Monday, March 31, 2014

Gut Feeling: The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams

The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams
Washington Square, 2014
“When we get older it gets harder to remember/ We are our only saviors,” Craig Finn intoned on the lead-off track of the Hold Steady’s last great record, 2008’s Stay Positive. That album was about growing up after three albums of killer parties, massive nights, and sketchy characters roaming the streets of the Twin Cities. Sadly, all of that wonderful debauchery has proved to be what made the Hold Steady so wonderful, and while it’s natural, even necessary, to mature, its not without its consequences.

In the case of the Hold Steady, they’ve made another good record. Just good. It has its moments, but it’s hardly even a shadow of Separation Sunday or Boys and Girls in America. There’s simply no energy. The band’s 2010 release, Heaven is Whenever, suffered from the same lack of spark, and I’m not surprised that the band now has more in common with Finn’s solo record (2012’s Clear Heart, Full Eyes) than the halcyon days of the Hold Steady’s mythos.

It almost hurts that the opening track “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” is vintage Hold Steady from the soaring riffs to the MPLS locale and the ominous presence of the Cityscape Skins. But it’s just there to get your hopes up. Second-single “Spinners” loses all the big majesty it shoots for in the muddy production that plagues the entire album (which is what you get when you hire Evanescence’s producer) and suffers from the pop-rock tendency to repeat the chorus 20 times. It’s boring. The album’s midpoint “Big Cig” is another vintage Hold Steady rocker that’s a sound for sore ears but is unfortunately followed by a couple of bland rockers that sap the goodness.

The thing is, I can’t blame the Hold Steady for not making ass-kicking records anymore because I don’t think they’re that band. The saddest thing is watching a songwriter with such a great eye for detail settle for broad generalities. It’s not that Teeth Dreams isn’t ambitious, because it’s super ambitious. If you had told me a Hold Steady album would end with two quiet tracks spanning almost 15 minutes I wouldn’t have believed you. The quiet tracks are where Finn’s songwriting really shines, but the excellent “Almost Everything” belongs on Finn’s next solo record and “The Ambassador” has great verses but the chorus is oh so blah. Nine-minute closer “Oaks” is a moody dirge that recalls Heaven is Whenever closer “A Slight Discomfort” minus the dynamic bigness that ended that record in a moment of triumph. “Oaks” plods along to the point where I can’t even pay attention. It eventually devolves into guitar solos as the album puts itself out of its mercy.

It sounds like I hate Teeth Dreams, but I don’t. My hopes are always too high for Hold Steady records because I love this band with every fiber of my being. I’m never going to throw in the towel on these guys, but the writing might be on the wall that it’s time for these guys to move on to bigger and better things. I was distraught when keyboardist Franz Nicolay quit the band following Stay Positive, but I get it now. He said the band only wanted to do one thing, and he wanted to do other things. It’s tragic wishing your favorite band would break up, but at this point in the game I’m more looking forward to the next Craig Finn solo record than the next Hold Steady LP.

"I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You"

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Rosie Jo Hrabe

Rosie Jo Hrabe – Rosie Jo Hrabe
Hrabe Clan, 2014
Acquired: Overland Park Regional Medical Center, New, 2014
Price: Priceless (after medical bills and general upkeep)
Once every five years or so, I’ll come across an album that is strikes such a perfect chord in my heart that it vaults directly onto my personal Top 10. It’s a list I know by heart, and when it abruptly changes it’s special. Last week my wife gave birth to our daughter, Rosie Jo, and we both immediately dropped to #2 on our Top 10 People I Love lists. There was just no question that this little purple, screaming, bodily-fluid soaked baby was the most amazing, beautiful thing we had ever seen and from that moment on she came before everything else. 

