Arts Desk

Photos from Salad Days Post-Premiere Party at the Black Cat

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Saturday and Sunday night at the Black Cat, members of D.C.'s hardcore scene past and present came together to celebrate a local screening and pseudo-premiere of Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90). Representatives from several D.C. bands were in attendance, and the showing included two reunions: one for Soulside, who headlined both nights, and one for Swiz, the unannounced special guest on Saturday. Sunday's show showcased more of the scene's current post-punk greats, with sets by Dot Dash and Office of Future Plans, and a special appearance by Salad Days director Scott Crawford on guitar for a song during the Soulside set. See photo galleries from each set below.

Jim Spellman (Velocity Girl, High Back Chairs); Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Bad Religion); Andy Rapoport (King Face), Night 1
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Amanda and Alec MacKaye, Night 2
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Swiz Reunion-Night 1
Dot Dash-Night 2
Office of Future Plans-Night 2
Soulside-Night 2

Pippin, Reviewed

01 Sasha Allen as Leading Player and the Cast of the National Touring Production of PIPPIN. Credit Terry ShapiroFor about 80 percent of the time you’ll spend watching Pippin at the National Theatre, the concept of setting this 1970s musical in a circus completely and totally works, providing spectacle and suspense under the Big Top. But that other 20 percent is problematic. This isn’t a novel observation—people having been saying it since the 2013 revival, directed by Diane Paulus, opened on Broadway. What is worth noting, with regret, is that wonderful as the acrobatics and illusions in Pippin are, the less-successful musical numbers failed worse in D.C. given some gut-wrenching events in the news.

Religious war! So fun to see spoofed the week the Taliban gunned down 100 children at a primary school. And bondage brothels! Potentially amusing, as long you’re sure the women weren’t drugged by Bill Cosby and choked by Jian Ghomeshi.

Poor Pippin, son of Charlemagne. His musical is so politically tricky. But he really is a charismatic and likable medieval fellow who just wants to find his corner of the theatrical sky, so go hoping to have a qualified good time. Given the uniqueness of this production, many performers from the roster of the Broadway show (which is set to close Jan. 4), have opted to hit the road. This is no second-string tour, and that’s a great reason to see the show. Kyle Dean Massey continues his run as Pippin, who at show’s opening has just returned to the Holy Roman Empire after earning a university degree. Massey’s voice sounds full, clear and sincere as he belts Broadway’s best song ever about not knowing what the hell to do with your life and moving back in with your parents.

Read more Pippin, Reviewed

Listen: Kenn Starr, “The Definition”

Kenn StarrHas it really been nine years since Kenn Starr's last album? That's an eternity in today's climate; now, there's far more music to wade through. Nonetheless, Starr Status still holds: With production from Maryland stalwarts Kev Brown and Oddisee, the 2006 offering held firm to the Low Budget crew's foundation of soul-driven boom-bap and fluid rhymes.

For his new single, "The Definition," Starr goes beyond the D.C. area, securing a beat from Detroit producer Black Milk and featuring singer Melanie Rutherford—a frequent Milk collaborator—on the chorus. Perhaps on purpose, the instrumental feels exultant; with sampled wails, it sounds like someone making a grand return after a lengthy hiatus. The song itself addresses romantic complexities in the Internet age: "I ain't tryna be all salty and bitter, and take love to the Facebook wall and be all stalking the Twitter."

"The Definition," the second single from Starr's forthcoming Square One LP, is a sharp turn from the album's first single, "The Movement II," which—like Starr's previous work—was about lyrical dexterity over Low Budget's self-described "P.G. County Sound."

Square One is out Jan. 27 via Mello Music Group. Stream "The Definition" after the jump.

Read more Listen: Kenn Starr, “The Definition”

D.C. Artist Covers the City in #BlackLivesMatter Christmas Ornaments

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The dark silhouette of a dove interrupts the white stone fountain at the center of Dupont Circle. On closer inspection, it’s a piece of cardboard spray-painted red, green, and black and tagged with #BlackLivesMatter. It's one of more than a thousand ornaments that popped up around the District last Friday.

Nearly a month ago, as the world was waiting for the Ferguson grand jury decision to come out, Omolara Williams McCallister, 24, received a text from her mother in West Hartford, Conn.: “If they don’t indict, I’ll be on the ground tomorrow morning.” “My first thought,” McCallister says, speaking from her home at Mount Pleasant’s Lamont Street Collective, “was 'Take me with you.'”

A day later, she was chanting in front of Ferguson’s Police Department, the initial protest epicenter. Over the next week, McCallister saw police in riot gear arrest peaceful protestors, approaching in military formations and scattering them with tear gas. At times, she got caught in the melee.

McCallister had gone to Ferguson to make sense of the pain and frustration unfolding before her, but by the time she had to leave, much remained unresolved. “Actually,” she says, “it made a whole hell of a lot less sense.”

Read more D.C. Artist Covers the City in #BlackLivesMatter Christmas Ornaments

The Top Five Photos Shown in D.C. This Year

Black-and-white photography has long ago moved into the realm of retro, but that shift only seems to have enhanced its cachet. In today’s cluttered visual environment, black-and-white is the equivalent of comfort food—and this critic, at least, ate it up this year. In this selection of the top five individual photographs exhibited in the D.C. area this year, all but one, an unforgettable creation in color, are rendered in shades of glorious gray.

In descending order, my picks for the best photographic images of 2014:

1. Lisa Tyson Ennis, “God Bless Our Home, Abandoned Outport, Newfoundland

Photoworks cabinEnnis’ contributions to the Glen Echo Photoworks exhibit “Mirror to the World” were uniformly strong, but her photograph of an abandoned settlement in Newfoundland was a tour de force of mystery, distortion, and fading memory.

2. Larry McNeil, “Elders

FeatherIn the National Museum of the American Indian exhibit “Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson,” McNeil delves into Native American iconography, including a series on feathers. One ultra-close-up is particularly notable for its ability to simultaneously communicate smoothness, steeliness, confidence, and fragility. (On view through Jan. 15.)  Read more The Top Five Photos Shown in D.C. This Year

Sounds About Right: The Best Local Albums of 2014

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There was experimental jazz, sludge, and soul; there were fresh takes on punk and new renderings of jazz classics. There was the wistful darkwave of winter, the synth-pop sing-alongs of spring, the crunchy hip-hop beats of summer, and the bright, straight-ahead barre chords of fall. Replay the year in D.C. music with the local albums, tapes, and EPs our critics listened to this year. —Christina Cauterucci

The 1978ers
People of Today
Mello Music Group

Rap is too insular: No longer does it celebrate blackness—it wants you to worship material things. On People of Today, the debut album from The 1978ers, yU and SlimKat78 dissected moral decay with attentive flows and emotive instrumentals. While it scans as hip-hop, People of Today is some of the best soul music you’ll hear. —Marcus J. Moore

Anthony Pirog
Palo Colorado Dream
Cuneiform Records

Anthony Pirog had multiple agendas in mind when he was making Palo Colorado Dream; not among them was a record that could be easily pigeonholed into one style or another. The guitarist’s Cuneiform debut can’t even be pigeonholed into one instrument or another—he makes it sound decidedly non-guitaristic and sometimes otherworldly. No matter what you call it, though, it’s a brilliant statement. —Michael J. West

Art Sorority for Girls
Older Boys
Self-released

Art Sorority for Girls is the brainchild of Daoud Tyler-Ameen, and his record mixes wry, clear vocals with confident indie-pop polish. Even aside from the single “Man with a Van,” arguably the year’s catchiest local tune, each track is both intimate and sonically rich. —Alan Zilberman

Big Hush
Wholes
DZ Tapes
Though Big Hush presents the veneer of shoegaze—barely distinguishable guitars, fuzz—that’s a deceptive impression. The guitars twang more like Dinosaur Jr. than My Bloody Valentine, and there’s little indulgence in shoegaze's noisy excesses. Big Hush’s songs are mostly three-minute concentrations of moody, solid indie-pop songwriting, with melodic dueling vocals and harmonies that poke out above the hiss of tape and distorted guitars. —Maxwell Tani

Black Clouds
Dreamcation
Collect Records

It’s hard to nail Black Clouds into one genre. On one level, they’re gothic metal, full of thunderous bass, aching synths, and muscular percussion. They’re also “post-rock,” a genre that’s defined primarily by its absence of lyrics. Either way, their 2014 release Dreamcation is brutal in the most cathartic sense. —Alan Zilberman

Brett
Brett
Cascine

Back in 2011, D.C. pop-rock group the Dance Party decided to ditch its sound and name, opting to dish out hazy, synth-led grooves as Brett. All shimmering keys and glossy electronic beats, Brett’s self-titled full-length debut is what electro-pop dreams are made of—especially if those dreams include lots of lyrics about love. The album’s tracks effortlessly alternate between ambient interludes and full-on falsetto hooks, offering a modern take on classic ‘80s synth-pop. —Carey Hodges

The Caribbean
Moon Sickness
Hometapes

Like every album by the D.C. art-poppers of the Caribbean, Moon Sickness feels like story hour from the band’s hidden pocket universe. But beneath frontman Michael Kentoff’s tales of secrets and villains and “Jobsworth and his jewel-encrusted cufflinks,” the Caribbean is filling in its sound with new colors. The album can be ruminative and spacey, like a brown-acid comedown, and it can be shimmery and welcoming, with pleasure-pushing flourishes of electric piano. The band’s inclinations are suddenly a bit more ’70s West Coast, but the Caribbean still knows how to entice you into its own universe. —Jonathan L. Fischer

Chelsey Green & The Green Project
The Green Room
Self-released

Violinist Chelsey Green followed her 2012 EP with The Green Room, a multifaceted jazz and R&B offering, covering familiar tunes like “My Favorite Things” and “People Make the World Go ‘Round” with her trusty strings. That spoke to Green’s agility as a composer: She can convey deep resonance with very few words. —Marcus J. Moore

Deleted Scenes
Lithium Burn
Park The Van/Nevado

Deleted Scenes is one of D.C.’s most consistently interesting bands, and with Lithium Burn, a record that oscillates between spazzy art-rock (the ultra-paranoid “Stutter”) and moody ballads (the piano-laden “Landfall”), they’ve maybe put out their most self-assured batch of songs yet. —Dean Essner

Diamond District
March on Washington
Mello Music Group

Diamond District leader Oddisee didn’t think you’d like March on Washington, the group’s highly anticipated follow-up to In the Ruff. For one, it’s not as upbeat as its classic predecessor. Still, March was a mature outing for Odd, XO, and yU; they’re no longer the combative upstarts, but accomplished adults with nothing left to prove. —Marcus J. Moore

Ex Hex
Rips
Merge Records

What’s classic about power-pop trio Ex Hex is a commitment to higher fidelity. No need to wade through liberally applied distortion or heavy reverb—on Rips, barre chords ring out clear, punctured neatly by tight riffs or squeals of distortion from frontwoman Mary Timony’s guitar. It reminds listeners that skilled pop songwriters can still get great mileage on palm-muted power-chords, sing-along choruses, and well-executed guitar solos. —Maxwell Tani

Furniteur
Furniteur
Prince George Records

D.C. has no shortage of up-and-coming synth-driven acts, but few have better hooks than Furniteur. The group’s debut EP is essentially a compact, well-executed survey of the contemporary EDM landscape, complete with dark minimal-wave tracks, electro house cuts, and wistful ‘80s pop ballads. For lesser bands, genre diversity makes for muddled records. For Furniteur, it’s a chance to test out a whole lot of different kinds of melodic hooks. —Maxwell Tani

Golden Looks
Golden Looks
Self-released

The catchy, sing-along choruses and studied, math-rock guitar lines of Golden Looks’ self-titled debut make this a must-listen add to today’s post-punk catalogue. Nestor Diaz and Julia Novakowski are perfect vocal matches, whether harmonizing, trading lines, or singing in parallel octaves, and a healthy helping of plucky ah-ahs, oh-ohs, and up-up-ups keep even the darker tracks fizzy. —Christina Cauterucci

GoldLink
The God Complex
Self-released

This debut mixtape from Virginia wunderkind GoldLink dropped jaws when it dropped in April. A creative curveball that challenged local rappers to reconsider their safe bets, The God Complex was the perfect D.C. summer bounce mix, with a house-infused, hyped-up flow and beats so delectably crunchy, you’d snack on them all day if you could. Equal credit for the album’s best tracks goes to Louie Lastic, whose smart, restrained production makes GoldLink’s rhymes sound sexy beyond his 21 years. —Christina Cauterucci

Heavy Lights
Mad Minds
Self-released

Rolling rhythms, bubbly guitars, and sunny harmonies make Mad Minds the sonic equivalent of a beach vacation. The debut album from Frederick, Md.-based quartet Heavy Lights milks its nostalgia-inducing elements, like hand claps and misty guitar licks, braiding in breezy uplifting vocals and the occasional slide guitar to cement its catchy surf-pop sound. —Carey Hodges

Jail Solidarity
Pretty Good Privacy
Accidental Guest Recordings

There was no shortage of smash-the-patriarchy music out of D.C. this year, but none packed as much of a punch as Jail Solidarity’s Pretty Good Privacy EP. Layers upon layers of heavy-as-fuck sludge and noise are stacked together into five drawn-out songs of calling out sociopolitical bullshit like the NSA, misogyny, and racism. Damn the man! —Matt Cohen

Laughing Man
Be Black Baby
Bad Friend Records

Laughing Man manages to make experimental music as graspable as it is radical. To lay a political veneer over a tight, complex album, the band’s September release takes its title from a scene in Hi Mom!, a 1970 Brian De Palma film (the titular segment depicts a group of black actors teaching white yuppies how to “be black” in an increasingly uncomfortable theater piece) and uses dialogue from the sequence to bridge the gaps between tracks. Laughing Man jumps from jazz chords and weird time signatures to punk guitars and drum machines, sometimes in the middle of a song or even a single line. It’s the opposite of a zone-out mix: a real listen-in album that gets deeper with every spin. —Christina Cauterucci

Logic
Under Pressure
Def Jam Recordings/Visionary Music Group

Fans aggravated by the wait for Logic’s debut album immediately forgave him upon hearing the thing in October. Largely autobiographical, Under Pressure is a multilayered examination of what shaped the Maryland rapper’s identity. From random pop-culture nuggets to his turbulent formative years in Gaithersburg, Logic covers the full spectrum of his influences in deft fashion. At year’s end, Under Pressure emerges as one of the year’s superior offerings on a national level, proving that his tale of unlikely success reverberates outside of the hub where it took place. —Julian Kimble

Louis Weeks
shift/away
Self-released

Louis Weeks’ triumphant debut LP shift/away may fall under the subhead of “bedroom pop,” but it is by no means confined and static. Rather, Weeks’ album—which melds folk and glitchy laptop music—is a triumph of space, a record that manages to feel both grandiose and exquisitely small at the same time. —Dean Essner

Mark Meadows
Somethin’ Good
Self-released

When Baltimorean pianist Mark Meadows started building his presence in D.C., his multiple talents set the scene abuzz. This guy could play, he could sing, and he could write. He can lead a band, too, and on Somethin’ Good he does it all with aplomb. It’s the writing that’s most impressive, with strong originals (“Once Upon A Purple Night,” “Less Catchy”) and transcendent arrangements (Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You”). —Michael J. West

Martyn
The Air Between Words
Ninja Tune

Martyn has seen the inner workings of the music industry, and he doesn’t like it. So for this year’s The Air Between Words, the NoVa producer retreated to an analog sound, which added a richness you just can’t get digitally. As a result, Air might be Martyn’s best album, one that made great use of silence and shadows. —Marcus J. Moore

Monument
Bros Canoeing
Self-released

Emo has the unfortunate reputation of being histrionically weepy, but Monument’s second album, Bros Canoeing, is just fun. It’s not just the jokey, self-referential titles, but the way a certain riff can make you feel like you’re flying down the highway in a convertible. The saddest thing is knowing this is Monument’s final album. —Leor Galil

Muhsinah
M
Self-released

With Muhsinah, there’s a feeling of isolation, that she’d rather be alone than deal with everyday trappings. M, recorded during a week of solitude in her home, was anything but aloof: Filled with bright electronic fervor, the summery EP was a welcomed birthday present to herself and a brief preview of her forthcoming album. —Marcus J. Moore

Outputmessage
The Infinite Void
Output Noise

Chances are you’ve never been to outer space. Local EDM producer Outputmessage gave the grand tour on The Infinite Void, his voyeuristic interpretation of the cosmos. Its sound was enormous and full of cataclysmic doom. It was music that moved you in places well beyond the dance floor. —Marcus J. Moore

Priests
Bodies and Control and Money and Power
Don Giovanni/Sister Polygon

Priests play with an unrivaled force that’s earned them the reputation as the best DIY punk outfit D.C. has produced in years. The band’s untamed, strangely funky minimal punk EP is great in part because the band making all the noise isn’t concerned with being the best—to borrow a line from frontwoman Katie Alice Greer, the band isn’t trying to be anything, which just about explains it. —Leor Galil

Protect-U
Free USA
Future Times

There’s oontz oontz oontz-style EDM, and then there’s Protect-U’s brand of oontz oontz oontz house-infused EDM, which sounds like it emerged from a futuristic underwater utopia. On the duo’s latest LP, Protect-U fuses disco grooves, old-school house vibes, and otherworldly soundscapes to make an electronic album that’s both inescapably dancey and intricately fascinating. —Matt Cohen

Puff Pieces
4 Song 7”
Lovitt Records

Take two parts post-punk, one part krautrock, a whole clove of anxious dissonance and throw it in a stew: You’ll get the trio known as Puff Pieces. On their four-song debut 7-inch, the band captures the nervous energy and anxiety of longtime punks striving to adapt in a rapidly changing D.C. —Matt Cohen

Reginald Cyntje
Elements of Life
Self-released

Trombonist Reginald Cyntje’s third album is his finest, a meditation on nature and social justice that blends all of his musical influences into an insoluble whole. Factor in his tremendous band (saxophonist Brian Settles, steelpannist Victor Provost, pianist Allyn Johnson, bassist Herman Burney, drummer Amin Gumbs) and the magnificent wordless vocals of Christie Dashiell, and you’ve got the year’s loveliest recording of any genre. —Michael J. West

Shy Glizzy
Law 3
Self-released

On his best songs, Shy Glizzy has the commanding swagger of a person who holds the world in his hands and the casual playfulness of a kid relaxing at the pool. In a sense, everything is “Awwsome,” but even without that breakout hit, Law 3 retains a uniquely Glizzy nirvana. —Leor Galil

Two Inch Astronaut
Foulbrood
Exploding In Sound Records

With its second proper release in as many years, Silver Spring, Md., trio Two Inch Astronaut continued down the rabbit hole of angular post-hardcore indigenous to the region. But on Foulbrood, the band gives in to indulgence, composing barn-burners that are simultaneously poppier, weirder, and longer than anything it’s done before. —Matt Cohen

Typefighter
The End of Everything
Huge Witch Records

D.C. has a legacy of producing rock bands that consistently push the threshold of art and avant-garde, which isn’t a bad thing. But that legacy makes a band like Typefighter—who’s more concerned with perfecting the formula of a perfect pop song than finding the new weirdness—all the more exciting. The band’s debut LP, The End of Everything, is your turn-the-windows-down-and-crank-the-stereo-up album of the year.

Witch Coast
Witch Coast for President
Self-released

Metal doesn’t have a monopoly on praising the infernal Lord. Proof positive: this devilish lo-fi band. The four tracks on Witch Coast for President are short, dark, and very pleasing, though possibly recorded on the auditory equivalent of a potato. Hopefully, the band’s upcoming LP will expand on impressive tracks like “True East.” —Matt Ramos

Young Summer
Siren
Ready Set

With her debut LP, Siren, Bobbie Allen (aka Young Summer) has made one of the more refreshingly sincere pop records of 2014, an album that eschews mainstream music’s current obsession with irony and self-reference in favor of irresistible, hook-abundant songs about falling in love. —Dean Essner

Yung Gleesh
Cleansides Finest 3
Self-Released

Something strange happened in 2014: Your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper became yours. Yung Gleesh had a career year, with festival performances, sold-out shows, and dance moves that got into a video game. He also dropped Cleansides Finest 3, his best project yet. Here, Gleesh is witty, energetic, and oddly melodic; he flows with go-go speed, pairing well with spacey beats and thundering production. Every shitbag has his day. —Daniel White

Worth the Galleries: The Best Contemporary Art of 2014

“Earth on Grand Canyon” by William Newman (2013)

“Earth on Grand Canyon” by William Newman (2013)

For the major art museums in D.C., 2014 was a throwback year. The National Gallery of Art mounted a big retrospective of Andrew Wyeth and a minor survey of El Greco. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden mounted an all-new permanent-collection hanging for its 40th anniversary. Meanwhile, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, following a long and fateful struggle, finally shuttered. To their credit, the Phillips Collection and the Kreeger Museum, both modernist museums, expanded on their record of showing relevant contemporary art with sculpture shows of Bernardi Roig and Emilie Brzezinski, respectively.

To find the very best new work in D.C., though, viewers had to stray far and wide from the National Mall. Whereas the 14th Street NW corridor used to be the reliable hub for the city’s art scene, now its galleries are spread out among all four quadrants. The following list is by no means an encyclopedic compilation of great art shows from 2015. But these exhibitions proved that, despite the loss of a few commercial galleries, the city’s art ecosystem is still alive and relevant.

“A Layered History,” Dean Kessmann
Furthermore

In the most academic work of the year, Kessmann, an art professor at George Washington University, scanned an entire 1,184-page tome of Western art history, H.W. Janson’s History of Art, into his computer to assemble his raw materials. He then applied these pages to a curving 40-foot wall to make a literal history at a glance. As a print, it transcends a pointy-headed discussion about the construction of art history, instead bending art history itself to serve as his own artwork.

“War Paint,” Jason Gubbiotti
Civilian Art Projects

Any exhibit by Gubbiotti promises pure pleasure for painting partisans, and his fourth solo show for D.C. did not fail to deliver. As with past exhibits, “War Paint” stressed the artist’s hand while seemingly burying it in layer after layer of symmetrical, mechanical, hard-edged painting. Up close, however, quiet moments—a dapple of gestural abstraction here, a frayed edge of canvas there—proved how human even these robotic paintings can be.

“Participant,” Vesna Pavlović
G Fine Art

One of the finest art shows of the year didn’t need to be an art show at all: Vesna Pavlović might have done “Participant” as a PowerPoint. In fact, the exhibit, which drew from both her childhood experience growing up in Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito as well as research into the so-called benevolent dictator’s cult of personality, included a slideshow—one that screened black-and-white images from Tito’s travels onto a darkened curtain. With this work, personal photos, and a video of a youth demonstration from the height of Tito’s powers, Pavlović claimed the past as present—and as her medium.

“Syzygy,” William Newman
American University Museum

I’m still dwelling on this puzzler of a painting show long after the fact: always a good sign. For “Syzygy,” a mysterious title in its own right, Newman produced his own personal zodiac, something having to do with various spheres and orbs and landscapes that he loves. The paintings are mythic in a sense, bearing the compositional austerity of paintings by Mark Rothko or Josef Albers, but their sensibility is pure pop. The pieces follow a template: “Orange on Grand Canyon,” “Saturn on Yellowstone,” “Tennis Ball on Great Falls/Potomac River.” It was a show that didn’t yield any easy answers.

“Total Art: Contemporary Video,” various
National Museum of Women in the Arts

Video was big in 2014. For its 40th birthday, the Hirshhorn mounted “Days of Endless Time,” a series of video works mulling nature and its representation. “Total Art” was another important video show, and for the too-often-staid National Museum of Women in the Arts, a real coup. The show was direct in its ambitions: It was simply a show of recent video artworks made by women. That might sound mundane or safe, but shows of contemporary art by women that do not try to make overarching claims about feminism are both rare and valuable. This one was a show of artworks, plain and simple, not a feat of curatorial strength. Sometimes the best thing to do is to get the hell out of the way.

“Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota”
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

One of the best contemporary-art installations of the year can in fact be found on the National Mall, although in a place that’s as underground as any DIY art venue. The Sackler Gallery is one of four Smithsonian Institution facilities that’s destined to be transformed by a master plan by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Until that happens, though, the Sackler will continue to be one of the lesser-known spaces treasured by D.C. viewers—in part for the “Perspectives” series, which invites major Asian artists to transform its lobby. For “Over the Continents,” Chiharu Shiota installed an array of laser-like red thread connecting used shoes from her native Japan. Each shoe’s donor tied a tag to the shoe telling its story; from a kiosk, via an innovative Google Maps array, viewers can click on the shoe-tags and read (in translation) stories of shoes as unique as their owners. While it’s obviously a playful installation, something you might find tucked away in one corner of a Hirshhorn gallery, the Sackler platform gives the piece room to breathe.

“Folk’Lore,” Sheldon Scott
(e)merge art fair

I am sorry to say that I can finish the racist nursery rhyme that artist Sheldon Scott alludes to in “Folk’Lore,” the exhibition of multi-media pieces and performance he brought to the (e)merge Art Fair. “Eeny meeny miny mo,” he spelled out in neon curlicue lights. (“Catch a nigger by his toes,” the rhyme ends.) These he complimented with a few hundred pounds of Brazil nuts, which were once known colloquially as “nigger toes” in the South (and probably still are). I’m sadder still to say that I missed the performance that attended Scott’s ambitious project, so it’s hard for me to judge the full register of his work. Even still, it’s plain that he’s making big work—in any medium that he can get his hands on—that pierces the tired tropes of nostalgia and lost innocence that sometimes surface in the so-called national conversation about race. It’s a project that’s as important now as ever.

Picture Perfect: The Best Films of 2014

Nightcrawler

The bricks were a bellwether. When Warner Bros. first announced production for a movie about Legos—yes, as in the children’s building blocks— it sounded like one of the most absurd ideas to come out of Hollywood in a long time (no small feat). And when it received an early February release date—the time of year when lousy movies are let loose to die—its fate as a nonstarter seemed inevitable, even though parents will take their kids to just about anything that promises to shu...distract them for a couple of hours.

Feb. 7, 2014 arrived, along with a score from the widely referenced review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Our mocking would now have backup, we thought. But The Lego Movie turned up 96 percent fresh. Now, this brilliant little not-just-for-kids flick is the animated feature to catch on Oscar night. It’s not only being hailed as one of the best animated films of 2014, but as one of the year’s best, period.

And if a February opening about a toy set can knock it out of the playpen, it follows that the rest of 2014 would offer more treasures still. (Well, that’s not exactly logical, but it happened to be true.) This made my 10-best whittling much more difficult this go-round; I’d started adorning everything in my initial broadly pruned list with an asterisk before realizing that wouldn’t fly. Upping the challenge was the diversity of the top-notch films. Should it be profound? Educational? Thought-provoking? Or is it OK to simply be silly, or eerie, or otherwise engaging? Can The Lego Movie seriously compete for best-ness against Boyhood?

In a year that saw critical acclaim go to superhero movies as well as deeply felt dramas and crack comedies, the answer is yes—and it’s why my chosen ones are listed in no particular order. The bottom line: Here are 10 great films. Catch ’em if you can.

Enemy

The most striking aspect of Denis Villeneuve’s surrealist story about a man who tracks down his doppelganger can’t fairly be talked about lest you clear the room with “spoiler alert!” blaring from a bullhorn. Jake Gyllenhaal, who ruled the bookends of 2014, lends subtle shades to his dual roles, and if you don’t think someone meeting his double is unnerving enough to warrant such a strong title, you’ll change your mind by the film’s perfect, WTF?-prompting final scene.

Nightcrawler

Gyllenhaal again, with a performance that would certainly nab an Oscar if this weren’t a year overstuffed with other worthy Best Actor contenders. Dan Gilroy’s dark directorial debut slums in the nocturnal world of crime journalism, where getting there first can translate into substantial cash for the freelance videographer who gets the best angle for blood spillage. Gyllenhaal’s Louis is a relentless, not-quite-right opportunist who teaches himself the game, then gets creepier as the work gets scummier—and more lucrative. Bottom-feeding suits Louis, and the film’s intensity suits Jake. Call it Donnie’s Darkest.

Birdman

Who cares if Birdman was, in fact, written for Michael Keaton? A good story is a good story, and once Alejandro González Iñárritu got done with it, this good story was a great one. Keaton’s turn as a washed-up former franchise star is one of the performances sure to elbow Gyllenhaal out of the races, though all the cast members—including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan—succeed in elevating their games to facilitate Iñárritu’s conceit of presenting the two-hour movie as one single camera take. The result is breathtaking fluidity; combined with an exceptionally fitting jazz-drum soundtrack and a script that’s both witty and glum, this Bird flies.

Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s latest isn’t remarkable because it was filmed over a 12-year period with the same cast. It’s remarkable because it’s about, well, everything. Romantic relationships, familial relationships, growing up, meeting challenges, surviving failure, celebrating success, revamping life plans (I could go on). Boyhood may be told from the perspective of Mason (Ellar Coltrane, becoming an adult before your eyes), but the story gives nearly equal emphasis to his family (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater) as they navigate life’s twists. Its 165 minutes zoom by, with episodic looks at family events big and small. As Mason heads off to college and his single mother breaks down, you realize how uncannily the film mimics the flow of not just boyhood, but life itself.

The Lego Movie

Referencing the film’s big, catchy song—if you’ve seen it, you know—is too easy. What makes The Lego Movie so massively entertaining is a Simpsons-esque script (early Simpsons, of course) that tosses out more jokes than you can process in one sitting, humor both visual and delivered rapid-fire by voice actors who are easily identifiable yet perfectly matched to their characters. (Will Arnett as Batman? Genius.) Better, the laughs are predominantly parodic in an old-school, Airplane! sense, a refreshing change after a couple of decades of self-described parodies that merely re-create scenes from popular movies and add, say, a bathroom gag. If you’ve had a bad run of subpar cinema, here’s your palate cleanser.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Does a mere reference to Dune, David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi disaster, leave you nodding off as images of endless desert cloud your brain? Keep reading. This documentary on cult Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s almost-making-of the film (instead of Lynch) is the ultimate date-night rental, virtually guaranteed to engage both the sci-fi fan and the diehard rom-com enthusiast eager to be charmed. Jodorowsky, now in his 80s, takes you step by step through his ideas and the film development process until the very last minute, when studio execs essentially said, “It’s brilliant, but no.” You don’t have to care a whit about intergalactic battles for an alien substance to enjoy Jodorowsky’s boatloads of charisma, imagination, and intelligence. His works that have made it to the big screen? Yeah, they’re an acquired taste, which you’ll discover when this film inevitably prompts you to seek them out. If they’re not to your liking (which you should know within 15, 20 minutes tops), just pop the doc back in and enjoy the madman’s company again.

Whiplash

There are no As for effort in Professor Fletcher’s music class. He justifies his often cruel, always dictatorial method of teaching by saying that the most harmful words in the English language are “good job.” In the adrenaline-fueled Whiplash, J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher with a virtual “High Voltage” sign on his face, while the main victim of his instructional rage is portrayed by Miles Teller in a role that sees the drum student cry, bleed, and get pissed off in thankless attempts to win Fletcher’s fleeting approval. Whiplash’s story, written and directed by relative newcomer Damien Chazelle, posits the conservatory as boot camp, with its essential question being how hard a talented student should be pushed if he’s showing glimpses of greatness. Simmons is frighteningly volatile—a sure Best Supporting Actor nominee—and Teller reportedly actually bled on the drums when his director aimed for vérité and wouldn’t cut merely because his star was exhausted. In this case, that push paid off.

Locke

Instead of Best Picture, call this the best Tom Hardy. He’s the only actor who appears onscreen during the film’s 85 minutes; potentially more punishing, his Ivan Locke never gets out of his car. That writer-director Steven Knight—and his star—pulled this off is a boast-worthy testament to unorthodox filmmaking. Hardy’s Locke, a construction manager with a family, does nothing but make (hands-free) phone calls on his evening commute to attend to a matter that will prevent him from supervising his company’s biggest project the next day. He explains, he reassures, he makes arrangements, and between hangups and dials, he thinks—but never, it seems, about changing his mind about his destination, despite major begging from those he calls and possibly dire consequences. In a film that sounds boring, Hardy fails to bore. His Ivan is calm, confident, logical, meticulous: everything you’d hope to be in a crisis. He’s also truthful—straight up, no hedging, just matter-of-fact—even when the truth is painful. Superheroes fared well this year, and though he wears no costume and drives a sedan, Ivan Locke should be counted among them.

Force Majeure

In this Swedish drama, a few impulsive seconds is all it takes to potentially tear an otherwise happy-ish family apart. Tomas and Ebba are with their two young children on a skiing holiday when, while having lunch, an avalanche heads toward the restaurant. No one is hurt, but how each of them reacts becomes fodder for one of those arguments that never really ends because there’s no clear answer, and neither person yells because the implications are so heavy with sadness. Ebba can’t let the matter go, and you don’t blame her. The film, then, feels like the equivalent of eavesdropping on marriage counseling—and who wouldn’t like a glimpse of how other couples resolve their conflicts?

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case

In China, fame and money do not protect you from the law. And since the law is often arbitrary—if officials make the rules known at all—citizens may find themselves in the same infuriating predicament as Ai Weiwei, the globally lauded artist who designed Beijing’s Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 2011, he was detained while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong. Government officials gave him conflicting reasons for his arrest, including tax evasion and “subversion of state power.” Weiwei knows, though, that it’s because he aired his political opinions on a blog—and for that, he served 81 days in solitary confinement. Even viewers frustrated with the U.S.’s dysfunctional justice system will be grateful for what they’ve got after seeing the tyranny presented in The Fake Case. If you’re not familiar with Weiwei, the film shows him as thoughtful and strong-willed, but too smart to continually goad the government; certainly not the type to be justifiably imprisoned in the conditions he re-created as his next project, a series of chilling dioramas. Then again, we’ve got cops who kill unarmed kids on the street and never have to answer to the law. So see this documentary with some friends. And over a long, long dinner, discuss which country has it worse.

To: You is a Big Step Forward for the Other Guys’ Rap Game

Other GuysJust two years ago, local producers the Other Guys were relative unknowns looking for a career path. 2012's Joe & Insanate's Excellent LPwith its bare-bones Native Tongues aura—had potential, but was a bit rough. Since then, the duo of Joe Myles and Isaiah Mensah have gotten better, and that growth shows on projects like The Week and Seeds of Ambition. The 1990s' golden-era spirit is still there on the newer work, but the instrumentals carry a richer sound.

Released in late November, To: You is a fully realized effort from the Other Guys. As the backdrop for Brooklyn rapper Von Pea—himself an accomplished yet unheralded lyricist—the Other Guys offer subdued melodies for Von's equally laid-back cadence. "Everybody love rap, everybody hates rappers, we the new porn stars," the MC quips on the intro. "People wanna be us or fuck us, but not around others/No respect for us, meanwhile, adore what we do."

To: You is a viable partnership for both: Von sounds appropriate atop the Other Guys' nostalgic soundtrack; in turn, the collaboration is a great look for the producers, who have linked with other like-minded artists—namely yU and Substantial—as of late to build their own profile.

With Von Pea, the Other Guys join a rapper who embraces his anonymity. He wears the tag as a badge of honor, often riffing on his invisibility with his rap group Tanya Morgan, whose 2006 debut, Moonlighting, mocked itself as a bargain-bin rap record. Collectively, To: You is a decent listen, and it's evident the Other Guys are working to perfect their craft.

Stream the album below. Read more To: You is a Big Step Forward for the Other Guys’ Rap Game

What Made Local Comedians Laugh in 2014

comedyBetween roasting the city's sacred (and not-so-sacred) cows, reveling in terrible music transgressions, and skewering established religion, D.C.'s comedians gave the city a lot to laugh about in 2014. This year, they pushed the envelope by expanding on preconceived notions of what good comedy can be and what public spaces can give it a good home.

Arts Desk asked some of the city's funniest comedians (and for good measure, me) what made them laugh this year. Here's what cracked up the people that cracked you up in 2014.

Natalie McGill: This spring I was at a Tuesday night Nats game with some friends, and we see a rather inebriated white man bound up the steps, presumably to use the restroom or get a beer. He then stops midway, points at a black male friend next to me and says, “Have fun running the free world, and don’t fuck it up.” I couldn’t tell if the man was a run-of-the-mill racist or if he really thought my friend was President Obama. At any rate, I was so glad I didn’t decide to take a pee break—I would’ve been so mad if I missed that.

Reggie Melbrough: I was riding from Sacramento to Reno for a gig. Sean Peabody and I drive by Donner’s Pass near Truckee, Calif., where we see a giant statue commemorating the point and the deaths of those in the Donner Party. Across the highway was an All You Can Eat Buffet sign.

Read more What Made Local Comedians Laugh in 2014

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