Saturday, December 31, 2005

"Who Are The Popsurfers?"

Who are the Popsurfers?

We’re a group of journalists, freelance writers, artists and pop culture enthusiasts who have written for just about every mainstream publication you can name. Most have current jobs elsewhere, so they’ll remain anonymous (and be able to speak freely from the inside).

Our team of bloggers:

Michael Giltz

Michael Giltz is an award-winning freelance writer based in New York City who covers all areas of pop culture, including movies, music, books, theater, TV, and DVDs. He’s written more than one thousand reviews, features, opinion columns and cover stories for The Advocate, the New York Post, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, Premiere, New York magazine, Out, The Weekly Standard, Disney’s Adventures, In Theatre, the Denver Post, and others. He’s also covered politics, sports and religion and been an active contributor to the popular political blog As an expert on pop culture and politics, Michael Giltz has appeared on TV in Germany, the Basque region, MSNBC and other cable channels. For radio, he’s appeared on NPR in Boston and other local and nationally syndicated radio shows, including Sirius Satellite Radio’s gay and sports channels. He travels annually to the Cannes Film Festival, but otherwise sees no reason whatsover to leave New York City. He can be found on the web at

The other contributors have credentials equal or superior to Michael Giltz.

Monkeyboy – another journalist with extensive and notable credits, he currently is on staff at a major national publication. He’s interviewed every young starlet who’s come down the pike in the last ten years. Monkeyboy is also the world’s foremost expert on “monkey movies.” If there’s a guy in a gorilla suit in a movie, he’s seen it.

Richboy – this contributor resides in the art world, where he is one of the foremost experts in his field. (We can’t name it or everyone in that world would know of whom we speak.) His secret passion is an addiction to reality television. Sure, he watches “American Idol” and “The Amazing Race.” But “Amish in the City?” “The Surreal Life?” He can’t help himself. He's also got a hell of a trust fund.

Bluntboy – another freelance writer with extensive credits (not to mention recent forays into producing TV shows). His caustic wit skewering the silliness of Hollywood is why we call him blunt…that and a fondness for smoking.

Festivalboy – another talent who’s branched out from writing about pop culture to contributing to it via his editing of movie trailers, working on independent documentaries and more. Festivalboy is a fiend for film festivals and literally travels the globe attending every one that he can.

Directorboy – God help him, he wants to direct. He’s taken his work to film festivals around the country. But until his talent is given that one big shot, he’ll soothe his ego by championing fine movies by other directors, going to revivals at art houses like Film Forum and groaning over the pain caused by TV shows he likes but inevitably let him down. (“Gilmore Girls” and “NewsRadio” spring to mind.) Quite the Anglophile.

Theaterboy -- she's seen at all, sweetheart, so don't even. A true Broadway baby, this dedicated theatergoer cleans her apartment to songs from "The Rink," trudges through her daily job with an assist from Streisand and Sondheim, and then perks up before going out on the town by turning up the volume on "Dreamgirls." (Get her to describe the raucous previews she attended for that legendary show.) Bitter? Sure, who wouldn't be. But give her a strong melody, good lyrics and someone who can sing, really sing, and she's yours.

Biboy -- A working scientist, biboy's weakness is sci-fi and virtually any production -- anywhere -- of Wagner's "Ring" cycle.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Best CDs of 2005 -- The Extended Version


1. Richard SwiftThe Richard Swift Collection, Volume One (literate pop) – in this day and age -- when every band is overhyped and "discovering" someone means watching them perform in a recurring role on a primetime series -- stumbling on a new artist unawares is almost impossible. But a tiny, one paragraph review in a British music magazine compelled me to buy this album by the West Coast-based artist. Think Randy Newman (without the cynicism), Harry Nilsson (without the vocal flourishes), Van Dyke Parks (without the artifice) and Tom Waits (without the gravel). A story teller and a romantic, Swift’s songs sound like they were written in a dusty hotel room circa 1920 by a young man wearing a natty suit and composing his lyrics on a manual typewriter. Swift's website is nifty too.

