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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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 2010 Filmage

I write this while sitting on a plane back from Sundance, where I managed to see eight films in 48 hours. To be at Sundance and dedicate yourself to films intensely, even for a few days,  is one of the most liberating experiences I can imagine for a few reasons. Beyond the abundant quality and gritty humanness that tends to be woven into the fabric of most Sundance films, the stories behind the making of these films serve to inspire you to do more, try harder, and to never surrender. The fact that the festival runs at the beginning of each year, provides eleven months for you to follow through with the energy and the possibility that Sundance affords those who care to hold a mirror up to themselves. Of the eight films I saw this year, six were devastating yet beautiful sketches of modern life and familial dysfunction, most will never find a large audience, but to affect a few people passionately is to have accomplished more than most people will ever say. The good news is that now you can watch a seemingly infinite number of films, many of which in the past would never have had any kind of distribution before, instantly on a whim thanks to Netflix, xbox, Roku, and AppleTV and others.  The release window is now incredibly fast for challenging films like the ones that come out of Sundance, as evidenced by the fact that ten of the films on this list are already available on demand.

Every year is a great year for films if you are willing to look hard enough. It would appear that the broad unifying theme among my favorites for 2010 would be bleak, gritty, and hyper-real films that depict a realistic human condition, versus those that provide a superficial escape.  In fact, almost no film featured here is merely light hearted and fun. Even “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Cyrus,” two movies that come the closest,  deeply explore characters who are fighting the good fight for happiness.  So, if you are looking for cheery fare, this Bestest will seem more like the Worstest.  So enjoy, or at least endure, these films that put modern life into perspective.

1. Animal Kingdom – Dir. David Michôd (Guy Pearce, James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton)

There is an odd calm that hangs in the air during the first few moments of the ultra-cool Aussie film “Animal Kingdom.” In it, a teenager, Jay, sits on the couch staring blankly at a game show. Next to him sits his mother. Time passes and then the paramedics show up, try to revive her and then wheel her away. The boy picks up the phone, calls his grandmother and informs her that his mother has just OD’d and he doesn’t know what to do. You can tell he is a good kid, but he is neither scared nor sad. It is this same voice that so matter-of-factly narrates the hugely compelling, rapid unraveling of Melbourne’s scariest family.

Jay’s estranged mother’s family consists of four brothers, each scarier and more unpredictable than the next. Two rob banks, another deals drugs, and the fourth and youngest just seems to reluctantly do what he is told by the chiseled, tattooed others. But despite their indisputable thuggishness, these guys are strangely, and handsomely charming, and each of them also has a genuine goodness about them. On top of the heap sits their mother, a relentlessly upbeat lady, so genuinely in love with her boys that it is almost as if she is genuinely proud of what they actually do. But as Jay says in the beginning, “like all crooks, they are scared, they need to block out the thing they must know, which it that crooks always come undone, one way or another.” “Animal Kingdom” is a great film, and watching it is like placing a big ball of twine at the top of a steep hill and watching it race down, getter faster and smaller with each rotation, but impossible to take your eyes off of.

2. Winter’s Bone – Dir. Debra Granik (Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes)

Every year there seems to be a film cast entirely with unfamiliar faces, shot on a small budget that captures an incredibly specific slice of overlooked America. Films like “Frozen River,” “Sling Blade,” and “Lars and the Real Girl” hold a microscope up to the small communities, seemingly isolated from the rest of the country, that still have a character grounded in something other than the mass ubiquity reflected on television. “Winter’s Bone” is a film every bit as powerful, unexpected and real as anything you will see this year. It tells the story of a small Ozark town where the local economy has become increasingly dependent on meth production, populated with bleakly colorful characters all connected by hostile blood ties, and haunted by paranoia and revenge.

