25 Favorite 21st Century Films

What Time Is It There?

I usually post a “favorite films of the year so far” list right about now, but in 2017, I’m just not feeling it. Sure, I’ve seen a bunch of good films—A Quiet Passion, Get Out, Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, The Trip to Spain—I’d have no qualms recommending each of them to anyone. But, none are what I’d call “great” like last year’s Cemetery of Splendour or even Gett or Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter from the year before.

So, as I hope 2017 proves particularly backloaded with gems, in lieu of a YTD report, I present my 25 favorite films of the 21st century (so far), like all the cool kids are doing. I’ve arranged them in alphabetical order, along with director and year of release; I’ve also limited myself to one title per director because even I have to admit a Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater-heavy list would look suspect.

You may scan this list and wonder why so many selections are from 2001 or why there’s only four from this decade. Let’s just say 2001, like 1939 was an exceptional year for cinema; and, increasingly, unless something hits me hard right away, I need more time to let it sink in and fully affect my senses, thanks to my ever-more critical eye.

I would happily watch any of these again, anytime, anyplace:

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2005)
Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)
Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, 2004)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001)
In the Mood For Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005)
Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)
The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)
Talk To Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2001)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)

Halfway Through 2016: Movies

Cemetery of Splendour
Cemetery of Splendour

In direct contrast to a rather wishy-washy list of albums, at mid-year, there’s a clear candidate for my favorite movie of 2016 (so far). Like all other Apichatpong Weerasethakul* films, Cemetery of Splendour is a one-of-a-kind, meditative, polarizing fever dream that flew under the radars of all but the most stalwart art-film geeks (of which I am one). It centers on a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers. While a good chunk of it unfolds as dialogue-heavy traditional narrative, more often than not, the film practically glides from scene to scene, making time for lengthy passages full of such ephemera as the shifting light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldier’s beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s a film I can’t wait to watch a second and possibly third (or fourth) time.

As for the rest, four are festival titles, at least two of which (Little Men, Morris From America) will hit theaters before summer’s end. The Lobster may be the unlikeliest indieplex hit since Winter’s Bone (which it has already outgrossed at the cinema I work at), while Love and Friendship suggests Whit Stillman was born to adapt Austen.

My favorite 2016 films so far, in alphabetical order:

Being 17
Cemetery of Splendour
The Dying of the Light
Free In Deed
Little Men
The Lobster
Love and Friendship
Morris From America
Rams
Weiner

 

*I still can’t bring myself to refer to Weerasethakul by his preferred nickname of “Joe”.

Halfway Through 2016: Albums

At this point last year, in compiling my favorite 2015 albums to date, I had heard a few good enough to ostensibly place on a best-of-decade list. Sadly, that’s not the case this year: of the ten titles listed below, I can’t imagine any of them ending up the absolute best one I’ll hear in 2016. Of course, at last year’s midpoint I had heard Froot but did not anticipate what impact it would eventually have, so who knows—the year’s still young.

I will say Andrew Bird’s latest is his most immediate since Armchair Apocrypha, Field Music’s is their best-to-date, Blackstar would have made most critics lists even without Bowie’s death, and I’m shocked at how good The 1975’s second record is, ridiculous Fiona Apple-length title and all. Tegan and Sara and Pet Shop Boys both scrape by on goodwill left over from their previous, superior LPs; hopefully, new works from Roisin Murphy and (gasp) The Avalanches (both out July 8) will at least be up to that level.

My favorite 2016 albums so far, in alphabetical order:

Andrew Bird, Are You Serious
Ben Watt, Fever Dream
Corinne Bailey Rae, The Heart Speaks In Whispers
David Bowie, Blackstar
DIIV, Is The Is Are
Field Music, Commontime
Junior Boys, Big Black Coat
Pet Shop Boys, Super
Tegan and Sara, Love You To Death
The 1975, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it.

1989: We Do The Dive Every Time We Dance

100 Albums is still on hiatus (and probably will be for some time), but to tide you over, I’ve made a 1989 best-of mix to complement the other yearly mixes I’ve posted for 1990-95.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about how the year I turned 14 was a crucial one for me concerning music. This was when I started listening to American Top 40 on a weekly basis and looking for a posted copy of the Billboard Hot 100 whenever I visited Musicland or JR’s at Southridge mall—not coincidentally also where I bought my first post-“Weird Al” Yankovic albums (on cassette, naturally). In 1989, I began thinking of pop music (and all its genre-specific iterations) as a cultural force, something to obsess over and actively engage with rather than relegate to background noise from the radio or MTV.

As with most of these mixes, I heard very few of these songs in 1989 apart from the big fat hits (“Buffalo Stance” never fails to mentally transport me back to that summer) and a few other random titles—I latched on to R.E.M.’s flop follow-up single to “Stand” more than I ever did to “Stand” itself and became obsessed with wacko-Euro novelty “Bring Me Edelweiss” after taping it off the radio (a wise move, since I believe I never heard it on the radio ever again).

Elsewhere, I’ve included obvious choices (“See A Little Light”, “Pictures of You”), a few obscure album tracks (“One Of The Millions”, possibly the best XTC song Colin Moulding ever wrote; the languorous, Sally Timms-fronted “Learning To Live On Your Own”) and a couple of mostly forgotten hits (I’d rather hear “Deadbeat Club” instead of “Love Shack” again, or substitute “Don’t Look Back” for another round of “She Drives Me Crazy”).

I tend to go on about how idyllic and inclusive the ‘90s were for music, but man, did any year in that entire decade contain so eclectic a playlist as this one suggests? Even through my Anglophile-Alternative lens, you’ve got such disparate spirits next to each other as Madonna and the Mekons, or Neneh Cherry and Natalie Merchant. Perhaps I’ll post more ‘80s mixes before eventually getting back to 100 Albums, which will resume with my beloved, life-changing 1996.

Click here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1989 on Spotify:

1. The B-52’s, “Deadbeat Club”
2. Kate Bush, “The Sensual World”
3. Concrete Blonde, “Happy Birthday”
4. The Cure, “Pictures of You”
5. Hunters and Collectors, “When The River Runs Dry”
6. Indigo Girls, “Kid Fears”
7. Chris Isaak, “Blue Spanish Sky”
8. The Blue Nile, “Headlights On the Parade”
9. XTC, “One of the Millions”
10. Kirsty MacColl, “Innocence”
11. The Beautiful South, “You Keep It All In”
12. Madonna, “Like A Prayer”
13. Mekons, “Learning To Live On Your Own”
14. Bob Mould, “See A Little Light”
15. New Order, “Vanishing Point”
16. Bonnie Raitt, “Nick of Time”
17. Fine Young Cannibals, “Don’t Look Back”
18. Elvis Costello, “Veronica”
19. Ramones, “Pet Sematary”
20. Neneh Cherry, “Buffalo Stance”
21. 10,000 Maniacs, “Trouble Me”
22. Edelweiss, “Bring Me Edelweiss”
23. Black Box, “Ride On Time”
24. Erasure, “Blue Savannah”
25. R.E.M., “Pop Song 89”

1995: Feeling Good (For Now)

By 1995, Alternative was the mainstream. I spent that Memorial Day at a music festival sponsored by Milwaukee’s corporate modern rock radio station. Violent Femmes were the hometown headliners, but their most recent (and likely last good) album, Rock! would never get an official domestic release; in fact, none of the bands I saw are on this mix. Next to the Femmes, the highlight was seeing the Ramones on the second stage on one of their last tours. They ran through 30 songs in 40 minutes, and more than made up for having to sit through the Flaming Lips (whom I’ve never liked) and Thank You-era Duran Duran (yes, they played their versions of “911 Is A Joke” and “White Lines” from that misbegotten covers album).

I don’t mean to reduce an entire year to a singe event, but this particular one points to how alt-rock, after having built up considerable goodwill in the decade’s first half instantly began to curdle. Fortunately, a superb left field hit would occasionally emerge amongst all the Live and Alanis: “Connection”, “Down By the Water”, “Better Than Nothing” “Sick of Myself”, “Champagne Supernova” and “1979” are all tracks I first heard via heavy rotation on New Rock 102.1, and all of them sound good today. Other songs, like “Downtown Venus” and “Somebody’s Crying” might not have fit that radio format, but they were in the air somewhere: on other stations, in people’s cars or perhaps (gasp) even on MTV! Plus, Britpop was at its peak (see tracks 22-24), trip-hop was close to getting there (#15 and 18) and even a band as wacky as Southern Culture on the Skids was on a major label.

Like 1991 and 1993, this was a slightly better year for singles and tracks than full-lengths although the albums the Bjork, Tricky, Luna, Ben Folds Five and Pulp songs are from aren’t too shabby, and I even considered writing at further length about Grant McLennan’s Horsebreaker Star and Jill Sobule’s self-titled release (the one with “I Kissed A Girl” on it) for some time. And yet, I’ve made room for a few great one-offs, like Moloko’s terrific debut single and Autour de Lucie’s en français jangle-pop-for-the-ages. Actually, I wanted to include more outliers, from Pretty and Twisted, Eddi Reader and Eve’s Plum to anything from Echobelly’s On, but none of it is on Spotify (nor is Pizzicato Five, whose “Happy Sad” deserves a spot on this mix.)

Click here to listen to my favorite tracks of 1995 on Spotify:

  1. Elastica, “Connection”
  2. P.M. Dawn, “Downtown Venus”
  3. Luna, “Sideshow By The Seashore”
  4. Jill Sobule, “Good Person Inside”
  5. Jen Trynin, “Better Than Nothing”
  6. PJ Harvey, “Down By The Water”
  7. Ben Folds Five, “Best Imitation of Myself”
  8. Matthew Sweet, “Sick of Myself”
  9. Teenage Fanclub, “Sparky’s Dream”
  10. Chris Isaak, “Somebody’s Crying”
  11. Autour de Lucie, “L’Accord Parfait”
  12. The Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”
  13. Kirsty MacColl, “Caroline”
  14. Southern Culture on the Skids, “Camel Walk”
  15. Moloko, “Fun For Me”
  16. Garbage, “Queer”
  17. kd lang, “Acquiesce”
  18. Tricky, “Aftermath”
  19. Morphine, “All Your Way”
  20. Bjork, “I Miss You”
  21. Eric Matthews, “Fanfare”
  22. Pulp, “Something Changed”
  23. Blur, “The Universal”
  24. Oasis, “Champagne Supernova”
  25. Grant McLennan, “Horsebreaker Star”

Halfway Through 2015: Albums

 

My ten favorite albums of 2015, so far, in alphabetical order. A few weeks ago, I suggested that some of these could easily place on my best-of-decade list; in any case, the last six months have been flush with excellent new releases, most of them expected, a few not–who knew Sufjan Stevens would come back from the ridiculous The Age of Adz with the return-to-his-folk-roots I’ve waited a decade for? Or that Saint Etienne’s vocalist would put out another solo album (18 years after the last one)? Or that, after an eight-year break, Róisín Murphy would record her best work yet–a shimmering, gorgeous yet strange song cycle whose themes I’m still in the process of deciphering? As you can see above in the video for “Evil Eyes”, she’s as delightfully bonkers as ever.

Belle and Sebastian, Girls In Peacetime Just Want To Dance
Calexico, Edge of the Sun
Father John Misty, I Love You Honeybear
Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?
Laura Marling, Short Movie
Róisín Murphy, Hairless Toys
Sarah Cracknell, Red Kite
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell

Favorite Albums: 2010-2014

 

Having recently posted my top 25 movies of the first half of the 2010’s, here’s the same for favorite albums of that period.

I came up with the top three right away, although I debated the order. Gryner ends up at # 1 because it’s the flawless ten-song pop album I always hoped she’d deliver (you likely haven’t heard of it—despite a nearly 20-year career, this Canadian singer/songwriter has remained obscure due to releasing all of her music (save one early major-label album) independently.) Kaputt is still a singular listen (yacht rock equal parts Steely Dan and Pet Shop Boys), taking me to an unlikely happy place every time, while Random Access Memories is the rare zeitgeist release that aptly sums up the past, defines the present and looks ahead to the future.

Based on year-end best-of lists, I’m not surprised I Know What Love Isn’t, Dottie’s Charms and Heartthrob all ended up in the top ten, since each originally placed at # 1 or 2 in their respective years (and, despite being only my fifth-favorite Saint Etienne album, Words and Music… is admittedly pretty good). With hindsight, 2010 had a few shifts: One Life Stand (#3 in 2010) and I Speak Because I Can (#4) now rate higher than Love and Its Opposite (#1) and IRM (#2)—let’s just say that the Thorn and Gainsbourg albums were fervently anticipated at the time, while I initially had no expectations for the others. The one record that has grown on me the most is Pickin’ Up The Pieces: #5 in 2011, it’s nearly as perfect a ten-song pop album as Northern Gospel.

As with the 2000’s (and as I get older), it’s a challenge trying to recognize any trends here. I find myself increasingly relying on new releases by artists familiar to me, so when a Haim or Janelle Monae emerges, it’s a big deal—especially as some longtime favorites take increasingly longer breaks between releases (I’m looking at you, Apple, Lekman, Saadiq, Thorn and Robyn). Fortunately, 2015 is shaping up to be an exceptional year for new music; I’ve already heard at least four albums that would easily place on this list.

1. Emm Gryner, Northern Gospel
2. Destroyer, Kaputt
3. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
4. Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t
5. Fitz and the Tantrums, Pickin’ Up The Pieces
6. Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can
7. Hot Chip, One Life Stand
8. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob
9. Saint Etienne, Words and Music By Saint Etienne
10. Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms
11. Tracey Thorn, Love and Its Opposite
12. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…
13. Future Islands, Singles
14. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
15. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
16. The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers
17. Haim, Days Are Gone
18. Hot Chip, In Our Heads
19. Sam Phillips, Push Any Button
20. Laura Marling, Once I Was An Eagle
21. Robyn, Body Talk
22. Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM
23. Alison Moyet, The Minutes
24. Rufus Wainwright, Out Of The Game
25. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues