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underrated 2014 music

So I made four playlists of songs released this year, but maybe you don’t have the four-plus hours of patience necessary to wade through all that. Presented here, then, are ten highlights from those mixes that I feel critics and listeners slept on in this season of year-end list-making.

First mix Jukebox goes well with a night on the town.

Pop Radio would sound best coming out of car speakers.

Red States highlights the year’s best musicianship and songwriting.

Crush started off as just a catch-all for songs that didn’t fit the other mixes’ tenuous themes but ended up being where I put a lot of underrated gems.


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cannes 2014

If you live in a part of the U.S. that’s not New York or L.A., it’ll be awhile before most of the 2014 Cannes line-up screens anywhere nearby. Opener Grace of Monaco, starring Nicole Kidman, will probably be at the multiplex shortly but it just sort of looks like a coffee table book to me.

With that delay in mind, I’ve put together this list of movies I’m anticipating at this year’s festival, accompanied by work already available to sate the curious and/or impatient among you. Please let me know what I’ve left out.

Clouds of Sils Maria is director Olivier Assayas’s second collaboration with Juliette Binoche after 2008’s Summer Hours. His pace in the interim has been impressive, what with 2010’s breakneck 5+ hour Carlos and 2012’s Something in the Air. Both are worth your time and, as of this writing, streaming on Netflix.

Since Assayas wrote the lead character of Clouds with Binoche in mind, I’ll point out that next month she’ll add the newest iteration of Godzilla to her more than thirty years of interesting work. Netflix currently has last year’s brutal Camille Claudel 1915 as well as her work with Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy), Michael Haneke (Code Unknown, only slightly less great than Caché),  and David Cronenberg (blink and you’ll miss her in Cosmopolis).

Speaking of Cronenberg, he’ll return to the festival just two years after debuting that mind-bending DeLillo adaptation. Maps to the Stars is written by Bruce Wagner, who gets a story credit on the second Freddy Krueger sequel (I haven’t seen it but reviews are actually pretty good). In addition to Cosmopolis, Netflix also has 1999’s eXistenZ, a movie I liked at the time but suspect doesn’t compare with his early horror / sci-fi (The BroodScanners) and recent highlights (Eastern PromisesA Dangerous Method). Stars Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska previously worked together on The Kids Are All Right, also available on Netflix.

Mike Leigh, who won Best Director at the festival in 1993 for Naked (a personal favorite) and the Palme d’Or in 1996 for Secrets & Lies, is back with Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall (you know, Peter Pettigrew) as “painter of light” J. M. W. Turner. Sounds a bit like Leigh’s brilliant Topsy-Turvy (1999), well worth the 160-minute run-time and the 19th century opera. Netflix has 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky, a decent place to start with Leigh if you don’t mind rampant optimism (coming as it is from Sally Hawkins, I do not).

Two Days, One Night, in which Marion Cotillard hilariously plays a normal person for the Dardenne brothers, targets a Palme d’Or threepeat for the Belgian duo after Rosetta (1999) and L’enfant (2005).  That award would certainly elevate them over the six other directors that have two Golden Palms but the Dardennes also picked up the Grand Prix in 2011 for the great The Kid with a Bike (available on Netflix).

They just happened to share that Grand Prix with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, back at Cannes this year with Winter Sleep. I can’t find any information about this new Turkish film but I dug that previous award-winner and I’m trying to find Three Monkeys, which won Ceylan Best Director at the 2008 festival.

Latin America’s sole competition film this year is Wild Tales by Argentine director Damián Szifron. Boasting a production credit from Pedro Almodóvar’s El Deseo, the movie stars Ricardo Darín (Oscar-winner The Secret in Their Eyes) and Darío Grandinetti (Talk to Her, sometimes my favorite movie) and looks insane.

Ken Loach won the Palme for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (featured on Netflix along with some others), the 2006 Irish war film that could have used some subtitles. I’ve only seen that and Tickets, which frankly had better contributions from Kiarostami and Ermanno Olmi, but maybe this one will be better than the trailer.

I don’t know anything about Alice Rohrwacher, whose The Marvel stars Monica Bellucci and debuts at Cannes, except that her 2011 film Corpo Celeste is currently available on Netflix.

Ditto Xavier Dolan: his new one is called Mommy and he has a few on Netflix.

And Abderrahmane Sissako: Timbuktu plays the festival and Bamako is on Netflix.

In the Un Certain Regard section, Jauja by Lisandro Alonso (whose Liverpool is on Netflix) stars Viggo Mortensen.



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cannes 2013

The Cannes Film Festival starts tomorrow.  Just like last year, I’m back to bore you with my excitement.  Tellingly, I’ve only seen five of the fifteen movies I wrote about last time, mostly due to limited distribution.  Here’s hoping that more of this year’s slate comes stateside, and sooner.

Here are the movies I’m most excited about, in no particular order:

Behind the Candelabra – Steven Soderbergh claims that this will be his last feature film.  He’s already lined up several projects, including a novella on Twitter (seriously) and a twelve-hour adaptation of a 1960 John Barth novel.  Considering his wildly prolific and varied filmography, following the neo-noir Side Effects with this ultra-flamboyant biopic should be no surprise.

Inside Llewyn Davis – As far as I can tell, the three years between this and True Grit mark the longest hiatus in the Coen brothers’ career.  This loose adaptation of The Mayor of MacDougal Street looks pretty fan-pleasing.

The Past – Asghar Farhadi’s sixth film is his first Cannes selection after 2011’s brilliant breakout A Separation, which picked up four awards at the Berlin Film Festival and went on to win the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.  It’s also his first film made outside of his native Iran, shot in France and starring Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet).

Only God Forgives – This re-teaming of Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling looks like it has some similarities with their previous collaboration, the stylish and ultra-violent Drive.  Throw in a ruthless Kristin Scott Thomas and a Thai crime ring and it might just be an improvement.

The Immigrant – Speaking of re-teamings, this is director James Gray’s fourth collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix after The YardsWe Own the Night, and Two Lovers.  I actually haven’t seen any of those, but adding Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner to this cast is enough to get me in a seat.

[no trailer available]

Shield of Straw – Takashi Miike is very hit-or-miss for me, but 2010’s 13 Assassins featured such a bad-ass finale that I’ll probably end up seeing this one.

As I Lay Dying – Yes, this is that James Franco who has adapted Faulkner and brought him to the big screen, but I can’t resist.

The Bling Ring – Sofia Coppola’s rebound (hopefully) from the dismal Somewhere is based on a true story.

What did I forget?

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15 Underrated 2012 Records

Last year ended up being an extremely difficult one to condense into an Albums of the Year format, partly because it seemed like a year stacked with 8s — great records that didn’t necessarily seem destined for classic status.  I heard about 60 albums and was able to winnow them down to 40 for my usual Amazon buffoonery, but I couldn’t begin to rank records as disparate as Swing Lo Magellan and good kid, m.A.A.d. city.  I could have just devoted an entire post to 2012 wunderkind Ty Segall, but Douglas Martin already did that.  Let me just say that the three (!) 2012 records that bore his name were probably the most fun.

If you follow music with any seriousness (haw, haw), you know that a lot of great albums came out this year.  I loved most of the albums on that list, especially those by Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple, Tame Impala, Japandroids, Grimes, Beach House, Grizzly Bear, Chromatics, Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power, and the two I already mentioned above.  What I’ve chosen to compile below, then, is a list of records that you might have missed last year and that I hope you’ll check out in some form or fashion.  If there’s another unifying trait, it’s that most of these albums (with the exception of Killer Mike and El-P) probably wouldn’t end up on a party mix — they’re probably best enjoyed loudly on a dark highway drive alone.

Lower Dens – Nootropics [Ribbon]

I’ve been following front-woman Jana Hunter since her (insanely good) second solo album came out in 2007.  I hoped that her band’s second album would be their breakthrough, but it didn’t really turn up on any December lists.  Lower Dens share a home base and a certain languorous beauty with Beach House, but to my ears they sound more Berlin than Baltimore.

Cate Le Bon – CYRK [The Control Group]

Welsh Le Bon sounds like Nico with a bigger range.  She writes incredibly sturdy simple melodies and perfectly gloomy and textured music.  The song above was my favorite this year.

John Maus – A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material [Ribbon]

This compilation of dark electro-pop was better than his pal Ariel Pink’s proper album AND that Bon Iver pablum from 2011.

Matthew E. White – Big Inner [Spacebomb]

This is soft rock and I like it.  I can’t really explain it, but maybe you like M. Ward or Randy Newman or Harry Nilsson?  Try this.

Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance [kranky]

One of my favorite music writers wrote about why he listened to this album a lot in 2012.  I’ll defer to him.

Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music [Williams Street]

I included the video above because it is insane and awesome, but the real gem of this album is the anti-Reagan screed.  This record is joyful.

