The Best Films of 2015

duke of burgundy

As I previously wrote, Peter Strickland’s strange, sublime film is “not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story.” It’s that last part that makes The Duke of Burgundy truly special, in part because it’s so unexpected: come for the dizzying homage to Italian horror, soft-core erotica and the avant-garde masterworks of both Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, and stay for a fascinating, eloquent exploration of what it means to play a role in a loving, sexual relationship—and how not fulfilling your partner’s expectations throws everything out of whack (as detailed by Borgen actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, whose stunning lead performance is for the ages).


Not all will agree, but I believe Todd Haynes has yet to make a bad film. His very best—Safe, Far From Heaven and now this Patricia Highsmith adaptation—all have female protagonists reacting against boundaries set by their respective cultures. What distinguishes Carol’s early ‘50s lesbian relationship apart from Far From Heaven’s heterosexual interracial dalliance (set a few years later) is more complex than a shift from the suburbs to the city, or different gender or class dynamics: it’s the love story itself—As expected, Blanchett and Mara are both terrific and the attention paid to recreating meticulous detail is top-notch; still, it’s all in service of a bravely slow-building screenplay that feels even more nuanced in retrospect after you take in its absolutely perfect final scene.

look of silence

Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to The Act of Killing may leave admirers of the earlier film underwhelmed—it doesn’t have as ingenuously entertaining a hook and it never reaches the same level of catharsis, either. However, it’s just as essential a documentary for laying bare the long-lasting consequences of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide of over two million Communist citizens. Whereas the preceding film focused on the killers, this one is from the perspective of the victims’ families as filtered through a middle-aged ophthalmologist (his brother was murdered before he was born) who confronts the killers in the guise of an eye exam. His attempts to start a necessary dialogue about something that’s still not talked about are by turns revealing, shocking and nearly heartbreaking (and, in at least one case, somewhat hopeful).


Like the three titles above it on this list, Anomalisa provides exceptional insight regarding the human condition; unlike those films, it does so with puppets. An inventive, visually distinct, full-length, stop-motion extravaganza even better than Fantastic Mr. Fox, Charlie Kaufman’s latest (co-directed with animator Duke Johnson) could have come from no other mind. While it’s best to go into it cold—the film’s conceptual twist is most effective as you gradually comprehend it, and thus too good to give away—I will say the relationship that develops in the second half (with strong voiceover work from David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh) is just as lovingly executed and uncompromised.

kumiko the treasure hunter

I’ve raved about this odd little film since I first saw it at a festival nearly two years ago, and I continue to mention it whenever someone asks for a recommendation. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone but I would hope most people I know could take to this wondrous mash-up of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, built around a reference to Fargo (the movie, not the TV series) that traverses from Tokyo to Minnesota and has as perhaps its most beloved character, a noodle-eating pet rabbit named Bunzo. Rinko Kikuchi, best known for Babel and The Brothers Bloom, brilliantly portrays the stubbornly insular misfit while filmmaking team the Zellner Brothers survey a structure that allows for both rigid symmetry and inspired surrealism.


My most middle-of-the-road selection, but a damn near perfect film for what it accomplishes. Recounting The Boston Globe’s 2001-02 investigation of sexual abuse cover-up within the local Catholic archdiocese, director/writer Tom McCarthy constructs this story in a simple but effective linear fashion, almost building the narrative block by block until the immensity of it all becomes resoundingly clear. The great ensemble includes spirited flashy turns from Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, but thankfully, far more subtle work from the likes of Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci (both nearly unrecognizable here) doesn’t get overshadowed. Easily the best Boston-set film of the modern era.


As a cineaste, it’s often to your advantage to remain open to anything. For instance, I never guessed a two-hour plus, excessively talky Israeli drama about a woman trying to get her husband to grant her a divorce would’ve made my year-end list; even as the action never, ever left the courthouse, I found it constantly riveting—a testament, perhaps, to its writer/director/star Ronit Elkabetz, whom I had noticed in earlier films like Or (My Treasure) and The Band’s Visit. It’s a name you should know, and Gett masterfully revivifies the courtroom drama for a specific time and place that nonetheless scans as relatable to a discerning viewer of any culture.


Funny, intense and sexually graphic in equal measures, this 1976 San Francisco-set coming of age tale is the sort of indie gem you didn’t think anyone still made. In adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel, first-time director Marielle Heller conjures up a meaningfully imaginative world for its 15-year-old heroine, Minnie (a breakthrough role for charismatic, convincing British actress Bel Powley). Although exceptionally raunchy and raw at times, Heller lets her story play out refreshingly without judgment or moralizing, allowing Minnie to reach a place of catharsis that’s not without consequences. And, the resulting wisdom she gains from her experiences is genuinely powerful.


In retrospect, I was correct in calling Guy Maddin’s last feature a transitional effort, because this is a leap to another plane entirely. Still recognizably a Maddin film (although co-directed with new accomplice Evan Johnson), this takes the limitless reach of stuff like Brand Upon the Brain! and just runs with it, stitching together a dozen or so short films into a massive, nesting doll-structured epic that reprises all of his pet themes and twists and turns them into something that feels new, even if it looks ancient and ephemeral. Admittedly, it’s a lot to take in, but there’s no other title in this top ten I currently want to watch again and again.


