Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why We Love Procedurals

When I say "we" I mean average American TV viewers. Sure, there are plenty of us out there who are sick of cop shows, "They're all the same," they mumble as they switch the channel to something with "more substance," something more deserving of their attention. Then they go up in arms when that "quality" show goes off the air because it can't complete with that fluff cop show. We've all seen it happen before, TV is a numbers game, people. If your show is up against NCIS you better hope that show's network is okay with only being able to reach number two in that timeslot. That's just how it is, people love NCIS, and for perfectly valid reasons too. Whoa, hold on there, Mr. TV Snob, don't click away just yet. Your reasons for hating it is just as valid, though I doubt you really gave it a fair chance, or any procedural show for that matter. Maybe you think if you've seen one, you've seen them all. And maybe you're right. But I'm going to attempt to explain to you just why it is that we enjoy this stuff so much and why networks can't get enough of them.
1. They aren't heavy on continuous plotlines

Most people like to think they have some kind of a life (not me, of course). The serial nature of these shows make it easy to miss every once in a while. You can go weeks without seeing CSI and still feel like you don't need to be caught up before watching a brand new episode. Sure, this can mean stunting of character development here and there, and the writing can suffer as a result, but you don't need to know why a character solves crimes to watch him do it. Sometimes they do have a thread throughout a particular season (like an evasive serial killer) or even a series (usually this has to do with a loved one's suspicious death years earlier), which gives the audience a reason to come back and watch religiously every week. But what's important here is that they don't feel like they have to.

2. They make us feel like we're learning something.
Ok, I am perfectly aware that DNA samples can't be processed as quickly as they are on CSI, I also know that I would not be able to profile and find a serial killer like on Criminal Minds. But after years and years of watching these shows, I must be retaining more than just what music/movie stars had a guest spot on which show, right? You see, we viewers enjoy the entertainment, sure, but we like to think we're getting smarter while we watch. Even if it's not entirely true.

3. We love the characters. Even if they are pretty similar in every show.
I will always root for the seasoned investigator who solves cases without regard for bureaucracy or the authoritative fellow who's breathing down his neck. This guy in the real world would probably be fired for breaking protocol or assaulting a "perp," but in these shows we see someone getting away with how we'd like to act at work, even if our jobs are boring and not nearly as important. He gets away with it because he's the best. Plus, he's got his sarcastic partner to back him up. And the geeky yet completely gorgeous lab tech. Not to mention the sexy ass-kicking female who probably specializes in whatever seems to be the least feminine field (she's usually my favorite, though I do wish she'd wear a more supportive bra). There's also the rookie, which is my favorite ploy in procedural shows, namely the ones that focus on forensics (see all the CSIs). This kid is brought on pretty much just to find a way to explain things to the audience; someone has to ask questions, it would be just silly for our seasoned cop to ask how a flux-a-whats-it works. And let's not forget the wise older person, who is usually the coroner or a veteran in his/her own right. They keep our hero grounded. But jokes aside, they really are interesting if you let yourself be interested. Every once in a while, the writers and actor give you a glimpse at something deeper with these characters and that's when the shows separate from one another.

Unless the show is mainly about a tough female investigator. Then one of her parents was murdered when she was a child. I'm serious. There's no getting away from it.

4. It can get graphic.

I've gotten to a point where I can watch these shows while I eat. That's no small feat, I promise you. The most disgusting thing I've seen was in an episode of CSI (the original). Two bodies were locked in the trunk of a car for a while and the Nevada heat caused the trunk to act kind of like an oven. The fat in the bodies melted. And when they opened the trunk, it was the grossest stew you've ever seen. I swear I could smell it. Then later, the techs were trying to drain the trunk and poor Greg had to pull a plug. He pushed his gloved hand down in it and tugged. It gave way, but he got a little decomp juice in his mouth. It was pretty awesome. Bones has some great gross outs as well. And Criminal Minds probably uses more fake blood than any show out there. Is there something wrong with me because I enjoy that stuff? No, because it's not real. I can sip tomato soup and watch reruns of that CSI episode because I know those weren't really bodies. And yet people have no problem watching The First 48. Explain how I'm the one with issues? Please be warned, this clip is NASTY.

5. Explosions make everything better!

Don't believe me, check out an episode of the new Hawaii Five-0.

6. We all want to be detectives. Who get surprised.

Sherlock Holmes was popular back in the day where people read books because we could solve the case along with him. Maybe we could even figure it out before he did. That's all we want out of these types of shows, really. I want to see something Grissom missed. I want to pick up on something that was obviously put there for my benefit that the characters didn't see at first. What I don't want to be able to do however, is figure out who the bad guy is by reading the opening guest credits. That can be disappointing when you're watching a show then BAM a name you recognize comes on screen; the most famous person did it, I guarantee. Also if they were a bad guy on one of these shows the chances of them repeating that performance for another network (or even a spin off) is pretty good. Believe it or not I've seen one guy go to prison in all three CSIs. But when I can pick out the bad guy without that kind of thinking, I'm a happy camper. And if there's a twist, a really good one I don't see coming and the famous guy isn't the killer/kidnapper/rapist then I'm ecstatic and it's probably my favorite episode ever.

7. We like sexual tension.

I'll admit it. I have shipper tendencies. It's like a disease. It starts out small, enjoying Jordan and Woody flirt in season two of Crossing Jordan. Then it grows as I wonder just how long it's going to take for Brennan and Booth to make it happen (still wondering, Bones writers!). Now I'm cheering for Olivia and Peter in Fringe. Cut to me wondering moments into the first episode of The Chicago Code if the two main people will get together. I HAVE A PROBLEM. But it's not just me. The whole internet is full of sickos like me. We wouldn't have these feelings however, if they weren't planted by the evil geniuses that create these shows (ok, maybe genius is a little too much). They know this and they tease us like crazy. And it works. For the most part, I mean, for every one cheering for "Tiva," there's another who just wants to watch the crimes being solved. I can't pretend to understand those people.

8. Movie stars have to do something when they can't get movies anymore.

There. I said it. No offense Mark Harmon. And Chris O'Donnell. And Lawrence Fishburne. And Christian Slater (don't worry, man, keep trying one of those shows have got to stick eventually).

9. We like when we can know our favorite shows aren't going anywhere.

Even if Mark Harmon pulls a full on Charlie Sheen, NCIS will not go off the air. Even though CSI is not the same without William Peterson, it's still going strong. Pick one of these two horses as your favorite and you can expect to be fully satisfied every week. Then one of these shows gets a spinoff? Those aren't going anywhere either, my friend. Confession time: I hate having to join those campaigns to save the shows I love. Sure, it feels worth it every time Chuck gets picked up again. And yes, I do like feeling a tad superior to those that have never heard of Party Down (that's mostly because the campaigns didn't work for that one). And I will fight to the death (metaphorically) to keep Fringe on the air. But it is tiring. Procedurals that can get popular fast will stay around for years. Hawaii Five-0 isn't going anywhere unless they lose Scott Caan (who rumor has it hates living in Hawaii, poor guy). NCIS: Los Angeles will stick around, no doubt there. Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior -- well, maybe, it's too soon to tell and it certainly hasn't lived up to the original yet. But you get what I'm saying. I'm not stressed about these shows being on the bubble. I can enjoy them for what they are and then focus all my blogging energy on why Lie to Me should stay on the air.

