The Boyfriend of the Week: Best of 2009

January 22, 2010 [comment on this write-up]

So, here it is (at long, long last!), my annual listing of the best books, good movies, and bad movies I encountered in the last year. These books and films had an impact on me on some level -- more of an impact than other books and movies I came across this year -- and that's really all these lists mean. I'm not saying these are the "best" books and movies of the year. Just that they were the ones that gave me the "best" watching and reading experiences, and I thought you guys might like to hear about them one more time. I love writing about books and movies in part because people relate to each other immediately when they've both read or seen the same thing. It's probably the easiest way we can connect -- a shared experience. My experiences are below; your mileage may vary. And I'd love to hear about it when it does.

SPECIAL NOTE: If you purchase any of the items below using the "buy it" links included below, a small percentage of the money you spend (at no extra cost to you) will go to support Substance Abuse Librarians and Information Specialists (SALIS), an international association of individuals and organizations with special interests in the exchange and dissemination of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug information. Great organization, great people. So, use the links if you want to buy and know you've done a little bit of extra good with your day. Booyah!

Favorite Books Read in 2009

1. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. (original review | buy it)

The characters in this book of short stories are regular people, their situations as normal as they come, and I think that's what makes them so mesmerizing. Some of the stories are hilarious, and others, like "Agnes of Iowa," are almost unbearably sad. But they all seem like stories about people who actually exist, who weren't dreamt up but are outside right now walking down your street. That's startlingly refreshing, I have to say. Until I read this book, I'd never been that overwhelmed by Lorrie Moore's writing. I'm overwhelmed now. [FICTION]

2. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. (Original review | buy it)

This novel tells the story of the last thirty or so years of Afghanistan's history through the eyes of two women brought together by the clashes of war and culture. It's every bit as heartbreaking as you'd expect it to be, given the subject -- crammed to the gills with a cacophony of lies, grief, war, fighting, brutal Taliban control, fires, rockets, missiles, bullets, and horror. And while this hardly makes it sound like an entertaining "read," it is so brilliantly and beautifully written it almost seems like a mandatory one. At least from my perspective. We're at war with this country. We should know more about them. Their lives are bleak and hard. And they deserve to be heard. Don't miss this one. It's important. [FICTION]

3. The Black Tower by Louis Bayard. (Original review | buy it)

This gripping historical mystery gives us a new spin on the old story of Louis Charles, the son of Marie Antoinette, who was imprisoned as a boy when his parents were executed as part of the republican takeover of France in the 1790's. The boy, only 8 at the time his father was killed, was tortured, forced into labor, and eventually locked in a dark prison cell, where he became ill and died. The moment his death was announced, rumors of his daring escape came to life. Bayard's novel, inspired by those rumors, tells us what might have happened to Louis Charles, beginning with the murder of a man with a secret and ending with the combined efforts of a detective named Vidocq (based on the real-life founding director of the Sûreté Nationale), and a young doctor named Hector Carpentier. Hands-down one of the best mystery-thrillers I've read in recent memory. And, for the record, Bayard's other historical mystery, The Pale Blue Eye, was one of my top ten favorite books of 2006. I sense a trend. A happy, happy trend. [MYSTERY]

4. Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was by Barry Hughart. (Original review | buy it)

This short fantasy novel is set in a fictitious Ancient China somewhere around the seventh century. As the story opens, we are introduced to our narrator, a lumbering oaf named Lu Yu, called "Number Ten Ox" by his friends. In Ox's village, the yearly silkworm spinning has just begun, but instead of the usual bounty of silk, the worms have this year given the children of the village a vicious and deadly disease. Ox is sent to Peking to find a wise man to help, and there teams up with Master Li, a drunken genius with a much-touted "slight flaw in his character." Together, the two men embark on a quest for the Great Root of Power, what Li believes holds the cure. This incredibly entertaining novel is not just a simple adventure yarn, but a poignant tale filled with emotion and warmth. Can't wait to read Number Two Book about Number Ten Ox! (And why haven't I done that yet? It's 2010 already! Let's get hot, Meg!) [FANTASY]

5. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. (Original review | buy it)

This terrific book, the first I'd ever read by Vowell (though I've been a fan of hers for years), did not disappoint. It's hilarious, fascinating, and just utterly bizarre in concept -- a brilliant combination from where I sit. Said concept? Vowell, who is a history buff, decides to go on a pilgrimage of three presidential assassinations (Lincoln's, McKinley's, and Garfield's), taking us to the sites of their deaths, the monuments of their lives, and everywhere in between, as she regales us with factual stories and personal anecdotes. Vowell is a joy to read -- sharp-witted and sassy-tongued -- and the stories of these three men and the motives of the various others who wanted them dead are just as riveting as any work of crime fiction. [NON-FICTION]

6. Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction by David Sheff and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nic Sheff. (Original review | buy BB | buy Tweak)

These two memoirs, the first written by the father of the author of the second, offer a unique look into the world of methamphetamine addiction. Start with Beautiful Boy to get the parent's side of the story, along with the kind of factual information (about the science and practice of drug addiction) you'd expect from a journalist like Sheff. And then move onto Tweak to hear the same tale from the young addict's point of view. A fascinating, educational, and emotional pairing. [NONFICTION]

7. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. (Original review | buy it)

The movie based on this novel is going to show up in my list of favorite movies below, just so you know. And one of the reasons I loved this book as much as I did was, I think, because I'd seen the film first. The film is haunting, beautiful, slow, and intense, and while the book is somewhat lighter (at times kind of disappointingly so, I will confess), it goes into far more depth regarding the horrors the main characters have experienced. The story is about a 12 year-old boy who befriends a stopped-at-12 year-old girl who happens to be a vampire. But while that might seem sort of strange or even silly in theory, in practice, this is one of the most poignant coming-of-age tales I've ever read. Brilliant, moving, wonderful -- see the movie and then read the book. Do it in that order. Thank me later. [FICTION]

8. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. (Original review | buy it)

I somehow managed to get all the way to age 35 without ever having read this novel. And I'm kind of glad about that, because I think if I'd attempted it when I was younger, I would never have gotten through the middle 200 pages (a detailed accounting of everything you might ever want to know about whaling, as well as many, many things you might NOT want to know about whaling). Instead, as an older reader, I was so sucked in by the sharp writing and quirky comedy in the beginning that I was more than willing to take the slog in the center just to see how things came out for my favorite characters at the end. If you've never read this one either, definitely give it a shot. Just know you can skim those whaling chapters without missing anything important. Unless you're planning on trying to behead a whale soon, in which case, you might want to take some notes. [LITERATURE]

9. A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle. (Original review | buy it )

On the surface, this novel is about an old man, Jonathan Rebeck, who lives in a cemetery and spends his days playing chess and talking to ghosts. He sleeps in a mausoleum and is assisted by a talking raven who drops by daily to deliver pilfered sandwiches and news about the world. It's a simple life, in a fine and private place, and it's served the old man very well. When two new ghosts enter the scene, however, Rebeck's life begins a gradual shift. As it turns out, death is not an endless stream of ghostly walks, spying on the living, and regrets -- it is, instead, simply a gradual forgetting. How the two ghosts navigate this eventually spurs a remembering of sorts for Rebeck as well. This is a strange, offbeat novel with a surprisingly sharp wit and an equally surprising tenderness for its characters. Clever, gentle, funny, kind, patient, compassionate, and fascinating. Can't go wrong with that. [FANTASY]

10. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. (Original review | buy it)

This creative, entertaining sci-fi novel is set in the mid-1800's in Seattle, and begins with a mining invention designed to break through the thick Alaskan ice up north to unbury the gold trapped beneath it. Brilliant in concept, when it accidentally gets unleashed on Seattle instead, it is with devastating effect. As it plows through the city streets, carving up everything in its path, it also releases a deadly toxin called the "blight" that has the unfortunate effect of killing people and then bringing them back to life, zombie-style. Years later, a mother and her son find themselves trapped in the now-walled-up city, surrounded by air pirates, ravenous undead, gangs, and refugees/survivors, trying to find out the truth about their family's involvement in the destruction and then make it back out alive. Vividly written, extremely entertaining. Couldn't put it down. Sci-fi geeks, behold! [SCIENCE FICTION]

Favorite GOOD Movies Seen in 2009

1. The Hurt Locker (2009) -- (original review | Netflix it | buy it)

This film, set in Baghdad in 2004, focuses on three soldiers in an elite Army unit, the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). The movie opens with the death of Bravo Company's leader in a scene that will make your stomach clench into a fist-sized knot approximately fourteen seconds in. It will not unclench after that for at least twelve hours, more if you're me. Brought in to replace him is Staff Sgt. Will James (ex-Boyfriend Jeremy Renner), who, it becomes clear, has absolutely no apparent fear of death -- an alarming quality in an EOD specialist. The impact of the war and the perpetual danger surrounding the three men in this team affects each one differently and dramatically, and that's really what this film is about. Filmed brilliantly, acted masterfully, I knew the first time I saw it that it would be my favorite movie of the year. And I was right. (p.s. Confidential to Golden Globes voters: F-you, morons.) [DRAMA, WAR]

2. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) -- (original review | Netflix it (incl. Watch Now) | buy it)

As this film opens, the 1931 movie Frankenstein has just come to a tiny Spanish village and all the local children have flocked to the theater to see it. Two such children are a six year-old named Ana and her older sister Isabel. Enthralled by the story, Ana becomes obsessed with the movie, peppering Isabel with questions about the nature of the monster. To shut her up, Isabel finally tells her the monster is real and can be summoned at a local farmhouse. Of course, Ana goes to the farmhouse the next day and begins trying to convince the monster to appear. Right about the same time, a Republican soldier (on the lam from the Francoists) jumps off a train, injures his leg, and manages to drag himself to that same farmhouse, where Ana eventually finds and begins to help him. What happens next is hard to explain and absolutely beautiful in its confusion. Brilliant, soft, and pretty. I only wish I'd discovered it sooner so I could have seen it that many more times in my life. I'll try to make up for it with as many repeated viewings as possible now. [DRAMA, FOREIGN]

3. Inglourious Basterds (2009) -- (original review | Netflix it | buy it)

It's nearly impossible to talk about this crazy, crazy movie in a single paragraph, so let me just say that, in a nutshell, I found this film absolutely masterful, even while I also found it frequently unstomachable. It's funny, it's heartbreaking, it's complicated, and it's brilliantly acted. I've only seen it once, and I may never see it again (yeah, scalpings -- I really can't stomach the scalpings, which sounds crazy considering the horror movies I watch, but the violence in this film is very realistic, which puts it in a different class for me). But it had to make the list this year just for sheer ballsyness. (Ballsiness? For having balls, there.) Fans of Tarantino certainly shouldn't miss it, and if Christoph Waltz doesn't get an Oscar nomination for his role as Nazi Col. Hans Landa, the most thoroughly disturbing Tarantino villain since Mr. Blonde, then the Academy needs to be scalped. You heard it here first. [DRAMA]

4. In the Loop (2009) -- (original review | Netflix it | buy it)

This brilliant British political satire is based on a TV series called The Thick of It, and is all about media strategy and political spin. It focuses on the escalation of the British and American governments toward the war in Iraq, but it's really just a riotously funny look at the dunderheads on both sides who flail around in a sea of absolute nonsense day in and day out. As well as us poor schlubs -- the politicians' constituents -- and how very, very unimportant we truly are. Saw this one with the spouse, who is a political reporter himself, and he gave it a huge thumbs up. For what that's worth, damn media machine. Absolutely hilarious, biting, and original. If you watch one comedy this year, make it this one! Fuckity bye! [COMEDY]

5. Star Trek (2009) -- (original review | Netflix it | buy it)

I saw this film three times in the theater (ridiculous, I know, I KNOW!) and have since seen it twice more. STILL love it. Love, love, love it. In terms of sheer entertainment, it was easily the best movie of the year for me, and not just because it was the film that finally made me feature Bruce Greenwood as a Boyfriend of the Week (though, of course, that too). Even if you've never seen (or just never liked) the original Star Trek, I think you'll have a great time watching this flick. It's got character, heart, and some totally kick-ass special effects to boot. My original review of this movie primarily consists of a list of 17 things I loved about it, and every time I see it again, I want to add 17 more. Eventually, the list will be so long it'll essentially just be the actual script. That'll be a good day. A good day indeed. [SCIENCE FICTION]

6. Let the Right One In (2008) -- (original review | Netflix it (incl. Watch Now) | buy it)

As I said in the Books list above, this is a wonderful story, told beautifully and with much more depth, somehow, in the film version than in the book. It absolutely puts to shame -- SHAME -- every other vampire movie ever made (that I've seen anyway, and I've seen most of the ones worth seeing, I'd wager). This stunning coming-of-age story will break your heart into a million pieces with its urgent, painful sadness. But it's well worth seeing even if breaking your heart on purpose seems like a lot to ask. The cinematography is incredible, the acting is mind-blowing, and the storyline will completely destroy you in all the very best kinds of ways. Stunning. Just stunning. Absolutely stunning. Stunning, I tell you. [HORROR, DRAMA]

7. The Hangover (2009) -- (original review | Netflix it | buy it)

You know what I loved most about this ridiculous, ridiculous film? It's a movie about a bunch of guys in Vegas, and it therefore had great capacity for crassness and stupidity. But instead, it didn't really end up going there. This is, surprisingly, a movie with a ton of heart and some of the most belly-strong, cheek-aching laughs I had all year (I laughed so hard, so often, and so loudly at this film, in fact, that a guy came up to me afterwards to say I had the best laugh he'd ever heard -- now that'll make your day, believe me). Yep, there's still some crassness -- fear not. But there's also Mike Tyson singing Phil Collins, and Zach Galifianakis, upcoming Boyfriend of the Week, with a baby strapped to his chest. You just can't go wrong. Rent it. Do it today. And then bring it over here -- I'll scooch over on the couch to make some room for you. Let's do this thing. [COMEDY]

8. Zombieland (2009) -- (original review | Netflix it | buy it)

In my original review of this movie, I described it as "the feel good movie of the year" -- admittedly a strange thing to say about a film that features as many scenes of zombies snacking on human entrails as Zombieland does, but you know what? It's absolutely true. Great acting, delightful spin on the zombie mythos, and hilarious from start to finish. It's weird I'm featuring so many comedies in my list this year; that's not really like me. But I'll be damned if it wasn't just a banner year for laughs on the big screen. Now, somebody go get me a Twinkie. Do whatever it takes. I'll wait. (And for the love of god, put on your seatbelt!) [HORROR, COMEDY]

9. Martyrs (2008) -- (original review | Netflix it | buy it)

This extremely disturbing horror movie made it onto my list this year for one reason and one reason only: it was a challenge to watch. It is easily the most horrifically violent film I have ever seen -- believe me when I say this to you, because this is NOT a movie to rent if you are even the tiniest bit squeamish. But the concept, which focuses on women and trauma and the amazing resilience sometimes found therein, really struck me hard, and I found myself thinking about this movie for weeks after I watched it. Is it a great film? God, I can't bring myself to answer "yes" to that question. But it had a tremendous impact on me anyway. And for that reason alone, I thought it was worth mentioning here. [HORROR]

10. Coraline (2009) -- (original review | Netflix it | buy it)

This delightful animated film is about a little girl, Coraline, who has just moved into a big old house with her parents (the father is voiced by ex-Boyfriend John Hodgman, yay!), and soon discovers an alternate reality hidden behind a tiny door. Inside that door is another world, a world where her parents lavish her with attention, new clothes, home-cooked meals, and adoration. And it's a world Coraline can choose to stay in -- if she's willing to pay what she ends up discovering is one heck of a creepy and disturbing cost. This is not really a cartoon for little kids, if only because button-eyes are total nightmare material if you ask me. But the animation is stunning and creative, and even where the story kind of fails in places, the look of the movie lends the whole thing such an effectively spooky weight the few bones I might have otherwise had to pick just never bothered me enough to mention. Definitely recommended, and I'll be picking this one up again next Halloween for sure. [ANIMATION]

Favorite BAD Movies Seen in 2009

1. Avatar (2009) -- (original review | Netflix it)

This film, which to my incredibly naive shock just won "Best Picture" at the Golden Globes (oh, hell in a handbasket comes our nation's culture), is easily the crappiest movie I saw all year. Other crappy movies I saw may have been worse on a literal scale, but they didn't have nearly as much to work with so their flaws are way, way more forgivable. To have that many bazillions of dollars and end up with this movie's utterly cliché storyline, terrible dialogue, ridiculous characters, and lame, lame everything else is just absolutely horrifying to me. But you know what? This movie is 100% pure visual spectacle, and that made the rest of it worth sitting through. As I said in my original review, though, if you don't see this in a 3-D theater, it's not going to be worth seeing at all. But it IS worth seeing in a 3-D theater. Pay the money, enjoy the show, weep for quality writers everywhere. It's the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon, trust me. [SCIENCE FICTION]

2. Croc Movie TIE! Black Water (2007) and Rogue (2007) -- (Black Water: original review | Netflix it | buy it;   Rogue: original review | Netflix it | buy it)

Can't go wrong with a good monster movie, and that goes double when it's a BAD monster movie, and quadruple (exponential increase) when it's TWO bad monster movies. So, numero dos on the list of Favorite BAD Movies Seen in 2009 is a tie -- a double-feature of two really bad monster movies about crocodiles. The first one, Black Water, is set in Australia and is about three friends who take a trip to the swamp (note: never a good idea; don't you guys watch I Shouldn't Be Alive?) and end up stuck in a tree with an extremely cranky killer croc chillin' out between them and their boat. Disaster ensues. To wit: lunch.

Rogue is essentially about the same exact thing -- a bunch of people stuck in a swamp in Australia with a killer croc parked between them and their boat (well, really, how creative can you be when it comes to croc movies? They live in swamps. They like to get between you and your boat. They try to eat you. Repeat.). That said, Rogue has the added appeal of a star-studded cast, including ex-Boyfriend Michael Vartan, Radha Mitchell (an actress I've liked since 2001's When Strangers Appear, a good Josh Lucas and Kevin Anderson indie thriller, incidentally), and Sam Worthington, currently starring in the aforementioned Avatar. Of the two, I'd say Black Water is the stronger film. But you can't watch one and not the other -- that is, you CAN, but why would you want to? So, I vote for renting both, tucking into the couch for the night, and inviting me over. [MONSTER]

3. My Name is Bruce (2008) -- (original review | Netflix it (incl. Watch Now) | buy it)

Right, like this wasn't going to make the list? I love this man. I OWN THIS ON DVD. It is crazy insane with the bad-awesome. Of course, of course, of course. 'Nuff said. [HORROR]


4. Silent Venom (2008) -- (original review | Netflix it | buy it )

This and the next movie in my list here, 2012: Supernova, are the very epitome of Watch-With-Mom movies for me (and I did, in fact, watch both of these with my mom). They are absolute CRAP, and utterly hilariously so. The story is about a bunch of genetically-altered, über-deadly snakes taken on board a Naval submarine and put in the cargo hold along with explicit instructions to the crew NOT TO OPEN THE CASES UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES BECAUSE WHAT IS INSIDE THEM IS SUPER-DUPER CLASSIFIED. Which is, as we all know, the same as putting a sign on the box that says, "OH, COME ON. YOU KNOW YOU'RE DYING TO OPEN THIS. JUST OPEN IT, ALREADY." What happens next I'm sure you can already guess. But did you guess this? LUKE PERRY. Uh huh. That's right. IN UNIFORM. Dig it. Dug. [MONSTER]

5. 2012: Supernova (2009) -- (original review | Netflix it (incl. Watch Now) | buy it)

This movie was so ridiculously, insanely bad that my original review of it didn't even really talk about the movie at all. In fact, it's really more my review that earned this film a spot on the list this year, rather than the flick itself. The review ended up going off on a tangent about the methodology my mom and I use when it comes to picking out really bad movies to watch together -- highly educational, if you ask me. Read it, learn it, live it. And you too can have a list of "Favorite Good-Bad Movies" right here next year. [SCIENCE FICTION]

· · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

Well, folks, that's it! I hope you've enjoyed my little "Best Of" lists, and that you read or see a few of these and love them (or love to hate them, as the case may be with the bad movies!) as much as I did. All the best in the New Year and keep in touch! Or else it's swamps and crocodiles for YOU.

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