15 December 2009

Best Movies of 2009/Best of 2000s

Once again, 'tis the season of the annual Indiewire film critics poll. In addition to the usual categories, this year's installment features a "Best of the Decade" list, for which critics were asked to rank the Top 10 films released in the United States from the beginning of 2000 through the end of 2009. My full ballot is here and below are my Top 10s for the year and the decade.

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, US)
Quentin Tarantino’s singular World War II drama reimagines the last good war and various cinematic depictions thereof, its glib surface belying a mature reckoning of violence, terror, vengeance, war, history, and the movies. The least that can be said of Inglourious Basterds is that it justifies what’s already one of the great closing lines in cinema history.

2. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
The loss of reality, as experienced by an upper-class Argentinean woman who may or may not have accidentally killed a young boy with her car. Lucrecia Martel’s promising career comes to full fruition with her third feature.

3. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, US)
Jim Jarmusch’s best film since Dead Man and his most abstract ever.

4. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France)
Surprisingly conventional, but no less rich or satisfying for it, the latest from the great French filmmaker Olivier Assayas counts the human cost of globalization.

5. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, UK)
Some things are indisputable. One is that the British do satire a lot better than us Americans.

6. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
Language keeps me locked and repeating.

7. Brüno (Larry Charles, US)
Less beloved by critics and audiences than Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up succeeded in being a truly offensive film to a large number of people. That’s not easy to accomplish anymore.

8. Up (Pete Docter, US)
While lacking the political heft and philosophical richness of WALL*E, the latest from Pixar is an all-too-rare example of artists at a major studio not only having creative freedom but using it. The five-minute black-and-white montage of the geriatric hero’s life with his wife is a mini-masterpiece.

9. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
A grimly topical story of unemployment and its consequences.

10. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
Chaos reigns. (See "Falling From Grace" at Moving Image Source.)

Second 10 (in alphabetical order): 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, France); Afterschool (Antonio Campos, US); Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, US); The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, US); I’m Gonna Explode (Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico); Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea); Public Enemies (Michael Mann, US); Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, US); The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia); Two Lovers (James Gray, US)

And the best of the 2000s. The listed years are those of US theatrical release, in several cases different from the year of world premiere.

1. Café Lumière (Hou Hsaio-hsien, Japan/Taiwan, 2005)
2. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, US, 2001)
3. Dogville (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 2004)
4. Platform (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2003)
5. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2007)
6. In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 2002)
7. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, US, 2005)
8. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2000)
9. Primer (Shane Carruth, US, 2004)
10. demonlover (Olivier Assayas, France, 2003)

03 December 2009

It's the Money! (part 2)

I don't particularly wish to add to the Tiger Woods commentary pileup, but I do want to comment briefly on some of the media reaction, the better to illuminate the ongoing education such incidents give us about the kind of society we're living in. Amid the by now de rigueur TV discussions of whether the media is giving "too much coverage" to the story, some talking heads have seized on Woods's ubiquitous presence as a pitchman for everyone from Nike to Buick as somehow justifying what might otherwise be considered unwarranted intrusions into his personal life. Apparently, endorsement deals, which I had previously conceived as merely a contractual relationship between an endorser and a corporation, also create an implied contract with the public. So the upshot, I guess, is that anyone who's ever seen a Tiger Woods commercial is entitled to some small sense of grievance regarding his recent "transgressions."

Now there's an obviously self-serving element to this, with members of the media, some of whom must surely be aware that 90% (I'm feeling generous today) of what they do has no social value whatsoever, eager to defend their role in fanning the flames of this story. But what's more interesting is the implied notion that the act of endorsing a product is some kind of sacred trust that transcends the right to privacy—and presumably other rights as well.

31 October 2009

It's the Money!

So I haven't updated the blog in quite some time, owing mostly to the fact that I have little to say to the world these days. I have particularly little to say about politics, yet here I go again....Here in New York City, we have an election coming up on Tuesday. I know this because the incumbent mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been pestering me about it for months. His TV spots are omnipresent, his flyers have been a constant presence in my mailbox, and one of his volunteers even knocked on my door yesterday.

Bloomberg's oppenent is supposedly someone named William Thompson. I'm pretty sure this Thompson fellow actually exists, although the visible evidence for this proposition consists almost entirely of his appearances in Bloomberg ads, which are in turn mostly devoted to decrying the various nefarious ways in which Thompson has been attacking Bloomberg. Even if this last bit is true, most voters would never have known it since Bloomberg has outspent Thompson by an order of something like 15:1 (final figures TBA), apparently setting a record by shelling out more than $85 million of his own money. As for Thompson's campaign...I've seen a grand total of one TV spot, which aired twice during a ballgame the other night. It's like our very own Stalinist election, free-market style.

Obviously, I have no intention of participating in this absurd exercise, whose outcome was predetermined long before most New Yorkers had ever even heard of Thompson. I have nothing in particular against Bloomberg, who seems no worse than average for a politician, and I've made no attempt even to form an opinion of Thompson. But I'll be rooting against Bloomberg all the same, for more or less the same reasons I root against the Yankees and Goldman Sachs: some vague, sentimental notion that there ought to be some things (elections, championships, governments, etc.) that can't simply be bought. Ugh.

21 June 2009

The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes

"Iran Leader's Warning Puts More Pressure on Obama."
—actual lead headline of the New York Times website last Friday afternoon

Obviously, if you're looking for breaking news from Iran, this is not the place to find it. But I do want to call attention to this insightful post from the New Yorker's George Packer, which does a good job capturing some of the more pathological aspects of the coverage of this week's momentous events in the American news media. Given the dearth of Western journalists in Iran and the regime's total media blackout, much of the discussion this week has rightly focused on the role of new new-media technologies like Twitter and YouTube in disseminating information about the ongoing protests.

One would think that the immediacy of the words and images coming out of Iran, not to mention the clear historic import of the events currently transpiring there, would be enough to keep even a news culture as narcissistic as ours focused on the outside world for a few days. But one would be wrong. Leave it to the press to keep the focus on the really important part of the story. Take a look at the New York Times headline at the top of this post and think about what it implies about the priorities of the American news media. The not-so-subtle message here is that the events in Iran represent, first and foremost, a domestic political issue in the United States. Any "pressure" being put on say, Iranian opposition leaders or the protesters being injured or killed, pales next to that on President Obama. American political reporters (at least up until yesterday) have been waiting with bated breath, not for any breaking news out of Iran, but to learn what Barack Obama would say about it. And what his political opponents would say about what he said about it. And what their opponents would say about them.

As a nation, we've apparently lost the ability to process a foreign news event, except through the filter of our own domestic politics. As Packer put it (back on Tuesday, incidentally):

And yet the crisis in Iran has flushed out all the pathologies of American foreign-policy thinking, or feeling, in the post-Bush era. It’s become weirdly difficult for commentators on both the right and the left to have anything close to a normal reaction to what the world is seeing. Instead, everything gets filtered through what you think about Bush, Iraq, Obama, Israel, and other subjects that have extremely tenuous connections to internal politics in Iran and the actions of the people and the state there.

This strikes me as right on. And I would echo Packer's conclusion as well: Trust the evidence of your eyes. The action right now is in Iran, not Washington. And I dare say we should all be on the same side this time.

31 May 2009

Standing Up for the White Man

The big political news of the past week was President Obama’s selection of Sonia Sotomayor, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, as his nominee to replace the retiring David Souter on the Supreme Court. I had planned on doing a post outlining the nominee’s views of the law and discussing some of the issues at stake in the conflict between liberal and conservative readings of the Constitution. I’ll try to do that post at some point before the start of Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, but for now it’ll unfortunately have to wait.

Sotomayor’s résumé is typical of recent Court appointments. After attending Princeton University and Yale Law School, she worked for a time in the Manhattan district attorney’s office and in private legal practice before being nominated to Manhattan’s U.S. District Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and elevated to the Court of Appeals by President Clinton in 1998. Sotomayor has also worked as an adjunct professor of law at New York University and as a lecturer at Columbia. Her résumé is strikingly similar to that of Samuel Alito, the most recent justice to be confirmed, another Princeton/Yale Law grad who served as an appellate judge and an adjunct law professor in the years prior to joining the Supreme Court. Sotomayor would be the first Latina and only the third woman ever to serve on the Court.

Given these realities, as well as the fact that Sotomayor is nearly certain to be confirmed by the Democrat-controlled Senate, I expected that Republicans would tread lightly on her biography and qualifications and instead try to paint her as some kind of far-out liberal. But I was mostly mistaken. Instead, a number of prominent conservatives have launched a full-scale assault on the nominee on the basis of her race and gender. She’s been labeled a “racist” by both Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, on the basis of a tendentious reading of a single out-of-context quote from a 2001 speech. Former Colorado congressman and GOP presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo has attacked her membership in the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization that Tancredo hysterically (in both senses of the word) labeled “a Latino KKK” (a description that would no doubt come as a surprise to John McCain, who gave the keynote address at the group’s annual meeting in 2004). A blogger on National Review Online has even attacked the pronunciation of her name, calling the stress on the final syllable “unnatural in English” and implying that Sotomayor has been less than properly assimilated into American culture. Others, including Karl Rove on Fox News, have questioned her intellectual ability, despite her Ivy League education.

Perhaps even more disturbing are the quixotic efforts of The Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb, among others, to hunt down examples of “preferential treatment” Sotomayor supposedly received going back to her school days—as if anyone, including the seven white men currently on the Court, achieves such a high professional position in life without someone helping them out along the way. (Apparently, the definition of “preferential treatment” now encompasses behavior that some of us would call racial discrimination. Puerto Rican girls from the projects have so many unfair advantages in our society.) Even the pro-Sotomayor New York Times has now validated this storyline with a piece about how the Sotomayor nomination represents the return of “identity politics” to the forefront of American political discourse.

In fairness, I should also mention that the reaction from Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as that of several non-insane conservatives in the media, has been more temperate, with senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) going so far as to denounce the comments of Gingrich and Limbaugh. But nevertheless, with the possible exception of Tancredo, the figures and publications referenced above are all solidly within the mainstream of the Republican Party. They can only be dismissed as “far right” or “fringe” elements if one is willing to acknowledge that such voices now make up a significant proportion of the party, a point I’d certainly be willing to stipulate.

It’s worth noting here that in the Supreme Court, we’re talking about an institution that’s historically been so hostile to white men that a mere 106 of the 110 justices in its history have fallen in that demographic, including seven of the current nine. Given this history and the presence of several more-or-less equally qualified candidates for the Court, it seems entirely reasonable to me that Obama might have seen Sotomayor’s race and modest socioeconomic background as assets to her candidacy. I recognize that some will disagree with this notion, and that’s fine. What’s not fine are the obvious double standards at work here: Why are Sotomayor’s intellectual and professional credentials being picked apart, while Alito’s very similar résumé was accepted at face value? Why is Obama’s selection of Sotomayor seen as some sort of “affirmative action” pick designed to appease a specific political constituency, while Ronald Reagan’s choice of Antonin Scalia, another highly qualified jurist who happened to be the first Italian American justice in Court history, was not? Why are Sotomayor's references to her ethnic background considered evidence of "reverse racism," while Alito's similar comments on the influence of his own Italian-immigrant ancestors on his judicial philosophy were not?

The only logical conclusion to be drawn is that, in the eyes of many of Sotomayor’s critics, her race and gender are, ipso facto, proof that she must be an unqualified hack whose nomination was solely the product of “identity politics.” This is racist nonsense and needs to be called out for what it is. Most liberals in politics and the media are so easily cowed by conservative whining about “political correctness” that they’ve become unwilling to speak out against blatant instances of racial bias. I guess racism—at least racism against nonwhites—is just another partisan political issue now. I can’t remember the last time a national conservative political figure spoke out against an instance of racism, whereas even the slightest hint of “political correctness” is enough to set off howls of outrage across the conservative blogosphere. As Matthew Yglesias has repeatedly noted over the past few months, most prominent conservatives in this country behave as if they genuinely believe that antiracist rhetoric is a bigger social problem than actual racism.

Just to be clear: I’m not referring here to any of the legitimate questions that have been raised about Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy and views on specific issues, including affirmative action. Such topics can and should be discussed at her confirmation hearings. Both of George W. Bush’s successful nominees, Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, were challenged on legal and constitutional issues by Senate Democrats and both ultimately received many no votes. But I don’t remember any ad hominem attacks on either man that even approached the vitriol directed against Sotomayor over the past week.

Clearly, the country is changing—a mere look at the faces of Sotomayor and Michelle Obama gracing the past two covers of Time magazine is enough to confirm that. But make no mistake about it: even in "post-racial" America, a significant segment of the political and media elite remains heavily invested in protecting the prerogatives of white male privilege. Normally, these prerogatives are effectively masked by supposed concerns with other issues, like “qualifications” or who the “best person” for the job is, but once in a while the mask slips. We’re witnessing one of those moments right now.

02 May 2009

Gentlemen, Mark Your Opponents...

The obvious point to make about Senator Arlen Specter's switch from the Republicans to the Democrats is that this is almost entirely a self-inflicted wound on the part of the GOP. Organizations like the Club for Growth, whose president, Pat Toomey, would almost certainly have defeated Specter in a Republican primary next year (and would likely have been squashed in a general election in increasingly liberal Pennsylvania) have explicitly made it their business to punish GOP moderates who stray from low-taxes, small-government Republican orthodoxy, a stance that has, among other things, made the party almost completely noncompetitive in the Northeast. I hope they're happy.

The Republicans are in a classic political death spiral: as the party gets smaller, it grows more extreme, thus making it less attractive to moderates, and the cycle continues. More startling than Specter's decision was the reaction of GOP hardliners like Michael Steele and Jim DeMint (to say nothing of Michelle Malkin and Rush Limbaugh), who basically told Specter, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out," even though his defection gives the Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate (that is, once Minnesota's recently defeated Norm Coleman runs out of money/runs out of legal options/develops a sense of shame. I'm guessing he runs out of legal options first). Indeed, if the Republican Party gets any more principled, there may not be anyone left in it outside of Dick Cheney's hunting circle.

Still, as entertaining as this has been, it is not a good thing, even for those of us who support President Obama's agenda. Not only is there the danger of overreaching, à la F.D.R. in 1937, that Frank Rich discusses in his New York Times column today, but at a more fundamental level, we need a strong Republican Party capable of representing conservative political principles at their best, rather than at their degraded worst, or at least one that knows how to pick its battles a little more effectively. Think of the fight over the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which seems to have been the last straw in driving Specter from the party. GOP governors like Bobby Jindal and Mark Sanford had a kernel of a legitimate argument about the issue of unfunded mandates in general. But choosing unemployment insurance—in the middle of a deep recession, no less—as the issue to pick this fight over is strange, to say the least.

Personally, I'm of the view that we shouldn't be worrying too much about budget deficits while GDP is shrinking at five-percent-plus; a public-spending freeze seems like just about the worst possible move under the current macroeconomic conditions. But it would be nice if someone could make the opposite argument without lapsing into no-one-should-ever-have-to-pay-taxes fiscal fantasyland. The Republicans have utterly lost their credibility on economic issues with most Americans, yet many of the party's leaders seem to genuinely believe that its biggest problem is that it's not conservative enough. They seemed to have learned little or nothing from the electoral debacles of 2006 and 2008. It may well require a Goldwater/McGovern-style wipeout in a presidential election before they begin to see the light. It may require more than one.

I've got plenty of thoughts on the retirement of David Souter from the SCOTUS and related issues, but I'll hold off until Obama nominates his replacement, which may be a few weeks yet.

09 April 2009

Dept. of Self-Promotion

Because it's come to my attention that I need improvement in this area. Here's a piece I wrote for Moving Image Source on The Passion of the Christ and The Last Temptation of Christ. Enjoy.

10 March 2009

Found Horizons

In the interest of being less of a deadbeat blogger, I’ve been wanting to transition to shorter, more frequent posts (the first being the necessary condition of the second) here on Pop Tones. Today’s post will not mark the beginning of that trend. It’s hard for me to believe I’ve never written at length on U2, a band whose music I’ve had a long, complicated relationship with over the past two decades, and I’m hesitant to do so now, as anything I write here is bound to be less than definitive.

But onward. In many ways, the arc of U2’s career has been defined by the long process of the band’s musical ability catching up to its artistic ambitions. U2 came to prominence during the 1980s and everything they’ve done since has inevitably been judged according to the dubious aesthetics of that decade, for many of the same reasons that a lot of people persist in thinking of Bob Dylan as some kind of protest singer on the basis of a handful of songs he wrote when he was 21 or something. Rock and roll, and pop culture in general, has always fixated on the young and the new (everyone knows this). Still, there’s something to be said for the value of mature-period works as such; the same auteurist impulse that can trace the development of formal ideas and sensibility, as well as a honing of craftsmanship, through the career of a film director can obviously be applied to musicians as well. In any event, as the new U2 album No Line on the Horizon attests, notwithstanding the claims of either ’80s nostalgics or classic-rock fascists who never owned the group to begin with, they weren’t half the band then that they are now.

U2’s 12th album happily finds producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois back on board, along with Steve Lillywhite. No disrespect to Lillywhite, a fine producer who’s made a number of great records with the band over the years, but the presence of Lanois and especially Eno should be mandatory on every U2 album; they’re as essential to the band’s sound as George Martin was to the Beatles’. It’s no coincidence that the five U2 albums produced by the duo—The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991), Zooropa (1993), and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)—are the band’s five best.

Make it six. While the Lillywhite-produced How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) had several first-rate songs, the album wound up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts. More specifically, it was lacking in the spiritual overtones that have helped define all of U2’s best work—whether through their presence or pointed absence. But with the exception of the poignant “Miracle Drug”—and despite the inclusion of a song called “Yahweh”—the album never quite registered on that level.

The best thing about Atomic Bomb was the band’s newfound comfort with its own grandiosity, a sense of ease that also pervades the new album. Following the electro-grooving title track, which unlike epic U2 openers like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Beautiful Day” is content to merely put the ball in play, we arrive at the dance-club hymn “Magnificent,” the first of three consecutive knockout songs that define the spiritual and emotional contours of the album. “I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up,” Bono sings, injecting biblical language (“It was a joyful noise”) into an already elevated love song before taking us to church in the chorus (“You and I will magnify/The Magnificent”), which soars to the heavens in classic U2 style, climaxing the first time around with an ecstatic “MAG-NIF-i-cent!” from Bono. It’s a beautifully constructed song, the chorus withheld until after the second bridge, and the Eno-Lanois production encompasses sounds from seemingly every phase of U2’s career—digitally delayed guitars, techno blips and bleeps, programming merging imperceptibly with Larry Mullen’s drums—all fused into a seamless whole. And then it occurs to me that Bono’s been trying to write this song for almost 30 years, at least since 1981’s October, and it’s only now he’s gotten to a place where he could pull it off. As a more secular frequent Eno collaborator once put it, it takes a lot of time to push away the nonsense.

Next comes “Moment of Surrender,” a seven-minute techno-gospel epic about finding the road to Damascus at the ATM that once again finds Bono shutting out the world in a flash of divine revelation (“I did not notice the passers-by/And they did not notice me”). Beginning with a gospel bark and hitting the chorus in a falsetto, the singer shows his range here. Like most of the best songs on No Line on the Horizon, “Moment of Surrender“ develops patiently, in no hurry to get where it’s going, the rhythm tracks gurgling forward as if the band were suspended underwater.

On Atomic Bomb, Bono did some backsliding on his pledge to keep his political activism separate from U2’s music and the album’s lyrics were afflicted with a touch of tepid positivism as a result. On Horizon, the personal largely trumps the political. “I don’t want to talk about wars between nations/Not right now,” Bono growls on the punchy “Get on Your Boots,” although he’s changed his mind by the album-closing “Cedars of Lebanon,” a meditative first-person exploration of the psyche of a jaded foreign correspondent in the Middle East. But even this doesn’t quite qualify as a political song—the journalist’s reflections on his craft make him sound a lot like a songwriter (“The worst of us are a long drawn-out confession/The best of us are geniuses of compression”), and the overall vibe is reminiscent of the ghostly “Ain’t Talkin,” which closed out Dylan’s most recent studio album, Modern Times.

Musically restless, No Line on the Horizon covers a lot of ground. Less immediate than the band’s past two albums, Horizon is closer in overall effect to transitional works like The Unforgettable Fire than to big-statement albums like The Joshua Tree. The Lillywhite-produced “Breathe” finds Bono free-associating à la Patti Smith, scrambling to be heard (“Let me in the sound! Let me in the sound!” he insists at a couple other points on Horizon) over an atypically monstrous riff from Edge, while the atmospheric “FEZ—Being Born” is the only song to explicitly reference the band’s brief stint in Morocco. (Although rumor has it that No Line on the Horizon has a twin, a more meditative, experimental, possibly Sufi-influenced album to surface late this year or early in 2010. Stay tuned.)

But the alert reader has no doubt already noticed that I never got around to the last of those three knockout songs. A mere week after No Line on the Horizon’s official release date, I’m ready to declare “Unknown Caller” one of the half-dozen or so best U2 tracks of all time. Eno makes his presence felt here, as on “Moment of Surrender,” with musical ideas that go all the way back to his 1975 classic Another Green World. His synthesizer arrangement and the song’s rhythmic, robotic vocals blend harmoniously with a classic Edge guitar line to create a song that’s both classically U2 and unlike anything else in the band’s catalog, the thrill of which is exponentially enhanced by the knowledge that this particular combination of sounds, ideas, and musical forms was literally decades in the making. Bono’s lyrics again sketch a portrait of a man in existential crisis (“I had driven to the scene of the accident/And I sat there waiting for me”), before giving way to the majestic chorus: “Restart and reboot yourself/You’re free to go,” chant what sound like the digitally distorted voices of Edge, Eno, and Lanois, their short, clipped phrasings crashing into the song like text messages from God (“Hear me/ Cease to speak that I may speak”) in an inspired fusion of sound and sense. The masterful production climaxes with an unlikely French horn and an unlikelier Edge guitar solo. “Unknown Caller” plays like a gloriously expansive response to Radiohead’s paean to techno-alienation “Fitter Happier,” a joyous dispatch from someone who’s been there and done that and somehow come out the other side.

22 February 2009

The Show Must Go On

Writing about last year’s Oscars in this space, I dared to suggest that the Academy’s sensibilities were finally getting a bit more contemporary. Not only was there no traditional Oscar bait among the nominees but the inclusion of the Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece There Will Be Blood in the Best Picture race felt like a real breakthrough. I even liked the song that won. Well, either I spoke too soon or 2008 was just a bad year for the voters, because this time around the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has conjured up their worst Best Picture lineup since at least 2004 and possibly even the dreaded 2000, still the worst year in the history of the Oscars, if not of Hollywood.

So I'm feeling a bit less enthusiastic than usual this year, owing to a lackluster group of nominees—not to mention the fact that the world appears to be coming to an end. Indeed, under the dire circumstances, tonight’s stone-cold, lead-pipe lock for the big prize could hardly feel less appropriate: Slumdog Millionaire, a British movie set in India, puts a glossy, contemporary-looking spin on an old-fashioned, bordering on cornball, story. It’s safe, bland, feelgood fluff—nothing special but certainly not the worst imaginable Oscar winner. Indeed, I’d take Slumdog in a heartbeat over three of its four rivals. Quickly: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an overlong, pointless bore; Frost/Nixon is fatuous nonsense; and The Reader…well, let’s just say that even had the movie not been a moral abomination, it still would have sucked.

Granted, 2008 was a somewhat below-average year for American movies, but in a year with viable contenders like WALL*E, Gran Torino, The Wrestler, and even The Dark Knight, this lineup is pretty inexcusable. At least Slumdog looks and sounds like it was made this century, making it a less retrogressive potential Best Picture winner than Benjamin Button or—perish the thought—The Reader. Hopefully this is one of those two steps forward, one step back things, but I guess time will tell. Most of the heat tonight is in the Best Actor category, a virtual tossup between Sean Penn in the title role of Gus Van Sant’s Milk—the only Best Picture nominee I really like, although it wasn’t even the best film by its own director in 2008—and Mickey Rourke, of all people, as an aging wrestler.

But the two Hollywood movies that defined the year are nowhere to be found on the Academy’s shortlist: WALL*E and its evil twin, The Dark Knight. I wasn’t a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s brooding and incoherent Batman movie. The editing is a mess; I defy anyone to explain what’s actually happening during the action scenes, which mostly boil down to a meaningless mishmash of cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. And there’s the fact that the ending utterly contradicts the view of human nature that’s informed the movie’s first two-plus hours. But still, The Dark Knight may go down in history as the last film of the Bush era, and it’s elevated somewhat by Heath Ledger’s deranged take on the Joker. I’m not particularly thrilled about the whole posthumous Oscar idea, which promises to be a major buzzkill, but at least the performance deserves it. Hopefully the producers will get Supporting Actor out of the way early.

WALL*E, on the other hand, deserves to be taking home the Best Picture statue tonight. Released in the dog days of a seemingly never-ending presidential campaign, Pixar’s robot tale felt like a fresh breeze from the future, an advance payment on hope and change and all that intangible stuff that’s necessary but not sufficient to fix our country’s problems. WALL*E scans as a sophisticated response to one of my all-time favorite films, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; just as Kubrick’s film ends with a vision of the human race transcending its physical and spiritual limitations in a blinding flash of starlight, WALL*E brings it all back down to Earth, closing with humble, human-scaled images of rebuilding and renewal. It was the perfect film for a year of daring to start over and dream it all up again. Now we just need Obama to fix the banking system.

Best Picture

I don’t see any chance of an upset here. Titanic was the last winner that felt this locked-in.

Will win: Slumdog Millionaire
Should win: Milk


David Fincher gets a long overdue nomination, albeit for one of his lesser films, and I’m glad to see Gus Van Sant in the field. I was a big fan of Danny Boyle’s 1996 breakthrough Trainspotting, and he’s gone on to an interesting, if somewhat uneven, career.

W: Danny Boyle, Slumdog
S: Gus Van Sant, Milk


This is probably the major category that the Academy most frequently gets right, and this year stands to be no exception, with the two best male performances of the year going toe-to-toe. Penn utterly disappears into Harvey Milk, playing the role without a hint of self-consciousness, but Rourke’s performance is truly a once-in-a-lifetime collision of actor and character that’s just riveting. It’s a tight race that may come down to whether voters think it’s too soon to give a second Oscar to the 48-year-old Penn, who won five years ago in this category for Mystic River. Considering that Tom Hanks won two in a row before he was even 40, I say no. And between the Brokeback Mountain embarrassment a few years back still and last fall's Prop 8 debacle, Milk has to win something big, and this is its best shot.

W: Sean Penn, Milk
S: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler


This should go to Kate Winslet, who’s on her sixth nomination and still looking for a win, even though she should have been nominated for Revolutionary Road instead (not a great movie, but likely to be mistaken for Citizen Kane by comparison with The Reader). Meryl Streep could win for a role as a change-resistant nun in Doubt, but I found her a tad hammy, and I suspect the Academy will wait for another year to give her a third Oscar. I didn’t love any of these performances; aside from WALL*E failing to land a Best Picture nod, the biggest disappointment of the nominations this year was the exclusion of Sally Hawkins for her buoyant performance in Mike Leigh's fine Happy-Go-Lucky. I guess I’ll take Melissa Leo’s naturalistic turn as a hard-bitten mom in the otherwise forgettable Frozen River over Anne Hathaway’s neurotic poor little rich girl in Jonathan Demme’s excruciating Rachel Getting Married.

W: Kate Winslet, The Reader
S: Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Supporting Actor

It's unfortunate this has turned into the Heath Ledger Memorial Award because this is a terrific batch of nominees, top to bottom. Most people think this is a lock for Ledger and it probably is, but I can’t help but think that many of those notoriously status-conscious Academy members would consider it such a waste of an Oscar...

W: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
S: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Supporting Actress

Penélope Cruz is the nominal frontrunner for her scenery-chewing performance in Woody Allen’s dreadful Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but I’m feeling an upset here.

W: Viola Davis, Doubt
S: Amy Adams, Doubt

Screenplay, Original
W: Milk

Screenplay, Adapted
W: Slumdog
S: Doubt

Animated Feature

Documentary Feature
W: Man on Wire
S: Man on Wire

Foreign Language Film
W: Waltz With Bashir
S: The Class

W: Slumdog
S: The Dark Knight

Art Direction
W: Benjamin Button
S: Revolutionary Road

W: Slumdog
S: Milk

Visual Effects
W: Benjamin Button
S: Iron Man

Costume Design
W: The Duchess
S: Milk

W: Benjamin Button
S: The Dark Knight

Sound Mixing
W: The Dark Knight

Sound Editing

Original Score
W: Slumdog
S: Slumdog

Original Song
W: “Down to Earth,” WALL*E
S: “Down to Earth,” WALL*E

Animated Short
W: La Maison en Petits Cubes

Live Action Short
W: Toyland

Documentary Short
W: The Conscience of Nhem En

16 February 2009

Best Music of 2008

At long last, my list of the Top 10 albums of 2008. After weeks of scrounging through blogs, MySpace, and other year-end lists in a desperate attempt to fill out the last couple slots, I’m now confident in saying this was a subpar year. For whatever reasons, it seems that the odd-numbered years have been better than the even ones lately. Hopefully form will hold in 2009. Still, while there was no Kala or Late Registration last year, we did get five albums that I’ll probably still be listening to in 2013. Indeed, the first five on the list could have been in almost any order, and for the first time in several years, the No. 1 spot was in play right down to the wire. But in the end, pure sound narrowly trumped high concept.

1. Portishead—Third

When I heard that Portishead was releasing its first album of new material in more than a decade, I was skeptical, even faintly annoyed. Generally when bands stay away for longer than five years, they’re best advised to pack it in entirely (you will find very few exceptions to this rule in the rock era). But Third is no throwback to the trip-hop days of the mid-’90s, but rather a thorough reinvention, combining the band’s moody lounge pop and fractured beats with a bold psychedelic-rock bent, evoking the likes of Syd Barrett (“Small”) and the Silver Apples (“We Carry On”). And singer Beth Gibbons outdoes her mid-'90s self: her haunting, haunted vocals wade tentatively through “Deep Water” and quaver majestically on “Magic Doors” without ever striking a false emotional chord. The result is the band’s best album to date and this year's improbable No. 1.
(“The Rip” “Machine Gun”)

2. Kanye West—808s and Heartbreak

Given Kanye’s prolific rate of production over the past five years, it’s hardly surprising that the obligatory Difficult Third Album arrives one release late. This dark, death-haunted opus provoked some truly idiotic reviews—with a few honorable exceptions, the critical establishment really missed the boat. Musically, 808s moves away from hip-hop to further explore the synth-pop influences that surfaced on Graduation (to the point of including a Tears for Fears cover). Rap yields to Auto-Tuned singing in what amounts to an album-length version of John Lennon’s “My Mummy’s Dead.” A few songs here work better conceptually than musically, but the six-track stretch beginning with the melodically nimble “Heartless” and ending with the gently despairing “Street Lights” was the best 25 minutes of music I heard all year.
(“Amazing” “Love Lockdown”)

3. The Bug—London Zoo
The best album yet to emerge from England’s dubstep scene is not the work of some unknown young producer, but the latest from veteran English writer-musician Kevin Martin, who’s recorded with various collaborators under various monikers including Experimental Audio Research, Ice, Techno Animal, and, um, God. Employing a wide range of vocal talent, from the suitably combative Warrior Queen to the deep-voiced Ricky Ranking, London Zoo is further proof—as if more were needed—that the musical and aesthetic legacy of dub remains far from exhausted.
(“Poison Dart” “Too Much Pain”)

4. Drive-By Truckers—Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
Following the 2006 misfire A Blessing and a Curse, Patterson Hood & Co. return to form and then some (see "The Righteous Path," posted August 9). Never formal innovators, these Alabaman disciples of Lynyrd Skynyrd are only as good as their songwriting, and by my count this album’s got only one dud out of 19 songs. Not too shabby.
(“The Righteous Path” “Bob”)

5. Fleet Foxes—Fleet Foxes
A new band featuring young white guys with guitars that I don’t hate. That in itself is a rare-enough thing these days, but the Fleet Foxes did far better, combining strands of American musical history ranging from Brian Wilson to Appalachian folk songs, and in the process proving there’s still a place for musical virtuosity in the mostly moribund world of indie rock.
(“White Winter Hymnal” “Blue Ridge Mountains”)

6. Lil Wayne—Tha Carter III/The Leak EP
I was half expecting this album to be a disappointment, given its oft-postponed release date and the accompanying mountains of hype, but Wayne largely delivers on his latest major-label outing, scoring with conventional hip-hop tracks like “Got Money” (featuring T-Pain) and proving he can go deep and soulful when he chooses, as on the Katrina-inspired “Tie My Hands” (with Robin Thicke). Personally, I prefer the looser Weezy of his mixtape work, but the all-star roster of producers and guest vocalists on Tha Carter III does at least guarantee some musical variety even as it also guarantees a somewhat disjointed listen. Of the two songs I dislike, one was a No. 1 hit single. I am perversely proud of this. And don’t forget about The Leak EP, where the sonics finally take a backseat to Wayne’s zingers: “I graduated from hungry and made it to greedy,” he boasts on “Gossip,” still keeping it real.
(“A Milli” “Tie My Hands”)

7. Kaiser Chiefs—Off With Their Heads
With producer Mark Ronson on hand to give the Kaisers’ music a shapeliness and sonic unity missing from previous efforts, the third album from these Britpoppers is easily their best. The songwriting is sharper as well, particularly on the single “Never Miss a Beat.” There should definitely be more anti-youth-culture anthems.
(“Never Miss a Beat” “Can’t Say What I Mean”)

8. Deerhunter—Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
The music of my youth, reprocessed and spat back at me.
(“Nothing Ever Happened” “Dot Gain”)

9. DJ/Rupture—Uproot
With Josh Davis apparently having succumbed entirely to his hip-hop roots and the Avalanches on a decade-long hiatus, there have been far fewer first-rate sample-based albums this decade than I would’ve predicted 10 years ago. This mix album from Jace Clayton (aka DJ/Rupture) touches on an unusual variety of styles and moods, even for its genre. Supposedly his 2004 Special Gunpowder is even better. I intend to find out.
(“Plays John Cassavetes Pt. 2” “Hungry Ghost (Instrumental)”)

10. Erykah Badu—New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
I’ll just come right out and say that this doesn’t make the list in an average year, but the always game Badu takes some chances here, with a few standout songs, including two produced by the incomparable Madlib, mingling with the album’s solid but conventional R&B tracks, of which there are many.
(“Soldier” “The Healer/Hip Hop”)

Top 5 songs not on those albums

1. Gang Gang Dance—“House Jam”

2. Hercules and Love Affair—“Hercules Theme”

Dig it.

3. Lindstrøm—“Where You Go I Go Too”
Twenty-nine blissful minutes of Norwegian techno from the man responsible for the year's best album cover.

4. Four Tet—“Swimmer”

5. Hercules and Love Affair—“Blind”

Finally, an Antony Hegarty vocal on a song I actually like.