It’s just so easy to love this little critter. It’s not just because she’s basically a perfect baby who only cries when she’s hungry or has a dirty diaper and it’s not because she’s the stinking cutest baby I’ve ever seen. It’s mostly because for the first time in my life, I’m a part of something way bigger than myself. I can’t remember what my life was like before Rosie. These are the sentimental thoughts that my brain has been simmering in for the last week and I’m OK with that.

While it takes two to make a baby (in most circumstances), Jenny did all the hard work. Watching her give birth was like witnessing the Big Bang. Everything changed so quickly and so violently I didn’t even know what hit me. My wife is a fucking champion, by the way. On the morning of March 18th she woke me up at 4AM and said she was having contractions. She said they didn’t hurt, and I said she should call the doctor when she told me they were 6 minutes apart lasting for 45 seconds. Close enough to the 5 minutes/60 seconds for an hour rule-of-thumb we were taught in the mostly useless childbirth class we attended. Dr. Stone told us to come in so we went.

After a couple hours of Jenny being hooked up to machines and pacing the halls of the third floor labor and delivery unit at Overland Park Regional Medical Center, we were admitted. We got the best room on the floor because those are the perks of being the son of a labor and delivery nurse at the hospital where you are having your baby. I should note, Jenny was in no pain and barely in any discomfort. She was planning on going 100% all natural and when she was 5cm dilated and still walking around the room grooving to Lorde and eating a popsicle I was totally convinced she was going to get her wish.

It was so fucking awesome. I can’t describe what it’s like to watch someone you love be so strong. To face some the purest, most violent pain with a smile. Sure, there were some moments in the last half hour that got hairy as Rosie worked her way through the birth canal, but by the time it was time to push she was fucking smiling. Smiling! The nurses all said they were amazed, they’d never seen anyone so upbeat and happy as a baby literally ripped its way out of a human body. It was some inspiring shit. I watched the doctor put Rosie on Jenny’s chest and I watched them lock eyes. It was incredible. The greatest thing I’ve ever seen by far. I cut the umbilical cord with shaking hands, took a step back and said in my head: “Goddamn, my wife is a REAL woman.” Strength like that shouldn’t go unnoticed. That’s some real shit, childbirth. It’s where you get to see what you’re made of. And you get a kid at the end of it, which is great too.

Rosie was 7 pounds 10 ounces and a little over 21 inches long (which is long for a baby and, fingers crossed, will translate into a basketball scholarship 18 years from now because lord knows I’ll still be paying off my student loans when she goes to college). She’s gorgeous. Jenny and I had fretted because, yeah we’ll love her no matter what, but WHAT IF WE HAVE AN UGLY BABY? We lucked out. Best baby ever.

Once all of the schmutz was wiped off and Jenny was sewn up, we settled into the Mother Baby wing and got to know our kid. That room was like a forge for manhood. Every minute I felt a little less freaked out by the responsibility of caring for this tiny, exceedingly fragile thing before me because there was absolutely no way to deny that this was going to be my life for the rest of my life.

The first night in the hospital was spent with both of us wide awake, watching her like hawks, stumbling into newfound parenthood. On the second night I got to really bond with my baby. Jenny finally drifted off after being awake for nearly 48 hours and I held Rosie to my chest and watched the awful-yet-kind-of-hilariously-awful TV edit of Pulp Fiction on AMC. It was special beyond words, feeling her little chest rise and fall against mine.

I’m a dad now, and it’s not as weird as I thought. I still feel a little bit like I’m fumbling around in the dark, but it feels like it’s supposed to be that way. It’s a huge change, but one that was absolutely for the better. Everything is better with Rosie, and I know I’m a better person, and that she will continue helping me be a better person. She’s magic. I’m lucky.

Playlist: Over the last 9 months, there were certain songs that held certain significance. Ok, most of that time was a blur and most of these are from the day Rosie was born but I did spend a solid 4 hours putting music on Jenny’s iPhone and trying to plan for what would be playing as Rosie entered this big old goofy world. In the end (read: when shit hit the fan and I was coaching Jenny through breathing exercises as she labored) the music was sparse, but helpful.

Cocteau Twins – “Cherry Coloured Funk”
There is a very good chance our baby was conceived to Heaven or Las Vegas. That’s probably TMI, but despite being a damn sexy album most of the songs were about Elizabeth Fraser’s newborn daughter, which adds a fun little layer of subtext. One of the warmest memories I own is biking home from work, meeting Jenny and Panda in the back yard, and her telling me she took a pregnancy test and that she was pregnant. There was no fear, no freaking out, I was exceedingly happy. Sure, we were poor, were 500 miles away from our families, and would definitely need to move back, but all of that was absolutely worth it.

Natalie Merchant – “Wonder”

I cannot tell you how many copies of Natalie Mercant’s Tigerlily I see come across the buy counter at work on a daily basis. At least once daily, usually two or three times if it’s a busy Saturday (don’t even get me started on 10,000 Maniacs). I was not familiar with this track, but Jenny was, and she recognized it when it was playing over the doctor’s office’s stereo system during the ultrasound that determined our baby’s sex. There’s a line that goes, “Know this child will be gifted” and though I rarely buy into Jenny’s metaphysical leanings, I gotta admit it felt like a sign.

John K Samson – “Heart of the Continent”
I put on John K. Samson’s Provincial for our drive to the hospital to deliver Rosie because I can’t think of another album that makes me feel more content and at ease and at one with the universe.

Lorde – “Tennis Court”
Jenny has been diggin on Lorde for the past few months, but this was the first time I’d heard her music. She’s good! Like really fucking goddamn good! Anyway, this album seemed to jazz Jenny up quite a bit and I have a photo of her jamming out to “Tennis Court” with a popsicle.

Lady Gaga – “Hair”

Despite painstakingly adding meaningful music to Jenny’s iPhone, I forgot to remove the shit ton of Lady Gaga that populates the device. And I made the mistake of putting it on All Songs Shuffle. At 5cm dilated, Jenny opted to have the doctor break her water manually and when it went down, this fucking Lady Gaga song came out of the speaker. Jenny freaked out a little bit. “I can’t believe my water is breaking to Lady Gaga,” she said with loopy disgust. Fortunately, now she realizes how funny it was.

Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

When Jenny finally started feeling pain, I put on our favorite album, and she said it helped. This album is a cornerstone of our relationship, and I’m glad it got to make an appearance at Rosie’s birth (it lives on in the middle of the night when I’m trying to calm her down as Jenny gets prepped to feed her and I sing her the album’s choicest cuts). Anyway, as if that album wasn’t intense enough, try watching your wife moaning on an exercise ball as “Oh, Comely” soundtracks the scene.

The Mountain Goats – “Minnesota”

Either right before Rosie was born or right after she emerged from the birth canal, this song played, and it gave me chills. It’s Jenny’s favorite Mountain Goats track, and one that we sing to each other whilst making googly eyes whenever it comes on. This was a rare case of shuffle actually working out.

Arctic Monkeys – “Suck it and See”

Though it may seem like an inappropriate song to sing to your newborn daughter as a lullaby (her first), considering that 50% of her existence involves sucking on a nipple, I find it fitting. It’s also lovely, lovely track. Perfect for crooning in a near whisper to hush a crying child. It works. There are a few songs I sing to Rosie when she’s fussing, but despite knowing a lot of songs I barely know any of them by heart. But I know this one, and it works every time.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Microphones - "Don't Smoke"/ "Get Off the Internet" 7"

