Film Journal: March 2018

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Movies seen in March, now with letter grades because I feel like it. Starred titles are re-watches.

The Unknown Girl
This would be Dardennes-by-numbers if not for the new wrinkle of embedding a murder mystery within their usual neorealism; the problem is they don’t have the knack for the former, as its continual presence threatens to drag down the rest of the film (reportedly seven minutes shorter than the 2016 Cannes cut; perhaps they could’ve cut it down further.) Thankfully, Adele Haenel (whom I didn’t recognize from either Water Lilies or Nocturama) gives the film something of a center—her youthful doctor, fixated on responsibility and guilt, contains enough layers and flaws to make her more than a narrative construct. Grade: B-

Patti Cake$
It has all the clichés you’d expect from the Rocky of overweight, working-class, female New Jersey rappers, but I liked it anyway. Credit Danielle Macdonald in what should have been a star-making turn (a cliché, I know, but it really applies here) but also Bridget Everett, who is immense and devastating as the alcoholic, failed rocker mother who refreshingly turns out not to be the film’s villain. Hardly anyone saw this Sundance hit, but if they had, Everett might’ve given Allison Janney some stiff competition at awards season. B+

Thoroughbreds
Starts off a little boring and leaden, with two rich girls (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, both very good) in a passive-aggressive pas de deux. It achieves some focus once the what-to-do-about-the-creepy-stepfather problem is established—a narrative we’ve seen too many times before. Despite all that, first-time director Cory Finley proves a talent to watch. The camerawork, the immaculate suburban, Old Money mansion setting and the almost avant-garde sound design all cohere to bring about an almost thrilling sense of dread which builds to an unforgettable, extended long shot that’s like nothing else I’ve seen. B

The Passion of Joan of Arc*
Utterly shocked and transfixed when I first saw this on a 19” TV screen circa 2001; viewing it again on a giant movie screen in 2018 was no less powerful, even as I knew exactly what to expect. Understandably radical when it was made, it still feels as such today—I can’t name another film (at least one I’ve recently seen) that utilizes faces and close-ups like this. Uncertain whether an alternate universe where the invention of sync sound was decades away would’ve been a good thing, but this late-silent film’s rare achievement makes me wonder. A+

Frantz
Genre magpie that he is, I don’t believe Francois Ozon has shown this much restraint in any of his previous work, from Swimming Pool to Potiche; I debate whether this is a positive, for the story, a loose remake of Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby cries out for some melodrama. Still, this is sweet but unsentimental, with gorgeous-not-glossy cinematography (including selective, interesting shifts between black-and-white and color) and period design, but also uncommon kindness and introspection over how people process the aftermath of something as traumatic and life-disruptive as war. B

Loveless
Not as sharp a political allegory as Leviathan, nor does it possess that film’s necessary gallows humor (which might’ve been out of place here, anyway.) However, Zvyagintsev remains a necessary critical voice for his country and the petty squabbles between the two never-should-have-married leads are relatable to an almost uncomfortable degree. It’s bleak, but not unrelentingly so—brief, lyrical touches, like Alexey’s swirling red-and-white ribbon or the unremitting duty of volunteering citizens point towards a humaneness lurking within the director’s rigorous worldview. B+

Aguirre, The Wrath of God*
Third viewing and I’m still a little more baffled than seduced (although this time the guitar portions of the score made me swoon.) Here’s the thing: it could use even *more* Aguirre—apart from that immense, justly celebrated opening shot, the film only comes alive whenever Kinski’s glowering mug is onscreen, as if to say, “Well, of course the cameras should be on me! Why would you *dare* look away?” B

The Death of Stalin
Excessively funny and appropriately dark, from the “musical emergency” opening to the slapstick moving-of-the-body to a deliriously profane argument playing out in front of a small child. I may need a second viewing to determine whether this is really of a piece with In The Loop and the best of Veep. Still, Steve Buscemi hasn’t fit so snugly into a role since Ghost World, and that I never even considered him for the Iannucci-verse is just one of many things that keeps this from feeling like a retread. A-

Viva
Notable for actually being shot in Old Havana (a peek into a one-of-a-kind setting) and for its RuPaul’s Drag Race-worthy cabaret performances, which alone are essential viewing. The estranged father/son relationship is fine but takes too long to develop into something involving. Apart from the setting/culture, it has nothing on any Almodovar melodrama. C+

Snow White and The Hunstman
Sillier than the Disney version while also taking itself way too seriously. Kristin Stewart looks so uncomfortable that I’m relieved she and Olivier Assayas found each other. D+

Uncle Howard
Howard Brookner was a promising filmmaker who completed three features before succumbing to AIDS in 1989 (days before he would’ve turned 35). Directed by his nephew, Aaron, (whom he strikingly resembles), this is about average for a dead relative documentary, but the breadth of Howard’s unearthed, archival footage is a treasure trove—not just the numerous outtakes from his William Burroughs doc but also his own artful, affecting video diaries. B-

Nathan For You: Finding Frances
Feels less like a supersized television episode (even though technically it is) and more like a made-for-TV movie due to its uncommon seriousness. Nathan Fielder has always attempted a tricky balancing act between sincerity and satire, and he’s never threaded that line so carefully—at least for the first hour, before you’re almost certain he’s picked the former over the latter. Almost. A-

Talk To Her*
First viewing in a decade with almost unreal expectations—always considered this my favorite Almodovar, his mature masterwork. It’s still one of his best, but more challenging than I remember: the first half feels so slow and subdued, even compared to All About My Mother. But its themes of longing and companionship solidify after the scene whose dialogue provides the title, and rarely since has the director constructed such a tender (if twisted) scenario between two men. Also, Geraldine Chaplin is a hoot here. A

Foxtrot
Despite the title-referencing dance step, where one always ends up in the same place where one started, this is continually unpredictable to a degree most other films are not. The extended mid-section swaps the bookending domestic melodrama for David Lynch/Jim Jarmusch light surrealism, but it’s jarring, as if it was dropped in from another movie. This irritated me as I watched, but I admit the imagery (in particular, the sinking cabin, the outsized spotlight and that darn camel) and unusual pacing has stuck with me. B

Advertisements

Tompaulin, “Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #80 – released March 22, 2004)

Track listing: Slender / It’s A Girl’s World / North / Second Rate Republic (Demo) / Wedding Song / Swing Low Stuart / Ballad Of The Bootboys / Them Vs. Us / The Sadness Of Things / My Perfect Girlfriend (Demo) / My Life As A Car Crash / Give Me A Riot In The Summertime

In Spring 2003, I became a staff writer for indie music website Splendid!, which differentiated itself from Pitchfork, PopMatters, etc. by vowing to review anything submitted to it. I was required to write three reviews every week: one in the 300-500 word range of an album I liked, and two 150-200 word capsules about albums I didn’t necessarily have to like. Every couple weeks, I’d receive a box of fifteen or so CDs, some with press releases, others with handwritten requests from the editor to review them right away. And, I had to write about every last one.

Occasionally, I’d encounter a disc from an artist I’d actually heard of (Arab Strap, Sufjan Stevens, Beth Orton) but a majority of what I got was previously unknown to me. Over the next eighteen months, I was exposed to everything from Native American folk music to masturbatory prog rock, much of it relentlessly mediocre or just plain awful (such as a band named “Shugaazer” that had fuck all to do with My Bloody Valentine.) Most weeks, I’d strain to find a disc that I “liked” enough for the required lengthier review. However, once in a great while, something exceptional surfaced. For instance, I heard TV On The Radio before practically any other non-critic via their debut EP Young Liars. It remains in my regular listening rotation to this day, along with albums from other Splendid! discoveries like Swedish pop star Marit Bergman, winsome Aussie folk-rocker Tamas Wells, and American singer-songwriter turned film scorer Paul Brill.

Apart from Seven Swans, my all-time favorite Splendid! find was UK-based band Tompaulin. Arriving in my mailbox in March 2004, Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt compiled tracks from all of their singles to date. Named after a Northern Irish poet and having borrowed their album title from Kurt Vonnegut, I anticipated a strong literary bent to their sound (their first studio album, 2001’s The Town and The City (itself named after Jack Kerouac’s first novel) has tracks called “Richard Brautigan” and “All The Great Writers and Me”) but I had no other expectations. Nearly a year into my Splendid! tenure, I’d learned to be open to hearing anything on one of these discs submitted for review in terms of genre, sound, tone and quality (especially quality.)

EWBANH’s opener, “Slender”, commences with a soft hum of atmospheric sound, soon joined by a trembling, almost tentative guitar strum. Vocalist/lyricist Jamie Holman then sings, “All that I remember / is your wrists / and they were slender,” his delivery slightly-but-not-overbearingly-fey with a noticeable Lancashire accent. An electric guitar plays a countermelody, and a softly thumping drumbeat enters at the second verse. The song’s title cleverly shifts as Holman sings, “By Monday morning, I won’t even remember / your chances are slender.” All the while, the song has only two chords, which repeat measure by measure.

At the third verse, female vocalist Stacey McKenna takes over from Holman. The sudden switch to her voice, pitched somewhere between Belle and Sebastian’s Sarah Martin and Neko Case, is striking. She answers Holman’s words, eventually concluding, “My chances are slender.” The music, continually building momentum from the start, keeps growing fuller and louder until, at 2:35, crunching, majestic electric guitar chords enter the right channel like a beacon of blinding light. McKenna returns, a few bars later, with the climactic lyrics, “And now you won’t hear me / won’t speak and won’t come near me,” sung over and over. It’s thrilling, it’s heartbreaking, it’s everything I could ever want from a pop song, up until it concludes on a final, tranquil grace note.

“Slender” is an ideal introduction to Tompaulin’s tiny, contained oeuvre—for sure, their greatest moment, but far from their only great one. The next two songs reinforce that this is a band worth your time and attention. “It’s A Girl’s World” weds confectionary pop full of strummed acoustics and twinkling keyboards with incisive, wry lyrics, rhyming “Walkman beat” with Exile On Main Street and dropping observations like, “She’s a fat girl / but she’d give you the world / in her ginger curls.” Similarly inclined phrases at the very opening of “North” cascade by in such a breathless, near-euphoric rush that they provide neat contrast to the chorus: a series of descending, clipped phrases (“Oh / when you go down / to the center of town / stay down”), followed by a steady string of trumpet-enhanced ba-da-da-da’s.

But remember, EWBANH is a singles comp rather than a greatest hits album, which means B-sides make up roughly half the selections here. True to form, some are demos, like a pretty but far-from-essential first take on The Town and The City’s closer, “Second Rate Republic”, or “My Perfect Girlfriend”, a deliberate goof which sounds like it was recorded in a cigar box and consists solely of McKenna singing “Debbie, Debbie Harry, Debbie Harry” repeatedly over rudimentary if punchy new wave guitar-bass-drums. There’s also pleasantly wispy stuff like “Wedding Song”, which dutifully emulates “Cemetery Gates”-era Smiths, and “Them vs. Us”, which does the same for late ‘80s Sarah Records twee pop.

Still, just because it’s a B-side doesn’t necessarily make it a castoff or a throwaway, as Pet Shop Boys and Saint Etienne have proven with numerous, above-average B-side compilations of their own. “The Sadness of Things”, for instance, could’ve comfortably fit on The Town and The City with its quotable lines (“She says she likes The Rolling Stones / but she’s only got the Greatest Hits”) and cozy, if melancholy allure. Conversely, “Swing Low Stuart” is a B-side for another reason. Over a sing-song melody, McKenna tartly notes, “Stuart’s the epitome / of white boy, middle class monogamy; / He’d like to know some deviants / he invested in some leather pants,” (one could only hope she’s singing about Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch.) Sounding as agreeable as early Black Box Recorder, it takes a left turn halfway through as guitar feedback slowly creeps in, wave by wave until it consumes all else and you’re left with a cacophony of nearly Metal Machine Music-like proportions.

However, such experimentation is a diversion rather than the norm with this group. Given their unaffected vocals, slice-of-life lyrics and propensity for using two or three chords at most, they most often resemble a punk band, albeit one curiously beholden to pastoral and chamber-pop arrangements. One discerns such tension in this comp’s final two tracks, both of them highlights. “My Life As A Car Crash” is almost ridiculously simple: it expertly shifts back and forth between wordy, subdued verses and wordless, caffeinated five-alarm choruses while keeping both parts urgent-sounding and razor sharp. Holman, meanwhile, expands on the title metaphor’s subtleties without ever mentioning it by name. Closing track “Give Me A Riot In the Summertime” neatly bookends “Slender”, gradually barreling across the volume spectrum from soft to loud; its minor key but ultimately rousing protest pop made immortal by a McKenna verse as impassioned, triumphant and fun as the best of Sleater-Kinney or one of The B-52s’ classic Kate-and-Cindy showcases.

Tompaulin would release one more studio album, 2005’s downbeat but pretty Into The Black before breaking up two years later. Given their perpetual obscurity, you can’t blame them for not carrying forward, but as I wrote about The Go-Betweens many entries ago, you also can’t blame the world for not knowing about them. Had it not been for Splendid!, I doubt I would’ve ever crossed paths with this music, and therein lies a predicament of the internet age. In the past few decades, music production and dissemination has skyrocketed to point where so much more is destined to fall through the cracks or remain obscure than previous.

My time at Splendid! encouraged me to keep one eye on those infinitesimal few musicians who manage to break through all the clutter and the other eye always open for those unknown quantities like Tompaulin, forever patiently awaiting discovery. The challenge is mustering up time and effort to sift through it all to get to those ultra-hidden gems, and I admit that it’s easier said than done—after less than eighteen months, I quit Splendid!, altogether burned out on finding new things to say about albums that were mostly mediocre-to-bad, week after week. The website itself folded a little over a year later, suggesting that its inclusive approach to music criticism sadly wasn’t a sustainable pursuit. Thankfully, with YouTube and a bevy of streaming services, we now have seemingly boundless means to get lost in rabbit holes, forever making our very own discoveries.

Up next: Singing Softly To Me.

“Slender”:

“My Life As A Car Crash”:

Sufjan Stevens, “Seven Swans”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #79 – released March 16, 2004)

Track listing: All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands / The Dress Looks Nice On You / In The Devil’s Territory / To Be Alone With You / Abraham / Sister / Size Too Small / We Won’t Need Legs To Stand / A Good Man Is Hard To Find / He Woke Me Up Again / Seven Swans / The Transfiguration

When he took the stage at the Academy Awards last week, Sufjan Stevens was likely unknown to a good chunk of the worldwide viewing audience. I can only imagine what kind of impression he made on them with his gentle, fragile voice and equally delicate/intricate music (not to mention his outré pink-and-white vertical striped jacket.) Joined by a typically eccentric band of indie-leaning musicians including St. Vincent and Chris Thile, Stevens performed his nominated song “Mystery of Love”, one of two compositions he wrote for the film Call Me By Your Name. A shimmering tapestry of acoustic guitar, mandolin and other pizzicato, bell-like sounds topped off by his yearning vocals, it’s quintessential Sufjan in that it’s accessible, almost impossibly lovely and sounds like little else.

This notion of discovering Stevens on as immense and unlikely a platform as the Oscars takes me back to the first time I heard him, fourteen years ago when I was assigned to review Seven Swans for a music website (more about that in the next entry.) I recall lying on my bed as (take a breath) “All The Trees of The Field Will Clap Their Hands” began with a lone banjo playing a four-chord arpeggio, soon joined by a hushed, choirboy vocal falling somewhere between Elliot Smith and Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough. One by one, other layers (acoustic piano, female “da, da, da’s”) appeared over those same chords, the entire thing building and gradually solidifying into a gorgeous whole. It immediately left me beguiled—I hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. Yes, it was folkish, singer-songwriter stuff, but it emanated awe at a level both intense and slightly unsettling (more so than comforting.)

His fourth album in as many years, Seven Swans arrived just eight months after his previous release (and the first to receive any college radio airplay), Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State, a song cycle exactly about what it says it is. The latter was the first in a planned series of LPs, one for each of the fifty states. This absurdly ambitious undertaking (which to date has not gone beyond two albums) was my first inkling that Stevens was not only a major talent, but perhaps also a little nuts. The press release I received for Seven Swans positioned it as a break from that project, made up of recent songs falling outside those parameters. Recorded in producer Daniel Smith’s rec room, it stood in direct contrast to most of Michigan’s more extroverted menagerie of horns, polyrhythms, weird keyboards and epic-length narratives. As I would later find out, it was also absolutely nothing like the all-over-the-map indie rock of his debut, A Sun Came! (2000) or the instrumental, impenetrable electronic experimentation of Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001).

Multiple Seven Swans songs follow the lead of “All The Trees…”, building an arrangement one piece at a time, repeating the melody with minor variations until the whole takes on a hypnotic, zen-like quality. “The Dress Looks Like On You” does so gently, mostly limiting its scope to banjo and acoustic guitar, only thinking to throw in something unexpected like a brief, cereal-box organ solo when the melody shifts in the bridge; conversely, “In The Devil’s Territory” swells to a mighty, Steve Reich-ian roar, its Theremin solo ably mimicking a boiling tea kettle ready to explode. Stevens isn’t shy about pushing this trope to its breaking point—witness “Sister”, which spends four minutes repeating the same instrumental melody, with “da, da, da’s” eventually accompanying it, growing louder and louder until it almost feels satirical, like a backing track from another Stevens, Cat, turned into a game show theme song. Then, abruptly, everything drops out, the song shifting to just acoustic guitar-and-voice for its last two minutes, retaining the same melody, only with proper lyrics.

Striking as Stevens’ approach to sound and song structure is throughout Seven Swans, his lyrical content more radically sets the record apart from scores of likeminded acoustic folkies. Stevens is a devout Christian, and while he shies away from labeling himself as a Christian artist, maintaining in multiple interviews that his intent is to separate his beliefs from his music, themes of faith in a higher power liberally flow throughout his work—rarely more explicitly than on this particular album. The title itself refers to a passage in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, while there are also songs about “Abraham” and “The Transfiguration”. And yet, while his faith and devotion feels pure, he never moralizes and rarely proselytizes—the closest he comes to doing so is his refrain of “He is the Lord!” in the title track, and even there he sounds a bit fearful and overwhelmed about what he’s exclaiming.

At times, his exploration of faith falls much closer to Sam Phillips‘ (although she’s far more skeptical than he’ll ever be), in that he acknowledges the complexity of such mysteries. “To Be Alone With You”, with its captivating melody and spare, acoustic guitar-and-voice setting, initially comes off like a straightforward love song, with Stevens offering, “I’d swim across Lake Michigan” in order to fulfill the titular goal. However, by the second verse, the subject shifts from first to second person: “You gave up a wife and a family / You gave your ghost / To be alone with me.” When this song was new to me, I puzzled over exactly whom Stevens was directing these words to. A lover? A friend or relative? Most likely, it’s a higher power, especially after he sings, “To be alone with me / You went up on a tree,” possibly referencing the Crucifixion. But then, the final line is, “I’ve never met a man who loved me.” Is Stevens singing about Jesus or God or a literal man of the flesh? My inclination leans towards the former, yet his careful, specific use of language here is fascinatingly steeped in ambiguity.

Similarly, “Size Too Small” ostensibly concerns being the best man at a best friend’s wedding, the title referring to an ill-fitting suit. At face value, that’s exactly what it’s about, the quiet, reverent-sounding organ coming in on the second verse serving the nuptials theme nicely. But in that second verse, Stevens sings, “Everything rises, going at it all / All the surprises in a size too small,” before asking, “Would you surprise us / in a size for all of me?” No longer merely tangible, “size” becomes a concept that could encompass any number of things, from persona to friendship to even faith. “I still know you, the best man,” he notes, before concluding, “I still owe you,” and you’re left uncertain as to whom exactly “you” is, only that it’s someone or something close to his heart. The same goes for the “He” in “He Woke Me Up Again” or the subject of “The Dress Looks Nice On You”, which seems to be a celebration of spiritual rather than physical beauty with repeated admonitions of “I can see a lot of life in you.”

Even when Stevens largely forgoes abstractions, his music still retains an aura of wonderment. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” rewrites the Flannery O’ Connor short story of that title from the point of view of its villain, known only as “The Misfit”. It’s a clever, followable conceit further made flesh by a hummable melody and the awesome way it opens up at the wordless, carousel twirl of a chorus, complete with a guitar riff that could’ve come from a Simon and Garfunkel chestnut. And yet, when his narrator switches from second to first person in the last verse, singing of Hell and his own grief, you can’t help but draw parallels to themes running through the bulk of the album. Stevens’ ability to incorporate both character and self until the line separating them blurs is a rare talent, one that further distinguishes him from your average singer-songwriter.

On subsequent albums, he’d continue honing that skill while hardly ever repeating himself. 2005’s Illinois picked up where Michigan left off but further expanded his aesthetic, often crossing Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown music with homespun theatrical drama. It ended up a breakthrough beyond college radio confines, thanks to its typically moving, catchy-but-still-singular anthem “Chicago”. Five years later, he returned with The Age of Adz, a flummoxing, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attempt at almost a pop version of Enjoy Your Rabbit, getting lost in excess electronic effluvia and songs that pushed pass the six-minute-mark (or in one case, twenty-five!) Five years after that, Carrie and Lowell seemed like a full-circle, course-corrective return to an airier, more reverb-drenched take on Seven Swans’ acoustic folk, but with a new wrinkle: centering on his estranged mother’s death, Stevens dove feet-first into purely confessional songwriting, teeming with grief and inconsolable pain as deeply felt and nuanced as his earlier admissions of faith.

“Mystery of Love” didn’t win an Oscar, which is neither here nor there (losing to Phil Collins in this category back in 1999 didn’t have an adverse effect on Aimee Mann’s career.) Still, along with the stark “Visions of Gideon” (and its devastating placement at the end of Call Me By Your Name), it suggests that no matter which path Stevens takes next, he remains a wholly original and essential voice.

Up next: Obscurity Knocks.

“To Be Alone With You”:

“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”:

Film Journal: February 2018

Mudbound

I’m making an effort to write about every movie I see – an average of 100 words per title, sometimes more, often less. Reviews will appear on Letterboxd as I write them, and then get posted here monthly with starred ratings. Titles with a star next to them are movies I’ve re-watched.

There Will Be Blood*
Still one of my favorite films of the previous decade—revisiting it for the first time in over six years was like returning to a beloved novel, anticipating certain passages, but also feeling the brisk rush of joy in rediscovering others I’d totally forgotten, like the second restaurant scene with Plainview’s exquisite sourpuss expression at first sight of his rivals, or when he discloses more of his soul to Henry than he ever will to anyone else, or even “drrraiiinage!” Paul Thomas Anderson has made three features since—at least two are brilliant, but neither of ‘em sweeps up the viewer’s consciousness and embeds it within a fully realized world as seamlessly this one does. Rating: *****

Into The Inferno
The first Werner Herzog documentary I’ve seen since Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010) (which left me cold, perhaps because I didn’t see it in the intended 3-D format.) Naturally, you get all the opera-and chorale-accompanied staring-into-a-volcano’s-fiery-maw you’d expect, which Herzog renders as both startling and meditative. Even more startling is his undiminished knack for finding and showcasing odd, intriguing personalities, from a positively Owen Wilson-esque paleoanthropologist to volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer, who is more friend than foil. Encompassing Indonesia to Iceland, Ethiopia to North Korea, it’s a mirror-image, globe-trotting companion to his great Antarctica film from a decade before in which he just happened to visit a volcano. ****

Mudbound
Much as I’d prefer a Dee Rees film to receive a theatrical release, who knows how buried it could have ended up if it did? Along with Okja, it’s a key title in getting cineastes (myself included) used to the idea that essential cinema isn’t solely available in one. For a narrative about neighboring Mississippi families (one black, one white), after years of post-Civil War settings, the 1940s feels refreshing, particularly in how in sets in motion a change in perception for one black character. The cast, from Garrett Hedlund and Carey Mulligan to a near-unrecognizable Mary J. Blige is excellent, and the multiple narrator device is deftly employed. Rees’ trickiest feat, however, is in her graceful depiction of an unlikely but authentic friendship that develops between two men, which sounds commonplace until you remember how rarely you actually see it onscreen. ****1/2

I, Tonya
I admit to being entertained—how could I dislike an ideally-cast Alison Janney with those ginormous eyeglass frames and live-bird-on-shoulder? And Margot Robbie with her nails-on-chalkboard voice is everything you’d want from a Tonya (even if she’s a tad old for the teen years). And yet, as much as this strives to and at times succeeds in making Harding sympathetic, that it does so at the expense of doing pretty much the same for her abusers is just a bit problematic. The overbearing soundtrack choices and unbecoming pacing (this could’ve easily been 90 minutes long) do the film few favors, either. **1/2

The Insult
As a primer on the decades-long clash between Lebanese Christian nationalists and that country’s Palestinian refugees, this is great, and given the current worldwide refugee crisis, exceedingly timely. As drama, however, despite all good intentions, it comes off a little hackneyed. It believably constructs the initial conflicts that snowball into national turmoil, but the subsequent legal stuff (which includes a twist best kept secret here) sacrifices the film’s realism for soap opera. Still, the idea that words carry consequences is most pertinent right now—has any recent American film explored such a topic with this much depth? ***1/2

Beach Rats
Much has been made of Eliza Hittman’s second feature being directed by a woman, even though the protagonist is a Brooklyn male teen who, when not hanging out at Coney Island with his loutish buddies, visits gay chat sites in private, meeting men he has sex with. Also, he’s trying to date a girl, and his father is in home hospice care for terminal cancer. It’s a lot to unpack, but the beauty of Beach Rats is in Hittman’s direction—she approaches the tale with enough care and generosity as if it were her own, even if it’s obviously not. Her feel for lived-in intimacy and everyday (but potentially transcendent) poetry reminds me a little of Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years); also, she coaxes a stirring lead performance from British (!) actor Harris Dickinson. ****

Lucky
No denying that the late Harry Dean Stanton was a rare breed of actor or that few nonagenarians are as deserving of an end-of-life vehicle than him. And this is full of unforgettable images and moments, from Stanton’s around-the-house wardrobe to his impromptu and utterly moving performance at a child’s birthday party. David Lynch, Beth Grant, Tom Skerritt and Ron Livingston are all also in this movie, and despite limited screen time, they each leave just as much an impression. John Carroll Lynch (Marge’s husband in Fargo) directs like an actor, which is to say, not all of the story scans as well as it could, nor does it cohere as much as you wish it would. But most actors would be so fortunate to receive such a fine, if a tad romantic farewell. ***1/2

Grizzly Man*
Genuine oddball Timothy Treadwell was the type of figure who could all too easily be made sport of, or, worse, cast in a sentimental light. And though you can’t help but both laugh at and feel for him, Herzog immediately sets the right balance of tone, knowing he has no use for reducing his found subject to cartoon or saint. His narration plays like the most incisive DVD (this is 2005, after all) commentary you’ll ever hear, and his selection from over 100 hours of found footage constructs a sharp but fair critical portrait containing multitudes—the most anyone really deserves, oddballs included. *****

Nellie McKay, “Get Away From Me”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #78 – released February 10, 2004)

Track listing: David / Manhattan Avenue / Sari / Ding Dong / Baby Watch Your Back / The Dog Song / Waiter / I Wanna Get Married / Change The World / It’s A Pose / Toto Dies / Won’t U Please B Nice / Inner Peace / Suitcase Song / Work Song / Clonie / Respectable / Really

“The debut of the year, possibly the decade,” is what I wrote about Get Away From Me when it placed #4 on my 2004 year-end albums list. I stand by those words today, even if Nellie McKay’s subsequent career hasn’t lived up to those expectations. Despite the considerable media attention accompanying Columbia’s release of her debut, this 22-year-old singer-songwriter was never going to pose anything resembling a commercial threat to the likes of Norah Jones (the title parodies Jones’ own massive 2002 debut Come Away With Me.) Still, so dazzling and fully-formed was McKay’s talent right from the start, I did not expect her to sink into relative obscurity so quickly.

Perhaps this exchange I had with a record store clerk (at the late, lamented Disc Diggers in Somerville) anticipated her fate. As I picked up a copy of the album weeks after its release, he asked me, “Have you heard this? She’s talented but man, she is precocious.” He wasn’t exaggerating, for much of McKay’s initial appeal stemmed from her audacity to mix and match genres at the drop of a hat and do so with an impeccable confidence (and considerable profanity.) Early on, she received comparisons to both Doris Day and Eminem; although only “Sari” and maybe “Work Song” come close to such a mashup, the tag stuck in part because it aptly summarized what made McKay so unique. Young, blonde and wholesome-looking, she’s physically a dead ringer for Day and her obvious affection for jazz and torch balladry syncs up well (so much that her fourth album would be a Day tribute.) But don’t be fooled, for she can be nearly as much of an irreverent, confrontational wiseass as Marshall Mathers (minus the misogyny and homophobia, of course.)

Still, enough of Get Away From Me falls so completely outside even that spectrum, leaving one ill-advised to reduce McKay to a descriptive soundbite. “Ding Dong”, for instance, really has no precedent: it’s like a jazzy novelty song on the order of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’ “Twisted”, only sui generis—she expertly uses the “show, don’t tell” narrative rule here, expressing her burgeoning lunacy not only via a peculiar point of view (“My cat died / so I quickly poured myself some gin / Did he die of old age / or was it for my sins?”) but also in her idiosyncratic, often legato or drunken delivery (“died” becomes “di-i-ied”, “lighter” rendered as “LIE-ter”) with ample help from an arrangement crisp with staccato piano and whimsical chimes.

After I placed the song on a mix for my friend Bruce, he amiably referred to McKay as a “delightful nutjob”, two words that capture her appeal more fully than any artist comparison could. Only someone of that exact description would ever insist on releasing her hour-long major label debut that could easily fit onto one disc as a double CD (and really, a half hour of McKay at a time is easier to digest), or rhyme “God, I’m so German” with “Ethel Merman”, or kick things off with catchy, scat-and-sound-effect-enhanced reggae-pop (“David”) and immediately follow with a smoky jazz ballad (“Manhattan Avenue”), a wonky, ultra-modern rap seething with spat-out, rapid-fire phrases (“Sari”) and, well, “Ding Dong”!

Before one accuses McKay of showing off, however, note that she’s neither a dilettante nor an opportunist (you think she thought these tunes would ever crack top 40 radio?) Get Away From Me still endures and excites not only for showcasing the unfurling of a considerable talent but also for seemingly not imposing any boundaries on it. More often than not, you come away from these peculiar little songs, their nagging melodies and detail-rich arrangements lodged in your brain, wondering where they came from and how you ever lived without them and why the rest of the world has next-to-no knowledge that they exist.

If unconvinced, start with the most traditional jazz ballad stuff. Sure, “Manhattan Avenue” and its musical cousins “Really” and “I Wanna Get Married” could pass for Doris Day with flying colors in a blind test from a musical standpoint. Of course, Day in her day would never sing a lyric such as “What strange a vice / that a mugger and a child / should share the same paradise,” much less get across the irony of wanting to “pack lunches for my Brady Bunches”—as a young woman in 2004, you expect, nay, demand McKay to do both. But she takes the knowing charade a couple steps further. Sure, when she sings “that’s why I was born” as the inevitable punch line to “I Wanna Get Married”, it’s all good postmodern fun, but what about when she unexpectedly, if sweetly discloses, “I’m such a shiiiiiiitttt,” in “Really” (remarkably similar to how Rufus Wainwright claimed he didn’t want to be “John Llllithgow” in “Want”)? Is she playing a part, having a laugh, or actually revealing something deeper about herself? Her poker-faced conviction is solid enough to leave one guessing and intrigued.

Next, consider songs where she’s a little more upfront about where she stands. “It’s a Pose” rousingly opens the second disc in upbeat, boogie-woogie swing mode (another thing she shares with Wainwright—nearly every track here is, to quote Nina Simone, a “show tune for a show that hasn’t been written yet”), but it’s just a heaping spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of calling out faux male feminists smoothly go down. “Sari” (just another word for “sorry”, which, she emphatically, repeatedly claims, she’s not) might rush by in a blur of swagger and tongue-twisting wordplay (“When you’re female and you’re fenced in and / Phen-phened to no end”) but overall, you’re left with more than a glimpse of the singer’s motivations and ideology, even as she argues, “You can hear what’s on my lips but you don’t know what’s in my mind!”

As a manifesto, “Respectable” is more clear-cut. After a melodic up-and-down carousel of an intro (like “The Windmills of Your Mind” at warp speed), the music briefly, almost entirely drops out for McKay to deliver a cautionary tale of “a rich boy” who “wants to do right” but “has to subscribe to the rules of the tribe.” The arrangement gradually builds back up, reaching full flower in the brilliant chorus of “You’re the respectable member of society / but you don’t have nothin’ on me.” From there, McKay never wavers, nimbly shifting to a flamenco bridge (complete with castanets!) without breaking a sweat, embedding a message within a catchy melody without being preachy.

Still, the less McKay dilutes her oddness or relinquishes her ambiguity, the better. By the time “Waiter” arrives, the last thing any listener expects from her is a stab at Eurodisco, but that’s exactly what it is, and it’s spectacular. Instantly, you recognize both the genre tropes (an insistent drum machine rhythm, sighing strings, drawn out, Bee Gees-worthy “ahhh’s”) and how well they mesh with McKay’s by-now-familiar vocal affectations. Also, that crescendo she builds from the bridge to the chorus packs a mighty wallop, actually sending this ditty about dining out amidst hearing about the “end” of the Iraq War into euphoric overdrive (and that’s before her sudden, equally ridiculous and sublime quoting of the Tin Pan Alley standard “Carolina In The Morning” surfaces over the song’s outro.)

On that note, would another singer-songwriter dare risk resembling the funkier, more frenzied music Joe Raposo composed for vintage Sesame Street (“Baby Watch Your Back”) or ever think to alternate martial beats with a pea-soup, pea-soup shuffle, sing “Okay, Dr. Phil, / Ready, for my pill,” and call the whole thing “Change The World” (as in, “Does it really matter if I…”)? Who else could credibly survive the shift from “That’s what it’s all about,” to “bow-wow-wou-out,” in “The Dog Song” or inject the iconic “OH-WEEE-OH” from The Wizard Of Oz into a driving mélange of tango rhythms, pizzicato piano and strings and call it “Toto Dies”? Or come off like a goofier (and still scarier) younger sister to Fiona Apple on “Inner Peace”? Or further sweeten the altogether daft bubblegum of “Clonie” with flutes and plonking xylophones and conclude on that most stereotypical of “Chinese” melodic cues?

McKay threads a fine line—rarely more precariously or marvelously than on “Won’t U Please B Nice” (note the Prince-inspired spelling.) Another jazzy throwback a la “I Wanna Get Married”, the music could’ve been recorded anytime since 1955. Although McKay sings coquettishly like Blossom Dearie or, better yet, Marilyn Monroe, what comes out of her mouth is an entirely different matter. She begins by beckoning her fella to sit close to her, only to warn him on descendant notes, “If you don’t / I’ll slit your throat,” before kindly asking the titular question. As she continues, her threats grow more… severe (“If you go / I’ll get your dough,” “Give me head / or you’ll be dead.”) And yet, she plays it all straight enough that, if you had no knowledge of her or her other music, the song could convincingly scan as either satire or the subversive musings of a damaged mind. That she goes out by quoting Chopin’s Funeral March (over which she lets out a gleeful “whee!”) is just the cherry on top.

Delightful Nutjobs, however, tend to become problematic whenever they seem less than charming and thus, merely nuts. Any career momentum McKay established with Get Away From Me was derailed a year later after her label delayed her second album, Pretty Little Head, because they wanted its 23 tracks over two discs pared down to a single. It was eventually released independently, uncut, in 2006; although it’s occasionally great (complete with kd lang and Cyndi Lauper duets), in this case the label was right—the 16-track version currently available for streaming is a much tighter, more rewarding listen.

Regardless, it pushed McKay back to the margins, where she’s since put out records both inspired (2007’s confounding, near-brilliant, and unusually concise political song cycle Obligatory Villagers) and indifferent (2010’s Home Sweet Mobile Home drones on by in a Lithium haze.) As of late, she’s mostly eschewed songwriting for interpretation with cover albums of 1960s pop (2015’s My Weekly Reader) and 3:00 AM torch ballads (the upcoming Sister Orchid.) Even though she never became a household name, you actually can hear her influence in everything from your finer YouTube song parodies to the lovably demented musical comedy TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (if co-creator/star Rachel Bloom, herself a likely precocious teen when Get Away From Me dropped, is unfamiliar with McKay, I’ll eat my CDs.) But forget about being ahead of (or behind) her time—McKay’s sensibility is decidedly outside time, forever, and all the better for it.

Up next: Mysteries of Love.

“Ding Dong”:

“Waiter”:

Favorite Films of 2017

1. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Indifferent to much of what I saw this year, this film’s late December arrival felt like a small miracle. Reining in the excesses that sometimes cheapened his earlier work while retaining his passion and drive, director Luca Guadagnino crafts almost an embarrassment of riches: Armie Hammer and his alternately swooning and dorky physicality… a monologue for the ages for the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg… the exquisite modern classical/Sufjan Stevens score… and most of all, Timothée Chalamet, whose breakthrough may prove as iconic as, if nothing at all like Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate. No piece of art is absolutely flawless, but I’d not change a single thing about this beautiful, devastating love story—my favorite new film in at least a decade.

2. FACES PLACES
We’re just lucky at all to get one more major work from the 89-year-old Agnès Varda, but there’s a twist in the form of her co-director: 34-year-old performance artist JR, whose giant portraits plastered onto buildings drive this essay film’s narrative. As the duo travel around France, we see them for the kindred spirits they actually are. Varda charts her friendship with this younger co-conspirator while ruminating on her illustrious past and contemplating her own mortality. It’s this last facet that provides an elegiac undercurrent in step with her affection for both art and the human spirit, and it makes for a fond farewell.

3. PATERSON
Jim Jarmusch appears to have entered his twilight renaissance phase, first with the surprisingly sturdy Only Lovers Left Alive and now with this endearing, understated character study of a bus driver/poet with the same last name as the titular New Jersey city he lives in. Adam Driver has never been more attuned to a director’s sensibilities than Jarmusch’s but don’t overlook the film’s supporting cast: everyone from real find Golshifteh Farahani (as his wife) to William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place!) leaves deep traces that fortify an honest-to-god community. This late-January-in-Boston release proved a touch too quiet for last year’s Oscars, so call it an ideal future cult classic.

4. A QUIET PASSION
With director Terence Davies, you’d expect an unconventional biopic, and with Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, you sure as hell get one—bet you never thought you’d see ol’ Emily impulsively smashing a dinner plate. Still, as he did with Wharton’s prose in his razor sharp adaptation of The House of Mirth, Davies does his subject proud while, with considerable help from Nixon, also humanizing her. They allow this venerated artist to be something of a mess, but an intriguing one, illuminating both her professional and personal struggles, most eloquently in conversations with her sister (a stunning Jennifer Ehle) and Nixon’s daringly agile, all-out performance.

5. PHANTOM THREAD
Yes, the retiring (we’ll see) Daniel Day-Lewis is predictably great (as is Mike Leigh-ster Lesley Manville), Jonny Greenwood may be only second to Mica Levi in innovative modern film scoring and the attention-to-detail, from costuming to period breakfast food is impeccable. And yet, it’s two other unexpected things that launch this into the upper echelon of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. First, the odd confluence of tones he absolutely masters, particularly from the midpoint on. Second, the arresting Vicky Krieps, who is every bit DDL’s equal, her Alma shrewder and smarter than a Hitchcock heroine—expect more great things to come from her.

6. STAYING VERTICAL
Alain Guiraudie’s enigmatic follow-up to Stranger By The Lake follows a drifter (Damien Bonnard, hypnotic in his laconic befuddlement) who stumbles into a variety of not-so-pithy (and sometimes life-altering) situations, among them cruising, fatherhood, screenwriting and holistic medicine. Destitution, sheepherding and loud, vintage progressive rock also play into it, along with a birth, a death and a whole lot of sex (after those three things, what more could one want?) It occasionally feels like an Antonioni film scripted by Hal Hartley, but for all its quirks and unusual left turns, it builds towards a conclusion that’s powerful in its sobriety.

7. GOOD TIME
Wipes away any doubts you ever had about Robert Pattinson as a good actor—in accent, haircut and overall demeanor here, he’s scarcely the Edward he once was, and good on him. But the Safdie Brothers, whose work I’ve admired since their not-mumblecore debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed, have also evolved in sensibility and scope, drawing as much from Scorsese as they do from Cassavettes, only making it all their own thing (with ample help from Oneohtrix Point Never’s dense, thrilling score.) A slice of life far more nuanced than the somewhat overrated The Florida Project.

8. THE SHAPE OF WATER
I get that whether you find the fish-man arresting or disgusting is a possible make-or-break in enjoying Guillermo Del Toro’s ambitious spectacle; still, I immediately surrendered myself to all of it—the mid-century period design, the subversion of and alliance to classic Hollywood tropes, the great Richard Jenkins in his finest role since The Visitor, Michael Shannon’s most intense (and that’s saying a lot) villain ever and of course, Sally Hawkins, whom in a less competitive and politically charged year would win all the awards for her lovely turn as a mute cleaning lady consumed and redeemed by love.

9. WONDERSTRUCK
As Todd Haynes films go, I’d rate this below most others, but second-tier Todd is still pretty great, especially in how flawlessly he utilizes the dual structure narrative. Both the 1927 sequences, which pay close-but-not-fawning tribute to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, and the 1977 stuff, which nails that particular New York minute far better than Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam ever did could each make a compelling film on their own. Still, it takes a master like Haynes to convincingly thread them together and an actress like the young Millicent Simmonds to push through all the conceptual stuff to express this tale’s heart.

10. LEMON
I can’t resist squeezing this curious little indie into my top ten. Falling somewhere between Todd Solondz and Quentin Dupieux, director Janicza Bravo’s aesthetic is certainly not for everyone (if anything, Michael Cera’s more deliberately mannered here than he was in Twin Peaks: The Return!) But, you couldn’t ask for a better showcase for Bravo’s husband Brett Gelman, who infuses his schmuck-everyman with a fearless, vanity-deficient gusto. Although it often plays like a series of absurd sketches (family sing-along “A Million Matzo Balls!” is my fave), his continued presence lets it coalesce into something more.

TIED FOR 11TH PLACE:

After The Storm
Columbus
Dunkirk
Get Out
I Am Not Your Negro
Lady Bird
Little Boxes
Strange Weather
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin

I don’t really need to say anything more about the four titles Oscar-nominated for Best Picture (or I Am Not Your Negro, a Documentary-nominated holdover from last year that opened theatrically in February here.) Strange Weather and Little Boxes (pictured above) are indie festival titles now streaming on Netflix, featuring great performances from Holly Hunter and the late Nelsan Ellis, respectively. Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm is nearly up there with Our Little Sister (if not Still Walking); I hope that Jennifer Kroot’s delightful Maupin doc hits a streaming platform near you in 2018.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, A Ghost Story, God’s Own Country, Handsome Devil, The Hero, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Kedi, Nocturama, Okja, The Red Turtle, The Salesman, T2: Trainspotting, Tom of Finland, Wind River, Your Name

2003: My Office Glows All Night Long

I’ve already referenced in my essay on Want One just how much music I was listening to in 2003—truly the era of Peak CD for me. Between a major move across town (from Watertown to Jamaica Plain) and other new endeavors, it was a busy time, with music remaining one of my few constants (the other being movies.)

The three dozen tracks below are but the very best of a bounty of songs that received many spins on my dark blue Sony Discman back then (I’ve could’ve easily included another dozen.) Thumbing through this list, there’s only a few I didn’t hear until more than a year later, most notably The Radio Dept. when “Pulling Our Weight” resurfaced on the Marie Antoinette soundtrack in 2006. The most obscure tracks here (A Northern Chorus’ Smiths-worthy instrumental, Troll’s demented, inexplicable noir rock) are from records I was assigned to review; most of the rest represent the very best of that era’s indie pop, from veterans like the Nick Rhodes-produced Dandy Warhols and Arab Strap (whom fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian (also included) name-dropped a few LPs back) to next-big-things TV On The Radio and Regina Spektor.

2003 also happens to have two songs I’d take to a desert island with me: The Shins’ Nilsson-esque chamber pop wonder “Saint Simon” and Canadian band Stars’ immortal, resplendent “Elevator Love Letter”, which saved my life more than The Shins or even The Smiths ever did.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2003 on Spotify:

  1. The New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed”
  2. The Radio Dept., “Pulling Our Weight”
  3. Calexico, “Quattro (World Drifts In)”
  4. Rosie Thomas, “I Play Music”
  5. Basement Jaxx, “Good Luck”
  6. Arab Strap, “The Shy Retirer”
  7. Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3, “The Ambassador of Soul”
  8. The Postal Service, “Such Great Heights”
  9. Nelly Furtado, “Explode”
  10. Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man, “Tom The Model”
  11. Natacha Atlas, “Eye of the Duck”
  12. Black Box Recorder, “The New Diana”
  13. Paul Brill, “Westering”
  14. The Hidden Cameras, “A Miracle”
  15. Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, “I’m A Ghost”
  16. Thea Gilmore, “Pirate Moon”
  17. Fountains of Wayne, “Mexican Wine”
  18. A Northern Chorus, “Red Carpet Blues”
  19. Regina Spektor, “Chemo Limo”
  20. Sufjan Stevens, “Romulus”
  21. Pernice Brothers, “The Weakest Shade Of Blue”
  22. The Shins, “Saint Simon”
  23. Stars, “Elevator Love Letter”
  24. The Dandy Warhols, “The Last High”
  25. The Weakerthans, “One Great City!”
  26. The Wrens, “This Boy Is Exhausted”
  27. Death Cab For Cutie, “Transatlanticism”
  28. Moloko, “Forever More”
  29. Oranger, “Bluest Glass Eye Sea”
  30. Stew, “LA Arteest Café”
  31. TV On The Radio, “Young Liars”
  32. Troll, “Western”
  33. Junior Senior, “Chicks and Dicks”
  34. Belle and Sebastian, “Stay Loose”
  35. Rufus Wainwright, “11:11”
  36. Super Furry Animals, “Slow Life”