e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu

12/21/2009

making a list, checking it twice

All my favorite pop culture junky websites find themselves in a flurry this time of year, listing the bests and worsts, trying to be definitive and novel all at once. I haven't seen anywhere near enough 2009 films to offer my own exhaustive list, but I'll make an amateur observation: What a great year for genre films. Of course "Inglorious Basterds" exploded the war picture in all kinds of fun ways. And two kiddy pictures--"Up" and "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"--told more compelling stories with rounder characters than most adult dramas. (NB: I haven't seen "Where the Wild Things Are" yet.)

But let's here it for the horror movie. Sure, plenty of lousy, lazy remakes came out, but I found "Baghead," "Orphan," and "Drag Me to Hell" scary and inventive; I recommend them highly. (NB Part Deux: Haven't seen "Paranormal Activity" yet.) "Orphan" in particular was outstanding. Sure, the 'demon child' story is familiar, but "Orphan" took the subtelty and craft of the "Rosemary's Baby" formula and rewrote it for the video game generation. More gore, more shocks, more over-the-top fun. Plus, CCH Pounder as a nun. "Baghead" also played with a cliche, this time the indie, let's-recreate-"Blair Witch" trope. "Drag Me to Hell" was a third example of a great piece of work that didn't feel the need to reinvent the horror wheel. "Drag" was more or less what you'd expect from the great horror writer/director Sam Raimi and also just what you'd expect from a gypsy curse film. But somehow the film achieved more, as Raimi's best work always does.

How about music lists? I'm wondering why the Dead Weather record is getting little end-of-year love from Pitchfork, AV-Club, et al? I like the album more than post-"White Blood Cells" White Stripes releases myself. And the band kills live. My other favorites from 2009 include The Gossip's "Music for Men," Animal Collective's "Merriweather Post Pavillion," Wilco the Album, and the Hard Lessons' "Arms Forest."

Speaking of music lists, the decade best-ofs have tragically excluded two of my favorite bands from the past ten years: The Kills and The Gossip. Here are two bands that have much in common. Both started the decade marrying punk and blues and opening for bigger acts but migrated more toward dance music and headliner status. Both bands lack a bass player and hence draw White Stripes comparisons. Both bands are fronted by charismatic women who create stage personas that are key components of their respective live experiences. The Kills made three outstanding records. The Gossip released four, plus several EPs and live records.

Some of the best rock music of the decade, hands down, so why are they barely represented on the decade lists? I'm not sure the allegedly liberal indie community in the U.S. knows just what do with these two bands. Their frontwomen--the Gossip's Beth Ditto and The Kills' Alison Mosshart--reject the shy introversion of so many women of indie rock. They seem more influenced by sexually charged bluesers of the 40s and 50s like Big Mama Thorton than, say, Natalie Merchant. Ditto is known to remove articles of clothing on stage and is a very out lesbian. Mosshart climbs amps and leers at the audience. Their lyrics challenge decorum and femininity. I think it's noteworthy that the boys in the music press seem somewhat confused by the collective ethos of folks like Ditto and Mosshart.