Episode 106 – The Magic Circle

Virtual Memories Show:
Matt Farber – The Magic Circle

“You don’t want a generation of children to be content consumers. They need to be the next generation of content creators.”

mattpicEducator (and high school pal) Matthew Farber joins the show to talk about his new book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning. We talk about edutainment’s bad rep, developing good games for students, getting getting buy-in from faculty, administration and — most importantly — students, the subjects that benefit most from game-based learning, and why Pandemic is the best game he’s ever used to teach. I also vent about how primitive the technology was when Matt & I were in school, compared to having 3-D printers in the classroom nowadays. Oh, and we get around to dismissing Roger Ebert’s claim that games are not art! Give it a listen!

“A project isn’t good if it’s each student doing his own thing and glue-sticking it to poster-board.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.39.43 AM

We went out for pizza after. There are perks to recording a podcast at Chez Virtual Memories!

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:

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About our Guest

Matthew Farber teaches social studies at Valleyview Middle School, in Denville, NJ, and is the author of Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning. He is a blogger for Edutopia and KQED/MindShift, a member of the GlassLab Teacher Network, and has playtested for the Institute of Play and BrainPOP. He is a past recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Teacher Fellowship, which sent him on an Earthwatch expedition, and the North Jersey Director for the New Jersey Council of the Social Studies. Mr. Farber holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Technology from New Jersey City University, where he is currently an Educational Technology Leadership Doctoral Candidate. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Laura, son, Spencer, and Weimaraner, Lizzie. You can find him on twitter @matthewfarber.

Credits: This episode’s music is The Glass Bead Game by Thievery Corporation. The conversation was recorded on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photos of Mr. Farber by Amy Roth.

Exorcism Weekend

If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.

–Soren Kierkegaard

Ever wonder where all those Unrequired Reading links come from? I use NetNewsWire for my RSS reader. It helps me keep track of 150+ RSS feeds, and has its own browser for feeds that I want to click through. The problem is, I have a tendency to save tabs “for later”, and there are presently more than 60 browser windows open in the program.

I save some pages for my own edification, not necessarily for posting. Still, I have a feeling all these tabs are starting to impair my computer’s ability to keep me happy, so I’ve decided to thin out the ranks today. After all, there are also more than 800 unread items in the feed. That’s about two days’ accumulation of feeds. I’ll zap through some of them en masse, but read some of the others pretty intently.

So let’s go through a whole ton of links that I meant to write about, but never got around to and likely never will! I’ll even share the “just for me” links, goofy as they are! (I thought about writing this as 88 Lines about 44 Links, but didn’t think I’d be able to make it all rhyme; sorry.)

Orwell

I meant to write a whole lot about George Orwell, and that’s why the following links have been sitting in my tabs for so darned long.

The Masterpiece That Killed George Orwell – Orwell’s last days on Jura, writing 1984. (5/10/09)

Oxford Literary Festival: George Orwell’s son speaks for the first time about his father – Richard Blair was only 6 when his adoptive dad died, but he liked life on Jura. (3/15/09)

TS Eliot’s snort of rejection for Animal Farm – Ha-ha! You were wrong, Tough Shit! (3/29/09)

A Fine Rage – James Wood on Orwell. I haven’t read this yet; the link is only for an abstract, and I’m not a New Yorker subscriber, so I gotta hit the library sometime and find the original. Sure sounds interesting, and it’s got a great Ralph Steadman illo of Orwell. (4/13/09)

Eternal Vigilance – Keith Gessen on Orwell’s essays, eventually getting around to the problematic nature of my favorite one: Inside the Whale. (5/28/09)

Bumming Smokes in Paris and London: George Orwell’s Obsession with Tobacco – I once argued that the real horror of 1984 isn’t the rats in a cage or the police busting down the door, but rather the dull razor blades and the cigarettes that fall apart. This PopMatters article may cover that, but it’s SEVEN PAGES LONG and the single-page version is poorly formatted and won’t resize in my browser. So I’ll never know. (6/19/09)

Curse Ye, Orwell! – I hadn’t gotten around to reading this Popmatters article about the limitations of Orwell’s Why I Write essay till now, but it strikes me that the author takes Orwell’s writing as far too canonical and literal. Pfeh. (1/22/10)

Libraries

I wanted to write about the thinning out of my library. I had some thoughts about the process of admitting that there are books you will never get around to reading, a theme I hit on before, and how my tastes and interests have changed.

Shelf Life – William H. Gass on his library. (12/07)

Longing for Great Lost Works – Stephen Marche on the (maybe) wonderful books, plays and poems that were lost. Sorta like all the blog-posts I abandoned, right? (4/18/09)

Books do furnish a life – Roger Ebert on the books that mount up in his office library. (10/5/09)

Antilibraries – Jason Kottke on Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Umberto Eco on how the books we haven’t read menace us. (6/1/09)

2009 Commencement Address by Daniel Mendelsohn – Beautiful story about why we read the classics, which would’ve helped (in part) with my justification for tossing many contemporary/ephemeral books from my library. (5/15/09)

Middlebrow Messiahs – A review of a book about the history of the Great Books as a commercial concept. The book is uncharitable toward St. John’s College, where I went to grad school, but the reviewer takes the writer to task for that. (1/16/09)

Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor – Here’s another essay inspired by that book and the idea of middlebrow culture striving for intellectual achievement. Obviously, I was going to write some sort of essay about my time at St. John’s around this. (10/5/09)

The Arcadia Fire

Speaking of the classics, destroying libraries, and the conversation with the past, I really wanted to write about Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. I may still. Here are the first few paragraphs of an abortive attempt:

I’ve written before about my evolving relationship with works of art (mainly books, movies and music) and their touchstone-y nature in my life. I think my best take on it was my year-end post in 2008 — I’ve written plenty on works that meant a lot to me once upon a time, but make me cringe now, as well as works that have grown in my estimation over the years.

Sometimes I think I’ve neglected to tell you about the works that have retained their importance to me all these years. Partly it’s because of how familiar I am with them, how much they’ve come to inform who I am and how I understand things. Partly it’s because I’m afraid that I’ll fail to do them justice, that I’ll come up short in my descriptions of them and their importance.

I could give you a list of books that have stuck with me all this time, beginning with Orwell’s essays and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and it’d be a nice counterweight to my 0-fer series, where I celebrate all the lacunae in my reading universe.

Which brings me to Arcadia.

Eh. Here are some of the links that would’ve woven into the piece.

Et In Arcadia – Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variaion kicked things off for me by noting two revivals of Arcadia in D.C. and London. (5/15/09)

Warmly, an ‘Arcadia’ That’s Most Calculating – Peter Marks at The Washington Post reviews the D.C. revival. I imagine that the editor who wrote that headline must be very difficult to understand in conversation. (5/15/09)

Dinner with the FT: Sir Tom Stoppard – Illuminating conversation covering the London revival of Arcadia and Stoppard’s adaptation of Chekhov. Plus you get to find out what they spent on the meal.(5/15/09)

Books

Interview: Katherine Dunn – I could’ve sworn I posted this AV Club interview with Katherine “Geek Love” Dunn before, but I’m not finding any link for it on the site. Oops. (5/21/09)

Outsmarted – Another big John Lanchester review/essay in The New Yorker about finance. I’m undecided about reading his new book on the subject, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. (6/1/09)

50 Must-Read Novels from the 20th Century – Do you miss that Literary 0-fers series I used to post, about authors and series I’ve never read a word of? I was going to use this list for that. Since it has White Noise on the list and describes it as “beautifully postmodern,” you don’t really have to subject yourself to this one.

