Our Favorite Things in 2017

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

As you will quickly notice, we’re a grouchy, grumpy lot, all of whom are too old to keep up with new things, so this list consists of our favorite things we encountered this year whether or not they actually debuted in 2017. We hope you enjoy our choices and commentary. If you give any of them a shot, come back and let us know what you think. And don’t forget to tell us your favorites of the year in the comments.

Above is Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver, our pick for best movie of the year. Haha, just kidding, it sucked and (most of us) hated it. Anyway, because my name is first alphabetically, not to mention I put this whole goddamn post together, we’ll start with my picks:

A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War by Thomas Fleming

I wrote about it here.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

Like a contemporary French version of Orwell’s 1984. Where is Western Civilization headed? Does it have anything left in the tank?

Frantz (Ozon, 2017)

My favorite new movie of the year, although it was released in Europe in 2016. In this review, an Onion AV Club critic doubted that a movie set during WWI would have any emotional resonance, even though to appreciate this film all you need to know about WWI is that the French and Germans fought each other. Huh, funny how the WWI setting didn’t alienate the thousands of people who bawled their eyes out during Wonder Woman .

I Dolci Inganni (Sweet Deceptions) (Lattuada, 1960)
Welcome to New York (Ferrara, 2015)
Rocco (Demaizière & Teurlai, 2016)

I Love You, Daddy (C.K., 2017)

There’s more honesty and insight about men, women, sex, and power in these four movies than in the entire MSM reporting and commentary on the Hollywood sex scandals.

“Finding Frances,” the season 4 finale of Nathan For You. Could’ve easily been on my best movies list.
Season 1 of Mindhunter. A show that seems like it’s about serial killers, but it’s really about the slow, frustrating pace of institutional change. Worth it just for the performances by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany.
Season 3 of Better Call Saul. Bob Odenkirk > Bryan Cranston.
Season 5 of The Americans. Why don’t more people watch this show?

Honorable Mention: The Orville

Not being a Seth MacFarlane fan, I was prepared to hate this, but actually ended up enjoying it quite a bit. The critical reaction was fascinating. Many reviewers slammed it for wobbling back between drama and comedy, even though — from M*A*S*H, to Ally McBeal, to Freaks & Geeks — the comedy/drama has been a critical darling for decades. I think they mainly hate MacFarlane and resent that a crude frat boy comedian (or should I say “alleged crude frat boy comedian”) is doing Star Trek better than the actual companies in charge of  Star Trek .

French Touch by Carla Bruni

I hardly listened to any new music this year. My beloved Taylor Swift let me down with Reputation, even if after a few listens I don’t quite hate it as much as I did the first time. Of the few things I sampled this year, this album of covers by Bruni was my favorite. Cool, smooth, lithe, and sexy.

Derren Brown: Secret at the Atlantic Theater

Brown, a UK-based magician and mentalist, made his American theater debut here in NYC and it was a real mindblower. For some reason he hasn’t taken it on the road, which is too bad, because he’s compelling performer with a repertoire of incredible tricks.

The Jazz Age at the Cooper Hewitt

Proof, if any was needed, that modern need not be Modernist. You can browse the exhibit and buy the catalog here.

French Dip sandwich at Maison Pickle

Cole’s is still the gold standard, but if you like your French Dip on the more patrician side, Maison Pickle will not let you down.

Ciabatta with Liuzzi ricotta, lavender by the bay, honey and extra virgin olive oil at Eataly NYC Flatiron

That description is a mouthful for such a delicate appetizer. As soon as I got home I started working on how to make my own version. Order it at this restaurant.

Tacos at Taqueria Emilio

There are lots of good hipster tacos to be had in NYC, but these — sold at a store owned and run by Mexican immigrants — are the real deal. The lunch special, which consists of three tacos and a soda for $8, is just about the best food deal in NYC aside from the falafel sandwich at Mamoun’s. Make sure you order them with everything.

Trump & Russia

In the early ’50s, Joseph McCarthy accused the United States government, particularly the State Department, of harboring Communist spies and infiltrators. The media were horrified that anyone could suggest such a thing, promptly dragged his name through the mud, hounded him out of office, and drove him to an early death. Decades later, “McCarthyism” is still trotted out as a shorthand for “paranoid, dangerous demagogue,” even though we’ve known since the early ’90s that McCarthy was fucking right. Now, in 2017, the major media do a complete 180 and commit the very thing they accused McCarthy of doing but, unlike McCarthy, without the tiny, little, admittedly relevant detail of being right about anything. Some day, someone will write an interesting book contrasting and comparing these events.

Confederate Statues

The only thing more incredible than watching the Year Zero Red Guard iconoclasts destroying the symbols of an event that, as far as I could tell, they don’t know a thing about or understand at all — the only thing more incredible than that was watching supposed historians and intellectuals condemn views about the Civil War that, just a couple decades ago, were completely mainstream. The Progressive Circular Firing Squad never quits.

“Taylor Swift is a White Supremacist”

If you needed proof that our media overlords are morons, look no further than these pieces in The Guardian and BuzzFeed that are deeply concerned because Swift — a girly-girl who sings pop songs about boys giving her the sadz — has not weighed in on the vital political issues of our day. But, in their defense, they were reacting to a symbol that they invented out of whole cloth. For many, Swift isn’t a real person, she’s an avatar for “whiteness” that exists to be denounced. She’s the flipside of Beyoncé, who is also not a real person to The Guardian and BuzzFeed set so much as she’s an avatar for “blackness.” Swift exists to be criticized just like Beyoncé exists to be lauded so as to signal to your cohort that you’re a Good Person.

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Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

I’ve mostly stopped seeing new movies, and I find most of contemporary culture depressing. For one thing, it’s too ideological. Have you noticed? Increasingly, the culture things that are widely praised are noteworthy mostly for the positions they take on race, gender, identity, or whatever. So take this as a list of things I enjoyed in 2017, none of which were released in 2017.

My Life as a Zucchini

Of the newish movies I saw in 2017, this Swiss one was my favorite. Director Claude Barras’ handling of the material manages to radiate the characters’ tenderness until you’re permeated by it, as you are in certain films directed by De Sica or Truffaut. It’s a neat trick, particularly for a work of stop-motion animation. The technique may be essential to the movie’s effect. Certainly, its touch-and-go hesitancy is ideal for a story about orphans attempting to formalize their connections to the world. Although the movie has a happy ending, there’s a voracious chill creeping around the edges of every scene. The kids coexist with this chill; they can’t forget it, at least not permanently. By the end of the movie, neither could I.

Frantz

Less a war movie than a vision of Europe as a land straddling the realms of the living and the dead, “Frantz” is severe, insistent, and sparklingly mournful. Writer-director Francois Ozon uses the raw material of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 “Broken Lullaby” to fashion a searching, unnerving work shot through with loneliness and existential anxiety. Anna, a young German whose fiancé (the Franz of the title) was killed in the First World War, is still grieving when she meets Adrien, a Frenchman whom she believes to be a prewar acquaintance of her deceased beloved. The relationship allows her to reengage with life — until a second loss pushes her to the brink of despair. Death is never less than a marginal presence in “Frantz”; sometimes it’s right there in your consciousness, as when Anna visits the Louvre to view Manet’s “The Suicide,” or when she glimpses the bombed-out hulk of a village during a train ride between Germany and France. Ozon’s ability to maintain the grave-yet-silvery tone, and to keep you tuned in to the material as he executes variations on his several themes, may be the real subject of the movie. The picture is nothing if not composed. Perhaps that’s why Ozon continually references music. My favorite such reference: Beethoven’s Ninth, or the ghost of it, emerging plaintively from the strains of Philippe Rombi’s score, only to lose confidence and then dissipate. “Frantz” might be subtitled “Ode to Sorrow.”

Life Story

Released in 2014, Life Story is among the most recent entries in the BBC’s series of expansive nature documentaries. (I have yet to see Planet Earth II or Blue Planet II, released in 2016 and 2017 respectively.) Presented by David Attenborough and assembled by what must be an army of technicians, creatives, and naturalists, these multi-episode works are the closest thing we have to filmmaking in a heroic mode. The epic scale never overwhelms the dramatic content or spoils the delicacy of the vignettes. The approach is beguilingly human, even if the subjects are not. Watching these programs I often find myself marveling at the documentary power of movies and thinking of the French theorist Andre Bazin. In an age of digitization, it’s easy to become alienated from the appeal of the basic elements of traditional moviemaking, and to forget that a significant portion of the movies’ power resides in their ability to record an engagement with reality. For the things in “Life Story” to exist on film, they had to happen. And someone had to be there to film them.

Trump vs. CNN

One of my favorite memes of 2017 and additional proof (as though you needed it) that regular people are hipper, funnier, and smarter than the eunuchs who occupy our media class.

P.S. CNN is fake news.

The CounterTrumpening

Was anything in 2017 more entertaining than the spectacle offered by the establishment’s frenzied efforts to console itself in the wake of President Trump? I include among these efforts not only the Russia narrative (a transparently bogus attempt at reality engineering that has caused me to wonder how much of what I know about previous presidents is utter and complete bullshit), but also the ongoing “pervnado” that’s swept a bevy of pussy-grabbing Trump surrogates into the dustbin of history, the Great Confederate Iconoclasm of 2017, and the bizarre hype surrounding the utterly routine and rather silly movie Wonder Woman. In particular, Trump’s election seems to have disengaged whatever safety mechanism checks the insanity of women. Approximately one quarter of them are working overtime in pursuit of the Ashley Judd Nasty Woman Seal of Approval. Where will it end? My guess: In total societal collapse and sex robots.

Apple’s Notes App

I don’t have many kind things to say about Apple’s recent software efforts, but I do love the company’s Notes app. I use it regularly to jot down ideas, thoughts, jokes, etc. New content syncs effortlessly across my Apple devices. And although the voice-to-text functionality can sometimes be annoying, the feature is often useful. Let’s hear it for the simple, workaday things that make our lives easier.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I love Ta-Nehisi Coates because he reveals the utter emptiness at the core of contemporary American culture. With the possible exception of Lena Dunham, he’s the ultimate emperor-has-no-clothes intellectual. I read him not to scoff at his dopiness (that’d be mean) but to scoff at the dopiness of his supporters. Watching white pundits gesticulating in praise of Coates is like watching generals in North Korea stand ramrod straight before Kim Jong-un, saluting him and nodding in agreement as he reminds us that he invented the hamburger or something. They’re afraid that if they allow their enthusiasm to flag everyone will realize how stupid they’re being. And then the scaffold on which they’ve constructed their reputations will collapse faster than a Rolling Stone rape story or the Soviet Union. Look, I get it: We need black intellectuals because they make us feel better about being white. Can’t we choose one who can actually write?

