Thursday, December 31, 2009

The decade in movies

This was just going to be a short post, with links to a few of the film articles about what turned out to be some of my favorite movies this decade. But nothing can be that simple when it comes to movie lists, can it? Chronological listing seemed a bit dry, alphabetical listing seemed like a cop-out, and an attempt to put them in some sort of ranking just drove me batty. So, after much shuffling, rearranging, adding commentary and taking away commentary, I have ended up with a set of awards to hand out to 14 films (and 7 runners-up), along with links to full reviews:

Funniest movie of the decade:
"Kung Pow: Enter the Fist" — it didn't occur to me until I had compiled my favorites that this was the only movie that was a flat-out comedy that leaves me gasping for air after fits of laughter. I love those films! I actually have a lot of reliably gut-busting comedy in my DVD collection but most of the recent stuff turned out to be TV shows instead. Kung Pow claims the crown for inventing an entirely new form of comedy: inserting some new actors into an old cheesy stock film and dubbing over everyone else. I desperately want to see more like this.

Lightning in a bottle award:
"Rivers & Tides" — Artist Andy Goldsworthy has been making one-of-a-kind temporary art works out of found materials in nature, and documenting them with photographs for some stunning coffee table books. But the process of making those works of art is, to me, even more interesting that the final pictures. I believe he shot some video of the process before this movie was made, but this was the first time a professional-level film team had put its lens to his creations. The result is one of the best films about art, about nature, and about seeing through new eyes, and one that can never be copied.

Best adventure film, best animated film, and just maybe the best outright what-the-movies-were-made-for film on my list:
"Spirited Away" — I can't tell you how much I loved this movie. No, seriously. I haven't written boo about this movie in the seven years since it came out because the movie seems to be just perfect without my adding two cents. Eventually I will write a review, but here's my first words written on it: This is an amazing film about transitions. The heroine, young Chihiro, is being torn away from her old school and old village as her parents are making a move. On the drive, they get lost, and Chihiro ends up stranded in a world of spirits, with its own rules, customs, hierarchies, backstory, and impositions on her. Whether or not her adventures are real or merely imaginings almost doesn't matter: She is learning how to cope with being in a new situation. And the amazing thing is that she does not accept the ground rules laid down for her. She doesn't believe everything she is told about who is good and who is evil, about her place in this world or what she must be resigned to. She approaches this new world filled with unending hope, kindness, wonder, compassion, strength, and love that conquers her instincts for fear and anger. She believes in the possibility of dignity for each creature she meets, from the highest to the low, from the scariest to the cutest, and through her belief transforms her surroundings rather than let her new world define her.

Best movie about finding a person you connect with deeply, and seizing whatever time you have together:
(tie) "Once" & "Lost in Translation" — Both of these films are moody, calm, beautiful little pieces about the human soul's longing for connection, to be heard and be known, and how rare and precious it is when a person gives you that kind of attention, if only for a brief moment in time.

Best movie about a community coming together quietly to support an oddball and find connection in the process:
(tie) "Pieces of April" & "Lars and the Real Girl" — Both of these films feel more or less like fables, in that complete strangers help out the protagonist when asked, for no good reason that they are kind souls. But they both remind me, too, how little most of us self-sufficient Westerners do that asking that might result in such connectedness.

Best gimmick:
"Memento" — It's a movie told backwards! The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end! The thing is, it works. Not only that, it works on repeat viewings. What should have just been an interesting exercise in story structure is a heartbreaking story of humankind's need for time and memory to heal old wounds.

Best blend of humor, whimsy, and heart award:
"A Mighty Wind" — One of only two outright comedies that made my list, what makes this one special is that its improv-ed laughs and cynical eye are infused with and balanced by a real warmth and affection for the genre of folk music, for the aging and past-their-prime artists who push forward, and for all those who love art, the stage, show business, passion, and tenderness.

Best Paul Thomas Anderson movie that isn't "Magnolia":
"Punch-Drunk Love" — With 1999's "Magnolia" cemented firmly in my top five films ever, it was hard to see any subsequent PTA film as in the same league. While I greatly admired "Punch-Drunk Love" on my first viewing, I was hesitant to let it in with the same emotional acceptance. As time has cleared the fog, I see it for its intriguing, singular, beautiful self, the kindest possible take on the intense rawness of life just below the surface of polite formality.

Best blockbuster:
"The Dark Knight" — In a decade where comic book movies hit the mainstream, thanks to improved and cheaper special effects, this one raised the bar for the artistic integrity one can achieve, becoming not just the best comic film and best action film, but the best crime drama of the decade.

Most daring film:
"Moulin Rouge" — Outlandish and outrageous on so many levels, liberally borrowing from pop music, Bollywood, and Bohemian culture to create a perfect elixir of exhilaration, this movie could have ended up distasteful to just about everyone on the planet all at once. Instead it makes for a heightened alternate reality that extols the beauty of unmeasured and unrestrained love. It tells of a tragedy, but is the ultimate pick-me-up for a sedated psyche I know, and has enduring power unlike most of the other resurgent musicals of the decade.

Most sumptuous movie:
"Pride and Prejudice" — If you could fall into and drown inside the mood of a single movie, I would have to choose this one. It has the usual trappings of an Oscar-bait movie: gorgeous dresses, stunning cinematography, lyrical music, British accents, and classic source material, but it somehow has a soul beyond the elements of its construction. I want to visit, and often.

Worst documentary (insomuch as the filmmaker did not stay distant from her subjects, as one is supposed to, but in the process created something more indelible than she could have otherwise):
"Born Into Brothels" — The 2000s saw the popularization of the documentary, on riveting subjects ranging from "Murderball" to "Man on Wire" to "Stevie" to "My Architect" to "Spellbound" and "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," all of which I loved. But I never felt I needed to own any of them, because much of what I got out of them was informational or emotional in a way that had to do with the subject being brand new to me. "Born into Brothels," which is about the young children of prostitutes working in the slums of Calcutta, wasn't just about their plight, full of sadness; it was about the kids being given still cameras to document life from their own perspective, and in doing so creating a bond with the filmmakers. It was about the power of art to imbue dignity and worth to not only the children but to their surroundings, destitute as they are. It is about photography as more than images, but as process of re-learning how to see.

Honorable mentions:
"Finding Nemo," "High Fidelity," "Waking Life," "The Station Agent," "Before Sunset," "Casino Royale," "Where the Wild Things Are."

(I should note for the record that I haven't seen a great number of 2009's films, and the one that I tucked in there at the end may or may not stand the test of time in my imagination. As with any list such as this, my feelings about and interactions with films are always changing as life presses on. This is just a snapshot in time of my frame of mind as the decade closes.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Veggie salad, yummy yummy

I had a most delicious salad tonight, simply 1 cucumber, 1 tomato, and 1 yellow pepper diced and mixed.

I tasted it, trying to decide what dressing or goodies it might need to liven it up, and concluded that it didn't need anything else. Crunchy, sweet, and just the tiniest bit bitter from the cucumber skin. Colorful, too. Yum.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The bus

Ever since we took Corin on the bus to his 2nd birthday party at a baseball game downtown, he has been enamored with public transportation. He points out every bus he sees (calling out "44!", the number of the bus near Sharon's) and begs to go on any bus that stops nearby when we're walking.

We have recently been trying to give him his fill by taking the bus to a variety of events, and today I gave him the ultimate treat: a 75-minute ride (with one transfer) to the mall. He was giddy for quite a while (saying "more people!" at every stop), but at 50 or 55 minutes he had reached his fill, and I had to convince him every 30 seconds or so why we should stay on the bus all the way to our destination. "Off the bus! Off the bus!" (And of course when we finally did get off the bus, his first words were "more bus!") We got a few weird looks during his writhing and protesting, but, hey, this is the bus we're talking about. We've all seen crazier than that.

At any rate, the point I wanted to make when I started is that the last couple times I've been with Corin on the bus, both with Amanda and without, he's crawled into my lap, and placed his head on my chest, and put his arms around me, and holds himself there. At no other time and under no other circumstances does Corin ever sit in my lap for more than five seconds, and he never returns a hug. So even though the bus is not even close to the best way to get to the mall, taking 2 1/2 hours round trip (I was intentionally trying to kill time, of course), it's totally worth it for the half-hour of snuggles.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gearing up for Christmas

(We’ve closed-captioned a translation of Corin and Amanda’s conversation in German, which can be hard to read in this smaller video size below. You might want to click on the fullscreen button below (second from the right) or double-click the video itself to open up the YouTube page directly.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Apa doin'?

Corin's favorite sentence this past week has been to ask what people are up to. It started out as just two words: "Apa doin'?" "Cat doin'?" whenever he'd hear us clearly up to something in the next room.

Now it's more of a musing philosophical question, and he's made it a full sentence: "What Mama doin'?" when she is tidying him, or reading a book, or something else obvious. It's almost like he wants to know why we're doing things. Maybe he's figuring out that you can be doing things for a reason and not just because something is right in front of you.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Yes Man" vs. "Yes Man"

Yes Man DVD
SIX MONTHS AGO I saw the Jim Carrey movie "Yes Man," in which he plays a man who has to say Yes to everything that comes his way. It sounded like an intriguing premise, a great "What if" scenario. "What ifs" are some of my favorite comedies: "Groundhog Day," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Mr. Destiny," and "Liar Liar" (a remarkably similarly themed Carrey movie in which he has to always tell the truth). There is something I love about bending life inside out and taking a look at who a person becomes when given different parameters than normal. How does changing the parameters or situations of one's life change the person you are becoming?

Reviews for "Yes Man" weren't great, but I pushed myself past my reluctance mostly on goodwill from "Liar Liar." (As much as I like "What if" movies, I am crushingly disappointed by ones that don't take full advantage of their scenario, because they ruin any future movie from tackling the same question.) As it turns out, it did fall short, at least for me. I didn't very much like the movie. But then at the end of the credits (and I have no idea why I was still watching the credits to the end) I saw that the film was based on a book. That struck me as odd, because the movie was such an overwhelmingly Hollywood cliche that I couldn't imagine that someone had written a book anything like the movie I had just seen. This week I finished reading Danny Wallace's "Yes Man," and am happy to report that I was right: it's nothing like the movie — it is infinitely better.

Yes Man book
Most importantly, the "Yes Man" book is a true story. Danny Wallace wasn't sitting around trying to think of a good wacky scenario around which to write a comedy; he actually started living his life by saying Yes to every question, opportunity, and offer that came his way, and the comedy came on its own. Meaning, too, came on its own. The book is a rare feat of being devilishly comic and soul-expandingly thoughtful. And it's all true, including the too-perfect-for-words ending. I am still astonished at how something so funny, so well structured, and so unbelievably serendipitous gets turns into a mediocre gruel by Hollywood screenwriters. (I don't know why this still astonishes me, frankly; I suppose I'm an optimist at heart.) This highly original material really should have been filmed as is for a 14-episode run on the BBC if they wanted to do it properly.

So what are the differences? For starters, the Jim Carrey movie first lost me early on when his character, Carl, helps out an older lady in his building with some housework and she wants to reward him with some ... um ... afternoon delight. And he has to say yes. He has sex with a total stranger and thinks nothing of it. If the genders were reversed, and a woman agreed to sex with a person she'd just met, people would be up in arms about the scene, talking about sending the wrong message. With a guy it's just a nudge and a wink for some reason. Whereas in the book "Yes Man," an enormous plot point hinges on the question of whether or not he is going to sleep with a woman he fancies but is still in the beginning stages of a relationship with. Danny opens the book by wondering what he would have done had he been asked to murder someone, or something equally repulsive to him: would he pull the plug on the experiment? Did he really have to say yes to everything, or were there limits? Sex is one of those boundary-testing areas for him, as it would be for most people, so I became doubly mad at the movie for that scene when I found it cut against the very nature of much of what the book is saying.

Another enormous difference is the spirituality of the two pieces. In the movie, Carl is invited to attend a seminar by a spiritualist guru who tells people to say Yes to everything. This being a Hollywood movie, it eventually has to be revealed that the spiritual leader has something of a false front and in the end it doesn't really matter what path you take as long as you try hard at it. Typical mushiness. In the book, Danny is talking to a stranger on a bus about what's going on with his weekend, a party or event that he's been invited to but he thinks he'll decline, and the stranger tells him that maybe he should "say yes more." Just this simple phrase changes Danny's life. As he meets various people, including some conspiracy-theory types, a few Buddhist monks, a hypnotist, war protesters, and a fellow "Yes Man," he tries to figure out whether the words on the bus were just a happy accident or if there is a higher being taking human form who speaks into people's lives when they need it most. He wonders where wisdom comes from, whether there are really coincidences or if fate is at work, and if all we have in life is this moment or whether it is building toward something. He doesn't necessarily come to any conclusions except to admire everything amazing that life has to offer, but it's honest spiritual exploration nonetheless.

Then there is the love story. The Carrey movie has Zooey Deschanel as Allison, a woman he meets early on who pursues a Yes-centered free-spiritedness, just not in the regimented way that Carl does. He's attracted to her and pursues her, to the point that the movie is more or less about how to get the girl by saying yes. (And of course, it has the requisite: "Oh, my goodness, you've been pursuing me under false pretense, how dare you, I'll never speak to you again, no, wait, it's not that big of a deal, I guess it's OK after all" arc of every single high school movie about the cool guy taking a bet to win over the girl.) The book "Yes Man" also has a love story, but it is hidden away, tucked underneath his other adventures, and slowly gets teased out. The woman isn't even a main character in the book per se — it's more about Danny preparing himself to enter a relationship that isn't necessarily going to be easy and simple. In a way the book is like a working out his risk-taking muscles and working off his inhibition factor so that he's free to say Yes at the right time. The movie has an attitude of: Women are a puzzle to be figured out and if you find the right combination to open her heart then you can do it at will and she's yours. The book is more of a: Focus more on the person you want to be rather than on getting the person you want to have. Unlike every romantic comedy in the history of the world, Danny doesn't sit around thinking how he can get the girl to like him more and weasel his way into her affections, but just takes the opportunities as they come. It's a less manipulative and more collaborative statement on relationships.

There are a fair number of scenes that overlap: going out to a bar and having to say yes to the intimidating guy asking "Are you eyeballing my girlfriend?", saying yes to more and more projects at work and having that turn into respect and notice in the office, going to a party of someone who seems like a dweeb but then having a really good time. The movie, to its credit, does show a number of scenarios that makes you understand that saying yes only to the things that you forsee a good outcome to and saying no to the stuff you think you want to avoid is a kind of closed-off living that prevents you from opportunities to further good outcomes down the line. The movie at least doesn't kill off the main idea that saying Yes more (maybe not exclusively, like in the story) but more, is usually a good thing in living the one life you have to live. But the book has the advantage of being true. The weird coincidences that happen in the movie feel like someone just wrote them in that way so the story would come out right, but the book has just as many fortuitous meetings and odd happenstances that move Danny forward without the benefit of screenwriters. The book pushes you farther to consider the "What if" question more personally, more seriously.

The last difference I see is that in the movie, the seminar-based movement of people saying "Yes" is supposed to last into infinity. The people are just supposed to put that persona on and carry it out religiously with no end. In the book, it is clearly not a sustainable lifestyle. Danny makes himself a bet that he will continue to say "Yes" only through the end of the year. In that short time, largely thanks to pre-approved credit card applications that come in the mail that ask him if he would like to try a new kind of credit card (Yes!), Danny racks up enormous debt by buying a car, traveling the world, buying rounds of drinks, attending shows and festivals, etc. His money situation is helped by an upcoming promotion at work due to him taking on every project asked of him, but the new job starting in the new year also means that he won't be free to work on his own schedule, which is something that was essential to saying Yes to so many things. What the movie sets up as a mass movement, a permanent way of life for most participants, Danny is promoting as an experiment, a trial run of saying Yes to everything for a short time so that he won't be so scared about saying Yes more often in the future, when he gives himself back some discernment. The book is essentially saying: Your own sense discernment is very likely hamstrung by fear; what if you shook it up a little by going against your timid judgment every so often by agreeing to more opportunities, meeting people you wouldn't normally associate with, going places you wouldn't normally go, learning about subjects you assume aren't for you, to participate more? It's not Yes as a belief system, but Yes as an exercise in giving yourself more chances to exercise your belief system in greater extension in the world.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Corin has woken up a few times in the past month or so very upset. Occasionally that used to happen when he had a cold, and he'd wake up having difficulty breathing through his nose, but recently it's clearly been from having a bad dream.

Today he woke up sad and said "Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs." in a low moan. It's so sad. I wish there was something to do beside hold him after the fact.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Corin at PacSci

With the zoo mostly outdoors and the aquarium half-outdoors, we went ahead and bought another full-year membership to a Seattle kids favorite, the Pacific Science Center, a perfect place to both stay warm and find a million things to do.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Levity break

I squirreled away a bunch of these Jack Handy/Steven Wright-style jokes from College Humor's 105% column a few months ago and have been doling them out on slow days. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your taste, here's my last batch / my last easy humor post:

* * *

Is a sub-par performance in golf a good or bad thing?
-Jeremy Hidey

I've known my best friend since we were in diapers. We met in 7th grade. Middle school was kind of awkward...
-Jon W

"If I could have dinner with three people I would pick Nanny from Muppet Babies, Wilson from Home Improvement, and Dr. Claw. I just want to confirm they aren't all the same person."
—Jeff Rubin

Sunday, December 13, 2009


I'm frankly not even sure why they have mall Santas except to create indelible moments of fear on kids' faces.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Speakerphone conversation

Sharon: "Corin, do you know what I have on my new phone?"

Corin: "Popcorn chicken!"

Sharon (sadly): "No... I don't have popcorn chicken on my iPhone."

Amanda: "There's an app for that."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Saturday, December 5, 2009

In praise of coffee shops

When I first moved to Seattle, I hated going to Starbucks. Four bucks for a cup of coffee (and I wasn't really passionate about coffee that much to begin with)? Why is this place so popular?

Well, I still don't completely understand the grab-and-go customers of Starbucks, but I totally get the appeal of a coffee shop. For four bucks you can rent a table and a relatively quiet and serene atmosphere. I am, presently, sitting at a coffee shop right now writing this post, and Amanda has been using Tully's for writing for the better part of this year.

I also spent nearly a year meeting with my small group at Chocolati on Wednesday evenings, and more than once we would meet one-on-one with small-group leaders for coffee. I've met up with other folks for business (real estate agent, auditor) and for community bonding (planning a fund raiser).

Just as parks and open spaces are a good for the public, coffee shops fill the need in drizzly Seattle at a reasonable price. It is a community good. And perhaps the most interesting detail I discovered about Starbucks is that their rapid expansion didn't put mom-and-pop coffee shops out of business usually. Rather, the introduction of the Starbucks would change the culture in a neighborhood so that more people would get used to going out for coffee, and then, finding the Starbucks too crowded and/or trendy, would frequent the local shop instead.

Instead of there being a finite number of coffee drinkers in the world that Starbucks was competing for, it created new coffee drinkers / casual hangout dwellers. I know because I am one of them. Starbucks has more or less served as an advertisement for a certain ethos that has spread and that all can enjoy. Nice work.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Giggle-Bot 3000

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The God of surprises

I try not to let a Christmas season go by without marveling at the outright scandalousness that the God of the universe subjected himself to. His odd conception, whispered about with disdain. His first bed, dirty hay. His first visitors, shepherds, the lowest on the social totem pole. He wasn't just born into ordinary circumstances — that wouldn't have been too hard — but extraordinarily lousy ones. It's the first act of a story full of drama, of the unexpected, of a reversal of expectations.

Andrew Greeley's book "Jesus," which I am still working at quoting all the parts I loved, deals with this idea that God is not interested in carrying out his work among humanity in a perfunctory way ("Here you go, here's the plan of salvation, just in case you're interested") but in a shocking way. It's like he wants to see the look of wonder on our faces. One cannot imagine Jesus appearing to his disciples in the upper room with anything but relish.
"The Father-in-Heaven delights in mystery. ... In my more troublemaking moods I contend that God is a comedienne, sometimes even a playful teenage comedienne who enjoys mystery, wonder, and especially surprise — and surprise parties. More seriously I argue that it is God's nature to play, that God has no other choice but to play and love because that is what God is."

"There surely would have been other ways in which he could have revealed himself to them [in the upper room] that would have been more orderly, more restrained, less emotional, less spectacular. And less surprising. But like his Father-in-Heaven ... Jesus did not believe in laid-back surprises, low-key revelations, modest demonstrations that life was stronger than death. Rather he let the expectations build up, the tensions reach a fever pitch, fear skepticism, and joy mingle in a dangerous cocktail and then, quite dramatically, proclaim peace."
Peace to you all this Christmas season.