Great Moments in Literature

“Lila Mae removed the two suitcases from the back of the pickup truck. The suitcases were new, with a formidable casing of green plastic. Scratchproof, supposedly. Her father had only been able to afford them because they were, manufacturer’s oaths aside, scratched—gouged, actually, as if an animal had taken them in its fangs to teach them about hubris.”

—Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist, 1999



—Denny O’Neil, AMAZING SPIDER-MAn, Vol. 1, No. 209, “To Salvage My Honor!,” 1980

Oscars Gonna Oscar


For the first time in more years than is at all reasonable, I feel like I watched an Oscar telecast that wasn’t constructed by people who were embarrassed about the very concept of the storied ceremony they presided over. That I find this remarkable might be a touch sad, but it doesn’t really take away from the fundamental achievement of last night’s program. The 90th Academy Awards was gratifyingly solid.

My assessment refers more to the ceremony than the accuracy of the awards’ dispersal. I try not to get too chagrined when the Oscars don’t get handed out in precisely the fashion I would personally prefer, ultimately respecting the general wisdom of the industry crowd. Yes, I long for a perhaps unreachable era in which the Oscars are no longer simply the final ratification of the same cluster of actors who’ve gathered up preceding awards like monied stoners loading up on Girl Scout cookies outside their friendly neighborhood dispensary. And this was the first year in absolute ages that all four acting awards went to performances that I not only wouldn’t champion, but indeed found wholly unremarkable (or, occasionally, deeply flawed). Then again, I look at the quartet and feel satisfied that all are generally deserving to have possession of film acting’s highest honor (and the person who got a sibling for the trophy already on her mantle is equally deserving of the rarer designation “two-time Academy Award winners).

And then there’s the big prize, a choice that felt so sweetly convention in so many particulars — a period piece, a romance, made by a well-respected name director, the most nominated film of the night — that it is jolting to circle back around to the outlandish, delightful truth that the supposedly staid Academy just gave their most revered honor to a lush, horror-tinged fairy tale about a woman in a decidedly unchaste relationship with an amphibious man-monster. The Shape of Water sits forever on a historic continuum that also includes Going My Way, The Sound of Music, and Gandhi. Any divvying up of Oscars will yield results of mixed emotions, but a ceremony that includes the director of Cronos and Blade II showered with affection — as well as cinematographer Roger Deakins finally getting his due — is hard to generate ire against. As my preferred pick for the directing award, Greta Gerwig, watched Guillermo del Toro give one of his onstage speeches, she clearly said, “I love him.” If she’s happy, who am I to gripe?

But back to the show itself. In Jimmy Kimmel’s second straight year as host — and a similar encore engagement for producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd — a slew of small, targeted changes made for a better show. The running gags were pared back to a minimum and the inevitable stunt — this year centered on Kimmel leading a batch of stars to a preview screening of A Wrinkle in Time at a movie theater across the street, barraging the audience of average moviegoers with star power and projectile frankfurters — was staged with smart foresight for the basic logistics of the endeavor, making it brisk and economical. And in a year marked by rolling scandals of sexual misdeeds by Hollywood power players, Kimmel’s comedy addressed the hard truths of the moment without ever stooping to exploit them.

There were references to the length of the ceremony without cheap shots or whining, and the one running gag relating to the topic — a Showcase Showdown level prize given to the winner who delivered the night’s shortest speech — cleverly framed the eternal challenge of tightening the show as a challenge rather than a complaint. With rare exceptions, producers set aside the practice of making speech-givers compete with swelling orchestral tones, itself a gracious, welcome acknowledgement that the purpose of the night is to celebrate these individual’s artistic achievements. The clip packages were largely strong, especially the well-curated celebration of ninety years of Oscars and the packages of previous winning performances that announced each of the acting categories. Even the unavoidable wrong envelope jokes were kept to a dignified minimum, with the innovation of big, bold type on the packets carried to the stage reminder enough of the lunacy of last year’s fumbled finale.

In the long run, I’m not sure how much of this year’s Academy Awards will truly be memorable. For one night, though, I was pleased that the producers of the Oscars decided to be engaged with the award’s place in the ongoing cultural conversation. In accepting Best Picture, del Toro shared advice he received from Steven Spielberg as the Oscars approached: “If you find yourself there — you find yourself at the podium — remember that you are part of a legacy, that you are part of a world of filmmakers, and be proud of it.” More than in most years, the Oscar ceremony itself seemed to justly, properly share that sense of pride and value. It made for a good night.


tiffany maya

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #972 to #969

edmunds twangin

972. Dave Edmunds, Twangin… (1981)

Dave Edmunds was already a longterm veteran of the pop music salt mines when he delivered Twangin…, his sixth proper solo album and one more paver stone in a path of rock ‘n’ roll proselytizing that stretched back over a decade. Like most efforts he signed his name to — especially around this era, arguably his creative peak — the album simultaneously demonstrated he deserved rock stardom (or at least a loving embrace from rock radio) and precisely why that result was likely to be forever elusive. A master of finessing the classic structures of rock ‘n’ into slightly more modern sounds, Edmunds was too slick for the purists and too classicist for the restless kids.

To be accurate, Welsh-born Edmunds did well on the U.K. charts, where early rock ‘n’ roll sounds basically never went out of style. While hardly a consistent hitmaker, Edmunds had four separate Top 10 hits in the U.K. across the span of the nineteen-seventies, including as recently as 1979. And he was an relatively early signee for Swan Song Records, the label started by Led Zeppelin, giving him a certain veneer of cool.

Twangin… was Edmunds last album for Swan Song (the label ceased operations two years later), and its status as a covers album gives it a whiff of contractual obligation. The record itself suggests greater commitment, though. In making his song selections, Edmunds evidences an admirable predilection for more under-celebrated songwriters, such as John Hiatt, whose sterling “Something Happens” opens the album. As with other strong examples of the form, Edmunds isn’t using the covers to generate a de facto borrowed hits collection so much as he’s exploring his own sensibilities as an artist through favorite music.

Edmunds sometimes manages to bring multiple influences to bear on a track in a way that entirely enlivens it, as with “It’s Been So Long,” originally recorded by Brinsley Schwarz. Edmunds juices the tempo and gives it his best Buddy Holly jaunty trill, remarkable making the track seem as if it exists outside of a cultural timeline, standing instead as all of rock ‘n’ roll collapsed into dandy two minutes. Even when Edmunds adheres more closely to the original (as on “Three Time Loser,” first recorded by Wilson Pickett), he honors the ancestral take on the song, but firmly makes it his own.

Almost inevitably, there are trouble spots. “Almost Saturday Night” hews so closely to the original, including in the way Edmunds apes John Fogerty’s vocal cadences, that it barely has a reason for being. And “The Race is On,” eagerly touted on the single release as a collaboration with the Stray Cats — then a true sensation on the charts on both side of the Atlantic — is a blandly rocked-up pass at a country song best known as a hit for George Jones.

Twangin… ushered in a time for transition for Edmunds. After this album, he jumped to Columbia Records. And it was also the last time he played with Rockpile, the group of ringers that released one album under their own name, but more commonly served as the studio band for solo albums by Edmunds and Nick Lowe. Even if change was afoot, Edmunds was a true believer. There was more good stuff to come.



van wavelength

971. Van Morrison, Wavelength (1978)

Wavelength is likely the closest Van Morrison was ever going to come to making a disco record. I doubt that was his intent, but the electronically-pulsed dance floor music was inescapably in the air during all of 1978. When the Irish troubadour was recording his tenth studio album, the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” was on a dominant run atop both sides of the Atlantic, and Wavelength landed in record stores as A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” was enjoy almost a full month on as the #1 song in the U.S. Later scorn notwithstanding, disco was the present and seemingly the future of pop music.