But the story is really the journey of a 17 year-old girl named Ree Dolly, played remarkably by Jennifer Lawrence, and her search for her missing father. The estranged Jessup Dolly, a notorious meth cooker, has gone missing and has left the family home as collateral for his bail, leaving two small children and his disabled wife hanging by a thread. The film is honest and authentic, yet moves along at just the right pace to make you feel their race against time. It never feels contrived or over dramatized. As Ree sets out, combing through her disparate family members, there is a stunning intensity and control, amidst a kind of raging chaos. There is always something thrilling about directorial breakthroughs and star-making performances that could only exist far away from the pressure associated with box office receipts and Oscar nominations. “Winter’s Bone” is not only the most natural feeling film of the year, it is the year’s most compelling.

3. A Prophet – Dir. Jacques Audiard (Tahar Rahim, Neils Arestrup)

The ambiguity of guilt, especially when the “guilty” is an orphaned, illiterate teenager born into a hostile racially divided world, serves as the jumping off point for one of the most powerful  crime films in a long time. “A Prophet” is one of those films that resists the urge to answer questions, but is satisfied to pose them through the hollow eyes of an actor who most convincingly grows into a man in front of the camera. There has neither been a prison nor gangster film as good as this since the Coppola and Scorsese classics, and certainly nothing this profound, in the past decade.

Much of the film is shot on the drab and decaying grounds of a French prison, but really this is the story of two people. The first is played by Tahar Rahim, who at 19 is thrown into prison with $50 to his name, and no friends or relatives waiting in the outside world. There he meets one of the unofficial Corsican prison leader played by the explosive Niels Arestrup who gives the new inmate a chance, after forcing him to murder a fellow Muslim inmate within days of arrival. But the story of these two men, one learning how to survive, and the other losing his long held control has such a perfect symmetry that it keeps the film from ever seeming too heavy or relentless to bear. This is a classic in a genre with incredibly high and thick bars. [Read more…]

The Bestest 2010 – Tunage

This year everything old seems particularly new again. Perhaps that is because I am now officially over forty, and I have been paying more attention to what is in the past than I ever did before.  There was a time not so long ago that bands were empowered to communicate directly with fans through a short lived (in retrospect) juggernaut called MySpace. Flash forward a few short years, and a few companies (Twitter and Facebook) have enabled bands to speak directly to fans without interference from the advertising littered, corporatized chaos that MySpace had become.  In an age where musicians rely on touring more than ever before, the portability of music on phones, tablets, Pandora, and wifi connected TVs and stereos has finally made listening to anything and everything, whenever and wherever, as easy as we thought it would be when we first started imagining a new paradigm a decade ago. For me Sonos, Spotify and my iPhone are the paraphernalia that hold my drugs of choice. This year I fell into an entirely new crop of retro soul, folk and power pop. With countless hours logged on airplanes and in airports, it’s hard to imagine what I would have done without the persistent soundtrack blown through headphones, on moving walkways and 747s. In a world without record stores, live shows fill the void, and the universal language of music is never more tangible than experienced from right in front of the stage at Fillmore, Coachella and the Greek, and this is what I listened to:

1) Local Natives – Gorilla Manor (Frenchkiss)

There are moments in life when the joy of the unexpected trumps the predictably incredible. This is rarely truer than when your first real exposure is watching a band you know very little about play live. This is how I first experienced Local Natives. I caught them early in the day at Coachella, not far from their LA home, and watched them rip through 50 of the most joyous moments of the festival. The blogosphere refers to the band as a kind of “Weekend Foxes,” but to me they are more percussive and with the anthemic intensity of a much bigger band. You can hear bits of “English Settlement” era XTC mixed with the rootsiness of Blitzen Trapper and the emotion of the Frames.

With all festival and internet buzz bands, there is a chance to outgrow the hype and really build an audience that extends beyond the tiny clubs of Austin or Indio. In an age where many bands can make a great recorded piece of work, the real skill shows in playing live and delivering contagious energy and authenticity. Local Natives are young, but their songs are big. On “Shape Shifter” think Coldplay, and perhaps My Morning Jacket on “Wide Eyes.”  I listen to them as I write this and can’t help but smile. Not bad for a bunch of kids from Silverlake, CA.

