As a rule, rap producers’ albums are poorly received. (And by “as a rule,” I mean ”Timbaland.”) In light of this (if admittedly little else), it makes sense to compare Kanye West and Swizz Beatz’s recent albums. Both are producers who a) are regularly derided for their technical facility as rappers and b) are occasionally more name-valuable than the rappers they produce. I’m exaggerating the similarities more than a bit: in relative importance, Kanye:Swizz :: David Foster Wallace:Mark Leyner. But still.
Graduation is Kanye’s third and most underwhelming album for reasons that would generally be considered virtues: it’s his most musically streamlined and focused work yet, and also his shortest. But what Kanye excels at is sprawl: the fantastic orchestral excesses of Late Registration, public temper tantrums, and long album lengths all go together. From the moment College Dropout kicked off with the sky-high “We Don’t Care,” Kanye seemed like hip-hop’s Phil Spector, or maybe even its Flaming Lips. On Late Registration, Kanye used Jon Brion to swipe Aimee Mann’s keyboards and explored melancholy introspection (“Roses,” ”Drive Slow”), but his best moments were still generally the show-stoppers.
Graduation is sonically excessive, but in the same way on nearly every track: gaudy synths at loud volumes. There’s been a lot of foolish talk regarding Kanye’s alleged fetishization of dance music, which is only half true: yes, the beats would be European-club-worthy if stripped of the vocals, but nothing in these songs indicates Kanye’s prioritized rhythm over melody. “Good Life”’s insistent treble line is this album’s children’s chorus on “We Don’t Care”; “Stronger” is more interested in the vocoder than the rumbling bass.
Alarmingly though, Kanye seems to be more interested in the sounds than the lyrics: for the first time, the “first rapper with a Benz and a backpack” seems to be trying hard not to annoy anyone. Call College Dropout and Late Registration whatever derogatory names you want, but frivolous they’re not: they seem, at times, more socially and politically engaged than most political parties’ entire platforms. Kanye’s not a great thinker in practical ways, but he’s fantastic at raising substantive issues in a normally toothless rap landscape without reaching Chuck D levels of annoyance. Kanye will never be one of the “Top 5 MCs, you gotta rewind me” he claims to belong to on “Barry Bonds,” which means he can’t coast on style alone. Without substance, we have great beats and weak boasts, which is what much of Graduation is; no lyrical highlights, only musical ones. Bizarrely, even while scaling back on the memorable lines, Kanye’s also scaled back on guest appearances, limiting himself to a sub-par Lil’ Wayne turn and a few vocal hooks: a guest appearance like Paul Wall’s substanceless virtuoso turn on “Drive Slow” would’ve gone a long way. Why he’s chosen to foreground himself as a rapper at his weakest moment is beyond me.
Exceptions include, most importantly, the gorgeously bummed-out “Everything I Am”—the album’s simplest production, just a vocal sample, piano and some scratching—and the bouncy “Homecoming,” whose Chris Martin guest vocal just might make Coldplay acceptable for the cool kids again (Jay-Z certainly didn’t pull it off when he got Martin for his comeback earlier this year). Tellingly though, the two best tracks aren’t actually on the album; run to iTunes, or somewhere less legal, for bonus tracks “Good Night” and especially “Bittersweet Poetry”; the only vulnerable songs here, and also the only ones that sound like Late Registration outtakes. “Heard ’Em Say” redeemed Maroon 5; “Bittersweet Poetry” goes one better and rehabilitates John Mayer, who provides a guiltily irresistible chorus while Kanye spells out exactly how much his girl hates him for being an arrogant prick. For the first time, he seems like he’s going back to introspection and thinking about his words rather than filling the silence above the synths. Graduation is a fine dance album, but it’s not much of a Kanye album.
So, what do Kanye and Swizz have in common besides brand-name fame (Swizz perhaps best known for producing T.I.’s arguably best single, “Bring ’Em Out”) and criticisms of their style? Both their new albums feature a vocal hook from Chris Martin. The similarities end there: One Man Band Man is eagerly vapid, a concise exploration of a brand name whose very title is unintentionally ironic. “You know I got that product man,” Swizz announces on the opening track. “Beats, hooks, loops and samples.” Liar. What he’s got is three tracks of his own (plus a remix of the lead single and one co-production) and a bunch of producers to imitate him while he’s busy, um, “rapping.” For subject matter, in addition to “Big Munny,” there’s also “Money In The Bank”; you get the idea. The energy level is the same regardless of the subject manner: I presume “The Funeral” is supposed to be sobering or something (“every night I see an old man with black slacks,” which conjures up images of moldy undertakers more than ponderous reflections on mortality), but it’s really hard to tell when it’s the umpteenth song to chop up a drum kit and crowd chants and sprinkle them over a sprightly bass line and/or loud brass/synths.
The best songs, predictably, are those actually produced by Swizz. There’s other names here (Dr. Dre-approved Nottz delivers “Big Munny”), but no one seems to turn Swizz on quite as much as himself. Lead single “It’s Me Bitches” had its name changed to “It’s Me Snitches” without altering its message one bit, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know. It’s typical Swizz: segments of a descending marimba scale, sirens, fragments of crowd chanting. “Take A Picture” may be even better, relying as it does on the all-too-rarely sampled sound of a camera snapping, chopped up and becoming a kind of drum kit element over elated, warm melodies and strings. Swizz Beatz’s trademark swirling hyperactivity—where the hookiest, most instantly absorbing elements of each loop and sample compete for attention—pushes itself too far on “Part of the Plan,” which begins with the simple enough goal of rehabbing Coldplay (yet again!) by popping a bass line under “X & Y,” and devolves into near-chaos by the end as gunshots, random exhalations, and voices talk over each other. It’s the one time Swizz really doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing. The rest of the time, it’s a somewhat monotonous sugar rush of 38 minutes of uninterrupted bounce, executed with various degrees of skill, a sample beat tape that happens to have filler words over it.
I’m pitting Kanye against Swizz not just for the superficial, easy, producer-vs.-producer aspect (although the monotony of Swizz’s work makes me appreciate Kanye’s range of sample reference and musical styles a lot more), nor necessarily as an excuse to write about Kanye too late (although yes, that too). What I have in mind is more of a cautionary tale, directed at Kanye: if you concentrate solely on the music and let your lyrics diminish, somewhere along the line you end up like rich Swizz, barking out lyrics comparing your prowess at shooting off your gun to making ’em cum. No one wants to be that guy.
Because it seems to be the fall/winter of Joy Division—Control raking ’em in at the Film Forum, new album re-issues, another documentary on the way— a few brief words on Closer seems to be in order. Namely, I wanted to voice my deeply held conviction that Ian Curtis was kind of a twit. Granted, I don’t have much information to go on here—the fact that Control opens with Curtis staring into space and muttering about “existence” may not be documentary evidence, but it certainly feels right. How you feel about Joy Division generally depends on whether or not you prefer New Order (which I do). Still, lip service aside—yeah, Joy Division invented a revolutionary new sound, etc. etc.—I’m not sure I like where that takes us.
Closer is an album I’ve been listening to lately, and for what little it’s worth I find it a huge leap forward from Unknown Pleasures (an album that basically has only three modes: stripped down emptiness, crushing proto-metal like “Day Of The Lords,” and “She’s Lost Control,” which is in a league of its own). But it seems like an end-point, not a starting reference point—e.g.“The Eternal,” which is kind of staggering, what with its woozy, indecipherable opening 20 seconds of noise (a recurring sound strangely like locusts), drone-y background vocals, and warm keyboards; nonetheless, what would logically follow from this would be an especially lethargic Cure song, or perhaps a maudlin goth ballad, or perhaps even a lazy horror film score. I dig the sample of manipulated drums doing a downward scale at the beginning of “Atrocity Exhibition” too, but I’m not sure why the song really needs to be called that. I suspect that if Curtis had lived longer, Joy Division might have just gone out of their way to full-bore offend people for no good reason: I like to envision an optimistic scenario where Curtis went to America, perked up, and starting issuing Negativland-style provocations.
I don’t really believe any of that, of course, but I question the value of Curtis’s legacy vs. that of the overall band unit and especially Martin Hannett’s many bizarre, still-compelling production innovations. Curtis, basically, was a high-school poet who wrote things like “Can’t replace or relate, can’t release or repair” and got taken far more seriously than, say, Elliott Smith ever did, presumably because Curtis was tying in to the Late-20th-Century Sense Of Despair, Manchester version, while Smith was just being a solipsistic jerk. Somehow, I question this version of history. The album is still fine.
