Fairytale of New York

It was a couple weeks ago that my wife and I decided to check out “Da Vinci’s Last Supper” at the Park Avenue Armory; a light and sound art installation created by Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover).  This was really for my benefit, as it pertains to the novel I’m currently in the second draft of.  But what happened just prior to that made me realize that I’ll never leave New York.

We took the Subway to 79th and Broadway to catch the cross-town bus and, as we had a bit of time, ducked into the famous H&H Bagels to grab a quick nosh, as they say here.  She went for the Pumpernickel; I went for the “Everything,” both still warm, no crème cheese, no butter, nothing but bagel.  And on the way out she remarked that “the ‘Everything’ from H&H is kind of your thing isn’t it?” And I realized, yeah, it’s my thing; I finally have a “New York thing.”

New York remains one of those mythical cities and every once in a while I have to stop and give my head a shake and realize it’s become home, to the degree previous homes never really did.  I lived in Toronto form 13 straight years and, while I once thought I’d live there forever, it never really felt like home.  It just felt like Toronto – a place that was more haunted by the ghosts of what was and would never be again, at least for me.

I was a late arrival to New York – I only set foot here in February 2003, on a visit – prior to that there’d only been layovers (LGA in 1985, EWR in 1997).  And even on my first weekend trip it felt right; like I had spent an entire life there.  Like I belonged.  And when my now wife entered my life, I felt the pull of the Big Apple; five years after that first visit I settled here, and to the disappointment of friends and family back in Canada, really can’t see ever leaving it. 

It’s a tough town.  It’s destroyed many, and sent many more the survivors scurrying back to where they came from.  It doesn’t give you anything easy.  Combined that with the fact I’m in a difficult business that also doesn’t give you anything you don’t fight for, sometimes living here can feel like a form of self flagellation.  We could live in a nice spacious house in the suburbs or in the Midwest for what we pay for our one-bedroom place here, but we remain, because there is not here.  So with that in mind, the following are a few of the reasons why I will remain here until they call me a New Yorker or I die first:

Already mentioned, H&H being one, Murray’s being another.  But after years of store-bought bagels in Canada, it’s a gift to be able to buy them fresh.  And, apologies to Montreal; there is nothing like a New York Bagel.  The theory is it’s the water they use – a hard water drawn from the Aquifers of the upper Hudson that give them a unique flavor, same as the pizza.  And speaking of which …

New York Pizza stands above all others.  It’s the water, again, the dough, the crust, the whole package.  Forget deep dish (come on, you don’t eat pizza with a knife and fork) – I have yet to have a “bad” pizza here My current favorite pizza can be found at Waldy’s on 6th Ave.  My wife famously returned home one night to say she’d considered picking up a pie from Waldy’s but knew I was cooking dinner.  I explained to her that anytime she thinks about picking one up, she should do so, and I’ll stow whatever I was cooking in the fridge.

Zabar’s is an institution; groceries, bakery, and deli counter where you can get a damn fine pastrami sandwich without having to brave the hordes of tourists clustering Katz, like cholesterol encrusting around your heart.  We routinely stop by just to pick up a loaf of their famous Rye Bread — and once ran into actor Eli (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) Wallach while buying a container of half sour pickels.  You can’t beat that for a New York Experience.

Of course, it can’t be all about food, can it?  No, there’s a reason New York is a cultural hot-spot, and its many museums are the reason for that.  There are plenty of them, too – ones dedicated to the Police, the FDNY, the Barrio, the City of New York – and the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria is for film fans everywhere.  There is anything for anyone, no matter what your interest is.  But for my money (and I can say this as a member) the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the best in the city.  You can’t come to New York and not visit The Met – lord knows I’ve taken much advantage of my membership enough times, often trekking over there just to wander the galleries, or check out a new exhibit.  That’s the great thing about it – they change the exhibits regularly enough that every six to eight weeks there’s something new.  It’s also a classic New York spot – where else can you take in an exhibit on the history of the House of Dior, and see Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn have a tiff?

Situated off the lower end of Manhattan, Governors Island was recently turned over to the city and has been opened to the public as an urban oasis surrounded by water.  A free ferry ride takes ten minutes, and from there you pretty much have the run of the place.  It’s dog-free, which is a big bonus, but one of those places increasing in popularity.  It’s likely that at some point commercialism will invade this spot, but in the meantime I’ll enjoy as much of it as possible.

