The Bestest 2013: Filmmage

Despite the current state of independent film (increasingly fewer screens, economically challenging business models, compressed distribution windows) 2013 proved to be one of the best years in a decade for films large and small. In some ways almost every film I loved was a new take on an old subject (horror, spring break, slavery, the 60’s, the 70’s). The actors and actresses we love continued to reinvent themselves, trumping everything that has come before with performances seemingly inspired by the past and the future.

1) Inside Llewyn Davis – Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan)

A Coen brothers film about a folk singer is still a Coen brothers film. Llewyn Davis is a perfectly crafted moody time-bomb of a character, drifting from couch to couch in the cold winter of 1963 New York. As in all  their films, the Coens here cover quite a bit of ground in what seems like a simple story. It is both an examination of the West Village folk scene right before Dylan changed the game completely, and  also an uncannily authentic look at New York intellectuals and their blue collar counterparts.

But like many of their most recent films, “Llewyn Davis” is a film where the music itself is an important leading character. Oscar Isaac gives an award caliber performance both playing a folk singer and performing as one. He carries a kind of fragile humanity right behind the surface of a loathsome exterior. Less accessible, or perhaps just less upbeat than many of their films, “Llewyn Davis” is a patient, incredible precise slice of a time and place, and even greater gem for fans of new and old folk music.

2) Her – Dir. Spike Jonze (Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansen)

“Her” is easily one of the most creative romantic films in eons. Like “500 Days of Summer,” “Upstream Color,” “Like Crazy,” and “Eternal Sunshine,” but obviously something completely different, Spike Jones has crafted one of the weirdest, but most genuine love stories of all time. In his semi-futuristic world, true love is neither physical nor it is even reciprocal in the truest sense of the word. It is more of a state of mind, or state of intellectual compatibility.

It would be hard to imagine this film without the effortless vulnerability of Joaquin Phoenix, and the seductiveness of Scarlett Johansson who exists only as a voice through an earpiece. To fall for an operating system is really no different than falling in love with a character from a book, a voice on the radio, or a picture in a magazine, except that the idea also understands you. Like a dream captured on film, “Her” falls like fresh snow, slowly, beautifully and ephemerally.

3) 12 Years A Slave – Dir. Steve McQueen (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender)

In sheer contrast to Tarantino’s “Django,” McQueen’s masterpiece is a brutal, but beautiful reflection on our shameful past. There is nary a smile or laugh to be had, just an endless sea of largely horrible masters and powerless defeated slaves. As in his previous films (“Shame” and “Hunger”) McQueen can’t help but make you confront history and suffer through long, graphic reenactments.

Every character is clearly defined, most of the time without words, but with angry or hopeless expressions. This is not really a film to enjoy so much as to confront, endure and then ultimately appreciate. Although filled with cameos from everyone from Brad Pitt to Paul Giamatti, the film belongs to Chinwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender. Good and evil personified. Although not for everybody, perhaps it should be required viewing for everybody.

4) Fruitvale Station – Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordon, Octavia Spencer)

There is no waste in “Fruitvale Station,” it is a perfect little film based on a totally avoidable tragedy. In his directorial debut, Ryan Coogler was able to tell a story that took place in his hometown, and approach it with the kind of unemotional distance you wouldn’t have thought possible. Michael B. Jordan, whom we have watched grow up on “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” is Oscar caliber playing the real life Oscar Grant who was shot to death by BART police on New Years Day 2009.

Like Cassavetes, Coogler’s debut is a subtle hand held masterpiece, as he manages to get close enough to Oscar Grant to expose him as a massively flawed but hugely empathetic person. In lesser hands this story becomes a racial-political statement that exposes history yet again repeating itself shamefully. But somehow the story just flows along so quickly and easily that before you have time to poke holes it is over. Simplicity in filmmaking is the hardest thing to accomplish, but here it is impeccably executed.

5) Before Midnight –Dir. Richard Linklater (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy)

Beyond the “Godfather” trilogy I can’t think of another trio of films that I have loved as consistently. Where the Godfather films are sprawling epics, Linklater’s films are precious- basically just one long rolling conversation between two people who think and speak as cleverly as most people wish they could, and have a relationship both as fleeting and occasionally perfect as any.

In this chapter Delpy and Hawke are now married with children and living in Europe. At this point we know both characters quite well. We both love them and hate them. They bicker and spat, hold hands and kiss, reminisce and dream, and then start all over again. Like the previous films nothing much happens, except of course one of the most curious and naturalistic modern love stories of our time. [Read more…]

The Bestest 2013: Tunage

I’m not sure you need me to tell you about the 2013 records by Kanye, Daft Punk and Arcade Fire. They were unanimously fawned over, richly produced concept pieces that actually hang together. Instead, I’ll focus on the handful of albums (yes I still tend to listen to albums – albeit in a digital form) that stood out and made 2013 another great year. Perhaps I am getting set in my ways, but I consume music through the following devices and platforms: Spotify, Sonos, Songza, Rdio, Jambox, Pandora, Sirius/XM, an iPhone, car CD player and an ancient B&O turntable. Ultimately, as long as you are listening to music that makes you happy and discovering new music every once in a while, it doesn’t matter how you consume it.

1) Junip – Junip (Mute)

Swedish folkie Jose Gonzalez has long been a one of the best modern folk singers of our time, as a soloist, band leader (Junip) and occasional vocalist for bands like Zero 7. He has a beautifully calm and confident voice. His acoustic guitar playing is incredibly precise, almost Nick Drake-like its complicated simplicity. But with Junip, Gonzalez’s fully realized band, the results are sturdier, rockier, and generally serious songs filled with hypnotic grooves.

Although perhaps tapping into the Americana roots resurgence, Junip doesn’t aspire towards Mumford; they seem to be mining a darker more introspective place, but somehow still in the same tradition. Standout tracks like “In Every Direction” have every bit the groove of their American peers, but without any of the rootsy whimsy. Almost nothing struck me like this record this year, but then again I expected greatness.

2) Midlake – Antiphon (Bella Union)

For those paying attention, for nearly a decade Midlake has been an unheralded giant in the renaissance of big Americana rock music. Like a younger, rangier My Morning Jacket, the Denton, TX band creates sprawling guitar rock that tends to be cut more from their jazz roots, than the blues.

“Antiphon” is the first record made after the departure of lead singer Tim Smith, and is both less precious than its prior effort “The Courage of Others” and perhaps more original sounding than their brilliant “Trials of Van Occupanther” Fleetwood Mac inspired masterpiece. What it is, however, is a deadly serious, mightily compelling roller coaster of an arena rock classic. Lushly produced and orchestrated, this is music to be savored as a complete record, not as songs to be tossed randomly into a playlist. This is something very special.

3) London Grammar – If You Wait (Warner)

I’m not sure how big “If You Wait” will be by the time you finally get around to reading this, but even if it doesn’t end up filling the void left by an Adele/Florenceless year, I will still love it. It is the obvious bastard stepchild of The XX and Florence, with songwriting and production that is every bit as slick and seductive, but more than anything it all rides on the capable shoulders and vocals of Hannah Reid.
Even when you wean yourself off the hopelessly addictive “Hey Now” single, the rest of the album is a lush, sexy, smoky effort, reminiscent of the lovely trip hop of the early 90’s (Zero 7, Morcheeba, and even the 90’s 4AD roster). Driving music, head phone music, winter music, and summer music. A great record is always all of those, and so is this.

4) Portugal. The Man – Evil Friends (Atlantic)

Take all the anthemic brilliance that was the mid-90’s Oasis, wrap it in Portlandia hipsterism, and let Danger Mouse spin the dials and you have one of the finest albums of the year. Almost every song here is some kind of infectious groove mixed with a chorus that causes the hairs on the back of your neck to take notice.

On “Plastic Soldiers,” as with most of the songs on this album, things start innocently enough but eventually acoustic guitar strums morph into big chorus driven walls of melodic sound: “Could it be we got lost in the summer / I know you know that it’s over …” In the age of singles, it is great to hear albums created by bands that realize that singles are ephemeral, and that albums are forever.

5) Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-)

There isn’t a more distinctive straight-forward female voice in modern music than Neko Case. Perhaps PJ Harvey used to hold the torch, but Case has been making country-tinged solo records for years, and has been a card carrying New Pornographer since the beginning. She is a legitimate force of nature with her long red hair and silky voice.

This time out Case is less country (which is good) and more good old fashioned rock, rounded out with a super group of guests from Calexico, Mudhoney, MMJ and others. Songs like “City Swans” showcase what she has been doing for a decade – belting out endlessly catchy choruses and just letting her voice sail into some beautiful sunset. This is truly a special album. [Read more…]