The Microphones – “Don’t Smoke”/ “Get Off the Internet” 7”
P.W. Elverum & Sun LTD, 2007
Acquired: K Records Mailorder, New, 2007
Price: $5
Needless to say, when Phil Elverum resurrected the Microphones moniker for a one-off 7”, I bit. Even though this 7” is basically just two PSAs advocating against smoking and the Internet, they’re also PSA’s crafted by one of indie rock’s most intelligent musicians. Sure, they’re preachy, but there’s power in ‘em. “Don’t Smoke” runs through my head anytime I see someone smoking these days. I smoked for a few years in college, and I partially blame this song for helping me quit if only because I felt Phil Elverum’s judgment raining down on me all the way from the Pacific Northwest. He has a point when he sings the line “There’s no excuse to start smoking.” The track is coated in classic Microphones fuzz and thunders along. B-side “Get Off the Internet” is a lot quieter and offers up a list of things you could do instead of sitting at your computer (sweep the floor, open the doors and windows, shut up about music, etc). “We are the ones who are alive right now so lets start living,” he intones. I ID with this one a little less than “Don’t Smoke,” but goddamn if I don’t think of it when I’ve been staring at a screen for four hours. I’m sure plenty of people find this incredibly judgmental 7” to be obnoxious. It is kind of obnoxious, but it’s also true, and he’s got a point, and the music is gorgeous.

"Don't Smoke" (this is the beefier Mount Eerie version)

"Get Off the Internet"

Friday, March 14, 2014

Gut Feeling: Frankie Cosmos - Zentropy

Frankie Cosmos – Zentropy
Double Double Whammy, 2014
Frankie Cosmos frontwoman Greta Kline is only 19-years old. Poor thing, every review is going to shine a spotlight on her youth. I hope she isn’t made self-conscious by that, because it’s something that informs here beautiful, ramshackle indie-pop. Though Kline’s studio debut as Frankie Cosmos barely cracks the 17-minute mark and the songs are almost exclusively a minute or two long, she gets her point across without bogging her terrific little songs down. They’re crisp little bundles of bliss akin to the glory days of K Records. Kline’s voice is that of a more pedestrian Tracyanne Campbell (to the point where Jenny just started singing Camera Obscura’s “Suspended From Class” out of nowhere, having only heard me listening to Zentropy in the background), which renders the tracks both lovely and down to earth. The songs are sweet and sad and about the usual stuff: high school, love, drama, and a particularly touching ode to a deceased dog. Zentropy is a little joy, a tiny triumph.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Billy Bragg - Don't Try This At Home

Billy Bragg – Don’t Try This at Home
Go! Discs, 1991
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $6
I had a bit of a life-changing experience listening to Bragg’s third album—Talking to the Taxman About Poetry—for months on end a couple years ago. It’s still firmly rooted in my top ten favorite albums of all time, and naturally, I feel like it’s where Bragg peaked. It was the perfect blend of what he does best. The songwriting was a dense and deft blend of the political and emotional, often mixing the two, and the arrangements were more ornate than his sparse early material yet made the songs sound full without being too elaborate. Worker’s Playtime dabbled in adult urban contemporary with the breeziness of its love songs but goddamn if they weren’t expertly crafted (and goddamn if “Little Time Bomb” isn’t one of the best heartbreak songs I’ve ever heard).

On Don’t Try This at Home, Billy Bragg builds upon the easy-going politi-pop of Worker’s Playtime, which is to say that the songs are thoughtful, pleasant, and insightful yet lack the verve and vibrancy of his earlier material. Which is fine, because part of Bragg’s appeal is the everyman persona he projects and to expect him to not mature and to keep churning out impassioned protest songs with just his electric guitar would be a shame. The trouble with Don’t Try This at Home is that, over two discs and an hour of playtime, it is overstuffed and prone to stagnating on the slower, more pensive tracks. The production on the album is beautiful and only occasionally suffers from the cheesy hallmarks of the early 90s.

When the album is good though, it’s often great. The Johnny Marr produced “Cindy of a Thousand Lives” is a lovely tribute to photographer Cindy Sherman, “The Few” is a charming, intelligent skewering of English politics straight outta Talking to the Taxman About Poetry, and the Marr penned and contributed to “Sexuality” is fun and catchy distraction. It’s just that there are way, way too many maudlin tracks that could all be easily excised. Songs like “Dolphins,” “Moving the Goalposts,” “God’s Footballer,” “Rumours of War,” and “Tank Park Salute” sap all of the energy from the upbeat tracks and ultimately make Don’t Try This at Home a tough album to make it all the way through. I’ve got nothing against Bragg wanting to roll out his softer side, and slower numbers provide his earlier records a really wonderful balance, it’s just that they are 100% in the way of the other tracks on the album (from the get go, as “Accident Waiting to Happen” is a fantastic burst of energy sapped by the slow, yet quite lovely “Moving the Goalposts”).

The album feels like a hodgepodge; like an album with all the b-sides mixed in. It’s always sad coming across albums that suffer when there’s clearly a great record buried in the bloated track list. What were they thinking leaving “Wish You Were Her” on the album? Especially putting it right before the terrific closer “Body of Water.” Who knows. More like who cares, really. Even when I critique Billy Bragg it’s not real criticism when bands like Nickelback exist.

"Cindy of a Thousand Lives"

"The Few"

Monday, March 10, 2014

Game Theory - Lolita Nation

Game Theory – Lolita Nation
Enigma, 1987
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2013
Price: $6
Some things just stick in your mind. Years ago when I hosted Alternative Flashback on KJHK I listened to the first few tracks on Lolita Nation and for whatever reason decided there was other stuff I needed to get to in my college rock education. It’s ridiculous to think I hosted a show dedicated to alternative rock of the 80s and 90s without having an appreciation for Game Theory or other likeminded bands of Paisley Underground-era California, and yet, there I was. But it’s OK. You can’t read every book, you can’t listen to every album. But lord knows I try, I try. And better late than never that I encountered Lolita Nation on vinyl when I was working at Half Price Books in St. Paul. “Oh yeah, this album,” I thought, admiring the dated, yet beautiful design of the album’s cover. It carried a hefty $30 price tag and I moved on. A few months later, Game Theory front man Scott Miller passed away and I checked to see if the album was still there and sure enough, it was and, sure enough, it had b been marked down to an incredibly reasonable price that was impossible to pass up.

The guitars on Lolita Nation are some of the brightest, jangly guitars you’re ever gonna hear thanks to the production of jangle pop guru Mitch Easter (best known for making REM sound like REM in addition to hosting his own fine jangle pop group Let’s Active). Despite the pleasant tones and great melodies, Lolita Nation is a masterpiece because of its complete willingness to fuck around. It’s one of the weirdest, most gleefully experimental alt-rock records I’ve ever heard. The double album is laced with genuine surprises and strange sounds minute after minute, all working in perfect harmony with the group’s gift for power-pop. Ultimately, Lolita Nation is the rare blend of ambition, artfulness, and highly listenable and enjoyable music. The kind that has me kicking myself for not seeing the light years earlier!

"24" (I feel like the Shins were born out of this song)

"Together Now, Very Minor"

Friday, March 7, 2014

MGMT - "Congratulations" 7"

MGMT – “Congratulations” 7”
Columbia, 2010
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
Price: $3
Like Arctic Monkeys, MGMT were somehow on the receiving end of a lot of my ire before ever actually listening to them in depth. The singles from their debut, Oracular Spectacular, were infectious synth pop gems, but the way the band torpedoed their surefire road to success by making a weird, psychedelic follow-up really earned my respect. Granted, my respect is almost guaranteed if you namedrop Television Personalities front man Dan Treacy in a song title. Congratulations was a wonderfully weird album that received less than wonderful reviews. Produced by the living legend Sonic Boom, it sounds like the album Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden wanted to make. There are shades of their old sound on the Erol Alkan remix that haunts the b-side on this 7”, but “Congratulations” on its own is a spare, laid-back affair that borrows the descending chord progression from The Band’s “The Weight” and somehow wins soulfulness on the back of acoustic guitar and falsetto vocals. It’s beautiful and trippy and goes nicely with the 16-page wordless comic that adorns the 7”s gatefold.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Meanies - "Rhyming Logic" 7"

