The Bestest 2016: Filmmage

Mercury Rev

Mercury Rev, scoring Vampyr

Great TV is inflicting pain on the movie business. Not just because the most creative writers and directors are expanding their ambitions to the small screen, but also because many of the theaters where you see high-brow films have disappeared. But the Golden Age of TV has also made it possible to see these small films from the comfort of your couch, not long after their theatrical release or occasionally at the same time. This list is filled with a bunch of heavy seeming stories, fitting given the events of the past year, but in this relative gloom, there is so much beauty. Art always helps bury sorrow, even if the art is sorrowful.

1.  La La Land– Dir. Damien Chazelle (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling)

So soon after “Whiplash,” it’s hard to imagine a director making a film as ambitious, creative, and seemingly unmakable as “La La Land” – unless you’ve been dreaming about it for years and years. Although, I am fanatical about music, I am not usually a fan of musicals, but somehow this film both transcends the genre, and but also exists squarely within it.

For it’s portrayal of ambition, celebrity, self-doubt, human magic, and of course the city that is it’s muse, “La La Land” is truly a modern masterpiece. It’s impossible to imagine this film starring anyone but Gosling and Stone, but we don’t need to. Both actors were already two of the best of their generation, but now there is no doubt. This is the kind of film that reassures me that people will always go to the theater. It is also the kind of film that reinforces my hope that greatness will always find a way to be seen and heard. Art is often magical, and the best magic is almost found in great art.

 2. O.J.: Made in America – Dir. Ezra Edelman (OJ Simpson)

Like “La La Land” this sprawling documentary about a figure you thought you knew everything about, is telling a very similar story. It is a story about Los Angeles in all its surrealism. It’s where dreams are made and destroyed; a factory town, where people are the product, and even when you do succeed, you live precariously close to failure all of the time. And often when the world gives you more than you could ever imagine, you lose perspective.

Director Ezra Edelman is beautifully even handed and revealing of one of the most accomplished and complicated people to ever live their life so publically. From genuine American hero, to the tortured product of a country still trying to resolve why we struggle so hard with race in America. This is a towering film not just about a person, but about the world we clearly still live in today. It is such a painfully timely film, that it is hard to imagine how it shouldn’t be required viewing for everybody who is trying to make a difference and understand the times, but is blinded by the obvious realities that make peace seem so far away.

3. Captain Fantastic – Matt Ross (Viggo Mortensen, Kathryn Hahn, Frank Langella)

Most parents either think they are raising their children the right way, or at least think they are doing the best with what they have. “Captain Fantastic” takes you way off the grid where the home-schooled children, living in the woods of Oregon, are the brilliantly flawed disciples of a mercilessly well-intended father. Viggo Mortensen gives a career defining performance as the dominant patriarch who manages to seemingly create a kind of unsustainable nirvana where children can grow and learn without the potent venom of the outside world.

But as we know, the world is all connected now and there really isn’t any such thing as truly off the grid. We learn this as the family boards the family bus to attend the funeral of their mother. Each performance is exquisite, the writing is exceptional and the cinematography is incredible considering the low budget. This is a film that makes you think about everything you always thought was black and white about being a parent … and a child.

4. Manchester By The Sea – Dir. Kenneth Lonergan (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams)

Medical research has proven that sad art (movies, music, paintings) actually make us happy. It forces us to reflect on the things in our lives that seem better by comparison and appreciate the relationships that we have even more. “Manchester” is an exquisitely devastating film, about love and loss and redemption. It’s about family, and friendships and the never-ending struggle to keep moving through all pain that accumulates along the way.

Director Kenneth Lonergan, long a favorite playwright and screenwriter of mine, has assembled the perfect cast, in perfect climate (a brutally bleak Boston winter) to weave back and forth through time towards some shattering truths. Casey Affleck will finally get credit as an even more serious actor than his brother, and will draw us into the kind of suffering we all hope to ward off in life. This is one of the hardest and most naturalistic films in quite a while.

5. Sing Street – Dir. John Carney (Aiden Gillen, Ben Carolan)

 The second great musical of the year is also one of the most entertaining. I don’t remember seeing a film as nostalgically human since John Hughes was in his prime. The director John Carney (who made the hugely underrated “Once”) has tapped right into the main vein of 80’s, through the eyes of a new wave music obsessed teenager set on starting a band and winning the girl. The mostly fresh-faced cast allows you to just lose yourself in each odd character without any baggage or preconception, and the music, played by the fictional band, and that which inspired it (Duran Duran, The Jam, The Cure) is so effortlessly woven into the film that it becomes a character unto itself.

The plot is simple enough, but the execution is perfect in the quiet way that the best films of this kind are. In what is basically a coming-of-age tale, Carney weaves gold by capturing the creative process at work, as a bunch of kids learn how to write and perform music together. There is nothing new here, but that’s what makes this film so special and how it reminds you to never give up on your dreams, to always be yourself, and to never stop reinventing your life.

6. American Honey – Andrea Arnold (Shia LaBeouf, Sasha Lane)

This beautifully disturbing, sprawling epic of a film inhabits a strange and unsettling world that exists somewhere between the gritty voyeurism of “Kids” and the precious naturalistic beauty of a Terrence Malik film (Days of Heaven, Tree of Life). It’s a largely plotless road movie about runaways traveling through the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions, partying and living a strange lawless existence, and rejecting the demands of the real world.

This ragtag band of misfits is led by Shia LeBeouf who astounds as a renaissance charlatan. He discovers the young Sasha Lane at a WalMart and recruits her to drop everything and join the party. The kids here are too young to be living the life they are living, and although the director Andrea Arnold lets the movie run for 163 minutes, there is very little I can imagine cutting. From the beautiful close ups of bugs and landscapes, to the excessive and awkward moments of sex and impropriety, the film rolls like a waking dream. This is not a film for everyone, but it is important, urgent and unafraid.

7. 20th Century Women – Dir. Mike Mills (Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig)

Films about mothers and sons are a far rarer breed than those about fathers and sons. But in this exquisitely quirky film set in the late 70’s Santa Barbara, Annette Bening plays a happily lonely chain smoking oddball, who is much cooler than her son (a great Lucas Jade Zumann) gives her credit for. He stumbles clumsily into adulthood, surrounded by the communal joy of the patchwork family of colorful boarders that inhabit the slow burning remodel of the house where they live.

The film is saturated with the music, styles and ethos of the era. A looser time, long before the Internet where time was spent talking directly to each other, and wandering around the exploring the world. Billy Crudup’s hippie Mr. Fixit is a perfect faux father figure, while the lovable Greta Gerwig stands in as the adopted older sister. There is a rustically realistic charm that saturates every scene, while Annette Bening delivers the performance of her career, in a career filled with great performances. This film leaves you longing for a time long gone, but actually not that long ago.

8. Hell or High Water – Dir. Taylor Sheridan (Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges)

This is perhaps the finest “modern western” I have ever seen. In it the anti-villains, two brothers played by the always explosive Ben Foster and the calmer but more urgent Chris Pine, are contemporary Robinhood’s, stealing money from the bank that snake-charmed their ranch away from their dying mother. Sadly it doesn’t get more realistic, as the great urban migration of the past fifty years has left a sea of crumbling towns being eaten by predatory lenders.

Although most of the action focuses on a series of lo-fi bank robberies throughout these barren shabby towns of West Texas, everything moves at an effortlessly slow but thrilling pace. Even the Sheriff, a wonderful Jeff Bridges, takes his time tracking the thieves casually napping on benches and sipping cold beer while he waits for them to stumble into his lair. But mostly the film just kind of burns like a mile long fuse, crackling and hissing through the dusty landscapes of Texas. A masterpiece of patience and nuance, proving again that the American West is still alive and kicking, albeit a shell of its former self.

9. Birth of a Nation – Dir. Nate Parker (Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King)

If not for the personal controversy surrounding the director, this heart-wrenching, often painfully violent story about the life of Nat Turner would be a shoe in for awards consideration. Like all films about slavery, I watched this awestruck by how this very real history is still only 150 years old. It does as good a job as any illuminating the complexity that existed between slaves and their owners (the good and the bad).

Parker’s debut direction and starring performance is easily one of the most accomplished I saw all year. Alas, the media made this film the most talked about and highest priced film ever purchased at Sundance, and then buried before it had the chance to succeed. Like “12 Years A Slave” this is an important film, as relevant today as it would have been at any point in history. Ignore the backstory and see the film.

10. Moonlight – Dir. Barry Jenkins (Alex Hibbert, Aston Saunders, Janelle Monae)

“Moonlight” is a heavy film that doesn’t so much as feel light, but just kind of meanders weightlessly through the heat and sweat of Miami. It is the story of one man, but told in two parts by incredible younger and older versions of himself. It is also the coming of age film about a gay black child growing up in the projects to a drug addicted mother. There would be no reason for someone not from this place to have spent time considering this story, but it is a revelation to have the time to spend with it.

Adapted from a play, director Barry Jenkins, has crafted a story for the big screen that is so nuanced, and he has discovered actors that are so compelling, that each scene just slowly gets under your skin and demands empathy and consideration. Filled with some vaguely familiar faces, and few others you we will no doubt see again, this film is not so much another meditation on race, but on sexuality and circumstance, and finding a place in a world that is still shamefully rigid.

11. Indignation – James Shamus (Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon)

I loved this film for the same reason I love “The Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace.” It takes place in an era before I was born, but not so far away that I can’t understand it. Adapted from a short novel by Philip Roth, the story takes place at a tony liberal arts school in Ohio where a blue collar Jewish kid from New Jersey comes to change the course of his young life. The legendary producer James Shamus directs his debut film weaving pure magic into this elegant looking story of pride, tradition and fragile egos.

Tracey Letts couldn’t be better as the rigid headmaster of the school who spars with this stubborn Freshman, an incredible Logan Lerman, who refuses to attend the required twice weekly Chapel gatherings, pleading atheism. As he struggles to fit in, and to follow the rules, he falls for a fragile and once suicidal beauty who takes us to another place entirely. We fall so naturally into this vastly more innocent time, but bask in the realization that simplicity and innocence is always relative, and growing up is always painful, no matter when we live it.

12. The Intervention – Clea DuVall (Melanie Lynsky, Jason Ritter, Natasha Lyonne)

The funniest film I saw this year barely reached the theater, but kept me laughing out loud not just at the endless sea of pitch perfect banter, but because each character manages to nail each of the stereotypes it sets out to illustrate. Four couples steal away to a beautiful family home in South Carolina to perform a “marital intervention” on their seemingly insufferably unhappily married friends.

The irony, which drives the consistent hilarity, is that each of the couples could use an intervention of their own. Nobody realizes that ‘the invention’ could just as easily be on themselves. They drink, fight, flirt and imagine everyone else is somehow worse off than each other. Clea DuVall is confidently sure-handed in her debut film which feels like a modern day “Big Chill” complete with one of the most appealing and competent young casts of the year.

13. Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford (Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal) 

This film is all about mood. In it, director Tom Ford tells three stories: one of the from the past, one set in the present and the other abstracted from a harrowing novel written by one of the protagonists and taking place somewhere in between. Ford’s time as a fashion designer is core to the way he makes films. This one is dark and as impeccably detailed as it is emotionally complex.

Amy Adams plays both the young idealistic dreamer who marries an artsy, rustic aspiring writer played by Jake Gyllenhaal. But she thrives more as the older version of herself, having moved past her young lover only to become a richer but not happier, art dealer disgusted with the superficially of her life and the art she deals. When she receives a copy of a novel written by Gyllenhaal, the past, present and future converge into one of the most suspenseful films of the year.

14. Hunt For The Wilderpeople - Dir. Taika Waititi (Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rachel House)

Great films that my still young kids also love get an extra bump when I look back. I’m also a sucker for all things quirky and Kiwi, so this tale about a misfit kid, and his kooky adopted uncle who end up on the lamb crisscrossing the New Zealand bush for a series of crimes they didn’t really commit was destined to win.

After being bounced around from foster home to foster home, Ricky (played by the wonderful Julian Dennison) winds up with Aunt Bella and a grizzled Sam Neill as Uncle Hec. After Bella dies, and child services threaten to put Ricky back in foster care, he runs away from home and an over the top national manhunt takes place. You haven’t seen two less threatening outlaws than these two, but the journey is an outrageous mixture of comedy and bizarrely exciting action. Hard not to love.

15. Green Room – Dir. Jeremy Saulier (Anton Yelcin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart)

There is almost nothing more punk rock than a great indie horror film, especially when that film is about a punk rock band trapped in the green room of a neo-Nazi bar in the Pacific Northwest. As seemingly outrageous as the plot might be, everything about the way the film unfolds is as plausible as it is perfectly executed. A hardcore band Ain’t Right is trying to scrounge up enough cash to pay for gas to get them back to the relative calm of the East Coast.

After playing a predictably hostile show for a room of angry skinheads, the band witnesses a murder and is forced to fight their way to safety against a well armed group of thugs led by the wonderfully acted character leader played by Patrick Stewart. There is blood and violence and a kind claustrophobic creepiness that drives this slim 94 minute tour de force. No zombies, no aliens, no hockey-masked psychopaths, only the angry drug dealing white supremacists … that we know exist on the fringes of todays hinterlands.

A few more …

16. The Witch – Dir. Robert Eggers (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie) This is easily the creepiest 17th century horror film I have ever seen, reminding you how incredibly uncertain and utterly helpless the earliest settlers must have felt out there in the woods.

17. Eye in the Sky – Dir. Gavin Hood (Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul) There was almost no film that had me thinking about the moral complexity of terrorism and the awesome and frightening power of drone warfare more than this film.

18. Arrival – Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner) This visually stunning, thrillingly crafted sci-fi voyage, explores the possibility of life beyond earth through the more human lens of basic communication. Director Villeneuve is quietly following in the footsteps of Kubrick, focusing on every detail and reframing all of the hard questions about what it means to be alive.

19. Everybody Wants Some – Richard Linklater (Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman) Although Linklater doesn’t quite hit that same perfect note he did in “Dazed and Confused,” this whimsical “spiritual sequel” is an easy going romp through the wonderful feeling of that first weekend back at college. I wish I could do it just one more time.

20. Bleed For This – Dir. Ben Younger (Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart) Miles Teller is well on his way to becoming one of the finest actors working today. In this gritty real life story about the boxer Vinny Pazienza, he has elevated the genre, and done justice to one of the most incredible comeback stories in the history of sports.

21. Paterson – Dir. Jim Jarmusch (Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani) In some ways this is one of Jarmusch’s most accessible films, on the other hand, this somber story about a bus driver poet, is exactly the kind of film he has been making his whole career. Brilliant.

22. Hacksaw Ridge – Mel Gibson (Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington) Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but he is still an incredible storyteller and filmmaker, and has made one of the most astonishing war protest films ever made, and given Andrew Garfield yet another career making role.

23. High Rise – Dir. Ben Wheatley (Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller) There wasn’t a slicker, starker or more beautifully stylized dystopian film this year than “High Rise.” Like the bastard child of “A Clockwork Orange” and “ The Road”, there is a beauty and horror in the bleakness of modern life.

 24. The Free World – Dir. Jason Lew (Octavia Spencer, Elizabeth Moss, Boyd Holbrook) This was one of my favorite films at Sundance last year. Holbrook and Moss are two of the most beautifully damaged souls, who together try to escape the injustice of their brutal circumstances.

25. Hidden Figures – Dir. Theodore Melfi (Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Taraji Henson) I don’t know anyone that knew this story before seeing this film- and I live in the Bay Area where scientists are rock stars. An incredible story about three black women working for NASA 50 years ago.

 

 

 

The Bestest 2015: Filmmage

IMG_0319Although in many respects great TV is crippling independent film (https://pando.com/2015/10/02/has-tv-stolen-independent-film/), it is hard for me to remember a better year for films of all shapes and sizes. Sure, I saw many of them on the small screen, but the breadth and quality of this year’s films was remarkable. Many of my favorites were documentaries, more than I can remember in the past, which also happen to be well suited for television viewing. Any way you slice it, actors still love feature films, despite the fact that serialized television is actually reaching a larger audience in many cases, pays better, creates realistic consistency of work, and now comes without a negative stigma. More than anything though, I urge you to continue to see films in the theater where you can check your phone at the door, lose yourself in the story, and have a real life shared experience with other human beings. It’s worth it.

