Three Reviews: The American Friend + Transit + No Fear, No Die

The American Friend (1977, dir. Wim Wenders)

Last month I attended a screening of The American Friend held at the Museum of the Moving Image, played in tribute to the brilliant Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who passed away in February. I am a fan of Ganz from way back, having first seen his peerless performance in Wings of Desire on TCM thirteen years ago (I remember distinctly that I was soon to graduate from junior high at the time; I felt as though I were on the precipice of exciting changes in my life). As a devotee of Ganz and Wenders, having seen many titles from both men’s filmographies, it was especially gratifying to see this unique crime drama on the silver screen.

In this adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel Ripley’s Game, Ganz portrays Jonathan Zimmermann, an expert art restorer and picture framer in Hamburg, Germany who has been told that he has terminal leukemia. Worried as to how his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) and son Daniel (Andreas Dedecke) will fare when he is gone, when an opportunity comes along to earn a fortune from mysterious businessman Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain) by acting as a hitman and killing a couple of men, Jonathan reluctantly agrees to the job. Making matters even more complicated, Jonathan is tangled up in shady transactions with Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American art dealer who traffics in forged works. Eventually, Jonathan’s associations with Minot and Ripley collide in perilous situations, including a pair of murders on a train and a climactic shootout at Ripley’s decrepit mansion.

One could describe Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper as the stars of the film, but just as vivid is the cinematography by the late, great Robby Müller, who had already worked with Wim Wenders on a number of previous films and went on to lens many classics/cult classics by Alex Cox (Repo Man), more by Wenders (Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World), William Friedkin (To Live and Die in L.A.), Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Mystery Train, Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), Andrzej Wajda (Korczak), Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark) and Sally Potter (The Tango Lesson). I mention all of these directors to highlight how respected Robby Müller was, truly a master of his craft. His technical prowess is evident throughout The American Friend, as in the famous shot of Jonathan trying to match up the edges of a painting’s frame, the incorporation of neon green lighting in shots of Ripley playing billiards in his German countryside home (here and here) and the stunning shot of clouds reflecting in a boardwalk as two vehicles race each other to a beach in the final scenes.

Story-wise, The American Friend’s occasionally confusing plot does not measure up to the all-time best cinematic version of a Patricia Highsmith thriller, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 take on Strangers on a Train. Moreover, The American Friend is a little too long, clocking in at 125 minutes. Despite these issues, Wenders’ film establishes a compelling mood for its viewers. And obviously there is a strong draw for cinephiles thanks to his quirky casting of many of the smaller roles, using celebrated directors, actors and even a singer. Appearances include Nicholas Ray (sporting his late-in-life eyepatch), Samuel Fuller (chomping on a cigar, of course), Peter Lilienthal, Daniel Schmid, Sandy Whitelaw, Jean Eustache, Lou Castel, David Blue and Rudolf Schündler. The American Friend is a meditation on the collaborative nature of art – both paintings in the film and, for Wenders, the creation of the film itself – and his use of cult favorite director Nicholas Ray is a tribute to Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that “le cinéma, c’est Nicholas Ray.”

Transit (2018/2019, dir. Christian Petzold)

Rotten Tomatoes can’t be right all the time. Transit, the latest drama by German filmmaker Christian Petzold and currently the recipient of a 96% Fresh rating on the aforementioned website, was a massive disappointment when I caught an afternoon screening at Lincoln Center recently. Starring Franz Rogowski, whose resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix has been noted by many critics, Petzold’s film (an adaptation of a 1944 novel by Anna Seghers) was designed for our current political climate, yet it never gives the audience the benefit of being able to think for itself.

The Seghers novel follows the tale of refugees trying to escape Europe during World War II, but in recreating this narrative, Petzold made the decision to film it in modern-day settings with clothing, cars and everything else typical of the year 2018. This aesthetic choice is meant to underscore the sad timeliness of Seghers’ story, observing the threat of fascism now as well as then, but one can never entirely get over the not-quite-this, not-quite-that flimsiness of Petzold’s storytelling trying to exist in two time periods simultaneously.

At its core, Transit relates most strongly to the concepts of identity and memory made malleable by circumstance. Rogowski’s Georg, who flees Germany for the sunny port of Marseille, France, assumes the identity of a writer to whom he was supposed to deliver some personal letters, having discovered that the fellow committed suicide only after arriving in France. Posing as the distinguished author, Georg locates the man’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who has no idea that her husband has killed himself. The couple fall for one another despite their unusual predicament, with each trying to figure out the other’s plans for obtaining transit visas for Mexico.

Marie and other supporting characters flit in and out of Georg’s daily existence, intended to be important yet never making the requisite emotional connections needed for viewers to care about the outcomes of their subplots. This issue has nothing to do with acting, however; it is due in large part to Petzold’s overuse of narration. He never gives either Georg or the audience a moment to rest. Yes, this is deliberate since our protagonist is a man on the run and therefore Petzold wants to highlight the claustrophobic nature of his stop in Marseille, but it is impossible for anyone watching the film to reach a conclusion about a character’s psychological state when, as soon as the dialogue pauses in a scene, the narrator jumps in to explain what emotion is being depicted and what thoughts are informing a character’s mindset. Even worse, sometimes the voiceover redundantly describes actions we are already seeing unfold unscreen, e.g., “The neighbors stood in the doorway, staring.”

Hans Fromm’s cinematography is often visually appealing, although Petzold’s drab palette interferes with it. At the film’s denouement – a truly memorable last shot – I was glad to be rid of these characters, which is the surest sign of a film’s failure. A viewer should always be intrigued by the question of what might come next. As soon as the credits started, the inclusion of an upbeat rock song felt like one last slap in the face, a suggestion that maybe nothing that had occurred over the past hour and forty minutes should have been taken seriously.

No Fear, No Die (1990, dir. Claire Denis)

Before last Monday night, I had never seen a film directed by one of France’s leading auteurs for the past three decades, Claire Denis. Fortunately, I was able to make time for a screening that was part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s retrospective, “Strange Desire: The Films of Claire Denis.” Hailed as the most complete collection of her work ever to be shown in the United States, No Fear, No Die was a real coup since the film has never been available on Region 1 DVD and I’m not sure how many times, if ever, it has been shown since its New York theatrical run in the summer of 1992.

Two of France’s finest actors, Isaach De Bankolé and Alex Descas, play Dah and Jocelyn, black immigrants – the former from Benin, the latter from the West Indies – who are forced to make ends meet by training roosters for cockfighting in the back room of a shabby restaurants run by a middle-aged white gangster, Pierre Ardennes (Jean-Claude Brialy). Very neo-noir meets Frantz Fanon: the two protagonists struggle against the racial and economic constraints of their situation, including tangling with a blonde femme fatale in the form of Pierre’s alluring wife, Toni (Wings of Desire’s Solveig Dommartin), and more nastiness from Pierre’s son, Michel (Christopher Buchholz), who is having an affair with his stepmom behind his father’s back. Dah and Jocelyn want to last in the racket just long enough to pay off their debts before moving onto the next job, but Jocelyn can’t relinquish his childhood memories of Martinique, where Pierre knew his mother. The scheme unravels for everyone.

I have read that the films of Claire Denis tend to be focused far more on atmosphere than on plot, but I found plenty of both in this drama. The cinematography by Pascal Marti, the jazzy score by Abdullah Ibrahim and the eclectic soundtrack – the best cut being Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” – perfectly complement the story’s tensions. I can’t wait to try another Claire Denis film as soon as possible, as well as more films featuring Alex Descas, whose performance in No Fear, No Die is riveting and heartbreaking.

International Women’s Day: Celebrate with These 20 Films Directed by Women, Available on YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and More

Today is International Women’s Day, and because this blog is all about promoting the wide array of films made by women behind the camera, here are twenty films (both features and shorts) from a variety of eras, genres and cultures, all viewable instantly thanks to YouTube, other streaming services and cable TV on demand.

Suspense (1913, dirs. Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber) – YouTube

“Lois Weber and Philip Smalley’s Suspense might only clock in at barely over ten minutes, but for the earliest run of home invasion films, it is by far the most memorable, utilizing many cutting-edge camera tricks and establishing a seriously unique visual style along the way. […] The story revolves around a young wife, played by Weber, who lives on the outskirts of town. One day, her husband goes off to work. Unbeknownst to Weber’s character, the housekeeper chooses exactly that day to resign due to the remote location of the home. Due to this stroke of bad luck, the wife is left alone in the house, which is bad news because it’s the exact day a very random grifter shows up to terrorize her. After locking eyes with the villain, she calls her husband for help, and he frantically rushes home while the bad guy advances on the young wife and her child.

“When discussing this film, one of the most important details is that the camera work on display here is incredible. The memorable moments are almost too many to count. When the wife very first senses something suspicious is happening, she leans slowly out the window, only to see the vagabond look suddenly up at her in a moment that still carries chills to this very day. Her phone call to her husband splits the screen into 3 triangles, one of her, one of her husband, and one of the villain methodically breaking into the house. When the husband steals a car to rush to her side, the police follow him and he peeks back at them through his passenger side mirror. While many of the camera tricks had previously been utilized in other films, the hurried pace at which they cut together in Suspense is something new entirely.” (Sara Century, Syfy)

Mabel’s Blunder (1914, dir. Mabel Normand) – YouTube

“Mabel Normand was the first major female comedy star in American motion pictures. She was also one of the first female directors in Hollywood, and one of the original principals in Mack Sennett’s pioneering Keystone Comedies. Mabel’s Blunder (1914), made two years after the formation of the Keystone Film Company, captures Normand’s talents both in front of and behind the camera.

Mabel’s Blunder features Normand as a stenographer secretly carrying on a romance with her boss’s son – played by Keystone regular Harry McCoy. She becomes jealous when she sees McCoy taking up with an attractive woman (Peggy Page), and disguises herself as a chauffeur to spy on them as they rendezvous at a restaurant. At the same time, Normand’s younger brother disguises himself as his sister, and finds himself the subject of amorous attentions from her boss (Charles Bennett). In the end, Mabel discovers that her perceived love rival is actually McCoy’s visiting sister, and everything is sorted out for the better.

“Besides trading on the comedy staples of mistaken identities and misunderstood intentions, Mabel’s Blunder also features a double-dose of another standard of farce: gender-impersonation, with Mabel disguising herself as a man, and the unidentified young actor* playing Normand’s brother donning drag to impersonate his sibling. Normand had been impersonating males for comic result ever since her Biograph days. An early Keystone, Mabel’s Stratagem (1912), had also featured Normand as an office worker who is fired when her boss’s wife feels her husband is being too affectionate to his stenographer, and insists that he hire a man for the job instead. Mabel later dons male drag and gets the job – only to find herself now becoming an object of flirtation from the wife.” (Brent E. Walker, Library of Congress)

*Note: Al St. John played Mabel Normand’s brother, as per the IMDb listing.

The Ocean Waif (1916, dir. Alice Guy-Blaché) – YouTube and Kanopy

“Alice Guy-Blaché (French, 1873-1968), the world’s first woman film director, made films for Gaumont in Paris (1896-1907), then had her own studio, the Solax Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey (1910-1914). After Solax ceased production, she became a director for hire and went to work for The International Film Service, owned by William Randolph Hearst. The plot of The Ocean Waif adheres closely to the Hearst agenda: a romantic story, plenty of pathos but no brutality, a likeable hero and an innocent young woman, and a suspenseful plot with a dramatic and happy ending (‘the Mary Pickford school of narrative’). Blaché’s parody of the Pygmalion-type love story gives equal screen time to each lover’s point of view, but also skewers conventional class tropes. Doris Kenyon stars in the title role of an abused young woman who finds safety and eventually love in the arms of a famous novelist.” (Kanopy)

Craig’s Wife (1936, dir. Dorothy Arzner) – YouTube

“Columbia, to be quick about it, has been able to do quite well with [George] Kelly’s drama of domestic infelicity. Mary McCall Jr. has retained all that mattered of the original lines, Dorothy Arzner—Hollywood’s only woman director—has given them a full hearing without sacrificing camera mobility, and a supple cast headed by Rosalind Russell and John Boles has translated the whole into a thoroughly engrossing photoplay which has a point to make, keeps it constantly in view and drives it home viciously at the end. ‘People who live to themselves are generally left to themselves.’ That is Mr. Kelly’s story and Craig’s Wife makes the best of it.

“Since ten years have passed since the play was shown here, a brief reminder of its materials may be in order. Harriet Craig was a woman with a purpose—she wanted a home, symbol of permanence, position and security. To attain it she married and to retain it she had to obtain full control of her husband, modeling him into just another bit of house furnishing. Always it was the house that counted; dustless, friendless, a temple of material things which, if she guarded well, would be hers for the keeping.

“…The entire weight of the drama depends upon the malign effectiveness of its central character and Miss Russell, here enjoying her first real opportunity in Hollywood, gives a viciously eloquent performance. Mr. Boles, although sincere and natural in the rôle of the husband, is unable to keep his audience from jeering in that dramatically feeble moment of rebellion when he breaks crockery and spills cigarette ashes. That, admittedly, was more Mr. Kelly’s fault than Mr. Boles’s. The other players are uniformly splendid, with special mention of Alma Kruger as the aunt, Elizabeth Risdon as the housekeeper, Nydia Westman as the maid. Billie Burke as the flower-gathering neighbor, Thomas Mitchell as Fergus Passmore and Robert Allen as the niece’s suitor.” (Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times)

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946, dir. Maya Deren) – YouTube

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) silently follows Rita Christiani’s perspective as she enters an apartment to find Maya Deren immersed in the ritual of unwinding wool from a loom. Deren includes another expression of the external invading the internal with a strange wind that surrounds and entrances her as she becomes transported by the ritual. Ritual in Transfigured Time links the looming ritual with the ritual of the social greeting. Christiani enters a party, meets and greets, moving throughout the crowd like a dancer. Her movements become increasingly expressive and fluid, the ritual becomes a performance. Key themes in this film are the dread of rejection and the contrasting freedom of expression in the abandonment to the ritual.” (Wendy Haslem, Senses of Cinema)

The Hitch-Hiker (1953, dir. Ida Lupino) – YouTube

“With no major female characters, Ida Lupino’s 1953 film The Hitch-Hiker is somewhat idiosyncratic in her feature film directing career. Considered a director with a strong female identity, Lupino shows she can handle a gritty all male thriller just as skillfully as one of her mentors, Raoul Walsh. She was also admittedly an admirer of Allan Dwan, Fritz Lang and cinematographer George Barnes. The Hitch-Hiker, made in 1953, tells the story of two weekend fishermen, Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) who graciously but unfortunately pick up hitchhiker Emmett Myers (William Talman). Myers turns out to be a psychopathic mass killer who forces the men to take him across the border to Mexico. The remainder of the film is a claustrophobic ballet of survival between the two hostages and the killer. Lupino keeps the trio in close quarters throughout the film enforcing the fear that escape is impossible. Much of the time the three men spend in cars and small backrooms, yet even in the openness of the Mexican desert Lupino’s camera confines the characters’ space.

“From the opening sequence, Lupino keeps you on the edge of your seat with the threat of violence about to explode at any moment. Filmed by the magnificent cameraman Nicolas Musuraca, it is filled with stark, contrasty black and white imagery that enhances the moody aridness of the brutal desert heat. What is amazing is how much Lupino accomplished with such a low budget, both in front and behind the camera. Like all of Lupino’s directed features, this was a no-frills production.” (John Greco, Twenty Four Frames)

Mister E (1960, dir. Margaret Conneely) – YouTube

“A domestic black comedy, Mister E expresses some of the edgier mischief and discontent that women of mid-century America could rarely express openly. This short film narrates the revenge acted out by a young wife, left at home while her husband is at a card game; by staging a rendezvous with a mannequin, this woman provokes an eruption of jealousy and violence before bringing about the desired marital tenderness.” (Chicago Film Archives)

The Heartbreak Kid (1972, dir. Elaine May) – YouTube

“Scripted by Neil Simon, May’s most critically and commercially successful film as director induces both laughs and shudders in its acerbic portrait of male egotism, selfishness, and cruelty. The Heartbreak Kid opens as nebbishy salesman Lenny (Charles Grodin) hits the road with his new bride Lila (played by May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) for their honeymoon in Miami Beach. Unconscionably annoyed by Lila’s whiny neediness before they reach the first rest stop, Lenny realizes that he’s made a mistake — and when he sets eyes on blonde socialite Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) at their beachfront hotel, he abandons the sunburned Lila in her room and sets out in pursuit of the shiksa dream goddess. ‘A first-class American comedy’ (Vincent Canby, The New York Times); ‘The culminating work of Hollywood’s Jewish new wave[,] as well as a hilarious riposte to [Mike Nichols’] The Graduate … a masterpiece of social pathology’ (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice).” (2018 Toronto International Film Festival)

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982, dir. Amy Holden Jones) – YouTube

The Slumber Party Massacre was conceived as a parody of the slasher and its gender dynamics (as they were interpreted in the early ’80s, of course) by screenwriter Rita Mae Brown, a lesbian activist and novelist. In the years that followed, Brown complained that her satirical script was stripped of its satire by a studio that was more interested in luring in the usual horror movie target market of teenage boys than in making some kind of feminist commentary. But her complaint misses the mark. Maybe this isn’t the movie that Brown envisioned when she was writing it, but under the earnest direction of Amy Holden Jones, The Slumber Party Massacre turned out to be a whip-smart slasher that totally works as both a genuinely well-done cheapie slasher film and as a twist on the standard slasher psychology. There is still plenty of satire here, but it’s affectionate, gentle satire—not really genre-busting, as Brown perhaps intended it to be. Indeed, its cleverness actually makes it much more fun than many inferior slashers, and in the end it’s more likely to bring new fans into the fold than convince anyone that the whole genre is worthless. The Slumber Party Massacre gives slasher fans every single thing they could possibly want from this genre, with a ton of bonus wit that makes viewers feel smart and the film feel like a ton of fun. And that’s something you just don’t get every day.” (Megan Weireter, NotComing.com)

Little Women (1994, dir. Gillian Armstrong) – Netflix

“‘Some books are so familiar reading them is like being home again,’ Jo March observes in the new film version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel. She’s talking about Shakespeare, but we all know Little Women is a book like that, one of the most seductively nostalgic novels any child ever discovers. As the gold standard for American girlhood, it lingers in our collective consciousness as a wistful, inspiring memory. Ladies, get out your hand-hemmed handkerchiefs for the loveliest Little Women ever on screen.

“Gillian Armstrong’s enchantingly pretty film is so potent that it prompts a rush of recognition from the opening frame. There in Concord, Mass., are the March girls and their noble Marmee, gathered around the hearth for a heart-rendingly quaint Christmas Eve. Stirring up a flurry of familial warmth, Ms. Armstrong instantly demonstrates that she has caught the essence of this book’s sweetness and cast her film uncannily well, finding sparkling young actresses who are exactly right for their famous roles. The effect is magical. And for all its unimaginable innocence, the story has a touching naturalness this time.

“…The direction by Ms. Armstrong, who long ago summoned memories of Little Women with My Brilliant Career (1979), is sentimental without being saccharine. And the film maker is too savvy to tell this story in a cultural and historical vacuum. So this Little Women has ways of winking at its audience, most notably when the tomboyish, intellectually ambitious Jo March reveals that she has cut off and sold her mane of hair. ‘Jo, how could you?’ wails Amy. ‘Your one beauty!’ Well, this Jo is Winona Ryder and the joke is that she has beauty to spare, along with enough vigor to dim memories of Katharine Hepburn in the now badly dated 1933 George Cukor version. Ms. Armstrong reinvents Little Women for present-day audiences without ever forgetting it’s a story with a past.” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)

Fire (1996, dir. Deepa Mehta) – YouTube

“In this film, Radha is unwavering in her devotion to her husband, Ashok, despite their sexless arranged marriage. For 15 years, she has been the consummate Indian wife, while Ashok, under the guidance of a spiritual leader, is attempting to rid himself completely of any form of desire. Meanwhile, Ashok’s brother Jatin has brought home his new wife, Sita, but is unwilling to give up his relationship with his Chinese girlfriend. Added to the mix are Biji, Ashok and Jatin’s infirm mother, who keeps a watchful eye over the family. Slowly, Sita’s presence causes the threads that held the family together to unravel.

“Each member tries to hang on to a semblance of allegiance to the deeply rooted traditions of Indian family life, while at the same time seeking expression for their own personal needs and desires. Unable to woo her new husband, the young and feisty Sita is the first to question the order of things. Her doubts are contagious, and soon Radha’s devotion begins to waver, too. Deprived of their husbands’ affections, the two women draw closer together in ways neither imagined.

“Director-writer Deepa Mehta has captured the shifting landscape of the entire Indian subcontinent, where both men and women are caught in the immense tension between the continuity of the extended family and the desire for greater freedom and independence. Lusciously photographed and passionately told, Fire ignites the senses and the emotions.” (Jinah Kim, Harvard University Department of History of Art and Architecture)

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Frida (2002, dir. Julie Taymor) – Showtime (streaming or on TV via the Showtime on Demand channel)

“The tormented, turbulent and passionate life of legendary painter Frida Kahlo, an artist of unique and bountiful talent – and an icon of suffering who has become known in Mexico as the saint of the afflicted – was too big to fill a single canvas. She suffered for her art and made art out of suffering, merging art and life in autobiographical canvases that mixed Mexican folk art with European surrealism. Hard to capture on film. But Lion King director Julie Taymor, an artist with her own fame for stylish and audacious visuals, has knocked herself out condensing the breathless melodrama of that life into a film of overwhelming artistry, beauty and impact. The result is Frida, the greatest movie about an artist since Vincente Minnelli grafted the psychological turmoil of Vincent Van Gogh onto the screen in Lust for Life.

“Belying its $12 million budget, the film is a lush, sensuous triumph with wonderful music, sumptuous cinematography that matches [Salma] Hayek’s beauty, and a striking use of puppets, computer animation and collages that come to life, in locations ranging from the colonial city of Puebla and the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan to La Casa Azul, Frida’s famous villa in Coyoacán, named for its azure blue walls. The film begins and ends in that house, with the stench of gangrene already upon her as her first exhibition is being planned in Mexico City. Forbidden by her doctor to leave her bed, Frida is carried through the streets by mariachis in the same four-poster bed where she taught herself to paint lying in a horizontal position. In flashbacks, we see her as a spunky teen, dressing like a boy to scandalize her parents; the horrific accident that left her crippled for years; and the bizarre relationship with Diego that began as fellow comrades fighting capitalism and led to an eternal love affair that brought her more torture than joy. Diego is played by Alfred Molina as a mad, excessive and violent hedonist with lusty appetites for food, fiestas and fornication. (On the morning after their wedding, Frida awoke to find Rivera’s ex-wife cooking his favorite mole sauce in her kitchen. The woman stayed for years!) By all accounts, Frida was a better painter, but in the early stages of their life together, she sublimated her own talent to be his muse and inspiration and play a supplemental role in his career.

“…Ms. Taymor manages to piece together the salient facts of a life charged by sex, politics and art with coherence and a strong allegiance to narrative, but at the same time she rubs the material with a brilliant patina of her own. Straightforward biography is superimposed with visuals, as the paintings of Kahlo and her husband Diego appear and dissolve. Kahlo devoted herself to the Buddhist theory that pain can produce beauty (‘I took my tears and turned them into paintings,’ she declared in her diaries), and Ms. Taymor knows the tricks of perspective to take all of these elements closer to Frida’s state of mind, in which art and life merge cinematically. The transition from Frida’s psychological pain to the surrealism with which her conscience finds its way to her canvases is daring but not pretentious, and there is always something amazing and luscious to look at. I have seen it twice, and I found awesome discoveries both times. I have heard this movie called everything from a masterpiece to pure kitsch – which would probably have amused the wicked, fun-loving Frida immensely. Julie Taymor’s vision of Frida Kahlo’s life and art is as prankish as its subject – an artful echo of a lyrical, sensual, voyeuristic, anarchic slapstick tragedy.” (Rex Reed, The New York Observer)

Sabah (2005, dir. Ruba Nadda) – YouTube

“In Arabic, sabah means ‘morning,’ and Sabah’s main visual metaphor is of a delicate flower stretching toward the morning sun. Played by one of Canada’s finest actors, Arsinée Khanjian, Sabah is a dutiful daughter in a close-knit, immigrant Muslim family who lives at home taking care of her mother. But something’s missing: having resisted an arranged marriage, she’s never known love. On her fortieth birthday her over bearing brother Majid (played by Jeff Seymour), gives her a photograph of herself as a little girl in Syria, standing by the seashore with their now deceased father. The photograph awakens a remembrance in Sabah, and like the influential Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Malas, Nadda uses memory as a formal device to lead Sabah toward her future.

“Fuelled by this long forgotten joy and sense of freedom, she secretly goes to a local pool. There, she meets Stephen, a Canadian non-Muslim (played by Shawn Doyle), who accidentally grabs her towel, her only protection in this foreign environment. Sabah takes a courageous first step toward her own happiness by gradually starting to talk to him. In doing so, she sets off a chain of events that eventually affects her entire family.

“…Federico Fellini once said, ‘The only visionary is the realist because he bears witness to his own reality.’ Nadda writes what she knows. Like traditional Arab writers, she weaves together aspects of her own life with those of her characters, mixing dream into reality. Born in Montreal in 1972, of Syrian and Palestinian parents, Nadda moved around Canada a lot while growing up. From those experiences, she says, ‘I developed an acute sensitivity and empathy. I’m able to identify with people and put myself in their shoes. And I can take that and put it in a film.’ Briefly living in Damascus at the age of sixteen, Nadda learned just how precarious a girl’s freedom in a Muslim country is: she was almost married against her will. From that moment on she says, ‘I enveloped life. When you’ve almost had your independence taken away from you, you never want to go through that again.’ Once, on the bus during her last year at York University she saw a Muslim woman in a burqua, completely covered head to toe; only her eyes were visible. Nadda wondered about the woman’s sexual urges and what would happen if she fell for the ‘wrong’ man. That moment gestated within her, slowly forming into what would eventually become Sabah.” (Noelle Elia, POV Magazine)

Mamma Mia! (2008, dir. Phyllida Lloyd) – Netflix

“Hanging a tale of a woman whose daughter might have been fathered by one of three attractive men on a bunch of ABBA songs sounds simple, but its simplicity is as deceptive as the masterfully crafted songs themselves. [Meryl] Streep plays Donna, a former singer, who has raised daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) alone at a fading resort on a remote Greek island. Sophie finds her mother’s diary from 20 years earlier and discovers that there are three men who might be her father. About to be married to boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper), she sends invitations to the celebration to all three on behalf of her mother but without telling her. Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård, as the possible dads, show up on the island where Donna is readying the wedding, helped by her two best pals (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski). The scene is set for songs, dancing and romance, all staged brilliantly, with many energetic and colorful performers, and beautifully shot.” (Ray Bennett, The Hollywood Reporter)

The Innocents (2016, dir. Anne Fontaine) – Netflix

“During a bitterly cold winter, tucked away in a provincial Polish village just after World War II, seven nuns are secretly pregnant. While the women sing in their barren church with faded blue stucco walls, a shriek echoes in the abbey, prompting one mischievous sister to race through the snowfall and into the woods for help. Some orphans lead her to the French Red Cross. There, she catches the attention of a young woman doctor, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who at first refuses to help the nun, following protocol, eager to please her male superiors with her hardened obedience. But the sight of the nun praying in the snow shakes some ice from Mathilde’s heart, and she comes to the rescue of another nun birthing a breech baby. Talk of science and faith dominate the conversations of Mathilde and French-speaking nun Maria (Agata Buzek). But both are struggling — Maria with her belief in God after the Russian soldiers who seemed meant to save them imprisoned them as prostitutes instead, Mathilde with the belief that she could ever be a respected woman of science in a male-dominated world.

“…Now, the idea of a woman’s loss of freedom isn’t necessarily fresh territory. Neither are nuns in a postwar Polish winter; Pawel Pawlikowski’s spare tale Ida (2013) already did a fine job with that, with a black-and-white palette of shadows that perfectly captured the isolation of both the season and the religious calling. But The Innocents departs with a surprisingly warm tone in both color and feeling. A calming natural light ribbons through every cold landscape, catching the almost translucent white skin of the nuns and the billowing navy and black of their habits — very Vermeer.” (April Wolfe, LA Weekly)

Raw (2016, dir. Julia Ducournau) – Netflix

It’s the cannibal movie that caused people to faint at a film festival – this is what people talk about when they talk about Raw, the extraordinary body-horror parable from French director Julia Ducournau. The incident, which happened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, might cause folks to view this as some sort of cinematic dare, a splatter shocker designed to test the limits of the scary-movie marine corps. Consider this a disclaimer, and a reclamation: The story of a young woman (Garance Marillier) who develops a taste for certain off-the-menu delicacies is indeed intense. It’s also after much bigger game than merely thrilling folks who’ve studied Fangoria photo spreads with Talmudic-scholar fervor. Smelling salts are not required, but the ability to recognize a near-perfect movie when you see it most certainly is. If Get Out reminds folks that you can smuggle intelligent social commentary and timely conversation-starters in to theaters via explosive genre packages, then Ducournau’s feature debut doubles down on the notion. In terms of the female-body politic, it’s an art-horror dirty bomb.

“…Ducournau has referred to her movie as a coming-of-age story, and you can see this waifish character go from awkwardly tottering in high heels (a shot that spells out the movie’s ideas on femininity drag; don’t even ask about the Brazilian waxing sequence) to aggressively asserting herself over 99 blood-flecked minutes. Girl, you’ll be a man-eating woman soon, and though references to bulimia and trichophagia suggest control issues run psychologically amuck, Justine also discovers a sense of empowerment in this taboo line-crossing. She begins to take ownership of her body by consuming others’.

“None of which should suggest that Raw is simply a grad-school term paper smothered in gore. Ducournau knows how to make the vocabulary of horror filmmaking either finesse or bludgeon with a frightening degree of facility. Few movies have used pacing and composition to such an effective degree in the name of XX-centric dread (the film owes as much to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as it does to the cinema of repulsion), or understood how to employ color so effectively – from a seven-minutes-in-heaven encounter involving blue and yellow paint to the crimson drop on a white lab coat that signals a Type-O deluge. There’s a hallucinogenic quality to the deadpan scenes of Justine coming to grips with this personal channeling of passion and perversity, and a shocking aspect to the carnage that feels invasive in a way most shock artists can’t conjure. You never get the sense that you’re not watching a master at work, regardless of how scant Ducournau’s filmography is. She is the real thing.” (David Fear, Rolling Stone)

The Party (2017, dir. Sally Potter) – Hulu

“In Potter’s pitch-black, claustrophobic comedy, a stellar ensemble including Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Emily Mortimer, Cherry Jones, Cillian Murphy and Bruno Ganz tussles for a lean 71 minutes. While too many plot details threaten to spoil a delicious denouement, here’s the gist: an eclectic mix of guests gather at Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) elegant London home to toast to her new appointment as health minister, a seeming boon in an increasingly bleak political moment. But, by night’s end, their verbal sparring, accompanied by a slate of life-altering revelations (from adultery to a medical diagnosis), derails any hopes of a sit-down dinner. And then there’s that pesky Chekhovian gun…” (Olivia Aylmer, Vanity Fair)

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Step (2017, dir. Amanda Lipitz) – Hulu

Step looks like a dance film, but it’s really a rollercoaster ride about expectations, drive, and achievement. The weight in each rhythmic stomp produced by the young women featured in this movie isn’t just to produce a sound in glorious sync, but to signal a togetherness in an often-brutal world. Amanda Lipitz’s inspiring, Sundance award-winning documentary follows three African American teenage girls in Baltimore as they wend their way through a senior year in which they’re not just contenders for a statewide step dance crown, but also the first graduating class at an all-girls charter school designed with the express purpose of sending its students to college. The competition in Step isn’t just to hit a stage and win a talent prize, but to beat the odds in life. Start figuring out now how to clap and dab away tears at the same time; it’s that kind of experience.” (Robert Abele, TheWrap)

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Shirkers (2018, dir. Sandi Tan) – Netflix

Shirkers is a documentary about the production of an uncompleted movie, but it doubles as an upgraded version of the missing project itself. As a punk teen in early-nineties Singapore, Sandi Tan wrote a feminist slasher movie for the ages, an exploitation road movie designed to ruminate on the energy of youth, creativity, and alienation. The director, a much older American high school instructor with dubious motives, stole the film canisters for unknown reasons and vanished into the mist; two decades later, Tan has completed a fascinating personal look at her quest to uncover his motives, resurrecting the significance of her original intentions in the process.” (Eric Kohn, IndieWire)

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018, dir. Susan Johnson) – Netflix

“Romantic comedies have been forging a comeback, led by a recent boom on Netflix. The latest strong case for the genre’s revival is To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which embraces its rom-com trappings with a distinctly millennial self-awareness. Based on Jenny Han’s beloved YA novel by the same name, the movie centers on the life of Lara Jean Covey (X-Men: Apocalypse‘s Lana Condor), a shy high school student who’d rather watch Sixteen Candles on a Friday night than try to find her Jake Ryan in real life. Her widowed father (John Corbett) and protective sisters worry that she’ll spend the rest of high school with her nose buried in her treasured romance novels as opposed to socializing. That all changes when the secret love letters she has written to her crushes–who range from the jock she smooched during a game of Spin the Bottle in the seventh grade to the boy next door who also happens to be her big sister’s boyfriend–are mysteriously sent to their addresses. As might be expected, chaos ensues. But Lara Jean’s embarrassing predicament soon develops into an unlikely love triangle that encourages her to come out of her shell and embrace her vulnerability.

“In many ways, the story feels like the teenage rom-coms of years past that Lara Jean loves to watch–but its sensitivity and cultural consciousness improves on its predecessors. In one memorable sequence, Lara Jean (who’s biracial, Korean and white) watches Sixteen Candles on a date, leading to a thoughtful discussion of the film’s now-glaring racism. Other complex issues–like slut-shaming, cyberbullying and the death of a parent–are tackled with nuance. Equally refreshing is the care given in establishing Lara Jean as the heroine of her life. In a genre that frequently resorts to clichés, the movie resists reducing her to an adorkable, lovelorn lead. Much of this is thanks to Condor, who plays Lara Jean with a charming pluckiness that reads as both endearing and empowering.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is only one of a plethora of youthful rom-coms to hit Netflix this summer in the streaming giant’s bid to bring back the form. But its heartwarming and clear-eyed approach to first love and the challenges of coming-of-age distinguishes it from its contemporaries. Add it to your queue.” (Cady Lang, TIME Magazine)

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, dir. Peter Weir)

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Like another of Peter Weir’s 1970s films set in his home country of Australia, The Last Wave, the drama Picnic at Hanging Rock (adapted by Cliff Green from the novel by Joan Lindsay) is suffused with a haunting aura, asking us to contemplate the riddles of the unexplained. Neither film is sad, exactly, but they are deeply unsettling, even more so thanks to Weir’s refusal to give his audiences the typical kinds of resolutions that would probably be demanded of an American director.

Set on Valentine’s Day in 1900, which is at the end of Australia’s summer, Picnic at Hanging Rock poses a disturbing question: how and why did three students and a teacher from an all-girls school vanish without a trace while on a day trip to the title geological formation? Of the subgroup that was drawn to climbing further up the difficult paths to cliffs and caves, only Edith (Christine Schuler) saw the disappearance of Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), Irma (Karen Robson), Marion (Jane Vallis) and Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray). There is no satisfactory explanation as to where the quartet went, all seemingly under Hanging Rock’s strange and magnetic spell while Edith was able to escape and run back to the others.

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Those who are left to puzzle over the mystery are faced with the terrors of the unknown. Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), the domineering headmistress who sent her schoolgirls on the fateful excursion, struggles to cope with the aftermath of a situation she cannot control; tenderhearted housemaid Minnie (an early role for Jacki Weaver) pities the lost souls; French instructor Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse) is tormented by the memory of the girls saying goodbye before ascending Hanging Rock; another student, Sara (Margaret Nelson) – an orphan who is treated with disdain by Mrs. Appleyard – agonizes over the loss of her roommate, Miranda, with whom she is clearly in love. Finally, there are wealthy Michael Fitzhubert (Dominic Guard) and stableboy Albert Crundall (John Jarratt), local teenagers who were among the last to see the pretty trio of students before they went missing. The tragedy looms large in the minds of these young men, one of whom has an unexpected connection to a member of the hiking party.

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Were the girls and Miss McCraw swallowed up by Hanging Rock? What secrets do the boulders possess, or what peculiar brew of science and faith? The incident appears to be a metaphor for sexual awakening and the concept of a “loss of innocence,” but what else does it imply about young girls who are lead (or lead themselves) astray? There is an eerie, supernatural tone to Picnic at Hanging Rock, leaving its enigmas lingering in the stillness of the hot summer air. For that reason, the movie is both frustrating and engrossing. Photographed exquisitely by Russell Boyd and using Gheorghe Zamfir‘s pan flute composition “Doina: Sus Pe Culmea Dealului” as the key theme on the soundtrack, Picnic is a film that will stay with you long after it is over.

Nancy (2018, dir. Christina Choe)

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The only way to describe the psychological drama Nancy is as a mixture of Liza Johnson’s film Return, as far as being a low-budget portrait of a woman in small-town America whose life is quietly spiraling downward, and of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, with Choe’s debut feature being a somber take on a woman using media (including social media) to escape her damaged life and create a new one. In all three films, a woman searches for a cure-all that will fill the emptiness in her soul, craving the validation that she believes she needs to define her identity.

The main character of Nancy is Nancy Freeman (Andrea Riseborough), a 35-year-old woman who lives on autopilot. She works temp jobs in and around her upstate New York town and spends the rest of her time taking care of her overbearing mother, Betty (Ann Dowd), who is afflicted by Parkinson’s disease. In any available moments, Nancy stares at the screens of her phone or computer, seemingly addicted to the glow. She uses technology to gain sympathy from strangers; on a blog, under the pseudonym “Becca,” Nancy writes of the grief she has experienced since the death of her daughter. Although she lies about more than her name – including when and how her daughter died – Nancy wants so badly to experience an emotional connection that she goes on a lunch date with one of her readers, Jeb (John Leguizamo), maintaining the deception for as long as possible.

Soon after Nancy’s last encounter with Jeb, Betty dies suddenly from a stroke. This renders Nancy even more depressed and listless than usual. She finds renewed purpose just a few days later, however, when she sees a TV news interview with Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron) and Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi) on the thirtieth anniversary of their daughter Brooke’s disappearance. The resemblance between Brooke and Nancy is shocking; the latter realizes that she has an opportunity to potentially gain the loving parents she has never had, although she can’t anticipate the toll it will take on her or on the hopeful couple when she insinuates herself into their lives.

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A lot of little details in Nancy add up to make it compelling viewing. The preternaturally large, haunting blue eyes and stark black hair of Andrea Riseborough enhance her character’s aura of detachment, a demeanor that is complicated, one presumes, by a lifetime of sadness. (Childhood traumas are alluded to, though we never learn the full extent of what Nancy endured.) I didn’t mention it in the first paragraph, but another film that Nancy reminds me of is Bug, the William Friedkin thriller about a mother mired so deep in mourning and denial for her vanished child that folie à deux with an evidently mentally ill man is their only logical answer to so much pain. Maybe this is a stretch, but I think Nancy also bears comparison with another little-seen drama released this year, Allure, in which the two female protagonists (one of whom has a history of childhood sexual abuse) yearn for independence from their fractured families, sliding into a dangerous relationship that fools the both of them into a false sense of security until reality becomes too glaring to ignore.

On the other side of the camera, Zoë White’s cinematography for Nancy captures the chilly austerity of New York State in winter, while Peter Raeburn’s score has a melodramatic sound that alternately evokes memories of Angelo Badalamenti’s work on “Twin Peaks” and of Cliff Martinez’s music for sex, lies, and videotape. Most intriguing, however, is the decision made by Christina Choe and editor David Gutnik to restrict the film’s images to the boxlike 4:3 aspect ratio for the first half hour, until the point when Ellen invites Nancy to come to her house. When Nancy packs her bags – as well as her cat, Paul – to embark on a road trip that may result in a brand new life, her world literally and figuratively opens up, demonstrated by the screen’s slow expansion to the “cinematic” 16:9 ratio as she leaves her dull existence behind.

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Getting back to discussing the acting: besides Andrea Riseborough’s strong performance, J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi do wonderful jobs as Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, particularly the always underrated Smith-Cameron, who has received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards. Ann Dowd and John Leguizamo also make memorable impressions, despite limited screen time. I like that the director cast Buscemi and Leguizamo against type, granting them space to inhabit characters who establish quite easily that they are gentle, thoughtful men who discuss their feelings and are not afraid to show their care and concern for others. I have to admit that I didn’t entirely “get” the ending scenes of Nancy when I saw the film for the first time this past Friday night, but after watching again while simultaneously listening to Christina Choe’s commentary track on the DVD, certain themes and narrative choices appeared to come together more effectively. I appreciate films that give me more ideas to contemplate the second time around.

The Favourite (2018, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

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Run, don’t walk, to your nearest theater to see The Favourite, the new period-piece comedy from Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) that I currently deem the best new film I have seen in 2018. It hits all my sweet spots as a viewer: political intrigue, historical accuracy, absurd humor, extravagant costumes and production design, creative cinematography and, most important, three lead actresses who give marvelous performances as richly complex characters.

The role of “the favourite” alternately belongs to Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and to her conniving cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), as they curry favor with Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in England circa the early 1700s. To some extent, Sarah – elevated to near-royal status by her marriage to Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) – has the upper hand since she has been Anne’s closest confidante, as well as her lover, for decades. Abigail, however, is a far more deceitful person, having learned as a teenager how to adapt to difficult situations when her father lost her to another man in a card game. Upon gaining employment in Queen Anne’s court, Abigail quickly maneuvers her way into Anne’s good graces. The question of who has allegiance to whom tears at these women, even as they trade snarky barbs at each others’ expense. Here, malice is often served with a smile.

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A few men do their utmost to proclaim power over the three women, like Lord Harley (an uproarious Nicholas Hoult), who seeks out every possible opportunity to pull Queen Anne’s strings and get his way in matters of state; Lord Masham (Joe Alwyn), who pursues Abigail with unabated passion; and the Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), who is the proud owner of Horatio, known far and wide as “the fastest duck in the city” (yes, Lanthimos shows us a duck race!). But no matter what developments occur in the plot regarding England’s position during the War of the Spanish Succession, these men remain peripheral to Anne, Sarah and Abigail’s intersecting lives. I’m not sure if any male director has made a more pointedly feminist film this year than Yorgos Lanthimos.

Go see The Favourite on the big screen and you will see why it is a shoo-in for a mass of Oscar nominations. Among the film’s many top-notch accomplishments are the direction by Yorgos Lanthimos, the witty screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, costumes designed by Sandy Powell and the combined art direction, production design and set decoration by assorted masters of their respective crafts (the attention to detail on those sets is remarkable). I would also like to give special attention to Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, which constantly utilizes either extreme low angles or a fisheye lens so that the distorted images can visually mimic the absurd, borderline surreal nature of the events that transpire within the walls of Queen Anne’s castle. The icing on the cake is the soundtrack, filled with era-appropriate music by Baroque composers Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Purcell, in addition to later works by Schubert and Schumann. Finally, there is the song that plays over the end credits; no spoilers, but it happens to be my all-time favorite (ha!) recording by one of the world’s greatest recording artists, so you can imagine how tickled I was to hear it – the perfect garnish to top off Lanthimos’ delectable film.

My Favorite Albums of 2018

Now that we’ve reached the end of December, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite albums from this year. I’m particularly proud of the emphasis that I placed on listening to new music by women, which will be obvious as you make your way through the post. As I hope is the case every time I make these annual rankings, my goal is not so much that anyone should be awed by my short paragraphs of explanation (doubtful since my schedule didn’t allow me enough time to edit my writing too closely – let me know if there are any weird errors!), but rather that my mentions of these artists will spread positive awareness of them. If I can share my appreciation for a singer or band and subsequently inspire someone to become a fan, the work will have been worth it. Have a good time with this, everybody!

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15. Seinabo Sey, I’m a Dream

Standout Tracks: “Never Get Used To,” “I Owe You Nothing,” “My Eye,” “Truth,” “Breathe,” “Good in You”

I might never have heard of Gambian-Swedish singer-songwriter Seinabo Sey if I didn’t regularly check out Pitchfork reviews, although luckily I started listening to I’m a Dream before reading Katherine St. Asaph‘s piece, which unfairly marks Sey’s album with a 6.0 grade. Sey’s second album, following Pretend (2015), continues her interest in marrying soul/R&B with pop, moving through different tempi to exhibit her perspectives on romantic and familial relationships. Most inspirational among the songs is “Breathe,” an empowering reminder from Sey to herself that no matter what hardships she endures, she is valuable and magical.

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14. Black Belt Eagle Scout, Mother of My Children

Standout Tracks: “Soft Stud,” “Keyboard,” “Mother of My Children,” “Yard,” “I Don’t Have You in My Life,” “Sam, A Dream”

There may not have been a more impressive debut single in 2018 than “Soft Stud,” a searing ode to unrequited lust. The rest of Katherine Paul’s album is fairly quiet by comparison, but her first full-length project as Black Belt Eagle Scout burns with longing. A self-described “radical indigenous queer feminist,” Paul draws from her experiences growing up in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington to tell stories both deeply personal to her and universal in the desires they communicate. Album closer “Sam, A Dream” is the best example of how Paul blends those two concepts, taking a minimalist lyrical approach to expressing her love for the song’s subject before spending a solid two and a half minutes on a guitar solo to finish the record, a sound so beautiful that you feel like you’re floating when you hear it.

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13. Blossoms, Cool Like You

Standout Tracks: “Cool Like You,” “Unfaithful,” “How Long Will This Last?” “Between the Eyes,” “Lying Again,” “Love Talk”

For those of us who love a good tune that pays homage to 80s New Wave and synthpop, Blossoms are your band. They don’t seem to have made anywhere near as much of an impact in the US as they have in their native UK, and British critics weren’t exactly bowled over by this sophomore album (despite it hitting #4 on the charts), but I’ll bet that most of today’s young American bands would kill to put out a single half as catchy as “Cool Like You,” or anything close to the upbeat yet still sort of bittersweet perfection of “Love Talk.”

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12. Shannon Shaw, Shannon in Nashville

Standout Tracks: “Bring Her the Mirror,” “Broke My Own,” “Leather, Metal, Steel,” “Love I Can’t Explain,” “Cold Pillows,” “Make Believe”

Stepping away from her role as frontwoman of Oakland, California’s surf-punk outfit Shannon and the Clams, Shannon Shaw’s debut solo album Shannon in Nashville is an entrancing collection of songs deeply inspired by 60s girl groups, Roy Orbison and, of course, Dusty “Dusty in Memphis” Springfield. Even if you’d never heard Shaw’s voice before now, it would instantly become iconic to your ears thanks to melodies that sound just as timeless as their predecessors from half a century ago.

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11. Say Sue Me, Where We Were Together

Standout Tracks: “Let It Begin,” “But I Like You,” “Old Town,” “After Falling Asleep,” “About the Courage to Become Somebody’s Past,” “Coming to the End”

Korean-American indie rock band Say Sue Me have a sweet, light touch that makes both their snappy power-pop efforts like “But I Like You” and “Old Town” and also somewhat more serious-minded guitar showcases like “Let It Begin,” “About the Courage to Become Somebody’s Past” (an instrumental that gives me real “This Magic Moment” vibes) and “Coming to the End” equally appealing. I don’t speak or understand Korean, so I don’t know how lead singer Sumi Choi’s lyrics for “After Falling Asleep” translate, but the fact that I love it anyway is a testament to the fact that fantastic music always transcends barriers of language.

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10. Robyn, Honey

Standout Tracks: “Missing U,” “Human Being” (feat. Zhala), “Baby Forgive Me,” “Send to Robin Immediately,” “Honey,” “Ever Again”

I didn’t expect to love Robyn’s newest album upon first listen back in October, but now I do, so here we are. A couple of months spent absorbing her woozy beats has made me appreciate Robyn’s ability to evoke moods that feel specific to her particular talent as an artist. The loss that inspired the album – the death of one of her closest friends, Christian Falk, in 2014 – pervades nearly all of the tracks, but they are relatable and will still make you want to dance, closer to light than to darkness. Even in songs like “Human Being” and “Baby Forgive Me,” where the rhythms and (to cite the latter’s credits in the album liner notes) “sad robot voice” play with notions of human artistic creation juxtaposed with machine-manufactured products, Robyn herself is always in front and center, and in the album’s crown jewel, the title track “Honey,” her maturity as a storyteller is evident.

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9. cupcakKe, Eden

Standout Tracks: “PetSmart,” “Cereal and Water,” “Garfield,” “Prenup,” “Blackjack,” “A.U.T.I.S.M.”

All Hail Queen cupcakKe. On her second album of the year, following January’s Ephorize, the Chicago rapper continues to show why she’s one of the best women in the game. “PetSmart” starts things off incredibly, exhibiting one entertaining brag after another, then the rest of the album displays more of her often laugh-out-loud humor, endless pop culture references, a bunch of her quintessential sex-centric jams (”Garfield,” “Typo,” “Blackjack”) and a song dedicated to people on the autism spectrum (”A.U.T.I.S.M.”). Every now and then there are moments that indicate that cupcakKe still has room to grow, like when she uses the R slur on “Garfield,” but ultimately her heart is in the right place; besides the aforementioned “A.U.T.I.S.M.,” she has also recorded songs in support of the LGBTQ+ community (”LGBT,” “Crayons”), so I am certain that she’ll eventually learn from her mistakes. As one YouTube commenter wrote on one of her videos: “She should be where Cardi B is.” Indeed.

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8. Chelsea Jade, Personal Best

Standout Tracks: “Ride or Cry,” “Pitch Dark,” “Colour Sum,” “Laugh It Off,” “Over Sensitive,” “High Beam”

New Zealand-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Jade has not yet hit it big in America like her younger compatriot, Lorde, but there is an ample proof on Personal Best that Jade can craft earworms with memorable hooks and intelligent lyrics. (Seriously, when was the last time you heard the word liminal used in a pop song, as Jade does on “Laugh It Off”?) She has her foot in the door in America as a lyricist, credited as one of the writers of this year’s Chainsmokers single “You Owe Me,” but one hopes that the “Accidental Dream Pop Hero” of Auckland, NZ will claim her own chart-topping stardom one day.

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7. Beach House, 7

Standout Tracks: “Lemon Glow,” “L’Inconnue,” “Black Car,” “Lose Your Smile,” “Girl of the Year,” “Last Ride”

I thought I knew what to expect from a Beach House album after following their career for the past few years, but “Lemon Glow” and “Black Car” hit me like gorgeous sledgehammers anyway when they were released earlier this year, still taking my breath away every time I hear them. I don’t know how Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally manage it, but they keep finding sophisticated ways to update their mining of the same musical territory in a tried-and-true comfort zone. Beach House’s secret seems to be that they have deduced all the algorithms necessary to hypnotize listeners. 7 is perhaps less exciting to me than the duo’s last album, Thank Your Lucky Stars, since the freshness of first being introduced to their music in 2015 has faded, but I’m glad to report that their new songs are absolutely worthy of praise.

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6. Soccer Mommy, Clean

Standout Tracks: “Still Clean,” “Cool,” “Your Dog,” “Last Girl,” “Skin,” “Wildflowers”

Nashville, Tennessee’s Sophie Allison, who performs under the moniker Soccer Mommy, wowed me with this ten-track album full of indie rock gems. At age 20, she is ready to take the music industry by storm, evoking her heroes Liz Phair and Mitski while always maintaining a recognizable individual style. This is most apparent on the more upbeat tracks – “Skin,” for example, is a brutally honest articulation of yearning, and if ever there was a year that needed a blistering takedown of abusive relationships like “Your Dog” as its rallying cry, it’s 2018.

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5. Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

Standout Tracks: “Hopefulessness,” “Charity,” “Need a Little Time,” “Nameless, Faceless,” “Help Your Self,” “Sunday Roast”

It took a while for Courtney Barnett’s latest album to sink in with me. Tell Me How You Really Feel is the definition of a slow burn; it has just as much of Barnett’s trademark dry humor, but it also brings to the surface a sensitivity beyond what she revealed on her breakthrough album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015). Most of all, I think she’s enjoying exploring what she can do with her melodies, like the guitar solo on “Help Your Self,” her incorporation of Margaret Atwood’s famous “men are afraid, women are afraid” quote in the chorus of the #MeToo/#TimesUp anthem “Nameless, Faceless” or the amount of time it takes her to reach the “Keep on keeping on/You know you’re not alone” part of “Sunday Roast.” Listening to new music by Courtney Barnett is as rewarding an experience as any modern-day alternative rock fan could want.

5 - Caroline Rose

4. Caroline Rose, LONER

Standout Tracks: “More of the Same,” “Jeannie Becomes a Mom,” “Getting to Me,” “To Die Today,” “Soul No. 5,” “Animal”

I was magnetized to Caroline Rose’s music from the intriguing opening notes of “More of the Same,” the first of many riffs that LONER gifts to us. My favorite track is “Jeannie Becomes a Mom,” which continues a classic singer-songwriter tradition of relating the ups and downs of another woman’s life, especially her dreams for a brighter future. She also moves through a few genres besides indie rock with skill, employing elements of trip-hop on “To Die Today” and R&B on “Talk” and “Animal” in engaging ways. (According to Rose in a press release, LONER is “as much inspired by Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears as it was late-’70s punk,“ which I can believe.) Rose’s sense of humor might be the best part of the album, though, as seen in her sharp wit and sarcasm on “Money,” “Soul No. 5” and “Bikini,” the last of which is a bouncy number mocking the industries that compel women to become sexualized puppets tailor-made for public consumption.

I also find this Out Magazine quote from Caroline Rose about how she incorporates her own sexuality enlightening: “When I was first starting, I was kind of afraid to make being queer a part of my identity for fear that it would consume it, because that happens to a lot of artists, unfortunately. When you’re first starting, that is the way people identify you cause that’s all you get. You get one elevator pitch and if you’re lucky, a 30 second clip of what your music sounds like—and that’s the pitch. But I hit a point where I was like, ‘That’s dumb.’ People should be as much of themselves as possible, ‘cause then everyone would be super unique. No one else is you. You are independent of other people and you can do whatever you want with your identity and your body and the way you dress and the way you act. I realized I should just be myself—middle fingers up and no fucks given, ‘cause life is really short. My life is zipping by and I’m okay with that, but I want to make sure I do it right.”

3 - Wild Moccasins

3. Wild Moccasins, Look Together

Standout Tracks: “Boyish Wave,” “Temporary Vase,” “Longtime Listener,” “Missing You (the Most),” “No Muse,” “Waterless Cup”

Few bands that I discovered in 2018 have dazzled me quite like Houston, Texas’s Wild Moccasins. When the pair at the heart of the group, vocalist/keyboardist Zahira Gutierrez and guitarist Cody Swann, ended their romantic relationship a few years ago, they turned their complex jumble of reasons and reactions into art. But Look Together isn’t a mopey breakup record; “Longtime Listener,” the song that immediately turned me into a fan, is a slice of New Wave heaven, while “Missing You (the Most)” and “No Muse” are just as jaunty but dig into the more personal side of the duo’s songwriting. “Missing” ends with a repetition of the lines “You only want me if you get the chance to change me/You only want me if you get the chance to save me,” while “No Muse,“ a pointed examination of how men (especially artists) undermine and belittle the women in their relationships, features this cogent chorus: “I’m no use to you unless I’m undressed/I’m no muse to you/You cut me in two unless I say yes/I’m no muse to you/And you can sing about it all you want/I must not want it bad enough, bad enough.”

2 - Miya Folick

2. Miya Folick, Premonitions

Standout Tracks: “Thingamajig,” “Premonitions,” “Stock Image,” “Stop Talking,” “Deadbody,” “Baby Girl”

Thanks to Pitchfork, I first heard of Miya Folick when her single “Deadbody” came out this past March. It immediately struck me as a manifesto for our new age, where women can move forward with confidence thanks to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. That song alternately demonstrates subdued menace and loud, unapologetic anger, but “Stock Image” and “Premonitions” show that Folick has a strong leaning towards modern pop music; “Stop Talking” is so commercially accessible that it’s as much of a bop as any sugary confection by Carly Rae Jepsen. Folick’s debut album – after having released a number of EPs and standalone tracks over the past few years – showcases a woman whose voice and songwriting abilities have limitless potential, and she’s only just getting started. To quote some of Folick’s lyrics from “Stop Talking,” seemingly a summary of her artist’s statement: “You have to make a choice/Don’t be an accidental voice/We have to speak with grace/We will become the words we say.“

1 - Mitski

1. Mitski, Be the Cowboy

Standout Tracks: “Geyser,” “Me and My Husband,” “Nobody,” “Pink in the Night,” “Washing Machine Heart,” “Two Slow Dancers”

It’s no mistake that so many end-of-year best-of lists have placed Be the Cowboy at the top of their rankings. Mitski’s fifth album finds her wading through deep pools of emotion in brief, lovely bursts of song, with twelve out of the fourteen tracks running two and a half minutes or shorter. It was pretty difficult for me to pick only a handful of highlights from an album that is so impressive in every conceivable way, so just know that every cut is a masterpiece. She puts words to the feelings we all carry inside, diamonds that glisten for fleeting moments but linger in the memory for a long time afterward.

honorable mentions (lps)

HONORABLE MENTIONS (alphabetical)

Cher, Dancing Queen (”Dancing Queen,” ”Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” “The Name of the Game,” “Waterloo,” ”Fernando,” ”One of Us”)

Farao, Pure-O (”Marry Me,” “Get Along,” “Luster of the Eyes,” “Cluster of Delights,” “Gabriel,” “Triumph Over Me”)

Florence + The Machine, High as Hope (”Hunger,” “Big God,” “Patricia,” “100 Years,” “The End of Love,” “No Choir”)

Juliana Hatfield, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (”I Honestly Love You,” ”Physical,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Xanadu,” “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round,” “Make a Move on Me”)

Marie Davidson, Working Class Woman (”Your Biggest Fan,” ”Work It,” ”The Psychologist,” “Day Dreaming,” “So Right” [although the extended version is even better since the opening lines are brought back in the last thirty seconds, making the song’s ending even more effective], “Burn Me”)

honorable mentions (eps)

HONORABLE MENTIONS #2: EPs (alphabetical)

Ellis, The Fuzz (”The Drain,” “Frostbite,” ”What a Mess”)

Hatchie, Sugar & Spice (”Sleep,” ”Try,” “Bad Guy”)

King Princess, Make My Bed (”Talia,” “Upper West Side,” “Holy”)

Margaret Glaspy, Born Yesterday (”Before We Were Together,” ”One Heart and Two Arms,” “I Love You, Goodnight”)

Sevdaliza, The Calling (”Soul Syncable,” “Energ1,” “Human Nature”)

Ms .45 (1981, dir. Abel Ferrara)

After watching the endlessly strange and fascinating drama Bad Lieutenant recently, I knew I had to see some more of controversial director Abel Ferrara’s work. On the surface, Ms .45 is just another exploitation flick from its era, a post-Death Wish/Taxi Driver rape revenge story intended to trade on the sick pleasures of watching a female victim of sexual violence punish all men for the sins of a few. And the film is certainly the product of testosterone-driven artists; it was written (Nicholas St. John), directed (Abel Ferrara), photographed (James Lemmo), edited (Christopher Andrews) and scored (Joe Delia) by men. Despite those details, it can be argued there would be no Ms .45 without the lead performance of Zoë Lund, then an eighteen-year-old Columbia University student making her feature film debut.

Lund, known at the time by her birth name Zoë Tamerlis, portrays Thana, a mute woman who is employed as a seamstress in Manhattan’s Garment Center neighborhood. On a sunny afternoon, while returning home from her job, she is sexually assaulted twice; first, by a man in a mask (played by Abel Ferrara) who pulls her into an alley, and then by a robber who had broken into her apartment sometime earlier and lay in wait until Thana opened her door. Already traumatized by the previous attack, Thana kills the second offender by bludgeoning him in the head with a paperweight. In a daze, Thana methodically dismembers the rapist’s corpse, lining her fridge with garbage bags full of body parts. Crucially, Thana takes possession of the man’s gun, hiding it in her purse for daily protection on the city streets.

The gun changes everything about Thana. She transforms from a shy introvert to a vigilante serial killer of men, not only those who catcall her or try to assault her but also citizens who have committed no crime other than being male. Thana’s new identity gives her a voice she never had before, and she adjusts her physical appearance accordingly by wearing heavy makeup and fashionable outfits and by putting her hair up in an efficient ponytail. Aided by her more glamorous image, Thana lures her prey to their deaths in various scenarios; her power is fueled by the sorrow and anger of every woman who has been objectified and hurt by men.

It’s hard to say whether this tale of retribution has a moral at the end or not, although the film concludes with a final scene that wraps up its grim narrative on an unexpectedly light note. Determining whether Ms .45 is a feminist film seems like a moot point since that’s not a term I would use to describe Abel Ferrara, based on the comments I’ve heard him make about Lund and other actresses in interviews – the jury’s still out on screenwriter Nicholas St. John, although I assume his views on women were somewhat similar since he had been friends with Ferrara since high school – but ultimately the film would not have the impact that it has without Zoë Tamerlis Lund as its star. You can never look away from her. She commands every frame with her bright green eyes and with her believable development into a single-minded assassin. Late in the film, Lund has her most memorable moment when Thana dons a nun’s habit and bright red lipstick for a Halloween party being thrown by her handsy boss; the poses that Thana assumes as she looks in a mirror and aims her revolver like a big-screen sharpshooter are chillingly reminiscent of Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle. Like the Greek mythological figure that Thana is linked to by name symbolism – Thanatos, god of death – there is a larger-than-life aura surrounding her ability to destroy the male population of New York City.

Research tells me that Zoë Lund was a polyglot, a prolific writer and an accomplished musician/composer, in addition to being the daughter of renowned sculptor Barbara Lekberg. Was Ms .45 to blame for Lund’s decision to abandon her privileged upbringing and education, temporarily move to Europe and become a heroin addict, the last of which defined her existence until her drug-related death in 1999? I don’t know; maybe the path she traveled was one she would have found regardless of a cinematic career. Perhaps there will never be a neat, sensible answer to the question. What remains indisputable, however, is that Lund elevates Ms .45 into something more than a portrait of New York City at its scuzziest. As difficult as the film may be to watch due to its frank themes, it is consistently engaging, a thought-provoking study of how rape and PTSD can alter a woman in unimaginable ways and reshape her concept of herself within society.