The Meanies – “Rhyming Logic” 7”
Merge, 1993
Acquired: Love Garden Shotgun Room, Used, 2008
Price: $.25
Australian group The Meanies cut an intriguing line between indie rock and punk. This was their only release for Merge Records. It’s fun, and a little strange (“Darkside on My Mind” features random sound effects of a beer being opened and poured into a glass, a crying baby, and an A-Bomb exploding), and a little more raucous than I was expecting. Although, I was expecting ska, because I immediately associated this band with the Blue Meanies, natch. “Rhyming Logic” is the Meanies’ best offering, or maybe I’m biased because it hits the sweet spot in my heart that looks like a big, comic-booky button that reads “COLLEGE ROCK: PUSH IF YOU WANT IAN TO EXPERIENCE PURE JOY.” The guitars just sort of vibrate in a way that is immensely satisfying. Almost equally exciting as these excellent jams is the insert detailing the happenings at Merge in August ’93, when they were “releasing a new Lambchop (formerly known as Posterchild) single.” Lambchop before they were Lambchop! THRILLING! It’s like a time capsule! “Hopefully by this time, all you folks have heard/have/love the 3D’s ‘Beautiful Things’ single.” Yes! Great track (from a time when Merge was apparently doing a lot of exporting from Oceania)!

"Rhyming Logic"

Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Favorite Films of 2013

Because I feel guilty about not using my film degree, every Oscar Night I compile my ten favorite movies seen in a given year. Options tend to be a bit limited in KC, and art house stuff tends to come around these parts late in the cycle, but ultimately I feel like I saw everything I wanted to see. Also, because I absolutely cannot resist making lists and ranking the things I love. It seriously cannot be helped.

10. The Spectacular Now
Directed by James Ponsoldt
God bless the new bildungsroman trend of not shying away from the uglier aspects of youth. I’ve already been charmed by Shailene Woodley’s effortlessly natural charm a couple times, but Miles Teller’s ability to make you root for his more alcoholic/jerkier Lloyd Dobbler was a tiny triumph.

9. Short Term Twelve
Directed by Destin Cretton 

Jenny worked in a group home when we started dating, and to this day she says it was the hardest job she ever had. It was definitely the only job she ever brought home with her, and she gave a thumbs up to this soulful depiction of an aspect of our society that tends to go unnoticed. Also, can Brie Larson just be America’s Sweetheart already?

8. Captain Phillips
Directed by Paul Greengrass

What could have easily been a piece of rah rah American propaganda ended up being a deft study on the greater global conundrums. Well, subtly. On the surface though this is a masterpiece of tension.

7. Gravity
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
You can be dumbstruck by the technical marvels of Gravity all day long, but the greatest feat Cuaron pulled off was making Sandra Bullock palatable. Even writing that I felt a little bad. Ms. Bullock is America’s sweetheart, but I can’t help but feel like there are a handful of other actresses who could have made this film an emotional achievement on par with the film’s technical mastery. Still, Gravity is an experience on every level and as much shit talking as I’ve done on Ms. Bullock, I was desperately rooting for her to get the hell out of outer space safe and sound.

6. Nebraska
Directed by Alexander Payne 

A fine display of decay and dreams unfulfilled that avoids being a downer by being knee-slappingly hilarious. Though Bruce Dern is getting all the praise for his method performance as a really old guy, Will Forte should get more credit for finally finding the perfect balance between his affability and silliness. This was probably my favorite screenplay of the year because of how well these characters are constructed, especially Dern’s perpetually out of it Woody Grant, by what is left unsaid.

