Monday, December 31, 2007

Best Movies of 2007

Until November, The Queen was the best movie I had seen in 2007, and it's not on this list because it was released in 2006. (That's why Helen Mirren won her Oscar back in the spring.)

Because I don't go to movies as often as I'd like, I'm currently inadequately prepared to write a 2007 Top 10 Movies list, so this is a Top 5 with some honorable mentions and other lists.

1. Juno. This movie was made for me: quirky yet believable characters, smart snappy dialogue, a darling low-fi indie soundtrack, half the cast of Arrested Development, and a Rainn Wilson cameo. How could I not love this? My one complaint is that Juno, the protagonist, does seem to be a bit too witty to be 16, but that is counterbalanced by her kid-like behavior. Covering themes of growing up, familial commitment, and just surviving high school, this is the best film I've seen all year.

2. Lars and the Real Girl. I thought about this movie for days after I saw it. This bizarre film, about a young man who falls in love with a life-size doll whom he believes is a real woman, is heartwarming without ever becoming sappy. Other critics might disagree with that sentiment, but Ryan Gosling as Lars was one of the most touching (and admittedly awkward) performances of the year. I hope he's not forgotten come Oscar time.

3. Once. I heard about this movie on NPR for about six months before I finally saw it, but it lives up the pretentious public radio hype. It's a low-budget drama about some Dublin street musicians who record an album. That's it. There's a guy and a girl. They (sort of) fall in love and record some beautiful songs, but it doesn't have a Hollywood ending. Refreshing, beautiful, and simple with a soundtrack to match.

4. Ratatouille. Okay, this was probably the best movie I had seen until November. Personally, this is my favorite Pixar movie to date. Remi the rat is my hero, and how could I not love a movie about food and cute animals set in Paris?

5. Superbad. I almost gave this spot to The Darjeeling Limited, but on further thought, I laughed more during Superbad. I laughed a lot. I was also disgusted, but I laughed a lot. Michael Cera is perfectly awkward, and Jonah Hill is … gross. And they captured high school more realistically than most teen movies. And then there's McLovin…

Honorable Mentions:
The Darjeeling Limited
Charlie Wilson's War
The Namesake
Kabluey (I saw this one at the Austin Film Fest earlier this year. It's an indie comedy that has yet to get wide distribution. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Fox Searchlight to pick it up.)

Biggest Disappointments:
Knocked Up
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

As for the disappointments, I will only say this: I'm disappointed Chuck and Larry was ever made and more disappointed in myself for seeing it. As for Knocked Up, I direct you to my friend Alison's blog, where she has an excellent analysis of both this film and Juno in regards to unplanned pregnancy.

Finally, here are the movies I want to see, ones that will probably be nominated for a zillion Oscars and make my list seem a little irrelevant:
Sweeney Todd
I'm Not There
No Country For Old Men

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Indie Music Year-in-Review

It is the Top 10 List time of year, and I tried coming up with my own Top 10 Best Indie Records of 2007. It proved difficult. For one, there are several albums I have yet to hear. When it comes to indie music, there are too many bands and too little time and money.

Also, this was a year of highly anticipated new releases from artists who are becoming more and more (gasp!) mainstream. As always, there were interesting trends. It was a good year for Canadians, electro-pop, and fittingly, Austin bands, so let's begin:

1. My favorite would have to be .... honestly, Feist. Despite her domination of gadget commercials (video iPods and Chocolate phones), her album The Reminder is masterful in both its lyrical maturity and variations of mood and style. It ranges from downright catchy to ethereal and pensive, her voice always stunning. If this is where mainstream music is headed, I'm following.

2. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky. In a departure from the experimental electronic and static-filled sound of previous recordings, Sky Blue Sky mirrowed its name in a refreshing return to simplicity. From the minute I heard the first single Impossible Germany, Unlikely Japan, I knew Tweedy and company had done something great, if rather Dead-head.

3. Okkervil River, The Stage Names. This Austin act has come into a lovely maturity and created something of a masterpiece with this latest effort. Layered and witty, it takes subtle Southern rock influences and fuses them with an easy indie pop sound. It makes the hometown proud.

4. Architecture in Helskinki, Places Like This. Experimental and chaotic as ever, this Australian band's latest effort seems to be from another planet yet surprisingly accessible. Poppy and catchy, strangely melodic and filled with ethnic beats, it's a 10-track roller coaster ride - quick and thrilling.

5. Iron and Wine, The Shepherd's Dog. With a great departure in style, Sam Beam has miraculously added percussion to his gentle vocals. Lyrically, the love songs are missing, but the story-telling is taken to new heights. While I was initially disappointed I wasn't getting another dreamy lullaby-filled album, I've been quite pleased with the new sound.

6. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away. This one wins for best title of the year, although I still struggle with Wincing's sometimes lyrical ambiguity. However, The Shins gain further credibility by handling mass success brilliantly and creating a stark, jarring album. The proof is this: It came out in January and I'm still listening to it regularly.

7. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible. I was worried about this one. Their first album, Funeral was too genius, too good, too big, too hyped. How could they possibly follow it? By making a powerful album with a lyrical political punch. An all too-telling critique of society, Neon Bible takes Springsteen-inspired rock and mixes it with the art school sound that made Arcade Fire such a hit in the first place.

8. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I can't get the song The Underdog out of my head, and that's a prime example of Spoon's lasting appeal - catchy, solid rock music. I once heard Spoon described as "just a good band that makes good albums" and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga holds to that reputation.

9. Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight. I must admit, this one has grown and grown and grown and grown on me. On first listen, I hated the disco-inspired lyrics and music, but Jenny Lewis' voice can overcome anything. However, it has enough depth and surprises to stand on its own and not on Lewis' hype.

10. Lily Allen, Alright, Still. Okay, this one only technically counts, seeing as her music has been around for a good year and a half and she's a little too huge to be indie. But the album was finally released State-side in January, and her ska and reggae influenced bubblgum seems too sweet on the surface until you realize just how witty and cheeky she is.

Of the smaller acts I discovered this year, the best had to be Bishop Allen and Man Man, both based out of the Northeast with 2006 releases that I only discovered recently. However, they are distinctively different, with Bishop Allen having a lovely pop sensibility matched with creative story-telling, while Man Man is an insane, high-energy conglomeration of shouting and instrumentation. With constant touring and some recognition (Bishop Allen's catchy "Click, Click, Click" has been featured in a camera commercial) both have made it into the larger indie consciousness in 2007.

Overall, it was a good year for indie music, and I'm sure 2008 will be equally entertaining and thought-provoking.

[Note: Several excellent artists have released new albums this year that I have yet to hear, including Beiruit, The New Pornographers, Jose Gonzalez, Josh Ritter, and Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah! When I finally get around to these and others of 2007, I hope I can add a 2007 Year-in-Review, part two. For now, I'll stick to my criticism thus far.]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Recycle Right

Every time I take my plastics to my apartment complex's recycling bin, I am overwhelmed by the smell of garbage. I'm more disturbed by what is carelessly tossed into this bin. It smells like a garbage can because it is treated like a garbage can.

I wish I could get a megaphone and walk around the complex, informing my neighbors of their recycling mistakes. They are not helping the environment by throwing "unaccepted" things into the recycling bin. The municipality will only throw them away at the center. I also wish most people would realize it's better for everyone if they rinse out their recyclables before chucking them.

But I know the megaphone would do no good (and probably get me in trouble with the leasing office). People have to motivated on their own. So, I'll do what I can by telling those who will listen. That would be you -- I hope you care.

Here are some things I know about recycling:
  • Most municipalities, even progressive ones like Austin, only take certain items. Mine only takes the following: 1 and 2 plastics, newspaper, "clean" paper, and aluminum. It does not take: glass, poly-coated or any other type of cardboard, plastic bags, and 3-7 plastics.
  • It is important to check the plastic type. The type number is at the bottom, inside the recycling sign. My municipality only takes 1s and 2s, so things like yogurt cups and styrofoam are not accepted.
  • There are several recycling drop-offs around town that will take items the city does not take. Whole Foods takes cardboard and plastic bags, Ikea takes batteries and light bulbs, and a near-by, privately run recycling center takes glass and poly-coated cardboard.
  • Poly-coated cardboard is cardboard covered in plastic. This includes almost all packaged food boxes (cereal, cookies, mac and cheese, frozen dinners, etc.) and these get thrown away all the time. Or worse yet, thrown in with the newspaper.
  • Reusing is the best way to decrease your carbon footprint. It takes far less energy to reuse a piece of glass or plastic than it does to recycle it. (Although, recycling a product uses less energy than creating one does.)

So, my dear friends and readers, if you care about the earth and want to lessen your daily impact, recycle correctly. It's easy: rinse out everything, make sure it is accepted by your municipality, find alternative drop-off locations for other items, and reuse as much as possible. It's easy, I promise. Remember, I am self-proclaimed as lazy and I can do it.

[Note: If Kathryn reads this, she should have self-satisfaction knowing: 1) she is doing more than any person I know to decrease her daily impact and 2) she has made me aware of many of the issues pointed out in this post. Kathryn, I rarely will give you reason to be more smug, but this time, it's well-deserved.]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Mustache: Leave It Where It Was

Austin is a hip town, hence it has many hipsters. I've noted this before, and while I appreciate the indie aesthetic and would, hesitantly, label myself as an indie hipster, I am weary of trends and trendiness. To me, being a trendy hipster is not any different from adolescent attempts at looking preppy.

One recent trend is going too far: the ironic mustache. I've seen 'stached guys in various funky coffee shops, playing in local bands and working at independent book stores. That's enough to solidify the mustache a true hipster trend. I've seen girls sporting t-shirts with slogans that favor the stache. Even the editor of Relevant magazine has had his say in defense of it:

"The rumblings are already there. The 'scene' kids have been sporting ironic mustaches for a while now, and as we all well know, every major fashion trend over the last 10 years has started by hipsters ironically donning something (trucker hats, non-sequitur statement tees, tapered jeans), eventually the irony wearing off and it just getting accepted. I figured I would accelerate the process a bit."
Cameron Strang, Relevant Magazine, "The Dash for the 'Stache," November 2007

I'm sorry, Cameron, but this is ridiculous. There is no point in being delicate or diplomatic, so I will be plain: Mustaches are not attractive.

Many other forms of facial hair can be well done, but please, let's leave the stache in the 70s where it belongs with door beads and super-flared jeans. My only hope is that once the mustache is generally accepted, the hipsters will move onto something else, maybe returning to the regular ol' beard (which I whole-heartedly endorse as attractive facial hair).

Signs of change are on the horizon. My preppy frat-boy brother has recently grown a mustache. Matched with his pink polos and Sperry boat shoes, it's sure to the turn off the hipsters. I can only hope.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

China Blue

I remember the first time I was aware of Bangladesh. I realized it was an actual place with it's own culture, with people who work and raise families and dream and hope. I was 15 and I read a Gap clothing tag.

Sweat shops had always been the fodder for media sensationalism, only noticed in Kathie Lee type scandals. They were distant and far away from me, the budding adolescent consumer who only wanted to wear what her friends were wearing. It was some attempt at self-esteem, but I never thought of the price beyond the dollar amount on the tag.

But I remember reading "Bangladesh." It sounded so exotic, still distant, but somehow real. I didn't know exactly where it was, somewhere in Asia I guessed. I found the family's red World Book letter B encyclopedia and looked up the entry on Bangladesh. It was dated in 1992. Even then, it was poor.

In that moment, I realized someone far away made my clothes and probably didn't make much money for it. Somehow, it seemed wrong and unjust and horrible, but being as self-absorbed as I was, I didn't bother to pursue those feelings of injustice further and put them to action.

It has remained in the back of my mind so that every time I've bought a new piece of clothing and seen the tag, the old feelings come back up. If I let them stir a bit, I'll actually think about the factory worker. I became aware of fair trade in college, but only in terms of coffee. Fairly traded apparel is almost unheard of, and when I can find it, it's always very ethnic looking. I would need dreadlocks and Birkenstocks to pull the outfit together.

I have learned more and more about fair trade in the past two years, especially after traveling to the developing world and working with people who were committed to international social justice. And, honestly, it is trendy right now to be concerned about other countries, to be into social justice, but I wonder if all the buzz will lead to real change. I have to ask: What's the next step? What do we do?

Awareness comes first. This weekend, I went to a fair trade craft festival, which included a screening of China Blue, winner of the Independent Lens Audience Award for 2007. It is a powerful and gut-wrenching real-life portrayal of teenage girls in China who work in a denim factory. They lived in a crowded factory dorm, hardly ever went outside, worked long hours with no overtime pay and lost pay for "misconduct" such as laughing or sleeping on their breaks.

The girls in the movie were not much older than I was when I first looked at the Gap tag. They are babies, too young to be nearly enslaved. All so that we can buy cheap jeans and corporations can make bigger profits. Yet, they have a certain dignity that comes through in the film - they want to work and send money to their families. They take pride in what they do.

I believe fair trade is the answer. There's a lot economic theory I need to read and understand first, but economics, much like science, must be viewed through an ethical lens at some point. If we have compassion, if we can empathize, if we are essentially human, we must address our consumption and ask if the human price is too high.

From there, I believe we can change apparel industry. More on this later.

Monday, November 5, 2007

I Heart England (or do I?)

I have a pink luggage tag that says "I Heart London." My mom bought it for me at a dollar store. It came in a set, and the other reads "I Heart New York." I've always been slightly embarrassed by these tags, but kept them on my luggage because they are accurate. I do genuinely love New York, but then I have to ask myself, do I really love London?

I have a true love/hate relationship with the English and their culture. I am (gasp!) an Anglophile. That damn island is so charming, I can't hate it. As much as I want to, I can't. England and her people are allusive to me. They seem so closely related to us Americans but still are different. I found it easier to live in Italy and just accept the cultural differences there than I did while living in the U.K. The British didn't seem different enough to be so, well, different. And they can be annoying.

Let me explain. They are arrogant, the British. They once ruled the world, and now that they just have Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to rule over, I think they're disappointed. They seem to dislike Americans for the same reason: an arrogant sense of cultural superiority. It's warranted, I will freely admit it. My country has done a lot lately I'm not proud of, and I think a lot European criticism of the U.S., especially of our foreign policy, is justly deserved. But come on - British colonialism did more to fuck up the world than anything else in the last 200 years.

So I'll put the arrogance aside. Both countries royally fucked up the world. Okay. That's settled. I can get over British arrogance.

English people, especially those in the South of England, are cold, unwelcoming, and just plain rude. (As a side, it always seems to be the "South of England" and never "southern England." I'm not sure why.) In shops, they hardly recognize the presence of a customer, let alone offer help. If some poor soul were stranded on the side of the road with a flat, I doubt they'd be offered assistance by a passing driver. I was deathly afraid to ask for directions, for fear that no self-respecting English citizen would sacrifice 30 seconds of his or her time to help, of all people, a stupid, lost American. It was easier to forgo all human dignity and get lost and pray a friend would notice I was missing and come find me. Luckily, it only happened once.

I guess I didn't find the English to be as charming as the landscape, and I wanted to love it there. I wanted it to become my new home, and it didn't. Once I returned to the United States, I worked for an international company that had many stateside British employees. There were some clashes in management styles and different expectations for admins (I will never be a personal assistant for a British exec. Never.) There was some petty behavior, as there is in most offices, but all in all, I came to like many of my English co-workers. I would ask some of them questions about England and try to reconnect with a country that, deep down, I had to admit I liked. Maybe not loved, but liked. And they were some small connection back to that place.

After moving back to the American South, I find, for the first time in two years, there are no English people in my life. None. I long to hear someone say "trolley" instead of "cart" or "nackered" instead of "tired." (And ask me why Americans always include the full stop inside the quotation mark.) I recently rented the British version of "The Office" and while I prefer the American show, I just wanted to hear the accents again. I even thought about pretending to be British for a day, faking an accent and providing people with an elaborate back story about how I grew up in London and had a British mother and an American father. I would tell them I had duel citizenship and decided to move to America to experience it more fully than just visiting.

Ironically, it is Guy Fawkes Day, an important British holiday akin to Fourth of July, fireworks and all. I must admit on this most patriotic day of the British calendar that I love (yes, love) Britain, and I miss having British people in my life.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Consequences of a Midnight Nap

Laziness, or unemployment, or an unstructured life of freedom, or whatever you chose to call my current lifestyle, has perks and, admittedly, consequences.

Last night, I went to an indie show at one of the city's shabby-chic clubs for the hipster, Urban Outfitters crowd. I went to see Bishop Allen, a Brooklyn-based band that plays lovely, light-hearted fare. It's the kind of music everyone will like if they will ever hear it. It's pure indie pop, if such a genre exists.

Bishop Allen was headlining the show, and I should have known better. I should have. Not to be out-manuevered by this town's multitudes of indie kids, I decided to show up at the club at 9:30, knowing music would start at 10:00. However, I did not take into account that two local bands would perform first, and let's face it, Bishop Allen is not that famous. While crowded, it was not a sold-out show. I could have easily shown up at 10, 10:30, even 11 and been fine. I could have done many other things with my time.

I will say, I enjoyed the earlier portion of the evening, thanks in part to my roommate's impulsive need for chocolate. I goofed off with her as she packed for her trip, knowing in the back of my mind that I would be taking her to the airport at 5 a.m. the next morning.

Still, I went to the show, had a beer, sat around for a good three hours, met some random people, and waited for my band of choice. The first opener: great, a band I would see again for a cover price under $10. The second opener: oh God save us, horrible. A waste of my time. I had only one beer because I was driving and didn't want to spend too much money (alcohol can tear holes through my pockets). But more beer would have helped me suffer through that second band. (The name of which I can't remember. It is just as well, although I would advertise them as bad so my friends will know to avoid them. It's no loss, I suppose.)

Finally, finally, finally, Bishop Allen took the stage and were just as sweet and witty live as recorded, but it was past midnight. I did not get home until 2 a.m.

I woke up at 5 to take my roommate to the airport.

I went back to sleep and woke up at 9:30. I felt like I had the worst hangover of my life, and I had one beer. So I have learned that lack of sleep will produce a worse physical reaction than too much alcohol. But the band was worth it, I swear. They were.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Per Andrea's Suggestion: Laziness Continued

Andrea suggested I add this passage about writers and their lifestyles:

"Writers don't make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again, we don't work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel guilty about throwing the schmuck's book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man's stupid words. And for this, as I said before, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more."
-Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

I always take Andrea's advice seriously. Sometimes, like now, I just take it.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Doing Nothing

I surprised myself with the title "The Lazy Editor," and for the next few months (or as long as I am unemployed) it is as accurate as a self-given nickname can be.

I am reminded of a scene from the movie Office Space. Peter, the anti-hero of this cubicle saga, has a conversation with his blue-collar neighbor about what he would do with a million dollars. While his neighbor would do "two chicks at the same time," honest Peter says he would do nothing. While Peter is an anti-hero, he has become the icon of a generation, and ultimately, his job at a tech company represents the fear of many a humanities graduate with little to no marketable skills.

We'd all love to do nothing, but that's not how the world works, right?

I'm going to prove you wrong, world. I'm doing nothing right now, and I plan on keeping it that way. I'm going to, as long as possible, avoid the trappings of a safe and secure Office Space existence. I've been there - trapped in a cubicle until 5 p.m. When I arrived at work, I looked forward to my 12:30 lunch break (which involved eating some frozen Indian meal in a black plastic bowl while chatting nonsense with co-workers with whom I had little in common). After 1 p.m., I'd anxiously wait for 5:00, when I would fight traffic for a half-hour and come home to a lager and some brainless sitcom (Bernie Mac and That 70s Show: high quality).

Now I do nothing. It's exactly what you'd think it would be, and not-so-great at the same time. Believe me - it's not the ideal you think it is. I try not to think of all the horrible things that could happen to me as I live without health insurance. And did I mention the total lack of financial security? All this to sleep in and avoid a day under florescent lighting?

The irony is that I don't think of myself as lazy. I believe I'm a hard worker, the kind of employee most employers want. (Emphasis on "most".) I believe I am not typical of my peers because I am diligent and dependable. I have marketable skills - good skills. Skills beyond those of an English teacher, the default profession of almost every English major. I was offered a job as a media specialist last week, and it was a good job. One I might possibly enjoy, but it was still an office job. So I turned it down.

Honestly, I want to live Peter's dream, even if it's for a little while. I just want to do nothing.

(Clarification: I am editing reports as a freelance contractor and living off the savings of my previous 40-hour-a-week job. I predict it will last me through Christmas.)