Tuesday, December 22, 2009

best of 2009: movies

And finally, here's my list of the ten best movies I saw in 2009. A few notes first:

  • Not all of these were originally released in 2009, but that's when I saw them.
  • These aren't in any particular order. My favorite movie of the year was Up, which went on my Best Animated Movies list. If I had to pick a favorite from this one, it would be...um...er...not sure, actually.
  • I was going to wait to post this because I thought I'd get a chance to see two potential contenders before the end of the year, but no dice. Netflix apparently got two copies of Inglourious Basterds, and I'm going to be too busy for the next couple of weeks to hit up a screening of Avatar.
  • As ever, your mileage may vary.

Oh, before I begin, I have a plug which you white chocolate haters can skip. I bought a three pack of Vosges hot chocolate mix the last time I was in Vegas, and recently I tried the Bianca flavor for the first time. I was a little unnerved at how much it smelled like lavender, but gamely I took a sip and promptly filled my pants with joyshit. So. Fucking. GOOD.

1. The Hangover: A Vegas bachelor party goes awry when three of the guys wake up from the previous night's debauchery and can't remember anything about it...including where they put the groom. GodDAMN was this funny. I was seriously about to piss my pants a couple of times, especially during the tiger song and any scene involving Mr. Chow.

2. Idiocracy: A slacker is persuaded by the army to go into hibernation for a year, but it goes wrong and he actually wakes up hundreds of years later. He discovers that the world is populated by slack-jawed morons, and since he's now the smartest person alive, they want him to fix all of their problems. This movie is mostly famous for being completely neglected by its studio when it was released, which is a shame; it's one of the funniest movies I've seen in a long time, and has all the hallmarks of a cult classic.

3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Harry starts his sixth year at Hogwarts and begins acing his potions class, thanks to the notes scribbled in his textbook by someone calling himself the "Half-Blood Prince". Meanwhile, Dumbledore asks Harry to help him out with a quest, and Harry's friends are all completely lovesick, so it turns out to be a very eventful year. God, this was so good; it's my favorite Harry Potter movie to date. The sets are stunning, the young actors have really grown into their roles, and Alan Rickman, as usual, steals every scene he's in. (And yes, I cried. Hard.)

4. 500 Days of Summer: At the beginning of this bittersweet movie, the narrator tells us that it's not a love story, which is only half true. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (amazing as always) plays Tom, a greeting card writer who falls in love with the quirky Summer (Zooey Deschanel, redeeming herself in my eyes for her shitty performance in The Happening). But she doesn't believe in love, and despite the time she and Tom spend together, doing everything from having sex to strolling through Ikea and pretending they live there, she doesn't think of him as her boyfriend. My biggest qualm is with the disappointing ending, which rang really false to me, but it didn't bother me enough to ruin the whole thing. See it with someone you love and be prepared for an animated discussion afterwards.

5. Splinter: Two lovers on a camping trip are taken hostage by a felon and his drug-addicted girlfriend. When they stop at a gas station, they come under attack by a bizarre spiky parasite. A really fun, intense, and gory flick that's much better than you'd expect.

6. Chocolate: An autistic teenage girl learns martial arts by watching movies. When she finds out that people owe money to her dying mother, she puts her newfound skills to good use. When I read that the lead actress was being called the female Tony Jaa, I scoffed; color me embarrassed, because they weren't exaggerating. The fight scenes are so creative and exciting that G and I were yelling "Whooo!" and "Yeah!" at the screen. The plot is surprisingly complex, too. (Caveat: I mean for a martial arts movie; we're not talking Memento here.) Great fun if you love this kind of thing.

7. Watchmen: Based on the incredibly awesome graphic novel by Alan Moore (who, as always, refused to have his name attached to the movie; he's a genius, but he's also a bit of a crankyboots), this film is set in an alternate 1985, where Nixon is serving his fifth term. When a former superhero is murdered, his colleagues start investigating. We weren't expecting too much from this because the reviews were so bad, but it turned out to be really good! It's visually dazzling, and although I cried foul when I heard they'd changed the ending from the book, I think it actually worked better. Most of the acting ranges from serviceable to wooden, but as the deeply disturbed Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley is Oscar-worthy. If you decide to watch this, be sure to pick up the director's cut and not the shorter version that ran in theaters. For once, the extra footage makes a difference.

8. Bruno: The brilliant Sacha Baron Cohen disappears into the character of Bruno, an uber-gay Austrian fashionista. Like Borat, he goes around annoying the shit out of everyone, and the results are outrageous. I spent a lot of time gasping during this movie...sometimes for breath because I was laughing so hard, and sometimes because I was so genuinely shocked. It stretches the boundaries of the R rating and then some.

9. I Love You, Man: I love Paul Rudd, but you know who I love even more? Jason Segel. Therefore, when a particularly poisonous mood struck back in April and I desperately needed to cheer up, I went to see this movie. Good choice, because it was so freakin' funny that I left the theater with a big dipshitty grin on my face. Peter (Rudd) is a nice guy who has always gotten along better with women than men, so he doesn't have any friends to serve as his best man. He starts going on "man dates" to find a candidate, but he eventually meets the perfect guy (Segel) at Lou Ferrigno's open house. They get along smashingly; so much so, in fact, that it starts to cause friction in his relationship with his fiancee. As previously mentioned, it's hysterically funny, and it has some sweet moments too.

10. Jackie Brown: The title character, played by the eternally awesome Pam Grier, is a flight attendant who supplements her income by smuggling in cash for gun runner Ordell Robbie. The ATF catches her in the act and offers her a deal. If she helps them nab Ordell, she won't do time...but Jackie has a different plan in mind. Like all of Quentin Tarantino's movies, it's clever fun.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

best of 2009: nonfiction

It wasn't a particularly good year for nonfiction; several of these wouldn't have made the cut in a better year. But in my opinion, they're all worth reading, though your mileage may vary. These aren't in order of preference, aside from the book in the #1 slot.

1. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman: This is the story of how the author and her college friend were inspired to visit China by, of all things, an IHOP Pancakes of the World placemat. It was 1986 and the country had been open to international visitors for "roughly ten minutes", but they were determined to have an authentic experience. The trip started off on the wrong foot as they tried to find clean and comfortable lodgings, but they had no idea just how bad things would get. I couldn't put this riveting book down. It may sound like an "ugly American" memoir from my description, but trust me, it's not. (Explaining why would be a spoiler.)

2. Lopsided by Meredith Norton: A candid, irreverent, and at times hysterical memoir about breast cancer. Yes, you read that right. She certainly doesn't downplay the seriousness of her diagnosis and recovery, but she's smart enough to find the black humor in it. As one of the blurbs on the back cover says, "This isn't chicken soup for the soul; it's Tabasco."

3. Love Junkie by Rachel Resnick: A blisteringly honest, sad, and ultimately redemptive account of the author's addiction to terrible relationships.

4. The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs: A hysterical collection of essays on the author's many experiments, from posing as Shine actor Noah Taylor at the 1997 Oscars to adhering to the Radical Honesty movement, in which you're not supposed to lie about anything, even if it hurts someone else's feelings or gets you into trouble. My favorite was "My Outsourced Life", in which he hired virtual assistants in India to help him with complaints to the Colorado Tourist Board, buying birthday presents for his son...and arguing with his wife.

5. Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper: The author already had two cats, but her vet managed to talk her into adopting a tiny black kitten whose eyes had become so seriously infected that they had to be removed. She named the kitten Homer, and he wound up teaching her a lot about life and love. Even though all of the cats are still alive at the end (I don't consider this a spoiler, since the author blurb mentions that she lives in Manhattan with her husband and the cats), I was crying through most of this book. The chapter where she's trying to get back to her apartment and rescue the cats after 9/11 is especially heartbreaking.

6. Lit by Mary Karr: The author wrote Liars' Club, one of my favorite memoirs of all time, so I was eager to get my hands on this one...and she didn't disappoint. It's about her descent into alcoholism and how it affected her marriage ("If you lie to your husband---even about something so banal as how much you drink---each lie is a brick in a wall going up between you, and when he tells you he loves you, it's deflected away") and her other relationships, from her young son to her troubled mother. Despite her misgivings as an agnostic about their "higher power" philosophy, she turns to AA, but as she becomes sober, she has to face the problems she'd been drinking to forget. Blackly funny, heartbreaking, and uplifting, though not in a saccharine way.

7. I'm Down by Mishna Wolff: The author grew up with a father who believed he was black...which he wasn't. He was determined to make his daughters "black" too by living in a black neighborhood and making them hang out with only black kids. Eventually, at the behest of her mother, she started to go to a white school and became even more confused about her place in the world. Although there are some somber moments, for the most part this book is hysterical. (Sample line: Admiring a friend frying bologna, she writes "She was like Julia Child for the food stamp set.") A surprising number of typos, but it's so fresh and funny that I'm willing to overlook them.

8. Body of Work by Christine Montross: A memoir about the author's experiences dissecting a cadaver during her medical training. In the wrong hands, this could have been revolting, but it's respectful, beautifully written (Montross was a poet before she was a doctor), and full of interesting tidbits. For example, "If an uncomplicated procedure such as a hernia repair or a tubal ligation is scheduled in early July when the new residents have just begun, it is likely that the operating resident will never have done the procedure before in his life."

9. Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick: Based on the Fine Lines column that runs periodically on Jezebel, this is a series of essays about the books that many of us loved as teenagers. God, reading this brought back so many memories, both about books I reread until their covers fell off (anything by Judy Blume and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Flowers in the Attic) and ones I'd totally forgotten about (The Girl with the Silver Eyes, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit) until I picked this up. If you're a bookworm who grew up in the late 70's or early 80's, I guarantee that you will fucking LOVE this book. There are some glaring typos and a few punctuation/factual errors (My Sweet Audrina didn't come out in 1988!), but I didn't care all that much because this was such a fabulous trip down memory lane for me.

10. It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather B. Armstrong: A chronicle of the author's pregnancy, struggle with postpartum depression, and experiences with motherhood. For obvious reasons I couldn't relate to a lot of this, but I still enjoyed the hell out of its irreverent humor.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

best of 2009: fiction

And now it's time for my favorite novels of the year. The standard disclaimers apply:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2009, but since that's when I read them, they belong on this list.
  • Aside from the book listed at #1, these aren't in order of preference. I tried doing that, and it was a bit much even for a renowned anal retentive like me.
  • As always, your mileage may vary.

1. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn: The author's debut, Sharp Objects, is one of my ten favorite novels of all time, so I was anxious to get my hands on this one...and it didn't disappoint. Libby Day is a woman whose mother and two sisters were butchered by her older brother when she was seven years old. She managed to escape, but the emotional trauma left her scarred for life. She's been living off donations that poured in after the murders, but the money is starting to run out. Opportunity knocks in the form of the Kill Club, a group of people obsessed with famous crimes. They believe her brother is innocent, and they want her to investigate the crime and see if her testimony all those years ago was coached. Libby is reluctant to do so, but when they offer to pay her, she agrees, thinking it will be easy money. Of course, it winds up being anything but. Not for the faint of heart, but if you like the new breed of female authors (Karin Slaughter, Chelsea Cain, Mo Hayder) who write thrillers that would make Hannibal Lecter flinch, you'll devour this utterly riveting treat.

2. Chalktown by Melinda Haynes: An intensely weird but engrossing Southern gothic about a teenage boy who sets out on a journey with Yellababy, his mentally challenged brother, in a sling on his back. He's heading for Chalktown, where the residents solely communicate by using chalkboards on their porches. It reads like it was written by the autistic savant child of William Faulkner.

Side note: This book found its way into my hands in a rather odd way. When I was staying in Fortuna, Costa Rica, the lodge had a small library of books left behind by previous guests. I had already whipped through all of my reading material by then, so I grabbed the first book I saw that wasn't a romance, and it wound up being this one.

