How I Misspent My Summer Vacation, 2011 Edition: Day 3

Saturday, Aug. 13: Discovery Park & the Cosmic Cube

I loosened the lap-band of the seatbelt, slid my hips down the seat slightly, and repositioned my left leg. The van driver had both hands on the wheel, but I knew I’d only have a second to react if he reached for a weapon. I was close enough to kick his hand from my position in the first row, middle-seat. If he pivoted toward us, I’d likely be able to hit his chin instead. No, I thought, better to go for the weapon.

He had taken us on such out-of-the-way roads, I could only assume that he was driving us to the local Motel Hell for murder and/or cannibalistic fine dining. My right hand creeped closer to the seatbelt buckle, so I could quickly free myself if I needed to dodge a knife-thrust.

Beside me, Amy looked out the driver-side window. I kept my sunglasses on and cursed myself for wearing my Sperry’s; the top-siders had nowhere near the heft of my blue-suede oxfords.

His left hand dropped out of sight for a half-second. I tensed. The turn signal began to click and the sign ahead read “SPOKANE AIRPORT – 1/2 MILE”.

He changed lanes. I relaxed. I hadn’t even started the William Gibson novel yet.

* * *

We had a mid-morning flight back to Seattle, so I spent my morning reading Anthony Powell’s The Soldier’s Art on my Kindle over coffee at the Davenport (purchased at Brews Bros. around the corner, home of the way-too-cheery baristas). Reading all 12 books of A Dance to the Music of Time — one a month — is my Dilettante Improvement Project for 2011. Last year’s DIP was to try a new (to me) boutique/artisanal gin every month. Let’s just say I exceeded my goals:

My Year of Gin

It’s funny, but I still don’t know how to answer my wife when she asks me if I’m enjoying the Dance. I am, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone in my life. It’s a veritable soap opera of the intertwined lives of some British schoolmates, from around 1918 to maybe the mid-60’s. (The last book was written in 1972, but I’ve deliberately done zero research into what any of the books cover.) I say “veritable” because the narrator, Nick Jenkins, manages to leave out lots of aspects of life that might make for good reading: like the birth of his first child or almost any depiction of his relationship with his wife. But Powell still creates a pretty fantastic tapestry of the social web that ties the four men and their extended friends together.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, back at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, reading an e-book and drinking coffee. That’s my idea of a vacation. Amy refused to leave the bed for a while. I don’t blame her.

* * *

At SeaTac, we picked up our increasingly heavy suitcase quickly (now with heavier shoes!), and headed over to the rental area. The plan was to pick up our car, have lunch with a pal, drop him off at another pal’s cookout, and zoom on up to Vancouver for 3 nights.

No one was at the Hertz desk, so I had to use a touchscreen kiosk to go through the entire rental process. I got a little frustrated at the repetitive inputs of some of the screens, but my wife cheerily said, “Look on the bright side: you don’t have to talk to anyone!” and I perked right up. Gotta love a woman who knows that her husband would get his hair cut over the internet, if he could.

We got our run-of-the-mill maroon Altima and headed to downtown Seattle to pick up my pal Finkelstein. I was filled with dread. Not because I hadn’t seen Fink in 4 years, but because I had to drive on Seattle’s highways. On our last trip here in 2007, the highway signs were so terrible that we repeatedly missed turns, despite having a GPS unit in the rental. This time, either the signs were improved or the GPS systems have learned to adjust, the way players on the Nuggets learn to deal with the altitude.

We picked up Fink at his office building, as he’d gone in to work for a few hours on Saturday.

“What does he do?” Amy asked.

“Dunno,” I said. I’d never thought to ask. When I met him, he was working in The Smoke Shop in Annapolis, MD. He’ll probably tell you that was the happiest job of his life. I think that’s why I don’t ask him about his gigs.

