Friday, January 22, 2010

Eddie's First Birthday Cake

MY PURPOSE HERE is to pay tribute to a friend of mine. This friend, whom I have known since we were both about seven years old, deserves as much. For he has suffered, and he is still shouldering the burden of this suffering. That is not something that our society typically finds worthy of its salute. But I am a member of this society, and furthermore, I once upheld an oath to defend it in uniform. Thus, if I say this man has earned my salute, I do not employ the term lightly.

My friend happens to be an Italian-American, with a common first name and an ethnic last one. But since I do not want to use either, I’ll give him a loaner. We’ll call him Eddie. Eddie Moscone.


To Eddie, a word. I offer you an apology, because I assume this writing will make you uncomfortable. You told me once that certain types of accolades accomplished as much. But my apology, while sincere, will have minimal effect. Because the truth is, as a writer, I find this necessary. When I am grabbed by something that I feel, for whatever reason, I need to understand; thereupon do I employ my pencil in the service of that education. For this lesson, you happen to be the instructor. Let’s not forget, also, that you are an educator by profession. So I am optimistic that you can forgive me for milking your hard-earned wisdom for my own further comprehension of life – especially if I promise to apply what I learn somehow in the context of our sustained friendship.


From the beginning, as far back as I can remember, Eddie has shown a certain kind of fearlessness. An anecdote from our early years in suburban New Jersey will demonstrate what I mean.

Among the numerous things he does well, Eddie is a talented musician. He’s been a fine trumpet player since we were in fourth grade. I know because I played trumpet, too, for a time. Every year we had to audition to see what chair assignment we would receive for the trumpet section. I only bested Eddie once – and that, I learned later, was because he had missed his audition entirely. Beating Eddie was never truly within the limits of my talent.

Yet as good as he was at the trumpet, I remember in fifth or sixth grade he began to show interest in other instruments as well. This stayed with him, for today Eddie is a high school Marching Band Director. He started to take lessons in percussion with the elementary school music teacher in addition to playing the trumpet. Eddie did this on his own; I remember thinking he was nuts. But then the day arrived when the entire band was in full rehearsal, and the director, Mr. Decker, kept stopping the performance in one particular number because of the ineptitude of one unlucky fellow in the drum section. There was a critical percussive segment that was being repeatedly flubbed.

Frustrated, the teacher told that unfortunate drummer to step aside and let one of his peers literally take a whack at it. When that guy tried it once or twice and also failed, Mr. Decker told him to get out of the way, and had the next drummer try. In this manner, with the situation more or less out of hand, the entire drum section was dispensed with. No one could play the part.

Then Mr. Decker seemed to have a small epiphany. “Where’s Eddie?” he shouted. Eddie needed no more encouragement. He got up, laid down his trumpet, strode over and played the part correctly. He spent the rest of that number on the drum, and then returned to the trumpet section, which had pretty much fallen down as well in his absence.

That, readers, is Eddie. I do not know if he made a lot of friends in the drum section that day. But he knew he could do what needed to be done, and showed no hesitation.

Indeed, Eddie seems to have approached so many things in his life, throughout the years, with a quality that falls somewhere between a preposterous swagger and authentic bravery. I can think of innumerable examples, from the mundane to the momentous, but they all speak to this same quality.

When we were still elementary school kids, Eddie was a kind of celebrity, because at some point he (or his mother and father most likely, but he received the indispensable schoolyard cred), had established a tradition of throwing an end-of-year party for his entire class. Consequently, part of the ritual towards the end of the school year was to track down Eddie on the playground in order to ask who his teacher was for the following year. This was huge, because he was hosting these events way before most of us were ready to attend “boy-girl” parties. That’s Eddie.

Eddie is a natural athlete, and possesses individual courage as well as team leadership skills. He was a terrific swimmer in high school; a sport which requires both stamina and guts, for the water is a difficult arena to conquer. His love of baseball spans his entire lifetime. In college he tried out for volleyball, something that was never an organized sport when we were in high school, and quickly became a standout. As an adult he has coached children in sports for years – particularly young girls, which I find astounding. But then, Eddie has never exactly had a fear of girls. That’s Eddie.