The tracks of Wavelength could hardly have slipped onto the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack without stirring confusion, but they have the feel of mindful craftsmanship to make them a comfortable addition to radio playlists. Morrison’s lush, howling soulfulness is in place, but the music is awash in synthesizers in a way that seems like a node to the times rather than a natural extension of the artist’s well-established sonic technique. “Natalia” and the title cut are awash in so much studio dressing that Morrison almost gets lot in the flourishes, an almost inconceivable outcome for the one of the biggest voices in rock history.

The album might seem flawed — or at least disappointing — outside of its original context, but at the time it proved the soundness of Morrison’s commercial instincts, a crucial revival after a few fallow years that reportedly found him contemplating early retirement. Wavelength was Morrison’s best selling and fastest selling album to that point, and “Wavelength” skimmed close to the Billboard Top 40.


kissing naked

970. Kissing the Pink, Naked (1983)

According to the members of Kissing the Pink, their band name referred to either snooker or oral sex. It depended on who was asking. That instinct for the opportunistic — evasively innocent at some times, eagerly naughty at others — offers decent insight as to the general thrust of the band’s music. Dolled up with gentle synth pop come-ons, swoony vocals, lyrics somehow both plain and puzzling, and other signature elements of new wave, Kissing the Pink could have been constructed in a lab to muscle their way onto MTV.

Naked was Kissing the Pink’s debut album, released a few years after the band formed in London. It opens with “The Last Film,” which also served as a single. Against a military drill drumbeat, punctuating by electrified pipe whistles, the track commits to an battle hymn ferocity, lyrics shouted as much as sung in a way that mirrored the stridency of Tears for Fears, who released their debut album the same year. That anthemic quality extends to other tracks on the album, such as the slightly anxious “Big Man Restless” (which also finds room for a cheesy sax solo, the recurrent herpes of eighties rock) or even the single “Watching Their Eyes,” which suggests the sort of song a less-committed Bonnie Tyler might conjure up.

Kissing the Pink does better when they get a little weirder. The fevered futurism of “Frightened in France” might not be genius, but it’s at least interesting. Album closer “Mr. Blunt” goes a long way on an appropriation of Bow Wow Wow’s percussive energy, and the the shiny electro-pop of “Desert Song” could have appeared unaltered on the latest Arcade Fire album, and immediately stood out as one of the stronger tracks in the process. Whatever other mixed feelings I might have about Naked, that’s impressive for a track released thirty-five years ago.


railway reunion

969. The Railway Children, Reunion Wilderness (1987)

There were only so many Bunnymen to go around in the late nineteen-eighties, but the need for chiming, swirling guitar pop remained high. Luckily, there were heroes like the Railway Children prepared to step in and fill the gap.

To be fair, the quartet from Manchester doesn’t sound all that much like the Liverpudlians who were one of the most dominant college radio bands of the decade, but the Railway Children did deliver a brand of tender, innocuous, ever do British rock music that spoke to a certain tousled-haired type of student programmer. The music on Reunion Wilderness, the band’s debut album, somewhat anticipates the comfort tune Britpop boom of the early nineties, but it’s even closer to the genial, determinedly non-confrontational guitar journeys Poi Dog Pondering was developing at about the same time. But the Reunion Wilderness is lacking the hints of worldly wanderlust that made Poi Dog Pondering distinctive. The Railway Children show no impulse for ever changing lanes.

“Careful” has an agreeable enough shimmy to it, and “Big Hands of Freedom” builds nicely as it explores the brave face that often accompanies heartache. “Brighter” has one of those soft synthesized xylophone openings that could only exist — or at least prosper — in the nineteen-eighties, then it locks into a simple and satisfying hook. Like much of pop, the whole album seems to turn on the axis of yearning. Without fuss (or, to be less kind, much innovation), the Railway Children deliver on the basics.


