Marina and The Diamonds, “Froot”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #95 – released March 13, 2015)

Track listing: Happy / Froot / I’m A Ruin / Blue / Forget / Gold / Can’t Pin Me Down / Solitaire / Better Than That / Weeds / Savages / Immortal

If you’ve ever mixed up Marina And The Diamonds with Florence + The Machine, rest assured, you’re not alone: both of these similarly named acts hail from the UK, adhere to a prodigious tradition of alternative-friendly female eccentrics and put out debut albums less than a year apart from each other. At first glance, the most notable difference between the two is that London-based Florence Welch has an actual band she regularly performs and co-writes her material with, whereas Marina Diamandis, who is Welsh and of Greek descent, is more a solo artist, “The Diamonds” a cheeky pseudonym for whatever musicians she happens to be working with at the time—so much so that, in December 2018, she shortened her professional name to just Marina.

On those first albums, one can pinpoint another major distinction: if Welch arrived fully-formed as an artist with a clear sound and vision, Marina, while making a striking first impression, seemed somewhat scattered in comparison. Both her debut The Family Jewels (2010) and its follow-up, Electra Heart (2012) are all over the place tonally and sonically, trying out many styles to varying degrees of success. With her distinct vocals, lower and less agile than Welch’s, she alternately emulates Regina Spektor’s twee quirk-pop (“Are You Satisfied?”), occasionally comes off as Katy Perry’s weird cousin (“Bubblegum Bitch”), and takes a crack at both Fiona Apple-style musical theatre confessional (“Obsessions”) and Michelle Branch-like power pop (“Hypocrates”). Song titles such as “Hermit The Frog”, “Shampain” and “How To Be A Heartbreaker” only further muddy her putative persona; thus, it’s no surprise Lungs broke Welch in the US (albeit more than a year after its release) while these two records left Marina in the margins here.

Fortunately, her third album Froot proved a commercial breakthrough (debuting at number 8 on the Billboard 200) and an artistic one, too (with Marina writing all the songs by herself.) Taking a step back from Electra Heart’s up-to-the-minute big-beat production, it still utilizes a modern, heavily electronic tableau but it sounds more nuanced–timeless, even. Opener “Happy” right away introduces a more mature Marina: the first minute’s just her singing a slow, simple melody over a lone piano. As the song continues, the arrangement gradually blossoms, adding on a layer of backing vocals and percussion. “I’ve found what I was looking for in myself,” she sings in the chorus, and it feels as if any initial tentativeness is melting away bit by bit. Her confidence shines ever brighter with each line to the point where “Happy” feels like a statement of purpose, a declaration of self.

But it is just an introduction. While Froot feels more uniform than its predecessors, it’s far from unvaried or stodgy. Following “Happy”, the title track is an effortlessly bubbly confection (with that whimsically misspelled title, how could it not be?) It cascades along a descendant melody spiced with “la, la, la’s” and a bevy of nature/food/sex metaphors (“Baby I am plump and ripe / I’m pinker than shepherd’s delight”), all sung playfully (stretching out the title to at least four syllables) like a PJ Harvey gone Top 40. “Froot” is divine nonsense pop at the level of up-tempo ABBA, only earthier and more knowing.

From there, Froot unspools one gem after another, beginning with one of its highlights, “I’m A Ruin”. An airy mid-tempo number with guitars and synths stretched across a wide canvas, it starts off softly but dramatically: both wonder and despair permeate the verses before the call-and-answer bridge leads into the triumphant chorus, where everything clicks into place as Marina sings the title repeatedly. However, the best part is series of swooping wordless vocals that follow and the effective pauses in between: “Yea-e-a-e-ah / uh-uh-huh / woo-hoo / yeah-aah!” she sings, not necessarily mimicking Kate Bush but undoubtedly recalling and nearly matching her great progenitor’s transcendent ebullience.

While careful listeners can still easily play spot-the-influence throughout Froot (“Savages” is not far off from “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”-era Eurythmics; “Better Than That” nails the coolly observed cattiness of early 90s duo Shakespeare’s Sister), it’s unique enough to feel less like a series of pastiches than an artist discovering her own true sound and genre. “Blue” is far more caffeinated than its title would suggest: weaving synths and Marina’s vocals into a shimmering whole (along with a bit of harp, further blurring distinctions between herself and Florence), it turns positively anthemic in its chorus while still carrying a slight, melancholic aftertaste. “Forget” slyly defies expectations with its power-pop flourishes, while “Gold” sounds simultaneously old (handclaps, Farfisa organ) and new (that weird, watery synth hook) as Marina dreamily trills self-referential lyrics like, “You can’t take away the Midas’ touch / So you better make way for a Greek gold rush.”

She blatantly acknowledges/promotes this individuality in “Can’t Pin Me Down”, honing it to a fine, barbed point: “You might think I am one thing, but I am another / You can’t call my bluff, time to back off, motherfucker,” she proclaims; luckily, she has a defiant wit (rhyming “feminist anthem” with “cooking dinner in the kitchen for my husband”), not to mention a catchy-as-fuck chorus to back her up. Both attributes carry over to “Savages”, whose nervy, driving synth-pop perfectly buttresses such observations as “I’m not afraid of God / I am afraid of Man,” and “Are you killing for yourself, or killing for your savior?” Also note how she incorporates and rhymes the title (“Underneath it all, we’re just savages / Hidden behind shirts, ties and marriages”) or the irresistible robotic staccato she deploys for such lyrics as, “You can see it on the NEWWWS / you can watch it on tee-VEEE.”

Froot’s second half has its share of gorgeous, contemplative ballads like “Solitaire”, which allows for some much needed space (usually, the vocals and melodies carry the entire song) and “Weeds”, which blends a sense of momentum in its robust, major-key choruses with instances of breathtaking etherealness (the “bay-be-eee” that follows them.) Closer “Immortal” serves as a near-matching bookend to opener “Happy”: much fuller in sound, but just as delicate and searching, concluding, “I’m forever chasing after time, but everybody dies.” Like all good albums, it completes a thematic and emotional journey of sorts, considering ideas and notions expressed and left behind while looking towards what’s to come.

Although none of Froot’s singles were hits in any traditional sense, it achieved the seemingly impossible task of solidifying a path for an artist often prone to wandering and experimentation. At this writing, we are a little over a month away from its long-awaited follow-up, a sixteen track double LP called Love + Fear. First singles “Superstar” and especially “Handmade Heaven” could easily slot into Froot, but Marina herself has noted listeners might be surprised when they hear the album in full; given her track record, I don’t doubt her.

Up next: A return, a revelation.

“I’m A Ruin”:

“Froot”:

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2014: Just Some Kid From Boston

Behold, the first year since 1989 where nothing makes the cut for 100 Albums (although 1991’s selection was a compilation.) My top three of the year (Jill Sobule, Future Islands, The New Pornographers) should all make my Top 50 of the Decade list (coming January 2020!), but probably not that list’s top ten, hence their exclusion here.

On that note, I began 100 Albums in 2014 thinking I’d breeze through it in two years or so. I’ll write more about this when I reach the end; just know that as I began foraging through the past, I didn’t overlook the present. Look at all the great tracks from this year: Cibo Matto’s (artistically) triumphant return (not to mention Ben Watt’s, and Erasure’s, and Tori Amos’ and even Suzanne Vega’s!), sterling debuts from Betty Who, Lake Street Dive, Alvvays and Sylvan Esso, breakthroughs from Perfume Genius and Owen Pallett, best-songs-yet from Jessie Ware and Lykki Li, a spooky Lana Del Rey gem and even a collaboration from two of my fave artists (The Both = Aimee Mann + Ted Leo) with a leadoff single named after my hometown.

Still, the 2014 track currently giving me all the feels is “Late Bloomer” from Jenny Lewis’ The Voyager (itself probably a lock for that end-of-decade list.) Clocking in at over five minutes, it’s almost a throwback to classic folk-rock story songs like “Maggie May” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, but filtered through Lewis’ delicately puckish demeanor; it also sports a melody so inviting and generous I’m surprised the song isn’t more of a standard five years on.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2014 on Spotify:

  1. Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
  2. The New Pornographers, “Champions of Red Wine”
  3. Betty Who, “Somebody Loves You”
  4. Cibo Matto, “10th Floor Ghost Girl”
  5. Mac DeMarco, “Salad Days”
  6. Gruff Rhys, “American Interior”
  7. Perfume Genius, “Queen”
  8. Lykke Li, “Gunshot”
  9. Lake Street Dive, “Bad Self Portraits”
  10. Jill Sobule, “Wedding Ring”
  11. Ben Watt, “Forget”
  12. St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
  13. Nicole Atkins, “Girl You Look Amazing”
  14. Suzanne Vega, “I Never Wear White”
  15. Stars, “From The Night”
  16. Erasure, “Reason”
  17. Tori Amos, “Promise”
  18. Lana Del Rey, “West Coast”
  19. Sylvan Esso, “Coffee”
  20. Owen Pallett, “The Riverbed”
  21. Leonard Cohen, “Almost Like The Blues”
  22. Spoon, “Inside Out”
  23. Todd Terje with Bryan Ferry, “Johnny and Mary”
  24. Alvvays, “Archie, Marry Me”
  25. La Roux, “Kiss and Not Tell”
  26. Jessie Ware, “Tough Love”
  27. Clean Bandit with Jess Glynne, “Rather Be”
  28. The Both, “Milwaukee”
  29. Broken Bells, “Control”
  30. Jenny Lewis, “Late Bloomer”
  31. Sharon Van Etten, “You Know Me Well”
  32. Royksopp, “I Had This Thing”
  33. Emm Gryner, “End Of Me”

Return to Grace Bay

 

We returned to Grace Bay on the isle of Providenciales, Turks and Caicos on a Sunday afternoon in late January; our last visit was four years before.

Since Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017, we expected extensive changes, but Provo was mostly as we remembered it.

It’s hard to imagine Grace Bay as anything other than bright, blue and sunny.

It’s so satisfying to see flowers like these in January when you live in New England.

Also, the green lushness further away from the coast.

I like walking along the beach, but prefer to spend most of my vacation time lounging by the pool.

Bonaventure Crescent near sunset.

An unexpected bit of Minnesota (or perhaps, Upper Michigan) in the Caribbean.

Downtown Grace Bay on a Wednesday evening.

More palms, but with a twist (literally!)

Mango Reef, possibly our favorite restaurant on the island. We noticed it looked different than it did in 2015 before finding out it had actually moved locations! We thought the ride there was a tad longer than previous…

A most dramatic palm tree…

…spotted at the Infiniti Bar at Grace Bay Club, with nice views of the beach after dark.

Thursday sunset after an off-island excursion – stay tuned for more on that.

2013: Love Me While It’s Still A Crime

I got married in September 2013 and traveled to Cuba that December—neither has anything to do with music but the latter at least explains why I never got around to compiling any semblance of a 2013 mix until now. Random Access Memories was easily my favorite LP of that year, but Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara’s aim-for-the-fences dance pop effort wasn’t far behind. While I don’t return to it as frequently today, leadoff track “Closer” is the first song that comes to mind when I think about 2013.

Re: 2013, I also recall Haim’s Fleetwood Mac-goodness, Eleanor Friedberger’s disarming ode to being clumsy in love, unusually strong comeback singles from Alison Moyet and Pet Shop Boys, the loveliest Vampire Weekend song to date (though the recent “Harmony Hall” gives it a run for its money), the most blissful melody you’ll ever hear from Washed Out, an epic Arcade Fire disco explosion, a choice cut from Goldfrapp’s better-with-each-year, atypically pastoral Tales Of Us, a Sam Phillips song as classic as anything on Martinis and Bikinis and Laura Marling convincingly staking her claim as a “Master Hunter”.

I didn’t hear John Grant’s “GMF” until the following year; on that first listen, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing (the title is a NSFW acronym), but I knew it was a great, self-deprecating anthem for the ages before it was over.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2013 on Spotify:

  1. Tegan and Sara, “Closer”
  2. Bastille, “Pompeii”
  3. Haim, “If I Could Change Your Mind”
  4. Daft Punk feat. Julian Casablancas, “Instant Crush”
  5. John Grant, “GMF”
  6. Disclosure feat. London Grammar, “Help Me Lose My Mind”
  7. Goldfrapp, “Drew”
  8. Jessy Lanza, “Keep Moving”
  9. Cut Copy, “In Memory Capsule”
  10. Sky Ferreira, “I Blame Myself”
  11. Eleanor Friedberger, “When I Knew”
  12. Alison Moyet, “Love Reign Supreme”
  13. Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”
  14. Atlas Genius, “Electric”
  15. Camera Obscura, “This is Love (Feels Alright)”
  16. Pet Shop Boys feat. Example, “Thursday”
  17. Iron & Wine, “The Desert Babbler”
  18. Boy & Bear, “Southern Sun”
  19. Emma Louise, “Boy”
  20. Neko Case, “Man”
  21. Mavis Staples, “I Like The Things About Me”
  22. Washed Out, “All I Know”
  23. Sam Phillips, “You Know I Won’t”
  24. Laura Marling, “Master Hunter”
  25. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Mosquito”
  26. Vienna Teng feat. Glen Phillips, “Landsailor”
  27. Vampire Weekend, “Step”
  28. David Bowie, “Valentine’s Day”
  29. Florence + The Machine, “Over The Love”
  30. Jessie Ware, “Imagine It Was Us”
  31. London Grammar, “Strong”

Daft Punk, “Random Access Memories”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #94 – released May 17, 2013)

Track listing: Give Life Back To Music / The Game Of Love / Giorgio By Moroder  / Within / Instant Crush / Lose Yourself To Dance / Touch / Get Lucky / Beyond / Motherboard / Fragments of Time / Doin’ It Right / Contact

Music saturates our collective unconscious more than and unlike any other art form. Even as film and television references become more ubiquitous and quotes from literature and allusions to all the finer arts persist, none of them carry the weight or omnipresence of sound and song. Just think of every place one can physically inhabit, from inside of a car to aisles of a chain pharmacy—it’s simply in the air, providing a soundtrack to your life, whether you desire it or not. The imprint music leaves behind inevitably spills over to spaces one mentally inhabits as well.

Random Access Memories celebrates music’s presence in both our exterior and interior lives and, in particular, the role it played in shaping the lives of its two primary creators, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, better known as Daft Punk. Formed as teenagers in early ‘90s France, the duo eventually stumbled upon a shtick that immediately set them apart from the crowd on their 1997 debut LP Homework: always publicly clad in face-obscuring helmets and dark gloves, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo rather resembled robots and often sounded like them too, layering vocoder-enhanced vocals on top of sample-heavy electronic dance music. Subsequent albums only further played up this shtick: Discovery (2001) scored crossover hits like “One More Time” and “Digital Love” on the strength of their soulful samples and catchy melodies, but Human After All (2005) was widely accused of being too mechanical and brittle, suggesting that robot-pop, like any other novelty had its limitations.

Arriving eight years later (with only the Tron: Legacy soundtrack in between), RAM initially sounds like classic Daft Punk (roughly half the tracks still have robot vocals) and a completely different band, in part because it almost entirely eschews samples for live instruments. Yes, there’s still plenty of synths and drum machines, but just as much guitar, bass, live drums and piano. Furthermore, it’s the style of live instrumentation that’s key—almost overwhelmingly, RAM studiously recreates late ‘70s/early ‘80s disco and funk, heavy on such period touches as upfront, chicken-scratch rhythm guitar (most of it played by the master of that style, Chic’s Nile Rodgers) and Fender Rhodes electric piano.

When you consider how old Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are, it’s obvious that RAM is an extended homage to the music they grew up with, made even more explicit by the presence of Rodgers and other period figures such as producer Giorgio Moroder and musician/actor Paul Williams (the latter co-starred and wrote the music for Brian de Palma’s 1974 satirical musical Phantom of the Paradise, whose titular character heavily inspired Daft Punk’s look.) But RAM’s impact not only comes from how meticulously it conjures up the past while also drawing on the scientific phenomena outlined in the album title, but also in how it reinterprets it for and places it firmly within the present—not only with those 21st century vocoder vocals but also a renewed energy and the hindsight that, however much of a time capsule it may occasionally resemble, some music actually endures through its omnipresence, continually resurfacing and reintroducing itself to new generations and audiences.

“Give Life Back To Music” opens RAM on an irresistible, all-systems-go high with a vigorous, thrilling instrumental fanfare made up of melodic triplets. One can easily detect an overarching philosophy, not only in the music which switches back and forth between the fanfare and an instantly catchy funk groove, but also the robot-sung lyrics, which consist of the song title and variations thereof: “Let the music in tonight / just turn on the music” reads almost remedially simplistic (like Lipps Inc.’s post-disco smash “Funkytown”), but it’s effective. The following track, “The Game of Love” reprises the robot-vox, but at a slower, more hypnotic tempo falling somewhere between early Sade and Michael McDonald—perhaps the least cool reference I’ve come up with so far, and certainly far from the last.

RAM returns to this formula often with enough modification to keep the whole from seeming monotonous. “Beyond” begins with an orchestral fanfare performed by an actual orchestra complete with the pomp of a big brass section and a flurry of swirling strings before switching to a backing analogous of the groove and vocals of “The Game of Love”. “Within”, meanwhile, is a quiet-storm ballad kicked off by a lengthy solo from Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales before the song proper emerges, featuring the deepest and perhaps saddest robot vocals you might ever hear.

Still, Daft Punk are savvy enough to know when to subvert the formula. Musically, “Instant Crush” sidesteps funk altogether for a new wave homage, bringing to mind The Cars in particular with its analog synths and precise rhythm guitar. This time, the robot vox come from a special guest: Julian Casablancas of post-punk revivalists The Strokes. Filtered through a vocoder, he sounds absolutely nothing like his usual Lou Reed-ish self (even if RAM’s cover is an explicit homage to one of Reed’s albums)—actually, he sounds better: more androgynous for sure, but also more expressive and maybe even more… human? It helps that “Instant Crush” sports one of RAM’s most affecting melodies, especially in the rapidly-sung chorus and again towards the end when Casablancas suddenly shifts into a higher register (“I / don’t wanna start / don’t get upset / I’m not with you.”)

Other times, the robot vocals are deployed in tandem with additional, effects-free vocals. Both the monster hit “Get Lucky” and its less popular follow-up single “Lose Yourself To Dance” are showcases for Rodgers and singer Pharrell Williams—respectively, the songs are blissful, ascendant disco and tight, handclap-enhanced funk, stretched out to around six minutes each to allow listeners and dancers alike to work up a sweat. Each one shrewdly, effectively adds on the robot vocals to sustain interest. In “Get Lucky”, it’s the echo of the chorus (“We’re up all night to get lucky”) that comes after the second one, building and repeating until the bridge returns with Williams’ vocal now serving as the melodic counterpoint to the chorus it was always meant to be. In “Lose Yourself to Dance”, it’s the forever modulating, “Come on, come on, come on, come on,” that locks into the song’s existing groove perfectly while also suddenly opening up its melodic potential and possibilities of where it might go from there.

However, looking beyond the singles, RAM’s most stunning moments are its deep cuts: wild (the less charitable might say self-indulgent) experiments that seem to have been sprung deep from the guys’ psyches. The third track, “Giorgio By Moroder” clocks in at over nine minutes, and not one of them is superfluous. As Moroder himself talks in his distinct Italo-German accent, reminiscing about his early career and how he became an electronic music pioneer in the late ’70s, the background evolves from crowd noise to a simple disco beat to a very Moroder-esque synth hook that overtakes the track until the man himself returns. He says, “You want to free your mind about a concept of harmony and of music being correct,” and after noting, “There was no preconception of what to do,” the music briefly drops out and dramatic strings take over, kicking off an extended instrumental coda full of live polyrhythmic drumming, furious turntable scratching and guitar-hero leads on top. It’s arty, proggy, and deeply idiosyncratic, but also welcoming like a hand held out from its creators trying to describe something rather inexplicable—why does one listen to and make music and, through it, how does one inspire in the same way they themselves found inspiration?

Although a minute shorter than “Giorgio By Moroder”, “Touch” beams in ever further from an hidden, psychological space. Co-written by and featuring vocals from Paul Williams, it casts him as a robot yearning to be a human again (a la Phantom of the Paradise.) If I’ve lost you with that ridiculous, almost mawkish concept, indeed, “Touch” is a preposterous concoction, from its extended intro where what resembles the famous five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is sliced and diced up as if thrown in a blender, to the “Hey Jude”-like “Hold on, if love is the answer” repeated chorus that takes up most of the song’s back half. But “Touch” is chock full of neat little left turns, like how it magically shifts from soft-rock ballad to juiced-up banger in the second verse, or the mid-section boogie-woogie disco playfully harkening back to Williams’ performance of “An Old Fashioned Love Song” on The Muppet Show. However, it’s Williams’ aged, wobbly voice that holds these disparate parts together, suffusing the song with a very human fragility and warmth.

Such tenderness is also felt in “Fragments of Time”; its lyrics not only reveal the source of the album’s title (“Keep building these random memories / Turning our days into melodies,”) but also provide the most cogent distillation of RAM’s reason for being. Vocalist Todd Edwards sings over a wistful, rock/r&b hybrid that seems plucked straight from late 1980, specifically in how it recalls both Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July. It’s a warm, nostalgic sound, highly discernible from most anything else recorded in 2013 but also modified just slightly enough to appear as if coming from the present more so than the past (particularly in the squelchy synths and talk-box solo before the final verse.) In the chorus, Edwards sings, “If I just keep playing back / these fragments of time / Everywhere I go / these moments will shine.” It’s Daft Punk at their most direct, arguing for music as a conduit for nostalgia, sustenance and transcendence.

RAM initially appealed to me in how well it stitched all of its seemingly disparate parts together. For example, the piano intro of “Within” is an ideal palette cleanser after the explosive climax of “Giorgio By Moroder”, the final piano note of “Touch” is beautifully replicated in the first chord of following track “Get Lucky”, and “Doin’ It Right” which simply weaves together staccato, robot-sung iterations of its title with Panda Bear’s clean, legato counterpoint vocals gives one space to breathe before techno instrumental closer “Contact” pushes all levels into the red, relentlessly building towards an apocalyptic finale.

With some time and repeated listens, RAM in my mind became a kindred spirit of and perhaps even a worthy successor to one of my favorite albums of this young century, The Avalanches’ Since I Left You. Almost entirely made up of existing, sampled sounds, it is nearly RAM’s opposite solely in terms of creation; otherwise, it’s similarly obsessed with music and how easily and rewardingly one can utilize it to bring the past into the present while also looking towards the future. As with Since I Left You, RAM is a tough act to follow; at this writing, Daft Punk have yet to release anything else apart from collaborating with The Weeknd on his Starboy album in 2016. Meanwhile, RAM endures and remains another fragment of time having entered the collective unconscious—primarily through spins of “Get Lucky”, but also for those music fans curious enough to delve deeper into it, discovering its secret, strange treasures.

Up next: You can’t pin her down.

“Instant Crush”:

“Fragments Of Time”:

Film Journal: January 2019

This entry concludes an entire year of movie reviews posted on this blog. Going forward, I direct readers to my Letterboxd page, where all of this writing first appears. As usual, starred titles are re-watches (I also saw COLD WAR again, but have nothing more to say about it.)

Support The Girls
Building on the underrated RESULTS, Andrew Bujalski’s sixth feature might be his most satisfying one to date. Using a Hooter’s-like restaurant called Double Whammie’s as its unlikely setting, he portrays what amounts to a makeshift workplace family that comes across as genuine and nuanced as one you might’ve actually been a part of.

As its matriarch/general manager Lisa, Regina Hall delivers one of the year’s best performances, but the ensemble is terrific as well, especially Shayna MacHayle (a real find in her film debut) as her right hand/confidante, the great Lea De Laria as an adoring customer and Haley Lu Richardson (COLUMBUS) as an extremely energetic young waitress.

Over roughly one day, we see the careful ecosystem Lisa has fought to maintain in the restaurant and how it all too easily devolves into chaos in her absence. While a few scenes could’ve been edited even more tightly (such as the rooftop finale), I can’t think of another recent film so perceptive and engaging in its depiction of contemporary working class America. Grade: A-

Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
A philosophy I can get behind, presented in a thoughtful, if unexceptional package. B-

Love, Gilda
Gilda Radner may not have been the most original or technically accomplished comedienne, but she was unquestionably one of the most likable–as the cliche goes, she lit up whatever room she entered. Lisa D’Apolito’s sympathetic documentary gets this across beautifully, making a case for Radner’s accomplishments and effervescence. As an analysis, however, it’s somewhat choppy, never forging as a complete or illuminating an assessment of its subject, as, say, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR did for Fred Rogers. Still, it makes the case why Radner, her life tragically cut short by ovarian cancer in 1989, should not be forgotten. B-

Minding The Gap
Man, this movie… it just *wrecked* me, even though it’s not a tragedy. It captures both the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in-between) of everyday life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, one of whom is the director. I’ve seen this kind of documentary before, but never has it felt so honest or carried as much weight this effortlessly. The cinematography and editing are both superb. It’s on Hulu, so go watch it already. A

Andrei Rublev*
Tarkovsky’s stab at a historical epic naturally has more poetry in it than the Hollywood equivalent; I still think his subsequent, stranger films more fluently make the case for him as one of the best filmmakers of his time. A-

Never Goin’ Back
Less the Gen-Z GHOST WORLD it wants to be than a distaff, sillier, low-budget SUPERBAD. Upped half a notch for inspired use of a certain Michael Bolton song. Camila Morrone, however, is nearly as good as a young Scarlett Johansson. B-

Shirkers
As a 19-year-old student in her native Singapore, Sandi Tan wrote and starred in an independent feature film she made with her friends and her much older male mentor, but it was never finished, as said mentor absconded with the film reels and just disappeared. A quarter century later, Tan has made a documentary about the experience, complete with a good amount of footage she eventually recovered from the earlier project. Purposely disorienting and chockablock with fantastic imagery, especially when it reverberates between past and present, the story SHIRKERS recounts is almost as wild as that of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS; it’s also more nuanced and artfully assembled. B+

Detour*
“That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
(BTW, this would make a wicked double feature with MY WINNIPEG.) B+

Burning
I like films that aren’t entirely knowable, where motivations and intentions are obscured and shrouded with mystery and yet, the whole satisfies, inviting one to perceive the world differently after the credits roll. BURNING firmly falls into this category; that its intentions aren’t apparent until the very last scene nearly puts it up there with MULHOLLAND DR. and CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR in the canon of slippery, unknowable cinema.

Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, it focuses on a peculiar triangle centered on Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a young, aspiring writer who runs into an old female friend from his rural village, Hae-mi (Jong Seo-Jun), who now lives in Seoul. They become involved romantically and all seems to go well until Hae-mi’s wealthy, enigmatic friend Ben (Steven Yeun, the standout performance here) enters the picture. To get further into the story would lessen much of the film’s mystique; only know that director Chang-Dong Lee, in his first feature since 2010’s great POETRY, sets up any number of expectations only to masterfully defy most of them without leaving the viewer feeling cheated. “Haunting” is word used far too often in film criticism, but that’s the exact tone BURNING leaves one with. A

Rodents of Unusual Size
Further proof that one can make a movie about *anything*–in this case, twenty-plus pound swamp rats (technical name: nutria) infesting coastal Louisiana and beyond. Fun, educational and not for the squeamish. B-

Disobedience
If you ever mixed up Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams before, just wait until the scene where they wear similar wigs. Weisz is great, McAdams is good and I hardly recognized Alessandro Nivola; a thoughtful, if bland picture that occasionally lapses into sexual and religious kitsch–I expect a little more from the director of A FANTASTIC WOMAN and GLORIA. B-

A Matter Of Life and Death*
Had forgotten so much about this (including that I hadn’t seen it in nearly a decade.) Has the most innovative use of switching back and forth between black-and-white and glorious color, but as with the best of Powell/Pressburger, the technical spectacle is always in service of a fable full of heart and substance. A

Roma*
ROMA depicts a large middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo. In direct contrast to the ever-expanding world beyond its characters that was a focal point of Alfonso Cuaron’s last Mexican film, the seminal Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, this is far more interior, its lengthy tracking shots resembling visual attempts at re-creating memories and essences of a long-ago past. As yet, just as often ROMA feels as expansive as its predecessor; although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they build towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. Near the end, Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” and it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph for this intensely personal, singular film. A

Saturday Church
Well, it’s fun to see MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore in pre-POSE roles, and the young lead is good, but oy, this would’ve been so much more effective without those clumsy musical numbers. C

Favorite Films of 2018

I briefly thought about presenting an unranked list of ten or twelve favorites this year, but that wouldn’t be as much fun.

1. SHOPLIFTERS
As with his great forebear Yasujiro Ozu, it’s hard to say which Hirokazu Kore-eda film is the best, since he returns to familiar, familial themes across his discography with a rare consistency. So, place this well-deserved Cannes Palme D’or winner up there with NOBODY KNOWS and STILL WALKING and admire his ever-present humanism and kindhearted but fair depiction of what ordinary, flawed people do in order to survive while also seeking solace in each other (whether they’re able or even willing to reciprocate.) Also, take note of this year’s best ensemble cast, from the wonderful Kirin Kiki (in her final role) to Sakura Ando, whom in one devastating scene brings to light all of the narrative’s complexities.

2. ROMA
Concerning a middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo, this is in direct contrast to the ever-expanding world that was a focal point of Alfonso Cuaron’s last Mexican film, the seminal Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN: based on the director’s own life and heavy with memories and essences of a long-ago past, it’s far more interior. And yet, ROMA often feels as generous as its predecessor. Although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they build towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. When Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph.

3. MINDING THE GAP
A documentary rife with all the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in between) of day-to-day life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois, one of whom, Bing Liu is the director. I’ve seen this kind of movie before, but never has it felt so honest or carried as much weight this effortlessly. Liu’s editing and cinematography are both exceptional for a film of this scale and budget, and it builds to a powerful finale without calculation. This little, handmade film could serve as a definitive portrait of its time and place in the decades ahead.

4. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
The real-life story of Lee Israel, a struggling, middle-aged, alcoholic writer whom in the early ‘90s fell into a brief stint as a literary forger, should be something that works better on page than screen, but director Marielle Heller translates Israel’s own memoir as if it were a living, breathing, sincere re-creation of a now forgotten Manhattan. Aided by top-notch work from Melissa McCarthy (who really should do more indies) and Richard E. Grant, Heller has crafted something so sharp and rich with nuance, I’m not surprised it isn’t dominating the awards season.

5. FIRST REFORMED
The ridiculous and the sublime remain inseparable (as they should) in Paul Schrader’s late-career miracle about a priest (Ethan Hawke, perennially underrated as he ages but arguably never better in a role he nearly disappears into) troubled by climate change, alcoholism, religion-as-business—all the big stuff (and more!) From its austere, slow-track, zoom-in opening credits sequence to an absolutely nutty ending, Schrader conducts a wild ride through the dark night of the soul; for once, he achieves the transcendence so favored by his longtime heroes Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson.

6. THE DEATH OF STALIN
Excessively funny and appropriately dark, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Armando Iannucci’s peculiar satire until a second viewing confirmed this was nearly as bold (and arguably more formally successful) as its great predecessor DR. STRANGELOVE. The elaborate “musical emergency” opening, the slapstick moving-of-the-body, a deliriously profane argument playing out in front of a small child—all great stuff, though nothing made me laugh so hard or proved so cathartic as Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, unexpectedly perfect for the Iannucci-verse) bluntly sneering, “You fat fuck!” at the corpse of a slain politician.

7. EIGHTH GRADE
Nine months after seeing this, I still can’t understate how terrific Elsie Fisher is as Kayla, an awkward, average fourteen-year-old who’s quirky enough to stand apart from any other similarly-aged protagonist you’ve seen before and also recognizable to an almost painfully universal degree. I’ve also come to further appreciate what writer/director Bo Burnham has pulled off with his debut feature, his affection for the minutiae of this ultra-specific world (one most of us who’ve lived it would rather forget) apparent without distraction from nostalgia’s rose-colored lenses.

8. BURNING
Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, Chang-dong Lee’s first feature since 2010’s POETRY focuses on a peculiar male-female-male triangle; to get further into the story would lessen much of its mystique; only know that director sets up any number of expectations only to masterfully defy most of them without leaving the viewer feeling cheated. “Haunting” is word used far too often in film criticism, but that’s the exact tone BURNING leaves one with; the ending also secures its place in the canon of slippery, unknowable cinema.

9. MADELINE’S MADELINE
An occasionally frustrating but fascinating puzzle box of a film. On the surface, it appears to be about a teenager (Helena Howard—remember her name), her antagonistic relationship with her mom and her participation in an experimental theater troupe, but there’s so much more going on here—A meditation on the creative process? The danger of making art out of one’s own personal experiences? Or is it all just the unfiltered, interior state of a troubled, possibly mentally ill teenaged girl? Whatever it is, I was fully on board for all its inspired madness.

10. COLD WAR
Spanning a fifteen year period post-World War II, Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to IDA recreates a culture in the throes of a severe political takeover, drawing implications from the minute to fully societal. He limns his focus onto two very different people (inspired by his own parents): a jazz musician and a younger singer who nonetheless are drawn to each other. Each frame is a lovingly crafted tableau, strikingly rendered in high-contrast black-and-white, deep focus photography. The mostly diegetic soundtrack, ranging from hard bop jazz to hymn-like folk songs is a character in itself.

TIED FOR 11th PLACE:

Border
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Rider
Scotty and The Secret History of Hollywood
Support The Girls

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
BlacKkKlansman
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami
Lean On Pete
Leave No Trace
Loveless
Shirkers
Sorry To Bother You
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?