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Monday, January 31, 2011

Biutiful (Limited Release Date: 1-28-2011)

        I have something of a love/hate relationship with the works of Alejandro González Iñárritu, but that's dumbing it down a bit: This is passionate love that we're talking about, and fiery hate. The director's first work, 2000's Amores Perros, is honestly one of the best movies I've ever seen, teeming life and energy and fury. Conversely, his 2006 offering, Babel, is not only something of train wreck, but also kind of offensive for how many big ideas and how much talent it dedicates to the act of twisting an audience's arm until tears come out. Those two movies, as well as his only other feature, 21 Grams, were all written by Guillermo Arriaga, a partnership which has finally wilted, making Iñárritu's newest feature, Biutiful, an opportunity for the film-maker to stake out new ground, and tell his own story. Needless to say, it was a movie I was nervous about, my steady prediction being that it would either be one of the very best or very worst movies of 2010, with both outcomes boasting of equal likelihood.

        Unlike all three pairings between Iñárritu and his former scribe, Biutiful is a film that primarily focuses on one individual, and who better to hang the hopes of your movie on than Javier Bardem? He portrays Uxbal, a middle-man in some pretty shady dealings on the mean streets of Barcelona, but also an occasionally tender father of two. Before the movie even starts, he has already saddled himself with all sorts of responsibilities, his managing of police/immigrant relations and his unpredictable estranged wife (Maricel Álvarez) only representing the tip of the iceberg. There's no overt story to the movie: Just a couple of months in the life of this unique and complex individual. Oh yeah... and he speaks to the dead. Oh yeah... and he's dying, with a time table of only a couple of months.

        Come to think of it, there are kind of a lot of, 'oh yeah,'s to Biutiful, as the film does absolutely nothing to break from the perception of Iñárritu as someone only truly interested in telling stories of the utmost density. Though Biutiful does pick a protagonist in a way that none of his previous outings have, the movie continuously returns to minor characters to flesh out more backstory, and add more depth. While it's easy to admire that kind of focus on character development, it does take away screen time from Uxbal, not to mention padding the film's immense 147 Minute runtime. One gets the feeling that Iñárritu simply can't help himself.

        As with all three of his previous efforts, there are moments in Biutiful that could just about convince you that Iñárritu is the best director working today, simple images rendered with enough elating and heartbreaking beauty to make you forget that it's only a movie. And though there are truly a startling number of moments that fit this description, the vast majority of Biutiful is so busy with weaving a myriad of locations, ethnicities, and themes together that it distracts from the wonder of it all. There's a prevailing feeling of things being complicated for complication's sake, the kind of thing that would sink a lesser craftsman, but less is a word that Iñárritu appears to be unfamiliar with in any of its various contexts.

        In Bardem, Iñárritu seems to have found one of the only actors around that thinks and performs as big as he does. Uxbal could be described as any number of things through-out his character-arc: ferocious, loving, tragic, intimidating, tender... stop me whenever you want to. It's a big movie that needs a big central performance, and as good as he is through-out, it's the last half-hour when you find out that Bardem is, without a doubt, up to the task.

        It's a bummer that Iñárritu can neither find nor write a script that is as worthy of his talents as Amores Perros was, but I for one will be first in line for each next movie he makes until he does. His level of ability isn't the kind that you see everyday: The moments of his films that work, even in something as revoltingly manipulative as Babel, hit like a punch in the gut, lingering around in your head for days afterwards. It's clear from the start that Biutiful is designed for repeat viewings, and by that measure I can't help but think my opinion of it will evolve as time passes. As is, I don't see it as either the soaring success nor the miserable failure that I anticipated, but something in between, if slightly closer to the former. It might not be a masterpiece, but it's certainly the work of masters: One in front of the camera, and one behind it.

Grade: B-

Friday, January 28, 2011

No Strings Attached (Release Date:1-21-2011)

        In case you haven't heard by now, this is Natalie Portman's moment. The two-time Golden Globe winner and girl-next-door dream boat is likely on the path to win her first Academy Award for Black Swan, and is certainly on the path to bringing a new life into the world with husband-to-be Benjamin Millepied. This all goes without saying that Portman, whose career has always been a bit slowed by her now completed education, has three more movies still slated for release in 2011 (The Other Woman, Your Highness, and Thor), and that's assuming that her pregnancy will halt the filming of yet another (Cloud Atlas). Oh yeah, and her first 2011 offering, No Strings Attached, is sitting pretty at Number One in the Box Office as of this writing. It's good to be Natalie.

