It’s become one of those time-honored annual traditions that give our year some sort of predictable structure, if not necessarily comfort. I mean, every year Woody Allen may be counted on to churn out another honeydew-consistency confection, though each year that recurrence comes with deeper and deeper dread. That’s admittedly a rough segue to set up, but hopefully the only one who ever dreads David Ehrlich’s end of year countdown videos is Ehrlich himself.
Ever since 2011, Ehrlich has toiled away, always rather publicly, on his video Top 25 lists, becoming a sensation in the film critic community by 2014, if not earlier. His tastes are never quite the same as anyone else’s, and he developed an odd reputation as a cantankerous contrarian in spite spreading his love between independent and mainstream hits. Regardless how you feel about the films he includes and in what order, he shows an undeniable passion for film, the recurring visual and emotional motifs that connect them, and giving viewers a pretty good mental reference for karaoke night – I may have sung every song selection from his 2016 list over the past year.
So why not take this occasion to do something he wouldn’t find anxiety-inducing at all: ranking each of his seven videos to date, including the 2017 edition that just dropped this morning. Obviously not all the videos are made on the same level of technical sophistication. That shows especially in his earlier editions, when he was only just discovering his editing rhythms and a reliable structure. Still, each year’s video has stellar sections where Ehrlich synthesizes feelings of euphoria, ironic humour or even tremendous historic or cultural pain.
Like most fond traditions, Ehrlich’s start was shaggy, almost as if he didn’t think anyone would considerably care about it six years down the line. There are plenty of signs of light effort, from the brief, unconvincing snippet of Alexander Payne’s now notorious The Descendants to the odd reverses and repetitions of The Loneliest Planet – veering towards U.S. releases in more recent years has allowed him a lot more coverage and polish to work with. There are plenty moments when the music cues fail to excite, often using the same music as the film they’re accompanying, leaving them in need of fresh energy lifting them up. It’s hard, though, not to get enthusiastic at the alluring use of Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” and the emotional rush of The Chemical Brothers’ score for Hanna.
Year two: the intros hadn’t quite gotten sophisticated yet, the Holy Motors denouement is a bit predictable and passive, it’s kind of odd that he uses trailer music for one section, and one senses things are only downhill for Whedon from here. He’s raised his game undeniably, though, nailing the transition into his Top 10 with a sly, vivid montage setting Andrea Arnold and Mia Hansen-Love to Depeche Mode, and crafting a pretty lovely follow-through utilizing Dan Romer’s Beasts of the Southern Wild score in counter-intuitively effective ways. He certainly gets to what’s both beautiful and grotesque about The Comedy.
I feel a bit guilty placing this so low, but that’s more because he takes such fun, adventurous risks at every turn of this. His list is bookended by two equally iconic musical moments, heightening the role of performance in this specific collection of films. From the digital recreation of Marlon Brando to Joe Manganiello’s masterfully hilarious convenience store seduction from Magic Mike XXL, it’s all about the role, and the nuances, of performance. It all crescendos in a truly chilling moment of atrocity. It’s a rough job to depict Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence amidst a playful montage, but the moment is somehow both impishly playful and effectively haunting. On a more fun note, Ehrlich takes delightful advantage of the opportunity to set Mad Max: Fury Road to the bright, celebratory tune of Cyndi Lauper.
There’s a brief slag in the middle of this video where things become a touch murkier, less playful, less passionate. It’s really the only thing weighing this entry. He starts taking the movie music moment of the year, Matthew Goode and Mia Wasikowska’s piano seduction in Stoker, and finds startling, sensuous ways of paying tribute to each film from there. The Skrillex section felt like destiny in a year of films about amoral poison seeping into the fabric of America. Then he sticks the landing like crazy, moving through starry-eyed, dreamlike sections scored to Daniel Hart, Lana Del Rey and Oscar Isaac. This is where Ehrlich proved this series as not just an indulgence, but a rich, continuous passion project that’ll likely go on for as long as he loves film.
It always takes time for Ehrlich’s work to really settle. His tastes are always so unpredictable that you inevitably end up thrown by how high up Columbus was, how low The Beguiled is and “wasn’t he lukewarm on Get Out in January? What’s Foxtrot?”. Taking out of the gate with “The Chain”, possibly his most thrillingly sustained intro to date, Ehrlich sets a woozy, dreamy tone ideal for a year that’s felt like the fever trip after a car crash. “Rhythm of the Night” matched with The Lure is a dazzling mix, he gets quite archly funny with his inclusion of mother!, and by the time “Never Gonna Give You Up” hits you may be excused for thinking Ehrlich has slipped deliriously into self-parody. Still, the work is so swoon-worthy that it’s easy to become enamored with films you’re a bit cold on. Per example, I wasn’t biggest fan of Faces Places, but when Agnes Varda is being played out to “My Way”, I’m a damn puddle. (Full Indiewire Post)
Less a recycling of ideas and structures from the previous year than a finessing of them, what’s most exciting about Ehrlich’s 2014 video is how distinctly personal his choices are. There are some films here that wouldn’t be anywhere near my own list for that year, but he makes such an exhilarating, convincing case for his own love that find myself smitten nonetheless. The joy of seeing the cantankerous, hard-to-love Listen Up Philip set against Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”. The wicked humor of seeing The Babadook timed up to “Come and Get Your Love”. The Mommy fueled musical crescendo that lasts from #14 to #6, grandly in tune with how time renders all our lives small and still precious. You may argue with how he ends it, and what films he ends it on, but there’s no arguing that these are Ehrlich’s honest loves, through and through.
The first of his videos to feel like a tribute to not just the year in film, but the year as a whole, Ehrlich knew his 2016 video had to do more than just celebrate the films he loved. It also had to evoke the burdened emotional chord the year’s horrid events had provoked, and still find ways of reassuring and entertaining us in spite that. It’s a difficult task, and some particularly thorny films only make it harder, but every moment sings, even when it plumbs the depths of depression. Manchester by the Sea is a tough film to depict within a montage, but he strikes the perfect tone of loss for it. When he heads into his lengthy love section, from #14 to #8, it feels like he has a confident, emphatic hold on what makes each film beautiful and cherishable. By the Moonlight lit end, Ehrlich has done what seemed impossible: he’s shown the year to be beautiful again, and the world it depicts to be worth fighting for.