Ante Up

Alright, here we go: year-end best-of's. Let's get this show on the road.



01. Three Times and 02. Miami Vice An international pair of master formalists, both working at the height of their respective games. Hou Hsiao-hsien's latest, and possibly greatest, film is an ostensible career summation that steers his signature concerns and motifs in fascinating new directions. Each of the three vignettes here could easily play as a superb stand-alone piece outside the framework of the whole. What makes Three Times such a monumental achievement, however, is the manner in which Hou subtly shades these distinct episodes to play in marked contrast with one another, with his own body of work, and with that of his peers. Miami Vice, on the other hand, is an altogether different animal. Critics complained upon the film's summer release that Michael Mann's fresh take on his '80's TV hit was all style no substance. I'd argue instead that this is a rare case where style is substance--from the strangely clipped acting style to Dion Beebe's hypnotic neon-soaked compositions, it's all breathlessly sustained.

03. United 93 I know it's hard, but forget for just a moment the emotionally charged subject matter and consider what a (purposefully) radical experiment in storytelling Paul Greengrass managed to pull off here. United 93 is almost certainly the only commercial release this year in which "character" is developed and defined exclusively through action or reaction. There's no exposition on display, no manufactured back-stories--which is to say, no history. Such narrative rigor is eerily matched to the events being depicted. After all, this is history--and it isn't, at least yet. Whether in the form of ethnic profiling, newspaper headlines, or the "God Bless America" yard signs and bumper stickers that remain ubiquitious (and weren't nearly so on 9/10/01), we're reminded daily of the events of that fateful Tuesday. Has it really been five years? And yet, Greengrass admirably eschews comfy mythologization in favor of painful minutiae. As Scott Foundas put it, "Greengrass’ whole point is that there’s nothing special about the victims of flight 93...they are simply ordinary people trying to get from one place to another. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. They could just as soon be us." Right. This is precisely why United 93 is a masterpiece, and why it's an extremely difficult film to sit through. Less than its pervading sense of inevitability, what finally gets you is how it would actually feel to have to call your closest relations, informing them that you're soon going to die, reminding them of how much you love them. Or, perhaps worse yet, to receive such a call.

04. Fast Food Nation and 05. Shanghai Dreams Two great movies about what it means to live with politics, or the inability to neatly separate the "personal" from the "political." Fast Food Nation follows a corporate higher-up torn between his conscience and financial stability, a teenaged cashier with sudden misgivings regarding the industry she's working for, and a Mexican immigrant forced to return to the meat-packing plant when her husband is injured on the job. What ties these plot strains, and various rungs on the socioeconomic ladder, together is a fictional fast food chain, but Richard Linklater's film is, at once, a revelatory character piece, an impassioned muckracker, and a deeply angry polemic with implications that travel far beyond McDonald's et al. Like Nation's group of Mexicans illegally crossing into the States, the central family in Wang Xiaoshuai's devastating drama are planning an exodus of their own--to the titular city, where protagonist Qinghong's parents reluctantly moved from a decade earlier in accordance with Mao's Third Line of Defense. Now stuck in the rural Guizhou Province, their hopes of returning home hinge directly upon the tides of political change in early '80's China. Wang's film has been frequently compared with Jia Zhang-ke's seminal Platform. As a thoughtful look at Mainland life near the end of the 20th Century, it more than justifies that lofty comparison.

06. The Descent Alongside Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Greg McLean's Wolf Creek, Neil Marshall's sophomore feature represents the best that English-language horror movies have had to offer so far this millennium. The Descent is, as I'm admittedly not the first to note, that rarest of genre offerings: a legitimately feminist horror movie. Sure, the cave-as-womb metaphor isn't especially subtle, but the tone of personal and collective dread that Marshall manages to sustain throughout--even as the horror of the unknown takes on a more concrete form--is impressive as hell. The shot of Shauna McDonald's blood-drenched heroine holding that sickle above her head, ready to attack, might be the year's most icnonic cine-image.

07. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and 08. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Albert Brooks' latest is as funny--and as prescient--as any movie I've seen in years. There isn't an off-note or misplaced jab on display. That the premise (a State Department-commissioned trip to India and Pakistan to document what Muslims find funny, thus developing a better understanding of a, seemingly, very foreign culture--a preemptive measure, sans arms or troops) plays as inadvertently farcial is, itself, a large part of the joke. Ostensibly, its twin subjects are comedy and cultural divide, but more specifically, Brooks seems set on actually answering that ancient rhetorical joke: What happens when we assume? The short answer: We miss the Taj Mahal because we're too busy arguing about Lenny Bruce. Borat is funnier yet, and nearly as on the mark. Sacha Baron Cohen's extended performance piece is an unswervingly, indiscrimately confrontational look at the "U.S. and A." right now, from New York feminists to secession-minded Southerners and Evangelical Christians. Like Jay-Z's "Girls Girls Girls," it's impossibly, across-the-board offensive, while somehow still oddly charming. Hilarious stuff, to be sure, but guiltily so--the joke's on us.

09. L'Enfant and 10. Duck Season The brothers Dardenne are undeniably locked into their singular sociopolitical-cum-spiritual aesthetic. If I personally find their latest Palm d'Or-winner marginally less compelling than their previous three efforts, well, that's my problem. I think it's quite fair, at this point, to unqualifiedly say that anything the pair puts out is a must-see--including this morally loaded coming-of-age tale. Where else in contemporary European cinema are issues of work and money, human flaw and potential redemption, handled with such assurance and seriousness of purpose? Fernando Eimbcke's debut feature--a decidedly lighter take on growing up--isn't shot in black and white merely to be appear more superficially artful; it's rather a more pointed aestheticization: This is a memorialization in the present tense. Effectively harnessing that tonal paradox, the film succeeds as an ode to quotidian pleasures, where filling a couple glasses to the brim with Coke packs the bittersweet punch of fleeting innocence. Every bit as charming as you've heard, without ever stumbling toward preciousness or forced whimsy.


01. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones In the interests of full disclosure: This is our album--the one Teresa and I fell in a love to--so there's definitely a major soft spot there. It's also a great one, regardless of whether "I know what I know" and "Can we meet again, meet and meet and meet again?" hold any personal significance for you or not. While this one doesn't dig its claws in as quickly as the LP or EP that preceded, its myriad charms and pleasures are finally more rewarding. Show Your Bones has an honest, lived-in feel and real warmth to it, like, say, Rumors or Wild Gift. And when that's the sort of company we're talking here, need I really say more?

02. Joanna Newsom, Ys Words like "ambitious" and "visionary" get tossed around a lot. So do "geeky" and "anachronistic." While all of the above applies here, what's most striking about Joanna Newsom's second record is its intimacy (a virtue that's all the more remarkable considering the album is produced within an inch of its life). It's by-the-fireside music for the iTunes era, a not-for-all-tastes masterpiece that when/if you "get" it, it's got you, too. There are moments of such rare, incredible beauty here that it's easy to forget the old freak-folk debate or any such subgenre semantics. The final stretch of the nearly-17-minute "Only Skin" is the most stunningly, sparklingly, exhilaratingly lovely thing I've heard in years.

03. Lily Allen, My First Mixtape and 04. The Pipettes, We Are the Pipettes Blog darlings make good! Wait, I thought that was last year's headline, what with, you know, M.I.A. and Robyn coming through? Right, but these girls pulled it off, too. But Lily's just a white M.I.A., minus the politics, and her actual LP was a mild disappointment? Maybe, but the mixtapes, especially that first one, are totally unimpeachable. Still can't get enough of it. The Pipettes might be all artifice, as some have contended, and if so, well, so what, really? They still posed the year's most pressing pop question: What do you do when the music stops?

05. The Mountain Goats, Get Lonely With PJ Harvey having fallen off a bit, Sleater-Kinney calling it quits, and Kingdom Come turning up a mixed bag, John Darnielle has, for the time being, inherited the most-reliable-artist mantle. Get Lonely doesn't pack the immediate punch of last year's The Sunset Tree nor the thematic sprawl of Tallahassee, but, make no mistake, it's vintage Mountain Goats all the way. "Maybe Sprout Wings" is as exquisitely sad as any Darnielle track to date, while the lead-off single, "Woke up New," boasts a jangly defiance in the vein of "This Year" or "Palmcorder Yajna." Darnielle relays, "I wandered through the house like a little boy lost at the mall / and an astronaut could've seen the hunger in my eyes from space," before proceeding into the chorus: "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do [his voice cracking slightly]? What do I do without you?"--a de facto Alpha Couple epilogue shot through with (what sounds like) the added poignancy of experience. He's our Neil Young, people. Really.

06. Prince, 3121 Nearing 50, Prince seems to have finally remembered how to translate his idiosyncracies into the lush, varied popcraft that marked his '80's masterpieces. When less than 30 seconds into a song called "Fury," he quips, "you musta heard it on the news this morn' / congratulations, a new star is born," you just know dude's got his groove back. Gone is the spoken-word Rainbow Children bullshit; back is the unmistakable, untouchable mojo of the man who recorded "Baby, I'm a Star." Even on contemplative cuts like the gorgeous "The Word," Prince clearly means business--specifically, he seems ready again to address the world outside of his Paisley Park fan club. Which, world, is very good n.e.w.s. If "Lolita" isn't as salacious as, say, "Sister," it's no less infectious; and even if Prince is answering himself on the male/female call-and-response parts (which very well may be the case) he seems at least as invested in making it work as, say, Justin "See, they don't do this anymore" Timberlake.

07. Nellie McKay, Pretty Little Head An enthusiastically received, cult-inspiring debut. Articles detailing the pre-release controversy delaying the follow-up. And then...nada. What the hell happened? It's like that tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it deal. The first four tracks range from terrific to classic, as awesome as anything on Get Away from Me. "There You Are in Me" ("selfish," "stupid," "so self-serious," "uptight," "upright") is the best love/diss song since Robyn's "Handle Me" ("selfish, narcissistic, psycho-freakin', boot-lickin' Nazi creep"), which isn't very long ago, granted, but is still an accomplishment of sorts. The opener, "Cupcake," is almost certainly the best pop song yet produced on the topic of gay marriage. And "The Big One" is probably the first pop song ever about gentrification and tenants' rights. Where were you on this, people?

08. CSS, Cansei de Ser Sexy More well-founded e-hype. It might ordinarily seem rather arbitrary to trump up "cool" as a foremost merit, but, seriously, this Brazilian ensemble, fronted by someone calling herself Lovefoxxx, is just fucking cool. The video for "Off the Hook" (the year's second-most perfectly crafted pop song, after "Promiscuous") actually makes me want to be in a band--and that's spoken as someone who resisted picking up a guitar or pair of drumsticks at any point during his teenaged years.

09. Bubba Sparxxx, The Charm and 10. The Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea The Charm is no Deliverance. Bitter Tea is no Blueberry Boat (or, for that matter, Gallowsbird's Park, which at this point is probably my favorite Friedberger record). That said, they're both entirely solid; good records by great artists who might do better next time out, but haven't slipped in the meantime.



10. S L I T H E R

At once brutally hilarious, genuinely terrifying, and imaginatively gory—James Gunn’s Slither is an utter joy for any genre fan. Phallic slugs-from-outer-space are attacking a bunch of Southern rednecks, with plans to take over the world using a befuddled upper middle class man as their vessel. That, pooled with boundless energy, killer effects, and delightfully off-the-wall dialogue (“that looks like something that fell off my dick during the war”) makes this flick smart, tireless enjoyment for...well, not all, but me anyway.

09. F A S T / F O O D / N A T I O N

Working through the three biggest employment links in the fast-food chain, Richard Linklater gives us (nearly equal) screen time from the Mexican immigrants working in the meat factory, the teens slinging burgers for unwitting customers, and, of course, the guy in a fancy suit coming up with new marketing ideas—who’s eventually sent off to figure out if, and why, there’s cow fecal matter making its way into the patties served at the fictional focal point, Mickey’s. With a deft hand, balancing tragedy with comedy and subtlety with the exaggerated, Fast Food Nation surfaces as a politically soulful comment on its well-worn subject. It may be irrelevant in the long run, but its gallant crusade is admirable.

08. U N I T E D / 9 3

Heartbreaking (of course), believable (horrifyingly so) and tasteful despite all that. Paul Greengrass, visually, makes one of the nation’s most ugly days into something dreamy and operatic. Here, the already tragic figures on the fateful plane of the film’s title become doomed, mythic heroes. It may seem almost cruel of Greengrass to make an art piece out of their supposed final moments—as we see them desperately try to fight back, find a way to save themselves, to of course, no avail. Really, though, it shows us what we, those of us who didn’t lose anyone we personally knew on 9/11, may have needed to see: this happened to real people. No amount of ground zero montages, or well-meaning Nic Cage performances can convey how it must have felt. United 93 realistically can’t, either, but it sure seems to come close.

07. A N / I N C O N V E N I E N T / T R U T H

For starters, the title is perfection. Global Warming is the thing we all like to ignore, or think of as a myth that will eventually be debunked (like Y2K), or an authentic threat that will pass all the same, if we just wait it out (like anthrax, or the bird flu). Well, no such luck, and anyone who may still be in denial need only watch Al Gore’s terrifically in-depth visual essay. The film is something everyone needs to see; the issue is something everyone needs to address. Gore’s charm and personal backstory add meat to the movie’s educational bones, and he comes out victorious—whether we’re anywhere closer to band-aiding the problem or not—as an unlikely pop culture icon, and the most inspirational man of the year, with no hidden agenda in sight.

06. D O W N / I N / T H E / V A L L E Y

If the world weren't such a cold, unforgiving place, Down in the Valley would have been given the decent-budget / wide-release-Edward-Norton film treatment—in place of the Illusionist. Sure, it's about a dozen times less marketable than a classy period piece, and it doesn't have any Giamatti, or a swellingly dramatic Philip Glass score. It's got all the never-gonna-be-seen trappings (weird storyline, Evan Rachel Wood) holding it back. But, it also has Norton playing a man woefully out of place in modern-day San Fernando Valley, who retains old school Western charm (of the cowboy hat-tipping "Howdy there, little lady" variety), and happens to tote loaded guns, should the need to save the day in a heroic shootout arise. It’s a tasty, modest Shakespearean tragedy that, along with this year’s Half Nelson and the afore-listed Fast Food Nation, signals a return to good, old-fashioned, smart American indies. I’ve had enough Napoleon Dynamites and Little Miss Sunshines, so that’s a relief for me.

05. T H E / D E P A R T E D

I must admit, I skipped on the Aviator, but after Gangs of New York, this strikes me as a "return to form" of sorts. I'm not saying the Departed is necessarily on par with Scorsese's revered classics. I'm saying his energy, talent for making any material into something great, use of big-name actors, and kinetic flow seem to be more intact than ever. It was over a year ago when I heard the legendary Marty (who, like many, I used to idolize—and am still a sizable fan of) was remaking the sleek HK action-thriller, Infernal Affairs. I remember my first thought being: "I love you, Martin, but how on earth can Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon be as crazysexycool as Tony Leung and Andy Lau?" Mind you, this was well before there was any mention of Jack Nicholson. I was totally unawares of his presence in the movie until I saw the trailer. Nicholson's sleazy lowlife lothario is obviously the wisest addition, but the rest of the players aren't throwaways or scene-fillers. On top of the marvelous cast, the humor is fiery, and the violence as bristling as ever. Marty may be running out of ideas, but if this is any indication, he doesn’t really need them to make better movies than 15 art school-damaged youngsters combined.

04. L ' E N F A N T

The black market working of a mother’s worst nightmare (having her child taken from her) takes a backseat to the juvenile father-and-perp’s inability to understand it. In the Dardenne’s latest, a young couple (Bruno and Sonia) who make their living through petty theft are broken apart by the male half’s previously noted heinous act—he sells their newborn baby, without mom’s consent, for cash. Jeremie Renier is at first infuriating, then undeniably moving as Bruno; his legitimate shock at Sonia’s hysteric reaction to what he’s done is one of the most startling moments in film this year, and possibly this decade so far. He is a child himself (hence the double-meaning, maybe triple-meaning given the young boy Bruno “works” with, title) and has absolutely no grasp on moral rights or wrongs—only unconscious human emotion, which redeems him in the end. Fascinating, and well deserving of the Palme d’Or it snagged back in ’05.

03. H A L F / N E L S O N

Debut-director Ryan Fleck’s film never paints its characters as wrong, unsavory, or caricatures of after-school specials; at the same time, they're never entirely wise, or overly inspirational. They, and their experiences, never have anything new to say. They just happen to say it all in a way that seems fresh, real, and maybe even a little harrowing. Like a Dangerous Minds for people who actually have the latter, Half Nelson is a captivating portrait of a drug addict attempting to make a difference by teaching a Dialectics class in Brooklyn, all the while trying not to preach, knowing he’s no good example when all is said and done—as bills pile up, relationships fail, old ones haunt him, and he remains in denial about his habit. Fantastic performances across the board, notably from our two leads, Ryan Gosling (come along way from his days on the Canadian teen sitcom Breaker High) and newcomer Shareeka Epps.

02. T H R E E / T I M E S

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s epic triptych of love stories shows us innocence, longing, and disaffectedness—respectfully. The first, a noticeably In the Mood for Love-esque romp is a charming opener, that flirts with and hints at the fragile, often lovely beginnings of potential coupledom. The middle piece sombers things up considerably with the (ghostlike) glimpse at a turn of the century brothel resident who aches to be whisked away into marriage by an activist regular. Hou next tears right to the barely beating heart of modern technology-infested youth, with a nasty, pessimistic short concerning a triangle of lovers separated by their inability to communicate in a way that doesn’t involve wires or ominously flickering cellphone/computer screens. I may be one of very few, but (while undeniably romantic), I couldn't see this as a romance. With the alarmingly bleak closing story as evidence: I suspect Three Times—and Hou himself—is more cynical than a first glance would indicate. The longer it sits with me, the more I'm inclined to call the film a masterpiece. But, since that would be hasty, I'll just say: it's tantalizingly close.

01. M I A M I / V I C E

Michael Mann’s self-penned re-imaging of the culturally cemented TV series is, bar none, the most compelling film of its kind ever made. Bold statement, sure, but it’s a movie I’m accustomed to defending all over the place since I saw it this summer. Countless audiences have seen this, and had one of two reactions: liking it with reservations, or loathing it and writing it off as pointless, irrelevant ham. For some baffling reason, the majority of movie-goers, surely those who ate up genre pastiches like Kill Bill, failed to get this. Miami Vice is gorgeous to look at, mind-bogglingly bizarre, and brilliant in its heavy-handed poker-faceness; there’s no humor to be found, yet it’s crazy-hilarious. Our titual cop duo here have a solid steel bond (“I will never doubt you), with no explanation why, other than they’ve worked together for awhile. Their missions are muddled and ridiculous. They fall victim to tragedy, but have moments of triumph, and Mann leaves us with a slew of loose ends and unexplained plot strings. The slick neon blue of Miami is crawling with characters we know nothing about, and never will. We see them all in a stunning, mohito-induced fever dream that starts and ends abruptly, with no apologies and no sympathy. Just like, you know, real life.


10. t.i. / K I N G

T.I. single-handedly blew my mind with “What You Know,” so much so that any other ’06 single (including the fantastic, inexhaustible runner-up “Promiscuous”) was rendered immediately inferior. The triumphant synth pulsing, not beneath but with, T.I.’s equally-triumphant rapping resulted in a song that even my “I only buy nature sound CDs” mother could recognize as awesome. The rest of his material, released on King, could never match that—but it still managed to kick a lot of ass. “You Know Who,” with its title sounding like the flipside of the lead-off single, has one of the most downright royal horn beats since “Crazy in Love,” and “Top Back” is close behind as a contender for the same title. T.I.’s toweringly intimidating image couldn’t even be lessened by his turn as a well-meaning straight-arrow in the flick ATL, and it was solidified even more by his guest spot on JT’s “My Love,” where he warns “forget your face, I swear I will” and insists that “me and your boyfriend / we ain’t no tie.” So, basically, if he wants to be King—he can, and will be.

09. the game / T H E / D O C T O R ' S / A D V O C A T E

There's a lot to be learned about the exiled G-Unit member, from listening to the Doctor's Advocate. For instance, he "can't be fucked like a lesbian" and he knows of a girl "named Superhead" Jay-Z used to get with. Not to mention the countless other quotable couplets (his unintentional humor is only rivaled by Nas ["like Hugh Grant in 8 1/2 Weeks"?]) found here. On the first few spins, I wasn’t feeling Advocate so much, even with liking the single “It’s Okay (One Blood).” It wasn’t until I had it on a few times while accomplishing tasks (read: not paying attention) that it started to sink in. Eventually, it hit me: this record is really great. Perhaps it was the lack of speaker busting beats that first threw me off. The sound is certainly smoother, lighter; the Game's aggressive nature only 'shines' through lyrically. And that, actually, makes for a pretty fascinating contrast. He’s got charm in spades, and I think now I want to buy those sneakers he designed.

08. cat power / T H E / G R E A T E S T

The always-reliable (in studio, not so much in any other capacity...) Chan Marshall had a rough year—or a rough better half of the decade—but recently sobered up, apparently for good. That’s great, and we’re all happy for her, but selfishly I wonder if that will effect the raw, off-the-wall miserable brilliance of her music. The Greatest is as sad as ever a Cat Power record were, but it’s also mature, less crazy, less broken. It’s pristinely crafted and glittering; with authentically pop-structured songs. There’s not a toss-out track on here, and at the same time, few really stand out. The minute I think I have a favorite, I remember how much I like that other one—and so forth. It won’t surpass Moon Pix or You Are Free for my money, but it’s far (ahem) greater a disc than the flawlessness contradicts.

07. clipse / H E L L / H A T H / N O / F U R Y

Maybe the title was prophetic, because Clipse tore up critical end-year lists all over the place after having their album out for only a month. No one saw it coming, but the fiery remarkableness is kinda hard to deny. They are one of the few acts to have beats and rapping that are equally uber-impressive. Oh, screw it, I admitted to loving it just like everyone else, popped it in my top ten—and I don’t think anything else needs to be said. It just rocks.

06. asobi seksu / C I T R U S

For a band named what translates to “Playful Sex,” Asobi Seksu makes some unexpectedly somber music. Yes, it’s shoegaze, yes, it’s dreamy, yes, it’s pretty. It’s also incredibly touching, with singer Yuki’s earnest—at times slightly cracking—vocals, and lines like “I’d do anything if just to make her stay.” Possibly one of the most romantic releases I’ve clung to recently, for reasons both personal and obvious. Others seems to be picking up on the band lately, too, thanks to Citrus. That’s a positive thing, of course, but I’m still a little nervous over what might happen if Sofia Coppola (or worse, Zach Braff) gets ahold of it.

05. justin timberlake / F U T U R E S E X / L O V E S O U N D S

Our favorite ex-Mouseketeer (oh, c’mon, like there’s any real competition left) may be maturing "musically," but he doesn't seem to be in any other areas. And we love him for it. With the industrious Timbaland in tow for Futuresex / Lovesounds, Justin comes across as a dancefloor hopping lothario; that almost-innocent choir boyish voice trapped in a sleazy, pickup line-uttering throat. He manages to competently stand in as the face of our current, dance addicted, sex obsessed, impatiently self-involved culture. With beats so sickeningly head-bob-inducing they’re hard to believe, and lyrics largely about hooking up with random hotties, this disc provides the perfect soundtrack for those who wish their lives were just a little trashier—and, to be fair, those whose lives already are.

04. css / C A N S E I / D E / S E R / S E X Y

Speaking of sleaze, CSS does it in a cuter (yet filthier), more cut-and-paste way. A gaggle of Brazilian hipsters (all female save for a guy [or two?]) spitting distinctly American pop culture references at us, to the electronica pulse of Casio keyboards and reverb peddles. “Art Bitch” may or may not be a Karen O parody, “Meeting Paris Hilton,” and “I Wanna Be Your J.Lo” (not on the album) are pretty overt, and “Let’s Make Love and Listen Death from Above” makes an effective come-hither line out of a mediocre band. Whether they’ll be able to follow this up, without burning themselves out on alcohol and one-night-stands on tour (I hear they’re badass live), is yet to be seen. But this is already an art-pop staple.

03. tom waits / O R P H A N S: / B R A W L E R S, / B A W L E R S, / A N D / B A S T A R D S

Hearing the three mood-pieces that make up Orphans is something akin to taking a journey through a familiar yet entirely foreign dream-place. Or possibly what it would be like to peer through a dusty window and watch your weird neighbor alone in his basement, sifting through relics from his past. Maybe reading a five-hundred-page novel authored by an ex-college professor who went insane some years before writing it. This is to say, yep, Tom’s back and at his utter best. A monster of a collection, that only seems to get more and more extraordinary as I hit repeat.

02. diplo / mad decent / W O R L D W I D E / R A D I O

In what may have began as a gimmick to generate buzz for his fledging label, Diplo & co launched Mad Decent Worldwide Radio: a monthly installment of podcasts, mixed by Diplo and usually featuring Mad Decent artists (currently that would be all of Bonde Do Role and DJ Baqstarr). Essentially, these are like mini Live in Montreals, or Favela on Blasts. So, genre-bending, booty-shaking genius delivered right to your iTunes library, free of charge. Yeah, I thought it was pretty awesome too. Editions #2 (that Nirvana sample!) and #4 (Eiffel 65’s “Blue” makes an appearance) are still the finest examples—and with more coming every so often, I wouldn’t rule out the prospect of this series placing again on my hypothetical ’07 list.

01. yeah yeah yeahs / S H O W / Y O U R / B O N E S

It’s really very perplexing how the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who were, if you recall, hyped beyond control when they started out, were so widely ignored after popping out their best work yet. Maybe the big O isn’t crazy enough (anymore) for folks, or maybe they felt a second album was too soon for the maturation process. Personally, I'm stumped. Every song on here is, at the risk of sounding fangirlish, killer. Not the old riot-grrl-and-two-guys “killer,” but valid, subdued all-talent-minimal-flash “killer.” Try as I might to pinpoint what didn’t do it for almost everyone else with Show Your Bones, the fact is, things get overlooked when they shouldn’t, and I’m used to that (I’m nearly alone among people in my daily life who even know what J-Pop is). All that matters is how lovely, moving, and ear-pleasing an album it is—one that I’ve been spinning since March, and will without a doubt continue to for months to come. YYYs, they don’t love you like we love you.


Awards Season

Most Admirable Former Executive Office Holder: Al Gore (should receive serious consideration from the Nobel committee)
Most Alarmingly Terrific Fourth Single Off an Album: Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right" (compares favorably alongside Tim's best Aaliyah cuts)
Most Baffling Critical Darling of Late: My Chemical Romance (I really don't get it?)
Most Blood-Chilling Music Video (Ever?): Juvenie's "Get Ya Hustle On" (a real-world post-apocalyptic nightmare)
Most Boringly Executed Potentially Exciting Formal Experiment: Brick (Teresa liked it anyway)
Most Cathartic 111 Big Screen Minutes: United 93 (I couldn't bother with that Oliver Stone pic after seeing this one)
Most Complex Socioeconomic Mosaic: Fast Food Nation (puts Traffic to shame)
Most Consistently Brilliant Songwriter: John Darnielle (inexhaustible)
Most Consistently Brilliant Filmmaker: Hou Hsiao-hsien (Three Times might just be his greatest film to date)
Most Dramatic Performance in a Music Video: Beyonce in "Ring the Alarm" / Rihanna in "Unfaithful" (purposeful tie)
Most Entertaining Guest Verse: Nas on Kelis's "Blindfold Me" ("like Hugh Grant in '8 1/2 Weeks!")
Most Deservingly Hyped Hype Band: Cansei de Ser Sexy / The Pipettes (tie)
Most Disappointing "Comeback": Jay-Z (Kingdom Come is better than its reception would indicate, but it's still a very mixed bag)
Most Effective Cover by a Scandi-Pop Diva: Robyn's "Cobrastyle" (just edging out Marit Bergman's take on "My Love")
Most Electrifying Star-Making Performance: Ellen Page in Hard Candy ("Does your mother know you cut men's balls off?")
Most Genuinely Frightening Horror Movie: The Descent (rivals Wolf Creek as the best recent English-language contribution to its genre)
Most Inexplicable LP Exclusion: Lily Allen's "Sunday Morning" (conspicuously absent from her not-as-great-as-it-should've-been Alright Still)
Most Justifiably Praised Star Turn: Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson (Oscar should come knocking)
Most Lackluster Follow-up to an (Arguable) Masterpiece: Lars von Trier's Manderlay (Bryce Dallas Howard does make it worth a watch, however)
Most Legitimate Comeback: Prince (3121 is precisely the return to form that Musicology was flimsily cracked up to be)
Most Ominous Sign for the Future of Music Criticism: The bought-out Village Voice's termination of living legends Robert Christgau and Chuck Eddy (Jim Hoberman remains--for now--the last icon standing at the going-to-shit alt-weekly)
Most Overrated Album: Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury (good not great, though I should give it a few more spins)
Most Puzzling Boast: "When your friends is Chris and Gwyneth" - Jay-Z, "Hollywood" (really, Jay? are we supposed to be impressed by this or what?)
Most Pleasant Cinematic Surprise: Michael Mann's Miami Vice (the hypnotic apotheosis of Mann's distinct aesthetic)
Most Pleasant Musical Surprise: Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind" (think what you want of Britney's BFF, but her lead-off single shimmered)
Most Sublime Musical Moment: the banjo-accompanied minute-and-a-half stretch near the end of Joanna Newsom's 17-minute "Only Skin" (breathtaking)
Most Sweetly Wistful Glance Back at Childhood: Fernando Eimbcke's Duck Season (thoroughly charming)
Most Underrated Album: Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Show Your Bones (my album of the year nominee warranted much higher marks than it received)
Most Underrated Film: Albert Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (not quite as funny as Borat, but every bit as on-the-mark)
Most Valuable Artist: Timbaland (don't call it a comeback)
Most Valuable Supporting Actor: Big Boi (hands-down the best thing in both the winning ATL and the less-than-winning Idlewild)


Face to Face

After seeing Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, Samaritan Girl, and 3-Iron, while avoiding the widely-panned the Bow, I must have been spoiled on Kim Ki-duk. Those first three are recognizably his best-received efforts, and are nearly devoid of the unsympathetic rawness of his early work. When watching his latest film, Time, I suppose I expected something entirely separate from what I saw. Nowhere to be found is the quiet meditative-ness of 3-Iron and Spring, or the heartbreaking morals of Samaritan Girl. Instead, this is a frantic study of characters that are hardly relatable. A half-hearted expose of plastic surgery culture, that doesn’t seem to have a handle on what it wants to say. Time is kind of like a train going much too fast, and in the wrong direction to boot. Which is to say, it’s impossible not to stare at it and be simultaneously frightened and fascinated.

The story, set against the sleek and achingly hip backdrop of downtown (presumably) Seoul, throws us into the loving-but-mildly-stale relationship of Seh-hee (Ji-Yeon Park, of two Whispering Corridors flicks) and her boyfriend Ji-woo (Jung-woo Ha). They’ve been together for two years, and Ji-woo has acquired a harmless, but hurtful roving eye that—not five minutes into the movie—sends Seh-hee into an over the top jealous rage. She’s paranoid that he’s going to get sick of her “same old boring face,” and eventually leave her. So, in a ridiculous preemptive strike, she disappears and has her mug reformed to be unrecognizable to him, before resurfacing months later (now played by Hyeon-a Seong of the Scarlet Letter) as “See-hee.”

See-hee begins showing up at the regular hang outs of her unbeknownst ex, hoping he’ll take notice of the new and improved her. He does—but is still reserving the majority of his affections for his long-lost disappearing act, Seh-hee, should she ever return. Now, even though she is Seh-hee, this drives See-hee wild—and she’s just as jealous as before. Of herself. More insane acts of unreasonable obsession ensue, until we’re violently carried to the bloody final act, which loops the entire proceedings into a nonsensical, surrealistic psychological nightmare.

Though it’s difficult to watch, given these people seem so out of touch with reality—not to mention social niceties—there are still fleeting moments of tranquil poignancy. Seeing the mentally-unstable, fragile smile on See-hee’s face as she thinks she may have a second chance to be loved by Ji-woo is touching, just as Ji-woo’s attachment to the au natural and long-gone Seh-hee is. Time is strange, brutal, and off-putting, but enthralling in the way that Extreme Makeover is. And, of course, it’s refreshing to see a depiction of having one’s skin pulled, sliced, and sewn into new shapes not having a happy ending. For all the things that can be said of Ki-duk, he’s got no shortage of compulsively intriguing ideas.


Here's a piece that I wrote for someplace I don't write for anymore.


The Good Fight

Many reviews (including my wife's) of Richard Linklater's latest have criticized the (admittedly unconventional) move of ditching Greg Kinnear's third of the narrative roughly halfway through the film. In Film Comment, Linklater himself observed of the Kinnear character that "his effectiveness has run its course"; this decision strikes me as key, and entirely meaningful.

Fast Food Nation the movie is, above all, a study in resignation. It's an unflinching sociological measurement of the point at which fundamentally ethical people throw in the towel. Kinnear's corporate higher-up realizes that he can't feasibly make the changes that need to be made. Illustrating the grey area between the personal and the political, he opts to retain the job that allows him to support his family, while turning a blind eye to the unsavory (to put it lightly) product his company is delivering to the marketplace. The fast food cashier, in turn, loses her fire after a bold stab at activism backfires, and the Mexican immigrant returns to the meat-packing plant when her husband is injured.

Equal parts proactive and pessimistic, Linklater's film is, at once, a revelatory character piece, an impassioned muckracker, and a deeply angry polemic with implications that travel far beyond McDonald's et al. In a terrific sort of extended cameo playing the cashier's odd job-working journeyman uncle, Ethan Hawke shows up as the movie's conscience (and possibly Linklater's on-screen surrogate). Speaking to his niece, he remarks that he's okay with what he's doing--admitting that his ten-years-younger self might not be particularly impressed with his current state-- but that he's more than okay with what he's not doing. It's a sighing defiance of the if-you-can't-beat-'em-then-join-'em mentality, and perhaps the most telling moment in one of the year's best films.