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

The reviews call it a satire, but Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel about a Parisian literature prof, named Francois, who gradually succumbs to traditional Islam is too heartfelt and mournful to read as an expose or critique. Like the hero of Huysmans’ “À rebours” (a work that is referenced continually in Submission), Francois’ decadence — his detachment — represents an investment in nothingness. Despite his success as an academic, he’s contemplating suicide soon after we’re introduced to him. His moribund situation mirrors that of post-Catholic France. The gentle, gradual way in which Houellebecq posits Islam as the inevitable endpoint of the West’s decline is the key to the novel’s effectiveness. We accede to it as Francois does — almost without noticing it. If you admit Houellebecq’s sensibility, his way of seeing things, it’s hard to deny his conclusions. It’s a work of devilish cogency.

Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States by Raphael Semmes

I’d rank this 1869 work among the coolest things I’ve ever read. It’s equal parts adventure novel, war history, travelogue, and philosophical-legal treatise on the topics of war and government. If that isn’t enough for you, author Raphael Semmes has a thing for natural history, and he’s wont to theorize about the weather or ocean currents in long, Melville-like digressions. (What is it about the seafaring novel that lends it to meandering philosophizing?) Semmes, a Southerner, was a lawyer and an officer in the United States Navy who honored his allegiance to Alabama when the Southern States seceded. As the captain of first the Sumter and then the Alabama, he cruised the oceans of the world for several years, raiding and burning Northern ships, doing substantial damage to the Northern economy in the process. The entire first portion of the book is devoted to a defense of the South, and I think it’s fair to say that the work as a whole is among the best representations of the Confederate mindset. Semmes is proud, honorable, principled, and tough. He loves the ladies, hates pussies and liars. He admires gallantry, detests intrigue and “tricks.” In his view the war was a battle between Puritans and Cavaliers, the former devoted to commerce (Semmes uses “thrifty” as an insult) and moralistic posturing, the latter to the Constitution and self-rule. His descriptions of Yankees are always amusing: they’re hardworking and money-grubbing, lean and bony, and utterly devoid of a sense of honor. I wonder: How much of the Civil War can be described as a conflict between honor and morality? The South prioritized the former, the North the latter.

The Fremantle Diary: A Journal of the Confederacy by Arthur Fremantle

Arthur Fremantle was a lieutenant colonel in the British Army who, just for the fun of it, decided to use his leave to tour the Confederacy during the American Civil War. He’d become interested in the conflict upon meeting Raphael Semmes while Semmes’ vessel, the Sumter, was docked at Gibraltar. Fremantle exited the Gulf of Mexico via the Rio Grande, neutral waters and therefore not subject to the Northern blockade, and then traveled through Texas and up to Virginia, most of the way by horse or wagon. In the process he visited several Confederate strongholds, met most of the Confederacy’s leaders, and viewed the Battle of Gettysburg through a looking-glass while perched in a tree. Then, on his way home through New York, he witnessed the Draft Riots. His reflections on the American frontier are almost as valuable as his reflections on the war. The Texas through which he traveled was the Texas of lore — of Westerns and lynch law. And the South he experienced was closer to the South of Twain than to that of the postwar period. Fremantle’s outsider’s perspective makes him an ideal companion for the modern reader: Because he was a stranger to the South, his observations have a vividness and a candor that are sympathetic, that draw you in; you stay near him for fear of getting lost.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe’s lone novel, published in 1838, is a fascinating object: a mixture of seafaring tale, horror, and absurdist hoax. Like a lot of Poe’s work, it’s a formalization of the death urge: It seems intended as a journey into the actual and figurative underworld. The story it tells feels inevitable, yet nothing in it fits together. (At some point you may ask, “What happened to the dog?”) It’s not hard to understand why the novel was appreciated by the surrealists and symbolists: It effortlessly casts an unworldly spell. I couldn’t get it out of my mind for weeks.

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Fenster writes:

Amateur critics have no obligation to make a comprehensive account of a year in culture. We read what we read and we see what we see, with no obligation to an editor, and with the jagged path through both Culture and the culture mostly a reflection of current interests and obsessions. Sometimes we are not fully conscious of these interests and obsessions. That’s the way it was for me this year. It was only after a review of my reading and viewing histories that I was able to make sense of what was on my mind in 2017.

There was entertainment, of course. But most of my culture consumption seemed to be aimed elsewhere. I was especially interested in the past, the present and the future.

First, the past. 2017 was the year that I took the full dose of the mini-series A French Village, which details life in a small commune before, during and after World War II. The first season was broadcast in 2009 so it is hardly new but neither is it over. The last season available in the US portrayed the impact of the end of the war on the village but one additional season remains in which the characters we have come to know and love/despise/pity will be shown later in life, and the effects of the war years made manifest. It’s a terrific series.

The phrase “the personal is the political” has gotten quite a workout over the last 50 years, and has now pretty much jumped the shark courtesy of the Social Justice Warrior set. But there is a deep truth to the notion. It must be tempting as a writer for TV or film to resort to melodrama, plot contrivances, MacGuffins, ultra-irony, plot twists and fake endings. When that happens in a historical film the history recedes into the background and costume drama results. It is a challenge to remain true to broad historical forces without giving into such temptations. A French Village does it admirably.

After seeing the last season I went off to read The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944 by Henry Rousso. It is a nice counterpart to the series. The book is concerned not with the history of the war but rather the history of the history of the war. What do we choose to remember and what do we choose to forget when we think about the past? We tell ourselves stories about the past not just to dig for the truth but for a number of other very human reasons as well. As a result the telling of history is by necessity always a retelling, one in which we aspire this time to find the truth but end up to some extent retelling a story in another way.

Francois Ozon’s Frantz is another meditation on war and the effects it has on real people. Here, we are in France and Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, and the survivors are having a very hard time coping with what just happened. I won’t discuss the plot here save to mention it concerns a German soldier who died in the war, his fiancée and a French soldier who comes to town for a reason related to the death of the German. I kept holding my breath watching Frantz, hoping that the story would not take a predictable turn to melodrama. Many opportunities arose to introduce clever plot elements. Were the two soldiers lovers? Will the French soldier return to his hotel room to find a couple of angry Germans ready to jump him and beat him to a pulp? Will things get tied neatly together at the end? Thankfully, in every instance the film opts for nuance, subtlety and restraint.

A few other items dealing with the past are worth noting. I very much like The Modern Scholar audiobook Wars That Made the Modern World: The Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War by Timothy Shutt. What could be more modern, and relevant, than these ancient wars? The tales dealing with the entertaining and talented rogue Alcibiades are worth the price of admission. Someone needs to do a mini-series on him.

Moving forward in time, I liked some of the selections from a book on the cultural politics of the sixties, the last time the United States was coming unglued. Here is a link to the book, and to the chapter that I found most interesting. It is a first person account of the radical anarchist commune Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, a group that I happened to see in their furious and angry social realist glory at an event they crashed at the time. Osha Neumann’s account of what the hell was going through his mind at the time is lucid, honest, unsparing but also sympathetic to, and forgiving of, the person he once was and the times that shaped him.

We sometimes forget that Sixties exuberance and Seventies hangovers were separated by only a very few short years. The hangover, at least as it was felt in the prosaic world of municipal finance is captured nicely in the book Fear City by Kim Phillips-Fein. New York’s fiscal crisis is to some extent down a memory hole, which is another way of saying something like it will be back before you know it.

That’s it for the past. What about the present?

Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal did an excellent job skewering identity politics from a more or less conventional liberal point of view. Much more of that is needed, though it remains to be seen whether the Democrats can wean themselves of the impulse. Grabbing hold of the moral high ground worked as a strategy for decades but things have gotten ossified, and it is hard to change habits.

The documentary Shadows of Liberty, from 2012, is a very interesting left-leaning account of the dangers of media consolidation and manufactured consent. It is all very Chomskyan in a way that appeals now to elements of the right as well as some progressives. Lefties like Amy Goodman and Danny Glover are featured but then so is Philip Giraldi, someone not closely tied to the left. And of course there’s Julian Assange, then-lionized by the left but now, a few short years later, pathologized as a Russian fellow traveler by so-called progressives.

And here’s another case of how quickly things can change: the term “Deep State” was fringe stuff just a couple of years ago and now it is the stuff of the nightly news. It is good in a way that people can talk openly about the threats to democracy posed by non-accountable forces. On the other hand the term has now been watered down to some extent, and is often tossed around to describe mid-level bureaucrats fretting about Trump. But go back to read Peter Dale Scott’s accounts of what he originally termed the Deep State in books like Deep Politics and the Death of JFK. It’s more powerful stuff than some guy at the Department of the Interior finessing regulatory policy.

And if you want a good scare about the interaction between Deep State actors and technology you should check out Alex Gibney’s documentary Zero Days. Fighting cyberwars is different than fighting regular wars. Each time we send out rogue code to disable some Iranian centrifuges the code might be caught and captured even if the attack is successful. Then the code can be sent back our way. It is as though we have a better bomb but after we use it the other side, if it is still around, can recycle it and send it back to us.

OK, the present day is a little scary but surely the future is bright, right? I am not at all sure of that either.

In The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, Ryszard Legutko neatly describes how seemingly liberal and good-thinking institutions like the EU are in effect forms of soft totalitarianism.

Black Mirror’s next season will be airing shortly and this provides a reason to revisit some of the show’s scary projections of a near future from late 2016. China seems already to be adopting some of the techniques seen in the episode “Nosedive.”

The future relationship between humans and technology was also the subject of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari. The latter parts of the book are pretty scary.

I also very much like Marjorie Prime, a Black Mirror-like take of the near future, one in which we are able to summon up digital representations of loved ones who have passed away. I thought Spielberg’s A.I. to be a great movie, one that married Spielbergian schmaltz with Kubrickian aridity. Marjorie Prime mines some of the same territory. In A.I. we are invited to consider that a technological simulacrum of a human might actually have human qualities — the heartwarming take of Pinocchio retold. But the flip side of the story is sterner stuff: that if a robot can be human are humans much more than robots made of meat? Something similar is at work in Marjorie Prime, and the result is unsettling and, like A.I. a bit profound.

I didn’t completely skip entertainment this year. Heck, I really enjoyed Catfight. There was more than enough stuff in the ludicrous premise to justify a lot more than a sketch on SNL. On the other hand it was a little thin for a feature film, and by the end you had more than enough of fisticuffs from Sandra Oh and Anne Heche. But oh those fisticuffs in the first act! The energy supplied by the fight scenes and the arch dialogue carried me thought quite happily to the end.

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Richard Marxist writes:

I used to do a full top 10, however as I’ve gotten older my listening habits have changed. Finding new music, or just keeping up with old standbys can be a chore. The top 5 just seems to be the way to go from now on. I also didn’t want to pigeonhole any of these albums into a numbered spot. They could all be moved around from one to five. The joy comes from seeing how someone else may rank them (or maybe include something completely different). Take a listen to these, because there’s something for everyone; from soul to rock to folk and indie-pop. Enjoy!

Aromanticism by Moses Sumney
Face Your Fear by Curtis Harding
Preservation by Nadia Reid
Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
Willowbank by Yumi Zouma
Something by Chairlift.
An almost perfect pop record. “I Belong In Your Arms” belongs on any mix tape you give to a special someone.

Dev and Francesca in Season 2 of Master of None

Friendship leading to romance set in NYC. Classic and heartbreaking. The scene of Dev riding in the back of a taxi by himself after a night out with Francesca is heart-wrenching. Who knew Soft Cell had another song?

Urban sketching

Therapy for stress. Plus I get to improve my terrible drawing skills.

A growing interest in architecture

The space we use and how we use it matters a lot. To some people it matters a little less. Looking at you Frank Gehry.

Well made chicken salad on a toasted bagel

It’s really hard to find a proper bagel in Central Florida. Don’t cry for me. I’ll get through this tough time.

Gascón Malbec

Cheap and delicious. Heavy blackberry with slight cocoa on the back end. You don’t need to spend over $20 for a good bottle of red.

Tim Hortons’ coffee

The Canadians know how to do at least one thing right.

HQ Trivia

Live trivia game show on your iPhone. Win some money, but only if you can answer 12 questions correctly. Makes you realize you’re not that smart.

Books Released In 2017 That Seem Like They Will Be Great But I Probably Won’t Read Until Some Time In 2020

Tenements, Towers and Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History Of New York City by Julia Wertz
Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 by Lizzy Goodman
Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz
Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life by Jonathan Gould
Chai, Chaat & Chutney: A Street Food Journey Through India by Chetna Makan
The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan
The Year I Was Peter The Great: 1956 – Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia by Marvin Kalb
Solid State by Matt Fraction and Jonathan Coulton, illustrated by Albert Monteys
Easternization: Asia’s Rise And America’s Decline From Obama To Trump And Beyond by Gideon Rachman
The New Analog: Listening And Reconnecting In A Digital World by Damon Krukowski
The Secret Lives Of Color by Kassia St. Clair

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Sax von Stroheim writes:

I didn’t set out at the beginning of last year to turn so fully to the past, but looking over my “favorite things” list for 2017, what jumps out at me is that I must be suffering from a severe case of nostalgia. Whether it’s because I’ve lost my ability to maintain interest in new works of art and culture or the world lost its ability to create works of art and culture worthy of my interest, I can’t say. 5 years ago maybe I would have been worried, but in 2017 I’ve learned to stop worrying and love Seth MacFarlane.

Filmstruck

The newish streaming service from the folks behind the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies played a more important part of my arts and culture life over the last year than any new movies or TV shows. From a movie lover’s point of view, it is by a wide margin the best subscription streaming service on the market, not only because of the quantity of good to great movies, but because the folks putting it together have curated it with exceptional thoughtfulness. As a bonus, they’ve provided the kinds of special features usually available only on Criterion DVDs. As with the Criterion Collection itself, the catalog is built around the mid-century canon of art house classics — Bergman, Kurosawa, Ozu, Fellini, Godard — though there’s much, much more there as well. Alone among the streaming services it satisfies the needs of both the hardcore, longtime cinephile as well as more casual movie fans who are interested in diving into the canon. Which is to say, alongside its well-known, stone-cold classics are enough lesser known flicks and offbeat oddities to keep things interesting for people who’ve already worked their way through Bergman’s filmography.

Among the movies I watched on Filmstruck: Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta’s sword & sorcery pastiche Fire & Ice, the ultra-rare late Renoir Picnic on the Grass, Jonathan Demme’s screwball neo-noir Something Wild, Jim Henson’s late ‘60s experimental telefilm The Cube, Blake Edwards’s The Party (among my favorite Hollywood comedies of all time), and The Silent Partner (an early work from Curtis Hanson).

Twin Peaks: The Return

My favorite new work of the year was a continuation, of sorts, of an almost 30 year old TV show. Having said that, while nostalgia hooked people into signing up for the new season of Twin Peaks, if that was the only reason you were there, though, I expect you ended up disappointed. David Lynch used the occasion of having more freedom than he’s ever had in his career to create the most ambitious (maddeningly so at times) work of film to grace the American Screen in years: an exploration of birth, death, and everything in between. Most prestige television since The Sopranos has followed its footsteps and aimed for marrying the pleasures of big, long novels to Hollywood movie production values: Lynch followed his own path and made a 17-hour version of an Eraserhead-like combination of midnight movie/art film hybrid

Split

On the one hand, a move forward: M. Night Shyamalan follows up on The Visit with another attempt to put his own spin on contemporary horror movie cliches. On the other hand, even while watching, I got the sense that he was reaching back to the kind of movie he had last made with Unbreakable: a genuinely mythic comic book super-hero movie, completely in tune with contemporary sensibilities, made in a style that reaches backwards through movie history. A movie that is at once obvious and mysterious, it manages to perfectly express and, simultaneously, call into question one of the principal planks of the Current Year’s platform: that victimhood equals power.

Sandy Wexler and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Of the three major, popular comic actors of the 1990’s who channeled Jerry Lewis’ man-child act — Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, and Adam Sandler — Sandler alone is able to inspire Lewisian levels of embarrassment in the American movie fan. In the interview section of Chris Fujiwara’s book on Jerry Lewis, Jerry talks about how he learned very early on in his movie acting career, the difference between a director who is actually a filmmaker (his example is Frank Tashlin) and a director who isn’t much more than a cog in a machine (his example is Norman Taurog). Adam Sandler’s greatest failing as major comic actor isn’t so much that he hasn’t noticed the difference but, rather, that he probably wouldn’t care even if he did. Even his funniest movies, with his best characterizations and best gags (Billy Madison, The Waterboy, Jack and Jill) tend to be sloppily made. And the lack of attention to and concern for craft leads to an overriding feeling that Sandler doesn’t even really care that much about entertaining his audience; that his movies are ways for him to hang out with his friends and cash a paycheck (which is probably the most charitable way to look at something like Grown-Ups). Which brings me to Sandy Wexler. It isn’t especially well made by the standards of movies-in-general: we are still far, far away from the kind of genuine comedy filmmaking practiced by a Frank Tashlin or a Blake Edwards. But it’s a step or two or three above other Adam Sandler movies; and the sense I get from the relatively care with which it has been made (not to mention all the favors Sandler seems to have called in to get cameos from every funny person in Hollywood) is that Sandler really cares about this movie more than he does one of his usual outings. It isn’t as funny as his funniest movies, but it is one of his most fully human movies — one that seems to be reaching out to an audience composed of real people. In that, this is his most Lewisian film — and one of his most Lewisian performances — of his career. Which is to say, leaving aside Punch Drunk Love (which is kind of a ringer), this is the greatest movie of his career. And if that sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, I don’t mean to. I really loved this, while recognizing that it still falls short of the kind of comedy filmmaking I’d like to see.

Sandler also anchored Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), also for Netflix. Baumbach returns to some of the themes of The Squid and the Whale and ends up making what I think is probably his best movie since The Squid and the Whale.

Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer

I don’t actually have too much nostalgia for the original Wet Hot American Summer film. I think it’s a very funny movie, but I understand why that’s a minority opinion. It has always struck me as a movie that fully deserved its cult status, and one that didn’t transcend this status: its sense of humor was the whole point, so if you weren’t on its wavelength there wasn’t much point in trying to watch it. The prequel and sequel series have the same sense of humor, so would still be off-putting to folks who didn’t laugh at the original, but they’re brilliantly, inventively profound in a way that makes sticking with it worth it even if that instantaneous connection isn’t there. These series take one of the organizing principles/themes of many of the gags from the movie — the way that movies dramatically compress events so that we watch an entire adolescence’s worth of events transpire over a single day — and use that as a springboard for all the different ways film and TV plays around with time.  I’d rank them right below the new Twin Peaks in terms of thematically and formally ambitious, through-composed long-form TV/movie-style storytelling and above just about anything else from that category that I can think of (like, say, True Detective).

The Orville

Superficially, a Star Trek parody, but Seth MacFarlane’s new series is closer in spirit to both the original Star Trek series and The Next Generation than anything currently bearing the actual Star Trek name. The impression I get with much of the new brand name Star Trek work is that they have been trying their damnedest to appeal to people who don’t like Star Trek: MacFarlane has stepped in and made a show for people who love Star Trek, warts and all. And while there are jokes, the show’s strength is that it takes its science fiction premises and moral dilemmas seriously. It isn’t a perfect show by any means and, by design, it really isn’t trying anything new. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a safe show either: it isn’t so much retreating into nostalgia as it is reviving something that’s been lost from the TV-scape.

Stranger Things 2

Having used the first season to map the boundary of its idiom, the Duffer Bros, free from having to continually remind the audience that, yes, we all love E.T., create a work of suburban fantasy that ranks alongside and does not merely echo its inspirations. Has real thematic depth, and manages to gift, in retrospect, some of that to the first season.

20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo by Pere Ubu

I’ve come to love just about every Pere Ubu album, but I haven’t found all of them immediately lovable, or, sometimes, even immediately likable. They rarely repeat themselves, and so each new album can fees less like they’re building on the last one and morel like David Thomas leading them into a different corner of the wilderness. Each of their albums from 1998’s Pennsylvania through 2013’s Lady from Shanghai struck me, on my initial listen, to be too obscure for their own good, and it wasn’t until I became more familiar with the tunes (and heard some live versions) that they really cohered for me. Which is to say, if I wasn’t already sold on Pere Ubu (my favorite American rock band after the Beach Boys), these albums probably wouldn’t have done it for me. But 2014’s Carnival of Souls, with its return to a 60s garage rock-inspired groove, grabbed me from the first track, and, now, with 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, they’ve released an album that is closer to the punk rock spirit of 1977 than their own Modern Dance. The title comes from the song “Toe to Toe”, about a Cold Warrior who spent 20 years “toe to toe” with Uncle Joe Stalin: though that’s the most explicit it gets, the whole album plays like a half-remembered nightmare from the height of the Cold War, a musical equivalent of the experimental “Episode 8” from the new Twin Peaks.

Super Powers by Tom Scioli

A back-up feature in the new Cave Carson series: where the main event in that book is Gerard Way’s nostalgia-driven throwback to the proto-Vertigo weird super-hero comics of the late 80s/early 90s (Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing; Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Animal Man; Peter Milligan’s Shade), this is a throwback to Coober Skeber #2-style alt comix/mainstream super-hero mash-ups, along the lines of Bizarro Comics and Strange Tales. For his jumping-off point, Scioli uses the Jack Kirby Super Power comics from the 1980s (which, if you don’t remember the details of your 1980’s pop ephemera, were meant as direct tie-ins to a line of action figures and cartoons): and he gores straight to the stratosphere. Interestingly (for me at least), Scioli’s major prior works — his “original” works if you will — can be accurately described as Kirby pastiche, but here, working directly from Kirby’s originals, his style has transformed into something else: a strange blend of science-fiction and pulpy fantasy, with a faux primitive vibe that makes the whole thing feel more like Fletcher Hanks or Jack Katz than anything by Kirby.

I thinks there’s a major, built-in criticism to any/all of these alt-takes on corporate super-heroes, which can be phrased in a number of ways, but boils down to “why bother?” That is, is it more than just preying on nostalgia? Is the cartoonist able to leverage enough thematic oomph from the source material to make it worth being tied down to that source material in the first place?  And I would say most of the time they can’t: maybe it ends up as an amusing riff (more often as a not-so-amusing riff), but rarely as something that feels vital; something that succeeds both as an “alt” comic and a super-hero comic. Scioli’s Super Powers, though, captures the free-wheeling weirdness of early (1940s) super-hero comics, while adding various Kirby-inspired ideas in thematically compelling ways. I think it’s a really great book, and I hope it gets collected in some form that makes it easier to access than it is right now. (Having said that, I think the Cave Carson series itself is quite good, so you can’t really go wrong getting the whole package).

Fante Bukowski by Noah Van Sciver

OK, so this came out a few years ago and I’m only now catching up. But it was my other favorite “newish” comic book of the year: another throwback to the alt-comix of my youth, in this case, a satirical look at a talentless, blowhard Bukowski wannabe. It’s in the “pox on all your houses school” of Peter Bagge’s Hate or Dan Clowes’ Eightball, though what I really love about it is the underlying generosity towards its hero. Yes, Fante Bukowski is goofy and self-deluded, but Sciver allows him a relative nobility compared to the careerists and cynics in his orbit.

*     *     *

Sir Barken Hyena writes:

Histories by Tacitus

The Roman historian, not the rapper. Regarded as one of the great literary voices of all time. I haven’t read them all but I think he can take that title. His voice is almost beyond belief in its power. You feel his presence as though he’s in the room with you, and you alone are the audience of a Roman senator. The criticisms of Tacitus as historian are numerous and valid. He’s certainly partisan, and though evidently careful with his facts, his view is that of a Patrician, only. Yet that is precisely why he’s so valuable. His penetrating assessment of men and women, his feel for the wild dynamics of the mob, and the surging passions of armies in the field, are the real meat of this book. And his insights are eternally valid, armed with them the daily news can take on a different and fuller light.

Cluster

This year I learned I was totally ignorant about Krautrock, in which by all rights I should have been expert. This documentary set me straight:

Kraftwerk and Klaus Schulze (Jesus, all those Ks) are both prime influences of mine as a musician, but stupidly I never really explored the other Krautrock bands beyond a superficial level. So I didn’t know that so much of my own music really had its roots in Cluster and their incredibly unique approach to music. A lot of it came second hand through Brian Eno’s Another Green World, which takes it cue from Cluster modified with an infusion of pop sensibility. But this was no “theft” of Eno’s, he extended their spirit and planted this new approach to music in the wider world. “Freedom” is the one word to cover this approach. They can make a song out of anything it seems, melodies can be maudlin or mystical, soundscapes smooth as glass or pure junk, rhythms funky, martial or just awkward, they’re all just pins for them to juggle. And they have a vast catalog covering every decade from the 70s up to the present, both as Cluster and as solo artists. Again and again, standard electronic music tropes find first expression in Cluster; most striking is the distorted and filtered drum machine they used as early as 1972. This is almost the sound of today’s techno scene, very few of whom have ever heard Cluster.

VCV Rack

This is a simulation of analog modular synthesizers that runs on a computer. This kind of thing has been done before but VCV Rack gets it right, and best of all has an open architecture that allows third parties to create new modules. And create them they have, at such a clip that the VCV Rack blog has posts like: “Tonight’s release of new modules has offerings from Vult and Audible…” Tonight’s?! Oh, and it’s free.

But what I really want to talk about is how VCV Rack reveals the state of software development in 2017. This software is only at version 0.5, and was first released in September of this year, but is has already created a vast ecosystem of its own. People are actually selling these modules! And the thing isn’t even in beta. Mein Gott, things happen fast in this new world. Western Culture is most definitely in decline, and not a little bit into it. But tech has a life of its own and seems strangely unstoppable. What next?

Radiohead at the Santa Barbara Bowl

I attended this with the Daughter of Barken, after an awesome Asian dinner with Paleo Retiree, prepared by Question Lady, seasoned with their company. It was as ball-blasting a show as I’ve ever seen. Hours of complete transcendent Dionysian release. What a breath of fresh air!

Yeoman Colt

This year, and every year.

*     *     *

The Mistaken writes:

Bitcoin

I won’t say any more about that except that it is entirely possible that it will become my least favorite thing in 2018, or perhaps even by the end of the year.

Podcasts

This was the year that I extremely belatedly began listening to podcasts. I don’t know how I held out so long, but I sampled a variety of different shows and the single one that blew my mind the most was this interview of Paul Stamets, one of the world’s leading mycologists and promoter of strange ideas about fungal intelligence, by Joe Rogan.

The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray

It isn’t a pleasant book to read, but it is I think an exceptionally honest one.

Icarus Fallen and The Paris Statement by Chantal Delsol

While Icarus Fallen was written in 2003, I first read it in 2017. It is part of a trilogy by French Catholic conservative philosopher Chantal Delsol, all of which are beautifully written and thought provoking on every page. Delsol was also a principal writer of the The Paris Statement, which while completely ignored by the press is the most important political manifesto of the year, and probably decade.

Dunkirk

This was not a great year for movies or music for me personally. Of course Christopher Nolan’s movie was an intense and amazing spectacle and its box office success demonstrates that film isn’t dead yet. The fact that various idiots criticized it for not having women, Africans, Indians, or Asians in it made its success all the sweeter.

Slowdive by Slowdive

I enjoyed the layers of echoed guitars on this record by the reformed British ’90s band of the same name, released 22 years after their last CD.

Season 9 of Curb Your Enthusiasm

After a few years break, Larry David returned but about three times more politically incorrect than usual. Despite David’s reputation as a liberal there is no way you can watch the first episode of Season 9 and not see him for the ingenious master troll that he is.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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9 Responses to Our Favorite Things in 2017

  1. ehrennotwehr says:

    Will add Tacitus, Poe & Semmes to my 2018 list

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Callowman says:

    Great batch of stuff. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Much to enjoy this winter. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeff R says:

    Thanks for some good ideas on what to watch, listen to, and read.

    Baby Driver did indeed suck.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. jjbees says:

    A swell year before us, and a swell year ahead of us. Thank you, gentlemen!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. JV says:

    You had me there for a sec about Baby Driver. Holy Christ what an awful (and awfully pleased with itself) movie. Here’s hoping Spacey sexually harassed the director a bit for foisting this flick upon us.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kevin O'Keeffe says:

      BABY DIAPER was indeed bad, but I like your characterization of it as “pleased with itself”. That captures the essence of the thing very well. The whole movie reminded me of my Millennial stepson’s moral certitude about, well…seemingly everything.

      Like

  7. JV says:

    Just finished watching I Love You, Daddy (yeah it’s been leaked). It’s better than I thought it would be. I was sold after the scene where Malkovich explains (correctly!) the types of feminism to the daughter character, after an earlier scene where CK (lamely!) tries the same thing. Malkovich’s character, a legendary director obviously patterned after Woody Allen, is an unabashed dirty old man, seemingly unconflicted about his desires. CK, a TV writer/producer who idolizes the Malkovich character, is highly conflicted about his own desires. Does that conflict affect his art? Is the Malkovich character a great artist because he follows his desires and doesn’t question them? Is this a generational difference? All of that crap ran through my head watching these two scenes.

    You’re right about this movie containing a lot of truth about the sexes. The young girl is very self-possessed yet naive at the same time. She willingly enters into some kind of relationship with the old director. She’s getting something out of it just as he is. Nothing in this movie is pat or simplistic. The acting is great. Pamela Adlon is great as always. The subject matter and the timing of its aborted release is almost unbelievably serendipitous. The movie as a lot to add to the current sexual harassment discussion, and yet it got buried because of the very discussion. Ah well.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Warren Sikes says:

    Some random stuff I liked in 2017…

    Kong: Skull Island..the leads are bland and I didn’t find them likable (the movie itself is curiously sexless) and the stabs at social relevance are, thankfully, easy to ignore…but the movie benefits from veering into what Pauline Kael called King Kong’s “Lewd underlay and carnival barker hucksterism” rather than treat the original as “respectable” the way Peter Jackson did with his remake. Too much respect, too much SERIOUSNESS can strangle the joy and potency of something like Kong.

    Hologram girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049.

    The romantic subplot between Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Last Jedi – in the middle of what feels like the full on expression of the bland fantasies and anxieties of the managerial class, Driver and Ridley develop something like chemistry (in 2017, in a big corporate dehumanizing Disney blockbuster, that’s not nothing)…the fight scene where they team up is unfortunately undermined by the bland film-making (Armond White correctly referred to the fight choreography as “rote gymnastics”) but, when it works it had me thinking about De Palma’s The Fury.

    David the android in Alien Covenant…Mark Zuckerbot.

    Brawl in Cell Block 99 – Vince Vaughn lumbering around like a magnificent white trash Frankenstein monster smashing the living shit out of anything that gets in his way.

    Liked by 1 person

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