Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review Of The Decade Part 1: 100 Best Films

100. Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004, UK release 2005)
This low-budget, hugely claustrophobic science fiction feature, brilliantly and mercilessly concise at just 78 minutes, suggests there is still life in independent American film-making. It’s ostensibly about a well-worn movie subject - time travel, but there is something mysterious, elusive and intriguing at its core. The physics is no doubt questionable I’m sure.

99. Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005, UK release, 2006)
I am a bit of a sucker for a good high school movie, for there is no more competitive, political and claustrophobic an environment than a school. ‘Brick’ was a devious, imaginative and, it must be admitted, slightly geeky take on the genre. In combining the high school movie with sleuth noir, this could easily have turned out to be a sterile formal exercise, or a whimsical conceit. However, the energy and spirit with which Johnson carried out this high-minded exercise in lowbrow film-making rendered it immensely enjoyable.

98. Dodgeball (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2004)
Some will probably assume this film is in here merely to prove that I’m not an arthouse cinema snob. To some extent, that’s probably true, but I do genuinely love this film. It’s one of those great comedies where the gags get better with familiarity and Ben Stiller’s performance as the repulsive caricature White Goodman may be his finest achievement to date. Completely silly, of course, but we can all use some levity from time to time.

97. The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)
Here is a film I would never have expected to like in a million years – but somehow Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan’s speculative examination on the inner life of the monarch following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales is fascinating. It’s also a politically astute film, demonstrating the shrewd opportunism of Tony Blair (that great impersonation from Michael Sheen).

96. Wild Combination – A Portrait of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf, 2008)
95. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feurzeig, 2005, UK release 2006)
These two films are the most personal, revealing and intelligent of many documentary profiles of musicians released during the decade. Jeff Feurzeig’s documentary is first and foremost an affecting portrayal of a troubled individual, but it also makes a valiant attempt at explaining Johnton’s appeal as an artist, in spite of his lack of technical ability, to the relatively uninitiated. Matt Wolf does a brilliant job given the relative paucity of footage of Arthur Russell performing – and his labour of love film has played a major part in the rediscovery of Russell and his music over the last few years. There is something particularly moving about the contributions from Russell’s parents.

94. Red Lights (Cedric Kahn, 2004)
Kahn is an adaptable and assured film-maker and this adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel is full of uncomfortable tension. It’s a tight, carefully orchestrated thriller that deserved a wider audience. It will be interesting to see what Kahn does next.

93. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michael Gondry, 2004)
The romantic comedy is such a debased genre now that it’s always a revelation when a film turns up and fulfils the brief with wit and imagination. Gondry’s surrealist and absurdist take is joyful and ingenious, with a typically intellectual, game playing script from Charlie Kaufman. All the manipulations could easily become irritating were it not for the charming and unsentimental performances from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Indeed, by way of contrast, Gondry’s subsequent film, ‘The Science of Sleep’ amplified all of the quirks without any of the substance, and may well be one of the most infuriating films of the decade.

92. Belleville Rendezvous (Sylvain Chomet, 2002, UK release 2003)
Chomet’s playful animation is full of bright ideas, visual humour, caricatures of stereotypes and warm invention. It is an absolute joy to watch.

91. The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005)
This is, I think, a greatly superior film to Meirelles ‘City of God’. That film, whilst exciting and impressively made, threatened to glamorise the violence of street youth living in depravation in the favelas of Sao Paolo. ‘The Constant Gardner’ is a taut, entertaining thriller with a strong ethical heart. It is an impassioned film.

90. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
As brilliant as Channel 4’s comedy ‘Spaced’ was, few could have expected its creators to go on to make a sprightly paced parody of a zombie movie with a razor sharp script, plenty of brilliant jokes. Even fewer could have expected it to be quite so successful – a fact that suggests British audiences prefer intelligent comedy to the lowest common denominator material routinely churned out.

89. The Sun (Alexander Sokurov, 2005)
I’m more than a little bemused by the films of Alexander Sokurov, which are largely very slow, fuzzy and impressionistic. I have to admit I loathed the highly acclaimed ‘Russian Ark’ – its one 90 minute shot technical achievement was remarkable, but it really was little more than a tour through the Hermitage museum, complete with historical reconstructions and lavish costumes. This, for me, does not make for a good piece of cinema. Much more interesting is this bizarre, deeply mysterious portrait of the downfall of Hirohito. The film presents Hirohito as isolated and perhaps mad, and it brilliantly captures the sense of a deluded divine God realising that his divinity is temporary.

88. Together (Lukas Moodysson, 2000, UK release 2001)
‘Together’ is the slightly better of Moodysson’s initial breezy feelgood films, shot through with humane charm and empathy. A hippy commune is a ripe target, of course, but Moodysson’s film is gentler and more sensitive than simply an all-out attack. It is brilliantly funny, but finds room also for anxiety, loneliness and thwarted love.

87. Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007)
The films of Judd Apatow, often dismissed in some quarters as macho or juvenile, are actually rather sweet, sensitive and entertaining pictures. Bizarrely, this film prompted protests from pro-choice campaigners on the grounds that it was anti-abortion. Clearly, this was not the film’s concern – had there been a termination early on, the film would have been cut crudely short, or may well have become a decidedly more melancholy and reflective picture. Instead, it’s a deeply enjoyable, frequently thoughtful look at how to manage a supposedly unwanted pregnancy, and a real affirmation of the abilities of human beings to change and mature through experience.

86. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Arnold’s ‘Red Road’ is much admired but, for me, a flawed film with laudable ambitions. ‘Fish Tank’ is the feature that has really established her as a director to watch – and it is a film of great empathy and powerful observation. Arnold creates a brilliant sense of restriction and claustrophobia – and the desire for escape in the teenage Mia is palpable.

85. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004, UK release 2005)
This may be too relentlessly bleak a film even for me, but I include it here because of the major transition it might mark in the careers of Gregg Araki and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It was Levitt’s first really substantial role, and he handles the difficult material adroitly and convincingly. For Araki, it was a step away from doomed generation cliché, and lightweight movie making into something more powerful and genuinely confrontational.

84. Sicko (Michael Moore, 2007)
Yes Moore is crude, crass, patronising and misleading. He is not a documentary maker, but a polemicist. Some of his more grandstanding claims are ludicrous – and, even in this film there are plenty of them (the lauding of the ‘perfect’ health systems of Britain and France and, even worse, the admiration of Cuba). However, intelligent viewers who are able to distinguish the valid points from the glaring holes should still be affected by the real human stories he brings to his films. The amount of suffering that the American insurance-based system has caused is nothing short of scandalous, and Moore is right to highlight its failings for the vulnerable.

83. Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004, UK release 2005)
It’s usual for Mike Leigh films to be superbly acted – but Imelda Staunton’s performance in this is one of the greatest performances in a British film this decade. It is impossible not to become immersed in her story. A cup of tea, it would appear, can’t quite solve everything.

82. My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004)
Pawel Pawlikowski’s second film neatly balances a tender intimacy with danger and confrontation. It’s beautiful to watch and blessed with effortlessly natural performances from Natalie Press and Emily Blunt.

81. Lilya-4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002, UK release 2003)
This disturbing, upsetting film relies solely on spiritual images of angels and ideas of ascension for levity. It represented a sharp turn for Moodysson, previously the maker of gentle and charming films such as ‘Together’. ‘Lilya’ is an entirely different beast, a bleak tale of abandonment, depravation and desperation in youth. Unfortunately, it seemed to lead Moodysson up an experimental cul-de-sac as his subsequent features dealt in pretentious posturing and gonzo pornography.

80. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008)
I need to watch this film for a second time, for its labyrinthine portrayal of the Neopolitan mafia is difficult to follow. These story strands are careful to include the real life cost of the Camorra’s activities, and this film has a shocking and powerful impact.

79. Turtles Can Fly (Bahman Ghobadi, 2005, UK release 2006)
‘Turtles Can Fly’ may achieve some sort of classic status simply for being the first film to be made in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. That it is also a film of tremendous power, detailing the resourcefulness and resilience of children in terrible circumstances, suggests that it is worth recognition for much more than that.

78. London to Brighton (Paul Andrew Williams, 2006)
For sheer, gut-wrenching tension, there have been few films this decade to match this. With a British film industry preoccupied to the point of tedium with gangsters and violent crime, it’s hard to pick out the films with some substance. This film is more concerned with grim reality than with the glamorisation of criminals, and the thrill of its chase is extraordinary.

77. Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002, UK release 2003)
Well, it’s one way to spice up the mundanity of office life, I suppose. Shainberg’s kinky film is, beneath its unsubtle surface, a credible and intelligent piece of work. James Spader must surely be getting concerned that he continues to be typecast in roles where some kind of sexual perversion is called for.

76. Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2000)
This film presents a vivid and empathetic portrait of displacement, as itinerant teachers roam the land with blackboards strapped to their backs. The film has that distinctively Iranian absurdist humour, mostly emerging from seemingly endless circular arguments. The teachers struggle valiantly to find children to educate – instead their blackboards largely offer protection in a violent world.

75. Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd, 2002, UK release 2003)
Between them, director Dylan Kidd and actor Campbell Scott create a truly loathsome figure in anti-hero Roger Swanson, an advertising expert and frequenter of bars who decides to educate his visiting 16-year old nephew in the art of seduction. It is simultaneously satisfying and distressing to watch his downfall.

74. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001, UK release 2002)
Richard Kelly’s absorbing, entrancing fantasy was deservedly popular (although I sincerely hope I never have to hear Gary Jules’ version of ‘Mad World’ ever again). It’s funny to think that it made a career for Jake Gyllenhaal, who is offbeat and quirky here, before becoming a reliable bland lead. What a shame Kelly has disappeared into the realms of the ludicrous with his subsequent films.

73. The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005, UK release 2006)
An Australian western with a typically malevolent performance from Ray Winstone and a script from Nick Cave, ‘The Proposition’ has all the ingredients of a dark, magnetic thriller, and it does indeed deliver. It’s a film with terrifying moments, and it is undoubtedly negative in outlook – infused as it is with the dry fatalist spirit of Peckinpah.

72. 13 (Tzameti) (Gela Babluani, 2005, UK release 2006)
This extraordinary piece, filmed in monochrome, is a taut and ice cold piece of cinematic confrontation. Here is a film that lays bare the dangers of gambling in unbearably tense style, with detailed photography of terrified faces.

71. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000, UK release 2001)
This may not be Ang Lee’s most original or profound film, but there is simply no denying how stirring and exciting it is, even on repeated viewing. It’s an old-fashioned romantic yarn and the action sequences are staggering.

70. Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000, UK release 2001)
‘Code Unknown’ gave the first hint of Haneke’s bid for world domination – a film in which he ratcheted up his ambitions and attempted to reposition his austerity as popular cinema. This is a sceptical, questioning and thoughtful film which, characteristically for Haneke, asks most of its questions of its complicit audience without providing any clear answers or direction. Juliette Binoche, as ever, is superb.

69. The Beat My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard, 2005)
Audiard is a film-maker who keeps getting better (indeed, his latest film ‘A Prophet’ sounds like a contender for film of 2010) . ‘The Beat My Heart Skipped’ is a gangster film, ostensibly a remake of James Toback’s ‘Fingers’, but so much more compelling and exciting than that description suggests. Romain Duris’ presence is magnetic, and the film is muscular and stylish.

68. Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
I’m not generally a fan of biopics – they are frequently by their very nature predictable and conventional – but photographer Anton Corbijn’s first film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis is brilliantly constructed and hypnotic. The film somehow manages to be sensitive to the long-suffering Deborah Curtis and to Ian himself, who emerges as something of an unreliable, duplicitous romantic, if such a thing is possible.

67. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008, UK release 2009)
It would have been quite easy for this beguiling film to get lost amongst the current craze for all things vampiric. Instead, it became one of the most successful foreign language films of the decade in the UK. It’s a blackly comic, charming and gruesome story that still finds room for a brave and intelligent investigation of burgeoning emotions and attractions at the dawning of adolescence.

66. Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach, 2002)
Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or victory with ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ seemed like one of those victories designed to recognise a whole career rather than highlight one of his best works. ‘Sweet Sixteen’ was arguably his best film of the decade – superbly scripted by Paul Laverty and with a naturalistic, urgent performance from newcomer Martin Compston.

65. Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2008)
Davies’ return to the cinema, wonderfully, proved to be a huge event, ironically celebrated by the very institutions that had previously failed to fund him. This love letter to Liverpool also comes with a barbed, acerbic side, and huge helpings of working class pride and homosexual anxiety. It’s at turns funny, moving and provocative. As ever, Davies has thought carefully about the music – and the sequence of images of high rise blocks set to ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’ is extraordinary.

64. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hiyao Miyazaki, 2004, UK release 2005)
I think I prefer this to the much loved ‘Spirited Away’, if only because the source material (the children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones) reminds me of my childhood. Miyazaki has made his own wonderful version of this story, with superbly exciting sequences and memorable images.

63. Head-On (Fatih Akin, 2004, UK release 2005)
Akin, a Turkish man living in Germany, established himself as a director to watch with this harsh, gritty and impassioned film detailing a marriage of convenience between a brutal alcoholic and the daughter of strict Turkish Muslims. The film is initially savage, but a form of compassion comes through towards the end. Throughout, it is brave and honest film-making.

62. The Man Without A Past (Aki Kaurismaki, 2002, UK release 2003)
Kaurismaki’s eccentric, wacky comedies are certainly not to everyone’s tastes. This is comfortably his best film to date though, filled with hilarious deadpan wit and ingenious repetition. There are so many unusual characters delivering peculiar dialogue to relish.

61. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
Visual artist Steve McQueen made a hard hitting impact with his debut feature, one which conveyed the degradation and brutality of the Maze prison both immediately before and during the hunger strikes in torrid detail. The film is not presented as a conventional narrative – but rather juxtaposes its scenes of desperation and rage against a crucial and brilliant central scene, in which Bobby Sands (convincingly portrayed by Michael Fassbender) discusses the prospect of the strike with a Priest. The ghostly, chilling voice of Margaret Thatcher hovers over the whole piece – and there was understandable anger that the film risked sympathising with terrorists by refusing to show the complete picture. Yet McQueen’s film is not even about the complete picture – it is about the violence, rage and inhumanity of these horrendous conditions.

60. Best In Show (Christopher Guest, 2002)
There’s a sense in which Christopher Guest goes for easy targets with his comedies – and those who compete in dog shows (both the animals and their owners) are certainly ripe for comic attack. Like ‘Waiting For Guffman’ before it, ‘Best In Show’ is hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny throughout.

59. Roberto Succo (Cedric Kahn, 2001, UK release 2002)
Kahn’s kinetic true-crime drama is disturbingly watchable in its portrayal of a brutal, seemingly insane killer who also maintains a completely rational and convincing alternate identity. Stefano Casseti’s performance is breathtaking.

58. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002, UK release 2003)
Polanski’s artistry as a film-maker now again threatens to be overshadowed by his dreadful actions many years ago. ‘The Pianist’ is one of the best films of his uneven later career – with brilliant sets recreating the Poland of the holocaust. It’s a disturbing and harrowing picture, with even its central survival narrative failing to bring much levity given the total terror of the time.

57. The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002)
Mullan’s broadside against injustice to women in the Magdalene laundries left the Catholic Church enraged. Perhaps that is testament to the power of his vision and his assured touch as a director. His film, a combination of searing attack and black comedy, is well-judged and features some superb performances from Anne-Marie Duff and Geraldine McEwan.

56. Touching The Void (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)
Kevin McDonald’s reconstruction of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ attempt to climb Siula Grande is tense and viscerally exciting, in spite of our foreknowledge of Simpson’s survival. Macdonald bravely avoids backstory or context – this is simply a story of the expedition, the terrible decision made by Yates and Simpson’s extraordinary will to survive. The mountain scenes look sumptuous and the combination of interview footage and reconstruction works brilliantly. Whilst ostensibly a documentary, Macdonald tentatively steps into the world of drama here, with engaging results. He would go on to make a promising feature adaptation of Giles Foden’s novel ‘The Last King of Scotland’.

55. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2005, UK release 2006)
Hou had a somewhat uneven decade – with some of his films being rather stifling and impenetrable. This elegant triptych of love stories (each of which sees the same lead actors take on different roles) though remains one of my favourite films of recent years – a poignant and fascinating cinematic experiment.

54. All Or Nothing (Mike Leigh, 2002)
This marked a return to familiar territory for Leigh after his experiment in Gilbert and Sullivan film ‘Topsy Turvey’. The brilliant performance from Timothy Spall dominates the film, again demonstrating Leigh’s aptitude for working with actors. Indeed, he draws so much from his performers that he hardly needs any other resources. His films have an intimate, searching quality for which Leigh can be easily defended against misguided charges of misanthropy and caricature.

53. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007, UK release 2008)
I’m deeply sceptical of the rush to proclaim Paul Thomas Anderson as the great saviour of American cinema – a new legend to rival Scorsese. His debut ‘Hard Eight’ remains his best film, if only because it lacks the grandiose ambitions of much of his subsequent work. ‘Boogie Nights’ showed promise but ultimately saw Anderson overreach himself, while tepeated viewings of ‘Magnolia’ reveal it to be overblown and horribly contrived (as well as hugely derivative of Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’). ‘Punch Drunk Love’ was by comparison oddly lightweight and insubstantial. ‘There Will Be Blood’ is the first of his films to suggest some of the gravitas may be real – it’s a film that occupies its own dark and sinister space, tremendously aided by Jonny Greenwood’s searing soundtrack.

52. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2001)
The prolific Coen brothers’ first great film of the decade – this is an idiosyncratic, hypnotic contemporary film noir. It is stylised in the best sense of the word – involving the creation of a parallel world in film – one that evokes the murky world of great American crime fiction. It’s one of the Coens’ least extravagant and most controlled pictures.

51. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
Haneke’s stark character study, adapted from the novel by Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek is as uncomfortable a film as this great director has made. Its examination of sexual repression and domination is both unfashionable and uncompromising – we tend not to want to discuss or accept more perverse aspects of human sexuality. Isabelle Huppert’s performance is among the best of her illustrious career.

50. Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2001)
Made before 9/11, legendary Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s humble, simple but quietly illuminating film assumed a new popularity and importance in light of the calamitous geo-political events of this decade. ‘Kandahar’ is disarmingly direct and almost anti-dramatic. It seems to end without resolution and has little of the conventional elements that draw audiences to films. It is all the more intriguing and original for this. It provides a vivid, visually arresting study of an oppressed nation.

49. I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2006, UK release 2007)
The oblique side of Tsai Ming-Liang’s film-making reached an apotheosis in this murky, peculiar film. Indeed, when I saw it at a London Film Festival screening, patience was running thin and a large portion of the audience walked out during the first thirty minutes. They actually missed a treat – perseverance revealed a surreal but humane and engaging film with its own unique rhythm and shape, a film concerned with the very unfashionable subject of care.

48. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2003)
I was agnostic about Lynne Ramsay’s much admired ‘Ratcatcher’, largely because of its heavy reliance on banal imagery of the countryside and its lack of narrative substance. ‘Morvern Callar’, an adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel, is, for me at least, much better, because Ramsay’s impressionism works much more effectively in the context of a conventional story. This is a striking, memorable film with a superb lead performance from Samantha Morton.

47. Beyond Hatred (Olivier Meyrou 2005, UK release 2007)
46. Capturing The Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003, UK release 2004)
45. Aileen – Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 2003)

Here are three documentary films that go right to the dark heart of human existence – and all three manage to do so with elements of healthy scepticism and compassion. I usually find the lumbering presence of Nick Broomfield and his boom mic incredibly annoying, especially when he’s trying to concoct a conspiracy theory. In recent years, he has mellowed somewhat, and has begun to investigate significant subjects. This update of his portrait of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos is potent and unsettling. Broomfield treates Wuornos and her horrible, deeply troubled life with patience and care, and a case emerges for her as a woman turned violent through persistent neglect and abuse. That being said, the space Broomfield affords Wuornos to talk reveals her as misleading, her willingness to confess but then retract obfuscating her already complicated story.

Jarecki’s film is the most difficult in that he stumbled across this story of the collapse of a family following a paedophilia case when preparing a movie about party clowns. His film certainly raises the question of ethics in documentary making – with one family member refusing participation, did he have any right to use this extraordinary home video footage? At what point does this become mere voyeurism and no longer in the public interest? Yet his film also asks important questions about guilt, evidence and the presumption of innocence.

Less widely seen is Meyrou’s wonderful, dispassionate study of a French family coping with the murder of their gay son by homophobic skinheads. This is a sobering, moving account showing compassion for both the victims and the angry, ignorant criminals.

44. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005, UK release 2006)
Noah Baumbach graduated from his assistant writing work with Wes Anderson to make what is arguably a better movie than anything Anderson has yet produced (although I do admire ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’). It has its fair share of brilliant cringe-inducing moments, but has excised Anderson’s tendency towards irksome self-conscious eccentricity. Also, beneath the surface laughs, ‘The Squid and the Whale’ is a convincing and excoriating portrait of family disintegration.

43. L’Enfant (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, 2005, UK release 2006)
The Dardennes may have perfected their distinctive strand of neo-realism here, in this meticulously controlled, brilliantly acted drama. In light of the success of their previous movies, they could no doubt have extended their budget and resources for this picture. How refreshing it is that they stuck doggedly to their guns, and made a believable and engaging drama with no trickery or manipulation.

42. Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001, UK release 2002)
41. Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006, UK release 2007)
When ‘Lantana’ emerged in 2001, Australian director Ray Lawrence had not made a film since his 1985 adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel ‘Bliss’. With these two films, he revealed himself, quite unexpectedly, to be a master of the thriller genre, and a film-maker developing a new cinematic language for Australia. These are tense, edge-of-the-seat dramas with intelligence and nuance, and both dominated by superb lead performances (Anthony LaPaglia in ‘Lantana’, Gabriel Byrne in ‘Jindabyne’).

40. Etre Et Avoir (Nicholas Philibert, 2002, UK release 2003)
Philibert’s documentary about life in a small French rural infant school is charming in the best sense of the word. It’s a film that, like the teacher on whom it focuses, exercises great patience, understanding and consideration.

39. Under The Sand (Francois Ozon 2000, UK release 2001)
It’s tempting to dismiss Francois Ozon as a ‘Jack of all trades but master of none’ and there are times when he seems close to being a French Michael Winterbottom – following his every whim in every conceivable direction. He makes a lot of films, many of them bold and distinctive but ultimately flawed. Every so often there comes along one which stands out, and ‘Under the Sand’, along with his thoroughly disturbing short ‘See The Sea’ is probably the best example of the artistry of which he is capable. It’s his most restrained picture – a quiet study of grief and its effect on the mind that draws the very best from the characteristically brilliant Charlotte Rampling.

38. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmark 2006, UK release 2007)
This is a brilliant dramatisation of lives under the Stasi in East Germany, suspenseful and compelling and delivered with a strong moral purpose. The conflict and doubt felt by surveillance operative and interrogator Wiesle is sensitively handled and superbly portrayed.

37. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006)
36. Persepolis (Vincent Parranaud, Marjane Satrapi 2007. UK release 2008)
35. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
These three films make superb, intelligent use of animation to produce very adult, questioning and moving cinematic statements. ‘Waltz With Bashir’ is effective in its use of animation to produce a dream-like fog of obfuscation, a sense enhanced by Max Richter’s languid score. The contrast with news footage at the film’s conclusion brings home the brutal reality buried in the director’s subconscious. ‘Persepolis’ is a visual memoir, and all the more intriguing for being animated – a brilliant combination of creative imagination and shocking reality. ‘A Scanner Darkly’ might be Richard Linklater’s best film – and a brilliant harnessing of his longstanding fascination with the rotoscoping animation technique to create something edgy and unsettling. Both Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. deliver career-best performances. I find all three films, in their varying ways, striking and moving.

34. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Christian Mungiu, 2007, UK release 2008)
This film is unflinchingly grim – but about as accurate and disturbing a microcosmic picture of communist Romania as could be made. It tells the story of an illegal abortion and its impact on the friendship between two female students. It is terse and skeletal – with nothing artificial to heighten the palpable drama and horror. It is a brilliant example of the burgeoning new cinema in Eastern Europe.

33. Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006)
For me, this is one of the most underrated and misunderstood films of the decade. It’s mostly dismissed as a ‘sex film’ (yes, it contains a lot of explicit real sex and yes, it still managed to obtain a BBFC 18 certificate) when it is actually a film about sex. More importantly, it’s a film about sexual anxiety, a subject rarely covered in American films, at least outside the awkward comedies of Woody Allen. Its great achievement is to make the intimate stories of its characters involving and affecting, and to present aspects of modern sexual lives (both straight and gay) in a candid, matter-of-fact and inclusive way. It’s also uproariously funny in places, as any film about sex should be. Compare this with Catherine Breillat’s disastrous ‘Sex Is Comedy’, which manages to be horrifically pretentious and funny for all the wrong reasons.

32. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Many may feel that ‘Memento’ should be higher on this list – but, along with films such as ‘Seven’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’, it’s one of those pictures with a markedly diminished impact on repeated viewing. Still, the shock of the new that comes with its reverse structure, taut plotting and technical virtuosity remains viscerally exciting and its memory lingers long in the mind.

31. The Return (Andrey Zwyagintsev 2003, UK release 2004)
‘The Return’ deservedly took the top prize at the Venice film festival, its tense story about a previously absent father taking his two sons on a ‘vacation’ through the Russian wilderness being thoroughly unnerving and compelling. The film is visually fascinating too – portentous and brooding. It’s hard not to feel the film’s pathos enhanced by the knowledge that its fifteen year old star died in a tragic accident shortly after filming was completed.

30. Moolaade (Ousmane Sembene, 2004)
Stylistically, the last film from the ‘father of African cinema’ is about as direct, unadorned and unpretentious as possible. It’s also an enlivening and entertaining film about a thoroughly unpleasant subject – female genital mutilation. It’s both vital and wonderful that Sembene was able to make this brave and radical picture, and it stands as proof that male directors are capable of making feminist films. Also important is the reminder that Moolaade offers of the importance of the radio in providing access to impartial news.

29. Requiem For A Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000, UK release 2001)
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this remarkable film and I have learned through experience that it is about as far as you can get from a ‘date movie’. I’ve watched it several times, and I must say that I find its relentless, stylised suffering rather difficult to endure. I’m also a little agnostic about some of the MTV-style funky split screen effects Aronofsky likes to use. Yet, beneath its surface is a harrowing, horrifying and brilliant nightmare in which the beautiful Jared Leto and Jennifer Connolly are thoroughly destroyed and degraded. The performance of Ellen Bursteyn is perhaps even more tragic, an undeserving and vulnerable victim in this simultaneously repellent and compelling descent into hell.

28. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007, UK release 2008)
Jean-Dominique Bauby’s dictated memoir of life after an unexpected severe stroke seems like one of those works of literature that should be impossible to film. Julian Schnabel brilliantly turns it into a vividly cinematic experience, and goes as far as possible in his quest to empathise with Bauby’s state, both physically and emotional. His techniques are simple and direct, but also virtuosic – and he expands on Bauby’s book by providing more sensitive roles for the women in Bauby’s life.

27. Unrelated (Joanna Hogg, 2008)
A film about a group of middle class people on holiday sounds like a tedious and lifeless experience. In actual fact, Joanna Hogg’s picture is one of the best British debuts in many years, full of dramatic tension and genuine sadness. It’s both compelling and convincing.

26. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005, UK release 2006)
Herzog has always been an unpredictable film-maker but these days he’s also uneven. ‘Grizzly Man’ certainly brought out the best in this maverick, wayward director who is capable of real genius. It’s hard to accept that this is a documentary, given how ludicrous and reckless its subject, bear-obsessive Timothy Treadwell, appears to have been. He could easily have been one of those characters Klaus Kinski might have played in the early Herzog dramas. There’s a sense that Herzog’s directorial presence is minimal here – much of the film uses Treadwell’s own recovered footage of the bears and of himself. Yet its testament to Herzog’s skilful oversight that he manages to find both the sadness and the comedy in Treadwell’s extreme persona.

25. 3 Iron (Kim Ki Duk, 2004, UK release 2005)
Kim Ki-Duk has made some of the strangest films of recent times, many of them combining savage violence and brutality with an almost sentimental romantic core. 3 Iron may well be the best of these, both enigmatic and engrossing. Most of the essential dialogue occurs without language and the performances are accordingly nuanced and effective. It is a deeply unconventional story filled with brilliant and often baffling ideas.

24. Saraband (Ingmar Bergman, 2003, UK release 2005)
The great Ingmar Bergman signed off with a film as confrontational and tense as any in his career, brilliantly performed by Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann. Some noted the fact that the film was made for Swedish TV, but then so was the brilliant Fanny and Alexander – the small screen never seemed to limit Bergman’s stately mastery of the chamber drama, nor mute his overwhelming seriousness. Ostensibly a sequel to 1973’s ‘Scenes From A Marriage’, ‘Saraband’ also stands independently as a self-contained, brilliantly hermetic work. It is both austere and severe, and full of characteristically agonising emotional revelations – but, even in his 80s, Bergman retained an unflinching acuity and desire to unveil the dark secrets of domestic life.

23. Vendredi Soir (Claire Denis, 2002, UK release 2003)
I am aware that ‘Vendredi Soir’ is less appreciated than many of Denis’ films, particularly ‘Beau Travail’, but I think this may be her bravest, most direct work. It is the cinematic depiction of a one night stand and the events leading up to it – nothing more and nothing less. Few directors would ever present these events in such a matter of fact manner, and there is an empathetic physicality and eroticism in the sensitively filmed, almost solemn act itself. This film unfolds in what seems like near-real time, and with a quiet grace and composure.

22. Old Boy (Park Chan-Wook)
Park Chan-Wook’s dark, hyper-violent nightmare fantasy is one of the most sophisticated and ingenious of all revenge thrillers – so much so that it basically reinvents the genre.

21. The Consequences of Love (Paolo Sorrentino)
Sorrentino is the leading light in an Italian cinematic revival, not least because he is a film-maker of tremendous technical flair who loves deploying visual tricks and clever editing. Yet, beneath the tremendous style of ‘The Consequences of Love’ is a story of great substance and my lingering impression was of a deeply sad narrative with a brutal ending. It also contains a wonderful performance from Toni Servillo, a man rapidly staking a claim to be one of the best actors not just in Italy, but in Europe.

20. No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007, UK release 2008)
The combination of the Coens’ mischievous irony and Cormac McCarthy’s disturbing literary landscape makes for one of their finest films. The irritating side of their oeuvre (chiefly the goofy comedy) is jettisoned in favour of a relatively straight but brilliantly tense and dramatic reconstruction of McCarthy’s novel. It’s faithful to the source text but the Coens add plenty of their own, and Javier Bardem’s performance is terrifying in its unhinged lunacy.

19. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)
The more I think about this unsettling, intelligent film, the more I think it is another of Haneke’s spellbinding masterpieces. No other director of recent times has such a questing spirit and such consistency in their results. It’s a characteristically open-ended film, leaving many questions unanswered and with provocative detail to be spotted in its fascinating closing scene. The brilliant monochrome photography creates a claustrophobic, disturbing mood.

18. The Son’s Room (Nanni Moretti, 2001, UK release 2002)
Before this deeply moving and satisfying film, Moretti was better known as a director of quirky comedies. Whilst those films were often entertaining, they didn’t have the international impact of this serious, highly involving story of family tragedy and the pain that can come as a result of cruel chance. ‘The Son’s Room’ is an intimate piece, brilliantly capturing the disorientation and confusion of grief. Moretti directs himself with consummate ease, something not always achieved by actors who are also writers and directors, largely perhaps because his presence seems light and lacking in ego.

17. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002, UK release 2003)
Todd Haynes’ best film is a beautiful homage in the guise of a mischievous subversion. This is a deeply moving and thoroughly accurate account of racial and sexual prejudice in 1950s suburban American, issues that could not be confronted in the cinema of that time. In contriving to combine the two, Haynes pulls off an intriguing and enticing dramatic coup, and produces a beautifully designed work of intensity and power. Yet the film is also a genuine paen to the day-glo Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, a passionate defence of cinema at its most extravagant. Although it is a film containing great sadness and cruelty, the superb performances of Julianne Moore, Denis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert imbue it with a resonant dignity and compassion.

16. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004, UK release 2005)
There is a disturbing dearth of comedy in this list – perhaps because film writers seem unable to come up with scripts as sharp as the great comedies of the past (various Billy Wilder films spring to mind, or Joseph Manciewicz’s ‘All About Eve’). Even Woody Allen appears to have largely thrown away his talent. There may be an heir to the throne however in Alexander Payne. ‘Election’ was a brilliantly acute high school satire with much wider social implications. ‘Sideways’ is a similarly well observed study of mid-life males in crisis, blessed with a superb performance from the ever-endearing Paul Giamatti. This is hilarious in the most intelligent of ways, simultaneously acerbic and wistful.

15. What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2001, UK release 2002)

Tsai is one of the world’s most idiosyncratic and uncompromising directors, his speech-less films initially seeming oblique, but eventually conveying far more than words in their gestures, soundtrack music and bizarre set pieces. ‘What Time Is It There?’ moves at a typically glacial pace, and requires some degree of patience. It feels like a thoughtful rumination on love and loss, characterised by long takes and the compulsive behaviour of its characters. Given time, it reveals itself as a work of gentle beauty.

14. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003, UK release 2004)
Van Sant is the kind of film-maker who oscillates wildly between personal, esoteric projects and Hollywood-funded exercises in conventional tedium. ‘Elephant’ falls proudly into the first category, part of a long run of listless films said to be inspired by Bela Tarr, beginning with ‘Gerry’ and ending with ‘Paranoid Park’. This is the most successful picture in that sequence, although it seems designed to obfuscate and frustrate more than to elucidate. It simply portrays a Columbine-style high school massacre, thoroughly determined not to explain it or apportion blame. Various possible explanations are hinted at (including violent video games), but the film is ultimately much more about its capturing of a listless, uneventful atmosphere, where mundane reality is punctuated in the most brisk and violent of means. For a film about terror and tragedy, it’s remarkably beautiful and technically virtuosic.

13. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
‘Ten’ is an important movie – in its mischievous blending of documentary and fiction, in what it reveals about personal and social relations in Iran and in the way Kiarostami effectively absents himself from the action by placing two fixed cameras in a car and simply filming the ensuing conversations. All the direction happens before (in preparatory conversations with the actors) and afterwards, in the editing process. In between, the actors are effectively free to act however they like – and it is perhaps through this freedom that Kiarostami elicits such naturalistic and real contributions. Kiarostami’s critics maintain that ‘Ten’ is the type of film anyone could make. In practical terms this is no doubt true – the resources required are minimal, and footage can easily be edited creatively now on a home computer. But would anyone else decide to make this film? Would just anyone see it as the best route to providing illuminating social and political commentary on contemporary Iran? Would anyone else be so preoccupied with the position of women?

12. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001, UK release 2002)
‘Mulholland Drive’ is one of Lynch’s weirdest and greatest creations. With two powerful central female performances (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring), it avoids the charges of misogyny levelled at films such as ‘Blue Velvet’. It’s certainly all seen through Lynch’s male gaze (with a familiar Lynchian helping of violence against women), but its world is a good deal more sensitive and sensual, albeit nightmarishly fraught with danger and menace. Ridiculous and illogical as ‘Mulholland Drive’ is, it is possibly Lynch’s most compelling and convincing film. Writing this now, I’m also struck by the similarities between this and Weerasethakul’s parallel worlds in ‘Tropical Malady’. Where Weerasethakul presents his weird transitions in a matter of fact way, Lynch amplifies the craziness and distorts situations self-consciously. With ‘Inland Empire’, this tactic became too self-indulgent and extravagant – here, it is creepily disorientating and distinctive.

11. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999, UK release 2000)
This seems to have been omitted from all the decade reviews I’ve seen, yet the UK release date was March 2000. It’s certainly a far superior film to Jonze and Kaufman’s more convoluted follow up ‘Adaptation’, one of the most stylistically and dramatically inventive American films of recent times. The action is of course wildly fantastical but this film brilliantly encapsulates Orson Welles’ dictum that great film need not be real, but should convey truth. The truth inherent in ‘Being John Malkovich’ is the human preoccupation with wanting to be someone else, or to inhabit someone else’s thoughts. The film creates its own unique and bizarre world (floor 7 ½!) and is rich in both vibrant, quirky humour and believable desperation. At the centre of it all is Malkovich’s own splendidly game self-mockery.

10. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004, UK release 2005)
Weerasethakul, or ‘Joe’ as he conveniently likes to be known, is responsible for some truly bizarre and original films. There’s the unforgivingly slow, dreamy and erotic ‘Blissfully Yours’ and the mysterious dramatic reconstructions of ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’. Most successful are his two bifurcated features ‘Syndromes and a Century’ and this, what may already be an early masterpiece. The first half of the film is a tender, sweet and romantic depiction of a burgeoning gay love affair. When one of the two protagonists disappears, we are suddenly transported into what appears to be an alternative parallel world, in which the characters reappear as a hunter and a tiger. This is a very oblique, but deeply fascinating commentary on desire and obsession. It’s the kind of film that can be watched repeatedly, but still provoke new thoughts and leave questions unanswered.

09. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, 2000)
This beautiful and assured adaption of Edith Wharton’s novel should have established Terence Davies as Britain’s greatest living film director – versatile and confident enough to work both at home and in the States without compromising his methods or his artistry. Instead, although acclaimed, it appeared to condemn him to a near-decade in the cinematic wilderness, unable to make a film through lack of funding. Whilst his British films, most notably ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’, have now been re-established in the public consciousness, few speak of his work in America in the same breath. ‘The Neon Bible’ was a flawed but fascinating project – ‘The House of Mirth’ is a masterpiece.

Much of the film’s success is a result of Davies’ audacious and inspired casting. As the perennially sceptical Dana Scully in The X-Files, Gillian Anderson gave scant indication of the magisterial control and steely determination she demonstrates here as Lily Bart, a much weightier role. Similarly, Dan Aykroyd, an actor better known for his role in screwball comedies such as ‘Ghostbusters’, demonstrates considerable skill. These performances, combined with Davies’ fluid, atmospheric direction, make ‘The House of Mirth’ so much more than simply a period drama. It is a deeply sad, elegiac and haunting story of one woman’s downfall in a restrictive and prejudiced society.

08. Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002, UK release 2004)
‘Uzak’, which translates as ‘Distant’, is the kind of challenging film few people wish to see (indeed, it was dismissed as ‘dreary’ by the New York Times). It is minimal, spacious, languid and reflective, with little dialogue and even less direct action. It becomes more and more immersing and mesmerising with each repeated viewing. It is, at least in part, a film about isolation and boredom. It captures the difficulty in making intimate, meaningful connections, especially where communities are broken. Yet it is not without lightness, and plenty of ironic, visual humour. It is a beautiful film to remember and savour, one that amply rewards the close attention demanded when watching it.

07. A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
Edward Yang’s sad, premature death robbed contemporary cinema of one of its brightest talents. Perhaps even sadder is the fact that, whilst one might have expected his death to prompt greater attention, it still remains virtually impossible to see a Yang film in the UK. I went to see ‘A Brighter Summer Day’, his masterpiece, at the BFI a few years ago, but the cinema was unable to source a full length print. There has been no attempt at a full retrospective and, with ‘A One and a Two’ now deleted, none of his films are available on DVD in the UK. This is a travesty that should be rectified as a matter of urgency.

The ensemble piece can have its limitations, but Yang surpassed them all with this patient, carefully observed family drama. Whilst this is a film that shows how the pressures of modern life make us uncertain, perhaps even unmindful, of our happiness, it is not grandiose or depressing. It is certainly melancholy in places, but it also has a charming lightness and room to breath. This is a film with plenty of space for thought and reflection. The performances are assured and the drama both surprising and believable.

06. Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007, UK release 2008)
Whilst many prefer Lee’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ for fairly obvious reasons, I still feel that ‘Lust, Caution’ is the superior, more convincing film. Discussion of the film inevitably focussed on its explicit sex scenes, although commentators failed to identify precisely why those scenes were necessary – the audience needs to experience and understand the devastating and dangerous intimacy at the heart of the picture. Critics also decried the film’s length and detail, and the manner in which Ang Lee holds back its pivotal scenes. To my mind, the careful delineation of 1930s Chinese society, and the carefully constructed life stories of the characters – it is at least in part this process that makes the film’s final scenes so harrowing and imposing.

05. Talk To Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)
‘Talk To Her’ was such a brave and impressive film that Almodovar has, to my mind, struggled to work out what to do next. He made a convoluted, garish mess with ‘Bad Education’ and then repeated himself, albeit enjoyably, with ‘Volver’ and ‘Broken Embraces’. With ‘Talk To Her’, Almodovar perfected his art, retaining plenty of the humour and stylistic flourish whilst sacrificing some of the extravagance and farce. The film has the kind of sharp script rarely seen since the glory days of Hollywood and also a teasing moral ambivalence that draws us to sympathise with a character who acts unforgivably. Perhaps ‘Talk To Her’ is also unusual within Almodovar’s recent body of work in that the focus is as much on its male characters as on the women. It’s a film of tremendous compassion.

04. Hidden (Michael Haneke, 2005, UK release 2006)
Haneke is clearly the major directorial presence of the decade, having made five world class features in the last ten years (‘Code Unknown’, ‘The Piano Teacher’, ‘Time of the Wolf’, this and now ‘The White Ribbon’), six if you’re among the few people who thought the US remake of ‘Funny Games’ had any purpose. That is a pretty astounding work rate, and a great big slap in the face to the golden ageists who think all the great filmmakers are gone. ‘Hidden’ may be the most powerful and subversive of his films in that it deploys his austere, rigorous style to something approaching the thriller genre. It is also a film that poses difficult questions about collective guilt and morality.

03. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000, UK release 2003)
Bela Tarr is notorious chiefly for being ‘unwatchable’ – his films epitomising austerity and drudgery. He made the 7 ½ hour ‘Satantango’, with its lengthy shots of cows, rain and people walking. Yet there’s a haunting quality, an irony and mystery to all his films. ‘Werckmeister Harmonies’ has the feel of a medieval chronicle – filled with portents, signs and unusual happenings. It is weird, fascinating and difficult to fathom but its eerie mood is pervasive and highly original and its portrayal of societal breakdown somehow both dreamlike and convincing.

02. Time Out (Laurent Cantet, 2001, UK release 2002)
01. In The Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)

These two films deal respectively with the two most important elements of most people’s lives: love (as distinct from lust or sex) and work. For this, they are singular and unfashionable works, even accounting for the swooning style of Wong’s direction and Christopher Doyle’s sumptuous cinematography. Laurent Cantet’s ‘Time Out’ struck me as a brave and audacious film on first viewing, but ‘In The Mood For Love’, with its languid pacing, long silences and meaning found in gestures and glances is a film that took several viewings to appreciate fully. Both, I think, are masterpieces.

‘In The Mood For Love’ deals with unrequited love in the face of strong conventions and moral codes. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung’s characters develop a relationship that is affecting, honest and wholly convincing without ever becoming physical. The beauty is found in restraint – in what is held back and, in this case, the elegance of Wong and Doyle’s visual style aids the emotional impact of the film. Very few words are spoken, but so much feeling is conveyed. The locations and images linger long in the mind. It’s a film where every element – soundtrack, dialogue, performances, cinematography, lighting and editing – are carefully controlled.

Many lists will understandably include Cantet’s Palme D’Or winning ‘The Class’. As good as that film is, I can’t help feeling that ‘Time Out’ is the better work, by some considerable distance. A big factor in this is Aurelien Recoing’s remarkable performance, which somehow enables the audience to sympathise with a man who essentially becomes a serial liar and duplicitous fraudster.

Many dramas are based in workplaces, but this often serves purely as a springboard for more trivial romantic and sexual plot strands between characters. ‘Time Out’goes well beyond this in recognising the pivotal importance of work in defining people’s identities. Without it, people can easily and quickly become devastatingly lost. Cantet maintains an unflinching gaze as the lies at the heart of the film unravel, his use of music enhances the haunting power of his images and his film is meticulously constructed and compelling to watch.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The 100 Best Albums of 2009

It's Christmas Eve! Here's a Christmas treat for all regular readers - this year's abums of the year list. If you come back on New Year's Eve, you should be able to find my best of the decade countdown up then. Wishing everyone a very happy Christmas!

100. Pet Shop Boys - Yes (Parlophone)
After the nadir of ‘Release’, Pet Shop Boys seemed to realise that their winning formula didn’t need to be adapted too much in order to sustain interest. ‘Fundamental’ had more energy, and some surprising political anger behind it. ‘Yes’ seems more based on human relationships, but it has some of the duo’s most engaging melodies for some time. I’m not sure the collaboration with Xenomania was strictly necessary, but it has certainly resulted in some fine songs. Neil Tennant continues to improve as a vocalist, retaining his deadpan delivery but adding phrasing and expression. Poptastic, naturally.

99. She Keeps Bees – Nests (Names)
A male-female duo playing stripped down blues-informed garage rock – does that sound familiar? She Keeps Bees have a gutsy, forthright take on the form though, and by reversing the roles, have at least distanced themselves a little from the obvious White Stripes comparisons. Compacted into a mercilessly brief 27 minutes, this is one of 2009’s most raw and unadorned musical statements.

98. Flaming Lips - Embryonic (Warner)
‘Embryonic’ is a sprawling, babbling mess of a record but not one without tremendous pleasures. These songs are supposedly studio jams, but they seem carefully constructed, or at least edited. This at least pushed Flaming Lips out of a safe zone, and back into the world of the fearless.

97. Atlas Sound - Logos (4AD)
This might be Bradford Cox’s most interesting work to date, one which further reveals his interest in 1950s and 60s pop singles and which takes his love of sound to new levels. It’s a much more widescreen, macrocosmic effort than his previous album as Atlas Sound, taking in collaborations with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Sterolab’s Laetitia Saedler, but retaining Cox’s own distinctive musical DNA.

96. Candi Staton - Who's Hurtin' Now (Honest Jon's)
A straightforward follow up to the superb ‘His Hands’, this again sees Staton delivering muscular country soul. It’s powerful stuff, with Staton’s gritty voice remaining largely undiminished.

95. Paul Burch - Still Your Man (Ramseur)
This is a delightful album of old-timey rockabilly, country, gentler serenades and blues. Burch carries all this off because he has such a complete love for and thorough understanding of the American musical tradition. You could easily imagine these songs nestling into an episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour.

94. Junior Boys - Begone Dull Care (Domino)
A great collection of soulful synth pop – veering between the effortlessly funky and the hazily soporific. It’s a gently seductive album.

93. Bill Frisell - Disfarmer (Nonesuch)

‘Disfarmer’ is another one of Frisell’s occasional ambling side-steps. It’s perhaps not a major statement along the lines of ‘Blues Dream’ or ‘Have A Little Faith’, but its gentle, almost lazy-sounding country shuffle is the result of Frisell’s mastery of his instrument. He remains one of my favourite musicians in jazz – his harmonic sense is deep and intuitive, but his openness to connections between various forms of music also sets him apart.

92. Prefuse 73 - Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian (Warp)
It looked as if Scott Herren had lost the midas touch, but this sci-fi extravaganza is a reminder of how skilled a producer he is. The skittering beats and short, sharp shocks remain the Prefuse trademarks.

91. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport (ATP)
With Andrew Weatherall in the producer’s chair, F*ck Buttons have expanded their sound into something imposing and irresistible on ‘Tarot Sport’. It’s an electronic take on structures and ideas familiar from what is often termed ‘post-rock’, and the bursts of noise are this time more carefully integrated into the overall whole. This is a confident and controlled work.

90. Liam Hayes and Plush - Bright Penny (Broken Horse)
The reissue of Liam Hayes’ magnum opus ‘Fed’ seems to have opened the doors for his return to a modest limelight – this time with an album that sounds strongly influenced by Burt Bacharach and Philadelphia soul. It’s a sugary confection for sure, but one that sounds sincere. It may not be quite as substantial as ‘Fed’, but these straightforwardly affecting songs are the work of a real talent.

89. Joe Lovano Us Five - Folk Art (Blue Note)

This is a slightly unexpected detour for Lovano, one of America’s greatest saxophonists, now being energised by a younger band. The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a rhythm heavy record characterised by rhythmic interaction. Lovano also finds room for moments of real beauty and moments of fiery abstraction. A compelling session.

88. Alela Diane - To Be Still (Names)

‘To Be Still’ is a superb showcase for Alela Diane’s inventive songwriting and wildly compelling voice, which somehow manages to be peaceful and violent all at the same time. This album has a great, naturalistic sound too.

87. DOOM - Born Like This (Lex)
Only a dispiriting vein of casual homophobia blights this otherwise superb album by one of rap’s greatest mavericks. ‘Born Like This’ is an otherwise heavy beast – dark and mesmerising in the way of Doom’s best work.

86. Hildur Gudnadottir - Without Sinking (Type)
Cellist Hildur Gundnadottir has crafted an album full of space and time, but one which rides in on a wave of quiet, steely determination and vivid menace. Much of it sounds ominous and threatening. It’s a very striking work, carefully constructed and brilliantly executed.

85. Acoustic Ladyland - Living With A Tiger (Strong and Wrong)

With Chris Sharkey on guitar replacing keyboardist Tom Cawley, Acoustic Ladyland returned in an even more aggressive incarnation. ‘Living With A Tiger’ is a relentless, explosive album, but one which also finds space for brooding and for earthquake-inducing grooves. Sharkey’s effects-laden chaos sounds great when pitted against Seb Rochford’s insistent but relaxed drumming.

84. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Honest Jon’s)
It’s difficult to see how the HBE will develop or refine this formula on future releases, so thoroughly entertaining is this debut. The combination of driving funk or hip-hop beats with a New Orleans-style brass group would probably be a mere gimmick were it not for the exuberant quality of the playing and the intelligent arranging on display here. It results in one of the year’s most fun albums.

83. The Hidden Cameras - Origin: Orphan (Arts and Crafts)

In which one of my favourite indie groups make a bold bid for wider appeal with an ambitious album retaining much of their old merriment, but also veering into grander, more windswept territory. The addition of synthesisers has refreshed the more playful aspects of their sound, and Joel Gibb’s masterful melodicism remains strong.

82. Jim Hart's Gemini - Narrada (Loop)

Jim Hart is a multi-talented percussionist and composer and in Gemini, he has assembled a powerhouse group of young musicians, full of vitality and enthusiasm for improvisation and interaction. The rhythm section of Jasper Hoiby and Dave Smith is driving and intense, contrasting with Hart’s jubilant and reflective themes. The compositions on ‘Narrada’ seem to be further developments from those on ‘Emergence’ – Hart is a brilliant musician who seems to be growing in stature.

81. Partisans - By Proxy (Babel)

Partisans remain one of the spikiest and most rhythmically attuned ensembles in British jazz, preoccupied with time shifts and quirky, unpredictable melodies. Gene Calderazzo’s effortlessly creative drumming is always a highlight of any recording he appears on, and whilst this band like to take twists and turns, they can also groove brilliantly, or craft a darker, more mysterious atmosphere.

80. Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It (Sony)

Finally released in the UK in 2009, Raphael Saadiq’s second solo album is a masterful facsimile of classic soul music, with a particular nod to vintage Motown. It’s all done with tremendous love and enthusiasm that it manages to go beyond being a purely retrospective exercise – Saadiq brings a fresh, crisp sound to proceedings and also happens to write exceptional songs too.

79. Charles Spearin - The Happiness Project (Arts and Crafts)

The idea of finding musical phrasing to match the contours of the human speaking voice is no longer much of a novel idea – Steve Reich explored similar ground with ‘Different Trains’ and the YouTube video of one of Sarah Palin’s interview responses turned into a jazz piano solo shows what can be achieved through the process. Broken Social Scene’s Charles Spearin has now reaped further rewards from this process in recording various people discussing the concept of happiness, and making entire compositions from their conversations. The music is a strange

78. The XX - The XX (Young Turks/XL)

There’s something untrained but wholly natural about The XX’s skeletal soul music. It reminds me most of ‘Colossal Youth’, that superb Young Marble Giants album but there are also hints at the more contemporary work of Bjork collaborator Leila. Many did not like the flat, dulled sounds of the group’s two vocalists, but the voices seem to mesh together effortlessly, and there’s something believable and honest in their casual insouciance. There is a lot of potential here.

77. Broadcast and The Focus Group - Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (Warp)
I’m not sure I get this whole ‘hauntology’ or ‘hypnagogic’ thing yet (aren’t these just terms invented by journalists?), but this collaboration between Broadcast and Ghost Box artists The Focus Group contains a wealth of bizarre and intriguing material, much of it seeming to hark back to the pioneering work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Initially billed as a stop-gap EP, it’s actually a short album constructed from short snippets – a collage in which the sum is much greater than the parts.

76. Apostle of Hustle - Eats Darkness (Arts and Crafts)

Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman continues to produce brilliant, entertaining albums with Apostle of Hustle – surely now more his chief preoccupation than a side project. ‘East Darkness’ is a mercilessly concise, but typically artful work, one which imposes rhythmic invention and clever dynamics on to what is ostensibly a rock production.

75. trioVD - Fill It Up With Ghosts (Babel)

There probably aren’t any rock bands around in Britain who can play with the burning intensity of trioVD, ostensibly an improvising jazz trio. This is visceral, searing, tremendously exciting music played with real vigour and energy.

74. Cortney Tidwell - Boys (City Slang)

‘Boys’ found a range of satisfying contexts for Tidwell’s haunting, spectral voice, the quality of her songwriting continuing to develop. The subtle hints at Nashville country are all the more fascinating for being buried beneath swathes of dreamy atmospherics and lush noises.

73. Gwilym Simcock - Blues Vignette (Basho)

Simcock’s second album, a double set, seemed meticulously planned to show off the diversity of his talent, incorporating his classical preoccupations in solo playing and duo performances with a cellist. The second CD was devoted to his new trio, another setting in which brilliant young drummer James Maddren can make a major contribution. Hopefully ‘Blues Vignette’ hasn’t exhausted Simcock’s manifold abilities – whilst it’s not as coherent as ‘Perception’, it is a rich, personal album full of confidence and sensitivity.

72. Volcano Choir - Unmap (Jagjaguwar)

How to follow up an internationally acclaimed word-of-mouth sensation of a debut album? Perhaps the best option is not to bother working on a proper follow up, but find an entirely new setting. Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, achieved this successfully by teaming up with Collection of Colonies of Bees, a little known Wisconsin instrumental group. The result placed Vernon in a more abstract, less impressionistic context, removing him from the direct environment of the ‘song’.

71. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs (Matador)
Yo La Tengo continue to expand their reach here, combining their brighter side with moments of scintilating menace. It’s one of their more sprawling and ambitious records, a little difficult to digest in one sitting but full of inspiration and adventure.

70. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (Domino)
Although recorded and released remarkably speedily by the standards of today’s market schedule directed music industry, ‘Two Dancers’ was a massive step on from Wild Beasts’ acclaimed debut. Much less extravagant, but retaining the band’s theatrical sensibilities, these songs benefited from greater attention to detail and from arrangements that somehow managed to be simultaneously minimal and lavish. Whilst Hayden Thorpe’s outrageous falsetto will always alienate some listeners, he also remains the group’s distinctive weapon – a real vocal character. This is a very British record – along with the likes of Golden Silvers, it suggests that there is once again potential in our music.

69. Lars Horntveth – Kaleidoscopic (Smalltown Supersound)

2009 saw a number of musicians associated with ensembles bursting into the world of contemporary composition. Battles’ Tyondai Braxton made ‘Central Market’, an informed but playful record that sounded exactly how one might imagine a contemporary classical take on Battles to sound. Jaga Jazzists’ Lars Horntveth produced something more sustained and immersing – with plenty of ideas that are developed as well as stated.

68. Zed-U - Night Time on the Middle Passage (Babel)
Striving to break free from the jazz tradition, but maintaining a commitment to spontaneous and fearless improvisation, the trio of Shabaka Hutchings, Neil Charles and Tom Skinner have developed something fresh and exciting here. In their more relaxed moments, Zed-U achieve a sort of dub-jazz hybrid, and Hutchings’ melodies are given space to breathe. Yet there are also explosive, wilder moments too. It’s refreshing to hear a band so unconcerned with genre or classification, making great strides for something new.

67. Antipop Consortium - Flourescent Black (Big Dada)
It’s a shame that, in the plethora of band reunions, the return of Antipop Consortium seems to have gone largely unnoticed. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t been away all that long or maybe it’s because, in fairness, ‘Flourescent Black’ isn’t quite as radical and exciting as their earlier material. Still, it’s a brilliantly constructed reminder of their wonky, warped and disorientating take on hip hop. It breaks no new ground for them, but it’s good to have them back. No one else makes rap sound this adventurous and stark.

66. Stefano Bollani - Stone in the Water (ECM)

Bollani is a technically accomplished pianist, with classical influences as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz tradition. His more restrained recordings give little indication of the experience of seeing him perform live, a situation in which comedy seems to play as important a role as the music. ‘Stone In The Water’, a trio album showcasing Bollani’s expressive side, features some tremendous ensemble interaction. It’s a subtle but absorbing work.

65. Black To Comm - Alphabet 1968 (Type)
Apparently, the idea behind ‘Alphabet 1968’ was for experimental musician Marc Richter to make an album of ‘songs’. In that case, these are some of the least conventional ‘songs’ you’re ever likely to hear. This is a hugely original mix of gamelan percussion, static and found sound that, in spite of its disparate tangents, works brilliantly as a whole.

64. The Invisible - The Invisible (Accidental)
I usually hate reviews that focus on the identification of cultural trends at the expense of discussing the actual music, but 2009 does seem to have thrown up some intriguing developments. There’s the increasing number of bands mixing electronics and live performance, the vast numbers of bands strongly influenced by music from Africa (especially Mali) and then there’s whole rather baffling hauntology thing, with which I’ve yet to successfully engage. The Invisible certainly fall into the first category, but then they also fall into another – a growth in the number of bands with real technical ability on their instruments and with a serious interest in composition (see also Dirty Projectors, Three Trapped Tigers, Mew, Blk Jks and others). This debut is brilliantly produced, with an encapsulating, immersing sound. Tom Herbert, also of Polar Bear, provides some brilliantly dominant bass lines and the whole record effortlessly combines percussive drive with hypnotic atmospheres.

63. The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa (Moshi Moshi)
This collaboration between the charmingly named production duo Radioclit and singer Esau Mwamwaya first emerged last year on an effervescent and celebratory mix compilation. So successful was this that a studio recording was planned, the results being this fresh and enjoyable hybrid music. There’s so much African-western fusion at the moment, and this feels like a particularly open and unprejudiced time in modern music.

62. Blk Jks - After Robots (Secretly Canadian)

This rock band from South Africa are superb – managing to mix the joyful energy of township music with western psychedelia and hard rock. The music here is rhythmically intricate and delivered with a blistering intensity. Best of all are the tracks with scintillating horn arrangements from Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.

61. Monolake – Silence (Monolake)

This one was only released a few days ago and possibly would have been placed higher had I had enough time to digest it fully. There’s so much to absorb in Robert Henke’s meticulously constructed sound world – a world that goes well beyond the spurious genre classifications into which electronic music is often divided. Some might call this techno, but this does little to describe Henke’s fascination with rhythm. A tremendous record that simply sounds phenomenal.

60. Tomasz Stanko Quintet - Dark Eyes (ECM)
Controversially abandoning his young Polish rhythm section, Tomasz Stanko returned with a new and different ensemble for ‘Dark Eyes’. The result was a brighter, more imposing sound, a bold step away from his familiar ethereal atmospherics. Stanko’s playing remains highly distinctive and easily identifiable, and it was refreshing to hear his vocabulary in a new context.

59. Mos Def - The Ecstatic (Downtown)

It may not say anything terribly positive about the state of hip hop in 2009 that this defiantly classicist album might be the year’s major artistic statement. After a period spent devoting time to his acting career, Mos Def re-emerged to remind us what an energetic and intelligent rapper he is, with what may well be his most consistent and enjoyable album. The arrangements are kinetic and grooving.

58. Supersilent - 9 (Rune Grammofon)
This is certainly a strong contender for the year’s weirdest album. Following the unexpected departure of drummer Jarle Vespestad, Supersilent reconfigured with a radically different set up. All three members are playing organs here, although the sound of each is excessively treated, and the range of sounds drawn from each instrument is extraordinary. Perhaps inevitably, there’s less interest in rhythm here, and these improvisations become textural experiments. It probably won’t be remembered as the greatest Supersilent album, but it’s a fascinating example of how to make an unpredictable musical statement.

57. Golden Silvers - True Romance (XL)

At last, an intelligent British pop album! Despite what our proud media might tell you, such albums are remarkably thin on the ground these days. ‘True Romance’ manages to take the better elements of the Britpop movement (think Supergrass circa ‘In It For The Money’ or ‘Fuzzy Logic’ era Super Furry Animals) and adds layers of jazz and soul. The songs are infectious and memorable and are iced with some exceptionally witty lyrics.

56. City Center - City Center (Type)
The extroardinarily pervasive influence of Ariel Pink's home recordings appears again here on this subtle leftfield pop gem. The reverb-heavy vocals add to the sense of summer heat-haze, and when combined with the oddly jaunty strumming and quirky percussion interjections, it makes for a peculiar and heady mix. This record weaves its own idiosyncratic and charming web.

55. David Sylvian - Manafon (Samadhi Sound)
'Manafon' is an exceedingly brave and individual record, and one has to admire it simply for how far Sylvian has come from his pop star persona. ‘Blemish’ was a lightning bolt of drama and catharsis, and Sylvian has not looked back since. With ‘Manafon’, Sylvian has crafted his own hermetic space, completely isolated and detached from any fashions, trends or prevailing winds. There are difficulties – the lack of dynamic contrast, the dominance of Sylvian’s rich baritone vocals. But there are also abundant qualities – insight and compassion, and the sense of striving for a new musical language.

54. Olafur Arnalds - Found Songs (Erased Tapes)
Initially given away one song per day via Twitter, this new mini-album brilliantly developed Arnalds' gorgeous strain of neo-classical melancholy and brought his music to a wider audience. It's an effortlessly direct and affecting sound, capturing a sense of loss and sadness.

53. Vladislav Delay - Tummaa (Leaf)

Along with the Moritz Von Oswald album, ‘Tummaa’ represents an intriguing trend attempting to marry the conventions of programmed electronica with spontaneous improvisation. ‘Tummaa’ is a subtle, slippery and elusive work, but one that amply rewards close attention. These compositions are considered and sophisticated.

52. Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine (Secretly Canadian)
Jason Molina has been a dependable candidate for my end-of-year polls for as long as I've been writing this blog, although there's a justifiable sense that he may have been doggedly charting the same terrain for a little too long now. Certainly, his vocabulary remains confined to a fairly narrow metaphorical space, but 'Josephine', something of a song cycle, at last pushes away from the Neil Young and Crazy Horse template that has characterised Magnolia. It's a dusty, sad and beautiful album in which Molina's voice, at the forefront, carries a whole world of melancholy feeling.

51. Mew - No More Stories... (Sony)
In spite of losing band members along the way, Mew continue to get stronger and more adventurous with each release. They are dependable for the rich, clear quality of their sound and the haunting effect of their vocals. 'No More Stories' is also one of the most rhythmically exciting rock ensemble albums of the year, placing them in a league with the likes of Dirty Projectors and Three Trapped Tigers in the sophisticated arrangement of their music. They've also produced some touching and memorable melodies here too and the full picture contains a striking mix of muscularity and vulnerability.

50. Outhouse Ruhabi - Outhouse Ruhabi (Loop)
This collaboration between London-based improvisers Outhouse and five sabar drummers from Gambia appears to have been a successful, mutually satisfying project. It demonstrates that Outhouse are open-minded musicians with a broad conception of what constitutes contemporary jazz. The drummers are fully integrated into these compositions, sometimes fuelling them. It’s consistently engaging, and often thrilling – one of the best Loop releases so far.

49. Mountains - Choral (Thrill Jockey)

This kind of combination of electronics with acoustic instrumentation could easily become a tired cliché, but Mountains’ quietly expansive approach makes it work wonderfully. These tapestries of sound seem straightforward initially, but gradually reveal further layers of detail and texture. It’s all the more impressive on the discovery that Mountains record largely live and in real time.

48. Liam Noble Trio - Brubeck (Basho)
Here is a fine album reaching back into the output of one of the major figures of American jazz, and reinventing that music with inspiration and intelligence. 'Brubeck' is first and foremost a superb example of piano trio performance - full of spotanenous wit and energy. It's also a splendid extrapolation of frequently familiar themes, all delivered with the perfect combination of reverence and originality.

47. Tinariwen - Imidiwan: Companions (Independiente)

Tinariwen’s steadfast desert rock continues to be radical and exciting, a combination of vibrant rhythm, traditional storytelling and steadfast drones. 'Imidiwan' may be their most complete album to date, with the familiar drones and handclaps accompanied by a tender sensitivity. The music is resolute and repetitive, but also full of drama.

46. King Midas Sound - Waiting For You (Hyperdub)
Having made one of the most uncomfortably captivating albums of the decade as The Bug with ‘London Zoo’, Kevin Martin seemed strangely dissatisfied. The result was a new moniker – and a single collaborator in vocalist Roger Robinson. Martin’s dank claustrophobia remains here, but is accompanied by a new humanity, warmth and a tentative positivity. The result is an intriguing and original development of the dubstep sound.

45. John Abercrombie - Wait Til You See Her (ECM)

This is almost certainly the most romantic jazz album of the year - one which teeters on the precipice between sentiment and sentimentality but manages to stay just on the right side of it thanks to Abercrombie's economy and taste. It's a splendid, sustained vision, delicate and touching, with a satisfying combination of light and shade. It's some distance from the playful bounding of recent Abercrombie efforts such as 'Cat and Mouse', but a change is surely as good as a rest.

44. Califone - All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans)

Califone have to be one of the world's most consistent and consistently underrated bands. Perhaps its because their music has an unassuming experimentalism at its core - a desire to fuse archaic Americana with a contemporary impulse. The result is a modern folk music that sounds natural and unforced, completely removed from the 'freak folk' artists that tend to acquire more publicity. This superb album continued their quest with a quiet audacity.

43. Dinosaur Jr. - Farm (Jagjaguwar/PIAS)
This was so much better than it had any right to be. As little as three years ago, J Mascis and Lou Barlow supposedly held each other in mutual contempt. Rumour has it that communication between them is still somewhat limited. This seems to have only added to the fire in the music - Mascis' wall of distortion sounding as effortlessly brilliant as ever. More surprising is that it still sounds vital and relevant, where so many other reunions have seemed purely nostalgic. Perhaps that is due to the quality of the songwriting which, while still consisting of non-commital titles that hint at Mascis' trademark sloth, is crisp and powerful. Mascis has evidently mellowed sufficiently to allow Barlow to contribute some songs too, both of which are excellent.

42. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone (Anti)
'Middle Cyclone' saw Case successfully navigate a path between her trademark country-noir and something brighter and more direct. Her no-frills voice still comes with a lingering resonance and a singular communicative power. Perhaps more importantly, her songwriting has continued to develop and mature, and 'Middle Cyclone' artfully balances introspective melancholy with empathy. In the title track, 'Polar Nettles' and the surprisingly breezy 'People Got A Lotta Nerve', it contains three of her most memorable songs. The image of the 'Cistine chapel painted with a gatling gun' in 'Polar Nettles' is particularly striking. Having said all that, I could still happily do without the 31 minutes of crickets chirping at the end!

41. Phronesis - Green Delay (Loop)
Jasper Hoiby, a Danish bassist now resident in London, has raised the game with this second album for his trio. This time round, Ivo Neame replaces Magnus Hjorth on the piano, and the group seems to achieve a higher level of interaction and rhythmic drive. This is definitely a piano trio led by the bass and not the piano, with much of the muscular forward motion coming from Hoiby himself. The compositions are memorable and the playing is fearless and exciting.

40. Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years (Warner Bros)
SFA became another band to follow the Radiohead/Bloc Party model by first offering up 'Dark Days/Light Years' as a download from their website. Whilst their previous few albums have all been consistently good, this seems to represent something of a rejuvenation. The madcap approach is back, with wonderfully warped melodies bouncing against summery harmonies and motorik grooves built through studio jams. As always, SFA manage to make this mess endearing and fun rather than indulgent.

39. Levon Helm - Electric Dirt (Vanguard)
At the risk of courting controversy, I can't help feeling that 'Electric Dirt' is a much more satisfying trawl through American roots music than Dylan's 'Together Through Life'. Helm isn't writing much these days, but he inhabits these old-timey songs with a gutsy enthusiasm that belies both his age and his recent battle with throat cancer. This is music out of time, played with affection and commitment by a superb group of musicians (including former Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell), with a joyful conviction and swing in its heart.

38. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba - I Speak Fula (World Circuit)

Kouyate’s follow-up to the acclaimed but slightly understated ‘Segu Blue’ is a massive step forward, full of passion, energy and joy. Kouyate gets top billing for his mastery of the ngoni, but this is undoubtedly a collective effort and the vocals of Kouyate’s wife Amy Sacko are crucial to its overall impact. Vibrant and rhythmically adventurous throughout, this is triumphant music.

37. The Field - Yesterday and Today (Kompakt)
‘Yesterday and Today’ proved a more than worthy successor to Axel Willner’s masterful ‘From Here We Go Sublime’, both reiterating and developing his trademark sound. It’s hard to imagine a more brutally insistent music, but the surrounding fuzzy haze also means this is warmer and more welcoming than most four to the floor house music. The presence of Battles drummer John Stanier adds further propulsion, but the Korgis cover suggests a softer, perhaps even saccharine dimension.

36. Fever Ray - Fever Ray (Rabid)
With this first solo album, Karen Dreijer Anderssen shows enormous promise, and threatens to become a female artist with the stature of a Bjork or a Kate Bush. This is strange and unsettling music, perhaps all the more so for its revelling in domesticity. For all the intimacy of its themes, it still feels detached and alienated, simultaneously bleak and affecting.

35. James Blackshaw - The Glass Bead Game (Young God)
James Blackshaw’s move to Young God doesn’t seem to have prompted any marked increase in exposure or popularity, although his devoted following remain committed to evangelising for his prodigious talents. ‘The Glass Bead Game’ continued to explore his piano playing in addition to his magical, swirling textures on the twelve-string guitar, with dependably hypnotic and powerful results. He has now moved well beyond being a mere disciple of the Takoma school, and is starting to forge his own unique musical path.

34. Henry Threadgill's Zooid - This Brings Us To, Vol 1 (Pi)

Relatively little is written about Henry Threadgill, in spite of his major standing as a composer and his adventurous approach to music, particularly involving unconventional ensembles. His work for Columbia records could do with reissue and reappraisal (how about taking a break from the endless repackaging of Miles in favour of a more novel legacy series?) but his recent work has gained respect thanks to support from the mercurial Pi record label, which also releases music by Steve Lehman. That Threadgill is aligning himself with a new generation of musical innovators perhaps tells a great deal about his audacious outsider status. ‘This Brings Us To’ is a somewhat fragmented but hugely engaging listen, demonstrating Threadgill’s ongoing interest in timbre. He imposes what appear to be severe restrictions on the group, dividing the players into cells which explore a specific three note interval group. The result is an interweaved web of sound producing an exciting tension.

33. Susanna and the Magical Orchestra – 3 (Rune Grammofon)
‘3’ saw Susanna Wallumrod raise her game considerably. It was not so much the curveball choice of covers that proved problematic but more that her very austere, minimal music needed to gain a new dimension. ‘3’ delivered that new aspect and more, with a broad palette of retro synthesiser sounds providing a warmer orchestration for Susanna’s now frequently multi-layered vocals. This sounded quite unlike her previous work, but retained much of the icy charm and gentle empathy that has made her so appealing.

31= Tom Cawley and Kit Downes – Homely (Impure)
31= Kit Downes Trio – Golden (Basho)

It doesn’t really make a great deal of sense to separate these two excellent albums, as they both feature the young rising star pianist Kit Downes, and there’s a good deal of overlap in terms of the compositions featured. ‘Homely’ is a rare treat in that it’’s a piano duo album with Downes’ mentor and Curios leader Tom Cawley, featuring some expressive playing and a gentle mutual respect between the two musicians. Downes’ trio gamely stepped in for Curios at a gig at the 606 when Cawley injured his hand and, in doing so, played one of the finest sets I’ve seen all year. This music has a maturity which belies Downes’ youth, with an elegiac quality and a lightness of touch. A major asset is drummer James Maddren, who has a singing, legato quality to his sound, and an ability to stretch time like elastic.

30. John Surman - Brewster's Rooster (ECM)
John Surman’s recent preoccupations, including work with choirs, string quartets and organist Howard Moody, have hardly suggested an imminent return to muscular jazz. Yet, with ‘Brewster’s Rooster’, that return has come, with a powerhouse ensemble featuring John Abercrombine on guitar, Jack De Johnette on drums and Drew Gress on bass. The recording is a little springier than their blisteringly intense set at the London Jazz Festival, but the memorable themes cut through even more clearly here. De Johnette is at the top of his game on the simmering ‘Counter Measures’ and Abercrombie is characteristically thoughtful and lyrical throughout, the perfect counterpoint to the intensity of the rhythm section.

29. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Domino)
This fine album genuinely represents something of a transition for Callahan, something he has long threatened but never quite succeeded in producing. It’s certainly a long way from the dour quality of something like ‘Rain on Lens’. Instead, he’s embraced his inner warmth, and reminded us all that there he was always so much more intelligent a writer than his reputation as a casual misanthrope suggests. The music is lush and ingratiating, the perfect foil for his near-conversational vocal phrasing. The album is certainly front-loaded, with some of the best songs of Callahan’s career pushed into its first half, but the whole is a bold and well executed move.

28. Big Air - Big Air (Babel)
This international group began in 2001, bringing Chris Batchelor, Steve Buckley and Oren Marshall (the first two both Loose Tubes alumni – when will that band’s music be reissued on CD for heaven’s sake??) together with New York musicians Jim Black and Myra Melford. Melford is one of the most idiosyncratic pianists currently at work, sometimes angular but often flowing with rapid, lengthy phrases. This superb recording brings together sophisticated composing and adventurous playing, with a mood that veers between triumphal and regretful.

27. Tune-Yards - Bird Brains (Marriage)
This was a discovery late in the year for me, a clear example of how publishing your year-end list too early can result in terrible omissions. Consistently surprising, engaging, challenging and exciting, Merrill Garbus recorded this entire collection on a digital voice recorder and pieced it together using shareware mixing software. The sound quality is thus understandably rough, and sometimes so abrasive as to be unpleasant. But the sophistication of the work behind it is really quite remarkable. Garbus’ fuses her ukulele with self-made field recordings to create something highly original and frequently touching. Her versatile voice can be confrontational or tender as required, thus the range of emotion on offer here is dazzling. It’s a triumph of individual initiative.

26. The Unthanks - Here's The Tender Coming (Rough Trade)

I was unfairly dismissive of Rachel Unthank when ‘The Bairns’ was nomimated for The Mercury. I intend to return to that record properly now that I understand why more discerning critics were hailing it as the finest album on the shortlist. ‘Here’s the Tender Coming’ introduced a name change, to reflect Becky Unthank’s shared vocal role, but maintained the poignant and charming take on traditional folk music. These delicate narratives are delivered without affectation and with arrangements that support rather than smother the essential vulnerability of the songs. There are hints at some more contemporary influences too.

25. Moritz Von Oswald Trio - Vertical Ascent (Honest Jon's)
Combining the regimented, programmed precision of techno with the thrilling freedom of improvisation is not an easy task. In fact, on the surface, it might even be futile. Yet this record, where the interest is almost purely in the interaction between percussion and machines, somehow manages it without trying too hard. There's a real sense of magic and spontaneity to this recording, with a formal logic and meticulous construction lying behind it. It's a substantial achievement.

24. Vandermark 5 - Annular Gift (Not Two)
This live album finds Vandermark 5 on furious form, but also curiously groovy. It is in some ways their most conventional recording so far, but only in as much as they use rhythm as a support for their continuing exploration of the outer reaches. Here, they work remarkably well as a unit, and the results are energising. As ever, there are many unexpected twists during these lengthy pieces, with a surprising degree of introspection and reflection to balance the caterwauling. It is all vital and highly charged. It must have been a real treat to attend the gigs at which these recordings were made.

23. Health - Get Color (City Slang)
This vigorous, uncompromising mix of sonic aggression and eerie, partially obscured vocalising is a powerful and majestic beast. There’s also a sense of concision and control where it could so easily have become indulgent – and it feels like Health are making a considered musical statement. Its murky and otherworldly but also somehow very primal and real. This is artful music, as regimented as it is visceral.

22. Sian Alice Group - Troubled, Shaken, etc (Social Registry)
This intoxicating, intelligently sequenced set possibly represents the single biggest improvement between albums for 2009. This group demonstrated promise with their minimalist debut, but now they have built on that template to make a much wiser, more creative musical statement. Sian Ahern’s whispery, sinewy voice is at once a distant and imposing presence here, much more so than on the debut. Pitchfork bizarrely argued that this album saw the band abandoning interest in rhythm but, to these ears at least, it’s a considerably more percussive work than its predecessor.

21. Leonard Cohen - Live in London (Columbia)

This document of the first of Leonard Cohen’s O2 arena shows from last year is a beautiful time capsule, forever preserving the clear triumph of his comeback to the stage. Financial motivations must now be fulfilled, but the tour continues on, and has even featured some new material that we can only hope Cohen plans to record as soon as possible. This is of course valuable for the remarkable songs, played with consummate taste and depth by an extraordinary band. These intimate performances made the enormodomes he had managed to sell out feel like modest arthouse cinemas. It is also invaluable for the wit and wisdom Cohen dispenses, finally putting paid to the myth that he is simply a dour miserabilist.

20. Mark Lockheart - In Deep (Edition)

Mark Lockheart is an established musician who deserves a good deal more recognition. Whilst he is noted for his role in Polar Bear, he’s actually part of a generation of jazz musicians that go back to Loose Tubes – Chris Batchelor, Django Bates, Iain Ballamy and Tim Whitehead also among them. His own music is sophisticated, but also open to new ideas, and on ‘In Deep’ he has surrounded himself with a balanced band of propulsive youngsters and the insight of more mature musicians such as the great pianist Liam Noble. The result is a set of both grace and danger, as ruminative as it is fiery.

19. The Necks - Silverwater (RER)
Australia's great improvisers stretch out here which, for them, means a single piece of nearly seventy minutes in duration. For some, its repetitive cycles and patient unfolding might be too great a test of will. Yet its meticulous layering, immersive sound effects and the sheer amount of music they manage to draw from a four note bassline is quite remarkable. It's more about atmosphere than emotion and, as such, is perhaps better aligned with ambient music than with jazz. The piece's second half has unpredictable and unexpected tensions.

18. Micachu and the Shapes – Jewellery (Rough Trade)

The unpolished, very dirty sound of the Shapes is probably not to everyone’s tastes, but there’s little doubt that Mica Levi is a major new British talent. Formally trained in composition at the Guildhall school of music, she has combined this with her alter ego as Micachu, a lo-fi artist writing searingly honest, rough songs characterised by angular, staccato rhythms and a surly confidence.

17. Alasdair Roberts – Spoils (Drag City)

Seemingly in tandem with his mentor Will Oldham, the unshakeably consistent Roberts seems to be discovering the possibilities in a looser, freer form of folk music. Whilst ‘Spoils’ still demonstrates great respect for form, it develops the content in increasingly spidery and inventive ways, with some superb playing from Roberts’ accompanying musicians. With one foot firmly in the Scottish folk tradition and the other marching firmly forward, he is creating compelling, timeless music.

16. Oumou Sangare – Seya (World Circuit)
The return of one of the most positive and life affirming voices in Mali was a cause for celebration, and the great comeback album ‘Seya’ did not disappoint. Sangare has long been a strident advocate of women’s rights and has bravely used her music to challenge conventional attitudes in her society. Whilst we can’t understand her lyrics here, there’s a stridence and confidence in the music and in the vocal phrasing that suggests righteousness, in the best possible sense.

15. Jim O’Rourke – The Visitor (Drag City)
Whilst Jim O’Rourke’s avant garde credentials are frequently overstated (his output demonstrates that he’s at least as much of a traditionalist and the more far out material has generally been as a result of collaboration), this certainly came as something of a curveball. His two previous albums had been largely song-based, but ‘The Visitor’ presents one single, unbroken 37 minute piece of music. On the surface, tt’s hardly something designed for the ADD-afflicted mobile and internet generation. On closer inspection though, the story is somewhat different. ‘The Visitor’ is packed with ideas, and flits whimsically between textures and moods. It could have been easily separated into shorter pieces, but O’Rourke is clearly playing some sort of perverse game by stringing it all together. Overall, it’s a demonstration of O’Rourke’s musicianship. He plays all instruments himself, his guitar playing alone an endless source of variety and inspiration.

14. Branford Marsalis Quartet – Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music)
The recent departure of Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts has finally punctured what was one of the longest serving stable ensembles in the jazz world. Indeed, this wonderful album demonstrates not only the group’s consistently high standard, but also Marsalis’ commitment to democratically functioning groups. All four members contribute compositions, which veer between the lyrical and the fiercely intense and the dynamic within the group is not merely well-rehearsed but positively alchemical.

13. Kronos Quartet – Floodplain (Nonesuch)

Kronos continue to demonstrate their openness to new possibilities and contemporary settings with this magisterial set of music, both new and traditional, from the flood plains of the Middle East. It’s a timely reminder that much of this area, now a stark ideological battleground, was once the cradle of human civilisation.

12. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy – Beware (Domino)
Am I the only person to think this is comfortably Will Oldham’s best since ‘I See A Darkness’? Maybe ‘The Letting Go’ was braver and more off the beaten track, but there’s a consideration with feel and arrangement here which adds a fresh dimension to Oldham’s familiar style. Similarly, the bold colours provided by the backing vocalists and what seems to be a genuine playfulness in some of the lyrics mean that it isn’t all darkness by any means. The concert he played in London in support of this record was also loose and liberated, with a sense of spontaneity too often absent from song-based music.

11. Tara Jane O' Neil - A Ways Away (K)

Tara Jane O’Neill’s haunting drone-folk reached what might be an apotheosis on this stark and intense but also strangely comforting album. The combination of austerity and warmth in her work makes for an original and bewitching sound and it’s great to uncover another artist looking to extend the possibilities of what can be done with the enduring form of the song.

10. Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (ACT)

I’m becoming increasingly fascinated by Vijay Iyer and his somewhat mind-blowing scientific approach to music. He is preoccupied with patterns, structures and the complicated rhythmic cycles he has inherited both from his Indian background and his enthusiasm for African music. His recent article on the Fibonacci sequence in music, published in The Guardian, opened new doors of perception to musical approaches very different from my own. ‘Historicity’’ expands on many of his familiar themes and ideas, and has been unfairly criticised in some quarters for featuring interpretations of both his own earlier work and of the work of others. The material drawn from the pop world provides some of the freshest revelations, given Iyer’s thrilling takes on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Big Brother’ and MIA’s ‘Galang’. On the latter he does indeed make a successful attempt to transcribe the contours of MIA’s half-sung rap. As far as repeating himself is concerned, constant revision, with the light of fresh inspiration, is a crucial part of the jazz tradition. On this evidence, Iyer is entirely right to suggest that in order to move forwards, sometimes you have to look back.

09. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Domino)

'Bitte Orca' doesn't quite have the same shock of the new that came with both 'The Getty Address' and the remarkable 'Rise Above' but it does do a very successful job in recalibrating Dave Longstreth's flighty, highly composed avant-rock music for a wider audience. Retained are the fearless, fearsomely controlled dynamics and unpredictable twists and turned - new is the cleaner, crisper sound. It feels like more of a group effort too, with Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian offering understated, convincingly honest vocal contributions. In 'Stillness is the Move', it even produced something approaching an anthem.

08. Memory Tapes - Seek Magic (Something In Construction)
The combination of nostalgia and melacholy has made this something of a personal favourite for me in the final quarter of the year. Philadelphia's Davye Hawk is certainly a talent to watch, someone with remarkable attention to detail - these songs are as much sound designs as they are melodic and rhythmic statements. 'Seek Magic' borrows a sense of abandon and discovery from club music, but couples it with a powerful sense of memory and imagination.

07. Staff Benda Bilili - Tres Tres Fort (Crammed)
This band of mostly disabled street musicians from Kinshasa have been a major sensation this year, their invigorating, rumba-infused music coming with jubilation and triumph. Clearly influenced by some of the icons of Congolese music (most particularly Franco), the band has taken this sound further and developed a party spirit all of its own, a sound representative of triump in the face of adversity, of overcoming your limitations.

06. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (Warp)

After some intense internet hype, the eventual release of 'Veckatimest' proved something of a muted anticlimax. Reviews were mainly positive, but hardly hyperbolic or ecstatic, and a small chorus of naysayers even gathered against it. I wonder if the album's compositional structure, coherent mood and abundant subtleties have blinded people to its quality. I suspect this is as sophisticated a record as has been made by a rock band in recent years, superbly atmospheric, meticulous in its construction, combining a shimmering beauty with an underlying sense of menace and risk.

05. Joshua Redman - Compass (Nonesuch)
Initially intending to continue the exploration of the piano-less trio format already captured on 'Back East', Redman ended up closer to an Ornette Coleman soundworld on some of these tracks, employing two drummers and two bassists. The group's strong sense of implied harmony dominates the proceedings, although on this occasion there is a fluidity and spontaneous inspiration that elevates this to the status of being Redman's most daring and complete album to date.

04. Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men (Samadhi Sound)
In spite of (or perhaps because of?) its Mercury nomination, this beautifully constructed, sophisticated and emotionally rewarding album has been curiously absent from most of the major year-end lists. This is a deeply intelligent work, marrying evocative words with elegant arrangements characterised by aspiration and ambition. Understandably, this has been compared with the similarly paced work of Elbow - but, whilst it has a similar warmth and compassion, it foregoes that band's predilection for terrace anthems in favour of a graceful weightlessness. Sweet Billy Pilgrim have created their own mysterious landscape - both dangerous and immersive.

03. Keith Jarrett - Testament: Paris/London (ECM)
Keith Jarrett certainly makes the most from his limited public appearances these days, releasing his two rapturously received European solo concerts from late last year across three CDs for maximum return. It's fortuitous then that these performances were such a personal artistic triumph too, capturing the preoccupations, influences and expressions of an entire career in a series of miniature epic improvisations that demonstrated Jarrett's open-minded philisophy and profound feeling as well as his undoubted technical flair. Here are pieces that veer from the lushly romantic to the surprisingly confronational, all delivered with unflinching commitment and passion. Music created in fleeting moments with a powerful lasting value.

02. Steve Lehman Octet - Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi)
Combining his interests in music technology, asymmetrical metre and the methodology of 'spectralist' composers, Steve Lehman managed to craft the year's most viscerally exciting jazz album. This music's combination of precision and momentum, effortlessly both controlled and informed by Tyshawn Sorey's drumming, seemed bewildering on first listen but eventually revealed a thrilling and dynamic core. The rigorous harmonic and structural constraints provide the lines – reading between them illuminates a world of intuitive interaction and freedom.

01. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
Animal Collective have slipped insidiously into the mainstream this year, a significant triumph given how little, if anything, they have compromised. Their customary sense of sun-drenched melody has now been pushed into the foreground, with the love of static and feedback replaced by some less interventionist and more complementary noise. 'Merriweather', more than anything a conventional rock band could concoct, feels inspired by the great communal experiences of house and rave music - an expression of radiant and transcendent joy. It combines a primitive urgency with a characteristic sophistication and ambition in its construction. The array of sounds and effects deliver a sensory assault, albeit one that seems positively to invite our submission. It might not be a particularly distinctive or imaginative choice to top this list - but it is the album I've listened to and enjoyed most this year.