Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Round-Up#15 (Best of 2009 Edition)

2009 was a good year for readers and movie-goers. So here they are, the best books and films of 2009 (Note: Not all of these titles were released in 2009, but I read or watched them this year).

Best Books I read in 2009:

The Cabinet of Curiosities: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child burst onto the scene with the rousing adventure/thriller Relic, a genre-hopping novel that was scary, compelling and , above all, a great story. But it also served to introduce one very special FBI agent. Special Agent Pendergast, one of the most intriguing characters to come out of the mystery genre and maybe the most intriguing character to come out of the genre in the past twenty years. And of all the adventures written by Preston/Child, The Cabinet of Curiosities is probably the best place to get introduced to their work and to Special Agent Pendergast.

The novel, which revolves around a seemingly immortal serial killer who stalks the streets of New York city, is a delicious labyrinth of atmosphere, suspense, scares and clues. It is one of those books that is so good, so original, you just don't want it to end.

So if you are a fan of classic mysteries, the works of Arthur Conan Doyle or Wilkie Collins, or just plain good storytelling, curl up with this book and let Special Agent Pendergast guide you through this wonderful mystery.

P.S. For more info about the works of Preston/Child and the Pendergast novels, visit the authors' official website.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane: Before reading it, I had heard a lot about this book. I had heard that it was original, atmospheric, clever, and scary. Well, the book is all that and so much more! This is a masterpiece of psychological thrills, characterization, plotting, and sheer imagination. The story, revolving around two US Marshalls who are assigned the job of investigating a mental facility named Ashcliffe (a.k.a Shutter Island) where a patient has supposedly escaped and can't be found, is deceptively simple. Said detectives delve into the mystery, gather facts, and begin to sense that something isn't right with the place. The medical staff is reluctant to give any more information than what they absolutely have to, and everyone seems to be hiding something.

Saying anymore would be wrong. Just grab a copy, relax, and give in to Dennis Lehane's storytelling. If you do that, you'll be taken on a ride that is entertaining, engrossing, endlessly addictive, and disturbing. As for the ending, the only way to describe it is as devastatingly pitch-perfect. This is the stuff of literary dreams.

The book has already been adapted into a feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese.

The Tangled Skein by David Stuart Davies: Arthur Conan Doyle's creation of sleuth
extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes revolutionized detective fiction and continues to do so to this day. I doubt there is a single writer of crime or detective fiction who hasn't read some or all of Doyle's work and has been influenced by it, by the clinical attention to detail, the strong sense of atmosphere, the sharp dialogue, and, above all, the sense of fun.
Although Doyle had retired Holmes a long while before the author's own death, writers continue to churn out patsiches; some are good, some are bad, and some are brilliant. The Tangled Skein falls somewhere between good and brilliant.

The Tangled Skein focuses on Sherlock Holmes facing the lord of the undead himself, Dracula. And although the premise sounds ludicrous and could even be considered an insult to Doyle's work, the resulting book is neither. Author and Holmes expert David Stuart Davies captures Doyle's tone and style almost perfectly and weaves a tale full of action and mood. It is a well-told tale that stays true to the mythos and features dialogue that could have been written by the master himself. Where the book falters a bit is in the mystery aspect. In trying to combine the mythologies of both Doyle and Bram Stoker's work, Davies veers more towards the plotting style of Stoker, with more action than intrigue. Although that makes it a rousing thriller , full of atmosphere and foreboding, it also makes it a not very good mystery. But there is an added bonus here. Davies ingeniously adds the very neat twist of making this story a direct sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles. Something that avid Holmes readers will find delightful. I did.

The Cold Spot by Tom Piccirilli: Every once in a while you come across a book that reminds you why you fell in love with Livre-Noir in the first place. The atmosphere, the tension, the shadowy anti-heroes, the femme fatales, and the whopping good story. The Cold Spot is one such book. Author Tom Piccirilli writes a book that is gritty, modern and reminiscent of vintage 40's noir at the same time. The story revolving around a young getaway driver - who was forced into crime by his sociopathic grandfather - who plans to avenge his wife's killers, is compelling, emotional, thrilling, and, ultimately, haunting. Piccirilli's prose is smooth and lean; you won't find an ounce of fat on his plotting, descriptive passages or dialogue. This is minimalism at its most effective. He hits you with one storytelling magic trick after another and before you know it, the book is over and you're hungry for more time with these characters (the ones who are still alive, anyway). But not to worry, the sequel, The Coldest Mile, is already out. Thank you, Tom.

The Veil Trilogy (The Myth-Hunters/The Borderkind/The Lost Ones) by Christopher Golden: The prolific and immensely talented Christopher Golden (author of numerous engrossing Buffy media tie-ins and such favorites as Straight on 'til morning and the highly-acclaimed ghost story Wildwood Road) reaches new heights with The Veil Trilogy; three books that are brimming with imagination, powerful imagery, memorable characters, and, above all, storytelling prowess. Although it is marketed as a fantasy, this is a trilogy that defies categorization. The story about an ordinary young man who unwittingly becomes a major player in an inter-dimensional battle between creatures of myth (who are separated from our world by an invisible veil weaved with magic), is, at least on the surface, simple and cliched. But Golden has much in store for readers who are willing to continue with the journey. Suspense, horror, breath-taking set-pieces, and a climax that is nothing short of a whopper, make up this compelling and endlessly entertaining genre-hopping trilogy. If there's any justice in the world, this should become a classic in years to come.

As for the best book I read in 2009, without a doubt, it is . . .

Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean: J.M Barrie's Peter Pan has delighted children and grown-ups alike for decades. And for good reason. It is a book that makes one feel like a child again, makes your imagination go wild and your heart warm.
Now, almost a century later, comes the official sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet. The only way I can describe how good this book is, is by saying that it was worth the wait!
This is a book that reminds you why you fell in love with reading in the first place. This is a wondrous piece of work that does the impossible. Surpass the original. Author Geraldine McCaughrean manages to write a book that is pure magic. Taking place roughly two decades after the events of the original, the story revolves around Wendy and the lost boys - all grown up now - who have to go back to Neverland to try to stop their dreams about it, which are starting to invade their everyday lives. So back they go, and what they find is a completely changed Neverland and a transformed Peter Pan, a Peter Pan in Scarlet. Saying anymore would be a crime. Suffice to say, this is a book that will warm your heart, set your imagination on fire, and enchant you no matter how young or old you are. A masterpiece and an instant classic.

The Best Films I watched in 2009:

Taken: Action-packed, with great performances, Taken takes the man out for revenge cliche and injects it with new life. Who would have thought that a film about a man out to save his teenage daughter from the clutches of human traffickers could be so good! With Liam Neeson (a hugely underrated actor, known more for his on-screen presence and his perennial one-note roles as a sage or mentor than for his acting chops) in top form, a script that gives time for us to get to know and care about the characters, and kinetic direction by Pierre morel, this shows that good, effective action-pictures still have some life left in them.

Gran Torino: Clint Eastwood. What can one say about the man? Starting off in the 50's as an extra in B-pictures for Universal Studios, Eastwood's star kept rising till he became one of the most popular movie stars in t
he world. Then, when people least expected it, he released his first film as director, Play Misty for me. The film became a hit and his career as a successful filmmaker was launched.
But nothing, and I mean nothing, could prepare any of his fans for the kind of filmmaker he grew into as the years went by. After a brief slump in the late 80's and early 90's, Eastwood bounced back with the award-winning Unforgiven, a masterful western with an elegiac feel that proved that Eastwood had become one of the Masters.
Gran Torino is another film that cements his reputation as a masterful actor/director/producer. With his laid-back, confident, so-good-it-looks-easy-to-do style, Eastwood tells the tale of a retired old army veteran who, after losing his wife, becomes a bitter, emotionally repressed man with nothing to do and nothing to live for. That all changes when a family of Korean-Americans move next door to him. To tell you anymore of the story would be unfair to you and the film. Suffice to say, this is the kind of film they just don't make anymore. This is a film that relies solely on story and character. And as told with Eastwood's deceptively simple directing style, this is a touching, compelling and ultimately haunting story about having no place in the world and about standing up for what's right. Like many of his films, Eastwood imbues the film with an elegiac tone that is emotionally effective, yet not manipulative like many other films if its type. And the performances by all the cast (including an appealing, touching performance by Eastwood) help make this a near-masterpiece of storytelling.
Eastwood released this film along with his other directorial effort Changeling in the same year. And considering the quality of both films, it is a testament to the kind of artist he is. Unmissable.

Knowing: What do you get when you combine an idiosyncratic actor (Nicolas Cage) and an idiosyncratic filmmaker (Alex Proyas) with an idiosyncratic script posing as a summer blockbuster? You get Knowing, an apocalyptic/Sci-fi/religious thriller that is undoubtedly bonkers, yet strangely compelling.

The film revolves around Cage's Physicist, whose son unearths a document that has been buried in a time capsule for 50 years, which contains the dates of all the major disasters in history as well ones still to come. Cage's character then tries to use the information he has to stop the coming disasters, fails and begins to realize that maybe the end is truly coming. And did I mention that the film also has pale, otherworldly men who appear to his son with visions of burning animals? Or what about Rose Byrne who plays two characters, both of which are destined to die? As I already mentioned, this film is bonkers. But it is also entertaining, gripping and stylish, thanks to Alex Proyas's assured direction and a script that, despite having an identity crisis, remains intriguing up until the truly "out there" ending.

Is it recommended? Yes. It is too strange and compelling a film to miss. They simply don't make them like this anymore, and that has to be worth something in this age of hyper-marketing and mindless, noisy blockbusters.

Lions for lambs: A commercial and critical flop, Lions for lambs is the kind of film that makes you wonder. After watching it I had to ask myself if I had ever watched anything remotely similar to it in the last few years (a studio-produced, star-studded drama that is politically daring and, for the most part, subtle). The answer was no.

With Lions for lambs, director/star Robert Redford attempts to make a film that doesn't preach - although it comes close to doing just that - but, instead, makes you think about what's wrong with the world nowadays. In short, according to the filmmakers (and for the most part I have to say I agree with them), what's wrong with the world today is apathy on a disastrously grand scale. The majority of the world's population today knows that a lot is wrong with the world, how it is being run, and who is running it. Through three separate but interrelated story lines, the film reveals, slowly, that the world is being destroyed and corrupted one day at a time by a group of ultra-conservative, materialistic, power-hungry con-artists, and that we, the citizens of the world, are allowing these people do it by looking the other way.

Through assured - if conventional - direction, solid performances (by a charming Meryl Streep, a showy, but effective Tom Cruise, and an earnest Robert Redford), and a mostly solid script Lions for lambs succeeds in making the gears of your brain turn, and your heart move; not a small feat considering that audiences today are so desensitized by the noisy and vacuous junk-filmmaking they get exposed to throughout the year (especially during the summer season), that it would take a piece of very potent cinema to get through. Lions for lambs, in my very humble opinion, achieves just that.

And, oh, I forgot to mention that the plot centers around the War On Terror.

As for the best film I had the pleasure of watching in 2009 . . .

Changeling: Clint Eastwood's 28th film as director is a masterclass in filmmaking. It's a story so well-told, so compelling, you just can't help but admire the sure-handedness of Eastwood in handling this complex story based on true events.

Part mystery, part court room thriller, it is a film that effortlessly combines several genres, plot lines and emotional turmoil into a startlingly touching and fascinating piece of cinema.

Based on the true story of Christine Collins (wonderfully brought to life by Angelina Jolie) and her lifelong struggle to find her missing son, this is a film that tells a heart-wrenching story and ultimately a strangely uplifting one, with the sort of minimalistic filmmaking that Eastwood has all but made his own.

Best of Extra! 2009: Every month, throughout the year, I post a capsule review of a title (a book, film, or album), which I think is a truly original piece of work. Below are some of the best Extras! of the year:

The Drive-In 2 by Joe R. Lansdale is a shockingly original piece of surreal fiction that is equal parts funny, grotesque, and sadistic. Unmissable.

U Can Dance:
This track, by DJ Hell and featuring vocals by the incomparable Bryan Ferry, is something else. A dark dance track with some of Ferry's finest vocals in years. A stunner. Listen to it here.

Boston Legal: The Complete Series: Created by David E. Kelly and starring James Spader and William Shatner, this series, which lasted for five seasons, is TV at its finest. Funny, relevant, off-kilter, superbly written, and endlessly compelling, this is a series that manages to do something that 99% of what's on TV nowadays can't seem to pull off. Be intelligent and entertaining at the same time. If you haven't seen it, start doing so immediately. Your brain will thank you for it.

Let's scare Jessica to death: This 1971 psychological chiller is a haunting, unforgettable independent film that manages to do wonders with a low-budget, mediocre performances and atmosphere. It is undoubtedly dated, but thanks to director John Hancock's mesmerizing visual style and an intriguing story focusing on mental instability and lurking evil, this little chiller delivers the goods. It also has something to say about the underlying tension that simmered just beneath the surface of the free love movement in the late sixties and early seventies. Stylish and memorable, this is a must for fans of obscure, weird cinema.

That's it for me this year. Till 2010, keep browsing those shelves!

P.S. For The Best of 2008, click here.

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