Life and how to Die

I realized in my lists that one or more of these films needed qualification. I'm thinking specifically of my life-affirming films section. For years the notion of a movie that I was told, from the ads and promotional material and from the recommendations of friends I couldn't believe had actually seen the movies, was going to make me think about life differently. When I walked out of whatever movie it was, my life was going to be affirmed, whatever the fuck vague-ass thing that's supposed to mean. Seriously, there's nothing I hate more, especially today, of a consensus about a film's power to change lives. Lives, plural, cannot be changed all by the same repeated set of tragic/quirky circumstances that lead to the same heartwarming conclusion. The only thing more insulting than the idea that one film is going to have the same impact on everyone who sees it is the list of films who generally get stuck with the label 'life-affirming.' Think back to every movie that promised to change your life for the better. The ones that spring immediately to mind (Simon Birch, My Dog Skip, Pay It Forward) not only failed to change my life, but they also failed to not annoy the shit out of me. The one thing most of these falsely comforting movies have in common is that they all resolutely cheat you out of a real confrontation with death. Each has death in it, but the way in which they handle the subject is so nauseatingly earnest that it verges on pornographic. To address death is not enough and to treat it as the most profound thing in the life of a family (community, fictitious mob of candle-wielding followers, what have you...) is cheap. What of the survivors in the minutes that follow? The hours? Entire days with nothing to think of but what they've lost and what awaits them? That even in death they won't see those they've lost again. Death is a huge deal to everyone, that's why people have religious beliefs, but where movies supposedly about life fail is to treat that concern as anything other than internal and individual, to treat it as a spring board for discussion and box-office receipts. The reason I bring this up is to talk mostly about one of the movies toward the top of my Life movies list. Oh, and if I list a movie below and you haven't seen it, don't read on because I'm going to spoil it for you.

A Single Man
by Tom Ford
I knew as soon as it was done that it had an obvious kin-ship with the others on the list and then I started thinking about why it's so. Why should relative tragedies like A Single Man or The Diving Bell & The Butterfly be the ones that make us (me and a few other people I've spoken to about the films) appreciate life when they are ostensibly about death? Well I think it's because they're ostensibly about death. Diving Bell gives us life through one eye in the last months of its mind's life. Jean-Dominique Bauby knew he was nearing the end of his life but more importantly he knew that if he were ever to enjoy himself again, he would have to adapt to the shit hand he'd been dealt. Suddenly every detail becomes imperative, every second becomes crucial, every memory precious as gold. It took his death sentence to both see everything new as beautiful and everything he'd lived as really quite special and fulfilling. Stephen Soderbergh's Guerrilla or the second half of Che has a similar attitude towards death. In what amounts to no more than a minute of the film's 135 minute running time, Che, disguised for his trip to Bolivia, says goodbye to his children and then a wordless goodbye to his wife. Soderbergh does not make us privy to Che's inner-monologue (making Che almost certainly the first war film with a purposely objective view of its heroes) so we do not know what he thinks when in the end he is shot and killed, but I wouldn't hesitate to think it was the few seconds sitting wordlessly with his head pressed against his wife's. Soderbergh frames his death from his subject's point-of-view, the closest we get to being in his head, so that we can experience the man's passing first-hand. It is a grave and shocking moment that forces us to confront our own mortality and what must have been going through his head as he closed his eyes for the last time. It also takes about as long as the scene on the couch with Mrs. Guevara. But rather than tell us (Soderbergh 'just tells' us nothing), we are forced to think about his journey and our own.

Steve McQueen's Hunger (a film I might just have to start referring to with possessive adjectives, so frequently do I profess my love for it) goes the extra step in Bobby Sands, the movie's subject's death-throes. In much the same way as Soderbergh, McQueen sets up the dying moments of Bobby Sands in a piece of dialogue with almost no more importance than any of those surrounding it but when it appears just before Sands' death, it is clear that it does have importance for Sands. We are allowed in his head to see a vision of paradise before the nothingness takes hold of him. Sands spent his life as a violent, murderous revolutionary, yet McQueen posits (rightly, in my opinion) that what would come back to him, and to us, are little moments of personal significance. The memory Sands relives is one that means something to him - a personal victory and a time of sublime realization - and nothing of his struggle. Sands' life, though hardly as extraordinary, was certainly as colorful as Guevara's and that their deaths are the conclusions to their respective bio-pics is crucial. Suddenly every detail of the Maze prison becomes important because these are the last walls he'll see. And where should a boy like to be if he is to die in prison? Outside, free, a boy, innocent, the sun going down. Though the moment doesn't sound particularly heavenly, it is in its simplicity, it's every detail shining through like the last rays of the descending sun, that it becomes transcendent. Our lives probably don't flash before our eyes (Soderbergh and McQueen are in agreement here) because the cruelty of it is too sudden to be defended against. If we have time to approach it, we'll probably deny it out of fear or stubbornness. Sands is lucky enough to be visited by one final memory, a pleasant one. Guevara probably wasn't so lucky - he and Sands both lived in hellish environs before their deaths. With the memories of loved ones or incredible times in their heads Bauby and Sands pass easier than Guevara, whose head we're never privileged enough to see into. Soderbergh's ending is the most practical and thus the hardest but not the saddest of the three. Bauby has what he'll be leaving behind right in front of him so it's the most tragic when his world goes dark. Sands made a choice to die and though he attempts to escape his self-imposed death sentence in his final moments, his death isn't so tragic as Bauby's because McQueen's film is about fighting what's been given to you. Sands fights incarceration by killing himself and only fights death by putting himself out of the prison walls before it comes for him. Guevara fights death itself by swearing at his executioner. The tragedy is how unfair it is that this man, who we've lived with for the last several hours (if you've watched the whole movie, which you should have), who is so extraordinary, should be killed in so brutal and short a fashion. He was meant for more.

In A Single Man the end of life is the film's conceit, but really that's not what it's about. Based on Christopher Isherwood's novel, the story is simple enough: George Falconer, a middle-aged gay English professor loses his lover of 16 years Jim and decides to kill himself rather than fight the loneliness that's been plaguing him for another day. The film is set in the 1960s, which is important for a few reasons. Firstly it allows director Tom Ford to recreate a chic Los Angeles neighborhood in splendid and lush detail, and second it allows us to consider mortality and legacy from a time itself long dead. The details of George's day are simple and with good reason: He wakes, he eats breakfast, he teaches a class, talks to a flirtatious male student, takes all his money out of his safe-deposit box, chats up a young, Spanish hustler, sees an old-flame, a woman, goes out to buy a bottle of scotch before he kills himself but runs into the male student, they go swimming naked, then go back to George's house, they talk and appear ready to have sex but George passes out before they do so, then just after deciding not to kill himself succumbs to a heart-attack. Like Diving Bell, the movie is told through new observations and a few carefully chosen flash-backs but A Single Man is fueled by a sense of dramatic irony, that we know, because George puts a pistol in his briefcase, that he is planning to kill himself, though he never out and says it. So as we follow him throughout the day we see him really taking in, really relishing every detail of his otherwise very ordinary existence. Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau hit upon an ingenious strategy to render their protagonist's mindset. In fact considering this is Ford's first film, the way he utilizes his camera is really quite impressive (though I understand he is a rather talented photographer, so I suppose it's not wholly unprecedented, but still...) George (played with wonderfully dry candour and tragic poise by Colin Firth) is usually framed in a dour grey, his surroundings apparently just as sad as he is. When George sees something that pleases him or engages someone and appreciates them (verbally or internally) and it brings him out of his depressed state of mind, the colors come alive too. Suddenly he's not grey and brown, but beautiful amber and flush reds and awash in heavenly hair-light. It's a brilliant technique and coupled with Firth's observations the viewer can't help but be staggered. Tom Ford makes George and us appreciate the little things.
A word about Ford. Ford is apparently a designer of some repute but such is my ignorance of that world I had never heard of him. Most commentators are wont to bring up his background as if to explain away the film's look and feel. I want to say first of all that one's background doesn't preclude you from being able to enter into any kind of discourse or a change of mediums with lessened success. Critics are the first to treat film like something sacred that bad directors or those who don't take it seriously are defacing when they throw their two-cents in. If you can make a movie as powerful as A Single Man it doesn't matter where you came from. Second of all, I do find it pretty interesting that Ford's background in fashion apparently led to some of the film's more striking visuals. Could anyone else have presented George's home (a thing of Sirkian beauty, the house I've wanted to live in since I was a boy) with such crushing simplicity and effectiveness? Well if they could, they haven't, so I'll have no disparaging talk about Mr. Ford's background. Until you people make a film as good as this, I think I'll take my movies from directors and leave prohibitive guidelines or pre-existing prejudices at the door. In fact, A Single Man makes perfect sense coming from Ford, because it cuts to the core of the things that surround us and what matters by the end isn't the stunning house or beautiful clothes we dress ourselves in, it's when we're naked and alone that it's people and our memories of people that matter.

