Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Aging crank that I am, like the others in this group I gave up following whatever’s current a long time ago. Why bother when 90% will be forgotten in a few years anyway? So, as my selections show, consider this a list of my favorites that I discovered this year, regardless of whenever they were actually released. I already shared my favorite music and movies, which I herein incorporate by reference.
The MSM Meltdown
Was there a more hilarious, horrifying, or unbelievable spectacle than the way the mainstream media — our putative masters at The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NBC, et al. — had a hysterical nervous breakdown over the Trumpening? I don’t know which part was my favorite: their constant assurances there was no way Trump could win, the variety of ways they called him a fascist, the snarky reports that his campaign was always just on the verge of collapse, all of the polls that were dead fucking wrong, the way the entire Establishment rallied around Hillary, the unprecedented frenzy of grief and disbelief when Trump won, or the “fake news” and “It was the Russians!” narratives in the wake of his victory. My schadenfreude was, and continues to be, off the charts. How can anyone take them seriously anymore? Do they have the slightest shred of credibility left? Hey, MSM: maybe your candidate didn’t win because you didn’t shout “HITLER!” loud enough. Try harder next time. And congrats on learning absolutely nothing after your stunning defeat.
The Republishing of Neglected History Books
No doubt this is something that’s been going on for a while, but this year I noticed a number of independent publishers that are bringing back suppressed, ignored, or “outdated” works back into print in dirt cheap Kindle editions. Most of the titles were originally published in the late 19th or early 20th centuries and concern things like cowboys, the Civil War, and other shitlordy subjects. Some of the standout publishers include the oddly named Pickle Partners Publishing and Lecturable. I’m sure real academics would dismiss all of this as “fake history.” I’ll write more about this topic in a future blogpost, but I wanted to give the phenom a shout-out here.
Menu Design in America, 1850-1985 by Jim Heimann, Steven Heller & John Mariani
I read a number of good books this year, but this Taschen volume was the most pure fun. A survey of 135 years of restaurant ephemera, it’s a combo of American folk art, food mores, and travelogue. The bulk of the collection seems to span the 30s through 50s, particularly New York and California, but there’s a healthy sampling from the midwest too. Page after page of elegant Art Deco and optimistic midcentury art, I recommended it to any Americana fans, design nerds, or foodies. Fun fact: I was talking to a dude who sells vintage restaurant art about this book and he said one of the biggest collectors of this stuff is a major Hollywood producer who wants to remain anonymous. This book contains substantial portions of his collection but his name is nowhere to be found.
God Help the Girl
God Help the Girl, a side project by Belle & Sebastian svengali Stuart Murdoch, refers to any of three things:
1) a band founded by Murdoch in 2009 featuring B&S members on instruments and a cast of female vocalists,
2) the debut album by said band,
3) a 2014 movie starring Emily Browning where she and her co-stars rerecord of many of the songs from the original 2009 album
I love all its iterations. The retro Motown/Brill Building/girl group homage will sound insufferable to many listeners, but I can’t get enough. I listened to GHTG more than anything else this year. Fabrizio picked the movie soundtrack for his list in 2014.
She & Him
Mississippi John Hurt and Son House
Hurt’s “Avalon Blues” and House’s “The Original Delta Blues” are as essential as it’s possible for two albums to get. As our friend Lloyd used to say, every civilized home should have a copy of each, IMO.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” soundtrack
Emma Stone in “La La Land”
Vanessa Kirby in “The Crown”
Joe Rogan’s interview with Jordan Peterson, particularly the final hour. HT to Callowman for notifying me about this one.
The Foundations of Western Civilization by Thomas F. X. Noble
The Western Civ 101 class you never got, or skipped, in college. Like Paleo Retiree infra, I listened to a number of Great Courses lectures this year, and this one was my favorite. Noble is learned, approachable, and clear.
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Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I haven’t seen the majority of the year’s supposedly important new movies, and I rarely crawl outside my hovel, so take this list for what it is: a hermit’s-eye view of the culture.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
I spent the early part of the year reading Gibbon’s opus. The title, famous though it is, is an ironic misnomer — Gibbon’s real topic is the rise of the post-Roman West. As a compendium of stories it’s just about peerless. And of course stories entail characters: Attila, Stilicho, Belasarius, Mohammed, Julian, Guiscard, Tamerlane. These and others Gibbon presents with a raconteur’s vigor and shrewdness, always taking care to weave their lives — those fantastic absurdities — into the larger historical-narrative context. I wonder: How indebted to Gibbon are the modern genres of fantasy and sci-fi? It’s hard to imagine Tolkien and Asimov absent his example.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater’s ultra-casual college comedy has more to say about sports and young men than just about any movie I can think of. I’d write more, but I already did. See my review of it here.
The American Horror Project: Volume 1 — Blu-Ray from Arrow Video
Are the horror films included in this deluxe Blu-Ray package great movies? Probably not. Yet they have a sensibility that, evaluated independent of plot, performance, and standards of good taste, is perhaps worth treasuring. The movies, all products of the ‘70s, exhibit a combination of exploitation-style shamelessness and counterculture wigginess that’s almost unique to the period. “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” is perhaps the best of the lot. (It’s also better, at least in my opinion, than this year’s rather turgid “The Witch.”) Director Matt Cimber’s layering of psychosexual hysteria over a bed of maritime rot yields a miasma that’s hard to shake. Arrow might be the best video company out there.
Mel Gibson in “Blood Father” and Don Cheadle in “Miles Ahead”
Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast!
This is about the only culture-focused podcast I look forward to. Funny, energetic, and unpretentious, hosts Gottfried and Frank Santopadre dig through the detritus of popular culture with a fan’s eagerness and delight. They know a ton about movies, and they seem to enjoy them a lot more than the rather gray characters featured on the Film Comment Podcast, which I listen to when I’m in a bad mood and feel like wallowing in it.
Future Strategist’s interview with Greg Cochran
Love & Friendship
Early in “Love and Friendship,” writer-director Whit Stillman gets himself into trouble by overwhelming the narrative with characters he doesn’t bother to dramatically introduce (he introduces them, perhaps too cheekily, via title cards). But once the movie settles into a rhythm, it’s well paced and consistently (though very dryly) amusing. Like much of Stillman’s work it’s subtly reactionary. Though Stillman flirts with celebrating the blithe nastiness of Kate Beckinsale’s Lady Susan (there’s a touch of Margaret Lockwood’s “Wicked Lady” in the characterization), the movie can be taken as being in the tradition of the pre-“Dracula” “vampire” film; that is, as a rueful consideration of female licentiousness. These days it’s rare to see a picture end with an appreciation of virtue as the feminine trait most worthy of reverence. Is it fair to say that “Love and Friendship” is the anti-“Bridesmaids”? If so, the movie may be seen as an extension of Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress,” which I took as expressing a yearning for an age in which women regarded themselves as the guardians of the social graces. How long before Stillman — a polite and inoffensive filmmaker if ever there was one — is denounced by Jezebel or Buzzfeed? Or has that already happened?
The Nice Guys
In some ways “The Nice Guys” is writer-director Shane Black’s follow-up to his 2005 “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Both movies are oddball buddy pictures that wink at classic detective fiction. Black’s moral in “The Nice Guys” is that your best friends in life are, well, your friends…and maybe luck…and possibly booze. Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy is a violent asshole, but like Marlowe he has a moral sense that amounts to a sort of code. Ryan Gosling’s Holland March, on the other hand, has no code; he’s fundamentally corrupt, and a sweetheart. When teamed up their negatives cancel out. Crowe and Gosling do first-rate comedic work in roles that most will associate with buddy films of the ’70s and ’80s (some of them written by Black), but which trace their lineage all the way back to the 1926 “What Price Glory?,” surely one of the most imitated films of all time. Angourie Rice, who plays March’s daughter, is a nice find. Has anyone noticed she’s a riff on Penny from “Inspector Gadget”? The clunkiness of the whodunit mechanics didn’t bother me. It’s a movie that lives in its characters.
The Emigrants/The New Land on Blu-Ray from Criterion
Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell’s familial diptych rarely crops up in discussions of the best films of the ‘70s. Yet, as this stunning Blu-Ray package from Criterion proves, it represents one of the most heroically sustained pieces of long-form filmmaking in history. As Coppola did with “The Godfather, Part II,” Troell sets out to encapsulate and dramatize the experience of American immigration. In doing so he produces an epic so specific, naturalistic, and humane that it bears comparison with the best of Griffith. For me, spending time with these two pictures was the movie-watching experience of the year.
In the weeks leading up to the election I saw dozens of posts on social media complaining about the awfulness of the whole kit and caboodle. Upon seeing these posts, I thought: Are you nuts? For me the election was the most entertaining and fascinating thing of the last several years. And with the election behind us, the craziness just keeps coming; it may even have increased.
Have you ever noticed that a lot of the big political to-dos of recent history don’t mean what we think they mean? In my alternate view of history McCarthyism wasn’t about paranoid fantasies involving Communism; it was about Congress being brought to heel by other sectors of the establishment. Similarly, the principal lesson of Watergate didn’t concern government corruption; it concerned the ability — and willingness — of the media to depose the president. If there is an overarching meaning to the election of 2016, it seems to me that it’s not to be found in the Clinton Foundation or Russian hacking or surging Nazism, but rather in the ongoing war between old and new media. Elections are basically demonstrations of the effectiveness of propaganda. For years the establishment has set out its vetted products, and we’ve voted for the Coke or Pepsi of our choice — though perhaps the choice was really a submission to resignation. Donald Trump’s suitability for the presidency is almost beside the point. The important thing is, he’s neither Coke nor Pepsi (he’s not even RC fucking Cola), and yet there he is, the choice of a new generation. The media hysteria that trailed his campaign (trailed because he was always ahead of it) was unprecedented, resembling the death throes of an unfathomably long serpent that has suddenly realized a boulder has fallen from the heavens and crushed its trachea. The death rattle will echo for some time. Having grokked the slipping of its influence, our commentariat invokes fake news. The only cure for fake news, claim the members of this commentariat, is more of their news. Do you believe them?
Some of the other weird/interesting things to which the election gave birth: Scott Adams’ political blogging, the Cult of Kek, the Great Meme War, the crowdsourced narrative (or mass delusion?) known as Pizzagate, Nobel Laureate and eminent crackpot Paul Krugman predicting that Trump will stage a second 9/11 to improve his favorability ratings, and the spectacle of chubby dweebs posting photos of themselves wearing Hillary shirts captioned with “this is what resistance looks like.”
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Sax von Stroheim writes:
Due to work and family commitments, I didn’t see as many new movies this year as I normally do. I ended up missing several pictures that I suspect I might have liked, notably The BFG, Hacksaw Ridge, and Manchester by the Sea. But I also ended up missing many, many more likely contenders for award season honors that I probably would have seen only out of a desire to “stay current”, which, I must admit, is no longer a priority for me at all. I can say that though I didn’t see as many new releases as usual for me, the ones that have made my list here I liked, more or less, as much as I have those movies that made my top ten in prior years, when I did do a more thorough job of seeing all of the consensus favorites.
I’ll leave it to others to comment on whether or not there were any thematic trends in the movies this year. (I expect there will be lots of commentators suddenly seeing the spectre of Trumpism haunting the Current Year’s cinema.) In terms of “film culture”, however, the mantra continues to be “no surprises, please.” That is, more and more, both the popular and critical response to movies seems to be preordained and prepackaged, with the movies themselves almost afterthoughts. The big budget Hollywood films are intended as marketing for more of their ilk, whereas the smaller, awards-grasping movies are intended to put over a social, cultural agenda.
The most illuminating story of the year might be the way that the film cognoscenti, en masse, turned against Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, once they realized it would be “problematic” to praise a movie made by an accused (albeit acquitted) rapist. The most important movie of the year according to all the eggheads who saw it at Sundance, a brutal, unflinching look at righteous African-American rage, suddenly transformed into, after the scandal had made the rounds, an embarrassingly two-dimensional, amateurish work, made by someone with a terminal case of toxic masculinity. (Notably, it wasn’t until after the scandal that media pieces on Parker made a point of playing up his friendship with Mel Gibson, who had been a filmmaking mentor to him while working on his project.) I thought perhaps that the derailment of that narrative would be a cause for some self-reflection by the members of the hive mind, but, alas, that hope went unfulfilled: it was business as usual, as they went looking for the next movie to carry the torch for the predetermined, progressive messages that they all feel is central to what art should be about. (Only Steve Sailer was brave enough to cover all the ironies of the episode.)
But maybe that’s the bigger theme of the year: the self-appointed guardians of what is good and right refusing any kind of self-criticism in the face of a massive failure to understand their supposed area of expertise.
Anyway, onto the list…
The Lost City of Z
One of the last great adventures into the unknown: Percy Fawcett’s Amazonian expeditions are used as a vehicle for a journey into innerspace: a religious quest deeper into his soul and his understanding of the world. It’s closer to The Master than to Master and Commander. A character study of a man caught between two worlds and the costs of a religious (progressive) world view.
An intricately designed exploration of faith, politics, and Hollywood: profound and funny, with a great, big, bug-eyed performance from George Clooney and a grounded, soulful performance from Josh Brolin at its center. (Also, one of the only times I can think of where a movie has implied that the blacklist probably wasn’t such a bad idea.)
The Neon Demon
Apollonian ego exploring a Dionysian id: a movie about glamour, reaching back to the concept’s archaic roots as something magical, otherwordly, dangerous.
As with Irrational Man, Woody in his “greatest hits” mode: taking bits and pieces of Bullets Over Broadway, Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose, and, especially, Crimes and Misdemeanors, eschewing any pretense of sociology or journalism (this has the least Hollywood feel of almost any movie set in the glory days of Hollywood) and rearranging them into a dark comedy of ideas that has no fear of being too theatrical or literary. Irrational Man was bolder and more inventive, but this one hit me harder on the way out: the dissolve near the end of the movie between the two leads, united in longing, but separated by missed opportunities, assumptions, and bad timing, had more emotional punch than anything else I saw at the movies this year.
A good man’s long dark night of the soul: wrestling with the spectre of failure, of old age, of having lost the right stuff. Centered around a great introspective-but-crowd-pleasing performance from one of Hollywood’s great popular artists, supported by Clint Eastwood’s solid, procedural framework. There’s a quiet intensity to both what Hanks is doing here and how Eastwood handles the crash/rescue scenes: creating insistence through staging and composition and strategic sound design rather than rapid-fire editing and pulsing music cues. It’s heartening to see Clint, at this stage in his life, carry off some of his best filmmaking of his career.
Love & Friendship
A story about a free-spirited, independent woman following her passions and interests and bucking up against the mores and taboos of society. By the conventions of The Current Year, one is supposed to take the part of the woman, but, here, though Whit Stillman gives his heroine the best lines, his sympathies are firmly with society. A great Tory movie.
The Nice Guys
As pure a Blackian vision that has yet to be brought to the screen, which means fearlessly and without irony sticking a precocious, too-cute, smarter-than-her-years teenage girl in the middle of a movie filled with blackly comic disregard for human life. By turns nihilistic and sentimental, full of expertly staged sequences of slapstick violence: Shane Black, the ur-Tarantino, gives us a comic vision of friendship and fatherhood: the buddy cop movie used to express an ethos of how to live in a fallen world. I enjoyed it immensely, and pity anyone who is unable to appreciate Black’s tasteless willingness to mix and match incommensurate tones.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Among other things, this is one of the best sports movies (in the philosophical Ron Shelton/Dan Jenkins mode) to come along in a while. Marketed as a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, it’s closer to Slacker, Waking Life, and the Before movies in the way it works: characters smart enough to provide their own commentary on the scope and limitations of their world view, which becomes, here, an anthropological exploration of and apologia for “bro” culture.
Yourself and Yours
A guy breaks up with his girlfriend because he’s upset she’s been going to bars and getting drunk with other men. We watch him mope around and we watch her pass the time by going to bars and getting drunk with other men. Hilarity ensues.,The cinema’s great poet of cluelessness and passive aggression giving us his take on the “manic pixie dream girl.”
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
A great superhero movie and a great piece of visual filmmaking. Zack Snyder allows the pictures to carry the story, and there are sequences here that almost reach the heights of Fritz Lang or Jack Kirby in their monumental, dramatic power. It goes all out in realizing, with a straight face, even the goofier comic book ideas (that huge, bulky Batman costume, for instance), but, more importantly, it successfully puts over the central conflict on a psychological and emotional level, again, mostly through pictures and through performance, rather than through the screenplay (which is, admittedly, not one of the film’s strengths).
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Paleo Retiree writes:
Charles Lloyd and the Marvels
A legend back in the ‘60s who took time off in the ‘70s and ‘80s for personal and medical reasons, the 78 year old Charles Lloyd is an ebulliently freewheeling saxophonist as well as a wonderfully creative composer. He has a one-world, philosophical bent and his music draws from an amazingly wide range of sources. The night I saw him, he and his band launched into structured-yet-trippy adventures while ricocheting off the damnedest things — from soul to Islam to country to the Beach Boys to Coltrane. And he likes to structure an evening out of big blocks so it’s a composition in its own right. Many times the guys blew up big complexly-patterned clouds of sound that counterpointed shreds of melody and floated over funky grooves. His bandmembers were all virtuosos in their own right: Bill Frisell on guitar; Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar; Reuben Rogers on bass; and Eric Harland on drums.
The Hawaiian folk group Hapa
I wrote about it here.
Apple Music’s curated playlists
I wrote about them here.
A day at the Ojai Music Festival
Only an hour from LA or Santa Barbara, Ojai is a tiny hippie town with an interesting history, and the festival that takes place there every year (founded in 1947) features topflight classical music with an emphasis on new and recent stuff, often of an experimental nature. During our visit, my wife and I caught music by Roomful of Teeth (vocals) and ICE (instruments). First they did a selection of pieces by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, who composes in the IRCAM/Darmstadt mode: very pure, very avant-garde and palate-cleansing. My wife compared the music to foam cuisine. The same groups then came back to deliver a pleasing vocal piece by Caroline Shaw and a passionate, fractured suite of cabaret-esque songs by Carla Kihlstedt.
Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers
Despite the billing, the freakily talented guitarist and vocalist Vince Gill is just one of the guys in this great country band. Their show was in country’s best we’re-all-friends-here / we-do-it-for-the-love / we-trade-solos-equally mode, and the evening featured loads of western swing, some comic songs, some heartbreakers, and a lot of very polished cornpone humor. It was all ultra low-key and old-fashioned — there were zero flashy visual effects — but not, thank god, in a heavily-branded way. It was the most friendly (and finally quite moving) all-American jumble of humor, characters and tunes imaginable. My wife doesn’t normally care for country music, alas, but this show touched her soul and left her in a very good mood.
The 73-year-old Maceo Parker is an alto sax man who played for years with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic; the people in his current band have stellar funk credentials of their own. Together they put out an evening of unbelievably snappy, tight, churning grooves, featuring arresting start-stop moments and numerous fabulous showbiz touches. Parker sings like Ray Charles, and he loves giving his band startling physical signals. What a seasoned and inventive trouper he is. A lot of clowning-around, patter and novelty stuff provided likable relief from the hot and hardcore, mostly one-chord funk music. Slim, elegant, funny and sexy, Parker would be the coolest guy in any room, and the band wore good-looking, near-matching suits, a great funk-band tradition that I love.
The surprise for me seeing Lovett live was how ingenuous and modest he was. Because of the haircut and the mix-and-match music, I’d always thought of him as a postmodern wiseguy, but onstage Lovett came across as much more sincere than that — ingenuous and modest, a musician who’s still a music fan himself, who’s delighted to work with other first-class musicians and who’s grateful that he’s been able to get through life making music. His band was snappy, precise and alert, shifting gears in a blink from big band to folk to western swing to gospel. I love the frame — of humor, storytelling and Texas friendliness — that the evening came in. It was an eclectic, exuberant and surprisingly touching evening.
The Barbarous Coast by Ross MacDonald
I loved this 1956 novel by the hardboiled-detective-fiction master despite struggling to follow its story and despite my reservations about MacDonald, who often strikes me as trying too hard to achieve profundity. But this novel has a lot more variety and action than many of his novels do. It also delivers tons of genius perceptions about people in SoCal, some really masterly scenes, and mucho near-hallucinatory atmosphere. I’m struck by how the SoCal world in MacDonald’s work can seem like fantasy for grownups who don’t know SoCal; if you do know SoCal his work has much more of a documentary feeling and function. I was also struck by how great MacDonald is at conveying dreaminess and in-between states of consciousness.
Julian by Gore Vidal, read by Charlton Griffin
Vidal’s world-weariness, cynicism and wit are at their best in this magnificent, full-bodied historical novel about the Roman emperor Julian, who thought he just wanted to study philosophy but discovered in himself a taste and a talent for ruling. It’s one of the best novels about politics I’ve ever gone through, and friend-of-this-blog Charlton Griffin’s brilliant production and performance is a genuine creative achievement in its own right, adding layers of wit, color and suspense that enhance the novel dramatically.
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes by Kenneth Harl
This was my favorite of the numerous Great Courses lecture series that I listened to in 2016.
Makers and Takers by Rana Forhoohar
I wrote about it here.
The Daily Mail
The #1 British tabloid may be guilty of every sin of trashiness that it’s often accused of, but I think it’s also a remarkable publication that’s currently experiencing a golden era. Journalism isn’t just about facts, responsibility, thoughtfulness, etc. It’s also about entertainment, and it’s about reporters and editors having a nose for what’s resonant and/or hot in the culture — what people are feeling, what they’re currently really interested in, etc. That’s where the DM shines. My friends who depend entirely on the legit prestige press for their news are constantly being surprised and appalled by what’s going on in the world around them. As a Daily Mail junkie, I’m surprised by the craziness of our current world much less often. Hey, if we’re OK with the notion that exploitation movies can be valuable in ways that respectable movies often aren’t, why is it so hard to admit that the same can be true of newspapers? I think of the DM as the Roger Corman of newspapers.
A spoof subreddit that’s — IMHO, of course — in a class with the best spoof Amazon reviews, and that never fails to leave my ribs aching from giggling. The gimmick here is that the participants pretend to be old people commenting on things that have been posted online elsewhere online by real old people. All the cluelessnesses of old people at loose on the web are fondly imitated: the lack of awareness of who might be reading, the confusion about how to communicate online, the swinging back and forth between all caps and lower case, the abruptly delivered bad medical news, the maladroit copying-and-pasting. In a nice touch, all the participants have usernames that include AOL email addresses.
I wrote about it here.
Afghanistan, the Great Game
My post about this terrific British documentary is here.