Fluxing miscellany. If you're looking for top 10 film lists, click here.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Halftime lists

Here's some cursory halftime top 10s for music and film, with brief notes:

Film
(still have yet to catch a bunch of stuff: Winter's Bone and Dogtooth are the most egregious omissions)

From previous years, released this one (minimum standard: one week run in NYC)
The Father of My Children
The only title on here that isn't a straggler from last year's NYFF, which is kind of sad. It's pretty clear to me that Mia Hansen-Løve is soon going to be capable of pulling off just about anything she wants to; All Is Forgiven is slightly preferable (it's more tough-minded in ways that resonate with me), but certainly didn't prepare me for the first half of this, which performs the far-from-negligible feat of rewriting Irma Vep as a slowly unraveling and increasingly dysphoric downward spiral — and let's not even talk about the back half, which (among other things) features one of the more remarkable teen-post-morning-after scenes in recent memory. As in All Is Forgiven, this is a film of two opposed halves, but that film elided the central event (rehab); this places it dead center but renders it completely elusive.

That said, Olivier Assayas' jukebox is more fun than his fiance's.

Sweetgrass and Ghost Town I wrote about here

Wild Grass I'm just gonna copy and past my capsules from last year's viewings to save time. I need to take a break from this movie and come back to it eventually:

1st viewing an exuberant, disorienting experience, as odd as Punch-Drunk Love (odder, really, since it's not psychologically coherent, but the colors have the same pop) and, at heart, as morbidly playful as Synecdoche, New York without the overwhelming despair. It's manic-depressive even as it's energetic, making it clear very early on how truly deranged these characters are and hinting at far worse; is Andre Dussolier a rapist? What's his dark past? (As in Private Fears in Public Places, whether Dussolier lives with his wife or daughter is left alarmingly unclear for a while.) Resnais seems to have been watching Gondry as well — there's one virtuoso, impossible trick-shot collapsing time with the help of hand-held shakiness — and impossibly inventive. Exhilarating, and seemingly infinitely self-referential: one of the final tracking shots past rows of gardens seems to invoke Night And Fog, while three smoking/no smoking posters behind Mathieu Amalric's head at the police station summon up, well, Smoking/No Smoking. (Surely there's more I'm missing.) Pretty much inarguably a major film, far from a minor final dispatch. This is not a late auteur work that needs apologies made for it.

2nd viewing, basically I realized the whole thing's suffused in death and morbidity. I'll return to this.

Everyone Else: another NYFF capsule, as follows:

My one serious objection to this movie is that it's a bit Mars/Venus-y: guys want to go hiking, girls want to go on picnics; guys want to stay home and drink in the privacy of the living room, girls want to go to the club and dance dance dance. Those are legitimate bones to pick, but this film is both general and specific, while also maintaining depicting intensely awkward and miserable circumstances in a way that's just barely on the right side of dark comedy, a serious achievement. The film's main limitation is self-imposed — like mumblecore, it's fiercely introverted, shutting out the outside world, but that speaks to the intensity of the relationship as unwisely self-contained universe. Perfectly, subtly acted; a huge leap from The Forest For The Trees. [In retrospect, I'm not sure if I should've laughed as much as I did. I will note that a good friend who's roughly 70% taste compatible with me film-wise called a few months ago after this finally reached Omaha and said he thought it was the best movie since Synecdoche, which was the best movie since Zodiac. My admiration for this film is not on that level of magnitude.]

From this year, more or less ranked:
Greenberg — an absolute lay-up, given my taste and perfect sympathy for abrasively self-blocking dudes who are their own worst enemy. (Ahem. Sometimes, though I'm not nearly that bad these days.) Plus Baumbach's sensibility (at least dating back to The Squid And The Whale — have yet to investigate the first half of his career) is very much in line with mine — I dig all those articulately self-loathing train-wrecks — so I actually dragged myself to see this at like 10 on a Thursday night two days after getting back to town after SXSW, because I just couldn't wait. Some more capsule/bullet-point stuff:

a) Some kind of a breakthrough for Baumbach; if it's not as tightly realized as The Squid and the Whale, it also offers a surprising detour from the increasingly ratcheted-up nastiness Margot At The Wedding suggested Baumbach would keep upping to unsustainable levels. Squid/Margot deal with protagonists in the process of actively scarring and damaging those around them; in Greenberg, the damage is long gone and past, which makes Greenberg a peculiarly empathetic character. Yes, he does damage to Greta Gerwig — but she's in just enough of a twenty-something funk that she's too old to get seriously wounded, while too young to really take care of herself. She'll learn.

