Friday, October 24, 2014

Who Should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (That Isn't Even On the Ballot)?

A few days ago I went through the fifteen names on this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) ballot, dissecting the candidacy of each artist. But the equal (bigger?) debate when the ballot comes out each year is who wasn't on it at all. Without further adieu, here are the eligible artists not on this year's ballot that I think are most egregiously missing from the RRHOF. 

1. Gram Parsons

As I mentioned with Kraftwerk, there's a difference between artists who first take a sound to the masses, and artists who first take a sound to any attention at all. Often it's the artists that find mass appeal who receive all the historical credit, while the artists who first paved the way continue to languish in obscurity. There is little question that The Eagles were the most responsible for taking country rock to the masses. Yes, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young, and Poco, and certain Stones songs, and others all had an impact, but The Eagles are probably why the sound broke through. However, the RRHOF seems to be strangely ignoring why this sound even existed to break through in the first place. Before Don Henley met Glenn Frey, before Richie Furay formed Poco, before Neil Young recorded in Nashville, and before the Stones recorded "Honky Tonk Women," "Dead Flowers," or "Sweet Virginia," there was Gram. 

Gram Parsons is the biggest reason country rock exists, and really, there's no close second. He's who got Mick and Keith interested in writing country songs ("Wild Horses" was actually written for Gram's band a whole year before the Stones released their own version), he's who made the various members of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield start seriously recording country music, he's who first released a major country rock album (The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo), and he's who gave us Emmylou Harris. The old cliche about The Velvet Underground is that only a thousand people bought their first album, but everyone who did ended up forming a band. With Gram, maybe only a few thousand people bought his albums, but everyone who did was already in a band, and immediately started writing songs like Gram. 

Now here's the problem with Gram: No one knows how to induct him. He released six albums in his life time, but those six albums were by four different artists. The first was with The International Submarine Band, who are not worthy of the RRHOF. The second was with The Byrds, who are already inducted, but Gram is mysteriously not an inducted member (even though he was the mastermind behind Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which might be their best album). The third and fourth were with The FLying Burrito Brothers, who were hugely important, but no one outside of music snobs has ever heard of them. Then the fifth and sixth were solo albums. So what do you do? I don't know, and even more importantly, I don't see why it's worth halting progress over the issue. It's the rock equivalent of a trivial semantic argument. The other key Burrito brother (Chris Hillman) and all of the relevant Byrds are already in, so just induct Gram Parsons and be done with it. 

2. The Replacements

80's indie rock and alternative music (what was at the time labeled "college radio") has thus far been a mostly ignored genre in the RRHOF. We basically have R.E.M. and U2 inducted, and that's completely it. There are a huge host of artists from that decade deserving further consideration (many of whom appear further down this list), but The Replacements are one of the only  bands that I think should be completely non-negotiable. I just don't see how we get to the 90's alternative music explosion without them. Their sound, their style, their sloppiness, their attitude, their journey to a major label, their evolution to more crafted pop songs, their substance issues, their unashamed love of metal (they covered Kiss on their best album, 1984's Let It Be), and so much more… the 90's as we know them just couldn't have happened without The Replacements.

3. Brian Eno

Like Gram Parsons, Eno is a bit tricky because his name was so many different (important) places that it's difficult to figure out precisely how to induct him. And again, I don't see why that should be a hindrance. As the original keyboardist of Roxy Music (also being conspicuously ignored by the RRHOF), a solo artist largely responsible for bringing ambient music and "pure" art rock to greater attention, and a producer responsible for some of the greatest albums of the post-60's (not hyperbole), his contributions are just too seminal. Three already inducted artists--Bowie, U2, and Talking Heads--released what are (un?)arguably the best albums of their careers with Eno at the controls, and they'll all happily tell you that he was more than simply a producer. He was a guiding force for those artists creating their most innovative and important work, helping them to tap into a side of their artistry that they might not have ever accessed otherwise. A case could definitely be made that he's the greatest post-60's producer in pop music history. His solo work, while important, can just be looked at as a bonus to a career deserving of RRHOF induction. 

4. Joy Division/New Order

Here's a case, like The Small Faces/Faces, where we'll probably have to bite our collective tongues and allow these two bands to get inducted together, else neither will get in. Yes, they're different, but they're the same enough. After all, Joy Division was already headed in a synth-ier direction with their last few songs prior to Ian Curtis' death. Who's to say they wouldn't have basically become New Order anyway? 

Anyway, either of these bands should be locks to get in on their own, and together, I don't see how they can be left out. Joy Division was one of the most important post-punk bands, who sonically paved the way for both goth and indie-rock, and lyrically paved the way for the profound effect Morrissey and Robert Smith songs would have on a generation of depressed teenagers. And New Order are the most important and greatest British dance band since the BeeGees. (And yeah, I can't believe I just typed that sentence either.) Anyway, the influence of these two bands is literally everywhere, in bands as disparate and seemingly unrelated as Interpol and The Scissor Sisters. 

5. Nick Drake

Nick Drake is one of pop music's great casualties, because not only did he die far too young (he didn't even live long enough to be in rock's "Forever 27" club), but virtually no one bought or heard his three lovely albums in his lifetime. In the forty years since he died, that's obviously changed. Right now, Nick Drake is one of the most important folk rock musicians ever, as well as one of the best. More than anyone else, he's who moved folk rock away from the nasally meandering sound of the Dylan disciples and brought it into its current styling of somber etherealness. With the booming success of a new generation of Indie-folk artists like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and Iron & Wine, it's prime time for Nick Drake--the primary influence of all three--to get inducted. 

6. The Cure

Who started or created "Goth" music is debatable, and whether you want to credit The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, or someone else is up to you. But far less debatable is which of those bands actually reached a large audience, and it's The Cure. Would goth music have ever even become a thing without Robert Smith leading the way for as long as he did? Doubtful. Just as important is that Smith didn't languish in one style, but rather moved from post-punk to goth to alternative to synth pop to dance pop, and then back through all of them again. As he cultivated an audience in each genre, he brought that audience with him to other places they hadn't been before, and that can't be underestimated. And for what it's worth, The Cure released music central to their legacy in three different decades, which comparatively few bands can ever say. ("Boys Don't Cry" was the late 70's, and "Friday I'm in Love" was the early 90's.)

7. Sonic Youth

"Art Rock" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It's a term that's fairly impossible to nail down. But even if we can't really define it, we can absolutely have associations with it. Has any band been called Art Rock more frequently--or accurately--than Sonic Youth? Has any band, other than maybe (maybe!) The Strokes, more perfectly embodied New York City over the last 40 years than Sonic Youth? Has anyone--other than maybe John Lennon in the opening seconds of "I Feel Fine"--ever made feedback sound cooler and sexier than Sonic Youth? For that matter, how many bands have ever even had a cooler and sexier name than Sonic Youth? How many albums not by Bruce Springsteen have more perfectly encapsulated the follies of the Reagan era than Daydream Nation? Has any rock and roll marriage ever seemed more perfect than Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon (until it depressingly ended, which we've all tacitly agreed not to talk about)? Forever a defining archetype of indie-cred coolness, we just don't celebrate Sonic Youth as much as we should. 

8. Depeche Mode

Say what you will about synth pop, but it changed and defined the 1980's as we know them. Depeche Mode took the raw material of Kraftwerk and reforged it into something that could be enjoyed by millions and millions of people. They also did so in an extremely catchy way that never remained stagnant, constantly shifting to darker and darker sounds, images, and subject matter, remaining relevant even into the 90's alternative explosion despite defiantly remaining loyal to synthesizers. Not an easy task to pull off, but so little of what Depeche Mode did well was ever easy. 

9. Boston 

Yeah, I know. Trust me, I know. We aren't supposed to take Boston seriously. But it's about time we did. What Tom Scholz and Bradley Delp did was, along with punk, and completely adjacent to it, seize rock radio away from the interminable drum solos of Led Zeppelin and the interminable classical influences of prog-rock and forge a new era of pop songs played with huge riffs and sung with soaring melodies. This music is slight and uninteresting, but it also conquered the world and all of us secretly love singing along to it. I'm not remotely suggesting inducting all of the major bands in this field--Styx, Journey, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Kansas, etc.--but Boston is the godfather to them all, as well as maybe the only one that never feels 100% uncool listen to. 

10. The Pixies

They bridge the gap between the feedback and artiness of Sonic Youth to the punk for the masses of Nirvana. They're an undeniably important stop on the journey to the 1990's, but also a band that released great music. Fight Club has, perhaps undeservedly, become one of the defining films of the 90's, and a Pixies song ("Where Is My Mind") is used to define the crescendo of that film. "Loud quiet loud" has become one of the most overused style descriptors in rock music, and The Pixies likely didn't even create that sound, but the term was created just for them. Kevin Bacon always said he may not be the greatest actor ever, but he's the only one with a game named after him. The sound of The Pixies has become one of the defining shorthands in rock music, just as Die Hard did for action films. For years, every pitch meeting described "Die Hard on a…" Today, we still describe new indie bands as "like The Pixies, but…"

A Baker's Dozen of Other Deserving Candidates

MC5/The New York Dolls--The two halves that made the whole of The Stooges, the garaginess and volume of the MC5 and the trashiness and showmanship of the New York Dolls. Both eventually deserve their rightful place. 

De La Soul--Responsible for arguably the greatest rap album ever (3 Feet High and Rising), as well as the kaleidoscopic soundscapes the more innovative hip hop acts continue to explore to this day. 

Television--I've argued before that they're the first Indie-Rock band, and they created a defining guitar style. 

Gang of Four--Anything ever described as "dance punk" starts here.

Steve Earle--No way he can be inducted before Gram, which is why he's down here. But he helped bridge a new generation between rock and country. 

Duran Duran--Helped define the sound of a decade, as well as the look of MTV, which can't be understated. They're susceptible to the same slightness arguments as Boston, but damn did they write good songs. 

Black Flag--There are a lot of other 80's underground bands that need to be inducted before we can travel down this road, but eventually…

The Jam--The missing link between the 60's Englishness of The Kinks and the 90's Englishness of Britpop. The Smiths might have been the ones that brought back the guitar sound, but The Jam kept the Union Jack cool as it came to band identity. 

Phish--An entire summer concert and festival industry exists at their behest. 

Dinosaur Jr/Husker Du--The next tier down of the 80's American underground, but also the progenitors of extremely influential guitar sounds. 

The Stones Roses--Where Britpop and British House music meet is a place created by these guys. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Breakdown of the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ballot

This is the first post of what I hope will become an annual tradition: A thorough breakdown of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  (RRHOF) ballot. Who should get in? Who doesn't even belong on the ballot? Who is conspicuously absent from the ballot? 

The RRHOF is often difficult to talk to people about, because it constantly alienates a portion of its audience with almost every decision it makes. This isn't fair, of course. Like all awarding institutions--The Oscars, The Baseball Hall of Fame, etc.--The RRHOF will never ever have a track record of indisputable decisions and results, but even the most suspicious of them all shouldn't invalidate the entire institution, in much the same way that Bush "beating" Gore in the 2000 election does not invalidate the American government. (Though I'm sure there are those who disagree!)

No voting body, in any field, is a perfect one. They may be too vast or too narrow. They may be forced into too quick a decision, with limited data at their disposal. (Please, ask Oscar voters how many of the Best Documentary nominees they even watch in a given year.) The entire concept of "The Test of Time" is an ever-evolving one, and no isolated moment of voting can pin down an accurate assessment of such a thing. 

But holy shit is it fun to try, and even more fun to argue about. 

My Ballot

If I were one of the 700ish people with an actual ballot for the RRHOF (maybe one day!), here's who my five selections would be, in order of how easy they were to choose. 

1. The Smiths 

Any time I'm trying to assess the importance of a pop music artist, the first thing I consider is how the trajectory of pop music might have been different had said artist never entered a recording studio. That's why The Smiths are the easiest vote for me. When looking at the last 35 years of British rock music, particularly the peak influence and popularity of Britpop in the 1990's, it's extremely difficult to imagine things having gone quite the same way without The Smiths. I hate when music critics use the term "single-handedly" to describe anything, because virtually nothing in the music industry happens single-handedly, but having said that, The Smiths are at least heavily responsible for the return of guitar rock to prominence in English pop music. Maybe that seems too specific an honor, but when funneled through the lens of the major 90's English bands--Oasis, Blur, Pulp, The Verve, Suede, etc.--it's especially difficult to imagine who those bands would have been looking to for primary inspiration if not Morrissey and Marr. Obviously nothing in rock happens in a vacuum, and that's why we call them influences (emphasis on the plurality).  A host of other bands mattered to the evolution of English rock into Britpop, but I'd argue--and I wouldn't be in the minority here--that The Smiths mattered most. And when you matter most to what the dominant music of England sounded like for an entire decade, you deserve to be in the RRHOF. 

2. Kraftwerk

Here's a case where it's useful to differentiate between two kinds of importance. Did an artist take a style from obscurity (or non-existence) to the attention of the industry? Or did said artist take a style from the attention of the industry to mass popularity? Is either leap--obscurity to attention, attention to popularity--a more important or valuable one? It's a worthy debate, and one I won't get into at the moment. But I will say that the first kind of importance--the bringing of something from non-existence to the attention of an industry--IS an extremely important contribution, and it's one that should be absolutely sales proof. 

Fact 1: The average public does not know who Kraftwerk is. Fact 2: Fact 1 should have absolutely no relevance to their RRHOF credentials. I still won't resort to the term single-handedly, but Kraftwerk is even more responsible for the advent of electronic music than The Smiths were to the advent of 90's Britpop. The only reason I have The Smiths ranked higher is because 90's Britpop became so immense, while electronic music has never entirely escaped the margins. But also relevant is Fact 3: Kraftwerk are the musical Ground Zero for more styles and sub-genres than any eligible artist not already inducted into the RRHOF. This is their third appearance on the ballot, and I hope they don't require a fourth. (Or fifth…)

3. Chic

Chic are in many ways the exact opposite candidate as Kraftwerk. While Kraftwerk experienced no popular success and is largely only known by serious music snobs, Chic are often dismissed by music snobs despite their huge popularity and lasting influence to dance music. For these reasons, it's sadly very difficult to imagine both bands being inducted this year, because they aren't likely to have a lot of voter overlap. But on this imaginary ballot (as in real life), Chic and Kraftwerk can coexist for their relatively equal importance. 

Rap and dance music have a long history of sampling, but where those samples come from is all over the map, from the most obscure dustbins of history to the biggest hits of yesteryear. Chic and Kraftwerk are responsible for the samples that drive two of the great early rap epics, with Kraftwerk providing the basis for Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," and Chic providing the basis for The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." That's just the most obvious way of saying these bands are two sides of the same coin, with Kraftwerk being the Euro-art rock side and Chic being the NYC populist club version. Regardless, it's difficult to isolate the contributions of one without factoring in the other. And for what it's worth, this is Chic's NINTH appearance on the ballot. So there's that. 

4. N.W.A.

I was all for N.W.A. not getting in on their first nomination, because I felt like that would unfairly put them on equal footing with Public Enemy (also nominated for the first time the same year), and I believed a delineation of quality between the two would be helpful. And it worked; Public Enemy got in on their first year of eligibility, and N.W.A. are appearing on their third ballot. But now we're good. They're somewhere between the second and seventh most important rap group, depending where you stand on Run-DMC, Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, The Beastie Boys, and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. They gave us Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Easy E, and (by extension) Snoop Dogg. Let's just induct them already. 

5. Lou Reed

And now I will attempt to discuss Lou Reed without mentioning his former band. Seriously, I won't even type their name. Lou Reed has already been inducted into the RRHOF once, but I believe he deserves induction as a solo artist. He didn't do any one thing that tips him over the top, but rather, it's the totality of his aspects of notable importance. He's responsible for the all-time weirdest top 20 hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side." His 1975 "album," Metal Machine Music, is completely unlistenable, but it remains arguably the greatest "Fuck you" statement the music industry has ever seen. (And don't underestimate how important that was to the future of artists dealing with record companies.)  His 1973 album, Berlin, brought vaudeville and European theater to rock music. His ubiquitous presence on the NYC music scene of the 70's heavily helped cultivate the CBGB punk explosion, and you could even argue that he's the most iconic NYC rock star ever. Add it all up and it should equal a second RRHOF induction. It's just a shame that Lou had to die first. 

The Rest of the Ballot

The ballot for this year's RRHOF induction has fifteen nominees, and although six are likely to get inducted (at least that's the usual number), you can frustratingly only vote for five. Here's how I feel about the other ten, ranked in descending order of how  difficult they were for me to not select with my imaginary votes. 

6. Nine Inch Nails

When I first saw the ballot a few weeks ago, I thought for sure they'd be one of my picks. But then I saw this list. That's every artist that has gotten into the RRHOF on their first year of eligibility. I mean, just look at those names. That's a murderer's row of absolute legends. Only three names on that list even remotely feel like they don't belong: The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, and The Pretenders. Personally, I would not be comfortable adding Nine Inch Nails to that list. 

Look, Nine Inch Nails is (that's the correct pronoun, right? I mean, it's just Trent Reznor we're talking about here) getting inducted to the RRHOF, it's just a matter of when. They/he is completely deserving. But inducting an artist on the first ballot sends a further message that they're one of the all-time greats, and I just don't quite feel like NIN are worthy of that accolade. They/he can wait a few years. 

7. Green Day

Everything I just wrote about Nine Inch Nails is applicable to Green Day, except they have the added wrinkle of the whole 25 years thing being very questionable in their case. The RRHOF has set the rule that you can't be nominated for induction until 25 years after the release of your first recording, with the idea being that 25 years is an adequate amount of time to assess an artist's career and contribution to the art form. But with 
Green Day, we simply haven't had 25 years; we've only had 20. The release of Dookie in 1994 was the first time anyone outside of their family members and high school classmates had ever heard of this band. The fact that they had technically been releasing music for five years at that point is such a minute technicality that it's ridiculous to even factor it in. 

And yes, I know that Nine Inch Nails also didn't have their/his major breakthrough until 1994, but the difference is that 1989's Pretty Hate Machine and 1992's Broken actually did make small impacts and helped cultivate an audience. People heard those albums. No one really heard a Green Day recording until 1994, and that's why we should wait on them. 25 years may be a completely arbitrary number for the evaluation of an artist's legacy, but the fact remains that it's the number that was chosen, and it's the number that every other RRHOF inductee has had to acquiesce to. Inducting Green Day anytime before 2020 does not honor the wait that every other inducted artist had to endure. 

8. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

With Joan Jett, you have to figure out precisely what you're arguing about: the creator or the creations. As a figure, Joan Jett has been extremely important to women in rock & roll, and is likely responsible for the creation of an archetype. Her existence matters greatly, but the product she created frankly wasn't that special. She's a lot like Sid Vicious in that way. She mattered far more as someone for a generation of kids to look at than she did for any other reason. Is that enough? I don't know. Sid is in the Hall, but that's because he was a Sex Pistol, and they obviously deserved induction. Sid couldn't be separated from the rest of the band for us to have this debate, but Joan can and is. 

Personally, I would say no. I think the product ought to matter more than the image and the idea. I know with Lou Reed I argued for the merits of Metal Machine Music as a part of his legacy, but that's still a tangible thing that he put into the world. It was an artistic statement, even if it was a shitty sounding one. With Joan, the statement was all in the image of her playing guitar and looking like a complete badass. I don't think that's quite enough, but I might be susceptible to the counter-arguments. 

9. The Spinners

I like The Spinners, but I never thought of them as anything more than a good third-tier soul act. That would seemingly eliminate them, but things get a bit tricky if you factor in geography and the concept of scenes. While the Spinners might have nationally been a third tier soul act, they were probably the greatest Philly soul artist, and maybe that matters enough to push them over the top. Philly soul was an important music style of the 70's, and it made a huge impact to the advent of disco and the more polished sound of black music than was coming out of the south and midwest. 

The other problem with arguing against The Spinners is the reality that Hall & Oates got into the RRHOF last year, and they were a lesser Philly soul act than The Spinners. So this could be a case of making a previous bad decision look less comparatively questionable. Do you induct The Spinners because Hall & Oates is indefensible without them? Or do you just call Hall & Oates a fuck-up and leave well enough alone? As with Joan Jett, The Spinners are the only other artist on this ballot that I feel on the fence about their RRHOF deservedness. My inclination is to say no, but I could probably be swayed the other way. 

10. Stevie Ray Vaughan

If this were the guitarist hall of fame, I'd have absolutely no beef with Stevie Ray getting in. But I think of Stevie Ray as more of a craftsman than I do an artist. He was a remarkably gifted technical guitarist, but I think it's far more difficult to argue that he was an influential artist. To go back to my Smiths argument, would the trajectory of pop music have been any tangibly different without Stevie? I'm sure John Mayer would say yes, but I'm dubious. The RRHOF is about the importance of an art form. Stevie never forged enough of his own territory to be honored on that level. Rock and blues guitar have probably never seen a better imitator, but the RRHOF isn't the proper place to recognize that ability. 

11.-14. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Marvelettes, War, and Bill Withers

These four artists all fit into the same interchangeable quagmire for me. They were good acts that released good music, and I wouldn't want their CDs to be stolen from my collection. But really, I don't see much beyond that. Like The Spinners, these acts were all third tier, but they don't have the added benefit of owning and embodying a certain musical style or scene. I wouldn't dispute that all four are good, but I don't see the argument for considering any of the four to be truly Great. 

15. Sting

Well, here we are. The nadir of the 2014 RRHOF ballot. Look, I LOVE The Police. They made it in on their first ballot, and deservedly so. After The Clash and Talking Heads, they were probably the third best band in the world for a solid five years.  But when evaluating Sting as an artist unto himself, one has to pretend that he had never released any music prior to his first solo album. And when considering him in that light… Oooof. 

Sting is the only artist on the ballot that I'm genuinely baffled by. I don't understand how he could possibly be a candidate for induction into the RRHOF. We've all known for several years now that the RRHOF is not strictly for rock musicians; that's no mystery. Madonna and Public Enemy both got in on their first year of eligibility, and deservedly so. The RRHOF now stands as a testament to the counter-culture, and the importance artists can have to the trajectory of music that truly matters and speaks to people in a way that tangibly impacts their lives. Rock and roll may no longer be solely about "sticking it to the man" (as Jack Black memorably states in School of Rock), but it's still supposed to be about something that matters. Admittedly, that's difficult and maybe impossible to quantify, which is part of the whole problem the RRHOF runs into every year, and why so many people feel alienated by the results of its induction process. But Jesus, we have to draw the line somewhere, and I just don't see how Sting's solo career is any metaphorically different than Harry Connick Jr.'s. It's adult contemporary vocal jazz. They were both releasing albums to be played and ignored at dinner parties, and that ain't rock and roll no matter how you choose to define it.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2, where I break down the major snubs of the RRHOF who didn't even appear on this year's ballot. 

And check out for a wealth of information about the RRHOF inductions, past and present. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Great Scenes: Music Unites Shawshank Prison

Earlier this week, The Shawshank Redemption celebrated it's 20th anniversary from opening in theaters. I saw it in theaters at the time, as a 12-year old, with my friend A.J. Harra. As 7th graders just trying to be cool at the time, we loved watching horror movies, and we just thought we were going to see something based on a Stephen King story. What we got was radically different, but it changed my life. Shawshank has been one of my 3 or 4 favorite movies ever since (often alternating in and out of the top spot with Pulp Fiction and The Third Man), and it largely helped define within me why cinema is such a powerful art form. I wanted to somehow celebrate the film on its 20th anniversary this week, and such a piece of writing could have taken many forms. Artistically and technically, this film is a masterpiece, but those are things I probably didn't/couldn't realize twenty years ago. When the film first made a major impact on me, it was as a story, and I wanted to try and focus in on why. As a 12-year old, I couldn't possibly empathize with people serving life sentences in jail, but anyone, across all ages and all lives, can understand the power of finding hope in a situation that ought to be devoid of such a sentiment. That's the real power of this story, the way the main characters locate hope and meaning within small things. No scene better illustrates that than this one, where the main character, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), has just opened several boxes of materials donated to the new prison library he's organizing. 

The skill in a film like Shawshank is that it figures out subtle ways to manipulate you in manners that you don't even notice, but which build to incredible moments. When this scene begins, there's no score, and for most of the first half of the film, the score is very quiet and subdued, never drawing too much attention to itself. The effect means that when the Mozart record first gets turned on, the viewer emotionally responds to it the same way the prisoners do--like an aural beacon of hope that's been absent from our lives for far too long. 

The thing I notice more and more about this film every time I see it is the way the shots are composed. It relies on a certain stillness, and a way of using camera distance to emphasize both grandness and entrapment. The scene begins not just in the confinement of an office, but by the camera confining every physical action as the only element of the screen. Opening a record, dropping the needle, taking the keys, locking the door, turning on the PA system, the guard dropping his Archie comic. And then, as the voices begin to soar, everything opens up. The shot in the workshop at about the 1:25 mark of the video is the first one where the camera emphasizes scope, by slowly panning back until Morgan Freeman's character is revealed in the foreground. Then the same thing happens in the infirmary, beginning with a close-up of a face and moving sideways to show all of the patients stepping into the light and the music. But the truly great moment starts at 1:37, as the camera moves out into the prison yard, slowly craning upwards to show the entirety of the prison in complete unmoving thrall, before finally moving behind the loud speaker that they're all so intently focused on. It's just a perfect shot. 

When people think of this movie, Morgan Freeman's incredible narration is often one of the first things that comes to mind. Nearly every scene is punctuated by his words, and his voice is our gateway into thinking about these characters. But in this scene, director Frank Darabont wisely lets the music speak for itself before having Freeman enter the proceedings. By the time Freeman tells us that "for those briefest of moments, every man in Shawshank felt free," we've already seen the proof of that statement. 

After this scene, Andy emerges from his two week punishment in solitary confinement by telling his friends that it was the easiest time he ever did, because he had the music in his head to keep him company. It's a way of acknowledging that the power of great moments can stay with us, no matter how brief they were in the first place. This four minutes of filmmaking has stayed with me for twenty years and counting. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 8

A frequent viewing option at TIFF is the directorial debut by a beloved actor. Last year's TIFF screened Quartet and Bad Words, which were (respectively) Dustin Hoffman and Jason Bateman's first films behind the camera. This year I could have seen debut films by Chris Evans, Alan Rickman, Jon Stewart, Paul Bettany, and Ethan Hawke, all of which sounded promising. In particular, Ethan Hawke's documentary Seymour: An Introduction has been getting outstanding reviews. But American actors stepping behind the camera is so often a crapshoot. It's something they almost all eventually try to do, and very few succeed at. For every Clint Eastwood and--yes, he's in this category--Ben Affleck, there are a dozen Robert De Niro's, who give us the boring and manufactured gravitas of The Good Shepherd before thankfully not trying again.  But what I was particularly intrigued by at this year's festival was a directorial effort by the great French actress Melanie Laurent, who brought a little film called Respire to TIFF. European movie stars don't have a history of getting the directing bug in the same way American movie stars do, so when one does, it's more of an occasion for curiosity than a likely reason to groan. 

Respire (Breathe) is the story of a seductive friendship between two high school girls, Charlie and Sarah, which runs the gamut from playful, to inseparable, to dangerous and malicious. It's a story that we so often see play out to less extreme degrees (in Mean Girls, just to name an obvious example), but Respire has the audacity to follow it to its most sobering potential outcome. As a narrative, the leaps in phases of this relationship don't always make the most logical sense, but Laurent's pacing and emotive use of her actresses moves things along much more subtly than the plot would make it seem possible. 

The obvious comparison here is to last year's hot-button French film Blue is the Warmest Color, though that's true much more psychologically than narratively. While the infatuation of the two girls in Blue manifests itself in an explicitly sexual way, Respire keeps things more platonic. On a tension level, that works, because it ensures that we don't know what the stakes of this relationship really are. What Laurent does with her actresses is nicely delicate, and ensures the film rises above the high school shock story that it easily could have become. This is a small film that doesn't draw attention to itself through casting or dramatic flair, but unlike her American acting counterparts, Laurent seems to know that's the best way to get her directing feet wet. 

Something really rewarding about now having been going to TIFF for several years is seeing the work of directors who consistently bring their films to the festival, and watching how they evolve. At TIFF 2011, one of my great discoveries was a film called Your Sister's Sister, by a relatively unknown filmmaker from the Pacific Northwest named Lynn Shelton. I saw Your Sister's Sister pretty much by accident. I originally had a ticket to Machine Gun Preacher, but it got such scathing advance reviews that I decided to swap it out for something else, and Your Sister's Sister was the only promising film in that time slot that still had a ticket available. It was a wonderful film, and I loved the way Shelton set up a bizarre scenario that ended up feeling completely realistic because of the naked emotional truth her characters discovered about themselves, and the conversational honesty that her ad-lib, unscripted style brought out of the actors. I've liked Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt for a while now, but I still think of Sister as some of their best acting. 

After that screening, I felt a bit of ownership over "discovering" Shelton, and I hoped that her work would reach a wider audience in the future. So of course I was delighted when I saw she had a new film at TIFF '14, Laggies, which looked like a pseudo-major release starring some decently big names. Keira Knightley plays Megan, a twenty-something whose friends all have their lives figured out, while she's working part-time for her father's accounting firm, twirling a sign out on the street. The fact that she has a Master's Degree and her longtime boyfriend has just proposed only makes matters worse. While Megan is supposed to be spending a week at some type of "figure out your future" retreat, she has a chance encounter with Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a high schooler that starts looking up to her after Megan buys her beer. What ensues--Megan spending a week hiding out in Annika's house and then falling for her single dad (Sam Rockwell)--is ridiculous high-concept, but like Shelton's other work, it never really plays as such. 

Shelton has a gift for digging at the reality buried under outlandish set-ups involving three characters whose lives butt up against each other in strange ways. Her films always begin as high-concept, but never feel that way by the time they resolve, because we feel so immersed in the inner-workings of her character's psyches. I was surprised to find out Shelton didn't write Laggies--it was an original screenplay by a first-timer named Andrea Seigel that just floated its way over to her--but her stamp is all over it. This was also the first time that one of Shelton's films hasn't been largely ad-libbed, but you wouldn't know it from watching, and that's a good thing. There's a naturalistic way to how the actors interact with one another that doesn't feel forced, even given the strange circumstances the characters all find themselves in. Laggies is a funny film with real heart, some of Keira Knightley's best acting (with a very credible Seattle accent), and further evidence that Shelton is one of the most interesting American-Indie filmmakers working in contemporary cinema. 

At first The 50 Year Argument--a documentary about the New York Review of Books--didn't seem like something I might prioritize on my schedule. I have, after all, never read the publication. I also knew it would be airing on HBO just a few weeks after TIFF ended (Monday, September 29, to be exact). But I didn't really think of this documentary as being about a publication that I have no familiarity with; rather, I thought of it as being about a group of people who have spent 50 years guiding the cultural conversation. As a critic and writer who hopes to inspire cultural discourse myself, what could be closer to my heart? 

Of course, I was also intrigued by the fact that it was co-directed by Martin Scorsese (working with David Tedeschi, who was the editor on some of his previous documentaries), and the possibility of an extended interview and Q&A with Marty was just too salivating to pass up. When Scorsese was asked by TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers what drew him to the project, his response crystalized what intrigued me about the film in the first place: "I wanted to make a film about the urgency of being engaged and the sensuousness of ideas," he said. That sentence pretty much describes what I love about analyzing culture. 

Unfortunately, that sentence in the post-film interview was also the highlight of the screening for me. The 50 Year Argument was by no means a bad film--it was quite interesting and thought-provoking--but I don't quite think it accomplished what it set out to do. Or maybe it just didn't do what I hoped it would. I'm not entirely sure if what I was expecting was even realistic in the first place. I wanted an in-depth analysis of the mindset of an institution that tries to lead and trigger intellectual discourse. Instead, Argument gave me 90 minutes of interviews with contributors to the New York Review of Books telling stories and anecdotes about their involvement with the magazine. That isn't a pejorative; most of the stories were fascinating and helped illuminate the importance the magazine has had in the coverage of several important topics over the years. But the real flaw I found in the film was that the whole never amounted to more than the sum of the parts. At the end, it really was just 90 minutes of good stories and interviews that didn't build to a more cohesive statement. 

At a festival with over 300 films, selecting what to see can be remarkably nerve-racking, so some reliance on pedigree becomes automatic. You can easily talk yourself into films that don't necessarily sound good if you know they're by good directors, just as you can talk yourself out of films that DO sound good if they're by directors you have a history of not liking. And that's how I ended up spending my Thursday night watching the complete and utter disaster that was The Cobbler

I had reservations going in. I haven't liked an Adam Sandler movie in a solid ten years, and it feels like a lot longer. Throwing him into a plot about a New York shoe cobbler who can transform into other people when he puts on their shoes did NOT sound like something I wanted to see. But I was seduced by pedigree. The Cobbler was written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who was batting a thousand in his previous three films as writer/director: the quite good The Station Agent and The Visitor, and 2011's excellent Win Win. All three of those films found real people at the margins of society and crafted profound portraits of who they were and why their struggles are stories worth telling. I was dubious about whether Adam Sandler turning into other people could continue that trend, but I gave it a chance. Oooof. 

Put simply, this movie is just awful. It's the kind of movie where Adam Sandler uses magical bright red high heals to turn into a drag queen, all for the sake of scaring a tied-up Method Man into revealing the location of the money from his drug stash. Now read that sentence again. Do you want to see this movie? No, no you don't. That's what I'm here for--to throw away two hours of my life in order to protect you from wasting yours. You're welcome. 

Tomorrow: Bill Murray's best role in over a decade, a fantastic French period-crime procedural that reminded me of Michael Mann's Heat, and a gorgeously shot African film that might be a Foreign Language Film Oscar contender. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

In Theaters: My Old Lady

Adapting theater into film is always such a mixed bag. With musicals, the genre at least provides ample opportunity for a film to stretch its visual legs a bit, but stage dramas are especially tricky. Many of the best ones usually involve few characters, few locations, and minimal moving about the cabin. So much of the emoting in a stage play has to come from voice inflection and dramatic dialogue, because the audience in the theater mostly can't see the nuances of an actor's facial expressions. But with film, the creation of emotion largely comes from the editing and camera-work. And that's when a drama like My Old Lady, adapted from the stage, runs into problems. 

The story here is a good one. Kevin Kline stars as Mathias, an alcoholic with three ex-wives and very little else to his name. When his wealthy father dies, he declines to leave Mathias any inheritance except a beautiful French apartment he owned. But Mathias finds out the catch when he travels to Paris looking to sell the apartment in order to get his life back on financial track. It turns out the apartment is part of a French tradition called a "viager," which means the sale of the apartment is not complete until the current occupant dies, and the buyer still pays until that happens. So, Mathias suddenly finds out that his incredibly valuable Parisian apartment comes with Mathilde, a 92-year old woman (Maggie Smith ), and a monthly fee of 2,400 Euros that he must pay to her until she dies. Also, her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas) is there, and then he finds out Mathilde and his father had been having an affair decades ago that negatively impacted Mathias's childhood, and of course everything becomes more complicated. 

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. Maggie Smith, for starters, is fantastic as Mathilde. The emotional resonance of the story mostly works, as does the subtle humor and the French flavor of the musical score. The source material is by Israel Horovitz, a lauded playwright with a lengthy career (and father of Beastie Boy Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz), and Israel also serves as screenwriter and director here, adapting his own work into film for the first time. But film follows such a different visual language than theater that it's difficult not to spend the majority of My Old Lady's run time feeling like you're simply watching a filmed play. Is that ultimately a bad thing? That largely depends on what you want out of a film-going experience. My Old Lady is not a visually interesting movie, but it is still an interesting movie. Are those two things mutually exclusive? Maybe, but not absolutely. The story is interesting, the dialogue is compelling, and the acting is mostly top-notch (though Kevin Kline over-plays thing a bit, which may simply be the direction he received from Horovitz being used to the demands of theater). Is that enough to make a good movie? Again, that depends on what any individual viewer believes the qualities of a good movie are. For myself, My Old Lady is half of a good movie, but one that it's clear came from all of a good stage play. For 106 minutes, that can be good enough. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 7

When I first read about Two Days, One Night in the TIFF program book, I thought the combination of French film star Marion Cotillard and lauded Belgian directing duo Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne was an odd one. It might seem odd that such a pairing would seem odd, because why shouldn't France's best & most popular actress work with the most acclaimed directors making films in the language? But the two seem diametrically opposed symbolically. Marion Cotillard is undeniably one of the great beauties of world cinema, while the Dardenne brothers are the ultimate proletarian realist filmmakers. Cotillard looks like a movie star, while the Dardenne brothers consciously avoid anything that doesn't look like a plain slice of daily life. We should all be so lucky for Marion Cotillard to be a reflection of any sort of daily life. 

And yet here they are together, with the Dardenne brothers offering up their most blue-collar vision thus far, and Marion Cotillard as its center--a factory worker losing her job. If Bruce Springsteen wrote films in Belgium, this is what they might look like. But ignoring the obvious disconnect of actor and subject, Cotillard and the Dardennes have brought out the best in one another. 

It's hard to call anything the Dardennes do as high concept, because everything about their auteurism is rooted in how ordinary people handle the moral murkiness of potentially realistic situations, but this comes as close as we're ever likely to get. Cotillard plays Sandra, a factory worker who finds out on Friday she's getting laid off unless she can convince a majority of her 16 colleagues to vote against getting a paycheck bonus in order to retain her salary. The vote will be monday morning, giving her two days and one night to appeal to the humanism of sixteen people that have already had time to decide how to spend their bonuses. What ensues is little more than 90 minutes of Sandra tracking people down and asking them to vote for her to stay employed, but the Dardennes imbue the proceedings with a humanism that heightens the drama specifically because of how downplayed the formalistic touch is. We really feel like we're watching Sandra fight for her job, while ashamed of having to use her power of pity to do the fighting. Cotillard is great here; she's the opposite of Claire Danes on Homeland, who's crying is always so dramatic that it looks like a product of the CGI budget. Cotillard is more of an understated crier, but she can summon it quickly. It feels real every time. 

Something I've always loved about cinema more than prose is the power film has to catch you by surprise with precisely when something ends. With the written word, you basically always know how much you have left. You know when you're on the final page, and you know when you're reading the last sentence, and your brain is already reacting to what you're reading from the awareness standpoint of knowing its the end. With film, unless you're literally watching the clock, you never quite know when something's over until the credits start rolling, and great directors can use that as part of their arsenal. Even if you're aware that a film is wrapping up, you might still believe there are five minutes--another scene or two--remaining, when all of a sudden the screen goes black, and you're struck by the decision to end something without those final scenes you expected. That's what happens with Two Days, One Night. The screen doesn't suddenly cut to black; that's way too formalist for the Dardennes. But the credits do begin appearing on screen at a moment when we don't totally expect it, and I found that to be a really powerful touch. 

In the last few months of every year, a certain kind of movie starts appearing just as regularly and dependably as a CGI-lavished sequel is going to blow down our doors on the first weekend of May. These are usually referred to as "Oscar bait" films, and they tend to follow a certain checklist: period setting, true story, unappreciated protagonist dealing with some sort of handicap or secret, weighty subject, dramatic score, British actors, and a Weinstein name slapped somewhere on the credits. We get a half dozen of these every year, and more often than not, they disappoint. Every year gives us a handful of films that we assume are Oscar bound the first time we see the trailer, and then once we see the finished film we curse ourselves for being swindled by formula yet again. It's why we feel so let down by movies like J. Edgar and Hyde Park on Hudson--because not only did they pretty much suck, but we unfairly assumed they'd be contending for Best Picture until we saw the damn thing and wished we could travel three hours back in time and not get up from the couch. But sometimes, one of these cookie-cutter films comes through and delivers a result that is every bit as good as it seemed on paper. In 2014, The Imitation Game is that film. 

Benedict Cumberbatch, he of The Name and The Moment, stars as Alan Turing, a brilliant and socially abysmal young mathematician charged by the British government in 1939 with trying to break the allegedly unbreakable Nazi Enigma Code. To do so, he and his team of shockingly attractive geniuses (Oh, hey there Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, I wasn't quite expecting you!) basically invent the world's first computer, and help the Allies win the war when they crack the code and begin intercepting Nazi signals. Less than ten years later, with Turing's military record a classified secret, he's persecuted by the British government for being homosexual. Talk about covering your damn bases. 

The Imitation Game is not an innovative film, but it's a film that does absolutely everything right. The story is a great one, and one that deserves to be told. The themes of how we react to (and punish) genius are just as applicable now as they've ever been. Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing. Like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, he has the subtlety to not play the role as overtly gay, but to put the pieces there for us to find. The script, which topped Hollywood's famed Black List (an annual list of the best unproduced scripts in the industry) a few years ago, is top notch. The dialogue is snappy and engaging, the story is paced well, the themes are strong but not forced, and the chronology jumps are used well without being overdone and confusing. The score, by Alexandre Desplat--probably the most Oscar bait-y of film composers at the moment--is lovely and elegiac. Supporting roles by Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister) and Mark Strong are nice scene-stealers. The check-list is being carefully mastered. 

There will always be backlash around films created to win Oscars in the same way there's backlash around sports teams assembled to win championships. People like great results to occur organically instead of by intelligent diabolical design. But, people also like to see great pieces create a great whole, and The Imitation Game does that. This film will likely compete for Best Picture, not merely because it was created to do so, but because it was created with great care and it's just really good. The director, Morten Tyldum, is working for the first time in English. He previously made 2011's riveting Norwegian thriller, Headhunters, and it's nice to see him cash in on that potential without neutering himself. He's less risky here, but he's not mailing anything in either. Every aspect of this movie has the caring touch of a great filmmaker all over it. I doubt we'll still be talking about this film five or ten years down the road, but for the two hours you're in its thrall, it'll give you everything it has. 

Seven days into TIFF, two things are inevitably true: 1. I'm very behind on sleep and bound to conk out on anything that even remotely challenges my engagement level, and 2. Some terrible movie is lurking around the corner, ready to slap me in the face with its awfulness just when I let my guard down and start thinking I have a super-power of avoiding the dregs. As it happened, both of these universal TIFF truths pulled a double whammy on me in the same night. First up was the Russian epic Leviathan, which won Best Screenplay in Cannes and is being called the greatest Russian film in a decade. 

I should have known it was a bad sign when the director introduced the film by warning us it was long, and then laughing at his own joke when he followed up by saying, "But don't worry, it goes by quick." If I didn't already strongly suspect it, I realized within the first five minutes of the movie that he was employing heavy sarcasm with that remark. What I saw, which was approximately the first twenty minutes of a 142-minute film, was magisterial, but also slow and methodical. I think I could tell there's a great film there, but not one to challenge yourself with when you're tired. Sony Pictures Classics has picked this film up for U.S. distribution and a hopeful Oscar campaign for Best Foreign Language Film, so I should get another chance to see it in a few months. 

And then came the movie that I wish I could have slept through. If only I didn't see it right after a two hour nap. 

I wouldn't quite say I had high hopes for Revenge of the Green Dragons, but I definitely thought it would be a good bit of counter-programming at the end of a day that included films about the modern economies of Belgium and Russia. It's by the same director as Infernal Affairs, the great Hong Kong cop-flick that was remade into Martin Scorsese's The Departed, and it looked ambitious. It attempted to be a period crime epic about the Chinese street gangs of New York in the 1980's, the very same ones that inspired original Nintendo games like Double Dragon. Sadly, what we ended up with is a movie that only a twelve-year old playing Double Dragon in 1989 could have thought was a good idea. 

In the same way The Imitation Game got everything right, Revenge of the Green Dragons gets everything wrong. This movie is nothing but action movie tropes soaked in graphic violence and nihilism, but trying to be weighty and poignant instead of just embracing itself as a full-on B-movie. I always used to refer to Tony Scott as my least favorite director, and this movie looks like someone's deliberately homaging all of the worst parts of Tony Scott's style. It's the kind of movie where every gun-shot victim gets blown away in the exaggerated silent slow motion that's meant to make us feel, the female love interest gets tortured and murdered in a prototypical "women in refrigerators" moment, and the opening voice-over narration tells us that they didn't know how bad things would get. The main characters are completely unsympathetic, the supporting roles are all stock characters, and every death is accompanied by someone screaming "Nooo!!" while they're getting held back. I admit to loving dumb action movies, but this is a dumb action movie that thinks it's making a profound and dramatic statement on cycles of violence, when really all it's doing is attempting to ground trash cinema in unearned realism. This movie has no redeeming qualities. 

Tomorrow: Two good films directed by women, a Martin Scorsese documentary about the New York Review of Books, and another truly awful movie. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

TIFF '14 Diary: Day 6

Of every film I've seen this year at TIFF, Foxcatcher is the one I feel least prepared to manufacture an immediate opinion on. That's not because there's so much to unpack (there isn't), but rather that I can't quite figured out how I'm supposed to unpack it. Never have I been more desperate to raise my hand in a post-screening Q&A and ask a director, "What was the point in telling this story?" But, since there's really no uncouth way to ask that, I kept a lid on it. 

Foxcatcher tells the true story of USA olympic gold-medal wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, who in the mid-1980's moved to Pennsylvania to live and train on the estate of eccentric millionaire John du Pont, a patriot and wrestling fan who wanted to bankroll USA wrestling as long as it meant he could oversee and participate in the training. John du Pont then became fixated on Mark Schultz, and what started out as a close friendship between the two gradually became creepier. What happened next is a matter of public record, but I won't spoil it for those that don't know. 

It's an absolutely fascinating story, and maybe that's the entirety of the point--to tell an interesting story. But with the way things played out in real life, and the way the movie makes the artistic choice to not delve into the meanings of the conclusion at all, it leaves you with a really empty feeling, unable to figure out what to make of what you've just seen. What's the intended interpretation or lesson? That eccentric millionaires are kind of weird? 

In terms of filmmaking, Foxcatcher is hypnotic. It encases you in a slowly unfolding dream reality, like something that only could have been created in the merging subconsciouses of Hitchcock and Kubrick. The isolation and color saturation in the shots is sobering, and the creepy, unblinking stares Steve Carell delivers as John du Pont cut to the core. Carell, barely recognizable behind a prosthetic nose that makes him look like a nightmarish live action version of his Despicable Me villain, delivers the best acting performance of the year so far. It's a performance that's all about the measured restraint of statuesque silence. There are moments when you feel so sure Carell is playing something as a joke, but then the extended awkward expressions slowly reveal an unbudging seriousness. Unlike the Hannibal Lector of Anthony Hopkins that lives in our mind through his anecdotes about fava beans and livers, Carell's du Pont doesn't require the use of snappy dialogue to seer his scariness into our heads. Just those quiet stares. 

The Schultz brothers are played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, who also both do a fantastic job, though their performances are more understated. The director is Bennett Miller, who previously made Capote and Moneyball. His films are united by their carefully crafted retellings of bizarre and unconventional true stories, but his previous two films have concluded with a more obvious sense of meaning. This one merely concludes, as silently and strangely as it began. 

At the total opposite end of the spectrum was Joshua Oppenheimer's new documentary, The Look of Silence, which is just overflowing with meaning and interpretations ripe for discussion.  This is the sequel to Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary, The Act of Killing, which followed leaders of the Indonesian death squads from the 1960's as they discussed and reenacted their crimes. These men were never punished, never paid for the atrocities they committed, and are largely still in power. When they discussed and recreated their crimes in The Act of Killing, they did so as though they were staging action movies about their lives, and imagined themselves as classic Hollywood gangsters. They casually spoke about how they found effective ways to torture people that minimized the amount of blood that got on their clothing. 

The Act of Killing was an intensely powerful, sobering, heartbreaking film, one that will probably be discussed and studied for decades to come. It also prompted a discussion both internationally and within Indonesia about what happened in the 1960's, and why these mass murderers are still free and celebrated within their own country. The Look of Silence continues those thoughts, and follows an Indonesian man named Adi, whose brother was one of the victims of the death squads. As Adi confronts the men who led the death squads and seeks their acknowledgment of the wrongdoing of their actions, we see the other side of the story given to us by the previous film. There isn't too much to say beyond that; these films sort of defy the concept of having a critical angle. They ought to be seen and taught and thought about not because they represent the peak of the cinematic art form, but because they illuminate the value and fragility of life. 

Without intending to, I selected a really heavy slate of films on TIFF day 6. Susanne Bier's A Second Chance continued that trend, and against all odds, was maybe the heaviest one yet. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones' Jamie Lannister) plays Andreas, a Copenhagen detective with a new born child, who is prompted into a tough choice when tragedy strikes at home and he discovers the neglected baby of a junkie he's investigating. The film then enters full-on Gone Baby Gone territory, but does so in a fascinating way--the question that Gone Baby Gone shocked us with at its conclusion is the one A Second Chance spends the majority of its run time openly asking. 

Bier is one of the masters of contemporary European cinema, with several great films under her belt including Brothers, the Oscar-nominated After the Wedding, and the Oscar-winning In a Better World. Her films always set up extremely unique-yet-realistic scenarios where her characters are forced into difficult quandaries of moral ambiguity, and the conclusions of her films never offer easy answers. Her characters make choices, and then live with their consequences. What I really loved about this film is the ending, which (deliberately?) gave us the same concluding scene as Gone Baby Gone, but with a very different result that still feels genuine and true. 

When I plan out my schedule for TIFF every year, I always go back and read a lot of coverage from Cannes, because many of those films play TIFF as well. On the first draft of my TIFF schedule, my final film for the evening of day 6 was a documentary called Merchants of Doubt, about professional skeptics hired by businesses to cast suspicions on climate change and the like. But then I read Grantland's Wesley Morris talk about an Argentinian film he'd seen in Cannes called Wild Tales, and the enthusiasm he had for it sold me and convinced me to make the swap. 

Holy hell, am I glad I did. Wild Tales is not just the best film I've seen at TIFF '14, but maybe my favorite TIFF memory in five years of coming to the festival. This film represents the first time I've ever shouted out "Oh Jesus Christ!" during a screening, and also the first time I've ever leapt to my feet and tried to prompt a standing ovation on my own--about half of the audience joined me. 

Wild Tales features six different stories that are related only thematically, and each quickly goes from realistic to ludicrous in a very short amount of time. The common link I found between the tales is the way simple conflicts and disagreements can quickly escalate into Shakespearean tragedies merely by people not being able to forgive and move on. In the post-screening Q&A, director Damian Szifron put it another way: they're each about "the pleasure of losing control," he said. Yes, they certainly are. 

In the immortal words of Gwen Stefani, "This shit is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S." I don't know that I have ever laughed harder, been more shocked, more engaged, and more excited to see what would come next than I was during Wild Tales. Just when you think you might have a handle on where Szifron is taking you with one of his stories about people at the end of their ropes, he dives head-first through that door and then throws you through a window. This film is absolutely relentless. But within all of these stories of modern civility being gleefully torn asunder is a striking moral core about the necessity of forgiveness, the understanding of knowing when to apologize, and the power of being able to walk away. The film's final tale is my favorite, chronicling the strangest wedding reception ever. Actress Erica Rivas, who plays the bride, Romina, gives us the funniest portrayal of "wit's end" I can ever recall seeing, but I also responded most to this particular wild tale because of how differently it ended than the others. In perhaps the most wild move of all, the final tale concludes with the "fuck it" mentality of the characters taking on a very different manifestation than one of revenge. It was the perfect, and the only, way to end such an unrestrained and exciting film. 

Tomorrow: A wonderful realist film of contemporary Belgium starring Marion Cotillard, a Russian epic that I slept through, an excellent chronicle of a forgotten World War II hero that's likely to be a Best Picture contender, and the first terrible movie I saw at TIFF '14.