        The premise of the film is simple and concise: Portman and co-star Ashton Kutcher (Emma and Adam, respectively) come to the realization that they both want to jump each other's bones, so they try to do so without contracting that deadly virus known as feelings. Emma, the sort of one-who-got-away who never lets anyone catch her, works absurd hours at the local hospital, and claims to harbor far greater needs in the pants than in the heart. Conversely, Adam doesn't ever really seem too attached to the idea of being unattached, and not-so-secretly pines for Emma's affections even as he seemingly reaps their rewards. If you don't know where this is going, where have you been, and how did you figure out how to use the internet?

        No Strings Attached takes a surprising amount of time to reach the storyline that its title promises, the first twenty minutes providing a history of the two that reaches back fifteen years, and manages to add literally nothing in the way of character development or the plot. The characters are inconsistent through-out, declaring a firmly held belief or opinion one moment, before casting it aside in the next as if the two scenes were written by different people. The pop music that lofts around in the movie's background is a bit underwhelming, and at times oddly placed, or noticeably absent. But none of that really matters, does it? The success or failure of a Romantic Comedy hinges on a sacred few details, and as those are the only ones worth discussing in any sort of depth, I might as well get to it.

        Portman and Kutcher have solidly OK chemistry, bolstered by the fact that they happen to be two amazing looking people who look pretty amazing on screen together. Their playful banter is worth a smile here and there: Not the standard barer for their genre, but not like pairing Ralph Fiennes with Jennifer Lopez, either. Adam has some Kelso moments here and there, but is also handed some pretty fantastic romantic gestures that are far more adorable than the movie that contains them. Each star has their standard Rom-Com pack of friends, but in the flick's only real deviation from the norm, it's Emma's friends who carry the comedy torch, Mindy Kaling and Greta Gerwig both making the absolute most of their minimal screen time.

       NSA doesn't seem too interested in the gross-out, jaw-dropping humor that its marketing suggested; It's too concerned with going down easy, which it does in alarmingly familiar fashion. It's noticeably below average entertainment elevated to slightly below average standards by the charming and radiant Portman. There's simply no denying her screen presence, and if this isn't the ideal movie to show what it's like when she has fun with a role, then hopefully Your Highness or Thor is. I can't say I would have been too excited if I had paid to see it, but as turn-your-brain-all-the-way-off mindless entertainment, one could do worse.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Green Hornet (Release Date: 1-14-2011)

        It was hard not to get a little overly-excited about The Green Hornet in advance. I'm a proud member of the Seth Rogen fan club (calm down, not literally), I've watched and enjoyed all of director Michel Gondry's movies, and I've wanted to see Christoph Walltz in another flick from the second that Brad Pitt finished his masterpiece at the end of Inglourious Basterds. Imagine my dismay when I heard that the movie would be released in mid January, a ghost town usually reserved for studio left-overs, and the year's first Nicolas Cage movie. Needless to say, my expectations had to be adjusted.

        Rogen stars as Britt Reid, the slacker son of hard-working, frowny-faced James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), a media mogul, and local hero in Los Angeles. When James is fatally stung by a bee, playboy Britt is left in charge of his father's newspaper, and willed the task of living up to his titanic legacy. Enter Kato (Taiwanese Pop-Singer Jay Chou), the late James' auto-mechanic, and Cappuccino maestro. In addition to showing off about fifteen other-worldly talents within the first ten minutes of the two knowing each other, Kato is also the only one willing to say even the most vaguely negative thing about James to Britt's face, a fact that puts him on the fast track for best friend status. Needless to say, Britt has some Daddy issues.

        An unplanned, likely intoxicated series of events leads to the two of them beating up a group of would-be killers, and the rush proves too elating not to recreate. But unlike most masked heros, these two will pose as the bad-guys in order to get closer to the real villains, and take them down. Problem is, how exactly do they do that? As if answering a prayer, in walks Lenore (Cameron Diaz), Britt's newly appointed secretary who just happens to have minored (minored?) in Criminal Behavior. She is thus able to 'predict' the Green Hornet's next moves in a way that the do-gooders can replicate in real life. The two set their sights on Chudnofsky (Waltz), the city's most glamourous and prolific criminal, but lack any real perspective on what they're up against.

        Rogen's two main talents as an actor are his everyman charm, and his ability to play off of just about anyone with considerable chemistry. Both of these are on full-display here, as his and Chou's bromance is funny, natural, and more than a little bit gay (thank god they both go after Diaz, or the marketing on this one would have been a little tricky). While his physical abilities are a bit unconvincing, the actor has the good fortune of handing off most of the movie's more inspired action scenes to Chou, who's totally game. Britt also has a tendency to be occasionally mean-spiritied, a fact that both disrupts the film's peppy vibe, and grates against the whole Rogen image. These are likely the movie's worst moments.