Finally, I want to briefly mention the Pale Young Gentlemen, who’ve managed the mildly remarkable feat of cracking Metacritic’s Top 30 albums of the year without either a record label or a ridiculously over-excited Pitchfork review. To these jaded ears, any album with the lyric “You can never trust in a sailor’s love” should probably be tossed away swiftly, landing next to whatever faux-Weimar-cabaret bullshit Dresden Dolls fans are listening to these days, but—since they were kind enough to send in their self-titled debut—I can’t deny that I find opener “Fraulein” a pretty irresistible lead-off, a nicely-judged blend of soaring cello hook (this is one of those bands that records seemingly live with little in the way of mixing board tricks) and jazzy rhythms; closer “Single Days” isn’t half-bad either. I don’t find the middle terribly exciting—songs have names like “Me & Nikolai,” seemingly assuming that anything involving nights of drunken would-be debauchery is automatically exciting, especially if it involves a foreigner (the band’s from Madison, Wisconsin, which might have something to do with it), but your mileage will probably vary based on how much you like…you know. Cabaret-influenced bullshit. Or Tom Waits. Or whatever.
The reason I really mention it is this: not that I’ve ever illegally downloaded music myself (too much of a wimp), but a large amount of the music covered here is obtained from sympathetically inclined friends who do the downloading for me. (I’m a ridiculously impoverished college student; don’t even start with the lectures.) Last week, the authorities took the wise precaution of busting Oink, pretty much the holy land of music piracy. As a result, I may have a slightly less esoteric selection of new albums to write on. So: if you’re a record label or even, god help me, an unsigned band, feel free to get in touch with me (vadim dot rizov at gmail dot com) about sending over a promo. My only ground rule: actually read the column first and figure out what I like and if you’re in the paradigm. (I love you Merge Records! Are you listening?) Anything that could be labeled “blues rock” will promptly be sold for scrap.
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Reflections in a Quilt: John McPhee’s The Patch
There’s something uncommonly relaxing about many of McPhee’s patient elaborations of things known and unknown.
“But beyond the flaring headlines of the past year, few are aware of who Richard Burton really is, what he has done, and what he is throwing away by gulping down his past and then smashing the glass.” This is one of those quotes, which, through its sheer heft and style, threatens to turn any accompanying review into a redundancy. To find other lines that meet its towering standard, seek its source: The Patch by John McPhee. There’s no shortage of arresting remarks in this nicely heterogeneous collection of writing. One sinks into the book, riveted, but also races across it as its fascinations multiply.
The first section is called “The Sporting Scene.” Those typically uninterested in sports or sports writing, like myself, shouldn’t be deterred by the title. As I discovered through other recent encounters with McPhee’s ballyhooed writing, the author has a knack for inexorably moving readers beyond their biases. Two-part New Yorker articles like “Oranges,” “The Pine Barrens,” and “Basin and Range,” which were later turned into books, are studious and propulsive. Fine-grained matters of geology or citrus aren’t exactly simplified in these articles, but wading through the density becomes an irresistible prospect thanks to the author’s intelligibility, wit, enthusiasm, and atmospheric touches. For an example of the latter, consider McPhee’s focus on the “unnatural and all but unending silence” of the Floridian orange groves that he visited. What’s more, he often conveys a certain sense of respectful understanding, as when he mentions that he has “yet to meet anyone living in the Pine Barrens who has in any way indicated envy of people who live elsewhere.”
Similar virtues spruce up the “The Sporting Scene.” Its pieces include emphases on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse. McPhee honors the athletic endeavor by carefully illuminating its particulars. He busily supplies facts, anecdotes, ideas, and biographical details. In “The Orange Trapper,” for instance, he discusses his hunt for errant golf balls. It’s an engaging topic. He has learned, among other things, what occurs when you take a saw to a golf ball. You find the world: “Core, mantle, crust—they are models of the very planet they are filling up at a rate worldwide approaching a billion a year.” Other jolts arrive through the often remarkable conclusions to his paragraphs and pieces. The ending of “The Orange Trapper” is an especial wonder—a thrilling mobilization of words that elicits laughter and awe.
There are also bears: “Direct Eye Contact” is a compact assortment of hopes and advisements concerning bears in New Jersey, and it concludes on a sweetly uxorious note. Indeed, one never knows where any of these pieces are going. In “Pioneer,” meanwhile, McPhee ponders Bill Tierney’s choice to begin coaching the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team. “How could he leave Princeton?” McPhee asks. “It can be done. And Tierney knew what he was doing.” Those lines showcase the occasionally pithy, pleasantly chiseled style of his prose. It’s a considered design that favors clarity, structures hairpin turns toward new discursive trails, and pairs well with punchlines. In “Phi Beta Football,” one of McPhee’s colleagues promises to deliver him “a nice piece of change” if he figures out a suitable title for his book. “I went away thinking,” McPhee tells us, and then adds, “mostly about the piece of change.”
The recounting of sporting events is likewise augmented by the author’s playfulness. “Pioneer” throws us this line: “But Syracuse exploded—one, two, three—and the game went into ‘sudden victory’ overtime, the politically uplifting form of sudden death.” So transporting and genial is McPhee’s writing that the specifics of any given match never weigh down the reading, nor do his more elaborate remarks. “It’s a Brueghelian scene against the North Sea,” he declares in “Linksland and Bottle,” his piece on the 2010 British Open, “with golfers everywhere across the canvas—putting here, driving there, chipping and blasting in syncopation.” What’s even better is his sensitivity, in the same paragraph, to the fine distinctions between the manner of Scottish and Californian galleries as they observe rounds of golf. Suddenly, his words become almost numinous, and no grace is lost.
The second section of The Patch is called “An Album Quilt” and it encompasses a dizzying mixture of short pieces. None are available in any of McPhee’s other books. In an introductory statement, the author compares these pieces to the dissimilar blocks of a quilt. He notes that he “didn’t aim to reprint the whole of anything”; he sought out “blocks to add to the quilt, and not without new touches, internal deletions, or changed tenses.” This section is quite distinct from “The Sporting Scene,” but no less extraordinary in its overall effect. A piece about Cary Grant starts things off. Boyhood encounters with Albert Einstein are up ahead.
There are more standouts than can be briefly mentioned here, including an evocative overview of the craftsmanship that McPhee discovered within the original Hershey’s Chocolate Factory. The author’s clipped expressions of wonder enliven that piece: “Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps.” A little later, he mentions “granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor.” One can imagine Don Draper reading through this with poignant interest. In another entry, a series of succinct blurbs about tennis luminaries, Rod Laver’s childhood is crisply set against his eventual stardom: “Had to wait his turn while his older brothers played. His turn would come.”
And so one just leaps from piece to piece, and, along the way, discovers scenes from different periods in McPhee’s life and career. An encounter with two New York City policemen—this likely occurred in the ‘60s or early ‘70s, given the “familiar green and black” on the cop car—is particularly memorable. It begins with the author’s recollection of locking his keys inside his car, which, he notes, had been parked “in a moted half-light that swiftly lost what little magic it had had, and turned to condensed gloom.” After that characteristically precise fusion of atmosphere and psychology, he describes scrounging around for wire so as to open the door. The sudden arrival of the policemen created a dilemma: Would they view McPhee, who had been wedging a coat hanger into the car, as a thief or the hapless owner? “The policemen got out of the patrol car,” McPhee tells us, “and one of them asked for the wire.” From there, the situation undulates a couple more times before concluding through a sparkling punchline that’s supplied by one of the officers. The story is over before you know it, but its brisk and detail-oriented pleasures are echoed throughout much of the book.
In the title piece, meanwhile, McPhee movingly writes about his father, but also about fishing a pickerel out of a patch of lily pads. Here and elsewhere, granular descriptions become byways into a range of enthusiasms, histories, and hearts. The author, of course, frequently registers himself through the infinitesimal details, and through the humor that he yokes to affection. “‘Fuck you, coach!’ Quote unquote” is a message that McPhee once emailed to Bill Tierney. Great warmth radiates below the mantle of those words.
This, among sundry other qualities, keeps one reading. There’s also something uncommonly relaxing about many of his patient elaborations of things known and unknown. And there is, both within the book’s individual pieces and across its varied totality, a sense of constant renewal and revelation. As McPhee notes down somewhere amid the blocks of his quilt, “I could suddenly see it, almost get into it—into another dimension of experience that I might otherwise have missed entirely.”
John McPhee’s The Patch is now available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The 10 Most-Read Slant Articles of 2018
Our most-read articles of 2018 comprise pretty much everything we do best.
