The Bestest 2014: Filmmage

Every year the release of the really great films seems to be compressed into a shorter window. Yes, studios optimize Academy consideration, but also risk not finishing in time and missing the whole thing (“Selma” appears to have been just too late to reap what it deserved). But despite the dismal market for serious films in 2014, as kids continued to trade theaters for Instagram and Snapchat, there was an epic slate of films to choose from. Although this list seems like the most predicable I have ever written, I suppose there is a reason why everyone tends to agree this year on what was best.
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1)    Whiplash – Dir. Damien Chazelle (Miles Teller, JK Simmons)

There were certainly bigger films this year, laden with special effects, greater social importance and higher production values, but for me this smaller more intimate tale combined everything thematically that I think makes a film truly great: the will to succeed beyond anything else, and the often flawed techniques and circumstances that seem to inspire greatness.

On the surface the film is about jazz, one of our finest cultural creations, and each frame hums with a silky smooth groove that masterfully hides the pain and anguish that is necessary to survive and thrive in the modern world. JK Simmons, best known for his Allstate ads, masterfully plays the sadistic genius music teacher whose questionable technique makes you wonder whether success if the psychic price  his students pay is really worth it. But ultimately it is Miles Teller whose performance as a drumming prodigy carries the viewer to the deepest, darkest places. This film makes you feel uneasy from the very first scene, but I guess “feeling” anything this deeply validates the magic of the Whiplash.

2)   Birdman – Dir. Alejandro Inarritu (Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton)

Although we toss the word ‘masterpiece’ around too often for it to have any real meaning, Birdman is one. It is everything you need a film to be. It’s impeccably acted and features perhaps the finest performance of Michael’s Keaton’s career, not to mention a few of the best monologues of the year from Emma Stone and Ed Norton. It’s a true visual feast beginning with a gorgeous, impossibly long, opening take. The lushness of the cinematography is trumped only by the most incredible sound design, featuring jazz drumming and an audible richness that  becomes a leading character in almost every scene.

And then there is the story: an ironic, intricate exploration of art and its impact on the human soul. At its core, the film unpacks the superficiality of celebrity in the digital age, but does so in such a graceful yet absurdist way that it never feels like anything less than entertainment, which I suppose is what makes it so special. Although Alejandro Inarritu has more than established himself as one of the most important active directors, this time around you see something both truly modern and seriously grounded, only seen  in the very best of films.. I’m not sure there has ever been one quite like this.

3)   Nightcrawler – Dir. Dan Gilroy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton)

 Although Nightcrawler is a “dark” film, somehow that description undersells how gloriously entertaining it is to watch. This is a story about ambition, deceit, drive and the harrowing consequences that our emotionally callous and short attention-spanned society craves. On the surface this is about what has happened to the news business since Sydney Lumet foreshadowed its moral demise in his 1976 epic “Network.” In it we watch as Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) backs into a job as a freelance cameraman selling crime footage to a desperate local news producer played beautifully by Rene Russo.

But the film is really a character study in how ambition corrupts. Gyllenhaal has never been better, transforming himself into one of the most complicated screen characters since Travis Bickle. He goes from naïve loner into one of the most menacing villains of this decade. It is easy to get sucked entirely into Gyllenhaal himself, but the film succeeds in making some profound statements about modern media and our collective indifference to the shocking state of the world today.

4)   Selma – Dir. Ava DuVernnay (David Oyelowo, Common, Oprah)

There is a fine line between historical films that manipulate the audience into experiencing the collective guilt of our forefathers and those that use film to tell a story without overt judgment. Selma is a triumph of both because of the impeccable performances (David Oyelowo is magnificent as MLK) and the accomplished craft by which Ava DuVernnay captures time and place without being preachy or condescending.

Like Lincoln, this film also benefits from focusing on one small chapter of King’s life, rather than trying to tell an entire but necessarily diluted life story. In this specific fragment we see a microcosm of everything King managed to accomplish during a period filled with irrational hate and violence. But more than anything else this is a wonderful film, polished, tense, emotional, but also artistic. It’s also impossibly hard to believe that the Civil Rights movement took place only a half-century ago, and sadder still that there are the remnants still left unresolved today.

