March 2021: Listening Diary

The tranquil and contemplative companion music that Mustapha Skandrani and Meitei provided me last month found cousins in March in recent releases by Shida Shahadi (Lake of Fire, 2020) and the monthly collaborative releases by the duo of Laura Cannell and Kate Ellis (January | February | March Sounds, 2021). A reissue / rediscovery of the beautiful 2013 release of The Box Tree by Skúli Sverrisson and Óskar Guðjónsson dug a well that I went back to often over the course of the month.

In terms of more voice-based releases, the new collaboration by Andrew Bird and Jimbo Mathus, These 13 (obscure nod to Faulkner with that title), is the best thing I’ve heard Bird do in years. Effortlessly listenable from beginning to end, parsimonious live recordings with largely violin, guitar, and mandolin – Appalachian folk and raw country, with judicious strings for a nudge of drama here and there. Nothing wrong with it.

Outside domestic turf, a rerelease of Luiz Bonfá’s Reverso do Verso hit right for the roll-out of spring weather, as did the reissue of the Buda Musique collection of Taraab classics Zanzibara Vol. 10. I just found the November release of Tehran TV actress Liraz Charhi‘s new LP – a winning clutch of Israeli-Persian (!) pop with reverent nods to golden-era Googoosh and Ramesh. And speaking of golden eras, MPB auteur José Mauro also seems to be having a new day, with Far Out spinning out new editions of his excellent albums Obnoxius and A Viagem das Horas (the latter earning a full release in late April).

Among leftfield and oddbird finds, recent drops on Bandcamp and Spotify of the 80s recordings of Swiss project Die Welttraumforscher (particularly Die Rückkehr der echten Menschheit (1981-1990)) had me frequently pricking up my ears. As did lumpy/unkempt but consistently inspired releases by Teeth Agency and Fievel is Glauque. Also worth earmarking two French discoveries: the Occitan-language singing field recordist Sourdure (recently with a profile on BC), and a double EP issue of miniatures from Gabriel Gauthier under the name Nevers, Minor Plot Twist and Clueless. Background is cloudy, but foreground is nice. Here we go.


Best Listens (new releases & reissues)

AMBIENT / LIBRARY

Laura Cannell & Kate Ellis – January Sounds / February Sounds / March Sounds (2021)

Lionmilk – I Hope You Are Well (2021)

Shida Shahadi – Lake on Fire (Oct 2020)

Anna Homler & Elizabeth Falconer / Hey String – blue thirty-seven (Nov 2020)

Holland Andrews – Wordless (2021)


OUTERNATIONAL (NEW)

Sourdure – De mòrt viva (2021)

Nevers – Minor Plot Twist / Clueless (2021)

Senyawa – Alkisah (2021)

Liraz – Zan (Nov 2020)

Kutiman – Wachaga (July 2020)


OUTERNATIONAL (REISSUES)

V/a – Zanzibara Vol. 10 (First Modern: Taraab Vibes from Mombasa & Tanga 1970-1990)

Luiz Bonfa – Reverso do Verso

José Mauro – A Viagem das Horas / Obnoxius

Stella Chiweshe – Ambuya!

The Beaters – Harari


JAZZ (REISSUES/REDISCOVIES)

Skúli Sverrisson & Óskar Guðjónsson – The Box Tree (2021, 2013)

New Muse 4tet – Blue Lotus (2021)

The Modern Jazz Quartet – Continental Escapades (2021, ???)

Hamiet Bluiett – Bearer of the Holy Flame (2021, 1994)


GUITAR AUTEURS

Nathan Salsburg – Landwerk No 2 (Dec 2020)

Mason Lindahl – Kissing Rosy in the Rain (2021)

Pino Palladino & Blake Mills – Notes with Attachments (2021)


STRUMMERS / SONGBIRDS

Jimbo Mathus & Andrew Bird – These 13 (2021)

James Yorkston & the Second-Hand Orchestra – The Wide, Wide River (2021)


LEFTFIELD / ODD ENDS

Die Welttraumforscher – Die Rückkehr der echten Menschheit (1981-1990)

Fievel Is Glauque – God’s Trashmen Sent to Right the Mess (2021)

Teeth Agency – You Don’t Have to Live in Pain (2021)

Kitchen Cynics – Beads Upon an Abacus (Dec 2020)

V/a – Heisei No Oto: Japanese Left-field Pop from the CD Age (1989-1996)

Five from the Archive (frequent spins, rediscoveries)

Meilyr Jones – 2013 (2016, Wales)

Sourdure – L’Espròva (2018, France – Occitan)

Jose Carlos Schwarz – Boca Ke Papia; Udjus Ke Odjas (Guinea-Bissau, 2017)

V/a – Par les damné.e.es de la terre (Des voix des luttes 1969-1988) (France)

DIEUF-DIEUL de Thiès – Aw Sa Yone Vol 2 (Senegal, 2015)

March 2021: Viewing Diary

Film (recent releases)

Can’t Get You Out of My Head (pts 4-6) – Adam Curtis

Notturno – Gianfranco Rosi

Dear Comrades! – Andrei Konchalovsky

Dead Pigs / Birds of Prey – Cathy Yan double feature (2018 / 2020)

A Month of Single Frames – Lynne Sachs & Barbara Hammer

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – Bill & Turner Ross

My Octopus Teacher – Pippa Ehrlich & James Reed

Boys State – Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss

One Night in Miami – Regina King

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Aaron Sorkin

The Mole Agent – Maite Alberdi

Crip Camp – James Lebrecht & Nicole Newnham

Nomad: In the Steps of Bruce Chatwin – Werner Herzog

Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry – RJ Cutler

I Care a Lot – J Blakeson


Film (archival)

Percival – Eric Rohmer, 1978

Double feature: Vertigo / The Green Fog – Hitchcock (1958) / Guy Maddin (2017)

Double feature: Wanda / Badlands – Barbara Loden (1970) / Terrence Malick (1973)

Outer Space – Peter Tscherkassky, 1999

Citizen Kane – Orson Welles, 1941

Bicycle Thieves – Vittorio De Sica, 1948

Sometimes Always Never – Carl Hunter, 2018

L’Atlante – Jean Vigo, 1934

Nationtime – William Greaves, 1972


Serial TV

The Investigation (Efterforskningen) (2021, Denmark)

Borgen (Season 1, 2010, Denmark)

Lupin (2021, France)

Ted Lasso (2020, USA)

Little America (2020, USA)

The Last Dance (2020, USA)

February 2021: Viewing Diary

Film (recent releases)

Can’t Get You Out of My Head (pts 1-3) – Adam Curtis

Beginning – Dea Kulumbegashvili

Nationtime – William Greaves

Nomadland – Chloe Zhao

Saint Maud – Rose Glass

Minari – Lee Isaac Chung

Another Round – Thomas Vinterberg

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – George C Wolfe

Soul – Pete Docter

Promising Young Woman – Emerald Fennell

Kajillionaire – Miranda July


Film (archival)

L’Atlante – Vigo, 1934

The Last Picture Show – Bogdanovich, 1970

8 12 – Fellini, 1963

Kiki’s Delivery Service – Miyazaki, 1989

V/day double feature: Bright Star (Campion, 2009), Moonstruck (Jewison, 1987)


Serial TV

Ethos (2020, Turkey)

Trapped (2017, Iceland)

Borgen (2010, Denmark)

Pretend It’s a City (2020, NYC)

February 2021: Listening Diary

A random stumble onto a new Japanese issue of Istikhbars and Improvisations on Bandcamp introduced me to the Algerian pianist Mustapha Skandrani, and I’ve been hooked since, revisiting a couple collections for much of the month. Modal improvisations based on Arabo-Andalusian vocal music, as meditative and soulful as Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s singular playing, or in another register, the birdsong-derivations of Moondog. Along with Meitei’s Kofu, which I became aware of during the winter holidays, my most frequent listens of the winter months. Kofu is the third in a trilogy of what the producer calls “lost Japanese moods” – loops, cut-ups, ’78 samples seamlessly overlain with an attention and melancholy as ghosty as The Caretaker’s best work.

Some weekend afternoon track-trading with an old friend, Peter Gizzi, turned up a recording of duets (Rhodes, violin – a rare and perfect match) by Cage at his most melody-turned, and I found myself building readerly side-saddle playlists of the above and other meditative over/tonal rich work from Patricia Brennan, Erlend Apneseth, Tarawangsawelas, Lumen Drones, Meara O’Reilly and others. The end of the month finally brought the release (much anticipated for me) of Wau Wau Collectif’s Yaral Sa Doom, and all its open, borderless, blue-sky optimism.

Rich opening of the year. If civilization and sociality is at a pause, the musical imagination continues in force. No end to the sounds that come.


Best Listens (new releases & reissues)

Wau Wau Collectif – Yaral Sa Doom

Mustapha Skandrani – Istikhbars and Improvisations

Nermin Niazi – Disco Se Aagay

4Mars – Super Somali Sounds from the Gulf of Tadjoura

Patricia Brennan – Maquishti

Nahawa Doumbia: Kanawa

v/a – Somewhere Between: Mutant Pop, Electronic Minimalism & Shadow Sounds of Japan 1980​-​1988

Lon Moshe & Southern Freedom Arkestra – Love Is Where the Spirit Lies

Tassos Chalkias – Divine Reeds

Altin Gün – Yol

Apifera – Overstand

New Discoveries (recent releases)

Meitei – Kofū (2020)

Erlend Apneseth – Fragmentarium (2020)

CS + Kreme – Snoopy (2020)

Rob Mazurek & Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust (2020)

Evritiki Zygia – Ormenion (2020)

Kooshin – Layla (2020)

v/a – If I Had a Pair of Wings: Jamaican Doo-Wop, Vol 3 (2020)

María José Llergo – Sanación (2020)

SiP – Leos Naturals (2020)

Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger – Force Majeure (2020)

Rita Payés & Elisabeth Roma – Imagina (2019)

Meara O’Reilly – Hockets for Two Voices (2019)

Lumen Drones – Umbra (2019)

Tarawangsawelas – Wanci (2017)

Five from the Archive (frequent spins, rediscoveries)

Simón Díaz – Tonadas (Venezuela, 1974)

Mustapha Skandrani – Les virtuoses (piano) (Algeria, 1993)

Shirley & Dolly Collins – Anthems in Eden (UK, 1969)

John Cage – Melodies & Harmonies (2010, Lang, Fender Rhodes & Gahl, violin)

Choir of the Pius X School, Purchase, NY – Missa pro defunctis (The Requiem Mass), Solesmes edition (1930)

2020 Listening

Ranking music is unwise – not that there was a surfeit of wisdom literature guiding me/them/us this year. 2020 was the first year in almost fifteen that I didn’t have my regular radio show to program and host mid-week (KXLU went on automation in March once the full impact of the plague was known). In a typical week, I might listen to tens of LPs as restless monitor of an archive well beyond any possible grasp, even as access and recovery of a century-plus of recordings is easier than ever.

Ironically, even without a regular event to goad me into research, I listened to music more than ever in 2020, perhaps a bit more broadly even, finding niches and contexts that both co-listening and solo absorption might allow. Since my radio show tends toward archival releases and reissues, with a decidedly international and creative/experimental bent, I can be a bit repetitive and opportunistic in where I go to source it – what remains of vinyl blogs, Bandcamp’s sprawl, podcast collectives, and what I can random-walk into by training recommendation algorithms on several streaming platforms.

This year I found myself listening to more to instrumental / library / gaussian music than typically – I often am impatient with it, and crave the human voice, especially deep song and non-English folk and art song. But perhaps because I was often ‘lying abed’ reading at home for hours at a time, sound that was parallel and ambient worked more. To its opposite, I also found more time for hip-hop and club music on walks in the hills and in the cabin, in rarer moments when the kids were siloed on headphones, distance-‘learning’.

In any case, here’s a survey of the field-and-well I went to repeatedly in the past twelve months. In a nod to the ghost of Rick Dees, a top 40 (inclusive of both new releases and ’20 reissues) based on frequency of spins and some intuitive feels, followed by a top 100 loosely grouped by the unwisest thing of all in this post-genre paradise of music: microgenres of unreliable integrity and delimitation. I’ll try to link to some playlists come free moments in January.


2020 by Feel & Frequency: A Top 40

  1. Lina_Raul Referee – s/t
  2. v/a – The Storm of Life (Death Is Not the End)
  3. Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight to Eternity
  4. This is the Kit – Off Off On
  5. Jaime Roos & Estella Magnone – Mujer de Sal Junto a un Hombre Vuelto Carbón
  6. Andre Gibson & Universal Togetherness Band – Apart: Demos 1980-1984
  7. Alabaster DePlume – To Cy & Lee
  8. Jon McKiel – Bobby Joe Hope
  9. Mary Halverson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling
  10. SAULT – Untitled (Black Is) / (Rise)
  11. Okkyung Lee – Yeo-Neun
  12. Cosmo Sheldrake – Wake Up Calls
  13. Aksak Maboul – Figures
  14. Caetano Veloso & Ivan Sacerdote – s/t
  15. Priscilla Ermel – Origens Da Luz
  16. Nina Simone – Fodder on My Wings
  17. Kate NV – Room for the Moon
  18. Slauson Malone – Vergangenheitsbdewältigung (Crater Speak)
  19. Shirley Collins – Heart’s Ease
  20. Beverly Glenn-Copeland – Transmissions
  21. Sylvia Tarozzi – Mi specchio e rifletto
  22. Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy and Happiness
  23. Dawan Muhammed – Deep Stream
  24. Ray Larsen – Songs to fill the air
  25. Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir – Do Not Pass Me By Vol.1
  26. Moor Mother & billy woods – Brass
  27. Thiago Nassif – Mente
  28. The Koreatown Oddity – Little Dominiques Nosebleed
  29. Microphones – Microphones in 2020
  30. Jyoti & Georgia Anne Muldrow – Mama, You Can Bet!
  31. Les Amazones d’Afrique – Amazones Power
  32. Perfume Genius — Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
  33. Lonnie Holley – National Freedom
  34. Arca – KiCk i
  35. Star Feminine Band – s/t
  36. Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown
  37. Minyo Crusaders & Frente Cumbiero – From Tokyo to Bogata
  38. Horse Lords – The Common Task
  39. Gabriels – Love and Hate in a Different Time (EP)
  40. Dirty Projectors – 5EPs

20 in ’20: Reissues & Archival

Andre Gibson & Universal Togetherness Band – Apart: Demos 1980-1984
Beverly Glenn-Copeland – Transmissions
Dawan Muhammed – Deep Stream
Jaime Roos & Estella Magnone – Mujer de Sal Junto a un Hombre Vuelto Carbón
Jon Hassell – Vernal Equinox
Moondog – On the Streets of New York
Mort Garson – Music from Patch Cord Productions / Unexplained / Black Mass
Nina Simone – Fodder on My Wings
Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir – Do Not Pass Me By Vol.1
Priscilla Ermel – Origens Da Luz
Rustem Quliyev – Azerbaijani Gitara
Sharhabil Ahmed: Habibi Funk 13, The King of Sundanese Jazz
Sun Ra – Haverford College, Jan 25, 1980 (Solo Rhodes)
Svitlana Nianio & Oleksandr Yurchenko – Znayesh Yak? Rozkazhy
Théâtre Du Chêne Noir D’Avignon – Aurora
v/a – America Invertida
v/a – Excavated Shellac: An Alternate History of the World
v/a – How the River Ganges Flows: Masterpieces of Indian Violin (’33-52)
v/a – La Locura de Machuca 1975-1980
v/a – The Storm of Life (Death Is Not the End)


20 in ’20: Deep Cuts & Adventurous Listens

Anna von Hautwolf – All Thoughts Fly
Bastien Keb – The Killing of Eugene Peeps
Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Patchouli Blue
clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned
DJ Dlaki – Balani Fou
DJ Chengz – St Lucian Kuduro Mixtape
Duma – Duma
Eyvind Kang – Ajaeng Ajaeng
Jennifer Walshe: A Late Anthology of Early Music
Keeley Forsyth – Debris / Photograph
Le Grand Sbam – Furvent
Liturgy – Origin of the Alimonies
MC Yallah – Mama Waliwamanyii (EP)
Pink Siifu – NEGRO / Pink Siifu’s
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – Krazy Karl
Slauson Malone – Vergangenheitsbdewältigung (Crater Speak)
Svitlana Nianio & Oleksandr Yurchenko – Znayesh Yak? Rozkazhy
Sylvia Tarozzi – Mi specchio e rifletto
Théâtre Du Chêne Noir D’Avignon – Aurora
v/a – A Young Person’s Guide to Unseen Worlds By Visible Cloaks


15 in ’20: Library Music

Ak’chamel, The Giver of Illness – The Totemist
Andrew Wasylyk – Fugitive Light and Themes of Consolation
Cate Le Bon + Group Listening – Here It Comes Again
Cosmo Sheldrake – Wake Up Calls
Dominique Dumont – People On Sunday
Emily A. Sprague – Hill, Flower, Fog
Faten Kanaan – A Mythology of Circles
Haruomi Hosono – Hana ni Mizu
Jon Hassell – Vernal Equinox (reissue)
Luke Schneider – Altar of Harmony
Mary Lattimore – Silver Ladders
Mong Tong – Mystery
Nathan Salsburg – Landwerk
Ohneohtrix Point Never – Magic Ohneohtrix Point Never
Okkyung Lee – Yeo-Neun


15 in ’20: Beats & Club Music

Arca – KiCk i
Boldy James – Manger on McNichols
Chester Watson – A Japanese Horror Film
Gabriels – Love and Hate in a Different Time (EP)
Hope Tala – Girl Eats Sun
Khruangbin – Mordechai
Moor Mother & billy woods – Brass
Moses Sumney – grae
Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma & Divorce
Quelle Chris, Chris Keys – Innocent Country 2
SAULT – Untitled (Black Is) / (Rise)
The Koreatown Oddity – Little Dominiques Nosebleed
The Weeknd – After Hours
Yaeji – WHAT WE DREW
Your Old Droog – Dump YOD: Yutnoy Edition


15 in ’20: Art Rock & Indie Auteurs

Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
Aksak Maboul – Figures
Bartees Strange – Live Forever
Bill Callahan – Gold Record
Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight to Eternity
Deradoorian – Find the Sun
Dirty Projectors – 5EPs
Drab City – Good Songs for Bad People
Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy and Happiness
Horse Lords – The Common Task
Jon McKiel – Bobby Joe Hope
Kate NV – Room for the Moon
Microphones – Microphones in 2020
Perfume Genius — Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
This is the Kit – Off Off On


15 in ’20: Jazz & Outernational

Alabaster DePlume – To Cy & Lee
Bab L’ Bluz – Nayda!
Caetano Veloso & Ivan Sacerdote – s/t
Group RTD – The Dancing Devils of Djibouti
Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown
Jyoti & Georgia Anne Muldrow – Mama, You Can Bet!
Kiko Dinucci – Rastilho
Les Amazones d’Afrique – Amazones Power
Lina_Raul Referee – s/t
Mary Halverson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling
Minyo Crusaders & Frente Cumbiero – From Tokyo to Bogata
Ray Larsen – Songs to fill the air
Star Feminine Band – s/t
Thiago Nassif – Mente
v/a – Electro Acholi Kaboom from Northern Uganda

2020 Viewing

In February, I was sweetly-made in an Alamo Drafthouse recliner, watching Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow in the theater, loving it every bit as much as I expected to. Nothing in 2020 would surpass it.

Four weeks later all local theaters were shuttered, and ten months later, it’s still hard to guess when the window will open in 2021, and what will survive. But across the year, between streaming services, virtual cinemas, a great catalog year from Criterion and Mubi, and mail-order discs, there was plenty to see.

And there was so much more that I was unable to catch – given limited-runs, force-scarcity ticketing and deferred releases. Wanting and waiting to see Nomadland, Minari, About Endlessness, Saint Maud, Fire Will Come, among others. So still plenty to take in, impatience or no. What follows is the best of what came to me, film and series, via (mostly) the smaller screens in 2020.


Film

  1. First Cow – Kelly Reichardt
  2. Small Axe: Lovers Rock – Steve McQueen
  3. Bait – Mark Jenkin
  4. Vitalina Varela – Pedro Costa
  5. Beanpole – Kantemir Balagov
  6. Dick Johnson is Dead – Kirsten Johnson
  7. Wolfwalkers – Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
  8. I Was at Home but… – Angela Schanelec
  9. The Forty Year Old Version – Radha Blank
  10. Sound of Metal – Darius Marder
  11. Sorry We Missed You – Ken Loach
  12. Collective – Alexander Nanau
  13. Time – Garrett Bradley
  14. I’m No Longer Here – Fernando Frías
  15. The Wolf House – Joaquin Cociña, Cristóbal León
  16. The Vast of Night – Andrew Patterson
  17. Deerskin – Quentin Dupieux
  18. Bacurau – Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles
  19. Possessor – Brandon Cronenberg
  20. Relic – Natalie Erika James

12 more films I enjoyed:

City Hall, Color Out of Space, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Driveways, Family Romance LLC, His House, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Palm Springs, The Nest, The Personal Life of David Copperfield, Young Ahmed


Television

1-10 (unranked)

Babylon Berlin (Season 3)
Better Things
Ethos (Bir Başkadır)
Giri / Haji
I May Destroy You
My Brilliant Friend (Season 2)
Ramy (Season 2)
The Good Lord Bird
The Queen’s Gambit
What We Do in the Shadows (Season 2)

(Honorable mention: Tuca & Bertie. 2019 series, but just caught up!)

11-20 (unranked)

Curb Your Enthisiasm (Season 10)
Last Week w/ John Oliver
Lovecraft Country
Mrs. America
Never Have I Ever
Normal People
Pen15 (Season 2)
Sex Education
The Mandalorian
The Valhalla Murders

(Gratuitous mention: Dark (Season 3). Ponderous and exhausting, but glad to have finished.)

2019 Filmgoing

I keep keeping lists. I keep seeing films.

Frequently enough this feels like memorializing an eccentric, cost-ineffective hobby, but the art of living long is at least in part a series of commitments to eccentric, cost-ineffective hobbies. I’m keeping lists of films that struck me, or that I hope to stick with me, and want to keep thinking about. But when I’m sitting in a San Gabriel cineplex with five Chinese grandmothers, donning 3D glasses to watch an inspired experiment by Bi Gan, or heading to the Wilshire medical corridor for a 10pm screening of Kirill Mikhanovsky’s latest to an audience of three on LA’s worst screen (where a fire has long ago crumpled the lower right corner into a shape that makes it look like someone left an old coat behind to bumble the projector’s throw) – well, there’s a who-is-this-for sense to it, like the final devotees of practical effects puppetry have rented a senior center to enjoy a staging of The Decameron.

But I guess this is for me. Watching good cinema still feels like self-improvement – a necessary filtering and refining of the broad crumbs of me. 2019 was a year of much film-going and -seeing, and the breadth and quality of cinematic work this year was what clerics with large eyebrows call ‘uncommonly good’. The quantity was such that I find it hard to stack-rank what I saw. Ranking vogues aside, all the better then.

I do have clusters of films that I was fond of, or that connected especially, and which enter into relation for me. Instead of a top ten, here are ten of those clusters that adopted and mussed me for awhile, and which I’d love to share with the similarly-afflicted.


  • Honeyland, American Factory, For Sama

I could fill my entire list with documentaries – it was such a strong year, and the documentary form continues to benefit from broad adoption and endorsement from streaming and broadcast production companies and myriad distribution channels.

These first two on this list are the works that happen when you open the documentary process up and let the stories tell themselves. I suspect that the directors didn’t anticipate these final results (though their care and skill demonstrated that they could imagine them), but each were loyal to their times and subjects, and played quiet witnesses and participants within extraordinary stories.

Both films watch as a small community and micro-ecology peaks, collapses, transforms, endures. There are heroes and boors and users and owners and many good-faith attempts. You watch and want to change things and can’t. Both are terrible and beautiful while remaining deeply respectful and avoiding voyeurism. Both contemplate work and old ways, and say “despite this” repeatedly. Local knowledge is celebrated. New accommodations are made. There are deep regrets, but futures are not conceded.

Meanwhile, For Sama is arguably the most critical and devastating documentary of the year, and may be the 2019’s most important film, which makes it all the more frustrating that it is so difficult to see. None of the major streamers are carrying it – even the library service Kanopy, which would be a natural host for it – and it’s buried in the Frontline section of the PBS app, which few likely have. I saw it with four people (total) in a 600 seat AMC theater, where it was showing at a single time in a Burbank mall, two days total. It was every bit worth the hunt. Waad and Hamza Al-Khateab are heroic, and it’s miraculous that this document survived five tormenting years as Assad and Putin ground Aleppo down to dust. It’s a difficult film to watch, but those who can should honor Al-Khateab’s efforts. Deeply gratifying to receive this witness to war from the perspective of a female activist, especially at a time when treatments of wartime ‘experience’ feel like masculinist athletic contests to determine who can produce the most technocratic simulation (eg, 1917, Dunkirk) of war’s symptoms: vertigo, cacophony, detonation. Al-Khateab instead returns life and mission to the scene of chaos and suffering.


  • The Lighthouse, Midsommar, Uncut Gems

Impressive what A24 has done in five years time. Some friends band together together to distribute Harmony Korine’s tongue-thrust of a spring break film, and by 2019 they’ve built a Hotel New Hampshire for American auteurs. What a roster. Helping to diversify in front of and behind the camera, they put out Lulu Wang’s and Johanna Hogg’s latest as well, and have Kelly Reichart’s First Cow and a new feature from Lee Isaac Chung coming soon this year. (And Neon‘s not doing a bad job themselves.)

I suspect I’m the target market, but these films look and sound great, which is a first principle of the experience – they’re immersive and transporting. I have a sweet tooth for Melville and Guy Maddin, so naturally the jowls-out Lighthouse pushed all buttons, as Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys did for me the previous year. Midsommar and Uncut Gems filled the ‘panic cinema’ hollow in the extremities and removed the chest protector that usually sits between me and the screen. That they happily tackle niche genres of folk horror and Schrader/Ferrara-style urban catabasis is all the better (the Safdie Brothers are bringing the Mean Streets back).


  • The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Give Me Liberty

But the best of the A24 lot for me was The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which evoked – and improved upon – Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, another poetic city symphony for a wounded community that was both frustrating and great. Last Man though was mostly just great, uncovering so many vestiges of California funk and the weird Bay from the would-be tech monoculture it is today. When I had seen the trailers for it, I was doubtful, because it looked like it could be try-hard and mawkish. But it isn’t that at all. It takes the lyrical arc just to the rim of arch, without falling over. It’s total heartbreak and just-living, and is the best and worst sort of ‘homecoming’ you can experience.

Not an A24 production, but equally good is Give Me Liberty, which didn’t get the distribution it deserved this year. A wild, handmade, and exalted thing that celebrates mutual aid – a community coming together to champion shared life amid, despite, and because of difference. It’s set in wintry Milwaukee, built on a shoestring budget (it’s one of the candidates for the Independent Spirit Cassavetes award, for films made for less than $500k), and weaves through Milwaukee’s overlapping African-American and Russian diasporic communities. It’s comic and tense and heart-stopping and full of poetry. I could write at great length on this one, but I think a good place to start is Justin Chang’s review for the LA Times – one of his strongest reviews of the year, and just right.

Both these films are worth seeking out, and are among the most special of the year.


  • Transit, Monos, Hagazussa, High Life

Here are four films about exile and the middle state – the indeterminacy in waiting for a deliverance that may not be possible. Each have stunning cinematography and/or production design, and have an irrepressible sense of place – magical and farflung, but at an almost untouchable remove. In Transit, it’s not-quite Marseille, in Monos a not-quite Colombia, Hagazussa a not-quite late medieval Alps, and High Life a deep space of unknowable distances.

While each is different, they all play with duration and displacement, and draw characters from cast-offs, resisters and the nation-less, each under palpable threat from occupiers or armies or authorities of gathering force and power. Although fictions, they feel timely and precisely of this moment of mass migration, refugees without refuge and increasing precarity.


  • Atlantics, Diamantino, Synonyms

Three more films, each by young directors under age 45, that extend the themes of exile and migration to more directly address the refugee crisis. This is just to situate them in their real and conceptual geographies – none of these are didactic films – and I follow them mentally in an arc up the coast from Senegal past southern Portugal to the eastern Med. They’re all water-adjacent and fluid and feel unfixed and nomadic in that way. They evade convenient genre cupboards, and are instead weird hybrids – a supernatural romance (Atlantics) that is also a critique of worker exploitation in rapidly developing W. Africa, a daffy and gender-fluid sci-fi soccer comedy (Diamantino) about eugenics and Trumpist populism, and a deadpan and absurdist political satire about neurolinguistic programming via systematic language and culture replacement (I write more about Synonyms here).

Atlantics has been rightfully celebrated since Cannes for its cinematography (Claire Mathon had quite a year) and its unique sonic signature (Fatima Al Qadiri was an inspired choice to score it). As interesting is its even tone and measured construction, balancing languor and narrative momentum – it feels always original. It is! A film ostensibly about disappeared men that progressively re-centers its view onto its prepossessing female ensemble, all while marrying zombie possession, an offbeat policier, and social realism with such unfreighted ease. Diamantino had a more mixed reception (to the extent it had one at all), and I can see some thinking it a mess or a trifle. Not me, though – it’s a movie full of color, hairpin turns and wild risk – virtually impossible to anticipate from feint to feint. With Synonyms, it’s among 2019’s true cinematic singletons.