Like last year, it wasn’t the most highly praised or viciously excoriated film, album, or TV show that garnered the most attention among Slant readers in 2018. It was a so-called “average” star rating of a video game that led to our most-read—or, rather, looked at—article of the year. More predictably, lists proved to be increasingly popular, particularly among cinephiles. Aside from a few pieces that didn’t make the cut—like our career-spanning interview with Jodie Foster and our five-star review of Synapse Films’s Blu-ray restoration of the original Suspiria—this list comprises pretty much everything we do best. Alexa Camp
10. The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.” Budd Wilkins
9. Album Review: Mariah Carey’s Caution
At a mere 10 tracks, Caution is Mariah’s leanest album in 25 years. With the exception of the formulaic “With You,” which sounds like an outtake from E=MC2, the R&B and adult contemporary-style ballads that launched (and re-launched) her career have been largely replaced here by textured, midtempo grooves. Caution feels like the album Mariah has wanted to make all along: one that throws caution to the wind and sees her embracing her inner weirdo. And, ironically, it took her ending up back at Sony Music to do it. Sal Cinquemani
8. Game Review: Far Cry 5
With this entry, the Far Cry series has suddenly decided to crib story ideas from real American nightmares: the Ammon Bundy standoff, Jonestown, the Heaven’s Gate cult, Waco, the Westboro Baptist Church. It indulges a certain level of ejaculatory N.R.A. fantasy about a day when the Second Amendment saves the world, when all those guns hoarded by frightened men, all those survivalist bunkers, all that cynical preparation for the collapse of society proves useful. A regular supply item in this game is called a Prepper Pack. Major secrets are hidden in bunkers filled with canned food and ammo. These little hat tips toward the gun-toting survivalist sect might’ve been worthy of an eye roll had the game come out, say, prior to 2016. But at this particular moment in American life, those tips of the hat feel downright sinister. Justin Clark
7. All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
6. Film Review: Aquaman
The best point of comparison for Aquaman is Black Panther, another superhero movie about a king of a forgotten realm reclaiming his throne. But whereas Ryan Coogler’s surprisingly affecting superhero film restored weight to both the choreography and the drama of the genre, Aquaman remains adrift, so much fantasy flotsam and jetsam floating before our eyes. Pat Brown
5. The 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time
When compiling this list, my colleagues and I elected to consider more than historical context. Greatness, to the individual, isn’t just about impact on some nebulous past. It’s as much about feeling, about the way a video game can capture the imagination regardless of genre or release date or canonical status. The titles on this list come from every corner of the medium—represented for the precision of their control or the beauty of their visuals or the emotion of their story. We’ve chosen to cast a wide net, so as to best represent the individual passions incited by saving planets, stomping on goombas, or simply conversing with vivid characters. Steven Scaife
4. Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War
What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, err, 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. Keith Uhlich
3. TV Review: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
If Jack Ryan never gets around to offering its audience a definition of a swift transaction, that’s because all that matters to the series is that it’s a tool used by bad guys, whom only Jack Ryan can stop. Despite paying cursory service to humanizing its principal characters, Jack Ryan is mostly interested in a battle between broad notions of good and evil. It thrives on the tension of Jack’s chess match with bin Suleiman, reducing an entire nation’s efforts to combat terror to a personal beef between two archetypes. Michael Haigis
2. Every Pixar Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
If The Incredibles was essentially a superhero riff on male mid-life crisis, Incredibles 2 primarily concerns male anxiety about women taking over traditionally masculine roles. Brad Bird’s film also touches heavily on the uncertainty and doubt that many women feel about pursuing their dreams at the expense of spending time with their families. These are weighty topics to pursue in an animated action-comedy, and Bird, with a light tone and deft touch, manages to give them their due. This is a fleeter, funnier film than the original, and the director gets considerable comedic mileage out of Jack-Jack’s wild capriciousness, as evidenced by Incredibles 2‘s single most hilarious sequence, in which the baby uses its multifarious abilities—fire, lasers, multiplying, turning into a gremlin—to battle a feral raccoon just for the hell of it. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Keith Watson
1. Game Review: Red Dead Redemption 2
For all of the significant improvements Red Dead Redemption 2 has made to an open-world template, however, it still maintains Rockstar’s bullish commitment to a clunky control scheme. Across what’s now four games and two console generations, the company’s characters have lumbered along in what’s meant to convey the weight of a real person in contrast to the light, effortless controls of so many other games. But the result is artificial rather than convincing. Studios like Naughty Dog have proven capable of giving characters a consequential sense of weight without making it a challenge to navigate around a table or requiring you to hold down buttons to move at acceptable speeds. Coupled with middling gunplay feedback and a few too many stealth segments, the chunky act of playing Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t feel good so much as it feels, eventually at least, tolerable. Scaife