Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Year in Review, Part 3: The Top 10 Movies of 2008

Overall, 2008 was a noticeable comedown in overall quality of movies. 2007, as it was with everything else, was by far the strongest year for film thus far this millennium. 2008 wasn't bad, per ce, but it was certainly lackluster by comparison. As usual, it was notably bottom heavy: 8 of the 10 films on the list were released more than halfway through the year, with an extra-large influx of goodness having come just in the last few weeks. With only a couple exceptions (you'll be able to tell what they are real fast), my list looks like everyone else's. So it goes. I guess that's the mark of a great film, eh? Onward.

Best Performances of the Year:
Much like the Academy Awards, I've gone ahead and broken this down into the four main categories. If you read this entire entry carefully, it's not too hard to surmise what my pick for the absolute best performance is. In any case, I expect all four of these individuals to be nominated for Oscars in their respective categories, and all but one (Anne Hathaway) to win.

Best Actor: Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon
Best Actress: Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Pre-2008 Movie Seen: Fernando Meirelles' brutal but brilliant City of God, as stylish and intriguing a trip through hell as you're ever likely to take. It's not an easy film, and it is -- in the words of my old roommate -- "messed up," but it's also very powerful and strangely hopeful. Required viewing, to be sure.

10. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Or, Woody Allen realizes for the second time (Match Point was the first) that the secret to making a good film at this point in his career is to be as un-Woody Allen as possible. I think (I hope) he realizes the neurotic, whiny Woody Allen schtick is just worn out. It was brilliant 30 years ago; Annie Hall and Manhattan are fine movies. But not now. Woody's recent output has been rrrrreally scattershot. I still try to see them all, but I'm never quite sure what I'm getting into, and more often than not I end up disappointed. And that's why Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a breath of fresh air. It's actually a very good movie and, believe it or not, it seems like Old Man Woody actually has something to say on the subject of relationships. And he says it well. For once, Allen doesn't go for the jugular -- this is a very quiet, understated film, and it works all the better for it. The film's melancholy tone is given time to seep out and do its work on the viewer, making its final destination all the more affecting. Plus, most importantly, Woody keeps himself behind the camera and lets his cast of young, attractive people pull the weight for him. Javier Bardem, all charm and charisma, is about a million miles away from his sinister turn in No Country; Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson are very strong in the titular roles; and Penelope Cruz, for what little screen time she has, gives a dynamically forceful turn as Bardem's unstable ex. No, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not Allen's best (or even close), and no, it's not going to change the world or anything. But it's a surprise. It's a smart, thoughtful, meditative film that goes in unexpected directions and satisfies at every turn. The individual's mileage may vary, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

In which Pixar continues to be god among animated features. This write-up is probably going to be pretty brief, though, just because I don't have anything especially insightful to say about it. It's a simple story very well-told, it's absolutely beautiful to look at (Blu-Ray and other such formats I'm not rich enough to invest in were made for this kind of thing), and it really is the kind of film everyone can enjoy. The G-rating usually causes me to cringe, to want to take an insulin shot (and several shots of other things) before even showing up. But WALL-E proves it's possible to make excellent entertainment without sugar-coating everything, and the result is by far the best family film of the year (except maybe Funny Games). Though, to be perfectly honest, I do prefer last year's Ratatouille. But that's nothing against this film. It's great. You should see it. Or have it on a double feature with that rat-chef flick. That's even better.

8. Burn After Reading
Is there anyone at this point who would doubt the Coen Brothers' very even-handed versatility? Just look at what they've accomplished just in the last ten years or so: wry police procedural (Fargo), absurdist comedy (The Big Lebowski), straight-up film noir (The Man Who Wasn't There), and suspense-soaked crime thriller (No Country for Old Men), among others. And all of these have worked extraordinarily well. So leave it to these chameleons to follow up their multiple Oscar-winning 2007 flick with another peculiar change in direction. Burn After Reading is, for lack of a better classification, political slapstick. It's very odd, but it's also kind of awesome. The film has a manic energy all its own, covering a wide range of often flat-out hilarious material in a surprisingly short amount of time. And while it does possess a preposterousness similar to that of The Big Lebowski, somehow it just feels different. And while I do prefer that film, Burn After Reading still has a higher laughs-per-minute ratio than just about anything else this year. And look at that cast, for god's sake: Clooney? Malkovich? Swinton? McDormand? Great. The real scene-stealer, though, is Brad Pitt, who's in full doofus mode and clearly enjoying every minute of it. And why wouldn't he? This is a highly entertaining film, very smartly scripted, with great performances and an overall tone quite unlike anything else you're likely to stumble across anytime soon. So chalk up another point for the Coens. Right about now, their resume is looking quite impressive indeed.

7. Choke
I ... I have no idea. I am by no means what you would call a Chuck Palahniuk fan. I didn't like Survivor or Diary, the two of his novels I actually managed to get through, and I take the unpopular stance that Fight Club is one of the best-directed bad movies in recent memory. Needless to say, I went into Choke not expecting much at all. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. This is a depraved, raunchy, wickedly funny movie that successfully held me captive for its entire runtime; I enjoyed every lurid minute of it. I can't even begin to guess why this worked so well for me. Certainly, I'm in the minority. The film received lukewarm reviews, failed to make a splash, and more or less disappeared without a sound. Maybe this is Palahniuk's best work, and the film just did a very good job of adapting it. Who knows? All I know is that I laughed, I was impressed by the actors (Sam Rockwell just looks sleazy, which is exactly that the role calls for, and Anjelica Huston -- who is always good -- continues her trend of, well, always being good), and I had a very good time. If that's what the film is going for, what else matters, really?

6. Frost/Nixon
This is a movie about an interview. That's all it's about. An interview. An ambitious British talk show host struggles for finances, then interviews an ex-president. That's your movie. It sounds like the most treacherously dull piece of crap you could ever imagine, doesn't it? While I don't doubt it very easily could've been, director Ron Howard -- in cahoots with the Almighty Himself or something -- actually manages to make this gripping as hell. I don't know how he did it. He doesn't do anything especially different or audacious; he shows us the events leading up to the interview, then shows us the main event. The end. This is why I'm convinced he's consorting with God. This should not work. It should put me to sleep. It's talky and political and leisurely paced, and Jesus H. Christ is it a fine movie. A lot of the magic is attributable to the two leads: first and foremost, Frank Langella is off the charts as Richard Nixon. While he doesn't bear much physical resemblance, his voice and mannerisms brilliantly remove the actor from the man onscreen; you look at him and you could swear you're watching Nixon himself. It's a hell of a fine job. The thing is, Michael Sheen is almost as good as the cocky, womanizing David Frost. It's his character, not Nixon, that the movie revolves around, and he does a commendable job of holding his own. In much the same way, the movie does a commendable job of holding its own against the backdrop of U.S. history. So urgently does it present its events, and with such import, that you immediately forget that the Frost/Nixon interviews are amusingly inconsequential. The movie treats them like they're going to change the course of America forever; of course they didn't, nor were they ever expected to, but what does it matter? It's exactly this approach that makes Frost/Nixon a great way to spend two hours.

5. Milk
Yeah it's a gay movie blah blah blah, and if that's all that concerns you, you've already missed the boat and started to piss me off. Where Milk truly excels is as an inspirational biopic about one man who was willing to fight for what he believed in. It's a strikingly universal idea, and Gus Van Sant (an interesting man with an even more interesting filmography; IMDb him sometime -- he's one of the very few staunchly art-house directors who has the power to go mainstream at will, and it's had curious results) manages to keep that scope whilst simultaneously making this into a deeply personal and involving affair. Of course, many accolades must go in Sean Penn's direction for his exuberant leading performance. Penn plays Harvey Milk as a cheerful but determined man, and it's easy to see how so many people would have supported him. And while anyone with even a passing knowledge of Harvey Milk's life knows the trajectory the movie must take, the film still manages to handle the events in ways that are fresh, honest, and emotional. And while the film is concerned with events that are over 30 years old, it's distressingly easy to connect it with things that are happening right now. If anything, this fact alone also makes Milk the proverbial "message movie." Here's a man who did what he thought was right and made great progress in doing it; he's a testament to our country's capacity to change and a sobering reminder of how much further we have to go. Is that such a weak message to "have" to sit through a so-called "gay movie" to get to? I sure as hell don't think so.

4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Roger Ebert, the man who -- since his health problems in 2006 -- has liked every movie that has been released, did not like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He said it wasn't realistic. Well, no shit, Sherlock. It's a fairy tale. That's like saying you don't like Citizen Kane because the character's an asshole. You're missing the point. What I'm trying to say is, the success of Benjamin Button seems to rest entirely on the shoulders of whether or not you're willing to play along with the central plot device. For me, this was one of the easiest and most welcome things to buy into; I'm all for creativity, and how many movies about a man who ages backwards can you think of? It was this concept that made me want to see the movie so badly in the first place. And guess what? It delivers on its promise and then some. Overall, this is the best film David Fincher has made in over a decade (since The Game, I'd say). I'm not the sort to get all emotional at movies, but the ending to this deeply touched me in a way I can scarcely put my finger on. Perhaps it's just the fact that, by looking at life through a very different lens than what we are used to, the film manages to reveal more truths about it than any of us care to admit. Or perhaps it's the collective forces of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (previously seen together in Babel), two of the best working actors, who both turn in nomination-worthy performances. Or maybe it's even Fincher's perfectionist sense of eye-popping visuals, which transforms the ordeal into just about the best-looking movie of the year. Most likely, though, it's the combination of all of these things that makes this film so great. Lengthy, yes, but awe-inspiring in almost every way, Benjamin Button is the kind of film I wish I could see every time I go to the movies.

3. Funny Games
Without question, the biggest love-it-or-hate-it affair of the year. And it certainly goes out of its way to make the former option extremely difficult. In order to love it, you have to get it. In order to get it, you have to first be aware that there's something to get. And then you have to convince yourself that what you're getting is actually worth it. These are the not-so-fine lines that determine whether Funny Games is seen as the ugliest, most pointless film of the year, or one of the most trenchant commentaries on the mass media to come out in ages. From my experience, it seems to split people -- critics and viewers alike -- right down the middle. It's my #3 film of the year, so you know what I'm going to say about it. I think it's genius. So often what we get these days are half-baked, spineless indictments that think they're making a point but don't even come close. Funny Games, by contrast, has teeth. It draws blood and enjoys it. That it has the seemingly-forgotten sense to realize you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs (pun intended) is praiseworthy in and of itself. That it chooses to attack one of my most-hated film subgenres ("torture porn") is even moreso. Its secret is devilish and most effective: it not only wants to torture you as punishment for thinking you could enjoy this, but it makes you an accomplice to what's happening to the poor family onscreen. It intentionally makes the two sociopaths the most interesting and likable characters. It intentionally stacks the deck (sometimes really obviously) so that they always have the upper hand. It's not nice, it's not fair, it actively tries to piss you off, and it ultimately goes precisely where you always kinda figured it would. And like I said, this will infuriate lots and lots of people. Me? I think it's just about perfect. Maybe Michael Haneke is preaching to the choir: it certainly qualifies far more as "academic treatise" than "filmic entertainment," and it gave a ridiculously poor show at the box office (when I saw it during its one-week run, I was the only person who hadn't walked out by the end), but that doesn't really faze me. Just the fact that he had the insight and balls to put it out there is good enough for me. It's one for the ages.

2. Slumdog Millionaire
Sometimes it's hard not to be impressed by just how good a movie is. Slumdog Millionaire caught me completely by surprise. It's had strong buzz for a while now and I expected it to be good, but I wasn't anticipating how thoroughly it would transport me. It is a very, very likable film. And, unlike plenty of other titles on this list, it's also a legitimate feel-good movie. There's never really any question about how the story's going to turn out; for me, at least, it was obvious from the very beginning. The film's success is in the brilliant, captivating way it carries us to that ultimate destination. It sports a framing device unlike any other this year: our hero Jamal, an ordinary kid from the Mumbai slums, has made it onto the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and -- against all odds -- has made it all the way to the final round. The questions he is asked are intercut with flashbacks to his past, explaining both how he knows the answers and how he has come to be on the game show. It's a device that has potential to be horrendously contrived, but luckily the film never plays out that way. The questions simply feel like a natural extension of Jamal's life story, and as the game progresses, the further we are drawn into his past experiences. By the time the final question is rolls around, the film has engulfed its viewer so completely that one can't help but crack a big, dumb smile at how perfect that question is. Slumdog Millionaire is yet another radical change in direction for Danny Boyle, whose past successes include 28 Days Later and Trainspotting. If I may be so bold, this is handily his best work yet. Uplifting in ways that must be seen to be described, and thoroughly engaging in ways very few other films managed in 2008, this is an amazing film. In fact, it would've been an easy #1 if it hadn't been for, well ...

1. The Dark Knight
I try to give my due to the smaller indie films. Maybe you've heard of this one? It did decently well at the box office. And who would I be kidding if I didn't put this at #1? This is, without any hesitation whatsoever, the best film of the year. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can throw its way is that I have never thought of it as a "superhero movie" (a pejorative among movie snobs, for not entirely unjustified reasons). It is, inherently, but it doesn't stop there. More than anything else, The Dark Knight is a gritty, unforgiving crime drama. In most superhero films, there's always an underlying safety net; a feeling that, come what may, the stalwart hero will always energe on top. Not so here. Writer/director Christopher Nolan fills every frame with a liberal dose of moody, foreboding atmosphere, and by finally pitting his hero against a genuine villain, he creates a lingering sense of dread. And the film thrives on this dread, racheting the tension more and more until the stakes become higher and reside in a place more frighteningly human than most comic book movies would even dare to touch (compare this to Iron Man; see what I mean?). Truly, it would not be an exaggeration to call this the best superhero movie of all-time, or one of the very best sequels, or among the greatest of all summer blockbusters. Many have already, and I can only nod in agreement. There is also no doubt in my mind that Nolan is our greatest working filmmaker: Memento and The Prestige were already two of my all-time favorites; The Dark Knight, equipped with his ambitiously complex script (both in terms of story and emotion), makes three.

And where would any discussion of this film be without a nod to the actors? No film this year boasted more full-on star power, and the sum total of the ensemble's performances is nothing less than earth-shattering. However, I must give credit where credit is due. Maybe no one else has wants to fess up to it at this point, but when I first heard they had cast Heath Ledger as the Joker, I was like, "What? What are they thinking?" I thought he was a good actor, sure, but it did not seem like the right role for him. And I know I was not alone in this sentiment. Well, truly the last laugh was his. What the late, great Mr. Ledger has created is one of the most frightening villains in film history (the magic trick scene has become somewhat iconic). When he's onscreen, the movie's his. And indeed, more than anything else, his work is the reason why this film will go down in the history books. Very few actors have the luck (if it can be called such) to bow out with their best performance; Ledger has done so, and with gusto. His Joker is one of the all-time great performances, and even though he has moved on, I fully expect him to win an Academy Award for it. Not that everyone else isn't great, too. And not that everything about this movie, right down to the minor details, doesn't just work. Really, there's very little I can say about this that hasn't been said already. The Dark Knight is a tremendous achievement in every way, an instant classic, and certainly the most fully-realized mainstream film in a very, very long time. You can never tell when the zeitgeist is going to hit, when a film is actually going to threaten to dethrone the highest-grossing movie of all-time (theatrical re-release in January; it could happen). Well, ladies and gentle-men, we have a winner. And, for once, I can't think of a better candidate. But of course, you knew all this already.

