Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Little Bit of Magic: Best Music of 2014

The 2015 Grammy nominations have been out for a few weeks now, and I can't decide if a) the Grammys are getting more and more irrelevant, or b) I am getting more and more out of touch with popular music. In favor of the latter: I have listened to precisely ZERO of the Album of the Year nominees, and of the Song/Record of the Year nominees, two are among the worst songs of the year ("Fancy" and "All About That Bass") and I have no idea what a Sia or a Sam Smith are. (I guess that Hozier song is pretty good though, if overplayed.) That leaves... Taylor Swift (up for Song/Record but, inexplicably, not Album). People who have known me for a long time may (or may not) be surprised to know that I LOVED 1989. Like, seriously, it's a fantastic album, easily the best pop album since Teenage Dream. I can't imagine "Shake It Off" *not* winning Song or Record of the Year, or both. So maybe there's hope for me (and the Grammys yet). Anyway, in the spirit of the Grammy nominations (and in following last year's format), I've devised my own categories, nominees, and winners. So, let's see who made the cut and hand out some fake awards!

* = saw live this year

Best Punk(ish) Album
Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues*
Joyce Manor - Never Hungover Again
The Lawrence Arms - Metropole
The Menzingers - Rented World
The Shrine - Bless Off
Honorable Mentions: Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else, Little Big League - Tropical Jinx, Modern Baseball - You're Gonna Miss It All, New Found Glory - Resurrection*, Restorations - LP3

In a genre that's become increasingly fragmented and pushed to the fringes of the mainstream (remember when one-time punk band Green Day was among the biggest bands in the world?), it was great to see an important punk album released in 2014. No one knew what to expect when Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel came out as transgender and became known as frontwoman Laura Jane Grace. Personally, I wasn't sure if there would ever be another Against Me! album. The band (and singer in particular) had always had a prickly relationship with the punk community—cries of "sellout!" followed the band as they got bigger (and, yes, better)—and it wasn't clear what the reaction would be to such a monumental change. Thankfully, it was nothing but positivity. I saw the band twice this year and heard nary a slur and plenty of heartfelt applause. As for the album itself, it's a step back in production value and a step forward in songwriting, perhaps closer to the band's roots than their last few releases, a sub-30 minute collection of snarling defiance and raucous anthems. Some of the song titles seem ripped from the back pages of a junior high notebook ("FuckMyLife666," "Dead Friend," "Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ"), but I think that's part of the point—Laura Jane is putting it all out there and doesn't care what anyone thinks. I can't think of a better message—or person—to represent punk in 2014.

The rest of the nominees (and honorable mentions) point toward a solid year for punk music. It's a good thing any time Brendan Kelly or Chris McCaughan release new music, and especially so with their powers combined as The Lawrence Arms. Metropole was their first record in 8 years and it did not disappoint—another brazen, emotive, introspective set. The Menzingers very much mine that same territory, and Rented World is another strong release from yet another great Rust Belt punk band. Joyce Manor and The Shrine both hail from that other hotbed of punk music, southern California, but couldn't be more different. Joyce Manor specializes in 2:00-minute emo/punk song-stories, while The Shrine sound like a Tony Hawk Pro Skater soundtrack tribute band in the best possible way. Lots of solid stuff from all across the genre spectrum this year.

Best Rap Album
Atmosphere - Southsiders
Childish Gambino - STN MTN / Kauai
Flying Lotus - You're Dead!
Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2*
Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron
Honorable Mentions: G-Eazy - These Things Happen, Grieves - Winter & the Wolves

This year was a stronger one than 2013 in just about all respects. The only real exception was rap music. Yeezus obviously towered over the genre last year, but there were also releases from Drake, Eminem, and Jay-Z. Oh, and a little duo by the name of Run the Jewels. El-P and Killer Mike... maybe you've heard of them? Their (phenomenal) debut had the misfortune to be released the same year as Yeezus, but 2014 offers no such competition. That said, RTJ2 is not as strong an album as the group's debut—it just doesn't feel as urgent, as berserk, as iconoclastic (as if that were possible). And this is an album with song titles like "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" and "Lie, Cheat, Steal," as well as a track with a refrain of "Dick in her mouth all day" ("Love Again"). But it is still a very good album, with easily the best beats of the year (mostly courtesy of El-P, again pulling double duty as a producer) and rhymes that stick in your skull like shurikens: "I'm trained in vagina whisperin', glistenin', waitin' for the christenin' / I know the neighbors can't help but listen in" ("Close Your Eyes"). I'm not sure how the MC duo has enough energy, but they're set to release another album in 2015. Perhaps it will be Kanye vs. RTJ in this space again next year?

The rest of the releases were good but not great. Childish Gambino's mixtape/EP combo STN MTN / Kauai comes the closest to greatness. Hip-hop mixtape STN MTN showcases a more focused MC than could be found on 2013's Because the Internet, while on the Kauai EP, he explores the R&B that's always been a (small) part of his repertoire. "Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good)" is an absolute jam. Elsewhere, the new Atmosphere release is confident and competent, if not a bit lengthy. Schoolboy Q's album continues the West Coast gangsta rap resurgence I didn't know I needed. Speaking of West Coast rappers, the best rap song of 2014 is easily the Kendrick Lamar-featuring "Never Catch Me" from producer Flying Lotus's album You're Dead! I absolutely cannot wait for Kendrick's next release. (And I know You're Dead! isn't strictly a rap album, but I'm slotting it here anyway.)

Best Electronic(ish) Album
Chromeo - White Women*
Dum Dum Girls - Too True
EMA - The Future's Void
Phantogram - Voices*
TV on the Radio - Seeds
Honorable Mentions: Future Islands - Singles, Warpaint - Warpaint*, Young the Giant - Mind Over Matter

Okay, okay—I'm really stretching genre definitions here. This category might as well be called "Best Album that Makes Use of a Keyboard and/or Electronic Production Flourishes," but that's a bit of a mouthful, no? With those broad parameters in mind, easily the best of the bunch is Phantogram's second record, Voices. They had been one of those "heard of, but never heard" bands for me, but I decided to check them out when I found out they were coming through town. I listened to the album just enough to get me excited for the show, but it wasn't until I saw them live that the album really clicked for me. It's a volatile mix of mischievous keys, sinister beats, and foreboding lyrics ("Fireworks exploding in my hands / If I could paint the sky / Would all the stars be shining bloody red?" from "Black Out Days"), all held together by Sarah Barthel's haunting, sultry voice. She flits effortlessly between power balladry ("My Only Friend"), trip-hop lilt ("Black Out Days"), and dreamy, shoegaze monotone ("Bill Murray"), often in the same song ("Nothing But Trouble," "Howling at the Moon"). (This is, of course, not to discount the contributions of guitarist/part-time vocalist Josh Carter—although his two tracks on vox didn't do as much for me.) Even if their album doesn't quite capture the energy and atmosphere of their live show (it would be a contender for my favorite concert of the year in a year in which I didn't go to Outside Lands), it's one of the best of the year, a perfect compliment to night drives, dance parties, and anything in between.

Of the rest of the nominees, my favorite is Chromeo's new disc, White Women. I've been a fan since the Fancy Footwork days, and I had the pleasure of finally seeing them live this year under the San Francisco sun and half a flask of whiskey at Outside Lands. While I think I might still prefer 2010's Business Casual, "Old 45's" might be the best song they've ever written. I also got into the Dum Dum Girls this year, and was enchanted for a spell by their darkly sly electro-pop jams, especially "Rimbaud Eyes." The new TV on the Radio album was a late entry (and I'm still exploring it), and while it doesn't hold up to Dear Science and Nine Types of Light at first blush, it's still eminently listenable. Finally, the new EMA record feels like a sonic and thematic sister to one of my favorite recent records, Metric's 2012 album Synthetica. (And, honestly, I'm on board with just about any record with songs called "Cthulu" and "Neuromancer.")

Best (Indie) Rock Album
Desert Noises - 27 Ways
Spoon - They Want My Soul
Strand of Oaks - HEAL
Sun Kil Moon - Benji
The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
Honorable Mentions: Cheap Girls - Famous Graves*, Cory Branan - The No-Hit Wonder, Drive-By Truckers - English Oceans, Real Estate - Atlas

This was the most difficult category to pick, as the albums are split among ones I more like (Desert Noises, Spoon), and ones I more respect (Strand of Oaks, Sun Kil Moon, The War on Drugs). You know, the whole pop vs. art thing. I changed my mind a couple of times, but, in the end, I went with the album that split the difference the best—Strand of Oaks' excellent HEAL. It's a perfect combination of weighty subject matter, immaculate production, virtuosic instrumentation, and just enough pop sensibility to keep me coming back no matter my mood. The album starts of with the killer riffage of origin story/righteous jam "Goshen '97," then segues into the synth-propelled introspection of title track "HEAL." It meanders through genres, tempos, instruments, and emotions, eventually ending with "Wait for Love," a mournful, conflicted ballad. The centerpiece of it all, for me anyway, is "JM," a towering, emotive tribute to fellow Midwestern singer-songwriter Jason Molina and surefire song of the year contender. It's a powerful record and one I know I'll continue to explore in the new year and beyond (as well as his older stuff, which I still have yet to check out.)

