Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Half-Year Favourites for 2013

The year of 2013 is halfway over and the time has flown by. The following albums and films have been the soundtrack and stories that have made an impact on me in the past six months:

Top Five Music Albums

5. Rend Collective Experiment - Campfire. Imagine if Mumford and Sons made worship music. Like, they actually sang songs to Jesus and about Jesus. Now imagine that they're Irish. That's Rend Collective. Key Tracks: Build Your Kingdom Here, You Are My Vision, Praise Like Fireworks

4. The Lone Bellow - The Lone Bellow. Folksy, bluesy, and simply charming. Key Tracks: Tree to Grow, You Never Need Nobody, Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold

3. Sigur Ros - Kveikur. The seventh full-length album from the Icelandic group is a bit of a reinvention, with more percussive and industrial sounds mixed into their usual ethereal waves of sound. I had the opportunity to see them live in Vancouver this year, and it was phenomenal. Key Tracks: Brennistein, Isjaki, Rafstraumur

2. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories. A funky, danceable electronic album that could barely be considered electronic. Incredibly ambitious and containing some of the most silly, shallow lyrics I've heard in a long time, Random Access Memories is nevertheless also one of the catchiest and most delightful albums I've heard in a long time. And the drums! The drums! Key Tracks: Give Life Back to Music, Instant Crush, Doin' It Right

1. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City. The third album from the indie rockers is their most ambitious and interesting, laden with spiritual themes mixed with lyrics about broken relationships and hopes for love. Tracks like "Everlasting Arms," Ya Hey," "Worship You," and "Young Lion" have God as the central metaphor, even if some are songs about romance. This is an album of a group experiencing spiritual wrestlings, like Israel in the wilderness, wondering about God's involvement in their journey. My favourite album thus far. Key Tracks: Unbeliever, Diane Young, Everlasting Arms, Ya Hey

Honourable Mentions: Laura Marling - Once I Was an Eagle; The National - Trouble Will Find Me; Atoms for Peace - Amok

Top Five Films

5. Man of SteelMan of Steel is darker and less campy than previous Superman films. Gritty and grim in much of its tone, with a washed-out greyish tint over much of the film, the film has a ridiculous amount of intense action sequences involving the destruction of entire cities. Perhaps this is because the reality of multiple beings with the incredible powers of the Kryptonians all fighting each other would cause immense collateral damage. Perhaps movies audiences just want to see more epic explosions. Perhaps both. This is an action spectacle as big as last summer's The Avengers; bigger, in some ways, as the destruction feels far more real here. The parallels between Kal-El and Christ are strong. Both are sent to earth by their fathers as a person embodying hope for the human race. Both are misunderstood by humanity and made to be an outcast. Both have incredible power, yet choose the way of a servant for others. Superman is all about "truth, justice, and the American way." Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. If nothing else, Man of Steel reminds us of humanity's need for a savior, one who is capable of taking on our darkest foes and reminding us of the goodness and hope we were always meant to experience.

4. The Place Beyond the PinesThe Place Beyond the Pines is about legacy, the passing of the baton from one generation to the next, and the significance of small choices. A friendship, a fling, a party, a bullet--they are all small in themselves, but have strong ripple effects when they enter into a life's narrative. Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance has crafted a slow-burn epic tale about fathers and sons, and the decisions that define them. There aren't really heroes and villains in these stories; there are only decisions and consequences. Gosling and Cooper give powerful portrayals of the central figures, but the best performances are the ones from people you probably haven't heard of--Dane DeHaan and Ben Mendelsohn create affecting and memorable characters. It's difficult to have a continual story arc with three distinct-yet-intertwining acts, so Cianfrance's experimental narrative structure requires a bit of a paradigm shift for moviegoers' expectations. It worked for me; I can see how it wouldn't work for others, and could become an exercise in tedium. For me, the particularly affecting scenes involve fathers holding infant sons, feeling their weight in their arms.

3. The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby is one of my all-time favorite novels. This is not an exaggeration; it is a book that sits prominently on my bookshelf at home, worn from repeated readings.Gatsby is lavish, excessive, over-the-top, and vibrant. This is not a subtle film. (Nor is the book. Fitzgerald is quite straightforward when it comes to his symbolism and imagery, e.g. the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg representing the eyes of God.) Luhrmann's bombastic images of Gatsby's parties, the mansions of East and West Egg, and the bustling metropolis of 1920s New York are wonderfully lush. This is not surprising; Luhrmann's past filmography (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, Australia) reveals his tendency towards the dramatic and extravagant. Yet he has also taken care to remain close to the source material, using much of the novel's exact dialogue and using narration directly from Fitzgerald's pen. The costumes and production design are detailed and marvelous. Gatsby's suits and Daisy's dresses are each a wonder of 1920s sartorial elegance.

2. MudEllis and Neckbone, two fourteen-year-olds from small-town Arkansas with a weathered motor boat, are seeking adventure in the form of a boat lodged high in a tree. What they find is Mud, the titular character of Jeff Nichols' latest American filmic masterpiece. This is a story of visionaries. Where Nichol's previous film, Take Shelter, told the story from the perspective of an isolated visionary, Mud focuses on the visionary's followers and fellow idealists. As the young Ellis wrestles with the conflict between his ideals about love and the broken realities before him--his parents are on the verge of divorce, his high school crush may or may not share the same attraction, and Mud's "true love" of his childhood flame, Juniper, seems destined for downfall--he begins to form his adult identity. Questions begin to surface, like who am I? and what is love? and am I capable of giving and receiving love? and where do I fit in this world? Autonomy from his parents, affinity with Mud, and the boldness to make ethical decisions and take action to carry them out all stream from this boy like a slow-moving unstoppable river, driven and shaped by the currents.

1. Upstream ColorImagine if Terrence Malick made a film based on a Hayao Miyazaki story, and you have a glimpse into Shane Carruth's approach with Upstream Color. Hypnotic and wandering cinematography, utilizing images over dialogue (showing over telling), and the integration of imaginative and mystical elements that must be taken at face value as part of the tale. At its core, Upstream Color is a film about healing. Karl Barth and other theologians make the claim that we are only human persons in the context of relationship; we can only know our identity through the interaction and connection with other beings made in the image of God. When identity is shattered and relationships are distorted, it is a long and arduous process we go through to heal our wounds. Protagonists Kris and Jeff have found the Thou to their respective I, the person in their life who is simply that--a person, not an object or an avatar or a figure of dominance and control. Their journey towards healing is traveled together, beautifully wrapped in each others arms as they break free from the bondage of isolation and control.

What are your favourite albums and films from the first half of 2013? Share in a comment!

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