Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Another Irrelevant List: My Favorite Music of 2013

Might as well get it out of the way: 2013 was not an especially strong year for music. It was the year when the celebrity status of musicians very much eclipsed their creative output -- you know, the reason they are famous in the first place. People snapped up new records by Katy Perry, Jay Z, Eminem, Justin Timberlake -- all pop music royalty -- only to find a collection of thoroughly mediocre tunes in each case. Even diehard fans wouldn't call any of these 2013 top-sellers a career highlight of their favored artist. Is it any wonder record sales continue to plunge when the marketing strategy of an album -- gold-plated trucks, smartphone apps, bizarre Brent Musberger interviews -- creates more of a buzz than the actual album itself? And it's certainly not a good bellwether when the most buzzworthy, zeitgeist-iest musical moment of 2013 involved a Disney-princess-turned-suckubus grinding a teddy bear during a performance of perhaps the most inane pop song of the year. (No link needed -- you can already picture the scene in your head, can't you?)

All this without mentioning Kanye West, the other contender for musical firebrand of the year, whose 2013 might wrongly be more remembered for his Kardashian kourtship, baby naming fiasco, wildly silly music video, and concert rants than the most aggressively anti-pop pop album of the year (Yeezus), which hasn't even sniffed a million copies sold. Drake has no business selling twice as many albums as Kanye West. None. But that's 2013 for you. It sure seems like Justin Timberlake would rather be making movies than music these days, and I can't say I blame him, what with the Coen brothers knocking on his door. He -- like the rest of the pop music royal court -- is too famous to *just* make music. They have brands to promote, thrones to watch, empires to build.

Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that the best album of the top selling albums of 2013 is Daft Punk's Random Access Memories -- the famously un-famous duo who lets their music (and/or Pharrell Williams) do their talking for them. Even the Grammys -- easily the most arbitrary and out of touch awards show in existence -- seems to agree, nominating the reclusive Frenchmen for Record and Album of the Year (a distinction I've never understood). But then again, "Blurred Lines" is also nominated for Record of the Year... which brings me back to my original point. "Get Lucky" or no, this was not a strong year for music. So much so, in fact, that I couldn't quite pin down a top-10 list I was satisfied with. So I decided to change it up a bit this year. I mean, if I'm going to hand out irrelevant distinctions, the Grammys already have a pretty good model. This year, instead of my usual top-10 list, instead I present to you my equivalent, replete with arbitrary categories, genre bending, and surely some controversy. So, as the Grammy-winning (!) man once said, "Let's get it started in here."

Best Ska/Punk Album
Alkaline Trio - My Shame Is True
Big D and the Kids Table - Stomp/Stroll
Less Than Jake - See the Light
The Night Marchers - Allez Allez
Streetlight Manifesto - The Hands That Thieve
---
Honorable Mentions: The Copyrights - Shit's Fucked, The Dangerous Summer - Golden Record, Direct Hit! - Brainless God

I almost exclusively listened to ska/punk my first few years of college (having graduated from my nü metal high school days... ugh), and I still go back to that well now and again. Although I don't necessarily keep up with the "new" bands in the scene (all five nominees are old hands), a number of old favorites released records in 2013. The best of the bunch and a perennial favorite back in the day is Streetlight Manifesto. The Hands That Thieve, Tomas Kalnoky and Co.'s third studio album (they're on a robust 3 albums per 10 years pace -- not including unnecessary re-recordings and covers albums), continues in the exact same brainy, immaculately-arranged vein as their previous efforts. My personal favorite track, "Ungrateful," is a throwback to Kalnoky's Catch-22 days. It has a healthy dose of punk-rock backbone amid the bombastic horns and serves as a peek into an alternate universe where C-22 never broke up. What a wonderful world it could be!

As for the rest, the new ALK3 is another batch of somewhat overproduced goth-punk jams, many of which are too clever by half. Not a ringing endorsement, I know, but it's perfectly listenable and plays well live. Big D's latest, a double album, is more filler than killer, but brings the swagger (Stomp) and the groove (Stroll) in equal parts. LTJ's record is their best since 2003's Anthem and is fun live (even if I had to fly solo at the show). Finally, Rocket From the Crypt may be no more, but John Reis is back with The Night Marchers, another balls to the wall punk-rock outfit that does the San Diego scene proud.

Best (Indie?) Rock Album
Arctic Monkeys - AM
Fitz and the Tantrums - More Than Just a Dream
Franz Ferdinand - Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
Superchunk - I Hate Music
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
---
Honorable Mentions: Dawes - Stories Don't End, Jimmy Eat World - Damage, Los Campesinos! - No Blues, Portugal. The Man - Evil Friends

That's right -- the best "rock" record of the year doesn't even feature a single guitar. Instead, Fitz and the Tantrums are built around jangly keys, jaunty horns, handclap percussion, and the interplay between Michael Fitzpatrick's and Noelle Scaggs's vocals. The result is a charming and confident throwback sound that will make you think your Spotify turned into an AM radio station. More Than Just a Dream sees the group leaving behind the tinges of Motown found on 2010's Pickin' Up the Pieces and moving onto the blue-eyed soul stylings of Hall & Oates. The group wears the studio gloss well. "Fools Gold" has enough heart to fill a stadium and a chorus to bring the house down. I'm bummed I missed the chance to see them live this year (and at the Crescent, even -- d'oh!). A Fitz show is going on my 2014 to-do list. Better get my dancin' shoes shined...

A couple of the other records had a solid case. AM is the Artic Monkeys' best record since their debut -- a down 'n' dirty set that's an octave or two short of The Black Keys' best stuff. Modern Vampires of the City had all the hipster blogs a-flutter (it's Pitchfork's #1 album of the year) with its arresting swirl of irreverence, verve, and pathos. A bit morose at times for my tastes, but a fine album nonetheless. The other two are just solid. I've never been much of a Franz sympathizer, but Right Thoughts... wormed its way into my ears, while Superchunk's '90s indie for hipster parents made me want to dig into their old stuff. (As far as Reflektor goes... I just couldn't get into it. If this is what happens when you give indie rock royalty a Grammy, I'm fine with Adele or whoever winning the next eleventy Grammys.)

Best Electronic(-ish) Album
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Kavinsky - OutRun
The Naked and Famous - In Rolling Waves
Sky Ferreira - Night Time, My Time 
Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob 
---
Honorable Mentions: Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe, Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe In, Icona Pop - This Is... Icona Pop, Poliça - Shulasmith

2013 was a banner year for electronic-leaning, eminently-danceable music with female vocals (see: 7 of the 9 albums above). If I were to have told you that Tegan and Sara would put out the best album in that mold at this time last year, you'd probably have said I'd had too many Molsons. Yet Heartthrob is absolutely the synth-iest, most dance-friendly record of the year. Heartthrob sees everyone's favorite Canadian lesbian sisters abandon any hints of indie-folk or post-punk that marked earlier releases and fully embrace the New Wave/'80s synth-pop side that cropped up on 2009's Sainthood. For the full effect, listen to "I Was a Fool," a stunning piano ballad that could play over the closing credits of a lost Tony Scott (R.I.P.) masterpiece, the kind where the brooding hero gets the girl and they kiss in the rain. Heartthrob is the most cinematic record of the year and a welcome evolution in the band's sound. I'll be interested to see where they go next.

