2008 & Heartbreak

Our favorite things.



10. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu's Palm d'Or winner is the suspense thriller of the year, and a polemical gut-punch that's all the more powerful for its vérité ambiguity. We're kept on pins and needles throughout the film's almost two-hour runtime, thanks as much to Mungiu's expert pacing as to his cast's uniformly superb work. The film's haunting final scene affirms nothing, except that the future is uncertain.

09. Milk and 08. Cloverfield Two of the best Hollywood releases of the past year--and a pair with more in common than you might initially suspect. One's a biopic set some four decades ago; the other is a monster movie grounded firmly in the here and now. The former inevitably suggests California's (and America's) on-going struggle for same-sex civil rights, while the latter evokes post-9/11 New York's (and America's) terrorism-wary anxiety. They're also both portraits of urban life, memorable for their uncommon tendency toward the specific: Gus Van Sant's film paints an affectionate, detailed picture of the modern origins of San Francisco's Castro Street; Cloverfield turns Manhattan (all too familiarly, both from cinema and real life) into a disaster zone, but, at the same, it considers the practical and socioeconomic geography of the city in ways that most films of its stripe conveniently gloss over.

07. Silent Light and 06. A Christmas Tale Though neither could (or should) be classified as a "family film" in the marketing sense, the latest efforts from Mexico's Carlos Reygadas and France's Arnaud Desplechin--while otherwise very different--focus almost entirely on the idea of family. In both films, every familial virtue is seriously jeopardized or else furiously unraveled, with commitment souring into obligation, fidelity giving way to adulterous affairs of varying passions and consequences, and the trust of parenthood compromised by dysfunction. Yet where Silent Light--true to the Mennonite community it centers on--is stark and solemn, from its cosmic bookends to its Dreyer-indebted final act, A Christmas Tale embraces its less-than-harmonious bourgeois clan with minimal vitriol and less judgment.

05. Gran Torino and 04. The Edge of Heaven A couple master classes on xenophobia and cultural miscommunication in our post-national world. In Clint Eastwood's second-best film of 2008, a Hmong immigrant wonders why Eastwood's widower protag stubbornly stays put in their predominantly Asian-American, inner-city Detroit neighborhood while "all the other Americans have moved out." Fatih Akin contemplates the meaning of both his German citizenship and his Turkish heritage, as Turkey attempts to earn admission into the European Union. These are films that hinge on matters of life and death--and they treat such matters with appropriate seriousness--but, along the way, they also ponder the upper-middle class suburban exodus, the outsourcing of labor from the United States, the obstacles to finding common ground between the Islamic nations and the West, and the role our lack of real historical perspective plays in contemporary global problems. Neither film is perfect--Eastwood's has a habit of spelling out obvious subtexts that implies too little confidence in the audience's critical engagement, Akin's is so rigidly plotted that, at times, it's hard to resist comparisons with the Iñárritu school of weighty schematics; both are vital.

03. Perfect Life and 02. Paranoid Park Now, here are two films for which a general plot synopsis would only vaguely describe the actual experience of viewing them--which, for my money, is as valid a standard as any for differentiating good movies from great ones. They touch, by turns, on law and order, romance and relationships, and urban ennui, yet they're both finally meditations on time and its effects. Emily Tang's stunner--the most impressive film I saw at this year's VIFF and the winner of the festival's Dragons & Tigers award, for the best East Asian breakthrough effort--reflects on the way dreams for the future often dissolve without us even noticing as we settle awkwardly into adult life. Van Sant's best film to date is an innocence-lost yarn adapted from a young adult novel and refashioned into a poignant, formally exquisite study of the ephemeral quality of youth.

01. Changeling The year's most fully realized masterwork is Clint Eastwood's strongest directorial outing since Unforgiven, which (it bears typing out) means it trumps (to my tastes anyway) A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Gran Torino (each no less than exemplary). Give or take Terrence Malick and the unique case that is his four-for-four record, Eastwood must, at this point, be considered America's foremost living filmmaker. Rumors have suggested that his retirement may be near, and if this is true, it's not altogether surprising--the man's pushing 80. Personally, I hope he follows Manoel de Oliveira's amazing, centenarian lead and keeps at it for decades (!) to come. But if this year's efforts do represent the final chapter of his career, or something close, he'll have pulled off a trick that few legitimate American icons have managed: he'll have gone out on top.

Next Ten: Up the Yangtze (Chang); Summer Hours (Assayas); Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou); Burn After Reading (Coen/Coen); W. (Stone); Waltz with Bashir (Folman); The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Rohmer); The Dark Knight (Nolan); Boarding Gate (Assayas); Of Time and the City (Davies)


10. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Real Emotional Trash and 09. Britney Spears - Circus It feels pretty strange referring to Stephen Malkmus and Britney Spears as seasoned vets, but, with over a decade of material and experience under their respective belts, that's exactly what they are. Listening to Real Emotional Trash makes me miss Pavement, which makes me nostalgic for the '90's, which, in turn, makes me feel old. (Changing diapers at 3am and watching Bob the Builder and The Backyardigans more frequently than Mad Men or Dexter doesn't help either.) For her part, Circus isn't close to as good as last year's marvelous Blackout, and song for song, it may not be as good as the underrated In the Zone either. It still cracked my list.

08. Portishead - Third Walking with headphones on as snow falls at an alarming rate in Canada's most temperate city, Portishead's Third sounds like some small winter miracle. "Machine Gun" is the wind whipping at the windows of the bus. Beth Gibbons is an angel atop some strange-beautiful Christmas tree.

07. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride and 06. Lucinda Williams - Little Honey Uh, event--what was that? You want an event? The best songwriters currently working in the English language released new albums that rank solidly in the top half of their discography. That should be sufficiently eventful for anyone with functional ears and a half-decent attention span. So what if Darnielle and Williams remaining relentlessly first-rate registers as old news; they're still more interesting than 51 out of 52 Indie Flavors of the Week (there are exceptions, natch--see the entry below this one). Little Honey's sense of (romantic/sexual/musical/existential) pleasure is infectious, and on Heretic Pride, Darnielle regains that "Oh-man-John's-pissed-he's-gonna-freak-the-fuck-out" energy that Get Lonely mostly, purposefully lacked. On the best track, he pretends he's H.P. Lovecraft in Brooklyn.

05. Santogold (s/t) Despite the inadvertent points of comparison, Santogold--aside from a track or two--doesn't actually sound very much like M.I.A., though, for what it's worth, her self-titled debut is both stronger on the whole and more successfully varied than last year's Kala. The one near the end, where she sounds almost exactly like Chrissie Hynde, I'll take any day over "Boyz" or "Bird Flu," if not "Jimmy" and "Paper Planes."

04. Kathleen Edwards - Asking for Flowers Everything works here, from the slow, sad Cat Power-y material to the up-tempo cuts like "The Cheapest Key." But nothing works quite as spectacularly as "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory," which is warm ("blazin' a trail to the Southern cities from the streets of our hometown/basement bars we played from the heart in the company of our friends") and funny ("I'm a Ford Tempo, You're a Mazaradi/You're the Great One, I'm Marty McSorley") and lovely ("If I write down these memories/that I have saved away/photographs of the years that passed/inside my little brain") and poignant ("Once I got drunk with Jeff and told him/that I was in love with you/but I love you like a brother so I guess that half of it was true"). Yeah, sorry for quoting, like, the whole song--it's just that freaking good. Don'tcha know: Canuck girls are the coolest.

03. Drive-by Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark This is the perfect record for the end of the Bush II Era: sad, funny, tough, politically incorrect, yet not without glimmers of hope. As Prez-Elect Obama prepares for his inauguration, Dubya is lame-ducking shoes hurled toward his dome--and the Drive-by-Truckers, for their part, keep quietly, thankfully making damn-good albums.

02. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III and 01. Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak After releasing four terrific-to-exceptional albums (not to mention a handful of memorable mixtapes) over a mere six-year span, is there really any question who, this time next year, should be crowned Artist of the Decade? From The College Dropout to 808s, Kanye's inventive instinct has been matched only by his consistency; if his perfectionism sometimes serves to accentuate his idiosyncrasies, the records are all the more interesting and compulsively listenable for it--especially the new one. Weezy, meanwhile, has yet to follow Kanye and Andre 3000 in abandoning rap for artsier pastures--and let's all hope he doesn't, since he's a much more formidable MC than either, and besides, his rhymes alone are at least as weird and playful as 'Ye's studio experimentation. If the long-awaited Carter III isn't quite as front-to-back fantastic as a couple of the mixtapes he dropped last year, that's hardly a pan--it's still one of the dozen or so best proper long-players hip hop's seen over the last ten years or so. For album of the year, it a was a close call indeed, but 808s noses ahead in the photo finish both for the Prince-like scale of its ambition and because Kanye sounds absolutely in his element on his studio albums, where Wayne needs more room to breathe and spit.

Ten Singles: Kanye West - "Love Lockdown"; Kathleen Edwards - "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory"; Lil Wayne - "A Milli"; Kelly Clarkson - "How I Feel"; Miley Cyrus - "See You Again"; Beyonce - "If I Were a Boy"; Metric - "Help, I'm Alive"; Jonas Brothers - "Lovebug"; T.I. f/ Rihanna - "Live Your Life"; Estelle f/ Kanye West - "American Boy"



10. C L O V E R F I E L D

J.J. Abrahms & co. worked millions of internet nerds (myself included) into a tizzy with their piles and piles of viral material surrounding the upcoming film. What was the monster? How is Slusho involved? Maybe it's more than one monster? Is it Godzilla? The main guy is going to Japan. Or maybe it's Cthulu! Point being, the crew pulled the ultimate screw-over by releasing a movie that never alluded to any of these things, in any way, whatsoever. We'd been had, but we couldn't complain, because the movie was awesome. A sharp satire that's also just a good ol' monster movie in every regard. There's a planned sequel, and I have already been suckered into viewing some more of that pesky viral material. But, hey, it's kinda fun.

09. F L I G H T / O F / T H E / R E D / B A L L O O N

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's latest film is like an antidote to his own Three Times—trading jaded disillusionment and urban alienation for...childlike hope and urban alienation. Inspired by a movie I had to watch every year in French class and found terribly dull, Hou's film follows his on-screen surrogate (a young, androgynous nanny/aspiring filmmaker) as she takes care of the son of a frazzled, artsy divorcee (a charming, platinum blonde Juliet Binoche) in picturesque Paris. A cute, mundane story coupled with the magical score and sumptuous photography makes Flight of the Red Balloon a highly enjoyable lark that proves Hou can work well in at least two countries other than his own. America next? Just don't take the page from Wong Kar-Wai's book in this case, Hou.

08. B U R N / A F T E R / R E A D I N G

Due, I suppose, to the more serious successful films by the parties involved, the brilliant—and completely hilarious—all-star hit parade that was Burn After Reading got overlooked. It's a shame, because the Coens and their cast deliver every punch line perfectly and, for a comedy, what else can you ask for? This may be the funniest they've been since The Big Lebowski.

07. S U M M E R / H O U R S

The tagline for Summer Hours could be "come see the softer side of Assayas." Though he's shown the potential for this sort of fare before, this may be his first movie that really is, more or less, light through and through. Any pricklier topics that pop up (death, teenage drug use) are gracefully allowed to simply exist within the scope of the film, never straining the tone or focus. Assayas's characters are all at some point or another learning to let go of their childhood, and this is literalized with them gutting their old family house of valuable objects and eventually selling it. With the tone mirroring the sort of French countryside life it portrays, Summer Hours is funny, sweet, laid-back and sometimes lonely. There's also not a dark-haired, gun-toting, crime-involved femme fatale in sight.

06. S I L E N T / L I G H T

The opening shot of the movie is an extremely long-held image of the night sky—the galaxy, complete with static sound and occasional bird (bat?) chirps. The rest of the film, while no less lyrical or fantastical in its almost fetishistic nature footage and sound, is a lot more straightforward. That is to say, there is an actual plot. It still requires suspension of normal comprehension and the state of being along for the ride. But if you enjoy that sort of thing, which I do, it's simply enthralling. Reygadas, evidently, is one of the few directors who can put film as a medium to the limits of its uses. The acting and emotion is not sacrificed for the stunning imagery, and vice versa. Everything exists in perfect harmony.

05. T H E / E D G E / O F / H E A V E N

Given its intertwining storylines, international intrigue and the fact that it uses fate as a character—Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven could have all too easily become the next Babel (or, insert other Inarritu film of choice here). Instead, it bucks all expectations and draws out empathy and interest from the viewer without relying on its gimmick. The cast is superb, and it helps that their script is incredibly moving and intelligently written. Anything that was uneven or lacking in Akin's previous Head-On has been perfected here, and he'll no doubt be a force to reckon with if he makes the right project choices.

04. B O A R D I N G / G A T E

In a role perfectly suited to her attributes, Asia Argento plays damaged Euro-trash on an ill-fated mission, which leads her through encounters with her ex, her friend, her lover, her lover's partner, and a mystery woman. These, of course, are all against the backdrop of locales both exotic and ugly, with plenty of double-crossings and sleek panoramic compositions along the way. It's the darkest and most daring film Assayas has made since demonlover, and it's probably the style that he works best with. Michael Madsen is also excellent as Argento's true love, while Kim Gordon (yes, of Sonic Youth) is odd and awkward—but amusing nonetheless.

03. T H E / D A R K / K N I G H T

I thought Batman Begins was only okay, and even in the Dark Knight I find Bale's 'Batman voice' laughable and over the top. How then, is The Dark Knight my number three movie, out of many great ones, of the entire year? Well, Heath Ledger's scarily brilliant turn as a Joker more deranged than any of us imagined is a big part of it, but credit goes to director Christopher Nolan as well. He's come a long way from the grunged out motel rooms and factory basements of Memento, and Insomnia. He handily proves this with breathtaking cityscapes that would make Michael Mann wet himself, and large-scale action scenes featuring Bat-themed accessories that don't feel cheesy. Together they overcome Bale's silly voice, and tell a tale as corrupt and disturbing as a classic 70's gangster film—but a whole lot more relevant to society of today.

02. P E R F E C T / L I F E

One of the most moving films I've seen in a long time came from an unlikely source: virtual unknown and protégé of Jia Jhang-ke, Emily Tang. Perfect Life packs wisdom and emotional gut-punches (not to mention a surprising amount of dry and slapstick humor alike) that rivals the work of directors dozens of times more seasoned—and exposed—than Tang. If there were any justice in the world, this would see a decent sized theatrical run and DVD release in North America. Everyone reading this is strongly encouraged to catch it any chance you get. Little Miss Sunshine and Amelie are not "gems." This is a gem.

01. A / C H R I S T M A S / T A L E

Like an edgier, rawer (less twee) Royal Tenenbaums, A Christmas Tale is a sprawling family reunion picture that, quite miraculously, I can't remember ever getting sappy. A still-stunning Catherine Deneuve heads a large and casually inappropriate crew of family by both blood and marriage, as they alternately insult, bond with, sleep with and resent each other. Deneuve's character is stricken by a serious, fatal disease, but you wouldn't know it from director Arnaud Desplechin's unflinching dedication to making a daring farce using all the ingredients that would typically be found in a somber drama. He succeeds with style and wit to spare.


10. t.i. / P A P E R / T R A I L

I have an image in my mind about how T.I. put this album together while largely on a clock of house arrest and community service. Lounging around in a bathrobe, familiarizing himself with internet phenomenons (the "Numa Numa" sample on "Live Your Life"). Fantasizing about sweeping a girl next door type off her feet with all he and his money have to offer ("Whatever You Like"). Taking his impending prison sentence in stride and reminiscing on accomplishments ("No Matter What") while keeping his gangsta image strong for his fans ("Swagger Like Us"). It's the sometimes shaky balance of cocky and wise, restless and content that drives Paper Trail—and allows it to achieve authentic moments of greatness.

09. britney spears / C I R C U S

Britney's critics love to complain about how much the singer sounds "inhuman," has "no talent" without some heavy auto-tuning, and hasn't performed without lipsynching in... well, maybe ever. Blackout was unquestionably a great dance-pop entry, and even said critics had to admit that (however begrudgingly). They still qualified it with "even though it could be anyone doing vocals" or "the producers deserve the credit." Well, to those who are still using this dismissal when talking about Circus—what album were you listening to? Because, while "Womanizer" spun Spears' voice into electronic silk to Blackout-worthy proportions, most of the songs are nothing like that. "Unusual You," for example, is a strikingly beautiful, moody ballad in which Britney sounds as human—if not more human—than she ever has. If this had been by Lily Allen or Lykke Li instead, the same people who've written it off would be blowing their loads all over it. And that's not even scratching the surface of how many wonderful, continuously listenable tracks Circus contains.

08. steve aoki / P I L L O W F A C E / A N D / H I S / A I R P L A N E / C H R O N I C L E S

If I were to have guessed which artists, newcomers notwithstanding, would ever crack my top ten list now or in the future, I probably wouldn't have said Steve Aoki. I knew him as a goofy, rich kid scenester who was a DJ like Paris Hilton is a fashion designer. Yet here he is. The eyebrow-raisingly titled Pillowface And His Airplane Chronicles is the best mixtape I've had the pleasure of dancing to since the Mad Decent podcasts were relevant. It's just pure (impure is actually more fitting), electro-trash fun—so obviously meant to be blasting in a club packed with pretty hipsters on ecstasy and vodka, texting photos of themselves to their Facebook pages. But it sounds just as good through the headphones of your laptop while you edit photos and try not to wake the baby sleeping a few feet away. Trust me.

07. cat power / J U K E B O X

Within a couple years, Cat Power has gone from that weird, spazzy, druggie genius indie chick to a glamorous, sophisticated Southern Belle who you see gazing at you from under those iconic bangs on a different magazine cover each month. As a result, her music has mellowed as much as her persona, and she seems to spend more time on the press junket than in the studio. Nevertheless, her cover album Jukebox was a lovely, soulful detour. "Silver Stallion" and her restless wail on the re-envisioned "New York, New York" give hints that the old Chan is still there, and just feeling out her new terrain before she delivers her next great, original album.

06. the hold steady / S T A Y / P O S I T I V E

Craig Finn has an uncanny ability to make lines sounds ominous before we even know why they would be ("when there weren't any parties, sometimes she partied with townies..."), and then funny even when we know they're tragic. As always with The Hold Steady, Stay Positive benefits from repeat listens so you can get ahold of whatever story the lyrics are fashioning, and then later appreciate the myriad sonic nuances. Both get richer and more rewarding each time.

05. flying lotus / L O S / A N G E L E S

Flying Lotus is the best DJ Shadow successor we've had yet. Like Shadow, he seamlessly melds hip-hop with dreamy soundscapes to make background music you can't ignore. Some of the songs are menacingly head-boppable (the nervous energy of "Gng Bng," or the hard knuckled throb that is "Riot"), while most are either weird or soothing—or both, or all three. While there's nothing especially innovative here, it's still a fantastic disc's worth of treasures from a genre that's currently rather barren.

04. N A T I V E / K O R E A N / R O C K

Is it just Native Korean Rock, or do you tack on "& The Fishnets"? Is it a demo, an EP, or just some songs thrown up on MySpace that will never make it to a consumer-destined disc? Will the songs just be added to the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album as bonus tracks? I don't care. Whatever the hell it is, it's on my list, because it's some of the most stunning material of the year. Not to mention, it's also one of those (many) things that makes me envious of New Yorkers.

03. S A N T O G O L D

This one is a bit embarrassing, for as I stated in a recent blog post, I only just got around to listening to this a month or so ago. But I think the fact that I've grown to love it so much, so fast is only another testament to its quality. Santogold sounds more like the Pixies and Blondie than M.I.A., and though they make a good team, she would be just as excellent (if not better or more fine-tuned, as he tends to lead her in M.I.A. directions) without Diplo. I can't open up iTunes or fire up my iPod without clicking her songs within the first ten minutes. Addictive and objectively talented. That's impressive.

02. kanye west / 8 0 8 s / & / H E A R T B R E A K

Kanye West has always had the ability to fashion a catchy beat and pair it with servicable, if clunky ryhmes in a way that appealed to a massive audience of hip-hop fans and "I only like Talib Kweli and stuff" people alike. But I bet most folks didn't know he could reach emotional depths like he does on 808s. If you thought the mopey "Through the Wire" was sad, try Kanye at his most aggressively hopeless. And as usual, it's masterful in production and a whole lot more enjoyable than most whiny white guy rock. This is his masterpiece, and if he tops it anytime soon, I'll be shocked (and pleased, natch).

01. portishead / T H I R D

I've been a Portishead fan since I was about 15, so I was more than a little excited to learn that they were, in fact, no longer dormant and were releasing the aptly titled Third. Not only did the band not disappoint, they basically blew my mind. Third is eerie, peaceful, hectic and enchanting—like their other two albums, but with a lived-in quality and an air of experience mixed with adventurousness. It builds a world like few albums can. A world something like Guy Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain! but less wacky, or Twin Peaks without the log lady to make sense of it all. I'd say it was worth the decade-long wait, but I hope they don't make that slowpoke pace a habit.


Hope Springs Eternal

The first time I heard the name Harvey Milk mentioned was in a class I took in high school called "Practical Law." Unfortunately, if understandably given the aims of the course, Milk's historic rise to being the first openly gay man elected to a major U.S. public office took a back seat to the infamous, bizarre "Twinkie Defense" that led to the charges against Milk's assassin and fellow City Supervisor, Dan White, being reduced to a minimal manslaughter sentence. Gus Van Sant's film is an inspiring and very welcome antidote to such historical marginalization.

Of course, the cultural timing for this particular biopic couldn't be more dead on. Milk's grassroots call-to-action ("My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you" went the opening line of his stump speech) and "gotta-give-'em-hope" mantra can't help but call to attention America's newly elected trailblazer-in-chief. And the film's depiction of the legislative battle to defeat a state proposition stripping gays of certain vital civil rights inevitably suggests the nation's (and especially California's) on-going struggle with the civil right of same-sex marriage. To call this the "movie of the moment" is certainly not hyperbole.

It's also--following a decade in the experimental wilderness that peaked with Paranoid Park, his masterpiece, released earlier this year--the most formally conventional film Van Sant's made since 1997's Oscar-admired Good Will Hunting. At the same time, it suggests that he isn't turning his back to the singular aesthetic he's carefully cultivated: cinematographer extraordinaire Harris Savides is along for the ride, and while Milk's narrative is infinitely more straightforward than Elephant, say, or Last Days, it's more structurally sophisticated (incorporating tape-recorded narration by Sean Penn's Harvey, newsreel footage, campaign art, and purposefully short-handed nuggets of exposition) than it might initially seem.

Nor is this a relatively impersonal director-for-hire gig, ala Finding Forrester, either; this is material that clearly hits close to home for Van Sant, both as a gay man and as a public figure with radical ideas who nevertheless senses the importance of earning mass recognition. The film's analogue to its director's stylistic restraint comes when Milk shaves off his beard, gets a haircut, and swears off bathhouses and pot in an effort for his candidacy to be taken seriously. In affectionately and wistfully chronicling the story of Harvey Milk and of San Francisco's Castro Street neighborhood (and doing so in a manner that's palatable, but never pandering, to multiplex audiences), Van Sant is simultaneously paying tribute to a pivotal chapter in the Gay Rights crusade and, implicity, reminding all of us that there remains plenty of work left to tackle. As I'm by no means the first to note, the denial of essential liberties to gay Americans will, in the years and decades ahead, appear as ludicrously unjust as the segregationist and misogynistic laws overturned in the last century.

Credit also deserves to be spread widely among Milk's exceptional cast. Each actor, regardless of their screen-time or place in the narrative, breathes real, palpable life into the men and women as whom they've been cast. Josh Brolin--who is continuing to enjoy one hell of a two-year-plus run--stands out in particular from among the supporters, but Diego Luna, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Alison Pill are all nearly as good. For his part, Our Greatest Actor further solidifies his reputation for disappearing inside characters, and communicating volumes through their most subtle mannerisms and idiosyncrasies; there are moments here that are as beautifully realized and genuinely moving as any in Hollywood movies of recent memory and in Penn's personal filmography. If he indeed snags his second Oscar for Milk, it'll be as richly deserved as his first.