Never publish a top ten 'til your warehouse is full.
Atlas Sound, Logos : As musicians go, Bradford Cox strikes me as a real artist, someone who never tries to conceal his determination to use the raw materials of his trade to sketch out the contours of his brain. My notion is reinforced by the way he makes his music available to the public: a steady stream of fragments, sketches, ideas, historical documents, free of charge, and then, a couple times a year, the real deal, for which he expects the patronage of his ardent admirers. Logos is, in my estimation, a major work among his major works so far. I’m waiting for July to soak in the full weight of aching summerstrum “Criminals”; non-seasonal “Quick Canal” is the album’s masterpiece, and produces in me the same feeling I felt when I first heard DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing. To correct a previous blog post: I realize that feeling has nothing to do with closeness to death and more to do with eternal life. Call it Elevation (an emotion proposed by Roger Ebert that I redefine here for my own purposes): the immutable promise of mysteries lying in wait. (4.5/5)
Girls, Album : I like albums like this for how they show that, in some ways, life goes on the same as before, and that there are still young people who need songs like this, and who won’t settle for the way they were played generations ago (by Big Star, and others). I’ve begun to respond to this in a major way—in the contest between last year’s great rejuvenators, I strangely prefer this (ever so slightly) to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, whose accomplishments and themes are similar but whose inspirations are different. Music like this seems to say, “Relate…or die,” and while I only relate to some of it, and in a sort of automatic way, I am also struck by the breadth of Girls’ talents and the variety of the songs: a tangled Pavement-y jam here, a gentle noise-soaked lullaby there. And here I am mentioning Pavement, who originated nothing either, except their own brand of awesomeness. Last, I was going to say that the drumbeat on “Ghost Mouth” (as popularized by “Then He Kissed Me” and later, “Just Like Honey”) must be retired from rock music, or used a lot more so that it becomes as general as waltz time. But it’s perfect here, part of the way Girls take on every rock ‘n’ roll staple and break its hidden heart. (4.5/5)
The xx, xx : I already knew this was great background music, and had reason to believe it was also great foreground music. Surprise: It is! Early reviews, littered as they were with RIYLs, gave me no indication of what this would actually sound like. Here’s my own imperfect analogy: It’s a good and proper update of The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds for the post trip-hop era. A lot of bands sound like The Cure recently, but only The xx seem to recall that they were essentially a very minimal band. The interlocking guitar and bass on xx, muted and melodic, is the essence of good taste. (4/5)
The Mary Onettes, Islands : A lighter set from my favorite pop romantics of the day. At first I wondered if they hadn’t brought what they brung on their debut, but then decided they’ve merely bringed something different, and less heavy. (4/5)
I’ve also been trying to hear at least one song by as many of 2009’s blog buzz bands as possible. So far, I especially love jj (soundtrack to a Swedish pillow rave), Wild Beasts (British sophistopop on the verge of going mad), and Neon Indian (70s AM radio + excessive pitchbend).
It’s a shame that no one heard The Sleepover Disaster’s Hover last year, but if the strength of “Scarlet Fields” is any indication, The Horrors’ Primary Colours has some of the same qualities to recommend it, and NME named it album of the year.
--Film after film in 2009 asked us to “accept the mystery” (none more so than the year’s pre-eminent religious thriller, A Serious Man) and Tulpan, which asks us to accept the mystery of our animal stewardship, is one of the best. I was awed by just about everything in Tulpan, nothing more so than the way it frames its animals, shows them as so noble and so vulnerable, and forces us to realize the wonderful and heavy burden we’ve taken on in our decision to use them and care for them. The result is cinema as pure as the Coens’ experiments in control, but so much more improbable because there is so much in front of the camera that is beyond the filmmakers’ direct control. One sequence, involving an injured camel, its protective mother, and a brokedown motorcycle—somehow, unbelievably—plays out like clockwork. The way the animals—especially the sheep—behave nearly like actors helps the viewer set aside ethical considerations about how the animals are being used, and fears that they might be in danger. Because the results are so assured, the process must be equally so.
--I’d be unable to explain The Limits of Control without overusing the word “reality,” so I’ll keep it brief: I declare this film to be about the relationship between bohemianism and reality. The relationship is a harmonic and not discordant one, it turns out, though the evil Bill Murray believes otherwise. It’s a ponderous and not always very interesting movie with an ultimately simple message: abstract art is good.
--Roger Ebert has called Jason Reitman the “hope of the cinema,” but I didn’t quite believe it until I saw Up in the Air, which makes his previous two features seem even better in hindsight. Because: This guy’s a real director, and Up in the Air is the most relevant, confidently told, and classically Hollywood movie in a while.
--Pirate Radio could do without its governmental subplot—after all, why show authority and the rebels against authority, while only fleetingly showing the souls they are fighting for? But the faulty plotting doesn’t distract from a movie that would be perfectly wonderful without any plotting whatsoever. How has anyone overlooked the total awesomeness of some of this movie’s best moments? I never suspected director Richard Curtis was capable of such naturalism and sublime human comedy, and he’s also skilled in the way he gradually reveals the hopeless sadness of some of the film’s very cool rock ‘n’ roll DJs. One burnout audiophile makes a desperate grab for his favorite records during an underwater LP sleeve ballet, and moments later, fellow rock-critic-schlub-to-be Philip Seymour Hoffman goes down with the boat as he broadcasts “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a moment as full of dread and pathos and clinging-to-beauty as anything in Titanic. Then he flies out of the sea (literally!) like a rock ‘n’ roll messiah, and the film ends with a montage of hundreds of record covers that suggests the filmmaker’s understanding of the evolution and parameters of rock. Sweet.
--In the aforeblogged I Remember, Joe Brainard’s memories, as they accumulate, suggest a humanity both general and particular, but there are also times when one is struck with the burden of remembering. By the time he gets to hairstyles and popular songs, it becomes clear just how much there is in life that might easily be forgotten, and that the important things are no more safely stowed in our brains than the trivial. There are moments like that in The Headless Woman, a movie as silent and undramatic as a dream, and some of them, like a family wedding video on fast forward, are absolutely disorienting if you try to let yourself into the head of the titular woman. She suffers amnesia after an automobile accident, but it’s unclear throughout whether she’s a victim of head trauma or some subtler unmooring of long-suppressed anxieties. Spooky.
--When analyzing foreign films (i.e. films from foreign lands and foreign times), 90% of the work must be an attempt to understand what an audience from the same time and place as the filmmakers would recognize instantly. Jia Zhang-Ke (in certain circles, the most celebrated filmmaker of the past 10 years) is my main line to contemporary China, and he’s made a hyper-relevant and heartbreaking movie called 24 City that any citizen of the planet ought to see. Some might see it and recognize China as it is today; I watched it as an outsider, and found it an educational as well as emotional experience, and fairly out of the ordinary in its method, but never as inscrutable as it could be (like the work of Zhang-Ke’s fellow brilliant intellectual celeb Apichatpong Weerasethakul, from Thailand).
If you have a sense of the Chinese people as a mass of the faceless and nameless, here you will see a filmmaker asserting the primacy of the individual while showing characters struggling in an overcrowded world. If you wonder how China can maintain a sense of its history in the midst of massive industrial and economic expansion, here you will see that the Chinese wonder this too, and that they’ve had many losses and some gains (it’s all in the film’s title). We have these same problems in America too, but they rarely show up in our films. 24 City proceeds as a series of interviews, or, more accurately, beautifully written monologues, and it chronicles a China that has progressed from a nation of self-sacrifice to a nation where people have begun to recognize they deserve better. I don’t know if that’s the real China, but in the world of the film, it’s a convincing one.
More 2009 coming soon, almost certainly.