Thursday, December 31, 2009

Death List 2010

2009 marks my worst death list performance ever, only 2--Carl Pohlad and Robert McNamara. Any Twins fan can tell you which was more evil.

Ernest Borgnine and Andy Rooney replace them.

So I assume 2010 will be a banner year. Watch out!

1. Al Haig
2. John Wooden
3. Margaret Thatcher
4. Floyd Dominy
5. Fidel Castro
6. Luis Echeverria
7. Ernest Borgnine
8. Andy Rooney
9. Clark Terry
10. Stewart Udall

Mr. Trend's Top 50 Albums of the 2000s

Here are my top 50 albums of the 2000s, with random comments. This was actually a really hard list to make, and I limited myself mostly to the rock-ish genre (with a couple exceptions). I could do an entire other lists of best re-issues, best non-Western music, and best "things I 'discovered' in the 2000s" but I probably won't. Basically, there was a lot of great music, old and new, that came out last decade, and so I limited myself to the genre I'm most familiar with/capable of talking about here. And while I feel fairly safe about #s 21-50, I think that, excepting my top choice, #s 2-19 could really shift around on any given day.

1. Joanna Newsom, Ys - I just keep coming back to this album, and every time, it blows me away. So much I could say, but I'll limit myself to saying it's the first album I've ever heard where lyrics felt like their own instrument, and I get goosebumps everytime I hit the 14-minute mark of "Only Skin" (along with several other moments throughout).
2. Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam/Merriweather Post Pavilion - Don't ask me to pick one. I can't (not with conviction, at least). I fully and strenuously disagree with Erik, and think that from Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished to Merriweather, AC has been the most interesting band of the decade.
3. Liars, Drum's Not Dead
4. Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
5. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods - The best album from the most consistently great band of the late-90s. I hope they return someday, but if they don't, they went out on the top of their game.
6. Los Campesinos, Hold On Now, Youngster.../We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed -Music rarely has any right to be this energetic, thrilling, and complicated and mature at the same time; that it comes from a bunch of young 20-somethings is all the more remarkable.
7. Interpol, Turn On the Bright Lights - When a friend first played this for me and asked what I thought, my retort was, "I liked Joy Division better the first time around." However, that was pretty unfair in retrospect - Ian Curtis et al did not invent moodiness, and this was some of the best moody ambient-yet-rocking stuff of the decade.
8. Beck, Sea Change - I'm one of those "lyric people" Erik complained about. Still, this album hits heartbreak about as well as anything from the decade.
9. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois - Many complain it's too long, but I don't know what you get rid of; the full songs are essential, and if you take out the little interludes, you still have a 70-minute album (plus, the little interludes perfectly separate the bigger pieces, and are beautiful themselves, save for the 8-second bit before "Chicago," but again - does taking out 8 whole seconds make the album feel "shorter"?)
10. Radiohead, In Rainbows - Kid A may have been more of a watershed, more of an awakening, for many (though I was into Autechre and Aphex Twin before Kid A came out), but I just like In Rainbows a little more.
11. Panda Bear, Person Pitch
12. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
13. Arcade Fire, Funeral
14. Silver Mt. Zion, 13 Blues for 13 Moons - A live-in-studio sound + all the build up and bombast of Godspeed You Black Emperor + Earnest emotional and political lyrics = one of the most unappreciated albums of the decade.
15. Sigur Ros, Agaetis Byrjun
16. John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls - For all the talk of Springsteen's The Rising as "the" 9/11 album, it's nowhere near as good, heartbreaking, beautiful, or daring across its 70 minutes as Adams' 28-minute composition is.
17. Cat Power, You Are Free
18. Modest Mouse, The Moon & Antarctica
19. Boredoms, Vision Creation Newsun - Still the best "wake up and get going" album.
20. White Stripes, Elephant - White Blood Cells is great, but this is the one that had all the rocking potential on full display.
21. Burial, Untrue
22. Bat for Lashes, Two Suns
23. Black Angels, Directions to See a Ghost
24. Tom Waits, Real Gone - In the "early stuff/crazy old-man-growling stuff" debate over Tom Waits, I firmly fall in the latter category.
25. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood - Erik and I will disagree on her until the day we die.
26. Menomena, Friend and Foe - A few stickout songs ("Boyscout'n"), but really, it's best as a top-to-bottom album, and more and more interesting with every listen.
27. Bjork, Vespertine - She's always interesting, but this is her best album ever.
28. Gorillaz, Demon Days
29. Libertines, Up the Bracket - They burned out quickly, and the new bands aren't very interesting or good. But for one album, they captured lightning in a bottle.
30. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
31. Atlas Sound, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel
32. Flying Lotus, Los Angeles - Steven Ellison somehow combined hip-hop beats, funky rhythms, and Aphex Twin-like ambience into a coherent sound.
33. The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse
34. DJ/Rupture, Uproot
35. PJ Harvey, White Chalk - Every album is different, but her piano-ballads-with-fragile-soprano album is her most haunting and one of her best, with an emotional core that rivals 4-Track Demos.
36. Vivian Girls, Everything Goes Wrong - The unfortunate backlash against Williamsburg diminished how great and dark this album is. Time will vindicate it.
37. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver - Each album has a couple songs I could do without, but when you write things like "All My Friends," it's hard to go wrong.
38. The Black Keys, Rubber Factory - Akron's finest's finest album (so far).
39. Crystal Stilts, Alight of Night
40. The Knife, Silent Shout
41. M.I.A., Kala
42. Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse - A very, very solid album, and their best of the decade.
43. Walkmen, Bows + Arrows
44. Deerhunter, Microcastle/Weird Era Continued
45. Portishead, Third - Forget Chinese Democracy (you already did? Oh, sorry) - this was the "comeback" album of the 2000s.
46. Alela Diane, To Be Still
47. Gillian Welch, Time the Revelator
48. Sun Kil Moon, Tiny Cities - Probably the best covers album of the decade, gives a new haunting sadness and beauty to Modest Mouse's songs.
49. CSS, Cansei de Ser Sexy - Yes, the lyrics can be silly, but A) English isn't their first language, and B) when your tunes are that grooving and catchy, who cares?
50. Bruce Springsteen, The Seeger Sessions - Another great covers album, but with a very un-Springsteen sound. You can tell it was just recorded live in a home in a few days, and that's a very good thing.

Mr. Trend's 2010 Death List

In spite of the numerous famous people who died in 2009, I managed to only divine the deaths of two, and two of my three centenarians lived while the likes of Michael Jackson, Natasha Richardson, and Brittany Murphy died (as I always say, "they got out while the getting was good"). Maybe 2010 will bode differently. Here are my candidates for this year.

1. Elliott Carter
2. Oscar Niemeyer
3. Billy Graham
4. Zsa-Zsa Gabor
5. Luis Echeverria
6. John Wooden
7. Jorge Videla
8. Jose Alencar
9. J.D. Salinger
10. Abe Vigoda

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top 50 Albums of the 2000s

I was going to do a lengthy discussion of my top 50 albums from the 2000s, but I don't have time before the end of the year. So I'm just going to list them.

A few notes:

1. This list is not hip in any way. See, unlike hipsters, I actually think lyrics are valuable. Stupid lyrics are the equivalent of a kazoo solo in the middle of a rock song. Also, there's a zillion good things I've never heard. You only have so much time in your life. No doubt that some of the rock selections make those with greater facial hair, asymmetrical hair, or square glasses cringe. But I don't care.

2. All genres are mixed up in here--I'm just listing them in the order that I have them in right now.

3. The Drive-by Truckers are clearly the band of the 2000s.

4. It's been an interesting decade for music--unlike other decades, it doesn't seem easily summed up with 1 or 2 bands (say, Nirvana for the 90s or hippie bands for the 60s). A lot going on but nothing that says, THIS IS THE 2000s! This might be a good thing.

5. Generally a solid decade for jazz, bluegrass, and other less popular musical genres.

Anyway, here's the list. We can discuss in comments:

1. Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day
2. Hacienda Brothers, Hacienda Brothers
3. Tom Russell, Borderland
4. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois
5. Cat Power, You Are Free
6. Robbie Fulks, Georgia Hard
7. Alejandro Escovedo, A Man Under the Influence
8. The Postal Service, The Postal Service
9. Don Rigsby, The Midnight Call
10. Joanna Newsom, Ys
11. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
12. Drive-By Truckers, The Dirty South
13. Iron and Wine, The Shepherd's Dog
14. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
15. Beck, Sea Change
16. Billy Bang, Vietnam: The Aftermath
17. Buddy Tabor, Abandoned Cars and Broken Hearts
18. Tom Ze, Estuando o Pagode
19. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
20. Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck
21. Death Cab for Cutie, Plans
22. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
23. James McMurtry, Childish Things
24. Midlake, The Trial of Van Occupanther
25. Wayne Horvitz, Way Out East
26. Eels, Blinking Lights and Other Revelation
27. Emiliana Torrini, Fisherman's Woman
28. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
29. Bill Frisell, Unspeakable
30. The Gibson Brothers, Bona Fide
31. Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight
32. The Blue Series Continuum, The Good and Evil Sessions
33. Matt Sweeney and Bonnie Prince Billy, Superwolf
34. William Parker, William Parker Violin Trio
35. Buddy Tabor, Earth and the Sky
36. Bill Callahan, Woke on a Whaleheart
37. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
38. The Gourds, Cow Fish Fowl or Pig
39. David Budbill, Songs for a Suffering World
40. Sun Kil Moon, Tiny Cities
41. The White Stripes, Elephant
42. Matthew Shipp, Equilibrium
43. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend
44. John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls
45. Irving Fields & Roberto Rodriguez, Oy Vey Ole!
46. Catherine Irwin, Cut Yourself a Switch
47. Panda Bear, Person Pitch
48. Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)
49. Bradley Walker, Highway of Dreams
50. The Decembrists, The Crane Wife

Today in Useless and Empty Analogies

Laker-partisan Marc Stein thinks playing basketball is the same thing as pitching in baseball:

Monta has played all 48 minutes six times this season ... after 20 of 30 MLB teams got fewer than six complete games from their starting staffs last season.
Yes - because nothing says "exact same thing" as running back and forth for 48 minutes, and throwing a ball 92-98 mph 100-120 times. Strain on the legs is the same; effects on the shoulder and elbows is the same; even the time to play each game is the same! It's a perfect analogy!!!

It's fine if you're a partisan of one sport or another, but Stein has apparently decided to show how little he understands about any other sports while talking about them. In other words, Stein often enjoys showing what an idiot he is even while talking about what he knows best, and even by his low standards, he's outdone himself on the stupid here.

DeMint's One-Man War on Labor

Given what almost happened in Detroit, I sure am glad Jim DeMint is holding up Obama's head of TSA nominee because he fears TSA could join unions!

This kind of thing is the real threat the collapse of the Senate as a functioning democratic institution presents to the nation. Filibusters and nominee holds prevents the government from functioning as smoothly as it should, thwarts democratic will, and could endanger national security.

But hey, TSA workers joining unions is a far greater threat than terrorism! And really, aren't union members and terrorists more or less the same thing....

No Love for Cleveland, Example #582,193

In recapping the Lakers' loss to the Suns last night, the Game notes included the following little item: "Phoenix has a victory over the teams with the three best records in the league -- the Lakers, Boston and Orlando." Incidentally, L.A. is 24-6 (.800 winning percentage), Boston is 23-7 (.767), and Orlando is 22-8 (.733). Funnily enough, though, Cleveland is 24-8 (.750), a full game better than Orlando (and neither team played last night, so it's not like that is a sudden shift). I guess that would mean that the three best teams in the league are L.A., Boston, and Cleveland, not Orlando. And in the two (and only) games Cleveland and Phoenix have already played this year, Cleveland handily won both games. So I guess Phoenix hasn't won games over the top three teams in the league this year, and I guess Cleveland has once again been overlooked.

Amazing what a little research can do.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Climate Change Legislation....

...Dead on arrival.

Barring blowing up the filibuster (which must happen), there's no way the Senate is going to get 60 votes here. Between Republicans and coal state producing Democrats, we can forget about it. I imagine a decent climate change package could get about 52 votes in the current Senate.

Something might get passed, and as we see with health care, something is better than nothing. But for a crisis situation where every day makes the problem permanently harder to fix, this underwhelming response will fall far short of making a difference.

Novel Ideas in Politics

I know I've said it before, but at this stage of the game, I just don't really think polls on next year's presidential elections in Brazil are useful. There's still too much time between now and October 2010. And as this report on the latest poll numbers points out, the four candidates it has numbers for aren't even official. Why not? Because "so far none of the Brazilian political parties has formalized its presidential candidates." And it's not because primaries haven't occurred yet; there really aren't primaries in Brazil in the way they operate in the U.S. Imagine that - presidential campaigns that only begin in earnest in the year of the elections, rather than 16 months before the elections. What a novel idea....


Forty-five years ago yesterday, the Cleveland Browns won the last professional sports title the city has seen. That's the longest drought (and has been for quite some time) in cities with three or more professional sports teams. And looking at the Indians' and Browns' current state, unless the Cavs get it this year, that number will continue to grow for a few years. Ah, the joys of growing up a Cleveland fan. But I guess beating the Raiders is a decent start....

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Shorter Jim DeMint: Unions Are Terrorist Organizations

Via Duss, Jim DeMint keeps it classy, even compared to his own standards.

Chris, I am concerned, because it’s related to another issue that we’re dealing with now in the Senate. The administration is intent on unionizing and submitting our airport security to union bosses’ collective bargaining. And this is at a time, as Senator Lieberman said, that we’ve got to use our imaginations, we’ve got to be constantly flexible, we have to out-think the terrorists. And when we formed the airport security system, we realized we could not use collective bargaining because of that need to be flexible. Yet that appears now to be the top priority of the administration. And this whole thing should remind us, Chris, that the soft talk about engagement, closing Gitmo, these things are not gonna appease the terrorists. They’re gonna keep coming after us, and we can’t have politics as usual in Washington, and I’m afraid that’s what we’ve got right now with airport security.

Top Films of the 2000s--Documentaries

One additional film list--a brief look at some great documentaries. Certainly I haven't seen all I need to, but here are 20 I was very impressed with.

1. When the Levees Broke--Spike Lee's film on Hurricane Katrina. Made top 50 films list.

2. Grizzly Man--Werner Herzog's film on Timothy Treadwell, also a top 50 film. 3

3. The Order of Myths--fantastic doc on Mardi Gras and segregation in Mobile.

4. Capturing the Friedmans--disturbing film on child abuse, so-called "recaptured memory" and the justice system.

5. The Fog of War--Errol Morris' profile of Robert McNamara.

6. Sicko--Michael Moore's film on the failures of American health care. Clearly his best film.

7. Manufactured Landscapes--great doc about the photographer Edward Burtynsky and his photos of new industrial nature.

8. China Blue--great doc about a Chinese textile factory. Still wondering how the filmmaker received this level of access.

9. Jesus Camp--about evangelicals, focusing on an evangelical summer camp in North Dakota. The best horror film of the decade. Deeply disturbing, but also very good in that the lead woman was quite pleased with how she and other evangelicals were portrayed. Also, Ted Haggard before he got caught doing meth and having gay sex. He comes across as a real condescending bastard.

10. No End in Sight--Probably the best documentary on Iraq. The 2000s--what a shitty decade.

11. Rivers and Tides--superb documentary on the British nature artist Andy Goldsworthy.

12. The Garden--about an urban garden in south central Los Angeles and how the city steals it from them. Possibly the best look at how power operates on a local scale that I've seen.

13. Up the Yangtze--China, the Three Gorges Dam, rapid modernization, all key themes of the early 21st century. Quite solid.

14. An Unreasonable Man--Fine documentary on Ralph Nader. Presents both sides very well. Reminds us how important he was to late 20th century American history before he gave into his own ego.

15. Crossing the Line--focuses on one of the American soldiers to cross into North Korea. Fascinating stuff.

16. One Bright Shining Moment--the George McGovern campaign. A complex story, though I'd like to see more of a discussion of McGovern's own problems with labor.

17. Our Brand is Crisis--political advisers are scum. James Carville's firm advises a neoliberal candidate for the presidency of Bolivia. Made me want to puke.

18. Street Fight--the Newark mayoral election and a battle between generations of black politics. Think of the differences between Al Sharpton and Barack Obama on a local scale with lots of corruption from the long-standing mayor. Quite interesting.

19. The Agronomist--Jonathan Demme's film on a Haitian reformer and his eventual death. Poor Haiti. Will it ever get better?

20. The Kid Stays in the Picture--totally self-serving look at film producer Robert Evans, but also tremendously entertaining.

Airplane Security

While I suppose there is a psychological need to see the government doing something about terrorist attacks, the response to the attempted Detroit bomber is totally stupid.

Particularly worthless are the rules on international flights saying you can't get out of your seat for the last hour of the flight. Why? What is this possibly going to accomplish? Couldn't a similar bomber just detonate the plane after takeoff? Or in mid-flight? And what's going to happen when babies need their diapers changed? When someone needs to vomit? When someone has continence issues?

The only way to make flights totally safe is to strip-search passengers and to ban them from taking anything at all on the plane. And this is not going to happen. It wouldn't work politically and it wouldn't work for the airline industry.

The real lesson to take from Detroit is that passengers are simply not going to allow a terrorist attack to take place. No one has successfully used an airplane for terror in over eight years. There are several reasons for this of course, and increased airport security probably has made a difference. But the biggest reason is because passengers are going to subdue anyone suspicious. This is one case where we can count on the people to do the right thing--as they did with Richard Reid and as they did this week.

Instead of relying on this, now I have to get to the airport even earlier and be subjected to indignities so that the government can show it's doing something.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Say Hello To Your "Eco-Friendly" Technology

What everyone needs to know about supposed eco-friendly technology, much of which is horribly damaging to the environment.

In Washington, Congress is fretting about the United States military’s dependence on Chinese rare earths, and has just ordered a study of potential alternatives.

Here in Guyun Village, a small community in southeastern China fringed by lush bamboo groves and banana trees, the environmental damage can be seen in the red-brown scars of barren clay that run down narrow valleys and the dead lands below, where emerald rice fields once grew.

Miners scrape off the topsoil and shovel golden-flecked clay into dirt pits, using acids to extract the rare earths. The acids ultimately wash into streams and rivers, destroying rice paddies and fish farms and tainting water supplies.

There are 17 rare-earth elements — some of which, despite the name, are not particularly rare — but two heavy rare earths, dysprosium and terbium, are in especially short supply, mainly because they have emerged as the miracle ingredients of green energy products. Tiny quantities of dysprosium can make magnets in electric motors lighter by 90 percent, while terbium can help cut the electricity usage of lights by 80 percent. Dysprosium prices have climbed nearly sevenfold since 2003, to $53 a pound. Terbium prices quadrupled from 2003 to 2008, peaking at $407 a pound, before slumping in the global economic crisis to $205 a pound.

The biggest user of heavy rare earths in the years ahead could be large wind turbines, which need much lighter magnets for the five-ton generators at the top of ever-taller towers. Vestas, a Danish company that has become the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer, said that prototypes for its next generation used dysprosium, and that the company was studying the sustainability of the supply. Goldwind, the biggest Chinese turbine maker, has switched from conventional magnets to rare-earth magnets.

Executives in the $1.3 billion rare-earths mining industry say that less environmentally damaging mining is needed, given the importance of their product for green energy technologies. Developers hope to open mines in Canada, South Africa and Australia, but all are years from large-scale production and will produce sizable quantities of light rare earths. Their output of heavy rare earths will most likely be snapped up to meet rising demand from the wind turbine industry.

Top Films of the 2000s--10 to 1

10. Tell No One (2006)
The decade's best thriller. Guillaume Canet's film of a man who discovers his wife is still alive after a decade, an unsolved murder for which he is a prime suspect, we can properly describe as Hitchcockian. That's an overused comparison, but this film just takes you along in a rush of adrenaline. Eventually, you just stop figuring it out and allow it to carry you along. I guess a movie like The Usual Suspects might be a useful comparison, but Tell No One is better.

9. Vera Drake (2004)
Mike Leigh's tour de force on an illegal abortion provider in 1950s England who eventually gets caught and sentenced to a prison when a procedure goes wrong. Imelda Staunton plays a character who only wants to help people and is absolutely devastated when her life is destroyed. The opening scene of a rich girl getting an abortion from a real doctor and a poor girl forced into coathanger land is a devastating critique of the connections between class and control over women's bodies, something anti-abortion fanatics never want to talk about. Mike Leigh is a wonderful director and this is his best film.

8. Tony Takitani (2004)
Arguably the most obscure film on this entire list. Jun Ichikawa's adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story is the best film on loneliness I have ever seen. Simple and barely long enough to be considered a feature film, it's 75 minutes leave you absolutely heartbroken and devastated. For the lonely, shy man, could there be something worse than finally leaving your isolation behind, only to have your new life ripped from you by tragedy?

7. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson's fantastic film about oil, There Will Be Blood is probably the best film about America writ large of the decade. Its historical arc, its examination of a core American character, its dissection of greed, resource use, religion, and the growth of the nation--all of this makes it one of the most important pictures of recent years. Daniel Day-Lewis is utterly fantastic in his second role taking on an American archetype (with his role as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York being the other).

6. 2046 (2004)
Wong Kar-Wai's follow up to In the Mood for Love, Tony Leung continues his character from the previous film, floating through life as a man with a broken heart who is unwilling to make any kind of emotional commitment as a result. The filming of his science fiction story only strengthens the great sadness of this film. Utterly wonderful.

5. Yi Yi (2000)
Edward Yang's final film was a huge sprawling movie following an extended family through a year of marriage, affairs rekindled, coma and death, and a young boy learning about the world. The perfect film. The scenes where the father meets his ex-lover in Tokyo and you hear their conversations about the past with the camera following his daughter on her first date may be the single best scene of the 2000s. Absolutely brilliant, one of the must watch films in the genre's history.

4. Talk to Her (2002)
I'm kind of surprised that Pedro Almodovar only has one film on my list--Bad Education and Volver were both quite excellent; had this list extended to 60, the former almost certainly have made the cut. But Talk to Her is Almodovar's crowning achievement. If the scene from Yi Yi described above is the decade's best, I'd probably rank the silent film inside the film, with the man entering the woman's vagina and living there, a scene that both represents unbridled love and the violation of a helpless young woman, as second.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Michael Gondry's adaptation of a Charlie Kaufman script deserves the widespread love it receives. Jim Carrey (who is actually good) and Kate Winslet's failed relationship combines with the use of technology and computer graphics to create a true love film for the 21st century. Never has a film used computer graphics to such a powerful effect--instead of a cheap way to cut corners or visuals for visuals sake, here is a film that takes the new possibilities of technology and uses them to strengthen a story, creating a terrifically powerful piece of art.

2. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Wong Kar-Wai's film of neighbors who realize their spouses (never seen) are cheating with each other is a tour de force of love unfulfilled. The two being cheated upon fall in love themselves, but for reasons of guilt, honor, shyness, etc., refuse to consummate the relationship. Beautifully shot, with more images of women in tight early 60s dresses than I've ever seen. After the failure of My Blueberry Nights, Wong's first film in English, some critics questioned whether Wong had fooled us with his Chinese films and whether his whole body of work was superficial. This is absurd--My Blueberry Nights just isn't good. All directors drop stinkers every now and again. While not every early Wong film works that well, the majority are fine pieces of work, culminating in In the Mood for Love and 2046.

1. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The best film of the 2000s. An absolutely devastating love story in 1960s and 70s Wyoming. Heath Ledger's performance will be remembered forever, while Michelle Williams and Jake Gyllenhall both provide fantastic supporting roles. It's a great film partially because it takes on a taboo-form of love (especially in that time and place), but more because it creates the single greatest love story of the decade.

Another word about Ledger's performance. I talked to people who didn't find it believable, particularly his way of talking and his lack of emotion. I openly scoffed, because I know these people. I'm related to western cowboys. I have an uncle for instance who talks exactly like this. For him, words are something to be avoided at all costs; to speak is a real chore and you'd better listen because he is just going to mumble out the minimum. Ledger nails this type of American and what it must be like for one of them to discover he is a homosexual, deeply in love but unable to follow through with a meaningful long-term, emotionally satisfying relationship.

That Brokeback Mountain lost the Oscar for best picture to Crash, an utterly loathsome movie, is the greatest award show ripoff of the decade. Not only was it the best picture of that year, it is the best picture of the entire decade. One of the great films in history, everyone involved should remain deeply proud of their work until the day they die. If the 2010s bring us to a film this great, this emotionally draining, this honest, and containing this level of performances, I'll be awfully surprised.

That the top 6 films all revolve around failed relationships may be coincidental, or it may say a lot about me.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Vic Chestnutt, RIP

Sad to see such a talented songwriter die like this, even if it happens all the time. He overcame a lot to make it this far. One has to wonder why a quadriplegic would need muscle relaxers, but that suggests he probably wasn't taking them for prescribed purposes.

Top Films of the 2000s--20 to 11

What you all really wanted for Christmas--the next installment of this list!

20. All the Real Girls (2003)
David Gordon Green's excellent story of a relationship in an Appalachian textile town. A simple story, but a very good one. Really one of the most underrated films of the decade.

19. The 25th Hour (2002)
Spike Lee's second finest hour in the 2000s. While not every scene works, and a few are kind of bad, it's Lee at his best, with a great lead character (Edward Norton) and a great secondary character (New York City). The relationship of the film to 9/11 is not strictly necessary but only makes the film richer, capturing a place and time while also capturing a very non-political character within that space.

18. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Alfono Cuaron's breakthrough movie of 2 men and a woman on a trip through Mexico. While I wonder what I'll think of the somewhat over the top narration the next time I watch this, the story is first rate, particularly in its examination of modern Mexican gender roles.

17. You Can Count on Me (2000)
Laura Linney at her finest, in this Kenneth Lonergan film about a single mother who struggles when her fuck up brother comes to town. Mark Ruffalo's performance as the brother almost matches Linney, creating one of the decade's best family drama.

16. Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Stephen Frears' fantastic film about immigrants in London. Scary as hell, great writing, solid acting. In fact, I feel that this is the first of the truly great films of the decade. I love all the films below this, but Dirty Pretty Things reaches another level--that rare 10 out of 10 I give movies on IMDB. Literally flawless

15. Grizzly Man (2005)
Werner Herzog's fascinating documentary about Timothy Treadwell, the lunatic self-proclaimed bear protector eaten by grizzlies. How much of it is true or not remains debatable, but its certainly a great story and one of the best films about environmentalism ever made.

14. Juno (2007)
Jason Reitman's film. Or should I say Diablo Cody's. There's been a huge backlash against Cody after the (supposedly though I didn't see it) Jennifer's Body. Regardless of the qualities of that film, I don't think any backlash should affect how people perceive her work here. It's a great script, accepted without revision, arguably for the first time in film history. Some might say the language is too mannered, and it will be interesting to watch how the film ages. Others criticized Juno at the time for not presenting abortion as a more appealing option, but whatever. She has an abortion and there's no film. Anyway, both Ellen Page and Michael Cera are really great, as are Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. I think the best part of the film might be that whereas most films would paint Garner as a boring woman keeping her man down, here she's the hero in the end.

13. When the Levees Broke (2006)
Spike Lee's tour de force on Hurricane Katrina. One of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Tremendously powerful. Some criticized it for allowing conspiracy theories about the government intentionally making black people suffer to gain credence, but given the history of African-Americans in New Orleans, can't we all see why they might think this, even if it's not true. This is the singular document not only of Katrina but of the Bush Administration, highlighting the utter incompetence, indifference, and negligence of the worst president since Andrew Johnson. Utterly brilliant.

12. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
One of the finest films of the best yearly crop of movies since the 1970s, Cristian Mungiu's film is also the finest yet made in the Romanian film renaissance of the last several years. A great late communist companion to The Lives of Others, 4 Months is the tale of a woman trying to get an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania. Powerful and often deeply frightening, it reminds us of how much life sucked behind the Iron Curtain and how tenuous women's control over their own bodies remain today.

11. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers' finest film of the decade. A lot of hipster critics have pushed The Man Who Wasn't There in their top of the decade lists, but this makes little sense to me. I called it The Film That Wasn't There at the time, and in fact it ranks well below O Brother Where Art Thou and Intolerable Cruelty in the Coen brothers oeuvre. But No County outranks them all. Interestingly, it's probably Cormac McCarthy's worst book, but in part because of that it makes the most sense to turn into a film. Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh is probably the decade's best personification of evil, an issue that was a real problem in the book. But Bardem's cold-hearted malice humanizes that a little bit and brings the film together.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Top Films of the 2000s--30 to 21

30. The Lives of Others (2006)
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck brilliant film about late communist East Germany. Probably the best film about the end of communism, an interesting subgenre. Scary as hell, featuring the late great Ulrich Muhe as a Stasi agent who suddenly gets a conscious.

29. Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian masterpiece. I'm not usually a fan of this type of film, but it's so well-executed and features excellent performances from Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Danny Huston, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

28. 3-Iron (2004)
Kim Ki-Duk's bizarre film about a guy who breaks into people's homes to live there while they are on vacation takes on weird Buddhist aspects that I don't necessarily understand, but create a really fantastic movie.

27. American Splendor (2003)
Biopics usually suck. Oscar voters jump all over them because they are lazy and like to see actors do imitations of people they already love (see Morgan Freeman's likely Oscar nomination for Invictus). But this film about Harvey Pekar captures his spirit, his crabbiness, and how he represents a segment of American alternate culture. The use of animation works great and Paul Giamatti was a perfect casting choice. A really enjoyable film.

26. A History of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg's fantastic film about an ex-gangster who can't leave his old life behind. Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, and Maria Bello are all great, though by the time I saw it, I had heard so much about William Hurt's performance that I found it underwhelming. This could be Cronenberg's finest work.

25. District 9 (2009)
This allegory of immigration to South Africa is the decade's best science fiction movie. Like the peak of the genre, it uses science fiction as a barely veiled attack on current issues. However, I do not recommend eating during the film, as I did.

24. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
The first Apatow film and probably the best. Steve Carrell is utterly hilarious. This film contains all the good and bad parts of the Apatow films--both hilarious off-color jokes, drug humor, and witty dialogue along with a lack of editing and a lot of moralizing. But the positives far outweigh the negatives. Of all the performances in the film, Jane Lynch's might be the funniest. She rarely gets talked about, but she is a brilliant comedian.

23. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo Del Toro's fantasy movie taking place during late 30s Spain, when Franco is putting the hammer down on resistance forces. The fascists only make this movie scarier and the fantasy bits are both visually arresting and emotionally arousing. Really first rate film.

22. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Connoisseurs of martial arts films might scoff at this, but Ang Lee's foray into the genre is close to a perfect film. That it brought a sky-high budget to this often underfunded genre is no bad thing and expanding the genre's international audience should be commended, not scoffed at by snobs. Plus, it's just a great film.

21. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Noah Baumbach's tale of a family falling apart. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are both wonderful as the parents. The movie is touching, sometimes gross, often very funny, and frequently painful to watch. One of the best domestic films of the decade.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lincoln Gordon Dead

Lincoln Gordon, former U.S. ambassador to Brazil, has died at 96. Gordon is one of the early "villains" in the rise of Brazil's military dictatorship. Gordon had made clear throughout the 1963-1964 period that the U.S. was strongly opposed to leftist Joao Goulart, and that it would support a return to "democracy," even if that meant an overthrow of Goulart. When the military began moving against Goulart (whose rise to the presidency was complex), Gordon immediately made clear his support of the movement, and was in communication with the generals who led the initial coup and those who established control after the coup. Fearing popular resistance to the military, Gordon had even convinced Lyndon Johnson to begin sending U.S. ships towards Brazil to support the government. Unfortunately for Brazil, the military set up power with popular support so quickly (and Goulart's administration and support collapsed so rapidly) that the ships never even made it to Brazil; before they were even halfway to Brazil, they were able to turn around, as the military had already established a control that it would not relinquish for 21 years, during which hundreds and even thousands were tortured, and hundreds more "disappeared."

While the U.S. was not directly involved in the Brazilian coup in the way it would be in Chile in 1973 and in Argentina in the late-1970s, its rapid support for the military hinted at the policies that would overlook democracy in the name of anti-Communism in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, and Lincoln Gordon was at the epicenter of these policies in Brazil. Gordon himself openly admitted his role in quickly supporting the generals in 1964 (see here, with thanks to Greg). As a result, while you cannot blame the U.S. for its role in overthrowing a democratic government in Brazil to the same extent that you can in other places, Gordon did play the key role among U.S. actors in supporting that process, and is definitely one of the more villainous characters in the opening act of Brazil's dictatorship.

In Response to Drama over Health Care Reform

So the latest kerfuffle is over whether we should kill the bill or pass it and work on improving it. I honestly haven't had the time to do the poring-over of the Senate bill that I'd like, so I'm not going to stake out hard and fast turf on either side. I will say that mandates and no public option were a huge part of the reason I liked Obama's health care plan better than Hillary Clinton's, and it was an opinion that I fine-tuned for months arguing it on the campaign trail against much louder and better-trained voices like, oh, Paul Krugman's. It's what they have in Massachusetts, and it hasn't worked. David Sirota, on Twitter, called it a Giuliani move: making having no health insurance illegal is sort of like making being homeless illegal--and I agree.

ANYWAY. What is good is that the debate is now squarely between us on the left, and you can't tell who's going to say what based on their supposed position on the bar between ZOMG SOCIALISTS and milquetoast slightly-further-left-than-Ben-Nelson centrists.

And just like the primaries, shit has descended into some nasty personal attacks. Thankfully, since my primary exposure to that shit is on Twitter, and I don't follow too many assholes anymore, I haven't seen so much of it. Instead, it filters through on the sidelines.

I think the bill will probably be passed. I think we have to think long and hard about this, because while we have to fight to get everything good out of the House bill we can into the final bill (which is why the staking out of intransigent positions on the left is GOOD STRATEGY, among other things) we do have to take an honest look at the Senate bill and say: if this is the best it ever gets, is this worth passage? Kind of like getting married--you can't marry the person you hope someone turns into, you have to marry the person they are. (OK, enough folksy analogies from me. Palin I ain't.)

Over recent weeks I've been having this argument/discussion with coworkers and other Really Smart People on the left about what's going on with teabaggers and others. I'm firmly of the camp that says that the left is once again getting out-organized. If we had a solid union movement that educated its members and contextualized issues for them along some sort of class basis, I firmly believe that we'd have less angry incoherent teabag signs and much more protests of the people that deserve it: Wall Street.

So. Jane Hamsher is apparently making common cause with teabagger types in her quest to kill the bill. While I shudder at the thought of trying to make ANY common cause with someone like Grover "drown-government-in-the-bathtub" Norquist, I think that acknowledging the populist anger behind the teabaggers is worthwhile.

For instance. Sure, they're astroturfed. They are also real people who are really pissed off.

So this post this morning, from my otherwise-friend Matttbastard (who also has the luxury of Canadian health care and so has far less a horse in this race than I do) kind of ticked me off.

Ok, so: We have an astroturfed right-wing social movement of sorts (almost singlehandedly keeping the polyester lobby and Lee Greenwood from starving) that, following a TOTALLY SPONTANEOUS RANT on CNBC from Rick Santelli, decided to utilize the angry-shouty bits of Saul Alinsky to get their ugly red state mugs on Hardball every fucking night for several months straight. And this is the (bipartisan) model that Hamsher apparently wants to emulate (nearly 8 weeks after the mission accomplished moment that was NY-23) because “the only difference [between wingnuts and progressives] is the messaging”?

This combines SEVERAL things I hate into one paragraph. "Ugly Red State mugs" well gee, you know what? Those are real fucking people too. I'm so tired of the red state/blue state snobbery I could spit. You know what? I lived in red states. I busted my ass on multiple political campaigns in red states and saw one of them turn blue (Colorado). I've talked to pissed-off overworked people who are just looking for someone, ANYONE to give them a narrative of how they got so fucked--and we haven't been doing it.

Also, since when does anyone who calls themselves a lefty get to snarl and sneer at populist street protest? Sure, I laugh at "look at this fucking teabagger" too, but you know what else I do? I wonder why the fuck we're not out there, because at least those people are putting some effort into it. And to some degree they ARE protesting the right people, even if the narrative they have (ZOMG SOCIALIST!) is just factually wrong.

(See latest Global Comment piece for more on activism being actual work)

Alan Grayson got cheers from nearly every corner of the progressive blogosphere for taking what were essentially right-wing tactics (boil down message to one scare-tactic sentence. Repeat. Refuse to apologize.) to the floor of Congress and the major media outlets. Because it WORKED, it was media-savvy and it was a progressive staking out some turf and refusing to cave in.

So while I disagree with partnering with Grover Norquist, who is no kind of populist and every kind of rich plutocratic asshole, I absolutely don't have a problem with acknowledging that the teabaggers A. have some legitimate grievances and B. are using tactics that get attention. I also don't have a problem with someone staking out a hard and fast progressive position and vowing not to swerve from it.

We got the shitty health care bill we have because progressives refused to do that, while assholes like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson weren't afraid to.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Least Essential Albums

As they do every year, the A.V. Club has spoken, and it is good. Or rather, the list is good; the music?.....well, Creed has a new album out. 'Nuff said.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

An Update on the Honduran Elections

We haven't said much about the election of Porfirio Lobo (save for the possibility of a general amnesty for all actors in the Honduran crisis). Fortunately, the excellent Honduras Coup 2009 blog has been on top of it, with great analysis (including the fact that 100.7% of the votes have been counted, which, suffice to say, seems to indicate that the Tribunal Supremo Electoral is cooking the numbers). Other observations: the vote total was not high enough to give the de facto regime of Micheletti the overwhelming support it hoped to gain, but was not low enough to render the entire election illegitimate, either, leaving Honduras in an awkward position in which "the valid vote count falls in the middle ground between 1.7 and 2.3 million valid votes where Boz suggested both sides could claim victory, as indeed they have."

The possible fraud and the mediocre turnout are not surprising to me. What is particularly intriguing, though, is the possibility for grassroots mobilization in the future based on the events and elections of this year. The number of null and spoiled ballots is also fascinating (including this particular ballot, with the words "Golpistas hijos de puta" ["Coup-leaders sons of bitches/motherfuckers"]). RAJ points out that, after the two main candidates, spoiled/null votes outnumbered the vote total for any of the third-party candidates. What might this mean?

We would suggest that the relevant measure of whether this election met the expectations of the coup regime is somewhat different. Less than 50% of those listed as eligible voted in this election. Of that number, almost 7% turned in ballots that were blank or deliberately spoiled, meaning that the final presidential selection fell to about 43% of the electorate. The trend of alienation from governance that already existed in Honduras intensified with an election that was in no way free and fair.

The big difference this time: hundreds of thousands of people now count themselves as part of a resistance movement that will influence elections in the future. And that includes some large proportion of those who did not vote, or submitted spoiled or blank ballots, as well as those who stayed at home on election day. Porfirio Lobo has no mandate from the people, to add to his lack of influence in his own party and in Honduras' national government.
This could mean nothing. However, it's clear that there is some broad grassroots discontent here, and future parties (including progressive parties) could end up being able to take advantage of this discontent. The fact that half of eligible Hondurans didn't vote also seems that the field could be ripe for a real democratic and progressive alternative to the two parties that generally have ruled in Honduras up to this point. Of course, nothing is certain; Lobo could reign in this discontent through his own policies over the next four years; the global context could shift yet again and affect Honduran politics in ways that are beyond the control of political leaders; or the discontent could just fade away. Still, it's pretty clear that Lobo is in a far from enviable position right now, and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens with this voter discontent in Honduras (and how the government responds) across the following months and years.

Facial Hair of the Weekend

Fransico "Pancho" Villa (1878-1923), general/caudillo in the Mexican Revolution. Villa was a part of Carranza's constitutional forces against Victoriano Huerta. Villa and Carranza had a falling-out over orders Carranza gave that prevented Villa from arriving in Mexico City before Carranza. In 1916, Villa raided Columbus, NM, leading to General John Pershing's useless "expedition" into Mexico to capture Mexico (which in turn elevated Villa's status as a popular hero). Villa finished out the revolution fairly quietly (for him), with minor mobilizations limited to Chihuahua. Upon the Revolution's so-called "end" in 1920, he lived on a ranch in Chihuahua, where he was assassinated while in his car in 1923 (and for those who aren't faint of heart, you can see video footage of the site, automobile, and Villa's bullet-riddled body here).

Top Films of the 2000s--40 to 31

40. Swimming Pool (2003)

Francois Ozon's brilliant sexy mystery film. Charlotte Rampling is awesome as always. Ludivine Sagnier is incredibly hot. Almost a perfect film.

39. Sweet Sixteen (2002)

Arguably Ken Loach's masterpiece. Generally, Loach is better when focusing on the struggles of the working-class and avoiding the more directly political films. This story of a young man from a terrible family trying and failing to get his life together before he gets in real trouble in heartbreaking.

38. Silent Light (2007)

Carlos Reygadas' film about a Mennonite community in northern Mexico where a patriarch is cheating on his wife. Beautifully shot and the characters are respectfully portrayed despite their marginal religion. The opening sequence of the sun rising might be the best opening scene of any film during the decade.

37. Under the Sand (2000)

Another excellent Francois Ozon film, starring Charlotte Rampling as a woman whose husband walks into the sea and dies. Her inability to deal with the loss is one of the most powerful performances of the decade.

36. Persepolis (2007)

A good decade for animation, particularly from Pixar, but Persepolis is the best animated film from the 2000s. I think Pixar is fully capable of a truly great film, but I also don't think they have achieved that quite yet. Perhaps they are dealing with harder material because it is fantasy. But Persepolis' powerful portrayal of a girl escaping repression in Iran and her longing for home when in Europe created one of the best films from the decade's best year of film.

35. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Clint Eastwood is a vastly overrated director, but he sometimes creates good films and this is his best of the 2000s. Far superior than its companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers, this is a fantastic character study of loyalty and a really sympathetic look at the men who killed so many Americans of Eastwood's generation.

34. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Arguably the best film ever made on a disability, Julian Schnabel's movie, based on a true story, about a man who suffered a crippling physical disability that kept his mind 100% intact but allowed him to only move one eye is both a powerful story on the best of people and an incredibly sad tale of a unfair break.

33. George Washington (2000)

David Gordon Green's first film. Although Green has declined in recent years, his early films are fantastic. This superb character study of people in a North Carolina town was a great debut promising great potential. Some criticized this film for not talking about race enough, but this was completely unfair. Not every movie about the South has to address race directly, even if blacks and whites are hanging out all the time together.

32. Exiled (2006)

Possibly the decade's best gangster film, by the underrated Johnnie To, Exiled is about a gang and two sets of hitmen who are supposed to eliminate them. This film highlights the best of Hong Kong cinema--choreographed violence combined with a great story.

31. The Savages (2007)

Dealing with a dying parent is always difficult, particularly when you aren't close to that parent and the children are not so stable themselves. Tamara Jenkins tells this really depressing story with incredible humor, helped out tremendously by the great acting of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, with Philip Bosco as the father. First rate film in every aspect.

Historical Image of the Day

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) picnic, Seattle, July 1919

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ebert on New Agers

Hilarious stuff from Roger Ebert:

New Age beliefs are the Creationism of the Progressives. I move in circles where most people would find it absurd to believe that humans didn't evolve from prehistoric ancestors, yet many of these same people quite happily believe in astrology, psychics, reincarnation, the Tarot deck, the i Ching, and sooth-saying. Palmistry and phrenology have pretty much blown over.

If you were attending a dinner party of community leaders in Dallas, Atlanta, Omaha or Colorado Springs and the conversation turned to religion, a chill might fall on the room if you confessed yourself an atheist. Yet at a dinner party of the nicest and brightest in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and (especially) Los Angeles, if the hostess began to confide about past lives, her Sign and yours, and her healing crystals, it might not go over so well if you confessed you thought she was full of it.

All so true. New Age "beliefs" are such massive bullshit. No more or no less so than creationism, but certainly its equal.

NFL Concussion Study

You mean that you can't trust an industry-run study on the long-term effects of their own working conditions? I am shocked by this.

Top 50 Films of the 2000s--50 to 41

The end of a decade is always a great time for lists. And I love lists.

The next 5 days will have my top 50 movies of the decade. Of course, this list could change by the day. And there's some films that I haven't seen, especially from this year, but from all years. But it's the best I could do.

50. In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Paul Haggis' film was unjustly ignored by a public unwilling to think about the consequences of Iraq. While voters turned against the war because we weren't winning, the last thing a nation enamored of its own kickassitude wanted to think about was the horrors soldiers and their families faced. Clearly the best of the early Iraq War films, Tommy Lee Jones gives a fantastic performance as the father of a soldier killed after his return from Iraq. Also, it was shot in Albuquerque. Of course, so is every film these days, but I do like seeing good actors driving past my favorite restaurants.

49. Summer Hours (2008)

Oliver Assayas' film about a family dealing with the death of its matriarch and what the kids are going to do with her rural estate. Very French in all the good (great acting, good writing) and bad (oh poor France--look what globalization is doing to us!) ways, but also a very solid film.

48. Climates (2006)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Turkish film about a sterile relationship. Very Bergmanesque, which definitely appeals to me. This is exactly the kind of film that separates people who like film and poseurs--its slow pacing and ambiguous ending really irritates those who don't want to think too hard about their films, even if they have reasonably good taste. Like anyone who is exclusionary, you can guess where I see myself.

47. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)

Ken Loach's best film of the decade. About the Irish independence movement and its fractures upon the limited success it achieved in 1920. Literally brother against brother. That Loach frames it this way gets at the less than subtle propaganda his critics accuse him of. They aren't really wrong and Loach is wildly inconsistent, but his commitment to the cause of freedom around the world buys him points. Plus he doesn't take the easy way out in this film, making it very difficult for the viewers to pick sides between the Irish factions--though we can all hate the British. That conservative Britons were pissed at Loach for this film also recommends it.

46. Samaritan Girl (2004)

Kim Ki-Duk might take the title of most interesting director of the decade. With widely varying films, some of which include great violence and other Buddhist meditations, Kim consistently challenges the viewer. Samaritan Girl is about a pair of girls--one of whom becomes a prostitute and the other serves as a sort of pimp. When the prostitute dies, her friend takes her place, but not in the ways you'd expect. A really interesting movie.

45. Kings and Queen (2004)

This is probably about 10 spots too low, but I'm going to go with it. Arnaud Desplechin's parallel story of 2 ex-lovers is just fantastic. Mathieu Amalric is one of my 5 favorite actors of the decade and he certainly shines here.

44. Goodbye Solo (2008)

Ramin Bahrani films about the immigrant experience have been a highlight of American film this decade (such as Chop Shop). His film about an African immigrant working as a tax driver and estranged from his Mexican wife trying to keep a cranky white guy from killing himself by throwing himself off a mountain might scream indie overwroughtness with a less sure director, but Bahrani makes it work.

43. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Perhaps a surprise, but this film holds up to repeated viewings better than most from the Apatow factory. There are some amazingly funny bits through this film. This has been a real strong decade for American comedy (particularly the Will Ferrell films from early in the decade and the Apatow-related films from late) and Forgetting Sarah Marshall is one of the highlights.

42. Head-On (2004)

Another great immigration film Fatih Akin's masterpiece about Turkish immigrants in Germany does a great job getting at the divided identities so many immigrants face. He migrated 20 years ago and has become a drunk. She is the daughter of immigrants who wants to party and have sex but comes from a conservative family. Desperate she attempts suicide, they meet in the hospital, and a fitful and tragic relationship results. If it sounds like a good time, you're right!

41. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

Sidney Lumet's great comeback film (really one of the most underrated directors in American film history) features Philip Seymour Hoffman as a complete sleazeball who convinces his idiot brother (Ethan Hawke) to rob their parents' jewelry store. Mom dies as a result and complications set in. The end may not shock you, but it's a well-executed first-rate film.

Historical Image of the Day

William Seward, Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, 1861-69


Still an self-obsessed egomaniac.

Film Review: Avatar (2009)

Avatar is the 3-D, 22nd century version of Dances with Wolves with blue people. Same use of Noble Savage stereotypes, same white man coming to save the day, same indigenous embracing of the white man as their leader, same story of Europeans destroying indigenous civilizations because of greed, same directorial arrogance.

Yes, it looks cool. But the story is not only a joke, it's borderline offensive. Theoretically, viewers could take this movie and realize we should be more environmentally friendly and treat indigenous people better. But in reality, they are going to watch this movie and then wish we had these weapons to kill brown people in the Middle East.

Technically interesting, but a bad movie.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Eduardo Paes Determined to Destroy Rio de Janeiro through Useless Policies and Class Warfare

This past February, Rio de Janeiro's mayor, Eduardo Paes, launched the first step in his efforts to "clean up" Rio by banning beer vendors on the streets during Carnaval, a drastic and useless move that I hoped would be temporary. When I went to Brazil in June, I had a chance to see just how ugly and damaging Paes's clean-up efforts had become, undoing much of the harmless and enjoyable street life in Rio. Apparently, it has officially become Paes's goal to strip Rio of all of the harmless activities that one finds in public spaces, as he now has launched his assault on the most sacred sites in Rio: the beaches.

Under rules aimed at bringing order to Rio's famous beaches, ball games are among the undesirable activities being curtailed or banned as the city that will host a World Cup and Olympics within seven years seeks to clean up its act. [...]

The beach is just the latest target of a city-wide campaign to bring order to Rio, where traffic and other rules are often seen as optional. Though in place for nearly a year, the effort gained urgency with Rio's selection as 2016 Olympic host.

Rio state this month hired former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who takes credit for cleaning up the Big Apple, to help advise it on the Brazilian city's crime problems. Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes recently told Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, to stop being such "pigs," referring to their habit of leaving piles of garbage on the beach.

The man in charge of carrying out the new policy, public order secretary Rodrigo Bethlam, said the beach's central place in Rio life made the battle for order there crucial.

"The beach is an emblematic place. If we can succeed in organizing the beach, it means we can organize the city," he told Reuters

This is just ridiculous in so many ways (and keep in mind - we're talking about soccer in Brazil - this isn't just some passing hobby among a handful). Firstly, the beaches are in fact public spaces, meaning they are for use by the public. The notion that playing soccer on the beach (in areas that are informally designated as athletic areas) is somehow "disorderly" and cutting into the power of the state is absurd. Secondly, the idea that if you can organize the beach, you "can organize the city" is stupid beyond description. The beach is in no way representative of all of the non-beach aspects of the city - it is a place of leisure for most, and business for an handful. It is not the financial district. It is not the favelas. True, you do get to see the wide income gap play out on the beach, but solving the "problem" of people playing soccer or volleyball on the beach does nothing to address that income gap, nor to address the issues of murderous police, the drug trade, the enormous gap in wealth, or the troublesome and often disgusting racism and classism of Rio's elites and middle class. Cleaning up the pollution on the beaches is a great idea, but again, has nothing to do with pick-up games of soccer. And it's not like there's an absence of space - while the beaches do get crowded on hot weekends, Copacabana and Ipanema alone are 9 km (about 6 miles) long, and Rio has over 50 miles of beaches.

In other words, this is yet another effort on Paes' part to A) "clean up" the city through absolutely useless gestures that accomplish no real good and detract much from the quotidian in Rio, and B) are specifically targeted towards the middle- and upper-class cariocas who lament how the beaches have become so "dirty" in the last decade or so, as the poor from the northern zone had increasing access to the richer southern neighborhoods in Copacabana and Ipanema. It's the worst kind of "high-modernism" one can find - the state's efforts to control everything end up stripping daily life of all of its harmless joys, all so the state can impose its presence in an obvious way that does nothing to deal with the actual substantial economic, social, and political problems facing a city (or country). Paes could use his office to try to improve the social conditions in the favelas and build up a beneficial state structure; instead, he makes sales of beer on the streets illegal at Carnaval. He could try to end the impunity police face as they enter favelas and kill indiscriminately; instead, he wages a war on beach-front soccer. The uselessness and stupidity of this is just mind-boggling.

And the useless enforcement goes beyond just soccer, touching everything that makes beach life enjoyable in Rio:

Among other cherished beach freedoms being withdrawn are sales of food on skewers such as shrimp and cheese that are hawked by entrepreneurs plying the sands. No longer will beach-goers, known here as "banhistas," be able to bring coolers for drinks or play music on stereos.

The main targets of the new policy are the hundreds of "barracas," or huts, that dot Rio's beaches, renting out deck chairs and selling everything from beer to barbecued meat.

Often emblazoned with their owner's name, they are colorful, if chaotic, fixtures of beach life that laugh in the face of sanitation rules but have their own loyal following.

Under the new rules, names or advertisements are out and they must accept being outfitted with all-white tents and equipment that, while smart-looking, are somewhat bland.

You want to eat on the beach? Sorry - that's no longer an option. You'll have to go to one of the high-end restaurants on the beach-front (restaurants that, not coincidentally, the poorer segments of Rio's population who come from the northern part of the city cannot afford). You want to rent a chair to sit on? Sorry - the guy who has a little tent and rents them out isn't allowed to do that anymore. Bring your own (which won't fit on the buses, again meaning that if you're not from that neighborhood, you're out of luck). Are you gay, and do you want to join other gay individuals in their own section of the beach? Sorry - the tents and flags that the gay community set up so others know where to find them aren't allowed, either. In short, Paes, in his increasingly ego-maniacal effort to control Rio, has launched blatant open class and cultural warfare, all in an effort to strip Rio of its vibrancy in the name of "order."

Fortunately, the people have begun overrule Paes on this one.

They are putting in place their own law, but it's wrong," said Marcel Damasceno de Matos, a 39-year-old who said he has worked his patch of Ipanema beach for 10 years.

"I have customers from the United States and other countries who come back year after year and look for my name. Now there's going to be a lot of confusion."

Still, in a country with no shortage of laws but a glaring lack of enforcement, not everyone on the beach is convinced that the shock of order will end up being so shocking.

"The law exists, but you're in Brazil," said Bernardo Braga, a 26-year-old model and student who was playing "keep up" on the Ipanema seafront.

"You just have to walk along here to see all the rules being ignored."

I already hope cariocas elect him out of office at the end of his term (which, unfortunately, is not for another 3 years). He has made it clear that important changes in the social and economic landscape meant to actually better the lives and existence of cariocas is not on his agenda. Instead, he is intent on imposing the state on the most mundane and harmless aspects of life, driving many out of their livelihoods, while issues like police violence, the drug trade, and disparities in wealth continue to plague Rio.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top Cartel Lord Killed in Mexico

I don't follow Mexican politics or the nuances of the drug war as closely as I probably should, but this is big news:

Two hundred sailors raided an upscale apartment complex and killed a reputed Mexican drug cartel chief in a two-hour gunbattle, one of the biggest victories yet in President Felipe Calderon's drug war.

Arturo Beltran Leyva, the ''boss of bosses,'' and three members of his cartel were slain in the shootout Wednesday in Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City, according to a navy statement. A fifth cartel member committed suicide during the shootout.

This in no way means the end of the drug trade, or the end of the cartels' power in Mexico. Still, this is definitely good news for President Calderon, who has been needing good news. And as pc points out, the news is everywhere in Mexico today.

Ruling in Case of Father Whose Son Is In Brazil

A Brazilian court has ruled that David Goldman's son be returned to him. Goldman had married a Brazilian woman who in 2004 took their son (who at the time was 4) with her to Brazil on a "vacation." Goldman's wife remained in Brazil with the son, divorced Goldman, remarried, and died in childbirth. Since her death, Goldman's son had remained with his dead ex-wife's family, and he'd been fighting for years to have his child returned to him. The ex-wife's family had filed numerous appeals (and appears ready to file another), but at the end, this is a pretty clear-cut case in terms of morals and legal standing: regardless of possible language or cultural barriers, the kid should be with his father, from whom he was effectively kidnapped. Hopefully, the Brazilian Supreme Court will uphold the ruling, and Goldman can finally be reunited with his son after 5 years.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Day the Music Died

The Rock Hall of Fame was a joke years ago. But this? ABBA is awful enough (words cannot express the hatred I have for them), but knowing Phil Collins will be inducted in any capacity at the same time? If there is a just god, the rock hall will spontaneously combust and fall into Lake Erie, never to be revived in any capacity.

And Iggy, to answer your question "Am I still cool? Or is that over now?", the answer is, You're getting inducted with ABBA and Phil Collins. That's over now.

(And the fact that some new scrolling message board on google had numerous people declaring ABBA the "best rock group ever" without tongue planted firmly in cheek is just one more bit of evidence that parody is dead.)

Honduras: one bad apple, etc.?

I usually don't wade into the depths of Latin American politics around here, mostly because Trend and Erik do it so much better than I do. So I still don't have a heck of a lot to say on the subject--but I thought I'd share this from my day job.

GRITtv: Will the coup in Honduras create larger problems for Latin America? What will its effects mean for the rest of Latin America, a region trending leftward in recent years? Greg Grandin, Nation contributor, NYU professor, and author of Empire's Workshop and Fordlandia, Roque Planas of Latin American News Dispatch, and Sujatha Fernandes, Queens College professor and author of Cuba Represent! and the upcoming Who Can Stop The Drums: Urban Social Movements in Chavez's Venezuela join us in studio to discuss. We also have updates from inside Honduras from Andres Conteris of Nonviolence International and Democracy Now! and freelance journalist Elyssa Pachico reports from Chile.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Facial Hair of the Weekend

Venustiano Carranza (1859-1920). Carranza became political leader of Mexico in 1914 upon the overthrow of Victoriano Huerta. Carranza marked a return of revolutionary leadership (and amazing facial hair) to the presidency, but was unable to satisfy the forces of Emiliano Zapata to the South, Francisco "Pancho" Villa to the north, and increasingly later in his term, his own generals, whom he did not want running for president in 1920. While Carranza did push through major reforms during his time in office, his term was also marked by corruption. Carranza was assassinated by one of his former general's supporters in 1920 as he tried to flee Mexico City.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Historical Image of the Day

Calf ropers, Nevada, 1978

Breakdowns in Negotiations Over Zelaya's Status in Honduras? Shocking!

Color me unsurprised:

A plan for the ousted Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, to leave the country for Mexico ran aground late Wednesday when negotiations over his safe passage fell apart, the leader and the Mexican authorities said.
As the news about Mr. Zelaya’s possible departure spread, along with considerable confusion, his supporters gathered outside the police barricades erected in the streets surrounding the Brazilian Embassy, where he has been a virtual prisoner since September.
In an interview with the Mexican TV network Televisa, Mr. Zelaya said that the de facto government had placed a “denigrating” condition on his departure from Honduras, offering him safe passage out of the embassy only if he would seek political asylum. He added that he has not asked for political asylum.
Wow. Efforts between Micheletti and Zelaya to come to a negotiated conclusion over something ended in no results, miscommunication, and a dogmatic refusal to bend to any type of agreement on the part of Micheletti? This has never happened before!

More seriously, Greg is saying (and the Times article backs this up) that Zelaya isn't opposed to leaving; he just doesn't want it to be as a political asylee. The fact that the Micheletti government has decided to stonewall on a point that means very little to it (it's gone in a few weeks), but so much to Zelaya, is just symbolic of how incompetent and authoritarian the Micheletti regime has been. A refusal to give in to any negotiations that cause you no harm but are beneficial to your opponent while insisting all of your own demands be met is not negotiating. Micheletti pretty much alienated everybody who wasn't a political elite pal of his a long time ago, but his shtick got old months ago. Hopefully, history will remember what a reprehensible, unbending, undemocratic, authoritarian "leader" he was for the six months he served as the head of a government that overthrew a democratically elected president.

The Favelas, Infra-Structural Development, and the Eco-Wall: Good and Bad Manifestations of the Brazilian State

To build on Erik's post below, I wanted to add a little more on the so-called "eco-wall" put up around a favela in Rio. In addition to the report that CNN put up (it was actually the major story on when I woke up yesterday morning, much to my shock and satisfaction, as stories about the favelas, and particularly the repression they face, are usually buried deep within CNN's site), there was another report that involved eyewitness journalistic accounts of the favela, which was not too far from where I lived in Rio (within 10 minutes, I could see the favela, and within 20 minutes, I could be in it).

For all of the talk of how "violent" the favelas and their residents are, I thought this part of the journalist's account was worth highlighting:
According to officials it’s an “ecobarrier” built to protect the surrounding rainforest, but a lot of people we talked to were offended.

They felt they were being caged in and saw it as an attempt to further separate the crime-ridden slums from the affluent condos on the beaches below.

But what struck me was just how safe Santa Marta was.

When I lived in Rio eight years earlier it was unthinkable to enter any favela without a police escort.

At night you could hear shoot-outs between rival drug gangs and nearby neighborhoods complained of “lost bullets” that tore through their homes while they slept.

That’s changed with Rio’s “pacification” plan. Santa Marta is one of the favelas that’s been occupied by police. They built a permanent headquarters in the community and have set up checkpoints where gangs used to sell drugs.

We actually saw very few police when we hiked along the winding paths, but the sense of security was palpable.

I commented on this "'pacification' plan" a couple of days ago. I don't know how "accurate" this journalist's report is - it is possible that it was just a particularly peaceful time when he was there, or that this was "pra ingles ver" ["for the English to see"], as they say. Still, I think there's a very real chance that his sentiment reflects the broader atmosphere in Santa Marta, and if what he saw and felt were the permanent conditions in Santa Marta, then I think the new approaches of the police may actually be working, at least in this favela. I've long said that infrastructural development in the favelas would be central to a shift in the policy towards Brazil's poor and marginalized; it seems that Santa Marta has only reinforced that suggestion.

That said, I think the eco-wall is absolutely the wrong kind of infrastructure to establish in the favelas. As I said in comments to Erik's post, I think the problems with the eco-wall are twofold. It was nearly impossible for Santa Marta to spread into the forest due to its location - the mountains around it are simply too steep. While the favela did manage to creep into a part of the mountains, the settled area is already steep enough that they have to have a tram to take residents from the bottom of the hill to the top. In that part of Rio (Botafogo), the mountains simply are unable to even support favelas, so deforestation for settlement is near impossible. My second problem (as much with the article Erik originally commented on, as well as the broader question at hand) is that it treats eco-protection and segregation as an "either/or" proposition, when it's not. It's absolutely possible (and, in this case, likely) that you could do eco-protection while (further) marginalizing sectors of society. Ultimately, this to me is segregation, plain and simple: where Santa Marta is located butts up against the federally protected forest of Tijuca, which is the largest urban forest in the world. What is more, Santa Marta simply cannot expand, and really hasn't - it was the same this past summer when I went to Brazil as it had been when I was first there in 2005. If this were an earnest effort to protect the environment without segregating the poor, it would have happened elsewhere in the city - not Botafogo.

Given the new tactics in São Paulo and the apparent success (though I'd like to see more reports) of the new tactics in Santa Marta, I feel that for the first time, there is a not-illegitimate hope that the violence in the favelas may have a real chance to decline. To re-state my original skepticism, the fact that Santa Marta is one of over 1000 favelas in Rio alone means there is a very long way to go. Still, these efforts indicate that, for the first time ever, the federal state and state government of Rio may actually be taking measures to establish infrastructural improvements that could decrease the violence. But eco-walls like the one in Santa Marta are counterproductive, as they produce no real benefits and antagonize residents that the state is trying to win over.