Thursday, December 31, 2009

Favorite films of 2009

Don't know that they're the best, but they were my favorites...

  • Up in the Air
  • Star Trek
  • Up
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • District 9
  • The Hangover
  • Ponyo
  • Where the Wild Things Are
  • Avatar
Still looking forward to seeing possible contenders for inclusion: The Messenger, Precious, The Hurt Locker, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moon, Broken Embraces, 500 Days of Summer

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Favorite films of the decade

This is a personal favorites list, neither a ranked "top ten" and surely not a "best" list -- there are too many great films I've yet to see. But there are movies I've liked a lot...

  • In the Mood for Love - Wong Kar-Wai's romantic meditation on love, loyalty, and finding small safe havens. Strongly influential on the better-known Lost in Translation
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - intelligent, challenging science fictional look at memory, love and loss. Jim Carrey's apogee, surrealistic, funny and heartbreaking.
  • The Lord of the Rings - Peter Jackson's trilogy redefined epic and shattered the limits of what could be put onto the screen. Hugely entertaining and successful realization of its source.
  • Inglourious Basterds - WW II fantasy combines suspense and violence with occasional splashes of outrageous humor. Ultimately a movie about movies, Quentin Tarantino firing on all cylinders
  • Gosford Park - mystery set against Robert Altman's complex tapestry of lives upstairs and downstairs in an English country home
  • Spirited Away - alienated girl trapped in a magical world learns responsibility and values
  • No Country for Old Men -clinically cold, powerful story of a remorseless killer -- good, evil, consequences, chance and implacable fate; the Coens in their nasty mode
  • Pan's Labyrinth - magic and myth are empowering and terrifying; Franco's fascists are just terrifying in Guillermo Del Toro's fantasy
  • Children of Men - bleak, inspiring science fiction, adapted from P.D. James' novel by Alfonso Cuaron
  • Talk to Her - story of love and loneliness, perhaps Almodovar's best
  • Y Tu Mama Tambien - powerful coming of age Mexican road trip story

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino's new film is breathtakingly good. Ultimately, it's a movie about movies as wish-fulfillment and fantasy, but along the way, what looked like an action-adventure story turns out to be mostly suspense.

Basterds is not an easy movie, overly bloody with violence in some sections, seemingly overly talky in others. But Tarantino's clever pacing often defies expectations in a film that is not exactly what it seems. The movie shifts gears, drops occasional pieces of throwaway humor, and offers surprises: supposedly the story of a group of Jewish American soldiers wreaking vengenance in occupied France, it is more a long shaggy dog story setting up a climax defying viewer expectations and genre conventions.

The central conceit of the story is telling. In a movie theater in occupied Paris, characters watch a German war movie. So we find ourselves watching a war movie about people watching a war movie, based on an actual -- within the reality of the film -- historic event. Characters discuss the event, how they felt about it and how they feel about the film version.

Along the way, there are numerous nods to other films, including Chaplin's The Kid, The Time Machine, Battleship Potemkin, and The Last Metro. There is a truly quirky cameo by Mike Myers, some very nice work by many actors in supporting roles large and small and a oddly-mannered but strong performance by Brad Pitt as the apparently bloodthirsty Apache hillbilly who leads the Jewish soldiers. But the best work is by young French actress Mélanie Laurent, who plays a Jewish girl hiding in plain sight, and a great performance by Christoph Waltz as a truly diabolical Nazi detective.

There are no great philosophical revelations: Nazism was evil, and in war, even good people have to do terrible things. But Tarantino tells us a fascinating story, with suspense and heart, about how we feel about the stories we tell ourselves.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9: another country heard from

This is a unique film: a South African science fiction mockumentary, resembling a gritty B-movie, but with excellent special effects, using Hitchcockian tropes to grab the viewer and confound expectations. And that's just the form.

The content is a reflection not only on South Africa's heritage of apartheid, but on current problems dealing with immigration issues. The story revolves around an employee of a multi-national corporation, contracted by the South African government to relocate a settlement of cryptic, unattactive aliens from a camp near Johannesburg, and take them somewhere out of sight and mind.

As the protagonist of the film takes a hero's journey, beginning as an unwitting bureaucratic tool, so the story and the film grow right before the viewer. Part action-adventure and part humanistic plea for tolerance, District 9 confronts a lot of issues in the new world order.

Like much quality science fiction, the movie holds up a distorted magic mirror. It's uncomfortable to see ourselves there, but hard to turn away, and ultimately worthwhile. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jane Eyre

I'm attempting to rectify some longstanding gaps in my literary education. This year's reading list includes Crime and Punishment, Tale of Two Cities, and Three Men in a Boat. And I've just finished Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

As a modern librarian, I "read" Jane Eyre in multimedia fashion. Most of it I either read in the free Kindle app on my iPod or listened to via a recording from Librivox, which produces free downloadable audiobooks of public domain literature. When I actually had time to sit in my living room, I read a hardcover copy from the library. Although I found the Victorian prose slow going at first, I warmed to the story and the character of Jane, particularly as voiced in Elizabeth Klett's wonderful reading for Librivox. Klett's Librivox works have a lot of fans.

I was ready for the prototypical gothic romance, the brooding Rochester, the star-crossed love. I wasn't expecting the proto-feminism, accompanied by deft attacks on religious hypocrisy and rigid ideas of predestination. Jane is a fascinating character with a terrific story, told by a skilled and insightful writer.

Having finished the book, I had to check out the screen treatments, and there are quite a few -- IMDB lists 21 different versions, including feature films and mini-series. So far, I've watched the 1944 Joan Fontaine & Orson Welles version, which was interesting, but at 97 minutes glossed over or elided some significant aspects of the plot and was not altogether satisfactory. Better was the 1983 BBC mini-series with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton, which included sufficient detail and was well played by the leads.

I'm looking forward to seeing some other adaptations, and reading more by Charlotte Bronte. I'll probably re-read Jasper Fforde's wonderful Eyre Affair, the first Thursday Next novel, now that I'll understand more of the allusions.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Wisconsin Children's Book Awards

Leah Langby, chair, Children’s Book Award Committee, writes:

Elizabeth Burr/Worzalla Award goes to Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book
The Children’s Book Award Committee of the Youth Services Section of the Wisconsin Library Association announces that this year’s winner of the Elizabeth Burr/Worzalla Award is The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, published by HarperCollins.

The committee also selected the following Outstanding Books:
  • Old Bear by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow
  • Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes, published by Greenwillow
  • It's Not Fair! Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal), published by HarperCollins
  • The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great by Gerald Morris, illustrated by Aaron Renier, published by Houghton Mifflin
  • Monsoon Afternoon by Kashmira Sheth, published by Peachtree
The Elizabeth Burr/Worzalla Award winner receives a $1,000 award, funded by the WLA Foundation through a generous contribution from Worzalla Publishing of Stevens Point. The winner is also invited to attend the Awards banquet at the WLA Annual Conference.

The committee reported that it looked at about 80 titles this year. Committee members are Kate Fitzgerald-Fleck (Waukesha Public Library), Pat Freitag (Graham Public Library, Union Grove), Barb Huntington (DLTCL, Madison), Tom Hurlburt (Rhinelander District Library), Linda Jerome (La Crosse Public Library), Leah Langby (Indianhead Federated Library System, Eau Claire), Susan Pesheck (River Falls Public Library).
Go, Neil!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wisconsin Literary Awards

Wisconsin Library Association Literary Awards Committee Chair Ellen Jepson has posted the following to state email lists:

The Literary Awards Committee of the Readers’ Section of the Wisconsin Library Association has chosen What It Is by Lynda Barry as the winner of the RR Donnelley Literary Award, given for the highest literary achievement by a Wisconsin author in 2009. What It Is appears at first to be an eccentric writer’s guide. In reality it is a densely-layered treatise on setting aside inhibition, following your dreams, and allowing your inner child to come out and play again. Lynda offers us insight into how she overcame self-doubt, as well as the doubts of others, to follow her muse, and in the process become one of America’s leading cartoonists. Part memoir, part writer’s guide, Lynda does a brilliant job of using her own experiences to illustrate that each of us has the power to create within us.

The RR Donnelley Literary Award is made possible by RR Donnelley Company of Chicago, IL through a grant to the WLA Foundation.

Two authors were chosen for their body of work as Notable Wisconsin Authors. Gene DeWeese is the author of multiple fiction titles for adults and children, including The Doll with Opal Eyes and Jeremy Case. Margaret Ashmun wrote fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books and her works include The Lake and the Isabel Carleton series.

2009 Outstanding Achievement awards for 2008 publications include the following ten titles by Wisconsin authors. They are:
  • Anthony Bukoski - North of the Port: Stories
  • Lauren Groff - Monsters of Templeton
  • Sharon Kaye - The Aristotle Quest: Black Market Truth
  • David Maraniss - Rome 1960: the Olympics that Changed the World
  • David McGlynn - The End of the Straight and Narrow: Stories
  • Rachel Pastan - Lady of the Snakes
  • David Rhodes - Driftless
  • Michael Schumacher - Wreck of the Carl D.: a True Story of Loss, Survival, and Rescue at Sea
  • Lori Tharps - Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love, and Spain
  • Jean Wilkowski - Abroad for her Country: Tales of a Pioneer Woman Ambassador in the U.S. Foreign Service
2009 Outstanding Achievement in Poetry awards for 2008 titles include the following four titles:
  • Matthew Guenette - Sudden Anthem
  • Judy Roy and June Nirschl - Two Off Q: a Conversation in Poetry
  • Austin Smith - In the Silence of the Migrated Birds
  • Ron Wallace - For a Limited Time Only
The 2009 Literary Awards Committee members are: Ellen Jepson (chair), Jean Anderson, Susan Belsky, Anne Callaghan, Caroline Haskin, Brian Kopetsky, Amy Lutzke, Rhonda Puntney, Deb Shapiro, and Cece Wiltzius.

For more information about the work of the Literary Awards Committee, go to