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01.04.10 My Top Ten RIGHT NOW!

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Because people too often think I just love everything that graces my column every week, I’m instituting a new feature for this New Year…a grading system! Using the grades that I so miss from my days of high school, I hope to better convey my cultural intake, so enjoy!

1. MOVIE Fantastic Mr. Fox

There was kind of no question that I would love this movie, based on the filmmaking technique alone. But putting that aside, I’ve never been a huge Wes Anderson fan, so let’s call it a toss up. Well, I loved this movie. The animation suits Anderson’s wry winking tone so much better than the ridiculous plastics that filled The Royal Tanenbaums and The Life Aquatic. The voice performances, especially George Clooney and Meryl Streep’s, are warm, heartfelt and filled with the same humor that made the original Raoul Dahl story so delightful. And back to that visual style, so homespun and yet expansive. I was completely swept away by the physicality of the sets, not relying on more modern techniques to transplant us into the world of the animal. Totally beautiful… A-

2. ALBUM The BQE Sufjan Stevens

This predominantly orchestral work does an amazing job at demonstrating the unbelievable and undeniable strength of Stevens’ compositional prowess. The 40-minute opus washes over the listener, enveloping and probing without ever pushing too far into the discord that sometimes bogs down this young genius. Starting off a bit too romantic, pushing into soundtrack territory, the piece opens up subtly with pulsing repetitions and gorgeous orchestrations (just listen to that tinny trumpet on the second movement). And without the awkward video work and hoola-hoopers to distract me, as it was presented in its live form, I was finally able to embrace the music fully. Another stunner that makes me wonder what’s next from Sufjan… A

3. MUSICAL Ragtime

Stripped down from the original bloated Broadway production with all those stage stars and bombast, this simpler Ragtime should have had me delighted and in awe. That happened about three times during an otherwise unstable and ultimately lukewarm production. Without big voices to sell the score, I was amazed how well songs held up, still captivating and melodic. But the performances and the surrounding story fell flat, the production too even keeled to ever hit those big moments, and never simple enough to create a true investment in these fictional characters surrounded by history’s more interesting characters. I can’t say I’m surprised this show is shutting down at the end of the week… C+

4. BOOK A Single Man

Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, this book served as a strong reminder of how beautiful the written word can be. Isherwood creates a strong internal monologue that is ultimately heartbreakingly human, a stream of consciousness that is so identifiable and real, the difficulty of getting up in the morning, of the various faces you wear every day to mask your inner truth, the misunderstood flirtations. Impressively, it’s all captured over the course of a single day, mundane yet eventful and very telling. All the more impressive is that this very frank depiction of homosexuality was written in 1964. A haunting and striking work of fiction… A

5. MOVIE A Single Man

My enjoyment of this movie comes directly from having read the book just before seeing Tom Ford’s film version. I can appreciate and agree with the criticism that the film is just a long and pretty perfume commercial, but intentionally or not, Ford captured the tone of the book by far better than most book to film adaptations. Aside from a few unnecessary changes to the source material, the desolation of a relationship lost and the way the surrounding world serves as a constant reminder of the loss is sumptuously portrayed. Colin Firth and Julianne Moore give lovely performances, understated but apropos. I could have done without the ridiculous tampering with the color correct changes within a scene to demonstrate a rise in emotion, a classic sign of a director having an epiphany that no one told him was wrong. All in all, worth the trip, but only after you’ve read the text… B

6. TECHNOLOGY The Kindle

I love books, the way the pages feel, the immediacy of the text in front of you, the excitement of buying a new one and even the way they clutter my shelves. So I never thought I could embrace this new electronic text technology, but thanks to a generous holiday present, I have seen the light. It is so quick and easy to use, full texts downloading in 60 seconds, but most exciting is the access to newspapers and magazines. I now wake up every morning to a fresh NY Times on my little machine, and to the shock and amazement of many around me, I actually read it! Perfect to slip into my bag or jacket pocket, my books follow me wherever I go. I’m still getting used to my progress being measured in percentages and lines read, rather than pages, but a few quibbles aside, this thing is awesome… A

7. MOVIE The White Ribbon

I always expect Michael Haneke’s films to pulse with tension until it explodes into something horrific and gruesome. That doesn’t happen in this very odd, long and plodding film about a small town just before World War I overrun by slightly off children reminiscent of The Village of the Damned. I wanted to absolutely love this film, but I didn’t, which is not to say that my attention wasn’t held for all two hours and twenty four minutes as very little happened on screen. More than anything, I must commend the style, stark black and white, faces that are striking in a Weimar cinema sort of way but still retaining an incongruous modern notion of camera movement and long takes, all of which works nicely, if only something were actually going on… B-

8. MOVIE Up in the Air

I will admit that when I walked out of the theater, I thought it was an amazing movie. Unfortunately, as I probed further, I felt cheated, that I had been presented something consumable that in fact should have been much more difficult to swallow. George Clooney is his usual charming self and “newcomer” Anna Kendrick is absolutely excellent (she’s no newcomer to those of us that love the film Camp). Despite the overly slick storytelling, I do think Reitman captured the generational gap in expectations and understanding of what success means with amazing accuracy. Kendrick’s monologue about aging at the age of 23 is so scarily on point, considering I give that rant about once a month these days. I’m very curious to see how this film ages over the next several years, either to a classic or to be forgotten as too timely… B

9. ALBUM The Element of Freedom Alicia Keys

It’s taken me a bit of time to really get into this album of power ballads all without the bite or hook of “No One” or “Karma.” Opening strong with “Love is Blind” which artfully cribs from the awesome heavy beats of Kanye’s “Love Lockdown,” the album flows outward into strong songwriting with an ‘80s style, but the songs somehow don’t stick or give me reason to return for repeat listens. The ridiculous duet with Beyonce, “Put It In a Love Song,” is a pleasure for all the wrong reasons and the sequel to “Empire State of Mind” feels like it’s missing something without Jay Z’s rap. The true standouts here are “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart” and “Doesn’t Mean Anything,” both worth a download… B

10. ALBUM Green and Gold Sugarland

There’s nothing better than a countrified Christmas, especially when it comes from my favorite country outfit, Sugarland. They sound excellent on the classics, tearing up “Winter Wonderland” and “Silent Night,” even giving Kristian a full on solo with “Holly Jolly Christmas.” The best comes in the form of an updated “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” turning it into a guitar plucking, bass lined, dramatic harmony-ed beauty. But my favorite has to be “City of Silver Dreams,” a lovely ballad to the gorgeousness that is NYC at the holidays. Sure, the season has passed, but get yourself to a big post-holiday sale and get this baby all ready for next year’s festivities… A

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