Reviewing 2018

You want lists, motherfuckers…? I’ll give you lists.

But here’s the thing…

I’m not a critic anymore. Not a professional one, anyway. Not that I really ever was. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not trying to be a professional critic, anymore. I’m not even interested in trying to be. So here’s what this list isn’t: A Best of 2018. Some of the stuff on my list isn’t even from 2018. I don’t think ANY of the books on this list were published in 2018 (though I will get to FEEL FREE and CERTAIN AMERICAN STATES, eventually…), and film…? I think I’ve seen a grand total of 7 or 8 films this year, and my favorite among them was shot decades ago, so I don’t feel especially qualified to sound off on what was “Best.”

No, this list is more, How I Spent My 2018: Aesthetic High Points Edition. Me babbling about any art and entertainment related encounters I had this year that made an impact or left a significant impression on me. Obviously, I see a lot of value in the below-mentioned efforts, but I wouldn’t necessarily take them as recommendations. You’re not me, after all. Nor is there any implicit suggestion herein that they belong in any sort of pantheon other than my own personal one. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not so much writing about movies, or television, or music, as I am writing about myself. Maybe that’s what I’ve always done…

Here’s the other thing…

You asked for it.

We’ll start with TELEVISION…

And what is it about British TV writers named Steven…? Did the UK pass some obscure parliamentary motion several years ago demanding that, heretofore, a certain percentage of all high-quality television scribes are required to bear that name (in the same vein as the law passed by Congress in the mid-to-late 90’s declaring that the majority of postmodern American authors should be named Jonathan)…? Does the BBC have a “Steven” quota…?

In any case, though no new episodes were broadcast in 2018, this year will go down in my personal history as the year I discovered Steven Knight’s PEAKY fucking BLINDERS. Imagine THE GODFATHER meshed with MILLER’S CROSSING, set in 1920’s Birmingham, with a haunting, harrowing modern soundtrack (more on that later…) and you’ll come pretty close to the mark. Cillian Murphy’s mastermind middle child, Tommy Shelby, leads the titular gang, a sharply dressed family of Irish gypsy émigrés carving (sometimes literally) a place for themselves in the English criminal underworld. Epic and intimate, seedy and beautiful, sophisticated and savage, it gets better and better with each season (four, with another on the way…). Knight has a gift for balancing gritty, realistic drama with sometimes absurd humor and a bewitching undercurrent of something dark, ethereal, and fatalistic. New favorite show…

PEAKY BLINDERS, by the way, also features the reliably brilliant (except in FURY ROAD) Tom Hardy in the scene-stealing role of mad genius Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons. Despite his not-as-frequent-as-you-want-them-to-be appearances, he nearly succeeds in upstaging the rest of the cast (who are exceptional) every time he appears on screen. Hardy and Knight had worked together previously in 2013’s LOCKE (which made my Best of… List that year), so I was excited to discover that they co-created a TV series together last year: TABOO. The dark, ethereal undercurrents of PEAKY BLINDERS rise to the surface in this down and dirty tale of dark secrets, pagan religions, crime, incest, international intrigue, corporate corruption, and the slave trade, as Hardy’s long lost/presumed dead James Delaney returns home to early 1800’s England following the death of his father. Though slow-moving, Knight and the cast give the characters the charisma and vitality to win you over for the duration of the show’s slow burn, while its bleaker, blacker elements bring it, at times, to the edge of horror.

Which brings me to SHARP OBJECTS and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. Both released this year, no two shows left me so shaken and unsettled (in a good way). HBO’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, about small-town secrets, family dysfunction, and murder, slowly burrowed its way into my flesh and stayed there, thanks in large part to Jean-Marc Vallee’s sinister directing and editing, and Amy Adams’ layered, damaged performance. Though initially irked by the almost rimshot-style ending, I can’t deny that its final images have haunted me in the months since…

And speaking of haunted…

Mike Flanagan’s HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is not an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, but a Frankenstein-esque creature stitched seamlessly together from various elements and tropes found therein. I expected something like Flanagan’s OCULUS: some good, scary fun, but nothing especially profound. And yet as I watched episode after episode, I found myself in the clutch of a creeping, cathartic despair. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is actually about child abuse, addiction, or mental illness, but in his tale of the damage wrought on the Crane family by their experiences in Hill House, Flanagan makes dramatic and affecting use of those recognizable patterns, channeling them into larger, existential musings about fear and loss.

Chan-wook Park’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL is one of those 70’s nostalgia trips that leaves me wondering if it was “brilliantly directed” or just “directed in a particular style that I happen to like” (see also: SICARIO, DRIVE, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY), but regardless, it’s less a 70’s style politically-minded spy thriller than a 70’s style meditation on the psychological toll of intelligence stagecraft, featuring top-notch performances from Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgard, and Michael Shannon.

DAREDEVIL’s third season may have been its best, featuring the full-fledged return of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, and the introduction of Wilson Bethel’s troubled, sympathetic Bullseye. So, of course, Netflix cancelled it.

THE AFFAIR got back on track, for the most part, with its fourth season, and, really, any initial unsteadiness or not-entirely-earned dramatic reversals one could complain about matter very little when there’s Maura Tierney.

And I finally got around to watching THE CROWN, which was really pretty good, and not the glamorous commercial for monarchy I expected it to be… I should have known better when I saw it was Peter Morgan… I still stand by THE QUEEN as a great film… Very much in that vein…

Lastly, one of the great things about having children is that you get hip to a lot of shows you otherwise wouldn’t (though, with me, it’s hard to say, but…). One of the best discoveries I’ve made through my children this year has been STAR VS. THE FORCES OF EVIL. What starts out as an aggressively quirky fish-out-of-water fantasy evolves over its three seasons (so far) into the story of a generations-old epic battle, investigating the nature of good and evil and all the grey areas in between, tribalism, love, loyalty, the lengths we’re willing to go to when we’re certain we’re right, and the deals we’re willing to make when we’re desperate, and all without ever losing its manic sense of humor. Hands down, the best children’s show I’ve seen since PHINEAS & FERB (which wasn’t all that long ago, but still…).

All of that was more than enough to counterbalance the mild letdowns of WESTWORLD’s anti-dramatic data dump of a second season and the flat, cloying, Spielberg-y saintliness of Chris Chibnall’s DOCTOR WHO, which was enough to sap my enjoyment of Jodie Whittaker’s delightful take on the character…

I was going to do BOOKS last, since it’s section least likely to be read, anyway. But then, I thought, why not do books second since it’s the section least likely to be read…?

Not that I’m impugning anyone’s level of literacy. Books are just more of a time commitment than movies, TV, or music, and most people already know what they like, or what they’re looking to like, so they’re not as much in the market for recommendations, especially from someone with tastes like mine. (As a result, this section will also probably be the most unapologetically self-indulgent…)

But speaking of knowing what you like and tastes like mine…

Like most people, I made most of my formative literary discoveries in my teens and early twenties. But in the last several years, probably as a result of shifting my personal artistic focus to literary prose, I’ve found myself experiencing – if it’s not too pretentious a thing to say – a literary renaissance, of sorts. And I’ve made a number of discoveries and rediscoveries that have proven no less influential to me in my middle age.

So, maybe, less a literary renaissance than a literary reformation… Haha…

Not that I’ve rejected or renounced any of those early inspirations. (Sorry, Kinder Gentler Reader: Nietzsche and Henry Miller are still cornerstones. But they’re also still keeping company with Dostoevksy, Ralph Ellison, and Douglas Adams…) My foundations are still my foundations. It’s just that, these days, much to my surprise, I seem to be adding a second story. (So to speak… Haha…)

Some have been first-time encounters with writers, like Thomas Bernhard or Roberto Bolano, whose work swept me off my feet and took up immediate residence in my soul. Others have been revisitations with authors, like Borges or Melville, whose work I first encountered years or decades ago, but whose work has now opened itself up to me in new, astonishing ways. (Or, I guess, more accurately, time has opened me up to it…)

For the longest time, HEART OF DARKNESS was all I knew of JOSEPH CONRAD. I had read it in high school, and being both a cinephile and a philistine, I didn’t look upon it as much more than the literary inspiration for APOCALYPSE NOW. But one of the advantages of having your entire library (which, if you’re a reader worth your salt, contains a number of books you’ve not yet cracked) boxed up in a storage locker thousands of miles away, is that you find yourself looking to see what books Amazon offers as free downloads for your newly acquired Kindle. (Hint: They’re usually agreed upon classics…) So, back in 2013, having fully shaken off the shackles of cinematic ambition, I decided, on a whim, to return to HEART OF DARKNESS and give Conrad’s slim volume a chance to sink or swim on its own merits.

And Holy Shit.

One of my favorite books as a kid was William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES (still is one of my favorites, actually), and how I had been so blind to it before I don’t know, but HEART OF DARKNESS is basically LORD OF THE FLIES for grown-ups, digging deeper into many of the same themes, but with more subtlety and complexity. Conrad renders Marlowe’s journey in lush, evocative prose, giving it the impact of both a nightmare and an epic journey in just a few, short chapters. As an artistic accomplishment, it not only equals but surpasses APOCALYPSE NOW (and also has the edge in coming first). The point is, I made up my mind, then and there, to dive headlong into Conrad’s oeuvre.

Which I did. Starting this year.

(Yes, I am an erratic, unfaithful, deeply promiscuous reader…)

Having now completed THE SECRET AGENT and UNDER WESTERN EYES, with NOSTROMO and THE SHADOW LINE on deck, Conrad strikes me as nothing less than the English language (despite being Polish) heir to Dostoevsky. Which is somewhat ironic because Conrad hated Dostoevsky. But, like Dostoevsky, Conrad weaves the political, the philosophical, and the primal into grand, character-driven narratives, addressing the issues of his day by delving deep into the psychological frictions at their core. Both men were skeptical, if not condemnatory, of the revolutionary impulses taking hold in their homelands, but also gifted with a sympathetic authorial insight that prevented them from flattening their conflicts or their characters into something soothing or easily digestible. The people who inhabit their novels are vital, passionate, complex, and often tortured, yet utterly recognizable and relatable, despite their extremity. Everyone we encounter is unique and uniquely human.  Where Conrad differs from Dostoevsky (and, perhaps, this was the root of his dislike) is his rejection of easy resolutions. An emigrant by circumstance, and a seafarer by trade, Conrad, perhaps, had seen too much of the world to see much hope in it. Dostoevsky’s spirituality is nowhere in Conrad, replaced by a bottomless skepticism and a near-tragic melancholy. Where Dostoevsky’s protagonists always seem to find some strained salvation in the end (though, whatever precedes it is always powerful and profound enough to offset any dissatisfaction I might feel with his forced finales), Conrad refuses all but the faintest glimmer of redemption for his own. You can just make it out in Kurtz’s horror, Verloc’s confession, Razumov’s penance. But it’s never enough to deliver them from their fate. As the man, himself, said, “We live in the flicker.”

And speaking of skepticism and hopelessness…

EMIL CIORAN might be ALBERT CAMUS’ evil twin, his shadowy reflection and philosophical foil, the nihilistic Joker to his idealistic Batman. (Yeah… I stand by that…) If you know me at all, you know I’ve lived with my distant cousin Albert and his work since my teen years. For a variety of curiously disconnected reasons, I’ve also been revisiting a lot of it recently, rereading THE STRANGER, THE FALL, EXILE AND THE KINGDOM, and THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS. And this year, finally, for the first time, I’ve been making my way through THE REBEL (almost done with it, in fact). Simultaneously, I have been reading Cioran’s ANATHEMAS AND ADMIRATIONS (just finished with it, in fact), a collection of essays on some of the significant thinkers and artists in Cioran’s life, interspersed with chapters of his own wry, incisive, often pessimistic and misanthropic aphorisms. Camus and Cioran both possessed a vast and penetrating insight into human nature, human history, and the human condition, which they expressed with remarkable clarity and potency. Camus was a lapsed communist who came to see how quickly rebellion corrupted into despotism (it is, in fact, one of THE REBEL’S central themes). Cioran was a former fascist who grew to reject fascism’s narrowness and repent his involvement with it. But coming from opposite sides of the spectrum, both arrived at a shared understanding of the absurdity inherent in trying to improve the world. (Both books are, in fact, extremely relevant in the current political climate. Cioran’s near-novella length essay on Joseph de Maistre is essential to anyone seeking to understand right-wing extremism, and THE REBEL ought to be required reading for the current crop of SJW’s, though, of course, it’s just another book by another old, white male…) The difference between them was that Camus, ever the Sisyphean, never ceased pushing his philosopher’s stone up a moral mountain, searching for some form of honorable, humanist existence, while Cioran embraced an antic – almost gleeful – nihilism and misanthropy, living in near isolation in Paris, lobbing literary grenades at humanity’s false hopes and futile ideals. They now reside as fenceless neighbors on my bookshelf, across the quad from Dostoevsky and Conrad.

