Three Tracks: 2018

Three tracks that defined my year in 2018.

Low, “Always Trying to Work It Out”

Hard to pick a track from my favourite album of the year, but this is a standout. “Everybody says that the war is over / It isn’t something you forget so easily.” Can’t wait to see them live in March. I hadn’t seen the video until I put together this post.

Jon Hopkins, “Singularity”

The wait was worth it. Moves in a melodic/rhythmic way that seems unique to him. Great live, as well.

Lucy Dacus, “Night Shift”

Women seem to be making the best rock music these days. “Hooo-oo, woo-oo-oo oooo-oo, whooo-ao-oo waaa-yyy-yooo, ya-aa-yoo i-yoooo; oo-ii-yaaaaaaaa, i-yaaaaaaa, aa, aa i-yaaa-yoo, oo-waaa-aa-aa.” Best lyric of the year, makes me tear up every time I hear her wail this.

Honourable Mentions

Snail Mail, Stick (“What is it about them / They stick around”); Thom Yorke, Suspirium (“Is the darkness ours to take? Bathed in lightness, Bathed in heat”).

See also 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.

Three Tracks: 2017

Three tracks that defined my year in 2017.

Big Thief, “Shark Smile”

Ah, the sound of this track makes me move, makes me tear up. This is my music. “And she said woo, baby, take me. And I said woo, baby, take me too.”

The live performance on KCRW is worth checking out, though the mix is poor.

Kelly Lee Owens, “8”

Epiphany jetting up into the sunrise south out of Whitehorse. “See it, oh.” The video below is the whole album, which is great; the individual track is available on Bandcamp.

Aldous Harding, “Horizon”

“Say again, this place.”

The live performance on KEXP is worth watching.

Honourable Mentions

I didn’t realize until I was done choosing that they’re all female artists. Some of the other candidates were perhaps too obvious, and not because they’re mostly men: “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” by the National; “I Ain’t the One” by Spoon (saw an incredible live performance of this song in September at Malkin Bowl); “Soak” by Zola Jesus; “HUMBLE.” by Kendrick Lamar.

See also 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018.

Three Tracks: 2016

Three tracks that defined my year in 2016 (I’m late again this year):

David Bowie, “Lazarus”

A brilliant swan song. “This way or no way / You know I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird / Now, ain’t that just like me?”

Radiohead, “Present Tense”

Another year, another breakup. It’s difficult to pick just one song from A Moon Shaped Pool. I wrote back when In Rainbows was released that I couldn’t think of another band which, ten years after its acknowledged masterpiece (OK Computer), came out with something arguably comparable. Well, here we are another nine years later and they’ve done it again. “This dance is like a weapon of self-defence against the present tense.”

Daughter, “How”

I struggled to choose a third song for 2016. But this one struck me initially and powerfully in concert.

See also 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018.

Three Tracks: 2015

Better late that even later. Three tracks that defined my year in 2015:

Beach House, “Space Song”

It was a year of transition. At the tail end of summer, walking and biking Cannon Beach in Oregon, I felt that five years after my divorce everything had finally come together and I had myself back fully, even though I’d just realized it. “Fall back into place.” A revelation live at their April 2016 concert in Vancouver.

Sufjan Stevens, “Blue Bucket of Gold”

Driving the beautiful Highway 26 from Portland to the ocean, rain alternating with sun. One relationship over, and another one—I could almost feel it—just around the corner. “Raise your right hand / Tell me you want me in your life / Or raise your red flag / Just when I want you in my life.” Another great concert in June 2015 at the Orpheum.

Sjowgren, “Seventeen”

I don’t include enough fun songs in these lists. “If you want a second to breathe / I’ll give you all of my love / I’ll give you all that you need, ah.”

See also 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018.

Three Tracks: 2014

Three tracks that defined my year:

Sun Kil Moon, “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”

Chilling, intense. One of the best-ever songs about death of all sorts. “And I remember just where I was/When Richard Ramirez died of natural causes.”