The other nominee I almost went with was Desert Noises, which was the album of the five I actually listened to most. 27 Ways has some of the tightest, most focused songwriting of the year—clean production/vocals, polished harmonies, and soaring guitar work—and another of my favorite tracks of the year, "Angels." Speaking of soaring guitar work, The War on Drugs released probably the best guitar album of the year (or the last few years) in Lost in the Dream. Adam Granduciel is probably the closest thing to Mark Knopfler we have right now. (And this coming from the biggest Dire Straits fan I know.) But the album loses a bit of momentum in the second half and I found myself listening to it more passively than some of the rest—actually getting lost in the dream. Benji is my first experience with Mark Kozelek, and the album—basically just a dude, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and a guitar—is most decidedly not in my musical wheelhouse. But I found myself drawn to his earnestness, and, obviously, "I Love My Dad" too. I'm eager to explore the rest of his discography as well. And Spoon has always been a "like, not love" band for me, and They Want My Soul isn't going to change that, but "Rainy Taxi" and a few other tracks wormed their way into my brain and haven't left yet.

Best (Mainstream) Rock Album
Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland
Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways
The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams*
Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams*
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye*
Honorable Mentions: The Gaslight Anthem - Get Hurt*, Jack White - Lazaretto, The Kooks - Listen*, Weezer - Everything Will Be Alright In the End

First off, Counting Crows and Ryan Adams both released excellent albums this year (both are in my top 10). But, other than my #1 album of the year (see below), there might not be a band/album more in tune with my personal taste than The Hold Steady. Let's see... guitar rock? Check: The addition of second guitarist Steve Selvidge makes this record—check out the riff from "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" if you don't believe me. Witty, literate lyrics? Check: "Weak handshakes and great expectations / Chemistry, currency / Plastic and magic" from "On With The Business." Obsession with urbanity and modernity? Check. "The kid that went down isn't dead / He just can't find his phone" from "Almost Anything." Just enough genuine emotion to keep the cynicism at bay? Check: Just listen to "Spinners." I should also mention the fact that I have that dream where your teeth fall out ALL THE TIME, so that resonated with me. Oh, AND their live show was absolutely phenomenal. It was at my favorite local venue (Crescent Ballroom) and I was close enough to get splashback from Craig Finn's brow sweat. Add it all up and you have a pretty strong album of the year contender, just as I predicted in April. Welcome back, Hold Steady.

Like I said, I really loved the Counting Crows and Ryan Adams records. Somewhere Under Wonderland in particular was on constant rotation for a couple months after it came out. I'd never been a huge fan before, but now I'm thoroughly on board with Adam Duritz, awful dreads or no. "Dislocation" is one of my favorite songs of the year and the album as a whole is the most pleasant surprise. I was also behind the times on Ryan Adams, although I must say I prefer the bigger, shinier sound on this self-titled album than his rougher, older stuff (remember that I worship at the church of Tom Petty). "Gimme Something Good," "Kim," "Feels Like Fire"... they all tickled my classic rock funny bone (even if I'm a little bitter he didn't play the last two live). Speaking of Tom Petty, his newest effort with the Heartbreakers continues their career resurgence that started with 2006's Highway Companion (a Petty solo album in name only). Although Hypnotic Eye isn't as impressive an effort as 2010's Mojo, it's still a strong album—and it totally WAILS live, especially "Shadow People." Their set at Outside Lands was easily the best 2+ hours of live music I've ever seen. (Oh, and the Foos... Sonic Highways is fairly "meh," but I'm an unapologetic Dave Grohl fanboy and none of the HMs really did much for me. But "I Am A River" is a pretty great track.)

Best Female Pop/Rock Album
Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
Hospitality - Trouble
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager*
Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else
Taylor Swift - 1989
Honorable Mentions: St. Vincent - St. Vincent

Two things about this category: 1) I cheated a bit with the Courtney Barnett album. It was a 2013 release, but didn't get physically released in the US until this year. 2) There's a compelling case to be made that this should just be the album of the year category—4 of the releases appear in my top 10 (and 3 in my top 5). It also features—SPOILERS—my #1 album of the year, Jenny Lewis's nigh-flawless The Voyager. Rilo Kiley were one of my favorite bands, but if it took their breaking up to bring The Voyager into my life, well, then, it's (almost) worth it. I can't think of an album I fell harder for faster in a long time (maybe The King Is Dead by The Decemberists back in 2011?). From the vocal sample and sensuous keys that kick off "Head Underwater" to the lovely outro on the title track to wrap up the album, I was completely absorbed from the first listen. This is the best album from one of my favorite artists since 2004's Rilo Kiley masterpiece, More Adventurous, and in many ways it feels like a 10-years-later follow-up. It's got the same mix of lush production, personal songwriting, wry, winsome lyrics, and a sense of timelessness. Lewis has always had a knack for writing songs about fictional characters that have just enough personal detail to make you wonder (see "A Man/Me/Then Jim" and "Late Bloomer"), and, just like "Love and War (11/11/46)," "Can't Outrun 'Em" deals with the death of a loved one. Personal favorite "She's Not Me" feels like a companion to "I Never"—both are stunning ballads about complicated women with a vintage girl-pop feel to them. This is just an amazing album that I know will hold up as the years pass, one that I'll revisit again and again.

It's a testament to the albums released by Taylor Swift and Lydia Loveless that I can say I love them *almost* as much as The Voyager. After being charmed nearly to death by "Shake It Off" on the radio, I took the plunge and downloaded 1989—by the time I got to track 3 ("Style," easily one of my favorite songs of the year), I was hooked. What surprised me most though was its staying power—aren't pop albums supposed to be disposable? Not so this one. Lydia Loveless's album is also one that has stayed with me since I first heard it—she's got a voice like Stevie Nicks and the lyrical sensibilities of Alanis Morissette circa "You Oughtta Know," all delivered with a country charm that's impossible to resist. (Oh, and her band rocks as well.) "Head" is the standout here, and is my second-most listened to track of the year (after my song of the year... see below). Hospitality has largely traded in their twee-pop confections for a moodier aesthetic, and it suits them well—"Last Words" is an especially ambitious achievement with its pulsating bass line, sly horns and keys, and nimble guitar solo. As for interloper Courtney Barnett, she was one of the acts I regretted missing at Outside Lands. She's a brilliant, ironic lyricist, and her unadorned (but effective) musicianship allows the stories she tells to shine through.

Song of the Year
Counting Crows - "Dislocation"
The Hold Steady - "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You"*
Jenny Lewis - "She's Not Me"*
Lydia Loveless - "Head"
Taylor Swift - "Shake It Off"
Honorable Mentions: Chromeo - "Old 45's"*, Drive-By Truckers - "Grand Canyon", Hospitality - "Last Words", Ryan Adams - "Gimme Something Good"*, Strand of Oaks - "JM"

You have to go all the way back to 2011 to find a year where my favorite song wasn't written by a woman (The Decemberists' "This Is Why We Fight"). In 2012, it was Metric's "Speed the Collapse." Last year, it was Tegan and Sara's "I Was a Fool." This year's might be better than any of them—Jenny Lewis's "She's Not Me" is easily the most gorgeous song since Tegan and Sara's pitch-perfect ballad last year. Both songs have a delicate, crystalline sound that suggests feminine vulnerability. But both songs subvert that expectation with their titles, albeit in different way. Tegan Quin is, of course, pining for another woman and still remains a fool—the "Was" of the title is ironic. The twist of "She's Not Me" is a different, more complex one—this is no sassy breakup song like the title might suggest. Consider the (beautiful) chorus: "She's not me / she's easy." The narrator of "She's Not Me" (whether Lewis or merely a facet of her personality) is a regretful ex, both admitting culpability for a breakup ("Remember the night I destroyed it all / when I told you I cheated?") and seemingly resigned to her ex's happiness without her ("Heard she's having your baby / and everything's so amazing"). But the linchpin of the song, the line that makes your heart go a-flutter for a cheating lover (and not the cheated-upon partner), is "Bet you tell her I'm crazy." Her voice just drips heartache, nearly cracking as she sings. It's the kind of line that demolishes the stereotype of the "crazy ex," the one guys have complained about since time immemorial. Lewis imbues the archetype with humanity, injects the cliché with pathos. It's "easy" to call an ex crazy. But maybe uncomplicatedness isn't necessarily a virtue. Not with women like Lewis around.

The other four songs are so good I wish I could hand out five awards. (I mean, I could, as they're fake awards, but I have my principles.) "Head" is my second favorite song of the year, and not because it's about exactly what the title suggests: oral sex. In fact, it's probably the most poignant song about oral sex I've ever heard—and this is the man-on-woman kind, not the other way around. It's nostalgic without being sentimental, a little sexy, and, oh yeah, has a killer guitar solo. It's a song that won't be leaving my... head any time soon. Next... "Shake It Off." Obviously. I actually almost went with "Style," T-Swift's ultracool stab at the Drive soundtrack genre, but "Shake It Off" was just too massive to ignore. It's silly, self-referential, has a simple, infectious beat, and the most giddy, ear-wormiest chorus... maybe ever. It won me over at first listen and still has me 50+ listens later (even with the awkward white girl rap interlude). (Also, don't sleep on "New Romantics," an excellent 1989 bonus track.) Oh, and I guess dudes made some good music in 2014 as well. "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" has my favorite riff of the year and is a fine example of Craig Finn's bar-poet-laureate storytelling—"There was a side of this city I didn't want you to see" says it all. Speaking of great storytelling, Adam Duritz is no slouch himself, and "Dislocation" is perhaps the catchiest, most rollicking song about feeling so disconnected that you wish for the apocalypse I've ever heard. Anyone who's ever spent a lot of time in L.A. knows exactly how he feels. (Just ask Maynard James Keenan.)

Best Album of the Year
Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland
The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams*
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager*
Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else
Taylor Swift - 1989
Honorable Mentions: Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues*, Hospitality - Trouble, Phantogram - Voices*, Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams*, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye*

All right, I'm up to almost 4,000 words and I've said just about all I can say about these albums (and I'm sure you're sick of the Jenny Lewis album cover by now), so I'll just leave you with my top 10 in order (aka the TL; DR version):

1. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager*
2. The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams*
3. Taylor Swift - 1989
4. Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else
5. Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland
6. Phantogram - Voices*
7. Hospitality - Trouble
8. Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams*
9. Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues*
10. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye*

This was a really good year for music, but I'm sure I missed something. Let me know your favorites in the comments. As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Spring Music Recs


I really hate "on pace" arguments. Like saying "Miguel Cabrera is on pace for 162 home runs" after one game. Or "The Diamonbacks are on pace to have the worst run differential in major league history" after 20 games. (Okay, that one might actually be accurate...) But I think the one I'm about to make has a lot of merit (and it's not about baseball):

2014 is one pace to be a better year for music than 2013.

In fact, it's probably over halfway there, and we're barely a quarter of the way into the year. There's already a nigh-unassailable AOTY candidate and another half-dozen or so other top-10 contenders, any of which would have made the cut last year. If this "pace" continues, there will be almost too much good music to properly catalogue this year. (Here's hoping.) So, in the event that this is indeed the case, I thought I'd take some time to spotlight some of my favorite releases from the first quarter or so of the year. Let's start with the obvious...

The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams
This one is "on pace" to be the AOTY. It'll take a Herculean effort from another band (The Gaslight Anthem? A new challenger appears?) to dislodge the best bar band in the world from the top spot. After a bit of a hangover following keyboardist Franz Nicolay's departure (2009's Heaven Is Whenever, an album that—unlike most hangovers, thankfully—grows on you), THS retooled and are back in a big way. The "retooling" consisted of the addition of second guitarist Steve Selvidge, who has worked with, among others, whiskey-rock stalwarts Lucero. The interplay between Selvidge and founding guitarist Tad Kubler is at the heart of Teeth Dreams—see standout track "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You"—which is the group's most dynamic and confident release yet. I can't wait to see it live. (August 4th!) I'll have much more to say about this one at a later date.

"I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You":

Hospitality – Trouble
If Teeth Dreams is a more focused distillation of The Hold Steady's musical ideology, Trouble is... well, nothing like Hospitality's perfectly pleasing Brooklyn indie-pop 2012 debut. ("Friends of Friends" is quite possibly the apex of the form.) Although traces of that band are still extant here ("I Miss Your Bones," "It's Not Serious"), the band instead explores a decidedly moodier and more meandering sonic territory here. "Going Out" features frontlady Amber Papini cooing over a sultry, slinky bass line and syncopated percussion, while the '80s movie synth score of "Last Words" eventually gives way to a guitar solo straight out of the Mark Knopfler-circa-"Love Over Gold" playbook. (Seriously.) This was an exciting change of direction for the band, and a release I look forward to exploring over the rest of the year.

"Going Out":

Phantogram – Voices
This one went from being a blip at the edge of my radar to a gigantic phallic presence smack-dab in the middle of it after experiencing their sublime live show a couple weekends ago. (A surefire "Show of the Year" contender.) I hadn't experienced that much energy at a show since... well, since the Naked and Famous show two nights previous, but that's just circumstantial. As for the album itself, there's not a dud or dull moment to be found among the 11 immaculately-arranged, perfectly-produced earworms. Guitarist Josh Carter shreds, keyboardist-vocalist Sarah Barthel wails, and together they craft a vibrant, textured dancescape that will get your feet a-twitchin'. Just try to stay still while listening to "Black Out Days," or not fall in love with Barthel while listening to, well, "Fall In Love." Stick any of the 11 on a party mix and you'll be good to go.

Dum Dum Girls – Too True
Speaking of danceable, atmospheric indie-[insert genre here] with female vocals (like GOB Bluth, I've definitely got a type), I was quite pleased to discover L.A.'s Dum Dum Girls this year. While I can't comment on their first two records, Too True bears more than a passing sonic resemblance to personal favorite Metric (told you I have a type), if perhaps a little rougher-hewn and darker around the edges. Too True's first three tracks are a burst of jangly guitars, robotic rhythms, and brooding verses that bloom into slyly-sweet choruses. Two perfect examples are "Evil Blooms" and "Rimbaud Eyes" back-to-back at tracks 2-3... just killer. The album loses a little momentum as it progresses, but at just a hair over 30 minutes, you barely have time to notice, making the record a perfect bittersweet bite to accompany a short jaunt.

"Rimbaud Eyes":

Desert Noises – 27 Ways
This band took me by complete surprise. They'd been on my radar for a little bit, but I had it in my head they were some dusty, mellow indie-folk act. But then, I also thought for a number of years that Sleater-Kinney was some sort of feminazi alt-country act (this skit probably didn't help)—turns out they were an awesome punk rock band that I'd been missing out on. (All Hands on the Bad One for the win.) So, while Desert Noises did *not* spawn half of Portlandia like Sleater-Kinney, they're also not a shitty Wilco clone either. Turns out, these dudes fucking wail. Their guitarist breaks solos off like Russell Hammond—just listen to "Angels" to hear what I mean, a slow-burner that ignites in the second half with a solo that's just incendiary. (No good YouTube link, unfortunately.) "Shiver" is another gem of a jam, a barreling uptempo number with earthy percussion, group vocals, and, yep, another sweet solo. "Out of My Head" (below) is a more straightforward indie rock number, but a good gateway. C-c-c-check 'em out. (Hashtag thanks Ashley!)

"Out of My Head":

That's it for the major contenders, but there's plenty more good music to get to, so we'll do a lightning round for my next five favorites:

Despite massive personal life upheaval, Against Me! is back with another lean and mean set of punk rock snarlers. Less "produced" and WAY more personal than their recent material, True Trans Soul Rebel is a welcome return for a band I thought might've been done for good. I look forward to seeing Laura Jane Grace and the boys next month ... Speaking of prodigal punks returning, it'd been much too long since the last Lawrence Arms record, and Metropole did not disappoint—the duo of Kelly and (especially) McCaughan are secretly two of the best songwriters around, and their record has equal parts pugnacity and pathos ... Modern Baseball is another new band I recently got into, and they feel like a band that, with You're Gonna Miss It All, is at that "Your Favorite Weapon" stage—talented songwriters not yet sure how to leave behind their pop-punk beginnings. I'd be curious to see if they have a "Deja Entendu" in them ... As a rule, I tend to be averse to the whole "introspective, low-key dude with a guitar" scene, but dammit if Sun Kil Moon's latest, Benji, didn't charm its way into my rotation through sheer earnestness alone. No irony here, just heart, sleeve, and strumming that goes from playful and sweet to suddenly heartbreaking ... Finally, if you've been looking for prog-pop record of the year, I've got you covered—the band is The War on Drugs and the album is the (aptly-titled) Lost in the Dream. It's a hazy mix of shimmery synths and massive guitar riffs—think Brothers in Arms by way of ELO. (Yet another record that's filling the Knopfler-sized void in my musical life.) Impressive stuff.