What A Single Man does rather beautifully is to basically approach two different ends while pursuing the same thesis, that we don't appreciate life quite as much as we ought to and that surviving is the hardest thing to do. It's there everyday but when we take the time to tell people how beautifully they really look, we get strange looks because it's not expected, least of all in the conservative early 60s (free love hadn't yet arrived, though the threat of Elvis' hips do get lip service from professor Falconer). The style and design recalls Mad Men (as does an apparent cameo by Jon Hamm as Jim's brother) and the music strikes a terrific balance between the period and timelessness. Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi's music is a heart-breaking entity unto itself and taken with Grau's camerawork, the lovely performances and Ford's all-seeing directorial eye, the movie is pretty flawless. There are moments in the film that make A Single Man not just a vital film, but also a key piece of motion picture history. Take the scene in which Umebayashi's variation on Bernard Herrmann's "Scotty Tails Madeleine" from Vertigo plays while George and the hustler/James Dean look-alike talk about Spain and broken dreams in front of the gorgeous blue Psycho poster in the grocery store parking lot. It's like a dream come true. One thing that is rather interesting and I don't know if this is Ford's meticulousness as a designer and director, but I found it very hard to find even the dreary scenes between each of Falconer's epiphanies to be anything less than gorgeous. More than once I was put in mind of L'Eclisse, which considering the importance of fascinating architectures and vast interiors to Antonioni's film is no mean feat. But I digress. George is in pain because Jim has died and left him alone - it takes the decision to follow him for George to realize that there is beauty all around him. Knowing he'll soon know nothing of it, he allows the scenery, the beautiful hustler and the cute boy in his English class enchant him. He does whatever seems a good idea because though he has resigned himself to death I think he's looking more for a reason not to. Even though reliving the memories he has of Jim seem designed to make him tighten his grip on life. Ford wants us to see that though George is careening towards a destiny he chose, he is open to life's little charms. He also comes to see the impact he has on the world he admires. When he visits his friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore, who I believe owns the rights to the 1960s because she seems to appear in every film that explores the underbelly of that decade. Don't get me wrong, she's excellent in these roles, and in this film particularly - who knew her posh English accent was so good? - but I do find it funny that no one makes a film about the sadness of the 60s middle class without asking her along) he sees that her happiness depends on him and though she has selfish motivations for doing so, cares for him deeply. Moore is pretty thrilling and nearly steals the movie with her maybe twenty minutes of screeentime. It is here that the film takes its most intriguing detour. As in L'Eclisse and countless other films about and during the early 60s, there is a break to dance. George and Charley dance to Booker T. & The MGs after dinner and like Marcello Mastroianni in La Notti Bianche, George abandons himself for a beautiful few seconds and I think it's here that he decides not to go through with his plan. Ford confirmed my thesis when we see the contents of George's troubled mind just before the end and we're given a flash of this scene. The scene is beautiful, not just in composition and photography, but in its showing George as willing to embarrass himself for his friend until it's no longer anything he has any self-consciousness about. This scene and George's last memory of Jim are the film's most beautiful moments - though the last conversation with Kenny the English student comes close.

Charlotte and George argue about George's inability to love her as more than a friend, but ultimately return to memories and in this become friends again. He leaves her in a haze of memory and promises to see her soon - the one place they can both hide is the past, though they know they need to escape it. Charlotte wants to use George as an escape, a new future, but George wants to believe she'll be fine without him given his plan. She is fragile and has been eternally good and patient with him and probably wouldn't survive his loss - it's a problem that could maybe be solved but not in the few hours he's allotted for himself. Their encounter takes it out of him - he needs scotch but he's out. He runs to the bar where he first met Jim, the most important thing in his life, and here he meets Kenny. Kenny had flirted with him and tried to enchant his professor earlier in the day; even bought him a colorful pencil sharpener, which George produces when they sit down to a glass of scotch each. "Enjoy the little things,” he says, placing it on the table. The film's thesis made concrete. Ford seems to be letting us know that someone as sly and sensual as George here couldn't leave behind a world he seems to know all the secrets of. They swim naked, George cuts himself somehow, and they wander back to George's home nearly naked. Here, in the firelight, is the beauty of two people together. George and Kenny never kiss or make love, but they hint at the possibility. George drinks himself quietly to sleep and wakes up a few minutes later. His flashback of his and Jim's last meaningful conversation is both a little too naked and terrifying in its frankness. Jim and George sit together reading, discussing plans, the neighbors, the upcoming trip, which will claim Jim's life. It's in the banality, the well-meaning back-and-forth, the freedom to read what they want, to love each other (to live in such a gorgeous house) to be, to exist, to do nothing with their days, that is most beautiful. Jim knows it and says so, sending ripples into George's future; it's why he has such trouble surviving, because Jim is gone. He gave so much of himself to the idea that he would be able to spend evenings with Jim, reading quietly and now he has to live past perfection. I think it's plainly those words that made George walk through his last day making sure to let every sensation knock him over with its very being. One fire-lit scene gives way to another and George finally sees what Jim meant for him - not to give up, but to find beauty in everything, to let the world in. Jim was able to find it in their simply existing in the same space, their lives wonderfully entwined. To leave it all behind would be to prove the love of his life wrong, which is the last thing George wants to do.

He burns his "read after my death" letters and prepares for another day but the only problem is how could another day be as precious as this. Jim is still gone but more importantly he lived today like it was his last, believing it was, how could tomorrow measure up? We only get one of these, Ford seems to say. By the time any of us thinks to live like George does, to find beauty in the everyday it is of course too late. Jean-Dominique Bauby, Bobby Sands, Che Guevara and George Falconer - the odd, fictitious man out - all see too late that life has all we're looking for. Jim steps out of his memory and kisses George's softly, as if to say that he had earned this gesture, that he had done all that Jim could have hoped for. His kiss and the last memory both resemble scenes in Solaris another rumination on love, death and loss. George's memory, something unreal and floating in his mind, and his dance with Charlotte both bring to mind the scenes of Kris and Hari floating above their bed in Solaris. They are out of time and out of place - memories come to life, like George's. When Jim steps out and becomes concrete for a moment, it has the same impact as Kris' final goodbye in Tarkovsky's sci-fi epic - they must escape the past to understand what it meant to them. George had learned and lived for his love, fulfilled his wish in death, and lived beautifully, even if only for a day. He finally learned what Jim meant that last night by the fire, reading together, living the same life. He learned to embrace life. His reward: one last memory, one final moment with Jim after the most beautiful day he had ever lived, the one he really been alive for. If he had seen it during Jim's lifetime, his death wouldn't have come so hard for George. Jim needed to die for George to see what Jim saw when he looked around the living room that night.
I'm a young person as I write this and though it’s safe to assume I do have a long life ahead of me, thoughts of dying are inescapable. I've been obsessed with death for much longer than is healthy or recommended for kids, but I don't guess I can help it. I do know that the times I'm in no danger of thinking about it are when I'm with people, specifically people I love. It seems every few months I see a movie that makes me take a long hard look at how I live (Time of the Wolf, Synecdoche, NY, Let The Right One In, The Road) and I encounter movies that always promise to do that and fail to by design. Yet this year especially seemed to produce an uncanny amount of films about how precious life is. No one else has changed - we're still ruining the earth and keeping marriage illegal, aren't we? I guess it would make sense for me to not change, to keep on, to not appreciate what I have until I die like the heroes of so many of my beloved films. But for once I feel like maybe I'm living like I should. I can't say I don't waste time - whole days, even - but I feel as if I get why movies like A Single Man are so absolutely necessary and profound and why they have the effect they do on me. There is no changing that it must happen or that I'm not wild about the idea, but I can see now (thanks in large part to films - call me what you will but it has to come from somewhere, doesn't it?) that shying away from it isn't the answer. It's time to start letting the little things become big things only when they promise happiness. I know that I have to let life and all its wonders wash over me. I'm lucky enough to be able to thank my friends for being that to me and letting me find meaning in their kindness and being able to take nice feelings away from their successes. I know I only have so much time and that I have to admire them and everything else I encounter before one of us disappears. This is why I watch films and why I want to make films - it might be meaningless, but there is so much to be loved and enjoyed that I would be stupid not to try to both see and capture it all. It's also why I take so much comfort in being able to spend time with some people, because I can just enjoy the best parts of the world by being with them. I may not be climbing the Himalayas or taking pictures of myself in front of the Eiffel Tower, but the beauty of people is the same everywhere. I don't have to go anywhere to know that - I don't even have to watch a film, though that won't stop me.

Trainspotting the Decade: Movies

1. hobby of collecting railroad locomotive numbers: a hobby that consists of collecting the numbers of railroad locomotives
2. looking for vein: the search for a vein that is prominent enough to inject drugs into (slang)
Connotation: Obsessively compiling lists of pop culture minutiae....Which is what I was born to do.

Ok, so we've got a collection of films and film people that ought to be commended. There in no real order, because they're all good, really. There's nothing negative here, this is all stuff I love.

Directors who've debuted this decade
1. Steve McQueen
2. Jonathan Glazer
3. Ti West
4. Charlie Kaufman
5. Bong Joon-Ho

Directors who've started earlier but made some of their best work this decade.
1. Alfonso Cuarón
2. Danny Boyle
3. Lars Von Trier
4. Gus Van Sant
5. Wes Anderson
6. Steven Soderbergh
7. Jim Jarmusch
8. Paul Thomas Anderson
9. Guillermo Del Toro
10. Julian Schnabel

Cinematography - The films with the best looking cinematography, not neccesarily the best technically, and the guys who shot them.
1. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford - Roger Deakins
2. Everlasting Moments - Mischa Gavrjusjov and Jan Troell
3. The New World - Emmanuel Lubezki
4. A Very Long Engagement - Bruno Delbonnel
5. A Single Man - Eduard Grau
6. Silent Light - Alexis Zabe
7. Birth - Harris Savides
8. Antichrist - Anthony Dod Mantle
9. The Village - Roger Deakins
10. The Road - Javier Aguirresarobe

Performers and their best performances - You know these people because no matter the quality of the films they're in, it is always awesome to watch them act and bring their best to roles.
1. Daniel Day Lewis - There Will Be Blood
2. Tom Hardy - Bronson
3. Sylvie Testud - Murderous Maids
4. Michael Fassbender - Hunger
5. Marion Cotillard - La Vie En Rose
6. Giovanna Mezzogiorno - Vincere
7. Benicio Del Toro - Che
8. Samantha Morton - Synecdoche, NY/Morvern Caller
9. Laura Dern - Inland Empire
10. Viggo Mortensen - The Road

Character Actors - they may end up with large roles B films and small parts in A films but they're always great.
1. Jeremy Renner
2. Garrett Dillahunt
3. Paul Schneider
4. Clive Owen
5. Eric Bana
6. Isabelle Fuhrman
7. Jodelle Ferland
8. Radha Mitchell
9. Kelly MacDonald
10. Danny Huston

Zombie Films
1. 28 Days Later
2. [Rec]
3. Dawn of the Dead
4. Fido
5. Zombieland
6. Shaun of the Dead
7. Pontypool
8. I Sell The Dead
9. Planet Terror
10. They Came Back

Horror (non-Zombies, though for the record 28 Days Later and [Rec] are just great movies on top of being brilliantly scary)
1. House of the Devil
2. Let The Right One In
3. The Devil's Backbone
4. Drag Me To Hell
5. The Ring
6. The Strangers
7. Pan's Labyrinth
8. The Others
9. Wolf Creek/Rogue
10. Audition

1. District 9
2. Star Trek
3. Solaris
4. Children of Men
5. Moon
6. Wall*E
7. Minority Report
8. Primer
9. War of the Worlds
10. The Fountain

Family-Friendly Films (clear slant towards Pixar)
1. Where The Wild Things Are
2. Wall-E
3. Millions
4. The Incredibles
5. Finding Neverland
6. Ratatouille
7. Corpse Bride
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox
9. Coraline
10. Up

1. Royal Tenenbaums
2. A Serious Man
3. Happy-Go-Lucky
4. Little Miss Sunshine
5. Best In Show
6. Black Dynamite
7. I Sell The Dead
8. O Brother Where Art Thou?
9. In The Loop
10. Anchorman - Granted, as films go, it's not exactly...well, whatever. This was however the first film that takes some of my favorite comedic elements (misogyny, TV, giant egos, the 70s) and administers a pretty madcap dose of all of them.

Love Stories - or at the very least films with really compelling scenes that center around people falling in love. Thirst isn't really a love story but has some of my favorite scenes depicting two people in love
1. Let The Right One In
2. Bright Star
3. Water Lilies
4. Punch-Drunk Love
5. In The Mood For Love
6. Snow Angels
7. Paranoid Park
8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
9. My Summer of Love
10. Thirst

Crime Films
1. No Country For Old Men
2. Zodiac
3. Gomorrah
4. Memories of Murder
5. Revanche
6. Sexy Beast
7. Brick
8. American Gangster
9. Chopper
10. A Prophet

1. 3:10 To Yuma
2. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
3. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
4. No Country For Old Men
5. The Way of the Gun
6. Brokeback Mountain
7. Open Range
8. The Proposition
9. The Good, The Bad, The Weird
10. Appaloosa

1. There Will Be Blood
2. Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World
3. Red Cliff
4. Che
5. The Two Towers
6. The Wind That Shakes The Barley
7. Flame and Citron
8. The Pianist
9. The Good, The Bad, The Weird
10. Star Trek

1. The Beaches of Agnes
2. The Pianist
3. Diving Bell & The Butterfly
4. Of Time and the City
5. My Winnipeg
6. Before Night Falls
7. Vincere
8. Capote
9. Che
10. La Vie En Rose

Life - Films that make you appreciate life by showing people approaching death and tragedy. The point is to take time and take in everything and the people whom I'd recommend these movies too the most would probably hate them. So I'm offering them to you.
1. Hunger
2. The Diving Bell & The Butterfly
3. The Beaches of Agnes
4. A Single Man
5. Bright Star
6. Y Tu Mamá También
7. The Road
8. The New World
9. Synecdoche, NY
10. Silent Light

Work Rejects: Arctic Monkeys & Screaming Females at the House of Blues, Boston, 12/13/09

Not going to a show to see the headliner is something I should be used to by now, especially considering how many of my friends are in bands. Somehow, it always comes as a surprise when I show up expecting hometown crowds and there are ten thousand preteens and just as many people who'd shown up expecting bar blues. Of course that's not what I'm here to talk about, but it does go a long way toward explaining the deafening reception that greeted not just the headliner on the 13th of December at the House of Blues in Boston, Arctic Monkeys, but the opener, the all but unknown Screaming Females. Those were the guys I'd come to see. I've seen them in concert three times and each time they seem to get better and louder. The first was at Siren Records, the independent music store I work for whenever I'm not at college. The second was at the Middle East on their first tour after spending a few weeks opening for Jack White's other, other band The Dead Weather. And now at the House of Blues I saw them in a properly huge venue in front of a crowd who had come to see anything but them. Though I was a bit nervous about how this crowd of ravenous Arctic Monkeys fans would receive them, of course, they killed.
Screaming Females' Namesake Marissa Paternoster
The band, Jarrett Dougherty on drums, 'King' Mike Rickenbacker on bass, and Marissa Paternoster on guitar and 'screaming', have a sound that's a touch hard to put a name to. I've thought long and hard about it and the conclusion I came to is I don't care, I just know that I love it. There's rock, to be sure, roving, catchy and louder than hell. There's blues, in a Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds kinda way. There's punk, a sort of late 70s Banshees/Clash minimalist tone. There's classic metal in Paternoster; though only slightly taller than her guitar, Paternoster is a frontman that makes all other frontmen seem inadequate. She speaks little, shreds a lot, has a voice that's half Erika Wennerstrom from Heartless Bastards, and half Ian McKay, and she lets both sides roar in equal measure. Her guitar playing is without compare today. Even when only laying down rhythm she seems possessed, her hands never at rest, burning holes on her fretboard and bleeding from the tips of her fingers. Like Beck, Page and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, her technical prowess is flooring, especially considering how effortlessly she seems to be pulling her solos. The rest of the band are more than capable of providing a bleary-eyed canvas for her to throw herself on. Marissa told me before she went on that because the tour had attracted so many young boys, the comments they'd overheard had largely been negative. Girls aren't supposed to make boys question themselves and Paternoster lives to stem the tide, so you can see where the confusion might start. She is not a nordic idol relegated to tambourine or keyboards, nor is she the ultra-hip indie girl in cute clothes, she's something else, something fourteen year old boys don't know how to react to. Yet somewhere in the middle of their amazingly catchy songs like "Bell" and "Halfway Down," both from their latest record Power Move, or my personal favorite "Baby Jesus" the Females turned the uncertain crowd into a gang of Screaming disciples. They wanted more, which if the band is to be believed, was a first on this tour.
Alex Turner, Teen Idol
Now farbeit from me to belittle other bands, especially bands I like, but it's always going to be hard for any guitar based band to stand up on a bill with Screaming Females. Arctic Monkeys didn't sound too dissimilar from SF in their first incarnation, the bunch of sleepy-eyed kids who gave us Whatever People Say I Am That's What I'm Not, a dose of pop irony delivered like a hit from a jackhammer about the rotating cast of derelicts to be found in the suburb of Sheffield England they come from. Since then, frontman Alex Turner has released a record a year, two with The Arctic Monkeys and one with The Last Shadow Puppets, an Ennio Morricone-influenced record replete with dusty production and melodramatic narratives with orchestral arrangements courtesy of Owen Pallett. So what's changed about Alex Turner's best known band since their debut in 2006? Well they've found a fan base, that's for certain, but they've also made their shows and songs grander events.
Matt Helders/George Michael
Turner, who's long hair somehow just makes him look younger, is no longer just a singing guitar player, he's a proper frontman. The addition of a multi-instrumentalist on keys and guitar means that when plowing through new or old songs Turner can strut and bask in the revelry of the crowd. Turner's admittedly modest show-boating over the band's bouncy post-punk sound and new found bluesier edge makes them feel like a modern day Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Each song is an event, not just a quick and razor sharp rock song. The pregnant pauses that litter their set now serve as enticement for their rabid fans, each one longer than the next. The crowd ate up Turner and Co's theatrics happily. They loved the sing along, providing verse and chorus of relative hits like "I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor" and "Fluorescent Adolescent." I was bummed that they didn't take out "When The Sun Goes Down" the most mature of their early songs, the one that singled them out as the next big thing back in 2006, but the night was far from a wash. "Brianstorm" or "The View From The Afternoon" and "505" their epic closer showed them at their most intense. Matt Helders' drumming remains some of the most impressively virtuosic around and I was willing to forgive five minute versions of some songs just because he was such a powerhouse. It helped too that during the encore he gave a wonderfully fatuous rendition of "Last Christmas" while Turner and the others played Wham! to his George Michael. Though sporting a pair of sunglasses, I suspect that behind them he winked so loud the monitors picked it up. The crowd had come to be entertained, and everyone, young and old, fans and parents of fans, left with something to talk excitedly about.

Best EPs of the Decade

Ok, the other thing that I take issue with in decade long recaps of anything is that there's little chance that any reviewer has heard absolutely everything. I work at a record store and before working there was one of its more frequent patrons, so I've heard a lot, but not everything.I couldn't if I wanted to. Anyway, when I say best, you gotta know I mean favorite. What the hell's the difference? No one's going to present you objectively with the best anything. That said, these EPs are better than most albums so...yeah. Go out (or online, as the case may be) and buy these because I want my bands to keep making records and these are proof that great music is made outside of the album format and the music industry's grubby claws.

Best EPs of the Decade

Com Lag [2+2=5]
by Radiohead 
After Radiohead released Hail To The Thief they were all I wanted to listen to, so imagined how bummed I was when I heard that Japan would be getting a tiding over in the form of an EP but the rest of us could kiss Radiohead's ass. Luckily the EP, the excellent Com Lag was only in international limbo for about a month before I found it at Siren Records in Doylestown and it quickly became one of my favorite releases of the year. The songs all seem to match the macabre blue-and-white cover art, ranging from the laid back "I Will (LA Version)," "I Am Citizen Insane," and "I Am A Wicked Child" to the paranoid "Paperbag Writer" and "Where Bluebirds Fly," which could be soundtrack pieces for a Quay Brothers short. It showed every aspect of Radiohead's not inconsiderable talent, the electronic music, the blistering live show (a live version of "2+2=5") and Thom Yorke's devastating voice. "Gagging Order" and the acoustic version of "Fog" are killer live tracks and two of Yorke's most beautiful compositions. I used to take Com Lag on car trips near wooded areas because it was the perfect companion for dark, spooky, unexplored areas.

EP To Be You And Me
by Broken Social Scene
Those of us quick enough to buy Broken Social Scene, the Canadian collective's self-titled second record with lyrics, fourth release overall, were treated to the cleverly titled EP To Be You And Me, a collection of cool noise and sensitive rock in equal measure. Starting with the ethereal "Her Dissappearing Theme" and getting more mileage out of electronic instruments and cool percussion than either Broken Social Scene and You Forgot It In People with "Baroque Social" and "No Smiling Darkness / Snake Charmer's Association." The rockers are top notch, too; "Major Label Debut (Fast)" provides a charging alternative to the slow-moving original on BSS and somehow feels like the more relaxed song. "Canada Vs. America" is one of the band's biggest and best songs period. With Justin Peroff's frenetic drumming, who solos as much as any guitarist while still providing rhythm, and that tremendous horn part, the song is, like Radiohead's "Cuttooth," the perfect B-Side and on an EP that feels like a great forgotten album. When I stayed with Jo-Ann Goldsmith in Toronto while filming I spotted among her many books and things Free To Be You And Me and for a minute felt like I had uncovered a pretty important part of my and their history. Maybe I didn't find anything hugely significant to the rest of the world, but to me it was huge. The record that EP To Be is attached to changed my life, and taken together, they're gospel.

by Grizzly Bear
Everyone got really surprised when Grizzly Bear released Friend and discovered it was as long as a regular album. There are differences, of course: Friend doesn't feel nearly as well concieved but there are some truly brilliant moments to be found within the album's 11 songs. Many are just re-imaginations but they feel like totally new songs; "Alligator" is still just as weird as before but "Little Brother" and "Shift" come away with a new, eerie lifeblood. The best tracks run the gamut from scary to sublime, from the creepy Crystals cover "He Hit Me," to the musical quaalude that is "Deep Blue Sea." The covers and remixes are...well, I'm not the best person to talk to about remixes and though I like the Band of Horses take on "Plans," I feel like there was more ground to be covered. Anyway, stick around until after "Deep Blue Sea" closes because the best track on the record is hidden; it's also the best thing Zach Condon has ever done.

