Monthly Archives: December 2009

Remembering the Oughts

I began this millennium ten years ago today, in St. Louis, on a youth group trip to some Y2K extravaganza inside the stadium where the Rams play. In the middle of Third Day’s set (Third Day!), some friends and I ran outside so we could see the fireworks and Y2K blackouts over the St. Louis skyline at midnight. I think we got in trouble for leaving, but we didn’t care. If the world was going to end that night, we were going to witness it first hand.

Nothing happened. And that’s all I can really remember from the year 2000—aside from the general chaos of the Bush/Gore presidential campaign, U.S. History AP with Mrs. Ashley, Britney Spears on TRL, and the Sydney Olympics (vaguely). The decade didn’t really get started until 2001. That’s the year I graduated from high school, moved from home, and started college. And of course, there was that day in the second week of September.

September 11 happened during my 3rd week as a freshman at Wheaton College. The out-of-nowhere unexpectedness of it typified a decade that would largely be defined by a sort of “what will happen next?” cynicism and dread. What would the Oughts have been like had that day never happened? I don’t think any of us could estimate.

From there, the decade flew by like a blur—the world changing faster than ever and full of war, terror, technology and Lord of the Rings. Reality blurred ever more with Hollywood melodrama and we all became hooked to horrifying “breaking news”: The D.C. Sniper! Anthrax! Tsunamis! Katrina! Worldwide economic meltdown! Michael Jackson dead! Cable news tickers, text alerts and Twitter gradually replaced ritualistic newspaper-reading with something altogether more instant.

It was a decade of moments. Small pieces loosely joined. Like the network of nodes through which the world has become almost entirely accessible, the Oughts killed our lingering suspicions of coherence and instead offered us a never-dull ala carte parade of vaudeville amusements: Youtube clips of the week, endless streams of “friend” updates, TMZ reports of Lindsay Lohan DUIs, iPhone apps for just about any other diversionary interest… Everyone seemed more “connected,” but the world at large… not so much. In September 2004, Martha Stewart went to jail, Oceanic Flight 815 crashed, and I spent my first month living in Los Angeles. A lot of bombs exploded in Iraq.

It was a decade of firsts. First black president. First black secretary of state. First time U.S. homes with cell phones outnumbered homes with landlines. I went abroad for the first time. I ate curry off of a banana leaf in Malaysia and grew fond of macarons in Paris. I published my first magazine article, wrote my first book, started my first blog. The Dow Jones Industrial passed 14,000 for the first time. A lot of people voted for their first Democrat.

In the 2000s, the Octomom became a celebrity, Carson Daly ceased being relevant, and Lady Gaga summed up pretty much everything that had happened between “Bye Bye Bye” and “Boom Boom Pow.” George W. Bush became a caricature, swine flu and trucker hats had their moment, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was somehow a hit, and I grew up a lot. I started the decade as a teenager living with my parents and ended it older by 59%.

I don’t remember a lot of the specifics of the decade, aside from a CD or movie here, a world-changing terrorist act there, and all the usual comings and goings of relationships, births (my niece and nephew), deaths (my grandfather and aunt), and jobs (making lattes, editing magazines). Most of it is a blur, stored up in that “oh yeah… that did happen didn’t it?” part of the memory that seems to curate more and more of our quickly forgotten life experiences on a week-to-week basis.

What I do know about the 2000s is this: The world didn’t end; I wrote a 20-page paper about Saved by the Bell in grad school; Kansas won the NCAA basketball championship; Arrested Development should have lasted longer; I accomplished a lot of things I’m proud of; And there are many things I wish I would have done differently.

The end of a decade is really just a somewhat arbitrary excuse to look back, reflect, and take stock of time’s decennial endurance. And in that, it’s a blessing and a curse. Who among us doesn’t have regrets about something they might not have done or said? Who among us doesn’t sometimes want to turn back the clock? The “Oughts,” as with any period of time past, are full of “oughts” of the regret variety: I should have done this; I wanted to do that; I ought to have done so much more.

But enough looking back. It’s a new year and a new decade. It’s time to move on in faith and fresh hope, with lessons and bruises and battle scars only making us more durable for whatever unfolds in the decade to come.

Best Movies of 2009

Here are my top ten favorite movies of 2009, with an additional 15 honorable mentions that could easily have made the best ten as well. This list has gone through many variations in recent weeks, as I’ve seen a few films more than once or some for the first time (and yes, I did see Up In the Air… but it didn’t make my list). I hope you’ll try to see each of the following films if you get the chance (many are available on Netflix). They are the movies that thrilled me the most in 2009:

10) Invictus (dir. Clint Eastwood): Perhaps the most underrated film of the year, Invictus is much more than just another sports movie or “another Clint Eastwood awards season movie.” It’s a beautiful portrait of how reconciliation happens in reality and how politics can employ things like sports and poetry in the service of national renewal.

9) The Last Station (dir. Michael Hoffman): A lighthearted but profound film about the last days of Leo Tolstoy’s life, The Last Station is the best actor’s showcase of the year, featuring wonderful performances from Christopher Plummer (as Tolstoy), Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Kerry Condon and Paul Giamatti.

8) Munyurangabo (dir. Lee Isaac Chung): Made as a sort of YWAM art therapy project for Rwandan children of the genocide, this astonishing debut from American director Lee Isaac Chung presents a beautiful, organic picture of reconciliation and grace.

7) Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion): This John Keats romance film definitely tops the “most beautiful to look at” list for 2009. But it also has ideas and painfully true insights about love and loss, adding to the visceral impact of the well-lensed images.

6) The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow): The first (only?) great film about the current Iraq war, Bigelow’s heart-pounding film is impressively acted, relentlessly tense and refreshingly apolitical. The most exciting film of the year, hands down.

5) Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino): As audacious as ever for Tarantino and yet perhaps his classiest film yet, Basterds features his trademark cinematic pastiche, episodic narrative, and some of the tensest and most well-developed scenes he’s ever concocted. No one can make apple strudel as menacing and lush as Tarantino can.

4) The Road (dir. John Hillcoat): Based on the novel (by Cormac McCarthy) that is arguably the definitive piece of fiction for the 2000s, The Road is a triumph of cinematic adaptation that manages to visually render a book some called unfilmable and offer us an unsettling forecast of what nightmares may come if we don’t “carry the fire” and pass it on to the next generation.

3) A Serious Man (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): The second best Coen Brothers film of the 2000s, A Serious Man is a striking, complicated, “you’ll be thinking about this for a while” film about God, suffering, and having faith like Job. It’s abstract, funny, dark, haunting, and unlike anything else that came out this year. You’ll have a hard time moving in your seat when the screen goes to black.

2) Summer Hours (dir. Olivier Assayas): This exquisite French film is about the beauty and meaning of life, and how it is so much more than just the objects and mementos and bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share. Summer Hours is a film of incredible subtlety and delicate observation, told with an aesthetic purity and humane sadness that is all too rare in contemporary cinema.

1) The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke): Michael Haneke (Cache, Funny Games) is a director who loves to engage the minds of his audiences, forcing them to consider their presuppositions about cinema and to look closely not just at what they are seeing on screen but how they are seeing it, how their brain perceives it. With Ribbon—a film set in pre-World War I Germany—we are invited to consider the psychological preconditions of fascism, looking at the clues in culture and custom to see what we can see about what led the German children in 1913 to grow up to lead their nation through its darkest hours of fascist hate and Nazi terror. Beyond all that, though, Ribbon is a film of exceptional beauty (if Christian Berger’s black and white cinematography doesn’t win the Oscar, I’ll be shocked) that employs a fragmentary, multiple-plotline structure to haunting effect. It’s an unforgettable film that will get your brain spinning in all sorts of directions.

Honorable Mention: Still Walking, Goodbye Solo, Julia, Up, Lorna’s Silence, The Brothers Bloom, Two Lovers, Tetro, Gomorrah, The Messenger, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Sin Nombre, Knowing, Avatar, Where the Wild Things Are.

Best Documentaries of 2009: Of Time and The City, Le Danse, The September Issue, Food, Inc., The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

The Darkest Night of the Year

One of my favorite Christmas traditions has always been the Christmas Eve candlelight service. As a child I probably liked it most for the getting-to-light-a-candle aspect (who doesn’t like playing with fire and wax?), though even then I felt the mystical power of seeing one light pierce the darkness and gradually begin to spread throughout the congregation, illuminating and warming the church sanctuary. It was a marvel to behold, especially when—as “Silent Night” or “Oh Holy Night” echoed throughout the candlelit room—I began to fathom the symbolic significance of the whole activity. It was the image of a world-changing light that spread everywhere from one humble little plastic-cup-encased white wax candle. The Incarnation.

This baby—born into strife, squalor, in a nondescript cave—was more than a feared little rebel threat and chink in the armor of the Roman machine. In time this humble little child set in motion a movement that surpassed Rome and all other empires in size, scope, and revolutionary impact. From Bethlehem the light spread through the dark sanctuary of the world, from the Middle East to Europe to the ends of the earth. Within two hundred years Christ’s world-changing life and gospel was being propagated and theologized by major figures in North Africa (Tertullian), Greece (Clement), Turkey (Polycarp), and Rome (Justin Martyr). Against strident opposition and persecution the light spread quickly and caught fire in some places (Europe), ultimately becoming the dominant cultural influence from that point onwards. 2009 years later, now in places like China and Sub-Saharan Africa, the light is shining brighter by the day.

The Christmas Eve candlelight services are more than just a nice symbolic act of remembrance, however. They are the continuation of a biblical tradition of likening Christ to images of light and darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” wrote the prophet Isaiah (9:2). “On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” This was hundreds of years before Mary, Joseph or Jesus were even born, but it was an idea Jesus himself carried on as an adult. “While I am in the world,” he said, “I am the light of the world” (Matthew 9:5).

Tonight is the darkest night of the year. December 21: Winter solstice. It’s the shortest night of the year and the day when the earth is tilted the furthest away from the sun. It’s the day when light is the most elusive.

How fitting that in such a dark week, we celebrate the entry of light into the world. When the world was at it’s darkest—on that silent, cold night 2,000 years ago—cosmic light and eternal hope took human form as a baby (a baby!) born into the humblest of conditions for the sake of a dark, desperate world.

I love the 19th century Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” especially these lines:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Imagine! The hopes and fears of all the years—it all comes to a head at this one point, this turning point in the history of the universe. And of all things, it’s a baby! In him—in this everlasting light shining dimly from a manger—are met the collected pains, fears, tragedies, triumphs, hopes, cries, prayers, bellyaching and sufferings of everyone who has ever lived. Just think about the sheer volume of that!

All of it—all of the baggage we carry, all the things we fight against, the wars and hunger, losses and loves—it all looks toward this one singular point. This light. Like the Bethlehem star that alerted the wise men to the coming of Christ, it’s a light that shines high and bright, for all the world to see.

The spreading of that light, as symbolized in the Christmas Eve candlelight services, comes about through the church, which has been Christ’s “body” on earth ever since the resurrection. The light spreads (has never stopped spreading) through Christians who are willing to live up to the calling of Christ on the Sermon on the Mount:

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

It’s inspiring to think about being a carrier of this light—to recognize that I was once in darkness, but am now in the light of the Lord and must live as a child of this light (Ephesians 5:8).

On this Christmas Eve, as I light my candle and pass it on to my neighbor at church—as I’ve done year after year, for as long as I can remember—I will think about what it means to be a son of light. I’ll think of it when I’m holding my baby niece by the Christmas tree, pointing out the twinkling lights and angel ornaments. I’ll think about it if it snows (please Kansas, give me some snow!), waking up to that particularly bright color of light reflected on the purest of icy white.

Or I’ll think about it by looking up at the cold night and focusing on a star, thinking about how Jesus probably saw the same star too. Jesus who walked on the same planet that I do. Jesus who was God incarnate. God who made the stars and said “Let there be light” in the first place.

Best Albums of 2009

It’s been a good year for music, and a good decade. 2009 ended with some truly forward-thinking genre development (glo-fi/chillwave) and genre resurgence (shoegazer), and an overall spirit of musical innovation that makes me excited to see what the next decade has in store. It was hard to pick my top ten this year (and any of my honorable mentions could easily have made the top ten), though the #1 was never in doubt. Anyway, here are my picks:

10) The Flaming Lips, Embryonic: Unexpected, daring, fringe… the Flaming Lips’ latest is a challenge but nevertheless grows on you with each listen. It is low-fi, 70s-era psychedelia that evokes a sort of “Age of Aquarius” atmosphere of hippie haze.

9) Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The most original hip hop album of the year, Kid Cudi’s debut is a five-act concept album that feels equal parts nostalgic and futuristic—a moody ambient piece that opens up new doors for the future of rap.

8) M. Ward, Hold Time: Matt Ward’s latest album is one of the finest folk song collections of the year, featuring retro-sounding, reverby tunes about God, love, and William Blake.

7) Memory Tapes, Seek Magic: For my money, Memory Tapes is the best example of the new chillwave/glo-fi genre, managing to curate an album of dreamy, haunting sonic scrap memories while never seeming too much like an overwrought hipster rave.

6) Various Artists, Dark Was the Night: I would normally not reserve a spot on my top ten list for a compilation album, but Dark Was the Night was not just any compilation. A benefit album for the Red Hot, an HIV/AIDS charity, this album features steller songs from the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Feist, The National, The Arcade Fire, and more—an unprecedented collection of a “who’s who” of indie excellence.

5) Real Estate, Real Estate: This debut album from New Jersey quartet Real Estate is blissful and unironic, light on its feet even while it traffics in genres (shoegaze, surf-rock, lo-fi) that sometimes feel heavy, plodding and pretentious. Not so with this gorgeous and coherent piece of warm-hearted sonic nostalgia.

4) The Antlers, Hospice: This is the best debut album of the year in my opinion—an operatic, sweeping yet simple concept album about family, cancer and death. Sounds depressing, but man is it refreshingly earnest and emotionally powerful. Plus it’s just beautiful. Every song.

3) Neko Case, Middle Cyclone: Perhaps the most underrated album of the year, Middle Cyclone is something many people might have passed over because, well, Neko Case isn’t “new.” But this album finds her at her most mature and nuanced, with songs and lyrics that are as lovely as any folk or singer/songwriter album you’ve heard this year.

2) Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: These French hipster rockers made the perfect pop album in 2009 with Wolfgang—an album that is breezy, fun and Euro-chic, even while it manages to surprise us with decidedly unconventional interludes (“Love Like a Sunset Part I and II”!!!!).

1) Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion and Fall Be Kind: It’s a bit of a cliché to heap praise on Animal Collective this year, but they deserve it. It’s been quite the year for them. When Merriweather leaked in late 2008, it was preemptively declared the best album of 2009—and for good reason, as it turned out. “My Girls” immediately captured the moment like no other song did this year, and each and every song on Merriweather (and then the recent Fall Be Kind EP) managed to push music in directions that still managed to be melodic and addictive, in spite of being ridiculously experimental.

Honorable Mention: Bifrost Arts, Come O Spirit, Aaron Strumpel, Elephants, Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest, St. Vincent, Actor, Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer, Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca, Passion Pit, Manners, Mos Def, The Ecstatic, Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk.

50 Best Songs of 2009

It’s time to commence the end-of-year list-making here on The Search… and we’ll start with my picks for the best songs of the year. I’ve opted not to put them in any sort of order (except alphabetical), because it takes too much time to arbitrarily decide whether Neko Case (pictured above) should be #11 or #18. So here they are… 50 songs that you should definitely think about downloading!

Andrew Bird, “Tenuousness”
Animal Collective, “Brothersport”
Animal Collective, “Graze”
Animal Collective, “My Girls”
Atlas Sound & Panda Bear, “Walkabout”
Bat For Lashes, “Daniel”
Beyonce, “Sweet Dreams”
Bibio, “Ambivalence Avenue”
Bon Iver, “Brackett, WI”
Camera Obscura, “The Sweetest Thing”
Clipse and Kanye West, “Kinda Like a Big Deal”
David Bazan, “Curse Your Branches”
Dirty Projectors, “Stillness is the Move”
Fleet Foxes, “False Night on the Road”
Future of Forestry, “Slow Your Breath Down”
Grizzly Bear, “While You Wait for the Others”
Jay-Z and Alicia Keyes, “Empire State of Mind”
Jay-Z, “Young Forever”
Julian Plenti, “Only If You Run”
Karen O and the Kids, “Worried Shoes”
Kelly Clarkson, “I Do Not Hook Up”
Kid Cudi, MGMT, Ratatat, “Pursuit of Happiness”
Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”
M.Ward, “For Beginners”
Memory Tapes, “Bicycle”
Monsters of Folk, “Dear God”
Mos Def, “Quiet Dog”
N.A.S.A. (ft. Kanye West, Santigold, Lykke Li), “Gifted”
Neko Case, “Middle Cyclone”
Neon Indian, “Deadbeat Summer”
Peter, Bjorn & John feat. Wale, “Nothing to Worry About”
Phoenix, “Lisztomania”
Phoenix, “1901”
Raekwon, “House of Flying Daggers”
Real Estate, “Snow Days”
St. Vincent, “Marrow”
Sufjan Stevens, “You Are the Blood”
Sunset Rubdown, “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)”
Susan Enan, “Monoplain”
The Antlers, “Two”
The Books and Jose Gonzalez, “Cello Song”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, “A Teenager in Love”
The Very Best, “The Warm Heart of Africa”
Thom Yorke, “All For the Best”
U2, “Magnificent”
Vampire Weekend, “Horchata”
Washed Out, “Feel it All Around.”
Wilco, “Solitaire”
Yacht Club, “Psychic City”
Yeasayer, “Tightrope”

Bad Tidings of Great Pain

“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
– Luke 2:10-11

I saw two movies this past weekend—the second weekend of Advent. They were The Messenger (dir. Oren Moverman) and Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman). Both films are winning awards right and left this season, but that’s not the only thing they have in common. Both films focus upon the unfortunate task of bearing bad news.

In The Messenger, Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster play a pair of U.S. Army officers recently back from combat who are assigned to the Army’s Casualty Notification service. They bring the death notifications to the fallen soldiers’ next of kin. It’s a horrible job, but somebody’s got to do it.

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a seasoned professional “terminator”—hired to fire employees for bosses too chicken to do it themselves. In the film, Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, partners with an intrepid young “terminating engineer” named Natalie (Anna Kendrick), and the two spend their days flying from city to city, leaving a trail of the devastated and newly unemployed in their wake.

Both films are about the tidings of bad news… news of the death of a loved one, news of the end of employment. It made me think about how utterly prevalent bad news is in our world. Our lives are so marked by disappointment and discouragement. The world is so abuzz with the communication of negative messengers. Whether it’s as direct as bringing a death notice to a next of kin or as subliminal as a clothing advertisement communicating the unimpressive flabbiness of any non-model’s body, negative news is not hard to find.

Here we are at the end of 2009—at the end of the first decade of the 21st century—and what is it we remember? 9/11? Katrina? Iraq? Afghanistan? It’s almost all negative. Turn on the news and what do we see? Glenn Beck bitching about healthcare? Keith Olbermann moaning about Sarah Palin? More bad economic news? New Tiger Woods mistresses? There’s hardly anything encouraging coming in to our ears.

That’s why Advent—that’s why Luke 2:10—rings out with such startling power.

“I bring you good tidings of great joy,” said the angel to the shepherds, “which shall be to all people.”

ALL people. GOOD news. GREAT joy. And it wasn’t just a toothless platitude. It was legit. The best news the world ever received.

As I ponder the painful process that is the bearing (and receiving) of bad news, I’m heartened by the reality that Christ has come, and he’s overcome the world. Joy has won. Good news will overcome.

I’m also challenged, as a Christian, to not contribute to the chorus of complaining and to not get caught up in the endless stream of negative messaging. Rather, I want to spread the good news—the Gospel—which is ultimately the only thing that will pull us out of this quagmire of nature and negativity.

A Savior has come to rescue us, in the midst of our cancer and credit card debt, popstar Propofol  overdoses, swine flu fears and VMA rants. In the middle of our moaning for more love and aching for less pain, a little baby came and funneled it all toward a singular point in the heavens. A star that represented hope.

Joy to the world indeed.

Hipster Gift Guide

What do you get a hipster for Christmas? Pickier and harder-to-impress than the average person, hipsters can sometimes prove the most challenging of all loved ones to gift to. But if you are stumped as to what to get your v-neck wearing, unshaven nephew or that fair-weather Vegan cousin with the purple hair, fear not! I have some suggestions for gifts sure to be a hit among the hipsters this season.

Film Auteur Coasters: Mix and match coasters bearing the faces of an assortment of indie directors, including Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson, Sophia Coppola, & Jim Jarmusch, among others. Any hipster worth their cinematic salt will want these coasters beneath the towering glasses of oatmeal stout that accompany a communal viewing of Russian Ark. $48-96.

Travel Books Box Set: Hipsters love to travel, and while abroad they love to indulge in all the coolest, most “non-touristy” things. For the inside source, they’ll need to consult resources like the new “Hedonist’s Guide” series of travel books from Tumi. This conveniently packaged collection will help the hostel-going hipster graduate to sophisticating jetset navigation of all the hotspots of Paris, London, New York, Milan, Dubai, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Tokyo. $125.

Moleskine Notebooks: You can’t go wrong getting a hipster a Moleskin. Whether they use it to take notes, write poetry, doodle, dream, or jot down ideas for blog posts (as I do), you will be sure to put a smile on a hipster’s face with this smart and sleek stocking stuffer (comes in numerous varieties and colors). $10-20.

Shwood Wood-frame Sunglasses: The Oregon-based Shwood truly hit the jackpot with this ingenious variation on the traditional Ray-ban style hipster sunglasses. The wood frame look is wonderfully rustic and original, and for about $100 you can get a hipster something that will make them legitimately stand out!  $95-115.

Elitist Coffee: Nothing spells hipster like C-O-F-F-E-E. Especially when it’s super elite, expensive and/or part of the so-called “Third Wave” of American coffee. Two of the biggest names in the new frontier of high-quality coffee are Portland’s Stumptown and Chicago/L.A.’s Intelligentsia. Both brands of coffee can be bought online, and I highly recommend it!

Cigarette Carton Shaped Books: Most hipsters really love reading books (or at least the idea of it), and most of them love cigarettes. Tank Books recently combined the two ideas with a brilliantly conceived series of books designed to mimic cigarette packs – the same size, packaged in flip-top cartons with silver foil wrapping and sealed in cellophane. Buy them individually or as part of the full set in a tin box, which includes books by Conrad, Hemingway, Kafka, Tolstoy, Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson… All authors who loved their cigs. $15-70.

Freitag Messenger Bags: Are messenger bags still cool? They are when made by the Swiss out of recycled truck tarpaulins, unravelled seat belts, bicycle inner tubes beyond repair, and recycled airbags. These durable, entirely recycled bags are all different—each containing unique colors, markings and contours. You’ll be the only kid on the block with this bookbag. What more could a hipster ask for? $195.

Kiva Microfinance: In the charitable spirit of Christmas, why not give a microfinance loan as a “gift” in the name of the hipsters in your life? In all seriousness, Kiva is a cool person-to-person microlending website where you can lend money–with friends or just yourself–to entrepreneurs around the world who are trying to just get by. A product of the peer-to-peer social networking age, Kiva puts a personal, interactive face to the fight against world poverty. You can give Kiva gift certificates ($25-$5,000) to friends who can then lend the funds from the certificate to the entrepreneurs of their choice.

Fuji Instax Camera: In the wake of the death of Polaroid (alive now only via the ebays of the world), Fuji has stepped up with what might be the next generation of instant photography, something every true hipster can’t live without. This quaint little point-and-shoot is a perfect addition to the analog collection of all those anti-digital luddite artisan hipsters out there.  $100.

Build Your Own Bamboo Bicycle: The Brookyln-based Bamboo Bike Studio was founded “to harness the possibility and promise of self-propulsion, reaching out from New York City to developing nations around the world, beginning with Ghana and Kenya in Africa.” Whatever that means… Not that it matters. With weekend-long workshops (“walk in Saturday, ride out Sunday”), you can build an awesome bike out of bamboo! It’s the best present you could possibly give a hipster: simple, hand-made, vaguely Third World, somehow related to the “ongoing climate and energy crisis.” $1250.

Top 25 Films of the 2000s

Here we are at last: The final 25 of my “Top 100 of the Decade” list. I’m posting this on my birthday, as a sort of present to myself, because as many of you probably know (if you’ve read my blog even a little bit), movies are a big deal to me. They’ve been a big deal for me for a while now, but the 2000s has really been my “coming of age” decade for appreciating, learning about, and experiencing cinema. I published my first film review in 2001 as a freshman in college (the Julia Stiles movie O), and 9 years, hundreds of reviews and a graduate film studies degree later, I’m still at it. The films listed below represent those that have kept my passion alive over these years–not only for the cinema, but for art and life in general. And for God. Maybe it sounds a little strange, but I truly believe these films have enriched my faith.

In any case, it’s been fun reflecting on the decade in cinema by making this list (100-76, 75-51, 50-26). Maybe it wasn’t the 1930s or the 1970s, but the 2000s was a darn good decade in film. Without further ado, here’s the conclusion of my list:

25) Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani, 2007): Though set in New York City, in the shadow of Yankees Stadium, this film feels remarkably other-worldy (Third-worldly, actually). But that’s the point. Tapping into the spirit of De Sica-style Italian neo-realism, Chop Shop puts a lens on the unseen, difficult lives of the American urban underclass.

24) Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000): This film could easily be seen as some sort of cruel ironic joke, if only it wasn’t so achingly sincere. It may be the most depressing musical ever, but this Bjork-starring film is utterly compelling and packs a major punch at the end.

23) Man on the Train (Patrice Leconte, 2002): This film about two strangers who wish they had the other one’s life is deceptively simple and yet endlessly insightful. We’ve all wished we could live another type of life at some point or another. Leconte comments on many aspects of humanity in this film (identity, aging, mortality, etc) and yet it never feels aggressively cerebral.

22) Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002): Charlie Kaufman wrote himself into the script for this film about the writing of an adapted screenplay of a book. With Jonze behind the camera, the effect is discombobulating in a gleefully postmodern sort of way. But in the hands of brilliant actors like Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper (and yes, Nicolas Cage), the film manages to connect on a deeper level than just meta deconstructionism.

21) Cache (Hidden) (Michael Haneke, 2005): This film is compelling on so many levels. It’s a suspenseful thriller, well-acted character study, but it’s also a film that is about watching film (a theme Haneke also explores in his controversial Funny Games). It’s a film about seeing, being seen, and the various levels of “reality” that we must wade through when we start thinking about media and how it increasingly arbitrates so much of our existence.

20) Nine Lives (Rodrigo Garcia, 2005): Nine fragments of nine individual lives, told in segments over a series of nine long shots: all of them women, all unresolved glimpses into tangled lives with branching trajectories. It may sound convoluted, but this film evokes so much truth in its snapshot structure. It’s akin to the soundbite news stories or googled tidbits that populate our everyday windows into other peoples’ worlds… only better.

19) Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001): Though it might appear at first glance to be an elegant British murder mystery, Gosford Park is actually a quite profound, moving, entertaining examination of class. Writ large with one of Altman’s trademark massive ensemble casts, Gosford boasts innumerable dynamo performances from the likes of Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and Kristen Scott Thomas.

18) No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 2007): On one level, this film is a pulsating cat-and-mouse thriller, but as it progresses we see that it is about much, much more. The presence and subsequent absence of violence as the film goes along reveals a white flag weariness that matches the arid and emotionless Texas landscape. It’s a film that intentionally refuses satisfaction or answers to its audience, leaving us, like the older characters in the films, to stand stumped and disillusioned by the mundane nightmares of our contemporary world.

17) George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000): Green’s debut film is anachronistic (there are no computers or cell phones to be seen), but while it may not feel completely comfortable in the 21st century, neither does it feel at home in the 20th. The film is in some ways a lament for the “olden days” of green grass, safe streets, American dreams—but it is also looking away from all that—towards a new future that leaves behind the racial, relational, and economic strife of bygone days.

16) The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002): The ending of this film is pure catharsis. After two and a half hours of death and horror, our protagonist (Adrian Brody) is finally redeemed, and over the end titles, he performs Chopin’s magnificent Grande Polonaise for piano & orchestra with the Warsaw Philharmonic in a concert hall. Like the beautiful music played throughout the film, it is both sad and triumphant—equal parts emotional release and spiritual requiem for lost beauty and innocence. Very few films’ end titles are so riveting that not a single audience member leaves for five+ minutes.           

15) The Son (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, 2002): Aside from maybe The Road, there was no more beautiful a portrait of fathers and sons this decade than The Son, which is also the best European film of the decade. A film of great patience, restraint, and quietness (shot in the Dardennes’ trademark verite style) The Son spans the mundane rhythms of life and finds within it an abundance of grace.

14) The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006): This is a thoroughly contemporary film in both obvious ways (the importance of cell phones for the script) and on more subtle levels (the transnational migration of the film from the Hong Kong original—Infernal Affairs—is a decidedly recent phenomenon in cinema). Furthermore, the film’s urban, unrepentant nihilism feels quite authentic in the context of our current cultural quagmire.

13) In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000): This haunting, dream-like film from Hong Kong (set in the 1960s) is an expression of love—not just the human experience of it, but also our memory of it and its cinematic expression. Thoroughly contemporary in its preoccupations with nostalgia and the urgency of remembrance, In the Mood luxuriates in the inherent sensuality of the cinema and the necessarily mournful implications of the filmic embodiment of time.

12) Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006): Coming out as it did at the height of Bush-era malaise, Reichardt’s impressive debut captured the emotional tenor of a generation (or a certain large swath of a generation) better than just about any other film this decade. Startlingly simple in story and form (embellished only by a gorgeous Yo La Tengo soundtrack), Old Joy nevertheless provides a striking meditation on things like time, aging, and the loss of idealism.

11) Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003): Truly one of the most original films of the decade, both in its soundstage-and-chalk stylization and its high-minded allegorical ideals, Dogville is an arthouse epic if I ever saw one. Nicole Kidman as “Grace” is easily one of the juiciest roles of the 2000s, guiding us through a stunning film that on paper should fail spectacularly. But credit Lars von Trier that Dogville transcends pretentious gimmickry and manages to say some of the decade’s most daring and provocative things.

10) Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2008): This is one of those films that had me silent and stunned for the entire duration of the closing credits. Though highly sensory and aggressively artistic, Paranoid also has a plot—a simple, devastating plot that will grab you and shake you and make you think about the deep interiors of your life that rarely get glimpsed. It’s a totally unique, thoroughly American masterpiece of the cinematic form that demands to be seen in HD and surround sound.

9) Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001): You don’t watch a David Lynch film because it makes sense; You watch it because it rings true. And with Muholland Drive–a film of extraordinary beauty, mystery and sadness–Lynch is at his truest. Aided by a breakthrough performance by Naomi Watts, Drive takes the audience deep into the subconscious interiors of Hollywood and the human condition. The “Silencio” interlude–among other moments in the film–is absolutely unforgettable.

8) There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007): There Will Be Blood is an American masterpiece–a Citizen Kane for the postmodern Net-generation. It’s a stunning, thoroughly modern work of art that paints a stark picture of what happens when greedy capitalism and power-mongering is bedfellow with something so contrary as Christianity. As the title forebodes, the results—for all parties involved—will not be pretty. Though not a political film in the traditional sense, Blood nevertheless acutely captures the blood-oil-Iraq-evangelicals-capitalism zeitgeist of Oughts-era America.

7) I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007): This Bob Dylan biopic is not an easy film by any means, but it is a work of art. There is a lot to admire about the film’s style (cinematography, period costumes, stunning editing) and its acting (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and especially Cate Blanchett), but the brilliance of I’m Not There is far less quantifiable. Just as the film—through the case study of Bob Dylan and the 60s—shows us how identity is an elusive thing in postmodernity, so too does it evade any typical conventions of story and cinema. Like the era in which it exists, I’m Not There is made up of disparate images, moments, sounds, feelings, frustrations—small pieces loosely joined by the fragmenting, universal quest for identity.

6) Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001): On the level of pure madcap entertainment, this is a brilliant film. But on a conceptual and technical level (i.e. fearlessly hyper-speed editing, audaciously anachronistic musical numbers, songs actually sung by actors!), Moulin Rouge is simply genius. It’s a risky film (as Luhrmann’s always are) that works as a mythic love story but also a pop culture pastiche, culling together a century of sights, sounds, glitz and glamour to forge an explosively cinematic feast for the senses.

5) Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004): This film, essentially an extended conversation between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is perhaps the most elegantly urgent film of our increasingly anxious historical moment. It’s about not letting things slip away in a world where second chances—where nothing, really—is guaranteed. Hawke and Delpy are the best romantic movie pair of the decade as they stroll along, in real-time, at Paris-at-sunset, talking life and philosophy and what has transpired for them in the decade since they last met (in 1995’s Before Sunrise). It’s simple, yes. But in a decade that has been anything but, “simple” is a welcome attribute.

4) United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006): 9/11 is the defining event of the 2000s, and United 93 is the best filmic representation of it. The documentary-style drama brings us viscerally back to the terror of that day, offering a disturbing glimpse inside the hijacked flight 93 as well as a resonant look at the unfolding chaos on the ground. As a painstakingly objective historical document of the decade’s most important day, this film is a triumph. As a heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed thriller about what existence becomes when teetering on the edge of non-existence, United 93 is a nearly unparalleled achievement.

3) The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003): Taken as a trilogy, this WAS the decade in blockbuster filmmaking. Its unprecedented scale (three films shot back to back, totalling over ten hours of final film), coupled with Jackson’s meticulous artistry and the able hands of a fine ensemble cast, made these films more than just epic fantasy adventures; They are masterpieces of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. I still remember where I saw each of these films for the first time, and where I saw each for the second and third time, etc. The films were a cultural event and are firmly engraved in the annuls of “Ought” history.

2) The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005): Malick’s fourth film–and arguably his most sprawling and fully realized–is an epic tale of love, life, growth and nature, set against an American orgins story: The legend of Pocohantas. But it’s not a film about what happens. It’s about what is. In a way that few directors can, Malick confronts us with the thingness of things–the reality of a flock of birds, or a lightening bolt, or a corsetted dress. It’s a film of poetic abstraction that expresses a universe of cohesion by stitching together tidbits of light and longing, in the same way that William Blake saw the whole world in a grain of sand. It challenges our notions of what a film should be, eschewing traditional norms of storytelling while opening the form up to new expressive potential.

1) Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003): There’s a brief interlude in the middle of this film in which Scarlett Johansson’s character sits against the window of her Tokyo hotel room, looking out on the gray, foreign skyline. As an instrumental Squarepusher song plays, a tender handheld camera gracefully surveys the scene–taking in the bird’s eye view of the city but also the figure of Johansson in the foreground. The camera’s attention seems torn between the force of the chaotic city (graciously subdued by the protective layer of glass) and the humanity of this lonely feminine figure. Simple and true as it is, this sequence captures the dialectical essence of Sofia Coppola’s breathtaking film. It’s a film about the triumph of intimacy in the face of crowdnessness, fleeting human connection against the villains of loneliness and time. It’s a film that–through exquisite mastery of sight and sound–viscerally binds us both to the joy and despair these characters (Johansson and Bill Murray) feel. By the end, as the Jesus and Mary Chain serenades a ghostly whisper tour of Tokyo at sunrise, we feel a sort of boozy morning-after solemnity. But we also feel the thrill of having broken through–just for a moment–the 21st century melee of arcade lights and existential anonymity.

Top 100 Films of the 2000s: 50-26

The countdown continues! For 100-76, click here. For 75-51, click here.

50) All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003): David Gordon Green (aka mini Malick) got much acclaim for this film, which starred the then little known Zooey Deschanel and Paul Schneider. It’s the best breakup film of the decade (sorry (500) Days of Summer!).

49) Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001): This was the foreign film that made everyone fall in love with Paris. Again. It also defined a highly color-saturated, “magic realist” style that would be oft-imitated in subsequent years.

