My Favorite Albums of 2017


Here is my top ten list for albums I listened to in 2017, plus a few honorable mentions for good measure.


10. TLC, TLC

Standout Tracks: “Way Back” (feat. Snoop Dogg), “Perfect Girls,” “Start a Fire,” “American Gold,” “Scandalous,” “Joy Ride”

From the moment TLC’s self-titled, fifth and final album kicks off with the vibrant opener “No Introduction,” a contradictory yet inspiring reminder of this R&B girl group’s indomitable spirit, I knew that I was in a for a good time. I’m so glad that Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas returned to the studio for a follow-up to 3D, which came out shortly after Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’ death in 2002. T-Boz and Chilli bring elements of R&B, pop and funk to TLC, infusing many tracks with a 90s-throwback vibe that never feels dated. Lead single “Way Back” is the album’s best example of that particular style, but I love the atmospheres created by acoustic guitar on the empowerment anthem “Perfect Girls” and on the sultry ballad “Start a Fire,” as well as the social commentary of “American Gold,” the braggadocio of “Scandalous” and the retro groove of album closer “Joy Ride.” I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to know that T-Boz and Chilli are still crazy, sexy and cool enough to put together an album this enjoyable from start to finish.


9. Feist, Pleasure

Standout Tracks: “Pleasure,” “Any Party,” “A Man Is Not His Song,” “Century” (feat. Jarvis Cocker), “Baby Be Simple,” “I’m Not Running Away”

Feist’s Pleasure is a slow-burner. Like the title track, the album as a whole takes a while to warm up, but after a while I found that the melodies had stuck with me and didn’t leave. Without question the best song on the album is “Century,” an uptempo masterwork of songwriting, performance and production; many of the album’s highlights have relaxed paces, though, and it’s hard to argue against the loveliness of “A Man Is Not His Song” (which has my favorite lines from Pleasure: “A man is not his song/And I’m not a story/But I wanna sing along/If he’s singing it for me”), “Baby Be Simple” (which, dare I say it, begins to feel magical at the 4:39 mark) and “I’m Not Running Away.”


8. Marika Hackman, I’m Not Your Man

Standout Tracks: “Boyfriend,” “Gina’s World,” “My Lover Cindy,” “Apple Tree,” “So Long,” “Eastbound Train”

The rock influences of the 1990s are all over English singer-songwriter’s Marika Hackman’s second full-length album. This is a good thing, like how opening track/lead single “Boyfriend” recalls Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung” and how “Gina’s World” contains echoes of Nirvana. And for my money, “My Lover Cindy” is probably the #1 song of the year; with a dark sense of humor and sunny guitar licks, it’s an ideal pop-rock jewel that will lodge in your brain and never leave.

I love that Hackman’s songs wittily observe the highs and lows of queer identity while maintaining a universality that every music fan can appreciate. With I’m Not Your Man, Hackman has shot to the top of my list of the most talented women in indie rock right now, alongside Angel Olsen and Courtney Barnett.


7. Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (aka Buckingham/McVie)

Standout Tracks: “In My World,” “Red Sun,” “Lay Down for Free,” “Game of Pretend,” “On with the Show,” “Carnival Begin”

It may be uncool or corny to admit it, but I love the recent album by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. Few critics feel the same way, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a well-crafted tune. Buckingham/McVie, as they are often credited, have been in this business for half a century, so it’s safe to say that they know a thing or two about how to make memorable music. Whether you’re a fan of the duo from back in their peak Fleetwood Mac days or you’re a younger listener who just wants to savor some great earworms, you can’t go wrong with the infectious melodies of “In My World” and “On with the Show” and the slower, more sensual motion of “Carnival Begin.”


6. Texas, Jump on Board

Standout Tracks: “It Was Up to You,” “Tell That Girl,” “Sending a Message,” “Great Romances,” “Won’t Let You Down,” “Round the World”

Like the Buckingham/McVie album, Jump on Board by Scottish band Texas was labeled mediocre by most music critics. But I knew that Texas’s tenth studio album (their debut, Southside, came out in 1989) would be fun before I even heard it; I’ve been a fan for years, ever since I heard a charming BBC Radio interview with lead singer Sharleen Spiteri – isn’t that a fantastic name for a rock band frontwoman? – and the radio show’s host played the wonderful Texas song “Detroit City.” I became an immediate devotee of the group and have adored their work ever since. Jump on Board’s “Tell That Girl” has a similarly 80s-ish aura, but the sound branches out on “Won’t Let You Down,” which evokes classic Pretenders ballads; “Great Romances” (my personal favorite), which borrows its beat from the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”; the shimmering rhythms of “It Was Up to You” (like updated disco, reminiscent of Roxy Music and solo Bryan Ferry); and the smoldering rockabilly voodoo of “Sending a Message.”

P.S. Last year, Sharleen Spiteri wrote a really nice piece for The Guardian about Harry Dean Stanton, whose film Paris, Texas sparked her band’s name. If you haven’t read it, please do.


5. Father John Misty, Pure Comedy

Standout Tracks: “Pure Comedy,” “Total Entertainment Forever,” “Ballad of the Dying Man,” “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” “The Memo,” “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”

Full disclosure: I don’t know much about Father John Misty, outside of some essays and reviews I’ve read over the years. I’m not familiar with his catalog prior to Pure Comedy, although I keep telling myself that I’ll listen to Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear, in addition to his releases under the “J. Tillman” name, at some point. As a newbie who approached his Pure Comedy album from what I hope is a fairly fresh perspective, I must say I’m impressed. I know that his music is polarizing and engenders a lot of “masterpiece”/”overrated hack” arguments, but I like when that happens with artists; it makes me think that they’re doing something right to inspire such extreme views.

The lyrics on this album are superior to just about everything else that has been released this year and I could easily put a spotlight on nearly every song, although “Total Entertainment Forever” – the first track I heard prior to the album’s release – is the one that will probably stay with me the longest, capturing our freaky zeitgeist with insight, morbid humor and a little snazzy saxophone. There’s no way to top the sheer audacity of its opening lines: “Bedding Taylor Swift/Every night inside the Oculus Rift/After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes/And now the future’s definition is so much higher than it was last year/It’s like the images have all become real/And someone’s living my life for me out in the mirror…” Truly a songwriter for these bizarre, unbelievable times.


4. Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life

Standout Tracks: “Lust for Life” (feat. The Weeknd), “Cherry,” “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing,” “Tomorrow Never Came” (feat. Sean Ono Lennon), “Change,” “Get Free”

Lust for Life is the first Lana Del Rey album that I have loved from beginning to end. I wasn’t enamored of the opening track, “Love,” when I first heard it last year, but hearing it in the context of the entire album has given me a renewed admiration for the lushly produced songscapes that Del Rey creates. You really fall into a different world when you listen to her music.

“Lust for Life” is yet another 2017 song to reference “My Boyfriend’s Back” (as well as having “do-do-do-dos” similar to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”), while the lyrics of “Cherry” allude to the classic duet “Summer Wine” by two of Del Rey’s heroes, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems” and “Tomorrow Never Came” are collaborations with Stevie Nicks and Sean Ono Lennon, respectively, while the uplifting album closer “Get Free” cites Neil Young (”out of the black… into the blue”) and the chord progression of Radiohead’s “Creep” (Lana’s not alone; Angel Olsen kind of did that too on her single “Fly on Your Wall,” although the bigger similarity is with Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”). But my absolute favorite track on Lust for Life is “Change,” a haunting statement about realizing the abilities we all have to learn, grow and improve our world that pays homage to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” along the way.


3. Blondie, Pollinator

Standout Tracks: “Doom or Destiny” (feat. Joan Jett), “Long Time,” “Fun,” “My Monster,” “Too Much,” “Fragments”

If there is any truth we can rely on in this weird world of ours, it’s that Blondie can always deliver top-quality records. Pollinator, the renowned band’s eleventh album since 1976 (they were on hiatus during 1982-1997), has the same glorious New Wave/pop-punk dynamism that Debbie Harry and company have gifted us with for these past forty years. They worked with some excellent collaborators this time around, featuring Joan Jett on the chorus of “Doom or Destiny” (which has a terrific, politically charged music video), as well as the lyrical contributions of Blood Orange (aka Dev Hynes) on “Long Time” and Johnny Marr on “My Monster,” plus a cover of “Fragments” by An Unkindness (Adam Johnston). Chris Stein is still a legend on the guitar and Clem Burke – in my most humble of opinions – continues to be one of the best rock drummers on the planet, worthy of going toe to toe with anyone half (or even a third) his age. Extra special mention goes to the Greg Cohen Spirit of 79 remix of “Fun,” which is even better than the version on the album.


2. Harry Styles, Harry Styles

Standout Tracks: “Meet Me in the Hallway,” “Sign of the Times,” “Carolina,” “Only Angel,” “Ever Since New York,” “Woman”

I was never a serious follower of the ultra-successful boy band One Direction, but you can put me down as a fan of “What Makes You Beautiful,” “One Thing” and “Temporary Fix.” Those are three genuinely delightful songs. So I looked forward to what Harry Styles had to offer as an individual performer, interested in what, uh, styles (sorry) he would display on his first solo effort. Luckily, his self-titled debut turned out to be an entertaining achievement, filled with the exuberance and sincerity of a man eager to forge his own path in the music industry. I knew as soon as the album’s first song, “Meet Me in the Hallway,” began that this was not going to be a typical millennial endeavor, and I remained impressed throughout the next nine tracks. I applaud young Mr. Styles’ high levels of ambition.

Worldwide hit “Sign of the Times” has timeless appeal, while “Only Angel” and “Kiwi” burst with brazen vigor, “Woman” is a soulful jam and the love songs “Two Ghosts,” “Sweet Creature” and the Badfinger-inspired “Ever Since New York” are more quietly impactful. Styles shows further maturity on the album closer, “From the Dining Table,” perhaps not lyrically but certainly from an artistic POV. If I have to pick one favorite cut from the album above all, though, I might have to go with “Carolina,” Styles’ most exuberant ode to his muses from the 70s. (I especially love the la-la-las in the background vocals.) Does Harry Styles want to be David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Marc Bolan and Pete Ham, all at the same time? Yeah, probably. But it works for me.


1. Slowdive, Slowdive

Standout Tracks: “Star Roving,” “Don’t Know Why,” “Sugar for the Pill,” “Everyone Knows,” “No Longer Making Time,” “Falling Ashes”

In the early 90s, Slowdive was a pioneering band in the shoegaze subgenre of indie rock, lending the dreamy vocals and guitar sounds of Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead to the albums Just for a Day (1991) and Souvlaki (1993), in addition to the more experimental textures of Pygmalion (1995). (Some favorites of mine from this era include “Spanish Air,” “Brighter” and “When the Sun Hits.”) The group – which I gather was pretty underrated in their early years, never popular with mainstream listeners and disliked by music critics – disbanded shortly after the critical and commercial failures of that third album, but Slowdive’s triumphant reunion in 2014 led to their latest, self-titled release. And it’s incredible.

Slowdive is only eight tracks long, but each one shines in a unique way. “Slomo” is a perfect opener, slowly unfolding with a classic Slowdive ambience. The feeling endures as the album progresses, especially beautifully in “Don’t Know Why,” which melts my ears into heavenly bliss and is definitely one of my top five favorite songs of the year, and in the final track, “Falling Ashes,” an eight-minute epic propelled by an insistent piano hook. You could listen to any of Slowdive’s recordings, though, and be dazed by the constant splendor. More than any other album in 2017, Slowdive fused past, present and future to shape a collection that glows with both alt-rock imagination and delicate, poignant finesse.



Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest (“Lying with You,” “Kate,” “Deadly Valentine,” “I’m a Lie,” “Les Oxalis”)

Valerie June, The Order of Time (“Shakedown,” “If And,” “Man Done Wrong,” “Just in Time,” “Slip Slide on By”)

Angel Olsen, Phases [B-sides, rarities, covers and new recordings] (“Fly on Your Wall,” “Special,” “Sweet Dreams,” “For You,” “How Many Disasters”)

Phoenix, Ti Amo (“J-Boy,” “Ti Amo,” “Goodbye Soleil,” “Fleur de Lys,” “Role Model”)

Ride, Weather Diaries (“Lannoy Point,” “Charm Assault,” “All I Want,” “Home Is a Feeling,” “Cali”)

Alexandra Savior, Belladonna of Sadness (“Audeline,” “Cupid,” “’Til You’re Mine,” “Vanishing Point,” “Mystery Girl”)


Friday Music Focus: 6/23/17


Friday Music Focus returns with eleven brand-new or recent songs to enrich your sonic experiences in 2017.

Courtney Barnett, “How to Boil an Egg” (single, 2017). From a YouTube user comment: “0/10. recipe was difficult to follow, eggs were terrible.”

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie,”On with the Show” (appears on the album Buckingham/McVie, 2017). It’s not easy to write a good pop song. It’s probably even more trouble for artists who have been around for decades, constantly being compared and contrasted with the entirety of their own lengthy history. To be totally frank about my own music-awareness deficiencies, I don’t know the entire Fleetwood Mac songbook, so I’m not judging Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie’s new duets album (described by The Guardian’s Jude Rogers as “like togetherness put on, not poured out” and by Pitchfork’s Sean T. Collins as “fun—just not fundamental”) against the weight of a half-century-long catalog. I am therefore delighted to be so unbiased as to consider “On with the Show” a pop gem. In fact, it gives me the same joy that case/lang/veirs’ lovely tune “Best Kept Secret” did last year. How could that possibly be a bad thing?

The Dirty Dishes (Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally and Fred Armisen), “Love and Lies” (music video made for the film Band Aid, 2017, dir. Zoe Lister-Jones; studio version appears on the album The Dirty Dishes EP, 2017). The new movie Band Aid, which was written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones, stars Lister-Jones and Adam Pally as a couple who tackle the thorny problems in their marriage by writing and performing songs in a band they form in their garage. The trio is rounded out by a neighbor (played by Fred Armisen) as their unendingly kooky drummer. “Love and Lies” is the best of the movie’s original songs, and its music video (also directed by Zoe Lister-Jones) points out the fact that the film had an all-female crew behind the scenes; seeing Armisen pretentiously micromanage the video shoot is icing on the cake.

Feist featuring Stephen Colbert, “Century” (performed on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” 6/6/17; studio version, featuring Jarvis Cocker, appears on the album Pleasure, 2017). My favorite track on Leslie Feist’s new album is updated with a contribution with my #1 late night talk show host. From the guitar riffs to the stage setup to the outfit worn by Feist, has there been a more satisfying musical performance than this on TV all spring?

Marika Hackman, “Boyfriend” (music video; studio version appears on the album I’m Not Your Man, 2017). Despite a glaring likeness to Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung,” Marika Hackman’s first single from her sophomore album (after 2015’s We Slept at Last) is an undeniable earworm. It has been called a riposte “to ignorant boys who try to delegitimize and objectify lesbian relationships,” or in Hackman’s words, “payback for all those times I’ve been interrupted mid-snog by some seedy wanker asking to join in.”

Hudson Mohawke featuring Remy Banks, “Passports” (from the “Silicon Valley” soundtrack, 2017). The artists at the helm of the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley” have an unrivaled track record for choosing the perfect song to play over any given episode’s end credits. “Passports” appeared at the end of last Sunday’s episode, “Hooli-Con,” and if we are to believe the lyrics as foreshadowing, the song points to the possibility that Richard and the rest of the Pied Piper team will need to flee the country in this Sunday’s season finale (long story short: they committed cyber crimes). The “Silicon Valley” gang is usually the least cool bunch of dudes in the room, so the decision as to which song will cleverly underline that basic precept is incredibly important. “Passports” does that to the max in just over two minutes; it even seems to evoke the subplot involving Erlich Bachman’s (T.J. Miller) voyage to Tibet with the somewhat Eastern-sounding instrumentation.

Lorde, “Sober II (Melodrama)” (appears on the album Melodrama, 2017). I don’t hide the fact that I have never really joined in on the Lorde bandwagon. (The world seems to consider her the most talented young singer-songwriter around, but all I see is a Kate Bush wannabe utilizing current pop hooks.) It is therefore no surprise that Lorde’s new album, Melodrama, which is being applauded by journalists on every continent (I wouldn’t dream of making assumptions and excluding Antarctica), doesn’t wow me. The two songs that work for me, however, are the exuberantly upbeat “Green Light,” which has grown on me immensely in the last few months, and “Sober II (Melodrama),” about which I wrote these words after first hearing it: “oddly tantalizing – the strings make me finally feel the emotion that the album claims to be focused on – I wish the song lasted longer.” There may be hope yet for me as a potential Lorde devotee.

Ride, “Lannoy Point” (appears on the album Weather Diaries, 2017). “We’ll be wiser when we fall/Like the dinosaurs before/When we’ve swept ourselves away/A better sense can start again,” sings Mark Gardner on the opening track of Weather Diaries, the new album from British shoegaze/dream pop/Britpop band Ride (returning after a two-decade hiatus). The group takes on modern politics and Brexit, the aftershocks of which are felt throughout the album and give Ride a fresh (though, of course, obviously unwanted) source of inspiration for their new music.

Sigrid, “Don’t Kill My Vibe” (music video; studio version appears on the album Don’t Kill My Vibe EP, 2017). I don’t know much about Sigrid, a twenty-year-old singer-songwriter from Norway, but I was so impressed by her performance of this song on “The Late Late Show” last month that I’ve been replaying the single ever since. It’s a simple and effective pop song, the kind that instantly and happily lodges itself in your brain.

Slowdive, “Don’t Know Why” (appears on the album Slowdive, 2017). Like Ride, British shoegaze pioneers Slowdive spent two decades on hiatus. Their recent return with a self-titled album has garnered stellar praise, and “Don’t Know Why” is a beautiful highlight that pays homage to the shimmering, melting guitar tones of one of the group’s influences, Cocteau Twins. I hope that I get to hear this particular song when I see Slowdive in concert this November; I’m sure the reverb must be heavenly in person.

Texas, “Great Romances” (appears on the album Jump on Board, 2017). Like the critically lambasted Buckingham/McVie album, Texas has been derided for blandness. It’s not clear to me exactly what critics want out of frontwoman Sharleen Spiteri and her bandmates; they first appeared on the Scottish alternative rock scene in the mid-80s, so maybe the British music press is just bored with them. But I ask you: what’s wrong with a song like “Great Romances,” an enjoyable little number that bounces along? Sure, it borrows the beat from the classic Angels hit “My Boyfriend’s Back,” but is that a worse musical crime than Ed Sheeran copying TLC?

Friday Music Focus: 3/3/17


Today we look at six songs/score compositions that occasionally mix the political with the personal, sometimes because of the musical content and sometimes because of my own experiences and reflections.

Michael Shannon, “Russians” (performed on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2/28/17; song originally performed by Sting on the album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985). This is everything that a great cover version should aspire to be: funny, strange, substituting the word “chicken” in place of “children” in one line (because why not?). In this unpredictable, often unsettling world we live in, it’s good to know that one of America’s finest actors can also be crowned the king of karaoke.

Ryan Adams, “Outbound Train” (appears on the album Prisoner, 2017). What is it about this particular song that I like so much even though I have never cared for Ryan Adams’ music? Almost a week after first listening to his latest album, Prisoner, in its entirety, I’m still working on the answer.

Ride, “Charm Assault” (single, 2017). And now we have an unquestionably great new song, brought to you by a British band that charmed fans in the early-to-mid-90s with stellar tunes like “Dreams Burn Down,” “Twisterella” and “Black Nite Crash” before going on a twenty-year hiatus. 2016 and 2017 have been exciting times for British bands of yesteryear: The Stone Roses released two new singles, Lush briefly reunited twenty years after breaking up for a successful EP and tour in 2016 before disbanding again; Slowdive returned after two decades with the terrific single “Star Roving”; plus it looks like we’ll be welcoming Elastica back too.

Martini Ranch, “How Can the Labouring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?” (music video; studio version appears on the album Poor Cow, 1988) and New Order, “Touched by the Hand of God” (music video; song appears on the soundtrack of the film Salvation!, 1987, dir. Beth B). The late, great Bill Paxton made appearances in a number of music videos in the 1980s – anyone who adores Pat Benatar has probably seen the World War II-set video for “Shadows of the Night,” in which Paxton has a small role as a Nazi radio operator, and if you’re a Barnes & Barnes fan, you will undoubtedly recall the promos created for “Fish Heads” (which Paxton also directed) and “Soak It Up” (one of the duo’s more conventional-sounding songs) – but my two favorite appearances by Paxton are in a video for a song by his own band, Martini Ranch, and in the video for New Order’s “Touched by the Hand of God.” Both clips riff on pop culture; “Labouring Man” references the themes and visual style of the classic Fritz Lang sci-fi film Metropolis (1927), while “Touched” shows New Order’s band members mocking the hair, clothes, and general music-video-storytelling sensibilities during the hair metal era. You barely see Paxton in the New Order video, but there’s something deeply affecting in the way that director Kathryn Bigelow presents the mysterious “love story” involving him and Rae Dawn Chong. Whatever the details in this couple’s existence, the narrative is open to interpretation and imagination.

Most of all, I just really love New Order and “Touched by the Hand of God” is one of my favorite songs by them.

Edward & Alex Van Halen, “Respect the Wind” (plays over the end credits of the film Twister, 1996, dir. Jan de Bont; appears on the soundtrack album, same year). Every fan of American film and television from the last thirty years probably has a go-to Bill Paxton role, something that immediately sticks out as an iconic piece of work that no other actor could have done as well. There are so many characters to choose from in so many productions: The Terminator, Weird Science, Aliens, Near Dark, Predator 2, One False Move, the notoriously freaky cult classic known as Boxing Helena, Tombstone, Apollo 13, Titanic, A Simple Plan, Frailty (which Paxton also directed), the HBO series “Big Love,” the History Channel mini-series “Hatfields & McCoys,” Nightcrawler and the CBS drama “Training Day” (which began airing only a month ago), to name a few. For me, the clear winner is Twister, a film which I will watch whenever it’s on TV, much like another action classic that Jan de Bont also directed in the mid-90s, Speed. (I’d like to note that my second favorite Paxton role is as the fast-talking, pervy car salesman in True Lies, mainly because it was the first film of his that I can remember seeing, albeit in an edited-for-TV format.) Twister feeds my fascination for disaster films, a love that I can trace back to when I was first horrified by The Towering Inferno as a kid; at least with Twister there is a mostly happy resolution and a feeling that human beings understand nature and themselves better at the end than they did at the beginning.

“Bill Paxton fought Aliens and The Terminator, but he was always just a guy from Fort Worth,” according to one recent essay’s headline. Paxton was exactly the sort of actor who the industry – and all of us – take for granted, seeing him play numerous kinds of parts regardless of recognition (or the lack thereof, most often), never being typecast because of his ability to slip back and forth between extraordinarily different roles with ease. He has also been eulogized as an exceptionally nice guy by his family, friends, coworkers and even fans who met him for only a brief moment.

I remember the first time I saw Twister again after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which made seeing his goofy, fun-loving character again both sweet and sad, but I remember especially how much more bittersweet the film’s end credits sequence was when I saw Hoffman’s name while the Van Halen brothers’ guitars wailed out “Respect the Wind.” On Wednesday night, I caught part of Twister on the channel Spike; after Bill Paxton’s untimely passing, the Van Halens’ song has accrued yet another layer of poignancy. No matter how much we like or take notice of performers, in many cases it is not until they have shuffled off this mortal coil that we fully appreciate their immense talents. In the pilot of Paxton’s new show “Training Day,” another actor has a line of dialogue that perfectly describes what Bill Paxton did with his own career: “We try to leave this world a little better than we found it.” Requiescat in pace, Bill.


2014: Part 7

Clouds of Sils Maria. Directed by Olivier Assayas. I am ambivalent about this film. Olivier Assayas has conceived of a story that mirrors his own relationship to Juliette Binoche, who had an early breakthrough role in a film he co-wrote, Rendez-vous (1985); in Clouds, Binoche plays Maria Enders, a celebrated actress who had her career-making performance as an 18-year-old character (as well as being an 18-year-old actress) in the play Maloja Snake, written by Wilhelm Melchior, whose recent death affects and shapes all of the events in the film. Now, twenty years later, Binoche’s Maria has been asked to do the play again, but this time as the older of the two main characters, a 40-year-old woman. This is where Chloë Grace Moretz enters the picture: a small but pivotal role as Jo-Ann Ellis, the young superstar who now plays the role that was once Maria’s, a brief but interesting showcase for Moretz, who I think is constantly looking for a film that will allow her to grow as a performer (and not remain stuck doing things like Carrie and If I Stay). But for the most part, the film is centered on Binoche and her assistant, Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart. I guess I was particularly interested in seeing Clouds because Stewart has been winning or been nominated for a lot of Best Supporting Actress awards from various critics’ circles during this awards season; I’m not totally disappointed in the performance, but I also feel that the character is more interesting (at least the idea of it) than what the actress playing her necessarily makes of it. “Valentine” works in theory, or perhaps on paper in the screenplay, but there was unrealized potential that might have come to life with a different actress. (I can’t say more without spoiling the film’s plot.)

I am probably most impressed with Binoche – not surprising since she is a wonderful actress – for doing a very good job with a role that is essentially an All About Eve retread. All the expected jealousies and aggravations over aging and celebrity surface in Assayas’s script, but for the most part Binoche pulls off the tired clichés with grace and defiance. The brightest spots are when Binoche encounters an old flame/nemesis, the equally revered actor Henryk Wald (played by Hanns Zischler, whom I loved in Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road), and when Maria speaks to Rosa Melchior (Angela Winkler), Wilhelm’s widow. I can see how the spareness is reminiscent of Fassbinder, on whom the Wilhelm Melchior character may have been based, but it also seems to me that Melchior was neither as prolific nor as volatile as Fassbinder, so perhaps the real Fassbinder-esque inspiration is in the stiff, austere mood Assayas creates in the film. (Arguably Kristen Stewart’s stylized flatness is also a Fassbinder touch.) The film does build to a very satisfying moment in the final scene, a culmination of themes that Binoche and Moretz each portray very well, but I also can’t help feeling that Clouds of Sils Maria, for all its artistic hopes and dreams, ends up leaving me empty. The film spends more time than necessary lingering on shots of the title weather formations, and I suppose that’s where the film’s essence resides: drifting in the air rather than standing firmly on the ground.

The Drop. Directed by Michaël R. Roskam. Despite starring heavy-hitting actors Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini, this crime drama is inessential and unexciting. Based on a story by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote the screenplay), The Drop hinges on a series of overused stereotypes: Brooklyn as the setting for bad dudes doing bad things, Tom Hardy as a tough-but-sensitive guy, Noomi Rapace as a reformed but still somewhat damaged woman with a murky past, Matthias Schoenaerts as an inexplicably psychotic villain, John Ortiz as a detective who’s almost always a step behind what’s really going on. (I did like Ann Dowd as Gandolfini’s sister, but she has far too little screen time for a woman of her talent. I also didn’t realize until the end credits that another of the supporting roles, one of Schoenaerts’ confrères, was played by James Frecheville from Animal Kingdom.) Why should I think that this story is any more special than a couple hundred others that depict similar or better narratives? And was there a reason why the story had to include all the stuff with the abandoned puppy? Even though the original title, “Animal Rescue,” might seem to be applicable to the human characters as well as the canine ones, there isn’t really a whole lot of salvation. Despite what some ardent fans have said, The Drop is one of those movies that is quickly forgotten after it is seen.

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. This action-packed spy movie has more humor and better-edited action sequences than I was expecting, even if the body count does get ridiculously high and one scene in particular (the church shooting) made me uncomfortable given what happened in the Charleston church massacre a few months after Kingsman came out. Anyway, Taron Egerton does a very good job as our protagonist, “Eggsy,” a kid whose sense of humor, unerring loyalty and gymnastic flexibility make him an ideal candidate for the James Bond-like “Kingsman” spy service. Colin Firth is exceptionally debonair as Egerton’s mentor, a role that fits him like a glove (or, I should say, as well as his tailored suits do), while other good supporting roles go to Samuel L. Jackson as colorfully-dressed criminal mastermind Richmond Valentine, Sofia Boutella as Valentine’s blade-legged henchwoman, Mark Strong as the Kingsman officer in charge of technology and training the potential recruits, Michael Caine as the head of the Kingsman organization (kind of like Caine on autopilot; it’s not a performance that requires much effort), Sophie Cookson as another Kingsman newbie who trains with Egerton (my one quibble: Cookson’s character is not really developed and despite some of the cool stuff she does, she doesn’t get any memorable dialogue and constantly frets over being scared/feeling unprepared compared to the big boys), Jack Davenport as suave Kingsman “Lancelot” and Hanna Alström as Princess Tilde. Still, it’s clearly Taron Egerton’s show; he’s the heart of the movie, the character we care about the most. Without him, Kingsman might have been a very different movie; instead, because of Egerton’s performance, the film is a lot of fun and thanks to the sharp editing by Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris in the fight scenes and the shrewd soundtrack choices (”Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, ”Give It Up” by KC & the Sunshine Band, ”Slave to Love” by Bryan Ferry), Kingsman is definitely more entertaining than I assumed it would be.

Love & Mercy. Directed by Bill Pohlad. While the two halves of this version of Brian Wilson’s story never quite coalesce into a unified whole, Love & Mercy’s greatest success is in featuring five powerful performances: Paul Dano in a major (in terms of Hollywood) standout role as young Wilson (c. 1964-1968); John Cusack, more quietly impactful, as the older Wilson (c. 1986-1992); Elizabeth Banks in a subtle but glowing impressive showcase as Melinda Ledbetter (who later married Wilson in 1995); Paul Giamatti chewing all the scenery as Wilson’s manipulative legal guardian, Dr. Eugene Landy; and Bill Camp in a small but excellent performance as Wilson’s cold, cruel father, Murry. A lot of people have complained about Dano and Cusack not resembling each other, or not resembling Brian Wilson enough (especially Cusack), but I think the more important thing is that they get at the heart of the character, which is to say they understand the real man and bring that across in their performances. The film probably could have been trimmed in some scenes, as it lags a little at its 120-minute running time, and certain aspects of the plot were probably simplified and/or glossed over, but I’m glad that the film didn’t spend more time than necessary on scenes showing interactions between Wilson and his brothers/other Beach Boys members; it’s a film about the impulses that drove Wilson’s creativity and also his psychological problems and struggles with misunderstood, misdiagnosed mental illness much more than working with the guys in the band. I’m glad that Paul Dano has received the critical attention that he has (particularly the Golden Globe nomination), and if it gets him bigger and better jobs, I’ll be really glad. (Same goes for John Cusack: I hope this film revitalizes his career, which I’m sure most people would agree has been in a kind of weird place for the last decade or so.) And if the film ignites new, or renewed, interest in the music of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, then that’s another coup.

P.S. My three favorite scenes: Paul Dano singing and playing “God Only Knows” on the piano for dad Bill Camp; Dano silently crying in the recording studio as he hears voices in the headphones; Cusack and Banks, later, in the studio, when Banks tries to convince Cusack to leave Giamatti once and for all.

Ride. Directed by Helen Hunt. Ride is what I would call a Triple-P: a Pretty Pleasant Picture, the kind of movie that entertains you for an hour and a half (makes you smile a little, maybe makes you tear up a little too) without ever completely satisfying you. It pains me to say that since I root for Helen Hunt; perhaps that sounds silly since she has a Best Actress Academy Award (what more should she have to prove as a performer?), but that honor, given for As Good as It Gets, was bestowed upon her in 1997, and – in case you needed a reminder of the passage of time – kids who were born in that year are already in college. Helen Hunt was once a megastar, but for some reason or another, she isn’t one anymore. This fact is a shame; Helen Hunt was one the most naturally likeable actresses of the 1990s, high-spirited and adventuresome in the big-budget disaster-genre flick Twister (1996) and funny and charming in the Nancy Meyers-directed romantic comedy What Women Want (2000), as well as doing very good work as sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene in the indie drama The Sessions (2012), a performance that was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. But for whatever reason – mostly ageism, I suppose – she no longer has her former high status as a star. It makes sense, then, that she should write and direct a good leading role for herself, which I would imagine isn’t always so easy when you’re a woman in your early fifties and you need to get people to support and eventually produce your idea, in addition to casting bankable names for the rest of the cast.

It’s too bad, then, that Ride is so mediocre. Its by-the-numbers plot concerns an overprotective, high-strung single mother (Helen Hunt) who works in a demanding job as a New Yorker editor and who constantly criticizes her twenty-year-old son (Brenton Thwaites) and his attempts at creative writing. When Thwaites leaves New York City to spend summer vacation with his father in the Los Angeles county area, Hunt follows Thwaites out to the West Coast, abandoning her stressful livelihood in order to keep tabs on her son. When Hunt discovers that one of her son’s passions is surfing, she makes it her mission to learn the art of the waters too, which sets her up with slightly younger surf instructor Ian (Luke Wilson in an endearingly low-key performance). The family story and the meet-cute romance sound like decent components for a comedy, right? Well, that’s the problem: the ingredients are in the pot, but the fire isn’t turned up high enough. Something about the way Hunt writes dialogue doesn’t gel; in the earlier scenes set in NYC, the repartee between her and Thwaites sounds so rehearsed, so obviously written, that it never comes alive with the kind of credibility that a film purporting to be realistic should have. (The dialogue improves when the action moves out west to Santa Monica, sounding more relaxed and comfortable in the beach’s sunny atmosphere, but many lines continue to sound clichéd.) There is also the matter of Helen Hunt’s face, which is my biggest problem with the film. Whatever work she has had done, whether it is Botox or more serious plastic surgery, her skin is so bizarrely stretched in places, her eyes so oddly pulled back and the corners of her mouth drawn downward, that she almost doesn’t resemble herself. This is Ride’s greatest shortcoming: the woman whose character holds the entire narrative together cannot always emote effectively. Hunt acquits herself well in the more dramatic scenes, but in one particular scene that calls on her to laugh uncontrollably, watching her facial muscles refuse to move normally for a woman of her age is almost (because I really hate to say it) terrifying. I do, however, give Hunt credit for making the film herself; an effort was made, even if is ultimately a forgettable one, and she deserves respect for actually getting on the surfboard herself for most, if not all, of the scenes showing her in the ocean.