Finally, I want to end with a strong song of the year contender—Drive-By Truckers' "Grand Canyon." Its simple ascending/descending chords and unadorned lyrics belie a beautiful, powerful meditation on, well, it's not so hard to figure it out yourself. This couplet had me reeling the first time I heard it:

"We drove across the wastelands until we finally reached the sea /
and I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be."

 There's no video, but it doesn't really need one. Give it a listen.

"Grand Canyon":

That's it for now. I think I might try to crank out a book or movie review here pretty soon, or maybe you won't hear from me until year's end. Who knows? But I hope you check out some of these bands, and don't be shy about recommendations yourself. Until next time...

Sunday, March 2, 2014

2014 Oscar Predictions (continued)

Emmanuel Lubezki - Gravity
Another lock. It'll be a well-deserved first win for Lubezki, one of the luminaries in his field (along with Deakins, whose Prisoners I didn't see -- but someone get this man an Oscar already!).

Christopher Rouse - Captain Phillips
Gravity can't win every technical award, can it? It's nipping at Rouse's heels here and could easily win. Still, AMPAS rarely goes against the ACE winner (Rouse), although that logic has hurt me before.

Andy Nicholson and Rosie Goodwin - Gravity
It won the guild award and is poised to do some serious damage in the techs. Any of the other challengers would upset though, although Her is a longshot. Gatsby, Slave, or Hustle could hear their names called.

Michael Wilkinson - American Hustle
This is one I seem to miss every year. All I know is that people actually talked about the costumes in American Hustle (also, Amy Adams sideboob for the win). But Gatsby seems to be a serious contender.

Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews - Dallas Buyers Club
Lock it in. Moving on. (Although a Jackass win would be hilarious and actually deserving.)
Steven Price - Gravity
Alexandre Desplat is 0-6 and could be "due" -- but Price and Gravity will be tough to beat. This could be a place where Philomena picks up a statue if it's going to get one.

Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez - "Let It Go" (Frozen)
That's the Disney movie everyone has been obsessing over, right? Let's go with that one. (Although Pharrell and U2 are formidable challengers.) Also, "Please Mr. Kennedy" was robbed!

Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, and Chris Munro - Gravity
I think I'm just picking Gravity for most of the techs this year. Everything but The Hobbit probably has a chance. Would be cool to see Inside Llewyn Davis win something as well.

Glenn Freemantle - Gravity
Moving on. (I will say that a Captain Phillips win in either of these categories is fairly likely.) 

Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould - Gravity
Lock of the night. Moving on.
Frozen - Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, and Peter Del Vecho
Lock. It. In. We're done here.

The Great Beauty - Paolo Sorrentino (Italy)
It's between this and Denmark's The Hunt (although there is a contingent for Belgium's The Broken Circle Breakdown as well). This is often a category with surprises.

The Act of Killing - Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen
If this wins, I promise to watch it on Netflix (I usually hate documentaries, but I've heard very good things about this one). Speaking of Netflix, it has a movie up, The Square, that seems to be in the race, along with backup singer doc 20 Feet from Stardom.

The Lady in Number 6 - Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed
I think it has a Holocaust survivor in it. Sometimes, it's that easy.

Mr. Hublot - Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
The best of a weak group this year. Disney's uninteresting Mickey Mouse short "Get a Horse!" has been tipped just about everywhere to win though.

Avant que de tout perde (Just Before Losing Everything) - Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras
The live action shorts, on the other hand, were very good. This one from France about an abused wife and mother going on the run is the best. Cancer-kid short Helium and Martin Freeman-starring The Voorman Problem could spoil.

Gravity vs. Gravitas: 2014 Oscars Predictions

I've procrastinated a bit too long this year -- I blame Richard Linklater. The final major category nominee that I hadn't seen was Before Midnight, so of course I had two watch the first two movies (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) before I could check that final box off. (It's a tremendous trilogy if you haven't seen the films.) So now that I've seen everything, I can make my predictions in earnest. Unfortunately, I've also got a party to prepare for, so I'm going to attempt to do these as quickly as possible. Here we go.


Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Hawkins and Roberts were both very good in movies I did not care for overall, but they have no shot here. Squibb was wonderful as a potty-mouthed grandmother in an underappreciated film and is the de facto third choice, but only has the slimmest of chances (read: negligible). So it comes down to last year's winner, Lawrence, and first-time nominee Nyong'o. This one is very, very close. While I'm hoping for (and predicting) that the Academy goes with the far (far) superior performance in Nyong'o, I'm also fully prepared for them to re-crown America's newest sweetheart. I can already feel the Hathawayan (aren't made-up words fun!) backlash brewing...

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf Of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Get ready to say it with me a few times: Lock it down. Quite a few of the major categories seem to be in little doubt this year. (This will help keep these write-ups short, thankfully.) It would be shocking if anyone but Leto won the award for his conflicted trans woman in the message-heavy Dallas Buyers Club. While he wouldn't get my vote (that would be Abdi or perhaps Hill), his work was solid and of the type that traditionally wins these things. Fassbender was fiery and will absolutely have a trophy some day, but he didn't bother to campaign and a win for him would be problematic, given the role and film. Cooper was fine but just... no. Nice perm though.

Best Actress
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Number two: Lock it in. This award has been Blanchett's to lose since the film opened. As I said above, I didn't care for the film overall (the only decent human being was Hawkins's character), but Blanchett was committed (probably in multiple ways, given the ending) and will add this to her probably-undeserved Supporting Oscar for The Aviator (but she should have won for I'm Not There, so it's a wash). If anyone could upset here, it's Adams, who might be "due" in the eyes of some voters (not to mention that some voters might not vote for Blanchett due to the whole Woody Allen thing -- which I'm not getting into here). We'll know if she has a shot after some of the earlier-night categories. Bullock was great and, win or not, the performance validates her win for the schlocky The Blind Side. Dench was perfunctorily good and Streep is probably still picking scenery out of her teeth. Neither should figure into the race.

Best Actor
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf Of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

For a third time: Lock it in. The McConaissance should continue with a trophy for Wooderson, as has been presumed for months. The vaguely-defined and DeLillo-esque "Oscar buzz" seems to favor DiCaprio over Ejiofor for the role of challenger. Both are excellent -- better even than McConaughey -- but performance seems to be taking a backseat to narrative here. Plus, it's easy to envision both of them winning in the near future. (Leo has a Kate Winslet special make-up award coming soon, I can feel it.) Dern might actually be my favorite of the bunch, but the hill is too steep to climb for the old man. And Bale (who was fine, I guess) robbed multiple other more worthy actors of a nomination (notably Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips). Regardless, I can't wait for McConaughey's victory speech. Maybe he does it in character as Rust Cohle (by far a better performance than the one he'll be winning for)? Let's hope he breaks off a "If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of an Academy Award then, brother, that person is a piece of shit."

Best Adapted Screenplay
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
Billy Ray, Captain Phillips
John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave
Terence Winter, The Wolf Of Wall Street

Feels like the fourth time: Lock it in. I can't see Ridley, for a film the Academy loved (9 total nominations, good for second-most) losing to one it merely liked. Ray doesn't seem to have a chance for his merely solid work, and the two best of the bunch -- Linklater, Delpy, and Hawk and Winter -- don't seem to have much of that "momentum" stuff Oscar winners need at this point. A shame two, as they're both excellent scripts. (Before Midnight especially -- it's a sucker-punch straight to the ventricles.) The primary challenger, for reasons I cannot understand, seems to be Coogan and Pope's work on Philomena, a thoroughly maudlin piece of awards-baiting pap. I liked the movie okay, but it shouldn't be anywhere near a Best-anything conversation. That leaves Ridley for a movie where the premise and actors (and director) did most of the work, but, hey, someone had to write it.

Best Original Screenplay
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club
Spike Jonze, Her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle

Finally, an interesting category! At the moment, I still have not bolded my predicted winner. This is probably even closer than Supporting Actress -- even GoldDerby is evenly split on who will win. I'm of two minds about this one. Jonze's script for Her is the obviously superior entry, and it clearly has a lot of support. I want it to win. But Singer and Russell's American Hustle script seems like the more obvious winner given the pedigree of the film (10 total noms, tied for most with Gravity) and the love the Academy seems to have for Russell. It's also not nearly as good as Her. So it really comes down to quality vs. quantity. What a quandary! Looking back at previous winners doesn't help -- the Academy is often unpredictable in this category (even Tarantino was surprised he won last year). So, that in mind, I'm going with... Russell and Singer for American Hustle. It just seems to have too much support for Jonze to surmount, even with the WGA award in hand, and this might be the best shot Hustle has for a major award. (Although if Lawrence wins, I think Her has a better shot here, oddly.) I'd be happy to be wrong though.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf Of Wall Street

One final "Lock it in" before the big one. Although McQueen lurks as a very viable spoiler, Cuarón will be a very deserving winner for his virtuoso work on Gravity -- there was not a more singular achievement at any level of filmmaking in 2013. McQueen is a powerful, fast-rising dramatic filmmaker who will probably have one of these someday. The "hanging tree" scene has probably stuck in a lot of voters' heads, although I can see that hurting as much as helping his chances here. Payne, Russell, and Scorsese have all been here before and will likely be here again. I'd rank them Scorsese, Payne, then Russell, but none have a real chance here.

Best Picture
12 Years A Slave

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
The Wolf Of Wall Street

This is our third and final contentious major category of the evening, although I don't think it's as close as Supporting Actress or Original Screenplay. Of the nominees, only three are actual contenders -- Slave, Gravity, and Hustle, and in that order. We'll get to them in a minute. Of the rest, they vary from excellent (Wolf, Phillips, Her) to very good (Nebraska) to mediocre or worse (Dallas, Philomena). Back to the actual contenders. Hustle seems to have faded and has settled into third place (although this isn't the Olympics, so there's no medal for third) but is still a threat for some major awards. It comes down to 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity then. At this point, the "Oscar buzz" seems to be tipping toward 12 Years a Slave, and at this point, I'm not inclined to disagree. It's the more emotionally resonant film and likely has the support of the largest branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Actors' branch, by virtue of its having a cast of more than two. It'd be a fine winner, at times both stately and harrowing, and would give white Hollywood a chance to pat itself on the back (which it always enjoys). Still, I'd prefer the sheer marvel of Gravity and its bold leap forward to the future of cinema rather than a painful (albeit necessary) look back to the past. But I guess it all comes down to why you go to the movies in the first place, and what you feel the best cinema should do or say. But that's a much bigger debate for another time. We'll know where Hollywood stands after tonight.

And we're done. Came in almost 1000 words shorter than last year -- all right, all right, all right. Now, a separate post for the remaining categories. Check it out, if you're into that sort of thing. Thanks, as always, for reading.

The Year of Excess: My Favorite 2013 Films

If 2013 wasn't exactly a great year for music (it wasn't), it *was* a great year for film. It might even have been the best year since I've been in this blogging game. There were excellent films to be found at every level of filmmaking, from low-budget, true life dramas (The Bling Ring, Fruitvale Station) and hyper-stylized indie thrillers (Only God Forgives, Upstream Color), to awards-season prestige pictures (American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club) and big-budget blockbusters (Fast & Furious 6, Pacific Rim). And I would of course be remiss to mention the much-anticipated (and largely hilarious) return of Ron Burgundy and the news team. But here's the thing about the films of 2013 -- none of these films even cracked my honorable mentions. Ditto solid new films from Pedro Almodóvar, Steven Soderbergh, Ridley Scott, Rob Zombie, and a host of others from across the budget/genre spectrum. And even the Oscar voters mostly got it right, with only one Best Picture nominee being what I would consider a clear miss (Philomena). That said, let's get to the important stuff -- my Best Pictures list. We'll start with the honorable mentions, a formidable top-ten (well, nine) list in their own right.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
12 Years a Slave, Drug War, The East, Inside Llewyn Davis, Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, Nebraska, Stoker, This Is the End

10) Iron Man 3 / Thor: The Dark World
Directed by: Shane Black / Alan Taylor
Written by: Drew Pearce and Shane Black / Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley / Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston

As is tradition, we begin with a tie. Both Marvel offerings would have been firm honorable mentions on their own, but with their powers combined they were able to crack the top ten. Hey, half of the Avengers who matter is still a pretty potent combo. I'll admit both films have pretty huge flaws -- Iron Man's third act is laughable to the point of absurdity, and although it's an improvement on the first movie, there is still about *ZERO* chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman in Thor -- but they are blockbusters done right. Both deliver their thrills with wit and panache (as opposed to, say, the dour and convoluted Star Trek Into Darkness and the, let's see, what's the right adjective... fucking terrible Man of Steel). The Iron Man franchise was starting to look a little rusted over with the second movie, but Shane Black made the franchise sparkle once again with his lively script and slapstick direction. RDJ is well-versed with Black's nimble dialogue (all hail Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and Ben Kingsley's take on the Mandarin was one of my favorite comedic performances of the year -- indeed, Iron Man 3 is funnier than most comedies released last year. (For the record, most people hated the kid, but I didn't mind him at all). And while the ending set piece was just too much (although not nearly as bad as those in Darkness and Steel), the airplane sequence was just on the right side of ludicrous. Speaking of ending set pieces, Thor was one of the few action movies to do it right -- the teleporting hammer and frost monster running amok were perfect comedic touches. And while Hemsworth and Portman may not be the most charismatic leads, co-stars Hiddleston and Kat Dennings more than make up for it. Of the two, Dark World is my favorite despite a second-act lull -- but they both do what they're supposed to: make me amped for Avengers 2. Next up? Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Will it, too, best the previous installment?

9) Drinking Buddies
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Written by: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston

We go from perhaps the loudest movies on my list (although, spoilers, Michael Bay does make an appearance) to perhaps the quietest. In fact, the dramatic weight of Drinking Buddies is almost entirely based on what *isn't* said -- namely, the obvious attraction between Chicago brewery employees Luke (Johnson) and Kate (Wilde). That both are in relationships when the movie begins is complicated enough, but the real complication --and a theme that runs through the movie like a yeasty undercurrent -- is the ubiquitous presence of alcohol. Just about every scene in the movie prominently features characters either making plans to drink, drinking, or in the clutches of a miserable hangover. In many ways, this cycle of drinking matches the stages of a relationship, and Drinking Buddies runs the gamut in that regard too -- both with Luke's and Kate's respective relationships and their relationship with each other. Although Kendrick (as Johnson's teacher girlfriend) and Livingston (Wilde's boyfriend) do their best with severely underwritten characters (one of the downsides to a mostly improvised script), it is the relationship between Luke and Kate that is by far the most interesting and relatable. Johnson's transformation from sympathetic shoulder to cry on to sanctimonious asshole (and back again) is remarkably true to life (been there), as is Wilde's conflicted, uninhibited party girl (also been there). Both actors give startlingly vivid, empathetic performances not suggested by their previous work ("the other guy from New Girl" and "hot girl in that crappy movie," respectively). Of course, the maestro behind it all is the indie "It Guy" of last year: Swanberg. The only other directorial effort I've seen of his was a fairly forgettable vignette in the first V/H/S, but if any of his other features are even half as soulful and raw as this, I'm sure they're worth checking out. (Note to self: Keep an eye on the Netflix streaming list.)

8) Spring Breakers
Directed by: Harmony Korine
Written by: Harmony Korine
Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Anna Benson, Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez, James Franco

I'll admit, my reasons for seeing this were almost entirely prurient at first. Just look at the poster -- it looked like a Skinemax flick with a slightly larger budget. There were four of us in the theater that Saturday afternoon: myself, my two friends, and the solitary creeper in the row in front of us. I mean, this guy looked like the kind of guy who would cut a hole in the popcorn tub at a movie by himself. But I couldn't really blame him -- Spring Breakers looked it it was going to be *that* kind of movie. It had been a gossip-page mainstay since pre-production and the trailers were heavy on the sleaze, prominently featuring salacious exploitation of Disney starlets and shots of James Franco's leering grill. The movie wound up delivering on all the above in spades: the sleaze, the exploitation, the grill. But it was the way it went about delivering its titillations that stayed with me much longer than any of the obvious visceral thrills. For all its debauchery, Spring Breakers is a *beautiful* movie -- brightly lit, perfectly staged, swathed in neon, all lushly photographed. Imagine if Gordon Willis got his start in music videos. (I'll readily admit that would not have been a good thing -- but it really worked here.) Then there's the music -- this is the one and only time I approve of the use of (much less the existence of) dubstep. What other genre could so perfectly score such a grotesque caricature of youthful esurience and excess? Also, you'll never think of Britney Spears's "Everytime" quite the same way again after Franco's be-tatted and -grilled rendition. Finally, the element that stayed with me the longest -- and eventually merited its inclusion in this list -- is the film's structure. (Read: editing.) This is a film that unfolds at its own pace and resists at every turn the temptation to succumb to the rigid plotting that plagues most Hollywood fare. No, Spring Breakers plays out more like a chromatic fever dream, an atonal and slyly rhythmic reverie rather than the trashy exploitation flick that was promised. I walked into the theater expecting little more than T 'n' A, and wound up getting something approaching... art?

7) Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara

Her was the final entry to make this list -- a function of it not coming out until the middle of January in Arizona. I had a chance to see it in California at the end of December, but I wound up seeing what would wind up being the #1 movie on this list, so I can't say I made the wrong choice. But while it might have been a late entry, it was also always destined to make this list. Let's see: Kaufman protégé writing and directing? Check. Subtle sci-fi premise? Check. L.A. setting? Check. Mustache on the poster? Check. But most importantly of all, it features the man who would very likely get my vote for Finest Actor Working Today (especially since PSH died -- R.I.P.): Joaquin Phoenix. I thought cinema had lost a startling and rare talent when he appeared to go off the deep end (for Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here, which I still haven't seen), but then he came roaring back in 2012 with, in my estimation, one of the most gripping and visceral performances in at least a couple decades in The Master, in which he managed to out-act his main competition for the above-mentioned title, co-star PSH and, well, the master himself, Daniel Day-Lewis (in the once-overrated, now properly-rated Lincoln). After his Oscar robbery, Phoenix continued his hot streak (in NBA Jam terms, "he's heating up!") by doing a rare inward 180° turn in Her. In The Master, his Freddie Quell was almost spring-loaded, all twitch and explosion -- intensely physical work. Here, his Theodore Twombly is a much more cerebral presence, prone to pensive gazes and half-smiles -- there is real softness and Kirk Lazarus-ian "emotionality." It's not as strong work as Quell, but certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination in a mediocre year, lead actor-wise (cough*Bale*cough). Regardless, I can't wait to see him in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice later this year. As far as Her as a whole goes, yes, it can be overly twee at times, and, no, the "sex scene" doesn't work, but it is perhaps the most honest exploration of modern relationships since its spiritual predecessor, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And that's no faint praise coming from an Apple hater and confirmed cynic. But I am, of course, ignoring the film's crowning achievement: bringing high-waisted pants back! (Or were they ever in?)

6) Pain & Gain
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris

Pain & Gain should be subtitled "In Which Michael Bay Interrogates the American Dream." I know, I know, Fitzgerald or Welles he may not be, but I'd like to think Mr. Bay knows a thing or two about 'Merica (alternately, see my Facebook cover photo). American films were very much concerned with excess this year (and if you don't believe me, just listen to A.O. Scott), but possibly none was as honest as P&G (as the initiated call it). Luhrmann's Gatsby and Korine's Spring Breakers were both fictional and rooted in opulent fantasy, and of the three true-to-life stories, Coppola's Bling Ring never went deeper than designer labels, Russell's Hustle (which would've been a great title) was too convoluted to really analyze character motivation, and Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street was too concerned with satire (the biting nature of which sometimes wound up taking a chunk out of its own ass). While not the best of these commonly-themed films, P&G nevertheless presents the most credible portrayal of the consequences of pure, raw, foaming-at-the-mouth greed. That's a tall claim considering that this is by far the most outlandish of the "based on a true story" films, but the characters (okay, caricatures) here aren't self-centered teens, fast-talking con men, or charismatic hustlers. No, Daniel "I Believe in Fitness" Lugo, Paul Doyle, and Adrian Doorbal are blue-collar schmucks, meatheads with goals no more grand than owning a gym or getting a bigger dick. Their greed is palpable and utterly banal, unlike the conceptual or even idealized avarice present in the other films. And, also unlike the other films, these guys suffer consequences harsher than not getting the girl or a few years of hard tennis time -- they get the fucking death penalty. So, while P&G is definitely not the "small character piece" he claimed in promotional interviews, it still wound up with a hefty amount of substance, albeit of the performance-enhancing variety and encased in spandex and sweat-glimmer. Now, can you stop smashing CGI robots together and make Bad Boys III already, Mikey? Here's hoping for my #1 movie in 2015...

(Also, give it up for the definitely not a made-up name Stephen McFeely appearing twice on this list!)

5) Captain Phillips
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

Being the type of film it is, I will have somewhat less to say about Captain Phillips than most of the other films on this list. But of the type of film it is -- a hyper-competent, technically-terrific, utterly-gripping action-thriller -- there are few better examples. One of my sincerest disappointments on Oscar-nom morning was the absence of Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass in their categories. Hanks would would get my vote and be a worthy winner over any of the nominees (is it possible that Bruce Dern would be the runner-up on that list? it might be...), but, alas, delivered a performance that was too economic, too efficient for 95% of the film. (But that last 5% -- good god, no one was better last year outside of maybe Lupita Nyong'o.) Greengrass's work could be described the same way -- economical, efficient, and a far sight better than his scattershot direction in the Bourne movies. But fortunately, the Academy did get a few things right -- nominations for Abdi (completely convincing), Ray (solid, but not a strength), three technical categories (editing, sound editing, sound mixing) where it has a very real chance of upsetting Gravity, and Best Picture (where it is probably among the bottom-two potential winners). Add it all up and you get one of the most riveting cinematic experiences of the year -- riveting as in I was totally bolted to my seat for the two-hour duration. Those movies don't come around often, and you should regret it if you didn't see it on the big screen.

4) The World's End
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg
Starring: Edgar Wright, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike

I'm a huge fan of both Shaun of the Dead (best zom-rom-com of all time) and Hot Fuzz (I love any movie that loves Point Break and Bad Boys 2 as much as I do), but The World's End might be the best of the "Cornetto Trilogy." It's certainly the most well-made -- the cast is top-notch, as usual; the performances are uniformly excellent, highlighted by a career-best turn from Pegg; the script balances humor, both light and dark, with real emotional turmoil; and it's maybe Wright's most accomplished work behind the camera (with the possible exception of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). That it manages to combine universal themes like friendship, aging, and forgiveness with a frank discussion of alcohol abuse and -- OH YEAH -- space aliens all with nuance and pathos is an impressive, impressive feat. At the center of it all is Simon Pegg, who, if the Academy had any sense at all when it comes to comedies, should have been at least in the conversation for Best Actor. His Gary King has much more in common with Shaun than Sergeant Nicholas Angel, but only if Shaun spent a couple decades at the Winchester drinking himself to despair. A greasy, overweight, trenchcoat-wearing alcoholic, Gary King is easily the most loathsome protagonist in any Wright/Pegg movie. The smartest thing about the movie though is that it doesn't try to redeem him (which I'm not even sure would have been possible) so much as humanize him -- which you find out was the point all along by the time you get to the eponymous final stop on the pub crawl that serves as the backbone of the movie. Anyone who's ever had a few too many will see a bit of themselves in Gary King -- although hopefully it doesn't take an alien invasion for you to realize your mistakes.

3) Frances Ha
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver

Frances Ha is built around the considerable charms of star and co-writer Greta Gerwig. She is beautiful, affable, and has a knack for making insecurity seem endearing. I knew none of this going in, having never seen a Greta Gerwig movie and being generally wary of Noah Baumbach's one-note cynicism. But I eventually heard enough good things about Frances Ha to take the plunge one night on Netflix streaming (eventually we'll be able to drop the "streaming," right?) and was rewarded with the year's most enjoyable, satisfying movie-watching experience. The joys of Frances Ha are almost innumerable -- the Manhattan-esque black-and-white cinematography, the expert deployment of David Bowie's "Modern Love," the ironic dialogue ("He wasn't a real alcoholic, but sometimes he would have like twelve beers"), the impromptu trip to Paris that we've all thought of taking, the final reveal of the title. But the most memorable thing about the film is the depiction of the relationship at the center of the film. Frances Ha, thankfully, isn't a "bot meets girl" movie -- Frances breaks up with her boyfriend at the beginning of the movie and is largely unconcerned with that part of her life for the duration. No, the real relationship here is between Frances and her best friend, "the same person with different hair," Sophie (Sumner). It's refreshing to see a movie eschew the usual romantic-comedy entanglements in favor of exploring friendship -- you know, those relationships that people by and large spend more time on than their romantic ones in a given lifetime. It's double refreshing to see an honest, funny, and resonant story about female friendship. I mean, this movie was basically made to break the Bechdel test. Finally, it makes a great double feature with my #9 movie, Drinking Buddies. C-c-check 'em out on Netflix before the movie gods take the away.

