I’m having a difficult time believing it is ‘that time of year’ again. Time seems to move so fast. 2013 may have zipped by much too quickly but not without encountering great food and film that deserves mention. Behold, my second annual ‘best of’ list, with the usual extras.
Movies first! 2013 was terrific for cinema. Sure there were a few absolute train wrecks, including one of the worst movies ever, ever, ever made. It’s about a lawyer everyone calls counselor and a drug deal and beheadings and sex with — not on — a car, and long rambling monologues that make you want to shoot yourself in the head. It’s so bad, like Lord V, it is the movie that must not be named.
Still, I’ve been blessed to see many terrific, often wildly original movies. My favorites:
Intense, brutal, devastating, demanding. Prisoners is not the feel good movie of the year, which is one the reasons, even though it received excellent reviews, it is being overlooked in many ‘best of’ lists. Don’t make a mistake and miss this methodical, intricate, morally complex mystery. Why is it so good? First there’s the script: rarely have I encountered a script so tightly woven. Each word and every plot point matters, there is nothing extraneous. The script also packs an emotional wallop and works on many levels. It’s a surprising mystery with red herrings galore, a very complex morality tale with no easy answers (it’s up to the audience to draw conclusions regarding the characters and their actions) and it is a piercing character study, with some of the best acting of the year. Hugh Jackman is astounding. The guy is of course insanely talented. I’ve seen him twice on stage singing his heart out, charming everyone in view. I’ve seen him dark and mysterious. But I never suspected he could go to the angry emotional depths of this film. His performance is ferocious and dangerous, keeping the movie on a trigger wire. He’s matched by Jake Gyllenhaal who has the less showy role but whose work is just as deep and profound. Prisoners had me so overwrought on first viewing I almost left the theatre towards the end, my stomach was in such knots over the possible outcomes of the story. When it was over, I left the theatre and went straight to a bar for a shot of whiskey to calm down. That may not be the most enticing recommendation, given we usually go to the movies for fun and frivolity. Trust me. If you have not yet seen it, check it out. Not only do the intricacies of the mystery hold up on repeated viewing, it will resonate deep into your soul.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
I didn’t think any movie could match Prisoners as ‘best of the year.’ And then I saw The Coen Brothers latest. Like most Coen Brothers movies, Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. The movie focuses on one of the most dislikable characters ever to be seen in a motion picture, at least on paper. Llewyn Davis is a dick. The movie does little to redeem him. Which makes the lead performance of Oscar Issac that much more astounding. Issac somehow keeps us interested and engaged in Llewyn, as do the innumerable gifts of The Coens, two of the best filmmakers ever. Ever. Every scene is perfection. The movie is stunningly shot, the directing spot on. T-Bone Burnett supervised the music, so of course the music is incredible… and I don’t even like folk music! The acting across the board is as good as can be. (Is there anything better in life than John Goodman delivering Coen Bros. dialogue? I think not.) Somehow, even though the main character is an asshole and the plot a bit of a downer, the movie was joy to me. I laughed constantly, happy to watch such impeccable filmmaking. I also loved what the movie had to say about art, the struggle to be an artist and also the struggle to live. Beautifully crafted and surprisingly rich in meaning, this ranks with the Coen Brothers best.
For an excellent, relatively spoiler free 7 minute video about the making of the film and the music, click here.
I didn’t think any movie could match Prisoners and Inside Llewyn Davis as ‘best of the year.’ And then I saw Spike Jones’ latest. “her” might be Spike Jones’ best which is saying a lot since, like the Coen Brothers, he already has directed a number of terrific films. her is breathtaking. It’s a lyrical, charming romantic comedy that also is continually unsettling. The plot sounds silly… a guy falls in love with the voice on his computer. Yet Jones pulls this not quite a fantasy off beautifully. The depiction of the very, very near future is genius and repeatedly hits home. We are not far off from this gorgeous, disturbing vision of the future. As the lead, Joaquin Phoenix yet again leaps off a cliff and yet again proves himself one of the best actors alive today. Much of the film consists of close ups of his face as he interacts with his OS system named Samantha, perfectly voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Yet Phoenix keeps us riveted. He makes it look all too easy. But so does Spike Jones, who also wrote the clever screenplay that, like the movies above, ends up being deep and profound.
For a wonderful article about the movie, by one of my favorite writers, Mark Harris, click here.
I hate 3-D yet two years running a 3-D movie has made my ‘best of’ list. I wrote last year that Life of Pi would revolutionize the way movies were made. Damned if Alfonso Cuaron didn’t revolutionize filmmaking again this year with Gravity. While Prisoners is a two and a half hour, deliberately paced thriller, Gravity is a bullet of a movie, clocking in at 90 minutes with nary an ounce of space in which to catch your breath. See it in 3-D Imax if you can, there’s never been a movie like this visually, it’s a stunner. (Chances are it will hit Imax again when the Oscar Nominations come out. Don’t miss it.) Having just watched the movie at home on a screener, I can affirm that the emotional core of the movie holds up even on a smaller screen. For those interested, this an excellent 5 minute behind the scenes video about how the movie was made: click here.
As wonderful as any movie released this year, Before Midnight, the entire ‘Before Trilogy’ and the brilliant work of Richard Linklater deserve a solo post. I’ll write this up in a few weeks but in the meantime, if you’ve not seen any of these movies (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, in that order) start watching.
I’ve not even mentioned many other wonderful films that came out this year: American Hustle, Enough Said, Short Term 12, 12 Years A Slave, Mud, Saving Mr. Banks, The Way Way Back, Dallas Buyers Club, Rush, Catching Fire, The World’s End, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Conjuring, World War Z, Star Trek Into Darkness, Upstream Color, The Impossible… and there are a number of good films I haven’t yet had time to catch. What a great year for film!
It was also a terrific year for books. I’ve already written about two of my favorite books of the year: NOS4A2 and The Fault In Our Stars. Do not miss either of these. But there are more!
Another intricate mystery, Night Film is one of the creepiest novels I’ve read in years. The plot concerns a journalist who is obsessed with a cult filmmaker; the novel combines the best of literature and film. It’s not horror, don’t worry, but it still manages to get under the skin. Extremely well written and imagined, be sure to get the actual hand held book for this particular title, not a kindle or iPad edition. Part of the genius and fun of Night Film is the actual book, the manner in which it is written and laid out on the page.
I think it’s safe to say even the most ardent of Stephen King fans, of which I am one, groaned inwardly when he announced he was writing a sequel to The Shining. In a career of many great books, including his masterpiece of last year, 11-22-63, The Shining is one of his best. How could a sequel to this great novel be anything but a disappointment? Oh we of little faith. The master did it again. Doctor Sleep, in King parlance, is a damn fine book, much better than most I’ve read in the last few years. It picks up with Danny years after the events of the first book. Danny, no surprise, is an absolute mess. Doctor Sleep combines a suspenseful and scary plot with a moving character study of a man struggling to face and beat his demons. King’s own personal addiction struggles, which he overcame years ago and about which he speaks publicly, enabled him to write about Danny’s life with heartfelt depth. King remains one of our best writers. With his son Joe Hill nailing it yet again this year with NOS4A2, the King family is certainly riding high. Amen and keep going gentlemen. And thanks for such great pleasures in your work.
One of my best of 2012 was a sharp and extremely enjoyable novel, The Last Policeman, the first in a planned trilogy. Countdown City is book 2 and is even better. A modern day riff on a Raymond Chandler detective novel, the trilogy centers around an enormously likable main character trying to stay sane and solve mysteries while the world, with a planet ending meteor on the way, collapses around him. As with the first novel, the author’s depiction of a humanity that knows everything will end soon is surprising and smart. The mystery again works great. Ben Winter’s writing is humorous and heartfelt. Check out this trilogy, #3 is on the way. (If the idea of a classic Rosemary’s Baby type novel combined with Grand Guignol horror appeals, check out another Winters novel called bedbugs. Awesome.)
THE GODS OF GUILT
Michael Connelly is amazing. Book after book after book is published and he doesn’t falter. I’ve read everything he’s written, all 30 some-odd, and have enjoyed every single one of them. While all are good, sometimes he writes a killer novel. The Gods of Guilt is such a killer, one of his top 5 of all time. It’s also one of the best courtroom thrillers ever written. I love courtroom thrillers as I’m obsessed with the law: I almost went to law school to become a prosecutor and I tear through any legal thriller I can find. This book, another in his great series about “The Lincoln Lawyer”, is one of the best legal thrillers I’ve ever read. The second half of the novel is pure courtroom drama, with twists and turns and much fun to be had. You don’t have to have read any of his books to enjoy this. Pick it up ASAP and have a ball.
ROASTED SWEET POTATO SALAD with CHUTNEY VINAIGRETTE
Of all the new dishes I tried this year, this was my favorite. I only just made it for the first time for Christmas Dinner. Wow, is this good! A spicy-sweet recipe meant to counter the classic sweet potato preparation we all love, the layered tastes in this dish are wonderful. It was a huge hit at the table. Give it a try, it’s perfect year round. Recipe can be found here.
I’ve been hyping this repeatedly on the Facebook Page so I might as well hype it here as well. This chocolate bark is about as easy to make as anything you will ever cook. Better yet, it is The Bomb. And it’s healthy! Tom Faglon sent this into the New York Times, winning an award and being invited in to make a video, which you can see here. I’ve made it 3 times this season and can’t stop eating it… and I don’t even much like sweets, as discussed here. Click the picture above to find my recipe of the bark. With no added sugar, this is indeed a very healthy dessert, given good quality dark chocolate is an antioxidant and pomegranate seeds ain’t too shabby in the health department either.
SAVING THE SEASON
I’ve already written about some of my favorite cookbooks I discovered this year, Jerusalem, Tender and Ripe, in this post. Kevin West’s Saving The Season is also one of the best of the year. Easy to read, extremely informative and gorgeous to peruse, it’s the best reference book I’ve ever seen about how to can, jar, pickle and jelly. This beautifully crafted book is made to be off the shelf in the kitchen forever, not only when in use to cook but to read and learn from. Check it out, it’s terrific.
P.S.: You can also follow Kevin West’s excellent blog here.
In 1992 I went to see a movie, Howard’s End, that was getting raves. It starred Anthony Hopkins and an actress I’d never seen before in a movie. 2 hours later I emerged from the theatre in love with Emma Thompson. I’ve been in love ever since.
What can’t this woman do? She’s a great actress of course, winning the Oscar for Howard’s End as well as being nominated numerous times since. I’ve seen all of her performances and she most always is spot on. Even when in a supporting role, such as in the brilliant In The Name Of The Father, she shines. She also is a terrific comedienne. She’s warm, funny and wonderful even in Junior, about Arnold Schwarzenegger having a baby, for goodness sakes. And she is a terrific writer, winning an Oscar for her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. Check the end of that movie for one of the great screen acting moments of all time, courtesy, of course, of Emma. Her adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning play Wit is just as good. Don’t miss that devastating performance either.
Why the Emma love right now? Because damned if she didn’t do it again this year. Emma stars with Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks, a very enjoyable movie about the making of Mary Poppins. The movie is sweet. Or, well, mostly sweet. It’s crafted impeccably to be an audience pleaser of the highest order. Yet Emma, playing the cantankerous real life P. J. Travers, author of Mary Poppins who gave Walt Disney and his creative team the challenge of their lives, gives the movie an edge. Her performance is terrific. She’s very funny but at the same time has a darkness underneath that keeps leaping out. Thompson never goes for sentimentality or the easy choice. She also seems not to care if the audience likes her, a rare trait in an actor. She plays it real, grounds the movie, and gives Saving Mr. Banks an unexpected depth. Once again she knocks it out of the park.
AMY and JENNIFER (and David)
I don’t need to say much about Jennifer, she’s had an amazing year and much has been written about her. An Oscar, kicking ass yet again in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, interview after hilarious interview that causes the public to love her more… yet she astounds again with a deliriously insane yet true performance in David O Russell’s smashing piece of popular entertainment American Hustle.
Also giving an incredible performance in American Hustle is Amy Adams, who also has had one hell of a year. She was one of the few good things in the major disappointment Man Of Steel. She is pitch perfect in her, which we discussed above. And then there’s American Hustle. Amy Adams has been a revelation ever since her debut in one of my favorite film, Junebug. (It’s a must see.) Her work with David O. Russell, though, brings out a dangerous quality that can be very surprising. In The Fighter, she was tougher than we’ve ever seen. And when the hellion 5 sisters came to beat her up, I was scared for the sisters. She is just as edgy in American Hustle. Case in point is a terrific monologue she gives to Christian Bale about halfway through Hustle where no one, not even the audience, can trust what she is saying or figure out what are her motives. Amy rocks. So does Jennifer. Both of these women are on their way to being in the screen actor hall of fame.
And then Mr. Russell… ok, wow, three for three: The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, each my favorite movie of their respective year, and now American Hustle, an outrageous American comedy unlike anything that’s been on the screen in a long while. David O. Russell is working at the peak of his powers. His direction is sharp, often unobtrusive, and his work with actors is extraordinary. I guess there are directors currently who are as good but no one is better.
I love this guy. If you want to know why, read a terrific interview with him by clicking here.
I’d love to hear your favorites of the year in the comments section below, or chime in with your opinion of my choices. And Happy New Year! May we all have a terrific 2014.