Here's what I've been watching, reading, and listening to in 2010. I realize the movies are heavily weighted to foreign films, and that's not because I am trying to come off as erudite. It is because they were, for the most part, the best films I saw this year. Look for a more complete "tour music" playlist in the summer of 2011, around the publication time of my upcoming novel, The Cut.
The Secret in Their Eyes, dir. Juan Jose Campanella (2009)
Expertly crafted Argentinean drama about a decades-old rape and murder case, the obsessions of those who chased it, and the love story of two of the principals who were caught up in its wake. A superbly acted and scripted film that takes on that most difficult and most elusive subject, the passage of time. Once seen, this picture will not easily leave your mind.
A Prophet, dir. Jacques Audiard (2009)
French gangster film detailing the rise of a hoodlum in a prison divided by Corsicans and Muslims. If you think you've seen his kind of thing before, trust me, you will be surprised. A Prophet is a knockout.
The Baader Meinhof Complex, dir. Uli Edel (2008)
Documentary-style dramatization of the exploits of the Red Army Faction (RAF), an anti-imperialist terrorist organization that perpetrated bombings, murders, and bank robberies in Germany in the 1970s. Graphically violent, sexy, with the velocity of a thriller, this film will entertain you as long as you don't look for the "why" behind the group's actions. Internet opinions on this picture are wildly divergent, fueled no doubt by a right/left perspective, but politics aside this is undeniably a powerful piece of filmmaking in the tradition of Z and Battle of Algiers. With Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof, Mortiz Bleibtreu as Andreas Baader, and a supporting cast of good-looking, energetic young German actors in various states of undress.
The Lives of Others, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, (2006)
Set in the former East Germany, whose secret police spied on, persecuted, and imprisoned many of its citizens, this is a stunning drama involving the surveillance of a couple whose loose socialist associations in their artistic community threaten to destroy them. They are bugged by a state intelligence officer who begins to see them as human beings rather than prey. I recommend this without reservation to any viewer, even those who don't usually go for subtitled films. Featuring the lovely Martina Gedeck, also of Baader Meinhoff, who is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses. The director went on to helm The Tourist, but don't hold that against him.
The Chaser, dir. Hong-jin Na (2008)
South Korean thriller about a dirty cop-turned-pimp (Yun-seok Kim) who tries to find the serial killer who is murdering the women in his stable. Based on a true story, this features high production values, kinetic craftsmanship, a complex protagonist and interesting peripheral characters. Korean filmmakers have truly come into their own these past few years, what with the Vengeance Trilogy by Chan Wook Park (most famously, Oldboy), Joon Ho Bong's Memories of Murder, Je-gyu Kang's epic Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, and Ji-woon Kim's delirious The Good, the Bad, the Weird. A national cinema worth checking out.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, dir. Andrew Dominik, (2007)
Based on the novel by Ron Hansen, this is a tone-poem Western reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film from the 1970s. Brad Pitt, whose good looks have tended to overshadow his talent as an actor (much as they did his spiritual predecessor, Robert Redford), plays the doomed James. Casey Affleck is astonishing as Robert Ford, "that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard." At three hours, Assassination is a hypnotic experience and true art. It made no impact at the boxoffice at the time of its botched release but it's a film for posterity. With an excellent Sam Rockwell as Charlie Ford, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepherd, Garret Dillahut, and Paul Schneider. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Painterly cinematography by the great Roger Deakins.
Hickey and Boggs, dir. Robert Culp (1972)
Two down-on-their-luck private investigators (Bill Cosby and Robert Culp) bite off more than they can chew in seedy Los Angeles and unwittingly set off a chain of violent events. Viewers expecting an I Spy-style romp were disabused of that notion when they first saw this dark, sun-baked noir written by genre master Walter Hill. Hickey and Boggs was hampered by a low budget, has pacing issues, and could have used a stronger editor, but it is one of many golden-age crime films (The Outfit, Charley Varrick, Rolling Thunder) well worth seeking out. Cosby was an ice-cool dramatic actor when he got a shot at it, and Culp is one of those guys who should've been a bigger movie star but always seemed to miss the major opportunities (see the recently reissued Hannie Caulder, with Raquel Welch, for another taste of what he could do as a leading man). This was his only film as a director and the guy had talent. Hickey features solid acting by the then-young Michael Moriarty, James Woods, Vincent Gardenia, Roger E. Mosley, Rosalind Cash, and the late great stunt driver, Bill Hickman, here under the wheel of a GTO and a Challenger. A final note: the DVD of this film was released in atrocious condition and should be avoided at any cost, but you can stream this on Netflix and the presentation is fine.
Crime Wave, dir. Andre de Toth (1954)
Obscure but highly-regarded crime film from journeyman Andre de Toth, resurrected as part of the Warner Brothers noir collection, is a study in efficient, low-budget storytelling with a terrific cast and time-capsule L.A. locations. Tough-guy cop (farm-boy stud Sterling Hayden) strong-arms gone-straight ex-con Gene Nelson when Nelson's former associates come to Los Angeles to rob a bank. Ted de Corsia (The Killing) and an uncharacteristically animated Charles Bronson (billed as Charles Buchinsky) play the heavies. Phyllis Kirk is Nelson's dish wife, and bonkers Timothy Carey offers another one of his brief but memorable turns as Johnny (watch what he does in the edges of the frame). With Jay Novello as an alcoholic veterinarian who gets bounced around his office by Bronson while the dogs bark their heads off. Dub Taylor and John Ford favorite Hank Worden round out the players. At 73 minutes this is well worth your time. Netflix pairs Crime Wave with Decoy (1946, dir. Jack Bernhard) on the same DVD. This picture has garnered a reputation for the wild performance of Jean Gillie, who plays a black widow spider to the hilt, but its ridiculous plot, inept direction, and comically melodramatic score negate any of its positives. You've been warned.
Triple Crossing, by Sebastian Rotella
There have been many south-of-the-border/drug war novels, but this is the best one I've come across by a mile. Rotella, a noted investigative journalist, has a professionally-honed eye for detail that is evident on every page. This alone is impressive, but he also possesses a talent for character and narrative drive that elevates this story to the level of epic greatness. Coming in August, 2011.
Next, by James Hynes
Hard to describe this day-in-the-life novel without making it sound dry. It is anything but. Next is very funny and builds to an unexpected, tour-de-force finale that is deserving of a standing ovation. You will be awed.
Young Junius, by Seth Harwood
Another novel that takes place over the course of one day, but in an entirely different milieu. Man-child Junius, 14, is in search of his brother's murderer which takes him on an odyssey through the projects of Cambridge, Mass. The plot moves but you will be most taken by the complexity of the large cast of characters. Harwood does not revert to type.
Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes
There's a reason this big Vietnam War novel made such an impression on the public consciousness. It is a deep and devastating achievement. The author is a decorated Marine veteran who fought in the war.
Dogfight, A Love Story, by Matt Burgess
An astonishingly assured debut novel, set in Queens, by the gifted Mr. Burgess, who blends tones expertly and gets all the voices right.
A Drop of the Hard Stuff, by Lawrence Block
For my money, no one writes a better private detective novel than Mr. Block, and his Matt Scudder books, taken as a whole, are classics. In Drop, a childhood friend of Scudder's tries to atone for his past sins, causing a ripple effect of violence. This new entry is a look back in the tradition of his masterpiece When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, and a very fine addition to Block's body of work. Put down the trendy, translated crime novel you're struggling with and pick this up to see how it's done for real. Block is the modern hardboiled master. To be published in May, 2011.
Lean on Pete, by Willy Vlautin
Only the stonehearted will go unmoved by this story of a boy and his horse on the run in the Pacific Northwest. Vlautin is an American original.
The Wagon and Other Stories from the City, by Martin Prieb
Preib, an officer in the Chicago Police Department, wrote this collection of essays on his experiences and the lives of working class people in the city. His first job on the force was to drive a wagon which picked up drunks, transported criminals to lockup, and delivered dead bodies to the morgue. The author is unafraid to show emotion on the page. What you get is that rare memoir that tells the truth.
The Good Wife
Eastbound & Down
The Black Keys have been in heavy rotation in my house for awhile. I'm into their tube-amp, retro sound, like the best-two piece band that ever played in your basement. For the uninitiated check out their records Thickfreakness, Attack & Release and Brothers. Then move on to this collective project, Blakroc, which is a hip hop/live instrument set featuring core players Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney, with guests Billy Danze, Jim Jones, Mos Def, Nicole Wray, Noe, Pharoahe Monch, Q Tip, Raekwon, and RZA. You need this for your next party.
The Hold Steady
This is the band I've returned to most the last couple of years. They go hard at it, both on record and on stage. Their lyrics tell stories that reference drugs and religion, often at once, and feature damaged characters who reappear throughout the catalogue. This is the soundtrack of a literate dude who hangs out in bars, the streets, and smoke-filled apartments, and is bright enough to ask tough questions about the lives that he and his friends are leading. The narrator is a participant, not a voyeur, and the distinction is important. You'll hear a little E-Street influence in the David Sancious-era keyboards and Bruce-like vocals (that's a complement) but these guys have made their own mark. A partial playlist for your personal stereo would have to include "The Swish," "Most People Are DJs," "Hot Soft Light," "Chill Out Tent," "Banging Camp," "Slapped Actress," "How a Resurrection Really Feels," "Multitude of Casualties," "The Smidge," "Hurricane J," and the haunting power ballad, "Lord I'm Discouraged." Nice to get into an actual rock band these days, when what passes for rock is a group like Arcade Fire, who to me sound like Abba (that's not a complement). I don't want strings or disco-ball bass. Give me guitars, intelligent writing, and Marshalls stacked to the sky. The Hold Steady does it right.
Music from Eastbound & Down
My favorite television show this past year contained some terrific music, much of it from the penultimate episode. If you enjoyed the show as much as I did, and you'd like to relive some of those immortal, Kenny Powers moments, here are three tracks that you might want to download:
"Comforting Sounds," by Mew
"He's Alright," by Kurt Vile
"Blue Blood Blues," by The Dead Weather