And finally...

10. Sometimes a show comes along that does it right.

There is a way to have a case of the week formula without the viewer realizing it. Most of these shows are just about solving cases and getting the viewers' minds off our real life. But every once in a (NYPD) blue moon a show has the audacity to give us crime solvers with actual depth, cases that touch us, writing that baffles us. Most recently, Southland and Justified come to mind. There's no coincidence that both of these programs are on cable.
They don't have to compete with NCIS or anything else on CBS, they only have to be good. And that's how we cop show fans AND tv snobs can get lucky. We can have the best of both worlds without feeling guilty. I can continue to love NCIS: Los Angeles just as long as I can recognize what separates it from The Shield. You can watch Law & Order: SVU for the drama then flip to Psych for the originality (and laughs). Cop shows have something for everyone, as long as you can find the one perfect for you. You just have to be willing to watch a miss once in a while (like Chase or Rookie Blue).

What about you guys? What procedurals are you watching? Any you're thinking of giving a second chance?

Click Here, Nimrods...

Friday, February 25, 2011

Predictions, Shoulda-Beens and Other Oscar Musings

The 83rd annual Academy Awards air this Sunday on ABC.  Here are my picks in the Oscar pool and who I'm rooting for in spite of it.


Vegas is going with Melissa Leo, which would mean both retards from the abysmal The Fighter may very well walk home with the supporting hardware.  This is the same sort of overwrought performance the Academy loved in Sandra Bullock which would be a real tragedy for a few different reasons:

#1: Hailee Steinfeld.  It is a joke she was even nominated in this category as she has more screen time than Jeff Bridges who got a nod in a leading category.  Her character was adapted brilliantly by the Coens and performed flawlessly.  And, as everybody knows, she's 14.  This is a blessing in the category, and Paramount knows this.  She is not only who I think deserves this award, I'm going out on a limb and picking her to win.

#2 Amy Adams.  I'm hoping she'll split enough Fighter votes with Leo to give it to Steinfeld.  Adams has delivered bankable performances the last few years, which makes this a reasonable nod.  To call her the only likable thing about the film makes it sound like the film was likable, but, I mean, I also watched After.Life just because Christina Ricci was in it, so come on.

#3 Jacki Weaver.  It is a shame that I have to root for Steinfeld in what is clearly not a supporting performance because it takes away from a non-mainstream pick the Academy got right.  The criminally underseen Animal Kingdom will hopefully get some buzz based on the few seconds of a clip we'll see as Weaver is introduced.  In a lot of ways, that's the best we can hope for these days.


The hard and fast truth is that I have yet to see Mike Leigh's Another Year.  For the sake of this article, the point is moot.  The King's Speech wins this award in a category filled with a lot of fluff.  The Fighter is cliché at best. The Kids Are All Right is most memorable for stifled moments in the narrative progression.  Inception doesn't even belong in this category because it was adapted from a Scrooge McDuck comic.  Seriously, look it up.  The King's Speech will walk away with one of the easiest picks of the night.  It's a writing award for a movie about talking.


This is going to be a win for The Social Network which, while it wouldn't be my vote, I'm O.K. with.  My issues with the film I will discuss further in the "Best Picture" category, but the writing is partly responsible.  It is a dialogue driven movie and succeeds on that account.  As a depiction of "our generation"?  It reads like an outsider looking in, and I don't think the film will age terribly well for it.

True Grit is the best adaptation since No Country For Old Men.  No surprise who is responsible for that.  A reading that made the Coens produce an epic that is not only hopeful but non-cynical is no small feat.  True Grit captures the quirk and the style of the original and makes it relevant for 2010.  It would easily have my vote, but you can't always pick with your heart.

127 Hours and Winter's Bone are two big nothings, and Hollywood will never, no matter how juggernaut Pixar becomes, give a writing award to an animated film.  The Social Network is a pretty easy pick here.


Let's be serious.  I'm not even going to waste your time here.  Remember when the VMAs gave Taylor Swift that award instead of Beyoncé and Kanye flipped out because there was no internal logic for picking "All The Single Ladies" for video of the year and not having it win the subdivision?  Kinda like this year when the Grammys had Arcade Fire losing to The Black Keys in the minor categories only to win Album of the Year?  Say what you will about the Academy, they typically don't pull that garbage.  RottenTomatoes is an unfair barometer here:  The differential between Toy Story 3 and How To Train Your Dragon is only 1%.  Instead, check out something like MetaCritic that widens that gap to 18%.  There is no second place.  Toy Story 3 FTW.


Last year I watched all the animated shorts but Logorama.  Oops.  Though mostly a throwaway category, this one is always pretty important to me.  And frustrating as they often nominate a lot of lightweights.  The selections this year are pretty strong, save for Let's Pollute.  This work by a former Pixar character designer might sound like a safe pick based on subject matter alone-- not an unfair criterion in the short categories-- however, not only is the film not very witty in its sarcasm, it's smug and crammed with sweeping generalizations to boot.  Next to its competition, it isn't much to look at either.

Pixar's Day & Night is easily the most recognizable here as it was in front of Toy Story 3.  This hasn't always meant that much in this category (see Presto, Lifted, One Man Band), but this film also distinguishes itself.  Day & Night is the most cinematic of the nominees and is brave in its own right-- emphasizing theme over narrative structure.  Expect this to be a popular pick in the Oscar pools, and it maybe even deserves it.

U.K.'s The Gruffalo is also a front-runner here, and brings with it a weight of length (27 minutes).  It is a film that takes its animation seriously yet approaches it in a childlike way.  The tone and color hearken to classic Disney (it avoids the common trend of nailing thematic elements home with ugly characters in grayscale) and is about an unpretentious as any nomination in any category.  It is to be praised for that.

I'm not giving much of a chance to either The Lost Thing or Madagascar, A Journey Diary, though both are highly enjoyable.  The former should be praised for its restraint of keeping its elements within their world.  The latter should be praised for the fantastic multitude of animation styles and allowing itself to be told through vignette within an already abbreviated genre.

Forced to pick here, I give a slight edge by both my mind and heart to The Gruffalo, but wouldn't be surprised or upset if Day & Night wins.


There are a few categories I wish came with a footnote.  For example, how does Avatar win for cinematography when I'm not sure how many cameras were even used in its production?  Art Direction is such a category that isn't just subjective, but often misunderstood.

I expect The King's Speech to take this category not only because I expect it to have a big night, its tone matches its imagery for this genre piece that Academy voters lap up.  If I were an Academy voter, I'd go with True Grit here because it is a contender.  If unbiased, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1 is just as fair.


I'm half-willing to go out on a limb here with I Am Love, a film sometimes defined by its costumes, but I don't know exactly how many of the nominees the voters need to have seen.  I also don't even really know what The Tempest is, period.  As far as predictions go, I would count Alice In Wonderland out in any eligible category and probably bet voters are going with The King's Speech across the board.

I'll take the fairly dark-horse and little-known I Am Love.  As far as diversifying in Oscar pools go, there are much riskier options among the minor categories.


All I have within me is pulling for The Wolfman here.  Paul Giamatti always looks old and bald, and nobody saw The Way Back.  I love whenever a brilliantly fun mess like The Wolfman stands a legitimate shot.  Half lumbering makeup, half CGI, all entertainment.


If True Grit is going to have any night whatsoever, this is its best shot.  Roger Deakins's Academy-approved record speaks for itself in this category.  He should have won in 2008, but split too many votes between No Country For Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  I don't blame the Academy here:  I would have probably picked the latter as it is difficult to imagine the landscape of the contemporary Western without Deakins's eye.

Much like my beef with Avatar, I hope Inception doesn't win this category.  The remaining three nominations (The King's Speech, Black Swan and The Social Network) are all technically distinguished, but more showcases for performance.  I'm really hoping the Academy does the right thing here.


I have not seen any of these nominations, and nearly everyone sitting in the Kodak Theater on Sunday night is in the same boat.  This category requires voters to have seen every nominee, so it's not a safe bet to opt based on subject matter.

This, however, is what I do the majority of the time anyway.  My pick in these categories are Ne Wewe and Strangers No More, respectively, based on little more than plot synopses.  For mostly student films, this isn't too terribly unfair.


Lots of blind spots for me here, but often times the household name wins over subjects that seem timely (The Cove and Man On Wire, the two most recognizable titles have won the last two years).  That being said, I have a difficult time seeing Exit Through the Gift Shop winning this year.  Restrepo and Inside Job probably seem more "important" to a lot of voters, and I would probably pick Inside Job here, though a personal favorite eludes me.


It really sucks to have to check Christian Bale on a pool for playing Forrest Gump on smack.  Especially since, of the many things I do like about Bale, this will end up enshrining him.  He's the odds-on-favorite by a long-shot in a mostly boring category.  Geoffrey Rush would be a personal pick here as his understated performance was my favorite thing about The King's Speech.  Jeremy Renner is a nice nod that may receive, literally, three votes in a largely irrelevant category this year. 


I expect Inception to sweep the technical awards, which, if it has to win something, it's fair enough that it should win these.  The Academy shows what these awards are truly worth by including TRON: Legacy and Salt amongst the nods.  As far as stupid popcorn movies go, I'll begrudgingly take a humorless Inception in these categories and not lose any sleep at night.


Some may find it strange that, with as many layers Inception had, it is not nominated in this category.  I am glad as I looked at my proverbial watch many times wondering how much slo-mo stock could have been left on the floor.  I think Black Swan, The Fighter and Danny Boyle's style-over-substance gimmickry in 127 Hours are largely throwaways here.  I see this award going to The Social Network over The King's Speech for, in two movies largely centered on conversation, The Social Network moved very fluidly and (at least appeared) to have a lot going on.


I so badly want to see Trent Reznor take center stage here for The Social Network.  It will be more comedic and nearly as epic as Elliott Smith's performance in a real fish-out-of-water appearance.  I want this so bad I'm not even considering that Inception and 127 Hours have a chance here (which they do).


The most irrelevant award presented at the ceremony:  An Academy that rarely picks their own movies correctly now have to be experts on music too?  Randy Newman's "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3 seems an easy enough pick, but don't discount "If I Rise" from 127 Hours.  These performances will be bland and, honestly, it's only a matter of time before this category disappears.


With all my gut I'm pulling for Dogtooth, though I realize it stands a large lamp's chance in shotgun.  The Academy notoriously opts for typical Hollywood narrative structure if not altogether warmer selections than the occasional pick from the Von Trier/Haneke school of thought.  By this logic, expect In A Better World to win, despite Bardem's nomination.


Although this award typically predicts Best Picture, I think they will differ this year and the Best Direction Oscar will be something of a consolation prize for David Fincher.  To call The King's Speech an actor's vehicle isn't altogether untrue, but there are directorial touches (Firth and Rush falling out of step in while arguing along a foggy path still stands out as a key moment to me).  I just think the things The Social Network does right are due more to Fincher than anything else.


Apparently there is some murmuring about Annette Bening being a dark horse, which I just can not see.  Natalie Portman's performance in Black Swan is the thing Academy voters salivate over:  years of training, strict physical regimen,  commanding placement in every single frame of the picture.

It's a real shame that Michelle Williams stands zero chance here, but I won't be upset with Portman's win.  And the fact that Portman was able to turn this performance from a career that was going nowhere for over ten years only favors her all the more.


Colin Firth wins.  Sorry.  There is no drama here.

I will say this:  It is too bad Bridges won for the wrong picture.  And as much as I like James Franco, I wouldn't even consider him the darkest horse, mainly because 127 Hours was all glitz.


I am a huge proponent of the shift back to ten nominees in this category.  Sure, it's a little watered down.  Sure, I have to watch a few things each year that I never wanted to (lately they've been sports related: The Blind Side, The Fighter).  But instead of just one token Miramax pick every year, now we can have our animated dish, give a few bucks to some no-shot indies and split the lesser candidates so much that there is less confusion as to who should be the winner.  And guess what-- in its first year since the return of this format, it got it right against the highest grossing movie of all time.

* Winter's Bone -- this hollow nothing is an exercise in local color and confused about its philosophy.  I'm glad something like Winter's Bone can get a nomination, but it's too bad that it had to be Winter's Bone.  When all is said and done, it means nothing and stands to win nothing but a few Redbox rentals.

* 127 Hours -- Not nearly as obnoxious as Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours sees Boyle returning to his old toilet tricks (this time, we see the perspective of Franco drinking his own urine through the water bottle) as a director that has always resorted to gimmick when hard-pressed for narrative.  Again, this stands zero chance.  Will be lucky to see any award on Oscar night.

* The Fighter -- Easily the worst of the bunch, The Fighter runs every cliché in the book and has its actors ham it up every step of the way.  The voters love garbage like this, and I'm only hoping that it gets nothing outside the supporting categories.  Shoddily written, a joke of a directorial picture, nothing to offer.

* The Kids Are All Right -- The few moments of sincere depth are often squandered by bad, obvious punchlines.  Bening stands a very outside chance, but is the best part of this piece.  Though understandable for its subject matter, it often tries too hard to feel indie and ultimately isn't too far displaced from Garden State.

* Inception -- The heavy fanboy favorite on every IMDb message board, the ten-picture format gives Nolan the opportunity he deserved for The Dark Knight.  Unfortunately, Inception is such a headcase, it miraculously managed to lead legions of fans into taking it even more seriously than the suffocating pretension of the film itself.  For the literate film viewer, this thing had little to offer upon repeat viewings and I will be staying away from the message boards for the years to come.

* Black Swan -- Remember when Mickey Rourke accepted his award for The Wrestler at the Independent Spirit Awards and he gave a little anecdote about Darren Aronofsky?  Rourke puffed him up so much as to say that directors as good as he only crop up every 25 years.  Apparently Aronofsky's response to that was "thirty".  Fast forward to this year's New York Film Critics' Circle award dinner when Aronofsky's ego tried sparring with Armond White of all individuals.  To me, Aronofsky has always been a very talented director with a little bit of an ego problem that wouldn't bother if it weren't for the fact that his films treat the audience like they are dolts.  I enjoy his films, I do.  It's just that I get it.  I get what he's trying to tell me without needing it continually pounded into my head.  Black Swan is about a familiar big theme: art and the artist.  He, alongside Portman, present this very well even with a somewhat kitschy horror model.  That worked for me.  He just doesn't know when to let up and allow the subject matter speak for itself.  It works for the Academy-- his most understated and best film was The Fountain which was largely ignored.  However, I just see Aronofsky in some sort of limbo that Hollywood will throw a bone to without ever considering a serious contender.