5. Upstream Color
Directed by Shane Carruth
The most elegant film about human connectedness I’ve seen in years. Also the most elegant film about pigs and parasites I’ve ever seen. Shane Carruth is a wizard holding the keys to the future of science fiction in his hands. Upstream Color is the product of a true auteur (Carruth composed the film’s riveting score in addition to serving as cinmatographer and editor), which seems rare these days and is utterly commendable. Especially since this film feels like a pure reflection of his soul.

4. 12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
While 12 Years a Slave is sure to achieve Roots like status in American History classes across America (as it should), the real power of the film not from the greater conflict of the slave trade, but of the magnified struggle of a free man sold into slavery who effectively loses his entire identity (all handled with supreme gravitas by Chiwetel Ejofor who, let’s face it, is never not outstanding). The film’s bulging vein of injustice is prodded expertly by Michael Fassbender’s complexly sadistic plantation owner and Steve McQueen does that thing where I think all of America’s great tragedies should be handled by outsiders. 12 Years a Slave was spoken about in the same manner as eating ones vegetables. Something was difficult but knew was good for us, and while I expected to be moved and moved to anger, I didn’t expect the film to be this visceral. From the extended hanging sequence to every scene involving Lupita Nyong’o’s tragic Patsey, 12 Years a Slave is the film about America’s darkest days that we deserve.

3. Before Midnight
Directed by Richard Linklater

Francois Truffaut is one of my favorite filmmakers and his Antoine Doinel series is something very near and dear to my heart. The films chronicle the character Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud) from childhood to middle age and as the character grows with the actor, Truffaut’s films achieve a real, undeniable truth. Richard Linklater has done something very similar with the third installment of his Jesse and Celine series. In Before Sunrise we saw their raw romance blossom out of happenstance. In Before Sunset we saw them grapple with the idea of going for it in earnest. In Before Midnight we see what comes after you go all in on true love and attempt to sustain a long-form relationship. The way Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s Jesse and Celine go at each other in this one is brutal and exhausting. There is a sense of investment with these characters, and watching their relationship teeter on the precipice of destruction is deeply affecting. The hotel room argument scene is one of the most legendary scenes of 2013 cinema and it’s barely watchable. In the theater, I sat clutching Jenny’s hand as these two people ripped into each other, seemed to bring it down a notch and come back together before slowly digging back into the fight. It was too true. And though it was quite uncomfortable, and I enjoyed it throughly.

2. Her
Directed by Spike Jonze

This beautiful, beautiful film stirred emotions inside me that haven’t been stirred since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which to this day is my touchstone for the complexity and difficulty of human relationships. Spike Jonze took a “man falls in love with Siri” concept everyone probably laughed at and turned it into a powerful love story that less about our obsessive love affair with technology and more about the things we all do to feel complete. It’s also hysterical, and I don’t know if I laughed harder at any film this year.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
I can’t help but feel like the Coen Brothers’ latest film was sadly misunderstood. Relegated to mere best cinematography and best sound mixing nominations (that it won’t win) it feels like half the people that saw this film loved it and half didn’t get it or thought that it was slight. All of this is totally fine though, and a testament to the tenacity of the Coens who do whatever they goddamn please, whenever they goddamn please. And this is one of their little, thinky films a la A Serious Man or Barton Fink. It’s not a blockbuster, and neither is the film’s protagonist who, despite just not being able to hack it as a folk singer, soldiers on anyway. Llewyn Davis is an asshole. He’s depressed, a moocher, and yet through all the negative you really can’t help but feel sorry for him because he is tragically doomed. I didn’t think it was going to be my favorite film of the year when the lights came up in the theater, but I knew it had struck a chord (speaking of chords, the soundtrack is a triumph in its own right and the whole “Please Mr. Kennedy” recording session scene was one of the most joyous and enjoyable scenes of 2013). Weeks later I was driving home from work, still thinking about Inside Llewyn Davis. Months later I’m still processing this unassuming examination of the breaking point of the human spirit.