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)


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)


Sourdure – De mòrt viva (2021)

Nevers – Minor Plot Twist / Clueless (2021)

Senyawa – Alkisah (2021)

Liraz – Zan (Nov 2020)

Kutiman – Wachaga (July 2020)


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


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)


Nathan Salsburg – Landwerk No 2 (Dec 2020)

Mason Lindahl – Kissing Rosy in the Rain (2021)

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


Jimbo Mathus & Andrew Bird – These 13 (2021)

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


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 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
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.


  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


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.)


Simona Kostova’s 2019 film is showing on Mubi for the next four weeks. Watched it last night, to mixed attention and assessment.

Affecting at moments – at others, dull and dreadful. Millennial Berliners, ‘alone together’ but standing apart in their anomie and cultivated gormlessness, compulsively smoking, saying little but still finding opportunities for casual cruelties. Tests of empathy are met with refusals, and small-bore jealousies preempt possible communication. There’s a bit of play-grownup Clark-era Kids here – amazing that it’s a quarter-century on from that one! – but with less prurience or masculine gaze. Just the ambient urban drift of young adults in a rich city demanding little of them. They talk briefly of their suffering, but it’s an inert malaise and feels transparently unearned, disproportionate to their uncomplicated lives and what the city provides. One actress wears a “Refugees Welcome” shirt while prepping for all-night partygoing, but there’s little other evidence of the German populist right rattling their cages, and they keep finding safe, albeit indifferent, harbors in dull, unappointed apartments and nightclubs throughout the film.

Is this a Euro-mumblecore analogue to An Elephant Sitting Still? It’s too easy to be frustrated with this film, these characters. Maybe this is simply portraiture, and true. Nevertheless, Kostova gives her film greater accommodation for incident as it goes on, moving past the day-waiting in white cubes in its first half. The final 30 minutes are strongest, when modest club-bound epiphanies and moments of (sexual, emotional) panic season the earnest long takes with small, necessary surprises. After a long night of otherwise little moment, the principals gather for a rote, mechanical breakfast with faces to match – long, strangely both underbaked and lived-through – and the movie literally ends with a laugh. But one suggesting neither release nor re-set, just an inside joke in an internal conversation that hasn’t yet found its time or audience.


Given such a long resumé and so many working credits (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford perhaps my favorite), I had forgotten that Roger Deakins had taken on the cinematography for Blade Runner 2049 a couple years back. It’s a film that had many problems – casting, script, and ultimately pacing – but the posthuman look of its doomed ecologies was dazzling, and at least once during the viewing of 1917 (and immediately afterward), 2049 came to mind. This makes sense – Deakins is a magician at architecting and expressing our least-habitable spaces, and the weird pallid sub-reds of the night-burning village of Écoust-Saint-Mein in 1917, with its almost Martian airborne particulate, feel both alien and exalted at once. Light and dust, light and dust. And so much loam! This is the loamiest film I can recall, with a fetishistic indulgence of brown-grey sediment, embedded with indifferent bodies, protagonists stumbling and oozing through it all, while affording no sense of fertility or future fecundity – a ‘no-man’s-land’ down to the final sign.

In my most charitable reading, 1917 is a Roger Deakins film, and the succession of technical and production awards will bear that out, up to and including a near-certain Best Picture Oscar, along with awards for cinematography, production design and direction. Unfortunately, it’s something of an impoverishment to consign the general scope of direction to choreography and engineering, but much of this film is a slate of traveling salesman problems involving getting a shellshocked everyman to scramble from point A to point B, with a handful of large set-pieces as waystations. Much has been written about the technical achievement of the ‘continuous tracking shot’ – an increasing fixation among the Academy’s technical corps, despite early indifference to grander experiments like Rope, Touch of Evil or The Passenger – but this is more of an emulative conceit, and a war movie is an increasingly untimely and odd platform for this experiment, unless the dual-analog game perspectives of first- and third-person shooters were desired metaphors, to cater to a target audience.

In an even less charitable reading, I think this is a particularly low-concept film, with a thin and largely boilerplate script to fill gaps where the score does not muscle in, with low strings and vibrato, to motivate pathos or signify gravity. (It’s typically frustrating that this would merit an Original Screenplay nod over a text as inventive and original as Tarell Alvin McCraney’s High Flying Bird for example – this is nothing more than plug-and-play prose.) The focus on ‘immediate experience’ indulges the worst tendency to make depictions of war ambient, a kind of library music to accompany athletic trials cooked up by technocratic filmmakers obsessed by the trick shot or Birdman-style demo reels (“how did they pull it off?!”). The simplistic narrative that undergirds the stunt photography sets up the predictable ‘anonymous men do exceptional feats’ sham of history that justifies so much repugnant sacrifice, and the narrowness of this movie’s historical ambition relentlessly decontextualizes and depoliticizes, all the more problematic in an age of pestilent nationalisms and concentrated wealth, and given how infrequently WWI is treated in film a century on.

While handsome and vigorously paced, this is an otherwise conventional, conservative film – and its late-hour embrace by some critics and industry professionals feels almost like a reaction to the great many substantial but complex and difficult films of the past year or two. Even Dunkirk, perhaps the most recent analog to 1917, had a greater sense of character, scale and detail – even as it belabored its experiment in non-linear time, its vertigo was convincing, and it was unsentimental. 1917 still reaches for sentimentality with the pastoral, elevating the camera against one-tree vistas with a Malick-like lyricism, at moments when the director seeks to humanize and heroize at once. And in terms of finding terror and thrill in immersive, innovation filmmaking, in a context of combat and duress, I think last year’s Monos did this much more inventively – down to its own frantic river escape and underwater cinematography that was challenging and breathtaking.

No doubt, 1917 is a visually beautiful movie but one with a troubling and timid moral imagination. I respect Sam Mendes’ desire to memorialize his grandfather’s familial recollections – and he makes a convincing maze of the earth and lets the minotaurs loose – but at a time when we seem again at the cusp of military adventurism by fragile and jealous autocrats, 1917‘s dehistoricized action-without-reflection feels like the wrong thing to celebrate, and I was left unsettled and distant through much of the viewing.