Monday, March 30, 2015

Best Music of 2014: Top 30 Songs

And now, to conclude our much-delayed celebration of the best music of 2014, here's my top 30 songs of the year that was. Why a top 30, you ask? It seemed like a reasonable number, given what I listen to, without the potential to neither have to stretch to fill in spots (if I had gone to 40 or 50) nor have to make too many tough decisions on who to include (if I had with just 20 or even 10). So 30 is the nice round number.

Anyway, here's your next favorite playlist (maybe).

30. "Sleeping With A Friend," Neon Trees

Neon Trees have touched pop greatness before with their neo-new wave sound, and "Sleeping With A Friend" is no exception. Over a snazzy synth groove, lead singer Tyler Glenn sings of the perils of falling in love with a close friend, though it sounds like an imminently danceable proposition. It's a terrific slice of 80s-influenced power pop.

29. "High Ball Stepper," Jack White

White's latest album, Lazaretto, featured plenty of his trademark scattershot influences, ranging from howling blues to skittering rock. The instrumental "High Ball Stepper," however, is easily the highlight, a scorching garage-blues rave-up that blends White's virtuosic riffs with a stomping beat, with just a little bit of Ennio Morricone-like vocal howls thrown in to boot. It's a prime example of White's guitar-heroics and skill as a genre-masher.

28. "You Know Me Well," Sharon Van Etten

Van Etten's music is most often marked by her lyrics, often painfully heartfelt or just plain painful. "You Know Me Well," from her stellar album Are We There, is both. Over a haunting strum and distant drums, Van Etten whispers, then wails, a tale of an abusive relationship: "you know me well, you show me hell when I'm looking / and here you are, looking." Her voice cracks, and the emotional force lands. You'd be hard-pressed to find another song this emotionally blunt this year.

27. "Sanctified," Rick Ross featuring Kanye West, Big Sean, and Betty Wright

Rick Ross may not be the most gifted lyricist, and his verse on "Sanctified" is more or less par for course for him (oral sex, money, more money). But the song stands out for several reasons: an ascendent Betty Wright sample married to a million-dollar beat is key, providing a sense of sonic grandeur. But it's Kanye West's contribution that makes it a classic. West takes us to church, preaching the gospel of Yeezus and giving us the line of the year ("when Ali turn up and beat Ali you can't never take that ***** back to Cassius"). Hallelujahs are earned.

26. "Dearly Departed Friend," Old Crow Medicine Show

OCMS have long been fixtures of the folk scene, but only recently found widespread fame when country star Darius Rucker covered their Bob Dylan-influenced "Wagon Wheel" two years ago. Their latest album, Remedy, sticks to their longstanding formula, and "Dearly Departed Friend" shows what they do best. A gentle ode to a fallen soldier, the lyrics are specific enough to bring the characters to beautifully-observed life, while low-key banjos and twangy guitars blend perfectly with the group's vocal harmonies. It's sweet without ever tipping into saccharine.

Songs #25-1 after the jump.

Best Music of 2014: Top 10 Albums

Confession: I originally meant to do this toward the end of last year or the beginning of this year, but then the time slipped away...and now here we are, a quarter of the way through the new year. It may not necessarily be timely, but who cares, it's always a good time for a list!

I don't often write about music, but I'm not as well-versed in the theory and criticism of writing about it, but make no mistake that I do love it. So, as I did in 2013, I've put together two different lists: my ten favorite albums from the year 2014 as well as my thirty favorite songs. This isn't a definitive, all-genres "best" list, and it's probably more subjective than any other list I publish. It's just a list of the things I liked the most last year, ranking according to my tastes.

So, without further ado, my ten favorite albums of 2014.

10. 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole

With each successive (and successful) album, North Carolina rapper J. Cole has grown more confident in his delivery and more clever in his lyrics, with 2014 Forest Hills Drive landing as his most personal and best album yet. He turns up the heat on tracks like "Fire Squad," getting political with a ferocity he hadn't exhibited previously. And radio success "Apparently" rocks a great hook and rolling beat. He still hasn't quite reached the potential he continually hints at, but he's getting closer with every album. He may not be so underrated for long.

9. Sonic Highways, Foo Fighters

To be fair, Sonic Highways does feel like a missed opportunity: the band recorded each of the album's eight tracks in a different U.S. city, bringing in local artists to record with them. The implication would be that the sound of each city would be reflected in each song, which made the prospects of the band's trips to New Orleans, Nashville, and Los Angeles all the more exciting. The actual product, however, is the same old Foo Fighters sound, with those local flavors mostly hanging out the in background. That being said, this is still an album from the best mainstream rock band working today, so to say that its muscular riffs and singer Dave Grohl's howling vocals are disappointing couldn't be further from the truth. And several songs do soar, like the proto-punk screed "The Feast and the Famine" (featuring D.C.'s Scream), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band-assisted "In the Clear," and the Ben Gibbard team-up "Subterranean." It wasn't the album it could have been, but it was still an excellent, hard-rocking work.

Albums #8-1 after the jump.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Cinderella (2015)

Here's the awful truth: there's not much left to say about the fairy tale "Cinderella." This is a story that has been told, re-told, re-made, re-worked, and re-imagined so many times that its basic beats are ingrained in the popular consciousness. There's a girl who is treated poorly by her wicked stepmother and buffoonish stepsisters, is visited by a fairy godmother, attends a royal ball and catches the eye of a prince, and, after a kingdom-wide search to find the owner of the glass slipper she left behind, is married to the prince. Cue the happily-ever-after.

So the latest version of this tale doesn't bring any drastic change to the latest retelling. But it does come from Disney, the company responsible for 1950's animated, arguably-definitive cinematic version of the famous folk tale. Ella (Lily James) lives a happy life with her parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) in an unspecified kingdom. But when both parents die, she is left in the care of her callous stepmother (Cate Blanchett), waiting on her and her stepsisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) hand-and-foot. Her destiny changes, however, when she meets "Kit" (Richard Madden) in the forest, forming an instant attraction; little does she know that Kit is actually the Prince. When Kit decides to throw a ball for the entire kingdom in an effort to find her again, Ella - with help from her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) - attends against her stepmother's wishes, and...well, you know how it goes from there.

It could have - and perhaps should have - been a rote, pointless remake of an oft-told tale, it's only reason for existence being that it's a license to print money for the Mouse House. Instead, the film goes above and beyond, becoming something that's at once exactly what it's supposed to be and something unexpected. You could even call it magical.

More after the jump.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mr. Turner (2014)

As is only appropriate for a film about one of Britain's most famous landscape painters, Mr. Turner begins with a gorgeous tableaux. An amber sky glows behind the silhouette of a windmill at middle-distance in the frame. We hear the chatter of two women, though their conversation is difficult to interpret. They walk along the path as the camera pulls back to follow them, eventually turning to find the film's subject, J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), standing on a hill, sketching the scene onto a small pad of paper. It's a fitting way to open the film: a splendid vision of the world as captured by a man who was a born observer, isolated from everyone else around him.

The film, famed British auteur Mike Leigh's first in four years, follows the life of Turner from the height of his fame in 1820s until his death in 1851. Turner is presented as an eccentric, his only close friend being his father William (Paul Jesson), who served as his studio assistant. After his father's death, Turner is even more closed off, but strikes up a relationship with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), all the while denying the paternity of two children with previous paramour Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen). Professionally, Turner enlists the help of groundbreaking scientist Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) to better understand light, impishly wrecks havoc among his contemporaries in the Royal Academy of Arts, and goes to outlandish lengths for creative inspiration (including being tied to the mast of a ship in order to paint a snowstorm).

