Favorite Songs of the Decade

December 31, 2009 at 4:35 am (Uncategorized)

I will finish my films list, I swear. But for now, a brief, musical digression. I’m limiting this to one song per artist or it would be 20 Josh Ritter songs and 10 from other people – however, projects from different bands count individually even if they share an artist, as do collaborations and solo tracks. Please excuse my rather limited taste and knowledge, and enjoy!

30. “People As Places As People” – Modest Mouse, from We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank

29. “Wait” – The Kills, from Keep on Your Mean Side

28. “Bad Romance” – Lady GaGa, from The Fame Monster

27. “Black Hearted Love” – Pj Harvey & John Parrish, from A Woman a Man Walked By

26. “Hard Times” – Patrick Wolf, from The Bachelor

25. “Four Winds” – Bright Eyes, from Cassadaga

24. “Red Blooms” – Calexico, from Carried to Dust

23. “The Raven” – Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, from Sunday at Devil Dirt

22. “The Rain” – The Swell Season, from Strict Joy

21. “M79” – Vampire Weekend, from Vampire Weekend

20. “Bad Things” – Jace Everett, from True Blood

19. “An End Has a Start” – Editors, from An End Has a Start

18. “Skinny Love” – Bon Iver, from For Emma, Forever Ago

17. “Hearing Damage” – Thom Yorke, from New Moon

16. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” – Bob Dylan, from Together Through Life

15. “Shame” – Pj Harvey, from Uh Huh Her

14. “Hero” – Regina Spektor, from (500) Days of Summer

13. “Cosmia” – Joanna Newsom, from Ys

12. “All We Ask” – Grizzly Bear, from Veckatimest

11. “Curs in the Weeds” – Horse Feathers, from House With No Home

10. “Anonanimal” – Andrew Bird, from Noble Beast

9. “Siren Song” – Bat For Lashes, from Two Suns

8. “All I Need” – Radiohead, from In Rainbows

7. “Finally” – The Frames, from Burn the Maps (sorry, no good vids on youtube)

6. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” – The Arcade Fire, from Funeral

5. “Midnight Man” – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, from Dig Lazarus Dig!!!

4. “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” – Iron & Wine, from The Shepherd’s Dog

3. “The Sheep Song” – The Dresden Dolls, from No, Virginia

2. “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down” – Interpol, from Turn on the Bright Lights

1. “Thin Blue Flame” – Josh Ritter, from The Animal Years

Please please please listen to the studio version here. It’s one of the most powerful songs ever written and while the live versions on youtube are great, nothing compares to the ending of the original.


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Best Films of the Decade: 29-25

December 17, 2009 at 9:27 pm (Uncategorized)

29. Coraline (Henry Selick)

Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick are both masters of child-nightmare fodder, so naturally, they make an inspired match. Adapting Gaiman’s terrifying novel (its illustrations haunt me, even in adulthood) with his gorgeous stop-motion animation, Selick brings to sparkling life his titular heroine’s struggle to be heard and appreciated. The loneliness of childhood, especially as a girl on the verge of defining herself as an independent person with a voice worthy of being heard, is turned into a lush, frightening fantasy when Coraline goes “through the looking glass.” It’s an old story, but given a fresh, creative spin by Gaiman’s twisted imagination, as well as his sensitive perception of his protagonist’s feelings. A dazzling visual achievement, often funny, and occasionally very scary, with a perfect voice cast and a heart to match its technical feats.

28. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)

Similarly tackling child psychology through the guise of fantasy is Spike Jonze in his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic. Max, like Coraline, is struggling with his home life, and desperate for love and recognition. His fantasy world is populated not by sinister witches, but by equally lost and lonely monsters, that crown him their king and expect him to make everything better in their broken social circle. They are just as childish as he, prone to tantrums and not above the joy of a good dirt clod fight. It’s an unexpected twist, as you’d expect them to teach Max some neat life lessons and send him on his way, but in seeing his own emotions reflected in them, Max is forced to learn and grow on his own. It’s a smart, sweetly emotional film, set against a beautifully realized fantasy world that feels as if it’s always existed, and we are just lucky to be visiting.

27. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Twyker)

I’ve written on this film extensively, but I still don’t feel like I really have a grasp on it – and I probably never will. It’s a complex, disturbing, wholly unique experience, and a near sensory overload at times. It follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man who has been gifted (or cursed) with a sense of smell so powerful it overshadows all other aspects of his life. His childhood is stunted by abuse and hard labor, and he is uneducated and adrift until taken in by an aging perfumer, which gives his obsession structure, and sets him a new goal – to capture the fragrance of beauty and purity, through the murder of pretty girls and extraction of their scent. It’s an insane premise, and played as deadly serious, but it works, if you let it. Whishaw’s performance totally sells the character, and the film is as thematically rich as it is visually sumptuous.

26. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky has had a brilliant decade. His first film on the list is an achingly romantic look at death and time, told in three closely related stories, separated by centuries. Tom’s obsessive love for Izzy, his wife, leads him to seek immortality, and her to spin a tale of a Conquistador searching for the Tree of Life, to bring power to his queen. These stories are entwined by the earnest performances of Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, and the stirring score by Clint Mansell, which is possibly my favorite of all-time. It’s unsubtle, and a bit too short, but a stunning work of art nonetheless, especially when taking into consideration that the space-travel effects were entirely practical, and when examining the intricacies of the storyline and its allusions to history and mythology. It may not be his best film, but it’s his most ambitious, and visually accomplished.

25. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)

I love this movie even more now that I’ve been to Bruges, which I can confirm is indeed, a fairytale city. But it’s great on its own as well. What’s fantastic about it is how adeptly McDonagh balances humor and sadness; it is both outrageously funny and deeply tragic. Laying low after a botched job, two hitmen retreat to Belgium to await further orders from their boss. The elder, Ken, is content to sightsee at all the city’s beautiful landmarks, but the younger, Ray, is tormented by his mistakes, a frustration that comes out in petulant sulking until he finally trusts Ken enough to show him the pain and regret he’s struggling with. The performances are uniformly excellent, but Colin Farrell as Ray and Brendan Gleeson as Ken put in the funniest and most sympathetic work of their careers.

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Best Films of the Decade: 34-30

December 17, 2009 at 7:22 pm (Uncategorized)

34. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir)

I’m a sucker for the “epic bromance” – tales of the friendship between powerful men, set against historical backdrops, treated with both elegant sensitivity and aggression in the sweeping action sequences. See HBO’s Rome, one of the finest achievements of the decade, as the best example of this. TheĀ  relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin is at the heart of this film, depicted through philosophical conversations and the shared performance of music, rather than the more traditional support in battle that you often see in Hollywood adventure films. Weir nicely captures the rhythm of life at sea, and the jarring, unexpected transitions between peaceful lulls and fierce battles. Because he gives his characters room to breathe in between spectacular set-pieces, the action is all the more thrilling.

33. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)

The relationships we form while traveling are, by their nature, fleeting and impermanent, and when we return home, can seem almost as if they existed in a dream, so removed are they from the routine that grounds the rest of our experiences. They can become profound in their brevity, especially because of the vulnerability we feel when outside of our comfort zone, that allows us to find comfort and companionship in strangers. Coppola’s tender film perfectly captures that relationship, between two entirely dissimilar people that are united by loneliness and the desire not to be overwhelmed by the neon Tokyo landscape.

32. The Fall (Tarsem)

One man’s redemption through the power of storytelling is at the heart of Tarsem’s dazzling fairytale, and though the strength of the central relationship is often obscured by the grandiose imagery, it succeeds as a touching portrait of hope and innocence. A young man, hospitalized and likely crippled, persuades a curious child to bring him pills to aid in his suicide, in exchange for stories to keep her mind off her own pain and boredom. His delirious and lovelorn state reflects in the stories he tells, which are often silly, nonsensical, and over-the-top, but to the girl, they are beautiful and enthralling. The visual language Tarsem employs is awe-inspiring, as he traveled to some of the world’s most incredible places for his doomed heroes to complete their quest.

31. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

I wrote a full review of this film on my blog here. If you can’t be bothered to read all that – basically, this film is awesome. A fantastic cast of characters, exchanging sharp, layered dialogue in a myriad of languages. It’s a playful, yet powerful, look at the way cinema and illusion influence and shape our lives, and the way we view history.

30. Gosford Park (Robert Altman)

Altman’s indictment of the self-absorbed British “manor class” of the 1930s is razor-sharp, but goes down smooth as brandy, thanks to the opulent art direction, lovely musical score, and the pitch perfect performances of the massive cast. His trademark camera moves swiftly through the rooms of the house, eavesdropping on the rich guests that have come to attend a dinner party and their bitter servants, who form complex relationships of their own. When someone is murdered, the mystery is secondary – what’s important are the emotions and suspicions that boil over after the death. The genre tropes of the period piece and thriller are completely discarded for something more intelligent and nuanced, aided by Altman’s unparalleled gift with dialogue.

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Best Films of the Decade: 39-35

December 14, 2009 at 6:30 pm (Uncategorized)

39. House of Flying Daggers (Yimou Zhang)

It’s over-the-top and gaudy, but despite that, this romantic fantasy will sweep you up into its spell if you let it. The fight choreography is graceful, accompanied by a brilliant score, but the action isn’t the main attraction. The chemistry between Takeshi Kaneshiro and Ziyi Zhang is mesmerizing, and I’ll be damned if they aren’t the prettiest onscreen couple of the decade. Shallow? Sure, but it’s spectacular.

38. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coens)

A hilarious retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in the American South during the Great Depression, chock-full of memorable characters and evocative imagery and music. It has cartoonish, propulsive energy that perfectly befits the episodic nature of the escaped convicts’ journey home, during which they encounter sirens, fortune tellers, and none other than Cyclops. The Coens’ offbeat, dark humor is out in full force, but they are such compelling filmmakers because of the sympathy they have for their eccentric characters, and this motley crew is one of their most lovingly rendered and expertly acted ensembles.

37. Revanche (Gotz Spielmann)

This quiet, sober tale of desperation, vengeance, and redemption sneaks up on you with its power. The characters are given ample time to breathe, their lives intersecting with tragedy that seems to spring naturally out of their situations and personalities. Despite the depth and range of emotion displayed, neither the film nor the performances are overbearing in their intensity. Instead, the restraint shown by Spielmann creates a picture that is profoundly affecting and beautifully realized.

36. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)

On the other hand, showing no restraint to great effect is Sam Raimi, whose return to horror is essentially an elaborate, cruel joke on the audience. It’s uncomfortably loud, often disgusting, and sometimes rather terrifying, but its strength often lies in its ability to make you laugh at how well the scares and gross-outs are working. The ending is problematic, because it’s both satisfying and thematically twisted, for if you interpret it as a morality play, it’s unnecessarily harsh to the point of ridiculousness. If you choose to see it as a random, shit-luck twist, it’s a hell of a good time to watch pretty blonde Christine be tormented by goat-horned demons and nasty old gypsies.

35. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

The superhero film reaches its pinnacle with The Dark Knight, a ferocious, almost unbearably tense and expertly constructed crime drama that just so happens to put its leads in make-up and masks. The mythos here is completely separate from the silly puns and sound effects of the 60s, and now focuses in on the psychology of criminals and vigilantes, and the reactions of the people they terrorize and protect, respectively. The large cast is uniformly impressive, but Heath Ledger’s Joker is a legendary villain, towering over everyone else onscreen with his scarred leer and staccato laugh. The Joker is a brilliantly written character – the human manifestation of chaos, completely unconcerned with morality – but the performance is what seals it as one for the ages.

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Best Films of the Decade: 44-40

December 6, 2009 at 8:49 pm (Uncategorized)

44. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright)

It’s rare that a film tries to fit into so many genres at once and succeeds at them all. Shaun of the Dead is, above all, a comedy, and it’s frequently hilarious, but it also works better as a romcom than 99% of actual romcoms that Hollywood has released in the last decade, and draws towards its bloody, take-no-prisoners climax, it’s pretty effective as a zombie movie too. The cast is game for all the nasty, hilarious surprises Wright throws at them, and the film truly works because their chemistry is so strong, that the finale actually tugs at the heartstrings a bit.

43. Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye)

This 3-hour documentary on America’s culture war over abortion is a seriously challenging watch, not because of its duration, but because of the frank and graphic way the subject matter is presented. It attempts to be unbiased, letting the main players involved speak for themselves, and never is it more powerful than in its most objective segment: the camera actually follows a young woman getting the procedure, and her reaction to the aftermath. Her pain speaks more eloquently for both sides than the angry white males attempting to legislate her decision could ever hope to.

42. Once (John Carney)

A powerfully simple look at the small moments that define us. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are beautifully natural, letting their music express their most painful and elated states, as they fall in love and then realize the impossibility of it. I can’t emphasize enough how good the music is, and it really makes the film. I also feel like revisiting this film will be difficult and cathartic, because it hits close to home – falling in love in Ireland, with someone you can never be with. Been there.

41. Adventureland (Greg Mottola)

Speaking of hitting close to home, this is definitely going to be my life when I graduate college with my lovely, useless English degree. I even live close to the amusement park where they filmed this, and I know people just like these characters. It’s no longer the 80s, but I listen to Lou Reed and The Cure as much as they do anyway. It’s so refreshing to see a film that treats young people as real human beings with an interest in forming genuine, meaningful relationships, and trying to figure out their place in the world. The rich, colorful photography and great music create a perfect snapshot of a time and place, as well as the state of mind of its charming protagonist. Not to mention, Kristen Stewart is absolutely fetching.

40. The Proposition (John Hillcoat)

Finding beauty and poetry in the brutal, barren Australian outback is no small feat, but Hillcoat uses arresting sunsets and Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ haunting score to paint a mystical splendor over his blood-soaked western. With intense performances from its weather-beaten cast (a dreamy, moon-faced Emily Watson excepted), this narrative of brotherly allegiance and violence as a means to control, civilize, and punish, moves forward as if in a nightmarish haze. It’s a unique piece of cinema, with a strange tone, and it doesn’t deal in any genre tropes. For that, it is perhaps a grower, requiring patience and multiple viewings, but it is well worth the effort.

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Best Films of the Decade: 50-45

December 5, 2009 at 9:02 pm (Uncategorized)

As the decade comes to a close, lists have popped up all over the media, attempting to round up the art that has defined this tumultuous decade. While the popular attitude often seems to be that film as an artform has fallen from grace in recent years, becoming over-commercialized and skewed towards the lowest common denominator in the age of the blockbuster, I have a somewhat different perception of the last ten years. While it’s surely been littered with thoughtless drivel, there are filmmakers constantly pushing the boundaries of the film, creating exciting, compelling, and brave pieces of cinema that advance the medium towards the pinnacle of what it can achieve. While new technologies can allow for lazy filmmaking that substitutes special effects for compelling drama, they also allow fantastical visions to be realized in fuller splendor than ever before. Both in the mainstream and far outside of it, creative minds have been churning out some of the most beautiful and involving cinema in ages.

Of course, I don’t pretend to be an authority on everything that’s been released this decade. My own viewing has basically slowed to a halt in recent months because I’ve been studying abroad, severely limiting what is available to me, as well as my time. I’ve missed out on some of the more beloved recent releases (especially Bright Star, which I suspect will jump into my top 10 once I finally see it), and I’m pretty far behind on modern foreign cinema. I plan to catch up with that once I get back home and start up with Netflix again, so I may post a revised version of the list in a few months. For now, though, I’m pretty happy with this list of favorites, and I have to say, it’s been a pretty fantastic decade, with 2007 being the standout year, producing many films that are sure to find their place among the all-time greats.

50. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)

The most recent film on this list, Anderson’s first foray into animation is a charming, imaginative little oddity that takes Roald Dahl’s classic tale and infuses it with existential angst and offbeat humor. Thanks to the great voicework of a cast of Anderson regulars and some inspired new additions, the animals are as well-characterized as any human characters in a film this year, and their problems both relatable and amusing. The stuffy animation looks like something you’d find in your grandmother’s closet, but the compositions are impeccable, and at times it looks surprisingly lovely. A touching and hilarious addition to this decade’s list of great animated films.

49. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes)

A sprawling, enigmatic, uneven, gorgeous, intellectual, ambitious look at the career of a man whose music covers all those adjectives as well. It’s occasionally a bit obtuse, and some of the segments are more revealing or creative than others, but overall, it’s such a triumph because it defies what is expected of films of its ilk, and aims much higher. The soundtrack, consisting of Dylan covers, is almost as good as the film, particularly Stephen Malkmus’ take on “Ballad of a Thin Man” – that segment of the film, with Cate Blanchett assuming the guise of Dylan, filtering his persona through Fellini, is one of the most dazzlingly creative scenes of the decade.

48. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Ki-Duk Kim)

A calming, meditative film with minimal dialogue that nonetheless carries a hefty emotional weight, and an undercurrent of violence and pain that makes it more than just pretty pictures. What pictures they are, though. The changing of the seasons around an isolated temple in the middle of a lake is some of the most unforgettable imagery of the decade. Kim captures the quiet peace of spring and the brutality of winter with a painterly eye, and his actors fill in the canvas with their expressive, subtle performances.

47. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

A singular vision of anguish in the aftermath of war. Folman uses realistic, yet highly stylized animation to examine his own memories of theĀ  1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel. Unable to recall any specifics of the atrocities he was involved in, he interviews his former comrades, and what he uncovers is devastating. Part documentary, part surreal fiction, this examination of the fallibility of memory and the lasting effects of violence uses its unique approach to heighten the nightmarish nature of war.

46. Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett)

The monster-horror subgenre has nearly been exhausted lately, with the influx of vampire films and TV, yet if you dig a bit deeper, there are still original entries to be found. The werewolf mythology is a lot less sexy, which would probably explain why it’s less popular, but here it’s given a jolt of sensual, violent energy from the charismatic performance of Katharine Isabelle. Ginger Snaps is a morbid, often disturbing study of female adolescence and sisterly love, wherein lycanthropy is as terrifying a prospect as menstruation and attraction. There’s something infinitely compelling about it, even when it’s disgusting or jarring, and at its core, the relationship between the sisters is quite beautiful, and tragic.

45. Shadow of the Vampire (E. Elias Merhige)

Speaking of vampires… Willem Dafoe is delightfully deranged as Max Shreck, the actor who played Nosferatu in the original silent film, and who, in this fictional account of that filming, was suspected to be a real bloodsucker by the cast and crew. It’s a somewhat silly premise, but the execution is sublime, and Dafoe’s otherworldly creepiness extreme enough to make it work. The visuals are excellent, and this makes such a fun companion piece to the silent, or the (in my opinion, superior) 1979 remake. Too bad Merhige seems to have disappeared from the film world since.

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