It's That Time of Year

With the 2012 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival kicking off tomorrow, I figured a quick jog down memory lane was in order. Below are the ten best films (plus a dozen runners-up) I've had the pleasure of catching at VIFF over the past five years, since moving to Canada.

01.Karamay (Xu, 10)
02.Redacted (De Palma, 07)
03.This Is Not a Film (Panahi/Mirtahmasb, 11)
04.Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong, 10)
05.Perfect Life (Tang, 08)
06.Summer Hours (Assayas, 08)
07.The Tiger Factory (Woo, 10)
08.The Duchess of Langeais (Rivette, 07)
09.Almayer's Folly (Akerman, 11)
10.The Turin Horse (Tarr, 11)

Runners-up: I Wish I Knew (Jia, 10); The White Ribbon (Haneke, 09); A Separation (Farhadi, 11); A Christmas Tale (Desplechin, 08); The Man from London (Tarr, 07); The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Rohmer, 08); Rembrandt's J'Accuse (Greenaway, 09); Useless (Jia, 07); Adrift (Bai, 09); Love Conquers All (Tan, 07); My Winnipeg (Maddin, 07); Of Time and the City (Davies, 08)


De rebus quae geruntur

Current fixations:

Resident Evil: Retribution Picking up where the deliriously destabilized Aftermath left off, Paul W.S. Anderson's latest franchise entry is pure, unhinged spectacle, as slick and slippery as it is visceral as it is pleasurable in a way that feels, for lack of a better word, new. That's because this is post-everything cinema, not non-narrative per se, but a brand of filmic storytelling wherein quaint notions like plot and continuity are largely beside the point and what matters, if anything, is the interplay of bodies and signs in spaces that expand and contract, invert and collapse in on themselves (needless to say: legitimately worth experiencing in 3-D). What still signifies, Anderson seems to wonder, in the age of semiotic overload, with mixed messages canceling each other out and once-powerful images radically de-contextualized and stripped of meaning? Answer: Milla Jovovich's Alice, who, like everyone else, is trapped inside the hall of mirrors, yet is singularly defined by her never-static shark-like resolve to eat/shoot/kill her way out of the labyrinth--the closest thing to "dramatic tension" in the series. "I'm going to kill you," she tells her evil nemesis cum potential ally cum commander-in-chief (?!). "Perhaps," he coyly responds, "but first..." So it goes, ad infinitum.

Carly Rae Jepsen, Kiss She's citing Robyn every chance she gets, and you should take her at her word because Kiss is the closest any North American disciple has come to the sparkling, slightly moody, dancey Europop-plus-songcraft that makes Stockholm's finest the twenty first century's pop star par excellence. It's a sophisticated, yet thankfully unironic, teenpop that sounds perfectly palatable coming from a Bieber tourmate now closer to thirty than twenty, let alone sixteen. "I wish we could be holding hands," she sings on the opener, a sentiment no more precious than "we could fall in love / I could be the apple of your eye" and less precocious than "I can be a gentleman / anything you want." Album of the year, for me for sure for now, and I can easily envision it hanging tough through 2012's final quarter.

Girl Walk//All Day As giddily irresistible--and as substantially predicated on constantly, hypnotically moving bodies--as Resident Evil: Retribution, director and principal photographer Jason Krupnick's choreographic compliment to Gregg Gillis's best album makes me grin more than any movie, or movie-type-thing, in recent memory. It's the sort of blissfully irreverent ballet-gone-street concept that the main couple in Center Stage might have concocted if they happened upon a mash-up masterpiece, some video equipment, and possessed a casual familiarity with Tati. Astonishingly energetic heroine, Anne Marsen, has superstar charisma; New York has rarely looked more fun on screen; and that sequence on the Vespa, near the middle of the film, is absolute, unfettered ebullience: Watch it right now, for the first or fifteenth time.


If I Could Stand to Be Less Difficult

Note three points from the post immediately below this one:

01. "Ruin" and "Cherokee," the two Sun tracks most widely available in advance of the album's release, were not featured on my list. This is partly, of course, because they are not among my 10 favorite Cat Power songs. I like both of the new tracks just fine, but I'm not sure they'd rank if I'd expanded the list to 20 or 25 songs. That said, I also excluded them because I wanted to wait and hear how they sounded in the context of the full record. Aside from the stray exception--"He War" might be the only clear case; "Cross Bones Style" is arguable, but I'd contend that it's essentially a particularly catchy album track that fits nicely where it's sequenced on Moon Pix-- Marshall is an album artist. Not in a high-concept way, but in a kind of old-school singer-songwriter sense. Her best albums are less about the individual songs and more about moments within said songs that cohere into something seamless (but not formless), to the point that one may sometimes forget which specific track contained some specific, sublime moment. (This aspect of Marshall's music may seem to render an exercise in ranking her best songs, as I've attempted below, a rather counter-productive effort, but I have tried to emphasize the moments that stand out in those songs.) What I did not, however, anticipate in excluding "Ruin" and "Cherokee" from my list was that they would be, by a fairly significant margin, the two best tracks on Sun. After a dozen-plus listens to the new album, those two remain the only songs that I feel particularly compelled to replay after they finish. This is a problem for two reasons: First, and most obviously, because, while both songs are good, they are not "Nude as the News"-good or "Say"-good or "Fool"-good. But also because, in wanting to replay "Cherokee" and "Ruin," I am reflexively acknowledging that tracks which proceed them, immediately or for the duration of the record, are not just inferior, but perhaps more importantly, do not hang together all that well or compliment one another the way most or all of the songs on her best albums do.

