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Best of 2006

(Here’s an email I sent to my friends with favorites I watched/read for the year 2006. I’m reposting here, though without fixing the hyperlinks).

After compiling this list, I realize to my dismay that I have been more eloquent and verbose about movies than books (my true love). I think the reason is that I regard composing critical responses to writing as work requiring formal responses, whereas for DVD titles I just give a few gut reactions and am done with it.

My favorites of 2005 still fill me with joy: Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, Apted’s Up Series (42 UP, etc), Kieslowski’s Decalogue, McLeod’s Freedom of Expression, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje.

I begin my list by mentioning a cinematic crime committed against me. After splurging and buying the box set of Kieslowski’s Decalogue (now my alltime fave film ), I insisted on lending it to a woman I met through an online dating service. She was a film buff too, but after receiving that box set (It was a loan, not a gift!), I never heard from her again (despite my entreaties). Well, at least the blind dates who blow me off have excellent taste in movies.

STARTING WITH BOOKS

Restless Nights by Dino Buzzati. Italian allegorical writer. Light-hearted brief tales with deeper darker overtones. Update: This book is not only the best thing I’ve read all year, but the best thing I’ve read in 5 years. Good luck finding this rare and amazing book. I might write a separate essay about this book.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley. Great explanation of why the novel genre is relevant in the 21st century. Jane Smiley writes not with scholarly rigor but an artisan’s practical eye. Nonetheless, she indicates a historical awareness of what her predecessors have done with the novel and what the novel is capable of. Her short essays about 100 novels are nothing special (though they are interesting to browse through). I’m writing a longer essay based on this book, so this is all I’ll say for now.

Fiction and Interaction: How Clicking a Mouse Can Make You a Part of a Fictional World , Phd Thesis by Jill Walker, a masterful analysis of hypertext and interactive fiction. You can download it for free as a PDF.http://jilltxt.net/txt/Walker-Fiction-and-Interaction.pdf (writing an essay on this)

Fat City by Leonard Gartner. Classic hard-boiled California novel about down-and-out-boxers. Recommended by Neil Pollack and ultimately Denis Johnson–see this article) . Stylistically speaking, the taut sentences remind me of either Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver. But stories about boxers–ugh! Can’t someone declare a moratorium? Update: Although the ending left me hanging, the writing was sad, compelling and taut. Each paragraph was a work of art, and I like how the book transcends the idiotic genre of boxing. It is about love, failed relationships and disappointed dreams. Favorite scenes: picking the onions, Billy Tully’s return to his ex-wife (how heart-breaking). As I finish, I just don’t know what to make of it, except to appreciate where it took me, what I saw.

Tales from Ovid, tr. by Ted Hughes. Compelling rendering of the Metamorphasis by a great poet. Unfortunately incomplete translation, these poems bring ancient legends to life. Update: An extraordinary retelling that has whetted my appetite for Ovid.

Other Hand Clapping by Marco Vassi. Spiritual/erotic journey by erotic writer Marco Vassi. Taut masterpiece about meditation, introspection and jealousy. Compare to Moravia’s Contempt. (I’m writing a critical essay about Vassi, so I’m reading a lot by him at the moment).

Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, by Chris Crawford. Videogame designer Chris Crawford imagines an immersive videogame for telling stories and speculates how it might be constructed (from a programming point of view). A fascinating work; he’s clearly thought about this subject for a while. I have no doubt that some 15 year old somewhere will pick up this book and write a literary/gaming engine incorporating Crawford’s algorithms that will transform the world.

I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student by Patrick Allitt. Fun personal account by a distinguished history professor about teaching a one semester class. Loaded with insights, anecdotes and suggestions. Things I found intriguing: his total disregard for personal problems of students when accepting excuses (students need to be responsible for their actions, he says), his analysis of why student papers are so poorly constructed (there are many reasons, but it has a lot to do with writing not for a general audience but for the teacher ), why plagiarism is harmful (it prevents the teacher from seeing into the students’ mind). What struck me was how keenly Allitt perceived gaps in understanding and how much material they could digest for a semester class.

America by Alistaire Cooke. Famed Brit writes an engrossing panoramic history lesson for the general reader. Cooke has a jaunty first person style and an eye for unusual details. I listened to his Letter from America for years and was afraid his writing on the page would pale by comparison. Happily, I report this not to be the case.

How to Live on 24 hours a day. Arnold Bennett. Short essay about maximizing the use of your time. Absolutely relevant to this day and age. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext00/24hrs11.txt

Red China Blues, by Jan Wong. Amazing 1st person account of a Canadian-Chinese who studied in China during the Cultural Revolution and who revisited China over the decades. Wong is a great writer and dramatically shows how living in China both brainwashed her and made her skeptical about politics. Here’s an interview with her about Tiananmen Square for a pbs documentary http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tankman/interviews/wong.html

Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. Remarkable and romantic novel that is philosophical, whimsical, light-hearted, humorous and yes, joyful. Compare to Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature by Geoffrey Miller. Erudite discussion of the relationship between sexual selection and evolution.

MOVIES

Leila, dir Dariush Mehrjui. Compelling film about an Iranian couple who learn that the woman is infertile. The ending didn’t make sense to me emotionally, but the slice-of-life depiction of this relationship let the characters and events speak for themselves. Everyone is a sympathetic character (to some extent), and by the end, and that fact makes the dilemma behind the film all the more tragic.

Born on the Fourth of July. Great Oliver Stone film I must have missed when it first was released. The best movie I saw this year.

Trust dir by Hal Hartley starring Martin Donovan with Adrienne Shelly (recently murdered). Watching Hal Hartley’s Trust for the second time 15 years later is exhilirating and somewhat disappointing. The characters are contrived and overintellectualized, and the conflict between parent and child here doesn’t ring true (it reeks with the usual bitterness of college sophomores). Also the gestures and dialogue are stagey and slightly pretentious. Never mind that; you’re missing the point. The film is not aiming at realism; it’s aiming at conveying the emotional turbulence of young adult struggling to break free from the orbit of their parents. Plot and incident flow naturally and often end up in unexpected places. There’s lots of surprises, many comic. The film is about throwing characters together and watching how they react. The moment where the girl messes up the kitchen makes you wonder, how will the father react? The dialogue (reminiscient of Stoppard or Mamet) is curt and enigmatic and challenging. People are learning from one another and changing..possibly improving. The movie is less about plot than a certain attitude toward life–how much trust should we place in family, friends, peers? People don’t have secrets or histories; they have metaphysical complaints and frustrated dreams. Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelley are not only young charismatic actors, they act and react with subtlety and focus. Yet both have chemistry with one another and manage to sustain this intensity without going too far (Kudos to Mr. Hartley for not aiming solely for sympathy or making their motives to easy to understand). Donovan seems adept at playing characters about to boil under, but manage to hold it in (He’s at his best in the film Surviving Desire). Adrienne, that moment when you put on your glasses at the end was a great cinematic moment. Hopeful, asssertive and maybe even cocky. Your fans will always have that moment to remember you by.

Country Teachers, dir by Qun He. Charming understated domestic drama in China about a young girl who teaches in a rural village and learns about the politics and special challenges it poses. Highly recommended.

13 Conversations about One Thing by Jill Sprecher. An understated philosophical masterpiece. And made in USA? How is this even possible?

Shop on Main Street. dir by Ján Kadár. I was blown away by almost every single shot of the movie. The black and white color looks gorgeous, and the indoor shots have lots of shadows and texture. The outdoor shots seem overexposed, brilliant, artificial and almost unbearable. The criterion version just looks superlative. Watch the dinner scene at the start where the man’s brother in law is getting drunk with Tony. They are yelling, and having a time, and the camera dives/sweeps/rapidly turns around and falls. It conveys the dizzying nature of the conversation. The outdoor scenes in the first half of the movie have lots of bustle and activity, with turns and shifts of perspective. People will remember the historical themes, but please don’t overlook the amazing cinematography (which rightfully doesn’t call attention to itself but enhances the emotional impact of every scene). In one scene (where Person X hits Person Y), camera conveys the claustrophobic, almost paranoiac perspective of Person X and sets the rest of the action up. We just knew what was going to happen next here. The dream sequences/surreal effects were modest and didn’t seem too fantastic; they were small enough for a small man overtaken with fear. (I could talk about what the film was actually about, but no, I’ll leave that for you).

Ankhur. (dir, Shyam Benegal ). Hauntingly beautiful tale of a simple Indian peasant who marries an abusive man, and when he leaves her, she has an affair with an honorable son of the landowner. A sad tale with just great cinematography. Shabana Azmi as Ankhur is positively radiant.

Loving Glances, first-class effort by Radivoje Andric, a young Serb director about couples in love during the Yugoslav conflict. At times sentimental, the story and incidents are original, imaginative and the characters are great too. A Serb intellectual who lives a desolate life as a political refugee in Belgrade misses his girlfriend who has emigrated to America. He imagines that his girlfriend is with her to keep him company, and then he imagines a whole cast of people from his past to keep him company during his homeless wanderings through Belgrade. We’re never quite sure of how deluded he is; does the girl really exist? Are they really engaged? Then he meets a girl–a real girl–not an imaginary one– who forces him to deal with his realities and make choices. This film–which took a long time to be made because of the Yugoslavia conflict–doesn’t get bogged down in politics–but it shows the effects of these events on ordinary people. Too bad it couldn’t have been released (for example) in 1999 to give Americans a glimpse of Yugoslavs as a people not merely as a patchwork of ethnic tribes at war with one another. The settings and situations are bleak, but the people are charming, a mixture of the old-fashioned and hip. Don’t miss the “computerized dating service” scenes and the matchmaker–they are great fun, if not a little sad. The female lead, Ivana Bolanca is charming and mysterious and vulnerable. Senad Alihodzic, the male lead is thoughtful, happy-go-lucky and bursting with poetry and optimism. I found myself wishing the scenes with imaginary characters could be shortened a bit, and that Ivan Bolanca’s character could be fleshed out a bit–she too seemed like a mere romantic projection sometimes. Still, after finishing, I find myself wishing that America could have more dreamers like Radivoje Andric to make movies.

Heaven Can Wait by Buck Henry. Watched again. An elegantly told Buck Henry tale which fits all the pieces together at the end. Part of the fun is watching how Warren Beauty fakes being a millionaire; the other part is watching him act like a quarterback (do people ever believe that?). I like how Henry sews the omniscience/amnesia/body replacement plot details seamlessly. Significant laughs come from the servants’ antics too.

49 UP. Classic 7th part to Up Series. A director visits the same group of groups at seven year intervals, checking what they’ve been up to, how they’ve changed. See my longish commentary here. http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer/?p=83399247

Goodbye Lenin, written/directed by Wolfgang Becker. Riveting story about the rapid changes overtaking an East German family during the fall of the Berlin Wall. It starts with an absurd premise (that a sick mother has a heart attack and cannot deal with the shock of her government falling so rapidly) and plays with it. At point the premise stretches plausibility, but the filmmaking is clever, hilarious and almost surreal. Having lived in two East Europe countries, I know how nostalgia lives on–years, even decades later. My university students in Albania said they just adored the Young Pioneers songs they had to sing, and Ukrainians were selling Communist memorabilia at street markets all the time (this sense of profiting off the near past may be hard for Americans to fathom). There are great surreal moments (including one on the street–which I will not reveal here), and absurd fake news broadcasts. And near the end, there is a plot twist that I never could have expected. This movie always keeps you on your toes. Great filmmaking.