2. Sufjan Stevens Illinois (eclectic pop) – when Sufjan Stevens released Michigan and said he was going to release one concept album for every state, it sounded like a threat. Now it seems like a giddy promise. Here he uses many styles – Philip Glass, folk, rock, pop, country – to tell many stories about Illinois, whether it’s a UFO sighting, Superman or a serial killer. Bursting with ambition, it succeeds.

3. The EelsBlinking Lights and Other Revelations (suicidal pop) – never really focused too strongly on the Eels before, but this Magnetic Fields-like opus makes an obsession with death and dying seem wonderfully life-affirming.

4. Amadou & MariamDimanche a Bamako (world pop) – a famed Mali duo for decades, Amadou & Mariam were new to me. However, I’m a big fan of their producer here, Manu Chao, who brought his giddy world pop sensibility to their music. The fusion is infectious.

5. Betty LaVetteI’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise/ Various I Believe To My Soul (soul) – No producer had a better year than Joe Henry. He gave soul survivor LaVette the album she always deserved (“Just Say So” will break your heart) and then turned around and showcased Ann Peebles, Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint and the great Billy Preston for good measure. Can’t wait to hear what he does with Elvis Costello.

6. The White Stripes Get Behind Me Satan (bluesy pop)/ Bright EyesI’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (folkie pop) – two acts that are in it for the long haul. The White Stripes got even starker, without sacrificing their innate pop craft. And danged if Bright Eyes doesn’t sound angry and wordy and passionate enough to actually be the new Dylan everyone has been predicting since the first Dylan. Anyone who doesn’t laugh with and love the rambling, hilarious, spoken word opener “At The Bottom Of Everything” is no friend of mine.

7. Neil Diamond12 Songs (pop via Brill Building) – I’ve always been a big fan of Neil Diamond. (I scored points with my first high school girlfriend by always having a Neil Diamond cassette cued up before we'd drive away in my car.) He writes great songs and has a great voice and anyone listening to "I Haven't Played That Song In Years" off his last studio album would know he didn't need much rehabilitating. But producer Rick Rubin certainly brought out the best in him, from the magnetic opener “Oh Mary” to the pure pleasure of “Delirious Love.” My pop punk band has already recorded a killer, speeded-up version of “Save Me A Saturday Night.”

8. Hanna McEuen -- Hanna McEuen (country by way of Everly Brothers) – I probably played it more than any other album this year. A country duo with pop/rock chops, cool vocals and 12 great songs. On “Something Like A Broken Heart,” they sing, “It’s a little like an old sad song/ It kills you but you sing along.” You’ll do the same on almost every track here.

9. The Magic Numbers The Magic Numbers (60s pop via UK) – sinks in slowly but then it stays there. Trumpeted as the reemergence of the Mamas and the Papas, they’ve got a lot more in common with the shape-shifting pop of the Lovin’ Spoonful. They like nothing more than to stop a song dead in its tracks (just when it’s getting unbearably catchy), dive right into a new melody and get you all excited about that one before returning to their original idea. And it works.

10. Various Does Anybody Know I’m Here? Vietnam Through The Eyes of Black America (protest pop) – the second album chronicling soul music during the Vietnam Era, it’s a really remarkable document. This time it shows the disillusionment seeping into popular music, as in the Dells’ “Does Anybody Know I’m Here?’ The catchiest history lesson imaginable.

11. Wolf ParadeApologies to the Queen Mary/ Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah/ Broken Social Scene/ Marah If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry (return of Talking Heads) – an explosion of talented young bands appeared in the wake of Arcade Fire. My money is on Wolf Parade (heavy on the Talking Heads). But it’s going to be a very interesting next few years.

12. Bill Charlap and Sandy StewartLove Is Here To Stay (telepathic jazz duets) – Charlap is a pianist and his mother Sandy Stewart is a relatively unheralded singer. Their quiet duets album is simply breathtaking. The interplay on songs like “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe” and "After You" is subtle and true. Joins Ella Fitzgerald’s The Intimate Ella and Tony Bennett’s work with Bill Evans as a low-key gem.

13. Lewis Taylor Stoned (what Prince and Stevie Wonder used to be) – terrific soul music that’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years. Elton John's been championing him like crazy and no wonder. He can write, sing, and produce a la Stevie and Prince. This should be huge, if people will only pay attention.

14. Ali Farka Toure & Toumani DiabateIn The Heart Of The Moon (world music) – mostly duets between guitar and dora (with Ry Cooder sitting in, not to mention the occasional bass and percussion). An improvised collaboration that flows with ease. Captivating.

15. Fiona AppleExtraordinary Machine (pop, the hard way) – well, you do not want to dump pop singer Fiona after a few dates. (“You will see my face as I figure out how to kill what I cannot catch?” Yikes!) But who would leave someone this talented and exciting? Catchy, personal, confessional, universal – a triumph.

16. Heartless Bastards Stairs and Elevators (rock n roll) – how lazy of people to always mention the Pretenders and Joan Jett whenever a female rocker appears. But then, I’m lazy. And early Pretenders is a great reference point for this formidable New York band. Can’t wait to hear songwriter and singer Erika Wennerstrom live (and eventually on another album with a bigger budget).

17. Various Son Cubano NYC: Cuban Roots, New York Spices 1972-82 (salsa) – what do I know about salsa? Nothing. But I know you can’t put on this album without smiling and being caught up in its irresistible rhythms.

18. Hard-FiStars Of CCTV (British rock) – British rockers with a sense of humor. (Actually, most British bands have a healthy sense of humor.) So rooted in the details of their lives living in council flats near the airport that it all becomes universal.

19. Neil YoungPrairie Wind (folk rock staring death in the face and smiling) – the only thing I didn’t like about this album was how people retroactively downgraded the lovely Silver & Gold in comparison. But Young’s gentle, observant hymns ban all bitterness. This is how I like him best. Elegiac.

20. Supergrass Road To Rouen (underappreciated rock) – Why oh why is this British group so unappreciated? They’ve done pop (I Should Coco), Beatle-esque rock (In It For The Money), Led Zeppelin stomp (Life On Other Planets) and now anthemic rock. Get in your car, drive fast, roll down the windows, put this on the stereo and you’ll love it. (And you’ll drive even faster.)

21. Various Cheatin’ Soul (classic soul via fanatic German collectors) – a terrific compilation of songs about cheaters and the ones they cheated on. Mostly obscure, great stuff (I’m in love with Ann Sexton now, who sings “I’m His Wife (You’re Just A Friend)”) and it all comes from some crazy soul fanatics with their own label in Deutschland.

22. Franz Ferdinand You Could Have It So Much Better (New Wave pop) – catchy as all get out and with more naughty lyrics people don’t quite catch. Slick, in a good way. Do it a third time and I’ll be won over completely.

23. Marty StuartSoul’s Chapel (white gospel) – what a great album, filled with white gospel music played by country stalwarts. “Somebody Saved Me,” “Move Along Train” (with Mavis Staples) and the title track – it’s enough to make even a heathen promise to go to service if they can hear music like this.

24. M83 Before The Dawn Heals Us (headphone music) – the trippiest Pink Floyd album this side of Radiohead. Perfect for late at night in your bedroom when the lights are off or better yet in an open field under the stars.

25. Madonna Confessions On A Dance Floor (pop) – this deserves more respect. It’s as solid as any of her albums, with four or five killer singles to its credit. Her next greatest hits album (Immaculate Collection Vol. II) will be just as indispensable as the last one.

26. Paul McCartneyChaos and Creation In The Backyard (Beatle-ish pop) – no, I didn’t fall for Driving Rain or (I think) Flowers in the Dirt (at least, not too hard) or the many other albums that are invariably described as Macca’s best in years just because we’re so happy to hear that voice and sink into those melodies. But this is indeed his best solo album since Tug Of War some 22 years ago. If you’re a fan, jump.

27. My Morning JacketZ (rock, hold the country) – massive personnel changes make this a different beast than their earth-shakingly good It Still Moves. Gone is the country-ish flavor of the Band and I miss it. But repeated listens prove this is damn durable too.

28. The GrascalsThe Grascals (bluegrass with a dash of Dolly) – pure bluegrass delivered by an ace band that has opened for Dolly Parton. When she drops in for “Viva Las Vegas,” it’s heaven. But their own covers and originals are terrific as well. Formidable.

29. Hot Hot HeatElevator (blender pop) – this has to be the worst name for the best band in a while. Unlike say Franz Ferdinand, they don’t pillage one particular retro style—they steal from ‘em all. Really good. But their name was so dorky I avoided the album for ages so I haven’t really lived with it yet.

30. Kaiser ChiefsEmployment (pop) – this UK act was my favorite live show of last year. But their singles are so crack cocaine-addictive (namely “Everyday I Love You Less and Less” and “I Predict A Riot”) and the album gets off to such a righteous start I wanted it to be one of the best albums EVER and was disappointed when they came back down to earth. Very promising, though.

31. Lee Ann WomackThere’s More Where That Came From (70s country) – nothing is more dangerous than success. Womack scored an across-the-board smash with “I Hope You Dance,” a prom/wedding song if ever there was one. Then she chased similar pop hits with dire results. She gets back down to business with this retro collection of solid songs that remind us why she’s one of country’s best singers. Smooth. And a relief.

32. Various Our New Orleans (jazz soul benefit CD) – of all the Katrina benefit albums, this is the one you will actually listen to again and again. Everyone from Dr. John to Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas chips in, along with Buckwheat Zydeco, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and more. Instead of the obligatory Randy Newman cover, they bring in Newman himself for the finale, a charged rendition of “Lousiana 1927” with the New York Philharmonic.

33. Gorillaz Demon Days (animated pop) – the best animated pop band since the Archies. That means nothing of course, but it definitely means something when I’m looking forward to the next Gorillaz project more than I am the next Blur album. Fancy that. Terrifically groovy dance pop.

34. Common Be (overdue hip-hop breakthrough) – smart, thoughtful hip-hop, for the most part. Common’s delivered solid work for years but it took Kanye West to finally put him over the top. (And no Kanye on this list. Some great singles but I still can't get behind him without reservations.)

35. Toto Bona Lokua (world pop, sans instruments) – three acclaimed vocalists come together to improvise songs with only a hint of backing musicians. Think of it as a male Zap Mama.

36. Adam Guettel The Light In The Piazza (Broadway) – gets better and better with every listen. Why did I ever imagine this wasn’t supremely well-crafted and emotionally engaging?

37. Brad Mehldau TrioDay Is Done (jazz) – especially for the swinging takes on the Beatles tunes “Martha My Dear” and “She’s Leaving Home” (one of my least favorite Beatles tracks and here they’ve brought it to life for me). Adventurous.

38. Shelby Lynne Suit Yourself (finally, she did) – like Womack, Lynne chased some pop glory but she’s rediscovered herself with this dry, straightforward collection of songs. A real talent.

39. The RaveonettesPretty In Black (retro pop) – their first album seemed like a pastiche, like a goof. Now they range wider through pop history and their songs are even catchier. Well done.

40. Dianne Reeves Good Night, and Good Luck (jazz vocals) – never been a big fan of Reeves, but here she has relaxed into an assured singer devoid of tricks and focused on the song at hand. She doesn’t own any of these standards. But her versions of “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” “Solitude” and “There’ll Be Another Spring” make clear she isn’t trying to -- Reeves is serving them, rather than trying to make them serve her. Maybe that’s the difference now.

41. Richard ThompsonGrizzly Man (film score) – his latest solo album (Front Parlour Ballads) was merely so-so. (Frankly, that’s a relief since sometimes I fear I’ve lost the ability to do anything but rave about Thompson.) But this score for the Werner Herzog documentary is a terrific showcase for his brilliant guitar work. It gives the film a sweep and emotional undercurrent the oddball subject could never provide.

42. Josh RouseNashville (singer-songwriter) – I loved Rouse’s album 1972, which really drew on that era. Nashville, in contrast, is not really a country or Americana affair. But it is more terrific songs by an underrated singer-songwriter.

43. Brad PaisleyTime Well Wasted (country tunesmith) – Paisley may be country’s most versatile tunesmith right now. “Out In The Parkin’ Lot” is vintage Billy Joel (if Joel were country and lived in a small town). Dolly Parton fits right in on “When I Get Where I’m Going.” And “Alcohol” is an ode to that troublemaker anyone can identify with. Country for people who think they don’t like country – but it ain’t country rock or watered-down either.

44. The New PornographersTwin Cinema (indie rock) – others love this more, but you can’t dislike an album with a song called “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” Smart music on the margins.

45. Various Brokeback Mountain (country-ish soundtrack) – a lovely, mournful score with a brace of terrific songs. Everyone mentions Emmylou Harris’s “A Love That Will Never Grow Old.” But I also really like the out-of-leftfield duet on “King of the Road” by Teddy Thompson and Rufus Wainwright, not to mention Wainwright’s wrenching end credit song “The Maker Makes.”

46. Sexsmith & KerrDestination Unknown (pop via Everly Brothers) – Sexsmith is another underappreciated talent who turns out one art pop gem after another. Here he gets a little rootsier and does his best Everly Brothers bit, thanks to songs that benefit from an overt melding of his voice and longtime collaborator Don Kerr. From the delightful opener “Listen” to the hometown verities of the warm finale “Tree-Lined Street,” this is a winner.

47. George StraitSomewhere Down In Texas (rock-solid country) – there’s simply nothing to fault on Strait’s latest album. There never is. Very good songs. Very good singing. Very good music. He’s so dependable we can barely appreciate how good he is.

48. Ry CooderChavez Ravine (archeological rock) – Cooder captures a vanished neighborhood in Los Angeles along with a vanishing group of talented musicians for his latest, most elaborate project. More history lessons, though you’d hardly know it when your hips are shaking.

49. Sonny RollinsWithout A Song: The 9-11 Concert (titanic jazz) – try to forget this was recorded just four days after 9-11 and you can hear a legendary talent at the top of his form. Surely people in the future will just revel in his extended, probing journey through “Where Or When?” and other tracks. But for now, that added poignancy is unavoidable and why should we try to pretend it is?

50. Various American Primitive Vol. II – most compilations strive for the best sound quality possible. So does this, I’m sure. But they also seem to take glee in digging up the most obscure, rickety tracks possible. If you press your ear up to a Victrola and listen to a warped old 78, you probably hear some songs better than you would with this CD. Dust is nothing to be ashamed of, they're saying, and the sense that you are hearing songs barely rescued from the ash heap of history is heavy and compelling, from the scratchy opener “I Want Jesus To Talk With Me” by Homer Quincy Smith to Mattie May Thomas’s closer “No Mo’ Freedom.” Precious stuff.

BONUS CD #51 Various -- Golden Afrique Vol. 1 and 2 -- I paid what seemed like big bucks for these two-CD sets ($40 each on import), but what a bargain. If you loved Graceland and maybe got turned onto Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the classic compilation The Indestructible Beats of Soweto, it's time for you to get excited again. A great primer.


Various -- One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found – most boxed sets just repackage music you’re already familiar with. I can’t remember the last time I discovered more great tunes than on this fun collection of girl group singles.

Billie HolidayThe Complete Verve Studio Master Takes – the sound quality is so terrific it stopped me in my tracks…and let me really listen to Holiday with fresh ears for the first time in ages.

Ray CharlesPure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959) – duh.

Charlie PooleYou Ain’t Talkin’ To Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music – for anyone who thinks Hank Williams is too modern.

John ColtraneWith Thelonius Monk Quartet at Carnegie Hall/One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note – these two live albums are absolutely essential, towering works. If you want to consider them “new,” (technically they’ve never been released before), then put them right into my Top Five.

Evie SandsAny Way That You Want Me – groovy early 70s pop with a big debt to Dusty Springfield.

Various -- Cameo Parkway: 1957-1967 – funky fun.

Talking HeadsBrick – Just in time to make me appreciate how so many young bands (like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Wolf Parade) are influenced by them. The sound quality is stunning – “I Zimbra” from Fear Of Music sounds like the strangest, freakiest, most compelling track in the world.

Bruce SpringsteenBorn To Run – terrible packaging makes this a drag to store. But the album sounds great, the documentary is okay (albeit a wasted opportunity) and the live concert is vintage.

The Swan Silvertones1946-1951 – I thought I knew and liked this legendary gospel group after hearing some late-period albums. But this compilation from their salad days was a revelation. Heavenly.

Bill WithersJust As I Am (DualDisc) – this acoustic soul album has always been one of my favorites. But the modest extras are what blew me away. Some archival performances are gripping and a 20 minute documentary shows Withers fierce, focused and as passionate as ever. Please, someone get Rick Rubin to work with this man. He is ready.


Best Cover Art– John Mayer Trio’s retro Try! (straight out of the Blue Note playbook) and Lee Ann Womack’s soft-rock early ‘70s look for There’s More Where That came From.

Favorite TV moment #1 – Bright Eyes on “The Tonight Show,” of all places, singing his fiery denunciation of Bush “When The President Talks To God,” and Jay Leno looking so awkward afterwards.

Best Comeback – Lesley Gore with the lovely title track from her first album in decades, “Ever Since.”

Best Kiss Off – Gary Allan’s song “Tough All Over,” from the mostly mournful album of the same name.

Favorite TV Moment #2 – that SNL rap video, “Lazy Sunday.”

Coolest near-James Dean rock star move – Drake Bell of TV’s “Drake & Josh” getting into a terrible car accident just as his promising debut album “Telegraph” was on the charts. Happily, Bell will have to earn his first Number One the hard way; he’s recovering fine.

Who Needs “American Idol?” – “Nashville Star” finalist Miranda Lambert engineers a Number One debut on the country album charts thanks to the terrific single “Kerosene .”

If At First You Don’t Succeed Award – Ryan Adams, with not one, not two but three albums that were all intriguing and sort of satisfying but not quite great.

Most Rousing Opener – the thunderously silly (and wonderful) “The Infanta” from the Decembrists’ clever “Picaresque” album.

Favorite TV Moment #3 – Antony and the Johnsons on “David Letterman” with Antony singing “You Are My Sister” with such Nina Simone-like intensity it was riveting and thrilling and weird, in a good way.

Funniest Chorus -- "Golddigger" by Kanye West made me laugh every time.


Rosanne CashBlack Cadillac
Teddy ThompsonSeparate Ways
The StrokesFirst Impressions of Earth
The Arctic MonkeysWhatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not

Thursday, December 15, 2005

DVDs Out Tuesday January 17

My weekly DVD column got squeezed out of the Post this week -- too much space taken up by Golden Globes coverage. Here's the column I filed, which inevitably would have had one item cut and the others shortened even more.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show Complete Third Season
Unquestionably the best sitcom of all time, this is the season where “MTM” started firing on all cylinders – Ted gets a girlfriend, Rhoda loses weight, and Mary throws a disastrous dinner party. Every episode is quick-witted, smart, and rooted in characters we know so well a simple grunt from Lou can draw a big laugh. Now where’s season four?

Alessandro Nivola is worried he’ll be embarrassed about where he came from when he and his art gallery owner wife Embeth Davidtz visit his family in the South. The surprise is that he becomes more embarrassed of her. Amy Adams scores as the pregnant, sweet wife of “The OC’s” Ben McKensie. Extras include deleted scenes and commentary by the cast.

Mr. Show – The Complete Collection
*** ½
Still freaking out over the possibility that “Arrested Development” may soon be swimming with the fishes? Dive into “Mr. Show,” the HBO sketch comedy series starring Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (Tobias on “AD”). Warning: it makes that sitcom seem positively normal in comparison. Loaded with extras, including commentary on all 30 episodes.

Lois & Clark Second Season
Warner Bros.
In this effective romantic comedy, the Superman mythology is mined for adult banter between Lois (Teri Hatcher) and Clark (Dean Cain). Sexy chemistry between those two is the main reason it works so well. Some 40 years earlier, the 1952 second season of “The Adventures of Superman” (Warner Bros.; $39.98) went in the opposite direction by playing down to the kiddies and robbing the show of whatever modest edge it had.

Also out: the flop sports gambling drama “Two For The Money” (Universal; $29.98), the wickedly funny Britcom “Nighty Night Series 1” (BBC; $29.98), and the somber infidelity period piece “Asylum” (Paramount; $29.99).

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Best Movies Of 2005 -- The Extended Version

The ringer? March of the Penguins, which is on my Worst of 2005 list. It's NOT a documentary. It's a poorly made fictional film using animals to tell a fake story. (At least in the rest of the world. For the US, they slapped on some embarrassing, unscientific gobbledygook about penguins that often ignores what's happening right in front of our eyes.) For other duds, scroll down to the bottom.


The Best of Youth – a six hour Italian miniseries that spans decades to cover politics and business and terrorism and love. And life. Which only sounds dorky before you’ve become caught up in the lives of a group of characters you get to know almost as well as your best friends. Shot for TV, so its visual flair is limited. But pure entertainment.

Brokeback Mountain – yes, it is a gay cowboy movie. A very good one. Ang Lee has only really stumbled once (with “The Hulk”) and been less than great only one other time (the fine “Ride With The Devil”). Other than that, since his breakthrough with the commercial hit “The Wedding Banquet,” it’s been one marvelous film after another: “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (one of the great entertainments of all time) and now this thrillingly good drama. Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams are terrific, but Jake Gyllenhaal is the center of the tale, doing his best work since “Donnie Darko.” A great, tragic love story – no wonder teenage girls are going again and again.

Mysterious Skin – a strange, odd and compelling movie, easily the best from director Gregg Araki (who always had great style, but not always great storytelling skills). Adapting the novel by Scott Heim pushed Araki to be very disciplined when telling the story of two kids who are molested by a baseball coach. One descends into prostitution (almost a legal requirement for troubled gay youth in the movies) and the other blocks it out completely, ultimately convincing himself he was abducted by aliens. Really wonderful and Joseph Gordon-Levitt of “Third Rock From The Sun” is sensational. (He’s just as good in the terrific 2006 release “Brick.”)

Good Night, and Good Luck – a tightly controlled, compelling story of the showdown between Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. But GNAGL uses that as a springboard to discuss fear and conformity in general, the changing face of television, and the responsibilities of journalism, all in a film told with verve, a terrific cast (including David Straithairn, director George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella, etc), a smart use of jazz singing to break up the intensity and above all the words of Murrow. My God, did people really talk that smartly and incisively on TV? Heck, even the people interviewed quote Shakespeare.

The New World – If you liked “The Thin Red Line,” you should enjoy this similar poetic retelling of the legend of Pocahontas. I was enthralled (yes, enthralled) by the original 138 min. version – the ships landing in America with Wagner rising and rising in intensity was like seeing an alien spaceship landing. The momentousness of it to the indigenous Americans came across beautifully, as did the strange wonder of this gorgeous new world. Quiet, thoughtful, with a gentle pace I luxuriated in. And the third act where Pocahontas goes to England was just as remarkably strange and eye-opening. Could anyone else make us appreciate and experience the unique sensation of what it would be like to see something utterly new?

The Squid and the Whale – captures better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen the uniquely adolescent stance of a kid (Jesse Eisenberg) who is smart enough to soak up the comments of adults around him but not quite ready to voice his own opinions – but boy does he want to. In between, we see parents divorcing and throwing everything at each other – including the children. Everyone is great, from Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney to William Baldwin, Owen Kline and Eisenberg.

Capote – a hushed, focused look at Truman Capote exploring the true crime story he would immortalize in “In Cold Blood.” A second viewing confirmed my feeling that this was an incisive, memorable work. (The production design and costumes alone are terrific for suggesting the period without ever intruding.) I may disagree with the film’s assertion that creating “In Cold Blood” cost Capote his soul and kept him from ever producing anything of note ever again (I’d say fame did that nicely), but it’s terrific nonetheless.

Look At Me – This French comic drama is easily compared to Woody Allen: clever, wealthy intellectuals arguing and debating and discussing everything under the sun. At the heart of it is Lolita Cassard, a lovely if plump girl with a wonderful voice who wants nothing more than the approval of her insanely self-centered and egotistical dad (a hilariously indifferent Jean-Pierre Bacri). Very funny, but ultimately quite moving.

The Constant Gardener – a rare, intelligent thriller that never overplays its hand or underplays our intelligence. No finale with guns a-blazing here. To my taste, Rachel Weisz slightly overacts in her first scene. But Ralph Fiennes – after a string of forgettable flops like Maid In Manhattan – is back in form. No plays opaque better than him.

The Aristocrats – Happily, watching it a second time lets you appreciate the clever editing that turns what could have been a tedious exercise into a revealing look at artists…and you get to catch your friends’ reactions to the more outrageous variations on the filthiest joke in the world. My favorite riff: the mime.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped – I didn’t like James Toback’s Fingers starring Harvey Keitel, so not surprisingly I avoided this nominal remake for a long time. But only the broad outline is similar in this story of a small-time thug with a rundown dad and a talent for classical piano. Star Romain Duris is an increasingly interesting actor and I won’t soon forget his showdown with a petite Chinese piano teacher.

2046 – If John Ford can make Western after Western and Hitchcock make countless thrillers, why do people complain when Wong Kar-Wai makes two movies (this and In The Mood For Love) in the same vein. Personally, I can’t get enough of his swooning romanticism, stunning female leads and impeccable use of sound, music and color. Tony Leung is so masculine in a self-confident manner he’d give Clark Gable a run for his money. And he’s surrounded by some of the best actresses in the world. For all its messiness, is there any doubt after watching it that you’ve seen an artist at work? No.

A History of Violence –one of the best directed films of the year, thanks to director David Cronenberg and the graphic novel it’s based on. Taut, clever storytelling about the owner of a smalltown diner confronted by thugs. His reaction to their threats changes the lives of everyone he knows. Viggo Mortensen proves he may very well have a career post-Aragorn.

Howl’s Moving Castle – not as stunning as Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away, but then again almost no film is. Still, a delightful tale with all his usual talents and obsessions (including threatening old women) on full display.

Downfall – is it wrong to say how entertaining this is? Don’t think of this drama set in Hitler’s bunker as good for you or “important.” Just let yourself get caught up in the tense, surreal atmosphere. Yes, Bruno Ganz’s Hitler is a man rather than a monster. That makes him a lot scarier. And the scene where a Nazi mother tucks her children into bed is the most chilling moment of the year.

The 40 Year Old Virgin – what a delight. Like most “raunchy” comedies, 40 Year Old Virgin is at heart very sweet. It may seem like a sex romp, but it’s really about a man who saves himself until he meets the woman of his dreams (a warm, funny Catherine Keenar) and marries her. The best mainstream comedy of the year.

The Warrior – almost unheralded here, this lean period drama shows a hired swordsman in India working for a petty little ruler. When ordered to mercilessly behead some innocent villagers, he chooses to go on the lam instead. Simple, straightforward storytelling with all the humanity and action of Kurosawa. Director Asif Kapadia’s nest movie – The Return – stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sam Shepherd, so don’t be surprised if he’s the talk of 2006.

Grizzly Man – it’s odd to watch an entire documentary film about someone you wouldn’t want to spend two minutes. But director Werner Herzog turned the final years of the odd and ultimately unstable Timothy Treadwell into an uinforgettable document of obsession. Obviously, Herzog could relate. A wonderful score by the legendary Richard Thompson helps tremendously.

Tony Takitani – a quiet little gem that transforms the idiosyncratic style of writer Haruki Murakami into this sweet, sad and beautifully filmed story of a technical illustrator whoe wife is obsessed with shopping.


Mad Hot Ballroom/Rize
Broken Flowers
Roll Bounce
My Summer Of Love
Match Point
Nobody Knows
Last Days
Dear Wendy
Walk The Line

Sin City
The Power of Nightmares


March of the Penguins
Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price
Pride & Prejudice
Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo