I don’t want to overstate the case for our new decade’s first breakout star, but I can’t help hearing 2010’s pop music—at its schlockiest and its most inspired—in terms of the Gaga Effect. On the one hand, opportunistic label hacks interpreted the Gaga phenomenon as a call to the dance floor—specifically, the dance floor of a trashy European discotheque, possibly located in Paris or Berlin, but more likely stashed away in the coke-addled collective memory of the 1980s. Everyone from Christina to Usher to Ke$ha tried to cash in with their own bombastic club records, but anyone who thought that manufacturing “the next Gaga” was as easy as stacking synths behind their pop star of choice was mistaken. Gaga wasn’t challenging her fellow musicians to a dance-off, she was challenging them to get smarter, get stranger, and go for bigger hooks and concepts.
Take Robyn and Kanye West, who between them fill one-fifth of the spots our singles list. Their ambitious brands of pop auteurism predate Gaga considerably (you can see both of their faces on Slant’s Best of 2008 list), but it’s also easy to see each of them reworking their craft for maximum impact on the pop landscape she defined. If Gaga can drop a killer eight-song EP that hits harder than her full-length, then why shouldn’t Robyn drop three? If Gaga can do a nine-minute art film for “Alejandro,” then what should stop Kanye from producing his own 35-minute “Runaway” video?
Still, not all praises are due to Gaga, whose own success owes to a confluence of forces that always make for great pop, and all over the year’s musical map those same qualities continued to yield great rewards. You want dance music that’s not afraid to push boundaries? Hot Chip, Crystal Castles, and La Roux had you covered. You want to see artists toe the line between novelty and instant classic? Look no further than Cee-Lo and Gorillaz. You want ambition? Check out Sade and Hanson, who no one thought would be relevant in 2010, but here they are, doing some of the best work of their careers by trying their hands, respectively, at trip-hop and power-pop.
And if there was ever a year where we needed pop to do its exhilarating best, 2010 was it. Beyond escapism, pop music provided the brainpower, the emotional nuance, and most of all, the vision that the rest of the country, particularly in the political arena, lacked. Though we always count on pop music to give us what we want, the best pop is just as capable of giving us what we need. Matthew Cole
Editor’s Note: Check out our list of the 25 Best Albums of 2010.
25. The Drums, “Let’s Go Surfing”
Jonathan Pierce and his bandmates are gifted, bittersweet nerds, reinvigorating the old Weezer-esque image of geeky high schoolers caught between unrequited romance and suburb-driven escapism. “Let’s Go Surfing” is “Surf Wax America” for a new generation, its whistled melody line and hair-thin accompaniments somehow heavier and more meaningful than they seem at first listen. Pierce’s sly, beckoning vocals hold the barest hint of angst during the verse, only to explode into a ludicrously worded, strangely melancholy chorus of “Mama, I wanna go surfing/Oh, Mama, I don’t care about nothing” Even when breaking down into the simple but oh-so-catchy refrains of a popular jump-rope sing-along, the Drums evokes a savvy mix of tongue-in-cheek melodrama and genuine wistfulness. Never has a surfing-based song been filled with so much wry—and oddly satisfying—despair. Kevin Liedel
24. Laurie Anderson, “Only an Expert”
Laurie Anderson, like William S. Burroughs and the makers of Pontypool, considers language a virus. This is why her voice on Homeland, an album steeped in confusion and dotted with lacerating humor, is often made to sound diseased. Perhaps its most indelible track, “Only an Expert” is a scathing amalgamation of observations about climate change, the shithole of war, our obsession with Oprah Winfrey, and our alarmist’s populace’s subservience to corporate interests. The borderline-cat-lady kookiness is alleviated by Anderson’s customary wit and fondness for BPM. This is dance music for people barely getting by. Ed Gonzalez
23. Drake f/ T.I. and Swizz Beatz, “Fancy”
Like T.I., who offers a guest verse on Thank Me Later‘s fourth single, Drake’s popularity undoubtedly owes some credit to his broadly appealing good looks. But songs like “Fancy” offer a look into an artist with a careful eye for the kind of niceties that most rappers ignore. Too often that perceptiveness is directed inward, hamstringing his songs by picking at his insecurities; here it’s pitched toward the insecurities of others, a conceit that’s more interesting and leaves more room for specific detail. Using a woman’s mirror ritual as a window into her soul, the song paints a complex personal character portrait that finds a neat abstract in its hook and is equal parts teasing and admiring. Jesse Cataldo
