You Better Think Clearly, Clearly

It's probably telling of how out of touch I am these days with the Young People of America (quite aside from the fact that I, y'know, live in Canada now) that it took a critics' poll for me to take notice of the choicest non-Scandinavian teenpop nugget yet produced by this current wave of teens and pop--that I've heard anyway, natch. (I do wonder whether Chuck and Frank--both among the English-speaking world's sharpest music critics--have tween/teenage daughters, or if they've just kept their ears real close to the Radio Disney ground.) Had I heard it before voting, it would've definitely made my ballot (sorry, Feist).
My Own Private Apocalypse (Now)

Cloverfield is almost inevitably a loaded deck. Unless you've remained entirely oblivious to the film's ingenious, if mostly irrelevant, viral marketing campaign (possible, though somewhat less so since you're reading this blog entry) and you've managed also to tune out the cultural impact of the digital revolution, this isn't, and never could be, your standard-fare blockbuster movie-movie. Hell, even then a truly clean slate would additionally require a failure on the viewer's part to connect the film's unambiguous post-9/11 dots: the shocking destruction of NYC landmarks; terrified, soot-covered masses scurrying for shelter inside bodegas and department stores, dialing local loved ones on their cells; news reports repeatedly analyzing on-site footage yet clearly unable to offer substantial answers.

This is New Media all the way--from the Web-based hype push to the faux-amateur delivered product--and it's as informed by September 11's events and their aftermath as by the genre cinema conventions it strategically borrows from and ultimately erupts. The obvious, seemingly irresistible comparison is to The Blair Witch Project (see: almost every fucking review published thus far), but that's too easy a reference-point and lends little insight into what this deviously brilliant flick is really up to. 1999's surprise horror hit never deviated from the first-person, pseudo-doc POV of its doomed trio. In Cloverfield, key fragments of information are provided via TV news reportage, a distinction well worth citing.

Rather, the film that struck me as closest in spirit to this one is much more recent than the pre-9/11 Blair Witch. I'm thinking of Brian De Palma's groundbreaking, unfairly maligned Redacted (and of The Host, Bong Joon-ho's South Korean political-critique-disguised-as-a-creature-feature). Like De Palma's film, last year's best, in my estimation, Cloverfield is impossibly meta--its cast of hip, well-heeled young Manhattanites are as much pop-cultural ciphers as Redacted's stock military grunts. Where De Palma drew on the Vietnam war movies (including his own Casualties of Wars) that today's generation of soldiers knows by heart, producer J.J. Abrams, writer Drew Godard, and director Matt Reeves look to Andrew Bujalski and the "Mumblecore" movement's hip, urban twentysomethings--or, you know, maybe just across the bridge to Williamsburg. Or (again like De Palma) to any number of YouTube clips or Facebook and MySpace pages at a generation of spoiled, disaffected rich kids with more high-end electronic gadgets than common sense.

Both films are acutely aware of the challenge facing movies, as well as every other traditional platform of entertainment and information: to hurry and catch up with the Internet, a medium that's increasingly rendering Hollywood's star system and the implicit cultural hierarchy it represents irrelevant. Neither film features an actor you've heard of, and the fact that their no-name casts are, at best, merely passable and, at worst, sort of shitty matters about as much as how "good" or "bad" the guy or gal was in the last home-made YouTube clip you watched.

Abrams and De Palma haven't failed to notice either the current ubiquity of all manner of recording devices; when a group of stunned New Yorkers pause to snap camera phone pictures of the Statue of Liberty's detached head just after it's crashed down in the middle of the street, the scene plays like an eerie, cracked-mirror reflection of right here and now. Meanwhile, in Redacted, we're forced to piece together a skewed mosaic of the Iraq War as captured and deconstructed on personal digi-cams, surveillance video, documentary footage, blogs, American and Middle Eastern news outlets, and--right--YouTube.

Which leads us, in a roundabout fashion, to Cloverfield's most problematic conceit: that some guy would maintain taping throughout everything that's going on around (and often right in front of) him. Since the film's claim to novelty lies in its you-are-there approach, its impact depends largely on our ability to make the leap of faith required to buy that "Hud" (our steadfast guide) wouldn't, at some point, toss the camera and just say to hell with it (not to mention that him and his friends wouldn't up and hightail it out of the city as fast as, and by any means, possible).

I can think of a few valid-ish explanations for this. The first is simply that in a city the size of New York there would presumably be at least one idiot/crack-journalist-at-heart who really would try to record the moment-to-moment developments of such an event. Another, suggested by Hud himself, is that the camera has become for him a security blanket of sorts, that witnessing the night's terrors through its lens somehow makes them feel less real or immediate or threatening (hmm, kinda like how watching the destruction of New York City, as projected on a theatre screen, feels infinitely safer than the present-tense reality that, hey, New York was recently attacked, mysteriously and quite suddenly...)

Subsequently, perhaps the best excuse for Cloverfield's found-footage gimmick is that many people did, in fact, impulsively record the Twin Towers collapsing now six-plus years ago. Which is to say, this is neither escapist entertainment (ala, say, Independence Day, wherein alien invaders obliterated the Empire State Building) nor verite catharsis (ala Paul Greengrass' masterful United 93). It's something else, something new and strange and, at the same time (and above all), disturbingly familiar. Of course, the message is the medium, but it's also the mountains of hype, both justified and purposefully misleading, and the painful historical baggage inextricably tied to this film's sounds and images.

The weird beauty of Cloverfield is that it is what it is--a potent, poisonous stew made up of myriad ingredients added by both its creators and its audience, yet finally suis generis (rather like New York itself). If the film's ending(s) feel too ironic (the romantically linked main pair are killed not by the rampaging monster but by military bombs, then the source recording ends with a happy, earlier scene at Coney Island), well, so is its existence--a 73-minute filmic extension of our conflicted collective desire to relive our worst nightmare. It's not just art imitating life, but shrewdly criticizing it in the process. No doubt it will be a huge hit.

And I don't just mean in the U.S. of A. Assuming this movie screens in the areas of the world where America and what it represents are least popular, it should do gangbusters, with the creature implicitly recast as the story's hero. It doesn't take a theatre full of "evildoers" either to fail in recognizing any good reason to actively root for Cloverfield's white-collar VP protag, Rob, and his WASPy cohorts; the only one I can think of (aside from that they're, you know, human beings) is that, for better or worse, they're audience surrogates, but that's instinctive rather than logical or even empathetic. Where Redacted (myopically accused of anti-Americanism) shows us Americans abroad at their extreme-worst, raping and murdering and waxing xenophobic like it's second-nature, Cloverfield centers on Americans at home at their quotidian-worst, merely privileged and solipsistic and willfully sequestered in Very Nice Spaces.

"The government's about to lay the hammer down on it," says an army officer. "Midtown?" asks our stunned would-be hero. "No," the officer responds, "Manhattan." It's a telling moment of realization for Rob and for us: Really? The U.S. government effectively giving up on its single most celebrated stretch of real estate? Substitute "Manhattan" with, say, "New Orleans" in that equation and it really hits home--not to mention Hiroshima, Cambodia, and Baghdad.


Genius Sick

I'm happy to report that I loved every freaking minute of Cloverfield (more later, I swear), and I especially love Nathan Lee's tempting reading of the film as a die-yuppie-scum acid valentine. At any rate, it's the first great movie of 2008!


Better Late

Recent viewings, in brief.

There Will Be Blood Oh yeah, it's Paul Thomas Anderson's strongest work to date, and not by any small margin, but it isn't the staggering leap forward thematically that it is qualitatively. Paul Dano's calculated freakouts are essentially a hellfire-and-brimstone riff on "respect the cock" (etc.). Grown-up H.W. is Dirk Diggler, the would-be innocent cum victim of circumstance. As for Daniel Day Lewis's Daniel Plainview, think Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love: single-minded, quasi-enigmatic misfit with temper control issues. The difference is that this time out Anderson is grappling meaningfully with American history, warts and all and in a way that his Amerindie-bred contemporaries (Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, Todd Solondz, Miranda July, et al.) haven't yet ventured anywhere near. And, oh yeah, it's a masterpiece.

Into Great Silence If I were to ever write a follow-up to this piece (and I'm not planning to, I'm just speaking hypothetically), Phillip Gröning's exquisitely realized, nearly three-hour study of ritual-driven life inside the Grande Chartreuse monastery would surely warrant discussion. Again, I'm a decided non-believer, and, again, I find myself transfixed and frequently moved--in this case, by the supreme devotion of these men to something. It's a devotion that strikes me as both admirable and instructive, regardless of if I happen to share their faith in that same something. "Bressonian" is an apt description and a deserved compliment, but the Carthusian monks express more joi de vive sliding down a snow-covered mountainside than Claude Laydu's tortured country priest probably experienced in his lifetime.

Juno Ellen Page is spot-on in what feels like the softer flip-side to her no less striking Hard Candy turn. Michael Cera is Michael Cera (or the on-screen persona he's carefully cultivated since at least Arrested Development), which is just fine. Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, and Allison Janney are first-rate, too. But this movie's most significant revelation was (for me, anyway) its most significant star. I think I only watched maybe two or three episodes of Alias so maybe I missed something, but Jennifer Garner demonstrates real range in a role that provides her with only marginally more to work with than she had in, say, 13 Going on 30. That scene in the mall where she leans down to try and hear the baby kick inside Juno's belly should be her Oscar clip--if there's any justice (and if there's any Oscars).

Into the Wild This was exactly the right subject for Sean Penn to tackle--thoughtful free spirit whose iconoclastic intensity can sometimes land him in trouble--and he does a pretty good job with it. I suspect a more streamlined narrative approach would have better suited Christopher McCandless's story, as opposed to the awkward chronological jumps and superfluous flashbacks (not to mention Jena Malone's irritating, pseudo-poetic voice-over) that Penn over-employs. Like Eastwood, he's great with actors, and someday he might be as sure overall at the helm. For the time being, let's hope he doesn't quit his day job.

The Cat Returns Call it Spirited Away lite. Hiroyuki Morita's short, sweet anime fantasy (which Miyazaki produced) packs all the whimsical appeal of a childhood daydream, as a Japanese schoolgirl is whisked off to the so-called cat kingdom as reward for saving a cat from being flattened by a truck. The catch is that she's turned into a feline herself, and forced to marry the cat king's son, yet unlike in Miyazaki's best work, there's little sense of threat and strange terror lurking below the colorful surface. Instead, we get a nice-enough nod toward diversity and acceptance and, in the English-dubbed version, the vocal talents of Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes, Kristen Bell, Andy Richter, Elliot Gould, and Tim Curry.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street I typically enjoy Tim Burton, even when he's far from peak form (Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and yet this one left me cold and rather bored. It also made me miss the more leisurely paced quirks and charms of Ed Wood, still my favorite Burton pic. Here, we get elaborate set-pieces, mostly awful singing, and (as always) terrific production design. I guess that's what happens when you give a lifelong eccentric fifty million to film a musical with a cast that can't sing. Johnny Depp hasn't been this wooden since Finding Neverland, and certainly never was before that. The almost-always watchable Alan Rickman is hardly more animated. Burton's wife and Borat are the best things here, for what it's worth (hint: not the price of admission).


My 2007

Or "ours" rather...



01. Redacted In a year where the lion's share of critically fawned over films feature (supposedly) bold ideas wrapped in neatly mannered packages, De Palma's mixed media Iraq War project is blessedly impolite. It's searingly passionate, appropriately skeptical, and (almost) uncompromising. From my vantage point, it's the American movie of the millennium, but that doesn't mean I'm in any sort of hurry to sit through it again. (More on Redacted)

02. Still Life and Useless It's Saturday as I type this, which means that Still Life is my favorite Jia Zhang-ke film. Ask me tomorrow and it might be Platform. Or Unknown Pleasures. And, you know, I have a nagging suspicion that a second viewing of Useless will further complicate that call. It seems as if Jia Zhang-ke went as far as he was either ready or willing to go in terms of eye-popping DV stylization with Still Life. In his latest, he's retreating toward a purposeful minimalism, albeit with maximum ideas and potential for thematic expansion crammed into Useless' 80-minute runtime. For a film that's ostensibly about clothes, an awful lot is suggested regarding both China's free-market identity crisis and the nature of art. This is that rare, superlative documentary where one can actually feel the filmmaker thinking along with his audience. If he fails to offer any pat conclusions from the evidence he's culled, it's only because the future--for all of us--is far less certain than we often tend to assume. (More on Still Life and Useless)

03.The Man from London Teresa and I sprinted halfway across downtown Vancouver with luggage in tow to make it on time for a festival screening of Bela Tarr's latest. Of course, it was worth it. (More on The Man from London)

04.Bug I'll never be able to watch a standard issue Ashley Judd flick the same way again. Ever. Private, "leaked" sex tapes aside, it's pretty darn rare in this day and age for a Hollywood star to put something out there that's legitimately shocking. Sure, Halle and Charlize won praise and awards for "de-glaming" to play people with real problems, but neither performance made me sit up right in my theatre seat, or widen my eyes as far as they go. Where Ashley Judd allows herself to go in the final act of Bug is someplace scary and nasty and raw and, yes, really shocking. It's a place that most hungry up-and-comers -- much less their handsomely compensated A-list heroes -- wouldn't dare venture near, at least without a parachute or a life jacket or the guarantee of an Oscar at the end of the tunnel. Judd nails it without so much as her panties. (More on Bug)

05. Black Book John and Yoko famously asserted that war is over if we want it. Paul Verhoeven would beg to differ. This is a history of violence brutally transcribed in the present tense insofar as -- Verhoeven unsubtly implies -- mankind is mostly a bunch of fuck-ups and liars who can't ever figure out how to play nice. The moral of this morally skewed story is that we don't learn from our mistakes, so, naturally, we're bound to repeat them, with only the specifics varying from war to war and atrocity to atrocity.The triumph here is that--unlike, say, Hollow Man or Starship Troopers, both certifiably underrated--Verhoeven has produced a film that even his fiercest critics can't easily dismiss or ignore, and, more importantly, he managed to do so without remotely softening his caustically perverse sensibility. (More on Black Book)

06. The Duchess of Langeais (aka Don't Touch the Axe) Jacques Rivette's latest riff on Balzac is, it turns out, the most expertly realized (and legitimately tragic) literary costume drama since Terence Davies took on Edith Wharton. As a lonely military officer and shamed socialite, Gerard Depardieu's look-alike son and the ever amazing Jeanne Balibar make for the year's most hypnotic on-screen pair. Their almost constant back-and-forth -- by turns, cautiously flirtatious and charged with palpable frustration -- is never less than dexterously razor sharp, until, in the film's mournful denouement, words cease to suffice. (More on The Duchess of Langeais)

07. No Country for Old Men On the one hand, I tried to take the post-Cannes critical hype with a grain of salt. On the other, I actually liked Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers (or at least, in the latter case, Tom Hanks' idiosyncratic lead turn). Either way, this is pretty fantastic. Javier Bardem is hogging most of the praise, but Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, and Woody Harrelson deserves heaps of it, too. And Roger Deakins, natch. Not to mention the Brothers Coen, who've helmed their strongest film since either Fargo or Barton Fink--dependant upon both my day-to-day mood and that second viewing I need to get to sooner rather than later.

08. Offside and Love Conquers All Offside isn't a very good sports movie--we barely see the central soccer match being played. If it is a sports movie at all (and I'd still contend that, to some degree, it is), it's one in which the sport in question is a deeply clever McGuffin. (The country boy soldier's unvivid play-by-play makes Tim McCarver's baseball commentary sound down-right insightful by comparison.) The female protagonist in Tan Chui Mui's lyrical, subtly humorous Love Conquers All hardly has it much better than Offside's soccer-obsessed young women; her would-be beau has an annoying habit of selling his girlfriends into prostitution. Both films adhere relatively faithfully to Western commercial modes (absurdist drag comedy, angst-inflected young romance, respectively); they're radical insofar as the cultures they're a product of are regressive, specifically in their treatment of women. (More on Offside and Love Conquers All)

09. Knocked Up and Juno Looking back on the films I admired the most this past year, I'm a little struck by just how many of them offer an almost irredeemably grim worldview; from Brian De Palma's filmic cherry bomb to Bela Tarr's characteristic pessimism to the Coen brothers' uncharactersically sober(ing) post-Western, a bitter aftertaste was the flavor of my year. And yet, at heart, I prefer to think I'm an optimist, still looking for that silver lining and making lemonade. Knocked Up and Juno get by on inexhaustible sweetness, and do so cannily enough that soft-hearted critics and would-be optimists (like yours truly) are sufficiently tempted to overlook their too-neat sexual politics and liberal divergence from contemporary realism. The fact that we've got our first child on the way this coming summer leaves this pair hitting even closer to home.

10. My Winnipeg Can Guy Maddin really keep up this prolific pace and entirely singular (and almost entirely single-minded) aesthetic forever? I sure hope so! (More on My Winnipeg)

A dozen runners-up: 10 + 4 (Akbari); The Namesake (Nair); Paprika (Kon); Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Lumet); Eastern Promises (Cronenberg); The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Loach); The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Kunuk/Cohn); The Elephant and the Sea (Woo); Spider-Man 3 (Raimi); The Host (Bong); Superbad (Mottola); Lust, Caution (Ang)

Top 10 Performances
01. Ashley Judd - Bug
02. Zhao Tao - Still Life
03. Tabu - The Namesake
04. Jeanne Balibar - The Duchess of Langeais
05. Samuel L. Jackson - Black Snake Moan
06. Hal Holbrook - Into the Wild
07. Carice van Houten - Black Book
08. Ellen Page - Juno
09. Christopher Mintz-Plasse - Superbad
10. Kene Holliday - Great World of Sound


01. Miranda Lambert - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Big, long Britney piece notwithstanding, I think I've still managed to write more about Miranda Lambert and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (here, there, and everywhere) than I have about any artist or album in years. And while it sounds even better in January than it did back in June, I've gotta admit I'm running kind of thin on snappy toss-off's. Suffice it to say that this record really is all kinds of wonderful and terrific. Or put on "Desperation," and wait a minute for the chorus to come in: "Des-peration / There's danger in frustration / Complicated words slippin' off of your tongue and ain't one of them are true / I'm still desperate for you." Who else does ambivalence this well? For that matter, who else does rage ("Gunpowder and Lead"), sexual frustration ("Guilty in Here"), regret ("More Like Her"), or jealousy (title track) this well? As good a year as 2007 was for country music (and for music, in general, I'd argue), 'Ran was in a class unto herself. (More on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend)

02. Lil Wayne - The Carter III Mixtape

Or, you know, at least Obama's VP. (More on The Carter III Mixtape)

03. Britney Spears - Blackout After the latest round of bad news, my hope that Britney will soon begin in earnest to turn things around is admittedly starting to fade. I refuse to be flip, but realistically speaking, if she never comes back from this, at least her last album was an exceptional one. My fingers are still crossed for her, but at this point, poor Brit clearly needs more than a well-meaning think piece or even a well-received record to motivate her to make lifestyle changes. Somehow, in the studio, she's better than ever; we'll always have Blackout...(More on Blackout)

04. PJ Harvey - White Chalk and Lucinda Williams - West It's so reassuring--in a real-life this-matters sort of way, not just a music nerd sense--when your favorite artists return to something like peak form after testing your confidence in their artistic infallibility. Both Uh Huh Her and World Without Tears had their moments, but I can ultimately take or leave 'em, especially when judged alongside past classics. White Chalk and West are essential, reclamations of vitality that steer Harvey and Williams' respective sonic palettes in fascinating new directions. (More on White Chalk and West)

05. Kanye West - Graduation If Common did, in fact, pass on Kanye's "Everything I Am" beat, it's less proof that Common's deaf than that Kanye's more generous than his egotistical persona would indicate. Ye samples Jay on the opener and praises him on the closer; the eleven good-to-great tracks in between find him wrestling with the only other MC he has time to ponder at length: himself, duh, from "who the kids gonna listen to? / I guess me, if it isn't you" to "people talk so much shit about me in barber shops, they forget to get their hair cut." Even the one where he rides some Daft Punk (probably the album's weakest, most impersonal cut) seems to be about how he's having to try way harder than he thinks he should have to just to get himself laid. (More on Graduation)

06. Rihanna - Good Girl Gone Bad Yeah, "Umbrella"'s the best song on here, but by far narrower a margin than you'd likely suspect. Try "Push Up on Me," "Shut Up and Drive," "Breakin' Dishes," "Question Existing," and "Don't Stop the Music" on for size. Oh, and the tracks I didn't mention aren't too bad either.

07. Ha Ha Tonka - Buckle in the Bible Belt and Brad Paisley - 5th Gear In a rough year for rock and roll, Ha Ha Tonka did the form proud. While everybody was busy arguing about the degree to which an artsy Quebecois octet harnesses racial “miscegenation”, four white guys from the Ozarks rawked with enough soul to satisfy the stingiest of critical ears. Their website calls it “foot stompin’ indie rock”, but the latter distinction is merely a temporary technicality, unless you’ve still got room for Jack and Meg White in that cramped, insular little room. Meanwhile, in a great year for country, Brad Paisley upped the ante for both unpretentious wit and unforced charm. Paisley’s fifth album (not counting Brad Paisley Christmas), is his best yet. It’s where he works his everyman appeal for all its comic and heart-tugging potential, where he writes a letter to his 17-year-old self to tip him off that “these are nowhere near the best years of your life”, where he puts to record the quintessential ‘Net nerd anthem, where he walks you through a field of wild flowers and checks you for ticks. (More on Buckle in the Bible Belt)

08. Carrie Underwood - Carnival Ride and Sarah Johns - Big Love in a Small Town Neither comes close to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; either, in a less exemplary year, would be a country album of the year front-runner. (More on Carnival Ride and Big Love in a Small Town)

09. Jay-Z - American Gangster Jay-Z isn't bored or boring on his 10th studio album. Rather, he sounds more engaged than he has in years--perhaps since 2001's The Blueprint. If it took a Ridley Scott movie to do the trick, then, I guess, so be it. At least it wasn't Blade Runner: The Final Cut that stoked Jay's fire. (More on American Gangster)

10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Is Is EP It's not a bad signifier for the year-in-music that I've got a five-song quickie in my top ten; it just goes to show how locked in Karen O. & Co. are these days (after dropping our favorite album of '06). It's a pleasure to finally hear official, studio versions of "Down Boy" and "Rockers to Swallow." "Kiss Kiss" might be the best new rock song I heard all year. (More on Is Is)

A dozen runners-up: Northern State - Can I Keep This Pen; Kelly Willis - Translated from Love; Eddie Vedder - Into the Wild OST; Timbland Presents Shock Value; Kenny Chesney - Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates; Patty Griffin - Children Running Through; Chamillionaire - Ultimate Victory; Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - Magic; 50 Cent - Curtis; The Fiery Furnaces - Widow City; John Vanderslice - Emerald City; Putumayo Presents Israel

Top 10 Singles
01. M.I.A. - "Jimmy"
02. Rihanna f/ Jay-Z - "Umbrella"
03. Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Snow ((Hey Oh))"
04. Timbaland f/ Keri Hilson, D.O.E., & Sebastian - "The Way I Are" [single version]
05. 50 Cent - "I Get Money"
06. Taylor Swift - "Our Song"
07. Diddy f/ Keyshia Cole - "Last Night"
08. Andy Samberg f/ Adam Levine - "Iran So Far"
09. Kylie Minogue - "2 Hearts"
10. Feist - "1 2 3 4"



15. / H E L P / M E / E R O S

Dizzyingly beautiful, boldly vapid, and chock-full of postcard-ready (granted, they'd be rather naughty postcards) images. Help Me Eros is, as I've said before, a Leaving Las Vegas that I actually like. An ambitiously entertaining slice of scumbag life spiraling toward its end, and the best one I've seen since Barfly.

14. / E A S T E R N / P R O M I S E S

While it sounded a lot edgier, and closer to early Cronenberg on paper than it turned out to be, Eastern Promises still brings a lot of unconventional drama to the table. There's twists, turns, betrayal, bonds formed and broken, and a naked, man-on-man knife fight. I would still give History of Violence the lead by a hair as far as recent Viggo-starring Cronenberg outings are concerned, but they go quite nicely hand in hand.

13. / N O / C O U N T R Y / F O R / O L D / M E N

I may have placed this higher, or had an even better initial reaction, if the early praise hadn't lead me to believe it was an unparalleled masterpiece. I haven't seen There Will Be Blood yet, but judging by it's similar buzz, I'll either be disappointed or it really will be a knock-you-on-you-ass work of art. This aside, the Coens' latest is them at their finest--and if that's something you've seen before, you know it means business.

12. / N I G H T M A R E / D E T E C T I V E

Shinya Tsukamoto's career is a fascinating one to watch, now more than ever. Vital is already one of my favorite films of all time, and his follow-up to that was the striking, infuriatingly intriguing short Haze. Nightmare Detective, his most recent, is a genuine horror film with heavy moments of satire, starring two popstars (as hero and anti-, respectively) and featuring the director himself as the murderous villain stalking them. More commercial than he's ever been, Tsukamoto's creativity isn't stifled in the least, and neither is his eye for the romanticism of ghoulish, gruesome things; nor the uncanny ability to somehow make us feel the same way.

11. / O F F S I D E

At any given moment, Jafar Panahi's Offside will be hilarious, moving, uplifting, depressing, or--frequently--all of those. Following a Bambi-esque heroine, feebly disguising herself as a male to sneak into a soccer game (in honor of a passed friend, who was indeed male and a fan of the team) she personally doesn't care about. She wants to do something, anything, for him, but she's misguided and doesn't understand why the world, basically, has to suck so bad. There are no bad guys in the movie, unless one counts the Iranian government, and there is no black-and-white. The soldiers keeping the girls out are only following orders, and don't seem to understand the reasoning behind it when it's called into question. Don't let the Bend It Like Beckham-esque region 1 DVD cover fool you. It's not a flighty, feel-good movie--but it's not the opposite of that either. And you should be glad for that.

10. / L O V E / C O N Q U E R S / A L L

A great surprise from the Vancouver Film Fest, Love Conquers All is a heartbreaking, expertly realized modern romance. Proving that Malaysia could very well be the next cinema hotspot, as others have noted, first-time director Tan Shui Mui is incredibly accomplished here. Seek it out if you can, it deserves all the exposure it can get.

09. / D E A D / T I M E

Another great find from VIFF. Dead Time, which shares it's original title with the inferior M.I.A. album (they coincidentally, at the time of writing this, share the #9 spot on their respective lists...) is the movie Quentin probably wishes he made instead of Death Proof. Director Joko Anwar has loads of style, energy, and exuberant humor (also on display during his after-showing Q&A) and will surely be up to some good (and no good) in the coming year. Though it may not be so easy to dupe his, ahem, uptight homeland into funding something of this nature for a second time. Good luck to him.


Guy Maddin has a knack for making uncomfortable personal statements that would normally be just plain awkward, into something delightful and hilarious. As his filmography grows more and more personal, this phenomenon only continues, getting stronger. He proves that Canadians are, indeed, weirder than most people. A fact I'm not necessarily sure if I should be proud of or not--but I know I'm proud of Maddin. Until he goes overboard and shows us all slides of his first potty-training sessions and shares his own special technique for shaving those hard-to-reach areas, that is.

07. / P A P R I K A

This is one of those movies where if you didn't love it after your first viewing, you probably missed the boat. Or you're just really lame. Satoshi Kon, as his body of work would have suggested even without Paprika, is a brilliant animator who knows that pretty pictures aren't everything. He's also a master of precisely combining elements of strong storytelling, visuals, and character development. Here, he's created the perfect movie. Unlike every other film on the list, I can't think of one flaw in Paprika. If this list were "what movies are technically the best" whether than which I'm more passionate about, it would easily be number one.

06. / S T I L L / L I F E

I apparently didn't 'get' Useless, considering I found it to be just that. The quiet lyrical genius of Still Life, however, is loud and clear for me. If only Jia would stick to the sensibilities on display here; and keep this DV instead of the consumer grade one. Yes, I know you're making a point, but it's a point that really doesn't need to be made!

05. / T H E / M A N / F R O M / L O N D O N

I've never seen another Tarr film (that was my excuse when I first wrote about this in October, so boo on me for still not seeing more), and I'm sure I'm missing tons of layers and nuances; but if I can get this much out of it, without being familiar with the auteur, then I'd say that makes the film that much better. Seeing it on a big screen was one of the highlights of my movie-going year.

04. / B U G

I've always been a sucker for great theater adaptations (Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Baby Doll, Night of the Iguana...okay, there's a trend there, but still...), and I don't think it's too early to say Bug should be included among them. It also contains some of the best performances ever given, period. Ashley Judd for Best Actress, anyone? Not just for your consideration. For the win!

03. / T H E / H O S T

I was so floored by The Host early this year, I was sure it'd be able to hang on to the number one spot right 'til the end. Alas, it slightly slipped--but remains very near and dear to my heart. Rejuvenating the contemporary monster movie with a politically-charged brain, and making me excited about the possibilities ahead are just some of the things that make this movie worth having on here, even though most people snatched it up last year. Hopefully one Cloverfield will be more homage than ripoff.

02. / R E D A C T E D

"How about Redacted? It's by Brain De Palma" I naively suggested, trying to squeeze in one more flick the night before we left VIFF. We hadn't heard anything about it at that point, so its blows hit harder than imagined, and we were unprepared. Months later, the queasy, we're-doomed feeling it left me with has settled mostly, and I think of the movie, and feel guilty all over again for feeling better. Then I want to do something to help, and I'm not the only one. If that's not an achievement, cinematic or otherwise, what is?

01. / B L A C K / B O O K

Buoyantly sexy, disturbingly graphic, quick-witted and endlessly rewarding, Paul Verhoeven put himself in position to be praised by all, including his now dumbfounded naysayers. It's easy to see why, beyond even the parade of positive adjectives above. It's just as socially relevant as something like Redacted, but it will remain that way for generations and generations thanks to the gracefully vague, universal tone of its unspoken statements.


10. kanye west / G R A D U A T I O N

I've never been a Kanye fan (didn't think the critical praise, not to mention the ozone-pushing ego, was warranted), but I eventually came around on this pristinely crafted futuristic soul-pop record. Kanye's signature haunting, old skool samples butt heads here with the sporadic stabs of aggressive techno geekery (see: the leadoff single). The result is more awkwardly endearing than he's even been, the fact that he's currently at his most sure-footed notwithstanding.

09. m.i.a. / K A L A

Though her latest is about as even as a San Fransisco street, when M.I.A.'s on, she's still on. Not even horrendous black spots like "Boyz," "World Town," or "XR2" can dim the shine of her finest moments on Kala. "Jimmy" is a Bollywood pop-dream given just enough edge and street cred to fit with, as well as tower over, the rest of the album. Diplo lends an apparently unwelcome hand on "Paper Planes," which skews a Clash sample around her vocals so perfectly, you wish they were still together. (Hope she doesn't read this.) "$20," and "The Turn" are also worthwhile, but if she'd left on bonus tracks "What I Got," "Big Branch," and "Far Far Away," in favor or dropping the clunkers, she'd have another Arular in her misguided little paws.

08. britney spears / B L A C K O U T

Unlike Kanye, I've always been a Britney fan. No amount of stupid, embarrassing things she were to do (and she's done about all of 'em) could make me give up on giving her the benefit of the doubt. She didn't disappoint anybody, least of all me, with Blackout. Even critics have to admit the disc is a bonafide dance classic already--even if they make a point of using terms like "in spite of," "limited vocals" and "sounds like a robot" a lot. They're just poor sports. This is popstar-Britney in top form, no matter what kind of form human being-Britney might be in at the moment.

07. yeah yeah yeahs / I S / I S / E P

The two recorded versions of live-act staples sound just as raw, and in-the-moment energetic as the live ones. The "original" material tears it up like the pre-SYBs YYYs we know and love. It'll more than suffice until the next full album, assuming they can stay together long enough to spit another one out.

06. the white stripes / I C K Y / T H U M P

There isn't much old-fashioned, wheat-chewing, rotted-floorboards-smashing, honest to goodness rock n' roll out there anymore. The White Stripes have always juggled it with equal parts fragile folk, and occasionally punky dance pop. The blend works especially well on Icky Thump, but happily gives an edge to the former style. I just hope they don't continue their travel back in time in search of exciting new sounds, and end up going all Joanna Newsom on me.

05. timbaland / S H O C K / V A L U E

The long awaited record, headlined by the guy who barely a year earlier made Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado hotter property than they'd ever been, was most definitely a very mixed bag. I, however, happen to think it was more good than bad. Timbo earns the most credit for exploring every style he wanted to, even when it falls flat on its face. His visionary and willingness to take the most absurd of chances is what set him apart from other excellent, but safer, producers in the past. And while it may sometimes bite him the ass, it's still his greatest weapon. So, let's all just forget about the Fall Out Boy track.

04. pj harvey / W H I T E / C H A L K

Like the Stripes, but to a much more extreme and perfectionist extent, Miss Harvey likes musical roll play. Here she becomes something resembling pre-Vampire Drusilla of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and performs as a broken, or close to breaking, Victorian maiden. Repression and the piano haven't had a chance to go together so well in ages.

03. rihanna / G O O D / G I R L / G O N E / B A D

This year, Rihanna finally trumped Beyonce. Dethroning her, and every other female act on the continent, she topped all the charts and gave us the new "Rachel" of haircuts. How? With amazing single after amazing single. Aside from the Neyo one (which seems to be doing well despite its suckiness), none of them were anything less than destined for radio gold--whereas Beyonce hasn't had a worthwhile track since "Irreplaceable," and only embarrassed herself with "Get Me Bodied." That's gotta suck. But whether you root for Rihanna or wish her failure, you have to admit the music is damn good.

02. shiina ringo x saito neko / H E I S E I / F U U Z O K U

Shiina Ringo as a solo act had long been nonexistent, as she's been content with fronting Tokyo Jihen for several albums; so when I heard she was releasing another album sans-Jihen, I flipped. For the soundtrack to the manga-based film Sakuran, Ringo paired up with composer Saito Neko and put out an album of both original songs (including one of the finest moments in the year of music, "Gamble") and classical re-arrangements of some older material. Dreams can come true afterall.

01. yelle / P O P - U P

This cheeky French upstart caught my ear some time ago with "Je Veux te Voir." I randomly decided to check back up on her a few months later, only to be blown away by "Au Cause de Garcons," or, specifically, the Riot in Belgium remix. The following full-length, a happy-go(get?)-lucky series of bouncy anthems titled Pop-Up solidified my adoration of her. I'm currently on an unintended trend of hopping onto the b-wagon of blog darlings, then being disappointed by them down the road. Don't let that happen here, Yelle. J'taime!