  1. Ex Machina – Dir. Alex Garland (Oscar Issac, Domhall Gleeson)

Although “Ex Machina” is clearly a sci-fi film, it is more appropriately a psychological meditation on the moral and ethical implications of a world teetering on the brink of a very practical and ubiquitous artificial intelligence. Set in a gorgeous isolated compound in Alaska (but actually filmed in Norway) the reclusive and brilliant CEO of a Google-like technology (Oscar Issac) has created a beautiful “robot” (Alicia Vikander) to test whether or not an AI being can experience or at least simulate real emotions.

For this experiment the wonderful Domhnall Gleeson, a programming genius, is recruited to spend a month with this creature to evaluate how successful Issac was at playing God. This is the kind of film a young Stanley Kubrick would have made, but with all the advantages of modern technology. There is a kind of deep, slow burning urgency that pulses through every frame, but in the end director Alex Garland’s accomplished debut is as slick and cerebral as almost anything you are likely to see for a long while.

  1. Dope – Dir. Rick Famuyiwa (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons)

If Spike Lee were just starting out today, living in LA, and passionate but not yet truly angry, he might have made a film like “Dope.” This is a modern high school comedy focused on three social outcasts who manage to get into the kind of trouble that might seem like an updated version of “Risky Business.”

The film bounces around themes that include the main character’s love of classic 90’s Hip-Hop and setting up of a Silk Road – like website to sell drugs for Bitcoin.  I didn’t see anything as fast moving, topical and just down right funny as “Dope” this year. In an age where young people are increasingly less interested in films, and preoccupied with shorter content, “Dope” reaffirms my hope that the kids will come back around and start watching movies that aren’t sequels again.

  1. The Revenant– Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Leanardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy)

There is almost no director working today that would have dared make a film as bleak, brutal and beautiful as Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” Shot in the pristine expanses of Canada and Argentina in the devastatingly harsh winter months, the story is set nearly 200 years ago in an age of almost unimaginable hardship. DiCaprio, in a wonderful and virtually wordless role, plays a frontier guide named Hugh Glass who is hired to guide a crew of trappers through the a nearly impenetrable wilderness inhabited by Native Americans and bears.

In one of the most violent and realistic scenes ever captured on film, Glass is mauled and battered by a bear and left for dead in the ominous wilderness. Although the film is mostly about his epic struggle to survive, it also seriously explores themes revolving around revenge, loyalty and the shameful mistreatment of the Native tribes who were lived on the land before we did. With cinematography as starkly gorgeous as anything this year, and a kind of relentless violence that is both impossible to turn away from but devastatingly realistic, this has to be seen, and on a big screen.

  1. Room – Dir. Lenny Abrahamson (Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay)

The premise of this film, a mother and child held in a shed for 7 years by a sexual predator, is so sadly realistic and disturbingly commonplace, that it is almost impossible to imagine it being a remarkably hopeful and optimistic film. While the story could have been mired in a shallow kind of “love conquers all” message, it exists in a much more fluid and almost surreally believable space.

But Brie Larson, who is mesmerizing, as the doggedly optimistic mother of young Jack, has created a wonderful world that deflects the reality that exists outside of their tiny shack, and almost extends beyond it. Young Jacob Tremblay has also turned in what will likely go down as one of the best performances by a child his age in long time. This film is pure gold.

  1. Love & Mercy – Dir. Bill Pohlad (Paul Dano, John Cusack)

Film biopics about musicians are rarely as good as their promise. Either their characters are already too rich and well known publically to be played effectively by someone else, or their stories lack any kind of truth worth unpacking. But both the Brian Wilson who really was the genius behind the Beach Boys, and the mid-life Wilson who disappeared from public view in the 80’s, are actually elusive curiosities whose stories have never been very well explored given the impact of his creativity.

“Love & Mercy” is  a masterpiece in both casting and acting. Paul Dano’s “Pet Sounds” era Wilson is a perfectly cherubic doppelganger for the real life Wilson, whose idiosyncrasies and mannerisms seem lifted straight out of the limited archival footage from that period. Mid-life, mid-meltdown Wilson played by John Cusask is also a perfectly realized version of the Wilson who disappeared along the way. This film is both inextricably sad and masterfully redemptive, but the ride is so well crafted you are bound to lose yourself along the way, saved in many ways by that exquisite music.

  1. Me Earl and the Dying Girl –Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke)

 I loved every minute of this film. Despite a plot line that reads like a cliché wrapped in an after school special, there is something irresistibly nuanced and fresh about this story about two outcast buddies Greg (Thomas Mann) and Ronald Cyler (Earl), and their friendship with a dying girl. It is relentlessly funny, cynically clever , and feels at times like a Wes Anderson film with its attention to tiny details and thin layer of surrealism.

Greg and Earl have been making low budget re-interpretations of classic movies like “A Sockwork Orange” since childhood, all the while managing to slip almost unnoticed in the sea of high school cliques , living in a kind of perpetual invisibility. But it is Olivia Cooke’s ” dying girl” who grounds the film with a kind of emotional honesty and realism that elevates it into something truly remarkable.

  1. Spotlight– Dir. Tom McCarthy (Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton)

This is a film that reminds you how great movies can be. It features one of the biggest and best ensemble casts in a very long time. It is topical and modern, but feels more like the kind of handcrafted film a director like Sidney Lumet would have made decades ago. It emanates from a newsroom, but one that sits on the precipice of reinvention, increasingly dominated by the internet- link-bait, and superficial reporting and a race against time to make what’s physical  , digital.

The crimes buried by and within the Catholic Church have dominated the headlines for years now, but untangling the threads, politics and bureaucracy has forced a kind of global complacency. Director Thomas McCarthy whose prior films include the nearly perfect “The Visitor” and “The Station Agent,” has such a careful eye and sets such an even but urgent pace, that you get to savor each of many varied wonderful performances. This film is an absolute joy.

  1. What Happened, Miss Simone – Dir. Liz Garbus (Nina Simone)

It’s hard to know how much of my love for this film is biased by my long time love for the music of Nina Simone. She always transcended race, gender and genre with her otherworldly voice but her career and legacy eventually became tangled up with erratic perhaps bi-polar and self-initiated exile to Liberia and her outspoken defense of civil rights. But this film manages, through a comprehensive montage of photos, interviews and most importantly captivating live performances, to paint a portrait of a complicated and brilliant musician and activist.

Unlike many of the best rock documentaries of the past few years (Amy, Montage of Heck, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me) “What Happened” isn’t the story of an artist overwhelmed by early success, then succumbing to an early death. It is instead one where we watch the pressures of an artist and socio-political celebrity more slowly shape the course of her life. Whether you knew her as a musician or as a political agitator, this is a profoundly poignant tribute to the magic of her genius and depth of her passion.

  1. Amy – Dir. Asif Kapadia (Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mark Ronson)

Even if you didn’t know all of the music of Amy Winehouse, most people probably knew enough to recognize that she was driving on that familiar road to nowhere, the same road that has taken so many rock stars before her right around the same age (Hendrix, Cobain, Joplin, Buckley). What most people didn’t know is that she really was one of the most talented singers to have emerged in a very long time. She was an old soul in a young body, who seemed to understand jazz the way Tony Bennett understood jazz.

But unlike many of her peers whom we lost too early, “Amy” seems to make the point that although the velocity and pressure of today ‘ s hype can be overwhelming and incapacitating, it didn’t have to end this way. Her boyfriend, father and others merely fed the fire, instead of helping to put it out. Music is a business. Amy Winehouse was a business. Perhaps if she w ere merely a singer she’d still be making music today.

      10.  The Big Short– Dir. Adam McKay (Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt)

If you read Michael Lewis’ fantastic book, it would have been unimaginable to consider this book becoming a mainstream dramedy. Against all odds, this fantastic film, aided by an impeccable cast, manages to tell one of the most complicated financial conspiracies in modern capitalism in a totally accessible way. Whether it be CDO’s, the rigged co-dependence of the banks, ratings agencies, mortgage sellers, and other ancillary players, this is a rich multi-layered ponzi scheme whose intricacies could have easily overwhelmed the story, but didn’t.

What makes each of the five main characters, our anti-heroes, so intriguing is that each of them individually is so quirky and occasionally offensive, but under McKay’s deft direction they are all almost lovable underdogs. Carrell, Bale, Gosling, and Pitt are perfect caricatures of themselves. The film plays almost like a series of perfectly realized skits that ultimately hang together as one of the most complete films of the year.

      11.  Mississippi Grind– Dir. Anna Boden / Ryan Fleck (Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds)

I love movies about gambling. I love road movies. As such, this road movie about gambling had an easy path to my heart. The great Ben Mendelsohn, and a surprisingly compelling Ryan Reynolds, play two outsiders who meet at a poker table in the drab gloom of an Iowa winter. From these very first scenes and the subsequent voyage down the Mississippi to New Orleans, the film has a kind of worn and ragged texture that is captured both in the landscape and the weariness of the actors.

As the two travel down south in search of a mythical big poker game, they reveal their tortured disappointed selves to one another while inflecting the kind of inevitable self-destructive abuse that seems to plague those trapped in a classic gamblers dilemma. Even the best of these films always seem to have a kind of inevitability about them. “Mississippi Grind” is filled with surprises right up until the final shots.

     12.  Mad Max: Fury Road – Dir. George Miller (Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron)

“Mad Max” is one of two sequels in 2015 that not only do justice to the originals but in many respects far surpass them. It is also another reason why there will always be movie theaters. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic reboot was easily the most consistently entertaining and enjoyable two hours of filmmaking this year, and when seen on a big screen with massive images and explosive sounds assaulting your eyes and ears , it makes you remember how great the “movies”  are and how not great the “TVs”  are.

From the sumptuous barren landscapes to the bleakly optimistic plight of the survivors, led by the stoic but determined Tom Hardy and the furiously committed Charlize Theron, to the battle worn War Rig that they steer off course in a non-stop race for survival, this voyage is a marvel. As they are pursued through hell on earth by a colorful rag tag band of outlaws in Burning Man-like vehicles, we are forced to think about the world we are living in today, perhaps not so far away from this not so distant future.

     13.  99 Homes – Dir. Ramin Bahrani (Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern)

Michael Shannon always seems to be boiling under the surface, about to explode, leveling anything in his wake. In “99 Homes” his predatory foreclosure agent character seems to be that perfect combination of anger mixed with occasional humanity. He is matched by a wonderful Andrew Garfield, who plays both the victim and eventually the victimizer, in what has become the reality of this latest American saga.

Apparently enough time has passed that it is now safe to reflect on what happened and why.  As such, this year’s two films focused on the collateral damage inflicted by the sub-prime crisis (“The Big Short” being the other). This film is surprisingly and relentlessly intense, playing almost like an action film minus the explosions and CGI. Director Bahrani has crafted a minor masterpiece, a thick chapter in the history of American capitalism and the psychological ambiguity of the modern age.

     14.  Creed– Dir. Ryan Coogler (Michael B. Jordan, Sylvestor Stallone, Tessa Thompson)

It is easy to forget how great those early Rocky films were. Not that many movies can get you both choked up and pumped at the same time, but Sly made it work. “Creed” the hugely entertaining second film by “Fruitvale Station” maestro Ryan Coogler, is cut perfectly from that old Rocky cloth, but newly polished to feel modern without seeming “slick.”

Michael B. Jordan continues to establish himself as one of the most versatile and likable actors out there. This time he plays the orphaned son of the great Apollo Creed, determined to make it on his own. Sure the story pulls hard at the corners of predictability, but manages to stay far enough away from the edges. In the end, this is the kind of film that demands to be seen on a big screen, in a packed house, where you can feel the energy and joy bouncing around the room.

     15.  The Wolfpack  –Dir. Crystal Moselle (The Angulo Family)

Imagine being locked in a small Lower East Side Manhattan housing project with your six siblings and two crazy parents for the first 15 years of your life. Some years you never get outside at all, other years you were allowed out once a month. The one thing you did have was movies. And so you began to devour them – – they were your outside world. You started acting them out with your siblings and strangely you managed to keep yourself sane.

Well, this is the real life story of the Angulo family. Thanks to loads of home footage captured over the years, and interviews with the most of the Angulo clan, we can be a voyeur into one of the most bizarre social experiments that I have ever seen. There are more than a few questions that are never really satisfactorily answered, but you can’t help getting drawn into this tangled web, and rooting for this weird Wolfpack to get a chance to live in the real world.

A few more that are very worthy …

     16.  Meru– Dir. Jimmy Chin (Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk) This amazing documentary tells the story of three talented and committed climbers who embark on climbing a Himalayan peak that has never been summited before. Beyond the harrowing ascent, the footage is filmed by the climbers themselves and has a handful of amazing backstories too incredible to believe.

     17.  Youth– Dir. Paolo Sorrentino (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel)“Youth” is that rare beauty of a film that not only reminds us how lucky we are to still have two of our greatest living actors still making great films, but also that growing old can be beautiful and filled with the smallest and loveliest details that we tend to take for granted while we are young.

     18.  Anomalisa– Dir. Charlie Kaufman(David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh) Only Charlie could imagine a world as detached but honest as this one. Somehow the wizardry of this truly groundbreaking animation makes the story seem even more real than it would if it was merely the real actors. Astounding.

     19.  71’– Dir. Yann Demange(Jack O’Connell, Charlie Murphy) This might be the best film that virtually no one saw last year. It tells the story of a soldier inadvertently abandoned in a sharply divided Belfast war zone in 1971. As he tries to get back to safety, I couldn’t help remembering how I felt watching “The Warriors” as a kid.

     20.  Sicario– Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin) Director Villeneuve is a bare-knuckled realist who is not afraid to make an unsqueamishly  gritty, film about the war on drug cartels and the impossibly gray area that exists in our ongoing fight. Like his last film “Prisoners,” this one will have you wondering where we draw the line, and how to judge the people caught in the crossfire.

     21.  The Martian – Dir. Ridley Scott (Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain)A few years back David Bowie’s son made an excellent film called “Moon.” It was eerie and isolating in the same way that Matt Damon’s kinetic energy and higher tech environs is in “The Martian.” But like “Gravity” this story about people stranded in space, alive and in contact but impossible to bring home, will no doubt become more and more realistic.

     22.  Carol – Dir. Todd Haynes (Cate Blanchette, Mara Rooney) Todd Haynes has always made patient and slow burning old-fashioned films focused on complicated characters trapped in confining times and places. “Carol” is a visual feast, and Rooney and Blanchette are spellbinding.

23.  Joy – Dir. David O. Russell (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro) Under the direction of anyone except David O. Russell and starring anyone other than Lawrence, this story could have easily been mired in feel good clichés and a hugely predictable outcome. Instead it is a true joy!

     24.  The Diary of  Teenage Girl– Dir. Marielle Heller (Bel Powley, Kristin Wiig, Alex Skarsgard)There is almost nothing more compelling than a coming of age tale set in San Francisco in 1976, a much different city in a much different time, but in the end teenagers haven’t changed much. Every year I get a little bit older and they stay the same age.

     25.  Brooklyn – Dir. John Crowley (Jim Broadbent, Saoirse Ronan) Like a kind of wonderfully innocent guilty pleasure that harkens back to an America that barely resembles the one we live in today. More than anything it makes you consider how we became so much less welcoming to the plight of immigrants, than we were not so long ago.

     26.  The End of the Tour – Dir. James Ponsoldt(Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel) David Foster Wallace was that rare genius who wrote impenetrable books of honest but hard to grasp fiction, but despite his rock star status, was never able to find peace. This film deftly explores the man behind the myth.

     27.  Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Dir. Brett Morgen(Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love) For anyone who doubted the raw genius of Cobain, this amazing film reconstructs his life through his  unbelievably prolific collection of drawings, lyrics and diary entries. Remarkable.

     28.  Son of Saul – Dir. Lazlo Nemes (Geza Rohrig, Todd Charmont) Another bleakly beautiful Holocaust film where mere survival sheds an impenetrable light on the moral ambiguity of life itself.

     29.  Phoenix – Dir. Christian Petzold (Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld) As Holocaust films go, this one is neither sentimental nor merely a recounting of the horrors. Instead Zerhfeld has created a Hitchcockian mystery where nothing and no one is what it seems.

     30.  Cop Car  –Dir. Jon Watts (Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson) This small but harrowing thriller about two kids that accidentally steal the wrong cop car from a terrifyingly good Kevin Bacon, is a wonderful reminder about how fun and creative low budget films can be.

Bestest Television

  1. The Affair
  2. Sonic Highways
  3. Shameless
  4. Ray Donovan
  5. Making a Murderer
  6. Broadchurch
  7. Red Oaks
  8. Transparent
  9. Halt and Catch Fire
  10. Narcos
  11. Luther

 

 

 

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 2011– Tunage

If you look hard enough, any year can turn out to be a great one for music. Long gone are the days when commercial radio called the shots, when proximity to a killer record store or access to a suitable tastemaker could serve as an excuse for embracing mediocrity. Spotify is finally stateside. Record stores hardly exist anymore. Pandora is available in some cars. Satellite radio has XMU. You can hear KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on your phone. You can listen to your iPod over Bluetooth on a Jambox. You can push your 500+ gig collection to anywhere over Sonos. Coachella, Pitchfork, Austin City Limits Festival, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Outside Lands … so many festivals, so little time. There is simply no excuse not to take advantage of turning on to something truly life affirming. 2011 was another year steeped in brilliant, resurgent, rootsy Americana indie rock. There was also the emergence of some incredible new female voices, and a healthy dose of chill wave electronica. In the end music can make the world go round, so plug in, life is too quiet without it.

1) The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart (Sub Pop)

The greatness of some bands is immediately apparent. A few chords, a few harmonies, and you are hooked emotionally with melodies tattooed on your mind for the balance of the day or week. I have been listening to this masterpiece for almost a year now since its release in January of 2011, a year in which I have seen them four times, each a bit better than the time before. Like the love child of Mumford and the Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart is both pop enough to eventually become a massive hit, but with enough indie cred for tastemakers to keep coming back for the follow up, hopefully for a long time . The band is a five piece band, three of whom trade equally compelling vocals.

This record is part of the new Americana rock movement that emphasizes 70’s harmonizing, acoustic guitar, piano, strings, and thematic preoccupations with nature and love. I don’t listen to commercial radio, so I have little idea how big this band has gotten over the past half year, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a record for the ages for those into folk, pop, jam, or indie rock. The production is warm and earthy, while the songwriting both harkens back and is very modern in a dusty respectful way with soaring melodies and chorus’ that build into rainbows of joy. This is a very special record indeed.

2) WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain (LYF)

There are few artists who growl as beautifully as Ellery Roberts from WU LYF.  In fact Tom Waits, “The Pogues”, Shane McGowen, and Captain Beefheart might be the only ones. But WU LYF, a self-produced Manchester band, hits you immediately like an emotional ton of bricks, although you are left a bit uneasy trying to get your balance right. Musically, things seem familiar enough, big distant sounding percussion which builds little by little with every song, sparse keyboard sounds emerging now and then, with a kind of bright melodic guitar line holding it all together. Hard to place, familiar, but really like nothing you have heard before.

But back to the vocals. I’m still unsure whether to try to focus hard enough to understand the gruff emotive howls, or just let it go and let the words pour over me like a beautiful but indistinct instrument. On “Dirt,” my vote for the signature track, you get this euphoric and transcendent musical groove swirling, and every once in a while you catch a lyric or two that you can understand, but then, as quickly as you caught it, it disappears. That is the beauty of WU LYF who flirt dangerously close with the traditional but then mess with it just enough to make it too weird for those not willing to let go. On “Concrete Gold” you latch onto a familiar enough sounding guitar, but realize that so much is happening behind the surface you can’t resist getting sucked in. So is life (or LYF).

3) Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know (Domino)

Some artists are born to rock while others will it into existence. Some do both. At 21 Laura Marling is a student of rock history taking equal parts Fairport Convention, PJ Harvey, and Cat Power, and blending them into some of the starkest, sultriest folk rock in decades. She has the dusty weathered voice of a wounded angel, and the sensibility of Led Zeppelin, often beginning with a few gentle strums before erupting into cacophony of hard driving rock.

On the transcendent “The Beast” and “Salinas”, you are tricked into expecting something hushed and acoustic, but quickly drawn into something dark and beautiful. In an age where Adele and Gaga rule the airwaves, Marling seems satisfied with channeling the blues and transforming it into something altogether bigger, badder, and ultimately better.

4) Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguar)

I am a total sucker for sparse emotive indie folk. Heartbreaking mythology now a few years behind Bon Iver’s debut “For Emma,” Justin Vernon’s follow-up is a much thicker, schmaltzier masterpiece. A self-confessed lover of Bruce Hornsby and all things almost beyond ironically cool, “Bon Iver” is a richly textured road through small towns like “Calgary” and “Perth.”

Like his most supergroup side project Gayngs (whose 2010 full length is, in some ways, even better) this record is a silky smooth affair, gliding on the confident calm of Vernon’s occasional falsetto. In some ways this album suffered from over play, stuck in my car CD player for months, but it is rare to hear a song as simultaneously moving and cool as “Holocene.” It is hard not to be rooting for and hoping that this is the beginning of a long and lush career.

5) elbow - build a rocket boys (XL)

Tragically for most people, elbow seems like a new band, but in truth they have been around for a dozen years cranking out moody crescendo-bending music. I have always loved brit pop, starting with the Manchester Factory records, the ethereal bliss of 4AD in its prime, and through the historic Creation records. So it is no surprise that the only still viable keepers of this flame, elbow, with “build a rocket boys” has reawakened such a wonderful nerve. As easy as it is to fall in love with the recorded songs, to see this band live, complete with a singer whose angelic, soaring almost operatic voice defies his physical likeness to Ricky Gervais, is to truly understand them. At the Austin City Limits festival this year after the longest draught in Texas history, a few songs worth of much needed and beautiful rain fell from the sky as this band had the crowd swaying hands up and fingers approximating the fall from above. A beautiful moment.

The ten songs here all tend to build from lush and fragile to full flung explorations of sound and emotion, most notably the opening track “the birds” and “with love” that begin innocently enough before exploding into something other-worldly. In the end whether you have been tracking this band from the beginnings as serious, perhaps moderately pretentious yet immature art rockers, yet still serious and fully formed musicians, or you just drop in on them this time around, they are something to behold.

6) Girls – Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Matador)

Full disclosure, I am an unabashed zealot for Girls. Their debut record and follow-up EP topped my lists for the past two years. This time out, the band travels even darker and deeper into themselves than their previous two brightly lit trips to paradise lost. As in previous efforts, they alternate between long brooding epics like the incredible “Vomit” and “Forgiveness” and lighthearted Beach Boys meets Elvis Costello ditties like “Honey Bunny” and “Alex.”

Christopher Owens, the principal songwriter and guitarists, is a true morbid savant. He is a musician whose troubled upbringing has made him both wiser than his young soul should be, but also still innocent enough to make you really care. Whether or not he becomes the next Brian Wilson or Lou Reed, the music of Girls is a real treasure, worthy of patient honest reflection.

7) PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Universal Island)

Of all the female rockers to emerge from the early 90’s, only PJ Harvey is  still down her own dark dirty road, still hungry and creative. In many ways she is like a soul mate to Tom Waits, never at a loss for words or emotion, complete with raucous percussion, and embracing experience and translating it into words, accompanied for the first time in a decade, and creating genuinely accessible bliss.

Tunes like “This Glorious Land” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” are infectious grooves, while she lets down her grizzled guard on ballads like “On Battleship Hill” and “Hanging on a Wire” making it easy to jump aboard and bathe in light. Some records have the power to rip you out of a moment and transport you to a wildly different place. “Let England Shake” is very special and proof that youth isn’t wasted on the young.

8) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Almost four years ago, even before their first EP “Sun Giant” was released, I stood before a bunch of bearded hippies at the Bowery Ballroom, transfixed by their lush nostalgic confidence as they buzzlessly opened for Blitzen Trapper. Nothing they have done since that night has been anything less than perfect. Their CSN harmonies and their mid-70’s meandering California spirit is such an authentic relic of a bygone era, even among a sea of more popular revisionists like Mumford, that the years that have passed since the debut have passed way too slowly.

The dozen songs on “Helplessness Blues” are about what you would expect – earthy epics that tend to rise and fall around the sublime vocals of still only 25 year-old Robin Pecknold. Already something of a studio perfectionist, they recorded these songs, scrapped and rerecorded them a handful of times between Woodstock, Seattle and parts in between. From the stunning title track whose chorus “If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore” mixes just the right amount of Johnny Appleseed pioneer spirit with earnest longing, to the bouncy slow build of “Grown Ocean” and the lush “Lorelai,” this album covers a tremendous amount of ground very carefully. Like Wilco before them, the Fleet Foxes seem destined to make a long career of trying to understand who we are and who we wish to become. There is much to love here, and I’m guessing many will grow to love it more with each passing year.

9) Real Estate – Days (Domino)

Some music fights its way into your psyche while others merely roll over you like waves of joy and calm. Real Estate is the latter, a convertible on a summer day with music playing while the breeze blows through your hair. The band is kindred spirits to fellow New Jerseyites The Feelies (“It’s Real”) but with a hint of the jangly poppiness of Luna or early REM (“Easy”).

“Days” is equal parts tranquility and infectious guitar bliss. There is a certain effortless precision that spills from Real Estate songs, like a peaceful homage to the simplicity of youth and a peaceful suburban childhood. This is a record that asks very little of the listener but gives so much.

10) A Band of Bees – Every Step’s A Yes (ATO)

I will start by saying A Band of Bees is easily my favorite band from the Isle of Wight. Despite owning all of their prior efforts, I had pretty much forgotten about them until recently when this record surfaced in the “recommended” section of some forgotten mp3 blog. The resulting find is one of the best records of the year, with perhaps the best song in a decade – the “Astral Weeks” caliber “Really Need Love Now” which just keeps building on the refrain. The sixteen songs on “Every Step’s A Yes” is like a long stroll back through time with a bunch of different flavors of psychedelia from Byrd’s era entries like “Silver Line” to the string infused lullaby “Tired of Loving” to the Velvets homage “Change Can Happen.”

There is a lushness in the production here that is truly a relic of another era. This is a record for music heads, though, for all of the joy I take in hearing musical influences from Van to The Fairport Convention, this album is a sleepy, subtle orchestral journey into the past, refreshed just slightly for modern times. With its shimmering strings, woodwinds, harps, this is not merely a collection of songs but more a fully realized albums in an age that has all but forgotten what this means. Fortunately we live in a headphone world, so grab some good ones and bliss out for 75 minutes transported back to somewhere you probably haven’t ever been. [Read more…]