The 2017 BAMcinemafest ends this Sunday, and this dispatch concludes our coverage. Among the takes below, you’ll find several more holdovers from Sundance—including hit comedy The Big Sick and Alex Ross Perry’s unfairly panned Golden Exits—and two films (a narrative and a documentary) from American indie film director Michael Almereyda. Be sure to also check out our first dispatch, which featured new films from the Amer-indie scene’s Aaron Katz, Stephen Cone, and Koganda. You can also find the remainder of the fest’s full schedule here.
The 2017 BAMcinemafest kicked off yesterday, and it offers, frankly, a much more exciting lineup than did this year’s Cannes—especially if you have a vested interest in the Amer-indie film scene. There’s new stuff here from Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth), Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child), Stephen Cone (Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party), and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather). For InRO‘s first dispatch, you’ll find a couple of the aforementioned covered, in addition to some even more under-the-radar titles. Check back here over the next week for more, and find the fest’s full schedule here.
2017—so far at least—hasn’t been spectacular. In between the deaths of beloved auteurs like Jonathan Demme and Seijun Suzuki, you had 25 beating Lemonade at the Grammy’s, Tom Brady smugly winning another Super Bowl, and Donald Trump being sworn into office (this one might be a little worse than those other two). But as Lil Yachty once
The 46th edition of New Directors/New Films concluded this past Sunday with Dustin Guy Defa’s much-discussed Person to Person. Our final dispatch from the festival takes a look at Guy Defa’s “pleasantly low-key” film; tries to parse the intensions of Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita’s docu-drama hybrid on a UFO-worshipping cult; revisits Angela Shanelec’s film festival whatsit The Dreamed Path, as well as another oddity of “macro- and micro-fictions” from independent Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong; and plenty of others. Check it all out below.
Many ND/NF entries have demonstrated an admirable scale in their ambitions, but few have had the confidence to do so as unassumingly as Dustin Guy Defa’s pleasantly low-key Person to Person. This feature expansion of short by the same name, true to its title, tracks the sprawling, loosely connected misadventures of its varied cast across New York City. Two reporters investigate a suicide or possible homicide; a zealous LP collector looks to obtain a rare Charlie Bird LP; and a girl argues with her girlfriend about the new boyfriend she’s been seeing. Sharply observational and lightly comic, Defa’s is the kind of film that’s bound to be overshadowed at a larger festival, since its subtle pleasures often threaten to shade into inconsequential. Granted, it doesn’t ride the line of purposeful awkwardness as adroitly as it needs to, sometimes coming across as labored or amateurish. But Defa demonstrates genuine promise, both in his rhythm (an extended, placid chase scene is a highlight), and in the way he draws light, gossamer threads between the micro-stories, allowing their thematic heft to emerge naturally. By the end, a lingering sense of sadness permeates; the various characters are stuck in the familiar, unsure of exactly how to proceed. If there’s one thing certain, it’s that, with Person to Person, Defa marks himself as a talent to watch. Lawrence Garcia
Julia Murat’s Pendular is filled with impressive compositions: it opens with its central couple — credited as He (Rodrigo Bolzan) and She (Raquel Karro) — jointly and joyously bisecting a large warehouse’s upper-story with a roll of red tape. This space, which will serve as both home and studio for the lovers (He an abstract sculptor, She a modernist dancer) acts as a simple visual metaphor for their relationship: issues of emotional encroachment and loss of independence define the characters in Murat’s sparse script. Unfortunately, little happening here expands this idea — with an affectively forceful performance and some captivating choreography from Karro providing the exceptions. The film is undermined by its fundamental inequity: She is gifted a far richer, more expressive arc, leaving her partner feeling wrongly underdeveloped. If Murat had sought to reflect deeper on her exploration of space or her characters’ art, something bolder and less reliant on tangible characterization could have emerged; instead, He is directionless, She is indulgent — so an art critic friend tells him, so a newspaper review tells her. Murat clearly seeks to externalize this couple’s turmoil, but beyond a Footloose-esque cathartic dance (after which She literally strips herself bare), we’re left with few incisive moments amidst much tedium. Luke Gorham
Starting out as a bit of meta-commentary on a notorious massacre, Anocha Suwichakornpong‘s By the Time It Gets Dark quickly and deliberately questions its own point of view by filtering it through multiple layers of macro- and micro-fictions, ultimately suggesting the inability of art to truly process experience and trauma. In a strong resemblance to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, planes of existence are layered one on top of the other, and frequent visual allusions to disparate images share the same space…a filmmaker interviewing a survivor of a student protest-turned-atrocity; a series of vignettes set at a tobacco farm; a magic mushroom trip; a cleaning woman at a hotel…elements of all of these stories are revealed to be manufactured, in one way or another intermediary devices through which histories and societies are cataloged. Matt Lynch
As InRO‘s Lawrence Garcia put it, the best thing about film festivals is seeing something that will completely surprise you — and he and I definitely agree that The Dreamed Path is surprising. Angela Schanelec‘s film opens with a couple — Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) and Theres (Miriam Jakob) — in a forest in Greece. Kenneth gets a phone call from his sick parents, and decides that he must return home to take care of them. Theres then gets a teaching job in Germany. Soon the film changes location and time, moving about 30 years later, and to Berlin. We begin to follow a brand new couple, Ariane (Maren Eggert) and her husband David (Phil Hayes), lovers who as well suffer from an eventual falling out, and with the same level of non-descript drama that affected the film’s first romance. The four characters end up interlocked with one another, though Schanelec doesn’t initially seem interested in developing why each person has gotten to this point. Rather, her focus seems more on the hypnotic mood of her film; her long takes don’t feel purposelessly ponderous, but more intentionally telegraph an uncertainty. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker in this year’s ND/NF lineup who wants to use their film in a genuinely questioning fashion, and not just as a showcase for their rigorous technique. The Dreamed Path can often be a baffling experience, one that doesn’t start to reveal its complexities until its second half — when the overall structure begins to make more sense. Up until this point, Schanelec refuses to state any intention, much to the chagrin of many who’ve sat through her film. But the prize for being a patient viewer in this case is one of the strangest and most unique features to grace the festival circuit this year. Paul Attard
It’s hard to imagine French director Alain Guiraudie going for mainstream appeal, but if he did, the result might look something like Jérôme Reybaud’s road trip movie Four Days in France. In what’s surely a coincidence, Reybaud’s film bears some superficial similarity to Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical: A restless protagonist, Pierre (Pascal Cervo), takes to the road with a manuscript and has various odd encounters of a sexual nature and otherwise; numerous POV shots from the car set the film’s peripatetic rhythm; Pierre even has a run-in that strips him of his belongings, just like the wayward writer in Staying Vertical. But those similarities only underline how wan Reybaud’s vision is by comparison — how sharp, interesting detail can easily come across labored in a different context. That’s not to say Reybaud brings nothing to the table: his film works as a tour of France, not just in terms of its lush landscapes, but also of its people, particularly those that live in the French countryside. (Pierre’s Parisian identity is brought up multiple times.) The fact that Pierre leaves behind a lover (Paul, played by Arthur Igual), who then decides to take off after him, also means that there’s an underlying tension here, even as the interest inherent in any given scene varies wildly. And although the film is digressive and overlong (at 145 minutes), its conclusion—which brings together two strands long kept apart — is touching all the same. L Garcia
John Trengove’s The Wound is a thematically blunt but visually dynamic film, one built around intimate, observational camerawork and an integrity for character development. Impressively choreographing a delicate dance between tradition and modernity, while allowing his camera to mirror that dichotomy through some interesting incongruities (aqua-hued running shoes worn with tribal garb and body paint), Trengove imbues The Wound with a mythic aura, an inspired counterpoint to its tender interpersonal underpinnings. With the rural Xhosa people and their ceremony of initiation into manhood as the backdrop, Trengove could could have phoned-in a coming-of-age story here, but instead, The Wound smartly subverts those expectations throughout, most notably by focusing on the years-old parasitic relationship between two adult mentors and their psychological motivations for always returning to a mountain and their custom. Primarily concerning itself with differing notions of masculinity across generations and within a community, The Wound also shows out with its trio of vulnerable, expressive performances. If the end hits a bit heavy-handedly (underlining a fundamental paucity of narrative innovation), it isn’t enough to undermine the affecting, aching beauty, nor Trengove’s obvious filmmaking chops. L Gorham
Ala Eddine Slim’s The Last of Us is the type of film that’s inevitably described as “spare,” “rigorous,” and “conceptually bold.” Unfolding over a distended 94 minutes, without a single word of dialogue, the film follows two (unnamed) immigrants attempting to cross from northern Africa into Europe. Along the way, one of the two men is captured, hauled off and never seen again; the other continues on. After stealing a motorboat boat, which subsequently breaks down, the remaining man finds himself stranded in an island forest, at which point the film begins to shift into a more mystical, magical-realist mode. There’s an inherent political (and social) interest built into Slim’s chosen subject, which is enhanced by both his background in documentary filmmaking and Amine Messadi’s appealing (often low-light) cinematography. But owing to the film’s (over-)liberal use of negative space — both formal and conceptual — The Last of Us fails to resonate beyond the theoretical, remaining strictly, and frustratingly, skeletal. Slim’s strenuous symbolism overwhelms any human specificity: There’s some appealing detail in the margins, particularly when the documentary interest of his subject comes to the fore, but the overall experience is akin to watching someone laboriously draw obscure symbols on a page for ninety minutes. However gorgeous or necessary those symbols may be, there’s nothing interesting about their presentation. The final shot suggests transcendence, of a sort: the man (or Man) returns to his primordial roots. But suggestion is as far as the film goes; the image disappears from view and then—like the film as a whole—promptly evaporates from memory. L Garcia
“I hope we’ll have fun and party, that’s why I’m here!” This is what Lilly (Laure Calamy) tells an excited crowd of French retreaters in The Happiness Academy. The crowd is there courtesy of the Raelian Church, a religious institution steeped in the belief that aliens have created Earth — the only difference between Lilly and the rest of them is that she’s played by an actress while her audience is not. Part drama and part documentary, Happiness Academy observes the believers as they try to better their lives — in between being fed propaganda by the church’s leader and having extravagant pool parties. Directors Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita never cast a blanket judgment on these people, but instead use Lilly as a conduit to explore the more petty reasons some of them may be there (i.e., just to have wild sex). The criticisms feel half-cocked though, never developed or specific enough to have an impact beyond that of mud-slinging. The Raelians don’t come off as much different from any other religion, or at least one that’s based heavily on, er, UFO-worship; they’re often just regular people with different beliefs. It’s hard to then really understand which direction the film wants to go in: It occupies a weird, warmed-over middle ground, generally not particularly that critical, but pretty ugly on the occasions that it tries to be. PA
The 46th edition of New Directors/New Films kicked off last Wednesday (March 15th) and ends this Sunday (March 24th). For our first of two dispatches from the festival, we look at a “cheeky” documentary about falconry; a “formally assured, but familiar” new film from It Felt Like Love director Eliza Hittman; a movie about Chinese immigrants in Argentina that is, appropriately, built around an understanding of language; Korean filmmaker Jang Woo-jin’s second feature, a reflection on “distance and longing”; and others. Check it out below and look for Dispatch 2 later this week.
Almost entirely without verbal exposition, Yuri Ancarani‘s hypnotic, purely observational The Challenge spends 70 minutes hovering around a falconer’s auction/competition in Qatar. Offering the barest of narratives, the documentary is primarily shot after gorgeous shot of the birds, their masters, the sport itself, and its attendant rituals, set against miles and miles of the otherwise empty, golden Sahara. Some of it might seem a bit cheeky or even a bit on-the-nose incredulous, like scenes of a bunch of falcons cruising in a private jet or a guy taking his pet cougar for a ride in a Lamborghini, but there’s a quiet investigation of community and tradition here, and the ways in which they bump up against modernity. Auctions are conducted via close-circuit TV and phone, but communal meals are still prioritized. Then there’s just the awesome sight of a bunch of millionaires tear-assing around sand dunes and ripping donuts in the desert with their tricked-out luxury SUVs. Matt Lynch
In this modest second feature, Jang Woo-jin demonstrates a canny eye for separations between people and within space and time. Autumn, Autumn tells two stories neatly partitioned by a title card 35 minutes in, both originating from strangers sitting together on a train from Seoul to Chuncheon. Jang’s deliberate framing places a stanchion between a quiet, anxious young man and a middle-aged couple having a conversation about losing touch with old friends. The film’s first half follows the younger man, Ji-hyeon, who we learn is unemployed and returning to Chuncheon after an unsuccessful job interview. An old friend spots Ji-hyeon coming down one side of an escalator as he ascends the other, and Ji-hyeon’s guilt over not remembering the man’s name lingers long after the two have been pulled in their opposite directions. Jang follows Ji-hyeon around a strangely desolate, grey Chuncheon as he visits a restaurant owned by another old friend’s mother; gets drunk with a buddy; and finally calls the friend he ran into earlier, Jong-seong, to tearfully apologize for falling out of touch and not remembering his name. “People forget, man. It happens,” Jong-seong responds, and though slightly bemused he honors Ji-hyeon’s request for him to sing a song over the phone for old time’s sake. The second half then follows the middle-aged couple from the same train, Se-rang and Heung-ju, over the course of a tentative, increasingly painful first in-person meeting following an online connection. Jang’s sense of changing landscapes and how they contrast with and evoke memories recalls Tsai Ming-liang’s short The Skywalk Is Gone, and knowing Chuncheon is this filmmaker’s hometown adds poignancy to Autumn, Autumn’s reflections on distance and longing—and images like the one of Ji-hyeon lost amidst a newly bulldozed vacant lot. Jang’s form is restrained (perhaps by limitations of budget, since the live sound recording seems oddly submerged or distant at times), but also closely attuned to how people interact with public spaces and how small shifts in ambient light add shades of emotional complexity to a simple conversation over lunch, as Se-rang and Heung-ju attempt to reestablish their connection over a childhood memory of playing with insects. At once distant and intimate, like a love song from an old friend heard through an iPhone speaker, Autumn, Autumn astutely captures separations that are not so easily overcome, despite forces that pull the disconnected back from across the divide. Alex Engquist
Eliza Hittman’s first feature, It Felt Like Love, was a promising, if familiar Brooklyn-set tale of a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality. With, Beach Rats, Hittman revisits the same setting, but with the focus now on a teenage boy’s nascent queer exploration. When the film opens we see Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hesitantly browsing a gay chat-room. “I don’t know what I like,” he says to the older men he talks to, his expression a mix of curiosity, fear and confusion. That certainly can’t be said of Hittman, whose direction here is formally assured, but familiar, trafficking in the kind of frank verisimilitude and “gritty” sensuality typical to so many indie films. If It Felt Like Love played a bit like watered down Catherine Breillat, Beach Rats feels like second-rate Claire Denis, right down to the way the film lingers on the chiseled male bodies of Frankie and his similarly aimless friends with whom he whiles the summer away. Despite some promising elements, particularly Dickinson’s admirably terse performance, it’s a little dispiriting how closely Hittman sticks to the expected story beats—a girlfriend that Frankie uses to gain social acceptance but eventually rebuffs; his younger sister’s sexual maturation; his terminally ill father and worn down but well-meaning mother—right down to a contrived, last-ditch attempt at some complicating drama. There’s a good, possibly great movie to be made here—and Hittman demonstrates that she has the chops to make it happen. But the lingering impression that Beach Rats leaves with its predictably noncommittal ending is that of unfulfilled potential. Lawrence Garcia
Sometimes all it takes to set a film apart is a distinctive milieu. In Deepak Rauniyar’s White Sun, the setting is a remote village in Nepal during the aftermath of the civil war between the Maoists and the Nepalese monarchy. The inciting event is simple: the death of the village chieftain, which sets into motion the arduous task of performing proper funeral rites on the body. “Customs exist for a reason… We can’t just forget everything,” says one of the town elders, despite the evident impracticality of the situation. It’s this tension between “tradition” and “progress” that drives White Sun, which Rauniyar explores through various conflicts: generational, political, personal, and otherwise. The chieftain’s Maoist son, Chandra, returns to the village for the funeral rites; his former lover, Durga, plans to marry Chandra’s Royalist-leaning brother, in an attempt to legitimize her daughter, who in turn thinks that Chandra is her father (although he is not); Maoists and royalists maintain an uneasy coexistence. All this is captured with an admirable physicality, which is never more evident than during the funeral procession, delivered in a series of precisely timed, tension-maximizing shots. Given the film’s overall accumulation of incident, however, White Sun at times feels both schematic and contrived, most notably in the climax, during which various story threads ludicrously converge in a violent standoff. But there’s something to be said for simply being immersed in the fascinating dynamics of this completely foreign narrative, all the way up to its satisfying conclusion—a pointed generational shift that’s at once open and resolute. It bodes well for the future in more ways than one. LG
If there’s one thing The Future Perfect has going for it—perhaps more so than any other film playing ND/NF this year—it’s how its premise builds out of its central character’s development. Living in Argentina, Xiaobin (Zhang Xiaobing), a Chinese immigrant, can barely speak a word of Spanish. Her family encourages her to stick to her roots, but Xiaobin decides to enroll in a language school, where the world around her begins to slowly open up. She later meets Vijay (Saroj Kumar Malik), an immigrant from India who also has trouble with his Spanish speaking skills. The two form a bond over their general misunderstanding of language, allowing for director Nele Wohlatz to explore the awkwardness the two face on a daily basis. Entering a restaurant to order some food becomes an ordeal quickly, when the only word Xiaobin knows (“barbeque”) doesn’t appear on the menu. Her classmates serve as a Greek choir, parroting questions the audience may ask in the form of language exercises, fitting somewhat clunkily within the narrative (the only time the film’s ponderings become intrusive rather than organic). Once Xiaobin begins to learn more Spanish, The Future Perfect becomes less focussed on its premise, resorting instead to an escapism that doesn’t work and an unnecessarily cruel reveal towards the end. Still, until its denouement, Wohlatz’s film shows promise in understanding how fragile language—and the language of cinema—really is, by addressing it on its most human level possible. Paul Attard
Arábia opens with a teenage boy biking home to take care of his sick younger brother, his parents nowhere in sight. He spends the next day sitting around smoking, sketching at his desk and helping his aunt around the neighborhood. Not long after, there’s a roadside accident and he’s made to get some belongings from the injured man’s house. That sounds like the start to a rote story of youthful ennui, but directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa scuttle that expectation by immediately shifting focus to a factory worker named Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), the man injured by the roadside, whose diary the boy stumbles onto by accident. Given the glut of films being produced nowadays, it’s all but necessary that fledgling filmmakers—especially in programs like ND/NF—attempt to buck expectation and grab a viewer’s attention. In the case of Arábia, Dumans and Uchoa do so by turning their lens to the margins of society and focusing on a character that would, in a different film, be a supporting figure at best. “Everyone had a story,” muses Cristiano in his diary, written during his travels around Brazil. Although the directors make that statement their (admirable) motivating principle, they don’t really make much attempt to enliven the material, resorting largely to dry voiceover and arthouse road-movie cliché to deliver the shambling, digressive story. By exploiting the gap between these vacuous formal choices and their chosen subject (Cristiano’s place in society as a factory worker), Dumans and Uchoa make a necessary point about both on-screen representation and the types of stories that get told on the film festival circuit. But apart from a few standout sequences (such as a nighttime drive that occurs in near-complete darkness) and some heartfelt bursts of musical energy, not much lingers beyond the implicit statement; and the film isn’t nearly accomplished enough to sustain a purely formal interest. Possessing neither narrative momentum nor documentary fascination, Arábia is caught in a nebulous, painfully inert middle-ground, its larger intentions notwithstanding. Sometimes dull “by design” is just plain dull. LG
The Last Family details the life of painter Zdzislaw Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn), and wastes no time trying to catch you off guard with “shocking”humor.” An aged Zdzislaw speaks about the possibility of buying a model of an 18-year old girl to sit on his face and slowly kill him within the first few minutes, giving a good sense of the largely try-hard humor here, mostly coming from our protagonist’s son: Tomek (Dawid Ogrodnik), taken to emotional outbursts that threaten to tear his whole family apart, but are still mined for laughs frequently. There’s nothing director Jan P. Matuszyński is actually trying to say within all of this—about mental illness or work within such a melodramatic space—rather he just takes the surface level quality of Tomek’s “otherness,” and exploits it in a rather toothless way. A more puzzling admission in the film is how generally innocent Zdzislaw comes off most of the time; his wild sexual fantasies are never explored for deeper character psychology, and there’s a sense of genius the film wishes to bestow on him, allowing for his moral superiority over everyone else. The Last Family is an incredibly unpleasant experience from beginning to end, one that’s heavily misguided: signposting seriousness and introspection, as well as humor, at all the wrong times. PA
If there’s one noticeable (and troubling) trend in this year’s ND/NF , it’s a pointless rigor exerted in an effort to appear more “serious.” Case in point, Zhang Dalei’s The Summer Is Gone, a coming-of-age story about Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi), a young boy in West China, during his summer before middle school. Shooting in black and white rather pointlessly (or to appeal to the #OnePerfectShot crowd), Zhang utilizes mostly longtakes, trying to capture the mundane qualities of simple everyday life, with the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien as his clear point of influence. The problem is that Zhang has only picked up superficial elements from Hou’s cinema: the narrative here lacks the contemplative beauty it’s striving for, leaving Zhang’s film feeling less natural in its pacing. What Zhang does do is allow for random digressions that guarantee tugs on the heartstrings, and adding orchestral music to hammer down the emotional one. In fact, rarely does a moment go by that doesn’t feel overworked, from the aforementioned cinematographic technique to the deliberately slack progression. An argument could definitely be made that this is Zhang’s point, that life as he sees it is boring, but that sounds more like an excuse than a defense, pardoning and allowing for his generally uninspired filmmaking. PA
It’s heartening to realize that in a year of seemingly constant death—one in which the passing of great filmmakers was no exception—the best films here seemed intent on never forgetting those losses, to mine the past and the passed for new inspiration in the present, and in movingly reverent ways. Our great new filmmakers looked to the old ones to guide them
In a year most of us would rather forget for one reason or another, 2016 was welcomingly giving when it came to dispensing albums from some of both this and last century’s greatest performers. The sheer wealth of material this year means fantastic work like Leonard Cohen’s swan song, Young Thug’s most cohesive effort to date, and The Avalanches nearly two-decad
Just another year gone by—except songs seemed particularly vital for getting through these last 12 months. Not that you need me to tell you, but we lost some of our greatest purveyors of the form in 2016, and if the 10 selections below can’t compensate—if there’s no “Kiss” or “Mama Tried” or “Modern Love” among them—most look struggle, and sacrifice, and the indefatigable march of time, head-on, as much a reflection of their times as the classics that came before them. And if a few others merely throw a party at the dawning of our apocalypse, who could blame them? Sam C. Mac
10. Margo Price fills most of her breakthrough album, the phenomenal country & western hardliner Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, with straight-up shit-kickers, songs that take their cues from Outlaw Country’s flare for rhythm n’ blues. The set’s opener, though, is a different thing altogether: “Hands of Time” is an impeccably poised, composed, and performed bit of lush cosmopolitan country pop, a show of pure formal skill—as if Margo’s just proving herself capable of that standard. Were it merely an appeal to cross-genre tastemakers, it might read as a compromise, but instead it opens Midwest Farmer’s Daughter on a moving note of self-actualization: “All I wanna do is make my own path,” Price opines over gorgeous weeping strings and hammond B3 organ, “…And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time”—which, at this point, is an actualized narrative we can all wish for. SCM
9. With his sophomore album, Still Brazy, rapper YG largely traded the personal for the political—and somehow in the process gave up very little of the partying that has made much of his music so ingratiating. It’s no coincidence that the hook of this song, “fuck Donald Trump,” works in all these contexts: “FDT” honors the object of its ire by never mincing its words. YG and featured artist Nipsey Hussle ruthlessly mock Trump’s policies and lob the kinds of schoolyard-worthy personal attacks that our (uuuuuugh) “president elect” made a hallmark of his repugnant campaign. Unsurprisingly, these two’s taunts are way more entertaining (“Where’s your L.A. rally?/We gonna crash your shit!”) and their off-the-cuff, freestyled flows—along with the protest march and picket signs of the song’s music video—make the raw sentiments resonate with their irrepressible outrage, and our own. SCM
8. Birds of Chicago’s breakthrough album, Real Midnight, is an album of voices; like Aretha’s Spirit in the Dark, it taps gospel music for its sonic qualities, not its religious ones, and imagines every tune as a kind of raucous singalong. The album’s second song, “Remember Wild Horses,” is one of its best examples: Showstopper Allison Russell weds her voice to JT Nero’s weathered croon, trading verses and taking choruses together. But it’s a songwriter’s showcase as much as a vocal one. Each verse offers a character who’s haunted by what was, or what might have been. “There was not a single one among us/Who thought she’d be alone,” Russell sings of the first verse’s woman of solitude; “I loved her so long I believed that she loved me,” offers Nero, voicing the second verse’s broken-hearted fool. They’re haunted by regret, but the chorus brings consolation: “You don’t have to wipe away your tears/Come on and let ‘em fall.” Time plays tricks on all of us; some days, you just gotta cry. Josh Hurst
7. “Tiimmy Turner” started out as a 45-second video—of a XXL Freshman freestyle—but once again this year, Desiigner turned nothing into something. Both haunting and uplifting, “Tiimmy Turner” has the Brooklyn rapper’s charisma (and Future-sounding voice) melodically concentrated on producer Mike Dean’s menacing synthesizer. The song showcases an angrier voice—one Desiigner used rather unsuccessfully for his mixtape, New English—but it’s often not what he’s saying, but more how it comes out, turning largely hard to decipher lyrics into emotional cries. Just the hook itself (“Timmy, Timmy, Timmy Turner/He been wishin’ for a burner”) starts to sound mantra-like, creating a spiritual energy akin to a modern day gospel hymn. Still huge off of “Panda,” it’s easy to dismiss this 19-year old as another flavor of the month, but “Tiimmy Turner” suggests that appeal still has its surprises. Paul Attard
6. As the first single from Miranda Lambert’s post-divorce double album, The Weight of These Wings, “Vice” confounded expectations: Neither back-to-basics barnburner nor tabloid-ready tell-all, it starts a cappella but picks up subtle production touches—a buzzing synth; a lonely, reverb-heavy snare—the way its narrator accumulates bad habits, while the languid rhythm and restrained vocals evoke the sense of crushing inevitability that comes from seeking escape in the same old things. “If you need me/I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me,” Lambert sings, with the weariness of someone who’s pulled their share of geographics. “Vice” is particularly devastating in context as the wounded but clear-eyed centerpiece of Wings’ spirited, rambling ode to “freedom in a broken heart”: the weight pulls Lambert back into a cycle of old records, familiar whiskey, and new one-night stands. There’s a recognition for the strange comfort in knowing one’s own particular powerlessness—but a fiery coda, complete with guitar solo and affirming backup vocals, is just rousing enough to necessitate hitting repeat. When it hurts this good, you’ve got to play it again, and again, and again. Alex Engquist
5. “Formation” is the most urgent song of 2016’s America. Producer Mike WiLL Made-It’s Southern-fried, alarm-sounding beat stokes momentum to a chorus that’s among the year’s most exhilarating, deriving its twangy sound effects from the bounce genre. The lyrics, meanwhile, rival Xenia Rubinos’s “Mexican Chef” as the most politically plainspoken in a year when we needed a powerful, inclusive voice to unite us while at the same time propel and embody its own specific identity. “Formation”’s twice-repeated verse is scrupulously structured: at first, Beyoncé is deflecting common petty ad hominem and replacing criticism with style and strut, including a dominating glance thrown her spouse’s way (remember, this was months before we quite had an idea what was going on there). Then, she escalates into the intoxicating refrain that centers the song in a racial community, time, and place: “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils/Earned all this money but they never take the country out me.” More than the slickest Rae Sremmurd song, “Formation” spawned memes and catchphrases that fiercely embedded themselves in the cultural landscape, its “best revenge is your paper” kiss-off a telling nod to the internet-age capitalism that this eternal anthem dominated. Charles Lyons-Burt
4. Too often on SremmLife 2, the rap duo Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi sound like they’re trying to redefine what Rae Sremmurd is: the infectious hooks that made the group’s first album a hit take a backseat to competent verses designed to prove a point. But “Black Beatles” is the platonic ideal of a Rae Sremmurd joint, as catchy as “No Flex Zone” or “No Type” but delivered with the acquired cool of a group that can make hits in their sleep. Over an ear-worm Mike WiLL-Made-It instrumental that sounds custom made for driving at night, Swae and Jxmmi play to their strengths and craft another ode to fame and partying, interpolating the Beatles’ lyrics and making John Lennon lenses cool again between drinks. And because Swae Lee’s hook approaches sublime beauty and Slim Jxmmi turns in his most energetic work of any on SremmLife 2, “Black Beatles” didn’t really need to add the best Gucci Mane feature of a year that already had many—but of course, it doesn’t hurt. Chris Mello
