Friday, December 31, 2010

My Year in Lists: An Introduction

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

Over the next 52 weeks, I intend to offer an analysis of roughly 168 albums as a showcase of music in as many of its forms as possible. I hope for this feature to be partially critical in nature (that is, I will be discussing what I think are the merits and weaknesses of the albums), partially an effort to put each album and artist in context within the development of music and in some cases movements, and partially an effort to better understand some heady ideas. I want to use My Year in Lists as a way to learn about music writing and expand my own abilities, but also as a chance to examine and discuss the way that music influences our lives and the indelible mark great music leaves with us.

Starting next Friday I will be looking at one album off of each of three lists and evaluating it while also discussing the larger issues surrounding music as a whole. Before I begin in earnest, I have asked each of the three people who contributed a list to give a small introduction to their lists, explaining a bit about their musical background and biases, and giving some insight into the philosophies inherent in their lists. Ashley, you’ve heard from before around Review To Be Named. Collin will be joining us this year as a recurring contributor focusing on music. Tab is my uncle, and a musical collector and expert to be envied (with a collection of over 5,000 cds, not counting his vinyls and cassettes from years past). I chose these three to contribute lists both because I trust their musical knowledge and because I believed they would give me lists with enough divergence to keep things interesting for the next year. I look forward to where this project will take me, and can't wait to dig in next week. Without further ado, here are the introductions by each of the contributors.

Ashley’s Intro:

When I began to put together a list of my 52 essential albums, it became clear to me almost immediately that I needed a theme to build around. 52 is a small number, especially when you consider that music critics frequently select 50 albums from a single year to highlight in their “Best of (Year)” wrap-ups. I quickly abandoned any pretense toward objectivity, since I know my internal music library is hardly far-reaching enough to catch some of the lesser-known but truly great albums. Meanwhile, an intensely personal list would probably be both boring and embarrassing (I would never ask anyone else to listen to Ani DiFranco). I settled on the loosely-constructed theme of “20 Years of Alternative.” This is primarily a tribute to my formative years spent listening to alt rock radio in the 90s, before the medium fell victim to rap rock and that Nickelback/Hinder/Daughtry bullshit and became irrelevant. There’s a sampling here of the music that I heard and grew to love, from the early stuff (Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, Joy Division/New Order) that used to play during “80s Rewind” hours, to the shoegaze, grunge, Britpop, trip-hop, and indie rock of the 90s.

I chose to exclude more mainstream rock (there’s no Bowie or U2 here) since I wanted to focus on alternative as a loosely-constructed movement. Furthermore, I’ve obviously fudged the “twenty years” so that it’s a bit closer to twenty-one; there was just no way to not include 1979, during which Joy Division, Devo, Gang of Four, and The Cars all released incredibly important LPs that year.

Collin’s Intro:

This list of 52 essential albums that I’ve compiled for Jordan’s personal consumption and eventual critique is as near a historical retrospective of the last 52 years of recorded music that I could conceive of as an young, alternative adult male (re: “fucking hipster”). I constructed this list to represent a chronological narrative of music, to embody an audible arc of American culture. My intent in designing this catalog was to share some of my favorite albums with my good friend, engage his critical faculty, expand his taste, expose him to forms of musical expression he discounts, and discover a few new gems myself. There’s something for everyone here. The list encompasses almost every major genre of music from blues, jazz, folk, rock, r&b, hip-hop, pop, and electronica (excepting country and classical, although their influence is undoubtedly discernible), and their respective subgenres like acid jazz, rockabilly, freak folk, hard rock, prog rock, psychedelic rock, post-rock, “indie”-rock (Canadian, Brooklyn, and Portland), ambient, disco, new age, new wave, punk, grunge, rap, trip-hop, pop-hop, industrial, house, trance, minimal techno, downtempo, shoegaze, IDM, world music, two-step, dubstep, afrobeat, big beat, break beat, dance hall, glitch-hop, experimental, etc. Let it be known that my love for music is second to none, and yet I am no musician. I know nothing of music theory. It could be said that this illiteracy is the bane of my existence (that, or Herpes simplex). Luckily and ironically (or beautifully) enough, there is comfort in the sensation of rhythmic vibrations. Thankfully, my inability to translate musical notation doesn’t negate my sense of and taste for sound. I can still feel it (“like your mother felt the love last night, Trebek”). What I am saying is fortunately the relationship I share with my greatest passion is not a total tragedy, complete hoax, utter fallacy, or phenomenal failure: just a little bit of one.

This difference between the visual and audible modalities of music points towards my main purpose in presenting such an extensive collection before Jordan’s eyes and ears: to challenge him. Music – that is, moving emotions – transmits its message audibly and engages its audience through exceptionally different means and much more abstract forms than visual moving pictures. Concepts like instrumentation, lyric, voice, melody, rhythm, time signature, harmony, movement, syncopation, key, and (my favorite) chord replace character, dialogue, scene, symbolism, direction, and plot in the overall development of the artistic work. Although the aesthetic and thematic questions provoked by music remain somewhat similar to those incited by film, the nature, shape and scope of their answers remain as undisciplined, amorphous, and unbounded as desire itself. It is with this prologue that I counsel, encourage and applaud Jordan for his acceptance of such a vast and foreign mission.

Tab’s introduction:

I chose to ignore the instruction of selecting 52 essential albums. I ignored the instructions not just because of the difficulty in selecting what represents approximately 1% of my music collection. I store my CDs/CDRs in Case Logic plastic cases/containers which hold 64 slim case CDs. Because I was making copies of the CDs for Jordan to review I decided to not waste space and to fill the whole case and make 64 CDs. I made copies on 80 minute CDRs for Jordan to review and with a theme of not wasting, I decided to include multiple releases on CDs if the whole piece fit. Thus many of my 64 CDs have multiple albums/releases on them. The 64 CDs represent music from 45 artists and total 121 releases. In fact many of the CDs also contain singles and in one case the CD contains 16 7”, 10”, and 12” vinyl releases from Organum/David Jackman. I don’t think it’s fair to have music defined by the format and a collection of 16 singles is as essential as any particular release. For the most part I restricted CDs to only one artist but there are exceptions. Also if an artist was releasing music under multiple aliases it is still considered the same artist, e.g. O Yuki Conjugate and Sons of Silence.

From a content standpoint I focused on time period and primarily on artists. My time period was from the 60’s through the present, or the last 50 years. I tried to evenly distribute the selection across the decades but was not successful. From an artist standpoint, I selected who I feel are the “most essential” artists in terms influencing and creating the contemporary modern music, or non-classic rock and roll, that I listen to. I excluded some genres and artists that are essential such as Mozart, Marley, Hendrix and The Beatles because they have been covered enough. I also don’t like to use terms such as Alternative Music because to paraphrase Claude Bessey in The Decline of Western Civilization, which didn’t make the 64 80 minute CDR list but is a very influential album, Alternative Music doesn’t mean shit. The music on my list has been called many things and has been massively plagiarized. In the nineties I was once told that Throbbing Gristle isn’t classified as Industrial Music anymore, even though they invented the term. I was told that that label refers to Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Ministry and other artists with a rhythmic electronic beat. In fact, I included one artist on my list, Portion Control, because they turned out to have the sound that music industry plagiaristically defined as Industrial Music in the 90s. I loathe the term Alternative Music because it implies that Classic Rock is still relevant and that modern music, or really any other music, is still inferior to Classic Rock. It’s a label created and used by Classic Rock Stakeholders, primarily consisting of the music industry and mass music media. Labels allow for categorization and are a great vehicle for controlling the music markets and artistic freedom.

It’s sad that so much “essential” music has gone undiscovered to most people. Not ever listening to Can, Wire, Throbbing Gristle, Nurse With Wound, The Residents, Captain Beefheart, as well as many other of the artists on my list would be like not ever listening to The Beatles, Hendrix, Marley or Mozart. What is funny is that 100 years from now most of these artists will be more popular than they are today. One artist, The Minutemen, are already much more popular today than they were in their heyday, almost 25 years ago, when I would see them play in Los Angeles on multiple occasions to audiences that numbered about 25 or 30 people. My goal with this list is to provide a list of music that gives an understanding of the artists on the list. In many cases multiple releases are selected for artists because it is needed to either understand the range or the growth of the artist. The list does not represent the most essential albums, it represents selections from the most essential artists. Virtually all the artists on my list are considered very mainstream by a select group of people. Believe me that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I read somewhere online that although there is so much music available one has to be a member of a secret club to know what is really worth listening to. A lot of the members of this club are music collectors who have a vested interest in keeping the knowledge of this music to themselves so that these releases remain exclusive and valuable on eBay. Listen to my list, look the artists up on Wikipedia, see the connections between them and learn some music history as I see it. Buying and listening to The Talking Heads “More Songs About Buildings and Food” in 1978 when Bruce Springsteen and Boston were cutting edge artists and Throbbing Gristle’s “We Hate You Little Girls/Five Knuckle Shuffle” 7” in 1981 when punk rock was considered the most extreme music represented a sea change in the way I thought about and listened to music. I hope that someone can have the same sea change via listening to the artists and selections on this list.

A New Year's Message from Review to Be Named

Happy New Year from all of us at Review to Be Named! We continue our best efforts to provide half assed cultural commentary and to expand on a regular basis to meet more of your pop culture needs. In furtherance of this goal, we are expanding our previous slogan “movies and television for the discerning asshole” to “pop culture for the discerning asshole” (a change you will see, along with some streamlining of the web site in the next few days). Additionally, we wanted to give you a rundown of some of the features you can expect to see in the coming months:

-Look out for the return of Sam’s column Taking Off and its examination of television shows in their infancy and how they evolved after their pilots.

-Random Pop Culture Pop Ten List will make its triumphant return on January 15th, and will be appearing every Saturday following that.

-Whose Film Is It Anyway? will continue to appear on Sundays on a biweekly basis, examining issues of film authorship through May.

-Chris’ Comics Corner by one of our new contributors (introduced below) will review new comics releases, examine trends in the industry and offer thoughts on what’s to come every Thursday starting on January 6th.

-My Year In Lists will follow Jordan’s quest through over 168 albums called essential by one of three music experts (including Review To Be Named alum Ashley and new contributor Collin, also introduced below) and will appear every Friday starting January 7th (with an Introduction coming your way momentarily).

You can also expect to continue seeing our movie and television reviews, which we promise will be just as lacking in insight, integrity, and ingenuity as ever. We would also like to welcome to the Review To Be Named family (a construct so dysfunctional it puts your actual family to shame) two new contributors, both of whom were alluded to above. Chris has left his introduction to me, so I will just say that he is an intelligent guy with a knowledge of comics that would put pretty much anyone to shame, and that he hasn’t killed any puppies in over six months. Collin, on the other hand, who will be joining us both as a contributor of one of the three lists that make up my new feature My Year in Lists and as a general music contributor in the coming months, has decided to grace us with an introduction all his own. So here’s Collin:

Dear Innernette,
I compose this introductory invocation to beseech You, most omniscient and omnipotent of beings, to bless this blog in the upcoming new year of twenty-eleven. Exalt Jordan and his never-ending effort. Sanctify Sam and his considerable contribution. Grace this reviewtobenamed with your infinite love and holy spirit. May angels attend this web address’s future. But most of all, grant us our daily memes, our bi-weekly leaks, our monthly hype and buzz cycles, and our viral virility so that we, too, may possess that supernatural connection and cosmic power we so desire, synthesize and sublimate that divine knowledge, and continue to consume prosper in our modern habitat as the most intelligent species on Earth. Oh ya, and consecrate me, Collin, the newest contributor to this cultural collaboration, so that I might put this mind and these fingers to productive work instead of clicking on every LiveJasmin and Fleshlight ad, or pursuing every penis enlargement product your Lordship offers before my eager eyes.
Truly Yours,

With all of that out of the way, I just want to take a moment to thank any of you who read us regularly and wish you all a happy, prosperous new year filled with all of the personal and pop cultural delights you could ever wish for. May it be a year for the record books.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ashley's Top Ten Albums of 2010

Disclaimer: If you’ve so much as scanned most of this year’s top ten lists on Pitchfork, AV Club, Stereogum, etc., you’ve probably noticed that they’re pretty heavily into the nu-gaze/lo-fi/noise genre as exemplified by artists like Beach House, Deerhunter, Wavves, Ariel Pink, and the like. And while I’m sure that there is substantial merit to all of these albums, I just don’t like them. I’m not sure if I’ve descended into some kind of early-onset old fogeyism, but when I hear Best Coast, I just think, “Man, if I’m going to snort a line of coke while wearing high-waisted acid-wash jeans, I’d rather do it to My Bloody Valentine.”

Without further ado, here are my top ten albums this year:

10. Los Campesinos! ROMANCE IS BORING
Essential tracks: Straight in at 101, There are Listed Buildings, In Media Res

If the ethos of Los Campesinos! previous LP could be summed up in its title track, “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed,” Romance is Boring seems convinced that actually, we’re just doomed. And that might be precisely why it's a challenging album. Tweecore is, as the name suggests, just so damn twee; it’s strawberry-flavored, twinkling fluff by way of awkward teenagers in knobby sweaters singing about love and sex. It’s a formula that seems less suited to an album built around a nautical motif and dwelling in existential angst and despair, and a tweecore act less clever and talented than LC! couldn’t have pulled it off. But when Gareth insists “I think I’d do it for love, if it were not for the money / I’ll take any scraps that you can give” it feels more genuine than most of the more upbeat material on their previous albums.

9. The New Pornographers TOGETHER
Essential tracks: Moves, Your Hands (Together), We End Up Together

As elder statesmen of indie rock, as well as something of an unintentional supergroup given the band members' numerous side projects and solo name recognition, the New Pornographer generate high expectations with each new album. Fortunately, Together is a breezy, joyful return to the bombastic, chorus-driven material on Twin Cinema. The title is particularly fitting, not just because of the frequent use of the word on the twelve tracks, but because it’s an album that perfectly orchestrates and organizes the presences and styles of the four major personalities in the band in a way that’s unified and cohesive. One of my favorite sounds in the world is that of Neko Case duetting with A.C. Newman, and several tracks on Together (“Moves” and “We End Up Together” in particular) use their talents to overwhelming success.

8. Wolf Parade EXPO 86
Essential tracks: Cloud Shadow on the Mountain, Ghost Pressure, Little Golden Age

Expo 86 thrusts the listener into Spencer Krug’s surreal universe with the opening track, “Cloud Shadow on Mountain,” and never loses momentum. Due in large part to his omnipresence on Apologies to the Queen Mary, Wolf Parade has always felt, first and foremost, like a Krug project, in spite of the presence of Dan Boeckner of Handsome Furs as an equal contributor. But Expo 86 appears to be Dan’s time to shine: “Ghost Pressure” and “Little Golden Age” are some of the album’s most tightly composed tracks, and even on the songs Krug composed, Boeckner’s guitar work is particularly inspired. But just when they’ve achieved the balance and energy that was sorely lacking from At Mount Zoomer, Wolf Parade has announced that they’re going on indefinite hiatus. Hopefully Krug, Boeckner, et al. continue to be as prolific in their side projects as they’ve been in the past, but even then, their collaboration will be missed.

Essential tracks: Follow Us, Shutterbugg, Be Still
The once humble Atlanta hip hop scene has become bloated, over-exposed, and shitty in recent years, which rappers like T-Pain, Lil Jon, and Gucci Mane churning out crappy single after crappy single and driving lyrically-based traditions into the ground. Thankfully, one of the original ATL prodigies, Big Boi, is redeeming what’s left of the scene. Always somewhat overshadowed by Andre 3000’s visual and lyrical style as half of Outkast, Big Boi more than stands on his own on Sir Lucious Left Foot; he produces one of the best hip-hop albums in recent memory. Though the album’s most recognizable tracks (“Follow Us,” “Shutterbugg,” “Tangerine”) are high-energy and fast-paced, the quieter moments (his collaboration with Janelle Monae on “Be Still”) show Big Boi’s range in a way that Speakerboxxx failed to.

6. Robyn BODY TALK
Essential tracks: Dancing on My Own, Indestructible, Hang with Me

A lot of Americans forget that Robyn’s been on the scene since 1997, when “Show Me Love” was a huge pop radio hit. With Body Talk, she’s experienced a much-deserved renaissance outside of her native Sweden. A compilation of selections from Body Talk Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 paired with five new tracks, Body Talk is what good pop music should be: intelligent and experimental, yet still infectious and danceable. Robyn’s greatest strength is her crystalline, hypnotizing voice; the only other vocalist I can think of who achieves a similarly pure sound is Emily Haines of Metric. But though she declares herself to be a fembot, few of the songs feel detached; on the contrary, tracks like “Hang With Me” and “Cry When You Get Older” are warm and endearing, a rare quality in electronica.

Essential tracks: I Can Change, All I Want, Drunk Girls

Eighties nostalgia is a scourge, except when it produces outstanding dance rock albums like This is Happening, which (like much of the band’s discography) sounds like a 21st century reimagining of Speaking in Tongues by the Talking Heads. It’s a fitting conclusion (if Murphy’s interviews are to be believed) to the three-act play that is LCD Soundsystem; the frustration of “You Wanted a Hit?” and “Drunk Girls” is balanced by the quiet nostalgia of “All I Want” and “Home.” But the greatest achievement of This is Happening is undoubtedly “I Can Change,” a synth-heavy plea that manages to be Morrissey-inspired without the whine and with significantly more wit. Hopefully, if Murphy is indeed ready to wrap up his current project, he’ll continue to ply his trade elsewhere on DFA.

4. Arcade Fire THE SUBURBS
Essential tracks: Ready to Start, We Used to Wait, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

I was really skeptical about this album for a long time, mostly because I couldn’t imagine how anyone, even a band as accomplished and beloved as the Arcade Fire, could add anything new to the sentiment that suburbia is a soul-sucking wasteland of empty promises and nostalgia for something that never existed in the first place. And after my first listen, I didn’t think that they did. But upon second, third, and fourth listens, The Suburbs turned out to be a grower rather than a shower, and it quickly became one of my favorite albums of the year. It’s despondent and disillusioned in all of the right ways, qualities accented well by the band’s intense orchestral accompaniments (and decidedly more electronic arrangements than on Funeral or Neon Bible). Whereas Neon Bible’s paranoia focused on capitalism and global politics, the fear in The Suburbs is of spiritual death and superficial connections. It’s Mad Men: The Album, especially on tracks like “City With No Children” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”

3. Janelle Monae THE ARCHANDROID
Essential tracks: Tight Rope, Cold War, Come Alive (War of the Roses)

In presenting herself as a futuristic robot vixen inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it’s as if Janelle Monae anticipated the popular response to her 2010 album: how can a human being be so talented? Monae is the whole package in a way that few modern artists can claim to be – she’s a brilliant songwriter and vocalist, a dancer, a performance artist, an intellectual. Her work is undoubtedly high-concept, garnering comparisons to everyone from George Clinton to Pink Floyd to Michael Jackson. But even if it were to be stripped of its theatrical trappings, the material on The ArchAndroid would stand apart from everything else released this year. From the funky (the Big Boi-assisted “Tight Rope” and “Dance or Die”) to the quieter R&B pieces (“Oh Maker,” “Say You’ll Go) to the rock-twinged (“Cold War”) Monae has established herself as one of the most promising acts of the decade. When she inevitably collaborates with Andre 3000, my brain will explode.

2. The National HIGH VIOLET
Essential tracks: Sorrow, Bloodbuzz Ohio, England

Following the release of High Violet, The National has been branded by some as “dad rock,” an obnoxious moniker that suggests that Matt Berninger and company are doing something safe or boring. In reality, the National is making straightforward, nuanced indie rock in a market that’s been overtaken by lo-fi noisemakers in their early 20s, hardly an endeavor worthy of derision. The material on High Violet is lush and orchestral; several of the tracks, most notably the opener “Terrible Love” and “England,” feel like rolling waves as they build to trumpet-laden crescendos. Indeed, the album is mellower in its composition than the two LPs that preceded it – there’s none of the screaming or sexual frustration of Alligator or the rumbling repressed anger of Boxer. But The National’s trademark lovelorn desperation is woven throughout High Violet; only this time, with a renewed sense of self-awareness: Berninger follows up the line “lay my head on the hood of your car” with the qualifier “I take it too far.” For once, the National’s obsessive streak is tempered with a self-critical one, hopefully not a quality only found in middle-aged parents.

Essential tracks: All of the Lights, Runaway, Lost in the World

Kanye West, both as a musician and a public figure, is possibly the greatest entertainer of the last decade, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the culmination of his stylistic evolution and the embodiment of a finely tuned aesthetic. The narrative arc of the album lays bare the insecurity and self-loathing that belies his public persona as an egomaniacal asshole, managing to be both a cohesive portrait of an artist at a creative turning point as well as a singles machine, with “Power, “Monster,” and “Runaway” generating hype months in advance of the official release date. The album is strewn with delightful contradictions; Yeezy’s clever jokes abound (a personal favorite being “Too many Urkels on your team / that’s why your wins low” from “Dark Fantasy”), while at the same time, offering scathing criticisms of “post-racial” America.

There’s been a lot written about why this album is perfect. I’m convinced that it’s not; though Pitchfork gave it an unprecedented perfect 10, I don’t think that an album that includes a verse of Fergie rap can reasonably score above a 9.5. Kanye West has always been a phenomenal producer, but he hasn’t always exercised the best editorial discretion with his own material, leading to tracks that include upwards of 10 featured artists. Yet the genius of Fantasy is that somehow, the cluttered, dense composition works; it has all of the ambition and pomp of a concept album without the heavy-handed didacticism. It’s a hip-hop “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and while not perfect, it’s the greatest achievement in his five-album discography.

Feature: Jordan's Movie Quest: The Year 2010

Every year since the stellar 2007, I have found myself arguing against the claim, “this has been a bad year for movies.” To an extent, the last two years have been of lesser quality (likely in no small part due to the lingering effects of the writer’s strike), and yet, just like last year, as it came time to make my year end top ten list, I had a hard time cutting the list down to ten. Again, this is not because of an overabundance of “classics” this year; on the contrary, this problem mostly arises from the pack of mediocre movies that gather near number ten. Like last year, I have to include honorable mentions (this time out, those movies that barely missed making my top ten were Shutter Island and Winter’s Bone, both of which it pained me to cut from this list), and yet, only ten movies can make the list. It should also be noted that all of my efforts to see Restrepo, I Am Love, and A Prophet were foiled, so its impossible to know whether those would have made my list. Anyway, here are the ten that made the cut:

10. Greenberg-Noah Baumbach tends to make movies about shockingly literate, infuriatingly misanthropic and completely maladjusted human beings who don’t ask for forgiveness nor invite even the slightest sympathy. However, that doesn’t make his films any less true to life. Ben Stiller is incredibly committed to keeping the titular character unlikable, as he travels to L.A. to housesit for his vastly more successful brother, has an abortive relationship with the subtly heartbreaking Greta Gerwig, and tries, maybe, to move past his own insecurities for long enough to become an actual human being. The stellar soundtrack and fantastic cinematography ground this film that manages to be both stimulating and hysterical.

9. The Fighter-There is little on the surface of David O. Russell’s newest film to set it apart from any number of boxing movies over the last several decades. The film follows Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg, doing his best straight man) as he tries to make it after a career full of being one step away from a championship. What sets The Fighter apart is the stellar supporting cast, and the conflicts they represent in Micky’s life. He lives forever in the shadow of his brother Dicky (Christian Bale, in an Oscar worthy performance), an ex-fighter and current addict who lives off of his former glory and the favoritism of his enabling mother (an excellent Melissa Leo), who also tries to exert her control over Micky. His only chance at escaping the destructiveness of his family is his new girlfriend Charlene (a revelatory Amy Adams), a no-nonsense bartender who aggressively looks after Micky’s best interests. From materials that could easily have mired the movie in merdiocrity, The Fighter rises like its protagonist and takes a run at actual glory.

8. Exit Through the Gift Shop-From a documentary following a faux documentarian who obsessively tracks and films street artists, to a documentary about that man becoming a street artist himself, and finally to an examination of how we define and criticize art, Exit Through The Gift Shop is a wildly entertaining and thought provoking documentary without peer in a year filled with promising documentaries that failed to deliver (I’m looking at you, Waiting for “Superman”). The film functions as a history of the modern street art movement, a psychological study of a fascinating and possibly unhinged character, and a philosophical and cultural query that will leave you talking for days after the credits roll.

7. The King’s Speech-The rare period piece that is exhilarating and inspiring instead of staid and ponderous, The King’s Speech follows George VI (an outstanding Colin Firth) as he struggles with a debilitating speech impediment that keeps him from riveting and uniting his country during a time of war. Documenting his struggles from his time as third in line to the throne of England (behind Michael Gambon’s George V and Guy Pearce’s Edward VIII) to his time leading the country through World War II along with Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall, or, as he will always be in my mind, Peter Pettigrew), the film is, on the one hand, an enthralling examination of the pressure to rule. More importantly, the film is an in depth analysis of George’s personal relationships, both with his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and with the real love of his life, the controversial, eccentric speech therapist Lionel Logue (a scene stealing Geoffrey Rush). Heartwarming, inspiring, thought provoking, and surprisingly hilarious, The King’s Speech is what all period pieces should aspire to be.

6. True Grit-It has to be very difficult stepping into the role that won John Wayne his only Oscar, and as such is iconic as an understatement. Yet Jeff Bridges doesn’t miss a step as the rough, caustic Rooster Cogburn, a lawbreaker turned lawman who reluctantly agrees to accompany a the young Mattie Ross (the excellent Hailee Steinfeld ) on a mission to apprehend the convict who murdered her father (Josh Brolin). Along with a comically verbose Texas Ranger (Matt Damon), Mattie and Rooster learn the importance of relying on others as they face not only their prey, but also the specter of ending up alone with their own thoughts and flaws. Joel and Ethan Coen continue their almost career-long hot streak with this pitch black comedy that slowly develops into a powerful emotional statement on the bonds that keep us going and the flaws that hold us back.

5. Toy Story 3-The third installment in Pixar’s always awesome Toy Story franchise is a startlingly mature film considering its ostensibly a kids movie. It follows Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the gang as they desperately struggle to remain relevant to an owner who is about to head off to college. The whole group suffers from an almost religious angst over whether they should stand by the owner who has neglected and abandoned them or try their luck on their own for once. The movie took seriously the potential tragedy of being a functionally immortal creature resigned to a role that has a very limited time limits, and there were few more heart wrenching moments than the scene when the characters we have grown to love over the last decade resign themselves to death and take a grim solace in the fact that they can spend their last moments together. And yet, I’m not sure there was a scene as uplifting this year as the film’s conclusion, in which the toys get a second chance at making a kid happy. This is a kid’s movie people, and yet it is easily one of the most stimulating, moving, and emotional films this year.

4. Inception-Christopher Nolan is a bold, inventive, masterful director, who managed this year to take a film that could easily have buried itself in endless exposition and turned it instead into an expertly plotted and thrilling examination of loss and grief. Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) makes his living stealing ideas from the heads of executives by entering their dreams. Along with his associates Arthur (the ultra smooth Joseph Gordon Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy) and newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page, making much of her role as the audience) he agrees to pull one last job, helping Saito (Ken Watanabe) to convince the young Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to split up his father’s company through a difficult process known as inception. Pulse-poundingly plotted and ponderously philosophical, the film manages to be both an excellent post modern heist film and a psychological examination of a tortured protagonist. Inception ultimately becomes an analysis of the ways we fail ourselves, the lies we tell ourselves, and the lengths we’re willing to go to be able to move even one step forward.

3. The Kids Are All Right-Yet another movie that seemed destined to be mired in mediocrity with a plot that has been done a hundred times before, The Kids Are All Right slowly pulls you in, emotionally investing you and adding a level of realism to a tired cliché. Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have been together for years, and have each given birth using the same anonymous sperm donor. As their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) prepares to go off to college, her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) convinces her to help him track down their biological father, who is soon revealed to be the bohemian Paul (Mark Ruffalo). As the kids form a strange, and strangely strong bond with Paul, their mothers attempt to deal with the insecurity this causes them, while also going through a rough patch themselves, the film asks questions about the nature of families, the strength of the bond between a family, and the difficulty of staying with someone after decades and as the stress of real life begins to overwhelm the passion of youth. The Kids Are All Right is smart, honest, real, moving, and hilarious, all while giving new life to an old story.

2. The Social Network-When it was announced that David Fincher would direct Aaron Sorkin’s script there was a collective moment of pause. Fincher specializes in fantastic visuals and cinematography, while Sorkin is the king of rapid fire banter and wit filled dialogue. Somehow the two made it work, though, delivering a compelling portrait of a darkly obsessed genius who gives up his relationships, and to an extent, his humanity in the pursuit of one great idea. Framing the story of the creation of Facebook with two lawsuits against creator Mark Zuckerberg (the stellar Jesse Eisenberg), the film traces the site’s genesis with all of its complexity and battling egos. Managing to combine real discussions of intellectual property with lasting questions about social status, isolation, genius, and obsession, The Social Network (which also stars the excellent Andrew Garfield and a surprisingly game Justin Timberlake) is a stimulating and energetic account of a man who is petty, arrogant, and more than a tad misogynistic, but also sympathetic for his endless desire to find a place where he can truly belong.

1. Black Swan-Director Darren Aronofksy’s follow up, and thematic companion to The Wrestler follows a fragile, meek, and obsessively dedicated ballerina Nina Sayers (the Oscar-worthy Natalie Portman) who wins the lead in a new production of Swan Lake and begins to mentally deteriorate as she strives forcefully for the perfection that eludes her. Pushed harshly forward by a brilliant director (Vincent Cassell), an insanely strict mother (Barbara Hershey, who also deserves an Oscar for her performance), and a potential rival (Mila Kunis), Nina begins to lose her grip on reality as she tries to master her performance as the Black Swan. A retelling of Swan Lake that doubles as a metaphor for Hollywood and an examination into the potential downfall inherent in obsessive passion, Black Swan is a vivid, sometimes terrifying waking nightmare that also serves as a heady look into acting, sacrifice, obsession, and the elusiveness of perfection.

Feature: Sam's Top Ten of 2010

Here’s my top ten of 2010 list and it should be noted I never got around to seeing The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech. Who knows how this list could be different! Of course this is made up of what I did get around to seeing and I’ll stick by it.

10. Greenberg
In Noah Baumbach’s latest film, we follow a depressed 40 something trying to get his life together. Pretty standard small movie material but Ben Stiller delivers a great performance to match Baumbach’s script. The film never dives off the deep end to become maudlin but it toes the line following the lost Greenberg and his equally lost quasi-love interest Florence (another great performance from Greta Gerwig). If nothing else this movie made my list for having one of my favorite lines of the year.

9. Restrepo
While Exit Through the Gift Shop may have been my favorite documentary of the year, Restrepo might be the best. Placing viewers in the single most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan, Restrepo presents a war that is baffling on a number of levels. The soldiers, while they are more than capable and seem to firmly believe in the effort, are put in an unwinnable spot. They get constant complaints from village elders while they’re being shot at. In my view, the film makes the case against the United States being there since there seems to be no real point (other than of course to kill members of the Taliban). The film does an excellent job a putting real people to the war replacing a faceless view on out soldiers and the people in Afghanistan. Gripping and sometimes difficult to watch, Restrepo gives the best inside look to the war I’ve ever seen.

8. Shutter Island
Remember this? Yeah, it was released early in the year when much worse films are the norm. But Scorsese’s supernatural (kinda) thriller was a lot of fun and at times even beautiful. It’s been a while since seeing it but one thing I do remember about a lot of people’s reactions was that they could “call” the ending. I don’t think that was much of the point. It was about the journey for DiCaprio’s character rather than the audience being able to put the pieces together themselves. In this regard I think the film was a success, if you wanted a tougher mystery to crack, watch Memento or something.

7. Winter’s Bone
This was a difficult move to place for me. Winter’s Bone has been praised by critics and rightly so. The film has amazing performances from Sarah Lawrence and John Hawkes in this adaptation of a story of a girl looking for her father in the destitute Ozarks. Director Debra Granik gives a tremendous sense of place holding shots on seemingly innocuous items strewn about porches and front lawns. Winter’s Bone is this year’s “Little movie that could” in a lot of respects. The person to benefit most from this is Lawrence who was truly the breakout star.

6. Exit through the Gift Shop
In this fascinating documentary, Banksy, the acclaimed street artists, creates a documentary about a man who had spent years documenting him. The film works on two levels. First, it gives novices like me a rudimentary knowledge of the world of street art and artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Space Invader. Just watching some of these artists work at night in sometimes dangerous situations and places is often as impressive as the final work. The other success of the film is documenting the life of Thierry Guetta whose footage makes for most of the film. Banksy examines Guetta’s interest in street art and his eventual foray into the fold as a known commodity in the street art world. Banksy also manages to lampoon him and make clear the line between ingenuity and borderline plagiarism.

5. Inception
I can’t help but think that Inception began to be viewed as something other than a great summer movie. Once people started projecting Oscar aspirations, in my mind, is when the backlash hit. Some found it boring, which I still find hard to believe. Others found it confusing, which I find even harder to believe. DiCaprio gives a solid performance but nothing Oscar-worthy. The real standouts were Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon Levitt. Great special affects along with well above average action makes for what I think is the best summer film since Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Even for Inception detractors I find it difficult for someone to make an argument that it doesn’t serve as a great summer blockbuster. Oscar winner? Perhaps not. But Inception is the type of fun that I want in my summer viewing.

4. True Grit
I’ll always have a soft spot for Joel and Ethan Coen as they may be my favorite living directors. True Grit is somewhat of a departure for the brothers as it is really just a straight Western. It also continues a new trend of theirs of adapting films from books (No Country for Old Men being the first, I don’t count O Brother Where Art Thou?). What makes True Grit so enjoyable is the cast lead by Jeff Bridges who plays Rooster Cogburn and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld who plays Mattie Ross who looks to avenge her father’s death. Steinfeld’s performance should garner her an Oscar nomination and will likely put her up against another young actress, Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence. Of course the Coens made a supremely crafted film even if it is a bit less off kilter than their others.

3. The Social Network
Besides having the best trailer of the year (hmm that would have made an interesting list) The Social Network had by far my favorite screenplay coming from one of my favorite writers, Aaron Sorkin. Yes, many of the details were not true to the real story of Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg (portrayed wonderfully awkward by Jesse Eisenberg). Though to take the narrative as it stands in the movie, it’s truly great. There were a number of comparisons to Citizen Kane in the sense that it portrays the rise to power of a media mogul who essentially ostracizes himself from everyone he has cared about, but that may be a bit of a stretch. This much is true, The Social Network was way better than any movie about Facebook has any right to be.

2. Toy story 3
Every college student must feel the same way about the conclusion of the Toy Story franchise. It’s like it was timed out perfectly for us. We watched the first one when we were Andy’s age then in the most recent incarnation he was a college bound young adult. What I continually to be impressed by with Pixar, besides its top of the industry CGI films, is their boldness in taking on darker parts of life in their films. Of course TS3 is still kid friendly but it deals with moving on to another stage in your life. Something, to me anyways, that can be scary. The voice cast was once again excellent with the best addition being Michael Keaton’s Ken doll. My only real complaint is little and that’s Slinky Dog who was voiced by the late Jim Varney was replaced.

1. Black swan
Whatever you think of Darren Aronofsky, he always goes for broke and seems pretty unapologetic about it. I think Black Swan is his masterpiece, better than even the oft acclaimed Requiem for a Dream. What may have been this film’s downfall is how transparent the connections to the ballet Swan Lake were. But the movie overcomes that in my mind. Reaction to the clear symbols in the movie may be the deciding factor in whether one loves or loathes Black Swan. Natalie Portman gives the best performance of her life while Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershie and Vicent Cassell provide wonderful support. In debt to “slipping into madness” films like The Red Shoes especially, Black Swan still felt wholly original and delivered an exciting end to the year in movies.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Late Christmas Gift...

by Sam

In the spirit of gentile children finding gifts under the tree, I thought I'd give Jordan and you readers a treat. Hopefully Jordan and you, will squee with joy at this video posted by Fleet Foxes (even if you've already seen it, it has surprising replay value). It's lead singer Robin Pecknold and drummer J Tillman doing a freestyle broadway tune. It's not just a peppy 40's knock-off it's actually like a showstopper, something you'd place at the end of the first half of the show. It is quite good and I'd like to see this extended to a full length show. Anyways, enjoy the Fleet Foxes and Happy New Year (look for our top 10 movies of the year tomorrow!)

Magical Ship from Fleet Foxes on Vimeo.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Frank Capra

by Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“I’d be the first to admit I’m a damn good director.”-Frank Capra

“Merry Christmas!”-George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life

There is a particular reason I chose to write this installment of Whose Film Is It Anyway? on Frank Capra, and it is not just that he directed one of the most beloved and lasting Christmas movies ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life (though that did help his chances). Capra made a name for himself throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s as not just an excellent director, but also a champion of virtue, a tireless defender of the basic goodness inherent in humanity, and perhaps the ultimate “feel good” filmmaker of all time. No director spends their entire career making Christmas movies (though if they did, I’d probably be required to do an installment on them this time of year), but Frank Capra spent his entire career making movies that live up to the Christmas spirit. Throughout his work, Capra constantly forwards the idea that humanity is basically good, and that through working together and basically doing the right thing, we can all get a leg up in the end.

In 1934, Capra released It Happened One Night, one of only three films to ever win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay), a feat which only One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and The Silence of the Lambs have matched. The film follows Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert) as she flees the overprotective clutches of her incredibly wealthy father in an attempt to reach New York and her new husband. Along the way she crosses paths with opportunistic journalist Pete Warne (Clark Gable) who agrees to get her to New York in exchange for exclusive rights to her story. What follows is a classic screwball romance as the two make their way toward New York and slowly come to depend on and love each other. Peter spends much of the film winning Ellen over with his arrogant attitude and extreme confidence (never on better display than in a scene where he tries, and fails, to flag down a car so they can hitchhike, which you can see below), yet it is his pride and eventual humility that keeps Ellen from consummating her marriage. Once Ellen arrives in New York (and after a misunderstanding, of course) Peter steps aside to let her be with the man he believes she loves, also refusing to take the reward money for returning her safely. It is this stubborn refusal, along with Peter’s willingness to stand aside to ensure Ellen’s happiness that finally wins him the girl.

Humility and the ability of one man to make a difference again took center stage in 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which tells of the humble Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) and his battle against corruption and cynicism within the U.S. Senate. With the help of his secretary Ms. Saunders (Jean Arthur), and with his commitment to American ideals, Smith is able to tackle the profiteering plot of Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains) and businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). The filibuster that ends the film is pure Capra gold, as Smith pleads for honesty, integrity, and dignity to a room full of dispassionate politicians. In the face of what Capra argues is a broken system full of laziness, cynicism, and outright corruption, the director pleads, through Jimmy Stewart as his surrogate, for kindness, generosity, and good will from the people who can enact great change and better the country they serve.

Capra next championed the ability of one man to make a difference in 1941’s Meet John Doe, in which struggling journalist Ann Mitchell (the always excellent Barbara Stanwyck) publishes a fictional suicide note from a man angry at society’s ills, and then casts John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to play the man once his philosophy takes off. At first Willoughby is doing it for the money, but eventually he comes to believe in his own words, and fights against the powerful entrenched interests that seek to co-opt his popularity for their own gain. In the end, he is saved from actually going through with the suicide Ann had created by the knowledge that he has inspired the people to fight against wrongs in society and attempt to improve the world around them.

This tendency reached its apotheosis in It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra’s finest ode to the inherent value of human life and to the effect one man can have on those around him. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has given up everything he ever wanted in life to ensure the happiness of his brother, his uncle, and the entire town of Bedford Falls. When he finally hits rock bottom and decides to commit suicide so that his family can collect his life insurance and save his ailing business, he is visited by his guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) who allows him a glimpse of what his town would be like if he was never born. The film exists as a triumphant ode to the will of the human spirit, the advantages of virtue and kindness, and the ability of one man to improve the lives of everyone he touches.

As the holiday season fully descends upon us, there is perhaps no better message than this to remember, and possibly no better director to remind us than Frank Capra. If we are, for most of the year, consumed with cynicism, this is the time to let that pessimism fade away and to believe, if only for a few days, that man is good, that we can help one another, and that each of us touches the lives of those around us and can improve those lives if only we are willing to try. That is what Christmas is all about, and that is what Frank Capra spent much of his career telling us. Every once in a while, especially at this time of year, it’s nice to listen. In fact, it’s a wonderful thought.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

1/2: Mike Myers

1/16: Kevin Smith

1/30: Akira Kurosawa

2/13: George Lucas

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Jordan's Review: How I Met Your Mother, Season 6, Episode 12: False Positive

Someone in the How I Met Your Mother writer's room was looking back when this episode was planned. Someone was watching the early seasons of the show and remembering the complex, inventive, lightning quick non-linear stories the show used to tell regularly back in its first few years. When I watched "False Positive," the early Season Two classic "Brunch" jumped immediately to mind, and at this point in the show's run, I'm not sure there's a higher compliment I can pay to it than admitting that an episode reminded me of its golden years. This is an episode of the show that fits in a storyline for every character (including Ted, who for the last year or so the show has often forgotten is their main character), has some great character moments for all, and actually moves each the plotlines for each character along in the way vintage HIMYM used to, even if only infinitesimally so (and let's be honest, early episodes had progress, but it was a fraction of a step at a time). "False Positive" is almost definitely the best episode this show has done all year, reminding me about HIMYM's ability to be funny, story-centric, cleverly plotted, and heartwarming all within a 22 minute span. The episode divided the stories up by character, and so it seems only fitting that I do the same.

Marshall and Lily (who have counted as one character for at least three years now) get a positive pregnancy test and immediately begin freaking out. They are not sure they are ready to have a kid, and certainly feel under-prepared for the task. After announcing it to their friends (who are these people that run and tell everyone their pregnant without even seeing a doctor first?) they immediately flee home and decide they have to do everything to prepare for the baby in one night. So Marshall paints the baby's room (blue, but then pink because what if its a girl?), baby proofs the apartment with bubble wrap, and then bubble wraps Lily's ipod to her stomach so the baby can listen to classical music (sadly the ipod was on shuffle, so Lily's stomach hears The Jerky Boys instead). Lily meanwhile reads every baby book and learns to knit. The two are a mess of screaming tension and pent up fears, except when they're in front of their friends, when they appear more tranquil than ever before. When Marshall and Lily find out they aren't pregnant after all, they are so relieved they decide that they may hold off on kids and get a dog instead.

Meanwhile, Robin is deciding between two job offers, one as a coin flip bimbo for Million Dollar Heads or Tails, an Alex Trebek hosted game show that is patently absurd in its premise (the show does realize its setting itself up to lose its $1 million prize half the time, right?) and therefore a pretty awesome reality-game show send up, and the other as a researcher for serious news provider Worldwide News. Robin made a resolution last New Year's Eve that she would be working at Worldwide News within the year, but now she thinks that job might be hard and she's pretty enough, so she decides to go for the coin flipping job. That is, until Marshall and Lily's announcement makes her re-think her life and realize she is doing nothing worth being proud of. So she decides to take the Worldwide News job. Until the false positive comes in and she realizes she doesn't have to be a serious person with real accomplishments yet so why not just take the coin flipping job?

Barney has just received his third favorite word beginning with b-o-n (after the obvious, and Bon Jovi), a Christmas bonus that is so huge he has decided to buy a pinstripe suit where every stripe is made of diamonds. When Marshall and Lily make their announcement, Barney too has a crisis of conscience (though he is still glad to be single) and realizes he should be doing something more meaningful than spending all of his money on himself. So he treats the gang to "Barney's Favorite Things," an excellent extended Oprah parody in which Barney gives away velour tracksuits (a reverse punchline introduced with Marshall and Lily strangely dressed in them when receiving news of the false positive), remote control helicopters, condoms, and a limo ride for everyone in the bar to a strip club (Where, "you get a lap dance! You get a lap dance! You give me a lap dance!"). He then heads out to see James' father the minister and begins to write a huge check to his charity to help the homeless (rather than to Charity, the stripper he constantly emails everyone about, who is off doing Peachy, who will be included in next week's update), until he gets the news of the false positive and realizes he too doesn't have to be selfless and serious yet, and so throws in a handy decimal point and buys himself a diamond suit.

Ted has been hanging around the background of this whole episode (which is unsurprising on any given week of this show), but for once this is for an actual story purpose. At the beginning of the episode, Robin mocks Ted for going over floral arrangements with Punchy, pointing about that a Best Man's main job is getting the groom down the aisle, and that Ted is arguably 0-1 in the Best Man department (because of Marshall's head shaving shenanigans at his wedding, which Ted thinks he made up for with an "awesome toast."). Robin tells Ted that the point of a Best Man is to give the pep talk that makes someone do the right thing even when their terrified, and she doesn't think he has it in him. By episode's end, of course, Ted has shown why he is the center of the group, and of the show, and proven that he is the ideal Best Man. Throwing his gingerbread house (which he brought along to a screening of It's a Wonderful Life as a Christmas-themed movie snack, which nicely only Marshall understands) to the ground, Ted steps up to the plate, scolding Marshall and Lily to go home and get pregnant, sending Barney to return his diamond suit and give that big donation to the church, and forcing Robin to apply for the job she needs rather than the easier job she might be more comfortable at. Each of these people had an identity crisis this week, then quickly tried to avoid the realizations they came to honestly by looking at them as a false positive. Ted knows what's best for every member of the group, and because he cares about them, he makes sure they go for it.

This episode reminded me of all the things I've always loved about How I Met Your Mother, from its ability to use non-linear storytelling to add surprising resonance to its plots, to its master narrative about a group of people being forced slowly into adulthood and into becoming the people they always hoped to be. Oh yeah, and it was a really funny episode too. It examined each of the characters as they stand currently, and yes, took everyone a tiny fraction of a step forward into the people they will all be when Ted meets the mother.

Grade: A


-"You're the one who put the Farside calendar over the toilet. You know I laugh with my whole body!"

-"That's exactly the accent of whimsy this celebration of love needs!"

-"Robin, you better check yourself before you Trebek yourself."

-"I also said I would never make out with a garbage man. Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

-"I am the Bill and Melinda gates of the sympathy bang!"

-"What am I doing with my life?" "What am I doing with my life?" "I should get a Christmas themed movie snack for tomorrow!"

-I loved the Marshall and Lily telepathy callback. "Just keep smiling, maybe, don't wave, that makes no sense!" "I'm committed. I'm riding this wave straight to hell!" "Maybe we should leave now so the waving isn't as weird..."

-"Ted, if I ever get married, and you're not the guy I'm marrying..." "Big mistake, but go on..."

-"This Holiday season, why not bang someone in need? I'm Barney Stinson, and that's one to grow on."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jordan's Review: 30 Rock, Season 5, Episode 9: Christmas Attack Zone

As much as Community this week was about how the holidays can be a lonely time,"Christmas Attack Zone" is about the other end of the spectrum, and how miserable Christmas with your family can be, but how its a time for family anyway. Liz tries her best to stay away from hers to avoid drama, but drama comes to Liz Lemon like a fat suit to Tracy Jordan, and so she becomes embroiled in the Donaghy family drama surrounding the revelation of Avery's pregnancy and Jack's knowledge of Milton to Colleen.

For a show that really tries its best to eschew any real character development or arc, we certainly know a lot about Jack Donaghy and the family problems that have made him the man he is today. For a recurring guest star, Elaine Stritch has really made a lot of Colleen Donaghy, a very well realized maternal monster and master manipulator who falls into her son's Christmas Attack Zone, but has her own prepared to draw him in just a short while later. The interplay between the whole Donaghy clan is excellent (even that heinous beast who calls itself Elizabeth Banks does a nice job with her character, though again, Avery Jessup is so shockingly well written that not even Banks can really screw her up), and Liz aquits herself well among the madness.

Meanwhile, Tracy is trying to be taken seriously by dropping his comedic persona, and wearing the black beret and "Poverty" necklace he wore to the screening of his Oscar Contender of a movie, and doing charity on Christmas Eve by showing his movie about abuse at a battered women's shelter. I love the "Tracy wants an Oscar" plotline, and this was an excellent entry in it. As always, Kenneth is Tracy's moral compass and guides him back toward his lunacy and a screening of Chunks 2: A Chunky Christmas that will bring joy to those who need it most.

Finally, Jenna and her man are reunited over their mutual desire to go to Tom Ford and Elton John's New Year's Eve Party dressed as two black swans. Basically, there was a sweeter core to this week's 30 Rock than usual, and it all boiled down to Liz's conclusion at the episode's end, "You know what I learned tonight? As hard as you try, no one can escape the horror of Christmas, so you may as well be with your own family." This was not the best Christmas episode the show has ever done, but it was a good one that earned all of its sentimentality and had a refreshing honesty about how hard the holidays can be, but how wonderful they are nevertheless.

Grade: B+


-"And her ex-husband will also be there with his date, alcoholism."

-"Happy Holidays is what terrorists say. Merry Christmas from Avery and Jack."

-"Obesity is killing the African American community...with laughter." This show has always used comedic pauses well, but it seems on a roll this year with just killer pause lines. Another excellent one tonight, "Most people thought I was a hero...for killing Lydia's parrot."

-"She needs to read my new book, There's No Wrong Way To Make A Family."

-"By the way, we have a tradition in my family where we let the child name himself."

-"In the Darfur region, the dead may be the lucky ones. Next slide." Nice Ludachristmas callback!

-"I want to eat shrimp off an old gay dressed as Baby New Year."

-"Ladies of the battered women's shelter, please be quiet. A man is talking."

-"Can I get you a cup of coffee or an absynth enema?"

Jordan's Review: Community, Season 2, Episode 11: Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas

Here's the thing about Christmas: every person has their very own traditions that make it unique and completely different than any other Christmas. Every person has pretty much exactly the same Halloween experience (costumes, trick or treating, or maybe horror movies) and pretty much the same Thanksgiving traditions (eating a ridiculous amount of food while trying to avoid family contact as much as possible) but Christmas is a deeply personal Holiday, and messing with Christmas traditions is a dangerous game. Last week Community gave us a little peek into Abed's daily existence and the constant loneliness that he feels, and we all know that Christmas can be a very lonely holiday. Most of the best Christmas stories have small tragedies at their center, because at heart, Christmas is a time when we all band together to fight off the darkness and sadness that comes with the winter and with the end of the year, a time when people hope to surround themselves with friends and look forward, often mostly so they can avoid loneliness and looking backward at the mistakes they've made over the last year. Its this inherent sadness that allows people to transcend their darker impulses and come together to bring joy to those around them.

All of this is preface to my main point, which is that Abed is the perfect character for the show to center its Christmas episode around. The episode has an uphill battle from the start, though, in convincing us that its incredibly high concept (that Abed views everyone in stop-motion claymation animated format and needs them all to go on an adventure with him to the North Pole) is even remotely plausible, and it does this basically by telling us that Abed is insane. This is honestly a bit far to go for the sake of a Christmas episode, and the show seems to know this from the start. When the gang gathers for an intervention and some serious therapy with Professor Duncan, they seem to be taking Abed's sudden descent into madness fairly seriously (though Britta's "you'll get kicked out of school" worries seem like a bit too pat a way to raise the stakes for curing Abed), and they all seem very committed to Duncan's ridiculous plan to humor Abed into shedding his delusions. I was completely willing to look past all of this scrambling to make the concept work, especially since the show was making it abundantly clear that it was trying its hardest to pull it off plausibly. The show was flying close to the sun, and it did enough in my mind to keep its wings from melting.

Another problem I have to mention before praising the show for several paragraphs is the over-the-topness of the letter from Abed's mom. I think the idea that Abed's mom isn't coming for Christmas is kind of a classic Christmas special tragedy, but the letter she writes is so blunt and brutal and on the nose, it kind of takes away from the moment. I understand that this episode exists almost entirely in Abed's mind, and is characterized by heart-on-its-sleeve sentimentality, but this felt like a bridge too far, and was a slight blemish on an otherwise excellent episode.

Community manages to pull off its gimmick episodes as well as it does and as often as it does because while it is always dedicated to making an episode that fits well within the genre its aiming for, it also never forgets to tell a story about its characters at the same time. I liked the show commenting on the "costumes" Abed creates for them (saved me the paragraph analyzing the meaning of each of them), which all tell a little something about the characters, and the way the episode narrowed down the characters and took them each out of play in a way that slyly commented on their flaws made the moment when they all returned to help Abed even more moving. We know that Jeff is sarcastic, Britta is a party pooper, Shirley is self-righteous, and Pierce often checks out emotionally.And honestly, I've seen enough Christmas specials to know Pierce was still on the train when Abed thought he was all alone, but that didn't mean it didn't warm my heart when Pierce confessed that he decided to stick around because it gets a little lonely at home sometimes.

The truly amazing thing about "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" isn't that it pulled off the "animated Christmas special" while also pulling off the Community episode. I knew all along it would do that. What was especially awesome about it was just how sad it was willing to be. Abed's central emotional breakdown was realistic enough to understand his tragic quest to find the meaning of Christmas, yet moments of despair seeped in around the edges of the episode fairly frequently, from Duncan's flashback to his 10th Christmas at the Cave of Frozen Memories to Abed's cold, analytical and completely valid rejection of Britta's attempts to save him from himself. Britta really wanted to help Abed, but at a certain point she just couldn't let him go through what he needed to. She was just to grounded and stubborn to allow Abed's much needed flight of fancy (and brief insanity). And that was a really affecting, realistic, tragic moment between these two characters that just happened to occur in the middle of a Christmas Wonderland.

Basically, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" was just another reminder about how deeply invested I have become in these characters, their failings, and their attempts to come together and create an environment in which they can all grow and improve. These are all flawed people, but I understand each of their flaws, and more importantly, I understand the greatness, the beauty, and the inherent kindness buried deeply within each of them. And this is a show that makes me care about their struggles to be better people. When they all gather together at the end of the episode to watch Rudolph with Abed, it further cements them as a family. Each of these characters has been burned by the world, and each of them has failed in some real, significant way. If they spent their holiday alone, it would certainly be filled with self-loathing and a good long chance to look back on their mistakes and their regrets, and to let the cold seep in as the year comes to its close. But together, they can keep out the darkness, and can form their own, unique holiday tradition. And that is really what Christmas is all about.

Grade: A-


-"Fake murdering people is going to be my new holiday tradition."

-"You really expect me to tarnish the high five for that?"

-"I thought I made you." "Yeah, you made me need a cry in the shower tonight."

-"We're in Outer-Christmas-Space!"

-"Its atmosphere is 7% cinnamon." "Aww!"

-"Somewhere out there, Tim Burton just got a boner."

-"Damn. It got real in that memory cave!"

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jordan's Review: How I Met Your Mother, Season 6, Episode 11: The Mermaid Theory

Much of tonight's episode was dedicated to a running gag that involved Ted being incapable of remembering part of the story he was telling his kids tonight, which ended up leading to a flash forward (one of the aspects of the show that most excites me when, rarely, it is employed), yet which also felt for most of its run time like lazy writing that serived to both pad the run time and to give the illusion of a Barney and Lily story without ever having to write it. The show has occasionally employed the "Ted can't remember everything" idea for laughs, yet this time it felt like basic laziness. Tonight, the writers had plotlines for Ted, Marshall, and Robin, but it had nothing for Barney and Lily, and giving us a vague idea about when Lily will be pregnant (next year) does not excuse the fact that most of the plotline was just a giant stall to disguise the fact that there was no plot there.

As much of a problem as I had with that subplot, "The Mermaid Theory" did something I've been waiting for since the introduction of Zoey: it gave me a reason to care about her, and effectively introduced her into the master plot of the series. It has always been clear that Ted and Zoey would have romantic tension, yet the way they played off of each other tonight, and the way the show used Kyle Maclachlan's over-the-top awesomeness finally made me accept the fact that this plotline is here to stay, and gave me a few things to be excited about as it continues (mostly the idea of more Kyle Maclachlan). Ted joined The Captain on his boat this week, feared for his life, and came to accept the man and his creepiness, even as both he and Zoey clearly denied the feelings they already have for each other.

Meanwhile, Marshall and Lily step up in this week's standard sitcom plot as they realize they never hang out alone and decide to do that for once. Not only is it a cliche, but Marshall and Lily have hung out alone many times before (their relationship was probably at its best during the show's last classic episode "Three Days of Snow") and each time has been funnier and more effective than they were tonight.

The theory at the center of tonight's episode, which basically proposed that given long enough, a man will find any woman attractive, was funny enough, and the show's latter day tendency to act out Barney's historical narratives is generally very effective. As a whole, "The Mermaid Theory" was a decent episode of the show that made me care about at least one aspect of this season's arc more than I have to this point. Yet a full two thirds of the episode was comprised of plots that were lazily constructed,which keeps this episode from achieving greatness. It was, however, still satisfying enough to continue the positive trend that How I Met Your Mother has been on of late, which is good enough for me, for the moment at least.

Grade: B


-"And I'll be home trying to get over the fact that no one invited me to the big hairwashing party."

-Lily's rules for married people hanging out with single friends of the opposite sex: Don't go anywhere with candles, no sharing food, and dont' lie about anything you do.

-I really disliked the moment where Lily and Barney stared at the camera, waiting for Future Ted to remember the story he's telling. This show is a flashback, narrated by Ted, not a reenactment, and acknowleding the story is just awkward.

-"Looks like its just you, me, and six hours in frigid international waters."

-"Do you know how the myth f mermaids came to be?" "I'm sorry, myth?"

-"Did we bet on this?" "Let's say yes."

-"How now? Oh bother..."

-"Oh, I'm just jesting for sport."

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jordan's Review: The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 6: TS-19

Last week, Frank Darabont, the man behind bringing The Walking Dead to television, announced that he had fired the entire show's writing staff, and was going to rely more on himself and on Robert Kirkman, the writer of the comic series on which the show is based, to write Season Two. Considering many of the show's flaws this year have been in flat out terrible dialogue (a problem that mostly disappeared in tonight's Darabont penned finale), this shake up could really bring the series to the next level and help it reach its considerable potential. I've said before that I hope the show moves more towards its emotional, insightful side and doesn't give in to fans who just want 45 minutes of zombie-killin' every Sunday night, and I think Darabont (the man behind The Shawshank Redemtpion) could very well take the show in that direction, trying to make it on par with Mad Men and Breaking Bad instead of just on par with any other zombie story out there. All that being said, I must confess that "TS-19" did not deliver, nor did it instill in me the great confidence I hoped it would.

Granted, Darabont fired the entire staff after the season had wrapped, and perhaps only realized the problems with the season as a whole in retrospect, but this still seems like a poorly thought out season finale. Any showrunner worth his salt knows that you end a season with a bang, not a whimper, especially in a show like this that thrives on thrills as much as it does on meditation. The actual end of this episode went off very well, as I'll discuss in a moment, but so much before it didn't work that its impossible to call the episode as a whole a success. The episode opens well, with a flashback that finds Shane rushing through the hospital to find Rick, dodging waves of the undead and a military force that is seemingly slaughtering everyone, infected or not. This scene provides necessary shading to Shane's character, showing him trying to save Rick, and honestly believing him dead before leaving him there, blocking the door with a gurney to at least keep his body intact. Its a fairly noble moment for the character, and a necessary one considering the terible things he will do later in the episode.

Back in the present, the survivors are welcomed into CDC by Dr. Edwin Jenner, who requires a blood test from everyone and clearly knows more than he's letting on. The group is so happy to be inside, however, that the barely notice his secrecy before indulging in booze and food and hot showers. Everyone gets a chance to relax, but the liquor brings out some true colors as well. Rick confesses to Jenner that he's losing hope, and that he thinks everyone he knows will soon be dead. Its a brazenly honest, communicative moment from our taciturn protagonist, who admits his biggest problem is refusing to talk about how he feels to his family. Meanwhile, Shane corners Lori and tries to explain his justifications for leaving Rick. He did the best he could at the time, honestly, and its hard to argue that he wasn't in the moral right at any point before Rick's return, that we know of. Sure, he started banging his best friend's wife pretty quickly after Rick "died (last week we learned the breakout happened around 63 days ago), but he really thought his friend was dead, and he seems to really love Lori. Unfortunately he quickly cedes his moral high ground, giving into his tendency to use violence to force cooperation, and attempting to rape Lori. She quickly fights him off, yet Shane has officially burnt through whatever little goodwill he had left for saving her life.

The next morning, Jenner treats thr group to a lecture on the disease that causes the dead to rise. We learn that the time before they reanimate varies, and that only the motor functions return. We also discover that Jenner does not know what causes the disease, or how to cure it, and that only a few hours remain before the entire center goes up in a firebomb that Jenner wants to incinerate everyone. He is not made out as an evil man; he isn't trying to murder the group in cold blood, he just thinks the situation outside is hopeless, and believes quick, painless death is better than the short, brutal life that awaits them outside. The group immediately starts panicking, with Darly and Shane doing the most damage, but of course Rick wins the day with a plea to the human side of the situation, explaining to Jenner that the situation may seem hopeless, but there is always a chance as long as they are still alive. He persuades most to escape, but Jacqui and Andrea elect to stay behind, that is until Dale threatens to stay with Andrea because he doesn't want to face the world alone. So Dale and Andrea also flee, and Jacqui and Jenner stay behind to be incinerated painlessly while the others forge on.

Rick's speech, and the scene of the group driving away at the end send the themes of the show home nicely, and reminded me of the vast potential this series has to be an excellent examination of the human will to survive and the desire of one man to retain his essential humanity when all else is falling apart around him. It would be easier to stop, to just allow yourself to be painlessly incinerated and to ensure you wouldn't be torn to shreds, but that is surrender. Rick, and the rest of the survivors have kept hope alive, and their struggle to survive is a story that I tihnk can easily be the groundwork for an excellent television series. Unfortunately, most of tonight was taken up with silly plot contrivances, some exceedingly dumb behavior from the characters, and very little plot advancement. All we learned could have been just as easily assumed, and while Shane and Rick both had great moments of emotional honest that shade in their characters a little more fully, these moments pretty much confirmed things we already knew about them. Jacqui's death could not have meant less to me, while the prospect of losing Dale showed me just how much I'd come to care about him over the last few weeks (and just how sad I'll be when this show inevitably kills him. Come on, wise old man who loves everybody? He HAS to die at some point, but I'm glad it isn't yet). I still think its hard to judge The Walking Dead until we see its second season, and I remain excited for the show's potential there, but this finale didn't do much to increase that excitement. Until next season, folks.

Grade: B-


-Jenner whispered something in Rick's ear before he left. That certainly leaves me curious...

-Some really stupid moments: "Is that a brain?" i know Carl is a kid, but is he like four? That was insanely stupid. Also, "Is that what happened to Jim?" OF COURSE IT IS. Plus, Daryl going at the metal door with an axe was remarkably cliche and a clear waste of his time and energy.

-"No pain, an end to sorrow, greif, regret, everything."

-Loved the choice of the ending song, Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow is a Long Time." See you guys next season!

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Darren Aronofsky

by Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“Aronofsky probably couldn’t videotape a nephew’s sixth birthday party without transforming it into a visually stunning, viscerally intense exploration of obsession and madness.” –Nathan Rabin, My Year of Flops

Often times here at Whose Film Is It Anyway? the goal of any given column is to point the way to a possible thematic consideration running through the work of a director that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. While this column does attempt to pick at the particulars of the auteur theory from time to time, it more often exists as a guide to a new way at viewing movies—through the lens of the auteur theory. Some directors leave subtle traces of their own pet themes and considerations in each of their films. Others drive their themes throughout their careers like a freight train towards a populated area (apologies to Denzel). There’s little argument that Darren Aronofsky is the latter type of director, one who works with a theme with so many ins and outs that he has examined it in five films over the last twelve years, and each time come up with something new to say about it. Of yet, the films of Darren Aronofsky are all, to one extent or another, about obsession and the way it drives people past the point of success and to potential ruin.

Aronofsky began his examination of obsession in his debut feature, 1998’s Pi: Faith in Chaos, which follows number theorist Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) on a harrowing journey into the depths of obsession and madness. Max’s obsession is numbers, which he believes hold the key to every question in the universe. When the computer Max has programmed to predict the stock market crashes, spitting out a seemingly random 216 digit number and a correct prediction about a single stock. Max is quickly drawn into a world of paranoid obsession as Wall Street Executives, Hasidic Jews, and Max’s own increasingly fragile mind attempt to understand the meaning of the number and its potential power to influence and alter society. As the film progresses, Max’s obsession with the number, and with mathematics in general drives him ever closer to inanity until in the film’s cathartic climax he makes a shocking decision to rid himself of his obsession and finally find peace.

Max’s obsession with numbers is shocking in its own right, but it has nothing on Aronofsky’s harrowing, heart-wrenching follow up Requiem for a Dream. The film follows four characters, each obsessed with the realization of their own dreams, and each eventually felled by a different obsession—drug addiction. Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) dreams of making enough money to treat his mother and his girlfriend properly. His girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connolly) hopes to open her own fashion store with the financial backing of Harry. Harry’s best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) wants to make enough money to get out of his terrible neighborhood and make his mother proud. And Harry’s mother Sarah (Ellen Burstyn in an Oscar nominated performance that is guaranteed to break your heart) wants to lose enough weight to fit into the red dress she wore on her proudest day, at Harry’s graduation, for her upcoming appearance on a game show. The characters each try to achieve their dreams through drug use as Harry, Tyrone and Marion, all heroin addicts plan to make a big score to finance their dreams and Sarah goes on diet pills to lose the weight, and their obsessions eventually lead to their downfall.

Throughout his work, but especially in Pi and Requiem, Aronofsky uses extremely short shots and quick cuts to depict the torturous routine that accompanies obsession. Throughout the film, Aronofsky repeatedly cuts back to the same quick montage of the routine of preparing and using heroin, showing that these characters are not just addicted to the drug itself, but obsessed with the behaviors and routines that surround drug use. Requiem for a Dream is almost doubtlessly the most harrowing, soul-crushingly depressing film ever made, but more than that, it is a tireless examination of the nightmare that results when lives are overtaken by obsession.

Never one to refuse an ambitious undertaking or to brush off a seemingly impossible challenge, Aronofsky next decided to make a movie that spanned millennia and dealt with one of the fundamental concerns of the human condition: mortality. The Fountain follows Tomas (Hugh Jackman) on a quest to conquer death in three intertwining stories: first as a conquistador attempting to save Spain and Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz) by travelling to New Spain and finding the Tree of Life; second as a modern day scientist trying to cure cancer, reverse aging and ultimately end death all as a means of saving his beloved wife Izzy; and finally as an astronaut in the future, traveling the vast reaches of space with the Tree of Life, attempting to reach a dying star to resurrect both the tree and his long-dead wife. Tomas is driven by an endless obsession with death, willing to go to any lengths to avoid it and to conquer it in order to save the woman he loves. Through the seemingly endless and arguably futile quest of his protagonist, Aronofsky argues that mortality makes life precious and that obsession threatens to keep us from appreciating the little time we have, instead squandering it in a pointless grab at more time to waste.

Likely feeling defeated by the financial failure of The Fountain (which is what allowed it to be featured in Nathan Rabin’s excellent, hilarious and insightful ongoing column My Year of Flops), Aronofsky took his exploration of the dark, destructive side of obsession to a more commercial venue in 2008’s The Wrestler. The film depicts Randy “The Ram” Robinson (an Oscar nominated Mickey Rourke), a former celebrity wrestler twenty years past his prime who refuses to give up chasing his glory days. Randy spends his weeks working at a grocery store, saving up enough to spend his weekends wrestling on the independent circuit. Wrestling has always been his reason for living, so much so that he abandoned his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) in her childhood. As he prepares to reenter the ring for a rematch, he attempts to reconcile with his daughter and strikes up a friendship and possible romance with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance) who also insists on staying in a career she is slowly aging out of. As the film continues, Randy suffers a heart attack and is told he can no longer wrestle without risking death, yet he allows his obsession to be his potential ruination as he reenters the ring for his final rematch and prepares to sacrifice himself to the obsession that has shaped his life.

A similar narrative forms the center of Aronofsky’s newest film Black Swan (due to the fact that the film was only released two days ago, I will avoid spoilers in my discussion of it), which Aronofsky has referred to as a companion piece to The Wrestler. The film follows Nina Sayers (an Oscar worthy Natalie Portman) through her arduous training as she prepares to star in a modern retelling of Swan Lake. Sayers puts herself through physical and mental anguish in preparation for the role, forcing herself to vomit, scratching at her skin, damaging her feet and even pushing her mind into near insanity, all for the sake of her art. Though hers is the central story of the dangers of obsession in the film, she is also surrounded by others who are endangered by their obsessions—her mother Erica (a tremendous Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina who remains consumed by her love of ballet, her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) who is passionately, sometimes creepily committed to helping Nina find her dark side to portray the titular Swan, he understudy Lily (Mila Kunis) who may or may not be trying to keep Nina from taking the stage, and her predecessor (Winona Ryder) a famed ballerina forced into retirement because of her age. Each of these characters goes to absurd lengths for the art that grips them, sacrificing their bodies, their minds, their relationships, and even their lives for their obsessions.

Each of Darren Aronofsky’s films examines the nature of obsession and the myriad consequences of letting your life become consumed with something that keeps you from really enjoying it. Whether the obsession is with numbers, dreams, drugs, death, or art, Aronofsky’s characters let their lives pass them by and sacrifice their relationships with others, their sanity, and in some cases even their lives in pursuit of what consumes them. Few directors manage to make a succession of films so thematically similar and yet individually satisfying. Aronofsky has worked throughout his career with the same cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, and the same composer, Clint Mansell, to create a similar feeling of claustrophobic dread whether his movies are set in the seedy side of New Jersey or the high-art society that surrounds the ballet. The nature of his character’s obsession may differ each time, yet in every case, their unaltered focus seals their (usually very dark and depressing) fate. Aronofsky recently announced that his next project will be to direct The Wolverine (after the very exciting rumor that he was being tapped to direct the next Superman movie turned out to be just that), and there is little doubt in my mind that when next we see the X-Man at that movie’s center, he will be driven to the brink of his exceptional abilities in a struggle to overcome, or succumb, to the obsessions that drive him.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

12/19: Frank Capra

1/2: Mike Myers

1/16: Kevin Smith

1/30: Akira Kurosawa