the decade in film: 2003-06

The end of a decade brings out the End Of Decade lists. I have little qualification to talk about the Best Movies of the Decade. Better critics than I have already put their lists together; I could only re-arrange the order.

So the following list does not contain the Best Films of the Decade. But it has films that all meant something to me, personally. Call them my Signature Films of the First Decade of the Second Millennium. Or something snappier.

Part Two: The Post College Years: 2003-06

In 2003 I saw the first film that I got in an Internet argument over: Kill Bill. A combination of what I liked least about Quentin Tarantino’s style (not knowing how, or when, to edit) with what I liked least about samurai movies (gushing blood) made for an appalling ninety minutes. Strangers told me I was a barbarian for not picking up on, or appreciating, all of Tarantino’s subtle references. I knew they were references, guys; that doesn’t make the film any good. Still don’t like it.

I joined Netflix in late ’03. Netflix deserves its own special chapter in the history of film in the 21st century; what it’s done for the at-home viewing experience is nothing short of remarkable. I remember waiting for Catch Me If You Can, my first Netflix movie, with uncertainty. Was it going to show? Would it be in watchable condition? Netflix was new enough at this point, remember, that it could have all been a complicated scam or a poor business model. Today, as the dominant platform for watching DVDs at home, it’s hard to imagine a time when this was in doubt.

(Catch Me If You Can: diverting, not great)

Netflix exposed me to the best (Lawrence of Arabia, North by Northwest, Collateral, The Italian Job) and worst (Terminator 3, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Italian Job) that the last seventy years of film had to offer. It’s made me a more sophisticated student of film. It’s also given me plenty to blog about.

Finally, this was also the period when big-budget superhero flicks came back in style. With Spider-Man and X-Men opening the door earlier in the century, DC waded in with their heavy hitters. I saw Superman Returns on Independence Day in 2006, giving it a B for effort and a C-minus for output. I debated its merits and failings with Matt McG. at a rooftop barbecue later that afternoon. “It would have been a much more satisfying movie if Batman showed up on that Kryptonite island,” I remarked.

I was hearkening back to my memories of Batman Begins in 2005: a more mature and satisfying look at the superhero movie than I’d ever seen. Batman Begins was innately satisfying to me because it used the conventions of Serious Film – clever cinematography, good pacing, characterization, dialogue – to tell a story about a Comic Book. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was good, sure, but it still had the flamboyance of a comic book splashed on screen. In the hands of Chris Nolan, however, you could believe that this Batman guy was real.

Part three on Friday, if I feel like it.


the decade in film: 2000-03

On vacation this week. This post was scheduled long ago.

The end of a decade brings out the End Of Decade lists. I have little qualification to talk about the Best Movies of the Decade. Better critics than I have already put their lists together (see Leonard Pierce’s 20 best of the decade, for instance); I could only re-arrange the order.

So the following list does not contain the Best Films of the Decade. But it has films that all meant something to me, personally. Call them my Signature Films of the First Decade of the Second Millennium. Or something snappier.

Part One: The College Years: 2000-03

In 2000, after Boston College’s alt-tabloid Naked Singularity grew too liberal for me – also, we never managed to put out more than one issue every semester, if that; add to that the fact that, like any random sampling of college progressives we could never agree on what was the most pressing issue that BC needed to take a stand against, Israeli mobilization on the West Bank or the lack of organic food in the Rathskellar; publishing burdens to which none of us really objected, because the paper was a great excuse to get together once every two weeks and drink in a cool off-campus apartment, opportunities which, as a shy freshman, I harvested like diamonds in a Jwaneng mine, plus I had a crush on two of the editors; and somehow they put me in charge of budgeting, a process I botched terribly, which probably led to the fact that they didn’t publish a lot of papers in subsequent years, but if we hadn’t canceled a meeting to all go listen to this visiting professor rant about the WTO I would have put in more of an effort – I started reviewing movies for the regular student paper, The Heights.

The weekly Arts and Entertainment staff meeting consisted of the editor sitting at the head of a table in BC’s upper campus dining hall, waiting for enough writers to show up to constitute a quorum. He would then divvy up assignments for the coming week. The divvyables were a pile of promo CDs, concert tickets and passes to free screenings for shows and movies around town. Unless a more senior writer had already spoken for one, the pile was first-come, first-served. I made my bones by showing up regularly, turning in decent if not astounding work, and volunteering to see movies no one should have been forced to see (Saving Silverman; Sugar and Spice; Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, etc).

Late in the year, Jeremy (the A&E editor) sat at the head of a largely empty table. Just a few of the regulars had shown up with me. Sifting to the bottom of the screenings pile, he pulled up a folded letter with an embossed sticker on the bottom. The sticker was a common studio tactic to keep reviewers from photocopying passes for friends. “Anyone free on Tuesday at 11:00 AM?”, he asked. “I have one here for a ‘martial arts romance’ from Ang Lee, called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“I’ll take it,” I said.

Thus began a ten-year love affair with martial arts cinema. I’d seen Yuen Wo-Ping’s work before (The Matrix, naturally), but nobody had told me kung fu films could be such stirring spectacles. Of course, they wouldn’t have thought to tell me: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a very atypical kung fu film. It uses none of the jump cuts or sudden zooms that are common in Shaw Brothers pictures but which would jar a Western audience. Its pacing and scope call to mind Sense and Sensibility more than an action flick.

Seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a theater full of critics also tuned me into the delicious high of being an insider. I saw the movie months before it debuted in the States. I felt like quite the connected little mastermind as the buzz surrounding the film began to trickle out. This insufferable snottiness has been hard to shake.

I had a similar reaction to Memento, which I saw in limited release with a few members of the Boston Objectivist Network. Can’t recall everyone who was in attendance, but it was a sizable turnout. Give a group of people who talk philosophy every month a movie like Memento, with its epistemological and ethical implications, and they’ll have discussion fodder for weeks. Following the movie, we retired to S&S in Inman Square, the sprawling deli which would become a haunt of mine years later. We debated until the staff were stacking chairs on the tables around us.

Today if I want gripping suspense thrillers that challenge my notions of causality, I have a wider palate to search through. But at the time Memento broke ground for me. It challenged my conventional notions of storytelling, editing and pacing. But it also introduced some interesting ethical quandaries: what’s the difference between justice and revenge? is justice worthwhile if you never remember getting it? if so, to whom and for what end? and is a goal-oriented life worth living if all your goals are artificially manufactured? and do we have any choice in the matter?

I had a long analogy here about how The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was the first movie I saw in theaters after the September 11th razing of the World Trade Center. It’s the sort of anecdote that’s rife with significance: I saw it with my family; I saw it in a packed theater; I saw it on Christmas Day, etc. In the end, I deleted that paragraph, so you don’t get to read it. It would have been too forced, and more than a little trite.

But if the first decade of the Twenty-First Century was the decade of Good vs. Evil, then starting it with The Fellowship of the Ring is apropos. Though it wasn’t as crypto-Christian as Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien invested the Lord of the Rings series with Catholic flavor, especially the love of the traditional English countryside. Peter Jackson reproduced the epic scope of the Fellowship’s march not just faithfully, but better than faithfully, evicting Tolkien’s most boring and odd segments in favor of desperate chases, exciting battles and wondrous landscapes. It gave birth to a host of imitators, but it also proved that epic fantasy and sci-fi wasn’t dead yet in film.

Finally, I have Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to thank for several things. Black Pearl was a surprise to everyone: I don’t think anyone expected a Jerry Bruckheimer picture based on a Walt Disney World ride to be any good at all, much less an entertaining adventure. But the writers took Disney’s budget, invented their own mythology, and had fun with it.

Black Pearl got me back into gaming after a long absence: while I’d been playing for a while, I wouldn’t have run anything if Depp, Bloom and Knightley hadn’t inspired me. And since the first game I ran introduced two of my dearest friends – John Fraley and Melissa Carubia – whom I would end up marrying eight years later, the movie has a deep, personal significance as well. They entered the wedding reception to Klaus Badelt’s boisterous theme and, of course, applause.

On Wednesday: the Post-College Years (2003-06).

there were three of us this morning; I’m the only one this evening

Against all sense and evidence I walked from Copley Square to Park Street on Monday night, in teens-degree weather against prevailing wind, to get a drink with Hawver and Fraley at Silvertone. I needed to get in touch with my city again. I love Boston in the fall and winter, lit up at night during the holiday season: the crowds, the traffic, the dash from windbreak to windbreak. I love cities at night.

“You still thinking about moving to Chicago?”, Hawver asked.

“Not really,” I said. “I’ve got things coming up in spring, like the show. Writing has started coming together again. Working downtown is nice. And my efforts to get out and be social are actually paying off.”

“So you’re putting down roots?”

“As much as a man in his late twenties without a child or a mortgage can, yes.”

Taking a few days off to fly to Baltimore and visit the family. Merry Christmas if that’s your poison. Posts coming next week, but I may not be copying them to Livejournal. All must labor and rest in their due time.

will I see you tonight, on a downtown train?

While Boston didn’t get it as bad as the rest of the East Coast, nine inches of snow fell on us from late Saturday night into early Sunday afternoon. This wouldn’t have been enough to dissuade us from jiu-jitsu (grr! we’re tough!), but since Watertown declared a snow emergency, we couldn’t have parked on the street our dojo sits on (we obey the law!).

That sounds like a mis-translated Shaw Brothers movie, actually: Tough Guys Who Obey All Laws. Starring Gordon Liu and Sun Chien; directed by Chang Cheh.

So I stayed inside all day Sunday and watched movies. Including and limited to:

Get Carter: Brutal and compelling, of a style that found frequent imitators through the 70s and 80s but retained little of the source’s art. A young Michael Caine (whom Matt W. told me I resembled once, back when my hair was curlier and my sideburns longer, plus I was carrying a shotgun and slapping around the proprietor of a Newcastle B&B; only now do I get it) plays Jack Carter, a London mob enforcer who goes north to investigate his brother’s death. He sinks waist-deep into a genuine mystery, popping pills and assembling clues until he uncovers the predictable, yet still galling, truth.

What puts Get Carter a head and shoulders above its imitators (including Tarantino) is its art. The cinematography is excellent: from the opening shot of Carter, backlit in an apartment window and staring over London with a drink in his hand, to the crane shot that follows him as he flees pursuers on foot and jumps into a waiting car, to the film’s tense climax. Midway through the film, a local youth group parades down a main street in full mufti. They play some stirring march in a kazoo chorus. The cookie-cutter rowhomes of the street they march on frame a massive factory and burbling smoke stacks at the bottom of a hill. ThinK Pittsburgh without the charm: it’s a beautiful juxtaposition.

Jack Carter is a psychopath. He lets the people who help him get beat up, robbed or even killed without much in the way of tears. He holds nothing sacred except family. And even that, we feel, is not out of some duty to the hearth but as a way of redeeming his past. “Frank wasn’t like that,” he yells at one point, shaking his listener by the shoulder. “I’m the villain in the family, remember?” Carter wants proof that the sadism he engages in is a choice, not in his blood. The fear that his family – his brother Frank and Frank’s daughter Doreen – might have fallen as far terrifies him. And like a terrified dog, he bites and never lets go.

Strangers on a Train: One of Hitchcock’s sharpest. Two men meet on a train ride from New York to D.C.: a handsome young tennis player, Guy Haines, and a rich, idle bachelor, Bruno Anthony. The two get to talking – Haines reluctantly – until it comes out that Guy wants to divorce his unfaithful wife, while Bruno chafes under his father’s thumb. Bruno suggests that two people who’d met by accident – like he and Guy – could swap murders and solve each other’s problems. Guy patronizingly agrees in order to get away from Bruno. But when he arrives in D.C. a day later, he discovers that his wife has been murdered …

All the usual elements are here: a man falsely accused. A woman uncovering a mystery. A maniac with a twisted relationship with his mother. Odd psychological contrivances. Races against the clock. Climactic battles in odd locales.

Example: In the film’s climax, Guy must win a tennis match as quickly as possible in order to hop a train to Connecticut. While avoiding the police who are tailing him. So he can catch Bruno planting evidence. But at the same time, through Hitchcock’s genius we find ourselves rooting for Bruno as well. We hope that nobody spots him, or that he doesn’t lose the crucial piece of evidence – because that would deflate Hitchcock’s meticulous ending into an anti-climax. Compare this to J.J. Abrams, whose idea of cranking up tension involves making everyone run (q.v. Star Trek, Mission Impossible 3).

Robert Walker as mama’s boy Bruno Anthony is the real gem here. He wavers between harmless eccentricity and casual brutality in a way that Anthony Perkins – to say nothing of Anthony Hopkins – must have mirrored. We find him fascinating in the way that a snake fascinates a rat. Sadly, Strangers on a Train was his last film. In August 1951, he suffered an acute allergic reaction to a dose of sodium amytal, administed by his psychiatrist for nerves. He died (like Brittany Murphy, who just passed this Sunday) at age 32.

50 books: 2009

Best Science Fiction / Fantasy
Nominees: To Say Nothing of the Dog, The Stress of Her Regard, Accelerando, Earth Abides, Perdido Street Station, The Dispossessed

Winner: The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s strength has always been to illustrate the odd quirks of human society by depicting them through the eyes of aliens. In lesser writers, this might come across as a condemnation; with Le Guin, it’s simple re-evaluation. How does the commodification of labor, food, comfort, shelter and everything else we take for granted in a capitalist society shape us? It may be the most efficient means of distribution yet discovered (as I believe), but it is if nothing else odd. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed makes that clear.


Best Mystery / Crime / Espionage
Nominees: The Tailor of Panama, The Surgeon, Persuader, No Second Chance, Shutter Island, Paranoia, One Shot, Gone for Good, The Hard Way

Winner: Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane. A tough one, really. All the Harlan Coben and Lee Child novels were roughly equivalent – good, diverting, fast-paced but ultimately just a little too contrived to merit a Best In Year title. But Lehane has a smooth, strong style like the pull of gravity. His tale of two federal agents investigating a disappearance in an insane asylum keeps the reader rattled, uncertain and hooked all the way through. Read it before the movie comes out.


Best Literature
Nominees: The Master and Margarita, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The House of Sand and Fog, Brave New World, No Country for Old Men, The Baroque Cycle

Winner: No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Stephenson’s penchant for long-winded asides, though entertaining and informative, keeps his novels from being the focused vectors of craft that they ought to be. And Bulgakov’s whirlwind satire of Stalinism vaults confusingly – though whimsically – from point to point. It’s McCarthy’s highly regarded novel that earns the top slot. Though all of his best novels concern the absurdity of human plans in the face of mortality, No Country makes those plans easily accessible to a modern audience (how to steal two million dollars of the mob’s money). And he gives mortality a face and a name, in the person of Anton Chigurh.


Best Non-Fiction
Nominees: Fast Food Nation, Kitchen Confidential, A Brief History of Time, Your Religion is False, Gang Leader for a Day, Wanderer, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Empire.

kitchen-confidentialWinner: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain. I wanted to give it to one of the political depth charges I read this year – Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, Sharlet’s The Family, Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis. Ultimately, however, they all padded their word counts with exhaustive details that showed the depth of their research but sacrificed the grace of their story. Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, on the other hand, paints a vivid, unflattering and engrossing picture of the transactions going on in each restaurant kitchen in America. It’s a wild ride, and Bourdain deserves the fame this book has brought him.


Best Reread
Nominees: Declare, The Stars My Destination, Red Mars, The Ophiuchi Hotline, This Immortal

red-marsWinner: Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson. Perhaps I’m cheating somewhat here, as I never finished Red Mars as a teenager. But that gave Robinson the greatest burden to fight against. I knew what to expect from Powers, Bester, Varley and Zelazny going in, but I had low expectations for Robinson. “I couldn’t slog my way through this before,” I thought, “what hope do I have now?” Boy, was I off. A sweeping, detailed, realistic and ultimately very human look at how a disparate group of humans might terraform our neighbor planet.


Biggest Surprise
Nominees: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Surgeon, Xenos, The Confusion

brief-wondrous-life-oscar-waoWinner: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz. Picking up this critically acclaimed novel, I was expecting a dense bildungsroman set in the Dominican Republic, one of those Important Novels that everybody reads but nobody enjoys. Instead, Diaz treated me to a breezy trip through three generations of laborers, hustlers, players and geeks. He sprinkles his anecdotes with note-perfect references to sci-fi and early 80s RPGs as well – and trust me, I would have noticed if he got them wrong. Read it, love it.


Biggest Disappointment
Nominees: Button Button, Emergency, Jack and Jill, How the Mind Works.

neil-strauss-emergencyWinner: Emergency, Neil Strauss. Jack and Jill I should have known would let me down; more than enough critics have heaped their derision on James Patterson for me to be wise. And my inability to plow through How The Mind Works says as much of my short attention span as Pinker’s dense, myopic writing style. But Emergency was pitched to me as “how to be Jason Bourne […] a veritable encyclopedia for those who want to disappear” (thanks, Tim Ferriss!). Instead, I got a series of self-indulgent anecdotes by Neil Strauss on how he could have obtained the documentation and survival skills to go off the grid. But didn’t. It’s part of the growing genre of Do Something Weird Just For The Sake of Writing A Book About It (The Year of Living Biblically, Julie & Julia): the niche blog as bestseller. It’s interesting to read. But if you want actual useful information, go elsewhere.


Most Fun
Nominees: Boomsday, Anansi Boys, Kitchen Confidential, Paranoia, One Shot

lee-childWinner: One Shot, Lee Child. Really, any of the Lee Child books could have answered here. Jack Reacher, his sullen, hulking ex-MP hero, is like Sherlock Holmes meets Jack Bauer: competent enough to take anybody down with his hands or with a gun, but usually capable of outwitting them first. Perfect beach or airport reading.

you gonna save me or not?

Last week, I wrote about discovering sushi, something I avoided for a while (in part) because I feared it was pretentious.

I copied this post to LiveJournal, where rival asked,

“You mention that you had been writing sushi off as a pretentious/inaccessible food. I have heard this sentiment from other people. Where does it come from?”

rival, permit me to demonstrate:

Last Sunday, I went to the grocery store in Porter Square. I got some sushi from the seafood aisle. It came in a pre-packaged little tray: eel, tuna, salmon, all in little ricey rolls. It had been made that morning, but would supposedly keep until the 19th (five days later) if I were in no hurry.

I took it home and ate it. And I really liked it.

(sits back, waits)

my face woulda been beet red

On Monday night, I stayed out way too late at the ImprovBoston Fun(d)raiser at the Estate in downtown Boston. Rather than narrate a party you didn’t attend in droning detail, I’ll call out some of the local and rising comics who performed. Keep an eye out for these names.

MC Mr Napkins, a/k/a Zach Sherwin: hilarious, Jew-froed indie-rap backpacker / comedian / anagrammatist from the Boston area. I’ve heard that he’s moving to the West Coast soon to try and Break In, which would be awesome.

“Street Cred” was one of the two songs he performed last night.

Tony V: legendary local on the Boston scene. A foul-mouthed but friendly old man.

The following video’s old material, but it’s indicative.

Myq Kaplan: really clever local comedian with a quick delivery. He’s going to be on the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien tonight (Wednesday the 16th). But I already saw his material. Except for the swearing.

Shane Mauss: if memory serves, he did a bit for The Waste Land Comedy Hour Starring T.S. Elliot that went over like a Stratus off a cliff. But the material in this show was all fresh and he delivered it pretty well. Shane has already been on Conan; he is supposedly coming out with a comedy album soon.