* Toy Story 3 -- Is it unfair to call Toy Story 3 a little overrated?  I mean, it's still in my top five for 2010, but the 99% at RottenTomatoes is a little unreasonable.  I mean, it's only the second best Toy Story movie.  The one shame of the ten movie nomination format is that it placates the animated film (as if "animated" was a genre rather than a medium).  Toy Story 3 is a great film that everyone accepts is great.  RottenTomatoes shows that nearly everyone agrees with this (hate to bring up Armond White twice in this article).  It is simply beyond Hollywood to accept an animated picture as its best.  I don't know if it ever will.

* True Grit -- My pick for best nominated picture in the bunch, though it stands little chance on Oscar night.  I do like that, after the late '90s indie rush at the Oscars, the Coens are somehow Academy staples in 2011.  Maybe they don't take the trophy every time, but they're a part of the public consciousness enough that I have hope that, sometimes, we get it.  Also something to consider:  True Grit has become the highest grossing Coen Brothers movie, and the second-highest grossing Western of all-time.  No small feat in a world that sees "Deadwood" canceled with little noise.

* The Social Network -- Although considered a main contender with The King's Speech for the top prize, to me, The Social Network has lost a lot of steam-- comparable to last year's Up In The Air.  And to me, a lot of the rhetoric is baffling.  This is the movie of "new Hollywood" and of "our generation".  Last time I checked, the writing was not only cynical of Internet culture, it treated it as something of an oddity from an outsider perspective.  For a movie supposedly about the social network, the Internet actually had very little to do with the movie.  Technically, to Fincher's credit, the elements come together to make a very good film.  I like Eisenberg's strange creation, I like the casting of Justin Timberlake, and I like the historic tweaks (like Eisenberg's relationship status) that made the film deeper thematically.  It is more than worthy of the award for best picture (more worthy than The King's Speech, for sure), I just don't buy the depth which is being argued, the scope being purported, or the legacy and timelessness being assumed.  A great film, but no masterpiece.

* The King's Speech -- This thing has picked up so much steam post-Golden Globes, it is difficult for me to see anything but it winning.  It is a film of great actors sitting in great rooms interacting with great dialogue.  It is in many ways a showcase for Firth (and for a overshadowed, but better Rush), but also a well-handled director's piece.  Tom Hooper's treatment of the material is never condescending and the picture is generally very placidly acceptable.  At best, the picture is very déjà vu of, if not openly nostalgic for, the Miramax of old.  To compare it to The Queen in subject matter alone is unfair.  The King's Speech evokes the picturesque of The Wings of the Dove, the weight of The English Patient, and the uplift of Shakespeare in Love.  It's a film your mom will love and, while that isn't necessarily a compliment, you could do a lot worse.

Click Here, Nimrods...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Slipp Jimmy fri (Free Jimmy) (2006, Christopher Neilsen)

Chances are you haven't heard of Alex Goldsmith.  He is the brother-in-law of R. Crumb who lives in a room off Crumb's French villa.  He buys Crumb prints on eBay, takes them downstairs to be autographed, and posts them back on eBay for profit.  In 2006, Alex Goldsmith contacted "The Howard Stern Show" in an attempt to trade Crumb prints for a Sirius Radio subscription so he could remain a loyal listener from France.

It's this kinda thing that makes it difficult for me to stand behind an R. Crumb-influenced subculture.  On one hand, Crumb is an inarguably brilliant artist whose work can't be understood without a large dose of satire.  On the other hand, drawings of boobies are funny to the same people who tune in to "The Howard Stern Show".  Though I don't necessarily agree with, I can at least follow an argument for Fritz The Cat to be made into a motion picture.  Was much satire (the only true chance it has of "message") lost due to the film's preference for knee-jerk reactions to lewd animation?  Yes.  Did the film find a cult audience despite many Crumb aficionados giving it the cold shoulder?  Yes.  And much the same way, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to expect an "Ass Napkin Ned", "Jeff the Vomit Guy" or "Wendy the Retard" film coming from the Howard Stern camp.  Someone is paying for those Sirius accounts.

My guess is a fair portion of this audience would be waiting in line to see (R. Crumb influenced) Norwegian comic artist Christopher Nielsen's computer animated Free Jimmy if it ever got a proper U.S. theatrical release.  Written by Nielsen and re-written by Simon Pegg (?!) for the English-speaking audience, Free Jimmy reads like someone thought Willem Dafoe was real funny in The Boondock Saints, created a real ugly computer animated version of him and placed him amid grown-up, stoner "South Park" kids.

Billed as a dark comedy, everything is excessively ugly and no characters are likable.  This is not my issue with the film.  The film skewers vegans, hippies, stoners, straight-edgers, mobsters, animal liberators, dumb animals, hunters and circus entertainers.  This is not my issue with the film.  My issue is that the film is a directionless chase that wags the finger with no moral compass. 

The titular Jimmy is an old, abused, junkie circus elephant with thousands of dollars of heroin sewn into his ass.  The stoners are hired by head-stoner, Roy Arnie to kidnap Jimmy and steal the drugs from the Russian mafia.  The vegans are five animal-liberators essentially trying to do the same thing for their high.  Easy targets in an "adult" film with a teenage audience.  Couple this with Pegg's easiest paycheck-- spending four hours writing a first-draft of Guy Ritchie dialogue for the "Family Guy" set-- and any nuance and humor (that the fanboys swear is in the original) is lost in translation.

Worse yet, the film is dedicated to Neilsen's brother, rocker Joachim Neilsen, who died of a heroin overdose in 2000.  See, this poor drugged-up, abused elephant is a metaphor for the entertainer-- an artist who sacrifices his life only for his audience to demand more.  An artist driven to a life of drugs over which he has no control.  The artist is victim, and Jimmy is the only wretched character drawn with any empathy.  No culpability is demanded, because both the stoners and the sobers are the lampooned guilty parties.  In fact, both even eschew their dogmas in key moments of the film.  Is Neilsen suggesting a life of moderation?  Of only moderate drug-use?  After all, the pot-heads are the central figures and most relatable characters.

Free Jimmy is a film that paints from an absurdest palette, only to reject it with sentiments of regret and legacy.  Not only is this a moral quandary, but everything in the movie looks like a dog's chew-toy with the fluidity of the Statue of Liberty.  The result is an adolescent (meaning, somehow, less mature) Ice Age via Baba Booey.  Fritz The Cat for all the wrong reasons.  -- ½* / four stars

Click Here, Nimrods...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Films of Charley Bowers

Wrong Again v. Un chien andalou

Consider it sacrelidge, but this film fan will always prefer the warmer,more human side to anarchistic humor in Leo McCarey than the cynical, surreal (albeit masterful) work of Luis Buñuel.  Maybe it's because I subscribe to a Sullivan's Travels school of personable (if naïve) optimism in which comedy unites rather than divides.  Maybe it is because the rust seems to gather more quickly on work with a cutting social message.  Maybe it's because, at the end of the day, Leo McCarey, dying of emphysema, could look back on a career in which he understood people, as Jean Renoir said, "better than any other Hollywood director", while Luis Buñuel wrote, "I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase an entire life". Maybe it is naïve, but the history of film is one that records ourselves in a very distinct time.  To at once be within and transcend this time it no easy feat, and one that the best slapstick does maybe better than any genre.  Thanks to the persistence of a number of European film historians, the art of Charley Bowers has now been rescued from public amnesia.

The details of Bowers's life make his two-reeler Now You Tell One seem autobiographical.  In the film, a group called The Liars Club compete to impress with the most outlandish stories (the least of which marches elephants up Capitol Hill, the greatest involving a magic potion that will grow even inanimate objects through a grafting process).  In his real life, he was purportedly kidnapped by the circus at age six, trained as a professional tightrope walker, and eventually worked in bronco busting and animation before getting into film.  Even the details surrounding his co-director, Harold L. Muller are sketchy at best, leading historians to question his existence.
As a clown, Bowers has the stature and posture of a Buster Keaton but understands he can't compete in overall physicality and choreography of gags.  Bowers's imagination is just as anarchistic on a large scale and, if not embodied in his physical presence, is substituted in his animation and, for lack of a better word, magic.  Not quite deadpan, Bowers carries about him the same unaffectedness of the courtier like Keaton, and the gags work because this wide-eyed naïveté (tying him to probable influence Harry Langdon) allows the machinery to take the limelight.  Bowers's machines never quite work, but they don't consume us as in Modern Times, and the inventor is never exasperated with how little he gets out of how hard he works (in essence, Harold Lloyd's schtick).  Bowers's legacy extends the magic of Georges Méliès to slapstick, Rube Goldbergian levels, and sets the bar of fluid, anthropomorphic, stop-motion animation so high that no one--not the Brothers Quay, not Wladyslaw Starewicz, not Aardman Animations-- has neared. 
Egged On (1926)

To call Bowers's work anti-Modernist somewhat misses the point.  Bowers plays an inventor in many of his shorts--an inventor named Charley Bowers in some of them.  And as you would expect in slapstick, the machines often go wrong.  In Egged On, in an attempt to make an unbreakable egg, Charley instead invents an egg that takes on the nature of what broods it.  Sure, the contraption eventually creates what destroys it, but the machine isn't the enemy.  Compare this to He Done His Best (a better-realized version of his earlier, animated The Extra-Quick Lunch) in which it is the violence of the human element--the union--that is responsible for (just as in Egged On) blowing up the room.  It is the machine that offers a solution. Ultimately, the films of Charley Bowers poke fun at Modernism without being critical of it.  While the joke is often non sequitur, Bowers hardly prescribes to the surrealist philosophy.  To our benefit, these two-reelers follow narrative structures and are absurd without the weight of philosophy.  Hardly fundamentalist, the surrealism in Bowers's gonzo imagination suggest that anything is possible.  Though holding to some traditionalist ideas (marriage and earning a living), Bowers's heroes are always more a product of their time than holding to established dogma.

A Wild Roomer (1927)
Marriage is, in fact, for personal gain.  In a lesser effort, 1927's Nothing Doing, Bowers's desires come at the expense of mother-in-law's shaved dog and father-in-law's entire police force.  Notable here is that these errors have nothing to do with mechanization, but are due solely to human incompetence.  In A Wild Roomer, his machine is means to marriage and money, and these are positive things.  Bowers turns a blind eye as the machine bulldozes through walls of buildings, but it is suggested this Victorian architecture needs to make way for the future.  And it is in these mechanized sequences that his films have the most heart.  The emotional climax of A Wild Roomer is the stop-animated sequence in which the machine sews a heart into an anthropomorphic doll who comes to life and is dressed and fed by the machine.  The few existing films of Bowers can't be viewed as anti-Modernist because his ideas and their form were thoroughly progressive.  His machines are never heavy-handed metaphor nor are they empty Dadaist gestures: Bowers is perhaps most comparable to contemporary Dr. Seuss in that, while socio-political motivations may linger beneath the surface, their unifying and most memorable contributions flow from their endless creative muse.

Often, when Bowers resorts to his clown to be sole source of humor, there is a mean streak that suggests his work was more concerned with populist success than social cohesion or devotion.  Perhaps this is why he was a such a success in Europe which, to this day, celebrates a heavy-anarchistic-over-common-decency humor of Jerry Lewis.  Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin had, at the heart of no matter how minor a piece.  For Charley Bowers, the heart is in the machine, and the machine is often the method to the animation that he cares for the most.  Sometimes that means his character doesn't 'fess up to shaving mom's dog.  Sometimes that means he'll let (literal) insanity be the butt of the joke.  This method wouldn't fly today, no, but it is handled in such a way that it carries his masterwork There It Is, and again in Many A Slip where it is borrowed almost verbatim for Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century.   

It's A Bird (1930) v. Porky In Wackyland (1938)
The animation world owes a tremendous debt to Charley Bowers in a way that has been much overlooked.  In It's A Bird, a film heavy on stop-motion animation, Bowers owns a junkyard and is enticed to travel to Africa to capture a rare metal-eating bird.  This bird not only resembles Robert Clampett's Do-Do, it transplants the entire tale from Africa in the Looney Tunes classic Porky In Wackyland.  This more than any other work of Bowers showcases his ability to bend metal in stop-motion animation that is mesmerizing.  Whether he is making tin cans uncrumple as they grow on trees in Now You Tell One, or arguably the single-most impressive Bowers scene where mini Model-T's hatch from eggs in Egged On, Bowers fluidity on making the impossible believable is unparalleled. 

The anarchistic humor of Bowers isn't only seen in Clampett and Chuck Jones, it is evident in much of the best work of Dave and Max Fleischer in not only spirit (Bimbo's Initiation) but structure (Betty Boop's Crazy Inventions).  The Fleischer's return the favor in bringing on Charley Bower for 1940's Wild Oysters.  Like Nothing Doing was to his earlier slapstick work, Wild Oysters seems to be an earlier effort which lacks the ingenuity and fluidity of his earlier animated efforts.  The oyster-out-of-his-shell gag was better used in He Done His Best, and is recycled here in what essentially boils down to animals doing cruel things to one another.  Nevertheless, it is a welcome convention that inspired many Looney Tunes cat and mouse shorts in the 1940s.  Even the one-off gags like the automated dancing shoes in Fatal Footsteps shows the influence an all-but-forgotten film can have decades later ("The Jetsons", "The Simpsons").

What stands out most in the work of Charley Bowers is his technical wizardry.  Not to belittle the work of the Looney Tunes animators, Hannah-Barbera or Matt Groening and co., but the world was their 2D oyster.  Bowers level of craft is remarkable in any time frame.  What he was able to accomplish for stop-motion 3D animation is difficult to imagine.  That he did it in the 1920s is unfathomable.  And the man was no slouch when it came to straight clownin' either.  The man is a treasure whose work is remarkably unheralded considering his average output trumps the average Charley Chase, Mack Swain or Harry Langdon picture.  Given the time, what remains of his work will find its audience much like Leo McCarey's masterpiece Make Way For Tomorrow has after remaining in the dark for over half a century.  We can only hope.

A.W.O.L. (1918) -- ** /four stars
The Extra-Quick Lunch (1918) -- **½ /four stars
Egged On (1926) -- ****/four stars
He Done His Best (1926) --  ***½ /four stars
Fatal Footsteps (1926) -- ***/four stars
Now You Tell One (1926) -- ****/four stars
Many A Slip (1927) -- ***½ /four stars
Nothing Doing (1927) -- **½ /four stars
A Wild Roomer (1927) -- ***½ /four stars
There It Is (1928) -- ****/four stars
Say Ah-h! (1928) (fragment) -- ***½ /four stars
It's A Bird (1930) -- ****/four stars
Believe It Or Don't (1935) -- ** /four stars
Pete-Roleum and His Cousins (1939) -- *½ /four stars
A Sleepless Night (1940) -- **½ /four stars
Wild Oysters (1941) -- **½ /four stars

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Things I'm Excited About - Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

"A Marine platoon faces off against an alien invasion in Los Angeles."

That is the one and only tagline released for the upcoming action/sci-fi film Battle: Los Angeles. That was also the one and only tagline needed to get my ass in the seat.

For starters, this movie has everything I love: Aliens, spaceships, war scenes, crazy explosions, lots of yelling, and humanity facing its impending doom. The trailer for the film does everything right. Slow, ambient song layered over images of terror and destruction. It begs the audience to ask, "What will we do?" and "Who will save us?" The answer lies in two simple things-- A) We will fight them to the death with all the bad ass weaponry we can find, and B) Aaron Eckhart will. I'm looking forward not only to the fact that the film looks like an absolute feast of sensual stimulation, but also the fact that Mr. Eckhart, an actor who has proven time and time again that he is one of the best in taking on the role of hero.

From what I can see in the trailers, the film looks like it will most certainly entertain, but I am concerned about any greater message coming across. Maybe it is a comment on the middle east conflicts? Maybe it's about militarism and technology? Who knows? Maybe it's just about Aliens killing a bunch of humans and humans returning the favor. Long story short, its going to rule.

And even if it doesn't, it's gotta be better than Skyline.

Look for it 3/11/11 in IMAX and theaters. I know I'm going to.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Killer Inside Me (2010, Michael Winterbottom)

One directorial intuition that made Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde such a powerful and dangerous film is the way the progression of its violent content is mirrored in its form. What begins in a language of comedy (minor violence in long-shot, backed with playful banjo) evolves into a language of terror--grim, slo-mo, close-up. Though arguably irresponsible from an historic standpoint, the film's depiction of the duo down a slippery slope from naïveté to a point of no return is masterfully driven home in the way it is told.

To give director Michael Winterbottom the benefit of the doubt in his self-proclaimed noir drama The Killer Inside Me, I could argue that his apparent disregard for filmic language--nay, sometimes counter-intuitive use of it--is a clever device mimicking Deputy Lou Ford's (Casey Affleck) madness. Hence, his early, ungodly brutality is later lightened with his violence turning more comedic (long-shot, cartoon scored) as he gets madder. Is there a lesson learned in such an inverse treatment? Not really. Rather, the lightening of the material takes away from whatever grittiness the first act sowed, and that's saying something considering the writing and delivery of the characters give us nothing to root for and little to interest us. Such hopefulness in Winterbottom's delivery would demand a similar naïveté spoken of earlier.

Gone is the use of wordplay and twist of platitudes in the pulp novel in which Ford's use of cliché counters his dark side. It is replaced with boredom--not a malaise which drives a character like Holden Caulfield, but one felt mostly by the audience. Interesting how a film filled with noirish twists exudes such unaffectedness. And not in a beneficial way.

Despite such groping, The Killer Inside Me does benefit from its proximity to fellow reality-benders Shutter Island and Inception. Certain imagery in the film's climax echoes Shutter Island so completely, we listen closer to think we hear a murmur beneath the vacuous exercise. And as flawed, heavy-handed, and humorless as those two films are, that's really saying something. Here, repeat viewings bear little fruit because the chasm of disbelief is widened by shoddy portrayals (in a key sequence, we see that Ford's foster brother voluntarily [inexplicably?] took the blame for his molestation of a young girl--only they are all about ten years old and we don't know who is who) and poor writing (in the film's climax, any amount of officers both let their only witness walk into her death and fail to smell a house drenched in gasoline).

To claim the film elbows the misogyny of classic noir is giving the filmmakers far too much credit. Jessica Alba reportedly walked out of the film's screening at Sundance, and few could blame her when it has the gall to irresponsibly guffaw over the end credits: "Shame, shame on you. Ran around with other guys, tried to lie when I got wise. Foolish girl, shame on you." To compare the film's treatment of the cloth from which both violence and sex are cut from the male psyche to that in Anton Corbijn's The American is no contest. The latter is not only successful in providing meaningful relationships to explore its theory, it give mature commentary on its male-dominated genre. The former pushes all the buttons and comes off fetishistic for the sake of being masturbatory. No thesis, no money-shot. -- */ four stars

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Top 30 Music Videos of All-Time

A history of my love for film would make no sense without considering the tremendous influence the music video had coinciding with my discovery of art cinema. Barred from watching MTV until the age of 13, I couldn't consume enough when the floodgates were opened. I'm talking summer beach house, vast journals filled with weekly top 20 logs, "Alternative Nation", the Buzz Bin, "Beavis and Butt-head", VH1's "Crossroads", The Box coming in through massive UHF static on the non-cable television. I think I don't fully understand Sergei Eisenstein's Film Sense without these formative years in front of the television.

The music video is a dying art. YouTube tries to pick up the slack where three dozen "Road Rules" spin-offs had already done the damage. But watching music videos on YouTube is kinda like experiencing movies only on a DVD player: there is no sense of time or community. I have no regrets imbibing in '90s nostalgia on my 16-DVD bootleg set of unedited "Beavis and Butt-head" episodes, but its sad that today's youth doesn't really have anything like "120 Minutes" (or in a world of iThings, would it have an audience?)

The annual (or so) MTV event of counting down the top 100 (or once in May 2007, a top 500; trust me, I have the notebooks) was always an event for me. Sure, it was off-putting for an alt-kid to have to see so much Bon Jovi in such a short period of time, but this brief capsule is meant to hearken back to when to me, an important film was about three and a half minutes long. To lay some ground rules, I have limited the videos to one per artist. Be forewarned, this is highly subjective and highly personal.

30. Peter, Bjorn and John - "Young Folks" (2006)

Part of a great music video is its ability to take an already great song more enjoyable. In the YouTube-era, the video for "Young Folks" went nearly viral to follow up the critical hype. I'm not saying a video needs to be as literal as this one, but the slightly disconcerting animation by Graham Samuels and simple "quaint"-ness makes this work on multiple viewings.

29. Missy Elliott - "Lose Control" (2005)

Though far from my favorite Missy song (spots reserved for "Get Ur Freak On" and the criminally underrated "Pass That Dutch"), the video for "Lose Control" (d. Dave Meyers) features Missy buried in sand, Ciara suspending from a wall in sepia-tone, Tommy Lee emerging from a post-apocalyptic trash can, and even switches songs half way through. Anachronistic as only Missy can be, yet somehow thematically consistent and hip-hop purism.

28. Sinéad O'Connor - "Nothing Compares 2 U" (1990)

One of Prince's best written songs, a breathtakingly simple concept imitated countless times for good (D'Angelo's "Untitled") and bad (Alanis Morissette's "Head Over Feet"), but you know the reason this video makes the list. It's right around the lyric "All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the back yard / all died when you went away." That tear can't be concocted.

27. Wu-Tang Clan - "Triumph" (1997)

O.K., so Ol' Dirty threatens suicide and terrorism by killer bee from atop a skyscraper, and is saved by Spider-Man-esque Inspectah Deck who joins Method Man's fireball motorcycle gang as the bees escape to Cappadonna's (then not even in the Clan) secret underground lair. Then U-God AKA Golden Arms suspends from what appears to be a tree in Dante's horrid forest before RZA, an angel, breaks into a jail releasing prisoners. The omniscient GZA gives the words to his prophet Masta Killa who enlightens the world to true hip-hop. Then Ghostface and Raekwon perform a show to the newly recruited behind bars. There is no chorus. There is no continuity. There is no sensible narrative. Too many cooks? Not in the case of director Brett Ratner, as this is the only watchable thing he's ever had his hand in.

Also of note, in 1997 my grandfather and I watched this video together and he asked me if the news bulletin was real. Moral of the story? Wu-Tang is for the children.

26. Chris Isaak - "Wicked Game" (1991)

The finest installment of director Herb Ritts, translating what he did best (black-and-white portrait, Greek sculpture influence, homoerotic gaze, relations with supermodels) into the music video form. I'd be lying if I said that moments of Madonna's "Cherish" (and to a lesse...r extent Janet's "Love Will Never Do (Without You) and Michael's "In The Closet") haven't stuck with me to this day. But "Wicked Game" is quite possibly the sexiest video of all time. Supposedly model Helena Christensen didn't get along with Isaak on the shoot, and the increase in tension makes the video all the better for it.
Keep in mind, this version trumps the one directed by David Lynch.

25. Peter Gabriel - "Sledgehammer" (1986)

An obvious pick, yes, but always a true innovator of the music video, even if his later work was often ignored due, in part, to a creative drought musically (see "Kiss That Frog"). Still what is surprising to me is that this was immediately followed by "Don't Give Up". Feast or famine.

24. Pavement - "Shady Lane" (1997)

Spike Jonze doing what he does best: assimilating art and expressing complex emotion by animating music in shadows and light. In "Shady Lane" (one of the best songs on the best Pavement album), Jonze expounds upon, rather than being literal to Malkmus's narrative. A disconnect, an isolation, and a suggestion that in a slacker generation, maybe easier isn't all that easy.

23. Talking Heads - "Once In A Lifetime" (1980)

Eerily not too dissimilar to what will be #7 on this list, both thematically and choreographically. Claustrophobic, estranged, an uncontrollable marionette in an uncontrollable universe--yet unmistakably exuberant and hopeful. Also of note, this is co-directed and choreographed by Toni Basil.

Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime
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22. The Cranberries - "Linger" (1994)

Director Melodie McDaniel immerses this video in spotlights, mirrors, film and cameras. Much like her work in Madonna's "Secret", she takes on the feminine image as a sort of reverse-scopophilia as Dolores O'Riordan traipses through a rundown hotel, projecting layers of herself onto two dopplegangers straight out of a John Cassavettes movie.

21. The Cars - "You Might Think" (1984)

At the first ever MTV Video Music Awards, "You Might Think" trumped Herbie Hancock's "Rockit", Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun", The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller". Think about that for a minute. It trumped Lauper's anthemic (and genre-undefining) work by presenting a model as a subject of male gaze. It out-visualized "Rockit" with hilarious, gimmicky special effects that still hold up. The thing beat "Thriller" for crying out loud, maybe by being concise, and out stalkered the stalker anthem "Every Breath You Take". The subtext is creepy, the effects are aged, the ditty is almost a throw-away compared to The Cars' cerebral standards. It almost has no right to work as well as it does. And Ric Ocasek looks like the coolest guy of all time.

20. Radiohead - "Karma Police" (1997)

It amazes me that, as obtuse as Radiohead has become this decade, most of their great mid-'90s video output was rather straightforward (see also: "No Surprises", "Just"). In their best video, Jonathan Glazer's "Karma Police", we are shown an obvious paranoia metaphor excellently crafted with very deliberate, calculated long-shot mounting unease. Even the viewer is forced to be an unlikeable character in a way that attempts to break the fourth wall.

19. The Smiths - "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" (1987)

Is it hypocritical for me to find thousands of people singing-a-long with Trent Reznor to "Hurt" disingenuous, but to find something charming about 100 Morrisseys riding bicycles? I don't know. I don't know.

The Smiths - Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before
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18. Kanye West - "Touch The Sky" (2005)

This video cost a million dollars and has Pamela Anderson in it. One of the best videos of ALL TIME.

Kanye West - Touch The Sky
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17. The White Stripes - "Fell In Love With A Girl" (2002)

Such a perfectly concise video to a perfectly concise single. I never get sick of watching this, although, 1:21-1:26 has GOT to be CGI, right?

From Wikipedia: "The White Stripes contacted LEGO Group in hopes of having a small LEGO set packaged with each single of the record, with which one could build a LEGO version of Jack and Meg White. LEGO Group refused, saying: "We don't market our product to people over the age of twelve." Once the video became a hit, however, LEGO contacted The White Stripes again and asked if they could reconstruct the deal to have LEGO packaged with the single. This time, however, Jack White refused, out of anger."

16. Yo La Tengo - "Sugarcube" (1997)

Do you ever wonder why the name Yo La Tengo keeps showing up in every indie joke by The Onion? Yo La Tengo made that joke first.

Yo La Tengo - Sugarcube
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15. Kylie Minogue - "Come Into My World" (2002)

No matter how many times I've seen this video, I see something new each time. I know that sounds cliché, but seriously, have you seen this thing? The real Paris, je t'aime.

Kylie Minogue - Come Into My World
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14. They Might Be Giants - "Ana Ng" (1988) / Frank Black - "Headache" (1994)

Two videos cut from the same cloth. Songs so catchy they disguise the haunting depth below, about feeling like an ant in an overwhelming universe with the only hope of relief a world away. Wacky, disjointed imagery ensues.

13. Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories - "Stay (I Missed You)" (1994)

Directed (and discovered) by Lisa Loeb's neighbor, Ethan Hawke, the video for "Stay" makes the list over complex one-shots like Gondry's "Lucas With The Lid Off" and Jonze's "Undone (The Sweater Song)" because it is such a perfect example of form serving function. It doesn't need to make a showcase of its carefully choreographed spots being hit because, at the end of the day, it's still about that dress, those glasses, that crinkle of her nose and that kitty cat.

12. The Smashing Pumpkins - "Today" (1994)

Senior year of high school, I got into a debate with a classmate about the relevancy of music video. He stood the fairly common, purist ground of claiming music video is superfluous, often taking away from, rather than adding to the primary art in question: the song. While eventually agreeing to disagree, there was a small victory in that we both agreed that "Today" was a perfect example of a video that adds to the spirit of the song without either stealing the show ("Tonight, Tonight"), being too literal ("Zero"), or missing the point altogether ("Tarantula"). Twelve years after this discussion, "Today"--both song and video--is even more powerful for me as capturing the alternative aesthetic. Not simply nostalgia, but all-encompassing time capsule.

Smashing Pumpkins - Today
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11. Massive Attack - "Teardrop" (1998)

I like to imagine this (and not 2010) as the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey via Ray and Charles Eames' Powers of Ten.

Massive Attack - Teardrop
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10. OutKast - "Hey Ya!" (2003)

You all knew this one was coming. Who knew splitting up OutKast would produce so many memorable characters? A play on the British Invasion, flipping the scripts to a British Ed Sullivan via Ryan Seacrest (compare to how this outperforms "In Bloom" by leaps and bounds), "Hey Ya!" was able to become everything to everyone. Andre picks up an acoustic guitar and writes an emotionally poignant and mature song with the first four chords he learns (that, technically, don't even really go together) and crafts the most-loved, biggest crossover song of the decade. Has my love for "Hey Ya!" waned since 2003? Well, I don't listen to it 40 times a day anymore, but, damn, if there is a more unifying cultural relic in the history of pop music, I'd like to hear it.

Outkast - Hey Ya
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9. Beastie Boys - "Sabotage" (1994)

Turns out Nathaniel Hornblower was right all along. For years I've been dying for a Fred "Bunny" Kelly spin-off.

8. Minutemen - "This Ain't No Picnic" (1984)

Ronald Reagan bombs the Minutemen and they raise their skinny fists like antennae to heaven! One of the most brilliant, concise punk rock statements ever (through different from what will be #3 on the list).

7. R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion" (1991)

I was in fifth grade in 1991. That year, classmate, Adam Stewart asked my teacher, Ms. Shepherd if she "got it" when it came to understanding R.E.M.'s top five single, "Losing My Religion". "Do you get it?" he asked again. She finally responded that she did and they looked at each other knowingly. As R.E.M. became my favorite band within three years, I never much minded the opacity of Stipe's lyrics (brought to life by equally obtuse imagery in the video), even if it took several years to realize that neither Adam nor my teacher had any idea what they were talking about. "Losing My Religion" is, in many ways, the perfect R.E.M. song--minor chord progressions, strong melody despite mandolin and lack of any real chorus, a message that is at once universal and incomprehensible. R.E.M.'s breakthrough success is often diminished in the wake of Kurt Cobain's deity, but I pine for the day when a song like this can be as big as it was.

R.E.M. - Losing My Religion
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6. Madonna - "Like A Prayer" (1989)

Don't pretend Madonna didn't know exactly what she was doing--iconic use of religious imagery, comparing womanly eroticism to God's life-nurturing vitality, personifying love for God with a literal (gasp, BLACK) man, BEING NAMED MADONNA. It is blasphemy? Is the Song of Songs blasphemy? On the surface it is a well-intended diatribe against racism with very little promiscuity. The song itself is a masterwork. Instrumentation builds piece by piece until we are reminded in the end that rock music originally grew out of gospel. With no exaggeration, Madonna is, at times, a genius.

Madonna - Like A Prayer [Video]
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5. Björk - "All Is Full Of Love" (1999)

Although my love for Björk has significantly dropped off since her decision to make Dancer In The Dark, it's pretty safe to say that, from Debut to today, she has released the most consistently great music videos of any artist. Period. Though I was very tempted to feature "Bachelorette" over this (not only do I prefer the song, but I really like that it was Synechdoche, New York ten years early), I picked a Chris Cunningham to avoid making this the Michel Gondry show. But honestly, any Björk video is a visual masterpiece.

4. Michael Jackson - "Black or White" (1991)

There was a time when the release of a Michael Jackson song was a full-fledged EVENT. I was too young to remember these for "Thriller" or "Bad", but, come 1991, "Black or White" was simulcast on five networks, giving FOX its highest rating ever when the video aired after an episode of "The Simpsons".

This event was a big deal to me. It, in many ways, was my introduction to the music video. Only Michael Jackson could get away with fairly stereotypical representations of race, but doing it in such a well-intended way (at times, admittedly, a little insane), there was a sense of unity--not only in the songs lyrics, but in the EVENT that was Michael Jackson. Trust me, there were no "KKK"-markings on those glass panes in the original video. Jackson dances through silence and smashes a car for no discernible reason. He morphs into a black panther (Black Panther?), grabs himself an inordinate amount of times (I'm sure a fair number of parents in 1991 could tell you exactly how many times), and, generally, looks like the coolest person in the world. Much of my youth, Jackson was a punchline. This didn't change in the late '90s. But, man, the bridge with MJ flying through the flames, the Macaulay rap sequence, the morph at the end that is cooler than Terminator 2, the babies sitting on top of the world--you can't convince me, to this day, that Michael didn't have but the best intentions for mankind.

3. The Replacements - "Bastards of Young" (1985)

Paul Westerberg delivers one of most beautiful and truthful verses at the end of "Bastards of Young", claming: "The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest and visit their graves on holidays at best/ The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please, if it's any consolation, I don't begin to understand them". How do The Replacements practice what they preach? By making the video for their "breakthrough" single anything but pleasing to the record company, proving they are not sell-outs, rewarding their fans with their greatest song, and staying true to their punk roots. Most punk video of all time.

The Replacements - Bastards of Young
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2. Daft Punk - "Around The World" (1997)

Michel Gondry is kinda the Steven Spielberg of music video. I was blown away by his quote on his director's series DVD in which he says, in choosing which music videos to include, "I chose quantity over quality, because quantity lasts longer." He's very populist, prolific, and an unparalleled visual storyteller. On the big screen, he's hit or miss (The Science of Sleep proved that he NEEDS a strong writer, but then again, there was also Human Nature), but on the small screen, the format is made for his imagination. "Around The World", like so much of his work, is just so...WATCHable. And re-watchable. Meticulously choreographed mummies, skeletons, synchronized swimmers, pinhead giants and astronauts (each personifying different instrumentation), dance a Busby Berkeley-a-go-go. I love this daggum video.

1. Pulp - "Bad Cover Version" (2001)

How many layers upon layers is it possible to cram in one music video? Let's start with the song: a metaphor, comparing a failed, embittered love affair to "the second side of 'Til The Band Comes In" (the Scott Walker album. The same Scott Walker who produced this very song.) Consider it also an arrogant caveat to pop-music, in Pulp's brilliant swansong. Enter the video: A bad cover version of their OWN song, save for one line of recorded vocal that remains--the line mimed by a Jarvis Cocker lookalike, while Cocker himself parodies Brian May. The video parodies "Do They Know It's Christmas?"--co-written by Bob Geldof, who appears shortly after Mick Jagger sings about what a sham the Stones have been since the '80s (amazing, considering Pulp was around in FOUR decades). Even the Gallagher brothers finally pay tribute to the one Brit-pop band that truly mattered in the midst of the mid-'90s Oasis/Blur debate. Every last appearance is brilliant in a video that outdoes its own brilliant song by leaps and bounds. "Bad Cover Version" is the most fully-realized, genius, self-referential, hilarious, commentary video ever made. So much so that it obliterates the single in order to do so. Well done, Pulp. Pop music misses you.

Pulp - Bad Cover Version
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