Saturday, January 5, 2008

My personal best and worst

Another holiday season has come to a close here at the ancestral manse. Today in a rare burst of energy I took down the tree and the somewhat austere decorations I'd thrown up around the front door. The cats watched it go with the same blank puzzlement they'd accorded its arrival. Unlike us, they have no sense of time passing, no reference with which to mark another year gone by. They have no vague unease at things undone, of possibilities wasted. They do not rue overeating and overdrinking. Perhaps somewhere in the periphery of their feline minds, they'll miss not having ornaments to bat to the carpet, but that's about it.

We're not so lucky. Like Janus, the Roman god for which this month is named, we gaze forward and we gaze back, ignoring the present. There's a reason lists are so popular at this time of year. It's the reassurance of enumerating the things we've done, the hope in adding up the things we mean to do. Also, for writers, it's a lot easier than coming up with an original idea.

In that spirit, here's my own very short little list (which I'll be updating over the next couple of days as I think of stuff):

Best fiction I read in 2007: Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. Sixteeen-year-old Ree Dolly sets out to find her drug-dealing dad and finds blood relations are no match for the code of silence that rules the Ozarks. Woodrell's sharply-drawn characters are harsh but human, and exude not a droplet of false sentiment.
The worst: Promise Me, by Harlan Coben. Series character Myron Bolitar blusters his way across New Jersey delivering cringe-inducing one-liners (or, more often, two- and three-liners) to an array of one-dimensional antagonists. There's a plot about missing girls, and a pair of preposterous assassins, but it doesn't matter. The book is a mess.

Best two movies I saw in 2007: Michael Clayton and The Lives of Others. Even those who hate George Clooney will appreciate the clever, nuanced writing that elevates this tale of corporate murder and coverup. I still think Tilda Swinton deserves an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a desperately ruthless executive, but her name doesn't seem to be coming up very often. Speaking of nuance, The Lives of Others was one of those Netflix surprises -- you hear a friend recommend a movie, and you check it out, not expecting very much. This story of police-state surveillance in 198os East Germany works as both a thriller and a deliberately-paced character study. You don't see that very often. Watching this, I was struck by how refreshing it is to see a movie that doesn't have big-name American stars, and a script rewritten to serve more as a celebrity "vehicle" than a real story about real people.

Worst movie (well, the worst of those considered good by most critics): Ratatouille. If you've seen one of these animated, fun-for-the-whole-family, celebrity-voiced confections, you've seen them all. Haven't you? These things are all good, technically, and they can be fun in the way stuffing your mouth with cannoli is fun, but they are not art. Finally, Ratatouille is another formulaic cartoon about finding one's dreams, and I am no longer amused.


Maxine said...

I loved Winter's Bone, too. Brilliant. I didn't hate the Coben as much as you, but it certainly wasn't his best.
I loved Lives of Others. Haven't seen the other films you mention.
I saw a DVD of "Tell No One" last night (another Coben book)-- it was really great! Mainly because it was French, which you would not have known from the Amazon rental page, the DVD cover or the DVD itself. But the transposition works really well. Give it a try next time you are on Netflix!

Happy new year to you. Nice to see you posting.

Peter said...

That's the best worst list I've seen. There's a certain exhilaration in seeing spleen vented literately and constructively. The explorations of feline consciousness were also something one does not run into every day.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Uriah Robinson said...

I haven't read Winter's Bone but Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red was my discovery of the year.

And I have just seen I can rent The Lives of Others and Tell No One from my cable supplier!

Dave Knadler said...

Maxine, thanks for the tip on Tell No One. My Netflix queue is running on empty.

Peter, I'm pretty sure feline consciousness is an utterly blank slate, onto which I project my own misgivings.

Uriah, I've been looking for Tomato Red ever since you blogged about it so many months ago. I guess it's finally time to order it from Powell's.

Peter said...

I asked for Tell No One at my friendly neighborhood video store and got no result. This was a mild surprise, since that store has a good stock of foreign movies and non-blockbusters; perhaps I should ask for the movie under the French title.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Cameron Hughes said...

So very glad I'm not alone in thinking PROMISE ME was a pitiful return to Myron Bolitar.

I wanted to slit my wrists at every 9/11 Widow scene