Monday, February 29, 2016
Since I usually like to relate these things to the weather, consider this a February mixtape in three movements: warm in the winter; cold in the winter; cool in the spring. With interludes of seasonal displacement.
My name’s not Karl and today’s not my birthday, but… close enough. Anita Baker’s Rapture, the best first listen I’ve had in years, way too late and yet clearly meant to be, got me thinking about how the life I’ve lived has ended up roughly adjacent to the ones I didn’t. (Being a pretty boring person I of course relate this phenomenon to music consumption.) So there’s nothing I find too surprising in the world of Karl, but I am jealous of the speed of his response to songs I’m just now learning to hear. Was he listening to Rapture over a decade ago, back when I was straining for a mood with The Blue Nile’s Hats?
Here… A Randy Newman classic I was slow to notice. Why are his songs so often covered, when his singing is so perfect yet so meager as a map for a showier or more emotional vocal? Also, the ticking late-century energy of the music, afraid to expire like something out of the mid-90s, is this one’s defining feature.
There and everywhere… A bunch of 2015 songs looking for a new means of binding to memory: Low, Abra, Lower Dens, Wire, and A Sunny Day in Glasgow (does anyone even know they released an amazing double EP late last year?; one day I’ll tell young people I lived in the time of ASDIG and they’ll shudder with envy), all in a row, and Róisín Murphy and Deerhunter, separately.
Among… The first two great songs of 2016 that aren’t “Formation,” albeit ones that suggest a listener I should have cultivated in myself a while ago. The dreamy R&B listener. The instrumental rock listener (haha, this one has a Georgia Hubley vocal).
Later… “Photographs,” last known outpost of my personal investment in Rihanna’s music, but one I’m returning to now that her new stuff works a similar feeling.
Anyway, here’s your mixtape, Karl. Maybe the length and quality of your relationship with these songs are different than the length and quality of mine, but no one clicking the links below will care or know the difference.
79 minutes. (download/stream)
1. Boards of Canada – “White Cyclosa”
2. Anita Baker – “Mystery”
3. Curve – “Doppelgänger”
4. KING – “The Greatest”
5. Janet Jackson – “When We Oooo”
6. Róisín Murphy – “Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)”
7. The Beach Boys – “The Nearest Faraway Place”
8. Randy Newman – “Baltimore”
9. Low – “Congregation”
10. Abra – “Pride”
11. Lower Dens – “Electric Current”
12. Wire – “In Manchester”
13. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – “Jewelry Duty”
14. Koushik – “In A Green Space”
15. Tortoise ft. Georgia Hubley – “Yonder Blue”
16. Rihanna – “Photographs”
17. Deerhunter – “Duplex Planet”
18. Jennifer Castle – “Sparta”
19. Chris Stamey – “Something Came Over Me”
20. Boards of Canada – “Telepath”
Saturday, February 27, 2016
I won’t pretend to care what happens in categories that exclude Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler and Todd Haynes, but here are seven Oscar categories that mean something to me this year.
Possibly the most impressive slate of nominees in a single Oscar category in my living memory. Gone (?) are the days when the Academy would automatically nominate one or two popular computer-animated kids’ movies of no consequence each year. The category continues to improve as it becomes more invested in honoring a variety of animation traditions. In hindsight, last year’s omission of The Lego Movie feels like a clear signal in favor of craft, against commercialism and cynicism. The only fully computer-animated nominee this year is the great but obligatory Pixar one, while hand-drawn and stop-motion films get their due and a movie made for an adult audience is finally in the running (long after Richard Linklater’s rotoscoping forays stood no chance against the likes of Shrek and Happy Feet).
I loved Inside Out but eight months later it’s easily my least favorite of the bunch. Shaun the Sheep Movie’s wordless gags are consistently hilarious, Boy and the World’s anger is so profound that it eventually must cut to documentary footage of the pillaging of the planet, and Anomalisa’s artistry is so tender and complete that no sex scene with live actors seems real, in comparison. Still, nothing resonated for me quite like Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There, the Studio Ghibli feature whose retreat to the countryside implicates urban malaise (again) and whose subtextual richness invites queer readings. It stands no chance of winning, but only because Ghibli and Miyazaki are inexplicably treated as synonyms.
This is a toss-up between Amy and The Look of Silence, both of which take big formal risks and maintain a gaze that yields intense discomfort. The reason Amy seems a more compelling choice is probably due to cultural myopia: the topic of our worship and destruction of celebrities strikes us with an immediacy that our other crimes do not.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is probably the best possible documentary on its subject, given her elusiveness. All the best moments involve her performances, but the film knows exactly why and when to include each one. Cartel Land tells an important story, about Michoacán’s Autodefensas, but saddles it with redundant and unrevealing scenes from the other side of the border, in the hopes that interweaving two unrelated portraits of vigilantism constitutes a directorial point of view. It does not.
Not seen: Winter on Fire
Foreign Language Film
Evil lives in many of the Best Picture nominees too, but Hollywood’s great at spinning tough content into satisfying Oscar stories. So instead of genocide, systemic child abuse and the defrauding of the American working class, we’ll get headlines like Leo DiCaprio Wins Award; Journalistic Heroes Get Job Done; Comedic Director Makes Good. Son of Saul is a true reckoning with evil and there’s no way to twist or glamorize its meta-narrative, so its win will sit awkwardly in a telecast eager to play it off the stage.
Theeb and Mustang (my personal favorite) are nearly as apocalyptic in their own ways, but the former is also a boy’s adventure tale and the latter offers the city as salvation from rural conservatism. Son of Saul’s only relief is in the close tracking of its lead actor and in its somewhat oblique ending. Saul’s facial transformation during his final appearance is so shocking that it should have yielded a tagline as succinct as Garbo Speaks: Röhrig Smiles.
To be seen imminently: A War, Embrace of the Serpent
Animated Short Film
Don Hertzfeldt was first nominated in this category 15 years ago, but seeing the creator of It’s Such A Beautiful Day in the running still feels radical. His World of Tomorrow is palatable, even kid-friendly, but retains the Hertzfeldt touch and a grim vision of the future, deadpan in its fantastical plausibility. Movies like this don’t win respectable awards, do they?
I liked The Hateful Eight and especially its Lincoln letter punchline but never really felt up for the conversations the film failed to generate. The only one I had quickly turned to praise of Ennio Morricone’s ominous score.
This category hasn’t been so strong in years, but Charlotte Rampling’s clueless comments will be the only thing anyone remembers about it. I’ve started to think of Brooklyn, Carol and 45 Years as a trilogy, a portrait of a woman concealing her emotions, then erupting with an intensity that diminishes with age. All three performances are amazing but Cate Blanchett’s exercise in carefully modulated passion is on another level, one of those rare pieces of acting that makes me think all other aspects of film art are pale in comparison. I don’t buy the accusations of category fraud. Her Carol could have gone supporting, melting into unhappy domesticity or playing foil to the younger woman’s awakening, but ultimately her interior life is too powerful to be controlled and she claims the film’s title for herself.
If I have to explain why Sylvester Stallone meant so much to me in Creed, it’s gonna get personal.
images: Marnie & Anna // the future beyond the World of Tomorrow
Thursday, February 11, 2016
Here’s everything else I went to see in 2015. I’ve started to take a certain pride in my inability to respond to things promptly, but that needs to change. My 2016 list is already fifteen titles deep.
39. Dope — A high school comedy so funny and energetic it’s hard to imagine most aspects of its storytelling and characterization not being cliches in five years. Then again, I’m not sure how much this caught on with audiences.
40. Pather Panchali (1955) — Another near-anniversary (see: Bad Education). This was the first movie I ever watched on a computer, on my brand-new iBook G4, a few days before heading off to college in 2005. Almost ten years later, the beautiful restoration…
41. Trainwreck — Maybe the only movie I saw last year with an almost exclusively female audience. They loved it, and helped the jokes land.
42. Grey Gardens (1975) — Nothing escapes the Maysles’ attention. Here’s the knife flash at Altamont on a much smaller scale.
43. Amy — I allude to its superior documentary methods here.
44. About Elly (2009/2015) — Plays like any other country’s leisure-class-on-vacation cinema until an unplanned circumstance triggers an avalanche of cultural weight. For some, frivolity is a precarious situation.
45. Strike (1925) — Teaches its visual language while speaking it eloquently. With live accompaniment.
46. The Killer (1989) — In which the operatic scale of the tragic finale justifies all earlier violent excess. Aren’t we all just crawling blindly past the ones we love?
47. Wings of Desire (1987) — One of my favorite movies. It’s humbling to consider that it was filmed in the winter of my birth (I think).
48. Tangerine — The kind of story that awaits a post-director world, or a world in which performers are understood as authors. Sean Baker makes few intrusions, but each one is one too many.
49. The Last Picture Show (1971) — Great, as you know.
50. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — As neat a contraption as the glass box that eventually ensnares its villain. I believe in Tom Cruise, movie star.
51. Fat City (1972) — John Huston makes one of his best movies while remaining as reticent about the past as his characters, Stockton’s dispossessed. But get him drunk and he’ll tell you he directed The Maltese Falcon thirty years ago, while you swallow your astonishment.
52. The Look of Silence — A participant in 2013’s The Act of Killing asks director Joshua Oppenheimer why he isn’t making movies about American genocide instead. I wondered the same thing, at one point, but this followup clarifies: America doesn’t deserve a filmmaker as good as this. What would we do with these questions, honestly?
53. The End of the Tour — I tried to remain sensitive to the misgivings of folks who knew DFW and questioned this project’s intentions but, well, I loved it. The aptness of the musical cues didn’t help: R.E.M.’s “New Orleans Instrumental No. 2,” Eno’s “The Big Ship” and Tindersticks covering Pavement’s “Here” on the soundtrack, and The Magnetic Fields’ “When You Were My Baby” in the car. Are we to believe they really drove around listening to that song? That’s the whole story, right there.
54. Straight Outta Compton — I prefer the music, where illusions of objectivity are scarce and questions of creative control are more fun to think about.
55. Friday (1995) — I’ve loved Ice Cube as an actor for a long time but had never seen his defining (?) role. He’s the best thing here, his endless stare encompassing all the movie’s better qualities. And his screenplay (as seen in Straight Outta Compton!) has an inherently compelling structure, like Do The Right Thing but with heat and tension swapped for nothingness, then amplified almost to the point of boredom. Even so, a burst of violence awaits.
56. The Diary of a Teenage Girl — I somehow never believed the period-specific details but whatever, this verifiably fills a gaping hole in American cinema.
57. Mistress America — Hey, I’m going to New York for the first time next month. Noah Baumbach’s vision of the city, as seen in this, While We’re Young and Frances Ha, seems most plausible to me in 2016, but I doubt whether my visit will be long enough to confirm that.
58. The Road Warrior (1981) — What is this degraded version of Fury Road? Oh…
59. Tron (1982) — Wow. I’m not sure where in art history this belongs, except that it deserves prominent placement. After the screening someone mentioned silent cinema, while I considered its mastery of the human form (three men in repose next to a digital waterway, etc.) in terms of nude portraiture.
60. Phoenix — A great addition to the cinema of facial reconstruction. Dark Passage, Eyes Without A Face, Seconds, The Skin I Live In… what am I forgetting?
61. Nashville (1975) — Great, as you know.
62. Queen of Earth — On the one hand it’s another movie about a woman under the influence; on the other it’s a vehicle for an amazing Elizabeth Moss performance.
63. Jauja — Filmmaking so deliberate you’ll find yourself counting the number of shots.
64. Grandma — Even without Lily Tomlin there’s something here. I’d never seen a movie with a central gay romance that I didn’t know about ahead of time, for example.
65. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) — Great, as you know.
66. The Martian — Reviewed here.
67. The Wicker Man (1973) — One of my favorite kinds of movies: inexorable procession toward doom, all glimmering escape routes mercilessly denied.
68. Coming Home — After Phoenix, here’s another film whose most crucial scene involves the triggering of memory via piano recital. The reconciliation of long lost lovers depends on a melody. Doesn’t it always?
69. The Birds (1963) — Great, as you hopefully know.
70. The Walk — A story extraordinary enough to support a thousand tellings, so the standard critical response, that Man on Wire told it better, strikes me as a bit obtuse. I trembled through the entire final third, and not just due to sugar intake.
71. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) — Continuing my campaign of temporal revenge with Trylon screenings of movies my sisters didn’t take me to see in the 90s. (Preceded by: Scream.)
72. Steve Jobs — Characters debate the merits of open system vs. closed system computers, while Aaron Sorkin seems to be having a similar debate regarding his script, only to end up flailing in both directions. As a closed system Steve Jobs is redundant and as an open system it leans too hard on crosscutting and montage, but the performances are good and the first third has a buzzy excitement.
73. 99 Homes — Ramin Bahrani remains a compelling filmmaker but a troubling pattern has developed. As in At Any Price, women are defined according to their complicity in the choices men make to provide for them.
74. Goodnight Mommy — Admirable in the way it flips sympathies halfway through, but then it just goes a bit too far, doesn’t it?
75. Bridge of Spies — I can usually forgive Spielberg his sentimental endings but this one undid everything I thought I understood about the Hanks character, as he regards the freedom of American fence-jumpers on the train ride home (what if he ventured outside of the white part of town, I wondered). An iconoclast revealed as a patriot, to paraphrase one review. Even worse, significance is achieved entirely through editing; Hanks might as well be smiling at a picture of warm apple pie. Later, the image of him sprawled on a mattress, immobile and artlessly framed, almost makes up for these indiscretions.
76. Crimson Peak — “Characters speak to you. They change, make choices.” Mia Wasikowska’s novelist speaks this line, and I wrote it down as if to try to absolve her and the rest of the cast of their murky motivations or to understand their complexities. It didn’t work. I remember Crimson Peak for its visual splendor, its green and red curls of smoke against deepest black.
77. Experimenter — Movies rarely know how to handle the lives of academics, but this one’s elliptical approach is just right. The questions of a lifetime are never really answered, dissatisfaction lingers.
78. Victoria — Sucks to see young criminals punished so mercilessly for their mistakes, like victims of a malevolent production code. Victoria condemns not them but a system of power that exploits their desperation. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking but the actors are even better. The calm they find during a wee hours scene on a piano bench seems limitless, their manic energy an hour later (in real time) no less so.
79. Cemetery of Splendor — Even more sensual than one would expect from the director of Tropical Malady. Tubes of warm-colored light and the massaging of limbs abound.
80. Room — Jack meets a real dog for the first time. I wept. That seemed sufficient proof of the film’s psychological acuity, but I should probably take a second look.
81. Carol — Mentioned here (in conjunction with Brooklyn and Heart of a Dog; now I might swap the latter for 45 Years, which properly concludes this trilogy of interiority and aging). That “I love you,” as fine a piece of acting and filmmaking as I’ve ever felt, colors all my memories of Carol, but looking back through my notes I remember the rest: Blanchett’s irresistibility vs. the power of her desires, at an even higher pitch than in Notes on a Scandal; a more fluid and nuanced understanding of the closet than I’ve seen in a period piece*; scenes of lovemaking that bookend the destruction of privacy; a miraculous shot that treats the skyline like a scroll, as the cars roll slowly by; that particularly queer shade of green; the Go West impulse, eternal; snow and dirty windshields; “ask me things”; “birds, trees, windows”; “we’re not ugly people.” Oof, what a movie. Someone said it should have been a comedy. It is, if the other option is tragedy.
*At a dialogue the next night, Todd Haynes talked about his earlier film of surfaces, Far From Heaven, and questioned a common reading that assumes the falsity and superficiality of 1950s American life: “Everything on the surface is true.” That holds in Carol more than you might expect.
82. Spectre — A plotline in which MI6 wants to shut down the double-0 program reads like a coy allusion to the way the Mission: Impossible series continues to outclass Bond in the action set-piece department. But Spectre has its moments.
83. Spotlight — Great performances from top billing down, but I’d single out Liev Schreiber (wait for the way he mutters “another adjective…”) and Michael Cyril Creighton. It bothers me not in the least that it’s visually inert. There’s a shot at a baseball game I’d never quite seen before, a flat plane of off-whites, pale blues and grays, diffuse evening light denying even the faces of the actors any meaningful shadows.
84. Safe (1995) — An earlier Todd Haynes film that ends with a woman named Carol saying “I love you.” Amazing.
85. Gimme Shelter (1970) — Still able to elicit awe and disbelief from a live audience. “Jesus,” someone said on the way out.
86. Ant-Man — Gags include Ant-Man trying to hang onto the grooves of a spinning record and The Cure’s Disintegration accidentally cued during a climactic fight inside a suitcase. This is the best Marvel movie by a huge margin.
87. Sicario — Unfairly stacks the “Juarez = Hell” deck only so that it can later unstack it, by showing American complicity in the violence, normal lives being led within earshot of the gunfire, etc. Not quite enough to pull me back, though.
88. Brooklyn — A less detailed depiction of 1952 New York than Carol, of course, but don’t let anyone tell you it lacks visual interest. A cemetery scene, with yellow dress, gray headstone and blue sky, could be from John Ford.
89. The Assassin — Only the soundtrack gives away what a strange hybrid this is. Martial arts sound effects make momentary pulp of what is otherwise dreamy, luxurious, silent.
90. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 — It resolves.
91. Back to the Future (1985) — Reagan-era movie advocates a bizarre form of trickle-down economics. Improve your dad’s spending power by making sure he was always going to be rich.
92. Back to the Future Part II (1989) — Actively repellent at times, but I love it.
93. The Quay Brothers in 35mm — A program featuring In Absentia (2000), The Comb (1990), Street of Crocodiles (1986) and Christopher Nolan’s new short documentary Quay. The first realizes the nightmarish aspect of a writer’s life, ha ha, the second gives the twitchings of sleep an elaborate interior reality, and the third comes as close to visualizing the vanished world of Bruno Schulz as I’d imagine possible, after the war.
94. Krampus — The opening credits have a visual sophistication that allowed me to come to this as a piece of actual filmmaking, and it never disappointed, exactly.
95. The Good Dinosaur — Light on story but with a few major innovations that make it a true Pixar movie: the photorealist landscapes, of course, but also the movements of non-humanoid animal bodies engaged in the activities of civilization. A shark attack from above is pretty neat, too.
96. Heart of a Dog — A filmmaker exploring her subjectivity shouldn’t be accused of unnecessary editorializing, but I found myself making that mistake at first. Fifteen minutes later I had warmed to the strange flow of Laurie Anderson’s thoughts and was in her spell, all the way to the last image of the end credits.
97. Star Wars (1977) — De-specialized!
98. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — Ditto!
99. Creed — 2015’s best movie (declared here; partially explained here). On top of everything else, it might even contain the only authentic joke about the old/young technological divide ever attempted in the current century.
100. Strange Brew (1983) — A sort of prototype for all subsequent comedy sketches stretched to feature length, but pretty consistently funny.
101. Chi-Raq — Spike Lee did it no favors by going around saying that the central premise has real world applicability, but as drama it works and as cinema it’s quite astounding.
102. The Thin Man (1934) — As the central mystery grows tiresome, the camera scans the room, gets distracted by a fun married couple over by the bar. A franchise is born.
103. Star Wars: The Force Awakens — I prefer my Star Wars movies with less than five settings, so even as a quasi-remake of the 1977 original, this new one’s a little distended. But as testing ground for an appealing new cast it worked.
104. Spotlight — I worried a second viewing would deflate its power but if anything it played better, its moral aspect sharpened, with Stanley Tucci’s “it takes a village” line teasing out the complicity of every living adult.
105. The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) — Outside of The Gang’s All Here, I’ve not seen a more visually stimulating musical.
106. Carol — Upon wide release, my view of the screen was a bit skewed but my reaction wasn’t.
107. The Big Short — Once again the Academy mistakes Best Editing with Most Editing. Try watching this without a perpetual feeling of distraction, like something’s fluttering in your peripheral vision.
108. Mustang — Mentioned here. Also: the promise of the city; the importance of sympathetic teachers.
Bonus (home video)
Magic Mike XXL — Sometimes you’re in your workshop with your power tools, your song comes on and you just want to dance. From that moment, Magic Mike XXL is everything I would ask a movie to be: expertly composed and consistently self-justifying. It would’ve been great to see what Robert Altman could’ve done with this material, but as it is you could pretty easily convince someone this is his swan song.