The best Best Picture winners

Out of the ninety-one Best Picture nominees since Herbert Hoover promised a chicken for every pot, only twenty-one I’ll deem good to great. Here they are in order of which I would watch right now, the only criterion.

1. All About Eve
2. Annie Hall
3. The Best Years of Our Lives
4. The Apartment
5. Lawrence of Arabia
6. The Godfather, Part II
7. Rebecca
8. The Godfather
9. In the Heat of the Night
10. On the Waterfront
11. It Happened One Night
12. No Country for Old Men
13. The Silence of the Lambs
14. All Quiet on the Western Front
15. Schindler’s List
16. Casablanca
17. How Green Was My Valley
18. Midnight Cowboy
19. The Deer Hunter
20. Moonlight
21. Spotlight
22. 12 Years a Slave

Ranking the Rolling Stones top forty hits, 1970s and 1980s

With the departure and death of their most committed blues acolyte and least likely to stand drug abuse, the Stones turned heavier at the dawn of the Nixon era. Their famously uneven seventies work has the kind of boring craft that makes distinguishing between them a mug’s game — few things are as meretricious as the Bowie-baiting “Angie,” none are awful until the title track to one of their best throwaways and a Smokey cover that’s Las Vegas at the Meadowlands (maybe Mick learned from Tina Turner after all). Continue reading

Ranking Otto Preminger

An émigré whose years as a producer culminated with snatching Laura from the capable Rouben Mamoulian in 1944, Otto Preminger excelled in pot boilers, musicals, and procedural dramas; he was the only hitbound Hollywood director of his era who understood pace. Biographers have stressed Otto Preminger’s training in Viennese law as an explanation for his unusually catholic approach to filming good and evil. He has nothing in common stylistically with Jean Renoir yet both accepted evil as a matter of course. After the promotional hysteria for Carmen Jones, The Moon is Blue, and The Man with the Golden Arm ebbed, the pictures remain rather sober. The JFK-era epics look better all the time: rigorous examinations of power and prestige, with Preminger’s camera coolly taking it all in, fooled by nobody. Continue reading

‘Turn and look once more/And smite a rock” — a Good Friday poem

In eighth grade relatives could measure my devotion by the clack of rosary beads. I lived close enough to St. Brendan to walk. The rest of Holy Week — undeveloped, I thought. What about Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday? Thus the intensity of my devotion during what I call my Stephen Dedalus period. The sacrifice of Christ I felt in my corpuscles, a Method acting so thorough that when the belief vaporized I blinked like a man who has stepped out of a smoke-filled room.

Yet, to rewrite one of Wallace Stevens’ profoundest lines, the absence of faith had itself to be imagined. I cling to memories of the ritual. To get wistful about the contours of a devotion I no longer feel is bizarre, I’ll wager. Christina Rossetti’s “Good Friday” limns this peculiarity.

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Uh, happy Good Friday?

Ranking the Rolling Stones top forty hits, 1960s

Hyped as mad, bad, and dangerous to know, the Rolling Stones spend most of the sixties competing with the Beatles, the Who, and the Kinks in the writing and recording of pure pop singles, amalgamating rococo portraiture, straightforward blues rock, country, and unidentifiable swamp weeds with such concentration that when the competition faded they were the last quintet standing. Their run from The Rolling Stones (England’s Newest Hit Makers) through Let It Bleed still gets short shrift beside their monochromatic seventies achievements. Continue reading

Bill Barr: all is right with the world

What a relief that Attorney General Bill Barr has cleared Donald J. Trump of crimes. The report supports this conclusion:

And:

Thanks to the president’s stupidity and panicked aides, Barr concludes, Trump is off the hook. Also, as Robert Mueller writes, Department of Justice can’t or won’t indict a sitting president; the special counsel preserved the evidence for a future time when unicorns descend from the empyrean.

Ranking Billboard top ten singles, 1964

“‘The Sixties’ were now a reactive force — a new conservative voting bloc,” Chris O’Leary writes in Ashes to Ashes; The Songs of David Bowie 1978-2016. “…Sixties music was the perfected strain of rock ‘n’ roll, to which no music afterward could compare.” As cultural hegemon and smothering aesthetic menace to its forebears, The Sixties did not begin, as Philip Larkin wryly remarked, with the Beatles’ first LP, but the presence of the Shangri-La’s, Supremes, Dave Clark Five, the Stones, and the Beach Boys suggest the first stirrings of a revolution, akin to Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement, coalescing at the same time in Berkeley. Continue reading

Bret Easton Ellis, the scribbler as pedant

VOX’s Catherine Grady explains why Bret Easton Ellis is a pedant and the dullest of provocateurs:

Those who react with outrage to Trump and, for instance, the children who are being kept in cages as a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, need to take a deep breath and listen to Ellis. “You need to be sedated, you need to see a shrink, you need to stop letting the ‘bad man’ help you in the process of victimizing your whole life,” he advises, mere pages after patting himself on the back for his love of art and discourse that “challenge” him and make him “more empathetic.”

What is ostensibly animating Ellis’s rage here is his love for aesthetics over ideology, which he feels have become embattled in the current cultural discourse. But leaving aside the fact that there is no such thing as non-political art — that Ellis’s position as a white, gay, wealthy cis man has as much influence on his perspective as Barry Jenkins’s perspective as a black straight man has on Moonlight (“dour and downbeat,” Ellis opines) — Ellis’s ostensible love for style is not evident in the clogged and uninteresting White.

Again and again, Ellis earnestly relies on the wildly unspecific non-word “problematic” as his catchall criticism. (Suggesting that gay jokes are passé is “problematic,” as is writing off Ellis as a dick.) He glories in dad-like insults, like calling millennials “snowflakes” and “Generation Wuss.” He falls back time and again on the cliché rather than the original, the generality rather than the specific.

I’ve fought the Ellis type most of my adult life: the sort of person who chastises non-Ellises for sharing political points of view from which his wealth insulates him; a member of an ancien regime who assumes there’s bravery in conformity, going along, letting men like Ellis moderate discourse. This is a fellow whose novelized autobiographies suffer from a disinterest in natural phenomena and incuriosity about other people not Bret Easton Ellis so total that they’re as airless as a basement.