Wednesday, January 18, 2017

My Favorite Discoveries/First-Time Viewings of 2015

(Titles link to my writing when applicable.)

1. In a Lonely Place (Ray/USA/1950)

2. Skagafjördur (Hutton/USA/2004)

3. News From Home (Akerman/Belgium/1977)

4. Day of Wrath (Dreyer/Denmark/1943)

5. Kagero-za (Suzuki/Japan/1981)

6. The Prowler (Losey/USA/1951)

7. Hail the Conquering Hero (Sturges/USA/1944)

8. Doomed Love (Oliveira/Portugal/1984)

9. Van Gogh (Pialat/France/1991)

10. JFK (Stone/USA/1991)

11. Out of the Past (Tourneur/USA/1947)

12. Figures in a Landscape (Losey/UK/1970)

13. South (Akerman/Belgium/1999)

14. Seven Men From Now (Boetticher/USA/1956)

15. Lodz Symphony (Hutton/USA/1993)

16. Gate of Flesh (Suzuki/Japan/1964)

17. The Trial of Vivienne Ware (Howard/USA/1932)

18. The Grissom Gang (Aldrich/USA/1971)

19. The Emigrants (Troell/Sweden/1971)

20. The Heroes of Telemark (Mann/USA/1965)

21. Noroit (Rivette/France/1976)

22. Juggernaut (Lester/UK/1974)

23. My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant/USA/1991)

24. Obsession (De Palma/USA/1976)

25. The Truth (Clouzot/France/1960)

26. Jezebel (Wyler/USA/1938)

27. Eight Hours of Terror (Suzuki/Japan/1957)

28. Seventeen (DeMott, Kreines/USA/1983)

29. The Legend of Lylah Clare (Aldrich/USA/1968)

30. Divorce, Italian Style (Germi/Italy/1961)

31. Five Dedicated to Ozu (Kiarostami/USA/2003)

32. Our Blood Will Not Forgive (Suzuki/Japan/1964)

33. The Woman Next Door (Truffaut/France/1981)

34. I Walk Alone (Haskin/USA/1948)

35. The New Land (Troell/Sweden/1971)

36. The Choirboys (Aldrich/USA/1977)

37. The Bad and the Beautiful (Minnelli/USA/1952)

38. Cape Fear (Thompson/USA/1962)

39. The Angry Hills (Aldrich/USA/1959)

40. The Big Sky (Hawks/USA/1952)

41. La Captive (Akerman/Belgium/2000)

42. The Devils (Russell/UK/1971)

43. Apache (Aldrich/USA/1954)

44. The Holcroft Covenant (Frankenheimer/USA/1985)

45. Anatahan (Sternberg/Japan/1953)

46. I Am Keiko (Sono/Japan/1997)

47. Woman with Flowers (Strand/USA/1995)

48. Touki Bouki (Mambéty/Senegal/1973)

49. Medium Cool (Wexler/USA/1969)

50. Center Stage (Kwan/Hong Kong/2000)

Friday, January 6, 2017

My Favorite Films of 2016

Before starting, here are the guidelines for enjoying, which carry over from my 2014 and 2015 lists: when applicable, bolded titles link to my reviews, and in such cases I've pulled excerpts from the published reviews and marked them with quotations. I'm not philosophically attached to the one-week NYC theatrical release rulebook of year-end list-making, per se, but that's the model I've already used in submitting other ballots at the end of 2016, so I've retained it. Had I not stuck with it, I might have included Season 8 of "On Cinema at the Cinema," which in no traditional sense qualifies as cinema but in its totality was the most endlessly giving viewing experience I had this year. Also of note: I've brought back my "Recommended Reading" supplement from last year so as to shed light on some of the best criticism currently being written. In the many cases where I didn't write about these films prior to now, these pieces are especially useful in helping to clarify how I felt about them (though I don't mean to suggest that I necessarily share all the expressed opinions and analyses). You'll see the same publications popping up again and again, but I did make an effort to share the wealth between critics and not over-represent certain writers.

Without further ado, here are my Top 20 of 2016.

20. Love and Friendship (Stillman, US)

In tackling one of Jane Austen's less celebrated novellas, Whit Stillman has once again assembled an ensemble of actors who harmonize fully with his peculiar tonality: old staple Kate Beckinsale (whose performance I briefly celebrated in Slant's end-of-the-year feature), but also terrific newcomers to the Stillman universe like Stephen Fry, Morfydd Clark, and Tom Bennett (who stops the show several times with his grinning moron act). The result is a thoroughly individuated and breathing adaptation, a film that finds a natural marriage of Stillman's never-miss-a-beat verbosity and the knotty discourse of high society one-upmanship.
Recommended Reading: Duncan Gray at MUBI Notebook.

19. Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan, US)

It's possible and even likely on first viewing to miss how delicately Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea futzes with its timeline, jostling as it does between protagonist Lee Chandler's (Casey Affleck) past and present—each set in coastal suburbs of greater Boston—without supplying helpful cinematic cues. This is as it should be, given that trauma doesn't situate itself in the mind with sepia tones and a Max Richter symphony applied. Without ever lapsing into histrionics, Lonergan's latest maps out the architecture of grieving by vacillating between mundanity and hardship with an erratic, halting, organic rhythm that borders on the arbitrary. Bonus points for the precise representation of the region's cultural artifacts (like Ipswich and Wachusett Ales, Newbury Comics stickers and Market Basket shopping bags), which is a real tonic after Spotlight. With that said, liquor stores aren't open at 3AM, but I'll let that slide.
Recommended Reading: Michael Koresky in Film Comment (November/December print issue)

18. The Illinois Parables (Stratman, US)

"If it all seems unwieldy, that’s partly the point. The Illinois Parables reflects history’s chaos as well as its repetitions, sneakily exploring how periods of strife and uncertainty often get forcibly resolved by assertions of order from those in power, whether in Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act or the Chicago police department’s cover-up of a dissident minority. That dates and specifics are cropped from the various newspaper headlines only further implies the cyclicality of these events. Illinois may not seem a sensational state, but in Stratman’s telling it’s essentially a microcosm of America."
Recommended Reading: Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot.

17. Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany)

Containing a handful of absolutely slam-dunk scenes and the silliest props of the year, the three-hour family comedy Toni Erdmann is a jolly good time at the movies. Unfortunately, it has gradually evaporated from my mind a bit since leaving the theater a few months ago, which is never promising, but I'd be remiss to not honor my ecstatic immediate experience with it. As corporate-climbing daughter and clownish father, Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek are deeply in tune with one another, fiercely committed to director Maren Ade's free-flowing, unorthodox scene construction, and brilliant in fleshing out their respective character quirks (so good, in fact, that they disguise the fact that precious few supporting players have comparable dimensionality). I wish Ade took more care in composing her images (the film defaults too often to a handheld, medium-distance anonymity), but her sensitivity to the nuances of the father-daughter relationship, and her refusal to decry or celebrate either character's behavior, shines through.
Recommended Reading: Michael Sicinski at Letterboxd.

16. Cemetery of Splendor (Weerasethakul, Thailand)

Having now straddled cinema and installation work for more than a decade, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has developed a particular adeptness at concentrating his aesthetic and thematic ideas into contained set pieces, and Cemetery of Splendor foregrounds one of his most memorable: a homely rural clinic neatly lined with glowing orb sticks that fluctuate neon hues in sync with the REM patterns of the snoozing Thai war veterans situated beneath them. The film's becalming rhythm, too, seems rigged to these mysterious instruments, with Weerasethakul adopting a tempo that qualifies as molasses-like even by his standards. With the exception of these brazenly surrealist props, however, Cemetery of Splendor is largely free of the fanciful gestures—be they genre-based or formal in nature—of the director's past few films. Instead, with only a few brief forays into sublimated fantasy sequences that are barely recognizable as such, it exists in a crawling, numbing present-tense that reflect the clouded state of mind under Thailand's current militarized regime. If dreaming is the only luxury left to the victims of this repressive system, better leave it to the dreamers.
Recommended Reading: Daniel Kasman at MUBI Notebook.

15. O.J.: Made in America (Edelman, US)

Great journalism or great cinema? I lean toward the former, but if treating O.J.: Made in America as a marathon film is going to be a requisite for granting it the credit it's due, I'm happy to fall in line. Ezra Edelman's riveting investigative saga, divided into five hour-and-a-half installments and released as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, ransacks the multi-tiered complexities and implications of both the public and anecdotal records of O.J. Simpson's notorious murder case in the mid-nineties. As someone who was far too young at the time of this highly publicized media event to register anything that was going on, much of the story recounted by Edelman's film played for me with some degree of suspense (plaudits to the team of editors who sorted through impossible hours of footage and crafted something resembling narrative montage), but the greatest strength of the endeavor is the relentless, undaunted burrowing through the messy history of both Los Angeles-specific and broadly American race and identity politics.
Recommended Reading: Nick Pinkerton at Metrograph Edition.

14. The Treasure (Poromboiu, Romania)

Corneliu Poromboiu's work is an acquired taste, to say the least. But if you can meet him on his uber-deadpan wavelength, The Treasure is his most successful film to date. Dragging out the comically uneventful tale of a pair of penny-pinching Joe Schmoes who hire a metal detector specialist to locate some booty that may or may not be buried somewhere in a nothing plot of land, Poromboiu works in unflashy master shots containing starkly low-voltage mise-en-scène, the better to emphasize the awkward and lugubrious non-progress of his heroes' absurdist undertaking. Aimless doodling this is not, however, as Poromboiu gradually dials in, through the revelation of the nature of the titular treasure being unsuccessfully sought out, a clever subtext regarding the ineffectuality of the Romanian government and the disconnect between its citizens and their collective history. It all fizzles out on the most hilariously counterintuitive music cue of the year: Laibach's rousing and outlandish "Life is Life," which lyrically recontextualizes the preceding happenings with an appropriate smirk.
Recommended Reading: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at AV Club.

13. My Golden Days (Desplechin, France)

I hoped to revisit My Golden Days prior to publishing this list but wasn't able to squeeze it in. Had I done so, it might have placed even higher, seeing as it made a very strong impression on me when I first saw it at AFI Fest late last year. I recall that it evoked the high of first love without resorting to screenwriting clichés or trite visuals, that it riffed on the tangled nature of memory and formally reflected that concern in its editing in ways that brought to mind Alain Resnais, and that in its totality it imparted a real sense of the mass and heft of lived experience. It's also the most compelling and resonant use, among what I've seen, of Arnaud Desplechin's particular bag of aesthetic tricks, though I've embarrassingly never caught up with My Sex Life: Or How I Got Into an Argument, the 1996 drama of which this is a spiritual sequel.
Recommended Reading: Jordan Cronk at Sight and Sound.

12. Valley of Love (Nicloux, France)

From its very first image, an admittedly Arthouse 101 Steadicam glide trailing Isabelle Huppert to an as-yet-unknown desert destination while Charles Ives' spine-tingling "The Unanswered Question" floods the soundtrack, Valley of Love announces its pungent balancing act between cool distance and raw emotionality—one that, when nailed just right, typically yields some of my favorite cinema. Director Guillaume Nicloux's smartest decision is the casting of Huppert alongside Gérard Depardieu as grieving divorced parents summoned to Death Valley by the ghost of their departed son, and the act alone of watching them go through the gauntlet together summons up their accumulated screen histories alongside one another in ways that deepen their already superlative turns. The film's surreal premise only builds toward stranger and spookier territory, and ultimately a transcendent climax that just about knocked me out.
Recommended Reading: Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker Magazine.

11. Elle (Verhoeven, Germany/France)

A woman gets raped in her home, but instead of reporting her trauma to the police, she partakes in her own form of unorthodox vigilantism, which ultimately involves toying with the whom she happens to be attracted. This is the jist of Elle, a jet-black comedy and discomfiting morality tale that validates once again the perversion, daring and sophistication of Paul Verhoeven's vision, which has long displayed a fascination with the dubious means of rebellion taken by victims against their oppressors. (Black Book, Verhoeven's turbulent WWII masterpiece, is a striking cousin to Elle in its central theme and its half-wry, half-grave tone.) Equally crucial to the film is the slippery genius of star Isabelle Huppert, who turns in a performance that withstands any easy actorly tricks to inhabit the mind and body of a person who can't be adequately pigeonholed as either victim, debauchee, or Strong Female Lead.
Recommended Reading: Adam Nayman at Cinema Scope.

10. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, South Korea)

Slyly winking at the now-universal notion of Hong Sang-soo as the most repetitive filmmaker in the world (a party line obligatorily rehashed in nearly every article on the director), Right Now, Wrong Then goes ahead and plays pretty much the same hour-long movie twice, back-to-back, and it's as good a movie as any Hong has cooked up: a film director (Jae-yeong Jeong, squirm-inducingly funny) meets a girl (Min-hee Kim, a model of grace in fielding her co-star's buffoonery) in a town he's visiting for work and they strike up a series of conversations over a long afternoon of wandering and an even longer night of soju ingestion. In adopting this bold structure, the film becomes many things: a playful actor's exercise, a hilarious comedy of manners, a demonstration of the crucial distinctions in effect between subtly differing directorial choices, a self-reflexive examination of Hong's own art, and a uniquely microscopic study of one-on-one communication and the myriad possible ramifications of intonation and body language.
Recommended Reading: Roger Koza at Cinema Scope.

9. Happy Hour (Hamaguchi, Japan)

"Hamaguchi arranges most sequences around a handful of static, roomy medium shots that subtly suggest emotional dynamics through camera and actor positioning; several scenes around a dining table demonstrate how much the director is able to express, how much latent energy he brings to the surface, merely through who's in and out of the frame. In an excruciating trial scene brimming with the defense's implicit sexism, Hamaguchi develops his shot choices around the axis of Jun's head, keeping her central as the dehumanizing processes of the court play out in the distant background. The use of pillow shots and choices of placid interstitial music reveal Hamaguchi's kinship to Yasujirō Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, but the film's formal DNA bears more traces of Eric Rohmer, who was similarly expert at orchestrating extensive dialogues with a minimum of overt directorial statement."
Recommended Reading: Michael Sicinski at Cinema Scope.

8. Everybody Wants Some!! (Linklater, US)

"Balking at this rosy depiction of young ids cut loose will be tempting for some, but this is clearly a case of a filmmaker so in love with a milieu (Linklater's been angling to make the film for years, after all) that he's willing to see it only in its best light. Everybody Wants Some!! abounds with lucid details that register as sense memories of the era: a deadpan cutaway to a taxidermied fox on a bar wall, a sensual close-up of cannabis being siphoned onto rolling paper, or a match cut that segues from a baseball about to be struck by an axe to a pool ball moments before being hit by a cue. Linklater delights in emphasizing the period's gaudy exhibitionism and its mainstream intellectual and pop-cultural touchstones: he substitutes macho dudes into the typical girls-getting-ready-for-a-night-out montage; Carl Sagan and Jack Kerouac books adorn the frat living room; and Van Halen LPs and VHS recordings of Twilight Zone episodes fill bookshelves." I also praised Glen Powell's performance in Slant's end-of-the-year feature.
Recommended Reading: Richard Brody at The New Yorker.

7. Sunset Song (Davies, UK)

Dubbed Terrence Davies' "most conventional" effort and yet still unlike anything else being made today, Sunset Song tells the modest tale of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a Scottish lass raised by an iron-fisted patriarch in the lead-up to World War I, in concentrated chunks of time demarcated by the poignant ellipses that are Davies' stock-in-trade, each temporal gap cumulatively amounting to an affirmation of life's diurnal disappointments. It's profound, universal stuff distinguished by a supremely sure hand behind the camera, which here operates in grounded, painterly portraiture and a compositional sturdiness indebted to classical Hollywood melodrama with its unified treatment of bodies and space (because it's set against a comparable backdrop and I wrote about it this year, think The Quiet Man but in 70mm 'scope). That Deyn blossoms as a performer throughout her character's chronological trajectory adds a fascinating wrinkle; Davies is capturing the soul of a character and an actress.
Recommended Reading: Nick Pinkerton at Artforum.

6. Cosmos (Zulawski, Poland/France)

Andrzej Zulawski's swan song achieves something rare in the cinema, even by his idiosyncratic standards: it cultivates a sense of total anything-goes unpredictability for the viewer on its tonal and narrative terms, which, in theory, is a dead zone for artists because it can enable a certain indulgent aimlessness. In Zulawski's unusual case, Cosmos becomes a summation of his longstanding artistic practice and his view of the world as a bewildering thing with only illusory frameworks of order and meaning. The film's also one of the most energizing septuagenarian works I've ever seen, with a liberated use of style and language (something I touched on over at Slant in an appreciation of the film's funniest scene) and a truly mad sense of humor. Godspeed in the afterlife, Mr. Zulawski.
Recommended Reading: Ela Bittencourt at Brooklyn Magazine, and Glenn Kenny in the Blu-ray liner notes if you can get a hold of them.

5. Creepy (Kurosawa, Japan)

That Creepy comes so close to being a standard police procedural/boogeyman narrative makes its grace notes all the more striking. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa uses genre trappings as window dressing—basically, as a vehicle to get to the uncanny. It’s conceptually analogous to the way David Lynch's films operate, only Kurosawa prefers to downplay his transgressions, whether in his subtly unnerving staging—like how Teruyuki Kagawa’s expertly played psychopath is first introduced in the distant background of a wide shot, awkwardly placed in shadow behind a bush—or the nearly imperceptible deployment of special effects, be it speed-ramping or wind control. The film’s terrifying subtext—that the further we immerse ourselves in the routines, duties, and social rituals of urban life, the more we lose sight of morality—comes packaged in the form of a logic-obstructing nightmare, one in which, as in Fritz Lang’s cinema, we're made acutely aware of the system of one's downfall.
Recommended Reading: Daniel Kasman at MUBI Notebook.

4. Certain Women (Reichardt, US)

Blurb written for Slant's end-of-the-year feature. Also rhapsodized in the same space on the film's most memorable scene.
Recommended Reading: Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot.

3. In the Shadow of Women (Garrel, France)

"With help from a bone-dry Louis Garrel voiceover narration, In the Shadow of Women unfolds with storybook simplicity in detailing a particular episode of marital dysfunction. But if its structure has a brutal, compressed logic, its individual chunks of time are dense with discomfort, with paths left unexplored and instincts left un-acted upon. (The total absence in the last twenty minutes of Merhar's character's mistress, for instance, is meant to sting in ways that complicate the ostensible uplift of the resolution.) Garrel is prodding at the distinction between lived experience and the recitation of stories about our own lives; indeed, that's the discrepancy behind the film's best laugh-out-loud punchline."
Recommended Reading: Jonathan Romney at Film Comment.

2. Silence (Scorsese, US)

I briefly considered letting this just rocket to the top of my list in a matter of one afternoon, but the other films in its company have stayed the course for much longer this year. Still, Silence is a scorching and troubling work of art from American cinema's pre-eminent maestro, and I suspect it will only grow on repeat viewings. My friend and fellow critic Jake Mulligan noted that the film is for the Mizoguchians among us, and while the influence is certainly felt in the provincial Japanese locations, with their swells of gloomy fog, and the many instances of casual cruelty in highly formalized milieus, it's fair to say Scorsese is synthesizing (without ever "quoting") a number of non-American directorial disciples not typically associated with his usually brash style—Dreyer, Rossellini, and Mizoguchi's contemporary Kurosawa among them. There's an enormous amount to say about this film, but for now, what's most remarkable on first viewing is how committed Scorsese is in denying any instruction on How to Feel or Who to Side With in the film's dialectical sparring of Buddhism and Christianity. Even and especially during moments of great strife and horror, the camera is stubbornly even-tempered, making us complicit in the agonized non-participation of Andrew Garfield's childlike would-be Messiah.
Recommended Reading: Bilge Ebiri at The Village Voice.

1. The Other Side (Minervini, US)

"As a piece of somber political filmmaking, The Other Side is, despite its exposure of such self-ruinously un-American acts as bigotry and disrespect for the presidential office, about as quintessentially American a text as one could hope for in today's divided union. It proposes that any effort to unite must begin with compassion and a willingness to dig for the human foundations of troubling ideology, even if those energies finally bang up against insurmountable moral resistance."
Recommended Reading: Cristina Álvarez López at Fandor.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): The Alchemist Cookbook, Fire at Sea, Hail, Caesar!, Homo Sapiens, Indignation, Knight of Cups, Louder than Bombs, The Love Witch, Moonlight, Mountains May Depart, The Shallows, Short Stay, Sully

Blind Spots: Allied, Aquarius, Cameraperson, The Fits, Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, Kaili Blues, Kate Plays Christine, Lost and Beautiful, No Home Movie, Things to Come, The Thoughts That Once We Had

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Squid and the Whale (2005) A Film by Noah Baumbach

"The conventional wisdom around Noah Baumbach as a cranky misanthrope with a preemptive grudge against his fictional players—one of the hoariest ad-hominem characterizations in circulation—wasn’t yet in full swing when The Squid and the Whale bruised audiences with its lucidity and rawness. Equally hard-hearted and uncompromising in its mode of delivery as its coolly received follow-ups, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, the film executes its mercilessness in dart throws, with each offhand aggression piercing the cork around the bull’s-eye until the board is nearly filled up and a moment of release is granted. The cumulative impact validates Baumbach’s alleged cruelty as a natural, unshakeable route to emotional truth, not a temperament crudely applied to individual scripts. (It’s telling that his latest three efforts, the breeziness of which suggest a filmmaker reading his reviews and calibrating his tone accordingly, don’t hit as hard.)"

Full review of The Squid and the Whale, now out in a new Criterion edition, continues at Slant.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Albums of 2016

I'll be honest: the majority of this collection is in the singer/songwriter vein, it's almost 90% male-dominated, and it's mostly sad music about death or breakups or encroaching doom. That's been the year, I guess. I've been relatively disengaged from music for a while, but for whatever cocktail of personal reasons I've become re-invested this year (I'm even writing music again), and these are the artists that have been exciting me. With apologies to Kendrick Lamar and Tim Hecker, whose albums this year I've only recently begun to appreciate, here are the gems.

1. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree

Artistic expression doesn't really get more devastatingly close-to-the-bone than Skeleton Tree, the alternately stygian and encouraging suite of songs that has emerged from Nick Cave's grieving process over his recently deceased son. Though written in large part prior to the tragedy that involved the 15-year-old falling from a cliff during an LSD trip, the album repeatedly doubles back on veiled allusions to the incident and to more direct dealings with Cave's mourning, while the grey sonic cloud that looms over much of its duration, and which finally starts to hesitantly lift in the heartening final two songs, feels unmistakably dirge-like. Opener "Jesus Alone" sustains an oscillating growl and an extraterrestrial whine for approximately six minutes, establishing the free-time, minor-key atmospherics that dominate the subsequent tracks. As a testament to a group of musicians in command of their craft and utterly in tune with one another, Skeleton Tree is peerless. Its audacious song structures, built on cresting and falling waves of textured distortion, practically necessitate precise musical chemistry, as distinctly apparent on cuts like "Anthrocene" and "Girl in Amber"—the former a downright creepy jangle with a skittering beat disappearing and reappearing, the latter a low-hanging fog of muted synthesizers resonating against ghostly backing vocals. That said, it's on album highlight "I Need You," a comparatively straightforward groove anchored by Cave's guttural croon, that the album's virtues are most clearly embodied: at the center of the pile-up of nightmarish details is a burning ache for a lost companion that won't be eased by pleas to God or well wishes from friends.

2. Alasdair Roberts and James Green: Plaint of Lapwing

My favorite musical discovery this year (with thanks to my good friend Jon Davies) has been the idiosyncratic and joyfully anachronistic folk of Scotsman Alasdair Roberts, and Plaint of Lapwing is probably his catchiest collection to date. Filled front to back with baroque earworms, the album is a dynamic showcase for Roberts as a virtuoso of melody, song structure and unorthodox time signatures (the springy interweave of guitar and voice on opener “Anankë” has been stuck in my head at least once a week this year). But the most unique source of fascination is Roberts’ gibberish-by-way-of-Old English vernacular, which has its own curious system for describing familiar phenomena: recounting an erotic encounter on “The Evening is Growing Dim,” for instance, Roberts sings, "and how my questing fingers made your every clasping to unfasten." Tales of drunken revelry, thwarted revenge and summer love take on a Chaucerian quality in their bounty of incident, and Roberts, with invaluable assistance from instrumentalist James Green, nests it all in warm curlicues of guitar, harmoniflute, and various bells and whistles. Plaint of Lapwing builds an entire world equal parts medieval and fantastical.

3. James Blake: The Colour in Anything

I went through the breakup of a nearly six-year relationship in early 2016, and James Blake's third album, The Colour in Anything, was the new record that did the most to get me through it. Blake's always had one foot in the soul genre, but this is his first to fully justify the terminology; where his self-titled breakout and his follow-up Overgrown never quite landed for me in their coolly cerebral stylings, The Colour in Anything anchors Blake's sonic experimentation to a heavy core of human emotion. The full gamut of feelings that accompany a breakup—shock and disbelief, anger and disillusionment, nostalgic fixation and reluctant acceptance—is tackled with courageous directness in Blake's lyrics, which favor straightforwardly worded self-assessments ("It's sad that you're no longer her") to symbolic obfuscation. And Blake hasn't become a lesser aesthete in pursuit of this emotional openness; on the contrary, this is his richest work as both a producer and a pianist. Crackly analog textures mingle with full-bodied synthesizer patches to cover the tunes in an overcast sky, but edgy drum machine backbeats and unorthodox accompaniments (a jew harp, a syncopated dog bark) keep the very long record from getting bogged down in gloom. It helps that Blake mixes the epic fistfuls of pain ("Love Me in Whatever Way," "Choose Me") with anomalous detours, like ravishing Bon Iver duet "I Need a Forest Fire" (better than anything on said artist's flatulent 2016 offering) or the virtuosic self-titled grand piano track. I'll submit that Blake probably could have cut a track or two (I'd sacrifice "I Hope My Life," personally), but in all its enormity The Colour in Anything instantly enters the pantheon of great heartbreak music.

4. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool

A Moon Shaped Pool was met with what seemed like widespread skepticism when it was first released, so I'm glad that seven months later it's topping lists. I don't know what exactly people expect from Radiohead, but whatever it is, the band hasn't been delivering it for the last few releases, veering away from generation-defining statement albums and toward more modest records with expertly honed musicianship. The draw of this new collection is the increased emphasis on collaborative orchestration, with Jonny Greenwood bringing to bear his recent experiences in film scoring for Paul Thomas Anderson and thus gracing the music with a warmth and spaciousness not as evident on the more internalized The King of Limbs—a quality also attributable to Thom Yorke's uncharacteristically soul-baring lyrics, which touch with surprising candor on subjects like global warming, mass stupidity and the collapse of Yorke's marriage. A Moon Shaped Pool spills over with evocative grace notes: the violent surge of staccato strings that follows Yorke's declaration that "people have this power" on "The Numbers"; the almost subliminal way in which the dark piano arpeggio of "Daydreaming" shapeshifts into a synthesizer loop; the unpredictable vocal EQ automation on "Full Stop" or Phil Selway's barely articulated ghost notes on the same track; the wheeze of clipped phrases that prick the right ear in "Present Tense" behind Yorke's main melody. Sitting here revisiting album highlights, I feel like I could go on forever. This is the best band in the world feeding beautifully off each other.

5. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker

The declarative audacity of Leonard Cohen's final album title extends to the execution of the music: this is not a record that beats around the bush. Cohen faces his incoming death head on, sans moping and with a lethal dose of humor, and comes away with one of his most touching works. I don't know how he did it. The elegant, straightforward arrangements skirt cheesiness, which has long been Cohen's achilles' heel; the instrumentation is largely non-electronic, with grand piano, guitar, pedal steel and a string section only occasionally supplemented by snatches of drum machines and synth pads; and Cohen's voice is the deepest and richest it’s ever been, wearing both his heart and his larynx on his sleeve. Former relationships are reflected upon, childhood memories are summoned, mistakes are forgiven, sex life is wryly dressed down, and religious matters are cast aside for earthly wisdom. Farewell is finally issued with the glorious “String Reprise/Treaty,” a bastion of unsullied beauty in a year of global instability.

6. David Thomas Broughton: Crippling Lack

UK-born, South Korea-based songsmith/performance artist David Thomas Broughton has been said to contain multitudes. I'd agree, and add that his new triple album, Crippling Lack, which clocks in at an hour and 41 minutes, contains multitudes within his multitudes. Synthesizing the lo-fi chamber folk of The Complete Guide to Insufficiency, the full-band grooviness of Outbreeding, and the choral-infused balladry of Sliding the Same Way, Crippling Lack adopts a grand conceptual canvas if only to leap from idea to idea with reckless abandon. Recorded, per usual, in live scenarios with help from a loop pedal and containing all the invigorating inelegance that implies, the album is marked by the potent sense of Broughton completely losing himself in the songs—that is, until something brutally direct pierces the fog of the enigmatic storytelling. And then there's Broughton's voice on top of it all: florid, operatic, and tinged with just enough of a smirk to make the passages of purple prose work. That tonal ambiguity—the rue mixed with the venom—is what gives something like "The Plunge of the Dagger," a suicide note in song form featuring bad-taste injections of black humor from a thick-accented voiceover, such lingering resonance.

7. Hamilton + Rostam: I Had a Dream That You Were Mine

The second collaboration between Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij finds them fully harmonizing their distinct sensibilities into a cohesive whole rather than simply brandishing dormant Walkmen ideas with some Vampire Weekend ornamentations. This is not to say I don't also adore the somewhat uneven Black Hours, just that I Had a Dream That You Were Mine feels thoroughly cooked. Batmanglij's greatest contribution, in addition to curating some of the punchiest drum sounds and most singular piano tones I've heard on an indie rock album in some time, is in pushing Leithauser's next-level voice toward new inflections and flourishes, like the crackly hollering that closes out "Peaceful Morning" or the fatigued chattiness in the verse of "You Ain't That Young Kid." After seeming to issue a mellowing statement of adult contentedness in Heaven, Leithauser now seems re-energized in his relative middle age, blending his usual dewy-eyed romanticism with a rowdiness that I haven't heard in his voice since The Walkmen's live-recorded remake of Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats. This is just an irresistible set of tunes, ideal for blasting at a high volume while driving.

8. Julien Baker: Sprained Ankle

I recently realized that this is technically a 2015 release, but I spent the whole year under the assumption that it was dropped in early 2016, so I don't care. I went through a little Baker phase in the middle of the year where I scoured the web for live videos of her performing (this one's the best if you can ignore the dweeb asking questions), all of which helped cement Sprained Ankle as something pretty special despite its surface resemblances to other stripped-down emo-confessional music. Baker's personal story of drug abuse and homosexuality colliding with abiding Christian faith lends the record a potent specificity that graces the woe-is-me musings with real dramatic dimension, and her impressive vocal range (peaking in the epic "Rejoice") really helps sell it. The songs here are sparse and simple—usually featuring only an acoustic or electrical guitar buttressed by subtle reverbs and delays—but Baker has such an intuitive feel for dynamics that the lack of supplementing instrumentation never feels limiting. As a side note, she's also super cute and erudite.

9. David Bowie: Black Star

Unlike Leonard Cohen's goodbye record this year, which sustains one register of unapologetic directness, David Bowie's own parting gift finds the singer in intimidatingly chameleonic form, vacillating between sounding possessed, desperate, devious, energized and exhausted. The seven-track Black Star contains an incredible waterfall of end-of-life creativity, sounding nothing like the flamboyant glam rock that rocketed Bowie to stardom in the seventies or the highly technical electro he produced in the nineties. I don't claim to know everything about Bowie's progression through the decades (I'm one of those casual listeners who took the national mourning over his death as an opportunity to discover and rediscover his body of work), but I'll be surprised if I stumble upon something in his catalogue that feels this haunted and noirish. The monumental title track, which lays a halting, convoluted beat over a moaning bed of woodwinds and guitar drone before switching gears multiple times through celestial funk and something approaching gloomy hip-hop, is an all-time album opener, and despite some duds (for all its coiled anger and atmospheric freakouts, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" is undone by its tacky central riff), Black Star never loses its capacity to surprise.

10. PJ Harvey: Hope Six Demolition Project

A highlight from this year: emerging from an overwhelming PJ Harvey concert at the Shrine Expo Hall in Los Angeles with a renewed appreciation for Hope Six Demolition Project, then blasting the buoyant opening track in my car while driving past the still-dispersing crowd. It was on that night that I settled on this latest LP as a special work—not as monumental as Let England Shake per se, but a very worthy companion piece nonetheless. From the day of its release, claims of flippant white privilege dogged the album, which reflects in diaristic fashion on Harvey's experiences in the war-torn Middle East and in Washington D.C. and finds much to lament in the contemporary world's abuses of power and pockets of crippling disenfranchisement ("This is how the world will end," she rightly concedes). As long as Harvey's writing music and not legislation, I expect her to record her thoughts and feelings in an honest way, not to prophesize about paths to prosperity. And for Harvey, for whom restless evolution is an artistic M.O. and whose decades as a performer have involved countless leaps in persona from album to album, an acknowledgment of her own critical distance from abject poverty and inability to directly reverse it feels par for the course. What compels most about Hope Six Demolition Project is the ongoing collision of different styles and aesthetics (hard rock and blues, marching band theatrics and hypnotic incantations, Harvey's ethereal voice and the call-and-responses of macho background singers), which occurs not just on a song-to-song level but within compositions. That a charging rocker like "The Wheel" can segue so fluidly into a placid elegy like "Dollar, Dollar" is indicative of the musical range on offer here.

11. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon: S/T

Mark Kozelek's continuing retreat from conventional song structures and melodies, which has occasioned a new spurt of productivity in the last few years, apexes with this uncategorizable collaboration with guitarist Justin Broadrick of Jesu and Godflesh (already present in the Kozelek universe via Mark's description of him as a "hungry great white" on Universal Themes). It's not the most successful entry in Kozelek's ragged back catalogue, but it's certainly the weirdest, metamorphosing as it does from a sludgy black metal album to a vaguely danceable collection of slow-mo electronica about halfway through. The guitar-based pieces are jagged, sonically narrow and a bit of a distraction if you're trying to hear the lyrics, but in the latter mode, Broadrick excels at spinning dark cocoons of sound that function as ideal backdrop for Kozelek's streams of casually profound mundanity, which ebb and flow without following predictable narrative arcs. At some point, I'll need to write at length about whatever it is that moves me so deeply about Kozelek's new lyrical approach, but suffice to say that, with the leap into spoken word and absurdly specific personal anecdote, he's tapping into a level of unfiltered intimacy that reaps huge emotional dividends. That's nowhere more apparent than on album closer "Exodus," a harrowing act of empathy for grieving parents that I needed this year following the death of a close friend.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Always Shine (2016) A Film by Sophia Takal

"Shot in Southern California and set in a culture of fledgling film-industry types, Sophia Takal's Always Shine is also a film that feels acutely like it was manufactured in a development office on La Cienega Boulevard. It's Queen of Earth meets Mulholland Drive, Passion with a dash of Persona, The Neon Demon in the atmospheric key of Martha, Marcy, May Marlene. It won't take a cinephile to recognize these touch points, and that probably wouldn't bother Takal, who makes sure to signal on numerous occasions—through shots of camera lenses, glimpses of electronic slates, and direct-to-camera addresses—that Always Shine isn't just an entertainment product with echoes of other films, but a narrative about the deforming, cannibalistic project of Hollywood."

Full review continues at Slant.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Illinois Parables (2016) A Film by Deborah Stratman

"The nature of Stratman’s decade-in-the-making project recalls the work of fellow Midwesterner David Gatten, particularly the monumental Secret History of the Dividing Line, a similarly long-brewing endeavor that burrows into the implications of an obscure bit of pre-colonial American history around the Virginia and North Carolina border. Stratman even has a likeminded fondness for bygone texts, whether in her embrace of the tactile qualities of the printing press (sundry newspaper clippings are Xeroxed and optical-printed for our viewing pleasure), or in her use of epistolary ephemera on the soundtrack, such as a Ralph Waldo Emerson letter narrated by Gatten himself."

Full review at Slant.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Quiet Man (1952) A Film by John Ford

"This being a John Wayne role in a John Ford film, Sean never tips over fully to the dark side. But four years before The Searchers mined this very territory and became canonized for it, The Quiet Man derived much of its complexity from its flirtations with the murkier shades of its star's persona. Not only is Wayne's assimilated Yankee etched with a sense of privilege that touches on the nastier registers of American machismo, his shyness is pierced by a propensity for nonverbal bluntness, his initial social grace is later undermined by a pushiness in getting his way, and, most critically, his sterling physical form is recognized for its inclinations to violence. In a radically unorthodox gesture, Ford withholds any particulars regarding Sean's background as a boxer until a moment of tension with Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), Mary Kate's brutish brother, that dislodges a fragmented sense memory detailing his accidental murder of an opponent in the ring."

Full review of the new Olive Films 4K blu-ray at Slant Magazine.