From The Cliffs
by Guillemots
In 2006, I started rediscovering the best of the 1980s British bands. My jumping off point for that endeavor was discovering Guillemots because friends of mine who were around for the bands they sounded like (Blowmonkeys, The Jam, etc.) told me how much they appreciated their sound. The thing about Guillemots is that yes, you can take a trip back to the best of British Pop/New Romantic music, but also, these guys write bitchin' songs. The hooks are nonstop, the instrumentation just eclectic enough (Aristazabal Hawkes' upright bass cuts the band apart from most of their peers and Fyfe Dangerfield's keyboard swells do the rest of the work). Dangerfield's voice happens to be one of the best of any modern band and it shows through beautifully on songs like "Cats Eyes" and "My Chosen One" and especially "Trains To Brazil." "Trains" is one of the best songs of this or any decade and though I listen to it every other day I still haven't gotten tired of it. From The Cliffs has six excellent pop songs and one sprawling watery love song, "Over The Stairs" which forecast the kind of songs Guillemots would write on their debut record Through The Windowpane. Though "Love Song #43" and "Trains" wound up on Windowpane, fans of Dangerfield's songs ought to buy the EP because otherwise they'd miss "Cats Eyes" and "Who Left the Lights Off, Baby?" two of the most inspiring and wonderful songs on the record that both rival anything on Through The Windowpane and most other songs of the last ten years. From The Cliffs is an unprecedented beam of light.

Heads Up 
by Death From Above 1979
I bought this EP not expecting much, then ten minutes later I was permanently deaf. Heads Upis ferocity incarnate. In an age of two man bands, DFA1979 had the most assault-like aesthetic. One guy on distorted bass and a singing drummer. Sebastian Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler understood rock music and delivered it like a shot through a syringe, if only for one album and this truly great EP (they have 19 original songs in all. That they made as big an impact as they did is pretty impressive when you consider that figure). In between sampled clips of what sound like old Japanese toys, Keeler and Grainger beat the shit out of their instruments with rock songs both catchy and awesomely intense. When you tread the ground between metal and indie and manage to make a credible stab at both, you've got my undivided attention, especially if you're too loud to ignore.

Heavy Head
by Gentleman Reg
Gentleman Reg is one of the decade's most under-appreciated songwriters (and dressers, but that's a different post) and it took about ten years for him to break through to where people could find him. His first few albums are great and when he signed to Arts & Crafts he finally had access to a crisp, Canadian alt. sound and a bunch of people to help him get there. After he released Jet Black with the help of members of Broken Social Scene he put out an online only EP called Heavy Head with two covers, two remixes and two new songs with help from Owen Pallett and Joel Gibb from Hidden Cameras. The remixes don't do much for me (though they're pretty good). No, the meat of the record is on those four normal songs. The covers are great, Chris Isaacs' "Wicked Game" sounding painfully human and Stevie Nicks' "Wild Heart" a wispy and effortless rocker. And anyone who can get me to like Stevie Nicks, has got my respect and admiration. The two original songs are great, too. "Justified" is gorgeous and Pallett's violin together with Reg's voice and slick songwriting make for excellent companions. I felt weird spending five bucks on a slip of laminated paper, but when it turned into Heavy Head my woes were quelled.

by Sigur Rós
The one thing I regret about seeing Sigur Rós was that I wasn't closer to the stage because I would have killed to see Georg Holm playing the bass during "Hafsol." Long unreleased, it found a home on Hvarf/Heim the EP companion to the Heima documentary DVD, released around the time that the In A Frozen Sea vinyl box set came out. As I didn't have 200 dollars to blow, I was happy with Hvarf/Heim which combined B-sides with a strikingly crisp live set comprised of acoustic renditions of some of their prettiest songs from previous records. Sigur Rós could really do anything and fans would buy immediately but Hvarf/Heim was a carefully considered release and didn't feel the least bit perfunctory. The band were simply bringing us some of their best songs in their current evolutionary state. It made perfect sense and is one of the most gorgeous releases of the decade.

Is Is
by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
I though the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were lost for a minute there. They had those solid first records then...Show Your Bones, which was a downer in the utmost. They came back, though, and hard with Is Is, a five song EP that, to borrow a phrase, "flat out fucking rocks." Rediscovering dirty no-wave like they used on their first album, they crank up the reverb and the volume and Nick Zinner, Brian Chase and Karen O roar in equal measure with equal volume. Nick Launay, famed producer of Public Image Limited and Gang Of Four, brought out that switch-blade sharp edge they had dulled down for the sake of the highly commercial and thus unappealing (to me)Bones. "10 x 10" and "Rockers To Swallow" show them mining new depths and "Down Boyhas one of the raunchiest guitar riffs Nick Zinner's ever come up with. Is Is has the feeling of a sonic ambush and since then Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been back on the right track, producing It's Blitz,their best album yet.

A Lesson In Crime
by Tokyo Police Club
Great rock records are difficult to find, Tokyo Police Club proved this when they released their super disappointing Elephant Shell. Elephant Shell wouldn't have seemed like such a bummer if their previous release, A Lesson In Crime, wasn't such a kickass debut. Combining ultra-tight drum intros, grungy bass riffs and screaming post-punk echoey guitars and Dave Monks bedroom drawl, the band pioneered a rock sound equivalent to the strain of movies known as "We Have Seen The Future And It Sucks." Monks' lyrics incorporate images of sci-fi weirdness and dystopian landscapes and the band rocks the shit out of the seven songs on A Lesson In Crime. Barely more than 15 minutes long, Tokyo Police Club made themselves out to be the best club band on the continent with their first EP.

The Moan
by The Black Keys
Sometimes EPs can be like gifts; The Moan just showed up one day in the Black Keys' section and much air drumming ensued. What I love about the Black Keys is that though they have a very specific sound, they manage to present it slightly differently on every release, but it's up to die-hards to figure it out. The Moan is the dustiest of their releases, sounding like an unearthed LP from the late 60s (a cover of The Stooges' "No Fun" and The Sonics' "Have Love Will Travel" help the feel of a time capsule). The guitar notes fight to get out of the speaker and the drums sound a touch muted; Dan Auerbach's shout is husky as ever. The bluesified covers of the two late 60s gems help define the kind of attitude and fun that Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney bring to their music.

Sun Giant
by Fleet Foxes 
Everyone loves Fleet Foxes. I mean...right? I don't mean to presume but I haven't met anyone with a vehement or casual dislike of Fleet Foxes. Anyway, purists are all "The EP is better than the album" and I'm all "no!" I like Sun Giant a good deal, but it's got nothing on the album, though it has some of the same inch-thick atmosphere and of course killer harmonies. "Mykonos" is the standout; the rest of it could have sucked and Sun Giant still would have been great, but the other songs are pretty excellent too. "Sun Giant" is a bit too deliberate a throwback for me but "English House" is pretty awesome. The whole record carries the blueprint of their cabin-in-the-woods, country vibe and is really pretty from end to end.

The Tain
by The Decemberists
My friend Blair loves telling people his favorite Decemberists song is "The Tain", but only because he loves the Andy Smetanka animation that accompanies it on the DVD they put out a few years ago. The animation is pretty sweet and so is the song that underscores it, a 5-part 18 minute epic about battle and birth and hounds that is an obvious precursor to The Hazards Of Love with its repeating themes and dire subject matter. It's a big, early-70s blast of proto-metal and nerdy guitar theatrics and it's pure, unadultered Colin Meloy at his best.

The Wings & The Waters
by Laura Jorgensen 
Going to school in Boston means occasionally brushing up against the endless well of creativity that is Berklee College. More recently that meant learning about Laura Jorgensen. Laura happened to sit next to me in Intro to Film Scoring and she's also made one of the best EPs I've heard in years. Combining bare-bones accordion compositions with her otherworldly and limitless voice, she sails through four sombre yet hopeful songs. Like a siren luring ships aground, her voice wraps itself around the fog-like accordion and she uses every syllable like a signal of something new and exciting she can't simply say. This is a sort of cheat as you will have no way of knowing about Laura or her excellent EP, but she's someone to look out for (she records a full-length sometime in the next two months if I'm not mistaken) and she's just as capable an artist of most everyone on this list. Incidentally I asked her to come up with an image for the EP but I've got nothing from her yet so we'll have to settle for an old-fashioned photograph.

Best Films of 2009

Well, as things go, this wasn't a particularly good year for film. By which I mean the stuff that made it to first-run theatres tended to suck out loud; not all of it but, you know, most of it. In fact even the stuff that was a little left of center which critics fawned over (Inglorious Basterds, say) left me cold. This was a year of directorial titans giving it their all. Modern art house giants Ang Lee, Stephen Soderbergh, Park Chan-Wook, Tom Tykwer, Lars Von Trier, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson all gave us their latest opuses alongside old favorites Marco Bellocchio, Alain Resnais, Agnés Varda, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Mann. Granted there are a few films I still haven't seen that will have to be appraised with next year's crew. Resnais Les Herbes Folles remains tantalizingly out of reach and I've yet to find a theatre near Doylestown, PA showing either The Lovely Bones, A Single Man or The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Though I will say that despite my complaints there were a lot of very interesting movies that found their way to me, in fact I count 61+ in all that I really enjoyed. I'm going to focus on twenty specifically that were a cut above the rest and then I'll list the others below. Oh, and they go in ascending order, so I Sell The Dead is #20 and so on; it looks a little confusing, sorry. I'll get into specific things when the Oscars come around and fuck everything up. Until then, these are just the best, most satisfying over-all films I saw this year.

I Sell The Dead
by Glenn McQuaid
The first of two entries by my favorite production house, Glass Eye Pix, I Sell The Dead is a knowing pastiche of a number of different eras of horror cinema that never tries to do anything but entertain you. Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden (in the role he was born to play) are resurrection men with a long and storied career. Monaghan spins many a yarn to priest Ron Perlman while waiting for his turn at the gallows and a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror clichés are sent up beautifully. McQuaid's direction and writing are efficient, knowing and lovingly carried off. He works around a small budget with panache and makes sure that the focus remains on our love and fixation on the horror genre. His hilarious treatments of vampires, zombies and aliens are just as winning as his nods to die-hards like when he ends the film with this most charming bit of post-modern tribute "A good cast is worth repeating;" as are viewings of the movie.

Black Dynamite
by Scott Sanders
This year saw a number of great pastiche films and I have to say that Scott Sanders' Black Dynamite has the most research (and fun) evident in its every scene. Sanders and star Michael Jai-White clearly did their homework as to what usually lights up the blaxploitation films of the 1970s and used nearly every cliché in the book to hilarious ends. There are poorly edited pursuits on foot, kung-fu set to brass and wah-wah guitar, a posh hideaway staffed with girls, a pimp council, a criminal conspiracy led by whitey that goes straight to the top (and I mean the very top) and of course lots and lots of gettin' it on. Black Dynamite, like Shaft, Black Sampson, Dolemite, Slaughter, Savage and Sweet Sweetback before him knows when to kick ass and when to tap it - a crass joke, sure, but that's this movie's knowingly goofy mentality. It takes a real connoisseur of blaxploitation films to get the importance of the scenes of Black Dynamite dressed up to go to the park after he's 'cleaned up the streets'. Everything from the clean blue shirt to the hitherto unseen suburban setting is pure 70s cutaway and that it could have fallen out of Coffy or Foxy Brown is really what measures Black Dynamite's success. I hadn't laughed so hard in months.

Drag Me To Hell
by Sam Raimi
One of the only things as good as being scared to death is being able to laugh at yourself for being scared. Drag Me To Hell, Sam Raimi's first proper horror film in 22 years, is full of winking terror. Even as he presents obvious scares, he outmaneuvers us by making them still more terrifying and cruel than we imagined. The story of a girl trying outwit a gypsy's curse is blackly hilarious as the terror intensifies by the minute providing classic jump-out-of-your-chair moments the likes of which rival the best moments from Raimi's first two Evil Dead films. Wonderfully cheesy performances from Dileep Rao, Justin Long, Reggie Lee, David Paymer and Lorna Raver compliment feisty farm girl Alison Lohman's hilarious lead performance. It's a rare horror film where knowing the outcome and seeing the semi-cheesy set-pieces before they happen just makes for a more endearing viewing, like a joy-buzzer, but instead of getting a mild shock, a giant horned goat demon jumps out of a closet...wait, that doesn't make sense...

Lorna's Silence
by Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Though sadly this is my first film by the brothers Dardenne, I understand that they're aces at this sort of thing. This sort of thing is painfully honest portrayals of lower class relationships and the pain of needing other people who take and take and take. Lorna has married a drug addict so that she can get Belgian citizenship. Once she's done that she'll try and get rid of him (her mob connection wants to kill him) so that she can then turn around and do the same to gangsters. Arta Dobroshi as Lorna and Jérémie Renier as her drug-addled sham husband Claudy are achingly good as they use each other to achieve new lows. When Dobroshi bashes her head into a hospital wall to make a case for abuse that isn't happening it's just about the most tragic thing you'll ever see. To fill that one moment (and it looks like she's really hurting herself) with so much sombre tension is no small feat. Lorna's Silence is a story full of humanity that happens to focus on the injustices that greet those with dreams. Like the best of Ken Loach, the Dardennes have taken a sad story, someone you pass on the street but don't give a second thought to and given it the full breadth of understanding everybody deserves.

Where The Wild Things Are*
by Spike Jonze
Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Spike Jonze's beautiful children's film isn't strictly for kids. Unlike Fantastic Mr. Fox, kids shouldn't really have any trouble understanding all of it. This is because Jonze managed to create not only a beautifully winding narrative but he managed to replicate the mindset of a child. The tone shifts are set to the rhythm of a child's mood swings and the non-sequiturs (my favorite involving a dog) are all skillfully played reminders that the movie takes place in a child's psyche. At a time when Avatar is bringing critics and nerds alike to their knees, I think it particularly appropriate to have a film whose main characters are gigantic puppets with CG faces that act circles around everyone in James Cameron's film. Jonze manages to wring an insane amount of pathos from disembodied voices (James Gandolfini deserves an oscar) issuing from giant teddy bears. Best of all is the doubly heart-breaking ending. Like another film on this list, Where The Wild Things Are knows the one surefire way to make me cry: a kid, an adult and an almost silent scene of tenderness and understanding that fills the room with warmth.

*Basho's Pick

by Götz Spielmann
Whatever your preference cinematically, fantasy, romantic comedy, horror, western, there is an objective truth to be found in direction. You may enjoy broad comedy or slapstick or a campy slasher film but one must see that those films are not truthful, they speak a language that has nothing in common with reality. Revanche is how it is. It is an honest film even though it presents artifice and 'superficial' action; everything rings true. For a film with as promising a title as Revanche (Revenge) Götz Spielmann's portrait of a man driven by guilt and hatred is surprisingly placid for much of its running time (albeit tense). Johannes Krisch is Alex (whoever said he's inexplicably mesmerizing was absolutely right. Something about him screams 'likeable' even as he acts like a heel) who has a plan to get him and his prostitute girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko in a similarly subtly awesome performance) out of their financial trouble. He tries to rob a bank but thanks to rookie cop Robert things don't go as planned. Alex holes up at his grandfather's farm contemplating revenge but discovers that maybe he isn't such a scoundrel after all. It's a complicated look at a not-so-complicated situation that becomes all the more fascinating as things level out. I think the strength ofRevanche is indefinable; I can't say exactly why I love any particular aspect, but I know I do. The film, like Alex's life, just unfolds and we have to make of it what we will; it's an honest look at a dishonest world.

