28 February 2016

Here We Go Again

Last year after the Golden Globes got our hopes up by handing out top awards to the likes of Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instead chose to shine the beams of its approval on Birdman, a cynical and gimmicky showbusiness comedy from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. One year later, following a second consecutive win at the Directors Guild of America, Iñárritu is poised to become the first director in 65 years to win consecutive Best Director awards. His latest empty spectacle, The Revenant, which leads the way with 12 nominations, is also a slight favorite to win Best Picture. So already we're not off to a great start. Fortunately I have nowhere to go but up after last year’s predictions trainwreck, but we shan’t linger on that.

This year’s awards have also been overshadowed by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which has reignited some long-simmering discussions about the slow progress of nonwhite filmmakers in Hollywood. Complaints about the nominations are fine as far as they go, but the truly discouraging reality is that only two films with a primarily nonwhite cast were even in the running: Ryan Coogler’s Rocky spinoff Creed and F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. (Each received one Oscar nomination, the first for Sylvester Stallone and the latter for its white screenwriters.) The dearth of Oscar-type movies starring and directed by nonwhite filmmakers has the additional negative effect of making the conversation around the few exceptions more fraught, unfairly burdening the likes of Selma and 12 Years a Slave with a lot symbolic baggage. So while changes to the Academy voting membership and rules should help with the nominations, the greater problem lies with the industry at large. Tonight’s host, Chris Rock, penned a thoughtful article on this very subject for The Hollywood Reporter about a year ago. We’ll see what he has to say from the stage Sunday night.

Tonight’s show should be more interesting than last year’s dud for at least a couple reasons. First, Rock will certainly be funnier than Neil Patrick Harris, who appeared to buckle under the pressure of hosting the Oscars last year. Second, there should be some suspense as to the identity of tonight’s Best Picture winner right up to the announcement of the big prize, with three of the eight nominated films having a real shot at winning. This year continues the generally upward trend in the quality of Best Picture nominees over the past decade or so. With a couple exceptions, it’s a mostly averagish slate, but there’s nothing I hate this year. The worst of the bunch is The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio grunts and wheezes his way through a skeletal revenge story against the snow-covered backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The movie is entirely ridiculous, but it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of watching either 1) wintry mountain landscapes or 2) people getting stabbed, speared, impaled, disemboweled, slashed with machetes, or shot with arrows. Otherwise you can skip it.

If The Revenant doesn’t take the top prize, it will almost surely go to either Spotlight or The Big Short. Set in Boston in the early 2000s, Spotlight follows a group of Boston Globe reporters over the course of a yearlong investigation into the Catholic Church’s coverup of sexual abuse claims against dozens of priests. Written and performed with the same quiet competence displayed by its characters, Spotlight is a solid, respectable, and somewhat overfamiliar drama whose reputation has been slightly inflated by journalists, presumably drawn to its highly flattering view of their profession. Even judged merely as a prestige picture, the movie lacks a suitably dramatic climax. Indeed, aside from a brilliantly subtle performance from Liev Schreiber as the Globe’s editor, there’s nothing remarkable about Spotlight at all. Still, it’s a movie that almost no one dislikes, which could be enough to put it over the top.

A better choice would be The Big Short. Directed by frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, the ensemble comedy follows the paths of several investors who bet against the housing market in the months leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Based on a novel by Michael Lewis, McKay’s terrific screenplay distills the complexities of the eventual meltdown into easily understandable bits without condescending to the viewer, effectively deploying YouTube-like bits featuring guests ranging from actress Margot Robbie to economist Robert Thaler that interrupt the narrative to explain relevant bits of financial jargon. The ensemble cast is terrific, with Christian Bale and Steve Carell giving two of the year's best performances. The Big Short is the funniest movie of the year, the most infuriating, and maybe the timeliest.

Among the likely also-rans, the clear standout in terms of both quality and Oscar attention is Mad Max: Fury Road, which scored 10 nominations George Miller’s careening post-apocalyptic road epic stars Charlize Theron as the indomitable Furiosa and the suddenly ubiquitous Tom Hardy as the title character, who’s mostly just along for the ride. Theron was sadly, if predictably, overlooked in the Best Actress category, but the movie’s distinctive look should snag it a well-deserved Oscar for Production Design and a shocker Best Director triumph for Miller isn’t out of the question. Already well on its way to iconic status, Fury Road allows the action sequences to drive the story instead of the more conventional use of story as a vehicle for action. I suppose it’s technically a franchise movie, but you’re unlikely to notice or care.

