Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My fave films of the decade

No movies from 2009 in my list of my 10 fave films of the decade, though The Hurt Locker and Avatar came very close....

Also bubbling under: Sideways, Pan's Labyrinth, Man on Wire, No Country for Old Men, Wall-E, Millions, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Borat, Spirited Away, Mystic River, Slumdog Millionaire, Up in the Air, A History of Violence, Adaptation, Kill Bill, The Lives of Others, Yi Yi (A One and a Two), Wall-E, Before Sunset, Vitus, The Pianist, Million Dollar Baby, School of Rock, Michael Clayton, Elf, Casino Royale, Minority Report, Traffic.

Below are 10 movies that proved to be transcendent experiences at the cinema over the past 10 years.

10) The Pianist
9) Letters from Iwo Jima
8) Munich
7) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
6) Mulholland Drive
5) The Incredibles
4) Almost Famous
3) Amelie
2) Lord of the Rings (ok, technically three movies but I'll cheat as it's all one story)
1) Children of Men

"Children of Men" was one of the most powerful movie experiences of my life. For two hours, I wasn't aware that I was in a cinema at all. I was crouching, ducking, and weaving through Alfonso Cuarón's nightmarish depiction of a future in which the human race is dying out because incapacitated women are unable to bear children. "Children of Men" has many marvels not the least of which are two astonishing sequences filmed in unbroken camera movements (you're so wrapped up in the tension of the scenes that it's only afterward that you realize how complex those shots were to orchestrate).

Cuarón's bleak, yet wholly remarkable, film borrows imagery inspired by warfare in Baghdad, the July 7 London Tube bombings, the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, and Guantánamo to create an allegory about how the brotherhood of man has been fractured into divisions of race, religion, nationality, and gender. Yet, the movie's theme and message is so subtle that it's only after the film is over that one parses its meaning.

Sadly, the movie studio didn't seem to understand what it had in its hands. It was ditched in movie theaters with scant thought as to its Oscar chances and the trailers made it look as if it was a trashy sci-fi thriller. Once the critical plaudits started to mount, it seemed as if the studio was taken by surprise. But without an Oscar campaign, the film was ignored during awards season. No matter. The film's reputation has only increased over time and several film critics have included the film in their "Best of the decade" lists.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My favorite albums of the decade

In trying to compile my favorite albums of the decade, I initially tried to compile a top 10 list. I hated the exercise. How do you squeeze 10 years of albums into 10 slots? When you compile a roster of the very greatest albums of the 'OOs, how do you distinguish whether one masterpiece is worthy of the #6 slot rather than the #5 slot ?

So, I resolved instead to just list some of the albums that have remained special to me, throughout the decade. I've sorted them alphabetically by artist and, as you'll see, some bands and artists have more multiple albums listed next to their names. Some artists, such as Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Blackfield), have had such an outstanding decade that I've included every release over the past 10 years. With others, I've tried to hone in on their best work.

I'll put an asterisk* next to a select couple of records that I have played over and over and over again and would carry out first in the event of a fire. (I've also marked out some of those very favorites with pictures of album covers.) I've also added hyperlinks, where possible, to my reviews of some of these records.

Justin Adam & Juldeh Camara -- Soul Science/Tell No Lies
Ryan Adams -- Cold Roses
Air -- Talkie Walkie
Amadou & Mariam -- Dimanche A Bamako
Joseph Arthur -- Come to Where I'm From*/Redemption's Son*/Our Shadows Will Remain*/Nuclear Daydream*
David Baerwald -- The New Folk Underground*
Richard Barbieri -- Things Buried/Stranger Inside
Bat for Lashes -- Fur and Gold/Two Suns
The Beta Band -- From Heroes to Zeroes
Bjork -- Vespertine*
Blackfield -- Blackfield/Blackfield II
The Black Keys -- Attack & Release
Blonde Redhead -- 23
Blue Nile -- High
Boards of Canada -- The Campfire Headphase
David Bowie -- Heathen*/Reality
Jack Bruce -- Shadows in the Air
Kate Bush -- Aerial*
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds -- Abbatoir Blues + The Lyre of Orpheus/Dig Lazarus Digg!!!
Coldplay -- Rush of Blood to the Head/Viva La Vida
Shawn Colvin -- Whole New You
Crowded House -- Time on Earth
The Cure -- 4:13 Dream
Dirty Projectors -- Bitte Orca
Drive By Truckers -- Brighter than Creation's Dark
Bob Dylan -- Love and Theft/Modern Times
Doves -- Lost Souls*/The Last Broadcast/Some Cities/Kingdom of Rust
Elbow -- Asleep in the Back/Cast of Thousands/Leaders of the Free World*/Seldom Seen Kid
Engineers -- Three Fact Fader
Donald Fagen -- Morph the Cat
The Flaming Lips -- Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes
Neil Finn -- One All
Frou Frou -- Details
Goldfrapp -- Seventh Tree
Grizzly Bear -- Yellow House/Veckatimest
Imogen Heap -- Ellipse
John Hammond -- Wicked Grin
PJ Harvey -- Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea*/Uh Huh Her/White Chalk*
Jesca Hoop -- Kismet*
The Invisible -- The Invisible
Iron & Wine --The Shepherd's Dog
Keane -- Under the Iron Sea
Sonny Landreth -- From the Reach
LCD Soundsystem -- Sounds of Silver
Marillion -- Anoraknophobia/ Marbles* /Happiness is the Road*

The Mars Volta -- Deloused in the Comatarium/Octahedron
Scott Matthews -- Passing Strangers
Natalie Merchant -- Motherland
Midlake -- The Trials of Von Occupanther
Joni Mitchell -- Shine
Gary Moore -- Close As You Get
The Mummers -- Tale to Tell, Pt. 1
My Morning Jacket -- It Still Moves
No-Man -- Returning Jesus*/Together We're Stranger*/Schoolyard Ghosts*
Opeth -- Blackwater Park/Ghost Reveries
Pineapple Thief -- Variations on a Dream
Robert Plant -- Dreamland*/Mighty Rearranger*/Raising Sand* (with Alison Krauss)Porcupine Tree -- In Absentia*/Deadwing*/Fear of a Blank Planet*/The Incident*

Radiohead -- Kid A*/In Rainbows* (two-disc edition)
Red Hot Chili Peppers -- Stadium Arcadium
Rush -- Vapor Trails
Shearwater -- Palo Santo*/Rook*
Steely Dan -- Everything Must Go
Otis Taylor -- Definition of a Circle
Tinariwen -- Imidiwen: Companions
Rokia Traoré -- Tchamantché
TV on the Radio -- Return to Cookie Mountain/Dear Science
Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Suzanne Vega -- Songs in Red and Gray
Steven Wilson -- Insurgentes*

The White Stripes -- Elephant
World Party -- Dumbing Up
Thom Yorke -- The Eraser

Friday, December 18, 2009

With 'Avatar,' Cameron is king of all worlds

Cancel whatever plans you have this weekend. Go find yourself the biggest screen showing "Avatar" in 3-D. It's utterly astonishing. Not the story so much, which is "Dancing with Wolves" or "Ferngully" all over again, but James Cameron's feat of visual imagination is as astonishing as watching Jesus walk on water. As Steven Spielberg put it, "The last time I came out of a movie feeling that way it was the first time I saw Star Wars."

Truth is, my faith in James Cameron had waned. He was, after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, my first real movie director hero. I remember the day vividly. At age 14, my parents dropped me off at a cinema and I opted to see "Aliens." Didn't know a thing about it. Had never even heard of "Alien" at that point. The movie poster of a sweaty Sigourney Weaver even looked oddly like Michael Jackson. But I knew it was sci-fi and that was enough for me. I was one of four people in the movie theater for a matinee screening and that sense of isolation only enhanced what became one of the most intense cinematic experiences of my life. "Aliens" is a masterpiece. An action-suspense film that clamps down on your heart because Cameron spends a lot of time developing characters you care about.

From that day I was a fan. I was entranced by both "Terminator" movies as well as the tongue-in-cheek homage to James Bond, "True Lies." I particularly loved "The Abyss" (well, apart from the "ET" ending) because the scuba diver in me has always been fascinated by the deep. Has there ever been a more heart-stopping moment in cinema when the Ed Harris character tries to revive his wife, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio?

Alas, "Titanic" shook my faith in Cameron. The movie has numerous incredible scenes and the third-act sinking of the boat is utterly indelible. But the characters of Jack and Rose were too cartoonish and Cameron's depiction of the social mores of 1912 seemed far too modern in sensibility to be believable. Kate and Leo may have had a natural chemistry but the crass storytelling and risible dialogue kept me at arm's length from fully embracing the film, much as I wanted to. Don't even get me started about the silliness of Billy Zane's character chasing after Leonardo with a gun even as the ship is sinking...

"Avatar" reminded me why I loved James Cameron in the first place. You may already know the story which, according to some, is a rip off of a Poul Anderson's short story, "Call Me Joe."

"Avatar" is set in the year 2157. A distant planet, "Pandora," holds vast repositories of a precious ore that Earth badly desires. But the planet is inhabited by the N'Avi, primitive, blue-skinned alien beings who resemble a cross between Andrew Lloyd Weber's cat people, giraffes, and the smurfs. A group of American marines led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) draws up plans to forcibly remove the N'Avi even as a peacenik scientific research team led by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) tries to integrate itself into the native tribe through bio-engineered Avatars that resemble the N'Avi. The hero of the story, a paraplegic Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), finds a new lease on life inside his Avatar since he's able to walk once again using this new body. During his first visit to the jungle -- an environment by turns wondrous and dangerous -- he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a fetching, yet fierce, N'Avi warrior. Jake starts living with the N'Avi and it gives nothing away to report that, in the process, he goes native.

So far, so predictable, right? Well, the story may not hold any narrative surprises but the characters are effectively embodied by the cast. Sam Worthington is solid, though hardly revelatory. Stephen Lang's top-brass Marine is so bad-ass that he'd reduce the likes of Colonel Kilgore and Lee Ermey to warming his toilet seat for him.

As with all James Cameron movies, it's the women who get the richest and most rewarding roles. Sigourney Weaver is all guts and gumption but, in a performance that echoes her Ellen Ripley character in "Aliens," she gradually softens to reveal a maternal side, too.

Zoe Saldana, who played Uhura in the recent "Star Trek," is particularly effective. She's the one actress we never actually see because her whole performance is rendered with pixels. Yet her body posture and facial expressions are particularly expressive. That's because Cameron devised unique technology to digitally capture the motions and emotions of his actors. The cast weren't just rigged in motion-capture suits. They were also fitted with helmets with small cameras that could capture everything from a cheek twitch to the movement of the tongue. (To read more about the technology behind "Avatar," here's a story I wrote on it.)

Naysayers figured that the N'Avi characters would be a folly on a par with Jar Jar Binks, but Cameron's photo-realistic technology allows for surprising depth of performance. Until now, computer-generated characters have been hobbled by a fatal flaw: Their eyes look as dead as those of a Great White shark. But the N'Avi's pupils have been animated with the crucial spark of life that makes them well, almost human. If we didn't connect emotionally with these computer-rendered extra-terrestrial beings, the movie would be a failure.

Technologically, this film truly is a gamechanger. Of course, all the tech would just be a bunch of flashy pixels without the steady hand of a gifted filmmaker. The pacing, the action, the core emotion, the visual imagination of every frame makes one realize what hacks most Hollywood action directors are. "Avatar" is also an effective love story and, instead of serving up a de rigeur action sequence every couple of minutes, Cameron lets the middle part of the movie breathe serene quiet as we get to explore "Pandora" and understand its natives. It doesn't flag for a minute, even at nearly 3 hours.

There are things one could quibble about in terms of the story's message and its cliches about noble savages tamed by the white man. (The first dialogue exchange between Jake Sully and Neytiri is uncomfortably "Me Tarzan, You Jane.") The film also floats the notion that a primitive tribal existence is akin to living in Eden. It's a powerful and romantic notion when, in fact, such an existence would be painful and difficult -- truly Hobbesian. Tribal cultures have often trafficked in cannibalism and human sacrifice and war. It's the reason mankind progressed beyond a hunter gatherer mode. A more interesting picture might have explored whether Pandora's native tribes couldn't have benefitted from education and technology at the expense of tradition. The film's anti-technology/ back-to-nature theme is a bit rich when the filmmaking itself is a technological marvel. But the movie's magic trumps such flaws while you're watching it.

As film critic Peter Rainer notes, "Avatar" is the most expensive Cowboys and Indians film ever made. (Also, you know you're watching science fiction when a 22nd-Century America is still the world's super power, rather than India or China.)

James Cameron stated that he aimed to make a film that would make people go to the cinema again. Indeed, watching this in 3-D is to be immersed in virtual reality. It's like spending three hours on a distant planet envisaged by Roger Dean, the artist who created all the Yes album covers. (See the movie, then compare the art direction to these album Roger Dean album covers with ribcage rock formations and floating rocks.)

Where the film truly triumphs in originality its imagination of a rich extraterrestrial ecosystem where dinosaur-like creatures coexist with Jellyfish-like sprites that float like dandelions. Many of the creatures were clearly inspired by Cameron's excursions to the deepest part of the oceans.

Movie critic Ty Burr sums it up best when he writes, "I could go on about the depth of field in the rapturous 3-D landscapes, how cleanly each individual leaf and insect is realized, how fully visualized the critters, but words start to fail. “Avatar’’ is an entertainment to be not just seen but absorbed on a molecular level; it’s as close to a full-body experience as we’ll get until they invent the holo-suits."

Truly, this is one film experience that won't translate to DVD and a TV screen. Let alone an iPod.

I saw the film at Fox studios and the star, Sam Worthington, did an engaging Q&A afterward. He said that Cameron's intial cut of the movie was 5 hours long and so they cut out several subplots and opted for narrative shortcuts. It also sounds as if Cameron has mellowed as a person. Worthington mentioned that he'd heard horror stories about Cameron as a dictator on the set of "Titanic" but Worthington said that the director tried to get people on board with him to realize his vision and so he couldn't afford to alienate his crew.

Worthington also said that Cameron already has the story for the sequel mapped out but it all depends on whether the movie -- the most expensive ever made -- is a hit or not. Prior to seeing the film, I thought that "Sherlock Holmes" would be this winter's big hit. But once word of mouth gets around, "Avatar" will play for months and months as moviegoers queue up for repeat trips to the wondrous world of "Pandora." With "Avatar," James Cameron isn't just "King of the World." He's king of all the other worlds, too.

Monday, December 14, 2009

'Up in the Air' earns its high praise

Douglas Adams begins his book "The Long, Dark Tea-time of the Soul" with the following hilarious observation:

"It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the phrase, 'as pretty as an airport.' Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their language has just landed in Murmansk. (Murmansk airport is the only known exception to this otherwise infallible rule)..."

Indeed, an airport terminal is nobody's favorite place to spend several hours. Except, for Ryan Bingham, that is. In "Up in the Air," Bingham (played by George Clooney) feels entirely at home in the gray purgatory of departure lounges across the continental United States. Good thing, too, since Bingham's business keeps him on the road more days per year than BB King. It's when he returns home to his apartment, which is more spartan than a jail cell, that he feels mordantly uneasy about his solitary existence. While he's on the road, surrounded by a constant bustle of fellow travelers, he's able to stave off any feelings of existential angst.

Ironically, this loner has one expertise in life: people skills. He travels across to firms across the country to lay off people by using his furrowed brow of concern and well-practiced conciliatory patter to dampen the slap of the pink slip. Unlike the devastated former employees he leaves in his wake, he gets a good night's sleep thanks to the bonus points he racks up in well-appointed hotel rooms. He also flies business class, clocking frequent flier air miles as a hobby of sorts (he's counting down the number of flights until he reaches a golden number attained by only 7 other passengers).

Then, one day, his cozy existence is upended by news that his job is about to become automated. A new hire at the firm -- a young upstart fresh out of business school named Natalie Keener -- has devised a system that allows one to fire people via online teleconferencing. Bingham is devastated since it means that his days on the road will soon be over. Fortunately, he convinces his boss (a smarmy Jason Bateman) that Natalie sorely needs to experience the interpersonal dynamics of laying off people in person. So he takes her out on the road with him. Also complicating Bingham's routine: A fling with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a business woman he meets at a hotel lounge.

Won't say much more about the plot of this tremendous movie, which is based on a novel by Walter Kirn. Suffice to say that "Up in the Air" is one of 2009's finest films and that's because it had the Reitman for the job. That would be Jason Reitman -- sorry, couldn't resist the pun -- who previously helmed "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno." He's a director with exquisite taste for material that is dramatic, funny, moving, and thoughtful. And, in this movie, incredibly sexy. The smoldering scenes between Clooney and Farmiga spark with such intensity that someone may yell "Fire" in a crowded theater.

This is Clooney's finest role to date. I wish that the actor's familiar, well-oiled charm was rustier in this role but he allows one to see the shadows inside the creases on his face and, slowly, we see what a sad a figure lies beneath the character's polished veneer.

"Up in the Air" is a blessing for Farmiga who, in the movie's best scene, delivers a great speech that, in hindsight, casts a shadow. The actress should have gone on to big things after her role in "The Departed" and an LA Film Critics award for her harrowing performance in "Down to the Bone." Instead she found herself languishing in two thankless horror movies about deadly adopted orphans ("Joshua" and "Orphan"). Farmiga should now be able to knock on the door marked "A-list."

Anna Kendrick, to date renowned as "the best friend" in the Twilight series, offers much needed levity as Natalie, the tightly wound Type-A who learns life lessons out on the road. It's a showy role that ought to earn Kendrick a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars.

Another thing I appreciated: Reitman doesn't try to vilify companies or make some lofty anti-capitalism statement. In newscasts, one frequently sees stories about people losing their jobs because of plants shutting down or companies downsizing or outsourcing. But what is never seen, or captured by the media, is how these painful adjustments in the economy play out in the long run. How resources are reallocated (to use cold econo-speak) in more productive ways and how people adjust to their circumstances. Indeed, there's a great scene in which one laid-off employee wonders what he's going to do now. The Bingham character makes him realize that he has a particular talent that he's never utilized and could result in a far more satisfying new career.

Moreover, the movie hones in on what jobs and career mean to us, and just how much meaning we invest in our work. It certainly reminded me how much of my identity has been tied up in a job in the past. When people are let go, it's emotionally devastating and the movie doesn't flinch at depicting that. The authenticity of such scenes isn't accidental. Reitman posted ads inviting recently fired people to be interviewed on film. Those scenes with non actors pack a punch that, fortunately, the fictional drama is able to match.

"Up in the Air" is, as the movie tagline advertises, is "a story of a man about to make a connection." But its not a predictable story and it'll stay with you. Even the open credit sequence lingers...

I hope "Up in the Air" puts bums in seats. The prospect of spending so much screen time inside an airport terminals may not be an easy sell when the theater next door is transporting "Avatar" viewers to the 3-D planet of Pandora. Moreover, the trailers for "Up in the Air" may trigger unfortunate flashbacks to Tom Hanks in "The Terminal." But trust me on this. "Up in the Air" has stayed with me since I saw it a couple of weeks ago. It's the sort of classy, star-driven, middlebrow movie that Hollywood seems to reluctant to finance anymore.

Recent upscale, middlebrow fare such as "Michael Clayton," "State of Play," "Duplicity," "Charlie Wilson's War," "Public Enemies," and "The International" haven't exactly troubled the folks who crunch numbers over at Box Office Mojo.

Unfortunately, too many stars have insisted on big salaries for such movies, making it more difficult to recoup costs. Star power isn't the commodity it used to be. Films such as "Juno" and "Slumdog Millionaire" prove that a great story without marquee names can still draw an audience.

Poor marketing may be to blame for the failure of some of the afore-mentioned movies, according to the ever-astute Anne Thompson. The success of "Julie & Julia" demonstrates that adult dramas can pull in older punters. Well that, and Meryl Streep.

Nonetheless, studios seem more interested in stories geared at 13-year-olds (or the 13-year-old in you). Certainly, films such as "Transformers" and "2012" carry far less risk than the types of adult-oriented dramas the studios used to make in the 1970s. To that end, the big studios have closed down specialty divisions (Paramount Vantage + Warner Independent + Vantage). Moreover, the indie sector has collapsed as a result of the credit crunch and, let's face it, such contraction was inevitable after a period of over-expansion in which just about anybody could get financing for a movie. Even the Weinstein Brothers are rumored to be in serious financial trouble (though "Inglorious Basterds" may have offered a stay of execution for their company).

So I hope "Up in the Air" is a success at the ticket counter and at the Oscar podium. It may encourage Hollywood to continue making movies that focus on people rather than pixels.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Great songs of 2009

Here's a list of some choice songs from albums I didn't include in my list of fave albums of 2009 (below):
  • Thom Yorke -- Hearing Damage
  • Bob Dylan -- Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
  • Bad Lieutenant -- This Is Home
  • PJ Harvey + John Parrish -- Black Hearted Love
  • The Big Pink -- Dominoes (download the song for free at:
  • The Joy Formidable -- Greyhounds in the Slips (download the song + album for free at:
  • Bon Iver & St. Vincent -- Roslyn
  • Buddy & Judy Miller (feat. Robert Plant) --What You Gonna Do Leroy?
  • Neil Finn + Liam Finn + Johnny Marr + Ed O'Brien -- Learn to Crawl
  • Liam Finn + Johnny Marr -- Red Wine Bottle
  • Johnny Marr -- Run to Dust
  • Phil Selway -- The Ties That Bind
  • Death Cab for Cutie -- Meet Me on the Equinox
  • Depeche Mode -- Wrong
  • Marillion -- Hard As Love (2009 acoustic version)
  • Fever Ray -- If I Had a Heart
  • Flaming Lips -- Silver Trembling Hands
  • J. Tillman -- There Is No Good in Me
  • Lovers of London -- Lovers of London (download this track as part of a free compilation at:
  • Massive Attack -- Pray for Rain
  • The XX -- Crystalized
  • Pure Reason Revolution -- Deux Ex Machina
  • Radiohead -- These Are My Twisted Words
  • Scott Matthews + Robert Plant -- 12 Harps
  • Sweet Billy Pilgrim -- Truth It Smiles
  • U2 -- Magnificent
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- Zero
  • Charlotte Hatherley -- Cousteau
  • Efterklang -- Mirador
  • Mew -- Hawaii

Friday, December 11, 2009

Invective for 'Invictus'

While watching Matt Damon in "Invictus," I thought, "Aren't you a little short to be a rugby player?" Damon clearly did some Rocky Balboa-worthy weight training to beef up for his role as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the 1995 South African team that won the rugby world cup and united a fractured nation. In trying to fill Pienaar's shoes, he may even have worn some platformed cleats on his boots. But, to fill out the other 14 players in the cast, the casting director seems to have put the green and gold jersey on a bunch of shorties so that everyone would fit into the frame.

As a South Africa rugby fan, I'd been looking forward to Clint Eastwood's latest December release and wondered how he'd depict. Purely from a technical point of view, the rugby scenes are only intermittently convincing. The players simply don't have the stature and physique of a Springbok (or an All Black, for that matter). The filmmakers hired a company called Sports Studio that specializes in accurately recreating sports events on film (in the past, they've worked on movies such as "Coach Carter," "We Are Marshall," and "Miracle"). The filmmakers were careful to try recreate many of the actual plays of the game. But, to be honest, the cast -- which, according to Rugby Mag are "actual rugby players who play in some type of league in South Africa" -- seem more like weekend amateurs than test-caliber players. There's clearly an athletic skill level that's missing and they don't comport themselves like test-level players. To the average American viewer, that may not matter, though if they paused to consider what these cast members would look like in a movie about the NFL, they'd realize the, er, shortcomings of the cast. Eastwood does a nice job of moving the camera around the field and in an out of the scrum.

Damon hardly gets a character arc but he does a great job with the South African accent -- one of the trickiest to master -- and local colloquialisms. Morgan Freeman fares worse with the linguistics. But the veteran actor does capture the spirit of Nelson Mandela and his natural nobility, grace, and innate leadership skills. But mostly we see the public persona. There's a dekightful scene at a party where Mandela, now separated from his wife, Winnie, flirts with a woman on the dance floor. It's one of the few times in the movie where we get a glimpse of Mandela the actual man rather than the hagiographed legend.

Clint Eastwood's late career films have explored the consequences of violence, the poisonous impulse of revenge, and learning to love one's neighbor regardless of their class or race. He seems ideally suited to film this story but, alas, opts for broad-strokes filmmaking that dilutes what could have been an intelligent movie. For example, the first scene depicts black kids playing soccer on the one side of the road and white kids playing rugby on the other side of the street. Mandela's convoy rides down the middle of the street symbolizing that he is going to unite a divided nation. The metaphor is about as subtle as a Jonah Lomu tackle. Much of the movie is like that. In one scene, Francois Pienaar visits Mandela's jail cell on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. Here, one sees just how cramped and spartan his quarters were. But the scene's effectiveness is undercut by the image of Mandela's ghost as Pienaar imagines Mandela's imprisonement.

Bizarrely, the film also tries to generate false suspense. Early on, the director implies that a van of assassins is heading toward Mandela during his early morning run. It turns out to be a newspaper delivery van. Later, a South African Airways jet performed a dangerous low-flying manouever over Ellis Park stadium for the opening ceremonies of the cup final. It's a thrilling recreation of an actual event. Yet, in the film, Mandela's security detail appears unaware that such a flyover had been planned. That seems implausible to me. Worse, Eastwood tricks viewers into thinking that the pilot is on a suicide mission to kill Mandela and those in the stadium. To what end?

Eastwood fares much better at portraying how the whole country was swept up in cup final fever and scenes of the stadium supporters and people across the country crammed around television sets are highly effective.

In all, the film has commendable moments but the overall execution left me feeling that this story would have been better told as a documentary that used archival footage and interviews with those involved.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

My favorite albums of 2009

1) Porcupine Tree -- The Incident

Steven Wilson, the singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer of Porcupine Tree is a musical genius. That's not hyperbole. Wilson is a prolific chap who, in addition to 3 solo projects under 3 different pseudonyms, is also a member of two other bands: No-Man (atmospheric art rock) and Blackfield (concise pop rock). As a producer and contributor to other projects, his discography adds up to 265 Web pages on one website.

But Porcupine Tree is his major project and, after two decades, have finally broken into the major leagues with "The Incident" (a top 25 album in the US and UK, plus a sellout tour of 2,500 venues). They're difficult to categorize musically, but their music ranges from melancholic, Floyd-like ambient passages to thrashing hard rock to pop with vocal harmonies that the Beach Boys would envy. Wilson considers his greatest strength to be production, but I reckon his greatest talent is his unerring gift is melody and hooks. He's a wellspring of talent that continues to delight and surprise. (Take a look at my interview with Steven earlier this year for a glimpse into his thoughtful insights on music.)

Porcupine Tree is rounded out by three other unique musicians. Bassist Colin Edwin is a master of supple groove. Drummer Gavin Harrison, one of the world's greatest, has the arms of a blacksmith and the slight of hand of a Houdini as he lays down his patented "rhythmic illusions." Former Japan member Richard Barbieri is that rare thing: A singularly identifiable keyboardist who uses his keys to create moods, atmosphere, and texture.

Porcupine Tree's latest album is dark, dense, and deep. Each time I listen to the record, I drill down to the discovery of a new layer. In my review of the album in Filter magazine, I wrote in part, "The double album includes a 55-minute song cycle about transformative experiences in Wilson’s life, from an unsettling séance to daily memories of a girl he hasn’t seen in 15 years. Pretentious? Not in the execution. At times, Porcupine Tree soars past the celestial constellations Pink Floyd once explored (“Time Flies”); at others, it plunges beyond the tremendous abysses mined by Slayer (“Octane Twisted”). Amid these two extremes, Wilson’s wistful voice wanders through soundscapes of bucolic pop and industrial electronica. The once-underground band built its fan base with choruses that felt like priceless black-market commodities. Here, songs such as 'Blind House' and 'Flicker' uphold that tradition."

I concluded my review with a minor criticism: "Unfortunately, this is the first album in which the truly progressive rock group doesn’t break new musical ground. It’s a bit like Lance Armstrong placing second in the Tour de France -- not the finish one is accustomed to, but still a remarkable achievement." It's a churlish criticism, really, since the album certainly isn't a rehash of anything they've done before. The album succeeds as a summation of the band's progression over the past 20 years, freshly blending various elements from past albums to create a deeply rewarding experience. I've also revisited Wilson's first solo album, "Insurgentes" (released this time last year) many times during the course of this year and I'm blown away by the new No-Man concert DVD and accompanying live CD.

2) Chickenfoot -- Chickenfoot

Surprised? Me, too. The kind of big, dumb, rawk record that I didn't think I liked anymore. But I've listened to their debut a zillion times this year as it's my favorite driving music. More thoughts on the album here.

3) Engineers -- Three Fact Fader

The electronic shoegazers spent years making this second album. Their extremely mellow and ethereal debut suggested a melding of Talk Talk and My Bloody Valentine. "Three Fact Fader" is even better and has more colorful range. Listen to tracks such as "Brighter as We Fall," "Three Fact Fader" "Clean Coloured Wire" and "Sometimes I Realize" in the dark. In your mind's eye you'll envision unfurling fractals.

4) Dirty Projectors -- Bitte Orca

Grizzly Bear meets Jesca Hoop meets ... Steve Howe? Dave Longstreth's guitars and arrangements certainly remind one of Yes (especially "Remade Horizon"). Everything in this experimental album is delightfully unpredictable and off-kilter. From the slightly deranged backing vocals of Amber Coffman and Hakey Deckle ("Useful Chamber") to the way that the tempo speeds up and slows down in "Temecula Sunrise." At times, the rhythms have a hip-hop feel, at others the booming drums sound as if Phil Collins was in the studio, replicating his "In the Air Tonight" drum fills. Unique.

5) Grizzly Bear -- Veckatimest

Art Rock is back in a big way -- witness the success of Dirty Projectors, Bat for Lashes, and Animal Collective (all represented in this list). This followup to the excellent "Yellow House" album begins with purpose. "Southern Point" has a jazzy groove with double bass, light snare drums, and daubs of keyboard. Its chorus, held aloft by overlapping vocals and clattering drums, is the very definition of elation. You'll check the liner credits to see whether "Two Weeks" wasn't contributed by Brian Wilson. "I Live With You" seesaws between quiet pleading and crashing resolve. Grizzly Bear's key ingredient: unusual vocal arrangements and harmonies.

6) The Invisible -- The Invisible

For starters, the best album cover of 2009 (click on the image for a larger version). This British trio, whose debut recorded was nominated for this year's Mercury Music Prize, has been compared to Radiohead and TV on the Radio. Guitarist and vocalist David Okumu certainly sounds like TVOR's Tunde Adebimpe at times. But The Invisible favor a sparser sound and its flecked guitar and limber grooves are reminiscent of The Police. (Drummer Leo Taylor also plays for Hot Chip.) There are bold sonic touches, too. At times, Okumu creates synth sounds with his voice and the sound of a creaky door is employed as aural texture.

"Constant" beguiles with its insistent "hoo-hoo" backing vocals as Okumu sings, "You never change, always the same." On the single "London Girl," a funky bassline seemingly lifted from Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" is augmented by a tingle of xylophone. And "Monster's Waltz" has a chorus that must be the envy of Bloc Party. The album isn't available in the US, but it's well worth the import.

7) Bat for Lashes -- Two Suns

Bat for Lashes isn't actually a band, it's the name adopted by British singer Natasha Khan. Daffy moniker aside, she's a very exciting artist whose two primary influences are Kate Bush and Björk, my two favorite female vocalists. As such, Khan's music is otherworldly, slightly avant garde, and infectiously melodic. Like those two vocalists, Khan has her own unique voice that is wonderfully expressive. Alas, Khan doesn't have Bush's literary talents and so her lyrics share Bjork's penchant for fantastical gobbledigook with lines such as, "When I get hurt / been in the jungle / where's my bear to lick me clean." I'll be she has interesting dreams.

second album, "Two Suns," expands on the sparse dynamics of her debut, "Fur and Gold." "Glass" is one of the greatest songs I've heard this year, her voice effortlessly spiraling toward celestial realms. "Daniel," an ode to "The Karate Kid," is one of the year's most indelible singles. I can lose myself for an eternity in the penultimate song, "Traveling Woman," a stark meditation of voice and piano. Great live, too.

8) Doves -- Kingdom of Rust

The difficult fourth record. In an interview earlier this year, frontman and bassist Jimi Goodwin told me that the band spent several grueling years trying to discover new musical dimensions rather than repeat themselves. In the end, they were only partially successful. "Kingdom of Rust" still sounds distinctively like a Doves record, but it boasts some new elements. As I noted in the feature, the album opens with a "hive of synths in the Kraftwerk-like 'Jetstream.'" Elsewhere, the album’s most dominant new feature is "the feint and parry of Goodwin’s bass. In the parabolic arrangement of '10:03,' the seismic rumble at the midpoint threatens to split the song at its seams. By contrast, the bass line on 'Compulsion,' the most radical song on the record, is funk slowed down to moonwalk speed. The groove is reminiscent of that in The Rolling Stones’s 'Miss You.'"

The album's best track, "The Greatest Denier," was one of the last to be written and was a highlights of Doves' live set. If "Kingdom of Rust" wasn't quite the creative breakthrough the band had hoped for, many reviewers -- including Alexis Petridis of The Guardian -- hailed it as the band's best record. Indeed, the quality of the melodies makes it one of the top 10 records of the year. Doves recently played an acclaimed show utilizing a Bulgarian choir. That bodes well for a future direction.

9) Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara -- Tell No Lies
Les Triaboliques -- River

It's been a busy year for Justin Adams. Adams and Juldeh Camara have played two high-profile shows with Robert Plant (Adams was previously the guitarist in Plant's now dissolved band, The Strange Sensation).

He also recorded an album with Ben Mandelson and Lu Edmonds under the moniker Les Triaboliques. I've only just received a copy of the guitar supertrio's debut "RiverMudTwilight" -- thanks Simone at World Village! -- but I'm thoroughly taken with it. Very exotic. Almost no percussion. Each melody is created from complex interplay between instruments such as the electric guitar, acoustic guitar, t'bal, calabash, cumbus, bow-bus, saz, eSaz, mandolin, Hawaiian guitar, banjo, electric kabosy, barizouki, planktone, laouto, khomuz, and tilinka. (No, I hadn't heard of half of those instruments either!)

The music sounds like the work of a trio of wandering minstrels who have traveled through Morocco, Timbuktu, Istanbul, Havana, and Clarksdale. Transportive stuff that ranges from trance blues ("Crossing the Stone Bridge") to Latin swing ("Gulagurajira") to Gypsy jazz ("Ledmo").

As I noted in an interview with the guitarist, the second Justin Adams + Juldeh Camara album, released in the US earlier this year, is "atypical of collaborations between African and Western musicians, which too often sound like two disparate seams zippered together.... The first single, “Kele Kele (No Passport, No Visa)”, is built on a Bo Diddley-like riff and the flirtatious backing vocals of Zanzibar’s Mim Suleiman. “Banjul Girl” is so exuberant it would spark a stock market rally if it was piped into Wall Street."

10) Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion

When guitarist Deakin left the band, Animal Collective compensated with free-form synths and roundelay vocal harmonies. At times, the album drifts a little too aimlessly but its best moments -- "My Girls," "Bluish," "Lion in a Coma," "No More Runnin'" -- have a beguiling hippie-ish innocence to them.

11) Tinariwen -- Imidiwan: Companions

The nomadic musicians from Mali have released their best, and most diverse, album, yet. (My full review, here.) Uncut magazine's pick for best album of 2009, no less. And with reviews in publications such as Spin, Rolling Stone, and even Entertainment Weekly, Tinariwen has successfully bridged the unfortunate divide between"world music" and mainstream rock.

12) Francis Dunnery -- There's a Whole New World Out There

The former frontman for It Bites takes a time out from his long-running solo career to revisit, and re-interpret, his former band's songs. Radically so. At first, I was bewildered by the laid-back, jazzy sound of these tunes. The It Bites originals were an effusive blending of rock, pop, and prog. By contrast, these sublime versions are laid back, ranging from Steely Dan-like jazz rock ("Whole New World") to chill-out reveries with a lounge-y feel ("Staring at the Whitewash").

The album is rounded out by a few new tunes (the lovely "Animal Life and Plant Life") and a few choice cover versions such as Robert Plant's "Calling to You (Dunnery played on the original). His take on Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is surprisingly sunny and one could imagine it fitting into a romantic comedy by Richard Curtis. It's an inspired reworking. Dunnery also nods to his early Genesis influence. A spare take on "Back in New York City" circles around the guitar riff, played on an acoustic guitar. Japan's "Still Life in Mobile Homes" is a slow ballad with soulful singing. A risky undertaking with a rich payoff.

13) Imogen Heap -- Ellipse

My review of "Ellipse" in Filter magazine, here: Imogen Heap’s delightful follow up to “Hide and Seek” has been gestating in the womb of her living-room studio for several years. An electro-pop auteur prone to insatiable tinkering, Heap has cannily generated interest in the long-running project through endearing vlogs and Tweets. She’s like Trent Reznor, only kookier.

Utilizing a similar sonic palette as its predecessor, “Ellipse” is all Pro-Tools graft. If songs such as “Earth” and “Tidal” feel encumbered by all the stratified layers of vocals, rhythms, and keyboard effects, their baroque mantles at least rest on a bedrock of indelible melodies. Heap has a keen ear for dynamics. The unexpected geyser of exuberance midway through “Swoon,” for example, makes it one of many tunes that will surely jostle for release as a single. And on the album highlight, “Canvas,” the desperation in Heap’s voice is echoed by traumatized violins as she wails, “I just can’t find the strength to pull you back.”

For all its shipwrecked romances, “Ellipse” doesn’t wallow in misery. In “Bad Body Double,” Heap even uses self-deprecating humor to fret about body issues before a date. Ultimately, that’s what distinguishes Heap: Her voice, by turns flighty and forlorn, has an honest personality often missing in pop.

14) Them Crooked Vultures -- Them Crooked Vultures

These gentlemen know a thing or two about great riffs. In Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones came up with the riff to "Black Dog." The Foo Fighters' "The Pretender" packs the jolt of a defib
rillator. Queens of the Stone Age created one of the great rock songs of the decade in the form of the ZZ Top-like "No One Knows" (which features Dave Grohl on drums). This supergroup -- one of many to emerge this year -- have created an exilirating record. At 66 minutes, it is far too long and at times one wishes an outside producer had edited out the more self indulgent moments.

Yet the best parts, such as "Fang" and "No Eraser, No Chaser," add up to more than the sum of the trio's parts. Best of all, "Scumbag Blues" sounds like the best song Cream never wrote as Josh Homme uncannily sounds like Jack Bruce. This is dangerous stuff to play in the car. Songs like Scumbag Blues, Bandoliers, and Warsaw are going to get me a speeding ticket one of these days.

15) Pearl Jam -- Backspacer

If only Kurt Cobain could hear them now. Once derided as a corporate entity trying to cash-in on the alternative scene, Pearl Jam quietly has amassed a devoted fanbase through a jam band ethos: marathon length shows with unpredictable set lists and a thriving business in official bootlegs.

On "Backspacer," the band sounds even more raw than on its previous, eponymously titled record. The opening trio of paint-stripping songs culminates with "The Fixer,"
the band's most ripping single in a
decade. There's also a more reflective maturity than before. Eddie Vedder's valentine to a loved one on "Amongst the Waves" is unnervingly moving with its lyric, "If not for love, I would be drowning." It's followed by "Unthought Known," which sounds like a hymn of exultant gratitude. Both songs are anthemic without being at all bombastic or overwrought. Elsewhere, "Johnny Guitar," a song about bluesman Johnny "Guitar" Watson and his many girlfriends, showcases a playful streak at odds with the band's frowny persona.

16) Chris Isaak -- Mr. Lucky

Chris Isaak is still rock music's Dorian Gray. Returning with his first studio album in 7 years, Isaak still looks much the same as he did in 1988 (must be something in the brylcreem). The eternal bachelor has been writing song after song about heartbreak for several decades now and one is tempted to think he's the musical equivalent of the boy who cried "wolf." Yet his pleading voice -- imbued with the lingering ghosts of Roy Orbison and Elvis -- is so earnestly soulful that you may have to replenish the tearducts by the end of "You Don't Cry Like I Do" and "Breaking Apart" (a remake of an earlier song, recast as a duet with Trisha Yearwood). A typically strong collection of tunes, ranging from the rockabilly rip curl of "Mr. Lonely Man" to film noir grooves of "Very Pretty Girl." The falsetto-howl chorus of "We Let Her Down" is one of Isaak's best.

17) Butterfly Boucher -- Scary Fragile

Head over to the Australian's songwriter's MySpace page and take a listen. As I noted in my review of the album, "No matter how many times you uncork the choruses of "Gun for a Tongue" and "To Be Loved," they never lose their fizz."

18) Phoenix -- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

The French duo Air has sucked up all its creative oxygen. Thank goodness, then, that France has a great indie synth pop export to take their place. Phoenix released one of 2009's most unforgettable singles: "1901." The rest of the album boasts similarly hooky pop. The album should come with complementary party balloons.

19) The Swell Season -- Strict Joy

ians shouldn’t ignore the old adage, “Never date a coworker.” Just ask Fleetwood Mac. After their relationship ended, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová somehow stuck together to create a terrific breakup album. Full review here.

20) Muse -- The Resistance

Brian May told Mojo magazine that "The Resistance" is his favorite album of the year. Hardly surprising. He practically wrote it. "The United States of Eurasia
" completes the coronation of Muse as the new Queen. This overblown glamslam record seems to have been made under a single guiding principle: excess all areas. It even includes a suite of orchestral pieces ("Exogensis: Symphony 1 - 3") that, fortunately, don't veer into Berlioz territory and area (relatively) restrained. Ultimately, the melodies are so catchy that resistance is futile. But Matt Bellamy has gone so over the top that Muse will surely have to pare things back on their next album. Terrible album cover, though, which is atypical for the band.