Friday, December 30, 2016
All that's to say, I'm still making these for myself, but I hope that the readers who browse through them enjoy doing so and that you find a song or two that you might not have heard but wind up liking. The playlist itself is still to come, but here's the final section of this bloated list...
Thursday, December 29, 2016
Let's try getting one of these out during daylight hours, shall we? This is the penultimate chapter of the annual year-end list, and I'm hoping not to have anymore moments of sudden correction between today and tomorrow. In the meantime, I continue to seat the newcomers next to the veterans, the bubblegum next to electronic discord and distorted guitars, the questionable next to the obvious.
Here we go. Part III. Late additions first.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
As noted, a complete playlist will be made available at the conclusion of the list. We're pushing through this before we figure out how best to assemble music scattered across a dozen platforms, basically.
In a moment where everyone I know is struggling with anxieties and shaking themselves out of a constant cycle of existential crises, I have decided - selfishly, maybe, though it's almost more work for me - to extend the year-end music round up in an unconventional way. As someone who uses music in part as a means of regulating their brain chemicals, I'm of the opinion that we just need more songs this year, so, why not expand?
So it is that this will be a song list, but not the usual collection of 100, and not always as concretely oriented as in past years. There are a couple major changes here.
First: there will be points that feel like "cheating" or inflation because multiple songs by an artist will be listed under a single number. You can hate on this if you want, but in a year marked by so many major artists releasing album or concept-centric works, the fluidity of these individual songs is sometimes bettered via a pairing or clustering of their kin. Deal with it.
Second: In past years I had made a separate "Pop Capsule" for the pure pop songs that I loved - at times guiltily - but didn't feel warranted a place on the official chart. We're done with that. The purest pop has been integrated in here, and while there are certainly tons of honorable mentions in all categories, I stand by its value. Pop music is healthy for you, people. Get over your weird pretensions and embrace the power of the earworms.
Without further ado, let us begin with getting the heavy-hitters out of the way. This part may seem a little homogeneous and boring at first, but so it is, presented in no particular order and with minimal commentary, Part I of the 125 tracks of 2016.
At the list's conclusion I will include a playlist with as many of these songs as possible.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
In the Coen Brothers' filmography, Hail, Caesar! is a relatively minor work, but one custom made for cinephiles harboring a deep love of Golden Age Hollywood history. We follow studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) through studio backlots, shady deals, and houses in the Hollywood Hills as he works to cover up an ever-mounting pile of would-be scandals and fiscal blows. Eddie's biggest problem is that the studio's biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gone missing - kidnapped? Drunk? - from the set of an over-financed epic. Along the way, though, we're shown a world of communists, tainted starlets, hired beards, arranged couples, and misplaced actors. Everyone is in their own little closet, everyone has something they're struggling to hide from the gossip columnists pounding at their doors. The Coens have the skill to compress a decade of Blacklist tensions into one neat little dark comedy, and Hail, Caesar! sparkles with lovingly crafted send-ups of dead American genres and old school superstars. Channing Tatum's Gene Kelly-esque dance number is a highlight, as is an appropriately star making performance from (soon to be young Han Solo) Alden Ehrenreich.
We shouldn't have been surprised when Zootopia turned out to be one of the rare talking-animals-wearing-clothes-and-cracking-wise movies to actually be good. After all, Disney's animation studio have been in close quarters with Pixar for years now, and have slowly been working towards beating their sister-studio at its own game. Still, it's surprising just how good this film is. There's something effortless about the visual inventiveness of the all-animal dystopia crafted here, and the film guides us through a world where we learn just enough to believe the system and never think to question the underlying logic of the social hierarchy established. We follow a lovable, tiny rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) on her quest to become the first-ever bunny cop. Though it sounds silly on paper, Judy's struggle to establish herself in a field traditionally unfriendly to her kind winds up being the perfect vehicle for a film to tackle - deftly, cleverly, and hilariously - real world issues of race and gender inequality. Zootopia is brilliant in every sense of the word: it's inventive, playful, and - don't misjudge it - bound to be one of the smartest films this year in any genre, for any age group.
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Maybe it's because my expectations were toilet bowl low on this one, but I can't claim to hate Batman vs. Superman as so many seem to. After the total exhaustion that was Man of Steel's near endless second half, Zack Snyder's return to Metropolis (and arrival in Gotham) felt significantly more balanced and clear-eyed in its vision of how best to put a modernized Superman on the screen. The overwrought world-saving is noticeably less, and there are gestures towards making the DC Universe both a little more open to the absurdity of its characters and just a little more fun (see: dumb monster, attempts at jokes, Wonder Woman's theme music). Unfortunately, many of these gestures fall flat in this run and the film feels bloated, unnecessarily grim, and poorly -- particularly in an era dominated by Disney/Marvel's friendly, human heroes. Too much of the effort here has gone into set pieces and heavy handed world building, not enough attention has gone to making us care about the characters. Snyder and DC are doubling down on weaving origin stories we already know by heart and forcing conflict where we know better. It's a lot of set-up without much to make us care about the next act, and it's time for Warner Brothers to rethink their approach to this material.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
In some ways, The Witch suffers from problems similar to those that crippled the box office on Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak last year. Though touted as the scariest thing to come out of Sundance and hyped – steadily – in cinema circles for the better part of a year, Robert Eggers’ debut feature is less horror film than academic exploration of the formal devices surrounding the idea of what horror is. I wrote previously about Crimson Peak as a fever dream for anyone with a cultivated interest in the literary gothic. While not pedantic in its approach, that film buried itself into set of tropes and conceits that ran the risk of boring a contemporary audience. It was almost too specific. Glossy and visually appealing, yes, but in a way that seemed to almost demand its viewer follow-up with some extra credit reading.
The Witch offers a similar kind of specificity, but shirks the Romantic trappings of the Gothic for the plain-clothed Puritans. It has roots both in dark American literary traditions as well as in historical reenactment. It’s telling that some of the buzz around Eggers’ film centers not on the horrors of its story, but on the time and energy spent constructing accurate representations of the time period. Eggers had a real working farm built for his characters to reside on, for example, and part of the budget went to hiring a roof thatcher specializing in a specific New England of tradition. Trivial facts like these point to a commitment to something beyond simple visual storytelling. The Witch is deeper than that, possessed of a real desire to try to make sense of the cultural illogic and fear that gripped the people of that mid-seventeenth century historical moment. Eggers wants to try to understand, to get to the root of how something could seem plausible or scary instead of simply presenting us with the object itself. In telling the story of a family slowly torn apart, The Witch tries to recreate the conditions that would allow for irrational fear to trump all else. In doing so, the film becomes a very smart study of a past moment that allows us to see the way obvious built-in problems, prejudices, and religious restrictions fostered the most hostile of environments.
Sunday, February 28, 2016
45 Years is the story of a marriage in crisis, a film that burns to a final moment of quiet devastation. It is a a domestic drama about secrets and realizations in which revelations arrive as subtly as they tend to in real life, and a creeping dread sets in that never quite comes to a Hollywood fever pitch. Director Andrew Haigh understands that what is happening in this relationship is not something that can be satisfied by an event or by true confrontation. There are no moments of histrionic overacting, only a kind of stillness that pushes us just to the brink of narrative climax before breaking away, pausing, and leaving the audience haunted by the very ghosts inserting themselves into every scene.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
While watching Deadpool I was reminded of the scathing one-star review Roger Ebert wrote on Kick-Ass. In it, he decided to shirk "being cool" to call the film "morally reprehensible" -- for him, Kick-Ass was not successful satire. Instead, it was an uncomfortable nightmare in which a bunch of cursing, psychopathic kids engaged in brutal violence played for laughs. I didn't really agree with Ebert's view on that film, but I kinda felt something similar during Deadpool and have to wonder what Ebert would've made of this "other" costumed mercenary's brand of snark and gore.
As comments on the superhero genre repetitions, both Kick-Ass and Deadpool function in relatively similar ways: they up the ante on familiar plots, go for the hard-R, and get shamelessly brutal. They are positioned differently: these "heroes" don't save the world, they just battle other, possibly bigger assholes. Sure, Deadpool stars adults, but it's hard to watch it without knowing it's paying special fan service to loudmouthed teenage boys. This is an aggressive comedy made up of all spattered brains, dick jokes, shit jokes, and a collage of metafictional, pop culture-driven one-liners designed to make semi-aware dude-bros feel smart when they "get" the reference (see also: Family Guy).
Deadpool is clever about what it does, and in certain ways it might even be brilliant. Yet, I have to admit that when it comes to crass, violent comic books, I think I found the game more interesting when the point was to see what would happen if real world fan-kids tried to fill the roles of masked vigilantes, disturbing results and all.
