Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Good Stuff: 2013, Recapp’d

First, the year in me. Rosemarie and I moved to a deluxe apartment in the sky. We won an award. And I published a book. All in all, not a bad twelve months.

2013 was the least active year in the history of ye olde website, and most of the posts were about cocktails. But blogs are dead anyway, as Jason Kottke was the most recent to remind us. Still, I feel bad that I didn’t manage to rattle on about everything I watched, read, listened to or otherwise ingested. Hence, this rambling roster of recommendations, in the order consumed. It is by no means complete; there are highly touted titles I have yet to catch up with, others I’ve seen and am still chewing over. But such lists are always written in the sand, aren’t they? Consider this a snapshot of how I feel on New Year’s Eve. Come New Year’s Day I’ll be another person entirely. And so will you.

Drinking with Men, by Rosie Schaap. A heartfelt memoir about the pleasures and occasional perils of being a regular in a bar near you. My favorite book of the year.

Side Effects. New age noir, slyly updated for the era of prescription drugs. In the words of my friend Ray Banks, “classically sleazy.” And with that, Steven Soderbergh retires.

Noir City. A high point every year. Saw it in both Seattle and Portland this annum!

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, by Sara Gran. Miss Gran continues to toy with the conventions of the mystery novel even as she probes the deepest mystery. This entry in the best series going is, sadly, the only novel on this year’s list. It was a strange reading year for me.

Behind the Candelabra (HBO). And with that, Steven Soderbergh returns! (I never bought that retirement story for a minute.) Featuring a bravura performance by Michael Douglas as Liberace, it doesn’t stint on the dirt or the garish period details while proving to be a riveting portrait of a long-term relationship falling apart.

Pacific Rim. The movie I always wanted to see when I was eight years old made me feel eight years old again.

The Hitchcock 9. Seeing the Master of Suspense’s first directorial efforts, completely restored and with live musical accompaniment, was an event of the first order. Kudos to the British Film Institute – and to Seattle’s SIFF Cinema, for innovative musical choices and following the series with several days of Hitchcock’s early U.K. sound films.

Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty. Engaging social history looking back at how the studios and the predominately Jewish moguls who ran them did and did not respond to the rise of Nazism in the years before World War II. Doherty has a thorough understanding of movies and of Hollywood as a business and a community. (Would that the same could be said for Ben Urwand. His shoddy and sensationalistic The Collaboration, which covers much of the same ground, is the worst book I read in 2013.)

Drug War. You can have your superheroes. Give me bad-ass cops. Johnnie To goes to mainland China and makes an epic thriller.

This Town, by Mark Leibovich. The one book that almost makes me say “The one book you have to read.” It serves up in clinical detail why American politics is broken – because once elected, the people who run this country essentially move to a separate realm, one without connection or consequence. Told with the gleeful abandon that only comes when an insider (Leibovich is a longtime political correspondent for the New York Times) decides to set the palace walls ablaze himself.

Blancanieves. A bewitching black-and-white silent film that retells the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1920s Spain. With bullfighting. I can’t believe it wasn’t more popular.

The Bling Ring. In a year of movies about the hollowing out of the American Dream, Sofia Coppola’s up-to-the-minute look at fame-obsessed teenagers turned bandits takes the prize. Also deserving of consideration in this category: Michael Bay’s underappreciated Pain & Gain.

Rush. Ron Howard returns to his Grand Theft Auto roots and makes the film of his career and my favorite of 2013. Peter Morgan’s script transforms the battle for the 1976 Formula One championship into the essential existential question: how do you live your life? Magnificently photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle, with Daniel Brühl giving the performance of the year as Niki Lauda.

Captain Phillips. Harrowing all the way through, never more so than when the damage has been done; the closing scenes depicting shock are impossible to shake. Tom Hanks at his finest.

Frances Ha. The great dilemma of your twenties – finding your own music to dance to – put on screen in a truly unique way. Greta Gerwig beguiles even while she maddens. Thinking of the final shot puts a smile on my face even now.

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, by Victoria Wilson. At times frustratingly thorough, the first of this two-volume biography gives our greatest movie actress the treatment she deserves.

Collision Low Crossers, by Nicholas Dawidoff. A confession: I didn’t watch a single snap of the 2013 NFL season after skipping January’s Super Bowl for the first time in years. One unpleasant story after another – too many deaths of former players with signs of serious brain trauma, the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, a rash of player suicides culminating in Jovan Belcher’s death by his own hand at the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice facility after he murdered his girlfriend – had drained all pleasure from football for me. Dawidoff’s book chronicling his 2011 season embedded with the New York Jets coaching staff thus came along at an interesting time. Beautifully written and packed with inside info, it perfectly captures football’s grind both on the field and off; George Will was not wrong when he said the sport combines the two worst aspects of American life, namely violence and committee meetings. Coaches and players alike acknowledge the risks inherent in the game and undertake them willingly, but don’t care to discuss them in depth. I feel better about football knowing that. I’m still not planning to watch the Super Bowl, even if the Seahawks are in it.

Six by Sondheim (HBO). A biography in the form of half a dozen songs, and one of the best treatments you’ll ever see of a writer writing.

Nebraska. Alexander Payne’s film (written by Seattle’s own Bob Nelson) is an elegy for a life and an entire way of life – as well as a reminder that time passes for the young as it does for the old. Will Forte should be getting more love for his performance here.

Inside Llewyn Davis. In many respects the evil twin of Frances Ha. Structured like a folk song, which is why it’s going around and round in my head. What happens when you’re good enough to make it – and you don’t make it? It’s also a meta, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-we self-portrait by Joel and Ethan Coen, two artists dogged by questions of likability who may only be able to create with a partner.

Here’s wishing all of you the best in 2014. Thanks for stopping by on occasion. I’ll leave the light on. Odds are I’ll still mostly be talking about cocktails, though.