5)   The Trip To Italy – Dir. Michael Winterbottom (Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon)

Great comedies never really receive the credit they deserve. Comedic sequels receive even less consideration, but occasionally the pattern breaks. There wasn’t a funnier film released in 2014 than this delicious romp through the Italian countryside where two old friends reunite to eat, talk and lead each other through some of the best impression-based conversations imaginable.

Like an old comfortable tweed blazer, Coogan and Brydon shroud what is really the kind of friendship everyone aspires to have in a typical male detachment. Although the film is really about the banal pains and realizations of middle age, it manages to keep things as light as the foamy foodie dishes the travelers are served accompanied by witty esoteric film banter. In the end this is a movie about the gradual cloying decay of aging,  and the simple pleasures that compensate and make life worth living along the way.

6)   Boyhood – Dir. Richard Linklater (Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke)

More than almost any modern director I can think of, Richard Linklater has always been  dialed into the cultural zeitgeist of my generation. From Slacker and Dazed and Confused to the ‘Before’ trilogy, he makes small films built on dialogue and supported by incredible collaborations between a staple of core actors. In Boyhood he just kind of lets the camera roll as young Ellar Coltrane matures from a six year old to a college kid, shooting for a few days every year for a dozen years.

As a film, Boyhood is a solid story well told, but its true genius lies in the vision and discipline required to tell that story bit by bit over a dozen years while watching people grow into themselves without manipulation.  Like the brilliant 7 Up series, Linklater lays out a framework, but also lets the spontaneity just  happen. There is a magic that transpires, and reminds you that everyday things change ever so slightly within yourself and the broader world around you.

7)    Obvious Child – Dir. Gillian Robespierre (Jenny Slate, David Cross, Gaby Hoffman)

 Unlike the romantic comedies of the West Coast, this one, set in Brooklyn is both grittier and quite a bit funnier. Jenny Slate is a much better looking female version of Louie CK, and has appeared in a series of killer cameos on such underrated shows as House of Lies, Hello Ladies, and Bored To Death, but Obvious Child officially validates her as a legit leading lady.

In it she plays a struggling standup comic who recently lost her bookstore job, her boyfriend and her overall sense of how to proceed. A drunken rebound one-night stand leaves her pregnant and an emotional mess. As much as the film is littered with these otherwise mundane clichés, somehow the film never feels trite – mostly because of Slate, who like a younger Sarah Silverman, has that raunchy but endearing way. This is a date night film for people who hate date night.

8)   Under The Skin  –Dir. Jonathan Glazer (Scarlett Johansson)

This is one of the weirdest, most abstractly sexual, and occasionally scary films, in quite a while. In it the always-beguiling Scarlett Johansson plays an alien sent to earth to … well … good question. She roams the streets of Glasgow picking up a series of random men and then most often lures them into bizarre and occasionally beautiful ends.

Beyond ScarJo’s icy cool and sometimes brilliant performance, the film is a chilling experiment in mood and pace always moving toward an ambiguous end. It looks at modern urban humanity through the observant eyes of an outsider, and catches many of the details about nature and our daily lives that we ourselves seem to have managed to lose interest in. This is not a film for everyone, but it is one  for those who like strange, dark, and sensual sci-fi.

9)   The Grand Budapest Hotel – Dir. Wes Anderson (Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody)

No one makes, or has ever made, films  like those of Wes Anderson. He is a miniaturist, who loses himself in the very details most filmmakers can’t even see. He is the grandmaster of style, but never chooses it over substance, and always extracts particularly nuanced performances from his consistently great casts.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in the 1930’s in a fictional Eastern European town, in an elegant hotel that is very much a product of a bygone era. It is an old fashioned caper largely revolving around Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the philandering concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, and his apprentice, the young lobby boy. The kooky plot involves an inheritance, a dead body, and the silly antics that ensue. This is a story within a story, told in flashbacks by Jude Law who we learn had met Gustave many years before as a young man. Anderson’s films always make me wish I could climb into these odd landscapes for a few hours (or days) and bathe in the colorful quirkiness that seems one standard deviation outside of our imperfect world.