The 5 Worst Films of 2008:
As always, I continue my tradition of equal opportunity single-out-ment. If I'm going to highlight the best, damned if I'm not going to give the flipside the same treatment.

5. Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Look, I really liked White Castle. For what it was, it was great. What a buzzkill this was. In trying to do almost exactly the same thing as the first one, it becomes all the more noticeable that it misses each and every one of its targets. It's not funny, it's not entertaining, it's not redeeming in any appreciable way. It's just an embarrassment. Let's hope its creators, in all their infinite wisdom, have the good sense to let these characters go. I can't see a potential Harold and Kumar 3 as anything less than a travesty.

4. The Day the Earth Stood Still
Yeah, the earth and everything else. This is a stultifying bore of a movie. Recommended only for fans of badly-paced movies with terrible acting where nothing happens and there are no resolutions. Underwhelming special effects should also be included in there somewhere. Everyone else should probably stay away. Even you, John Cleese. Yes, you. What are you doing here? Get out.

3. The Happening
It's not a legitimate worst list without M. Night Shyamalan. No really, when he releases a film, I look forward to it because I know I no longer have to worry about filling a spot on this list. The good news? The Happening isn't as soul-suckingly atrocious as Lady in the Water. The bad news? It still fucking blows. Or, more to the point, Shyamalan does. I can't think of any other way the man still manages to get his projects financed.

2. Pineapple Express
How the hell did the Apatow powerhouse responsible for such hilarious comedies like Superbad and The 40-Year-Old Virgin fall this far so quickly? I thought their early-'08 offering Forgetting Sarah Marshall was merely okayish, but this was just plain terrible. And I know I'm in a minority. A lot of people I know really liked this, but honestly I cannot see why. It tries and fails at two different things: it wants to be a Harold and Kumar-esque stoner buddy movie, and it wants to be a Pulp Fiction-style gangster black comedy. Apparently these two are like oil and water. At least, the way this film handles them. Meanspiritedly violent in ways that'd make Quentin Tarantino blush, over-the-top for no apparent reason, completely lacking in anything that made me laugh or even chuckle, and completely devoid of any sort of purpose or entertainment value, I really despised this film. Maybe someone can offer me an explanation for why this works, 'cause I'm completely at a loss.

1. The X-Files: I Want to Believe
The question of "why?" was never better placed. And if I ever meet Chris Carter, that's what I'll ask him. I won't shake his hand. I won't commend him for creating the second-best TV show of the 90s (second only to Twin Peaks, naturally). I'll just ask him why. Why go through all the trouble of "resurrecting" such a fine show if you're not going to do anything with it? The worst thing about I Want to Believe is that it doesn't go anywhere. It's dull as dishwater. I never thought I could get so bored watching The X-Files, but here's proof it's entirely and utterly possible. It's not supernatural (which, gee, is kinda the point, wouldn't you say?), the central mystery isn't creative or captivating in the least, every aspect seems phoned-in or half-assed, and the entire production is just pointless. Maybe there were worse films this year. Maybe I even saw a few of them. But this is the one that offended me the most. Never invoke the name of one of the best TV series of all-time if you don't have something to prove. This has nothing to prove whatsoever, it takes its jolly time doing so, and it's a tedious chore to sit through. I want to believe Carter has enough sense to call it quits for good now. We'll see.

Last Year's List:
Again, this is very strong. While I still agree with pretty much all of the films present, I'd probably do some re-ordering. The top three are still secure, but Jesse James would get moved up to #4, The Lookout might get moved closer to the less-excellent end of the list, and so on. But these are still great, great films. I'd still heartily recommend checking all of them out.

10. Gone Baby Gone
9. Curse of the Golden Flower
8. Knocked Up and Superbad
7. The Lookout
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
5. Juno
4. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
3. The Lives of Others
2. No Country for Old Men
1. Pan's Labyrinth

And that's it! I'm done counting things down! Bring on 2009! I'm ready for it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Year in Review, Part 2: The Top 10 Albums of 2008

I know a few days ago I praised 2008 for its individual tracks. And, indeed, it was a fairly impressive year on the song level. Where 2008 did drop the ball was with individual albums. It also had the unenviable task of following 2007, which was a ridiculously strong year in all media. By comparison, I'm unsure of how many items on the '08 list would even merit inclusion alongside the '07 highlights (the top two for sure; after that, I'd have to break each album down a bit more). But that just goes to show how unpredictable both the music scene and my personal taste can be. Which isn't to say the ten albums I've chosen are bad by any means. It's more to say that 2007 was so damn good that, if you haven't heard them, you should go back and check those out too.

Best Pre-2008 Album Heard: The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me by Brand New. As it turns out, Jesse Lacey's pitch-black meditation on life, death, and everything in between resonates with me far more than I could have ever expected. The first six songs (half the album, for god's sake) are the closest thing to a perfect stretch I've encountered in a long, long time, and the album as a whole is probably one of the twenty or so best I've ever heard (which, given how many I've heard, is astounding).

10. The Dodos, Visiter
A best-of-year list is a festive occasion, so let's get the complaints over with first: this album is way too long. By a good quarter, actually. Length itself is never really an issue with me (there are other albums on this list that are just as long); it's the way an album chooses to carry that length that makes the difference. Nothing on Visiter qualifies as bad (or even not-good), but evidently this admittedly intriguing flavor of minimalist guitar-and-drums indie-rock starts to wear thin over the course of a solid hour. As cool as the music is, by the end I just don't feel much like listening to it anymore, and that is a bit of an issue. But this is the Top 10 list, right? I'm supposed to like this. So I'll start in with the good stuff.

In spite of these problems, Visiter is a very good album. If they had shaved about 15 minutes off the second half (take out a couple of the long 6-ish minute tracks like "God?" and "The Season" and save 'em for an EP or some such), it could very easily have been a great one. 'Cause when the album works, it really, really works. The first time I heard the opening four songs, I thought for sure I had stumbled onto some sort of modern masterpiece. The way "Walking" seamlessly transforms itself into "Red and Purple," comes down slightly for "Eyelids," then takes itself right back up again for "Fools" is nothing short of breathtaking. Likewise, at several points ("Joe's Waltz," "Jodi," and so forth), the rock-out factor becomes really impressive: soft, acoustic strumming systematically devolves into exhilarating, hypnotic noisemaking in the best possible way. And most importantly, it's really just an enjoyable album overall. The guys clearly have a good sense of humor, and the whole deal is a lot of fun. Length issues aside, I really have no qualms about it being here. It's kind of awesome.

9. Shearwater, Rook
I know I'm not alone when I ask, why the hell was Jonathan Meiburg not lead singer for Okkervil River? Seriously, the first time I listened to Rook, my thought was, "Oh hello, guy who can sing really goddamn well. Where the hell have you been?" Well, he's been singing backup for Will Sheff (see: Okkervil's "Lost Coastlines," one of the year's best tracks, actually), who's not a bad singer, but is certainly a different and noticeably inferior one. But now Meiburg's out on his own. He got out of the River, dried off, and is working full-time with his own outfit Shearwater. I think, at this point, that's definitely the best thing for him.

Rook was the band's breakthrough from total obscurity into only semi-obscurity (gotta love these escalating circles of indie hell; Dante would be proud), and its sweep is something to behold. So looming and grandiose is its presence (again, Meiburg's operatic, Scott Walker-ish croon does wonders), and so deeply affecting is its beauty (this is some pretty music, right here) that it's easy to forget it's actually a couple minutes shy of the 40-minute mark. It still has me scratching my head, even after 6+ months of listening to it. This thing just appeared one day without any buzz at all, got eaten up by the few who had the pleasure of being exposed to it, and then the band just disappeared off the face of the earth again. Oh well. Que sera, sera. Rook is an epic, but lovely sounding album, with an impressively confident atmosphere and a singer who, once again, I can't praise enough. Maybe more Okkervil and indie fans will discover this in hindsight. Until then, it remains a fine and highly valuable buried treasure.

8. The Gutter Twins, Saturnalia
Far and away the year's bleakest album. Of what I heard, anyway, and I heard a few. But for The Gutter Twins, that pervasive (and sometimes borderline oppressive) darkness is actually what makes the album instead of breaking it. Greg Dulli and Mark Lanegan are veterans. They're leftovers from the grunge era who realize grunge is long gone, but still hold fast to their roots (though, to clarify, it's certainly much more "alternative rock" than it is straight-up grunge). As a result, Saturnalia sounds more like a product of 1992 than of 2008, but with more than a fair share of through-a-glass-darkly nostalgia. And much like its post-Katrina album cover (my favorite art of the year) might suggest, it is a big, brooding bastard of an album. Lyrics peppered with references to God, the Rapture, and mass destruction weave in and out of walls of thick, dense, but undeniably alluring atmosphere while Dulli (the mellifluous one) and Lanegan (the drunk, Tom Waits-ish one) alternately flood the microphone with voices that, while unconventional, seem perfectly suited to this sort of music.

In the end, it's the sort of thing you're either going to commit yourself to immediately or not want any of. Whereas I have a proclivity to dark, melodic, forceful music ("God's Children" was narrowly left off my best-songs list), others may be left cold by what is otherwise a harsh and unforgiving album. I've seen it go either way. Me? I think this is some fierce, powerful stuff. While I can't be too sure if these two will ever team up as The Gutter Twins again, I certainly hope so. I'd like to see what they can do.

7. Bound Stems, The Family Afloat
How such a thing could've been completely ignored by the indieverse is beyond me. It's been said several times that no particular new trend emerged in 2008, that bands were left more or less to create variations on pre-existing styles. All the more reason, then, why Bound Stems and their excellent sophomore album should have gotten their due. Their sound hangs somewhere between Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire, two of the best and most respected bands in the biz (not to mention two of my personal favorites), but they never come across as a cheap imitation. They show an intimidating array of musical ideas on The Family Afloat, all of which they easily and assuredly make their own.

Three-part album highlight "Taking Tips from the Gallery Gang," one of the most impressive and attention-getting album openers in some time, is evidence enough. By the time four and a half minutes are over, the band has already taken its listener through more interesting ideas than many full albums contain. The rest of the disc more or less follows suit. But for every ambitious, potentially challenging track like "Palace Flophouse and Grill" or "Sugar City Magic," there's a lovely, straightforward pop song like "Happens to Us All Otherwise" or "Winston" to balance it out. Sure, maybe not everything works, but so many things do work (and so well) that it's hard not to call The Family Afloat a triumph. If this is the sound of a band getting their bearings and working up to a masterpiece (and it really sounds like it), I cannot wait for their third album. Maybe then they'll get some recognition, too.

6. Luomo, Convivial
Sorry to keep crashing the party with references to this website, but I love Pitchfork. I didn't even know Luomo had a new album coming out, but they did. They gave it one of their highest ratings of the year (which it deserved), then proceeded to snub it completely on their end-of-year lists (which it didn't deserve). Either way, this reassures me of two things: (1) Pitchfork are assholes; (2) they're great for directing me to music I wouldn't have even known about. For anyone who has heard Luomo's overwhelmingly unwieldy 2000 album Vocalcity, this may come as a bit of a surprise, but Convivial is a pop album. Straight-up, no holds barred. It's also the best thing he's ever done. True to its title, Luomo assembles a small army of guest vocalists and proceeds to lead his listeners through a festive 65-minute labyrinth of house-inspired dance ditties that, while consistently clocking in at around 7 minutes, never seem to outstay their welcome. Of course, the distinction must be made: when I call this a "pop album," I'm using the term in the broadest sense. Luomo is definitively a producer of electronica, so that's where the focus is. That these grooves are also insanely catchy and accessible is a fringe benefit. My personal favorite is the dark and new romantic-esque "Love You All," but I'm sure you'll find your own favorite. Because, truly, there's quite a bit here to love. If only more people knew about it. (Gee, does that sound familiar?)

5. Foals, Antidotes
Rumor has it that the original mix of Foals' debut album was completed by TV on the Radio producer Dave Sitek, but the band -- upon hearing it -- found it too "avant-garde" and murky and decided to scrap it. It makes me wonder what that might've sounded like, because it really feels like the boys are going for the exact opposite in the album's "true" version: this is crisp, clean, crunchy sounding stuff. And I know it hasn't gotten the best reception from the indie community at large, but I really love it. It's got that same hyperrhythmic quality that made the Battles album so fascinating, but with a very strong ear for approachability. Basically, it all comes down to whether or not you dig the style. If you do, you're set. Antidotes is awesome. If you don't, you're going to have nothing but variations on said style crammed down your throat for 50 minutes. I can see how that might easily qualify as "not fun." It's not an album that's ever likely to receive accolades for its diversity, but that's all right. It doesn't have to. If you manage to work up a good sound, you should stick with it. From beginning to end, Antidotes is a fun foray into toe-tappin' math-rock. That's pretty much all there is to it. Except for the cover, of course, which might merit inclusion in some kind of Worst Album Art Ever contest. But that's something else entirely.

4. TV on the Radio, Dear Science
It took Dear Science and a bunch of hindsight to show me what has more or less been apparent for some time now: TV on the Radio is simply one of the finest bands of any sort making music today. I don't know why I failed to grasp this. I mean, I've liked them for a good couple years now, but somehow the pieces never added up. Check this out: they made "Wolf Like Me" (the very best song of 2006, and one of the best singles ever, in my opinion), Return to Cookie Mountain still stands as one of the strongest and most unique releases in years, Young Liars is one of the greatest EPs of the decade, and Desperate Youth is a startlingly confident first album. They've been asserting their awesomess for some time now. But it was Dear Science that really hit this band home for me. I'm not sure exactly why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that this album catches them in the act of doing what they do best: just being TV on the Radio.

While all said and done I still prefer the atmosphere-soaked Cookie Mountain, it's impossible to argue that this isn't a much freer, more accessible release. Throwing caution to the wind, the boys tackle funk, soul, gospel, electronica, and straight-up rawk in equal measure. In theory, this should be a total trainwreck, but that's just a testament to how damn good the band is: all of it works absurdly well, and all of it -- despite being miles apart stylistically -- sounds inherently like TV on the Radio (again, it's the type of album so diverse that no consensus can ever be made for best track; "Family Tree" gets my vote, but that's just personal taste). Indeed, they have successfully reached that much-sought but sparsely populated plateau of not only sounding different, but having a sound that is distinct and entirely attributable to them. That takes skill. And if that isn't reason enough to seek out Dear Science, here's another: it's one hell of an entertaining album.

3. The Rosebuds, Life Like
Every time I hear the Rosebuds I think of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (my mind is an interesting place -- hear me out). Namely, the part where he's arguing with John Travolta and says, "What happened here was a miracle, and I want you to fucking acknowledge it!" Aside from the, like, three people I know who are into this band, I want the world to fucking acknowledge that The Rosebuds are one of the best damn indie pop bands on the planet and give them the dues they deserve. Last year's Night of the Furies was a masterpiece and a nearly impossible album to follow, but Life Like shows that husband-and-wife team Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp definitely have the chops to take on the challenge. It's not a better album, but it's certainly a different one.

In a strange sense, it feels almost like a step backwards: if 2005's Birds Make Good Neighbors was a traditional guitar-based album and Furies was all about dark, bubbly synth-pop, it stands to reason that Life Like -- with its combination of guitars and moody electronic elements -- should've been the bridge between those two albums rather than the follow-up. This is just an observation, mind you, and is not to the detriment of the music itself, which is -- for the most part -- excellent. Few bands out there have a better grasp on how to write dark, sumptuous pop songs, and Life Like is a veritable feast. "Bow to the Middle" is the obvious stand-out and a worthy successor to last year's equally poppy "Get Up Get Out," but most of the other tracks can certainly hold a candle to it as well. To The Rosebuds' credit, it's a very even album. It works well as a piece. And even if, as the liner notes explain, they never really meant to make the album (they had intended a hiatus, which -- sadly -- we'll probably get now), I'm so thankful that they did. I love these guys.

2. Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer
I know it's an overused expression, but it's well suited here: Wolf Parade's much-anticipated sophomore album is a grower. I'll be the first to admit that the first couple listens didn't do much for me. I was underwhelmed. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure what I was expecting. Apologies to the Queen Mary (which I put at #1 back in 2005, for what it's worth) singlehandedly established this group of ambitious Canucks as one of the most able-bodied new outfits on the scene. Since then, Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown have shown a darker, more progressive side to the band's two principal songwriters. So it's fitting that At Mount Zoomer would sound like a great amalgamation. By taking the experimental tendencies of those two side projects and filtering them through Queen Mary's pop song sensibility, the band has created one of the most enigmatic and challenging albums of the year. But I am full proof that, in addition to this, it also hugely rewards patience. If it leaves you cold, stick with it. Things will click little by little.

For instance, how could I not have heard how awesome the build-up is between the woozy first half and the piano-stompin' second half of "An Animal in Your Care"? Or how, in the midst of all this dense progressivism, Dan Boeckner actually manages to throw in an unpretentious pop song ("The Grey Estates") without making it seem like the odd man out? The more listens you devote to this, the more you start to realize that literally just about everything seems to be in the right place. Much like their debut, Boeckner continues to be the Straightforward Rock Guy and Krug continues to be the I Do What I Want But That's Okay Because I'm Fucking Brilliant guy. They've just taken matters in a much darker, more ambitious direction. And while none of it sounds much like "I'll Believe in Anything" (still, like, the best song ever, by the way), that's perfectly all right by me. You had me at "FIRE IN THE HOLE!!"

1. Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours
Certainties. There are some things you just know. I first heard In Ghost Colours in late March, a long time before I heard any other album on this list. Yet somehow, even after that first listen, I knew it was going to be Album of the Year. It wasn't that I was so pessimistic for the outcome of the last three quarters; on the contrary, I'm always eminently hopeful that something's going to come along and knock my socks off. It's just that Cut Copy's marvelous sophomore album takes a style I have an inflexible attachment to (80s synth-pop) and does it so much justice that I simply found it near-impossible to believe another album could come along and speak to me as profoundly. What this trio of Aussies has accomplished with In Ghost Colours is so admirable it actually becomes difficult to describe. Rare is the album where I like every song; even rarer is the album where, if I didn't check myself, every song could potentially be a year-best candidate. This is such an album. The growth in songwriting chops Dan Whitford has shown since the band's good-not-great debut Bright Like Neon Love is almost inhuman. Sure, "Lights and Music" was the lucky track that made my list, but I honestly love "Hearts on Fire," "Feel the Love," "So Haunted," and "Strangers in the Wind" almost as much.

And not only does it act as a tremendous collection of songs, but the band sequences in short ambient linking tracks that also boost its effectiveness as a cohesive piece (many have criticized these as filler, but I disagree: listen to the cool, restrained way "Voices in Quartz" builds into "Hearts on Fire" and tell me the overall effect of that track wouldn't suffer without it). But, when you get right down to it, there's nothing about this album that I don't find dumbfoundingly brilliant. The production takes a style firmly rooted in the New Order/Cure 80s, updates it to sound thoroughly modern, and consequently creates something appealingly timeless. I fully predict this is will sound just as fresh in 2028 as it does in 2008. At least, I certainly hope so. In Ghost Colours is an astonishing pop record. By never making a false move and thrilling constantly, it's both the best of 2008 and one of the best electronic albums of the decade. Hell, I'd even say "ever." To both.

Last Year's List:
At a glance, I'm not really sure I'd change much of anything here. Maybe some minor re-ordering, but for the most part my opinion now is pretty consistent with what it was a year ago. I can't think of anything I left off or would want to add. It was just a great, great year for music.

10. Blonde Redhead, 23
9. Panda Bear, Person Pitch
8. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away
7. Radiohead, In Rainbows
6. Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
5. Blaqk Audio, CexCells
4. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
3. Mew, Frengers
2. The Rosebuds, Night of the Furies
1. Sunset Rubdown, Random Spirit Lover

Looking Ahead: 2009 promises new albums from The Decemberists, Sunset Rubdown, Arcade Fire, Brand New, Silversun Pickups, Apoptygma Berzerk, Franz Ferdinand, and plenty of others. If any of these even approach their respective bands' best work, it's going to be a tremendous year indeed. I can't wait.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Year in Review, Part 1: The Top 13 Songs of 2008

Yeah, I know. I'm jumping the gun a bit this year (I usually only post my year-end lists in the days leading up to New Year's). But that's all right. My song-listening is pretty much at a stand-still and my list has definitely been given time to solidify. Besides, all the cool kids are doing it now. How can I resist?

I couldn't do a top 10 list this year. I played with the idea, did some creative re-ordering, but ultimately accepted defeat. I couldn't do it. Or rather, I couldn't just do 10. As it turns out, I had 13 favorite songs this year, and the extra three would've gotten pissed off if I hadn't included them. So I just extended the list into a baker's dozen. (I suppose if you're a true purist you can just truncate the list at 10 and pretend I didn't do all that extra work, but you'd be missing out on some great music, so I wouldn't recommend it.) Again, all the usual disclaimers apply: true ordering of favorites depends entirely on mood and yadda yadda, so this is a rough approximation of the order in which I prefer these. I am fairly confident in my top 5, though, so you can rest assured the pinnacle won't be contested too much in hindsight.

Overall, 2008 was another strong year for individual tracks. I'd say, by comparison, the 2007 list (provided at the bottom for nostalgia and cross-referencing) might be a little bit stronger, but 2007 was also a watershed year. In that regard, '08 definitely held its own. Lots of these songs have become huge personal favorites, and when you get right down to it, that's all I really care about. So, yeah, I'm pleased with the list. Definitely.

Best Pre-2008 Song Heard: "Future Foe Scenarios" by Silversun Pickups. Furious, intense, melodic, and just about everything I could want in a 5-minute song, this would've been right up there with the likes of "Wolf Like Me" on my Best of 2006 list, had I been fortunate enough to hear it upon its initial release.

And now, without further ago, my votes for The Cream of the Crop:

13. Earlimart, "Face Down in the Right Town"
All right, let's get the blatant indie sadsackery out of the way first. (Which isn't to say there won't be plenty of other golden opportunities for indie sadsacks as the list progresses, but this may be the most obvious inclusion.) To deconstruct: this is an indie-pop song. It's downbeat, melancholic, unhappy. It's not really a lot of fun to listen to. But man, it's pretty. But man, it has a nice melody. But man, if you yourself are feeling downbeat, melancholy, and/or unhappy, there are very few songs released this year that will better suit your mood (provided, of course, you like indie-pop; and if not, why not?). I'm especially fond of the crescendo it builds to: it starts off pretty soft-spoken, but slowly rises into a flurry of infectious prettiness: the piano/guitar/horn overdubs, the "doo-doo-doo" vocal melody, the steadfast rhythm. Trust me, it works. Really, really well. Earlimart is one of those bands that should've probably received more love than they got this year, so here's my small contribution. It's a great song.

12. Late of the Pier, "Broken"
If, in typical high school yearbook style, I were to hold Senior Superlatives for the songs on this list, Late of the Pier's "Broken" would almost undoubtedly be voted Most Unlikely to Be Here. It's the kid in your honors class you know really shouldn't be there, but is. You're always left to wonder how this came about, knowing cynically (but truthfully) that all it had to do was smile at the right times and get the people in high places over on its side, and the rest is history. That's really the story of "Broken" and its inclusion. Maybe it is the odd man out -- it has problems, to be sure -- but it works for me and I enjoy it. It's an upbeat, catchy piece of dance-punk with a great chorus and a lot of energy. And while it does sort of go off the deep end in its final thirty seconds with a glitchy, almost Burial/dubstep-ish outro, by that point it's too late for me to care. It might not be destined to become a classic, but I enjoy it a whole lot. Works for me.

11. Frightened Rabbit, "The Modern Leper"
Like Voxtrot's similarly self-deprecating "Kid Gloves" last year, Frightened Rabbit's explosive album opener is the sort of dour indie-rock song that I find myself relating to perhaps more than is healthy, but nonetheless love in spite of (or possibly because of) this fact. I've heard band referred to as "The Twilight Sad without all the noise" (whether affectionately or not for either band, I can't tell; I like 'em both), which I suppose is a workable description. They're both bunches of moody Scotsmen with very prominent accents, but they seem to derive their intensity from different places. Whereas Twilight's force comes from the sheer wall of sound they can emit from their guitars, Frightened Rabbit's anguish seems much more introspective. "The Modern Leper," while by definition a rocker, is clearly the product of some significant emotional turmoil, and I think it's this fact that lends it its uncanny force. There's more feeling bottled up in this one little song than there was on many full albums this year; as a result, "The Modern Leper" is both an exhausting experience and a very, very touching one.

10. British Sea Power, "Lights Out for Darker Skies"
Pitchfork's mocking rating of U.2 aside, there were very few bands in 2008 that did the whole "indie-mainstream crossover" thing better than British Sea Power. Sure, Do You Like Rock Music? (guilty as charged) was far from my favorite album of the year, and sure, the band isn't actually mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, but they sound like they could be. 2005's Open Season (which is a great album) was the sound of a tight band getting its bearings; Rock Music, then, finds them in full-blown arena-rock mode. The production is such that it's not difficult at all imagining the band playing these songs to entire stadiums filled with screaming fans. Its brightest moment is, curiously, "Lights Out for Darker Skies," an excellent two-part anthem that succeeds in both rocking (the first half) and wooing (the second). It maintains everything that was great about the band before while informing us that, yes, they really are ready to be propelled into the stratosphere.

9. Coldplay, "Viva la Vida"
Yup. You read that right. Coldplay. Uh-huh. You can laugh at me all you want, I really don't care. I'm not the biggest Coldplay fan in the world, but if there was ever a legitimate reason for the band's existence, this is it. Not only is it the best song they've written, it's the best song I can imagine them writing. Sometimes you can just never tell when something great will haphazardly slip into the mainstream. Not only is "Viva la Vida" a moving, tuneful exercise in heartstring-plucking, it's also one of the most popular songs of the year (but of course; it's Coldplay, after all). I can't even count how many times I heard this on the radio over the summer, but for once that doesn't bother me at all. It's slick, it's pretty, it's well written and well performed, it's memorable, and it's honestly quite excellent. At the end of the day, any of these things would likely place it head and shoulders above most other mainstream pop. By making "Viva la Vida" all of these things, they've also made it one of the year's very best four minutes. Bravo, guys. I honestly didn't know you had it in you.

8. dEUS, "The Architect"
"Ah, nevermind that space stuff; let's get down to earth!" intones the gruff vocal sample at the beginning of "The Architect," and nowhere on this list is that sentiment better applied. This song, one of 2008's greatest accidents (back in June, whilst downloading music just for the sake of finding something good, I stumbled across this track completely at random -- mission accomplished!), wastes absolutely no time proving that it is, in fact, more badass than you. But it's fun. Good god, it's fun. As you may have noticed or known from experience, most of my collection is comprised of what Jack Black in High Fidelity might call "old, sad bastard music." Songs like dEUS' charmingly uncharacteristic single provide a much-needed balancing-out. This four-minute shot of manic dance-punk energy is, from what I gather, their first foray into this kind of thing. They've already got it down: it's positively spilling over with hooks and genuine catchiness, and just begging you to get your ass out of that chair and dance it off a little bit. So, uh, what are you waiting for, exactly?

7. MGMT, "Time to Pretend"
I've said it on various occasions before and I'll say it again: the wait is over. About a year ago I was engaged in conversation with a co-worker and we were trying to figure out what song, if any, does for this generation what "Smells Like Teen Spirit" did for Gen X. The wait is over. The answer, I submit respectfully, is MGMT's wonderful "Time to Pretend." And much like "Teen Spirit," the song has almost singlehandedly propelled its respective band a hair's length away from the mainstream. A year ago: MGMT who? (Pronounced "the management," by the way. Don't make that mistake.) Today: oh yeah, I love those guys. It's hard not to. "Time to Pretend" encapsulates in four minutes all of today's helpless-romantic teen/twentysomething rock star dreams, but has the pensive insight to note that, in the end, "we're fated to pretend." It's one hell of a debut single, unexpectedly smart and perceptive in its subject matter, but also a bouncing good time musically (with more than a hint of melancholy, of course). Who cares if the rest of us are fated to pretend? These guys have already made it. For right now, that's definitely good enough.

6. Hercules and Love Affair, "Blind"
Imagine my surprise when Pitchfork, somewhat out of the blue, named this their #1 track of 2008. I can't say for certain because I don't remember past years too well, but I don't think their #1 song has ever even made my list, much less been a song I was absolutely positive would be included. "Blind" is, for lack of a better word, stunning. Yeah, sure, it's "gay disco," but so was "YMCA," and I don't hear you hatin' on that. The truth of the matter is, aside from just dismissing the song at face value, there aren't that many bad things that can be said about it. A couple years ago I got really turned off of Antony and the Johnsons because I couldn't stand the guy's voice; in one of the more unexpected 180-turns in my musical life, I'd be willing to say the reason why "Blind" is so excellent is because guest vocalist Antony Hegarty's singing is just so damn good. It's passionate, emotive, and tuneful. It's almost enough to make me wish The Johnsons had been a disco outfit to begin with. Either that, or Antony just teams up with H&LA producer Andy Butler and makes another two or three albums excactly like this. Because, man, it's good. You won't believe me until you hear it, of course, but it's something else.

5. Wolf Parade, "California Dreamer"
Spencer Krug can have my babies. I'm not ashamed to admit it at this point. This the fourth year in a row the man has gotten a song on this list. The fourth year in a row. Do you realize how crazy that is? No one out there is as restlessly productive, consistent, or flat-out amazing as this man. "California Dreamer," though inherently familar, doesn't feel like anything he's written before. While slyly namechecking The Mamas & the Papas' iconic 1965 hit, the song owes a much bigger debt both lyrically and musically to The Doors' "L.A. Woman": it's a dense, complex, but uncharacteristically accessible anthem that seamlessly blends Krug's effortless knack for amazing lyrical imagery ("I think I might have heard you on the radio, but the radio waves were like snow" may be the best single line from any song this year) with his keen ability to write affecting, haunted melodies. It was one of the few songs that grabbed me the first time I heard At Mount Zoomer; it still gets me every time.

4. Cut Copy, "Lights and Music"
Similar to the extremely even In Rainbows about 12-13 months ago, there never seemed to be any general consensus as to what the "best" track on Cut Copy's glorious In Ghost Colours is (and for the record, re Radiohead: "Reckoner"). Some prefer the straightforward dance of "Hearts on Fire," others the hard-edged but shimmering pop of "So Haunted." So it's not too hard for me to admit that, from the first time I listened to the album, I fell head-over-heels for "Lights and Music." It's an unconditional sort of thing. On an album where literally all of the other songs are objectively just as good, this is simply the one I liked the most. The song finds the band in the Depeche Mode phase of their album-long 80s pastiche, and it works so miraculously well that it's actually better than the majority of stuff the Mode recorded in their prime. It's also home to what may be the single most sublime sixty seconds in all of music this year: around 2:30, the first instance of the chorus dies out, the third verse comes in and slowly escalates (notice that added drumbeat around 2:47 -- great!) to an absolutely gorgeous Cure-esque guitar riff, before finally exploding into the chorus one more time. It's pure magic, the kind which I listen to so much other music just to get access to. The same, more or less, can be said both about the entire song and about the album as a whole.

3. Chris Walla, "St. Modesto"
2008 wasn't the best year for Ben Gibbard. Between the underwhelming Narrow Stairs and his recent proclamation that there will not, in fact, be another Postal Service album, things were already looking pretty grim musically. But to add insult to injury, Chris Walla -- indiedom's resident Boy Next Door -- had to go and release a solo album (Field Manual) that, frankly, is better than anything Gibbard has done in years. Not only that, but he had to stick "St. Modesto" on it, which -- yeah, I'll say it -- is actually better than anything that has ever appeared on a Death Cab album. No, really, I mean that. As much as I love some of the Cab's stuff, "St. Modesto" is one hell of a song. Walla's self-described tale of star-crossed meth addicts is really a very simple track: mid-tempo, moody, ethereal guitar-pop with some great, almost lullaby-ish vocals and evocative imagery (the San Francisco verse is incredible). It's not hard at all to be wooed by it, but it's also easy to expect more than the song is willing to give, and that's where many get lost. Walla isn't trying to change the world. He's not even trying to make a spark. He's just wants to make accessible, seemly pop music. That, my friends, is where "St. Modesto" truly excels.

2. Wolf Parade, "Kissing the Beehive"
Both Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner can write a damn good song. Between Sunset Rubdown, Handsome Furs, and Apologies to the Queen Mary, we knew this before 2008 even rolled around; it was apparent. What hadn't been tested was how well a Krug/Boeckner collaboration would work, and when it was announced that the last song on Wolf Parade's sophomore album was going to be co-written by the band's two frontmen, anticipation was naturally very high. Little did any of us realize that the result was going to be "Kissing the Beehive," a sprawling 11-minute epic that very easily ranks among the most impressive and intimidating achievements by a rock band this decade. Perhaps the most notable thing about it is just how well the two work together. Both come to the table with a wide variety of disparate ideas, but by either a miracle of co-operation or an instance of divine intervention, everything jells perfectly. The switching-off of vocal duties never gets distracting, the ever-changing melody always feels like it's moving in the right direction, and the combined wordplay of these two very literary dudes just works. It's also impeccably sequenced: starting off as a normal-sounding Wolf Parade track, it builds and builds and builds before exploding into an exhilarating instrumental coda that probably wouldn't have been out of place on an early-70s King Crimson album. And maybe I'm a man of simple pleasures, but I'm of the opinion that hearing Spencer Krug wail "FIRE IN THE HOLE!!" repeatedly is just about the best thing ever. So that, among other reasons, is why this is pretty much the most awesome song of all-time.

1. Electric President, "Ether"
This was never supposed to be my favorite song of the year. It wasn't. It was supposed to be just another decent song on just another okayish album that I downloaded illegally from some nameless torrent website. By all accounts, that Wolf Parade song should be in the top position where I am sure it was expected to be. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that you just can't argue with your gut, and my gut tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that "Ether" is my favorite song of 2008. And I'll tell you why. I'll be damned if this isn't the most pitch-perfect song about the inevitability of growing up I've ever heard. Perhaps it's a contexual thing. Maybe it has everything to do with the fact that I am at that critical point in my life where I'm finally forced to examine a future of adulthood and leave being a child -- the only thing I've ever known -- behind. Regardless of the reason, listening to this song has been a deeply moving experience for me.

Again, it condenses everything perfectly: there's a vague sense of mystery and excitement, but mostly it's wistful and unsure of itself. Its lyrics, when intelligible, faultlessly describe sensations I'm only too aware of feeling but can never find words for ("While we slept it off, all the money was lost / Now we can't stand up / Yeah, the blood in our guts just weighs us down. / We'll crawl along despite what goes wrong / 'Cause we're not that young / It takes more than your guns to scare us off now" -- it's impossible for me to say how goddamn perfect this is). And the music? Soft, dreamy, sad, relaxing, pretty, overcast, lovely. All of these words might be used to describe it, yet none of them seem to approach the final effect that listening to it has on me. It's a genuine dark horse: a song brilliant beyond words by an obscure band on an album that, frankly, doesn't come close to living up to the promise shown here. While I'm infinitely glad I found it, it also makes me wonder how many others I have missed. But that, I suppose, is a topic for another day. For the time being, I'll just switch this one on again.

Last Year's List:
Taken straight from the post I made last December. Twelve months on, I see some changes that'd have to be made (Stars' "The Night Starts Here," !!!'s "Myth Takes," and Streetlight Manifesto's "The Receiving End of It All" are all conspicuously absent, and I couldn't handle that were I making the list today), but overall this still hangs together very well. And that #1 song ... I'll be surprised if it doesn't make it into the Decade Top 10 a year from now. We'll see. It's a shoe-in for the Top 25, anyway. Seeing it performed in concert may well have been the best five minutes of my entire year.

10. Bloc Party, "Song for Clay (Disappear Here)"
9. Porcupine Tree, "Fear of a Blank Planet"
8. The Rosebuds, "Get Up Get Out"
7. Voxtrot, "Kid Gloves"
6. Arcade Fire, "Intervention"
5. Fujiya & Miyagi, "Ankle Injuries"
4. Of Montreal, "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal"
3. Mew, "Am I Wry? No"
2. Blaqk Audio, "Snuff on Digital"
1. Sunset Rubdown, "The Mending of the Gown"

Whew! See you folks next time!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Movie Roundup: 12/12/08

I am horrible. I realize this. I said I was going to start writing in this blog again, and then just ... didn't. And I had no excuse, either, because when I said this, I was still on summer break. I had time. I couldn't play the "oh well school has made me so busy" card.

So here I am. It's mid-December already (holy shit, what?). I'm making an early New Year's resolution to actually maintain this thing. To actually post in it. We'll see if the third time's the charm, or I'm still just a horrible liar.

Instead of making up for lost time, I just decided to start from where I am now and go from there. I call this little module Movie Roundup, and -- especially over winter break, when I'll likely be doing quite a bit of viewing -- it's something I want to post every week or two. It's nothing special. Just little capsules of comments, observations, and so forth on the films I have watched in the duration. It's entirely self-explanatory.

So let's do it. These are all the films I've watched over the last week and a half or so. And now it's apparent to me why none of my homework ever gets done.

Also: if a title is in orange, it simply means I have seen the film before. No biggie.

A brief overview of ratings:
My numerical scores here are roughly equivalent to my star ratings on the Flixster Facebook thing. For instance, a five-star review on Flixster will not always (or often) equate to a 100 rating. In fact, only four or five films I've ever seen are likely to get a 100. With that in mind:
90-100: Blissful, orgasmic cinema. This is something extremely special.
80-89: An excellent, unmissable film. I probably own this (or will) and you should, too.
70-79: A very strong film well worth seeing.
60-69: This is good. It has some problems, but it's still an enjoyable piece of work.
50-59: The gray area. Certain things work about this, other things don't. It depends on mood and taste.
40-49: A mediocre or lackluster film. There's nothing offensive about this, but it's just very uninspiring.
30-39: Plain bad. Don't go near this, please.
20-29: Incredibly terrible. Only worth a viewing if self-torture is desired.
0-19: Hooooo mama.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) 82
I don't get it. I don't understand the already-huge backlash against this. This is a wonderful film, one that affected me profoundly on an emotional level that very few movies even get close to. For a long time, David Fincher has been one of the best directors out there; whether his films are good (Se7en, The Game) or not (Fight Club, Panic Room), they're always directed with a dizzying proficiency that puts most others to shame. Benjamin Button is no different -- from its first frame to its last, it's visually stunning in ways few other films this year have been. And the story itself is wonderful: it's NOT your run-of-the-mill Hollywood romance, and it's the implications of this unusualness that give it such an emotional potency. The acting, likewise, is stellar: Brad Pitt once again proves that he's one of the most underrated actors out there (the man can ACT, dammit!), while Cate Blanchett -- as is her custom -- is a superb counterpart. The majority of the film's heartstring-tugging rests on her shoulders, and in the film's final act, she's really something to behold. So all in all, I don't buy any of the complaints I've been hearing. It's not too long (it's 167 minutes; lengthy, sure, but I think it requires that length), the pacing isn't flawed (does it not match the goals of the story very well?), it doesn't have "too many morals" (wait, this is a complaint?). It's just a fine, fine piece of cinema. It's different, it's striking, it's entertaining, and it's moving. The amount of people who don't seem to see it this way is, to my way of thinking, the most "curious" thing about it.

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) 94
I just saw this for the third time and, once again, I can't pick any faults with it whatsoever. Christopher Nolan has given the world the most intelligent, fully realized blockbuster in more time than I care to think about. The story, far more complex and nuanced than the vast majority of mainstream films (and massive kudos for that), is excellent, and the sum total of the performances is greater than any other film of 2008. At this point, there's very little doubt in my mind that Heath Ledger will win a posthumous Academy Award. He gives one of the best screen performances of all-time and, dead or alive, I think the world sees that he needs to be recognized for it. I also see potential nominations (but not wins) for the film itself and for Nolan as director/screenwriter. We shall see. And I shall see it again (and again and again), especially upon its theatrical re-release in late January.

Lady Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2006) 56
And so it ends, not with a bang but a whimper. My friend Alex said it best: "It seems like they made this as an excuse to be pretty." While this in itself is not a bad reason to make a film, and it certainly is good-looking, that pesky "story" thing should also be given some thought. Oldboy combined gorgeous visuals with a existence-shakingly powerful narrative; Mr. Vengeance, though lesser, also managed to be successful on both fronts. This one, even taken on its own merits, is not as satisfying. Its fragmented structure is interesting, but it gets too tangled up in itself. I'm not an imperceptive guy, and there were places here where I felt like Park was specifically trying to beat around the bush instead of just TELLING me what happened. Also, I can't quite put my finger on it, but the group vengeance scene, in addition to being far too long and drawn-out and inappropriately played for comic effect, has something very off-putting about it. Sure, the whole trilogy is dark and mean-spirited and violent, but there was something about this that just did NOT feel right, and that certainly taints the film. So, yeah. It's flawed. Like crazy. Nonetheless, it IS entertaining and it IS pretty. I'd never go so far as to call it a bad film, but it just can't hold a candle to what came before.

Oldboy (Chan-Wook Park, 2005) 92
I was wondering what my next five-star rating would be. According to Flixster, the last time I bestowed that rating upon a film was in my review of The Dark Knight back in July. As I see more and more films, the truly exceptional ones seem fewer and farther between. Here's the good news: the spell is over. Holy shit, is this a great movie. I can't even begin to say. Not only is the cinematography absolutely gorgeous, but the story itself is harrowing in a way that left me speechless. There's one moment in particular near the end where it all finally clicks together and you say to yourself, "Oh, fuck no." The ensuing gut-punch is unreal. Yes, it's a relentlessly bleak film (no wonder it hasn't really caught on stateside), but it's the kind I can wholeheartedly get behind. Haunting, unique, and overflowing with pathos, this may be the finest Asian film of the 00's.

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1999) 75
I massively underrated this the first time I saw it (my 2.5 star rating in Flixster probably would've equated to a 53 or some such). While I still can't quite see this as the modern classic it's touted as, it's certainly one of the most stylish and well-directed movies I have seen. Tykwer seems adamant about throwing in every cinematic technique known to man somewhere. Consequently, it's a veritable kaleidoscope of color, editing, and music; while it's frequently exhilarating, it's also exhausting. By the end, you're impressed, but you're also glad it's over. 80 minutes might seem excessively brief until you actually sit through this thing. Head still reeling, it's hard not to be impressed, but I still sort of wish Tykwer had done something else with it. What, I'm not sure, because it certainly feels as if he's done everything with it, but clearly there's still something missing. Ah well. At least I liked it a lot more this time, right?

SLC Punk (James Merendino, 1998) 66
For its appealingly brief 96 minutes, SLC Punk walks a dangerous two-edged sword. It comes equipped with a well thought-out message, but lacks an effective means by which to deliver it. As a result, it opts for the bludgeoning technique, which -- needless to say -- can get a bit tiresome. After a while, you get it and wish the film would move on. It doesn't. Which isn't to say this is bad. On the contrary, it's actually quite entertaining. First of all, it has something to say, which puts it ahead of a good many films already, but it's also much funnier than I expected it to be. Which is to say, I wasn't expecting it to be played for laughs at all, but it is, and those laughs are genuine. For some reason, the scene of Steve-O's old friend attempting to apply for a job in a chothing store stands out. Who knows why? But, yeah, it's a good film. It's youthful, energetic, somewhat anarchic, and -- with these in mind -- fun. I just wish I could add "subtle" to that list of adjectives, but you can't have everything.

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) 90
Damn, this was good. I mean, no, really: damn, this was good. It's such a rare experience to walk out of a so-called "feel-good movie" feeling good not only because the story itself was legitimately uplifting, but also because everything just WORKED. Calling this a game-show version of City of God may sound inadvertently deprecatory, it's actually a very apt comparison; the good news is, while not nearly as dark or violent, Slumdog Millionaire is very nearly as good as Meirelles' 2002 masterpiece. Stylishly directed by Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later fame) in a way that's flashy but adds to the goings-on, this is a simple story amazingly well-told with great performances and visuals to accompany it. The main character is so damn likable that you're really on the edge of your seat the whole time just hoping he'll pull through. In a year distressingly absent of great movies, here's one that's crept in just under the finish line. I can't even begin to tell you how welcome it is.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2003) 64
Let's put it this way: I am so, so, so glad I saw this before Oldboy. If I'd seen it after, it -- as good as it is -- would've been a disappointment. And it's a very good revenge film. It's stylish and entertaining and held my interest throughout (though I do agree, Adam, that the "let's spell it out for you!" ending can be done without; I got it well before the voiceover came on), but it's also the sort of film one leaves expecting a bit more from. Luckily for us, more is coming. In my case, I only had to wait 30 minutes for it.

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008) 71
Charlie Kaufman is no lightweight. He's written no less than three of our finest contemporary movies (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine, for those keeping score). This film, his directorial debut, is the result of all that success. As such, it's very much what you might expect. Being torn between deciding whether something is brilliant or utter pretentious wankery is not a common condition in film today, but Synecdoche, New York delivers on that promise. It's two hours of a maverick screenwriter trying, much like his main character, to create the ultimate "deep, meaningful story about life." Does Kaufman succeed? No, but neither does his character. That's the point. The movie is highly imperfect, but in that respect it's totally perfect, because life itself is similarly flawed. So do you see the issues I'm having trying to review this stupid thing? Every potential mistake it makes can be totally rectified by playing the "oh but it's life" card. So that just leaves me with my opinion. What did I think of it? Well, I think Roger Ebert is right: it's the sort of film you should never see unless you've seen it already. It's difficult, complex, unwieldy, bizarre, highly surreal, multi-layered, and -- I suspect -- quite meaningful. Hell, it's a Kaufman film. It hit me on an intriguing emotional level the first time; who's to say how it'd affect me a second? That is to say, I liked it. About as much, perhaps, as I like life itself. On some days, it's great. On other days, it sucks. On most days, it's simply a very curious thing.

Wow. I've been watching some surprisingly good stuff over the last week and a half. I'm impressed. It's hardly ever this good. Damn.