Coachella: Beautiful music, not enough bandwidth …

I’ve been going to Coachella for many years now and I have also been to almost every other festival of its kind, but somehow Coachella is different. In many ways, depending how you play it and like all great festivals, Coachella can be a genuinely spiritual experience. It is not just about the groove of any individual set, but the overall vibe of the festival that continues on a beautiful three-day loop. First, the painted desert surrounded by exposing mountain views cultivates a surreal dream-like state. Then there’s Coachella’s programming that for certain kinds of music fans (i.e. indie rock, electronica, and certain flavors of hip-hop), there’s just no comparison.

Other festivals cater to different musical preferences. Bonnaroo and Outside Lands favors rootsier rosters. JazzFest speaks for itself and draws an eclectic crowd. The ACL and Lollapalooza line-ups appeal to broader audiences whereas smaller festivals like Picthfork and Sasquatch are hyper-focused on the indie hardcore. There’s even Ultra and Electric Daisy that focus on electronic and dance. It’s all good because regardless of what people prefer, it’s just important that they see live music, whatever the flavor, as often as possible.

The resurgence of musical festivals in the US is worth noting because of three major cultural drivers. First, there is a desire for like-minded people to converge into communities and experience their passions ‘together’ despite the connected yet impersonal society we live in (see Sherry Turkles’ “Connected, but alone?” talk at the TED conference this year).

Second, efficient and popular social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and, the subject of my last year’s Coachella update, Instagram (now Facebook) enable artists to communicate with fans. For the first time ever, indie musicians are using social media to build massive followings and reach audiences that would have been impossible 5 years ago.

Finally, landmark changes to the amenities have altered the overall experience of these outdoor gatherings. Music festivals have evolved into legitimate cultural events complete with diverse food options (Korean BBQ, a poutine truck, and fish tacos), ever-creative art installations, and a mass convergence of the creative class.

So, it’s clear that people need, crave and want events like Coachella to look forward to and organize around. They want to drop out of real life and immerse themselves in a different world for three glorious days. But these same people, now hooked on the most potent drug in the world – the internet, “expect” to be able to publish all of their experiences to the broader virtually-connected world and in real time. But just when the urge to share seems strongest, you notice one bar on your phone and the moment passes without a chirp. We’re all accustomed to the sea of bright “fail notices” pulsing brightly from smartphones during concerts and festivals. Mobile users are now accustomed to their favorite apps failing at large events – Foursquare, Instragram, Twitter, and our own TastemakerX Music app struggle with this and just when you want to use them.

Perhaps if festivals weren’t the ripest place on earth to harvest legitimately interesting content, photos, videos, deep thoughts, shallow thoughts, occasional moments for real clarity, it would be easier to accept, but we now have these amazing apps, so not being able to use them is frustrating, preoccupying and time seemingly tragic. As much as we’d like to just blame AT&T for incompetency, the problem, although addressable, is also a non-trivial task. It’s a complex problem and one hand, deprives the world of incredible content and on the other, spares us from a mountain of banality. Either way, one thing is clear: we live in a world where people want and need to share.

Back to the festival, because in the end I go for the endless sea of exquisite music that bathes the Coachella Valley in visible waves of passion (and not the functionality of my mobile apps). This year the unusually cold weather cast a vastly different vibe than the survivalist mindset caused by the scorching temperatures in the desert. Most years the quest for shade dictates your every move but this year, the quest for warmth was the serious consideration: indoor tents over outdoor stages, warm earthy music over thumping dance sets.

Day 1: And so it begins. My Coachella 2012 began Friday afternoon with youthful Dinosaur Jr. revivalists Yuck, playing a tight homage to past and present. Coachella’s trademark juxtaposition of old and new is always interesting, so one must see James for a song or two to see how they have held up, and they did just fine. And then there was the groovy chill wave of Neon Indian playing to the kind of crowd that signals this band will only get bigger, hipsters shaking there hips and head in uniform synchronicity. Next to the throwback guitar genius of Gary Clark Jr., whose Hendrix meets Shuggie Otis and Stevie Ray Vaughn in 2012 energy neutralizes the pounding deep house directly next store. Some artists are born rock stars, and others will it into existence. Gary Clark has a bit of both. This bleeds right into a few tracks from one of the last living reggae legends- Jimmy Cliff, decked out in a gold suit and sounding as smooth as ever despite his 64 years. “The Harder They Come” has never sounded better.

Then the strongest back-to-back sets of the festival commenced with the ethereal modernism of Girls, a near genius San Francisco band who mixes the pop songwriting of Elvis Costello with the introspective intensity of the Velvet Underground. Next up, the bright and beautiful Americana rock of Dawes, accessible like Jackson Brown, while still edgy enough to appeal to critical fans. Also performing was Wu Lyf, the raspy, percussive Manchester new-wavers with the growl of Tom Waits and the dark energy of Joy Division. Shivering in the desert night, Pulp played nostalgically to a large crowd, followed by Mazzy Star who performed their first live set in over a decade blissfully into the night. The Black Keys sucked most of the festival towards the main stage as they pounded out bluesy rock tune after bluesy rock tune (which they single handedly resuscitated back into the mainstream).

Coachella is as much about serendipity as anything else so mind-blowing instrumentals of Explosions In the Sky, just kind of happen as you drift from stage to stage following the magnetic energy. Occasionally, bands are assigned to stages they have already outgrown, as was the case with M83. Crowds spilled out of the Mojave Stage and established M83 as one of the most anticipated acts of the festival (Yes, they are great. Believe the hype). The rest of the evening belonged to Swedish House Mafia, where massive beats pounded throughout the night to what seemed like all 100,000 Coachella attendees. Although I get the appeal, I prefer a different cup of tea.

Day 2: With the threat of rain now over and despite temperatures colder than I can remember, this was one of the best single Coachella days in quite a while. The soft jazz indie music of Destroyer was the perfect way to reenter the day, followed by the Brit wave rockers, The Big Pink, who pick up a bit where Coldplay left off after “Parachutes.” This was followed by the old school rock of Grace Potter, and the much-heralded reunion of fIREHOSE. Then things got serious. The Head and the Heart, still my favorite band of 2011, just keeps getting better before my eyes (it’s a good sign when everybody in the crowd knows every word to every song). Kaiser Chiefs played during the last bit of warm sun, and proved to be perfect music for the yoga session my posse spontaneously started on the grass beside me. Andrew Bird’s orchestral pop-smithing bled nicely into the sublime folk of Laura Marling, who at 22, sings with remarkable old soul wisdom.

Unfortunately, the highly anticipated set featuring Neutral Milk Hotel (aka Jeff Mangum) playing solo occurred on a stage that was too big and at a time that was too late in the day. He’s a genius but one that requires more intimacy than the Outdoor Stage could provide. St. Vincent, an art-rock goddess who exists between Bjork and PJ Harvey, ripped into a swirling frenzy while, on the main stage, The Shins played to a crowd acquainted with almost every lyric. Feist played up against Bon Iver, the folkie from nowhere to Grammy-winning savant. Iver performed one of the most blissful sets of the festival, well beyond the preciousness he exudes in the studio. Yet despite a day filled with incredible, passionate, inspired, creative music, it quickly became evident that there’s everybody and then there is Radiohead. No live band on the planet touches the intensity, complexity, and range as they do. Really.

Day 3: The weather was hot and welcomed. Saturday night went late and the first show of the day was Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, big mountains of seminal Afrobeat under and blazing son from Fela’s youngest son. Santigold ripped away at her infectious genre-defying blend of punk, dance, electronica on the main stage next door. In some ways, one of my favorite sets of the weekend was the blissful dreamy guitar rock of Real Estate because it gave me an excuse to merely sway rather than dance after I had found some shade. Phone cameras were snapping mightily but the web was nowhere to be found. Fitz and The Tantrums played a typically upbeat set while Wild Flag proved, once again, that girls totally rock. Thundercat’s Afro-funk jammed and was the logical primer for Parliament/P-Funk.

It’s not often, but occasionally Coachella “miss-stages” acts but validating how good they are and the pace at which this band blew up (thanks to “Somebody That I Used to Know,”) the crowd at Gotye was massive (M83 was similar). Every year there’s a band like this. Last year it was Foster The People. Beirut played another one of my favorite sets of the weekend with Balkan brass blazing, real instruments bumping up against the distant sounds of Girl Talk, blasting into the night. My favorite electronic show of the festival was also a brilliant and fitting close to it. DJ Shadow mixed his signature genre bending beats with a guest shot from Zach de la Rocha. As we walked back towards the main stage, Florence was entertaining most of what was left of the festival. She’s good and will probably end up closer to Madonna than Bjork, but I am okay with that. By the time Snoop and Dre hit the stage with the hologram of Tupac and more guests than a Johnny Carson episode, I was sated. And so it ended, at least until Friday because for the first time ever Coachella added a second weekend.

As all this occurred in the Indio Valley, people could watch the YouTube live stream from their homes. At one point, the audience peaked at hundreds of thousands of people from around the world watching the festival in real-time. This virtual audience is growing exponentially every year and I believe it’s a very good thing. Music is  inherently social and intensely personal. For some, the festival is purely social, with music as the backdrop. For me, it is all about music, from beginning to end, genre to genre, all day and all night. But like the web, to fully experience the right parts of the festival you need a Sherpa. Someone or some way to better know what you need to see. Social platforms are one way, but as I mentioned, they are tough to use in highly populated and bandwidth constrained environments. I know this will change, and for the sake of TastemakerX, Soundtracking and other platforms best used at live events, I hope it happens soon.

In the end the chance to spend 3 days, wandering from stage to stage, in the presence of genius, show after show many times over is an enormous privilege. You are showered in song and surrounded by the pure joy that music inspires in people. It is easy to forget how many people love the music you love, until you stand in tents and around stages with thousands of people wearing the same immensely satisfied smile on their faces as they are transcended at least for a moment into a completely different place.

Music Matters

If I were to look back at my life and choose the one thing that has mattered the most and defined me as a person, without question it would be music. I’m not sure when it started but somehow, imagined or real, I have this vague but powerful image of myself as a child riffling through the records housed in an antique armoire belonging to my parents and stumbling upon the curious cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I asked my father to drop the needle on the record, and within moments my life changed. The scratchy, groove worn melodies began to flow from the old speakers right into the rest of my life. I was transfixed, or so I imagine it to have been.

Ever since that day, music was the one thing I could always depend on. Music is a drug, any drug you need it to be at any given time: Prozac, ecstasy, aspirin, vicodin, dopamine, or caffeine. Despite the fact that taken in the right doses it is often habit forming, music is not a pill. Those familiar sounds carry with it memories, the times and places all but forgotten, triggered by a few notes or choruses. It transports you back to great loves, crippling breakups, perfect summer nights, endless road trips, or the birth of a child. There is nothing in this world that even comes close to the associative power carried in song.

Beginning with REM’s “Chronic Town,” the mournful optimism of anything by the The Smiths, Nick Drake’s gorgeous “Bryter Layter,” Jeff Buckley’s heroic “Grace,” Neutral Milk Hotel’s astonishing “In the Aeroplane Over The Sea,” Midlake’s soulful “The Trials of Van Occupanther,” to the blissful eponymous Fleet Foxes debut, these are a few of the records that comprise the soundtrack of my life. Everyone has one but most people they don’t play theirs enough.

The first thing I did after getting my drivers license, was drive 30 miles to Cleveland to a record store that was light years better than the one in my small Ohio town, or the chain store in the nearby mall. This was a ritual that continued until recently when I finally relented and began to embrace that infinite record store in the sky. These trips were literally journeys towards self-discovery. The vinyl and CD fruits of each of these voyages changed my life a little bit every time.

There are also those incredibly transcendent moments when you find yourself standing before a stage of musicians who are so completely in the moment, so at ease with each other and the crowd before them. If I were religious, I suppose these moments would be those moments. You are somehow transported to a different, better place, at least for a short period.

My eldest child has been sick for years. When I look back at how I have dealt with the helplessness that I have felt there are only two things that helped me get through it: the smile he wears so effortlessly and music. I have no idea what else I would turn to in its place. Somehow the two together have helped me see life in a different way than I could have possibly expected.

But music is also a game. For some it is the game of “I discovered that band first.” This is ammunition of hours and hours of spirited debate. For others it is the game of trying to figure out another person, and steering them towards that perfect record that they didn’t know existed. There is no better feeling than turning someone on to that album that might change his or her life, or at least brighten a day. The best part of the game of music is that it never ends. Every day there is another great band or album to discover. For every current artist there is a new record or tour to look forward to someday.

And so, after four decades of trying to fit a passion into a profession, TastemakerX will launch, beta warts and all. It’s a game about music, for anybody who cares about music, or wishes that he or she still had time to stay tuned in like they did when they were young. If I were a doctor at the top of the list of daily musts, along with fruits and vegetables, I’d prescribe at least one uninterrupted song a day or one album a week listened to front to back, away from the internet, just the music playing. It doesn’t matter what you choose, music is a kind of food for your soul. Just listen intently, voraciously and to as much as you can.

Cardinal – Hymns (Fire)

I remember distinctly that day when first I heard Cardinal’s one and only record back in 1994. I was young, new to NYC, and this album indoctrinated me into the lush world of orchestral indie rock. It was restrained and spare but also as rich and musical as it’s earlier influences (Scott Walker or perhaps selected Beach Boys from the 60’s). The band, the Aussie Richard Davies and American multi-instrumentalist Eric Mathews, were a perfect pair combining a new wave sensibility with a classically trained chamber rock competence.

And so, almost 20 years later, the duo reunited unexpectedly to record “Hymns.” Like it’s predecessor, the ten songs are serious and breathy, filled with sophisticated harmonies, catchy guitar lines and plenty of Matthew’s trademark brass. On “Rosemary Livingston” Davies charming vocals orbit around the refrain “I want you to change/but stay the same,” a meditation suitable for this long awaited follow up. From the piano driven balladry of “General Hospital” to the more rock oriented “Carbonic Smoke Ball” we are reminded how original and iconic this band was and still is. Bands like Cardinal defy time and genre, hard to place, but never out date.

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…]

The Bestest 2011– Filmmage

Some have argued that 2011 was a terrible year for films. Perhaps they should clarify that it was the Hollywood system with its upside down economics that massively under-delivered, leaving room for little films, documentaries and comedies to shine through. I was able to see most of these films at festivals or stream them on Netflix or Amazon not long after they had quickly come and gone in theaters. Which invites the question, when will theaters follow the book and record store path, and become unnecessary? I’d like to think that films are always better on a big screen that forces you to put away your phones, tablets and remote controls and tune off the internet and tune into the movies themselves. That said, it seems incredible that even now certain films find themselves without an easy way of being seen. There still exists a kind of limbo where films leave a theatrical run and exist, but are inaccessible on pay-per-view, streaming, iTunes or even DVD. Perhaps this is the real problem. Why shouldn’t people be able to choose what they want and where and when they want it if they are willing to pay. Perhaps a year from now there will be a solution; until then it is somewhat reassuring that films’ loss has been usurped by an increasingly more sophisticated television marketplace where the best talent has come to work.

1) Tree of Life – Dir. Terrance Malick (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn)

This is not a movie for the masses, but it is one for the ages. Beautiful, sweeping, serene, explosive, pretentious, chaotic, non-linear, heart-wrenching, uplifting, metaphoric, and nostalgic- all of these words help describe the most challenging and provocative film of the year. “Tree of Life” is a masterpiece that is equal parts “2001”, “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Stand By Me,” mixing images, emotions and glimpses of a time gone by.

To enjoy this film it is helpful to prepare yourself for it emotionally. Far from your typical Pitt-Penn Hollywood fare, auteur Terrance Malick, who has only made 5 films in four decades, has created a visual, sensual film that relies on mood and images far more than on dialogue or plot. Ultimately it is the story of a family in Waco, Texas who experiences a tragedy that is described only vaguely, but expressed metaphorically as merely a part of the cycle of life, the randomness of nature, and the unpredictability of the human experience.

The cinematography is brilliant, with lush bucolic domestic small town USA serenity and other-worldly natural and scientific images that convey the interconnectedness of life. Brad Pitt’s strict, dominating father is as compelling as anything he has ever done, but exposes the tension between a parent’s desire to impose morality and the constraints of being human. In the end this film is the ultimate exploration of what it is to live a life in a world filled with natural and omnipotent forces well beyond our comprehension.

2) Drive – Dir. Nicolas Winding (Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks)

Over the past decade Ryan Gosling has emerged as the undisputed king of cool, a real life chameleon of an actor who most likely picks the best movies and the broadest range of characters.  In “Drive” he blends the icy cool of Steve McQueen with the understated sparseness of Brando. This is a film, however, with everything: violence, stylized cinematography, incredible chase scenes and a rich cast of colorful supporters.

At its core “Drive” is an action film, but it is also a drama. Gosling’s mechanic/stunt man has wheels that never stop turning, and a plot that never slows down. There was not another film this year that moved so quickly, but lingered just long enough to capture every detail.

3) The Trip – Dir. Michael Winterbottom (Steve Cooghan, Rob Brydon)

Like a bromance for Ivy leaguers, “The Trip” is a relentless romp through the English countryside where two friends trade impersonations, eat wonderful meals, and reassess the current state of their respective lives. The always wonderful Steve Cooghan plays a version of himself, a still single playboy on hiatus from his much younger American girlfriend. Buddy Rob Brydon fills in for her on this magazine-sponsored foodie tour.

For Byrdon, with two kids and a loving wife at home, the trip is a much needed break, and although he has no real complaints, there is the nagging envy of his single friend and his life of freedom. Of course the fundamental irony is that Cooghan longs for the boring familial existence of his friend. Shot across the beautiful English countryside, and filled with a relentlessly clever script, “The Trip” is a trip through the adolescent preoccupations that fill the male mind.

4) Martha Marcy May Marlene – Dir. T. Sean Durkin (Elizabeth Olson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy)

There was not a more beautifully creepy film in 2011 than this one. There was also no more surprising and seductive a performance than that of Elizabeth Olson, the younger sister of her more famous twin sisters. The story begins as a disoriented Marcy (Olson) flees a rural farm, and stumbles into town where she frantically calls her older sister from a pay phone.

Alternating between an initially peaceful seeming commune in Upstate New York, to an opulent and tranquil lake house in rural Connecticut, the film is a puzzle that leaves you unsettled and mesmerized at the same time. But the core beauty of the film is in its infinite ambiguity. Something tragic happed to the siblings while growing up, but it is never clear. What happened to their parents? What else happened on the commune? How did she get there? This film is a dreamy mediation on how life just tosses us around leaving us no choice but to keep moving.

5) Win Win – Dir. Thomas McCarthy (Paul Giamatti, Bobby Cannavale)

No matter how many times I see Paul Giamatti play the same sad-sack depressive, I still can’t help but like him even more. Like Nicholson or DeNiro, he has a very specific presence that draws you in immediately. For most actors such a distinct persona relegates them to recurring character acting bits. But Giamatti is a star, the anti- Tom Cruise in every way. The film is directed by the criminally underrated auteur Tom McCarthy whose “Station Agent” and “The Visitor” are among the finest independent films of the decade, and whose delicate touch and understanding of human nature exude a kind of beautiful realism throughout “Win Win.”

In the film, he plays a floundering small town lawyer who moonlights as a wrestling coach for a hapless bunch of losers. Then in walks a small miracle in the form of a damaged teenage boy who has shown up in town to stay with his grandfather, whose estate Giamatti is “managing.” Despite appearances, this film is very much a comedy but does so with a subtlety that creates a different kind of texture. It is a film about the infinite gray areas that defines modern life and how right and wrong they are and rarely so simple. Many lives are saved in this film, but mostly it is about the title that reminds us to do the right thing.

6) Cedar Rapids – Dir. Miguel Arteta (Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche)

It is hard to imagine a better John C. Reilly performance than what he did in “Cyrus” last year, but in “Cedar Rapids” he officially one-ups himself by playing  an even more amped-up caricature of his everyman personna. Here he plays an oafish insurance agent letting it all hang out at a conference held at a cheesy Cedars Rapids business hotel.  Tthe film really belongs to Ed Helm’s beautifully naïve and somewhat tragic hero. His character has literally never been out of his small town, and to him Cedar Rapids represents not only the big city, but the moment when the picket fences give way to the real world.

Although there is a serious thread that lurks just below the hysterical surface of “Cedar Rapids,” there is as much humanity in this film as in  any of the more serious films that were released this year. In between endless comedic innuendo, ace director and true master of the indie dramedy, Miguel Arteta, explores loneliness, escapism and the massive walls people create to keep others from knowing who they really are. You will just as easily laugh as cry as pump your fist rooting for the underdog to wake up and grab life by the horns.

7) Margin Call – Dir. J.C. Chandor (Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey)

You’d be hard pressed to find a better cast and a more topical film than the shockingly under-seen Wall Street fiction “Margin Call.” Set over a twenty-four hour period, it chronicles the discovery of and reaction to the impending Armageddon of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown at one venerable Wall Street firm (insert whichever: Goldman, Lehman, Morgan …).

But unlike the glitz of “Wall Street,” this film is shot in dark saturated tones, and despite its blue chip cast, it is performed with thoughtful restraint. What “Margin Call” manages to capture is the pervasive schizophrenia that drives Wall Street. On the one hand greed, while not good, is more the evil that drives the capitalist system than it is an inherent quality of the people who work there. In the end you realize that modern capitalism has become an untamable monster that has evolved uncontrollably over hundreds of years. To unwind the problem seems impossible, but something has to change.

8) Midnight in Paris – Dir. Woody Allen (Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams)

Prolific, profane, provocative, and occasionally prophetic, Woody Allen seems nowhere close to having said everything that he has to say. In his finest film since “Deconstructing Harry,” Allen cast Owen Wilson as himself, to explore the timeless question of whether or not every past generation lived in an era more romantic than the ones that followed. Nostalgia here is a drug that is both blinding and euphoric, yet necessary and unavoidable.

Set in and elegantly filmed in Paris, Wilson plays a writer engaged to a woman he doesn’t really love, in a city that he loves for what he imagines it to be. Most Allen films rely on a gimmick, but in “Midnight in Paris” it is a time warp that allows you to look back to a time with both a longing and logic that suggests the importance of living in the now. Wilson has never been better and more authentic than he is here, McAdams plays her prissy idealist perfectly, and Allen is  at peace as both a realist and a cynic for the ages.

9) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Dir. Tomas Alfredson (Gary Oldman, Colin Firth)

Most Le Carre novels and films rely on keeping very close track of the details and paranoia of the complicated spy business of the Cold War. Although I’ll admit to being lost for large chunks of the film, the gray-toned cinematography and ambiguous calm and texture of this film is mesmerizing. Gary Oldman’s M16 agent George Smiley is the perfect manifestation of  clever bureaucratic competence that drives the workings of multi-national geo-politics.

The plot, if you can follow it, is oddly straightforward. There is a Russian mole in the British secret service. With a broad cast of potential infiltrators, Smiley is tasked with flushing out the rat. The film captures the colors and nuance of the era effortlessly, creating a familiar yet disorienting feeling that makes the film compelling despite its complexity. If there is  a film that deserved to be seen more than once this year, it was this one. Sometimes history plays like fiction and modern society seems much more complicated than yesterday’s.

10) The Arbor – Dir. Clio Bernard (Andrea Dunbar)

You have never seen a documentary as creative and unusual as “The Arbor.” Based on and incorporating the stage play of the same name, written by a 15 year old girl from the projects outside of Manchester, the film takes archival footage of the young Andrea Dunbar and mashes it up with reenactments of the play itself and lip-synced performances by actors of  real interviews with the late Dunbar’s family and friends. The play feels like Bukowski or R. Crumb as told by a young girl.

As hard as it is to imagine, the film flows fluidly, creating a lovely distance from the heartbreaking reality of the actual story. Dunbar’s working class roots, and self-destructive short life, create a gritty tragic backdrop against which to explore the lives of the children she left behind. History and self abuse repeat themselves here, but even on the dingy streets and neglected buildings of Manchester there is hope, redemption and forgiveness. [Read more…]