As much as either of my parents, Eddie was instrumental in teaching me, and my twin brother for that matter, how to drive. He’s a half-year older than we are, so he had his driver’s license six months ahead of us. I distinctly remember him picking us up in his beat-up Buick on spring and summer afternoons, taking us to schoolyards and parking lots, and letting us drive his car around. That year he had a cassette of Tribute, with Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhodes, in the tape deck for what seemed like eight months straight. I cannot think of Ozzy, or hear the song “Crazy Train”, without remembering Eddie’s Driving School for Obnoxious Twins, which seems appropriate. But he seemed to enjoy helping us learn to drive as much as we enjoyed the chance to get behind the wheel. That’s Eddie.

When we got to college, and everyone started to go their separate paths, there was always a generous measure of lip service around visiting one another at our respective schools. Some of these reunions took place; most were mere talk. Not with Eddie. My brother and I attended the same university in Cincinnati, Ohio, while Eddie attended a small college in northwest Pennsylvania. In our freshman year, there he was in the spring, visiting us at our campus, dressed out in his varsity volleyball jacket, already fully immersed in team sports.

At some point, though I don’t remember the year, we did return the favor. Later on, during the summers, we’d reconvene with high school pals; more promises were made; few were kept. But I am able to mentally fast-forward to early 1992 when, going into our final semester at college, my brother and I returned to an apartment we shared off campus. We arrived about a week prior to the start of classes. Eddie’s schedule was different; he had more time before he had to begin school again. Did he spend it putzing around our hometown?

All I remember is slouching around that dingy one-bedroom hole with my brother on a dreary winter afternoon and hearing a sudden pounding on the door. We opened it together, to be confronted with a vision of our old pal standing there with a cruddy baseball hat on, both hands out Italian-hug style, and a smoking pipe clenched in his ridiculous, Cheshire-cat grin. That’s Eddie.


Alas, readers, but at some point one must put aside childish things, as St. Paul has written. I would be the first to admit, and do so here, that in the case of myself, my brother, and Eddie, we have not quite learned to do that. Nonetheless, time marches on, and men have a way of acquiring responsibilities. Marriage, for example, if they are fortunate. And who among us, do you suppose, was the first to take on so daunting and momentous a change of life?

Eddie married his college sweetheart, a lovely and gregarious woman, in 1994, tackling this institution well in advance of the rest of his mates. My brother was his best man. Eddie, I can write without any juvenile intention whatsoever, has always loved women. In his wife, he found the nucleus of this mighty love, and with what great and typical eagerness did he launch himself into domesticity! In my memories of his wedding, I can still see him casually striding from table to table with his hand at his young wife’s waist, asking if people were enjoying themselves. When the question was returned, he answered, “I am having an absolute blast.”

Thus did Eddie (and his beloved) enter into the deeper, more exciting, yet sometimes treacherous waters of adult life, in the same manner in which he enters into just about everything – head first. They leaped into the marital fray, engaging in its necessary push and pull, flexing and building up the muscles involved in the complex acrobatics of love and compromise and the sacrifice of oneself and, sometimes, one’s own interests. So much the better, for the strength of their unity was soon put to the test.

In 1996 their first son arrived, but was born with a gaping hole in one of the chambers of his heart, requiring almost immediate open heart surgery. Unless one has endured it themselves, or worse, one can only imagine the helplessness and terror that must have seized the two new parents as they placed their fragile infant in the hands of surgeons.

Their prayers were answered that time; their son today is almost fourteen, and healthy. But their union had been carried into the forge and duly hammered in a white-hot flame. They came out of the experience further bonded. At that time, Eddie commented to me one night on the phone, “You think you know how to love somebody…” His voice trailed off, failing to complete the thought, but his meaning was clear. One’s love acquires its true gem-like beauty and hardness only when compressed under the weight of adversity.

Before most of his peers, again, Eddie learned what this kind of love requires of a man. But as all of us come to know eventually, overcoming one obstacle that seemed too large does not exempt us from further trials. For in 2007, Eddie’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thus began a prolonged, roller-coaster-type battle with this terrible illness, the daily casualties of which I cannot describe. I have no idea how difficult each phase, or even each daily skirmish, was for Eddie or for his wife. To my own discredit I was often fearful of even discussing it with him, because I did not know how to offer consolation, and felt, regrettably, too uncomfortable to try.

But Eddie, of course, could not – and would not have anyway – distance himself from this fight. He stayed true to his commitment, the one that’s right there in the marriage vows. He took up the mantle of caring for, by then, their three children, while his wife suffered; he also, incredibly, maintained two jobs and coached young people throughout much of the year, every year. He remained by his wife’s side throughout her unimaginable pain and despair, right up until she died, just before Easter in 2009, at the age of 36.

The next time I saw Eddie, which was the first time in many months, was at his wife’s wake. It was the very same day he himself turned 39, a final irony. I met my twin brother on the way in to the funeral home, and we both entered the viewing room in a stunned silence. When we saw Eddie, neither one of us knew what to do; we both grabbed at him in the same moment and were overcome.

Eddie – a bigger man than either of us – put one arm around each of our necks and said, “Come on, guys.” That’s Eddie.


Now it is nearly a year later. In a few short months, Eddie will turn 40 years old, and of course, later this year I will follow.

I have kept in regular contact with Eddie – far better, I admit to my own shame, than I did while his wife was dying. Interestingly enough, a huge part of this has been achieved through Facebook, a sign of these particular times that is regularly dismissed as frivolous. Yet it has played an indisputable role in Eddie’s grieving process. He chats frequently and openly on the site; he has even had numerous exchanges with my wife, who has come to know and love Eddie better as a consequence. It clearly helps him endure some of the pain of his beloved’s premature death. How can that not be considered a good thing?

Indeed, it was Facebook that led to these words. A short time ago, Eddie posted a photograph to his page on the site. It seemed unremarkable at first glance. It was a birthday cake – simple, chocolate-brown, serviceable, but nothing spectacular. Some wobbly cursive letters in red icing spelled out the simple message HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAN. The occasion was his second son’s 9th birthday. Isn’t that fun, I thought.

Then I read Eddie’s comment on the photograph. He said it was his “first” birthday cake. “Yes, I am proud of myself,” he wrote. The picture coupled with the comment, coming almost one year into Eddie’s life as a widower, hit me like a ton of bricks.

For twenty years, most of my adult life, I have been writing creatively. And I know from that experience that one of the hardest things to execute in literature is a consequential short story. They’re easy to read, fun to enjoy and discuss, but damned near impossible to write. The very best ones, by writers with genuine talent, are great not because of head-shaking twists and turns in the plot or million-dollar vocabulary words. The truly great stories are impressive because they contain small moments of gravity. They draw attention to simple things, easy to overlook, but with so much unspoken truth compressed into their tiny packages. But trying to concoct one of those moments, those extraordinary details, where it did not exist before is a skill that I truly believe takes a lifetime to master.

Eddie’s first birthday cake, captured in an ordinary photograph, is that kind of detail for me. If I had come across it in a short story, it would have reached off the page and grabbed me by the throat. If you want to know why I explain it this way, I can only say that writers tend to be insular, and a little obsessive in their attention to detail. Almost everything, for us, is initially understood in a literary context. But I’m not trying to turn this into a writing lesson. I know it’s larger than that.

I’m also not trying to lionize Eddie specifically because he threw himself into a role he did not have to fill before. I can practically hear him telling me not to do that. The circumstances of his life now are such that he is the one who must bake the birthday cakes, if anyone is going to do it. He had to make that cake. You don’t just let a child’s birthday fall to the wayside, uncelebrated, because he has lost one of his parents.

So I’m not writing to say my friend Eddie is some kind of hero or candidate for sainthood for baking a cake. What I am saying is that he has shown the way, once again, a man might behave if he were to find himself in the same situation. A man in his shoes could go out and hire a nanny. He could ease up on his workload and lay off trying to help others. Or he could withdraw, start drinking, feel sorry for himself, alienate people; he might completely crack up. If he did any of these things, or even all of them, I think most people might at least understand why.

But there is another thing a man could do, too, if his life took this unexpected turn. He could rise up, accept the challenge, and face the future fearlessly.

Have I not shown that, in many ways, Eddie Moscone has been living his whole life this way? Thus, might I also conclude that even something as seemingly “small” as planning, preparing, baking and then presenting his very first birthday cake, in order to celebrate the young son he brought into existence with the wife he has lost, is in itself an act of bravery?

As I have written, Eddie has had a courageous soul from the start. He is capable of withstanding this devastating loss, as he is proving with every new day. For now there is precious little left for him to fear.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Call Me Ahab

Here now is my attempt to explain to the legions of readers of this blog what exactly I am doing in this obsessive, some might say downright crazy, “reading experiment” I’ve decided to take on for 2010. Why explain here? To further clarify the matter for myself, mainly, which I have made other attempts to do here and elsewhere, the most recent of which was recently when my wife asked me what the heck I was doing and why. I didn’t do a very good job of articulating it, so I’ll try to do better here, since I am better in this form that I am “on my feet”, as it were.

The idea came to me because I was really wanting to take what I thought of as a kind of literary sabbatical or what is sometimes called a sabbatical year. A sabbatical is broadly defined by Merriam-Webster as “a break or change from a normal routine”. A sabbatical year is further defined as “a leave often with pay [cue LAUGH TRACK]….for rest, travel, or research”. I’ve often thought that if I was a good enough or talented enough writer I would love to spend time in one of those high-falutin writer’s colonies, such as Yaddo or Breadloaf, where they allow you to stay there for free and work exclusively on your writing with a community of other working writers. Many of my favorite writers have done this before. But you have to be invited to such things, and I’m not even able to break into print with my fiction, so this door is closed to me for the present.

It also occurred to me that I started writing fiction seriously in 1990, which is now 20 years ago. Also, I was born in 1970, which is 40 years ago. Both of those things coming upon an even anniversary made it seem like a good time to take some kind of pause or a break from the usual routine and to assess from where I have come and where I am going.

Usually when someone goes on a sabbatical they go off to some other place, a getaway, where they can seclude themselves and get some work done. But I lack both the freedom and the resources to do that. I have a wife and three small kids and my place is with all of them. That’s when it occurred to me – sometime last summer – that if I can’t spend a year in a real place on sabbatical, I could “spend” a year on a kind of literary sabbatical. I could go to a place that doesn’t actually exist, or exists only in books. I could do some kind of year-long project or study, take some notes, see what comes out of it.

Earlier in the summer just by chance I had purchased two copies of used Herman Melville novels, Mardi and Redburn. I also had intended over the last two or three years to re-read one of my all-time favorite books, Moby-Dick, which I have only read once, about ten years ago in 2000. Furthermore, there was a book that came out a few years ago called Melville: His World and His Work by Andrew Delbanco that I also have a copy of and was interested in reading. Somehow I managed to corrall all of those facts into my head at once, and after kicking around the idea of having a “Melvillepalooza” some time in 2008 in which I read a few of his books in a row, but never having delivered on this idea (Duke stole it for his “Four Course Meal of Faulkner” last year!), it suddenly occurred to me that my “sabbatical”, if I took one, could center on the works of Herman Melville.

But what really made the idea stick, for me, was a silly little detail, something that is sort of ridiculous on the surface. But when taken in the context of all the previous thoughts that were running through my head, it seemed like a kind of confirmation of the entire enterprise. That’s the simple fact that I live in Pennsylvania, which is noted, among other things, for being a state in which an inordinate amount of the towns seem to have names that end in the suffix ­–ville. The town I live in is called Breinigsville. Nearby is Schnecksville. There are towns in this state called Millersville, Greensville, Harrisville, Manorsville, Mechanicsville, Pleasantville, Quarryville, Wernersville, Yackville, Elizabethville, and on and on. Thus, I knew the imaginary place I could spend my own literary sabbatical: Melville, Pennsylvania.

This is a serious enterprise. Sure it’s nerdy as hell, and the concept of “going” to a fictional place might be goofy, but I think this can be an important and fruitful study. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. After his first two novels hit with a bang commercially, in 1846 (Typee) and 1847 (Omoo), Melville was continually underappreciated by critics and the public alike, until well after he died. People thought the material in those first two books, which were heavily autobiographical and based on his real experiences in the South Seas, was largely imaginary; when he did follow his own imaginative fancy in his third novel, Mardi, they rejected it as too austere and philosophical. When Moby-Dick came out in 1850, it was a flop. This being the same book which many people and critics regard as the best example of the great American novel.

That’s nothing next to the reaction some of his later work got. Check out the famous critical response in the New York Day Book to Melville’s next novel after Moby-Dick, called Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852): “…it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman …… [We learned that] his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.”

Melville only published one other full-length novel after that, called The Confidence-Man, which Duke has blogged on here. That, too, was not well received. After that, as the story goes, he managed to obtain a job in 1866 in the New York City Customs Department and worked at a desk job for the next twenty years. He died in financial distress and in personal and moral alienation. The unfinished manuscript he left behind after his death in 1891, Billy-Budd, Sailor, was not published until the 1920s. But when it was, it triggered a full Melville revival, which in some ways has not ended.

Though I’m not favorably comparing myself to Melville, there’s a lot of his story that I can relate to – financial duress, years of labor in writing, the struggle to be read or appreciated, the sense that the writing one does is for no positive gain, etc. In many ways Melville serves as kind of a patron saint for struggling American writers. Yet having said all that, I don’t know anybody personally, other than my brother, that actually still reads this man’s work. His novels are large; they go on and on about anything and everything; they don’t move easily or briskly, even though many of them have pretty crackling adventure stories. I honestly do not know how he even had the stamina to write as much as he did and in such exhaustive detail, particularly about life at sea, as he does in his first several novels, some of which I am still planning to get to this year, such as Redburn, White-Jacket and Billy Budd.

For my money, not only is Moby-Dick the greatest American novel, but it is also the greatest fictional study in literary history of mankind’s struggle against evil. It also delivers the most bang for the buck I’ve ever come across as far as having a satisfying and appropriate ending. The final showdown between Captain Ahab and the White Whale, and the end result, is for me one of the greatest conclusions ever written to a novel, if not the greatest. It justifies every moment of the exhausitve, 900-page slog you have to endure to get there. Reading that novel is to immerse yourself completely in the life and times of the men on the Pequod. Then, with some time, you come to appreciate the astounding volume and complexity of the themes his story dabbles in: death, sanity, obsession, romanticism, religion, God vs. Man, natural history, environmental concerns, Quakerism, racism, etc. It’s all there.

Everyone knows who Captain Ahab was; everyone knows what it means to say a person has a “white whale” (i.e., an obsession); everyone has heard the world-famous opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael”. All of these point towards the greatness of Herman Melville’s novel.

I think there will be many riches to discover throughout his work. I don’t mind taking my time and pressing through all of the long novels he wrote that I can get my hands on. And not all of his stories are about hunting whales. Typee and Omoo were adventure stories, but they were more about life on Polyponesian Islands in the South Pacific than about life at sea. The Confidence-Man is about a large group of hucksters and salesmen together on a river-boat voyage in middle America. Israel Potter is a historical novel about a soldier during the American Revolution. Clarel, an epic poem, is a book-length work about his travels in the Holy Land. His world famous short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is subtitled “A Story of Wall Street” and also brings one of his most famous lines in Bartleby's enigmatic and often-repeated statement, "I would prefer not to". Another famous short fiction work by Melville called “The Bell Tower” was the first short story ever to feature what amounted to a depiction of a robot! So you can see that there’s a lot more to Melville than just whales and obsessive Captains.

I think the bottom line is that I want to read and understand all of the work I can get my hands on by this man because he is one of the great American writers to ever contribute to our country’s canon and because I have my own leviathan, my own white whale, which is to become a successful fiction writer. It eludes me as much as Moby-Dick eluded Ahab, and I want to continue after it with Ahab-like perseverance. I want to do what it takes to track my own “whale” down. I want to follow in the great tradition of Melville and others like him, who emptied everything they had to give in the service of their craft.

If Melville had been a quitter and a true failure, he would have given up long before writing Moby-Dick, or while he was writing Moby-Dick, or after that. But he wasn’t. He was a courageous man and a great writer. And his work serves as an immovable and indestructible legacy to his God-given creativity and determination. That’s the instructor whose class I want to take. So I’m pitching my tent in Melville, Pennsylvania.

Friday, January 01, 2010

THE BEST FILMS I SAW IN 2009, by Duke Altum

Wow, first post of the new year... a new decade, even! 2009 was tough year for many people and we can only look forward to 2010 as a year of growth, change and hopefully, peace. On behalf of my co-conspirator and co-creator of this blog, Mutt Ploughman, I would like to wish everyone out there and very happy and peaceful new year, full of unexpected blessings and wisdom-gaining experiences.

As part of our annual year-end review on these pages, I thought I would share my personal list of the best films I saw in 2009. For this list, I don't only limit it to theaters - I mean things I have seen on DVD as well, since as the father of small children I don't get out to the movies very often. There is no restriction on year or genre: my list draws from anywhere and everywhere. I am just describing the films that lingered in my mind and impacted me the most from all that I happened to see this year.

The list is in no particular order, but I do have a favorite film that knocked me out more than any other I saw this year, so I am putting that last. It was hands-down my favorite and most memorable movie viewing experience in 2009; I simply cannot stop thinking about it since I saw it. I know it is destined to become one of my favorites, especially in its particular genre (which in this case happens to be horror).

One other note before we dive in: I had put together a list of my favorite films last year and thought I had posted it on this blog, but looking back at it now I see that I never did. So, in an attempt to share some more movies with readers that are well worth checking out, I will include that list as well... sans the original write-ups I did for them (don't want this post to get even longer and more bloated than it already is!). Hopefully when all is said and done, you will have read here about 20+ excellent movies that I contend are well worth your time, if you have an interest in film in any way.



Up, directed by Pete Docter (2009)

What it’s about: A 78-year-old curmudgeon who can’t get over the loss of his wife fulfills their mutual lifelong dream of journeying to South America, and re-discovers a sense of joy and adventure by giving of himself.

Why it made the list: Takes Pixar’s usual breathtaking animation and artistry, but then ups the ante with a deeply emotional and profound story of human love and commitment.

What surprised/stayed with me: The film’s opening montage which brilliantly captures an entire marriage, in all of its joys and difficulties, in about 10 dialog-free minutes. Beautiful and incredibly moving – enough to bring this reviewer to tears.

District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp (2009)

What it’s about: An alien ship has been stranded on earth due to mechanical problems, and the aliens themselves are forced to live in slums on the outskirts of Johannesburg while humanity tries to decide what to do with them (and their technology, specifically their weapons). Until a government beaurocrat is infected with a mysterious virus on a trip through the alien camp.

Why it made the list: I thought this film was flawed when I first saw it, but I admit it has stayed with me – largely due the intensely paced action and the originality of its premise. Also the performance of the lead, a non-actor named Sharlto Copely, is worth singling out since he basically carries the film, and does a credible job in a physically demanding role.

What surprised/stayed with me: As mentioned before, the relentless pace – and the special effects, which are extraordinary. In my opinion the movie descends into video-game style, shoot-em-up chaos in the third act, but up until then it is an intense ride that keeps you sweaty-palmed and riveted to the screen.

Waltz with Bashir, directed by Ari Folman (2008)

What it’s about: Part documentary, part history and part personal reminiscence, this searing and beautifully animated film is the result of a man trying to come to terms with his past experiences as a soldier who participated in a brutal and senseless massacre during the war between Israel and Lebanon.

Why it made the list: Folman’s decision to tell this harrowing and deeply personal story using animation (and what stunning, non-CGI animation it is!) works brilliantly with the material, giving the film an unusual tone that blurs the line between fantasy and reality, dream and memory. This is definitely one of the most powerful anti-war films I’ve ever seen.

What surprised/stayed with me: The film’s shift to actual live-action video at a key point in the drama packs an incredible emotional gut-punch: no one who sees it will soon forget it. The opening credits in which the viewer seems to be chased by angry dogs through darkened city streets is a tour-de-force of 2D animation.

Coraline, directed by Henry Selick (2009)

What it’s about: Stunningly beautiful stop-motion animation brings Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy to life. A young girl, routinely neglected by her working parents, finds a portal to a parallel world in which everything seems perfect – but of course, it isn’t.

Why it made the list: It’s the sheer artistry of this movie that makes it unforgettable. The story is familiar with its Alice in Wonderland overtones and young protagonist working out her issues in the land of make believe. But Selick’s masterful execution is like nothing I’ve seen before. You simply will not believe that digital technology wasn’t used to create the jaw-dropping visuals that fill the screen with extraordinary detail and color.

What surprised/stayed with me: Again, it’s the amazing visual style that kept me riveted to this movie. The haunting opening credit sequence is a perfect indicator of both the artistic genius and the creepy mood this movie sustains throughout.

Happy-Go-Lucky, directed by Mike Leigh (2008)

What it’s about: A few days in the life of “Poppy” Cross, a kindergarten teacher with a sunny outlook on life and a child’s sense of wonder and naughty humor. It’s the rarest of character studies in which the protagonist is a happy and relatively simple person who enjoys her life and tries to make the most of it.

Why it made the list: First, I think it’s really refreshing to see someone attempt to make a film about a happy person – it’s easy to do evil and calamity on screen, but quite a challenge to portray goodness and happiness. Second, Sally Hawkins’ performance as Poppy is extraordinary, and all the more so when you realize that this is a Mike Leigh film, which means it has no working script: all of the dialogue is improvised on the spot. You can’t help but smile at her goofiness – but also her compassion.

What surprised/stayed with me: How much Hawkins made me care about her character. On the surface, I’ve got nothing in common with a young, single female schoolteacher from Britain, but Hawkins makes you interested in how such a cheery person can get on in the world we live in… and she also shatters the stereotypes that a “happy-go-lucky” person must also be a fool.

Session 9 and [REC], directed by Brad Anderson & Jaume Balagueró/Paco Plaza (2001/2007)

What they’re about: I’m putting these two small horror films together in one entry because both, though flawed, scored very high on one critical element of horror filmmaking: atmosphere. Session 9 is entirely shot in a long-abandoned, notorious mental institution in Massachusetts, wherein apparently many of the rooms are shot exactly as they were found (!!) – trust me, the building itself is easily the star of this movie and it is VERY creepy. [REC] combines two very popular conventions these days – zombie outbreaks and “found footage” – but does so in a very convincing way with some shock moments that will truly make you jump.

Why they made the list: Session 9’s obvious touchpoint is The Shining, and like its predecessor, it’s all about the setting. The actors talked about how utterly unnerving it was to film in this abandoned asylum where supposedly some horrific stuff happened to the patients (in real life!). A scene where a guy who’s afraid of the dark is trying to run out of a long underground corridor as the lights go out is convincingly terrifying. With [REC], the directors found a way to scare you with very familiar material, and the final sequence shot entirely in a pitch-black apartment is comparable with the end of Blair Witch. You know what’s coming but it’s still incredibly tense.

What surprised/stayed with me: How much both of these films unnerved me, despite the fact that neither storyline is that original and some weak performances. [REC] was unfortunately remade in this country as Quarantine (and apparently pretty well, though with no real changes), but I always like to go with the original.

Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman (2001)

What it’s about: A classic Agatha Christie-type British whodunit, elevated to the highest level by an all-star British cast (Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Emily Watson, Kelly MacDonald, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi… should I go on??) and the smooth, sure directorial hand of Robert Altman. How could you possibly go wrong here?

Why it made the list: Superb acting, superb settings, superb direction, superb script… seriously, if you are a film buff in any way, this movie is simply a feast. It is extremely entertaining, wickedly witty and surprisingly interesting in its examination of the social hierarchies within a traditional British estate – both “upstairs” (the snobbish upper class of the fading British aristocracy) and “downstairs” (the legions of servants and workers who dote on them but mercilessly gossip when they’re out of earshot).

What surprised/stayed with me: This movie was very much marketed and sold as a murder-mystery-comedy (I still remember the excellent tagline on its poster: “Tea at Four. Dinner at Eight. Murder at Midnight.”), which is why I was very surprised by the unexpected emotional punch the film delivers in the final act. It was one of the year’s true pleasures to watch some of the world’s finest actors and one of the greatest directors of all time work their magic in this sumptuous, smart and utterly engrossing film.

Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972)

What it’s about: An astronaut, floundering emotionally from the loss of his wife, is called to investigate a remote space station because several of his colleagues there haven’t been heard from in years. When he gets there, he encounters an alien force that is able to make elements from the crew’s psyches physically present.

Why it made the list: Tarkovsky films are certainly not for everyone – they are always long, meditative, deliberately slow-paced, and open to multiple interpretations. The storyline takes a second place to the artistic composition and the mood, but for my money these are always superb in his films. I found this movie to be a fascinating philosophical exploration of loss, the effects of space travel, and the inadequacy of man’s mind before the awesome mysteriousness of the universe. There are many scenes and images that I don’t expect to forget any time soon – and the conclusion is both poignant and haunting.

What surprised/stayed with me: How unsettling and freaky this movie was in parts. I had always thought it was a kind of sci-fi romance, and it is in its way, but I didn’t realize how genuinely creepy this movie’s tone is – it almost feels like a horror film in places. Its influence looms large on films like Alien, and I never knew how much a rip-off Sphere is until I saw this!

The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton (1961)

What it’s about: Based on the Henry James’ classic A Turn of the Screw, this is a supremely creepy ghost story set on an English estate in which a nanny comes to take care of two children whose mother has passed away. She begins to have visions of the children’s mother around the house and her own grip on sanity begins to crumble.

Why it made the list: This films is masterpiece of atmosphere, and it might win my award for getting under one’s skin the quickest: before you even see an image on the screen, even a movie studio logo, you hear a child singing this mournful, incredibly creepy English folk tune – and you’re already completely freaked out! From there the film slowly ratchets up the eerie and ominous mood. It also boasts gorgeous black and white photography throughout, which has to be seen to be appreciated.

What surprised/stayed with me: How well this movie holds up after almost 50 years – no special effects, no violence to speak of, no great big shock moments, but it still manages to be very unsettling and downright frightening at times. It’s definitely one of the most effective and well-shot ghost movies I’ve ever seen, a true classic of the genre.

And finally, my choice for the single best film I saw in 2009…

Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson (2008)

What it’s about: The life of a lonely, picked-on preteen boy gets turned upside down when a girl about his age moves into his working class apartment complex – he falls hopelessly in love with her, only to find out she is a vampire. Which of course adds to his attraction and fascination. But this is about as far away from the romantic Twilight-y take on the vampire mythos as you can get.

Why it made the list: The film’s eerie and unsettling mix of elements such as the innocence of first love, the loneliness of adolescence, Exorcist-style horror elements and the bleak, snowbound Scandanavian landscape make it an unforgettable cinematic experience that gets under your skin and stays there. Creepy as hell but also beautifully shot. There are several stunning scenes and moments, such as a vampire bursting into flames when the sunlight hits her, or the sight of young Eli scittering up the face of a building like some kind of mutant spider.

What surprised/stayed with me: The performance of both of the child stars, especially Lena Leandersson as Eli (the vampire girl) – their scenes together are touching and achingly believable, and Leandersson is by turns sweet and vicious. And the final showdown, which is incredibly violent but it all takes place off camera, is one of the most uniquely-shot sequences of its kind I’ve ever seen.

Honorable mentions (just barely missed the list): Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams (2009); Five Easy Pieces, directed by Bob Rafelson (1970); The Brood, directed by David Cronenberg (1979); Moon, directed by Duncan Jones (2009); Memories of Murder, directed by Bong Joon-ho (2003); Vampyr, directed by Carl Dreyer (1932); Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, directed by Sacha Gervasi (2008); Salesman, directed by Albert and David Maysles (1968)


The 7-Up Series, directed by Michael Apted (1964-2007)
Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder (1950)
Wall-E, directed by Andrew Stanton (2008)
Once, directed by John Carney (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, directed by Andrew Dominik (2008)
Deep Water, directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell (2006)
The Orphanage, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (2007)
There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)
The Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2007)
Man With a Movie Camera, directed by Dziga Vertov (1929)