Top Ten Movies of 2016 — Number One

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There is tremendous beauty and pain to be found in Moonlight. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (based on the Tarell Alvin McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), the film drops in at three points in the life of Chiron (played as a boy by Alex Hibbert, as a teen by Ashton Sanders, and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes). The film probes into the challenge of coming to terms with one’s identity while operating in a fraught society that brutally rejects the version of self that’s emerging. Growing up is difficult enough without the added strain of being bullied by, so it seems, existence itself. Within this story, Jenkins carves out small, lopsided totems of hope. That the moments of grace are often shadowed by tragedy doesn’t diminish their promise, only obscures it. Jenkins forms his film with empathy and visual poetry, avoiding the trap of wallowing in the hardship of the urban agonies by emphasizing the tenderness that runs through the tale, such as the unlikely mentorship provided by a local drug dealer (the extraordinary Mahershala Ali) and the offhand rescue provided by a phone call that carries echoes of the past. There is a resolute insistence on letting the characters be more than their easiest definition. Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) is prime example of this. In the first two segments of the film, the character is familiar from any number of similarly woeful tales: damaged and drug-addicted. In the closing third of the film, she emerges with a survivor’s complexity. Jenkins gives her the dignity of completeness, of being more than another gear in the storytelling machinery. Moonlight is powerful in the deep impressions of its individual moments, but it is the commitment to the whole — to the shadings that are all too easy to bypass — that makes it transcendent. And all that makes it the best film of 2016.

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Top Ten Movies of 2016 — Number Two

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I remember 1979, and I suspect that contributes mightily to my affection for 20th Century Women, written and directed by Mike Mills. I don’t mean to suggest that the film is some bland exercise in nudging nostalgia, resonating only because of echoes generated by its hollowed-out soul. This story of a young man (Jamie Fields) experiencing pivotal stretch of growing up while under the watchful eye of his mother (Annette Bening, plainly perfect) and feeling his personal shape change due the influence of a handful of other figures (including characters played by Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup) is built on the sturdiest of foundations. Mills is clearly mining his own history, but he’s doing so as a means of grinding toward a greater truth, one that bends towards the universal because it locks in on the piercingly specific. Not everyone had their psyches spun in a circle because they dropped the needle on a Talking Heads record, but plenty had cultural touchstones that helped them to feel like a more self-actualized person. And there’s a sizable subset that knows their loving friends and family sought to understand them by muscling through the same pop artifacts, hoping for epiphanies along the way. 20th Century Women is warm, funny, and suffused with understanding. It is, I think, primarily about memory of a time instead of settling for an earnest attempt at recreation. Mills doesn’t play loose and fast with the accumulated narrative dressing — the meticulous work of all the film’s collaborators would surely stand up to the most rigorous of fact-checkers — but he fully understands that feel is even more important than, say, getting the wardrobe right. To borrow a very seventies phrasing, the film’s aura is in alignment. The spiritual surety combines with Mill’s visual inventiveness and storytelling command to craft a film that demonstrates just how much insight can be drawn from honest recollection. 20th Century Women does even more, though. It makes that succession of insights into a work that is boldly, joyously entertaining.

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Baker, Black, Bloom and Stevens, Dieterle, Howard

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, 2016). This feather-light documentary is mostly valuable in its accidental ability to fulfill the the heartsick desire for affectionate remembrances of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds following their deaths in December, shockingly arriving with the crack dramatic timing of a veteran pair of performers. Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens occasional approach insightful examination of the scalding heat endured by those helplessly drawn to the spotlight, but their hearts don’t really seem invested in probing too far into darker corners. The film might have only a modest purpose, but it serves it well.

Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953). A survival saga with a nasty streak, Inferno was part of the 3D movie craze in the nineteen-fifties, though it doesn’t betray much visual contortion to exploit the technology, at least until it goes a little bonkers at the end. Instead, it’s mostly lean and cunning, telling the story of a tycoon (Robert Ryan) who’s left to die in the desert after breaking his leg, his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover (William Lundigan) hoping for an easy way to knock down on the sides of their problematic love triangle.  The wealthy man perseveres, though, cobbling together just enough makeshift tools to her him arduously crawl through his inhospitable surroundings. Given the copyright date of the film, the machinations in Francis Cockrell’s screenplay are surprisingly sound, and Roy Ward Baker directs with a useful restraint and patience. Bleached by sunlight rather than soaked in shadows, the film nonetheless successful adopts the toughened texture of the era’s stronger film noir outings.

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016). After a longer succession of fitfully successful cinematic tumbles over the years, Shane Black finally formulates the perfect project for his bloodied bubble gum sensibility. Just the choice of setting his twisty detective story in the sordidness of nineteen-seventies Los Angeles proves to be the missing masterstroke he’s always needed. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play a pair of scruffy gumshoes — at differing levels of officialness and respectability — who reluctantly team up to solve a mystery involving a dead porno actress (Murielle Telio) and a missing girl (Margaret Qualley). Black’s story is devilishly crafty and his direction presents the material with precisely calibrated comic verve. Crowe is an especially engaging presence in the film. He’s added girth in his middle age years, but it’s magically made him lighter and defter than ever before.

The Trial of Vivienne Ware (William K. Howard, 1932). A lurid and delightfully unhinged crime and courtroom drama, this pre-Code film operates with a briskness that suggests everyone involved is rushing so as not to miss an afternoon bus. The title character (Joan Bennett) is accused of killing her fiancé in a fit of jealous rage. The trial unfolds with the requisites twists and turns, but the drama is amped up to operatic absurdity (there are not one but two violent assaults on witnesses as they testify in open court). Adding to the pleasure is a sly commentary on the salacious pleasure the voyeuristic media takes in turning the whole spectacle into bang-bang entertainment.

6 Hours to Live (William Dieterle, 1932). This film has the kind of premise that classic Hollywood scribes could often spin into a feverish wonder. Warner Baxter plays a diplomat from the fictional country of Sylvaria. He’s attending a global trade summit where he’s expected to cast the sole dissenting vote, scuttling a wide-ranging pact. Then he’s murdered. Fortuitously, a slightly kooky scientist (George Marion) has just invented a device that can resurrect the recently deceased, though only for six hours. In that sliver of time, the revived diplomat seeks revenge and delivers the effective veto of the trade deal. It should be unpredictable fun, but the movie is solemn where it should careen, leaving it strangely inert.

 

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CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 79 – 77

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79. Joe Jackson, “Steppin’ Out”

Joe Jackson was a seasoned veteran by the time he released the 1982 album Night and Day. Although his debut, the splendid Look Sharp!, had hit record stores only three years earlier, Jackson was on his fifth studio album with Night and Day, and the learned cynicism that often showed up in his songs was confidently leveled against the section of the entertainment industry in which he was employed. “Rock ‘n’ roll is degenerating into a big circus, and videos and MTV are very much part of that,” he noted around that time. “People who are seriously interested in making music as an end in itself are going to have to split away and forge a different path.” Jackson offered these observations as a beneficiary of the big circus. For the lead single to Night and Day, the elegantly intoxicating “Steppin’ Out,” Jackson submitted himself to music video Steve Barron, one of the first individuals who was fairly considered an innovative auteur of the form. Arriving in the MTV mailroom when the cable network was still stretching its limbs after emerging from the eggshell, the video for “Steppin’ Out” received ample airplay, which surely helped the song become the biggest hit in Jackson’s career, reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

 

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78. J.Geils Band, “Freeze Frame”

“Freeze-Frame,” the title cut to the J. Geils Band’s 1981 breakthrough album, was written by lead singer Peter Wolf and keyboardist Seth Justman. “It was, I think, a riff that started on the B3 that Seth was messing with, and [we got to] this title ‘Freeze-Frame,'” Wolf explained. “And we ended up throwing out all these photographic terms and trying to embed them in the song. And it’s basically that freeze-frame moment of love at first sight …. when you’re freeze-framed on someone, that decisive moment.” The resulting track was Wolf’s choice for the first single from the album, but the label opted for “Centerfold” instead. It proved to be an astute choice. The song about discovering a youthful acquaintance all grown up and starkly exposed in the pages of a magazine was a major smash, topping the charts for six weeks. “Freeze-Frame” then had the daunting task of serving as the follow-up single. It couldn’t compare to its immediate predecessor, but it still outpaced every other single in the band’s career, making it into the Top 5 on the main Billboard chart. Once again, the music video surely helped. Directed by Paul Justman, Seth’s brother, the clip caught the band at a messy moment that Wolf acknowledged held a bit of catharsis. “By the time an album is finished, there’s less pressure on you and the video serves as a kind of release,” he said. “Hence, us throwing paint all over each other in the ‘Freeze-Frame’ video.”

 

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77. The Clash, “Police on My Back”

There’s an admirable bravado to the Clash’s decision to follow the resounding commercial success of their London Calling with a sprawling three-album set that careened through just about every stylistic twist they could conjure up. Released in late 1980. Sandinista! wasn’t the band’s first notion for a follow-up, however. “I remember at the beginning of 1980 we planned to have some fun with singles: a Clash singles bonanza, fire them off like rockets all through the year,” guitarist-vocalist Joe Strummer said. The band’s label, CBS Records, wasn’t so keen on that plan, leading to a temporary shutdown in communication between the musicians and their corporate overlords before the former went ahead a delivered a product that would be even tougher to market. When there was still some uncertainty over how the Clash would release their next set of recorded music, they went into New York City’s Power Station studio to lay down tracks. The original plan entailed taking a pass at a couple cover songs as a sort of warmup. They chose to try a cover of “Police on My Back,” originally recorded by Eddy Grant’s old band the Equals. Meant to be a lark, the Clash felt so good about the result that they immediately sought out more studio time, moving over to the famed Electric Lady. Eventually given a halfhearted push by the label as a promotional single from Sandinista!, “Police on My Back” become a hit for the Clash, especially on college radio, where its lyrics fed nicely into the band’s rebellious, outlaw image.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: Flashback Friday — 1992

 

This piece was written as part of a series I deployed on Fridays on my former online home, essentially the last unique writing I did there aside from some later flotsam and/or jetsam. I’ve been really itching to play the silver ball lately, so it sprung to mind today. If blogs existed in the early nineteen-nineties, the abundance of tedious pinball reviews I surely would have written could have toppled the sturdiest reader. 

1992: The Addams Family pinball is released

I’m part of the video arcade generation. Through my middle school and high school years, the destination of choice was whatever corner of a mall or bowling alley contained all the latest adventures of digitized frogs dodging traffic or armless yellow discs that insatiably devoured pellets and disoriented ghosts. Quarters were a precious commodity, and the kids who occasionally had an entire roll at their disposal were like royalty. Video game were so prevalent, they even inspired TV game shows. While I certainly had my favorites (including a few somewhat unlikely choices) I was far more a fan of the bulky machines usually shoved to the back of the arcade during this era. I was a pinball kid.

Happily, the rapid evolution of home gaming consoles helped pinball machines to mount something of a comeback during my college years. Almost every bar in town had at least one, and I had a crew of similarly enamored friends who were always happy to base our evening plans around which establishments had the best or newest offerings on that front. Newest was always an interesting quest, but there was wide agreement on the topic of best. A few months after the release of The Addams Family starring Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston, Midway produced a game inspired by the movie. Raiding pop culture for the theme of a machine was hardly a wild new idea, but the Addams Family game was uncommonly well-conceived. It’s no surprise that it became (and remains) the best-selling pinball machine ever.

It was part of the wave of pinball games that were growing more complicated, with certain tasks to complete in order to earn bonuses rather than just keeping the ball alive to bounce off bumpers for additional points. Despite everything going on, it was easy to learn the various ways to provoke multiballs or other little sessions that yielded massive boosts to the score. It was also easy to keep track of the progress in accumulating added progress towards the major goals. Playing the game was like driving a car: there was actually a remarkable amount to do and pay attention to you, but it all became second-nature after a little practice. It also integrated dialogue and other sounds from the film marvelously, led by Raul Julia shouting out encouragement (“Well played, Thing, you’re really on the ball!”). The layout of the playfield was perfectly balanced, with a multitude of options for how to play the ball, yet not so much that it was pointlessly cluttered or that any paths were needlessly impeded. It was all in the players flippers, and an integral part of the game was constantly adjusting strategy to take advantage of the possibilities.

We played the game a lot of places, but I remember it most vividly at a bar in downtown named Butter’s Brick Hause Tavern. It practically had a permanent residence there. It would occasionally cycle out, only to return after a few weeks when the replacement game proved disappointing in comparison. So it was always there, as dependable a part of collegiate comfort culture for me as Point beer or ludicrously inexpensive fast food hamburgers. In my world, it was always showtime.

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One for Friday: Dolly Mixture, “How Come You’re Such a Hit with the Boys, Jane?”

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As must happen from time to time, I have a “Jane” song to share.

To the best of my knowledge, I never played a song by Dolly Mixture during my college radio days, but I wish I would have. Their sound was precisely what I hoped to discover when I dug deeply into the most obscure records in the radio station’s music library, finding those old releases that perhaps hadn’t been touched in years but exhibited a wear-and-tear in the packaging that suggested they were once deeply loved. Had a Dolly Mixture album been in our stacks, how could it not have been one of those?

Supposed the three performers who formed Dolly Mixture in the late nineteen-seventies came together because of a shared affection for both the Undertones and the Shangri-Las. That unique tandem of influences lays out their sound better than I ever could. It’s a mix of forward-thinking propulsive sonics and sun-dappled nostalgia that hits one of my many musical sweet spots.

With its very title, their song “How Come You’re Such a Hit with the Boys, Jane?” hits another sweet spot. Probably because much of my formative exploration of music involved reading about music I was unable to sample — as opposed to now, when practically every new song can be reached with a click or two — I became a sucker for song titles that managed to tell a whole story all on their own. A simple scan of this particular Dolly Mixture track name provides an accurate signal of the barbed, sly creativity it contains. And yet there are still plentiful additional charms to be found by hitting play.

I only wish I’d also had the chance to drop the needle on it way back when.

Listen or download –> Dolly Mixture, “How Come You’re Such a Hit with the Boys, Jane?”

(Disclaimer: I’m not sure if any of the Dolly Mixture music is currently available for purchase in a physical format from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates the proprietor of the said shop as well as the original artist. This weekend would be a good time to find out. But it if you can. If not, buy something else. You deserve it. Though I mean no harm — fiscal or otherwise — in sharing this track, I know the rules, and I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Top Ten Movies of 2016 — Number Three

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I think Colin Farrell is exceptional across the entirety of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, but I have a clear favorite moment. In dire circumstances while roaming the woods outside of the compound where he’s been staying through much of the film, Farrell’s character, David, encounters a newly disgruntled acquaintance (John C. Reilly). Farrell meets the animosity with a desperate attempt to once again ingratiate himself to the person, delivering compliments and reassurances with a stilted calm. It’s a single scene, but it encompasses so much of what I adore about The Lobster: a genial off-filter quality and unhinged creativity that is still cemented in real, identifiable emotions. The fragility of human interaction is threaded all the way through Lanthimos’s film, and he plays out his scenarios with a cunningly bleak sense of humor. In addition to the lithely imaginative writing, Lanthimos constructs images (shot by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis) that find elegant beauty in the constructed society where absurdity and oppression move together with their fingers lovingly entangled. There’s enough tremendously distinctive about the basic mechanics of the narrative that Lanthimos could have easily gotten by on its zippy jolts. Instead, he knows that any film is better — is at its best — if every element is approached with loving insightfulness.

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February 2017
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