Cioran, incidentally, was good friends with SAMUEL BECKETT in his later years. Like any apostate of the dramatic arts, I already knew Beckett from WAITING FOR GODOT, ENDGAME, etc., but Cioran’s essay on Beckett in ANATHEMAS AND ADMIRATIONS sent me scurrying for his prose. In my typically backwards fashion, I started with a collection of his last novellas: COMPANY, ILL SEEN ILL SAID, WORSTWARD HO, STIRRINGS STILL and a few shorter pieces. Written in a spare, angular, minimalist style I found revolutionary and revelatory, Beckett slowly grows his stories from one word or phrase to the next. Context develops at an almost agonizing pace, as possible interpretations narrow, details emerging organically, out of absolute necessity. Reading them was like watching the gradual formation of a crystalline structure. Or, to put it another way, if one posits James Joyce as a literary Charlie Parker, Beckett can be seen as Thelonious Monk. As a writer, I found it tremendously liberating, having attempted similarly minimalistic styles in my own writing projects in the past. Too often, though, I would lose confidence in my own method, and begin freighting my narratives with enough extraneous explanation to crush them utterly. In that regard, Beckett’s stories were a welcome reminder to trust my own voice. Their impact, however, was more than stylistic. Or, more accurately, Beckett’s narratives reflect his style, relating the internal monologues of impoverished characters groping for some knowledge or comprehension of their situations and surroundings, often using language as a cipher, in the hopes of arriving at some measure of resolution or peace. While their stylistic brilliance is immediate and astounding, the stories also conceal a poignancy that sneaks up on you, transforming admiration into awe. Having finished the later works, I’ve backed up to the early middle, and am now knee-deep in MOLLOY… And I’m sure I’ll continue from there, but Beckett has already taken his place in my personal pantheon…

And speaking of Irish writers…

I finally got around to Eimear McBride’s sophomore offering, THE LESSER BOHEMIANS, this year. Though not as challenging, stylistically or emotionally, as her debut, A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING, it is nonetheless an impressive and affecting literary feat, proving she’s still one of the best writers currently out there. One could actually read LESSER BOHEMIANS as GIRL’S more approachable and optimistic sister novel, as both fearlessly depict a young girl’s sexual self-discovery opening a gateway to a deeper existential need. But where GIRL was grueling, grim, and grief-stricken, LESSER BOHEMIANS, for all its naked honesty and eccentricity, is, at heart, an old-fashioned love story. Though, let it be said, a thoughtful and thoroughly earned one…

An entirely different kind of love story – or perhaps, more accurately, detachment story – can be found in Catherine Lacey’s THE ANSWERS. An ill and isolated New Yorker auditions for a psychology experiment/celebrity reality show called “The Girlfriend Experiment,” and finds herself lost in a haze of uncertain feelings, attachments, and memories in this dreamy, diaphanous examination of the ways in which the personal is being increasingly stripped of its humanity in our increasingly impersonal world…

My recent, unofficial, and appropriately non-committal study of Taoism continued this year with THE BOOK OF CHUANG TZU (aka THE ZHUANGZI). Its thirty-three chapters provide a vivid cross-section of how inspired ideas corrupt into something prescribed and systemic. The first seven chapters, called the Inner Chapters, are believed to be genuinely authored by Chuang Tzu, and they overflow with unconventional wisdom, mischievous humor, and subversive insights. Intended as satires of Confucianism as much as meditations on the Tao, it’s amazing how modern and challenging to various norms they still seem. The Outer Chapters, 8 through 22, were probably written by Chuang Tzu’s followers, and, for the most part, do little more than flesh out or restate the ideas presented in the Inner Chapters, but with all the wit and flair you would expect from a committee of disciples. The Mixed Chapters, 23 to 33, are a mixed bag. Authored by who the fuck knows, some get close to the piercing parables of the first seven, but they still seem to be in service of an established set of ideas. Not that there’s anything especially doctrinaire about Taoism. It is, by definition, devoid of dogma. It’s just that parroted and paraphrased enlightenment can’t help but lose some of its lustre. Those first seven, though…

And speaking of challenging norms…

Sam Harris’ FREE WILL delivers a compact and concise demolition of its titular concept, while John Bargh’s BEFORE YOU KNOW IT entertainingly describes the scientific research and experimentation that support an embrace of neuropsychological determinism. Bargh’s not a determinist, himself, reserving a limited belief in human volition, but as he, himself, notes, if you refuse to acknowledge the ways in which your actions and decisions are influenced by external factors, you will forever be a slave to them. Or, to put it another way, maintaining a belief in free will might be the best way to ensure you don’t have any. In any case, if, after reading these, you don’t find yourself questioning your subjective experience of choice, you should probably, at the very least, question your intellectual integrity…

Lewis Hyde’s TRICKSTER MAKES THIS WORLD is a thorough and artful survey of the trickster archetype in all its various manifestations across human culture, past and present. Equal parts exploration and celebration, it’s essential for anyone who, like me, takes a particular interest in the topic. Hyde acts as anthropologist, historian, storyteller, critic, psychologist, and shaman, expounding eloquently on every facet of this complex and often troublesome trope. Some of his associations may occasionally seem to be stretches, but the patterns he observes and portraits he paints are, like the trickster archetype itself, indelible.

And, finally, Kenneth Burke’s PHILOSOPHY OF LITERARY FORM is a collection of essays that, taken as a whole, presage his conception of dramatism, which he would lay out fully in his following work, A GRAMMAR OF MOTIVES, but that are each equally mind-blowing taken on their own. More than just a linguist and literary critic, Burke was a philosopher, and he expounds enlighteningly on everything from aesthetics to warfare to Freudian psychology, dissecting the role played by language, and the shaping of it, in every facet of our lives.

MOVIES…

I used to care about MOVIES…

I was never one of those irritating cinemaniacs who “tries to see everything.” That way, madness lies. (Besides, I maintain that, once you’re fluent enough in the medium and its many movers and shakers, there are films you don’t need to see to know what you think of them…) But there used to be a large number of filmmakers whose work I would eagerly watch and wait for (or, perhaps, vice-versa). I’d keep my eyes on press and previews for anything new that looked potentially interesting or exciting. And I’d lap up the Year End Lists of various critics, on the lookout for anything that might have escaped my attention…

To a degree, my methods haven’t changed.

But the number of filmmakers whose work I’m eager to see has dwindled to a happy few. The new films described by today’s press and previews as, “interesting and exciting,” tend not to look that way to me. (And on those occasions when I have taken their word for it and made the effort to check something out, I have most often been met with, if not disappointment, then, at least, something that lived down to my expectations.) And when I consume the critics’ Year End Lists, these days, I’m usually desperately seeking something… ANYTHING… that sounds like it might rehabilitate my burnout or break my boredom with an art form that used to be endlessly fascinating to me…

No, it’s not the superhero movies. I actually really enjoy the Marvel Universe…

Anyway, it’s true that my standards for film have always been… OK, maybe not especially high, but… singular. Rustling up ten to twenty films that I thought merited inclusion on a Year End List was always something of a challenge. But, today, I’m lucky if I can come up with five… I’m lucky if, in a given year, I actually SEE five…

Makes you wonder why I’m bothering to do this, at all, doesn’t it…?

At the very least, I can say that 2018 brought one of the most exciting film releases of my life, from an all-time favorite filmmaker, one that I have been eagerly anticipating for, literally, decades. I’m talking, of course, about Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Welles’ family, friends, and fans, was finally completed and released this year. (Now if only someone could dig up that long, lost cut of AMBERSONS…) Even if the film were no fucking good, it would be a milestone cinematic event. But not only is it good, it is – as you might expect – genius. Glorying in cinematic craft, while choking on loathing for Hollywood, the film takes place over a single night, depicting the birthday party of renowned studio filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston). Shot in mockumentary style on multiple cameras using different stocks, the approach allows Welles to incorporate (and even further innovate) the rough and gritty shooting/editing styles that had become the hallmark of the young 1970’s upstarts who were bursting onto the scene, while also maintaining many of his own signature flourishes (overlapping dialogue, whiplash pans, expertly choreographed staging, etc.). We’re also given glimpses of Hannaford’s latest film, in which Welles wickedly satirizes the pretentions of self-consciously arty filmmakers, deflating their hollow grandeur with typically Welles-ian grandiosity. It’s never short of dazzling to watch, and invigorating to keep up with. But its greatest impact is in its tonality, which appropriately mirrors the arc of a Hollywood party: Buzzing with energy and wit at the beginning, then slowing as Welles peels back the protective poses and postures of his characters, revealing the festering frustrations and resentments underneath, before finally leaving them, at the end of the night, alone and wasted in the sour puddles of their ruined egos. It’s an unforgiving indictment of a culture that makes monsters that, in turn, make monstrosities, and it left me feeling sick and sad for days. But, like any Welles film, it’s one of the finest you’ll ever see. The sort of film that’s simultaneously ahead of its time, but that no one makes anymore.

Almost…

Alfonso Cuaron has long been one of the aforementioned happy few, whose work I have followed avidly for some years, but the empty exercise of 2013’s GRAVITY, I confess, left my faith a little dented. Thankfully, he has more than redeemed himself with ROMA, which is not only one of the best films of the last year, but of the last decade (that I’ve seen, anyway… Haha…). The title refers to the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City where the film takes place, but given the film’s black and white photography, proletarian sympathies, and Cuaron’s masterful ability to capture the rough rhythms of daily life, it might be tempting to see it additionally as an homage to Italian neorealist classics like Rosselini’s ROMA CITTA APERTA or Pasolini’s MAMA ROMA. The read would be misguided, however (and the association may be a playful, misleading wink on Cuaron’s part), because ROMA is less concerned with realism than reminiscence. Taking as its focus Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the live-in maid and nanny to a wealthy local family, ROMA is a deeply personal act of reverence and remembrance, in which Cuaron’s camera, far from being an objective spectator, functions instead as his mind’s eye, moving intently through his characters’ lives, creating sensual, evocative, often breathtaking images that reveal his intimate, if temporally removed, involvement. But ROMA is also much more than mere nostalgia. Cuaron, in fact, sidesteps easy sentiment at every turn. Not content to create a simple character study or family drama, he has instead created a vital portrait of an entire neighborhood, a city – a world, in fact. One that continues to pulse and breathe, even when existing outside the frame. At times, small, personal events in Cleo’s life seem to ripple outward, echoing in the lives of others, or in the movements of the city, itself. Planes constantly fly overhead in the background of numerous scenes, reminding us that life is something larger than any single moment and that it is constantly in motion. And, conversely, that what seems small and simple from a distance can become weighty and significant when experienced up close. ROMA doesn’t make Cleo the most important person in the world. It just makes her a person in the world – an active participant, whose life affects and impacts other lives, and is affected and impacted by them – and that is enough to make her essential. Written, directed, shot, and edited by Cuaron, himself, and dedicated to “Libo,” (Cuaron’s own live-in maid and nanny from childhood), ROMA is a true labor of love. (It’s worth noting that the title is also “amor” backwards.) It’s the sort of film you can’t believe got made in today’s cinematic climate. And it may be Cuaron’s masterpiece.

Brad Bird always insisted he wouldn’t make sequel to THE INCREDIBLES unless he felt it was equal to, or better than, the original. And with INCREDIBLES 2, he made good on that promise. The film literally picks up where the first film left off, continuing to tweak superhero conventions, while further developing the Parr family dynamic in recognizable and relatable ways. As in the first film, the hero/villain conflict raises worthwhile questions (uncomfortable even for some adults), this time about our willingness to make ourselves reliant to the point of dependency on everything from technology, to corporations, to self-proclaimed heroes…

And speaking of superheroes…

I want to take a moment to commend the Russo Bros. and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR for toying narratively and thematically with the notion of Thanos as the film’s protagonist, while also chastising them for lacking the courage of their conception and not following through on it. Also, for making an epic team-up that, thanks, in part, to their lack of resolve, was neither as epic, nor as entertaining as it should have been. (I’ll also just add, for those who are wondering, that, unlike everyone else, I found BLACK PANTHER to be a pretty average entry in the franchise, whose last real high-water mark remains last year’s THOR: RAGNAROK…)

But speaking of chastising…

Spike Lee and Paul Schrader are two more filmmakers I cherish among my happy few, so I was excited to see their two latest offerings – BLACKkKLANSMAN and FIRST REFORMED, respectively – roundly praised by critics and included on a significant number of year end lists. Imagine my disappointment…

(Because I know everyone’s favorite part of these Year End retrospectives is when I get all contrarian about widely celebrated films…)

It’s not that BLACKkKLANSMAN is a bad film. (Spike Lee has done far worse…) It’s just not especially good. (He’s also done far better…) My objections to it are not, like Boots Riley’s, political or historical, but aesthetic. (Though, in this case, the true story of Ron Stallworth may have had more dramatic potential than the – sorry about this – whitewash we’re presented with…) Its biggest problem is that it’s a flat, uninteresting film that can’t quite decide what it wants to be and, as a result, ends up being not much at all. Not funny enough to be a comedy, but not dramatic enough to be a drama, certainly not daring, provocative, or experimental enough to be a showcase for Lee’s singular talents, it’s almost impossible to engage with on any level. The performances are solid all around, but no one is really given much to work with. Possibilities for conflict or complexity are quickly glossed over, leaving a weak narrative about two earnest, capable cops infiltrating a racist secret society made up almost entirely of incompetent, monomaniacal buffoons. At one point, Adam Driver’s Flip questions whether the Klan poses enough of a threat to be worth their time. The way Lee presents them, it’s hard not to feel like he has a point…

FIRST REFORMED is basically a retread of TAXI DRIVER, in which, rather than a lonely, alienated war vet driven to the edge by the urban disease of vice and criminality he finds himself immersed in daily, we are given a lonely, alienated priest driven to the edge by an ecological anxiety that infects him in the aftermath of a parishioner’s suicide. (Oh… spoilers…) The film is not without its qualities. Ethan Hawke’s performance as the priest in question, Father Toller, is a career zenith, and there are aspects of emotional deterioration that no one captures quite as effectively as Schrader. The problem here is that Schrader is too close to the material and he lacks both the technique and the perspective that Scorsese brought to TAXI DRIVER, which kept it from descending into either self-parody or DEATH WISH-style hysteria (if, in fact, those are different things…). Scorsese allows us to identify with Travis Bickle, but also to laugh at him, and there are plenty of moments in the film when we find ourselves wanting to laugh and cry simultaneously. We feel his pain, while also recognizing the tragic absurdity of his situation. Schrader, by contrast, presents FIRST REFORMED with deadly seriousness, and the laughs – more than a few, I’m sorry to say – are entirely unintentional. The film’s final moments are enough to make you want to throw something at the screen…

So, why the widespread praise for these uneven mediocrities…? My theory is that Lee and Schrader, two filmmakers celebrated for their willingness to confront their audiences with uncomfortable and unpleasant truths, have finally delivered a pair of “feel good” movies.

