Year of Sad Keanu

Year of Sad Keanu

Set your sight back about seven years ago…

Things heat up as, after a relatively temperate 24 months, 2013 continues the decade’s streak of being one of the hottest years ever recorded. The worst for Australia comes in October, when the most devastating bush fires in 50 years ravage New South Wales, burning 118,000 hectares of land (as of writing, approximately 30 times that has burnt in the current bush fire disaster). This is all a few months after a successful leadership spill to depose Julia Gillard, bringing back Kevin Rudd for approximately 14 seconds before Tony Abbot and the Liberal’s are elected, holding power to this day. These separate instances, I’m assured, share no connection.

The Syrian Civil War rages on, as Al-Assad authorises the use of chemical weapons on his own people. Pope Benedict – the scourge of Christian Harry Potter stans the world over – becomes the first Pope in 600 years to cede his posting; by March, smoke rises from the Vatican to announce the anointing of a new papal head, Pope Francis, a dude who not only doesn’t hate witches and wizards but also thinks the gays are alright. And Nelson Mandela dies… though a lot of us thought that’d already happened.

An on-brand America remains a shitshow of funhouse curios. The Boston Marathon Bombing kills three and injures hundreds. Elsewhere, Lance Armstrong is outed as the world’s best, most successful cheater and Edward Snowden shows the NSA’s receipts for all that nasty invasion of privacy business. Not to be outdone by their southern cousins, the Mayor of Toronto goes on the record about smoking crack.

In the pop star sphere, Beyoncé makes the biggest splash by not even hinting at the jump while Miley Cyrus becomes the posterchild for grown-arse ridiculousness, twerking, wrecking and working herself up on Robin Thicke (shudder), hurling sticky fragments of herself in every direction like so much human glitter goo. For gamers, the PS4 and Xbox One are released; for Europeans, Daft Punk and My Little Pony are back. Finally, the rest of us get to collectively know about Candy Crush, Sharknado, hadouken and Rule 34 because the internet told us about them.

Alright, let’s get into it…

Best Song

(Click titles for music videos)

“Some say love is a burning thing, that it makes a fiery ring.” If nothing else, there’s a bristling audacity to quoting Johnny Cash in a 21st century breakup song. But there’s more to it than that, as Phosphorescent (aka folk mystic Matthew Houck) relishes the wide open space he’s afforded now that love has abandoned him, leaving him disfigured and unrecognisable. Settling down into a valley of despair, Houck finds comfort in the echoes of his own plaintive cries bouncing off the gulch’s walls, in the thin shriek of wind pealing through the canyon and sounding for all the world like the wheeze of a dying orchestra, its embers stoked by a sole, sobbing breath.

Runner Up

Antiseptic, aloof and wildly stylish, Disclosure are British as fuck. On “White Noise”, the duo’s signature approach of encasing a heavily-accented vocalist (Aluna Francis) in a coating a slippery grooves and jittery rhythms resulted in their best track, a dancefloor-ready anthem that’s also restrained and polite enough to work as dinner muzak.

The Rest

The posse cut of the decade is as remarkable for its heavy-hitters (Kendrick and Danny) as for its also-rans (who in good-glory fuck is Yelawolf?!).

Written with former partner Future, Ciara’s sex-on-wax stylings are buffered by AutoTuned coos and an R&B beat so spacious it’s barely there.

At the close of his most merciless, serrated album yet, Ye parts the clouds for a reverie on finding love in all the wrong places and trying rhyme Thanksgiving with Christmas.

Galactic chord progressions, futuristic spluttering and a zero-gravity melody orbit one another until a starburst of pop perfection is born.

In peak National form, “Graceless” is both somber and exultant, a finely honed tribute to making awesome noise from feeling like a piece of shit.

The first word many heard from the Chicago wunderkind assured us that he was even better than the last time, rapping with a gleeful abandon that generated its own stardom.

Lionel Richie in a mumblecore chamber, this was a Drake we hadn’t seen before and rarely saw again: wedding MC-mode, bowtie undone, singing and meaning it.

Before the Grammy grab, Musgraves’ earliest songs revolved around the simple metaphors and humdinger tunes that would later bring her to mass acclaim.

Synthpop frilled with a Scottish lilt, CHVRCHES’ opening track on their debut LP marries stadium-tronic waves with quiet, gorgeously-sung revelations.

How did a simple hum get so much clout? Scattered ’80s “whoa-oh” chants whisk across the channels as Dumont’s needs are demonstrated by a closed-lipped come-on.

A truly heavenly sound, as Rhye’s vocalist Milosh sings his entire way around, over and through a love that rises and sets by the soft light of contentment.

Bowie and brass, together at last (on an Arcade Fire track, at least), offering a stirring and crepuscular bounty that sees the black mirror in all of us.

A tale too old to be sung by someone so young, Waxahatchee’s sad-folk masterpiece is anchored by “Swan Dive”, all empty bottles and dreams of death.

A rare rap turn from Ocean sees him and Earl trading bars about miserability within the confines of young love, budding fame and giving up the green.

Monster music, as a snarl, some pings and a recursive noise loop generate some static right before an enfilade of mortar fire rains down all around you.

Best Movie

(Click titles for trailers or streaming options)

Folk music is not so different from any other genre, except for its insistence that we are happiest when we are sad. As much as any film made over the last ten years, the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis lives and dies by its soundtrack. And such is the music’s quality that the movie often soars, even as its bohemian characters (especially Llewyn himself) remain grounded, rutted to lives that run in circles through the same memories of loss and heartache.

If that sounds like a bummer, again I’ll remind you how effective folk music is at lifting the spirit by way of tragedy. The film, set in New York in the 1960s, takes place just on the heels of Dylan, Baez and a wealth of musicians whose authenticity was defined by how well they wore it. This works well thematically when you consider that many of the movie’s tracks, often completely devoid of context, are memorably stirring: the traditional cuts “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” are just as rousing as the folk revivalist melancholy of “Five Hundred Miles” and the goofy, purposefully ludicrous “Please Mr. Kennedy”.

All of which is just our entry point, the proper way inside of Llewyn Davis himself (Oscar Isaac in his fantastic breakout role). Formerly one part of a Simon & Garfunkel-esque duo before his ex-partner killed himself, Davis is constant hangdog, an unenthused musician who occupies that perennial space of dyed-in-the-wool creatives, couch-surfing and freelancing for sessions that he can barely keep from turning his artiste nose up at. He’s not the sort of man you trust with your cat when you’re away, is what I’m sayin’.

Of course, Llewyn is entrusted with a cat and (of course) he has all manner of close scrapes while serving as its carer, first losing it and then attempting to pass another of as its replacement. On paper, that all sounds a bit hacky, a Meet the Parents-like triviality that leads to existentialism. But not only is the reveal funnier than you’d expect (“Where’s its scrotum?!”), but the motif of a slippery cat that may or may not even be real is the best possible way to string together the film’s scattered scenes and gorgeous folk ballads.

From place to place, Davis finds he is out of step with the world, not real enough for the underground, commercial enough for the mainstream or stable enough for general existence. But it’s the cycle of the whole enterprise that seems to keep him going, the potential that he won’t be quite a fuck up the next time around, the always slim chance that you can find your teeth to smile after a good and proper shit-kicking.

Runner Up

Directed by a master of “too much information”, The Wolf of Wall Street is an example of excessive cinema as essential to a film’s entire credo. Adapted from convicted embezzler Jordan Belforte’s tell-all book and featuring Leo’s fifth starring role in a Scorsese picture, TWOFS has all the hallmarks of lazy movies: sex, drugs, and violence turned up to 11. But the film’s best and simplest trick is its confidence, a swagger that perfectly suits its coke-huffing, fraudster protagonist in both enlightening us to the ways of white collar criminality and keeping us so entertained that it’s hard to balk at the utterness of it all.

The Rest

A year after Lincoln freed the slaves, Steve McQueen’s torturous drama reminded us what the actual victims of the institution suffered, year after year.

A starkly shot and executed crime drama, Blue Ruin bundles the futility of revenge and awkwardness of real-life violence into a riveting neo-noir picture.

A dinner party where everything goes wrong in the most unfathomable way, as a gash in the time-space continuum spills out a bunch of surreal trippiness.

Italian in allcaps, Sorrentino’s Oscar nominated shaggy dog story wraps itself in European mystique and plotless intrigue, yielding aimless but splendid results.

Unreasonably affecting, Jonze’s investigation of Love 2.0 is the tenderest film you could ever hope to see about a Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with Siri.

Pornographic as possible, scatological as sin and pessimistic to boot, the Danish madman’s dual feature grasps the metaphor of sex and goes all the way with it.

One year after we were finally done with the glittery teen dream variety, Jim Jarmusch decided to make undead bloodsuckers cool again via a rockstar revamp.

The best of the decade’s “apocalypse by way of climate change” flicks, Snowpiercer (like all of Bong’s work) is more fascinated by class distinctions than the end of days.

A revelation for Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin is an unsettling puzzle, a sci-fi cipher with less interest in story and reason than tone and spectacle.

The most inscrutable love story ever told, Caruth’s deeply impressionistic film wonders if all our needs are just the result of the same strange, nameless absence.

Best New TV Show

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Rick and Morty isn’t really a TV show anymore, at least not in its most culturally recognised form. In the same way that Che Guevera became a t-shirt, Fight Club became actual fight clubs, Amy Schumer became a lightning-rod for misogyny and the “ok” gesture became the Nazi salute, R&M has been absorbed by the maelstrom of bullshit that is modernity. The loudest and most obnoxious threads on the internet interact with some piece of media and either co-opt or vilify it, deciding that it now means or represents something else entirely.

Image result for rick and morty inception

So, instead of a goofy, so-dumb-it’s-smart take on Back to the Future and a host of other genre tropes, this show became a signifier of something about you as a person if you chose to publicly associate with it. Let’s put it this way: I strongly recommend that you don’t quote Rick and Morty on a first date, because the expectation today is that if you’re a huge fan of this show, you probably suck. This is crazy for many reasons, one of which is that it seems to verify the worst stereotypes that surround fandom in pop culture, especially with sci-fi or videogame leanings. But the crazier part is that Rick and Morty‘s origins are so far-removed from this toxic, very millennial behaviour.

In December of 2013, Adult Swim released just three episodes of this new animated series from sitcom savant Dan Harmon and man-of-two-or-three-voices Justin Roiland. Each instalment too some acknowledge tendency or cliche within genre fiction and upended it spectacularly. The first episode immediately revealed how perverse the relationship between Rick and his obsequious grandson would be, while “Lawnmower Dog” doesn’t even pretend to hide the seams tying its Inception / Nightmare on Elm Street plot together.

Image result for rick and morty fantastic voyage

Runner Up

Described by its owner creator as “a pretentious art film”, Hannibal is the most sumptuous, sensual and arrestingly graphic TV show of the decade. Adapted from _____ series – which was previously made into the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs – Bryan Fuller’s series charts the relationship between Hannibal (an unsettling Mad Mikkelson) and Will Graham (), the crime scene analyst who has been assigned to work with him. Charged with homo-eroticism and a foodie’s respect for fine dining, Hannibal treats every shot as an opportunity to dazzle, to reconfigure your ideas of what beauty truly is and whether its worth snatching some lives away in the name of artistry and good taste.

The Rest

With one of the best opening scenes of any show in the 2010s, The Americans began its slowborn process of making “Russian spies in the ’80s” sound not only serious but vital.

Riding high off of a legendary stint on SNL and some legitimate hits with The Lonely Island, Andy Samberg led the cast of Brooklyn Nine-Nine into the pantheon of greatest sitcom ensembles.

Before becoming the face of online rage culture, Amy Schumer was just a sharp new voice in stand-up, as reflected by the biting satire of her sketch show.

A hilarious spin on the fix-up reality TV show, Nathan Fielder’s Comedy Central series allowed us to watch in horror as real people adopted his hilariously terrible business strategies.

Long-lost clones unite in a battle against Big Clone, I think… I can’t really remember, the whole show is basically just an excuse to watch four different Tatiana Maslaneys at once.

Best Album

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Everyone needs an album like Cerulean Salt in their life. One that you’ve listened to all the way through so many times that the idea of putting on just one track or hitting shuffle is akin to blasphemy. It’s always a time and place with these sorts of things, and the time and place were perfect: those first years of uni, away from home for the longest extended period ever, a budding new relationship, friends you see every day who you’ll never be as close with again, and too much of everything that’s bad for you.

Image result for waxahatchee cerulean salt

Waxahatchee (the stage name of Katie Crutchfield) is so attuned to the malaise and privileged despair of being very young, semi-stable and totally aimless that listening to her music can be legitimately difficult, even occasionally embarrassing. Her songs can so easily be the reminder of wasted hours and fumbled heartache that they trigger the same shameful twinge of longing that trawling an ex’s entire Insta feed might. But on Cerulean Salt, the potency of her songwriting and earnestness of her Alabama twang make for blissful listening.

Like Eliott Smith before her and now a whole troupe of artists following (most notably Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridges and Julien Baker of the folk supergroup boygenius), Crutchfield is a poised sentimentalist, which means she’s brilliant at emoting without betraying an ounce of drippiness. Her songs almost always hinge on a mournful tone and instrumentation defined by its plaintiveness. Bass lines resign themselves to discontent, whispery percussion taps out wintry rhythms and Crutchfield’s acoustic guitar sounds like it’s trying to hug her.

That sums up most of Cerulean Salt, an exemplary collection of sad folk gems. But there are exceptions: “Dixie Cup and Jars” is a scorched earth kiss off to a foolish friend, blistered by its electric guitar refrain and Crutchfield’s snarl. And “Coast to Coast” is the greatest Best Coast song Bethany Costello never wrote, a snippet of seaside power rock that sounds as if it should be blasting out of a jeep packed with a group of introverts in a rare bout of enthusiasm.

All of which is to say that this album is powerful reminder of why music figures so significantly in our lives. In media, it really is the closest thing we have to a time capsule, a constant and unchanging entity that contains all of the time you can’t take with you. Cerulean Salt is that album, a hermetically sealed moment that casts that self you’ve become in its wake in stark, aching relief, exhuming the past without having any new answers to give.

Runner Up

Three years on from his masterpiece and six years before a reborn aboutface, Kanye got the world’s attention with guerrilla marketing, blood-curdling screams and some rather direct blasphemy. Insisting that he’s a God but also reminiscing about fairly pedestrian chats with Jesus, Ye spends a good deal of Yeezus underscoring his own fallibility, striking out at any and all threats to his unquestionable genius with a compulsion that betrays a whole ocean of insecurity. As roiling tides jettison steel edges into a mishmash of noise and whole avenues of possibility collapse with the clang of an industrial implosion, Kanye’s streak of restless innovation and total douchebaggery continues.

The Rest

With adlibs straight out of Looney Tunes and beats spanning the bop and the brawl of Chicago, Chancelor Bennet made his indelible tie-dye mark on the decade.

Radiating the burl and slicked-back indifference of a ’50s greaser but encased in a modern chassis, this is the friendliest Arctic Monkeys had ever managed to pretend to be.

As much of a surprise then as it is a legacy item now, Beyoncé’s self-titled release smoothed over some of the diva’s more basic features, cementing her royal status.

Sordid details, enigmatic lyrics and eerie soundscapes congeal on Doris, Sweatshirt’s debut LP and the last time he left us a map to follow him into the weeds.

A wash of tonal oblivion, My Bloody Valentine’s third album (and first in 22 years!) is so sonically overwhelming that it’s the aural equivalent of deep sea diving on an alien planet.

Done with their prepschool antics and coming of age cheekiness, VW’s third and best album asks what’s the point, answers in tongue and is very ready to step to you.

Only two years on from his debut album, Drizzy returned with his tightest (and possibly strongest) collection of songs, veering deftly between boastful bullshit and twinkling allure.

Daft Punk’s entire career has been transcendence by way of repetition, but RAM is the first of their open-world simulators, with yacht rock rubbing snazzy shoulders with psychotronic madness.

Bulked out with tales of antiquity about faith and love in an uncertain world, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is also an album of supreme songcraft and tantalising beauty.

Like two Vicodin downed with a generous dollop of gin, Trouble Will Find Me is a bath of a sedation, calm and peaceful but almost certainly masking a well of discord.

Best Returning TV Show

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If you have absolutely no empathy for other human beings, you’re a monster; if you have too much, you’re a puddle. But what’s the right amount? Who deserves the twin resources of our attention and emotional understanding the most, and what’s the best outlet for them short of hugging morose strangers? Enlightened, in its second season, understood the best way to ensure people would actually care about its characters: by showing how hard it is for them to change, and then (miraculously) allowing us to watch as they do.

From its first season, Enlightened has always been about the cost of true change. Amy Jellicoe (co-creator Laura Dern, in her best performance) used to be a high-functioning alcoholic, anxiety-ridden executive at Abaddon, who had a nervous breakdown after an office affair went awry; however, by the time the show has properly kicked off, she’s been to rehab and has detoxified from her crazed lifestyl, resulting in her being a more stable and spiritually aware person. Of course, the irony of the show’s first season is that, once Amy returns to work at Abaddon in a more lowly position, she immediately goes to work trying to turn whistleblower on the whole company, just for some recognition of her own virtue.

By season two, Amy’s reasons for wanting to derail Abaddon become a little less self-involved, but it’s the supporting cast that is afforded the most room for development. First, there’s her ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson), a coke addict who takes Amy up on her recommendation that he check out the same resort she’d undergone treatment at previously. In a devastating but ultimately hopeful episode, Levi goes from rebelling against the facility to realising how doomed he truly is if his life continues on its current trajectory.

In a later instalment, Tyler (co-creator Mike White) transitions from being the loneliest man in the world, a self-avowed ghost of no consequence or merit, into a person who is seen, engaged with and cared for in ways that would have been inconceivable in season one. Both these instances – as well as the episode focusing on Amy’s mum, Helen (Diane Ladd), from the first season – offer some of the most organic television of the decade, slow and intimate meditations on the world seen through the eyes of human beings with rich internal lives.

Runner Up

Bringing one of the greatest series of all time to a close, the second half of Breaking Bad‘s final season takes no prisoners… eventually. But in the meantime, a huge swath of these eight episodes focuses on the cages everyone finds themselves in: Jessie, boxed in by PTSD and an overactive conscience; Hank, finally having the epiphany he’s been waiting on and with no way to capitalise on it; Skylar, married to the fucking Devil; and Walt, so obsessed with his empire and reputation that he’ll never be able to walk away completely. After painting himself into a corner time after time, creator Vince Gilligan said “Fuck it”, set the whole thing alight and went to call Saul.

The Rest

In five final episodes, Tina Fey’s bonanza of a sitcom comes to a satisfying close, with its most impressive feat still being that it made Alec Baldwin likable for seven years.

Talking toilets voiced by Jon Hamm, musicals about how Thomas Edison sucked and a mysterious bathroom turkey: again, this show never slows down, just improves each year.

It’s a testament to how amazing television was this year that the GOT season with “The Red Wedding” was just another thing that happened.

One year married and already in the doldrums, Don Draper and his colleagues spend most of this season wondering why it all seemed so much easier six years ago.

Again, I can’t stress how novel it felt in a time of such American political idealism to watch these characters tear down democracy like we all know they want to.

The Only Book I Read, And So I’m Gonna Tell You About It

Note – I don’t read a lot of books. Three or four a year would be pretty standard, and it’s usually older stuff I’m catching up on because I’ve been pretending to have already read it and my students are getting wise to it. If there’s one book I always try to read every year, though, it’s the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, because books are long and if I’m really putting the effort all the way in then it better be backed up by a trio of pretentious af literary critics.

So, there you go…

(Click title for excerpt)

Today’s another one of those cheat editions of the weird book stub at the end. In 2012, of course, there was no winner of the Pulitzer Prize, only three nominees. In 2013, there was a definitive winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, the story of a wayward North Korean soldier who makes his own luck within the rigid oppression of the Democratic People’s Republic. Trouble is… I totally already reviewed this book a while back, and can’t be arsed with doing it again.

So, if you’re interested, you can just read that. All I’ll add to the original review – besides the fact that no one should ever have to read a 1,300 word review of anything, ever – is that Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is perhaps the most readily adaptable of the winners from this decade. A seafaring espionage thriller, packed with adventure, mistaken identity, exotic settings, rebellion against tyranny and a doomed love affair, the book would make for a great bit of escapist cinema, as long as North Korea doesn’t get wind of it.

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