To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From The Archive — My Ballot, 2007

no country

In the corner of the multiverse where I preside over the Academy Awards like a benevolent despot, every one of the performers pictured above received an acting nomination for their roles in No Country for Old Men. Also, Seth MacFarlane never hosted the ceremony. So it’s a decent place, is what I’m typing. The other day, I shared my personal picks for the four acting categories handed out at the Oscars. Here’s evidence I’ve been engaging in this particular exercise online for quite some time (and yet longer — far longer — offline). Without the original explanations and observation included (but with a couple revised, updated hyperlinks), here are the performances I celebrated ten years ago. I stand by all of these selections, but do note with some amusement my mild dismissal of one of the nominated actresses from Joe Wright’s Atonement. My oh my, how times do change.


1. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
2. Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
3. Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl
4. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Savages
5. Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men

Let’s start with a relatively easy category, shall we? At least when it comes to picking out the name that goes next to the numeral one. Arguably the surest bet in tonight’s ceremony, the performance is starting to entrench itself the cultural vernacular to such a degree that it’s soon going to be easy to forget just how good it is. Day-Lewis may be the best by a solid margin, but that Tommy Lee Jones performance is terrific, a controlled, deeply felt portrait of sorrowful disillusionment.

1. Ellen Page, Juno
2. Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There
3. Laura Linney, The Savages
4. Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
5. Julie Christie, Away From Her

Yup, I opt for the little Canadian miracle worker who manages to make Diablo Cody’s highly constructed dialogue sound natural and revealing. As much credit as many of the other Juno collaborators deserve, without Page and her mix of expert comic timing and grounded emotionalism, it’s hard to imagine the film recovering from its opening minutes which are almost uniformly viewed as problematic. That the film winds up so winning is a testament to the fully realized accomplishment of her performance. While I think she has an outside shot to be an upset winner in this category tonight, slipping past Marlee Matlin to become the youngest Best Actress winner ever, my wager remains firmly on Christie for her elegantly moving work (and because voters will see it as a sort of de facto career award), and I suspect Marion Cotillard’s unbearably hammy work as Edith Piaf is a tick ahead of Page in the horse race, too. Since I commit to being ruthlessly honest about filling this out, I’ll note that I consider Blanchett to be a lead for I’m Not There. I’ve got a different supporting actress in mind for that film.

1. Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
3. Tommy Lee Jones, No Country For Old Men
4. Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn
5. Paul Schneider, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Hoffman and Jones certainly had good years. Hoffman’s continuing mastery of he craft of acting has almost become mundane, but it’s nice to see Jones giving committed performances after the odd digressions of recent years. Schneider had a less recognized good year (he’s also award-worthy in Lars and the Real Girl). I like Casey Affleck’s nominated turn in Jesse James, but I see that as a lead performance and I just can’t make room in that category. It’s a shame Steve Zahn didn’t get more end-of-the-year talk; his work in Werner Herzog’s film deserves to be career-shifting. Bardem will almost certainly win tonight, and, like Day-Lewis, it’s completely deserving. Those two performances are the two from this year that will be remembered for a long, long time.

1. Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl
2. Leslie Mann, Knocked Up
3. Michelle Williams, I’m Not There
4. Maria Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
5. Kelly Macdonald, No Country For Old Men

Not a single one in common with the Academy, although that has something to do with the fact that I think they (and, granted, everyone but me) have got Blanchett’s stellar turn as Jude Quinn misfiled. I’d say that Michelle Williams’ brief, riveting performance as model Coco Rivington is more suited to the supporting category, although I’ll quickly concede that the big jumble puzzle of Todd Haynes’ film is hard to fit into the simple Oscar category boxes. Mortimer is terrific in a tricky role in Lars, since her empathetic work in crucial to making believable the conceit of the entire town rallying around the lead character’s delusions. Mann is more than a considerable comic force in Knocked Up. She makes a character that could have easily been little more than a mean-spirited caricature in to someone sympathetic and interesting. I frankly don’t understand why Tomei and Macdonald aren’t actually in the running for the Oscar. As for tonight, this is the one category that you can see going to any of the actual nominees except the kid. Of course, the last time I said that any one of four different people had a real shot at winning in this category, it was the fifth that took the prize, so don’t count out Atonement‘s Briony yet. I think Tilda Swinton is going to win for Michael Clayton, largely by process of elimination (Blanchett just won three years ago, Ruby Dee’s role is apparently less than five minutes of screen time in a film that’s not hugely well regarded, Amy Ryan seems to have settled in to that place where Thomas Haden Church was a couple years ago, where the nomination is seen as adequate compensation for sweeping the critics’ awards). Besides, I think enough Oscar voters will want to check a box in close proximity to the words “Clayton” and “Michael,” and Swinton is the most likely beneficiary of that instinct.