Put aside all the much-discussed talking points (entirely shot on an iPhone, has two transgendered actresses as leads, takes place on Christmas Eve in seedy Los Angeles) and you’re still left with a thoughtful, surprising, one-of-a-kind film. It doesn’t appear that way in its abrasive, hyperactive first ten minutes, but as it organically develops a rhythm and gets deeper into this small world full of richly-defined misfits, it increasingly endears as a cultural slice-of-life and eventually, as a portrait of friendship—specifically how you’ll put up with a friend, or just simply be there for them in good times and bad.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2014 Cannes Palme d’Or winner (it first played Boston last March) was inspired by a few Chekhov stories, which explains the intense, mesmerizing twenty-minute long conversations in the midst of the usual astonishing and vast Turkish landscape shots.

A surprise breakout from the new indie horror film ghetto, and a deserved one: this cunningly executed, mostly psychological notion of terror shrewdly reaches its fullest fruition not in Detroit’s ravaged, abandoned neighborhoods but in its aging, nondescript suburbs

Debra Granik’s nonfiction companion piece to Winter’s Bone benefits considerably from her foresight to center on Ron Hall, a grizzled biker and Viet Nam war veteran suffering from PTSD who proves to be a natural, compelling subject.

Some balked at the idea of Andrew Bujalski making a romantic comedy (especially right after Computer Chess), but this likable effort ends up nearly salvaging the genre for his generation; of course, it helps to have a superb trio of leads (Kevin Corrigan, Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders).

15. 99 HOMES
Like The Big Short, it’s far from a perfect study on the housing crisis, but Michael Shannon’s turn as a self-serving realtor is nearly up there with his great work in Take Shelter, and Andrew Garfield resumes his pre-superhero career as an actor to watch.

Co-directed with four other people, Albert Maysles’ final film (following the pleasant, if middling Iris) simply views riding an Amtrak train as a transformative journey with a sense of community not found in any other means of long-distance travel, and it deserves a place at the table with Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter and Salesman.

17. ROOM
A few minor quibbles (the score, Jacob Tremblay’s unnecessary voiceover) kept this off my top ten, but this gutsy literary adaptation has lingered longer in my mind than expected. Brie Larson more than makes good on the promise of Short Term 12, as does director Lenny Abrahamson on Frank.

The year’s most underseen, vital documentary recaps a black Floridian teenager murdered by a white middle-aged adult for playing his music too loud. As much about the need for gun control as the value of the Black Lives Matter movement, I can’t name a more relevant (and moving) documentary from this year.

Remember Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace dominating awards buzz when this premiered at Sundance a year ago? Remember the likes of DiCaprio, Fassbender and Damon once seeming ideal for such a small but articulate, stimulating project? Remember how some films used to be concerned with ideas and observed behavior, as opposed to plot-centric actions and speechifying?

Every few years, Francois Ozon emerges with another lush dramedy that reminds us he’s a big talent, albeit one too French (or too gay) for the film crit cannon to fall over for. This charming Ruth Rendell adaptation has Romain Duris in a dress, which the actor pulls off with effortless aplomb, just like his director does with this tricky, lovely story.


About Elly, Amy, Brooklyn, Call Me Lucky, Ex Machina, Girlhood, Grandma, The Hateful Eight, Heart of a Dog, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Packed In A Trunk, Phoenix, Sicario, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tom At The Farm, Tu Dors Nicole, What Happened Miss Simone?, What We Do In The Shadows

2015 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in alphabetical order by author:

i love you more than you know

Jonathan Ames, I Love You More Than You Know

Impulsively picking up a used copy of this essay collection at The Book Trader in Philly, I cracked it open while sitting across from the fountain at Logan Square, and instantly found a new favorite writer. Ames’ candidness isn’t for everyone (the blurb describing him as “an edgier David Sedaris” is an understatement), but along with a willingness to depict himself in the worst possible light, he comes across as utterly sincere and human (and also laugh-out-loud funny). I’ve since devoured two more similar books of his, but this is the best of them.

bad kid

David Crabb, Bad Kid

Crabb and I are the same age. While my own teenage years differ from his considerably (he did copious amounts of drugs, whereas I was more (perhaps unintentionally) straight edge), I spent much of his memoir nodding my head in recognition. With a self-deprecating wit that keeps in check any hint of self-importance, he recounts what it was really like to be a (mostly closeted) gay high school student in the early ‘90s: the music, the fashion, the tempestuous rush of surging emotions and anxieties, all of it an evocative backdrop for his gradual journey to self-acceptance.


Sloane Crosley, The Clasp

Crosley’s first novel builds on the promise of her two earlier essay collections. Initially straightforward but increasingly more convoluted, its story, while tautly constructed is just a receptacle for its three distinct, cliché-free primary characters, college friends who reunite about a decade after graduation at a wedding. While her prose is as darkly funny as ever (especially via an ancillary character responsible for the book’s title), her three leads are never less than likable, despite their considerable neuroses and quirks.


Jonathan Franzen, Purity

Franzen gets a lot of flack for being an unpleasant shit in real life, and that’s too bad because his latest doorstop of a novel might be his best yet. It has a finely drawn female protagonist, an ever-expanding supporting ensemble, a big but effective narrative twist halfway through and such timely concerns as the notion of privacy and the consequences of exposing it (a la Julian Assange). And, unlike a few other lengthy tomes I read this year, none of its 500+ pages felt unnecessary.

First Bad Man

Miranda July, The First Bad Man

This might July’s best work since her wonderful debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know ten years ago. However, it wouldn’t necessarily make for a great film—the peculiar symbiosis it details seems better suited to thought than action, which is not a bad thing, especially when confronted with a lead character as vivid, enigmatic, winning and annoying as Cheryl Glickman. July also excels at fully committing to a wildly strange and challenging concept until it nearly seems conventional (though thankfully her writing never is).

my struggle book two

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 2: A Man In Love

I should probably reserve a spot on these year-end lists for each volume of Knausgaard’s six-part magnum opus as I make my way through them. Volume 2 is much longer than its predecessor, and yet even more concentrated, mostly confined to the author’s relationship with his wife. I fear I can’t do justice in describing just what these books achieve in the length of a small blurb, because via his singular point-of-view, Knausgaard can often alter one’s perception of the entire world.

how to build a girl

Caitlin Moran, How To Build A Girl

Moran’s deservedly a national treasure in the UK. While her first novel is no less Anglo-centric than her nonfiction work, it’s still essential for American anglophiles and for teenage girls of all cultures. Covering roughly the same time period as Bad Kid (that’s all the two books share in common), it’s explicitly autobiographical but Moran proves she can adapt her own coming-of-age into a story anyone can relate to without dumbing it down or obscuring its powerful feminist leanings.


Paul Murray, The Mark and The Void

If Skippy Dies was the quintessential modern comic novel about Irish boarding schools, Murray’s long-awaited follow-up does the same for investment banking—admittedly an unlikely milieu for the author’s Oscar Wilde-like humor, but his attention to those specific idiosyncrasies that really flesh out a character suggests he could take any setting and make it funny (and also riveting and considerably emotional). He even manages to insert an author character named Paul into the story without taking the reader out of it.

visions and revisions

Dale Peck, Visions and Revisions

Ever since his early landmark experimental novels, Peck has suffused his fiction with autobiographical elements (and vice-versa). Even this slim but potent “memoir” concludes with an extended prose poem of sorts. Still, for someone who has built up a self-mythology that’s not always easily discernible, it’s refreshing to read this actual autobiographical account—even one made up of letters, essays, journal entries and other ephemeral remnants of a life lived.


Sam Wasson, Fosse

Given my love of All That Jazz, I’ve always wanted to find out more about Bob Fosse’s life, to see how “real” a representation Roy Scheider’s alter ego was. Even at 700 pages, Wasson’s biography doesn’t provide a clear answer to that question, in part because Fosse was such a complex character himself. While the subject’s obsessiveness and perfectionism both make for an entertaining read, Wasson’s greatest achievement is simply detailing and lending context to Fosse’s own historic accomplishments.

My complete 2015 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

1. Jason Heller, Taft 2012
2. Andrea Martin, Lady Parts
3. Bob Odenkirk, A Load of Hooey
4. Patton Oswalt, Silver Screen Fiend
5. David Thomson, The Big Screen: The Story of The Movies
6. Sam Wasson, Fosse
7. Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
8. Douglas Coupland, Generation A
9. Robert Hofler, Sexplosion!
10. Clifford Chase, Winkie*
11. Hilton Als, White Girls
12. Robert Christgau, Going Into The City
13. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book Two: A Man In Love
14. Miranda July, The First Bad Man
15. David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts*
16. Amanda Petrusich, Pink Moon (33 1/3 series)
17. Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
18. Jonathan Ames, I Love You More Than You Know
19. Nick Hornby, Funny Girl
20. David and Joe Henry, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him
21. Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour
22. Tracey Thorn, Naked At The Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing
23. Julia Glass, The Widower’s Tale
24. Dale Peck, Visions and Revisions
25. Jonathan Ames, My Less Than Secret Life
26. Gina Arnold, Exile in Guyville (33 1/3 series)
27. Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House*
28. Maria Semple, This One Is Mine
29. Isaac Oliver, Intimacy Idiot
30. Caitlin Moran, How To Build A Girl
31. Barney Hoskyns, Hotel California
32. Jack Kerouac, On The Road*
33. William Hjortsberg, Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan
34. David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and other Essays
35. Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories
36. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay*
37. Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City
38. Jonathan Ames, The Double Life Is Twice as Good
39. Jonathan Franzen, Purity
40. Hanya Yanagihara, The People In The Trees
41. Daniel Clowes, The Complete Eightball 1-18
42. Jim Gaffigan, Food: A Love Story
43. Tom Spanbauer, In the City of Shy Hunters*
44. Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing In America, The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar
45. Paul Murray, The Mark and The Void
46. Sloane Crosley, The Clasp
47. David Crabb, Bad Kid
48. Derek Jarman, Modern Nature*

Beyond the top ten, I also really liked the beautifully reprinted edition of Clowes’ indispensible alt-comic book (the original home of Ghost World), Yanagihara’s unique and unsettling debut novel (her follow-up, A Little Life is my most anticipated read of 2016), Andrea Martin’s memoir (a reminder as to why she should be a national treasure), the Toltz novel (a dollar bin find!) and Oliver’s promising debut essay collection. Since I spent nearly three months wading through it, I also have to mention Hjortsberg’s alternately dazzling and redundant Brautigan biography; it might’ve made my top ten if it was half its actual length.

Halfway through 2015: Movies

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter


A companion to this list, here are my ten favorite films of 2015, so far, in alphabetical order.  I’m including titles technically from last year that didn’t open in Boston until 2015 and also festival titles, most scheduled for a release in the next six months.

Last year, I had a clear and obvious favorite at this point; this year, not so much. For me, the biggest surprise so far has been Gett, a talky, Israeli procedural set entirely inside a courthouse–ordinarily not my cup of tea, but for nearly two hours, it’s consistently riveting. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter also held up to a second viewing–I anticipate The Look of Silence will as well. Still, I suspect (hope?) that I haven’t come across my favorite film of year just yet.

99 Homes
The End of The Tour
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
In Transit
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
The Look of Silence
Packed In A Trunk
Stray Dog
Two Days, One Night
Winter Sleep

Introducing Haunted Jukebox

I’ve started a new blog. Haunted Jukebox is a place for all my music writing going forward. I’ve been re-posting all previous entries in my 100 Albums project, and all subsequent ones will go there instead of here.

My first “original” post over there is a companion piece to this one; among my favorite albums of the first half of this decade is one which includes a song whose title gives the new blog its name.

Kriofske Mix will continue–I’ll have multiple photo essays from my Colorado trip to post over the next month or two, plus it’ll be a home for the increasingly rare occasions when I write film reviews. However, I expect my primary focus will be on music, especially as I still have another 69 favorite albums to write about at length. So, please bookmark, won’t you?

Favorite Movies: 2010-2014


I meant to rank my favorite films of this decade’s first half back in January, when it might’ve been more revelant (is it ever?), but hemmed and hawed at the idea, since I wasn’t sure I had a clear number one for that five-year period.

However, I’ve revived the idea in honor of this blog’s 4th anniversary (and 400th post!).

Based on instinct, Boyhood ends up at the top—an obvious, expected choice, I guess. Conceptually, it tries something no other film has ever done. Arguably, not every individual scene works, but the experience of viewing them all as a whole is where the film makes an impact. I’ve already noted I’m uncertain as to how well it will age, if the novelty will eventually wear off, or even how often I’ll go back and watch the whole damn thing again. For now, it still feels fresh and immense. We’ll see where it places on my end-of-the-decade list.

Other films are near the top for decidedly different reasons. Frances Ha isn’t flawless (which is why it ended up in the runner-up slot), but it was so unexpected—a throwback, for sure, but a lyrical one that managed to feel both timeless in style and of-the-moment in subject matter. I haven’t seen Oslo, August 31 a second time, but my recollection of it is still vivid and undiluted. Stories We Tell, on the other hand, I’ve seen three times, with each viewing more rewarding and revealing. Drive, Holy Motors, Exit Through The Gift Shop and Moonrise Kingdom remain films I can imagine returning to again and again; it’ll be interesting to see where The Act of Killing ends up on future lists given another viewing of companion film The Look of Silence (seen in Toronto last year but not included here due to a still-forthcoming theatrical release).

And then, we have The Master, only my #7 film of 2012 but perhaps the one I’ve thought about more than any other this decade. I’ve included an image of it here rather than Boyhood because it’s the film I most want to see again, right now, if I had nearly three hours to kill watching a movie. Chalk up not viewing it since 2012 to the fact that it is a demanding film, not to mention the task of being able to watch the late Philip Seymour Hoffman now without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. While I still wouldn’t rate it above There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s unclassifiable, post World War II cum Scientology epic is ambitious, radical and really weird—and I suspect, built to endure.

1. Boyhood
2. Frances Ha
3. Oslo, August 31
4. Holy Motors
5. Stories We Tell
6. Drive
7. Exit Through The Gift Shop
8. The Master
9. The Act of Killing
10. Moonrise Kingdom
11. Mommy
12. Weekend
13. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives
14. Under The Skin
15. Marwencol
16. Take This Waltz
17. The Arbor
18. How To Survive A Plague
19. Winter’s Bone
20. Dogtooth
21. Beasts of The Southern Wild
22. I Killed My Mother
23. Jack Goes Boating
24. Inside Llewyn Davis
25. The Past

The Best Films of 2014


I know, what a boring pick for the top of my list, but honestly, Boyhood was always going to be number one ever since I first saw it at a film festival in April. Richard Linklater’s most profound works scrutinize how the passage of time shapes our perception of narrative—think of the single-day spans of Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, the brief, connected-but-not-really vignettes of Slacker, or even mere existence or being as a philosophical construct in Waking Life. This is arguably more ambitious than all of them, not to mention flashier and blatantly driven by a gimmick. But the cumulative effect Linklater and his cast achieve is unprecedented, realizing a new way of seeing and storytelling only possible via the moving image. Time will tell how well Boyhood ages, but at present, no other film has affected me to the degree where I feel like I’m witnessing something both so singular and universal.


Whether it becomes his breakthrough or not, Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature is surely a great leap forward artistically—and both his first and third films have already placed in my year-end top ten lists. Here, Dolan bespeaks a life experience that’s unexpected coming from a 25-year-old, but it’s the very thing providing a solid foundation for all the messy, emotional catharsis and outsized stylistic tropes on top (the rich soundtrack, the psychologically constricting aspect ratio, the costumes). As the title character, Anne Dorval is monumental (and might’ve been an Oscar nominee if she was better known outside Quebec), but don’t let that distract you from Dolan’s accomplishment—sections of Mommy are easily more poignant, breathtaking, passionate and sublime than anything else I’ve seen in years.

coffee in berlin

Perhaps my favorite thing about participating in a group of indie film lovers is hearing about titles I never would have thought to seek out on my own. A friend from this group recommended this German film, which played for one week in Boston (as many foreign or indie titles do); it’s the type of low-budget black and white gem (like Duck Season) you immediately want to urge every person you know to see (and if you have Netflix streaming, you can do so today). Beautifully photographed, well acted and enhanced by a lovely, low-key score, it’s a charming, sharply observed, one-day-in-the-life miniature—the antithesis of any impersonal “event picture” that we have way too many of.


The most polarizing title on this list, and arguably the most innovative (even more than Boyhood). This loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel follows an alien visiting Earth, disguised as a voluptuous woman (Scarlett Johansson) through whose eyes nearly all of the action unfolds. As she discovers and adapts herself to the strange new world around her, director Jonathan Glazer encourages the viewer to follow the exact same process where the entire film is concerned—in time, the unknowable gradually, effectively becomes relatable. Finally building on the promise suggested early in her career, Johansson is a revelation, and so is the film, driven by startling imagery, an intricate sound design and the sustained excitement of continually leaping into the unknown.


I’ve long admired director Ira Sachs’ films, albeit from a distance, always wishing for a little more; this Manhattan drama about a long-term older gay couple at last delivers it. That two straight actors portray them doesn’t matter, as both John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are touchingly convincing as life partners, contributing career-best performances. Their search for a place to live following an injustice that is the result of an act of devotion and love plays at times like a gentle comedy of errors, but ends up somber, suffused with meaning and quietly tragic. But it is really less a political film and more a nuanced look at familial relationships, personal spaces and conflicts that arise when there’s a less-than-ideal overlapping of the two.


An oil fracking boom brings thousands of men seeking employment to Williston, North Dakota. As demand exceeds supply, leaving many of these transplants homeless yet hopeful for openings, local Lutheran Pastor Jay Reinke opens up his church to shelter them in exchange for assistance with chores and adhering to a moral code as he sees it. In the tradition of Capturing The Friedmans, not all is what it seems in Jesse Moss’ illuminating documentary. As details accumulate and hidden intentions come to light, even the simple notion of wanting to do “the right thing” proves ever more complex and loaded—particularly as Reinke comes to an about-face regarding his own intentions.


Whether or not South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language picture, a wild dystopian epic set almost entirely on a moving train is your cup of tea, you have to admit it pulls few punches. Like his other features (The Host, Mother), Bong’s latest is nearly unclassifiable, a heady mass of tonal shifts, a legit genre flick (in this case, action) but also satirical in parts, with performances both unexpectedly restrained (Chris Evans) and deliriously over the top (Tilda Swinton!). Most of all, you sense there’s a consistent vision finessing it all, ensuring the final cut entertains as much as it thoughtfully examines—in this case, the intricacies of class struggle.


Having finally gotten something out of his system after years of delving deeper into depraved, depressing subject matter, Lukas Moodysson has returned to the relative sweetness of his earlier work. Adapted from his wife’s graphic novel, this almost plays like a companion piece to Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In, roughly set in the same time and region (Sweden, early 1980s)—it has a similar intuitiveness and insight about pre-teen misfits, only here it’s an all-girl punk band rather than a boy in love with the vampire next door. It’s as uplifting and closely observed a coming-of-age tale as Moodysson’s earlier masterpiece Show Me Love.


Hyped as the world’s first Iranian Vampire Western, Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature is certainly that (though only a “Western” via its Morricone-inspired score) but also much more. To reference Let The Right One In again, it’s similarly just as much of a love story, albeit one with David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch running through its veins. Although she liberally borrows, Amirpour is an original talent in her own right—stylistically arresting for sure (gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, stirring placement of pop music) but also foraging a unique, texture-driven narrative approach that stands out in a sea of young auteur wannabees.


An average (if affluent) nuclear family vacations at a ski resort. Everything seems fine until a sudden, impending disaster, and more importantly, the father’s impulsive behavior during it. On the surface, Ruben Östlund’s celebrated film has the simplest of set-ups, but the real fun comes in its aftermath, for every action carries consequences. Rarely has an “entertainment” probed so hilariously, uncomfortably deep into examining how a split-second decision reveals so much of what’s present behind superficial domestic bliss and posed smiles for the camera. And don’t miss the twist ending, which slyly rearranges the family dynamic even further.

A low-key, charming coming-of-age Brazilian film that completely understands the highs and lows of being a teen and never patronizes its blind, gay male lead character.

An entertaining celebration of Roger Ebert not only as the man who brought film criticism to the masses but also as an avid reader, traveller, raconteur, loving husband and occasional sonofabitch.

Belatedly released in the US (along with two other features), Joanna Hogg’s 2010 film manages the neat trick of putting some of the most loathsome, irritable characters ever to grace a screen and render them (or at least their actions) approachable and sympathetic, even.

A ridiculous film, but also an exhilarating one. The reliable Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are both excellent as a student/teacher, servant/master pairing, but the real “star” is arguably director Damien Chazelle, who leads the film (and prevents it from falling apart) like a rogue, if talented bandleader.

Although not as emotionally resonant as Moonrise Kingdom (or Rushmore, or The Royal Tenenbaums), I’m always happy to see Wes Anderson find a wider audience without diluting his ever-distinct sensibility (and I’ve never found Ralph Fiennes more likable).

An ambitious, intriguing premise alone does not a make a film, but half the fun of this quirky, sort-of-sci-fi indie is in anticipating to see how (or if) they’ll pull it off. The set design and score are superlative, and Elisabeth Moss suggests she won’t have trouble securing work (or will get typecast in Peggy-like roles) after Mad Men ends.

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s best since The Return isn’t as richly open-ended as that earlier film, but as a critique of Russian political and religious institutions vs. the individual citizen, it’s remarkably subversive, and, fueled by copious amounts of vodka, talkier and funnier.

Jake Gyllenhaal is wonderfully All In as an opportunistic ambulance-chasing videographer in this meticulously sleazy Los Angeles Network update that also features strong work from Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed.

Speaking of sleazoid-L.A., I’m still processing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pynchon adaptation, but then some time passed before I unabashedly loved The Master, so I recognize this as an inscrutable but limitless text that I’ll probably gladly visit again and again.

Two decades after The Wedding Banquet (an early Ang Lee effort), here’s another Taiwan-related film about coming out of the closet, showing how far we’ve progressed since then (and also how other things never change), but this affably goes further, fleshing out an impressive ensemble cast with thoughtful, honest observations about fidelity, truth and the way we treat one another.


The Babadook
Bird People
The Case Against 8
The Dog
The Double
God Help The Girl
Goodbye To Language 3D
The Imitation Game
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Land Ho!
Like Father, Like Son
A Most Violent Year
Mr. Turner
Only Lovers Left Alive
Le Week-end

2014 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in alphabetical order by author:

tooth fairy

Clifford Chase, The Tooth Fairy 

One of two memoirs I read this year mostly written in succinct, one-sentence paragraphs, Chase’s tome gets the nod over Tamara Shopsin’s (admittedly interesting) Mumbai New York Scranton because Chase is a far more engaging wordsmith. Thematically he jumps around a lot, from the profound effect The B-52’s first album had on him in college to caring for his elderly parents, but his prose holds it together—some of it so deceptively simple that you want to re-read and thoughtfully consider each zen-like sentence.

all families are

Douglas Coupland, All Families Are Psychotic

I’ve admired Coupland’s caustic wit and unique worldview for years, but nothing could’ve prepared me for his sixth novel (which came out in 2001). Not to be hyperbolic, but this tale of a family reuniting in Florida for one member’s launch into space is completely and delightfully insane, even more so than his apocalyptic Girlfriend In A Coma. It reminds me a little of A.M. Homes’ (more on her below) Music For Torching in that it begins with a bang and just gets crazier from there, but without falling apart.


Geoff Dyer, Zona

Best known for But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Dyer has written an entire book about his obsession with the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker and it’s one of the best books about film I’ve read in years. Wisely forgoing an academic approach, Zona is more like an idiosyncratic memoir and perhaps the most convincing argument ever made to check out a bewildering, enigmatic, occasionally sublime three-hour-long Russian movie.

may we be forgiven

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven

My friend Michael suggested this one after I included Music For Torching in my top ten last year. If anything, this makes that book seem as normal as The Da Vinci Code—it begins with a horrific, outlandish event that is the catalyst for everything that follows and remains startling for nearly 500 pages. Hilarious and unsentimental like the best Vonnegut, it turns out to be both a pitch-black comedy and a sincere story of redemption.

king 112263

Stephen King, 11/22/63

I’d never read King before, but I almost instantly got why people love him so much: the man knows how to hold your attention. This mash-up of time travel, the Kennedy assassination and small town narrative is so potentially absurd that I can’t imagine a lesser writer (or possibly any other writer) being able to pull it off. Pray that the inevitable television adaptation gets it right.

my struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One

I was intrigued from the moment I first heard about Knausgaard’s ridiculously ambitious Proust-like six volume autobiographical novel. Imagine if Sufjan Stevens had made good on his “50 albums for 50 states” project, and you’ll get a sense of what the author is trying to do here. With lengthy, bravura passages about things as gloriously mundane as a garage band performance or a home ravaged by years of hoarding, it’s not a light read but rewarding enough that I plan on devouring the next volume soon.

bone clocks

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

This is unquestionably a return to Cloud Atlas form for Mitchell. I’m not sure it surpasses that earlier book, and the final section is distractingly tonally different from the five that came before, but Holly Sykes might be Mitchell’s greatest character ever—her book-length evolution from bratty teen to weathered elder is the narrative’s stunning constant, the beating heart in a labyrinth of sci-fi convolutions and visionary imagination.

little failure

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure

Shteyngart’s memoir leaves no doubt of the autobiographical nature of his novels. With a voice as comically distinct as Woody Allen or David Sedaris, he writes mostly and perceptively about his megalomaniacal parents (they gave him the title nickname) and emerges enlightened and amused rather than bitter or broken.


Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland

Despite loving Prep and American Wife, I initially avoided Sittenfeld’s latest because of its chick-lit cover, and I should have known better. For a tale of two psychic sisters in suburban St. Louis, Sisterland is remarkably grounded and genuine, filled with memorable characters and a fascinating premise regarding a prediction no one wants to see come true. With her fourth book, Sittenfeld has become as seemingly effortlessly great an American fiction writer as Tom Perrotta or Jonathan Franzen.

i loved you more

Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More

If I had to pick one favorite book of the year, it might be this long-awaited effort from one of my favorite authors. As usual, Spanbauer writes about Idaho, Manhattan in the 1980s, being gay (and an outsider in general) and unrequited love; also as usual, he writes like absolutely no one else. Of his five novels, this might be his most affecting and devastating one yet.

My complete 2014 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

1. Marcello Carlin, The Blue In The Air
2. Matthew Zoller Seitz, The Wes Anderson Collection
3. Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday
4. Donald Fagen, Eminent Hipsters
5. Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure
6. S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer, Flood (33 1/3 series)
7. Douglas Coupland, All Families Are Psychotic
8. Stephen King, 11/22/63
9. Ruth Reichl, Garlic and Sapphires*
10. Howard Sounes, Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney
11. Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked
12. Mark Harris, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
13. Saul Austerlitz, Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes
14. A.M. Homes, This Book Will Save Your Life
15. Tamara Shopsin, Mumbai New York Scranton
16. Peter Biskind (ed.), My Lunches With Orson
17. Douglas Coupland, Worst. Person. Ever.
18. Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge*
19. Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing
20. James T. and Karla L. Murray, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York
21. Jim Gaffigan, Dad Is Fat
22. Matthew Kennedy, Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s
23. Tony Fletcher, A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga Of The Smiths
24. Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater*
25. Derek Jarman, Sketchbooks
26. Stanley Elkin, A Bad Man
27. Dana Spiotta, Lightning Field
28. Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of An Imaginative Life
29. Ruth Reichl, Delicious!
30. Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed
31. John Waters, Carsick
32. Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More
33. Geoff Dyer, Zona
34. Bill Bryson, A Walk In The Woods*
35. Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland
36. Tom Wolfe, The Pump House Gang
37. Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Years of Pilgrimage
38. David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
39. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One
40. Carol Leifer, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Crying
41. Clifford Chase, The Tooth Fairy
42. David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks
43. Lena Dunham, Not That Kind Of Girl
44. Tom Perrotta, Nine Inches: Stories
45. Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman
46. Dale Peck, Martin and John*
47. Greg Kot, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom’s Highway
48. Amy Poehler, Yes Please
49. A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven
50. Jennifer Finney Boylan, Stuck In The Middle With You
51. Samantha Bee, I Know I Am, But What Are You?*
52. Paul Harding, Tinkers
53. Tara Murtha, Ode To Billie Joe (33 1/3 series)

