Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My Top 10 albums of the decade

I know that the year isn't even half over, and something could easily surprise me and need to be on the list, but if that happens, I'll just write about that album. Otherwise, here's my list of the top 10 albums of the 2000's. I didn't spend a ton of time on this, so I could've easily forgotten a favorite, if so I'll add them in later:

1. Pearl Jam-Pearl Jam
It doesn't have the huge arena ready choruses that something like Ten had. But it's their hardest rocking album yet, due partially to it being Eddie Vedder's unofficial tribute to his deceased friend Johnny Ramone. Drummer Matt Cameron continues to invigorate the group, as he had done with their artier-rock albums Binaural and Riot Act. Mike McCready gets a couple of chances to show that his soloing abilities haven't diminished in the slightest, and Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard prove again that they're one of the most underappreciated bass/rhythm guitar combos around. Doesn't hurt that Eddie still has it vocally either. It's my favorite album from my favorite modern band.

2. All Hands on the Bad One-Sleater-Kinney
Not the popular pick out of Sleater-Kinney's catalog, people usually pick either Call the Doctor or Dig Me Out. But All Hands on the Bad One has their best balance of pop hooks and melodies, and punk/rock energy. Corin Tucker's voice is one of the great instruments in all of rock music.

3. Till the Sun Turns Black-Ray LaMontagne
Again, most people would recommend his first record Trouble before this one. But I feel like this is a more organic album, less simply a collection of songs. Ray's raspy voice is accompanied by wider arrangements here. The strings and horns are subtler than most used in pop music (thanks to producer Ethan Johns), feeling more a part of the whole, rather than just pounding home the tone of a song. It's sort of the way that Nick Drake used strings.

4. Extraordinary Machine-Fiona Apple
I actually prefer Fiona's second album, When the Pawn..., but that came out in '99 and doesn't qualify for the list. After the Jon Brion produced original songs were scrapped (actually all but two), I was worried that Fiona might scrap the whole album. But she went back into the studio to re-work the songs, and actually made them better. I just wish she didn't take so damn long between releases.

5. Ben Kweller-Ben Kweller
Simply the best pure pop/rock album of the decade. Actually, probably my favorite pop/rock album that doesn't have the name The Beatles on it.

6. Songlines-The Derek Trucks Band
Derek Trucks is, at worst, the third best guitarist alive. His skills have been otherworldly since he was just a teenager, but with Songlines, he finally molded his world music-via-Duane Allman sound into something more palatable to the rock world. Singer Mike Mattison makes a nice addition to the group, but make no mistake, this is Derek's show and he doesn't disappoint.

7. Attack and Release-The Black Keys
The Black Keys have been a favorite band of mine for a while, so I was slow to warm to the multitude of strange new sounds that were added to the mix by producer Danger Mouse on Attack and Release. As I listened to the album more and more, the songs grew, the arrangements seemed just as organic as they should be, and I was bowled over by its greatness. Dan Auerbach's voice is one of the best out there, and Patrick Carney can't be underestimated as a drummer. I was initially wary of Danger Mouse's presence, but he proved himself to be in the upper echelon of producers, able to bring a different side out of the duo without pushing his own vision over theirs.

8. Diamonds on the Inside-Ben Harper
Like all Ben Harper albums, Diamonds on the Inside has a few clunkers on it. Also like all of Ben's albums, he is all over the map in styles. Whether it's the reggae of "With My Own Two Hands" or the country rock (with some Prince-like vocals) of "When It's Good" or the Ladysmith Black Mambazo collaboration "Picture of Jesus", which may be the best thing Ben has ever done. He is always trying new things, and thankfully he succeeds more often than he doesn't.

9. Evil Urges-My Morning Jacket
A little different from their previous albums, but not as different as many die-hard fans wanted to believe. The opening two songs "Evil Urges" and "Highly Suspicious" simply bring to the forefront the Prince influence that was always there for those that wanted to look. After that opening, it's really just a good, fairly straight forward rock album, with a terrific sense of melody.

10. Burn the Maps-The Frames
Like Ben Harper, The Frames are inconsistent on their albums. For them though, it's not because they're trying so many different things whether they work or not (as is typically Ben's case), they simply don't have the songs to fill out a full album of great material. The first 3/4's or so of Burn the Maps is brilliant. It didn't hit me on first listen, but the songs quickly grew on me, especially "Underglass" "Fake" and "Dream Awake". I have a feeling they're never going to make an out and out masterpiece, but I think this is the closest they've come.

With honorable mentions for these great albums:

The Shepherd's Dog-Iron and Wine
Worrisome Heart-Melody Gardot
Continuum-John Mayer
Yer Favourites-The Tragically Hip
Live at the Wetlands-Robert Randolph and the Family Band
Downhome Sophisticate-Corey Harris
Life in Slow Motion-David Gray
Sea Sew-Lisa Hannigan

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Ed Wood"

Finally, a Tim Burton movie worth giving a shit about. I've never been shy about my distaste for the work of Tim Burton. Whether it was Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Beetlejuice, or his Batman movies, I don't understand why he's such a revered director. His movies are always visually impressive, but on a storytelling level I have found all of them to be lacking. But I hadn't seen all of his movies, and I had been told for years that Ed Wood was the movie to see that would prove what kind of director Burton was. Well, it is. It's a terrific movie filled with wonderful performances by a great cast, top notch visuals, and a good story. The snarky side of me wants to say that it seems like Burton really threw himself into this one, probably because he could personally relate to a story about a terrible director.

But Ed Wood wasn't just any terrible director, he has been routinely called "the worst director ever". Johnny Depp is better than he's ever been as the Orson Welles worshiping Ed, who is so caught up in the spirit of filmmaking that he doesn't care that he's no good. That's not the point, the point is that he's making movies. When a studio executive tells him that Wood's movie was the worst he'd ever seen, Ed's response is a cheerful "Well, my next one will be better." Ed also has to admit to his girlfriend Delores (Sarah Jessica Parker) that he enjoys crossdressing. He continually (and hilariously) has to explain to everyone that he's not gay, he just likes the feel of the fabric. He surrounds himself with equally weird people, like the hopeful pre-op transexual Bunny (Bill Murray) and wrestler-turned-actor Tor Johnson (played by legendary wrestler George "The Animal" Steele). They make movies together alongside Ed's newest friend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), a childhood hero of Ed's. Lugosi is way on the downside of his career, and hopes Ed's movies will put him back on top (or at least above his old box office nemesis Boris Karloff). Ed uses what little star power that Lugosi has left to help get financing for his movies. Ed knew how to get his projects made, that's for sure. He was seemingly always able to find someone to invest in his work, never by showing them his previous work. And he cared whether his movies were bad or good, I'm just not sure he knew the difference.
Martin Landau won an Oscar for his role in 1994, in a year where he was up against some heavy hitters, including Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Landau deservedly won. His performance is one of heartbreaking sadness, of a man near the end of his life, addicted to morphine and desperately hoping to get back to his previous stardom. Thankfully, since this movie is a comedy, Landau is also hysterical. When one of the crew members asks for his autograph, he happily accepts, but when the guy tells him his favorite movie was one in which he played Karloff's sidekick, Lugosi responds with "Karloff? Sidekick? FUCK YOU! Karloff did not deserve to smell my shit! That limey cocksucker can rot in Hell for all I care!" There's not a lot of language in the movie like that, but when there is it's usually coming from Lugosi.

So after now seeing all of Burton's movies, this is actually one that I would thoroughly defend. I liked Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd, but not a lot. Not enough to say that I'm a fan of those movies necessarily. But Ed Wood is nearly a great movie. With a career best performance from Depp, and one of the great supporting performances of all time from Landau, Ed Wood is one that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone looking for a comedy that's just a little bit different.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Michelle Williams-one of the best young actresses in movies

Yesterday I watched a terrific little movie called Wendy and Lucy. It stars Michelle Williams as a struggling young woman on her way to Alaska for the promise of good money working in the fish canneries. While passing through Oregon, she loses her dog Lucy, and her beat up old car finally breaks down. She only had enough money to pay for food and travel for her and Lucy, and just barely enough to cover that. She's befriended by a kind old security guard, who directs her around town, and who in a heartbreaking scene does what little he can to help the young woman be on her way. It's a wonderfully low key movie, very simple, but powerful, and has great performances from all of its actors. But Michelle Williams is in every scene, and never hits a false note with her performance, which I think was one of the handful of best performances by an actor last year. Williams is a beautiful young woman, and has some of the most expressive eyes of any actor working right now, but she plays down her looks in Wendy and Lucy by not wearing any make-up whatsoever. Still, she's so interesting to watch that I couldn't help but not take my eyes off of her.

Like many people, I first saw Williams on the TV show Dawson's Creek (I was a young teenager at the time, of course I watched it), where she was overshadowed by her co-star Katie Holmes. Holmes was the one who broke out into major stardom from the show, and the one who got the more desirable roles in movies. But Williams was able to show her skills in smaller movies like the underrated comedy Dick, and the terrific indie movie The Station Agent. It was her performance in The Station Agent that brought her to the attention of the great Ang Lee, who cast her in her breakout role opposite Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. She was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for her incredible performance, which I think was the best in that movie. That put her in a position to take roles in projects like the Dylan biopic I'm Not There, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, and Martin Scorsese's upcoming thriller Shutter Island. I hope she will continue on her climb up the ranks of great actresses, because I'd love to see what else she is capable of giving us.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Three Times-I've discovered a new genius!!

You very likely have never heard of Hou Hsiao-Hsien (pronounced, from what I'm told, Ho Shao-Shen). He is a director from Taiwan who since his debut in 1980 has been one of the leading filmmakers of world cinema. He has had 6 movies nominated for the Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. And in an international poll conducted by The Village Voice was voted "Director of the Decade" of the 1990's. So why haven't you heard of him? Well, Roger Ebert has said "The movie distribution system of North America is devoted to maintaining a wall between you and Hou Hsiao-Hsien." For some unknown reason Hou's films haven't been widely distributed in the US. His 2005 masterpiece Three Times is only his second to receive theatrical distribution here, and even then it never played on more than 5 screens at once (your average Hollywood blockbuster generally releases on 3,000 to 4,000 screens). Three Times is a study of love in three different ways, telling three different stories (each about 40 minutes long), in three different time periods, using the same two actors. And it has some of the greatest filmmaking I've ever seen.

Each section has its own title, the first being "A Time for Love", set in 1966. Chen (Chen Chang) is hanging out at the local pool hall, about to leave for his stint in the army when he meets May (Qi Shu), the new girl working at the joint. They play pool late into the night, and he tells her he will write while he's away. When he gets a bit of leave and shows up at the pool hall again, he finds that May doesn't work there anymore, so he sets out to find her. Acclaimed American director Jim Jarmusch has said "The first section, just on its own, is one of the most perfect pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen." That's hefty praise, but I couldn't agree more. At heart I'm a hopeless romantic, and no other romance movie has ever connected with my heart like this one did. Never has the sight of two people holding hands filled me with such joy as I felt watching this. There were a few times I said to myself "If he ends it here, this section is perfect." Instead, he ended it somewhere else, and it was perfect.

The second and third sections aren't as successful as the first, but both focus more on communication between a couple. The second section is set in 1911, a more repressed time that keeps the lovers apart (or he may outright reject her, I couldn't decide). It's an achingly gorgeous piece of cinema, with a tremendous score, but strangely made. Hou filmed it like a silent movie, with title cards for dialog and everything, but I'm not quite sure the reasoning. It could be to shine a light on the body language of the actors by forcing his audience to not focus on the words, I didn't realize until later that they never declare their feelings for one another. She, at least, obviously loves him, but doesn't let him see it. The third, and least successful, section shows us a modern day romance much the opposite of the second section. These two barely spend any time at all with each other (they're always together in the second section), and instead of the long felt under current of emotions, we get angry phone calls and text messages, a generation brought up on instant gratification. I think the last section works better in theory than it does as drama, but it's still an important part of the movie.

I don't want to forget the terrific performance(s) by Chen Chang, but I have to talk about Qi Shu. The picture above isn't from the movie, but I wanted to give you an idea of what kind of beauty she is. Last year she was named by the E! network as the actress with the world's sexiest lips. She also, particularly in the first section of the movie, has a smile that lit me up inside. She started out in softcore porn and nude modeling in the mid-90's, but built herself into a respected actress. She became very in demand, and in 1999 was cast (opposite her future Three Times co-star Chen Chang) in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, her manager pulled her out of the project 6 weeks into filming so that she could do a soft drink commercial in Japan. Her part was recast with Ziyi Zhang, who was launched into international stardom because of the movie. Naturally, Qi fired the manager based on that decision. She caught the eye of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who has cast her in two of his movies. I haven't seen their other collaboration Millenium Mambo yet, actually I haven't seen anything else at all by Hou, but I can't rave enough about Three Times and her incredible performance(s) in it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Grave of the Fireflies-one of the most powerful movies ever made

Writer/director Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most emotionally powerful cries against war that the movies have ever seen. It's set on the Japanese side of World War II, but makes no attempt to vilify Americans nor justify Japan's involvement in the war. The Americans are only dealt with in the absolute terms of the planes that rain fire upon Tokyo and the damage that causes to the people living there. Takahata is concerned only with people, and actually makes no overt anti-war statements whatsoever. He simply shows the devastation that war has on people. He's a humanist who creates such rich characters that even though they're animated, we still fear for their survival as though they were actual human beings.

Grave of the Fireflies is also the movie for people who believe that animation, and anime in particular, is just for kids. Few live action movies have ever created characters and bonds as real as those between Seita and his young sister Setsuko. That both characters are doomed we know from the opening narration, as Seita says "September 21, 1945... that was the night I died." We see him, alone, dying of starvation in a train station. We go through the movie as Seita's spirit recounts his life, starting with losing his mother during the bombings. That may make the movie sound unusually depressing, but that's not Takahata's goal here. There are many delightful scenes between the brother and sister, particularly when they are capturing fireflies to light up their shelter. Still, Takahata doesn't sugar coat the war experience for these kids. When they're left to fend for themselves, we feel their hunger and desperation in the deepest part of our souls.
The screenplay is based on the semi-autobiographic novel of the same name by Japanese author Akiyuki Nosaka, written as a way to cope with the horrors that he encountered during the war, including losing two sisters and his step-father. This is the first movie of Takahata's that I've seen, although I've seen the entire catalog of his Studio Ghibli cohort Hayao Miyazaki (which I wrote briefly about before,, after seeing his My Neighbor Totoro). Takahata directs with a delicate, loving hand. The animation is lushly detailed, creating many painfully poetic images. His dialog is realistic, but never boring, he truly creates real people here. These two characters, especially young Setsuko, are ones that I won't soon forget. A remarkable, one of a kind emotional experience.