Tuesday

VIFF: Words and Godard
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The best film I saw at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival was called Adieu au langage, but if anything, this was, by far, the talkiest bunch of films of any year I've attended VIFF. There were a few exceptions, of course—most notably, Tsai Ming-liang's dialogue-free Journey to the West—but Godard's own film (pointedly) wasn't one of them. Goodbye to Language is as loaded with oblique philosophical musings and long-winded discussions as any Late Godard work, but the overlap between discursive and formal ideas here feels altogether more on-point than in anything he’s done since In Praise of Love. Tsai’s latest might, in fact, provide the best point of contrast. Journey to the West, a feature-length expansion of Tsai’s red-robed-monk-walking-very-slowly-idea—executed so effectively in his hypnotic short, The Walker—ultimately pays diminished returns in long form, despite the new setting of Marseilles, the addition of Denis Lavant (as a kind of apprentice to Lee Kang-sheng's oblivious, contemplative monastic master), and a couple legitimately stunning compositions. By comparison, Godard’s first foray into 3D, the short The Three Disasters, felt like an interesting enough experiment that didn’t hang together particularly well—a minor curiosity within his later filmography. Which is why (to my tastes anyway) the perfect marriage of 3D form and content in Goodbye to Language was almost as surprising as it was pleasurable and exciting. As a movie-going experience, there is nothing else quite like Goodbye to Language, at this film festival or otherwise. Since a capsule review (i.e., language!) is doomed to do this great film even less justice than a 2D screening would, suffice it to say that this is a legitimate theatrical ‘must-see’ in an age of wait-til-it's-on-Netflix. Yet, insofar as Godard's work has always been concerned with the philosophical implications of representing ‘reality’ through the various signs and tropological figures of artistic media, this is a sly, provocative reiteration of his raison d'être.

Can the same be said for Olivier Assayas's no less loquacious Clouds of Sils Maria? Well, that depends on what we take to be the raison d'être in the oeuvre d’Assayas, a slippery, chameleonic auteur with an uncommonly varied body of work. After seeing the marvelous Clouds of Sils Maria, I’m apt to say that identity and performance, and the hazily delineated space between, might be his great theme. Returning, in certain respects, to the territory of Irma Vep and André Téchiné's Assayas-scripted Rendez-vous, the new film centers on an actress (Juliette Binoche) who is deeply ambivalent about taking on a dramatic role that hits a little too close to home for her. As Binoche's aging star, Maria, prepares for the part, a never-better Kristen Stewart performs various roles—personal assistant, rehearsal partner, and confidant, among others. As these roles begin to blur together, so, too, do the subjectivities of Binoche and Stewart, Maria and Stewart's Valentine, and the theatrical characters in the play for which Maria is reluctantly preparing. This tension among identifies, real or performed, is mostly explored through the extended conversations (and line rehearsals) of Maria and Valentine, set against the gorgeous back-drop of the Swiss village of the film’s title. The obvious comparison here is with Bergman’s Persona, and I’m sure Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson’s psycho-sexual two-hander was never too far from the thoughts of Assayas, Binoche, and Stewart. But, much in the same vein as Clean and Summer Hours (two of Assayas’s best films, in my view), Clouds of Sils Maria is a warmer film, often very funny, more poignant and humane than any of Bergman’s film work, excepting (maybe) Fanny and Alexander.

A more direct heir to the austere mood and tone of Bergman’s chamber dramas is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palme d’Or winner, Winter Sleep. Even the title sounds like something Bergman might have made in the late ‘60s or early ‘70’s. Yet, where most of Bergman’s films from that period center on women (hence, the somewhat misleading comparisons elicited by Clouds of Sils Maria), Ceylan’s latest focuses on a middle-aged man, an explicitly Shakespearean figure (he owns a sprawling, idyllic property called the Hotel Othello) whose closest antecedent in Bergman is probably Victor Sjöström’s melancholy old professor in Wild Strawberries. Ceylan’s protagonist, Aydin, is a wealthy former actor who now presides over his family’s vast holdings on the Anatolian steppe, while penning a weekly column in the local newspaper and beginning work on a monograph concerning the history of Turkish theater. While Aydin regards himself as a magnanimous Man of Letters, his recently divorced sister and much younger wife see him as a pompous, patronizing blowhard, too enamored of the sound of his own voice (pontificating aloud or on the page). Most of Aydin’s relatively impoverished tenants seem to share this view. This troubling trick of perspective—between how one perceives oneself in relation to one’s family and community, versus the very different perception of others—is expressed, again, through long, tangential exchanges between characters; the composite image of Aydin with which we’re left is haunting for its incongruous layers, resulting in what might well be Ceylan’s least schematic, and best, film to date.

The difficulty of really “knowing” a singular, complex individual is another major theme among several of this year’s festival offerings. Where Aydin is a grand fictional creation, the enigmatic people in other instances are based on historically notable figures. Neither Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner nor Ann Hui’s The Golden Era are biopics in the usual sense. Timothy Spall’s J.M.W. Turner is the kind the peculiar, eccentric subject that we’ve come to expect at the center of artists’ biographies, but the grunting, introverted landscape painter is flagrantly uncharismatic and scarcely psychologically legible. His artistic method is vividly demonstrated, but his genius is not explained—much to Leigh and Spall’s credit. Leigh is more concerned with re-situating Turner within the social and cultural context of his particular milieu; the material details of time and place are recreated with the same meticulous precision that distinguished Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake.

This concern for placing the elusive biographical subject within his/her historical context is also apparent in The Golden Era. Yet, more radically than Leigh, Hui never establishes a fully stable or secure vantage point from which to consider her subject, the writer Xiao Hong (Tang Wei). Mirroring the process of researching and writing a biography about a long-deceased historical figure, Hui consults with (actors portraying) some of Xiao Hong’s close acquaintances, who speak directly to the camera about their experience with the (ostensible) protagonist. Some have complained about this somewhat jarring strategy, but I felt that it allowed the seams of the narrative to show in a very fruitful way, deliberately undermining the seductive sweep of the handsomely mounted epic by conceding that the larger story is constructed around imperfectly remembered and sometimes contradictory interpretations of Xiao Hong’s life. Only in the film’s opening and closing moments is the subject allowed to speak for herself: in the first instance, stating the basic facts regarding her birth and death; in the second, reading an excerpt from her final literary work, Tales of Hulan River.

In other films at this year’s festival, characters are only able to speak some version of the truth through song. In Kris Elgstrand’s Songs She Wrote About People She Knows, Carol (Arabella Bushnell) is tight-lipped in conversation, by no means eager to get caught up in the long, drawn-out discussions of Godard, Assayas, and Ceylan’s films. (Full disclosure: I am personally acquainted with Elgstrand and Bushnell – but their movie is terrific, at any rate.) Instead, where Carol is able to speak her mind is in short, musical messages (rather in the style of early Nellie McKay!) that she leaves on the answering machines of her neighbors and co-workers. Her seething frustrations with those around her are no less severe than the criticisms directed at Winter Sleep’s Aydin by his sister and wife, but their expression, here, through song positions Carol’s vitriolic messages in an ambiguous space between everyday language and art. If Carol and her message-recipients finally arrive at something like a collective happy ending, it’s because her musical soliloquies, presented as art, have managed to facilitate the beginnings of actual dialogue.

The revelatory power of song is also hugely important in Christian Petzold’s superb Phoenix, though I shouldn’t say much more about that here. Without giving too much away: the lines demarcating authentic from performed selves are as rough, jagged, and increasingly indeterminate as they are in Clouds of Sils Maria—or, for that matter, in Vertigo, the film most explicitly referenced in Petzold’s deeply cinephilic mise-en-scène. But where Hitchcock’s masterpiece is, above all, a meditation on the painful, personal process of creating art, Petzold’s drama, set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, is really only partly about cinema, or artistic representation more generally. Like Godard’s bifurcated treatment of “La Nature” and “La Métaphore” in Goodbye to Language (or the overriding themes in his monumental Histoire(s) du Cinema), Phoenix is about the literally unspeakable in the history of the twentieth century. Mounds of grey rubble dotting the scarred cityscape say something about this history, but images can only describe and circumnavigate real historical trauma—or worse yet, semiotically subsume it. Words can do little more, admittedly, yet—whether written, spoken, or sung—they’re finally, very nearly all we’ve got. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Top 10 Films

01. Goodbye to Language (Godard)

02. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas)

03. Phoenix (Petzold)

04. Two Days, One Night (Dardenne/Dardenne) A series of difficult, emotionally fraught conversations made, remarkably, for the festival’s most thoroughly suspenseful film, besides perhaps Phoenix; the Dardennes’ best work since Rosetta and Marion Cotillard’s second astonishing performance of late, after her tremendous turn in James Gray’s The Immigrant.

05. The Golden Era (Hui)

06. Mr. Turner (Leigh)

07. Winter Sleep (Ceylan)

08. Life of Riley (Resnais) Alain Resnais’s swansong is as talky as any film mentioned above, but where most of those are decidedly dark, or at least moody, Life of Riley is a sprightly, engagingly theatrical comedy: all the grim business of death and dying occurs off-screen/stage—both in the non-presence of the terminally ill, Godot-like title character and the inevitable echoes of Resnais’ own recent passing.

09. Foxcatcher (Miller) An abrupt shift in tone from Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (a movie I actively love), but one that avoids the caricaturish treatment of famous subjects that marred his Capote. If Steve Carrell’s heavily made-up, against-type turn as disturbed billionaire John du Pont is inadvertently a “stunt performance” of sorts, it’s still much more nuanced and sensitive than Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s over-praised Truman Capote; Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, providing a more prosaic counter-balance to Carrell’s menacing eccentricity, are no less excellent.

10. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao) In mood and texture, if not precisely in plot: The Big Sleep re-imagined in a drab, snowy Chinese industrial city. Or (more modestly) Cold Weather with real badges and blood.

Some other films:

Exit Chienn Hsiang’s film may be the most forgettable film I saw at this year's festival, but it’s not bad precisely because it’s genetically engineered not to be. That is, this Taiwanese entry feels throughout as if it was concocted from a "How to Make an East Asian Art-house Movie That Will Appeal to Programmers At Western Film Festivals" cookbook: two parts Tsai, two parts Apichatpong, a dash of Hou and Edward Yang, Jia to taste. I felt like I'd seen every scene, every composition, every narrative trope in five other, better films.

Man on High Heels Well-meaning, mostly well-acted, almost well-executed, and roughly as sweet as it is silly, although its silliness at times threatens to cancel out some of its sweetness.

Maps to the Stars Cronenberg’s return to the deliriously perverse mode of Crash; he’s still got it and the cast is game, but it’s genuinely hard to tell whether the script is as obvious and on-the-nose as it seems or if that’s just part of the meta put-on.

White Bird in a Blizzard Somewhere between an interesting character study and an effective pastiche. I found it enjoyable enough while I was watching it—quite funny and smart in places—but it left a bad taste on my palate afterward, not least for its ultimate “reveal,” which felt too much like a cheap punch-line and negated the sense of mystery that the film had sustained up to that point—what David Lynch aptly described as “killing the golden goose.”

Top 10 Performances
01. Marion Cotillad – Two Days, One Night
02. Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria
03. Nina Hoss – Phoenix
04. Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner
05. Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Steve Carrell – Foxcatcher
06. Eva Green – White Bird in a Blizzard and Julianne Moore – Maps to the Stars
07. Haluk Bilginer and Melisa Sözen - Winter Sleep
08. Tang Wei – The Golden Era
09. Fan Liao – Black Coal, Thin Ice
10. Juliette Binoche – Clouds of Sils Maria
Variae
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Three-quarters through the year (and, significantly, pre-VIFF), these are--in a very general sense--the things I've liked most in 2014.

01. Boyhood (Linklater)
02. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch)
03. True Detective (S1)
04. Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea - "Problem"
05. The Immigrant (Gray)
06. Tove Lo - Truth Serum (EP)
07. Mad Men (S7 pt. 1)
08. Miranda Lambert - Platinum
09. Orange Is the New Black (S2)
10. Shakira feat. Rihanna - "Can't Remember to Forget You"
11. Snowpiercer (Bong)
12. Game of Thrones (S4)
13. Morrissey - World Peace Is None of Your Business
14. The Killing (S4)
15. Nicki Minaj - "Anaconda"

Monday

Nobody Does It Better
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In his brilliant review of Bob Stanley's book, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé, Christgau crafts a shorter spiritual sequel to his classic article "US and Them: Are American Pop (and Semi-Pop) Still Exceptional? And by the Way, Does That Make Them Better?" (preserved for posterity here). Meanwhile, over at Billboard, he uses a piece ostensibly on Jason DeRulo to reiterate a personal statement of purpose.

From the time that I first discovered music criticism, I have enjoyed reading Christgau's Consumer Guide columns and his annual Pazz & Jop essays. Today, I read far less music writing generally than I once did, yet I still actively look forward to reading his new work--in whatever format, wherever it happens to turn up. He's still the Dean for a reason.

Thursday

Still Ill
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Amos Barshad of Grantland has written a fitting tribute to Ill Communication upon the occasion of its twentieth anniversary (yes, I feel old). It's a terrific reminder--just in case you needed one--that the Beastie Boys were really, really good.

Saturday

No World But This One
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I just re-watched 12 Years a Slave for the first time since seeing it in the theatre last year, and was struck by certain commonalities that it shares with The Thin Red Line. First, one key, if necessarily secondary, element of the film is the profound and seemingly irreconcilable contrast between the beauty and serenity of the natural landscape (the brilliant oranges and pinks of the bayou sunsets, as glimpsed through the branches of the willow and poplar trees, are a notably Malickian flourish) and the terrible violence done by man within/against said landscape. This aspect McQueen's film arguably shares with much of Malick's oeuvre, not just The Thin Red Line, but where 12 Years... recalls, in particular, TTRL is in its restrained, purposeful use of movie stars and recognizable up-and-comers. A third, if not more, of 12 Years... elapses before Fassbender and Lupita N'yongo (not a star at the time of the film's production or release, but one now, to be sure) appear onscreen. Benedict Cumberbatch, conversely, figures prominently early, but does not return to the narrative. Paul Giamatti's part seems most comparable to Travolta's early appearance in TTRL, and Brad Pitt (reserved for a couple memorably strong moments near the end of the film) functions similarly here to Clooney's late cameo in TTRL. Rather than distracting from the power of the picture in either case, or reminding the audience that it's "just a movie," these familiar faces making their entrances and exits on cue seems to serve as an appropriate reminder that--as Jonathan Rosenbaum noted of the coda to Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry--it's also a movie, a point that underscores the distinctive, peculiar power of cinema as a narrative medium.

Tuesday

Where the Girls Are
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Tove Lo, "Habits" So, Teresa and I were just talking the other day about the mid-'90's heyday of interesting female rockers--PJ Harvey, Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, Hole, Bjork, Bikini Kill, The Breeders, the list goes on and on--and how that moment had passed. Some of these artists maintain careers, and a few still put out strong albums, but ca. 1995 or so, they were able to couple critical praise with a substantial larger-cultural presence in a way that seems unlikely to recur in the YouTube era. Yet, there may be flickers of promise on the radar screen: Marina and the Diamonds, Grimes, Charli XCX, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, veterans-by-this-point Tegan and Sara, and now Tove Lo may be a less varied and less formidable roster than the one mentioned above, but we take what we can get. To call it a "movement" or a "scene" seems inappropriate in these digitally disconnected times, even if some of the above artists have co-Instragram'd on occasion; how about, then, the already Web-appropriated "fad"? Dark Girl Pop? Les Femmes de Urban Outfitters? Let's think on it. For now, let it be known that "Habits" is one of the best products yet of this materializing sound--better than "Royals" was even before we all got sick of it, up on the top shelf with Grimes' "Oblivion," LDR's "Video Games" (still the best thing she's done) and the better half of Marina's Electra Heart. The official remix isn't half bad either.

Shakira feat. Rihanna,"Can't Remember to Forget You" Shakira and Rihanna are, of course, neither one part of any such scene/fad/sound, even if they, at times, borrow pragmatically from its more useful aesthetic tools. Rihanna is as massive as stars come these days, thanks in no small part to the fact that her ascent to fame just slightly predated the total Internet-ization of the now (consequently) profoundly fractured pop landscape. Shakira, meanwhile, was already multi-platino back when Rihanna and Tove Lo were in the early grades of elementary school, somewhere in Barbados and Sweden, respectively. This generational factoid might render the "Can't Remember to Forget You" video a tad bit creepier, but, hey, everyone (including pre-Twitter megastars) needs the hits these days. This one's at 275 million and counting, so mission accomplished. But it didn't mean the song necessarily needed to be any good, and in fact, these megastar duets typically turn out lukewarm--see, e.g., Shakira's collaboration with Beyonce, the merely okay "Beautiful Liar." "Can't Remember To Forget You" would warrant inclusion on either artist's best-of collection, which is not faint praise; it actually kind of rocks, as evinced by the video's least salacious shots: Shakira, alternately, strumming an electric guitar and banging on some drums.

Iggy Azalea feat. Charli XCX, "Fancy" Speaking of memorable videos (see above) and the 90s (see above), here is an affectionate, extended homage to Clueless, a movie that, as Lena Dunham recently attested, was nothing short of definitive for her generation. Iggy and Charli would have only been five and three years-old, respectively, when Amy Heckerling's instant classic was in theatres, but one suspects they inherited well-worn VHS copies from older siblings or friends. In "Fancy," they make for a credible Cher and Tai, prompting one to wish they'd enlisted a third artist--Nicki Minaj perhaps?--to play Dionne. It might've necessitated adding another minute or two to the song, which would be fine, really--it's at least as catchy as it is dumb. Maybe catchier.

Avril Lavigne, "Hello Kitty" Last but not least, the weirdest objet d'art to pop up in some time. It's not that any single element of "Hello Kitty" would be weird on its own: the punky guitars would be pro forma on any number of other Avril tracks, the flirting-with-EDM "drop" is now nearly perfunctory for fading pop stars clawing for continued relevance, and the rabid Japanophilia is Gwen Stefani's one-time bread-and-butter. Put it all together, though, and some considerable oddness ensues. The video is rather too obvious and tired in its cultural appropriation; listen to the song sans visuals, in order to fully appreciate its amiable peculiarity. Without Avril's version of the Harajuku Girls in tow, the song's about-nothingness is more readily apparent and more interesting as such. I quote: "Come, come kitty kitty / You're so pretty, pretty / Don't go kitty / Stay with me [pronounced 'meh'] / ka-ka-kawaii [rough translation: 'cute']." For an artist whose back-catalogue is comprised mainly of pseudo-confessionals about, like, feelings and boys, this is nothing less than a triumph of non-content.
This RRROCK, My RRROCK

Goddamn, goddamn, godDAMN!

Sunday

Oscar Sunday
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For what it's worth...

PICTURE
Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Should win: 12 Years a Slave
Should have been nominated: Before Midnight

DIRECTOR
Will win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Should win: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Should have been nominated: Terrence Malick, To the Wonder

ACTRESS
Will win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Should win: Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Should have been nominated: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight

ACTOR
Will win: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Should have been nominated: Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Will win: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Should win: Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Should have been nominated: James Franco, Spring Breakers

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Will win: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Should win: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Should have been nominated: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station


Friday

After the Gold Rush
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In the year that albums, long afterthoughts to the ubiquitous media blitzes promoting them, officially devolved into inconsequential "accessories" for the tech gadgets we play them on, Kanye delivered another brilliant, confounding long-player--a polemical 'fuck you' to the culture of compulsive disposability that is, at the same time, thoroughly immersed in said culture. Conversely, at the year's eleventh hour, Beyoncé unloaded a dazzling set of songs that should-- however temporarily--give the few remaining mourners for the (Actually Really Good) Album-As-Event pause in finalizing their obituaries. Song-wise, things are, of course, far less grim: Drake, Miley, and Selena (all of whom, it should be noted, too, put out strong albums unfairly penalized for being inevitably anticlimactic) delivered classics as good as the best pop songs from back when, you know, music mattered. Drake even promises sweetly to take us home when we're in no condition to get back on our own, thus allowing listeners to blissfully ignore for three and a half minutes the cold, hard, omnipresent fact that we can't go home again.

Okay. On to the lists.

ALBUMS
01. Kanye West - Yeezus
02. Beyoncé - Beyoncé
03. A Tribe Called Red - Nation II Nation
04. Drake - Nothing Was the Same
05. Selena Gomez - Stars Dance
06. Miley Cyrus - Bangerz
07. Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
08. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Mosquito
09. The Julie Ruin - Run Fast
10. Jay Z - Magna Carta...Holy Grail

SINGLES
01. Drake - "Hold On, We're Going Home"
02. Drake - "Worst Behavior"
03. Selena Gomez - "Slow Down"
04. Rich Homie Quan - "Type of Way"
05. Miley Cyrus - "We Can't Stop"
06. Beyonce feat. Jay Z - "Drunk in Love"
07. Charli XCX - "I Want It That Way"
08. Selena Gomez - "Come and Get It"
09. Eminem - "Berzerk"
10. Ying Yang Twins - "Miley Cyrus"

Wednesday

Love and Theft  photo 28-before-midnight_zps2ca0083f.jpg

Here are the 20 films I liked or admired most this year.

In my view, it's an extraordinarily strong group of twenty; I'm normally hesitant to use the 'M'-word, but roughly a third of these arguably qualify as masterpieces--including a film I've ranked (for now) as low as #12; Tsai's utterly haunting purported swansong is the film from this year that I most fervently anticipate revisiting soon. The others are no less than superb. #1--resplendent, profound, perfect--is, as a trilogy-for-now with the earlier Before... films, among my very favorite things in all of cinema. #2, meanwhile, might well be the most flagrantly underappreciated film of the twenty-first century thus far.

01. Before Midnight (Linklater)
02. To the Wonder (Malick)
03. The Past (Farhadi)
04. The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer)
05. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen)
06. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen)
07. Spring Breakers (Korine)
08. The Lords of Salem (Zombie)
09. All Is Lost (Chandor)
10. Gravity (Cuaron)
11. Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Barnaby)
12. Stray Dogs (Tsai)
13. A Touch of Sin (Jia)
14. Much Ado About Nothing (Whedon)
15. The Bling Ring (Coppola)
16. Our Sunhi (Hong)
17. Frances Ha (Baumbach)
18. Fruitvale Station (Coogler)
19. The Conjuring (Wan)
20. A Field in England (Wheatley)

Tuesday

As Things Stand at Present  photo joegirardi_zpsc74bdb81.jpg
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 New York Yankees:

1. Brett Gardner [LF]
2. The Ghost of Derek Jeter [SS]
3. Totally-Not-on-PEDs Miraculous Second Coming of Alfonso Soriano [DH]
4. Carlos Beltran [RF]
5. Brett Gardner Making Nine Figures Jacoby Ellsbury [CF]
6. Brian McCann [C]
7. The Ghost of Mark Texeira [1B]
8. Not Robinson Cano [2B]
9. Who the Fuck Knows [3B]

Sunday

Six Songs  photo ATCR_zps8e5e179b.jpg

A Tribe Called Red, "NDN Stakes" / "Sisters" The two best tracks on the year's second-best long-player. Nation II Nation is a seamless merging of the pleasure principle grounding EDM's precipitous economic ascent with principles of the political and moral variety--low end theory meets post-colonial theory, or something to that effect. The "drop" at 1:15 in the former song could alone power a revolution, and/or catapult Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau, Dan "DJ Shub" General, and Bear Witness up to the front ranks of elite (read: ming-bogglingly rich) DJs. The thoughtful, implicit auto-critique of misogyny represented by the latter track, though, gives reason to be optimistic that they might decline the seven-figure Vegas tenure they're sure to be offered sooner rather than later.

Lady Gaga, "Applause" The first five, six, seventeen times I heard it, I wasn't sure. Now I am: it's really good, like "Paparazzi" or "Bad Romance" good. I admit that I had sort of quietly, personally half-written her off when Born This Way lacked a track approaching those two or this one. It wasn't a bad record, but it was a boring record, which is worse if you're anyone but especially if you're Lady Gaga. "Applause" is a sign of life. She's not done yet, what a relief.

Miley Cyrus, "Adore You"The Bangerz opener is absoutely beautiful and entirely unexpected. It's a love song as testament of undying devotion, thrillingly unironic, sung gorgeously and urgently, reminiscent of something like "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" in the earnestness of its romantic conviction. To be sure, it's no more a calculated display of classy "maturity" than "We Can't Stop" was a measured expression of the opposite. She's a complex artist because she's a complex person because people are complex, duh. She's also smarter and more talented than most of her contemporaries, to say nothing of her critics.

Katy Perry, "Roar" The continued popularity, success, and not-bad qualitative consistency of Katy Perry is another case altogether, from Miley or from Gaga. The impulse to biographical interpretation elicited by Miley and Gaga, or by, say, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake or Bieber, or pretty nearly any current North American superstar, is virtually absent when listening to Katy Perry songs. Perry's songs (doesn't the more formal last-name reference feel more natural for her, in contrast to most pop stars?), with "Roar" a particularly illustrative case, are for singing in the car or the shower or at the bar when you've had enough to drink that you realize on some level that you are Katy Perry. We are all Katy Perry, and she is all of us. "Roar," "Last Friday Night," "E.T." "Teenage Dream," etc. do not suggest the appearance that they are legible psychic traces adding up to a singular, interesting human being. They are karaoke classics and they are mirrors, which always reflect the same thing, never more and never less.

Eminem, "Berzerk" It's now been months since this dropped and I still can't believe it: a new Eminem song that's fucking good. Murmured obituaries for Lady Gaga may have been premature and unfair; the last time Em released something close to this good Kanye was a hot producer who, rumor had it, was considering recording a solo album, Drake was shooting the second season of Degrassi: The Next Generation. The K-Fed reference dates him in a bad way, while the Beastie Boys reference dates him in a good way. Right, he's no spring chicken. And yet somehow, for the SNL performance, Em looked nary a day over 8 Mile. Rick looked ancient.

Monday

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01. The Past (Farhadi)
02. All Is Lost (Chandor)
03. Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Barnaby)
04. A Touch of Sin (Jia)
05. Stray Dogs (Tsai)
06. Our Sunhi (Hong)
07. Nebraska (Payne)
08. A Field in England (Wheatley)
09. Just in Time (Greenaway)
10. Gebo and the Shadow (de Oliveira)
VIFF '13: Of All These Friends and Lovers
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Bends Carina Lau turns in a superb performance as a well-heeled Hong Kong housewife who, suddenly (though perhaps not entirely unexpectedly?), has the economic rug pulled out from underneath her. If this debut feature by Flora Lau feels decidedly more polished and assured than most debut features, that's due in large part to both Carina Lau bringing the movie-star goods and ever-dependable DP extraordinaire Christopher Doyle following each eye-popping composition with another more gorgeous. It's a one-two punch that would no doubt leave other neophyte filmmakers feeling more than a little jealous.

Longing for the Rain The program guide for Yang Lina's film promised something "unprecedented in Chinese cinema: a truly erotic depiction of female desire, shot from a woman's point of view." In execution, the film is almost as radical as that pull-quote would suggest. Initially, Longing for the Rain felt like a reaction to the Fifty Shades phenomenon--the sexually frustrated protagonist pops some porn into the DVD player while her husband and daughter are out for the day, receives a vibrator as a "naughty" gift from a girlfriend, etc.--Chinese only insofar as the story is playing out in Beijing, which, in the early goings, seemed (pointedly) like it might just as well be New York, London, or Tokyo. As the film progresses, however, it takes on an ethnographic specificity that serves to steer the narrative in strange, unexpected directions. The final act--set in a remote Buddhist commune--feels curious and somewhat unsatisfying, yet completely appropriate in these respects.

Our Sunhi Wherein Hong Sang-soo tackles the classic trope about the moody-elusive-charming young woman whom no male who makes her acquaintance can seem to resist. It could be, say, Sooki in True Blood. Cameron Diaz's Mary. Or Audrey Hepburn at the peak of her waifish prowess. But here it's Sunhi, equal parts might-be-smart aspiring artist and blank slate, ripe for the projection of romantic, idealistic notions by her assortment of male admirers. Hong handles this familiar material with a lightness and wit that renders it very nearly fresh. It's a pleasure to watch, from its opening moment to its last. Yet beneath its breezy comic surface, there is the subtlest undercurrent of melancholy here, emanating not least from the distaff center of attention. "Our" Sunhi, after all, has to shoulder the weight of all that smitten affection, which Hong wisely realizes might be a less enviable, more burdensome task than inferior rom-coms prefer to let on.

3x3D Of course the Godard entry was the reason this omnibus was a must-see. Somewhat paradoxically, though, The Three Disasters is only essential viewing for serious Godard completists, and yet I'm not so sure that those completists will find anything particularly new here--the 3D format notwithstanding--in relation to his late-career body of work. We shall see; I'm certainly not anticipating the forthcoming Farewell to Language any less eagerly after this teaser. Surprisingly, it was the Peter Greenaway effort, Just in Time, that stole the show for me. Greenaway picks up from where he left off in recent work like Rembrandt's J'Accuse, but rather than re-treading the same meta-historical territory to similar effect, he utilizes the distinctive quirks of 3D to push the thematic points he's pursuing further while fruitfully reformulating them. To his credit, Greenaway seems neither intimidated by the technology nor constrained by the brief runtime, which lends his entry a dexterous vitality that Godard's interesting work-in-progress ultimately lacks. Edgar Pera's Cinesapiens, meanwhle, is insufferable trash. Had it not been sequenced in the middle of the triptych (preceding the Godard), I would have walked out before it hit the five-minute mark.

Wolf Children I must admit, in the interests of full disclosure, that I'm not an anime guy. To be sure, I enjoy and/or admire the same small canon of Japanese animated features that other non-anime people enjoy and/or admire: most of Miyazaki's films, a few other Ghibli titles, the too-small oeuvre of the brilliant, sadly departed Satoshi Kon. But press me beyond these mostly safe picks and my (admittedly, probably at least partly unfair) genre prejudices become apparent. Happily, I enjoyed and admired Hosoda Mamoru's Wolf Children considerably more than I expected to, even while a) commenting to Teresa, during the film's poignant, largely "realistic" opening section, that Wolf Children would be better without its fantasy conceit of people who can transform into wolves; and b) finding distractingly silly the (for lack of a better word) "romantic" appearance of the adult wolves that the titular children grow into, which, in my view, seemed representative of the grating anime cliches that Mamoru mostly manages to eschew.

Thursday

We Run Things, Things Don't Run We
Brava!
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A Field in England If noting that Ben Wheatley's latest plays like a heady mix of Samuel Beckett, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, and Monty Python riffing on The Seventh Seal doesn't exactly add much to the critical conversation, I think it nevertheless goes some way toward providing a sense of how pleasurable (if occasionally trying) and strange a film this is. The titular field is an Early Modern purgatory, a seemingly mundane space that serves as a fitting backdrop for the confusion, madness, violence, and dark humor that ensue, ad infinitum. In other words, this is an ideal midnight movie, which we had the good fortune of attending as such. I'm only a touch jealous that Teresa was nodding off periodically during the screening, which I suspect added serendipitously to the film's hypnotic, somnabulistic rhythms.

Gebo and the Shadow It's unfortunate the impact a bad performance can have on a film that is, in nearly every other regard, exquisite. In this case, if it wasn't for Ricardo Trêpa's highly off-putting turn, as the greatly troubled prodigal son of a lower-class nineteenth-century French family, this might well have been the best de Oliveira film in years, perhaps since my favorite of his features, 2003's A Talking Picture. Instead, it's--please excuse the easy pun--a shadow of the film it could have been sans Trêpa's obnoxious performance. The rest of the cast is splendid, especially Michael Londsdale as the world-weary patriarch and Jeanne Moreau in an amiably scene-stealing supporting role. Trêpa (de Oliveira's real-life grandson) has been servicable enough, if never impressive, in past de Oliveira films; he's generally better in comic roles or in parts that aren't particularly crucial to the fabric of a film. His role in Gebo and the Shadow is of the utmost importance to the narrative--truly a shame.

Nebraska In anticipation of seeing Alexander Payne's new film, my first screening at this year's fest, I found myself listening to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (one of my all-time favorite albums). However, beyond a few kindred aspects (Phedon Papamichael's ashy black-and-white cinematography pairs nicely with the way Springsteen's stark, stripped-down aesthetic for the album evokes the flatness and plainness of the Husker state landscape), these are ultimately works of art that share little save for a common title. Where Springsteen's record is dark and mostly pessimistic, imagining the sad fates of small-time outlaws, Payne's film is perhaps the warmest and most humane that he's directed to date. Even when he seems to cast judgment on his characters, Payne's sketches of cranky curmudgeons, their naggging wives, and ambivalent thirtysomething offspring ring true to this born-and-raised Midwesterner. There's an honesty to Payne's satiric eye that doesn't preclude affection. Scenes of old men gathered together in a modest-sized living room, collectively snoring in front of a television set; or drawn-out, alternately boastful and mocking, discussions about how long it takes, or should take, to drive from one town to another are ethnographic Americana in the sense that Kathleen Stewart does it--that is, in the best possible sense.

The Past Ashgar Farhadi's follow-up to his superb A Separation is an even stronger piece of work; indeed, it's the best film that I've seen at VIFF this year. True to its title, The Past is not so much a critics' film as it is an historian's film--in terms of themes and methodological concerns, if not period per se. To be sure, it's one of the most thoughtful and provocative filmic meditations that I've encountered concerning the myriad ways that the past presses up threateningly against the present while actions in the present often seek--consciously or not--to recreate moments or feelings from our past--always, of course, to imperfect effect. At the same time, Farhadi considers, in both epistemological and psychological terms (insofar as these modes can be cleanly delineated), the knowability of the past and the ultimate importance, or (perhaps) lack thereof, of knowing precisely "what happened" at critical junctures in our respective, convergent pasts. In fact, most of the key "events" that compel the actions and decisions of Farhadi's characters actually occurred off-screen in the days, weeks, and months preceding the start of the in medias res narrative presented here. This is, above all, a profound study in causality and consequence, yet unlike A Separation, otherwise excellent, The Past never feels schematic or contrived. Instead, the sequence of connections in The Past registers as unsettlingly natural, forcing the viewer to reflect in similar terms on the causal dynamics of his or her own past and present.

Wednesday

VIFF '13: Crimes and Misdemeanors  photo A_Touch_of_Sin_4-620x316_zpsf47e3efa.jpg All Is Lost There has been no shortage of late of films centering on people (literally) stuck in perilous situations, from James Franco's headstrong spelunker in 127 hours to Ryan Reynolds' interred war-zone contractor in Buried to, most recently, the stranded astronauts in Gravity. What separates All is Lost within this crowded subgenre is not just that it almost entirely eschews the exposition that other such films sneak in through the narrative back-door. It's also every crag and line in Robert Redford's face as he grimaces at his bad fortune, his long-gestating gutteral "Fuuuuuuuuuuucckk" when things go further south, his methodical movements aboard his doomed boat, signifying, perhaps, his stubborn will to survive against the odds yet never eclipsing, via heavy-handed semiotics, the specificity and instantaneity of a given moment's particular task. Likewise, the film allows, in its final sequence, for something like spiritual or metaphysical redemption, but without forcing the issue.

Miss Violence Sometimes I wish festival program guides were more forthcoming--worries over "spoiling" gradually revealed plot points be damned. Not that the VIFF program's entry for this Greek feature is completely vague, but some topical tags like "incest as alleged political allegory," "raping children," and "pimping children" could really go a long way. I can't say that Miss Violence is a bad film, nor am I going to claim that films like this one should not be made or don't serve a certain social function. But, personally, I would rather not sit through them. Call me squeamish if you'd like; that's fine. As Miss Jean Brodie would say, "For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like."

Rhymes for Young Ghouls It may be Tarantino who, over the past few years, has received the lion's share of credit for demonstrating that historical tragedies can be treated thoughtfully on film without didactic solemnity standing for Moral Seriousness. But it's the spirit of Rob Zombie--whose effusive affection for the horror genre comes sans quotation marks and the brand of inescapable irony with which Tarantino, despite his well-noted movie-geek reputation, approaches generic pastiche--that Jeff Barnaby is most distinctly channelling here. It's a fruitful model, to be sure. Barnaby's examination of Canada's notorious residential school system is imagined as an historical horror movie--by turns, hallucinogenic and painfully prosaic. The forbidding haunted house on the hill is a site of cultural genocide and institutionalized abuse; the gooseflesh-inducing chills are collectively remembered instances of trauma. The cumulative result is a bloody, well-deserved "fuck you" to the not-distant past, as powerful as it is irreverent.

Stray Dogs If this is indeed Tsai Ming-liang's swansong, it's an exceptionally haunting final note, though not necessarily a representative example of what has made Tsai of one of Taiwanese cinema's finest practitioners. From its sustained opening shot to the pair of stunners that close the film, Stray Dogs practically oozes melancholy, all unfillable voids and cryptic despair. Yet, for a director who has proven a master at balancing such emotions alongside a singular deadpan humor, this is without doubt--a few droll moments notwithstanding--his least funny effort, an aspect that threatens to render the film as a whole nearly oppressive in its bleakness. That's not to say that Stray Dogs is less than completely indelible and poignant; just that last year's classic short, The Walker, might finally be the more apt send-off.

A Touch of Sin By moving slyly from the quasi-documentary territory that Jia Zhang-ke has recently staked out toward an (at least ostensibly) more accessible aesthetic mode, A Touch of Sin makes certain integral themes in Jia's work more readily apparent than ever. For instance, it now seems quite clear that, for Jia, there are (at least) four Chinas, or layers of China: an extremely diverse and beautiful, if sometimes dauntingly rugged, landscape; an "ancient," semi-mythic civilization represented by the material traces of the past that remain standing; the expansive industrialization of the Mao era that sought to eradicate much of that imperial past; and the aspects-of-capitalism free-for-all of the present moment, wherein a small handful of often thuggish elites have come into copious amounts of money while, for the vast majority of the populace, life remains, at best, rather drab and decidedly less than promising. The action in Jia's latest takes places simultaneously in each of these Chinas, overlapping stages that converge in fascinating ways. The similarly overlapping narrative strains are variations on a revenge-of-the-repressed theme, allowing Jia to play explicitly with genre tropes in a manner that is unmistkakably new within his oeuvre. Yet the grim question remains of whether these are ultimately trees falling in a forest with no one around to hear them--or to care (or remember), at any rate. This lingering point suggests the presence of a fifth essential layer: China as paradox, an overpopulated echo chamber.

Thursday

Songs of the Young Millennium
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Inspired by Grantland's fun, if inevitably contentious, Songs of Millennium competition, I have put together my own top 25 list, limiting my selections to de jure or de facto singles. Here it is:



25. Drake - "Hold On, We're Going Home"


24. Lana Del Rey - "Video Games"


23. Adele - "Rolling in the Deep"


22. Justin Timberlake - "Cry Me a River"


21. CSS - "Hits Me Like a Rock"


20. Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz - "Get Low"


19. M.I.A. - "Galang"


18. 50 Cent - "I Get Money"


17. Aaliyah - "We Need a Resolution"


16. Grimes - "Oblivion"


15. Panjabi MC feat. Jay-Z - "Beware of the Boys"


14. Taylor Swift - "Our Song"


13. R. Kelly - "Ignition (Remix)"


12. Lil Wayne - "Upgrade U"



11. OutKast - "B.O.B."



10. Nelly Furtado feat. Timbaland - "Promiscuous"


09. Rihanna feat. Jay-Z - "Umbrella"


08. Britney Spears - "Radar"


07. Brad Paisley - "Welcome to the Future"


06. The New Pornographers - "Letter from an Occupant


05. Robyn - "Handle Me"


04. Lumidee - "Never Leave You (Uh Oh)"


03. Rene Liu feat. Stanley Huang - "Black Black Heart"


02. Solange - "Losing You"


01. Beyonce feat. Jay-Z - "Crazy in Love"