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The 25 Best Singles of 2011

This was the year everyone seemed to agree that Gaga chose the wrong singles from her album.

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The 25 Best Singles of 2011
Photo: Interscope

All of the writers who contributed to this list declined my invitation to write an introduction for the piece. I chalk it up to, perhaps, the lack of an obvious angle. There are admittedly few trends or takeaways to be discovered in our list—at least at first glance. A fetish for the past might have been a good thematic point of reference: Adele and Lana Del Rey peddled a brand of vintage that seemed surprisingly fresh; the pop divas (Lady Gaga, Robyn, Beth Ditto, Beyoncé, Patrick Wolf) all lovingly and non-ironically paid homage to the decade in which most of them were born; even the ‘90s got a nod thanks to EMA’s “California.” And notably, a holdover from last year, officially released as a single in January, emerged as our favorite with points to spare. But aside from our top pick, there was a surprising lack of consensus in the rankings. Adele’s ubiquitous “Rolling in the Deep” got the broadest support from the Slant staff, but few were enthusiastic enough about it to propel it above two provocative but highly respected rappers’ big singles. This was the year everyone seemed to agree that Gaga chose the wrong singles from her album, and yet they all made at least one appearance across our individual lists. So maybe that’s the best angle to take when looking at the figurative and literal hits of 2011. From hip-hop to K-pop, the year’s best singles were an eclectic bunch. Even the King of Pop made an appearance. Sal Cinquemani


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFggLJxv9zA

25. Battles featuring Matias Aguayo, “Ice Cream”

Battles have already proven that they’re able to turn their muscular brand of math rock into a catchy single, but “Ice Cream” makes that move even more deliberate than “Atlas” did. Here, Battles selectively and effectively edit themselves, confining their proggy impulses to the song’s pick-up-the-pace intro and its phase-shifted, bass-dropping outro. What happens in the interim is straight-up pop—a beefy melodic hook and Matias Aguayo’s looped vocal tics building to an exuberant climax that, like its title suggests, is sticky, sweet, and perfect for summer. Jonathan Keefe


https://youtube.com/watch?v=Ob7vObnFUJc

24. Beyoncé, “Love on Top”

With merely respectable sales and a paltry two Grammy nominations (when, just last year, she was bestowed a second nomination for the same track she’d been nominated for a year earlier), Beyoncé’s 4 has languished long enough that it’s no doubt going to emerge someday as her great, underappreciated masterpiece, her Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Even if it doesn’t, somewhere between the disc’s copious ballads and its few, hyperventilating dance tracks, Beyoncé strikes a perfect balance with this breezy midtempo tribute to the 1980s (even though she can’t resist throwing in about 17 key changes). The video’s NKOTB choreography puts the icing on top. Eric Henderson


https://youtube.com/watch?v=Itt0rALeHE8

23. St. Vincent, “Cruel”

Annie Clark became more than just a critical darling this year; she also bloomed into a full-on axe goddess, as so ably demonstrated on Strange Mercy and, in particular, the barbed guitar hooks of “Cruel” Keeping in line with the increasingly bizarre progression of its accompanying Wes Anderson-like video, the track starts out flowery and beguiling, but leaps rather quickly into some of the crunchiest dynamics ever recorded. By the time “Cruel” reaches its climax, the song’s cyclic beats are overwhelmed by a raspy, brassy dissonance far more celebratory than its harshness suggests. As Clark’s laments are flooded with jagged distortion and the dueling tones of “Cruel” come crashing together in one noisy, glorious conclusion, listeners are reminded once again why the heaps of critical praise are so well-earned. Kevin Liedel


https://youtube.com/watch?v=3hBJIbSScBM

22. Patrick Wolf, “The City”

Though the song is awash in cool, synth-y undertones and pitched-down backing vocals, the bright, shiny piano, horn arrangement, and unabashed major key of Patrick Wolf’s “The City” at first make it seem like a retread of “The Magic Position” from a few years back. If that single was an ecstatic, awe-induced celebration of newfound love, though, “The City” finds Wolf jubilantly defiant: “Won’t let the city destroy our love,” he declares during the chorus. And about those “debts you made, the car we never had, the house we never owned,” he offers, “Darling, don’t look so sad” The perfect boyfriend for love in the time of economic collapse. Cinquemani


https://youtube.com/watch?v=j7_lSP8Vc3o

21. 2NE1, “I Am the Best”

One of 2011’s best developments was that the Western world finally discovered the unmitigated joy of K-pop. Even within a music scene characterized by its fearless appropriation of pop, hip-hop, and dance styles, 2NE1’s “I Am the Best” is a jaw-dropping, vibrant triumph of pure swagger and verve. Really, who’s going to argue with logic like “Even if you were me/You’d be envious of this body” or stand in the crosshairs for 2NE1’s machine-gun “rah-tah-tah” hook? It ain’t bragging if it’s true, and 2NE1’s “I Am the Best” makes its case airtight. Keefe


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oE0OXft-tsQ

20. Frank Ocean, “Novacane”

Odd Future’s elder statesman and resident crooner was also the group’s biggest surprise this year, the only member to release something resembling a cohesive, sustained album. Nostalgia/Ultra may only be a mixtape, but “Novocane,” its undeniable highlight, felt like a lead single, a status proven by its release as such from the Def Jam-issued Nostalgia/Lite EP. An icy track that mixes insistent melancholy with dentistry metaphors, settling in a zone of strangely remote numbness, the song helped establish Ocean as a corollary to the similarly deconstructionist the Weeknd, helping push R&B in a bizarre new direction. Jesse Cataldo


https://youtube.com/watch?v=ze6rg4ixjOI

19. Girls, “Vomit”

Girls’ consummate craftsmanship—in songwriting, recording, and production—makes them nearly anachronistic among contemporary rock acts, and “Vomit” is a prodigious vindication of their approach. Structured like “Stairway to Heaven,” but sounding—thanks to its harmonies, wailing organs, and blown-out guitar leads—like the most epic song the Rolling Stones didn’t write in 1969, “Vomit” gathers and expels force like a storm while Christopher Owens bids the listener “come into my heart” There isn’t a misstep in over six minutes, but the touch that really makes the song is the backup singer’s total commitment: the best gospel-siren show-stealer since Merry Clayton on “Gimme Shelter” Matthew Cole


https://youtube.com/watch?v=vZYbEL06lEU

18. Lykke Li, “I Follow Rivers”

This song of gorgeous, at once fevered and languorous, simplicity suggests a rebuke to the cringe-inducing metaphor of Madonna’s similarly themed “Swim” Of course, where Madonna must take to water for the escape and renewal she thirsts, Lykke Li already inhabits our world’s rivers and oceans, very much one with the thing she desires. Floating atop tribal-infused beats that sound as if they’re resonating from deep within the ocean one moment, the furthest reaches of space the next, the song’s sentiments may sound almost jejune, but the singer’s gift for shorthand is such that what at first sounds like a description of place becomes a term of endearment. Ed Gonzalez


https://youtube.com/watch?v=ZdUINbi4wSY

17. SBTRKT featuring Yukimi Nagano, “Wildfire”

It’s appropriate that Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano lends her slinky, flirtatious voice to the seductive dubstep-meets-soul odyssey that is “Wildfire” The track is nothing less than a slow-paced come-on, delivering SBTRKT’s delicious brand of funk with oscillating basslines, sauntering beats, and the wobbly vibration of some incredibly drenched synths. True to the track’s porno soundscape, instrumentation smacks together like wet limbs in a steamy shower, all while Nagano’s observations grow more and more orgasmic. “You’re like a wildfire,” she coolly gasps on the wailing chorus, “You got me rising high” If SBTRKT’s throbbing, sultry aesthetic truly is the future of electronic music, then pull your hot pants on and up, it’s going to be a very sexy ride. Liedel


https://youtube.com/watch?v=qzU9OrZlKb8

16. Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends”

A Britney Spears triumph is as rare as a total solar eclipse, which may as well be the backdrop for “Till the World Ends” Co-written by Fredric Jameson friend and connoisseur Ke$ha, this highlight from Femme Fatale is, yes, just another celebration of kickin’ it on the dance floor, but something happens on the gorgeous bridge just after Britney unleashes her second torrent of ecstatic whoah-oh-oh’s: Are these really party-happening people dancing until dawn or survivors of an apocalypse? When those whoah-oh-oh’s land, they do so with the force of a nuclear bomb, and Britney and her posse, like zombies, rise from an amazingly muffled void to assert their will to dance again. This song eats my brains. Gonzalez


https://youtube.com/watch?v=RjSOcoDJYQg

15. EMA, “California”

Against a backdrop of scraping industrial noise that sounds simultaneously lush and desolate, like Phil Spector for a post-nuclear age, Erika M. Anderson delivers a scathing mixture of sermon and autobiography. Its proximity is intense and uncomfortable: The song is close-up shot of Anderson picking scabs, offering refracted ruminations on her upbringing and her sexuality in a litany of proper names and strange allusions that are not always decipherable but are nonetheless crushingly dense with meaning. One moment she’s desperate to be understood (“Wasted away alone on the planes/What’s it like to be small town and gay?”), the next she’s resigned (“Fuck it, baby, I know you’ll never change”). Cole

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https://youtube.com/watch?v=8t-I-Lqy06g

14. Lana Del Rey, “Blue Jeans”

In Rebel Without a Cause, when Jim looks at Judy’s house and asks if she lives there, she replies with one of the film’s greatest lines: “Who lives?” Her coyness, her sad, very-teenage sense of not-being, seems shared by Lana Del Rey, née Elizabeth Grant, aficionado of all things old, from cars to Hollywood starlets. “Blue Jeans” is, on the surface, just another love song, of a girl pleading, hoping for her man to stay, and yet this living, breathing anachronism’s vampy, sometimes weary, voice gives all her pining an eerie sense of timelessness, trailing away into a haunting oblivion during the song’s immaculate chorus. Though Del Rey may sing of gangsters and bitches throughout, you feel as if her song was written a million years ago before such labels existed. Gonzalez


https://youtube.com/watch?v=WbN0nX61rIs

13. Florence and the Machine, “Shake It Out”

If lyrics about freedom, overcoming regrets that have been collected “like old friends here to relive your darkest moments,” and the simple truth that it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back doesn’t move you, then perhaps the final 60 seconds of “Shake It Out” will, which forsakes language altogether and builds to a cacophony of bone-rattling organ, tribal percussion, and intersecting vocal parts that find Florence Welch finally succumbing to her demons and having drinks in the dark at the end of the road with the rest of us. Cinquemani


https://youtube.com/watch?v=8UVNT4wvIGY

12. Gotye featuring Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used to Know”

Basically a retelling of Dizzee Rascal’s landmark “I Luv U” for the indie-pop set, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” captures the peculiar give-and-take between someone who views himself as a nice, sensitive guy who has been repeatedly slighted in the aftermath of a breakup and his ex (given powerful voice by Kimbra) who isn’t about to let him off the hook so easily or delude himself so thoroughly. What makes the single so structurally brilliant is its use of dynamics (that final chorus is a full-on bloodletting) to reflect its narrative’s he-said/she-said drama, turning a thesis on contemporary gender politics into a captivating, leftfield pop hit. Keefe


https://youtube.com/watch?v=nc__3nsfxwA

11. Das Racist, “Michael Jackson”

Despite the banger status and simplistic bluster of this maximalist track, Das Racist’s recent appearance on Conan showed where their head is really at: screwing with everyone else’s. The group had flirted with bluster and excess before this year’s full-length debut, across two similarly themed mixtapes, but nothing was quite up to the tenor of “Michael Jackson,” a forcefully dumb statement that works on several levels at once: as a mindless party track, an impossibly dense referential catalogue, and a snide comment on standard hip-hop mores. Cataldo


https://youtube.com/watch?v=i3Jv9fNPjgk

10. Azealia Banks featuring Lazy Jay, “212”

“I been that bitch since the Pamper,” Ms. Banks snaps, and then I can’t really repeat most of the rest of what follows. I’d pity the target(s), but Azealia Banks spits some of the most witheringly funny diss-topian wordplay in recent memory that it would be an honor to be in her crosshairs. (Why yes, Azealia, that is what’s caught up in my doo-rag too.) Skittering syllables like paradiddles over a Jaxxian groove from Lazy Jay’s “Float My Boat,” the chick who’d dare dismiss Nicki Minaj as a hipster-kowtowing Lil’ Kim floats like a new Queen Bee, leaving no orifice unturned in what has to be considered the most unforgettable debutante debut of the season. Henderson


https://youtube.com/watch?v=UECeJzd-G30

9. Beth Ditto, “I Wrote the Book”

Simple semantics kept Gossip siren Beth Ditto’s EP off our list of the best albums of the year. Good thing she saw fit to release one of its four equally fantastic tracks as an official single, the sleazy-sounding but pure-hearted “I Wrote the Book” Ditto uses her lilting voice as a red herring, tricking her second-person account out with the same sort of psycho-sexual omniscience that, in EP’s me-or-her anthem “Do You Need Someone,” is an albatross around her lovelorn neck. Only here she lulls her dallying intended into a false sense of security before patronizingly reminding, “I see right through you” And that’s what really kills me. Henderson


https://youtube.com/watch?v=QeWBS0JBNzQ

8. Lady Gaga, “The Edge of Glory”

It’s a long and synth overdrive-overloaded road to get there, but Lady Gaga’s expansive, go-for-broke Born This Way ends on a note of ‘80s power pop that unifies a huge album’s every last conquistador concern, and wraps it up in a bow of saxophone blastula. A complete inversion of its LP-capping partner “Yoü and I,” which turns a simple tune into country-fried fireworks, “The Edge of Glory” is a study in radical contrast that, once you sift aside its deliberately dated effects and the legacy of the late Clarence Clemons, is deep down an incredibly delicate ballad. Yes, everyone expects Gaga to make her confessions on the dance floor, but who knew she could make her shouts whisper? Henderson


https://youtube.com/watch?v=7HHgedNNQco

7. Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”

There are a whole lot of ways to like a song, but “Helplessness Blues” struck me in a way that only two or three other songs ever have, nearly bypassing my whole sense of having an opinion about it and confronting me with the recognition that the song was true. When I try to reflect about where I’m at right now in the ongoing attenuation between my ambitions and my real prospects, I can see the push and pull of the forces that Robin Pecknold so lyrically evokes. The gorgeous harmonies are what put the equivocal song decisively on the side of hope as Fleet Foxes offer comfort and perspective to anyone torn between their sense of purpose and their fear of failure. Cole


https://youtube.com/watch?v=F6ImxY6hnfA

6. Robyn, “Call Your Girlfriend”

“Call Your Girlfriend” certainly isn’t the first song to be sung from the homewrecker’s point of view, but Robyn’s character ends up being unlike any other woman in pop. Always hyper-attuned to emotional detail, she focuses on the neglected side of the love triangle that connects the one who gets left with the one for whom they’re left. Robyn’s not naïve enough to think that no one will get hurt, but in the interest of minimizing harm, she walks her suitor through his breakup, navigating him past some of the avoidable land mines with a sensitivity that suggests she’s seen them detonate before. “Don’t you tell her that I give you something that you never even knew you missed,” she warns. “And then you let her down easy” Cole


https://youtube.com/watch?v=wV1FrqwZyKw

5. Lady Gaga, “Born This Way”

Few singles have ever been as hotly anticipated as “Born This Way,” and in that sense, the song may have become a victim of its own excess. Though it was unleashed last February to stunningly fast digital sales, it was also welcomed with an unmistakable undercurrent of critical disappointment. Yes, it borrows liberally from Madge’s Shep Pettibone-era blueprint. Yes, it’s lyrically beyond presumptuous for Gaga to be speaking on our behalf. Yes, it’s as subtle as a hot-pink dildo affixed to a chainsaw. It’s still an unmistakable landmark pop-cultural moment, a post-irony, post-metaphor, pansexual celebration, aimed squarely at the audience that probably needs it the most. Simple, elegant, better. “Born This Way” doesn’t just make a lot of noise. It is a lot of noise. And hell no, it won’t go. Henderson


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cE6wxDqdOV0

4. Lana Del Rey, “Video Games”

Lana Del Rey’s wistful, blasé voice casts “Video Games” through all kinds of conflicting prisms. Is her beau an insensitive, manhandling misogynist or an adorable rogue? She might be dazzled by his love, but it’s entirely possible that she’s just exasperated over his half-assed attempts at romance. The line “This is my idea of fun” is either a sincere, starry-eyed revelation or an unimpressed, sarcastic invective. With Del Rey’s delivery and the grandly tragic and triumphant turns the song takes, these riddles hang in the air over the ‘60s-tinged “Video Games” like a cloud of Pall Mall smoke. The song has since come to represent Del Rey’s own persona: a fascinating contrast of styles and ideas that’s easy to both dismiss and worship, hate and love. Whether Del Rey is a bad girl with a good girl’s heart or vice versa, “Video Games” distills her contradictory nature into five minutes of immaculate indie-pop bliss. Liedel


https://youtube.com/watch?v=rYEDA3JcQqw

3. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”

We’re all thinking it: Thank goodness Adele got dumped. Without her dysfunctional breakup, the world wouldn’t have 21, which, in turn, would have robbed us of “Rolling in the Deep,” a fiery, almost sermonic soul-pop missive promising doom, pain, and woe on its unfortunate target. “Unfortunate,” of course, because listeners can’t help but feel sorry for the guy after hearing the kind of damning rage Adele levels at him, using the full force of her cosmic voice and the song’s fierce gospel to pound at his guilty conscience. Even the track’s unrelenting foot stomps sound as though they’re being aimed squarely at her victim’s noncommittal ass. Which is why “Rolling in the Deep” is such a good pop song: Far from a passive lament on the barbs of love, it’s a weapon Adele uses with deadly precision to display virtuoso control over both her ex-lover and her craft. Liedel


https://youtube.com/watch?v=XSbZidsgMfw

2. Tyler, the Creator, “Yonkers”

Tyler, the Creator’s second album, Goblin, functions as a microcosm of the entire Odd Future explosion that played out early this year: a distended, confused mess with glimmers of surprising brilliance. Its high point is “Yonkers,” a masterfully alluring lead single that distills all the latent menace and charm of the group’s high-socked ringleader. Balanced atop a creeping haunted-house beat, produced by the rapper himself, he preens, boasts, and threatens in a style that’s downright ominous, but he’s also somehow fragile, possessed with a greater sense of self-awareness than many rappers twice his age. Cataldo


https://youtube.com/watch?v=HAfFfqiYLp0

1. Kanye West, “All of the Lights”

A holdover from last year’s epochal My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “All of the Lights” beats the pulp out of nearly everything released this year. It’s also perhaps the most acute example of Kanye West’s pitched mania for theatrical expressions of manic-depressive instability, his mixture of self-destruction and self-love, sentiments which carried over to this year’s Watch the Throne, albeit muted by Jay-Z’s magisterial arrogance, which is more static and less interesting. Beyond the canned horn fanfare and the unhinged breakbeats, the song’s chorus ranks as one of the most brilliantly purposeful wastes of big-name talent ever: transport 20 pop stars to Hawaii, record them, hit blend. Cataldo

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Japan Cuts 2019: Demolition Girl, And Your Bird Can Sing, & Being Natural

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming.

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Demolition Girl
Photo: Japan Cuts

Japan Cuts has established itself as the definitive Japanese film festival in the United States, thanks to the scope of its programming. The 2019 edition is no exception, with over 30 events over 10 days, among them talks, screenings, and Q&A sessions with filmmakers as diverse as Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), the latter of whom is this year’s recipient of the festival’s Cut Above award, which is given to a defining figure of Japan’s cinema, and will be awarded before the East Coast premiere of his latest film, the samurai action-drama Killing.

Lest you think Japan Cuts is only a showcase for genre exercises, the festival abounds in works that explore the struggles that erupt from the Japanese capitalist system, and are felt in different ways across generations. Demolition Girl, Genta Matsugami’s feature debut, is among the strongest of recent films to bluntly speak about class difference. It follows 17-year-old Cocoa (Aya Kitai), who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has decided to forgo a university education and get a job. But as her shifts at a local amusement park only pay so much, she starts to perform in adult fetish videos that see her stomping on cans, trash, and balloons.

At his best, the film taps into the heightened experience of the poorest of the people living on the edge. For one, whenever Cocoa’s father (Yota Kawase) has some money on hand, he yearns for instant satisfaction, spending it on expensive sushi. As for Cocoa, who’s isolation is emphasized through shots that see her alone in corridors, or studying late at night in her room, it’s almost as if she’s destined to fail. And, indeed, when her school finds out about the adult videos she’s been making, and just as she was beginning to realize her promise of going to a Tokyo university, her life falls apart. When confronted by friends about why she made the videos, all she can do is yell at them: “You wouldn’t understand, you’re rich, you wouldn’t know. Will you pay for my expenses?” In this moment, Kitai’s triumph is making her character’s wail against a cruel economic system feel as if it could be our own.

And Your Bird Can Sing, directed by Sho Miyake, is focused on two late-twentysomething slackers: the unnamed protagonist (Tasuku Emoto) and his roommate, Shizo (Himizu and Parasyte star Shōta Sometani). Both work crappy jobs, and they try to stay sane through copious amounts of drinking and pointed mockery of the economically fraught lot they’ve been handed in life. The protagonist’s attitude could be summed up by one early sequence, when he meets a co-worker and convinces her to go on a date, only to later miss the date, fall asleep, wake up, and decide to spend his night drinking with Shizo.

A love triangle between the roomies and one of the protagonist’s co-workers, Sachiko (Shizuka Ishibashi), brings some solace to the men’s lives. There’s redundancy to the way that Miyake frames these characters, showing their faces up close rather than the screens they peer at as they text each other, but his wide shots speak to how they all work to fill empty spaces. Miyake’s style is relaxed, almost as if his camera has absorbed everyone’s slacker vibes. Especially of note is a sequence that lingers at length on Sachiko paying for groceries while the two men in her life try to hold their laughter, saying to each other that she’s going to regret her purchase. Miyake’s gaze is empathetic, and there’s truth in his understanding that you have to sometimes laugh at your underprivilege in order to prevent yourself from screaming.

More tonally varied, and operating on a larger scale, director Tadashi Nagayama’s satirical Being Natural broaches the subject of gentrification as it immerses viewers in the daily routines of a middle-aged man, Taka (Yota Kawase), who lives in a small town in the countryside of Japan and works with his cousin, Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa), and their friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru), at a fishpond inherited from his deceased uncle. Everything starts to derail for the three men when a family arrives on the scene from Tokyo with the hopes of opening up an old-style café that will only sell natural and locally grown products. At the start of the film, the still-grieving Taka doesn’t fully understand what he has until someone tries to take it away from him, and by the end, a spectacular show of violence will see him finally realizing the nature of the economic system he’s trapped within.

The film’s style is initially sweet and mellow, with the softest of songs dotting the soundtrack. Taka plays bongos, and the sounds of the instrument are also heard throughout. At first, this sound creates a calm atmosphere that’s in sync with the bright cinematography. But as the film introduces a series of sinister twists, those bongos come to take on an almost murderous bent. The sounds of the instrument point to the encroachment of a capitalist economy on a place relatively untouched by it. In its final minutes, Being Natural takes a turn toward the supernatural, and it’s satisfying for giving the main characters the reprisal they want, but also poignant for the way it has us understand that it only occurs in the realm of fantasy. The film, in the end, acknowledges that it’s difficult to go against the system, and that to stay sane means finding a little pocket of happiness in the world and enjoying it while it lasts.

Japan Cuts runs from July 19—28.

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Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change

Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.

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Marc Maron
Photo: IFC Films

Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.

Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.

Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?

Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.

Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?

Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.

There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.

Yeah.

Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.

Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.

You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.

The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.

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Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?

Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.

That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.

I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.

Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.

You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.

Right.

Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.

I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.

Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.

Yeah.

People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.

To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?

Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.

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Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust

The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

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Lynn Shelton
Photo: IFC Films

Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.

I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.

Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?

Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.

Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.

To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.

Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.

Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?

Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.

Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.

It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.

How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?

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Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.

How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”

Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.

Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?

No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.

You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?

I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.

My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”

And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.

I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.

It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]

On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.

That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!

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Interview: Paul Tremblay on Growing Things and the Hope of Horror Fiction

Tremblay discusses how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.

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Photo: Allan Amato

Paul Tremblay laughs a lot. Our conversation, about demonically infested children and the end of the world, is interspersed with a low chuckle that suggests he loves doing what he does. And what he does is scare people. Tremblay is at the forefront of a supposed renaissance of horror fiction, and with good reason, as his books cut to the bone.

Tremblay burst onto the horror scene in 2015 with A Head Full of Ghosts, a deconstruction and excoriation of the exorcism subgenre. The most frightening book this critic has ever read, it won the Bram Stoker Award and, perhaps more crucially, Stephen King’s nod of approval. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World cemented his reputation as horror’s cruellest craftsman. In these tales, bad things happen to good families. Worlds collapse, lives shatter, and the ambiguity of existence is shown through a glass darkly.

Tremblay’s latest collection, Growing Things and Other Stories, continues his disquieting project. Twisted teachers give lessons in inhumanity, Polaroids reveal dark histories, and some very sinister dogwalkers commit metafictional trespass. The collection, now out from William Morrow, suggests a merciless worldview. Yet as we talk, Tremblay chuckles, pets his dog, and talks about how horror can be a progressive, hopeful way to understand the world.

Do you have a favorite story in Growing Things?

“It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” is the earliest story in the collection and the first one where I thought, “I can do this.” That was the first time I made uncertainty essential to the story, central to the theme and the “why.” Though it could be hard for a reader to point at any one thing and say, “That’s why it’s a horror story,” I do feel it’s one of the more horrific things I’ve ever written. “Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport” was also a lot of fun to write. I basically retook my own childhood vacation at a place in Cape Cod that we rented once. It was a chance to turn nostalgia on its ear and make it dangerous. I do think nostalgia can be a threat in the way it blurs over the messy parts of your history.

That’s interesting, because your fiction seems obsessed with memory.

I think much of horror is about memory. Memories are so malleable, yet we rely almost entirely on them to define what we think of as our self. Especially childhood memories. So many of them are usurped by retellings—whether your own or your friends’ or family’s—each gives you different versions of things that are the core of who you are. If you can’t trust your memories, then how can you trust identity? As a horror writer, that just feels like infinitely fertile ground. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you confront the question of who you are, and who is the person you’re sharing your bed and your life with. These thoughts freak me out, but I find them fascinating. I boil down horror stories as “a reveal of a dark truth.” In a lot of my stories the reveal is that identity isn’t ironclad and memories aren’t safe.

The media is another thing that emerges as both the format and focus of much of your writing. Is that an intentional theme?

Well, it’s a reflection of the time we’re living in. It’s pretty clear that social media hasn’t only changed society, it’s also changed us as individuals. It’s scary stuff and we’d be fools not to use it in stories. And I don’t just mean to have it there as background noise. If you’re going to use the media it has to be crucial to the story. Some older writers in the horror community would say that you shouldn’t mention this stuff—that it’s not timeless and will date your writing. That seems wholly ridiculous to me, because where’s the cut-off for timelessness? If you make the media central to your stories then people will still be able to read those stories in future decades because you’re essentially world-building.

The contingent realities of memory and media come together in the concept of “fake news.” Do you think horror, or your own work, is well-equipped to address that?

Well, the information age was greeted with a lot of optimism, but my books approach it with disappointment. I’ve met people all around the world through the power of social media. But I’ve also seen the pervasiveness and insidiousness of disinformation, It’s affected family members and relationships. It influences nations and political systems. It blows my mind.

Each of my novels address this is some way. In A Head Full of Ghosts, I use reality TV and the blogger to further enhance the ambiguity. Typically, books approach ambiguity by withholding information. I thought the cooler idea was to give a storm of information. You can’t know what’s real because there’s too much data to consider. I think that reflects the world we live in.

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In Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I took a stereotypical missing-teenager case. People think that it’s easy to locate someone because of all the information we have, hence the claim that “the cellphone killed the horror story.” I purposely wanted to write that story with these kids having snapchat and Facebook but show how that stuff makes it harder to get to the truth.

The Cabin at the End of the World is definitely riffing on those anxieties. I try not to be too didactic, but I absolutely wanted Cabin to be an allegory for our political times.

Why are you so drawn to ambiguity?

I think it reflects one of the horrors of our existence: that reality is more ambiguous than we allow. A smaller reason is that I resist committing to the supernatural in the novel. I’m an agnostic atheist, so if I encountered something in my everyday life, I think I’d have a hard time realizing that it was supernatural. It would be so liminal that how would we know? I’ve found it easier to go full supernatural in my short fiction. Soon I’ll need to come down on one side or the other, because people will get tired of me doing the ambiguity thing every time.

So, what would it take to convince you that your house was haunted?

In your head you imagine it wouldn’t take much. But in reality, we have 30-year mortgages. I’d probably think I had to gut it out, even with a ghost standing in the living room.

I’m not naïve enough to ask you to clarify any of your ambiguous endings. But I am interested in whether you know the truth in those novels.

For each book it’s slightly different. I started A Head Full of Ghosts intending to write a secular exorcism novel. But then I decided to split the evidence 50/50. To be honest, I haven’t really got a clear idea of whether Marjorie is possessed or mentally ill. That’s been a fun novel to discuss with fans because they have interpretations that I never considered. Devil’s Rock has a less ambiguous ending. I feel like it’s fairly clear what those last few pages say. And with Cabin I can honestly say that I haven’t spent a single second thinking about what happens after the last line of that book. That story is all about the choice that Andrew and Eric make, and by the end they have made it. At that point, it doesn’t matter if the world is ending or not.

Speaking to you now, and following you on social media, you seem a very positive guy. Yet your fiction is unremittingly bleak…

[laughs]

…yet every now and again you throw the reader an escape from the horror, or at least the potential for escape. I’m thinking in particular of your story “A Haunted House Is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken,” where you use the choose-your-own-adventure format to lead the protagonist and reader through a history of trauma. It ends with a way out, which I didn’t expect. Would you say you are an optimist?

I don’t know really. With that story I wanted to give the character a way out. Because I think most people, or many people, do survive their personal traumas, their personal ghosts. When Cabin came out, I mentioned in interviews this thing that I called “the hope of horror.” It may sound pretentious but the reason I’m drawn to horror is the same reason I’m drawn to punk. It’s the idea that terrible truth is revealed, and we may not survive it, but there’s value in the shared recognition that something is wrong. So even though the novels and stories are bleak, I find some hope in the fact that we realise something is wrong, even if we can’t fix it. That’s the fist-pump moment If anything ties together the things that I like reading and watching, it’s the chance to look at how other people get through this thing we’re all doing…this life.

Speaking of which, you’re a parent, yet your stories do the worst things to children.

That’s my parental anxiety on show. My first child was born in 2000, and when I was getting serious about writing in the first half of that decade, a friend pointed out to me that I wrote about parents and children all the time. I hadn’t realized, but from there it became purposeful. With Devil’s Rock, I realized I was treading in the same family dynamic as Head Full of Ghosts. Then I wrote Cabin about another young family, and even though they’re individual books, I think they’re a nice thematic trilogy. Each book features a different kind of family in crisis.

You recently tweeted about doing research into some grim childhood illnesses. Dare I ask what that was for?

Yeah, that’s for my next novel. It will be my take on the zombie, but it’s about infected people rather than the undead. It’s set during the first four-to-six hours of an outbreak in Boston.

Is there a title?

The working title is Survivor Song. It’s due with my publishers at the end of the summer.

That’s quite the scoop. Aside from the new book, you also have the adaptation of A Head Full of Ghosts in the works. How involved are you in that process?

[laughs] Aaah, not at all. It’s understandable really. They optioned the book in 2015 before it was even published. At that point, I was rebooting my career, as my earlier crime novels hadn’t sold much. There was no reason for them to consider my feelings. It’s the rare writer who gets invited into in the filmmaking process. In TV they may consult you more, but even then I’m not sure how much of a say you have. I don’t have any say in A Head Full of Ghosts, but they have a director, Osgood Perkins, and a script that we like. It’s all getting a lot closer to being a real thing, with a very solid shot at starting production later this year.

Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House use ambiguity to great effect. Are you happy with him helming the film?

Definitely. He’s the perfect director for this material. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do. It’ll be tough to squeeze that book into a 90-minute movie.

As it would with any of your writing. Many of the stories in Growing Things experiment with form and structure. Do you feel the need to escape traditional narration?

House of Leaves is one of my favourite novels. I’d love to one day write an experimental novel on that scale. But if you’re going to experiment with structure, then it must serve the story, and that’s easier in short fiction, which seems to beg for experimentation. No, I don’t feel the need to escape. Sometimes it’s just me trying to play with all the toys.

You’re at the center of a new school of young horror writers, people like Laird Barron, Alma Katsu, John Langan, Sarah Langan. Do you think the genre is enjoying a resurgence?

People talk about a new golden age of horror. That’s a little self-serving because I expect every horror writer throughout the ages has looked around and thought, “Hey, what we’re doing is great.” But I think it’s also undeniable that the current breadth of horror hasn’t been seen before, both in terms of gender and diversity as well as style. We aren’t all the way there yet, but it’s exciting and promising. I’m happy to be playing a little part in it.

Finally, what’s your favorite scary book, and your favourite scary movie?

With books it’s a tie. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are so many more calling out in neglect, but let’s stick with those two. With movies it’s either John Carpenter’s The Thing or Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. I’ve probably seen Jaws close to 50 times and I still can’t watch the part where Quint is bitten in half. The first time I saw that it broke my brain and I’m too afraid to watch it again in case it takes me back in time. I had at least eight years of shark nightmares. The Thing asks: “Do you even know who you are?” It takes us back to that question about memory and identity and that idea of the dark reveal. It’s the heart of horror.

Paul Tremblay’s Growing Pains and Other Stories is now available in the U.S. from William Morrow and in the U.K. from Titan Books.

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Interview: Jack Reynor on His Reverse Hero’s Journey in Midsommar

It’s been a whirlwind for Reynor to process the wide swath of reactions sparked by his character in the film.

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Jack Reynor
Photo: A24

“I wrote this when I was going through a break up,” said writer-director Ari Aster as he introduced the finished cut of Midsommar to its first New York public screening back in June, “I’m better now.” Judging from what ensues in the film, much of Aster’s healing comes at the expense of the character Christian, played by Jack Reynor. As the emotionally distant romantic partner of Florence Pugh’s Dani, Christian bears the brunt of the film’s rage once his girlfriend becomes empowered to confront her past and present traumas through the rituals and traditions of a small Swedish village they visit.

Aster’s sophomore feature certainly doesn’t lack for that uneasy tension between hilarity and horror—spawned by fraught, complicated relationship dynamics—that marked Hereditary. As Pugh’s performance strengthens in tenacity over the course of the film, only Reynor’s fully realized portrayal of Christian stands in the way of total audience alignment with Dani’s retributive awakening. Instead of letting his character become a simplistic villain to draw our ire, he plays Christian in such a way that frustrates rather than outright antagonizes.

Midsommar has all the trappings of a major breakout for the American-Irish Reynor, thanks to his nuanced rendering of contemporary masculinity. The character fuses the sensibilities he’s honed across a range of productions from studio fare like Transformers: Age of Extinction and Delivery Man to mid-budget American indies like Detroit and On the Basis of Sex, though the 27-year-old’s best preparation may have come from playing tortured young Irish men in homegrown fare like What Richard Did and Glassland.

It’s been a whirlwind for Reynor to process the wide swath of reactions sparked by Christian. He and the rest of the cast first saw Midsommar just a day before A24 began screening it before crowds, and, as he expressed, some of the fervent responses caught him off guard. I talked with Reynor over the phone a week later to discuss how he approached playing such a polarizing character and what he’s learned from the audience’s feedback. We discuss plot points from the third act in generalities, but those looking to avoid any spoilers for Midsommar might want to bookmark and return to this interview after seeing the film.

I was in a Q&A where you asked the audience if they thought Christian deserved his fate, but I couldn’t see in the frame how they voted. What was the verdict?

I think almost half the people put up their hands instantly, in a very tellingly reactionary fashion. [laughs] It was really interesting.

Is that what you were expecting?

It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I think I should have been expecting it. I think it says more about me that I wasn’t expecting it than it does about them. It’s an interesting one, because my feeling about this movie is that I’m okay whether you feel like Christian deserves it or not, it’s fine. But it needs some real thought. Ultimately, the reason I wanted to do the movie was because I felt like this character was not one-dimensional. Ari never wanted him to be that way. Both of these characters represent the human condition, the things we can all relate to, in all of our relationships, be it with a parent, a family member, a friend, or a romantic partner. At one point or another, we’ve all been guilty of being insensitive or emotionally unavailable to a person or self-involved in a toxic, dysfunctional way. Just as we have experienced emotional needs and those needs not being met. These are all parts of the human condition. So that, for me, was the really interesting thing to portray.

Ultimately, the purpose of something like Midsommar is to challenge people to acknowledge the fact that they can relate to both of these people. And, ultimately, we do find ourselves in alignment with Dani at the end of the movie. This is a movie about her liberation from a toxic relationship and the catharsis that comes with it, albeit that the catharsis is confusing, painful, complex and not entirely clear. It’s very clear that it’s ultimately where we’re supposed to find ourselves at the end of the movie.

I was interested in giving extra layers of dimensionality to Christian and challenging myself to empathize and relate to a guy who, on the surface, is just an archetypal toxic alpha male. What allowed me to get into that was to follow this guy’s journey, which is the reverse of the hero’s journey. This guy’s structures, identity, and everything about him breaks down and is stripped away from him before he can even realize it. It’s happening all around him, and he doesn’t see it before it’s too late. But he finds himself literally stripped bare in this humiliating, exposing place, which is absolutely terrifying. That allowed me to get into the character, looking at him and acknowledging there are plenty of elements of that character that are in me and every single human being on the face of the planet. It’s the human condition.

I think you also said something to the people who thought Christian deserved what he got, “Go home and take a look at yourself in the mirror.” I don’t think anyone would want to be judged by their worst day or the worst thing they did. People are complicated, and they make decisions that don’t even make sense to themselves.

I totally agree, dude. I might have been a little bit reactionary myself to the audience! [laughs] But now that I’ve had an opportunity to talk about it, this is how I feel.

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Some scenes that supposedly showed Christian in a more sympathetic light were left on the cutting room floor—obviously, what makes the most sense for the film is what should win out, but is there a part of you that wishes people might see the fuller picture of the character you created?

Partly, but then it would have been a very different film. I think, ultimately, it’s the director’s decision that we’re aligned with Dani. And it’s an interesting one. If the scenes where Christian exhibits more compassion and provides her with stuff she needs in the moment had been left in, the film would be even more divisive and polarizing for an audience than it is. But as I said, it was the director’s decision to take it out.

How do you tackle playing beats in Midsommar like the one when Christian turns on a dime and decides he also wants to research the Hårga in direct mimicry of Josh, his friend and colleague. The underlying reasons of jealousy and entitlement read clearly to us, but Christian himself seems a bit aloof and isn’t cognizant of why he’s doing what he is. How do you approach those moments?

I looked through the script, and there’s so much of being a dick and being aloof. But I wanted to play this guy, further to your point, on his worst day. It’s the worst of this guy. Although that’s pretty much all we see of the character, my baseline for Christian is that he’s a well-meaning guy. He would probably think he’s a good dude who tries to do the right thing. When you pitch the character there for yourself and allow the character to do questionable things, I think it gives context to everything. So that’s what I tried to do, making it a case where an audience is watching a good dude do really, really dickish things. All they’re seeing is these awful things he’s doing, but it’s all coming out of a guy who’s largely well-meaning. Some of the stuff he does is really unforgivable, particularly the element of stealing Josh’s idea for the thesis and being so brazen about it. It’s unbelievable. If there’s one thing in particular I find unforgivable about him, it’s that. I think to base the character as someone who means well but is acting out their worst aspects of their character in this moment is how I got into it.

You’ve spoken about wanting to get in on the ground floor with directors and being a part of their success, not just latching yourself on when they’re already established. How do you know or gauge who’s going the distance and who’s a one-hit wonder?

You never really know completely. You’re taking a swing, and there’s so much luck involved. It’s a question of educating yourself as much as possible in the culture of cinema and making an educated guess from there. Ari in particular is someone who I thought his short films were visionary when I watched them, because I never got to see Hereditary before I signed on to do this movie. The script was really interesting, but what he wrote goes far beyond the words on the page. The conversations I had with him prior to signing on to be a part of the film were definitely incredibly encouraging for me. We have a common admiration for a number of quite obscure filmmakers, but some of the best filmmakers who ever lived, nonetheless. To me, that was a sign that this was something I wanted to be a part of and this was a director who valued the artistic merit of the project above all else. As long as you’re in the company of someone like that and as cultured as he is in the conversation of filmmaking, you’re probably in good hands. I’m going to endeavor to continue down that route interrogating directors I work with.

Is that education aspect of it a part of what your new Instagram movie review account, Jack Reynor’s Cinemania, is about? Watching movies with an eye to your own development as an artist?

One-hundred percent, man. That’s something I started not only because I wanted to start conversations with others about the cinema I love, but because it also helps me to advise and absorb what I’m seeing when I’m watching it. It educates me further in the grammar of cinema, and it’s a very useful tool for me as much as it’s an outlet. I absolutely love it.

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All 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Ranked, from Worst to Best

On the eve of Spider-Man: Far from Home’s release, we ranked the 23 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
Photo: Columbia Pictures

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.


The Incredible Hulk

23. 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


Iron Man 2

22. 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


Captain Marvel

21. 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


Avengers: Endgame

20. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Avengers: Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness. Keith Uhlich


Avengers: Infinity War

19. 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


Thor

18. 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


Captain America: The First Avenger

17. 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


Avengers: Age of Ultron

16. 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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Interview: Calexico and Iron & Wine Talk Years to Burn and Collaboration

Joey Burns and Sam Beam spoke with reverence about each other, revealing their multifaceted relationship.

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Calexico and Iron & Wine
Photo: Piper Ferguson

From “Father Mountain,” which urges you to savor love in the face of life’s inevitabilities, to “In Your Own Time,” with its shadowy images flirting with the nightmarish, there’s a melancholy percolating beneath Years to Burn, the second collaborative album from Iron and Wine and Calexico. In a recent conversation with Iron and Wine, a.k.a. Sam Beam, and Calexico’s Joey Burns, the musicians spoke with reverence about each other, both personally and professionally, revealing their multifaceted relationship.

As elusive as the exact source of Years to Burn’s mellowness might be, the work on the project was, to hear Beam and Burns tell it, focused and grounded. The album grew, as Beam says, “out of a determination and a willingness to work together. After we made [2005’s In the Reins], that time we spent together promoting it, and just sort of playing together for so long, formed really strong bonds—familial bonds—and we just really enjoy each other’s company.”

The questions they faced were, according to Burns, “Well, where do you go next? Do you do begin where you last left off or do you just go somewhere totally different?” As it happened, they wouldn’t have too much of an opportunity to ruminate about that: Their time in the studio was limited to five days, and they limited the number of musicians they used, sticking with tried-and-true band members like John Convertino, Paul Niehaus, and Paul Valenzuela. Burns describes a fairly stoic regimen: “You show up at 10 o’clock, do some work, break for lunch, work up until dinner, finish up or just listen back, and then do it all over again. There’s really not much time for hanging out or doing anything else.”

These limitations ended up working to the album’s benefit. “Having a limited amount of time kind of forces you as an artist to make decisions,” Beam says. “You can get really hung up on what the right choices are, and that’s kind of an endless question. With this approach, I’m able to separate myself in a way where I say, well, this is the best choice that we’ve made on this day from this point in the snapshot of our best ideas at the moment. And to me that’s a freeing thing. You make decisions, and those decisions stick, and you live with them, and then you can move on to the next thing.”

Remarkably, Beam and Burns and the other musicians surrounding them found room to improvise and experiment within their constraints. The most evident sign of this, “Bittersweet,” is an entrancing mix of three songs. Burns says it started with his primary partner in Calexico, John Convertino, who suggested they do one song that was totally free of lyrics, chords, and rhythm. “I came up with a title for that, ‘Outside El Paso,’ sort of connecting us geographically,” Burns remembers. “And, of course, there we were in Nashville. And so Sam had a song called ‘Tennessee Train.’ And I thought, hey, what if we took just one chord and we just made a ‘70s groove? And we wound up putting some really great trumpet solos on that. We added some backing vocals. And since it was sort of linked with the song ‘Tennessee Train,’ we started bridging those together. And then I suggested that we take one of the verses and translate it into Spanish for Jacob [Valenzuela] to sing. And then that became sort of a medley. Everything fell together really naturally and quickly.”

Burns describes other moments of productive experimenting too: “We had John Convertino climb into this big old empty tall echo-chamber. It’s at the studio. And we had him record the drum intro [for ‘What Heaven’s Left’]. And he had to carry his floor tom inside there. It’s a very small opening. It’s like a tiny window. And basically what you do is you put a microphone at one end of this room, and then at the other end you put a speaker. And that’s how you get the natural reverb sound.”

Though Beam had clear ideas about how he wanted the album to proceed, he also welcomed and appreciated these gestures of spontaneity. “It’s what can potentially make music really exciting, recording music and also playing music,” he says. “It’s sort of losing the safety net and stretching out. And so I wanted to make sure that we incorporated that into what we were making this time. Last time, I don’t feel like we really did that, because I didn’t really understand that about them at the time.”

Time has made the two bands more effective collaborators. The way Burns sees it, time has changed them, but that’s inevitable: “We’re just different people. Different experiences have accumulated. And so there’s a different end result. And not only that, but if we were to record the same songs and do another album like this, a week or a month later, it probably would come out a lot differently. That’s the beauty of this—it just depends on the mood and the vibe and the place where you’re at, and where everyone is at internally or emotionally.”

Beam, similarly, takes time in stride but is also curious about the changes it could bring. “It was odd, you know, that almost 15 years had passed in between, kind of crazy to think of,” he says. “The first time we did it, we hadn’t worked together before, so I was just sort of bringing in songs without knowing what it would sound like or what the collaboration would end up being like. And this time, it was 15 years later, so I was looking over my memories, and memories can be not quite so trustworthy sometimes. But I was also working off those strengths, and then also trying some new things.”

And so what of the songs themselves? Many musical collaborations sound like they were were designed by committee. With Years to Burn, like collaborations ranging from that of Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong and reaching all the way back to Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, something just works. While you might hear traces of each individual performer in the mix, the sound created is unique.

Beam says collaboration drove everything here, starting with the track sequence: “There were thematic elements going on in the songs chosen for the album. I think we were all really intent on there being a lot of shared singing responsibilities. And so, in putting the sequence together I really wanted to feel like we kept sort of passing the baton around. When you’re putting those things together, you’re looking for a sort of sonic feel, flow, variety. You’re looking for different kinds of musical movements, and then also passing the baton around like a hot potato of singing responsibilities.”

And yet Beam’s process for writing the songs on the album (he wrote all but one of them) was fairly private and intuitive. “Writing songs is not a math problem,” he says. “There’s not a right or wrong answer. So you kind of do what you feel like at the moment. It’s a matter of what you’re trying to achieve with a song, any individual one. If you want to express an idea outside of your experience and live into that, songs and art are a great place to do that, to explore an ideal or fantasy. I don’t really do that. I just talk about my experience, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. But I guess that’s just where my mind is when I sit down to write. I get contemplative.” The album, indeed, is all about thoughts, and the emotions behind them, more than it’s about tangible things; these songs float just outside of what we might easily summarize. And yet the feelings and impressions being described in the songs are quite real, and recognizable, becoming more poignant with each listen.

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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.

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Transit
Photo: Music Box Films

In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.

And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.

But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.

That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown


3 Faces

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac


Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac


The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg


Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti


Black Mother

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray

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E3 2019: The Best and Worst Surprises

The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition.

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Devolver Digital
Photo: Devolver Digital

The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition. As the current console generation winds down and new hardware is still in development, the subject of how games will be played going forward has come into question, as the technology to stream games via the cloud supplants the need for consoles or PCs.

In a 15-minute presentation prior to E3’s launch, Google unveiled their cloud gaming service Stadia, a subscription-based service—for use on desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices—that allows high-end gaming without the need for expensive hardware. Supposedly offering computing power significantly stronger than that of the PlayStation Pro and Xbox One X combined, Stadia relies on Google’s own data centers, with the only real bottleneck being consumer internet speeds and bandwidth caps as the gameplay is streamed to the end user. Hands-on experience with Stadia has shown it to be incredibly impressive—provided one’s internet connection is stable and fast enough to handle the required download speed.

Even before the expo officially kicked off at the Los Angeles Convention Center, notions of “traditional” video gaming were being challenged. There was no greater sign of the shake up than the absence of one of the three major console makers: Sony. The company eschewed not only their usual press conference, but any showing at all. While many have suggested that Sony, who had informally announced their upcoming PlayStation 5 console earlier in 2019, wanted to benefit from Microsoft announcing what the target specs would be for the Project Scarlett, the simple truth is that Sony doesn’t have much to currently show to the public.

Only two of Sony’s upcoming first-party exclusive titles particularly stand out: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us 2, a known quantity which has already seen multiple previews, and Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, whose trailer premiered shortly before the expo kicked off. In the end, releasing the trailer ahead of E3 was a smart move on the company’s part, as the ongoing enigma that is Kojima’s next title dominated discussion for days instead of getting lost in the sea of announcements after E3 was officially under way, and a solid release date is something that Sony can boast about in a year where their exclusives are scant.

EA also elected not to host their customary press conference, instead opting for a streamed video presentation similar to the Nintendo Direct broadcast. The company’s decision not to discuss anything about this year’s disappointing Anthem is damning, not only for the remaining fans of the game hoping to see the game properly supported moving forward, but for EA itself, whose frustrating trend of misusing developers they acquire has left BioWare on thin ice. As one live service game in an ocean, and created by a company with little experience making such games, Anthem was always destined to face an uphill battle; at this point, some four months after its release, turning the game around would require faith in the product and an evolving cycle of new content, both of which EA could have presented to the world here. And there’s precedent for this, demonstrated by the success of Destiny after its first tumultuous year. Alas, not even a mention across the entire show.

The main event of EA’s Play presentation was their upcoming Star Wars title Jedi: Fallen Order. Though the somnolent 14-minute video that capped the presentation seems to promise a cross between Uncharted and The Force Unleashed, hands-on time with the game reveals that its closest analogue is Dark Souls, given that it takes place across large open areas with bonfire equivalents the protagonist can meditate at, which inexplicably revives all enemies. The combat feels like that of Dark Souls, with the fast-paced lightsaber duels of something like Jedi Academy replaced by slower, more precise one-on-one battles where you must manoeuver around enemies to fight them individually, and in a manner that recalls other From Software games. Whether Jedi: Fallen Order will be as difficult as the Soulsborne titles remains to be seen, though one would assume EA would want the title to be accessible as possible, especially considering their recent and lousy track record with the franchise.

The first official E3 press conference was presented by Microsoft, which had a stellar showing of new games and announcements. New titles demonstrated include Outer Worlds, a Fallout-esque sci-fi action adventure game, a new Battletoads game featuring bright and colourful cartoonish graphics, the latest iteration of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the next chapter in the Gears of War series simply titled Gears 5, and survival horror outing Blair Witch. Microsoft’s next console, Project Scarlett, was broadly discussed as a technical powerhouse without mentioning any specifics, including price, as if to ensure Sony has no edge on the competition when their PS5 announcement finally comes. More interestingly, Microsoft presented their version of the cloud streaming gaming, the Microsoft xCloud service, which Phil Spencer was able to elaborate on during Giant Bomb’s Nite Two live show.

Spencer notes that while cloud streaming services are convenient, allowing gamers to play games anywhere, they’re to the detriment of consumers in terms of actually letting them own the games they buy. The Stadia pricing model includes not only subscription fees, but also additional prices on top for some games, which is troubling as purchasers will only “own” any game they buy as long as the service is active, or if they have an active internet connection. If Google, or any streaming service, pulls the plug, purchased products simply go away.

Which is why Microsoft is working toward a hybrid of cloud streaming services with traditional ownership models, where gamers will own their console and their games, but can also stream them to other devices to play games on the go using the cloud. Google’s Stadia offers something more akin to Netflix, and looks to suffer from some of the same issues as Netflix when it comes to content disappearing as licenses expire. Whether Microsoft’s model works also remains to be seen, but their excellent and inexpensive Game Pass service, which saw extension to the PC during E3, has demonstrated both the excellent value and the focus on services benefitting the end user that Spencer advocated for.

Bethesda was in full-apology mode for their first press conference since the disastrous launch of Fallout 76, bookending their presentation with saccharine, insipid videos about how they understand and like gamers, how they’re gamers themselves, and other such rigmarole. Bringing out Todd Howard to discuss said elephant in the room would have been a misstep had it not been for the announcement of the game’s Nuclear Winter DLC—a fresh take (currently available in beta) on the battle-royale genre—as well as a Fallout 76 freeplay period where anyone can play the game with the new content. Nuclear Winter is a surprising amount of fun, a squad-based battle royale allowing players to choose where they spawn on the map and then take advantage of classic Fallout devices while fighting to become the only survivor. For example, becoming invisible with a Stealth Boy offers a fleeting chance to get the drop on enemies or flee an area teeming with overpowered opponents, or jumping into a set of Power Armor gives more health but impedes player speed and is loud enough to give away player location. At time of writing, Bethesda have made Nuclear Winter an indefinite add-on for Fallout 76, which gives the populace at large a reason to try Fallout 76.

Standing high above Bethesda’s other announcements and demos, Doom Eternal looks to be a spectacular follow-up to the successful 2016 reboot, escalating on the core gameplay with new abilities including a combat grappling hook and a flamethrower, and an expanded narrative involving angels as well as the demons of Hell. Elsewhere, Square Enix’s press conference largely focused on the Final Fantasy VII Remake and concluded with a baffling look at Marvel Avengers, a game that probably should have been revealed back when Avengers: Endgame was still a part of the popular conversation but probably wasn’t given its ugly and bizarre character models. More notable, though buried within the conference, was the announcement of Dying Light 2, which looks to be an ambitious and sprawling follow-up to the original game. It boasts expanded parkour gameplay in a new environment that changes with player choice, promising to give fans a unique experience with each playthrough.

Nintendo Direct closed out the conferences, announcing two new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters: the much-loved dynamic duo of Banjo and Kazooie and the not-so-loved hero from Dragon Quest. The Link’s Awakening remaster, which boasts frustratingly cutesy graphics that go against the original game’s theme and tone, was also exhibited; it’s as if the developers thought that the cartoonish look of the original 8-Bit Game Boy title was an intentional stylistic choice, rather than how Zelda games looked at that time, and that it was something that needed to be made cuter. It feels like a significant misstep, and one that’s bound to cheapen the surprisingly mature and thoughtful narrative. Nonetheless, it’s pleasing that this underplayed classic will find a new audience, and Nintendo’s diorama displays of areas from the game on the show floor were exceptional and gorgeous.

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Finally, a new Animal Crossing was revealed, with a fresh island setting, new crafting gameplay, and the inclusion of fruit stacking. After sideline missteps like Pocket Camp, Amiibo Festival, and Happy Home Designer, a new Switch entry seems to be exactly the shot in the arm that this beloved series needs to get back on track.

Although E3 2019 demonstrated that there are major changes coming for the gaming industry, some things remain the same, even if it’s just Devolver Digital taking the piss out of, well, the big-budget press conference. Indeed, latest conference was as fresh, joyous, and deranged as its predecessors. The future of video gaming might be uncertain, but there’s still plenty to look forward to and celebrate, and this is something the folks at Devolver Digital are committed to proving year after year, and with a humor that could stand to rub off on the industry at large.

E3 ran from June 11—13.

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Including Toy Story 4, Ranked from Worst to Best

Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson

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