Anyway, this one's pretty self-explanatory. I'm a compulsive list maker, and I like to make 'em twice a year. The ones in December are cumulative, smoothed-out, serious, and composed. My Halftime Report lists are, I'd say, more rough approximations than anything else. Between now and December, many of the items on these lists will disappear, reappear, rearrange themselves, and bounce all over the place. Nonetheless, I'd say these are a pretty good representation of my favorite stuff so far this year.
The 5 Best Movies So Far:
5. Get Smart
I've tried to be objective about it, but I honestly do not see the critics' gripe with this movie. For my money, Get Smart is exactly what the words "big-budget action comedy" should refer to. I mean, it's funny, right? And it's got explosions and lots of exhilarating action scenes, right? And it has Steve Carell, who -- of all the actors in Hollywood today -- has got to be the perfect choice to play Maxwell Smart. Right? Check, check, check. Also: Bill Murray inside a tree. So, uh, what exactly is there to dislike about this, again?
4. In Bruges
A boundlessly clever gangster film well written, acted, and executed enough to make me forgive what could have been a deal-breaking tonal inconsistency. Its problem is that it doesn't know what it wants to be. It's a gangster film, for sure, but it can't decide between comedy and drama. Certainly, there's nothing stopping it from being both (why hello, Pulp Fiction), but first-time writer-director Martin McDonagh isn't Quentin Tarantino, and he has a bit of trouble juggling the two. Nonetheless, it's an endlessly entertaining flick. Colin Farrell is probably the best I've ever seen him, while the inventive script is actually audacious enough to spell out the ending for us way in advance, then sit back and watch us hit ourselves for not catching onto the clues. So, problems aside, I enjoyed it quite a bit. A film doesn't have to be perfect to be surprising and satisfying, and In Bruges is an appealing example of a film that's both.
Yeah, it's definitely as dreary as you would expect it to be. It's also extremely selective, audience-wise: a biopic about Ian Curtis, epileptic lead singer of legendary post-punk band Joy Division who committed suicide in 1980, isn't exactly at the top of most people's viewing lists. And while it's certainly a film that can be appreciated by those not of Joy Division fandom, it really helps if you are. Speaking as someone who lists them as one of his all-time favorite bands, I found this to be a moving and engaging film. Yes, it's dreary, but it's grandly and artistically dreary. Its black and white cinematography adds to the atmosphere immensely (to an extent that the film would not have worked half as well in color), the acting -- especially by Sam Riley in the lead -- is phenomenal, and of course the soundtrack is unparalleled. Maybe it is somewhat of a buzzkill, but it's my kind of buzzkill: the kind potent and powerful enough to haunt you and stay with you long after the images have faded away.
With the likes of Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, Pixar has spent the last few years setting the bar almost inhumanly high for themselves. It's a testament to their paramount abilities that this doesn't seem to phase them. They just continue to make the absolute finest in animated cinema. Wall-E is everything you'd expect and even a few things you wouldn't, all of them adding up to just about as delightful and pleasant a moviegoing experience as one could want. (Also, "Presto," which preceds the movie, is probably the best short these guys have yet come up with. That's pretty significant, too.)
1. Funny Games
On this one, I proudly stand alone. Or at least mostly alone. I won't argue that this is an ugly, nihilistic movie. That's undeniable. The way that nihilism is internalized, however, hinges on the individual's outlook. Depending on who you are, you'll either see it as a shallow, exploitative academic treatise that commits the very crimes it preaches against, or -- like me -- you'll see it as a cold, refreshing slap to the face of a society that seems fascinated with violence and torture porn. No matter what your outlook, there's little question it's just about the most polarizing and debatable film of the year (I feel I could write entire essays defending it, personally). In my mind, that quality -- together with its unforgettable, relentless gut-punch -- only enhances its brilliance.
The 5 Best Albums So Far:
5. Shearwater, Rook
Where did this come from? I like Okkervil River, but I had no idea ex-guitarist Jonathan Meiburg -- or anyone from the band, to be honest -- was capable of making something this beautiful. And not in any understated way: this fairly short 37 minutes seems epic compared to most albums its length, making for a sweeping listen that fully satisfies on the first listen and then just keeps delivering unexpected little gifts for each additional spin.
4. The Gutter Twins, Saturnalia
In which Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan -- two middle-aged holdovers from the grunge era -- unexpectedly make the best alt-rock album of the year. It's a thing of fierce, dark, brooding apocalyptic glory. The world may be coming to an end, but at least it's meeting its maker in the most dramatic, alluring, and frankly beautiful way.
(Stream: "God's Children")
3. Foals, Antidotes
Bloc Party and Battles. Remember those guys? Well, Foals' impressive debut is probably the closest amalgamation of those two you're ever likely to get (provided that's what you really wanted from life; I didn't, really, but life has its little surprises). Though occasionally atmospheric and melancholy, it's really just a fun album. The songwriting is strong, the boys' super-rhythmic playing occasionally borders on the pleasantly hypnotic, and the production is just about right for this kind of deal. Sure, it does get a bit samey-sounding, but if you enjoy the style as much as I do, that should hardly be a problem. Just avoid that godawful album cover. Yyyyuck.
(Stream: "Olympic Airways")
2. Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer
Speaking of bad album covers, I bet you were wondering when Wolf Parade's sophomore album would show up. I was much too hasty when I dismissed this one as a disappointment. I can never tell when an album is going to click for me. Usually, as in this case, if it hasn't happened by the third or fourth listen, it's not going to. At Mount Zoomer hit me HARD on listen five. Sure, it's miles away from their wonderful (and much poppier) debut Apologies to the Queen Mary, but a darker and more aggressive brilliance is still brilliance, regardless. I imagine most will find this much more easily digestible than I did; I just had to outrun the shadow of their previous album. Now that I'm in the clear ... damn, is this a good album.
(Stream: "Kissing the Beehive". DO IT.)
1. Cut/Copy, In Ghost Colours
Simply put, Cut/Copy's second album is an 80s synth-pop pastiche that somehow manages to be better by leaps and bounds than just about anything it borrows from. Their secret is that they don't just try to emulate these ye-olde acts, but come armed with songs are both reverent and phenomenally well-written. Discounting the numerous instrumental links (which, for once, actually help hold the album together instead of merely filling empty space), there isn't a single bad song here. More to the point, there's not a single one I don't like a lot. No other album released this year can boast such an impressive array, nor can the vast majority of albums released in the past few years. If this isn't still sitting at the top of this list in another six months, I'll be very surprised. Pleasantly surprised, mind you, but surprised nonetheless.
(Stream: "Feel the Love")
11. Death Cab for Cutie, "Bixby Canyon Bridge"
I can just imagine the unfortunate kid who has never heard Death Cab and downloads this song: "Dude, have you heard that band Death Cab for Cutie? They freakin' ROCK. Nasty buzzing guitars, pounding drums, distorted vocals, waves of hypnotic white noise -- I NEED MORE OF THIS!!" He'll be in for about as much of a surprise as the rest of us were when we heard this refreshing song, which may have more urgency packed into its five minutes than their entire Plans album put together.
10. Fleet Foxes, "He Doesn't Know Why"
Maybe he doesn't, but I do: check out that vocal melody during the first half. Man.
9. The Dodos, "Red and Purple"
Anyone still looking for the ultimate indie summer track needs look no further: "Red and Purple" is so bouncy, so sunny, so upbeat that it's virtually impossible to deny it. It still amazes me that they managed to make such a thing using just an acoustic guitar and percussion.
8. Coldplay, "Viva la Vida"
It's just a damn fine pop song. That's all there is to it.
7. British Sea Power, "Lights Out for Darker Skies"
This is definitely a candidate for Indie Anthem of '08: exactly the type of huge, booming two-part track it seems like these guys have wanted to create their whole career. In addition to being phenomenal, it's also one of the few saving graces of their comparatively disappointing third album.
6. Cut/Copy, "Lights and Music"
The thing that seems to separate Cut/Copy from the bazillions of other 80s revival bands is that they actually sound like various bands from the 80s. It depends on the song. Here, they're tackling Violator-era Depeche Mode (yes, 1990, I know) and, if I may be so bold, actually creating a song that is even better than most -- if not all -- of that seminal album.
5. MGMT, "Time to Pretend"
A coworker and I were having a discussion a few months back about what the anthem for the current generation would be. Gen X had "Smells Like Teen Spirit." What do we have? I can now give a genuinely good answer: we have "Time to Pretend," which, all the way from its wistful (and cynical, yeesh) rockstar-dream lyrics to its do-it-yourself indie-electronic atmosphere, seems to perfectly encapsulate what the current wave of teens and twentysomethings seem to stand for.
4. Hercules and Love Affair, "Blind"
You say the words "gay disco" like that's a bad thing!
3. Wolf Parade, "California Dreamer"
I've gotten so used to putting Spencer Krug on my best-of lists (2008 is the fourth year in a row) that I've almost forgotten what it feels like to leave him off. This is yet another home run for him (and no doubt not the last), an "L.A. Woman"-esque proggish epic that just gets more complex and more alluring every time I listen to it.
2. Frightened Rabbit, "The Modern Leper"
Bitter, self-deprecating indie rock must really be my thing (see: last year's "Kid Gloves"), but damned if this isn't the most powerful and emotionally affecting thing I've heard all year. Maximum volume required.
1. Chris Walla, "St. Modesto"
Maybe it's just a primacy thing, I don't know. But over the past five months, Walla's gorgeous ballad about star-crossed meth-makers has wormed so far into the Music = Love center of my brain that I cannot deny it the top spot. I know that even admitting I like Walla, his solo album, or anything on it means I immediately surrender my indie-cred badge, but I don't care. My ability to play this on repeat is infinitely more appealing.
The end! Woo!