I’ve avoided revealing too many details of where specifically I live, but I will say that I’m within walking distance of Fort Tryon Park, at the upper end of Manhattan and leave it at that.  Fort Tryon is Manhattan’s little secret – a park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (the same who designed the much more popular Central Park) – best known as home of The Cloisters (the Met’s Medieval Art Collection).  But, it also holds my favorite spot in the city, what my wife calls “Brad’s Thoughtful Place” atop the Linden Terrace, overlooking the Hudson, the George Washington Bridge, and the Palisades.  It’s where I go to brainstorm – often bringing script or manuscript pages with me to take the red pen to.  On a related trivia note, if you happen to have seen the Don Siegel-Clint Eastwood flick Coogan’s Bluff, the climactic motorbike chase was filmed entirely in Fort Tryon Park.

Boston in five hours, Philly in two, the Hudson and Catskills an hour north, the beaches of Long Island and Connecticut, and Washington DC are all within a short car, train, bus or plane ride.  You can spend 10 hours on the road in Ontario (where I hail from) and, depending on your direction, still be in Ontario.  Here, we could probably make Florida in the same span of time.  One thing about NYC is it tends to grind on you after while – semi frequent tips outside the city are good for the soul, though it usually only takes a few days to be ready to come back again.

Everything they say is true – Christmas in New York is one of those things you just have to experience, whether it’s the Radio City Christmas Show in all its cheesy touristy glory, or the tree at Rockefeller Center. My personal favorite Christmas spot is Bryant Park, with its Canadian tree, ice rink, and rink-side bar Celsius, sponsored by Tourism Canada.  I was never the biggest Christmas person before I moved here and married, but I can count this to be one of my favorite times of year.   And on that note ….

And on that note …

I’m closing up shop for the holidays (and trying to muscle through more of my novel in the process).  See you all in 2011.

End of the Century (Part 2)

For Part One, click here.  I have also restored comments for now.  We’ll see how that goes.

And now, my top ten of 2000 – 2010.  I would’ve loved for something I saw this year to edge onto this list, and while I did see some good film, I’m not sure how many would be considered “classic.”  There’ll be a year end-wrap-up of 2010 movies later this month, so in the meantime, here’s my ten favorite of the last ten years.

10. THE PRESTIGE (2006)

Yeah, I’m sure you’re saying there’s any number of Christopher Nolan films I could have picked – Memento being the obvious, along with the two obscure Batman movies he tossed out this decade, and this year’s Inception, but I chose The Prestige simply because it’s my favorite Chris Nolan film. The story of dueling magicians, as consumed with crafting the perfect illusion as they are with out-doing each other, is an intricate puzzle-box of a movie that not only benefits from repeat viewing but practically demands it (every time I watch it I catch something new). But the reason I love this movie is because, like rival magicians Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, I do get irritated when contemporaries, be they friends or just acquaintances, achieve success while I do not. Professional jealousy, of course, but not unlike the protagonist of the film two entries ahead, I have a competition in me and I want no-one else to succeed unless I can first. It’s the thing that drives all art and artists, though most would not admit as much.


9. THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

My second favorite Pixar film, it’s one of those rare films I never tire of watching, and for my money is the best comic book movie ever made – precisely because it’s based on the comic book archetypes unencumbered by the baggage of being iconic figures. Dig on the 60s retro vibe, the amazing action sequences, the humor all you want, but the real core of The Incredibles are the characters, and how they cope living in a world that does everything it can to stifle and repress achievement. It’s also a surprisingly mature film, a family film with a brain and a heart. Who among us can’t empathize with Mr. Incredible, torn between the duties of raising a family, and with trying to re-live his youthful days as an adventurer and hero?

8. SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)

Shaun is not a zombie movie, not in the traditional sense. What it is, is a movie about the painful transition from your 20s to your 30s, and about the need to “sort your life out.” Fortunately for the titular Shaun, Zombies arrive to force him to do just that. The more I watch Shaun, the more it touches me on a primal level. I mean, I make stuff up for a living, and the fact that I’m in my mid-late 30s often fails to register sometimes. Shaun was the best zombie film in a decade rife with them because it’s about more than flesh-eating ghouls – it’s about those nagging fears and failures that nibble at us every day of our lives.

7. AMELIE (2001)

Sometimes a movie’s status is elevated by the times it is released in. Released to theaters not long after 9/11, Amelie was the salve we needed – a precious, precocious modern fairy-tale about a Parisian woman setting out to make the lives of strangers rich and fulfilling, and simultaneously realizing the emptiness in her own life. I know people who never went to the movies who somehow managed to see this one in the theater multiple times, which is a testament to its magic.

6. PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

I met Guillermo del Toro in 2001, when he was promoting his moody suspense horror The Devil’s Backbone. He had attracted notice in the 90s for his debut film Cronos, and stumbled with his follow-up Mimic. He was regarded then, largely, as an also-ran; one of those many filmmakers who has a cult success, before being consumed by the Hollywood system. But, Guillermo proved there are second acts in life, and Backbone represented the first in an extraordinary run of films that culminated in Pan’s Labyrinth – his gothic fairy-tale set in the dying days of the Spanish Civil War. Even as he preps his adaptation of In The Mouth of Madness, Labyrinth remains his best work – a surprisingly adult fairytale about finding moments of beauty while the world around you goes to hell.

5. WALL-E (2008)

The first thirty minutes of this film are as good as film got this decade, and if you can slight the more conventional storytelling that follows, you still have to concede the nerviness of the decision to make the two lead characters robots that communicate in beeps and clicks and synthesized voices. There are so many astonishingly beautiful moments in this, Pixar’s best film, I can’t single one out, but the ending, when Wall-E clutches Eve’s hand, is near guaranteed to bring the waterworks flowing.

4. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)

This one moved up the list a few spots, since I realized on a recent re-watch of P.T. Anderson’s epic on greed and obsession that There Will Be Blood is actually a twisted dark comedy disguised as Oscar bait. Nothing less than a battle between the two towering forces that drive American life – Money and Religion, money wins the day with a bowling pin to the cranium. Much has been written about Daniel Day-Lewis’s towering portrait of oil man Daniel Plainview, but on repeat viewings it’s Paul Dano’s simpering rival Eli Sunday who becomes the more compelling character, as we realize long before he does that he’s tampered with forces not even God could understand.

3. THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

Technically, they’re one big movie, but of the entire Lord of The Rings Trilogy, I’d pick the first chapter, The Fellowship of the Ring as my personal favorite, because it recaptured that feeling I got when I was four and saw Star Wars for the first time – that sensation I wasn’t sitting in a theater, but rather pulled into the world projected onto the screen. The Rings Trilogy was popcorn moviemaking at its zenith, and no popcorn movie released since has had as great an impact as these three films. The simplicity of the narrative; the ages old battle between good and evil, became the framework of an epic tale masterfully adapted from the JRR Tolkien novel, launched the careers of a good baker’s dozen of actors, and did what the lackluster Star Wars Prequel Trilogy tried and failed to do – instill a sense of awe.

2. ZODIAC (2007)

An interesting double-bill with The Prestige, as both films are at their most base level about obsession. Obsession is something I can well identify with – it’s what gets me up in the morning, and what puts me at my desk for 8 hours a day, every day. The obsession to meet the goals I’ve set, the obsession to aim for perfection even though I know I’ll fall short. I really battled back and forth over the number one and number two slots on this list, but David Fincher’s Zodiac is a masterful crime thriller, an examination of the obsessions that drive police, reporters and casual bystanders, to unravel motives behind a crime that has no motivation, and how that obsession can make a victim out of the people we task to solve a crime. It’s as meticulously detailed a movie as any I saw in the last decade – a film that demands your attention on every level. With so many films falling short, it’s nice to have a few that assume you, the viewer, are at least as smart as the people making the damn thing.

And finally, my favorite film of the last ten years.

1. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006)

Be honest; are you better off now then you were ten years ago? Do you feel safer? Are you happier? Do you look forward to the next decade with optimism or with dread? One thing’s for certain; in 20 years, assuming we’re still around, people will look back at Children of Men as, if not a prophetic film, but the one film that best captured the zeitgeist of the decade that was. Children of Men is dystopian Science Fiction on a par with Blade Runner – under seen and underappreciated in its time, but one that will have the critical consensus come around in the next decade. Everything that scared the living hell out of us in the first decade of the 21st century – terrorism and suicide bombings, war, environmental destruction, fanaticism – is well on display in Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful and loose adaptation of PD James’ novel. But what is most amazing about it is that it finds moments of warmth and humor and joy in the darkest places. And, after all the horror and the worst of mankind it portrays, it ends on a tiny glimmer of hope to keep us all going, through the morass of paranoia and fear that life in the 21st Century has become, and to retain our humanity in the face of a world that seems anxious to crush it out of us.

End of the Century (Part 1)

About a year ago as everyone was putting out their “Best of the Decade” lists, I was compelled to do the same, despite the usual band of naysayers who say that the first decade of the 21st Century ends on December 31st of this year.  Bearing that in mind, I decided to reprint my list here, for those who missed it the first time around (with some revisions), and because I’m so busy on other stuff, am a bit behind on the blogging thing.  I had hoped/wondered if there’d be any changes or additions to it, that I’d see some film in 2010 that would take a spot on the Best of the Decade, and knock one of these titles off the list entirely, and … well, you’ll have to read on. 

20. GHOST WORLD (2001)

This adaptation of Dan Clowes’ series about two misfit teenage girls facing the real post High-School world is one I’ve revisited in the last year and finally realized just how prescient it is. I likewise didn’t realize at the time I saw it, how much of an influence it would have on my own work as well. I knew people like Enid and pal Rebecca in high school – and I saw a bit of myself in both of them; barreling into adulthood with the realization that the time to screw around has come to an end.   It was a definite inspiration for my MIXTAPE project too.

19. SIDEWAYS (2004)

If I were ever to live a life worth remembering, or worth making a movie about, I’d want Paul Giamatti to play me. In this adaptation of Rex Pickett’s novel (a novel my wife was publicist on), his character Miles is a 30 something sad sack realizing his life has not worked out the way he wanted it to, and how his obsessions over his ex-wife, his stalled writing career, and of course, the pleasures of a good bottle of wine, are obfuscating it. Sideways made me laugh out loud the first time I saw it, but now, it’s the quiet, sad moments that stick with me.

18. BLOODY SUNDAY (2002)

Paul Greengrass emerged in the past decade as director of the Bourne sequels and the 9/11 docudrama United 93, but I first noticed him in 2002’s re-telling of the Bloody Sunday massacre in early 70s Ireland. Employing a fly on the wall approach, Bloody Sunday had me from the very start and, despite knowing the outcome, was riveted by what unfolded on the screen. The tension is unbearable and when the inevitable explosion of violence happens, you know you’re in the hands of a master filmmaker. Too bad he didn’t direct “Watchmen” as he had planned to.

17. AMERICAN SPLENDOR (2003)

The second Giamatti film on the list, only in this case he’s playing (the now late) Harvey Pekar, writer of the comic book on which the film is based. Pekar plays himself also, and if that doesn’t make sense you need to make this one to watch. An autobiographical portrait of a man well into middle age who realizes the life he lives, and the people in it, actually has the makings of a great story.

16. ONCE (2007)

A small, sweet film about two people finding each other, making beautiful music together, and … well I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it. But this is one magical film, no more so than at the point when the studio engineer running the board as these musicians record their demo realizes as he looks up from his newspaper, that something amazing is happening on the other side of the glass. I think the reason I liked it so much was because I know what it’s like to lay yourself out there, to bear everything you have in your creative, emotional repertoire, and be judged on it. In Once, there is a happy ending, though not the one you expect.

15. TOUCHING THE VOID (2006)

This unique film is as thrilling, of not more so, as any Hollywood film. The true story of a disastrous climbing expedition in the Andes, it uses re-enactments in such a way that your perceptions of what this film is – a documentary, a drama – changes multiple times over the course of viewing. It also gets to the heart of what drives people to push themselves and their endurance to heights others only can dream of.

14. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2006)

This was beautiful– adapting the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the Elle magazine editor and journalist who suffered a stroke at the age of 42 and became trapped, literally, within his crippled body. The fact that the film is told nearly entirely from his POV makes it a visual stunner, but the emotional core of the story – of Bauby trying to communicate to his friends and family and especially with his estranged father (a brilliant Max von Sydow), an invalid sequestered in his apartment, which becomes one of the most powerful scenes I saw in the last ten years. If this doesn’t move you to tears, there’s definitely something wrong with you.

13. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (2003)

Star Trek made its triumphant return to the big screen in 2009, but for my money, Master and Commander was the best Trek film made. Russell Crow swaggers like Shatner in the role of Capt. Jack Aubrey, and Paul Bettany manages to combine both Spock and Bones into Dr. Stephen Maturin, the conscience and sober second thought to his boisterous friend. Released in the wake of some movie about Pirates, M&C never quite took hold with viewers, but more than any film released this decade, was a true return to good old-fashioned epic filmmaking on a par with David Lean.

12. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (2005/2007)

Kingdom of Heaven, the director’s cut, could quite possibly be Ridley Scott’s best film. Doing what he does best – working with a very large campus, his tale of the Siege of Jerusalem during the Crusades plunged us into Cecil B. DeMille territory, but with a modernist sensibility. Despite a weak lead in Orlando Bloom, Scott wisely rounded his cast with some of the finest British thesps of the day, and made us confront the fact that the troubles facing the Middle East today began hundreds of years ago, and will likely continue for hundreds more.

11. MUNICH (2006)

Steven Spielberg began the decade with his Kubrickian kick at the can A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and ended it with a fourth Indiana Jones film. He did two movies with Tom Cruise, two with Tom Hanks, but 2005’s examination of the Munich Massacre remained, for me, his best work. Like KofH, it posed difficult questions with no easy solutions, which meant it pissed off both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Flawed in the way all his films of the last 20 years have been (Spielberg is still a first rate director of sequences, but not films), it could have taken the easy way out but defiantly chose not to, and for that I think it’s his best work since Schindler’s List.

Come back in a few days for the thrilling conclusion.