02. I began the earlier post by asserting that "Chan Marshall is one of the great artists of the past two decades." I did not claim that Marshall was one of the great lyricists of that period. While she has always had a knack for the cryptic-poignant line that catches your attention and sticks in your head (say, "all the hearts that touch your cheek / how they jump, they move, they embarrass"), her songs inevitably sound better on record than they read on the page--as well they should. I'm hardly one to deny aural pleasures on the grounds of less than literary language. Much of the writing on Sun, however, is on-the-nose to the point of getting in the way of such pleasures. Sample offenders: "three, six, nine / you drink wine / monkey on your back, you feel just fine"; "you're a human being / you gotta right to scream when they don't want you to speak / you gotta right to be whatcha want and where you wanna be" (the spelling choices come courtesy of Marshall or Matador or whoever had the hubris to include a fold-out poster lyric sheet with the CD); or basically all of album-ender "Peace & Love." It also doesn't help that Marshall's greatest asset, her voice, is needlessly overproduced in places, while at other times, her vocals get lost amidst the sonics. Speaking of which, for all the buzz/trepidation concerning Marshall's digital move, the production on Sun feels rather banal, like so much twenty-first century adult-contemporary pop, more often than it registers as inspired or "something new" in an exciting or challenging way.

03. In my entry for "Lived in Bars," I admitted that "I was one of those annoying Cat Power purists who found it easy to like yet hard to love The Greatest--a reaction I'm already readying myself against in advance of Sun." Apparently, not well enough! Which is to say, following the criticisms posited above, that the problem(s) here may lie as much with this long-time fan as with the artist herself. The new record is actually pretty good. I keep wanting to listen to it and each time I do, I find something new to like: the guitar line on "Ruin" is jagged and sharp, clean and cool yet vaguely menacing, like the guitars on some of my favorite Talking Heads songs, and Chan rides its groove impeccably; "Silent Machine" largely delivers on the hype of Cat Power 2.0--or is it 3.0?--with legitimately interesting sonic flourishes that feel well-coupled to some of Marshall's stronger Sun material, words-wise; even the Iggy Pop cameo on "Nothin' but Time" has grown on me. The title of that last track, though, can't help but recall "American Flag," the Beastie Boys-sampling (who said CP 1.0 was hopelessly austere?) opener from Moon Pix. Alas, I'm living in the past, while Marshall is fumbling toward something like the future. I guess I can relate a little bit to "Charles" from "Names": I said I was in love with her. We were both fourteen. Then she had to move away. Then I began to smoke crack. (Okay, so it's not a perfect analogy.)


The Sun Also Rises

Chan Marshall is one of the great artists of the past two decades. She's been away far too long, especially in terms of new, original material. In eager anticipation of Sun, which I will write on here sometime next week, below are my ten favorite Cat Power tracks.

10. "Lived in Bars"
I admit it: I was one of those annoying Cat Power purists who found it easy to like yet hard to love The Greatest--a reaction I'm already readying myself against in advance of Sun. My problem, not the music's: "Lived in Bars" is Marshall's Dusty in Memphis moment. She kills it.

09. "He War"
Similarly, it took me a little while to warm up to this unabashed pop-rock move, incongruous as it seemed on You Are Free and within the Cat Power catalogue more generally. Then I came around. I still basically agree with what I wrote about the song six years ago (even as I can't help but cringe at some of the writing...).

08. "Cross Bones Style"
Before "He War" or the apparently digitized Sun, this hypnotic sing-along and Moon Pix highlight (and its excellent video) was a tip-off to Marshall's hidden pop prowess.

07. "Still in Love"
Nobody does heartbroken quite like Chan Marshall, even when she's re-channeling someone else's heartbreak, as on this cover of Hank Williams, an early indication of Marshall's knack for reimagining others' material. There's a hint of sunniness in its mild twang that makes "Still in Love" a welcome moment of relative relief on Myra Lee.

06. "Rockets"
It's a toss-up between the stripped-down version on Marshall's debut, Dear Sir, and the slightly less stripped-down, more rocking cut on Myra Lee. Either way, it's classic early Cat Power, as the live video above vividly attests.

05. "Ice Water"
Myra Lee, named for Marshall's mother, is still my favorite Cat Power record front-to-back. It's an album as exquisitely damaged as Plastic Ono Band, as hauntingly raw as PJ Harvey's 4-Track Demos. Marshall sums it up here: "I am so angry / I am so at ease."

04. "I Found a Reason"
There are a number of covers--"Satisfaction," "Wonderwall" "Lost Someone"--that might've made the cut here, but I've limited it to two, and "I Found a Reason" is certainly the very best. Marshall's take on the Velvets is spectacularly beautiful, so urgent and tender in its plea to "come, come, come, come, come to me / run, run, run, run, run to me," regardless of who wrote it.

03. "Fool"
My lord, that Georgia accent. It's Cat Power's not-so-secret weapon. A little effortless guitar and/or piano was all that was ever needed with Marshall's lush, smoky vocal floating atop it like a ghost or a dream, threatening to evaporate into the musical ether at any moment. Her delivery of the title word on the chorus of "Fool" is sad, sexy, and beguiling in equal measure. She nearly drops the 'l', as if she just can't exert the energy; life is hard, too many consonants.

02. "Say"
Gorgeously languorous and sonically spare, "Say" is perfectly representative of Cat Power's minimalist, pre-You Are Free aesthetic and of that subgenre regrettably termed "sadcore." The endlessly repeated guitar loop and occasional, portentous storm sounds mirror Marshall's lyrical concerns: the purgatory that is banal repetition and numbing sameness. Yet amid the bleakness, she offers some poignant consolation: "I hope all is well with you / I wish the best for you / When no one is around, love will always love you."

01. "Nude as the News"
This, for me, remains the quintessential Cat Power moment. Marshall turned something rather mundane and common, a scorned lover's lament, into something else, something cryptic yet furious and alarming: "I still have a flame gun for the cute ones."