Also nominated are a pair of pleasant dramas set in the postwar era, old-fashioned in mostly the best ways: Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as a lawyer who finds himself running around on the wrong side of the emerging Berlin Wall, and the Nick Hornby-scripted Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley and built on a spirited perfomrance from Saoirse Ronan as a young Irish woman who emigrates to New York. And rounding out the field are Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, an effectively high-concept mystery-thriller for its first half that moves into more conventional territory in its second hour, and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, a space rescue movie that appears to be set in a parallel universe where everyone on Earth is a supergenius.

While Best Picture is up for grabs, this feels like a relatively easy predictions year, with strong favorites across the board. Costume Design is a bit tricky, with the double-nominated Sandy Powell (Carol and Cinderella) going up against Fury Road. The two sound categories should be closely contested between Fury Road and The Revenant, and one of the two could upset The Force Awakens in the Visual Effects category. And of course there’s the usual fun with the shorts. Stay tuned for my own Top 10 films of the year after the predictions below.

Best Picture

Following Iñárritu’s DGA win, many prognosticators are picking The Revenant to win Best Picture as well as Director, and it may well do so, if only on the principle that the Academy will always choose the worst of the frontrunners. One possible factor working against it is the Academy’s preferential balloting system for Best Picture. Rather than voting for one film, Academy members are asked to rank the Best Picture winners on their ballots. I’m not going to get in to the details of the tabulation system here, but the upshot is that movies can boost their chances of winning by placing second or third on voters' ballots. The theory is that this might put a comparatively divisive film like The Revenant at a disadvantage compared to Spotlight or The Big Short, which fewer people seemed to dislike. The only other awards group that uses a preferential ballot is the Producers Guild of America, which gave its top prize to . . . The Big Short! In the six years since the Academy went to this balloting system, the PGA winner has matched Best Picture each time.

Will win: The Big Short
Should win: The Big Short

Best Director

John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz are the only directors to win consecutive Best Director Oscars, with Ford winning the second and third of his record four statuettes for The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley (1940-41) and Mankiewicz winning for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve (1949-50). Making Iñárritu the third member of this group seems about as apt as putting Donald Trump on Mount Rushmore, but clearly we live in strange times. A win for McKay or Spotlight's Tom McCarthy here virtually guarantees his film will win Best Picture as well.

W: Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
S: Adam McKay, The Big Short

Best Actress

This is a stronger group of nominees than usual and better than the Best Actor field. I’d give the edge to Cate Blanchett’s poised, withholding performance as a bourgeois lesbian housewife in 1950s New York who runs away with a younger woman (Rooney Mara) in Todd Haynes’s deeply moving Carol. The film somehow got six nominations without scoring nods for either Best Picture or its director. It would have been nice to see the Academy finally recognize Haynes, who’s been one of the most interesting American filmmakers of the past 25 years. Carol would have been a better choice in both categories than, say, Room, for which Brie Larson will almost certainly win here for her taut portrayal of an embattled mother.

W: Brie Larson, Room
S: Cate Blanchett, Carol

Best Actor

DiCaprio will win his first Oscar at age 41 for playing a paper-thin character in an absurd movie. The role seems perversely designed to eliminate every attribute that makes DiCaprio interesting as a screen actor, but he did eat raw bison liver and fight a bear and stuff, so there's that to consider too. DiCaprio should have won two years ago for The Wolf of Wall Street. But that’s how the Oscars have always been. Actors usually win for the wrong movie.

W: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
S: Matt Damon, The Martian

Best Supporting Actor

This will most likely go to Sylvester Stallone for Creed, which I regrettably have not yet seen. Stallone is the shakiest of the four acting favorites for a couple reasons: 1) He was not nominated at the Screen Actors Guild Award, which then went to Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation (who was not nominated for the Oscar), and 2) As the only nominee from Creed, it’s unclear whether the #OscarsSoWhite controversy helps or hurts him. If there’s an upset, I suspect it will come from Mark Rylance for his quiet portrayal of a Soviet agent in Bridge of Spies, although any of the five nominees could win here. I would like to have seen Schreiber nominated instead of Mark Ruffalo for Spotlight, and Steve Carell for The Big Short instead of Tom Hardy or possibly Stallone.

W: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
S: Christian Bale, The Big Short

Best Supporting Actress

As with Supporting Actor, this is likely to go to the only performance I haven’t seen, Alicia Vikander’s in The Danish Girl, which along with her turn as a humanoid AI in Ex Machina made 2015 a breakout year for the 26-year-old Swedish actress. Mara is essentially a co-lead in Carol and Kate Winslet gets tons of screen time as the great man’s invaluable assistant in Steve Jobs. Either could pull off the upset, but I’ll stick with the favorite here.

W: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
S: Rooney Mara, Carol

Screenplay, Original
W: Spotlight
S: Bridge of Spies

Screenplay, Adapted
W: The Big Short
S: The Big Short

Animated Feature
W: Inside Out

Documentary Feature
W: Amy

Foreign Language Film
W: Son of Saul

Cinematography
W: The Revenant
S: The Revenant

Production Design
W: Mad Max: Fury Road
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Editing
W: Mad Max: Fury Road
S: The Big Short

Visual Effects
W: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Costume Design
W: Mad Max: Fury Road
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Makeup and Hair
W: Mad Max: Fury Road
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Mixing
W: The Revenant
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Editing
W: The Revenant
S: Mad Max: Fury Road

Original Score
W: The Hateful Eight
S: Carol

Original Song
W: “Til It Happens to You,” The Hunting Ground

Animated Short
W: Bear Story

Live Action Short
W: Shok

Documentary Short
W: Body Team 12


And here are my Top 10 films of 2015. I can’t remember a year where I felt less strongly about the order. Perhaps I have rankings fatigue. I'm working on trying to have fewer opinions in general. Anyway, the first three films were clearly my favorites of the year, although there wasn’t much separation among them, and the titles from No. 4 on could be listed in pretty much any order.

1. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)

The world’s greatest living director (non-JLG division) returns after a seven-year absence with another masterwork. Set in ninth-century China during the latter years of the Tang dynasty, The Assassin is both a painstaking historical reconstruction and a work of visionary formalism. The Assassin is a martial arts movie in more or less the same sense that Andrei Rublev is a biopic, with conventional generic expectations taking a backseat to its director’s formal and spiritual concerns. At 68, Hou remains a cinematic master, his deft blocking and camera placement allowing shots and scenes to develop at their own pace in rapturous confluences of color and light without ever seeming to strain for effect.

2. The Big Short (Adam McKay, U.S.)

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia)

4. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, Germany)
This melancholy thriller from German director Christian Petzold transplants Hitchcock’s Vertigo to postwar Berlin. Nina Hoss stars in one of the year's best performances, as a concentration camp survivor looking for the husband who may have betrayed her. Compact, suspenseful, and multi-layered, Phoenix ultimately proves to be a worthy variation on the film that inspired it.

5. Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France)
Somewhere along the way Bruno Dumont developed a sense of humor to go along with his relentless pessimism about humanité, and the result is the best film of his career. Originally a four-part miniseries made for French TV, Li’l Quinquin is nominally a murder mystery set in a small seaside town, where a pair of bumbling policemen attempt to get to the bottom of a series of brutal killings. At heart, it’s a comedy about the breakdown of social relations and utter ineptitude of authority not altogether different in spirit from Dumont’s earlier work, even if it’s a lot more fun to watch.

6. Heaven Knows What (Ben and Joshua Safdie, U.S.)
One of the most visually daring films of the year, this raw and intimate portrayal of a loosely connected group of junkies on the streets of New York City finds the humanity in some of society's most despised, vulnerable, and often invisible members.

7. Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
Using a variety of narrative styles and visual techniques over three parts, nine sections, and 381 minutes, director Miguel Gomes weaves together a tapestry of life under austerity in contemporary Portugal. The film borrows its structure and some of its narrative techniques from the collection of medieval-era tales, but the problems of its characters are all too contemporary.

8. Carol (Todd Haynes, U.S.)

9. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania)
The ill winds of jihadism blow into a small Malian village, disrupting the lives of a cattle herder and his family. Despite its sometimes violent subject matter, Timbuktu is an oddly placid film, the camera often lingering on still shots of human faces and desert landscapes

10. The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France)
A middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant (shoulda-been Best Supporting Actress frontrunner Kristen Stewart) talk about art and life in the latest from the great Olivier Assayas. As with many of his films, it’s very much in the spirit of the nouvelle vague.

Honorable mentions (alphabetical): Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, U.S.); The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, U.S.); The Kindergarten Teacher (Nadav Lapid, Israel); Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada); Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, U.S.)

20 January 2016

Best Music of 2015

Hello again. I didn’t blog very often last year. I think I will blog more often this year, although I’m not making any promises. But here we are again. It's time for me to do a blog post with a list of my favorite albums of the year. These lists are intended as nothing more definitive than my own personal take on the year in music, committed to the interwebs as much for the purpose of closing the book mentally on another year as for public consumption (although I’m glad you’re reading—really!). This one feels more personalized than usual. I've been thinking a lot about the winnowing that happens in one’s thirties: Simply put, I care about fewer things now, while desiring a deeper engagement with the things I do care about.

Unfortunately, the category of things I no longer care about includes a fair amount of the most-discussed music of 2015 and—perhaps more to the point—nearly all of the discussion itself. Much as the internet increasingly seems to speak with one voice, the year’s musical output seemed to converge into a formless electropop blob, the ongoing fixation with rearranging conceptual and musical ideas from the 1980s now having lasted nearly as long as the decade itself. Call it decadence, call it the hyperreal, but please call it something. In that sense, the album of the year was Tame Impala’s Currents, a cynical attempt to capitalize on this tendency ironically disguised as an artistic evolution.

Most of the albums listed below have a more oblique relationship to the present moment, some retreating into musical languages of the past to create a sense of isolation or temporal suspension, others finding formal equivalents to contemporary modes of experiencing reality. The first three in particular, otherwise having very little in common, all require a considerable amount of time and effort from the listener.

But before we get to the list, a word on David Bowie. The outpouring of tributes over the past several days have highlighted the many important dimensions of Bowie’s life and musical career, most of which won’t be touched on here. For me, one of his greatest contributions was his demolition of the ethos of authenticity in rock and roll. This was partially effected by the use of characters like Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, the antithesis of the confessional singer-songwriter ethic that was commercially dominant for much of the ’70s. But just as important was his omnivorous approach to musical forms, what is often referred to as his “chameleon-like” tendency. It’s easy to forget that this adjective was more often a put-down than a term of praise in contemporary reviews of Bowie’s music. His genre-hopping, ranging from eclectic traditional pop to glam rock to prog to plastic soul to icy art pop in the ’70s alone, and later encompassing techno, industrial, and Scott Walker-style crooning, was viewed as suspicious, a mark of soulless inauthenticity. Now of course, this eclecticism is seen as evidence of Bowie’s prolific conceptual genius, essential to his singular impact on popular music and culture. As ever, the true greats change the rules and make the world’s first impressions of them obsolete.

Aside from revisiting some of the music discussed below for writing inspiration, I was listening to Bowie nearly the whole time I spent writing this. I can’t remember such a binge having so greatly enhanced my appreciation of an artist whom I thought I knew pretty well. Much of this has to do with Bowie’s terrific new album. But we can talk about that one a year from now.


1. Kendrick Lamar—To Pimp a Butterfly
The crucial thing to understand about this album is that its implied audience is black. Not that we white folks aren’t welcome to listen in, of course, but we shouldn’t expect any of the music or lyrics here to be tailored to the finer points of our political and cultural sensibilities. This is important to remember when thinking about the N-word riff at the end of “i” or the encounter with the homeless man on “How Much a Dollar Cost” or even the simple notion that we gonna be “Alright.” Kendrick’s comprehensive view of Black America encompasses everyone from that homeless guy to Obama himself, the street gospel of “Alright” sitting alongside the feral rage of “The Blacker the Berry” to render To Pimp a Butterfly resistant to any reductive political descriptors.

Musically, To Pimp a Butterfly is a conscious attempt to create a masterpiece that transcends hip-hop, with Kendrick instead placing himself within the broader black musical tradition. George Clinton shows up on the opener, and the whole album has both the sound and the musical freedom of 1960s jazz. More complex is Kendrick’s relationship with his hip-hop forebears. The straight-up G-funk of “King Kunta” is a nod to Dr. Dre, even as the literal appearances of Dre via voicemail on the opening “Wesley’s Theory” and Tupac Shakur in the extended “interview” that concludes the album are a bit harder to interpret. When Tupac suggests that black people are ready to take up arms against their oppressors, Kendrick responds by pivoting to the stirring testament to the transformative power of art that concludes the album. We're left waiting for ’Pac's response. (“Alright” “The Blacker the Berry”)

2. Deafheaven—New Bermuda
Perhaps inspired by complaints that their 2013 breakthrough Sunbather wasn’t metal enough, Deafheaven returned with their heaviest music to date. New Bermuda is less the Difficult Third Album than a roots move. That it was perceived as the former is evidenced by its relative lack of prominence on year-end lists and reader polls, despite its musical superiority to its predecessor. Seeing the band live in late October, it was evident that the new material is simply on a different level of intensity. Leadoff track “Brought to the Water” is typical in its structure. After a portentous buildup featuring church bells, the song breaks into full-on thrash before singer George Clarke comes in, roaring through the verses while a wall of guitar noise swells around him (Clarke’s black-metal rasp is mixed a bit higher than on Sunbather—another barrier for many non-metalheads.) Just past the halfway point, the song switches gears entirely, as if we’ve reached the top of the mountain and are looking out on some new vista. A descending guitar chime takes over as the song moves closer to the shoegazer territory familiar from Sunbather, before alighting on a soft piano figure. The remaining songs mostly follow suit, starting off heavy, reaching up toward some ecstatic electric guitar epiphany, and ending somewhere else altogether. The big exception is the closer “Gifts for the Earth,” which rages against the dying of the light via a propulsive ’90s rock riff. Just in case you thought they’d gone soft. (“Brought to the Water” “Come Back”)

3. Joanna Newsom—Divers
This 52-minute song cycle about space and time, love and death, might actually be Newsom’s most easily digestible album to date. The singularity of her style—crudely approximated as baroque chamber music blended with the American folk tradition and seasoned with pinches of rock-era spice—can obscure the amount of musical ground Newsom covers. “Sapokanikan” morphs fluidly from an easy, jazzy amble to its choral crescendo, while “Leaving the City” nearly rocks. Newsom’s subtle command of dynamics maintains a sense of drama throughout, while her lyrics are tricked out with allusions to history and literature, ripples that may obscure as much as they reveal about the underlying currents of the songs. Like the ocean itself, Divers retains its mysteries no matter how often one plumbs its depths. (“Leaving the City” “Divers”)

4. Kurt Vile—B’lieve I’m Goin Down…
Kurt Vile has it all figured out. He just wants to play his music, hang out with his family, and, um…I forget what else. Still, B’lieve I’m Goin Down… adds some dark shadings to its idealized portrait of domestic life. The jaunty opener, “Pretty Pimpin,” finds the singer not recognizing his own reflection (although by the end it’s unclear whether the experience is disquieting or liberating) and “That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate to Say)” finds hints of impending death lurking in the most peaceful of landscapes. Vile doesn’t venture too far outside his wheelhouse here: a few songs could easily be outtakes from his 2013 masterpiece Wakin on a Pretty Daze. But when you’re in this kind of groove, why not ride it out for as long as you can? (“Pretty Pimpin” “Stand Inside”)

5. Viet Cong—Viet Cong
One of two albums this year featuring former members of the essential Calgary band Women (Cindy Lee’s softer, more experimental Act of Tenderness is also worth checking out), Viet Cong supplements that group’s hard-edged Velvets drone with more explicitly postpunk influences. (Joy Division looms large, particularly on the multipart “March of Progress.”) Postpunk is spoken as a dead language here, with guitar distortion, dissonant chords, and chugging industrial rhythms expressing an unbridgeable disconnect between singer Matt Flegel and the outside world; as some have pointed out, it’s the sort of feeling one gets from the extreme cold of a Calgary winter. (“March of Progress” “Continental Shelf”)

6. Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
The first proper full-length from 27-year-old Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett goes down easily thanks to Barnett’s witty, closely observed lyrics and highly ingratiating persona. It’s all harmless fun, of course, as well as a disarmingly casual portrait of mediated 21st-century consciousness. Riffs on organic vegetables and coral reefs cross the streams of fact, myth, and rumor that we call news. Barnett realizes we’re all implicated, and shrugs. (“Pedestrian at Best” “Dead Fox”)

7. Jason Isbell—Something More Than Free
The onetime Drive-by Trucker follows up his 2013 solo breakthrough Southeastern with this more relaxed, less autobiographical affair. Along with Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, this album shows the artistic and commercial strength of a new strain of Americana that owes at least as much to classic rock as to Nashville. (“24 Frames” “Speed Trap Town”)

8. Jamie xx—In Colour
The first official solo album from Jamie xx relocates the intimate electronica of his band the xx from late night/morning after bedroom confessionals to the dancefloor. Less verbal and more beat-driven than either xx album, In Colour throws in some new wrinkles including a guest appearance from Young Thug. But happily, bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim stop by too, elevating Jamie to places he still can’t reach without them. (“Loud Places” “Obvs”)

9. Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express—Junun
With Radiohead mostly on hiatus over the past several years, Jonny Greenwood has kept himself busy with various collaborations, movie soundtracks, and other solo compositions. Last spring, Greenwood and Nigel Godrich traveled to India to record an album with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and a group of Indian musicians in a 15th-century fort in the state of Rajasthan. Ben Tzur composes Qawwali (an ecstatic form of Sufi devotional music best known in the West from the work of the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) primarily in Hebrew, which gives an idea of the pan-religious spirituality that suffuses his music and lyrics. As for Greenwood, who produced the album and plays several instruments, Junun may be the best musical project he’s been involved in since In Rainbows. (“Kalandar” “Allah Elohim”)

10. Hop Along—Painted Shut
The second album from shambolic Philadelphia indie rockers Hop Along soars on the strength of singer Frances Quinlan’s bleary-eyed tales of people trying to adapt to a world that’s grown “so small and embarrassing” in more ways than one. The low-fi sound and studied sloppiness of the arrangements combine with Quinlan’s mercurial vocal stylings to capture the emotionally tenuous state of characters ensconced on the margins of society. In a world of lowered expectations, the closest thing to paradise anyone here can imagine is a future where we all remember things the same. (“Waitress” “Powerful Man”)


Five runners-up (in alphabetical order)

Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment—Surf
This one is nearly as interesting for how it was released—a free download exclusive to iTunes—as for the music on it. Given away freely but still corporately released, it feels somewhere between a mixtape and a proper album. Surf is also notable as the second full-length from Chance the Rapper, one of the five official members of this Chicago jazz-soul-rap collective. The best tracks here are easily worthy of Top 10 placement, but repeat listening makes the copious filler hard to ignore. (“Sunday Candy” “Familiar”)

Future—DS2
Atlanta rapper reaches for the full armor of God but settles for Percocet and strippers. (“I Serve the Base” “Blow a Bag”)

Oneohtrix Point Never—Garden of Delete
The only way for Daniel Lopatin to surprise at this point would be to repeat himself. As expected, Garden of Delete marks yet another departure for the Brooklyn electronic musician, with a more abrasive use of sampling and fractured evocations of genres like pop, rock, and R&B. It’s not his best album (I’d stick with 2011’s Replica), but it’s surely his funniest. (“Sticky Drama” “Ezra”)

Sleater-Kinney—No Cities to Love
The mighty Sleater-Kinney return after a decade-long hiatus with an album that would have fit right in with the music they made in their late-’90s/early-’00s heyday. This is both a strength and a weakness. (“A New Wave” “Bury Our Friends”)

Tenement—Predatory Highlights
The third album from this rock trio, who hail from my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, features 25 songs over a whopping 78 minutes. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but if you respect the double-album structure outlined in the liner notes (yeah, that’s right), Predatory Highlights begins to take shape, with the slower and more exotic excursions of side three providing an ambitious change-of-pace from the hard, crisp powerpop that dominates the proceedings. (“Feral Cat Tribe” “Garden of Secrecy”)


I’ve finally decided to euthanize the “top songs not on those albums” list, which outlived its usefulness years ago. It probably would have been topped this year by “In Time” from FKA Twigs, whose 19-minute EP M3LL155X was good enough (if not long enough) for the Top 10. There was also a Colombian pop song called “Mar (Lo Que Siento)” by Bomba Estéreo that I was briefly obsessed with. So you can check that out too.

22 February 2015

Everything Is Awesome

One year ago the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did itself proud with the selection of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as Best Picture, arguably its best choice of the 21st century. Your blogger did himself a bit less proud, scoring a not unimpressive 19/23 on my Oscar predictions, prior to blowing Best Picture by refusing to go along with the Picture/Director split between 12 Years and Gravity’s Alfonso Cuarón, widely predicted by the pundits. Like I said, never predict a split. We’ll get back to that later.

For most of the awards season, it looked like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a coming-of-age story shot over the course of 12 years with the same cast, would become the second uncommonly good Best Picture winner in as many years. Yes, dear reader, it was just a few weeks ago that Oscar bloggers and commenters were loudly holding forth about how boring the Best Picture race was, how it was the worst year ever, and really above all, just how incredibly bored they were with the Oscars, movies, and (presumably) life. Never mind that many of these same people claimed to actually like Boyhood. It was the frontrunner and must be taken down.

They got their wish. And it now appears that Birdman, a cynical showbusiness comedy about a veteran actor (Michael Keaton) who’s left superhero movies behind to direct and star in an independent theater, will take the big prize tonight, having won awards from the Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and Screen Actors Guild. The only time this combination failed to produce a Best Picture winner was 1995, when Apollo 13 fell to Braveheart, after director Ron Howard had been unexpectedly left out of the Best Director field. There are no such worries for Birdman or its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Birdman would hardly be the worst Best Picture in the history of the Oscars. Given the existence of The Artist, it wouldn’t even be the worst this decade. It has its share of amusing moments, mostly involving Edward Norton as a prima donna actor called in at the last minute to save Keaton’s production. But it’s the frontrunner mainly because it speaks to the current angst among Hollywood professionals that the industry has become too reliant on comic book movies and other branded material at the expense of, you know, art. It reassures Academy members that, deep down, they’re better than that. And the copious references to Twitter in the movie tell them they’re still hip, even if not still young. As for what kind of “real art” they might be making in the absence of the industry’s franchise addiction—I mean, can we talk about the fact that Birdman’s idea of art in 2014 is a play based on Raymond Carver stories? Good grief. And the one-shot gimmick has been done better elsewhere.

Still, the underlying complaint about the disappearance of serious, middle-budget movies based on original characters and stories is not without merit. And yet, lo and behold, we have just such a film in this year’s Oscar race: a serious drama about an important contemporary subject that’s not a remake or sequel. Based on a memoir by Chris Kyle and directed by Clint Eastwood, who’s still got his fastball at age 84, American Sniper follows Kyle from his rural Texas childhood to the war in Iraq, where he became the most lethal sniper in American military history. Appealing to a rural audience that rarely sees people like themselves onscreen, the movie has exploded at the box office and attracted a lot of flak from critics and pundits, mostly for being insufficiently didactic about the relationship between 9/11 and the war in Iraq and for not portraying the Iraqi characters more sympathetically. The film’s commitment to Kyle’s point of view makes both complaints tantamount to saying Eastwood should have made a different movie entirely. Sniper does pull a few punches, no doubt with an eye on the box office, delivering a smoothed-over version of its protagonist. I also wish Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), had been given something to do during the middle stretches that didn't involve complaining about something. Still, buoyed by a career-best performance from Cooper, American Sniper is one of the more interesting war movies in recent memory, effectively visualizing Kyle’s PTSD-induced isolation from both his fellow soldiers and his family back home. Setting aside the politics of the war, the film nevertheless digs deep into the roots of American militarism and its consequences for the men who uphold its values. Chris Kyle may be a war hero, but he’s hardly a role model.

As for the other nominees, The Grand Budapest Hotel finds Wes Anderson doing his thing. I’m not a hardcore Anderson cultist and this wasn’t my favorite of his movies, but he’s a true original worthy of respect for carving out a nice career in an inhospitable industry. The nine nominations for Grand Budapest indicate that many Academy members feel the same, and I think there’s a good chance he receives what would amount to a mid-career lifetime achievement award tonight in the Original Screenplay category. Setting aside Whiplash, which remains unseen by me, we’re left with three middlebrow dramas of vastly different quality. Selma isn’t quite worth all the hand-wringing about its exclusion from the major Oscar categories aside from Best Picture, but it’s a solidly crafted docudrama about a critical episode in recent American history—just the type of mainstream drama that has often competed for this award. I was less enthusiastic about The Imitation Game, a mostly acceptable British prestige picture about Alan Turing and his ultimately successful effort to crack the Enigma code during World War II that devolves into unbearable and all because he was gay sanctimony in the last half-hour. I mean, it’s not like there’s anything from our era for future generations to tsk-tsk about. Last and certainly least, we have the Steven Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, a thoroughly uninteresting movie about a very interesting man.

Sorry for that detour into non-awesomeness. Really, those last two films aside, it’s not such a bad Best Picture field. Perhaps I’m mellowing as I move into middle age, but I just can’t muster the outrage required to get upset about the nominations anymore. Replacing the two rote British dramas with, say, Selma and Gone Girl would have made the Best Picture slate better and more diverse, but it wasn’t that many years ago when three or four of the then-five Best Picture slots were routinely filled by stodgy prestige dramas, with nary a nonwhite or female filmmaker in sight. Institutions change slowly, but they do change, and I expect the Oscars will continue to evolve in the coming years.

What’s indisputably getting better is the distribution of films online. Thanks to Netflix, Amazon, and other VOD services, I was able to catch up with most of the interesting 2014 releases I had missed, including many that never opened theatrically in my town. It’s taken a couple years longer than I would have thought, but film distributors are finally making the technology work for them and for us. As a result I’m quite pleased with my own Top 10 list (at the bottom of this post, below the picks), with fewer “I still haven’t seen this” caveats than in recent years.

Last year I griped about Ellen DeGeneres hosting the Oscars again, but she ended up being really good. I have high hopes for NPH this year. As for the predictions below, I’m going against the consensus on Best Actor and Best Song, with “Eveything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie upsetting Selma’s “Glory” in the latter category. Other close races include Editing, a three-way contest between Boyhood, Sniper, and Whiplash, and Sound Mixing, where either Whiplash or Sniper could win. And while three of the acting races have been locked since October, there should be plenty of suspense regarding Best Actor, Best Director, and maybe even Best Picture. Again, stay tuned for my Top 10 list at the bottom of the post.


Best Picture

Richard Linklater has been one of the most reliable American filmmakers of the past 25 years. I don’t think Boyhood is one of his very best movies—I’d recommend Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, or even the underrated Bernie—but it is a fine film and an altogether unique project, never to be repeated. This should be close and Boyhood may yet triumph, but I think the self-involved flattery of Birdman will be too much for the Academy, making it the third showbusiness movie to take the big prize in the past four years.

Will win: Birdman
Should win: Boyhood

Best Director

Never predict a split. I lectured extensively on this subject last year. So this one should go to Iñárritu. Of course I turned out to be wrong last year. And come to think of it, Picture and Director have split the past two years in a row. And actually the Directors Guild Award has been a more reliable predictor of Best Picture than Best Director over the years. And even if you didn’t love Boyhood, there’s something impressive about keeping a project like this going for 12 years…

W: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
S: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Actor

This category isn’t as strong as everyone seems to think it is. Cooper and Keaton are both fine, but the Academy screwed up by failing to nominate either Ralph Fiennes as the debonair hero of The Grand Budapest Hotel or Jake Gyllenhaal as the sleazy news videographer at the center of Nightcrawler. Redmayne seems to be the consensus choice here, with Keaton close behind him, but it's Cooper who best fits the profile of the established, mid-career star who tends to win this prize, and I can think of about 300 million other reasons why he might be the one walking to the podium tonight.

W: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
S: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Best Actress

The most pleasant surprise of the nominations was the appearance of Marion Cotillard in this category for her bravura performance in the terrific Belgian film Two Days, One Night as Sandra, a factory worker battling depression. Sandra spends a weekend visiting various coworkers to try and convince them to forego a 1000-euro bonus in exchange for keeping her job. It’s a tricky role. The movie wants you to be rooting for Sandra, even as her fragile mental state makes life difficult for those around her. Cotillard walks the tightrope perfectly. Directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have been cranking out aesthetically rigorous, politically astute, and spiritually challenging dramas, including a few masterpieces, for nearly two decades now. It’s nice to see one of their films recognized by the Academy. Anyway, Julianne Moore is going to win for that Alzheimer’s thing.

W: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
S: Marion Cotillard; Two Days, One Night

Best Supporting Actress

Boyhood was as much about Patricia Arquette’s Mom character as about her son. She gave the performance of a lifetime, allowing herself to age naturally for 12 years onscreen. This will be a landslide.

W: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
S: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Supporting Actor

Like the last two categories, the winner here is a foregone conclusion. I enjoyed both Ethan Hawke’s turn as the dad who grows up along with his son in Boyhood and Norton in Birdman, but I strongly suspect that J.K. Simmons’s universally acclaimed performance as a music teacher in Whiplash blows them both out of the water. So I'll withhold judgment.

W: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Screenplay, Original
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Screenplay, Adapted
W: The Imitation Game
S: Inherent Vice

Animated Feature
W: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Documentary Feature
W: CitizenFour

Foreign Language Film
W: Ida

Cinematography
W: Birdman
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Production Design
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Editing
W: Boyhood
S: Boyhood

Visual Effects
W: Interstellar
S: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Costume Design
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: Inherent Vice

Makeup
W: The Grand Budapest Hotel
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Sound Mixing
W: Whiplash

Sound Editing
W: American Sniper
S: Interstellar

Original Score
W: The Theory of Everything
S: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Original Song
W: “Everything Is Awesome,” The Lego Movie

Animated Short
W: The Dam Keeper

Live Action Short
W: The Phone Call

Documentary Short
W: Joanna


And finally, my own Top 10 films of 2014. I hope to have a separate post about No. 1 sometime later this year, so I won’t say anything about it now.

1. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.)

2. Goodbye to Language 3D (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland-France)
See “First Impressions of Earth,” posted November 14

3. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

4. The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann, France)
This 220-minute documentary can be thought of as an appendix to Lanzmann’s monumental 566-minute Shoah (1985), one of the essential works about the Holocaust in any medium. But The Last of the Unjust is a major work in its own right. The film is built around a week of interviews Lanzmann conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last elder of the Jewish Council at the so-called “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt was maintained by the Nazis for public relations purposes (one of the film’s most remarkable sequences quotes at length from a Nazi propaganda film of the era), and Murmelstein, the only Jewish elder from any of the ghettos to escape the war alive, has remained a controversial figure among survivors. The interview segments are intercut with footage of Lanzmann, now in his late eighties, visiting sites discussed in the film. The loquacious Murmelstein dominates the film, as Lanzmann recasts the questions about moral responsibility that dogged Shoah onto one man, to compelling effect.

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, U.S.)

6. The Immigrant (James Gray, U.S.)
This slow-building period piece represents a departure for Gray, possibly the best American director who remains virtually unknown to the general public. The terrific cast includes Marion Cotillard as the titular immigrant, along with Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner as a pair of cousins, who, each in his own way, help shape the course of her life in the new world.

7. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, U.S.)
I didn’t catch up with Interstellar until Christmas night, and my expectations were not high. The movie runs off the rails a bit in its final third, but for most of its first two hours this is sci-fi of the highest order, using its space travel plot to dig into some heavy material about parents and children, the nature of human community, and what we do or do not owe to one another. Critics who say its reach exceeded its grasp are not wrong. But no film reached farther last year. It’s Nolan’s best movie by a mile.

8. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, U.S.)

9. Gone Girl (David Fincher, U.S.)
This pitch-black satire of American marriage, directed by David Fincher from a screenplay by Gillian Flynn, who adapted her own novel, was hardly the most pleasant viewing experience of the year, but Best Actress nominee Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck both resist the urge to overplay their parts, and Fincher never lets the proceedings get too heavy.

10. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
The formalist critics liked this one, and for good reason. The story is structured like a videogame, each train car another world to be cleared.

Honorable mentions (alphabetical): Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, U.S.); Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund, Sweden); The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, U.S.); Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, U.S.); Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)