b) Baumbach in widescreen for (I believe) the first time, which frees him up; the handheld camera has been toned down and the shots are casually sunny and expansive. It's a true LA movie, and that includes the little touches: I especially liked Gerwig's friend at the bar. Her sneering disbelief when Greenberg says he doesn't drive — "You don't drive? Have you ever driven?" — suggests the bottomless arrogance of the worst kind of Angeleno, and I absolutely recognize it.

c) Given that we spend the first 15 minutes with Gerwig, it could just as easily be called Florence; if Roger's our true subject, that's because he wears himself down enough over the course of the film to emerge at a moment where he has at least a fighting shot of beginning to fix himself, while Florence remains unchanging, for better or worse. Sporadic feminist outrage has erupted over Greenberg's treatment of Florence, as if the film were endorsing masculine dickheadedness, which is very misguided indeed; these kinds of fatally unbalanced relationships are certainly not uncommon, and thinking the movie endorses it is just nuts.

d) For all the advance word of how incredibly unpleasant everyone on screen is, this is the most easily digestible film Baumbach's made since his hiatus; much of it is quotable without context ("Leonard Maltin would give me two-and-a-half stars"), the laughs are timed evenly and the whole thing seems less designed to make you squirm. I really like this movie, so much so I don't trust myself.

Cold Weather and Putty Hill I wrote about here, and Audrey The Trainwreck was addressed here; the latter's absolute neglect on the festival circuit (unless I missed something), not to mention lack of distribution, is an absolute fucking disgrace. This is a major breakthrough film.

And Everything Is Going Fine was addressed here and is apparently due for direct-to-DVD release by Magnolia next year, which is too bad. It's my favorite Soderbergh since, I dunno, Bubble. But I'm also a morbid DFW fan, which undoubtedly plays into it.

I didn't have a chance to write about Michael Madsen's Into Eternity for various reasons, which is a shame. Briefly: this is the most formally pleasurable documentary since probably Workingman's Death (not least because it's shot on 35mm!). I'm not the kind of guy who cares particularly about social issues, so a tract about nuclear waste disposal isn't necessarily an obvious thing for me to dig, but Madsen approaches his subject in a way that's orderly, playful and gorgeous; he cops some moves from Errol Morris (one shot is pretty much directly lifted from Standard Operating Procedure) but also has a voice of his own. (The finale — a crane into the darkness of the cave with Sibelius blaring — is a boldly expressionistic gambit that pays off in impact as much as in the pleasurable shock of its sheer gutsiness.) The parts of Madsen delivering speeches timed to a match burning out are so Lynch-y they have to be a joke, and it's a good one. I hope this gets distribution; it deserves it. If you're going to make people care about depressing things, this is the way to do it.

And c'mon, how blessed is he with that name? Jeez.

Music
A really great year so far, though I'm a little behind; the left channel of my trusty speakers has fallen silent, and I can't afford new ones for a bit (unexpected moving expenses have wiped me out a bit). I suspect that Wild Nothing album is right up my alley, but we won't know for a bit yet. (Other notable listening omissions I'll catch up to eventually: Drake, Janelle Monae, Ariel Pink, Rhymefest.) That said, let's do this:

Albums
1. The National, High Violet — addressed here earlier this year. Not much has changed since then; I'm at 43 listens and counting. "The Runaway" is a little bit of a drag (I prefer the more stripped-down live-in-the-radio-station version from last year), but there's really not a weak song in the bunch, and "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is clearly some seriously life-affirming, spine-chilling shit. More than anything else, The National understand the precise weight and texture of banal depression, the stuff of workaday slogging; they're also frighteningly talented musicians who understand how to make brass arrangements carry emotional weight. Every day I wake up and say a little prayer that Matt Berninger's drinking won't get too out of hand.

