01 August 2012
For the uninitiated, every 10 years since 1952 the British film magazine Sight and Sound has conducted an international poll asking film critics to name the 10 greatest films ever made. The initial winner was Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948). The five subsequent polls were all topped by Kane, playing a major role in that film’s popular canonization as the greatest ever made. Kane out-polled Vertigo by a mere five votes in 2002, so the latter’s ascent to the top comes as little surprise to avid poll-watchers. Since 1992, the magazine has polled directors as well. This year’s directors' champ was Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), with Kane (the winner in the previous two surveys) coming in tied for second and Vertigo placing seventh.
Here’s the full critics’ Top 10:
1. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
4. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
8. Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
10. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
Before I get to the self-involved portion of this post, a few notes on the critics’ list. As in previous polls, the list is heavily skewed away from contemporary cinema, with three films dating back to the silent era and nothing from the past 40 years. Despite a significant expansion of the electorate to include some 846 voters, seven of the 10 entries on this list appeared in the 2002 Top 10 as well, and two of the other three (The Searchers and The Passion of Joan of Arc) had appeared in previous versions. The lone surprise, and a pleasant one at that, was the inclusion of Dziga Vertov’s experimental silent documentary Man With a Movie Camera in place of Sergei Eisenstein’s more history-bound (albeit massively influential) Battleship Potemkin (1925). All are worthy inclusions on a list like this, with the possible exception of 8 ½, an entertaining relic of ’60s solipsism that feels a bit slight in this company.
In anticipation of the new Sight and Sound poll, I began thinking about my own all-time Top 10 a few months ago, an exercise I hadn’t indulged in for several years. Despite having spent far, far too much time pondering my list, I didn’t nail down the last three spots until this morning, about half an hour before the poll results went public. Before I get to my various disclaimers, descriptions, justifications, and assorted comments, let’s just spit it out. I’m not going to do anything as absurd as ranking the films and two of them begin with numbers, so in chronological order:
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955)
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
The first thing to be said is that many other films could have appeared in place of some of these, so many that I won’t attempt to list them all. Since the Sight and Sound lists have comprised features exclusively, I ruled out short films, thus eliminating everyone from Chuck Jones to Maya Deren. It should also go without saying that this is a highly personal list informed by my own idiosyncratic sense of film history and aesthetics—i.e., “greatest” here does not necessarily equate to most important or influential. Re-watchability was a key criterion; these are all movies that I’ve returned to multiple times. The point is that while I’m not quite pompous enough to conflate my own tastes with any objective standard of “greatness,” I didn’t create this list in a vacuum either.
So having said that, I’ll make just a few notes about how I arrived at my selections. The alert reader has no doubt already noted that three films on my list also show up on the Sight and Sound Top 10. Vertigo and 2001 have appeared on every version of this list I’ve ever done. With its bravura visuals and elemental storyline, Sunrise seemed a good choice to represent the aesthetic freedom of the silent era; had I had room for another silent, it probably would have been Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), which has many of the same virtues. In a few other cases, I chose some (slightly) less celebrated favorites in lieu of equally worthy canonical classics: Ordet over The Passion of Joan of Arc (a mostly arbitrary preference for the moral/spiritual/visual ambiguity of Dreyer’s late works over the clarity of his silents); Hawks’s Rio Bravo over Ford’s The Searchers (a purer example of its director's work and a more representative John Wayne character); Meet Me in St. Louis over Singin’ in the Rain, which placed on the 2002 Sight and Sound Top 10 (greater emotional range and gut-punch impact). Au Hasard Balthazar and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her represent career peaks by two of my favorite filmmakers; several other Bresson or Godard films would have done just as well. Finally, I was determined to get a couple contemporary choices on the list. One of the common complaints about these kind of lists is that they tend to skew toward older films, although this may be primarily an effect of composition—many individuals voted for recent films, just not the same recent films. After much consternation I finally settled on Close-Up and Mulholland Dr., although I seriously considered Dazed and Confused, Sátántangó, Café Lumière, and Dead Man, among others.
Some vital statistics: Six of the 10 films hail from the United States, although one was made in Great Britain by an expatriate director with carte blanche from Warner Bros. and another is a German film through and through that happened to be made on American soil. Of the remaining four, two were made in France, one in Denmark, and one in Iran. Six of the 10 films date from a 13-year period spanning from the mid ’50s to the late ’60s, with only two each from before and after. I’m not necessarily pleased with this clustering, not least because it virtually eliminated Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) from serious consideration, but I couldn’t part with any of the six; we call the golden ages where we see them. One film is silent; one is a musical. Surprisingly, only three are black-and-white. All are by pantheon directors, reflecting my own auteurist biases. All are directed by men (and all but one by white men), reflecting the historical realities of film production, distribution, and criticism.
Some vitaler statistics: Two of these films intentionally blur the line between fiction and documentary. Two others have traditional stories, yet defy plot summary. One features a non-human as its protagonist; another, a non-human as its antagonist. Two are steeped in Christian symbolism, one climaxing with a mostly symbolic death and the other with a literal resurrection. Politically, one could be described as a prescient, quasi-Marxist attack on the consumer society, another as a conservative exploration of the nature of moral rectitude. One is about the encounter with modernity; another, made some 40 years later, about its exhaustion and what comes next. Two of these films give me chills every time I watch them; two more, otherwise as different as night and day, I can’t get through without breaking down in tears.
Anyway, I hope some of my overstuffed raving inspires you to check out one or more of these titles you might not have seen. Very few will enjoy them all as much as I have, but I suspect there’s something here for virtually any moviegoer to enjoy. In any event, thanks for your indulgence.
15 April 2012
I've come around to the view that most forms of political partisanship fall under the rubric of mental illness. There are few other forces that so effectively distort the thinking of otherwise intelligent people, provoke strife among otherwise agreeable people, and prevent otherwise rational people from seeing what's right in front of their own noses. This phenomenon has gotten markedly worse in recent years. I could write a book about the reasons for this: the rise of 24-hour cable news, the pseudo-anonymity of the internet, the increased ideological coherence of the two major political parties, etc. For many Americans, political identity now trumps national identity, calling into question the very possibility of a social contract. But that’s not the half of it. I would argue that the real issue is not ideological or even cultural (at least in the sense the word is used by political pundits); rather, what we’re seeing is a wholesale rejection of the social itself.
There’s an interesting book review in The New Yorker this week about the rapidly increasing proportion of single-person households in the United States. The piece as a whole is class-bound and not entirely satisfying, but at one point writer Nathan Heller puts his finger on something vital:
Most people who were brought up in the past half century have been taught to live…by their own rules, building the world they want. That belief—[Eric] Klinenberg calls it “the cult of the individual”—may be the closest thing American culture has to a common ideal.
What Heller doesn’t say is that this attitude—an almost unconscious belief in the primacy of individuality over any kind of social or group identity—arises naturally from the ethic of self-interest that’s central to free-market capitalism. But it’s so pervasive in our society that it rears its head in unexpected places as well. While most of the debate about the role of anarchism in Occupy Wall Street has focused on tactics, there are ideological factors to be considered as well. Anarchist ideology is, in important respects, commensurate with that of laissez-faire capitalism in that both valorize the individual as the ultimate authority. (The cult of Ron Paul splits the difference between these schools of thought.) In my more pessimistic moments, I can’t help wonder if young people today haven’t been so thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology of American individualism that they can’t even imagine a way out.
This atomized, fragmented America is the setting for Bruce Springsteen’s 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball. Inspired in part by OWS, the new album is being billed as Springsteen’s response to the financial crisis and subsequent economic depression, much as 2002’s The Rising, the album that kicked off what Wikipedia calls the “Return to success” phase of Springsteen’s career, was billed as a response to 9/11. Both characterizations are accurate, but the two albums can also be thought of as pieces of a career-long work about the vanishing American community. And while the reach of The Rising occasionally exceeded its grasp, with Bruce struggling to find his footing in a changed cultural landscape after several years away from the studio, Wrecking Ball sounds fully attuned to the realities of this Lesser Depression. It’s his best album in a quarter-century.
Springsteen’s political views have been the subject of much discussion over the years, but they’re really simple enough. He’s an old-school New Deal liberal who writes songs rooted in a blend of economic populism and social conservatism—not the mean-spirited wedge-issue conservatism of today, but rather a broad-based appeal to old-fashioned values of family, faith, and hard work—that’s largely disappeared from American politics today, although not from American life. It’s a liberalism that predates the cultural battles of the 1960s, which have defined the contours of American politics ever since. During his commercial peak of the 1980s, Springsteen was able to make music that appealed to both Republicans and Democrats. The political bent of the songs on albums like Nebraska (1982) and Born in the U.S.A. (1984) was unmistakable yet subtle—occasionally too subtle, as evidenced by Ronald Reagan’s famous misappropriation of “Born in the U.S.A.” for his re-election campaign. Outside of his music, Springsteen largely kept a low political profile, focusing mostly on nonpartisan issues like veterans’ affairs and homelessness. But by 2004, the time had come to choose a side. And so he did, lending his support to the John Kerry campaign and no doubt pissing off some fans in the process. (He would go on to support Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2008.)
Now, at age 62, he’s made the angriest album of his career. Wrecking Ball makes the case for a return to New Deal liberalism with far more passion than we’ve ever seen from Obama. In the wake of the worst financial crisis in 75 years, the workingmen and women who’ve populated Springsteen’s songs for the past 40 years now find themselves broke and unemployed, staring down middle and old age with savings depleted and prospects dim. And they have a pretty good idea about who’s to blame. As one of the album’s characters puts it: “Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bills/It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill.” Elsewhere we meet a “Jack of All Trades” whose skill set apparently extends to handiness with the steel, hardly the album’s only intimation of violence. “Sing it hard and sing it well/Send the robber barons straight to hell,” shouts another of Springsteen’s working-class heroes on “Death to My Hometown.”
Their anger is rooted in a deep sense of betrayal. The opening “We Take Care of Our Own,” with its rousing chorus “Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own,” scans as a patriotic anthem. But you don’t have to dig too deeply to find the tattered ruins of the social contract, as the lyrics recount how the American government—Bruce’s government, our government—has failed its people over and over again (“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home”). The “we” of the song’s title doesn’t extend to the Washington-Wall Street axis that runs the country. We’re on our own. (I read somewhere that Obama included “We Take Care of Our Own” on a campaign playlist, or some such thing, leading me to wonder if he understood the song any better than Reagan did “Born in the U.S.A.” Or if he’d even listened to it at all.)
Springsteen may have grown up on Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan, but the major American artist he resembles most closely is the film director John Ford. Both share a grounding in Catholic values, a taste for Americana culture, and a penchant for sentimentality that occasionally gets the better of them. But more important, Springsteen and Ford share a generous patriotism, one rooted in a communitarian ideal of America. Ford’s greatest films were westerns set in a rugged environment where people had to help each other out to ensure their mutual survival. This is the America of “We Take Care of Our Own,” a place where “nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone,” as Springsteen put it on 2007’s “Long Walk Home.” It’s an ideal defined by the immigrant experience—Ford was the son of Irish parents; Springsteen’s mother is a first-generation Italian American. The 2005 Devils and Dust closed with the moving “Matamoros Banks,” about a man leaving his family behind in Mexico for better prospects across the river. The rollicking “American Land,” one of two bonus tracks on the “deluxe edition” of Wrecking Ball, is more pointed: “The hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep out.”
The melting-pot ethic extends to the music. The previous Springsteen work that Wrecking Ball most resembles is We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a collection of folk covers released in 2006. Like much of that album, several tracks here, notably the mock funeral march of “Death to My Hometown,” reference Irish folk music. Springsteen has never been an experimentalist, and his few previous attempts to stray outside the boundaries of classic rock have mostly fallen flat. But the musical stew of Wrecking Ball complements the classic E Street sound of “We Take Care of Our Own” and the glorious title track with elements of folk, gospel, and even a 16-bar rap, which fits seamlessly into the mix. Traditional rock instrumentation is generously supplemented with violins, banjos, and all manner of horns, among many other instruments.
The ascendant gospel influence marks the full blooming of the religiosity that has crept into Springsteen’s late work. Before becoming the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome” began its life as a gospel song, written by the Methodist minister Charles Tindley. In covering it, Springsteen recalled a day when the intersection of religion and politics in America meant something very different than it does now. Early on, “Shackled and Drawn” evokes the spirit of an old-time revival, with a sampled female voice exhorting, “I want everyone to stand up and be counted tonight!” (Wrecking Ball must contain more samples than the rest of Springsteen’s catalog put together, many taken from Alan Lomax field recordings of the 1940s.) But it’s on the last three songs that the album’s spiritual undercurrents rise to the surface. “Rocky Ground” is an outright gospel song, mixing imagery from testaments old and new:
Forty days and nights of rain washed this land
Jesus said the moneychangers in this temple will not stand
Find your flock, get them to higher ground
The floodwater’s rising, we’re Canaan bound.
Times are hard, but the promised land is still in sight and right will triumph in the end. This sense of Messianic expectation extends into the following song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which has been kicking around for more than a decade (Springsteen and the E Street Band performed it when I saw them in 1999). Alluding to Curtis Mayfield’s epochal “People Get Ready,” Springsteen sings of the great train headed for the promised land, carrying saints and sinners, whores and gamblers, losers—and even winners. All you gotta do is get on board.
The final track, “We Are Alive,” evokes nothing less than the resurrection of the dead. Riding the riff from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Springsteen recounts his own people’s history of the United States, a roll call of workers, activists, immigrants, and all those who died trying to turn their American dreams into reality:
A voice cried, ‘I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand.’
‘I was killed in 1963,
One Sunday morning in Birmingham.’
‘I died last year crossing the southern desert,
My children left behind in San Pablo.’
Well they left our bodies here to rot
Oh please let them know
Their bodies may have been left to rot, but their souls will rise. In the last verse, the singer imagines himself among their number, and it’s hard not to think about the late E Streeter Clarence Clemons, the subject of a moving tribute in the album’s liner notes, whose saxophone shows up on two Wrecking Ball tracks. Hope springs eternal, even in the face of death. As the past few years have reminded us, faith and hope are not sufficient to produce social change—but you’re sure not going to get very far without them.
In that spirit, Wrecking Ball’s most crucial track might be the title song. Apparently inspired by the demolition of Giants Stadium in New Jersey, “Wrecking Ball” is a sweeping rock anthem in the style of “Born to Run,” although the song it most reminds me of (and this is going to be a weird reference even for me) is The Cure’s I’m-so-suicidal-I’m-happy “Doing the Unstuck.” Like that song, “Wrecking Ball” invokes the power of creative destruction in a spiritual sense, the necessity of taking a wrecking ball to the hopelessness and negativity that turn good hearts to stone. Like the OWS protesters, Springsteen doesn’t have all the answers, but to complain that emotion trumps political analysis here is to miss the point entirely. “Hold on to your anger,” he repeats, “and don’t fall to your fears.” I can’t think of a political song by Springsteen that’s less rooted in specificity—nor one more in tune with the spirit of the times.
26 February 2012
While I was disappointed that The King’s Speech beat The Social Network last year, I could at least understand why Tom Hooper’s film might have appealed to a sizable number of Academy voters, particularly those put off by the chilly tone and young characters of The Social Network. The appeal of The Artist is harder to understand. What in the name of Georges Méliès is going on here? It seems the conceptual gimmick is the whole hook. Many would also point fingers at the dastardly Harvey Weinstein, but I can’t blame him for taking advantage of a flawed system. Whatever its appeal to the Academy’s membership, The Artist seems destined to go down as the least viewed Best Picture winner of the modern era.
The whole slate of nominations is tough to decipher this year. For one thing, after two years of 10 Best Picture nominees, we have nine this year for the first time ever, the result of a tweak in Academy rules. It’s a strange group. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close got in with only one other nomination, while The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo got shut out despite landing five, including Best Actress and Best Editing. My favorite film of the year, Terrence Malick’s decidedly non-mainstream The Tree of Life somehow made the list, even landing a Best Director nomination for Malick. Joining The Artist and The Tree of Life among the films with both Best Picture and Best Director nominations are The Descendants, a bittersweet comedy from Alexander Payne starring Geroge Clooney as a man struggling to raise his two daughters after his wife goes into a coma that makes excellent use of its Hawaii setting; Midnight in Paris, a third-rate Woody Allen movie starring Owen Wilson as an American writer in Paris who travels back in time to rub shoulders with the likes of Hemingway and Picasso, which beats its one idea mercilessly into the ground; and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (more on that one in a bit).
Of the other four presumed also-rans, I’ve seen only Bennett Miller’s highly enjoyable baseball drama Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. I can imagine catching up with Steven Spielberg’s War Horse at some point in the (distant) future, but The Help looks suspiciously like one of those nostalgia movies about the good old days when black people were household servants. No thanks. And then there’s the Hanks-Bullock-Daldry-Safran Foer extravaganza.
But nothing will stand in the way of The Artist, or so everyone says. That’s bad enough, but what makes the victory of an ersatz silent movie all the more galling this year is the presence in the field of a far more moving and imaginative film about the silent era. One of the key characters in Hugo is none other than Méliès, the legendary French director who made some 500 films between 1896 and 1913. His most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1903), suggests the nature of his contributions to early cinema history, its fantastical narrative and innovative trick photography expanding the possibilities of what movies could be. The latter portion of Martin Scorsese’s career has seen him focused on film history and preservation as much as filmmaking itself, but Hugo brings it all back home, channeling these concerns into the story of 12-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret, struggling to eke out an existence living on his own in a Paris train station in 1931. Earning high marks as both drama and history lesson, the result is Scorsese’s best film since The Age of Innocence (1993), maybe even Goodfellas (1990). Hugo is that increasingly rare work of popular art, a masterpiece that could be enjoyed by anyone from eight to 80. It’s thoughtful, emotional, well-crafted, involving, suspenseful, and accessible, a movie about fundamental things like work, aging, and family. It is, in short, precisely the type of movie that should win this award. Or they could give it to the cutesy French silent movie instead.
Predictions below along with preferences where applicable. I went with almost all of the favorites, most of whom should win comfortably. One of the few contested categories is cinematography, where The Tree of Life has a chance of scoring a win, although either Hugo or The Artist could take it as well. One or both of the sound categories could go to War Horse, and Hugo has a shot at costumes. Nobody out on the intertubes is predicting much in the way of upsets in the major categories, so the show could be a real snoozefest, although it’s hard to imagine it could be any worse than last year’s. Also, see below for my own long-awaited Top 10 list.
I’d like to pretend The Descendants or especially Hugo has a chance at an upset here, but The Artist has all the markings of an inevitable winner.
Will win: The Artist
Should win: The Tree of Life
Scorsese’s win five years ago for The Departed felt like it was decades overdue, but had he not finally broken through then he’d be a mortal lock tonight.
W: Michel Hanazavicius, The Artist
S: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
This category was wrecked by the unjust omission of Michael Fassbender’s powerfully implosive turn in Shame. I haven’t seen A Better Life or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so we’re left with a clash of two Hollywood titans, Clooney and Pitt. Clooney does fine work in The Descendants, but Pitt has never looked more comfortable in his own skin than he does in Moneyball. His performance is an old-fashioned star turn in an old-fashioned movie, the sort of thing that’s all too rare these days. Sorry, the overwhelming fumes of nostalgia radiating from this year's awards are starting to go to my head.
W: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
S: Brad Pitt, Moneyball
I’ve only seen one of the nominees, Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s risible The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I’d be interested in seeing Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, but you couldn’t pay me enough to sit through a movie about Margaret Thatcher. If there’s going to be an upset in any of the headline categories, it will probably be here with Streep finally winning her third Oscar. But I’ll stick with the consensus.
W: Viola Davis, The Help
S: [no pick]
Best Supporting Actress
W: Octavia Spencer, The Help
S: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Best Supporting Actor
W: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
S: [no pick]
W: Midnight in Paris
S: Margin Call
W: The Descendants
W: Paradise Lost 3
Foreign Language Film
W: A Separation
W: The Tree of Life
S: The Tree of Life
W: The Artist
W: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
S: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
W: The Artist
W: The Iron Lady
W: The Artist
W: "Man or Muppet," The Muppets
W: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Live Action Short
W: The Shore
W: The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
And finally, my own 10 favorite films of 2011. There are a number of worthy contenders I haven’t seen, including Mysteries of Lisbon, Take Shelter, Poetry, and many others. I also cheated a bit by putting a TV movie on the list, but I don’t vote in any polls anymore, so who’s to stop me?
1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.)
2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)
3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
See “Blissfully Yours,” posted September 25, 2010.
4. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
Yet another actress, this time the underachieving Kirsten Dunst, does the best work of her career for Lars von Trier in this bifurcated sci-fi tale involving a planet named Melancholia that may or may not be on a collision course with Earth.
5. Mildred Pierce (Todd Haynes, HBO, U.S.)
Todd Haynes’s best film since Safe stars Kate Winslet in Joan Crawford’s most iconic role. She handles the part somewhat differently, if no less brilliantly. Unlike Michael Curtiz’s noirish version of 1945, Haynes’s film is full of California sunshine, holding closely to James M. Cain’s original novel even as Haynes cleverly turns the tables on the gender politics of noir. Also starring Guy Pearce as the manliest femme fatale you’ve ever seen.
6. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran)
This exquisite puzzle film from Iranian master director Abbas Kiarostami is an imitation Euro art movie about the notion of authenticity. Juliette Binoche shows up at a talk by an author (William Shimell) who’s written a book about the artistic value of originals vis-à-vis copies. But have they just met, or did they already know each other?
7. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada)
David Cronenberg makes a movie about Jung and Freud? Perhaps not a shocker. David Cronenberg confronts the Jewish question? Now that’s something else entirely. Michael Fassbender shines as Jung, in one of his three fine performances this year.
8. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)
This is nostalgia too, but for gritty late ’70s/early ’80s genre cinema. Ryan Gosling might be our finest under-40 screen actor right now. Except for Michael Fassbender, of course.
9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, U.S.)
Only James Franco could play a man smart enough to potentially invent a cure for Alzheimer’s, yet still enough of a doofus to raise a hyper-intelligent chimp as his own son and expect no problems to ensue.
10. Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania)
Think of it as a murder mystery. A long, slow, dark, Romanian murder mystery. I meant the dark part literally, by the way.
Honorable mentions (alphabetical): The Descendants (Alexander Payne, U.S.); Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, Mars); House of Pleasures (Bertrand Bonello, France); Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, Romania); X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, U.S.)
06 January 2012
Looking at my Top 10 lists from the past two years, I couldn’t help but notice that both featured a relative crowd-pleaser in the top spot, followed by a slice of more esoteric electronica. I couldn’t bring myself do it a third year in a row, but the top two below are more like 1 and 1a. Anyway, it was another pretty good year for music, so enjoy.
1. Tim Hecker—Ravedeath, 1972
It started in a church in Iceland. That is, the Frikirkjan Church in Reykjavik, where on a single day in July of 2010, Canadian producer Tim Hecker laid down the basic tracks for what would become Ravedeath, 1972, playing guitar, drums, and most vitally, the church’s 100-year-old pipe organ. Back in the studio, Hecker and Australian producer Ben Frost added layers of digital distortion to the recordings, the digital effects blending with the natural echoes of the church acoustics to create a powerful envelope of ambient sound that seems to be decaying in real time. The interplay between the organic power of the pipe organ and the swirls of digital noise provides the basic drama of the album, particularly on extended multi-track compositions like “In the Fog” and “Hatred of Music,” peaks of tension between melody and noise that are punctuated by pastoral interludes like “No Drums” and “Studio Suicide, 1980” This music is simultaneously warm and cold, off-putting and strangely comforting, its disparate layers flowing over one another in an ocean of sound, creating fragile combinations of rhythm, mood, and texture that disintegrate as soon as you get a fix on them. Ravedeath, 1972 is an experience of duration and subtle variation, but it’s also experimental music at its most functional, the perfect rainy day album or an ideal late-night listen, with even its noisiest edges subsumed in a hypnotic buzz. (“In the Fog II” “Hatred of Music I”)
2. Fleet Foxes—Helplessness Blues
The first Fleet Foxes album was always going to be tough to follow, but Robin Pecknold and company pull it off triumphantly and with seeming effortlessness on the masterful Helplessness Blues. The band’s baroque instrumentation and eclectic blend of Americana styles is as confident and seamless as ever, and the songs bring an impressively light touch to some heavy material—lost love (“Sim Sala Bim”), the inevitability of aging and death (“Battery Kinzie”), and the limitations of any lone individual vis-à-vis the vastness of the world (“Helplessness Blues” “Blue Spotted Tail”). While not a radical departure from the band’s previous work, Helplessness Blues runs deeper, pushing the envelope of the band’s sound a bit (dig the free-jazz sax breakdown on “An Argument”), while still embracing the spirit of truly classic rock. (“Bedouin Dress” “The Shrine/An Argument”)
3. PJ Harvey—Let England Shake
There’s long been a huge rock-critical bias against non-confessional work—to say nothing of poetry or of women over 40—so I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the critical acclaim for Harvey’s best album in a decade. A seemingly impersonal yet deeply felt meditation on home, country, and war, Let England Shake is also a testament to the importance of non-musical influences and a challenge to the notion of what political art can be. But I already wrote about that (see “Black Paintings,” posted March 10). (“The Glorious Land” “On Battleship Hill”)
4. The Field—Looping State of Mind
Axel Willner’s third album is his most musically expansive, introducing hints of dub and noise into his distinctive brand of shoegazer techno. At this point, you either like Willner’s music or you don’t (or you get your music from MSM sources and have never heard of him). I don’t necessarily prefer Looping State of Mind to 2009’s underrated Yesterday and Today, but Willner surely can’t be accused of repeating himself this time around, and it’s starting to look like he may be capable of maintaining this level for quite a while. (“Burned Out” “Then It’s White”)
5. St. Vincent—Strange Mercy
For better or for worse, this album and the one that follows began to feel increasingly topical as the year drew to its close. Annie Clark’s America may be a bit less specific than Polly Harvey’s England, but there’s no denying she’s onto some kind of zeitgeist here (I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more, either). Clark’s vocals are detached without feeling disengaged and she fills in the lush settings of Strange Mercy with some of the most original electric guitar work I’ve heard in quite a while. (“Surgeon” “Cruel”)
6. Kurt Vile—Smoke Ring for My Halo
Ever get the feeling your whole life’s been one long running gag? Kurt Vile feels your pain. The songs on Smoke Ring for My Halo contrast the often foolish vitality of youth with the worn-out wisdom of adulthood, without taking sides. It sounds depressing on paper, but far from being enervating, Vile’s wry, deadpan vocals are positively uplifting, with Vile himself scanning as an indie Tom Petty. Call it inspirational music for hipsters, or motivational music for slackers. So forget your bootstraps; if it ain’t working, take a whiz on the world and punch the future in the face. (“Runners Up” “Jesus Fever”)
7. tUnE-yArDs—w h o k i l l
A relative latecomer to pop music following an abbreviated career in theater and some time studying music in Kenya, Merrill Garbus has forged an original sound from bits of various black-music genres—Afro-pop, R&B, reggae—along with her own sui generis vocal stylings. And despite operating at what would be a fatal level of self-consciousness for most people (that the album’s pervasive liberal guilt never lapses into p.c. prissiness is a minor miracle), she manages to pull it off, creating music that’s thoughtful yet playful, intricate yet accessible. (“Riotriot” “Powa”)
8. Oneohtrix Point Never—Replica
Built from synthesizers and samples, the latest from Brooklyn’s Daniel Lopatin is a dense and difficult work but ultimately a rewarding one. Recalling classics by masters like Eno and Aphex Twin, Replica requires repeated listening before its singular workings begin to open up. Many of the tracks here seek to capture the emotion and drama of pop music and freeze them in time, as if re-creating a motion picture as a disjointed series of stills, devoid of narrative movement. If I were to redo this list a year from now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one a few spots higher. That’s the trouble with these lists: they’re just a snapshot, and you only get to make them once. (“Power of Persuasion” “Nassau”)
9. Florence and the Machine—Ceremonials
A lot of reviewers knocked this album for lacking the variety of Florence’s 2009 debut Lungs, but when you’ve got a fastball as good as hers, you don’t need much off-speed stuff. Now having said that, this one might have ranked a bit higher had a couple of the more adventurous tracks not been banished to “deluxe edition” status in what’s becoming a disturbing trend in major-label releases. For about a month, at the height of Occupy Wall Street, “Shake It Out” felt like the song of the year. Then I was made to realize that it wasn’t. (“Shake It Out” “No Light, No Light”)
10. Wild Flag—Wild Flag
Supergroups rarely live up to the hype, but Wild Flag, consisting of Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Helium’s Mary Timony, and Rebecca Cole of The Minders, avoids that trap by virtue of craftsmanship and sheer force of will. Corin Tucker’s inimitable voice is missed, but Wild Flag preserves most of the best of Sleater-Kinney (along with that band’s unfortunate love for cheesy extended-metaphor conceits), and the result is the best pure rock’n’roll album in years. As that description might suggest, Wild Flag feels in some respects more like the end of something than a new beginning. But even if it’s a bit self-conscious, the joyful celebration of the “four [girls] in a room” vibe feels wholly earned. And Helium was seriously underrated, by the way. (“Glass Tambourine” “Something Came Over Me”)
Now that I’ve done this once, I guess I have to keep doing it: five runners-up. Again, these are listed in alphabetical order and shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as 11 through 15 per se, but all are interesting records that merited some Top 10 consideration.
Kate Bush—50 Words for Snow
Probably the artist I listened to more than any other in 2011. If the whole album were as good as the ethereal first three tracks (one of which may or may not be about making love to a snowman), then it would have made the Top 10. (“Snowflake” “Lake Tahoe”)
Clams Casino—Instrumental Mixtape
Background music as foreground, a trick that’s rarely worked as well as it does here. (“Numb” “Illest Alive”)
This is such a summertime album that the February release date initially struck me as odd. Then I remembered that they’re Australian. (“Take Me Over” “Where I’m Going”)
Radiohead—The King of Limbs
A solid effort, although not one of the band’s best and not nearly as radical as it appears on first listen. (“Bloom” “Lotus Flower”)
The Weeknd—House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence
The first of the trilogy, House of Balloons remains the best entry point, although the late-breaking Echoes of Silence is the most sonically coherent. But these three mixtapes from the year’s breakout artist are best conceived as segments of one long, sprawling work. (“The Morning” “Montreal”)
Top 10 songs not on those albums
1. Real Estate—“Green Aisles”
Winter was coming, but that was all right.
2. M83—“Midnight City”
3. James Blake—“The Wilhelm Scream”
After the thrilling innovation of the early EPs, James Blake’s first proper album felt like a baby step backward, but tracks like this one are a reminder that we’re still dealing with a major, major talent.
4. Curren$y—“This Is the Life”
5. Frank Ocean—“Novacane”
If we consider My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a genre at this point—and why wouldn’t we?—then this was the year’s best entry therein.
Reaching back one last time.
7. Lady Gaga—“Bloody Mary”
I didn’t dig most of the singles, but for an album summarily dismissed by much of the cognoscenti, Born This Way has more than its share of interesting tracks.
8. Wye Oak—“Civilian”
9. ASAP Rocky—“Peso”
10. Lana Del Rey—“Video Games”
Tragedy rendered as comedy, or vice versa.