By Lisa Haviland
- Ellie Parker: I recently discovered this little 2005 ditty written and directed by Scott Coffey, who has pieced together a hilarious and accurate account of life as an L.A. outsider with the actress protagonist being the most obvious embodiment of this role. Coffey nails L.A.’s sunny entropy, transit transit transit, seemingly required self-whoring and subsequent identity crises. Bonus points for Naomi Watts’ Australian Ellie changing audition personas in bumper-to-bumper traffic to the tune of “Heart of Glass.”
- Amy Winehouse, Back to Black: By turns sultry, vulnerable, jaded, and witty, throwing phrases like “By the time I’m out the door/you tear me down like Roger Moore,” Amy Winehouse traverses those shadowy areas—the affairs, temptations, and addictions—with torch-singer brazenness against music that swells and drops, chimes and tambourines: a bluesy, Motown-edged cloud.
- Hot Fuzz, directed by Edgar Wright: From the Shaun of the Dead duo comes this wackiness, which both mocks and embraces cop/action genre clichés, paints a comic-yet-eerie picture of small town life, and illustrates the power of denial for an inept police force aided by “simple folk” who only want to believe the best, all to the exasperation of our protagonist, one Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg, who cowrote the script with director Edgar Wright). The film employs just about every comedic gag and convention—fish out of water, slapstick, spoof—but rather than overwhelming the story, this bulging bag of tricks becomes the story. Bloody excellent.
- Edward Albee in Person as part of the “River to River Festival,” New York: It is somehow reaffirming when an artist whose work you admire enjoys sharing his experiences, such as one studio executive’s suggestion that Bette Davis play the role of Martha in the screen adaptation of Albee’s at-times-bracing play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? despite the fact that Martha riffs on this very actress in the script. Albee, also the author of Zoo Story, A Delicate Balance, and The Sandbox, chuckled that he would have enjoyed watching Davis in the role which makes sense: his works are uncompromising in carving out artifice and bringing characters—and audiences—face-to-face with demons in a way that was, back in the day, unprecedented.
- Zana Briski, “Brothel to Bugs,” a presentation at the International Center for Photography: Zana Briski traveled to Calcutta at the behest of her intuition. “I follow coincidences” is how she describes it to the New York audience assembled for her October 2007 presentation. Her experiences there are conveyed in the 2005 documentary Born into Brothels, with her work as a photographer highlighted in a self-published collection of the same name. The black-and-white images, which center on children raised in red-light-district brothels by prostitute mothers, are poetic, macabre, empathetic, and stark all at once. For her current project, she has literally returned to nature to photograph the mantis and other insects, producing portraits that are surprisingly intricate.
- Six Feet Under: For some reason, I didn’t heed friends’ and critics’ repeated admonitions to “Watch this show!” until this year, when I consumed it like comedy-drama crack. These writers linger in the uncomfortable spaces and places many shows—and people—avoid without ever exploiting their characters, played by a tight, nuanced cast, Michael C. Hall in particular. The circular nature of the life-death journey, rather than anything resembling resolution, is their focus and despite—or because of—subject matter that hinges on a funeral-home family, Six Feet Under is consistently funny.
- Borgessa: This New Orleans singer and songwriter embodies the city’s lurid, romantic appeal through alternately breathy and domineering vocals on tracks like “Permission” and “Come and Catch Me,” while also exhibiting a warped, though welcoming, sense of humor regarding matters of the heart. She enables me to return somewhere I once traveled, and gladly beyond.
- Tori Amos, American Doll Posse: If there is an album for this time and space in America, American Doll Posse is that album. The depth and range of this 23-track offering is impressive and inventive, undercut by a pitch-perfect, Americana array of musical styles and sentiments. Underlining the swing, the melody, the twang are Amos’s lyrics, which reference specific sources of despair, such as the Iraq War and a power-hungry “George,” and illustrate their more subtle consequences in the form of character-driven portraits and snapshots which, even amidst the despair, artfully evoke once-classic American virtues of independence, sass, true freedom, feminism, and maybe, just maybe, a way out—a redemption.
- Fay Grim, directed by Hal Hartley: This 2006 spy-spoof-meets-international-political-thriller-meets-noir plot-twisting-comedy snuck up on me; it wasn’t until a half hour had passed that I realized I was watching not only a great genre-splicer, but a fine film in its own right. Parker Posey, in possession of her estranged husband’s high-stakes, er, notebooks, becomes the unwitting heroine of the piece, winding a weird path dictated at first by the CIA (in the form of Jeff Goldblum) and then various shadowy underground types, including an Osama bin Laden-like “associate” of Henry Fool’s, the aforementioned husband. Campy fun with philosophical undertones—a sort of subtle schizophrenia.
- The Night of Nosferatu, Rabbit Hole Ensemble: This off-off-Broadway play is an adaptation of both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, divided into two parts: Harker’s journey to the dreaded Transylvania, which his wife, Mina, inadvertently experiences through the Count’s lure; and his return home, a sanctuary he has corrupted by selling Nosferatu the house right across the street (talk about the neighbor from hell). The story is conveyed through Greek-chorus-like alter egos and sparse, handheld lighting, with the darker side of desire-the boundary between self-destruction and thrall-holding sway. . . at least for a little while. . .
Honorable Mention: Beck, “Timebomb”: Na na na na!