One for Friday — Rachel Sweet, “Hairspray”


When it came time to hand out Oscar nominations for the 1988 movie year, Academy members were so dismayed by the compositions eligible for the Best Original Song category that they reduced the number of contenders by forty percent. Only three songs were nominated, and one of them was a thoroughly unremarkable (and little-known) wisp of nothing from the minor indie hit Bagdad Cafe. There was even some talk of scrapping the category altogether, even though much of the nineteen-eighties had been a boom time for movie soundtracks, with enormous hits going on to become Oscar winners.

And anyway, the real problem with the category was that the voters weren’t looking hard enough. There might have been a shortage of treacly ballads penned by Diane Warren or other default favorites of the Academy’s music branch, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t other gems written directly for the screen. As proof, I humbly submit “Hairspray.”

The most durable and pliable of John Waters’s cinematic creations, Hairspray is grand in every way. That poppy perfection includes the music, most of which is assembled from the vintage Tune Tote 45 RPM case in the Baltimore filmmaker’s beauteous brain. The sole exception is the title cut that opens the film, a zippy bit of retro goodness recorded by Rachel Sweet, a diminutive singer who knew her way around an oldie. The song is precious, witty, and actually relates smartly to the film in which it resides. It’s irresistible. Then again, I guess the Academy was able to resist it just fine.

Eventually, a different awards body would have the sense to realize Waters was an inspirational impresario of fine musical efforts.

Listen or download –> Rachel Sweet, “Hairspray”

(Disclaimer: Although I haven’t looked lately, I believe the Hairspray soundtrack — the 1988 version, to be precise — is out of print as a physical item that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. This song is shared here with the understanding that doing so impedes no fair commerce. I also maintain sharing the song is “fair use.” Even so, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove it from my corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Twenty Performances, or Bird is the Word

academy luncheon

Now I’ve completed the process of listing my ten best films of the cinematic year not-so-recently-completed, I have one more bit of annual business to take care ahead of this Sunday’s trophy ceremony. As usual, I share the Actors Branch nominating ballot I would have turned in had some strange shift in the the fabric of the universe had placed the document in my eager hands. I’ve tried to be resolutely honest in settling on the twenty names that follow, eschewing sentimentality or gamesmanship.

And I’ll open with the strongest category of the year.


1. Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
2. Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus
3. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
4. Carey Mulligan, Mudbound
5. Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Ronan, Hawkins, and Robbie all made the Academy’s cut, and their fellow nominee Meryl Streep was likely my sixth name, her crafty nuance in The Post just an eyelash behind Robbie’s fierce inventiveness. I suspect it’s Frances McDormand who will win in this category, and I have to grudgingly admit that her having a second Oscar on her shelf in a fine thing, even if I think she overacts in the highly problematic Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I’m hoping that McDormand using her SAG Awards acceptance speech to essentially give permission to pick someone else opens the door for Ronan. Because Lady Bird has got to win something, doesn’t it? Richardson never had a chance here, but she’s nearly Ronan’s equal in the category playing a role that’s similar on the surface, but less flashy. I do wonder if Mulligan would have been more of a factor for her bruising performance had Mudbound gotten a more traditional Oscar season roll-out than the popping into ubiquitous availability that is the Netflix model.



1.  Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
2. Daniel Day-Lewis, The Phantom Thread
3. Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
4. Jason Mitchell, Mudbound
5. John Cho, Columbus

I believe Chalamet’s performance is the best of the year, regardless of category, and I felt that way even before the heartbreaking power of the final shot, the most emotionally devastating acting to close a film since Glenn Close sat before the makeup mirror to bring the curtain down on Dangerous Liaisons. He doesn’t have a chance against Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, a classic case of the the Academy’s dismal “great man” blind spot, which leads to a confusion over the deeds of the character versus the quality of the acting. As for the others in my quintet, I’ll note that my admiration for Kaluuya’s performance only grows every time I catch another bit of Get Out on cable, Cho is a beautifully understated partner to Richardson, and, while readers may find this a bold pronouncement, Day-Lewis is quite good at acting. I had a hell of a time placing the male actors from Mudbound into categories, but ultimately decided Mitchell’s character was closest to a protagonist’s arc.



1. Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
2. Lesley Manville, The Phantom Thread
3. Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!
4. Allison Williams, Get Out
5. Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Metcalf losing to Allison Janney’s adequate but hammy performance in I, Tonya will be one of the night’s most dispiriting moments for me. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is exactly the godawful disaster its reputation makes it out to be (and the critics who have devoted some of their end-of-year energy to championing its daring are either adorable or delusional, I can’t quite decide), but Pfeiffer is blazingly good in her role. Had the movie taken its cues from her sly bravado, it might have been something. I’m very happy Manville and Spencer were both lauded by the Academy, but Williams deserved a place among the contenders, if only for the scene in which she talks to Rod on the phone.



1. Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
2. Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
3. Tracy Letts, Lady Bird
4. Garrett Hedlund, Mudbound
5. Lil Rel Howery, Get Out

Speaking of TSA agent extraordinaire Rod Williams, you’re damn right I think Howery deserves to be in the running in the supporting actor category. Jenkins is the only performer the Academy and I agree upon.  It’s not so surprising in the cases of Letts and Hedlund, but its downright criminal that Stuhlbarg was overlooked. His monologue toward the end of Call Me By Your Name is one of the clear highlights of the entire year. Of course, anyone in this category is doomed to applaud for when the win is claimed by Sam Rockwell, an actor absolutely overdue for awards acclaim who is getting his prize for a mediocre turn in a poorly conceived character that — as a bonus — really belongs in the lead category. It’s going to be a rough Oscars year for me, friends.

Top Ten Movies of 2017 — Number One

1 lady bird

As filmmaking — U.S. filmmaking, anyway — becomes more and more entrenched in an era of high-concept spectacle, in which every new offering must have a big, shimmering storytelling hook, Greta Gerwig’s debut as the solely credited director offers the assurance that nothing is as valuable than the strong voice of an empathetic, observant creator. Lady Bird depicts one year, more or less, in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who begins the film as a new high school senior, filled with aspirations of bigger and better opportunities far away from her hometown of Sacramento. She traipses through a fairly familiar series of travails — family strife, roller coaster romances, squabbles with friends — as she gradually shapes her sense of self.

What sets Lady Bird apart — and indeed draws it close to pure cinematic perfection — is the resonant authority of truthfulness Gerwig brings to her storytelling. There are still flourishes and smartly constructed details (the dreamboat rebel, played with marvelous cool by Timothée Chalamet, reading Howard Zinn alone at a party) that reveal whole personalities, relationships, and treacherous social ecosystems in an especially economical and astute flicker. The writing is incredibly strong, and Gerwig exhibits confidence in her performers to bring additional nuance to individual scenes and exchanges. Gerwig writes wisely and warmly about life, then lets her cast, led by Ronan and the magical Laurie Metcalf, show precisely how those lives are lived.

Across the film, Gerwig pulls off countless miracles. Lady Bird is sentimental without being soft, sharp-edged without being judgmental, modest in scale without ever feeling small. She employ smooth visuals of lovely construction without caving to the pretty picture book phenomenon or rambunctious trickery that can dog directors in the early stages of their filmographies. The film is elegant and humane, intent on honoring every figure in it and the viewers open-hearted enough to embrace its simple, special wonders.