Frankie Rose – Interstellar [Slumberland]

Rose found new galactic territory to mine in this new century’s bad-ass rock girl groove.

Trembling Bells featuring Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – The Marble Downs [Honest Jon’s]

As always, Will Oldham released an insane amount of music in 2012, including a pretty ingenious EP of self-covers that includes this bonkers version of his most famous song.  This collaboration with Glaswegian band Trembling Bells sounds like a booze-soaked break-up pretty early in the twelve-step process.

Xiu Xiu – Always [Polyvinyl]

Do not be fooled by the inclusive optimism of lead-off single above.  This record is dark.  There is a song called “I Luv Abortion” that I skip 99% of the time.

Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t [Secretly Canadian]

Most of this record is a big bummer in the all-relationships-are-doomed vein.  Lekman lets just enough light in to make the whole thing listenable.

Mirel Wagner – s/t [Friendly Fire]

Remember when Devendra Banhart was weird without being silly?  That’s what Mirel Wagner does.  Oh, you missed that whole “freak folk” thing?  Well, then Mirel Wagner writes spooky acoustic ballads.

El-P – Cancer 4 Cure [Fat Possum]

The first time I heard this album I was trying to follow someone on a hectic highway in a city I don’t know.  The music fit.

Grass Widow – Internal Logic [HLR]

I cannot resist an all-girl post-punk band.

Mount Eerie – Clear Moon [P.W. Elverum & Sun]

Mount Eerie released two albums in 2012.  Both include well-produced noise that muffles Phil Elverum softly singing about being small in the universe.  More, please!

Four Tet – Pink [Text]

This is a digital-only compilation of the vinyl-only singles that Kieran Hebden has been putting out lately.  It combines the jazzier electronic music of his early work with the dancefloor-oriented stuff that showed up on 2010’s There is Love in You.

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all silence

In an effort to distract myself from something stupid I did recently, I spent the bulk of today’s four-hour drive thinking about one word.  Specifically, I thought about the word “isn’t” in the song “A Little Lost” by Arthur Russell.  I’ll wait while you listen:


I probably fell first for the melody, the minimal arrangement, and the sort of dissonance between the positive, hopeful tone and the absence the narrator is dealing with.  Songs about longing are usually sad (though Björk wrote a notable exception, and I’m sure there are others), but Russell looks past his apprehension about this incipient affair and seems to relish in the insecurity.

Of course I’m only speculating here: this song was first released on a posthumous compilation and Russell only lived to see the limited release of a few full-length albums and various singles, only one of which bore his name.  It’s not even clear that he meant for this song to be released, much less analyzed by some navel-gazer in Tennessee.  Since his death, of course, several compilations and a documentary have been released to acclaim, but there will always be an air of mystery to this man and his work.

It’s that mystery and ones like it that I’m devoting this entry to.*  The verse in question can be heard around the 1:22 mark (punctuation and emphasis mine):

“It’s so unfinished
(our love affair) —
a voice in me
is telling me to
run away.
I hope your feelings isn’t diminished;
I hope you need someone in your life
(someone like me).”

The apparent grammatical error is subtle, perhaps even misheard.  I’m not sure when I noticed it, but it’s become one of my favorite parts of what I consider to be a perfect song.  Russell’s reasons may be simple: “isn’t” might just sound better than the correct “aren’t.”  I like to imagine, though, that he chose to condense the plural, complex, and sometimes conflicting feelings of a new love into the singular and all-consuming.

This got me thinking about other mysteries in pop culture: Why did Richie Tenenbaum say he was going to kill himself tomorrow and then immediately slash his wrists?  What did Tommy Lee Jones’ dream mean and did anyone ever catch Anton Chigurh?  Where did “Someone Great” go?  What is John Ashbury talking about?  What did Bill Murray say to Scarlett Johansson?  Why did J.D. Salinger not publish anything for the last forty-five years of his life?  How did Ted cost $65 million to produce?

If artists want to be heard (or seen, or read, or whatever), should they be heard clearly?

Maybe the word “umbrella” is just satisfying to repeat.  That would certainly make for a less solipsistic post.  It’s a fine line, too — I couldn’t care less about why Jake Gyllenhaal can manipulate time, who the mother is, or what Meat Loaf won’t do.  What makes a pop mystery compelling?  I’m not really sure.  I’m certainly not the first person to say that ambiguity in art allows for the injection of the self.  We like a little mystery because we get to play detective and argue with our friends about what’s in Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase, for example.  Some artists rely on that ambiguity (a few film directors famously won’t record audio commentary) and it’s easy to see why: they feel that their work should speak for itself.