10)   Citizenfour – Dir. Laura Poitras (Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald)

A great documentary film often has as much to do with being at the right place at the right time as it does  with the importance of the subject itself. Citizenfour manages to possess both of those aspects. Although no one could have predicted exactly how things were going to unfold, Edward Snowden had probably thought as much about how and to whom he would break his news as he did about whether he would share his secrets with the world. It was almost like he was directing this film from the start of his career.

In many ways this documentary unfolds like a classic spy novel, with recorded phone conversations setting the stage for the seminal meeting in a Hong Kong hotel room. Both filmmaker Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald create a kind of calm urgency as they begin to unravel the information Snowden is sharing. But the film is mostly about trying to understand a bit more about a man who is either a hero or traitor. In the end you are left  to decide for yourself while Snowden remains in Russia,  waiting …

11)    The Babadook – Dir. Jennifer Kent (Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman)

I love good horror films, and every few years someone manages to take this typically schlocky canon and create something new and different. Like the twisted offspring of The Shining and The Exorcist, Aussie director Jennifer Kent has created a wonderfully stylized tale about a children’s book character who prods at the core of the emptiness experienced by a boy and his mother after the loss of their father and husband.

This is not a film filled with blood or easy scares, but one that slowly builds into a crescendo of dark high tension. Both mother (Essie Davis) and her six year old son (Noah Wiseman) draw you into the dark recesses of a real or imagined ghost story where the light at end of the bleak tunnel seems almost too far away to reach, but also accessible if they can just hold their ground. But then again, while every voyage is filled with dark passages, this one  approaches that blurry destination bit by dreamy bit.

12)   Chef – Dir. Jon  Favreau (Jon Favreau, Bobby Cannavale, John Leguizamo)

Call this a guilty pleasure without much guilt. Chef is the kind of feel good mid-life crisis film that combines the inevitable struggle between purist passion and commercial success with the tension between freedom and familial obligation. This is also a return to the kind of character-driven performance that Favreau achieved so effortlessly in Swingers, nearly 20 years ago.

Although it uses our  ironic and easy-to-mock foodie culture as a narrative vehicle, it very convincingly celebrates this current obsession as something that is actually  good . As Favreau’s once high-flying celebrity chef star begins to fade, he is forced to reinvent himself after inadvertently discovering the power and peril of social media. His voyage to self discovery leads him back to a better place, but even in its mile away predictability, this film is too good not to just lean in and devour.

13)    The Theory of Everything – Dir. James Marsh (Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones)

Stephen Hawking is a rare genius not just because of his mind but also because of his relentless drive to remain productive despite cataclysmic constraints. Eddie Redmayne is a chameleon cut from the same cloth as Daniel Day Lewis before him, and transforms himself so completely, both emotionally and physically, that it is hard to imagine anyone else playing this role.

But what makes the film even more satisfying is that it manages to explain some of Hawking’s impenetrably challenging theories, making them “almost” accessible to a broad audience. The life of this man neatly mirrors the acceleration of technology which both makes it possible for him to live a fulfilling life, and for us to better understand what he alone was able to understand about the universe before we had the advanced tools to prove it.

A few more that are very worthy …

14)   Gone Girl – Dir. David Fincher (Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike)

Fincher remains in a beautifully dark groove these days, banging out bleakly compelling popcorn fair, and teasing out nuanced performances from big brand name players in this head trip of a caper.

15)   Nymphomaniac Vol. 1&2 – Dir. Lars Von Trier (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard)

An ultra-bleak, graphic look at pain, sex, and emptiness told in gritty flashbacks – as you’ve come to expect from the Danish master von Trier.

16)   One I love – Dir. Charlie McDowell (Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss)

A trippy, impeccably acted romantic comedy that taps into the alternate universe that is part of every relationship.

17)   St. Vincent – Dir. Theodore Melfi (Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy)

What could have been a horrible cliché (crotchety old man finds salvation through a friendship with  lonely kid) is a genuinely lovely, almost family friendly, story about redemption.

18)   Foxcatcher - Dir. Bennett Miller (Steve Carell, Channing Tatum)

An unrecognizable Carell plays the disturbed DuPont scion obsessed with wrestling and an unfulfilled desire to please his mother. What follows is a slow and steady descent into madness.

19)   The Imitation Game – Dir. Morten Tyldum (Keira Knightly, Benedict Cumberbatch) 

A perfectly constructed story about one of the first genuine technology pioneers who was trapped in a seemingly “civilized” society committed to stopping evil abroad while committing it at home.