Oasis written/directed by Chang Dong Lee. This Korean film (a combination of Of Mice and Men and Romeo & Juliet) stayed with me longer than the other films on this list. At times gross and offensive, this story will make the viewer squeamish at watching two people with physical deformities deal with a relationship. But in the first 5 minutes, I was successfully inside the main guy’s head (inside his universe where everything seemed incomprehensible and complex). It actually made perfect sense that this retarded man would go to the family of the man he accidentally killed and offer a gift as a kind of apology. His companion–a woman affected by cerebral palsy–seemed an unlikely match for him, but it really makes you think about how everybody–not just the smart and beautiful–need human companionship, for better or worse. There is one beautiful moment–where we see the world through the girl’s eyes, and the haphazard movements of reflected light on the wall appear to her as fascinating images of doves trying to escape–It was a brief moment, but one that made me say, “Wow!” The relationship has a tragic dimension, and yet it enriches the lives of both of them. Parts of the film doesn’t work for me; there are plausibility problems, and at times the pace is simply off. But while watching the film I found myself comparing it to the uncomfortable naturalism of Bergman in Scenes from a Marriage or Zepherelli’s Romeo & Juliet. Like Zepherelli’s film, this film is ultimately one about two families–and how they cannot see the life-affirming qualities of this couple’s relationship. And that is a tragedy.

I’ll take you there, dir Adrienne Shelly. Charming character study by now-deceased actress Adrienne Shelly. There was one scene thrown in merely to suggest danger, but generally the story made sense, even with the reversal near the end. There is no moral at the end, except that you can’t make assumptions about why relationships failed or why they would never work. I loved this minor film; there were zany unxpected moments and I liked how the crazy girl at the start suddenly turned out to be not-so-crazy and had a family and a background which were complex–though not far-fetched. Also, a hilarious film.

Ultimate Fat Burner (Denise Austin). Austin is bubbly and chipper and always talking (”You can do it!”) The exercises aren’t that much fun, but they are well-organized and make for a great workout. Highly recommended, especially the circuit training. Also, is by far the best produced. I get exhausted very quickly from this, and my only complaint is that there is a bit too much emphasis on upper body stretch (biceps, etc). The exercise using the step bench is among my alltime favorites! Finally, the camera prominently show you the foot movements. Note: you need free weights and a step bench. Recommended. (I own)

Billy Blank’s Tae Bo Cardio Circuit 1 Tae Bo is boxing/kickboxing with an emphasis on cardio. It was started by Billy Blanks. This workout is really fast, not too complex and only 36 minutes. Recommended. (I own)

Minna Optimizer Balanced Blend. Lots of stretching and yoga on the part 2 (strength). At first glance, the workout looks pretty typical, but this 90 minute tape packs a lot in. I like how they do 6 minute circuits, alternating between cardio and strength. Minna is a real no-nonsense fitness trainer; not much dancing or cheerleading going on. However, this tape accomplishes a lot! Recommended. Aesthetically, the exercisers are gorgeous, and the video production and cuing is fantastic. The stretching exercises are challenging too. The music is only so-so.

A more thorough rundown of what I’ve been reading and watching (both the good and bad) is here http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/weblogs/idiotprogrammer/?page_id=83398757

If you’ve read this far, you’re in for some surprises.

First, last week I started writing a series of articles about public domain authors (specifically the authors who would have gone into the public domain if the Freeze-the-public-domain Act (also known as the Sonny Bono Act) didn’t pass in 1998. I didn’t actually see or read most of these titles, but I’ve discovered enough interesting things to keep me busy for the next year or two. I plan to write one article devoted to each year for the years 1923 through 1931. http://www.teleread.org/blog/?cat=62

Second, the big discovery of this year was a French site that lets you download music legally and quickly. http://www.jamendo.com/en/ contains over 2000 free albums, almost all with creative commons licenses. I’ve listened and downloaded albums from Argentina, Germany, USA and more French rock than I ever thought possible. Here’s my album bookmarks http://www.jamendo.com/en/user/idiotprogrammer/albums/ Sometimes the website’s performance is spotty, but

Out of these, the ones which particularly grabbed me were
http://www.jamendo.com/en/album/149/ Alexander Blu, Yugoslav electronica composer
http://www.jamendo.com/en/album/116/ Lonah, eerie French mood music. Try listening to this song
http://www.jamendo.com/get/track/id/track/audio/play/703/?aue=mp31
Rob Costlow http://www.jamendo.com/en/album/888/ American George Winston soundalike

Anyway, that’s it for 2006.

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