When Lit Blew Into Bits – This was going to be near the center for my Books of the Decade post, which got derailed when a pal of mine died unexpectedly. It’s got some neat arguments, even if it neglects to mention that Oscar Wao is a prose hybrid-rewrite of the Hernandez Bros.’ Love & Rockets comics. (12/6/09)

Rilke the clay pot – I wish I had the stamina to make it through this review of a new translation of Rilke’s poems, a new bio and a collection his correspondence with Lou Andreas-Salomé. Alas, I’m going to delete it after six months. (9/16/09)

The Hack – How did Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ time as a journalist affect his prose? Sadly, I don’t care enough to finish the article. (Jan/Feb 2010)

Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy – A rare interview with Cormac McCarthy. I don’t dig his work very much, but it’s a fascinating conversation. (11/20/09)

Court of Opinion – A New York Magazine book club-style discussion of Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball. I quit reading that book after discovering that the Robert Horry writeup consisted of a 3-page reprint of one of Simmons’ columns. Still, it was fun to get other people’s perspectives. (12/8/09)

Movies

Vulcan: The Soul of Spock – A video essay from Matt Zoller Seitz on Spock-As-Othello. (5/6/09)

Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann, Pt. 1: Vice Precedent – Zoller Seitz also did a series of video essays on Michael Mann’s movies, partly focusing on the idea that Mann is obsessed with work, albeit not in the way that Charlie Kaufman’s scripts all seem to be about work and how it defines us. (7/1/09)

The Ubiquitous Anderson – A video essay about the pernicious influence of Wes Anderson, from the prism of Rian Johnson’s movie The Brothers Bloom. I haven’t watched this yet and, since I didn’t like The Brothers Bloom very much, probably won’t. (5/21/09)

Quentin Tarantino lists his top films of 2009Star Trek was #1, so whatever.(12/14/09)

Bourgeois Surrender

A pal of mine from St. John’s has been blogging under that handle for a while. I’ve reposted him from time to time.

Music Post – I haven’t clicked through all the links to the music and videos. Glad we share an affinity for the Pet Shop Boys. (Gayyyy. . . .) (10/5/09)

Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium” – B.S. is a good reader (and re-reader) of books, plays and poetry, so I’ve saved some of the ones for pieces that I’ve yet to read.

Shelley: “Ode to the West Wind” – I wish I read more poetry. (11/4/09)

Julius Caesar: Part I and Part II – Embarrassingly, I haven’t read Julius Caesar yet. I really oughtta get on that. (4/25/09 and 5/1/09)

People Must Love a Good Blog Post – He covers a couple of subjects, but focuses on Hollywood of the 1970’s, considered via Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, (or How the Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood).

Books in a Digital Age – I’m afraid this long Sven Birkerts’ essay will boil down to “books good, internet bad,” but I haven’t read it yet. Given the nature of this post of mine, he’s probably right. (Spring 2010)

Comics

Interview: Joe Sacco – I’m saving this till I read Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza. (1/18/10)

Preface to Mid-Life Creative Imperatives, Part 1 of 3 – Springboarding off Jeet Heer’s post about what great cartoonists did in their middle-age, Gary Groth recently wrote an epic take on the subject. I think. Approaching 40, I was interested in the topic, but feared I wouldn’t finish reading it before turning 50. (2/24/10)

CR Holiday Interviews #9 (Jeet Heer) and #11 (Timothy Hodler) – Tom Spurgeon at Comics Reporter published a great series of interviews around the holidays. I pulled a couple of them and keep meaning to go back and read the whole shebang, but I was most interested in checking out these guys, who are both good comics critics. (12/29/09 and 12/31/09)

Etc.

The Architect of 9/11 – I haven’t gotten around to reading these posts about Mohamed Atta, and how his architecture background may have influenced his radicalism and his role in 9/11. (9/8/09)

The Chess Master and the Computer – I was gonna tie this Garry Kasparov review into a conversation I had c.1994 about how the changeover to CD and digital recording may have subtly affected the way music was played and recorded. Nowadays, some artists are recording in ways that play to the narrower range of MP3 compression and/or ringtone speakers, and I’m glad to be vindicated in that. Playing chess against computers changes the way we learn and play chess. (2/11/10)

Ennui Becomes Us – A National Interest article about how the world’s going to hell or something, as per the second law of thermodynamics. No, seriously: information entropy is behind everything. It’s like Thomas Pynchon c. 1965. (12/16/09)

Seizing the Opportunity to Destroy Western Civilization – Speaking of which, World War I was a black swan. (3/4/10)

Edge People – The latest installment in Tony Judt’s memoirs, post-ALS. (2/23/10)

The agony of a body artist – I’m not sure what I was going to do with this Roger Ebert blog post about performance artist Chris Burden. (10/14/09)

Andy Warhol’s TV – I still wanna write about Plimpton and Warhol and celebrity in New York. I’ll probably get some good material out of watching these Warhol TV shows from the ’80’s.(7/1/09)

NYC Grid

I love Paul Sahner’s daily photo-essays of New York, one block at a time on NYC Grid. But I fell behind last month, and have a couple of them tabbed (as well as a bunch as unread news items).

Just For Me

The Essential Home Bar – I care about my gin. (2/18/10)

This year, I started to care about how I dress, so I have some men’s fashion sites in my RSS.

Feature: Footwear With Jesse Thorn of PutThisOn.com – I need some variety in my shoes, okay? (3/9/10)

The Pants After Jeans – It’s difficult for me to find a pair of pants that fit well (not too tight in the crotchal region, not too balloony for the rest of the leg). (2/28/10)

I still want to get back to fiction writing someday. So:

Ten rules for writing fiction – A bunch of writers offer up their antidote to Elmore Leonard’s weird 10 rules. It took me a while to start it, because I’m that good at procrastinating when it comes to my own writing. (2/20/10)

How to Write a Great Novel: Junot Diaz, Anne Rice, Margaret Atwood and Other Authors Tell – Sort of a shorthand version of those Paris Review Writers At Work interviews. (11/13/09)

Overcoming Creative Block – Strategies visual artists use to get out of a rut. There’s some good stuff in here. I’m sure one technique is to quit reading so many RSS feeds. (2/10/10)

Unrequired Reading: Jan. 29, 2010

Yeahyeah: first post in a while. I’m still struggling with my thoughts, writing, etc. I got re-walloped a few days ago by the news that a pal of mine from St. John’s dropped dead of an aneurysm at 36 last week (she was an undergrad when I was there as an, um, overgrad.) I have ups and downs, but I’m trying to get back to the regular posts — Unrequired Reading and What It Is — and hope to get around to some other stuff.

So just click “more” already!

Continue reading “Unrequired Reading: Jan. 29, 2010”

Man Out Of Time: Movies

Introduction | Music | Movies | Comics | Sports | Books

A few months ago, I listened to a Bill Simmons podcast in which he and guest Chris Connelly discussed the “movie of the decade.” Simmons’ criteria were

  1. Excellence when it came out
  2. Rewatchability
  3. Originality

but they were somewhat compromised by the fact that Simmons’ job consists of sitting at home, watching TV, and writing columns. He does good work, but someone who has the TV on 16 hours a day is going to have some odd ideas about the second and third of those criteria.

Anyway, both men had some odd choices — O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the Coen Brothers’ best movie, Chris? The Dark Knight is rewatchable, Bill? And you’re considering The Departed, even though it’s a remake? — but it sparked an interesting conversation. Connelly initially drew a blank when asked about movies of the decade, pointing out that movies during this period “really bifurcated.”

He said, “You had movies you admired, and movies that were popcorn movies. It was not a good decade for the twining of the two. The economics of movies meant that they had to be thrill rides. And all the critical metrics of how you assess these movies flew right out the window. . . . Guys who could make the high/low movie, they just didn’t do it this decade, because the economics were baited.”

My initial thought when he said this was, “Well, Spielberg wasn’t making as many movies this decade, so that must account for the shortfall.” Because if anyone can negotiate storytelling with studio expectations, it’s Steven Spielberg. Then I opened up his IMDB page and realized that he actually directed more movies this decade than last. They just weren’t good.

1990s

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Amistad (1997)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Schindler’s List (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Hook (1991)

2000s

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Munich (2005)

War of the Worlds (2005)

The Terminal (2004)

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Minority Report (2002)

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)

(Some people like Minority Report, but that just means they didn’t actually watch the movie. See, the whole minority report turned out to be a Macguffin, and the only thing that would’ve made the story compelling would be if the cops were busting people days and days before they committed a crime, not mere moments before. I understand how the latter is better for the sake of thriller-tude, but the issue of “psychic profiling” becomes a lot more ambiguous if the criminals-to-be have no idea they’re going to be committing a crime. I know some people like AI, but that just means that they’ve failed a Turing Test and are actually automatons of some kind.)

Connelly concluded that TV was where the great movies were, citing The Sopranos (beginning in 1999) as the movie of the decade, and The Wire as the great indie movie of the era.

Simmons began the conversation by offering up Almost Famous (2000) then revised his pick and went with The Dark Knight (2009). He recanted that position in a recent podcast, presumably after realizing that, despite its technical virtuosity and a great performance by Heath Ledger (although I’m convinced that if Ledger hadn’t OD’d, it would have just been another big superhero movie, not the Titanic of this decade), it has ridiculous plot-holes, the third act goes on about 2 days too long, and the wrong villain dies.

Still, their conversation got me thinking about the topic, and how it differs from my Favorite Movies of the Decade list (below: have patience!). Since I see relatively few movies, I feel pretty unqualified to offer up candidates for “movie of the decade.” I mean, Borat (2006) was a monstrous success in comedy, and pretty re-watchable. The first Saw (2004) also made huge box office was pretty influential on the horror genre. (I never watched it; I’m not a horror fan.) I find 300 (2006) pretty darn entertaining, and I’ll stick with it for a little while if I notice it while channel-surfing. It too was a massive and unexpected hit. I never saw Gladiator (2000), so I have no idea how “movie of the decade” it is, outside of the fact that it inspired a bunch of sword-and-sandals flicks. Similarly, the Lord of the Rings cycle (2001, 2002, 2003) was a massive success that inspired a wave of cookie-cutter “let’s build a movie franchise out of a series of fantasy novels” releases. My wife and I have a tradition of watching the trilogy annually around New Year’s Eve/Day. She always gets mad when I tell her that the moral of the story is that evil is too clumsy to win.

But the whole theme of my decade-trospective posts is Man Out Of Time, so I have to go to 1999 to find my “movie of the decade”: Three Kings.

I’ve seen Three Kings three times: in the theater, the night before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and two weeks ago, in preparation for this post. Because if this decade’s going to be defined as The Bush Years, then one of the best warnings we had for What Went Wrong is David O. Russell‘s caper movie about Gulf War I.

The plot of Three Kings is pretty simple: after the ceasefire at the end of the first Gulf War, three Army reservists discover a map for a cache of gold that Iraq plundered from Kuwait. A special forces major — played by George Clooney, first seen having sex with Judy Greer (yay!) — finds out their secret, and the four head off to steal some gold.

Of course, it all goes awry. The guys find the gold, but also discover that the Iraqi army is too busy brutally suppressing internal revolt to bother protecting the treasure. The major changes the mission mid-stream to save the dissenters, leading the men into disaster. One winds up dead, another gets captured and tortured, the humanitarian mission almost leads to the death of all the Iraqis it’s supposed to save, and media embeds are manipulated to spin the war and the caper. Oh, and the dissidents’ only hope is to flee into the arms of Iran.

All this movie needs is roadside bombs and some beheadings by extra-national jihadis, and we’d have a blueprint for why Gulf War II was never going to work! But don’t take my word for it; here’s Clooney’s Major Gates and his commanding officer near the movie’s start:

Major Gates: I don’t even know what we did here. Just tell me what we did here, Ron!

CO: What do you want? To occupy Iraq and go through Vietnam all over again? Is that what you want? Is that your brilliant idea?

Later in the movie, Gates is trying to convince a rebel fighter to give him a fleet of cars in order to rescue a soldier. The fighter says he has no money for food, prompting Gates to launch into pep rally mode:

Major Gates: Listen to me! We will rise up together! Rise up! Look at us! Many races, many nations, working together. We’re united. George Bush — George Bush wants you! Stand up for yourself!

Rebel: George Bush?

Gates: Yes! Wants you! Wants you! Wants everyone to rise up! George Bush wants you! He wants you! You have to fight for freedom on your own, and America will follow! God bless America and God bless a free Iraq! [cheers of throngs] Now what do you say, my friend?

Rebel: Can not give car.

Gates: Okay. I guess we’ll buy ’em.

Interestingly, the only character who’s “right” is the one who just wants to take the gold and leave the locals to their ugly fate. He’s the one (played by Mark Wahlberg) that gets tortured by an Iraqi soldier who’s been trained by the U.S. and who — in another wonderfully prescient moment — begins his interrogation by asking, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?”

I don’t want to make this out as simply a propaganda flick, nor an anti-war diatribe. While Three Kings ridicules the idea of liberating Kuwait and shows the revolt as something the U.S. should have supported and that would have been impossible to support, the movie is made memorable by the fantastic performances of Clooney (my favorite flick of his), Wahlberg (in the role the inspired Adam Samberg’s awful impression of him), Ice Cube (and his ring of Jesus fire), and Spike Jonze, who steals every scene he’s in. Oh, and Nora Dunn does a fantastic job as the media-embed who’s clearly patterned after Christiana Amanpour. If you’ve never seen Three Kings, or you didn’t catch it during the decade that it presaged, do yourself a favor and watch it. Just like Major Gates, you can ask what we did over there.

For a followup, avoid David O. Russell’s next movie, I [Heart] Huckabees, and go straight to In The Loop.

(Oh, and here’s a short video by NYTimes critic A.O. Scott about Three Kings, which should give you some idea of how visually striking it is.)

So that’s my convoluted take on the Movie of the Decade. In fact, 1999 was a very important year for movies. Here’s a couple of the big ones from that year and the lessons they had for us:

  • American Beauty – Middle-aged guys want to have sex with hot high school girls! Surprise!
  • Election – Ditto. Oh, and Hillary Must Be Stopped.
  • American Pie – Everyone wants to have sex with hot high school girls! Surprise!
  • Cruel Intentions – Ditto.
  • The Straight Story – Some guys don’t want to have sex with hot high school girls; they just want to visit their dying brothers by driving their riding mowers hundreds of miles.
  • The Matrix – black vinyl + martial arts + wirework + lots of guns + slo-mo rotating camera – Keanu talking = revolution in action movies
  • Being John Malkovich – From the beginning, Charlie Kaufman was always trying to get us into someone else’s head.
  • Office Space – Kill yourself now . . .
  • The Sixth Sense – . . . but don’t keep going to work after you’re dead.
  • Star Wars: The Phantom Menace – All the CGI in the world doesn’t make a good movie.
  • The Blair Witch Project – None of the CGI in the world apparently can make a good movie.
  • and . . . Fight Club – Testosterone-fueled guys with no sense of higher purpose are capable of bringing down the world financial system.

And now . . . my favorite movies of THIS decade, in no particular order, although the first two probably are #s 1 and 2:

Favorite Movies of the Decade

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – It may be my favorite love story committed to film. If not, it’s at least the Annie Hall of the decade. Although I’d already met the woman I would marry by the time this one came out, I still carried the memory of a recent heartbreak. This collaboration between Michael Gondry and Charlie Kaufman captured so much about what we gain when we find love, and how we’ll do anything to escape the pain when we lose love. And it covers the terrain in between, when it all falls apart. It’s also quite funny and visually mind-blowing (as it were). Earlier this year, I thought about how it was the perfect sweet-spot in the arcs of Gondry and Kaufman, with the former going on to make the silly, adorable Be Kind Rewind, and the latter going on to make . . .

Synecdoche, New York (2008) – . . . the most frustratingly rewarding (or rewardingly frustrating) movie I’ve seen this decade. Unlike Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch, it didn’t cause me to throw my hands in the air and surrender. Nor did I feel as though misinterpreting one symbol was enough to set me on a wrong path that devalued the rest of the movie. It’s an insane trek into the artistic process, for which Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002) was a mere dry run (and I loved it at the time). No, I don’t have any idea what to make of Samantha Morton’s house being perpetually on fire. (UPDATE: It looks like Roger Ebert considers it the best movie of the decade, too! But Crash? I know someone’s not gonna be happy about that . . .)

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) – I heard about this one when Robert Downey Jr. went on Howard Stern’s show to promote it. It turned out that Stern hadn’t watched the screener DVD the studio sent over, so Downey spent the interview telling Stern about how much he would’ve enjoyed all these aspects of the movie. I filed it away, and picked it up on DVD, and thought, “Howard would’ve hated this movie.” That said, it’s right up my alley: a smartass meta-narrator, a sidekick (Val Kilmer, who’s really more of a boss) constantly taking the piss out of him, an adorable female lead (Michelle Monaghan, who we’re supposed to believe is around the same age as Downey), and a caper/crime plot that tries to pay tribute to Raymond Chandler’s LA.

Hero (2002) – My pal Sang described this as a Confucian Action Movie. It’s visually breathtaking, with fantastic wuxia action scenes, a Rashomon-ish story to tell, and some Hegelian questions about the responsibility of power and the head of state. It’s difficult to pick a favorite scene: I’m partial to the fight in the chess court in the rain, but the archers laying waste to the calligraphy school is unforgettable.

Kung-Fu Hustle (2004) – If entertainment were freebased into little crack-nuggets of entertainment, they would be this Stephen Chow movie. It’s a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, the best superhero movie of the decade, and a touching tribute to kung-fu movie legends, especially the indomitable Qiu Yuen, who became a grandmom the year this one came out. I make every houseguest of ours watch this. You’ve been warned.

Oldboy (2003) – Yeah, I feel bad that the VA Tech shooter was crazy about this movie, but he was crazy in general. It’s too simple to call it a study in the nature of revenge, but that’s the base of it. It’s a tense thriller, has one the greatest fight scenes of all time, and will leave you hollow and scorched by the end. Not in a good way.

Spirited Away (2001) – This was my first exposure to the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. The plot is pretty simple; a young girl and her parents are moving to a new home, take a shortcut, and end up in the spirit world, where the girl has to rescue her parents. The centerpiece of this world is a bath-house, populated by all manner of unearthly creatures. The girl “wins” by growing up, but never in a Disneyfied way. I can’t do justice to how full this world is, and how full of wonder. I once described The Triplets of Belleville thus, “It’s like being in another person’s dream; unfortunately, that person is astonishingly dull.” This movie is like being in the dream of the most interesting man in the world. Not the guy from the Dos Equis ads.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) – I had to put one of the Apatow / McKay / Ferrell movies on this list. I was torn between this and Anchorman, especially because this one really suffers after the first hour. That said, the first hour is awesome. I’m a sucker for supporting performances, and the camaraderie on display at the electronics store among Steve Carrell, Romany Malco, Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd is dementedly entertaining and (to me) convincing. Its peak may be when the guys are sitting out back on the loading dock, smashing fluorescent light tubes while shooting the breeze. Oh, and Jane Lynch is hysterical in her few scenes. I think Anchorman‘s funnier overall, but this one wins for not having Will Ferrell in his underwear.

American Splendor (2003) – This meta-biopic of autobiographical cartoonist Harvey Pekar somehow convinced us that Hope Davis could stand in for Joyce Brabner, a miracle in itself. My wife & I watch this each year on Pekar’s birthday. It’s a great study in the story behind the storytelling, with a career-making performance by Paul Giamatti (I wasn’t as much of a Sideways fan as most everyone else).

Memento (2000) – My wife thinks it’s funny that I didn’t remember this was from this decade, but for some reason, I kept associating it with 1995’s Usual Suspects, and thought it was from around that era. Ingeniously structured in the shape of a V; the protagonist’s anterograde amnesia forces him to recreate the scene from scratch every few minutes, while the main strand of the movie keeps jumping backwards in time, disorienting the viewer but never cheating. All the pieces are there, making the conclusion inexorable and, um, unforgettable.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) – I’m not a horror movie fan, and I’ve got a weird hangup about zombies, but this is a wonderful flick. It’s not redeemed simply by its sense of humor, but by the sheer humanness of its characters. Shaun is a fantastically realized character, full of doubts, frustrations, laziness and love for his mum and mates. And he has to save his girlfriend (who just dumped him) from a zombie plague wreaking havoc on London. It’s funny, warm, scary, and has some scenes with Bill Nighy. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?

Zodiac (2007) – No movie has ever left me feeling so carefully manipulated, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. David Fincher keeps every scene so utterly under control, carries the viewer along so expertly, with individual shots and compositions perfectly set up to convey the frustrations and obsessions of the investigation into the Zodiac killings. I can’t turn away when I’m channel-surfing.

Wasabi (2001) – It used to be an ironclad rule that every movie could be made better by adding Jean Reno. Someone let me know if that held up for The Da Vinci Code, the Pink Panther remake(s!), and Couples Retreat. Meanwhile, I’ll stick with Wasabi, which carries the tagline, “Quite Possibly The Greatest French-Language, English-Subtitled, Japanese Action-Comedy Of All Time.”

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – My favorite Coen Bros. movie of the decade. Everyone else was taken by No Country for Old Men, but this one wins for me. Only thing that would’ve made it better is if Billy Bob Thornton‘s character never managed to get out a word of dialogue, but owned the movie via voice-over.

Millions (2004) – Another one of my contrary picks. Everyone else loves Slumdog Millionaire, but my favorite Danny Boyle movie of the decade is this little gem. It sorta retells Boyle’s first movie, Shallow Grave, from a child’s perspective. Two young brothers find a suitcase filled with money. There are two catches:

  1. it’s in pounds, and the UK is moving over to Euros at the end of the month, so they need to spend it all before the changeover, and
  2. the people who stuffed the money in the suitcase want it back.

The protagonist, a young boy whose mother recently died and who obsesses over The Lives of the Saints, is a wonder. Go watch this.

Light Keeps Me Company (2000) – A documentary about the wonderful cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. He lit one of my favorite flicks, Another Woman, and this teasing out of his story by his son, as Sven decays from aphasia, is heartrending and wonderful.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) – I saw this with two friends who did not get the joke. I tried not to laugh too hard, because I was staying at their place that week, and thought it’d be rude. Later, I watched it with my girlfriend, and we fell out laughing. I was glad to find that this wasn’t just an instance where I was being weird.

In Bruges (2008) – I’d managed never to see a Colin Farrell movie before this. I only knew him from his Page Six escapades, so I was pleasantly surprised about how good a comic actor he is. This one’s a small scale crime movie, fitting in behind Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but the story’s so sharply constructed around the performances of Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson (and a ferociously mean Ralph Fiennes) that I’ll go back to it repeatedly.

In The Loop (2009) – A verbal tour-de-farce (as it were) about the buildup to war. It plays off of UK/U.S. relations and expectations, features one of the most foul-mouthed characters of all time (Peter Capaldi, whom I’d last seen in Local Hero, shot 25 years earlier, looking all innocent), and needs multiple viewings, since you’re likely to be laughing too hard at one line to catch the next.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – I hated this movie when I first saw it. I had that reaction with Rushmore, too, but now love it, so I think I just have an instinctual wariness about Wes Anderson‘s brand of preciosity. Now I understand and accept that he creates elegant little jewel-boxes and I adore this flick, about a mutant version of J.D. Salinger’s Glass siblings revisited by their long-lost, ne’er-do-well dad.

Honorable Mention

Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Anchorman, The Incredibles, 300, Borat, Role Models, Adaptation, Ghost World, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Darjeeling Limited, Be Kind Rewind, Superbad, Man on Wire, Bad(der) Santa, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Pootie Tang (just kidding).

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