I took over the Special Edition for the departing Troy Anderson at the end of April of this year, and I’ve got to say, it’s been a job of work – but Jeb and Tony have made it so worthwhile, and that I see some of the same people commenting makes me feel like it’s doing some of you some good, so thanks so much for that.
I’d also like to thank former contributor Brian Condry – who kept our video game coverage from dying out. He managed to make me start playing games not named Uncharted (or 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand) again – so…my wallet hates him.
As film fans, so much of what we love is compromised. The most painstaking cinematography can read incorrectly once the film is developed. So many great talents say that they do what they can, but the process of filmmaking never works out exactly as planned.
Then the film goes to theaters, where shitty projection and worn, filthy screens can further muddy things.
Then it comes home – first to VHS, where picture information is lost, colors are dulled, and the image is softened beyond recognition – then to laserdisc, where we discover that the same muted master used for the VHS was employed for the platters in most instances.
But hey, at least it’s widescreen, right…?
Eventually it gets to television, where it’s cut for time, sped up to fit a broadcast slot, and maimed to the point of worthlessness. Why even bother watching something on television, when it’s covered in logos and filled with commercials and cut to shit…?
Eventually, DVD came along, and it saved us in a million ways. Director’s Cuts became common, special features opened the window on the process. Blu Ray has seemingly perfected home viewing, as new masters of great films must be struck to make proper use of the format, and restorations must be performed lest every flaw be painfully evident.
But there are so many great films that will never make it to Blu Ray. Hell, I own an HD-DVD player just so I can watch Streets of Fire in High Def – and some of the films that do are really sloppy.
At the same time, though…some of them look so great that it’s like you’re finally seeing it the way it should have been seen for the first time in years – sometimes decades. And it makes that work you’ve only ever seen in its compromised form live like it never has.
I’ve known for awhile now that I wanted to compile a year-ender, but I wasn’t sure how I’d go about doing it. I could just whip up a list of a bunch of movies I liked…or rattle off all of the Blu Ray I bought this year – but I thought what might be more beneficial to us all would be to craft a list of titles that really benefit from their new incarnation – to construct a list of releases that improve on that last abysmal, non-anamorphic DVD…or have been double-dipped in a worthwhile fashion…or are making the leap to high def for the first time.
In most cases, the films I’ve selected are not new releases – because, to be honest, if a major studio can’t drop a brand new film to a video format and make it look perfect – they should close up shop. At the same time, these titles might not even be what you would call “demo material” – they just needed to take their place as the best looking versions of some worthwhile films.
So it’s not a “Top Ten” or anything like that – I just went through everything that was released, month by month, and found all of the stuff that I could recommend to you whole heartedly. Turns out there are twenty-two titles. Most of this will be Blu – but I’m sure we’ll find some decent DVD along the way…
Cult legend Takashi Miike suppresses his gonzo sensibilities and sets his master craftsman free to concoct a desperate “Jidaigeki” tale of feudal men gathering to overthrow a vile lord. It is a truly wondrous mix of action, adventure, drama, and melodrama; expertly acted and beautifully shot. You need this movie in your life – immediately and forever.
Magnet/Magnolia Pictures’ Blu Ray is the best-looking release of the film (thanks for doing it in 1080p, guys – unlike The Good, The Bad, and The Weird), and it’s a film you should absolutely own.
The Alien Anthology made its Blu Ray bow this year, and while the quality on all of the films and features is spectacular across the board, it’s James Cameron’s hands-on restoration of the second film that really takes the taco.
What people don’t remember about Aliens is that it is, for all of its ambition, an incredibly low-budget film. It was shot on some brutal high-speed film stock, and has always been incredibly grainy. Much of the compositing in the film was done in camera via a defunct rear-projection process called Introvision – and some of it has always looked soft and drab.
There was a fear that Cameron and Fox would simply order techs to artificially boost the film’s at-times lifeless color palate, and apply a smear of Digital Noise Reduction ala Fox’s dogshit Predator: Ultimate Hunter Edition.
That’s not what happened. Instead, the grain is retained, colors are alive, contrast is – for perhaps the first time in the film’s lifespan – exactly as it should be. Blade Runner and North by Northwest are the only two films I can think of at the moment that benefitted from their restoration as Cameron’s film has. This film has never looked better, and I don’t know if it could.
Brian DePalma’s finest film – and maybe John Travolta’s best performance. This movie is even more fantastic via Criterion’s new Blu Ray. When it hit, I said this:
“…For you film school peeps – Brian DePalma’s Blow Out is one of the finest films about film ever made. I could write about the flick for ages – about Vilmos Zsigmond’s incredible cinematography…about the Pino Donnagio score…about the demon John Lithgow – but I’ve got more ground to cover…”
I can cover that ground a bit now.
For me, this is John Travolta’s masterwork. He, like DePalma, walks a high wire line between an amazing naturalism and arch melodrama – in a way that I’m not sure many people could pull off then or now (and I don’t think Travolta could do it today, either. He’s so self-aware at this point that any attempt looks a lot like, oh say…Face/Off – which I can’t get behind even in my position as America’s Foremost John Woo Apologist).
The thing to savor about this film – aside, of course, from DePalma’s demonic grasp of the technical aspect of his craft – are the performances. Nancy Allen is so heartbreaking here. I feel like I’ve known that girl all my life – she’s the smart girl who plays stupid because she doesn’t want to chase another guy away – but she probably should, since most every one of them she’s hooked up with has been a fucking dirtbag loser…and she really doesn’t understand how that happens, since she really just wants to meet a nice guy…
None of that is me projecting – it’s all in her performance. It’s in her mannerisms when she shares that first drink with Travolta…it’s in her voice when she’s too worried or scared to keep up the act…
And of course she would be scared to keep up the act in the face of John Lithgow’s sinister villain. Essentially G. Gordon Liddy if he left a trail of corpses, this character is truly vile in an over-the-top way that Lithgow completely grounds. A lesser actor would be twitches and ticks – Lithgow’s insanity is so sane that he has a logical – and pleasantly-conveyed – explanation for it, which makes it all the more nightmarish. I’ve always liked this film. It’s my fave DePalma – but in this vibrant restoration, it truly lives.
Simply because it exists. For ages, there was no single print of this Al Adamson kiddie-madness – and now we have a Blu Ray. Astonishing. The last time I saw it was on a horrid VHS tape (that I actually had to spice together at one point), and from the moment the animated credits flew in, I knew it was going to be creepish. And it is. The question at hand is, “Did Adamson know?”
I think he had to. I like to think he was having a laugh over making a children’s film slathered with all sorts of unsettling shit. There is no magic at a carnival – just methheads and dirtbags and outlaw scumfucs (which was always Adamson’s fave topic), and I think he exploits it 100%.
If you’re at all a fan of the film (in the last few years, it’s become trendy to not be), this is what you’ve been waiting for – at least in terms of image quality. Some of the effects work looks pretty rough because of the digital processing/and compositing of the day, but the film itself is incredibly detailed and actually pretty colorful – flame is intense in its red-orange hue, and the exteriors have a cool blue feel to them rather than the drab grays the old VHS/DVD taught us to love. Another film whose Blu incarnation far surpasses every previous video version.
Again – if for no other reason than it exists. Blacks are a little crushed, and it might have been nice to retain the commentary from Anchor Bay’s rather shitty DVD, but this movie is ripe for critical reassessment.
DEATHSTALKER II: DUEL OF THE TITANS
That part up there where I said we’d find some DVD? Yeah – totally there so I could shout out to SHOUT! Factory for their Sword & Sorcery Collection – and the insanely gorgeous version of Jim Wynorski’s Deathstalker II packaged therein. Destroying all previous video releases (and I know this because I have them all: VHS, laserdisc, and New Horizons DVD), Shout!’s anamorphic restoration is as excellent as any I’ve seen performed on dozens of catalog titles – and it’s better than many films considered far more important. Sarcastic and self-aware, Deathstalker II plays like the Animaniacs version of Conan The Barbarian. Aside from a couple of naughty bits, this is a movie you could show to a toddler – instead, you’ll have to save it for your inner toddler. That little shit will have a blast.
DRIVE ANGRY 3D
You either got it or you didn’t. Me? I got it. One of my favorite times in a theater this year (quite possibly because I saw it with the hottest female alive), this goofy grindhouse gem looks absolutely stellar on 3D Blu Ray. As much as I dig Avatar at home, Drive Angry is my reference material.
ENTER THE VOID
This film is a mind-blower in any format, but in high def – it’s a fucking stunner. When people talk about a film on Blu Ray that almost gives the illusion of depth, this is what they mean. There are those who say that you have to watch this film under the influence of chemicals. I say LET ‘EM. Pop in the Blu Ray and watch them seizure. Call 911.
EVIL DEAD 2
Evil Dead 2 will never look as polished as today’s films – it’s an intentionally rough-looking film shot with a variety of film stocks and speeds (one of the fannish thrills of watching this new master is being able to see in much greater detail how Raimi manipulates the ferocious velocity of the film in camera and in post – you can see the grain move at different speeds) – but it’s hard to imagine Lionsgate’s excellent new presentation being beaten anytime soon. The only defects here are the ones inherent in the film’s production.
The great Michael Felsher and his Red Shirt Productions contributes all new special features, including a talking head documentary punctuated with VHS footage shot by effects legends Robert Kurtzman, Howard Berger, and Greg Nicotero (this stuff was part of the Anchor Bay DVD and Blu packages, but Felsher and team wisely refashion it to speak to a narrative crafted by their new interviews). Raimi and Rip couldn’t make it to the party, but almost everyone else is present and accounted for.
The disc is super-cheap, so even if you’ve purchased previous iterations (and man, I have – the Vestron VHS, the Elite Laserdisc, the Anchor Bay DVD, the Blu Ray of the same master, and now this version), you’ll find a lot to like here.
Speaking of grimy – Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker is about as NYC grimy as it gets, but the film is surprising on Blu Ray. Gabe Bartolos’ shoestring special effects were never meant to stand up to this sort of scrutiny, but they very often do – and the film itself is sometimes really vibrant. Having not seen the picture in about thirteen years, I was sorta’ weirded out by how tame it is when compared to a lot of other exploitation films (and Henenlotter’s own recent work – I’m looking at you, Bad Biology); tonally, it’s actually not so far removed from something like Ghostbusters – it’s just got more tits.
THE GREAT DICTATOR
Tweaking his Little Tramp for the talkies, Charlie Chaplin plays a nameless Jewish barber caught up in the rise of the not-even-remotely-veiled-so-much-as-insulted-like-a-schoolkid-would Nazi regime, who winds up accidentally switching places with the Fuhrer (or “Phooey”), because he’s a dead ringer (must be the ‘tache). Chaplin paid for the film himself, and the very idea that he was lashing out at Hitler before the war had really kicked into high could have been disastrous, but what he – and we- wound up with is the star’s finest hour. The fourth-wall breaking speech The Barber-as-Phooey gives to the assembled double-crossers at the end of the film moved me as a child, and it’s totally weep-worthy today. Criterion would love to share it with you – and their new high def disc makes the film look like it was shot twenty minutes ago. The Blu Ray’s audio is similarly clear in a way it’s never been before. Thank you, Voyager.
Rick Rosenthal’s serviceable sequel is nicely mastered. That it looks better than it ever has is not such a climb, seeing that a few of the previous video incarnations featured the Goodtimes Home Video logo (remember them? They were the company that put everything on VHS in the EP mode – then told YOU to fix the tracking on your VCR when the picture looked like shit).
However, the real reason to own this on Blu Ray is the inclusion of the charming clip-fest Terror in the Aisles. Hosted by Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen, this tongue in cheek look at horror from the ‘30s to the ‘80s is, if nothing else, a great checklist for the horror fan (even though most of the films are pretty obvious, there are still a few oddballs worth tracking down).
On top of this goodness, there was some controversy surrounding the Blu release when longtime fans noticed that Halloween producer Moustapha Akkad’s name had been left out of the opening. Universal has actually corrected this, and will be offering replacements. Nicely done, Uni.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3D
There are a few 3D versions of films on this list, and it’s because the format truly enhances them – and nowhere is that statement more valid that with this film.
I missed out on the film theatrically (I thought the dragons looked silly, and the whole thing seemed to skew too young for my tastes), and when I finally caught it on Blu, I was filled with joy. This is an excellently-crafted film, the designs I had such disdain for totally work in context, the voice work is just killer, the score is fantastic. Great stuff.
But in 3D…it’s even better. The geography of the action is heightened, and the flight sequences…holy Christ on a hot plate, the flight sequences. They’re granted a beauty and a poignancy only hinted at in the 2D version. In 3D, it’s like you’re up there with Hiccup and Toothless, and it’s almost weep-inducing.
Synapse has put together a gorgeous Blu for Scott Spiegel’s goofy, gory slasher. Previous releases have always been shit. This one is definitive.
KUNG FU PANDA 2 3D
Seriously and sincerely the single best time I had in a theater all year, Kung Fu Panda 2 is how a sequel should be done. It doesn’t turn the volume up to eleven on the first film…
Well…it doesn’t just turn the volume up. Everything about this film is a step up from the already-exemplary original: the scale and scope are massive, the fights more intricate, the animation more detailed and vibrant – but that’s not all that’s going on here. Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of the rare sequels (live action or animated) that refuses to simply hit the “reset” button. It doesn’t suddenly say that pudgy Po is not the new incarnation of the legendary Dragon Warrior…it doesn’t make him win the title all over again – no one doubts that he’s the mythical fighter…except him. And his feelings of self-doubt stem from something he’s feared for a long time – a running joke from the first film.
That’s the real glory of this sequel, it takes a dorky knock-off gag – that James Hong’s bird character couldn’t possibly be Po’s dad, and turns it into the central element of a narrative that made me ache in a way no animated film has managed since the opening of UP.
Yeah. I fucking said it. It hit me that hard. Kung Fu Panda 2 is amazing.
THE LAST STARFIGHTER
I remember when this flick first hit, and critics said the space stuff looked like shit, and computer graphics would never replace models – and I’ve got to say…I’m so glad those people were right.
And you know…they kinda’ were. If you go take a look at the old DVD, it seems like all of the space sequences were transferred to video by taking a projector outside at mid-day, aiming it at a bedsheet on a clothesline, then just shooting what was projected onto the bedsheet with an old Sanyo VHS camcorder.
It turns out that all of the rendered footage was actually quite brilliant, and the Last Starfighter Blu Ray is where you go to discover that truth. Sure, sure – the planet surface stuff is very rudimentary, but the star fields and spaceships still hold up pretty well. Watching this film again reminded me of how badly I wanted a Gunstar as a kid…and how badly I want a Catherine Mary Stewart now.
LION KING 3D
I cannot believe how flawlessly executed this 3D post-conversion is. It’s not a pop-up book. It’s not weird, skeletal layers. It’s like it was supposed to be this way all along. Glorious.
MIMIC: DIRECTOR’S CUT
I’ve said it before and a thousand times more – Guillermo Del Toro has never made a bad film. When sparring with those who know film, a common response to this statement has been, “Yeah – what about Mimic?”
Have you ever guys ever read Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures?
I’d love for that to be a rhetorical question, but for those who aren’t aware – Guillermo was fired from the film. In what I felt to be one of the most harrowing portions of Peter Biskind’s book, Producer B.J. Rack and Quentin Tarantino share their remembrances of Mimic’s insanely troubled production. Rack (via Biskind) said:
“Bob told [Del Toro], ‘You’re just not cuttin’ it, and we have to let you go. I’m sorry I trusted you…you’re not the right guy.’
Del Toro was crushed. He said, ‘Maybe we’re making two different movies.’
Bob replied, ‘No, you’re not making a good movie. You’re going home tonight, we’re gonna’ pick up the pieces tomorrow with someone else.’”
When Sorvino learned of this, she did something that makes me want to kiss the soles of her feet (probably something she’s used to by now, having dated Quentin Tarantino). Biskind wrote:
“According to Rack, Sorvino, who had a lot to lose by antagonizing the Weinsteins, threw a spectacular tantrum, screamed at Bob, “You motherfucker, you’re not doing this to him, you’re not doing this to me, this is not the way you make movies, I’m not coming to the set tomorrow without Guillermo directing the movie. I won’t work for anyone else. I’ll split.”
So “kisses for Mira Sorvino” and “fuck you Bob Weinstein” is basically how I feel about that.
Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber basically sat on Guillermo for the entire shoot, forced second unit shooting for added “boo scare” boosit, and – of course – changed his ending.
Now that the Potatoheads are off murdering another company, there are other interests stepping in to evaluate their back catalog – and Guillermo has seized the opportunity to climb back into the editing bay to assemble a cut of Mimic that is closer to his original intent.
Del Toro’s cut is only a few minutes longer – but it feels infinitely shorter somehow, despite the fact that there is far less cutting overall. Shots are allowed to linger to the point where they become seriously uncomfortable. There is an painfully elegiac tone to the film now, as the notion that the disease that Sorvino’s mutant insects were created to stop killed so many children is brought to the fore, positioning the character of the autistically-touched boy Chuy as something of a wartime child (which brings the film in line with Del Toro’s masterpiece, The Devil’s Backbone). The typical scientific race-against-time vibe so prevalent in these sorts of films has been restructured here to feel less like a countdown clock and more like mounting Lovecraftian dread.
All of the same story beats are present. The film unfolds much as it did in 1997 (many of the battles Del Toro lost were on-set, so some of what he had in mind was never shot), but this assemblage demonstrates what a true artist can bring to a concept that, on paper, might seem very conventional.
The image itself has undergone a wonderful restoration. It looks astounding – for such a dark movie, it’s great to see that nothing gets lost in the blacks. The colors never feel artificial, and it’s great to see the film presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Lionsgate never fouls up in the audio department, and the 7.1 mix is sweet but never artificial, and it makes great use of what I’ve always felt to be Marco Beltrami’s best work (his cues here alternate between old-Hollywood B-movie bombast and effectively mournful – like that fucking Broom Funeral cue from the first Hellboy. Betrami, you sanofabitch – you slay me every time with that one).
Guillermo offers a far-more-contrite-than-necessary intro to the film, where he acknowledges Mimic’s supposed faults while still expressing pride in the final product, and he takes us on another brilliant journey via commentary (seriously, I want him to do commentaries on other people’s films – listening to him speak is such a fucking joy) – all in all, this is a great package for a film that can now proudly take its place among the films of a visionary.
Guillermo Del Toro has never made a bad film.
THE STUNT MAN
One of the best movies about movies ever made, Richard (Freebie and the Motherfucking BEAN, SON) Rush directs the scenery-chewing smarm of Peter O’Toole into a collision course with Steve Railsback, who winds up on the set of a film directed by O’Toole’s mad genius Eli Cross. Railsback’s character, Cameron (get it? Railsback’s guy doesn’t) is on the lam, and he ducks onto the set, screwing up a stunt and necessitating the need for a new performer. Cameron sees this as a perfect opportunity to hide from the law, but the comically egomaniacal Eli’s not going to make it easy. The film is desultory, dark, demented – and often uproariously funny. The ARTISANS at Severin Films have pulled out all the stops for this release, including the previously-available Anchor Bay extras – and then some. If you love movies, you must own this film.
A perfect restoration of a nearly-perfect film, this is another release that could have been messy. I mean, did you guys see what happened with The French Connection?
Instead, the film still looks scary and gritty and dangerous, but there’s clarity to the new Blu that really speaks to the compositions, and the wealth of special features retained from previous editions is a commendable plus.
It’s so weird to say that somebody like George Lucas could learn a thing or two from the director of Hot Pursuit – but there it is. You had technical issues with your film back in the day and want to try and fix things? I actually don’t mind that a bit. You wanna’ color correct that glass painting? Go for it. You want to realign that shoddy compositing or eliminate those traveling matte lines? Please do. You want to create some light continuity between setups/shots? I’m right there with you.
Just please don’t change the plot.
Steve Lisberger and Disney pored over Tron and built a master that couldn’t possibly look better. Colors are vibrant and animations are clean – and there are almost imperceptible tweaks to the imagery that help to tie the live action to the animation. Nothing earth-shattering, just a little high tech spit n’ polish – and it’s well worth it.
Actually, come to think of it – I take what I said up there back. if Disney would like to go back in and change the plot of Tron: Legacy to something good, I might actually watch it again.
Wow – is that twenty? Yeesh – I didn’t expect twenty, but there you have it. Anyway, there’s really only one film I can recommend to you this week – and that’s Scott Spiegel’s DTV HOSTEL III. It’s a surprising bit of low budget fun that eschews (sorta’) the pay for play torture aspect for something a bit more comical.
NOW THAT’S WHAT CHUD CALLS MUSIC – WITH JEB DELIA!
We continue with our month-by-month recap of the music of 2011. At least, as much of it as I can remember… because, fuck, there was a lot of it!
July gets a local heroes shout-out, as Oakland’s Bye Bye Blackbirds release one of the stronger albums in a big year for power pop, with Fixed Hearts, filled with tuneful reflections on time and place. 2011 also turned out to be an unusually strong year for female musicians, and July kicked that into high gear: Eleanor Friedburger’s Last Summer was an evocative slice of memory, while Amy LaVere’s Stranger Me was a forthright examination of loss and, sometimes, love (“Here’s Your Damn Love Song”). Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano brought some spunk to Ritual Union, Vanessa Carlton’s Rabbits On The Run was one of her strongest melodic offerings, and Imelda May’s Mayhem, a sexy slice of blues and rockabilly, got a welcome U.S. release. And possibly the strongest jazz release of the year was an all-female affair: Terry Lynn Carrington’s funky, angry, wide-ranging, and expertly played The Mosaic Project.
Oh, there was the odd release from male artists, too: quirky braininess from They Might Be Giants’ Join Us, slick dance pop on Washed Out’s Within and Without, above-average good ol’ boyisms on Eric Church’s Chief, and Cedar Walton’s superb latest piano quintet, Bouncer. Comebacks were a bit on the varied side: a strong return to form in the BoDeans’ Indigo Dreams, and dully slick proggyness on Yes’ Fly From Here.
Up to this point, I think I knew the long-haired Jesse Sykes more for her glam shots than her music, but Marble Son is a stunner of a collection: guitarist Phil Wandscher evokes the 60’s-70’s heyday of Sam Andrew, James Gurley, and Carlos Santana on extended raveups like the opener, “Hushed By Devotion,” while Sykes’ vocals are ethereal and ominous on the cosmic haze of “Come to Mary,” hushed and heartbreaking on the acoustic murmur of “Be It Me, or Be It None.” One of my most-listened to albums of the year. Fountains of Wayne never quite have that same kind of ultimate replayability, but Sky Full of Holes was a typically smart, funny, mature, hook-laden outing.
One of 2011’s busiest months was wide-ranging enough for an entire year. Roots, blues, folk, and country were well represented by Richard Buckner’s Our Blood, John Hiatt’s Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns, Trace Adkins’ Proud to Be Here, Guy Clark’s Songs & Stories, Olabelle’s Neon Blue Bird, Glen Campbell’s quiet farewell Ghost on the Canvas, Robert Earl Keen’s Ready for Confetti, John Doe’s Keeper, The Bottle Rockets’ Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening, the surprisingly strong new solo outing from Jeff Bridges, and Eastern European blooz in the form of Ana Popvic’s Unconditional. But the most arresting release in the vast field of Americana was Ry Cooder’s modern-day Depression blues, Pull Up Some Dust & Sit Down, with songs like “No Banker Left Behind” redeeming its bitter bleakness with Cooder’s usual fluid playing and earnest, unpolished vocals.
And you want eclecticism? Within the same four weeks, we got the excellent Mirror Traffic from Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Beirut’s lush and wide-ranging The Rip Tide, more great desert blues in Tinariwen’s Tassili, snotty Brazilian dance-pop on CSS’ La Liberacion, post-Replacements ramshackle from Tommy Stinson’s One Man Mutiny. Army Navy’s The Last Place showed that power pop can bring home messages of desperation and dysfunction as well as any singer-songwriter, while We Are Augustines’ Rise Ye Sunken Ships made a desperately aching companion piece.
Some great live and reissue material, too, with Rockpile’s Live at Montreux 1980, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s exquisitely programmed Midnight Sun, and Obscurities, a fascinating compliation of early and… well, obscure work from Stephin Merritt. Oh, and the gilded Watch the Throne from Kanye West and Jay-Z was an unintentionally ironic answer to Cooder: their Dust Bowl comes with designer labels.
And you could have skipped any and all of those and still have had a great month with down and dirty old-school garage punk fun with Dirty Beaches’ Badlands, Masonics’ In Your Night of Dreams And Other Foreboding Pleasures, and the latest punk/bossa nova/surf/rockabilly goodness from Dex Romweber, Is That You in the Blue? Oh, and Sly Stone came back. Again. Once too often? More like twice at least.
Disappointed noises about the continued non-reunion of Sleater-Kinney may have deafened some listeners to Wild Flag’s self-named debut, but it was the toughest, smartest, hardest-rocking release of the year. And this latest iteration of the Year of the Rocking Woman continued unabated with St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, the Dum Dum Girls’ Only in Dreams, and the Bangles’ Sweetheart of the Sun. Laura Marling demonstrated that she had more in common with Joni Mitchell than just bed-hopping with other musicians: A Creature I Don’t Know was a huge leap forward from her earlier work, a potent piece of “fictional autobiography” with a folk-rocking palette more varied and colorful than all but a handful of Mitchell’s releases. Primus returned with Green Naugahyde, Matthew Sweet went back to the psychedelic territory of Altered Beast with Modern Art, Wilco had something for everyone on The Whole Love, and The Drums’ Portamento and Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost were their respective best offerings yet. And I’m keen to hear the new, instrumental version of Tori Amos’ Night of Hunters, since on the original release, her loopy singing kept getting in the way of her amazing pianism.
This also might have been the strongest month of the year in jazz, with the previously-unreleased Miles Davis: Live in Europe 1967 the most jaw-dropping of the bunch; on the modern side of things, we had two more releases from the ubiquitous Brad Mehldau (Largo and Modern Music), Trombone Shorty’s For True, Sonny Rollins’ Road Shows Volume 2, Roy Haynes’ Roy-alty, Chick Corea & Stefano Bollani’s stunning live improvisations on Orvieto, and a shitload of great jazz guitar: John Scofield’s introspective A Moment’s Peace, Bill Frisell’s eloquent Blues Dream, and Kenny Burrell’s first solo guitar album, the gorgeous live recording, Tenderly. Plus, we had the surprisingly effective not-quite-trad jazz not-quite-rocking blues Wynton Marsalis And Eric Clapton Play The Blues Live From Lincoln Center. Not a bad month for modern R&B either, including Phonte’s Charity Starts at Home and J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story. And being on the far side of fifty wasn’t an obstacle to Lindsey Buckingham’s mesmerizing Seeds We Sow, Tom Russell’s epic tall tales of Mesabi, or to the ol’ Basher keeping things sly and sneaky with Nick Lowe’s The Old Magic. And while I don’t usually go out of my way to mention albums I didn’t care for, I have to admit that Blondie’s Panic of Girls was a letdown: both Harry and the band sound so strong that it was particularly disappointing that the new songs just weren’t on the same level; and I wouldn’t exactly call Superheavy a “disappointment” (that would imply that I had high expectations) but I would say that a helluva lot of talent went into the production of… well, not much.
Another month where my favorite release was a reissue: Howlin’ Wolf ‘s Smokestack Lightning: Complete Chess Masters, an endless journey into the heart of American darkness. And now that I think about it, John Fahey’s Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You (The Fonotone Years 1958-1965), Johnny Cash’s Bootleg III: LIVE Around the World, and Etta James’ Heart & Soul / A Retrospective were similarly compelling revisits.
Prime new release of the month was Tom Waits’ fierce, funny, scary Bad As Me. Bjok’s Biophilia, Zola Jesus’ Conatus, Feist’s Metals and My Brightest Diamonds’ All Things Will Unwind demonstrated a fantastically wide range of the capabililties of the female voice, while seriously modern pop found equally varied expression in Body Language’s Social Studies, M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and Thomas Dolby’s(!) A Map of the Floating City. And Mayer Hawthorne provided the hookiest, most relistenable album of the month–maybe the year– with his retro-retro-soul How Do You Do; more contemporary R&B sounds came from DJ Shadow’s The Less You Know, The Better and Joe’s The Good The Bad The Sexy. Good rootsiness from Merle Haggard’s umpteenth album, Working in Tennessee, Vince Gill’s Guitar Slinger (though that one could have used more guitar), Shelby Lynn’s Revelation Road, and Chris Isaak’s affectionate tribute, Beyond the Sun. I was kinda surprised at people going gaga over Deer Tick’s Divine Providence, which felt like a crude Adam Sandler joke by comparison with last year’s The Black Dirt Sessions. Oh, and there was a new Coldplay album.
A big month for excellent live albums from Tegan and Sara (Get Along), Sigur Ros (Inni), Randy Newman (Live in London), Keith Jarrett (Rio), and the Rolling Stones (Some Girls: Live In Texas ’78). Reaching back even farther were the Beach Boys for the insanely comprehensive The Smile Sessions, while U2 went behind the scenes of Achtung Baby, and Pete Townshend once again simultaneously flogged and fellated himself with the Director’s Cut of Quadrophenia. Outstanding previously unreleased material from a pair of Daves: Brubeck (Dave Brubeck Quartet – Their Last Time Out) and Davies (The Album That Time Forgot).
New stuff? Yeah, there was some, highlighted by the retro-70’s hard rock of Girl in a Coma’s Exits And All The Rest, Florence and the Machine’s wall-of-sound Ceremonials, Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood’s In Case The World Changes Its Mind, Hello Sadness from Los Campesinos!, Etta James’ The Dreamer, Miranda Lambert’s Four The Record, and Betty Wright and the Roots’ fantastic up-to-date retro outing, Betty Wright: The Movie. And R.E.M. said goodbye with Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011, which was distinguished from previous R.E.M. compilations by offering three marginally interesting outtakes as the band’s valedictory.
Well, it hasn’t been the busiest month. The Black Keys followed on the success of Brothers with El Camino, which managed for the first time to make the full-band version of the Keys as funky as the original two-man setup. Undun was the Roots’ grabbing a torch from the dying hand of Gil Scott-Heron. In addition to a raft of big gift boxes, there were interesting odds n sods packages from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (Soul Time!), Fred Wesley & The J.B.’s (The Lost Album), and, of course, Amy Winehouse’s posthumous Lioness: Hidden Treasures.
I’ve got a bit of catching up to do, and hopefully will have a tidy, complete list of everything you needed in your 2011 ears when we reconvene next week.
TONY’S PLAYIN’ GAMES – WITH TONY RYAN!
I don’t want to do a Top Ten. I don’t have ten favorite games this year. The last two would be flawed games I put on the list to pad it out. Sure, ten is a great round number, but I don’t want to pad out my list. I could put Deus Ex, Uncharted, or L.A. Noire on here, games I enjoyed but probably won’t be revisiting or even thinking about a few months from now. These eight games are games I will play multiple times, games who experiences stick with me. Except for the first game, this list isn’t in any order except for the order they popped into my head – which is probably pretty telling.
Everyone’s favorite Aperture Science Personality Construct said it best:
“I’m the best at space.”
Portal 2 is the funniest game I’ve ever played. It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen this year. Period. Saints Row: The Third may have Mayor Burt Reynolds, but Portal 2 has Cave Johnson. And Wheatley. And Space Sphere. And an actual narrative that is just as engaging and surprising as it is laugh out loud clever.
Oh yeah, and it’s got brilliant fucking puzzles. Some of the best, most organic puzzles I’ve ever played. If nothing else, Portal 2 is the best game of the year for its constant surprises, both in the puzzles and the narrative.
It’s the big, bad motherfucker in the room. It’s robbing everyone of time and no one can stop talking about it. I’ve probably had twelve hours of conversation about Skyrim with friends since the game came out. And I’ve actually played at least four times that amount. And I’m behind almost everyone I know. I don’t even know what’s left to say about Skryim. It’s pretty good, people. But you already know that.
SUPER MARIO 3D LAND
An awkwardly-named masterpiece, this is the perfect blending of Mario 64 and Mario 3 that I dreamt of as a kid. Short, mechanically varied levels with tough 3D platforming. It’s a slog for the first set of four worlds, but after that things quickly click. Nothing is better than guiding a hatless, tiny Mario though a gauntlet of fireballs and disappearing platforms and doing a perfectly timed backflip to avoid instant death.
It’s stupid. And stupid hard. But I love it. Catherine is a very Japanese game, the kind of exotic export Americans used to eat up. The kind of game that asks hard-hitting questions about relationships like, “is it okay to cheat?”
So it’s not the deepest game (despite its lofty goals), but it tries really hard and it’s kind of adorable for it. The game’s speed-driven, Q-Bert-meets-Canabalt puzzles start off as a chore, but quickly develop into a zen-like test of skills. The game ties narrative and mechanics together in the most obvious of ways, but that’s part of the charm. Yes, our hero is endlessly climbing uphill in his relationship, life and dreams. Everyone gets it, but it wouldn’t be Japanese enough if we didn’t have a long explanation about two thirds of the way in. A long, drawn out explanation full of freshman poetry. And I loved the whole convoluted mess. It’s the hardest game to recommend on this list, but if you know what you’re in for it can be the biggest surprise too.
In this game you are Batman and Batman punches a shark. It’s the greatest, most American story ever told.
It’s the most mechanically-sound long-running RPG series for a reason. Here is a monster as feasibly big as Skyrim – bigger really – that gets pegged as kid’s game. Even if you ignore competitive battles and just play the surface game proper, you’re looking at sixty hours easy. And then you beat the story and the real game starts.
Pokémon is a world populated by monsters. Japanese monsters you can name, shape, and fricking fight. Seriously, what nerd doesn’t dream about that already? The battle system in play can seem as simple as rock-paper-scissors, but is actually run by a complex series of hidden stats. You can play through the story just using your favorite-looking monsters and have a blast, or you can exploit the system for a group of unique and powerful Pokémon. It’s the diversity of those mechanics that make the game so great.
And Black is the perfect place to jump in. The game does a great job of hand-holding for new players, mostly because it assumes you’re an eight-year-old girl. Black also has all-new Pokémon for the story section. The designs aren’t as good as the first few games (they’ve gone a little too Super Sentai and started making a lot of monsters based on inanimate objects), but it’s refreshing to not run into a billion Geodudes in your first dungeon. Black‘s story is the most interesting yet, with a stupid amount of side-switching and a very Japanese lesson about animals, the environment, and all that earthy jazz. It’s not reinventing anything, but Pokémon Black has a lot to offer, and is one of the deepest and most addicting experiences on any system this year.
Rayman: Origins is 2D platforming at its best, and the most fun I’ve had playing a game with friends in years. After being regulated to the download space, it’s nice to see a 2D game as a full-fledged retail title. Despite being very kid-friendly, Origins is deceptively long and challenging. It’s a game that pretty much anyone with a soul can enjoy. The look is sort-of reverse Pixar, with beautiful hand-drawn art in a medium taken over by polygons. The music will not leave your head. Everything about Origins is dripping with personality and lovingly designed. Whimsical perfection.
Who knew a well-balanced and fun Mortal Kombat could be made? The game is full of awesome characters (despite using the Platinum Dunes Freddy Krueger. Yuck) and gore. I know there is a great little fighting game there too, but that’s not what I care about. It all still feels a little dirty and goes good with basements and beer.
And so there you have it. Thanks for sticking with us! See you next year!