Saturday, December 25, 2010

Serious Radio: Tops of 2010

Admittedly, I listened to less new music this year than in previous ones. With the addition of satellite radio in January of '09, last year I was the virtual kid in a candy shop, tuning from the all-reggae station, to the ultra-relaxing "Cinemagic" soundtrack station, then back to the all Pearl Jam channel.... in a heaven of trebles and bass as a good friend said. This new ambient world flooded the senses and opened me up to a great new selection of music. I'm not a fan of the new 'chill wave' as its been dubbed (musical leaders being artists such as Wavves, Washed Out, Salem, Caribou etc.) and I'm very turned off by the rampant burgeoning of 60's pop rock in bands like Girls, Teen Dream, Vampire Weekend or the re-imagining of Howlin Wolf blues in The Black Keys. Very little new music connected with me, and I sorta relied on the old favorites. Luckily, they smashed my expectations and churned out 4 of the 5 best albums of the year. So, without further adieu, my favorite music of the year:

1. The National- High Violet

The National have been evolving on every album, and "High Violet" is their most mature effort to date, combining piercingly self-deprecating lyrics with a magisterial symphony of music that builds... and builds... and builds on every tune. Sure, they're singing about failed marriages, awkward attempts at lovemaking and cannibalism (sometimes in the same song), but Matt Berninger's baritone voice carries such amazing weight. I know I said this when their last album was released, but they should be huge by now.

2. Jonsi- Go

Sigur Ros is, simply, a transcendent band. Most of that acclaim is due to lead singer Jonsi's voice. With his solo debut album, Jonsi again creates a mountain of sound timed to his uniquely high pitched voice that could've been culled from any lost demo tracks of Sigur Ros. This is music to lose yourself in, and "Go" is a startling compilation.

3. The Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

One of the most exciting somewhat mainstream band working today, The Arcade Fire had everything working against them. Mucho hype, high expectations.... and yet "The Suburbs" still feels fresh and eclectic. It's not quite "Funeral", but not much is.

4. A Silver Mt. Zion- "Kollaps Tradioxionales"

Through several name changes (dropping Thee from their name) and a revolving door of talented musicians, A Silver Mt. Zion has produced some fantastic explorations that blend all types of music. They can go on for awhile and have been cited as nothing more than a soundtrack band, yet "Kollaps Tradixionales" is a stunning work of originality and depth. It's also their most accessible work to date. They still have that go-for-broke insanity, though, as punctuated by the opening 17 minute track called "There Is A Light" that plays like a warped, beautiful Sam Cooke tune on acid. This whole album contains new secrets that amaze on repeat listens, and that's what I expect from great artists.

5. Local Natives- Gorilla Manor

This Los Angeles band have a very propulsive sound, led by lead singer Taylor Rice and a catchy array of songs that ultimately moves the spirits. I don't know if the description of "afro pop" really suits these guys, but I certainly look forward to whatever they do next.

6. Broken Social Scene- Forgiveness Rock Record

Whatever it is about Canada, they churn out some impressive bands, chock full of symphony sections, electronica at just the right moment and a swaying sound that bounces from genre to genre. Three bands on this list qualify. Broken Social Scene have been quietly doing this type of thing for years now, and "Forgiveness Rock Record" is a joyous experiment that blends everything together in a wired display of sounds.

Bonus: if you like what you hear from The National, listen to this:

And the single best use of Broken Social Scene in the movies:

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I love this time of year, frantically trying to catch up on past films from 2010, seeing the unveiling of numerous 'best of' lists and taking in the prominent December releases.

White Material

Claire Denis has always been a tactile filmmaker… relying on mood and fractured images that shift between interior psychology and external demands (I.e. lust, fear or sexual dominance). “White Material” is nothing different, a political film that never feels political and one that charts her predilection for slow-burn devastation with stunning ease. Starring Isabelle Huppert as one of the last remaining white people in a suddenly changing Northern Africa run amok with machete-wielding children and no workers for her coffee bean plantation, Denis spins a sunburned nightmare that constantly evokes the vestiges of a great thriller without ever really thrilling. While there a couple of seemingly impossible character arcs presented involving her son (Nicholas Duvauchelle), Huppert amazingly holds the screen. Roaming around the frenetic edges as their white-bred world comes crashing down around them is also Christopher Lambert as the enigmatic husband and Isaach de Bankole as a rebel leader. Not completely as successful as Denis’ “The Intruder” or “Trouble Every Day”, “White Material” is still an intelligent rendering of a story that’s been told numerous times.

127 Hours

Buoying his camera around the neck of James Franco like he’s a fellow frat boy along for the ride, Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” would make for a solid double feature with Rodrigo Cortez’s “Buried” in the pantheon of claustrophobia cinema. And like “Buried”, “127 Hours” finds unique and moving ways to open up the stalled narrative device of a man stuck in the gut of a canyon with a boulder over his hand. Flashing back on his life, first love and even flash-forwarding into the future, “127 Hours” is a kinetic experience. Franco, whose already received some Oscar buzz not least because he’s hosting, deserves a nomination as Aron Ralston, the adventure-seeker who went to extraordinary lengths to free himself from a very serious predicament. As with Huppert above, Franco owns every single frame of “127 Hours”, and when the finale does occur, it’s an explosive, cathartic moment of filmmaking that wipes over you in waves.

The Next Three Days

Marketing and advertising be damned! If it weren’t for a few good words from friends about Paul Haggis’ new film “The Next Three Days”, I would have easily dismissed it as diminutive genre fare. Instead, it’s a taut, thoughtful picture that seduces a wonderful performance from Russell Crowe as the man struggling with his moral compass to break out his murder-accused wife (Elizabeth Banks) from prison. Haggis, with the exception of his debut film “Crash” that bluntly beat one over the head with stereotypes and West Coast liberalism, has crafted some great movies about complex subjects. In “The Next Three Days”, he scales back the preaching and focuses on the endless preparation of Crowe to mastermind an elaborate escape plan. Smart in all the right places and edited with razor sharp precision when the chase begins, every character is given depth, from the police detectives trying to piece together the puzzle to the flirtatious playground mom (Olivia Wilde). “The Next Three Days” also plays with compassion and identification, endlessly shifting one’s loyalty from cop to desperate family on the run without pulling at the emotions. It’s all very well done and with a deeply felt ambiguous ending.

Black Swan

I can’t shake Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” out of my head. Like “The Red Shoes” on acid, Aronofsky’s latest is a terror psychodrama that plays like a propulsive fever dream. Natalie Portman is terrific as the dancer who succumbs to the pressures of being a leading lady and Aronofsky (much like he did with Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”) never falters from having his camera perched just over the shoulders of his star as she marches through reality and unreality. Sound design has always been a staple of Aronofsky films, but he takes it to a new level here in “Black Swan”, echoing laughter in odd places and firmly subverting our own perceptions of what is real and what is not. An outright masterpiece.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Virtual Download Buzz

So I finally jumped into the world of digital streaming with Netflix's Instant View features and, wow, is there some great (i.e. highly unavailable on home video) stuff located there. For someone as technically geeky as myself, I'm terrible at connectivity. I broke down and purchased a Roku player because I couldn't get any of the other options to work. I've got a Sony Blu Ray player, but apparently the model I have doesn't allow for this connection. I have an old Xbox 360 that I rarely play, yet one needs one of those Xbox gold subscription plans for Internet connectivity. Basically, the Roku seemed like an affordable option. I'm so glad I did. There are so many great films unavailable on any video format readily at hand on Instant View. Obscure titles like "Twins of Evil", Monte Hellman's "China 9, Liberty 37", Kinji Fukasaku's "Message From Space" and many more. Then there are long lost 70's greats such as "Looking For Mr. Goodbar", Francesco Rosi's "Excellent Cadavers" (which I've been hunting for years) and the Terence Malick penned "Deadhead Miles". For a movie lover, this is close to heaven. I've been resistant to streaming video in the past simply because I can't bear to watch films on a 16" computer screen. This option, sreaming straight to my 55" plasma screen, defies those hangups. And with titles added daily, this is a very encouraging method of film production to the masses. One can find some great suggestions here. Thank you Netflix.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Last Wave: New Aussie Cinema

