If it's crap ... We'll tell you
Since I'm trying to build an active community of readers, I do realize the writing-focused posts can be a little cold. I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone (I hate that expression) by personalizing as well as expanding my base with a list I'm calling "People at the Top Of Their Game." Here, I'll be plugging some of my current favorite people in the media at the moment, which'll hopefully balance my criticisms in other posts with insight into what I enjoy. This probably won't be weekly, for I don't watch TV or see movies right when they air/hit theaters, but I'll update it as often as possible.
10. Bright Eyes
The Conor Oberst-led band, Bright Eyes, has taken some slack from fans--myself included--for the somewhat new sound attempted on their latest album, The People's Key. The reaction wasn't unjustified as much as it was premature. The leading single, "Shell Games," blends New Pornographers-esque synths and the famous Oberst croon in a way that doesn't quite register outside of the context of the album. But, within it, it works beautifully. Oberst's recent projects outside of Bright Eyes, including Monster of Folk and The Mystic Valley Band, have improved the singer's ability to keep the music and lyrics on a level playing field while still retaining the latter's emotional punch. Even more impressive than the album itself was last night's SXSW concert, in which the band and the audience seemed fully in-tune with one another. The swelling choruses warranted clapping and head-banging, but most everyone resisted, knowing that processing the words was equally rewarding.
Watch the full concert here.
Best Song: "Beginner's Mind"
9. Yael Hersonski and Oscilloscope Laboratories
I predicted in Part 2 of my Top 10 Independent DVD Distributors list that, at the rate underdog Oscilloscope Laboratories was going, they'd be #1 come that time next year. Though Criterion is giving them some serious competition with their outstanding releases of The Double Life of Veronique and Broadcast News, the uncanny consistency of Oscilloscope's library is further maintained thanks to Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished. The documentary analyzes a never-before-seen Nazi propaganda reels known simply as The Ghetto, which are filled with staged yet still horrifying peeks into the lives of imprisoned Jews during WWII. Hersonski had the chutzpah to screen the footage in front of Holocaust survivors, resulting in some of the most personal historical accounts ever committed to film. More intriguing yet is how the film breaks down the medium itself, exposing its often sinister nature by looking at the Nazi's exploitation of its captive subjects. It's not quite essential to understanding the fascist propaganda machine, but, perspective-wise, its one of our most valuable documents.
Watch the PBS interview with Hersonski here.
Best scene: When Hersonski describes how the Warsaw Jews were too weak from hunger to leave the house, so they were forced to throw their garbage out the window, sometimes from stories above. We're shown a young man walking through what looks like mountains of garbage lying outside the houses. Haunting photography.
8. Billy Murray and the cast of Get Low
As much as I adore Robert Duvall's work, I've never been a fan of any of the films where he sports a Southern accent (don't shoot! I still haven't seen the Lonesome Dove minseries.) For me, the vastly overrated Tender Mercies, God and Generals, and Crazy Heart commit the cardinal sin of being boring. That trend changes here. Get Low's plot has all the qualities of the dreaded indie dramedy but the script handles them with such sparse yet weighty dialogue exchanges that compliment Duvall's acting style. This script attracted heavyweights from all corners, including the always great Sissy Spacek, and Lucas Black, whom has been criminally misused after 2004's Friday Night Lights. I was also taken aback by relative newcomer Lori Beth Edgeman who play's Black's wife. All this in mind, the clear standout was Bill Murray, coming closer to successfully transferring his comedic expertise to the dramatic screen with every performance as of late. Here, he plays a dryer Oliver Hardy-type character, channeling quirky wisdom into the dialogue even in those rare moments when the script doesn't back him up.
Best scene: Bill Murray convincing his apprentice, Lucas Black, to go sell Robert Duvall's hermit character a funeral, despite an earlier incident where the hermit nearly beat a man to death in the town square.
7. Sharon Van Etten
It's child's play to emulate one of PJ Harvey's many musical styles, but it's another thing to extract the core of what makes her a leading force in the industry: her commanding presence. I'll explain. My first experience with Harvey's music is playing her Stories from the City, Stories from the the Sea LP in the background while playing Need for Speed: Carbon. The record's sound matched the game's nighttime aesthetic in an unexpectedly perfect way. Then "This Mess We're In" came on and arrested my concentration from the game. Sharon Van Etten's debut album captures this from the first track onward. Talking earlier about the illusion of weightiness when referring to Duvall's acting, Van Etten does the same with even her "filler" tracks by creating an atmosphere that sinks the established one wherever you're listening to them from. The album's title really says it all. Epic.
Best Track: "Peace Signs"
It's a shame that this historic station is getting caught in the crossfire between the Republican agenda and NPR. These days, they're doing much more for science in the mainstream media than a History Channel that treats 2012 and biblical prophecies with legitimacy and a Discovery Channel that spends more time on obscure sexual abnormalities for ratings' sake than it does environmental issues for the public's. NOVA Science balances education with entertainment value not by adding typical network gimmicks but by covering interesting subjects, such as whether humanity will ever make it to Mars. Their hour-long documentaries, such as the recent Birds of the Gods and Pioneers of Television Crime Dramas have been both well-made and relevant. And let's not forget the interview greats Tavis Smiley and Charlie Rose, or their kids programming with shows like Arthur and Cyberchase, or their superb news programs with NewsHour and the Nightly Business Report. I could go further, but you can check your television guide to get the full 24 hour program schedule. You could also support the station by signing the petition to keep government from pulling the plug or donating at the site.
Best program: Tavis Smiley
The list continues in Part 2.