Wednesday, January 13, 2010

10 Favorite Movies of 2009

Well, there are still a couple of movies we haven't seen that stand a chance at cracking this list. Crazy Heart, with Jeff Bridges is getting great reviews. And The Bad Lieutenant, with Nicolas Cage, is getting some impressive buzz, too.

But other than these, there's not much chance of anything else cracking the top ten before Oscar time rolls around, so with that, I'll give you my own 10 favorite movies of 2009, along with encouragement to try and see them if you haven't.

But first, a couple of words about films that didn't make the list. September Issue, the documentary about the creation of a single edition of Vogue magazine is highly recommended, and nearly made the list. Other honorable mentions incliude Julia and Julie (Streep wonderful, slightly pedestrian script), District 9 (great unexpected sci-fi), and Star Trek (saw it twice, always a strong indicator of a good movie.)

Here, without further ado, is the Mercurious list of 2009's best movies:

10. Inglorious Basterds. This movie was expected to be huge, and it almost lived up to the hype. Finely crafted and wickedly funny. Could well have placed higher, but its expectations diminish its placement a bit.

9. Zombieland. Uproariously, incredibly funny. Ferris Buhler meets Night of the Living Dead. Outlandish commentary on American culture, with an incredible cameo appearance in the center of the film.

8. This is It. The documentary about Michael Jackson's farewell tour rehearsals. Unexpectedly moving and fascinating.

7. Paranormal Activity. Low budget, exceedingly effective horror. Not graphic, just tense. This made the list because I so admire the ability of a clever group's ability to do a good movie on $10,000 or $20,000.

6. Food Incorporated. Very good documentary about the American food industry. Will change how you shop for food.

5.Precious. Hard to watch, but bringing this to screen took an act of heroism on the part of many people.

4. 500 Days of Summer. A triumphant statement that a comedy need not be vulgar trash like The Hangover. Delightful, and also realistic.

3. The Informant. A sleeper of a Matt Damon film, that gradually causes you to grow more and more fascinated.

2. Up. Far better than Mr. Fox, I thought. Clever, moving, funny, visually stunning. If it doesn't vie for best picuture, it would be a shame.

1. The Hurt Locker. Almost no one knows about this documentary-style fictional story of Iraq bomb-diffusion experts. Amazing, amazing movie. Not gory, so you can see it without fear. The best movie of the year.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Citizen of 4F, Jan. 12, 2010

554447Mood is a strange and fickle human quality.

After two days in a quietly gray mood, I find myself this morning in a mood that is equally quiet, but most definitely happy. How exactly did this transformation occur? I wonder. It happened very subtly.

Perhaps it began when friend called me late yesterday, excited with good career news. She has an infectious personality, and it was pleasant to listen closely to her happiness.

When I left the office for the day, though, was when I noticed a definite uptick in my mood. Part of it was that at 5:15 pm, for the first time in recent memory, the sky was still light. At these latitudes, a cloudy overcast in the days just prior to the Dec. 21 solstice will see Minnesota night lasting from 4:30 in the afternoon until the following morning at 8:30 or so. But it was clear yesterday, and we're now more than three weeks past solstice, and so paying close attention shows that the painstakingly slow crawl back to spring is already underway.

More than this, though, the sky was painted with a whole spectrum of colors thanks the setting sun, and if you paid close attention, you could see that the sky echoed every color you could see in the neon store signs reflected in the windows: blues, reds, indigos, oranges, yellows—in the far west, you could even see pale greens streaked across the sky that echoed the green of streetlights in "go" mode. The whole thing left you with a feeling of wonderful symmetry between the natural and manmade worlds.

This morning, rather than go to work in the darkness, I took a later bus, stopping first for coffee and the New York Times at the nearest Starbucks. As I read the arts section, I noticed a father and son sitting off in the corner. The son was perhaps 13 or 14 years old, and was struggling with unhappiness of some kind. It wasn't clear to me if the boy was perhaps ill——his face was slightly flushed--or if he was wrestling with some early adolescent angst of some kind. But at one point his father reached over and gripped the boy's wrist in comfort. Like most boys in early adolescence, the young man's face showed a mixed response to this public display of affection from a parent, but it pleased me to see this father ignore the rules of adolescent protocol and comfort his son in this way.

On the bus ride, one could see that the foggy night had painted the trees with a hoar frost that looked like the most delicate lace. The urban forest around the skating rink at Lyndale Farmstead park looked like something from the most fanciful set in a Tim Burton movie.

When I am in a productive stretch, I have sometimes found that a 30 or 45 minute bus ride will find 2,000- or 3,000- word business letters or blog posts composing themselves in my head between home and office, so that all I'm left with is transcribing what has mentally hatched. It's pleasant to realize, for this one morning at least, that a bit of that creativity has returned.

William James, the pioneer psychologist, wrote more than a century ago, that "the strain of attention is the fundamental act of will."

Perhaps transforming unhappiness into happiness is really just a matter of choosing what to pay attention to.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Citizens of 4F, Jan. 11, 2010

When the work day promises to be especially hectic, I catch the early 4f bus at 6:15 in the morning. When it arrives at my downtown stop, the sky will be just hinting at sunrise, but the stars will still be in full force.

We're in the heart of Minneapolis winter, and although it is a relatively balmy 10 degrees this morning, the mood on the bus seems especially sober this morning. Of the six people alrady on the bus, three have their heads leaning up against the glass windows, either their eyes are shut, or they are looking forlornly at the morning night outside.

At the front of the bus behind the driver is a young man I think of as David, who looks, more than anything, like the common artistic representation of Jesus Christ, except wearing a worn hooded sweatshirt under a insulated denim jacket. He has long brownish hair and a reddish beard, and a slightly Roman nose. His eyes are closed. Logically, he is probably just fatigued after an active weekend, but there is something about him that suggests a somewhat more existential weariness.

I look at others on the bus, and I recognize one of those mornings where the gentle suffering of being human is quite evident. Not a happy face to be seen. No anguish either, but lots of very quiet borderline sorrow in the air. It's before dawn on a Monday morning after all. And it's winter. And it's MInneapolis. As more and more passengers board, the mood isn't lightened at all.

There is only one exception to this prevailing mood. Midway into downtown, two young adults get aboard at different stops. They clearly know each other, and carry on a silent smiling conversation with one another sitting across the aisle facing one another. Let's call them Luke and Heather. They look like a Luke and Heather to me. The carry identical gleaming silver coffee mugs, and smile at one another and mouth silent phrases to one another. But then Luke gets off the bus, and Heather's face falls into the same expression of quiet sorrow I see on all the other faces——myself included, I suppose.

This is all rather depressing, so I try to think up some lesson here, some encouragement with which to face the day. I think to myself, "Life isn't easy for anybody. Knowing that, we should try to be nice to one another. "

Not the pithiest motto. But for this Monday morning, it will have to do.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Thought

A thought that occurred to me last night....

Perhaps genuine freedom isn't so much about choosing either option A or option B, but more about about having both options available.

"I'm going to do B, not A," is its own form of bondage. But "A and B are both possible" is a genuine form of freedom.

This is true not only of actions, but of attitude, I think. Mired in a bad mood, merely recognizing that a good mood is a possibility has plenty of power to liberate. When angry, simply considering the possibility of friendliness is often all that's required for transformation.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book & a Movie; January 2010

This month's recommendations:

The Mind & the Brain (2002, by Jeffrey M. Schwarz, Harper Collins).

For those of us of a somewhat spiritual bent, modern science offers much to be dejected about. The premise of modern science is that all phenomenon, including human aspiration and feeling and passion, can be reduced to logical and predictable interactions between ions, electrons, amino acids, neurotransmittters. If you really listen to what science says, and believe it, you're left with the empty sensation that free will doesn't exist at all. 

Schwarz, though, points out that modern behavioral science never really grew beyond Newtonian physics. All that it takes to restore the wonder about the nature of human consciousness is to learn a little bit about quantum physics, which not only make room for human consciousness and free will, but argues that nothing else really explains the way the world operates.

I can by no means do justice to the author's arguments in a few short paragraphs. Suffice it to say that this is truly exciting work that seems to offer genuine evidence that our intuition was right when we decided that human consciousness was something magical and mystical and worthy of our wonder.

My film recommendation is a bit harder this month. Not much that blew my socks off.  So rather than a single recommendation, I'll simply give one-to-five star reviews of the last few I've seen:

Sherlock Holmes.  Three stars.  Pleasant diversion with interesting twists on the personalities of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. But needlessly complicated plot line that grew tedious in hour two.

Avatar.  Three stars.  Startling technology that makes you want to buy the DVD for the special effects features. But James Cameron is about as deep (shallow) as George Lucas in his handling of archetypal mythologies.

It's Complicated. Two stars Delightful acting by Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin,  and Steve Martin. Tedious plot and terrible written dialogue. 

The Road.  3 stars.  Yeah, depressing, but very finely acted. You have to be into post-apocalyptic nightmares, though. 

Hello darkness my old friend.

Every so often, a Black Thing comes knocking at my door, and with a wicked grin it demands to come inside for a short visit to relive the good old days. I know him well, because twice in my life he has been a long-term visitor. On one occasion, more than thirty years ago now when I was a troubled young man, the Black Thing not only dwelled with me for the better part of two years, but was a virtual bedmate. Some years later, when my mother was dying of cancer, he came for another visit that was mercifully shorter, only about two months or so in duration.

He's also popped in for spot checks at other times, and last night brought one such visit.

A panic attack for me begins quite innocently, with nothing more than an unusual and very particular sense of expectation. It's not an unpleasant feeling at first——more like the slight nervousness you might feel before speaking in front of a group, or like the prescient sensation you get if you awaken early on the day of a vacation trip to a far-off land. Last night, out of a sound sleep, I awoke to this feeling of expectation, which, even if it's been years since the last one, is instantly identifiable.

Within moments——or maybe its just a split second, because time is very hard to gauge--the feeling of expectation blossoms into an inexplicable terror. A friend once asked me to describe what a panic attack felt like, and the closest I could come to was this: it's like you're walking down a sunny street on a spring day, a song in your heart, when you step off the curb to cross a boulevard, and realize that a speeding bus is a split second away from smashing you into oblivion. The heart-in-the-throat, stomach-sickening, thought-exploding volcano is a panic attack.

Panic attacks for me can last anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, and however long it might be, the doomsday bus travels at 90 miles-per-hour for the duration, and remains inches from crashing into you, never further and never closer. It defies all physical laws, as the impending doom never resolves itself, but hangs in the air eternally. Taken individually and seen in retrospect, no single panic attack is all that big a deal. It doesn't leave lasting damage, and once it's past, the feeling from moments earlier seems as distant as the moon.

In the very darkest times, though, when the Black Thing lived with me, the panic attacks were always on the long side, and I was seized by 10 or 12 each day. I awoke with them, went to sleep with them, and was roused from fitful sleep by attacks of panic. For two years in 1975 and 1976, my days consisted of panic, and the dread waiting for the next attack of panic. There was literally no room for happiness. Though not as graphic to onlookers, this kind of panic disorder is just about as debilitating as a pattern of frequent epileptic seizures.

T'was a very dark time, in other words.

That's really the horror of infrequent return visits of the Black Thing in the years since those times. An occasional panic attack isn't all that problematic, but it always does remind me of that time when panic attacks put me on the verge of madness. When they happen, even now, I wonder if it harkens a return to those days, or if at some point the doomsday bus will fail to disappear and remain forever poised inches from crushing me. I fear, in other words, that the panic won't end. There is likely an element of post tramatic stress in all this, I'm sure, since when it happens, I relive some memories that even today I haven't told people about.

When the Black Thing revisits like it did last night, there is some comfort in knowing that a drugstore a few blocks away does carry medicines that can help a bit. Long experience has taught me the very mild doses of a particular enhancer of neuro-transmitter action can help lessen the severity and frequency of panic attacks. Should they start to become frequent, that's an option. But as anyone who has lived through some kind of mood disorder——whether serious depression, OCD, or anxiety disorders——can tell you, medicines really address symptoms, not causes. A well chosen drug treats physical sensations associated with a disorder, and doesn't exactly cure or prevent them. The benefit of a drug is rather like putting on long underwear and a heavy coat when the winter night is bitterly cold. It makes you more comfortable, but it doesn't turn winter into summer.

Long experience has also told me that another part of the solution, the more real solution, is willful action that, on the face of things, seems entirely counter-intuitive. Although every impulse you have during a panic attack is to run, to flee, the truth is that if you actually try to run away from panic, the terror will continue to pursue you relentlessly. Strangely enough, though, turning directly into panic, staring it in the face, shining awareness into it, is one of the best ways to make it evaporate. If there is any one thing I can point to that caused the Black Thing to leave me alone, finally, it was this kind of meditative approach to the whole thing.

So very often the best solution is not to distract yourself, not ignore a panic attack, but to study it quite directly and objectively. In the throes of a panic attack, what I find is that gradually the observing aspect begins to come to the fore-front, while the panic itself recedes and becomes a subject for study rather than a beast that has you by the throat. The inner sensation is very much like dialing a radio tuner away from the channel playing terror, and to a frequency where a documentary narrator observes the pounding heart, the racing thoughts of horror, the wild impulses. Wes Craven becomes David Attenborough. It become evident that panic is drama, not truth, and that it carries no real long-term meaning or significance.

Last night's visit was a mild one——fifteen minutes or so——yet I admittedly feel a bit rattled today. Literally rattled, as though the nuts and bolts of my nervous system were slightly loosened, so that I clatter around a bit like the tin woodman.

It's not altogether a bad thing, though, as I find that this morning I am a little less full of myself, and a little more attuned to the people around me, wondering about what kind of quiet pain they are hiding themselves, and how they deal with their own visits from the Black Thing. It is more prevalent than we think, though it surely wears different costumes when it visits our friends, neighbors and coworkers. Perhaps it's true that some knowledge of our own pain helps us empathize with others. I also try to view it philosophically, even spiritually, and to learn something from these visits. Rilke, I think, said something like "perhaps every black thing just secretly wants to be loved." And the Buddhists have a practice called 'feeding hungry ghosts," which involves acknowledging that our spectres do truly exist and must be recognized if they are to be overcome. If the Black Thing's come back to visit, it very likely means that I've not paid close enough attention recently.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Color Me Livid

Here's one for the books:

On "Fox News Sunday," Hume — the former leader of Fox News' political reporting and host of "Special Report" who now serves as an analyst for the network — said that [Tiger] Woods' recovery "depends on his faith."

"The extent to which he can recover seems to me depends on his faith," Hume said. "He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. My message to Tiger would, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world."

Holy crap, Batman. I'm not exactly sure you can call Tiger Woods a Buddhist, exactly, since as far as I know he simply professes to practice meditation. But to suggest that the religion that spawned Jimmy Swaggert, John Edwards, et al to be the one best suited to redeem moral sleaze....well, really folks. You can't be serious.

Seriously Brett. Buddhists aren't perfect people, but on a cosmic sinfulness scale, I would put my Buddhists against your Christians any old day of the week.