5 Things: Favorite Music of 2014

One: click here for a Spotify playlist of forty-two favorite tracks from the year (including “O Canada” by Jill Sobule, video for which is embedded above).

Two: A complete list of all the albums I liked, ranked (click here and scroll to read further about the top twenty more or less in order):

    1. Jill Sobule – DOTTIE’S CHARMS
    2. Future Islands – SINGLES
    3. The New Pornographers – BRILL BRUISERS
    4. St. Vincent – ST. VINCENT
    5. Jessie Ware – TOUGH LOVE
    6. Lykke Li – I NEVER LEARN
    7. Cibo Matto – HOTEL VALENTINE
    8. Emm Gryner – TORRENTIAL
    9. Leonard Cohen – POPULAR PROBLEMS
    10. Stars – NO ONE IS LOST
    11. Gruff Rhys – AMERICAN INTERIOR
    12. Sun Kil Moon – BENJI
    13. Neneh Cherry – BLANK PROJECT
    14. Mac DeMarco – SALAD DAYS
    15. The Both – THE BOTH
    16. Ben Watt – HENDRA
    18. Owen Pallett – IN CONFLICT
    19. Erasure – THE VIOLET FLAME
    20. Jenny Lewis – THE VOYAGER
    21. Sharon Van Etten – ARE WE THERE
    22. Perfume Genius – TOO BRIGHT
    24. Spoon –THEY WANT MY SOUL
    25. Damon Albarn – EVERYDAY ROBOTS
    26. Lake Street Dive – BAD SELF PORTRAITS
    27. Real Estate – ATLAS
    28. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT
    29. Broken Bells – AFTER THE DISCO
    30. War on Drugs – LOST IN THE DREAM
    31. London Grammar – IF YOU WAIT
    32. Beck – MORNING PHASE

Three: Among the older albums I heard for the first time this year, I particularly liked the following: Fleetwood Mac – TUSK, Matthew E. White – BIG INNER, Jill Sobule and John Doe – A DAY AT THE PASS, John Grant – PALE GREEN GHOSTS, Prefab Sprout – STEVE McQUEEN/TWO WHEELS GOOD, The Dirtbombs – ULTRAGLIDE IN BLACK, Lalo Schifrin – BULLITT, Fairport Convention – UNHALFBRICKING, The Turtles – PRESENT THE BATTLE OF THE BANDS, Harry Nilsson – PUSSY CATS, Bob Mould – WORKBOOK

Four: I’ve made it one-fifth of the way through my ambitious 100 Albums project, finishing twenty essays so far (plus an introduction). Here are links to the five I like best, possibly because they are the most personal:

The Beatles, ABBEY ROAD
Joni Mitchell, BLUE
Talking Heads, REMAIN IN LIGHT

My goal for this project is to at least make it to the half-way mark before 2016, but no big deal if I don’t, because I want these essays to be good.

Five: as for 2015, Belle and Sebastian, Sleater-Kinney and The Decemberists all have new albums coming out on January 20, so that’s a heck of a start. Also on the way: a reunited Juliana Hatfield Three, the first ever solo album from Kate Pierson (of The B-52’s) and Laura Marling–will her fifth LP be her fourth in a row to make my year-end top ten? Stay tuned…

2014 Mid-Year Roundup

“Seasons (Waiting On You)” by Future Islands is my favorite track of the year so far, and I only first heard it a month ago (I missed the band’s career-making Letterman performance from early March); unlike last year, I’m not as quick to pick a single favorite album (it’s not Singles…yet), although I could’ve easily added five more to the shortlist below (I’m limiting it to ten). As for movies, I do have a clear single favorite of those I’ve listed here–looking forward in seeing how well it holds up to a second viewing during its theatrical release later this month.

In alphabetical order:


Ben Watt, Hendra
The Both, The Both
Cibo Matto, Hotel Valentine
Emm Gryner, Torrential
Future Islands, Singles
Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms
Neneh Cherry, Blank Project
Owen Pallett, In Conflict
Suzanne Vega, Tales From The Realm Of The Queen of Pentacles
Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines


God Help The Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Mood Indigo
Only Lovers Left Alive
Under The Skin
We Are The Best!



(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #2 – released February 1968)

Track listing: Suzanne / Master Song / Winter Lady / Stranger Song / Sisters of Mercy / So Long, Marianne / Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye / Stories of the Street / Teachers / One of Us Cannot Be Wrong

I once read somewhere that Robert Altman heard SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN at a party and had an “eureka!” moment, thinking it the perfect soundtrack for the film he was working on, 1971’s McCABE & MS. MILLER; never mind that McCABE was set in 1902 and the album was recorded 65 years later. Both the film, an idiosyncratic, revisionist western from a New Hollywood auteur and the album, itself an idiosyncratic, revisionist collection of folk songs written and sung by a poet from Montreal convey timelessness and reflection, favoring poetry over prose while maintaining a narrative structure.

