Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Best Books Of 2011

Most Disapointing: Swamplandia: I’ve read worse books this year (see below) but none that were quite so dispiriting as watching this lively original novel sink in a mix of grad school clich├ęs in the final third. Like watching one of Russell’s indomitable Bigtrees take a perfect swan dive off the highboard only to plunge directly into the gullet of a gator upon landing.

Worst: My Boyfriend Wrote A Book About Me: I know Sloane Croasley, and you ma’am are no Sloane Croasley.

10. The Wise Man’s Fear/ The Magician King:

There is true magic in both of these imperfect, wildly ambitious, wonderful sequels.

The Wise Man’s Fear takes The Name Of The Wind and turns it up to eleven. For all the good and bad that that implies. On one hand, no book that contains the line “Thank the moon for sending me this lusty young manling,” (a line that caused my sister to laugh from one end of a long car trip to the other) can be said to be perfect. Around Kvothe’s eighth sensual encounter with the sex ninjas, it takes a powerful reader not to wish that Rothfuss had perhaps chosen to limit himself to four. And like The Name Of The Wind, one reaches the end of the book with the dispiriting realization that not all that much has happened.

And it doesn’t matter.

The Kingkiller Chronicles are the rarest and most valuable of stories, those that are entirely in the telling and not the tale. Rothfuss is simply put a wonderful storyteller. As his smooth prose unfurls the reader is helplessly drawn deeper and deeper in. In his ambitious, deeply humanistic fantasy epic, Rothfuss is giving us the fantasy story of our age. And doing it with a skill that makes me frankly angry that when I turn to my bookshelf there are only two books that bear his name on their spine.

Believe me, there is no book I anticipate more than the final volume in this story. If Rothfuss is somehow able to pull off this absurd dare he has set for himself and get everything he has promised into the final volume it will be simply wonderful. Even if he doesn’t, one can’t help but be thankful for storytellers like him.

The Magician King is something altogether, and powered by a different sort of magic. In it, Grossman does nothing less than an act of transubstantiation. Turning the very ambitious dissertation that was The Magicians into a real life story. It’s thrilling, like watching The Blue Fairy turn Pinocchio into a real boy.

In a daring move that pays dividends Grossman splits the narrative between occasionally insufferable malcontent Magician, Quentin Coldwater’s reluctant stumbling progress towards actual heroism and his childhood friend Julia’s brutal quest for self knowledge. The most ill advised search for truth since Harry Angel made that trip to New Orleans. Equal parts The Chronicles Of Prydain and Darren Aronofsky. The Magician King climaxes with a vile parody of religious enlightenment and a galvanizing blast of what may be the real thing. For all the admiration that The Magicians got, there were those who insisted on writing off Grossman as a clever boy. This ought to shut them up nicely.

8. Fear And Loathing At Rolling Stone/ Pauline Kael The Age Of Movies:

Fitting tributes to two of the finest Raconteurs American letters have produced. Both of these volumes capture the authors in all of their complexity. Both their unassailable brilliance and their infuriating lapses.
Fear And Loathing At Rolling Stone chronicles Thompson’s dizzying rise, blazing a trail of scorched earth through a thicket of stupidity and hypocrisy. Inarguably climaxing in Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail, a work that is generously excerpted here in that will stand alongside a Modest Proposal as one of the greatest works of satire created. It also is merciless in its documentation of Thompson’s decline, while being careful to highlight the flashes of brilliance that could still spring from Thompson’s typewriter.

I do have some issues with the anthology, including the baffling decision to abridge some of the pieces. But as a whole the collection is a fitting tribute to the man and helped me finally come to peace with my all too human idol. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Kael I have a much less personal relationship. Her work has always been too dogmatic and vindictive for my tastes and she has done little to shape my preference or ideas about film. That said, you can’t ignore the elephant in the room and few have written so influentially about film and even less with such pure, splendid ferocity. For Kael the movies mattered in a way that little else did. Her only real requirement was that they matter to the people making them as well. If the filmmakers in question didn’t bring as much care and passion to their movies as she did, Be-fucking-ware. You can’t help but admire that and if nothing else the aspiring writer can take this worthy lesson from Kael. Be prepared to take it to the mat. Every. Time.

6. Outlaw Album: The man who I sometimes consider the greatest writer working in America today delivered this slim collection of stories, as stark, truthful and beautiful as anything in American fiction. Bone hard and lean the stories of Outlaw Album show an American Master at the top of his creative powers. The last true master of the American vernacular. Small but mighty.

5. Reamde: I’m not going to lie, the fact that both William Gibson AND Neil Stephenson now find the present to be an appropriate place to set their stories scares the shit out of me. But it’s hard to mind when the result is a novel as thrilling, vivid and funny as Reamde. A novel with the density that rivals that of dwarf stars, yet somehow manages to breeze by as quickly as any dimestore paper back.

Like a Tom Clancy book for smart people Reamde unfolds over a global panorama across which enough ammunition is spilled to fuel several Balkan conflicts and/or another Wackowski Brother’s SciFi trilogy. Reamde combines all the best of Stephenson’s attributes, deadpan sense of absurdist humor, vivid detailed prose and unstoppable narrative momentum with virtually none of his weaknesses. To call it a perfect starting point for Stephenson fans would be unfairly reductive. When what it is is simply one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read this year.

4. 11/22/63: … I say one of because Stephen King’s late period winning streak continues unabated. Holy Crap. This is great. Watching King take a premise that seems designed to sustain roughly three hundred pages or so and turning it into one of the most propulsive reads I’ve encountered, is like watching a man ride a high wire on a unicycle while juggling flaming torches.

But all the narrative tricks in the world wouldn’t matter a damn if King hadn’t of found such a brokenly human story through which to tell it. Couching the uncanny in the human has always been King’s gift, but over his post Cell work it has grown to define him. King just keeps getting better.

3. Habibi: Perhaps the most beautiful comic I have ever read. Craig Thompson is one of the few who actually earns the term Graphic Novelist. Every work he does stuns with the complexity of its beauty and the depth of its compassion. Lovely.

2. Leftovers: Tom Perrotta’s eerily haunting novel is the best of a notable career. Following America in the wake of either The Rapture, or an event so like it that it literally makes no difference, Perrotta sketches a moving portrait of ordinary people facing the unthinkable… and then quietly gathering themselves up and going on. Most of them anyway. Worthy of Vonnegut and the best of Updike, The Leftovers is not only the greatest American Novel of the year, but an early contender for best of the decade and as delicate and moving a depiction of the post 9/11 mindset as I have read. D

Absolutely unshakeable.

1. The Pale King: A five hundred page tombstone, the most talked about, dissected unfinished novel since Edwin Drood, an unfinished epitath that leaves with it always the haunting possibility that maybe it was always planned this way. So much has been said about it that it’s tough to even know what to write. So I will just bow my head in humble thanks for one last gift from a man who held on for as long as he could.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

Alamo Drafthouse Austin Montage for December 2011 from Alamo Drafthouse on Vimeo.

I'll be back to wrap up the year with its various lists shortly. Until then,With a little help from The Alamo Drafthouse, allow me to wish you and your's a very merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Cameron Crowe makes big, emotionally generous, open hearted movies. These are the qualities that endured him to a generation of film fans and are of course the very qualities that landed him in Director Jail for the past half decade.

No matter I have faith in Cameron Crowe, indeed I have the kind of wide eyed faith in Cameron Crowe that Cameron Crowe characters have in things. Almost Famous remains both a pleasurable ramshackled shaggy dog comedy and one of the most honest movies ever made about the relationship we have with the art we latch onto, Vanilla Sky continues to be way ahead of its time.  I highly anticipate his return to narrative filmmaking this December with We Bought A Zoo and if Pearl Jam 20 is any indication, the time away has not overly bruised Crowe. His approach to documentary work contains the same optimism and sweet nature that his narrative films do. While Pearl Jam 20 may not exactly be what anyone would call hard hitting, it’s a commissioned victory lap of a film, it is still an intimate, interesting look behind the persona of one of the biggest rock bands in the world and the environment that spawned it.

It’s an interesting film to watch for me, if only because you would be hard pressed to find a band I have less investment in than Pearl Jam. I don’t mean this as a snobbish thing. I’m not trying to claim that they’re hacks or bad musicians. It’s an almost chemical reaction for me. Their music simply fails to elicit any kind of response from me. They’re doing their thing, I’m doing mine and we seem to get along very well without one another. That said, even if 20 doesn’t exactly inspire in me a love of Pearl Jam’s music, it couldn’t help but elicit respect. There’s footage here, particularly from their early live performances that is just incredible with Vedder climbing up scaffolding at shows like a howler monkey before leaping dozens of feet into waiting crowds. Looking less like a leader of a rock band and even less like the mellow elder statesman so prevalent today than some sort of crazed messianic cult leader. All I can say is it made me fervently wish for access to a time machine so I could see one of those shows and as previously stated I don’t even like the band. 

One interesting thing to note is that 20 is the first documentary about a band that grew up in the video era and if its any indication of where things are headed music documentaries are about to get a lot more interesting. While there are still plenty of talking heads, most of the story is told by the band itself in the present tense, through footage that they themselves shot over the years. There’s a staggering array of material here. One of Crowe’s strongest attributes as a filmmaker is the instinct he has towards the detritus that makes up pop culture. He tells his story with things like Operaman sketches, clips from Wheel Of Fortune and The Headbangers Ball, and even excerpts from Crowe’s own Seattle opus Singles and it’s disastrous after party where the drunken band assaults a room full of studio and music executives. It’s storytelling through collage in a way that manages to really bring the feel of the era that spawned Pearl Jam and the other Seattle bands to life.

Crowe  manages to keep 20 intimate and celebratory, but with just enough insight and journalistic integrity to keep it from crossing over into fawning. At the core of the movie is Crowe’s conviction that the thing that gives Pearl Jam so much of its power is the fact that its nice to see someone lead by example for a change. It’s this insight that makes 20 the type of film that makes even a non fan want to celebrate. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011


When I walked into the empty theater and took my seat for Hugo I saw Scorsese staring down at me.

Father Martin looked a little disappointed in me and well he should. Just look at the state of the place. Oh sure a lot of this neglect is due to Son Of Danse Macabre and I’m sure once that particular project is done I’ll have much more time for Things That Don’t Suck. But lets face facts some of it is very real burn out as well.

I used to have such a pure hunger for film. Relentlessly seeking it out. New or old, indie or mainstream, good or bad, it didn’t matter as long as I hadn’t seen them before. I wanted to watch everything.

I’m literally embarrassed by some of the stuff that I’ve missed seeing in the theater this year. Sure no one can see everything, but I’ve missed some truly basic stuff, stuff I’ve been excited about seeing for a long long time. If you don’t see Tree Of Life on the biggest screen available to you it means one thing, you don’t care enough. And if you don’t care enough well what business do you have writing a film blog?

The fact is a few moments of frisson aside; the narcotic junkie’s quest for film and its cousin narcotic bliss have been absent from my life this year, for the first time in memory. I had to make a decision yesterday regarding film that made me sick, literally sick all day. It transformed me into my most bearish and I really, truly pity anyone who had to encounter me. But the fact is, that five years ago, hell two, I would never have made the same choice. Part of that is growing up, but some of it feels like giving up.

Because the idea of making my own films or hell working on anybody’s, looks more and more unlikely with each passing day. Some of this is my fault, as time keeps on slipping I looked at my writing and my filmmaking and had to choose which to put my energy into. Paper is cheaper than pixels and I’m a more natural writer than I’m a filmmaker (no comments from the peanut gallery) and my chances of getting published are better than my chances of getting a production off the ground. But the sting of the dream abandoned, even temporarily, never goes away. If you’re not careful it’ll tarnish the very thing that made you dream in the first place.

It’ll make you bitter.

So as I sat there underneath the sounds of Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Film. Hearing lines that I once watched so many times that I knew them by heart, the feeling of disappointment became all too keen. I once understood the lines that Scorsese spoke. Could I truthfully say that I still did?

I should have known that Scorsese would have a homily ready.

Hugo is a wonderful film. I mean that in the true sense. It reminds you that wonder itself is the primary force behind film. A film made all the more warm and humane given it’s knowledge of cruelty. It is simultaneously like no film that Scorsese has ever made and entirely of a piece.

It’s not hard to read into the story of an older filmmaker whose ability to produce art is stripped from him, Scorsese making an alternate history for himself. Today, even if Scorsese can’t make anything he wants (and if he never gets his chance to bring Silence to the screen, I will consider it perhaps, the greatest of unmade films) he is certainly in a better position, both creatively and financially, than the majority of his peers. Contemporary or otherwise.

It’s easy to forget that Scorsese’s films didn’t really make money until The Aviator. It’s all too easy to imagine that if that film hadn’t been made, if Michael Mann had directed it as was originally intended, and Scorsese’s lucrative partnership with DiCaprio hadn’t cemented. Had he instead followed up Gangs Of New York with another costly underperformer, that the state of his career would have much more in common with someone like DePalma, or Scorsese’s mentor Michael Powell at the end of their tenure, or yes like George Melies. Still dreaming, still scheming, working desperately to make films that no one wanted. It’s this quality that gives the film weight a knowledge of the road not taken.

If that gives it its weight, than it’s the gratitude in the road that was taken that gives the film its delightful fleetness. There is a filmmaker’s film and one can feel Scorsese’s palatable glee as he attempts to one up the silent filmmakers he pays such righteous tribute too. Watching him restage Harold Lloyd’s Clock scene is like watching one magician, make a pocket watch disappear, than watching another bow to him and make a Grandfather Clock vanish. The highlight of the film is a blistering montage of silent cinema that probably made a bumper crop of young cinephiles in every theater in which it played. It’s followed immediately by a jaw dropping recreation of the silent era, showcasing Scorsese as one of the few filmmakers capable of simultaneously pushing cinema forward with each film he makes, and revering its past.

There is to the film just the slightest whiff of Tati, as Scorsese benevolently watches his “parts” play across the station Including the likes of Richard Griffiths, Christopher Lee (in a role that made me tremendously happy) Sacha Baron Cohen (less broad than the awful trailers would have you believe) and the lovely Emily Mortimer.  Whimsical is not exactly the word that one often uses when describing Scorsese and it’s not exactly overplayed here. But it fits.

But it is the central cast of Asa Butterfield, Chloe Morentz and Ben Kingsley who carry the film. Butterfield is great, tapping into some deep wells of bitterness that feel real in a way that children performances rarely do. Morentz, is an odd case, she feels mannered here, less natural than she felt in her archer roles in Kickass and Let Me In. Perhaps it’s simply the novelty of having to perform sans body count. But it’s Kingsley who truly impresses. His resemblance to Melies in the film is truly uncanny, but that’s only part of it. The performance it reminds me of the most is Martin Landau’s in Ed Wood. Both have that ineffable sense of what happens when someone who has been stuck in dreck for far too long is suddenly given something fine to work with. It’s a perfectly played part.

Of the much vaunted 3D I remain unconvinced. There is no doubt that there are some isolated moments here (such as when Scorsese overlays his great clock with the city of Paris, in a shot that would make Von Stroheim cry bitter tears of envy) where it is used to great effect and the uber depth of field he achieves is astonishing at times. But I face the same problem with it that I face with every 3D film that’s not using the Disney Digital system, there’s a lack of solidity to the image that irritates my eyes to no end (That’s Disney shot in 3D, the trailer for the post conversion job done on Beauty and The Beast horrified me, if it’s any indication of what the feature film will look like than I am much afeared). 

There are some other bumps to the film; it feels like a movie with scenes cut from it. Kingsley and Butterfield don’t spend as much time together in the film as you might think and I’d be willing to bet that there are scenes missing from the first third of the film that where sacrificed for the sake of narrative momentum.

Still these are minor issues. I found in Hugo, just what I needed. A reminder of all I truly love in film, and more importantly a reminder that the things we love may go dormant inside us but never truly die. My hunger will return in full. As surely as a man’s appetite is aroused when he smells something delicious cooking on the air. It may take a few more months before TTDS is back to full speed, but it will be one day.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go watch some films.