        The word 'visionary' is often slated next to Gondry's name, but it's a tag that does him no favors. While you will never in your life hear me say something negative about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the rest of Gondry's canon is marred with poor story-telling, despite his obvious mastery of visuals. Here, both Gondry and the movie's script show a strange willingness to let individual scenes go on for extended periods of time, occasionally revealing sublime results (James Franco's extended cameo, for example), but only slightly less often dragging the movie's pace down (Diaz's first scene). The action sequences, however, are just as inspired as you hoped they would be. Gondry is no Scrooge when it comes to massive explosions (all fairly well-rendered in 3-D), and his visual explanation for Kato's action-scene dominance is both surprisingly graceful, and totally badass.

        The reasons for The Green Hornet to be released in January are pretty clear from the get-go. It has a messy, unpolished vibe that simply wouldn't fit in with the tent-pole action pictures of the summer. But for all its faults, the movie is still an undeniably fun watch, a pseudo-marquee picture to tide us over until the big boys get here. More-so than perhaps any other star working in Hollywood today, Rogen's inclusion in a movie officially makes it a 'Seth Rogen' movie, and this one is no different. My advise is as simple as this: If you like the guy, check it out. Otherwise, I'd save your money.

Grade: B-

Monday, January 24, 2011

2010 Oscar Nominations Predictions: Part 2

Best Actress:
        The big showdown here is between Annette Bening (The Kids Are Alright) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan), though the gap between the two seems to be increasing in favor of the later actress. The rest of the field is actually pretty tough to predict, once again muddled by the fact that it's impossible to know which category Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Lesley Manville (Another Year) will end up in, if any. Nicole Kidman has been a precursor regular for her work in Rabbit Hole, and even if Winter's Bone doesn't get all of the love I predict that it will, I can't really imagine Jennifer Lawrence's name not getting called. The field is pretty shallow: Potential spoilers Hilary Swank (Conviction), Noomi Rapace (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), and Julianne Moore (The Kids Are Alright), would all be more accurately referred to as dark horses. I see voter confusion costing Manville a nod, and as previously stated, my money is on Steinfeld showing up in the Supporting Actress category. This leaves the door open for Michelle Williams, whose Blue Valentine might just make for a morning full of surprises tomorrow.

1. Natalie Portman---Black Swan
2. Annette Bening---The Kids Are Alright
3. Jennifer Lawrence---Winter's Bone
4. Nicole Kidman---Rabbit Hole
5. Michelle Williams---Blue Valentine
6. Lesley Manville---Another Year
7. Hailee Steinfeld---True Grit
8. Julianne Moore---The Kids Are Alright
9. Hilary Swank---Conviction
10. Noomi Rapace---The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

How I Did: 5/5

Best Actor
        In a year with comparatively few locked categories, a Colin Firth victory for The King's Speech is about as safe as the predictions get. From there we have James Franco (127 Hours) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), who have both been nominated by everyone who votes for anything on the planet. Jeff Bridges has also gotten his fair share of shout-outs, but his victory last year and comparatively smaller amount of screen time keep him from being as locked as the top three. Assuming that Bridges is in, there are three incredible actors left fighting for the final spot: Robert Duvall (Get Low), Javier Bardem (Biutiful), and Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine). Something tells me it's not Duvall: His movie came out too early in the year, and he already has enough nominations that another one wouldn't mean as much to him as the other two. On one hand, Oscar has a tendency to award foreign films with lead acting nominations as a kind of patting himself on the back, which favors Bardem. On the other, Gosling has Harvey Weinstein on his side, and his movie will most likely be a bigger hit. I have less confidence in this call than in any other thus far, but I'm going with Gosling by the slimmest of margins because I think voters will be more likely to see his movie due to the fact that it has two buzzed performances (his and Michelle Williams') instead of just one.

1. Colin Firth---The King's Speech
2. James Franco---127 Hours
3. Jesse Eisenberg---The Social Network
4. Jeff Bridges---True Grit
5. Ryan Gosling---Blue Valentine
6. Javier Bardem---Biutiful
7. Robert Duvall---Get Low
8. Aaron Eckhart---Rabbit Hole
9. Paul Giamatti---Barney's Version
10. Mark Wahlberg---The Fighter

How I Did: 4/5

Best Director
        Much like Colin Firth, David Fincher appears primed and ready to receive his first Oscar for The Social Network. As the director of that movie's biggest challenger for the top prize, Tom Hooper also seems locked in for The King's Speech. Christopher Nolan's omission for The Dark Knight was bemoaned by many two years ago, and I think that they'll have learned from their lesson. The distinctive styles and talents of Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and David O. Russell (The Fighter) were the reason why their movies worked, not to mention that both received Directors Guild nominations, among other precursors. Next in line are Ethan and Joel Coen (True Grit) and Danny Boyle (127 Hours), with Ben Affleck (The Town) and Mike Leigh (Another Year) making the smallest of blips on the radar.

1. David Fincher---The Social Network
2. Tom Hooper---The King's Speech
3. Darren Aronofsky---Black Swan
4. David O. Russell---The Fighter
5. Christopher Nolan---Inception
6. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen---True Grit
7. Danny Boyle---127 Hours
8. Mike Leigh---Another Year
9. Ben Affleck---The Town

How I Did: 4/5

Best Picture
        All right, bare with me here: I've been thinking about this one long and hard for the last several weeks, so what follows might be a little overkill in the analysis department. Given the expanded field, there are a handful of movies that seem as though they've already been handed the honor: The Social Network, The King's Speech, Toy Story 3, The Fighter, and True Grit. For all intents and purposes, there's every reason to think that Inception, Black Swan, and The Kids Are Alright are just as certain, but each gives me pause for its own reasons. Inception is both an action blockbuster, and a Christopher Nolan movie, a combination that was almost completely ignored two years ago even after The Dark Knight had all of the guilds on its side. Black Swan is simply a very strange movie, and it's hard for me to see it sitting as well with all of the older academy members as the 20-30 crowd that is powering its box office. The Kids Are Alright is a comedy, and Oscar has a reputation for not thinking too much of the genre, let alone summer releases. Given the choice, however, my money is on all eight to make the ten.
        This leaves two spots for, in theory, three movies: 127 Hours, The Town, and Winter's Bone. The first two completed the Producers Guild's list of Ten (along with the movies listed above), which has a lot of people jumping ship on Winter's Bone. What these doubters forget is that the Academy votes with a preferential system, so a movie that gets more first place votes could supplant one that is on everyone's list, but is no one's favorite. The people that like Winter's Bone tend to love it, whereas I would be surprised if so much as a single member of the Academy wrote down The Town as their favorite of 2010. So, yeah: Winter's Bone over The Town. Now, to the heart of this section: The possibility of a complete shocker in the top ten.
         Count them out all you want, but Oscar has a tendency to pick a left-fielder that is closer to a rule than an exception, especially of late. Consider this list:

2009: The Blind Side over Invictus
2008: The Reader over The Dark Knight
2007: Atonement over Into The Wild (Look back at the precursors if you don't believe that was a surprise)
2006: Letters from Iwo Jima over Dreamgirls (Ditto above)
2005: Munich over Walk the Line

         It's a trend that I've been trying my best to understand over the last couple weeks, and here's what I've come up with. Atonement aside, all Four of the upsets had at least one of two factors in their favor: An actor or actress with a giant lead in an acting category, or someone involved with the industry with considerable clout. Quite literally every actor or actress with a fighting chance to win a prize gives their performance in one of those first eight movies that I listed, so when I've been looking for my upset, I've focused on big names behind the camera.
        Martin Scorsese is just that, and though Shutter Island wasn't as well-recieved as many of his works, it had a great box office, which is something that Oscar seems to be increasingly impressed in. Producer Harvey Weinstein has pulled a fast one on folks before (The Reader's nomination, Shakespeare in Love's win), and seeing as he's already gone to battle for Blue Valentine over the NC-17 issue, you have to imagine that he's been in people's ears around tinseltown. Roman Polanski has a collection of supporters as well, as does his movie The Ghost Writer. Directors Mike Leigh (Another Year) and Peter Weir (The Way Back) also boast of pretty big names in the industry, though not as big to my mind as the three listed above.
        What I think is also worth considering is Oscar opening up the field to genres that range from seldom-to-never honored. How to Train Your Dragon was a huge hit both commercially and critically, though it is hard to imagine two animated movies in a field of ten. If they feel like going the foreign route, my money is on Biutiful. If they get really loose, and invite a documentary (and you know that the expended field will someday), why not Inside Job or Waiting for "Superman"?
        I don't think that Winter's Bone is a big enough surprise, and the potential for 127 Hours to be viewed as disgusting by weaker-stomached Academy members makes it the perfect fall guy in the face of the big surprise. I feel like kind of an idiot for going against the precursors to this degree, but where has agreeing with them ever gotten anyone, anyways? One away from having guessed all of them, that's where. With all of the evidence considered, I'm going with Harvey Weinstein, two potential lead acting nominations, and Blue Valentine to be the big shocker tomorrow morning. Fortune favors the bold, right?

1. The Social Network
2. The King's Speech
3. Toy Story 3
4. The Fighter
5. True Grit
6. Inception
7. Black Swan
8. The Kids Are Alright
9. Winter's Bone
10. Blue Valentine
11. 127 Hours
12. The Town
13. Shutter Island
14. The Ghost Writer
15. Another Year
16. Biutiful
17. The Way Back
18. How to Train Your Dragon
19. Inside Job
20. Rabbit Hole
21. Get Low
22. Conviction
23. Hereafter
24. Waiting for 'Superman'
25. Somewhere

How I Did: 9/10

How I Did with Nominations in Major Categories: 36/45: 80%

2010 Oscar Nominations Predictions: Part 1

        It's actually pretty embarrassing how excited I get for this day every year. Tomorrow, at 5:30 am, pacific time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their nominees for the 83rd Academy Awards. Yes, I know that not as many watch the awards as used to, and that many view the presence of Ten Best Picture Nominees as tarnishing the honor. What I personally believe that folks fail to realize about the Oscars is that people who are nerdy and obsessive about movies like me (and there are kind of a silly number of us out there) will always care what Oscar has to say, and a nomination in a major category goes a long ways towards insuring that your movie is watched fifteen years from now. Also, trying to predict Oscar's ways is just plain fun, so I'm going to stop blabbing about it. Here we go:


*NOTE 2: I ran out of time before work today, so the second half of my predictions will be up later tonight*
Best Supporting Actor
        Christian Bale seems to have walked away with just about every precursor for his amazing performance as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter, but after him, the field is extremely open. Geoffrey Rush is next in line for The King's Speech, but those are the only two that I would bet any real sum of money on. Mark Ruffalo seems likely for The Kids Are Alright, and I expect Jeremy Renner to ride some leftover Hurt Locker love to a nomination for The Town. That leaves one last particularly tricky spot to fill in. Andrew Garfield has gotten some love for The Social Network, but I've got a feeling that having a small name in a year where nothing is settled won't work out for him. The recent death of Pete Postlethwaite could land him in the race for The Town, and the lack of a previous nomination could bode well for Same Rockwell for Conviction. Forgetting all about Matt Damon in True Grit might not be the best idea, either. But I'm going to go a bit out of my comfort zone, and selecting John Hawkes. I predict that Winter's Bone will get some more attention than people really expect, and I'm banking on him getting swept in along with it:

1. Christian Bale---The Fighter
2. Geoffrey Rush---The King's Speech
3. Mark Ruffalo---The Kids Are Alright
4. Jeremy Renner---The Town
5. John Hawkes---Winter's Bone
6. Andrew Garfield---The Social Network
7. Pete Postlethwaite---The Town
8. Matt Damon---True Grit
9. Bill Murray---Get Low
10. Sam Rockwell---Conviction

How I Did: 5/5

Best Original Screenplay
        Possibly one of the easier categories to predict, especially ever since the Best Picture field was expanded. The King's Speech, Inception, Black Swan, The Fighter and The Kids Are Alright are all more or less locked into the field of ten, and thus shouldn't have any problems here. The most likely spoiler is Another Year, whose scribe, Mike Leigh, often fares well with the Academy. It's hard to know just how much love Blue Valentine will receive tomorrow morning, so I wouldn't count that one out either. Same goes for both Biutiful and Get Low.

1. David Speider---The King's Speech
2. Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko---The Kids Are Alright
3. Paul Attanasio, Lewis Colich, Eric Johnson, Scott Silver & Paul Tamasy---The Fighter
4. Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz & John J. McLaughlin---Black Swan
5. Christopher Nolan---Inception
6. Mike Leigh---Another Year
7. Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis & Cami Delavigne---Blue Valentine
8. Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell---Get Low
9. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo & Nicolás Giacobone---Biutiful

How I Did: 4/5

Best Adapted Screenplay
        Yet again, one of the easier ones to narrow down because of the field of ten, though these Five are a bit less locked. The Social Network, Toy Story 3, and True Grit all seem pretty sealed in, and the fight for the two remaining spots will likely be similar to the battle for the same number of spots in the Best Picture Category. 127 Hours, The Town, and Winter's Bone are the three main contenders, and I'm going with The Town to be the one that gets left off. There are also a couple who are sneaking into the race late who could pull the surprise: The Way Back and Rabbit Hole. Don't forget early year favorites How to Train Your Dragon and Shutter Island. Also not to be dismissed is the small under-current of awards season love for The Ghost Writer.

1. Aaron Sorkin---The Social Network
2. Michael Arndt---Toy Story 3
3. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen---True Grit
4. Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini---Winter's Bone
5. Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy---127 Hours
6. Ben Affleck, Peter Craig & Aaron Stockard---The Town
7. Laeta Kalogridis---Shutter Island
8. Robert Harris & Roman Polanski---The Ghost Writer
9. Keith R. Clarke & David Weir---The Way Back
10. David Lindsay-Abaire---Rabbit Hole
11. William Davies, Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders---How to Train Your Dragon

How I Did: 5/5

Best Supporting Actress
        I would say that this year's nominees are a bit more unpredictable than most, but the Supporting Actress category is in a league of its own. Though Melissa Leo has already picked up plenty of hardware for The Fighter, I still just don't buy her as being as solid a front-runner as the other categories have. Still, her and movie-mate, Amy Adams, are pretty much rock-solid locks at this point, as is Helena Bonham Carter for The King's Speech. After that, a lot has to do with what category people believe certain actresses belong to. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Julianne Moore (The Kids Are Alright) have both gotten pushes despite being leads, and word on the street is that Lesley Manville (Another Year) will be gunning for Best Actress despite comparatively small screen time. Then there are the Black Swan ladies, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey, who are just about as likely as one another to snag a spot. Veteran clout could also land Miranda Richardson (Made in Dagenham) a spot. For the last two I've got to go with Jacki Weaver, whose Animal Kingdom performance appears to have more passionate support than many of the other dark horses, and Steinfeld, whose age I believe will help her commit category fraud.

1. Melissa Leo---The Fighter
2. Helena Bonham Carter---The King's Speech
3. Amy Adams---The Fighter
4. Hailee Steinfeld---True Grit
5. Jacki Weaver---Animal Kingdom
6. Mila Kunis---Black Swan
7. Lesley Manville---Another Year
8. Barbara Hershey---Black Swan
9. Julianne Moore---The Kids Are Alright
10. Miranda Richardson---Made in Dagenham

How I Did: 5/5

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Top 100 Songs of 2010, 10-1

10. (tie) Miami---Foals and Rill Rill---Sleight Bells
        These two are funny companions for a number of reasons, both a perfect pair, and perfect opposites. The most clear similarity between the two is that both go against the grain of just about everything else on their respective albums. Where Total Life Forever was spacious and expensive, Miami is a tight, and conventionally constructed tune. Rill Rill, on the other hand, is one of only two tracks on Treats that turns down the volume, the elating, rushing crash of the rest of the album nowhere to be found. And this is where their similarities basically end.
        Miami is as tense as can be, the musical equivalent of making small talk when both you and your fellow conversationalist have something much bigger in mind. Foals is generally a band that makes its name on playfully hyper-kinetic guitars, but here it's the bass, thumping and sliding in monstrous fashion, that makes the song. Rill Rill, by contrast, doesn't have a drop of tensity to its name, immediately ushering in summer weather, and good vibes. It's basic: only a sunny, nostalgic guitar, basic drum-machine beat, and Alexis Krauss' cutesy, earnest voice. But simplicity is just the road that it takes to transcendence: the thing sounds like a classic the first time you hear it, and its charms simply never wain. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't let either one of these tunes not make the top ten, so here they are, right where they belong.
9. Shine Blockas---Big Boi feat. Gucci Mane
        Simply one of the smoothest beats I've ever heard, Shine Blockas is tailor-made to go down easy. As great as the backing music is through-out The Son of Chico Dusty, SB is the only one triumphant enough to outshine Big Boi, even if just barely. Just how good is it, you ask? So good that guest MC Gucci Mane, whose characteristically gravelly delivery has every reason to grate against this backdrop, churns out one of the most silky and laid-back verses of the year. Sure, it's hip-hop that you're supposed to drive to, but not speed: a Twenty MPH cruise through inner-city friday night is more what it calls for, something glamorous, confident, and classic. Relaxed isn't a word usually associated with great hip-hop, but blocking this one's shine ain't gunna happen, so don't try.
8. On Melancholy Hill---Gorillaz
         Balance is a big part of what Gorillaz does: the strange with the simple, the foreign with the familiar, etc. While it might seem as though having 50/50 ratios of these contradicting impulses would be the most captivating way to go, it more often turns out that their best songs are ones belonging to one distinct side, receiving just an assist from the other. By the band's standards, OMH is an extremely straight-forward song, synths that sound like rays of August evening sunshine swirling around, and encasing Damon Albarn's restrained vocal effort. It's truly a thing of beauty, as drenched in nostalgia as a standard you've known your whole life. But as always, there's still just the smallest lingering oddity to the thing, the woozy sigh of background singers and Albarn's occasional minor notes suggesting that the Melancholy Hill might just live up to its name after all. Old-school and modern at the same time, OMH is as likely to take your breath away as anything the band has done up to this point, and yes, that's quite the statement.
7. We Used to Wait---Arcade Fire
        Besides simply being my favorite track on The Suburbs, WUTW stands as the album's main number because of how it embodies the disc's whole. It swells with the best of the band's catalogue, but in a far more subtle fashion, almost tricking you out of thinking it's an anthem before the no-holds-barred final minute. Win Butler sings from behind a more experienced set of eyes, looking back on how times have changed due to technology and shifting societal paradigms. Extra instruments and vocalists pop in at just the right times, the female back-up during the chorus particularly romantic and perfect. The simultaneous desire for escape and return is the push-pull right at the emotional core of The Suburbs, and WUTW's half-jaded, half-rousing lyrics, along with Butler's impassioned delivery, make it the album's beating heart.
6. Odessa---Caribou
        It's not like I've been hugely into music forever, but Odessa simply has to be one of the most unique songs that I've ever heard. It enters with eerie, pounding bass, some strange, almost animalistic sample repeating in the background. As with all of Swim, Odessa is mind-blowing for it's ability to wholly make sense as a both a dance track and a musical freak-out. The steady stream of high-hat is nice, and the chaotic bells of its instrumental breaks are even better, but it's Dan Snaith's voice that ties the whole thing together. Depraved of either overt emotion or splashy musical decisions, Snaith delivers his story of domestic unrest in an other-worldly collected manner, each perfected and polite note belying the song's pitch-black tone in dizzying fashion. Odessa haunts me unlike any other tune from last year, Snaith's echo etched into the back of my mind from the first time that I heard it. But that doesn't mean that there's no fun in the thing, and that's just what makes it the stand-alone number that it is.
5. Terrible Love---The National
        Terrible Love is not the biggest anthem on High Violet; that distinction belongs to England (if ever-so-slightly), but it's the one with the most fire twice over. A simple, reverberating guitar riff sets the stage, beautiful remorse and helplessness tangible before Matt Beringer's broken voice even arrives. But TL proves to be a steady climb, starting with its smallest moment and ending with its biggest with the finesse of a master. The lyrics are both clear and cryptic, certain phrases repeated over and over again, shifting between literal and analogous mid-sentence. What could have been over-the-top and melodramatic is instead furious and heartbreaking, the percussion explosions of the choruses and Beringer's impassioned, repeated howl of, "It's a Terrible Love, and I'm walking with spiders," making the thing smart like an open wound. It's a foreboding march of dread, so honest in its devastation and rage that it demands to be heard over and over again in spite of its considerable weight.
4. Excuses---The Morning Benders
        Don't be surprised to see this one so high up; this is the lowest that Excuses was ever going to be. The hissing record and sliding guitar of its opening seem to evoke some long forgotten love, but this and the very ending are the only places in the song that appear to be set in present day. The rest lays its scene in some fondly remembered yesteryear, one marinated in romance and youthful vivaciousness. Perhaps it's just the album's cover, but for me, the song's swoon-worthy violins and splashy symbols always take me to the sea, where clear blue water crashes against the rocks on the warmest and happiest of days. Christopher Chu's voice is incredible: playfully sexy and genuinely adoring lyrics belted out in a rich, luxurious fashion. Excuses is one of those songs that I don't really expect its artist to ever recreate. Only a few bands get to be as good as The Morning Benders, but only a truly select number ever get to craft a song this golden and awe-inspiringly perfect. The antidote to grey skies and dull days, Excuses is technicolor brilliance, its jaw-dropping beauty matched only by its mind-boggling capacity for merrymaking.
3. POWER---Kanye West
        By his standards, Kanye West had been kind of sitting on his hands. His first four albums came out in a stretch of five years, innumerable guest verses for other MCs making him even more prolific. Then all of that bad stuff happened: Mom, Fiancé, Taylor, and all of those other stories that the media has rammed down our collective throat. So West decided to duck out of the spotlight for a while, and while that period only lasted just over a year, POWER is a reintroduction for the ages, thunderously announcing the return of a Kanye who still, after all of this, thought he was the world's greatest. In hip-hop, that's a pretty invaluable commodity. Here I am, writing about twice as much about Kanye as anyone else again, but the myth of the man is so dense and so closely hewn to his music that he always requires extra discourse. Now then, about POWER.

        Like We Used to Wait, POWER is not only the best song on its respective album, but also the one that embodies the whole work most fully. It's not the trickiest beat, composed of chanting women, steady clapping, and a nice, firm bass thump, but the whole is unimaginably bigger than the sum of the parts: For all Five minutes of its existence, POWER sounds like an event. That of course goes without noting that the song contains some best-ever West verses, his almost sickening denouncement of anyone not named Kanye and fixation on the superficial (How 'Ye doin'?/I'm survivin'/I was drinkin' earlier/ Now I'm driving/Where the bad Bitches, heh?/Where ya hidin'?) juxtaposed against miraculous moments of self-realization (Now I embody every characteristic of the egotistic... My childlike creativity, purity, and honesty is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts). A breathless affirmation of its creator's mad-cap, split-personality brilliance as well as a monstrous jam, POWER is the twisty, pulse-raising offering of an increasingly broken individual. I wouldn't want to be him, but I can't help but think the world would be a little less interesting without Mr. West.
2. All I Want---LCD Soundsystem
        LCD functions as a dance/disco band first, so it's kind of amazing that they also have something like a side job of making gorgeously crafted, straight-to-the-heart epics as well. Wedged right in the middle of their last groove-fest, Sound of Silver, were Someone Great and All My Friends, two miraculous confessionals that took an otherwise really good album into greatness territory. This is Happening has just as many such songs, All I Want being one of them. About Twenty seconds of mid-tempo drum build-up is all that it takes before the hardiest guitar part of the year slips in, tugging at heart-strings straight off. In comes James Murphy's voice, but it refuses to overwhelm the thing, his volume only ever reaching that of the guitar, and never passing it. His longings are far less beautiful than the song (All I want is your pity/All I want are your bitter tears) but no less captivating. The words invoke the pain of rejection, and the desire to be vindicated, even at the expense of the one you love. They're a few feelings that no one who has ever been spurned would like to admit to; the simple, human response to the word, 'no,' that everyone wishes they were above, while no one is.
        As with most of the LCD catalogue, the song doesn't have dramatic shifts as much as it evolves, a mesmerizing keyboard being added just before the three minute mark, and then another as the song concludes. It's a tune that wraps itself around you, and invites you inside, the warmth of its sound making quite the cocktail with its icy lyrics. But the warmth wins out every time, and the second that the band rips the plug right out of the thing after letting it slowly de-evolve is the same second that you'll be reaching for the replay button.
1. Home---LCD Soundsystem
        You will not believe how hard I tried to make this not happen. I've listened to just about every song in my top 100 about a bajillion times over in the last month while I thought about this list. The truth of the matter is that this song has always been my Number One, the only song even within striking distance being All I Want. If that makes me bias, then I guess it makes me the same as everyone else, and there's simply no use in lying about how I feel to anyone who took the time to click here, and see my opinion. Like many LCD songs, Home practically cites another artist in terms of sound (Talking Heads), but they bend it and mold it into something deeply personal that has their authorship written all over it.

        Home is a journey of a song, slowly morphing into existence behind a swirling keyboard, and rampant woodblocks and cowbells. If you don't count his delicate repeating of the song's title near the beginning, it takes a whole two minutes for Murphy to get invited to the party, his voice ever-treated like any other instrument in the band. Describing the song's tone is near impossible; just about every emotion in the book is contained within its eight minute span despite the fact that, as always, it's more about song evolution for these guys than distinct sections. The relationship at the song's center is a beautiful mess, Murphy proposing elating escape (So grab your things/and stumble into the night/so we can shut the door and shut the door and shut the door/On terrible times), reflecting on fondly distant memories (Still you should not forget/No don't forget/The things that we laughed about), and chastising sordid life decisions (And after rolling on the floor/And thankfully, a few make sure/That you get home/And you stay Home/And feel better). 

        It's a love song that depicts the way that love actually works: all messy, convoluted, and full of soaring highs, and perilous lows. It doesn't have to be romantic love; Murphy's words are seemingly just as often about friendship, and no names or genders crop up here. The line "You're afraid of what you need/Yeah, you're afraid of what you need/If you weren't/If you weren't/I don't know what we'd talk about," is stingingly honest and crystal clear, and if you've never had a friend whom it applies to, you're either really lucky, or just need more friends. Twice in the song, Murphy recalls the harmonies of the album's opener, Dance Yrself Clean, breaking into a show-stopping variation with about two minutes left, before the whole thing disintegrates at the same languid and organic pace that first came to be. It's a marvel of both masterful craftsmanship, and emotional truth, and if it's not everyone's banner carrier for 2010, there's simply no denying that it's mine.

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