T&S edged out Daft Punk, whose Random Access Memories spawned "Get Lucky," a Song of the Year candidate with or without the capital letters and the official distinction they represent. If only the album itself weren't so uneven -- did the nine-minute spoken word piece *really* have to be the third track? I mean, really? But back to the whole "most cinematic record" thing -- Kavinsky's OutRun, aka Drive: The Album, has a pretty convincing case for that title as well. You won't find a better record for driving in this year or any other any time soon. The Naked and Famous pulled an inverse Tegan and Sara, eschewing the pop flourishes that buoyed 2010's Passive Me, Aggressive You in favor of moody atmospherics, acoustic guitars (!), and a generally lovely downtempo aesthetic. Lastly, Sky Ferreira does her brazen, bewbs-baring album cover justice with her set of raw, intimate drrty grrl pop numbers that Lana Del Rey isn't talented enough and Lorde isn't old enough (cue uncomfortable silence) to pull off.

Best Rap Album
Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap
Childish Gambino - Because the Internet
Kanye West - Yeezus
The Lonely Island - The Wack Album
Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels
---
Honorable Mentions: Danny Brown - Old, Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP 2

I mean, come on. Like it could be anything else. Yeezus is a singular statement from a singular artist, an id-fueled romp through the subconscious of one of today's most scrutinized artists. It invites bold comparisons, dares listeners to take his bait -- "Wait, does Yeezy *really* think he's a modern-day Jesus?" The answer, as it always is with Kanye West, is complicated -- "I know he's the most high / But I am a close high." Like its creator, Yeezus is brash, disjointed, and uncompromising, seemingly designed -- yes, designed, and carefully -- as a rejection of the very aesthetics that made him a star in the first place ("Soon as they like you / Make them unlike you"). It's a fascinating piece of emotional agitprop -- yet it fittingly ends with "Bound 2," which, aforementioned silly music video aside, hearkens back to the Kanye West of old with its samples and *gorgeous* hook. It's the kind of 180 that makes you say, "Wait a minute -- was Yeezy fucking with us the whole time?" Maybe. If so, a cruel joke never seemed so clever.

In just about any other year, the Killer Mike and El-P collaboration Run the Jewels would have been the frontrunner for best rap album. It's every bit as hyperbolic and bombastic as Yeezus, but delivered with a wink rather than a snarl. And if there is a rap album with better, more bone-rattling beats in 2013, I have yet to hear it. The Lonely Island also deserve a shout out for their guest star-laden, grin-inducing 2013 offering. It's one of the only albums I listened to as much as Yeezus this year, albeit for very different reasons. Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino both appear on each other's albums and nabbed the last two spots on the list. Chance sports a jazzy, free-flowing style and a generally much more sunny disposition than most other MCs these days. Childish's second studio effort is a mess -- a sprawling, over-produced clusterfuck of a mess -- but it also has a certain insistence, a certain draw that makes me want to wade in a little deeper with each listen.

Best (Female) Pop/Rock Album
Best Coast - Fade Away EP
Haim - Days Are Gone
Paramore - Paramore
Rilo Kiley - RKives
Sara Bareilles - The Blessed Unrest
---
Honorable Mentions: Camera Obscura - Desire Lines, Katy Perry - Prism

Most critics/bloggers seem content to give this slot to the lovely ladies of Haim. Don't sleep on Paramore's new record, I say. Although it's on the shortlist for Worst Album Cover of the Year and was released way back in April, Paramore is an assured and fully realized release by a band that has worked hard to perfect their craft. It is not a waif-thin ray of SoCal sunshine borne on the wings of blogger hype and the wobbly legs of an unpolished live show. (Note: I LOVED the Haim record. This is just better.) The album highlight here is "Ain't It Fun," featuring dynamo Hayley Williams at her most brassy, a slinky guitar riff, crystalline percussion, and a sing-along gospel chorus that has to be a blast live. If there's a song that out-"Wires" "The Wire," this is it.

That said (and as I mentioned above), Days Are Gone is an excellent album. Stevie Nicks meets Wilson Phillips? Sign me up. They have a ways to go as a live act, but their studio work is polished to confection. Best Coast's EP adds a new layer of maturity to the duo's oeuvre, and disc-closer "I Don't Know How" is one of my favorite tracks of the year, Rilo Kiley by way of Social Distortion. Speaking of my favorite defunct L.A. indie rock outfit, their b-sides and rarities comp, RKives, is a worthy addition to their discography, another winsome infusion of cynicism and sunshine. And I always have to give love to Sara B., that mistress of the mid-tempo radio ditty. She might never write me another "Love Song," but she doesn't need to.

Best Singer-Songwriter Album 
Lucero - Texas & Tennessee EP
Matt Pond - The Lives Inside the Lines In Your Hand
Mikal Cronin - MCII
Sundowner - Neon Fiction
Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt
---
Honorable Mentions: Brendan Benson - You Were Right, Josh Ritter - The Beast In Its Tracks, Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle, Laura Stevenson - Wheel

Aka "Best Sad Bastard Music." And in the sad bastard game, nobody comes close to Ben Nichols, the lead singer and chief songwriter of Lucero. Although I was a bit underwhelmed at the time by 2012's Women & Work, it has since grown on me as I have come to accept that 2009's mostly exuberant 1372 Overton Park is a bit of a black sheep in the group's discography. Lucero does sad bastard music and does it better than anyone. Texas & Tennessee is just the latest proof. Born out of the W&W recording sessions, as well as the band's contributions to Jeff Nichols's -- brother of Ben -- excellent film Mud, T&T is an acoustic 4-song paean to the one who got away and the things you do instead of chasing her. ("I picture her dancing with the boys in the bars all night / She might not be theirs, but she sure as hell ain't mine.") The title track and standout track "Union Pacific Line" are heartfelt slow-burners while the final two tracks add a bit of twang and bounce. It may only be 4 songs, but Texas & Tennessee is one of the year's best releases.

Chris McCaughan also has a claim to the sad bastard crown -- 2007's Four One Five Two was the soundtrack to the worst of my own sad bastard days. Neon Fiction, his third album, isn't as raw or vital -- and I more and more find myself missing the contributions of vocalist/cellist Jenny Choi -- but it's certainly a welcome contribution from the Lawrence Arms axe man. I'll fully admit: I only checked out Waxahatchee after seeing it cited on year-end list after year-end list, but man if Katie Crutchfield isn't the crown queen of the sad bastard-ettes. Soulful, mournful, and plenty caustic, Cerulean Salt more than lives up to its evocatory title. I was never much of a fan of Matt Pond PA, but for some reason I'm on board when you take away the "PA." The album title (and certain song titles) make him more of a sensitive bastard than a true sad bastard, but the record is worthy of a listen either way. Rounding out the field is Mikal Cronin, who adds a garage-rock flair to the sad bastard template to good effect -- he could be an honorary member of The Raconteurs.

Song of the Year
Daft Punk - "Get Lucky"
Fitz and the Tantrums - "Fools Gold"
Kanye West - "Bound 2"
Lucero - "Union Pacific Line"
Tegan and Sara - "I Was a Fool"
---
Honorary Mentions: Best Coast - "I Don't Know How", Haim - "The Wire", Paramore - "Ain't It Fun", Streetlight Manifesto - "Ungrateful", TV on the Radio - "Mercy", Vampire Weekend - "Diane Young"

Even if I wasn't particularly impressed with the musical offerings of 2013 overall, that's a pretty killer selection of tracks. And yes, yes, I know -- 2013 was the year of "Get Lucky." Preaching to the choir here -- I can't think of the last major radio hit that I liked as much. It's an absolutely transcendent song. But have you HEARD "I Was a Fool"? It opens with a tinkling piano melody that doesn't so much tug at your heartstrings as tie them into a neat bow that's undone by the time you get to Tegan Quin's first forlorn "I was a fooooool..." chorus. Add in Sara's playful harmonies, the lush, layered production, the masterfully-executed fadeout, and Ann $%#&ing Veal in the music video and you've got a song that transcends the transcendent. There was not a better song in 2013. There just wasn't. "Get Lucky" is a worthy runner-up and the party song of the year, "Union Pacific Line" might be the prettiest song Ben Nichols has ever written, "Fools Gold" is the "singing in your car" song of the year, and Charlie Wilson's hook in "Bound 2" might be the best musical moment of the year -- a real parting of the clouds moment on perhaps the darkest album of the year.

Record Album of the Year
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Fitz and the Tantrums - More Than Just a Dream
Kanye West - Yeezus
Lucero - Texas & Tennessee EP
Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob
---
Honorable Mentions: Arctic Monkeys - AM, Haim - Days Are Gone, The Lonely Island - The Wack Album, Paramore - Paramore, Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels, Streetlight Manifesto - The Hands That Thieve

The was easily the most difficult category to decide -- probably as it should be. There were two big internal debates -- Kanye vs. Tegan and Sara for the #1 spot and the battle for the #5 spot. I'll tackle the second debate first. Ye, T&S, Fitz, and Lucero were always going to be in. As you can surmise, I eventually gave the fifth spot to Daft Punk. Now, if I were doing the standard top-10 list, Random Access Memories probably wouldn't be my #5 album. But that's the problem -- I'm not sure any of the honorary mentions would be either. They all feel they should be in the 8-10 cluster. Like I said, not a strong year for music. So I eventually went with RAM, as it gave us "Get Lucky" and is the critical consensus "best" album of the bunch. It's a cop-out, sure, but get back to me in six months when these records have all had a chance to settle and I'll probably have a better answer.

Now, for the first debate. I was all set to go with the upset -- the Canadian mavens of plaid turned lip gloss synth-pop vixens over the croissant king of hip-hop himself. But then I started writing about the albums. I found I had more -- and more interesting -- things to say about Yeezus than Hearttthrob. (The Quin sisters will be content with their Song of the Year win, I'm sure.) It's probably a close call as to which I'll be listening to more in a year, 3 years, 5 years -- Heartthrob has a timeless feel while there's no telling how well the industrial-punk-rap of Yeezus will age (it probably depends on Ye's next evolution) -- but I can say with certainty that I -- we, really, culturally-speaking -- will be talking and thinking more about Yeezus. More so than any other album this year -- more than Random Access Memories, more than Magna Carta Holy Grail or The 20/20 Experience (either volume), and more than (please God) Bangerz. For that reason, it gets my vote for Album (Record?) of the Year. Suck it, Grammys.

P.S. - I was in the house for that rant. I was going to add a category for Concert of the Year, but nothing I saw came close to the epic insanity of the Yeezus tour. Chalk up another win for Yeezy.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Deakins Gets Shafted: 2013 Oscar Predictions II

Now for the technical, the foreign, and the shorts:

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Life of Pi - Claudio Miranda
Deakins gets shafted -- again. The Shanghai sequence alone is Oscar-worthy. That said, Miranda is a fine choice -- Pi is gorgeous (albeit CGI enhanced).

BEST EDITING
Argo - William Goldenberg
I can't see the Academy going against the ACE award winner (although they did last year...). My choice would be Zero Dark Thirty, co-edited by... Goldenberg. Good year for that guy.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Anna Karenina - Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer
I haven't seen it (one of the few I missed), but consensus seems to be that the fourth time's the charm for Greenwood and Spencer. Joe Wright's films always have a unique look.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Mirror, Mirror - Eiko Ishioka
Vote against Colleen Atwood at your own peril, but I think I can make an exception for what would, sadly, be a posthumous Oscar, even if the movie was probably shit (hey, The Wolfman has an Oscar).

BEST MAKEUP
Les Misérables - Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell
I'll be rooting for The Hobbit, so I can't lose either way. But Les Miz has more nominations and the sheer number of closeups means more, er, face time for the makeup.

BEST SCORE
Life of Pi - Mychael Danna
It seems like this category has been really easy to call the last few years. This was also a weak year for scores -- none of the nominees were particularly memorable (haven't seen/heard Karenina).

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Skyfall - "Skyfall" - Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
A damn fine Bond theme after a pretty long string of misfires (Madonna? Chris Cornell?).

BEST SOUND MIXING
Les Misérables - Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, and Simon Hayes
Live singing, yadda yadda yadda. I'd vote for Skyfall.

BEST SOUND EDITING
Life of Pi - Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
There's usually a "When in doubt, pick X" movie in the technical categories. This year, it's Life of Pi.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Life of Pi - ill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, and Donald R. Elliott
This time I'm not in doubt -- this is a lock. As impressive as anything this side of Avatar. Prometheus deserves a mention here as well.

BEST ANIMATED FILM
Wreck-It-Ralph - Rich Moore
Down year for Pixar, plus it cleaned up at the Annies. More importantly, I saw it -- and loved it.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Amour - Michael Haneke
Lock. It. In. Just like Jean-Louis Trintignant tried to do with that fucking pigeon.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Searching for Sugar Man - Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn
Because it's the only documentary most people heard about this year. I think this category is more open than most think though -- notoriously hard to predict. Watch for Plague and Gatekeepers.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Open Heart - Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern
Because the internets told me so. (I never see -- or want to see -- these things).

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Paperman - John Kahrs
A so-so slate this year -- not true standout as in years past. But Disney's Paperman is the most accomplished, and should win. Anyone with a spare two minutes should check out Fresh Guacamole. 

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
Curfew Shawn Christiansen
I've seen all of these and Death of a Shadow is by far the best. Curfew is trite, to be sure, but also enjoyable and, important for voting purposes, American.

Whofleck's Redemption?: 2013 Oscar Predictions

The last few weeks of Oscar season (for me, anyway) are usually fraught with trips to the art film theater, furious Nexflix DVD mailing, and maybe even (gasp) downloading that obscure movie that somehow landed a nomination, and constant scouring of awards blogs. With the exception of that last one, I largely avoided having to play catch up this year. When this year's nominees were announced, I think there were only two movies I had yet to see -- Amour (which had yet to be released in AZ) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (which had yet to arrive from Netflix). Needless to say, those two gaps were quickly filled, making it my second year in a row having seen all the major category nominees (Picture, Director, both Screenplay, and all Acting awards). Now, as is tradition, it is time to weigh in on what actually might be an even more idiosyncratic awards show than the Golden Globes. Oh, Oscar, how I love/loathe thee. That said, it's shaping up to be a much more interesting ceremony than last year, and certainly more memorable. I'll go ahead and say it: With the exception of Les Misérables, every Best Picture nominee is superior to last year's winner, The Artist (and many are equal to or better than The King's Speech, the winner from two years ago). I'll get to that race in due time, though. Let's dive in to some of the lesser categories to start.

Predicted winner in bold

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams - The Master
Sally Field - Lincoln
Anne Hathaway - Les Misérables
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Jacki Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook

We'll start with a category that is most likely a lock. Hathaway has won just about everything up until now, and there's no reason to think her streak will stop Sunday night. Hers was a very good performance in a highly flawed movie, and has all the requisite features of a trophy winner: singing (live!), de-glamming, showstopping scene, um, dying. I wish I liked the movie more, but I suppose it deserves to win something -- plus, Hathaway (in Rachel Getting Married) probably had a better performance than Winslet back in 2009, so you can think of this as a make-good win. I also just can't get excited about any of the other nominees -- Hunt (my favorite) was actually a lead, Adams didn't do much for me in a movie I really liked (obligatory handjob reference), and I honestly don't know what Jacki Weaver is doing here. Maybe making food (which was seemingly all she did in Silver Linings) backstage? Which leaves us with Field, the erstwhile challenger for Hathaway. I wouldn't be *shocked* if she won -- which could also signify a big night for Lincoln. But... I really hated her performance. She was just a shrill, melodramatic shrew, and I kept waiting for her to complain about having "the vapors" and ask for a hot toddy. Weakest part of the movie for me. So yeah. Moving on.

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin - Argo
Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained

I'll be honest -- I don't know what to do about this clusterfuck. I haven't even bolded my pick as I write this. To start, you can safely knock two names out of contention - Hoffman and Arkin. Hoffman (excellent, as usual) is another lead slumming in this category, and the fact that the P.T. Anderson didn't get a nom for writing or directing tells you everything you need to know about his chances here. The consensus for Arkin seems to be "good, not great" and is the required fifth nominee (for the record, I loved him in the movie -- "Argo fuck yourself!"). Between the remaining three, it's anyone's statue for the taking. Each has their pros and cons. Jones is the nominal frontrunner and delivered a performance that stood out even next to Daniel Day-Lewis's, but... did you see the Golden Globes? Dude gave McKayla Maroney a run for her money. Voters will remember that. Waltz was great and absolutely crushes Tarantino dialogue like no one this side of Sam Jackson (whose spot he probably took here), but he just won three years ago. Last, there's De Niro, finally back in the Oscar limelight after a 20-year nomination and 30-year win cold streak. None of the three winning would surprise me, but I have a feeling it's between Jones and De Niro. I'm going with... I guess De Niro. For now. I don't think his performance is Oscar-worthy (definitely my least favorite of the bunch), but the movie has a lot of support, and the feeling could be that he's "due" for another statue, not to mention that Lincoln has lost a lot of momentum lately. I might change my mind before the ceremony though -- I'm really not confident about this pick.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Naomi Watts - The Impossible

This one is probably only between two names, which are probably not the two names you're thinking, and also it's probably just going to be Lawrence. Probably. A lot of these races that seemed like locks weeks or even days ago are suddenly not. As far as who it won't be, count out Wallis (too young, novelty nomination) and Watts (great, but disappears in the second half of the film). Chastain -- my favorite of the bunch, and a surefire future winner in this category -- has been reduced to a (very) long shot at this point. Something about torture, blah, blah, blah. That leaves Riva -- the late hour dark horse -- and Lawrence -- who has been splitting the precursors with Chastain -- as your last ladies standing. Riva has a lot going for her: a mesmerizing performance, closer to the average Academy voter's age, not making an ass out of herself on SNL, and the ceremony is on her freaking birthday (not to mention the fact that it might be her last one). But... it's still probably gonna be Lawrence, who managed to imbue humanity and poignancy into the clichéd crazy/hot chick role. Not exactly a stunning achievement, but people seem to like it (and she is very good).

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Denzel Washington - Flight

This is not one of those locks that has suddenly seemed less than certain. This statue is D-Day's and most likely has been since before Lincoln even wrapped filming. Cooper and Jackman are just happy to be here as first time nominees, classic leading man-types making a foray into prestige picture territory. Denzel is the very much deserving veteran making a rare reappearance (nowadays, at least) after not playing a cop or an agent with a youthful protégé or whatever. You've gotta feel bad for Joaquin Phoenix though -- he makes his long-awaited return to acting, delivers an absolute knockout performance... only to run into Daniel Day-Lewis, only the greatest living actor, playing Abraham freaking Lincoln. And while I actually think Phoenix's performance is the superior one, it was inevitable that Day-Lewis was winning this award. Sorry, Joaquin. Any other year...

Best Adapted Screenplay
Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin - Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Tony Kushner - Lincoln
David Magee - Life Of Pi
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Chris Terrio - Argo

While Kushner has seemingly had this locked since the nominees were announced, Terrio -- fresh off a semi-surprising Writer's Guild win -- is breathing down his neck. Which would be creepy if it were literal instead of figurative. Anyway, it's between the two of them, with Russell's screwball-comedy-but-with-crazy-people script as the possible spoiler. The film, somehow, managed nominations in every single major category, which means it has a lot of support and, therefore, a chance to surprise come Sunday night (and another reason I went with De Niro above). Not here though. Ditto the scripts for Beasts and Pi -- the former should be content with the nomination, and the latter shouldn't even have been nominated (that frame, ugh). So, while Terrio deserves props for his finely-tuned, suspenseful work, ultimately there was a lot of dramatic license taken, and he pretty clearly skirted around politics, something which Kushner, decidedly, did not do in Lincoln. In my mind, he deserves second billing after Day-Lewis for his balance of contemplation and bombast, his deft handling of sensitive issues, and the seamless way he weaved together many a plot thread. Easily the best of the bunch. Were Terrio to win, consider it an apology to Ben Affleck.

Best Original Screenplay
Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola - Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal - Zero Dark Thirty
John Gatins - Flight
Michael Haneke - Amour
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained

Along with Supporting Actor, this is one of two categories I can't figure out for the life of me. Both of these categories will go a long way toward determining the overall narrative of this year's Oscars. Will the Academy want to find a way to award Zero Dark Thirty in a major category in spite of the controversy? How much cachet does Quentin Tarantino really have with the Academy? (aka will the Weinsteins be able to affect this race?) Can Amour win an award outside of the Foreign Film category? For that reason, you can safely assume that Moonrise Kingdom (better luck next time, Wes Anderson) and Flight (out of its depth) will not win here. Which leaves us with another three-headed fustercluck of Boal, Haneke, and Tarantino. Boal would seem to be the odd one out given the Academy's more-or-less snubbing his film -- but he did win the Writer's Guild award (and it's the best script of any nominated in either category, in my opinion). Between Tarantino and Haneke -- whose scripts are about as different as two scripts can be -- I give the edge to Haneke. Why? Well, both films were also directed by their writers, and it was Haneke, and not Tarantino, who received the Director nom, which tells me there is more support for Amour than Django (not exactly surprising). So for now it seems that I'm calling for Django to go home statue-less after picking up two Golden Globes -- again, not surprising. This is another pick I'm in no way confident about -- Boal and Tarantino are definite contenders.

Best Director
Michael Haneke - Amour
Ang Lee - Life Of Pi
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin - Beasts Of The Southern Wild

First things first: No one not named Kathryn Bigelow or, unbelievable as it may be, Ben Affleck has any business winning this award. Bigelow's film displayed by far the most technical prowess of any film last year, and Affleck, in addition to showing a high degree of competency, has a career arc that has exactly the kind of narrative that the Academy usually loves (unless your name is Mickey Rourke). THAT SAID, back to the directors who were actually nominated...

There is a definite theme to the final days of the award season -- what once seemed so certain now is anything but. On nomination morning, this statue was Spielberg's. No doubt about it. Now? I have doubts about it. And those doubts are because of Ang Lee. For one, his film should absolutely CLEAN UP -- and deservedly so -- in the technical categories. Two, and most importantly, none of these guys (great job, Academy) have won anything resembling a major precursor, meaning there's really no indication of which way the Academy could be leaning. The one clue would usually be overall nominations, but it's close to even: 12 for Lincoln, 11 for Life of Pi. So it really comes down to two things: brand recognition and possible branch support. Lee, esteemed as he is, is no Spielberg, and, while Pi should have more support in the (smaller) technical branches, Lincoln received three nominations from the largest branch, the actors. In what is basically a coin flip at this point, I think Spielberg takes it in a very close race. As for the others, Russell hangs around as an interesting possible spoiler, Haneke's nomination is a long-deserved feather in his cap, and Zeitlin gets to enjoy this year's Precious Memorial Nomination.

Best Picture
Amour
Argo
Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life Of Pi
Lincoln
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

The Best Picture category is the culmination of that theme I mentioned above. Again, on nomination morning, Lincoln was your Best Picture winner. But... then Argo started winning major awards. Like, all of them. Were it to lose the Best Picture race at this point it would fly in the face of decades of precedent. Of course, even if it were to win it would fly in the face of a major, major precedent -- you can't win Best Picture if your director wasn't nominated (insert obligatory Driving Miss Daisy reference here). So what's an Academy to do? Go with the crowd-pleasing entertainment de résistance, or the also crowd-pleasing biopic opus? They can't really go wrong either way -- both are well made, have wide appeal, and have that certain Hollywood sheen. Both will probably also stand up fairly well years down the line (better than the last two Best Picture winners, I dare say). What I think decides it though is that Argo is the best film Ben Affleck is likely to make, while Lincoln isn't even Spielberg's 10th-best film.* (Look it up.) So call Sunday night Whofleck's Redemption -- from Hollywood purgatory, from J-Lo accessory, from Academy snubbery. Honestly, who'd have thought he'd nab a second Oscar before Matt Damon (he produced Argo, along with -- wait for it -- George Clooney and Grant Heslov)? Hell, the way his career trajectory looks right now, he might win a third before the "talented" one of the Boston duo even has a second. And you know what? I'm okay with that... as long as it's not for acting.

So that was a bit longer than I was intending -- hope you were able to get through it. Next up, the remaining categories in quick-hit style. Or, as I like to call it, How to Win an Oscar Pool.**

* Ten Spielberg films that are better than Lincoln (in chronological order):
Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, Munich.

** I have not won an Oscar pool in some years. I think. I'm usually fairly drunk by the time the whole thing is over.

Monday, February 4, 2013

From Amour to Zero: My Favorite 2012 Films

As far as movies go, 2012 was an improvement on 2011 in just about every way. I much preferred 2012's crop of adaptations, sequels, and three-quels to 2011's lackluster box office toppers (although the continuing popularity of Twilight is still somewhat disconcerting). As far as the Best Picture nominees, it's not even a contest -- 2012's group easily outclasses 2011's (although the presumed frontrunner is still fairly "meh"). About the only thing 2011 has on 2012 is at the very top -- I didn't see a movie as absolutely fucking perfect as Drive in 2012, although a couple came close. But, like I said, 2012 was a stronger year overall, and I think my list reflects that -- a mix of flawed blockbusters, underseen genre entries, works by both modern masters as well as up-and-comers, a whopping three French language films, and enough Channing Tatum to impregnate a nunnery. Enjoy, and don't hesitate to let me know what your favorites were and/or what you think I'm dead wrong about. Let's start with the honorable mentions.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
Amour, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Holy Motors, Killing Them Softly, The Master, Prometheus, Savages, Seven Psychopaths

10) The Year of Channing Tatum
Movies: Haywire, 21 Jump Street, Magic Mike
Starring: Channing Tatum
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh, Phil Lord/Chris Miller, Soderbergh

If anyone owned 2012, it was Channing Tatum (and his Tatums). In fact, I think he's solely responsible for preventing the Mayan Apocalypse. They probably tried to cut his heart out and their knives broke on his pecs. Wait, the heart thing was the Aztecs, wasn't it? Oh well. Either way, C-Tates broke out in a big way in 2012 and I was as surprised as anyone. First came his more-than-competent turn in Haywire, a movie whose abundance of style made up for its lack of substance. Where his obvious good looks and chiseled physique would have been enough, he nevertheless brought a sense of vulnerability to his role as a bruiser. Next came 21 Jump Street, hands down the funniest comedy of the year, where the many riffs on his "jock"-like image paid great dividends and which showed he doesn't take himself too seriously. Finally came Magic Mike, without a doubt the most misrepresented movie of the year. Billed as little more than eye candy for the cougar set, Magic Mike nevertheless oozed with pathos, dripped nuanced performances, and was a cinematographer's wet dream to boot (word choice very intentional). Of course, the movie faltered a bit the few times that Tatum was required to carry a cathartic scene, but you can't have everything. That said, I'm already looking forward to his next collaboration with Soderbergh, Side Effects. For their next project, may I suggest an erotic thriller (minus the thriller) with former Soderbergh muse Sasha Grey?

9) Moonrise Kingdom
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Heyward, Bruce Willis, various Wes Anderson regulars

If Wes Anderson is a one-trick pony (and he most certainly is), then Moonrise Kingdom is his Secretariat. This would make Rushmore his Seabiscuit, I guess. Or maybe it's the other way around. Also, horses have stupid names. I will now abandon this metaphor. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that Moonrise Kingdom is a very good movie. It has the usual Wes Anderson accoutrements -- staid camerawork, eccentric wardrobe, throwback soundtrack, and more whimsey than... something with a lot of whimsey... like a horse named Whimsey. But it also has more heart that your typical Wes Anderson film, which typically feature emotionally stunted characters engaging in random acts of quirk-ery. While the adults in Moonrise largely fit that description, the two young leads (Gilman and Hetward) imbue the film with some actual human emotion. Anyone who doesn't walk away from this with warm fuzzies (and not just because Anderson uncomfortably sexualizes a 12-year-old girl -- thanks for making me feel like a pervert!) probably... well, they probably prefer Paul Thomas Anderson movies (nothing warm and fuzzy about those). And while I did quite like The Master (some of the finest acting of the year), I preferred Moonrise precisely for its charms (although maybe it could have been improved with a handjob scene... maybe).

8) Rust and Bone
Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Written by: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Mathias Schoenaerts

I saw Rust and Bone at the very beginning of 2013, right before the Golden Globes (and figuring it'd be nominated for an Oscar -- wrong, although it should've been). I wasn't expecting much, just trying to round out my awards season list, and I'd figured I'd already seen everything with a chance to crack my top 10. Two hours later, I was very happily proven wrong by my favorite of the three excellent French language films that are on this list. Amour is masterful filmmaking on just about every level, but its merciless unsentimentality makes it difficult to enjoy -- it's one of those "I'm never watching THAT again" films. As a collection of scenes, Holy Motors is right up there with anything released this last year, but it falls a bit short as a cohesive whole (everything after the -- amazing -- accordion scene falls short of what came before, and it really loses me in the last five minutes). Rust and Bone combines a bit of both -- this is by no means an easy, breezy film, similar to Amour, and, like Holy Motors, it combines disparate parts to great effect. But in this case, the bouts of unsentimentality are belied by what eventually turns into a touchingly-rendered love story, and the disparate parts (underground fighting rings, illegal surveillance, orca-induced trauma) eventually coalesce. If there was one movie I was disappointed to see shut out by Oscar in an otherwise solid year (Director category aside), this is it.

7) Looper
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willy*, Emily Blunt

In the best diner tête-à-tête since Heat, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Young Joe) faces off with Bruce Willy (Old Joe) over steak and eggs. After they finish their meal, they get to the meat of the scene: the nitty gritty of time travel. Willy futzes around with drinking straw diagrams, then drops the quote that makes the movie work: "This is a precise description of a fuzzy mechanism. Time travel fucks everything, my brain and body try to catch up. It’s messy. That’s why it’s dangerous." Rather than forcing his characters to conform to a strict set of rules about time travel (which is, by the way, a thing that is not real, and therefore has no actual rules), Johnson instead lets the rules remain vague, and puts the onus of the movie squarely on the characters. It's a bold move, and surely one that pissed a lot of sci-fi fanboys off, but the movie is better off for it, as the characters (and actors) are strong. Levitt, Willy, and Blunt (as well as the child actor who plays her son) all make the viewer care about their fate, which makes the ending resonate that much more, time travel rules be damned. Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) has always had a knack for blending character and concept, and if I were a time traveler, I'd be sure to jump forward to the release date of his next film. Looper is his best work yet, and signals what could be the beginning of a Christopher Nolan-like ascension -- and he's already got the requisite Oscar snub!

*If you're wondering why I keep referring to Bruce Willis as Bruce Willy, wait for #2 below.

6) Argo
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston

The career of Ben Affleck can be divided into three distinct phases: Pre-Goodwill Hunting (youthful supporting actor), Worst Human Being on the Planet (just check out his 2000-2005 stretch -- and that list doesn't even include a regrettable cameo in the "Jenny from the Block" video), and Acclaimed Director. But it is important to recognize that Ben Affleck, actor, has changed very little during this time: the Ben Affleck of Chasing Amy is the Ben Affleck of Daredevil is the Ben Affleck of, yes, Argo. Sure, the facial hair may have changed here and there, but the innocuous charm and affable woodenness are always there (he's basically Bradley Cooper before Bradley Cooper was Bradley Cooper). He's not a bad actor, no, but he's not a particularly good one either -- although, like Cooper, he has some talent for comedic roles. But aside from the excellent Arkin/Goodman duo (a major highlight), Argo is not a funny movie. In fact, Affleck (a lowlight) is in full on morose mother fucker mode in this, like someone shit in his breakfast cereal, and is majorly outclassed by his talented supporting cast (Arkin, Goodman, Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, et al.). That said, questionable self-casting aside, this is Ben Affleck, Acclaimed Director's crowning achievement thus far -- a slick, hyper-competent, Entertaining with a capital "E" political thriller that has become (again) a major awards contender/winner. I'd even go so far as to say that Argo would get a Best Picture vote if I had one to give (even though I slightly enjoyed my #5 more, and my #1 doesn't have a realistic chance). Not bad for "Benny from the Block."

5) Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson

This is a movie that bounced all around the top of my list -- it probably occupied one top-five spot or another in a number of different iterations. Eventually, it settled in at #5, *just* in front of Argo and slightly behind a very strong top-four. That placement qualifies as somewhat of a disappointment from an unapologetic Quentin Tarantino apologist such as myself, but so be it. Django has a lot going for it -- excellent performances (Waltz and, especially, Jackson are standouts), a killer soundtrack/score, some really great, ahem, dark humor, and, this being Tarantino, riotous amounts of stylized violence. All of which is right in my wheelhouse. But, after thinking on it for a bit, I decided the film was missing a couple things. One is the (almost clichéd at this point) narrative flourishes to go along with the prominent stylistic ones. This is pretty much just a straight-shot of a story -- no Pulp Fiction structural chaos, no Inglourious Basterds chapter titles, only a few flashbacks here and there. Not that every Tarantino movie needs to follow the same formula, but I found myself missing... something all the same. The other is the lack of a real signature scene -- "House of Blue Leaves" and "Operation Keno" come to mind. Nothing of its ilk to be found here -- although the KKK hood scene is about as funny as anything Q has ever written. Combine that with the 2-3 false endings and another bout of questionable self-casting (that accent, good god), and the result is a somewhat minor Tarantino film -- although it's still better than most anything released last year.

4) The Cabin in the Woods
Directed by: Drew Goddard
Written by: Drew Goddard and Joss Wheedon
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Danny Tripp, Richard Jenkins

The Cabin in the Woods bucks two Hollywood trends: nothing good is released in the first part of the year, and movies that sit on the shelf for a couple years always suck. Usually these things go hand in hand -- delayed movies often get dumped at the beginning of the year. But, just like my #2 movie, Cabin took on challengers as the year went on and remained firmly in the top-five, and somehow managed to not only not suck, but be freaking awesome despite being delayed for 2+ years. This is a movie that was in the conversation for the top spot, and definitely would have received a few #1 votes if this were an AP-type top-25 poll, a la college basketball. What makes Cabin such a great film -- and why it's so shocking that it was on a shelf for so long -- is that it's such an original vision. It takes everything you know about horror movies -- all the tropes, all the clichés, all the plot points -- and simultaneously exposes and reinvigorates them. Cabin is a film that works on multiple levels -- meta, ironic, visceral -- but, most importantly, is *almost* as fine a piece of entertainment as anything released in 2012 (and leave it to Joss Whedon to one-up himself). From Whitford and Jenkins' interplay and Kranz's stoned musings to the expert tension and absolute shitshow of the last 25 minutes, The Cabin in the Woods is a genre masterpiece.

3) The Avengers
Directed by: Joss Wheedon
Written by: Joss Wheedon
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Liam Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson

True story: The Avengers came out on Cinco de Mayo weekend. Needless to say, my first viewing of the Marvel blockbuster was, shall we say, margarita-enhanced. While I actually made it through the movie without falling asleep and/or peeing every five minutes (unlike my moviegoing companions), my basic impression of the movie was little more than "Me likey the explosions" and deriding Hawkeye by sarcastically yelling "I'm really good at arrows!" at the screen. It's a good thing that I watched it again though, because there's definitely more to it than ubiquitous explosions (my opinion on Hawkeye, however, is largely unchanged). I'd go so far as to say that The Avengers is a perfect blockbuster -- a perfect balance of good (enough) story, whizbang special effects, quality cast, and expert pacing. It has none of the wooden performances and leaden dialogue of most Michael Bay films (Bay is still my boy though -- don't think I won't be first in line for Pain & Gain), none of the worst Lucas/Spielberg-style pandering, and avoids the temptation to make everything "dark and gritty" a la Chris Nolan. Crafting blockbusters is tricky work, and relatively few filmmakers seem capable of pulling it off this well. (J.J. Abrams is another -- I'm all in on Star Trek Into Darkness and cautiously optimistic about the new Star Wars.) And they say TV directors are hacks (I'm sure someone has said this, anyway).

2) The Grey
Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Written by: Joe Carnahan, Ian MacKenzie Jeffers
Starring: Liam Neesons, Frank Grillo, Dylan McDermott, Joe Anderson

I'll start with a Dan Dierdorf-esque caveat: I'm still not entirely certain this isn't my #1. This was one of the first 2012 films I saw that year, and I walked out of it super impressed. Stunned, even, if only for the fact that the director of Smokin' Aces (enjoyable in its own way) was capable of something approaching... profound. Yes, the movie ostensibly about Liam Neesons punching wolves in the face (SPOILER: You don't actually see him punch a wolf in the face) is actually a contemplative, existentialist elegy. I know, I was as shocked as you are. I went in expecting a fun but forgettable thriller (like the previous year's Unknown, or even last year's Taken 2), but instead I got pure fucking poetry, both cinematic and lyrical. The opening plane crash scene is as good -- or better -- than the more-hyped one in Flight, and the subsequent scene where Neesons tells a man he's going to die is as fine of acting as anything last year. And then there's the actual poem:

Once more into the fray...
Into the last good fight I'll ever know.
Live and die on this day...
Live and die on this day...

It pops up a few times in the film as a sort of refrain (and it even manages to sneak its way onto the poster, as seen above), and by the time Neesons recites it the last time (while preparing for the unseen wolf melee), you realize that the movie was never really about wolves, but about men, and fights more figurative than literal. This is the kind of movie that reminds you what Neesons is capable of as an actor, and that he's got a statue with his name on it waiting for him if he ever decides to stop trying to be an action hero (although I'll keep enjoying his efforts on that front).

1) Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong

If I had actually made this list before the end of 2012, The Grey would have been in the #1 spot. As it is, I had to wait until the calendar flipped to see a number of "prestige" movies that didn't come out in AZ until the beginning of the year. Things will (probably) be much more timely if I ever move to NY or LA. While some of those films didn't come close to cracking the list (Les Miséra-blah being one), a few (Amour, Rust and Bone) did just that. Zero Dark Thirty did more than crack the list -- it dang near broke the thing. ZDT is easily one of the most riveting films in recent memory, and an improvement on the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker in almost every way -- performances, writing, direction, you name it. The ensemble cast -- led by Oscar-hopeful Chastain -- is top-notch (with Clarke being an especial standout); even minor roles are filled by accomplished character actors (Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, etc. etc.). Boal's screenplay is a masterclass in wringing the tension out of what is basically a really complex procedural (another great example is James Vanderbilt's Zodiac script), and Bigelow knows when to slam on the brakes and when to hit the gas better than just about anyone else. Her background in action films really shows here, but it's her work on the quieter scenes that really stands out, including the Chastain Oscar-reel in the final moments of the film. I'll save my Oscar-snub rant for another occasion, but suffice it to say this is the most technically proficient film since The Social Network, so it's only fitting that it will suffer the same fate come Oscar night. (Wow, I actually managed to get through the entire write-up without mentioning torture!)

BONUS LIST - BOTTOM FIVE FILMS OF 2012 (listed from bad to worst*)
5) Dark Shadows (clever Tim Burton self-parody, or unintentional Tim Burton self-parody?)
4) The Hunger Games (Battle Royale for tweens, now with super-sized plotholes)
3) Man on a Ledge (is Sam Worthington now a poor man's Channing Tatum?)
2) Total Recall (totally unnecessary, entirely monotonous)
1) Lockout (aka SPACE PRISON -- ludicrous, yet still entertaining)

*To be fair, I don't go out of my way to see movies I think I'll hate, and I didn't hate any of these. They were just the five I liked the least out of the 60 or so 2012 movies I saw.

Like I said, 2012 was a strong year for movies. If there are any that you think should be on here, go ahead and let me know! I'll be back in a couple weeks with my Oscar predictions. Until then, thanks for reading.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Top Songs: 2012

Like I said in my Top Albums post, while this year may not have been as top-heavy as last year, I think it's a deeper overall year. That is reflected in my Top Songs list(s) below. Each of the three lists (Greatest Hits, B-Sides, and Demos) is around 80 minutes (fits on a CDR!) of awesome. As a bonus, I'll give you some Top 10 hits that I liked/hated. All songs are listed alphabetically by title. Enjoy, and let me know what I missed!

* = hyperlink to a music video (a link to audio only otherwise)

2012 GREATEST HITS
"45" - The Gaslight Anthem*
"Closer Than This" - St. Lucia
"Comeback Kid" - Sleigh Bells*
"Cut You" - Cloud Nothings*
"Flowers in Your Hair" - The Lumineers*
"Friends of Friends" - Hospitality*
"The House That Heaven Built" - Japandroids*
"In Sleep" - The Bouncing Souls
"Lies and Eyes" - Minus the Bear
"Lost & Found" - Eve 6*
"Navy" - Kilo Kish*
"Piano Hits" - P.O.S
"Roadie" - Tenacious D*
"Skin and Bone" - Heartless Bastards*
"Speed the Collapse" - Metric
"Survivor Blues" - Cory Branan
"Sweet Life" - Frank Ocean
"Take a Walk" - Passion Pit*
"Take the Heartland" - Glen Hansard
"When I Was Young" - Lucero

2012 B-SIDES
"About to Die" - Dirty Projectors*
"All the Rowboats" - Regina Spektor*
"Baby Get Worse" - Divine Fits
"Better Girl" - Best Coast
"Burn It Down" - Linkin Park*
"Draw a Crowd" - Ben Folds Five
"East St. Louis" - Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds
"Fine Foods Market" - Tim Barry
"Ghost" - Ingrid Michaelson*
"How the Hell Did We Get Here?" - Matt Skiba and the Sekrets
"(I Am The) Electric Man" - Titus Andronicus*
"I Dare You To Break My Heart" - Reel Big Fish*
"Lakeside View Apartment Suite" - The Mountain Goats
"Mean Spirits" - Silversun Pickups
"Mean to Me" - Ben Kweller*
"On Momma's House" - Del the Funky Homosapien
"Paddling Out" - Miike Snow*
"Rise Again" - Brandi Carlile
"State of Grace" - Hot Water Music*

2012 DEMOS
"3, 6 ,9" - Cat Power
"Circles" - B.o.B.
"Dead" - Jukebox the Ghost
"Doomsday" - Hacienda
"Fell for You" - Green Day
"Heartbeat" - Kopecky Family Band*
"Heaven" - The Walkmen*
"Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" - Father John Misty*
"Honolulu Blues" - Craig Finn
"Manhattan on Mute" - Cheap Girls
"Simple Song" - The Shins*
"Sixteen Salteens" - Jack White*
"The Streets" - Foxy Shazam
"Sunset" - The xx
"The Theory of Relativity" - Stars
"To: Chicago" - The Spill Canvas
"True Romance" - Motion City Soundtrack*
"What Makes a Good Man?" - The Heavy*
"Write This Down" - Maxïmo Park*
"Your Own Ghost" - Gold Motel

BONUS - 2012 TOP 10 HITS THAT I ACTUALLY LIKED
"Call Me Maybe" / "Good Time" - Carly Rae Jepsen*
"Gangnam Style" - Psy*
"Lights" - Ellie Goulding*
"Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" - Kelly Clarkson*
"Part of Me" / "Wide Awake" - Katy Perry*
"We Found Love" - Rihanna*
(One of these things is not like the others...)


BONUES - 2012 TOP 10 HITS THAT I HATED
"Everybody Talks" - Neon Trees
"Somebody That I Used to Know" - Gotye
"Starships" - Nicki Minaj
"Too Close" - Alex Clare
"We Are Young" - fun.
"Whistle" - Flo Rida
(I will not link to the videos -- and to be fair to fun., the rest of the album was decent.)



I hope you enjoy checking out some of the tunes you may have missed. Make sure to let me know your favorites as well. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Golden Globes Guesses

Most people think the Oscars are kind of stuffy and boring (and after the last couple Best Picture winners, they may be right). If that's true, then the Golden Globes are their crazy drunk cousin. You're never quite sure what they're gonna do, but it's always entertaining. That drunk cousin is due for another yearly visit tomorrow evening, so now's the time to try to figure out what they're gonna do. Here's my best shot.

^ = A film or performance I haven't seen
bold = my prediction

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy^

Logic: There are few certainties when it comes to the Globes and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but this is one of them. Hathaway can add this Globe to her already impressive duo. Yup, that's a boobs joke -- I'm bringing the good stuff tonight. Of the other performances, Hunt's is the only other one that I actually enjoyed -- a nuanced blend of empathy and vulnerability (and, again, boobs). Field's melodramatics stood in stark contrast to the rest of the cast's finely-tuned dramatic performances, and, while finely acted, Adams' shrewish wife is just not easy to root for. (Bonus points for the most uncomfortable hand-jibber in cinema history though.) Finally, while I usually go out of my way to see nominated performances, I did and will not see The Paperboy.

Second choice: None
My vote: Hunt

Best Supporting Actor:
Alan Arkin, Argo
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Logic: While TLJ (all the cool actors get acronym-ized) seems to have a bead on the Oscar win, the HFPA is a maverick that doesn't play by the same rules. Really, this category is more open than a Denny's at 4:00 a.m. The case for any of the nominees is easy to make -- Argo is right up the HFPA's alley (and a darkhorse in the Drama race); DiCaprio is a big star and had a showy performance; Hoffman is in the conversation for Best Actor Working Right Now; Lincoln has the look of a film that could win all of the awards; and Waltz is a recent winner with a very likeable performance. But star power is always something to consider with the Globes, and DiCaprio has it in spades. (And, holy crap, there's got to be a better way to say that.)

Second choice: Jones or Waltz
My vote: Waltz

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy:
Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen
Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel^
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Maggie Smith, Quartet^
Meryl Streep, Hope Springs^

Logic: Even though I've only seen two of the performances, it doesn't matter -- Lawrence has got this locked down tighter than her character's wardrobe in Silver Linings. She'll also figure into the discussion for the Best Actress Oscar for her manic, livewire performance. Blunt was perfectly pleasant in surprise nominee Salmon Fishing, but perfectly pleasant doesn't get you a statue. As for the other nominated performances, I didn't see the movies because, old people, ZZZZZZZZs.

Second choice: None
My vote: Lawrence

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy:
Jack Black, Bernie
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
Ewan McGregor, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen
Bill Murray, Hyde Park On Hudson^

Logic: I'm supremely unconfident (which is totally a word) in this pick. It's either him or Cooper. I'm going with Jackman because he had the higher degree of difficulty (live singing, losing/gaining weight, spending 98% of the movie in extreme closeup) and the fact that Les Miz is one of the most widely revered works in the history of European literature. Not sure a bipolar Philadelphia Eagles fan is quite in the same category. Which brings me to one of the only things I don't like about the Globes -- the Musical/Comedy dichotomy. Yes, Les Miz is a musical, but it's nothing if not dramatic. Jackman's performance clearly belongs in the other category. That said, Cooper could easily pull off the victory, what with his chiseled good looks and charming (in its own way) rapport with co-star Lawrence. Remember, star power. Of the remaining nominees, Jack Black is the only one who qualifies as something other than window dressing for his conflicted, eponymous Bernie. Dark comedy gold. McGregor was also perfectly pleasant, and it's unclear if anyone actually saw Hyde Park.

Second choice: Cooper
My vote: Jackman

Best Actress, Drama:
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Marian Cotillard, Rust And Bone
Helen Mirren, Hitchcock
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea

Logic: This is another close race, and one I'm taking a chance on. You can safely rule out Mirren -- she's just category filler for her humdrum work in the very humdrum Hitchcock. Next, while Weisz' re-envisioning of the classic Saffron Burrows role was quite good, her film is just too small and she can likely be ruled out as well. That leaves three possible -- and deserving -- candidates. Cotillard was magnificent in a movie that managed to crack my top-10 list (forthcoming), and she's French, but I just don't see it happening. (The fact that she wasn't nominated for an Oscar has no real bearing on this race.) Of the two remaining nominees, Chastain is widely considered to be the frontrunner (and perhaps for the Oscar as well), and she was very good, but she has a couple things working against her. One is the obvious torture controversy surrounding her film. The other is that, a few scenes aside, the film doesn't provide her with many chances to show her acting chops -- instead, her performance is a study of determination and resolve. That leaves Watts, whose performance may have been the most impressive, both from a physical and emotional standpoint. Her movie is also a lot more international, which I think gives her an edge. I think she takes the statue in an upset.

Second choice: Chastain
My vote: Chastain

Best Actor, Drama:
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Richard Gere, Arbitrage
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

Logic: While this is another lock for Daniel "All Your Statues Are Belong to Us" Day-Lewis, this is actually an impressive group of nominees, and one I actually prefer to the Oscar shortlist. Gere, forced out of the Oscar running by Jackman/Cooper, delivers what I would probably call a career best performance, if I had actually seen more than a handful of his movies, in Arbitrage as a patriarch desperately trying to hold on to his crumbling family and financial empire. Similarly snubbed, Hawks (a longtime favorite) was fascinating as a polio victim trying to lose his virginity. Denzel did Denzel things to great effect in Flight and would be a worthy contender in another year (like, say, last year). We all know D-Day is going to win for his masterfully honed portrayal of Honest Abe, but, to me, Joaquin Phoenix delivered the performance of the year (if not the past few years -- maybe since Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler) in The Master. Phoenix, perhaps not surprisingly, knocked it out of the park as a man operating on the edge of sanity. It's too bad he won't have a statue to show for it.

Second choice: None
My vote: Phoenix

Best Screenplay:
Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Chris Terrio, Argo

Logic: Fuck me, I have no idea on this one. I could see any of them winning it. ZDT was Boal's baby, constructed from the ground up from his research and reporting, and impressive in the same way as Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network script (although not quite as good). Kushner deserves similar accolades for his work on Lincoln (and he should probably be drafting his Oscar speech by now). Russell gets kudos for his spastic take on the screwball comedy. Terrio's taut Argo script is perhaps the movie's strength. All are deserving, but in keeping with the "star power" theme (which will probably wind up blowing up in my face), I'm going with QT for his equally verbose and profane work on Django.

Second choice: Kushner or Russell
My vote: Boal (or Tarantino)

Best Director:
Ben Affleck, Argo
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Ang Lee, Life Of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Logic: This race is infinitely more interesting than the Oscar "race," where Affleck and Bigelow were both righteously snubbed. Bigelow's non-nomination is especially stunning now that I've seen the film: ZDT is masterfully orchestrated -- as white-knuckled and impassioned filmmaking as you'll see this year. Although not quite in the same class as ZDT, Affleck's Argo was also well made and he's a deserving nominee here -- and you know the HFPA loves their movie stars. Lee and QT are both wildcards -- Life of Pi is the biggest international hit of the bunch, and QT is, well, QT. Most prognosticators (that I've read) seem to give Spielberg, the prohibitive Oscar favorite, little chance to win here. All that adds up to another tough call. Might as well stick with the theme at this point -- Affleck takes the statue (although Spielberg and Lee are close).

Second choice: Spielberg
My vote: Bigelow

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy:
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel^
Les Misérables
Moonrise Kingdom
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Silver Linings Playbook


Logic: We should know the winner of this category when the give out the Best Actor, Musical or Comedy statue -- I can't imagine a split. If Jackman takes the hardware, Les Miz should win here. If Cooper takes it, a Silver Linings victory is likely. Obviously, since I tabbed Jackman to win Actor, I think Les Miz will win here (even though it's a !@#$ing drama). That said, Silver Linings does have more star power... but too late to change my mind now. The actual best movie out of the bunch, however, is clearly Moonrise Kingdom, which actually shows real life human emotions (Les Miz is largely a series of histrionic set pieces) and actually manages to tie all its various subplots together neatly (Silver Linings very much failed at this). Oh, it's also sweet, tender, funny, and, Wes Anderson, duh, quirky. Salmon Fishing was, of course, perfectly pleasant, and, man, old people sure did seem to love Marigold.

Second choice: Silver Linings Playbook
My vote: Moonrise Kingdom

Best Picture, Drama:
Argo
Django Unchained
Life Of Pi
Lincoln
Zero Dark Thirty

Logic: Unlike the now-castrated Oscar race, there could actually be some, ahem, drama here. While I still expect Lincoln to win, the only surprise for me in this category would be a Django victory. It just doesn't have the same sheen of prestige as the other nominees. My pick for best film of the bunch, ZDT, is probably only a fringe contender at this point, mostly for the reasons listed above in the Actress category. Also, remember that Oscar darling The Hurt Locker was shut out at the Globes in 2010. Of the remaining three films, Life of Pi has the whole international thing going for it, so it has a chance to pull off a mild upset. I actually think Argo has a decent shot to win this thing -- it's Entertainment with a capital 'E' in the same way that Lincoln is a Film with a capital 'F', and I think that carries a lot of weight with the HFPA. (Remember, Avatar won over Hurt Locker that year.) Still, Lincoln just has the (very subjective) look of a winner, so I'm going with that.

Second choice: Argo
My vote: Zero Dark Thirty
 
Other awards: I'll be rooting for Wreck-It-Ralph for Animated Feature, Adele for Original Song, Rust and Bone for Foreign Language Film (caveat: haven't seen Amour), and Louis C.K. for TV Comedy Actor. I really don't care about any of the other TV races (I really, really need to catch up on TV).

Looking over my predictions, I think I'm actually more confident in my "Second choice" guesses. But even though I wield the mighty power of the 'Delete' key, I'm sticking to my original picks, even though I'm likely way off. Stay tuned for my Top 10 Films list (in the next week or two), then my Oscar picks (most of those races are way easier to call). Thanks, as always, for reading.