Top 100 Films of the Half-Decade: 2010-14
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01. The Tree of Life (Malick)
02. Boyhood (Linklater)
03. Before Midnight (Linklater)
04. To the Wonder (Malick)
05. Goodbye to Language (Godard)
06. Karamay (Xu)
07. The Immigrant (Gray)
08. Lincoln (Spielberg)
09. Margaret (Lonergan)
10. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Kechiche)

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11. Beyond the Hills (Mungiu)
12. The Deep Blue Sea (Davies)
13. Greenberg (Baumbach)
14. Barbara (Petzold)
15. Of Gods and Men (Beauvois)
16. Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt)
17. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong)
18. The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer)
19. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch)
20. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas)

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21. The Turin Horse (Tarr)
22. This Is Not a Film (Panahi)
23. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
24. The Social Network (Fincher)
25. Phoenix (Petzold)
26. Kill List (Wheatley)
27. The Past (Farhadi)
28. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami)
29. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen)
30. Almayer’s Folly (Akerman)

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31. Spring Breakers (Korine)
32. The Lords of Salem (Zombie)
33. Two Days, One Night (Dardenne/Dardenne)
34. The Homesman (Jones)
35. Melancholia (von Trier)
36. The Cabin in the Woods (Goddard)
37. Moneyball (Miller)
38. The Golden Era (Hui)
39. Mr. Turner (Leigh)
40. Love Is Strange (Sachs)

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41. Film Socialisme (Godard)
42. Toy Story 3 (Unkrich)
43. Force Majeure (Östlund)
44. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Takahata)
45. Bernie (Linklater)
46. The To Do List (Carey)
47. Stories We Tell (Polley)
48. Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson)
49. Stray Dogs (Tsai)
50. Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Barnaby)

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51. Holy Motors (Carax)
52. The Loneliest Planet (Loktev)
53. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen)
54. A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg)
55. All Is Lost (Chandor)
56. The Secret of Kells (Moore/Twomey)
57. Young Adult (Reitman)
58. Winter’s Bone (Granik)
59. Somewhere (Coppola)
60. A Separation (Farhadi)

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61. Like Father, Like Son (Koreeda)
62. If It's Not Now, Then When? (Lee)
63. Black Death (Smith)
64. The Ghost Writer (Polanski)
65. Silver Linings Playbook (Russell)
66. Much Ado About Nothing (Whedon)
67. Winter Sleep (Ceylan)
68. The Tiger Factory (Woo)
69. I Wish I Knew (Jia)
70. Carlos (Assayas)

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71. Bluebeard (Breillat)
72. Air Doll (Koreeda)
73. Bridesmaids (Feig)
74. The Hunt (Vinterberg)
75. The Skin I Live In (Almodovar)
76. The Bling Ring (Coppola)
77. A Touch of Sin (Jia)
78. Starry Eyes (Kolsch/Widmeyer)
79. The Babadook (Kent)
80. Our Sunhi (Hong)

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81. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese)
82. Dream Home (Pang)
83. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Ceylan)
84. Gravity (Cuaron)
85. Postcards from the Zoo (Edwin)
86. Life without Principle (To)
87. Frances Ha (Baumbach)
88. Life of Riley (Resnais)
89. Winter Vacation (Li)
90. The Boxtrolls (Stacchi/Annable)

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91. Song of the Sea (Moore)
92. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher)
93. Magic Mike (Soderbergh)
94. The Mill and the Cross (Majewski)
95. A Year without Summer (Tan)
96. The Adventures of Tintin (Spielberg)
97. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao)
98. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson)
99. A Field in England (Wheatley)
100. East Meets West (Lau)


Song of the Summer?

Song of the Summer.


Get Up!
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It's Sleater-Kinney Day in Vancouver!!!

In honor of the reunion, Spin recently ranked all 109 S-K songs. My top 40, for the record, would look something like this:

01. "Good Things"
02. "Turn It On"
03. "Sympathy"
04. "The End of You"
05. "Not What You Want"
06. "I'm Not Waiting"
07. "Youth Decay"
08. "One More Hour"
09. "Start Together"
10. "Call the Doctor"
11. "Get Up!"
12. "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone"
13. "The Remainder"
14. "Far Away"
15. "Dig Me Out"
16. "The Size of Our Love"
17. "Jumpers"
18. "Oh"
19. "Modern Girl"
20. "Stay Where You Are"
21. "It's Enough"
22. "Words and Guitar"
23. "No Cities to Love"
24. "#1 Must-Have"
25. "One Beat"
26. "Ballad of a Ladyman"
27. "The Drama You've Been Craving"
28. "My Stuff"
29. "Taste Test"
30. "Don't Think You Wanna"
31. "Night Light"
32. "Step Aside"
33. "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun"
34. "The Fox"
35. "No Anthems"
36. "Burn, Don't Freeze"
37. "White Rabbit"
38. "Angry Inch"
39. "Write Me Back, Fucker"
40. "A Real Man"

And the albums (all of which are great):

01. Call the Doctor
02. Dig Me Out
03. One Beat
04. The Hot Rock
05. All Hands on the Bad One
06. The Woods
07. No Cities to Love
08. s/t
On 'probable cause'
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Great interview with David Simon regarding the current situation in Baltimore.


"The king ordered it!"
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Well, he did.
Couples Therapy
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I went into Noah Baumbach's latest really hoping (and honestly, expecting) to like it a lot. Halfway through, I was convinced that I didn't (or wouldn't?) like it much at all. By the time Bowie's "Golden Years" played over the closing credits, I had come around somewhat, though I'm still not sure how much (or maybe more importantly, why) I like(d) it, if indeed I did. Because it's one of those movies that constantly made me think of other (in most instances, better) movies, perhaps the best way to work out my jumble of thoughts on While We're Young is through a series of short compare/contrasts.

While We're Young and The Mindy Project I like The Mindy Project. It's a good single-camera half-hour sitcom that thoroughly embraces its slightness--its sitcomness, in the best sense--in an age of 'cinematic' TV shows. It's also consistently funny and sweet. While We're Young is, surprisingly, not particularly funny, and its attempts at sweet mostly fall flat, but at least for the first half of Baumbach's film, it feels very much like a sitcom, in the most facile sense. The generation-gap gags--hip hop dance class, a street 'beach' party, a mescaline-fuelled spirit quest, etc.--were too obvious, and felt like a half-baked episode of Mindy, except that Danny's determined squareness would've made for a funnier contrast with the 'youthful,' bohemian rituals, and the ostensibly up-to-the-minute pop culture references would've been fresher on Mindy, too. Despite the presence of Adam Driver playing a very Adam-from-Girls-type character, this stretch of While We're Young traffics more in old-fashioned sitcom silliness than the Quality Television mode of Lena Dunham's show.

While We're Young and Greenberg This comparison is important less for how While We're Young fits within Baumbach's oeuvre than for the stark difference in cadence between these two films. Greenberg, an inexhaustibly terrific movie and the number-one reason why I expected to unequivocally like While We're Young, is so unhurried in its pacing, taking its cues from the sun-slowed rhythms of a lazy summer. I keep finding new ways into Greenberg each time I revisit it. I never found a way into While We're Young, a way to be genuinely engaged and care. Even when the new film becomes a leaner, meaner affair in its last act, it's still too plotty and airtight. I also much prefer Ben Stiller's full-on malcontent in Greenberg to the milder, more Woody Allen-ish malcontent he plays this time.

While We're Young and Reality Bites Winona Ryder was my first movie-star crush. When I saw Reality Bites as a kid, I really wanted her to choose Ethan Hawke's Troy. He was cool, and smart, and sensitive--read italics as scare quotes---and women like Winona should end up with cool, smart, sensitive people, no? Watching Reality Bites again a couple years ago, for the first time in a long while, I was rooting instead for Ben Stiller's Michael, partly because he now seemed the lesser of two evils and partly because, for christ's sake, he was at least a fucking grown-up. While We're Young, in a nutshell, is about re-watching Reality Bites twenty years later, pulling for Troy because your own life-circumstances are maybe a little too Michael, then abruptly pulling an about-face when you remember what should have already been obvious, which is that Troy is, at best, full of shit and, at worst, completely insufferable.

While We're Young and Before Midnight On the other hand, maybe Troy turned some decisive corner and grew up to be Jesse, who is far from perfect, but is at any rate a thoughtful, interesting adult in a way that Troy wasn't (yet?) and Stiller's Josh in While We're Young isn't quite. Having a partner like Celine certainly doesn't hurt in turning brooding, "sensitive" boys into fully-formed, if imperfect, men, though Naomi Watts's Cornelia (her best performance since Mulholland Drive) is no slouch, and even though (or very possibly because) her character is under-written, she's the MVP of Baumbach's film (Charles Grodin is a close runner-up). But as (like Before Midnight) an ultimately resilient portrait of domesticity, While We're Young lacks both the affection and the necessary seriousness of Jesse and Celine in Greece. Maybe Jesse and Celine live lives much like Josh and Cornelia when they're back in Paris going about the grind of their everyday obligations? Maybe between films they're taking MDMA with the Euro hipsters from the "Prayer in C" video? Maybe. But I really hope not.

While We're Young and Neighbors I thought occasionally of the Before... films, and even once or twice of Eyes Wide Shut, while watching While We're Young, but far more than either I thought of Neighbors. The couple played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are much closer in spirit to Josh and Cornelia, with Zach Efron and Dave Franco serving a similar narrative function to Driver and Amanda Seyfried here. The difference, though, is that Neighbors is, purportedly, a broad/dumb, gag-to-gag comedy that only secretly has a big, generous heart and some smart things to say about marriage, parenthood, and the generation gap (if not, regrettably, the toxic, misogynistic culture of fraternities). While We're Young is, purportedly, an incisive critique of marriage, mid-life crises, and overconfident millennials, but it's too broad and silly and on-the-nose. Until it's not...

While We're Young and The Shape of Things...and it morphs into something like Neil LaBute's 2003 film. Remember that one? It's been over a decade since I last saw it, but I can still recall feeling awful for poor Paul Rudd following the third-act meta-twist. While We're Young employs a comparable, late 'gotcha', but I didn't feel...much, either for the duped party or the duper. Which is a fairly serious problem given that, unlike LaBute's chilly exercise, wherein the theatrical quartet are pawns arranged just so, While We're Young is a character piece--it's about people first and foremost. Unless it's not...

While We're Young and F for Fake (??!) ...and it's really about authenticity, and forgery, and the role of Truth in Art. If so, and this might well be the case, it would help to explain both the (seemingly) autopilot first half and the suddenly schematic later section -- but the Welles comparison is still sacrilege: Catfish is closer. Or Woody Allen doing Bergman.


(Re)Start Together

In less than a month, I get to see my all-time favorite band again - for the first time in a decade!
'Excited' is an understatement.


On Beauty
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I recently re-watched The Immigrant, which must be one of the most beautiful films ever made. I also recently revisited Barry Lyndon (on Blu-ray) and Flowers of Shanghai (on film as part of the Cinematheque's Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective), my favorite films by Kubrick and Hou respectively, and I really think James Gray's movie is in that same superlative territory, at least in terms of exquisite, overwhelming beauty. Who else working today approaches such rapture? Malick, of course. Godard sometimes: In Praise of Love for sure, and parts of Goodbye to Language. And Terence Davies once or twice per decade. After that...


Mephitis mephitis!
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But, luckily, no stinkers below.

01. Boyhood (Linklater)
02. Goodbye to Language (Godard)
03. The Immigrant (Gray)
04. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch)
05. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas)
06. Phoenix (Petzold)
07. Two Days, One Night (Dardenne/Dardenne)
08. The Homesman (Jones)
09. The Golden Era (Hui)
10. Mr. Turner (Leigh)
11. Love Is Strange (Sachs)
12. Force Majeure (Östlund)
13. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Takahata)
14. Winter Sleep (Ceylan)
15. Starry Eyes (Kolsch/Widmeyer)
16. The Babadook (Kent)
17. Life of Riley (Resnais)
18. The Boxtrolls (Stacchi/Annable)
19. Song of the Sea (Moore)
20. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao)

01. Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night; The Immigrant
02. Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
03. John Lithgow - Love Is Strange 04. Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria
05. Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
06. Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer; Only Lovers Left Alive
07. Nina Hoss – Phoenix
08. Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner
09. Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
10. Channing Tatum – Foxcatcher

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01. Lykke Li - I Never Learn
02. EMA - The Future's Void
03. Miranda Lambert - Platinum
04. Nicki Minaj - The Pinkprint
05. Tove Lo - Queen of the Clouds
06. Taylor Swift - 1989
07. Iggy Azalea - The New Classic
08. Lucinda Williams - Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
09. Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence
10. White Lung - Deep Fantasy

01. Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea – "Problem"
02. Taylor Swift – "Blank Space"
03. Shakira feat. Rihanna – "Can’t Remember to Forget You"
04. Beyonce – "7/11"
05. Tove Lo - "Habits"
06. Charli XCX - "Boom Clap"
07. Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX – "Fancy"
08. Avril Lavigne – "Hello Kitty"
09. Ariana Grande feat. The Weekend - "Love Me Harder"
10. Azaealia Banks – "Chasing Time"


VIFF: Words and Godard
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The best film I saw at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival was called Adieu au langage, but if anything, this was, by far, the talkiest bunch of films of any year I've attended VIFF. There were a few exceptions, of course—most notably, Tsai Ming-liang's dialogue-free Journey to the West—but Godard's own film (pointedly) wasn't one of them. Goodbye to Language is as loaded with oblique philosophical musings and long-winded discussions as any Late Godard work, but the overlap between discursive and formal ideas here feels altogether more on-point than in anything he’s done since In Praise of Love. Tsai’s latest might, in fact, provide the best point of contrast. Journey to the West, a feature-length expansion of Tsai’s red-robed-monk-walking-very-slowly-idea—executed so effectively in his hypnotic short, The Walker—ultimately pays diminished returns in long form, despite the new setting of Marseilles, the addition of Denis Lavant (as a kind of apprentice to Lee Kang-sheng's oblivious, contemplative monastic master), and a couple legitimately stunning compositions. By comparison, Godard’s first foray into 3D, the short The Three Disasters, felt like an interesting enough experiment that didn’t hang together particularly well—a minor curiosity within his later filmography. Which is why (to my tastes anyway) the perfect marriage of 3D form and content in Goodbye to Language was almost as surprising as it was pleasurable and exciting. As a movie-going experience, there is nothing else quite like Goodbye to Language, at this film festival or otherwise. Since a capsule review (i.e., language!) is doomed to do this great film even less justice than a 2D screening would, suffice it to say that this is a legitimate theatrical ‘must-see’ in an age of wait-til-it's-on-Netflix. Yet, insofar as Godard's work has always been concerned with the philosophical implications of representing ‘reality’ through the various signs and tropological figures of artistic media, this is a sly, provocative reiteration of his raison d'être.

Can the same be said for Olivier Assayas's no less loquacious Clouds of Sils Maria? Well, that depends on what we take to be the raison d'être in the oeuvre d’Assayas, a slippery, chameleonic auteur with an uncommonly varied body of work. After seeing the marvelous Clouds of Sils Maria, I’m apt to say that identity and performance, and the hazily delineated space between, might be his great theme. Returning, in certain respects, to the territory of Irma Vep and André Téchiné's Assayas-scripted Rendez-vous, the new film centers on an actress (Juliette Binoche) who is deeply ambivalent about taking on a dramatic role that hits a little too close to home for her. As Binoche's aging star, Maria, prepares for the part, a never-better Kristen Stewart performs various roles—personal assistant, rehearsal partner, and confidant, among others. As these roles begin to blur together, so, too, do the subjectivities of Binoche and Stewart, Maria and Stewart's Valentine, and the theatrical characters in the play for which Maria is reluctantly preparing. This tension among identifies, real or performed, is mostly explored through the extended conversations (and line rehearsals) of Maria and Valentine, set against the gorgeous back-drop of the Swiss village of the film’s title. The obvious comparison here is with Bergman’s Persona, and I’m sure Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson’s psycho-sexual two-hander was never too far from the thoughts of Assayas, Binoche, and Stewart. But, much in the same vein as Clean and Summer Hours (two of Assayas’s best films, in my view), Clouds of Sils Maria is a warmer film, often very funny, more poignant and humane than any of Bergman’s film work, excepting (maybe) Fanny and Alexander.

A more direct heir to the austere mood and tone of Bergman’s chamber dramas is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or winner, Winter Sleep. Even the title sounds like something Bergman might have made in the late ‘60s or early ‘70’s. Yet, where most of Bergman’s films from that period center on women (hence, the somewhat misleading comparisons elicited by Clouds of Sils Maria), Ceylan’s latest focuses on a middle-aged man, an explicitly Shakespearean figure (he owns a sprawling, idyllic property called the Hotel Othello) whose closest antecedent in Bergman is probably Victor Sjöström’s melancholy old professor in Wild Strawberries. Ceylan’s protagonist, Aydin, is a wealthy former actor who now presides over his family’s vast holdings on the Anatolian steppe, while penning a weekly column in the local newspaper and beginning work on a monograph concerning the history of Turkish theater. While Aydin regards himself as a magnanimous Man of Letters, his recently divorced sister and much younger wife see him as a pompous, patronizing blowhard, too enamored of the sound of his own voice (pontificating aloud or on the page). Most of Aydin’s relatively impoverished tenants seem to share this view. This troubling trick of perspective—between how one perceives oneself in relation to one’s family and community, versus the very different perception of others—is expressed, again, through long, tangential exchanges between characters; the composite image of Aydin with which we’re left is haunting for its incongruous layers, resulting in what might well be Ceylan’s least schematic, and best, film to date.

The difficulty of really “knowing” a singular, complex individual is another major theme among several of this year’s festival offerings. Where Aydin is a grand fictional creation, the enigmatic people in other instances are based on historically notable figures. Neither Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner nor Ann Hui’s The Golden Era are biopics in the usual sense. Timothy Spall’s J.M.W. Turner is the kind the peculiar, eccentric subject that we’ve come to expect at the center of artists’ biographies, but the grunting, introverted landscape painter is flagrantly uncharismatic and scarcely psychologically legible. His artistic method is vividly demonstrated, but his genius is not explained—much to Leigh and Spall’s credit. Leigh is more concerned with re-situating Turner within the social and cultural context of his particular milieu; the material details of time and place are recreated with the same meticulous precision that distinguished Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake.

This concern for placing the elusive biographical subject within his/her historical context is also apparent in The Golden Era. Yet, more radically than Leigh, Hui never establishes a fully stable or secure vantage point from which to consider her subject, the writer Xiao Hong (Tang Wei). Mirroring the process of researching and writing a biography about a long-deceased historical figure, Hui consults with (actors portraying) some of Xiao Hong’s close acquaintances, who speak directly to the camera about their experience with the (ostensible) protagonist. Some have complained about this somewhat jarring strategy, but I felt that it allowed the seams of the narrative to show in a very fruitful way, deliberately undermining the seductive sweep of the handsomely mounted epic by conceding that the larger story is constructed around imperfectly remembered and sometimes contradictory interpretations of Xiao Hong’s life. Only in the film’s opening and closing moments is the subject allowed to speak for herself: in the first instance, stating the basic facts regarding her birth and death; in the second, reading an excerpt from her final literary work, Tales of Hulan River.

In other films at this year’s festival, characters are only able to speak some version of the truth through song. In Kris Elgstrand’s Songs She Wrote About People She Knows, Carol (Arabella Bushnell) is tight-lipped in conversation, by no means eager to get caught up in the long, drawn-out discussions of Godard, Assayas, and Ceylan’s films. (Full disclosure: I am personally acquainted with Elgstrand and Bushnell – but their movie is terrific, at any rate.) Instead, where Carol is able to speak her mind is in short, musical messages (rather in the style of early Nellie McKay!) that she leaves on the answering machines of her neighbors and co-workers. Her seething frustrations with those around her are no less severe than the criticisms directed at Winter Sleep’s Aydin by his sister and wife, but their expression, here, through song positions Carol’s vitriolic messages in an ambiguous space between everyday language and art. If Carol and her message-recipients finally arrive at something like a collective happy ending, it’s because her musical soliloquies, presented as art, have managed to facilitate the beginnings of actual dialogue.

The revelatory power of song is also hugely important in Christian Petzold’s superb Phoenix, though I shouldn’t say much more about that here. Without giving too much away: the lines demarcating authentic from performed selves are as rough, jagged, and increasingly indeterminate as they are in Clouds of Sils Maria—or, for that matter, in Vertigo, the film most explicitly referenced in Petzold’s deeply cinephilic mise-en-scène. But where Hitchcock’s masterpiece is, above all, a meditation on the painful, personal process of creating art, Petzold’s drama, set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, is really only partly about cinema, or artistic representation more generally. Like Godard’s bifurcated treatment of “La Nature” and “La Métaphore” in Goodbye to Language (or the overriding themes in his monumental Histoire(s) du Cinema), Phoenix is about the literally unspeakable in the history of the twentieth century. Mounds of grey rubble dotting the scarred cityscape say something about this history, but images can only describe and circumnavigate real historical trauma—or worse yet, semiotically subsume it. Words can do little more, admittedly, yet—whether written, spoken, or sung—they’re finally, very nearly all we’ve got. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Top 10 Films

01. Goodbye to Language (Godard)

02. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas)

03. Phoenix (Petzold)

04. Two Days, One Night (Dardenne/Dardenne) A series of difficult, emotionally fraught conversations made, remarkably, for the festival’s most thoroughly suspenseful film, besides perhaps Phoenix; the Dardennes’ best work since Rosetta and Marion Cotillard’s second astonishing performance of late, after her tremendous turn in James Gray’s The Immigrant.

05. The Golden Era (Hui)

06. Mr. Turner (Leigh)

07. Winter Sleep (Ceylan)

08. Life of Riley (Resnais) Alain Resnais’s swansong is as talky as any film mentioned above, but where most of those are decidedly dark, or at least moody, Life of Riley is a sprightly, engagingly theatrical comedy: all the grim business of death and dying occurs off-screen/stage—both in the non-presence of the terminally ill, Godot-like title character and the inevitable echoes of Resnais’ own recent passing.

09. Foxcatcher (Miller) An abrupt shift in tone from Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (a movie I actively love), but one that avoids the caricaturish treatment of famous subjects that marred his Capote. If Steve Carrell’s heavily made-up, against-type turn as disturbed billionaire John du Pont is inadvertently a “stunt performance” of sorts, it’s still much more nuanced and sensitive than Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s over-praised Truman Capote; Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, providing a more prosaic counter-balance to Carrell’s menacing eccentricity, are no less excellent.

10. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao) In mood and texture, if not precisely in plot: The Big Sleep re-imagined in a drab, snowy Chinese industrial city. Or (more modestly) Cold Weather with real badges and blood.

Some other films:

Exit Chienn Hsiang’s film may be the most forgettable film I saw at this year's festival, but it’s not bad precisely because it’s genetically engineered not to be. That is, this Taiwanese entry feels throughout as if it was concocted from a "How to Make an East Asian Art-house Movie That Will Appeal to Programmers At Western Film Festivals" cookbook: two parts Tsai, two parts Apichatpong, a dash of Hou and Edward Yang, Jia to taste. I felt like I'd seen every scene, every composition, every narrative trope in five other, better films.

Man on High Heels Well-meaning, mostly well-acted, almost well-executed, and roughly as sweet as it is silly, although its silliness at times threatens to cancel out some of its sweetness.

Maps to the Stars Cronenberg’s return to the deliriously perverse mode of Crash; he’s still got it and the cast is game, but it’s genuinely hard to tell whether the script is as obvious and on-the-nose as it seems or if that’s just part of the meta put-on.

White Bird in a Blizzard Somewhere between an interesting character study and an effective pastiche. I found it enjoyable enough while I was watching it—quite funny and smart in places—but it left a bad taste on my palate afterward, not least for its ultimate “reveal,” which felt too much like a cheap punch-line and negated the sense of mystery that the film had sustained up to that point—what David Lynch aptly described as “killing the golden goose.”

Top 10 Performances
01. Marion Cotillad – Two Days, One Night
02. Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria
03. Nina Hoss – Phoenix
04. Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner
05. Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Carrell – Foxcatcher
06. Eva Green – White Bird in a Blizzard and Julianne Moore – Maps to the Stars
07. Haluk Bilginer and Melisa Sözen - Winter Sleep
08. Tang Wei – The Golden Era
09. Fan Liao – Black Coal, Thin Ice
10. Juliette Binoche – Clouds of Sils Maria
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Three-quarters through the year (and, significantly, pre-VIFF), these are--in a very general sense--the things I've liked most in 2014.

01. Boyhood (Linklater)
02. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch)
03. True Detective (S1)
04. Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea - "Problem"
05. The Immigrant (Gray)
06. Tove Lo - Truth Serum (EP)
07. Mad Men (S7 pt. 1)
08. Miranda Lambert - Platinum
09. Orange Is the New Black (S2)
10. Shakira feat. Rihanna - "Can't Remember to Forget You"
11. Snowpiercer (Bong)
12. Game of Thrones (S4)
13. Morrissey - World Peace Is None of Your Business
14. The Killing (S4)
15. Nicki Minaj - "Anaconda"


Nobody Does It Better
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In his brilliant review of Bob Stanley's book, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé, Christgau crafts a shorter spiritual sequel to his classic article "US and Them: Are American Pop (and Semi-Pop) Still Exceptional? And by the Way, Does That Make Them Better?" (preserved for posterity here). Meanwhile, over at Billboard, he uses a piece ostensibly on Jason DeRulo to reiterate a personal statement of purpose.

