Monthly Archives: December 2012
Welcome to part two of my 2011 reappraisal – this time looking at my re-evaluated favourite music releases. I did compile a list in December last year, but my opinions have shuffled around in the last twelve months. There’s a new entry in the form of St. Vincent, and the album headlining this list was previously kicking about down at the #7 mark. As per usual, please do get your opinions in, or even link me to your own lists from last year. Enjoy the list!
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2011
Note: After much soul-searching, for simplicity’s sake, I’ve decided to focus this list on clean-cut albums, rather than include soundtracks and EPs. However, I’d like to give special mention to the Submarine EP / OST by Alex Turner, and the Drive soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, both of which stand among the following ten as containing some of the classiest sounds of 2011.
The Black Keys
After the moody growl of 2010’s fantastic Brothers, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney deftly sidestepped rising expectations by rejecting the more lavish aspects of their arsenal and just having fun in the studio. It shows on El Camino: a brisk set of crazily simple but bruising balls-to-the-wall rockers which finally tipped them into the big league. It still hasn’t worn thin, either, with the likes of the itchy Lonely Boy and the outstanding Run Right Back standing among the strongest in their career.
Standout: Run Right Back
Space Is Only Noise
Nicolas Jaar’s debut album is more of a collage than an album, with few tracks to its name which could be recognised as standalone songs. The squelchy Space Is Only Noise If You Can See and the ominous Problem With The Sun might hit hardest at first, but Space Is Only Noise rewards patience, with its smaller moments uniting to form an unsettling and unique collection. Although it treads close to sounding a little too smart-aleck for its own good, it makes for a fascinating, enveloping listen.
Standout: I Got A
Once derided as gimmicky, now becoming national treasures, the members of The Horrors set their sights further than ever with their third album. Brimming with colour and madness, Skying utilises a multitude of strange ideas, but anchors itself with some catchy-as-hell pop hooks. I Can See Through You, Still Life and Moving Further Away proved that they could make envelope-pushing psychedelica palatable, and Faris Badwan’s vocals have become instantly recognisable.
Standout: You Said
Suck It And See
Hands down, my 2011 summer soundtrack album. The Monkeys threw another curveball with their fourth full-length release, counterbalancing the aggressive singles Brick By Brick and Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair with a plethora of sweet, lovesick pop songs. Pulling influences from The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen and Leonard Cohen, Alex Turner’s songwriting flowered as his bandmates honed in on a euphoric sound tinged with reverb and – yes! – swooning harmonies. Sing another “shalalalala” indeed.
Standout: Suck It And See
The most recent addition to this list, I’ve got to thank two people from the University of Warwick for encouraging me to check out the music of Annie Clark and St. Vincent. So, thank yous are in order for Ollie Guthrie and Paddy Lavin for prodding me to buy Strange Mercy, and for introducing me to a wildly wonderful world of sound where blissful, Disney-pretty compositions rub up against explosive fuzzballs of guitar. This is an album which manages to be as catchy-as-hell (Cruel), spookily spaced-out (Champagne Year) and incredibly powerful (the title track’s “… dirty policeman” refrain is profoundly affecting), all the while retaining its own unique voice.
Standout: Strange Mercy
The first of my triumvirate of folky gems of last year, Bon Iver’s self-titled second record was surprisingly different to For Emma, Forever Ago. Both records perfectly reflect their covers: the debut’s cabin-grown isolation expanding into a braver, more widescreen worldview, as evident on the stylistic shifts of Perth and Beth, Rest. But even amid these new flavours, Justin Vernon never forgot about the nucleus of his music, keeping his delicate acoustic fretwork and that angelic falsetto at the core of Bon Iver’s appeal.
A Creature I Don’t Know
I bloody love Laura Marling, and her third album turned out to embody everything which I cherish about her music. There was a slight conceptual bent veiled behind her storytelling this time around, and her literacy proved to be as powerful and evocative as ever, as she sang of Steinbeck on Salinas and the heavens on the rapturous Sophia. A Creature I Don’t Know also found her pushing the boat out a little more musically, with The Muse rambling into countrified territory and The Beast snarling from a wall of electric guitars. Riveting stuff.
There’s not much of a difference in terms of quality between Fleet Foxes’ eponymous first album and Helplessness Blues, but their second record feels slightly more focused, and easier to invest oneself in emotionally. From the chamber guitars of Montezuma onwards, Helplessness Blues echoes with a depth and warm resonance, with Robin Pecknold’s musings on life and its meaning capable of achieving a poetic transcendence damn near every time. It’s complimented with a musical sweetness, with Bedouin Dress lifted by a skipping fiddle melody and the title track churning into something both rousing and heartbreakingly honest.
Let England Shake
Last year’s “big” album, Let England Shake has deservedly topped a fair number of Album-of-the-Year lists. Deceptively simple in sound, but with plenty of layers to its tone, Polly Jean Harvey’s exploration of the devastation of war is grounded on her poise and commitment. The sentiments of these twelve songs are shaded in such a way that the album never once falls into the trap of sounding too solemn or sombre. Instead, it’s an affecting and quietly inventive piece of work from a top-quality musician, and a landmark album in Harvey’s impressive catalogue.
Standout: Written On The Forehead
Album Of The Year
The best and most forward-thinking bands are often applauded as such because they are masters of a certain way of making music: a particular approach which makes everything else – temporarily at least – sound as dull as dishwater by comparison. On the evidence of their three albums thus far, Wild Beasts have that formula mastered. Their work is consistently recognisable, unusual, exciting and beautiful, evolving with each album to explore their capabilities in different waters. Off the back of the florid, mysterious Two Dancers, Smother found the band reaching further by stripping back.
From the opening thrum of Lion’s Share to the dazzling catharsis of End Come Too Soon, Smother pulses with a striking dramatic undertow. Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming (surely two of the strongest and most distinctive vocalists currently working in the industry) plunge into the grim waters of sexual tension and lust, but their tales are delivered with a melancholy and warmth which never falls into parody. Musically, too, Smother manages to make simple indie-guitar components sound transcendent, with a taste for the theatrical balancing out the icy atmospheres. Smother is as all-encompassing as its title suggests, but it’s a trip well worth taking.
Standout: Loop The Loop
So, that was 2012! What a year it’s been: a truly fantastic time of my life filled with countless events to look back on fondly. We had fun, the London Olympic Games were inspiring and heartening, and best of all, the world wasn’t decimated.
But before getting around to my Best-of-2012 lists (coming soon), I’d like to take a leaf out of the Joker’s book and turn the clocks back a year. It’s not really something commonly done, but at the end of each year, I’d also like to reassess the previous year of film and music as well. The reasons are quite simple: as I’ve said before, I’m only human, and an immature, procrastination-fond human in my second year of university at that. As a result, I can’t catch every album or film which I’d like to by the end of each respective year of release. So, with an extra year to dwell on my favourites, catch up the gems which passed me by, and let thoughts settle further, I’m going to run down my top tens from 2011 in the worlds of music and film. I’d like to do this every year, if possible, and even though these amended lists still probably won’t turn out to be definitive, I think a year is about enough time to more-or-less confirm what I did / didn’t enjoy.
So, without further ado, let’s start with the films!
TOP TEN FILMS OF 2011
Note: I realise that several of these films are officially films of 2010, having been rolled out and premiered prior to the confines of this list. But I’ve judged these films in accordance with their British release dates: if I can’t see a film until 2011, it’ll count as a 2011 film (e.g.: Django Unchained is a 2012 film, but since it’s only out in the UK from January 18th 2013, it’s part of next year’s batch).
The King’s Speech (Dir: Tom Hooper)
Even though it did result in one of the most boring BAFTA ceremonies in recent memory, The King’s Speech still has the power to please with its legitimately heartwarming tale. Screenwriter David Seidler did an admirable job of looking past all the big issues to focus instead on the integral friendship between Colin Firth’s Duke of York and Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue, and the tone is kept light without ever shedding its credibility. Jolly good.
Kill List (Dir: Ben Wheatley)
Special thank you to Josh Glenn for putting me onto this one. And also, a curse upon Josh Glenn for giving me horrible hammer-based nightmares via this one. Kill List begins with a simple enough premise – two scarred hitmen assigned to a three-tiered job of assassinations – but gradually shape-shifts into something much more distressing. Chillingly off-kilter, the less you know the better before viewing Kill List: it packs in more than a few curveballs into its modest runtime.
Warrior (Dir: Gavin O’Connor)
Gavin O’Connor’s tale of two estranged brothers separately fighting for the top prize in an MMA tournament pulls huge levels of audience involvement. We want both brothers to win, for different reasons, and while the final battle arrives in quite an inevitable fashion, it’s such a heart-in-mouth, intimate journey that Warrior grips from start to finish. The dedication and prowess of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton are thoroughly admirable, but top marks go to Nick Nolte, whose performance as the father of the two brothers packs a gutsy emotional wallop.
Melancholia (Dir: Lars von Trier)
No other ending in film has left me reeling quite like Melancholia’s. I can remember the lights coming up in the student cinema and feeling completely emotionally drained. While it might be a little too indulgent at times, Melancholia’s final impact is – quite literally – astronomical, with a potency that has haunted me ever since the first viewing. And say what you like about Lars von Trier, but you can’t deny that the guy’s got some planet-sized cojones on him to deliver something this audacious.
Black Swan (Dir: Darren Aronofsky)
I’m still not sure if Aronofsky’s latest is a horror or not. It doesn’t seem so on the surface, but amid all of the theatricalities and tropes of tragedy, the end result is a disturbing, claustrophobic and terrifying treatise on madness and the nature of performativity. Surreal, stunningly crafted and brilliantly realised.
Blue Valentine (Dir: Derek Cianfrance)
With Grizzly Bear on the soundtrack and Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams towering as a couple examined in two timeframes, Derek Cianfrance’s twelve-year labour of love was certainly worth the wait. Achingly sad and sympathetic, it’s a remarkably human portrayal of love and frailty, with an effect which lingers long after the climax. The highs and lows of couple relationships have been explored many-a-time in cinema, but this particular film demonstrates that such a well-covered topic can still prove to be vital viewing with the right players on board.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir: Tomas Alfredson)
On first viewing, I was unsure about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or as me and my friend Jamie christened it, ‘Tinker Tailor Turkey Twizzler’. (I still find the latter a catchier label.) I definitely respected the film, and couldn’t argue that it was a very well-crafted, tense piece, but it didn’t entirely gel with me at the time. I didn’t love it.
To be completely honest, I don’t exactly love the film now, because it’s not really a film that lets itself be loved. It’s a film to be respected, and after viewing it a second time with a clearer head and removed from the shrouds of hype, I found myself totally convinced, and entirely gobsmacked at the level of authority this film commands. With such rich attention to detail, the world created is claustrophobic and all-encompassing, with the whole film perched on a knife-blade which isn’t pulled back until the climax.
It also deserves a mention for possibly the strongest ensemble cast in any film I’ve yet to see. Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, John Hurt… Watch out, Expendables!
Tyrannosaur (Dir: Paddy Considine)
The most recent addition to my top ten, I only saw Tyrannosaur a few days before typing up this very list: testament to its direct, raw power. For a few years now, I have held Paddy Considine in high regard as an actor, despite the fact that I probably couldn’t have named more than five of his films off the top of my head. However, after catching his feature-length directorial debut, he’s cemented a place in my own list of British heroes. Tyrannosaur is brutal, beautiful, and breath-taking: a simple story which is so well-constructed. The central cast are all magnificent, but I have to give special commendation to Olivia Colman, whose masterful turn as the damaged Hannah is heart-wrenchingly poignant. This is an incredibly powerful work of cinema, which shows that Considine (and Colman) wield much, much more talent than I originally anticipated.
The Artist (Dir: Michel Hazanavicius)
I don’t care if it probably did win most of those awards on the basis of the Academy being made up of misty-eyed nostalgia-junkies. The truth is that The Artist has two things in spades: charm and pizzazz, and it deploys them bloody well. It’s so effortlessly effervescent that it positively glows with gold-dust, even through that black-and-white filter. So much more than a love letter to silent cinema, The Artist is just an honest, refreshing and touching crowdpleaser.
Drive (Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn)
There are many reasons that I love Drive, among them the way it pulls off an exquisite marriage of a trashy concept and art-house sensibilities; its super-stylish visual palette; Ryan Gosling’s stoic, iconic performance; the bone-crunching, unpredictable violence; the awesome soundtrack, and so on. But the bottom line is that out of everything on this list, it’s the most striking of the bunch, and not just aesthetically. Shocking, influential and ridiculously cool, Drive just about has it all, including Albert Brooks stabbing someone in the eye with a fork. A worthy winner, methinks.
The burgeoning expectations (among critics and punters alike) regarding The Hobbit’s imminent release largely fell into two camps of thought. The first was that this would be an incredibly rich tale, and a triumphant return to a much-loved world. The second was more pessimistic: was Peter Jackson’s team pushing its luck by attempting to re-bottle lightning? And how could they possibly stretch a relatively short novel into a whole new trilogy of films?
For some reason, though, for most of 2012, I was kind of ambivalent about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I’m not a massive fan in the way that plenty of others are, but I do love the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. When it came to the adaptation of its precursor, though, for some reason I couldn’t get too worked up about it. All my cinema-related excitement was probably being directed towards The Dark Knight Rises and Looper instead, and while I embraced the notion of another big-screen fantasy epic, my expectations never really surpassed middling.
But after catching An Unexpected Journey a few days ago, I was pleasantly surprised by how good it’s turned out to be. I still wish I’d gotten around to reading the book beforehand, but it struck the right chords for me in terms of entertainment value, emotional potency, and technical craft. Jackson’s team have done very well indeed, treating Bilbo’s journey with just the right amount of levity and gravitas, and it serves as a solid (sort-of-)prequel to the mighty Rings trilogy.
Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo, silencing all doubters with a performance brimming with everyman charm, understated comic timing, and layers of nuance hitherto only hinted at in his other projects. Even among a busy cast, Freeman remains at the core of the story, with his journey handled generously by Jackson’s team. I’d even argue that Freeman’s take on Bilbo produces a much more authentic – and perhaps likable – protagonist than Elijah Wood’s Frodo. Ian McKellen slips back into Gandalf’s cloak with grace, still full of spark and warmth. Although there’s no Balrog-baiting on display here, when the wizard does get his hands dirty, it’s thrilling stuff. The third key player is Richard Armitage, who fills chief dwarf Thorin Oakenshield’s moody boots with depth behind that gravelly veneer.
And of course, there’s the small matter of Gollum’s return. (Or should that be introduction? Damn confusing film-makerses.) As obvious and inevitable as it may sound, the sequence starring Andy Serkis’ schizophrenic gnome is the undisputed highlight of the film. As beautifully mo-captured as ever, Serkis oozes menace, charisma, and a heart-wrenching poignancy as the deformed creature, ratcheting up the tension in a duel of riddles with our Hobbit hero. It only gets better in his final moments onscreen, wherein a crucial choice of character is examined, and it’s a moment which hits the emotional buttons surprisingly hard.
However, for all its moments of transcendence, it’s not quite as perfectly formed as the other entries in the Rings canon. As mentioned, it’s my own fault for not having read the novel first, but there is such heavy, relentless exposition during some of the talkier scenes that it’s hard work to keep track of every single element. I’m sure the many fans will find plenty to glean from, but newcomers may be lost in the flood of name-dropping and breadcrumbs. The first act is also slightly marred by a somewhat lethargic pace. Of course, it’s a relief that Jackson manages to establish a world so effectively, and the scenes in the Shire are all good and fun, but the film only begins to work its magic to the full upon the arrival of a cracking troll confrontation and an Orc encounter across New Zealand’s stunning plains. Even in the latter, though, the impact is slightly tarnished by some shaky CGI in a slightly too-frenetic chase sequence.
Happily, though, as soon as the action moves on from – the gorgeously realised – Rivendell, the film steps up a gear and really finds its oversized, hairy feet. From the second the band of dwarves are waylaid by a – literal – mountain battle, the film hits its stride, setting in motion a chain of events and set-pieces which keep the pacing and excitement riding high for the remainder of the runtime. The final hour or so of the film is pretty magnificent: from the breath-taking scale of the goblin caverns to the fiery, menacing climax, it’s completely absorbing (and the faces behind HISHE will lap up what transpires at the very end). You’ll leave the cinema buzzing, and excited for the next instalments to come.
Before signing off, though, it’s probably worth addressing the pair of elephants in the room. The first being the concerns that a three-hundred-page can’t competently be stretched to a trilogy of epics. But thankfully, with the exception of a few scenes here and there, An Unexpected Journey never feels as if it’s drawing itself out. On the contrary: it manages a fine balance, nicely and respectfully re-establishing a universe, while keeping intrigue and action as high priorities.
As for the second issue, that of the frame-rate, I know it’s been a bone of contention for some, but personally, I barely noticed the difference. It’s possible that it’s more perceptible in a 3D context, but for me, it was easy to settle into the world comfortably and obliviously, and I was left free to enjoy a film which is a strong starter for the new trilogy. It may be a little overwhelming at times in its levels of detail, but An Unexpected Journey is a true treat, and returning to Middle Earth once again is a pleasure.
Jackson and co. have pulled off a mean feat in creating a first chapter for the trilogy which feels breezy and unforced. Freeman capably keeps Bilbo at the heart of the story, and with spectacle and exhilaration delivered in spades, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is pure escapism, and thoroughly enjoyable fare.
I should lay my cards on the table right now and say that I’m probably the least qualified person to review a James Bond film. The reason? Prior to viewing Skyfall, the only 007 flick I had ever seen was Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale. (Yes, I am ashamed of that fact.) Add to that the matter that I’m uploading this review nearly two months after Skyfall’s UK release, and I probably look downright incompetent. But better late than never, as they say, and even though I might not be the best judge of Skyfall as an entry in the Bond canon, I’d like to hope that this leaves me in a relatively positive position to judge it as a film of its own merit.
In that respect, then, Skyfall is fantastic. Forget it being endorsed as a great Bond movie: Skyfall is a great movie, full-stop. It’s as exciting as anything else I’ve seen this year, boasting a terrific cast who all put in top-notch performances, and it’s all handled with a flair and poise seldom maintained this well in a blockbuster. Sam Mendes has brought his skillset to the table with assurance, and the result is a film which ticks just about every box for punters and die-hards alike. I can’t pretend that a lot of the references to the Bond mythology went straight over my head, but when they did arrive, nothing felt forced. To me, it all felt seamless and daisy-fresh (and I even got to revel in some of the coolest nods – hello, Aston Martin DB5! – by sitting next to the biggest Bond fan of them all, Mr Andrew Gaudion).
I’ll keep exposition brief, given that everyone reading this already knows the story. Following an attempt to retrieve a stolen hard-drive in Istanbul, Bond is presumed dead. The hard-drive itself contains explosive information regarding undercover MI6 agents stationed at all corners of the globe, which puts Judi Dench’s M in a sticky situation indeed. When Bond returns for duty, he’s not at his physical – or emotional – peak, yet he must fight his demons to take down Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), the cyberterrorist responsible for the theft of the hard-drive, who seems to have a personal score to settle with M herself.
The whole is executed with panache and tension, building towards a climax which is boldly, devastatingly personal. Bardem threatens to steal the show, portraying a villain so oily and unsettling that it almost feels as if they’re not just Bond’s thighs he’s caressing. His Silva is completely riveting: a nemesis both dangerous and directly honest, knowing just the right psychological buttons to push as he creeps under Bond’s skin. His introduction is a work of art: as he walks towards our tied-up protagonist, Silva spools a monologue terrifying in its simplicity, presented by a physically unarmed man wearing a pristine white suit. The only criticism one can make – and this is ridiculously nitpicky, to be fair – is that he could do with a smidgen more screen-time. Perhaps one final scene between the heart-racing climax of the second act and his appearance in the grand denouement wouldn’t have gone amiss.
But hey, there are enough supporting players to keep things engaging elsewhere. Ralph Fiennes brings gravitas to his role as the stone-faced Mallory, and Ben Whishaw is much more than a cutesy, iPad-age update of Q. Some of the film’s most enjoyable moments stem from seeing the newbie exchange pithy barbs with Craig, but all eyes are on the two figures at the centre of the story: Craig’s Bond and Dench’s M, with the latter given a hefty job to shoulder as the cracks in M’s steely figurehead begin to show. Yes, emotion runs high, and personal agendas and backstories are examined and hinted at, resulting in a remarkably affecting third act.
Visually, Skyfall is stunning, with Roger Deakins’ work not going unnoticed as the action moves from the vibrant lights of Shanghai to the sweeping moors of Scotland. The physical side of things also benefits from this keen visual grace, heightened in both spectacle and stakes. In the film’s terrific opening set-piece, which climaxes atop the Varda Viaduct, you can practically feel the rubble crashing down on all sides, bringing a nasty truth thudding home along with it: Bond is not invincible. Craig bears the tortured soul of a hired hand with striking nuance, betraying the inner turmoil of a man who has never been less than flinty. It’s a very human performance, which is perhaps what makes the film resonate so well, and it’s far from one-dimensional. Rather than getting too bogged down in all that “I’m-too-old-for-this-shit” shit, Craig is also allowed time to enjoy himself, and that he does, leavening Bond’s emotional baggage with just the right amount of wonderfully dry humour.
With Craig apparently having found his element with the character, and with the ingredients all balanced to deliver powerful blows on every front, Skyfall is mesmerising. It’s up there with the year’s biggest entertainers, it has incredibly strong characterisation, it’s technically marvellous… There’s frankly too much to discuss in one review.
But the bottom line is simple. This is one damn cool film. “This is the end”? Anything but, Adele…
As I’m sure you’re all aware by now, Skyfall is a prime example of how to make an actioner which doesn’t forget to balance its thrills with intelligence. With Sam Mendes weaving his magic and Craig on top form, Bond has hit fifty with style. Consider me a fan.