I’m not going to limit myself entirely to things from this year because a) I cant find that many things I liked, and b) those lists tend to hold the present in dubiously high esteem. Nor am I aiming to be other than piecemeal here. This is just what’s coming to me today.
1. Two movies (that didn’t come out this year) that I liked:
I find film in particular pretty disappointing these days. Even the buzzy ones by David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and Christopher Nolan make me think today’s directors only know how to make one kind of film. They’re like the dancer in Black Swan - rigorously controlled and technically perfect, but without spontaneity, freedom, or surprise.
But I really liked some older movies I saw for the first time this year, especially…
Very extreme, high-strung performances from Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. Every scene is pitched at peak intensity. This movie goes for broke and often verges on ecstatic silliness. I was awestruck.
Meyer: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
What I liked was Meyer’s editing. Some scenes, like the nightmarish party sequence near the beginning where everything seems cut too early and too curtly, the soundtrack and the image always at odds, have a randy poetry to them. And there’s a pretty funny script, courtesy Roger Ebert.
2. Some music I liked, or kind of liked, (from this year) this year:
I can’t claim to have had much of an overview this year; I didn’t go out of my way to listen to stuff like I have in other years, so my listening was spotty at best. Even the stuff I did like, I had reservations about. That being said…
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest
90% homage, but really nice and under-thought-out, compulsively made 4AD action.
James Blake: CMYK EP
Actually, all of his EPs are pretty good, and not just the three or four from this year. I listened to this one the most, Klavierwerke right behind it. Forward thinking R&B, dance floor compatible but yearning to be headphoned.
Mark Fell: Multistability
I used to listen to a lot of “experimental” music, computer music, including stuff by a group called SND. This is the guy behind that outfit. I couldn’t listen to large doses of this but I thought it was pretty nice in bits. A lot of play with rhythm and timbre, which is lovely; almost none with chords - you get one per piece, which can be grating. I like these albums that do one particular thing and really get in there and dig around in it.
Janelle Monae: Archandroid
Very poppy stuff, nice clean production and album flow, stylistically all over the place - too all over the place. There are a few good dance / easy listening tracks and one song, Make the Bus, that seems to have come straight off an unreleased Of Montreal album (what did Janelle Monae have to do with it? Does she even sing on it? Maybe just a phrase or two?).
Not the best Autechre album, I don’t think. But they’re in a class of their own and everything they do should be given thorough attention. See on See alone is enough of a track to make it worthwhile.
Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this album. I like having it on, actually. But comparisons to Aphex Twin, Klaus Schulze, and Tangerine Dream overstate the case. On this album, he’s basically layering a bunch of synths into a nice thick carpet. It’s not exactly news from the future.
3. The books (from any year) I liked most this year:
Milan Kundera: Testaments Betrayed
I read all of Milan Kundera’s essay books this year. This one was my favorite, probably because I read it first. His enthusiasm for the likes of Kafka, Sterne, Musil, Rabelais, Gombrowicz, Diderot, etc, is contagious and propelled my reading for most of the year.
Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke
See above. I hadn’t heard of Gombrowicz before reading about him in the Kundera books. If you ask him, Gombrowicz is a master on par with other far better known twentieth century writers. The book has a very loose, freewheeling structure. The narrator breaks in every so often to tell you so, and there’s an essay of novelistic form somewhere in the first half of the book. The story - if that’s what you call it - concerns a man whose age is mistaken and who is put into a school with a bunch of younger students where he worries about descending to their level of stupidity. (A lot of the book has to do with people’s stupidity.) It ends with a whirlwind courtship and marriage that seems to take place outside of time and place, ambivalent to say the least, but also fond and lighthearted. It’s not exactly love, it’s more like mutual entrapment, but it’s maybe something close to happiness, who knows.
Dave Hickey: Air Guitar
A deservedly famous book of essays about art, the art business, and things that fall broadly under the heading of culture (Liberace, Las Vegas, the Rolling Stones, Siegfried & Roy). Reminds you that interest should come first, whether the object be “art” or not, rather than the other way around. In fact, that might be the only way to save art from itself.
Andre Breton: Nadja
A haunting little book from one of the fathers of surrealism about art and a love affair and a woman whose craziness made her, for Breton, special, beautiful.
Jack Flam: Matisse and Picasso
Jack Flam puts the work at the center of this biography of a friendship, showing how the two artists, radially opposite in character, counted on each other for inspiration, support, and rivalry throughout their careers. Flam’s analysis of individual paintings is excellent but, in the end, the thing I might have liked best about the book was the little snatches of dialogue that reportedly passed between them, or the quotes people took down that show the mutual regard they had for each other. The book is genuinely moving, but in an understated way - more so for that.
Denis Johnson: Jesus’ Son
Yes, I know I’m the last person to read and applaud this collection of stories but better late than never. These stories are as exciting for their structure as for their gritty content. They are headlong horror stories, very linear, and they often turn abruptly. I went on to read Tree of Smoke, and didn’t like it much at all.
John Cheever: Journals
I love it when writers I didn’t think I needed to read suddenly become important to me. Not only does Cheever just plain write well at all times, in these journals he says a lot of stuff about aging and disenchantment that cut to the quick. Very affecting. But there’s a lot more than that. I didn’t think it was going to keep me reading as much as it did, but these journals are as writerly as you’re ever going to find journals.
Matthew Collings’s Diary. (See this post.)
If anything, besides having a lot of money, could make me an art collector, it would be paintings like those by Thomas Nozkowski. They’re exactly what makes people collect: uniquely different but within a fixed set of parameters. They look good individually but work best, I imagine, in groups. Each is playful in an off-hand way, belying Nozkowski’s way of working:
"It’s very hard to maintain a certain pitch when you have to do a lot of busy work. So when I made that switch to small canvases, I was suddenly able to do anything. To take the most capricious idea and do it in a minute. What about pink? If it doesn’t work, wipe it off and do something else. Serendipitously, I discovered all kinds of stuff that I never would have come to otherwise, that intellectually would have made for a much longer, slower and harder process on the larger canvases."
Looking at paintings like the ones above made me feel less despairing about art, although it’s never been painting that was a source of despair for me. The problem is lack of interest and lack of pleasure. People act like those things aren’t necessary right now, but I like those things, I think they’re important. Anyway, Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings have those things going for them - they’re interesting and they give pleasure. It’s about color, the finding of a thing you didn’t start out with, latent or subverted form. Really noodly and beautiful stuff.
I’m not much of a gamer so my experience is limited, but I don’t think it’s very often that you find yourself admiring the beauty of a land formation or the way the sun rises over the hills in a game, and I did that many times playing Minecraft. I bought it for ten bucks when it was still in alpha (it’s since gone into beta) and, what can I say, that was money very well spent considering all the fun I had playing it. It’s a sandbox game (meaning, you make your own rules) that encourages creativity the way a lego set does. Some people take on massive architectural projects, others use it like a railroad kit, some people just explore the limitless terrain, digging down into underground caves and mining resources, and some people just fight monsters. I was bowled over by the design of this game (the work of one guy) and, as I said, by the randomly generated terrain. I don’t think anything else impressed me as much this year.
These are probably the best two advertisements for it…
Nothing I saw this year was a real knock-down experience, frankly, and I like all of the below listed with some reservations. The most exciting things I saw this year were …not from this year. And I still haven’t seen some films that I think I might like and some that are making a lot of lists (Me and Orson Welles, Up in the Air, A Serious Man, Bright Star, Fantastic Mr Fox). But here are five that I liked…
Herzog: Bad Lieutenant
Almodovar: Broken Embraces
Kelly: The Box
Tarantino: Inglorious Basterds
Cutler: The September Issue
Von Trier: Antichrist
Mann: Public Enemies
Jonze: Where the Wild Things Are
December 25: Okay, here’s what I liked most or listened to most this year - a group of eight and five also-rans.
Micachu and the Shapes: Jewellery
Gaeoudjiparl: The Official Mort Aux Vaches Ekstra Extra Walkthrough
Broadcast and The Focus Group: Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age
Madlib: Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6 A Tribute to…
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Black Dice: Repo
Ikue Mori: Class Insecta
Lily Allen: It’s Not Me, It’s You
Vladislav Delay: Tummaa
Jono El Grande: Neo Dada
Circulatory System: Signal Morning
Voks: Astra & Knyst
Edward Williams: Music from the BBC tv series LIfe On Earth
from June 29: The year is already half finished and my favorite albums list is beginning to take shape. More than ever it’s really hit me that, with so many albums out there and lists so dependent on that smattering of them you’ve heard, talking about the “best” is kind of a laughable idea. Your list, more and more, is going to be as unique to you as a strand of your DNA. So personal “favorites” it is. I’m going to update this as the year goes on, though some of these are as good as carved in stone, for whatever that’s worth, and I’ll be writing some of them up in time. This year, it’s the non-pop albums that have been exciting me. Dirty Projectors…hmmm. I’m pretty sure it’d be a loyalty vote if I put them on here right now. And Spunk is barely holding on for the same reason. We’ll see.
I love reading lists - any kind of list actually - and compulsively make them myself. Here are a few of the author reading lists that I’ve found so far and sometimes refer to when I need a recommendation. If anyone knows of other author lists, please send them to me. I’d love to see them and and add them to this post.
Jorge Luis Borges
The Library of Babel
A Personal Library
Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two-Birds
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
Isaac Babel, Collected Short Stories
Borges, Other Inquisitions
Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Thomas Bernhard, Correction
Rudy Wurlitzer, Nog
Isaac B Singer, Gimpel the Fool
Bernard Malamud, The Assistant
Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
Samuel Beckett entire
Knut Hamsun, Hunger
Max Frisch, I’m Not Stiller
Max Frisch, Man in the Holocene
Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales
Tommaso Landolfi, Gogol’s Wife
Thomas Pynchon, V
John Hawkes, The Lime Twig
John Hawkes, Blood Oranges
Paley, Little Disturbances
Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
Susan Sontag, I, Etc.
Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces
Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
John Updike, The Coup
John Updike, Rabbit, Run
The Paris Review interviews
Rust Hills (ed.), How We Live
Joe David Bellamy (ed.), Superfiction
Puschart Prize Anthologies
Sternburg (ed.), The Writer on Her Work
André Breton, Manifestos of Surrealism
Motherwell (ed.), Documents of Modern Art
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World
Mamet, Sexual Perversity in Chicago
Joy Williams, The Changeling
Joe David Bellamy (ed.), The New Fiction
Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato
Amos Tutola, The Palm-Wine Drunkard
Ann Tyler, Searching for Caleb
Kenneth Koch, Thank You
Frank O’Hara, Collected Poems
John Ashbery, Rivers and Mountains
Wesley Brown, Tragic Magic
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel
Ann Beattie, Falling in Place
William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country
Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life
Gass, The World Within the Word
Mailer, Advertisements for Myself
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
Celine, Journey to the End of the Night
Kobo Abe, The Box Man
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
Peter Handke, Kaspar and Other Plays
André Breton, Nadja
John Barth, Chimera
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
Jayne Anne Phillips, Black Tickets
Peter Taylor, Collected Stories
Colette, The Pure and the Impure
Carver, Will You Please be Quiet, Please
John Cheever, Collected Stories
Leonard Michaels, I Would Have Saved Them if I Could
Eudora Welty, Collected Stories
Max Apple, The Oranging of America
Flannery O’Connor, Collected Stories
Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Wayne C Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction
David Foster Wallace
1. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
2. The Stand, by Stephen King
3. Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris
4. The Thin Red Line, by James Jones
5. Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong
6. The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris
7. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
8. Fuzz, by Ed McBain
9. Alligator, by Shelley Katz
10. The Sum of All Fears, by Tom Clancy
…and elsewhere, perhaps more seriously, (and more pedantically)…
“Historically the stuff that’s sort of rung my cherries: Socrates’ funeral oration, the poetry of John Donne, the poetry of Richard Crashaw, every once in a while Shakespeare, although not all that often, Keats’ shorter stuff, Schopenhauer, Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy” and “Discourse on Method,” Kant’s “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic,” although the translations are all terrible, William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience,” Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus,” Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Hemingway—particularly the ital stuff in “In Our Time,” where you just go oomph!, FlanneryO’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, A.S. Byatt, Cynthia Ozick—the stories, especially one called “Levitations,” about 25 percent of the time Pynchon. Donald Barthelme, especially a story called “The Balloon,” which is the first story I ever read that made me want to be a writer, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver’s best stuff —the really famous stuff. Steinbeck when he’s not beating his drum, 35 percent of Stephen Crane, “Moby-Dick,” “The Great Gatsby.”
William T. Vollmann
Tadeusz Konwicki, A Dreambook for Our Time
Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
Tolstoy, War and Peace
Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country
Hemingway, Islands in the Stream
The Poetic Edda
The tales of Chekhov
The tales of Hawthorne
Sigrid Unset, Kristin Lavransdatter
Melville, The Piazza Tales
London, Martin Eden
Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch
The poems of Emily Dickinson
Faulkner, Pylon and The Sound and the Fury
Homer, the Odyssey and the Iliad
Nikos Kazantzakis, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel
Heidegger, Being and Time
Poe, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym
Pushkin, Eugene Onegin
Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes
Blake, Songs of Experience and Experience
Gyorgi Konrad, The Loser
Issac B. Singer, The Family Moskas
Bruno Schultz, The Street of Crocodiles
The poems of Lorca
The poems of Mandelstam
The tales of D.H. Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Ivan Ilich, Tools for Conviviality
Mishima, the Sea of Fertility tetraology
Kimon Nicolaides, The Natural Way to Draw
The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Jane Smiley, The Greenlanders
priceless anecdotes drawn from my real experiences and souvenir jpegs of lost time
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