Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Of 2015.

This the 5th Annual Edition of American Wolf's Year-End Best Of. As usual, motion pictures are divided into Best Film (spirit animal: Citizen Kane) & Best Movie (spirit animal: King Kong); hopefully one day the Oscars will follow suit. Until then, I'm what you've got. The rest is pretty self-explanatory. I feel like I should have more to say, but you didn't really come here to read this introductory junk anyway, so I guess I won't bother to finish a

Best Film: Room.

When I was a kid, I used to wonder what it would be like if I grew up in a single place, watching television. On one level, Lenny Abrahamson's film Room, based on Emma Donoghue's novel of the same name (she also penned the screenplay), provides an answer to this question. Joy Newsome (a spectacular Brie Larson) & her 5-year-old son (an equally spectacular Jacob Tremblay) are confined into a one-room shed by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Joy was captured by Old Nick when she was 17; young Jack has never seen the world outside of what they call Room. The film is roughly divided into two halves--their lives before & after leaving Room--with one of the most thrilling escape sequences I have ever witnessed on film in between. The film's claustrophobic first part all but beats you down as a viewer, which only makes the escape & the freedom that follows that much more powerful--& genuinely terrifying. Like the original novel, Room is essentially seen through the eyes of young Jack. He gets the voice-overs, & when more adult events are taking place, we only see them through what he sees. This allows for the film to work as a philosophical meditation. Joy trying to explain to Jack the notion of an "other side" for the first time in his life. His notions about space, sides, & the world. What is real about television, a medium he was initially told all of his life was simply make-believe. Room mixes the tension of a thriller with a pondering on reality in a way that I have never seen in another film. It is at once devastating & beautiful, held together by the most sacred love of all: Mother & Child.

Best Movie: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

I was -2 years old when the original Star Wars was released. My parents told me about it like it was this magical thing--how everyone was baffled at this "Episode IV" thing, how it so effortlessly combined the genres of sci-fi, action, romance, & swashbuckler movies, among other things. When George Lucas did his stupid retinkering of it at the dawn of the new millennium, I went to go see it on the big screen. Jabba The Hutt looked stupid & fake. I was happier watching the old version in my living room. This is all just to say that having the opportunity to see The Force Awakens in its theatrical infancy was a thrill. It wasn't just a well-made, intelligent movie (we've come to expect such things from writer-director J.J. Abrams)--it was like the return of old friends. There's Princess Leia, looking like a woman now realistically in her 60s. There's Han Solo, who's only grown crustier with age. & where's Luke Skywalker? The thing that makes it all work is that unlike other back-to-the-future gimmicks (I'm looking at you, fourth Indiana Jones movie), the older generation are used measuredly & credibly. & with the new generation--the conflicted, sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the reformed, determined Finn (John Boyega), & the totally awesome kickass Rey (Daisy Ridley)--we have for the first time since the original trilogy a cast that is worthy of carrying the story. They make the appearance of Leia, Han, & the rest feel organically rewarding instead of the cheap cameos they could have easily become. & just like the original Star Wars films, it leaves us happily enthralled & dying for more.

Best TV Show: Master Of None.

For the third straight year on this blog, The Best TV Show has gone to something that streams on Netflix. But Orange Is The New Black's reign has ended. Time to step aside for Master Of None, co-written by & starring Aziz Ansari. In it, he plays an Aziz Ansari-like struggling actor in New York City named Dev Shah. Over 10 short episodes, we follow him through a wide range of subject matter: Sex ("Plan B"), family ("Parents"), morality ("The Other Man"), aging ("Old People"), & gender ("Ladies & Gentlemen"). But the two most memorable episodes show how great the show is in terms of both subject matter & composition. One was "Indians On TV," which took a rare look at the portrayal of Indian-American actors in popular media (did you know that was a guy in brownface in Short Circuit?!), & the expectations & frustrations that come with it. The other was "Mornings," which followed Dev & his girlfriend Rachel (last seen as a criminally underused one-season cast member on SNL) in a series of vignettes of the rise & fall of their relationship over as series of months; think Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould for the NYC romantic hipster set. & while the finale ended the season in a less-than-spectacular (& less-than-believable) way, in terms of the rest of the episodes leading up to it, Master Of None captured The Uber Generation in realistic-looking people & dialogue, with an integrated yet credible gang of creative social misfits. Throw on top of this the best (& most varied) use of cold-opens & an amazing array of music (Johnny Cash's stark "There You Go" over one of the openings made me hear the song with new ears), & you've got the best television of 2015--on Netflix, or anywhere else.

Best TV Episode: "Connection Lost," Modern Family.

Modern Family is showing its age & is simply not up to par to its earlier seasons, but then again, few shows in their position could be. (As proof, the always-late-to-the-party Emmys didn't give Best Comedy to Modern Family for the first time since it was on the air, with Veep nabbing the honors.) Yet when it works, Modern Family still ranks with the finest television out there. Take this episode, "Connection Lost," which takes place entirely on Claire's Mac OS X desktop. Our TV screen becomes her laptop screen; we only see her through video chat & follows what online sites she goes to. & yet, the episode effortlessly holds our attention & weaves together several subplots as well as more than a few laugh-out-loud gags. (Who knew that rushing to Google something could be so funny?) The result is an innovative half-hour of entertainment that shows that Modern Family can still come out on top.

Best Song: "Hello" by Adele.

OK, so I've never actually heard Adele's "Hello." Even when I went to put in this YouTube clip, the song didn't start in the first 20 seconds so I went back to this. But even as a person completely deaf to popular radio, "Hello" has to be the song of the year, the way that Godfather was The Oscars' Best Picture of 1972 or Sgt. Pepper was The Grammys' Best Album of 1967. It saturated the media like few other songs of late, going from the expected places (inside all sorts of places in Entertainment Weekly!) to the less-than-expected places (an SNL sketch about how it can bring together a family feuding politics over Thanksgiving) to the completely unexpected places (the cover of TIME!!!). I'm sure one day I'll listen to it, perhaps even later tonight, but for the time being I don't need to. I know it's Adele at her finest--which guarantees it's a pop masterpiece.

Best Album: At Sun Records: The Collected Works by Jerry Lee Lewis.

For countless Christmases, I always secretly hoped for the German-based reissue label Bear Family's 8-disc set of all of Jerry Lee Lewis's master recordings--& more--at Sun Records. But with each year getting further away from its 1989 release date (& thus, 1989-era sound quality), it felt like a diminishing prospect. Enter this set, which suddenly appeared a few months ago. With years of painstaking research in the making, it gathers every single known take of a recording made by Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Records, in other words, the wildest rocker of them all encompassing his complete creative output at the greatest label of them all. It's a whopping 18 discs worth of material--pretty surreal when you realize that Elvis's entire creative output is 19 songs & less than 2 discs of material--& its breadth speaks to Jerry Lee lasting years longer at the label than his former labelmates Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, & Roy Orbison. He sang hot rockers, sexy blues, country weepers, 19th Century parlor ballads, & traditional folk ballads--& that's just on the first disc! This is a full sweep of American music, in the grand tradition of Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives & Sevens, Billie Holiday's Columbia sessions, Robert Johnson's complete recordings, Hank Williams' complete recordings, &, of course, Elvis's complete '50s masters. & it can all be yours for just $389.11! Just one quibble--could Bear Family (or better yet, Rhino Records) please pull out all of the master takes & put that into a 4 or 5-disc set? In the meantime, I'll be saving up for this one.

Best Music Video: "She's Not Me" by Jenny Lewis.

Hold up--a major solo female pop star released a video with all of her famous friends making cameos in crazy costumes & it's not Tay-Tay-Sway's "Bad Blood"?! Nope. The only good thing about "Bad Blood" was that it made me go back & re-watch The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," which beat "Bad Blood" at its own game on a fraction of the budget before Swift was even in kindergarten. So as an alternative to the most overrated video of the year, check out Jenny Lewis's "She's Not Me." It too is chockful of inside jokes (mostly at the expense of Lewis's own child acting career) & makes me only further appreciate the comedic genius that is Vanessa Bayer. Plus, it's got Fred Armisen. As Estelle Getty. Playing Sophia. & did I mention that Feist shows up as a priest from Pleasantville? No "Bad Blood" towards this clip here.

Best Book: Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack by Andrew Schartmann.

It's been an epic year for the 33 1/3 series. They had their semi-annual open call for new title proposals & over 600 people responded (including myself), which they whittled down to a few lucky & worthy volumes (unfortunately not including myself, but props & congrats to all of those who did make it). In the meantime, this volume came out, the first 33 1/3 book to cover music that was never contained on an album. It is also the about the shortest amount of music in the series, some 3 minutes total of all the different themes. Yet it is as hummable to my generation as The Beatles were to my parents' generation, ingrained in our collective unconscious the way that few musical creations are. It is ultimately about the extremely limited confines of a 1980s 8-bit video game for kids proved the ideal palette for Japanese composer Koji Kondo. He emerges as a forgotten pioneer, a hero who proves that sometimes the most seemingly shallow & disposable pop creations can lead to the deepest sense of shared culture. Somewhere, Andy Warhol is smiling.

Best Performance (Solo): Constance Wu as Jessica Huang, Fresh Off The Boat.

If Master Of None was the finest (post-?) modern TV series of 2015, then Fresh Off The Boat was the finest traditional modern TV series (it even airs on a major network--ABC--how quaint!). Initially built around the trials & tribulations of Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang), the oldest of 3 sons in an Asian-American family set in 1995 Florida, it soon morphed into more of a family ensemble, in no small part because its best asset is mother Jessica Huang, played by Constance Wu (& upstaging the always-reliable Randall Park as husband Louis Huang is no small feat). In a way, she is the archetypal tiger mom, but it goes deeper (& more realistic than that), just like how Alex P. Keaton wasn't just another Yuppie. She is very strict & exacting of what she expects from her children, but at the same time loves them deeply & is sensitive to their needs. She is also absolutely hilarious, with some of the best line deliveries I've seen on a sitcom in ages. Fresh Off The Boat may not be the best overall program on TV right now, but whenever Constance Wu is on in it, it might as well be.

Best Performance (Group): Bill Murray, Jenny Lewis, David Johansen, et al., singing "Fairytale Of New York" in A Very Murray Christmas.

I just spent two weeks analyzing this thing in a blog I posted here. Everything I could ever hope to say (& more, & perhaps less) is already there.

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