2. Spoon, Transference — addressed here. Spoon are part of my life in a big way; I'm an Austin kid and, as Britt Daniel once sang, "I have your blood inside my heart." I put this on ice for a few months, but I'm listening to it again right now and it really is as fully-fledged a statement as they've ever crafted. My friend Andrew Unterberger thinks Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is basically an overly-slick exhibition of staid craftsmanship, which is nuts — but I see what he's saying, and Transference pushes the boundaries in a way that makes that album's immaculate craftsmanship look sterile.

3. Teenage Fanclub, Shadows — just when you thought this list couldn't get any whiter or blander...look. I'm as surprised as the next guy at how much I like this. I don't really know much about the Fanclub, although that'll probably change soon; I listened to Bandwagonesque quite a bit in high school (it's pretty much mandatory entry-level listening for anyone interested in '90s Scotrock), but it was a little too #1 Record for me (I'm more of a Third/Sister Lovers guy), and nothing on there is nearly as good as "Alcoholiday." Then I missed everything until Man-Made came out a few years ago, and frankly that album's a drag: the clean, Tortoise-inspired production does them no favors.

I guess Shadows isn't a terribly "relevant" album; the fact that Fanclub are still with us should theoretically be no more interesting than, say, the fact that the Trash Can Sinatras are still doing work. But this is one heinously well-crafted album, with so many highlights I've basically been fixating on two or three songs at a time and picking them apart. "Baby Lee" was my first obsession — those downward thirds on the chorus are really something else — but the fugal last two minutes on "The Fall" are out of this world, and I appreciate how "Sweet Days Waiting" flat-out steals the verse from The Beach Boys' "Forever." Some of the lines are good — "modern life corrodes us all, you know that it's true" is a nice bit — and there's a lot to love here if you love pop craftsmanship. And if I tell you I spent a hefty chunk of last year listening to Jellyfish on repeat, I guess you'll understand where I'm coming from.

4. These New Puritans, Beat Pyramid I liked These New Puritans' first album just fine -- it had a nicely spazzy committment to being annoying -- but nothing about it suggested they were anything more than waspish provacteurs, using stupid tinny keyboards and nonsense lyrics to mock and destroy the sonic zeitgeist of amateurish dance music for indie kids. Beat Pyramid opens with two minutes of a woodwind suite (!), followed by "We Want War," which is one of the most staggering things I've heard in a while (and certainly one of the few songs that could be deemed "original"). "Beat Pyramid" wouldn't be a bad name for it, given that when the backwards-singing choir (or whatever the hell that is) kicks in at 3:50, the band isn't even getting started. It's like, what is this thing? There's some joker with a deep voice laughing; it should be cheesy, like a half-assed Joker calling card, but it's kind of chilling. The arrangement just gets more and more brass-atrophied as it goes along; it has the structural depth and fugal structure most motets would kill for, and the song's basically unprecedented. Most bands who cite classical composers as inspiration stick to Steve Reich, Erik Satie and the like; TNP cite Benjamin Britten, and I'm inclined to believe them. The rest of the album is perfectly fine, although it couldn't possibly live up to that. Most reviews have been on the "respect > love" side, which is understandable (if lazy in a universe where I have to deal with drooling Animal Collective fanboys), though it's more like it's impossible to get any work done while listening to it.

5. Broken Bells, Broken BellsHeard the unmastered leak first, then the real thing; rarely has what mastering can do been so clear, as this is almost certainly one of the best-sounding records of the year, and for a while I just listened to it on that level. Then the songs started popping out at me as well. I love the supremely casual amble of the intro: the first 25 seconds don't really do anything but lope from some synth blurts into another typically meticulous James Mercer composition, almost as if by accident. I think (oddly enough, all things considered) working with Danger Mouse has actually loosened Mercer up; he even attempts (and pulls off!) a falsetto on "The Ghost Inside."

The other thing to note is that this is a staggeringly grim album; Mercer was never exactly a cheerleader, but here he's going on about all kinds of tiny apocalypses. (Song titles: "Your Head Is On Fire," "Sailing To Nowhere," "The Mall & Misery.") And if you watch the video for "The High Road," it's clear the newly matured Mercer -- boyish the last time I saw them live, now gray, grizzled and looking like some kind of '70s B-movie bar extra -- has suffered god knows what in the process of breaking up The Shins; he looks grizzled and pissed-off. Regardless, this is a terrific, crafty record, and a welcome comeback from a guy who didn't initially seem like a lifer but now seems to be getting comfortable with it.

6. Beach House, Teen Dream — impressive as hell, though for some reason I don't love this the same way I did Devotion. I will say that the fact that they had much more to say than their first album indicated is very unexpected and pleasing.

7. Local Natives, Gorilla Manora mixed bag, insofar as Local Natives are practicing a very low-stakes, almost generic kind of indie rock (and the lyrics mostly suck). But I increasingly appreciate what they accomplish inside those limitations: "Camera Talk" is a hell of a song (even if it's basically just a stupid tribute to taking Facebook pictures), and the way they cover Talking Heads' "Warning Sign" (i.e., turning it into the three-part folk rock David Byrne deliberately was destroying) is smart and impressive. Room for growth here for sure.

8. Let's Wrestle, In The Court Of The Wrestling Let'sLike Cymbals Eat Guitars, the amiable gentlemen of Let's Wrestle appear firmly convinced that the best music ever was college radio about 1995, and I'm certainly not gonna argue with them; I love that shit. The lyrics are clever ("My friends are in prison and that's where I want to go because I hate everyone") and darkly but comically morose ("They said if you want to help just kill yourself, but I won't do that"), the guitars are crunchy, the chord changes work, and the songs are short. Rock on bros; Built To Spill this ain't, but it's more fun than anything those guys have done lately.

9. Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRMnot to take anything away from the lustrous Ms. Gainsbourg, but this is the best thing Beck's done in years (probably since The Information, which I dig, although his recent Record Club covers projects have definitely yielded some unexpected gems). Best bits: the dramatic strings of "Time of the Asassins" (could be slapped onto a '70s movie's opening credits with no questions asked), the playfully ominous rumble of "Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes" and the totally bouncy "Heaven Can Wait" duet.

10. Vampire Weekend, Contrathis should probably be higher up on the list, but I'm too lazy to redo the numbers. That VW could write excellent pop songs we already knew; that they'd up their game so quickly and throw in all kinds of extra fillips, arrangements and ambitions is a big surprise. This is ambitious music; the casual aura's deceptive.

Songs not factored above
Sleigh Bells, "Rill Rill" — I will get around eventually to properly considering all of Treats, which definitely seems like a year-end contender; this is the rare album that uses noise and distortion not to rock but as legitimate tools to construct sugary pop. (Rarely has an album so potentially abrasive seemed this much fun.) But first I'll have to get over the staggering greatness of "Rill Rill," a song that's the closest thing I've heard to The Soft Bulletin in the last 11 years. There's two pulsing beats, then the full-on assault of Funkadelic piano sample, bells and all kinds of other frills; like Dave Fridmann's work on that album (especially "Waitin' For A Superman"), the gap between the storm and the calm at the center creates a powerful sonic chasm. This is basically a song about a stupid Brooklyn girl running around on a typical weekend night — showing off her tattoos, cutting lines in the bathroom, celebrating facile girl power — but I could care less.

...we're at 3,000 + words. I'm gonna stop here for now.

4 comments:

  1. Your mini-review of Greenberg is probably the best I've read. (It's #2 on my own halftime list, behind Shutter Island.) Roger's stoned voicemail to Florence may be the best scene Baumbach's ever written, and definitely the scene of the year so far. Great punchline, too: "I reassessed the movie Wall Street."

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