I don’t know if it’s in the nature of Seattle or of Fink — he grew up there, so it could be both — but he directed us through a bazillion neighborhoods during our Escape From Downtown. We eventually reached our lunch destination: Chinook, a seafood restaurant overlooking Salmon Bay in the Magnolia neighborhood. Fink is enough of a regular at the place that he could banter with the waitress a bit. An ardent reader of Amy’s blog, I think he felt pressured to come up with a really good restaurant. I’m glad my wife’s rep precedes her, when it leads to awesome meals.

She’ll get around to writing about the fish we had for lunch sometime. I will instead tell you about the dessert. Fink & Amy elected to split some sorta shortcake, in which she ate the fruit and some cream, and he had the crust. That’s because she’s on a gluten-free diet. Since I am most assuredly not on a gluten-free diet, I ordered The Bread Pudding.

Amy has photographic evidence of what arrived on my plate, but the lack of depth in the shot doesn’t do it justice. I was served the Cosmic Cube of Bread Pudding. It was about 5″ on each side, and was so dense it should have come with a reinforced fork. I thought the table would tip over, like the Flintstones’ car.

I said, “Clearly, I’m an honored guest, or they wouldn’t have brought me all of the bread pudding they have. It’d be rude not to eat it.”

“And with your family’s history of diabetes, there’s no point in forestalling the inevitable,” Amy pointed out.

“Wait: is that custard or the accretion disk?” Fink asked.

There was some question as to whether I’d fall asleep before I could finish it, but I rallied. Also, the hyperdensity of the pudding caused time to bend. Fink and Amy aged a full week while the bread pudding and I were cruising along at relativistic speeds.

After lunch, it was obvious that I needed coffee, between the incipient caffeine withdrawal and the dwarf star I was now carrying in my belly. We walked over to a nearby cafe and chatted for a while as I refueled.

Seattle’s the first place I ever had coffee, on my summer 2001 trip here. It was some mocha thing my pal Shari ordered for me, and I thought the chocolate-component was somehow necessary for coffee. It took me quite a while before I settled on my perfect coffee: a cup of goddamned black coffee. No milk, no sugar.

I tried ordering that this time, but they said they were out of drip. They’d make an Americano instead, which made me feel a teensy bit like George Clooney in that Anton Corbijn movie he did last year. Amy didn’t notice any Clooneyness about me, sadly.

Conversation: I’m not very good at characterizing what Fink & I talk about. We met almost 20 years ago and have fallen out of each others’ lives a bit in the past decade, but there’s still no one on earth who can grok my thought-processes the way that boy can. I think I wrote about this after our 2007 visit, but it’s possible I never published that, for reasons that I won’t publish now.

So we rambled on our paired wavelength, and Amy seemed alright with the sections that weren’t relatable. I recall us talking about Dylan, Rush, Gillian Welch, the Yankees’ pitching staff and that Fran Lebowitz documentary (he hasn’t seen it yet) before we hit the road. He figured it was early enough that we could stop at a park for a bit before going to his pal’s cookout.

I always forget that he’s not great with time, which is ironic, because he’s a drummer.

We drove on to Discovery Park, a pretty area that looks across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island. That’s where I took this picture:


Amy hung back and took pictures while Fink & I kept talking. I told him about reading The Most Human Human recently. There’s a chapter on chess, which was one of his interests. The writer, Brian Christian, explored the ways in which opening theory had, in a sense, damaged chess by turning it into a game of memorization. That is, if you recalled enough openings, you could keep to a script and wait for your opponent to make a mistake. That sort of approach falls into the non-existent hands of computers, which can be taught to recognize most any opening pattern and weigh the best means to match them. It’s here that Christian makes one of his best points in the book. See, the history of philosophy has been filled with attempts at branding man as “the animal who . . .”, to show that some aspect of our minds are what separate us from beasts. Now, we find computers impinging from the other direction, mastering activities that we considered most human.

So Fink told me about chess and opening theory issues and we hashed out some notions of cognition that neither of us bothered writing down. And we sat on a bench and watched the cruise-liners head out through the Sound. It was beautiful, and peaceful, and starting to get late, but I figured the cookout was nearby, and we’d be okay.

I could not have been more wrong. Fink apparently wanted to show us all of Seattle in a single drive. If we had intercutting dialogue and multiple uninteresting storylines, it couldn’t have been more like Altman’s Short Cuts, except that no shortcuts were involved.

But what’s to gripe? We popped in the new Mad Mix CD I assembled, “Wyvern & Kobold, LLP,” and drove. We made a booze-stop so he could bring something to the cookout, and eventually made our way to the home of Eric S., proto-blogger extraordinaire. (Boy, that sounds gross.)

About that mix CD: Fink was irate that I put The Golden Age by Asteroids Galaxy Tour on it, but was cheered that it was immediately followed by the Eurythmics’ For the Love of Big Brother. It’s a weird mix. If you ask, maybe I’ll burn you a copy.

About the cookout: I’d corresponded with Eric for years, but this would be our first get-together. However, it was already 6:15 and we had no idea how long a wait we’d have at the border crossing into Canada that night. I was in San Diego once with a pal and he showed me what the Friday afternoon traffic to get into Tijuana was. The sign said “5 hours.” I figured Vancouver on a Saturday night isn’t as much of a draw.

So I made apologies to Eric almost instantly upon arrival, although I initially too-exaggeratedly berated him for never having watched the Coen Bros.’ A Serious Man. Then I blamed Fink for our tardiness (as opposed to, say, my talking Fink’s ear off), and asked him, “What are you reading?”

This is just about the only question I care to ask anyone, btw. No one really answers, “How are you?” with anything more than politeness and, unless I know of some dire condition affecting your family or friends, I won’t ask about them till I’ve run out of questions about books and art. I think I’ve always been like that, but I’m becoming more honest about it in my middle age.

Eric was working his way through W.G. Sebald, in order of (German) publication. I’d only read WGS’ On the Natural History of Destruction, and didn’t have any good observations about the work. Boo, me. We rambled for a little bit, although I was conscious that we were the only members of the cookout who didn’t really know anyone there, and I didn’t want to keep the host from performing his hostly duties.

We made a date for Tuesday evening, when Amy & I would be back in town for the last night of our vacation. And then we hit the road.

Fink had given us directions back to I-5 that I couldn’t possibly have remembered, but was sure would take us in the wrong direction. The GPS gave us an ETA in Vancouver of a little more than 2.25 hours, not including border-crossing delays. I asked Amy to call our hotel and let them know we’ll be arriving late.

We hit the road, immediately regretting not bringing a headphone cable with us to connect the iPod to the car stereo. Fink had taken the new Mad Mix, so we had to resort to terrestrial radio. At best, we got to hear lots of classic rock. Closing in on Canada, we started to hear DJs talking in that mongrel French they speak up there. For some reason, I hadn’t thought of Vancouver as particularly French-Canadian. Don’t know why I thought that. Maybe I should’ve done the slightest bit of research before this trip.

One thing I did read up on was the drive up to Canada on I-5/Rt.99. It was supposed to be gorgeous, but Amy & I were both unimpressed. Maybe it was the dusk-hour, the overcast skies, or the fact that we live near some pretty great hills and wooded highways, but it just wasn’t as pretty as we’d heard. Still, it was nice to be out of a city and cruising on open roads.

The border crossing signs said it would be a 35-minute wait to enter Canada. They were correct, down to the minute. Near the end of our wait, I got nervous that I’d somehow failed to bring some token that we needed to cross. I mean, I had our passports, but I thought maybe there was some bureaucratic form that everybody knew about but me, and that we’d be laughed at by the border guard and turned away. Maybe everyone knew that it’s illegal to cross the border in a rental car. I don’t know. I imagine this shit all the time.

I am, as I’ve said, no fun to travel with.

Our passports were just fine, but the border guard was a douche. He looked at us suspiciously as he checked our information, then asked, “What were you up to?”

Not “What brings you to Canada?” or “Are you on vacation?” or “Do you like indy comics?” but “What were you up to?”

I told him, “We’re on vacation. A friend got married in Spokane and now we’re headed up to Vancouver for a few days to see the city.” I was irate at getting glared at. I wanted to say, “I pay your salary!”, but I don’t. Still, I worried, if they’re this weird entering Canada, how much worse will the U.S. guards be on Tuesday?

He waved us through, and we zoomed on another 35 or 40 minutes to the hotel, the Metropolitan. We checked in, greeted by the person Amy had phoned when we first hit the road. She was of Asian descent and had a French-Canadian accent. Maybe it was just a long day, with hours of driving and a 40-minute flight and a lump of bread pudding and everything else, but I literally stopped understanding her while she was greeting us.

She was talking and talking, and I realized the words weren’t sinking in, so I just looked at her mouth for at least 15 to 20 seconds. Amy, realizing that my brain had shut off, chimed in, “That would be great, thanks!”

The girl broke out a local map and drew a bunch of Xs in one area and told us, “Don’t go down this street. It’s the only really bad area you have to watch out for.” I understood that. We took our key-cards and headed for the elevator.

It was around 10:00 p.m. as we got to the room, unpacked, considered the minibar, and slumped into bed. The bed was awfully nice (albeit not as wondrous as the Davenport’s).

Amy said, “I meant to ask: did you have ANY idea where that taxi-driver was taking us this morning?”

“No, but FBI agent Burt Macklin had everything under control, Ms. Snakehole.”

“Call me Janet,” she said, mock-cigarette holder between her fingers.

Coming up in Day 4: Granville Market and Lavender Gin!

What It Is: 7/12/10

What I’m reading: Not a lot; just some Scott Pilgrim comics. I was kinda zonky all week with lack of sleep, pain from that root canal, etc.

What I’m listening to: Songs from the Capeman, Songs from Venice Beach, and some other songs.

What I’m watching: Shutter Island, some episodes of Louie (wow!), and The Horse’s Mouth and Up In The Air. I’m sorta astonished at the utter hollowness of Up In The Air, compared to the novel. The movie pays almost no attention to what The Traveling Life is really like, focusing instead on Firing People Is Soul-Destroying. The romance was inane, compared to the apocalypse of the narrator’s affair. And while Clooney’s starting to age, a man his age who travels that much should’ve been much sallower/puffier. The skin turns green from all that airplane air & light, people! But that’s nitpicking. The real problem is that the story they chose to tell was barely an echo of what made the novel a surprisingly good book, and instead became a George Clooney vehicle and a muddled statement about corporate America that couldn’t criticize any particular company because the studio relies on them for subsidies and product placement fees.

What I’m drinking: Bluecoat & Q-Tonic, but I didn’t drink too much last week; I was taking mega-ibuprofen to help treat that root canal, and didn’t want to risk stomach bleeding.

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Ru’s still getting over that blister on his paw-pad, so he didn’t go anywhere during the week. Otis has gone stir crazy and now runs up and down the hall at high speed, throwing his squeaky toys in the air and acting like they’re alive.

Where I’m going: Flying home on the redeye Wednesday/Thursday, and I hope to go nowhere else for a while.

What I’m happy about: Getting an iPad last Friday. Holy crap, is this a fantastic device. I decided to pick it up before the Portland trip to see if it could replace my laptop for a light work-week (that is, a trip in which I wouldn’t be doing heavy-duty “live from the conference” posts for my magazine’s website, or processing photos). I packed along a bluetooth keyboard for writing longer form stuff like this, but it’s just been fantastic so far. I watched Horse’s Mouth and Up in the Air on the flight out here, and only ran down about 12% of the battery. Go, future!

What I’m sad about: Something better will come along.

What I’m worried about: Whether I’ll have time to get to Powell’s, Stumptown, and Winn Perry while I’m in Portland. I’m also hoping I get to meet up with my various friends (that is, friends from all different portions of my life) who live out here.

What I’m pondering: Whether Spain is really better than the Netherlands. All I can say is, I had much more fun in my weekend in Amsterdam than I did in 5 days in Madrid.

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.


Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Amistad (1997)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Schindler’s List (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Hook (1991)


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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