20)    Snowpiercer – Dir. Joon-ho Bong (Ed Harris, Jamie Bell)

What could have been just another post-apocalyptic hybrid of “Blade Runner” and “The Polar Express” is actually an ironic look at how history continues to repeat itself.

21)  A Most Violent Year – Dir. J.C. Chandor (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain)

A beautifully acted period piece set in the early 80’s capturing the gritty crime-infested NYC of days gone by through the lens of one family caught walking on a razor’s edge.

22)  American Sniper – Dir. Clint Eastwood (Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller)

Another rock solid piece of elegant, patriotic filmmaking from one of the very best, who manages to avoid the sentimental in favor of a story that doesn’t need editorial to make its point.

23)   Inherent Vice – Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin) Although it could have been called “Incoherent Vice” this stony, retro caper is a textured moody romp, that deserves an A for effort, even if you get lost from the very first frame.

I’ll leave you with a great moment from The 57th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival:

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Coachella, 2014: Girls Win, Synths beat out Guitars

Bcoachellaig music festivals can largely be tracked back to the first Newport Jazz festival in 1954, The Folk version in 1959, and then followed by Woodstock in 1969, Glastonbury in 1970 a bunch of other European festivals that followed and thrived through today. SXSW launched in 1987 and has become something entirely different 30+ years later, Lollapalooza launched in the US in 1991, but lost momentum eventually, and finally Bonnaroo and Coachella re-ignited the scene in 2001. Since then, the idea of the Summer festival has exploded, evolved and become a massively big business, including a re-launched Lollapalooza, ACL Festival, Outside Lands, Sasquatch, Governors Ball, and countless EDM fests.

With the traditional “record business” at the end of it’s inevitable decline, reinvented as part YouTube and SoundCloud (free) with the balance being a digital subscription, algorithmic radio, and old school vinyl nostalgia (sure people buy CD’s and digital tracks but that will be over within the next 5 years). The music that we have access to and the speed of an artist’s ascent from obscurity to stardom, are equally astounding. Nowhere are both those facts more self-evident than at a major festival.

Every year I go to a few festivals and take an immersive temperature on both the state of modern music and the pulse of youth culture – both of which are best viewed from the vantage of the fields of the Indio Polo Grounds at Coachella. This was my seventh Coachella, but the first time I attended the second of two weekends. The weather was perfect if you like hot, dry breezeless days. There were no sandstorms, no rain, very few clouds, and as a result almost no grass since it had been trampled down the prior weekend. There were, however, fewer people and a lineup of incredible music that peaks between 1-9 if you’re an indie music nut like me.

Coachella 2014 was a very very good year for music. It was also the year of the female vocalist. It was also a year, where synthesizers outnumbered guitars by a very large margin.

Day 1: The first six bands I saw on Friday were absolutely breath taking female fronted bands: Wye Oak, was the first, and their track “Civilian” was among the best of the festival. Next a few tracks from newbie Waxahatchee, who make straight up guitar and drum indie rock riding the wave of their “Peace and Quiet” single. Then there was the truly otherworldly Austra, who sound like something you would hear in a good dream. The always incredible Dum Dum Girls, lead by singer Dee Dee who looks like Joan Jett, sounds like Chrissie Hynde, with a band as cool as they come. There is no band destined to be bigger and broader this time next Coachella than MS MR, who met in college made a record and were playing the main stage to a massive crowd early in the day 18 months later. The first dude I saw all day utter even a word was the utterly mindblowing Jagwar Ma, an Aussie psychedelic dance band that wooed the crowd into a blissful trance. Back to the ladies and there isn’t a story about the speed of buzz and the reality of the 10,000 hrs than LA’s Haim. A trio of LA based sisters who sing beautiful pop songs, but live play their instruments as if possessed by hellions from the 70’s. Next up was Neko Case, who possesses perhaps the best natural voice at the festival and without a doubt one of the tightest bands out there. She was divine despite the too smallish crowd. The second dude at the mic all day was Greg Dulli from Afghan Whigs, a band I loved twenty years ago and one who still managed to sound tight and relevant even today. There is something magical about the sunset set on the Outdoor Stage at Coachella, this year it was the delicious Broken Bells (James Mercer from the Shins and Danger Mouse), projecting perfect pop into the colorful desert sky. For the most part, I know every set I’ll see ahead of time, but some are more exciting than others, and for me it was the deep house mastermind Bonobo (aka Simon Green) who played the tightest DJ set of the whole weekend. I say that having gone to see Girl Talk take over the festival for a few songs just after, but sometimes too big is too big. When you see music all day, the big messy crowded headlining sets just seem unworthy, so we stopped to see the biggest, weirdest, coolest band cap things off The Knife.

 

Day 2: Another of the best things about Coachella is getting there early enough that there are no crowds just big open spaces and room to drift. Laura Mvula is one of the best British soul singers you have never of, and I was so glad I had and that it started a glorious second day. From lush, orchestral soul, to the brutishly authentic Mick Jagger meets Iggy Pop retro rock from the most excellent Foxygen. Continuing on a deep retro vibe was UK youngers Temples whose whirling Pink Floydian rock was happening 20+ years before their birth. I saw a few songs from Banks, but they were too sleepy for that early in the day, before heading over to Bombay Bicycle Club for a packed house of happy fratty guys and gals. The crowd for Scotland dance pop band CHVRCHES was absolutely enormous, proving you can go from not even being in a band to 40,000 people singing every lyric in less than two years. Next was more 80’s Brooklyn based dance pop in the form of an excellent set by Holy Ghost!, followed by a massive crowd for Head and the Heart, who, although I’ve seen a dozen times now was playing to a massive crowd and sounding like the folk rock stars they were destined to become. Now you can’t see everything, so no Kid Cudi, only one Washed Out track, before venturing over to perhaps the coolest set of the festival: LA based Warpaint , whose deeply serious melodic rock was mesmerizing closing with the incredible single “Undertow.” Every year there is one band that literally blows up right before the festival. In the past there has been Foster The People, Gotye, Alt-J, but this year the band and the set of the fest for me Baltimore’s unlikely Future Islands. Looking like Marlon Brando but sounding like a fusion of Fine Young Cannibals and Tom Waits, singer Samuel Herring is a wonderfully electric and unlikely rock star. After that we caught pieces of Fatboy Slim, Pixies, Solange and before hunkering down for one of the loudest, strongest sets of the day from Sleigh Bells. Sure elsewhere Pharell, Skrillex, Queens of the Stone Age and Empire of the Sun were banging, but Coachella is all about hard choices.

 

Day 3: By day three if you are really “doing Coachella” as in seeing music, not hanging at VIP, or showing up at 5, or stumbling around bleary eyed, you are tired, but also very much in a groove. The groove of watching music all day. Clearing your head of everything except for the music you are watching and that with you will see later. This day was the lightest in terms of what I wanted to see, but it started with deep disco with LA’s Poolside, whose grooves were a super smooth way to start the day. Not since Liz Phair’s debut “Exile” record has their been a singer as clever, and cool, and competant’ as Aussie Courtney Barnett. Again, from out of nowhere she is playing Coachella within a year of releasing her first music. More luscious 80’s disco classics from Classixx, so much damn fun, followed by perhaps the best Superchunk set I have seen in eons, despite the notable lack of Laura on bass. Certain things just turn magical in the desert, and the sunset set with a reunited Neutral Milk Hotel was down right spiritual. There was nothing like them when they made their two classic albums in the mid-90’s, and there was certainly nothing more intense than this set this year. For something a little bit more upbeat nothing is better than Sweden’s lush Little Dragon. I hadn’t seen anything in it’s entirety on the big main stage all weekend, but playing his first Coachella set in fifteen years Beck was absolutely on it, covering the classics from “Loser” up through the glassy ballads on “Morning Phase.” It’s easy to forget how incredibly important Beck has been and will likely be for many years to come, but seeing him on that stage was nothing less than magical. With the exception of Radiohead, without a doubt the biggest, baddest critically acclaimed live rock band on the planet is Arcade Fire. Although I’m not a huge fan of their new LCD produced album, seeing them play “No Cars Go” or “Suburbs” is something special. For all the incredible music that played throughout the weekend, there is only one Arcade Fire. A good headliner is hard to find, but on this particular Sunday Arcade Fire owned the night.

 

Music and Technology

Back to reality. For the past eight years I have tried to chronicle each significant step and change in technology, and the evolution/application of mobile and social behavior through the lens of music festivals. First there was SMS (texting) on feature phones – for finding and meeting people in impossibly crowded environments it was simple and useful. Next fans taking photos, mostly Razor phones, to eventually publish on Flickr or merely store on hard drives. Then came Twitter (most easily via sms), short simple web-based publishing but also serving the location conundrum, which was an excellent innovation and great way to follow tastemakers in real time on the grounds. Facebook mobile brought photos + geo + publishing. Phones in the air, selfies, videos, all endlessly capturing the moment, so much so that the moment is lost and replaced with looking at phones. With Foursquare came adding and leaving location-based check-ins, sometimes with photos, sometimes just as quick diary entry. Next there was Instagram with good-looking, geo-tagged photos, with comments and everything else from everything that had come before. And that is kind where things stalled. Sure Vine, Snapchat, Tinder, Whatsapp, Coachella’s own app, and all the iterations that have happened since these original innovations are nice, but we’re kind of back to where we started: photos, FB, Twitter, etc. Bandwidth still sucks, especially later into the day and night, and in the end festivals exist for people to see and hear music, share communal passion, and spend quality time with friends and family. I still do take a photo at every show I see, but more as a form of diary. Perhaps it’s tedious to watch from afar, but it makes sense to me.

It’s possible that the rise of festivals is merely a societal reaction to the alienation and self-absorption of the screen-based world we live in, but to see tens of thousands of people experiencing the same moment with nothing but smiles (and yes phones) reminds us of the many things that technology will never replace. People turn people onto things through passion, expression and joy. Now go see some live music this summer. Your soul will thank you.

 

Oh and if you subscribe to Spotify or Rdio here are the playlists:

On Spotify:     TastemakerX V31 “Coachella 2014″

On Rdio:        TastemakerX V31 “Coachella 2014″

 

 

Culture in Silicon Valley

brokenbellsWhen I arrived in San Francisco from New York at the beginning of the end of that first glorious Internet era in April 1999, I had in my mind’s eye a place teeming with culture junkies. Hyper-literate music- and arts-loving people, drawn to the Bay to be part of a kind of acceptably commercial counter-culture.

Although I had spent time in SF before becoming a resident, I mostly had images of the time-adjusted Grateful Dead-Summer of Love city by the Bay. I imagined sunsets falling behind the Golden Gate Bridge, with distant music coming from the Haight and films being cut at Skywalker Ranch. After all, the area was home to George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Michael Chabon, Michael Lewis, Sean Penn, Neil Young, Bob Weir, Carlos Santana, and hundreds of other notable creative legends.

But over the next 15 years I would find a sharp and surprising paradox about the Bay Area and its strangely collective apathy about the arts. It took a while to truly understand all the reasons, but when I really thought about the why, the reasons seemed quite logical.

To be clear, I am speaking mostly about the tech community, which has, for the most part, become the vocal majority throughout the Bay Area. For such a liberal and progressive city, with such a young and highly educated population, I am always surprised at how disinterested most young techies are about music and film. Sure there are a few thousand of them who head out to the desert for a week of bacchanalia at Burning Man, but ultimately you won’t see many of them at Coachella, Sundance, or even the San Francisco Film Festival. But why not? [Read more…]

Future Islands – Singles (4AD)

Future Islands is a Baltimore based synth rock band who appears to have deservedly spiked a vein in part thanks to a strangely viral Letterman Show appearance in early May. I have long been a fan of their 80ish new wavey music and remarkably Peter Murphy (Bauhaus) vocals, but “Singles” is such a milestone leap forward in terms of accessibility and fidelity it is almost hard to fathom.

The real single on “Singles” is the inescapable “Seasons (Waiting On You),” but almost every track on the latest effort is toe-tapping masterpiece. “Spirit” has every bit of the synthesized energy of a Cut Copy or Small black, but again it’s the guttural crooning of singer Sam Herring that elevate it into something utterly transformative. I’ll be hard pressed to stumble upon something quite like this for a while.

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…]