Saturday, January 31, 2009

It's a helluva town

At the beginning of 2005, I knew I wanted to move to New York. I applied for a job at the Village Voice (nothing came of it), and I talked fairly frequently about my intention to check the place out and, if my experience justified my excitement, pick up and go. I visited the city in October of 2005, and it wasn't long before I was smitten. I saw college friends, high school friends, Central Park, Brooklyn, the West Village, and on and on. I called my friend Judith one afternoon and told her: "I'm moving here!" I was very excited.

I left Seattle Weekly in February of 2006, and my immediate plan was to divvy up my stuff into three piles: stuff to sell, stuff to pack, and stuff to ship. I hadn't counted on meeting Emily the month before I quit at the Weekly and starting a relationship that would last into the spring of 2008, but after much soul-searching, I decided to move anyway. I flew from Seattle to New York on April 1, 2006; my half-joking, somewhat superstitious logic was that if it didn't work out, I could always claim the entire move had been an elaborate April Fool's prank.

As it turned out, I took to New York like a bear to honey. I spent the first month in a brownstone with Michael and another guy, and my energy went mostly into looking for a more permanent place to live (after a month, I had to be out of that brownstone) and, of course, a job. The latter came to me via my college friend Miranda, who worked at Global Health Strategies, one of whose principals had recently suffered a herniated disc. I became his personal assistant, and over the next few months I went from fetching vegetable juice and running mundane errands to doing vaccine-related research at the company's Chelsea office. In addition to the job, I joined a softball team, went to a weekly meditation class, worked out at the Y, and had a busy social life. I felt happier than I had in a long time; New York was doing its job.

I was still with Emily, though, and eventually it became clear to us that we didn't want our relationship to end. She wasn't ready to drop her Seattle life and move to New York, and I wasn't willing to lose her, so I made plans to move back in September, right after my friend Jordan's wedding. I remember an August trip to Coney Island that seemed magical: I went alone, rode the Ferris wheel, drove a bumper car, and watched the Friday night fireworks on the beach. I thought to myself: How can I leave this place? My mother used to say that it's a lucky thing when leaving a place hurts, because that means it meant something to you. If that's true, I was a pretty lucky fellow when I left New York.

Readjusting to Seattle took some time. Am I really back here again? was my initial response; I'd wanted to leave so badly that being back seemed sightly surreal. I worked at University Book Store for six months, but retail is decidedly not for me, so when my friend Gary let me know about a copyediting job at, I took immediate action. I ended up working at NWsource for a full year (almost exactly), and I made some wonderful friends there, including my boss and my fellow writers and editors. When I left NWsource in May of 2008, my plan was to move east, either to New York or to an intentional community in Massachusetts.

By now, Emily and I were more or less broken up, but somehow going back to New York didn't feel right. It felt, instead, like a knee-jerk response, a bit of old logic that might no longer hold true. "Well, that didn't work out; guess I'll just go back to New York." That wasn't the spirit in which I wanted to return, and my resolve was accordingly weaker as I began to sell off and pack up my stuff yet again. I'd moved across the country twice in less than half a year in 2006, and all that moving had taken its toll. I only wanted to leave Seattle if there was a very good reason to do so, even though I couldn't articulate that; I still felt trapped here, and convinced that only a geographic fix would help me move on after the breakup. Fate had other plans for me, though: Emily's bike accident in July of 2008 gave me a reason to stick around for a while longer, and while I did I discovered the Ravenna Kibbutz. The rest, as they say, is history.

I mention all of this because my most recent trip to New York, which I returned from less than a week ago, helped clarify things a bit. Visiting in January turned out to be a good idea; it's hard to know what New York in the dead of winter is like unless you experience it firsthand, and I'd only been there in spring, summer, and fall. I went back to my old neighborhood in Brooklyn and didn't feel too much; the magic of the place was closely connected to my state of mind in the spring and summer of 2006, and that time had passed. I liked walking around Manhattan, but I noticed that the hustle and bustle, and the many challenges of life in a giant city like New York, would make a return stressful as well as rewarding.

I never set up a financially sustainable life for myself in 2006, and to do so now, in our dire economy, I'd have to work even harder than I would have had to back then. I do have many friends in New York, including a couple of really good ones, but I have so many friends in Seattle that I'd be losing at least as much as I'd be gaining by moving. It would be a bittersweet trade-off rather than the decidedly joyous experience I had in 2006 (though it would have been less joyous had Emily and I actually broken up when I left Seattle).

When I think of New York today, I don't see it as my inevitable destination. I'm still not sure I want to stay in Seattle for good, but my life here has improved in the last few months. I've settled into Kibbutz life and appreciate both my housemates and the many wonderful members of the community we continue to nurture and expand, and I'm enjoying my new job at Childhaven as well as the freelance writing I'm doing for My 30th birthday is approaching, and while it's hard to completely shake the restlessness of my twenties, I feel a little less troubled by the notion of living in Seattle for a while longer.

When Emily and I dated, we both thought of New York as a rival girlfriend, an entity I loved that could keep us apart. Now I see the city as a former flame I may want to be just friends with. Maybe time and circumstance will rekindle our romance in the future, but I'm not as intent on making that happen as I used to be. Earlier today, an idea popped into my head as I thought about my recent stay in New York and the understanding it imparted: There's what we know and what we can't possibly know, and leveraging the former against the latter might be the key to a fulfilling life. I can't possibly know precisely what my future will entail, or where life will take me, geographically or otherwise, but it's nice to know a little more about what New York means to me, and what it doesn't.

Good news for people who love bad news

Thanks to Kelly for the tip-off on this Times piece. I'll let you decide whether it's good news or bad.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The song that's currently stuck in my head

It's Bon Iver's "Skinny Love," and I blame my fixation with it on Sasha Frere-Jones' recent New Yorker piece. And while we're on the subject of The New Yorker: John Updike, a frequent contributor to its pages, has died.

Comment of the week

An anonymous commenter gave me flak about my reasoning re: Heath Ledger's likely posthumous Oscar win (the opening phrase, in quotes, is mine):
"but the deceased Dark Knight star should get the statuette not just for the good work he'd already done when he died but for what he would have accomplished in the future."

really? the Oscars are not the place for this sort of "tribute". I guess you can count me as a 'cold bastard', but i'm totally over this obsession with honoring Ledger. yes, he did a good job in TDK and yes, he should have been honored for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. But, it will not be a travesty if someone else wins.

Get a grip, please.
What the Oscars are "for" is a matter of much debate. My critic is right, however, to observe that I'm surrendering a bit to how the Academy Awards do work rather than how I (and he) would like them to work. Call it Hollywood realpolitik. Was The Departed Martin Scorsese's finest accomplishment in direction? Nope, but it took the Academy decades to finally get around to honoring him with the Best Director statuette. When they did, it was a de facto lifetime achievement award -- an acknowledgment of his entire career.

Similarly, Heath Ledger turned in an Oscar-worthy performance in Brokeback and another arguably award-worthy one in Dark Knight. His logical trajectory? Maybe a few more roles before it would finally have been his turn, and maybe he wouldn't have won for his best performance -- it happens all the time. So why not cut to the chase and give the man the Oscar he would have won? I'm not saying this necessarily makes the most sense or is the fairest way of operating, but hey, The Reader was nominated for Best Picture this year, and so was Benjamin Button.

The Oscars ain't about fair, but sometimes they split the difference between absurd out-of-touchness and actual hipness, and when they do, that's cause for (minor) celebration. I see the inevitable Ledger award as one such instance. Oh, and you're right -- it certainly won't be a travesty if Josh Brolin, for example, wins for his first-rate performance as Dan White in Milk. I just don't think he's gonna, so I'm glad that Ledger will. See? Realpolitik.

Wanna know all about my Inauguration experience?

Looky here. And check out my Inauguration album on Facebook, if you're able.

Monday, January 26, 2009

My Oscar predictions

I've bolded the nominees I think will win and italicized the ones I prefer. Where these coincide, nominees are both bolded and italicized. I've left everything normal-looking in categories about which I know too little to guess, and I've included commentary below some category listings. (The New York Times' analysis is worth checking out, too, as is my top 10 list. Oh, and Slate.) Enjoy!


* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
* “Frost/Nixon” (Universal)
* “Milk” (Focus Features)
* “The Reader” (The Weinstein Company)
* “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight)

It's Slumdog's year, and they could do a lot worse than to honor it with Best Picture. That said, Milk is a better movie. And while we're at it, I'd replace The Reader and Benjamin Button with The Wrestler and WALL·E.


* Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor” (Overture Films)
* Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon” (Universal)
* Sean Penn in “Milk” (Focus Features)
* Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
* Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” (Fox Searchlight)

Penn was so good that I'd normally want him to win. But when will Rourke find a role like Randy "The Ram" again? Never, I suspect, so give him the damn trophy. I just wish the Academy could split it in two.


* Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married” (Sony Pictures Classics)
* Angelina Jolie in “Changeling” (Universal)
* Melissa Leo in “Frozen River” (Sony Pictures Classics)
* Meryl Streep in “Doubt” (Miramax)
* Kate Winslet in “The Reader” (The Weinstein Company)

I've seen exactly one of these performances (Hathaway's), but as with Slumdog, it's a Winslet kind of year (she's also won great acclaim for her work in Revolutionary Road), and heaven knows she deserves an Oscar for her body of work.


* Josh Brolin in “Milk” (Focus Features)
* Robert Downey Jr. in “Tropic Thunder” (DreamWorks, Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
* Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Doubt” (Miramax)
* Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.)
* Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road” (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage)

You'd have to be a pretty cold bastard not to want Ledger to get this one posthumously. Brolin continued his hot streak in Milk and the other performances are quite strong as well, from what I've heard, but the deceased Dark Knight star should get the statuette not just for the good work he'd already done when he died but for what he would have accomplished in the future.


* Amy Adams in “Doubt” (Miramax)
* Penélope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (The Weinstein Company)
* Viola Davis in “Doubt” (Miramax)
* Taraji P. Henson in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
* Marisa Tomei in “The Wrestler” (Fox Searchlight)

The pundits are saying Cruz, and the way she (further) enlivened Woody Allen's romantic dramedy is what a lot of Academy voters like to see. That said, Tomei or Davis could pull an upset, though the former already has an Oscar on her mantel.


* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), David Fincher
* “Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Ron Howard
* “Milk” (Focus Features), Gus Van Sant
* “The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Stephen Daldry
* “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Danny Boyle

Again, the Indian epic has a lot of momentum following the Globes. I really wish they'd give it to Van Sant, though, because who knows when he'll make another mainstream picture of this quality? And the Academy won't be rewarding him for whatever strange little feature he makes with the change he finds under his couch cushions.


* “Bolt” (Walt Disney), Chris Williams and Byron Howard
* “Kung Fu Panda” (DreamWorks Animation, Distributed by Paramount), John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
* “WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Andrew Stanton


* “Changeling” (Universal), Art Direction: James J. Murakami, Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt, Set Decoration: Victor J. Zolfo
* “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Art Direction: Nathan Crowley, Set Decoration: Peter Lando
* “The Duchess” (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films), Art Direction: Michael Carlin, Set Decoration: Rebecca Alleway
* “Revolutionary Road” (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage), Art Direction: Kristi Zea, Set Decoration: Debra Schutt


* “Changeling” (Universal), Tom Stern
* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Claudio Miranda
* “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Wally Pfister
* “The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Chris Menges and Roger Deakins
* “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Anthony Dod Mantle


* “Australia” (20th Century Fox), Catherine Martin
* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Jacqueline West
* “The Duchess” (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films), Michael O’Connor
* “Milk” (Focus Features), Danny Glicker
* “Revolutionary Road” (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage), Albert Wolsky

C'mon. It's about clothes.


* “The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)” (Cinema Guild), A Pandinlao Films Production, Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath
* “Encounters at the End of the World” (THINKFilm and Image Entertainment), A Creative Differences Production, Werner Herzog and Henry Kaiser
* “The Garden” A Black Valley Films Production, Scott Hamilton Kennedy
* “Man on Wire” (Magnolia Pictures), A Wall to Wall Production, James Marsh and Simon Chinn
* “Trouble the Water” (Zeitgeist Films), An Elsewhere Films Production, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

Water is about Katrina, which I think will appeal to Academy voters more than the much less political Wire. I haven't seen the former, so I can't say for sure that it shouldn't win. But I do know that Wire is lovely. (Encounters wasn't anything to sneeze at, either.)


* “The Conscience of Nhem En” A Farallon Films Production, Steven Okazaki
* “The Final Inch” A Vermilion Films Production, Irene Taylor Brodsky and Tom Grant
* “Smile Pinki” A Principe Production, Megan Mylan
* “The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306” A Rock Paper Scissors Production, Adam Pertofsky and Margaret Hyde


* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
* “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Lee Smith
* “Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Mike Hill and Dan Hanley
* “Milk” (Focus Features), Elliot Graham
* “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Chris Dickens

Should be a shoo-in.


* “The Baader Meinhof Complex” A Constantin Film Production, Germany
* “The Class” (Sony Pictures Classics), A Haut et Court Production, France
* “Departures” (Regent Releasing), A Departures Film Partners Production, Japan
* “Revanche” (Janus Films), A Prisma Film/Fernseh Production, Austria
* “Waltz with Bashir” (Sony Pictures Classics), A Bridgit Folman Film Gang Production, Israel

I haven't seen any of these, sadly. The Class was a critical darling, though, and should handily beat Bashir.


* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Greg Cannom
* “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O’Sullivan
* “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (Universal), Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz

Button has to win something, right? It may clean up in the technicals.


* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Alexandre Desplat
* “Defiance” (Paramount Vantage), James Newton Howard
* “Milk” (Focus Features), Danny Elfman
* “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), A.R. Rahman
* “WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Thomas Newman

Elfman's was the better score, but this category may become part of a Slumdog mini-sweep.


* “Down to Earth” from “WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, Lyric by Peter Gabriel
* “Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Music by A.R. Rahman, Lyric by Gulzar
* “O Saya” from “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Music and Lyric by A.R. Rahman andMaya Arulpragasam

I think this is the song that accompanied the end credits, in which case, dude. It has to win.


* “La Maison en Petits Cubes” A Robot Communications Production, Kunio Kato
* “Lavatory - Lovestory” A Melnitsa Animation Studio and CTB Film Company Production, Konstantin Bronzit
* “Oktapodi” (Talantis Films) A Gobelins, L’école de l’image Production, Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand
* “Presto” (Walt Disney) A Pixar Animation Studios Production, Doug Sweetland
* “This Way Up”, A Nexus Production, Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes


* “Auf der Strecke (On the Line)” (Hamburg Shortfilmagency), An Academy of Media Arts Cologne Production, Reto Caffi
* “Manon on the Asphalt” (La Luna Productions), A La Luna Production, Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont
* “New Boy” (Network Ireland Television), A Zanzibar Films Production, Steph Green and Tamara Anghie
* “The Pig” An M & M Production, Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh
* “Spielzeugland (Toyland)” A Mephisto Film Production, Jochen Alexander Freydank

I loved the look of Manon on the Asphalt, which was easily the most visually gorgeous of the films. It's the kind of film, in fact, that reminds me why I love movies. Also, it had the balls to wear its major influence -- HBO's Six Feet Under -- on its sleeve, though ultimately its narrative device owes more to The Lovely Bones. Anyway, a close second. On the Line, too, was quite well done -- a romantic comedy with the comedy (mostly) removed and replaced by tragedy. Toyland was typical Holocaust self-flagellation from Germany, and The Pig wore out its welcome. New Boy should and will win because it combined strong emotions with canny humor and political oomph, and Oscar loves that stuff.


* “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Richard King
* “Iron Man” (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment), Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes
* “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Tom Sayers
* “WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood
* “Wanted” (Universal),Wylie Stateman


* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten
* “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick
* “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty
* “WALL-E” (Walt Disney),Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt
* “Wanted” (Universal), Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño and Petr Forejt


* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron
* “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber and Paul Franklin
* “Iron Man” (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment), John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick and Shane Mahan


* “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Screenplay by Eric Roth, Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
* “Doubt” (Miramax), Written by John Patrick Shanley
* “Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Screenplay by Peter Morgan
* “The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Screenplay by David Hare
* “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

I have to give Full Monty writer Beaufoy credit: Slumdog feels fresh in a way that many literary adaptations don't. I'd attribute that more to the director, Danny Boyle, than to Beaufoy's ambitious but flawed screenplay, but it's easily the most interesting nominee in the category (in that Frost/Nixon's playwright adapted his own work for the screen, as did Doubt's).


* “Frozen River” (Sony Pictures Classics), Written by Courtney Hunt
* “Happy-Go-Lucky” (Miramax), Written by Mike Leigh
* “In Bruges” (Focus Features), Written by Martin McDonagh
* “Milk” (Focus Features), Written by Dustin Lance Black
* “WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter

Milk had better win something, and its strong screenplay was one of the keys to its success.

No, I've not dropped off the face of the earth

I've merely been on the East Coast since Jan. 16. For future reference: A ten-day trip is a bit much, even when there are so many friends to see and good places to eat. My article about the Inauguration should go live at tomorrow, and once I get home and upload my pictures, I'll post them here. In brief, let it be said that New York has the best vegan food ever; my toes felt as though they'd freeze and fall off as I waited for Obama to swear the oath; and for the first time in a long while, I'm relatively excited about getting back to Seattle, and not as fixated on moving to New York as I used to be. I credit the Kibbutz (which is to say: my fantastic housemates and the wonderful community they've created), my new job at Childhaven, my challenging and rewarding freelance gig at, and my upcoming 30th birthday, which I'm much more in the mood to celebrate than pout about.

I should be back soon with Oscar predictions, but for now, here's a Wall Street Journal piece about star ratings for movies brought to my attention, naturally, by Michael.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

From the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

This just in: My feature "Jews on Bikes" was nominated (by my editor and Facebook "wife," Leyna Krow) for this year's Excellence in Jewish Journalism Awards, a contest run by the American Jewish Press Association. Here's hopin'!

News you may be able to use

First off, Geoff Carter's new bl-g (that one's for you, Geoff) is excellent.

Also, Jeffrey Toobin's New Yorker piece on Barney Frank is fantastic. The magazine's profiles of political figures are so consistently outstanding that I wonder how many other U.S. publications even come close.

And finally, my mom sent me a video of a German meteorologist interacting amusingly with the station's official cat:

Oh, and the Oberlin Stories Project is awesome, too. I hope to contribute sometime soon -- perhaps after I return from my East Coast trip, which starts tomorrow, ends Jan. 26, and includes a side trip to the Inauguration and a stay at Moishe House D.C. I'll be writing about my experience for, and likely also here as well. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Childhaven in the news

A recent Seattle Times article made me proud to work where I do.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

My top 10 films of 2008

1. Milk

Last year, it was hard to pick my #1 film. This year? No contest. As I wrote the day after seeing it, Milk is for Gus Van Sant a potent stylistic and thematic compromise between his more mainstream phase (which included Good Will Hunting and To Die For) and his experimental phase, which began in 2002 with Gerry and lasted until 2007's Paranoid Park.

Dustin Lance Black's superb script helps to rein in the director's sometimes self-indulgent flourishes while grounding him in territory he knows, including the world of gay male hustlers -- Emile Hirsch's character, Cleve Jones, inevitably brings to mind the protagonists of My Own Private Idaho, the film that put Van Sant on the map in the indie world. Milk uses a framing device (the title character is recording a series of tapes about his life, in case he's assassinated) to tell the story of a vibrant, important figure in a way that's suitably lively but never heavy in the way biopics can be. That Van Sant touches on timely ideas (the film came out very soon after California's Prop. 8 passed) is certainly worth noting, but his real achievement lies in both capturing the San Francisco setting so evocatively and in creating a well-paced cinematic biography that's never less than entertaining, and in which every moment serves a purpose.

Danny Elfman's score contributes a lot to the final product, too. Like Bill Lee's music for Do the Right Thing, which helped make the goings-on in one small part of Bed-Stuy seem universal, Elfman's rhapsodic score argues that Milk is the story not simply of an activist politician who advocated based on a particular minority affiliation but rather a fundamentally American story, with a classically American hero at its center.

That such an efficient picture feels so free and alive -- that accomplishment should be attributed largely to Sean Penn's remarkable performance, which may be startling in its excellence even to longtime fans of the actor. Penn moves so completely into the role, and his development of the character is so virtuosic, that it's sometimes hard to remember whom we're watching. (Last year's equivalent performance would have to be Daniel Day-Lewis's in There Will Be Blood .) Penn seems like a shoo-in for an Oscar, and I'd love to see Milk avenge Brokeback Mountain's loss to Crash for Best Picture in 2006. Now that we have an African-American president-elect, it would be nice to see a movie with a gay protagonist win the big trophy.

2. Let the Right One In

This is the year I began to seriously investigate horror movies, and this Swedish import was an unusually strong entry in the genre. But it was also a coming-of-age story, a love story, a melodrama, to some extent a character study, and both a tone piece and a meditation on isolation and loneliness. Still, it fiercely insisted on being a horror movie, complete with bloody misfortune for many and an overarching sense of dread. I don't have high hopes for the 2010 remake by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, especially because Lina Leandersson's performance as Eli, the vampire who wins the affections of a lonely boy named Oskar, was so beautifully restrained without ever failing to exude low-level menace.

The movie has other strengths, including a willingness to remain ambiguous about certain aspects of its story and a way of presenting its supernatural elements as magical realism, strange but not entirely surprising events happening in an almost palpably real suburban Stockholm. (Another of the film's virtues: It adheres to classic rules of vampire lore without ever seeming anything less than bracingly contemporary in its approach to the subject.) Even its triple-entendre title (into your heart, life, and room -- vampires can only enter a room if invited), taken directly from the novel it's based on, distinguishes Let the Right One In from lesser works of horror and, for that matter, lesser coming-of-age tales. And even though the ending might seem predictable, the way it unfolds really startled me. Maybe not a date movie for everyone, but perhaps a good choice once you've let the right one in. (Sorry about that.)

3. The Wrestler

Much has been written about the parallels between Mickey Rourke's character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, and Rourke himself. They've both had a fairly rough two decades, for one thing. The Ram fell from professional wrestling glory into poverty and relative oblivion; Rourke went from wielding Brando-level potency (at least in some critics' eyes) to making a trashy sequel to his best-known work (Love in Paris, a follow-up to 9 1/2 Weeks) and participating in such ridiculous horror fare as They Crawl, a tale of mutant cockroaches.

As in Darren Aronofsky's film, it wasn't that our hero wasn't getting work, it was that he wasn't working up to his potential. The Wrestler isn't a case of an actor disappearing into a role, but rather an instance of actor and role dovetailing so beautifully that you feel no one else could have played the part. The script falters on occasion, and Aronofsky, as Lane points out, can get sentimental, but what drives the movie is not just Rourke's tremendous performance but also the fact that the film is, as my housemate Joel observed, fundamentally about work. I've rarely seen such a moving depiction of a working-class character; to be sure, there are many other good ones out there, but my viewing habits haven't tended to include them. I felt the familiar ache of class guilt watching The Ram work at a meager little grocery, scooping potato salad and cutting ham for sullen customers.

Yet unlike the director's second feature, Requiem for a Dream, which may go down in history as one of the least happy movies ever made, The Wrestler doesn't put its title character through the wringer just to see how much he (and we) can take. On the contrary, there's enough hope and humor here to sustain us (and him). Requiem's characters were losers, or losers in the making, on a serious downward spiral. (I referred to it recently as "emotional torture porn.") The Ram, on the other hand, is a good man who still has some painful lessons to learn, both in and out of the ring. Like his love interest (played with equally convincing pluck and sadness by Marisa Tomei), we come to care more about his struggle than we thought we would. Tomei's character is another of the film's many small triumphs: a stripper with a heart of gold who isn't simply a conglomeration of Hollywood clichés. Her character, like The Wrestler itself, really lives and breathes -- and stays with us after the credits roll.

4. American Teen

The genius of Nanette Burstein's multilayered documentary isn't easy to explain. Most obviously, there's the bravura editing, which -- as The Stranger noted in its SIFF review -- makes this nonfiction film feel scripted (in a good way). American Teen doesn't document the reality of contemporary high school so much as it crafts a hyper-real summation-- a concentrated blast of nearly everything grades nine through twelve are about, packaged efficiently in 95 riveting minutes. Burstein recorded many, many hours of footage at a school in small-town Indiana before deciding to focus her story on five seniors who fit Breakfast Club-style stereotypes. There's Hannah, the "weird," arty girl (and the film's de facto protagonist); Colin, the jock; Megan, the bitchy popular girl; Jake, the geek; and Mitch, the ladies' man. (Colin, for all his jockness, isn't on the dating scene much during his senior year, so all-consuming are the demands of varsity basketball.)

Of course, Burstein is playing with these stereotypes as much as she's suggesting that there's truth to them, and part of the joy of watching the movie is seeing where the kids conform to their assigned roles and where they break free. Jake, for example, has romantic ambitions, and his struggle to find the right girl by senior prom is ten times more enjoyable and endearing to watch than any recent (or not-so-recent) teen comedy about the same thing. Hannah's artistic aims aren't just "cute" or "endearing"; there's a lot of real passion behind them, and it's genuinely thrilling to watch her talk about them. When she described her desire to become a filmmaker, and to make a movie that will be remembered forever, I got a kind of emotional shiver of recognition -- this impulse, to create something lasting and meaningful, is something we as adults so often struggle to remain in touch with, but Hannah is still vitally connected to it.

It's a testament to the film's unusual quality that when we finally find out why Megan treats others so badly, what's revealed doesn't just feel like a hackneyed, stale excuse; instead, it's a sad, stinging truth, and we're left unsettled. Much like Milk, American Teen is never anything less than thoroughly entertaining, so it's possible to miss how much of its material has real weight. John Hughes, eat your heart out.


I'm a sucker for Pixar, but that's because they keep turning out beautiful, funny, substantive movies that I'd be proud to take my (hypothetical) kids to see. And they did it again with WALL·E, which imagines a future covered in trash without totally denying all cause for hope. Putting the robotic hero of the Short Circuit movies to shame, the titular trash compactor faces epic dilemmas (is a spork a spoon or a fork? Both? Neither?) and absurd puzzles (if you press the "unlock" button on an automatic car key and a car goes "beep-beep" somewhere under a pile of twisted metal, is there any way to find the car?) even before he's visited by Eve, a much more high-tech machine whose appearance brings to mind the newest shiny white gizmo from Apple.

What ensues is a tender, funny love story no less romantic and engaging for its almost complete lack of dialogue. By the time the humans arrive to complicate the plot, we almost don't want them around, so lovable and amusing are our electronic protagonists. Perhaps the cinematic year's most touching relationship moment comes when Eve awakens from a long shutdown and reviews hours and hours of video, which her hardware automatically recorded while she "slept," documenting WALL·E's loving, meticulous care of her. The person next to me in the audience teared up, and I get a little mushy inside just thinking about it.

6. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Maybe if Woody Allen continues to travel throughout Europe, making romantic comedies with dark edges or romantic thrillers with comic touches, he'll pull off the most graceful late period of any American director. Picture it: Natalie in Hungary! Czech Mate! Vatican City Blues! I didn't have the highest expectations of Allen's Spain-set, bittersweet ménage-à-trois comedy, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Javier Bardem brings tremendous suavity and vigor, por supuesto, to his role as the man who sets the romantic antics in motion; Scarlett Johansson returns to the kind of role she's best at (the young, unabashedly sexual woman who still exudes a kind of innocence); and Rebecca Hall serves as the Woody avatar without making it too obvious (restraint in the script helps, too). Patricia Clarkson has a nice, memorable turn in a small role (does anyone do that better?), and as many critics have pointed out, Penelope Cruz practically sets the film on fire when she appears as Bardem's nutty, sexy ex.

I was worried that Allen would drag us into Dirty Old Man territory, but it never feels as though he's exploiting the slightly scandalous premise. Indeed, sex is mostly hinted at in the film rather than depicted, and the subject is human relations rather than carnal ones. I was also concerned that the writer-director would push things too far, moving a light, delicate comedy with dangerous undertones into outright melodrama. Again, Allen knows precisely where to stop -- Vicky Cristina Barcelona is hardly a tragedy, but neither is it a typical romantic comedy. (It also didn't hurt that Allen riffed hilariously on his own production in a New York Times piece.) Instead, it's a work of an older, richer, quasi-Shakespearean sort, the kind that simultaneously laments and celebrates human foolishness in the overlapping realms of love and lust.

7. Iron Man

When was the last time you saw a superhero movie in which someone actually got to act? Well, okay, this was an unusual year -- a year in which Heath Ledger will almost certainly win the Best Supporting Actor statuette for his role in The Dark Knight. But before that weighty picture rolled into town, there was a gleeful, irreverent, damn fun flick called Iron Man. And before Mickey Rourke made his stunning comeback in The Wrestler, Robert Downey, Jr., became a box-office hero without selling his dignity to the highest bidder. Not that he didn't clean up royally from the summer movie season's first big hit; he just managed to inject so much humanity and humor into his character, billionaire playboy Tony Stark, that what could have been a guilty pleasure became just plain pleasurable.

It didn't hurt that Jeff Bridges refused to chew the scenery as Stark's longtime mentor (and eventual rival), emanating menace instead by underplaying until the time was right for kicking his performance up a few notches. Gwyneth Paltrow was perfectly fine as Stark's assistant/love interest, and director Jon Favreau's playful sense of humor served him even better here than it did in Elf. As with my #10 pick, it's hard to say whether Iron Man will stand up to repeated viewings, but as an unusually clever crowd-pleaser, it more than pulled its weight.

8. Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle's Indian epic moves seamlessly from an agonizing first chapter, in which adults and children alike are tortured, maimed, or killed, to a busy middle phase, and finally to a breathless, life-affirming finale that isn't even the real finale -- you have to wait around during the end credits for that. As Reed, who saw the movie with me, rightly pointed out, Boyle is a great director of children; anyone who saw his underrated family film Millions already knew that. His decision to work with an Indian co-director to make the film as authentic as possible (and presumably to make the many sequences in Hindi go smoothly) was inspired, and even the subtitles are innovative in their design (they move around the screen depending on where the action is, and they're always readable, since they're part of the film itself, not a post-facto overlay).

The director is as comfortable with awesome long shots of Mumbai as he is racing along beside running children, and the story's Dickensian nature (which Anthony Lane referred to in his review) is nicely juxtaposed with Boyle's bracing, state-of-the-art visuals. Slumdog is first about surviving extreme poverty and hardship, and then about what you do when you've survived. It may be a fantasia, a projection of wishful thinking on the part of slumdogs the world over, but it's only playing by the crazy rules that globalization has already put in place.

9. Man on Wire

You may or may not consider Philippe Petit, the protagonist of this beautiful documentary, to be a hero, but there's no denying the audacity of his feat. He gained fame and a touch of notoriety, too, by walking on a tightrope from one Twin Tower to the other on an otherwise typical day in 1974. Made especially poignant by 9/11, the sight of him moving slowly and carefully, then freely and happily, between the sky-high buildings is hard to accept as reality, but the footage is real. Once you become more familiar with Petit's adorable but extremely idiosyncratic personality, his achievement becomes easier and easier to buy as fact. That's just one of the film's many beauties.

An interview with Petit's then girlfriend reveals aspects of his process and state of mind that he likely couldn't articulate for us, but that's not because he's the silent type. Indeed, the daredevil reveals himself to be a manic chatterbox as he recreates key moments of his illegal ascent of the tower at whose summit he began his historic tightrope walk. Last year, Into the Wild made me realize how susceptible I am to films with epic stories to tell and strong messages about life. This year, my reminder came courtesy of Man on Wire. Petit, like young Hannah Bailey of American Teen, is a quirky living reminder that any limits we imagine for ourselves are simply that -- imaginary.

10. Cloverfield

Finally, we come to the choice that's liable to get me the most flak, if anybody actually reads this list. Without the giant screen and sound system of Seattle's Cinerama (or an equivalently huge theater) and the titanic amount of hype that swirled around this J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie, does it still have bite? My answer: Who cares? January is typically a cinematic dead zone except for Oscar-bait holdovers, and Cloverfield shattered January box-office records for a reason: It delivered something risky and alive and worth anticipating, as many fans (myself included) did for months. In November of 2007, I was already scanning online message boards and blogs for clues about the monster that invades New York in the film. As I wrote just before Cloverfield opened, the innovative teaser trailer and full trailer made it virtually irresistible to anyone with a taste for the horror, disaster, and suspense genres.

Critics clucked at the movie's Blair Witch-like DV conceit, but I found it tremendously effective. Since the stars were virtual unknowns, most of the hefty budget was spent on making the monster(s) as frightening and realistic as possible. So when they show up on Hud's crappy recording, they provide a much more visceral shock than they might in a movie that looks... well, like a movie. (Remember the part of Signs when a handheld-camera recording of a birthday party is interrupted briefly by an alien "guest"? Cloverfield takes the concept behind that terrifying moment and turns it into sequence after unsettling sequence.) In the dark of Seattle winter, after months of waiting and wondering and getting nervous and excited, I wanted a cinematic thrill ride that would make me and my friends grip the armrests of our seats and never let go. Cloverfield delivered, and how.

Honorable mentions (in no particular order):

Encounters at the End of the World -- Only Werner Herzog could make an Antarctic penguin into a wrenching existential figure; though not as potent as Grizzly Man, this lovely, subtly humorous documentary shows the director in excellent form.

The Fall -- Tarsem Singh finally follows up The Cell with an even more dazzling visual feast accompanied by a much sweeter story. The film's graceful ending is one of the year's best.

In Search of a Midnight Kiss -- Alex Holdridge uses the largely unexplored corners of Los Angeles, the parts of the city tourists almost never see, to create an edgy romantic fairy tale supported by gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (by Robert Murphy).

Tell No One -- If you can suspend disbelief, this twisty French thriller with a strong emotional undertow (and a few tough-to-watch scenes of violence) is a great way to spend a sleepy summer afternoon. Would also make a great winter rental.

Definitely, Maybe -- Good romantic comedies are awfully scarce these days, so this charmer felt like an oasis in a very large desert. Ryan Reynolds doesn't quite exude charisma, but his female costars more than make up for that (Isla Fisher is particularly excellent), and writer-director Adam Brooks' decision to set his story against the rise and fall of Bill Clinton is a total winner.

The Wackness -- Josh Peck carries this Giuliani-era period piece on his slouchy shoulders as an easy-going drug dealer who wants little more than to figure out what, if anything, to do with his life. Olivia Thirlby is sensational as the ultimate New York girl-next-door, and Ben Kingsley is... something else as Peck's pothead shrink.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 -- The original Pants was an unexpectedly smart, fun entry in the teen-girl-movie genre, and Pants 2 is just as surprising: a sequel that doesn't just rehash the original, and is nearly as good. A not-so-guilty pleasure.

Stop-Loss -- There was almost nothing that Boys Don't Cry writer-director Kimberly Peirce could have done to live up to the astonishing power of that Oscar-winning film, and even though Stop-Loss isn't as wrenching, memorable, and unusual, it still packs a big punch. Ryan Phillippe proves he has more chops than the average pretty-boy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in another fine smaller performance, and Channing Tatum and Abbie Cornish nail their roles to the wall.

Finally, here are some of the well-regarded 2008 movies that I missed (or will likely miss, or that haven't opened here yet):

The Class
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Revolutionary Road
Waltz with Bashir

Friday, January 9, 2009

The P-I -- R.I.P.?

It's not surprising, really, but it's somehow not entirely unsurprising, either: The Post-Intelligencer's days look to be numbered, according to a report in the pages of its rival (and my former employer), The Seattle Times. One troubling question surrounding this development: What will happen to Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist David Horsey? Stay tuned for more info as it's made available.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Greg, my source for all things Radiohead, recently directed me to a fine collection of Radiohead vs. Jay-Z mashups. Stellar.

Kosher in China

Patricia Marx's New Yorker article about kosher inspectors in China is fascinating, and her playful style is appreciated. Especially when she tries to describe China's burgeoning kosher export business in Biblical English.

Um, no

Another hard-hitting MSN Careers article asks the hot-button question: "Should Your Boss Be Your Facebook Friend?"

Particularly ridiculous is this passage:
"If you use Facebook to air political rants, document your wild weekend escapades, post wacky photos or vent about your job, you should obviously have some concerns about letting your boss view this aspect of your life," Rutledge cautions.
Don't use Facebook to vent about your job. That seems like an obvious "don't," unless you're beyond caring about potentially being fired and/or feel confident that there's an airtight seal on your profile. I don't even think I'd use Facebook to "document my wild weekend escapades," if I had any.

That said, I am Facebook friends with prior bosses, and that's working out just fine. Recent focus on Facebook "Netiquette" (sorry) does interest me, since a former work acquaintance posted something not too long ago that I would have thought too personal and weighty to disclose via Facebook. Thing is, it's becoming many people's go-to method for information dissemination, almost regardless of the information's nature.

So MSN's article has its heart sort of in the right place. I just don't think it makes sense to let your boss have daily access to your status updates, much less your decision to post that Lonely Island video whose name I still can't write here -- in case my boss reads this blog.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Good for the godless

Ron Aronson, a professor at Wayne State University and a friend of our family, recently published a book titled Living Without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided. Now the Metro Times, Detroit's leading weekly paper, has made it (and him) the subject of a cover story. Makes for interesting reading, especially when Aronson notes the gap between the notion that most Americans are religious and the reality:
In a massive Pew Poll, when people were asked, "Where do you primarily get your morality from" — and they are given a list of areas that includes religion, daily life experience, reasoning, philosophy, science to choose from — only 29 percent of Americans overall say they get their morality from religion. Only 29 percent! That's astounding. What it means is that more than two-thirds of Americans have a secular morality.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Distrust any enterprise...

I realized recently that my new job will require me to don "business casual" attire, the definition of which didn't spring swiftly to mind. I had to check the Wikipedia entry on the subject. Really, one glance at their instructive photo of Bill Gates, which appears above, told me everything I needed to know: pants that might be referred to as "slacks" (lose the pleats, though, Bill) plus a collared shirt that wouldn't look out of place if Keira Knightley lounged in it during a GQ photo shoot -- et voilà, business casual! Got it. Thanks, Wikipedia! Thanks, Mr. Gates!

Today I purchased two additional pairs of Dockers brand pants, bringing my total holdings in my size up to three (khaki, weird olive color, and black); I also purchased two dress shirts, one by Ben Sherman and one by some guy named John. (I passed on the $60 Hugo Boss cream shirt, but just barely.) Ladies and gentlemen, I once again have to care about how I look! It's almost like I've moved back to New York. Seriously, though, this is doing me good. A change of pace from jeans and the perennial T-shirt/sweatshirt combo can only boost my self-esteem.

Gnarls Barkley covers Radiohead

And it's awesometastic. Thanks to Greg for the tip-off.

Monday, January 5, 2009

1,000 words

My mom just sent me this picture of my father, which was sent to her by my father's longtime secretary. (I know the term is "administrative assistant," but I'm trying to avoid revisionist history; back then, people really did say "secretary.") The time: the '80s. The place: the office of Junior Year in Freiburg/Munich, the Wayne State University study-abroad program that my father directed, and which he resident-directed in '84 and '88 (the two years that we, as a family, spent in Freiburg, Germany).

One detail that jumped out at me from this old picture: the box of Stoned Wheat Thins on the shelf behind my dad. I loved those crackers when I was a kid, and clearly I acquired that love -- as I did my love of movies, most of my sense of humor, and quite a few other things -- from him. I hope to begin scanning old family photos sometime this year so I can post them here and on Facebook. As I near thirty, I find my thoughts naturally turning to my father, and what he might think of where I am now and what I'm doing. I think he'd be pretty pleased, all in all.

Its humble origins

I worked for a Village Voice Media paper for years without knowing how the Voice came to exist. Thanks to Louis Menand's informative New Yorker piece, I no longer have to wonder.

I work here now

My start date isn't set yet, but as of this morning I'm the new part-time receptionist at Childhaven. More info as I receive it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Wolfe bites back

I didn't read Alex Ross's recent piece on Leonard Bernstein in The New Yorker, but this week's exchange in the magazine's letters-to-the-editor section -- between an irked Tom Wolfe and a placid Ross -- makes me want to. Even though Wolfe is being a bit of an ass, I kind of love him for writing something so self-consciously snarky, and though Ross's cool response isn't as satisfying (or long) as I imagine it could have been, this is definitely the funniest and most memorable back-and-forth to grace the magazine's letters page in some time. I found the last part of Wolfe's complaint particularly amusing (Ross's writing is what's in quotes):
“If, as William F. Buckley, Jr., said, Bernstein was parroting the lingo of fanatics, Wolfe was, in his own way, a mouthpiece, his fashionably tart prose advancing the new art of wedge-issue politics.” Let us avert our eyes from the rhetorical wreck on the highway and merely point out that Wolfe has never been anybody’s mouthpiece, and his interest in political journalism is nil. Four: “The entire episode reeks of hysteria.” Wrong word. There is a difference between hysteria and hysterically funny. Music Critic Ross was two at the time.

Friday, January 2, 2009

My dad's birthday

It's today, and his Wikipedia entry remains intact. I should probably clean it up a bit, as the site suggests, but for the moment I'm just glad it's still there. My mom helped edit it; the picture above is of the two of them. I miss you, Papa!

Coming soon to this blog: My top 10 films of 2008

Last year's list didn't emerge until Jan. 20, and now I remember why: Some potential honorees haven't even opened yet in Seattle, including The Wrestler, The Class, and Waltz with Bashir, all of which I'm getting a little tired of waiting for. I'll likely post my list after I return from my East Coast excursion (Jan. 16-26), so if you're interested, come back then. I already have a partial list of top films and a bunch of honorable mentions, but I'd feel weird posting some of them and waiting on others. FYI, though, I'm itching to go. I might just cave before I leave town...