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Best of 2013: Movies February 17, 2014

Posted by David Card in Media.
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I like to kick these posts off with some box office stats, courtesy Box Office Mojo.

  • The money spent in U.S. movie theaters was flat versus last year (and tickets sold down), when The Avengers set some records with over $600 million in sales at the same time that Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises broke $400 million. This year, only the Hunger Games sequel and Iron Man 3 cracked the $400 million mark.
  • The top 10, as usual, comprised sequels, cartoons, and superheroes, sometimes in combination. How did Gravity sneak in? By being a really good movie that was also a crowd-pleaser, and worth seeing in Imax or 3D. I’m still baffled by the Oz movie (which I didn’t see). Does it qualify as a franchise? Pixar made it into the top 10, but didn’t get an Oscar nomination. Can we blame Disney?

Let me disagree with the critics who say it was a good year. I go to the movies in theaters just about once a week. I like blockbusters and genre films as much as serious movies for grown-ups, and I’m a hard grader. I reserve the 5s on a 5-star scale for all-time classics like Casablanca, Chinatown, and Duck Soup. I rated fewer 3s this year than in 2011 and 2012. I saw a lot of 2.5-star movies this year.

My two favorites of the year earned 3.5 stars each:

  • Gravity – It’s uncharitable to wish Gravity were actually about something. Its visuals inspire awe and panic, its physics is totally convincing, it’s superbly cast, and the creators apparently invented some new movie technology.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis – The rare Coen Brothers movie with a heart, and all the better for it. Is it a little depressing? So is trying to make a living while making art.

To round out a top ten list, here are the best of the 3-star movies I saw this year:

  • Mud - An endearing, meandering, Southern shaggy dog story. Tremendous cast and atmosphere. It’s a “triple-six real-deal.”
  • The Great Gatsby –  Leo nailed it, even if Carey Mulligan was mis-cast. The hip hop worked, and everyone looked fabulous.
  • American Hustle - Audacious, but only partly successful. You’ve got to be Scorsese to pull off voice-over narration, the pacing’s inconsistent, and the comedy and satire are, uh, uneven. Lots of great performances, but what is Russell’s point? American Bullsh!t was the original title…
  • Rush - Cliched? Macho? Hans Zimmer? Well, yeah, it’s a Formula 1 movie. And it was the funnest summer flick. The leads radiate charisma and it’s got a great ’70s look. See it on a big screen.
  • Fruitvale Station - I wanted more outrage, but in the long run maybe its almost too low-key approach was the way to go. Superb cast empowered by the very assured first-time director and screenwriter.
  • Captain Phillips - Taut and thoughtful. Hanks and Abdi are terrific and I’ll forgive the shakycam because Greengrass is one of the few active directors that shoot action scenes where you always know what’s going on. Ends with a real kick in the chest.
  • All Is Lost – Truly harrowing, and I only saw it on an airplane’s small screen.
  • The Grandmaster - Kung fu isn’t better in rain, smoke, snow, or slowmo, but it sure is prettier. This one actually takes off when it turns into a romance, but, oh, man, that fight scene by the train…

As for some of the other big movies of the year? While Luhrmann was seduced by – and seductive on – the romance of Amuhrican capitalism, I’m pretty sure Scorsese was not. But consider the source material. Wolf of Wall Street was at least a half an hour too long to justify its 2-3 great scenes. While the romance in Her worked, the dialogue did not. 12 Years a Slave was beautifully shot, and mostly well-acted, but it’s about as subtle and thoughtful as Mandingo. Worse, it’s oddly unfeeling. In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett out-Blanches Blanche, but the class and wealth commentary loses its sting because it’s set in some timeless, out-of-touch Woodyland where Brooklyn is an undesirable place to live, people take computer classes to learn about “operating systems,” and mooks from Queens comprise the San Francisco working class.

Best of 2013: Music December 21, 2013

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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My favorites of 2013 line up better with Rolling Stone’s than with Pitchfork’s. Must be getting old.

This year I bought about 30 albums, all digital downloads. I don’t go for singles often, even if that is the natural medium for pop music.  (The modern version of the EP is appealing.) That number is a little less than last year, and again this year, almost all new, rather than back catalogue. I’ve got to discover some new “old” favorites.

My downloading may be down due to my use of music streaming services, just like Mark Mulligan and the ex-Jups and I have been forecasting for so long. I still like Rhapsody’s curation and info, but Spotify’s catalogue is starting to be noticeably better. I like Spotify’s apps, especially the ones that link me to reviews from professionals at media like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. I wish This Is My Jam were better integrated, and I usually forget that Facebook aggregates a lot of music info.

Anyway, roughly in order, the following were my favorite new releases of 2013:

  • Parquet Courts “Light up Gold” – easily – predictably? – my most-played. Incredibly catchy stoner punks from Austin via Brooklyn
  • Kanye West “Yeezus” – hurry up with my damn croissants. Pushes a lot of envelopes
  • The National “Trouble Will Find Me” – drones engagingly, and with some feeling
  • Lorde “Pure Heroine” and Miley Cyrus “Bangerz” – two pop divas craft some great singles. Miley might bear more listens; Lorde has more promise
  • Queens of the Stone Age “….Like Clockwork” – heavy-ish rock, not too many power ballads
  • Robyn Hitchcock “Love from London” and David Bowie “The Next Day” and Richard Thompson “Electric” – a trio of old geezers deliver the goods: near-Beatles, near-”Scary Monsters,” and near-guitar god
  • Savages “Silence Yourself” – stunning debut even if we’ve heard it before from Erase Errata
  • Steve Earle “The Low Highway” – one song’s called “21st Century Blues.” That about sums it up
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Push the Sky Away” – minor-key Cave still pulses and throbs
  • M.I.A. “Matangi” – the only kind of world music you should listen to

Happy 237th July 4, 2013

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libertytreeflag

 

This year’s patriotic plug, courtesy of a sideways recommendation from Cormac. But White House Down just isn’t Independence Day. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any real Virginians in either. And I’d vote for Jamie Foxx over Bill Pullman, especially if he wore Jordans and packed a rocket launcher.

Happy Fourth. Throw another burger on the grill for me. As always, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good).

Best of 2012: Movies February 17, 2013

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According to Box Office Mojo, the U.S. box office was up 6.5 percent last year, driven by the mega-hit The Avengers (a whopping $620 million in domestic ticket sales) and two pretty big monsters: The Dark Knight Rises ($450 million) and The Hunger Games ($410 million). Nothing broke $400 million in 2011, and both superhero movies did well enough to crack the top 10 all-time. Critical consensus is that it was a pretty good year from a quality perspective, too.

I was prepared to agree, but then I reviewed my ratings on Rotten Tomatoes’ Flixster site. While I gave three movies 3.5 stars on a 5-point scale – one more than last year – I saw a pretty similar number of 3- and 2.5-star movies both years. I go to the movies in the theater a little less than once a week on average, and I’m no highbrow, as you’ll see from my list of favorites. Before we get there, though, let’s take a look at the key takeaways from Box Office Mojo’s yearly tally:

  • In 2011, there was no $400 million blockbuster, and only two movies broke $300 million (Potter 7B and Transformers 3). Ticket prices were up a bit, but 2012 was driven by hits, not 3D.
  • Of 2012′s top 10, only two were cartoons (Brave, Madagascar 3) but all were fantasies and three featured superheros. Sadly, for DC/Warners, Batman’s now done for a while and we all remember what happened to the last Superman re-boot.
  • Twilight has run its course, as has Harry Potter, but it looks like The Hunger Games and The Hobbit , along with Marvel’s refreshed superheros, will carry the franchise load. And James Bond will never die.
  • Lincoln ($176 million, no. 14) and Django Unchained ($156 million, no. 16) were the only grown-up movies in the top 20. DK3 could have been, but after Dark Knight, director/scripter Christopher Nolan only teases big ideas without delivering an intellectual payoff.

My three favorite movies of the year, all scoring 3.5 stars were:

  • Zero Dark Thirty – Way more relevant than the feel-good Argo. It’s hardly morally ambiguous: it takes fascists to beat terrorists. But did it really take a lone Ahab to get this whale?
  • Lincoln – Sure, it’s manipulative, but if you don’t get a few lumps in your throat watching, you’re no true Amuhrican. Day-Lewis is utterly convincing. Too much to hope Lincoln will inspire modern Congressional compromise.
  • The Hunger Games - Nailed the emotional if not visceral impact of the book. Great cast led by a spectacular Jennifer Lawrence. Shakycam effective during games, over-used elsewhere, but overall look worked. This is how to do a franchise.

And to get to a top 10 list, pulling from the 3-star rankings:

  • The Avengers – Hulk smash!
  • Argo - Very well made and highly entertaining. But Argo feels oddly disconnected from current affairs – does that come from its feel-good vibe, or perhaps from its 70s-fetish production design?
  • Wuthering Heights - Effectively taps the cruelty and pagan energy of the novel, and a far more interesting re-visioning than Anna Karenina. The kids smolder more convincingly than the adults.
  • Flight - This only-slightly more ambiguous than usual morality/addiction fable is redeemed by a spectacular opening sequence and Denzel’s best flawed cool guy since Training Day.
  • Lawless - This shaggy dog fable meanders along and then hammers you with ultraviolence. 2/3rds of the cast is terrific, Georgia stands in beautifully for Franklin County VA, and the eclectic score is top-notch.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild - There’s a little North Eastern liberal white guy (both parents are folklore scholars) noble-savage voyeurism here – okay, there’s a lot of it – but there’s also plenty to think about in this beautifully-shot, no-budget fable. Hushpuppy is ferocious, but her dad – also a non-actor – deservers the Oscar nom.
  • The Master – The story of Amuhrica via Scientology by way of father/son belief/doubt individualist/groupthink. Sadly, great cinematography and production design can’t save a static script that does nothing after the great setup. Hoffman is spectacular; critics will disagree on Phoenix, who I thought went over the top.

I wanted to like Silver Linings Playbook more than I did; it started strong but ended up just a slightly edgy RomCom. Skyfall was very good Bond – until the third act. And I found Killing Them Softly more fascinating than flawed. As for the rest of the best picture nominees: Django was a lesser Inglourious, I probably wouldn’t like Les Mis on stage and I found it tedious onscreen, and I haven’t seen Life of Pi or Amour yet.

 

Best of 2012: Music December 23, 2012

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I may be an old geezer – early GenX, please, not late Boomer – but I listen to and actually purchase new music. This year I bought about 35 albums, a little fewer than last year, but only 4 from the back catalog. All downloads, 99 percent from Amazon. Most of my listening is from stored files on my Zunephone or a docked iPod.

I subscribe to Rhapsody, and use Spotify and MOG. The music streaming services are great for try-before-you-buy listening, and for stringing together ad hoc playlists. (So is YouTube, of course, which often has a deeper catalog.) Making and keeping playlists is hard work, and makes you appreciate DJs. I trust artists, and albums.

The music streamers can be great for music discovery. I prefer Rhapsody’s  curated content, and band and genre info, to Spotify’s sharing orientation. Rhapsody’s recommendations are only okay, possibly because I’m not using it as my primary listening platform. But that’s a problem all discovery tools face. There’s a reason iTunes Ping flopped. (Well, a lot of reasons.) Aggregating usage signals across devices in support of recommendations and programming remains a big potential market opportunity.

An easier problem to solve, but a smaller opportunity, is blending discovery means. That would suit what we at Jupiter Research used to call “digital music aficionados,” that relatively small group of fans (15 percent of online adults) who are big music spenders as well as digital users. I also use Pandora “radio,” online music reviews from Pitchfork and traditional media, Amazon recommendations and reviews, and, of course, friends’ advice. It’s fun to see what people listen to via Spotify or Facebook, but that is just one input. Spotify is smart to integrate Pitchfork content via an app.

Best New Albums of 2012 

I realize I’ve been mis-titling this annual post. “Best of” is awfully judgmental for a list of personal favorites, but what the heck, there is probably more SEO juice in the headline. Roughly in order, just barely in time for stocking stuffing, the following are my faves of the year:

  • Japandroids “Celebration Rock” – indeed it is
  • Swans “The Seer” and Godspeed You! Black Emperor “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” – I especially like it when the guitars drone like bagpipes
  • Various Artists “Chimes of Freedom” – the country Dylan covers work at least as well as the punk ones on this massive Amnesty International compilation
  • Killing Joke “MMXII” and Metz “Metz” – the world didn’t end but KJ is back to form, while Oh, Canada can these Metz guys make noise
  • Chromatics “Kill for Love” – lush Italo disco with a killer Neil Young cover
  • Divine Fits “A Thing Called the Divine Fits” and Metric “Synthetica” – who said the ’80s were over?
  • Dum Dum Girls “End of Daze” – showing no-longer-surprising depth on this EP
  • Fiona Apple “The Idler Wheel…” and Cat Power “Sun” – both are raw and emotional; Fiona’s stripped-down approach works better for me
  • Heartless Bastards “Arrow” and Murder By Death “Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon” – rockin’ Americana: HB channels Janis better than MBD does Cash
  • Shearwater “Animal Joy” – with no Decemberists this year, I had to have one pretentious but catchy indie rocker on the list

Happy 236th July 4, 2012

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This year’s patriotic plug. I read this 1944 Newbery Medal winner in the very early ’70s. I loved it back then – ignore the obvious Amazon spam reviews. I was, perhaps, overly obsessed with Johnny’s sliversmith-induced wound. And no, it’s not about noble  Virginians, but rather those radical New Englanders. Heck, I went to college up North.

Happy Fourth. Throw another hot dog on the grill for me. As always, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good).

Best of 2011: Movies February 20, 2012

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Just in time to mess with your Oscar pool, I present my personal favorites of the year. Nota bene: this list has little to do with my own Oscar picks. Those I’m keeping secret to avoid jinxing my results in the annual Card family pool.

In 2011, I averaged approximately one new movie – in a theater – a week. I can enjoy just about any well-executed flick: I like big-budget summer blockbusters, well-crafted genre pictures, indies made for grown-ups, heartstring-tuggers, etc. I can read subtitles, though I’m not sure if I could through 3D glasses. That said, 2011 was not a good year.

According to the indispensable Box Office Mojo, the US box office for 2011 was down 4 percent vs. 2010, even though there more, expensive-ticket 3D releases. (That’s what boosted 2009 receipts 10 percent. That, and the fact one of ‘em was Avatar.) Maybe the 3D boomlet is done. I’m not religiously opposed to the concept – I can barely imagine one of my 2011 faves not in 3D. But it’s an unnecessary burden for most.

Of the top 10 grossing pictures in 2011:

  • Nine out of 10 were remakes or sequels. Dear god.
  • Only one (Cars 2) was a cartoon. Unless you count Transformers.
  • Only one (Thor) was a superhero franchise. Bob Iger is gnawing his fingernails.
  • Two (Harry Potter 7B and Twilight 4A) were bestseller franchises that are now done or ending. Hollywood’s salvation depends on The Hunger Games, since Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn’t cut it.

My two favorite movies of the year, 3.5 stars on Flixster’s 5-star scale, were:

  • Moneyball. Lots of smart reviewers like this movie, but they vary widely on what it’s actually about. That’s a sign of high art in pop culture. Witty script and great cast. Pitt is terrific in two very different roles this year. And if you were wondering about my interpretation, like all Sorkin, it’s about men at work.
  • Hugo. There’s real magic here. The 3D isn’t remotely realistic, but looks like a pop-up book: a deep series of flats, and that’s just right. For what is really a children’s movie, it’s too long, and so old-fashioned – er, timeless – that I wonder if modern kids will take to it.

To get to a Top Ten list, I have to go to 3-star movies:

  • Meek’s Cutoff. “Chaotic” women and “destructive” men face off against the Other. If you can handle the slow pace and cryptic characters, this is a thoughtful look at alienation, leadership, and faith.
  • Bellflower. This very twisted take on the indie romance has the courage of its own nutty, nihilist convictions. Beautifully shot, occasionally funny, ultimately disturbing.
  • The Descendants. Very human but disappointingly sentimental. Superb cast.
  • The Tree of Life. Malick sets out to justify the ways of God to men, but he has more to say about nostalgic boy/brother/Dad dynamics.
  • 13 Assassins. Slow-burn buildup to maximum carnage. Stately and stylish, with a handful of stars and a great villain.
  • Source Code. No dumber than Inception, and ten times the heart. Twice the fun at one fifth the budget.
  • Kill List. The Brits still know how to make those low-budget horror flicks where the occult leaks into the real world in a most disturbing fashion.

I’m going to cheat, and add a 2.5-star movie to my Top Ten, because it was more memorable than the rest of the ones I gave 3 stars. It will hold up to re-watching better:

  • Higher Ground. Vera Farmiga is very, very good, as usual, and gets solid performances out of her cast. The movie rambles and is uncomfortable in its tonal shifts, and the script is too stacked against the evangelicals for us to believe Farmiga’s character is risking much with her crisis of faith. Except the music, which is surprisingly affective.

The Artist’s gimmick just didn’t work for me, and I was hugely disappointed by Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, the only part of which that was better than the Swedish version being the credits sequence. They shouldn’t have broken up Potter 7: the slow, sad build-up of part one would have made the payoff of part two that much better. Captain America was the best superhero movie, and although that’s not saying much this year, I’m still looking forward to The Avengers. And Batman, of course.

Best of 2011: Music December 21, 2011

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Just barely in time for stocking stuffers, yet another “best of…” list. But you know you love it.

Not a great year, but we’ll see what ages.

I bought about 45 albums, very few singles, all downloads pretty much exclusively from Amazon. This year my mix was about 55/45 new versus back catalog. I still listen mostly from an iPod or my iPhone.

However, I do have the on-demand streaming services from Rhapsody, Spotify, and MOG. (I’m comped as an analyst but I’d happily spend $10 a month on one of them. Which one is for a later post.) And free Pandora. I love all of them for radio-style new music discovery and casual listening, and for try-before-you-buy analysis. I get a kick out of seeing what my friends listen to via Facebook and GetGlue. This social music thing, it might catch on. If only the artists could make money off it.

But I’m technically a digital music aficionado, as defined by digital behavior and high spending on music, and I often discover unfamiliar bands by – gasp! – reading reviews. Turntable.fm is fun, but way too much work. It’s like trash-talking for music. I am not a very successful DJ, and neither are most people.

My favorite new albums of the year were, roughly in order:

Best New Albums of 2011

  • The Decemberists “The King Is Dead” – add alt-country to their repertoire
  • Black Keys “El Camino” – who knew there were still rock bands?
  • The Vaccines – my latest lo-fi, incredibly catchy, pop indulgence
  • PJ Harvey “Let England Shake” – yeah, someone still does stirring protest songs
  • T Bone Burnett Presents “The Speaking Clock Revue” – rootsy collection from Elvis Costello, Gregg Allman et al.
  • Dum Dum Girls “Only in Dreams” – pop-punk grrls with some depth
  • Jay-Z and Kanye West “Watch the Throne” – sure, it’s indulgent, but it’s fun when two big stars connect
  • Wild Flag “Wild Flag” – I miss Sleater-Kinney, but this is a half-decent substitute
  • Wilco “The Whole Love” – experimenting again, with spirit
  • Florence + the Machine “Ceremonials” – I know it’s hipper to like St. Vincent, but the prog-rock Sinead, well, rocks

You might also like to look at Tune-Yards (I have a thing for female jazz singers that fool around in other genres), Paul Simon (his latest is like a poor man’s – make that an old poor man’s – Graceland), Fucked Up (gotta love a punk concept album), SPIN’s “Nevermind” tribute (half the covers are pretty awesome),  DJ Shadow (channeling Killing Joke of all things), and R.E.M.’s finale (but the Decemberists already did the best R.E.M. album of the year). I didn’t hate the Lou Reed/Metallica team-up, but it was an example of two big artists not connecting.

I was disappointed by The Girls (went from interesting to pretentious in a year 2 years), Airborne Toxic Event (no sophomore slump but nothing new), the Kills (a killer single), and Gang of Four (one of my all-time favorite bands, but what was I expecting?).

Happy 235th July 4, 2011

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This year’s patriotic plug. Nook readers can download it for free, but otherwise you’ll have to find it in your library as it’s out of print. I’m feeling sort of sympathetic with the Loyalists in these days of false Tea Parties, even though most Virginians went independent.

Happy Fourth. Throw another burger on the grill for me. As always, I’ll bring Mom’s potato salad (never tastes the same twice, but always good).

Best of 2010: Movies February 24, 2011

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Yikes, the Oscars are this weekend and I haven’t posted my usual “best of” yet. Here are my faves of 2010:

  • The Social Network. High craft. Will launch a thousand start-ups.
  • Toy Story 3. Huge heart. Up there with Pixar’s best.

I gave each of these 3.5 stars out of 5 on Flixster. Last year, I handed out five 3.5 star ratings and in 2008 one 4-star (The Dark Knight) and two 3.5′s. I reserve five stars for absolute classics like Casablanca, Duck Soup, The Big Sleep, and Chinatown.

Best of the rest (each gets a 3-star rating):

  • Winter’s Bone. Ozark neo-realist gothic.
  • I Am Love. Boy, those rich Milanese know how to live. And make sensuous, operatically over-the-top melodramas.
  • Red Riding Trilogy. Like a great Mystery series touched with evil: This is the North, where we do what we want.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Quite possibly better than the book.
  • Kick-Ass. Silly, silly critics, it’s not a satire, it’s po-mo fanboy superheroics taken to their logical conclusion
  • Valhalla Rising. Undoubtedly awesome if one is on drugs: stoner Christian Vikings meet the heathen on the edge of the world.
  • The King’s Speech. Three good leads; takes no risks. Will win many Oscars.
  • Potter 7A. If you love our three heroes, you’ll love this installment; otherwise it may seem long and a little lonely.

I liked How to Train Your Dragon and Unstoppable also, but not quite enough to put ‘em in the top 10. The Academy nominators agreed with four of my favorites, one less than last year. Like the newly enlarged Best Picture noms, I like a mix of movies aimed at kids and grown-ups, with a range of budgets and box office performance.

A slightly encouraging sign: some good movies for adults actually made money this year. Toy Story 3, that appeals to both kids and adults, topped the charts.

It’s always fun to look at the year’s box office. Not a lot of movement on the hits vs. long-tail, kids vs. grown-ups, or “Can’t Hollywood Do Anything Creative” fronts. Last year’s total dollar take was roughly flat with 2009, though boosted by 3D ticket prices. There was one $400 million hit in 2010, and roughly five $300 million sellers, with 29 over $100 million. In 2009, Avatar was a $750 million monster, with a single $400 million seller and a few at $300 (32 over $100 million). There were five or six franchises in the top 10 both years, though more animation in 2010.

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