Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

More than any other work of fiction, seeing Star Wars had an incredibly profound impact on me. I can't remember a time before seeing Star Wars, and I can't remember a time when I didn't want to make movies. So, I have a lot of affection for the series, but I'm also able to roll with whatever ups and downs the saga goes through. The original trilogy is always there, and the quality of the prequels or the vast amounts wacky merchandise doesn't change that.

I had mixed feelings about the whole new movies venture. On the one hand, I was super excited to see the original trilogy characters back on screen, and it's definitely a universe with room for more stories to be told. However, there's something a bit disconcerting about the joy that people take in Lucas's departure from the franchise and perhaps the most deeply auteur driven major franchise in film history becoming a studio driven project instead. It's odd for the same fanbase that clamors for Jack Kirby to be credited in Marvel movies to be so happy for JJ Abrams to take over Star Wars.

And the weird thing, particularly after seeing this movie, is that it's not even really Abrams taking over. The next two episodes have different directors and writers, but the way that this movie plays out, they would seemingly need to have a pretty continuous storyline into the next one, and also someone breaking out the larger mythology and backstory driving the series. But, who is that person? It seems to be Kathleen Kennedy, but she's more a producer than a direct creator, so who knows what will happen in the future.

But, for now, we have Episode VII, a film that I think certainly got the job done in terms of setting up a new status quo and new characters that can carry the franchise far into the future. And it was certainly one of the more exciting filmgoing experiences I've had in a while.

As a film, The Force Awakens does an awful lot right, but also struggles in some ways that are not uncommon to contemporary blockbuster cinema. I actually found the opening third or so of the film to be its most compelling piece. You get a bit of the same feeling as in A New Hope, of being dropped into an unfamiliar world and gradually getting to know its rules and new characters.

The casting in the film was spot on. Pretty much every new character was compelling and realized, and there was a fun dynamic between them. Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron had a lot of swagger and presence that helped bring back the sense of fun the original trilogy had that the prequels struggled to recreate. Finn had a bumbling charm, and was funny throughout.

That said, like much of the film, Finn's journey was rather surface. For a guy who's lived his whole life raised to be one thing and believe in a certain set of principles, he sure abandoned them quickly. And, there's little conflict in his turn towards good. It was a fairly easy journey for him, and we never really get a sense of the potential wonder of experiencing all this new stuff, or any real remnant of this lifetime of military training he's undergone. Once you hit minute 30 of the movie, he might as well have been a Resistance fighter, or a smuggler, or anyone really.

His chemistry with Rey was great, and powers the most fun section of the film, as they have a screwball comedy meet cute and head off in the Millennium Falcon. Much like Finn, Rey is fun to watch, instantly likable, and a great addition to the Star Wars canon. I loved the silent melancholy of her early scenes on Jakku, and later in the film, her gradual discovery of her aptitude for the force.

That said, she's also way too perfect a character to be particularly compelling beyond a surface level. Rey can not only pilot a spaceship, and fix all its mechanical problems despite seemingly never having traveled off world, but also defeat a trained Sith lord in a lightsaber dual despite never having even touched a lightsaber before. So, she's basically as strong as Luke and Han Solo combined without any training whatsoever.

It winds up rendering her a bit of a Mary Sue character, with no particular flaws or challenges to overcome. She has some kind of mystery about her backstory, but that's a classic example of contemporary blockbuster writing. Rather than let a character grow and change because of what happens in the film itself, she's special because of her past, and any character shading will come from the revelation of her past rather than her experiences in the present.

Now, I suppose you could voice similar complaints about Luke in A New Hope. He's never flown a spaceship before, but is able to blow up the Death Star, and rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star. But, Luke also struggled a bunch in the film, and I don't think we really saw Rey, or Finn, or anyone, struggling to do much of anything.

Much of the power of the original trilogy's best entry comes from watching our heroes get utterly annihilated. Luke battles Darth Vader before he's ready and gets beaten thoroughly. And dealing with that struggle makes him stronger. Perhaps the next Episode will be that darker piece, but it seems like Rey is so powerful already, if she's trained, Kylo Ren should pose no threat for her whatsoever.

All that said, it's a testament to the work that Abrams and Kasdan did that the new characters are who I'm talking about and thinking about after the film. It does feel like a legitimate handoff and though it was fantastic to see Han Solo and the other returning characters back, it didn't feel like only their movie.

Among the minor characters, Chewbacca and C-3PO were both great. C-3PO continued his record of interrupting Han and Leia at key moments, and Chewbacca got more of a spotlight here than in most of the original trilogy.

Han fit pretty neatly into the Obi-Wan Kenobi role, and was a lot of fun bouncing off of the new characters. And, considering this looks like the end of the line for him, it's nice that he got to do more than stand around, like Leia did.

For me, the film loses steam and momentum as it goes on, as it becomes more and more obvious that what we're looking at is essentially a remix of the first Star Wars, a beat for beat incorporation of what worked there into a new story. While on the one hand, this does give a more satisfying, familiar universe than we saw in the prequels. Getting that 70s handmade sci-fi aesthetic was fantastic, and I think the design work in giving us the same, but different looks was great.

However, much more so than the prequels, the film explicitly invalidates a lot of the original trilogy. For me personally, I don't really care. It doesn't take away the original trilogy for me, and there's always going to be a disconnect between my imagined ending for these characters and what we see here.

But, if you are looking at this movie as a straight up sequel to the original trilogy, there are a lot of issues. For one, every development in the first three films is essentially invalidated. On a larger scale, the First Order (the Empire in all but name) is in control of the galaxy. What was the point of the Rebellion's victories if they're now in such dire straits that they're hiding out in the same exact kind of jungle base they were at in A New Hope. It's a little disheartening that thirty years have passed and Princess Leia is doing the exact thing she was doing in the first film. And Han Solo also has reverted to the role he had in the first film.

I think the idea is supposed to be a bit of an after the fall feel. Like, there was a time of peace and success that ended and sent everyone back to their old roles, but from a narrative point of view, it results in a sense that the first three movies were a waste of time. We're right back where we started, which is great if you want more stories in that milieu, but also constrains the characters into old familiar roles rather than letting them grow more naturally.

If you boil it down, the plot is so close to the first film. From specific details, like firing the planet sized weapon to destroy a Republic outpost, before targeting a Rebellion base they will almost destroy, but ultimately fail to do so, to having the whole movie set in motion when a droid carrying key information for the rebellion crash lands on a desert planet and finds its way into the possession of a lonely dreamer with a mysterious past who comes into contact with a relative's lost lightsaber.

We've also got a dark side lord who's being trained by a Sith master who appears via hologram with taunting information about the family member he's denounced (admittedly from Empire rather than ANH), and in this film is controlled by an Imperial general who smugly reports on the impossibility of Rebellion victory even as his men abandon him. Han Solo maps pretty closely to the Obi-Wan Kenobi role, the only surviving legacy of a time of wonder and magic that has since been lost. You get the idea.

And on a larger scale, the status quo of the galaxy has reset to what it was back in A New Hope. But, I feel like we don't get a great sense of how it got there or what happened. That's not important in A New Hope since it's designed to be our entry point into the story. This film is only being watched by people who've seen all the other films. I'd like to get a bit of clarification about how we got to this point. It's not strictly necessary, but without that clarification, it feels like a straight reversion.

One of the most interesting and fresh elements of the film is Kylo Ren. His raw emotion and swaying between good and evil offer us a look at what a young Anakin might have been like. In fact, it makes you wonder how compelling Adam Driver could have made the prequels if he'd brought this same intensity to Anakin. We've never seen a Sith quite like this, and his scenes with Rey were the high point of the second half of the film. He's able to give a great sense of the journey this character has been on in a relatively small amount of screen time.

That said, putting him in the same dynamic as Vader and the Emperor feels like a missed opportunity to do something more unique. Where does this Supreme Leader come from, he seems quite old, but sat out the events of the original trilogy? One of the burdens of a film like this is carrying the weight of the old movies, and questions like this. I normally don't like to nitpick stuff, but when you're making a film that is explicitly the continuation of a series, you have to deal with plot issues like this.

Joss Whedon famously said don't give the audience what they want, give them what they need. This is a film that gives people what they want, a return to the status quo and aesthetic of the original trilogy, but just a little bit different to keep it fresh. And seeing it did make me appreciate what Lucas did with the prequels.

It's a bit frustrating since this film did well pretty much everything that the prequels failed at. The dialogue is snappy and fun, the effects are grounded and give the world a lived in feel that flows pretty seamlessly with the original trilogy (with the exception of some lame CG wrathtars), and the new characters feel alive, human and more relatable than the prequel folk. The actors aren't fighting against the film, they're given plenty of opportunity to be fun and pop. And particularly for Adam Driver, there was an intensity I never saw during the prequels and only rarely in the original trilogy.

But, the movie stumbled in the areas were Lucas excelled. The action sequences in the film paled in comparison to every previous Star Wars movie. For many directors today, action seems to be something you just struggle to get through. You put a bunch of stuff exploding on screen, shoot a bunch of different angles and hope for the best. I was unclear about the logistics of the battle, and everything felt a lot smaller than every previous Star Wars ending, both emotionally and spectacle wise. The editing just wasn't clean and the storytelling and stakes were muddled.

Lucas is a master of assembling clean and easy to follow action sequences. The space battles in Jedi and A New Hope, or the speeder/AT-AT fight in Empire have clear stakes, great escalation and amazing visual spectacle. The same holds true for the lightsaber battles, even in the prequels. You get a lot more storytelling than in the fight between Rey and Kylo Ren.

At their best, the prequels had moments that felt tapped into the mythic subconscious that the series at its best aspires to. Thinking about the wordless sequence of Anakin and Padme across the city from each other as he hurtles towards the dark side, or the apocalyptic final dual between Anakin and Obi-Wan. It dug deeper and hit harder than anything in this movie because it's coming out of something more real than a love for a forty year old movie.

That said, those movies also contain so many dumb CG characters, abominable lines of dialogue and baffling performances, it's hard to say which is better. This is an immaculate cover band, giving you exactly what you want out of a Star Wars movie, except for that intangible something else. It makes me really wish that you could have made the prequels with Lucas in the sort of godfather role he was on Empire, involved in editing and masterminding the story, but with Kasdan or Abrams on the ground to write the script and direct the actors.

And, in the end, it's a bit frustrating for me for the movie to end on such an unresolved note. Considering the different directors and writers, I was hoping that each of these movies would be more or less standalone, but we've got more of a cliffhanger ending here than in any previous Star Wars film.

The ending is a bit frustrating to me since it felt very rushed. There's no real acknowledgement of Han's death on an emotional level. We feel it for a bit in the middle of the fight, but it would be nice to have that Vader funeral pyre style moment where we lay him to rest and absorb the loss. There's also not really a larger celebration that most Star Wars movies end with. The movie just kind of wraps up abruptly without giving you a big emotional beat.

That said, the final moments are fantastic. It's frustrating to me that the whole film is framed as the search for Luke Skywalker, and he's not even found until the final moments to set up the next movie. Not to mention, the sloppy writing of having R2-D2 suddenly wake up at the end for no reason. But, the visual payoff of his appearance is worth it and definitely gets you amped for the next stage of the saga and Luke taking on a Yoda role.

So, was The Force Awakens a trilogy invalidating shameless retread of Star Wars past? Or was it a fresh, fun relaunch for the franchise with great new characters that has me eagerly anticipating the next episode? It's both!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men - "Person to Person" (7x14)

For the past five years or so, Mad Men has been by far my favorite show on TV, and a real inspiration for the kind of work I want to create. I love the casual surrealism of the world and the winding, almost short story quality of many of its episodes. It really picked up where The Sopranos left off in terms of telling riveting stories about quest for meaning in everyday life. And, for all the joy you can get from a densely plotted roller coaster ride of a show like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, it's ultimately the mysterious and philosophical wonder of this show that inspires me and lingers in my brain.

The finale was perhaps a bit too generous in giving the audience/characters what they wanted for really the first time in the show's run. It's great that Joan got to open her own company, but not necessarily true to the story we've seen over the past few years, which stacked on top of Peggy getting together with Stan and the great breaks for Pete felt a bit too fairy tale.

But, to me the heart of the show was always Don, and his impact on the two most important people in his life: Peggy and Sally. They could see him at his best and inspire him, and also suffer in the wake of his worst impulses. Sally was able to grow up and accept hardship and struggle at a young age whereas it took Don his entire life to reach that point. Both Sally and Peggy have taken the best of what Don had to offer and grown up and seem like, despite struggles ahead, they'll be okay. I actually like the Sally resolution much more than the other story lines because it shows her growth without feeling like a happy button on the story.

And just like The Sopranos, we're left with a final moment that leaves you a bit unsettled and full of mystery to ponder. Did Don return to advertising, and turn his experience on the road into grist for a new campaign? Or has Don found legitimate peace off in the wilderness, only by leaving an advertising machine that substitutes the desire for a product for genuine human experience?

Ultimately, the finale offers a fascinating portrait of the 60s counterculture becoming just as commodified and false as the 50s nuclear family that dominated advertising at the show's start. For all the changes that happened, advertising is still the vampire that turns something real into a way to make money.

It's a mix of cynicism and wonder like I've never seen before, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around what it all means. To me, the end of Mad Men marks the end of the TV revolution that The Sopranos started, when TV became a place for winding character-centric narratives that explored the world we live in and the human condition in a depth that no films had attempted. Shows like Mad Men, Six Feet Under and The Sopranos all pondered the meaning of life in a way that has been a massive inspiration.

And just as the movie business left behind the auteur driven experimental filmmaking of the 70s for the (frequently great) blockbusters of the 80s, so too is the TV business moving towards bigger and bigger storytelling and "13 hour movies." But, I think something is lost in trying to tell a "13 hour movie," and that's the amazing variety and unpredictability of Mad Men. Every episode offered something confounding and thought provoking, and I don't know that we'll ever see anything quite like it again.

Monday, January 14, 2013

2013 Update

It's been almost two years since I've posted on this blog, but a rewatch of Evangelion had me looking back through the archive, and reminiscing on regular blogging. I'd love to blog more, but I've luckily been creating more of my own material than writing about others' work. What have I been up to? Here's a brief rundown.

 My biggest project of the past few years was Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods, which you can now check out for free on Hulu. I followed that film with Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, now available on DVD and download.

 I'm currently working on a documentary about the founding and history of Image Comics. Image has been dominating the comics marketplace for the past year or so, and it's a pretty crazy story that got them there. It's a really fun project, and should be done early this year.

 I'm also working on a shorter doc about Chris Claremont. It's been a great opportunity to get to speak to him, and once Image is done, I'll kick that one into high gear and get it done.

 I've also just completed a short film starring Brea Grant, called The Viral Man, which I'm currently working on developing into a feature. It's a long ways off, but I've been getting the script into shape and am getting things together to raise some money for it.

 And, the rest of my webseries The Third Age is finally coming out on January 23rd. I re-edited everything from Volume I into director's cut versions, which you can check out below:

 There's a few other big projects that can't be announced yet, but I'm sure they'll be exciting. I'll try to blog here from time to time, but keep an eye on my Twitter (@patrickmeaney) for all the latest updates!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts

It's been a long time since a post, but I've been busy, busy with projects. Like a lot of bloggers, the blog led to other things that unfortunately took time away from blogging. One of those has been production of Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, my forthcoming film on comic book writer Warren Ellis.

We're currently running a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the film, and I'd love your support!

And, hopefully I'll have some time for some more posts soon!

Monday, January 03, 2011

Best of 2010: Film

I saw a lot of movies this year, thanks to my membership in the WGA and the flood of screeners that arrived at the end of the year. So, I caught almost all the big Oscar movies, and, ironically, few of them actually made it to the list. But, some did in what I'd consider over all a fantastic year for movies.

10. The Fighter

There were a bunch of movies in contention for this tenth spot on the list (and I still haven't seen a couple of big 2010 movies I'd like to have seen [Blue Valentine and Mesrine in particular]), but The Fighter ultimately won out over True Grit, Somewhere and The Runaways. The reason is it was one of the most emotionally engrossing films I'd seen this year. There was some cliché plotting along the way, and it sort of fizzled at the end, but through the Sanchez fight, this was a consistently intense, and emotionally gripping film. I hated Christian Bale's character so much, and Amy Adams really jumped out as a hard edged lady who took no shit from anyone. Her performance totally changed my perception of her as an actress, it's one of the most electric roles of the year, and really made the movie. I just wish it had kept up that momentum and ferocity to the ending.

9. The Kids Are All Right

I've written a lot about how TV is the trend setting, innovative visual storytelling medium now, so consider a huge compliment to say that The Kids Are All Right had the character depth and easygoing realism of a great TV show. Tonally, it recalled Six Feet Under in its depiction of a family that has its issues, but loves each other and is trying to do good in a world full of temptation. The loose narrative leaves plenty of room for character exploration and the uniformly excellent cast makes it all work. Julianne Moore is fantastic here, reminding me why she was once my favorite actress out there. But, Mark Ruffalo really steals the show as the ne'er do well, but charming absent father. He's so charismatic and engaging, it's easy to see why the whole family falls under his spell. A really satisfying adult targeted film. This is one of those movies that people say they don't make any more.

8. Inception

Inception is one of the most visually ambitious films of the year, and features some of the most dazzling action sequences I've ever seen. It's the action movie as crazy videogame, stacking level after level of crazy obstacle on top of each other, and indulging in a mix of intense psychology and pure action movie joy in sequences like the snow attack or zero gravity battle. It's a great looking movie, with a phenomenal score. What holds it back from greatness is the reliance on a dour, tormented hero who can't express himself emotionally (i.e. every single Chris Nolan character ever). It's a film about dreams that feels so utterly controlled and without any random elements sinking in. That stops it from being an all time great movie, but there's so much good in here, I can forgive the flaws.

7. Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance

The second new Evangelion film didn't quite pull all its elements together. But, it was full of very haunting moments, and its finale was exhilarating and points to a bold new direction for the rest of the films in the series. This whole project remains caught between breaking new ground and paying homage to the past series. This one manages to strike a pretty good balance, and presents a nicely distilled version of the original series' psychological troubles. But, I would still point a new viewer to the original series over this version.

6. Toy Story 3

Pixar continues one of the longest hot streaks in film with their most emotionally potent film yet. Toy Story 3 is about 80% really good, fun film. The whole imprisonment at day care is funny and full of well executed set pieces and gags. But, it's the other 20% of the film that just emotionally anhialates viewers. There's hints of this in the opening, particularly during the videotape sequence, but it comes to the fore most notably in the inferno sequence, where the characters confront their own mortality and prepare to face death. Lingering in the fire past the point where it's a cliffhanger and to the moment where everyone accepts death, it's intensely harrowing. After crossing through death, they make it out to a new life in the emotionally overwhelming finale. For what's ostensibly a kid's film to be so emotionally effulgent is a real feat, and a testament to Pixar's skill.

5. Tron: Legacy

In a year of visually stunning films, none could match the production design and overall aesthetic of Tron. Updating the 80s style for the present day, everyone in the film looked intensely stylish as they moved through gorgeous environments, backed by the fantastic Daft Punk score. Beyond the fantastic look, the film offered a solid take on the hero's journey, definitely calling back to Star Wars at times, but delivering a story that satisfied. Its video game based universe might not make any sense objectively, but in the world the story it all hangs together for a visually dazzling, emotionally engaging ride full of really cool moments. I wish everyone dressed like the characters in this movie do.

4. Black Swan

Black Swan is another great Darren Aronofsky film about obsession and a character's desire to be the absolute best, at the cost of their sanity. I love the intensity of the film and the frequent surreal indulgences. Natalie Portman is fantastic, and everything in the film draws you into her mental world, which is less intriguingly ambiguous when everything wraps up in the end. It's a totally engrossing film, and one of the most refreshingly insane movies I've seen in a while.

3. The Social Network

The so called 'Facebook' movie is actually a rather classical look at the corrupting influence of power and money. But, thanks to David Fincher's ice cold direction and Trent Reznor's alien electronic score, it becomes something more. It's a deconstruction of a world that becomes increasingly separate even as technology brings us together. I don't usually love Fincher, but the really strong Sorkin script proves the perfect anchor, filled with biting humor, keeping him from drifting off into the excess darkness of some of his other works. This is a great example of two auteurs coming together to make one great film.

2. Runaway

This Kanye West film wasn't a feature, but it demonstrates a wonderful understanding of what film can do as a medium, an audacious half hour full of incredible visuals and strange ideas. The film throws back to European art cinema motifs, with a portentious symbolic storyline that recalls Fellini, and a strangely mannered acting style that is at once alienating and intriguing. But, combined with an incredible soundtrack, it becomes a really unique package full of amazing moments, like the opening slo-mo shot of Kanye in front of a fiery explosion, or the final Phoenix ascent. So many films fail to make use of true visual storytelling, this one is a consistently riveting experience, one that lingers with me far more than most traditional features.

1. Enter the Void

Speaking of experiences, Enter the Void is attempting something entirely different from virtually any film made this year, or any other year. Gaspar Noe isn't telling you a story about someone else as he is in making you feel and experience things. The movie's title is a command, you must enter the void, and by the end of the film, you'll have passed through death and rebirth and experienced a dizzying array of images and sounds. At times, it's an assault, at times it's soothing and beautiful, this movie did things that no other film ever has. I think it's less cohesive and emotional than Irreversible, but it's just as technically dazzling and has more moments of abstract transcendence than Irreversible did. Watching the final half hour or so, in which the camera winds its way through Tokyo's sky before settling in a hotel to watch a variety of couples have sex, you reach a total altered state, and what could be vulgar becomes absolutely beautiful. This film is an experience, and I'd love to see more filmmakers approach the medium like Noe does. Film can be a great narrative medium, but it can also be so much more, and this film shows you that.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Best of 2010: TV

10. Breaking Bad

Here's a show that is beyond a lot of others on the list in terms of visual artistry and narrative intensity, it's a show I feel like I should absolutely love, but still hasn't one hundred percent clicked for me. I always enjoy it when I'm watching it, but, despite having had the episodes on DVR since they aired, I still haven't finished the third season. I'm getting there, and I'm sure in the next couple of months I'll wrap it up, but I just didn't feel that need to see what happens next that you feel on a truly great series. So, Breaking Bad remains a show I really respect, but don't outright love.

9. Doctor Who

This year of Doctor Who got a lot of great press, but didn't hit me as hard as any of the Davies years. I think part of it is the feeling that, despite some continuity with the previous version, this is basically a reboot of the franchise, and I feel like it's too soon for a reboot that hits a lot of the same beats as Davies did over the course of his run. To me, it feels like Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run, perfectly solid on its own terms, but unable to shake the feeling that I didn't really need anything else after Grant Morrison finished his run. There's some really fun stories here, but it doesn't feel essential or 'real' to me in the way that Davies' run did. But, it's still a great show, and I'm excited to see where it goes next year.

8. Lost

A show that made more terrible creative choices than any other show on the list, but also the show that I was more engrossed in than anything else on here. Frustrating as it was, it was also really exciting to be part of the excitement surrounding the final season. As a standalone entity, this season was poorly plotted and not great, but as an experience, it was a lot of fun, and did have a few satisfying moments along the way.

7. Bored to Death

A bit more lightweight than most of the shows on the list, Bored to Death works thanks to the charm of its ensemble and the investment in the small scale mysteries that drive the show from week to week. It does a great job of telling small scale noir stories that intersect nicely with relatable plot arcs for the main group. Few shows were as outright fun as this one on a week to week basis.

6. Treme

Once you accept that this is not The Wire 2, you can appreciate Treme on its own terms as a slice of life verite journey through the world of post Katrina New Orleans. I'd be happy if we never heard another speech about how no outsiders can appreciate New Orleans, but once the show got past its preachy phrase, there was some really great character work and an enjoyable energy propelling the series. And, visually it's truly astonishing. Getting something to look like it's all just happening and being captured in the moment is not easy, and this show makes you feel like you're there and these are real people. I'm excited to see it develop and continue to come into its own.

5. Community

This year, the show maintained the easygoing humor and sweet natured ensemble interaction of the early episodes, and added huge visual scope (the paintball episode, the stop motion Christmas) and a more intense character focus (the Annie/Jeff stuff in the conspiracy episode, the bar episode), creating a show that somehow manages to soar into freeform flights of fancy one week and be intensely grounded the next. There were a few bumps in early season two, with one two many gimmick episodes in a row, but the last few episodes have been uniformly fantastic, and the ensemble continues to reveal new layers and chemistry in every single combination.

4. Parks and Recreation

The show has been unfortunately absent from TV since May, but looking back on the close of the second season, Parks was TV's funniest show, with one of the deepest comedy benches ever, and a commitment to expanding its universe and creating a world that was simultaneously surreal and consistent and believable. As with Community, the characters could occasionally move towards the absurd, while still maintaining consistency and believability.

3. Eastbound and Down

In it second season, Eastbound pulls off the nearly impossible task of making a comedy sequel that is even more satisfying than the original, pushing Kenny Powers to increasingly dark and disturbing areas, all in an absolutely gorgeous set of episodes. The production on the series was amazing, the Mexico setting providing the opportunity for a whole new level of visual flourish than the series used in its first season. It was extremely funny throughout, but the story worked just as strongly on a dramatic level, and the triumphant return home at the end of the season was a particular emotional highlight. It's simultaneously sophisticated and juvenile, a good place for a comedy to be.

2. Friday Night Lights

It's been amazing to watch Friday Night Lights come back from its second season slump and just get better and better. The fourth season's closing run was full of extremely intense moments, none more than Tim Riggins' increasing maturity, and the realization that he would have to go to prison to keep his brother with his family. The Thanksgiving scene at the end of that season still sticks with me, an amazing capper to the series' best season yet. Season five is still bringing the pieces together, but it looks every bit as strong as four. Still visually majestic, I'll be sad to see the show go.

1. Mad Men

I've been a Mad Men fan since the start, and always felt it was a great show, but this was the season that confirmed Mad Men's place as one of the all time best in TV history, a drama to stand with The Wire and The Sopranos when critics reflect on the golden age of TV. The fourth season broke down the mystique surrounding Don Draper that the show had spent three years reinforcing, while skillfully advancing the story of his two closest analogues, Peggy Olsen and Sally Draper. I love the structural experimentation of the season, the use of voiceover, or the two actor showcase “The Suitcase.” In totally upending the show's status quo, Weiner let the characters grow just as real people do, and offered myriad opportunities for drama and conflict. This is the most ambitious visual art being attempted in any medium, it's synthesizing the best of classical Hollywood, classic European art cinema and more contemporary verite to create something that, though set in the past, feels intensely modern.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010: Albums

10. Chromeo – Business Casual

This album marks an embrace of the implicit 70s pop elements that had always been present in their sound. While previous albums were mostly 80s dance inspired, this one is a bit more Hall and Oates style, and it generally works really well. It's a bit less kitschy and ironic than previous albums, and the best songs here really showcase Chromeo's strength as song writers. It's not the production that's attention grabbing, it's the ultra smooth melodies and really fun lyrical conceits. The lush string arrangements and wonderful disco bass keep things moving.

9. The New Pornographers – Together

A couple of my longtime favorite bands (notably Belle and Sebastian) released albums this year that weren't notably different from their previous work in form or quality that just didn't hit me for whatever reason. This album is to some extent one of those. I absolutely love the first three New Pornographer albums, but to some extent, I feel like I've absorbed everything they can do. That said, this album stands well next to those first three, hitting power pop highs on “Crash Years,” and going more anthemic on “We End Up Together.” If not quite as classic as their first three albums, it's still a really satisfying set.

8. Mark Ronson and the Business Intl. - Record Collection

Ronson follows up the great 60s inspired covers set Version with the 80s inspired Record Collection. Full of really great synth pop songs, set off with some well chosen hip hop guest spots, this album sounds very fresh, while still paying respect to Duran Duran and other 80s bands. I love the attack of opening track “Bang Bang Bang.” The vocal contributions of ex-Pipette Rose Elinor Dougall are a highlight, particularly on the soaring chorus of “Hey Boy.”

7. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

A bit more downbeat and low key than previous Gorillaz albums, this one took a while to grow on me, but after listening to it several times, it's clear there's a lot of real beauty in the album. Albarn's orchestration is lush and epic at times, and his combination of traditionally rock instrumentation and atmosphere with well chosen hip hop beats and cameos never worked better. It's not about the clash of styles, it's about their seamless integration. Highlights include the sugar high of “Superfast Jellyfish” and driving bass of “Stylo,” but the album's great moment is the entrance of an electronic hop hop beat on “Empire Ants,” and the layers of dreamy vocal layered on top. It's a very cohesive album, and a great progression for Albarn and the “band.”

6. Bryan Ferry – Olympia

I really got into Roxy Music this year after spending the past couple of years listening only to their first glam rock album. I was surprised to find that their later work was even better, particularly the enveloping atmosphere of Avalon. Olympia picks up the sound of late period Roxy Music and applies Bryan Ferry's unparalleled voice to a series of lush soundscapes you can get lost in. His epic transformation of “Song to the Siren” is the high point, but the driving, U2 in a steam room sound of “Heartache by Numbers” jumps out as well. Like a lot of the albums on the list, it's throwing back to an 80s sound, but doing so in a way that emphasizes the timelessness of the best of that music. Ferry was making it back then, and he's still making it now.

5. Goldfrapp – Head First

It really bothered me when Goldfrapp's previous album, “Seventh Tree” came out, and people wrote about how this one must be more confessional and real, since it was based around acoustic instrumentation, not synthesizers. To me, the synthesizer can be one of the most emotional instruments out there, and a lot of the songs that really hit me on a deep level are based around electronic soundscapes. Head First drew attention for its big 80s sounding pop hits like “Rocket” or “Alive,” and those songs are fantastic. There's nothing at all wrong with doing a big, fun pop song, but the songs that jump out to me on this album are the ones that use the same style of instrumentation with a slightly darker tone to make for an even more intense emotional experience. “Hunt” and “I Wanna Life” are the ones that jump out to me. “Hunt” uses a wonderful acapella bass line, taking full advantage of Alison's unique voice. “I Wanna Life” is a bit more triumphant, but it's an earned triumph, still a pop song, but one that goes the full gamut of emotion.

4. MGMT – Congratulations

A hugely ambitious, and at times frustrating album, Congratulations is a really bold statement for a band that seemed reluctant to claim its role at the forefront of a zeitgeist. To be honest, I wish they had indulged their poppy side a bit more, and not run away from anthemic songs like “Kids” and “Electric Feel.” But, I hugely respect the sonic experimentation and sheer amount of ideas on here. There's about twenty great songs on a ten song album, and that's both the blessing and curse of it. There are moments I wish went on longer, “Someone's Missing” in particular had epic potential, but seemed to end too soon. But, at its best, the sheer variety of sounds and approaches on here is a joy in and of itself. Not every track is great, but it's full of exhilarating moments from the surf rock crescendo that opens the album to the melodic close of “Congratulation.”

3. Scissor Sisters – Night Work

In most other years, this would be number one on this list. I already love the band's first two albums, but this takes it to a whole new level, consistently great from beginning to end, this is one of those albums where it feels like every song could be a breakout single. Fusing 70s disco rhythms with gnarly 80s bass and some harder rock influences, it's topped off by Jake Shears' amazing falsetto voice. The dancefloor workout “Any Which Way” is an early highlight, with a chorus bass line that tears things up, but you could just as easily point to the pounding bass of “Whole New Way,” disco ecstasy of Sex and Violence of the simultaneously sweet and still uptempo sentiments of “Skin Tight” or “Fire With Fire.” It's capped with a prog disco rock epic “Invisible Light” that takes their sound in a slightly satanic direction and manages to both encompass and go beyond everything that's come before.

2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Probably the best band in the world today puts out an album that only reinforces how vital and exciting Arcade Fire is. This album is a suite, full of gorgeous songs, energy and yearning that just sound massive. “Empty Room” is a great example of the album's strengths, a song that's bursting with energy, like a firework about to explode. Regine Chassagne jumps out as the album's greatest strength, and her voice is the soaring counterpoint to the instrumental churn. This is another album that in almost any other year would be number one on this list.

1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

It's been pretty remarkable to watch this album come out and get to know an album that already feels like a timeless classic. It's unanimously been chosen as best album of the year, and there's really no way to argue. A lot of bands on here are doing work that's good, even great, but feels like somebody just doing their thing. With Kanye, as with a lot of really great artists, there's a drive to not just do good work, but a need to be the absolute best. It can lead to idiot moments, like the outburst at the VMAs, but it's that same burning desire that drives him to make an album that goes so far beyond what anyone else in hip hop is attempting that it makes it look like virtually every other artist out there isn't even trying. He's taking what worked in the past and pushing it further, as on “Devil in a New Dress,” and creating an entirely new kind of epic hip hop song in “Dark Fantasy” and “All of the Lights.”

The opening moments of “Dark Fantasy” announce this as not just a bunch of songs but an album length artistic statement, one that's starting off with the startling slow motion explosion of beats. This is an album that rocks harder than any rock album in recent memory, as on the guitar solos in “Devil in a New Dress” or the prog stomp of “Power.” This is how I imagine hip hop would have sounded if it had come out of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd instead of Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone.

When you've got an album so good that even a Chris Rock comedy skit feels like a heartbreaking moment, you know this is something special. I love all the previous Kanye albums, but this is an artistic leap so massive, it's hard to think where he could go from here. Even if it's not a concept album per se, the songs all feel of a piece and flow together such that I would point more to great 'moments' on the album than I would spotlight specific songs. It's a real journey, and just as the opening is the perfect primer for the journey to come, “Lost in the World” is a perfect capper for everything that's come before, a delirious journey out of the darkness and into a kind of acceptance. It's an epic tribal celebration that incorporates elements of contemporary indie rock, gospel choir, tribal drums and a spoken word 60s piece to bring it all to a conclusion. This is a real work of art, and an album that I think will be topping best of the decade lists nine years from now.