The best films of 2017, part three

12. The Death of Louis XIV, dir. Albert Serra.

From my review: Playing the Sun King in The Death of Louis XIV, the seventy-six-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud surrenders any relation to the rest of his body. In one of film’s longest goodbyes, he’s shot from the head up as the grandest and greatest of French autocrats succumbs to the infection from a gangrenous leg. Covered in powder and garnished with an enormous wig that Falco would have envied, Louis looks absurd, but the way Catalan director Albert Serra (Story of My Death) frames that wrinkled prairie you can’t laugh at him. Ruling France for almost seven decades comes as naturally as eating or farting; losing his corporeal form requries no commensurate loss of mental vigor or lapse into spiritual torpor. Like Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress but less impishly, Louis is so comfortable with the trappings of power that he becomes power.

11. Get Out, dir. Jordan Peele.

From my review: I suspect Get Out would have kept its resonance with Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office, for her Chappaqua garden parties must be terrifying things too. In the Trump era, though, a body snatching tale in white suburbs sounds like an item I’d read in tomorrow’s Washington Post.

10. Marjorie Prime, dir. Michael Almereyda.

From my review: Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s 2015 play betrays its origins on stage: with a couple of exceptions the film doesn’t move beyond Tess and husband Jon’s (Tim Robbins) exquisitely but impersonally appointed beach house (it’s decorated as if the Hilton hotel chain had paid the bill). But the quartet of actors is so marvelous, and Almereyda’s control of the material so supple, that its ninety minutes flit past; you may be surprised at the extent to which you’re moved.

9. 120 BPM: Beats Per Minute, dir. Robin Campillo.

From my review: BPM (Beats Per Minute) follows the Paris chapter of ACT-UP as it debates strategy: whom to pelt with blood, which pharma reps to heckle, should they even do these things? At the same time members push to lead something like normal lives, in which the politics of dancing may not be synonymous with the politics of feeling good. By the time Robin Campillo’s film ends, there’s a sense in which these men and women accept that the struggle is actually a war, and the Christian virtue of tending to the sick and dying gives this struggle its moral clarity.

I got no Aperol: State of the Union 2018

It’s 8:18 p.m, and that bastion of #woke liberalism MSNBC has had Eugene Robinson mourning the evaporation of a “bipartisan oasis” like the Senate Intelligence Committee and Peggy Noonan, who spoke with the clarity of a person miffed that she only gulped one Tito’s and soda, lamented the collapse of presidents who Brought People Together like her former employer George Herbert Walker Bush, who implied that the minority of the country aligned with Mike Dukakis that they favored the release of murderous black men on furlough.

This must mean it’s time for the State of the Union!

10:30. Third longest SOTU in history, after two of Bill Clinton’s. “Not aimed at the FOX News crowd at all,” Chris Matthews said, praising how “brilliantly confected [sic]” it was.

10:28. I wanted this:

10:25. North Korea is evil because it is anti-Christian.

10:21. I can’t remember another SOTU in which the president larded the evening with so many heroes and special guests.

10:16. Oh lord Democrats may get up for this Jerusalem-is-the-capital-of-Israel thing.

10:16. Thanks to the president, our “enemies” don’t “learn about our plans.” Someone care to explain?

10:15. Guantanamo never meant much to me as a campaign issue even when Barack Obama caviled about closing it. Symbols are powerful, but symbols are hollow when our anti-terrorism policy still supports drone strikes.

10:08. The perorations in SOTUs are pallid things; how do presidents get a hostile chamber excited about policies he knows and they know they have no interest in passing, let alone debating? This SOTU has more garbage for the president’s base than history suggests; what’s striking is how the president acts as if it were January 2017.

10:01. Visa lottery. Chained migration. Second reaction shot of Mitch McConnell, bored and not applauding and thinking of his endangered majority.

9:52. “My duty and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans. To protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.” This is the sort of rhetoric expected from the president who said there were beautiful people On Both Sides of the Charlottesville protests; from the sort of toad you meet on social media who claims that blacks are racists too.

9:50. As touching as it is to see this black family, the victims of gang violence, bending over in tears, I’m not sure what gangsterism has to do with the executive branch….unless you want to hint at the awfulness of illegal Mexicans coming in as a result of “loopholes.”

9:48. Today we learned that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III looks to the private prison industry with pride.

9:45. American grits!

9:43. The only time the GOP majority audibly murmured dissent was the part when the president promised to lower prescription drug prices with a wave of his small wand (“They’ll drop — just watch!” Okay.).

9:42. RECIPROCAL. Congrats, Mr. President — you learned a word tonight!

9:39. “Beautiful” coal. The targeting of disloyal federal employees. The gutting of regulations. Huge applause. Listening to the enthusiasm in the room is like walking into a meeting at which Quakers are cursing and ordering the shooting of every pet dog and cat in the union.

9:37. His administration has eliminated “more regulation than any other administration in history.” TRUTH.

9:36. The fuck did he just empower Cabinet members to do?

9:32. Does the president loathe Colin Kaepernick more than Barack Obama?

9:29. “Faith and family are the center of American life” and the motto is “In God We Trust.” Jerry Falwell, Jr. is smiling. He also praises the police and veterans and other members of the armed forces after having spent the better part of the year undermining their authority in Tweet after Tweet.

9:26. Enjoy that take home pay, Americans! Under the Millionaires Tax Cut, it will disappear next year.

9:21. Of course, the most enthusiastic applause was saved for the Millionaires Tax Cut. Surpassing this, though, is the huzzahs for Trump’s reminder that the individual mandate is no more. No one pretends that, as the president pointed out, Congress is there to serve the people.

9:19. Trump just boasted about the low level of black employment and high wages; the latter claim is a barefaced lie, the former is folded into it.

9:18. “Why the hell is the clapping so loud?” I wondered. It’s the president applauding himself.

9:15. Meanwhile: FEMA has shut the aid spigot to Puerto Rico.

9:12. Ronald Reagan introduced the moment when the president acknowledges an American Hero. Masters of statecraft can handle it; from Donald Trump’s mouth, praising an American for bravery reminds audiences of how these men and women rose the challenge that he didn’t.

9:11. “A new tide of optimism” has spread “across our land,” the president’s scribes wrote.

9:09. The first of many Glares of Doom exchanged between Melania and Trump.

9:08. For a president said to love ceremony, he sure gets lots of praise for trashing norms.

9:06. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois gave the president what looks like a sincere smile, as if to say, “Good luck, enjoy it while it lasts.”

9:04. Remarkable, isn’t it, how the bipartisan Beltway consensus will use the patriotism of Bush and Obama as the sock of manure with which to beat Donald Trump.

9 p.m. Enter the Cabinet, with the mien and bearing of members of the Estates-General.

8:59. Enter the First Lady, with the mien and bearing of Mary, Queen of Scots escorted to her doom.

The best films of 2017, part two

16. Personal Shopper, dir. Olivier Assayas.

From my review: The closest analogue to [Olivier] Assayas’ approach is The Green Room, François Truffaut’s 1976 adaptation of Henry James’ “The Altar of the Dead,” in which the director himself plays a man caught in the grip of the departed whom he has commemorated with such feeling. Whether Maureen actually hears bumps and slams in empty rooms isn’t clarified; wisely, he eschews haunted house ooga-boogas. What interests him is the portrait of a terrorized woman, a time-honored figure in cinema from The Innocents and Repulsion to The Others. James looms largely in two of those films, which makes sense: in Clouds of Sils Maria and his masterpiece Summer Houses, Assayas has explored his fascination with the wealthy, their minders, and the disposing of possessions. If a smart producer wants to pitch him The Spoils of Poynton, I’ll buy them dinner

15. A Ghost Story, dir. David Lowery

From my review: If nothing else, A Ghost Story imagines what movement happens inside houses when we leave them. But it does more.

14. God’s Own Country, dir. Francis Lee.

The review shorthand has described Francis Lee’s movie as “Brokeback Mountain in Yorkshire” because it has two inarticulate young sheep herders (the second, a Romanian, literally so) who overcome their own prejudices to enjoy each other’s filthy bodies. God’s Own Country is the better film — making no virtue of repression, it instead honors a duty to work that forces surprising allowances from characters we’re conditioned to think are homophobes.

13. Harmonium, dir. Koji Fukada.

 

 

This Japanese film hasn’t gotten the release it deserves, and after viewing it at last year’s Miami Film Festival, I thought it the most powerful thing I’d seen in the first quarter. From my review: To explain what ensues matters less than appreciating Kôji Fukada’s exquisite sense of timing and release, the precision of his compositions, the po-faced manner in which he delineates horror.

‘In the Fade’ struggles to earn tragic inevitability

One truth emerges from In the Fade: Germans still tolerate smoking. Katja Sekerci, played by Diane Kruger, is rarely seen without a smoldering fag — in her home, in bars, in an automobile (many Berlin bars still get around national bans, according to reports). When a bomb kills her husband and young son, Katja stumbles through the stages of grief before determining to prosecute the neo-Nazis allegedly responsible. Kruger, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes last year, holds In the Fade together by sheer force of star power; nothing else matches her concentration, including director Fatih Akin’s script. What begins as a precise depiction of mourning turns into a predictable courtroom drama and an absurd revenge fantasy in its last two acts. Continue reading

Worst Songs Ever: Chris de Burgh’s “The Lady in Red”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Chris de Burgh’s “The Lady in Red”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #3 in May 1987

History is kind to men who produce masterpieces based on devotion — think Raphael and his Madonnas, Tennyson and “Mariana” — but when the censers are swinging I look for the exits. Lugubrious and lumpen, “The Lady in Red” bores the object of desire; it tries so hard to be a standard that it chokes on its concentration. Chris de Burgh scored a substantial global hit in 1986-1987 with the biggest single from Into the Light, whose title Gloria Estefan would steal five years later for an equally boring album stuffed with rich mommy self-involvement. “The Lady in Red” was reportedly a favorite of the late Princess Di, which makes sense: it’s a song Charles would love, Charles doing crown prince karaoke after a few sherries, perhaps deigning to fart too. Fortunately, Di also loved Duran Duran — maybe she mirror moved to “Last Chance on the Stairway”? Continue reading

The normalization project continues

After beginning a paragraph with the stunningly vapid rhetorical question, “Should Stephen Miller be at the table” one of the New York Times’ stupidest columnists lets us watch the remains of his cerebellum crumble into ash:

Miller is the White House’s point man for immigration policy (and for strange and strident encounters with the press). He is also an immigration restrictionist: He wants a policy that favors skills-based recruitment over extended families, and he wants a lower immigration rate overall. He says he’s concerned about assimilation and crime and native wages; his critics say he just wants to keep America as white as possible, and that by even bringing him to meetings Trump is making a deal impossible to reach.

I won’t link to the article; you can Google it if you’re so damn curious. To answer Ross Douthat’s question, Stephen Miller should not be allowed near any furniture, let alone a table. Thus the normalization of a thirty-two-year-old racist toad continues.

The best films of 2017, part #1

Excellent queer films get released every year, but 2017 was exceptional for seeing several of those excellent films garnering widespread praise and a semblance of an American release. This year I noticed my picks align with consensus more than usual. Let me do my best to screw it up.

20. The Killing of the Sacred Deer, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos.

From my review: Even more than The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer represents a triumph of tone. In Yorgos Lanthimos’ world, humans don’t joke. Actors recite the flat dialogue without affect: imagine a Robert Bresson film restaged by vice presidents on a corporate retreat.

19. Staying Vertical, dir. Alain Guiraudie.

From my review: Droll and repellent, Staying Vertical uses demystification strategies that the squeamish will dismiss as shock tactics. Extreme close-ups of scrotums and vulvas and crowning babies – sex and birth don’t awe Guiraudie…No one makes films like Alain Guiraudie, and no one knows how.

18. The Other Side of Hope, dir. Aki Kaurismäki.

For thirty years, Aki Kaurismäki has made films about men and women out of step with their cities and each other. The Other Side of Hope plays like a sequel to 2011’s Le Havre: how do citizens of the old Europe deal with emigrants to the new one? Remarkably, Kaurismäki abjures modish pessimism. The Other Side of Hope‘s last fifteen minutes had my jaw trembling, which says something.

17. Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, dir. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau.

Finally: a gay variant on Richard Linklater’s Before series. Opening with a twenty-minute sex scene at a club, Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo then follows its title characters into fresh air, moonlight, and a series of possibilities trembling between them. It’s Pet Shop Boys’ “Two Divided by Zero” as a feature length film.

I need a drink, you need one too: The best of Raphael Saadiq

A songwriter-producer of exceptional fluidity, Raphael Saadiq is one of music’s most fecund talents. From his work with seminal R&B act Tony Toni Tone to his collaborations with D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, Solange, and his own solo albums and the Lucy Pearl project, he has sustained a career marked by gentle but incremental steps forward. Classicists live or die on fealty to canonicity, so Saadiq has occasionally fumbled. Many colleagues loved The Way I See It retro stylings more than I did; its buoyancy and joy in performance distinguished it from other such moribund exercises, but, really, I didn’t need stabs at the Holland-Dozier-Holland sound in 2008. Better was 2011’s Stone Rollin’, in which Saadiq took to the Mellotron and created a beguiling synthesis of psychedelic rockabilly and the Ohio Players.

In this list I’ve omitted contributions to other artists. I haven’t Ray Ray.

1. Let’s Get Down (ft. DJ Quik)
2. It Never Rains (in Southern California)
3. Anniversary
4. Don’t Fall in Love
5. Feels Good
6. Big Easy – Raphael Saadiq (featuring The Infamous Young Spodie and The Rebirth Brass Band)
7. If I Had No Loot
8. Little Walter
9. Can’t Stand Your Mother – Lucy Pearl
10. Annie May
11. Oakland Stroke (ft. Vanessa Williams)
12. Don’t Mess with My Man – Lucy Pearl
13. Heart Attack – Raphael Saadiq
14. Slow Wine
15. Stone Rollin’ – Raphael Saadiq
16. Thinking of You
17. Let’s Take a Walk – Raphael Saadiq
18. 100 Yard Dash – Raphael Saadiq
19. Ask of You – Raphael Saadiq
20. Stone Rollin’ – Raphael Saadiq

Singles 1/26

If music in 2018 turns out as well as Cassie and Cupcakke’s new singles prove, then I’ll need Mandrax by April.

Click on links for full reviews.

Cassie – Don’t Play it Safe (9)
Cupcakke – Duck Duck Goose (8)
Amber x Luna – Lower (7)
Dean – Instagram (6)
Migos – Stir Fry (6)
Kendrick Lamar ft. Zacari – LOVE. (5)
EXO – Universe (5)
Craig David ft. Bastille – I Know You (5)
Not3s x Mabel – My Lover (Remix) (4)
Demi Lovato – Tell Me You Love Me (4)
Kendrick Lamar ft. SZA – All the Stars (4)
Walk the Moon – One Foot (4)
Troye Sivan – My My My! (3)

Sinatra had his shit figured out, I presume: The best of Jens Lekman

Betraying roots in Jonathan Richman’s brand of hangdog self-parodic miserabilism (“I Know What Love Isn’t”) and fascination for the topical (“I Saw Her in the Anti War Demonstration”), Jens Lekman has emerged as one of my favorite singer-songwriters of the last decade. I had problems with the Swede at first — the voice, steeped in dolor, required lighter tannins, so to speak. But 2012’s I Know What Love Isn’t won me over in the same way a person’s tics become the stepping stones to a relationship, and last year’s Life Will See You Now wowed me with with its melodic sumptuousness. Lekman’s got a sense of humor about his querulousness, I wrote five years ago. He’s one of those artists for whom I could come up with a different dozen favorites tomorrow or Monday.

1. The Opposite of Hallelujah
2. Some Dandruff on Your Shoulder
3. The World Moves On
4. A Postcard to Nina
5. Hotwire the Ferris Wheel
6. Become Someone Else’s
7. Wedding in Finistère
8. The End of the World Is Bigger than Love
9. I Know What Love Isn’t
10. You Are the Light (By Which I Travel into This and That)
11. Our First Fight
12. I Saw Her in the Anti War Demonstration

The sixty best directors

A couple weeks ago, ILX ran a list of our picks for fifty best directors in film history. Below is my alphabetized list, expanded to sixty; how the hell would you argue that Béla Tarr is “better” than Preston Sturges? Also included are a couple of contemporaries like James Gray and Desplechin whose work I anticipate even if in toto their work may not — yet — rank with the sainted company.

And I still forgot Steven Spielberg.

1. Chantal Akerman
2. Robert Altman
3. Olivier Assayas
4. Michaelangelo Antonioni
5. Ingmar Bergman
6. John Boorman
7. Frank Borzage
8. Luis Buñuel
9. Jean Cocteau
10. Sofia Coppola
11. David Cronenberg
12. George Cukor
13. Terence Davies
14. Jonathan Demme
15. Arnaud Desplechin
16. Jacques Demy
17. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
18. James Gray
19. Howard Hawks
20. Todd Haynes
21. Alfred Hitchcock
22. Hou Hsiao-hsien
23. Shohei Imamura
24. Aki Kaurismäki,
25. Abbas Kiarostami
26. Akira Kurosawa
27. Fritz Lang
28. Mike Leigh
29. David Lynch
30. Paul Mazursky
31. Jean-Pierre Melville
32. Kenji Mizoguchi
33. Errol Morris
34. F.W. Murnau
35. Max Ophuls
36. Yasujiro Ozu
37. G.W. Pabst
38. Sam Peckinpah
39. Roman Polanski
40. Michael Powell
41. Otto Preminger
42. Satyajit Ray
43. Jean Renoir
44. Eric Rohmer
45. Raul Ruiz
46. Douglas Sirk
47. Preston Sturges
48. Béla Tarr
49. Andrei Tarkovsky
50. Tsai Min-liang
51. Gus Van Sant
52. Paul Verhoeven
53. King Vidor
54. Luchino Visconti
55. Joseph von Sternberg
56. Orson Welles
57. Apichatpoing Weerasethakul
58. Frederick Wiseman
59. Edward Yang
60. Jia Zhangke

I’m so crazy: The best of Rick James

Sweating with the effort of giving up the funk, Rick James is my least favorite of the disco and post-disco era’s major R&B stars. After 1981’s breakthrough Street Songs, he was just about done as an artist, whining dumb-ass love jive over thin synth squiggles for album after desultory album.

But enough. For a few years, Slick Rick figured out how to marry the Bernie Worrell sound to both the undulating exigencies of disco and the gabba-gabba impatience of American punk. And the competition listened. What distinguishes Prince’s performance on “When U Were Mine” and how James would have sung it is the difference between vocal modesty more adeptly selling smut, and several elbows digging into your ribs while the wiseacre insists, GEDDIT GEDDIT? James never knew when to soak his head in cold water (hardier listeners can stand “Ebony Eyes” without weeping with laughter). But without James the career of Teena Marie, no stranger to the rococo, is unthinkable. And I like small details such as Roy Ayers participating on a decent track.

But let’s say facts are facts. “Super Freak” is an annoyance, improved when MC Hammer wiped his shoes with it in 1990, kicking off his meteoric rise during the Poppy Bush Era. And Rick James is an artist we’ll need, for better and worse.

1. You & I
2. Give It to Me
3. Cold Blooded
4. Loosey’s Rap
5. Fire and Desire (w/Teena Marie)
6. Ghetto Life
7. Dance Wit’ Me, Pt. 1
8. 17
9. U Bring the Freak Out in Me
10. Make Love to Me
11. Standing on the Top, Pt. 1
12. Teena Marie – Déjà Vu
13. Mary Jane
14. Bustin’ Out (On Funk)
15. Super Freak