22. Japandroids, “Younger Us”
Japandroids put out a couple singles this year. Of the two, “Art Czars” actually pushed their sound and thematic concerns forward a bit, while “Younger Us” provided a roundly un-progressive example of Japandroids doing the two things they do best: slacking off and looking back. Okay, three things: They also play incredibly fast and loud, churning out more noise than a drum kit and a single guitar should be capable of producing. Melodramatic from start to wailing, wordless end, the song is an ode to the days when you stay out late and get trashed because it’s genuinely exhilarating and fun, not because there’s nothing better to do, when your friends are the people you feel closest to in your life, not a grab bag of neighbors and co-workers, and when, most of all, you can’t even imagine a time when your life won’t seem all that exciting. Here’s to never getting too old for Japandroids. Cole
21. Laura Bell Bundy, “Giddy on Up”
The western-as-drag-revue video for “Giddy on Up” actually does a considerable disservice to Broadway vet Laura Bell Bundy’s debut single, making it all too easy to dismiss her for not taking her stab at a country-music career seriously. But what works about “Giddy on Up” is absolutely worth serious consideration. Bundy’s performance teems with genuine personality and verve, the production takes an inventive and refreshingly contemporary approach to pop-country, and the songwriting and the arrangement pay respect to some of country music’s most important signifiers. Of course, genre purists still hated it on principle, and there’s no getting around the hook’s deliberately bad pun, but “Giddy on Up” announces the arrival of a fascinating new voice on Music Row. Jonathan Keefe
20. LCD Soundsystem, “I Can Change”
Self-interested, defeatist, and angry, James Murphy is practically a distillation of every obsessive character from a Jonathan Franzen novel. He is also, like them, open to change, even if it sounds as if it will take much prodding for him to even get halfway there. The silver lining in This Is Happening‘s collection of downers, “I Can Change” boasts the album’s most succinct and vivid illustration of Murphy’s doubts and resentments as a lover. It’s woozy, glitchy synths are the sounds of a man wanting but resisting to give in to happiness, light beaming outward from a very dark void. Gonzalez
19. Kanye West f/ Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Bon Iver, and Nicki Minaj, “Monster”
Forget the countless guest verses she’s dropped over the last two years, and even put aside the majority of Pink Friday: “Monster” is the point at which Nicki Minaj actually managed to live up to her considerable hype. Hell, the verse she drops here doesn’t just live up to hype, it fully upstages what the two biggest names in hip-hop put down. Whether she’s eating brains or killing other women’s careers, Minaj and her flat-out unhinged delivery simply ride the track’s beat better than any of her collaborators. However much Jay-Z may claim that “love” is his Achilles’ Heel, and however fully My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains ‘Ye’s show, “Monster” belongs to the self-proclaimed Harajuku Barbie. Watch the Queen conquer. Keefe
18. Gorillaz f/ Bobby Womack and Mos Def, “Stylo”
A postcard from the far-flung wasteland that is Plastic Beach (the exclusive members lounge for counterculture icons like De La Soul and Mark E. Smith), “Stylo” provided a tense foretaste of the Gorillaz’s third album. Though Mos Def bookends the track with two terrific lo-fi verses, it’s blues legend Bobby Womack who steals the show with his apocalyptic wailing. Both men talk about harnessing electricity, which fits the stark atmosphere that this monotone, bass-heavy beat fosters. A brave choice of lead single for Damon Albarn, who could easily have turned to cheerful numbers like “Superfast Jellyfish” or anthems like “On Melancholy Hill” to spearhead the album’s hype machine. Huw Jones
17. Hanson, “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Somethin’”
Thanks to its sincere—and sincerely terrible—dancing and its Blues Brothers homage, the music video for “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Somethin’” earned Hanson more mainstream attention than they’ve received in nearly a decade, and it’s a real shame that didn’t translate into actual airplay. “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Somethin’” isn’t the first time Hanson has released a single that, by all rights, should have turned into a radio anthem, but it’s yet more evidence that, when they hit their marks, they’re simply a phenomenal pop band. The cowbell, the airtight vocal harmonies, the cowbell, the B3 organ, the cowbell: All of it works to turn “I’ve been gettin’ a love that moves me/While you’ve been gettin’ around” into the year’s most exuberant kiss-off. Keefe
16. Yeasayer, “O.N.E”
Perhaps the most buoyant ditty of 2010, “O.N.E” is an inescapably infectious number that draws on a vast arsenal of influences to create its wonderfully eccentric sonic. It almost feels as if the Brooklyn trio has thrown ideas at this single just for the hell of it; steel drums, soulful disco backing vocals, a distorted synth break, and the sprightliest guitar melodies imaginable. Rather than feeling haphazard, though, the track plays like an exciting medley of multifarious vibrant sounds, all vital ingredients for this outrageously catchy cocktail. Chiming and sparkling from beginning to end, it’s bound to be catalogued as an indie dance-floor classic for years to come. Jones
15. Sade, “Soldier of Love”
It was probably too much to ask for an entire Sade album that sounds like it was produced by Timbaland and Portishead, because that’s the only way to describe the title track from the band’s first record in 10 years. Their best single since their best single, “Ordinary Love,” “Soldier of Love” is an anthem that, after a decade of public silence, find’s lead singer and namesake Sade Adu’s reliably supple voice hardened by bitterness and frayed by time. The six-minute “Soldier” is the band’s most aggressive track to date, a stately trumpet declaring war on behalf of wounded lovers everywhere, Sade intoning robotically atop a military march: “I’ve lost the use of my heart, but I’m still alive” Sade, both the band and the singer, have never sounded this edgy. Sal Cinquemani
14. Little Big Town, “Little White Church”
Country singers are generally too polite to come right out and ask, “Whose pussy is this?” the way, say, Nicki Minaj might, but that’s still the gist of Little Big Town’s ultimatum here. Karen Fairchild gives a throaty, lived-in performance that spells out exactly what her man stands to lose, lest he make an honest woman out of her. The blues guitar riff that drives the song dirties up the arrangement a bit, but it’s the handclaps-only B section and, as always, LBT’s impeccable four-part harmonies that really make “Little White Church” distinctive and seductive, one of the few bright spots on country radio this year. Keefe
13. Crystal Castles f/ Robert Smith, “Not In Love”
Crystal Castles brought the original “Not In Love,” a wispy 1984 hit by Canadian hair-rockers Platinum Blonde, into the new decade by dressing it up in their own brand of dark, chunky synth-play. The single version adds a layer of winking irony by replacing the ambiguous vocal filtering with the Cure’s Robert Smith, therefore making the track sound more authentically ‘80s than even the original Platinum Blonde version. The crunchy production combined with Smith’s familiar pangs is heart-wrenching and nothing short of blisteringly gorgeous: His voice strained, centered, and unabashedly naked, Smith takes the song from quirky, gloomy cover to electro-goth tragedy, and likewise, Crystal Castles from shadowy provocateurs to post-punk superstars. Liedel
12. Florence and the Machine, “Dog Days Are Over”
This year started out kind of rough and ended up kind of awesome for me, and through the whole thing, “Dog Days Are Over” was my jam: in bad times, it’s the kind of song that works like a mantra of affirmation; in good times, its huge chorus and propulsive tribal beat is pop revelry of the highest level. But whether you’re celebrating or just keeping your head down, the central appeal of the song is the same. Florence Welch’s voice rivets from beginning to end, and when she instructs, “Leave all your love and your longing behind/You can’t carry them with you if you want to survive,” she doesn’t sound Zen or new age, she sounds like she’s commanding you to run for your life. The song’s triumphal message was ripe for commercial appropriation, but Florence’s performance was huge enough to weather the Eat, Pray, Love trailer, the VMAs, even a half-assed Glee rendition with power to spare. Well done, Flo. Now I just need you to kick Justin Bieber’s ass at the Grammys. Cole
11. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, “Round and Round”
So much of Before Today seemed dependent on an ironic recasting of cheesy musical relics, but a song like “Round and Round,” itself timelessly tacky and simple, would work in any context. Whether it’s a wholehearted embrace of the kind of earnestness Pink seemed to have been tweaking, or a more grounded of example of inhabiting a bygone sound, the song’s repainting of shopworn elements hits a perfect chord. Latching onto a paired bass/marimba line through an uncharacteristically peaceful intro, it shoots off onto brief, silly larks (a telephone-call voiceover, comet-trail synth swoops) returning again and again to its beautifully straightforward melody. Cataldo
10. Kanye West f/ Dwele, “Power”
The fascinating dialectic between the halves of Kanye’s fractured persona has always been based on diverging desires, his compulsion to invoke grandiosity into everything, and his obvious discomfort with the results. This is pushed to its furthest with “Power,” the slain-king imagery of the single’s cover acting as the dreary inverse to that of the album itself: there he willfully embraced his demons; here he’s toppled by them, indicating a tone which wavers between celebration and self-condemnation. Even without the complexity engendered by the song’s vacillation between these two poles, “Power” would be an awesome achievement, a rich, buzzing patchwork of obvious samples and unexpected sounds. Cataldo
9. Hot Chip, “One Life Stand”
The title track and lead single from Hot Chip’s latest album may be the sweetest and most genuine ode to monogamy that exists anywhere. Forget about dates, forget marriage; Alexis Taylor is interested in so much more, as he affirms “I only wanna be your one life stand” with his convivial everyman charm. It’s a lovely message, and serves as a splendid centrepiece for this single. The verses are accentuated by deformed Caribbean steel drums and laser sound effects, while the chorus boasts a barrage of warm, sonorous synths. This could be the most radio-friendly slab of upbeat pop we’ve heard from Taylor and company, but it struggled to chart significantly on either side of the Atlantic as the record-buying company parted with their money for messages of promiscuity and bad romances instead. Oh well. Their loss. Jones
8. La Roux, “Bulletproof”
There’s really no explaining how or why British synth-pop duo La Roux managed to sneak itself onto U.S. radio playlists this year while the likes of Robyn, Little Boots, and other Euro pop acts remained largely ignored. Not that “Bulletproof” is undeserving: It’s all video-game bleeps and stiff beats, with singer Elly Jackson fancying herself an impenetrable computer. But with a malfunctioning communication system (“I won’t let you in again/The messages I tried to send/My information’s just not going in”), Jackson’s declaration that “This time, baby, I’ll be bulletproof” ultimately just sounds like wishful thinking. Cinquemani
7. Robyn, “Indestructible”
The last sentence of my Body Talk Pt. 2 review pretty much sums it up: “If the acoustic version of the song is any indication, the forthcoming ‘four to the floor’ mix is likely to match or even surpass both ‘With Every Heartbeat’ and ‘Dancing on My Own’ for sheer emo power in Robyn’s increasingly impressive canon” “Indestructible” doesn’t quite match, let alone surpass, those songs, if only because it follows the template (employed throughout the Body Talk series with aplomb) so faithfully, but its Cerrone-inspired disco strings and the way in which Robyn proclaims her love with such fearless abandon (the antithesis of La Roux’s “Bulletproof”) makes it another in a series of near-perfect electro-pop jewels from the Swedish pop singer. Cinquemani
6. Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, “Telephone”
Lady Gaga originally wrote “Telephone” for Britney Spears, though, as someone who likes to dance and resents having to take my phone everywhere, I could believe that Mama Monster wrote the song just for me. Britney’s probably regretting her decision to pass on the tune, but there’s no doubt that her loss was the dance floor’s gain. It came out of the box with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hooks and a genius double-timed verse, but, for DJs, it was the gift that kept on giving, inspiring countless club-destroying remixes (picks of the litter: Passion Pit and Alphabeat). And thanks to Beyoncé‘s hysterically overdriven solo, it’s also one of the rare marquee pop collaborations that lives up to its potential. Cole
5. Big Boi f/ Cutty, “Shutterbugg”
Just as Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty fully revealed the layered complexities lurking behind Big Boi’s straight-man image, its lead single, seemingly a low-key piece of airy fluff, proved to be a work of striking craftsmanship. The Scott Storch-produced song’s beat functions as a breathy respite on an album packed with thick funk and towering horns, offering a crisply cycling undercurrent that shifts beneath the rapper’s soft touch. It’s the kind of backing track that can easily slip by unnoticed, but the consummate care devoted here, whether in the fresh crispness of its handclaps or the burbling bassiness of its inspired vocal riff, is what truly elevates the song. Cataldo
4. Cee-Lo Green, “Fuck You!”
Behind its coarse, unimaginative title, “Fuck You!” is a revelation—a gospel-fueled romp which proves that all the usual industry go-to’s (no-frills pop production, teenage-friendly narratives, a dash of retro flavor, and good-natured shock value) still make for interesting listens when done right. Cee-Lo Green ends up channeling another famous Green (that would be Al) in an ecstatic rant of self-deprecation, humor, and heart-on-his-sleevism, even having the courage to tear into a full-on, whiny temper tantrum mid-song. As bitter as the events he recounts might be, the Goodie Mob/Gnarls Barkley alum is clearly having fun, and ably spreads it out onto the listening masses. “Although there’s pain in my chest,” Green croons sincerely, “I still wish you the best…with a ‘fuck you!’” Liedel
3. Kanye West f/ Pusha T, “Runaway”
Once you get past the fact that “Runaway” sounds a lot like a mashup of Primitive Radio Gods’s 1996 hit “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” and a movement from György Ligeti’s Musica ricercata, it’s hard not to get pulled into West’s quasi-self-deprecation. Though the song’s lyrics run an inventory of the rapper’s relationship failures, some forgivable (“I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most”) and others not so much (“I sent this bitch a picture of my dick”), it’s hard not to read it as both an apologia for, and a celebration of, his perpetually bad public behavior. Cinquemani
2. Janelle Monáe f/ Big Boi, “Tightrope”
Monáe’s ode to keeping your cool is easily the best song on The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III of IV). What’s harder is picking out the best part. Is it the joyous breakdown, where Monáe shouts, “You can’t get too high!” and sounds like a young Michael Jackson? The Motown horn riot that breaks out afterward? Or the way the whole thing moves seamlessly from party music to spooky, noirsh soul in the final minute? Big Boi’s verse, where he rhymes “ass crack” with “NASDAQ” is a strong contender, so is Monáe’s own rap, which rhymes “alligators” with “rattlesnakers” and “terminator” In fact, the only part of the song I don’t love is where it ends. That part always comes too soon. And for the record, my favorite part is when Monáe says, “Some callin’ me a sinner/Some callin’ me a winner/I’m callin’ you to dinner and you know exactly what I mean!” Gets me every time. Cole
1. Robyn, “Dancing on My Own”
Few artists risk Robyn’s emotional nakedness, and with “Dancing on My Own” she reveals the exquisite flipside to her more empowered “With Every Heartbeat” Once upon a time, she walked away from him, accepting a broken heart because to stay would have hurt infinitely more. Now he’s with someone else. She’s still alone. In the club, in the corner somewhere, her body, like her mind, spinning in circles. Something about those bouncing beats, the way they shoot from the speakers and ricochet around her like beams of light, resonates with her feelings of yearning, doubt, regret. For most, the club is an arena for escape. For Robyn, it’s a place for heartbreaking introspection. Gonzalez
Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China
Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.
Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.
Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.
In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.
The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?
Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].
The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.
Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.
The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.
Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.
Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.
You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?
Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.
The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.
It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.
I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.
You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?
When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.
I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.
Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,
And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.
Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.
Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?
I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.
I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.
Translation by Vincent Cheng
Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.
There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.
You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.
19. The Son’s Room (2001)
Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez
18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)
A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez
17. Amour (2012)
There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh
16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac
15. The Class (2008)
When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps
Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager
19. Captain Marvel (2018)
As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti
18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich
17. Thor (2011)
With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin
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