Thursday, December 31, 2009

Film Decade List #1: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, USA, 2004)

2004 was a pretty good year, wasn't it? Both my music and film choices happen to come from the same year, which I didn't realize until to preparing to write them. Anyway, I may claim to be a film snob but the films that really get my attention are the ones that still can tell a good story with some feeling to it. Through all its visual gee-wizardry by Gondry, ESOTSM has a really authentic story at the heart of it. Charlie Kaufman's script still has its outlandish and mind-bending moments but at its core, the film is really a simple love story well told. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have gone through a devastating breakup. Joel finds a company that has the technology for the user to have painful moments removed from their memory. This leads to the unspooling of Joel and Clementine's relationship and the realization in Joel that perhaps those memories aren't better off erased. Both Winslet and Carrey give career best performances in roles that seem almost opposite their know screen persona: Winslet as a outre spirit, and Carrey as a brooding sad-sack. Gondry's visual flair add that something to the film that make it jangled last half work extremely well. Both of those only go to enhance what is again, the hear of the film, Kaufman's screenplay. It carries the offbeat elements that can be expected out of a Kaufman script but underneath its uniqueness are some fairly good points about love and memory. The nature of wanting to banish painful memories is something familiar in just about everybody but they can also be beneficial, to help live out what's ahead. That Joel comes to a recognition of this and realizes that the bad memories will take out a lot of the good ones is important. It could have been told in a flat, cynical way with a lot of Gondry fireworks and been a complete bomb. Eternal Sunshine succeeds because no one in it was afraid of being sincere with the material. That it told its fairly standard love story with a exuberance and inventiveness not really seen in mainstream cinema, it deserves to be the best of the decade.

Music Decade List #1: Ray LaMontagne - Trouble (2004)


Ray LaMontagne doesn't deviate that far from the singer-songwriter norm. There are elements of and a familiarity with classic artists all over Trouble. Yet, none of it sounds tired and stale, mostly due to the emotion LaMontagne pours into his songs and his belief in what he's doing, whether it's original or not. That, his voice, and the material itself all make Trouble the album I've spent more time listening to than any other this decade. A lot of initial comparisons of LaMontagne were to Van Morrison vocally but musically, the album has a lot of similar elements to Morrison's early 70s output. These are folk songs accented subtlety, as strings on the title track and 'Shelter' demonstrate. Producer Ethan Johns does a great job in knowing where the power of the songs lies in LaMontange's emotional delivery, highlighted by 'Burn' and 'Jolene'. It is in these more intimate songs that the power of the album really comes through and not just because of Ray's voice. I have no real good way of describing it but it creates a visceral reaction that very few albums of this decade have. I really, really like every song here That's pretty much it. If I was going to pick my favorite album of the decade, it would be an album where every song's good. Trouble is that album.
Blogger's aside: No matter how many people want to shit on him, Zach Braff gets some credit on this one. Around Garden State time, I was following Braff's blog and he wrote a little blurb about Trouble. I went and checked it out and here we are. Some of Braff's musical choices I couldn't disagree fast enough with but thanks on this one. Give the guy a break.

Film Decade List #2: No Country For Old Men


No Country For Old Men (Joel Coen, USA, 2007)

Up until seeing No Country For Old Men, I had preferred the wackier Coen Brothers to the serious ones. I would much rather watch The Big Lebowski or even The Hudsucker Proxy over Fargo or Miller's Crossing. I always felt the brothers rigid, insular world always lent itself better to comedy than to drama. No Country For Old Men blows that idea completely away, as the two have crafted a taut, near flawless thriller out of Corman McCarthy's novel. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is out hunting one day and comes across a drug deal gone bad. He finds a suitcase full of money, takes off, and a set of violent circumstances follow, most of them carried out by a man named Anton Chigurgh, played with menacing intensity by Javier Bardem. Working as a meditation on the greediness and evil of man, the film is helped by the Coen's meticulous, exacting style. The chaos of the story is reigned in to a serie of memorable moments, especially the Chigurgh coin toss at the end. At the the center of the story is the local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), increasingly perplexed and horrified by the trail of destruction left in the wake of Llewelyn and Anton. He's a man who can't see himself being able to contain men such as Chrigurgh. That the world seems to be descending into more violence and humanity is doing nothing to stop it is a key point of McCarthy's novel and the film. The film works as a perfect allegory for that idea. The film gets every other detail right, from the West Texas landscape to the pitch-perfect performances. That it still has some black humor is a nice Coen brothers touch, but this isn't a comedy. It proved me wrong on all grounds about the Coen's films but in a good way.

Music Decade List #2: Bob Dylan - Love and Theft (2001)


Love & Theft is Bob Dylan's best album since Blood on the Tracks, and in that middle 25 years, he tried a lot of different styles but never found one that fit as well as here. Taking a variety of styles, from blues, bluegrass, jazz, and swing, these are a set of retro sounding songs that fit the croaky rasp of his that has defined his current years. I prefer the bluesier or more upbeat numbers on the album, songs like 'Summer Days' and 'Lonesome Day Blues' with Dylan and his crack touring band tearing out propulsive rhythms. The albums sounds much more vibrant and punchy compared to more rueful, swampy Daniel Lanois production of Time Out of Mind. Above it all, Dylan's songwriting is at the fore but here it takes on a different vein. These aren't "important" folk songs nor are they the dense, imagisitc works of his mid-60s heyday. The material is more direct here, with humor and an adaptation of styles that make everything sound authentic. There's a joke about every stanza in 'Summer Days' and for those who think the man can't write a great song, check out 'Mississippi'. Everything about Love & Theft has a easiness about it, that Dylan could toss out a couple of sessions and the results are this, another great record that sums up the history of the man and his influences.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Film Decade List #3: Songs From the Second Floor


Songs From the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, Sweden, 2000 (festival) or 2002(U.S. theatrical) )

Bleakly comic, absurdist, and visually captivating, Songs From the Second Floor is like no other film I've seen this decade. Andersson's film has the dark sensibilities of Bergman filtered through the absurdist storytelling of Bunuel. Not operating as a whole story but more as a series of vignettes, the film shows a modern capitalist society as dour people operating in a ugly city with a constant traffic backlog and almost everybody failing at doing anything. The film uses its dark humor to mask a bit of the serious critique that is behind what Andersson is doing. Like Bunuel, often the best way to criticize society is to make it completely absurd. Still, no message of the film can hold up to its amazingly rigid structure. Andersson films with a maximum amount of minimalism, holding the camera in place and never filming anything closer than a medium shot. It creates a bit of a distance between the viewer and film, never allowing to really feel drawn in. That could be a hindrance but since the world and characters of the film are a bit alien to begin with, the detachment of the camera in addition to the emotionless, sterile world of the film actually strengthen it. Andersson has created such a unique visual experience that I've never seen before or since here. It exists as almost something completely different than every other film on this list. Yet, it intrigues me as much as any film this decade.

Music Decade List #3: Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)


For all the publicity surrounding the turmoil in releasing it, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's execution pretty much lives up to all the hype. Throwing away just about any semblance of their alt-country beginnings, Wilco move in a direction dealing heavily with sonic experimentation, creating sprawling, dense songs that have no basis in any genre. 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart' and 'Ashes of American Flags' are bleak songs only helped by a background of ominous ambient noise. 'Kamera' and 'Heavy Metal Drummer' are more propulsive, straight ahead rockers but there are little flourishes in each, notably the end of the latter, that still keep it from being something expected out of the group. The input of Jay Bennett seems to be a point of issue, as Sam Jones' film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco documents. There's no doubt Bennett played a role along with Jim O'Rourke in creating the new sonic textures of the album. It also appears true that the new direction ultimately led him out the door in an acrimonious break up. It doesn't diminish the fact that at the time, Wilco was one of the few established bands willing to try an entirely new direction and be able to pull it off and make them even more popular in the process.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Film Decade List #4: The Royal Tenenbaums


The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001)

For all its visual and plot quirks, The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson's best at getting real emotion out of his story and characters. A lot of criticism of Anderson has been he places his visual world above reliable storytelling but here, I don't feel that argument can be made. In telling of the dysfunctional Tenenbaum family, he creates characters and situations that are grounded in backstory and are a true function of their characters' experiences. Gene Hackman is great as patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, back into his family's life, telling them he's dying but just in need of a place to stay after getting booted from his hotel. Royal interjects a lifeblood into the family that had apparently been missing for some time, and at the same time bringing back old wounds. It's a work of melancholy disguised as comedy but the lighter moments make the darker moments more poignant and the funny one funnier. Anderson set this all this in a highly fabricated world that seems to turn off as many cineastes as it appeals to the average moviegoer of my age. His visual quirks and use of rock music definitely appeal to a certain audience and I happen to be one. I find the film to be a sweetly portrayed dark comedy that has an auteurist flair that prevents it from being twee or artificial.

Music Decade List #4: Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South (2004)


More than any other band of these times, no one is more tied to a sense of place than the Drive-By Truckers. They've made a career out of crafting songs on just what it means to be from the South, and The Dirty South is a series of songs about those on the bottom end of life down in Alabama and points surrounding. Whether it be about Sherriff Buford Pusser ('The Buford Stick'), the moonshine gangs he tried to stamp out ('The Boys From Alabama') or people just down and out ('Puttin' People on the Moon'), Patterson Hood crafts expert songs that convey what life is like in a certain area for people like myself who view it as an alien world. Why The Dirty South rises above the output of the group's earlier albums are the songs contributed by Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell, who match Hood in effectiveness and melody. Cooley offers a handful of very good selections, especially 'Carl Perkins' Cadillac' and 'Cottonseed.' Isbell's songs don't quite fit the story structure of the rest of the album but they may the standout tracks for the album; a re imaging of Johny Henry ('The Day of John Henry Died'), or a somber reflection on The Band ('Danko/Manuel'). Sadly, this would be his last output with the Truckers as he left to pursue a solo career. With the solid contributions of all three, on top of the powerful sound the band can produce, The Dirty South may sum up best what the Drive-By Truckers have been striving for over the last decade.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Film Decade List #5: In the Mood For Love


In the Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 2001)

Almost completely sublime in its atmosphere and look, ITMFL exists almost in the ether, in a dreamlike state that make the images here feel otherworldly. A lot of credit has to do with Christopher Doyle's cinematography, which only enhances the scenes and characters Wong creates. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play neighbors in Hong Kong who come to realize that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Since their significant others are away for quite a while the two bond, but being sure never to become like their spouses. What Wong really achieves through these two characters is how unkind unrequited love can be. Leung's Mr. Chow clearly has feelings for Cheung's character but can't resolve it with the stand both have taken following their spouse's affair. The yearning of the characters is only enhanced through the gorgeous images and colors the film is bathed in, creating a dream world where the key point is the only element not matching. This is just such a fantastic film to look at that it is a bit easy to forget how bittersweet the actual story turns out. Leung and Cheung are both phenomenal in their roles, locking into the insecurity and yearning that lies beneath their friendship. No film this decade so accurately portrayed the bittersweet nature of love, all the while looking so good.

Music Decade List #5: Damien Rice - O (2003)


With O, Damien Rice made a standard singer-songwriter album with a little something extra. The songs here are fairly standard folk tunes, yet Rice adds additional instrumentation and a wide spectrum of emotion that raises them above being just average. 'Delicate' starts off as it says, but has an added orchestral sweep thanks to a cello. 'Volcano' and 'The Blower's Daughter' are enhanced by the vocal of Lisa Hannigan. 'Amie', 'I Remember' and 'Eskimo' venture out of folk territory and experiment with various sounds, whether they be opera or ambient noise. Still, at its essence the basic song structure has to be good or no amount of bells and whistles would make it worth a listen. That the songs cover such a wide range of emotions, whether it be downbeat and reflective or into full-blown earnestness, there's a level of sincerity in Rice's lyrics and vocals that can draw the listener into the material. Rice has never quite reached the level he achieved on O, whether it be the loss of Lisa Hannigan, whose contribution cannot be overstated or perhaps the material here is something that can never be reached in scope or in execution.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Useless Film Snob's 25 Best Albums of 2009

Once again, we can get into this discussion of best vs. favorite. I realize that musical taste is extremely subjective; someone might think Mastadon's Crack the Skye is the year's best album, I would rather get hit in the head with a hammer. So, I guess what I'm saying is what I call the best may be someone else's worst. We'll go ahead and call this the best purely superficial reasons: I just want to be put on those lists with all the other egotistical music snobs. Here are my choices for the best (favorite) of 2009:

25) Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine
A somber, semi-concept album for Jason Molina & company, about what I'm not to sure.
Choice tracks: 'The Rock of Ages', 'Whip-Poor-Will'

24) Phosphorescent - To Willie
A spirited interpretation of Willie Nelson's catalog by Matthew Houck. Houck's vocals have the same wavering timbre of Nelson's which keep the material firmly grounded in its original sound.
Choice tracks: 'I Gotta Get Drunk', 'Can I Sleep In Your Arms'

23) Woods - Songs of Shame
Songs that border on oddball sonic experiments, psychedelic jams, and quirky vocals.
Choice tracks: 'To Clean', 'Rain On'

22) Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses - Roadhouse Son
Bingham's brand of alt-country has been done before but his ragged vocals and Marc Ford's production give the feeling of Bingham living what he writes.
Choice tracks: 'Tell My Mother I Miss He So', 'Wishing Well'

21) Mark Olson & Gary Louris - Ready For the Flood
A welcome return to the former Jayhawks frontmen that shows they still can make some great songs and harmonies.
Choice tracks: 'Bloody Hands', 'The Trap's Been Set'

20) Built to Spill - There Is No Enemy
A rejuvenated sounding Doug Martsch leads Built to Spill a group of more energetic and concise set of songs from their previous album.
Choice tracks: 'Nowhere Lullaby', 'Tomorrow'

19) The Black Crowes - Before the Frost...Until the Freeze
Recorded in front of a live audience, the album captures the band in their best element but the double album format could have been pared to one really good one.
Choice tracks: 'Good Morning Captain', 'Last Place Where Love Lives'

18) Bowerbirds - Upper Air
Delicate acoustic material with some simple yet catchy melodies.
Choice tracks: 'House of Diamonds', 'Northern Lights'

17) Wilco - Wilco (The Album)
The second straight record of pretty straight-ahead material could be seen as treading water but Jeff Tweedy and company seem content in a simplified direction.
Choice tracks: 'You Never Know', 'I'll Fight'

16) Diane Birch - Bible Belt
Completely retro in its early 70s AM Radio influence, there are elements of soul, gospel and Brill Building pop mixed in, all led by Birch's fantastic voice. The out of left field choice of 2009.
Choice tracks: 'Valentino', 'Rise Up'

15) Langhorne Slim - Be Set Free
Like Bowerbirds and the Avett Brothers, Langhorne Slim is taking acoustic styles in idiosyncratic ways. An album that harkens back to the singer-songwriter heydey of the mid 70s.
Choice tracks: 'I Love You But Goodbye', 'Cinderella'

14) Derek Trucks Band - Already Free
Derek Trucks continually makes albums that should find a bigger audience outside of the jam band universe. Truly fantastic band interplay with perhaps the strongest set of original material on a Derek Trucks Band release.
Choice tracks: 'Sweet Inspiration', 'Down Don't Bother Me'

13) Great Lake Swimmers - Lost Channels
More ethereal music from this Canadian outfit. A bit more in the way of uptempo songs but the slow, somber ones are still their best.
Choice tracks: 'Pulling On a Line', 'Stealing Tomorrow'

12) Dawes - North Hills
A band from California who made the best blue-eyed soul/classic rock album I've heard in quite a while. It is uniquely Californian, sweeping and cinematic in its sun-drenched Americana.
Choice tracks: 'When My Time Comes', 'God Rest My Soul'

11) The Felice Brothers - Yonder Is the Clock
My upstate brethren continue to make music sounding straight out of Big Pink, this one with a bit more of studio polish.
Choice tracks: 'Run Chicken Run', 'All When We Were Young'

10) Bob Dylan - Together Through Life
Sprinkled with Tex-Mex accordion and Chess covers, Dylan continues to re-interpret various genres to a consistent degree of success almost 50 years into his career.
Choice tracks: 'Beyond Here Lies Nothing', 'It's All Good'

9) The Low Anthem - Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Another band, this one from Rhode Island, based in roots styles but adding their own touch. They can handle up tempo material just as well as their expertly crafted quieter ones.
Choice tracks: 'The Horizon is a Beltway', 'Ticket Taker'

8) Roadside Graves - My Son's Home
A band from New Jersey that makes surprisingly good roots based rock. Notice a trend through this list yet?
Choice tracks: 'Far and Wide', 'Take a Train'

7) Grant-Lee Phillips - Little Moon
Criminally under appreciated as a solo act or with Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips has made another album of unassuming yet great songs.
Choice tracks: 'It's Not the Same Old Cold War, Harry', 'One Morning'

6) Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
A band that can take a variety of styles and create some challenging, densely layered yet enjoyable music.
Choice tracks: 'Two Weeks', 'Cheerleader'

5) The Cave Singers - Welcome Joy
A band that greatly enhanced their songwriting with their second album. Still with a unique voice, this time the Cave Singers have stronger songs to go with it.
Choice tracks: 'Leap', 'Beach House'

4) Todd Snider - The Excitement Plan
Snider may be the best storyteller out there and this album shows it off, whether it be songs about pitching no-hitters on LSD, from the perspective of a tree, or a seemingly toss-off about the benefits of fame.
Choice tracks: 'America's Favorite Pastime', 'Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number Ten)'

3) Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion
A much more accessible record than their last one, they may be the modern day, post-irony version of the Beach Boys. At its core, these songs have a vitality and a expression of joy that can be overshadowed by their technical and sonic achievements.
Choice tracks: 'Summertime Clothes', 'My Girls'

2) The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
Working with Rick Rubin had cries of selling out coming from their hardcore fans. I happen to think it's their best album to date, and the move away from their established sound actually help in their songwriting. Less shouting and more nuanced song craft created an album that still has traits of the old Avetts but shows them going in a broader direction.
Choice tracks: 'Ten Thousand Words', 'Incomplete and Insecure'

1) Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
The most consistent, strongest set of songs Case has put to record. An album that shows off more than her great voice, it puts the songs themselves right up there too. 'People Gotta Lot of Nerve' is my choice for choice track of 2009.
Choice tracks: 'This Tornado Loves You, 'People Gotta Lot of Nerve', 'I'm an Animal'

Film Decade List #6: Wonder Boys


Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, USA, 2000)

Wonder Boys is the type of picture that Hollywood studios have all but abandoned, an intelligent, somewhat offbeat film that appeals to people don't want to see special effects and a shitload of explosions. That the film's marketing was completely fucked up is an understatement as Paramount opened it up in the pre-Oscars dead season, and attempted to re-release it in a last ditch attempt to garner awards. Plus, it didn't find an audience of anybody but critics and myself, who saw it in a theatre with eight other people. It really was a shame because this may be the most underrated film of the decade, based on Michael Chabon's novel, with great performances. Michael Douglas gives a great performance as a shaggy, pot-addled professor/author stuck on a massive follow-up to his acclaimed first novel. The film centers around a weekend where Grady (Douglas) gets sucked into a series of events that strain his clandestine relationship with his boss's wife (Frances MacDormand) and get him involved with one of his talented yet troubled students (Tobey Maguire). The film makes intelligent and keen observations about the world of writers and addresses it audience with an expectation of intelligence, now almost absent in studio pictures. The plot isn't much more than a loose series tied together by the character's presence but it succeeds because everyone, from Douglas and Maguire, to bit parts, are so good. Hanson gives a workmanlike directing job, keeping things moving, never being flashy, and preserving a lot of Chabon's novel. That the humor has a level of sophistication probably means it won't appeal to everybody, but this film should have found a much bigger audience than it did.

Music Decade List #6: The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls In America (2006)


Boys and Girls In America has everything you could want in a Hold Steady album but has the added benefit of an expanded, well-rounded sound. Craig Finn's story songs about fuck ups, children of suburbia, and addicts are still there, whether it be about compulsive gambling ('Chips Ahoy') or hooking up with other drug causalities ('Chillout Tent'). Here they have the added benefit of Franz Nicolay's keyboards, which cannot be understated, that give the record much more of a Springsteen feel. The piano on the opener, 'Stuck Between Stations' and the organ on 'Chips Ahoy' gives those songs an anthemic quality that would have gone missing without them. The reason for this, whether it be the keyboards, the sing along choruses, or the Thin Lizzy-esque riffs and solos carry these songs beyond anything that was on the band's first two albums. 'Massive Night' and 'Hot Soft Light' have catchy riffs and chorus that really propel Finn's lyrics being just stream of consciousness. The songs here don't have the same depth and intertwined nature of Separation Sunday but they make up for in their new musical power. That isn't to say the album is all hooks and choruses, as 'Citrus' and 'First Night' show a more contemplative side with the band knowing where to reign it in. It's an album that sums up everything good about what The Hold Steady are doing and it shows a band that truly loves what they do.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Music Decade List #7: Josh Ritter - The Animal Years (2006)


I was completely blown away the first time I heard The Animal Years. Ritter's literate singer-songwriting style is completely in my wheelhouse. There's nothing that drastically different that Ritter is doing but his command of lyrics and songcraft carry his work beyond most of what passes for male songwriters these days (Matt Kearney, Joshua Radin, and James Morrison being main examples). Ritter has a lyrical command and complexity much more advanced than these guys and his experimenting with different sonic textures, more than likely thanks to producer Brian Deck. 'Thin Blue Flame' is the apex of the album, a culmination of everything Ritter seemingly wanted to accomplish with the album (and Stephen King's #1 song of 2006 for what it's worth). There are other great songs on the album also, whether it be the propulsive 'Wolves', the lighthearted and silent film allegory 'Lillian, Egypt', or the moody minimalist 'One More Mouth'. With this album, Ritter really separated himself from the singer-songwriter pack as someone worth taking notice of. That his live shows are fantastic, showing a love of performing for an audience, don't hurt either. I saw Josh open for Gomez at the Haunt in Ithaca, and the majority of the crowd was there to see him and not Gomez. I think that goes to show that if you put your heart into your craft, people will come around. The Animal Years shows this perfectly and while Ritter may not have planned it that way, it certainly worked on me.

Film Decade List #7: There Will Be Blood


There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2007)

As Michael Sicinski so succinctly put in his review of There Will Be Blood, this truly is the closest thing to a Kubrick film you could ask for without the man himself directing it. This should come as no surprise as Anderson has always worn his influences on his sleeve, whether it be Scorsese or Altman. Here he goes in almost the opposite direction, as the detached viewpoint associated with Kubrick becomes the viewpoint rather than the kinetic storytelling of his earlier films. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as a oilman so corrupted with greed that it shatters everything else in his life, from his relationship with his adopted son to his ongoing conflict with a young preacher who may also be a grifter (Paul Dano). The fingerprints of Kubrick are all over this film from its sparse, almost dialogue free beginning (similar to 2001) to its macabre, theatrical ending (shades of A Clockwork Orange). This similarities formally aren't as much as a detriment as you would think, as following this new formal structure seems to reign in a lot of the excesses that populated Anderson's earlier films. As someone who had no issue with that, seeing him alter direction some is a bit of a surprise but just as effective. Day-Lewis is such a powerful and enigmatic force that he carries the entire film on his shoulders to great success. There Will Be Blood is essentially a character study and Day-Lewis gives what may be the performance of the decade as a man who will stop at nothing to possess what he wants. That the rest of the film stands up is a testament that Anderson may be one of the best of the new wave of auteurs that came of age this decade.
Blogger's aside: There Will Be Blood also spawned one of the greatest series of events of film criticism of the decade. Kyle Smith of the New York Post, who also happens to be the worst film critic in the world (at some point there may be a raging diatribe about this if I ever get to it), saying that the film has an essentially Conservative message about fathers and sons. Glenn Kenney of Premiere wrote one of the best rebuttals I've ever read basically saying how Smith has had his head so far up his own ass he has no idea what he's talking about. Read it here if you want to see a no-talent twerp get his ass handed to him.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Film Decade List #8: Munich


Munich (Steven Spielberg, USA, 2005)

Munich succeeds because of its ambiguities. It is neither a pro-Israel revenge movie, as its source material reads as, nor is it a polemic screed against either. Instead, Spielberg uses the events of the 1972 Olympic hostage crisis and in its aftermath, a clandestine Israeli mission targeting those responsible, as an interpretation of the Israel-Palestine conflict as a conflict with no real good or bad guys with no real end in sight. Eric Bana plays a Mossad agent responsible for organizing a team that will carry out retribution against those involved, directly or indirectly, with Munich. The group initially carry out their mission dutifully, but as causalities mount and targets become less and less directly involved, the film dives into its moral quandaries. The Bana character and the film itself realize that violence only spurs more violence and that by the end of the film, nothing has changed. The Israelis are still fighting terrorism and the Palestinians are still fighting for a home. Some may charge that Spielberg never taking sides is a cop out but the film works because it shows each side using pretty much the same tactics and getting nowhere. The film's main message is that the damage inflicted in human lives is not worth what the end goals may be. Spielberg ends up crafting out of all of this an expertly made thriller. There are certain scenes, such as when the group is attempting to defuse a bomb before an innocent girl is killed, that is Hitchcokian in its hair-raising iciness. That the film catches the causalities with such an unflinching eye makes it even more potent. It never cops out to any one side and it isn't mindless action either. Spielberg is one of the few directors that could successfully juggle this excess of action and still have a message out of it.

Music Decade List #8: Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Cold Roses (2005)


Everything about Cold Roses, down to the album cover, has the imprint of the Grateful Dead running through. That's not to say that everything on the albums sounds like the Dead, there's still a lot of country influenced songs that Adams was doing before. Whether or not they had a direct influence on the material here, there's no escaping some similarities. There are more obvious examples of this influence, as 'Magnolia Mountain', 'Easy Plateau', and the title track have the type of tempo and guitar running through that wouldn't sound out of place in any of the Dead's early 70s work. What is most important to the quality of the album is that Adams is clearly trying to make a band record over a solo one. The type of collaborative effort that a band oriented record takes seems to have focused Adams on making a solid return to the material that first got him attention. Cold Roses also contributed to Adams cleaning up his act, playing some underrated shows with Phil Lesh, and focusing on being a live act with a slightly different lineup of Cardinals than present here.


Of course I'm going to be biased towards the material that skews towards the Dead-like material as the whole second disc wears much more of its influence. The first disc is a little weaker with filler material like 'Beautiful Sorta'. Still, there are some classic sounding Adams like 'Sweet Illusions' and 'How Do You Keep Love Alive'. The second disc shows Adams and the Cardinals veering into jamming territory, as 'Easy Plateau' and 'Cold Roses' demonstrate. This wouldn't have been possible if it wasn't for the Cardinals, who seem to have mellowed out Adams a bit and allow for this new direction. It would an understatement to say how the band had a positive on Adams, who up until Cold Roses, had lost some of luster for me. This album was a welcome return to what I like best about Adams and it has done nothing but made his subsequent work just as interesting.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Film Decade List #9: Brokeback Mountain (2005)


Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, USA, 2005)

Through all the attention and jokes it has gotten since its release, Brokeback Mountain is a film that has the grace and emotional power of any love story, let alone one about two cowboys. Ang Lee's film toys with a lot of conventions of the Western or cowboy movies but the film is not a Western. It has elements of melodrama in it but never feels saccharine or watered down. The film seems not so concerned in its characters' sexual orientation as it does showing the obstacles they had to face. It all essentially boils down to the performances of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as well as Ang Lee's direction. Ledger is exceptional in his role as the more closed-off of the two. It's the type of slow burn performance that gets more noticeable in its effectiveness the more it's seen. Gyllehaal's character, while not in the same performance level, is needed to act as a sort of counterbalance to Ledger's character. These characters could easily have been caricatures but come across as prototypical movie cowboys that evolve into something other than to be expected by Hollywood archetypes. Still, it might not have worked with Lee's direction, taking the vast landscape shots that can be found in Westerns and making them somehow feel intimate and unique. He lets the camera linger on the image in the first hour of the film and that's really important for establishing a tone that allows the relationship to emerge out of this landscape. Lee treats the material with a seriousness, knowing that the true nature of love isn't any different for these characters as it would be for a man and a woman in a similar situation. It's an expertly crafted film without an auteur quality that still has a commanding presence.

Music Decade List #9: Marah - Kids in Philly (2000)


I would have never heard of Kids in Philly if it wasn't for the cover art. Seeing the picture at allmusic, it intrigued me enough to find out who Marah was and what the album is all about. Kids in Philly is a sprawling, ambitious album that merges so many different rock styles that it keeps the band from sounding derivative. There's Greetings From Asbury Park era Springsteen present in 'Point Breeze.' 'Barstool Boys' is a take off of The Faces all the way down to its play on the title. 'Round Eye Blues' sounds like a mash of Phil Spector, Motown, and CCR. The album is tied to Philadelphia, from Mummer's banjo on the opener, 'Faraway You' to particular neighborhood sketches like 'Christian St.' and 'The Catfisherman'. Dave Bielanko's lyrics are consistently fabulous, painting a vivid picture of a Philadelphia that he clearly knows and loves. The Springsteen parallels are present not only in the phrasing of songs but in the kind of people Bielanko is writing about: those down on their luck, those that can only really be found in cities on the Eastern Seaboard. The album tells so many stories, with such vivid detail that it creates an astounding group of songs capturing a place at a certain point in time. It's intense regionalism may explain why it wasn't much of a success, but Kids in Philly is still the high water mark for a band that spent the rest of the decade never becoming as big as they should have been.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Film Decade List #10: All the Real Girls


All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, USA, 2003)

At its heart, All the Real Girls is a film of moments, in all their shambling, awkward, unironic glory. It is basically a love story, between two young people in a small North Carolina town, Paul (Paul Schneider) and Noel (Zooey Deschanel). Green and his actors handle this relationship with all the idealistic ideals and uncertain nature that young people in love have. The film is a subtle examination of moments, of conversation, of the emotions of Noel, who is fairly inexperienced in relationships and Paul, who is quite the opposite. The dialogue between the two is often awkward, vulnerable yet profound in its portrayal the idealism these two have in each other. These moments don't make up a straightforward narrative and it would be easy for the film to derail into insufferable muck. Green makes the difference here as his lyrical style, very reminiscent of early 70s New Hollywood, makes the difference. Working with fantastic cinematography by Tim Orr, the lyricism and talent in Green's images are a perfect compliment to tie these moments together. His minimalist style let the dialogue and the emotion present in the characters linger over the screen, permeating the film with its romantic view. It's an almost perfect execution with style and substance. This may be the best looking film of the decade. Green, Schneider, and Deschanel deserve a lot of credit in this age of irony and cynicism for crafting a heartfelt romantic film that is messy, as it often is in real life. They should also be given a lot of credit for making a cynical ass like me like it.

Music Decade List #10: The National - Boxer (2007)


Boxer and The National were a slow grow on me. When I first heard the album, I thought it was fairly good but nothing to really fawn about. Numerous more listens in and I became hooked. The set of songs on Boxer are mean to be listened to repeatedly to really get deep down into what The National are doing. The opener, 'Fake Empire' starts off slow and simple but grows into a web of horns, guitar, drums, and piano that transport it somewhere beyond how it started. Nuance is the main theme here, as something as little as a drumbeat or a bass line make create a sound that is expansive yet incredibly refined. Matt Berninger's vocals are distinct and work with the moody sonic textures of songs like 'Mistaken For Strangers' and 'Green Gloves.' Then something like 'Apartment Story' comes along and shakes everything up with as much as a straight ahead rock song the band could come out with. It's such an accomplished studio accomplishment, using the studio to refine and enhance the material without sapping it of all life. The songs here on Boxer don't really differ that much from the band's earlier material but it polish show a band perhaps hitting its high water mark.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Music Decade List #11: My Morning Jacket - It Still Moves (2003)


When other music critics are pouring over their best of the decade lists and come to My Morning Jacket, they will probably go with other options over It Still Moves. Dectractors of the album will point to its overt Classic Rock influences and would say that the new directions of Z and Evil Urges show the band crafting a more original sound. I for one, find nothing wrong with wearing influences on sleeves and the album's re-interpretation of various Classic Rock forms is still the My Morning Jacket I love best. It Still Moves starts off with a powerful 1-2 punch, with 'Mahgeeta' and 'Dancefloors' offering up the killer guitar solos and reverb vocals that define the classic My Morning Jacket sound. It coming home from Bonnaroo 2003 listening to the mix they gave you on the way in that I discovered 'Mahgeeta'. I had missed MMJ at that Bonnaroo and of all the songs on that compilation, it was the one that knocked me out. It's just such a killer track that I would probably have put the album on the list just for that. The rest of the album isn't any worse, however, as 'Golden' and 'I Will Sing You Songs' show that Jim James has some songwriting strengths over guitar jams. The scope of It Still Moves isn't as wide as their subsequent albums but the My Morning Jacket I'll take over any other exists here.

My Morning Jacket also wins honors as live band of the decade, as they put on two of the best shows: their Bonnaroo performance in 2004 before and during one of the most ominous thunderstorms I've ever seen and their first late night set at Bonnaroo 2006. They along with The Flaming Lips have been one of the handfuls of bands that have bridged the indie/jam band gap and become synonymous with Bonnaroo. And I would have probably not have noticed that early if if wasn't for that Bonnaroo sampler and 'Mahgeeta.'

Friday, December 18, 2009

Film Decade List #11: Y tu Mama Tambien


Y tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Curon, Mexico, 2001)
On its basic level, Y tu Mama Tambien is pretty much a teen sex movie. Instead of playing it for cheap laughs or a making it a complete raunchfest, Curon imbibes the film with a melancholy examination on what it actually means to come of age. The two main teen characters, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch(Diego Luna) do go away with an older woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdu), with sex involved. What occurs on the trip is much more than that, as the film deftly balances a frank depiction of teenage sexuality with an examination of the economic disparity of Mexico. All these characters are from the more privileged classes of Mexican society and as they are on their trip, Curon never fails to show the (large) differences between the rich and poor in Mexico. If Julio and Tenoch were poor, they would not be on this trip. While the trip is filled with horny teenage shenanigans, the ending of the film reveals that the trip had a much different meaning for Luisa than it did for the two boys. It ends up creating an ending where these characters really did learn something about themselves. Bernal, Luna, and Verdu all work so well together, bantering, quizzing, and teasing each other that crackles with a vibrancy that is seen in nothing called a teen movie. Give credit for Curon for treating subjects that are all too often in American mainstream cinema used for shitty laughs and exploitative purposes and giving depth and meaning to a well-told story.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Music Decade List #12: The Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)


The Arcade Fire were one of the few bands of the decade to survive the massive fawning of music blogs and come out as something other than overhyped. Funeral rises above that mostly because it's filled with some strong emotion and never feels as detached as a lot of "indie rock" does. Listening to 'Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) and 'Rebellion (Lies)', there's a feeling of some real passion in those songs, whether it be fear, rage, or yearning. The band has a power that borders on the arena-friendly sounds of U2, only with more instrumentation. The big songs have an almost epic quality to them, thundering drums, chorus vocals, and strings. 'Wake Up' may be the epitome of what I'm trying to describe, a song that grabs you with its near anthemic qualities. The entire album is not all sweeping however as with 'Neighborhood #4 (Kettles)' and 'Haiti', the band shows they can turn out more intimate numbers with the same amount of emotional power. Funeral was the really first record praised by the Pitchfork crowd that I really liked. There's nothing here as esoteric as what (I thought) most of that type of music was like. Funeral hit at a point where my musical interests were shifting and it's proven to be a record that isn't limited by genres or scenes.

Film Decade List #12: The Prestige


The Presige (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2006)

The Prestige is a perfect piece of screenwriting, something that Christopher Nolan has proven quite good at over the decade. That his screenplay mirrors much of what is going on in the film, a back and forth game of one-upmanshipship with a rousing twist that the magicians themselves would be proud of. This is clearly a film built on the strength of its plot and it works to great effect. The film tells the tale of two magicians, Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale) as their friendship turns to a reckless rivalry as one tries to top the other's last trick. Besides focusing on the magic, Nolan also digs deep in to each man, how their jealousy, egotism, and macho nature blind them to everything but being able to top the other. Besides the story, this is the best looking film Nolan has made, full of great use of light/dark contrasts and getting a realistic portrayal of Victorian England. All told, I feel that The Prestige was one of the most underrated films of the decade and should be worth the time for anyone who likes taut storytelling (which I happen to do once in a while).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Film Decade List #13: Vera Drake


Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, UK, 2004)

I've never been a huge fan of Leigh's films, but Vera Drake is by far the most emotionally powerful. Led by a fantastic performance by Imelda Stauton in the lead role, the film is a expert examination of working class Britain in the 1950s. That Vera is a doting housewife by day and still secretly helps women induce miscarriages (abortion being illegal) is really two sides of the same coin. Leigh has crafted the film through Stauton's performance, a character in Vera who will do almost nothing to help those no matter what the situation. That most of the women in need of Vera's help are poor, uneducated, and taking on a child would be a financial burden tells much more of class and status in Britain more than abortion. The film never really takes a political stance on abortion as it's using the issue to expose the characters and class issues. Eventually Vera is found out and the film turns a little bit from precise cultural examination into melodrama but it never loses its emotional punch. It's almost impossible to not see Vera as a victim as she repeats she was only doing what she could to help. Those with social agenda to grind will find fault in it, but it's awfully hard not to be swayed into sympathizing with her.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Music Decade List #13: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Howl (2005)


Howl sounds like nothing else in Black Rebel Motorcylce Club's catalog and that's a good thing. Eschewing the heavy guitar driven sound of their first few albums, Howl finds the band going in a more roots rock oriented sound. Working with help from T-Bone Burnett, the album finds the band sounding nothing like they had before and perhaps better than they ever had before. Gone are noisy guitars, replaced by acoustic guitars, harmonica, and multi-track vocals. Even with the band going with a somewhat stripped-down sound, the album still has a vast, filled in sound, done with more nuance than just noise as the title track demonstrates. 'Ain't No Easy Way' sounds most like the old BMRC but with resonator guitar in place of overdriven guitars. Songs like 'Devil's Waiting' and 'Complicated Situation' show off this new acoustic, rootsy sound to a positive effect. In fact, it's somewhat surprising the band never adopted these elements earlier as Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been's vocals work perfectly in the more bluesy, gospel tinged numbers. It really is a remarkable album when you think about where Black Rebel Motorcylce Club had been coming from with their earlier albums. Alas, Howl now is a one-off type of record as the band's follow up found them (regrettably for this listener) back to their "traditional" sound. Howl speaks to the power of the band to switch gears so seamlessly and show the band's embrace of traditional American musical stylings.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Music Decade List #14: Old 97's - Satellite Rides (2001)


The fact that I think Satellite Rides is the best Old 97's album of the decade, full of catchy hooks and melodies, shouldn't mean I dislike the "old" Old 97's. But in crafting a catchy power pop album full of great hooks and melodies, it creates a bit of a dilemma. This isn't the hard-charging alt-country of their earlier albums and not quite what die hard fans probably wanted to hear. The simple fact is that Rhett Miller has always has fine understanding in pop songcraft in his material prior to this album and now the band is going full bore into Marshall Crenshaw territory. Why the album is so strong is that almost every song is got at least a little hook or chorus that gets in your head. The list of songs here that I would put in my favorite Old 97's playlist is astounding: 'King Of All the World', 'Rollerskate Skinny', 'Am I Too Late' (the closest to the "old" sound), 'Book of Poems", and of course 'Question', depending on the times my favorite song of the decade. Two or three more could be thrown in depending on the times. I happen to believe as the work of an album, Satellite Rides was the most consistent and had the best executed sound the band ever got on an album. As a live band, their a completely different animal but here, they got nearly everything right. As for the difference between the country and pop stylings, I like them no matter what. That Satellite Rides got me into the Old 97's would confirm it's a pretty fine album.

The Baader Meinhof Complex


The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, 2008) [5]

Given my interest in the Red Army Faction as a historical entity, it's a bit of a major disappointment that this film operates as a kinetic mix of violence, explosions, and sex with little regard for historical analysis. Everything in the film is apparently historically accurate but it sweeping scope, covering just about every major act the RAF pulled off from the late 60s to its leaders' suicides in the late 70s, leaves little room for analysis or solid character development. The character of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleitbru) comes across more as an egotistical troublemaker than anyone with a sincere political agenda. The film also never dives into the character or Ulrike Meinhoff (one of the better performances of the film by Johanna Wokalek) until she is in prison awaiting trial. Her decision to leave her family and a prestigious journalism job to become a revolutionary is never shown well. It just happens as much of the film does, a series of events strung together through a haze of bullets, explosions, and breasts. It's amazing how much of this film feels like a standard Hollywood action picture, not just in what it shows but how it waters down the political and historical discourse the RAF wanted to create with simpleminded leftist slogans, almost stereotypical ones. What could have been a very interesting film ends up being a film really meant to offend no one politically, while dumbing down the history of RAF.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Film Decade List #14: Old Joy


Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2006)

Over the past decade, I've really gained an appreciation of Reichardt's film, with Old Joy definitely being my favorite. Minimalist to a fault, not a lot of "action" occurs, which in turn will get it called boring my some people. The power of the film resides not in the action of the two main characters, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) but in the moments of silence between the two and of the film itself. The plot revolves around Mark and Kurt as they meet up to spend a day or two in the woods, heading out to some hot springs. The two haven't been close over the years and the trip only reinforces the distance and awkwardness their relationship now occupies. Reichardt handles the interaction deftly, and the scenes of quiet natural beauty she creates around these sparse moments only heighten the chasm of difference that has crept in between the two. The film ends on a note that Mark and Kurt have become two completely incompatible people: Mark with a wife, child, and (seemingly) good job, and Kurt just wandering through, living on a whim, never really "growing up." What is left is a sad feeling that there is nothing that can be done to repair this relationship. It ends with the two going their separate ways, a gulf between two men that once must have been close.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Music Decade List#15: The Black Keys - Rubber Factory (2004)


Rubber Factory was a big step forward for The Black Keys. While not sounding all that different from their previous two releases, the production and songwriting are refined to a level that would create the sound that would define the band. Listen to '10 A.M. Automatic' alone and you get the idea. It has the killer guitar riff and melody but it's the finer points that really work in its benefit. The overdubbing of guitars was something that wasn't heard much in the bands first two albums and in this track, they enhance but never drown out the fact this is a two man group. The finer production details are what make Rubber Factory a solid album, from heavier tracks like 'Grown So Ugly' and 'Stack Shot Billy' to something like 'The Lengths', which was a big surprise when the albums first appeared. There's a great cover of The Kink's 'Act Nice and Gentle', which shows the band doesn't have to go full-bore to get a great song across. The Black Keys are really doing nothing more than re-interpreting blues and classic rock templates but what makes them different than a junk cover band or a band like Jet is that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are never imitating anything. They're taking a wealth of blues and rock influences and making something uniquely their own out of it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Film Decade List #15: I'm Not There (2007)


I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, USA, 2007)

The greatest attribute I can give to I'm Not There is that it's nothing like a conventional biopic. In a decade that has seen a host of musical figures have their lives reduced to a middling, middlebrow awards grabber, Haynes should get a lot of credit for his daring take on Bob Dylan. The follows not just the life of Dylan but is more of a thematic examination of the man, his work, and whatever people have called him over the years: poet, voice of a generation, fraud, you name it. The big news here was that Haynes uses six different actors to portray Dylan or various images of him, some being young black boy pretending to be Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin) to the renowned performance by Cate Blanchett as the mid-60s, post Don't Look Back Dylan. Some performances are more direct representations of the man, some like the Woody and Billy segments exist as metaphor or are being woven out of the mythology that has been created around Dylan since the 60s. Reflecting on this recently, the element of the film that really strikes me is not so much any of the plot points but how Haynes has constructed the film stylistically. The Woody/young black Dylan segments have touches of New Hollywood. The Jude Quinn sequence has strong Godard and Fellini elements. Godard bubbles up again in the Arthur Rimbaud sequences. The one element that seems odd at first viewing but may be the film's crux is the Billy (Richard Gere) segment. It's Haynes channeling Peckinpagh filmicly but it most closely resembles the old, weird America that Greil Marcus used in describing 'The Basement Tapes.' This may be the point of the film that truly gets to the center of what Dylan is all about, an unique amalgamation of various of American musical styles, deeply rooted in the past but distinctly modern. The Jude/Blanchett scenes may the most attention-grabbing scenes but the soul of I'm Not There reside in those Billy sections.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Music Decade List #16: Old Crow Medicine Show - O.C.M.S. (2004)


Bringing back the acoustic string band sound could be hard to do without it being seen as either ironic, cheesy, or too indebted to the sound's traditional roots. Old Crow Medicine Shoe manage to do none of this on their excellent self-titled album, produced by David Rawlings. The group manages to mix traditional songs with their originals that would appeal to any traditional bluegrass fan but also managed to cross over to the jamband and roots rock world. That rests mostly on the strength of one song, 'Wagon Wheel', which I guess I would pick as the choice track of the decade. A great road song with fantastic vocal harmonies and fiddle, it should have been at least a Country hit (if Country Radio wasn't filled busy playing shitty rock music with fiddles). It would be a disservice to the band to say that one song may the band as the original material is strong and sounds very much like the traditional songs they cover. They can handle up-tempo barn raisers ('Tear It Down', 'Hard to Tell') as well as slower material ('Poor Man', 'Trials & Troubles'). The band pulls this off because they aren't being ironic in the least and truly have an enthusiasm for the music and the history without being too reverential. Maybe the greatest compliment I can give the album is that it seems to have found a new, younger audience for the classic string band sound. The energy and enthusiasm that the band has that comes through this album is nothing but infectious.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Film Decade List #16: Almost Famous (2000)


Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, USA, 2000)

Even though over time, the syrupy sentimentality Almost Famous sprouts at times becomes cloying, the fact that there is a true love about its subject is what makes it work. More than anything, this is love letter to rock & roll, and more specifically Crowe's youth, and I can't say I don't feel the same way about rock & roll that William Miller does. The plot revolves around William, a teenage aspiring rock writer as he cons his way into doing a Rolling Stone profile of an up-and-coming band named Stillwater. In the course of getting his story, he gets a head-first trip into the backstage world of rock & roll, including befriending a groupie, or Band Aid, played by Kate Hudson. The film isn't so much concerned with the actual workings of a rock band but more using them as elements in crafting William's own coming of age story. Of course stories like that border into schmaltz and there are a few moments where Crowe, who is never afraid of going for sentimentality in scenes, attempts to derail the film. It never really happens because everything else is so good, especially to those like myself who could see themselves in the character of William. The performances of Patrick Fugit and Hudson (who has seemingly never made a good film since) are serviceable but it's the supporting performances that work. Jason Lee and Billy Crudup work well as the egotistical, bickering leaders of Stillwater and Crudup goes a little further to become someone who can trust and has an interest in William. The scene stealer here is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, channeling all the sarcasm and sincerity that Bangs showed in his writing. His moments with William are great moments that tell a lot about what rock & roll was in the 1970s and what rock journalism used to mean in those days. It's told so well because Crowe was there. Almost Famous clearly shows a filmmaker telling a story he truly wanted to tell and nailing what a force music can be in some people's lives.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Film Decade List #17: The Brown Bunny (2004)


The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, USA, 2004)

There has been no film that has received as much vitriol and condemnation this decade as The Brown Bunny. Most of it is unfounded and based on one scene, the infamous "blowjob" scene. If people were to look beyond that, they might be surprised that Vincent Gallo made a sincere, honest, heart-on-his-sleeve picture about loneliness and the search for redemption. Granted, not much happens in the film, and the scenes are slow and meandering, but it all creates a intensely brooding, melancholy film experience. It's a film experience that most will be rushed to call boring but I beg to differ. The control that Gallo shows is tremendous, as he lets shots and scenes linger but they still have an emotional punch to them. The scenes with Gallo meeting a woman named Lilly (played by Cheryl Tiegs) reflect everything I just said and sum up the film in a nutshell. It does nothing to really move along and with the exception of its infamous scene (which doesn't even really fit in that much structurally) but it reveals all the pathos and loneliness these characters posses. Only at the end does Bud (Gallo) receive some sort of redemption for the lonely and melancholy trip he and the viewer has taken.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Music Decade List #17: Jenny Lewis with the Watston Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat (2006)


Rabbit Fur Coat may have shocked someone expecting to hear more of Rilo Kiley in Jenny Lewis's solo debut. The blues, soul, and country influences here were also beginning to move into some of the songs on More Adventurous, which makes this feel like a natural progression. The albums starts off in a more American vibe, with the vocal harmonies of the Watson Twins playing a prominent role in 'Run Devil Run' and 'Rise Up With Fists'. There's also some up-tempo numbers like 'The Charging Sky' and a cover of the Traveling Wilbury's 'Handle with Care' that run full bore into that category. I would make the case that when Lewis strength is the more soulful, introspective songs on the album. 'Happy' and the title track are bittersweet, more intimate songs that show off a more soulful side of Lewis. While she doesn't have a big voice, it fits much better into quieter, acoustic numbers than the more uptempo numbers. Overall, the decision to adopt more of a country and blue-eyed soul sound makes Rabbit Fur Coat much more appealing to me than a typical Rilo Kiley album. That isn't meant to say that Rilo Kiley is crap but Lewis's solo output finds the new direction working just as well.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Film Decade List #18: Far From Heaven


Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)

Haynes ode to Sirkian melodrama is a fantastic film, from its performances to its look, all the while taking a slightly different route than Sirk's most memorable films. Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a prototypical upper middle-class housewife in the 1950s with a nice house and a successful husband, played by Dennis Quaid. Cathy's life starts to spiral out of control after spotting her husband kissing another man one night. As Cathy's seemingly perfect life seems to becoming undone, she befriends her African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). As the two begin to find a connection and friendship, the social taboo of a white woman and a black man being seen together creates some unintended dangers. Working with a strong influence from All That Heaven Allows, Haynes does a near perfect job of recreating the look and feel of Sirk's films. The cinematography is gorgeous, with rich, warm colors and with more realistic set pieces. The film also accurately portrays the social climate of the 50s, especially in regards to race and sexuality. Moore plays Cathy as a character ahead of her time, never comprehending the vitriol the community has towards her relationship with Raymond. In their relationship, Haynes is drawing a bit of influence from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which itself had a lot indebted to Sirk's films. The racial climate surrounding the characters in each are very similar. Moore carries the film on her strong-willed performance and there's no doubt that the effectiveness of Cathy makes or breaks the film. Everything about the film is done with a reverence toward the 50s melodrama that it works. But that it also a little more forthright in its examination of social issues of the time make Far From Heaven a remarkably perceptive film.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Music Decade List #18: The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday (2005)


The template laid down on Separation Sunday has come to define who and what The Hold Steady are. Almost Killed Me showed moments but here is really where everything came together, from Craig Finn's vocal delivery to a intertwined song cycle to the classic rock-isms. Revolving around a cycle of songs about Catholicism, growing up, going to parties, getting wasted, and meeting an assortment of characters, it can be seen as completely contrived. What makes it work is that The Hold Steady truly believe that Rock & Roll can be meaningful and that you can enjoy yourself and still play music. Songs like 'Banging Camp' and 'Chicago Seem Tired Last Night' have an explosive energy and while completely immersed in classic rock tropes, have infectious riffs in them. Coupled that with Finn's talk-singing, and numerous literary and cultural references, it creates a product that you will surely love or loathe. There seems to be no middle ground with The Hold Steady; you're either a true believer or want nothing to do with them. If you get into Separation Sunday, than unironic rock music can still have some sort of impact.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Film Decade List #19: American Splendor


American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, USA, 2003)

It's a testament to how entertaining a film American Splendor is when its central character is so cantakerous, moody, and difficult to like as Harvey Pekar. But the film, much like Pekar's work, take the mundane, soul-crushing existence that is most of Pekar's life and makes him a sympathetic, endearing character. Harvery as a person and as a character (played by Paul Giamatti) has his faults but his willingness to tell almost everything seems to wash over his less than desirable attributes. The film eschews traditional biography, instead blending fiction scenes with actors and the real-life characters sitting around talking to the directors. What really makes the two blend together so seamlessly is that the performances so perfectly match the people. Giamatti and Hope Davis as Harvey's wife, Joyce, nail every idiosyncrasy in their real-life character's personalities. The one who nearly steals the entire movie is Judah Friedlander as Toby Flenderson, Harvery's co-worker and self-appointed "nerd." Friedlander sticks everything, from Toby's body language down to his distinctive voice. It's a role that could be seen strictly as comic relief but like everyone else, Toby comes across so truthfully and sincerely, you never end up laughing at him but you identify. The basis of American Splendor is in the moments, to pick some semblance of truth in the human experience that make part of these characters present in everyone that lives in a crappy town, has a dead-on job and is looking for some way to seem worthwhile in life.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Music Decade List #19: Neko Case - Middle Cyclone (2009)


Nothing on Middle Cyclone is all that different than what Case has been putting out on record for most of the decade. It is a quantum leap forward in precision and confidence of craft that make this album stand out. The number one focal point of Case has always been her fantastic voice but here, she has the consistent melodies to back it up. It's amazing songs like 'This Tornado Loves You' or 'People Got a Lotta Nerve' never became hit songs (though it probably says more for the state of the music business and radio than the public in general). The songs on Middle Cyclone don't follow any genre in particular but they are all crafted with an atmospheric bent that allows Case to belt or be more subdued at any given moment. The hint of reverb in something like 'Vengeance Is Sleeping' adds a little more to a simple guitar track. But once again, it comes back to the melodies, which I'll make the case that this is the strongest and most consistent set on any Case album. Besides the two I mentioned above, later tracks like the title one and 'I'm an Animal' have fantastic hooks. For an artist who always seem to have trouble getting her songs more attention than her voice, Middle Cyclone feels like that Case has discovered the right formula to accomplish that.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Film Decade List #20 - 2046


2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 2005)
The one word I use to describe 2046 is ethereal. There's something other-worldly about the film and not that it teeters into science fiction territory. The story feels slight and that a host of strong elements (clunky symbolism, useless f/x or action) would completely overwhelm the delicate film that Wong has created. Operating as more or less a sequel to In the Mood for Love (which we'll get to later), 2046 follows the character as Mr. Chung (Tony Leung), this time as more of a playboy but still dealing with a lot of the same themes as that film. Chung again moves from lovelorn moment to moment while Wong throws in some science fiction elements. It all doesn't have the same emotional resonate of INMFL but in a formal sense, 2046 is much less tethered to reality and exists outside reality at times. Once again, Christopher Doyle's cinematography is enviable beautiful and the larger focus on surface images and color make 2046 a bit more of a visual oriented film. That being said, Wong never completely leaves story behind but it really plays second fiddle to creating that feeling that this film is fleeting and exists ever so briefly in the ether. It's incredibly difficult to describe exactly how I felt watching this. It could have been all too easy for this film to fall into a swirling mess without much grounding it. Wong is such an exceptional filmmaker that it feels like he's pulling important shots and themes out of practically nothing or at least sub-interesting material like science fiction (that's my opinion speaking). It's one of those 'either you get it or you don't films' but for someone like me, this is about an easy like as I can get.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Film Decade List #21: The Departed


The Departed (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2006)

The Departed is by no means classic Scorsese but in regards to the other films he had released this decade, it was a welcome return to what you think a Scorsese film should be. The film works because it has all the hallmark elements of Scorsese's best work, the fast paced, kinetic camera and action, using rock songs in just the right moments, and another fantastic editing job by Thelma Schoomaker. Based on the Asian film Infernal Affairs, the plot focuses on a series of "rats", a criminal infiltrating the Boston Police Department (Matt Damon) and a cop infiltrating his former neighborhood crime racket (Leonardo DiCaprio). Damon and DiCaprio's characters are pretty much mirror images, as they behave and even go for the same woman (Vera Farmiga) as the web of subplots and double crosses unravels around them. It a smart, propulsive screenplay with an ear for Boston, not just in accents but in the behavior of the police and the criminals that occupy the film. Yes, it all makes an entertaining film and there was not many other directors that could have handled the material any better than Scorsese does. The film does get docked some minor points for the ham-handed symbolism at the end and Jack Nicholson seems to lag well behind everyone else in the film in terms of performance. Still, The Departed does enough right to deserve its place on this list.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Music Decade List #20: Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger (2007)


After some highly conceptualized releases before it (the Deadsy Cold Roses, the country of Jacksonville City Nights), Easy Tiger was seen by some to a return to the form of Heartbreaker, in that Adams pares and combines his influences into one concise album. The album can also be seen as a more broad, commercially aiming record after the increasingly insular and niche albums that made up Adams's 2005 trio. Easy Tiger was definitely a grower for me, as further listens brushed the "too commercial" feeling I had about it at the beginning and now, it has become a record I go back to time and time again. Never being as big of a believer in Heartbreaker as legend has made it, I would take the songs here over a lot on that album. Like I said above, the album feels like a mix of the various albums that Adams had covered over the previous part of the decade: 'Goodnight Rose' wouldn't feel out of place on Cold Roses (especially when listening to the jammier live versions), 'Pearls on a String' could come from Jacksonville City Nights, even something like 'I Taught Myself How to Grow Old' could be on 29. Perhaps why I've come to like Easy Tiger so much is that you can pick a little bit out of every other Adams album and say "Yes, this song could be on ___". With that being said, it still works together because it feels like the strongest set of songs Adams put on record maybe ever. Nothing sounds meandering of like filler. I could live without 'Two' or 'Everybody Knows', the two most obvious hand-outs to radio, even though they have some merit. I'll take the acoustic numbers, definitely the strongest since Heartbreaker. 'These Girls' and 'Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.' are really exceptional songs. And even though this is titled as a Adams solo release it does feature the Cardinals lineup with Neal Casal, who I will argue makes a huge difference in Adams transformation as a live performer. With Adams, it seems to make a significant improvement in his recorded output using the same performers on every track. It may not be a great record to some, but Easy Tiger earned its place on this list with repeated listening.

(Author's note: The author of this post often spends too much time listening, pouring over, and analyzing the catalog of Ryan Adams. Be prepared for a dissertation-level write up of Cold Roses later on in this decade list.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jerichow


Jerichow (Christian Petzold, 2009) [9]

A variation on The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jerichow is a different kind of neo-noir. The story is never really focused on the plot twists and surprises that populate noir but more by an evocative tone. Thomas (Benno Furmann) is a Afghan war vet back in his hometown with no money. By chance, he comes across Ali (Hilmi Sozer), a Turkish immigrant who owns a chain of snack shops and just happens to need a driver after getting busted for DUI. Thomas goes to work and earns the trust of Ali as well as becoming attracted to Ali's wife, Laura (Nina Hoss), a woman with a past of her own. The rest of the film settles on this simmering romance with Thomas and Laura with Ali left at the edges. It's a fairly standard noir plot but Petzold reworks the emotional ambiance of the story to a refreshing degree. The film has a detached, almost clinical eye to the story and its characters. Moments of passion, paranoia, and violence all play out the same way. The characters are beaten down but in different ways. Thomas and Laura have ended up in circumstances that as of a result of not having money, have created a situation with nowhere to go for them. Ali, while having a lot of money, is a victim of being a immigrant in a land that never really accepts him even with his wealth. He tells Thomas of going on a trip back to Turkey, where he and Laura are planning on permanently moving to. Or so Petzold lets you think. The only big revelation of the narrative comes after Ali returns from his trip and it shifts his character to a boozy, violent, unlikable man into someone that garners sympathy. Petzold is digging a little bit deeper than just into the passion of the characters and by examining race, wealth, and status, even briefly, he adds a dimension to Jerichow that I find appealing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Film Decade List #22: Talk to Her (2002)


Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002)

Almodovar has become known with the way that he handles female characters in his film but Talk to Her is almost in reverse as in it focuses on male characters and their interactions in similar circumstances. Marco (Dario Grandinetti) is a writer whose matador girlfriend ends up in a coma. Benigno (Javier Camara) is a male nurse looking after a patient who has been in a coma for a while. The two men bond over their similar circumstances and the ability to care for those women in their lives that are helpless. While that is a fairly simple review, Almodovar throws many more themes and surreal experiences that give the film so much more meaning. One one level, it's about these men coming to terms with tragic circumstances but there's a deeper underlying darkness to it, especially in Benigno's relationship. He has no real ties to the woman he's looking after other than being her nurse but he wraps himself so tightly in her life, there's a feeling of uneasiness about his relationship. That foreboding notion shows itself by the end, where the sympathy earned by Benigno in his actions earlier in the film comes crashing down in a jarring end. That Marco comes to Benigno after attempting to find an explanation shows a lot about the bond the two created earlier in the film. Talk to Her really is a fairly simple film in its execution but Almodovar creates a complete film universe with a caring storyline. He never quite loses his more surreal tendencies, as a silent vignette bawdily shows, but there's no denying how emotionally powerful the film is, despite how poorly I've described it. That Benigno, who does something truly unforgivable, and yet, you feel just as sorry for him as you feel outrage, is a testament to how strong a story Almodovar has wound. Talk to Her has been one of the films over the past few years that has always stayed with me as being a near perfectly constructed film, not just in story and characters but in emotion.