Sunday, December 30, 2012

The movies I loved in 2012

This is the time of year when professional pop culture writers and amateur bloggers alike talk about all the TV shows, music, movies, etc. that they really loved over the past 12 months.  For myself, I barely watch television and I don't listen to enough new music to make a list of that worthwhile. I did have to do a Top 10 list for Cadence but that was a couple of months ago and I've since heard several things I would have considered for it if I hadn't had to turn it in so early.

Movies are the one thing I feel comfortable doing a list for.  I don't go out of my way to watch new films as soon as they come into the theatres but I do see a ton of them on DVD and in repertory theatres. Since I've seen several other people do "New To Them" lists of the best films they saw for the first time within the last year I'm doing one of those. Saying all that, it turned out that most of the films in my personal Top 10 were released within the last couple of years.  In fact a current film I just watched this morning has edged The Pawnbroker off the list. Here then are the ten best films I saw for the first time in 2012.

10.  Michael Clayton (2007)

George Clooney has been a very dependable presence for quality films in the last few years.  He misses sometimes, as with The Ides Of March, but this thriller, a tightly structured story about a professional fixer who gets involved in a sinister corporate coverup, is really good work.  Clooney is tough and steely and Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton have excellent supporting roles as well.

9.  Lincoln (2012)

I went off Steven Speilberg after being bored by Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom long agoHis roller coaster camera moves and broad comedy just wore me out.  I've been meaning to catch up with his more serious films like Saving Private Ryan and Munich for a while but I never did. Then I saw this!  The movie takes a relatively overlooked detail of Abraham Lincoln's life, his fight to pass the constitutional amendment to ban slavery, and makes a compelling drama out of it. It takes the shining halo off Lincoln's head and shows he had to be a crafty and sometimes devious politician to get important things done. Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent and will probably win his third Oscar easily but the show-stealing performance here is by Tommy Lee Jones as the radical abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

8.  Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

This is the one I saw today, a romantic comedy that redeems the genre's reputation,  a wild, multi-faceted story about two psychologically damaged people finding each other with parents, bookmaking, the Philadelphia Eagles, and a dance competition all figuring in.  Bradley Cooper is wonderful in the male lead, doing a lot of heavy lifting just with his eyes and face and Jennifer Lawrence proves again she is a fine young actress while being indecently hot to boot. Robert DeNiro erases the memories of years of indifferent performance in lousy movies and  even Chris Tucker does a good job.

7.   The Sessions (2012)

I'm obviously drawn to movies about outsiders and messed up people because there are a lot of them on this list. This is a wonderful drama about a man made an outsider by nature,  Mark O'Brien, a journalist and poet who contratced polio as a child and spent most of his life living in an iron lung or on a respirator. It's the story of what happened when he decided to lose his virginity so he could have a full relationship with a woman and hired a sex surrogate to teach him what to do.  It's funny and poignant without ever being maudlin or over the top.  John Hawkes is really wonderful as O'Brien as is Helen Hunt as the woman who becomes his therapist and friend.

6.  Leap Year (1922)

Here's the joker in the deck, the one film on this list that is not recent. I found it in a DVD set called The Forgotten Films Of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and it's a feature length comedy Arbuckle made in 1921 a few months before the scandal that destroyed his on-screen career. It was only released in Europe and never saw the light of day on American screens.  Arbuckle plays a rich and single playboy who inadvertently gets engaged to three different women while really being in love with a fourth.  It's a wild farce that shows off Arbuckle's great physical skill at falls, dives and tumbles as well as his ability to play a sympathetic romantic comedy lead.  This shows how sad it is that more of Arbuckle's later work hasn't survived.

5.  The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson's story of unrequited love between the founder of a cult-like religion played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and the damaged ex-sailor he takes under his wing played by Joaquin Phoenix.  It's sprawling, dreamlike and quite lovely. Amy Adams, as Hoffman's wife, like Cooper and Lawrence, gives one of this year's "Where the hell did that come from?" performances.

4.  Melancholia (2011)

I dearly love Lars Von Trier's Breaking The Waves and Dogville  but I was skeptical if this could be as good as I had heard. It is. It's a meditation on finding your own peace while the world literally collapses around you. Kirsten Dunst proves yet again that there are a hell of a lot of good young actresses around these days.  I've never seen another film turn the end of the world into a thing of serene beauty this way.

3.  We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

The most extraorindary thing about this film is Tilda Swinton's performance as a mother who comes to realize that her young son has the capacity for murder and can do almost nothing about it. This film turned out to have some eerie presentiments about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the whole thing is a slow-growing horror story.

2.  Poetry (2010)

This Korean film resembles Kevin slightly in that it's about a parent who deals with the fact that her child did something horrible, but here it's a grandmother who finds out the grandson who lives with her is one of a bunch of boys who drove a classmate to suicide.  The grandmother is also suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's and trying to find some measure of peace and happiness in her life through writing poetry.  It's a beautiful and haunting film and the lead actress Jeong-Hie Yun is a strong, heartbreaking presence with the fragile determination of Takashi Shimura in my beloved Ikiru.

1.  Higher Ground (2011)

I wrote about this one earlier and it continued to stay with me more than anything else I saw all year. The personal search for religious faith is something filmmakers rarely touch and even then, never with the honest uncertainty that Vera Farmiga put in this movie.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


You don't often get to say you've seen a genius perform, but just off the top of my head, I've done that four times.  Once was seeing Cecil Taylor's trio at Blues Alley several years ago and the other three have been performances by Anthony Braxton, two long ago in a quintet with the Rova Saxophone Quartet and a duo with George Lewis, and the third tonight at the Kennedy Center.

Braxton is one of the most celebrated and far-ranging figures in modern jazz/new music/what-have-you, a composer, player, and teacher who, over five decades, has pioneered the solo saxophone album, written for ensembles of every size and even composed operas.Tonight Braxton played DC's usually staid home of Official Culture with his Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet made up of the man himself on reeds of every size, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones and Taylor Ho Bynum on brass. They were brought there by pianist Jason Moran, the Center's forward thinking Artistic Advisor for Jazz who sat in with the group, making it a quintet.  I've heard Braxton recordings in many different settings but this was the first time I'd experienced the intricate ensemble music he's been making in recent years live. The show was amazing.

For this group Braxton starts by cueing up sound files on a laptop, then turning over an hourglass ("It helps us" he said to the audience) to start the performance.  The group then weaves over, under, around and through the computer sounds for the next seventy-odd minutes. Everybody in this group is an imaginative and experimental leader in their own right but they had no trouble in fitting right into Braxton's concepts.  Sometimes the horns shrank to whispers and barks, sometimes there were gorgeous bits of melody.  Halvorson, who studied under Braxton at Wesleyan University, would cut through the haze with heavy power chords and underscore the overall sound with delicate picking. Bynum, who has been releasing much of Braxton's recent large scale work on his Firehouse 12 label, barked, growled and smeared on cornet, various trumpets and even trombone.  Moran, who to my knowledge was new to this music, stayed in the game admirably, filling in rhythms behind the others and occasionally playing agitated free solos. Laubrock, another fairly new participant to this world, played forceful tenor, alto and soprano and added her own arsenal of vocalized sounds and squeaks. 

The leader himself was awesome to behold, playing everytihing in the sax family from a small sopranino to a huge contrabass instrument he wheeled into position on a tripod.  Braxton is so celebated as a theorist and composer today you forget that he is also a hellacious sax player and, though 67 years old, he was playing tonight as beautifully and intensely as he ever has.  He had a couple of solo passages on soprano that were so hair-raising they nearly had me screaming with joy. I kept my cool though because the audience stayed respectfully silent throughout the proceedings.

That silence seemed to be a good one.  The typical Kennedy Center audiences tend to prefer safer fare so I wondered how they would take to this wondrous madness. A few people did leave during the show but I'll give most credit. They stayed until the end.  A friend told me later that there were not a lot of the usual faces at this show so many people probably knew what they were in for. I'm sure there were a few Center regulars though who were exposed to something radically new tonight.  Hopefully the Center will continue to allow Moran to bring in "out there" masters like Braxton in the future.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I've been wondering if anything would rouse me from my recent torpor and inspire me to write on this blog again. It's finally happened but unfortunately it took death to do it.  Dave Brubeck, the legendary and innovative jazz pianist, died today at the age of 91.

When I was a little boy in the early 1960's Jazz was an accepted part of the popular culture and it was everywhere on television.  Brubeck was a large part of that for me. I don't remember the first time I heard "Take Five" but it seems like it was always around whether on the radio or some live TV appearance with the great Brubeck quartet.  He was as ever present on TV in those days as your average superstar rapper or American Idol zombie is today.  When CBS broadcast the Kentucky Derby back then, the theme music for the show was Brubeck's version of "Camptown Races".  I can remember commericals for Washington Senators baseball telecasts that used the Quartet's sprightly "Unsquare Dance" for background music. 

The quartet with Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello, was the most famous group of Brubeck's career but it was really just a part of it. He seems to be often overlooked in the Cliff Notes version of jazz history which lists the most influential post-war pianists as Monk, Powell, Evans and Tyner and you can't think of that many players who have openly followed his craggy, chord-heavy style but he was a major figure, one of the first to combine classical music and jazz with his early octet, pioneering in unusual time signatures like the 5/4 beat of you-know-what (which was actually written by Desmond) and going on to write classical works in his later years. Some people knocked Brubeck for not "swinging" enough and seemed to dismiss him because of his massive commerical success.  Listening to him ("Blue rondo A La Turk" is playing behind me right now) you have to wonder what they were hearing. For all its complexity his playing could be emotional, funny, tender and viscerally thrilling.  That impish, off-center vamp in "Take Five" is famous for a reason. You just can't get that rolling, slightly sinister line out of your head.

I regret I never got to see him live. The last few times he played in DC the tickets were way out of my price range. Listening to recent recordings though he never seems to have lost his edge.  I have a CD of a live concert by son Chris Brubeck's jazz-blues group TriplePlay recorded just last year. Halfway through the show they play  a version of "Blue Rondo". In the middle of it  there is wild cheering from the audience as the pianist bangs out the crashing chords of the theme.  Even if you hadn't read the liner notes you would know that Papa Brubeck was sitting at the bench, though you otherwise never believe that this energetic, charging music was coming from a 90 year old man.

Dave Brubeck's music had a sly, sophistcated coolness which no one did quite the same way.  His collaborators over the years included a select number of great saxophonists lie Desmond, Gerry Mulligan and on one singular occasion, Lee Konitz and Anthony Braxton. Beyond that were collaborations with Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Jimmy Rushing.  He was a giant.

Rest in peace, Dave.