Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 In Music: The Author's Top Ten, Like, Albums

This being the third part of a year-end recap of the best and worst music that 2015 imparted to us.  As always, links to other sections are appended at the bottom.

Before I get to the meat of this post that you’re all dying to see (and can if you just cheat and skip to it), I want to honor some albums that by one or another stupid, technical rule weren’t allowed to make the cut.

First up we have the two-disk collector’s issue of Spoon’s classic Gimme Fiction.  I don’t think I can include this because it’s technically a re-release from 2005, but if you haven’t heard this or much of anything from Spoon’s decades-spanning catalog, then let shame fall on you from high!  It’s time to take a trip down non-memory lane and hear one of the more epic releases from one of the last truly epic years in entertainment.  The anniversary edition of this album comes with an extra disk of home demos and rejected tracks that’s well worth the extra whatever you’d pay for it because most are stripped down to just a guitar and occasional drums or piano (though not in a lazy ACOUSTIC COVER Youtube sense) and offer a distinct experience that’s just as affecting, energetic, and smooth as the recorded versions.  I don’t pay much attention to the lyrics in most Spoon songs, but the way they layer instruments, chants, and claps is so entrancing, especially on Was It You? They Never Got You, or the hit I Turn My Camera On, that the lack of angsty Kendrick-esque Poetry doesn’t matter.

I’d also like to give a shout-out to the live EP David Crowder released called Neon Porch Extravaganza, which is a takeoff of last year’s album Neon Steeple and which he was recording on his porch when it unexpectedly escalated into an extravaganza.  I don’t think the rap verse on Lift Your Head, Weary Sinner really fits with Crowder’s vibe, but the man somehow wormed in a cover of Drake’s awful Hold On, We’re Going On without totally destroying the project with cheese, so that wins Respect.  Crowder’s music generally doesn’t receive its proper resolution unless it’s performed live before a crowd of riled-up worshippers, so I’m glad he took the initiative to put out some official, high-definition renderings of Come As You Are and I Am.

2015 was also a pleasantly surprising year for movie soundtracks.  None of the tentpole franchise blockbusters delivered in my opinion on the heightened expectations people set for them, especially not Star Wars – the first in the series to have no standout musical moments after the titles crawl –, Jurassic World, Mission Impossible, etc., but a smattering of independent or less notorious films more than made up for what the big boys failed to do.  Though I don’t know if I’d listen to Tom Holkenborg’s score all by itself, Mad Max’s use of tribal drums, blaring guitar, and thick electronic thwoms elevated almost every scene they accompanied.  It Follows’ score by Disasterpeace was repetitive and harsh but likewise suited the inescapable horror of its film.

The simple but ominous strings of Ex Machina lent to the atmosphere of intrigue and doubt and ambiguity that pervaded probably the best, certainly the most thought-provoking film of the year.  One of the reasons the ending works so well is Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s haunting fusion of organic and computerized sounds, perfectly mirroring the theme of the cold, unsentimental alien assuming human form.

Despite originating from an overall mediocre film, the original score and lyrical selections from the Man From U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack were pure musical adrenaline, excellently paying homage to classic spy shows while capturing a thrilling, contemporary sound.  Not only did it suit the setting of the film but it also excelled as a boundlessly creative stand-alone album, phenomenal for studying, car rides, or really any occasion.  The interplay of the bass flute, furious strings, and bongo-driven percussion never fails to get my blood pumping, and I literally cannot sing its praises highly enough.  I don’t even know what that would sound like.  If Daniel Pemberton loses an Oscar nomination to John Williams or Alexandre Desplat or whatever dummy did the soundtracks to Spotlight or Brooklyn – which the 90-year-old Academy voters will shoo in for that category because they don’t remember any other movies and it’s easy just to blindly nominate the same five titles for all the technical awards –, there is no justice in showbiz.  And lose he shall.

This brings us finally to the Author’s Top Ten Least Worst Albums of 2015.  At first he thought he’d rank them, having a pretty firm idea in mind which ones he liked the most, but then he thought that if he pitted them against each other he’d only be encouraging impatient readers to skip right through his comments, look at the numbers, check out the top two artists, and flatly disregard the rest.  It also occurred to him that maybe, despite his efforts at comprehensiveness, he hasn’t yet heard all the albums he’d like from the year and could be setting himself up for someday having to re-arrange his list, which would be a pain.  In no particular order, then, here are five of his favorite current-day albums until the still unknown but fast-approaching day we get new Radiohead and Gorillaz.  Here’s to 2016, to making America great again, taking the country back, all that cal.

Lord Huron, Strange Trails

I had the chance to watch Lord Huron live at Beatissima for free no additional charge some time earlier this year, but I’m afraid the value of this chance encounter was completely lost on me, as I left about three songs into their act from a combination of harmonica and mediocrity fatigue (Best Coast had just preceded them with what sounded like one continuous hour-long song).  After retroactively listening to some of the finer cuts from Strange Trails, I kind of hated myself for not sticking through the boredom to hear the deafening, western-evocative epicness of The World Ender live in the park.  Your experience with the recorded versions of the Huron Jam will probably be much the same, as you sit through a slog of really similar-sounding, reverb-heavy folks songs to occasionally feel a rush of unadulterated excitement, preferably transmitted and received at maximum volume.  If you want the abbreviated, boredom-free edit – or the GPV, to put it in a more positive context – condense it down to Until the Night Turns and tracks 5-8, or maybe 9, if you favor incorporating at least one slower, grittier tune.  Darkness, no parents.

Lil Dicky, Professional Rapper –

If this website had a bigger following among hip-hop-heads, the statement I’m about to make would cause a bit of a stir, but since it doesn’t I can make it with impunity.  Lil Dicky is the best rapper working today.  He is the best because he has the humility and brains to acknowledge that his profession, even more so for a wealthy, college-educated Jewish guy, is really kind of stupid, and so he tries to have a little fun with it.  He is the best because in 2013 he wrote a song called White Dude in which he monologues over the outro about how much he loves being a white dude, knowing full well this would cause a furor in the media even though black dudes have written thousands of songs about how much they love being black.
“First off I’m a dude, so there was a one-in-two chance of that sucking. But now I can run a seven-minute mile, I can defend myself adequately, I can be logical, I can get along with my roommates, watch serious movies without being scared by them. And on top of that I’m white, which is like amazing because…”
He is the best because in 2015 he followed up that song with an original, ironically menacing beat called White Crime, in which he humorously slides through all the low-risk, unsung “dirt” that well-to-do people commit on a daily basis without incurring the judgment of other people.
“Walk in to the movie with my pants full / Twix, bag of chips, plus a Snapple / Stealing all the shampoos, from the hotel’s pretty bathrooms / Cheating, I’ve been peekin’ in the classroom / Looking like a nice guy, ‘til I take your mother_____ Wi-Fi / And torrent every single song in my library.”
He is the best because the album’s pinnacle, the braggadocios, lyrically unstoppable Bruh, utilizes nothing but drumsticks for the underlying beat but sounds more staggering than 99% of other rap beats.  He is the best not only because he managed to shoot the music video of his biggest hit to date, $ave Dat Money, for basically no money whatsoever, but also because he caps said video off by haggling a waiter over the value of the ice in his coffee and the bacon in the cheeseburger that he purchased on the side.  In speed or wit or wordplay or sheer verbal dynamism, no other rapper aspires to the awe-inspiring messiness of LD.  More importantly, he cracks me up.

Micachu and the Shapes, Good Sad Happy Bad –

This is without a doubt the least accessible of all the titles in this list; I don’t even like it that much, but I don’t like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey either.  If you’ve seen the movie Under the Skin, which you probably haven’t unless it was your job to see it, you’ve already heard one of Micachu’s members even if you weren’t aware of it.  Mica Levi’s score to that film hinged on two or three extremely repetitive themes that were chopped and screwed and scrambled through as many variations as could fill an hour-long tape, evincing mixed reactions from your own Author.  Good Sad Happy Bad was significantly easier to endure, if not enjoy, without the baggage of any overwrought 7-minute tracks or ambient filler and a largely different timbre to each song, even the weaker ones.  On an album such as this, though, the greatest thing on which one can compliment it is its fidelity to its title.  At its best, this is a really fun and futuristic brand of fuzzily produced, experimental pop that nonetheless appeals to almost no one.  At its worst, particularly on Unity, which loops a sound of human gasping that makes me think of that one scene in Deliverance, it revels in a kind of defiant self-absorption that’s extremely abrasive and alienating.  If you’re looking for a trippy, emotionally disjunctive, err, trip with an emphasis on weird noises and disarming, childlike vocals over traditional melodies and relatable lyrics, look no further.  If you want the Almost Normal Parts Version, then preview Sad, Oh Baby, Relaxing, and Suffering, then come back and berate me in the comments for recommending weird stuff just for the sake of looking nonconformist.

Carly Rae Jepsen, Emoticon –

I already tasked my buddy Dom Forke last August with writing 12 or so unbelievable thoughts he thought on the new Carly Rae Jepsen album.  Five months later Emotion still holds up, especially Making the Most of the Night, LA Hallucinations, Run Away With Me, and, well, the rest I suppose, because there’s hardly any variation in it at all.  Sky Ferreira’s album and Ghost EP are ten times better, but at least this doesn’t bore me.

Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color –

Sound and Color isn’t consistently great, but when it is, it soars.  More musically eclectic than their debut album, this sophomore effort is based half on mesmerizing guitar riffs and half on lead singer Britanny Howard’s indescribably raw, transfixing voice.  The presence of the former always works to the album’s betterment, complementing Howard’s vocal intensity and making for a much more entertaining, replayable sound.  Consequently I think the album loses steam in the last four tracks when it foregoes its rock-and-roll edge, but if you’re drawn more to more soulful, vocally driven than instrumental music, you’ll probably enjoy Sound and Color throughout.  One can’t deny the singularity of Howard’s singing style: now masculine and harsh, then delicate and soothing, always raspy and impassioned.  Don’t Wanna Fight, Future People, and Guess Who would all be instant hits from their distorted guitar lines alone, but the entrance of the vocals takes them from merely good to hypnotizing.  I don’t feel I have the musical acumen to give a very useful or scientific explanation of the Alabama Shakes’ innovation, so you should just go and listen for yourself if you want something unique as well as catchy (at least most of the time).  I can neither create nor define what I understand to be good music, but I know it when I hear it, and the Alabama Shakes are it.

Fast-travel to other parts:

Monday, December 28, 2015

2015 In Review: The Problematic Influence of Kendrick Lamar

This being the second part of a year-end recap of the best and worst music that 2015 imparted to us.  As always, links to other sections are appended at the bottom.

This should come as no surprise, but the #1 album of the year is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.

Psycheth!  Every clickbait internet writer worth his salt knows you have to start from the bottom of the list and count up it, not down.  And why would I tie it up with an album as lame as To Pimp a Butterfly?

I’m just kidding again.  To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t completely lame as an album; only 12 of its 16 songs/interludes/interviews with a dead guy are lame.  The other four (King Kunta, These Walls, Blacker the Berry, and i) are perfectly listenable and sometimes even entertaining.  That’s approximately 18.5 minutes out of an exhausting 79.  So why have no fewer than 11 magazines or websites dubbed it the best album of a year that’s witnessed many impressive albums?  Who do these critics think they’re fooling, and what is it about mediocrity they find so alluring?

Just a few of Kendrick's tools.

If they’re simply looking to peddle safe, noncontroversial, and retweetable listicles to gullible Kendrick fanboys in college who can’t think for themselves and unquestioningly buy into the latest hip-hop craze so as to appear cool and up to speed, they’ve certainly succeeded in that.  Around eight months ago, Kendrick Lamar was basically the hottest musical act at Beatissima, second only to Taylor Swift.  I still remember the first time I listened through To Pimp A Butterfly in the lowermost den of a six-suite dormitory while playing a DC fighting game with two other residents of “The A Hole” who were also curious to know the object of all this media-generated buzz.  Around the passing of the fifth track, one of us gushingly remarked that this was the Blackest Album of All Time, a label Kendrick and his supporters would probably claim as a badge of honor.  Don’t take my word for it, though.  In Pitchfork’s yearly countdown of its best and/or most snob-appealing albums, “kris ex” proclaimed:
[To Pimp A Butterfly is] also Black as f***.  “Blackness” is a concept that remains fluid and intangible, but so solid that one can feel it when it’s present.  And it was all over Butterfly.  From the opening notes… to the closing—a fabricated conversation with Tupac Shakur—the album is packed with Blackness… Nowhere is Blackness more front and center than on the album’s second single, “The Blacker the Berry”.  It was the song that most clearly announced Kendrick's lack of f***s about the comfort of his white audience…
All of this Blackness is important.  Important because sometimes white people need to take a metaphorical seat—to sit down, shut up, and listen to conversations in which they are a cultural object, not the center.  This is not an easy task.  White people have been way too comfortable for way too long in this country, in this world.  Way too comfortable with the way they choose to see reality solely through their own gaze, way too comfortable with their sense of entitlement over the planet and its resources, way too comfortable with their appropriation of culture in ways large and small… But Kendrick was willing to discomfort the comfortable.  He took all of the acclaim he had received as a critical darling from his major label debut… and doubled down on his Blackness, not for the entertainment of white people, but in near-total disregard for their experience of his conversation… It’s an album by the greatest rapper of his generation… the voice of a moment in time.

I let him prattle on a while there, but all of this Pitchforkian prattling is important, even more important in terms of defining the cultural malaise of 2015 than the abundant Blackness you encounter on Kendrick’s record.  Kris’ orgasmic adulation of Kendrick’s racial politics, eventually spiraling into an exasperated plea for evil white-skinned people to shut up and silently take an overdue verbal drumming from some rapper who’s been metaphorically oppressed by a rigged system that’s enabled him to sell nearly a million copies of a barely tolerable album, epitomizes the collapse of modern art criticism into just another form of ideological propaganda, indistinguishable from the op-ed page in a newspaper you’d pick up for free at a hotel.  I wish I could say that Kendrick’s fanboys are just the edgier, grown-up versions of T.Swift, One Direction, or Justin Bieber listeners (assuming grown-ups don’t listen to the Biebs or 1D, which they sadly do), but their infatuation with their own rock star is based on something much more distressing and, ahem, Problematic.  The most vocal Kendrick scholars think they’ve stumbled onto a sage, poetic, and deeply necessary piece of social commentary that transcends the general parameters of art and fully earns the title of genius.

Kendrick scholarship is certainly transcendent, transcendent of intelligence, transcendent of reality, transcendent of its own interests and the interests of anyone else on the receiving end of Kendrick’s “lead showers”.  The entire critical breakdown of Kendrick’s magnum opus, typified by the likes of Pitchfork, high school teacher Brian Mooney, and Barack Hussein Obama himself, emphasizes not the beauty of its composition, writing, or delivery but the opinion that the work is fighting some deeply rooted social cancer that needs immediate addressing.  Simply, To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t the greatest album of the year because of its superior artistry but because its “importance” or relevance to current affairs effectively overrules all its competition.

Social importance, of course, cannot be used as an objective measure for criticsm, as every individual ascribes a different level of importance to things based on his frame of mind.  Serious presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has publically avowed that Global Warming is the greatest security threat to the United States – despite data from the pro-Global Warming NOAA showing a ten-year decline in U.S. temperatures and weather disasters – and also “directly related” it to international terrorism, but only 3% of respondents in Gallup’s most recent survey on the matter dared to label “environment/pollution” as the most important problem facing the country.  Racism also trends very low in this same poll, fluctuating mostly between 1 and 4% over the last 24 months, with peaks at 9 and 13% during months when the media was pumping Killer Cop stories around the clock.  Even from November to December, when fake racism seemed to reach crisis levels at universities around America, not excepting Beatissima (more on that later), public concern about race relations on this scale only rose from 3 to 4%.

At the very least this exposes a vast disconnect between what the commoner and the critical elite desire to see in music.  By extension, the universal acclaim for the identity politics of To Pimp A Butterfly has signified the almost absolute demise of valuable insight in critical American writing, now called “reviews”. Who’s to say which person’s taste is better, the culture writer’s or the consumer’s?  When one idiot thinks the purpose of art is to make him feel guilty for being born a rich white child and another idiot thinks the purpose of art is just to set a scene for heavy grinding on the dance floor, there’s no established criterion to definitively say that one creator’s art is better than another’s.  Straight Outta Compton and Amadeus must be esteemed each other’s equals in cinematic worth; hell, the bars of Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre are just as essential as the symphonies, operas, and piano concertos of Mozart.  Both have been groundbreaking and “important” artists to different people in different times, but how much more important are the N.W.A. to the youth of today than that stuffy, old, orchestral classical music?  By the undemanding standards of Kendrick’s sycophantic groupies, Dre trumps Mozart in artistic merit for almost every demographic except babies watching VHS tapes and college music professors.  Does Mozart speak to the urban-born son of a single mother, beset by gangs and the po-po and institutional racism in the grocery store, or whatever?  To the son(s) of an immigrant who want(s) to be the president of the United States?  “To the victims of welfare, living in Hell here”, and so and so forth?  Who does Mozart speak to other than old, dead, white European males?  None of this whiteness is important!

I wish I could say that Kendrick has only just now driven the final nail into the coffin of musical analysis, of the days when the purpose of art was merely to be art, and not to force a political message endorsed by the critic.  The bitter truth is that those days have long since passed.  One of the six or seven books I read this year, an otherwise ordinary rundown on Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills, traces this dysfunction in the critic’s expectations all the way back to 1897.  Hills argues,
“[The myth of the Great American Novel] leads eventually into the same blind alley Tolstoi went to the very end of in What Is Art?, where he deduced that since what’s virtuous in human acts are those which promote the brotherhood of man, then that art is best which most promotes the brotherhood of man – hence he concludes with the greatness of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  This is what comes of asking art to be something other than art.”

I don’t believe the Great American Novel is a myth, nor do I deplore Uncle Tom’s Cabin as much as many literary critics, but it isn’t hard to imagine Harriet Beacher Stowe filling the same American Idol shoes that Kendrick’s walking in today.  All of Uncle Tom’s blackness is Important, raves kris ex for Pitchfork Media, whether or not it meets the highest standards of literature.  All of Imitation Game’s gayness is Important, whether or not the finer details are historically accurate or well told.  All of Lean In’s woman-ness is Important, whether or not it has anything useful to say to anybody.  All of Al Gore’s end-of-days alarmism is Important, whether or not it has any solid, scientific evidence backing it up.  All of Amy Schumer’s sexism is Important, whether or not it’s, well, sexist.

How did greatest Importance become tantamount to greatest quality in the verdict of people who are supposed to look above intentions and simply judge on execution?  To pose such a question is to presume objectivity from people who are not remotely committed to it.  Reviewers – I mean critics – are journalists, after all, and when have journalists ever allowed their ideology to get in the way of the truth?  Of the 2013 film Fruitvale Station, Wesley Morris wrote, “Sometimes what’s wrong with a movie suddenly no longer matters.  The rickety construction of a story, the awkward shift in dramatic tone, the acutely earnest attempt to find the right wattage for a martyr’s halo: They’re beside the point.  Sometimes a movie just needs to show us the light.  Sometimes it just needs us to see it.”  Who cares if Fruitvale Station is a really shoddy, even corny TV movie, weakly shot and written, manipulative at the expense of the truth, and completely pointless up until the last 5 minutes?  If it hits its viewers in the feels and propels misguided vendettas against The Racists, The Assault Weapons, or The Prison System, then Team Wesley Morris thinks it’s cool.  Three quarters of To Pimp A Butterfly can be disposed of without detracting from the record, but Alright is now the anthem of all jobless Black Lives Matter grumblers, so kris ex and the leftist hipster punching bag of the internet extol the album as a work of genius.

One of my friends facetiously told me that Kendrick Lamar is the closest thing we have to a modern-day Antichrist, but I don’t think that Kendrick’s purposely trying to be the Antichrist.  I don’t hate Kendrick Lamar, nor would I go so far as to say that he sucks, even if it would get you to click on this article.  It’s not his fault he accidentally reminds us all of the stupidity that’s infested our agenda-driven media, so desperate to anoint the Most Important Fiction of the Year they forget the reason for criticizing fiction in the first place.

Is To Pimp A Butterfly the album of the year?  Absoeffinlutely.  And I think that Kendrick’s laughing all the way to the bank.  Thug life, indeed.

Fast travel to other parts:
Part 1 – Not Worth The Effort 2015
Part 3 – Top 10 Part 1 and Honorables
Part 4 – Top 10 Part 2 and the Inadvertent Individualism of Grimes

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 Recap In Music: Part One

Another year has come and gone, and even with all the crap that’s struck this country politically, it’s hard to argue that 2015 has been anywhere near as bad for music as 2014, which I dare say in all my millennial naivety was probably the worst year for music in the history of human civilization, with such aggressively obnoxious tunes as Why You Gotta Be So Ruuude, Will Your Mouth Still Remember the Taste of My Love, When I Met You In The Summer, Don’t Act Like It’s a Bad Thing to Fall In Love With Meeeee, All of Me Loves All of You, the Pharrell Williams album, and the Frozen soundtrack.  Maybe I’m only inclined towards optimism because I haven’t listened to Top 40 radio for about a year and have done my best to isolate myself from the rest of the country’s musical pulse, but there was no shortage of strong new and familiar sounds in 2015.  I mean, Pound Sign It’s 2015.

None of those sounds are represented here, as this part is essentially a rejects list accommodating all the records I listened to (or was exposed to) this last year that wouldn’t make a list except perhaps my Feeling Masochistic one (which you can find on that music streaming service I won’t plug by name because I despise it).  Maybe you have completely different taste from me, in which case, these are for you.  If, on the other hand, your tastes align with mine more often than not – and they don’t – , check back later.  Links to other sections in this 2015 recap will be appended at the bottom.

The New Deerhunter Album –

This is an indie favorite from that a band that’s already ridiculously overrated.  It’s not at all unpleasant to listen to, but there’s certainly more exciting music out there in the relative wasteland that is the modern folk alt world.  Most of the tracks are rather down-tempo and dull, typified by the snoozer Leather and Wood in the middle.  This is strategically followed up by the unusually snappy, sonically rattling guitar-driven Snakeskin, which merits a listen by itself.  Ad Astra is also an entrancing and appropriately spacey song that would sound right at home in an 80s sex scene, or something.  I obviously don’t have a lot to say about this album if I’m talking about completely nontopical 80s sex scenes.  If you like your indie rock slow and stripped down and pretentious, Fading Fronter should fit right in with your records.

Fetty Wap –

He sucks, and by that mean he attracts a lot of suckers who like to hype up the newest rapper on the block as some visionary masterclass, instead of a hack who’s making the same generic, trashy pop-rap music they’ve always consumed and pumping it across the airwaves to swindle millions.  Please, make him go away.

Everything Kanye recorded –

Gossip, gossip, Yeezy just stop it.  Everybody knows you’re a sellout, not a monster.

Everything Drake recorded –

Drake produces junky, club-friendly, lyrically insipid (“I got a really big team / and we need some really big rings / we need some really nice things…”) bangers that appeal to a certain subset of hip-hop fans who may or may not know how good music sounds.  Those who aren’t within this subset look down upon his singles as ghetto or even “ratchet”, but in a year that’s given us Fetty Wap and new Nicki Minaj and Turn Down For What?!, Drake is relatively not that bad and has been doing society a major service by teaching us that 1800-hotline bling, well, that can only mean one thing.

Logic –

Formerly an underground rapper who put out a bunch of mixtapes and self-directed videos under the puzzling pseudonym Young Sinatra, Logic released his first album, The Incredible True Story, this year which I gave a shot on the recommendation of a friend who doesn’t listen to much of anything besides rap music (but doesn’t listen to M.I.A., Gorillaz, Massive Attack, Tricky, or anyone who produces truly experimental, rewarding rap music).  I put two tracks in my playlist out of charity, neither of which I can remember, and two others linger in my memory, one a rather mediocre song and the other a really annoying, lame one (“I am the GREATEST”).  Logic has decent flow and meter, especially for a pasty, privileged white guy who has no business appropriating a black art form, but his beats are kind of limp and the album is so padded with transitional sci-fi skits (dialogue and sound effects as a substitute for actual music; see Kanye West’s The College Dropout and every rap album since) that it ends up overstaying its welcome by about 30 minutes.  This thing is a freaking hour long, and about ten minutes of it are enjoyable.

Adele’s 25

I can’t actually listen to it unless I fork over $10, find a friend who has it (and none of them do because they all like Justin Bieber), or do what other people my age do when they want a certain album (far be it from me to emulate those stingy bastards), so I guess this is more of a non-review.  Regardless, what the previews give me sounds like rather boring, one-note soul music with the exception of Hello and Send My Love.  There’s certainly no Rumour Has It on this record that I’ve yet heard.  Maybe it’ll grow on me with repeated exposure.  Maybe Adele’s a little overrated.  Just a little.  I mean, she has sold 5 million more albums in a single month than my top 5 for this year have sold combined to date.

Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell

Sometimes, like right now, I deeply pity people like Sufjan Stevens.  Sufjan hails from Detroit, lives in Brooklyn, identifies himself as Christian, and makes folksy American music, but for some strange reason he won’t give up the stupid name some whacko cult leader cursed him with at birth.  On another note, I was fully expecting to hate his newest album simply being aware of its bare-bones production and the massive hype which hipster critics had built around it.  The actual result is a surprisingly relaxing, ethereal series of soft-spoken, melancholy tracks that all sound more or less the same but combine into a satisfying whole.  I picture myself falling asleep to this record many times in the future, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.  If the acoustic guitar licking fails to astonish at any point, Suffolk’s lyrics more than make up for his lack of instrumental flair, explicitly referencing religion, myth, a deceased family member, and other typically indie topics that mainstream artists try to cover up in their own songs for maximum appeal and propriety.  “Shall we beat this or celebrate it,” Soufflé wonders on All of Me Wants All of You. “You’re not the one to talk things through / You checked your text while I masturbated / Manelich, I feel so used.”  Gah, does this guy’s popularity irritate me.  Needless to say you won’t be singing along to this as with The Lumineers or Fleet Foxes, but not all music’s meant for singing along, thankfully.  Suffrage is fine, but you can skip him and you won’t be missing anything.  The Civil Wars are – were much better at this style.  Sniff.

The new Tame Impala album –

I’ve given this album multiple second chances but just can’t get into it.  All the songs are way too long and don’t go anywhere.  The Moment is OK, I guess.  So far the only great song they’ve produced is the percussively insane Mind Mischief.  If Tame Impala are one of your favorite bands, you probably don’t listen to enough music and are only latching on to one of the indie scene’s darlings for lack of knowledge of any better ones.  Check out Phantogram, Haim, or even Foster the People for Tame Impala done more memorably and melodically than Tame Impala.  Or just don’t check out Tame Impala.

Jamie XX –

I don’t get it, and I’ve tried it over and over again.  Why is this top 10 of the year material?  It’s flat and boring electronic music that’s nothing but electronic music.  Go listen to Amok by Atoms for Peace or Kinshasa One Two by DRC Music or Run Lola Run OST by Tom Tykwer, which got no accolades whatsoever, and tell me again that this is an amazing electro album.  Stupid, elitist hipsters, glorifying records none of their friends have heard of to sound cooler and more cultured.

Better than Jamie XX.

The “new” Muse album –

I hate to rag on Drones as a once major fan of this band’s shtick, but alas, they’ve become a slave to the shtick.  Psycho is an amusing but disposable copy of Uprising, and the so-so Dead Inside is the only song that sounds like an experiment for them.  Muse are an alternate universe version of Radiohead that never progressed beyond The Bends and naively think that bigger, louder, and more repetitive always mean better.  The highlights of their career will always be Origins of Symmetry and Absolution with Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-mad-mad-mad marking a fleeting glimpse of a different kind of greatness in 2012.

Better than Drones.

The new Imagine Dragons album –

Meh.  It’s another Imagine Dragons album.  If you liked the first one, and I might have if the radio and everywhere else didn’t play the crap out of Radioactive, Demons, and On Top of the World, then you’ll probably like Smoke and Mirrors too.  Every song sticks to a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure, with the chorus getting slightly louder and fuller each time.  The lyrics aren’t as nonsensical as they were the first time around, and Gold might even be retelling a popular story.  I’m So Sorry is a good movie trailer song.  It’s just that the choruses in Imagine Dragons’ music aren’t complex enough to make me want to hear them three times in a row with no variation.  They make acceptable, formulaic alternative earworms for people who aren’t satiated by pop music but haven’t yet acquired a tolerance for indie or art rock.  You know who you are... except you probably don’t.  History has shown that people are very bad in general at knowing who they are, which is why 40% of voters in the United States are “moderates”.

Raury –

When I first fired up Raury’s debut album I was expecting something a little more hard-edged and, well, rappy, because black people haven’t been making white music since Jimi Hendrix or Michael Jackson or Prince… I actually don’t know what Prince’s music sounds like, and since I can’t preview it for free, I probably never will.  Anyway, I was more than a little surprised to hear generic acoustic-driven folk coming through my headphones, with hip-hop beats and rap verses playing a more ornamental, supporting role.  I didn’t like it enough to give it another listen, but I have to give the kid credit for taking a chance on something different.  If you want to claim you listened to Raury, just play Devil’s Whisper and skip the rest. Most of the album is about Global Warming and World Peace and social justice and other idealistic, youthful nonsense anyway, which makes it almost impossible for an adult listener to take it seriously.  The dude just needs to lighten up a little and learn the art of subtlety and maybe then he’ll have a winning record under his belt.  He also needs to stop annotating his own lyrics on Rap Genius as if they’re really important and hard to decipher, which is like James Cameron explaining the political messaging of Avatar to The New York Slimes.

The Oh Hellos, Dear Wormwood

If The Oh Hellos were already catering very openly to a very exclusive demographic – bookish Christian homeschoolers and Inklings nerds –, now they’re leaving no illusions to their shameless pandering, slapping C.S. Lewis on the very cover of their new release.  Through the Deep, Dark Valley and their debut EP offered up some decent, lo-fi folk tunes several years ago – more genuine and rhythmically interesting than Mumford and Sons’ insufferably exploitative stuff –, but Dear Wormwood isn’t all that precious.  I think I listened to half of it before giving up.  Oh Goodbye, am I right?  Get me another whiskey over here.

The new Björk album –

If you’re looking for an accessible entry point to the weird, wacky, and every so often wonderful art of Björk, Vulnicura isn’t it.  Out of all nine tracks, Lionsong, Notget, and Atom Dance are the only ones that sound like real songs, while the rest could honestly just be remixed Guild Wars or Skyrim exploration music that Björk sung impromptu over without notes, and most of them drag on for 6 minutes or more.  Try Vespertine or Debut or Post or the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack if you want to see what she’s all about, or find somebody’s Best of Björk playlist online.  If any musician justified the concept of a Greatest Hits album, which I usually find abhorrent, it’d be Björk.  She’s definitely producing, collaborating, and singing on a higher artistic level than most of the others mentioned in this and the following posts, but there’s not much joy, depression, outrage, or any other emotion to be wrung from Vulnicura.

Better than Vulnicura.  Also, Spike Jonze is a genius.  More on poetic "genius" in the next post.

Friday, November 27, 2015

100-something Movies You Should See If You Like Movies: T-Z

And here we are, folks.  This is the sixth and final installment in an alphabetical rundown of movies the Author would recommend to anyone who enjoys all kinds of movies.  We will be issuing periodic updates to this list in the future but at a significantly lower rate because I don’t get paid to write about these and whenever I do I inhibit myself from completing stuff I’m actually required to do.  If you want to support TAF’s ongoing efforts to seek out and highlight excellence in cinema, please like, subscribe, share, and donate to our Patreon at – oh, never mind.  Sometime after December 18th I’ll try to post a roundup of all the 2015 films I saw, good and bad, Star Wars and not-Star Wars, as well as my year-end thoughts on America’s brewing intellectual race war.  Aside from movies, I’d also like to do some much shorter series on games, music, television, and literature (one of these would be harder than the rest), and the feedback we get on this post will probably determine which artistic medium we tackle next.

As always, links to the other sections are appended at the bottom, and if there’s a film you hold in high regard, do go ahead and leave any suggestions in the comments.

Taps –

Taps is a relic from the 80s about a military school revolt that quickly escalates into a standoff with the military itself. Everyone seems to think it’s a liberal antiwar screed and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I thought all the characters got a fair shake from the script. Watch it cause it’s thought-provoking and features a bunch of really young stars at the top of their game. Tom Cruise plays a crazy person and Sean Penn plays a caricature of himself.

Teeth –

“Even the PG-13 has heavy making out.” Teeth is a movie that probably doesn’t deserve to be on any professional Top X Movies List, but fortunately for Teeth, deserving’s got nothing to do with this list. I could describe the premise of this movie to my readers, but if I did, my synopsis would only mortify the lot of you out of giving it a shot. Suffice it to say that Teeth is a satire of Purity Culture in contemporary Christianity, a set of practices and youth group platitudes that aren’t entirely extra-Biblical or even wrong but which all too often supplant any other theological topics and sometimes make kids more liable to consider premarital sex than they would be if their mentors trusted them to do the right thing without incessant, obnoxious prodding. For young and hitherto exhausted Christians who received the purity talk some 50 times or more in high school and are already in on the joke, Teeth makes a really funny mockery of contemporary Christian culture’s overzealous worries about “unclean thoughts/deeds” and the absurd lengths our teachers go to to make sure kids aren’t having any. For those who haven’t heard the No Sex Before Marriage lecture quite as many times as your own Author, Teeth will probably come across as an offensive, neo-Feminist diatribe against religious traditions written by a proudly irreligious gay guy. It will strike them as that kind of movie because it actually is that kind of movie.

Maybe it’s nothing more than that kind of movie, but either way you view it, it’s undeniably engrossing and two believers would be hard pressed not to have a good debate afterwards about its worldview. Concerning Mere Christianity or the immorality of premarital sex, I’ve never tried to obscure what I believe is true and righteous, but at the same time I think there’s something, for lack of a better word, lame about a supposedly Christian college of 18-22 year-olds where sexuality is so stigmatized that almost no undergrad is romantically pursuing another young person, which, morality aside, is just the natural thing to be doing at that age and should be expected at any such institution. Purity or Modesty Culture honorably aims to arm young believers against temptations to sin, but as an unfortunate byproduct it also ends up arming them against godly, committed relationships rooted in a moral and temperate acceptance of their sexual being.

Since I’ve summarized the thematic point of the film, you may no longer feel obligated to watch it. It’s kind of really gross and cringeworthy, especially for males, and the length at which I’ve written about it isn’t meant to imply that it’s superior to the other titles listed. On a note completely unrelated to the preceding rant, Teeth ends with a song called Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp.

The Terminator –

The original Terminator has a couple glaring problems: as satisfying as it is to see a stoic and invincible Arnold Schwarzenegger marching through a police station and gunning down thirty guys with a weapon in each hand, in actuality he wouldn’t be able to obtain a fully automatic Uzi rifle from a gun store, nor would he be able to shoot the storekeeper in the chest because he left some shotgun shells on the counter. Silly James Cameron. At least you can say you made a really fun and well-paced action movie, minus the awful-looking stop-motion Terminator puppet. What are you gonna do if you don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to blow on pretty, blue aliens or the evil machines that are wrecking their ecosystem?

The Thing –

Much like The Fly, this 30-year-old classic remains top of the line in credible and disgusting effects work without a hint of CGI, but it also tells a tense and compact story tinged with political themes of paranoia and the way in which fear of the unseen enemy disintegrates trust between comrades.

Thirst (u1) 

A few words I would use to describe Thirst: humorous, violent, playful, seductive, erotic, extravagant, elegant, mesmerizing, gonzo. A tale about a struggling religious man that never fully commits to its religious underbelly (Park Chan-Wook is not, as far as anyone knows, a Christian), it nonetheless draws upon the legend of the vampire as a metaphor for the baser primal instincts latent in all men, the id which wages a savage war for dominance with the hero’s waning Catholicism. It employs special effects rarely but effectively, has one of the best, most justified sex scenes ever for what that’s worth, and couldn’t possibly close in more spectacular fashion.

Three Amigos –

“Will you kiss me on the verandah?”
“Lips are fine.”

Top Secret! –

Old review here. Top Secret! makes Monty Python’s Holy Grail look slow and dull and dated. No other film has such a sustained and rapid onslaught of visual jokes except for maybe Scott Pilgrim, which undercuts its own appeal by aiming so much humor squarely at nerds and hipsters.

Transformers –

People masquerading as critical consumers of media automatically (and quite stupidly) dismiss this as a stupid Michael Bay movie, but nobody rolls out a slicker Bayhem movie than the Bay himself, and Transformers undeniably crushes all alternatives in straight-up, effects-driven action movies. Just see the highway chase with Bonecrusher barreling through a truck, the opening assault on the Qatar base, or the shot of Ironhide blasting himself off the ground to avoid incoming missiles and a screaming woman. Even the cheesy and very well-worn subplot of dorky nerd Sam Witwicky trying to impress hot car mechanic Megan Fox has grown on me with repeated viewings. All this is topped off with one of the most epic-sounding, dramatic, woefully underrated scores ever. You’d have to wear a Decepticon sticker on your car to not appreciate this modern classic in waiting.

The Tree of Life –

The Tree of Life isn’t as easily explained as most of the other movies on this list. It’s certainly a lot harder to explain than Teeth, and it’ll probably take some repeat viewings before I finally feel I get it. Terrence Malick gives us a deeply spiritual and artsy piece that ignores our thirst for rational understanding and doesn’t resemble any other film aesthetically.

Tron: Legacy –

Tron has gained something of a legacy as that protracted Daft Punk music video which was commercially designed to be as exhilarating and visually gigantic as possible, and you can certainly watch it that way if you want. Or you can flex your brain muscles a little harder and try identifying all the Jesus, Holocaust, and Creation story symbols the writers cleverly wormed into their huge, flashy Ultimate Frisbee fantasy film. You do you. No hate. Sorry.

True Grit (2010) –

Just a good, old-fashioned revenge yarn brought to you by the Coen Brothers and a brilliant ensemble. Ever stalwart.

The Truman Show –

A funny thinking person’s movie, not just prophetic of reality television trends but filled with religious subtext, kind of like it’s slicing, dicing, and peeling all at once. Someday I’ll get around to reviewing it, but I don’t necessarily like using my brain on long, detailed, philosophical blog posts that no one reads in full, so that’ll be a while.

12 Monkeys –

A Terry Gilliam-directed sci-fi movie that’s a little off all the way through, and not only in the best and craziest role Brad Pitt has ever played.

Unforgiven –

“It's a hell of a thing, killing a man.  Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

The Vengeance Trilogy (u1)

Taken collectively, these are the best films I’ve ever seen in terms of film form. Orson Welles is always credited with inventing the cinematic toolbox, but Park Chan-Wook has built much greater wonders using the same tools. Like Welles, Park underwent no formal film schooling, studying philosophy in college, and actually busied himself outside of directing with writing essays and film critiques. Knowing nothing of his personal background while watching the trilogy, it didn’t surprise me to learn afterwards that he counts Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Vonnegut among his major influences, as all three movies deal in the kind of high drama, dark comedy, and flexible narration those older writers mastered. To say a brief word about each film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a tightly scripted, starkly photographed thriller wherein every character action is justified, makes perfect sense, and contributes to an escalating trail of violence. Oldboy is the comic-book movie to end all lazy comic-book movies, running circles around American action flicks with parallel imagery, in-camera transitions, stunning long takes, and almost every other trick in the book. Lady Vengeance falls somewhere between them both, starting out as perhaps the most confusing and stylized of the bunch before transfiguring into the most contemplative, harrowing film of the series. I could write pages upon pages about every aspect I loved in each one’s framing, editing, scoring, cinematography, and writing, but for now I’ll simply exhort you to order the Blu-ray or pull Oldboy up on Netflix, which looks about the same. Since they’re not a trilogy proper but an accidental sequence of thematically related dramas, you can really watch them in whatever order pleases you – alone, without your kids or friends, because they’re rated R for many, many reasons.

Victoria (u1)

Would Victoria be as impressive a film if it wasn’t captured in an unbroken two-hour take and just shot traditionally? As to this we can only speculate, but it is marvelously structured as a thriller and I wouldn’t expect it to weaken on repeat viewings, unlike Birdman, which uses its faux-one-shot grandstanding as a smokescreen for an insufferably masturbatory script. The flashing lights and drowning bass of a transportive nightclub beckon viewer and young heroine alike into a sensual underworld, demanding to be seen and heard in the same darkness that engulfs the characters.

The Village –

Full review here. At the time I called it the most vividly first-person film I’ve seen, and I’d stand by that assessment today. In his prime, Shyamalan utilized sensations of sound and color more fully than almost any other filmmaker, and The Village embodies the perfect marriage of cinematic and symbolical depth. The Village also marked the turning point in critical reception of Shyamalan’s works, and it marked that point because the majority of movie critics are communists. I don’t know if M. Night Shyamalan is a communist, but he sure made one hell of an anti-communism horror film, much better than The Giver – the movie, which was the original anti-communism story about a village where all is not as it seems. Would that that movie had never been released from its community.

Walk the Line –

Walk the Line doesn’t break any new ground in how to structure an artistic genius story: you’ve got the detached husband who dreams of making it big, the wife who wants him to choose a safer, family-centered career, montage sequences of said husband rising into stardom, drug addiction, infidelity, a beautiful romantic interest who’s “too afraid to fall in love”—lots of movie-ish stuff we’ve seen before. Rarely are these stock components executed with as much pathos as they are in Walk the Line. I’m not sure how much of it is factual, but given that it’s based on Johnny Cash’s autobiography, I doubt that any of it was meant to besmirch his legacy. I would recommend this film to anyone who thinks that country music has always sucked, or who thinks that Straight Outta Compton or Pitch Perfect were aca-effing-mazing. Not only would they hear a splendid recreation of the sound of Johnny Cash and June Carter, but they’d also get to see one of the most versatile actors ever, Joaquin Phoenix, turn into a complete and utter wreck on camera. And people think that Leo gets cheated at the Oscars.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit –

Still a better love story than Twilight, and the cool thing is that Aardman Studios actually took a story about a wererabbit somewhat seriously.  “I have two – one golden bullet left.”

We Need To Talk About Kevin (u1) –

Beautiful, tragic, grim, and more disturbing in a real-world sense than most anything since Silence of the LambsKevin delivers a powerful meditation on pure evil, whether it exists as an entity in itself or is merely inculcated by external causes. Lynne Ramsay doesn’t make films often, but when she does they are astounding.

Whiplash –

Kind of like this decade’s Karate Kid or Rocky, but with drumming and a million times better directed, acted, and edited. Makes you want to play an instrument so you too can get the girl of your dreams. Or maybe not. Check it out. Even if you hate jazz. No, especially if you hate jazz, not because it’ll automatically endow you with a new appreciation for the art of jazz but because you can then tell all your friends who love jazz that you thought Whiplash was the coolest movie ever and those friends will no longer be able to call you “ignorant”.

Fast-travel to other parts:

Sunday, November 15, 2015

100-something Movies You Should See If You Like Movies: Q-S

Continuing a dynamic and somewhat subjective list of truly excellent movies for people who like all kinds of movies.  For a more thorough explanation of the methodology behind these recommendations, check out part 1 here.  Newer entries will be labeled u1, u2, u3... uX depending on when I add them, so use your internet word searcher and check back in several months to follow my ongoing chronicle of the best that Hollywood has to offer.  Links to other sections are appended at the bottom.

Quiz Show –

Dark and maddening look at game show ethics and reality television in general.  I really ought to watch it again because I haven’t seen it since I was a little, half-formed teen.  Oh well.

The Raid: Redemption –

I’d throw in The Raid 2 as well if it wasn’t so dang long and the storyline binding together the fight scenes wasn’t so dull.  The first Raid movie is about a police force infiltrating a tower full of mobsters and everyone wiping out everyone else in a nearly nonstop sequence of the most brutal martial arts battles captured to date.  There’s scarcely a plot to speak of but the movie’s undeniably entertaining and tense with no clear indicators of which characters are safe.  It’s also one of the only movies to date that I’ve seen utilize shaky camera effectively.  The one downside to viewing The Raid is that you’ll so spoil yourself you won’t be able to enjoy a multitude of other, not-as-awesome martial arts movies.  In the same way that playing Half-life 2 and Halo so early in my life has ruined my ability to truly relish any story-driven shooter game, The Raid: Redemption gutted any shot I may have had at liking a crappy film like 13 Assassins, a tonally inconsistent drama/comedy/action flick that’s weakly shot and edited and choreographed all around.

Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade –

I like the third one the most because of the added dynamic between Indy and Pa Jones, though the action of the first remains especially impressive more than thirty years later.  Somehow I managed to cheat my birth date and catch Raiders on the big screen, an unexpected journey well worth the taking.  I haven’t seen Temple of Doom in a long time, and I’m not that motivated to return to it.

Rain Man –

Let me let you in on a little secret.  K. Mart sucks.  You know what else sucks?  Tom Cruise.  That guy is such a douche in Rain Man, but who can blame him when his brother is the neediest, most high-maintenance person alive?  At least he’s not so awful towards the end.  Is there anything wrong with Dustin Hoffman, with Mr. Cruise, with Rain Man?  I don’t know.  I don’t know.

Rango –

Brought to life by Industrial Lights and Magic, Rango commands the most visually detailed, textural, and sometimes psychedelic animation ever in a fully CG film.  Plus it employs a bunch of lofty narrative terms like metaphor, epiphany, vacuum, and irony that make you feel doubleplussmart even though you know you’re watching Chinatown with Johnny Depp and a motley group of nondescript desert critters.  It’s kind of long and the average moviegoer won’t understand what the heck they should be laughing at, but for those who brought a permit for mental prospecting, this is one of animation’s greatest hidden goldmines.

Rec –

Found footage done right, it’s 70 minutes of relentlessly escalating, seamlessly captured insanity that reduced a room of 13-some college dudes to a pack of howling, jittery mutts, screaming at the television reporters not to do this or enter there or get a better shot of that.  Never has a horror movie so masterfully shown the disintegration of a seemingly controlled environment into total, hellish chaos.  Screw the English-language remake Quarantine.  Screw Rec 4 as well.  Screw Netflix for offering Rec 3, Rec 4, Quarantine 2, and a bunch of other lame, low-budget cash-ins but still not having Rec.  I’d expect nothing more.

Requiem for a Dream –

Yeah, it’s kind of a propaganda film made to tell you, “Don’t do drugs,” but it’s still the trippiest and most horrific propaganda film that one could ask from Darren Aronofsky.

Risky Business –

If it’s hard to make a movie that’s all about sex and doesn’t decline into shlock, imagine how hard it is to pull off a decent movie about a home-alone teen who calls a prostitute to lose his virginity, somehow turns into her pimp, and learns life lessons along the way.  And yet Paul Brickman managed to make just such a film, combining a superb cast, fitting synthy music, surprisingly artsy direction, and delightfully weird writing to create a more grown-up kind of Ferris Bueller.  I especially like how complex and full of contradictions Tom Cruise’s character is, on the one hand doing very imprudent, irresponsible, and immaturely rebellious things, on the other doing everything within his power to rectify the consequences of those things when they arise.  Is it just of him to open up a brothel in his parents’ house to pay for the damages to their car, circumventing the law and making easy money off of other people’s immediate impulses?  Can someone who sells her body for a living form a trusting, committed relationship with one of her clients?  Is there even such a thing as casual sex?  Risky Business raises all these ethical queries and more while throwing us for one narrative loop after another.

The Road Warrior –

The only thing I can knock Mad Max 2 for is its soundtrack, which is one of the most dated and generic 80s action soundtracks one could make.  What else can I say about The Road Warrior?  It’s got a crazy-haired Feral Kid with a boomerang in it.  Nothing else has ever had a Feral Kid with a boomerang before.  ROAD WARRIOR!

Robocop (u1)

There’s a sizeable group of people out there who seem to think that Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is a sage and wickedly satirical attack on capitalism, police militarization, or something else, but if we’re being honest, nobody watches Robocop to this day for any of those reasons.  They watch it because it’s fun to see Robocop stop criminals and say one-liners like, “Come quietly or there will be trouble.”  Because Murphy is a character one can easily root for, and the bad guys get their just deserts in ridiculously violent ways.  Because the world depicted still looks believable and there’s a certain undying charm in the stop-motion ED-209 effects.  I’m also inclined to agree with Red Letter Media that Robocop 2 is underrated, if lacking the heft of the original, and I will never watch Robocop 3.

Rosemary’s Baby (u1)

Possibly the best horror movie ever made in its time still holds up remarkably well today.

Run Lola Run –

Run Lola Run doesn’t belong on a list of history’s greatest movies, as it never really moved my heart to any human sentiment, but seeing as this is a list of (hopefully diverse) movies for people who love all sorts of movies, I can recommend it with all my untouched heart.  Without indulging in gunplay, fistfights, car chases, explosions, showy stunt work, or any other typical action staples, this is simply an exemplary model of how an action movie ought to be constructed.  In Lola Rennt, the mix of low and high camera angles, the driving electronic score, and the energetic editing create the action, turning something as rudimentary as a red-haired girl running through a city into something truly gripping and awesome.  I would juxtapose this favorably with the latest Bond catastrophe Spectre, which has barrel-rolling helicopters, plane crashes, detonating watch bombs, kidnappings at gunpoint, collapsing buildings, no fewer than 4 international locations, and is an absolute bore to watch because of how blandly the director opted to shoot it.  There’s a bit of scattered German swearing, but otherwise Lola is a lot more family-appropriate action-wise than Bond.  It’s certainly more appropriate for your brain.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World –

“I’m going to be needing my own bed tonight.  It’s for sex... I may need it for a year.”  Edgar Wright’s a really pathetic director when he has to come up with his own unique film universe (see Shaun of the Dead), but damned if his style doesn’t lend itself well to comic book movies.  One of my friends confided that there’s something oddly attractive about the character of Ramona Flowers, and I couldn’t second that more highly.  She’s also aggravatingly confusing and hard to read, just like real women.  Bravo, Edgar Wright and crew, here to make me think about love and get sad and stuff.  1, 2, 3, 4…

Secret Sunshine (u1)

Criterion has a fine essay on the spiritual themes of Secret Sunshine that probably does a better job summarizing its merits than I have time to do.  One thing I got out of it as a mere Christian raised in evangelical circles that the Criterion writer probably didn’t is the importance of meeting people where they’re at in their suffering instead of ministering to unreceptive ears.  While told from a secular point of view, the movie doesn’t indiscriminately mock religion or those who seek peace in God, only those most fervent and presumptive proselytizers who think they know exactly why someone thinks the way they do (“Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t real…”) and dish up overused evangelical catchphrases to people who are mired in grief.  I believe it’s an intentional irony that the most Christ-like, loving character in the film is a nonbeliever who starts going to church just for the sake of cozying up to the woman he likes.

A Separation (u1)

The guy who made this movie is a political stuntman and sellout to his countrymen in Iran, but he does make damn fine movies every now and then.  A Separation is totally humorless and depressing but extremely well acted with culturally universal themes of justice, subjectivity of memory, and spirit vs. the letter of the law.

A Serious Man (u1)

A Serious Man may not be the funniest or most technically impressive film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography, but it might just be my favorite, no thanks to Sy Ableman.  Some people have viewed it (and praised it) as a bleak and atheistic movie denying the existence of any grander meaning behind humanity’s suffering, but I think the message of the movie is a whole lot simpler and on the nose: no one is entitled to an explanation from God – after all, He’s God –, and the order behind the universe is like the mathematics behind Schrodinger’s Cat, a perplexing mystery we all have to accept on faith.  Longer review here.

Seven (u1) 

Was there a mainstream movie in the 90s that exuded a more filthy atmosphere and sense of foreboding than Se7en?  “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

The Shining –

Repeatedly beat up by its author for being so different from the source material, The Shining is a testament to the things a director can achieve when he doesn’t stay true to the book.  If The Shining – the movie had mirrored both the supernatural themes and all the inexplicable scares of The Shining – the book – e.g. the snakelike animate fire hose, the hedge animals, the increasingly perverted, animalistic partygoers –, it would satisfy neither Stephen King readers nor Stephen King viewers, but because Stanley Kubrick deviated so significantly from the book and set Jack Nicholson free to go completely mad as Torrance, people like me can read and watch The Shining with fresh eyes and enjoy both versions for the distinctly creepy images that each portrays.  I wouldn’t say that Shining is a particularly frightening movie because Kubrick’s style combined with elaborate production design is uncommonly whimsical and artsy, but that artsiness of craft is ultimately the primary reason any film lover should see it.  Dat steadicam doe.

Shrek –

That movie I watched 15 or so times as a kid without processing any of the inappropriate humor because I was that innocent.  Putting aside the plentiful raunchy puns, Shrek is the witty and emotional saga of true love, forgiveness, and unconditional friendship that Pixar wishes it could write.  More thoughts on it and Hellboy here, but have you ever heard a person say, “Hell no, I don’t like no Shrek?”  Shrek has got to be the most delicious movie on the whole damn planet.  One of a kind.

The Silence of the Lambs –

Not really a horror movie but still more disturbing than most of the ones I’ve seen.  Perhaps the most disturbing part is all the stupid sequels and spinoffs that came after it just because the movie vaguely sets itself up for such spinoffs.  Notwithstanding those, if I’m ever having an old friend for dinner, this’ll be the last film we discuss around the table.

A Simple Plan –

… isn’t nearly as simple as the planners first anticipated. The most terrible consequence of sin uncorrected is living with the knowledge that one is a sinner.

Sleeper (u1)

Woody Allen envisions an intellectually degraded, hedonistic future wherein people don’t even have the patience for sexual flings unless it’s a group activity, getting into mechanical cylinders that simulate intercourse quickly and efficiently.  Out of all the collaborations between the two actors, Diane Keaton was most attractive in Sleeper, which seems like an odd thing to mention regarding a 44-year-old movie, but so it goes.  It’s a mix of Brave New World, slapstick comedy, and general zaniness that should be recognized more as the weird departure from his formula that Allen actually pulled off to great success.

Snowpiercer –

Wow. I was leaning towards hating this because most every critic had hyped it up as a pro-Occupy, Rah Rah Wealth Redistribution allegory, but the political undertones of Snowpiercer are so nuanced that one could read it as the total opposite.  Class warfare and social justice are definitely woven into Snowpiercer’s thematic fabric, but one of the film’s many implications is that upper and lower classes are unavoidable in any stable society, egalitarian and socialistic or free-market.  It’s also visually dazzling and immaculately directed, using something as simple as a character’s body positioning to convey more information than dialogue could relate (Tony Zhou’s Every Frame A Painting has a fascinating breakdown of Snowpiercer’s cinematic language).  Far and away one of the best science-fiction movies ever made.

The Social Network (u1) –

The Social Network is an exhilarating, cynical tour guide through all of Generation Y’s newfound ways of flexing their human depravity, corruption, dishonesty, arrogance, gluttony, lust, and betrayal.  It’s basically the story of mankind crunched into a raging 2-hour firestorm of filmic, Fincherian drama, and while some of the figures depicted therein have denounced the story’s theatrics, it undoubtedly stands with the most captivating film stories of our time.  It’s also a compelling psychoanalysis of one of the most powerful corporate machines alive today, why young people latched onto it in droves (SPOILER: It was all about Sex), and how its founder shrewdly nurtured it into a powerhouse of explicit and surreptitious advertising. Fake, but accurate.  On top of that it’s simply brilliant filmmaking, as you can see in this underrated video essay on how Fincher shoots phone conversations.

Splice (u1)

A lot of people seem to hate this movie because the creature (cruelly named Dren by its creators) performs rather graphic coitus with one of the humans in a later stage of her development, and this is understandable.  Of all the sins that should repel us in enlightened society, making love to non-existent, genetically engineered bipeds definitely ranks near the top, certainly on par with or worse than abortion, terrorism, corruption, coercion, and bald-faced lying.  Within the context of Splice, I found this part one of the more imaginative and warranted love scenes I’ve come across, yet that’s not mainly why I enjoyed Vincenzo Natali’s film.  Even if for nothing else, Splice deserves a spot on this list just for better utilizing computer animation than pretty much any mainstream sci-fi to date; much like Ex Machina, it blends makeup, the actor’s physicality, and strategic CG elements to create a more believable and empathetic character than could be achieved solely through one of those tools.  Also clever is the way the priorities and ethics of the two scientists’ unfold over time, the one who seemed more caring and maternal at first being exposed as the more clinical and selfish person all along.  Unfortunately, the ending confrontation takes a needlessly icky and exploitative turn, relegating Splice to the unenviable Abyss Society of movies I love until the director just gave up and scrambled to finish the damn thing.

Spring (u1)

The DVD cover of Spring sells it as a monster movie disguised as a love story.  This is false advertising. It’s actually a love story disguised as a monster movie, one that uses wacky rules of immortality, rebirth, and oxytocin-generation to ponder about living out life to the fullest.  The cinematography is pretty but indie-movie cheap, which adds to its charm for me, and the dialogue feels natural as in the “Before” movies without being utterly boring.  The first 18 minutes are foul and unrepresentative of the movie and you should skip them.

The Squid and the Whale (u1)

Perhaps the most unsentimental and uncomfortably riotous movie ever to deal with divorce, The Squid and the Whale finds self-reflective comedy in the miseries of wretched and despicable people.  Each family member exhibits uniquely loathsome tendencies and bears legitimate grudges against the rest, but Noah Baumbach remarkably prevents any of them from emerging as moral champion, a tact he kind of abandoned in While We’re Young, where Ben Stiller clearly espouses the director’s own beliefs and Adam Driver evolves into an antagonist.  Squid being based in some part on his own childhood, I imagine Baumbach purposely projected more ignoble aspects of himself, his colleagues, and his kin onto all the characters, resulting in an extraordinarily balanced, if not conclusive or typically satisfying script.  I also must give props to any film that references Risky Business, Pink Floyd, and other 80s artifacts as vigorously as this one.  A snobbish and elitist movie that isn’t above ridiculing intellectual snobbery, The Squid and the Whale shrewdly depicts humans’ arrogant propensity to blame everything that’s going wrong in their own lives on individuals other than themselves.

Starship Troopers (u1)

Starship Troopers is a movie about bloodthirsty, indoctrinated young skulls full of mush killing giant bugs to gain their citizenship that makes one want to think twice about going to war, which is quite an achievement for what it is.  I watched this with several college students, one of whom said that it was “basically the cheesiest sci-fi movie ever made” and another of whom had difficulty accepting it was a “real movie, like released in theaters”.  Contrary to their disdain, Starship Troopers is played almost completely straight except for some scattered propaganda videos, and its seamless CGI still tramples a lot of movies made today.

Straw Dogs (u1)

Straw Dogs blew me away, and in the interest of letting it blow you away too, I refrain from giving away anything about the plot except to say I wouldn’t recommend it to the sensitive or to most women.  Dustin Hoffman is incredibly layered, the editing perfect but for a couple fast sequences at the end, and almost no prop or character is set up that isn’t put to some very memorable use.  You also shouldn’t watch Straw Dogs alone, since it begs to be discussed afterwards.

Submarine (u1)

This is the coming-of-age teen movie for those who can’t stand teen movies.  Submarine frequently breaks from conventions but not in a way that narcissistically calls attention to its breaking from conventions, which is itself a convention (see The Spectacular Now or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). For example, the token school bully of the film is not an obstacle to the protagonist pursuing his love interest because the bully character actually is the love interest, nor does writer/director Richard Aoyade ever condescend his audience by sermonizing about how bullying is wrong.  The lovely cinematography makes strong use of yellows and reds, Alex Turner contributes several wistful songs to an all-original soundtrack, and film generally does a good job not spelling out the moral of the story that stupid kids should apply to their own lives.  It’s sweet and sad and funny and possibly better the second time around.

Sunshine (u1)

Thrilling space-fiction that doesn’t rely on too many twists or frills, features a fantastic score, and incorporates some cool themes about God or immortality or something.  The DVD I have access to is broken and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I can’t really say much more.  Maybe this annotation will be replaced somewhere down the line, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Surfs Up –

There was a short spell in Hollywood starting around 2005 when everybody wanted to make a talking penguin and/or wild animals movie.  Surf’s Up is by far the most original, detailed, and well written of the bunch.  Everybody talks exactly the way you would expect a surfing penguin to talk, and the shaky camerawork (somehow emulated through motion capture) is similarly true to the documentary form.  But it’s really just a fun movie with a great soundtrack that’s all about learning to enjoy the simpler pleasures of life.  Radical.

Synecdoche, New York (u1)

At the point of writing this, I have only seen Synecdoche, New York once and do not have a very firm idea of what its plot signifies, other than that Charlie Kaufmann is a screenwriting genius.  The movie only runs two hours long but by the end you feel as though it has lasted a lifetime, which was probably the point.  An exhausting film, mentally and emotionally, that I hope to revisit sometime down the line after I’ve watched Your Movie Sucks’ feature-length analysis of the feature.

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