2) Gravity
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

I suppose I'll start by saying that Gravity shot to the top spot on this list right about when the credits rolled and I began to clean up my undershorts. It would remain there for the duration of the year, even after I had seen what would become my #1 for the first time. That's how wowed I was by the technical virtuosity and unyielding tension of Alfonso Cuarón's 3D masterpiece. (And it *is* a masterpiece.) I don't think I've ever been privy to another cinematic experience that so combined the wonderment of the first Lord of the Rings film (or Avatar) with the gut-level terror a child feels at watching a horror movie. It's incomparable -- for now, anyway. (Interstellar, anyone?) So what's it doing sitting here at #2? Well, aside from the clichéd backstory, non-existent character development, and nearly disastrous dream sequence (none of which really is that problematic), the main thing going against Gravity is actually its greatest attribute: the in-theater experience. Quite simply, you'll *never* be able to recreate your initial viewing of Gravity -- because the film so relies on CGI spectacle to prop up what is a very simple story, that means there is very little rewatch value, especially on home video. I mean, even if you had fuck you money and could afford a massive 3D TV, you'd still only be able to recreate about 10% of the experience. If I'm only ever *really* going to be able to watch a movie once, it just can't be #1. That said, I will be rooting for it to win Best Picture tonight. More on that later this afternoon. For now, let's move onto my Best Picture...

1) The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey

I can't remember a more difficult year for picking a #1 film. Usually, the choice is pretty obvious -- 2009 through 2011 all had clear, unimpeachable #1s (Inglourious Basterds, The Social Network, and Drive, respectively). They all remain my top movie of each year to this day. Last year was a little trickier, with both The Grey and Zero Dark Thirty duking it out -- but it was only ever really between those two. This year though... it just seems like a bunch of solid #2-5 type of movies were released. If I could cram my entire top-10 list into the top 5 without ever naming a #1, I'd have done so. (Or I could just do what Film Crit Hulk did and have a 10-way tie for #1 -- great list, by the way.) When it came down to it though, I went with Scorsese's latest collaboration with Leo as my top choice. Here's why:
  • It's funny. In fact, it might be the funniest movie of the year. From Jonah Hill's veneers to the midget tossing to the Quaaludes scene (that fucking scene!), I don't think I experience that much uproarious laughter in a theater last year.
  • It has both the worst nude scene of the year (Hill's grubby prosthetic dong) and the best (Margot Robbie, good lord). These things matter.
  • It's got a killer period soundtrack. House of Pain! Sir Mix-a-Lot! Foo Fighters! Me First and the Gimme Gimmes! And whatever that McConaughey humming thing was!
  • It's well-written. Terence Winter's script might be the most underrated of all the Oscar nominees (well, second-most behind Before Midnight's). The "Bond villain boat" scene might be the best of last year.
  • The acting is stellar. From McConaughey's Baldwin-esque cameo and Hill's scene-stealing antics to Robbie's sympathetic turn and Leo's unhinged lead turn, the cast of many acted the shit out of this movie.
  • It's Scorsese's best work behind the camera since Goodfellas. (Also note: It's basically the same movie as Goodfellas, only with a different type of criminal.) Outside of Cuarón's likely Oscar-winning work on Gravity, it's the best-directed movie of the year. Just watch the 'Ludes scene for a masterclass in framing and spacial relation. (And a special shout-out to Thelma Schoonmaker, editrix extraordinaire and robbed of an Oscar nomination.)
  • It's smart. The Wolf of Wall Street is the most incisive Wall Street satire I've ever seen. I mean, there's a scene in the movie where DiCaprio mimes ass-fucking one of his clients. If that isn't about the best metaphor for the recent financial crisis, I don't know what is. And I want you to watch the last scene, the last shot of the movie and tell me exactly what you see. Okay, I'll save you the trouble and show you:
That's us. That's the film audience, that's America, watching raptly as Jordan Belfort tells us exactly how Wall Street fucked us. And we're eating it up. We love it; we want more. Yes, the film has some alarmingly misogynistic elements, and yes, it somewhat glamorizes Belfort's vices, but with that last shot, the film indicts us right along with Belfort and all the other Wall Street sleazebags. For as bad as the last shot in The Departed was, this one more than makes up for it -- and makes The Wolf of Wall Street my #1 film of 2013.

BONUS LIST - BOTTOM FIVE FILMS OF 2012 (listed from bad to worst*)
Kick-Ass 2 (and this from someone who loved the first one)
Machete Kills (ditto)
Man of Steel (the last 45 minutes were almost unbearable)
To the Wonder (the entire two hours were almost unbearable -- gorgeous though)
A Good Day to Die Hard (the cinematic equivalent of a toddler smashing Tonka trucks together)

2013 was the toughest year to write about, film-wise, that I can recall. I hope I've done its excellent films justice. It sure took me long enough -- this is by far the latest I've ever posted this list. Next up, Oscar predictions. With only hours to spare before my Oscar party starts! Egads. Wish me luck. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Procrastinated Prognosis: Oscar Nomination Predictions

Oscar nomination morning is the new Christmas morning. By 5:00 a.m. tomorrow, the (mostly) white, elderly, and bearded AMPAS Claus will have bestowed its gifts upon the world of film. Filmmakers and film lovers alike will rush to their televisions, laptops, and smartphones to see what jolly old Saint AMPAS brought. Although some will get a lump of coal (like poor Ben Affleck last year -- he must've been naughty!), most will rejoice in unwrapping their nominations. But just like every child has a wish list, every blogger has a predictions list. Mine is below, with the prospective nominees listed roughly in order of likelihood. So, let's see who's been naughty and who's been nice.

* haven't seen it
^ early winner prediction

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle^
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street
Dallas Buyers Club
Saving Mr. Banks*
Next in line:
Inside Llewyn Davis
Blue Jasmine*
Fruitvale Station*
Lee Daniels' The Butler*

Comments: The race for Best Picture is probably coming down to the top three listed above -- 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, and Gravity. They are all locks for nominations. I can see 12 Years having gotten more first-place votes at this juncture, which is why it is listed first above, but I think Hustle will prove to have broader support during final voting and sneak away with the statue. Gravity, my personal favorite of the three, will be a shiny also-ran in this race, unfortunately. The next three -- Captain Phillips, Nebraska, and The Wolf of Wall Street -- all have each earned a lot of critical respect for both their star and director and are probably too big to fail at this point. It gets a little tricky after those films. Her is a film that probably wound up in first place on a lot of ballots during the nomination process and is a solid bet to snag a nomination. Dallas Buyers Club is a bit of a wild card, but with two strong performances and important subject matter, it has the goods to earn a nomination. Finally, I think *one* of Saving Mr. Banks and Philomena will earn the Little Miss Sunshine feel-good smarm memorial nomination -- but not both. Inside Llewyn Davis is in the same milieu as the Coens' previous film A Serious Man, which missed out on a Best Picture nom, and their latest -- curiously quiet, buzz-wise -- seems likely to suffer the same fate. Another late-day Woody Allen nom wouldn't be a shock, but Jasmine is already presumptively being awarded for its lead actress. Finally, either Fruitvale or The Butler is in play if enough voters got behind one of them -- but I think too many lumped them together and they both miss out.

Wishful thinking: Frances Ha, Mud

Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity^
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips
Alexander Payne – Nebraska
Next in line:
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street
Spike Jonze – Her*
Joel and Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine*

Comments: This might be the toughest category to predict of the bunch, especially after last year's buffoonery. I'm going to assume (probably a bad idea) that the directors of the three Best Picture frontrunners -- McQueen, Russell, and Cuarón -- will be nominated. This year seems ripe for a Picture/Director split, and I think Cuarón and his stunning technical achievements will benefit. That leaves two slots for a very crowded field full of past nominees and winners. I expect Captain Phillips to do well in the technical categories, which should carry Greengrass to a nomination -- and a well-deserved one for his masterfully paced and executed film. I also think the divisive nature of Wolf will count against Scorsese and cost him a nomination, leaving the door open for someone like Payne, Jonze, or the Coens. I could easily imagine many voters deciding to reward Jonze and the Coens in the writing category (ditto Allen), leaving the final spot to Payne, although I am not at all confident about it. Scorsese and Jonze especially lurk, and could knock Payne or Greengrass out of their slot.

Wishful thinking: Harmony Korine – Spring Breakers

Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave^
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Robert Redford – All Is Lost*
Next in line:
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Christian Bale – American Hustle
Joaquin Phoenix – Her*
Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station*

Comments: This is a crowded field, but it figures to come down to Ejiofor and McConaughey, and I think AMPAS will eventually go Ejiofor's way, even though McConaughey has been coming on stronger lately. Either way, there is no chance of either of these performances missing out on a nomination. The rest, I'm not so sure. Hanks and Dern *seem* to be locked in, but I can't shake this feeling that one of them (probably Hanks) is going to miss out. He's been there before and will again, which is not the case for Dern. Or Redford, my pick for the final spot over Leo. Remember, the majority of the voting body of AMPAS skews older, and Redford was THE biggest star 40 years ago -- bigger that Leo is now. I feel that the voters won't be able to pass up what is most likely their last chance to nominate one of the biggest stars ever -- and someone who has only been nominated for acting once. Maybe I'm reading too much into the "controversy" surrounding Wolf, but I don't think it'll get as much love as it warrants (I *loved* the film). Leo won't win this year even if he's nominated, and he'll be back, and voters understand both of those facts. I don't think there will be a surprise here, but if there is, my money is on Isaac, who carried his film (along with his guitar) on his back. I don't have much to say about Bale's performance other than it isn't Oscar-worthy, but the film seems to have a lot of support, so... Finally, Phoenix's performance probably isn't flashy enough, and the buzz seems to have really died around Fruitvale.

Wishful thinking: none

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine*^
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Emma Thompson – Saving Mr. Banks*
Judi Dench – Philomena
Amy Adams – American Hustle
Next in line:
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County*
Adèle Exarchopoulous – Blue Is the Warmest Color*
Brie Larson – Short Term 12*

Comments: I really need to catch up on my awards-worthy female lead performances. Or maybe not -- Banks and August look awful, Blue is three hours (and I've already seen the "good" parts -- wink), and Short Term 12 is unlikely to land any nominations (although I do hear it is good). I will have to seek out Blue Jasmine, however, as this award is Blanchett's to lose at this point. Bulluck will make a fine runner-up -- I can see the strained smiles already. Thompson and Dench seem like sure things as well, especially after Thompson tore it up at the Globes and considering that Dench is a friggin' DAME. The last spot is probably the toughest single call of any category. But, while it's probably very stupid to go against Meryl Streep, Hustle seems to have too much across-the-board love to miss out here. I have exactly ZERO confidence in this pick, however. We'll find out in a few hours either way.

Wishful thinking: Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club^
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Daniel Brühl – Rush*
James Gandolfini – Enough Said*
Next in line:
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street
Will Forte – Nebraska

Comments: This should be your field of possible nominees (and I don't think Forte really has a shot). Leto and Fassbender are your only real contenders (at this point) for the statue, and I think Leto will take it handily (although his glib Globes speech probably didn't help). Fassbender's performance is just... not easy to root for on any level. (It is very good though, in a demented, sociopathic way.) Abdi *should* pick up a nomination, and deservedly so -- I literally thought Greengrass cast an actual Somali pirate, not a guy who was driving limos in Minnesota. After that, the next four guys could grab the last two spots in any combination. Brühl has been a presumptive lock for months, but that could very well work against him; it would not at all surprise me to see him miss out. He's in for now though, along with Gandolfini, who will surely get many a sentimental vote. I have a hard time seeing one of the most respected -- and liked -- actors of his generation miss out of the final chance for a nomination. But Cooper and Hill could easily slide into one or both of the last slots. Cooper, to me, would be a poor choice -- his performance in a relatively thankless roll did nothing for me. Hill is a different story. While I was, and still am, perplexed at how he got nominated for Moneyball, he proved he has Oscar-worthy acting chops in Wolf. (Although it could just be the veneers.) As far as Forte goes, the Academy has been known to nominate comedians in more serious roles, and Forte did an admirable job as Dern's estranged son in Nebraska.

Wishful thinking: James Franco – Spring Breakers, Sam Rockwell – The Way, Way Back

Lupita Nyong'o – 12 Years a Slave^
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
June Squibb – Nebraska
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County*
Oprah Winfrey – Lee Daniels' The Butler*
Next in line:
Octavia Spencer – Fruitvale Station*
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine*
Margo Martindale – August: Osage County*

Comments: This is one of maybe a couple categories that seem predestined. It would be a surprise to see anyone but the five ladies above in the field come morning. And it would be a crime if anyone but Nyong'o took home home the Academy Award -- she's that good. I don't get the hype around Lawrence's performance in this particular movie -- she's good but not great. Nomination-worthy in a weak year, I suppose. Squibb was great -- a sweet mixture of profanity and profundity. Roberts and Winfrey figure to get in on stature alone. (Both performances are supposed to be good, however -- I will find out myself if/when they get nominated.) Spencer, Hawkins, and Martindale are longshot spoilers in movies I haven't seen, so I'll just move on.

Wishful thinking: Emma Watson – The Bling Ring, Julianne Moore – Don Jon, Mickey Sumner – Frances Ha

Eric Singer and David O. Russell – American Hustle^
Spike Jonze – Her*
Joel and Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine*
Bob Nelson – Nebraska
Next in line:
Nicole Holofcener – Enough Said*
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack – Dallas Buyers Club
Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón – Gravity
Ryan Coogler – Fruitvale Station*
Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith – Saving Mr. Banks*

Comments: This group seems like it *should* be set with Singer/Russell, Jonze, the Coens, Allen, and Nelson. I haven't seen a few of the possible spoilers, but I can't imagine they are better written than any of the five above. Granted, I haven't seen two of them, but it's Spike Jonze and Woody Allen, so I'm not worried. That said, this is a category where just about every year there is a surprise -- which is why it is my favorite category. Hustle seems to be building toward an Artist/Argo-like consensus (which I'm okay with, I guess...) and would figure to take this award in that scenario. The Coens' script is full of interesting characters (Carey Mulligan's excepted) and strong scenes, and Nelson's script for Nebraska gives the actors a great premise to work with and knows when to push the conflict and when to let the characters breathe. Of the possible spoilers, Holofcener and Marcel and Smith would be rare female nominees in this category, but I haven't seen their films so I can't comment further. Coogler's script would be a good chance to honor a movie that many seemed to love. The Cuaróns get bonus points for their textbook use of Aristotle's unities and could ride a wave of admiration for the film to a nomination, but I don't think anyone thinks the script is particularly award-worthy. Finally, there very well could be a spot for Borten and Wallack's script. It's not the strong point of the movie (too message-heavy and the third act is a mess), but it did earn a Writer's Guild nom. And, as always, watch out for a wildcard (like In Bruges in 2009) here.

Wishful thinking: Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach – Frances Ha, Joe Swanberg – Drinking Buddies

John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave^
Terence Winter – The Wolf of Wall Street
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawk – Before Midnight*
Billy Ray – Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope – Philomena
Next in line:
Tracy Letts – August: Osage County*
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Spectacular Now*
Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix – Blue Is the Warmest Color*

Comments: This is another category that seems pretty well set. (Famous last words, I know). Ridley seems to be far out ahead of the field in a fairly weak category and should win on Oscar night. I actually quite liked Winter's script (the line about Bond villains and boats, for example), but some will probably have a hard time with all the profanity (and worse). Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke figure to earn their second consecutive nomination for the third (and final?) film in a critically and culturally beloved series (one which I should probably get around to watching sometime). Ray's taut action script and Coogan and Pope's saccharine dramatic one are solid bets for the final two spots. (More on them if and when they are nominated.) Letts, who adapted his own play, is probably the only outsider with a real chance at spoiling the party. The other two would have to be at the top of a lot of ballots to make it to the ceremony, but I suppose it is possible. 

*Like I said above, I may well be overestimating the impact of the issues surrounding The Wolf of Wall Street. It might force its way into the big races.
*I'm most interested in seeing how both Actor races and the Original Screenplay race turns out.
*There really has to be more good roles for females, right?
*One film/performance not even listed in 'Next in line' will sneak in. It happens every year.

Done with four hours to spare. Time to sleep for six then pull up the nominations on my phone, as is tradition. Last year I went 34/44 -- not too shabby. Let's see if I beat that number this year. Maybe it will give me a head start on breaking my Oscar night losing streak. You'll here from me before then though. Until then, happy Oscar morning!