It’s the complete lack of mystery, however, that infuriates me about the work of, say, Dennis Lehane** or M. Night Shyamalan.  Not unlike almost every network procedural, their movies are sealed tight, revealing every character’s motivation and connecting every dot in a way that completely excludes the viewer.  Don’t get me started on prequels: Midichlorians ruined the Force.  Ridley Scott seems intent on ruining the Space Jockey.  Why do some artists insist of imposing one single explanation on what could cause years of over-analysis?

Part of this, I think, is the Internet’s fault.  Anyone who has ever cropped a profile photo or deleted a LiveJournal post knows about curating an online persona.  This might be a stretch, but the connection I’m making is this: the delusion that a Facebook profile can somehow be an accurate (or even ideal or inscrutable) reflection of a whole human being makes us feel that every human action can be explained away.  I’m not innocent here — I’ve shared album streams and raced to be the first to link to breaking news in order to further offer my digital self to 500 some-odd “friends.”  I’ve scrolled through my Wall Timeline, content that friendly passersby would know me within a few clicks.

Before this devolves into that conversation about colors you had in middle school, allow me to point out that Abbas Kiarostami did a much better job of pontificating on the complete and overwhelming unknowability of everyone and everything outside of the self.  I suggest that you watch it soon so we can argue about what it all means.

*In the midst of writing this entry, I discovered that The A.V. Club did something very similar not two months ago, but oh well.  Simpsons did it first.

**I’m referring to the various film adaptations of Lehane’s novels, which I can only assume follow their sources pretty faithfully.

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le croisette

While the term “bucket list” makes me want to vomit into a bucket, I confess that I have a few things I need to accomplish before I shuffle off this mortal coil.  One of them is going to the Cannes Film Festival.  Every year, I geek out on film selections, buzz, distribution deals, and awards that come out of the fest, and then bore my friends as the line-up trickles through the arthouse circuit, saying things like, “It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes!” and “The American critics didn’t like it as much as the French!”  It’s no wonder I spend many an evening alone.

Nevertheless, the time has come once again.  The festival opened last night with the latest Wes Anderson movie, Moonrise KingdomEvery person who did their high school summer reading assignments is excited about new material from Anderson, and the early word on this one is positive.

I am also looking forward to hearing about these movies:

Amour – Michael Haneke snagged the Palme d’Or in 2009 with The White Ribbon and the Grand Prix in 2002 with The Piano Teacher.  This movie is his third collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, a formidable screen presence who always captivates.  Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist, My Night at Maud’s) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Blue) also star.

The Angels’ Share – Ken Loach probably won’t add another trophy to his Cannes shelf (The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme d’Or in 2006, while Hidden Agenda and Raining Stones won the Special Jury Prize in 1990 and 1993) with this comedy, as the jury tends to award more dour affairs.  Maybe the social bent so often seen in Loach’s films will win them over.

Beyond the Hills – The Romanian New Wave was essentially confirmed by Cristian Mungiu’s victory at Cannes 2007 with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, an incredibly stressful movie about life under Nicolae Ceauşescu.  This latest entry is also based on life in Romania, but other details are scarce.

Cosmopolis – I know nothing about the source material by Don DeLillo, nor do I care too much about Robert Pattinson.  David Cronenberg, however, can always get me into a theater seat.  While I’m one of the sole detractors of his adaptation of A History of Violence, I have enjoyed many of his other films, especially The Brood (1979) and Eastern Promises (2007).  Oh, and this one has Juliette Binoche, my favorite actress and the recipient of the festival’s 2010 award for Best Actress.

Lawless – Maybe this will be John Hillcoat’s big break.  It reateams him with singer Nick Cave, who also wrote 2005’s minimalist western The Proposition.  That movie featured some of the most badass posturing ever, especially from Danny Huston.  2009’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road went all but unnoticed, but I dug it.  Anyway, the cast on this one is stacked: Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain … and Shia LaBeouf.

Like Someone in Love – Iranian genius Abbas Kiarostami follows up Certified Copy with another movie made abroad, this time in Japan.  Can’t.  Wait.

MudJeff Nichols nailed a specific kind of 21st century dread with Take Shelter, which picked up a couple of awards at last year’s fest.  Nichols has cast powerhouse Michael Shannon in all three of his features, and this one adds Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey, who seems to be entering a more interesting phase of his career post-Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.

On the Road – This adaptation of the potentially unfilmable beat novel comes from the team that made 2004’s solid The Motorcycle Diaries.  That includes Brazilian director Walter Salles, Puerto Rican screenwriter José Rivera, and Argentine composer Gustavo Santoalalla.  The cast includes Sam Riley (Control), Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Elisabeth Moss, and Terrence Howard.  I have a feeling it will be very good, very bad, or, you know, mediocre.

Post Tenebras Lux – Carlos Reygadas has earned comparisons to Terence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky with his elliptical films.  I’ve only seen 2003’s Japón, but I’m excited about this one.

Rust and Bone – Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to 2010’s brilliant A Prophet is already getting great reviews.  It stars the gorgeous and talented Marion Cotillard and is based on a short story by Craig Davidson

7 Days in Havana – Anthology films are, by their nature, inconsistent, but I’m hopeful that this one will be an exception to that rule.  It features (you guessed it) 7 segments by 7 directors, all taking place during the same week in the Cuban capital.  Contributors I’ve heard of include Julio Médem (Sex and Lucía), Laurent Cantet (The Class), Juan Carlos Tabío (Guantanamera), Benicio del Toro (Traffic), and Gaspar Noé (Irréversible).

Beasts of the Southern Wild This blew up at Sundance.  Huge.  Maybe America’s best chance for a top prize.

Garbage in the Garden of Eden – documentary by Fatih Akin, the Turkish-German director behind Head On and The Edge of Heaven.

Mekong Hotel – Apichatpong Weerasethakul follows up 2010’s Palme d’Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

So those are fifteen I’m excited about.  Did I miss any?

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new influences

I can basically second Brandon’s anticipation of new music from the Magnetic Fields and Frankie Rose, especially since both have released promo tracks that sound so wildly different from their most recent releases.

Stephin Merritt’s last release with the Magnetic Fields (Realism) struck me as music for musicologists: humorless and self-congratulatory where his best stuff has always been wry and deceptively unassuming.  It’s also heartening to hear those trademarked tinny synths on the aforementioned “Andrew in Drag” — those cheap sounds are part of the bizarre alchemy that made the MFs’ dizzying run through the ’90s so virtuosic and yet somehow approachable (culminating, of course, with the unimpeachable 69 Love Songs) .

Frankie Rose released an album (with the Outs) in 2010 that had a lot in common with Girls Dum Dum and Vivian (naturally, Ms. Rose was a member of both bands).  “Know Me”, while not exactly rejecting that blueprint, throws new influences (Brandon called them dreamy and I’ll go with slick) in the mix and the results are more than promising.

Rather than spending this entire post congratulating my colleague on his impeccable taste, I’ll point out a few more 2012 items I’m looking forward to:

Lower Dens – Nootropics (05/1 Ribbon)

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by anything Jana Hunter does any more.  After two albums and an EP of psych-folk released under her own name, the first Lower Dens album hit in 2010.  With her new bandmates, her sound became decidedly more plugged in and blissed out, but their new album (with new members and on a new label) seems to be headed in a more rhythmic direction.  Yes, please.

Sharon Van Etten – Tramp (02/7 Jagjaguwar)

If Sharon Van Etten is ever going to blow up, it will be with this record.  Her quiet 2009 debut got its fair share of love and a year later her more assertive sophomore effort gained her some more traction in indie circles, leading to her third album on her third label.  This one features a veritable rogues gallery of talent — Matt Barrick (Walkmen), Zach Condon (Beirut), Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), Julianna Barwick and Aaron Dessner (the National) — but Van Etten has hardly given up creative control.  (You really ought to check out the performance of this song on Fallon.)

Xiu Xiu – Always (03/6 Polyvinyl)

It’s hard to be indifferent to the music that Jamie Stewart makes.  He does a lot of yelping over dissonance, I guess.  Ten years into the Xiu Xiu brand, I still love it.

of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks (02/7 Polyvinyl)

The last oM record should have been a lot bigger, what with appearances by Solange Knowles and Janelle Monáe and a tour that produced a bewildering cynicism when critics should have been more content to be bowled over by ridiculousness.

Today I discovered CYRK by Cate Le Bon, an album that was released last Tuesday and is streaming at KCRW until the 24th.  If you like Nico, I think you can dig it.

In the cinematic world, The Playlist has really done all the work for us, breaking down their most anticipated releases of the year into indie, foreign-language, escapist/popcorn, and, er, films.  It will almost definitely be a stellar year at the movies.

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