From the time that I first discovered music criticism, I have enjoyed reading Christgau's Consumer Guide columns and his annual Pazz & Jop essays. Today, I read far less music writing generally than I once did, yet I still actively look forward to reading his new work--in whatever format, wherever it happens to turn up. He's still the Dean for a reason.


Still Ill
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Amos Barshad of Grantland has written a fitting tribute to Ill Communication upon the occasion of its twentieth anniversary (yes, I feel old). It's a terrific reminder--just in case you needed one--that the Beastie Boys were really, really good.


No World But This One
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I just re-watched 12 Years a Slave for the first time since seeing it in the theatre last year, and was struck by certain commonalities that it shares with The Thin Red Line. First, one key, if necessarily secondary, element of the film is the profound and seemingly irreconcilable contrast between the beauty and serenity of the natural landscape (the brilliant oranges and pinks of the bayou sunsets, as glimpsed through the branches of the willow and poplar trees, are a notably Malickian flourish) and the terrible violence done by man within/against said landscape. This aspect McQueen's film arguably shares with much of Malick's oeuvre, not just The Thin Red Line, but where 12 Years... recalls, in particular, TTRL is in its restrained, purposeful use of movie stars and recognizable up-and-comers. A third, if not more, of 12 Years... elapses before Fassbender and Lupita N'yongo (not a star at the time of the film's production or release, but one now, to be sure) appear onscreen. Benedict Cumberbatch, conversely, figures prominently early, but does not return to the narrative. Paul Giamatti's part seems most comparable to Travolta's early appearance in TTRL, and Brad Pitt (reserved for a couple memorably strong moments near the end of the film) functions similarly here to Clooney's late cameo in TTRL. Rather than distracting from the power of the picture in either case, or reminding the audience that it's "just a movie," these familiar faces making their entrances and exits on cue seems to serve as an appropriate reminder that--as Jonathan Rosenbaum noted of the coda to Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry--it's also a movie, a point that underscores the distinctive, peculiar power of cinema as a narrative medium.


Where the Girls Are
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Tove Lo, "Habits" So, Teresa and I were just talking the other day about the mid-'90's heyday of interesting female rockers--PJ Harvey, Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, Hole, Bjork, Bikini Kill, The Breeders, the list goes on and on--and how that moment had passed. Some of these artists maintain careers, and a few still put out strong albums, but ca. 1995 or so, they were able to couple critical praise with a substantial larger-cultural presence in a way that seems unlikely to recur in the YouTube era. Yet, there may be flickers of promise on the radar screen: Marina and the Diamonds, Grimes, Charli XCX, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, veterans-by-this-point Tegan and Sara, and now Tove Lo may be a less varied and less formidable roster than the one mentioned above, but we take what we can get. To call it a "movement" or a "scene" seems inappropriate in these digitally disconnected times, even if some of the above artists have co-Instragram'd on occasion; how about, then, the already Web-appropriated "fad"? Dark Girl Pop? Les Femmes de Urban Outfitters? Let's think on it. For now, let it be known that "Habits" is one of the best products yet of this materializing sound--better than "Royals" was even before we all got sick of it, up on the top shelf with Grimes' "Oblivion," LDR's "Video Games" (still the best thing she's done) and the better half of Marina's Electra Heart. The official remix isn't half bad either.

Shakira feat. Rihanna,"Can't Remember to Forget You" Shakira and Rihanna are, of course, neither one part of any such scene/fad/sound, even if they, at times, borrow pragmatically from its more useful aesthetic tools. Rihanna is as massive as stars come these days, thanks in no small part to the fact that her ascent to fame just slightly predated the total Internet-ization of the now (consequently) profoundly fractured pop landscape. Shakira, meanwhile, was already multi-platino back when Rihanna and Tove Lo were in the early grades of elementary school, somewhere in Barbados and Sweden, respectively. This generational factoid might render the "Can't Remember to Forget You" video a tad bit creepier, but, hey, everyone (including pre-Twitter megastars) needs the hits these days. This one's at 275 million and counting, so mission accomplished. But it didn't mean the song necessarily needed to be any good, and in fact, these megastar duets typically turn out lukewarm--see, e.g., Shakira's collaboration with Beyonce, the merely okay "Beautiful Liar." "Can't Remember To Forget You" would warrant inclusion on either artist's best-of collection, which is not faint praise; it actually kind of rocks, as evinced by the video's least salacious shots: Shakira, alternately, strumming an electric guitar and banging on some drums.

Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX, "Fancy" Speaking of memorable videos (see above) and the 90s (see above), here is an affectionate, extended homage to Clueless, a movie that, as Lena Dunham recently attested, was nothing short of definitive for her generation. Iggy and Charli would have only been five and three years-old, respectively, when Amy Heckerling's instant classic was in theatres, but one suspects they inherited well-worn VHS copies from older siblings or friends. In "Fancy," they make for a credible Cher and Tai, prompting one to wish they'd enlisted a third artist--Nicki Minaj perhaps?--to play Dionne. It might've necessitated adding another minute or two to the song, which would be fine, really--it's at least as catchy as it is dumb. Maybe catchier.

Avril Lavigne, "Hello Kitty" Last but not least, the weirdest objet d'art to pop up in some time. It's not that any single element of "Hello Kitty" would be weird on its own: the punky guitars would be pro forma on any number of other Avril tracks, the flirting-with-EDM "drop" is now nearly perfunctory for fading pop stars clawing for continued relevance, and the rabid Japanophilia is Gwen Stefani's one-time bread-and-butter. Put it all together, though, and some considerable oddness ensues. The video is rather too obvious and tired in its cultural appropriation; listen to the song sans visuals, in order to fully appreciate its amiable peculiarity. Without Avril's version of the Harajuku Girls in tow, the song's about-nothingness is more readily apparent and more interesting as such. I quote: "Come, come kitty kitty / You're so pretty, pretty / Don't go kitty / Stay with me [pronounced 'meh'] / ka-ka-kawaii [rough translation: 'cute']." For an artist whose back-catalogue is comprised mainly of pseudo-confessionals about, like, feelings and boys, this is nothing less than a triumph of non-content.

Goddamn, goddamn, godDAMN!


Oscar Sunday
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For what it's worth...

Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Should win: 12 Years a Slave
Should have been nominated: Before Midnight

Will win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Should win: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Should have been nominated: Terrence Malick, To the Wonder

Will win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Should win: Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Should have been nominated: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight

Will win: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Should have been nominated: Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Will win: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Should win: Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Should have been nominated: James Franco, Spring Breakers

Will win: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Should win: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Should have been nominated: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station


After the Gold Rush
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In the year that albums, long afterthoughts to the ubiquitous media blitzes promoting them, officially devolved into inconsequential "accessories" for the tech gadgets we play them on, Kanye delivered another brilliant, confounding long-player--a polemical 'fuck you' to the culture of compulsive disposability that is, at the same time, thoroughly immersed in said culture. Conversely, at the year's eleventh hour, Beyoncé unloaded a dazzling set of songs that should-- however temporarily--give the few remaining mourners for the (Actually Really Good) Album-As-Event pause in finalizing their obituaries. Song-wise, things are, of course, far less grim: Drake, Miley, and Selena (all of whom, it should be noted, too, put out strong albums unfairly penalized for being inevitably anticlimactic) delivered classics as good as the best pop songs from back when, you know, music mattered. Drake even promises sweetly to take us home when we're in no condition to get back on our own, thus allowing listeners to blissfully ignore for three and a half minutes the cold, hard, omnipresent fact that we can't go home again.

Okay. On to the lists.

01. Kanye West - Yeezus
02. Beyoncé - Beyoncé
03. A Tribe Called Red - Nation II Nation
04. Drake - Nothing Was the Same
05. Selena Gomez - Stars Dance
06. Miley Cyrus - Bangerz
07. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
08. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Mosquito
09. The Julie Ruin - Run Fast
10. Jay Z - Magna Carta...Holy Grail

01. Drake - "Hold On, We're Going Home"
02. Drake - "Worst Behavior"
03. Selena Gomez - "Slow Down"
04. Rich Homie Quan - "Type of Way"
05. Miley Cyrus - "We Can't Stop"
06. Beyonce feat. Jay Z - "Drunk in Love"
07. Charli XCX - "I Want It That Way"
08. Selena Gomez - "Come and Get It"
09. Eminem - "Berzerk"
10. Ying Yang Twins - "Miley Cyrus"