Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Top Albums: 2011

I listened to a *lot* of music in 2011. I just checked my iTunes, and I have more music from this year than any of last 10 years. That said, what follows are my favorite records of the year. It was tough to whittle the list down -- for every album on here, there were 2 or 3 that didn't make the cut for one reason or another. There were a lot of "artsy" critical darlings that I appreciated but just didn't listen to as much (i.e. Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, etc.), and just as many straightforwardly poppy albums (Peter Bjorn & John, The Kooks) that didn't have as much staying power, and some solid "mainstream" efforts (Death Cab for Cutie, Airborne Toxic Event) that I enjoyed for a time as well. I think my final list has a good mix of all three, as well as an eclectic smattering of other stuff. Keep in mind that there are just my favorite (read: very subjective) records of the last 12 months, not necessarily what I thought were the "best" records, or even what I listened to the most. Enjoy, and check out anything that sounds interesting.

I'll start with a few records that I enjoyed but just didn't spend enough time with to feel comfortable about listing. Then, some 2010 records that I caught up on this year. In alphabetical order:

Dan Andriano in the Emergency Room - Hurricane Season
Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra
Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
Diane Birch - The Velveteen Age (2010)
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals - Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (2010)
The Naked and Famous - Passive Me, Aggressive You (2010)

Onto the Honorable Mentions (also in alphabetical order):

Big D & The Kids Table - For the Damned, the Dumb, and the Delirious
City and Colour - Little Hell
The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
Dave Hause - Resolutions
Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong
Drive - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Foster the People - Torches
Incubus - If Not Now, When?
Lenka - Two
Meg & Dia - Cocoon
Red Hot Chili Peppers - I'm With You
Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
The Subways - Money and Celebrity
"Weird Al" Yankovic - Alpocalypse
Wild Flag - Wild Flag

That's 15 albums. There's 10 (well, 11) below, making for a top 25 of sorts. Sounds like a good number to me. Let's make like Jacque Cousteau and dive in:

10) Blink-182 - Neighborhoods/New Found Glory - Radiosurgery (tie)
Genre: Pop-punk
Standout tracks: "Heart's All Gone," "Wishing Well," "Even If She Falls"/"Anthem for the Unwanted," "Ready, Aim, Fire!"

This year was a pretty good year for the oft-maligned genre of pop-punk. Granted, I'm not 19 anymore and these songs don't have the same resonance as they used to, but you like what you like, right? I'm not going to pretend like I didn't give these albums plenty of spins this year (or whatever the digital equivalent of "spins" is). Words like  "catchy" and "infectious" and "anthemic" get bandied about a lot with bands like these, and that about sums it up. One does a LOT of driving in Arizona, and three chords and some "whoa-oh-oh"s are a much better freeway soundtrack than breathy whispers from bearded dudes over fucking banjo or whatever. There's a time and place for music like that -- a snowbound log cabin with a bottle of whiskey sounds about right. Not many cabins where I live is all I'm saying. Anyway, I'm not sure either of these albums would have made this list on their own merit, but I wanted to give a shout out to these records and a few more, so #10 it is. Some other pop-punk (and ska) gems were released by the following bands as well: Cobra Skulls, The Copyrights, Dead to Me, Dwarves, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Screeching Weasel.

9) Childish Gambino - Camp
Genre: Rap/hip-hop
Standout tracks: "Fire Fly," "Heartbeat," "Sunrise"

Community cast member Donald Glover takes great pains to separate his already well-established comedy persona ("Donald Glover"... duh) from his not-as-well-known rap persona, "Childish Gambino" (derived from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator... mine is Erratic Assassin... awesome) on Camp. The result, predictably, is a bit of a dichotomy. Are we supposed to take something called Childish Gambino seriously as he raps about black culture, the state of the rap game, and relationship struggles? Or are we supposed to laugh like we're in on the joke at lines like "You can kiss my ass / Human Centipede" and his constant references to Asian girls? Is this a Serious Album, or is it "camp"? The answer, I think, is somewhere between -- Donald Glover is a comedian (and a very successful one -- Community is by far the most original comedy on the air... for now) who raps, and there's no getting around that duality. His comedic sensibilities are going to seep into his songs, for better or worse. That Glover is, at this point, an amateur rapper is quite obvious -- Camp is littered with ill-advised one liners, clumsy rhymes, and a general sense of confusion about what this record (even the entire persona) is supposed to accomplish. But also prevalent are tight production, acute pop sensibilities, incisive observations, killer hooks (sang, sans Auto-Tune, by Glover himself), and a sense of earnestness (even in the album's missteps) that is missing from most rap/hip-hop today. Camp is flawed, yes, but it's an exceptionally listenable record and, presumably, another step toward world domination for the would-be Spider-Man, Donald Glover.

8) Watch the Throne - Watch the Throne
Produced by: So many people
Standout tracks: "No Church in the Wild," "Otis," "Welcome to the Jungle"

While Camp is the first foray into the mainstream for an ascendant MC, Watch the Throne is an authoritative statement by two mainstream icons, Jay-Z and Kanye West. What that statement is, I'm not exactly sure, but it's delivered in style: commanding beats, clever samples, conceptual flourishes, and guest appearances by artists both alive (Beyoncé, Frank Ocean) and dead (Otis Redding, James Brown). Both Jay-Z and West spit with their traditional verve and brio, touching on themes such as race, status, religion, progeny, etc. over progressively more complex arrangements/structures. It's a bold step for both artists -- albeit a directionless one, as the album can't seem to settle on one particular theme or concern. It's a concept album without a concept. The album also seems a bit out of touch -- "Niggas in Paris" on the heels of a devastating recession? Hubris much? But that should be expected from those involved. Watch the Throne is obviously not a perfect hip-hop album, despite the expectations, but it was never going to be, nor does it have to be. Instead, it's a fascinating exercise in excess, a monument to opulence. It's hard to turn away -- nor do you want to.

7) The Black Keys - El Camino
Genre: Rock/blues
Standout tracks: "Lonely Boy," "Gold on the Ceiling," "Little Black Submarines," "Run Right Back"

The Black Keys are the rare band that has managed to evolve without losing fans along the way -- in fact, they're gaining them. Radiohead is about the only other band I can think of that has pulled this off (although, while on the subject, I didn't much care for King of Limbs). After starting out as a two-piece, bare bones, guitar-and-drums blues rock outfit, the band -- nominally still a duo, although producer Danger Mouse has had an increased role -- has steadily added different elements on each record -- keys here, backing vocals there... did I just hear chimes? And, egads, is that a bass line? Yet, they're indelibly still the same band, and I don't hear anyone yelling "Sellouts!" Not that anyone would hear over some of Dan Auerbach's most ballsy guitar work yet -- seriously, listen to the second half of "Submarines" and you'll see what I mean. Well, not see, obviously. Anyway. According to the band, these songs were written to be played live, so I'll go ahead and put "See The Black Keys" live on my 2012 bucket list. You know, in case the world ends.

6) TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
Genre: Indie/experimental
Standout tracks: "Second Song," "No Future Shock," "New Cannonball Blues," "Repetition"

As their name would suggest, TV on the Radio delights in subverting expectations, labels, genres. Are they a rock band? Electronic? Hip-hop? Funk? No, they're all of the above, and then some. On Nine Types of Light, the band effortlessly shifts between these differing elements of their identity between tracks, verses -- shit, sometimes even between lines. The central narrative here, such as it is, seems to be vaguely post-apocalyptic ("All this death above extinguishing / All that you've ever known"), but that doesn't mean you can't still have a good time ("Shake it like it is the end of time"). Finding light in the dark -- seems an appropriate theme for a band whose bassist was suffering from lung cancer during recording (and who died shortly thereafter... R.I.P.). Solemn musings aside, this is a sharp album, deliberate in its chaos and unwavering in its sense of rhythm and flow, in spite of the myriad tones and structures, and one that keeps revealing new facets with each listen (much like their last record, 2008's Dear Science). I look forward to seeing what else this record, and band, have to offer in the future, apocalypse or no.

