Category Archives: Best of Lists

Twenty-One 2014 Moments (10 Weeks Late)

I wanted to work up lists for television, film, music and books. But I also wanted to blog this year, and with coaching baseball and moving that didn’t happen, so completing those lists would’ve just cemented how disconnected I was for most of the year. Instead, here are the twenty-one most profound things I’ve seen, heard, or read this year, in no particular order:

1. Ida

2. “Heal” by Strand of Oaks

3. Madison Bumgarner in the MLB Playoffs and World Series

4. Lego Movie

5. “Lost in a Dream” by The War on Drugs

6. Olive Kitteridge on HBO

7. Station Eleven by Hilary St. John Mantel

8. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

9. “The Outsiders” by Eric Church

10. Broadchurch on Netflix

11. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

12. The first hour and forty-five minutes of Django Unchained

13. The Magic Flute by Mozart

14. Jason Isbell

15. Serial and Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcasts

16. Stories of Stefan Zweig

17. Doris Lessing (Specifically The Fifth Child)

18. The Prophet by Michael Koryda

19. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

20. Grandmaster Clash by Seth Stevenson from Slate Magazine

21. Frank Rich’s conversation with Chris Rock

One nice thing about putting this out so late, is I can look at all the award winners and feel unjustifiably pissed-off and maybe a little insecure in my choices. I did not like Foxcatcher, for example. I really, really did not like Birdman, and feel like it is an empty stunt (Mike Myers once said haggis was invented on a dare–Birdman is the haggis of movies). Not sure about the new D’Angelo album.

In 2014, there were a lot of naked emperors. Loads of naked people, as far as I can tell (Boyhood is, at best, Donald-Ducking it).

I have every intention of blogging again. Two or three a week, I hope. I am going to try and keep it focused on something I’ve read, seen, or heard. I might throw in something personal every now and again…

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For What It’s Worth (Belated October 5th Edition)

I’ve been AWOL the past week or so, and my computer was in for repairs, so this is a bit late…

Movies:

A couple classics.  If you have a Blu-Ray player I insist that you find Jaws.  It’s probably the first time I realized how different Blu-Ray looks.  Even my kids noticed and remarked upon the difference.  My five-year-old son says Jaws is his favorite movie now.  Not bad for an almost forty-year old movie.

Born Yesterday: Judy Holliday’s career was truncated, if not destroyed, by the Red Scare.  She isn’t known for much besides this movie, and it’s possible that she couldn’t play anything else, but that was enough, because she created an archetype.  Everyone from Marilyn Monroe to early Julia Roberts is indebted to her performance as a not-as-dumb-as-she looks girlfriend of a magnate in D.C.  William Holden and Broderick Crawford are in the movie too, but you won’t notice them.

Music:

I’ll be quick, because there’s been a bunch.  Mumford and Son’s Babel is good, if predictable, and its strengths are also the harbinger of the band’s limits (quiet-LOUD dynamics, an earnestness that threatens to harden into cant).

Mirage Rock by Band of Horses is a pleasant surprise, if ultimately forgettable.

The new albums by Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective suck, because those bands suck and I hate them and even if I finally liked one of their albums I would never admit it because their earlier work sucks so hard.

Is anyone else awed and possibly dismayed that the two nineties bands that are still seemingly vital (besides Radiohead and The Foo Fighters, I guess) are Green Day and No Doubt?  Did anyone see that coming?

Books:

Find and read the short stories of Brian EvensonFugue State and Windeye, especially.  He’s been compared to Peter Straub in that he is ultimately a writer of fantasy and horror, but I think the comparisons to Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme are more apt.  Funny, very readable, and scary.  All the while the meta-tricks and tautological loop-di-loops are profound.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: One of the things I constantly knock up against in my own writing is the word-count limits imposed by most magazines, whether online or print-based.  It’s frustrating, but whittling down my stories have never failed to make them tighter and better.  It’s obvious from this book that no one is imposing word-limits of Michael Chabon anymore.  When does that happen?  After a Pulitzer?  Anyway, all the eggshells that all of the critics are walking on about this book cannot hide these simple facts: there is no real propulsion driving this novel, there are no real stakes, and, most frustratingly, the combustible style Michael Chabon is known for has been used as a smokescreen for what is, simply, a collection of diffuse, fragmented, not-very-good-ideas.  And here’s the worst part: the style is so in your face, so thick, that it sounds less like Michael Chabon than a bad undergraduate’s fawning impersonation of Michael Chabon.

Television:

Elementary will probably be worth watching, if only for Jonny Lee Miller.  I still prefer Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, but why not New York City, and Lucy Lui as Watson?  Besides Dracula, Scrooge, and James Bond, Sherlock Holmes is probably the sturdiest character we’ve been given in the past two hundred years, and it’s nice to have himm back in two new incarnations.

Tuesday night on Fox–Ben and Kate, The Mindy Project, New Girl—is funny and makes my week better.

Online:

Librivox is a free service that gets volunteers to read books in the public domain, which I can then download and listen to while I run and clean the house.  I’ve polished off a bunch of Dickens and Hardy, and now I’m listening to Middlemarch.  It’s sketchy sometimes—these are not professional readers, and at times not even native English speakers, and I sometimes I wonder if they are in fact prisoners on some weird work-release program because why would you volunteer to do this?—but it’s free.

Oh, and the Reds lost to the Giants.  I’ll never watch baseball again.  Until next April.

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For What it’s Worth 9/18/12

Wow—I must’ve had either the busiest or laziest week of my life last week because I can’t think of too many recommendations to share.  Let’s call it the busiest and leave it at that.

Movies:

We rented Snow White and Huntsman on Friday but I fell asleep (passed out, which is not the same thing, I’m told) about fifteen minutes in.  We got the BluRay, and it took me a half-hour to figure out how to update the software on the Playstation 3 so it would play.  After that I was exhausted.   I never had to update my VCR.  New tech sucks it.

Way too many easy jokes…

The Cabin in the Woods: Cute premise, fun movie that believes itself to be a little smarter than it actually is.  Richard Jenkins steals the show as one of the office drones/puppet masters.  As a comment on horror and violence in cinema, the film had my attention until the last ten minutes or so.

Carnage: Cute premise, fun movie that believes itself to be a little smarter than it…actually…is.  Oh.  Same diff.  Jodie Foster is histrionic.  John C. Reilly is overmatched.  The timing is stilted and it’s stagy and claustrophobic, and not in the awesome, Roman Polanski’s-early-films-like-Rosemary’s-Baby-or-Repulsion.  That said–and reviewing the previous lines it looks like I hated this film—it has it’s moments.  Christoph Waltz is fine, though he has a bit of trouble with the accent.  Kate Winslet is given a whole lot to do, but not enough of substance with which to flex her muscles.  The ending’s a bit pat. Maybe I did hate this movie…

Also Carnage, but not in the movie

Music:

No new music.  The only chance I had to listen to any thing was when I went shopping with my kids and had my iPod on shuffle.  Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” came on and my kids asked why the Muppet singing the song was so sad.

After that, a new cut by Bob Dylan started playing and they made fun of me for having pirate music on my iPod.  I felt like firing up Tom Waits and Nick Cave for the remainder of the trip, but thought better of it.  Philistines.

Books:

Finished a book of poetry by Forrest Gander called Deeds of Utmost Kindness.  I read ten or twelve books of poems a year.  I can’t remember any of it.  They go through me like lentils.  I’m surprised I remember the title and author.  Sorry, Mr. Gander.  You’re very talented, I suspect.  I am just a moron.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz: I have it on good authority (a colleague who spoke with Diaz for all of three minutes) that Junot Diaz is a Class-A asshole.  If his stories are in any way autobiographical, it must be true.  I don’t put much stock in reading an author’s life into her stories, though, if only because I’d hate to piss anyone off with my own.  Stories have to be autobiographical, to a degree, right?  If only emotionally or intellectually or thematically autobiographical?  That said, there’s no need to get all “Dwayne-is-actually-Wayne-and-Stick-Cornhole-is-actually-Dick-Pornpole.” Anyway, the point is, that Diaz writes with electricity.  He manages to combine a Dominican street patois with an earnest, over-intellectual and even geeky joy, all the while telling tales of desperation and violence and sex and especially love in all of it’s spine-curving, head-exploding power.  Definitely the pop culture highlight of my week.

Television:

Wow.  Literally nothing.  Cincinnati Reds games, mostly.  Thirty games over five-hundred.  Keep rolling, Redlegs!

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For What it’s Worth 9/10/12

Pretty busy week last week, so there’s not a whole lot to recommend, but I want to do this every week, so here goes:

 

Music:

 Sun by Cat Power: I wasn’t a huge fan of her Jukebox albums, but I loved The Greatest, and this is a return to form, as far as I can tell.  She reportedly did the whole album solo and played all the instruments as well.

I know she’s had some personal problems, but I feel annoyed that every time she releases an album, the critical reviews always seem to regard it as some personal triumph, as if she’s some helpless, terminally damaged freak who can only get it together every three or four years to put out an album.  I hope it’s annoying to her too.

Tempest by Bob Dylan: Holy shit.  A couple of months ago a writer for The Guardian called out Bruce Springsteen as an artist in decline, as someone who serves less as a vital, contributing presence than as a revered albeit toothless demigod.  The article pissed me off, but I couldn’t argue.  Springsteen has put out one great album over the past decade-and-a-half; however, the songs that make up that one album are spread over five okay ones.  I thought, at the time, that Bob Dylan would be next in line for the same treatment.  His last very good album was Love and Theft, his last great one was Time Out of Mind.  His last album was shit.  My hopes were not high.  I was ready to scream out that the emperor was, at last, buck-ass naked.  Then he dropped The Tempest, his best album since Love and Theft and maybe since Time Out of Mind.

Is he still vital?  I don’t know.  Is this a profound and moving album that I will listen to for the foreseeable future?  Oh yes.

Television:

New TV is beginning soon, but nothing really to report otherwise.  Doctor Who is always worth checking out on BBC America…

Actually, check that—it’s the last season of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain on The Travel channel (!), and I initially hesitated to mention this only because at this point, you’ve probably seen an episode (or thirty) and have already made your mind up about the show itself and Bourdain in particular.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been a fan since his book Kitchen Confidential in the late 1990’s, the show is terrific and he basically has my dream job.  If you’re still on the fence, try to find the episode where he goes to the Ozarks, eats squirrel and raccoon, arms wrestles (and loses to) a sixty-five-year-old woman, almost kills critically acclaimed author Daniel Woodrell, and sheepishly explains the best way to prepare duck breast to two burly mallard hunters in Dickies and hooded sweatshirts.  Great stuff.

 

Film:

Certified Copy: Abbas Kiorastami is an Iranian filmmaker whose films are typically love-it-or-hate-it.  I really liked this film, but I’m reticent about recommending it in that it’s still difficult and even boring for stretches.

It concerns a couple who may or may not be in love, who may or may not have just met.  It reminds me of some early films of Antonioni in its execution and disregard for whether you, as a viewer, are entertained.  I typically admire that kind of artistic attitude, though at times his insistence on long stretches of nothing can solidify into a kind of pretentious tic.

The Five Year Engagement: Overlong, and not as funny as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but it has Emily Blunt, which should, at this point, be enough for anyone with two eyes and a heart.

Internet:

Longform.org is a digest of outstanding, longer magazine and newspaper pieces.  This past week, I read an excellent GQ article by Devin Friedman about Rick Ross, a Believer interview with Jonathan Gold (whose food reviews are worth checking out on their own), and a New Yorker article about the new film Cloud Atlas by Alexander Hemon.  Until this point, I relied on Arts and Letters Daily for this kind of thing, so it’s nice to have another option.

 

Books:

I’m plodding through a collection of stories by the canonical Indian author R.K. Narayan (The Grandmother’s Tale).  Every time I feel like chucking it, something in the book charms me and I keep going.  Narayan is considered by many to be a master of the form, and it shows, mostly, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that just as often as I’m interested in the stories, I’m distracted or annoyed by how precious his prose can be.

Enemies, A Love Story by I.B. Singer: Now here’s a short novel, by a famous, Nobel winning author, that won’t put you to sleep.  It concerns a Holocaust survivor, relocated to Coney Island and married to the gentile, Polish woman who kept him safe for three years in her barn during the war.  In addition, he’s conducting an affair with a Jewish woman who survived Auschwitz.  The his wife, long thought dead, shows up in New York.  Complicated, funny, thought-provoking, and nasty.  We often read accounts of the Holocaust, but I rarely, if ever considered the complications that occurred afterwards.  How do you live a moral, sustained life after surviving such an atrocity?  When does life become worth living again?  And how does one re-establish human connections when everything and everyone you depended on is taken away from you?  Finally, this profoundly cynical question: if you are a rat-bastard to those you love, in what way are your sins forgiven and forgotten if you also happen to be victimized by the most horrifying atrocity ever conceived?  Does it make you a better person?  Can it excuse you?  In an explanatory note at the beginning of the book, Singer writes “I never had the pleasure of being a guest in one of Hitler’s camps…”  A bark of laughter into the void if there ever was one.

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For What it’s Worth (September 4)

A nice long labor day weekend.  We even made it to church.  Here are a couple things to prop you up this week.

Movies:

A Separation: I thought about writing an entire post about this film.  We’ll start with the fact that it’s Iranian, and at times, it’s difficult to suss out the motivations (religious, personal, and otherwise) and bureaucracy the characters sift through to find justice (if that’s what you want to call it).  I hope the general hoopla about this movie is more nuanced than a general, xenophobic surprise that Iranians are like us and not just head-scarved, camel-riding zealotes bent on American amelioration.  The five major characters in this twisty domestic drama, which moves and looks like a thriller, are flawed and heartbreaking.  The subject matter, one could argue, is something found on Lifetime, but handled with the dramatic precision of Greek theatre.

The Pirates!: Band of Misfits:  Slightly less serious but just as impressive is the new film from Aardman (Wallace and Gromit, Flushed Away).  Awesome to look at, each frame packed like a Mad Magazine cartoon panel, yet the humor is largely gentle and punning and mildly sardonic—very early Zucker Brothers, at their most random.  I worry that my kids will never fully shake the idea that Charles Darwin was a conniving idiot and Queen Victoria a sociopath, but we don’t live in England, so who cares?

Music:

The Carpenter by The Avett Brothers: Quieter than their previous, I and Love and You, and initially disappointing (where are the whoops and screams?), a second listen revealed the song craft, their strongest yet.  I love this band.

NPR Music App: Lest you worry that I ripped off the Avett Brothers and downloaded the album (Moi?  Non, non, non) before it drops on Sept. 11, let me introduce you to the free app from NPR and my new personal obsession.  The first listen option (currently you can stream the new Cat Power, Stars, Deerhoof, and a collaboration between David Byrne and St. Vincent, xx) is worth having it on your phone, but the podcasts, specifically All Songs Considered, are just icing.

Sweet Heart, Sweet Light by Spiritualized: I’ve never listened to Spiritualized, but after hearing snippets of songs on—what?–All Songs Considered, I snatched it up.  It’s the kind of album that makes you wonder why you weren’t listening all along.

Random: “I Love It” by Icona Pop (Swedish duo, though the “Swedish” part becomes obvious about two seconds into the song).  “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells (why haven’t I heard more about this group?  “Crimson and Clover”?  “Sweet Cherry Wine”?  Anyone else?), “The House that Heaven Built” by The Japandroids (makes me want to punch a hole in the ceiling of my car when it comes on—why does great music make me want to destroy things?)

Television:

Breaking Bad ended for the year with a good run, though at times I felt like there were some overly convenient twists and turns as the series draws to a close.

Copper: I’ve seen the first three episodes of this drama on BBC America, and though it’s not Deadwood, it’s a rowdy historical series that manages to meld the pleasures of a police procedural (NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street) with the grimy “Five Points” period of Civil War New York.  The main kick of the show is the rather jaundiced view that the corruption and loose ethical guidelines of the police force exist because of the entrenched moral depravity of the upper classes, who use the lives and land of immigrants and minorities as there own personal playground.  The show was created by Tom Fontana, who made Homicide and Oz, and though it tries too hard, it’s settling into a groove.

Doctor Who is back!!  It’s kind of a BBC week…

Books:

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper: I finished Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy before starting this, and I worry that the Tropper suffered unnecessarily in the transition.  That said, Tropper writes casual, funny prose and witty dialogue, though the repartee can get overlong and tired.  He’s basically the kind of foul-mouthed, sadsack men’s author, like Nick Hornby or Mordecai Richler or more recently Chad Harbach, who writes books about and for guys but is read predominantly by women because guys don’t read.  It concerns the former drummer of a one-hit wonder, his crappy life and impending death.   The book is funny, though at times a bit too broad, and worth your time, tough it pales in comparison to his previous book, This is Where I Leave You.  Truth be told, you should probably read the Thomas Hardy.  Or About a Boy by Nick Hornby, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, or Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler.  Actually, just read Mordecai Richler—he should be mentioned in the same breath as Philip Roth.

 

Looking Forward to…

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

Mickey Mouse History edited by Mike Wallace

New Fall Television!

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For What it’s Worth

I always like looking at what the editors of publications I enjoy recommend—books, movies, music, etc.  I have neither the expertise nor the persuasiveness to make you seek out anything on the following list, but I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy them, nonetheless.

Television:

Sherlock: A BBC show by the two main writers of Doctor Who, it take Sherlock Holmes and puts him in the modern world.  Each episode is ninety minutes, and you can find all six on DVD.  I’ve had them in (on?) my DVR for months, and finally got around to watching them.  They are so smart and canny about updating classic Holmes stories so they’re both plausible and surprising to hardcore Holmes fans.  The leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, respectively, are terrific, and Cumberbatch, especially, brings an icy charge to his portrayal.  I’m especially impressed with the look of the series, especially considering the episodes are predominantly directed by Paul McGuigan, whose only recognizable credits are Wicker Park and Lucky Number Slevin, both of which were fucking terrible.  Here it feels slick and polished and unlike other serial television series.

Music:

Still pretty obsessed with the Father John Misty album, Fear Fun.  It’s a project from J. Tillman, Fleet Foxes’s drummer.  I like Fleet Foxes, but I like this better.

Also, if you have not already, try anything by Langhorne Slim.  Totally worth it.

Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music is great old school hip-hop from an Atlanta-based rapper that will make you hungry for more Outkast.

Books:

Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre: Nonfiction about a secret agent during WWII.  Not normally my cup of tea, in that I’ve never gravitated towards the novels of le Carre or Alan Furst.  But this book is so much fun.  A bank thief flees to Nazi Germany to escape imprisonment in England and is recruited by the Nazis to sabotage a British munitions factory.  When he hits British soil, he immediately contacts British intelligence and begins to operate as a double agent.  Great wry sense of humor throughout, especially about the ridiculous ideas both sides generated to undermine each other.  Did you know the British used freaking magicians to help with their shenanigans?  Truly shows war as a psychopath’s sandbox.

 

Movies:

I haven’t seen a good movie in a long time.  Maybe House of the Devil or The Innkeepers—low budget stuff from Ti West.  The Entrance is interesting but slow.  Super low budget.

Excited For:

 

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

Babel by Mumford and Son

NW by Zadie Smith

Doctor Who starts Saturday, September 1 on BBC America

 

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Best Television of 2011

Exam time at school, so not a lot of time for dilly-dally (or random thoughts in an effort at an introduction).  Let’s get to the list!

Oh how I missed Mad Men this year.  Something to look forward to next year, I suppose.  I tried to put the shows in order as best I could:

1. Breaking Bad: Not just the best television this year but the best example of sustained quality in a team of creative writers, directors, and actors since The Wire.  One of the best television shows of all time.

2. Doctor Who: Stephen Moffat is a genius, and this is truly an extraordinary show.  I have a special weakness for it because I watch it with my kids and we have weird space-time continuum discussions afterwards that enrage and confuse my wife.  Awesome.

3. Fringe: Kind of a cheat pick, because I saw all of them on DVD, but my favorite show of this ilk since Lost, and who knows?  I may like it better.  Anna Torv, especially, has such an odd and engaging cadence and demeanor; she’s almost a female Christopher Walken: high praise, in my book.

4. Game of Thrones: An obsession with my wife and I earlier this year, and it’s really too soon to tell if it will be any good for an extended period.  But, I’ll watch anything with Peter Dinklage.  He’s extraordinary, and this gives him the showcase he deserves.  Also, every time they need to provide exposition, it’s during a scene involving nudity or copulation.  Brilliant.

5. Justified: Season two is not as good as Season one, but still plenty good.  Crackling dialogue, and the performances by Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies made me forget that Walton Goggins had almost nothing to do.

6. Modern Family: Still very funny, and I think the writers have done an excellent job of deepening the relationships and characters.  It’s not a joke machine, and the humor happens less from the gags than from the quirks of the actors and whom they portray.

7. New Girl: This one could get old really fast, but right now it’s cooking with gas.  Very funny, with terrific, already established characters and relationships.

8. Downton Abbey: Filled the “Mad Men gap” a little bit.  It’s odd, because I really looked forward to this show, and my wife always looks forward to…

9. Sons of Anarchy:  Yes—probably my wife’s favorite show.  She’s got very good taste.  Pulp-Hamlet, Shakespeare on a Harley, whatever you want to call it, it’s really fun.

10. The Killing: I was not disappointed by the finale, actually; I kind of liked it, and I love the lead performance by Mireille Enos.  The middle was a slog, though.

Honorable Mention:

Dexter

Project Runway

Nurse Jackie

American Horror Story

Work of Art

How I Met Your Mother

Sherlock

True Blood

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