The show about that thing you love
Thisteners, if there’s one thing I love more than bringing you auditory petits fours to alleviate the doldrums of our everyday existence and briefly avail you of your fear of ever-looming death, it’s making Best-Of lists.
2012 was a great year for movies, and a decent enough year for music (as evidenced by my 2012 music rundown with fellow critics Chris Bosman and Chris Polley), and now that it’s the new year, I’d like to share my lists for the best 2012 had to offer.
In the spirit of the show, this is totally my point of view, a personal list of what I think was the best to come out of 2012. But certainly mine isn’t the only opinion! I’d love to get a conversation started: What were your favorite things this year? Share this list around, call me a fool, and put me right where you think I go wrong!
This is my favorite part of what I do.
Frank Ocean’s 2012 would have been historic enough simply with the announcement that he, a respected member of the woefully sexist mainstream hip-hop culture, had been in love with a man. If all he was known for throughout the history of music was that announcement, that would still be measurably earth-shaking in the world of popular music. Decades after it first rose to prominence, hip-hop and R&B have still struggled to foster inclusion and acceptance towards homosexuals, and especially within Frank Ocean’s chosen crew, Odd Future, there’s been endless criticism of rampant homophobia throughout the industry. To “come out” as Ocean did was a monumental moment of candor and openness that found a flood of support and started a sea change that may well define the coming years of hip-hop culture. The announcement alone was historic.
But then Ocean’s album, channelOrange, finally dropped, and his love life wasn’t even the biggest story about him anymore. The album, a loose concept based around the notion of a television network, with each song standing in for various shows, was immediately hailed as one of the most surprising and beautiful records of the year. If anything, the months since its release have only made it better. What Ocean has been able to do with channelOrange is create a diverse palate, a collage of musical ideas at once fresh and familiar.
From the opening strains of “Thinkin’ Bout You” to the twisted warp at the back end of “Pilot Jones,” channelOrange begins as a wonderfully crafted R&B record. “Sierra Leone” in particular highlights the novel wonder of this opening section, beginning with a relatively sparse beat and Ocean’s voice straining above, before growing and expanding to a symphonic burst of sweetness and warmth that makes clear that Ocean’s songwriting is both captivating and surprising.
But it’s the middle section of channelOrange that truly brings it to the next level. When the opening synths of “Pyramids” announce the song’s arrival, like trumpets announcing the entrance of a king, the listener is taken on an extraordinary odyssey of sound. The narrative device, dividing the song into two parts of roughly equal length and juxtaposing the Egyptian queen Cleopatra with an exotic dancer with the same name, is beset on all sides by bombastic, wild compositions that disorient and excite; the instrumental bridge alone, the key-changing transition, is worthy of endless examination, as the keys pull and push at each other, dragging down and swirling about like a whirlpool of exquisite beauty.
The album from there is a knockout.
There was no artist that captured the most deserving attention in 2012 than Frank Ocean, and, thanks to his songwriting prowess and willingness to take chances and experiment with new ides, there was no album as captivating in 2012 as channelOrange.
There was a significant degree of hype associated with Kendrick Lamar, as there is with any young rap protege of a famous producer, especially a producer as famous as Dr. Dre, known for crowning kings as much as mixing bestselling records. But Lamar’s debut album exceeded expectations precisely by defying them. good kid, M.A.A.D. city is at once the year’s best rap album and also its most complex. Telling the (fictionalized) story of Lamar’s life on the streets of Compton through his rise to rap stardom, Lamar does something extraordinary: He utilizes popular tropes, and criticisms, of an exaggerated gangster culture to present an alternative.
The album’s production is top-notch, and Lamar is one of the most exciting wordsmiths to emerge in quite some time. But what makes the album as a whole so great isn’t just the way he makes hard-edged club tracks and mixes them with more introspective poetic diversions, but how he blends those two ideas into being the same. As the record plays, the songs become more and more twisted, starting as (admittedly well-made) rote familiar street rap, and eventually morphing into bigger sounds. Lead single “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a thinly-veiled critique of the alcoholic streak of young men in the city, complete with a club-ready hook met with pitch-controlled vocal experiments. Similarly crafty, and far more ambitious, is the album’s longest piece “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” the tragedy to meet the album’s earlier “Backseat Freestyle” comedy.
This is hard-edged rap music with a conscience and a vision beyond the apparent first layer of the music. It’s undeniably fun, but rewards repeat listens with a complicated morality and self-reflective idealism.
A new Fiona Apple album had been the Great White Whale of rock critic desires for seven years before she finally announced the release of The Idler Wheel. And while significant strides had been made in the music world during her absence, there was always a lingering question mark on her career: With only three albums and years of mysterious behavior, had the story of Fiona Apple already come to a close?
I don’t know that anyone could have expected what came out of that seven-year absence. The Idler Wheel… is surely the most difficult, inaccessible, challenging record of Apple’s career to date, replete with songs that defy simple beauty in favor of something more raw, more honest. Songs like “Left Alone” drift toward sweetness only fleetingly before Apple intentionally strains and violates her vocal chords, spitting bursts of rage over her furious piano.
But it’s the journey from quiet beauty to gruff discomfort that makes Apple’s return so endlessly fascinating. When it’s at its easiest, as on opener “Every Single Night” or the a capella closer “Hot Knife,” The Idler Wheel… is a pretty and solid repeat listen. When it’s at its most brutal, it eschews classical piano softness for something that gets more to the heart of what Apple’s been trying to say all these years out of the spotlight. All together, The Idler Wheel… is a reminder of the promise and intensity of Apple’s songcraft, and a wonderful landmark to tide us over in the unfortunate event we must wait seven more years to hear her voice.
4) Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man
As I said in my conversation with Chris Polley and Chris Bosman, I always forget, when Bat For Lashes releases an album, how much I enjoyed Bat For Lashes’ past work. That won’t be the case going forward; The Haunted Man is the greatest synthesis of everything I love about Natasha Khan’s sound, and it’s definitely the best work she’s yet produced. There can’t be said to be a single song here that’s out of place, and there are several, especially her “first name” songs, “Laura” and “Marilyn,” that dazzle as much on their own as they do where they sit in the tracklist. “All Your Gold” is a thrilling single, an upbeat pop hook with a mournful tale of love stripping away everything and leaving nothing good behind. It’s bold, it’s adventurous, but more than anything, The Haunted Man is sublimely beautiful. It’s easy to get lost in its sway.
5) Big Cats, For My Mother
2012 was a tremendous year for instrumental music, with lauded releases from the likes of Flying Lotus, Delicate Steve, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and Paper Tiger. But for me, the best instrumental record of the year was a quiet, intimate, and wholly personal release from one of Minneapolis’s best up-and-coming beatmakers, Big Cats. For My Mother has a heartbreaking backstory: Big Cats, real name Spencer Wirth-Davis, made the album with the help of artistic grants as a way to honor his mother, who’d died of ovarian cancer, and raise money to fight the disease. Recording a live performance with local musicians and friends, he spliced the tracks together and made a ten-track charity album. The harrowing sound, like the best instrumental hip-hop, defies questions of whether it would spin in a club; it’s decidedly a headphones-record, something to absorb in your room alone with thoughts of your life and the lives of those you love. And in this way it’s absolutely exceptional. Few records ever reach the level of power that For My Mother manages in its short run time.
6) The Tallest Man on Earth, There’s No Leaving Now
It could easily be said that the third record from Kristian Mattson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth, does nothing to advance his signature sound, and that’s not far from the truth. But it’s a sound I’m certainly not sick of, and here he wields it possibly better than he has to this point in his young career.
7) Jessie Ware, Devotion
Easily my favorite pop record of the year (despite the fact that it got no play on pop radio), Devotion is full of longing and earnestness, exactly the right emotions for a pop star defying the molds our culture would try to place her in. Jessie Ware’s warm voice and the album’s deft production create beautiful moment after beautiful moment, all worthy of repeat listens.
8) P.O.S., We Don’t Even Live Here
2009’s Never Better is one of my top three favorite albums of all time, so to place We Don’t Even Live Here anywhere lower than the top five records of 2012 is painful for me personally. But, truth be told, my initial listens would have left it off this list entirely. Something about the production on P.O.S.’s latest record turned me off initially, and with three stellar opening tracks, I felt it peaked early and fizzled. Repeat listens brought new understanding, however: We Don’t Even Live Here is an album of segments, divided in threes, with each segment standing on their own as a unique statement of P.O.S.’s angry outsider mystique, all capped off by the blistering closer “Piano Hits.” It may just deliver even more over time.
9) David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant
I wouldn’t have believed that a collaboration between two voices as distinctive as David Byrne and St. Vincent would yield enlightening results, but somehow these two managed to come together to create something that sounds unique from anything either has made before. And, when it comes down to it, the album is a fun, engaging listen, and worthy of both their celebrated names.
10) Grizzly Bear, Shields
An extension of the band’s instant-classic Veckatimest, Shields isn’t particularly anything new from the band, and lacks some of their more storied ebb-and-flow. But it more than makes up for its flaws with a greater focus on individual songwriting, especially the album’s two stellar lead singles, “Yet Again” and “Sleeping Ute.”
The questions of war are never simple. There’s always moral dilemma in killing, whether it’s for belief, for protection, for revenge, for profit, etc. But more important sometimes than the moral dilemma of killing, there’s the question of how, when you’ve decided on a target, you justify and follow that desire. It’s a twisted and often harrowing dilemma, one for which self-righteousness is often an asset and compassion, a liability. Katheryn Bigelow and Mark Boal raised the question of whether war is a drug in 2009 with The Hurt Locker. With Zero Dark Thirty, the question isn’t whether war is a drug, but whether that drug is medicine or a stimulant.
Jessica Chastain stars as a CIA analyst in the Middle East, taking part in the agency’s “detainee” program, torturing prisoners post-9/11 to track down and kill members of Al-Qaeda. The film’s opening segments are as brutal as anything you’ll even see onscreen, with a full waterboarding sequence the centerpiece of a deeply disturbing glimpse into the world of harsh interrogations. That the film has come under so much fire for the prominence of torture in telling its narrative of the hunt to kill Osama Bin Laden is indication of just how visceral this section of the film turns out to be. It’s hauntingly real, and raises every concern in a viewer’s mind that it should: How could people do this? Does this actually work? Do I sympathize with characters that would actively torment others in this way?
This is only the beginning of a film that is as much about the singularly engrossing obsession of one woman’s hunt for the truth as it is about the endless threads the CIA followed to find the world’s most wanted terrorist. It’s a film of murky truths and ambiguous morals that nevertheless provides a deeply moving and memorable story. Stellar acting, white-knuckle tension, and hard truths highlight a film that’s a strong and vital statement on the nature of war and the depths our hearts will sink to in order to find closure for our nation and ourselves. It may well be the film that defines our view of the War on Terror, and may shape the way war films are presented for years to come.
I was an absolute mess walking out of Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s so rare that a film of such lyrical brilliance touches my heart so deeply, but Beasts did that, and then some. The story of a little girl in a small town called The Bathtub that gets flooded when the levees break, Beasts is much more than a parable about the lives of the indigent poor post-Katrina. It’s a very human story of a child who’s coming to the age where she begins to question everything in her life, particularly why she’s been raised by her drunken father alone, and just where her mother went.
The characters that populate Beasts are little more than the simple perceptions of a little girl who feels lost amid the rising seas around her, and the titular beasts who’ve thawed from the ice caps and are stampeding their way towards her town. But the simplicity of the characters belies a world of magical sincerity and yearning. Quvenzhané Wallis, as the main character Hushpuppy, gives a knockout performance, leveling each room with her eyes and making even the most hard-hearted feel protective of this wonderfully bright child.
If Zero Dark Thirty is extraordinary for its harsh truth, Beasts is equally great for its beautiful truth: Through a magical, poetic tale, it reminds us of the power of the human spirit, and it reminds us that each person, no matter how young, is capable of strength that can surprise even themselves.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Quentin Tarantino managed to make the most entertaining movie of 2012, especially with a cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Leonardo DiCaprio. What is surprising is that he turned out what must be, despite all the violence, gore, slave-beating, n-word use, and brutality, his most immediately accessible film to date. It’s not a puzzle to be pieced together like Pulp Fiction or a prolonged subtextual statement on the propaganda of war movies like Inglorious Basterds. It’s also not so off-the-rails as Kill Bill. Instead, Django takes the most fun parts of all of those films, the crazy violence, snappy dialogue, and terrific performances, and trims the complexity. If it sounds like a criticism to call Django Tarantino’s most straightforward movie, it’s not; weaving a convoluted web or drawing out tension before horrific violence are always welcome tricks from up Tarantino’s sleeve, but when he boils things down to their essence like he does with Django, the result is an absolute blast.
The film isn’t perfect; the narrative keeps changing the goal line of success and ultimate villainy, though it could be argued that this is specifically because each turn uncovers more and more horrific aspects of the slave trade, and the most dangerous villains are sometimes the ones least expected. And for all the fear of some critics that the film would do a disservice to racial issues (it very much doesn’t), the group most poorly explored in Django is women; the female characters are either flat as cardboard or empty as a vase, and Tarantino definitely deserves some reproach for not addressing those issues better in his script.
But the fact that there are so many moral debates about a film that’s also as funny and satisfying as Django Unchained is proof that even though he stripped the most convoluted of his narrative devices, Tarantino still managed to make a smart, thought-provoking movie to go with all the shoot-’em-up glee.
Ben Affleck’s directing career grows more impressive with each film, and Argo may finally be the picture that curries favor with once-cruel critics once and for all. Argo is a nail-biting true-life thriller with a tremendous cast, excellent visual eye, and plenty of twists and turns. The Hollywood portion, headed by veterans Alan Arkin and John Goodman provides a great bit of comic relief, but what makes it work is how Affleck balances the more mirthful and more serious tones into a well-woven narrative that never feels unbalanced. It’s one of the most For true-life CIA dramas set in the Middle East, Zero Dark Thirty owns the mind, while Argo deftly grabs the heart.
Writer-director Rian Johnson’s first trek into science fiction was every bit as mind-bending and well-acted as anyone would expect from the man who brought viewers Brick and The Brothers Bloom. But Looper surprised audiences not just with its time-travel complexities, but with its quiet, human drama. When the film takes a sudden turn from a chase through the city and a cat-and-mouse game of wits between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis to a more claustrophobic and thoughtful stretch in the country with Emily Blunt, it sets itself apart from flashy big-budget Hollywood sci-fi action flicks and aims for the more controlled and fascinating science fiction that lasts for years to come. And it definitely hits its target.
Few films can inspire like historical dramas directed by Steven Spielberg, and those starring such a bevvy of incredible actors as Lincoln will surely live in infamy. There isn’t a bad acting job in a film with a sea of familiar faces, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones each find moments to absorb the scenery and leave audiences breathless and teary-eyed. The film loses momentum and utterly falls apart in the last ten minutes, but it’s a strong and worthy tribute to one of America’s greatest heroes.
7) Cabin in the Woods
2012 was Joss Whedon’s year, with the biggest blockbuster smash in The Avengers and the hilarious, inventive, truly unique Cabin in the Woods. As an ode to horror films and the machinations that lead to their creation, its impeccable, but as a comedy in a horror setting, it’s ingenious, one of the most consistently fun and startling movies you’re likely to see. For pure creativity, Cabin in the Woods is easily one of the year’s best.
8) Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson’s ode to childhood love is often madcap, occasionally uncomfortable, and totally off-beat, but seeing Anderson’s trademark style is only half of what makes the film a success; the story at its heart is so honest and sweet, it’s all but impossible not to fall in love with it.
9) Magic Mike
Easily the year’s most misunderstood film, Magic Mike is at once the best stripper movie ever made and also an impressively subversive metaphor for the careers of its male leads, Channing Tatum (who had a star-making 2012) and Matthew McConaughey, a critique of Hollywood’s sexual exploitation, and a beautifully-shot passion project for prolific director Steven Soderbergh.
10) Seven Psychopaths
If Magic Mike was the year’s most misunderstood film, Seven Psychopaths was a close second. Based on Martin McDonagh’s brilliant screenplay, Seven Psychopaths was advertised as a rote action comedy, but turned out to be so much more, a profound and heartfelt think piece about the gruesome violence inherent in modern action movies complete with a revolving narrative that makes it as close as anyone could ever come to making Adaptation into an action thriller.