The Best of 2017

A very good year in music.

First off nice to see both Sarah Shook’s Sidelong (my co-album of the year last year) and Lydia Loveless’s Boy Crazy collection on many year end lists. They’re not on mine only because they’re reissues. You already know how I feel about both of these artists.

Speaking of reissues, they truly rocked this year. From the Savage Young Dü collection from Hüsker Dü to the amazing deluxe reissues of Wilco first two albums AM and Being There. As did live records. Both The Replacements’ For Sale and Lydia’s Live from the Documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless? (which, yes, I am responsible for bringing to life) are as good, if not better, than any studio album released this year. But that’s not the essence of my top ten list.

It’s about new music.

So, here now, are my ten favorite records of 2017.


The Order of Time – Valerie June – There was no album I returned to on a more frequent basis that June’s brilliant sophomore effort. This record is all about a vibe that just sinks its slightly gritty under the nails claws into you and never lets go. Part old school Americana (think the old 78s that were recorded live in the 20s), part soul, with a voice that sounds wise beyond its years. Add to that the most perfectly subdued production and a collection of songs that seem to get better with every listen, and you’ve got an instant classic. This is a record that will sound even better a decade from now.

Deep Dream – Daddy Issues – Finally a new take on the riot grrl sound. Noisy and sweet at the same time, any band that could make Don Henley’s Boys of Summer worth listening to has to be doing something right.   This is the late night, drive fast, slam your fist against the steering wheel, scream along album of the year. Fuck, yes!

Anything Could Happen – Bash N Pop – The best solo record from a member of The Replacements since Westerberg’s Stereo/Mono seventeen years ago. Tommy Stinson just knocks it out of the park with a great collection of songs. His voice has never sounded better, and that familiar guitar sound is like an old friend coming to visit carrying a bottle of good bourbon and a six pack of beer. I’m not putting this on the list because he’s a former member of the Mats, it’s here because it’s a damn good record.

Out in the Storm – Waxahatchee – I loved Waxahatachee’s first album American Weekend (it topped this list a few years back), but the next two left me bored. So I am very happy to report Katie Crutchfield is back with almost the perfect companion piece to that first record. Except this time instead of haunted lullabyes we’re treated to a full-on sonic assault of guitars, bass and drum. This is her rock album. A wall of pop melodies coated in noise syrup brilliant from start to finish. Love this record.

After the Party – The Menzingers – The closest we’re going to come to The Clash thirty-five years after they split up. I would call this my feel-good record of the year. From the opening guitars of Tellin’ Lies the album made me feel young again, and never let up.   And maybe this is new for old dudes. I don’t give a fuck. I’m an old dude. And this one rocked.

Turn Out the Lights – Julien Baker – She sings one note and my heart is broken. A whole album, and I’m reduced to tears. She is the heir apparent to Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, someone to take us into the dark spaces, and hold our hands with the confidence in her voice. Everything will be okay with Julien leading the way.

Gilded – Jade Jackson – While we all wait for new records from Loveless and Shook, dig into Jade Jackson spectacular debut. It’s a collection of heartbreak and longing with guitars a little too crunchy for country-western. The raspy catch in her voice will grab you from the first note and not let go.

Notes of Blue – Son Volt – The best alt-country record of the year. And in a year in which guitars seemed to blessedly rule again, this is a freaking guitar masterpiece.

Losing – Bully – Old school riot grrl done right: fuzz, melody, fuzz, drums, fuzz and Alicia Bognanno has a voice made for the genre. Just one of those records you put on endless repeat on a drive from Minneapolis to Fargo.

Spades and Roses – Caroline Spence – Best straight out country record of the year. Spence is an amazing songwriter, but it’s her delivery that just breaks your heart. With production just sparse enough, and yet more killer guitar riffs, she takes us through a collection of songs that sound like great southern literature. Short stories turned to song.

BEST SONG OF THE YEAR: Lydia Loveless take this for both sides of a single: Desire/Sorry. The A-side, a gut-wrenching tale of an affair with a married man gone bad, was truly my favorite track from her last LP Real, but it ended up on the recording studio floor, so to speak, though it was a centerpiece of my film Who is Lydia Loveless? The B-side is a cover of the Justin Beiber song which was easily my most played tune of the year. Lydia makes the song her own, as if every word meant something special to her and the person and/or persons she singing it to. Gave me goosebumps more times than I care to admit. I’ve said it before that she has the greatest voice on the planet. And I’ll say it again. She fucking kills me every time.

Listen to Sorry on bandcamp here.


Sixteen from Diet Cig – the opening verse is all you need to know: “When I was sixteen/I dated a boy/With my own name/It was weird/In the back of his truck/Moaning my name/While trying to fuck.”

(I Just Died) Like an Aviator – Matthew Ryan – the greatest song in the world can become downright annoying when you direct and edit a music video for it. There’s only so much you can hear one song. Right? Well, wrong, in this case. Despite hundreds and hundreds of listens over a two week period, the first track from Ryan’s stellar Hustle up Starlings lp stands the test of time as one of the best rock tracks of the year. (Even if I no longer picture the words coming out of Ryan’s mouth.)

BEST LIVE SHOW: Lydia Loveless, Todd May, and Casey Magic at the backroom at Cat’s Cradle on December 15th and 16th. She was on fire these two nights, playing solo and with Todd, rearranging, ranting, reinventing European, breaking our fucking hearts every time she opened her mouth. Goddammit, Lydia!

BEST HOLLYWOOD NARRATIVE FILM: I, Tonya – a mocumentary, that was funny at times, heartbreaking the rest. A brilliant cast, superb script, and a sharpness of vision we rarely see with any sort of budget.

BEST INDEPENDENT NARRATIVE FILM: Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig might be the Lydia Loveless of independent film: funny, awkward, damaged, opinionated, and always completely charming. And that showed through in every frame of this magnificent directing debut.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FILM: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography – Errol Morris’s short, subtle masterpiece. A film that leaves you wanting more, which is rare indeed today. His portrait of a quirky photographer who was one of five people on the planet who owned a 20×24 Polaroid camera. Love, love, love!

BEST TV: TV is the new indie film. And it just keeps getting better and better. Thus just a list of a few of this year’s standouts: Stranger Things II, The Five, Master of None, Ray Donovan, The Keepers, Big Little Lies, The Deuce, and GLOW. (And I’m not even mentioning my guilty pleasure love for reality TV like Big Brother, Survivor, and Top Chef.)

BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Mary Miller’s brilliant Always Happy Hour: Stories and Jeff Goodell’s terrifying The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. The former is a collection of writing to rival the dark despair of Carver, the latter a look at how the coastlines of the world will not be recognizable in a few decades. Both so worth reading, perhaps for the same reason.

As for the rest of my 2017:

Four releases this fall, of which I am quite proud: Who is Lydia Loveless? on DVD with a shitload of great extras, the Record Store Day vinyl-only release of 6 tunes from the film, Live from the Documentary Who is Lydia Loveless?, my first film Disconnected on bluray (with extras that include my long-lost first documentary Twenty Questions), and Psychos In Love on bluray. (The last two both brought to you from the amazingly twisted folks at Vinegar Syndrome.

As for what’s next: five documentaries in various stages of production:

What it Takes: film en douze tableaux – a quirky portrait of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers as they record their new album Years for Bloodshot Record. You can expect to see this at film festivals in late Spring.

Seniors – A documentary that celebrates the brains, energy & sass of some of the coolest senior dogs on this planet and the people who love them. It’s mostly filmed. Editing now.

Pizza, A Love Story – in the works for ten years and being edited now, we hope to finally have our epic love poem to the Holy Trinity of pizza (Sally’s, Pepe’s, and Modern) completed by mid-year.

Normal Valid Lives – our look at a horrible case of bullying in a school district north of Minneapolis. We still have a little filming to do, and hope to have this completed for film festivals in early 2019.

Where are you, Jay Bennett? – A feature-length documentary on Jay Bennett, a legendary musician, who as a member of Wilco, was a large part of the genius behind three seminal albums, who went on to a critically acclaimed solo career, before dying tragically at the age of 45. Filming and editing now.

And of course, NHdocs 2018 is coming your way on May 31st for 11 days of great films. (might have a surprise or two from me in there!)

That’s it.  Another year in the books. Be well, hug your dog, eat good pizza, drink hot coffee, and be kind to everyone you meet.




Are you really a “filmmaker?” Let’s find out…

A few questions for the filmmakers in the audience.  How many films by Jean Luc Godard have you seen?  What about Charlie Chaplin?  D.W. Griffith?  Have you watched Fritz Lang’s “M?”  What about Alfred Hitchcock, quick name me 20 of his films right off the top of your head.  (That’s right, twenty.)  What about Fellini, De Sica, Antonioni, how many of their films have you seen?  What’s your favorite Ingmar Bergman film?  Do you prefer Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last” or Buster Keaton’s “The General?”  What films were most influenced by Kurosawa’s “Seven Samauri.”  Which is your favorite Ozu film?  Your favorite Truffaut?  Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, and why?  How many times have you watched each Luis Bunuel film, and which is your favorite?  Which is your favorite film about filmmaking: “8 1/2,” “Day For Night,” “Contempt,” “Man With The Movie Camera,” or something else?

I could easily go on and on.  But the problem with most young filmmakers today, they’d have no way to answer any of those questions.  They wouldn’t have a clue.  Sure, ask them about Tarantino, or Scorsese, or David Lynch, or Wes Anderson, and they could recite you passages from their film.  (Sorry to break it to you, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is not the greatest film of all time.)  But unfortunately films did not begin in the 70s.  If anything, the 70s are one of the most overrated period in the history of film, with the lone exception being the films of Woody Allen.

Cinematographers should be paying attention as well.  On “You Are Alone” I worked with a DP who didn’t even know Bergman’s “Persona,” one of the most influential films of all time, especially in terms of the way it was shot.  And even when I lent him the DVD, he still didn’t watch it, which is why I ended up using about 40% B-camera in the final edit.  As least the B-cameramen (there were three in all) had a clue as to what I was talking about.  One of the things I love about Adrian Correia, who shot my film “Friends (with benefits),” is that when I reference: “you know that scene in in ‘The Third Man’ when Orson Wells is standing in the doorway and the cat rubs against his shoe…?” and yes, he knows exactly what scene I’m talking about, and he can replicate the lighting exactly, or at least incorporate elements into the scene we’re shooting.  That’s what you want in a DP.  Someone who knows every beautifully shot scene that came before them.

How anyone can make a film, or even want to make a film, without knowing as much as possible about what came before is a mystery to me?  Just as how anyone can make a comedy without studying Chaplin?  How anyone can make a horror film without knowing every frame of “Psycho?”  (It sure seems as if people are repeating the schlocky horror formula of the 80s over and over again, ad nauseam, without a clue as to what is truly frightening, or compelling, or even entertaining…and yes, I’m talking to you CT filmmakers and people who seem to think “found footage” is a genius idea.)  How in God’s name can anyone film a character with swagger without having marveled at Belmondo in “Breathless?”  How can you film sexy without knowing Bardot?  How can you film a battle scene without having studied Kurosawa?  How can you film heartbreak without studying De Sica?  How can you break the rules without having seen “Citizen Kane?”

You can’t.

(Don’t try to argue, otherwise your answer to the above set of questions becomes, “It’s easy because I’m an idiot.”)

It’s why the majority of films today are so freaking bad.  And why the few filmmakers who are worth anything are such film geeks at heart.  Tarrantino and Lynch are great because their knowledge of film history is vast.  They know what works and what doesn’t because they’ve seen it before.  They know how to break the rules, because they’ve studied the rules.  Even Woody Allen understands that 90% of his humor comes from Chaplin and Groucho Marx, and his technique from Bergman.  He’s admitted as much countless times.  Knowing and understanding film is what makes their films classic.

You don’t even have to like them.  But you need to have seen them.  Not all, but at least a respectable amount, and as you get older you need to keep watching and learning.  I personally detest the films of Stanley Kubrick.  I think he’s made three watchable films.  Two starred Peter Sellers, so I give Sellers all the credit.  The other, “Paths of Glory,” was based upon a story that was so strong, even Kubrick couldn’t fuck it up.  (Yes, I know he’s listed as co-writer, but again, so was Jim Thompson.  So, who really wrote the script?)  But y’know what, I’ve seen all of his films.  I still give him the benefit of the doubt because so many filmmakers I respect in turn respect him.  I’m missing the Kubrick gene.  For me watching “2001” might be like watching paint dry, just as Godard is for a number of my filmmaking friends.  But we all understand the importance.  We all understand the history.  We understand they wrote the rules, broke the rules, crossing dangerous seas in the name of creating a new world of art.

And perhaps you don’t want to make art.  Perhaps you don’t want to make stories that resonate.  Perhaps you don’t want to shoot frames that take your breath away, endings that leave the viewer speechless.  Perhaps you’re content making “movies” (they certainly aren’t films) with your friends that only you and your friends will ever enjoy, or see for that matter.  (Putting your “masterpiece” up on YouTube does not count as distribution.)  If that’s the case, please stop reading my blog.  I’m not writing it for you.

I see so many films that held promise.  A great story.  A great cast.  But it’s wasted by mediocre filmmaking.  It’s ruined by people who have never studied great storytelling, so they haven’t a clue as to what to do with the full-of-potential tale in their proverbial lap.  How many times have I watched a documentary and thought, damn if only this story had been told by Errol Morris, if would have been brilliant.  The story was certainly there, but the filmmaking talent needed to tell it, was no where to be found.  Perhaps if the filmmakers had studied Morris, or Maysles, or Pennebaker, or even Alex Gibney, and took apart their technique to see how a story can and should be told (and there are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories), the film would not have had me scratching my head, wondering how such a captivating tale could end up so damn dull.

We all learn from history.  In politics, sports, hell, in our everyday family life.  Film is no different.  We learn from the successes and mistakes of others.  And for anyone to pick up a camera and try to make a film…for anyone to call themselves a filmmaker…without having studied the classics, what came first, is nothing short of stupid.  (It’s not brave, it’s not taking a risk, unless you consider walking right into the line of enemy fire naked and unarmed brave.) If you haven’t studied some of the filmmakers mentioned in here (and or course there are so many others who made a difference that I have not the time nor space to list), you’re not a filmmaker.  Not even close.  You’re a sad wannabe hack who wouldn’t know a story if it bit you on the ass.  And while that may sound harsh, I’m a bit cranky from watching too many miserable films from people who think they can direct (mumblecore, I’m talking to you).  Go back to square one.  Learn your history.  Understand what made Fellini or Hitchcock or Sturges great.  Only then will you perhaps be able to apply such knowledge to your own work.  Only then will you be able to make a film that is actually worth watching.  Only then will you be deserving of the title “filmmaker.”

Errol Morris on editing and pets

Reading a collection of interviews with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, and as you might expect it’s riddled with great quotes. My favorites:

“A director who doesn’t edit what he shoots isn’t really a director.”


“It’s said that people have pets because they can’t have effective relationships with other people. I believe it’s the other way around: people have relationships with other people because they can’t have effective relationships with their pets.”