AFI #1: Citizen Kane

CitizenKaneStill_1Well, what started as a fun little project on April 17, 2011 has finally come to an end on this the last day of 2013. Ironically, this project began and ended with a disappointing film. I may be in the minority, but I didn’t like AFI #100 Ben-Hur at all, and I can’t say I enjoyed the apparent best American film ever made, Citizen Kane. I didn’t dislike Citizen Kane, I just thought it was much ado about nothing. It certainly isn’t the best American film of all time in my opinion. There were, however, so many amazing films on the AFI list and the project was well worth the experience.

I get that Citizen Kane was ahead of its time in terms of cinematography and editing, but the truth is I’m not a filmmaker so I don’t really care about that. The most innovative technical aspect of Citizen Kane is the extended use of deep focus, according to Wikipedia. Good for Orson Welles. I don’t think any of the other films on the AFI list made the list based on technical merits, yet a jury of 1,500 film artists, critics and historians determined that Citizen Kane was the greatest movie of all time. Okay, I’m not here to disparage the AFI — after all I chose to watch the films on their list. But I’ve seen a shitload of films in my time, some on this list and some not, and I can think of tons that are better than Citizen Kane. Of course, art is subjective.

I did, however, like the themes embedded in Citizen Kane. What I got out of it was that life is about more than acquiring things and wealth, and that happiness is found in the little things. For Charles Foster Kane that meant at the end of his life, a life in which he achieved great wealth and power, he was never happier than when he was a child playing in the snow with his sled. As someone who values life’s simple pleasures I can relate to that message. Critics have also suggested the film is an indictment of capitalism itself, and I can see that and I appreciate that sentiment too. To think that Welles broached these subjects on film in 1941 is pretty impressive given the heightened patriotism of the World War II generation.

So, I don’t agree with the AFI jury but that shouldn’t be a surprise. I didn’t set out to critique the list, but rather to complete a project and the AFI list was as good a list as any. I have to admit though that finishing this quest is both fulfilling and a little bittersweet. I need another list! I have thought of a few ideas, but I’m open to suggestions for the next project. I have considered watching the entire James Bond catalog in order. Or watching every Woody Allen film in order despite having already seen them all and knowing that my wife hates Woody. Anyone know a good list of the best indie films? I’ll be taking suggestions but I suspect I’ll want to launch into something new pretty quickly so send your ideas pronto.

All that said, I’m not quite finished with this project. Several people have asked me during this project about my overall impressions of the AFI list, whether there were any major surprises either way, and of course what are my favorite films. I suspect I have one or two more blog posts coming over the next day or so on these subjects so stay tuned.

Thanks to all of you who followed along with me on this crazy trip. In the 20 months since I started it I moved to California and back, changed jobs twice and had a friggin’ heart attack. I watched movies that I rented at stores, borrowed from the library, downloaded off the Internet, and streamed on NetFlix, Amazon and Google Play. I watched films by myself, with my family, and a few times with friends. It was tons of fun!

Happy New Year!

 

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AFI #2: The Godfather

TheGodfatherAlPacinoMarlonBrandoThe Godfather is likely the most critically acclaimed film of all time, even though it did not take the top spot in the AFI survey. Still, it’s hard to find any critic who does not place The Godfather among the greatest films ever made. When it was released in 1972 it was the highest grossing film that year and for many years held the record for the highest grossing American film. It won a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and a Best Acting Oscar for Marlon Brando. The film cemented Francis Ford Coppola’s position among the best American film makers, and it catapulted Al Pacino into legendary actor status — which he formalized two years later with his legendary performance in The Godfather Part II.

But there is something else about The Godfather that struck a chord with viewers and has made it such an enduring film. My personal view is that the film speaks to the American immigrant experience and the success of the underdog and that certainly resonates with most Americans. But more than that, The Godfather was the first film to delve into the psyche of the American criminal and give us insight into the motivations of truly bad people. That and we love a good mob hit!

There were plenty of mobster films before The Godfather, but they were caricatures of mobsters, with the likes of James Cagney sneering and shooting his Tommy gun. In The Godfather we have much more robust characters. In The Godfather Part II we learn what drove Vito Corleone to a life of crime, essentially his inability to provide for his family in any other way plus the revenge of his own father’s murder. In The Godfather we see a more measured and mature Vito trying to keep his family where it is while avoiding the pitfalls of the growing narcotics trade. His maturity is in stark contrast to Sonny’s youthful exuberance and lust for power, which ultimately gets him whacked. But the real story of The Godfather is the precursor to Part II, in which we see a young Michael return from war thinking he could stay away from his family business only to be dragged in when things get personal for him. As he sees his father shot he gets a twinge of understanding for the family business, and then when his wife his killed in Sicily and his brother is gunned down he returns to America fully engaged in the family business. It is this change in Michael that provides the climax of The Godfather when Michael kills off the heads of the other four mafia families and whacks Moe Green as well to establish the family’s dominance not just in New York but across America. We see how that turns out in Part II, but the change in Michael is fascinating to watch and he ultimately becomes a much more ruthless killer than his father.

I don’t know anyone who likes The Godfather that doesn’t root for the family, even though we know what they are doing is against the law and immoral. We cheer when Michael kills Captain McCluskey and Sollozzo in the restaurant and we love when Clemenza strangles Connie’s husband for setting up Sonny. Not only do we love it when Clemenza kills Paulie for setting up Don Corleone, but we celebrate his famous line following the kill — “leave the gun, take the cannolis.” We feel compassion for the Corleone family when Sonny gets killed and when Michael’s wife is blown up in Sicily. We root for the killers. It’s the phenomenon that later has us relating to Tony Soprano and Dexter Morgan. Before The Godfather killers didn’t have feelings.

Of course The Godfather is one of the most quoted movies of all time, especially among men but even women love the bad guys. “Don’t ask me about my business Kay.” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”  And the most famous line, #2 on the AFI list of best movie lines ever: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

So, do I love The Godfather? No, but I like it a lot and understand its place in the history of American film. I also liked Part II, but as I said in that review I think you can’t separate the two films as they are really part of the same story, especially when you consider how Coppola shot the films out of chronological order. I’m not saying it should be seen chronologically, but when you understand the chronology the films are better. The films also gave us several iconic characters and has spawned hundreds of tributes and references. George Lucas, for example, said that the baptism scene in The Godfather was his inspiration for the scene in Episode III when Anakin Skywalker kills the separatist leaders and announces the beginning of the Galactic Empire. If there were no Godfather there would have been no Goodfellas or Casino or Sopranos. The Godfather is truly a great and important American film.

Next: Citizen Kane

AFI #3: Casablanca

casablanca_movie_poster“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

These lines uttered by Rick Blaine set into action events that change the lives of several unsuspecting people who find themselves in Casablanca at the onset of World War II. When you think about it, it’s not much of a plot and it takes place over the course of just a few days…nevertheless Casablanca went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and become one of the most beloved films of all time. A great many films have been about more important subjects and featured far better performances, but there is something about Casablanca that resonates with so many film goers.

It’s certainly a great love story. Rick and Ilsa fall madly in love in Paris but as the Germans roll in she leaves him standing at the train station in the rain. Why? Because the heroic husband she thought long dead has turned up alive. Upon running into each other again in Casablanca, she is torn by her feelings for Rick and her allegiance and love for her husband. At the same time, Rick finds himself questioning everything he believes in, and while he is heartbroken by the loss of Ilsa he knows the choices he must make are far greater than he. Yes, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

It’s also a war movie, and World War II to boot. You have French patriots and Vichy sympathizers and Nazis, who always account for a great war picture! There is a mysterious American and hero of the underground. There are the profiteers like the unfortunate Ugarte and bar owner Signor Ferrari. You have the dueling national anthems. You have the intrigue of the passage to Lisbon and the murder of the German couriers.

But for me what sets Casablanca apart and what lands it not just at #3 on the AFI list but also among my personal top 10 is the brilliance of the screenplay. I know what you’re thinking…of course he likes the words, he’s a writer. But I submit to you that Casablanca is so great because it consists of some of the greatest dialogue ever performed on the silver screen. The wonderful words begin at the very start and continue unabated until the final line of the film. Yes, Casablanca is one of the most quotable films ever, but the dialogue is special even beyond those nuggets. But just for sheer fun, here’s what everyone remembers:

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” — Captain Renault

“We’ll always have Paris.” — Rick

“Here’s looking at you kid.” — Rick

“Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes By.” — Ilsa

“Round up the usual suspects.” — Captain Renault

“I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” — Rick

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” — Rick

But it’s not just these iconic lines. Every bit of dialogue is brilliant. Here’s a particular favorite of mine:

Renault: I’ve often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.

Rick: It’s a combination of all three.

Renault: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

And yes, the performances are enduring. Can you think of Humphrey Bogart and not think of Rick? No matter the great performances, Claude Rains will always be Captain Louie Renault. Ingrid Bergman won three acting Oscars…remember for what films? She was not even nominated for Casablanca. It doesn’t matter, she’ll always be Ilsa Lund.

Casablanca is 102 minutes of movie perfection.

Next: The Godfather

Len’s Favorite Books of 2013

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It’s really difficult to compile a list of the top books in a given year because like a lot of people I tend to read books based on their position on my “to read” list rather than by chronology. Some books sit on my list for a while before I pick them up to read, while others come out and immediately get elevated to the top spot. It’s not at all scientific – it’s quite random and based on mood. One thing that I did do this year without straying is read fiction and listen to non-fiction. I’m not sure why I did it – but for some strange reason I decided to listen to audio versions of non-fiction this year and read (eBook or paper) novels. So, here are the five best novels and five best works of non-fiction I read/heard this year:

Fiction

  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012). I’d go as far as to say Beautiful Ruins was one of the best novels I’ve read in many years. I’m a sucker for novels that span generations and this tale takes the reader back and forth between the 1950s and present day and of course brings everything together at the end. A wonderfully crafted book that is funny, romantic,  adventurous and loosely tied to real events.  Like a lot of readers this was my first Jess Walter novel and I can’t wait to delve deeper into his  canon.

  • Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair (2013).  More than two decades in the making, the second novel from Charles McNair was worth the wait. Pickett’s Charge is a crazy, odd, funny and downright surreal romp through the Alabama countryside with one of the most interesting characters you’ll ever want to meet. I’m proud to call Charles a friend and absolutely loved this crazy novel.

  • Back to Blood  by Tom Wolfe (2012). Back to Blood is not on par with Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full, but it is a great read with wonderful characters and a sarcastic wit. I love Tom Wolfe and Back to Blood simply confirmed this for me. Wolfe fans old and new will love it

  • The Lowland  by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013). I love Jhumpa Lahiri and have read all of her books, and I have to say I think The Lowland is her best yet. One of the things I like best about reading fiction is that you get to see life through the perspective of diverse people. Lahiri brings her readers into the world of Indian-Americans and that is a unique experience for a white dude like me. On top of that she is such a beautiful and fluid writer that she is a pleasure to read.

  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore  by Robin Sloan (2012). Mr. Penumbra was a very enjoyable novel with a great plot and modern writing full of fun tech and geek references. I figured I’d like a novel that took place in a bookstore, especially one with a special secret that gives it a sort of DaVinci Code appeal. I also loved how Sloan brings in Google to play off the ancient intrigue of the secret society looking for clues to immortality.

Non-Fiction

  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail  by Cheryl Strayed (2012). Like so many stories I read I began listening to Wild on audio with few pretensions. I have read my share of “lost and found” stories, and I generally like them which was one reason I purchased Wild in the first place. What I loved so much about Wild was Strayed’s honesty. She bares her soul in this book and you can’t help but respect the hell out of her for it. I love that as a woman alone in the wilderness she shared her innermost thoughts about what she saw and most importantly who she met.
  • Who I Am by Pete Townshend (2012). Excellent autobiography! Townshend was honest, open and interesting. Highly recommended for any fan of The Who and rock & roll in general.
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (2013). Roach takes listeners on a strange and sometimes gross journey down the alimentary canal, discussing the human digestive system from top to…er…bottom. Classic interviews with scientists and researchers who study things like the influence of the sense of smell on eating habits, understanding how stomach acid works from stories about animals and even one human who had a hole in their bodies so researchers could watch how acid dissolves food, and one about doctors who have seemingly cured recurring c-diff infections by transplanting another persons shit into the patient’s colon.
  • How To Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric (2012). They say when the student is ready the teacher appears, and such was the case this summer with this great little instruction book. I was inspired by Krznaric as well as those he discusses in the book and I’m fairly certain this book helped me feel comfortable about my decision to leave my job in San Diego and move to Phoenix without a job. It also made my decision to go to work for a nonprofit much easier. If you are at all uncertain about the path of your career, read this little book and do the exercises to find out what motivates you and how to find work that aligns.
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006). I picked up this monster after having seen the film Lincoln last year — the film was based on a portion of the book. DKG leaves no stone unturned in this wonderful tale of how Lincoln convinced congress to support him with the emancipation proclamation. It’s really a story of political genius as much as the story of Lincoln’s life and presidency. At more than 32 hours it is not for the faint of heart though. But once I committed I had to see it through to the conclusion, just as Lincoln did when he decided to make a mark on the world with his presidency. Amazing detail that tells the story of perhaps the most crucial period of our democracy.

As always, for reviews of every book I read and to see what’s on my “to read” list feel free to friend me on Goodreads.

AFI #4: Raging Bull

ragingbullListen to me carefully because I’m only going to say this once — there has never been a better acting performance in the history of motion pictures than Robert De Niro’s performance as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Go ahead and think of one…I’ll wait. Are you done? Good. I’m glad we agree and it is settled.

Clearly De Niro became Jake LaMotta for two hours. He inhabited him like a soul and delivered unto film the most awe-inspiring, raw and powerful performance of all time. You truly can’t take your eyes of the screen during the film. When you look into De Niro’s eyes you feel the pain and fear and insecurities of the man and you explode with emotion just as he does whether it’s in the ring or in his personal life. LaMotta’s self-doubt turns to raw energy and it becomes the force that enables him to tear men apart in the ring, but when it’s over you feel sorry for LaMotta rather than his opponents because he is still not satisfied with what he has done. I wonder how a person can have so much yet need so much more?

Everyone knows the story of how De Niro became Jake LaMotta. The former middleweight champ was an adviser on the film and De Niro was able to become LaMotta by talking to the man and also by reading LaMotta’s own words about his tortured life. And of course De Niro trained as a boxer for the role. And he lived with Joe Pesci so the two would feel more like brothers. And De Niro put on 60 pounds of real weight to play the older version of LaMotta. Method acting became a household term after this film was released. Truly De Niro became LaMotta physically and emotionally and it all came together on the screen in the most incredible way.

Raging Bull was voted the best film of the 1980s by numerous news outlets and film critics and I’m not going to argue with that ranking. Is it the fourth best American film of all time? I don’t know, but I certainly can’t argue about its inclusion in the top 10 of the AFI list. It is definitely one of the best American films ever produced, if for nothing else than De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance. But it’s so much more than that. Any discussion of Raging Bull has to give credit to Martin Scorsese, who I’ve already said on this blog is in my opinion one of the top two or three directors in American film history and you could argue Raging Bull is his masterpiece. Scorsese did not win best director for Raging Bull — it wasn’t until 27 years later that the Academy honored him for directing with his win for The Departed. A great film that won Best Picture but in my opinion it’s great but not as good as Raging Bull. Scorsese captured the emotion of LaMotta’s life, but also created a mood that makes the viewer feel like he or she is watching a film made in the 40s and 50s. He does this primarily through the use of black and white, but he also selected a hauntingly beautiful score to add to the tone. The brutality of the boxing ring was captured wonderfully through delicate choreography and find makeup work. The team used chocolate syrup as fake blood to find the perfect consistency knowing in black and white it would work perfectly.

The film also featured tremendous supporting performances by Joe Pesci and Kathy Moriarty, both of whom were nominated for acting Oscars. It was one of Pesci’s first movie roles and it was a clear indication of things to come. Pesci lost to Timothy Hutton of Ordinary People and for my money that will go down as one of the worst Oscar snubs ever. In fact, Ordinary People beat out Raging Bull for Best Picture and Robert Redford took home the Best Director statue for the film. I have nothing against Ordinary People — it’s a nice film with good performances. But note that it isn’t to be found on the AFI Top 100 and Raging Bull came in at number 4 all time. Oscar clearly had its head up its ass in 1981!

I think Raging Bull is one of the best films ever made. It’s not one of my favorites, but artistically and performance-wise it is incredible and worthy of its place in history.

Next: Casablanca

AFI #5: Singin’ in the Rain

singin-in-the-rainWell, we’re into the top 5 American films of all time according to the brain trust at the American Film Institute, and I guess I expected more from Singin’ in the Rain. This film suffers from something I’ve seen a lot in this quest — the film is nowhere near as good as the world’s memory of it. I am not a musical hater, but this film doesn’t belong in the top 50 let alone the top 5. The plot is trite and the acting is silly.

It isn’t without merit though. There are several great musical numbers mixed in, not the least of which is the famous scene of Gene Kelly dancing and singing in the rain after he realizes he is in love with the talented young Kathy Seldon. It’s a classic movie moment, which is where I think the voters on surveys like this make mistakes. Is it fair to say the scene is one of the greatest song and dance numbers ever filmed? Sure, why not. It is iconic and Gene Kelly is the best song and dance man of all time. But I don’t even think Singin’ in the Rain is his best film let alone the fifth best American film ever (I like An American in Paris better frankly). The other iconic scene from the film is Donald O’Connor’s amazing “make them laugh” number which had me laughing and marveling at his joint-defying moves. Michael Jackson got his moves from Donald O’Connor! There are other nice song and dance numbers, but nothing that Fred and Ginger didn’t do. The film did have another thing going for it — an appearance by Cyd Charisse who for my money has the best gams ever to grace the silver screen (watch The Band Wagon or Brigadoon if you don’t believe me).

I enjoy watching Gene Kelly sing and dance. Really, I do. He was great in Xanadu! But like I said Singin’ in the Rain is not a great film, rather it is a nice film with a few great moments in it.

Next: Raging Bull

Len’s Top Albums of 2013

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As we come to the end of another year it’s time once again for a totally biased list of my favorite albums of the year. A few things of note this year: One, it appears disco is making a comeback. I think this is actually pretty cool, though I admit I did get awful tired of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” this summer. Two, Pearl Jam has easily become the 90s band with the most staying power, continually making very solid rock and roll albums (kiss my ass Nirvana). And three, the “Mumford” sound continued to drive good music in 2013 with great songs and albums by bands like The Lumineers, Dawes, The Avett Brothers and The Head and the Heart. All that said, here are the ten albums that I enjoyed the most this year, and if you like you can watch the videos for my favorite song from each album on a YouTube playlist I created.

  • Bad Blood — Bastille
    The debut album from this London-based band knocks it out of the park. Bastille is part of a new wave of bands that bring modern sounds together with a touch of the alternative 80s, and for my money these guys are the best of the bunch. I first saw them this summer on TV performing live at the Isle of Wight Festival and the crowd went nuts when they came out…it sort of reminded me in a small way of when U2 performed at Live Aid. I liked what I heard that day and the album is solid top to bottom. Bastille reminds me of a couple of exceptional 80s bands — Simple Minds and Big Country. Take a listen to Pompeii and decide for yourself.
  • Stories Don’t End — Dawes
    Dawes came on the scene a couple of years ago and I’ve really warmed to their sound. At first I wrote them off as Avett Brothers/Mumford clones, but in fact their sound is much less folk and much more 70s Los Angeles. Their sound has been called “Laurel Canyon” and I suppose that’s fair, but what’s wrong with being compared to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac? Stories Don’t End is a great album — my favorite song is From a Window Seat.
  • Trouble Will Find Me — The National
    This Brooklyn band has been a staple on my “best of” lists over the past few years and for good reason. The National has carved out a unique sound amongst a wave of similar-sounding bands. You can have your One Republics, your fun, your Vampire Weekends. I’ll take the dark and gorgeous sound of Matt Berninger’s baritone. Trouble Will Find Me is another solid effort and remember, Don’t Swallow the Cap.
  • Lightning Bolt — Pearl Jam
    When I heard the first release from the new Pearl Jam album I wasn’t sure I liked it, which is odd for me as I love PJ, but one thing you can always count on with PJ is that they make complete albums and after a few listens I quickly became a fan of Lightning Bolt. It’s definitely harder rocking than 2009s Backspacer, which I LOVE, but Lightning Bolt is solid top to bottom. All things considered, PJ has secured its spot as the best and most consistent band from the 90s grunge era. Sirens is the best track on the new album in my humble opinion. Classic PJ.
  • Mechanical Bull — Kings of Leon
    KoL is a throwback. They consistently rock and seem to tour non stop. You know what you’re going to get with the Followill guys and if you like their sound you will love Mechanical Bull. I’m a fan and believe they are the best pure rock and roll band in America right now. 2008s Only By the Night was a breakthrough album and one of the biggest successes of the decade, and they followed it up with 2010s solid Come Around Sundown. I think Mechanical Bull is better than Come Around Sundown! So many great songs on Mechanical Bull, but my favorite is probably Temple.
  • Reflektor — Arcade Fire
    Surely no album had as much anticipation this year as Reflektor given the enormous critical success of The Suburbs in 2010. It was my favorite album that year and won the Grammy for best album as well. It has found a place on my all-time favorites list. A tough act to follow indeed, and while Reflektor is excellent it is not The Suburbs. Reflektor is, however, a beautiful concept album of Caribbean rhythms and mythological messaging. Leave it to Arcade Fire to produce an album that loosely tells the story of Eurydice with some voodoo thrown in. Reflektor is an album best listened to in its entirety. Sure there are some singles (like Reflektor) that will be hits and already are, but it flows together so well. Grab some headphones and a free hour or so and settle in.
  • Momentum — Jamie Cullum
    I’ve been singing the praises for Jamie Cullum for many years and his albums always seem to find their way onto my top 10 lists because they are so listenable. I continue to be surprised that Jamie is not a huge star in America like he is in the U.K. Dude even married a supermodel and still gets no love in the U.S. Well, America’s loss. Momentum is pure jazz/pop genius. If you don’t know Jamie Cullum you are missing out, and Momentum is a great place to start. Check out his beautiful cover of Pure Imagination or the synth happy Everything You Didn’t Do, which has one of the coolest videos ever.
  • More Than Just a Dream — Fitz and the Tantrums
    When Fitz and the Tantrums exploded on the scene in 2010 with Picking up the Pieces they could easily have been a one album wonder. Yes, the sound was a throwback and the look was pure 80s, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better song in 2010 than L.O.V. or Moneygrabber. But this year Fitz returned with the disco infused More Than Just a Dream and it’s even better than the first album. I was fortunate enough to see the band perform in Del Mar earlier this year and they brought down the house. Amazing sound and such a fun live band. 6 a.m. was my favorite song of the summer.
  • Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action — Franz Ferdinand
    Any fan of 80s music has to like Franz Ferdinand! If you loved their first three albums as I did, four years was way too long to wait for this year’s Right Thoughts. But it was worth the wait…another 80s and disco infused album of great songs from beginning to end. Right Thoughts set the tone and came with one of the best videos in a long while. The album has been a mainstay on my playlist since its release this summer. It’s hard to have a unique sound while simultaneously harkening back to the 80s and even 70s disco but Franz Ferdinand pulls it off like no other.
  • Bankrupt! — Phoenix
    No album got more plays for me this year than Bankrupt! and in fact I’m still listening to it a ton. The French band’s first album since 2009’s breakout smash Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (one of my favorite albums of the 2000s) is a slight departure from that album’s pure synth-pop goodness, but it’s fantastic in its own right. Bankrupt! topped several charts this year and for a while this summer Phoenix was everywhere. The first release, Entertainment, took over the airwaves in April when it came out and a few months later Trying to be Cool was equally ubiquitous. My only disappointment this year was that Phoenix cancelled its concert in La Jolla in October and I didn’t get a chance to see them live. Maybe they’ll tour again in 2014.

Len’s Top Albums of 2012

Len’s Top Albums of 2011

AFI #6: Gone With the Wind

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Based on the Margaret Mitchell novel, 1939’s Gone With the Wind is arguably the most popular film ever made and one of the most successful as well. It is of course the story of the American south during the Civil War, but really it is simply a sweeping and epic story of love. Note that I didn’t call it a love story, because it’s not that. It’s more like a misguided or forbidden love story. Surely the main characters love people who don’t return their affection in the way they’d like. Scarlett O’Hara loves Ashley Wilkes, but while he sometimes thinks he loves Scarlett, he is really only in love with his cousin Melanie Hamilton. And for all his bravado, Rhett Butler loves Scarlett despite her inability to return his affection. All of this is set against the demise of their beloved south, although Mitchell surely romanticizes the lifestyle far too much.

It’s truly hard not to enjoy Gone With the Wind. It is a classic of American film and the story is wonderful. But for my money Gone With the Wind is one of the greatest films ever because of its tremendous performances. And that begins, undoubtedly, with Vivien Leigh’s tour de force as Scarlett. Has there ever been a more epic female character in the history of film? Leigh’s Scarlett is beautiful, charming, manipulative, strong and tragic — all at once! Leigh’s Oscar-winning performance is one for the ages and I defy you to take your eyes off of her when she’s on the screen. Leigh made plenty of films over her career, but she will always be immortalized as Scarlett O’Hara and rightfully so.

Clark Gable, who surprisingly did not win the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal as Captain Rhett Butler, was almost as epic as Leigh. Butler is the epitome of the leading man…he is smart, handsome, strong and savvy. He makes millions during the war as a profiteer, knows how to have a good time, and is the only man who sees beyond Scarlett O’Hara’s facade and truly gets her. Unfortunately for Butler he truly loves Scarlett, and that leads him only to tragedy. By the end he at least knows when it’s time to get out! Gable’s Butler is one of the best male characters ever to be captured on film, and if you disagree…frankly I don’t give a damn.

Gone With the Wind is the definition of an epic and it deserves its lofty place on the AFI list. It is indeed an American classic.

Next: We crack the Top 5 with Singin’ in the Rain