At the end of the year we’re inundated by lists: Best of this, best of that. Human beings like to read lists—which Buzzfeed has turned into a profitable business strategy—and the internet has made us all a little list-addicted.
I’m not a professional critic, but I am a working artist. This fall, I did a number of readings and a couple of Q&A panels, and was questioned informally many times, and people always want to know two things: stuff about my process, and about what stuff I like. People want to know what other writers I like—but most artists are influenced by art in media other than their own. I’ve worked as an actor, a musician, and a filmmaker, and I’ve met artists of all stripes over the years, and it seems to be something we have in common: We like to experience art that isn’t our main output. And we sometimes dabble in it. (Many of the writers I know are also musicians.)
Here’s my take on the best culture of 2013, across the board. The best movies I saw, the music I listened to. And yes, books. And even some other stuff that seems strangely relevant which means it probably isn’t.
“It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.” —Banksy
Art • Theater • Music • Movies • TV • Books
Banksy – Better Out Than In
I got turned on to Banksy via one of his small chapbooks, Cut it Out, which features photographs of his graffiti as well as bits of his writing, which is usually inciting and confrontational. I’m a big fan of his work and find him fascinating—the fact that he’s still anonymous, the sheer balls of the guy for sticking his own art up in The Louvre.
Banksy spent an entire month vandalizing New York City, which got tons of press and a wide range of reactions, proving that Banksy continues to challenge what art is. Guys in East New York charging people to look at a Banksy work is exactly the kind of thing that Banksy would celebrate—like something straight out of Exit Through the Gift Shop. And selling his paintings on the street for sixty bucks? It’s genius.
I didn’t see any of the New York works myself (I know: lame. But I was lucky enough to see this fantastic work on the security wall in Bethlehem and I saw quite a bit of his work in Hackney years ago before he got mega-famous). But I still have to call it out as the single best art show of the year, because I consider the media circus and all the spin-off stories to be part of the art. Possibly more important than the works themselves, most of which are gone already. That’s the thing about street art—it has a limited life span.
Banksy’s website had a complete record of all the works he made here, but it seems to be down now.
And in related sad news, graffiti Mecca 5 Pointz was completely whitewashed over, in advance of being torn down for development. This town is increasingly more interested in real estate than in culture. Here are Banksy’s parting words: “The world today is run, visually at least, by traffic signs, billboards and planning committees. Is that it? Don’t we want to live in a world made of art not just decorated by it?”
I love surrealism and it was impossible to miss this show, a truly wonderful collection of Magritte’s paintings and a chance to ponder just how influential this group of artists has been on popular culture as a whole. People who don’t even know the artists are nonetheless stalked by their images and ideas. I remember an early episode of Beverly Hills 90210 where Shannen Doherty calls an event “surreal.” It’s also very likely that CBS developed its logo from the Magritte painting “The False Mirror”—the CBS eyeball used to have a cloud background.
My favorite part of the show was a glass case that held some of the original surrealist publications, including manifestos written by Andre Breton. In earlier drafts of my novel Killing Williamsburg, I included an additional epitaph:
“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.”— Andre Breton, the Second Surrealist Manifesto
I think that people not well-steeped in surrealism may find it weird for the sake of being weird, but what I like about Magritte, and about surrealism in general, is the recognition that ordinary life is, by its very nature, deeply and disturbingly strange.
(More art: I still hope to catch the Chris Burden show at the New Museum, which runs into January.)
Betrayal, by Harold Pinter, directed by Mike Nichols. With Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Rafe Spall.
It seemed like nobody saw this play except for the critics, since it was completely sold out long before it even opened. Of course the big draw was the movie-star leads—and did you know that Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz are married? When is that sex tape going to surface?—but I was captivated by the chance to see Pinter directed by Nichols. I’m a long-time Pinter fan, so when I saw this was happening I snapped up a pair of preview tickets for my wife’s birthday.
Incredible. Absolutely spellbinding. Craig had real presence, a raw energy that could be felt even in the balcony, and Weisz was fascinatingly mutable. Rafe Spall, as the “other” man in the love triangle, was both hilarious and crushing. And while it generally goes without saying that a classic play getting a revival is “a good play,” I’d never read nor seen Betrayal before, and was knocked over by the script. The story, of a man who has an ongoing affair with his best friend’s wife, is told in reverse, starting with the end of the affair and moving backwards to its beginning. It seems like little more than a clever gimmick now, considering films such as Memento and the now commonplace Hollywood habit of starting a story at the end and flashing back to the beginning, but as a revealing device it was mesmerizing. Since we saw the effects of previous actions before we saw their cause, we often didn’t realize the significance of a word or a gesture until later in the play.
The reviews weren’t particularly kind. Ben Brantley in the Times panned the shit out of it, and criticized Nichols for having the gall to interpret the play. Hilton Als in the New Yorker was a little kinder, and raised some solid objections as well as offering a nice overview of Pinter. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to discuss the show with the friends whose opinions I most respect—like I said, no one saw it. But for me, it was one of the most rewarding theatrical experiences in recent memory. The text, performances, and design all moved flawlessly, and I left the theater feeling like I’d been transported. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?
I’m always looking for new music, but as a creature of habit, I often listen to the same records again and again. These days everything is so complicated—there’s so much music, and so many ways to consume it. But I’m old-school: my only record collection is just that, vinyl records. So if it wasn’t released on vinyl, I probably don’t have it.
Haim – Days are Gone
This terrific album is from three sisters from Los Angeles. It’s fun, danceable—I love the refrain on “Forever,” “forever we suck,” a great take on what is usually a sappy pop trope. I’ve also enjoyed watching the ridiculosity in media about Este Haim’s “bass face.” Este, the oldest sister, pulls some pretty funny faces while she’s playing the bass, and the internet has been predictably all internet-y about it. Which is hilarious, because a musician—especially a guitarist or a bass player—who makes funny faces while playing is as time-honored a tradition as a drummer overdosing on heroin. And nobody ever talks shit about it—unless she happens to be a woman. Especially an attractive woman.
Well, whatever. Great record, fun band, and Este is a badass with a great sense of humor. She gave her bass face its own Twitter feed.
Cultfever – Animals 7”
I met this band at my book launch party with Questlove at Trash Bar, and then went and caught one of their shows. Great band, and “Animals” is a heady dance track that mixes well. I wish they’d release their whole album on wax, so I could spin “Knewyouwell.”
Justin Timberlake – “Strawberry Bubblegum”
You couldn’t have missed JT’s record The 20/20 Experience—“Suit and Tie” was in a fucking beer commercial. But the album is actually really great, in a spotty, hit-or-miss kind of way that proves JT is all grown up. He’s finally rich and successful enough to do whatever the hell he wants, and for the most part, the things he wants to do are pretty cool. (I thought Friends with Benefits was one of the best rom-coms in years; he and Mila Kunis had real chemistry. I even enjoyed him in the tepid In Time, with Amanda Seyfried looking like a million bucks.) But this track makes the album. It’s 8 minutes long—ridiculous as a pop song—and midway through the beat rolls completely over and it becomes a different song completely. Either half could basically stand alone, but as a whole it becomes its own call and response: strawberry bubblegum, blueberry lollipop. Somewhere between R&B and soul, totally danceable make-out music, it’s a funk masterpiece.
The Thin White Duke’s still got it.
New to me:
Robyn – “Cobrastyle”
I just love Robyn. She just keeps getting cooler. I’ve picked up just about every single from her album Robyn that I can find on wax, since the full album is just unavailable (and Body Talk on wax? Forget about it—unless you want to spend $300) but somehow I missed this Teddybears cover. It’s wonderful electropop, and I seem to be kind of obsessed with electropop.
Sleigh Bells – Treats
Technically, I got turned onto this album last year, but still, it’s a motherfucker. It’s so LOUD and AGGRESSIVE. The track “Rill Rill” is in the new iPhone commercial, which means that they’re getting paid. And that half of middle America now love Sleigh Bells without knowing it.
Most played this year:
In addition to the DJ set up, we have a wonderful Crosley stacked turntable in the kitchen that gets used for more casual listening. So, the most flipped and re-flipped on the Crosley:
T Rex – Electric Warrior
My wife is obsessed with this record, and I got tired of hearing her play it on iTunes and bought her the record. It sounds fantastic on wax, and is just a perfect record. Everyone knows “Bang a Gong (Get it On),” but ultimately it pales next to “Jeepster.” And that’s already two songs about cars—Marc Bolan was deeply paranoid about cars and was convinced they would be the death of him, and never learned how to drive. He was killed in a car accident, the most ironic death in popular culture until 2013, when Paul Walker was killed in a car accident. Anyway, it’s a great record and you should own it. I love the opening track, “Mambo Sun,” and the never-fail killer “Life’s a Gas,” which is like being laid gently down to bed by an old lover.
AC/DC – High Voltage (Bon Scott. Motherfucking Bon Scott.)
Music for writing:
There are a handful of records that I keep on my computer to play in those rare times when I want music while writing. The best, still unseated after several years, is What Would the Community Think by Cat Power. Relaxing and inspiring while somehow not a distraction.
Jambox. The sound quality on this portable speaker is nothing shy of phenomenal—it really has bass, and even the small one is bangin’ enough to rock out a large hotel room. An absolute must for travel—totally wireless, synchs easily via Bluetooth, and you can literally play from any souce: play from your music program, or get online and play from YouTube videos, Grooveshark, whatever. With a Jambox and a Galaxy s4 (or an iPhone) you can basically play any song that ever existed.
Spring Breakers – Harmony Korine
I saw this very recently and still can’t quite pin down what it’s really about. I am pretty sure that Korine pulled a fast one on Hollywood and on the general ticket-buying public. This movie was promoted as some kind of hedonistic romp, and criticized for objectifying women or for glorifying the bacchanal. And yes, there are shots of college students partying—electronic dance music, beer bongs, marijuana bongs, cocaine sniffed off of bodies, girls making out with each other and bouncing naked tits. But strangely, none of it is enticing or erotic, but just one more montage in a film that seems to be one giant montage. Scenes loop in on each other as lines of dialogue repeat, or the dialogue is removed from the scene and played on top of a different image. This is wildly experimental filmmaking, helped along by a score by the EDM star Skrillex, making the entire movie sound like one long DJ set. While I was expecting some kind of good-girls-gone-bad, Tarantino-esque tear with chicks with bikinis and guns, it is instead a character investigation between James Franco’s wannabe gangster and two blonde nihilists who seem almost indistinguishable from each other. And it might be an indictment of American culture. Although, yes, there are chicks in bikinis with guns. There is a story, but very little narrative, and rather than being a film that runs off the rails, it starts off the rails and stays there.
Totally bizarre. And absolutely the most interesting film of the year at this scale and budget.
The Counselor – Ridley Scott, screenplay by Cormac McCarthy
Several of Cormac McCarthy’s books have been made into movies (although, sadly, not Blood Meridian) but this is the first time that McCarthy has written an original screenplay that was made into a film. And it is deliciously twisted. It’s super, super dark—set amidst the Mexican cartel drug war, following Michael Fassbender’s lawyer down into a dark, dank rabbit hole. The script has some flaws, but even the flaws are interesting. I think that you only need one character in a movie to talk like a philosopher, and Ruben Blades really nails it here, making the other philosophizing superfluous. And is Brad Pitt in this movie just to look cool and provide exposition? Or is he loading Chekhov’s gun to set if off? I don’t know if it matters—if you need someone in your story to look cool and provide exposition, and you can get Brad Pitt, wouldn’t you? The real star here is Cameron Diaz, who turns in the best performance of her career, mysterious and coolly removed, so utterly worldly and cynical as to appear sadistic—but then makes you wonder if that is simply the price of survival. Javier Bardem has some of the most offhanded, non sequitur, bizarrely hilarious dialogue I’ve ever heard in film, and he’s so great in this role that I can almost forgive Scott for casting a Spaniard in a role that should probably have gone to a Mexican.
On a side note, where are the Mexicans? Aren’t there any Mexicans in Hollywood? This film has Bardem and Penelope Cruz (Spanish), Rosie Perez (New York Puerto Rican), and Ruben Blades (Panamanian). Even in minor roles we have Édgar Ramírez (Venezuelan) and John Leguizamo (mixed, not Mexican). It just seems weird.
This is a fantastic film that was in the theaters for five minutes because critics didn’t know what to do with it and audiences didn’t go. Scott Foundas, at Variety, said the film “is bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays.”
New to me:
Like most people, I watch more movies at home than at theaters, and with a new subscription to Amazon Prime (movies on demand!) and an Apple TV (Netflix!), my movie addiction is at an all-time high.
A Prophet – Jacques Audiard
This is a French film about a young Arab who goes to prison and falls in with a Corsican mob. It won tons of awards in Europe and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 2010. It’s a prison drama, mostly in French but also in Arabic and Corsican, and a fascinating study of a man moving between worlds to put his life together. It’s a dark film, yes, but I found it exceptionally hopeful, in that the main character, Malik, is always trying to better himself. I love the gritty reality of the film juxtaposed with magical realism, as the man Malik was forced to murder continues to visit him in his cell.
If you liked Goodfellas and can handle 2 hours and 40 minutes of subtitles, this film is more than worth it.
Tell No One – Guillaume Canet, based on the novel by Harlan Coben
The novel was a 2001 New York Times Bestseller, and in 2006 was turned into this French film. A man gets a message suggesting that his wife, who had been killed eight years earlier, might yet live. The pacing is incredible. Deliberate. Steady. And every time something is revealed, you realize that it still doesn’t answer the underlying mystery, and you continue to hold your breath until the next reveal. Even basic, unimportant plot points are hidden from view at first—every aspect of the movie is about the slow reveal. Totally sucks you in from the opening scenes. And with a fantastic performance by Kristin Scott Thomas—she’s best known for The English Patient, but speaks fluent French.
Ricky Bobby gets his wheels. Just watch it. You’ll laugh and cry.
I mostly only watch cartoons. Still enjoying the completely bizarre Regular Show on cartoon network, and Bob’s Burgers on Fox. Oh, and am totally hating that I feel like I have to watch the conclusion of How I Met Your Mother, which used to be an original, hilarious comedy, and now manages, at best, one laugh per episode. They stretched a wedding out into an entire season. And we’re captive, because they still haven’t told us who killed Laura Palmer. Hate it.
I still think the best show on TV is Archer. The writing is over-the-top funny, quick-witted, and loaded with so many references (pop culture and culture-culture) that it’s impossible to catch them all. Wonderful.
And no, I still haven’t seen a single episode of Breaking Bad. I know, I’m sure it’s great and that I would love it. Please stop asking me.
Every year brings the passing of greats, and 2013 was humbling across the spectrum—Nelson Mandela, Lou Reed. There is someone else who I will sorely miss, perhaps less influential on the scale of cultural juggernauts, but we all have our personal favorites. I mourn the passing of actor Dennis Farina. A former cop who was usually typecast as either a cop (Law and Order) or a gangster, Farina just had it. The swagger, the braggadocio. I thought of him as a favorite Uncle—a guy you could learn things from, things that your dad wouldn’t teach you. Get Shorty is one of my all-time favorite hang out movies, and I love Farina’s Ray Bones. “Look at me, Harry,” he says to Gene Hackman, as he steps on his face and points a gun at his head, “Look at me.” He manages to be severe, condescending, scary as fuck, and still funny as hell.
I didn’t realize that Farina’s first film was the fantastic—and largely forgotten—Michael Mann film Thief, with James Caan and the inimitable Tuesday Weld. This is one not to miss, a heist flick with a blue-collar approach.
Check out Get Shorty, or see Farina in another Elmore Leonard joint, playing J Lo’s dad in Out of Sight. Or dig Farina’s Jewish diamond hunter in Snatch, or his wine connoisseur in Bottle Shock. And while it’s not a great movie, in The Grand, Farina manages to be terrifying on a Rascal scooter, and describes the glory of old Las Vegas with such verve you feel it your bones. It’s hard not to agree with him when he mourns the loss of the old traditions, which, by his reckoning, happened when they started allowing people into casinos wearing fuckin’ culottes.
People are always asking me if I read a lot, and I do—but mostly I read the New Yorker cover to cover every week. I don’t read a lot of novels anymore, which is something I should probably work on. Part of my problem is that I can’t really read novels when I’m working on one—the mediocre ones bother me and the great ones mess up my interior monologue. Seriously, if I read James Ellroy or Don DeLillo, I walk around for weeks thinking like them.
But strangely, not a lot of people recommend things to me to read, and when they do it’s often a work that I haven’t read by a lionized writer that I’ve just finished dissing. “You hate him? Well, you haven’t read this.” (Everyone this year seemed to be talking about Charles Bukowski. I’ll say it again: I’ve read all the Bukowski I’m going to read. You can’t convince me to give him another chance.) I bought my wife a dress at Nanette Lepore, and the manager was this totally charming girl from Texas by way of Tennessee, and she just handed me a list of books, most of which I read. Best recommendations of 2013.
So I did manage to choke down a few things this year, most of which was consumed, binge-like, on my sabbatical to Guatemala. (I try to get down there every year—I have good friends there, and there’s nothing to do but revel in the natural beauty and write. Or read.)
A friend lent me The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which is about Percey Fawcett, a legendary British explorer who disappeared in the Amazon. I’ve taken some flack for the more graphic passages in Killing Williamsburg, but this nonfiction work had some stuff that I found positively skin-wriggling. There is some nasty shit in the Amazon—especially in the giant, dense Amazon that existed a hundred years ago. Next time you see me in a bar, ask about that one thing that most people would probably prefer never to have learned.
DeCapite wrote a “weather column” for the magazine angle, which basically meant he wrote about whatever was happening in his head. These collected essays are republished here, and form a dense cloud of fascination with and astonishment of the world. I’ve been reading DeCapite for over twenty years, and am proud to say that his work was read at my wedding. I’m also ashamed to admit that he once caught me pulling a piece of typewritten paper out of his trash can. (I wanted to see how he was reworking a paragraph. Not cool.) He’s a fantastic writer who deserves far more attention. Read this, and then run out and get his chapbook Creamsicle Blue. And then somebody please get his novel Through the Windshield republished—it’s out of print.
I also have to call out the excellent memoir Heads in Beds by Williamsburg habitué and friend Jacob Tomsky—which came out in paperback this year. If you like to read, you should join his weekly short story club. He’s spending half of next year in South Africa, so I’m totally hoping that some weird shit happens to him and that he writes something completely unexpected.
Bluets – Maggie Nelson (Thank you, Shonda!)
I’m calling this fiction but it’s probably not. In that it’s sort of non-fiction. But probably more like poetry. Except I hate poetry, and I loved this, so it couldn’t be. Actually, I don’t know what to call it, which is part of why I’m so sure that it’s genius. It’s truly an original art work—a treatise on the color blue, a love affair with the color blue, a weaving, meandering liturgy through the possible hues of the colors, moods, and ideas collectively known as “blue.” Written in short bursts, almost like biblical passages, you can consume this like little bonbons, popping one small bite a day, or eat the whole box all in one sitting. Truly a magical work of the written word. And I’m still not sure what it’s about, but somehow it elucidates the world while remaining completely mysterious itself. Isn’t that what great art is supposed to be?