MT’s Best Movies & Music of 2011
By Frank Ruggiero & Jeff Eason
It’s the year — according to widespread misinterpretation of an ancient Mayan calendar — that the world supposedly comes to an end.
We look at it as the year the Tedeschi Trucks Band comes to MerleFest.
It’s fixing to be a year rife with top-notch entertainment, but before we forge onward, The Mountain Times takes a peak back at some of our favorites of yesteryear.
Frank’s Top 5 Films
For cinema, 2011 was a record-breaking year. I don’t recall having ever seen so many sequels, prequels and remakes – mostly in 3-D – in one year. Unfortunately, some of the year’s most celebrated films never made it to Boone, their spots instead reserved for anything featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
But regardless, there were plenty of winners to be seen, and I did have the opportunity to catch a few of them off the mountain. A whittled-down list is as follows:
5. ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’
Director Rupert Wyatt’s take on one of the most memorable sci-fi series of all time was a refreshing revolution. Although it straddles the line between prequel and remake, “Rise” is its own entity, offering a fresh take on an established mythology and one of the most compelling computer-generated characters ever in Andy Serkis’s Caesar. (Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language)
Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s arthouse thriller, “Drive,” defies genre and embraces atmosphere. It’s an engrossing character study in which the protagonist remains shrouded in mystery, where the action is strikingly violent, yet somehow understated. The result is nothing short of mesmerizing. A quiet, intense performance from Ryan Gosling complements a memorably sinister turn from funnyman Albert Brooks. (Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity)
3. ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’
3-D works best in two ways – with self-awareness of its gimmickry or in the hands of a master filmmaker. It was the latter when acclaimed director Werner Herzog was allowed access to France’s Chauvet Cave, the near-pristine home to mankind’s oldest artwork – vivid cave paintings dating back some 32,000 years. Only a handful of experts are granted access each year, and Herzog, along with a 3-D camera, were fortunate enough to join them. Although it doesn’t stand up to some of Herzog’s previous work, this is a rare and beautiful opportunity to experience a fascinating place we’ll likely never see with our own eyes. (Rated G)
2. ‘Midnight in Paris’
Put simply, Woody Allen’s latest film is an absolute delight. A throwback to his storytelling of decades past, “Midnight in Paris” is a joy to watch – funny, sweet, clever and thought-provoking, all rolled into one. Owen Wilson comfortably fills the Woody Allen role as a struggling writer who’s enamored with Paris, more specifically the idea of Paris in the 1920s. As Wilson is swept up in the city’s magic – made possible through outstanding performances from a stellar supporting cast – Allen enchants his audience with some of the purest movie magic he’s conjured in years. (Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking)
Another example of 3-D done right, Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo” is proof that magic exists. It’s his most personal film to date, a love letter to cinema enveloped in beautiful storytelling, reminding us why we go to the movies in the first place. Mesmerizing cinematography and memorable performances deliver a magical atmosphere that’s as immersive as it is compelling, but “Hugo” is also a stunning technical achievement for Scorsese, whose use of 3-D serves to enhance, rather than distract. It’s not 3-D for the sake of being 3-D, and its complementary use is refreshing, tying in nicely with the director’s underlying message and upping the rewatchability factor for those of us whose TVs sit in only two dimensions. (Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action, peril and smoking)
Frank’s Bottom 5 Films
5. ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon’
4. ‘I Am Number Four’
3. ‘Apollo 18’
2. ‘Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1’
1. ‘Jack and Jill’
Jeff’s Top Five Albums
Does anybody listen to entire albums anymore? That’s a legitimate question in an age where so many people purchase (or grab) singular songs off of the Internet.
We have sort of retreated back to the singles era of the 1950s and 1960s, where the 45 rpm single was king, and songs were randomly played back-to-back on jukeboxes and on AM radio.
Fortunately, musical artists are still creating albums, with a deliberate thought to how they begin and end. And some of the better of those artists put out spectacular works in 2011, as evidenced by WNCW’s annual listener poll (see accompanying story).
And since it is the time of year where everyone is making “best of” lists, I thought I’d play along with the game.
Here then, in no particular order, are my top five album picks for 2011:
The Decemberists – ‘The King Is Dead’
Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy was seriously thinking of taking a long hiatus from the band after releasing and touring in support of the 2009 concept album, “The Hazards of Love.”
Thank goodness he didn’t.
Instead, he and his Decemberist band-mates got together with singer Gillian Welch and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to create one of the most refreshing albums of the year, “The King Is Dead.”
Relying on a Neil Young-esque mix of acoustic and electric guitars, “The King Is Dead,” is Meloy at his most direct. Gone are the arcane references to English sailing ships and Civil War battles.
Instead, he concentrates on creating straight-forward pop songs with a folky bent. “Calamity Song” has a nifty R.E.M. jangle to it, while “Down by the Water” is pure Decemberists — seemingly simple until you realize you can’t get it out of your head.
Amos Lee – ‘Mission Bell’
Speaking of songs that are so catchy you can’t get them out of your head, Amos Lee deserves some kind of prize for “Windows Are Rolled Down.” With his soulful, scratchy voice and songs that seem pulled right out of his heart, Lee seemingly came out of nowhere this year. After appearances on late night talk shows and “Ellen,” America embraced Lee and his rock solid band.
“Mission Bell” is an album that releases its treasures little by little and subsequent spins continue to contain surprises. The rock/gospel/blues thunder of “Jesus” is matched by the boot-scootin’ country slickness of “Cup of Sorrow.” Throw in some guest vocals by Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson, and you have a recipe for an album that will appeal to just about everyone.
Abigail Washburn – ‘City of Refuge’
I really didn’t think Abigail Washburn was capable of making an album that I would like as much as her 2008 album with the Sparrow Quartet “Dig.” The quartet featured herself, husband Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen and Ben Solee; a sort of super-group of Americana/jazz instrumentalists. That album’s “Great Big Wall in China” is still one of my favorite songs of this young century.
This year, Washburn ditched the quartet and instead utilized the talents of a wide array of guest musicians, including the Mongolian string band Hanggai, for an album titled “City of Refuge.” The results are a fabulous collection of songs that perfectly combine Washburn’s claw-hammer banjo style of “old time” music with a more futuristic, worldly flair.
Guests on the album include My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel, the Decemberists Chris Funk, guitarist Bill Frisell and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor and Morgan Jahnig.
But it is Washburn, with her otherworldly voice (reminiscent, to my ears, of Canadian chanteuse Jane Siberry) and extraordinary songwriting, who is the star of this incredible album. With Bela Fleck scheduled to perform at MerleFest this spring, one can only hope that he brings his wife.
Tedeschi Trucks Band – ‘Revelator’
Speaking of talented husband-wife duos, one has to wonder why it took so long for slide guitarist Derek Trucks and guitarist/vocalist wife Susan Tedeschi to join forces in a band. We all know that she has her band, and he is busy playing slide with The Allman Brothers, but hey, how about some quality couple time?
That time, my friends, has come. And the resulting album, “Revelator,” is one of the best albums either of these talented musicians has been associated with. If you like Bonnie Raitt and classic southern rock, then this is the album for you.
“Until You Remember” is an unbelievable scorcher with Tedeschi’s powerful voice embodying heartache, while “Come See About Me” is a sassy southern rocker.
Tedeschi and Trucks have put together one of the best bands this side of The Roots, and “Revelator” perfectly shows off the showmanship of every last member involved.
Wilco – ‘The Whole Love’
It has now been 18 years since Jay Farrar left Uncle Tupelo to form Son Volt. His former UT band mates, Jeff Tweedy and John Stirrat, reformed under the name, Wilco, and changed the landscape of American rock forever.
It’s hard to believe that Wilco has only released eight albums (not counting the Billy Bragg/Mermaid Avenue collaborations). With each new album, Tweedy and company completely reinvent themselves, and that is true once again with 2011’s “The Whole Love.”
The album has a big sonic landscape, as if the band listened to a lot of Radiohead and King Crimson before going into the studio. Nels Cline, the former guitarist for The Geraldine Fibbers and chief picker for Wilco since the 2004 album, “A Ghost Is Born,” takes his avant-garde approach to the instrument to a new level, but always manages to complement the song.
The downright jaunty “Capitol City” bounces along on pop shoes, while “The Art of Almost” crashes into walls amid beeping keyboards. Featuring just about every style in the Wilco songbook, “The Whole Love” could’ve been a complete mess, but Tweedy’s voice and songwriting are in such strong form (the band took an extended vacation before recording) that the whole thing is pulled together to form a cohesive, almost symphonic, whole.