2) Stornoway – Beachcomber’s Windowsill (Rough Trade)

It took perhaps thirty seconds for me to know that “Beachcomber’s Windowsill,” the debut from Stornoway, was something rare and special. It reminded me immediately of how I felt when I first heard Belle & Sebastian well over a decade ago – a kind of pure happiness usually reserved for children, best heard on songs like “Boats and Trains” and “We Are Battery Human.”

Stornoway makes perfect pop music, theme music for a fairy tale, innocent yet cool. Musically the band mixes strings, banjo, and piano into a more traditional indie pop structure like their thematic and instrumental soul mates, The Decemberists (see ‘The Coldharbour Road’).  But ultimately Stornoway soars on the wings of infectious vocals and harmonies, part barbershop quartet part orchestral hipster. Every year there is one record that seems miles out in front of the next.  I hope this band can make as prolific a career of this as Belle and Sebastian have done. We all could use a little piece of our childhoods back, even if only for three or four minutes at a time. [Read more…]

The Bestest 2009 – Filmmage

There seemed to be fewer films that will stand the test of time this year than in the past, but that is not to say there weren’t a handful of gems. For me the most important filmic discovery was jaw dropping accessibility provided by Netflix “Watch Now.” I started the year with a Roku box, which was cheap and easy to use. Hooked on the drug, I upgraded to Netflix over Xbox Live. Not only can you watch a seemingly infinite number of films instantly and on a whim, the release window is incredibly fast for indie films. In fact five of the films on this list are already available on demand and by the time I get around to finishing this list I’m sure there will a few more.

1)   The Hurt Locker – Dir. Kathyrn Bigelow (Jeremy Renner, Ralph Fiennes)
Rarely does a movie that is so intrinsically political make such lucid points without seeming the least bit preachy or biased. Even more remarkable is that the film is set in a war that is actually still ongoing (Iraq) but is so focused, on one small specialized unit tasked with doing something most people know nothing about, the bomb diffusing unit, that it could be any modern war.

Despite high profile cameos by Ralph Fiennes and David Morse, the film belongs to Jeremy Renner, who like the bombs he is charged with diffusing, seems ready to explode at any moment. The only time he seems calm and at peace is when he is encased in his heavy futuristic protective suit carefully dismantling the sketchy homemade bombs strewn throughout the city. There is very little downtime in the film; it all seems filled with a relentless intensity. This is a small masterpiece, about a big subject, executed with a precision of a surgeon. When eventually the dust settles I’m not sure there will be a more compelling film about this war.

2)   Crazy Heart – Dir. Scott Cooper (Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall)
It’s hard not to love watching Jeff Bridges act. In part he often picks likable characters, but often he just makes them far more likable than they actually are. His role in “Crazy Heart,” as a banged up fading country singer, Bad Blake, is, without a doubt, the strongest and most compelling of his career. In it he is channeling his inner Kris Kristofferson but mashing it up with a “Barfly” era Bukowsky. For much of the film, watching him struggle to breathe through Marlboro lungs, and steady himself after a full day of drinking is almost too convincing. You nearly worry for the actor, not just the character.

As much as you hope the story will avoid a quasi-predictable storyline, you really know where things are heading. No matter.  The always exceptional Maggie Gyllenhaal, is quite wonderful as Bad’s live or die forcing function, but the show is all Bridges. He becomes this character, very much like Mickey Rourke’s “Wrestler,” even proving himself a capable singer. This is that magic small film that make you laugh and cry, grateful that someone, somewhere, picked it up off the floor and gave it a chance be seen on theater screens.

3)   500 Days of Summer –Dir. Marc Webb (Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
This film features two of my favorite young actors and a non-linear  story about love that isn’t meant to be, even though you spend the whole movie wishing that is were. Our protagonist, Tom, played by David Gordon-Levitt, somehow ended up writing greeting cards despite his original dream of being an architect, and the irony of a professional iterating on clichés, sets the tone for a romance that refuses to be lifted from the world of the predictable.

Zooey Deschanel (Summer) is the everything you want her to be: smart, clever, cute, but also brutally honest to a painful fault. But what separates this film from something hopelessly inevitable is the inventive and occasionally frustrating craft of the film. Built on a gimmick, in a good way, the film starts near the end and winds its way to the beginning, exposing shards of the pair’s 500 days “together” in an uncommonly engaging manner. I guess we’re all still wondering what love really means, and whether the hindsight we all wish had been foresight when we were young would have made life any better.

4)   An Education – Dir. Lone Scherfig (Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Alfred Molina)
There is a wonderful texture and sense of time and place about this film. The swinging pre-Beatles London captured on screen, circa 1961, from the physical locales to the music and costumes transports you not just into a physical geography but even deeper into the minds of the characters who effortlessly draw you in. Adapted crisply by Nick Hornby, the film is a kind of modern Lolita but with an older victim, 16, and a younger “predator.”

This is largely the tale of a precocious high school girl (a career launching performance by Carey Mulligan) who is seduced by an older man slickly and slimily played by the consistently great Peter Saarsgard. But unlike the hundreds of similar seeming stories that have come before, this fast moving screenplay is thick with tension and a beautiful rhythm and a startling surprise twist that adds just enough spice to make it great. All of this is even more remarkable considering that the director is a young Dane who manages to access the zeitgeist with an incredible acuity and authenticity.

5)   Gomorrah – Dir. Matteo Garrone (Salvatore Abruzzese, Vincenzo Fabricino)
Between The Sopranos and the films of Scorsese, the American mafia genre has such a high ba, that most attempts at something new will suffer badly. In part this is why the gritty, Italian take on the subject is so refreshing, despite its consistently overt bleakness. This is a documentary-feeling tale about the Camorra system that seems to control every inch of Naples- a place where there are no heroes, and no victims, only a ruined landscape and an endless cycle of acquiescence and surrender.

Among the handful of interconnected stories, each leads to the same place and seems to paint the picture of a society stuck behind the bars of something too powerful to escape. From the young kids who have the naïve arrogance to try to chart their own course to the withering elders who are just trying to hold on, this is the least sentimental film in quite a while. The film swims in violence, but none of it is remotely gratuitous. It feels real, and sad just like the people walking on glass that we know will, in the end, always shatter.

6)   Summer Hours – Olivier Assayas (Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Charles Berling)
This is a quintessential French film. It is beautiful and contemplative, artfully filmed and perfectly paced. At its core this is a film about family, specifically the three siblings who gather at their gorgeous French country estate to celebrate the birthday of their mother. Over the years she has filled the house with rare and beautiful paintings, sculpture and one of a kind furniture. For her each piece is cherished for its intrinsic beauty and even more the emotional significance it holds. To the rest of the family the collection is the passion of someone else, beautiful perhaps, but someone else’s memories.

Shortly after the matriarch dies, the film becomes more a meditation on the meaning of material things. As the siblings, who are now dispersed throughout the world, China, Paris and New York, debate what to do about the estate and the collection, the film asks us to consider what globalization has done to the concept of family and tradition. As I watched it made me think about my own collections, and specifically the massive collection of music (vinyl, cassettes, CDs) now packed away in boxes, replaced by digitized copies and stored on tiny hard drives. For me, collecting, the endless discovery, provided a journey, and the music a way to remember the moments along the way. ‘Summer Hours’ is a tranquil, subtle exploration of what is important. In the end it is about those things that enable us to bring back memories and what helps us to create the new ones.

7)   The White Ribbon – Dir. Michael Haneke (Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Tukur)
There was not a bleaker more beautiful film this year, than the Bergmanesque German art film “The White Ribbon.” Like most prior Haneke films (“Funny Games,” “Cache,” The Piano Teacher”) the film paints a crisp picture of mankind’s instinct towards cruelty and hate. But this time the perpetrators are likely the children living in a stark, isolated pre-WWI northern German town.

Although very much a European film in the sense that there are many loose ends and ambiguous resolutions as you watch the credits roll, the story moves along briskly as told by a narrator recalling  vague incidents from 50 years earlier. The epidemic of tragic events that afflict the town seems both the product of the feudalism that is still a part of the society at the time, which spills directly from the cold, Puritanism of the towns’ elders. It is rare a film is able to maintain a level of unease as consistently as “The White Ribbon.” It is not exactly the edge of your seat you are feeling, but a kind slow burning emptiness. Great films make you “feel” something, but for most people this film won’t make them feel great! 

8)   Adventureland – Dir. Greg Mottola (Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds)
In some ways this film so closely mirrors my own experience that it is hard for me to judge it objectively. It doesn’t really matter though, because like a light beer on a hot day, this one goes down so easily. The film is set during the summer of 1987 primarily at a lame Pittsburg amusement park (I spent that same summer making snow cones at a lame Cleveland amusement park for $3 an hour).  The story focuses on the always lovable Jesse Eisenberg who was supposed to have been traveling around Europe using his college graduation money, which he never got because his father lost his job, and instead mans a game booth with the same insufferable music blaring all summer long. 

 Unlike the endless films of its kind, where a geek falls for a beautiful girl who is in love with the wrong guy, this film feels more like swan song from the late John Hughes. The film’s hugely appealing cast stretches the thin plot into something nostalgic and authentic, with the pitch perfect soundtrack and the kind of nerdy naiveté from the 80’s now seen from a distance. Perhaps this isn’t a masterwork like ‘Sixteen Candles’ or ‘The Breakfast Club’ but there haven’t been many since then that capture a moment in time so carefully.

9)   Inglourious Basterds – Dir. Q Tarrantino (George Clooney, Dianne Kruger, Christoph Waltz)
With every Tarrantino effort I tend to lose track of the fact that most of his films never really find a mass audience despite the technical finesse, incredible dialogue and near perfect performances. With “Basterds” of course there is violence, but this time around the focus seems to be more about the thick air of tension that surrounds individual scenes versus the blood and gore of previous efforts. At the most basic level, this is a WWII movie, where a gang of rogue Americans, “the basterds” is unleashed on the evil Nazi’s. This filmis about revenge, but it succeeds in part because the Nazis,  represented by the Oscar worthy Christoph Waltz, are even more evil than you might have thought, and the rampage that the Basterds undertake occas don’t  seem cruel enough.

The film is told in chapters, and with the exception of two which seem flatter and slower than the rest, each scene can almost be appreciated in isolation as a complete work. Tarrantino is a master, but this time around it almost feels like he wields a collective hatchet for all the victims of the Nazi’s terror. Never has rooting for vengeance felt so right. I’m not sure why it increasingly seems that “Pulp Fiction” will go down as Tarrantino’s opus, despite a handful of better, deeper films since then. This one and Jackie Brown and ‘Kill Bill 2 are classics, made by the Kubrick of the modern age.

10)    Sin Nombre – Cary Joji Fukunaga (Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores)
In the wake of the great Mexican cinema of the past decade (Amores Perros, Et Tu Mama Tambien) comes the grittiest, most riveting journey for freedom in a long while. Produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna and directed by an American first-timer, Cary Fukunaga, ‘Sin Nombre’ tells the story of a family of Honduran immigrants who jump on a rusty train and travel north through Mexico en route to America with hundreds of others, camped out on the roof, grasping onto the same dream.

More than any other the film this year, it is both a love story that you know will end badly, and an exploration of the brutal Central American gangs that cover the country by way of a network of cell phones and spotters. This is a different kind of road movie, but a road movie nonetheless, where the voyage is less about self-exploration than it is about survival. To consider a film like this is to remember that in a country not all that far away, chaos, violence, and poverty are a way of life, not just occasional headlines. This might be best debut film of the year.

11)   The Cove – Dir. Louie Psihoyos / Food, Inc. – Dir. Robert Kenner
Two of the scariest movies of the years had nothing to do with alien prawns or paranormal activity but were obviously one-sided explorations of how we humans treat animals (or mammals). The first was “Food, Inc.” a kind of documentary version of Eric Schlosser’s book “Fast Food Nation.” In it we are exposed to the “real life” practices of the poultry, beef and pork business.’ Beyond the obvious hard to watch clips of slaughterhouses and overcrowded chicken farms the film spends as much time analyzing the global business of food, controlled by a handful of massive multinationals. The business of food is almost harder to watch than the frightening story of getting food from a farm to table. It is not just eating animals that will forever seem a dangerous voyage after watching this, food as innocent and healthy seeming as soy has, if you believe the filmmakers, an ugly back story as well. Best watched without snacks.

The second film cut from the same cloth is the eco-thriller doc. “The Cove.” This documentary is a much more creative piece of filmmaking, with a story that seems somehow even more gripping. The film follows the man largely credited with inadvertently starting the multi-billion dollars dolphin park business, after bringing Flipper to living rooms. The story ultimately follows a crew of explorers to a small town in Japan where 23,000 dolphins a year are slaughtered for food in a heavily guarded hidden cove. There is more to the story than this, including how the team captured the grizzly footage of one day’s slaughter. You can’t help but feel an incredible sadness.  a guilty shame, watching this film, much of it because it appears that dolphins have a considerably higher intellect than the pigs, cows and chickens who appear in “Food,Inc.” Either way, I suppose the idea of natural selection, no matter how brutal, is much better exposed in these films than it is on the Discovery channel. Again, this film is best watched on an empty stomach.

12)   Goodbye, Solo – Dir. Ramin Bahran (Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West)
No one saw this film. This is a sad fact, but not a surprise. It’s a story about two ordinary people who meet under imperfect circumstances and have the kind of short of intense human interaction that delves much deeper than most longer, seemingly more intimate relationships. The story is a simple one in which a crusty old man, played with a quiet power by Red West, steps into a cab in a southern town and effectively commissions a ride in 30 days to his own self-inflected funeral from the infectiously optimistic cabbie, Souleymane Sy Savane.

Over the course of the days that follow the two begin to build something resembling a friendship different than anything either could have ever anticipated. But this isn’t a Hollywood film, and the story that plays out is real. It is neither happy nor sad. The two characters are moving through time- one with an eye on the future, the other reflecting on the past. There something sublimely calming about “Goodbye, Solo” which reminds you that time never stops.

13)   Up In The Air – Dir. Jason Reitman (George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman)
Yes, this film is easy to watch. It is slick, clever, and just deep enough to make you feel okay about loving it. Jason Reitman is now 3 for 3 (Thank You for Smoking and Juno) and has such a light touch, adding just the right amount of emotional spectrum, cool music, and perfect casting to insulate his films from any real criticism.

The thing I appreciated most about Up In the Air is the nuanced attention given to getting into the mindset of serious traveling. As someone who flies often, the subtle, unconscious, ultra-efficient decisions at security checks, airport lounges and hotels seem as perfect as the often irrational brand loyalties. Sure there are flaws, but in the end they are hardly worth acknowledging. This film is an obvious joy, and you don’t need me to tell you that.

14)   Avatar – Dir. James Cameron (Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver)
There is not much I can offer about this movie that hasn’t already been said. It is a mesmerizing, magical thing of beauty to watch. It is technically and artistically paradigm shifting in the way that “Star Wars” was while also sharing a kind zeitgeisty philosophical, neo-religious world view. Sure the story is really nothing new, albeit updated with a topical eco-friendly theme, complete with a predictable love story and obvious good versus evil polarity, but the film is more a visual feast than a  character study. I could go on, but why. This film is a masterpiece that, more than any film in years, needs to be seen on a massive screen, in 3D, and with a large bucket of popcorn.

15)   The Messenger – Oren Moverman (Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton)

16)   Sugar – Dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Algenis Pérez Soto, Rayniel Rufino)

17)   A Serious Man – Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed)

18)   The Maid – Dir. Sebastian Silva (Catalina Saavedra, Alejandro Goic)

19)   The Informant – Dir. Stephen Soderburgh (Matt Damon, Scott Bakula)

20)   A Single Man – Dir. Tom Ford (Colin Firth, Julianne Moore)