Every couple of years, the cinematic tide seems to shift, introducing the world to bold new talents, seemingly, at the same time. In 2005, I can remember the rush of watching Park Chan Wook's "Oldboy", Bong Jo-Hoo's "Memories of Murder" and Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows" all within a few months of each other. The same thing happened this year.... three new films from the land down under (aka Australia) that not only seem to revitalize their respected tired genres, but launch a creatively fertile group of filmmakers and artists onto the international stage.

David Michod's "Animal Kingdom" (releasing on home video tomorrow- go rent it for God's sake!) will undoubtedly remain as the single best film of 2010 for me... a lightning bolt of a film that slowly unearths somber emotions about family and revenge within the context of a James Elroy-like crime film full of police corruption, innocent victims and cold blooded psychopaths.
From the film's opening moments as a lush piece of orchestra plays over grainy black and white surveillance camera images of a bank robbery, "Animal Kingdom" is an assured filmmaking debut that only continues to deepen as it rolls towards a shattering climax. Our cypher into this hard boiled story of a bank robbing family is young "J" Cody (James Frecheville), left alone after his mother's overdose and forced to go live with his aunt and three uncles. Each brother seems more psychotic than the other and they keep a low profile from local cops (led by Guy Pearce) while slowly dragging J into their master plans of crime. At times violent and genuinely unsettling in several scenes of simple conversation, director Michod never employs flashy techniques. "Animal Kingdom" is all about acting, subtle editing and a terrific narrative that elicits gasps with ease.

Nash Edgerton's "The Square" is a bit more of the traditional film noir, tracking the body count that slowly rises as construction manager Ray (David Roberts) and his younger mistress and neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom) posit a scheme to steal her husband's dirty bag of cash. In the best sense of film noir, a somewhat decent and root-worthy character is dragged into an impending abyss of violence and terrible mistakes. As in "Animal Kingdom", director Edgerton keeps the entire film simple, allowing for a twisty plot to energize the wooden narrative which dense surprises and palpable tension. Edgerton's ability with mood and tempo is perfectly exemplified in one scene where both Raymond and Carla are enjoying Christmas fireworks with their families when tragedy strikes, and Edgerton captures their rising fear with a small glance across the field. Of course, "The Square" is not without its fair share of "oh shit" moments as well. There are always casualties in film noir, and Australians are no exceptions.

Lastly, the most out-of-left-field film to cause a stir from Australia was Joel Anderson's "Lake Mungo". Part of the usually disastrous and amateurish "After Dark" film series, Anderson's faux documentary is decidedly creepy and.... truly haunting. I understand the term faux documentary and horror are hot commodities right now, but "Lake Mungo" is a quiet cousin to the bigger budget mainstream teases such as "Paranormal Activity" and "The Last Exorcism".
After the drowning death of their 16 year old daughter on a family vacation, the Palmer family begins to record images of their dead daughter in their house. Psychic readings are endured. Lies and a nasty family secret are upended. Then the real mystery about their dead daughter surfaces. I can't help but think the last name of "Palmer" is used in extreme respect for Lynch's "Twin Peaks".... a series that touches on some of the same deviant acts and atmospheric dread as "Lake Mungo". Anderson traces all of this as if a documentary crew is interviewing the family and along for the ride as myths are debunked and new secrets followed. This isn't a film that plays up the antics of the now rage faux/horror/documentary... it all feels very real and serious. And damn is it quite scary in certain scenes without doing very much. For once, the After Dark series went for minimal, and they hit a home run while (hopefully) divulging a great new talent.

All this space has been devoted to praise for the new Aussie wave, but what's even more interesting about this group of young filmmakers is their inter-connectedness. Edgerton and Michod have worked on several short films before- Michod as director and Joel and brother Nash starring. Ideas seem to flow freely between this cabal of artists, something that can only enrich future projects and keep Australian cinema strong for years to come. I look forward to whatever they do next.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Produced and Abandoned Part 8

Ten more titles deserving a proper region 1 DVD release:

1. A New Leaf (1971)- Elaine May is such an under appreciated talent, and it's promising that her name has been part of the recent rhetoric after her 1987 film "Ishtar" received a long overdue DVD copy. Her debut film, starring Walter Mattheau as a bankrupt curmudgeon who has to marry for money, is one of the best comedies of the past 30 years, full of zany wit and spot on performances. This does air on the Flix channel occasionally, so catch it there if you can. And while we're at it, where's "The Heartbreak Kid" as well? I plan on writing about may in greater detail later.
2. Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)- Jacques Rivette's mid seventies masterpiece is very hard to see, popping up at the usual MOMA retrospectives of Rivette... and that's about it. VHS copies and region 2 copies go for big money online. I've seen pieces of Rivette's work, and while they can be a bit long in the tooth, they're also relentlessly fascinating slices of human interaction.
3. The Drifting Classroom (1987)- From the director who brought us "House", Nobuhiko Obayashi's described "fantasy" film sounds just as outrageous. After an earthquake, a school is transported to another dimension. While "House" was a bit of a letdown for me, Obayashi's cinema of fairy tale-like charm is ingratiating.
4. That Sinking Feeling (1980)- Bill Forsyth's directorial debut is a charming, warm, immensely funny layabout tale following 4 Glasgow youths who think up a get-rich-quick scheme. Forsyth is hugely under-represented on home video. Even his mainstream efforts, such as "Breaking In" with Burt Reynolds, are wonderful little treasures full of heart and connection.
5. Last Embrace (1979)- Jonathan Demme's ode to Hitchcock is just as lurid and obsessive about its imitation of the master as most of DePalma's work. Roy Scheider gives a great, wounded performance as an ex-CIA agent, delusional after the murder of his wife, and being hounded by ancient Jewish death threats. Miklos Rozsa's score, Demme's subtle shifts in point of view and a grand finale on the edge of a waterfall all add up to a worthy Hitchcock rip-off.
6. Angel (1982)- After watching "Ondine" recently, it coccured to me that director Neil Jordan is a filmmaker who creates films that could easily spiral out of control.... but don't. Remember "In Dreams"... Robert Downey Jr as a killer on some sort of apple farm? Weird, but somehow it all hung together. "Ondine" does the same, reaching some pretty amazing heights of fantasy and fiction, love and understanding between father and daughter and fairy tale. "Angel" is his debut film and I can't remember seeing or hearing much about it. Maybe its time.
7. The Thief of Paris (1965)- Early Louis Malle starring Jean Paul Belmondo who burglers the houses of wealthy Parisians. There are Italian DVD imports out there and I've read that TCM has shown a print in the last few years. I recently got my hands on Malle's "Black Moon" and would love to see this one as well.
8. Ivans XTC (2000)- Anyone remember this film? Roger Ebert favorably reviewed it and it's regarded as the first fully produced film in HD. Starring Danny Huston, the film is described as an update of Tolstoy in modern day Hollywood.
9. The Silent One (1973)- I love Lino Ventura as an actor. In the 70's he produced a number of films with French director Claude Pinoteau, the best of them being "Jig Saw" with Angie Dickinson. This film, released in 1973, stars Ventura as a French scientist caught up in international intrigue, again directed by Pinoteau.
10. Alex In Wonderland (1970)- Paul Mazursky's comedy starring Donald Sutherland as a director is one of the few Mazursky 70's films not on DVD. It will get a showing on TCM later this month, though, so its not all bad bews.