3. Undone by Karin Slaughter: An elderly couple is taking the scenic route home from their anniversary party when their car hits a woman. When she arrives at the hospital, the doctors discover that most of her horrific injuries were actually caused by brutal torture. The police find the underground chamber from which she escaped, but then another victim turns up, and more women begin disappearing. Another nailbiter from the queen of gory, gripping thrillers, but I feel obligated to warn potential readers of two things. First off, the author is very aptly named, and some of the descriptions of the killer's handiwork are nauseating in the extreme. Second, this book will pretty much take over your life until you finish it.

4. The Local News by Miriam Gershow: In this powerful debut novel, Lydia is a 16-year-old girl whose older brother, Danny, disappears. Her parents are devastated and throw themselves into the search, but Lydia is somewhat indifferent to the whole thing because Danny was often cruel to her; as she puts it, "Going missing was the only interesting thing my brother had ever done." But as the months pass, Lydia begins to wonder just how unaffected she really is. Funny, achingly sad, and beautifully written; I tore through it in a matter of hours because I couldn't put it down.

5. Huge by James W. Fuerst: Eugene "Huge" Smalls is a teenage boy with a temper and a fondness for old detective novels. When the retirement home where his grandmother lives is vandalized, she gives him twenty dollars to solve the case. I have to quote the Kirkus Reviews blurb here, because it sums this book up perfectly: "Fuerst pulls off the same trick as the 2005 film Brick in making his protagonist's suburban surroundings and mundane foes seem as hard-boiled and corrupt as those in the Chandler novels Huge treasures." I loved Huge, both the character and the novel; it's one of the most original I've ever read. This is the author's debut, and if he's this good right off the bat, his next book will be amazing.

6. Jennifer Johnson Is Sick of Being Single by Heather McElhatton: The title character is a woman who lives in Minneapolis, working as a copy editor by day and going on terrible blind dates at night. She dreams of Mr. Right, and when she meets the rich, handsome son of her boss, she thinks her dreams have come true...but of course things aren't so easy. I thought this was going to be standard chick lit, and although it does feature some of the usual cliches (supportive gay friend, weight issues), I was SO wrong. For one thing, I've never read a chick lit novel with an extended description of anal experimentation gone awry; for another, it's incredibly funny, often in a very dark way. (And relatable; the scene where she hides in a bathroom stall so no one will see her gorging on Cinnabons made me cringe in recognition. Not that I've done anything like that recently, mind, but it hit a little closer to home than I would have liked.) Most of all, the ending absolutely floored me. By the 50th page of this book, I thought I knew how it would end, but I was so very wrong.

7. Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain: Cop Archie Sheridan is languishing in a mental hospital after failing to catch charismatic serial killer Gretchen Lowell. They have a history together: Gretchen tortured him to the brink of death and then inexplicably turned herself in. But she's been on the loose for months, and when it looks like she's back to her old tricks, Archie checks himself out of the hospital and goes on the hunt. Then he discovers a cult devoted to Gretchen, and he begins to wonder if she's really at fault, or if her worshippers are taking their adoration to a whole new level. The first two books had me biting my nails to the quick, and this one is no exception. Tense, gory, gripping fun. I can't stress this strongly enough, though: absolutely not for the faint of heart.

8. The Help by Kathryn Stockett: A beautifully written novel about a young white woman in 1962 Mississippi who decides to write a book about the black maids in her hometown. Despite their fears of losing their jobs or worse, they agree in hopes of changing the way they live. Powerful and moving.

9. Little Bee by Chris Cleave: The book jacket asks readers not to spoil the plot for their friends. I think they were overstating it a bit, since it's not like there's a huge twisty reveal or anything, but I'll defer to their wishes because this book was so awesome. I'll just give you the bare bones and say that it's the story of two women, a Nigerian refugee named Little Bee and a British woman named Sarah, who meet under strange circumstances in Nigeria and are later reunited in London. Little Bee has a heartbreaking backstory; at one point, she says "In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film. Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it." A powerful, unique, and even occasionally funny novel.

10. Under the Dome by Stephen King: The small town of Chester's Mill, Maine, is suddenly enclosed in an invisible dome of unknown origin. The chaos starts immediately: a woman reaching for a vegetable in her garden has her hand cut off when the dome slams down; a small plane and numerous cars crash into it; a man's pacemaker explodes when he gets too close. (Yes, aside from the bloodshed, this sounds like The Simpsons Movie, but King swears he first came up with the idea in the 70's.) Things get worse as supplies start to dwindle and people begin to lose hope, and since this is a Stephen King book, of course there are some Very Bad People trapped inside as well...including a town official who takes advantage of the situation in order to turn Chester's Mill into a police state. Not many people can match King at his best, and he's in fine form here. Filled with black humor, heartache, and nastiness, Under the Dome is a stunner.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

the year in movies

I'm going to wait until mid-month to post my best movies of 2009, since there are a few I still need to see that might make the cut, but I thought it would be fun to post a few lists about my viewing material this year.

Warning: I tried to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, but sometimes I couldn't avoid them, so proceed with caution. Antichrist has the biggest spoilers, largely because it's almost impossible to talk about that movie without ruining a few things.

PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR: Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique in Precious; Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist; Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married; Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler; Jackie Earle Haley in Watchmen; Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer; Sacha Baron Cohen in Bruno


  • The fast food dispenser and the stinger after the credits (Idiocracy)
  • The tiger song and anything involving Mr. Chow (The Hangover)
  • The confrontation at the end (Precious)
  • About 95% of Bruno, but especially the gay sex montage, cage fight, attempted seduction of Ron Paul, and Prop 8 rally (DVD only)
  • The silent montage of Carl and Ellie's life together in Up (best scene of the year, as far as I'm concerned)
  • The warehouse fight scene in Chocolate
  • The Britney Spears parody in The Onion Movie
  • The scene set to "You Make My Dreams Come True" in 500 Days of Summer
  • The first five minutes of Antichrist


(Note: some of these need to be seen in context in order to be funny)

  • "A pimp's love is very different from that of a square." (Idiocracy)
  • "I will be your sherpa up the mountain of gayness." (Zack and Miri Make a Porno)
  • "Toodle-ooo, mothafuckaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas!" (The Hangover)
  • "They talk like TV shows I don't watch." (Precious)
  • "I gave [my adopted son] a traditional African name...OJ." (Bruno)
  • "Arseholes are for scheissing, not for schtupping!" (Bruno, DVD only)
  • "Fuck you, Miss Daisy!" (Role Models)
  • "This is my jerk-off station." (I Love You, Man)
  • "And yet his chapeau remains." (Adventureland)
  • "Did you think that was fun? Because, trust me, you won't have that much fun until you discover oral pleasure." (Away We Go)
  • "I don't want your cat, you dirty pork queen!" (Drag Me to Hell)
  • "Chaos...REIGNS!" (Antichrist, but only for its unintentional hilarity)


  • The mask-wearing dog in The Unborn
  • The kitten sacrifice in the unrated version of Drag Me to Hell (the theatrical version didn't include the blood)
  • The graphic genital mutilations, torture, entrails-eating fox, tick-covered hand, and child abuse flashback in Antichrist
  • The confrontation/big reveal in Rachel Getting Married
  • The scenes of rape/abuse and Mary's explanation for her behavior in Precious
  • When it switches from animation to live action in Waltz with Bashir
  • Aaron Eckhart's "seduction" of Jasira in Towelhead
  • The dolphin slaughter in The Cove

GREAT MOVIES I NEVER WANT TO SEE AGAIN: Antichrist, Rachel Getting Married, The Wrestler, Precious, Synecdoche New York, The Cove


  • State of Play (hit with food poisoning halfway through)
  • Quarantine (nausea caused by shaky cam)
  • Pineapple Express (boooooooring)
  • Sukiyaki Western Django (too weird even for me)



MATERIAL FOR MY SPANK BANK: Jason Statham's pecs in Transporter 3 and Crank 2; Clive Owen wearing glasses in The International and Duplicity

BEST WARDROBES: 500 Days of Summer; Watchmen


  • The graphic penetration and genital mutilations in Antichrist
  • The "Duncan Hines" scene in Zack and Miri Make a Porno
  • The elevator photograph in The Hangover
  • The gay sex montage and talking penis in Bruno
  • The brief nude shot of Eli in Let the Right One In