Charles River Esplanade, 1998

For my 23rd birthday, I received a new point-and-shoot film camera. Having moved to Boston without a camera six months before, I headed out the following Sunday to make good use of my gift.

I walked all over central Boston: Back Bay, Beacon Hill, The North End and Government Center; I spent the most time going up and down the Charles River Esplanade, most famously home to the Hatch Memorial Shell, a concert venue.

From there, I crossed the Longfellow Bridge from Boston to Cambridge, the Red Line T rushing by in the middle of it.

It was chilly crossing the bridge, but worth it for the stunning views of the Back Bay skyline, then and now flanked by the tall, gleaming John Hancock Tower and the slightly shorter Prudential Center.

On the Cambridge side of the Charles, I passed MIT and took a short detour to see the campus’ renowned Great Dome up close.

I crossed the Charles back into Boston along the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge; I’ve walked it from one side to the other in either direction many times since then.

As I made my way back to my Allston apartment, I walked past the George Sherman Union at Boston University…

…and also along one of the footbridges over Storrow Drive that connects the Esplanade with the rest of the city.

Camera in tow, I returned to the Esplanade on Easter Sunday some six weeks later.

Spring was in bloom, but the air was still cool. The park wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t exactly crowded, either.

I took so many walks that first year in Boston, getting to know the lay of the land mostly by foot.

I made some friends through school, but I had to learn to be on my own. I thrived most doing so when I was not confined to my small apartment but out in the world.

I was lonely, but it was an important experience to have. In time, I understood what it meant to be independent, that I didn’t always have to rely on others to feel valued or whole.

In the years to come, I’d often forget that feeling, reverting back to a fear of being alone, equating it with a lack of fulfillment.  However, I eventually grew to appreciate having that time to myself, whether via a long walk from the Public Garden all the way down to the Waterfront or a simple stroll in my own neighborhood. With smartphones, I rarely carry a camera with me anymore, except on special excursions where I bring my Sony DSLR. Still, even with my phone, I often take pictures of the simplest and occasionally most profound things I’ll spot while walking around my city.

1984: Love Never Ends

Having recently read Michaelangelo Matos’ Can’t Slow Down, a thorough assessment of how 1984 was an especially important year for pop music, it’s an ideal time for me to post my own list of favorites from that year (also, it happens to be the most recent year I have yet to cover on this blog.)

Given that 1984 produced Purple Rain, Born In The USA, Private Dancer, Make It Big, Let It Be (Replacements, not The Beatles, naturally), Zen Arcade and This Is Spinal Tap (which I couldn’t resist including a track from here), I don’t need to further the argument for this year being special. Even beyond LPs, 1984 was flush with classic hit singles, from Chaka Khan’s transformative Prince cover to the beginning of Madonna’s world-conquering run to era-defining anthems by Thompson Twins and General Public to, well, “Weird Al” Yankovic capturing the zeitgeist with his so-obvious-it’s-almost-brilliant Michael Jackson parody.

As with any year, the stuff that missed Billboard entirely but lingered on in the collective unconscious is just as noteworthy. Nine years old at the time, I didn’t even hear these selections from The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen, Bronski Beat, The Nails and Hoodoo Gurus until at least a decade later when I was a college student and the local Alternative Rock station aired their daily “Retro Flashback Lunch” hour dedicated to post-punk new wave gems.

However, it’s in the margins where ’84 truly fascinates. Billy Bragg’s electric but spare folk music sits next to Kirsty MacColl’s big pop cover of one of his songs. Rubber Rodeo reinterprets the Pretenders’ jumpy rock with a western twang. Cocteau Twins seem to beam out from their own planet with a sugary wall of sound and pleasantly indecipherable vocals. Everything But The Girl subsists on their own jazz-and-bossa-nova-suffused plane. XTC continues to make perfect pop music while defying nearly everything the rest of the world describes as such.

If I had to pick one song that obviously sums up the year, it’d be “Sexcrime (1984)” by the Eurythmics, but it’s not on Spotify so I’ll go with a sweet techno-pop movie theme (about a love triangle between a man, woman and computer!) from the lead singer of The Human League and the electronic music pioneer whom seven years before gave us Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”.

My 1984 playlist:

Films Watched, January 2021

Housekeeping

For me, January is usually a mad rush of consuming recent titles from my watchlist before submitting my Chlotrudis Awards nominations; despite the pandemic, this year was no exception. In fact, my number of eligible films seen was the highest it has been since 2006, which makes sense given I’ve viewed over 300 titles at home since things first shut down last March.

The best of this year’s recently-watched bounty: Kajillionaire (Miranda July, Richard Jenkins, Evan Rachel Wood playing a character named “Old Dolio”—what’s not to like?), Sorry We Missed You (never thought Ken Loach would seem more essential than Mike Leigh at this phase of their careers), Beanpole (Russian miserabilism, beautifully shot and not without humor), The Planters (Wes Anderson-ian in the best ways) and She Dies Tomorrow, which, while imperfect, is at least an original (and timely) take on apocalyptic dread. Also, two titles worth subscribing to Apple TV for: Wolfwalkers, a stirring Irish animated epic and Boys State, an engrossing doc that’s a complete microcosm of modern American politics in male teen Texan form.

A subscription to HBO Max (for Wonder Woman 1984, natch) enabled me to catch Bad Education (if this is the template for Hugh Jackman’s post-Wolverine career, more, please) and much buzzed-about docs on The Bee Gees and Jane Fonda; meanwhile, a deal on a subscription to MUBI, a very different streaming service, gave me an excuse to finally watch The Holy Mountain (exhausting but often inspired madness) and Terrorizers (an Edward Yang film that’s more technically accomplished but less emotionally satisfying than Taipei Story from the previous year) and revisit Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives. The latter, which I hadn’t seen in over 20 years, naturally led to breaking out my Blu-ray of The Long Day Closes (last watched about 7 years ago.) One of the most groundbreaking filmmakers of the last half-century, and a reminder that I want to revisit his third feature, The Neon Bible, also on MUBI.

Revisited an above-average amount of films this month, most notably two mid-70s features from John Cassavetes: A Woman Under The Influence (still his masterwork) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a deep-dive into a very particular Sunset Strip sleaze, tempered by the director’s most heartfelt and elaborate commentary on being part of a cast and putting on a show. From roughly the same period, also watched Chinatown for the first time this century, which holds up nicely as a blend of classic and New Hollywood sensibilities. Gillian Armstrong’s inexplicable New Wave musical Starstruck remains a curio, while Bill Forsyth’s good, underseen adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s great novel Housekeeping should be as renown and beloved as Local Hero.

Films viewed in January in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.

Midnight Family (Luke Lorentzen, 2019) 6
Death to 2020 (Al Campbell, Alice Mathias, 2020) 3
A Woman Under The Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)* 10
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)* 8
Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, 2019) 8
Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) 8
She Dies Tomorrow (Amy Seimetz, 2020) 7
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (Frank Marshall, 2020) 7
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, 2019) 6
Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937) 8
Kajillionaire (Miranda July, 2020) 8
Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)* 10
Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again (Ol Parker, 2018) 3
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, 2020) 6
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, 2019) 8
Un Flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972) 6
Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, 2020) 8
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes, 1976)* 8
Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020) 7
The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973) 8
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (Martha Kehoe, Joan Tosoni, 2019) 6
Boys State (Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss, 2020) 8
Housekeeping (Bill Forsyth, 1987)* 9
Cuties (Maimouna Doucoure, 2020) 6
Bad Education (Cory Finley, 2019) 8
The Forty-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank, 2020) 6
The Planters (Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, 2019) 8
Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen, 2020) 8
Terrorizers (Edward Yang, 1986) 6
Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982)* 7
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988)* 8
The Long Day Closes (Davies, 1992)* 10
Jane Fonda In Five Acts (Susan Lacy, 2018) 7
Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh, 2020) 6

Favorite Films of 2020

As always, “2020” is relative. Many of these titles have a copyright date of 2019 (a few even go back to 2018!) My #1 film received its initial theatrical release in 2019 but did not play my town until last February; likewise, most people won’t get to see my #3 film until it hits VOD and Hulu this February, although I had the fortune to view it at virtual TIFF last September. With exhibition presently and continually being redefined due to COVID, think of this as a list of the best new movies of the past year, including those that I could not have seen any earlier.

1. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Celine Sciamma’s exquisite 18th century romance between two women, an artist (Noémie Merlant) and her subject (Adèle Haenel) gains so much power from taking the slow burn route, deploying all of its accoutrements sparingly, letting the connection between its two leads develop organically so that when it first reaches a crescendo in the astonishing feast scene midway through, one can’t help but be fully engaged in their fate. And, as that actual fate becomes apparent, it’s near-impossible not to feel and absorb the mad rush of emotions practically emanating from the screen, culminating in a simple but profound, powerful final shot.

2. SOUND OF METAL
Ruben, a noise-rock drummer (Riz Ahmed) loses his hearing—a succinct, seemingly clear-cut premise that director/co-writer Darius Marder (in an astonishing feature debut) expands and permutates into a far-reaching but compellingly interior study of losing control and the lengths we’ll go in order to retain it. Anchored by Ahmed’s terrific, immersive performance and buoyed by Paul Raci as his unsentimental counselor, Sound of Metal is a journey whose depth you would rarely find in a studio film; it’s also one of the best ever movies about addiction.

3. NOMADLAND
If anything, an advance on Chloe Zhao’s last film, The Rider, and not necessarily because she’s now working with an Oscar-winning actress (though McDormand is the best possible one for this type of project.) Nomadland retains the earlier film’s willingness to observe and illuminate rather than judge or persuade. Lyrical but not pretty, sorrowful but not miserable, reflective but not static, it may take place in 2012, but it fully embodies an era of American life that’s still with us and continues to unfold.

4. FIRST COW
This has a gentle, gestating narrative that requires patience, but it also rewards those who become invested in the fate of a 19th century cook (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) as they become unlikely friends and form an impromptu business partnership. What they build is forever precariously hanging by a string due to the titular animal that makes their potential fortune possible. By applying such high stakes to such richly detailed “slow” cinema, First Cow ends up filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s most fully realized effort in years, possibly ever.

5. BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
The Ross Brothers nearly outdo themselves with their latest documentary, a fly-on-the-wall account of the last day of business for a Las Vegas dive bar. Initially resembling a Frederick Wiseman-directed, much seedier version of Cheers, it eventually reveals the all-too-human behavior of the bar’s assorted patrons, for good and for ill. To divulge anything more would spoil what the Ross’s are actually up to here; I will note that, watching this on November 3rd, it confirmed for me the character and compassion that I know my country is capable of.

6. BACURAU
Defying categorization, this references a variety of classic films but gradually reveals itself as a neo-take on one particular genre (it’s best to come into it not knowing what that is.) A fervent chaos surfaces in often thrilling ways–a drunken speech at a funeral, an unexpectedly brutal death, a certain 80s pop song on the soundtrack (also too good to give away here.) Bold, slightly erratic, gorgeous and, of all things, nearly as tuned into the modern world and its growing social-economic divide as Parasite.

7. AND THEN WE DANCED
This Georgian import focuses on Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), an aspiring competitive dancer who falls for a new nonconformist male member of his troupe. It owes a lot to Call Me By Your Name, from the intense flirtation that develops between the two to Merab’s sympathetic faux-girlfriend. Fortunately, And Then We Danced easily transcends homage, not only by nature of telling its particular story in a culture where it is still highly taboo, but also in its Georgian dance sequences and in particular, that rapturous finale.

8. DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA
Initially thought this was going to be a lesser Stop Making Sense; while any kind of concert ex-Talking Heads frontman Byrne attempts will always live in its shadow, by the end of this, I was overcome by the same adrenaline rush I felt the first time I saw the Demme film. The humaneness and goodwill on display here may or may not resonate as effectively when viewed ten or twenty years from now; presently, it feels immense, a celebration of rhythm as the great unifier.

9. HAM ON RYE
A group of teens converge for a party at a local deli, and that’s arguably the only conventional aspect of Tyler Taormina’s auspicious debut feature. Simultaneously comforting and unnerving, it’s a fully-formed world both carefully resembling and greatly diverging from our own. Nearly as unique as (and far less upsetting than), say, Blue Velvet, it builds towards a ritualistic sequence that filled me with joy while also leaving me with so many questions (What was in those sandwiches? Is this what happens to Mormons?)

10. HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD
A working class study blessed by both a great lead performance from Ji-hu Park and writer/director Bora Kim’s nuanced, humanistic approach. Set in the ‘90s, it follows a teenage girl going through some ordinary but substantial issues with her family, friends and school—kind of like a South Korean Eighth Grade, only set in pre-internet/social media times. Mixing Mike Leigh-style class critique and Ozu-esque domestic drama with great finesse, this belongs on a short list of essential coming-of-age films.

11. BOYS STATE
This documentary about a conference of a thousand teenage boys from Texas who come together in state capital Austin to build a mock government complete with elected officials is thrillingly a total microcosm of the current American political climate.

12. COLLECTIVE
Can’t remember the last film (or documentary, no less) where I gasped or whispered “wow…” out loud so many times. This alarming level of corruption took place in Romania, but it could also all too easily happen here (and arguably has.)

13. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
As for scenes that explain the title of a curiously-titled film, this is one of the best–certainly the most harrowing and effective in recent memory.

14. WOLFWALKERS
A gorgeous, 2D-drawn fantasy set in 17th century Kilkenny, centered around a conflict between the townspeople and a wolfpack. Forgive me for being sappy, but it genuinely warmed my heart like little else I’ve seen in the past year.

15. KAJILLIONAIRE
Give Miranda July credit for continuing to follow her own peculiar path and not succumb to working-for-hire or diluting her quirks for a mass audience. With a novel hook and a great ensemble, it even resonates in ways one can hardly predict at the onset.

16. STRAIGHT UP
Name-dropping Gilmore Girls in the first fifteen minutes reveals director/writer/actor James Sweeney’s core aesthetic, but he both conceives of and (with his cast) delivers the rapid-fire dialogue superbly without it coming off as secondhand.

17. ANOTHER ROUND
This latest Vinterberg/Mikkelsen pairing nimbly shifts between humor, satire and despair—a funny, sad, engaging and fully dimensional study of male mid-life crises.

18. BLACK BEAR
Aubrey Plaza in this film is not as amazing as Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr, but she’s really, really close.

19. LOVERS ROCK
So much pure, unadulterated joy in this–certainly more than in any other McQueen film I’ve seen.

20. MR. SOUL!
Stellar, entertaining doc about an old public television show you probably don’t know but should. Ellis Haizlip is an unsung hero of his time; this gives him his due.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

76 DAYS
BAD EDUCATION
BEANPOLE
CAT IN THE WALL
CITY HALL
CRIP CAMP
DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
DRIVEWAYS
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
MOUTHPIECE
THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF
THE PLANTERS
RED, WHITE & BLUE
SORRY WE MISSED YOU
TIME
THE VAST OF NIGHT

Ten Tropical Trips

2011 – St. John

Ten years ago this month, I took my first trip to the Caribbean. Steve, whom I would marry in 2013, suggested it for a winter vacation. I’d never been outside continental North America at that point; the Virgin Islands (and in particular, St. John) were a revelation.

2012 – Curaçao

The following year, we went further south to Curaçao, in the Lesser Antilles, 65 km north of Venezuela. The snorkeling and beaches weren’t as fine as St. John’s, but being in the Dutch Caribbean felt even more exotic than the US Virgin Islands.

2013 – Key West

Seven months before our wedding, we stayed within the continental US, but just barely, driving from the Miami airport all the way to the edge of the Florida Keys.

2014 – Naples, Florida

Having honeymooned in Santa Fe, we resumed our annual winter vacation in the more affordable locale of Sanibel Island, Florida, with day trips to nearby Naples and Fort Myers.

2015 – Turks and Caicos, Chalk Sound

However, we longed to return to the Caribbean, so the following year brought us to Turks and Caicos, where we spent a week on the island of Providenciales, featuring the otherworldly hues of Chalk Sound.

2016 – Cozumel, Mexico

We’d been wanting to check out Mexico for some time; the week we spent in Playa Del Carmen was crowded, noisy and burnt by the sun, but the afternoon boat ride to Cozumel Island was pretty chill.

2017 – Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Always seeking out new locales to explore in the Caribbean, we made it to the Dominican Republic a week after the 2017 Presidential Inauguration–dark times temporarily alleviated by Punta Cana’s beaches.

2018 – Aruba

We went to another of the Lesser Antilles, Aruba, in 2018. Steve had gone there with his folks a few times as a child; it was pretty (particularly the beaches and the trade winds soaring through them) but a little overdeveloped for our tastes.

2019 – Turks and Caicos, Iguana Island

We had such a great time in Turks and Caicos that we returned four years later; this second trip’s highlight was a snorkeling expedition to Iguana Island (which indeed did have quite a few of its namesake, though not in this pic.)

2020 – Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Last year, before the pandemic shut everything down, we went back to Punta Cana, this time to Bavaro Beach. Obviously, we are staying put in frozen New England this January. Although I long for another tropical excursion, I feel lucky I’ve been able to have ten of ’em so far. In the meantime, I can always turn up the heat at home, craft a few frozen cocktails and dream.

Favorite First Viewings of Older Films in 2020

Thanks to the pandemic, I watched more movies in 2020 than in any other year since… maybe 1998, when I was a Film Studies grad student? (I didn’t log my watched films back then.) Here are the top ten older films (pre-2019) that I saw for the first time.

1. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
While I’m not one to see every last Academy Award for Best Picture winner, I always meant to get to this one from 1946; turns out it’s extraordinary, both as classic Hollywood cinema and also as a relatively nuanced record of a particular moment as it was occurring.  I couldn’t name a contemporary equivalent (maybe Parasite, although it comes from a very different place) and don’t expect to anytime soon.

2. HIGH AND LOW
I was worried during the first hour that the film would never leave Gondo’s house, but now see how shrewdly it sets up a slow burn that reverberates as it expands towards other settings. That late bravura sequence in the nightclub/flophouse is one of the most meticulous and thrilling I’ve ever seen (and the final scene one of the more brutally honest ones as well.)

3. TARGETS
Was not expecting this as the first feature from the director of The Last Picture Show. Bracingly ahead of its time while also possibly one of the most incisive records of it. A flop upon its release, I can understand why lead Tim O’Kelly didn’t have much of a career afterwards; his stoic, controlled performance should be more celebrated.

4. HARRY AND TONTO
Art Carney fully deserved his Oscar for his work in this lovely little road movie which feels like the best Hal Ashby picture Ashby never directed. Also, the first of two titles in this top ten featuring a young Melanie Mayron!

5. DAY FOR NIGHT
Previously, I’d seen no Truffaut beyond Jules and Jim, so this was a revelation – can spot traces to come of everyone from Robert Altman to Wes Anderson, and yet there’s little precedent for what he achieved at the time: a meta-comment on his profession that’s equal parts love letter and sharp critique.

6. THE FILMS OF MARLON RIGGS
All his works are essential, but I’ll single out Tongues Untied (he had me at “The Institute of Snap!Thology”), and Black Is… Black Ain’t, which, like everything else of his explores cultural identity through a personal lens, made more urgent by his oncoming death (with multiple scenes filmed from his hospital bed.) Over a quarter century later, Riggs’ messages, thoughts, yearnings and assessments retain their vitality.

7. GIRLFRIENDS
The other film featuring young Melanie Mayron; here, as the lead in Claudia Weill’s trailblazing cult indie gem, she’s the anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I love her for it; also, look out for bearded Bob Balaban and young Christopher Guest (whom I can’t watch without thinking of the Nigel Tufnel to come.)

8. IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER
Not as essential as Singin’ In The Rain, but what is? My god, there’s so much to love here: the tour de force opening sequence, a splendid Cyd Charisse (given a real juicy role, as opposed to her Singin’ cameo), a dollop of early live television satire and a climactic slapstick brawl, among other delights.

9. COCO
Might be my favorite animated feature since The Incredibles or even Spirited Away. Visually stunning (the world’s been waiting for a family-friendly Day of the Dead-themed film) and emotionally satisfying to boot.

10. DAISIES
Delightful chaotic/anarchic nonsense from 1960s Czechoslovakia and, at 76 minutes, totally digestible even if you’re not well-versed in experimental cinema. Not that someone would ever be foolish enough to attempt a remake, but casting Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome in one could be perfection.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Atlantic City, Autumn Leaves, Bad Day At Black Rock, Diva, The Forest For The Trees, Golden Eighties, Glitterbug, The Green Fog, Italianamerican, Le Bonheur, Losing Ground, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mississippi Grind, Model Shop, Modern Romance, The Other Side Of The Wind, A Place In The Sun, Remember The Night, The Sheltering Sky, Shirley Valentine, Smooth Talk, Taipei Story, Taxi, Things To Come, Totally Fucked Up, Urban Rashomon

BEST RE-WATCHES:
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Beau Travail, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Duke of Burgundy, Frances Ha, The Garden, The Gleaners and I, Holiday, Johnny Guitar, Moonrise Kingdom, Oslo August 31, Scenes From a Marriage, Staying Vertical, Stories We Tell, Young Frankenstein

Film Journal: December 2020

Tesla

Normally, we’d be at the height of Awards Season; instead, the cinema landscape’s still in limbo, with a selective assortment of VOD and streaming titles battling it out. Sound of Metal, one of my favorites of the year, would’ve surely received a buzz-building theatrical release in any other year instead of going straight to Amazon Prime, right? (Right?) Well, as the past few years of Netflix interference have shown, no matter the venue, Riz Ahmed’s intuitive, elaborate performance would still receive deserved across-the-board critical accolades.

Small Axe is a different story, as it further blurs the movie/TV line as an anthology series made for Amazon but with each of its five feature-length installments standing on their own. I made a point to see Lovers Rock because it’s by far the most acclaimed (and also the shortest), and I’ll get to the other four, if not within the next few weeks before I post my year-end list—even without cinemas, there’s no shortage of good stuff to watch, from the alarming, mesmerizing Romanian doc Collective to Brexit-informed London immigrant drama Cat In The Wall, plus titles that played VOD earlier in the year like the superlative Georgian Call Me By Your Name-inspired And Then We Danced or the Mexican subculture study I’m No Longer Here.

As usual for the season, I spent the week leading up to Christmas watching holiday-themed flicks, including the month’s only two re-watches, Going My Way and Holiday, the latter more of a New Year’s Eve film that excels chiefly by the charm of its cast. Among the discoveries, The Holly and The Ivy, a 1952 British film that anticipates the kitchen sink realism later in the decade more than it revels in the romanticism of the prior one and Remember The Night, a Preston Sturges-written, pre-Double Indemnity pairing up of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck that’s far less cookie-cutter than you’d expect for the era.

Biggest misses included the almost universally reviled Wonder Woman 1984 (which makes Stranger Things look like Blue Velvet) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, the first of his films to leave me cold. On the other hand, a few pleasant surprises: legendary new wave rock flop Times Square, which feels more like a butchered-by-its-studio art film than an exploitation film; Coco, easily my favorite Pixar since Ratatouille and The Incredibles; Possessed, more proof of Joan Crawford’s acting prowess; Family Plot, more evidence as to why Barbara Harris should’ve been a far more prominent ‘70s screwball icon; and Tesla, which didn’t go as far as it could’ve in the revisionist/deliberately anachronistic department, but I will not soon forget an insular, deeply in character Ethan Hawke-as-Tesla performing a karaoke version of a certain Tears For Fears song.

Films viewed in December in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.

The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin, 2019) 7
Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) 8
I’m No Longer Here (Fernando Frias, 2019) 7
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Stephen Nomura Schible, 2017) 6
Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, 2019) 10
Collective (Alexander Nanau, 2019) 9
Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980) 7
Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976) 7
The Social Dilemma (Jeff Orlowski, 2020) 5
Guest of Honour (Atom Egoyan, 2019) 7
Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997) 5
Wander Darkly (Tara Miele, 2020) 6
Tesla (Michael Almereyda, 2020) 7
Christmas Survival (James Dearden, 2018) 4
Small Axe: Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen, 2020) 8
Words on Bathroom Walls (Thor Freudenthal, 2020) 7
Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940) 8
Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993) 6
The Holly and the Ivy (George More O’Ferrall, 1952) 7
Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947) 7
Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)* 9
Holiday Affair (Don Hartman, 1949) 7
Going My Way (Leo McCarey, 1944)* 6
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, 2020) 4
Coco (Lee Unkrich, 2017) 8
Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007) 8
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin, 2019) 9
Times Square (Allan Moyle, 1980) 7
Cat In The Wall (Vesela Kazakova, Mina Mileva, 2019) 8

2020 Booklist

My eleven favorite books I read in 2020 (in alphabetical order by author’s last name):

    

Jennifer Finney Boylan, Good Boy: My Life In Seven Dogs and I’m Looking Through You

I’m highlighting eleven books instead of the usual ten in order to include both of Boylan’s that I read this year: her latest (and fourth) memoir, in which she reflects on different phases of her life by way of her canine companions for each one, and her second memoir, an arguably superior, immersive account of growing up as a boy in a haunted house and how it fortified an extensive search for her true self.

 

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

Chiefly known for her great historical fantasy epic Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Clarke reemerges after a long absence with a far more condensed tale than nonetheless contains multitudes. A narrative that initially presents as one thing but gradually reveals itself as entirely something else, it’s the most original novel I read this year; in this case, the act of piecing together what was actually going on was a real thrill.

 

Andy Greene (ed.), The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s

Having watched the entire series mostly in real time and even after breezing through this oral history, I’m still not convinced the US version of The Office is the greatest sitcom of its decade (the original UK series might be); however, I can’t deny that it’s the most influential and perhaps emblematic TV show of that time, not to mention a blast to read about, even in such intense, nerdy detail.

 

A.S. Hamrah, The Earth Dies Streaming

I’d never read Hamrah’s film criticism until someone shared his latest annual summation of the year’s Academy Award-nominated titles, upon which I purchased and devoured this collection of pieces from 2002-2018. One of the last books I finished before the shutdowns began, I now remember it as something from another time—especially in Hamrah’s devotion to seeing movies on a big screen and as part of a communal experience.

 

David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue

I’m not ranking my top books this year, but if I had to single out a clear favorite, it might be this ambitious alternate-history portrait of a short-lived British psych-rock quartet in the late 1960s. Backing away from the sci-fi elements of The Bone Clocks, this is easily my favorite novel of Mitchell’s since Black Swan Green, if not Cloud Atlas. Not everyone will love the imagined interactions with now-deceased real-life celebrities, but Mitchell’s willingness to go there, unironically is an endearing feat in itself.

 

Trevor Noah, Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood

I was skeptical of Noah when he took over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show—who wouldn’t be with such an iconic role? But he’s proved himself a worthy and wholly different successor, and the disarming straightforwardness in which he tells his extraordinary life story is a testament as to why. He makes what is often a horrific upbringing sound as harrowing as it needs to be, but also utterly human as he injects humor and wry commentary whenever appropriate.

 

Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

The first book I read after everything shut down in March and one I can imagine returning to every five years or so. Spanning decades and coasts, Patchett’s mosaic of two families who become forever intertwined when the father of one sleeps with the mother of the other, Commonwealth updates the conceit of The Great American Novel for post-JFK assassination culture, packing a lot into its 300+ pages but never feeling bloated or boring.

 

Liz Phair, Horror Stories

I’m not surprised that Phair, as far as musicians go, has written a great memoir; however, I didn’t expect such an original and finely executed take on the format. Picking and choosing various anecdotes from her life and career in non-chronological order, the one common thread is an almost literal interpretation of the book’s title: horrible things happen in each tale, but Phair has the wisdom and talent to put them in perspective so that horror is far from the only emotion she’s eliciting.

 

Tegan and Sara Quin, High School

As for this musical memoir, the Quin twins have co-written a warts-and-all account of being teenagers in mid-90s Alberta. Each one’s discovery of their homosexuality is mirrored by their unearthing of a talent for making music together. By alternating chapters between the two, they also often mirror their experiences and struggles, but it’s even more fun when they diverge, allowing for a unique overview of two lives coming of age both together and apart.

 

Stephen Rebello, Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!

Rebello co-wrote Bad Movies We Love (1993), one of the all-time best (and bitchiest) books on cinema; while this extensive behind-the-scenes account of the making of the exquisitely campy pill-popping 1967 melodrama Valley of the Dolls is only half as bitchy, it’s still a fizzy read in how meticulously it charts everything from the film’s troubled production to why it genuinely endures as a cult classic today.

 

Here’s my complete 2020 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

  1. Stephen McCauley, My Ex-Life
  2. Liz Phair, Horror Stories
  3. Alex Prud’homme, The French Chef In America: Julia Child’s Second Act
  4. Dylan Jones (ed.), David Bowie: The Oral History
  5. Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore
  6. Tegan and Sara Quin, High School
  7. Augusten Burroughs, Toil and Trouble
  8. Brian Rea, Death Wins A Goldfish
  9. S. Hamrah, The Earth Dies Streaming
  10. Richard Russo, Nobody’s Fool*
  11. Ann Patchett, Commonwealth
  12. Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, Legendary Children
  13. Kate Atkinson, A God In Ruins
  14. Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up And Start Again*
  15. Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
  16. Stanley Elkin, The Franchiser
  17. Zadie Smith, Feel Free
  18. Dale Peck, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye*
  19. Carol Burnett, In Such Good Company
  20. Samantha Irby, Wow, No Thank You
  21. Jean Shepherd, A Fistful of Fig Newtons*
  22. Bill Bryson, The Body
  23. Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament*
  24. Trevor Noah, Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood
  25. Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror
  26. Dorothy Parker, The Portable Dorothy Parker
  27. Paul Murray, Skippy Dies*
  28. Stephen Rebello, Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!
  29. Jennifer Finney Boylan, Good Boy: My Life In Seven Dogs
  30. David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue
  31. Sam Wasson, The Big Goodbye
  32. Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird
  33. Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls*
  34. Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool
  35. Andy Greene (ed.), The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s
  36. Jennifer Finney Boylan, I’m Looking Through You
  37. Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices
  38. David Rakoff, Half Empty*
  39. Debbie Harry, Face It: A Memoir
  40. Billy Bragg, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World
  41. Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More*
  42. Marilynne Robinson, Home
  43. Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint: Stories
  44. Russ Giguere and Ashley Wren Collins, Along Comes The Association
  45. Lindy West, Shit, Actually
  46. Soseki Natsume, I Am A Cat
  47. MFK Fisher, The Art of Eating
  48. Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories
  49. Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
  50. Caitlin Moran, More Than A Woman
  51. David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames*

2020: Among The Stars

Not to be a downer, but what more can one say about this abomination of a year? That, like any other, there was still an abundance of good new music? Beyond selections from my top ten albums, you’ll find other tracks that did their part in keeping me as sane as they reasonably could: droll, clever wordplay from Rufus Wainwright and The Radio Dept., neo-disco from Kylie Minogue, Dua Lipa, Jessie Ware, Roisin Murphy etc., sharp ‘80s revivalism from Future Islands and Of Monsters and Men and comeback singles from actual ’80s acts Erasure, The Psychedelic Furs and Pet Shop Boys, the latter ever-dependable for at least one great cut per album.

However, I want to single out three transcendent singles in the order of first hearing them: U.S. Girls’ obscenely catchy and tongue-twisting “4 American Dollars” (everybody now: “I don’t believe in pennies, and nickels, and dimes, and dollars, and pesos, and pounds, and rupees, and yen, and rubles, no dinero”), Christine and the Queen’s triumphant, euphoric title track to their La Vita Nuova EP and, with help from vocalist Leon Bridges, The Avalanches’ “Interstellar Love”—still absorbing their just-released dense third album We Will Always Love You, but this highlight, wrapped around an ingenious sample of the Alan Parson Project’s “Eye In The Sky” is, if not exactly the sort of the magic this group trafficked in on Since I Left You twenty years ago, just as effective as that touchstone of 21st century pop.

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 2020.

  1. Haim, “The Steps”
  2. Kylie Minogue, “Say Something”
  3. Jessie Ware, “Save A Kiss”
  4. A Girl Called Eddy, “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart”
  5. Lianne La Havas, “Can’t Fight”
  6. Perfume Genius, “On The Floor”
  7. Pet Shop Boys, “Will-O-The-Wisp”
  8. Erasure, “Nerves of Steel”
  9. Real Estate feat. Sylvan Esso, “Paper Cup”
  10. Waxahatchee, “Lilacs”
  11. Laura Marling, “Held Down”
  12. Ivan & Alyosha, “Wired”
  13. Rufus Wainwright, “You Ain’t Big”
  14. Ben Watt, “Figures In The Landscape”
  15. Future Islands, “For Sure”
  16. The Radio Dept., “You Fear The Wrong Thing Baby”
  17. Katie Pruitt, “Expectations”
  18. Troye Sivan, “Easy”
  19. The Avalanches feat. Leon Bridges, “Interstellar Love”
  20. U.S. Girls, “4 American Dollars”
  21. Calexico, “Hear The Bells”
  22. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, “She’s There”
  23. Fiona Apple, “Cosmonauts”
  24. Sufjan Stevens, “Video Game”
  25. Destroyer, “It Just Doesn’t Happen”
  26. Phoebe Bridgers, “Chinese Satellite”
  27. Kate NV, “Plans”
  28. Dubstar, “Hygiene Strip”
  29. Washed Out, “Too Late”
  30. Nicole Atkins, “Forever”
  31. Fleet Foxes, “Can I Believe You”
  32. Shamir, “Diet”
  33. Dua Lipa, “Hallucinate”
  34. Sylvan Esso, “Ferris Wheel”
  35. Cut Copy, “Like Breaking Glass”
  36. The Psychedelic Furs, “Wrong Train”
  37. Owen Pallett, “A Bloody Morning”
  38. Christine and The Queens feat. Caroline Polachek, “La Vita Nuova”
  39. Roisin Murphy, “Something More”
  40. Of Monsters and Men, “Visitor”

Christmas Night Lights

One of my favorite childhood Christmas activities was the annual ride Bob and Barb (my parents) and I took to view lights and other outdoor decorations on Milwaukee’s tony East Side. After Christmas Day dinner, we’d get in the car and head across town to Lake Drive to see all of its coastal mansions done up in displays spanning from the chaste and tasteful (a single spotlight, a mighty fir dressed in a single red bow) to those so gloriously ostentatious that the electricity bill for one night would’ve likely exceeded what my parents paid to keep our entire house illuminated the entire year. All the while, EZ 104 (actually WEZW-FM 103.7) would soundtrack our sojourn, piping nonstop holiday songs from “The Little Drummer Boy” to “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” into our Mercury Monarch.

The ride enabled us to get out of our South Side bungalow and escape into a prettier and certainly more upscale world, if only for an hour. Truthfully, however, we didn’t have to travel all that far to partake in the electric beauty of the season. Heck, we could even experience it from our very own living room via the gorgeous, gigantic white metallic star lit with fat multicolored bulbs our neighbor across the street exhibited every year. Whereas most homes up and down the block strung up their holiday light displays the day after Thanksgiving, this elderly woman who lived alone would wait to decorate until about a week before December 25. One night, the star would suddenly, magically appear; I looked forward to its materialization every year.

Naturally, we did our part to make our own home look festive. Our tree, usually covered in simple white lights would sit in the living room, smack dab in the center of the four windows that faced our street. The windows themselves were decked out in crisscrossing strings of multi-colored lights. Scores of blue lights would dot the three roomy bushes below the front porch, while a wreath sporting older, fatter colored bulbs was always hung on the front door. Next to it, we often replaced the porch light’s white fluorescent bulb with a red or green one, just to be extra festive.

Our display was relatively average, anodyne, even, compared to other homes in the neighborhood. Here and there, one would spot the usual assortment of illuminated, life-sized angels, reindeer, snowmen, Nativity sets and Santa Clauses, both in sturdy concrete and inflated, plastic and more malleable forms. People lucky enough to sport giant conifers in their front yards would cover them with endless strings of lights. Occasionally, a homeowner would go above and beyond to present something unique, like the square, squat one-story home a few blocks away that, without fail, always put up a rather impressive giant neon martini glass (complete with green olive!) on top of their roof—it really stood out among all the other two-story structures surrounding it.

The neighborhood holiday decoration I most fondly recall, however, sat two-and-a-half blocks up our street. In front of a brick house with a terraced roof was a plastic snowman head placed over a lamppost. Painted to include a brimmed hat, red earmuffs, a big red nose and matching patterned scarf, it completely covered the lamp, while the white post was wrapped diagonally with a red ribbon and topped off with a shiny red bow. Simple, cheap and utterly basic, it nonetheless achieved legendary status in my family when I was ten or twelve and Bob first said, “Hey look, it’s Chris-on-a-Stick” once as we passed it.

Every subsequent December, whenever we’d drive by the house, the presence of Chris-on-a-Stick was something he rarely failed to acknowledge. For the first few years, this teasing made me furious which of course only encouraged him to do it more. As I entered High School and put the initial indignities of puberty behind me, I came to accept and embrace the nickname. I even grew to anticipate having a reason to drive past Chris-on-a-Stick, to revel in the joke, comprehending how silly and yet sublime it was to see what had become my namesake—a ridiculous Frosty-the-Snowman-head-on-a-post that would only appear one month out of the year.

When I was 17, I detected a subtle change in Chris-on-a-Stick—he looked a little less faded and possibly a tad jollier. After driving by a few times, I began to think something was awry; upon closer inspection, I discovered I was right—there was a new snowman head on the lamp this year. To the layperson or casual onlooker, it was almost indiscernibly similar, but those aforementioned changes, along with the fact that the plastic head was now two-faced, with an identical visage on its opposite side pitched at the house, confirmed that it was indeed a replacement. “That’s not the real Chris-on-a-Stick”, I’d scoff, adding yet another layer to this seasonal plastic mythology.

That year, Bob and Barb somehow convinced me to pose for a picture standing next to Chris-on-a-Stick (I can imagine its owners’ bewilderment if they were home), even if it wasn’t the real one. Decades on, I’m so thankful they did, if only because I have photographic evidence that it really existed. As for my dad, I got my revenge the following year when, one block over, I noticed a fat plastic snowman placed in someone’s front yard on the ground right in front of a towering flagpole.

“Hey look, it’s Bob-on-a-Pole”, I casually announced as we drove past it one night. Barb burst out laughing and Bob enjoyed the joke as well, knowing that it’s good to both give and receive, not only during the holiday season but throughout the year.

Chris-on-a-Stick and yours truly, 1992.