the same, and there are some artists, like Childish Gambino, whose raps are intelligent and witty, or Kanye West, who last year took the genre and turned out an epic in a Grand Guignol fashion. Tyler's music, to me, feels like shock value without enough intelligence to come across as interesting or unique. It's homophobic, it's misogynistic, and not all that new. I'm not going to be sorry the day that asshat and his cohorts stop being relevant, and the public stops honoring them.

The "What Is This I Don't Even" Award: Lady "Twerk"

I cannot for the life of me tell you where this song came from,
or who thought it would be a good idea, or why Lady herself does not "twerk" in her own video. For those of you who do not know how to "twerk", or what I am even talking about, just watch the video on Youtube, and see for yourself. Nothing I say or talk about can really prepare you for the video, it's is just an actual thing. Is it sexy? No. Does it make sense? No. Am I in love with it? No comment.

Best Break Up Album of 2011: Adele "21"

Admit it, you sang 'Rolling in the Deep' into your hairbrush at least once this past year. You played 'Someone Like You' on a loop and wept at some point. Whether you like her or not, Adele is an artist who exploded this year, and I am more than happy for her. She is like a saner Amy Winehouse, her voice is terrific, her heart is laid bare, and she will knock you flat. And her album, 21, is terrific at conjuring the deepest and most melancholy, most vicious, most empowering emotions that arise from a break up. And with her words, Adele is lending the listener a piece of her heart, and a shoulder to cry one. While 'Deep' got very overplayed this summer, I still think it is a great song, and one that will play in my head. It has started a fire in my heart, so to speak.

Favorite Artist of...2012: Lana Del Rey

After generating popularity with her singles 'Video Games' and 'Born to Die', Lana Del Rey represents a classier, sexier side of modern pop music. Her sound is a mixture of old Hollywood and contemporary hip hop, and Del Rey has been labeled a 'Gangsta Nancy Sinatra'. Whatever label she is given, Del Rey is still incredibly talented, and has a voice that will send chills down your spine, while her music will swallow you up in a sea of sexiness and sadness. A lot of hipster blogs are complaining about Del Rey and say that she is not at all indie, that she's a sell out with too much plastic surgery who reinvented herself to make money. I disagree, and hope that this backlash vanishes the more popular she gets, and as the year progresses. I look forward to hearing her debut album, Born to Die, when it comes out in January, and expect great things from her.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Imitation of Life

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Aggeliki Papoulia
Year: 2011

There is a scene towards the very end of Alps when a character climbs into bed, and on the wall behind her, we see the words "who's that girl" cut out from a magazine. It is an interesting shot, one that does not linger too long, but that says so much about the characters, and also, the concept of the film itself. When one yearns to adapt to a new identity, however prefabricated and artificial that identity may be, who are they, really, if neither themselves, nor the person in question? This question serves as both the centerpiece for the film, and as a provocative counterpoint to the director's previous film, Dogtooth, which focuses on one person's rebellion against a false life that is established by extreme parental supervision as well as paranoia and misinformation. While their ideas are almost polar opposites, the two films share many similarities in tone, style, and execution.

Like Dogtooth, Alps borrows its cinematography from Michael Haneke's book of style; the shots are cold, so clean while still unsettling and gritty, and the camera feels like a fly on the wall, while we, the audience, transform into a pack of voyeurs, watching the downfalls of these characters as they unfold. While clinical, the film can be surprisingly empathetic at times, something that its predecessor never was, even though it never asked to be. Lanthimos takes brief moments of strong emotion, whether they be heartbreak or fear, and places them in unexpected parts of the film. Through this, we are more moved than we would be had the tone of the film been maudlin or melodramatic. Conversely, like its predecessor, the violence in Alps feels even more disturbing and visceral because we truly did not expect it, and since it was so sudden, we cannot prepare ourselves for it, nor can we look away. Lanthimos also shares this with Haneke, who tries to include at least one scene in each of his films that breaks from the frigid tone of the narrative, scenes that shock, sadden, and even destroy us. Already devoid of style and flair, this allows the directors to create an even more realistic setting and narrative, and as such, the audience now has to keep on its toes and watch behind their back.

