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Spectrum Culture http://spectrumculture.com Film, music, food, books: where art and trash collide! Fri, 19 Dec 2014 17:39:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0.1 Mr. Turner http://spectrumculture.com/film/mr-turner/ http://spectrumculture.com/film/mr-turner/#comments Fri, 19 Dec 2014 06:01:30 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39918 Timothy Spall’s J.M.W. Turner is a man of humble tastes, few words and many sounds, avoiding the general high-toned rigmarole of Victorian speech in favor of a litany of grunts, rumbles and pained expressions. This being a Mike Leigh film, the concept of communication remains paramount, and so the title character’s unconventional approach to language, [&hellip

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Rating: 3.75/5 ★★★¾☆ 

Timothy Spall’s J.M.W. Turner is a man of humble tastes, few words and many sounds, avoiding the general high-toned rigmarole of Victorian speech in favor of a litany of grunts, rumbles and pained expressions. This being a Mike Leigh film, the concept of communication remains paramount, and so the title character’s unconventional approach to language, tied up with his continuing refusal to put on airs or push up from his original social station, serves as an important indicator of his outsider status. Like many of Leigh’s characters, he’s articulate but not always obviously so, making himself known through gestures and signals. Exuding an effortless earthiness, the painter lives simply and with minimal distractions from his work, a case study in how aesthetic beauty can bloom without an obvious corollary in the creator’s own life.

The film establishes early on that this isn’t going to be a posh, grit-free period piece, setting out to show the rodent-like painter in all his skuzzy glory. Presumably sitting on healthy store of funds from sales of his popular paintings, Turner keeps things basic, living in a cramped house with his father and his housekeeper, dining on boiled pig’s heads, his only vice infrequent trips to the seashore to paint new nautical landscapes. Turner’s gregarious father William (Paul Jesson) manages to be charming and effusive in all the ways the painter isn’t, and fittingly acts as manager and sales agent for his son, facilitating dealings with the public while the gruff artist sits by reticently. He’s just as reserved in his personal affairs, refusing to claim paternity over his two supposed children, scorning the woman who bore them, satisfying himself via rough, hasty assignations with the housekeeper Ms. Danby (a perfectly buttoned-down Dorothy Atkinson), who’s suffering from a steadily worsening case of psoriasis.

Throughout all this, Turner’s motivations remain mysterious; Mr. Turner isn’t a psychological portrait intended to reveal a complicated man’s inner layers, but a triangular examination of an artist in relationship to his work and the times in which he lived. Those times are, in the late period of the painter’s life depicted here, gradually shifting away from the traditional world of academy salons, wealthy patrons and pretty, faithfully adapted landscapes, a change which Turner anticipates, lapsing into his own form of proto-Impressionist abstraction decades before it’s in fashion. As his genius swells, his lifestyle progressively goes to seed, except for the small romance he cultivates with two-time widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) on his seashore getaways, which he pursues under an assumed name. Played by Spall in a once in a lifetime role, Turner comes to life as a man of specific predilections and compulsions, an unrepentant workaholic who seeks beauty only in his work, and who feels no need to play games outside of it.

This doesn’t mean he’s not prone to vainness, and as his work grows more abstract Turner makes a display of his ability to spin splendor out of ugliness, at one point applying an ugly smudge to a rival artist’s painting before deftly restoring it. The public eventually loses interest, but the man keeps on pushing, painting his usual roster of ships and sunsets with ever grander strokes, delving into an indistinct haze in which his sole subject becomes varying permutations of light, hideousness and beauty bundled up ever more tightly together. In this regard, the film clearly sides with its subject, and its only real fault is the over-the-top depiction of flustered aesthetes, obsessed with pure prettiness and incapable of appreciating the heights of expression the painter is capable of reaching. Yet just as Turner brought something different to the form, Leigh downplays the usual strained grandeur of the biopic for a rough, honest portrayal, of a man determined to live simply and without concessions.

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Top 20 Albums of 2014 http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/top-20-albums-2014/ http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/top-20-albums-2014/#comments Fri, 19 Dec 2014 06:00:35 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39891 20. Lykke Li I Never Learn [LL Recordings/Atlantic] I Never Learn is Lykke Li’s Blood on the Tracks. That is to say, this is the album on which the Swedish songwriter has abandoned any pretenses and surrendered to pure, unvarnished pain through her music. While her previous two albums were riddled through with earworms like [&hellip

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albumslykke120. Lykke Li
I Never Learn
[LL Recordings/Atlantic]

I Never Learn is Lykke Li’s Blood on the Tracks. That is to say, this is the album on which the Swedish songwriter has abandoned any pretenses and surrendered to pure, unvarnished pain through her music. While her previous two albums were riddled through with earworms like “Dance Dance Dance,” I Never Learn is a harrowing journey through razor-edged acoustic guitars and ghostly synthesizers. Above all else, Li’s haunted, heavily accented vocals dominate the album, sounding brave and mortally wounded. Songs like the ethereal, otherworldly “Just Like a Dream” and the desolate title track anchor the album, but the true centerpiece is the magnificently spare “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone.” Over the simplicity of a guitar, Li pleads “Even though it hurts, even though it scars/ Love me when it storms, love me when I fall/ Every time it breaks, every time it’s torn,” with a yearning almost too painful to listen to. It is a master work for any artist, yet alone one still at the relative beginning of her career. - Nathan Kamal

Mac-DeMarco-Salad-Days19. Mac DeMarco
Salad Days
[Captured Tracks]

Mac DeMarco may be the newly anointed goof of rock, a lofty position held by Bob Dylan, Beck and Jonathan Richman throughout the years. There is just something about the young dude, whether it is the messy hair, public nudity or Limp Bizkit covers, that screams “slacker!” But that hasn’t stopped him from creating one of the best albums of the year. His third full length release, Salad Days continues DeMarco’s evolution into singer-songwriter mode and away from the glammy, snotty numbers on 2012’s Rock and Roll Nightclub. From the opening notes of the title track, he sounds like he’s performing in a watery haze; the guitar is strangely out of tune and strangely right. Salad Days consistently sounds both dejected yet chipper as it focuses on that venerable subject: how to get along better with girls. While DeMarco frequently seems narcotized and his melodies are just about ready to warble into nothing, that just adds to the weird charm of Salad Days. - Nathan Kamal

freddie-gibbs-madlib-pinata18. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Piñata
[Madlib Invazion]

Piñata was an landmark record in 2014, pairing legendary producer Madlib’s stitched-together beats with Freddie Gibbs’ smooth flow and heavy gangsta rhymes for one of the most exciting and surprisingly effective collaborations of the year. It ends up feeling like a spiritual successor to the sample-rich, hook-less vibes of the critically-lauded Madlib/MF Doom collab Madvillainy—ten years old this year—but Piñata is entirely its own package, with its own goals and methods. The hooks are there, for one, gracing the sugary soul numbers (“Harold’s”) and hard-edged gangsta tracks (“Shitsville”) alike, and Gibbs is remarkably adept at keeping up with the genre shifts and left-field flourishes that the veteran Madlib throws his way. Then, of course, there’s the staggeringly talented guest list, from Scarface and Raekwon to newer faces like Danny Brown, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt and Domo Genesis, who each elevate the material in their own unique ways. Still, there’s no mistaking that Gibbs and Madlib are the stars of this set. In bringing together one of the most singular producers of underground hip-hop with one of the modern voices of hardcore, street-savvy rhymes, Piñata invents a new kind of gangsta rap: elegant, experimental and dense with a variety of styles, as dark as they are strange, and as inventive as any album in 2014. - Colin Fitzgerald

cloudnothingshereand117. Cloud Nothings
Here and Nowhere Else
[Carpark]

Here and Nowhere Else takes its title from a lyric in “I’m Not Part of Me”: “It starts right now, there’s a way I was before / But I can’t recall how I was those days anymore / I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else.” The line has multiple resonances for a band four albums into its career, struggling to define its sound. In general, they are distancing themselves from their earlier LPs: anything from Attack on Memory smacking faintly of indulgence has been stripped from Nowhere Else. Lyrically, this results in a pleasant one-dimensionality; the songs are mostly bereft of the Big Ideas of punk rock, or at least any gestures towards such ideas. This ends up being a winning formula for leader Dylan Baldi, as the attempt to deepen lyrics often proves to be a stumbling block for writers in his position. With that said, even as he attempts to harshen Cloud Nothing’s sound, Baldi demonstrates a delightful inability to write un-catchy songs. Their latest is supposed to ditch some of the last album’s listenability, and this is achieved to an extent; the songs tend to take longer to like. But they are still drawn from the same well, and Nowhere Else, truthfully told, has more hooks than a tackle box. If “I’m Not Part of Me” is any evidence, though, Cloud Nothings would do well to continue in this direction. - Owen Duff

against-me16. Against Me!
Transgender Dysphoria Blues
[Total Treble/Xtra Mile]

Even without the highly-publicized experience of Against Me! vocalist Laura Jane Grace’s transition as a transgender woman, Transgender Dysphoria Blues would be a notable punk headrush on the strength of its simple hooks alone. It’s the combination of these exceptionally entertaining tracks with Grace’s lyrical perspective that makes Transgender Dysphoria Blues such a triumphant document. The self-destructive character at the center of these songs explores a gamut of universal emotions but defines an experience foreign to many listeners—rocketing between hope, aggression, shame, resentment and empowerment—all the while channeling Grace’s powerful insights through the welcoming bliss of punk energy. Grace sings, “There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me,” and the line feels like an invitation to feel the same. When she expertly addresses misogyny and rejection (“You’ve got no cunt in your strut/ You’ve got no hips to shake” but “You want them to see you like they see every other girl”), Grace balances sharp anger with tragic empathy. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is both a proud call to arms and a thrilling exercise in catharsis, recognizing the pain in transformation and broadcasting it to the public in as daring a way possible. - Michael Merline

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Dying of the Light http://spectrumculture.com/film/dying-light/ http://spectrumculture.com/film/dying-light/#comments Fri, 19 Dec 2014 06:00:04 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39887 The scrambled, publicly disavowed cut of Dying of the Light that contains writer/director Paul Schrader’s credit under protest is a baffling thing. It is a political thriller that only quickens its pulse to get to yet more exposition in order to reveal yet more pointless past events. It never uses its time for character detail [&hellip

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Rating: 1.5/5 ★½☆☆☆ 

The scrambled, publicly disavowed cut of Dying of the Light that contains writer/director Paul Schrader’s credit under protest is a baffling thing. It is a political thriller that only quickens its pulse to get to yet more exposition in order to reveal yet more pointless past events. It never uses its time for character detail or narrative revelation. Its points are made clumsily and simply even as they open up all sorts of contradictions that suggest confusion more than complexity. Toward the end, it abandons all manner of sense, visibly suffering from producer-enforced recuts that stress banal functionality more than expressiveness. (How is it that when studios attempt to make filmmakers clarify films it always results in a more disjointed film?)

Part of the film’s scattered nature owes to the mental state of its protagonist. Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage) is a CIA agent nearing unwitting retirement before he learns that he has frontotemporal dementia, an aggressive condition that will rapidly produce memory loss and mood swings. Just as he receives this news, Lake also finds out that Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim), the terrorist who tortured him 20 years previously, is still alive and hiding out in Kenya. In a race against his own mind, Lake cuts loose from the agency and tracks Banir, whose own physical illness ensures he cannot flee.

Cage’s unpredictable style is, ideally, well-suited to the task of a man unable to keep a lid on his emotions, and the film is at its best when the actor briefly diverts a conversation down a rabbit hole that only he saw: lingering on certain words, slipping between real and imagined dialogues, or simply punctuating a calm thought with a sudden explosion of temper. He even brings some bleak humor to the proceedings in some of these wayward rants, as when he responds to a waiter telling him he can’t smoke inside by checking the back of the establishment’s matchbook to confirm that he’s still in Romania, where “the whole country is a smoking section!” Also enjoyable is Anton Yelchin as Lake’s inexplicably loyal young colleague, a hero-struck agent who inquires about Lake’s whereabouts in the same tone that skittish kids use when asking where their parents are in a store.

Whatever warped chemistry the two might have shared in an off-kilter, classically Schrader work of self-loathing and destructive male id is quickly dissipated, however, by the dull mechanics of the script and an increasingly erratic structure of the film as it continues. Suspense never gets a chance to build, incessantly diverted by more exposition, and possible plotlines visibly struggle into existence before dying in utero. The middle third wastes so much time drifting between such scenes that even the arrival of a significant supporting character, one of Lake’s old friends (Irène Jacob), feels like nothing more than a cameo. This distended plotting, not at all aided by the reediting, saps the energy from Cage’s performance and wastes the sense of cosmic futility suggested by the premise. The film tries and fails to adequately sketch out a vision of madness whose roots could as easily come from poisoned convictions as from a disease, at least until the climactic confrontation between Lake and Banir.

It’s impossible to say whether Schrader’s intended cut would have resulted in a great or even a good movie. The dialogue likely would have still been clunky and often awkward, but the chromatic, nasty film that Schrader says he wanted might at least have filtered its gritty lines with some generic flair. As it stands, Dying of the Light resembles a rough sketch, while the unseen director’s version could very well have been a full portrait. That doesn’t make the film any easier to sit through, but it does make it easier to sympathize with everyone involved, save the producers.

What’s especially frustrating is that there are sparks of life scattered around the film. As a depiction of useless revenge on behalf of a man losing his sanity, this could have been the American response to Hong Kong master Johnnie To’s Vengeance, a movie with a similar premise that poetically foregrounds the existential absurdity of a man seeking to avenge a crime he increasingly cannot remember. But where that film lamented the notion of male rage as a perpetual motion device, Dying of the Light, whether by dint of lazy editing or as a fundamental aspect of the project, haphazardly endorses the tragedy of runaway rage as seen in the film, even closing out with a montage of graves at Arlington National Cemetery and other pregnant imagery of wounded American pride. Perhaps in Schrader’s true version, the film would have more directly suggested that such symbolic tragedies are the result of madmen like Lake rushing headlong into conflicts, instead of what happens when such men are not heeded.

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Best Films of 2014 http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/best-films-2014/ http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/best-films-2014/#comments Thu, 18 Dec 2014 06:00:54 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39872 Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer, A24) Jonathan Glazer makes movies that seamlessly combine emotional alienation with lustrous aesthetics. The director blends these potentially opposing approaches to narrative by putting them at odds with one another in films that constantly seem in danger of splitting in two. In Sexy Beast, he broke through the languor [&hellip

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filmsunder-the-skin1Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer, A24)

Jonathan Glazer makes movies that seamlessly combine emotional alienation with lustrous aesthetics. The director blends these potentially opposing approaches to narrative by putting them at odds with one another in films that constantly seem in danger of splitting in two. In Sexy Beast, he broke through the languor of a Florida retreat, replacing the indolent heat with a Mephistophelean villain and a steamy climax that brought themes of twisted, aggressive sexuality to the fore. In Birth, he used a storybook visual palette to tell a Gothic tale of emotional trauma and recurrence, with a protagonist whose shaky handle on reality was mirrored by a dreamy, mist-wreathed vision of modern Manhattan. Glazer’s latest film is his most successful fusion of form and content yet, telling the story of a cold alien visitor whose human harvest is disrupted when she’s tainted by infectious traces of human feeling. Transforming from a steely, predatory automaton into an individual wracked by the complex ambivalence of empathy, the film mirrors this process by slipping from a cold, almost monochromatic scheme to one defined by the stark landscape of the windy Scottish moors. Things get both looser and more disturbing as the alien’s emotional capacity expands, the film moving from a stylish-but-simplistic approach to one defined by chaos and disorder, the passage from pure aesthetics to the realm of intricate emotional storytelling conveyed with the director’s characteristic panache. - Jesse Cataldo

duneJodorowsky’s Dune (Dir: Frank Pavich, Sony Pictures Classics)

“I was raping Frank Herbert, raping! But with love.” It would be an appalling line from any other movie character. But what might pass for outrageous arrogance in another person is endearing from director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who retains a childlike innocence and fire that belies his white hair. Jodorowsky was the most charming character I met in any movie this year, and Frank Pavich’s documentary about a failed science fiction movie is a most resonant portrait of an unbreakable creative spirit. Even for someone like me who could not care less about Frank Herbert. This story about celebrity and uncompromising artistic vision seems like the most specific of niches, but its sympathetic, semi-tragic lead makes it easy to bring out the story’s universal themes of following your dreams and believing in yourself. Thanks in part to this film, Jodorowsky had a chance to make his first feature in 23 years, but The Dance of Reality may well have proved that Jodorowsky is a more compelling storyteller in front of the camera than behind it, his enthusiasm impossibly infectious even when his heart is breaking. But a line from that film gets at the heart of this one: “What you are looking for is already within you.” – Pat Padua

goodbye-to-language1Goodbye to Language (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, Kino Lorber)

2014 was a dismal year at the multiplex, ruled by sequels, franchise starters and glorified promotional tie-ins that treated movies like the related McDonald’s Happy Meal toy and not the other way around. Leave it to Jean-Luc Godard, the 84-year-old genius whose early cinematic lessons have largely been absorbed as neo-advertising style, to not just show young pups how it’s done, but how to continue to expand the medium of cinema. To say that Goodbye to Language is the greatest and most ambitious use of 3D ever made is to damn its technical achievement with faint praise. Rather, his conception of the format’s dialectical properties shows its capacity for aesthetic deception and philosophical and self-reflexive inquiry.

It is fitting that Godard would use 3D to lament the total failure of cinema to elicit “truth,” of the human condition, of political reality, of emotional intuition, of anything. The filmmaker’s didacticism is in full force—witness the battle of the sexes, scrambled historical references, numerous text recitations—but it is undercut by a self-critical, even self-deprecating humility. That frees the director up to assemble some of the most breathtaking shots of his career, such as contrast-fudged digital fauvism, iPhone shots of a dog frolicking in slush and, on two separate occasions, a whirlwind juxtaposition of two 3D cameras that can be described as nothing less than a total reinvention of the superimposition. Language may fail Godard, but images do not. - Jake Cole

the-immigrant1The Immigrant (Dir. James Gray, The Weinstein Company)

It’s quite fitting that today’s foremost practitioners of melodrama would set their latest film in a ‘20s milieu that was the heyday of melodrama both on stage and on screen. But The Immigrant is not an old-fashioned film. It is a film about class and about locating new values in a literally new world, and features an innocent woman (Marion Cottilard) forced to work as a dancer and prostitute for Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), Still, the movie subverts the classical villain/victim/hero triangle and undercuts the moments of accusation and recognition that structure the melodrama, beautifully symbolized by an early shot of Lady Liberty greeting visitors with her back turned. Gray’s direction is better than ever, with an acutely tuned idea of when to go in close, a sensibility apparent in a confession scene that ranks among the year’s best. It’s too easy to call The Immigrant mere nostalgia; there is nothing more timely or relevant than relocating current disillusionment to an era so many view as a time for opportunity, nor anything as artistically ambitious as doing so with a pastiche of that era’s art, and Gray does both in a way that could, perhaps, only be compared with Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Will Gray ever get the widespread recognition he deserves? – Forrest Cardamenis

listen-up1Listen Up Phillip (Dir. Alex Ross Perry, Tribeca Film)

This movie about contradictions is a contradiction, a celebration of literary structure and at the same time a fierce indictment of the selfish literary man. Its focus is on the world of men who pour their souls out into books (and nurture their jealous artistic rivalries), yet an extended digression genuinely empathizes with those who have to put up with a writer’s failings. With its lengthy use of astute narration, it lives in the world of words even as it uses beautiful cinematography (by Sean Price Williams) to capture the writer it finds there. Critics loved it; people willing to give up their lives to make sense out of art sympathized with and envied Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman, as perfect for this adult role as he was for Max Fischer as a kid), a pompous young novelist enjoying the cozy Manhattan/upstate New York existence of the successful writer, even as they understand why the movie excoriates him. He treats his equally talented photographer girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) like garbage and is sucked into the solipsistic social sphere of Great American Novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce, playing Philip Roth and much more). Writer/director Alex Ross Perry incisively asks: how far we will let ourselves fall into navel-gazing in order to use the experience to write something good? Here’s a movie that perfectly captures the toxic allure of alienating but genuine literary success. – Alex Peterson

manakamana1Manakamana (Dirs. Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez, Cinema Guild)

The most humane cinematic moment of 2014 may involve a wailing goat. Halfway through Manakamana, a series of uninterrupted 11-minute takes of cable car passengers riding to and from the titular Hindu temple, directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez train their camera not on humans but on livestock. As the trip reaches its bumpiest stretch, a goat cries out in frightened agony, presumably unaware that the open-air car it occupies provides some amount of safety. Although it could be the clearest expression of emotion in the film, it’s impossible to know what that goat is thinking. Some passengers withhold all outward expression, silently squirming in their seat, while others (like a band of metal-heads) take selfies and crack jokes. It’s hard to tell if these reactions are influenced by an awareness of the camera, but the goat’s inclusion makes a case that it doesn’t really matter. Whether Spray and Velez are capturing quietly reverent anticipation and reflection, camera-shy discomfort or some combination, all of these passengers express something that can’t hide from an 11 minute 16mm exposure. Like Leviathan, another product of the Harvard Ethnography Lab , Manakamana counters that film’s dizzying Go-Pro audacity with its own version of the Kuleshov effect, its meaning dependent on the interaction between shots more than on individual shots. The Harvard Ethnography Lab continues to encourage formal invention as a means to explore human observation. Even when that human observation involves a goat. – Andy Barksdale

boyhood1Boyhood (Dir: Richard Linklater, IFC Films)

If you thought the passage of time in the Before trilogy was fascinating, that is eclipsed by the 12-year progression in director Richard Linklater’s most poignant film to date. Ethan Hawke is again in the mix, this time as a restless father trying to reconnect with his kids, who live with their mom (Patricia Arquette). But as the title suggests, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is the star of this show, and for nearly three hours, we watch a boy grow up before our very eyes. From first-grader to college freshman, Mason’s family dynamic morphs along with his physical appearance. His mom marries twice, seemingly drawn to alcoholics, while his remarried dad goes straight-edge and trades in the hot rod for a family minivan. As with most children, Mason is along for the ride, salvaging personal growth from family turbulence. His interests evolve along with his hairstyle: he experiments, falls in love and experiences his first heartbreak. Linklater’s greatest triumph in Boyhood is mixing profound and mundane moments in the young boy’s life while avoiding punctuating the film with the usual milestones. Filmed for a few days each year, we literally watch Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) grow up, a powerful viewing experience that both actors have said was highly emotional to watch themselves. In a year that has featured two other acclaimed directors helming biblically epic belly flops, Boyhood showcase how there’s nothing more epic than the unyielding march of time. - Josh Goller

interstellar1Interstellar (Dir: Christopher Nolan, Paramount Pictures)

Hard science fiction is not a popular subgenre. When it comes to visions of space and time, we’d rather see exploding dogfights and laser swords. All the more credit should be given to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar for working in a dry genre to create an engrossing, human story. Centering his film around another career high for Matthew McConaughey, Nolan bridges the fields of physics and entertainment, telling a story that gives equal importance to human desires and alien worlds. Interstellar dares to do more than the average sci-fi movie: it asks the audience to think about the fate of humanity, to question the size of our entire species in the vast gulf between stars. Set in a world where humanity has suffered some terrible cataclysm and is fighting a losing war against a dying planet, Interstellar is both a terribly poignant and optimistic movie. For all of its concentration on real-life science and the conceptual side-effects of space travel, it never loses sight that there are real consequences for everyone involved. It doesn’t matter whether it is the fate of our species or the slow destruction of a family over decades of absence. One of the most visually awe-inspiring films in recent memory, it fills the screen with enormous tidal waves and walls of ice., accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s arresting, astonishing score. For all the film’s ideas and immutable laws, Nolan never loses sight of people.
- Nathan Kamal

snowpiercer1Snowpiercer (Dir: Joon-ho Bong, The Weinstein Company)

We almost didn’t get to see the complete cut of one of the year’s best films. In a well-publicized spat, the Weinsteins tried to convince South Korean director Joon-ho Bong to cut more than 20 minutes out of his film. Snowpiercer is punishing and does feel its length, but it is no longer than the bloated comic book films that swarm cinemas each year. It’s a good thing Bong prevailed, as cutting anything from this version of the film would have been a crime.

A topical and terrifying action film, Snowpiercer takes on climate change, socio-economic disparity and oppression. A measure to staunch global warming has frozen the planet, killing off all life. A small group of survivors rides aboard a train designed to withstand a catastrophe. Like a true social strata, the people who live at the front of train are few and possess all of the resources.

This concept of annihilation without the responsibility makes us numb. As I sat through Man of Steel last summer, I realized I had become so jaded by movie explosions that its wide scale damage simply bored me. Such programming makes it easier for us to shrug when a remote control missile takes a village in Iraq. It allows us to create a comfortable us vs. them mentality. The big Hollywood studios are too afraid to show us carnage in a popcorn movie. Snowpiercer should make all the major studios ashamed for the escapist crap they peddle every summer. –David Harris

citizenfourCitizenfour (Dir. Laura Poitras, Radius-TWC)

This audacious documentary captures a seismic moment in our nation’s history with intimacy, curiosity, sympathy and just enough moral outrage. The final film in director Laura Poitras’ trilogy about American life post-9/11, Citizenfour chronicles Edward Snowden’s historical leaking of highly classified government documents that prove the National Security Agency is spying on us. As in, right now. As in, as you read this, and probably while you read this. Just like Glenn Greenwald’s initial reporting and the subsequent stories that have emerged in the 18 months since the leak, the film’s sociopolitical value is irrefutable, but it’s also a splendid piece of filmmaking, a testament to Poitras’ storytelling prowess and ability to capture the true essence of a moment.

Citizenfour unfurls in three parts. In the first, the director reads aloud a series of cryptic and encrypted emails from a proclaimed whistleblower. These sequences have the intensely personal feel of a Chris Marker video essay. When the whistleblower is revealed to be Snowden, the film transitions to Wiseman-esque cinéma vérité as Poitras, Greenwald and journalist Ewan MacAskill spend a week with Snowden in a Chinese hotel room discussing the documents in question, turning the audience into the ultimate fly-on-the-wall. The final and arguably most ambitious section details both the leak’s fallout and the global network of sympathizers it took to protect Snowden and everyone else involved, turning the documentary into a film about itself and the lengths the director took to ensure it saw the light of day. The final scene in this sobering film, seemingly the weakest because of its staged nature and somewhat hackneyed cliffhanger structure, is actually the most optimistic: It’s up to us now. —Drew Hunt

grand-budapest-hotel1The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson, Fox Searchlight)

Melancholy is at the core of every Wes Anderson film, whether lurking behind his meticulous designs, or, as has been more frequently the case in his recent films, in plain view. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, Anderson’s eighth feature continues that tradition but centers its story on the legendary concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and the famous hotel he runs in the Alps in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. Coming off the success of Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson offers up a film chock full of grandeur and set in a colorful, pastel wonderland. But visual delights merely mask the torturous emotional and political state of characters on the brink of world war. New lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and Monsieur Gustave become inseparable partners in a frantic plot that sees the duo fight the hotel’s closure at the hands of the Gestapo, steal a priceless Renaissance painting that holds the key to a wealthy family’s fortune and rally against oppressors who would destroy Gustave’s old world of etiquette and civilized society. The film is a defense of aestheticism even in wartime. Elaborate escape plans centered around delectable sugary treats are hatched because, naturally, Gustave finds himself imprisoned. Anderson’s acerbic wit is around every turn, but Budapest‘s characters, unlike in his previous, often flippant films, face a tangible threat in the form of invading Germans. Stylized, pseudo-fantastical settings and characters abound, but for the first time Anderson explores emotionally weighty subject matter without diminishing his style. -Katherine Springer

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If You Don’t, I Will http://spectrumculture.com/film/dont-will/ http://spectrumculture.com/film/dont-will/#comments Thu, 18 Dec 2014 06:00:21 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39868 She went to the woods to live deliberately. Or, rather, it was an impromptu decision brought on by an overwhelming lack of direction in her life. But that is usually the point of such self-imposed solitude, to find some purpose or make peace with your life as it is. Pomme (Emmanuelle Devos)—whose very name grounds [&hellip

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Rating: 2/5 ★★☆☆☆ 

She went to the woods to live deliberately. Or, rather, it was an impromptu decision brought on by an overwhelming lack of direction in her life. But that is usually the point of such self-imposed solitude, to find some purpose or make peace with your life as it is. Pomme (Emmanuelle Devos)—whose very name grounds her in nature—slowly recovers from a benign tumor by spending one week in the forest in Sophie Fillières’ If You Don’t, I Will. She leaves behind her husband, Pierre (Mathieu Amalric), and son, Romain (Nelson Delapalme), to helplessly debate whether they should call a search and rescue team or give her space. Maybe she will return to continue her predictable, passionless life. Or maybe she will discover that the mountain goats are quite friendly.

Whether Pomme has suddenly decided that her life with Pierre is less than ideal or that the realization has been a long time coming is unclear, but their life together has become a series of petty arguments and constant miscommunication. Even on a night out attending an art opening, the couple can’t avoid unfounded jealousies and surprisingly harsh words. But at least their troubles seem to stem from mere frustration and not dwindling affection. It’s a classic case of a couple growing apart, and unfortunately Fillières’ presentation lacks any novelty.

Pomme is the natural object of audience sympathies since the sum of Pierre’s characterization is as the clichéd callous husband possibly dallying with the local news meteorologist. At least compared to the whitewashed Pierre, Pomme is a more fleshed-out character. And her main frustrations are threefold: a tumor, albeit benign and recently removed successfully; her newly independent son trying to break free from his mother; and Pierre. The only activities that the couple regularly engages in together are awkward home exercise sessions with their personal trainer and casual hiking trips. The latter always ends in bickering, mostly related to Pierre’s dislike of fellow hikers. As the film goes on, Pierre is not so completely obtuse, but his emotional frustration, as portrayed by Almaric, consists of wide-eyed staring like a deer in the headlights.

Sophie Fillières is no stranger to psychological comedies of miscommunication, and she does strike an intriguing balance between romantic comedy and drama throughout the piece. The comedy itself is mostly physical, since the quarrels between Pomme and Pierre are themselves pointedly authentic and harsh. Yet even when the film expands beyond the confines of their city life and explores Pomme’s independence in the wilderness, Fillières has a hard time instilling events with meaning. There is the potential for a more diverting exploration of the power of the outdoors as a clarifying and purifying environment, but those scenes of Pomme in the woods—like all the others—are presented sans artifice and come off virtually lifeless. There is no grandeur in Fillières frames. Pomme might just as easily have staged a sit-in at a laundromat instead of on a rock in the mountains for all the emphasis that is placed on the location.

And that may have been Fillières intention all along—to mimic in the structure and design of the film Pomme and Pierre’s disregard for anything and everything outside of their squabbles. Pomme’s alpine odyssey has nothing to do with the primal calm of nature and everything to do with avoiding her emotional commitments. That paints her weeklong camping trip like a tantrum but certainly encapsulates the nature of their relationship: one petty argument after another with no discernible resolution at the end.

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Top 25 Songs of 2014 http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/top-25-songs-2014/ http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/top-25-songs-2014/#comments Wed, 17 Dec 2014 06:00:34 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39827 25. Lykke Li – “Never Gonna Love Again” [Atlantic] The product of a catastrophic breakup, I Never Learn contains the saddest music Lykke Li has recorded to date, making it one of the most heartbreaking records of the year. Yet despite the specter of loss that casts black and lovely shadows over all of these [&hellip

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songsLykke_Li_-_I_Never_Learn25. Lykke Li – “Never Gonna Love Again” [Atlantic]

The product of a catastrophic breakup, I Never Learn contains the saddest music Lykke Li has recorded to date, making it one of the most heartbreaking records of the year. Yet despite the specter of loss that casts black and lovely shadows over all of these songs, I Never Learn is also a staggeringly beautiful document of that heartbreak. Li ramps up the theatrical melodrama on ballad “Never Gonna Love Again”—a trend that continues throughout the album—but her clichés sulk in a way that only magnifies the sincerity fueling her grand gestures. Despite her sentiments being intensely private, Li revels in that pain and turns in a performance as triumphant as it is wounded. Walls of reverb turn “Never Gonna Love Again” into a broad chamber that focuses that emotion, Li’s anguished anthem soaring above the swirl of snares and murky key figures. Love still hurts, and “Never Gonna Love Again” is about embracing the drama of it all and channeling it into spectacle. – Michael Merline

stay-gold24. First Aid Kit – “Stay Gold” [Columbia]

The lush pop harmonies are woven together with the pensive intricacy of a finger-picked acoustic guitar and both are cosseted by a warm string arrangement. It’s a sweet blend of classic American folk rock and ‘70s easy listening, recalling sun-dappled California bands and Karen Carpenter’s sweet vulnerability in equal measure. The Söderberg sisters may hail from Stockholm, but this song should qualify them for musical citizenship here.

The song takes its inspiration from a moody Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and the lyrics reflect his fatalism, but First Aid Kit still makes the case for hope and action in face of entropy. In general, pop music is either rooted in denial—denial of aging and mortality, denial that things fall apart—or it embraces nihilism. “Stay Gold” is refreshing for its philosophical perspective, acknowledging that our wishes can’t all come true, but that, “there is only forward, no other way.” More importantly, they’ve taken that bittersweet message and made a nuanced, beautiful song. – Jester Jay Goldman

Transgender_Dysphoria_Blues23. Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” [Red Distribution]

Laura Jane Grace had a habit of overwriting on the old Against Me! records as she tried to cram as many words and syllables into her songs as she could. However, for this—the first song off of the band’s first album since Grace came out as transgender—the thesaurus takes a backseat in favor of visceral, plainspoken honesty. Though Grace seems to be reminding herself of the insults and slurs that will sadly come her way, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is more anthemic than anything else. It’s Grace owning this new identity, taking every good and bad thing that comes with it because it is who she really is. Grace sounds reborn, both as a person and as a musician; it’s certainly the liveliest Against Me! have sounded since they opened an album with the searing protest screed “Miami.” This one may last longer in the minds of music fans, though; the conviction with which Grace tells her story makes for an experience that resonates. – Kevin Korber

a-little-gos22. Swans – “A Little God in My Hands” [Young God]

Since their 2010 reunion, Swans have been cranking their sonic meat grinder and churning out some of the most wickedly delicious oddities in music today. Vaunted for their incomparable live performances, Swans can be both sprawling and succinct on their records. While the highlight of 2012’s The Seer was the 34-minute title track, the standout of this year’s To Be Kind release clocks in at a relatively tidy seven minutes. That makes “A Little God in My Pocket” no less gargantuan in its impact. An ominous, loping beat shambles along, providing the backing for Michael Gira’s snarling vocal, which is multi-tracked to make a singular voice become legion. There’s mention of “A pink little lamb, on a granite slab” and a creeping black chasm, while Gira also cries out “Oh shit and blood/ Forever love!” to set the ink black tone. By the time a difficult to decipher chant emerges on top of everything else, the track is chilling in its disorienting bleakness, and another triumph for the grim post-punkers. – Josh Goller

Ought-More-Than-Any-Other-Day21. Ought – “Today, More Than Any Other Day” [Constellation]

I’m unsure why Tim Beeler has an obsession over the differences between 2% and whole milk, but who am I to question his methods when he makes a song this great? Beeler, along with the other mad gentlemen of Ought rip through “Today, More Than Any Other Day” like the exhilarating rollercoaster it is. The song sounds like prime Gang of Four, if those bastards had brightened up for half a second. The way the song builds is brilliant, with Beeler’s hushed voice slowly growing into a wild-eyed yell as his guitar picks up the tempo before crashing into the main section. Beeler’s sudden motivational speaker on speed vocals holds it all until Ben Stidworthy’s oddly hypnotic bass takes over the bridge. The groove moves wildly, and Beeler’s shouting is anthemic enough on the ending “TODAY TOGETHER TODAY TOGETHER” to rouse even the sleepiest of hearts. Even “I am prepared to make a decision between 2% and whole milk” sounds absolutely vital. – Nathan Stevens

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies http://spectrumculture.com/film/hobbit-battle-five-armies/ http://spectrumculture.com/film/hobbit-battle-five-armies/#comments Wed, 17 Dec 2014 06:00:28 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39823 When the world should have been excited about a new Star Wars trilogy, Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings movies came and pulled the plug on a galaxy far, far away. The Phantom Menace and its subsequent installations (coming at a clip of once every three years to boot) couldn’t recapture the magic [&hellip

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Rating: 3/5 ★★★☆☆ 

When the world should have been excited about a new Star Wars trilogy, Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings movies came and pulled the plug on a galaxy far, far away. The Phantom Menace and its subsequent installations (coming at a clip of once every three years to boot) couldn’t recapture the magic of the first series, and it didn’t help that Jackson’s fantasy films were superior in every way. Now, Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy staggers to its uninspired end and the only thing fantasy fans can talk about is the new Star Wars trailer. More people care about who the hell Poe Dameron is than what happens to Bilbo Baggins after his unexpected journey. That’s what happens when you stretch a short novel into three films.

Subtitled The Battle of the Five Armies, the third part is simply that: a very, very long battle that lacks in substance but makes up for it in thrills as dwarves, orcs, wizards, elves, humans and other creatures converge and try to capture the treasure left behind by Smaug (dearly departed before the credits roll in what is one of the best sequences in the trilogy). Jackson’s film may be a warning against greed, yet isn’t greed what pushed him and the studio to tell this story in three parts?

It’s the final moments of the fireworks display time, so we don’t get much character development here. What we do get are genuinely exciting action sequences, and Jackson gives each character their shining moment in the heat of battle from Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) to Saruman (Christopher Lee) to Legolas (Orlando Bloom, shoehorned into the story for no apparent reason). Jackson’s attention to detail is impressive, especially when a project of this scale could get by on crappy CGI. But Lake-Town and the Dale are both vibrantly drawn cities, and the fortress inside the Lonely Mountain is a forbidding place of darkness and peril.

As with other films, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is given very little to do but stand around and gawp while others fight around him. And there may not be worse character in the series than Thorin (a ham-fisted Richard Armitage), who is driven mad with greed by Smaug’s treasure. Unless the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is worse, been created by Jackson to give the film a female character and romantic tension. It doesn’t work.

We simply expect more from Jackson and the Hobbit films. There are no emotional high points here like the relationship between Frodo and Sam in the first set of films. Jackson tries to neatly bridge the two trilogies in the final moments of The Battle of the Five Armies, but it undercuts any sort of dramatic tension. With the Lord of the Rings films, Jackson made an age-old story come to life, fulfilling the dreams of Tolkien and fantasy fans alike. This time, he’s simply fulfilling an obligation, a magician returning to a world (much like George Lucas did with the newest Star Wars) with a bag of tricks that has reached its end.

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Maidan http://spectrumculture.com/film/maidan/ http://spectrumculture.com/film/maidan/#comments Tue, 16 Dec 2014 06:00:25 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39799 Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan opens with a scene of relative order. Ukrainian voters stream into a polling station, blue and yellow flags in hand or wrapped around shoulders, ready to cast their votes. This is the best things get for the embattled, anonymous Kievans profiled here, their brief moment of civic order progressively transforming into a [&hellip

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Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan opens with a scene of relative order. Ukrainian voters stream into a polling station, blue and yellow flags in hand or wrapped around shoulders, ready to cast their votes. This is the best things get for the embattled, anonymous Kievans profiled here, their brief moment of civic order progressively transforming into a nightmare of misused government force. After the country’s bid for EU membership is sabotaged by Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime, its citizens stand up, and the film spends the rest of its time detailing not just the rapid breakdown in order, but the transfer of control which occurs as state authority is replaced by a shaky new system of populist cooperation. Marshaled by unseen leaders shouting through megaphones, the protestors repeatedly resist police efforts to disperse them, and the film responds with long, stationary shots of the increasingly frenzied action, offering a sober lens on a period of great turmoil.

Named after Kiev’s main square and the movement it launched, the film centralizes most of its action in this single public space – a historical epicenter for resistance in the country – with the fight for its control symbolizing the larger struggle. Eschewing most qualities of the modern informational documentary, Loznitsa opts for abstraction, contrasting scenes of disorder against the static regularity of his camera, which always holds firm, never swiveling or shaking, capturing scenes of frenzied movement on crisp high-quality digital. There’s little focus on facts or background, aside from a few explanatory inter-titles set in a low-key typeface against a black background, which offer vague updates on the mounting unrest. Instead, Maidan opts for a more generalized depiction of civil disobedience in action, contrasting repeated shots of serene, singing crowds against the nighttime intrusions of the police, who grow increasingly frustrated in their inability to drive off the protestors, successively mounting up the level of aggression.

Through all this the consistent steadiness of the camera, the way Loznitsa purposefully avoids the handheld rhythms of so many documentaries, grants the film a restrained elegance which sets it apart. The footage captured is so vivid that there’s no need to exaggerate its effect, as the square transforms into a vision of hell, plumes of fires arcing through the night, a ring of flamed-out buses marking the perimeter of the action, flurries of protestor-thrown rocks met by flash bangs and smoke bombs. That focus breaks only once, when the camera operator is hit with the fumes from a nearby gas grenade and doubles over, choking, before rushing to safety and regaining his composure. He does so with a long shot refocused on a line of police, armed with truncheons and heavy riot shields, standing stock still at the edge of darkness. The anonymous menace of this legion of masked figures, which in recent times has become an international symbol for oppression, stands in contrast to the tired faces of a diverse, multihued group of protestors who hold firm despite the astonishing display of force applied against them.

The protestors are eventually victorious, driving the disgraced Yanukovych out of the country. But there’s a heavy toll, conveyed via a final memorial scene and the listing of casualties suffered. Yet for all its focus on individuals, Maidan isn’t about any one person, but the community itself, a document in the form of old Soviet Expressionism, cataloging the establishment of a new order as a spontaneous action of the collective. The film’s greatest asset may be its immediacy, its reportage of an event whose outcome still isn’t entirely clear. But it has a sound structural background as well, one that doesn’t try to sway as much as depict, convincing audiences of its position through patient, silent observation.

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Best Performances of 2014 http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/best-performances-2014/ http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/best-performances-2014/#comments Tue, 16 Dec 2014 06:00:06 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39803 Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes plays a first for Wes Anderson: a man who is good at what he does. As Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge of the titular hotel, Fiennes is energetic, cheerful, profane, poetic and, above all else, efficient. He is an anomaly in [&hellip

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perfthe-grand-budapest-hotel-ralph-fiennesRalph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes plays a first for Wes Anderson: a man who is good at what he does. As Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge of the titular hotel, Fiennes is energetic, cheerful, profane, poetic and, above all else, efficient. He is an anomaly in Anderson’s universe of screw-ups and has-beens, a man defined by his devotion to his job and all the culture that it represents. Of course, in lesser hands, the role could have been something of a cipher, a glowing symbol of a finer past that no longer exists. But with Fiennes, Gustave is fully human, a man who delights in reciting poetry to his staff over their meals and does not apologize for his penchant for the sexual favors of elderly widows. The actor plays him as someone with a deep satisfaction and pride in his job, not only as the thing that defines him but as the thing that he feels should define everyone around him. Fiennes give Gustave the perpetual air of dignity that you might expect from the star of prestige pictures like The English Patient and Schindler’s List, but there’s a physicality and sheer panache to the concierge that deflates any Merchant-Ivory pretensions. Well, that and his sheer love of the word “fuck.” - Nathan Kamal

barkhammarMira Barkhammar in We are the Best!

This was a good year for women in movies. Elisabeth Moss made the transition from TV to film with two brilliant roles, one where she was the only good thing in a shit movie (The One I Love) and another where she was great among equals (Listen Up Philip), and Patricia Arquette, in Boyhood, delivered the most believable portrait of a single mom in recent memory. This was also a good year for child actors. The kid who played Arquette’s son, Ellar Coltrane, managed to hold together a convincing performance over the course of a 12 year movie shoot. There’s some perfect synergy, then, in the fact that the single best performance of 2014 should have come from a female child. In Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best! two thirteen year old girls, Bobo and Klara, are living in 1982 Stockholm and feeling out of place. Not precisely mature enough to be on the search for identity, the two are instead on an aimless search for fun when they come to the realization that punk music is the best outlet for their outsider creativity. Mira Barkhammar, as Bobo, isn’t as pretty as her best friend Klara (Mira Grosin), and there’s some unspoken rivalry at work in the way Klara forces Bobo into the background job of their band’s drummer. Although Moodysson masterfully avoids judgment – the film functions best as a hilarious short story about everyday childhood – Barkhammar emerges as the emotional core of the film. She is a remarkably gifted child actress; her openness in portraying a young girl’s confusing mix of hopefulness and self-doubt stands out even in a year filled with great and far more established actresses. – Alex Peterson

haderBill Hader in The Skeleton Twins

During his guest appearance on IFC’s parody talk show “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” Bill Hader claimed that he wasn’t really a movie star, he simply appeared in movies with movie stars. That could be changing after his tremendous leap forward in The Skeleton Twins. Hader plays Milo, a gay man whose attempted suicide reunites him with his equally self-destructive sister, Maggie (Kristen Wiig). As children the two were inseparable, but the suicide of their father shattered their young lives, sending them both down gloomy paths. But when Maggie coaxes the failed actor Milo to move back home from L.A., the two rekindle the heartwarming silliness they once had, even if they know their levity is only good for keeping the darkness temporarily at bay.

Hader’s most iconic “SNL” role was Stefon, “Weekend Update”’s flamboyant night life guide. It would’ve been easy (though a huge mistake) to channel a bit of that character here, but Hader never resorts to caricature with Milo. Instead, as Milo reconnects with the male teacher who statutorily raped him years earlier, Hader captures the essence of human longing, the desire to be loved even if it’s only by selfish, manipulative people. His playful interactions with Wiig are effortless due to their years together on “SNL,” but that doesn’t make the volatility of their highs and lows any less powerful. While Wiig has played disenchanted characters before, this is Hader’s first foray into dramatic acting and it’s one that stays with you long after the credits roll. He achieves the perfect blend of zany and wistful while cheering up Maggie with a show-stopping lip synch of Starship’s cheesy “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”. Hader’s performance embodies how, even in dark days, there’s always room for a little laughter. – Josh Goller

coltraneEllar Coltrane in Boyhood

Richard Linklater could only carry his marvelous conceit – filming Boyhood with the same actors over the span of 12 years – so far because the people on the other side of the camera could live up to the challenge. Thankfully his cast, featuring mainstays Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, turned in strong, lived-in performances. But Linklater took a gamble on his young star, Ellar Coltrane, an unknown who at seven-years-old was tasked with the dozen year assignment of embodying the film’s main character, Mason.

The gamble paid off. Coltrane quietly inhabits Mason through his childhood years up until he is on the cusp of manhood. Coltrane could have simply walked through his scenes and allowed sheer aging to do the rest for him, but his performance does much more than that. Working only with a once-a-year shooting schedule (which usually went for just four days), Coltrane makes his character both a marvel and a typical boy. He is extraordinary, yet ordinary, and simply watching as Mason navigates the perils and thrills of his childhood and teenage years is exhilarating. We’ve all been there, feeling and losing the childhood magic. Coltrane, as Mason, gives it back to us.

Linklater’s best films have always straddled the line between art and reality. Boyhood may be his grandest experiment of all, one that works miraculously, mainly due to an ingredient called Ellar Coltrane. – David Harris

Jake-GyllenhaalJake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal is all bug eyes and bony elbows as Louis Bloom, Nightcrawler’s titular antihero, a parasitic corporate climber and amateur videographer who stalks LA crime scenes for the best and bloodiest footage, which he then sells to local news for a hefty profit. Bloom’s sallow skin and jilted mannerisms suggest he’s something of a feral creature, but Gyllenhaal’s performance is rooted in the character’s deeply human pathologies. Ambitious to the point of being parasitic, Bloom is a walking, talking Power Point presentation, spouting the sort of platitudes and rhetoric one might hear at a business venture seminar. But his words have a way of burrowing into your skull, and his gaze, constantly fixated and always calculating, pierces you, sizing you up. We see the effect this has on the other characters—his boss (Rene Russo) and his partner (Riz Ahmed) are some of the poor souls caught in his web—but as the audience, we’re implicated in a different, far more subversive way. In a late-capitalist culture that rewards ambition and celebrates success of seemingly any sort, Louis Bloom is either the best of us or the worst. Gyllenhaal’s performance is masterful because he doesn’t bother deciding for himself, nor does he have to; as Bloom, he’s completely in the moment, and of the moment. - Drew Hunt

neeson1Liam Neeson in Non-Stop

Contrary to his firmly cemented positions as, a) ubiquitous badass and, b) the object of affection for Key & Peele’s valets, Liam Neeson remains the unlikeliest of mainstream action stars. He lacks the otherworldly, killing-machine physique of his predecessors, instead relying on an earthy approachability that can hide his destructiveness – something his now-regular collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra quite effectively mines in Non-Stop. Neeson’s alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks expresses a seasoned skepticism that searches for every possible solution instead of overreaction and violence, underlined by hints of his lingering inebriation. “Alcoholic law enforcer” is practically its own sub-genre of Neeson Action Heroes (see: A Walk Among the Tombstones), but his performance here suggests that the reluctance to take action is based as much in hiding his intoxication as it is in keeping order. Neeson plays Marks at his angriest not when threats are made, but when his alcoholism is brought up. Try as he might, he can’t entirely avoid beat-downs, but Collet-Serra and Neeson treat the dispatching of opponents with melancholy, not celebration. Marks’ first fight, in the close confines of an airplane bathroom, ends with Neeson sitting in extended silence, coming to grips with the corpse he’s just created. As Non-Stop ventures into implausibility, the leading man’s fight to keep himself and the situation under control takes precedence over fighting bad guys. Neeson’s screen presence has become boiled down to a meme, that of a man with “a particular set of skills,” but in Non-Stop he’s just a man, struggling to hide his warts. Neeson’s most compelling quality as an action hero is his reluctance to be one, and this year, it was used to its fullest effect. – Andy Barksdale

listen-up-philip-elisabeth-mossElisabeth Moss in Listen Up Philip

It’s not immediately apparent from the fey NYC writer’s world setting, or the petulant, affected characters presented within it, but Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip is a film about masculinity. The authors it depicts – principal among them Jason Schwartzman’s Philip Lewis Friedman – imagine themselves as gallant, quasi-mythical figures, even as their fearfulness, self-loathing and repellent behavior consistently undercut their macho self-regard. This air of testosterone, and all its attendant power plays, foolish gestures and conniving subterfuge, creates a stifling atmosphere of impotent striving and neurotic delusion, mirrored by Ross Perry’s close-up camerawork. The necessary break comes about halfway through the film, in a series of scenes centered on Philip’s estranged girlfriend Ashley. Played with reserved elegance by Elisabeth Moss, Ashley is a person who exists outside the world the rest of the characters inhabit, and the focus placed upon her in this section elevates the film from a catalog of masculine bad behavior to a fully conceived story on the dangers of ego. Moss makes the most of this focus, delivering a performance that delivers varying levels of rage, disgust, joy and sadness, stimulated by Philip’s impulsive entrances and exits from her otherwise ordered life. She’s the film’s voice of reason, the balanced straight man who brings it all into focus, and turns what could have been an overly didactic character, who might have been used only for counterpoint, into the story’s secondary axis. – Jesse Cataldo

immigrantJoaquin Phoenix in The Immigrant

When Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno first enters The Immigrant there is something slightly off about his character. His apparent generosity—bribing a guard to let Ewa (Marion Cotillard) into the country despite prior plans to deport her—combined with his heavily annunciated manner of speaking doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s the period aspects of this 1920s-set drama creeping in, but it seems unlikely that this innocent victim’s hero would have arrived so early. Indeed, he hasn’t. James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix working together is nothing new, but where Phoenix’s tendency to mumble incomprehensibly was at its worst in Gray’s We Own The Night, he was beyond competent for Two Lovers (also Gray) and, here in The Immigrant, gives one of his (and the year’s) best performances. Gray is consciously playing with expectations and tropes of melodrama throughout the film, and the apparent excess of Phoenix’s introduction is just one part of that, an immediate misrecognition of moral virtues that sets the pattern on which the film relies. Phoenix settles into the role more naturalistically, his demeanor always seeming to give off the impression that he could be a better person than he is being, although Phoenix also allows the hint that his character is merely that good of an actor. Cotillard is equally good in the film, but watching Bruno regularly try to find the angle on everything around him is a pleasure; the strain and the overt physicality of Phoenix almost begs us to concentrate on him. To even begin to describe the ending would be to ruin an incredible scene for those who still have the film on their Netflix Instant queue (ahem), so let’s simply reiterate that this is one of Phoenix’s best performances. – Forrest Cardamenis

tracksMia Wasikowska in Tracks

A far cry from her breakout in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Mia Wasikowska’s role in Tracks marks a turning point in her career. For some time now, she has been lauded as a great-actress-in-waiting. But as the lone Robyn Davidson on walkabout in the outback, she has proved those acting chops in spades. It’s one thing to deliver a standout performance in a film but entirely another to carry that film singlehandedly.

Tracks begins with glimpses of Robyn’s humdrum life in the city, and while the reasoning behind her desire to traverse half of Australia solo isn’t immediately apparent, you can’t help but understand the impetus behind the impulse, given the ubiquitous closed-mindedness surrounding her. The majority of the subsequent film sees Robyn learning to tame wild camels for the journey and traipsing across the outback past a never-ending backdrop of red clay. Wasikowska literally melds into the landscape, taking on its dusty, sun-burnt features.

The goal of the trip is hardly the to get from point A to point B. It’s rather the emotional growth and strenuous mental task of such an undertaking. In Tracks, all dialogue is superfluous to the harsh surroundings and Wasikowska’s performance. Director John Curran is no stranger to internal dramas, but it is Wasikowska who conveys in so few words the process by which an individual reaches self-realization. – Katherine Springer

simmonsJ.K. Simmons in Whiplash

Character actor J.K. Simmons has found consistent work through his decades-long career, with musical roles on Broadway and regular appearances on film and television. But his resume can read like that of a struggling journeyman, from recurring roles on “Law & Order” and in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies to commercials for Farmer’s Insurance. His most high-profile role may be the voice of the yellow M&M, which he took over from John Goodman in the late ’90s and has voiced ever since. This year he found the role of a lifetime as incendiary jazz teacher Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. This nail-biting film about an aspiring young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) is essentially a music school horror movie, with Simmons playing Professor Freddy Krueger. The role of the cruel teacher could have easily been a one-dimensional character, but Simmons brings the utmost authority to the part, making him utterly compelling to watch without any pussyfooting attempt to make him a secret softy. His performance is so frightening that my hands are sweating just writing about it. If he doesn’t win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars this year, I hope he tears the Academy apart. – Pat Padua

guguGugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle

Period films about race invariably cast people of color in roles of abject suffering, often stepping beyond the historical accuracy of racist systems to force the actors to simply portray abuse. In Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw gets the chance to play the opposite as the illegitimate child of a British naval officer who grows up in the lap of luxury. But if Mbatha-Raw is spared the onus of having to portray the physical torment heaped upon black bodies throughout history, that only frees her up to contend with the subtler yet more pernicious impact that racism infects upon society.

James Baldwin once made the striking observation that spending one’s first years as a black person unaware of any difference between oneself and white kids leads to an enormous shock when the difference is made clear at a young age. I thought about that watching Mbatha-Raw, as Dido, someone who grew up consciously cloistered by her white, aristocratic family and is suddenly thrust into courtships filled with passive-aggressive references to her skin color. The buried winces that greet every half-masked insult, the scenes of abject self-loathing forced upon her by the resentment of others, and the occasional displays of self-assertion in the face of an entire system stacked against her are powerful for their dynamism, their capacity for fluctuations in power and confidence. No bit of acting this year was as heartrending as Mbatha-Raw tearing at and pounding her flesh in self-revulsion, but by the same token, none was more invigorating than her turning down a condescending, money-hungry suitor because she refused to let herself be an inferior family’s idea of a black sheep. - Jake Cole

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Our Favorite Books of 2014 http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/favorite-books-2014/ http://spectrumculture.com/list-inconsequential/favorite-books-2014/#comments Mon, 15 Dec 2014 06:00:38 +0000 http://spectrumculture.com/?p=39778 *Our best books list includes any book we read in 2014, regardless of release date* Easy in the Islands by Bob Shacochis I rarely get more pleasure out of anything I find in bookstores than I do from a great collection of short stories. I’m even more in love with the medium than I am [&hellip

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books*Our best books list includes any book we read in 2014, regardless of release date*

islandsEasy in the Islands by Bob Shacochis

I rarely get more pleasure out of anything I find in bookstores than I do from a great collection of short stories. I’m even more in love with the medium than I am with novels, which is an understanding I’ve come to (admitted to myself, really) recently. I love Chekhov and Poe and Sherwood Anderson as much as any appreciator of a craft, but the story collections I come back to inevitably have to do with modern Americans, with people in places that I can relate to. Thus, John Updike, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders, DFW, in one way or another these folks’ stories tell me more about people in the world I know than any others works of art. So discovering a new American writer whose short stories entrance me is always a big event. In 2014, it was Bob Shacochis’ Easy in the Islands, 10 stories of greed, lust and solitude in and around the Caribbean, that I had the most fun with. Not surprising for stories written by an American (mostly) about island nations, most of the protagonists are expats – fishermen, hoteliers, artifact collectors, con men – and not a one of them feels at home in the muggy, corrupt culture that surrounds him (or her). The best of the bunch is “Hot Day on the Gold Coast”, an unrelentingly propulsive and funny first-person narrative about a rich Palm Beach jogger whose knack for choosing the worst route winds him up in every kind of trouble one can imagine happening in a beach community. Shacochis is an award-winning novelist and reporter, but this book, his first, won him the National Book Award; his acrobatic prose and unnerving perspectives leave no doubt about the medium he should be working in. - Alex Peterson

pratchettThe Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

In the realm of speculative fiction, parallel worlds have been done to death. Robert Heinlein may have laid down the last word with The Number of the Beast (1980), but that hasn’t stopped the “what if the Nazis had won” train. However, this year I discovered The Long Earth, a joint novel by the British authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Although it’s a simple premise (as multiverse tales go), the places two such different authors manage to take it are nothing short of astonishing.

In the universe of The Long Earth, parallel worlds exist just “sideways” to our own, accessible by means of a simple mechanical device. After plans for “Steppers” appear online, millions of humans flood into the nearly identical Earths that exist alongside ours but with each successive world, the similarity slowly fades and new, alien things begin to appear. There appears to be only one thing that remains constant on the millions of other Earths: ours is the only one that has developed Homo Sapiens.

Much of the charm of The Long Earth comes from the mixed styles of Pratchett and Baxter. The former is largely known for his wry humor and work with fantasy tropes, while the latter is a pre-eminent hard science fiction author. Though these would seem like oil and water, their collaborative work ends up more like oil and vinegar; their voices are absolutely complementary, mixing plausible explanations for unearthly phenomena with both seriousness and humor. Since its publication in 2012, The Long Earth has now been projected as a five part series, and we’re all the better for it. - Nathan Kamal

woolWool (Omnibus Edition) by Hugh Howey

Self-published in five increasingly compelling installments and eventually optioned by Ridley Scott, Hugh Howey’s sci-fi saga deserves a spot on the bestseller lists even without the allure of an Internet-age success story. Beginning with the potent dystopian vision of its namesake first book, Wool, the Omnibus Edition continues to flesh out the world of Howey’s Silo – a vast underground dwelling inhabited by people who can never enter the toxic wasteland above and are forbidden from expressing the wish to do so. Howey’s storytelling prowess makes for a quick read, but it’s the attention and care put into the world of the silo that makes Wool so engrossing. There’s an oddly askew language and rhythm to life within the self-sustaining subterranean tower: capital punishment is a “cleaning” that forces those dreaming of the outside world to explore it; social stratification is represented by whole floors of similar laborers stacked together in their designated band of the silo; human couriers run thousands of steps in a structure without elevators (where people don’t seem to even know what they’re missing); paper is a scarce and valuable commodity treated with reverence. Most of Wool may be spent waiting for that genre-crucial moment where we discover if this community has any connection to our present, but the intriguing cultural gaze that defines this artificial world is even more rewarding. - Michael Merline

tsukuruColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Many of Haruki Murakami’s books, like 1Q84 or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, place his inscrutable characters into surreal worlds or fantastic situations. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage takes the opposite tack with a setting that is fairly mundane. The central character, Tsukuru Tazaki, has lost his place because his four dearest friends have inexplicably ejected him from their group. On the surface, he accepts his fate relatively stoically, but this burden resonates through his life, explaining why he can’t engage in long term relationships or romances.

Murakami is adept at outlining his characters with deft calligraphic strokes and Tsukuru is no exception. His depression is understandable, but he cloaks himself in a passivity that becomes a kind of anti-egotism. He creates a self-imposed mythology that contrasts his bland normality against his friends’ more notable characters. By the time he meets his latest lover, this loss has become a hidden hollow spot within him, but she teases out this story and then pushes him to confront the past.

Effectively, the book offers a psychological take on the classic idea of the hero’s journey, but Murakami’s terse economy and oblique side stories give the book an exotic taste. The character development and ambiguity in the story create a shifting world of possibilities. Like placing stones on a Go board, patterns gradually emerge and create a momentum of change. Along the way, simple motives and clear positions become tangled. Passive Tsukuru takes action and the book approaches resolution, but he still seems a bit inscrutable. Murakami doesn’t bend reality quite as much as he sometimes does, but longtime fans will recognize his inimitable style. - Jester Jay Goldman

pynchon-gravitys-rainbowGravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity’s Rainbow should have been my most revelatory new read of 2013. But as I started into Pynchon’s mammoth, absurdist WWII novel, the sheer onslaught of detail from the first page bogged me down, and various other life obligations meant I stalled out around 100 pages. This year, I tried again, and a few months later, I felt remorse when I finally turned the last page. Pynchon’s magnum opus contains too many characters to remember (despite their delightfully ridiculous names), massive diversions into demented headspaces, and, above all, an obsessive focus on the sexual and scatological.

Yet as funny, and hard to follow, as everything is, it’s also a remarkable expression of pain. Contrary to some of his peers, Pynchon did not appropriate a past conflict to attack a current one; rather, he sees WWII for its own horror, the birth of the modern anxiety in the form of the rocket, a device whose mathematical precision yet abject chaos suggests that its use as a weapon could signal the end for the Earth more than the possibility of using the technology to leave the planet behind. To that end, its fixation on sex and kink is, for all its black humor, its most human element, a desperate attempt to connect to some primal, fundamental sense of self in the wake of the event that firmly proved how small and disposable people are. Pynchon is the most self-effacing of the Serious Male Authors of the 20th Century, and as such his insights attain the genuine, searching profundity that his peers often insist upon. - Jake Cole

faberThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

While Faber has written few novels, each (as with his short stories and novellas) enlivens a genre. What Under the Skin did for estrangement within everyday settings, and The Crimson Petal and the White for the Victorian triple-decker, so this new novel does for an encounter with alien life.

On the planet his corporate employer has christened, Peter Leigh confronts enigmatic colleagues, all chosen for “no drama.” Within this eerie setting, Peter struggles to learn why the corporation has sent him to Oasis, and why some of its inhabitants wish to so fervently adopt the Christian message. Cut off from his wife, an increasingly fraught Bea, and an Earth undergoing economic collapse and climate-change driven disaster, he strives to rise to his new calling as a chaplain.

Adjusting to the indigenous diet and trying to talk like an Oasan, he begins to drift away from the mentality of an earthling. Isolated from his colleagues, his brain starts to scatter, as “it sifted intimacies and perceptions, allowed them to trickle through the sieve of memory, until only a token few remained, perhaps not even the most significant ones”. In turn, he immerses himself into his task, to translate some of the Bible, and to go native as much as possible.

Faber approaches this mission from a Christian chaplain’s perspective, but the results refuse to be predictable. Those of any faith or none may find that Faber’s calmly conveyed, yet unsettling, narrative challenges their own expectations of belief, and of who is controlling whom, in this reflection on conviction. - John L. Murphy

disasterThe Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero

“Somebody’s chicken!” This is just one of the hilarious lines in Greg Sestero’s memoir on the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. But like the movie whose troubled production it documents, The Disaster Artist has an unlikely depth. Sestero was a struggling actor when he latched on to the project that has been called the Worst Movie Ever Made, and although The Room is fully established as a midnight cash cow, Sestero’s acting career never really recovered, his creative legacy forever tied to a high-profile failure. Co-written with journalist Tom Bissell, who wrote one of the more insightful articles on The Room, Sestero’s book is not your typical entertainment memoir. This unlikely tale of bromance and finding your voice is a sobering tale of creative frustration, from an actor who can’t find the right part to a would-be director who struggles to communicate his ideas. The Disaster Artist can be funny and terrifying at the same time, when you learn that Wiseau’s bookshelf includes the volume, Shower Power: Wet, Warm and Wonderful Exercises for the Shower and Bath. - Pat Padua

peoplewhoeatPeople Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

Truman Capote may have the corner on the class “true crime” novel, but Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness is a chilling master class in reporting that takes the reader to the dark recesses of Japan. Parry, The Times of London’s Tokyo bureau chief, tells a terrifying story while turning a critical eye on living in Japan as a foreigner. It’s a book 10 years in the making, one that is electrifying, chilling and haunting.

A young British woman named Lucie Blackman comes to Tokyo to make some money and ends up working in a hostess bar. While not a prostitute, a hostess is a woman that joins businessmen at their tables, pours them drinks and listens to them talk. They also are encouraged to go out on chaste dates with their clients. She vanished without a trace, the only clue a frightening phone call to a friend from an unknown man claiming that she had joined a cult. Her body wouldn’t be found for months.

People Who Eat Darkness oozes with a sense of dread. When the truth of poor Lucie’s fate is revealed, it is so much worse than we could have expected. She went to Japan and darkness swallowed her up. Parry forces us to look into that blackness and find Lucie, even if it’s the last place we want to look. - David Harris

Sex_at_Dawn_Ryan_Jetha_2010Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Sex at Dawn is a wonderful account of human sexuality borne from the efforts of Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. From homosexuality to polygamy, we’ve arrived at this place where modern relationships and human sexuality is fairly jumbled and confused. Why is that?

The book explores our great-ape cousins and studies how they act, what sexual habits they have developed, and compare us to them. I love books that I learn from and can use to bolster conversation. This is one of those books: loaded with facts, studies, etc. They break down other research and all those biases before hitting you with a play by play as to what those other studies’ faults are, what they’ve overlooked and why how you feel about sex deep down is really OK. It is an eye-opening and incredibly addictive read.

Ever wonder why women tend to be vocal in bed? Ever wonder why the penis is flared? Ever wonder why men seem to always want more but lose it in monogamy? Ever wonder why monogamy is so incredibly difficult? The authors of this book have well thought out and researched reasons as to why all of these things happen. They hit you in the genitals as to why all these things that you feel are not only reasonable, but rational.

The only problem I have with this is sometimes you’re armed with knowledge and then you’re like “Now what?” There are very few of us that are going to jettison our relationships, monogamous or not. But it does bring up, at best, the ability for us to talk about concepts, alternatives, and to bring a lot of assumptions to the table. Enjoy the conversations this book will bring you and your partner(s). - Cedric Justice

pitytheanimal1Pity the Animal by Chelsea Hodson

Once a year, if I’m lucky, I read a book that changes the way I approach the page. These rare books make me want to write better, fresher, and more powerfully. I want everyone I know to read and fall in love with them (and remember that I was the one who introduced them to it, of course). This year that book was Pity the Animal by Chelsea Hodson. A tiny tome, essentially an extended essay chapbook, Hodson’s breathtaking lyric style braids art and experience to tell a story about submission, relationships and the body. Her ability to weave dissociative subjects like dating websites, art installations and animal behavior science are nimble and astounding. The fragments mod-podge a mosaic of sexual coming-of-age and discovery to unpack the question, “how much can the body endure?” It’s refreshing to see nonfiction this creative. While many memoirs spend three or four hundred pages unpacking such a reckoning in the writer’s life, Hodson creates a dazzling take on the growing-up/self-discovery trope that uses a fraction of the word count, but has lingered much longer than I normally can retain the titles of such other works. Pity the Animal is an outstanding example of how far memoir and essay writing can stretch and recoil. - Tabitha Blankenbiller

gunterThe Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Wildly controversial at the time of its release, The Tin Drum has proven to be one of the most important books of the 20th century, with a big fat shelf of awards to prove it. This 1959 novel not only helped Günter Grass eventually win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the 1979 film adaptation shared the Palm d’Or with Apocalypse Now and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I was captivated by the bizarre and often disturbing film when I first saw it in college over 10 years ago, but I hadn’t until this year managed to pick up and actually read this classic book, one that The Guardian went so far as to call “the defining novel of the 20th century.”

The Tin Drum is narrated from an insane asylum by an adult Oskar, a dwarf who was born with adult cognition and made the conscious decision, at the age of three, to stop growing in order to prevent himself from ever fully entering the adult world. Armed with his titular instrument and a scream capable of shattering glass, Oskar recounts his origins and coming-of-age through World War II. His mother’s husband is a Nazi and his suspected biological father (his mother’s cousin) is eventually killed by the Nazis. Oskar lives, loves (often in taboo ways) and plays his beloved drum. Throughout the three decades that span in this magic realism-tinged, highly iconoclastic book, he compares himself to Jesus, witnesses his mother descend into madness after seeing eels pour out of a dead horse’s head, ruins Nazi pep rallies, becomes the leader of a gang, achieves fame and fortune as a jazz musician, and frames himself for murder. Not bad for a guy with the body of three-year-old. - Josh Goller

pendragonThe Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb

It was far too easy for me to fall down the rabbit hole of little-known 1930s European literature. While it all started with Italo Calvino and If on a winter’s night a traveler…, I’ve now made it through all of his immediately accessible books. And the same goes for Austro-Hungarian authors Dezső Kosztolányi and Stefan Zweig. So this year I moved on to Antal Szerb, best known for Journey by Moonlight. But its predecessor and Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend is a darker tale blending gothic thriller, murder mystery and elements of romantic comedy. Despite the novel’s title, Arthurian legends play no role. The central character, Janos Batky (a Doctor of Philosophy, specializing in useless information), serves as Szerb’s alter ego and creates much of the novel’s humorous moments simply by virtue of being a Hungarian in Wales, a stranger in a strange land. The influence of authors like Evelyn Waugh and even P.G. Wodehouse is unmistakable, while the inherent mysticism in Szerb’s fantastical mystery recalls the likes of Poe.

The Budapest scholar is innocently enough invited by the Earl of Gwynedd to his castle in Wales to study rare works in his library. Intrigue and plots of inheritance, however, threaten to derail his scholarly endeavors. It is a Sherlockian mystery at its core with old flames resurfacing to carry out elaborate revenge plots and shadowy horsemen galloping across the moors being everyday occurrences. But despite its heady pace, Szerb maintains a tongue-in-cheek tone throughout that undermines any real suspense in the story but invites readers to join in the raucous adventure nonetheless. - Katherine Springer

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