Red Cliff
by John Woo
Told like a folk tale with a huge budget, John Woo's epic Red Cliff is a return to form even as it blows his previous work away. Not since his Hong Kong action days has he been this good and the reference to Hard Boiled at the start of the film tells me that he knows he's on fire. The Battle of Red Cliff is a famous Chinese battle fought in the year 208 and Woo renders it gorgeously (though his CG effects occasionally fail him). Red Cliff is about the art of the epic and the unbridled masculinity that usually carries it. Unlike, say, The Two Towers or Letters From Iwo Jima, the focus is on romanticizing nature and the love between people. The reason given for why the battle is ultimately fought is over a woman and unlike many on screen wives, she takes the offensive out of love for her husband. The reason that one side prevails isn't because they love their country more or have some convoluted notion of honor or patriotism, its through devotion to each other and to an understanding and love of the land and reading into every clue the earth gives them. It's a blast to watch and though, yes, there is a good deal of violence, Woo does get to the tragedy of just that. This is not violence for the sake of it because every death is a loss and we are made to feel it.

The White Ribbon
by Michael Haneke
Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is a troubling and tense experience but ultimately rewarding. To see that Haneke's methods have matured and that he can both indict society and craft a classically beautiful movie capable of producing many kinds of stunned silence is worth any horror he has in store. A school teacher remembers a particularly harrowing chapter in his life in which unspeakable things started happening to pillars of his small village community. This isn't the first out-and-out mystery that Haneke's written but unlike Caché the answer isn't the thing that preoccupies us. As it becomes clearer who's actually behind the acts we want less and less to do with it because their targets become more sympathetic. The final clue is one of the more unnerving things you're likely to see even though so little actually happens. The White Ribbon plays like Cormac McCarthy's Our Town and is unsettling in the utmost but the quiet moments that break up the tension are so wonderfully underplayed that you come away feeling better than you have any right to. watching Christian Friedel's school teacher courting Eva (played with awkward charm by Leonie Benesch) is a little strange at first but very ends up being very sweet, and that Haneke can find both terror and loveliness (necessary when families are on trial) is a new direction for him.

by Bong Joon-Ho
Bong Joon-Ho is a terrific director with gonzo personal baggage. Taking the oddball dynamic of The Host and the subject matter of Memories of Murder, his previous two films, Mother is David Lynch weirdness and subtext given the rhythmic quality he's become dependable for. From Kyung-Pyo Hung's dusky cinematography to the lovingly applied technique (I don't think anyone's quite so in love with what a camera can do as Bong Joon-Ho. His tracking shots and POVs are awesome) Mother is like a theory textbook paraphrased by someone at Cahiers du Cinema. Taking familiar routes to unfamiliar territories there is enough at play for casual observers to see Hitchcock, Twin Peaks & Blue Velvet, Takashi Miike, Insomnia and other unsettling crime stories but there is a clear voice dictating the proceedings. I may not like everything that happens in Joon-Ho's films but I love the distinctness of his vision and that despite the tangents it goes on Mother's message is quite touching and the characters ultra-compelling. Mother is one of the most engaging (while simultaneously jarring) films of the year and it stops at nothing to deliver its message: we'll stop at nothing to save the ones we love.

Il Divo
by Paolo Sorrentino
Or as I like to call it, the film that Guy Ritchie wishes he had made. Il Divo is one of the most flashy and stylish movies ever made but for once that isn't the kiss of death. Rocketing from hyper-kinetic society bashes to rumbling horse races to quiet church interiors at four in the morning, Il Divo tells the story of Giulio Andreotti one of Italy's most corrupt and sinister Prime Ministers or political figures of any kind. As a companion piece to Matteo Garrone'sGomorrah (see below), Il Divo illustrates that not only is Italy one of the most dangerous places in the world to be poor but politicians and journalists are just as susceptible to crooked practices and murder as working class 40 somethings and teenagers. Caring less about verisimilitude than Garrone, Paolo Sorrentino spins a tangled web of intrigue about the facts and myths around Andreotti during his famously hellacious reign. Toni Servillo gives an unsettlingly unreadable performance, half Noseratu, half Hirohito, and he remains the unchanging face as Sorrentino turns up the crazy and calls the truth into question, by the end the only thing certain is that Il Divo is wild as hell.

by Nicholas Winding Refn
It should stand as some testament to this film's power that I wrote a nearly twelve page essay on it the day after I saw it. No one read it but no matter, Bronson is about violence and our fixation on violence as a people. Using the body of Tom Hardy playing Charles Bronson née Michael Peterson, Britains' most famous convict, director Nicholas Winding Refn creates a world focused on and propelled by violence and our acceptance and indeed reverence for it. The film brims over with stylistic brio that matches Hardy's energetic performance punch for punch. To root for Bronson is to root for Tom Hardy is to root for Refn pulling the strings it to root for the movie and the success of charismatic trailblazers doing what they do best. A Clockwork Orange done right.

The Escapist
by Rupert Wyatt
Like a classic man's story a la John Sturges or Howard Hawks, Rupert Wyatt's The Escapist has a lot of hard-boiled conventions and one bitchin' conceit that isn't clear until the very end. You realize then that you haven't just been watching one of the more exhilarating prison break films on record but also a film as smart as it is taut. Brian Cox is Frank Perry who's settled into a life sentence until he hears that his only daughter is in trouble. Now he wants out so he can help her get off her drug addiction and out of her troubles. He turns to his cellmate Liam Cunningham and down-and-out cons Seu Jorge, Dominic Cooper and Joseph Fiennes for help breaking free from bondage, each of them delivering terrifically natural performances. Standing in there way is deranged informant Damian Lewis, playing the polar opposite of his Major Winters character from Band of Brothers, who has designs on Cooper's timid inmate Lacey and of course the prison itself. Art director Irene O'Brien and production designer Jim Furlong created an awesome prison underbelly, a gothic labyrinth that rivals David Fincher's in Alien³, another underrated English film driven by character actors. A dark and beautiful film with a grim and tough story but a starry-eyed philosophy; a crime film with ambition.

Bright Star
by Jane Campion
Maybe I'm just totally susceptible to this kind of story but I think Bright Star is actually one of the most devastating love stories ever told. John Keats and Frances Brawne's romance only lasted long enough for him to propose to her before he fell ill and died. Jane Campion's shows us love in good times and bad, in sickly pallor (cold and dull brown interiors) and good health (brilliant pastel summer landscapes). Abbie Cornish works on so many levels; her unbalanced teenaged worldview and moodswings are carried off tremendously. Her physical presence is also a refreshing departure from English and American starlets. Aside from Paul Schnieder who's performance as the Scotsman Charles Brown is just as good, she's the most captivating in a very capable cast. That Cornish's Brawne feels like a real person is one of the movie's greatest successes and it makes her heartbreak all the more effecting. A film that gets to the root of young love's problems, that there are older and in some ways wiser people over your shoulder who don't take you seriously. Not only does Brawne have to fight just to see and be near Keats, she has to beg and plead for everyone to validate her feelings. It's the saddest kind of love story but it's worth the struggle to understand how greatly she felt for him. Their final scene together is tragic and stunning and like all of Bright Star makes you feel for impossible love.

The Road
by John Hillcoat
I think the difference between the two kinds of filmgoers can be tested with films like The Road. If you hate it or can't understand it, you're in one camp, if you enjoyed it, you're in the other. Needless to say I loved The Road and found it poignant, hopeful and overall a tremendous experience. I love post-apocalyptic movies, I love movies that relish in depictions of dead natural occurrences, I love movies about family that do not take obvious routes at showing their connections and love. The Road, on top of looking gorgeous, featuring an amazing sound design, a terrific score by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, has a myriad of excellent performances that ensure the film's realism in spite of its premise. John Hillcoat manages to fill in the gaps between McCarthy's prose with haunting visuals and quiet moments that illustrate the distance between people, even those linked by blood. It says the same thing that the novel does but in a purely cinematic form, never relying too heavily on the words of the source novel but always remaining true to its spirit.

by Marco Bellocchio
Since his debut film Fists In The Pockets in 1965, Marco Bellocchio has been persona non grata in his home country. Picking apart the political and social problems and contradictions that have defined modern Italian life, Bellocchio has been an outspoken critic for his entire working life and he has never compromised. Going back 50 years from his last political film Good Morning, Night about the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, Bellocchio turns his attention to Ida Dalser, one of Mussolini's mistresses, and the illegitimate son she named for his father. Played with rapacious determination and fascinating, ferocious sexuality by Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Ida Dalser has more of her freedom stripped from her and soon her quest shifts from demanding that her husband recognize her to being allowed to ever see her son again. Though her struggle can be read as allegory, it's hard not to see it as the destruction of fascism from within. The Italian politics of the day were based around hatred and superiority but they cannot afford humanity in their own lives because fascists were fundamentally imperfect but had to pretend to godlike status. Dalser is the tragic castaway of human skin when Mussolini relinquished reality for a life of fiction and power and murder. Set to Carlo Crivelli's driving score, flush with bold colours and frames that could be art deco paintings thanks to Danielle Cipri's cinematography, Vincere is a rich and sumptuous work.

The House of the Devil
by Ti West
Samantha is in need of money and though babysitting for the Ulman's smells like trouble she can't say no to the $400 Mr. Ulman offers her for one night's work. Even after he admits that he and his wife don't actually have children and that it's his mother that the hapless sophomore will be watching, she agrees. Now she'll spend the rest of the night regretting she ever answered the babysitting ad. Ti West's most recent entry into the Glass Eye canon, The House of the Devil is a stunning recreation of 1980s horror films. Everything from the look to the music to the costumes is a pitch-perfect reproduction of old fashioned production values. For every film that purports to deliver old-school horror, The House of the Devil is the only one I've seen that actually delivers. Not only is it a hyper-real reproduction of any number of slasher films from thirty years ago, it is also a better and altogether more effective film than any of those movies ever managed to be. Ti West has become a master at using a small budget to his advantage and House of the Devil is his masterpiece.

A Serious Man
by Joel & Ethan Coen

Though I was concerned, that this would be another Burn After Reading and all the early buzz comparing this film to Barton Fink was not encouraging. I like every other Coen Brothers movie and that wasn't what I wanted to hear. In point of fact this is much closer to a less whimsical Hudsucker Proxy. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik whose life gets worse by the minute. His wife is leaving him for famous windbag Sy Ableman, his kids hate him, his brother's using up his money and good credit with the community, one of his students is threatening to blackmail him, the list goes on. Each scene is progressively funnier and Stuhlbarg sells his ridiculous unluck with such wonderfully twitchy energy that even as his life goes further and further into the toilet, you enjoy yourself more and more, like an episode of Arrested Development stretched to feature length and given a great period setting. The message is delivered in the prologue, an episode involving a dybbuk played by Fyvush Finkel. A man brings home a demon and he's worried about being courteous to it; she's worried that it means they're cursed. Weirdly it's the least experienced of three rabbis that Stuhlbarg visits in search of answers who gets it right: you just need a little perspective. "Just look at the Parking Lot!"

by Matteo Garrone
If Revanche is a film that depicts people in an honest and involving light, Gomorrah is like a slap in the face through the screen; a wake-up call. Between Roberto Saviano's book of the same name which gave the film it's five story framework and Matteo Garrone's stunning movie there is enough evidence to indict almost every corporation on earth for murder. In order to truly communicate the savagery of Saviano's work and of what really goes on in Naples, Garrone let the stories tell themselves. The performances are either pitch-perfect or they aren't performances; I've never seen an ensemble cast portray fuck ups quite so convincingly. The combined effect of Garrone's roving camera and the naturalistic performances makes it seem as if we're eavesdropping on some of the most heavy and horrifying things on the planet earth. There is never a moment's doubt watching Gomorrah that what you're seeing is real and that we should be afraid that the food we're eating didn't pass through Naples first. Though Garrone employs beautifully orchestrated plan-séquences and Marco Onorato's cinematography is frankly amazing in spite of what it captures, there isn't a self-indulgent moment to be found. It's only at the end of the film when the small print tells us that it's all real does it occur to you that everything you just saw was a movie; an incredible achievement.

The Beaches of Agnès
by Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda is one of cinema's most important figures; she was one of the first successful female directors, an important forerunner of the French New Wave, one of the most experiment-oriented filmmakers to date, and just over-all her films are marvelous. The Beaches of Agnès is a tell-all that never seems indulgent or egotistical, a beautiful tribute to the people who have shaped Varda's life and to the power of film. Varda's lucious waltz through her past, noting every little detail, is one that engages you with its humour and sadness. It's impossible not to feel for Varda as she weeps over her late husband, the great Jacques Demy and shares the footage she took just days before he died of AIDS. It's also never anything but a loving and honest portrait of a touched and incredible life. Beaches shows that not only has Varda lived well but she remains just as capable a filmmaker as she was in 1957 when she made her stunning Cléo de 5 à 7 or 1965 when she made Le Bonheur one of the most interesting and beautiful films of all time. The Beaches of Agnès is a film that adds to a prolific life while looking back on it; wildly inventive, touching, sensual, lovely, a film as beautiful as any.

And the best film of the year...

by Steve McQueen
I may find in a few months when Hunger gets a Criterion DVD of its own that maybe I was wrong. Maybe it isn't one of the most intense films ever made, maybe it was just me, that I was in the right frame of mind, tired, alone, cold and hungry. I remember waiting for Hunger for months; it was all I could think about. Then it was out, at a theatre not a few subway stops from the apartment I was staying in at the time. I saw it, stayed until the end credits, stumbled back to the apartment wordlessly. Before I got there I had sworn off eating anything living, promised that nothing should ever suffer on my behalf again. The story isn't easy to understand at first glance: guards and prisoners in the Maze prison in 1981 fight bitterly. It's not easy to sympathize with either. Bobby Sands discusses a proposed hunger strike with his priest and then goes ahead with it, dying 66 days later. Steve McQueen turns suffering and filth into poetry; I could heap hyperbole onto it until my fingers gave out but you really need to just see it. I'll just say that I'd never reacted that way to any film in my life.

And The Rest...
21. Flame and Citron
22. Summer Hours
23. The Headless Woman
24. Zombieland
25. Moon
26. Tony Manero
27. Fantastic Mr. Fox
28. The Young Victoria
29. Brothers Bloom
30. The Hurt Locker
31. District 9
32. La Danse de la Paris Opera Ballet
33. Baader Meinhoff Complex
34. Broken Embraces
35. Up (Dizzy's Pick)
36. The Limits of Control
37. Pontypool
38. Sherlock Holmes
39. Big Fan
40. Star Trek
41. Coraline
42. Mesrine Parts 1 & 2
43. Tetro
44. Everlasting Moments
45. Thirst
46. Antichrist
47. Just Another Love Story
48. Tulpan
49. The Informant/Girlfriend Experience
50. The Good, The Bad, The Weird
51. In The Loop
52. Me & Orson Welles
53. Police, Adjective
54. 35 Shots
55. Three Monkeys
56. The Age of Stupid
57. The International
58. Public Enemies
59. Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince
60. Not Quite Hollywood!

*Basho also liked Invictus