Monday, December 13, 2010

The 25 Best Songs of 2010

I am not a music snob. I feel it's important to declare this upfront, as the forthcoming list has the potential to brand me as a hipster indie fan who loathes mainstream pop artists because their music is too inclusive and caters to the low-brow cravings of the slovenly masses. And that honestly isn't the case. My problem with modern music isn't one of elitism but awareness. Following the Manifesto's prior music post, my friend Chuck pointed out that my taste "rarely weaves outside of indie pop/rock," and that's typically true, but it isn't because I don't like mainstream music – it's because I've usually just never heard it.

See, with movies, I watch so many that I'm generally able to maintain a comprehensive overview of the current state of cinema. Sure, I'm a bit lacking on the foreign film market, and there will always be a handful of obscure low-profile releases that evade my eye, but watching over 100 new releases per year grants me a reasonably informed perspective of the world of film. But with music, the market is so heavily saturated – literally dozens of new albums are released for public consumption every week – that I just don't have the ability to keep up. (Life as a law student doesn't help.) Furthermore, the two music websites I peruse regularly – the supremely arrogant Pitchfork Media and the only-marginally more welcoming Onion A.V. Club – tend to employ tunnel vision in championing burgeoning, underground artists at the expense of the Top 40. And while I frequently receive recommendations from my friends Brian and Maloney – both of whom are far more knowledgeable about music than I – their tastes, while not entirely insular, nevertheless tend to be indie-focused.

So if you read this list and immediately react, "I've never heard of any of these fucking bands, this guy must be an asshole," just bear in mind that I hold no ill will toward successful musicians. I probably just don't know who they are.

That said, one advantage of the massive breadth (if not wealth) of the contemporary music industry is that good new sounds are arising from everywhere, and regardless of your familiarity with the following artists, let me assure you that I'm highlighting some very good music. Sure, music more so than most art forms carries with it a degree of subjectivity – you won't find any tribute to Kanye West on this site, for example – but I'm confident that most readers will enjoy at least a handful of the following songs, most likely a large majority.

As for the list itself, you'll notice that this post is highlighting 2010's best songs rather than albums. This is a bit of an ideological reversal for me, as I try to be very album-focused when I listen to music. For whatever reason, however, very few albums impressed me in their totality over the past year; rather, I found myself routinely returning to particular songs, then skipping forward to other favorite tracks, as opposed to absorbing albums in their entirety. For better or worse, 2010, it appears, was the Year of the Single.

But what a collection of singles. Going forward, I'm unlikely to listen to very many albums from 2010, but I'll revisit the following songs again and again. One note: In an effort to diversify, I'm limiting myself to a max of one song per artist (meaning I can't put three Yeasayer tracks in my top five, but no matter). And with that, I present the Manifesto's Best Songs of 2010:

(Quick note on the videos: For songs that feature an accompanying music video designed specifically for that song, I'm embedding it. For those that don't, I'm just linking to a YouTube upload of the song that includes the audio, so even if an actual video doesn't exist, a listen is just a click away. As for the videos themselves, I am recommending the songs, not the videos. In general, some music videos enhance the power and meaning of a song through restraint, well-chosen thematic imagery, and overall directorial savvy. Most don't. Take that for what it's worth.)

25. Delorean – Stay Close. Two minutes into this track – a frothy slice of upbeat electronica – the backing vocals suddenly hiss "Get up, get-up, get-up-get-up get up!" They needn't have bothered, as you'll already be on your feet by then. Rarely has summery electro-pop been more breezily enjoyable.

24. Titus Andronicus – Theme from "Cheers"
. Titus Andronicus' first album, The Airing of Grievances, was a frenzied assault on even the roughest roughneck's auditory sensibilities, a heavy-metal barrage that was as incomprehensible as it was loud. Their follow-up, the high-concept effort The Monitor, represents significant growth, though it still didn't quite click for me as a cohesive narrative. This track, however, showcases their talents for combining quippy storytelling with earnest, smashing hard-rock. And with lyrics such as "Let's get fucked up, and let's pretend we're all O.K." and "I need a whiskey right now!", it makes me want to get really, really drunk. So there's that.

23. Midlake – Rulers, Ruling All Things. Midlake's quiet, ramshackle sound can stray from subtly insistent to simply somnambulant. Few bands can adequately imitate the backwoods charm and urgency of Bon Iver, and on their latest album, Midlake frequently step awry. But on this track, they marry their inherently low-key strumming with surprising verve. They rarely raise their voices, but the low-register bass line builds gradually, and the chorus ("I only want to be left to my own ways") possesses an unmistakable resolve.

22. The Depreciation Guild – Dream About Me
. The best and worst thing about great shoegaze is that the words don't really matter. That's disturbing in that I can find myself "singing" along to a song without knowing any of the lyrics, which in theory is impossible and disparages any effort the band put into crafting the lyrics. But certain music is more about soundscapes than words, and the rich, shimmering haziness of the Depreciation Guild forms its own language of poetry. It also makes the imperative of the title – which, taken objectively, is a bit creepy – a soft-spoken, entirely reasonable request.

21. The New Pornographers – Crash Years
. "Traffic was slow for the crash years! There's no other show like it 'round here!" When Neko Case puts her voice into something, she's wielding a weapon of enormous power. That voice is biblical – if she ever switched from singing to sermonizing, she could incite a new Crusade.

(Love the video, by the way. While most music videos are hyperactive to the point of disorientation, this one features a formal discipline on par with the Coen Brothers. In fact, it recalls the Brothers' famous parking lot scene from Fargo, only married to the brisk whimsy of Mary Poppins.)

20. Broken Bells – The Ghost Inside
. Broken Bells is a collaboration between James Mercer (of The Shins) and Brian Burton, whose stage name is Danger Mouse and who is apparently one of the most talented producers in the business. "The Ghost Inside," which combines a flamboyant falsetto with a magnificent bass funk, doesn't sound much like a Shins song (though Mercer delivers a reliably appealing bridge), but it's just as unpredictably weird as that band's best music.

(Two great videos in a row. This one stars "Mad Men"'s Christina Hendricks and is as fascinating as it is nonsensical. Did I mention it stars Christina Hendricks?)

19. Bat for Lashes/Beck – Let's Get Lost
. This collaboration was made for the third Twilight movie, and whatever derision you may direct toward that franchise, you can't deny that it's attracted some mighty impressive musicians. "Let's Get Lost" utilizes Natasha Khan's breathtaking vocal delivery to its full, ethereal effect, resulting in a mythic romanticism that the film earnestly strives for but can't quite match (though it's damn enjoyable, but that's another story). "Just for tonight, darling, let's get lost" she pleads over and over again – like you'd say no?

18. Surfer Blood – Floating Vibes. This was a tough decision, as I could just as easily have selected "Swim" or "Take It Easy" from Surfer Blood's delightful debut album Astro Coast and come away happy. But "Floating Vibes", the opening track on Astro Coast, is a perfect slice of pop music. The production is tightly wound, the songwriting is punchy ("If you're moving out to the West/Then you'd better learn how to surf"), the percussion never stops pushing forward, and the electric guitars just plain rock. Expect big things from these guys.

17. Jimmy Eat World – Cut
. Hey, a mainstream band! Of course, I have no idea if Jimmy Eat World are still popular, but they should be, especially after releasing such a finely tuned album as Invented. The composition of "Cut", however, is a far cry from the band that briefly took over pop radio nine years ago with "The Middle". It's a grand, vaguely operatic apology piece that slowly builds to a soaring chorus of warning ("If it's your name in lights, and if the time is yours/You'd be on your back/You'd be on the floor"). Done wrong, such a piece could come off as untethered and self-indulgent; done right, it's majestic.

16. Metric – Black Sheep. In releasing their stellar 2009 album Fantasies, Metric – for reasons I will never be able to adequately discern – elected not to include this slammin' piece of pop-rock. That worked out just fine for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World director Edgar Wright, who snatched up the track and assigned it to his film's fictional megastar rockers, The Clash at Demonhead. And while Metric may not yet possess the global fame of that comic-book quartet, this song should send them well on their way. A titillating tour de force of sonic explosiveness, "Black Sheep" is exactly the kind of song that a wildly popular band would play at a concert crawling with rabid, ravenous fans. It is also a supremely well-constructed song, with thrashing guitars yielding only to Emily Haines' (or Brie Larson's, in the film) fiery vocals. Rock on, Clash at Demonhead.

15. Frightened Rabbit – Nothing Like You. This was another tough call, as The Winter of Mixed Drinks features 4-5 single-worthy tracks. But "Nothing Like You" takes the spot thanks to its marvelously vindictive description of a rebound relationship. "There is nothing like someone new/This girl she was nothing like you," Scott Hutchison seethes while the guitars swirl around him. But there's some sadness amidst the clamor as well, and as Hutchison admits that "she was not the cure for cancer", we have to wonder just how much catharsis he's really achieved.

(The predictably frenetic video plays nicely on that sentiment, as after the music stops, the band slowly looks around as if to wonder if their rage and bitterness have meant anything.)

14. Shearwater – Castaways
. If Neko Case's voice can compel men to go to war, Jonathan Meiburg's can make them stop in their tracks and weep. Ceaselessly flirting with falsetto, Meiburg's relentless octave-shifting lends his songs a hushed, spellbinding grandiosity, as if he's forecasting the end of the world in the most gorgeous way possible. Shearwater's sound is often contemplative, and "Castaways" is by no means bombastic, but neither is it soft-pedaled, and a relentless snare line emphasizes the breathless urgency of Shearwater's music.

13. The Gaslight Anthem – Old Haunts. For a band that traffics so heavily in nostalgia, "Old Haunts" is a wry piece of self-criticism, with its admonishing refrain, "Don't sing me your songs about the good times/Those days are gone and you should just let 'em go". Whether or not the Springsteen worshippers stake out any new territory compared to their storied predecessors is a question for a more learned musical historian; as far as I'm concerned, their sound captures the essence of enjoyable rock music. Perfectly balanced guitars, rock-solid hooks, an energetic bridge, pumping percussion – there may not be that much new to see here, but what we have is plenty.

12. Diamond Rings – Wait & See. The beat for this song is unhealthily compelling. Whenever I listen to it while driving, I start bobbing my head like I'm in a slow-motion version of A Night at the Roxbury. Throw in the extraordinary timbre of John O'Regan's voice – the guy sounds like Johnny Cash filtered through David Bowie – and the result is one of the most insidious can't-stop-singing-this-to-yourself-in-the-shower songs of the year.

(Also, this video is incontrovertible proof that you should never watch a music video before listening to the song first. O'Regan looks like a reject from the Marilyn Manson Fan Club. If someone had sent me this video absent any context, I would have shrieked and closed it immediately, terrified that I'd just been spammed by a gay porn site. The scary part? Once you accept the outrageousness of it, the video is kind of cool.)

11. Against Me! – Because of the Shame
. Is there a sadder opening line to a song than "We used to get high together instead of getting high alone"? The sound of Against Me! is pure punk-rock (with a deceptive measure of craftsmanship), but the fury of their noise can disguise some truly depressing narratives. The intriguing dichotomy of White Crosses, their latest album, is that their id-powered rage-rock receives the benefit of a polished, near-meticulous production. That might suggest a contradiction, but it dramatically enhances the communication of their message, and Tom Gabel's lyrics are refreshingly prioritized ahead of the clanging guitars and percussion. That's particularly important on "Because of the Shame", which tells the sorrowful story of a girl searching for a fresh start, only to wind up dead anyway. "I watched your mother bury you today with tears in her eyes/Oh it wasn't her words that shook me but the resemblance you shared," he laments. Gabel isn't the only one being shaken here.

10. Arcade Fire – City with No Children. I wasn't plugged in to the music industry in 2004, so when the zeitgeist hit along with Arcade Fire's Funeral, I missed it. I wonder if that's prevented me from fully engaging with their music, as their soothing alt-rock has always kept me at a bit of a distance, but I liked a great deal of The Suburbs, no track more so than this one. Backed by a single bass that never, ever stops, Win Butler delivers a narrative about ... well, I'm not exactly sure, but he somehow sounds both alarmed and strangely contented. Sure, the concept of a city – much less a suburban one – lacking in children is thoroughly terrifying, but Butler's vocals carry with them a quiet sense of confident, against-all-odds optimism. He's swaddling the apocalypse in silk.

9. Vampire Weekend – Giving Up the Gun. Unlike Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend's arrival on the indie music scene in early 2008 was virtually synchronized with my own dawning realization that pop music existed in a realm outside animated Disney films. Still, I never entirely embraced their self-titled first album, which, while pleasant and well-crafted, felt a bit samey to me (though whenever you title a song "Oxford Comma", you've earned my attention). I'm a bigger fan of their sophomore effort, Contra, which explores a wider variety of sonic tropes and concludes with the startlingly introspective "I Think Ur a Contra". Yet the crowning achievement of that album is clearly "Giving Up the Gun", an upbeat slice of groove-rock that would have felt comfortably at home on their first album but is nevertheless indicative of the band's growth. The guitars perfectly complement Ezra Koenig's vocals, and the chorus is predictably catchy, but there's a moment at the four-minute mark when Koenig's voice suddenly drops out and the pace slows as the backup singers simply repeat the refrain ("I see you shine in your way/Go on, go on, go on"), and then a rapid-fire snare brings us back up to speed. It's a lovely little detail from a tremendously talented band whose best is still yet to come.

(Hard to decide the best thing about this video. For one thing, it features a hot redhead playing tennis (sort of). For another, Jake Gyllenhaal randomly shows up. And yet I think my favorite detail is that the redhead is left-handed. Good-looking southpaws are hard to find.)

8. ceo – Illuminata
. There's a classic scene from In & Out (which is a terrible movie, but no matter) in which Kevin Kline, who's gay, listens to a self-help tape that informs him that "truly manly men do not dance". He then spends the next minute trying against his will to resist the beat of Aretha Franklin's "I Will Survive" before ultimately yielding to his base desires and going berserk. I bring this up because I dare you to listen to this song – with its rapid-fire electronic beat and scat-based backing vocals – and not dance. You will fail.

7. Taylor Swift – Back to December. In a sense, Kanye West's idiotic sabotage of Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at last year's MTV Music Awards served her interests, because it likely engendered some measure of sympathy for her, thus postponing the pop-culture backlash that inevitably accompanies any popular musician's ascension to global fame, much less one who caters to earnest young girls. That backlash is still coming (if it hasn't already arrived), and that's a shame because Taylor Swift is really fucking talented. The best thing about her latest album, the excellent Speak Now, is that in spite of its flawless production, it carries no acknowledgment of Swift's current status as an icon. Rather, it's an astonishingly earnest set of songs by a truly earnest artist who doesn't seem remotely aware that she now basically rules the world. No track typifies this more beautifully than "Back to December" (though "Dear John" comes pretty damn close), a yearning, heart-on-her-sleeve apology to an ex-boyfriend she once dumped. Brutally frank lyrics like "Turns out freedom ain't nothing but missing you/Wishing I'd realized what I had when you were mine" could turn to mush in the wrong artist's hands, but Swift's sentimentality – not to mention her dead-center vocal delivery – is so heartfelt that we can't question the authenticity of her emotions. She may be one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but she's still just a scared little girl. And that's what makes her music so good.

(Also, never in my life have I fantasized that an ex-girlfriend would stand outside my apartment blaring this song from a boom box. Just wanted to clear that up.)

6. The Hold Steady – The Weekenders. No 2010 album disappointed me more than the Hold Steady's Heaven Is Whenever – not because it was bad, mind you, but because it didn't reach the potentially unreachable standards I've set for one of my favorite bands. But while the album as a whole is disappointing, "The Weekenders" represents the Hold Steady at the peak of their form, a hard-charging ballad of lost love and bitterness. Finn still displays his gift for casually dispensing witticisms ("She said 'The theme of this party's the industrial age'/And you came in dressed like a train wreck"), but he continues to mature as a singer, expanding the range of his voice while retaining the intimacy of his half-spoken style. But it's the band's gift for transforming the rough-and-tumble sound of bar-punk into a venue of unsuspecting majesty that remains its greatest strength. Late in the song, Finn prophesies, "If you swear to keep it decent, then yeah I'll come and see you/But it's not gonna be like in romantic comedies/In the end I bet no one learns a lesson," before Tad Kubler's guitar solo ascends into the stratosphere. They can still make music magical, even if they're dressed like a train wreck.

5. Hot Chip – I Feel Better. I'm not much of a dancer (and by "not much" I mean "so totally not at all"), so it might seem strange that I enjoy Hot Chip's dance-pop so immensely. But in a sense, they're really an emo group disguised as an electronica outfit, and Alexis Taylor's swooning falsetto is magnetically arresting. On one level, "I Feel Better" is pure, groove-happy dance music, with a pulse-pounding beat and wave upon wave of restless synthesizers. On another, it's a sad, desperate love song. "I only want one life together in our arms," Taylor pleads over and over as the beat slams relentlessly behind him, and it's hard to know whether we should dance, cry, or both.

(Quite the bait-and-switch from the video. You'll see what I mean.)

4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Say No to Love
. There is some music with which I feel an inexplicable connection, an intimacy, a sense that it was written solely for me. And then there's a song like this, which is basically saying, in the most dulcet tones possible, "You will never be happy, so you might as well stop trying". That it is exquisitely produced, sonically upbeat, and just generally frighteningly beautiful does little to detract from the cruelty of its message. It's a gilded knife, and it's headed straight for your heart.

3. Belle and Sebastian – I Didn't See It Coming
. I know, I'm just being predictable; I love Belle and Sebastian, so obviously they're going to show up high on my list, right? But wait a minute: Are we even sure this is a Belle and Sebastian song? Their frontman, Stuart Murdoch, plays second fiddle to Sarah Martin, and more importantly, the song isn't remotely clever. Murdoch is a poet slumming as a musician, so where are the coy quips, the witty asides? Instead we just have one simple imperative: "Make me dance, I want to surrender." And from that command blooms a rich, tender duet that is gorgeous in its magnificent simplicity. Buoyed by subtle harmonies, "I Didn't See It Coming" builds and builds until Murdoch finally takes center stage, crowing to the crowd, "Read about us in the morning papers when we make it/When we make it alive!" The result is a superlative piece of music that will make even the most hard-hearted listener surrender.

2. Yeasayer – Madder Red
. This Brooklyn quartet delivered three pantheon songs on their latest album, and I could just as easily have gone with "Ambling Alp" or "O.N.E." But the majesty of "Madder Red" is impossible to deny, with its cooing backup singers doing battle with its ruthless rhythm section, while Chris Keating's full-bodied vocals glide from baritone to falsetto and back. "Never gave a thought to an honorable living/Always had sense enough to lie," Keating confesses in the bridge, but that's false cynicism, and it masks the inherent beauty of Yeasayer's music. It's a soaring brand of glistening glam-rock that fearlessly rejects musical norms, but "Madder Red", daring as it may be, is by no means the product of random experimentation. This is craftsmanship at its finest.

(Warning: This video, featuring Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Kristen Bell, will absolutely make you cry. I'm not kidding.)

1. The National – Conversation 16
. "I think the kids are in trouble/I do not know what all the troubles are for." And so we enter the life of Matt Berninger, a lost soul trying helplessly to cope with middle age and wondering how the hell he's gone so wrong. That's a lie, of course, at least as it pertains to his music; The National are becoming ever more successful, which makes sense given that with every successive album they somehow improve upon their last. But a haunting sadness pervades their latest release (the transcendent High Violet), and on "Conversation 16" they hit rock-bottom. "You'd never believe the shitty thoughts I think," Berninger mumbles in his inimitable bottomless rumble. He then illustrates just how shitty those thoughts are, whether he's referring to tedious dinner-dates ("I'll try to hold it together till our friends are gone"), his subsistence "on coffee and flowers", or his contemplation of suicide ("I have my head in the oven so you know where I'll be"). Meanwhile, the band's production is quietly terrific, with the drums constantly pushing Berninger forward when all he really wants to do is turn back and search for an escape. "We'll leave the silver city 'cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams," he resolves, but he's just fooling himself. As "Conversation 16" reaches its dire, spellbinding conclusion – the rat-a-tat snare sending him toward a cliff while his band mates sigh like broken angels – Berninger finally gives up and yields to his own demons: "I am evil." Could have fooled me – the music is sublime.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

2010's great movies thus far. All three of them.

A few months ago, my friend Brent sent me the following email: "Is Robin Hood worth watching for a guy who doesn't go to many movies?" It was his last phrase that forced me to remind myself of a simple fact: Not everyone is obsessed with movies. Not everyone sees over 100 movies per year. Not everyone considers movies to be among the five most important things in his life, along with his family, his softball team, his PlayStation 3, and Kyle Singler.

So when people ask me whether or not I recommend a certain film, I need to recognize that many people demand excellence from movies in a way that I don't. Don't get me wrong, I have high standards for movies – it's just that, because they're my preferred method of existence, I can feel satisfied after watching a perfectly decent one as opposed to a truly great one. But if I'm going to recommend a film to someone like Brent – someone who simply doesn't watch that many movies – then it needs to pass a certain threshold.

And when viewing the first eight months of 2010's cinematic slate through that particular prism, things look pretty bleak. Sure, I've seen more than a handful of good films, but very few would pass the Brent test. Still, lest I paint myself as one of those dour curmudgeons who never ceases complaining about modern movies, I wanted to highlight three films released thus far in 2010 that are truly great. (Note: I'm leaving off The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, partly because I already championed it here, partly because it is most assuredly not for everyone. But it's pretty great.) Overall, the first two-thirds of 2010 at the theatre may have underwhelmed, but these three pictures all earn the Manifesto's enthusiastic recommendation – and that, I must say, is tough to come by.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Color me surprised. Going into the theatre for this movie, I knew virtually nothing about Edgar Wright's post-punk fantasy, only that it played well with the nerds at Comic-Con and starred Michael Cera of Superbad/Juno/"Arrested Development" fame. So when I found myself thrown into a videogame-inspired universe that seemed like a cross between the romantic surrealism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a classic "Street Fighter" bout, I felt like I'd just been pummeled with a 64-hit combo. But despite possessing a frenzied energy rivaling that of Moulin Rouge!, Wright's valentine to nerddom and indie rock isn't just an assault on the senses. It's also a finely textured, deeply heartfelt romance that treats both its universe and its characters with nostalgic, near-fetishistic affection. Of course, it tanked at the box office, but the world of Scott Pilgrim – endlessly inventive yet strangely at home – will live on for years to come.

Toy Story 3. Critics have been decrying the epidemic that is sequelitis for decades, but Toy Story 3 proves that a numeric appendage to a title doesn't automatically deprive a film of originality. Of course, Toy Story 3 builds from its predecessors' lovingly constructed universe, but it gleams with a vibrancy all its own. That's true of course in terms of the predictably dazzling animation, but it's also in the franchise's gentle maturation into adulthood, both in terms of its subjects and its subject matter. It's overly facile to suggest that Toy Story 3 is about growing up, but it is about how the world is ceaselessly changing and how difficult it is to combat that inexorability. The genius of the movie is that it conveys its brute-force themes with such nimble dexterity and abundant humor that it glides along effortlessly, right until its devastating finale, which delivers the most powerful emotional stomach-punch I've felt at the movies in years.

Inception. As if you were expecting something else. I won't get into the frivolous meta-debate between stuffy critics and self-righteous bloggers that consumed the blogosphere upon the release of Inception – though for those interested, A.O. Scott chronicled the matter nicely – but I'll happily thrown my hat in with those declaring Christopher Nolan's mind-bending thriller to be a masterpiece. Praise can be heaped on Inception for virtually every aspect of its filmmaking, from its agonizing craftsmanship (Lee Smith's editing, Hans Zimmer's score, and Guy Dyas' production design lead the way) to its preposterously talented cast (Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy are among those providing sturdy support for the incomparable Leonardo DiCaprio) to its intriguing metaphysical exploration of how dreams intermingle with reality. For fans of cinematic technique, it's a feast.

But for me, the magnificence of Inception lies in the breathlessness of it all, the slack-jawed wonder that gripped me in a way I haven't felt since The Matrix. It's the same sense of electricity that Nolan brought to The Dark Knight, only this time he's tethered his vast moviemaking genius to a meticulously constructed screenplay that grants Inception just the proper dosage of realism; there's a firm element of order to his mad labyrinth, buried amidst all of the crumbling buildings and spiraling stairs. The result is an utterly gripping moviegoing experience, the kind that renews my faith in cinema as a medium.

In retrospect, I suppose the only problem I have with Inception is that it ends. But I suppose that's the way of things: You can dream for awhile, but sooner or later, you always have to come back to reality.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Get your subtitles on: Foreign films you need to see

When we were growing up, my sister refused to watch foreign movies. I can't recall her precise rationale for this, although given how childish we both were at the time, I'm not sure our reasoning processes could have been deemed to have anything resembling a "rationale". I think she complained about having to read the subtitles, which didn't make much sense given that she was perfectly literate. Regardless, whenever my father suggested watching a foreign movie, he was met with extreme disdain, not to mention occasional wailing.

Nowadays, armed with the power of a Netflix account, my sister probably watches 5-6 foreign movies each month. This victory over her earlier cinematic xenophobia can largely be attributed simply to growing up, but I'll tentatively argue that it's symptomatic of our country's maturation toward foreign movies as a whole. Over the past decade, films like Amelie, City of God, and Pan's Labyrinth have gained prominence not just abroad but within American cultural circles (all three earned major nominations at the Oscars, not just for Best Foreign Language Film). As a national collective, our moviegoing tastes have ever-so-gradually expanded, and subtitled pictures lack the stigma they once possessed.

Of course, there's still work to do. Distribution for foreign films, though improving, remains woefully inadequate, meaning that most American moviegoers have to wait until the DVD release in order to partake in imported entertainment. Fortunately, the advent of Netflix is a tremendous boon to viewers who desire to expand their horizons beyond our borders. As consumers, we are no longer at the mercy of the tyrannical multiplex infrastructure; if we want to watch a movie about suicidal Turkish lovers, you're not going to fucking stop us.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm in no way decrying the current state of American cinema. I've always fashioned myself a champion of mainstream movie entertainment, and there's a great deal to like about a number of studio-helmed blockbusters that dominate the contemporary landscape. There's just no reason to limit our collective sphere of interest when we can finally gain access to the fertile soil that's available overseas.

To that end, this post is designed to introduce readers to 20 high-quality foreign films of which, for whatever reason, you just aren't aware. (Note that by "foreign" I really mean foreign language, so movies from Britain and Australia are ineligible. Also note that all but two of my selections are from this past decade because, well, such is life.) Now, this compendium is by no means intended to be an all-encompassing. Obviously there are hundreds of other excellent foreign films out there that I've excluded, either because I've forgotten about them or – more likely – I simply haven't seen them. That's the great thing about movies: There are always more good ones to watch.

So, feel free to sound off regarding any particularly egregious omissions in the Comments. In the meantime, if you're feeling avant garde or just in the mood for some foreign flavor, you can't go wrong with any of these. In no particular order (i.e., I spent three hours carefully selecting the order, but I can't possibly describe the method to my madness) ...

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Romania, 2007). This one's a no-brainer. Cristian Mungiu's ferociously gripping drama set during the Romanian dictatorship in 1987 starts off slowly, as we meet two friendly female college students who seem to be planning some sort of trip. By the time it ends, Mungiu has subjected both his characters and his audience to primal fear and grotesque villainy, all presented with prosaic, chillingly observant technique. Featuring a number of excruciatingly long handheld takes, Mungiu's camera makes no comment on the bleakness of his characters' predicament, though the body language of his actors – most notably the achingly sympathetic Anamaria Marinca and the quietly terrifying Vlad Ivanov – says plenty. Stylistically austere, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days uses no music whatsoever, but that doesn't mean it doesn't sing.

Just Another Love Story (Denmark, 2009)
. Love that title. Ole Bornedal's chaotic, unpredictable thriller indeed focuses on just another everyman, a world-weary crime scene photographer played with perpetually expanding disbelief by Anders W. Berthelsen. One minute he's on a routine investigation, and then suddenly he's sleeping with an amnesiac in her hospital bed, ducking stares from an eerie masked man in a wheelchair (or did he imagine that?), and impersonating a shadowy figure who was murdered in the Thai underworld (wasn't he?). Bornedal's script zigs and zags frantically, resulting in a breathless, giddily entertaining thriller that gleefully toys with its viewers' preconceptions. An American remake is already in the works, with (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb rumored to be at the helm, and while a retooled script could provide some welcome ballast to Bornedal's freewheeling twists and turns, it's hard to imagine another love story quite like this one.

Let the Right One In (Sweden, 2008)
. Great, another fucking vampire movie. Hold on: The vampire in question is a skittish 12-year-old girl, and the movie is really about her gentle, burgeoning friendship with the bullied boy next door. Tomas Alfredson's film is part tender romance, part delicate coming-of-age story, and part Carrie-esque horror. That might sound like an ungainly mixture, but Alfredson pulls it off thanks to true regard for his characters, as well as masterful command of his craft. There are moments in Let the Right One In – such as a scene in which the camera observes from afar as a figure silently scales a building – that constitute pure filmmaking on the level of Spielberg or, well, Brian de Palma. Cloverfield director Matt Reeves has a remake (titled Let Me In and starring Kick-Ass' Chloe Grace Moretz and The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee) arriving in October, and while it may be a noble attempt to introduce American audiences to the mythology, it's difficult to conceive how he can possibly improve on the original.

Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico, 2006)
. If the goal of this list is to introduce readers to films they've never heard of, then Pan's Labyrinth doesn't really belong. It made a healthy $38 million at the U.S. box office and garnered six Oscar nominations (winning three); clearly, it's already found its audience. But I just can't leave it off. A supremely original story combining whimsical childhood fantasy and acutely adult rebellion against fascist rule, Guillermo del Toro's majestic movie retains its innovative hue four years after its release. Originality may be a theme of this post as a whole, but innovation isn't an end in itself – there are plenty of bad movies that are no less terrible simply because they're original. But del Toro weaves his disparate threads together so fluidly that he creates a cohesive tapestry depicting both a child's plight and a nation's defiance. It's a story that's magical in any language.

Tell No One (France, 2008)
. Pure suspense. Guillaume Canet's thriller sinks its hooks into its viewers with a spooky, economical opening – a man gets knocked out, a woman disappears – and never relinquishes its hold. The screenplay, which spans at least eight years and half-a-dozen double-crosses, is frenziedly complicated in the vein of classic noirs like The Big Sleep, but Canet shepherds us along gracefully. He's ably assisted by François Cluzet, who grounds the movie in his fiercely pragmatic performance as a doctor desperately trying to unravel the mystery of his wife's death. The film's high point is a frantic foot-chase across a highway, a sequence that is free of visible special effects but nevertheless matches the freeway chase from The Matrix Reloaded for verve and adrenalin.

Head-On (Germany, 2005)
. And here are those suicidal Turkish lovers I was talking about. Titanic twin performances from Birol Ünel and Sibel Kekilli drive Fatih Akin's poignant drama about two desperate souls who find a measure of peace in each other. The photography is drenched in grime and grit – this is not a flattering portrait of Germany – and the narrative pulls no punches in its descent into despair (a stabbing sequence is particularly disturbing, as are multiple suicide attempts). Yet Head-On is somehow strangely optimistic, and it plays some light grace notes of humor and hope amidst its agony. There's a lot of filth in the world, and this movie shows us plenty of it, but it also shows us how the intimacy of love can repel even the foulest elements of human nature.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden, 2010)
. A self-described international sensation, the first installment of Stieg Larsson's fantastically popular Millennium Trilogy surprisingly doesn't cater to typical populist tastes. It is pervasively, almost uncomfortably violent, and it traffics in seedy topics such as incest, rape, and Nazism. It is also riveting entertainment. Briskly paced and tightly plotted, it shades its lead characters with depth and nuance incongruous with its pulpy subject matter. And the performance of Noomi Rapace is revelatory. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo represents yet another film on this list rumored to be the target of an American remake, this time with David Fincher behind the camera and, um, Carey Mulligan in the title role. Don't get me wrong, I think Carey Mulligan is an excellent actress, but I can't possibly see her matching Rapace's intensely focused ferocity. Best not to try.

The Wages of Fear (France, 1953)
. Whoa, wait a minute – 1953? Sue me, I watched it for the first time a few years ago. And unlike a handful of films deemed to be critical classics (cough, The Rules of the Game), I was fully on board with this mesmerizing thriller. After a meandering first half that wanders aimlessly through a dilapidated village, Henri-Georges Clouzot abruptly centers his film on a simple task: Four men must navigate two trucks laden with explosives across twisting roads and treacherous terrain. The setup is simple, but the execution is magnificent. As Clouzot's relatively mundane heroes grapple with naturalistic elements such as a hairpin turn and a rickety bridge, he presents their challenges with uncanny detail. The term white-knuckle suspense is often misapplied, but it's valid here – watching the trials in The Wages of Fear, you'll be clenching your fists so tightly that you may as well be gripping that steering wheel yourself.

Waltz with Bashir (Israel, 2008)
. An animated documentary in Hebrew about a massacre in Lebanon? Who wouldn't want to watch that? Documentaries, of course, are not my strong suit as a filmgoer – in fact, I basically can't watch them – but the rippling animation in Ari Folman's picture breathes life into its story of death. The movie is more a collage of memories than an admonition of military tactics, but it's presented with such exquisite clarity that it generates a far more powerful experience than would have a mere collection of talking-head interviews. Waltz with Bashir may not hew closely to traditional narrative methods of documentation, but Folman's creativity within the medium lends undeniable force to his message.

The Lives of Others (Germany, 2007)
. This Cold War thriller set in 1984 East Germany feels like it was made during the Cold War. Ostensibly the story of a popular novelist tentatively exploring the prospect of defection, the film really focuses on a secret police agent, played with heartbreaking loneliness by Ulrich Mühe. As the two characters slowly encroach on each other's orbits, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (now there's a name) heightens the tension, and we get a true sense of the claustrophobia and terror that pervaded the country and its citizens (not unlike the atmosphere of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days). The film's conclusion is both stirring and sad, a testament to the decency of humanity in its never-ending battle against the corrupt and the cruel.

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (France, 2003)
. If I had to pick a single film on this list that I'm confident you've absolutely never heard of, this is the one. Despite the presence of the singularly charming Audrey Tautou, Laetitia Colombani's coy drama never crossed over. That's unfortunate, because it's the product of a daring, fiendishly clever screenplay that examines weighty romantic conceits such as destiny and true love but does so in a lithe, nimble style befitting its gamine star. The movie, like Tautou's protagonist, at first appears to be fluffy and inconsequential, but as its narrative dips and dives, you realize it's far more substantive that you thought.

Lorna's Silence (Belgium, 2009)
. I don't know much about the Dardenne Brothers, except that they're allegedly masters of realism, or some high-brow crap like that. Ordinarily I shy away from cinema verite – mainly because I find it really freaking boring – but Lorna's Silence is hypnotic in that way it captures the lives of its characters with pristine, clinical detachment. As the two leads, Arta Dobroshi and Jérémie Renier (the latter can be seen in remarkably different form in the critically acclaimed Summer Hours) are devastatingly real, and while the film's conclusion is a bit too metaphysical for my tastes, there's no denying the overall power of this tale of sacrifice, regret, and redemption.

House of Flying Daggers (China, 2004)
. The major knock on contemporary action filmmaking is that it's too frenetic. Bullets whiz, cars fly, planes explode, editors cut, and the entire time the audience really has no clue what's actually happening on screen. Zhang Yimou eschews this path in favor of a more elegant style, one in which both his combatants and his camera move with grace and fluidity. That makes the action in Zhang's movie sound boring, but it's anything but, as he choreographs his set pieces with the flair and artistry of a maestro – it's just that he communicates the action to his viewers rather than assaulting us with sound and fury. Of course, action is subservient to story, and the story in House of Flying Daggers is appropriately solemn and earnest, while the performances from Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi give the central romance the requisite weight. But it's the elegance of Zhang's filmmaking that makes the movie truly memorable.

Z (Algeria, 1969)
. I'm not much for politics in general, and that disdain often extends to my taste in film, but there's something courageous about a movie that ends with the disclaimer, "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is DELIBERATE." Yet one doesn't need to be familiar with the political history surrounding Z's genesis in order to appreciate Costa-Gavras' depiction of a ruthlessly corrupt government. Jean-Louis Trintignant – who appeared 35 years later in Kieslowski's magnificent Red – is flawless as a lone honest bureaucrat attempting to expose the truth behind an assassination, but honesty and integrity are no match for the power wielded by the corrupt. Z may have been deliberately focused on a specific historical event, but its themes of governmental deception and tyranny remain resonant.

The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina, 2010)
. The Oscar winner last year for Best Foreign Language Film, here is a movie that at first appears to be a standard police procedural only to transform into something else entirely. Of course, those procedural elements are pretty damn compelling, thanks to a tightly scripted screenplay and a heartfelt performance from Ricardo Darín; the film's romance, while a tad malnourished, is similarly stirring. But it's the finale of The Secret in Their Eyes that really packs a wallop, a mournful commentary on the fleeting nature of love and the corrosive power of obsession. The movie provides a hesitantly hopeful coda, and perhaps its characters have earned it after journeying through such despair for so long. But the darkness of that finale that haunts their eyes – and their lives – cannot soon be forgotten.

Thirst (South Korea, 2009)
. Park Chan-wook is best known for Oldboy, that rather revolting tale of a man kidnapped for 15 years who attempts to unleash vengeance on his captors. I found Oldboy to be intriguing but ultimately vile, but I responded quite differently to Thirst, the bizarre story of a priest who becomes a vampire. The absurdist tone of Oldboy is still present, but the characters in Thirst are far more sympathetic and interesting. The resulting confection is undeniably grotesque – this is a film about murderous vampires, after all – but there's an odd sense of sentiment about the whole enterprise that lends it a curious appeal. Sure there is Park's usual combination of gruesome violence and pitch-black humor, but Thirst has something else that elevates it above the canon of pulp: The movie – if not its characters – has a beating heart.

Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2002)
. I've highlighted a number of films on this list that have been slated for Hollywood remakes in the future. Well, if you're looking for someone – or something – to blame, look no further than this tidy little tale of police corruption and mob brutality. In 2006, a little-known filmmaker named Martin Scorsese refashioned this actioner into a little movie called The Departed. I won't suggest that Infernal Affairs is the superior picture (though its ending is far, far superior to Scorsese's), but it holds up just fine, untangling its twin stories of duplicity and betrayal with both energy and precision. The film lacks the sprawling ambition of The Departed, but it matches Scorsese's version in terms of intensity and suspense, while Andy Lau and Tony Leung bring pathos to potentially stock roles. Though it spawned two messily enjoyable sequels, Infernal Affairs is best viewed on its own – when you do, you'll find it doesn't need to be compared against anything.

Sin Nombre (Mexico, 2009)
. There's something highly pleasurable about sitting down to watch a movie and realizing you have absolutely no idea where it's going. At first Sin Nombre appears to be a brutally frank look at gangland culture in Mexico, and in a way it is. But it's also an out-of-nowhere character study and a thoughtful meditation on the instant decisions we make and their ultimate consequences. Cary Fukunaga could have made a pointed melodrama laced in despair, but he focuses instead on quiet character beats and unspoken moments. For a film rife with violence and conflict, it's these beats of silence that speak the most.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France, 2007)
. This one doesn't really need my help either, as it earned four major Oscar nominations (though not one for Best Foreign Language Film, thanks to the Academy's inane rules), but it's worth seeking out regardless. The premise – a man who is completely paralyzed, except for his ability to blink one eye, develops a method of communication and ultimately writes a book – would be preposterous if it didn't also happen to be true. Director Julian Schnabel improbably finds beauty in his protagonist's predicament, and he exploits it through remarkably vivid photography (cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is Spielberg's longtime collaborator) and keen ingenuity (the sequence where a needle dances toward the camera in its effort to sew an eye shut remains firmly etched in my memory). It's a stranger-than-fiction type of tale, but after watching Schnabel wield his technique, it's clear that a simple documentary would have failed to do this extraordinary story justice.

Curse of the Golden Flower (China, 2006)
. The second Zhang Yimou picture on this list, this one replaces the delicate subtlety of House of Flying Daggers with out-and-out decadence. This is not to suggest that Zhang has discarded his painterly gifts for nuance and detail, just that he's employing those gifts on an exponentially larger canvas. Curse of the Golden Flower is a vaguely ridiculous epic, but it's ridiculous in all the right ways and befitting its gargantuan scope. The action scenes have never been more elaborate, the colors never brighter, the production design never grander. Most filmmakers would crumble under a movie of such magnitude, but Zhang – who orchestrated the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics – has never shown a surer hand. His actors join him in accepting the challenge. Chow Yun-Fat is mercilessly exacting as a cruel despot, but it's Zhang's perpetual muse Gong Li who infuses his squalid opera with a true sense of tragedy. The demise of a dynasty has never looked this good.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Top 10 Movies of 2009

Before getting to the best films of 2009, a quick recap of my Oscar performance. (Yeah, from four months ago. I've been busy. Or lazy. Whatever.) Of the 21 categories I predicted, I hit correctly on 17 of them, or 81%. That's my high-water mark since 2003 (when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was such a juggernaut that it could have turned Grady Little into Nostradamus), so I'm reasonably pleased overall. I'm disappointed that I missed on Best Original Screenplay, where Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker held off Tarantino's edgier script for Inglourious Basterds, and I'm shocked – shocked – that Precious defeated Up in the Air for Best Adapted Screenplay. But otherwise, it's hard to complain about shooting over 80%. For what it's worth, I'm completely confident that my success rate will dip dramatically in 2010.

O.K., on to everyone's favorite feature, my Top 10 list for the year in film. Looking back on the year at the movies as a whole, I have to regard it with a sense of apathy that's becoming alarmingly familiar. I saw 88 different movies in the theatre in 2009, and very few of them generated true enthusiasm from me. Don't get me wrong, I liked a considerable number of the films that I watched. That's normal for me – if I didn't like most movies I watched, I wouldn't watch so many. But I don't want to like movies. I want to love them. And whether it's a result of a shift in my personal ideology (could my taste as a critic actually be maturing? I doubt it) or a decline in the quality of both studio and art-house fare (a more disturbing theory), I'm having a hard time loving movies these days. The simple truth is that, while I'm frequently content with what I see, I'm far less likely to actively stump for the vast majority of it. And that's a shame, because I want other people to see movies. They're my primary passion in life, and if people stop seeing them, then during conversation I'll be forced to resort to riffing about the majesty of Jon Lester's cut fastball in order to keep myself entertained.

Of course, not all is lost. Most movies I watch provide at minimum a satisfactory dosage of entertainment, and I remain indefatigable in my optimism about the future state of cinema (well, as long as 3-D doesn't become the global standard, but let's not go there just yet). In other words, I won't stop going to the theatre (or shutting down this site) anytime soon. Regardless, even in such a mediocre year as 2009, the following 10 films are all superlative examples of moviemaking and are well worth seeking out.

So fire up those Netflix queues, because the following together represent a decathlon of movies you shouldn't miss. The Manifesto now presents its list of the Best 10 Films of 2009:

Honorable Mention
: An Education, In the Loop, The Informant!, Inglorious Basterds, The Road.

10. Brothers. Jim Sheridan's taut exploration of a family nearly ruined by the horrors of war would likely find itself several notches higher on this list, were it not a rather slavish interpretation of Susanne Bier's 2004 Danish film of the same name. But just because Sheridan is concocting a remake shouldn't diminish the skill with which he builds tension within the small-scale, claustrophobic setting of a suburban household. The movie reaches its dramatic peak during a seemingly innocuous dinner-table conversation, when the boiling tension of the preceding 90 minutes suddenly erupts in volcanic fury. (It's worth noting that Sheridan's handling of the scene marks a significant improvement from Bier's version.) Uniformly excellent performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, and (most notably) Tobey Maguire elevate the potentially schlocky material into an enthralling melodrama.

9. Up
. It would have been hard to blame the maestros at Pixar if, following their magnum opus that was Wall-E, they retreated to somewhat more conventional fare. They didn't. True, Up is in many ways a straightforward tale, featuring classical elements such as father-son bonding, fast-paced action sequences, and a blunt thematic focus on the importance of friendship and loyalty. Of course, it also features a geriatric flying a house powered by balloons. Yet the fiendish originality of Pete Docter's and Bob Peterson's premise is matched with the usual Pixar accoutrements: dazzling animation, whip-smart dialogue, and a savvy blend of humor and pathos. The movie also contains the most moving cinematic sequence of the year, a four-minute silent montage that doubles as a paean to the magnificent mundanity of married life.

(Note: Before you watch that clip, you might want to have some tissues handy. I'm just saying.)

8. Adventureland
. Many critics – including this one – often deride mainstream movies for focusing too much on elements like plot and action while paying too little attention to their characters. But character-driven drama itself isn't all that easy, and many quiet, pseudo-intimate pictures that attempt to give their protagonists depth and shading at the expense of plot just wind up being profoundly boring. (See: 35 Shots of Rum.) Adventureland, however, is the best kind of character-driven film. It doesn't have much of a plot: A post-grad (played by the incomparably anxious Jesse Eisenberg) needs to earn some cash, so he takes a dead-end job at an amusement park, where he falls in love with Kristen Stewart, that sneakily talented actress who can be fiercely authentic when she isn't choosing between vampires and werewolves in the Twilight films (though sometimes – nay, often – even then). That's pretty much it, but the movie – which also includes splendid supporting work from Ryan Reynolds and Martin Starr – is an unassuming marvel, one in which we become deeply invested in the lead characters simply because they seem like real people. The characters in Adventureland are warm, funny, and richly detailed. So is the movie.

7. Julia
. I find very few movies to be seriously difficult to watch. I don't mean that in the Paranormal Activity sense, when you're constantly terrified that something is about to lunge at the camera (though there's a certain value to that too). I mean it in the sense where I'm actually disturbed by the events taking place on-screen. Julia is such a movie. It is not fun to watch. In fact, I almost find it difficult to recommend, given how it resulted in me squirming in queasy fear for more than two hours. But it is furiously compelling cinema, the kind that clamps viewers in their seats and refuses to yield. It also houses a watershed performance from Tilda Swinton that sets new standards for an actress' ability to disappear into her character. Did I enjoy this movie? Not exactly, but that doesn't inhibit it from its status as one of the best films of the year.

6. (500) Days of Summer
. There is so much to like about this movie. There's the acting, most impressively a rangy, enormously sympathetic performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (this would be a star-making turn if Gordon-Levitt weren't, at least in my mind, already a star). There's the script from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, churning with sharp wit and sharper insights. And there's the direction from Marc Webb, a filmmaker making his debut with startling audacity. It would hardly be advisable for a first-time director helming a romantic dramedy to take so many bold chances, but nearly all of Webb's flourishes work. The two most memorable are polar opposites in tone: the first is an enchanting fantasy sequence in which Gordon-Levitt seems to have wandered into Amy Adams' world in Enchanted, while the second is a devastating scene in which his romantic expectations are coldly juxtaposed against his reality. (The former is set to a preposterous Hall & Oates number, while during the latter, Regina Spektor's operatic "Hero" plays with icy clarity.) But most of all – underlying all of the wry dialogue and nuanced acting, the visual dexterity and spellbinding nonlinear chronology – there is the deep sense of truth. Relationships don't always work. Sometimes there isn't a reason; there are no bad people, and no one makes any bad decisions or mistreats the other. Sometimes they just don't work because one party doesn't feel it. Such a starkly realistic observation may leave the audience shaken, but the movie is all the more perceptive for it.

5. The Hurt Locker. It's become commonplace for the blogosphere to ridicule the choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and while I'll concede that the voters make their fair share of gaffes every year, they're on a strong four-year run when it comes to Best Picture winners. (Doubtless they're atoning for honoring Crash in 2005.) The latest, Kathryn Bigelow's gripping examination of a bomb disarmament unit in Iraq, defies genre tagging. It's technically a war movie, but it isn't about winning and losing as much as surviving, as well as the unique, visceral thrill of combat. What do I know about combat? Not a thing, but Bigelow creates a terrific sense of verisimilitude, thrusting us into the action with nary an explanatory voiceover to be found. Jeremy Renner is at his brilliant, laconic best, but this is Bigelow's movie all the way, and the director – an inveterate master of tremulous suspense – ratchets up the tension with one riveting set piece after another. The Hurt Locker may not engage on much of an emotional level, but we're on too much of a combat high to care.

4. Duplicity. A movie about dueling intelligence agents who are simultaneously secret lovers but just might be trying to kill each other sounds like it could either be deathly serious (think Prizzi's Honor for the espionage age) or seriously dumb (think Mr. and Mrs. Smith). It's a marvel, then, that Tony Gilroy's second feature (following up on the stupendous Michael Clayton) is both acutely intense – the stakes here are real – and pervasively, overwhelmingly fun. Gilroy is an austere technician, and Duplicity – with its intricately composed closeups and expansive depth of field – is a supreme work of craftsmanship that recalls the nimble ingenuity of the Coen Brothers. Yet it is also a rollicking good time, with crackling chemistry (Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are both in peak form) and a brilliant, plot-twist-a-minute screenplay that keeps us guessing in the best possible way. Here is a movie that effortlessly engages its audience in terms of both plot and character. The behavior on display may be duplicitous, but the pleasure Duplicity dispenses is singularly charming.

3. Avatar. I addressed it in considerable detail here, but the biggest movie in the history of the world – by the director with the biggest ego in the history of mankind (well, except maybe this guy) – turns out to be up to snuff. Sure, Avatar is shamelessly derivative, politically obvious, and entirely bombastic. It is also utterly spectacular. Featuring an astonishing assortment of environments, animals, and war machines, James Cameron wields his gift for technological wizardry with such meticulous flair that he creates a wholly new world that is, quite simply, extraordinary. The story he sets in this world may be familiar, but it is so appealing, and its setting so absorbing, that we seem to be experiencing it for the first time. I go to the movies in part to be transported away from the dreariness of reality and enjoy the majesty of something new. Many films try to accomplish this; few succeed. Avatar does, and gloriously.

2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I don't have much to say. Either you embrace this franchise for what it is – a canny synergy of new-age cinematic technique and tried-and-true themes of vengeance, friendship, and bravery, all steeped in its own unique, immaculately detailed mythology – or you don't. All I know is that I've read the book four times (that's all?), and when Harry and Dumbledore were in that cave – a setting seemingly leeched of all color so that it appeared to have been filmed in black-and-white – I still felt breathless, waiting in terror for what was going to happen next. Director David Yates – teaming with an extraordinarily accomplished cast of actors, not to mention a game screenwriter (Steve Kloves) and virtuoso cinematographer (Bruno Delbonnel) – has accomplished what would have seemed impossible: He's done J.K. Rowling's fans proud.

1. Up in the Air. It's the rare motion picture that can be breezily enjoyable and somehow still pack an uncompromising emotional punch. For the majority of its slender runtime, Jason Reitman's look at the savagery of contemporary corporate culture is a sly, jaunty exercise in romantic interplay, easily pleasing its audience with whimsical sight gags and smart-but-realistic dialogue. Then it pulls out the rug and leaves us heartbroken. This isn't to suggest that Up in the Air isn't enjoyable; indeed, on balance, it's the most crowd-pleasing movie of 2009. But it's also the most honest about the behavior of both corporations and people. Juggling such an assemblage of emotions might have resulted in an ungainly film, but Reitman – who matures with each movie he makes (his first two were Thank You for Smoking and Juno) – achieves an uncanny balance between wry, touching comedy and quiet, human drama. Compared to the prior two selections on this list, Up in the Air may appear to be a small film by comparison, but there's no denying the magnitude of its excellence.

Till next year.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscars Analysis 2009: Director; Picture; Prediction roundup

This is it. For the convenience of my devoted readership who may or may not have skipped my prior analysis, I'm including a summary of all of my predictions at the end of this post. Now let's get to the two most important awards of the night.

Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Lee Daniels – Precious
Jason Reitman – Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds

Battle of the Exes! Although as battles go, this duel between former spouses Bigelow and Cameron is about as one-sided as the swordfight in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Wait, have I used that clip before? I don't care, it's still awesome.) Cameron may be King of the World, but Bigelow is Queen of the Academy's Castle, at least for this year. Not only is she poised to become the first woman ever to win Best Director, but she's doing it by making a movie as electrically tense as any action film of the year. Technically, I suppose it's possible that voters have tired of the spousal warfare, meaning Tarantino could be a sleeper here, but I think members will content themselves voting for his screenplay. For his part, Cameron will have to content himself with counting his $700 million. Kathryn Bigelow takes the prize.


Daniels' nomination is the only one with which I actively disagree – his attempts to jazz up the drudgery of Precious with bursts of fantasy rang wholly false to me. The remaining four filmmakers, however, all exert sure command over their respective pictures. Tarantino is best known for his irreverent verbiage, but he shows on occasion in Inglourious Basterds that he can arrest our attention with his camera as well as his pen; the movie's first scene is one of the most riveting cinematic moments of the year. In a similar vein, Reitman has established himself as an auteur of smart, mellifluous films, the most distinctive feature of which is their snappy dialogue, but he brings an assured alacrity to Up in the Air, perfectly capturing the rhythms and cadences of the frequent-flying world. And over The Hurt Locker's first hour, Bigelow stages one exhilarating set piece after another, ratcheting up the suspense with meticulous camera angles and crisp cutting.

But she doesn't show us something we've never before seen, and that's what James Cameron does with Avatar. People go to the movies for many reasons, but my favorite is to experience awe. In creating a wondrous new world of epic majesty, Cameron delivers that awe. With both technical exactitude and sprawling ambition, he transports viewers out of their seats and into his own fastidiously detailed imagination. What more can we ask?


Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
James Cameron – Avatar
Tony Gilroy – Duplicity
Marc Webb – (500) Days of Summer
David Yates – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Comments: If Bigelow and Cameron reaffirmed their status as veteran masters, Gilroy solidified his entrance into the top echelon of contemporary filmmakers with an exquisitely precise second feature that's nearly as perfect as his first (the flawless Michael Clayton). As a debut director, Webb takes a number of daring, potentially ill-advised chances that smack of inexperience; the startling thing is that they all work. (Next up for him: A reboot of Spider-Man.) And Yates continues to apply his own distinct stamp of gnawing paranoia to the Harry Potter franchise, deepening the series' darkness and dread while also implementing some light comedic grace notes with a feathery touch.


Michael Mann – Public Enemies. As far as Michael Mann movies go, Public Enemies can't quite join his top tier, but it nevertheless features his usual virtuoso workmanship, most notably in the brilliantly orchestrated "Lady in Red" sequence just prior to its conclusion.

Sam Raimi – Drag Me to Hell. You'll never hear me criticize Raimi for joining the mainstream and helming my beloved Spider-Man movies, but there's also something undeniably pleasurable about seeing an old-school horror director return to his roots, especially when he's so clearly enjoying himself.

Jim Sheridan – Brothers. Sheridan is a filmmaker who understands the dynamic of the family, and in a superb scene at a dinner party, he emphasizes lingering silence and askance glances in a brilliant buildup of tension.

Tom Tykwer – The International. The script is a bit disastrous, but Tykwer knows how to stage a spectacular action sequence, especially when that sequence takes place in the Guggenheim.

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

This was all set up to be marvelously easy. And then this happened.

Look, I don't pretend to be an Academy insider. I have no detailed knowledge about the torturous behind-the-scenes campaigning process. But I do know these three things:

1. The Academy takes itself – and therefore its rules – very, very seriously.

2. On February 19, Nicolas Chartier, a producer of The Hurt Locker, sent an email to Academy members that was in clear violation of campaigning rules. The email explicitly urged members to vote for The Hurt Locker and obliquely belittled Avatar. As a result of the email, the Academy barred Chartier from attending the ceremony.

3. According to the Los Angeles Times, over 600 Academy members (more than 10% of the membership) turned in their ballots on the final day of voting, well after Chartier sent his nefarious email.

So, not to turn into Hubie Brown or anything, but what does this mean?

Well, in all honesty, we don't know. Before EmailGate (ugh, I hate "gates"), The Hurt Locker was the consensus frontrunner, not least because of the fantastically complicated preferential voting system that I described in some detail here. The operating rationale was that, even if The Hurt Locker failed to rank at the very top of most ballots, it was likely to be in the top three, whereas a more polarizing picture such as Avatar might find itself on the lower half of a significant number of ballots and therefore out of luck.

But now what? Did Chartier's email – admittedly sent in blatant disregard of clear-cut campaigning rules – really affect the thinking of the fuddy-duddy Academy members? And if so, by how much? Did they shift The Hurt Locker down one or two slots, or did they shunt it all the way to the back of the pack? And perhaps most importantly, as Alec Baldwin astutely asked in The Departed: "Cui bono? Who benefits?" And while I'd love to imitate Matt Damon's response – "Cui gives a shit, it's got a freaking bow on it" – the Best Picture race sadly no longer has a freaking bow on it.

So who does benefit? True, Chartier's email does take the form of a snide, petty attack on Avatar, but I have a hard time imagining voters sliding Cameron's behemoth a few notches up their ballots simply because it suffered a bit of intra-industry criticism. More likely, the major benefactors will be films that were lurking on the outside, waiting patiently for an opening. Specifically, I'm speaking of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and – in a scenario that would surely induce apoplexy on the part of some Academy members – Pixar's Up. Both of those are generally well-liked films that, until now, lacked the springboard to leap into high-level contention. (Strangely, I don't think Up in the Air will receive an analogous benefit, simply because its buzz has all but evaporated.)

Of course, the key question isn't whether or not Chartier's email negatively impacted The Hurt Locker's chances, but by how much. Sadly, all I can do is speculate. The preferential voting system, EmailGate, the switch to 10 nominees – there are just too many damn variables. My process of prophesying the Oscars is thoroughly scientific: I examine historical trends, look at the precursor awards, analyze the industry buzz, and then make an informed prediction. But this year, those procedural tenets have been stripped away, and I'm left stumbling around like Eliza Dushku in "Dollhouse", wondering if I just fell asleep.

(Wait, I probably shouldn't be making "Dollhouse" analogies, given that nobody watched it even though it was the best show on TV besides "Mad Men". O.K. fine, I'm left sitting all alone on a park bench, my identity crumbled around me, like Pacino at the end of Godfather II. There.)

But so it goes. And in a weird way, it's refreshing to have a little zest back in the Best Picture race, which hasn't been this exciting since 2006, when The Departed righteously held off Little Miss Sunshine. As a result of the described shenanigans, I'll actually be leaning forward in my seat when the final envelope is opened tonight, and it's hard to be disappointed about that.

Right, as for my actual pick, it really comes down to this question: Do I honestly believe that EmailGate significantly impacted the minds of Academy members? Better question: "You see me doing thrill-seeking liquor store holdups with a 'Born to Lose' tattoo on my chest?" Answer: No I do not. I'll take The Hurt Locker.


Egads, 10 nominees! Looks like we'd better break this down via the old tiering system:

Tier 5: This movie is, in fact, not a good movie. Look, I didn't despise The Blind Side the way some people did. I even enjoyed parts of it. But I remain convinced that it is in no way a good film. It is cloying, predictable, and shamelessly manipulative. It is not an appropriate Oscar nominee; indeed, with the possible exceptions of Crash and Gosford Park, it is the worst Best Picture nominee of the decade. So, no, I do not think it should win.

Tier 4: Fun but flawed. If District 9 hadn't collapsed into rote action sequences in its final third, it might have made my top five of the year. Even so, it's a superlative example of immersive, iconoclastic filmmaking, with a sure sense of time and place. A Serious Man constitutes another fascinating effort from the Coen Brothers, but while it features inspired acting and impeccable craft, it occasionally veers into ego masturbation. Inglourious Basterds, more so than any other 2009 film, is one I feel the need to see again. On my first viewing, I grew restless with is turgid pacing and shameless self-indulgence, but it's lingered in my memory, and it clearly bears the autograph of a signature filmmaker.

Tier 3: Your movie is pretty good. Thanks for coming.
Precious is at times a ruthlessly compelling drama about the brutality of poverty, but it's oddly inconsistent in tone, and that confusion muddles its lasting impact. An Education is a better film overall, nary striking a wrong note and featuring a breakout performance. It isn't overly memorable, but that's less an indicator of failure than a hallmark of its modesty.

Tier 2: Up. Up!

Tier 1: The cream of Oscar's crop. Back in 2007, I experienced a strange sensation of contentment heading into the Oscar telecast because I thoroughly liked all of the Best Picture nominees and would have been satisfied with a victory from any of them. Such comfort is unlikely to avail itself again in the future (especially if the Academy sticks with its 10 nominees), but as long as any of the trio of Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Up in the Air take home a trophy, I'll be happy. One a cinematic marvel, the second an intimately gritty war thriller, the third a searching exploration of modern American life, all are truly excellent movies.

But wait, you think I'm just going to leave it at that? Maybe I would if I were a communist, but in my country, it's all about winning – that's why it's called Best Picture. And for an illustration of my pick for Best Picture, let's turn to a conversation I had with my Dad last night. He told me he was receiving Precious shortly on Netflix, and we debated whether or not he should see it with my Mom, given its intense subject matter. (Verdict: no.) The conversation then turned to another movie he's acquiring via Netflix, namely Up in the Air, and whether my Mom would want to watch that one. His assessment:

"That she can definitely see. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't want to see it. It's just such an enjoyable movie."

Quite right, Professor. And that's why Up in the Air is my Best Picture of 2009.


Though I know my readership is clamoring for my own Best Picture ballot, you'll have to wait for my upcoming post where I reveal my Top 10 of 2009. Don't fret, it's coming.

Some years ago, when the Manifesto appeared in annualized form rather than a series of blog posts, my friend Stacy kindly suggested to me that I might want to send out a condensed version, where I enumerated my picks for each category. My response at the time: "What would be the point? Then everyone would miss all the fun stuff."

Stacy, it turns out, had a point, as it's possible that some readers might, ahem, skim over some of my more descriptive prose and instead simply tune in for the bold strokes. So, in that spirit, below are my predictions for all 21 categories for this year's Academy Awards (remember, I'm excluding the three short subjects because even I don't care about those). I hope everyone's enjoyed the coverage this year, and enjoy tonight's telecast.

The Big Eight
Picture: The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

The "Major" Technical Awards
Cinematography: Avatar
Art Direction/Set Decoration: Avatar
Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Visual Effects: Avatar
Original Score: Up

The Rest
Costume Design: The Young Victoria
Makeup: Star Trek
Original Song: Crazy Heart ("The Weary Kind" by Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett)
Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker
Sound Editing: Avatar
Documentary: The Cove
Foreign Language Film: A Prophet
Animated Feature: Up