The best films of 1965 and 1966

1965

Repulsion (Roman Polanski)
Simon of the Desert (Luis Buñuel)
Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard)
Le Bonheur (Agnes Varda)
Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger)
Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa)
Help! (Richard Lester)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy)
The Holy Man (Satyajit Ray)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt)

1966

Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson)
Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles)
The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo)
Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki)
El Dorado (Howard Hawks)
Masculin Féminin (Jean-Luc Godard)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Mike Nichols)
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone)
7 Women (John Ford)
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)

Never been a millionaire: The Best of Rod Stewart

1. Mandolin Wind
2. Only a Hobo
3. Every Picture Tells a Story
4. Young Turks
5. True Blue
6. Tomorrow is a Long Time
7. Cindy’s Lament
8. Maggie May
9. You Wear It Well
10. Stone Cold Sober
11. Lost Paraguayos
12. The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II)
13. Tonight I’m Yours (Don’t Hurt)
14. True Blue
15. Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?
16. Gasoline Alley
17. People Get Ready (Jeff Beck w/Rod Stewart)
18. Downtown Train
19. (I Know) I’m Losing You
20. This Old Heart of Mine ’90 (w/Ronald Isley)
21. Oh God I Wish I Was Home Tonight

‘Moonlight’ knocks down the closet, a board at a time

Near the end of Moonlight, the bulked-up Chiron removes his gold grillz to eat the Cuban food prepared for him. The effect is to shrivel him if not strip him of the years. Beneath the chain and thick arms is the same boy with the unknowable face whom the audience saw in the movie’s opening sequences. Moonlight keeps reminding audiences of the present-ness of the past — of how childhood isn’t merely a series of gestures unlearned and buried but rehearsed and performed until these gestures lose their authenticity. This adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play has the diaphanous quality of Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s 1976 landmark that remains one of the few American film dramas about black men and women with no angle except showing life as lived. Barry Jenkins’ film is not at that level. Stilted, schematic, a film of its historical moment, Moonlight will touch chords anyway.

Although the housing projects could have been from anywhere between the Bronx and Atlanta, the green of palm trees and the vast blueness of the Atlantic are unmistakably Miami. But Chiron, called “Little” because of his size and shyness, doesn’t much notice them. His life is a horror. When the film opens a gang chases him into a condemned motel in Liberty City. Crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) climbs in through one of the boarded-up windows and takes pity on him. As played by Alex Hibbert, Little is so gangly and delicate that one of South Florida’s infrequent breezes could shatter him; worse is a shut-off quality in his eyes. Over a fried chicken dinner Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) demands answers. Little talks but never relaxes — he can’t. With a drug addict mom (Naomie Harris) who manipulates him into giving her money he can find no peace. Thus begins a relationship whose contours are familiar and whose depths need no sounding, like the Atlantic waters in which Juan teaches Little to swim.

In a piece written with great feeling, Hilton Als recounts the absolute silence from his screening audience when Little asks Juan and Teresa what’s a faggot. “A ‘faggot,'” Juan explains, “is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” Stated so plainly it’s hard for anyone so accused to tremble. Don’t let the word hurt and it won’t. But the loveliness of Ali’s work as Juan is to treat his definition of the word as an instance of self-awareness; it’s the moment when Little’s difference finally dawns on him. No one who isn’t queer can forget when “faggot” wasn’t like an airborne virus, nor can queers dispel the memory of thinking faggots were what we weren’t; a faggot was what that other guy was. Long before “faggot” was attached to sexual acts we knew it defined a difference; it was a mark, invisible but for a sliver of exiles frightened of exposure. Writer-director Barry Jenkins thinks cinematically, though; the difference — the faggotness — of Little is shown, rarely explained. As Juan teaches him to float on his back, a bobbing camera makes it clear that Little’s never been touched this intimately — maybe never been touched at all.

Those who still think faggots are sex-crazed need realize: the terror of using the five senses is the true distinguishing mark. To touch is to risk exposure; we might get caught wanting the touch. So we learn to flinch from any but the most scripted of greetings; so begins the construction of a sturdy closet. Straights who still wonder why gay men speak in an affected manner must understand the fear undergirding the act of speaking normally, when a syllable might give away our sexuality. In the second part of the film, called “Chiron,” the protagonist, now played by Ashton Sanders as a teenager whose reticence has atrophied to terror, catches himself when he dares to move off script with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the only friend he’ll ever know (Sanders as Chiron looks like the stress of terror has cost him body mass). To banter is to risk exposure. As a teenager, existence is exposure. The bullying worsens. A hazing ritual forces Kevin to pick on Chiron: he must punch him until Chiron stays down. Not long before the young men had shared a joint and a long kiss on the sands of Miami Beach. A hand job had followed, but it matters less than Kevin’s allowing Chiron to nestle his head between Kevin’s head and shoulder.

Before settling the score with the bully, Chiron dowses his face in ice water as if he were Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. The mask has fit the man as, years later, Chiron is reborn as a drug lord in the ATL. With his ridiculous musculature, granitic features, and faint smile, he looks a bit like Curtis Jackson (himself playing a character in a trap fantasy named 50 Cent); he’s a parody of macho. When he fucks with one of the corner guys, accusing him of being short on his take, he’s the most amiable of bosses. Then assuming it’s Mama calling from rehab, he answers a late night phone call: Kevin, in Miami working as a chef, curious about Chiron after bumping into a high school acquaintance. He makes the twelve-hour drive to his hometown, unsure what he wants but clear about what he needs — he even brushes his short hair before entering the diner.

What ensues is the most joyous part of Moonlight as Jenkins allows his actors to develop rhythms. Trevante Rhodes’ grown Chiron relaxes over bad red wine in plastic glasses and frijoles negros and bistec de pollo sprinkled with cilantro — a culinary faux pas all too familiar to Miamians, thus an authentic detail. André Holland as Kevin is relentless with the kidding, the light verbal jabs recognized the world over as flirting. Although he’s got a baby mama, the apprising stares he gives Chiron suggest he’s gotten fun elsewhere, maybe even in prison. But Chiron has had no fun — of any kind. If we’re to believe what he confesses to Kevin, he’s never been with…anyone.

This is when Jenkins’ control over the material becomes hamfisted. Based on Moonlight and 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, he’s not yet a natural filmmaker. Critics have praised Moonlight for its poetry, and it has poetry: a didactic poem in heroic couplets. I mentioned “schema” above, and Moonlight‘s last act shudders from the effort of isolating Chiron. Relying on 360 pans to show the world of which the child Chiron will never be a part, Jenkins falls victim later to the traps set by his own ironies. The field of action and line of vision in a play are limited to the size of the stage. Restricting Chiron’s psychological dimensions immobilizes him as a character of flesh and blood. It’s not that I don’t believe Chiron would be ascetic, although I’m tempted; it’s that I’m not sure why it has to be so. He’s Ennis del Mar with workout equipment. Moonlight needs at least a couple of scenes like the one between Chiron and his male employee, even just to show that he sublimates his sexual impulses in banter. Also, the Miami-as-character subtext in some of the features I’ve read is overstated. Jimmy’s Eastside Diner bears too much the traces of painted doors and retractable walls of a theater construction. Jenkins shows no interest in the customers, not even as background. I’m not even sure which beaches Juan and Chiron and Chiron and Kevin visit; Jenkins doesn’t care for exteriors. Sometimes the soundtrack’s classical pretensions don’t match Jenkins’ images in the same way that bromides like “There’s nothing but love and pride in this house,” spoken by Teresa, banalize the experiences.

Fine. Yet unlike Carol, which turned into an unwitting elegy for an epoch of sacrifice and humiliation for queers, Moonlight shimmers with the excitement of artists putting this material onscreen and, in its devastating ten-minute finale, suggesting how to vault through a closing door. It eschews the twaddle of mere “universality.” And it’s connecting — I heard not a breath for one hundred ten minutes and relieved laughter when Rhodes and the marvelous Holland (who’s going to get a lot of phone calls thanks to his work here; what a smile!) got a groove going in that diner. Moonlight opens to the strains of “Every Nigger Is a Star,” an affirmation that mocks Liberty City’s blight. By the time Chiron and Kevin’s last scene Boris Gardiner’s 1971 chestnut sounds like an anthem again.

The best albums of 2016 — third quarter update

The last time I post one of these things before December. In chronological order:

Pusha T – King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude
David Bowie – Blackstar
Anderson Paak – Malibu
The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
Kevin Gates – Islah
Bonnie Raitt – Dig In Deep
KING – We are KING
Corinne Bailey Rae – The Heart Speaks in Whispers
Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Beyonce – Lemonade
Anohni – Hopelessness
Katy B – Honey
K Michelle – More Issues Than Vogue
Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town
Maxwell – blackSUMMERSNIGHT
Maren Morris – Hero
Schoolboy Q – Blank Face LP
Shura – Nothing’s Real
Alex Anwandter – Amiga
Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger
Vince Staples – Prima Donna (EP)
Rae Sremmurd – Sremmlife 2
Fantasia – The Definition Of…”
Britney Spears – Glory
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

The fiction of bipartisan justice

To a layman, the FBI means the phrase “G-Men” and Bill Murray’s line “J. Edgar Hoover will appear and destroy us all” from Ghostbusters. I write often (and will again this week) about the Supreme Court without any schoolin’ besides Court history and a sprinkling of con law as spare as the arugula in the bowl I ate last night. Hence, my alarm about FBI director James Comey’s decision to give enough information about Huma Abedin emails addressed to Hillary Clinton found in the Anthony Weiner investigation to the germane House committee such that professional troll Jason Chaffetz could tweet about the scoop early yesterday afternoon, attaching jumper cables to a moribund election for the GOP.

The way it looks to this layman, Comey should have recommended charging her using the new information found in those emails if the evidence warranted it, not let the House know that new emails were found and an investigation is underway. Of course, it may take weeks for investigators to sift through the emails and for Comey to make a recommendation to the Department of Justice, but this would’ve been after Hillary Clinton’s victory on November 8, which should tell you about the kind of fish that Comey was selling yesterday.

I don’t know who’s more overrated for bravery: Colin Powell, who was played for a sucker by the Bush administration pressing its non-existent case for war before the United Nations; or James Comey. He deserves kudos for defying the Oval Office’s insistence on certifying the legality of warrantless wiretapping, culminating in a hospital room showdown with a semi-comatose John Ashcroft, a story recounted in Charlie Savage’s essential Takeover. But he certified the program anyway after reassurances from the Bush people. Nothing brightens the day of Ron Fournier types in DC than defying one’s bosses; defiance guarantees a man employment in an opposing administration while keeping loyalties intact to his own party. Earlier this year Comey bemoaned a “Ferguson effect” on recent spikes in crime despite admitting he had no statistics to support the claim (““I don’t know for sure,” he said. “Something has happened.” Thanks, Jim. Don’t read my palm.). He also gave Hillary Clinton a public scolding in July whose appropriateness I wouldn’t have questioned had he recommended indicting her. Even gimlet-eyed commenters like Josh Marshall have preferred thinking of Comey as at worst blinkered and naive.

This is the thanks Barack Obama gets for appointing a Republican, as a disgusted Scott Lemieux avers:

I do hope that, at least, Hillary Clinton takes this as a long overdue hint that Democratic presidents should stop putting Republicans in important administration jobs. Even when, like Bernake, they’re competent and relatively progressive within their specialized fields, it creates the impression that Republicans are the Party of Adults (which is particularly silly when the typical Republican public official in 2016 is an ideological fanatic who couldn’t be trusted to run a lemonade stand with Ice-T’s supervision.)

Joe Lieberman aside, it breaks the imagination thinking of how many Democrats a President McCain or President Romney would have nominated or appointed.

To conclude, the forthcoming, brave, stalwart James Comey was so worried about what Republican satraps would think if he’d sat on the emails that he floated innuendo.

Singles 10/28

Californian-Chilean electro-pop, insinuating house, a decent Jason Derulo rip, and, at the top, snotty canon-pillaging hip-hip — now that’s a good week.

Click on links for full reviews.

Rae Sremmurd ft. Gucci Mane – Black Beatles (8)
Francisca Valenzuela – Estremecer (7)
Kaytranada ft. Syd – You’re the One (7)
Jordan Fisher – Lookin’ Like That (7)
Kenshi Yonezu – Loser (6)
Maroon 5 ft. Kendrick Lamar – Don’t Wanna Know (4)
Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas ft. Miguel – Estrella Fugaz (4)
Monika Lewczuk – Ty I Ja (4)
Yasutaka Nakata ft. Kenshi Yonezu – Nanimono (4)
Tucker Beathard – Rock On (3)
Cash Cash & Digital Farm Animals ft. Nelly – Millionaire (0)

Erotic thriller ‘The Handmaiden’ decadent fun — for a while

If The Handmaiden gets too complicated, immerse in the upholstery. Park Chan-wook’s first movie since 2013 revels in double crosses and kink, moving confidently to a conclusion that if not exactly faithful to Fingersmith honors the Sarah Waters novel’s spirit and respects devotees of Victorian interior design. The director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance has created a thriller whose convolutions prove rewarding for those who stick around. Distrust, however, the claims that The Handmaiden is a touchstone of queer cinema. It’s Bound with period flavor, set in foreign lands.

Kim Min-hee stars as Hideko, a young woman in 1930s Japan kept a virtual prisoner by her uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a buyer of rare books who has brought her up to read porn aloud (sample title: “Decadent Girls Who Sell Lingerie”). An orphaned Korean scam artist (Ha Jung-woo) conceives a plan whereby Hideko will install his pickpocket ally Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as her maid while he worms his way into Hideko’s heart for the purpose of marrying her, taking her fortune, and sending her to the loony bin. “His ties to the colonial government even let us use electricity!” the suitor crows. Like Zhang Yimou at his most refulgent, Park treats the film’s first third as color-drenched conventionality as the inexperienced Hideko seems to fall in love with Sook-hee, whose butterfingers are so smooth that, in The Handmaiden‘s silliest bit of would-be erotics, she can rub down Hideko’s sore tooth while the latter sits in a tub of scented water. She’s also an expert pedicurist.

To divulge more of the film’s twists would be malpractice, I suppose. As in Bound and a myriad noir flicks, characters aren’t who they say they are and expectations change; even cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon gets into the spirit of the proceedings, often giving the movie’s final two-thirds the denatured tones of a horror film. I wasn’t bored watching The Handmaiden, but after an hour of skullduggery and toenails I got restless. The movie isn’t about anything except its own ingenuity. The politics of the Japanese incursion into Korea are referenced without resonating beyond motivation, and even this is a stretch: the Count could be any schemer who wants to eat the rich by joining them. An, um, interrogation late in the picture drags; often Park luxuriates in cruelty as if it were a set of expensive sheets (he does, however, include a shot of a giant octopus writhing in an aquarium, so there’s that).

As for the sex, it has the pneumatic precision of performers choreographed by a male director; it’s the only explanation for why the panting and thrusting shown in The Handmaiden and 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color aren’t as salacious as Park and Abdellatif Kechiche, respectively, think. The depiction of convincing sex in good recent queer movies has depended on a sense of pent-up aching rivers (Andre Téchiné’s wonderful Being 17) or an expression of class triumphing over class (Joey Kuhn’s wildly uneven Those People). Although The Handmaiden certainly conveys Hideko and Sook-hee’s relief and hunger, they figure in a movie devoted to sensation. Lesbian hookups, blood, and plotting in an exotic remote era – The Handmaiden is queer in a facile way. “Men use the word ‘mesmerizing’ when they wish to touch a lady’s breast,” Hideko remarks late in the picture. I can’t best this description of Park’s method.

Best films of 1967 and 1968

1967

Playtime (Jacques Tati)
La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard)
Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville)
Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
Point Blank (John Boorman)
In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)
Reflections in a Golden Eye (John Huston)
La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer, France)
Mouchette (Robert Bresson)
Love Affair; Or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (Dusan Makavejev)

1968

Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel)
Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard)
Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)
Shame (Ingmar Bergman)
Pretty Poison (Noel Black)
Night of the Living Dead (George Romero)
Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner)
Madigan (Don Siegel)
Les Biches (Claude Chabrol)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

RUNNERS-UP: The Bride Wore Black (François Truffaut), Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)

Caught in a trap: the best of Chic

1. My Feet Keep Dancing
2. When You Love Someone
3. Soup For One
4. Upside Down
5. I Like Love
6. I Want Your Love
7. Lost in Music
8. Good Times
9. Will You Cry (When You Hear This Song)
10. A Warm Summer Night
11. You Are Beautiful
12. Everybody Dance
13. Take It Off
14. Le Freak
15. Stage Fright
16. Flash Light
17. Real People
18. Rebels Are We
19. My Old Piano
20. At Last I’m Free
21. My Forbidden Lover
22. I’m Coming Out
23. Chic Cheer
24. We Are Family
25. Open Up

Lady Gaga and Leonard Cohen

Lady Gaga – Joanne

Acknowledged as a failure by listeners who forgot her first two albums had tracks that sucked too, ARTPOP sounds tight three years after its release. I suspect the arena-ready electronics weren’t novel enough to mitigate Lady Gaga’s own muddled role playing. The Tony Bennett collaboration was stretch and not-a-stretch: jumping on Rod Stewart’s train a decade too late didn’t disappoint the parents of Gaga followers who liked this nice piano-playing young woman with the grey-haired Grammy-winning eminence on display at Target. After all, this demographic still buys CDs.

On social media the most fervent of her fans aren’t going gaga over Joanne. I understand. The first single “Perfect Illusion” plays like an unfinished single of the kind that Madonna used to denounce in the early days of internet album leaks. Why she and her label didn’t release the stupendous “A-Yo” or the self-referential “Dancing’ in Circles” will boggle minds as soon as Joannebegins its post-#1 chart tumble; at least they didn’t risk flop sweat and release “Come to Mama,” an indifferent valentine to devotees whose honking saxophone edges closer to the glory of a certain Gaga anthem. She must have skeptics like me in mind on opener “Diamond Heart.” “Some asshole broke me in,” she chants over kick drum, but she undercuts it with fades and drops familiar to Calvin Harris in 2009 and the Chainsmokers in 2016. Maybe that’s the point: reassurance for radio programmers, subversion of too subtle a kind for critics. She’s on firmer ground on “John Wayne,” a cock-crazy ode to a love junkie on a three-day bender; and on “Sinner’s Prayer,” which fuses Father John Misty contributions and a Blood Diamonds co-production into the kind of hybrid that Beyonce’s pulled off without a fuss.

That’s four songs, from solid to marvelous. Yet I mourn how Gaga has passed from Barbara Walters hot topic to den mama within the space of a year without the music evolving beyond her idea of Shakira-goes-dance. The title track of Born This Way presaged this ossifying: Gaga as public figure, future host of Human Rights Campaign benefits. Things get grim when she slows down, especially since her idea of emotive vocalizing is imitating Madonna’s Britsnarl from 2000’s Music; on the title track a stranded Moog buttresses a Gaga-ling vibrato that quavers in terror at lyrics about angels. She’s better when she imagines herself as a whirling dervish, a cloud of content-free enthusiasm: “I swirl around like I’m someone else,” she bellows in “Dancin’ in Circles.” The Gaga beloved by preteens at the dawn of the Obama era — the teens who dug “Bad Romance” and “Hair” and “Bloody Mary” — has plenty to show Drake about the honesty of being a poseur than Drake does about the mendacity of being sincere.

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

In his third album in four years, Leonard Cohen has recorded variations on Wallace Stevens’ wintry final poems; he could have called any one of those records The Plain Sense of Things. I hesitate to call You Want It Darker his final album or obsessed with death because in the old days Cohen sang about getting head as if the Chelsea Hotel was a sarcophagus. With son Adam Cohen assisting Patrick Leonard on production and theoretical instruments — The violin in “Steer Your Way”; the arpeggio in “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” a faint echo of Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” — You Want It Darker shuffles and heaves to the singer’s will o’ the wisps of melody. I want it faster.

The grotesqueness of the GOP, part 43213

Then the GOP wonders why it has failed to score, well, any kind of black vote since 1960:

On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

These people. We know because you’ve modeled “this” on Willie Horton and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign plank. Black men and women aren’t Americans. They’re not even people. They’re pawns at best and symbols of bestial behavior at worst, to be discarded until the next campaign. Roger Stone continues the work of the late Lee Atwater:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

And we will see no reckoning on November 9, no RNC-commissioned memo that legislators will ignore in spring ’17.

These people.

Going crazy just to let you know: The best of Donna Summer

Behold the wheat gleaned from the best disco singers, one of the empathetic of R&B singers, and most convincing of rock ‘n’ roll singers from 1976 to 1984. Before her death in 2012, I was fortunate enough to write about her professionally twice.

1. Hot Stuff
2. Our Love
3. I Feel Love
4. Try Me, I Know We Can Make It
5. Take Me
6. Bad Girls
7. Heaven Knows
8. She Works Hard For the Money
9. Working the Midnight Shift
10. Dim All the Lights
11. Sunset People
12. Love’s Unkind
13. Love is Just a Breath Away
14. This Time I Know It’s For Real
15. I Do Believe (I Fell In Love)
16. Love Is In Control (Finger On the Trigger)
17. Could It Be Magic
18. Black Lady
19. Cold Love
20. Looking Up
21. Dinner With Gershwin
22. Protection
23. I Don’t Want to Get Hurt
24. Spring Affair
25. On the Radio