Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Best Songs of the Decade: 50-26

See also:

The Best Songs of the Decade: 100-76
The Best Songs of the Decade: 75-51

The Best Songs of the Decade: 25-1
The 10 Best Albums of the Decade

50. "The Legionnaire's Lament" - The Decemberists
The Decemberists were the "it" band in indie rock in the first half of the decade, which of course meant that they were the symbol of all that was wrong in the genre in the second half. But they've put out album after album of pop songs about subjects that aren't love - which is called "quirky." This is my favorite of theirs, a peppy little number about a French Foreign Legion soldier addicted to laudanum in 19th-century Paris.

49. "He War" - Cat Power
The final entry in the indie-rockers-with-one-song-I-love. See also: Guided By Voices - "Everywhere With Helicopter." Although I did find it easier to get into Cat Power when she was backed by The Dirty Delta Blues Band for The Greatest.

48. "Umbrella" - Rihanna
It's always easy to pick on radio songs. By and large they stink, though Sturgeon's Law, of course, states that 90% of everything stinks. If you shovel away the crap that's endemic to any media, you find that many of the decade's biggest hits were also some of its best songs. "Umbrella," "Toxic," "Lose Yourself," "Crazy," "Hey Ya," "Rehab," "Jesus Walks," and more. I'll take that over 90's grunge-wannabes and Puff Daddy hip-hop any day of the week.

47. "Bamboo Banga" - M.I.A.
For all the writing about how M.I.A. was making the future of music, she's remarkably focused on the past. Her breakthrough album, Kala, samples The Clash on its biggest hit, "Paper Planes," quotes The Pixies on another track, and begins this stellar track with lines from The Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner." The combination of influences including punk rock, world beats, and danceable hip-hop works about as well as anyone could hope on tracks like "Bamboo Banga."

46. "No Sunshine" - Rhymefest
Mixtapes, the staple of underground hip-hop and up-and-coming rappers, received a massive jolt in the arm from internet downloads. Perhaps the best of these is Rhymefest's Man in the Mirror, "the world's first Michael Jackson dedication album." This track works with the deliriously sampleable "Ain't No Sunshine" and turns it towards one of Rhymefest's favorite subjects, the difficulty of maintaining authenticity in the rap world.

45. "15 Step" - Radiohead
This is first track on Radioheads latest album, In Rainbows, and it achieved some notoriety simply for being a happy Radiohead song. But it's not just a happy song, it's also a fantastic one.

44. "He Did It" - The Detroit Cobras
I'm somewhat surprised that The Detroit Cobras aren't more well-known than they are. They do garage rock covers of famous and not-so-famous R&B songs. This one, originally by The Ronettes, is my favorite.

43. "Free or Dead" - Atmosphere
Atmosphere's MC, Slug, is about as clever as they come. This track demonstrates the pathetic arrogance of a young would-be rebel, and abounds with wordplay like "and I do believe in God/cause I keep coming across/all these fine women with low self-esteem."

42. "Say It Right" - Nelly Furtado
I'm mesmerized by Timbaland's beat for this song. There's an ineffable sadness in the spaces, that makes it sound oddly tragic. Plus, of course, you can dance to it.

41. "Electric Feel" - MGMT
The thing I like about this song is how it utilizes a lot of the tricks of much more upbeat songs, while maintaining its slow pace. It makes it sound wonderfully familiar and new at the same time.

40. "Gossip Folks" - Missy Elliot ft. Ludacris
While Missy Elliot had some of the biggest hits of the decade with "Work It" and "Get Ur Freak On," I found myself more drawn to her somewhat more conventional hip-hop tracks. This one's a great song already in the first couple of minutes, before Ludacris comes along and blasts it to a new level with one of best guest appearances ever.

39. "Smiley Faces" - Gnarls Barkley
While "Crazy" turned into the mega-hit, I preferred this other catchy-as-hell number from Gnarls Barkley's debut.

38. "Idioteque" - Radiohead
Kid A may be one of the most bizarre albums of the decade, where a successful rock band moved into the realm of electronic soundscapes (in addition to foregoing almost all conventional marketing ploys, like releasing singles). "Idioteque" combines a driving techno beat with Radiohead's rock instincts and Thom Yorke's ethereal wail to magnificent effect.

37. "9 Milli Bros" - Ghostface Killah ft. the whole goddamn Wu-Tang Clan
No song heralded the resurrection of the Wu-Tang Clan quite like this stunner from Fishscale, featuring every member of the group including Old Dirty Bastard from beyond the grave. Bonus points for Method Man bumping it in his SUV on The Wire. In fact, despite the music from The Wire being primarily diegetic, three songs on the show made it onto this list (I don't suppose it's a spoiler to say that "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and "B.O.B." are yet to come.)

36. "Love and War (11/11/46)" - Rilo Kiley
35. "A Man/Me/Then Jim" - Rilo Kiley
Praise for lyrical density is almost always given to hip-hop MCs, or perhaps a particularly wordy singer-songwriter type. Rilo Kiley's third album, More Adventurous, demonstrates a traditional rock band's lyrical density. "Love and War" is an outright rocker and excellent at that, but discusses the plight of veterans of both struggles as well. "A Man/Me/Then Jim" is a gorgeous song in its own right, but the lyrics tell a dense, non-chronological story from multiple perspectives that requires multiple listens to fully grasp.

34. "Monster Hospital" - Metric
33. "Succexy" - Metric
Metric's best songs seem to come when they explore the intersection between sexuality and warfare. "Monster Hospital" explicitly does so by combining lyrics like "I fought the war/and the war won" with "hold my arms down/I've been bad" over a driving garage-rock beat. But it may be surpassed by its predecessor, the slightly more poppy "Succexxy," a sultry performance about the televised spectacle of war.

32. "Night Light" - Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006, having released their final album, The Woods, the year before. The Woods was a radical stylistic departure from their punk-to-pop previous sound, wallowing in the fuzzed-out guitars, driving beats, and musical disintegrations of 70's classic rock and pre-punk. The final song(s) on the album are "Let's Call It Love," a three-minute song which turns into a 10-minute destruction of music, rebuilding at the end to segué into the evocative farewell track, "Night Light." A long goodbye with the tiny, flickering possibility of hope, "Night Light" isn't just a great song, it may be the best final song any great band has ever done.

31. "The Way You Move" - Outkast ft. Sleepy Brown
It's probably not too much of a spoiler for me to say that "Hey Ya" is further up on this list, but let's not say that that means I'm picking sides in the great Speakerboxxx vs. The Love Below debate. The megahit single from The Love Below may be a tiny bit better, but I still think that Speakerboxxx has a more consistently good set of songs, particularly in the first half.

30. "No Children" - The Mountain Goats
Alcoholism and horrific breakups have never sounded like more fun.

29. "Jesus Walks" - Kanye West
Kanye (and songwriter Rhymefest) talked about Jesus and got their record played, which is impressive enough. But how much more impressive is it that the song kicks ass?

28. "Catalina" - Raekwon
This is actually the only song from 2009 that I have on the list. I'm hesitant to rate something too highly when I might hate it in a year, but it also seems like maybe this hasn't been the greatest year for music. One of the high points, of course, was Raekwon's Only Built for Cuban Linx 2, which had previously seemed like it wanted to be hip-hop's Chinese Democracy - always worked on, never finished. In one of it's incarnations, it was attached to Dr. Dre's Aftermath label, but that marriage ended with Raekwon getting just a few Dre beats. But oh what a beat - the combination of Wu-Tang grime with Dr. Dre's production skills sounds like gangsta rap at its best.

27. "Paper Planes" - M.I.A.
How unlikely was this song for a massive hit? Sampling a somewhat unknown Clash song, espousing radical/criminal politics, from an artist controversial for allegedly supporting suicide-bombing terrorist seems like a perfect storm of cult hit. And that would have been okay, but sometimes the world gets it right, and a cult hit becomes a crossover hit.

26. "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism" - The New Pornographers
There are a handful of sub-sub-genres of songs that I'm a sucker for. One of them is the incredibly catchy pop song about equally incredibly depressing content. This is one of those.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Best Songs of the Decade: 75-51

See also:

The Best Songs of the Decade: 100-76

The Best Songs of the Decade: 50-26
The Best Songs of the Decade: 25-1
The 10 Best Albums of the Decade

75. "Funeral Song" - Sleater-Kinney
Sleater-Kinney is my favorite rock band, but lead singer Corin Tucker's challenging dramatic soprano voice is off-putting for many. "Funeral Song" is one of their most accessible, with the vocal drama toned down, and the interaction of the melody and the rhythm is some of S-K's best.

74. "Surprise" - Gnarls Barkley
73. "The Jessica Numbers" - The New Pornographers
Both Gnarls Barkley and The New Pornographers exercise a disproportionate amount of influence over this list. Both groups are excellent song-crafters, while their albums may not get quite as much play. Gnarls Barkley sounds like both the past and the future of pop music, with a Zombies-like flair to the chorus of "Surprise" added to the spacey hip-hop/R&B the duo are best known for. The New Pornographers, by contrast, seem attached very much to the present, with a fairly conventional rock band setup expanding the form of the pop song.

72. "Wake Up" - The Walkmen
Here's another entry in the critically-acclaimed-bands-with-only-one-song-I-really-like category. See also: "Librarian" by My Morning Jacket.

71. "Bang!" - The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut EP was built around this anthemic banger, but I've been mostly disappointed by their slightly-less-energetic albums ever since. So it goes.

70. "A Day Like Today" - Tom McRae
Like Springsteen's "Magic," "A Day Like Today" is a case study in how to make a haunting, beautiful, but oddly catchy gem of a song.

69. "Since We Last Spoke" - RJD2
The only instrumental track on the list. A handful of DJs built their reputations releasing primarily instrumental hip-hop mix albums this decade, although RJD2 has since began playing instruments and singing, somewhat bizarrely.

68. "Going On" - Gnarls Barkley
67. "Crazy" - Gnarls Barkley
Has there ever been a group that achieved as much success and critical acclaim, while having an absolutely horrible name, as Gnarls Barkley?

66. "For Women" - Talib Kweli
At nearly eight minutes, "For Women" clocks in as the longest song in the list. Kweli's dense, affecting homage to Nina Simone's "Four Women" specifically - and women of color in general - helped cement his reputation as one of the best "socially conscious" rappers of his generation.

65. "Toxic" - Britney Spears
I mean, I guess I could have expected Britney to have a good song or two in her, but this good? This is a great song, for anyone, let alone a singer who'd made her reputation and money on pandering to the lowest common denominator.

64. "Here's Your Future" - The Thermals
Like The New Pornographers, The Thermals are something of an indie-rock supergroup whose combined fame and effect far exceeded that of their previous groups. But where The New Pornographers deal primarily in lush power pop, The Thermals are entirely driving dirty garage rock - extra sacreligious.

63. "Don't Feel Like Dancing" - Scissor Sisters
As disco has experienced something of a critical re-evaluation in recent years, it's also experienced something of a revival with the Scissor Sisters and Junior Senior making it cool. This song is unlike "Move Your Feet" in that its title is a blatant lie, and just like "Move Your Feet" in that it's hard not to at least tap and smile along with.

62. "Take Me Out" - Franz Ferdinand
Sure, the "neo-New Wave" movement was overplayed, and allowed a lot of crap onto the airwaves. But better this than nu-metal. And better this song than most any other pop-rock of the decade.

61. "Standing In The Way Of Control" - The Gossip
The Gossip somehow transitioned from dirty blues-rock to massively popular dance-punk, without seeming like they were selling out at all. And more power to them - I can only hope that Beth Ditto becomes the Gwen Stefani of the early twenty-teens.

60. "Ghost World" - Aimee Mann
Best song based on a comic book ever? I mean, I'll make the argument that David Bowie's "Oh! You Pretty Things" is about The X-Men, but I'm still not sure that it's a better song than this.

59. "99 Problems" - Dangermouse/Jay-Z
Dangermouse's The Grey Album launched him into superstardom, and helped move the mash-up from the novelty section into the realm of potentially great music. I'd argue that most of its tracks are better than the original Jay-Z tracks, especially this driving, intense combination of "99 Problems" with "Helter Skelter."

58. "Letter From An Occupant" - The New Pornographers
Music critics like to attempt to count just how many hooks can be fit into a single song. Some say "six" for this one. Go on, try and count.

57. "Clint Eastwood" - Gorillaz
I'm not sure how, but I'm both disbelieving that this song was from this decade, and that it was almost a decade ago that it came out.

56. "One Two Three Four" - Feist
Sure, it got overexposed, but damn if this ain't a great song.

55. "Rolling With Heat" - The Roots ft. Talib Kweli
I really want to get into The Roots. They're generally lumped in with a bunch of other hip-hop acts I really like (the Dave Chappelle's Block Party crews!). But I still haven't had any of their albums click with me. That doesn't mean that they can't turn out a great song, like this superb track.

54. "Combat Baby" - Metric
I kind of adopted Metric in the early part of the decade. I was amongst the first of my friends to hear them, and converted everyone I could. I don't think they've really musically transcended their initial steps into stardom, but I don't think they've regressed and I'm happy to see them becoming a bigger name.

53. "The Champ" - Ghostface Killah
While his Pretty Toney Album may have helped keep the Wu-Tang Clan in the public eye, Ghostface's Fishscale rocketed them back into the consciousness of hip-hop fans. An almost operatic saga of street life, featuring Wu-Tang members on several tracks. "The Champ" is Ghostface at his most combative, name-checking his previous successes but describing - and demonstrating - his continued drive.

52. "Silver Lining" - Rilo Kiley
Under The Blacklight took some flack for selling out from previous indie-rock darlings Rilo Kiley, but the thin veneer of pop shine only adds to the album's immense charms. Filled with catchy songs of quiet desperation and of lives gone horribly awry, it's one of the best albums of the decade.

51. "Overnight Celebrity" - Twista ft. Kanye West
How To Identify Chicago Hip-Hop: 1. Does it feature Kanye West or Twista? 2. Was it produced by Kanye West, or have his signature sped-up soul samples? 3. Do the vocals have a playful sneer? By this logic, "Overnight Celebrity" may be the signature Chicago hip-hop song of the decade.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Best Songs of the Decade: 100-76

The end of arbitrarily determined time frames means it's time for lists! Olé! My former bosses at The A.V. Club did a Best Albums of the Decade list, but in the era of the iPod, best albums aren't the entirety of music. Hell, my #1 song wasn't even released on a traditional album.

My criteria here are generally subjectively how I feel about the songs now, although there are some songs that I'm not so keen on now, but still felt needed to be on the list, and some weight was given to what I'll pretentiously call "cultural impact" although that really means popularity.

See also:

The Best Songs of the Decade: 75-51
The Best Songs of the Decade: 50-26
The Best Songs of the Decade: 25-1
The 10 Best Albums of the Decade

Without further ado, the list:

100. "Who Taught You To Live Like That?" - Sloan
Canadian power-pop band Sloan is one of those fun-sounding groups where the members all switch instruments for different songs. In practice, this makes them fairly inconsistent, but when they're on, they're really on.

99. "Sensual Seduction" - Snoop Dogg
A couple of weeks ago, my sister was trying to argue that autotune was the worst thing ever to happen to music. Sorry, sister dearest, but while Puff Daddy still needs to atone for his crimes, autotune makes pop songs like this. Also, how great is it to see that Snoop "bitches ain't shit" Dogg is now making songs dedicated to the female orgasm? Aww, he's all grown up now.

98. "Sovay" - Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird whistles. This is what he's known for. Hey, it works.

97. "California Dreamer" - Wolf Parade
I'm not sure if it's my expanding musical vocabulary, or just something I'm intrigued by, but I've noticed a trend of responses to famous songs by modern artists. This response to "California Dreamin'" may be inflated in my head thanks to the original's prevalence in Chungking Express, but hey, still a great song.

96. "Sari" - Nellie McKay
Nellie McKay's debut album, Get Away From Me, showed hints of a fascinating talent, and helped trigger the chanteuse explosion of the later part of the decade. Unfortunately, she seems to have tilted towards musical comedy-style songs instead of bizarrely marvelous gems like this.

95. "Benzi Box" - Dangermouse & MF Doom ft. Cee-Lo
Dangerdoom's The Mouse and the Mask was a wonderful gateway into hip-hop for white nerds who liked Adult Swim. This may be the best track on the album, thanks largely to the smooth chorus provided by Cee-Lo - who later teamed up with Dangermouse in Gnarls Barkley and took over the world.

94. "Bring the Pain" - Missy Elliot ft. Method Man
The Wu-Tang Clan opened the decade on top of the hip-hop world, and you couldn't throw a stone without finding their influence somewhere, anywhere. Missy Elliot's interpolation of Method Man's earlier song of the same name brought together Missy's danceable hip-hop with Meth's grittier Wu-Tang past with excellent results.

93. "Tooken Back" - Ghostface Killah ft. Jacki-O
The Wu-Tang Clan went into a swift decline as the decade progressed (culminating the in death of Old Dirty Bastard), with critical and popular support dissolving. The main exception to this general trend was Ghostface Killah, whose stellar solo albums kept the Wu-Tang name alive as something other than a punchline. 2004's Pretty Toney Album was a bit of a foray into pop over hardcore, leading to this silly, touching, and catchy-as-hell song.

92. "I Might Be Wrong" - Radiohead
Hey, it's the first Radiohead track on the list!

91. "PJ & Rooster" - Outkast
Hey, it's the first Outkast track on the list!

90. "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" - The Arcade Fire
I like to describe my tastes in modern rock music as leaning towards shouty-girl pop-punk over fuzzy whiny boy indie rock. That said, full credit to the fuzzy whiny boy rockers in The Arcade Fire. This is a good stuff.

89. "Galang" - M.I.A.
Though her second album made the massive mainstream splash, M.I.A.'s debut showed more than flashes of the superstar-in-the-making, particularly on this track.

88. "Let It Ride" - Ryan Adams
There are a handful of critically acclaimed, fairly popular indie rockers who have single songs I love, even as I can't get into the rest of their catalog. This excellent country/rocker about youthful alienation and rebellion is that song for Ryan Adams. See also - "Bukowski" by Modest Mouse.

87. "Lose Yourself" - Eminem
Remember in 2001, when Eminem and Britney Spears were the biggest pop stars in the universe? They both managed to increase their hit quotient with songs in the short term, but the long term? Yeesh.

86. "Devil's Dance Floor" - Flogging Molly
I don't feel qualified to write much about it, but I kinda like the Irish-punk musical movement. I really, really like this particular example of it.

85. "Animal Rap" - Jedi Mind Tricks ft. Kool G Rap
In an alternate dimension of my own imagining, hip-hop gets its samples not from 70's soul or 80's pop or 90's rock, but from the giants of classical music. Jedi Mind Tricks arrived in our dimension from that place, and gave us songs like this.

84. "Oslo In The Summertime" - Of Montreal
I've heard Of Montreal compared most accurately to David Bowie, in that their music is comprised primarily of catchy little pop songs, but the subject matter and personas adapted are far, well, weirder than other catchy little pop songs, although the comparison does a good job of describing the feel of the music more than the sound. This song will get stuck in your head. Sorry. Ba b-b-b-ba ba ba-ba.

83. "Side to Side" - Blackalicious ft. Lateef & Pigeon John
Blackalicious' Blazing Arrow was one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade, and its follow-up, The Craft, was mostly a disappointment. I only say "mostly" largely because of this comedically catchy, eminently danceable tale of the drawbacks of club hook-ups.

82. "Blue Magic" - Jay-Z
I kind of feel bad about a relative lack of Jay-Z on the list. He has great songs, and he'd certainly be in the running for Artist of the Decade. But by-and-large, he seems, like the Beatles, to do consistently good-to-great songs more than mediocre-to-excellent as most others do. And that's not a bad thing at all - just means fewer-than-expected songs on lists like these.

81. "Radio Nowhere" - Bruce Springsteen
80. "Magic" - Bruce Springsteen
The Boss had something of a career renaissance, focused primarily on his 2007 album Magic. The first track, "Radio Nowhere," demonstrated just how much he can still rock. But perhaps more impressive is the sense of weariness and sadness in "Magic," despite its ostensible happy subject matter of magic tricks. (It also always makes me think of Gob from Arrested Development, and that's not a bad thing.)

79. "Old White Lincoln" - The Gaslight Anthem
Speaking of Bruce, here's a group of young men from Jersey who seem to enjoy his music. I've heard them described as what might happen if Springsteen had gone up to CBGBs and hung out with The Ramones, and I really can't argue that that's either false or a bad thing.

78. "Tell a Story" - Rhymefest
Rhymefest's infectious humor, sense of storytelling, combination of arrogance and humility, and Chicago sneer bring to mind his occasional collaborator, Kanye West, but without the narcissism. That he hasn't become a star may seem baffling, but perhaps not as much when you realize that he's been delaying his second album for the last two years.

77. "Smart Went Crazy" - Atmosphere
Atmosphere got most of their notice as the progenitors of the terribly-named subgenre "emo-rap" early in the decade, but their fifth album, You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having, may be their best. This dense, catchy song is one of several standouts from the second half of the album.

76. "Move Your Feet" - Junior Senior
It does what it says. Truth in song-labeling.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The films of Wong Kar-Wai

In America, Hong Kong cinema is known for its martial arts or "gun fu" action movies, as exemplified by John Woo. In the mid-90's, Woo's crossover appeal and Hollywood successes helped, amongst other things, to bring more attention to Hong Kong cinema, including his compatriot Wong Kar-Wai. The irony is that while Wong may share a handful of stylistic similarities, the tone and focus of his films is almost entirely oppositional to the stereotype of the Hong Kong action flick.

Wong Kar-Wai deals with the realms of sense, memory, and longing more than storyline. The best way to describe them is that he's trying to recreate the feeling of sitting in a dimly-lit bar, nursing your favorite drink while a fantastic song plays on the jukebox, thinking of the one that got away. They're also extraordinarily difficult to describe literally in a complimentary fashion, but that doesn't stop fans from trying.

His two most accessible and probably best films are Chungking Express and In the Mood For Love. The former was Wong's breakthrough, released in 1994, focusing on an all-night food stand in the Chungking neighborhood of Hong Kong. A diptych, it focuses on the love lives of two local cops, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung (who would later reunite as the stars of Woo's Red Cliff). Kaneshiro stars in the first half. Having just gone through a terrible breakup, he desperately tries to reconnect with his ex, and failing that, finds a hitwoman who happens to be the only person he wants to talk to about the whole thing, while all she wants is sleep.

Tony Leung's second half is more memorable thanks to an indelible performance by Chinese pop star Faye Wong (most well-known in America for singing the theme to Final Fantasy VIII). Playing a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she becomes obsessed with Leung's cypher of a character, breaking into his apartment, cleaning and replacing every part of it, even as he narrates that "I have an excellent memory." Later, Faye Wong's obsession leads to the defining scene of the film. She skips work to go to Leung's apartment using the excuse that she's paying the electricity bill, which never gets paid, causing the entire shop to lose power and get lit by candlelight. Wong Kar-Wai's obsession with light and lush, gorgeous city life create among the most beautiful shots you'll ever see. - the scene starts at around 9:10, and continues into the next segment. Although Chungking Express is, apparently, available on YouTube, Wong's sensual camerawork demands high-quality viewing. Unsurprisingly, Chungking Express was selected by Criterion as its first film to be released on Blu-Ray.

Chungking Express notably also helped, perhaps unfortunately, usher in the era of indie-quirk, where characters have defining habits as much as traits. Faye Wong's charming stalker is matched in the first half by Takeshi's obsessive purchasing of cans of pineapple with the expiration date of his attempts to rebuild his relationship.

In the Mood for Love is a simpler tale of connections nearly made and love nearly won and lost. Wong Kar-Wai uses perhaps his two most iconic actors, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, as the leads (like the Coen brothers, Wong has a stable of actors he dips into). They share an apartment complex, and discover that their spouses are having an affair with each other. They form a fumbling friendship with the shape of a romance, though never consummated, and in the end, they lose each other through their inability to make a move.

But a description of the storyline completely fails to measure the impact of the film. The camera caresses Maggie Cheung's wardrobe of cheongsams, and Tony Leung embodies the quiet desperation of his character. It's my favorite of Wong's films, and yet I'm virtually incapable of describing it.

Both of those films have more experimental pseudo-sequels. Chungking Express led to what was originally its third story, Fallen Angels, while In the Mood for Love spawned a somewhat more direct sequel, 2046. 2046 is arguably the most ambitious and least coherent of Wong's films. It follows Leung's character from In the Mood for Love as he fails to mend his broken heart with a string of women and authoring science fiction short stories taking place in the year 2046. The film bounces between his affair with a beautiful courtesan, his writing affair with his landlord's daughter, his memories of a female gambler who acted as his teacher, and his stories of a train in the future for the broken-hearted. It's a gorgeous, deeply affecting mess.

Fallen Angels follows a hitman and his agent as they become romantically entangled. Its scenes of extreme violence play out like a perfunctory action movie, as if Wong wanted the trenchcoats and badass without anything more than the minimum of the genre's attachments. It's arguably his most visceral, direct film, filled with fantastic images and moments, although it lacks some of the emotional resonance that Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love contain.

The idea that Wong Kar-Wai wants the accoutrements of a genre without the other expectations is even more true of Ashes of Time, his martial arts epic. Describing Ashes of Time as a "martial arts epic" is part of the problem - it's entirely personal in scope, and what little martial arts are shown exists more in effect than in cause or action. The film is about the idea that these men and women are near-superhuman swordsmen, but are crippled by their own lost loves and failures. Unsurprisingly, Wong focuses on the latter. It's another incoherent mess, but an affecting and beautiful one.

Wong Kar-Wai made his American debut a few years ago with the somewhat disappointing My Blueberry Nights. It's filmed in his signature style, with a broken-apart stories of lost loves in bars, casinos, and restaurants, but it never entirely coheres despite one fantastic segment with Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn, as well as a great performance from Natalie Portman. It's hard to say exactly why it doesn't work, but my guess is that Wong's work is so specific, so stylized, so artificial, so dependent on creating a mood, that any slight flaw makes the whole house of cards fall apart. It's not terrible, and may act as a gateway for Americans into Wong's works, but I find it one of his weakest films.

Wong is inextricably linked to his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. Wong's debut feature, As Tears Go By didn't include Doyle, and is considered a straightforward genre piece (it's the only one I haven't seen). His first film with Doyle, Days of Being Wild, includes several of his favorite actors (like Maggie Cheung and Leslie Cheung) and begins his run of odd, beautiful films, but still feels unfinished. The characterization is particularly weak, with the main character's womanizing being too-easily explained by his relationship with his horrifically manipulative mother.

Characterization is also the weak point of the last of Wong's films, Happy Together. Focused on a dysfunctional gay Hong Kong couple in Buenos Aires, both its subject matter and its cinematography are more jarring than most of his other films. Most of his characters have some level of darkness balanced by charm or kindness, but Happy Together lacks that all-around except for one minor character. It's easily his most difficult film.