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…

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MOVIES

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Blind Side

by Matt J. Popham

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

George Lucas once sardonically observed that if you want your audience to feel something, you need only strangle a kitten. That John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side egregiously indulges in the worst kind of feline throttling goes a long way towards explaining its Academy Award nominations and popular appeal.

A smug Republican fantasy cloaked in white liberal guilt, the film ostensibly presents the true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a gentle giant from the Memphis projects, whose adoption by a wealthy white family paves the way for him to become a football star. At best, a cynical exercise in audience manipulation, The Blind Side wrings every last lucrative tear from its story with all the subtlety and profundity of a Hallmark card, often at the expense of dramatic logic. But a closer read of the film’s strategies reveals the repugnant propaganda lurking beneath the surface.

Much has already been made of the film’s “White Savior” narrative, and there’s no arguing that The Blind Side is less a dramatization of Michael Oher’s struggle than an ode to the supposed moral benevolence of Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the matriarch of his aforementioned adoptive family. The film makes no attempt to address the entrenched systemic problems that necessitate Michael’s “rescue,” and, in fact, vilifies those characters that do. There’s even the implicit suggestion that Michael’s less innocent, but equally impoverished kith and kin are somehow less deserving of a better life due to their moral failings (Michael is good-hearted and therefore belongs among white people…).

But where The Blind Side really crosses from irresponsible to irredeemable is in its celebration of the commodification of a human being, both in theory and in practice. Barely a character, either on the page or on screen, Hancock uses Michael as a dramatic device, a blunt instrument, and a socio-political tool, mirroring the behavior of his adoptive family, to whom he is, at various times, a project, a badge, a pet, and a toy (a scene in which Michael is manipulated by Kathy Bates into choosing Ole Miss over Tennessee is made all the more nauseating by the fact that it’s played for laughs). Ultimately, if the film seems less interested in Michael than it is interested in the people interested in Michael, it’s because it treats him much the same way they do: as a means. But while Hancock’s a canny enough filmmaker to anticipate these objections, rather than answering them in any probing or meaningful way, he simply buries them in heaps of saccharine.

“How did you get out of there?” Bullock’s Tuohy asks Michael, at one point, regarding his impoverished background. “When I was little,” he replies, “if something awful was happening, my momma would tell me to close my eyes.” It’s a strategy that effectively reflects the film’s. Because whatever it might make you feel, one of art’s primary functions is to ask difficult questions. And for all its predatory pathos, The Blind Side offers only the most hollow and complacent reassurances.