05 July 2009

Best of 2009...So Far: Music

The second half of 2009 may turn out to be quite disappointing. After all, it's only once in a blue moon that the best album of the year (and maybe even the decade) gets released in the first few weeks. But that's what happened with my #1 pick. For more on that, and the other tracks that provided the soundtrack from January 6-June 30.


1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
Everything changed on Jan. 20. Now we'll all have to reevaluate what the best album of the 2000s is. Kid A? Think again. Heartbreaker? Nah. Yoshimi? Jury's still out. What's truly incredible: Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, and Geologist have delivered not only their most accessible and successful album, but die-hard fans even consider it among their best. No alienation here. Just a mind-blowing experience.

2. Bon Iver, Blood Bank (Jagjaguwar)
After Justin Vernon dropped his haunting debut For Emma, Forever Ago, he followed it up with this sunnier (but no less ethereal) EP featuring four knockout tracks. It's short but sweet, but it's perhaps the best 17 minutes you'll spend listening to music this year.

3. U2, No Line on the Horizon (Interscope)
Five years after their Grammy-winning How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Bono and co. return with yet another powerful set. More introspective than their past releases, No Line is a meditation on hitting the other side of 50, and who will be by your side when the dust settles (hint: it's not the fans).

4. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2)
Though I doubt they'll ever top the inescapable "Consolation Prizes," but this is the French band's most accomplished album yet. From the bittersweet "Lisztomania" to the buoyant "1901" to the beautiful two-part "Love is Like a Sunset," this is indie pop at its finest.

5. various artists, Dark was the Night (4AD)/Heroes (Astralwerks)
Compilations seem to never go out of style, but while the NOW series seems to remind us of how horrid the Top 40 charts have become, along come two charity albums that are more than hardly an amalgamation of heart-tugging "please donate" singles and half-hearted covers. Red Hot Organization's double album Dark was the Night features some of the indie world's best and brightest (like Grizzly Bear and Kevin Drew), while War Child's Heroes features artists (The Hold Steady, Duffy) hand-picked by the originals (Springsteen, McCartney) to cover some of their best tunes.

1. Anything from Merriweather Post Pavilion
A sign of a truly great album: when there's no track you could single out as the best. I've tried, but each week a new song takes the top spot. First it was "My Girls," then it was "Summertime Clothes," then just about every other track. I've recently landed on "Guys Eyes," but I know there'll be another song to take its place.

2. Bon Iver, "Blood Bank"
From the EP Blood Bank
Like a great short story, Vernon transports us to a frozen locale, where love blossoms at donation centers, but as the snow melts, so do hopes of a long and happy romance. Bloody brilliant.

3. Dirty Projectors & David Byrne, "Knotty Pine"
From the Dark was the Night compilation
An infectious little jam from the somewhat heavy 2-disc set, this song, featuring gorgeous vocals from Amber Coffman, is bound to get stuck in your head. But you'll be OK with that.

4. Phoenix, "Lisztomania"
From the album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
One of the many pop gems from the French group's latest album, the song tells the tale of a disastrous love affair, but you'd never know the singer's bitterness. This track is undeniably giddy on the surface, but underneath there's layers of pain.

5. Coldplay, "Life in Technicolor II"
From the EP Prospekt's March
The instrumental intro to their 2008 album Viva la Vida gets wonderfully expanded here into a soaring arena rocker, and stands among the band's best tracks. You'll be lifted so high, your "feet won't touch the ground."

Directed by Jon Vermilyea
Certainly not for the kiddos, this bizarre animated video is creepy but utterly mesmerizing, and not even half as trippy as their video for "Summertime Clothes."

Directed by Akiva Schaffer
Best. Boat ride. Ever. "Don't you ever forget!"

Directed by Blair Young
Matching the band's wistful tune is this home movie-style romance that feels authentic, despite its jewelry commercial appearance. It'll make you feel warm inside, but in the best way.

Directed by Dave Meyers
From the Matthew McConaughey in Reign of Fire school of performance, Pink stars in this video as a woman who kidnaps her boyfriend and tortures him a la Misery. But I don't think she was acting. She really did kidnap and torture a guy.

Directed by Dougal Wilson
Marionettes act as the British band, complete with pyrotechnics. A big budget video on a small scale. Simply wonderful.

Best of 2009...So Far: Film

The first half of the year is usually devoid of greatness, but here's the best of what's been released from January 2-July 1.


1. Up
Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Pixar's 10th feature is its best yet, an especially incredible feat considering the studio's never made a bad movie. Ringing much more true than a good 99% of movies in the last decade, this surely has a legitimate shot at not only being nominated for Best Picture, but winning it as well.

2. Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann
The thinking man's action flick, Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) completely rebounds from his disastrous Miami Vice adaptation to deliver an introspective, romantic, highly stylized gangster picture with an duo of Oscar-worthy performances from Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Marion Cotillard as his faithful lover.

3. The Hangover
Directed by Todd Phillips
Brilliantly told, this summer's breakout hit made stars of its trio of lead actors (see below) and never let up with the laughs. A rowdy, ingenious comedy, it's everything Wedding Crashers wanted to be but wasn't.

4. Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams
In a world where every week brings yet another remake, here's a relaunch that fires on all cylinders. It's everything that a summer movie should be: sharp, visually stunning, and tremendously entertaining.

5. Drag Me to Hell
Directed by Sam Raimi
It was just a few short years ago (October 2005, to be exact) when American horror died, shortly after the release of Saw II. And so the American public has been forced to be stuck with horror movies with no scares, no sense of humor, no real story, just gallons of blood and hundreds of bare breasts. But master Sam Raimi has triumphantly returned to the genre that made a name for himself, completely recovering from the overblown Spider-Man 3. The film delivers scares and laughs with equal measure. A real cinematic treat.

1. Johnny Depp, Public Enemies
Portraying John Dillinger
After years of going brilliantly over the top in three Pirates films and Tim Burton's adaptation of Sweeney Todd, Depp again proves his impressive range by going introspective, showing us the complexities of a simple man.

2. Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies
Portraying Billie Frechette
But Depp's performance wouldn't be quite as impressive were it not for his character's anchor throughout most of the film, his faithful girlfriend Billie. Cotillard already has an Oscar for La Vie en Rose, but I wouldn't be surprised if she picks up another nomination here. She simply captivates the screen in every scene.

3. Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, and Zach Galifianakis, The Hangover
Portraying Stu, Phil, and Alan
While they're the "three best friends that anyone could have," this brilliant comic trio really makes this comedy work, as they desperately try to search for their missing compatriot Doug through the impound lots and seedy motels of Las Vegas. Each gives a distinctive performance: Helms as the hen-pecked dentist, Cooper as the douche-y schoolteacher, and standout Galifianakis as sweet-natured possible pedophile Alan. Together, they create one of film's greatest comic teams.

4. Rachel Weisz, The Brothers Bloom
Portraying Penelope Stamp
While the entire cast (including Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and the always intense Rinko Kikuchi) gives textured performances, it's Weisz, playing the perpetually sunny Penelope, that makes this con-man comedy sing. Having resided as a shut-in for most of her life, she's bursting with life and ready to go out and experience the world. It's a downright joyous performance.

5. Sam Worthington, Terminator: Salvation
Portraying Marcus Wright
Christian Bale may have had top billing, but it's the Aussie heartthrob who's the real discovery here. In his first U.S. feature, he proves to possess some serious acting chops. As the death row inmate-turned-robot prototype, he's desperate to learn his true nature. He makes this hunk of metal human.

Directed by Spike Jonze
Set to the wistful score of Arcade Fire's "Wake Up," the tease of Spike Jonze's adaptation of the beloved children's book brings a tear to one's eye. Not because it's sad; it's just that beautiful.

Directed by Larry Charles
On the other end of the spectrum, the completely unsubtle creator of Borat returns to wreak havoc and reveal the darkest of human nature, but does it while splitting your sides with laughter.

3. The Hangover, teaser trailer (now in wide release)
Directed by Todd Phillips
The perfect trailer: just enough information to make you pay attention and say "I gotta see that." And Mike Tyson singing "In the Air Tonight"? I'm there.

4. The Hurt Locker (now in limited release)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
First thought: "Oh, great. Another Iraq movie." But once the focus shifts on the real people serving overseas as well as the tense action sequences, you quickly realize this isn't your typical war (or anti-war) movie, the kind that can't be ignored.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp
The interviews seem to be pulled from any news report, and the testimonials about racism and immigration certainly seem real, but it's all about the sucker-punch at the end of the trailer for South Africa native Neill Blomkamp's faux documentary: the unwanted aliens are actually aliens.