Cloud Nothings, “I’m Not Part of Me”

One of the best shows I saw this year. “I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else.” And: “I’m not! I’m not! You.”

(I included the audio-only YouTube link as the official video is just distracting.)

Spoon, “Do You”

Song of the summer, and it’s been a while since we had one this great. The wistful ending—sort of like the end of summer, come to think of it—puts it over the top. “Do you want to get understood?”

See also 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.

Three Tracks: 2013

I had this in mind a year ago, but never got around to posting it (see Three Tracks: 2014). Three tracks that defined my year:

Jon Hopkins, “Open Eye Signal”

The track is a journey, a revelation (and the video is actually pretty great). Saw Hopkins in November (and again in July 2014), and it was brilliant.

The Knife, “A Tooth For An Eye”

It rocks. “I’m telling you stories/Trust me.”

Vampire Weekend, “Ya Hey”

Like a 21st century Paul Simon; the whole album is great. “Who could ever live that way?”

See also 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.

Robin Williams

He’s been remembered in recent days for the obvious stuff: Mork; Good Will Hunting; Doubtfire; and so on. All great. But for me, and I think my daughter Karina, it’s his reading of “The Fool and the Flying Ship” that is most memorable. All of  his manic inventiveness is here. The voices, the enthusiasm, and what I assume is a good dose of improv are hilarious. He was one of a kind.

Reading 2013

Another year, some more great books (see also 2011, 2012).

Fiction

fiction

Cathedral, Raymond Carver – Always wanted to read Carver; Junot Díaz suggested this one in a recent interview. Some of the best short stories I’ve read in ages. Modern Chekhov, etc., sure. But they’re also slow-burning page-turners—and after all, isn’t that a large part of the point of reading? I can’t say that they always preserve a kind of dignity in the everyday-or-worse characters; but they make them real and mundane in a way that’s extremely compelling and fascinating and believable. But beyond that, it’s the interactions between people that shine: it’s almost a relief to be shown that what can be most important are these encounters, whether in crisis situations or not. I read this from Carver: Collected Stories, and look forward to reading more.

The Dog Stars, Peter Heller – Good and sometimes great writing; insightful, suspenseful, pensive, and with three-dimensional characters. And it’s a page-turner. I don’t care how many post-apocalyptic books have been written blah blah blah; does it really matter? Anyway, I haven’t read many, but I think this stands on its own, and the situation is ultimately a framework, a platform for characters (mostly Hig) trying to understand themselves and their motivations. Beautifully done, in my humble opinion. A great summer read—but I say that partly because I read it in the summer, I suppose.

Tenth of December, George Saunders – Saunders draws you in with surprising humour and squeezes, simultaneously. In less capable hands, some of these portrayals might have come across as condescending; but there’s enough insight, not to mention familiarity, to push things forward in a sympathetic way and towards ends which render the details just that. The reader feels inside these heads and incorporates a complete internal consistency. Entertaining and enlightening.

Levels of Life, Julian Barnes – An unusual premise, to say the least: the history of ballooning leading into the loss of a spouse. But it’s pulled off beautifully. Barnes has become one of my favourite writers.

Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat – It’s a beautiful arc, but at a point—specifically, through some of the chapter “Di Mwen, Tell Me”—the writing falls apart a bit. But overall it made me want to read some of Danticat’s earlier books.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan – For some reason I read this over a longer span of time, more like a series of related short stories—which I’ve heard argued they really are; but I’d like to go back to it and make the character connections more concrete. Even as short stories, though, I found the book sharp and entertaining.

A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers – Some reviews I’ve read are I believe over-thinking things. This is a novel about a character that is perhaps not likeable, but at the same time maybe it exposes some fears that there’s more of him in us than we feel comfortable with. I thought Alan was developed quite well. It’s important to remember that we’re restricted to his world view—not, perhaps, an unreliable narrator, but one who is somewhat aware of his naïveté and has lost confidence as a result—and that the language is his, and what we can see of politics and Saudi Arabia is from his point of view. He’s self-aware in his unawareness, and that’s pulled off pretty well. It’s an easy read, a lightweight book in many ways perhaps, and the ending is perfunctory. But I think Eggers made an uninteresting type into an interesting centrepiece, if not exactly a protagonist.

After the Quake, Haruki Murakami – I didn’t take notes and honestly can’t remember much about this book. Maybe that says something.

Non-Fiction

nonfiction

Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens – More than any other writer, I think, reading Hitchens feels like being engaged in conversation: one after which I feel sharper, and speak and writer better. I don’t read a lot of memoirs, but this one is distinct because he was such an interesting guy, so ultimately a lot of the book is not directly about him. The chapter “Mesopotamia from Both Sides” is particularly brilliant, providing more context and explanation for Hitch’s “support” of the second Iraq war, and reducing it to the personal in an incredibly affecting way through the story of Mark Daily.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer – No single volume of course can completely (and impartially) distill the tone and direction of a country like the United States over the course of several decades. But this gives a strong impression of a wide range of some very American characters through their fascinating stories. The only Writers Fest event I attended this year was an interview with Packer, and it was great.

Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg – Due to “the rising status of women, the growth of cities, the development of communications technologies, and the expansion of the life course,” many—most—of us are now living alone. I didn’t need convincing (I live alone and cannot imagine ever cohabiting again), but thought this would be an interesting read. It was, although there was I think too much emphasis on the elderly. It’s a new area, so the author has actually done a pretty good job of pulling together anecdotes from various cultures and countries (pointing out once again, among other things, how backwards and behind we are in terms of social policy compared with the Scandinavian countries). I bristled every time he described the appearance of a woman interview subject, though; I don’t think I’m misremembering or miscounting in believing that he didn’t do so to the same extent with the males. Perhaps my biggest lesson from this book is that I should plan to live close to my daughter when I’m older. Ultimately it’s one of those books that probably could have been shorter by half, perhaps comprising a series of interesting articles. But if you’re interested in the topic, it’s a worthwhile read.

Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks – I didn’t enjoy this as much of some of Sacks’ other books: the chapters are organized around types of hallucinations, with patient stories sprinkled throughout, whereas I really enjoyed the expanded case studies of, for example, “An Anthropologist on Mars.” Still, lots of fascinating material here; the author always makes one think about one’s own perception. If you like his books, there’s no reason to skip this one.

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains, Chuck Klosterman – My initial review for this book was going to be: “Merely clever.” But then as I got further I started to think it wasn’t even very clever; and it isn’t funny. It’s too bad, because I enjoyed a couple of Klosterman’s earlier books. Here are a couple of quick examples: “Necessity used to be the mother of invention, but then we ran out of things that were necessary. The postmodern mother of invention is desire; we don’t really ‘need’ anything new, so we only create what we want.” If he’s trying to be funny with this sort of end-of-history thinking, he isn’t succeeding. But I don’t think he’s trying to be funny here. Do I need to give examples? I’m not going to bother. Or this sentence: “He refused to pretend that his life didn’t feel normal to the person inside it.” WHAT?! The book is full of this kind of thing. It would be head-scratching if it was worth scratching one’s head about. But it isn’t.

How Should a Person Be?Sheila Heti – It’s hard to rate this book. It feels like an early draft of something else; the question is whether that something would ever be any good. I tend to think not. I suppose that the main problem is that the narrator is for the most part so incredibly unlikable. Narcissism doesn’t really describe it; perhaps vacant and spoiled do. To be sure, there are a few decent moments; but they’re buried. For me the book and the author were made all the worse for apparently completely misunderstanding one of the nicest moments in The Little Prince.

Movies 2013

I didn’t see as many movies this year as I usually do (see 2010, 2011, 2012). The reason: Breaking Bad (see below) which, multiplying its 62 episodes by 48 minutes, is the equivalent of about twenty-eight (28) 1.75-hour films.

★★★★ – Best movies I saw this year

Upstream Color (trailer): Nine years after the amazing Primer, one of my favourite sci-fi movies, director/actor/composer/etc. Shane Carruth does it again. If only every movie could be so engaging, puzzling, and thought-provoking. I’ve seen it again, read articles, and am currently watching it a third time, carefully, in twenty-minute doses. I’m not sure it can really be described: perhaps the atmosphere of The Tree of Life and the intrigue of Stalker? Just see it.

upstreamcolor

All Is Lost (trailer): Harrowing, maybe partly because I was feeling a bit out to sea myself when I saw it, but it’s a great almost-wordless performance by Robert Redford (in contrast to George Clooney’s yabbering in the similarly-themed Gravity—see below). It draws you in and onto the sea with the unnamed man.

allislost

Before Midnight (trailer): I haven’t seen the prior instalments in this series, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). No matter—this stands alone as a brilliantly talky movie with surprising and subtle revelations about friendship and marriage. Both Hawke and Delpy are great.

beforemidnight

Captain Phillips (trailer): I’ve never liked Tom Hanks, and/or the movies he’s acted in. Although I’m not as sure that this quite deserves my four-star rating overall, Hanks’ incredibly affecting scene at the end puts it over the top: one of the most emotionally impactful things I saw this year, following a relentlessly tense—and believable—hour and a half or so.

captainphillips

Breaking Bad: Not a movie, but then I don’t watch television and I saw this at my own pace and without ads, which made it seem more like a series of films. I don’t watch television because of advertisements and quality. Breaking Bad, at least via Netflix on my iPad, didn’t have those issues; but it definitely reminded me of the third reason I don’t own a television: time commitment. I don’t regret the time I spent here, but it did cost me a number of movies in the theatre this year: there’s only so much video I can take. At any rate, despite a couple of weak episodes, this was an incredibly consistent long piece ultimately dealing with many forms of ambiguity. It was not (usually) broken into neat little episodes, and I often found myself watching from midway through one episode to most of the way through the next, without noticing or having troubles picking up the next time. The last “half season” was pretty brilliant—with the arguable exception of the last episode (see for instance Emily Nussbaum’s piece in the New Yorker, The Closure-Happy “Breaking Bad” Finale). Will I watch another series? Probably not. But it was fun to be in on the cultural phenomenon of the moment, and the VIFF interview session with series creator Vince Gilligan, on the eve of the finale, was one of my favourite live events of the year.

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breakingbadjesse

 

★★★½ – Definitely worth seeing

12 Years a Slave (trailer): It was great. And yet. Was it the music? There was something that distracted or diminished the film. Was it the usually good Brad Pitt, whose character didn’t quite gel? Was it editing? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll watch it again some time to try to pick it apart a bit better.

Safety Not Guaranteed (trailer): I was casting about on Netflix and found this great little movie. It’s funny and poignant and sometimes surprising: a film about some young journalists from Seattle pursuing a story about a fellow who posts an ad looking for a time travel companion.

Blue Jasmine (trailer): Essentially a tour de force by Cate Blanchett, but also Woody Allen seems to have been stronger again recently.

Europa Report (trailer): Most underrated? Much sci-fi seems to be totally unrealistic and/or over-the-top. I read somewhere that NASA consulted on this. It shows in the more measured, and therefore realistic and suspenseful, tone.

Gravity (trailer): Like a roller coaster ride. Incredible visuals. There were just three problems: George Clooney’s inane chatter; some religious bullshit; and—sigh—sound in space.

Philomena (trailer): About what you’d expect, but in a good way. Some complained it was anti-Catholic. I say: more, please.

Nebraska (trailer): Saw this at VIFF. Sure, Bruce Dern was great. But overall it felt slightly slight; and I didn’t like being so obviously expected to laugh at some of the characters—this wasn’t gracefully done.

Chinese Take-Away (trailer): Funny and affecting indie film about a couple of guys who can’t speak each others’ language, searching.

★★★ – If you’re bored and you’ve seen the above, rent these

Oldeuboi (trailer): I watched this 2003 original on Netflix as the reviews of this year’s remake made me curious. It was often quite watchable, but ultimately over the top.

Star Trek: Into Darkness (trailer): Yes, well done again. But I’ve had enough of these all-evil characters, Khan or not: I hate superhero movies and this hovers dangerously close. I want an exploration/aliens film next time out with this franchise (and perhaps that word is itself damning).

Rap is War (trailer): Another VIFF film; didn’t see enough this year. Interesting documentary on an underground Cuban rap outfit; would have been better if it had been shorter.

★★½ – Credit for effort

Camera Shy (trailer): IMDB: “This dark comedy follows a corrupt city councilman whose life spins out of control after a mysterious cameraman begins terrorizing him.” Kind of amusing, and not an awful film, but ultimately a sort of amateur proof-of-concept effort.

★★ – Please promise me you won’t see even if you’re curious

The Conjuring: The worst movie I’ve seen in a long while; I haven’t seen many horror films, but this seemed to be an amateur re-hashing of the few that I have. Fortunately my friend had free tickets. Boring, often-awful acting, and docked an extra star for claiming to be based on a “true” story. Anyone in the audience who took the laugh-out-loud claims in the title cards at face value should not be allowed to vote. Or at least to see movies.

The Place Beyond the Pines: What a dreadful movie. By turns maudlin, amateurish, boring, and improbable, it was at times laugh-out-loud awful–particularly when Gosling was playing Gosling parodying Gosling in Drive. And then it turned into a made-for-TV movie.

Predators (2010): Why on earth did I watch this? I must have been drunk. I have to be more careful with Netflix. Laughably awful.

Event Horizon (1997): Another unintentionally horrific sci-fi. I don’t understand why the production crew and actors would persevere when it should have been obvious that they were working on a stinker. Acting, dialog, and especially premise were terrible.

Movies 2012

Here’s a list of the movies I saw this past year, sorted by rating (and within each rating, the chronological order in which I saw them).

★★★★ – Best movies I saw this year

Piña (trailer): Stunning. See it. See it. I’m not even a casual dance fan–well, maybe I am now. Human motion and music and meaning. Absolutely lovely. Perhaps the best application of 3D I’ve seen, though that’s not saying much in terms of quality (Avatar, ugh) or quantity. It worked here some of the time: though i realized that its otherworldliness may come from all objects, foreground and background, being in focus. I’m not a stickler for realism, though; this is just another medium. Anyway, would be interesting to see it flat. But overall, highly recommended. I got lost in its worlds and stories and sounds and beauty.I want to see it again, and that’s very rare for me.

pina

Amour (trailer): So many movies just won’t take the time necessary to portray a life. This one does. Sad and harrowing, it gives the sense of gradual loss and all the space—and yes, loneliness—of growing old. I saw this at VIFF.

amour

The Hunt (trailer): I thought this was brilliant because it could be seen from both sides: Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas seemed at times an ambiguous figure even though we knew the real story—indeed how we might all doubt him. It really centres around his performance, and it’s a great one. Another VIFF film.

thehunt

The Master (trailer): The brilliant acting almost overshadowed everything else. I could not stop simply watching Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I think there will be a lot to pick up on second watching. I think that the general acquiescence to a mad and cultish figure was riveting and believable.

themaster

Celebration Day (trailer): I don’t listen to “classic rock.” But I grew up on Led Zeppelin; a friend and I were talking about seeing their 1980 tour, which was scuttled on John Bonham‘s death (his son Jason fills in on drums here). The band regrouped for one night five years ago, and that concert is documented in this film. While I thought the performances were generally brilliant—Kashmir in particular—I was particularly struck by a couple of other things. First, the film proves that musicianship, even rock musicianship, does not or need not decline with age: these guys were about sixty here and they’re sounding better than ever. Second, I now agree with Plant’s decision not to have extended this performance into a tour. These felt like last performances to  me: while I don’t enjoy listening to this music regularly, as it’s so overplayed, I cannot imagine what it would be like to sing it. A time and place, nicely visited here but that can now be lovingly put away.

celebrationday

Holy Motors (trailer): Another film I want to re-watch. There’s been a lot of discussion about what it all means, and my knowledge of film history isn’t strong enough to pick up the references. But it was purely entertaining and intriguing. Give me this over superheroes any day.

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★★★½ – Definitely worth seeing

  • Shame (trailer): Depicts well something I’m tempted to say would be very difficult to do: the declination of pleasure to obsession to compulsion. No joy, but no particular sadness either, until it has consequences, which here may be set up a little too obviously. Still, recommended.
  • Monseir Lazhar (trailer): Surprisingly less than the sum of its parts. On paper a lovely, human story; but it didn’t deliver quite the impact that might have been expectedâ??or at least that I did. Kudos for not going over the top, but it didn’t quite reach the  top, either: a delicate balance between subtle and slight. Worth seeing, though, for several excellent performances.
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin (trailer): Immediately bought the book and read through to fill in some blanks and inconsistencies that I suspect we’re lost in the translation from novel to screen–unless I was having an off night. The usual objections to the rich American family that doesn’t seem ever to go to work, but overall an effective, harrowing story of parental bewilderment: those who have not been through it (parenthood, that is) may be scared off; those who have, like me, will recognize and perhaps shudder despite the degree of strife. Very engaging and full of effective tension; Tilda Swinton is great as usual.
  • A Separation (trailer): Interesting cultural limitations and twists on a Western–or is that just human contemporary–situation and setting. Some loose ends: the wife’s story wasn’t fully developed, I didn’t think. But a minor qualm. Just the right developing ambiguity and the central figure of the daughter Termeh was brilliantly written and played. Recommended.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (trailer): Not as good as the original Swedish movie of 2009, though it probably had better music. Probably should get an award for best trailer, though. Watched this on my iPad.
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi (trailer): Perhaps not the most obvious movie for a vegan, but the care and artistry of this guy are inspiring. I would eat his food if I had the chance.
  • Moonrise Kingdom (trailer): Wes Anderson nuttiness. A tonne of fun.
  • Monsters (trailer): Surprisingly affecting sci-fi, proving you just don’t need big-budget special effects to succeed.
  • Coast Modern (site): alternately inspiring—West Coast architecture is home—and depressing: I won’t ever have a home anything like these. Very nicely done.
  • Pearl Jam 20 (trailer): I stopped listening a few years ago, though one of their recent Vancouver concerts was a lot of fun. I took a look at this partly out of curiosity after reading Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. It’s tempting to see Pearl Jam as a salvage job for the Seattle scene. Workmanlike and dependable; though not really “grunge,” if that even means anything. Watched on iPad.
  • Take This Waltz (trailer): Rising and falling of lust and love. I like Sarah Polley‘s films. Watched on iPad.
  • Life of Pi (trailer): I haven’t read the book. The movie was visually stunning, but was screwed up by nonsensical (is there any other kind?) religious mumbo-jumbo; and the current-day scenes were really weak.
  • Sleepwalk with Me (trailer): Mike Birbiglia is a funny guy. But this movie is mostly a rehash of material you will have heard if you’re a This American Life fan. Given that these were old jokes to me—perhaps I should have known from the title—it’s hard for me to judge how well they work in this medium. Given also that many of the stories seem to have arisen from Birbiglia’s actual experience, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here, unless he’s continued to have more crazy experiences. Still, worth seeing if you haven’t heard his routines. Watched on iPad.
  • Argo (trailer): As good as Hollywood gets, probably. Docked half a star for offending Canadians (not to mention Iranians, probably) and for the writers failing to take thirty seconds to Google the take-off speed of a 747: it’s about 160-180 miles per hour, so police cars couldn’t keep up.
  • Django Unchained: (trailer): Like Inglourious Basterds, a mixed bag. A lot of what Tarantino does seems just to be to use violence to string together scenes in support of some admittedly good writing (not to mention great acting). I wish he’d try a different kind of film. I actually thought that Django had the weakest Tarantino scene ever—the prattle about the pre-KKK masks. Not funny: just really dim. I was surprised.

★★★ – If you’re bored and you’ve seen the above, rent these