The Bestest 2010 Filmage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bestest 2009 – Filmmage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bestest 2009 – Tunage

The business of music seems to be forever spiraling towards something that seems like a bottom, despite the fact the black hole is still largely out of site. This doesn’t keep artists and fans from uniting in that universal bliss flowing from the discovery of a wonderful song at the perfect time to make everything better. The older I get, the less time I seem to have for pure undistracted, music listening, but the more important it is to find and fall for a handful of great records. 120K miles on airplanes was my salvation this year, a time for quiet contemplation and the place, flying above the clouds with my headphones on, where I logged my best listening. These were the records that made this year so colorful.  

1)   Girls – Album (Matador)
 Inevitably every year I fall hard for a record that manages to further reinvent that hazy, melodic Brian Wilson mid-60’s California feeling. This year the debut from San Francisco’s “Girls” rips that page up, and then reassembles it into a glorious, grungy scrapbook of freedom and loss. The band is primarily the brainchild of Christopher Owens who, as a child, survived  itinerant drifting as part of a bizarre cult only to run away from home and then to reemerge years later as the author of one of the most emotive and uplifting albums of the times. There is a beautifully ragged, druggy, innocence dripping from every note

But “Album” is an adventure in texture. It lives somewhere between rock and pop, psychedelic and lo-fi, happy and sad. A song like “Hellhole Ratrace,” my vote for the finest song of 2009, is an epic meditation on “love and affection” that starts innocently enough with a gentle guitar that builds into a wall of emotion cycling through a few repeated choruses for seven blissful minutes. Other songs stay closer to the Wilson ethos of the instruments,  just kind of echoing the crashing of waves on the Pacific and the wind through the palms, e.g. “Headache.” This album is a wonderfully warm place to escape to and dream.

2)   Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp)

Up until now I have been more a passive ‘admirer’ than a genuine fan of this sprawling, often too precious “orchestral rock” band. And like so many of the incredible new bands that have invaded and settled in Brooklyn, Grizzly Bear is something completely different. To start you will hear four completely different vocalists, each with their own distinctive style alternating between breathy and hushed to melodic and operatic.

 The best songs on “Veckatimist” (‘Two Weeks, ‘Southern Point’) just seem to soar in a very different way than most of the other great records this year. Somewhere between jazz, the kind of choral music you might hear in a church, and a few rock tunes that really tap into an addictive groove exists one of the most sophisticated and diverse albums in years, further proof that the idea of an album has not yet fully succumbed to the current trend of individual songs without context.

3)   Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)
 To say Dirty Projectors is an acquired taste would be both a probable understatement and disrespectful to the band. This is the kind of music that only happens when a kid from Yale with a big vocabulary, great taste in music and a broad musical education decides to devote his life to indie rock. The result is mash-up of well appointed classical strings, unusual choral and vocal timings, synth-based electronic beats, and incredibly diverse guitar lines. This is art rock for those with a pop sensibility.
“Bitte Orca” is one part Jeff Buckley, one part ’77 era Talking Heads.

Any attempt to describe what happens over the course of the album’s nine songs could be seen as misleading but I’ll try. The record is broadly dance music, but nothing I would know how to dance to, but then something way more precious and chamber music-like best relegated to a drawing room, and then vocal gymnastics not really definable at all. The only real thread for me is that all directions initiated within these songs lead to and start from somewhere I can comfortably call brilliant.  

4)   The xx – xx (Rough Trade)
 It is how hard for me to gage how accessible this record really is given that it took me exactly one listen to recognize and then fall for the incredible craft and beauty of these eleven songs. Usually music this patient and precious takes a while to appreciate given the quiet nuances hidden below the surface, but for me it was immediate. The music stretches across a few genres but lands squarely in none of them. There is a bit of 4AD era shoegaze (lush, pale saints, etc.) some mellow electronica (Zero7, Portishead) and then something more straightforward and poppy.

 The fact that this is a debut album by four English 20 year-olds (this is the first album I have ever loved where the artists were exactly half my age) adds to the story but there is nothing novel about the music. The songs are largely built on melodic vocal exchanges between the two childhood friends who started the band, layered over pristine beats and loops that tend to neatly soak up  the hushed lyrics like red wine by a paper towel. There wasn’t a sexier, more consistently perfect album released this year. I can wait to hear what they are doing when they are 40.

5)   The Clientele – Bonfires On The Heath (Merge)
 I have long been a wild fan of the soulful, retro pop of The Clientele, but for the most part their five earlier records were all so subtle and precious that broad appeal was always doomed at conception. But this time around the ten songs are all carved from an upbeat, jangly totem, adorned with strings, brass and toe tapping guitar rhythms.

 Although their music is oddly distinctive, perhaps it’s best described as a throwback to the mid- career albums of bands like Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout, but set more in the 60’s of swinging London, something way cooler and less poppy than those. The Clientele have a specific quality mostly driven by the cleanest, crispest guitar lines accompanied by just the right amount of brass.  Somehow their music always displays a kind of James Bond suaveness, where the guy always gets the girl and the bad guys are seen running exhaustedly after a moving train far out of reach. The mood they set, complete with the hushed vocals and introspective lyrics, creates a feeling foreshadowed by the album’s title that is warm and wonderful.  

6)   Lisa Hannigan – See Saw (Rough Trade)
There wasn’t a lusher, brighter jazz-folk record for me this year than Lisa Hannigan’s “See Saw.”  It’s important to clarify that this is not a precious acoustic folk record, this is a rich string and percussion driven almost cabaret experience rooted in a kind Fairport Convention musicality. These songs are often relentlessly compelling (e.g., “I Don’t Know”), the kind of song that actually brings chills for no apparent reason, until eventually someone finds this and pegs to a TV where its innocence is lost forever.

But despite the incredible skill of the band, this group is mostly about the vocals and songwriting of the Irish Hannigan, who started her career with Damian Rice. She has one of those powerful but effortless voices that transports her songs to a place somewhere between other-worldly and suitable for framing. This is a record for adults, and specifically those with really good taste.  

7)   Jack Penate – Everything is New (Beggars Banquest/XL)
If John Hughes were still alive and making movies about teenagers in the 80’s, there’s no doubt that Jack Penate would be a frequent soundtrack contributor. His music is pure throwback to the best British new wave music of that period: think The Cure, New Order, Stone Roses. He infuses every song with that kind of edgy optimism and bounce that much of the pop new wave movement did so well.

Not unlike the Strokes unpacking trunk loads of old vinyl from the Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, and others from that period, Penate is a truly amazing songwriter who often does a better job with this material than his original inspirations. Songs like “Be The One” and “Tonight’s Today” are every bit as addictive as “Boy’s Don’t Cry” or Pretty In Pink.” More than almost any of my favorites from this year, each of the nine songs on the aptly titled “Everything is New” is a keeper in the classic sense. It’s hard not to love this record.

8)   David Bazan – Curse Your Branches (Merge)
David Bazan has been writing songs for eons under the name of Pedro The Lion, his largely acoustic indie folk alter ego. I have always liked this music, but on “Curse Your Branches” he has created something entirely different and beautiful. I’m not sure that you could argue that there is anything revolutionary going on here, but I’m not sure that matters.

By way of  benchmark, I guess you might hear echoes of American Music Club in the sense that this is largely a low key rock band with a stylish mix of keyboards and guitars, which largely just set the stage for Bazan’s vocals, what everything centered around. His songs are delivered in deep broad strokes and rely less on catchy choruses and more on linear storytelling than on refrains. For a record that seems less groundbreaking than many, there is something strangely seductive here.

9)   Dinosaur Jr. – Farm (Anti-)
It’s been fifteen years since I last included a Dinosaur Jr. record on this list. I have never fallen out of love with the grungy early SST records and the later considerably more polished Warner Brothers records; in fact they still best satisfy my occasional urge for loud, but melodic post-punk noise. More than almost any band of it’s kind, Husker Du being a close second, Dinosaur Jr. always managed to hold tightly onto clean, clear melodies despite the pounding drumlines and throbbing guitars.

On the second reunion record pairing J. Mascis and Lou Barlow since their ugly split in the late 80’s when J. signed the band to a major label and Lou left to form Sebadoh, it is as if no time has passed. They still have an incredible knack for a pop song, with Mascis’ muffled but comfortable vocals landing like an old friend on Barlow’s mordantly optimistic musical sensibilities. In the event you don’t believe me try playing “Plans” very loudly through headphones with your eyes closed and you’ll be transported directly to 1992 before Nirvana broke it all open.

10)   The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World To Come (4AD)
The Mountain Goats latest record is their17th in less than fifteen years. The music of John Darnielle whose nasal  warbling vocals, hyper-literate lyrics and hugely prolific output has always been distinctive, if not always perfect. But this time out, despite a much more accessible overall feeling, the songs are  extremely fragile and occasionally almost uncomfortably intimate.

The Mountain Goats have always told stories about the downtrodden, forgotten and suffering. But in telling some basic lessons, Darnielle looks to the bible for inspiration with each song title a different passage illustrating a specific aspect of human kind. Although broadly inconsistent , “The Life” features some of the catchiest most optimistic songs of his brief career (see “Genesis 3:23”). Perhaps The Mountain Goats is an acquired taste, but for passive admirers, this is a breakthrough, or at least it was for me.  

11)   Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (Matador)
Twenty-five years and 15 proper albums later, I have been riding this train from the very beginning (a $3 radio station copy of “New Wave Hot Dogs” purchased on Coventry Rd. in Cleveland). More than almost any band I know, it seems like Yo La Tengo has been very gently evolving its sound, moving positively in the upper right direction, without any of the very specific defining moments that have signaled change for bigger bands (Dylan going electric, U2 or Radiohead going electronic). For me this is part of their rustic charm: familiarity without redundancy or misstep.

“Popular Songs” is another wonderful testament to the extreme breadth of band, weaving between sugary sweet almost kids’ music- worthy tunes like “If It’s True,” to lilting ballads like “I’m On My Way” to their long, spacey wall of sound dreamscapes like “Here To Fall.” On the whole, this is a largely more accessible effort than usual, but this is a compliment. On a side note, in an era where more than half of all marriages end in divorce, watching and listening to the Yo La husband and wife team of Georgia and Ira making art is an inspiration. “Popular Songs” won’t be popular to the unwashed, Taylor Swift loving masses, but to brainy music loving aging hipsters, this is a little slice of heaven.

12)   The Low Anthem – Oh My God Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch)  
This is a sleepy, beautiful, chamber folk classic with branches as far reaching as Mark Kozelak, to Uncle Tupelo to Tom Waits. Hailing from the least country music mecca in the country, Rhode Island, this duo has crafted twelve songs that meander easily between the lazy and intimate to the more straight forward brand of alt-country.

 Led by vocalist Ben Knox Miller, there is something easy and unforced that ripples throughout, but it is on the exquisite “To Ohio” that the band carves out its own unique space. It took a few spins for me to really get it, but in the end this one is a solid keeper.

13)   Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti-)

Neko Case is a true force of nature. Her voice is among the most confident and controlled in music. It has been for the past decade as she has continually honed her craft somewhere between country and pop, both as a solo artist and the occasional “soul” behind the super group the New Pornographers. In general my bias for her will always drift towards her pop sensibilities rather than her purer country inclinations, but like Joni Mitchell, who always had a kind of cool groove to her early and middle records, Neko Case carries the songs on her back leading them with her voice, leading the music instead of merely following or conforming to it.

“Middle Cyclone” is another lovely record, but like most of her solo work it is filled with hugely perfect moments (“People Got a Lot of Nerve” and “This Tornado Loves You”) and a few that tend to miss a little. But in the end it is hard for me to name more than a few female vocalists who have combined both the chops and songwriting abilities over the past bunch of years – Beth Orton, Cat Power, PJ Harvey. Neko Case is very much the real deal.

14)   The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You  (Sony)
There was not another album that better alternated between the quiet and sublimely beautiful and the bouncy alt-country swagger than the  Rick Rubin- produced major label debut of The Avett Brothers. This one almost slipped between the cracks for me. Something about the major label and the Rick Rubin stamp made me skeptical, but after a handful of proper listenings (and by that I mean headphones on an airplane), the songs just kind of settle in. There is just the right amount of emotion to make you care without veering into the land of the overstated.

Like Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone,” you probably don’t need me to help direct you to a record like this, but it certainly fits neatly into my list for 2009. I guess there is a thick thread of folk that ran through my favorites this year, but these sweet tongued brother from North Carolina have created a minor  masterpiece accessible to all. In that fuzzy realm that exists between country and folk “I and Love and You” holds its candle high.

15)   Loney, Dear – Dear John (Polyvinyl)

I love the Scandinavian folkies: Kings of Convenience, Sondra Lerche, Jose Gonzalez and Nicoli Dunger. But Loney, Dear’s latest effort transcends the genre and morphs into something quite different and special. Think The Postal Service, but stronger, much more urgent and less shallow-synth sounding. If the older Loney records were sparer, more acoustic seeming, “Dear John” is a gusher of both optimistic energy, much needed some days, and vocal melodies that just tend to find their groove and travel. With this big sound it is a combination of beats and percussion that lift off quietly and then burst like fireworks.

Perhaps I am getting carried away, but to listen to this record with headphones flying over the melting snowcaps of the Northern Sierras,  you can’t help but feel somehow liberated by the songs “Airport Surroundings” and “Everything Turns To You.” Although Loney, Dear is largely the brainchild of Emil Svanangen this record is a fully realized, impeccably orchestrated pop opera.

16)  Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career (Merge) Lovely, consistently upbeat Scottish pop.

17)  Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino) Still not a total believer in AC, but this album was certainly a step in my direction.

18)  Wild Beasts – Two Dancers (Domino) Mildly weird, oft-kilter throwback British dance music that makes perfect sense.

19)  Robyn Hitchcock – Goodnight Oslo (YepRoc) Proving that true genius just gets better with age.

20)  Atlas Sound – Logos (Kranky) The uber-prolific Bradford Cox recruits Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox to make a wonderful little jewel.

21)  The Antlers – Hospice  (Frenchkiss) This eerie and affecting album about loneliness and isolation is ironically hopeful.

The Bestest 2007, Filmmage

Filmmage

Despite the greedy, bickering, and seemingly unsolvable problems that have managed to suck much of the air out of the this year’s awards season, 2007 is beginning to feel like one of the strongest movie years of the decade: A happy split between genuinely mass audience popcorn epics, and smallish indie movies that focus on perfectly drawn characters moving through everyday life. As usual, ten films seem like an arbitrary number, so this list will include quite a few more … why not? In any event, most of these movies are already rentable, and the ones still in the theatres should be seen on a big screen without interruption or a pause button, if at all possible.

1.             Once - Dir. John Carney (Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová)

“Once” is an instant classic, transforming the simple story of a scruffy Irish street singer and beautiful Czech immigrant into a kind of kindred musical and spiritual collaboration whose narrative is told largely through lyrics and whose tone is set by the natural chemistry between Hansard’s guitar and Irglova’s piano. It is that rare jewel of a film that not only dares to reinvent the genre but does so using novice actors (although Hansard did play one of the Commitments in the 80’s film and has been leading his own band, The Frames, for over a decade)  and music that has disappointingly eluded the mainstream for years. Watching this film made me somewhat envious of the kind of language and relationship that only music can bring out between a man and woman who learn to love through an unspoken musical language- a kind of romantic groove. If there is any justice in this world, Hansard and Irglova, will win the Academy award for best song, vaulting The Frames into a much deserved wider audience, much like Elliott Smith did with “Good Will Hunting,” and “Once” will become 2007’s little indie that could, accumulating awards and a more visible place in the history of independent film. This film will choke you up repeatedly.

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