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
The original Zoolander was a cult success largely because those who bothered to watch it wound up finding themselves pleasantly surprised. It was spirited and quotable, absurd in a way that worked both as clever satire and dumb, belly-laugh comedy. Sequels rarely replicate the experience of watching that film for the first time for a couple reasons: the audience now has real expectations and well, the people involved are self-aware enough to try and make good on those. This is a problem with this type of comedy film, and one we've seen happen time and again in lackluster sequels like Anchorman 2 and The Hangover 2. More often than not, you can see the talent involved confuse what made the first outing work. Instead of an attitude or a spirit, we find a doubling down on repeated events, celebrity cameos, or supporting characters and the jokes come off as a desperate attempt to cash in. Zoolander 2 is guilty of a great many of these sins. It repeats and extends jokes, it becomes unclear about what makes its stupid characters funny and often makes them a little mean-spirited, it clunkily tries to adapt an idea for a different cultural moment, it has been embraced by exactly the thing the original criticized.
I have not wanted to write about The Hateful Eight. Like, really, I'm pulling myself through this in a kicking and screaming way. Like, it feels as though actually drafting something about the film feels like a homework assignment that will ultimately fail because what needs to be said is a project involving multiple viewings, careful dissection, and a traced politics of the Tarantino filmography. The Hateful Eight isn't a film that should be reviewed so much as analyzed. It's both a kind of cinematic triumph and a total disappointment; immaculately made, but nihilistic and pointed in a way most Tarantino films are not.
Nihilism is not a stand-in term for violence, here. Tarantino's films are always violent, and often gleefully so. This is part of what so many of us love about what he does: he's a director who knows how to transform gore into a kind of pure pop art, a master of the glib death and the artful blood spurt. He's a playful cinephile, an archivist who actively uses the histories he collects in a way that shows us the value of so-called lesser genres. Tarantino slices up old films and makes brand new ones, and it's clear -- in the editing, in the writing -- that he loves doing so. The joy of a Quentin Tarantino movie is that even when the narrative itself is the most harrowing, there's a kind of smile behind it. You know it was crafted with something like love or excitement, and that translates to the audience.
Friday, February 12, 2016
Remember when people - especially critics - seemed to look at Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's body of work and sort of assume a predilection for pretension? In the wake of Amores Perros, he seemed to enter a spiral of stuffiness. The projects he took on were beautiful in some ways, deeply flawed and try-hard in others. He wasn't some kind of new century Kubrick or an experimental visionary, he was dude bro in a writing workshop who declares his intention to write a philosophical novel as everyone else struggles to smother a grimace. For me, Birdman wasn't a significant departure from his earlier films. It was a more entertaining, slightly lighter version on the same force feeding of heavy ideas, and one that only really worked when fully embracing the theatrical artifice of its setting. I said it then and I'll say it now: Birdman is an entertaining film and an oddity, but suffers from an undergrad-thesis logic that suffocates it by the final act. Damn near everyone seemed to disagree last awards season, and in the courses I teach I've sat back and listened as kids who can't figure out how to analyze The Graduate (let alone Godard) have declared Birdman a work of genius.
So, it's been interesting to see how The Revenant has been received in the wake of so many accolades and heated discussions, and to watch the cross section of what people now want and expect from Inarritu and Leonardo DiCaprio blend with what we want and expect from a movie about dudes surviving in the wilderness. Since seeing the film, I've been trying to conduct a running tally of conversational reviews. In first place? The almighty: "Well, I wouldn't say it's not worth seeing, but you should definitely lower your expectations." In second place? "Oh, it's a piece of shit. Everything that happens in it is totally impossible and it's just another unenlightened action movie." These are paraphrased, of course, but both sentiments are a bit surprising. While I certainly have reservations about Inarritu's work and probably wouldn't upvote The Revenant as an honest to god contender for Best Picture, I can say this: it's perhaps Inarritu's most solidly constructed film. The Revenant is a good movie in the way many a revisionist epic or western tends to be. It is beautifully crafted, visually striking, and knows precisely when to exchange real world logic for fictional impossibility.
Saturday, January 23, 2016
There's a heady dose of politics around The Danish Girl that I can't claim to be an expert on. I've heard and read folks who claim it's pandering, that it relies too heavily on a kind of old school visual language of understanding the trans body that may now be outdated, that it's problematic for the trans woman at the film's center to be played by the cisgendered Eddie Redmayne. I've heard, too, that some feel the narrative's dramatic center is refigured and displaced so that it belongs less to Lili Elbe (Redmayne) and more to Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander); the woman who was her wife. While I try to keep on top of the constantly evolving discussion of gender politics, I'm not sure I can address any of these arguments in a way that would make for a satisfying analysis. I can only discuss it as a work of cinema.
Of course, this is what I do with most films on this site, so why the disclaimer? Well, perhaps because The Danish Girl has been positioned less as a work of narrative cinema and much more as a sort of political object. Part of this has to do with its timed release as a piece of awards bait at a time when the Oscars have become - increasingly - a microcosm of our national issues, especially around questions of gender, identity, and race. The Danish Girl is uniquely positioned as a work designed both to continue a very significant cultural discussion and also, via marketing, tone, etc, to make that conversation melodramatically digestible for those with delicate sensibilities. It asks you to feel, it uses every formal method in its arsenal to draw you into the world of its characters, it's impossibly pleasant even when it delivers its harsh sentences. Its biggest problem, simply put, is that it believes it is brave and revolutionary when, in reality, it's little more than a very pretty work of portraiture.
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
The Big Short is tragedy disguised as comedy, a podcast of dramatizations built into a movie, a collage of scattered characters and sequences glued together with flourishes of narrative happenstance. It's a true crime film, a whistle-blowing indictment, and a fourth-wall breaking metafiction designed to explain the mechanics of 2008's financial crisis while keeping you entertained. The editing is zippy, laying down a hodgepodge of celebrity noise, pop songs, and narration that strings together the cartoonish eccentrics who bet against the housing market and won. It's smart, it's timely, and the work it does to demystify financial abstractions is impressive. You will leave - almost undoubtedly - feeling as though you have learned something, that you have unlocked a new section of a very large and complicated puzzle. This is no small feat. Writer/director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) and Charles Randolph have adapted Michael Lewis's nonfiction book of the same name with a keen sense of how best to cut through the bullshit.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
A note on some noteworthy omissions: you won't find Adele's "Hello" on here. Perhaps it's because I have no soul, but really I'd prefer to side with those who believe it's time for Adele - an otherwise very talented artist - to move on to new material. It feels like a retread, nothing new, and no different than reaching back and grabbing one of Celine Dion's biggest ballads. It's my fault I just can't deal, but, really, I don't get it.
Closer to the edit: Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" almost made it, but was cut in the final moments if only because the visuals seemed to do more than the track itself. Consider it #101, if you must.
Thursday, January 7, 2016
The third section of our end of the year music wrap up is a little bit like two mixtapes smashed together. The front end has a certain progression of more internet friendly artists (often with electronic edges and riffs on the PC pop move) and the back half is a strange blend of folks who could be described as hippies by comparison. Basically, if you're one of those people lamenting an audible "lack of instruments" (as much as that's probably an illusion) in part one, it will all change midway through. Funny how these things work out, isn't it?
Read on. Play on. Find the 8Tracks playlist at the bottom of the entry, click through to collect them all.
Monday, January 4, 2016
I don't know why I decided to break this list into uneven chunks, but I did. So it is that after the part one, we round out the first half of the list with 30 tracks that run through genres and moods like there's no tomorrow. The 8tracks playlists for these can be found at the bottom of the entry, or you can click through and collect them all here.
Shall we move on?
Sunday, January 3, 2016
Another year, another moment where I take a break from writing about movies to chronicle the past twelve months in music. It's a season where I shift between pure frustration and getting really excited about pop culture again and again as I browse the lists of others and work obsessively at adding and subtracting from my own accumulated playlist of songs I'm ready to pack into an electronic time capsule. 2015's collection is the 7th annual edition of this nonsense, and I've gotta say: I love looking back at past years even if I do go a little crazy organizing these things.
As per usual, the caveat: this is not a music site. It's a film site, and also a one-person operation. I like making playlists, I like sharing sounds I've enjoyed, and I'm very into archiving my own tastes. That said, this is a list far more about compiling a very subjective set of artifacts and not really about placing labels on the "best" possible songs of the year. They're the best to me, certainly, even if they're not always the most musically ambitious.
Let us begin. Presented with minimal commentary and in no real order, Part 1 of the 100 tracks of 2015: