What to watch: films of 2013

I didn’t rank or score any of the following movies (although I will tell you which one was my favorite). But in a year of great movies, I whittled my list down to this lot — and that should speak volumes about their quality. Every film named below, each in its own way, is sensational; though some are, for one reason or another, certainly easier (or harder) to watch than others. I think they’re all must-sees, but I also pride myself on the versatility of my tastes and, children aside, there should be something here for everyone.

 12 Years a Slave

Plot: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejoifor), a well-to-do black man and accomplished musician, living free in New York, is drugged, abducted and sold into slavery from Washington D.C. in 1841. Traded between masters, each more savage than the last, Northup unjustly endures and bears witness to various quotidian horrors of the antebellum South for more than a decade.

Review: Director Steve McQueen, who’s made a name for himself depicting human suffering, though never to this degree, ensures every heinous act of racial violence is documented with visceral, unflinching vibrancy. He highlights not only the magnitude of these atrocities — the only time Northup tries to escape, he stumbles upon a lynch mob in flagrante delicto, and both Northup and the viewer then realize that the evil of slavery is all around him — but also their banality. After striking an overseer, Solomon is strung up from a tree and left to dangle, one slip of a toe from asphyxiation, while all other slaves go about their daily routine — there are even children playing — as if they do not see him hanging.

Irrespective of the brutality, Northup’s journey is also fiercely compelling because Solomon’s experience of slavery — as a foreigner, not yet inured to its dehumanizing vicissitudes — mirrors our own. (Steven Spielberg achieved something similar with the eponymous protagonist of his 1993 Holocaust-epic Schindler’s List.) And the incendiary performances, from Ejiofor on down (Michael Fassebender, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson all give award-worthy turns), only fuel and intensify the barbarism that unfolds on screen, ultimately climaxing in a harrowing display (shot in a single take) late in the movie’s 134-minute runtime. The somewhat abrupt arrival of the conclusion (the film’s title is its own spoiler) is an emotional reprieve but also deeply unsettling; it’s McQueen’s final stroke of genius. Our happiness for Northup is swallowed up by our knowledge of the many more unlike him, still suffering. That bitter taste, McQueen seems to be saying, has yet to leave our mouths.

Verdict: Visually arresting, emotionally exhausting and poignantly convicting, 12 Years a Slave succeeds where other slavery narratives fall short (to wit, the loquacious Lincoln and the lurid, revenge-fantasy Django Unchained) by presenting an exceptional and unsparing portrait of the violence and subjugation visited upon blacks in the 19th century, the reverberations from which we still feel today.

 Her (2013 Top Pick)

Plot: Technological advancements in the near future lead to the creation of the first artificially intelligent operating system. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely and nebbish writer, recently separated from his wife, downloads the OS, which is personalized to meet his every need, and falls in love with it.

Review: Her is, among many things, a miracle of execution. Spike Jonze, in his first feature as both director and writer, surrounds a high-art concept (the human-OS romance) with themes ripe for didacticism (love and connection in an impersonal, technologically driven age) and, for many of the film’s 126 minutes, follows only one (on-screen) actor. The possibility of failure is astronomical; if even one of those elements falters, the picture is doomed. A unique premise might not seem accessible, or Jonze might use the film as a vehicle for delivering a bludgeoning homily (movies are at their worst when they do this), or Phoenix’s character might try the patience, and strain the credulity, of the audience. But it’s not — the fact that Twombly’s relationship with his operating system seems only slightly weird is perhaps the film’s greatest triumph —, Jonze doesn’t, though there is some satire (Theodore works for a company called beautifullyhandwrittenletters.com that specializes in personalized love letters to and from clients too busy to write the words themselves), and when have you known Joaquin Phoenix to be anything but a splendid actor?

Scarlett Johansson likewise deserves heaps of praise for her work here as the voice of Samantha, Theodore’s amorous OS1. Though, ironically, words cannot sufficiently extol her ability in this purely vocal performance. Everything else, from Hoyte Van Hotyema’s creamy, pastel photography and the art direction and costume design (high-waisted pants, for the win) to the setting, which is near-future Los Angeles (the cityscape is actually a computer-generated amalgam of L.A. and Shanghai) and Arcade Fire’s ambient, piano-heavy score, works too. (And there’s humor, to boot!) The narrative is no exception. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, interspersed by wordless flashbacks of Catherine (Rooney Mara), Twombly’s estranged wife, dips and swells like any other, and takes an inevitable turn in the end, but the film’s message, dictated by Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s lone human friend, that falling in love is just a “form of socially acceptable insanity” but we do it anyways because we have to, is among the most profoundly romantic and insightful. So ultimately we leave Theodore knowing he’s better off than when we met him, and, for once, it’s really happily ever after.

Verdict: Without veering into pretentious message mongering, and despite an idiosyncratic set up, Jonze delivers his most assured, wistfully romantic film to date. A movie brimming with smart ideas and penetrating insights, about the journey towards self-discovery — as true a love story as there ever was.

 Gravity

Plot: Two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) search for a way back to Earth after a cloud of space debris destroys their ship and communication relays, kills their crew and leaves them stranded, untethered and alone in the void of space.

Review: A narrative synopsis of this movie beyond what I just described isn’t merely unnecessary, it’s actually superfluous. The reason for one to see Gravity will not be found in the film’s tale of survival against (I’m sorry) astronomical odds. Though Bullock’s performance, as a first-time space-walker and mission specialist Ryan Stone, and George Clooney’s work as Matt Kowalski — the veteran-astronaut version of himself — deserve proper commendation. And Steven Price’s score is especially chilling. But, no, neither the writing nor the acting nor the music (or even all three) are capable of outmatching the groundbreaking work of director Alfonso Cuaron and his longtime DoP collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. Simply put, Gravity is best movie I have ever seen — and I mean that in a very sensory-specific way (it wasn’t even the best movie I saw last year). One does not watch this movie so much as one experiences continuous wonder at the visual poetry on display before his/her eyes. Case in point: the movie’s opening shot, in which the camera zooms in and out, dips, swivels and pivots, is a nearly 13 minute, unbroken take.

In my estimation, a finer example (and another tracking shot) arrives about a third of the way into the movie when Stone (Bullock), in an effort to survive another barrage of debris — the cloud completes an orbit every 90 minutes —, frantically dodges the shrapnel and navigates the exterior of the International Space Station in search of an airlock. (For narrative reasons, the ISS is parked relatively close to the former site of Stone and Kowalski’s mission.) She survives, of course, and a rebirth metaphor is apparent, and the emotional power and catharsis of the moment, the flawless choreography and lighting, the strains of Price’s score, coalesce into one of the most searing and unforgettable images in Gravity. I felt so tangibly moved by the scene that I wished simultaneously (and instantly) to replay it at least twice, and for the movie to end immediately after the scene was over (it doesn’t) so that the image would linger even longer in my mind. However, I cannot go without saying that the movie has some shortcomings. The dialogue (from a script co-written by Cuaron and his son Jonas), which possibly could have been eliminated altogether, stumbles in places and Stone’s backstory feels trope-y and excessively tragic; her character’s circumstances are empathetic enough. But these are minor quibbles against an otherwise astonishing, paradigm-defining movie. Not the kind of movie made for the UltraScreen, but the very reason for the UltraScreen’s existence.

Verdict: Alfonso Cuaron, directing with virtuosic flourish and bravura, surges past some slightly unpolished writing and produces a dazzling and nigh-peerless spectacle of technological mastery and visionary artistry. See it, if possible in 3-D, on the biggest screen you can find.

Music roundup: A beginner’s guide

The game-changers, fist-pumpers, claptrappers and the Johns

As we countdown to the annual Pazz & Jop poll, and because I have no other way of publishing this list, I present the inaugural year-end rundown of music worthy (and not so) of your attention and consumption. Of course I’m not a professional critic, which means I’m not sent advance copies of albums, which means my record selection is generally limited to what’s popular or what I’m interested in or — sometimes —  what my friends recommend. That, in turn, implies I’m likely to miss at least one sleeper sensation. But don’t reach for your pitchforks or torches just yet; remember when I said this was my first. Because, like any truly great album, I’m bound to get better the next time through.

(** Albums are listed in no particular order **)

Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 (RCA)
Like a lout who ogles himself at the gym, this Long Play (at 74 minutes) demands more patience than it deserves. Bloated song structure, extended codas and libertine lyrics abound; and for all the sonic muscle producer Timbaland flexes in Part 2’s protracted cuts, he – and Mr. Timberlake – now share the hubris of any fitness-center peacock: the person most impressed by the show is the one in the mirror. (Album score: 5/10)

The Wonder Years The Greatest Generation (Hopeless)
Billed as the third in a trilogy of albums about growing up, this one doesn’t charm so much as it enthralls; the songs layered with existential crisis (“the devil’s got a rifle on my front porch/with me in his sights/ he knows I came looking for a fight”), coming-of-age angst (“I’m sorry I don’t laugh at the right times”) and a yearning for greatness (“I just want to know that I did all I could with what I was given”). So they got the emotion, how about the sound? Protean pop-punk at its finest: forceful mid-tempo tracks, resonant ballads and standby turn-of-the-millennium melodies with some torque. You could say it’s an LP with courage, brains and a heart. That’d be the trifecta then, which makes sense because good things are supposed to come in threes; except a trio of listens won’t be enough. (9.5/10)

Parquet Courts Light Up Gold (What’s Your Rupture?)
Give their hipster cred a serious boost for releasing a debut on cassette, but dock twice as many points for stonewalling commercial (and popular) viability in the process. This time round, the brothers Savage and Co. minded their pocketbooks and got a proper release. Good thing, too, because theirs is a sound lacking in the mainstream (well, since the Japandroids anyway). Maybe this Brooklyn-based quartet plays a little loose with pre-hyphen genre modifiers, but the music’s rock all the same, sometimes post-punk, garage, even stoner. Besides, malleability is the hallmark of a craft mastered; and this lot oozes virtuosity whether contemplating mortality – with Ramones-esque urgency – or battling the munchies. (8.5/10)

Daft Punk Random Access Memories (Columbia)
The premise: a record from two faux robots that never lost their kid-like fascination with music, or their love for the music that fascinated them as kids. The players: Bangalter and de Homem-Christo, naturally; additional highlights include Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams and Julian Casablancas (among others). The product: an alacritous and anthropogenic soundscape; the amalgamation of disco, funk and house, breezy guitars and bouncy synths and buoyant hooks. The verdict: lubricate your hips, the dance floor beckons. (9.2/10)

The Front Bottoms Talon of the Hawk (Bar/None)
You know that friend on Facebook who overshares? The guy who cultivates space age cyrstals? Yep, that’s Brian Sella. He makes you wonder if he can’t process tragedy (or happiness) without a microphone, digital or otherwise. And, of course, some lines could use a proofreader; “I feel f***ed, but in a good way,” for instance. But there’s also, “[This is] for the warning signs I’ve completely ignored/there’s an amount to take, reasons to take more,” and “Tonight I’m the only one left, and I’m bettin’ it’s a fact that you will never learn.” And then there’s the music, which seems to obey exactly one rule of pop: four minutes or less. The sound is a fusion of power pop and rock (more rock), and Sella’s voice is always on the verge of cracking. But despite his talking without thinking (just feeling), you like him because unmitigated honesty’s rare these days. (8.5/10)

Justin Timberlake The 20/20 Experience (RCA)
The working title must’ve been The Honeymoon Metaphors. In any case indulge me an apropos simile. The songs are like ingredients in a love potion: some you expect (“Strawberry Bubblegum”), some you don’t (“Let the Groove Get In”) and each has a distinct flavor (i.e., bizarre musical influence); ingested together they make for a potent concoction. But every subsequent gulp (listen) has the potential to introduce a new fixation (Favorite Song). Not always a bad thing; this time though it means these tracks have another thing in common with a magician’s philter: most of their powerful effects don’t last. (7/10)

Kanye West Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam Recordings)
A Dark Fantasy sequel this ain’t. Call it what you want: polarizing vanity, sales suicide, downright abrasive. I call it boredom, artistic squirming; dissatisfaction with the safety of pop’s status quo, groundbreaking; the anti-pop record from our generation’s most definitive pop superstar. Here, the sonic milieu, aptly inspired by architecture, is as spare and industrial as the lyrics are galling and provocative. (Think: the “Monster” video on acid.) Ergo Yeezus might cost him some bandwagon listeners, but Kanye’s appeal always seems to border enigmatic. That’s how friends of mine can discuss their hatred of his recidivistic tendencies and their love for at least one of his songs in the same breath. Such contradictions typify this release: it’s radio-incompatible and addictive, proto-‘Ye and not, minimalistic and exasperating. In short, what you should expect from a guy who pummels expectations like they disrespected his mother. (9/10)

Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury Nashville)
The Girl Who Changed My Mind About Country Music (but not country radio). Here’s why: she largely eschews popular, epicurean lyrical tropes for stories of the recurrent lifestyles of small townsfolk; people who’ve disciplined themselves to settle for second best because personal ambition is, like arriving late to church, for them an unfathomable concept (and an unforgivable sin). Though there’s some lighter, bucolic fare as well. A song about the mobility of “home” and a YOLO anthem with a shoulder-shrugging (“If that’s something you’re into”) endorsement of same-sex relationships — take note, Macklemore — similarly shine. The results – despite some very tangible radio-friendly sensibilities – aver Musgraves to be disenchanted with becoming a pop artist. She’s trying to be something much more interesting: a good one. (9.3/10)

A Day to Remember Common Courtesy (Self-released)
Hey, McKinnon, if the document speaks for itself, why’d you write a song about it? Or, if you had to write the song, why’d it make the album cut? The sun rises, sets, label execs short you on royalties. Haven’t you heard? Living well – not muckraking – is the best revenge. Naming the pre-release tour after the best song on your new album? It’s a start. The existence of that song, maybe the best you’ve ever written? That’s the middle finger you’re searching for. All the broken relationships (record label not withstanding) and the hometown jingoism and the silencing of naysayers, or, better yet, the making converts of ‘em? That’s what I want to hear about because that’s what sells concert tickets. And guess what? Those execs are the naysayers now, and selling well is the better revenge. So right back at it again? Can I get a “f*** yeah”? (8.8/10)

Queens of the Stone Age …Like Clockwork (Matador)
Necessity may boast the longer tenure as mother to invention, but near-death experiences are also a fine source for fecundity. And when an artist, like Josh Homme, who has in reserve enough creative juices to fill a sixth Great Lake, glimpses the Afterlife one can (and should) expect a deluge of lurid imagination. And that’s just the cover art. The music plays out like the Songs for the Deaf sequel that never was: crunchy guitars churning out mammoth riffs; songs both woozy and propulsive, the sound constructed with a mosaic of musical influences and rubber band-ish genre bending. Not to mention reinserting the inimitable Dave Grohl, and reinstating the erstwhile Nick Oliveri, into the famously revolving lineup. Clockwork isn’t Homme’s opus (that’s SFTD) or his swan song (that’s TBD), but it’s his latest classic and Deaf’s proper successor — and it’s about time. (9/10)

Chance the Rapper Acid Rap (Self-released)
The first marvel is the veracity of this line, the last on a prophetic opener: “This your favorite [expletive] album and I ain’t even [expletive] done.” The second is how this kid — and, at 20, he’s still a kid — doesn’t have any label support, Young-Kanye comparisons and all. The rest, if you can convince yourself to take that first track off repeat, equally stuns: an eccentric but not esoteric flow, clever hooks, soul-inspired production as trippy and euphoric as an all-day high and mic-dropping freestyle raps that pile up in greater number than Chance’s myriad personas (a sometimes paranoid dealer, incisive social commentator, love-struck teenager; sometimes all three at once). Here, the sophomore effort, Chance proves more than equal to the task of eclipsing the hype, his own grand self-assessment, “even better than I was the last time, baby,” serving as both the standard and the conclusive evidence. (9.3/10)

Ariana Grande Yours Truly (Republic)
Refreshing as it is, this year enormously, to see a former female child star shirk the customary “clothing optional” attitude, no discussion of Ariana Grande is even half complete without mention of her prodigious vocals; the first time I heard “The Way,” I couldn’t differentiate Grande from Mariah Carey — and, I assure you,  a more favorable comparison does not exist. Similarly noteworthy, courtesy of producers Harmony Samuels and Babyface, is her homage to the staccato synths of ’90’s R&B (another nod to Mariah) and the piano flourishes of ’50’s doo-wop, though both unfortunately tail off towards the end. What remains (and endures) however is a fresh perspective on love as grownup as her iconoclastic modesty, network mandate or otherwise: “I wanna say we’re going steady like its 1954/… so just call me, if you want me/’cause you got me.” Got me, too. (8/10)

Arctic Monkeys AM (Domino)
AM, like the latest QotSA record, owes a small measure of its bravura to Josh Homme‘s contribution and endorsement. Credit the rest to artistic maturation. But, also like the latest QotSA record, Homme’s influence isn’t the only one apparent from the opening moments. On “Do I Wanna Know,” the album’s first track, lead single and the only AM song I know to get consistent radio play, the sound is vintage, stoner-rock Queens (tinged with bluesy diversions a la Brothers), chugging out a greasy, slithering melody over a simple, march-worthy drum patter; even the lyrics line up: “the nights were mainly made for saying things you can’t say tomorrow,” the narrator laments, aping Dan Auerbach‘s howl. The next 11 tracks exist in that morally ambiguous twilight. The album proper described best in Turner‘s own words: “Mad sounds in your ears/they make you feel alright/they bring you back to life.” (9.1/10)

Vampire Weekend Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
There are gradations, a friend likes to remind me, where music and creativity collide after a breakthrough album. At the bottom, a great risk that fails. More of what made a band popular takes second place, and, at the pinnacle, a sonic overhaul that yields tremendous results. Fitting then that Vampire Weekend follows just such a progression, minus the misstep. The idiosyncratic indie rock of their self-titled debut propelled the band onto the mainstream, Contra held them there and then we get City, which finds them not unveiling hidden weapons but discovering a brand new arsenal. It sounds like the epitome and the antithesis of pop music, wholly electronic and unflinchingly original. They even take a potshot at the popular lyrical zeitgeist: “Diane (Get it, “dying”?) Young.” And wouldn’t you know it, the gamble pays out. Cheeky bastards. (8.5/10)

Jason Isbell Southeastern (Southeastern Records)
His lyrics (e.g., “we’d burn these joints in effigy/cry about what we used to be”). If not his lyrics then his voice; the twang present but not hyperbolic. If not his voice then his sound, which, on this record, is nominally (“alternative”) country, but not in a Taylor Swift, electrono-pop way. If not his sound then his discursions; there’s carnal love and bacchanalia, but poetry (“home was a dream/ one that I’d never seen/till you came along”)in the former and black humor in the latter, and also loneliness (“what good does knowing do/with no one to show it to?”), death and rehabilitation (“so high the the street girls wouldn’t take my pay/they said ‘come see me on a better day'”), the clarity of hindsight (“all the things she’d suspected/I’d expected her to fear/was the Truth that drew her to me when I landed here”). If none of the above then why bother? (8.8/10)

Guilty Pleasure: Chris Brown, “Fine China

Favorite Obscurity (single): John Grant, “Pale Green Ghosts

Favorite Obscurity (album): John WizardsJohn Wizards

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