Outside of these strengths, one interesting thing that Lanthimos does with this film is show his restraint. After Dogtooth came out of nowhere and left a mark on many critics and film goers, myself included, Lanthimos, being the young, hot shot director with a controversial film and a surprising Oscar nomination under his belt, could have taken the Gaspard Noe approach to filmmaking and kicked his next film to eleven. His next film could have been even weirder, even more violent and sexual, and could have alienated even more critics. He could have tried to outdo his hit film and make something would have taken him from successful filmmaker to just another flash in the pan. While restraint can surely be labeled boring, or as a sign of weakness in a film, Alps is less shocking than its predecessor, but still manages to be disturbing and creative all the same. Instead of copying his first success, Lanthimos chose to take elements from it and execute them differently, but keeping a similar trend. Thus, he does not want to make the same film every time, but rather, create unique stories that stay creative, rather than derivative. And what Lanthimos keeps from Dogtooth are the things that worked best: the style, the abrupt scenes of violence, and my favorite, the abrupt ending that leaves the audience speechless. The best thing, and only thing, for that matter, that I will say about both endings, is that, out of context, the images and actions have no meaning or drama, but in the context of their respective films, they are enough to stop your heart.

Still, while I think that the restraint works, for others who enjoyed Dogtooth, it might feel a little lazy, or otherwise, boring. It is hard to say whether or not Alps is better or worse than Dogtooth, simply for the fact that they really aren't films one can compare. The emotions I have for Dogtooth are very strong, and since seeing it, it has been constantly in my head, but that does not mean that I cannot enjoy Alps, or even hold it up to the same level as Lanthimos' previous film. I saw a similar argument last year with Sylvain Chomet's film The Illusionist, a film which I really enjoyed, but which irked friends of mine who, like me, loved Chomet's first feature-length film, The Triplets of Belleville. What worked in The Illusionist was similar to Triplets, but was also different. The films were not supposed to be the same, and I realized this, but to others who were expecting a similar level of execution and perfection, the film did not deliver as much. Were Chomet a director with a wider filmography, I'm sure that it would be a different case, but it is when someone is just starting out that we see audiences judging them the most. If anything, the toned down surrealism in Alps works to its advantage in that it makes for a more accessible film, one that feels more traditionally cinematic, while maintaining the interesting elements of Dogtooth.

In the end, Alps is both a fascinating film on its own, and when compared to Dogtooth. The style and themes suggest great things from Lanthimos, and the understated performance from Papoulia, who was the eldest daughter in Dogtooth, captures all of these elements, and shows range in her acting. She looks much older, and much more beautiful, in this role, and one can hope that she collaborates with the director for a third time, and beyond. By the end of the film, we are not given a clear cut answer as to how we should feel, nor are the characters given easy exits. It is disturbing. It is worrisome. It is just how life goes, whether one is pretending to live it or not.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us: Examining Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Twenty years ago today, the godfather of Grunge, Kurt Cobain, alongside his band, Nirvana, released what has been recognized as one of, if not, the most important rock albums of the nineties, Nevermind. Crackling with anger and a nice dose of rebellion, Nirvana created a record that defined the lives of dissatisfied youths, regardless of race, gender, or even social scene. Although it was not long before pre-packaged and studio approved bubble gum pop took over mainstream music, for a brief, shining moment, grunge, Kurt, and Nevermind were on top of the world, and brought dangerous rock and roll into the public eye.

All of this being said, I'm not writing this piece to reminisce over the misty, water-colored memories of Nevermind, but rather, to analyze some of the responses to the album, including my own. Don't expect any tearjerking speeches here.

Last month, Spin Magazine released an issue dedicated to Nevermind, which collected a hodge podge of responses from famous figures, everyone from Carrie Brownstein (MAJOR love) to Patton Oswalt, to the guy who plays on the Macbook in Girl Talk. Because it's a retrospective, the majority of the responses were positive, describing moments, years, that the songs off of Nevermind (especially that one about teens) changed their lives. For a concept that could have gotten touchy feely and self-important, the editors at Spin published a nice issue about nostalgia and chose people who each had something new to say about the album.

Yet, while reading the issue, what struck me as more interesting and meaningful than the sentimental responses were the pieces that were critical, even cynical, towards this towering achievement of Grunge Rock. This isn't to say I wanted people to rain on Nirvana's parade, but the mini-articles that contrasted the love letters to the band and the album spoke much louder to someone like me, and my opinion of the album and the band. One piece, written by one of the chairs at Matador Records, argued that, compared to other, less popular albums in music history, Nevermind isn't all that special. His point being, I'm not going to bitch and moan about the album, but there were even better and more important records released before, and after Nevermind that are not going to get nearly as much fan fair as this album.

As difficult as it may sound, I have to say I agree.

At the age of 12, I remember playing tracks off of Nevermind over and over again. Never the entire album, mostly 'Teen Spirit', because everyone loved 'Teen Spirit', and 'Terratorial Pissings', because it had a bad word in the title. Because people, regardless of age, are mercurial in their music tastes, it was not long before Nevermind was replaced by The Sex Pistols and The Clash, who would, in turn, get the boot by bands like Fiona Apple, Modest Mouse, and the band that changed everything for me, Sleater-Kinney. Listening to the tracks off Nevermind, there is definitely a charge running through my body. I like the songs, love how the album spoke so deeply for so many people so many years ago. I appreciate that something was born, within my generation, that has stood for rock and roll, for independence, and for angst. But to be honest, it's not my thing.

To illustrate a little further, I'm going to draw a loose comparison between Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith. Granted, they were both different men, but for the sake of arguing, I'm going to group them together. Both men were prominent artists during the early nineties, both had a rough around the edges sound that was pretty as well as grimy. Both were severely fucked up, used drugs, and eventually took their own lives. In the case of Elliott, he lacks the massive popularity/ubiquity that Kurt and Nirvana received during their hey days, despite having all of the similarities that I mentioned. And yet, listening to Smith, I get the same deep, passionate feelings that many other people get when turning on a Nirvana song.

Does it bother me that the media has less of a focus on Elliott Smith? Yes, and no. While Smith definitely captivated the public eye for a short time, mainly because of his song 'Miss Misery' in Good Will Hunting and his performance at the Oscars, where he donned a white tuxedo, he's no Kurt. Though I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed, I doubt we will see Smith's face plastered all over magazines on the 10th anniversary of his death. On one hand, it's aggravating that the music industry is like this, that one tortured genius gets all of the love and respect while another doesn't rise much beyond his devoted group of followers. But to be honest, I like it this way. Had Smith become as big as Kurt, his self destruction would have been at rapid speed, and it was clear during his career that he felt uncomfortable under the spotlight. In this regard, a medium sized fan base as passionate as the one he has today would have been all that he wanted. Within this group, Smith is more than just a voice, he's our voice. Though the fan count is fewer, to those who have fallen in love with Elliott Smith, the size does not matter. The heart is still there.

So, to sum everything up, and hopefully, to achieve closure, I am going to say that I am glad that Nirvana existed. To the millions who discovered them, between those twenty years, their music still feels genuine, powerful, and as meaningful as it did back in 1991. You don't discover someone like Kurt Cobain every day, a man who hated misogyny, discrimination, and conforming to any mold. To this, I salute him. And yeah, I'm not as big a fan as many others. Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

So Far, So Good: The Best Films of 2011 (so far)

While common knowledge states that the best films of the year are released at the tail end of the year, sometime between late October and December, to the seasoned film goer who is willing to test the waters the other nine months of the year, there are a wide number of films that stand out as wheat among the chaff. 2011 has given audiences masterpieces such as Big Mommas' House, Hop, and Michael Bay's latest explody-fest, but has also provided audiences with a terrific assortment, like the films that you will see on this list. Will my list remain the same until December? Probably not, but judging by how much I enjoyed these films, I can look forward to even more masterpieces in the months to come.

10. The Trip
In what can only be described as the vacation from hell, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are a quick-witted and perfectly matched pair, playing themselves while traveling around the British countryside for a restaurant tour. The set up is smart, simple, and allows plenty of room for creativity and spontaneity. The comedy does not feel forced or over the top, mainly because the two look like they are having such a fun time together. I really appreciated the dark ending, which speaks wonders to one of the characters' inner torment and desire for success. The impressions are worth the price of admission.

9. Bridesmaids
Jon Hamm deserves an Oscar of his own for his role as the douchebag fuck buddy to Kristen Wiig's Annie. Hamm's scene stealing performance is just one of the many highlights in this smartly written movie, which is surprisingly deep when dealing with the subject of deep friendships and moving on. It's not a female Hangover, in that the only thing they have in common is being rude and funny. No, Bridesmaids is much more than that. It lets its characters develop, even treads the line between funny and sad at some points. In the end, its a film that reminds people that women actually possess funnybones. Well, duh.

8. Project Nim
One of the most fascinating documentaries of the year, Nim details the harrowing story of a monkey who was taught to grow up like a human. However, after years of studies and experiments, Nim's cuteness wares off, and he slowly turns into a savage beast, which he was all along. It's worth watching because it's so compelling, and at times, frightening, and the viewer is never sure which side of the argument is right. Nim reminds its audience of the dangers of tampering with nature, and shows us when an experiment stops being just that.

7. Jane Eyre
Cary Fukunaga's adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's classic novel was the first adaptation of the story I saw, and I was able to watch the film with the book fresh in my mind. This meant that I remembered every moment, every scene, every flirtation that made me adore the book. While this adaptation cuts out the bulk of the minor, but charming, details and sticks to the meat of the story, it succeeds because of its cast, its visuals, and its atmosphere. Mia Wasikowska is the Jane Eyre I pictured while reading the book, and it goes without saying that Michael Fassbender is both talented and drop dead sexy as Rochester. Rumor has it that a longer cut exists, which I am curious to see, for the hopes that it includes more details and background.

6. Certified Copy
What is this film about exactly? Do these characters really know each other? While I will not say too much, I can tell you that it features two of the strongest performances of the year and is filmed with an acute eye for detail by Abbas Kiarostami. It's a mystery, one that requires your full attention and your own theories by the very end. I loved the scenery, and how the background players interacted with the two leads, one of whom(William Shimell) isn't even a professional screen actor. Also superb is Juliette Binoche, but that's a given. See it, and make your own guesses, you won't regret it.

5. Bill Cunningham: New York
I did not know anything about Bill Cunningham before watching this film, but as soon as I saw this, I felt charmed, enthralled, and without a doubt, moved, by the man whose spark makes The New York Times Style Section more than just a piece of paper. For a man who has such a strong eye for fashion, Cunningham is modest in both his wardrobe and his lifestyle, and these provide some of the film's best moments. It's not a shocking expose about the cutthroat world of newspapers, nor is it a scathing commentary about Fashion. Bill's attention towards his subjects is admirable, and is a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by drama. Seeing people through Cunningham's eye is an experience I will not soon forget.

4. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen's newest film is so good, so fun, and so wonderful, that I actually saw it twice, and both times, it was packed. It's easily his best since Vicky Christina Barcelona, and it has a terrific cast, as always. Owen Wilson does a great job acting at the west cost Woody, with his awkward comments and love of things old and nostalgic. While I won't spoil much about the film in relation to the title, I will say it's the perfect summer movie. It's an escapist flick that is smartly written, and is just so damn enjoyable that you'll be taken away, along with the main character.

3. Kaboom
Gregg Araki is not one for going easy on his viewers, case in point every film he's ever made. It's hard to describe his newest film, except to say that it's an apocalyptic sex comedy that has a gorgeous cast, great music, and some really radical visuals. It's fast and very freaky, plus it's really well written. Thomas Dekker is engaging as Smith, our horny protagonist who gets pulled into an underground conspiracy that only he can stop. That is, when he isn't too busy fucking everyone in sight or gawking at his beefcake of a roommate. Kaboom is not for everyone, and I would not be surprised it a wide number of people end up hating this film because of it's tone and content, which can come across as vapid and way too crazy. In short, you won't forget Kaboom, regardless of your opinion. It's the kind of film that requires you to turn off your brain cells and just watch and enjoy the action.

2. Poetry
Mija is an elderly woman who is losing her memory. Working day in and day out for an ungrateful grandson, she tries to find time to enjoy her life and be happy. As such, she enrolls in a poetry class, where the goal is to write a poem. In a lesser film, this plot would be silly and overwrought with emotion, but in Chang Dong-Lee's quiet but gorgeous film, Mija is a compelling and strong character. The darker elements of the story are also very powerful, and though I won't say what they are, the way the other characters at as a result is both unsettling and entirely believable. I loved this film because it was sparse, shot with a plain camera and full of gorgeous nature shots, and has one of the year's best performances by Jeong-hie Yun, who embodies Mija with a subdued grace. It's easily the most obscure film on the list, but if you know me, you know I love to honor small, but mighty films. And this is exactly that, powerful despite its simplicity.

1. The Tree of Life
Without a doubt, The Tree of Life is an awe inspiring film, one that cannot be fully explained, described, enjoyed without one sitting down and watching it. It's a film that is unlike most anything I've seen in ages, and is the first film in a long time that I left the theater completely rewarded. The different parts, ranging from the creation of the planet, to the 1950's, are quite simply breathtaking, and even though the scenes involving dinosaurs and jellyfish are not entirely explained, I had no problem watching them unfold, and once witnessing their encompassing power, was able to sit back and appreciate the different elements, the different ideas, that director Terrance Malick was setting in motion before me on screen. The story involves the growth of a boy into manhood, all the while exploring the pain, the love, the anger, and the ugliness that exists in human life. The young boy playing Jack is truly talented, and carries a good portion of the film. Brad Pitt is also strong, and takes the 'Father Knows Best' ideal and sticks by it, even if it's not always true. The real burst of fresh air is Jessica Chastain, an unknown who portrays the mother of the family with such insight and beauty that I found myself drawn to her in every scene she was in. While the film isn't perfect, its flaws resting in the Sean Penn scenes, which traces the adult life of Jack and his reflections of youth. While these scenes are important, they are not as interesting in my opinion. Also, the film could have been trimmed a bit towards the end, but minor quibbles aside, I cannot speak more highly for The Tree of Life, and am more than glad to give it the number one spot on my list.

Films I'm Looking Forward To (In Order): Melanchola, Tabloid, The Skin That I'm In, A Dangerous Method, Drive, Shame, and The Ides of March.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Kids are Not All Right: The Films of 2010-Part 4

5. Winter's Bone

Filled with a chilly and unforgiving atmosphere, Winter's Bone was film noir set in the Ozarks, and right from the beginning, it was close to perfect. Jennifer Lawrence is stunning as Ree Dolly, the seventeen year old daughter of a bail jumping meth cooker who gets caught up in the middle of a deep and disturbing mystery. Also of note is the under appreciated John Hawkes as Teardrop, her uncle who runs hot and cold, good and bad. I loved the dichotomy of the ensemble, particularly Teardrop. This is the life many have chosen to live, and as such, the rules have been written in blood. It's a captivating film set in the ugliest of towns.

4. True Grit

I'm always a fan of the Coen brothers, so Grit was no exception. While Westerns are admittedly not my favorite film genre, the outstanding performances from Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges made this already fun film all the more spectacular. The casting is top notch and each actor is used to their full potential. Plus, true Coen brothers fans will enjoy the random Coen moments that are at this point trademark, which diffuse tension and insert a level of weirdness that is quite edifying. It's a well made movie, and it's an excellent adventure.

3. Black Swan

No stranger to nightmares, Darren Aronofsky has delivered a gorgeous, sick, and dizzying piece of art that begs to be seen and discussed. One part Red Shoes, two parts Repulsion, Swan is a film that operates around my favorite kind of horror, psychological horror. Using just the right amount of special effects and blood, the film had me jumping in my seat, flinching, and in one case, biting down onto my scarf out of shock. Natalie Portman gives a performance that is both innocent and dangerous. Her transformation is utterly painful to watch, and the small cuts and subliminal messages spliced into the film kept me on my toes. The performances and the plot itself teeter on borderline camp, but is stunning enough that we can just enjoy it for what it is. So good, I even saw it twice, just to make sense of this brooding fever dream.

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Larger than life masterpiece or elaborate hoax? Either way, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a stunning, goofy, and riveting documentary that also serves as a strong argument about what 'art' is. The ever illusive Banksy hits this film out of the park, and refuses to spare his subject, a fan of street art who wanted to capture the lives of these artists and ended up selling out completely. The film is chock full of fascinating interviews with several street artists, and is narrated with a crass but fun droll, courtesy of Rhys Ifans. I am a fan of Banksy's artwork, so the idea of him making a movie was just brilliant, and I am glad to say he did not disappoint. The film is well worth your price of admission, simply for the stunts alone. It will make you think twice about Disneyworld, or elephants.

1. Dogtooth

As hilarious as it is disturbing, Dogtooth is a warped film that redefines the word 'normal' as well as dissect the modern family. Drawing inspiration from the films of Michael Haneke, and even Pasolini's perverted masterpiece, Salo, director Giorgos Lanthimos examines the everyday lives of a nameless Greek family and their bizarre and often disquieting customs. In the world of Dogtooth, cats are cold blooded predators, zombies are tiny yellow flowers, and the outside world is a dangerous and scary place. The three children, two daughters and a son, live under the unwavering eye of their silent mother and domineering and coolly evil father. When pop culture and movies are introduced to the children, nothing is ever the same.

One thing I truly admire, aside from concept and execution, both of which are spellbinding, is just how Dogtooth came out of nowhere and left such an impression on the lucky number who have seen it. Entering the theater at quarter to ten one night in mid July, I had no clue what to expect, other than sheer weirdne
ss on behalf of the plot. Weirdness is one word to describe what blew through my brain. In short, the fact that I knew so little about the film helped me enjoy it so much more.

Moviegoers with strong stomachs and an eye for weird cinema will enjoy this film almost as much as I did. It made me laugh, it frightened me, and it left me stunned. Those last ten minutes are killer and left me gasping for air. I always gravitate towards off the wall and otherwise strange films, and because of this, Dogtooth is my Number One pick for 2010.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Growing Up is Hard to Do: The Films of 2010-Part 3

10. Somewhere

People hate Sofia Coppola for a number of reasons, most of which I cannot understand. While her slow and unglamorous shtick might leave viewers cold and tired, to those who can appreciate the routine malaise of rich and successful people, films like Somewhere are true gems that deserve appreciation. Almost a bookend to Coppola's breakthrough hit, Lost in Translation, Somewhere is a small, sweet, and slow film about a Hollywood actor, played by Stephen Dorff, who is trying to get his life together, which includes being a better father to his daughter, Cleo. Elle Fanning gives a stunning performance as a girl who has lived her life without a father, or any proper support, but her understated talent shines through in tiny but elegant moments. In Fanning's case, a glare across the table can speak wonders for her emotions and anger. As a behind the scenes look at fame and fatherhood, Somewhere is a great film.

9. Toy Story 3

This one is purely a sentimental pick. Yes, Toy Story 3 was great, we can all for the most part agree on this one, but what made it special for me was being able to see how far the series has come from its humble beginnings. Pixar revolutionized animation and paved the way for new and thrilling forms of cinema and CGI. Having grown up with Andy, the owner of the toys, it was especially moving to watch as he matured and grew up, something that Woody the Cowboy realizes in the second film of the trilogy. The film feels like The Great Escape as performed by Happy Meal toys, and as such, gives audiences of all ages plenty of humor, fun, and heart to devour and enjoy. It also had me sobbing like a small child by the very end, which is the true mark of greatness. In short, it was the perfect ending to an iconic series.

8. Animal Kingdom

It's survival of the fittest in this crime drama/sleeper hit. The 'Kingdom' is contemporary Australia, where a crime family is caught in a war between the cops and themselves. At the center of all of this is J, the emotionless but good natured grandson to Janine Cody, played with a chilling precision by Jacki Weaver, who gets stuck with these criminals after his mother dies. The feelings of brotherhood and family unity are sick but compelling, and the action/violence is slow building, and unexpected. Overall, Animal Kingdom is a realistic crime drama that is stuffed to the gills with talented actors and great cinematography.

7. The Illusionist

While many critics scolded Sylvain Chomet's second film, The Illusionist for not being as 'good' as The Triplets of Belleville, his smashing and near perfect debut film, I found a deep flaw in their assessments: It's not supposed to be The Triplets of Belleville! Instead of copying his first film note for note, Chomet adapts a screenplay by Jacques Tati and creates a quiet but richly detailed film about an aging magician and the bond he forges with a young fan. Told with minimal dialogue, the film works at a nice pace, showing scenes of daily life and simplicity, all the while sending its Tati-esque protagonist through a series of magic shows and spectacles. In short, The Illusionist is a sweet, silly, and surprisingly moving film that is about putting aside the top hat and moving on from magic. Which is deeper than 98% of most animated films.

6. Blue Valentine

There isn't much hope for the couple in Blue Valentine, but their unraveling is so painfully honest that we cannot turn away from it. Ryan Gosling was denied an Oscar nomination for his complicated and challenging role, one in which he transforms into a man he never thought he'd become, or maybe, he was all along. Michelle Williams carries her role with true grace, which is odd considering how tragic the story is. It is a great film because it's simple yet complex. I was taken by both lead actors, and as always, love to see a small film that can still captivate audiences and leave an impression.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Understated and Underrated: The Films of 2010-Part 2

15. All Good Things

Ryan Gosling in drag, getting away with murder. Sounds like the awful sequel to the equally bad Madea Goes to Jail, but, believe it or not, it works quite well for All Good Things, a movie that blurs the line between reality and insanity, and really gets deep down to the epicenter of a shocking crime. Why does millionaire David Marks hate his wife so much? He has the perfect life and more money than he knows what to do with, so why so glum and angry? Would he be sick enough to kill her? The answers are never perfectly defined, but Andrew Jarecki, the talented director behind the absolutely horrifying Capturing the Friedmans, does not attempt to force ideas or facts down your throat, instead presenting a reasonable argument as to what may have occurred and how the aftermath may have played out. According to the movie, David Marks, the alleged murderer of 2-3 people, is still living freely, which really set me on edge. Overall, a well done and underrated crime thriller.

14. Shutter Island

I'm a stickler for twisted horror movies, so when Scorsese released Shutter Island, I was beyond excited. Unfortunately, it was released several months after its original date, and as a result, was forgotten by December. However, the film was well worth the wait, and had the creepiest of atmospheres. Leonardo DiCaprio, as always, plays damaged and disturbed widower to a T, and his supporting cast is equally compelling. In her one scene, Patricia Clarkson is mesmerizing and slightly crazy, and who wouldn't want to see Max Von Sydow, Antonius Block himself, as an ex-Nazi? The secrets revealed throughout the film kept me on my toes, pondering as to what all of the film could mean. While the film gets a little lengthy and super duper insane, the ending is spooky, and definitely worth the trip through insanity.

13. Another Year

While Mike Leigh is a hit or miss director for me, his most recent film, Another Year, is a superb and quiet film about a year in the life of an older married couple. It sounds dry and dull on paper, but in terms of how Leigh handles his actors, it's quite an astonishing and unpredictable treasure. While Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are positively warm and delightful as the inseparable couple Tom and Jerry, it is Lesley Manville who gives the performance of the film. She is vulnerable, she is energetic, and painfully stubborn. We watch her go from good to bad, and we truly empathize with her. While she is not the only interesting person in the film, Manville will break your heart and stand out from the crowd completely. She takes a small film and gives a brave performance.

12. Please Give

A delightful dry but well made film about mean people who think they are nice and as such, do mean things, and yet, we are enchanted, even moved, by the film as a whole. I always love Catherine Keener, and she is Oscar worthy as a woman who runs a furniture store that sells pieces owned by the recently deceased, but who dreams of taking the apartment of her nearly dead neighbor. The actors are all superb, and are quite realistic, more so than many of the performances/actors in films this year. They are spiteful, but act like they are justified. It's a film that came out of nowhere, but was just my cup of tea.

11. The Social Network

Whether we like to admit it or not, Facebook has shaped the world in ways that before seemed unimaginable or trivial. It's a website, but it is so much more than that, and with David Fincher's new film, The Social Network, we get to see the behind the scenes story about how one of the most powerful websites came to be, and the conflicts and power struggles that occurred along the way. Going into the movie, I was able to suspend the truth and just go with the story, which allowed me to enjoy the rapid dialogue, the characterization of Zuckerberg and his friend/enemies, and the high melodrama that Fincher used to move the story forward. History, this ain't, but fun, slick, and intelligent, it most definitely is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fish, Fighters, and Freaky Dream Sequences: The Films of 2010-Part One

In just one week from tonight, the 83rd Academy Awards will air, and the starletards and suck ups in the Hollywood industry will get a hard on for glamorous dresses, and an even bigger one for ugly ones. People will cry, actors will be disappointed, someone will get cut off before they're finished their Oscar speech.

In short, it's going to be amazing.

To keep with a similar tradition with what I did last year, I'm going to leak my favorite films of 2010 over the course of four days, with Friday being a surprise post. Instead of going with five, I wanted to write about twenty. Well, the word 'Wanted' was not how it played out. I submitted a list of my Top 20 favorite films from 2010 to a film magazine, Film Comment, and hopefully, they will publish my selections. If not, well, you can read them here, and I hope you enjoy them. I'm going to preface my list by saying, the twenty you will see over the next week are different than those of more conventional critics. Films that critics put at the Number one or two spot got slated down lower on my list, or in the case of some films, were left in the slush pile. That's why subjection is a beautiful and glorious thing.

Without further adieu, here is Part One of Five of My Twenty Favorite Films of 2010

20. Catfish

This is similar to Exit Through the Gift Shop in that it also focuses on a larger than life subject, and we cannot really determine if it's a true story or just a pieced together lie. Catfish is wonderful because the story surrounding it is both unsettling and so easy to relate to. Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, she's on the Internet, he smells something fishy(no pun intended), and decides to investigate his new girlfriend. I'm a huge fan of a good old fashioned mystery with an explosive ending and enough tension and twists that you are never sure what the detectives are getting their noses into until it's nearly too late. While I was disappointed by how the trailer marketed the film, for lack of a better word, and made it seem like a pulse pounding horror thriller. In fact, it was so terrifying I lost sleep over it. The film was never going to be as horrific as the trailer advertised it to be, but it did promise a jawdropper of an ending, and it delivered.

19. The Town

2010 was a big year for trashy dramas set in Boston, and The Town feels like the complimentary movie to The Fighter, one that details the life behind Mark Wahlberg's character at an even more microscopic level. Ben Affleck is good as Dougie, a man caught up in crime and corruption. For Dougie, this is just his life, his way of living, and everyone he knows is a criminal or a slime-ball in a baseball cap. Being the Mad Men addict that I am, I really enjoyed seeing Jon Hamm in a role on the big screen, as opposed to playing the damaged and equally compelling Don Draper, which shows how far his range reaches. Rebecca Hall is one to watch, and was equally impressive in Please Give, and Jeremy Renner made the film even better. Not as good as Animal Kingdom, but still worth watching.

18. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was like taking literary crack cocaine. The book was dense and full of action and emotion, and once you got into the story, it was impossible to tear away from it. I'm glad to say that the film was a faithful and enjoyable adaptation of the novel. It's not perfect, and is missing several points that are important to the book, but were bound to be trimmed and discarded in the script writing process. Noomi Rapace captured the raw nerve and sadistic edge that embodies Lisbeth Salander. The film is not a technological orgy of lights, camera angles and noise, but it's still a tightly paced adventure thriller that will please fans and newcomers to the Millennium Trilogy alike.

17. Inception

At this stage, it's easy for me to rant about Inception and why it does not belong on the Best Picture list. Was it enjoyable? Like hell it was! Was it spectacular? Most definitely! Was it meaningful? Well....not so much. The energy and momentum that was sustained during the film was heart thumpingly amazing, as were the stunts and little feats of gravity that kept popping up. Christopher Nolan is a very exciting director, and this is a film that will toy with your brain and wow you on sight alone. That being said, it's a summer blockbuster action movie, and its characters have the emotional depth of a sanitary napkin. I'm glad that I saw it, and was more than in love with the film and its premise, but I have to play devil's advocate and say that yes, it's well made and fun, but Oscar worthy? That's somewhat of a stretch.

16. The Fighter

Surprisingly enough, I really liked The Fighter, and this coming from an avid avoider of sport movies in general(Read: MAJOR Homo). Yes, this resurgence of boxing/wrestling movies/TV shows where the main fighter is looking for a comeback is really being overdone at this point, but since this film is about a real person, I can let it slide. While part of me is convinced that it was made solely as an Oscar bait flick where actors put on fake accents and looked gritty to win a naked golden boy, I was able to look past that and see a well made, thoroughly interesting and enjoyable film. Christian Bale finally can receive the acclaim he always deserves, as can Melissa Leo, both of whom are so immersed in their characters, it's hard to remember that they are actors just as it is difficult to turn your eyes away from them. I liked the struggle between the two brothers and the rough and tumble world they live in. Exciting and quick paced, and highly recommendable.