5) Daybreaker - The Northbound Trains EP
Genre: Rock/punk/acoustic
Standout tracks: "Lean On Me," "Lanterns," "Where I'm Supposed To Be," "City Lights"

There's not much more to say about this album than I said back in May, so I won't dally (not that I'd know how to anyway). Just know that this is the type of rock 'n' roll that more bands should play -- unselfconscious and soulful, well-crafted and tuneful. Daybreaker, the latest in a bumper crop of Springsteen/Petty influenced bands, plays songs about girls and driving and how a guitar can get you through a day or a year or a life. Only 7 songs long, this one got played a lot and each song burrowed its way into my brain -- and they haven't come out since. This one's about as under-the-radar as they come, but I hope I get to be the guy that said "I told you so" sometime soon.

4) The Lonely Island - Turtleneck & Chain
Genre: Rap/comedy
Standout tracks: "We're Back!", "Jack Sparrow," "After Party," "No Homo"

Note the order of the genres: rap then comedy. Yes, these guys are funny (okay -- fucking hilarious), but they also are unabashed hip-hop fans and, indeed, talents in their own right. The list of guest artists on Turtleneck & Chain reads like a Billboard Hot 100 roll call: Akon, Snoop, Rihanna, JT, Nicki Minaj, and, uh, Michael Bolton... and Andy, Jorma, and 'Kiv manage to hold their own. Indeed, other than the brilliant "Sparrow" (see hyperlink), most of my favorite jams off this record don't feature any guest artists. Say what you will about their feature film acting, writing, or directing (although all three are better than they have any right to be), these guys have a true flair for songwriting and composing, even if they are "just" fake raps. Each song manages to both mock and pay tribute to hip-hop conventions -- "We're Back!" celebrates the group's, er, members (but not like you think), while "No Homo" completely skewers rap's inherent homophobia, for example. There is an undeniable low genius at work here, but to call them hip-hop's idiot savants would be a misnomer. Even given all the guest talent, these three guys are still probably the smartest guys in the studio.

3) Alkaline Trio - Damnesia
Genre: Punk/acoustic
Standout tracks: "Calling All Skeletons," "Every Thug Needs a Lady," "The American Scream," "I Held Her in My Arms"

Alkaline Trio has long been one of my favorite punk bands, but I felt that they lost a bit of their edge on their last few studio albums (from Crimson on). Their rough, back alley charm had been rounded smooth under too much studio polish. Thankfully, Damnnesia, an acoustic greatest hits of sorts, strips all the studio sheen away and allows the band's unique songwriting, vocal harmonies, and macabre lyrics to again take center stage. There are some beautiful renditions of old favorites ("Clavicle," "Radio," "Private Eye," "Thug"), but some of their newer songs really stood out for me in this stripped-down atmosphere ("Mercy Me," "Skeletons," "Scream"). There are also two new songs: "Olde English 800," which is about exactly what it says, and an upbeat (in a way) Violent Femmes cover, "I Held Her in My Arms." This collection would be an excellent gateway into the band, but is also a way for old fans to appreciate the band in a new light -- the slowed down version of "Thug" in particular is a revelation, a perfect showcase for Dan Andriano's love-weary voice (also, his solo album from this year is very much worth checking out). All in all, this record is -- odd as it sounds for Alkaline Trio -- beautiful.

2) Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Genre: Rock
Standout tracks: "Bridge Burning," "Dear Rosemary," "These Days," "Walk"

When you tune into a classic rock station 20 years from now (assuming there is still such a thing as radio), one of the first bands you'll hear will be the Foo Fighters. I'm convinced of this. That's not to say that Dave Grohl and Co. produce works of towering artistic achievement (I mean, this record is nominated for multiple Grammys, which is about as unartistic as you can get). No, what I'm trying to sat is that the Foos are nigh-unparalleled masters of populist anthems -- from "My Hero" to "Learn to Fly" to "Times Like These" to, yes now, "Walk." These are the songs that my generation will listen to and say, "Man, those were the days," the songs that they'll play on long road trips with their kids, like my dad did with The Beatles and Tom Petty. It's not necessarily the most artistic songs that stand the test of time, but the biggest -- and nobody does bigger better these days than the Foo Fighters. I saw them live a few months ago and the environment was the exact same as when I saw legends like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen -- reverent. Dave Grohl had it right 16 years ago when he said, "I'll Stick Around."

1) The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
Genre: Indie/folk/rock
Standout tracks: "Don't Carry It All," "Down By the Water," "All Arise!", "This Is Why We Fight"

Undisputed. I've had this record for over a year now (it leaked in late 2010), and I've all but known it would occupy this slot since I first heard it. I knew this was a different Decemberists record from the spry wail of the harmonica to open the record on "Don't Carry It All" -- the band was writing songs instead of opuses, lyrics instead of poetry, an album instead of An Album. Not that there was anything wrong with the band's previous approach (for example, "The Island," the 12-minute, multi-suite, quasi-prog jam and Hazards of Love precursor from The Crane Wife is an amazing song), but it's interesting to see a band take a more uncomplicated approach to record-making and produce some of their best work. Isn't it usually the other way around? Not this time -- The King Is Dead's idyllic, country-tinged ditties (and "ditty" is really the right word for a lot of the songs) are the best of the year, a true testament to Colin Meloy and his bandmates's songwriting capabilities. Maybe song "crafting" is the better word, to better indicate the care that obviously went into these songs. This is readily apparent live, even without key contributor Jenny Conlee (suffering from breast cancer), no more so then on "This Is Why We Fight," easily my favorite (and the best) song of the year. Watching the band play it, it could just as easily be called "This Is Why We Play," or, perhaps better, "This Is Why We Listen."

Like I said, I listened to a lot of music this year -- but I must have missed some great albums. Don't be afraid to let me know what they are. I'll follow this up shortly with my favorite songs of the year -- make sure to check that out as well! As always, thanks for reading my ramble.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Totally Not Gay: Top 5 Homoerotic Movies

Get an image in your mind of the following: Shirtless men. Deep, smoldering glares. Ripped bodies glistening with sweat. Fierce embraces. Bulging... muscles. What came into your mind? (Wow, poor phrasing there.) Chances are, it's either gay porn or action movies. After watching Fast Five earlier this year (among many, many other movies), I'm not even sure there's a difference anymore. I've long since stopped being able to tell if the titans of testosterone in action movies want to fight or just screw. I don't think I'd even be fazed if Sylvester Stallone made another Expendables that erupted into a gay orgy halfway through. Except any male fan of these movies will always say, "Dude, it's totally not gay!"

Anyway, all that got me to thinking about the time-honored tradition of homoeroticism in action movies. Surely, some lonely Film Studies student has written a 150-page dissertation on the subject, probably titled something like Tango in Cash: A Survey of the Homoerotic in American Action Movies. If not, someone should write it, STAT. I don't have that kind of time though, so you'll just have to settle for a Top 5 list for now. Enjoy, if you're into that sort of thing.

Honorable Mentions: Any buddy cop movie ever, any boxing movie ever, just about any Schwarzenegger or Stallone movie, and, of course, Road House (1989). Not to imply that there is anything gay about Dalton (R.I.P.), but, I mean, c'mon:

5) Fast Five (2011), starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
This is just the latest installment in modern cinema's most prolific study of homoeroticism amongst the gearhead set. I mean, take a look at this. And this. And let's not forget to mention this criminally underseen spinoff. The latest installment ratchets (get it? a ratchet is a tool you would use on a car) it up a notch with the addition of The Rock, however. What used to be Vin Diesel and Paul Walker staring each other down, sweat-drenched and ready to throw down (note that I could have said "come to blows") now adds The Rock and his Steiner-esque biceps to the mix. Diesel and Johnson (how are these not gay porn sobriquets? (why "sobriquets"? because it sounded gayer than "nicknames")) have a fight scene toward the end that is the stuff of homorerotic legend. It even starts with the line, "You're going down, Toretto!" Check it out (pic hyperlinked):

4) The Lord of the Rings (all of them), starring Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd
If you played a drinking game where you had to drink every time a Hobbit did or said something homoerotic, you'd be smashed about an hour and a half into Fellowship. I'm not sure what it is about hobbits. Maybe it's their capris. Or the fact that two of them tickle-raped Boromir (never mind that he looks like he liked it). Then there's the whole Frodo/Sam thing. Douche chill! Finally, there's the giant hobbit orgy that, as far as I remember it, took up about the last forty-five minutes of Return of the King. Here it is. Judge for yourself:

3) The Transporter (2002), starring Jason Statham
Every man has his "If I were a girl..." list. Statham's on mine (along with, obviously, Steve Nash). I blame this movie (and subsequent sequels). America was already familiar with Jason Statham: British Gangster (Snatch) and Jason Statham: White Guy Who Does Martial Arts (The One). This was America's first introduction to Jason Statham: Gay Action Hero. (If you don't believe me, ask the director of the second movie). In The Transporter, Statham is shirtless at nearly every opportunity, usually stripping without even the slightest provocation (he's a real pro though -- he pushes the tension to the last possible moment before stripping). And, of course, there's the infamous oil scene. Enjoy -- I know I did:

2) 300, starring Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Michael Fassbender, Dennis Rodman (at least, I'm pretty sure it was him)
I'm pretty sure I don't even need to say anything about this one. (But you know me: I will anyway.) Anyway, this is probably the first movie that came into your mind (there's gotta be a better way to say that...) at the beginning of this post. I don't even know where to start with this one. I guess the Xerxes picture above is as good a place as any. I could also link to about a thousand pics of abs, spears held phallically, the aforementioned smoldering gazes, or I could just link to proof that the actual Spartans were into tummysticks. So yeah. This movie was just about a Madonna song away from being all the way gay. Wait, what? Someone already had that idea? Say no more. Suspicions confirmed:

1) Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Tom Skerritt
Has to be. The best bad movie of all time and the most homoerotic movie of all time are one and the same. I'll let the pics and video do the talking (warning: may include captions):

I like what I see. Maybe don't wear your Hanes next time.

This ain't gay shit. This is man shit.
Don't act like you're not impressed.
"You know where I'm gonna put this?" "Yeah."
And, of course, the volleyball scene. Need I say more? (Don't worry, I won't... much.)

These are just the ones that stand out (up?) for me. I'm sure there are countless others. Let me know what I missed... besides your musk. Which is totally not gay. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

2011 in Film: One-Sentence Reviews

As if you couldn't tell from past entries, I'm a compulsive list-maker. I am constantly keeping tabs on things in my head -- Top 10 this, Top 25 that, etc. I even made a list of my favorite sandwiches once. One thing I usually do throughout the year is keep a running tab of all the movies I've seen in that particular year. I try to rank them as I go in relation to each other. As I was busy updating my 2011 list, I figured I might as well review them. But then I thought, "That's a lot of work." I haven't really seen that many movies this year, but writing even a few hundred words on each them seemed daunting. Then I though, "Hey, I'm lazy, it's the Twitter Age, why not just fire out a quick sentence on each?" So that's what I did. Enjoy -- it's simple and easily digestible, just like a sandwich! BEWARE: Persistent and egregious violence committed against punctuation below.

Movies ranked on a very subjective Excellent-to-Total Crap scale:

Excellent (*****)
None so far

Great (****1/2)
None so far

Very Good (****)
Paul - Made for fanboys, by fanboys; funniest of the year so far.
Fast Five - Perhaps most homoerotic movie since Top Gun -- in a good way.
Everything Must Go - Will Ferrell tries his hand at drama, is still funny, which makes the movie work.
Bridesmaids - NEWSFLASH: Women can be funny and crass too (something Kristen Wiig fans already knew).
Take Me Home Tonight - Funny, touching, nostalgic -- would-be That '80s Show adaptation decent.

Solid (***1/2)
Unknown - I'd watch Liam Neeson kick ass and take names in anything -- and I mean N-E-thing.
X-Men: First Class - Even with its flaws (useless side characters, MacAvoy's preening, etc.), still way better than anything Singer or Ratner put out.
The Hangover Part II - Yes, it was a complete rip-off of the first and, no, it didn't need to be made, but you're delusional if you didn't laugh your ass off.
The Adjustment Bureau - This had the chance to be Blade Runner-good... maybe in the hands of a more experienced director.
Source Code - Thoroughly solid genre fare, but that's it.
Kung-Fu Panda 2 - How did this not have some sort of ridiculous subtitle like Attack of the Cranes or Electric Bamboogaloo?

Mediocre (***)
The Mechanic - See entry for Unknown, replace Neeson, Liam with Statham, Jason -- watch for plot holes though.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Completely unnecessary yet entertaining enough.
Thor - Scenes in Asgard = good, scenes on Earth = zzzzz's -- do the math and the result is "meh."
Your Highness - This had soooo much potential as a brilliant fantasy genre parody, but it just wound up being a mediocre stoner comedy.

Kinda Sucked (**1/2)
Scream 4 - Actually started off fairly decent, but the wheels came off in the third act.
Sucker Punch - Zack Snyder should never, ever, ever, ever be allowed to work with actors again -- dug the style and atmosphere though.

Sucked (**), Awful (*1/2), Terrible (*), Crap (1/2), Total Crap (0)
None so far

WTF (???)
The Tree of Life - Cop-out: This is what happens when hubris goes unchecked (as it so often does).


That's it so far. I'll keep it updated throughout the year. Feel free to agree or disagree or agree to disagree.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

2011 Summer Jams

Hello, blinking cursor. It's been a while. But grades are in, the sun is out, and my free time (and urge to write) has been freed from the grubby clutches of another crop of community college students. It's time to write again. I figure a good way to start would be to share some music recommendations with the fine citizenry of the internets. So, fine citizenry, put the gossip site/fantasy team/porn video/whatever on hold for a few minutes and check out some sweet summer jams, courtesy of me. Good for beach bummin', pool partyin', and/or road trippin'. Let's dig in. Alphabetically, as always.

Honorable Mentions: Childish Gambino - EP (aka Donald Glover aka Troy from Community aka the best show on TV right now), Dave Hause - Resolutions (aka the lead singer of The Loved Ones), The Lonely Island - Turtleneck & Chain (just got it, but loving it so far -- also, this) Peter Bjorn & John - Gimme Some (you might know them as 'the band that did that song with the whistling'), The Sounds - Something to Die For (female vox, very danceable).

Daybreaker - The Northbound Trains EP
Genre: Punk/Folk/Acoustic
Standout tracks: "The Way Up North," "Where I'm Supposed to Be," "City Lights"

Although I don't really much know about this band (downloaded the EP on a whim from a music leak site), this has fast become one of my favorite releases of the year. In the same vein (philosophically if not acoustically) as personal favorites Lucero and The Gaslight Anthem, Boston-based Daybreaker plays earnest, unpretentious rock 'n' roll that claims blues, folk, and punk influences. This is the kind of stuff that makes you tap your foot and sing along with the window down (just watch the brake pedal) from the kind of band you'd love to see in a shitty dive bar on a Friday night (I'm thinking the Yucca Tap). I can't wait to hear more from these guys and am eagerly anticipating a full-length and some West Coast tour dates.

Someone kindly uploaded "Where I'm Supposed to Be" onto YouTube:

The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
Genre: Indie/Folk
Standout tracks: "Don't Carry It All," "Rox in the Box," "Down by the Water," "This Is Why We Fight"

This is one of two records from this year that have already made their way into my regular rotation (the other is next). You know, that upper 5% of albums that you can listen to anytime, anywhere, the album's you'll want to pass on to your friends (or down to your kids). I knew it would from the opening harmonica wail of "Don't Carry It All" and had it confirmed again during the opening of "This Is Why We Fight" and countless times in between. This isn't The Decemberists at their creative peak (Picaresque) or even at their best (The Crane Wife), but at their most focused. No lyrical embellishments, baroque arrangements; no nine-minute songs about fisherman, no prog-folk fairy tale concept album -- just a short, sweet, unadorned folk-rock masterpiece. Makes me want to go out to the farm and, I don't know, plant shit or milk a cow or wear overalls. See the stars shine overhead. That kind of thing. Just listen and you'll get it.

Start with "This Is Why We Fight":

The Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Genre: Rock
Standout tracks: "Bridge Burning," "Rope," "Dear Rosemary," "Walk"

Blah, blah, blah, Kurt Cobain, blah, blah, blah. It really pisses me off that you can't read a review for this album (or any Foo album) without having Nirvana references shoved down your throat (and I realize I'm only adding to it here). You know what? I don't really like Nirvana. Never have. I'll give 'em credit for helping usher out hair metal... but was grunge really that much better? At least hair metal gave us "The Final Countdown" (and I mean that with all sincerity). Grunge gave us flannel shirts and Courtney Love. Thanks for nothing, assholes. Oh well, I'll settle for the Foos as a consolation prize. In all honesty, this album's pretty much more of the same from Grohl and Co. (now with Pat Smear back in the fold) -- big hooks, anthemic choruses, pummeling rhythms -- but I'll take another Foo record every few years for the rest of my life. Grohl is like Tom Petty that way (a comparison I'm seeing made more and more lately). Even though they sound nothing alike, they're both equally capable of cranking out songs/albums that are solid at the worst and iconic at their best (and this one's closer to iconic than solid -- just listen to the opening track... and that album art!) until they die. I'll bet the Foos are still selling out arenas in 20 years like Petty is now. I'm definitely looking forward to it.

Check out "Rope":

Lenka - Two
Genre: Singer-Songwriter/Pop
Standout tracks: "Two," "Heart Skips a Beat," "Blinded by Love," "Shock Me into Love"

...and now for a change of pace. In addition to hipsterish indie and testosterone-fueled guyrock, I've also cultivated a taste for twee girlypop. Scattered throughout my iTunes, you'll find such gems as Kelly Clarkson, Vanessa Carlton, Sara Bareilles, Lily Allen, Katy Perry, etc. Again, I'm being sincere here. However, my taste in such girlypop is discerning, but in no particular way -- I love all of the above, but you won't find anything by Avril Lavigne or Lady Gaga anywhere near my music collection. As a matter of fact, I can't stand 'em. Nothing will get me out of a room faster. Lenka, on the other hand, is definitely someone I can get behind, if you know what I'm saying (doggy-style sexual intercourse if you don't). I also enjoy her music very much. You might already be familiar with "The Show" from her first album (and you should familiarize yourself with it if you are not). Her appropriately-titled second album continues in the same tradition -- syrupy-sweet vocals ("And THAT'S how you get ants!"), eclectic arrangements, and eminent catchiness (seriously, some of these songs are harder to get rid of than some of the more virulent STDs... like ants). Check it out if you think you can handle it.

"Heart Skips a Beat" is a good a place to start as any:

Meg & Dia - Cocoon
Genre: Indie/Pop/Rock
Standout tracks: "Bandits," "Unsinkable Ships," "Breakdown," "Summer Clothes"

Meg & Dia have me at a loss. I'm really not sure who's supposed to like them, what their demographic is. Just by looking at them, you'd think they were manufactured pop stars. But they write their own songs and play instruments. They play at the Warped Tour to young and angry crowd, but their (sometimes clumsy) lyrics allude to sex and literature, things probably over the head of the typical pissed-off 14-year-old (and probably the obnoxiously drunk 30-year-olds too). They're kind of a confusing band. Evidently, the record labels agree with me, because they were dropped from their major label not too long ago. They're still cranking out hard-to-label records though, as evidenced by this year's excellent Cocoon. Running the gamut from, indeed, twee girlypop and radio-friendly rock to ambling country and spare folksy numbers, the album has something to offer everyone. My personal favorite is "Bandits," a song that leans more towards the "spare folksy" end of the spectrum about lovers run afoul of the law. I seriously listened to it about 8 times in a row the first time I heard it. I invite you to below. Enjoy, if you're into that sort of thing.

As promised, "Bandits" (I don't know why they're on bikes):

Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
Genre: Punk/Rock/Blues
Standout tracks: "California (Hustle and Flow)," "Machine Gun Blues," "Bakersfield," "Can't Take It with You"

I was never actually really big into "Social D" (in the parlance of our times). They were always one of those bands I enjoyed in passing, but their albums always had that dreaded "samey" feel to them (although friends have leveled that charge against Bad Religion, and they're not entirely off target, so who knows). That was before I heard this album though. Their sound (which always sounded kind of lackadaisical for punk to me) has been infused with some kind of shitkicking, downhome, almost Southern rock energy. Here, Social D sounds like what I'd imagine Ruckus (from the criminally underappreciated, and criminally overdramatic Elizabethtown) would sound like on record (and yes, I realize Paul Schneider's backing band is My Morning Jacket). Driving, almost bluesy rhythms, guitars that wail and sing instead of simply grind, and a chorus of female backing vocalists -- add Mike Ness's indistinguishable vocals to it all and the result is a fresh perspective on a band and a scene (California punk) that has flagged in recent years (Bad Religion's outstanding record last year not withstanding). This record is definitely on my playlist for summer road trips.

Put "Machine Gun Blues" in your pipe and smoke it (or in your iTunes and listen to it):

TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
Genre: Indie/Experimental
Standout tracks: "Second Song," "No Future Shock," "New Cannonball Run," "Repetition"

Some of my favorite things about this record: The title, the cover, the fact that the first song is called "Second Song," the horns on "Second Song" and how they kind of meld with the vocals after a while, the dueling senses of ominousness and playfulness, the crisp instrumentals and funky electronic flourishes, the title "Caffeinated Consciousness," and, finally, my favorite line of the year so far: "What's the matter with your next door neighbor? I heard he has sex, drugs, and danger." This tells me two things: 1) I need to get new neighbors, and 2) lead singer Tunde Adebimpe (who you might remember from Rachel Getting Married -- underrated flick) is a lyrical badass. In addition to lyrical badassery, he spends the record exploring all types of vocal stylings -- singing, rapping, screaming, crooning, he does it all. Just as his bandmates explore all genres and tempos. This record is as multifaceted as its cover would suggest.

Check out "Second Song" for one of the above-mentioned facets:

2011's been a solid year for music so far, and there's more good stuff on the horizon. Here's some that I'm looking forward to (physical release date in parentheses):
Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys (May 31)
Arctic Monkeys - Suck It and See (June 7)
Vanessa Carlton - Rabbits on the Run (June 21)
Incubus - If Not Now, When? (July 12 -- already heard it, and digging it so far)
And supposedly the Red Hot Chili Peppers and New Found Glory will have new stuff in the late summer. We'll see how RCHP (not the correct abbreviation, I know) do without Frusciante...

...aaaand I'm done. Assume these last few lines would have been something clever if it weren't so late. I hope you enjoyed reading. Let me know what you think of these records and if there are any you like that I didn't list. I love getting music recs even more than giving them! Until next time.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscars 2011: The Best of the Rest

True Grit - Roger Deakins
Deakins is the man -- he needs a statue like Chaz Sheen needs blow. I could see any of the films winning this though. Black Swan was especially strong.

The Social Network - Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall
Has to be -- seems like half the movie was intercut, but never confusing. Bodes well for its Picture chances.

The King's Speech - Eve Stewart, Judy Farr
I guess. Seems to be between this and Alice in Wonderland, so I'll go with the prestige picture.

The King's Speech - Jenny Beavan
This award almost always goes to British period pieces. Although Colleen Atwood (basically the Jeanne McCarthy of costume designers) is definitely a contender. Could also see I Am Love winning.

The Wolfman - Rick Baker, Dave Elsey
At least it's not Norbit.

The Social Network - Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Because it would be badass to see Trent Reznor get an Oscar and be halfway to an EGOT. Inception (totally deserving as well) and The King's Speech figure to be contenders as well.

Toy Story 3 - Randy Newman, "We Belong Together"
Don't even remember it from the film, but... HAHA, no Burlesque noms! I could also see the Tangled song winning.

Inception - Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo, Ed Novick
For two reasons: 1) The name Gary Rizzo. Love it. 2) If I pick Inception for both sound awards, I'm bound to get one right.

Inception - Richard King
See above, except replace "Gary Rizzo" with "Dick King" and "love" with "LOVE".

Inception - Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley, Pete Bebb, Paul J. Franklin
Has to be. Although HP7.1 was also impressive.

Toy Story 3 - Lee Unkrich

Biutiful - Alejandro González Iñárritu
Only one I saw. The Dutch one is supposed to be the favorite. But I can't stand the Dutch.

Restrepo - Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger
Never saw it. Or any of them. Heard this and Exit Through the Gift Shop were good.

Poster Girl - Sara Nesson, Mitchell Block
Total guess.

Day & Night - Teddy Newton
Actually saw all these. Didn't really like any of them. The Lost Thing was my favorite, and The Gruffalo was okay. I'm going with the Pixar one.

God of Love - Luke Matheny
Saw all of these too. They were all excellent. This was the best -- slick, funny, and touching.

Wherein I Predict the Oscars

At this time tomorrow, all the little golden naked dudes will have been handed out and I'll hopefully be in the midst of a decent wine buzz and fresh off an Oscar pool win. I haven't won in a few years, so I think I'm due. However, this year is also one of the hardest to call in recent memory (and this is coming from someone who's seen nearly everything). I've only got three of the major eight categories as "locks" -- Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. The other categories are about as perplexing as Inception's plot or Black Swan's ending. However it shakes out, this could turn out to be something of a crossroads for the Acedemy -- do they go with the more modern, unique pictures (The Social Network, Inception, etc.), or stick with the same old Oscar-bait prestige pictures (The King's Speech, True Grit, etc.)? Here's hoping for the former, not only for my ballot's sake, but for filmmaking in general. Here's hoping the Academy gets with the times. Onto the major category picks (technicals in the next, less wordy, post):

*indicates a performance/film I have not seen
bold indicates my pick

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
Christian Bale - The Fighter
John Hawkes - Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner - The Town
Mark Ruffalo - The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech

This is close to a lock, but I have this sickening feeling that a King's Speech night is more than possible. Should that worst-case scenario come to pass, I could see Rush winning this one (for a performance that I actually quite liked). He's Bale's only real competition here. I was overjoyed to see Hawkes nominated -- I'd been calling his performance Oscar-worthy since I first saw the movie -- but he'll have to settle for the WTF? nomination. Renner is about as tall as an Oscar statue, although his character's presence was much larger in The Town. A solid performance, but not one I'm sure I'd have nominated. Ditto Ruffalo, an actor I almost always like -- not the case in Kids, although I mostly blame that on a sitcom-level script that basically neutered his character (more on that later). I'd much rather have seen Andrew Garfield nominated for The Social Network. All that said, Bale deserves this award for what I really hope was a method, not meth, performance in The Fighter and for consummate professionalism over the years.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:
Amy Adams - The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech
Melissa Leo - The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit
Jacki Weaver - Animal Kingdom*

This is one of the most wide-open categories, and my "wild card" pick. My rationale - Adams is here because she's been nominated before, and Weaver is the John Hawkes-esque WTF? nod. Neither have a shot. Bonham Carter was good, but has relatively few stateside precursors (again though, beware the potential King's Speech juggernaut). Leo was solid, and the Academy seems to have some love for the film, but a) she rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with the ads she took out in the trades, b) I still see vote-splitting with Adams, and c) the Academy has more love for True Grit, to the tune of 10 total noms to 8. Sometimes, you have to go where the nominations are. Can a film with 10 noms get snubbed in every major category for which it's nominated (which most projections seem to suggest)? Sure, it could, but I doubt it will. I don't see it winning Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Director, or Picture, so that leaves this admittedly wide-open category. I predicted Tilda Swinton here a few years ago by this same logic, so let's hope it works again.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Anette Bening - The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman - Black Swan
Michelle Williams - Blue Valentine

This is one of the few locks -- no one seriously expects anyone but Portman to win here. There was a time when Bening was considered a legitimate contender, but her support has subsided as the buzz around Kids has worn off (thank god). I wish more people had seen Rabbit Hole -- both Kidman and costar Aaron Eckhart were excellent. Poor marketing, I guess. Williams was solid (and naked) in an emotionally-demanding role in Valentine, although I'm not sure her character's motivations were ever made clear. Lawrence was a force in Winter's Bone and perhaps someone to keep an eye on, although the same thing was said about Ellen Page a few years back (and she's done squat since Juno). Portman's got this one (and Best Achievement in Getting Your Box Mowed -- although Williams is close) locked up tighter than her character's legs.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Javier Bardem - Biutiful
Jeff Bridges - True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
Colin Firth - The King's Speech
James Franco - 127 Hours

This one looks like a lock as well, similar to last year's race. Firth, the respected vet, will finally get his statue. Truth be told, I thought he was actually better last year in A Single Man, but there was a definite gravitas to his performance in Speech that is Oscar-worthy. Not as Oscar-worthy as, say, Eisenberg or, especially Franco (in my favorite male lead performance of the year), but they're young whippersnappers who'll have to wait their turn (Franco will be back; not sure about Eisenberg though -- the perfect storm of actor and role). Bardem was haunting as a husband and father, well, haunted by his past -- and I totally called that he'd be the fifth nominee (you'll just have to trust me though). Bridges was solid for sure, but I think his nomination would have been better served going to someone like Eckhart or, hell, even Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island (actually kind of disappointed it didn't get any recognition from AMPAS -- not surprised, just disappointed).

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published:
Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy - 127 Hours
Aaron Sorkin - The Social Network
Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich - Toy Story 3
Joel and Ethan Coen - True Grit
Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini - Winter's Bone

Our last lock -- and the most deserving, in my opinion. Sorkin's script for The Social Network is probably the best individual piece of any filmmaking from this past year. An absolutely flawless script, multi-layered and poignant, all from material considered to be "unfilmable." A total screenwriting gem. Of the other nominees, Toy Story 3's script is easily the most impressive (and probably the only of them that I'd actually have nominated). While I enjoyed both films, I can't say that 127 Hours or Winter's Bone were especially impressive from a script standpoint. As far as True Grit goes, I really didn't like it at all. I'm not sure if it was a flaw in the script or what, but every line fell totally flat on my ears, like the actors were instructed to read as if auditioning for a high school play. I don't know, but it was fucking terrible -- and I'm almost always a Coen apologist. I just didn't see it this year guys, sorry. This is another spot I would have liked to have seen some love for Rabbit Hole or Shutter Island.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
Mike Leigh - Another Year*
Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington - The Fighter
Christopher Nolan - Inception
Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg - The Kids Are All Right
David Seidler - The King's Speech

This one really pains me, because I really liked Nolan's script -- flawed, yes, but it's one of the year's true original ideas. A totally ambitious, complex, and damn-near genius script. Again, you have to go where the noms are though, and Speech has 12 of 'em -- the most of any film. Inception had 8, sure, but they were mostly in the technical categories -- Nolan getting snubbed for director (again) probably ensured a loss here. Speech had a solid script, but I can't be too impressed by an original screenplay so deeply rooted in documented history (and you'd have to think the eponymous speeches were historically accurate and therefore not "original," right?). It doesn't seem to be deserving, I don't see Inception winning, so what does that leave us with? I won't comment on Another Year because I haven't seen it -- but who else has? Certainly not enough Academy members to put it over the top. The Fighter? Again, too much historical basis and the underdog story practically tells itself. Yawn. That leaves The Kids Are All Right, which I don't (and haven't since I saw it) get. Seriously, the whole script is like some rejected Showtime pilot. Bening and Moore are great in the film, but I cannot for the LIFE of me fathom why **SPOILERS** Moore's character would sleep with her children's biological (sperm-donor) father. Asinine. And half the shit that comes out of Ruffalo's mouth thereafter is laughable. His character is completely castrated. Ugh. This is usually one of my favorite categories, but it's a weak field this year. Truly hoping Inception pulls it off, but I doubt it. (Oh yeah, and where's Black Swan??)

Best Achievement in Directing:
Darren Aronofsky - Black Swan
Joel and Ethan Coen - True Grit
David Fincher - The Social Network
Tom Hooper - The King's Speech
David O. Russell - The Fighter

While I'd be pissed if Speech wins Picture over The Social Network, I'd be positively apoplectic if Hooper beats Fincher here. I've had my issues (well, issue) with Fincher in the past (see: Benjamin Button, The Way Too Fucking Long Case of), but he completely and totally deserves this award. It's like Danny Boyle a couple years back -- a long overdue statue for a now-ascended filmmaker. Fight Club and, especially, Zodiac were marvelous, but The Social Network is Fincher's crowning achievement -- just about a perfect film. Fincher's cinematic wizardry perfectly compliments Sorkin's kinetic wordplay. Of the rest of the nominees, Hooper appears to be the main challenger, although I have no idea why -- Fincher's right ball could have directed that cast to awards nominations. I almost wish Aronofsky was getting more buzz, because Black Swan was pretty freaking excellent. I think he's in a similar position to Fincher when he made Zodiac a few years ago though -- he'll get his soon. The Coens have a lifetime pass to Oscar nominations, it seems, and Russell is deserving (although I wasn't as impressed with the film as the Academy clearly was).Truthfully, I would have much rather Nolan was nominated than either of those two, or even someone like Boyle or Lee Unkrich for Toy Story 3.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Cue Chris Parnell in Anchorman when the panda story is announced: "This is a big one." Monumental, even. The Academy has fucked up before (duh), and recently -- A Beautiful Mind over Fellowship and Crash over Brokeback (and both of those over the far superior Munich) come to mind -- but this one would hurt the most. Like, "I'm boycotting the Oscars next year" hurt. It would be unconscionable, if not quite unfathomable, for The King's Speech (or, if you're Roger Ebert, True Grit) to beat out The Social Network. Let's see, would you rather have formulaic, uninteresting, and irrelevant, or would you rather have unique, fascinating, and topical? The answer seems obvious, but the Academy can be remarkably out of touch at times. Let's hope this isn't one of them. Recognize the truly important film, not the stuffy, self-important one, AMPAS. Do it for the kids (even if they can't get away from their damned computers and/or smart phones). The Social Network is far and away the best film of the year, and it deserves the statue to go with it.

End ramble. Here's hoping for 8-for-8. Up next: the rest of the categories, quick-pick style.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Top 10 Films: 2010

I think I've written before about the difference between films and movies, and this year's crop of, er, cinematic releases clearly demonstrates that difference. It's part of the reason why I had such a hard time with my Top 10 (that, and there was a huge glut in the 7-12 range). Anyway, 2010 featured a good mix of both Oscar-style, prestige "films" and good old-fashioned fun "movies." How do you differentiate between intellectually-stimulating, technically marvelous "films" and the "movies" that produce a more visceral reaction? To put this in terms of alcohol (and, let's face it, that's something everyone can relate to), it's like choosing between wine and beer. Highbrow or low? Fancy or banal? How do you choose? My answer is, "You don't."  I tried to assemble a Top 10 that reflects that.  Let's begin:

Honorable Mentions:
The King's Speech
Shutter Island
The Square
Winter's Bone

10) Takers
Directed by: John Lussenhop
Written by: Lussenhop and some other dudes
Starring: Matt Dillon, Paul Walker, Idris Elba, Hayden Christensen's Hat

First off, yes, I'm totally serious. If it's good enough for Stephen King, it's good enough for me. Second, this was almost destined to be on the list -- it's got too many of my favorite things: Los Angeles, a heist, and Paul Walker (whom I have a sick fascination with). All that said, it's actually a taut little heist movie that's probably as good as it could have been (which is to say, somewhat greater than the sum of its parts). Comparisons to Heat are inevitable, but it's probably more like Uncomfortably Warm on the Michael Mann scale. But it does the whole Los Angeles, cop/criminal duality thing well enough that the comparison isn't insulting to one of my favorite movies/directors. The stunt casting (Chris Brown, T.I.) didn't help, but Dillon/Elba/Michael Ealy propped the rest of the cast up (Walker included) with strong performances. This was better than it had any right to be. Finally: A shout-out to Hayden Christensen's Hat (arguably the star of the show). Nice.

9) Rabbit Hole
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest

One of the reasons I waited so long to post this list is because there was a number of 2010 films I wanted to see -- you know, all the awards contender-types that we don't get out here in the cultural wasteland that is Arizona until they've been out for a month or so. Two of the main ones were this and Blue Valentine. I didn't think either of them would make this list -- I've never been too keen on the "depressing relationship drama" type of film -- but I wanted to at least say I've seen most of the big art house stuff. Blue Valentine went as expected -- the well-acted, lovingly-made, feel-bad movie of the year. Not my cup of tea -- and I don't even like tea -- but good nonetheless. But not Top 10 good. Rabbit Hole was a different story -- not in the least because of it's more optimistic take of the whole "disintegrating relationship" story. The "death of a child" movie has been done many times before, but never quite with this mix of powerhouse acting (Kidman and Eckhart both should be up for Oscars), intricate script, black humor, and atheistic optimism. I've never seen that last one before -- that somehow there is hope because of the lack of a divine presence. That science can somehow be that crutch that people can lean on in times of tragedy. Such an interesting angle. Ditto all the visual repetition, the sense of a pattern hinted at in the editing (as well as in the eponymous comic book that's a key plot point). This is fine -- and terribly under-appreciated -- filmmaking.

8) Machete
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis
Written by: Robert Rodriguez and Álvaro Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey

I love Machete because it's almost critic-proof. I mean, it's based off a fake trailer from Grindhouse and was made for $10 million. This is clearly not a movie made to please lovers of fine cinema. Like most Robert Rodriguez movies, it has an undeniable energy, clipping along at a frenetic pace, plot/audience be damned. If you can't keep up (or don't want to), you're at the wrong movie. But with a cast/characters like this, who needs a plot? That sounds like a terrible thing to say, and is no excuse for a bad movie, but Machete definitely isn't bad. It's not exactly "good," but it does a lot right. Danny Trejo finally gets a much-deserved lead role, Michelle Rodriguez is featured in one of the few roles where I don't want to strangle her, LOST alum Jeff Fahey shines as a corrupt businessman, Bobby D absolutely HAMS it up as a corrupt politician -- and Don Johnson even shows up! With gratuitous violence/T&A (a naked chick pulls a cell phone out of her snatch!), a coyote-truckload of self-depreciation, pseudo-social commentary, and the now-classic line "Machete don't text," Machete is a film of pure hubris -- as such, it demands a place in my Top 10 (and I sure don't want to piss Machete off).

7) Toy Story 3
Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Written by: Michael Arndt
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger

Toy Story 3 is the sentimental favorite on this list. I won't lie -- I got a little misty-eyed at the end. If you didn't, you probably don't have a soul and/or were beaten as a child. Toy Story 3 is a kid's movie whose message and themes is waaaay above the heads of its demographic. It's not so much about growing up as it is about taking that one last leap and leaving your childhood behind forever. What nine-year-old is going to comprehend that? And what adult is that not going to speak to? Oscar-winner Michael Arndt's (Little Miss Sunshine) script absolutely drips with pathos, and if the Academy has any sense, he'll garner another nomination this year (Edit: it did!). The voice acting and CGI are top-notch, as always with a Pixar movie. My only real complaint is the use (or non-use) of 3D. I saw it in 3D and honestly barely noticed it. An unnecessary face lift for a film that just didn't need it.

6) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Keiran Culkin, Chris Evans

Fellow pop culture junkies, be on your toes: This isn't so much a movie as a full-on, pop-culture, quote-fest orgy. In a good way. Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) doesn't miss a chance to test his audience -- every sound effect, ring tone, song, poster in the background, T-shirt, etc. is a reference to something else -- everything from Zelda to Seinfeld to Wayne's World 2 is given a shout out. Scottie P also boasts a stellar soundtrack -- a good mix of songs recorded for the film and old favorites (mostly Canadian). My favorite is the Metric song (performed by The Clash at Demonhead in the movie). As for the cast, the two leads (Cera and Winstead) are passable, but it's the cornucopia of supporting players that steal the show here -- it's a murderer's row of "Where the fuck do I know him/her from?!" types. There's less-famous siblings, Oscar nominees, internet comedians, TWO former superheroes, and (another) Arrested Development alum. Oh, and Jason Schwartzman. About my only complaint is with star Michael Cera, who I'm tired of saying I'm tired of. Learn a new trick already!

5) 127 Hours 
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco

127 Hours has been described as a one-man show, referring to star James Franco. That's somewhat of a misnomer, however -- the film bears director Danny Boyle's unmistakable fingerprint, nearly elevating him to costar status. It's an odd pairing of subject matter and director -- Boyle's kineticism confined to one claustrophobic locale. It largely works, although Boyle does cheat somewhat by utilizing flashbacks and dream sequences. These sequences ultimately work to prevent the film from becoming monotonous and help to deconstruct the Alpha male, extreme athlete archetype, of which Aron Ralston becomes the real-life embodiment. It is captivating, disconcerting, harrowing, and eventually graphic watching Franco (in my favorite male lead performance of the year) go from confident to crippled, all in the course of a brisk hour and a half. It's a credit, I think, to both Franco and Boyle that it seems longer. Much longer. This is a film that I think will slip through the cracks come award time (pun definitely intended), but a necessary film, and the logical next step in Boyle's decidedly illogical directorial career.

4) Kick-Ass
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Written by: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nic Cage, Mark Strong

Kick-Ass is in many ways both an anti-superhero movie and emblematic of how all superhero movies should be. I mean, even the "serious" ones like The Dark Knight and Watchmen are, at their core, about people that dress up in costumes to fight crime. So why shouldn't superhero movies have a little awkwardness, a little goofiness, a little slapstick, in addition to all that darkness and soul-searching and violence (which Kick-Ass also has, in spades)? Tonally speaking, I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie like Kick-Ass, with its gaudy set design, quirky casting, pitch-perfect score (love the John Murphy samples), and striking combination of sweetness and ultra-violence, perfectly embodied by 13-year-old Moretz as Hit-Girl (one of my favorite female performances this year), who has no problem dropping C-bombs, slitting throats, or crying over her dead father. Johnson is a likable lead, Mark Strong is a competent (if not rote) villain, and Nic Cage is, well, Nic Cage with some sort of weird Adam West-Batman thing going on. Take it or leave it, but don't miss out on the movie.

3) Black Swan
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey

Continuing in the Mulholland Drive, lesbian-sex-mindfuck of a film tradition is Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Okay, so the two films really don't have anything to do with each other, but I couldn't resist the comparison. Well, maybe they do have a lot in common, on second thought -- in addition to the obvious, both have an engrossing story, creepy old people, awards nominations, and fine lead performances. Natalie Portman finally graduates to the acting elite her performance here, making Aronofsky two-for-his-last-two with Oscar-nominated lead performances (although don't count on him going three-for-three). Cassel and Hershey (the aforementioned creepy old person) are great in supporting roles, but I don't see the hype for Mila Kunis. I'm glad the Academy showed some brains in not nominating her -- if they did, they might as well have retroactively nominated her for Forgetting Sarah Marshall or That '70s Show, because she played the exact same character in all three instances. Just because this film is a higher pedigree doesn't mean a middling performance is suddenly elevated. Unless they wanted to nominate her for mowing box like a champ (hey, it worked for Jake Gyllenhaal, although he was definitely the receiver). Anyway, Black Swan is the art house film of the year -- impressive craftsmanship, intellectually interesting, sexually and morally ambiguous, and a sure bet for a cult following.

2) Inception
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe

I thought long and hard about where to put this one -- it has about as many flaws as strengths, and, as such, about as many detractors as proponents. In the end though -- and it's pretty much a cop-out, I'll admit -- I put it here at #2 not because of the film it is, but what it means to filmmaking in general: Inception represents what movies could be, the future of cinema. Kind of like Avatar last year -- neither are especially great from an acting or storytelling standpoint -- you know, those parts of filmmaking that have been more or less perfected over the years -- but they excel, nay triumph, in the technical wizardry that has been the magical half of filmmaking ever since Méliès (which is to say, nearly since the beginning). These movies are, to this point, the pinnacle of escapist entertainment, making movies like Transformers and the Star Wars prequels look like they were made with Microsoft Paint. So, yes, Inception has wooden characters, monotone dialogue, negligible character development, and a largely incomprehensible plot, but the sheer audacity of the narrative, of the visuals -- many of which were practical, in-camera, effects! -- of the idea mark it as a special film, and one that will be remembered in the coming years as a turning point in the evolution of filmmaking, even if some aspects of it fall flat (which is perhaps why Nolan missed out, again, on a Best Director nomination).