48) Ballast (Lance Hammer, 2008): No one saw Ballast, but it’s one of the decade’s best independent American films. Watch the trailer. The film is a thing of quiet beauty that begs to be experienced.

47) Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (Jill Sprecher, 2001): There’s a decidedly melancholy tone and Edward Hopper-esque look to this “interlocking stories” ensemble film, but it ends up being far from just another artsy downer.

46) Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006): The colors, textures, and indulgent opulence of this film would be annoying if it wasn’t all so absolutely fitting and perfectly executed. A classic story retold through Sofia Coppola’s delicate and distinctive 80s shoegazer lens.

45) Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001): Though it had the unfortunate luck to be released just months after 9/11, this stunning action film remains one of the best, most punch-you-in-the-gut depictions of modern urban warfare that we have.

44) Wall E (Andrew Stanton, 2008): Pixar topped themselves yet again with this cautionary tale/robot love story. More than just a triumph of the craft (the best animated movie of the decade), Wall E is a film that speaks to the cultural moment with grace and provocative insight.

43) 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002): Shot in the shadows of the blue-light specters of the World Trade Center, Spike Lee’s film eloquently captures the complicated post-9/11 mood of America. Ostensibly about one man’s (Edward Norton) last night before heading off to prison, 25th Hour is really a letter to NYC and America—full of all the rage, love, sadness, and hope that Lee so keenly conjures up in his films.

42) The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009): Based on the novel (by Cormac McCarthy) that is arguably the definitive piece of fiction for the 2000s, The Road is a triumph of cinematic adaptation that manages to visually render a book some called unfilmable and offer us an unsettling forecast of what nightmares may come if we don’t “carry the fire” and pass it on to the next generation.

41) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004): This Charlie Kaufman-penned film is as unconventional as romances get, what with its trippy examinations of memory, time, and psychology. And yet it all comes together perfectly, capturing quirky blips of spellbinding truth that more conventional films could never offer.

40) Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006): Heart-pounding and compelling from start to finish, this action/thriller is more than just a showcase for ear-ringing bombs and spectacularly elaborate single-take gun battles.  It’s a film that jolts us awake to the miracle of life.

39) Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000): Probably the best drug-themed film of the decade, and Soderbergh’s most significant contribution to cinema since Sex, Lies & Videotape. It was pivotal in the way that it energized the “social problem” film genre and proved that films about complicated issues could be made stylishly and for mainstream audiences.

38) Silent Light (Carlos Reygades, 2007): This film about a Mennonite love triangle set in Northern Mexico is original to the core (aside from a very literal nod to Dreyer’s Ordet) and shockingly visceral. The opening and closing shots are truly unforgettable.

37) Kill Bill Vol 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003): More indulgent and outrageous than Vol. 2, but even more stylish and painfully entertaining. Who can forget the epic fight scene climax in Japan or the “let’s have us a knife fight” matchup with Uma and Vivica?

36) Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006): This “other side of the story” companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers puts the stunning maturity and storytelling genius of Eastwood on full display. There was no more heartbreaking war film than this in the 2000s.

35) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007): Taking a page out of Malick’s stylebook, Dominik renders a contemplative existential portrait of Jesse James through images and sound, not so much with words. Brad Pitt is at his best, but the real star is Casey Affleck, whose “cowardly” Robert Ford proves to be a most unexpected tour de force.

34) In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001): Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are at the top of their game in this gripping, stays-with-you domestic drama about normal people reacting to abnormal trauma.

33) Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004): The best of Eastwood’s late career prolific period, Million Dollar Baby is a sports movie (boxing) that packs a real punch. The third act takes a turn unlike anything I’ve seen this decade.

32) The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001): Wes Anderson’s most complete, satisfying cinematic entrée, Tenenbaums is a gloriously somber iteration of the sort of hipster/retro nostalgia that has defined the 00s. Anderson’s hyper-stylized, immaculately arranged art direction and mise-en-scene launched innumerable trends in both film and television.

31) Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2009): This exquisite French film is about the beauty and meaning of life, and how it is so much more than objects and mementos and the bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share.

30) A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001): This film ushered in the 21st century with a particularly 21st century gimmick: the mashup. The Spielberg/Kubrick film is also thoroughly modern in its dystopic imagery and technophobic preoccupations: the all-too-immediate question of what happens when our technology becomes more real to us than our fellow humans.

29) The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008): Not only the best comic book movie ever, but one of the best action/blockbuster films as well. Heath Ledger is one thing (a big thing), but this movie is impressive on so many levels. It’s reassuring that films like this can still get made—super smart films that can still make $700 million.

28) Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000): Before The Dark Knight, Nolan gave us this breakthrough indie hit—a told-backwards film that revels in unorthodox structure and kicked the door wide open for a decade of non-linear narrative exploration.

27) Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003): In terms of historical costume epics, Weir’s elegant seafaring drama delivered all the goods. It’s an exciting, beautifully made, well-acted film with profound themes and the increasingly rare (but wonderful) blend of regal grandiosity and intimate character development.

26) L’enfant (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, 2005): Shocking both in how spare it is and how affecting it becomes, L’enfant is one of the true gems of recent European cinema. As usual for the Dardennes, the film withholds catharsis until the final few frames, leaving us abruptly stunned, paralyzed, and unsure what to feel as the screen goes black.