There's a lot of ground to cover in Turner's life, and at 150 minutes, Leigh crams a good bit of it into the film. But the joy of this film comes not from the big moments but the little ones; like one of Turner's paintings, it's the details that prove most captivating.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow" (1963)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

It's amazing to think that Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow - this week's selection in The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" - came from Italian auteur Vittorio De Sica. De Sica is perhaps best known to cinephiles as one of, if not the, leading figure of the Italian neorealist movement in postwar Italy. His films, such as Bicycle Thieves (1948), often had child protagonist, cast amateur actors, and were set in the lower classes of Italian society. Though director Federico Fellini would be inspired and influenced by De Sica, it's worth noting that his upper-class fantasias - La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), most famously - stand in marked contrast to De Sica's, making the two towering luminaries of Italian cinema seemingly stand on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Yet here's Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, a three-part anthology film of sex comedies directed by De Sica with expensive production values and two of Italy's biggest movie stars, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. I don't mean for this to sound like I'm crying "Judas!;" on the contrary, the film is an absolute delight, each vignette perfecting recasting the dual leads and making the most of their explosive chemistry and superstar charisma. It's just interesting to make the comparison, especially since anyone who's taken film classes will likely only know De Sica as a figurehead of a major cinematic movement.

The challenge for this edition of "Hit Me..." was to either pick one shot from each story, or pick just one story. I'm going to take on all three, since it would be nearly impossible to pick just one of these vignettes to write about.

More after the jump.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2015)

The worst thing that can be said about Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the latest film from Israeli sibling team Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, is that it exists in the shadow of another Middle Eastern film about a couple's divorce: Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's 2011 masterpiece, A Separation. In fact, the couple that sat in front of me at the theater thought as much, saying that it "reminds [them] of that Iranian movie." Both films have the same basic premise: a married couple in a conservative nation are seeking a divorce and must go through an extensive legal battle to work it out. Of course, very few films can be as unfailingly remarkable as A Separation. But as far as problems for a film to have, being comparable to that stroke of genius is hardly a bad thing.

Gett tells the story of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), who has shown up at the rabbinical court to proceed with her divorce trial. Her husband must consent to the divorce in order for it to go forward, but Elisha (Simon Abkarian) will not give his consent, going so far as to not even show up for court dates. Her attorney, Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy), argues to the three judges for Elisha to face punishments for his disobedience, while Elisha's representative and brother Shimon (Sasson Gabai) questions Vivian's character. Their legal struggles turn into a marathon slog, with neither side willing to budge from their stance.

What sets Gett apart - and makes it a truly wondrous film in its own right - is how it latches tightly to Viviane's perspective, making the audience feel every bit of anguish and injustice she faces over the course of the trial.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "The Quiet Man" (1952)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

There's no question that director John Ford is perhaps best remembered for the sweeping visuals of his films. Ford was one of the most prominent and influential directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, and to most people, his name is synonymous with John Wayne-starring Westerns like Stagecoach (1939), Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956). To think of John Ford is to think of gasp-inducing Technicolor vistas of Monument Valley, the red earth contrasted against silky-blue skies with hyper-masculine cowboys gazing upon the view with a mix of admiration of what they can see and fear of what they can't.

But, as much as his reputation is staked in the American West, he also frequently turned his gaze east to Ireland. Three of his record four Best Director Oscars came for films that were set on the Emerald Isle; in fact, his lone Best Picture winner, How Green Was My Valley (1941), is a coming-of-age tale set in an Irish town undergoing economic upheaval. Being the son of Irish immigrants, it comes as no surprise that he would feel the pull to tell stories in and of his familial land.

The Quiet Man, his 1952 film that would win him his fourth and final Best Director Oscar, combines Ford's interests in these two worlds by casting John Wayne as Sean Thornton, a former American boxer who returns to Ireland to purchase his childhood home. Once he arrives, he immediately falls in love with the woman next door, Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara). He wishes to marry her, but her bullish older brother, Squire "Red" Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), refuses to grant him her dowry. Sean shrugs it off, not realizing the importance of the dowry to Irish wedding tradition. So he must win back Mary Kate's affections and win over Will so that the couple may finally live blissfully.

And sure enough, Ford brings his familiar visual flair to the affair. "Lush" may be the most apt word to describe the film.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Paris is Burning" (1990)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*
"We're not going to be shady, just fierce."
"O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E. You own everything. Everything is yours." 
We define our lives in terms of spaces: indoors and outdoors, the bedroom and the kitchen, the shoe department and the dress department. There's home and there's work, and even if you work at home, you likely have a separate room - a separate space - as your office. It's such a natural organization for us that if one space intrudes upon the other, we rebel in unhappiness, craving a way to escape it and make it separate again.

We do this socially, too, and not always for the best. We see certain subsets of the population as having spaces of their own, divided by metrics such as race, gender, class, sexuality, age, nationality, or faith, just to name a few. These are metaphorical spaces, but the result is the same: the spaces are, in the eyes of too many, meant to be exclusive, with as little overlap as possible. When I was in undergrad, I remember a professor of mine stating that North Carolina, for much of its history, was defined by a mindset of "a place for everyone, and everyone in their place." Unfortunately, that's still all too much the case in many places.

None of these ideas are particularly new, of course. They date back decades, and you can read the works of tons of activists and theorists that are much more eloquent than myself. But space is a critical aspect of Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary about ball culture in 1980s New York. This is a film about a group of people - gay and transgender, almost all of whom are black or Hispanic - carving out their own spaces, creating a place for themselves in a world that was (and still is) willing to ignore them.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "The Sound of Music" (1965)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

For the first edition of this year's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" - now in its sixth year! - The Film Experience's Nathaniel R has selected a film that needs no introduction: The Sound of Music, director Robert Wise's Oscar-winning 1965 musical and beloved hit. The film is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, and for many of us it has been a staple of our childhoods and our lives, a film so perfectly calibrated for enjoyment that you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't like it. Just look at how steeped into our culture the film is: this year's Oscars featured Lady Gaga performing a medley/tribute to the film, "Do-Re-Mi" is used to teach kids music lessons, and "My Favorite Things" has somehow become part of the Christmas canon. It's re-run throughout the holiday season, including sing-a-long versions, and NBC gave us a new live version for us to hate-watch last year. Community theaters and high schools put together productions, and many of us know all the songs (and possibly all the lines) by heart.

As a result of all of this familiarity, it's easy to take the film's accomplishments for granted. For example, this film came very early in Julie Andrews' film career: she had just won acclaim for her title role in Mary Poppins, a role she famously accepted after be passed over for My Fair Lady in favor of Audrey Hepburn (amusingly, Hepburn's singing double, Marni Nixon, makes an appearance in The Sound of Music as a nun). About a month after The Sound of Music debuted in March 1965, she would win the Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins, and with the twin successes of those films (plus an illustrious theatre background), her film career took off. She proved herself to be a quadruple threat, capable of singing and dancing, teary-eyed dramatics and sharp-tongued wit. All of these things are embodied in her performance as Maria, the flibbertigibbet/will-o'-the-wisp/clown governess of the Von Trapps. If Mary Poppins introduced her formidable talent, then Maria proved she was capable of even more: here, she's given more room to breathe life into the character, whether it's singing care-free amongst the Alps...

...earning the consternation of her fellow nuns at the abbey...

...or celebrating the confidence she has in her self...

her charm commands the screen so thoroughly that it's no wonder Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) falls in love with her. We already have before she ever leaves her convent.

But a lot has already been said about Andrews' performance, and more is likely to be said by the other participants in this series. So instead of talking about Andrews' performance, or Plummer's work, or the terrific songs by Rogers & Hammerstein, or just how much I really love this movie, I want to talk about director Robert Wise's and cinematographer Ted D. McCord's framing.

More after the jump.