Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: The Year in Film

This list is necessarily incomplete. The two biggest lacunae in my 2012 viewing are Zero Dark Thirty, which is currently only playing NY and LA, and Django Unchained, which I couldn't get to on Christmas Day and had to sit out as we were pummeled with snow yesterday, but plenty of other films eluded my grasp, among them Crazy Horse, Elena, Dark Horse, Alamayer's Folly, Lawless, Wuthering Heights, Cloud Atlas, The Loneliest Planet, Wreck-It Ralph, Skyfall, Anna Karenina, Silver Linings Playbook, and Not Fade Away.

In assembling this list, slots one through eight filled themselves. I'm pretty confident in my choice for number nine as well, but the ten spot could have easily been filled by four or five different films. It's notable that in 2012, the year they stopped making 35mm film, of the top four films of the year two feature 16mm stock, in a sort of rebellion against the shift towards digital, and two are very much about the loss of meaning as we move from tangible objects to ones and zeros in both the arts (Holy Motors) and the financial sector (Cosmopolis).

1. Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
3. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
4. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
5. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
6. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky)
7. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
8. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
9. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
10. Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier)

Honorable Mention: The Deep Blue Sea, The Cabin in the Woods, A Simple Life, Looper, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Avengers, The Matthew McConaughey in a Cowboy Hat Trilogy (Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe), Goodbye First Love, The Day He Arrives, Lincoln, Girl Walk // All Day

Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012: The Year in Comics

I've done better at keeping up with comics on a monthly basis this year than I have in the past, but I read very few graphic novels, several of which would've likely made the list. Most notable is Chris Ware's Building Stories, with its unprecedented placement (as a comic book) on the New York Times' 10 Best Books of 2012 list, but it's probably worth mentioning I haven't read the new offerings from Alison Bechdel, Charles Burns, Guy DeLisle, Jason, Jeff Lemire, or Joe Sacco either.

10. Wonder Woman - Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang (DC)
Nearly the only of DC's original "New 52" titles that still remains vital 16 months in (I'm still reading Action Comics and Batwoman, but with considerably less enthusiasm). Azzarello's clever spin on Wonder Woman's origin, making her the daughter of Zeus and populating the book with the Greek pantheon, has provided endless directions for the book to go in, but it was perhaps inevitable that Jack Kirby's New Gods would begin to surface, providing yet another reason why this is the most underrated book at DC.

9. Rachel Rising - Terry Moore (Abstract Studios)
After the brilliant sci-fi of Echo, Terry Moore continues his tour of genre fiction by turning to horror with Rachel Rising. While not as immediately engaging as the former, Rachel Rising has maintained an intriguingly eerie atmosphere–aided by Moore's exquisite art–and now that it's beginning to reveal its secrets it can be seen as continuing Echo's exploration into the gaps between science and the supernatural. It also seems fitting that, with Moore as someone who has dedicated his career to creating the most intriguing female characters in comics, Lilith herself is the source of the horror.

8. Hawkeye - Matt Fraction w. David Aja, and Javier Pulido (Marvel)
When is the last time a comic possessed the amount of unbridled joy present in a single issue of Hawkeye, or "Hawkguy" as Fraction is fond of calling it? The kinetic exuberance of Aja's layouts is met panel for panel by Fraction's cheeky wit and irreverence, perhaps best exemplified in the absurd, 60's Batman TV show sound-effects ("KGLASSSSS!" was a highlight from issue 5). It's a back to basics approach that feels full of youthful energy and startlingly fresh.

7. Batman Incorporated - Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham (DC)
When Grant Morrison returned to Batman Incorporated this summer–hand-in-hand with Chris Burnham, his greatest collaborator since Frank Quitely–it injected a new vitality into the New 52. Morrison's initial turn on Batman Inc. sometimes verged on exhausting, but it turns out a break was all that was needed as he enters into the final chapter of his Batman epic continuing to deliver some of the best work of his career, pulling out all the stops with appearances by Matches Malone and the immortal Bat-Cow.

6. The Manhattan Projects - Jonathan Hickman & Ryan Bodenheim (Image)
Jonathan Hickman's alternate history take on The Manhattan Project, featuring a supernatural exploration squad led by FDR's consciousness preserved as artificial intelligence, seems like a very comic booky concept, and it is. Yet the uniqueness of Hickman's vision, down to the book's very design, brings a vivacity to the conceit that, along with Bodenheim's art, makes for one of the best reads in comics, and the first in a string of new Image titles that will dominate the rest of this list.

5. Spaceman - Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso (Vertigo)
Azzarello & Risso's follow-up to the highly acclaimed 100 Bullets seemed to beguile readers with its post-text message patois, and it reads better as a collection for this reason, removing the need to reacclimate oneself with it on a monthly basis. The devolved language is just one aspect of their vision of the future–a reality TV-obsessed, anti-intellectual world attempting to terraform Mars in the wake of an environmental disaster– that resembles our present reflected through a funhouse mirror.

4. Fatale - Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Image)
Since launching Criminal in 2006, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been the go-to team when it comes to delivering smart, morally-complex crime comics. Last year's "Last of the Innocents" arc saw the team hitting a new peak, but Fatale, their new Image ongoing, seems poised to surpass it. Its blend of Brubaker and Phillips' trademark noir with Lovecraftian horror is perfect for its layered exploration into the concept of the femme fatale.

3. Prophet - Brandon Graham w. Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonogianni (Image)
Did anyone expect a Rob Liefeld property to resurface as one of the best comics on the stands? King City's Brandon Graham, with help from artistic heavyweights such as Omega the Unknown's Farel Dalrymple, has crafted one of the most engaging sci-fi stories in recent memory, not just in comics but any medium. Recalling the comics of Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky, Prophet is bursting at the seams with great ideas and the kind of art you can lose afternoons exploring.

2. Fantastic Four/FF - Jonathan Hickman w. Nick Dragotta, Steve Epting, et. al. (Marvel)
Comics are frequently viewed as one of the lowest forms of culture, and the schlock that is routinely distributed by the Big Two every week is often to blame for that perception. However, every once in awhile a writer takes control of a longstanding property and proves its inherent worth as Jonathan Hickman has done with Fantastic Four, crafting an immense work that over 60 issues highlights the strength of family and the power of imagination, beautifully encapsulated in the final issue, FF #23, the best single issue of the year.

1. Saga - Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (Image)
The driving question behind Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples' Saga–i.e. what kind of world is this to bring a child into?–has been in painful evidence over the last week.  Vaughan's attitude, which seems to be one of boundless optimism in the face of seemingly inevitable failure, is refreshing. Inspired by his own experience of becoming a father in a world at apparent perpetual war, Saga creates a wonderfully realized universe and begins with the birth of a child, the book's narrator–a first for Vaughan, to parents on opposing sides of an endless civil war.

With Vaughan's absence from comics since 2010 following two hugely popular series, Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, Saga had impossibly high expectations to live up to. That it finds itself at the top of this list at the end of the year under these circumstances is doubly impressive. Yet I continue to open each new issue of  Saga anticipating an indescribable amount of enjoyment that is continually met with satisfaction. Much of this is owed to Fiona Staples, who seems to fit Vaughan better than any other artist he's worked with (not an unimpressive roster by any means). Let's hope she's able to stick around for the 100+ issues Vaughan has envisioned.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

2012: The Year in Music

(Photo by Will Deitz)

10. David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant (4AD)
The expectations inherent to a collaboration between Annie Clark and David Byrne, increased by the strength of the debut single "Who", are probably to blame for the mediocre notices Love This Giant received. My reaction was initially somewhat muted, the album is more difficult than "Who" would suggest, but repeated listens have proved rewarding. Their sounds meld in a unique way, and the instrumentation proves brass bands have as much claim to New York as they do New Orleans.

9. The Walkmen - Heaven (Fat Possum)
Heaven is the latest in a three album arc from The Walkmen, beginning with 2008's You & Me, that documents a mellowing out. Gone is the insolent rage that fueled songs like "The Rat" and "Little House of Savages," the void filled by a coy contentedness. The album opens with Hamilton Leithauser crooning over a slow, simplistic guitar line and, over the course of its run-time,  rarely strays from this measured minimalist mode. A different kind of catharsis but a surprisingly satisfying one.

8. Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE (Def Jam)
At first, I wasn't convinced by the claims that Frank Ocean's debut was a masterpiece, but the more time I spend with channel ORANGE the more I become convinced it represents an apex in modern R&B. Between the straightforward opener "Thinkin' Bout You," the insatiable funk of "Sweet Life," the epic "Pyramids," and the hymnal-influenced "Bad Religion" there's seemingly no aspect of the genre incapable of falling victim to his mastery. It's a major debut that could've placed much higher on the list, crowning Ocean king to Janelle Monae's queen.

7. Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself (Mom+Pop)
With 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Andrew Bird defined his aesthetic. His follow-ups, 2007's Armchair Apocrypha and 2009's Noble Beast, continued to zero in on a sound that has become quintessentialy his. It's still present here on songs like "Eyeoneye," but Break It Yourself is interested in branching out and discovering new ways to apply Bird's personality to song, be it via the calypso-influenced "Danse Carribe" or the Grateful Dead-inspired country of "Give it Away." The result is his best outing since Eggs.

6. Jack White - Blunderbuss (Third Man)
Jack White's uncharacteristically personal Blunderbuss is his most mature album to date. It is also possibly his best. Album of the Year nomination aside, it doesn't feel like it's been given the credit it deserves. Perhaps that's because it feels so effortless. White's songs flourish in the full band setting, his unmistakable voice and guitar tones cutting through the mix when not landing softly on a cushion of sultry Rhodes. Say what you will about The Black Keys, this is the purest expression of Rock and Roll to surface this year.

5. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
It took me about three months to acclimate myself to Bitte Orca, and that's again the case with Dirty Projectors' follow up Swing Lo Magellan, registering as a disappointment in comparison to 2009's masterpiece at the outset despite eventually revealing its depths. Perhaps it's because Dave Longstreth's songs, and the way he plays guitar in particular, are so beguiling original. Also of note are the heavenly three-part harmonies that serve to form chord voicings and supplant traditional instrumentation, e.g. the superb single "Gun Has No Trigger."

4. Beach House - Bloom (Sub Pop)
Four albums in, Beach House is being met with criticisms of possessing a singular sound, devoid of variation. There is some truth to this, but at the same time if you're making albums as lush and seductive as Bloom, what impetus is there to change? The hooks may not be as strong as the ones on 2010's Zebra, but the song structures are stronger. From the moment the arpeggios kick in over the drumbeat on "Myth" through Victoria Legrand's final utterance of "It's a strange paradise..." on "Irene," Bloom is pure recorded bliss.

3. of Montreal - Paralytic Stalks (Polyvinyl)
Kevin Barnes has been in something of a holding pattern since Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? 2008's Skeletal Lamping was a disorganized collection of fragments and snippets in desperate need of Adderall, and the Jon Brion produced False Priest was satisfying but slight. Paralytic Stalks builds on  the few viable seeds planted in thecontrollersphere and delievers his most wholly satisfying record in five years. It's a trip that travels through pop into the avant-garde, bottoming out with the cacophonous "Exorcismic Breeding Knife" before recovering its sanity, quite explicitly, in "Authentic Pyrrhic Remission."

2. Grizzly Bear - Shields (Warp)
Much like Beach House's Bloom in relation to Zebra, Shields may not bear the soaring orchestral hooks of Veckatimest (perhaps owing to the absence of Nico Muhly this time around) but where the latter often felt like soaring parts of songs–albeit great parts, it was my favorite album of 2009–joined together, Shields is a more cohesive effort, so consistent it's nearly impossible to select a song or two as a highlight, finding a middle ground between Veckatimest and Yellow House and rising above them both.

1. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic)
An aesthetic departure. While previous producers have favored juxtaposition; contrasting Fiona's revealing, occasionally ugly, lyrics with intricately beautiful musical accompaniments; Charlie Drayton reinforces the thematic content of the lyrics in the music itself, and the result is revelatory. Piano lines stripped down to their skeletal core get at the emotional truth in the chord progressions while the busy percussion echoes the pitter-patter of an anxious heart. The most compelling musical statement of 2012.

Note: An attempt at maintaining journalistic ethics forbade me from singling out The Building's The Swooshy Businessman as they are friends; were they not, their achingly sincere examination of the pleasures and pitfalls of nostalgia would certainly have placed on the list. It's one of the albums that defined 2012 sonically for me, and you should give it a spin at

Thursday, December 6, 2012

2012: The Year in Television

10. Doctor Who / Sherlock (BBC)
Steven Moffat's Sherlock, much like its source, is more concerned with blowing the audience's mind than creating emotional resonance, but it is no less exciting television for that. Meanwhile, what has been a slow start to his third season on Doctor Who nonetheless manages to put an exciting new spin on the Daleks, deliever a romp that lives up to its title in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship," and bid an emotional farewell to two of the Doctor's most memorable companions.

9. Veep (HBO)
Armando Iannucci brings his brand of political satire to US television, and, by providing Julia Louis-Dreyfus the role of her career (not to mention assembling a strong supporting cast), creates what is, laugh for laugh, the funniest comedy to grace television screens in 2012.

8. Community (NBC)
Season Three of Community got off to a shaky start, but the string of episodes that aired in 2012 are among the best the show has ever done, particularly "Introduction to Finality," a bold affirmation of the shows themes that serves as a suitable makeshift series finale in the wake of Dan Harmon's departure.

7. Luck (HBO)
Overshadowed by the unfortunate horse deaths that led to its cancellation, David Milch's deliberate drama presents an engrossing world of aged white men and their horses that serves as a poignant metaphor for an America that has given itself over to the unforgiving Gods of capitalism.

6. Girls (HBO)
Lena Dunham's new HBO comedy is the first to bear the unmistakable influence of Louis C.K.'s show-du-jour, but its frank and undeniably feminist perspective on female sexuality announces Dunham as a unique and welcome presence in the TV comedy landscape.

5. Breaking Bad (AMC)
The first half of Breaking Bad's Final Season has a few questionable scenes that keep it from reaching the heights of Seasons Two through Four (notably the dubstep-scored car commercial that opened the fourth episode), but it remains the tensest hour on television, featuring moments that rival any entry into the genre of psychological horror since The Shining.

4. Game of Thrones (HBO)
With the endings of perennial favorites like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Treme closing in, Game of Thrones stepped onto the stage it set in its first season and declared itself king of the up and coming dramas, as war breaks out in its increasingly engaging world of political machinations and moral complexities.

3. Treme (HBO)
David Simon's examination into the ways art, culture, and community can if not abate at least assuage the ills that result from collective trauma and institutional dysfunction continues to reward its audiences patience in its third season while expanding its exquisitely crafted vision of New Orleans.

2. Louie (FX)
Much has been made of Louie's unpredictability, but perhaps more notable is the rate at which its experiments succeed–particularly successful this year were the two-parter co-starring Parker Posey and the Late Show triple-header featuring a typically enigmatic performance from David Lynch. C.K.'s presence will be missed on television screens in 2013.

1. Mad Men (AMC)
The run of episodes in Mad Men's Fifth Season stretching from "Mystery Date" to "Dark Shadows"–each possessing the depth, scope, richness, and poignancy of feature films–could be the strongest in television history. "Christmas Waltz" provides a brief respite before plunging the audience into the depths of despair via "The Other Woman" and "Commissions and Fees." Following a seventeen month hiatus, Matt Weiner and company are still aeons ahead of their peers, finding new ways to improve on perfection with each successive season, crafting what may well be the greatest show of all time.

Monday, December 3, 2012

2012 Year-End Coverage

This post is intended as a catch-all for 2012 year-end coverage that will dominate proceedings here for the month of December. New posts will be appearing every Thursday.
Check back and enjoy.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Previously published in slightly different form in The Cube.

“Man is not an animal,” states Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. Freddie Quell, portrayed in a career-defining turn by Joaquin Phoenix, seems willed into existence to challenge that belief. A pugnacious vagabond with a predilection for toxic alcoholic concoctions, Quell is a ball of twitchy-nervousness and repressed feelings that externalize themselves in his contorted posture and persistent sneer.  Meanwhile, Hoffman brings Dodd to life with a distinctly Wellesian theatrical air. He is a man always aware of his audience, even when alone.  The performances—like the characters—are a study in contrasts; this dichotomy is expertly visualized midway through the film in an excruciatingly long take that uses a dividing wall as a makeshift split-screen, observing the opposing reactions the characters exhibit when presented with the same predicament.

The contrapuntal relationship between these men is at the film’s heart. Lancaster Dodd is the titular “Master,” the figurehead of a burgeoning religion or, if you are feeling less charitable, cult. Freddie quite literally stumbles into his wake and is quickly swept away. The magnetism that develops between them in Freddie’s first “processing” session is such that the viewer cannot help but submit to its attraction. Dodd sees in Freddie’s mania something of an acid test for his crackpot theories, and Freddie, a man who has lived his entire life held at an arm’s length by others, is mesmerized by the constant attention Dodd bestows upon him. The latest in a chain of surrogate father-son relationships that populate the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, it serves to both fuel and undermine the characters while inspiring concern in Dodd’s wife.

Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, was widely considered one of the best films of the previous decade, and the intervening five years—rife with production disputes, financiers backing out, etc.—have created a wave of anticipation for The Master. If it does not appear to reach the heights of its predecessor, it is likely because Anderson has forgone the spectacular set pieces of previous films in favor of a quieter style that is less cathartic. Intimate close-ups wrench every ounce of emotion from the actor’s faces, while patient wide shots relate the rare bursts of action. This strategy conveys the cast’s performances to the audience as transparently as possible without ceding directorial authority. Beautiful cinematography, seamless editing, and a disconcerting score, courtesy of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, make it all appear effortless.

Much has been made of the film’s roots in the history of Scientology, and while that is undoubtedly a factor, Anderson has greater aims. A film satirizing or condemning the contentious religion would have been much easier to conceive but resulted in a lesser artistic expression. Anderson’s masterstroke is humanizing Lancaster Dodd, seeing in him a long line of charlatans, showmen, and hucksters who have populated the American landscape and captivated its imagination. Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard is only the most imposing of these men who believe—or at least profess to believe—they possess the cure to the nation’s spiritual ills.

In this sense, The Master is a markedly modernist work, tracking Dodd’s tortured Superego as it attempts to tame the unruly postwar American Id as manifested in Freddie Quell. Amy Adams, as Dodd’s wife, attempts to play the role of the Ego, but never manages to do more than delay the growth of the malignant codependency developing between the two.  It is a metaphor for the film itself, the epic, self-assured filmmaking struggling to come to terms with the messiness of the personalities on display. In fact, the most common complaint likely to be leveled at the film is that, within this metaphor, it lacks an effectual Ego in the form of a recognizable narrative structure. Nonetheless, it is an example of an artist in complete command of his craft; just don’t go in expecting easy answers, The Master doesn’t have them.