  • Peterloo, The Nightingale, Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Three films seemingly appropriate for the year of Boris Johnson’s diminished Kingdom that somehow suggest maybe Brexit wasn’t such a bad result after all. Or films allowing that the disintegration of the British Empire should have come far sooner, given its ravages.

Peterloo and The Nightingale are set largely contemporaneously, the former situated in Manchester of 1819, and the latter in the penal colony Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) of 1825. Both capture the brutal consequences of British colonial expansion, mercantilism and a grossly immoral justice system that ground down the working poor, women, the Irish, aboriginals – any who could be owned, imprisoned, terrorized and killed with impunity.

Peterloo shows Mike Leigh in his element, at his didactic best, tackling labor politics, British radicalism and class war on a broad canvas with picture-perfect detail. If not for its length (154 min) and specificity, I would have expected more critical attention to it, as it’s largely faultless in its execution, if tackling an untimely / unpopular subject. The Nightingale meanwhile is terribly brutal yet still earned, unsparing in its depictions of racial and sexual violence – a film I wouldn’t recommend to many, if not for the righteous rage of director Jennifer Kent and the beauty of its sound and vision. It’s right to call this film ‘unforgiving’. It’s not an entertainment, and shouldn’t be approached as such.

The strangest of these three is Cold Case Hammarskjöld – a fascinating Danish documentary that received little notice, but takes on the premise of the assassination of the Secretary General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld, in 1961 – a theory the filmmaker Mads Brügger fleshes convincingly into fact – as a jumping-off point to explore several more conjectural conspiracies and covert ops in mid-century colonial Africa. Re-opening the period of fledgling republics and independence movements during the last gasp of the British, French and Belgian (!) empires, Brügger turns up staggering evidence of MI6, CIA and South African interventionism, often in plain sight, but from an era before our always-online own, where ‘plain sight’ could be edited, and histories reassembled like so many borders.

Cold Case is a documentary that is problematic and eccentric, but also courageous and individual – Brügger is conscious throughout of his own subject position as a Northern European white man in post-colonial Africa, and the way he stages and frames his investigation reflects this. It reminds one unsettlingly of how much is unwritten of Africa, what transpired there in the 20th century, and how even now, the myths and histories we track and challenge are often tackled by unreliable narrators drawn in partly by suspect adventurism and fetish. (I’m thinking, for example, of the more credulous adventure-tourism of Vice Media’s news division.) Nevertheless, Brügger is often a sympathetic, almost droll, character, and the documentary feels like the beginning of a necessary project, even if it reads at moments like Herzog at full peacock-plume, scratching a personal itch.


  • Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Two beautiful (and beautifully shot) love stories that play with desire through the dimension of time and the vehicle of memory. Both also treat how desire is transported and transfigured through the experience and execution of art – theater and cinema in the Almodovar film, and portraiture and music in Sciamma’s. Much of the work of both is done through close-framed faces and small changes in aspect, re-imagining a traditional male cinematic gaze. The play of time and relation in Portrait is particularly magical – how it moves from a slow, guarded, measured pace where the duration is fully felt toward an avid, eager intimacy as time is short, and precious.


  • Parasite, The Irishman, Knives Out, Little Women

I felt much the same about this clutch of consensus awards-bait titles as I did a lot of the well-built American cinema this year – an appreciation of craft and the acknowledgement of a well-turned something over any distinct cathexis, absorption or connectedness. These are very good films, all impeccably plotted and engineered, and it’s hard not to be conscious of their constructedness, their choreography, and the primacy of the direction. Though I found myself studying them as much as experiencing them, as if the design were too-much-with-them – familiar genre exercises awaiting adjudication for a brought-off rehearsal.

This assessment may be a little unfair to Parasite, which was the most interesting to think through, and it did take the class-oriented home invasion genre in some fun directions (although some crushingly literal). I was a little unsure about the ending, and I felt somewhat coolly distant overall. It might have been its overall precision and how its ambiguities were relatively few – I may need to see it again to reappraise. Meanwhile, Knives Out was simply the most enjoyable to watch. Parlor mysteries are enjoyable, and the hammy ensemble all took full bites, and seemed happy to be there. I’m a fan of Rian Johnson’s mannered cinema going back to Brick and Looper – his world-building is efficient and specific, his dialogue is typically sharp, and everything looks great.

The Irishman was both epic and familiar – a masterpiece of compression. I saw it in the theater, and it flew by. Yeah, the augmented reality stuff was a bit uncanny, and the best hour was the last, when the principals age into regret (and their natural faces), and melancholy sets in in a way that rarely pools up in a Scorsese film. Again, I admire this film more than love it. Same with Little Women, which had a light and conventional touch, and a musicality to its pacing. I liked the intertwining with Alcott’s biography in the adaptation. It’s an easy movie to burn – I think of the review at Another Gaze as paradigmatic of this tendency. There’s no easier dress-down than to tsk an Alcott adaptation for the limits of its “proto-feminism”. No, this is not a Catherine Breillat treatment – it’s largely lacking in provocation or perversion – but there’s a point at which setting up critical checkpoints to predictably snark all period theater feels more than a little pleasure-limiting. Even if Carr’s review is smart and has some just points, a sentence like the following just feels like prescriptive boilerplate this late in the night: “With an ironising retrospective gaze, Little Women falls in line with what Owen Hatherley calls the ‘ironic-authoritarian-consumerist dreamworld’ of the nostalgia industry which simplifies, limits and depoliticises the past for easy consumption in the modern marketplace.” Sigh…ok, yes? But then again, ugh, no.

Thinking back, I suppose I should put Once Upon a Time in Hollywood into this group. It was a fine entertainment, though indulging a little too much hippie punching, given what a hippie Tarantino is. He does spend a lot of time ingratiating the dead. But I may just have a bit too much Tarantino fatigue these days, and be approaching the work with a little reserve.


  • Non-Fiction, High Flying Bird

Two smaller films by two of our most versatile directors, exploring the impact of new media on industries in need of unsettling, the former publishing and the latter professional sports. Both are primarily script-driven – talky, but satisfying as such, if you’re open to indulge them.

High Flying Bird‘s screenwriter is Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote Moonlight, and it shows in the breadth of conversational fluency and needlework through high and low registers. Really great performances by Andre Holland and Bill Duke as well – both deserved awards season recognition, and may have got it if the typical winter committee member had something more than a dog’s memory. Some slagged the coolness of the iPhone-shot visual timbres, but I thought it looked terrific, and gave some meat to the promise of lean, less technocratic, filmmaking using consumer-grade tools.

Some also said Non-Fiction was one of Assayas’s minor works, and it got mixed reviews, but I had not problems with it. It was high-concept and full of good conversation, even if the French still seem to be reacting to and participating in a debate about digital life and intellectual property that feels a decade late. At the same time, it’s hard not to admire them for burning their libraries, well, more slowly than us American degenerates.


  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Ash Is the Purest White, An Elephant Sitting Still

The innovative cinema of the new China is still exploring the long-view, and the long take. That young directors like Hu Bo have become early adepts to time mechanics like Bela Tarr is only surprising in that the long take has been a critical feature of Chinese independent film going back to the fifth generation and the 80s – it’s not merely a reaction to the spasmodic and often impenetrable CGI-driven fantasies of the Chinese mainstream. It does seem, though, an increasing convention – the expression of the muted anticipation and long-suffering wait-for-transformation that preoccupies the two post-Tiananmen generations who have seen economic expansion without real political emancipation.

Across these three works, there’s a focus on the exurban, and it’s a country of gaps (sound similar?) – these directors are patiently working to unforget them. These are all long, lockjawed films of sustained silences and resigned living-through – patchy with gray and filtered light, and scattered with difficult and disconnected relationships. They ask a lot of their audiences – though Long Day’s Journey Into Night in particular is an astonishing visual experience, with some nods to The Saragossa Manuscript in it clever recursive storytelling – but it’s important to put in that work. Even with some intergenerational and bilateral-exchange titles like The Farewell and American Factory attempting to shed some light and prompt conversation, it feels like the US and China are more compartmentalized and less mutually-regarding than it seemed possible even a decade ago.


  • Amazing Grace, Rolling Thunder Revue

Amazing Grace was the first film I saw in 2019, and remains one of the most affecting. There’s nothing particularly innovative about these two docs (despite Scorsese’s playful but overclever fictions in his Dylan picaresque) – they’re basically concert films – but both capture two incredible performers at the peak of expression and power. Amazing Grace was filmed the month of my birth – it’s uncanny to watch, hear and feel it as a root into that time. I spent most of the movie in tears – the exultation and rapture of Aretha’s singing, in service to a responsibility she transparently bears to her family and community, is simply awesome. It’s a level-setting performance – a benchmark for art and human understanding.

Meanwhile, Rolling Thunder Revue captures my favorite period of Dylan, touring on the prototypes for his best album, Desire. He seems unfettered and wholly-minded and full of fight. His backing band is carnivalesque and rowdy and giving it everything, with the full indulgence of Scarlet Rivera, a benevolent white witch of such imaginative force on the violin, she rivals every questing line of Dylan’s in real time. The tour outtakes and dialogue are mostly bric-a-brac and stocking stuffers – I was game – but the performances are what make the doc a must-see (even moreso than Marty’s other thing about, what, some guy named Hoffa and a hitman’s regrets? Ok, sure, see that too.).


Ten more worth the time: Invisible Life, A Vigilante, Apollo 11, Maiden, One Child Nation, Colewell, The Souvenir, The Farewell, Dolemite Is My Name, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Ten I plan to see at next opportunity: Les Miserables, Vitalina Varela, I Was Home, But…, Martin Eden, First Love, Beanpole, Zombi Child, Joker, 1917, The Mountain