Although McCABE uses only three of Cohen’s songs (“Winter Lady”, “Stranger Song” and “Sisters of Mercy”), both film and album are forever linked together in my mind. I had heard the latter first via a dollar-bin vinyl copy purchased as a college undergrad, not long after discovering Cohen’s 1988 album I’M YOUR MAN. By then, he had altered his sound radically, favoring a deliberately chintzy aesthetic full of cheapo keyboards, cooing female background vocals and his own low, ravaged voice a more-often-spoken-than-sung growl. SONGS, Cohen’s debut album from twenty years before sounds like the work of another man: it’s primarily acoustic guitar-based, often accentuated by strings and occasional horn and organ flourishes. Most alarmingly different is Cohen’s higher vocal timbre–I was initially unable to reconcile it with the lower tone I knew and loved, playing SONGS once or twice and filing it away.

A few years on, I’d moved to Boston to study film. As I made my way through Altman’s filmography (particularly his peak early-70s period), I finally got to McCABE, having put it aside simply because it was a western, never one of my favorite genres. However, as “Stranger Song” played over the opening credits, where the lead (Warren Beatty), concealed in a hat and period gear, rides a horse into a rain-drenched, Pacific Northwest milieu, it’s no exaggeration to say it took my breath away. Rarely had I seen such an unconventional yet ideal match between song and image—Cohen’s plaintive but effective vocals, a musical backdrop consisting entirely of plucked guitars and a repetitive but engaging minor-key melody all carrying within them a quietly awestruck wonder. It felt more immediate and intimate than a more traditional, orchestral score would have; it also successfully set a precedent that this would be unlike any movie western I’d ever seen and that I’d never forget this first impression.

As “Stranger Song” becomes associated with McCabe himself, Altman utilizes the film’s two other Cohen songs as themes for specific characters. Ms. Miller (Julie Christie), the earthy, sharp whorehouse madam whom prospector McCabe goes into business with, is paired with “Winter Lady”, a gentler, more wistful but no less melancholic tune than “Stranger Song”, fleshing out the guitars with a lone flute and a soft, celeste-like chime. Meanwhile, the roughhewn, inexperienced women who become Ms. Miller’s initial employees are detailed a sequence that makes ongoing use of “Sisters of Mercy”, which has the most traditional and richest arrangement of the three Cohen songs. Some of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s most striking images accompany the song, in particular a church steeple set against a painterly, glistening sunset.

So powerful is Cohen’s music in McCABE that one wishes Altman would’ve used more of it. Hearing those three songs in the film naturally moved me to return to SONGS and in the process, discover its odd, highly distinctive allure. At least three out of its seven other tracks are now unqualified standards. Likely Cohen’s most recognized song after “Hallelujah”, opener “Suzanne” contains lyrics iconic for their specificity and vividness (“she brings you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”); Nancy Priddy’s background vocals also add texture and a welcome sweetness that Cohen’s disarming but homely croak simply isn’t capable of. “So Long, Marianne” ever-so-slightly rouses up the tempo and features one of Cohen’s catchiest choruses without sacrificing his inimitably sung cadences (“to laugh / and / cry / and / laugh / and / cry a-bout it / all a-gain”). “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” almost subliminally reprises the melody from “Suzanne” but makes a more pointed, whimsical use of Priddy’s vocals as they pop in and out between Cohen’s lead; the arrangement’s also quirkier, the song’s title providing the main hook as it ends on a curious, nagging riff somewhere between a twanged guitar and a jew’s harp.

Two of the album’s remaining four songs are as great as the three McCABE selections. “Master Song” consists of many stanzas set to the same melody repeated for nearly six minutes, but each verse has a new musical wrinkle, gaining momentum from such additions as a muted trumpet, or a blast of strings, or a curlicue organ filigree. Throughout, it conjures a feeling of majesty, not overblown or calling attention to itself, but forever lurking within, omnipresent and exuding wisdom and gravitas. “Stories of the Street” nearly accomplishes the same feat, but with more sustained orchestration, a higher-pitched melody (in which Cohen, though not the most dexterous of singers, acquits himself well enough) and evocative lyrics such as “And if by chance I wake at night and ask you who I am / O take me to the slaughterhouse, I will wait there with the lamb.” As for the other two, less memorable tracks (“Teachers”, “One of us Cannot Be Wrong”), they’re wisely placed at the end. Neither one is a failure, although when Cohen concludes “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” with some woefully off-key wailing (almost as if he’s piss-poor drunk or going insane), you could either find it repulsive and inexplicable and want to say, “Oh, Lenny…” or simply laugh at its audacity—a rare glimpse of Cohen not taking himself too seriously.

Cohen apparently was not pleased with producer John Simon’s orchestral additions here. He would go on to record eleven more albums and few of them sound like this one. Alternately, he’d strip down the arrangements to the barest essentials (SONGS OF LOVE AND HATE), take the complete opposite direction with Phil Spector (DEATH OF A LADIES MAN), entirely revamp his sound and voice again in the 1980s with VARIOUS POSITIONS and the aforementioned I’M YOUR MAN and continue to alter, reduce and refine with age all the way through 2012’s OLD IDEAS. His discography is as rich as the life he’s lived (Sylvie Simmons’ recent biography is essential), but I return most often to this, his first album. The McCABE association is a major reason, but by far not the only one: with SONGS, Cohen arrived fully formed, a talent with few precedents and to be honest, relatively few followers. His lyrics, vocal tones and melodies all made for a sensibility that was entirely his own. We will also find this quality in our next entry which comes from a band born out of a movement it eventually broke away from, stubbornly foraging along its own divergent, less commercial path.

“Stranger Song” / opening credits of McCABE & MS. MILLER: