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The 25 Best Albums & Singles of 2009

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact source, but the music landscape of 2009 is perhaps best characterized by its slipperiness.

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The 25 Best Albums & Singles of 2009

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact source, but the music landscape of 2009 is perhaps best characterized by its slipperiness. Without any new, broad trends casting a sweeping influence on style and sound (’80s-era inspiration and Auto-Tune can’t be pinned only to the past year), with no major changes of tone or direction in the conversation about the ways people consume and interact with music, and with so much of the year’s best music keeping its emotional center carefully guarded, there simply isn’t much on which to grab hold. Indicative of this elusiveness is that so many of the year’s iconic musical moments had precious little to do with music itself: the death of Michael Jackson; the compelling, runaway success of Susan Boyle; Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna; the Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift “I’ma let you finish” meme; each of Lady GaGa’s ludicrous fashion choices; a slew of NSFW music videos from the likes of Massive Attack, Girls, Patrick Wolf, and the Flaming Lips; Whitney Houston’s failed comeback; Adam Lambert’s minstrel show of an AMA performance. On balance, it isn’t like people were talking about the music of Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Cazwell, Little Boots, and Raekwon—outside of increasingly insular Internet circles, anyway. And that’s a shame, really, since the best music of 2009 (or any year) is deserving of some thoughtful dialogue or, at the very least, a well-turned one-liner. Jonathan Keefe

Albums

Post Merriweather Pavilion

1It’s rare that the consensus pick for the definitive album of the year arrives all of two weeks into the year, but Animal Collective’s superlative Merriweather Post Pavilion is an exceedingly rare type of album. Not only did it capture a gifted band finally striking the perfect balance between their pop classicist and experimental instincts, but it also captured a broader cultural moment with its tone of guarded, tempered optimism. Robust enough to withstand the predictable backlash, the record simply feels so vital—alive, even—that its longevity is never in doubt. Jonathan Keefe

1More of an arsenal than an album, It’s Blitz! finds the Yeah Yeah Yeahs whipping, grinding, and mashing their usual post-punk bluster with unabashed ’80s glam-pop. The final concoction is wet, glamorous, and brazenly championed by Karen O and her partners in crime. Even when being gentle, such as on the wonderfully buzzing, stuttering “Soft Shock,” the band struts and preens like wannabe tween-rock stars dancing in front of their bedroom mirrors. As “Zero,” “Heads Will Roll,” and “Dragon Queen” demonstrate, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are at their best when they saturate their infectious rock with insolence. Kevin Liedel

1The Bachelor is, perhaps, Patrick Wolf’s biggest, grandest, and most theatrical effort to date—if that’s possible. Copious choirs, and glitchy, impatient electronic programming are all in service of generating self-motivation. This time around, Tilda Swinton replaces Marianne Faithfull as chaperone, urgently prodding him with flashes of the ferocity she displayed in Julia on the standout “Oblivion” and nudging him more gently on “Thickets.” The album is darker than 2007’s uncharacteristically buoyant The Magic Position, but it’s no less inspiring. Sal Cinquemani

1Bat for Lashes (a.k.a. Natasha Khan) is unabashedly melodramatic and her music is at turns spacey and cavernous, but you never get the sense that you’re dealing with a flake. The Pakistan-born beauty’s sensuality tethers her sophomore effort, Two Suns, to something earthly and tangible. It helps that both the album is slightly more grounded than 2006’s Fur and Gold and that pop music is inching closer to the fringe (the tribal “Two Planets” would make Kanye a fan if he isn’t already). PJ Harvey and Kate Bush are obvious points of reference, but Khan has etched out a heady, haunting spot in the pantheon of female singer-songwriters that’s truly all her own. SC

1It opens on a typically coy indie-pop number, but St. Vincent’s Actor turns out to be one hellish debut, an unflinching depiction of a woman’s mind as it comes unhinged. It just so happens that said woman has an impeccable ear for unpredictable songcraft, spiking her quietly desperate pop tunes with jagged feedback and squalling electronic samples. When best realized, as on “The Neighbors” and “Marrow,” the unresolved tension between immaculately arranged melodies and savage noise provides the perfect sonic analogue to Actor’s underlying lyrical motif: the struggle to maintain outward composure while falling apart inside. Matthew Cole

1Calling Bitte Orca strange or ambitious doesn’t begin to do it justice. Dirty Projectors works through art-punk interpretations of popular music’s entire history, with strangled chamber pop forced into an uneasy truce with jittery acoustic ballads and off-kilter funk. The album amounts to more than a curio or a sound collage, every song benefiting from the nervy energy of the group’s two vocalists and the efficacy of their melodic hooks—see the sublime beauty of “Two Doves” or the stormy build-and-release of “Useful Chamber.” Frequently difficult, but also undeniably transcendent. MC

1On “Time to Pretend,” one of 2008’s finest singles, MGMT sang, “This is our decision/To live fast and die young/We’ve got the vision/Now let’s have some fun.” On Post-Nothing, Canadian duo Japandroids explodes that couplet into a full-fledged I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead manifesto. While extolling the virtues of wet hair, french kissing French girls, and NSA hookups, the duo demonstrates real pop smarts by reflecting their hedonistic, go-for-broke attitude in arrangements that layer some ’90s-era fuzz and distortion over hooks that are reckless and uninhibited. JK

1Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II could have been hip-hop’s Chinese Democracy, but Raekwon delivered a virtuoso sequel. RZA’s impeccable production hits that classic Wu sweet spot between eerie and soulful, while ample guest spots from the likes of Ghostface and Inspectah Deck give this bleak, lyrical crime saga the feel of an epic. Raekwon himself turns in some career-best performances: “Sonny’s Missing” is a masterful exercise in tension, the ODB tribute “Ason Jones” is indelibly moving, and the remorseless confessional of “About Me” reminds us how the Chef earned his rep as Wu-Tang’s most riveting storyteller. MC

1In between the surging strings and ebullient horns of “French Navy” and the brightly redemptive closer “Honey in the Sun,” Camera Obscura manages to pack a lot of heartbreak into My Maudlin Career. Life would probably be easier for singer Tracyanne Campbell if she didn’t fall in love so easily, but that would be our loss, since a woman luckier in love would have no cause to write gorgeous tearjerkers like “The Sweetest Thing” or “You Told a Lie.” Besides, its hard to pity anyone as talented as Campbell, particularly when she’s moping and swooning over some of the cleanest, brightest sounding arrangements in indie-pop. MC

1Grizzly Bear makes a clever bid for peculiarity by filling Veckatimest with purposefully broken organs, degraded guitars, and all manner of simulated antiquation. Yet the Brooklyn quartet’s third album never threatens listeners with cloyingness. Instead, leadman Daniel Rossen’s warm, melancholy voice adds an intimate candor to all the clunky parts. Indeed, would tracks such as the haunting “Fine for Now” or the balletic “Cheerleader” be half as effective without Grizzly Bear’s judicious vocal arrangements? In the end, Veckatimest is triumphant not just for its idiosyncrasies, but also for being intricate, careworn, and heartfelt. KL

1xx is like a favorite old coat that’s been shredded and re-sewn into something new but not entirely unrecognizable. Here, The xx rip apart reliable indie threads (a choppy drum machine, clean guitar syncopation, unassuming synth bursts, laconic vocals) and lovingly piece them back together to produce a sparse, elegant patchwork. Nowhere is xx more triumphant than in tracks like “Heart Skipped a Beat,” where deceptively simple accompaniments slide in, pause, gracefully rejoin their melodies, and then hauntingly fade as lead vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim whisper to each other from their stereo refuges. KL

1Some might describe El Perro del Mar’s sound as loungy, even dull, but nothing could be further from the truth. Love Is Not Pop is pop with a light touch and a tremendously heavy heart; it only qualifies as easy listening if you can distance yourself from Sarah Assbring’s expressive singing, if that aching voice breaking over those austere arrangements exerts no pull on your heartstrings. And if that’s the case, you may be too cold-hearted to be listening to pop music in the first place. MC

1There are more than 10 or 12 things A.C. Newman teaches us with his second solo offering, Get Guilty. The album’s soaring, melodic tracks—the most pristine collection of power-pop songcraft since the Magentic Fields’s Distortion—confirm that the singer-songwriter has always been the heart and spirit of the New Pornographers. Newman picks at his guitar as if he were dissecting his own wounded heart, and with the same teasing urgency as his lyrics, which draw all sorts of stunning correlations between the ways of love and the ways of nature and music-making. Make of that what you will. Ed Gonzalez

1Ex-Smogger Bill Callahan soared into his 20th year of recording with one of his strongest efforts yet, the lushly orchestrated Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. Grappling with long-favored themes (birds, faith, love), Callahan attaches his moody baritone to twinkling keyboards, moaning french horns, and lilting strings, and the mesmerizing package unveils a whole new way to appreciate this unique artistic vision that is getting better the more it wrinkles. Wilson McBee

1There’s an argument to be made that country music completely lost the plot in 2009, but Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, on their self-titled debut, did their damnedest to ensure that the genre retained at least a handful of meaningful ties to its history of soulful, intelligent explorations of working-class life in the contemporary South. JK

1It took a while for Hands to grow on me. I blame early comparisons to Madonna, which seemed completely unwarranted, and still do. Practically nothing on Little Boots’s debut recalls the Queen of Pop, but a slew of artists indebted to Madge—Kylie, Annie, etc.—come to mind. In fact, like Kylie, Little Boots (a.k.a. Victoria Hesketh) expertly struts, shimmies, and prances across three decades’ worth of dance music, at turns paying homage to Donna Summer (“Stuck on Repeat”), empty-calorie ’80s pop (“Earthquake”), and 21st-century electro-pop (“Click”) all within the span of an hour. The difference is that Hands is a better album than any Kylie has released this decade. SC

1Only A.C. Newman and El Perro del Mar rival the sincerity of feeling with which Rose City’s poignant, haunting lilts subsume the listener. Indeed, the catchy electro-rock-psychedelic pomp with which Viva Voce strums, coupled with the hushed vivacity of their vocals, may be described as a dream, but the mind-melting exuberance with which husband and wife Kevin and Anita Robinson’s musical approaches delicately intertwine can only be explained as an expression of profound love. EG

1Just about the only thing that doesn’t work about Revolution, the third straight knockout from Miranda Lambert, is its title. The album’s quality is hardly a surprise, given that Lambert has been mainstream country’s most compelling artist for five years running, and the record doesn’t revolutionize either her style or her fascinating, heady artistic persona so much as refine them. JK

1On their self-titled debut, the New Jersey beach bums in Real Estate make effortless lo-fi rock adequate to all manners of driftwood bonfires or secret sand-dune couplings. The guys in the band may buddy around with Vivian Girls and Titus Andronicus, but their sound evidences none of the shambolic fuzz those affiliations may connote, tending instead toward gentleness, open space, and hummable melodies. As translucent and unassumingly gorgeous as sea glass, Real Estate is one of 2009’s best new gems. WM

1After the proggish overdose of last year’s Arm’s Way, Islands’s head-man Nick Thorburn deep-sixed the entirety of his band and veered in a whole new direction for follow-up Vapours. The result was a stripped-down, synthy album that was no less tuneful or thought-provoking than its predecessor, but one that was oodles more fun. From the jaunty glam of the title track to the Auto-Tuned, tongue-in-cheek “Heartbeat,” Vapours proves that Thorburn remains an expert manipulator of pop-music structures. WM

1More than three years in the making, Cazwell finally dropped his first long player in 2009, and—comprised of most of the tracks from his 2006 EP Get Into It plus 14 new tracks and remixes—it’s magnum-sized. Putting a twist on hip-hop’s decades-long marriage to misogyny, Caz comes off like the gay answer to Eminem. Then again, the flow on “I Seen Beyoncé…” is more like the Fresh Prince. Indeed, the sound and spirit of the ’80s are a primary touchstone here, and aside from a few references to “rubbers,” Watch My Mouth manages to recapture the uninhibited sexuality and blissful ignorance of the era without being depressing.SC

1There is perhaps no other female artist than Neko Case who could cast herself as natural disasters, killer whales, glaciers, and other fierce phenomena and still produce an album as remarkably subtle as Middle Cyclone. Alternately cruel and gentle, Case runs through her nameless lovers with equal doses of frustration, spite, and grace, from the strangely sweet assault of “This Tornado Loves You” to the amble of “I’m an Animal” and the smoky, slithering “Prison Girls.” Through it all, the flame-haired, self-proclaimed terror maintains a beautifully violent poise, bragging about orphaning her victims, biting men in half, and finally, bowing to her audience in eloquent appreciation of their “gunpowder eyes.” KL

1It’s taken Mos Def more than 10 years to confirm that Black on Both Sides wasn’t a fluke. Though not without its missteps (the embarrassing Latin slumming of “No Hay Nada Mas”), The Ecstatic is almost as uncompromising as the singer’s debut in terms of thematic scope, bitterness and bittersweetness, and verbal brinkmanship. Mos Def delivers on the promise of the album’s title with one silken track after another (standouts include “Twilite Speedball” and “History” with Talib Kweli) devoted to making your head bop while also raising your consciousness. EG

1As half of the acclaimed duo the Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson challenges the conventions of dance music with her distorted vocals and macabre imagery. For her debut as Fever Ray, Andersson jettisons any concerns with rhythm and focuses instead on tension and tone. As her dense songs subsume both narrative voice and even her own physical voice, Fever Ray emerges as an unsettling, impossible-to-shake record that suggests the aftermath of when “pop” truly bursts. JK

1Still flying her freak flag, PJ Harvey sounds particularly liberated whenever paired with John Parish. Dance Hall at Louse Point, an underrated triumph in a near-perfect musical career, was a shriekingly subversive American gothic. A Woman a Man Walked By isn’t nearly as focused a vision, but whenever untethered from her instruments, PJ’s voice has a way of soaring in canny, spine-tingling directions (most memorably on “April”) you’d think no human voice could go. If Parish’s lyrics are pale imitations of PJ’s, her alternately chilling and amusing one-of-a-kind interpretations trick you into thinking otherwise. EG

Singles

My Girls

1Next to the Radiohead we know today, Animal Collective is the most overpraised indie act of the decade, but Merriweather Post Pavilion, whose existence would have been impossible without Panda Bear’s great Person Pitch, is something very close to a masterpiece, and “My Girls” is the jewel in its exquisite crown. The catchy production suggests a psychedelic skinny dip in a great beyond, but the lyrics are grounded in something recognizably real: a father and husband’s need—no, struggle—to simply provide (lyric of the year, blessedly sung by Mr. Bear: “I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls”). With “My Girls,” these hipsters start thinking outside their typically blinkered aesthetic and thematic sphere, getting universal and keeping their groove but also finding their soul. Ed Gonzalez

1Lady GaGa, “Poker Face”: I wanna roll with him, a hard pair we will be. I don’t give a crap about whales so go hug a tree! Eric Cartman

1Already the preferred soundtrack of steel-tinted car commercials everywhere, Phoenix’s “1901” features the perfect mixed dose of hyperactive pop and careless rock sensibility. The French quartet fills their punchy ditty with enough buzz-saw synths to carve right through headphone wires, and then adds to the bite by layering them with a thick coat of Thomas Mars’s plaintive vocals. The result is a highly marketable slice of post-punk heaven. KL

1Compared to previous Yeah Yeah Yeahs tracks like “Tick” and “Rich,” “Zero” sounds fangless. But any wistful remembrances of ragged past singles should be short lived: The explosive sure-shot of a middle eight here is better and more anthemic than any of 2009’s proper hooks. As for hooks, “What’s your name/No one’s going to ask you” proves that Karen O can still spit venom even when pulling off a Donna Summer disco strut. Jonathan Keefe

1Karen O is near-orgasmic as she screams the queenly refrain of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s “Heads Will Roll,” a blistering anthem of canned strings, unrelenting, clipped percussion pads, and plenty of milkshake-thick distortion. “Glitter on the wet streets/Silver over everything,” she sings against a flurry of convulsing melodies, intertwining her icy grace with a thumping drumfire and perfectly encapsulating the New York trio’s carefree glam posture. KL

1It certainly wasn’t the year’s only hip-hop single to view the repetitive, looped vocal hook of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” as some sort of perverse dare, but Major Lazer featuring Mr. Lexx and Santigold’s “Hold the Line” was the only such single to rise to Weezy’s challenge. But this isn’t just a matter of imitation, with Diplo and Switch filtering their trademark dancehall styles through the lens of Jamaican riddim and making an incendiary track that, as Santi suggests, vibrates like a Nokia. JK

1It was a banner year for mediocre, teetering-on-the-edge-of-blasé records—by Camera Obscura, the xx, Japandroids, Islands—with one or two great tracks on them, all over-praised by hungry tastemakers understandably wanting for something, anything, as rich as, say, Vampire Weekend. Like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s “Young Adult Fiction,” Grizzy Bear’s “Two Weeks” is a sterling odd-track-out in a sea of meticulously crafted saminess. It sours with a sly soulfulness of spirit—the band has an unmistakable gift for lending the simplest of romantic sentiments the weight of something almost holy—that suggests Grizzly Bear has a bright future if they choose to always, not just some of time, raise their hands to the heavens. EG

1More often than not, Camera Obscura songs are about falling out of love, but “French Navy” is a crush song in the proud tradition of sighing, scrawled-in-notebook infatuation. Its lyrics detail a chance meeting “by a silvery lake,” an awkward courtship, and that moment when, despite all her best efforts to stay grounded, singer Tracyanne Campbell falls head-over-heels in love. When that climax is reached, every horn and string in the Camera Obscura ensemble earns its keep, the tune’s jangly guitar lead giving way to an utterly splendid wall-of-sound finale. Matthew Cole

1Behold the rare instance of a wet-dream collaboration actually living up to its potential. Brooklyn art-rockers Dirty Projectors bring in David Byrne, the éminence grise of the New York scene, for “Knotty Pine,” a cut originally included on the for-charity Dark Was the Night compilation and so catchy it only needs one verse and a little over two minutes to make its point. Byrne and Amber Coffman trade licks at a typically convoluted DP melody made extra-delicious by a Talking Heads-ish guitar riff, minimalist drum kick, and one-handed piano flourish. Even if it’s not quite the indie-rock equivalent of the Britney-Madonna kiss, “Knotty Pine” is nevertheless a hell of a torch-passing. WM

1The doe-eyed infatuation that comes with any good “first love story,” the perfectly minimalist and precision-tuned hooks stacked back-to-back-to-back, the youthful exuberance that makes for indelible teen-pop: It’s these time-tested conventions that made Taylor Swift the pop star of 2009. But on “Gee,” battalion-sized K-Pop group Girls Generation takes Swift’s formula and raises it literally to the ninth power, making for one of the year’s purest and most maddeningly addictive pop singles. JK

1Bat for Lashes’s love-torn “Daniel” features all of the singer-songwriter’s dramatic charm to which we’ve grown accustomed, but it’s delivered in a decidedly sleeker, more accessible, and simultaneously modern and retro new-new wave package that would be as equally at home blasting from a boombox in the mid-’80s as it would playing over the “marble movie skies” of some late 21st-century film’s ending credits. Sal Cinquemani

1You can add Little Boots’s defiant, Kylie-esque “Remedy” to the long list of great dance floor-filling odes to the universal languages of movement and sound. Music might be the balm that heals all wounds, but here dancing is the tonic that keeps a toxic lover at bay. SC

1Righteous noise-rock riffing, stampeding drum fills, and only the best off-key caterwauls to grace any recent punk release are the simple ingredients that Japandroids turn into anthemic lo-fi glory on “Young Hearts Spark Fire.” Sure, there’s little surprise in hearing scruffy young dudes transmute their adolescent yearning into sing-along form. What is surprising is how long the hooks stay with you, how five minutes feel like two, how quickly your finger moves to the “repeat” button. MC

1Thanks to the ferocious and playful wit of Middle Cyclone as a whole, listeners probably won’t be able to tell if Neko Case is being figurative or literal when she bellows, “I’m a man eater/But still you’re surprised when I eat ya.” Amid a half-dozen animal metaphors and Case’s own sardonic sense of satisfaction, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” succeeds most of all because of its breezy, sing-along style, counterbalancing the morbid narrative with loose acoustic guitars and a bicycle-riding beat. That contrast lends lyrics such as “It will end again in bullets, friend”—and, ultimately, the song itself—a blithe charm. Kevin Liedel

1The show itself may have struggled to find the proper balance between of-the-moment sincerity and Election-inspired snark, but the Glee cast recording of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” carried by Broadway vet Lea Michele’s air-raid siren of a voice, hits its mark with precision. It demonstrates both an ironic pop-culture awareness, reclaiming the evergreen Journey hit from The Sopranos’s stunt performance sendoff, and a wide-eyed earnestness, casting its Show Choir geek squad as the year’s most compelling underdogs. JK

1Jazmine Sullivan has a refreshing, albeit near-pathological, allegiance to truth. Her debut, Fearless, is filled with songs like “Lions, Tigers & Bears,” on which she admits that loving someone is more frightening than performing to a sold-out crowd. Said like a superstar. And there’s no excuse for why she isn’t one yet. SC

1Reflections on the soul-crush of celebrity are a particularly risible strain of pop music, but Patrick Wolf brings a deliriously virtuostic sense of camp to his music that tempers the inherent whininess of his gripes. Throughout “Vulture,” Wolf is tired, dead tired, blurring the line between performer and consumer with evocative lyrical imagery and thrilling electronic flourishes that suggest a nosedive into an abyss. This drama queen has a massive ego (for proof, see—or, rather, don’t see—the embarrassing Brüno-meets-Conan the Barbarian music video), but with “Vulture,” he not only tells you as much, he shows you his bleeding guts in the process. EG

1Easily Daniel Rossen’s finest turn on lead vocals for Grizzly Bear, “While You Wait for the Others” is a giant swooning volley of angst. With only an abrasive guitar figure, some subdued organ noodles, and an unobtrusive rhythm section beneath them, the voices of Grizzly Bear do all work here, and what work it is. If and when all the current Beach Boys adulation and re-imagining grows stale, I’m sure “While You Wait” will stand as one of the highlights of the movement. Wilson McBee

1Though her previous and subsequent singles failed to crack the Top 10, Timbaland protégé Keri Hilson TKO’ed the competition with “Knock You Down.” Thanks to a sugarcoated hook, Kanye guest spot, and nod to Michael Jackson, even the song’s tacky domestic abuse metaphor couldn’t keep it down for long. SC

1Islands” is climb-up, climb-down pop, and perhaps xx’s sweetest and most demure piece. Bursting out the gate with the trickles of muted guitar and The xx’s unadorned drum programming, the track bounces along in a bittersweet gait, allowing Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim to elevate a disconnected duet and coo their lovers’ thoughts in a gentle, sleepy drawl. KL

1Wavves’s “No Hope Kids” is further evidence that rock n’ roll will never tire of wasted-youth anthems. This particular ode to the gutter comes thundering out of Nathan Williams’s San Diego bedroom, a primitive squall of guitar feedback and bled-together vocals proclaiming, “Got no car, got no money/Got nothin’, nothin’, nothin’, not at all,” and, rather poignantly, that “no hope kids are bruised.” Bruised, hopeless, fearless: “No Hope Kids” thrives on the secret shard of youth that even the oldest among us still feels. WM

1Oh My God” belongs somewhere between the jilted ex-lover’s rock of Alanis Morissette and the full-on hellcat confessions of Courtney Love. Not only does Ida Maria nail the intersection of manic and tuneful, she does so with a sense of vulnerability that’s totally unaffected and refreshingly raw. Next to “I Love You,” “Oh My God” could be the three most heard words in pop music, but every time Ida Maria lets them slip they feel like a punch to the gut. MC

1With its plodding 4/4 beat, catchy refrain, and just-strained-enough-to-be-beautiful vocal, the first single from Alicia Keys’s new album, the decidedly vanilla “Doesn’t Mean Anything,” followed the blueprint of her hit “No One,” but it received an appropriately tepid response. The follow-up, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” is a less literal attempt to repeat the style of “No One” and it succeeds wildly: Keys’s production choices (clunky hip-hop beat, ’80s synths flourishes) are a focal point, but it’s her vocal performance (namely those breathy, Prince-esque verses) that, once again, makes the song. SC

1Passion Pit’s big breakthrough, “Sleepyhead,” was an understated electro-pop gem, but there’s absolutely nothing subtle about “Little Secrets.” Michael Angelakos takes his vocals into the helium range, while synths, strings, and yes, a children’s choir, all jockey to have the song’s biggest hook. The band’s rhythm section wisely cuts the sweet stuff with some snarling bass and a pumping, clattering drum section—just enough swagger to balance out all of the major-key swooning. MC

1The latest victim of Kanye’s on-fire feature barrage, Clipse’s “Kinda Like a Big Deal” keeps the Virginia coke-rappers relevant even if they have nothing really to do with the song’s success. Because even with the Thornton brothers comporting themselves with relative dignity, the real stars are West’s scene-stealing classclown routine (“Meet Ye’ alligator souffle, had it made/Special Ed got head from a girl in special ed”) and DJ Khalil’s squawking, rock-infused beat. WM

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Awards

2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions

How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.

Picture

Vice

There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.

Will Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born, and Vice

Closest Runners-Up: If Beale Street Could Talk and A Quiet Place

Should Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Burning, First Reformed, Let the Sunshine In, and Zama

Best Director

Yorgos Lanthimos

Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.

Will Be Nominated: Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Peter Farrelly (Green Book), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)

Closest Runners-Up: Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), and Adam McKay (Vice)

Should Be Nominated: Lee Chang-dong (Burning), Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), and Paul Schrader (First Reformed)

Best Actress

Yalitza Aparicio

Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.

Will Be Nominated: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Glenn Close (The Wife), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Closest Runners-Up: Toni Collette (Hereditary), Viola Davis (Widows), and Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade)

Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Actor

John David Washington

Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.

Will Be Nominated: Christian Bale (Vice), Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book), and John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)

Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)

Should Be Nominated: Yoo Ah-in (Burning), Ben Foster (Leave No Trace), Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), Meinhard Neumann (Western), and John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)

Supporting Actress

Emily Blunt

Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.

Will Be Nominated: Amy Adams (Vice), Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Emma Stone (The Favourite), and Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Closest Runners-Up: Claire Foy (First Man), Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased), and Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots)

Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)

Supporting Actor

Timothée Chalamet

The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.

Will Be Nominated: Mahershala Ali (Green Book), Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Closest Runners-Up: Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) and Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Should Be Nominated: Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Hugh Grant (Paddington 2); Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Steven Yeun (Burning)

Adapted Screenplay

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.

Will Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Death of Stalin, If Beale Street Could Talk, and A Star Is Born

Closest Runners-Up: Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and First Man

Should Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, First Man, Leave No Trace, The Grief of Others, and We the Animals

Original Screenplay

First Reformed

It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.

Will Be Nominated: The Favourite, First Reformed, Green Book, Roma, and Vice

Closest Runners-Up: Cold War, Eighth Grade, and Sorry to Bother You

Should Be Nominated: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Bodied, First Reformed, Sorry to Bother You, and Western

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Features

The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018

The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use, the power we wield, and the places we carve out for ourselves.

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The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
Photo: YouTube

The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use (“Vince Staples’s “Fun!”), the power we wield (the Carters’ “Apeshit”), and the places we carve out for ourselves (“Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over”). They also acknowledge the state of the world, from systemic racism (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”) to institutional corruption (Jack White’s “Corporation”). Notably, a clear majority of the videos on our list were created by or for artists of color, whose stories serve as an act of resistance against a racist regime. The year in music video wasn’t all gloom and doom, though, as both identity and resistance manifested in profoundly joyous ways in Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” and Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm.” And Bruno Mars and Migos embraced playful, nostalgic visions of the past—though it’s hard not to question whether even those ostensibly frivolous throwbacks are rooted in self-care and a need to romanticize a seemingly simpler time. Sal Cinquemani

20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”

There are no guns or mass shootings in the clip for Prince’s posthumously released “Mary Don’t You Weep,” but their absence isn’t conspicuous. Gun violence is, more than anything else, about the aftermath—the loss, the grief, the haunted lives left in the wake of a fleeting shot. Amid politicians’ perpetual handwringing over when the “right” time is to talk about solutions to this epidemic, Salomon Ligthelm’s exquisitely lensed video testifies to the notion that, at least for tens of thousands of Americans this year, it’s already too late. Cinquemani


19. Rosalía, “Malamente”

Barcelona-based collective Canada marries the traditional with the modern—as in an eye-popping freeze-frame of a bullfighter facing off with a motorcycle—in this spirited music video for Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s flamenco-inspired hit “Malamente.” Alexa Camp


18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”

The music video for Ariana Grande’s sultry, subtly reggae-infused slow jam “God Is a Woman” finds the pop princess bathing in a milky swirl of vaginal water colors, fingering the eye of a hurricane, and deflecting misogynist epithets, a visual embodiment of her declaration that “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing/And he sees the universe when I’m in company/It’s all in me.” Directed by Dave Meyers, the video mixes animation, digital eye candy, and references to classical artwork, as well as a few WTF moments, like a set piece in which a group of moles emerge from their holes and scream bloody murder. Pointed metaphors abound, from scenes of Grande walking a tightrope to literally breaking a glass ceiling. At one point, pop’s original feminist queen, Madonna, makes a cameo reciting the Old Testament by way of Pulp Fiction—with her own characteristic twist, of course, swapping “brothers” for “sisters.” Cinquemani


17. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix)”

Bruno Mars directed the video for “Finesse” himself, and its note-perfect homage to the opening sequence of In Living Color shows him to be as adept a visual pastiche artist as he is a musical one. As with the song, however, it’s guest Cardi B who steals the show, dominating every second she’s on camera as the flyest of Fly Girls in tube socks, cutoffs, and larger-than-life hoop earrings. Zachary Hoskins


16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”

Featuring masterful performances by Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn, LCD Soundsystem’s “Oh Baby” is a stirring saga of lovers venturing into the unknown. Directed by Rian Johnson, the video follows an aging couple who build a set of strange, inter-dimensional doorways. Enter one, and you can exit out of the other, but it’s never clear what reality exists between them. Simple, cinematic, and heart-wrenching, the clip is the perfect accompaniment for James Murphy’s ponderous, uplifting electro-pop. Paired together, Spacek and Strathairn convey love’s capacity to obliterate all barriers: loneliness, old age, even death. Pryor Stroud


15. Migos featuring Drake, “Walk It Talk It”

Migos’s “Walk It Talk It” takes place on a fictional television program called Culture Ride—a clear homage to the iconic show Soul Train. This isn’t the first music video to conceptually riff on the vintage variety show format; both OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and the Strokes’s “Last Nite” are set in Ed Sullivan Show-style sound stages. But the video is still a triumph of flashy, vintage style. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff surround themselves with dancing spectators and major stars, notably Jamie Foxx and Drake, all of whom are transfixed by the music they’re hearing. And just as they are today, Migos is the center of attention. Stroud


14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”

Yes, those really are Azealia Banks’s nipples. At least according to the New York singer-rapper-lightning-rod’s perennially deleted Twitter account. But the music video for Banks’s single “Anna Wintour” is striking not just because of the artist’s ample bosom. Directed by Matt Sukkar, the clip was filmed in an empty warehouse using understated faux-natural lighting, an apt visual milieu for Banks’s declaration of independence: “As the valley fills with darkness, shadows chase and run around…I’ll be better off alone, I’ll walk at my own pace.” Shots of a scantily clad Banks strutting on a metal catwalk, posing in a full-length mirror, and striking a pose in front of a backlit gate pay homage to Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” an iconic video by another female artist who was once determined to assert control. Camp


13. Flasher, “Material”

The internet has rendered media consumption so isolating that it takes a work of profound ingenuity to remind us that art is inherently a shared experience—even if that experience is one of infuriating data buffering, inescapable clickbait, and micro-targeted advertising. Directed by Nick Roney, Flasher’s meta visual for “Material” proves that YouTube has become so engrained in the fabric of modern life that the simple action of clicking out of a pop-up advertisement is now part of our brains’ cache of muscle memory. Though the video isn’t actually interactive, you just might find yourself unconsciously reaching to take control of what’s happening on your screen. Cinquemani


12. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”

The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Camp


11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”

One of the most ambitious music video projects of the year, “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Hoskins


10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”

Every segment of the “emotion picture” released by Janelle Monáe to accompany her third album Dirty Computer is visually striking and thematically rich in its own way. But it’s the segment for lead single “Make Me Feel” that arguably stands best on its own. Directed by Monáe’s longtime collaborator Alan Ferguson, the video features the singer and 2018 It-girl Tessa Thompson at what may be the year’s coolest party captured on screen. Widely viewed as a coming-out moment for Monáe—her pansexuality is dramatized in her interactions with both Thompson and co-star Jayson Aaron—the clip is rife with references to two recently canonized icons of sexual fluidity, Prince and David Bowie. Monáe’s choreography with Thompson and Aaron echoes Prince’s with dancer Monique Mannen in the video for “Kiss,” while the dynamic of a bold, flamboyant alter ego performing for the singer’s more reserved self is borrowed from Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” As with her music, however, Monáe is capable of wearing these influences on her sleeve (and her silver bikini top) while still making them wholly her own. Hoskins


9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”

The music video for R&B legend Chaka Khan’s first single in five years giddily foregrounds a multiplicity of black bodies via vibrant, kinetic montage. The joyous clip represents a celebration of identity and persistence in the face of adversity, a thread that shoots through many of the year’s best videos. Camp


8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”

The music video has always sat at an awkward intersection of art and commerce, having originated as short film clips serving quite literally as “promos” for new singles. It’s thus only a little strange that Spike Jonze’s video for Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over” isn’t a conventional one at all, but rather an extended commercial for Apple’s HomePod smart device. In the short vignette, FKA Twigs comes home from a long work day and asks Siri to play something she’d like. After a few seconds of .Paak’s voice coming out of her HomePod speakers, she discovers that her dancing can make the physical properties of her apartment stretch and shift. Both the simple, human joy of Twigs’s movements and the technical wizardry of the expanding room are so arresting that you’ll almost forget you’re being sold something. Hoskins


7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”

The album cover for Travis Scott’s Astroworld painted a vivid picture of the eponymous theme park as a psychedelic, vaguely sinister landscape, dominated by a giant inflatable model of Scott’s head and decidedly not to be confused with the real-life (and long-defunct) Six Flags AstroWorld. But it’s the video for single “Sicko Mode,” directed by Dave Meyers, that really brings the place to life, turning the bleak landscape of Houston’s inner city into a post-apocalyptic playground of talking train graffiti and video vixens on bicycles while Scott rides past a prowling police cruiser on horseback. Much like the multi-part song, the clip isn’t cohesive, as the scenes during Drake’s guest verse almost seem to be cut in from an entirely different video. But the abundance of bizarre imagery, both menacing and absurd, ensures that it’s never boring. Hoskins


6. A$AP Rocky featuring Moby, “A$AP Forever”

The camera is the star of Dexter Navy’s video for “A$AP Forever”: whirling in dizzy circles above A$AP Rocky’s head and pulling in and out of a seemingly endless series of television monitors, street signs, smartphone screens, and other images within images. In the final sequence, the camera moves one last time into Rocky’s eyeball, revealing a reflected image of the rapper rotating in an anti-gravity chamber. Also, Moby is there. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but the trippy effect is a perfect complement to the strain of 21st-century psychedelia in Rocky’s music. Hoskins


5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”

Directed by Calmatic, the video for Vince Staples’s “Fun!” is both an astute condemnation of racial tourism and a (perhaps unintentional) auto-critique of hip-hop’s exportation of the black experience to middle America. Like Flasher’s “Material,” it’s also a bleak commentary on the ways technology—in this case, satellite mapping—has simultaneously united and divided the human race. Cinquemani


4. Jack White, “Corporation”

Jack White’s “Corporation” is just as oblique, ambitious, and political as the artist himself. Over the course of seven minutes, a series of surreal, seemingly disjointed events occur: a cowboy puts on lipstick, a rave starts in a diner, a little boy steals a car. By the end, you learn that all of the characters are simply different manifestations of White himself, revealing the alt-blues pioneer as someone we already knew him to be: a complex, multifaceted artist whose neuroses are intimately tied to his genius. Stroud


3. Kali Uchis featuring Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”

Like the contemporary surrealist photos of its director, Nadia Lee Cohen, the video for “After the Storm” pairs a rich Technicolor palette with a playfully elastic approach to everyday banality: bringing P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins to (animated) life as a cereal box mascot and making rapper Tyler, the Creator grow from a garden like a literal “Flower Boy.” That these whimsical images appear alongside shots of singer Kali Uchis, dolled up in mid-century attire and staring blankly into the distance, suggest that they’re meant to dramatize the daydreams of a bored 1950s suburbanite. This makes the video’s final image, of Uchis and a fully sprouted Tyler acting out an idyllic nuclear family scene while their own disembodied Chia-pet heads look on from the window, as vaguely disquieting as it is humorous. Hoskins


2. The Carters, “Apeshit”

The Carters’s Everything Is Love may not have achieved the same cultural ubiquity as Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, or Jay-Z’s 4:44, but it spawned one of the year’s most poignant videos. In “Apeshit,” the power couple performs in a vacant Louvre, commandeering the world’s most famous museum without breaking a sweat. It’s a radical testament to their influence as artists, business people, and political players, as well as a bold statement about the overlooked primacy of blackness in the Western canon. Stroud


1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

Surprise-released to coincide with Donald Glover’s double duty as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live in May, the provocative video for “This Is America” was already inspiring breathless think pieces by the following morning. Directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s principal collaborator on FX’s Atlanta, “This Is America” shares with many of that show’s best episodes a knack for getting under viewers’ skins, presenting highly charged images with just enough ambiguity to encourage social media reactions of the “WTF did I just watch” variety. But if the last seven months of critical dissection and memetic recycling have inevitably dulled some of its shock value—and, by extension, its power as a political statement—the video remains an astounding artistic achievement. In a series of long shots cleverly disguised as one uninterrupted take, Glover pulls dances and faces from the intertwined traditions of pop culture and minstrelsy, seamlessly juxtaposed with eruptions of sudden, graphic gun violence. In both extremes, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him—which is, of course, the point. Like the never-ending train wreck that is American history itself, “This is America” offers entertainment and grotesquerie in equal measure. Hoskins


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The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary.

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The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This year offered a feast of cinematic acting that pivoted on surprise, in terms of unconventional casting that allowed performers to add new shades to their established personas, as well as in blistering work by newcomers. These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary, shattering the banality of expectation to elaborate on universal feelings that are too easily submerged by us on our day-to-day toils. Which is to say that the finest film acting of 2018 was less indebted to the representational “realism” that often wins awards than to fashioning a bold kind of behavioral expressionism. Like many of their filmmaker collaborators, these actors are master stylists. Chuck Bowen
 

The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Sakura Ando, Shoplifters

As Nobuyo, the default “mother” of an informal family of hustlers on the margins of present-day Tokyo, Sakura Ando enriches Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle social drama with her bracing articulation of her character’s self-discovery. Nobuya’s melodramatic arc—a woman with dark secrets whose hard-won redemption is inevitably undone by higher forces—culminates in an agonizing one-shot unraveling, but what makes her fate so devastating is the sense of surprise and liberation that Ando brings to Nobuya’s acceptance of new responsibilities, passions, and her own self-worth. Christopher Gray


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In

For all of her versatility, Juliette Binoche has never particularly been noted for her comic skills, but she displays a subtle wit as the middle-aged and single Isabelle in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, often dismissing petulant, needy men with scarcely more than a mocking glance or a passive-aggressive comment. Binoche truly shines, though, in scenes that play up Isabelle’s feelings of panic and loneliness over having to date again, such as when Isabelle reminisces about her ex-husband and, in the process, a whole panoply of emotions, including resentment and wistfulness, flit anxiously across the actress’s face. Most moving of all is the outright panic that Isabelle betrays when a wonderful date urges her to take things slowly, triggering an existential attack over her perceived lack of time to find another partner so late in life. Jake Cole


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Emily Browning, Golden Exits

Golden Exits sustains a lingering aura of futility that’s counterweighted by the film’s beauty and by the exhilaration of seeing Alex Ross Perry realize his vast ambitions, as he’s made a modern film about relationships and social constrictions that clears the bar set by the work of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Perry also ultimately empathizes with Naomi, who’s paradoxically diminished by her status as the narrative’s center of attention. Regarded by her American acquaintances as a barometer of their own personal failures, Naomi is never truly noticed. She’s the gorgeous woman as specter, played by Emily Browning with an ambiguity that carries a heartbreaking suggestion: that Naomi’s unknowable because no one wishes to know her. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Nicolas Cage, Mandy

Mandy‘s smorgasbord of indulgences is held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Toni Collette, Hereditary

Flashes of insanity and malaise factor into Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, yet Annie cannot be defined by such traits often linked to the trope of a hysterical woman. Instead, Collette’s glares of frustration suggest a world of complicated emotions that extend well beyond pain. Terror and intense focus become indecipherable in Collette’s eyes as Annie, a diorama artist, is torn from her profession by conspiring forces, making the film’s outcome feel even more like a cross between a cruel joke and a rebuke of society’s stacking the deck through maternal guilt and shame against Annie’s aspiring career. Clayton Dillard


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

As Queen Anne and her rival sycophants, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, respectively, establish a delicious series of manipulative, barbarous, and poignant emotional cross-currents throughout The Favourite. Stone and Weisz verbally parry and thrust at lightning speed, one-upping one another in an escalating series of duels that inspire the actresses to give among the finest performances of their careers, while Colman expertly operates at a slower, daringly draggy and exposed speed, painting a portrait of a woman imprisoned by entitlement. Collectively, this superb acting also achieves the near miraculous feat of rendering a Yorgos Lanthimos film authentically human. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built

It’s no secret that Jack (Matt Dillon), the viciously misogynistic serial killer at the heart of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, is at least partially a stand-in for the director himself, and the genius of Dillon’s interpretation of the character is that he never seems to be sucking up to the man who created it. He plays Jack as ruthless, self-pitying, and disturbingly empty—Hannibal Lecter without the wit or charm. No mere pawn of the Danish provocateur’s autocritical schema, Dillon both deepens and challenges von Trier’s intended self-portraiture with the uncanny blankness of his performance, creating in the process an absolutely chilling embodiment of evil. Keith Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Adam Driver, BlackKklansman

Though BlackKklansman was marketed as the story of an African-American police officer impersonating a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, it also concerns a Jewish cop’s efforts to do the same by offering a white face to accompany a vocal charade. As said cop, Flip Zimmerman, Adam Driver deliriously plumbs head-first into a disturbing irony, acknowledging the catharses that can be had by indulging in disgusting epithets secretly at one’s own expense. Or, simply: Flip insults himself, and those close to him, and Driver elucidates the character’s disgust as well as the weird spiritual purging that can occur by indulging one’s basest instincts. One of America’s best and most sensitive actors offers perhaps his finest portrait yet of a soul twisted in contradictory knots. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

It’s a testament to the authenticity of Elsie Fisher’s performance in Eighth Grade that you’d never have guessed she’d been in front of a camera before, much less that she’s been acting consistently for years. As Kayla, the awkward, unpopular tween protagonist of Bo Burnham’s film, Fisher infuses every stammered “umm” and stumbling “like” with a palpable sense of self-loathing and social anxiety. For anyone who ever felt like Kayla in middle school, Fisher’s painfully real performance is liable to induce PTSD. Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace

Finally shedding his tick-laden parlor games, Ben Foster comes to life as an actor, connecting with Will and giving him a fearful thickness of being that’s only occasionally leavened by Tom, whom Thomasin McKenzie invests with the trembling, negotiating intelligence of an unformed prodigy. Will and Tom and Foster and McKenzie’s energies are beautifully in and out of sync, simultaneously. Foster confidently cedes the film to McKenzie, which parallels Will’s gradual relinquishing of authority to Tom. Both characters know that it’s unfair to expect Tom to inherit Will’s alienation, as she has the right to give this potentially doomed society a chance, to fight for it as well as herself. In Leave No Trace‘s heartbreaking climax, a relationship dies so that an individual, and maybe even a society, may be reborn. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Hugh Grant, Paddington 2

Hugh Grant may well be more cartoonish than the animated bear protagonist of Paddington 2. As the film’s villain, a has-been thespian with the world’s most convoluted scheme to finance a one-man show, Grant can scarcely utter a syllable without throwing his head back and exclaiming it to the rafters, and the actor’s body language—a series of shocked gasps, wild-eyed stares, and manic grins—is similarly absurd. As Phoenix dons a series of ever-more elaborate disguises throughout the film, Grant’s acting somehow gets even broader, resulting in a work of giddy panto and one of the finest comic performances in recent memory. Cole


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Regina Hall, Support the Girls

It’s not often that we see decency and level-headedness radiated on screen as convincingly as it is by Regina Hall in Support the Girls, much less a film centered around such a performance. As Lisa, a put-upon restaurant manager enduring a particularly hectic day on the job, Hall suppresses the comic histrionics that she’s become known for in mainstream comedy movies in order to inhabit the delicate naturalism that writer-director Andrew Bujalski consistently cultivates in his casts. Slipping into this mode with grace, the actress conveys the sheer exhaustion and frustration of nine-to-five existence with just the subtlest of disruptions to an exterior of buttoned-up professionalism. Carson Lund


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

As the great blackness of night swoops in, we reach for assurances of “the everlasting arms,” as sung about in First Reformed‘s concluding hymnal. Ethan Hawke’s staggering performance is one of Ecclesiastian sympathy, with watchful longing and hungry silences in between reminders of Toller’s own impotence to change the world. The man’s face suggests a tragic predicament that the only ark to save us from an impending flood is in our illusions. Niles Schwartz


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Nearly every actor in the Coen brothers’ newest anti-western is remarkable, but Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are particularly heartbreaking, partly because the audience has been so expertly rendered vulnerable to the vignette in which they appear. By the time that we get to “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’ve seen so much brutality and cynicism that we’re hardened for more of the same only to encounter tenderness. As potential lovers who never get to be, Kazan and Heck dramatize the unmooring vulnerability of feeling attraction just when you suspect that you’ve aged out of it, informing the Coens’ florid, beautiful dialogue with trembling pathos. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk

For this critic, the lovers at the center of Barry Jenkins’s newest parable of racism are too gorgeous, primped, fawning, symbolic, metaphorical, and seemingly straight out of a coffee-table book. As a man recently out of prison after serving a stretch he didn’t deserve, Brian Tyree Henry does for If Beale Street Could Talk what he did for Widows and continues to do for Atlanta: informing potentially self-conscious conceits with a jolting burst of common-sense machismo. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s most haunting scene is a monologue that’s hypnotically uttered by Tyree, allowing this film, for a few minutes, to actually capture the brutal poetry of the James Baldwin novel that inspired it. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline

The center of a film about commitment and disassociation, Helena Howard’s Madeline evidently relishes the opportunity to change identities in the blink of an eye. Director Josephine Decker contrasts the aspiring actress’s easy mastery of improv exercises with Madeline’s harried life outside of rehearsal, where she’s regularly manipulated by her mother and an overeager director as she struggles to control her mental illness. Decker’s film is willfully alienating in its commitment to Madeline’s tortured interiority, but Howard steers it with an undeniable power and confidence, making Madeline’s rootless chaos feel entirely legible. Gray


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf

Werewolf belongs to the extraordinary Bhreagh MacNeil. The film derives quite a bit of its power from allowing Vanessa to unceremoniously wrest the spotlight away from Blaise (Andrew Gillis), a lost and bitter man whose quest for recovery is probably hopeless. MacNeil doesn’t project Vanessa’s determination in a manner that’s familiar to rehabilitation fables, but rather physically embodies it, and McKenzie doesn’t mar her with any screenwriterly speeches. We see Vanessa’s strength in the steel of her eyes, in her willingness to ask family for help, and in her ability to get a thankless job at an old-fashioned burger and soft-serve ice cream joint, in which she grinds imitation Oreo cookies into pieces with a machine that resembles a sausage grinder. The fierceness with which Vanessa grinds these cookies—or attempts to master an ice cream machine that resembles a liquid methadone dispenser—is haunting. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Rachel McAdams, Disobedience

Esti (Rachel McAdams), at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion. Ed Gonzalez


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The pairing of Melissa McCarthy, a Hollywood A-lister, with Richard E. Grant, a sublime arthouse presence, is one of the most invigorating surprises of this year’s cinema. McCarthy avoids the pitfall of comic actors appearing in unusually dramatic material. Rather than restricting her emotional catalogue to a few grim gestures of purposefulness, McCarthy expands her repertoire, elaborating on the sadness that’s inherent in even her blockbuster roles—a sadness that also fuels her comic virtuosity. And Grant is complicit with McCarthy’s tonal dexterity in every way. Together they offer an irresistible portrait of a bittersweet paradox of companionable alienation. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits

The Land of Steady Habits benefits enormously from the casting of Ben Mendelsohn as an unexceptionally tormented upper-middle-class guy. Here, the actor submerges the aggression that’s often closer to the surface of his sleazy villain roles, giving Anders a mysterious internal tension that’s compelling and often funny. When writer-director Nicole Holofcener follows Anders around as he drifts in and out of the lives of Helene (Edie Falco) and his grown son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and their various friends, the film has a free-associational piquancy. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jason Mitchell, Tyrel

Sebastián Silva tasks Jason Mitchell with carrying the weight of Tyrel on the actor’s face; he’s asked to project toughness in reaction shots to aggressions both micro and macro from Tyler’s white bros, then later vulnerability as he steals away for moments of quietude to escape the ambiguous pain of social discomfort. While the scenario and performance is comparable to that of Daniel Kaluuya’s in Get Out, Mitchell’s Tyler isn’t given a catharsis of violent retribution. Mitchell’s expressions and gestures convey the betrayal of a daily life that never lets Tyler feel at ease, let alone at home. Dillard


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?

Michelle Pfeiffer’s ferociously vulnerable and intelligent performance elucidates the pain, resentment, and fear that springs from escalating disappointment. Pfeiffer informs Kyra with a fragile mixture of empathy and rage, which is particularly on display when Kyra cares for her mother, Ruth, who’s played by Suzanne Shepard with a wily and commanding dignity. Kyra is understood by Pfeiffer to be taking qualified pleasure in her own effacement, as it implies an escape from a world that has rejected her. Early in the film, we see Kyra preparing a bath for Ruth, and a mirror fashions a prism in which mother and daughter are cordoned off from one another yet simultaneously visible, evoking the punishing intimacy, and the comfort, of caring for a dependent. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Meinhard Neumann, Western

Casting is everything, the saying goes, but that’s especially true when filmmakers elect to use nonprofessionals, in which case ineffable factors such as “presence” and “authenticity” become paramount. Meinhard Neumann, the grizzled, mustachioed brooder at the center of Western who director Valeska Grisebach came across on a whim at a horse market, has these qualities in spades, in addition to a seemingly preternatural capacity for playing to Grisebach’s roving handheld camera and finding his light. His taciturn, repressed Meinhard doesn’t have a wide expressive range, but when the character does undergo a few emotional breakthroughs in the latter half of the film, Neumann seems to be genuinely accessing reserves of pain and regret deep within himself. Lund


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jesse Plemons, Game Night

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein assembled one of the strongest comedic ensembles in recent memory for Game Night, but a single performer still managed to steal the show: Jesse Plemons as the weirdo Gary, a sad-sack cop with a broken heart whose self-pitying glumness could ruin anyone’s vibe. Pitched perfectly at the intersection of creepiness and pathos, Plemons earns big laughs without really seeming to try. The hilarity arises instead from his expertly discomfiting embodiment of one of those off-putting personality types we’ve all unfortunately encountered: the guy you feel bad for but desperately want to get away from as fast as humanly possible. Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Steven Yeun, Burning

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is driven by a central mystery of purpose. To what genre does this film belong? Is it a horror film, a romantic triangle, a class critique, or a beguiling fusion of all of the above? Much of this mystery is embodied by Steven Yeun’s performance as a rich smoothie who’s far more appealing than the floundering hero, which strikes up a crisis in the audience’s empathy that resonates with our romantic preferences in real life. Turns out there’s a reason that confident people get all the lovers, because they are, well, confident. Yet Yeun laces his sexiness with the subtlest tint of passive aggression, so subtle that one wonders if it’s even there, investing Burning with a fleeting malignancy that’s worthy of Claude Chabrol. Bowen


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