“WHAT…!?!” I hear you saying, “Feel good movies…!?!”

OK. What they’ve really done is invented a new kind of “feel good” movie that is, perhaps, better described as a, “feel good about feeling bad,” movie. BLACKkKLANSMAN panders to the anti-Trump hysterics with its insinuation (if something so pedantic can be called an insinuation) that David Duke’s master plan was an unmitigated success, and he finally got one of his own into the White House. There are a ton of worthy (and even convincing) arguments asserting that, whatever formal history might say, the South was the true victor in the Civil War, and that the U.S. government is a white supremacist hothouse. But BLACKkKLANSMAN is not one of them. It’s just designed to reinforce the momentary self-righteous panic of its intended audience. Similarly, while climate change and environmentalism are not FIRST REFORMED’s focus, narratively or thematically, it does didactically rattle off a lot of relevant facts in an effort to sanctify its protagonist’s noble disintegration, sparing the audience any moral uncertainty. I’m not saying that the actual facts in the environmental case aren’t clear. I’m saying that moral Manichaeism makes for poor drama and shrill, self-serious melodrama. And that, rather than challenging or unsettling their audiences, as they so often have in the past, Lee and Schrader have contented themselves with comfortably affirming their trendy outrage and despair.

MUSIC is all we have left…

I love writing about music… Probably because I don’t know anything about it…

More than any other art form, music is my most consistent source of solace, catharsis, and inspiration, but, much to my dismay, I’ve never shown any aptitude for it. As a result, when I listen to something, I can give only superficial consideration to questions of craft or technique. Sometimes I kid myself that I can recognize talent or ability when I hear it, but years of trying (and failing) to play various instruments, write songs, etc. have proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that sometimes what sounds easy is actually extremely challenging and vice-versa. So, in the end, the only critical criteria I possess when it comes to evaluating music is what it sounds like and what it conjures up in me…

And some might say that’s the whole point. I don’t know…

But the whole point of this is just to say that this will probably the longest and least aesthetically literate section of this retrospective. (Did I say the BOOKS section would be the most self-indulgent…? Hmmm…)

Lucky you…

By far, the single record that has spent the most time on my turntable this year (or, it would be if I bought records and owned a turntable) – the album that I have gotten the most out of, let’s say – has been ZEAL & ARDOR’s “STRANGER FRUIT.” Manuel Gagneux conceived of ZEAL & ARDOR in 2014 in response to a flippant challenge he received on 4chan, and created the world’s first Black Metal/Negro Spiritual fusion outfit. ZEAL & ARDOR’s 2016 debut, “DEVIL IS FINE,” recorded entirely by Gagneux on his laptop, showed promise, but was really an EP in disguise: a handful of knockout songs counterweighted by unfocused instrumental filler. “STRANGER FRUIT” both makes good on the promise of its predecessor and corrects its errors, and the result is dynamite. Possessing all the infernal ferocity of any Black Metal band, but also driven by Gospel passions and Blues melodies, each song is, all at once, terrifying, infectious, cathartic, galvanizing, even – dare I say…? – soulful. (Added bonus: unlike MAYHEM, you can sing along!) Even the quieter instrumental tracks are imbued with purpose, adding to the, by turns, hellish and haunted ambiance. But it’s not just the music that’s irresistible. With “STRANGER FRUIT,” Gagneux has crafted an alt-universe narrative that asks a provocative question: What if African slaves had embraced Satanism rather than Christianity? The answer plays out in fire and blood over the course of the album’s 16 tracks (I can’t listen to “Ship on Fire” without thinking of the slave revolt spurred by Orlando Jones’ Anansi in the first season of AMERICAN GODS), but its implications – obvious to anyone familiar with the ways in which Christianity was used, for centuries, to justify slavery and repress revolt – are left hanging, unsettlingly, like strange fruit…

But speaking of liberation…

While the rest of world continues to have orgasms over Kamasi Washington (who is, let it be said, a damn fine sax player), I remain riveted to BINKER & MOSES and their unique brand of semi-free jazz. Where their 2015 debut “DEM ONES” was taut, tight, and spare, their 2017 follow-up, “JOURNEY TO THE MOUNTAIN OF FOREVER” saw them stretch out into near epic territory. And this year’s live recording, “ALIVE IN THE EAST?” captures the best of both worlds, keeping the expanded instrumentation (two saxes, two drum sets, trumpet, and harp(!)) and the elemental/mythic explorations of their sophomore effort, while delivering a focused, hypnotic set that, like their debut, pushes out to the free fringes while remaining rooted – thanks, in large part, to Boyd’s breathtaking rhythmic command – in searing, soulful grooves. If “DEM ONES,” in its sax-and-drums minimalism, recalled Coltrane’s “INTERSTELLAR SPACE,” here, the no-longer-really-a-duo’s ecstatic collaboration brings to mind nothing so much as a latter-day “ASCENSION.” The inventive interplay between the five musicians is never short of Promethean, which seems more than appropriate given that the track titles suggest “ALIVE IN THE EAST?” as a musical creation myth. If any jazz ensemble can conjure a universe from their sound, it’s these guys…

But speaking of Coltrane…

It’s been a good year for unearthing lost works of genius. (Two of my favorite geniuses, in fact…) In addition to getting Welles’ OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, 2018 also saw the release of two “new” albums from JOHN COLTRANE, each capturing him at a different point of creative transformation…

BOTH DIRECTIONS AT ONCE is assembled from sessions recorded by the classic Quartet (Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison) in March of 1963. The title – likely chosen by Impulse! this year – is an apt one, as it finds the Quartet trying to balance the unbounded explorations of their live shows (best captured, perhaps, on THE COMPLETE 1961 VILLAGE VANGUARD RECORDINGS) with the more approachable sound urged by Impulse! on their studio recordings from that period. The Quartet were a little over a year away from the creative burst that would result in CRESCENT, and then A LOVE SUPREME, and while the music here never reaches that pitch of brilliance, it’s fascinating and rewarding to listen to four such incredibly gifted musicians search and struggle (the often underappreciated Garrison, in particular, gets a fine showing). The two untitled tracks (Untitled Originals 11383 and 11386, respectively… Try referencing those in cocktail party conversation…) probably come closest to the synthesis the Quartet was seeking, while the four different versions of “Impressions,” are a vital cross-section of, not just a single composition, but an entire musical approach in a state of flux.

The tracks on MILES DAVIS & JOHN COLTRANE: THE FINAL TOUR, BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 6 have been available for years in various combinations and permutations, but Columbia finally gave them an official release this year, and even though these live recordings date from 1960, they’re still as mind-blowing today as they must have been then. Documenting three live shows – in Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm – these dates, as their title indicates, would be the last time Miles and Trane would play together. Coltrane had already left the Miles Davis Quintet, having recorded the seminal GIANT STEPS the year before, and he had no desire to return. Davis pled and Coltrane reluctantly relented, but insisted he would not go backwards and would play as he was, not as he had been. The results, ranging from jarring to jaw-dropping, are a reminder that even the saintly Coltrane could be contentious when pushed, and that Davis, the uncompromising visionary, was always willing to allow his players their creative freedom. The Paris concert, in particular, shows Coltrane in shockingly aggressive form, challenging the audience and the Quintet, alike, with his wild excursions. The audience can even be heard arguing about him between numbers. By Copenhagen and Stockholm, the frictions seemed to have subsided somewhat. Coltrane is a little more relaxed, and the Quintet has found ways to accommodate him, but the entire box set makes for electrifying listening. There’s even a brief radio interview with Coltrane where he talks a little bit about where he’s at creatively and gives a shout out to fellow tenor genius Sonny Rollins…

But speaking of shockingly aggressive…

Every bit as brutal as “STRANGER FRUIT,” and no less accomplished, is DAUGHTERS’ triumphant don’t-call-it-a-comeback-because-we’re-all-going-to-die album, “YOU WON’T GET WHAT YOU WANT.” A harrowing, evocative record that sounds like nothing less than the soundtrack to the post-apocalypse, it’s not that it’s assaultively paced (though it has its moments) or features wall-to-wall shrieks and wails – DAUGHTERS long ago left any adherence to grindcore orthodoxy in the dust. But, while it could never be described as delicate, “YOU WON’T GET WHAT YOU WANT” is actually a remarkably textured and atmospheric record – almost ambient, at times – using its vivid builds and blasts to paint a desolate, damaged landscape. Percussive bursts echo like stray machine-gun fire, guitars cut through throbbing bass lines with siren-like urgency, and Alexis S.F. Marshall’s strained baritone suggests civilization’s final emergency radio broadcasts. There’s a prodigious amount of musicianship on display, but always in service of the album’s larger, bleaker vision, steering clear of self-indulgence, and becoming something much more – overwhelmingly, at times – than the sum of its parts.

Washington, D.C.’s RED HARE and Oakland’s SUPER UNISON keep the hardcore punk spirit alive without succumbing to the stagnancy that’s so often a by-product of the genres rigid strictures. The pugilistic power chords that punctuate RED HARE’s “LITTLE ACTS OF DESTRUCTION” are slashed through by guitarist Jason Farrell’s dissonant, angular riffs, mirroring the call-and-response vocal pattern of Shawn Brown’s grizzly wails and Farrell’s sardonic retorts. Brown and Farrell were founding members of the seminal (though underappreciated at the time) D.C. hardcore band SWIZ, but their efforts with RED HARE are no mere retread or nostalgia exercise. Their riffs and rhythms come colored by the musical careers they’ve enjoyed in the interim, injecting post-hardcore’s rhythmic and tonal innovations back into their roots. Similarly, on their second full-length, “STELLA,” SUPER UNISON’s Meghan O’Niel Pennie might shout and shriek with the best of her hardcore forbears, but churning and swirling beneath her howls are layered instrumental harmonies, shifting tempos, and melodic – sometimes, even delicate – guitar riffs reminiscent of nothing so much as 90’s alternative (in a good way). On “Comfort,” they even offer up what can only be described as a hardcore ballad, Pennie’s screams taking on the character of an impassioned plea. Both bands show that there’s still room to stretch within the confines of the genre, and rank alongside WESTERN ADDICTION and WHITE LUNG as the very best it has to offer.

And EMINEM dropped his surprise album “KAMIKAZE,” a dizzying dive-bomb aimed directly at the heart of our nation of scolds. It’s been interesting to note the fidgety response to the record, as critics and audiences have tied themselves in knots arguing that the album’s unapologetic offensiveness should be grounds for its dismissal, while barely touching on the fact that it’s Eminem’s fiercest and most focused effort since “THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP.” It’s not just his blistering feats of flow or whiplash wordplay, as he mercilessly lays waste, often at lightning speed, to anyone who’s recently had anything unkind to say about him. His production has also steadily improved over the years, and seems carefully calibrated here to provide sonic texture and stylistic variety to an album that is, on its surface, blindingly fast and furious. But, of course, there’s always more to Eminem than what’s apparent on the surface, and “KAMIKAZE” does possess moments of genuine introspection, however disguised. The misogynist finger-pointing in the blackly comic “Normal” is deliberately staged as a front for his own feelings of shame, confusion, and guilt about his relationship history. And “Stepping Stone,” far from being a mere nostalgia trip, contains a genuinely mournful apology at its core. Yes, the album’s overall attitude is puerile, arrogant, vulgar, and violent, but whether the politically correct gatekeepers of our society like it or not, that’s the mode in which Eminem’s remarkable talents have often found their most piercing expression. As any audit of art history will reveal, artists and their artistry have often been deemed socially unacceptable and even culturally corrosive, because truthful artistic expressions frequently demand that the artist embrace the value in what society considers offensive and objectionable. We often want to celebrate their talent, while simultaneously seeking to “tame” them, overlooking the fact that a wholesome, culturally conformed artist would be, like everyone else, too repressed to express anything genuinely truthful. To refuse to acknowledge that expressions of rage, ego, aggression and provocation can be powerful, inspiring, and even beautiful – to call a dramatic return to form like “KAMIKAZE” a “regression” – is not criticism, but a dishonest act of moral desperation.

And speaking of dark arts…

IHSAHN’S latest, “AMR,” might be described as the INLAND EMPIRE to the MULHOLLAND DRIVE of 2016’s exceptional “ARKTIS.” His focus on song craft is still in evidence, but as the album’s title indicates, the overall guiding vision is darker and less approachable. That’s not a bug (especially when discussing the work of a Black Metal icon), it’s a feature, as it’s never less than fascinating to hear mainstream musical elements deployed in service of something so uncompromisingly grim. On the Black Metal flipside, SIGH frontman, Mirai Kawashima, worried publicly that the band’s latest, “HEIR TO DESPAIR” would be too personal and idiosyncratic for fans to enjoy. Of course, anyone who knows the band knows that unpredictability is an essential part of their creative signature, and in that respect, “HEIR TO DESPAIR” fits perfectly within their catalogue. Though not as grandly theatrical as 2015’s “GRAVEWARD,” much of it sounds like the SIGH we know and love. The new twists and turns, such as the inclusion of traditional Japanese melodies and instrumentation, or the psychedelic synth-driven trilogy, “Heresies,” are not only welcome innovations, but serve to add a sense of intimacy (for SIGH) and make “HEIR TO DESPAIR” their most intriguing listen since “IMAGINARY SONICSCAPE.”

But speaking of unpredictable twists and turns…

Though the title of SONS OF KEMET’s Impulse! debut, “YOUR QUEEN IS A REPTILE,” makes it sound like a harsh indictment, the music contained within is nothing short of exultant. An irresistible synthesis of sounds, dual drummers Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner, along with Theon Cross on tuba, lay down a blend of Afro-Cuban and Brass Band grooves, while leader and reed player Shabaka Hutchings preaches and wails through his sax in a variety of styles, as the spirit moves him. There’s even some spoken word poems/raps on a handful of tracks, courtesy of Joshua Idehen and Congo Natty. What’s remarkable is how organic – and infectious – all these disparate elements become when brought together, unifying in what the track titles reveal are not a series of condemnations, but counter-celebrations, each an ode to an iconic black woman the ensemble has chosen to honor as their Queen.

A similar synthesis of disparate sounds, though more melancholic and avant-garde, can be found on AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE’s “ORIGAMI HARVEST.” Akinmusire teams with the classical Mivos String Quartet and rapper Kool AD to create a series of moody meditations on America and moving memorials to black lives unjustly lost. Throughout, Akinmusire is often content to step back and allow the Quartet to carry the major portion of the music, his trumpet less a lead instrument than a haunting presence, momentarily materializing, then fading away. Simultaneously caustic and delicate, those looking for anything resembling a traditional jazz album will be disconcerted initially, and “ORIGAMI HARVEST” can make for forbidding listening. But such daring explorations are not only the essence of jazz, as in this case, they often pack a powerful, poignant punch.

And speaking of poignancy…

EMMA RUTH RUNDLE made no secret of the fact that the writing and recording of 2016’s “MARKED FOR DEATH” was so physically and emotionally taxing, it nearly killed her. And as anyone who has heard that album knows, the anguish and the stakes were viscerally palpable. Few albums can boast its level of intensity or emotional impact. Her follow-up, “ON DARK HORSES,” finds her psyche and her songwriting on firmer ground, and as a result, has left me struggling with myself. Like all her work, “ON DARK HORSES” is a heavy, haunting, beautifully crafted album, more than worthy of praise. In many ways, it’s a more controlled and disciplined album than “MARKED FOR DEATH.” But, as such, would it be fair of me, as a fan or a critic, to suggest that there might be something missing…? It seems shortsighted and selfish to demand – or even request – that our beloved artists destroy themselves for their art. And when I read that Rundle had kindled a revitalizing romance with JAY JAYLE’s Evan Patterson (the pair duet on the tellingly titled “Light Song,” which is one of the album’s most beautiful tracks, reminiscent of Rundle’s best work with THE NOCTURNES), I was genuinely happy for her. (Or, you know, as genuinely happy as a person gets for someone they know only through their artistic output.) But as lush and brilliant as “ON DARK HORSES” is, it simply doesn’t punch me in the gut, crawl inside me, hollow me out, and leave me heaving the way “MARKED FOR DEATH” does. And, reading that back, I have to ask: Is that even a criticism…? And let’s say she HAD produced something as mercilessly cathartic as “MARKED FOR DEATH,” would doing so have somehow retroactively reduced its predecessor’s power and personal impact…? I don’t know. Perhaps we simply need to let an artist’s towering achievements stand, and not allow their long shadows to obscure that which might seem lesser only by comparison. To insist on anything more, even for an unforgiving critic like myself, would be… (sorry about this…) ruthless.

Finally, two different trios produced two very different, but equally exciting, instrumental albums this year. THE MESSTHETICS pairs Brendan Canty and Joe Lally, known primarily as Fugazi’s rocksteady backbone, with jazz/avant-garde guitarist Anthony Pirog, and the results, as documented on their self-titled debut, are as sensational as you’d expect. Canty and Lally haven’t lost a shred of their singular synergy in the years since Fugazi announced their hiatus, and given that their post-hardcore rhythmic stylings have always incorporated jazzy flights and flourishes, Pirog proves to be a perfect fit, seamlessly blending his own sound with theirs. Running the gamut from aggressive thrashers to angular, HOVERCRAFT-esque excursions, to quietly hypnotic meditations, some of the tracks might leave you pining for a Fugazi reunion (optimally with the new addition of Pirog on lead), but there’s no doubt that this trio is a force to be reckoned with on their own. And NIGHT VERSES, on their latest release, “FROM THE GALLERY OF SLEEP,” create such a thick, layered, spiraling sound, full of racing, snaky riffs and intricate percussion, it’s sometimes hard to believe there’s only three of them. Each distinctive track has its own ebb and flow, but there’s an oceanic fluidity to the album as a whole that carries you buoyantly over its tidal swells, as the trio gracefully flows in and out of numerous genres, from punk to prog to psychedelia, without ever sounding indulgent or unfocused. Though it’s tempting, at times, to try and untangle each track’s dense orchestrations, it’s best to just give yourself up to the journey.

Oh, did I say, “Finally…?”

Because, it’s true, that’s the music I found most interesting that was released THIS YEAR, but…

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the secret Facebook musical cosa nostra that I was inducted into last year… Or, I guess, year before last, now…

Normally, I don’t much like being a member of anything, but this is really sort of the musical equivalent of a book club (only with a lot of weird rites, rituals, and by-laws that it’s probably best I don’t get into), and while I don’t like book clubs, because I want to read what I want to read when I want to read it, and it usually takes me months, anyway, as I noted earlier, music is a little different because it’s not as much of a time commitment…

The point:

Thanks to this little group whose existence I’m not even supposed to speak of, I’ve made a couple of great discoveries this year…

The first is Australia’s KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But don’t let the name fool you: They’re EXACTLY what that name would lead you to believe. Namely, some unholy hybrid of FRANK ZAPPA, KING CRIMSON, and LED ZEPPELIN with a west coast punk rock fuel injector. If that doesn’t intrigue you, check out 2016’s “NONAGON INFINITY.” If that doesn’t do it for you, you’re probably hopeless, but you can also check out any of the five – that’s right, five – albums they released in 2017, including a sci-fi rock opera, a jazz collaboration, an album of microtonal explorations, and a more straightforward (for them) rock album released in the public domain. You might think five albums in a year would tax a band’s creativity. You’d be wrong. Every one of them is inventive, eccentric, and inspired. The only thing this band can’t do is stop…

But speaking of stopping…

This is the last bit. I swear.

But this one is also, far and away, the best and most important musical discovery I’ve made this year. And if you want to talk about coming late to the party…

I’ve always known ABOUT Nick Cave. I knew who he was. I had heard OF his band THE BAD SEEDS. Had I ever actually HEARD his band THE BAD SEEDS…? I don’t know. There’s a part of me that thinks, if I had, I would have climbed onboard a long time ago. But there’s also part of me that knows how erratically prejudicial I could be about music in my youth…

A few years ago, though, I read an article about a band called THE BIRTHDAY PARTY. This was apparently Nick Cave’s post-punk band before THE BAD SEEDS. And the terms the writer used to describe them were so incendiary – even apocalyptic – I figured I had to check them out. So, I picked up a couple of albums and they were… OK. I mean, I see what the guy was talking about, and they weren’t bad, but my overall feeling was, I’ll stick with THE GERMS…

Then I started watching PEAKY BLINDERS. (You might remember, I mentioned this a bit earlier…) The song used in the opening credits grabbed me immediately. A B-minor blues, with a vaguely Western edge that evoked – not the soundtrack, but the feel of – Eastwood’s darker cowboy movies, it was also spare and desolate, almost nihilistic, with threatening vocals, and a bell that rang like impending doom…

If you’ve seen the show, you’re more than familiar with “Red Right Hand”…

Over the course of the first season, it became clear that whoever did that song was all over the rest of the soundtrack like a bad rash, and I was really liking what I was hearing, so I looked it up. Lo, and behold…

By sheer coincidence, at this exact time, the top secret music group I’m a member of that I didn’t mention earlier was winding their way through Nick Cave’s entire discography. Now, according to the ancient bylaws, you’re supposed to go one album at a time, but who has time for that…? I put NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS’ three-decades-long catalogue on shuffle.

I listen to a lot of music. My taste is, if not catholic, at least eclectic. But you know how, every once in a while, a band or particular musical artist comes along who really hits you where you live…? Something in their music makes them seem like kindred spirits, or expresses things that feel very personal to you. You become obsessed, living for a time almost exclusively in their albums, learning as much about yourself as about them. You start carrying the music within you to such a degree you almost don’t need to listen to it anymore, but at the same time, it seems inexhaustible. Every time you put it on, you find something new…

A handful of artists have occupied – still occupy – that space in my life. But it very quickly became apparent that NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS would join their number.

It’s hard to sum up the musical style of such a feverishly creative band that has released 17 very different albums over more than thirty years. At root, NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS play a mix of Blues, Gospel, and Folk, but channeled through a chaotic, passionate, and poetic post-punk sensibility. Over the years, their sound has also picked up, as the inspiration strikes them, elements of pop, alternative, electronica, classical, and even – lyrically, at least – hip-hop (I’m fairly certain the violence and vulgarity found on some of the tracks on “MURDER BALLADS” is not only an homage to those real down and dirty blues songs from the past, but a deliberate response to the cultural and critical condemnations of gangster rap that were happening around the same time)…

Which brings us to Nick.

A baritone in the Jim Morrison tradition, but grittier and less polished, he can growl menacingly, croon beautifully, or howl at the moon like a lycanthropic Jerry Lee Lewis. As a front man, he’s a cross between a dark preacher and a punk poet. His lyrics often tell stories, in the folk tradition, frequently narrated from the perspectives of different characters. They can be wickedly witty and satirical, bleak and desolate, confrontational and provocative, or even delicate and romantic, depending on his mood, but there’s also always a mythic, sometimes even spiritual, undercurrent to them. In other words, he’s, all at once, the heir apparent to Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Darby Crash…

To which, you all reply: “We know.”

Because it’s been thirty fucking years, and pretty much everybody was a fan before me, and I’m like the guy who shows up to his first day of film school going, “Hey, have you heard of this Scorsese guy…? I saw a couple of his films last night and…”

I get it.

But fuck you. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS are mine now. In fact, I’m pretty sure they exist solely for me, at this point in my life, and the rest of you are just lucky hangers-on.

In any case, I’m done. Until next year, at least. Maybe forever. These things are always so exhausting… I’m gonna go listen to “DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!!” again…

Here endeth…

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Through a Glass Darkly: 2015 – Year in Review

What is it about turbulent times…?

From earthquakes in Asia to epidemics in South America, from increasing economic inequality to encroaching environmental catastrophe, from Charlie Hebdo to Boko Haram, it’s been hard, over the last year, not to feel a sense of instability about our planet, uncertainty about our future. And while there’s nothing daring or visionary in suggesting that volatile circumstances often inspire some of the greatest art, it’s also been difficult not to feel a bit frivolous compiling a list of 2015’s best pop culture offerings…

And yet…

While writing the retrospective below, patterns began to emerge: Stories of people trapped in chaos and conflict, trying to find their way. Oppressive atmospheres, thick with dread. Binary oppositions dissolving into disorder around lone figures desperately seeking to blaze a path between. Artistic and scholarly attempts to find new perspectives on a world that, for all our intellectual progress, so often seems incomprehensible. And an almost desperate creativity as new modes of expression are sought to articulate our dismay, our determination, and our defiance. In various ways, every work below is a reflection of – and a response to – the moment in history in which we find ourselves.

And isn’t that what art is for…?

Maybe it’s not a “Best of…” As I always say, I’m just one guy. There’s a lot of great work from the past year that I haven’t seen. A lot that I’ll probably never see. Nor is everything on the list below flawless. Perfection, after all, is rarely inspiring. But each, in its way, offers a striking, inventive, resonant vision of life in these distinctly, if not uniquely, troubled times…

* * * * *

MOVIES

__________

THE ASSASSIN

From stunning star, Shu Qi, to the staggering cinematography by Lee Ping Bin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is almost intolerably beautiful to look at. But its breathtaking beauty is more than just skin deep. As engaging – and elusive – as it is entrancing, The Assassin borrows its often deliberately obscure narrative from “Nie Yinniang,” a 9th Century chuanqi by Pei Xing about a young girl who is taken from her home at ten years old, only to return five years later as a trained killer. The similarity pretty much ends there, but attempting to sum up the film’s enigmatic events would be futile. Plot is not the point. A diaphanous portrait of a girl trying to reconcile who she once was with who she has become – caught, like her uneasily insurrectionist home province, between fealty and freedom – The Assassin is a work of ethereal poetry. A meditation on the burdens of flight. If that sounds incomprehensibly abstract, it’s only fitting for a film this rich and this delicate. It’s the kind of cinema that demands the repeated viewings you’ll be more than happy to give it.

CHI-RAQ

Inventive, explosive, hilarious, heartrending, vulgar, visionary, incisive, and outrageous, Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s most inspired and arresting film since… Well, at least, since The 25th Hour, but possibly ever… A fiery socio-political protest in madcap satirical drag, Chi-Raq transplants Lysistrata to the streets of Chicago’s South Side, using Aristophanes’ anti-war text to take on America’s epidemic of urban gun violence. If extreme situations call for extreme measures, Lee is more than up to the task, and his film pulls out all the stops: as in Aristophanes, the characters speak entirely in verse (a strategy that’s right at home in the world of rap battles and the Dozens), conversations spontaneously evolve into choreographed dance numbers, and the performances (led by an appealingly sensitive and sensual Teyonah Parris) are often hilariously over-the-top. There’s even a Chorus-cum-Rudy Ray Moore analog named Dolomites, played with note-perfect panache by Samuel L. Jackson. But what’s truly extraordinary is not that Lee can so confidently combat lunacy with lunacy, but that he succeeds in deftly balancing the outlandishly comedic with the affectingly dramatic, the drunkenly profane with the soberly sacred, never losing sight of the searing grief and anger that drive the film. He pulls no punches in his depictions of a mother’s loss or a minister’s outrage. For all that his characters can come off like cartoons, they bleed real blood and cry all-too-recognizable tears. An insane response to an insane world, Chi-Raq is a hysterical cry for help.

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

A literal bird’s eye view of humanity, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence contemplates the absurdities of human frailty and fragility from a puzzled, yet pacific remove. Noncommittally following two traveling salesman through a series of bleakly comic vignettes, from the mundane to the momentous, from the mournful to the quietly beautiful, Andersson’s use of static wide shots, minimal cuts, and dramatic performances reminiscent of zombie mental patients allows us to view the action (and inertia) as an alien species might. Laughter and tears, love and carnage are all observed with the same bemused detachment. Wringing horror from hilarity, significance from simplicity, and in both cases, vice-versa, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a funhouse mirror held up to human nature: a desolate and deadpan, strikingly minimalist and strangely moving vision of our species, our civilization, ourselves.

EX MACHINA

Alex Garland’s quiet and contained story of a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) hired to perform the Turing test on an artificial intelligence (a mesmerizing Alicia Vikander) is less a cautionary sci-fi fable about the project’s inherent dangers than an intense psychological drama about the ways in which people attempt to manipulate and control each other. We have invented the enemy and she is us. Full review here.

INSIDE OUT

“Children’s psychological comedy” is not an especially competitive genre. But Inside Out, Pixar’s tale of the inner workings of a young girl’s brain as she confronts the challenges of adapting to life in a new city, is not only inspired and inventive, it is also every bit as magical, and as moving, as any of the studio’s best offerings. Following the personifications of Joy (an aggressively chipper Amy Poehler) and Sadness (a delightfully dismal Phyllis Smith) on an odyssey through 11-year-old Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) turbulent psychological landscape, Inside Out paints an imaginative, insightful portrait of the human mind and its workings, while – somewhat daringly, in our inane, negativity-shaming, feel good culture – satirizing our obsessive desperation to stay positive all the time, and acknowledging the value of negative responses to trauma. Featuring faultless vocal performances by Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black as Fear, Disgust, and Anger, respectively, and an especially notable turn by Pixar regular Richard Kind as Riley’s former imaginary friend Bing-Bong, the film is, simultaneously, so instantly appealing and so plainly purposeful, it would feel manipulative if it weren’t also so deeply sincere. By turns, hilarious and heartbreaking, Inside Out is one of the more poignant, powerful, and perceptive “Children’s” movies you’re likely to find.

THE TRIBE

A bleak and brutal film set within the squalid corridors of a boarding school for the deaf, Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s debut feature has received a great deal of acclaim for its effective cinematic rendering of a world without dialogue (the film is purposefully presented without any subtitles, so unless you’re fluent in Ukrainian sign language…), but has left a few critics and moviegoers pondering what, exactly, Slaboshpytskyi was trying to say. Viscerally and formally arresting – both riveting and, at times, difficult to watch – The Tribe’s descent into teenage cruelty and criminality is a study of contained and systematized savagery: a microcosmic allegory exposing the violence inherent in any form of tribalism. The interactions and interrelationships between the students are clear enough, even if the specifics sometimes get a bit muddled, but more importantly, the lack of dialogue deprives them of the ability to rationalize or justify their actions (to us, anyway). We are silent observers, any sympathy or identification offered only fleetingly, if at all. Composed almost entirely of subtly, but impressively choreographed long takes, often featuring deliberately repeated compositions, the film literally traps us within its characters’ grim and grimy routines. When our unapproachable – and not especially likeable – protagonist disrupts the natural order, the escalating conflicts he sets in motion provide a desolate and disturbing commentary on escaping such oppressive systems. A comment that, perhaps, some critics and moviegoers have no desire to hear.

WILD TALES

An altogether different – and more easily enjoyable – take on human savagery can be found in Damian Szifron’s blackly comic anthology, Wild Tales. Over the course of six riotously funny vignettes, Szifron plunges with maniacal glee into the repressed animal passions that explode from within when people are pushed to their limits. Vengeance, guilt, greed, frustration, and jealousy are vividly caricatured in stories of road rage, marriage, and the particular rage evoked when navigating bureaucracy. But unlike Slaboshpytski, Szifron makes his characters both cartoonishly outrageous and uncomfortably sympathetic, over the top yet firmly rooted in our feral instincts, and at various times, we find ourselves almost cheering for them to indulge the worser beasts of their natures. Unbridled and unforgiving, but also cathartic and vital, Wild Tales reminds us that, while such base behavior might be distressingly common, it is common to us all, and suggests that there is something liberating, even empowering, about facing the beasts within and laughing.

’71

Such is the powerful authenticity of Yann Demange’s intense action-drama, ’71, you could almost believe it was actually shot in the decade in which it takes place. Driven by a genuine street-level urgency and arresting visual immediacy, the film energetically evokes some of that bygone era’s best cinematic offerings without ever falling prey to nostalgia, caricature, or mimicry. Dropping us in the rough and ravaged streets of 1970’s Belfast, the film follows Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), an unassuming British soldier abandoned by his company in the aftermath of a riot, whose run for his life brings him face to face with the realization that his country’s war on IRA terror may be more complex than it appears. A captivating cat-and-mouse chase film, adept and assured enough to dwell in its more meditative moments, ’71’s grey and gritty historical odyssey also resonates as an understated and artful allegory reflecting our own present-day attempts to navigate the moral complexities of our war-torn world.

WTF…?

Not necessarily disappointments, but some surprisingly poor offerings that have received inexplicable praise…

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

A prolonged demolition derby roaring its way through an apocalyptic (and aesthetic) wasteland, George Miller’s final (we hope) installment in the bafflingly overrated Mad Max franchise has been met with such widespread superlative acclaim, I’ve been forced to question, not only the judgment, but the sanity of many critics I respect and rely on. Utterly devoid of competent storytelling, compelling characters, or any kind of content at all, the film is so unceasingly kinetic and cacophonous it actually becomes monotonous. Yes, the effects are (for the most part) practical, and the choreography often impressive, but in service of what? Despite what any critic may claim regarding Fury Road’s deeper meanings or cultural significance, any anorexic attempts at feminist commentary or genre reinvention are brutally pulverized by the film’s barreling bombast, thudding script, bloodless characters, and wooden performances. At a time when so many critics claim to be weary of empty, overblown spectacle, the praise lavished on Miller and Mad Max seems almost hilariously ironic. It’s not that the emperor has no clothes; it’s that the clothes have no emperor.

SPOTLIGHT

Earnest, sincere, likable, and, unfortunately, not very good, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight wants very badly to be All the President’s Men, but possesses none of that film’s immersive intrigue, precision craftsmanship, or wit. Focusing on the Boston journalists who exposed the child abuse cover-up in the Catholic church, Spotlight neither invests in their drive, their personal relationship to the story, or the larger significance of the story, itself, amounting to little more than a dull and superficial recounting of factual events. Minus a bizarrely mannered Mark Ruffalo, most of the cast gives committed, sincere performances, but they can’t save the film from its flat screenplay or shoddy technique (politely excused as “restrained” by those critics swayed by the film’s good intentions). It’s not offensively bad. It’s just offensively bland.

CLOUDS OF SILS-MARIA

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils-Maria is exactly the type of brittle and pretentious exercise that gives arthouse films a bad name. A drama about an aging actress (Juliet Binoche) and her young assistant (Kristen Stewart), the film doesn’t explore their relationship so much as absently bat it around like bored cat with a dying mouse, punctuating their labored interactions with pedantic babble about art, truth, maturity, etc. (“It’s theatre. It’s an interpretation of life. It can be truer than life itself.”) Stewart is as excellent and understated as the bewildering praise heaped on the film suggests, but Binoche is shockingly poor, as forced and awkward as the dialogue she’s made to recite. An empty and self-important film about empty and self-important people that veers perilously close to self-parody.

 

TELEVISION

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RIVER

By now, the trope of the gifted – and cursed – eccentric detective has become as worn and weary as River’s title character. But with her six part BBC series, writer Abi Morgan (Shame, The Hour) successfully breathes new life into the tired premise by giving investigative focus to the miseries that drive her protagonist, rather than the mystery that drives the show’s plot. As psychologically troubled Detective Inspector John River, Stellan Skarsgard delivers a stellar performance, equal parts weathered and vulnerable, compassionate and removed. Probing his peculiar and problematic relationships to his co-workers and his cases, River offers an unsettlingly unromanticized depiction of loneliness and loss, exposing the contradictions and hypocrisies lurking beneath our culture’s fascination with mavericks and outsiders. Dark, desolate, and supersaturated with a haunting melancholy, River is uncommonly powerful and affecting television.

THE AFFAIR

After spending the initial installments of its second season finding its feet, The Affair made a sudden standing long jump into a series of wrenching, challenging, and uncomfortable episodes that live up to – and even surpass – the artfully agonizing promise of its prior season. Expanding its he-said/she-said narrative structure to include the perspectives of Maura Tierney’s Helen Solloway and Joshua Jackson’s Cole Lockhart, The Affair continues its unflinching plunge into the muddy waters of its characters emotional lives, reaching darker depths than ever, as it tallies the costs of their failed relationships and individual desires. As Noah Solloway, Dominic West continues to peel back the layers of his charmingly roguish screen persona, fearlessly exposing the festering self-doubt and self-loathing underneath, while Ruth Wilson’s Alison Bailey remains intriguingly inscrutable, all at once, ice cold and disarmingly delicate. But it’s Tierney who really emerges as the season’s star player, executing a magnificently controlled breakdown, as Helen struggles – and fails – to pull herself together in the aftermath of her broken marriage and find a way move forward. Best of all, in a truly masterful stroke, the season finale successfully folded The Affair’s strained murder mystery scaffolding into its character-driven narrative with a jarring reveal that neither compromised the show’s realism nor simplified its emotional conflicts.

DAREDEVIL

Aside from being just tremendously entertaining, Netflix’s Daredevil performs a marvelous balancing act. It’s not just the series’ artful blend of gritty urban drama and comic book fantasy, or its thematic exploration of the space between heroism and villainy. On every level, one finds a study in sharp contrasts that are allowed to bleed into one another until it becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Even its dramatic tone expertly synthesizes the appealingly old-fashioned with the strikingly fresh. The central duality, of course, is the conflict between lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and entrepreneur/criminal kingpin Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the comic book knows which one is the good guy and which is the bad, but over the course of its thirteen episodes, Daredevil blurs the distinctions between them, offering a surprisingly rich portrayal of two troubled men, both raised on violence, each trying to save their city in the only way they know how. And it’s that investment in character that gives the series its grace. Unlike a lot of other comic adaptations, Daredevil’s choreographed martial arts melees and quick-witted rhythmic banter are consistently supported by the recognizable reality in which it remains anchored, and the identifiable humanity that runs through its veins.

DOCTOR WHO

One of its finest, to date, Doctor Who’s ninth season offers an intense and intensive investigation into its title character’s complex and combative relationship with death. Comprised primarily of two-parters – a structure that not only reflects the thematic death/life dualism, but also riffs on the season’s driving narrative mystery of the “hybrid” – each story examines the complicated comingling of mortality and morality, from The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar (the series’ first truly worthy sequel to 1975’s superlative Genesis of the Daleks), which begins with a variation on the old ethical question of killing a baby Hitler, to The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (a fierce political allegory that would make Malcolm Hulke proud), which critiques the notion of revolution and righteous slaughter, to Heaven Sent/Hell Bent (a haunting and heartrending finale), which considers the Doctor’s extraordinary determination – and extraordinary recklessness – when it comes to saving lives. The Doctor/Clara relationship (which has become one of the most engaging in the series’ history) provides the season’s beating heart, their dynamic anchoring – and reflecting – the show’s binary explorations. Now fully comfortable and confident in the title role, Peter Capaldi pushes at the boundaries of his Doctor’s charismatic cantankerousness, adding layers of humor and compassion, as well as shades of Doctors past. And Jenna Coleman continues to dig deeper into Clara, maintaining her captivating confidence and charm, even as she continues to evolve, making the most of her memorable last bow as the new series’ longest serving companion.

ASH VS. EVIL DEAD

After 2013’s unexceptional Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell produced Evil Dead remake, those with a longstanding love for Raimi’s classic slapstick-horror trilogy could be forgiven for approaching this series with some trepidation. News of Campbell’s return as the hapless Ash was met with giddy anticipation, but the question lingered: After 30 years, could they recapture the black comic magic of the originals? And, considering how different the three films are from each other, which particular magic would that be? Ash vs. Evil Dead turns out to be the best case scenario in that it synthesizes elements of all three while creating a magic all its own. After an uncertain pilot, the show quickly finds itself, as an aging Ash, saddled with two young misfits, sets out on a road trip determined to close the book on the evil he let loose once and for all. That, from episode to episode, the acting, writing, and directing can be a little uneven is ultimately insignificant. With the perfect synergy of the franchise’s distinctive over-the-top B-movie self-awareness and Campbell’s perfectly overcooked lead performance – to say nothing of the fathoms of near ludicrous gore – the magic is invincible. But what makes it a more than worthy successor is that, in the midst of its outrageously bloody cartoonishness, it delivers moments that are both genuinely creepy and – especially in its later episodes – genuinely affecting, infusing the gruesome theatrics with the kind of surprising and unsettling impact the Evil Dead series hasn’t possessed since its superlative second installment. And if watching Dana DeLorenzo repeatedly run a zombie’s face through a meat slicer while Death’s “Freakin’ Out” plays on the soundtrack isn’t TV bliss, I don’t know what is…

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Promising programs that failed to deliver…

TRUE DETECTIVE

There’s no arguing that the second season of HBO’s True Detective was a profound disappointment. There is some argument to be had about the cause. Though many, for various (sometimes not especially objectively critical) reasons, were eager to take down Nic Pizzalotto, blaming the new season’s failures on his deliberately stylized writing is as wrongheaded as the directing and casting choices that actually sank the show. (A quick glance at David Milch’s Deadwood reveals how artful and effective such ornate and dramatically stylized approaches can be when handled properly.) The poetic discourses on fate, characters named Anitgone, etc. make it abundantly clear that Pizzolatto was looking to inject a classically tragic sensibility into the show. A risky strategy, considering contemporary audiences, but one that, even if it had alienated the average viewer, could have been successfully realized on an aesthetic level in the right hands. The problem is that tragedy – classical tragedy – demands an austere, unsentimental realization (something with which most modern actors and directors are unfamiliar, to say nothing of uncomfortable). When executed with the typical Hollywood focus on emotional approachability, dramatic emphasis, and audience appeal, the whole thing collapses in a heap of overcooked melodrama. Which is exactly what happened. Thus, a potentially unique and poetic drama about the destructive power of buried secrets was reduced to a pompous and overwrought policier.

JESSICA JONES

Despite a promising premise and a commendable attempt at allegory, Marvel’s Jessica Jones simply doesn’t hold together. With its tale of a failed superhero-turned-private detective haunted by a dark past, and its novel use of the hero-villain dynamic as an metaphor for abusive relationships, it could have been something really remarkable. The problem is that while showrunner Melissa Rosenberg clearly knows what story she wants to tell, she doesn’t seem to know how to tell it. Awkward and unfocused, the show hits its stride for an episode or two, only to lose it again, making its best moments some of its most frustrating, as well. Compounding the problem is the bratty lead performance by Krysten Ritter, who, despite delivering effective turns in Veronica Mars and Breaking Bad, simply lacks the gravitas to fully convey the weight of her character’s damaged soul. David Tennant is solid, but underused, as the sad and sociopathic Kilgrave. And Mike Colter’s layered and laid-back performance as Luke Cage inspires some optimism for his forthcoming Netflix series. Beyond that, Jessica Jones – in its first season, at least – never lives up to its potential.

MUSIC

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ALGIERS

Music for the end times. And maybe that’s why this punk/industrial/gospel trio’s searing debut has not been showered with the acclaim it rightfully deserves. Soulful wails build and break atop haunting and volatile sonic tides, lyrically demolishing our contemporary comforts and complacencies. It’s an intense, often challenging listen, both musically and intellectually. It’s also the most commanding, vital, and passionate album of the year. A revelation. Full review here.

SLEATER-KINNEY, “No Cities to Love”

Sleater-Kinney came roaring back from an eight year hiatus with an album that might be their very best yet, proving that they’re still one of the most accomplished, exciting, and important bands around. Full review here.

BEAUTY PILL, “Describes Things as They Are”

One of the most unique bands to emerge from Washington D.C.’s post-punk environs, Chad Clark’s Beauty Pill also came back from a long hiatus in 2015 with a compelling, affecting album unlike anything you’ve ever heard. All at once, dense and delicate, appealing and esoteric, lush and angular, “Describes Things as They Are” carries you away on its flowing soundscapes of guitars, drums, electronica, and reflective vocals, while quietly revealing its complex layers with every repeated listen. Clark possesses a lyrical gift for expanding the personal and idiosyncratic into the realm of cultural relevance and powerful catharsis. “Afrikaner Barista,” a sweet and funny song about a crushing on a coffee server, also examines the complications and frustrations of navigating identity politics. “Steven and Tiwonge” presents a moving vignette of star-crossed love that masks a subtle, but fiery, protest of institutionalized homophobia. And on “Dog With Rabbit in Mouth, Unharmed,” an ode to a departed pet evolves into a meditation on mortality and loss. Ultimately, though, no description of this album can do it justice. Like the best musical offerings, it just needs to be experienced.

TROYKA, “Ornithophobia”

I’ve never been a fan of demanding – or even suggesting – the retirement of specific words or phrases from the critical lexicon, but I might make an exception with the phrase “not for everyone.” Obviously, Troyka’s eccentric, knotty, unrepentantly unpredictable musical synthesis is not everyone’s taste, but you know what? Neither is Taylor fucking Swift. It’s a phrase that only further cements the erroneous notion that popular appeal somehow suggests artistic accomplishment. The fact is, whether or not it’s your thing, “Ornithophobia” is a dynamic, inventive, funny, disquieting, and dizzyingly sophisticated album offering a one-of-a-kind musical experience that needs to be heard to be believed. Deftly blending fusion jazz with math rock – at times, evoking nothing so much as Faraquet covering Bitches Brew – “Ornithophobia” can swing with an easy cool one moment, snap into strutting funk the next, erupt into a dissonant frenzy, and then downshift into haunting harmonies. Strange, surprising, and surprisingly beautiful, it will never be Top 40. But that’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

BINKER AND MOSES, “Dem Ones”

While the rest of the jazz world had orgasmic fits over Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” – a masterpiece, admittedly, but an overproduced, bloated, and self-indulgent one, to these ears – I found myself much more enthralled by this short, spare sax-and-drums offering from longtime bandmates Moses Boyd and Binker Golding. Comparisons to “Interstellar Space” are inevitable, and Boyd and Golding wisely lean into the punch, paying tribute to Coltrane’s free-jazz classic in various ways. But “Dem Ones,” while certainly adventurous, is more unapologetically groovy than any of Coltrane’s searching latter day peregrinations, anchoring the better part of its six tracks in swaggering rhythms and soulful runs, even as they stretch into the atonal and avant-garde. A dazzling display of musical synergy from two players whose proven partnership has provided them with the confidence to cut loose and see where their particular chemistry takes them.

LE BUTCHERETTES, “A Raw Youth”

On her follow-up to 2014’s raging, ravaging “Cry is for the Flies,” Teri Gender Bender (nee Suarez) offers a bracing, ravishing flirtation with pop melodies, crafting a textured ode to youthful resistance and resilience in all its forms. “A Raw Youth” tears ravenously into 60’s rock ‘n’ roll, 70’s punk, 80’s synth-pop, and 90’s electronica, while sacrificing none of Le Butcherettes’ trademark passion or power, confidently synthesizing its diverse influences into a tenacious, undeniable, irresistible whole. Full review here.

SIGH, “Graveward”

If Emperor spent their legendary career elevating Black Metal to the majestically operatic, Japan’s Sigh have, on their latest album, decked its halls with all the flash, splash and dash of a Broadway spectacular. And, believe it or not, that’s praise. Flamboyantly, defiantly – almost recklessly – experimental, ever since their landmark 1997 album, “Hail, Horror, Hail” (which came with a warning label cautioning the listener that, “If you find that some parts of the album are strange, it isn’t because the music in itself strange, but because your conscious self is ill-equipped to comprehend the sounds produced…”), the band has relentlessly pushed into increasingly eccentric territory, developing a sound that can only be described as an unholy hybrid of Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa. “Graveward” features plenty of driving, pitch-black metal aggression and impressive riffage, but – as always – careening over dense layers of synths, organs, strings, horns, chants, and chimes, breaking into magnificent choral refrains, and veering unpredictably into strange interludes incorporating everything from acoustic strums, to jazz piano, to hip-hop beats, to theremin solos. While all of that may be business as usual for Sigh, “Graveward” also boasts a grandiose cast-of-thousands theatricality that lends it the air of a Tony Award winning production. Though perhaps not as insanely inventive as 2001’s “Imaginary Sonicscape,” or as focused and furious as 2007’s “Hangman’s Hymn,” it’s nonetheless one of the most wildly entertaining and evocative albums of the year.

CZARFACE, “Every Hero Needs a Villain”

While I’m not, for a moment, going to pretend that Czarface’s “Every Hero Needs a Villain” is the best rap album of the year (that honor, almost certainly, goes to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which, try as I might, I just can’t get into), it’s easily the most fun. Turning the tables on the hip-hop superhero concept they laid down on their self-titled debut, “Every Hero Needs a Villain” finds Inspectah Deck and Esoteric wickedly playing up the dark side of their collaboration’s comic book sensibilities. Backed by 7L’s rock beats and guitar flourishes, the result is even cooler, catchier, and more charismatic than its predecessor. Who can resist Deck referencing every geek-centered enterprise from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Doctor Who? Or such lyrics as, “You lack vision, like the first Avengers?” Sure, it may not be as ambitious or innovative as Lamar’s magnum opus, but “Every Hero Needs a Villain” is pure energy and enjoyment from start to finish. And I don’t care what anyone says: “Lumberjack Match” is the best hip-hop song of 2015.

SURVIVAL GUIDE, “Way to Go”

An uneasy dream of an album, Survival Guide’s debut finds former Tsunami Bomb vocalist Emily Whitehurst paying homage to all her 80’s synth-pop influences, while still wearing her punk heart on her sleeve. Deceptively dulcet, Whitehurst and guitarist Jaycen McKissick freight “Way to Go’s” swirling melodies with an undercurrent of dark, buzzing menace, and a quick glance at the lyrics reveals a series of gloomy musings and weary self-reckonings. The result is something haunting and beautiful and, for all its seeming familiarity, quite unique. Full review here.

SCARFACE, “Deeply Rooted”

Hip-hop’s elder statesman of the Dirty South, Brad Jordan aka Scarface, emerged from retirement (yet again) in 2015 with this grim, gritty, and intensely soulful album that only further cements his place as one of the genre’s most unflinching and affecting tragic philosophers. Having begun his career with the almost cartoonishly violent Geto Boys, Scarface’s solo albums, though often no less brutal, increasingly evinced the sort of weathered wisdom that can only be obtained through years of wrestling with darkness. On “Deeply Rooted” he strikes a perfect balance, exhaustively investigating the two deeply rooted ideologies – religion and gangsterism – that have both propped-up and let down his culture and community. Clear-eyed and courageous, he pulls no punches in condemning the failings of spirituality or acknowledging the empowering allure of criminality, but it is his personal portraiture and intimate experiences with both that give his anecdotes and analyses their cathartic force. For a gangsta rap album, it is almost entirely free of any posturing or platitudes, seeking instead to get to the more troubling truths that lurk beneath them.

SONGHOY BLUES, “Music in Exile”

When northern Mali fell to Ansar Dire in 2012, many of the Songhoy found themselves exiled from their homes and fleeing south. Among them, four young musicians who met in Bamako and formed Songhoy Blues. Offering an irresistible mix of early American rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and traditional Songhoy melodies, “Music in Exile” exemplifies the best aspects of all those traditions: music as an expression of cultural identity, resilience, and protest. That you won’t understand the lyrics (unless you speak the language) is unimportant. The music, in its sincerity and simplicity, is so catchy and compelling, it’s almost enough to restore your faith in humanity.

In a year full of so much exceptional music, why waste time on disappointments, missed opportunities, or misplaced praise, when I can, instead, mention a few…

RUNNERS-UP

For all its bloat and bombast, KAMASI WASHINGTON’S “The Epic” is still a pretty magnificent achievement. UnWED, a new post-hardcore/rock outfit featuring former members of Hot Water Music and Small Brown Bike, released their very solid debut, “Raise the Kids.” MARRIAGES’ first full-length, “Salome” is a dark, haunting post-rock nightmare that really gets under your skin. And PARTIKEL’S “String Theory,” though it really should be more exciting and surprising than it is, still makes for a very interesting, if dispiritingly easy, listen.

Finally, in terms of more short-form offerings, Devin Ocampo’s new band, EFFECTS, released a series of cassette singles (available through their bandcamp site) that will have fans of Faraquet and Medications salivating for more. And Oakland’s SUPER UNISON released a grippingly frenetic debut EP that picks up where latter-day Black Flag left off…

BOOKS

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forms

FORMS by Caroline Levine

Leave it to a critic to name a book of critical theory one of the best of the year, but Forms is a truly visionary work. Re-inventing (and resuscitating) formalism for a post-historicist, post-post-modernist, post-post-structuralist age, Caroline Levine surveys the strengths and failings of previous literary and political theories, while mapping a fresh, holistic approach to both aesthetic and political landscapes, and illustrating the ways in which they often shape each other. Using historical and literary examples, Levine examines the affordances of four formal arrangements – whole, rhythm, hierarchy, and network – revealing the complex ways in which seemingly unified structures, events, and texts actually contain competing, conflicting, overlapping, and potentially subversive elements. It’s a much needed approach that acknowledges the intellectual value of considering spatial, temporal, and textual definition, while pushing beyond those illusory borders to gain a more comprehensive understanding. Refreshingly brief and direct for a work of political/aesthetic theory, Forms is, nonetheless, thorough, penetrating, and exhaustive, offering something every critic – ideally, every reader – finds exciting and empowering: a new way of seeing.

spooky action

SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE by George Musser

Taking its title from Einstein’s troubled musing on the nature of quantum entanglement, George Musser’s Spooky Action at a Distance provides a thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable, explication of the concept of nonlocality. Guiding us through the concept’s long and troublesome history – which, in a sense, is the history of science, itself – Musser not only introduces and illuminates the various complex theories, hypotheses, and (sometimes contentious) debates in which nonlocality has played a role, but also the various complex personalities who devised, tested, and argued them, expertly balancing detailed scientific information with vivid characterizations and entertaining anecdotes. But nothing surpasses the mind-blowing implications of the concept itself, and what it reveals about our limited – and possibly illusory – understanding of the universe.

between

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A passionate, pleading, fierce, and fatalistic boots-on-the-ground memoir of growing up black in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me consciously borrows its structure from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, taking the form of a letter written by the author to his teenage son. Deftly balancing piercing analysis with searing emotion, Coates takes him – and by extension, us – on a lightning tour of his childhood, adolescence, college, and early adult years, while forcing us to confront and consider the harsh and unjust realities of life on the flipside of the American Dream. Keeping his reminiscences grounded, anchored – often palpably – in the physical, Coates’ eschews the spirituality, the progressive optimism, the political oratory, and the moral sermonizing that have become all too commonplace in contemporary discussions of race, allowing his personal vision of America’s entrenched and intractable racial divide to emerge more organically. He offers no solutions and, perhaps most strikingly, even goes so far as to suggest that none may realistically exist. Unlike so many other meditations on race and racism, Between the World and Me is not a prescription, but an honest reflection – an uncompromising and enlightening one from which everyone in America might have something to learn.

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BOOK OF NUMBERS by Joshua Cohen

It’s been interesting to watch the arc of the acclaim that followed the publication of Joshua Cohen’s dense, dizzying, and dazzling Book of Numbers last June. Initially hailed as superlatively brilliant, it began to disappear from various “Best Of…” lists after a barrage of condemnations from hypersensitive cultural watchdogs whose obsession with parity blinded them to parody, as they attacked everything from the book’s “unrelatable” depictions of privilege to the casual sexism and prejudice occasionally evinced by its protagonist. To say such criticisms missed the point of the book would be an understatement. They also misrepresent it. A masterfully complex investigation into issues of identity and isolation in the internet age, The Book of Numbers follows a satirically distorted author surrogate named Joshua Cohen who is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of an iconic Silicon Valley innovator, also named Joshua Cohen. The binary, like everything else in this richly and carefully detailed novel, is pointed and deliberate, as the book divides itself between Cohen the writer’s first-person narration of the events, and the incomplete drafts, fragments, transcripts, and emails relating to the memoir he attempts to write. Along the way, we travel from New York to Dubai to Europe, tour some of the wealthiest and most impoverished environments on the planet, and learn the history and evolution of the internet (at least, as experienced by Cohen the computer genius). What emerges is a fractal set of closed systems competing within vast networks, struggles between the private and the public, and contrasting accounts of the impact and importance of new technologies in our lives. Engrossing, entertaining, and enlightening, dismiss the denunciations. Book of Numbers deserves to be counted among the best of the year.

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OUTLINE by Rachel Cusk

These days, I find myself getting pretty exasperated with books about writers. In the last few decades, the dictum, “write what you know,” has been epidemically interpreted among novelists as “write only about yourself.” Ironic, then, that both fiction books on my list this year feature not only writers, but author surrogates, as their main characters. But what’s interesting about Rachel Cusk’s deceptively quiet and compact novel is that it’s really not about her at all. Or, rather, it is. Just not in any conventional way. Outline follows an English author on her journey to Athens to teach a writing workshop, but its first person narrative is not so much about her, as the people she encounters. Cusk describes them in vivid detail, allowing them to come to life on the page, as they discuss their lives, their histories, their perspectives. As the title suggests, despite her marginal – almost documentary – presence, our main character is developed and defined through her perceptions and her portraiture of others. It’s a technique that is simultaneously innovative and classical, in that, without directly addressing any of these issues, Cusk questions not only the nature of authorial presence in fiction, but the nature of authorship – and even identity – as a whole.

DISAPPOINTMENT

I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this one, and I stuck it out all the way through…

GUTSHOT by Amelia Gray

The dark and disturbing stories collected in Amelia Gray’s Gutshot are inventive, intriguing, unnerving, and often funny. Unfortunately, what they aren’t is focused, polished, or terribly expressive. Gray clearly has talent and a twisted imagination, and her stories are economical and entertaining. But, too often, they come off less like the output of a driven and inspired author than a series of assignments completed by a wickedly eccentric creative writing student. And the lack of a compelling vision too often translates to a not terribly compelling read.

Sorcerer

by Matt J. Popham

A box-office flop, thoroughly reviled as a sacrilegious and superfluous remake, as well as a bloated, bombastic object lesson in auteurist excess at the time of its 1977 release, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer has enjoyed a renaissance in the last decade or so, as scores of critics and cinephiles (myself, included) have called for the film to be given a second look and a proper DVD/Blu-Ray release, which it finally received last year. An adrenalized, full-throttle reimagining of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, Sorcerer is less an existential thriller than an existential nightmare – a riveting, amplified odyssey of fate vs. will, in which Friedkin’s superlative talents for dramatic intensity and visceral impact are given their fullest and, perhaps, best expression. Gritty, grueling, and relentlessly grim, its financial failure and critical crash-and-burn signaled a sea change in cinematic sensibilities. (It must have felt assaultive to audiences who were lining up around the block for repeat viewings of Star Wars…) But after decades collecting dust in near-obscurity, it has finally emerged as one of the last great masterpieces of the New Hollywood era.

In a series of globetrotting prologues, the film takes us from Veracruz, to Jerusalem, to Paris, to New Jersey, introducing us to four career criminals – an assassin (Francisco Rabal), a terrorist (Amidou), a corrupt banker (Bruno Cremer), and an armed robber (Roy Scheider) – right at the moment their luck runs out and fate closes in. After fleeing their respective countries, they find themselves damned to the green hell of Porvenir, a remote, poverty-stricken village in the jungles of Latin America, where the only hope of living is the hope of leaving. The closest thing to civilization is an American oil well, 200 kilometers away, leeching off the land in more ways than one. After the well suffers a catastrophic explosion, our four fugitives are offered a deal with the devil: in exchange for driving two truckloads of dangerously unstable dynamite through the jungle to the disaster site, they will be given a way out: new identities, cash, and passports. That is, if they survive.

Though initially criticized for it, Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green deliberately take their time establishing Sorcerer’s scene and setting, its characters and their circumstances. Before they even set out into the jungle, we acquire a thorough understanding of each man’s individual nature, we experience their shared desperation and desolation, and we learn what each man is capable of, for better and for worse. As they prepare for their journey, we watch them develop an uneasy dynamic, regarding each other with disdain, suspicion, and self-interest, a potentially explosive interpersonal friction added to their already tense and volatile situation. All four actors deliver thorough, internalized, often wordless performances, throughout, fully embodying the plight of hardened men who have found themselves at the end of the world, possibly the end of their lives. They are lived in to the point of being worn out, their battered hopes, fears, regrets, and desires often powerfully communicated through the smallest gestures, flickering across their weathered faces.

White-knuckling their steering wheels, as they push their way through the treacherous terrain, they contend with a series of insurmountable obstacles and lethal perils, confronting each with uncommon resourcefulness and fierce resolve. The trucks move slowly, stop frequently, and there is precious little in the way of dialogue, yet every moment is gripping, harrowing, heart-stopping. Friedkin is a master of rooting his films in a down and dirty realism that can violently erupt into events of almost supernatural extremity. Whether it’s the frenetic, obsession fueled car chase in The French Connection, the ravaging demonic entity in The Exorcist, or the pyromaniacal nihilism that spreads across Los Angeles in To Live and Die in L.A., there is always the suggestion that just beneath the grey and grungy surface of reality is an incomprehensible, unstoppable destructive force waiting to rip through and consume us. In Sorcerer, all of nature becomes perversely malevolent, rising up to thwart these men on their mission: torrential, blinding rains beat down, turning the meagre roads into oozing, squelching flumes of mud; rickety bridges sway and strain over swelling, crashing rivers; trees become twisted, monstrous claws reaching out to grab or obstruct. Friedkin jarringly juxtaposes these hysterical, convulsive bursts with their silent, sober aftermaths, following moments of shadowed darkness with blinding light – a technique he perfected with The Exorcist – keeping us in a perpetual state of breathless uncertainty, as the film descends into an increasingly hallucinogenic unreality. Aside from vividly reflecting our characters’ own besieged mental state – their sanity pushed to the brink as they forge ahead on their trek – these formal strategies also cut right to the infernal heart of the film.

And maybe that’s why the “Me Generation” couldn’t go along for the ride…

Sorcerer is not a redemption story. Our four fugitives’ punishing jungle crossing is not a penance from which they will emerge with their sins forgiven, their souls cleansed. These men have no interest in redemption. They are utterly impenitent. Seen in a spiritual light, their mission is nothing more than a devil’s bargain; and their journey towards the blazing inferno their volatile cargo is meant to extinguish, a furious attempt to climb out of hell. Taken from an ecological angle, they are pawns of corporate oil, hired guns attempting to profit in the war against the planet. (Is it any wonder, then, that the planet fights back so aggressively?) But from a more purely existential perspective, they are simply desperate men who have used up their lives, and the lives of others around them, for personal gain, and are now desperate to escape the resultant ruin. The mission dangles before them their only slight glimmer of hope: a new life, which they will likely not live any better than the first. They push forward relentlessly, almost admirably, defying the merciless forces of fate, but they still exist solely for themselves. (“We’re sitting on double shares!” Scheider gleefully exclaims when it appears two of the others have been killed.) Their mission will not make them better. It will not even make them stronger. It will simply bring them face to face with the hopelessness and futility of their efforts. In a macabre twist on Sisyphus, even if – against all odds – they succeed, we must imagine them failures.

It Follows

by Matt J. Popham

The slasher subgenre has never been particularly artful but, let’s be honest: it has never needed to be. The directing may be crude, the acting wooden, and the writing barely functional, but all of that is beside the point. (If, in fact, there is one…) As a rule, slasher films are exercises in epicaricacy, propelled by sado-voyeuristic camerawork and steeped in gallons of Grand Guignol gore, any and all creativity channeled into devising increasingly inventive ways to butcher sexually active (and startlingly acerebral) adolescents on screen for the savage delectation of an audience largely made up of the same. In retrospect, it might be possible to read such genre cornerstones as Halloween, Friday the 13th, or Nightmare on Elm Street as primal purges of sexual paranoia in post-free love America, but it would be disingenuous to suggest much in the way of deliberate artistic intent. Which is not to say that these films are not, in their own way, classics, or that they are not, in their own way, thoroughly enjoyable. But their inherent, even willful, artlessness might help illustrate why David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows has captured so much popular and critical attention.

Simultaneously entertaining and frustrating, It Follows succeeds admirably at pumping fresh blood into some of the slasher genre’s weariest tropes, while somehow managing to fail at just about everything else. The story is, all at once, fresh and familiar: After a single sexual encounter with her seemingly loving and considerate boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), local looker Jay (Maika Monroe) finds herself being terrorized by an entirely new kind of STD: a Sexually Transmitted Demon that relentlessly pursues its victims (though, at a predictably languid pace) with murderous intent. (Now, that’s what I call venery!) The only way to rid yourself of it, according to an apologetic Hugh, is to pass it along, as (for some reason) it can only follow one person at a time. So, with the aid of her curiously credulous friends and family, creeping threat ever at her rear, Jay sets about trying to conceive of a way to deliver herself from her follower’s advances, or else destroy it entirely.

If it all sounds a bit silly, it is. As a narrative conceit, it’s not significantly smarter than your average slasher film, but what sets It Follows apart from its forebears is not its story so much as its style. Eschewing the slasher’s primitive and overworked leer-and-stalk aesthetic, Mitchell’s camera seems to hover at a dreamy remove creating an uneasy unreality: hazily idyllic in its calmer moments, then lurching nightmarishly into its numerous, often genuinely creepy, chase sequences. Almost entirely bloodless (the body count may set a record low for the genre), It Follows also gracefully sidesteps the slasher film’s fondness for gratuitous indulgence. For a film about sex and death, there’s surprisingly (almost disappointingly, I confess) little of either. Mitchell, instead, anchors the drama in his characters, and it’s a testament to him and his cast that they are what make the film so consistently engaging. Though there seems to have been little to work with on the page, there is a lived-in naturalness and ease to the performances. The relationships, shared experiences, and emotional dynamics among this handful of suburban teenagers is palpable, even when not explicitly stated, making them a far cry from the cardboard casualties-in-waiting we’re used to. It Follows’ most revolutionary departure from the slasher genre, in fact, may be that it relishes its characters’ lives rather than their deaths.

Unfortunately, the deeper failings of the genre can’t be remedied solely by Mitchell’s skillful presentation. Beneath the shiny, new packaging lurks the same old story and, as such, it suffers from the same lack of logic and cohesion. The inescapable irony of It Follows is that it doesn’t. Not narratively. Not thematically. Not aesthetically. It’s not that we need to know what the titular “It” is, or where it comes from, or why it feels compelled to stalk and slaughter sexually active teens. It’s a dark, unknowable, unnamable thing. And, in a horror film, that’s exactly what it should be. The problem is that what little we do understand about it makes it almost comedically absurd. (Take 30 seconds to write down all the questions you have about its abilities and limitations, and I guarantee you’ll be in hysterics before your time is up…) As an unstoppable preternatural force, it would be pathetically easy to outthink and outmaneuver, which makes the all too typical boneheaded behavior and questionable conclusions of our otherwise very believable characters that much more infuriating. The capable pacing and lush atmosphere are enough to distract from the gaping holes while you’re watching, but they become painfully apparent as soon as the credits roll. Some have suggested that the film’s dreamy ambience is enough to excuse these lapses, but there’s a difference between dream logic and illogic, and It Follows is ultimately less Lynch-ian than just lazy.

Most dispiritingly, despite the film’s arty veneer, it’s really not especially artful. Mitchell clearly wants to challenge the genophobia and misogyny endemic to the slasher genre, but lacks the courage of his convictions. His premise may be a laudable step up from the reactionary prudishness of his genre predecessors, but it’s not exactly sex-positive. As a “final girl,” Jay is unconventional due to her “sullied” status, but in all other respects, she’s as reassuringly wholesome (and as slow) as her precursors. Similarly, like his camera, Mitchell seems to be hovering hazily around themes relating to the loss of innocence, but there’s not enough coherence or coordination in his narrative, his allegory, his motifs, or even his compelling visual style for anything comprehensible to effectively emerge. Despite the superlative praise lavished upon it, It Follows is not particularly intelligent, or particularly deep. It’s not even particularly scary. Which is not to say that it’s not diverting, involving, or enjoyable. But it collapses utterly under the slightest scrutiny. It might be significantly better than your average slasher film, but let’s be honest: That’s not saying much.

Ex Machina

by Matt J. Popham

With a few notable exceptions, cinema has, throughout its history, been almost apocalyptically alarmist about the idea of artificial intelligence. Metropolis, 2001, Alien, The Terminator, The Matrix (to name just a few popular examples) all feature thinking machines turning violently on mankind. And as scientists repeatedly assert that the creation of an actual artificial intelligence is right around the corner, many notable authorities, from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk, have urgently warned us of the inherent dangers. Of course, psychologists and neuroscientists have yet to pin down many of the fundamentals of human intelligence – the nature of consciousness, free will, identity and self-awareness – so the question arises, even if an artificial intelligence were to come into existence, how could we be sure…?

Alex Garland’s quiet and disquieting Ex Machina examines many of the issues surrounding the creation of an artificial intelligence, drawing on a vast array of thematically related sources, from Frankenstein to Wittgenstein, from the Book of Genesis to machine ethicists, from Gordon E. Moore to James H. Moor, even paying passing homage to more than a few of the films listed above. But it’s got a lot more meat on its bones and matter in mind than any artlessly assembled pastiche. Set “ten minutes into the future,” according to Garland, the story concerns Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a coder for a Google-type search engine called Bluebook, who is invited to spend a week at a top secret, high-tech retreat with the company CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Once there, Caleb is asked by Bateman to perform the Turing test on Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot he has designed, to help him determine if she is, in fact, an AI. All at once, awed and apprehensive, Caleb agrees, only to find himself captivated by Ava – not just her existence, but her essence – a quandary that gives rise to the film’s central dramatic conflicts.

Garland is probably best known as the screen scribe behind Danny Boyle’s breathtaking science fiction thrillers, 28 Days Later… and Sunshine, as well as 2012’s instant cult classic comic adaptation, Dredd; but what’s interesting about Ex Machina is that, despite its speculative sci-fi premise, it feels less like Blade Runner than Betrayal. Considered and contained, it is Garland’s cagey and carefully coordinated character relationships that drive the film. Through a series of superficially informal encounters, Caleb, Nate, and Ava must navigate and negotiate each other’s ulterior motives and covert intentions, none of them being quite what they seem. Take away the handful of impressive (but gracefully understated) VFX shots, and you could almost stage it as a play. Rising expertly to the occasion, Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander deliver controlled, subtly layered performances, deliberately keeping us off-balance and at arm’s length, animus and arithmetic flickering behind their disarmingly casual demeanors.

Perhaps as a result of having spent the better part of his career writing for one of cinema’s most dynamic stylists, Garland wisely reins in the visual flourishes, opting instead to study his characters and their interactions impassively. Using silence and stillness, washing the screen in vivid shades of red, green, and blue, and cutting around the sleek and sterile hallways of Bateman’s hermitage rather than tracking through them, Garland’s visual approach evokes nothing so much as a networked security feed. It’s a strategy that effectively creates an uneasy suspense, making us feel simultaneously omniscient and limited in our perspective, but also allows his unapologetically cerebral writing and superlative cast to take center stage.

Ultimately, Ex Machina, unlike many of its predecessors, is not a parable about the perilous potential of an artificial intelligence run amok. Just as the muted, intellectual dialogues between Ex Machina’s three leads mask more primal impulses, the repeated references to Oppenheimer and invocations of the singularity are red herrings – a narrative sleight-of-hand, distracting us from Garland’s meticulous orchestration of the far more interesting ideas ignited by his characters’ interplay. In a time when the latest neuroscientific studies throw the existence of our own free will increasingly into doubt, as our consciousness and self-awareness seem more and more like post-facto organizational mechanisms than true apprehensions of external stimuli and internal response, Ex Machina uses its premise and performances to unsettlingly blur the lines between our concepts of volition and programming, nature and code, what is “artificial” and what is “genuine.” To be underwhelmed by the film’s admittedly predictable Twilight Zone “twist” ending is to miss the point: If the existence of an artificial intelligence is, in fact, a threat to us, it is no moreso than we are to each other or ourselves..

Whiplash

by Matt J. Popham

There might be a great film lurking in the green-filtered, Fincher-esque shadows of Whiplash’s Shaffer Conservatory, but it never quite makes its way to the screen. Written and directed by aggressively ambitious young filmmaker, Damien Chazelle, the film follows aggressively ambitious young jazz drummer, Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) and the brutal instruction he suffers (and, to a degree, seeks out) at the hands of his renowned conservatory conductor, Terry Fletcher (a reliably impressive J.K. Simmons). Using tactics that might get him hired at Guantanamo, Fletcher ruthlessly pushes Nieman, who ruthlessly pushes himself while ruthlessly pushing everyone else in his life away, all in the name of achieving “greatness.” Though a bit familiar, it’s a fertile formula for fierce drama, and Chazelle attacks his subject (and his audience) as mercilessly as Fletcher batters Nieman. But in his determination to flatten us, he also ends up flattening his film. Beating the worn and weary (and wholly spurious) drum of genius realized through relentless abuse, Chazelle eschews psychological insight in favor of hollow platitudes and visceral thrills, delivering a punishing, pummeling, exhausting portrait of two megalomaniacs who seem a hell of a lot more interested in themselves than in their art. It’s not just that the narcissistic shallowness of both Nieman and Fletcher – their inability to see music as anything more than a means of self-glorification – makes it a stretch for us to believe (as Chazelle seems to want us to) that they have any sort of greatness lurking within them, but that, for a film about music, Whiplash is almost suffocatingly joyless. Its dubious thematic assertions aside, the film is ultimately undone by its own hyperbolic humorlessness and swaggering sadism, which serve to sap both its dramatic potential and its artistic sincerity. Like the solos of Buddy Rich, whom Chazelle clearly adores, Whiplash clobbers you with its intensity, which makes it diverting enough in the moment; but in reflection, it fades into a blustery monotone.

Invictus

by Matt J. Popham

[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]

It’s never anything less than misguided to measure the quality of a fact-based film by its level of historical accuracy. A work of art is not a faithful reproduction of reality, but a distillation of something essential within it, and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is no more an exacting recreation of the events surrounding the 1995 Rugby World Cup than Picasso’s Guernica is a photojournalistic depiction of Operation Rugen. And yet, for all that Invictus is a distillation – and admittedly, an entertaining one – there is something problematic in its purity.

Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham have chosen an extraordinarily complicated historical moment as their subject: Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), a former revolutionary with no governmental experience is elected the first black chief executive of South Africa, a country that, even post-apartheid, was still struggling with entrenched institutional and cultural racism, and whose population was seething with tension and enmity. Meanwhile, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of South Africa’s Springboks, the national Rugby team that had come to symbolize white oppressive rule, struggles to whip his pitifully performing team into shape. Seeing an opportunity to further his goal of national reconciliation, Mandela champions the Springboks and urges nationwide support for the team, while encouraging Pienaar to push his players towards a symbolic World Cup victory, but meets with outrage and opposition from South Africa’s black population, including members of his own family and security detail.

And it’s here that the film’s historical edits become questionable, both philosophically and dramatically. Invictus wants to demonstrate the value and importance of forgiveness and unity, but in order to do that within the context of its narrative, it must portray a cruelly oppressed people as its story’s antagonists. Which is not to say that Eastwood and Peckham are entirely unsympathetic to them. From the film’s first shot, Eastwood presents the grotesque inequalities inherent in the South African system. But he glosses over the commonplace viciousness and violence that were endemic to apartheid, as well as the revolutionary politics of much of Mandela’s inner circle, making it a little too easy to regard their resistance as petty and resentful, rather than rooted in honest, valid considerations. Rather than taking the opportunity to explore the friction between forgiveness and justice, the film sidesteps in favor of easy moralizing.

Similarly, Morgan Freeman makes a wonderfully charismatic and convincing Mandela, but it’s the same saintly and sanitized Mandela the media has been selling since his release from prison. He delivers so many nuggets of wisdom so often that, at times, he seems less like a three-dimensional human than a cross between an internet meme generator and Yoda. Mandela was a master of public image and there’s no question the portrayal is faithful to his outward conduct, but there was a private and more complex man behind the image, a former prisoner of his own government, who, no doubt, faced his own internal struggles with forgiving his oppressors. Unfortunately, the film seems to have little interest in exploring those depths.

For all that, Eastwood is a capable filmmaker and he’s crafted an absorbing, if overly-long, inspirational drama. It would be unfair to chide the film simply for failing to stick to the historical facts. But by divorcing these characters and events from their complex and difficult historical context, he not only undercuts his film’s thematic message, he oversimplifies its drama, leaving us with a good film instead of a great one.