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.