Monday, January 02, 2006

The CrimeNotes Year in Fun: Nos. 10-1

I suspected that not many people would be reading us between Christmas and New Year's, and with the exception of googlers looking for information on child actors and a few loyal fans, I was correct. Hence, the delay in posting my epitaph for 2005. For the explanation of this arbitrary list of favorites, here's my earlier post.

The conclusion of my walk down memory lane:

10. The Squid and the Whale
. The blackest black comedy, a divorce movie that refuses to demonize the adults or romanticize the kids. Like Shakespeare's problem plays, this movie was three line changes away from tragedy. Director Noah Baumbach co-wrote Wes Anderson's lamentable Life Aquatic, but he forever earns a free pass after this. He appropriated Anderson's cockeyed sensibilities and stripped them of whimsy and tenderness. Beyond aesthetics, the movie had a rare understanding of the way people actually think and behave, in all of their narcissistic, self-destructive grandeur.

9. Sudoku. What's that, you say? Just try a little? A taste never killed anyone? Don't mind if I do. Oh, sweet relief. Baby, my hands can't stop shaking. What's that, you say? It's 2 a.m. and I should be asleep? I shouldn't spend my time in Italy sitting on a park bench doing numbers puzzles? You don't get it. Give it a try. Told you so. Goddammit, my hands won't stop shaking. These rings under my eyes are fucking me up, baby, I can't see straight. I'm going numb. I can't feel my hands, Marion. MARION I CAN'T FEEL MY HANDS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD MARION MY ARMS ARE-

8. Beer gardens at d.b.a. and Loreley. What could be nicer than sitting outside on a summer afternoon, arguing with friends over a pint? Doing the same in the fall on a fifty-degree night, when everyone else stays inside and you've got the patio to yourselves. Take your rooftop bars and frou-frou drinks and rumpshaking and move to Miami. If I can't have a front porch, these places are the next best things.

7. Ian McEwan. 2002: Publishes Atonement, an extraordinary book about childhood, war, and the power of writing fiction. 2005: Publishes Saturday, an extraordinarily awful book about adulthood, war, and the power of reading poetry. Saturday aimed high and failed in every way possible, from its priggish narrator to its fatuous, condescending inner monologues about the Iraq War, to an elitist and fanciful conclusion that could only have worked as a satire of intellectuals. McEwan's self-indulgent sleight of hand managed to hoodwink some of the brainiacs at Slate, where the book ended up on several best-of-2005 lists. By reminding me how great contemporary fiction can be with Atonement, then viscerally reminding me how maddening a bad novel can be with Saturday, no writer occupied my energy this year more than McEwan.

6. Six Feet Under ends. Does TV get any more absorbing than Six Feet Under? It assembled credible characters and dropped them in outlandish situations; its plots regularly pushed the lines of credibility, but because the characters felt so real, my critical judgment rested in the casket. Discussing it with friends, it seemed like everybody had their own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes about the show: I found David's whining self-pity unbearable, but Ruth's reservoir of quiet despair consistently moving. Don't get me started on Billy Chenowith.

The show concluded with a swing for the fences. I thought the conclusion was trite and nihilistic, but that didn't stop me from replaying it approximately 50 times.

5. The New Pornographers. The biggest threat that the anti-depressant industry has ever faced. Caught them live three times between June and October, and spent most of the fall overcaffeinated on Twin Cinema. Their unpretentious gaga-pop is a consistent source of joy. They deserve to be the world's most popular band, but as long as they're performing and recording, what does it matter? Their shows made me happy for days afterward, and Twin Cinema helps me through my many bleary mornings. Few things bring me such undiluted pleasure.

4. Generation Kill, by Evan Wright. Published in paperback in 2005, if this isn't the definitive account of soldiering in Iraq (a judgment I'm not qualified to make) it has to be the most absorbing. It has moments that are as thrilling as any I've experienced in war movies or writing, countered by blood-splattered brutality and horror. Evan Wright depicts his book's Marines as likeable and occasionally heroic without sentimentalizing or romanticizing. Apolitical and more concerned with the human drama than the morality of the Iraq war, it nevertheless reads as a blueprint for how everything would go wrong -- an out-of-touch leadership that permitted localized horrors run amok. Part one and part two of my thoughts on the book are still here, and while I've spent too many words praising this book, but when you find something this good, it's hard to shut up.

3. Europe. In September and October, I watched crazy Brits flip out over squirrels, drank with a Scotsman who owns a bar and loves George W. Bush, screened The Howling and Day of the Dead in Amsterdam, exhausted myself of antiquity in Rome and then saw a few too many homoerotic masterpieces while wandering through rainy Tuscany. I missed much too much college football in the process, but when your team goes 7-5 on the season, who can complain, especially when you get to follow Turkey's entry to the EU and see pretty things like this?


2. The Hold Steady. I had my Stones phase. I had my Dylan phase. 2003-04 brought me Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and for a few months in high school, I really liked the Grateful Dead. You know what was missing? By the time I found those guys, they were decades past their peak. In the case of Dylan and Neil, their recent output was inconsistent, although in Neil's case occasionally brilliant. The Stones and the Dead were moneymaking machines.

iTunes says I've listened to The Hold Steady's album "Separation Sunday" 53 times, which sounds a little low. Combine wild classic-rock guitar riffs, plus a little bit of piano and sax, with lyrics that sound like Jerry Springer crossbred with Flannery O'Connor crossbred with Jim Thompson and/or J.T. Leroy, and you still can't do them justice. I've finally found a rock band that I can love when it's in its prime. I don't expect that they'll ever be in the same league as Dylan or Neil, but it's not too much to say that they aim for the former's lyrical ambition and the latter's understanding of pop music history.

1. 2005 college football (social aspects only). This item is left half-blank. My team played for shit, prompting consistent misery, existential malaise, and a serious heart condition. Every Saturday might as well have been a replay of the 2004 election.

Without it, I would nevertheless have missed a kick-ass house party in Ann Arbor, a trip to Chicago, and a footballphilic wedding pre-party, several burgers at Shake Shack and a higher drinking tolerance. And then where would I be? Just an obsessive overread jackass who never went anywhere and enjoyed a healthy liver. No fun in that.

Other highlights: The following also brought me great happiness. Check them out or live in jealousy. "Rockin' It, Frat-Party Style," by Mike Sacks; Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, by Warren St. John; "Lazy Sunday"; finally reading Don Quixote; Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Drubner; ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Worlds Apart; Sufjan Stevens, Illinois; the quasi-heroic Roger Toussaint; Air America's Randi Rhodes and Mike Malloy; On Beauty by Zadie Smith; the Henne-Manningham pass to end the Michigan-Penn State game; the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Larry and Susie masquerade as orthodox Jews; and Deadwood, season 2.

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