3. Mitski took to Facebook in May to clarify that “Your Best American Girl” was written to be an earnest love song, countering a narrative that had cropped up and positioned it as an ironic counterpoint to the possessive love songs of white boy indie rockers. Either way, it’s the best rock song of 2016, and maybe the year’s best love song as well; it entrenches itself in the specificity of heartache across an irreconcilable cultural divide while encompassing depths of feeling. Love here is massive, worthy of the shift into the loud fuzzed-out rock that characterizes the song’s most cathartic moment—but it also carries preexisting conditions, namely history and culture: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me.” With “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski aspires not to an assimilation into a greater culture but to fit in with just one person, only to find the distance overwhelming and become caught in a heartbreak that’s been seemingly predestined. CM
2. From its ebullient opening notes, joined within seconds by Young Thug’s melodic yet caustic bray, “Pick Up the Phone” exemplifies the platonic ideal of a crossover track. In other words, the song works-in the kind of dichotomies that best satisfy many demographics—shades of light and dark, with lyrics that profess earnest romanticism (“Never will I cheat on you…blowin’ a bag on you/Do all of that for no reason”) alongside narcotic urges and sexual deviancy. Travis Scott, who boasts no proper verse of his own, nonetheless furthers his persona as shadowy midnight marauder, a cloaked and hard-bitten party animal, contrasted with Thugga’s image as rambunctious, gender-fluid wordsmith and generous father. (The line “I need all this cash, I got hella kids” now has an enjoyable illustration after this memorable recent Instagram post.) For years, Thugga fans have known his potential for melding genuine idealism (“Mama told me I’m her brightest star/Mama told me don’t hate on the law/Because everybody got a job/Because everybody won’t be a star”) with a penchant for turning booty-call blips into weird, grandiose bangers. This one, with Scott’s help, adds some patience to that sound, rendering the beat a bit less ADD than usual, and allowing Thug’s pop instincts to fully come to the fore. CLB
1. Sonically, “Ultralight Beam” is a decade of Kanye West, synthesized: experimental auto-tuned vocals with boom bap percussion, thundering choral harmonies, and a patient, pounding back beat. It also represents the very best of Kanye’s approach, featuring precious little of the performer himself, and instead accentuating his penchant for accumulating talent, a righteous recrimination to all who find his particular brand of hubris and self-aggrandizement unforgivable. Here, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Kirk Franklin all play indelible roles, but it’s Kanye’s handoff of the track’s lone rap verse to the song’s original author, Chance the Rapper, that proves most astute. And yet, “Ultralight Beam” is ultimately still Kanye’s vision, and his publicized struggles at the twilight of 2016 lend fresh power to its nu-gospel form of confessional. The-Dream croons, “I’m tryna keep my faith, but I’m looking for more,” and it hits even harder now (at the end of this year), while the intro sample of a young girl’s Pentecostal recitation, paired with Kirk Franklin’s full benediction in the outro, work in tandem to convey Kanye’s yearning, amidst the turmoil, for the steadying faith of his youth. Luke Gorham
The 41st Toronto International Film Festival recently wrapped, and our writers were on hand to soak up the cinema bounty. Our second and final dispatch (find our first here) features some heavy, (seemingly) politically-minded films, including Bertrand Bonello’s festival fire-bomb Nocturama, which was rejected by both the Cannes and Venice film festivals; Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, a documentary about the European migrant crisis; and Oliver Stone’s latest biopic, Snowden.
The 41st Toronto International Film Festival recently wrapped, and our writers were on hand to soak up the cinema bounty. Our first of two dispatches includes hotly anticipated fall releases like Denis Villeneuve’s mysterious sci-fi film Arrival and Barry Jenkins’s decades-spanning character study Moonlight; holdovers from the competition lineup of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, including Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, Christian Mungiu’s Graduation, and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson; and a smattering of films looking to translate TIFF 2016 buzz to a wider audience, like actress Alice Lowe’s directorial debut Prevenge and Iranian Ana Lily Amirpour’s second feature, The Bad Batch. Some of these are, as is to be expected, much more worth your time than others. We’re here to help.