1) The Social Network
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Jessie Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Rooney Mara

Born from the collaboration between one of the best directors (Fincher) and screenwriters (Sorkin, be the screen large or small) working today is a movie that does excel from an acting and storytelling standpoint: The Social Network. Fincher's invisible hand is felt in every frame, every transition, every camera movement, while Sorkin's bravura is heard in every word (and there are a LOT of them). The Social Network takes the very Shakespearean (Wellesian?) themes of greed, betrayal, and jealousy and applies them to that generation-defining website, Facebook. The result is a complex, oft-chilling, study of "Now" -- Facebook is more or less the nexus of social interaction these days, and exploring its genesis says a lot about human interaction in the 21st century -- how trivial, petty, mean it can be. Has it always been this way? Probably. But it's a lot easier to be an asshole (and make a whole fuckton of money) when computers are involved. Jesse Eisenberg is positively acerbic in an Oscar-nominated performance as Mark Zuckerberg (or at least Fincher and Sorkin's mythologization of him), while Garfield is the emotional crux (and should-be Oscar nominee) and Timberlake is utterly soulless as the more or less antagonist. The emotions are raw, the narrative complex (but not convoluted), the dialogue frenetic, and all is kept in check by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's moody, ambient score. This is my favorite -- and the best -- film of the year, and a potential Best Picture winner. It's a rare thing when all three of those things even have a chance to come together. Who knew it would be a movie about a a website that introduced "Poking" into our lexicon? But hey, at least it wasn't MySpace.

I know it's been 2011 for 30 days now, but these were my favorite movies of 2010. For those curious, The Wolfman was the worst movie I saw last year. Not even worth writing about. Just bad. Thanks for reading, and I'll be back to ramble about the Oscars before too long. Ciao for now.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Golden Globes picks

The Globes ceremony starts in about an hour, so I figured I should take a break from putting together my 2010 movies list to scrap together some quick predictions. Easier said than done, however, because it's the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, so all bets are off. At times (this year being one of those times), they seem to have about as much credibility as the people behind the Razzies (the Best Musical/Comedy could easily double as the Worst Picture nominees -- The Kids Are All Right included). Last year, I compared the HFPA to the "Two Wild and Crazy Guys" of SNL fame; this year, I'm going with the guy at the end of this commercial. How else to explain not one, but two Johnny Depp nominations? Oh, Europeans. Anyway, that's probably about enough of an intro ramble, so on with the picks:

*indicates a film/performance I have not yet seen
bold indicates my pick

Best Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
Amy Adams - The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech
Mila Kunis - Black Swan
Melissa Leo - The Fighter
Jacki Weaver - Animal Kingdom*

Logic: The ladies from The Fighter would figure to split the vote, Kunis is just happy to be nominated (although I don't know why, as she basically played her That 70's Show character), and nobody has heard of Weaver (although she could be a wild card). Bonham Carter's appearance in the also-nominated Alice in Wonderland (not terrible, not great) would seem to swing more votes her way).

Best Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
Christian Bale - The Fighter
Michael Douglas - Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Andrew Garfield - The Social Network
Jeremy Renner - The Town
Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech

Logic: Although I'm not sure how an American sports movie managed to garner so many nominations, the HFPA seemed to like The Fighter. This seems to be the best place to give it a statue, although Rush is a definite contender here as well. Douglas is only nominated because he has cancer, all 3'8" of Jeremy Renner has no shot, and Garfield figures to be more of a contender at the Oscars, as I don't see The Social Network having a big night here.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
Annette Benning - The Kids Are All Right
Anne Hathaway - Love and Other Drugs*
Angelina Jolie - The Tourist*
Julianne Moore - The Kids Are All Right
Emma Stone - Easy A*

Logic: Because she's the only one likely to be nominated for an Oscar (Moore will likely be nominated in Supporting). Hathaway and Jolie have to be joke nominations, and Stone might as well not even show up. I actually prefer Moore's performance to Benning's, but she has the whole bride/bridesmaid thing going on. While we're here, I really don't get the fuss about the movie, lead female performances aside -- didactic script, nonexistent directing, and too much melodrama. What am I missing? Oh yeah, the normally reliable Mark Ruffalo's awful character (not performance, necessarily).

Best Performance by An Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
Johnny Depp - The Tourist*
Johnny Depp - Alice in Wonderland
Paul Giamatti - Barney's Version*
Jake Gyllenhaal - Love and Other Drugs*
Kevin Spacey - Casino Jack*

Logic:  Because he's the most famous and has the showiest performance. I can only figure the other four performances are nominated because they had to have five for the ballot. If you put a gun to my head, I'd say the next most likely is Giamatti, if for some reason Depp's votes are split. It wouldn't be all that big of an upset, really.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama
Halle Berry - Frankie and Alice*
Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole*
Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman - Black Swan
Michelle Williams - Blue Valentine*

Logic: Because Portman has been and will continue to win everything, and deservedly so. She's startlingly maniacal in Black Swan and delivers the best female performance of the year. Kidman has the next best shot; HFPA always seems to love her. Williams is next in line, Lawrence was great but her movie was too small, and I don't know what the fuck a Frankie and Alice is.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama
Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
Colin Firth - The King's Speech
James Franco - 127 Hours
Ryan Gosling - Blue Valentine*
Mark Wahlberg - The Fighter

Logic: Because I see this as being a King's Speech kind of night. Although Firth has got a great shot at the Oscar as well, this is his most sure bet. Franco had the tougher job (carrying an entire film) and will be his main Oscar competition. Eisenberg is not a contender here, and is no better than a dark horse in March, Gosling could surprise (although he might not even get an Oscar nod), and Wahlberg should be content with the nomination.

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture
Simon Beaufoy, Danny Boyle - 127 Hours
Christopher Nolan - Inception
Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg - The Kids Are All Right
David Seidler - The King's Speech
Aaron Sorkin - The Social Network

Logic: Although I don't see The Social Network as the HFPA's cup of tea (get it -- they're foreign!), I don't see them overlooking Sorkin's screenplay, easily the best of the year. Seidler is obviously a contender if King's Speech sweeps, and I think that Nolan actually has an okay shot for a screenplay that features virtually no character development and terrible dialogue. Beaufoy and Boyle are nominated on reputation (Michael Arndt's Toy Story 3 script is a more deserving nominee), and the worst part of Kids was the script, which I don't see as having a shot.

Best Director - Motion Picture
Darren Aronofsky - Black Swan
David Fincher - The Social Network
Tom Hooper - The King's Speech
Christopher Nolan - Inception
David O. Russell - The Fighter

Logic: Because Fincher's technical craftsmanship has gone unrecognized for too long and should figure to sweep most awards (Oscars included). Hooper is a contender, but a gimp could have successfully directed that cast. Aronofsky and Russell figure to see their movies awarded in different categories (and are further down the chain than Fincher), and I think, while Nolan's got more of a shot than you'd think, he'll bow to Fincher.

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy
Alice in Wonderland
The Kids Are All Right
The Tourist*

Logic: Because... Burlesque?! Really?? Red?! Really?? The ****ing Tourist?! Really?? Alice in Wonderland I can kind of see because of the pedigree and the spectacle, and it's the only other real contender here, but Kids is the only halfway decent film of the bunch, so it should win by default. But no Scott Pilgrim? Get Him to the Greek? The Extra Man (totally underseen this year)? I dunno... Due Date? Seriously awful nominations. Just awful.

Best Motion Picture - Drama
Black Swan
The Fighter
The King's Speech
The Social Network

Logic: Because I see this year as similar to 2007, when Atonement (high-pedigree British film) won the Globe but the Oscar went to No Country for Old Men (career-capper by American auteur). This year, Speech and Network fit the respective bills this year. Again, Fighter and Swan are fine films, but they'll be recognized in other categories. One last note: I have a weird feeling nobody is giving Inception much credit -- I think it could win any category for which it's nominated. Not that it will, but I think it can. It made too much money for it to not win anything. Just sayin'.

Alright, time to open a bottle of wine, fire up the old boob tube, and watch a bunch of Hollywood types get drunk and fete each other (sounds dirtier than it actually is). I love the Globes. Up next, Top 2010 Films, then Oscar noms! Ciao for now.

(Oh, and I don't care about the TV categories, but, uh, go shows I watch!)