Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Goin’ Mobile: Top 20 Road Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2024)

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Sam: If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.

Frodo: Come on, Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”

— from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Well… things have certainly “opened up” again:

A record was broken ahead of the Memorial Day weekend for the number of airline travelers screened at U.S. airports, the Transportation Security Administration said Saturday.

More than 2.9 million travelers were screened at U.S. airports on Friday, surpassing a previous record set last year on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, according to the transportation security agency.

“Officers have set a new record for most travelers screened in a single day!” the TSA tweeted. “We recommend arriving early.”

The third busiest day on record was set on Thursday when just under 2.9 million travelers were screened at U.S. airports.

In Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport had its busiest day ever. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport broke a traffic record on Thursday when 111,000 passengers, airlines crew and airport employees were screened at security checkpoints. The second busiest day followed on Friday when 109,960 people were screened, according to the TSA.

With 104.6 million passengers, the Atlanta airport was the busiest in the world last year, according to Airports Council International.

U.S. airlines expect to carry a record number of passengers this summer. Their trade group estimates that 271 million travelers will fly between June 1 and August 31, breaking the record of 255 million set last summer.

AAA predicted this will be the busiest start-of-summer weekend in nearly 20 years, with 43.8 million people expected to roam at least 50 miles from home between Thursday and Monday — 38 million of them taking vehicles.

For most people, Memorial Day Weekend prompts plans for summer getaways and/or road trips. As for me? What Bilbo said. I’m a “stay-cation” kinda guy; don’t dig crowds, traffic even less. If you are of like mind, you’re invited to hitch a ride for a (virtual) road trip this weekend with one or more of my picks for the Top 20 Road Movies.

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Badlands – With barely a dozen feature-length projects over nearly 50 years, reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick surely takes the prize as America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker. Still, if he had altogether vanished following this astonishing 1973 debut, his place in cinema history would still be assured. Nothing about Badlands betrays its modest budget, or suggests that there is anyone less than a fully-formed artist at the helm.

Set on the South Dakota prairies, the tale centers on a  ne’er do well (Martin Sheen, in full-Denim James Dean mode) who smooth talks naive high school-aged Holly (Sissy Spacek) into his orbit. Her widowed father (Warren Oates) does not approve of the relationship; after a heated argument the sociopathic Kit shoots him and goes on the lam with the oddly dispassionate Holly (the story is based on real-life spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate).

With this film, Malick took the “true crime” genre into a whole new realm of poetic allegory. Disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but beautifully acted, magnificently shot (Tak Fujimoto’s “magic hour” cinematography almost counts as a third leading character of the narrative) and one of the best American films of the 1970s.

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Detour – Many consider Edgar G. Ulmer’s artfully pulpy 1945 programmer as one of the greatest no-budget “B” crime dramas ever made. Clocking in at just under 70 minutes, the story follows a down-on-his-luck musician (Tom Neal) with whom fate, and circumstance have saddled with (first) a dead body, and then (worst) a hitchhiker from Hell (Ann Savage, in a wondrously demented performance). In short, he is not having a good night. Truly one of the darkest noirs of them all.

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Five Easy Pieces — “You see this sign?” Thanks to sharp direction from Bob Rafaelson, an excellent screenplay by Carole Eastman (billed as Adrien Joyce) and an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, this  remains one of the defining American road movies of the 1970s.

Nicholson is an antihero teetering on the edge of an existential meltdown; a classically-trained pianist from a moneyed family who chooses to martyr himself working soulless blue-collar jobs. Karen Black delivers one of her better performances as his long-suffering girlfriend. The late great DP Laszlo Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest milieu.

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Genevieve  — This marvelous British film from 1953 follows the travails of a young couple (Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson) who  join their bachelor friend (Kenneth Moore) and his latest flame (Kay Kendall) on an annual road trip from London to Brighton as participants in an antique car rally. After the two men have a bit of a verbal spat in Brighton, they agree to convert the return trip to London into a “friendly” race, with a 100-pound wager to be awarded to whoever is first across the Westminster Bridge.

Engaging from start to finish, thanks to the charming performances, and a droll screenplay by William Rose (The Ladykillers, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Oh, in case you were wondering- “Genevieve” is the name of the couple’s antique car. American harmonica player Larry Adler’s memorable score received an Oscar nomination (unfortunately, Adler’s name did not appear in the credits on the original U.S. prints of the film because of the blacklist). Director Henry Cornelius’ next project was I Am a Camera, the 1955 film that was reincarnated as the musical Cabaret.

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The Hit – Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff and ominous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”.

Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (John Hurt) and his apprentice (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside toward France (where Willie’s ex-employer awaits him for what is certain to be a less-than-sunny “reunion”) mind games ensue, spinning the narrative into unexpected avenues-especially once a second hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Stamp is excellent, but Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection; I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation. Great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton performs the opening theme.

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The Hitch-hiker – This 1953 film noir (directed by Ida Lupino) is not only a tough, taut nail-biter, but one of the first “killer on the road” thrillers (a precursor to The Hitcher, Freeway, Kalifornia, etc.). Lupino co-wrote the tight script with Collier Young. They adapted from a story by Daniel Mainwearing that was based on a real-life highway killer’s spree.

Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play buddies taking a road trip to Mexico for some fishing. When they pick up a stranded motorist (veteran noir heavy William Talman), their trip turns into a nightmare. Essentially a chamber piece, with excellent performances from the three leads.

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Kings of the Road  — Wim Wenders’ 1976 bookend of his “Road Movie Trilogy” (preceded by Alice in the Cities and The Wrong Move) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Rudiger Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens upon  a suicidal psychologist (Hanns Zischler) just as he decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other but have plenty of screen time in which to bond (i.e., at 175 minutes, it may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it-I think you will discover it’s worth the trip.

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Lost in America — Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem from director-star Albert Brooks (who also co-wrote the film with his frequent collaborator Monica Mcgowan Johnson) can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed.

Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is painful to watch at times, yet so painfully funny (he’s the founding father of the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”).

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Motorama  — Barry Shils’ darkly comic 1991 road movie/Orphic journey defies description. A rather odd 10-year old boy (Jordan Michael Christopher) flees his feuding parents to hit the road in pursuit of  his Great American Dream-to win the grand prize in a gas station-sponsored scratch card game called “Motorama”.

As he zips through fictional states with in-jokey names like South Lyndon, Bergen, Tristana and Essex, he has increasingly bizarre and absurd encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of cult film stalwarts including John Diehl, John Nance, Susan Tyrell, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Woronov, Meatloaf and Red-Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

What I find particularly amusing is that none of the adults think to question why a 10-year-old (who curses like a sailor and sports a curious bit of stubble by film’s end) is driving a Mustang on a solo cross-country trip. Not for all tastes-definitely not for the kids (especially since the venerable parental admonishment of “You’ll poke your eye out!” becomes fully realized). Written by Joseph Minion (Vampire’s Kiss, After Hours).

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Powwow Highway — A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”.

After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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Race with the Devil – In this 1975 thriller, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates star as buds who hit the road in an RV with wives (Lara Parker, Loretta Swit) and dirt bikes in tow. The first night’s bivouac doesn’t go so well; the two men witness what appears to be a human sacrifice by a devil worship cult, and it’s downhill from there (literally a “vacation from hell”). A genuinely creepy chiller that keeps you guessing until the end, with taut direction from Jack Starrett.

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Radio On — This no-budget 1979 B&W offering from writer-director Christopher Petit is one of those films that I have become emotionally attached to. That said, it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea; in fact, it may cause drowsiness for many after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit it annually. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get affairs in order and glean what drove him to despair (while reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He encounters various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how cinema can capture the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

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Salesman – Anyone can aim a camera, ”capture” a moment, and move on…but there is an art to capturing the truth of that moment; not only knowing when to take the shot, but knowing precisely how long to hold it lest you begin to impose enough to undermine the objectivity.

For my money, there are very few documentary filmmakers of the “direct cinema” school who approach the artistry of David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. Collectively (if not collaboratively in every case) the trio’s resume includes Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, The Grey Gardens, When We Were Kings, and Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser.

In their 1969 documentary Salesman, Zwerin and the brothers Maysles tag along with four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they slog their way up and down the eastern seaboard, from snowy Boston to sunny Florida. It is much more involving than you might surmise from a synopsis. One of the most trenchant, moving portraits of shattered dreams and quiet desperation ever put on film; a Willy Loman tale infused with real-life characters who bring more pathos to the screen than any actor could.

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Stranger Than Paradise – With this 1984 indie, Jim Jarmusch established his formula: long static takes with deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of human beings. John Lurie stars as Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging and bickering with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson).

Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who appears at his door. Eddie is intrigued, but misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, so Eva decides to move in with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Sometime later, Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Ohio might help break the monotony. Willie grumpily agrees, and they’re off to visit Aunt Lotte and Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.

Future director Tom DiCillo did the black and white photography, unveiling a strange beauty in the stark, wintry, industrial flatness of Cleveland and environs.

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Sullivan’s Travels  — A deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and social drama from writer-director Preston Sturges.

Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he hits the road with no money in his pocket and masquerades as a railroad tramp (to the chagrin of his handlers).

He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into much more than he had originally bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. Many decades later, the Coen Brothers co-opted the title of the fictional “film within the film” here: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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The Trip — Pared down into feature length from the 2011 BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of the 6 episodes; which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in years.

The levity is due in no small part to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves. Coogan is commissioned by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District and write reviews. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since they’re going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor and comedian Brydon, to accompany him.

This setup is an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s comedy gold. Director and stars reunited for three equally enjoyable sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017). and The Trip to Greece (2020).

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True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, I think you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are in the soundtrack.

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Until the End of the World – Set in 1999, with the backdrop of an imminent event that may (or may not) trigger a global nuclear catastrophe, Wim Wenders’ sprawling “near-future” techno-epic centers on Claire (Solveig Dommartin) a restless and free-spirited French woman who leaves her writer boyfriend (Sam Neill) to chase down a mysterious American man (William Hurt) who has stolen her money (and her heart). Neill’s character narrates Claire’s globe-trotting quest for love and meaning, which winds through 20 cities, 9 countries, and 4 continents (all shot on location, amazingly enough).

Critical and audience reaction to the 1991 158-minute theatrical version (not Wenders’ choice) was perhaps best summed up by “huh?!”, and the film has consequently garnered a rep as an interesting failure . However, to see it as originally intended is to discover the near-masterpiece that was lurking all along-which is why I highly recommend the recently restored 267-minute director’s cut. Not an easy film to pigeonhole; you could file it under sci-fi, adventure, drama, road, or maybe…end-of-the-world movie.

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Vanishing Point  — I don’t know if there was a spike in sales for Dodge Challengers in 1971, but it would not surprise me, since nearly every car nut I have ever known usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when I mention this cult classic, directed by Richard C. Sarafian. It’s best described as an existential car chase movie.

Barry Newman stars as Kowalski (there’s no mention of a first name), a car delivery driver who is assigned to get a Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. When someone wagers he can’t make the trip in less than 15 hours, he accepts the challenge. Naturally, someone in a muscle car pushing 100 mph across several states is going to get the attention of law enforcement-and the chase is on.

Episodic; one memorable vignette involves a nude hippie chick riding around the desert on a 350 Honda to the strains of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen”. Cleavon Little plays Supersoul-a blind radio DJ who pulls double duty as Kowalski’s guardian angel and Greek Chorus for the film. That enigmatic ending still mystifies.

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Wanda – This 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama is an under-seen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country.

When the judge scolds her for being late to a child custody hearing, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than her purse. Her long, strange road trip is only beginning.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography. A unique, unforgettable, and groundbreaking film. (Full review).

Bonus miles! 10 recommended side trips…

 

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Buffalo ’66

Harry and Tonto 

Il Sorpasso 

Midnight Run

Road to Utopia 

Scarecrow 

Sideways

The Straight Story 

Two-Lane Blacktop 

Ten million pounds of sludge: Top 10 Eco-Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 27, 2024)

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Look at the powerful people
Stealing the sun from the day
Wish I could do something about it
When all I can do is pray

– from “Powerful People” by Gino Vannelli

If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.

Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.

A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans

– Hopi Prophecies sung in the soundtrack of the film Koyannasqatsi

In case you missed it, Earth Day (this past Monday) and Arbor Day (this past Friday) came and went with nary a whimper, Also, we’re at the tail end of National Park Week. I suppose the media had other shiny things to chase after; important and impactful stories to be sure, but from a planetary perspective…will all of this fussing and fighting  really matter in 50 years? As Grace Slick once sang, doesn’t mean shit to a tree. Believe me, over the millenniums Mother Nature has seen worse; and from her perspective, Earth is only mostly dead.

So there is still hope.

The photo above was taken December 24, 1968 by Apollo 8 crew member Major William A. Anders. The story behind that now iconic photo is on NASA’s website:

Anders said their job was not to look at the Earth, but to simulate a lunar mission. It was not until things had calmed down and they were on their way to the moon that they actually got to look back and take a picture of the Earth as they had left it.

“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,’” Anders said. “It hadn’t quite sunk in like the Earthrise picture did, because the Earthrise had the Earth contrasted with this ugly lunar surface.”

Anders described the view of Earth before Earthrise “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles away where you could still recognize continents.”

Yes, that is a “pretty place down there.” Be a shame if anything happened to it:

An international group of scientists who work with satellite data say the acceleration in the melting of Earth’s ice sheets is now unmistakable.

They calculate the planet’s frozen poles lost 7,560 billion tonnes in mass between 1992 and 2022.

Seven of the worst melting years have occurred in the past decade.

Mass loss from Greenland and Antarctica is now responsible for a quarter of all sea-level rise.

This contribution is five times what it was 30 years ago.

The latest assessment comes from the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise, or Imbie. […]

The 7,560 billion tonnes of ice lost from Greenland and Antarctica during the study period pushed up sea-levels by 21mm.

Almost two-thirds (13.5mm) of this was due to melting in Greenland; one-third (7.4mm) was the result of melting in Antarctica.

“All this has profound implications for coastal communities around the world and their risk of being exposed to flooding and erosion,” said Dr Inès Otosaka from the UK’s Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM), who led the latest assessment.

“It’s really important that we have robust estimates for the future contribution to sea-level rise from the ice sheets so that we can go to these communities and say, ‘Yes, we understand what is happening and we can now start to plan mitigations’,” she told BBC News.

So hope does remain…provided that proactive steps are taken. Meanwhile:

We just lived through the hottest year since record-keeping began more than a century ago, but before too long, 2023 might not stand out as the pinnacle of extreme heat.

That’s because it’s unlikely to be the only hottest year that we experience. Our climate is changing, growing warmer due to the emissions from burning fossil fuels, and our weather is changing with it. It’s possible that this year may turn out to be hotter still.

In March, scientists from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service said February 2024 was the hottest February according to records that stretch back to 1940. The news came on the heels of their report in early January that, as expected, 2023 was indeed the hottest year on record. Temperatures closed in on the critical 1.5-degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels, after which we will see irreversible damage to the planet. These aren’t freak outliers: The extreme heat we’re experiencing is something we’ll need to be prepared to deal with on a much more regular basis, along with storms, floods and drought. […]

A key trend highlighted by the US government’s Fifth National Climate Assessment, published in November, was that climate change is provoking extreme weather events across the country that are both more frequent and more severe. It pointed to an increase in heatwaves and wildfires in the West over the past few decades, the increased drought risk in the Southwest over the past century and more extreme rainfall east of the Rockies. Hurricanes have also been intensifying, as those who have found themselves in the path of a storm know all too well. […]

Even if you live in a region that hasn’t yet directly been impacted by a climate-linked weather event, you’re not off the hook.

“As the climate continues to warm, most areas will be at an increased risk of some types of climate-linked extreme weather,” says Russell Vose, chief of the Monitoring and Assessment Branch at NOAA’ National Centers for Environmental Information and one of the NCA’s authors. “Perhaps the best example is extreme heat – it can occur anywhere.”

He points to the scorching heat dome that descended on the Pacific Northwest in June and July 2021, which was unprecedented in the historical record. The unpredictable nature of such extreme heat means no regions are marked as safe.

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At first glance, the image above may appear to be a still from a post-apocalyptic film-but it’s a photo I snapped outside my Seattle office in September of 2020. You’re looking due East across Lake Washington at around 10am…directly into the sun and toward the Bellevue skyline. I was not using any filters, nor was there any retouching of the photo. Normally, the view across the lake appears as it does in this photo I took:

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We not only had a freakish late summer “heat dome” in the Pacific Northwest, but much of the West Coast was aflame. For over a month, resulting smoke made air quality so dangerous that local health officials recommended staying indoors and sealing up windows (good times for those of us with no A/C). It was also recommended to wear masks outdoors…which we were already doing for COVID indoors. Oy.

Was this a sneak preview ? How’s the air today? The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report for 2024  is out, and…let’s just say, I wouldn’t toss those N95s away yet:

The “State of the Air” 2024 report finds that despite decades of progress cleaning up air pollution, 39% of people living in America—131.2 million people—still live in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution. This is 11.7 million more people breathing unhealthy air compared to last year’s report.

The significant rise in the number of individuals whose health is at risk is the result of a combination of factors. Extreme heat, drought and wildfires are contributing to a steady increase in deadly particle pollution, especially in the western U.S. Also, this year’s “State of the Air” report is using EPA’s new, more protective national air quality standard for year-round levels of fine particle pollution, which allows for the recognition that many more people are breathing unhealthy air than was acknowledged under the previous weak standard. […]

“State of the Air” 2024 is the 25th edition of this annual report, which was first published in 2000. From the beginning, the findings in “State of the Air” have reflected the successes of the Clean Air Act, as emissions from transportation, power plants and manufacturing have been reduced. In recent years, however, the findings of the report continue adding to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. High ozone days and spikes in particle pollution related to extreme heat, drought and wildfires are putting millions of people at risk and adding challenges to the work that states and cities are doing across the nation to clean up air pollution.

I’m  just here to bring you good cheer.

Anyway, here are my picks for the Top 10 eco-flicks. Erm…enjoy!

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Chasing Ice– Jeff Orlowski’s film is glacially paced. That is, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. Glaciers are moving along (“retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. This does not portend well. To be less flowery: we’re fucked. According to nature photographer (and subject of Orlowski’s film) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Balog’s journey began in 2005, while on assignment in the Arctic for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change. Up until that trip, he candidly admits he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of influencing weather patterns so profoundly. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project utilizing modified time-lapse cameras to capture alarming empirical evidence of the effects of global warming.,

The images are beautiful, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film mirrors the dichotomy, equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. The images trump the montage of inane squawking by climate deniers in the opening, proving that a picture is worth 1,000 words.

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The Emerald Forest– Although it may initially seem a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting the job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the young man back into “civilization”.

Tautly directed, lushly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot) and well-acted. Rosco Pallenberg scripted (he also adapted the screenplay for Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur).

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Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster– I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie).

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An Inconvenient Truth– I re-watched this recently; I hadn’t seen it since it opened in 2006, and it struck me how it now plays less like a warning bell and more like the nightly news.  It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi is now scientific fact. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming only reveals the tip of the iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Koyannisqatsi– In 1982 this genre-defying film quietly made its way around the art houses; it’s now a cult favorite. Directed by activist/ex-Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who later directed Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s sequels), it was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan).

The title (from ancient Hopi) translates as “life out of balance” The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (“parasitic way of life”), focusing on the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then book-ended his trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”).

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Manufactured Landscapes– A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. An eye-opener.

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Princess Mononoke– Anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades. This 1997 Ghibli production is one of their most visually resplendent. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but many of the usual Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a violent world. The lovely score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. For another great Miyazaki film with an environmental message, check out Nausicaa Valley of the Wind.

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Queen of the Sun- I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us.

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Silent Running– In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite.

Dern plays the gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth is barren of organic growth).

While it’s a 9 to 5 drudge gig to his blue-collar shipmates, Dern sees his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand the crew jettison the domes to make room for more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up alone with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (Huey, Dewey and Louie) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.

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Soylent Green– Based on a Harry Harrison novel, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is set in 2022, when traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, due to overpopulation and environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on processed “Soylent Corporation” product. The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering ongoing threats to our Social Security system, that doesn’t seem much of a stretch anymore).

Oh-there is some ham served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop who is investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. Edward G. Robinson’s moving death scene has added poignancy; as it preceded his passing by less than two weeks after the production wrapped.

# # #

Bonus Tracks!

Here’s an environmentally-sound mixtape for Earth Day:

 

Praise the Law and Pass the Kutchie

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2024)

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Dreadlocks can’t smoke him pipe in peace Too much informers and too much beast Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su

-from “Tenement Yard”, by Jacob Miller

Happy Holiday! How about some good news? Via the AP:

Saturday marks marijuana culture’s high holiday, 4/20, when college students gather — at 4:20 p.m. — in clouds of smoke on campus quads and pot shops in legal-weed states thank their customers with discounts.

This year’s edition provides an occasion for activists to reflect on how far their movement has come, with recreational pot now allowed in nearly half the states and the nation’s capital. Many states have instituted “social equity” measures to help communities of color, harmed the most by the drug war, reap financial benefits from legalization. And the White House has shown an openness to marijuana reform.

The origins of the date, and the term “420” generally, were long murky. Some claimed it referred to a police code for marijuana possession or that it derived from Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35,” with its refrain of “Everybody must get stoned” — 420 being the product of 12 times 35.

But the prevailing explanation is that it started in the 1970s with a group of bell-bottomed buddies from San Rafael High School, in California’s Marin County north of San Francisco, who called themselves “the Waldos.” A friend’s brother was afraid of getting busted for a patch of cannabis he was growing in the woods at nearby Point Reyes, so he drew a map and gave the teens permission to harvest the crop, the story goes.

During fall 1971, at 4:20 p.m., just after classes and football practice, the group would meet up at the school’s statue of chemist Louis Pasteur, smoke a joint and head out to search for the weed patch. They never did find it, but their private lexicon — “420 Louie” and later just “420” — would take on a life of its own. […]

Some celebrations are bigger than others: The Mile High 420 Festival in Denver, for example, typically draws thousands and describes itself as the largest free 4/20 event in the world. Hippie Hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park has also attracted massive crowds, but the gathering was canceled this year, with organizers citing a lack of financial sponsorship and city budget cuts. […]

The number of states allowing recreational marijuana has grown to 24 after recent legalization campaigns succeeded in Ohio, Minnesota and Delaware. Fourteen more states allow it for medical purposes, including Kentucky, where medical marijuana legislation that passed last year will take effect in 2025. Additional states permit only products with low THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, for certain medical conditions.

But marijuana is still illegal under federal law. It is listed with drugs such as heroin under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has no federally accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

The Biden administration, however, has taken some steps toward marijuana reform. The president has pardoned thousands of people who were convicted of “simple possession” on federal land and in the District of Columbia.

The Department of Health and Human Services last year recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration that marijuana be reclassified as Schedule III, which would affirm its medical use under federal law.

According to a Gallup poll last fall, 70% of adults support legalization, the highest level yet recorded by the polling firm and more than double the roughly 30% who backed it in 2000.

Nice to see more and more forward-thinking states joining the “over-the-counter”-culture, with a new shopping list: Milk, bread, eggs, and ganja. In Washington state, we’ve been smoking our pipes in peace since 2014. So I thought I would welcome the newbies to our cannabis club by sharing my picks for the top five Rasta movies, in alphabetical order…seen?

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Countryman Writer-director Dickie Jobson’s 1982 low-budget wonder has it all. Adventure. Mysticism. Political intrigue. Martial Arts. And weed. Lots of weed. A pot-smuggling American couple crash land their small plane near a beach and are rescued by our eponymous hero (Edwin Lothan, billed in the credits as “himself”), a fisherman/medicine man/Rasta mystic/philosopher/martial arts expert who lives off the land (Lothan, who passed away in 2016, was a fascinating figure in real life).

Unfortunately, the incident has not gone unnoticed by a corrupt, politically ambitious military colonel, who wants to frame the couple as “CIA operatives” who are trying to disrupt the upcoming elections. But first he has to outwit Countryman, which is no easy task (“No one will find you,” Countryman assures the couple, “You are protected here.” “Protected by who?” the pilot asks warily. “Elements brother, elements,” says Countryman, with an enigmatic chuckle). I love this movie. It’s wholly unique, with a fabulous reggae soundtrack.

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The Harder They Come– While the Jamaican film industry didn’t experience an identifiable “new wave” until the early 80s, Perry Henzel’s 1973 rebel cinema classic laid the foundation. From its opening scene, when wide-eyed country boy Ivan (reggae’s original superstar, Jimmy Cliff) hops off a Jolly Bus in the heart of Kingston to the strains of Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, to a blaze of glory finale, it maintains an ever-forward momentum, pulsating all the while to the heartbeat riddim of an iconic soundtrack. Required viewing!

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Rockers– Admittedly, this island-flavored take on the Robin Hood legend is short on plot, but what it may lack in complexity is more than compensated for by its sheer exuberance (and I have to watch it at least once a year). Grecian writer-director Theodoros Bafaloukos appears to have cast every reggae luminary who was alive at the time in his 1978 film. It’s the tale of a Rasta drummer (Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace) who has had his beloved motorcycle stolen (customized Lion of Judah emblem and all!) by a crime ring run by a local fat cat.

Needless to say, the mon is vexed. So he rounds up a posse of fellow musicians (Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Robbie Shakespeare, Big Youth, Winston Rodney, et. al.) and they set off to relieve this uptown robber baron of his ill-gotten gains and re-appropriate them accordingly. Musical highlights include Miller performing “Tenement Yard”, and Rodney warbling his haunting and hypnotic  Rasta spiritual “Jah No Dead” a cappella.

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Stepping Razor: Red X– Legalize it! Nicholas Campbell’s unflinching portrait of musician Peter Tosh (who co-founded the Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer) is not your typical rockumentary. While there is plenty of music, the  focus is on Tosh’s political and spiritual worldview, rendered via archival footage, dramatic reenactments, and excerpts from a personal audio diary in which Tosh expounds on his philosophies and rages against the “Shitstem. “

One interesting avenue Campbell pursues suggests that Tosh was the guiding force behind the  Wailers, and that Marley looked up to Tosh as a mentor in early days (I suspect that it was more of a Lennon/McCartney dynamic). A definite ‘must-see’ for reggae fans.

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Word, Sound, and Power – Jeremiah Stein’s 1980 documentary clocks in at just over an hour but is the best film I’ve seen about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of studio players who were the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew; they backed Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Toots Hibbert (to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

Bonus tracks!

OK …if you’d rather chill, here’s a mixtape. Headphones and munchies on standby:      

Celestial seasonings: A total eclipse mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2024)

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Depending on your worldview, this coming Monday’s super-hyped solar eclipse may be interpreted as: a). A sign of the impending apocalypse, b). A sign that once in a blue moon, the moon blows in and obscures the sun, giving humanity the impression (for a few heart stopping moments) that the apocalypse has, in fact, arrived, or c). A dollar sign for event promoters, hoteliers, tow truck drivers, and people who sell cheap cardboard sunglasses.

I know. I’m a cynical bastard.

If the “Great North American Eclipse” forces people to tear themselves away from their 5 inch iPhone screen to gaze up at The Big Sky, and ponder the awesomeness and vastness of the cosmos (and most importantly, humankind’s relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things)…then I’m for it (I Googled “can you view the eclipse with a…” and right after “mirror”, “sunglasses” and “welding mask”, there it was- friggin’ “iPhone”).

Do me a favor. If you’re lucky enough to make it through the horrendous traffic and wriggle through the madding crowd to snag a perfect observation point in one of the areas that will experience totality…don’t view it through a 5-inch screen…LOOK at it! Utilize some form of eye protection, of course, but experience the ACTUAL PHENOMENON! Thanks.

After all, as Carl Sagan observed:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

BTW, here’s evolutionary perspective on why we sophisticated, technically-advanced humanoids still get the tiniest little lizard brain-fueled twitch when Big Light Go Away:

With that in mind, please enjoy this special mixtape that I have assembled to accompany the solar system’s ultimate laserium show (don’t worry-I didn’t forget the Floyd, man!).

The Rolling Stones- “2000 Light Years from Home”

Paul Weller- “Andromeda”

Tommy Keene- “Astronomy”

The Orb- “Backside of the Moon”

Kate Bush- “The Big Sky”

Soundgarden- “Black Hole Sun”

Pink Floyd- “Brain Damage/Eclipse”

Crosby, Stills, & Nash- “Dark Star”

The Ian Gillian Band- “Five Moons”

Moxy- “Moon Rider”

King Crimson- “Moonchild”

Nick Drake- “Pink Moon”

Elton John- “Rocket Man”

David Bowie- “Space Oddity”

Liz Phair- “Stars and Planets”

Yes- “Starship Trooper”

Bonnie Hayes- “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

The Church- “Under the Milky Way”

Paul McCartney & Wings- “Venus + Mars”

Gamma- “Voyager”

The April Fools: Top 10 Mockumentaries

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 30, 2024)

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With April Fool’s Day coming up on Monday, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some filmmakers who have made it their mission to yank on our lanyards (does that hurt?). So, in no particular ranking order, here are my selections for the Top 10 Mockumentaries:

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Best in Show – Actor-writer-director Christopher Guest has become synonymous with “mockumentary”, for good reason. He and his repertory of actors and co-writers have delivered some of the best over the last few decades (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration, et.al.) This gentle poke at dog lovers represents his own “best in show” so far. Guest “profiles” a number of participants converging to compete at a national dog show.

With such a tight comic ensemble, it’s tough to single out performances,  but Fred Willard is a highlight as a witless TV commentator and Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock chew major scenery as an obnoxious yuppie couple. Also with Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Larry Miller and Eugene Levy (who co-scripted).

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The Blair Witch Project – Love it or hate it, there is no denying the impact of this cleverly marketed horror flick. In the event that you spent 1999 in a coma, this is the one where a crew of amateur actors were turned loose in dark and scary woods, armed with camping gear, video cameras and a plot point or two provided by filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who then proceeded to play creepy, “gotcha” mind games with their young troupe.

The result was surprisingly effective; after all, it’s the perception that “something” in the woods is out to get you that fuels nightmares-not a stunt man in a rubber monster suit lurching about in front of the camera. Arguably, you could cite The Last Broadcast (1998) or relatively more obscure 1980 cult flick Cannibal Holocaust as the progenitors of the “found footage” genre, but The Blair Witch Project took it to a an entirely new level.

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Computer Chess-In his off-kilter 2013 “80s retro” mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski achieves verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it appear you’re watching events unfold on closed-circuit TV), and “documents” a weekend-long tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess.

Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws a bevy of idiosyncratic characters together, shakes the jar, and then steps back to watch what happens. However, just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things start to get weird…then weirder. The most original sci-fi movie I’ve seen in a while. (Full review),

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Drop Dead Gorgeous– Mocking beauty contests is like shooting fish in a barrel, but Michael Patrick Jann’s faux backstage documentary from 1999 about a Minnesota pageant gone sideways is a winner.

Star Kirsten Dunst plays it straight,  flanked by a hammy Ellen Barkin (a riot as her trailer-trash mom) and Kirstie Alley as the Stage Mother From Hell. Denise Richards shows a real flair for comedy with a show-stopping performance number dedicated to the “special fella in her life”, a Mr. J. Christ. Also with Alison Janey, Brittany Murphy and Amy Adams. The film is reminiscent of Michael Ritchie’s much more low-key 1975 pageant spoof Smile (recommended!).

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F for Fake “This is a promise,” Orson Welles intones, looking directly into the camera, “For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.” Ay, but here’s the rub: This playful ‘documentary’ about Elmyr de Hory (“the world’s greatest art forger”) and his biographer Clifford Irving (infamous for his own fakery) runs for 85 minutes. Ever feel like someone’s having you on?

That’s the subject of Welles’ 1974 rumination on the meaning of art, and the art of the con. A musical score from the great Michel Legrand is a nice bonus. Not for all tastes; some may find it too scattershot, but there is a method to the madness, and attentive viewers will be rewarded. Even toward the end of a checkered career, with his prowess as a filmmaker arguably on the wane, any completed project by the great Welles demands your attention.

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Hard Core Logo – Frequently compared with This is Spinal Tap, this film from iconoclastic Canadian director Bruce McDonald does Reiner’s film one better-it’s got some real substance. Now, obviously I love Spinal Tap (otherwise it wouldn’t have been included on this “Top 10” list), but McDonald’s film mixes humor with genuine drama and poignancy, particularly in its portrayal of the complex, mercurial relationship between the two main characters, Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) and Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie.)

Joe and Billy front a “legendary” punk band called Hard Core Logo, who hit the road for a belated reunion tour. McDonald plays himself, a director who is documenting what could turn out to be the band’s final hurrah. The film is full of great throwaway lines (“I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m eating corn chips and masturbating. Please leave a message.”). There are also obscure references in Noel S. Baker’s screenplay that rock geeks (guilty!) will delight in. This is part of a trilogy (of sorts) by McDonald that includes Roadkill and Highway 61.

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Real Life – This underrated 1979 gem from writer-director Albert Brooks presaged Christopher Guest & company’s mockumentary franchise by at least a decade. There is a direct tie-in; the screenplay was co-written by future Guest collaborator Harry Shearer (along with Brooks’ long-time collaborator, Monica McGowan Johnson).

Real Life is a brilliant take-off on the 1973 PBS series, An American Family (which can now be tagged as the original “reality TV” show). Brooks basically plays himself: a neurotic, narcissistic comedian who decides to do a documentary  depicting the daily life of a “perfect” American family. After vetting several candidates (represented via a montage of hilarious “tests” conducted at a behavioral studies institute), he decides on the Yeager family of Phoenix, Arizona (headed by ever-wry Charles Grodin, who was born for this role).

The film gets exponentially funnier as it becomes more about the self-absorbed filmmaker himself (and his ego) rather than his subjects. Brooks takes  jabs at Hollywood, and at studio execs in particular. If you’ve never seen this one, you’re in for a real treat.

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Take the Money and Run – This is one of Woody Allen’s “earlier, funny films”. It’s also one of the seminal mockumentaries, and riotously funny from start to finish. Woody casts himself as bumbling career criminal Virgil Starkwell, who is the subject of this faux biopic.

Narrated with tongue-in-cheek gravitas by veteran voice-over maestro Jackson Beck, the film traces Starkwell’s  trajectory from his early days as a petty criminal (knocking over gumball machines) to his career apex as a “notorious” bank robber.

In one of the most hilarious gags Allen has ever conceived, Virgil blows a heist by arguing with a bank manager over his penmanship on a scribbled stickup note that he has handed to a teller, who is very confused by the sentence that appears to read; “I have a gub.

A comedy classic, not to be missed. BTW-if you ever plan to break out of jail by wielding a fake revolver carved from a bar of soap…always be sure to check the weather report first!

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This is Spinal Tap – Director Rob Reiner co-wrote this 1984 gem with his three stars-Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, who play Spinal Tap founders Nigel Tufnel, Derek Smalls and David St. Hubbins, respectively.

Reiner is “rockumentary” filmmaker Marti Dibergi, who accompanies the hard rocking British band on a tour of the states. By the time the film’s 84 minutes have expired, no one (and I mean, no one) involved in the business of rock ’n’ roll has been spared the knife-the musicians, roadies, girlfriends, groupies, fans, band managers, rock journalists, concert promoters, record company execs, A & R reps, record store clerks…all get bagged and tagged.

A lot of the gags are of an “inside” nature; I’ve noticed people who dismiss the film tend to not be rock fans (or perhaps more tellingly, have never played in a band!).

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True Stories– Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are featured in the soundtrack.

Fab Faux: The 25 Best Songs the Beatles Never Wrote

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2024)

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Warning: This post is fake news. But it’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it. [Ed Sullivan voice] “Ladies and gentlemen, NOT The Beatles…”

THE ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA: “10538 Overture” – ELO’s eponymous 1971 debut album is my favorite in the band’s catalog, due to the presence of Roy Wood. I suspect that Wood (who split during the early sessions for the band’s sophomore effort) tempered his fellow Move alum Jeff Lynne’s tendency to overproduce everything he touches. At any rate, this cut (which sounds like a mashup of “Dear Prudence” and “I Am the Walrus”) is the album’s highlight-setting the mold for ELO’s signature Baroque rock vibe.

BADFINGER: “Baby Blue” – Considering the band’s history, it’s a no-brainer to include a Badfinger song. Originally calling themselves the Iveys, they were “discovered” by Beatles inner circle stalwart Mal Evans, who persuaded the Fabs to sign the band to their then-fledgling Apple Records label in 1968 (Paul McCartney penned their first Top 10 hit “Come and Get It”). This Top 20 hit (very much in the vein of of “And Your Bird Can Sing”)  is  on the 1971 album Straight Up (it was co-produced by George Harrison and Todd Rundgren).

KLAATU:  “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” – We’ve been observing your Earth! I’m old enough to remember the breathless speculation that surrounded this moderately successful Canadian pop-prog outfit back in the mid-70s…were they really The Beatles, recording under a pseudonym? Of course they weren’t; but they undeniably wore The Beatles’ influence on their sleeves, particularly on their biggest  hit (later covered by The Carpenters).

20/20: “Cheri” – Straight outta Tulsa. Band founders Steve Allen and Ron Flynt relocated from Oklahoma to Hollywood in the late 70s and became key movers in the burgeoning L.A. power-pop scene (I had the pleasure of seeing them perform twice in the early 80s; once  at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach and when they opened for The Vapors at The Warfield in San Francisco). Beatlesque harmonies abound in this memorable cut from their debut album.

NICK HEYWARD: “Closer” – In the early 80s, Nick Heyward was best-known as chief songwriter and lead vocalist for the poppy UK band Haircut 100 (he left shortly after their debut album was released to pursue a solo career).  Throughout the 90s, he came to embrace the Britpop sound; infusing a heavier guitar tone into the mix while retaining his McCartney-like gift for melody. This cut is one of the highlights from his excellent 1998 album The Apple Bed.

XTC: “Earn Enough For Us” – Tough choice here, as there are any number of tunes by this prolific UK New Wave/Power Pop band that reflect a heavy Beatles influence. If hard-pressed, this cut from their 1986 album Skylarking (produced by Todd Rundgren) would be my fave faux-Fab XTC song-which has strong Revolver-era vibes. In fact, the entire album has a 60s psychedelia/Revolver vibe…which was allegedly a major point of contention between band and producer. Whatever went on behind the scenes, the end product is top-shelf.

CAPTAIN SENSIBLE: “Exploding Heads and Teapots (Past Their Prime)” – Prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist Raymond Ian Burns (aka Captain Sensible) has taken the odd time out from his longtime tenure as  a premiere member of The Damned to build a pretty decent catalogue of his own. This catchy, psychedelia-tinged selection is from his third solo effort,  Revolution Now (1989).

KEN SHARP: “Floating on a Corn Flake” – Ken Sharp is a sort of power pop Renaissance man; in addition to releasing a number of singles and albums, he has authored/co-authored 18 music books-including tomes on Cheap Trick, The Raspberries, The Small Faces, and Rick Springfield. No mistaking the Lennon influence on this cut!

NICK NICELY: “Hilly Fields” – I was hooked on this haunting, enigmatic song from the first time I heard it on a Bay area alt-rock station in 1982. It sounded like the Beatles’ Revolver album, compressed into three and a half minutes. The artist was Nick Nicely, an English singer-songwriter who released this and one other song, then vanished in the mists of time until reemerging with a full album in 2004 (which was basically a compilation of material he had accumulated over the previous 25 years). He’s since put out several albums of new material, which I have been happily snapping up.

CHRIS BELL: “I Am the Cosmos” – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatlesque Big Star was a seminal power pop band. Released as a single, this beautiful, wistful song (recalling “Across the Universe”)  is featured on Bell’s solo album, which was issued posthumously in 1992 (tragically, he died at age 27 in a 1978 automobile accident).

THE TIMES: “I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape” – UK power pop genius Ed Ball was the man behind several bands: Television Personalities, ‘O’ Level, Teenage Filmstars, and The Times (settling on the latter from 1981 through the late 90s, vacillating with a number of self-billed albums along the way). This song is a sly pastiche of 1960s pop culture references, including musical quotes from The Spencer Davis Group’s “Keep on Running”,  The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, references in the lyrics to “The Prisoner” TV series and something about “…plans to kidnap Paul McCartney”.

THE RAIN PARADE: “I Look Around” – The Rain Parade was part of L.A.’s  “Paisley Underground” scene in the early 80s. This hypnotic, psychedelia-drenched song (in the vein of the Beatles’ “She Said She Said”) is from their 1983 debut, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip.

AIRWAVES: “Keep Away the Blues” – I discovered this UK band when I espied their album New Day in a cut-out bin circa 1978. I knew nothing about them, but in those days it was worth the 99-cent gamble (old-school vinyl junkies know what I’m talking about). Truth be told, I still don’t know much about the band (a Google search reveals little) but the album was full of melodic pop rock numbers, including this cut with its George Harrison-worthy riff.

EMITT RHODES: “Fresh as a Daisy” – Emitt Rhodes sounds like both Lennon and McCartney rolled into one on this piano-driven number from his self-titled 1970 debut album. In addition to vocals, Rhodes plays all instruments (he recorded it on a 4-track in his home studio). The multi-talented artist passed away in 2020, after a spotty career.

THE DIVINE COMEDY: “Perfect Love Song” – The Divine Comedy is essentially a pseudonym for Irish singer-songwriter Neil Hannon. Blessed with a rich baritone voice, Hannon is a gifted musical composer with a penchant for penning wry, tongue-in-cheek lyrics:

Give me your love
And I’ll give you the perfect lovesong
With a divine Beatles bassline
And a big old Beach Boys sound
I’ll match you pound for pound
Like heavy-weights in the final round
We’ll hold on to each other
So we don’t fall down

THE SPONGETONES: “She Goes Out With Everybody” – From their formation in 1979 until they stopped recording in 2009, North Carolina-based power poppers The Spongetones made no secret as to who inspired them: Beatles, Kinks, Hollies, Gerry & the Pacemakers, et. al. Essentially, they really dug that fab and gear British Invasion sound, apparent on this obvious nod to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”. Still, they manage to put their own stamp on it.

THE KORGIS: “Something About the Beatles” – This selection pretty much speaks for itself. It’s quite a lovely tribute, actually.

Why did the apple fall to the ground…

THE THREE O’CLOCK: “Stupid Einstein” – The Three O’Clock is one of my favorite bands from the L.A. Paisley Underground scene (see The Rain Parade above). They actually lean more toward power pop than psychedelia, but I won’t split hairs. This breezy song (taken from their 1983 album Sixteen Tambourines) is chockablock with the band’s signature Beatlesque guitar riffs and gorgeous harmonies.

THE KNACK: “Sweet Dreams” – Love ’em or hate ’em, this was the band that brought power pop into the mainstream (well, for a minute…until the unfortunate “Nuke the Knack” backlash). Taken from Round Trip, this cut is an unabashed nod to “I’m Only Sleeping”.

CHEAP TRICK: “Taxman, Mr. Thief” – Another track that requires minimal explanation for its inclusion. It’s right there in the lyrics!

He hates you, he loves money
And he’ll steal your shit and think that it’s funny
Like the Beatles he ain’t human
Now the taxman is out to get you

THE BROTHERHOOD OF LIZARDS: “The World Strikes One” – Despite the fact that he writes hook-laden, Beatlesque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell (who has also recorded and performed as The Cleaners From Venus and The Brotherhood of Lizards) remains a selfishly-guarded secret by cultish admirers (guilty!). This selection (reminiscent of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) is taken from the 1989 album, Lizardland.

THE JAM: “Tonight at Noon” – I never gleaned Beatles influence in the Jam’s music (The Who and The Kinks, maybe), but they are definitely in full Fabs mode here (from 1977’s This is the Modern World).

THE RECORDS: “Up All Night” – One of of the finest power pop bands to emerge from the UK in the late 70s. Chiming guitars, catchy melodies and harmonies to die for. This is from their self-titled 1979 debut album (issued as Shades in Bed in the UK).

THE JETSET: “You Should Know By Now” – Led by vocalist/songwriter Paul Bevoir, this UK band put out 5 great power pop albums in the 1980s. This selection is taken from their 1986 album Go Bananas!.

THE FLAMIN’ GROOVIES: “You Tore Me Down” – While they started out as a proto-punk garage band, this San Francisco outfit made a profound transformation after they traveled across the pond to Wales in 1976 to work with producer Dave Edmunds. The result was an album power pop aficionados consider the gold standard: Shake Some Action. Nary a weak cut on there; but this one is a standout.

Bonus track!

Longtime Seattle radio personality Bob Rivers and his “Twisted Tunes” cohorts produced this short but hilarious spoof of Tears for Fears’ early 90s hit “Sowing the Seeds of Love” (a song that was so self-consciously derivative I didn’t bother to include it in my list).

Over the hills and far away: 15 films for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2024)

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With Saint Patrick’s celebrations in full swing this weekend, I thought I’d help you get your Irish up and drive those snakes from your media room with 15 grand film recommendations.

Sláinte!

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The Commitments – Casting talented yet unknown actor/musicians to portray a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius by director Alan Parker. This “life imitating art imitating life” trick works wonders. The Commitments can be seen as a riff on Parker’s 1980 film Fame; swapping the locale from New York City to Dublin (there’s a bit of a wink in a scene where one of the band members breaks into a parody of the Fame theme).

However, these working-class kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy; there’s an undercurrent referencing the economic downturn in the British Isles. The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the musical performances that shine, especially from (then) 16-year old Andrew Strong. In 2007, cast member Glen Hansard co-starred in John Carney’s surprise low-budget hit, Once, a lovely character study that would make a perfect double bill with The Commitments.

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Darby O’Gill and the Little People – Sean Connery…in a film about leprechauns?! Well, stranger things have happened. Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from perennially family-friendly director Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, The Absent-Minded Professor, That Darn Cat!).

Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and the strapping pre-Bond Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well (considering the limitations of the time). The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing. “Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”.

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A Date for Mad Mary – Seana Kerslake makes a remarkable debut in Darren Thornton’s 2017 dramedy (co-written by the director with his brother Colin) about a troubled young woman who is being dragged kicking and screaming (and swearing like a sailor) into adulthood. Fresh from 6 months in a Dublin jail for instigating a drunken altercation, 20-year-old “mad” Mary (Kerslake) is asked to be maid of honor by her BFF Charlene. Assuming that her volatile friend won’t find a date, Charlene refuses her a “plus one”. Ever the contrarian, Mary insists she will; leading to an unexpected relationship.

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Garage – At once heartbreaking and uplifting, this 2007 character study by director Leonard Abrahamson and writer Mark O’Halloran is an underappreciated gem. It’s a deceptively simple story about an emotionally stunted yet affable thirty-something bachelor named Josie (Pat Shortt), who tends a gas station in a small country village (he bunks in the garage). When he befriends a teenager (Conor Ryan) who takes a summer job at the gas station, it unexpectedly sets off a chain of life-shaking events for Josie. Shortt (a popular comic in his home country) gives an astonishing performance. I like the way the film continually challenges expectations. An insightful and affecting glimpse at the human condition.

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Hear My Song – This charming, quirky comedy-drama from writer-director Peter Chelsom (Funny Bones) concerns an Irish club-owner in England (Adrian Dunbar) who’s having a streak of bad luck. He’s not only on the outs with his lovely fiancée (Tara Fitzgerald), but is forced to shut down his venue after a series of dud bookings (like “Franc Cinatra”) puts him seriously in the red. Determined to win back his ladylove and get his club back in the black, he stows away on a freighter headed for his native Dublin. He enlists an old pal to help him hunt down and book a legendary tenor (Ned Beatty, in one of his best roles) who has hasn’t performed publicly in decades. Fabulous script, direction, and acting. Funny, touching and guaranteed to lift your spirits.

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I Am Belfast – I try not to use “visual tone poem” as a descriptive if I can avoid it…but sometimes, there is no avoiding it. As in this case, with Irish director Mark Cousins’ meditation on his beloved home city. Part documentary and part (here it comes) visual tone poem, Cousins ponders the past, present and possible future of Belfast’s people, legacy and spirit.

I’m fairly sure Cousins is going for the vibe of the 1988 Terence Davies film Distant Voices, Still Lives, a similar mélange of sense memory, fluid timelines and painterly visuals (he waxes poetically about the aforementioned film in his epic 15-hour documentary, The Story of Film). Lovely cinematography by Christopher Doyle. A rewarding experience for patient viewers.

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In Bruges – OK, full disclosure. In my original review, I gave this 2008 Sundance hit a somewhat lukewarm appraisal. But upon a second viewing, then a third… I realized that I like this film quite a lot (happens sometimes…nobody’s perfect!).

A pair of Irish hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low until their piqued Cockney employer (an over the top Ray Fiennes) dictates their next move. What ensues can be best described as a tragicomic Boschian nightmare (which will make more sense once you’ve seen it).

Writer-director Martin McDonagh (who deftly juggles “fook” as a noun, adverb, super adverb and adjective) re-enlisted In Bruges stars Gleeson and Farrell as the leads for his Oscar-nominated 2022 dramedy The Banshees of Inisherin (also recommended!).

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Into the West – A gem from one of the more underappreciated “all-purpose” directors, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one pretty pair o’ humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at the time).

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Miller’s Crossing–his 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen (with shades of Dasheill Hammet). The late Albert Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace.

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of great supporting performances (particularly from Marcia Gay Harden and John Torturro) , stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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My Left Foot – The first (and best) of three collaborations between writer-director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis (1993’s In the Name of the Father and 1997’s The Boxer were to follow). This moving 1989 biopic concerns Christy Brown, a severely palsied man who became a renowned author, poet and painter despite daunting physical challenges.

Thankfully, the film makers avoid the audience-pandering shtick of turning its protagonist into the cinematic equivalent of a lovable puppy (see Rainman, I Am Sam); Brown is fearlessly portrayed by Day-Lewis “warts and all” with peccadilloes laid bare. As a result, you acclimate to Day-Lewis’ physical tics, allowing Brown to emerge as a complex human being, not merely an object of pity.

Day-Lewis deservedly picked up an Oscar, as did Brenda Fricker, who snagged Best Supporting Actress as Brown’s mother. Don’t let Day-Lewis’ presence overshadow 13-year old Hugh O’Conor’s work as young Christy; he gives an equally impressive performance.

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Odd Man Out – An absorbing film noir from the great director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol). James Mason is excellent as a gravely wounded Irish rebel who is on the run from the authorities through the shadowy backstreets of Belfast. Interestingly, the I.R.A. is never referred to directly, but the turmoil borne of Northern Ireland’s “troubles” is definitely implied by word and action throughout F.L. Green and R.C. Sherriff’s intelligent screenplay (adapted from Green’s original novel). Unique for its time, it still holds up well as a “heist gone wrong”/chase thriller with political undercurrents. The top-notch cast includes Robert Newton and Cyril Cusack.

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Older Than Ireland With age, comes wisdom. Just don’t ask a centenarian to impart any, because they might smack you. Not that there is violence in Alex Fegan and Garry Walsh’s doc, but there is consensus among interviewees (aged 100-113) that the question they find most irksome is: “What’s your secret to living so long?” Once that hurdle is cleared, Fegan and Walsh’s subjects have much to impart in this moving and entertaining pastiche of the human experience. Do yourself a favor: turn off your personal devices, watch this wondrous film and plug yourself into humankind’s forgotten backup system: the Oral Tradition.  (Full review)

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The Quiet Man – I’ll admit to never having been a huge John Wayne fan, but he’s perfect in this John Ford classic as a down-on-his-luck boxer who leaves America to get in touch with his roots in his native Ireland. The most entertaining (and purloined) donnybrook of all time, plus a fiery performance from gorgeous Maureen O’Hara round things off nicely. Although tame by modern standards, romantic scenes between Wayne and O’Hara are quite fervid for the era. The pastoral valleys and rolling hills of the Irish countryside have never looked lovelier, thanks to Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout’s Oscar-winning cinematography.

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The Secret of Roan Inish – John Sayles delivers an engaging fairy tale, devoid of the usual genre clichés. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that frequently recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have received a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal. Ork, ork!

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Song of the Sea – This 2014 animated fantasy from writer-director Tomm Moore centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising his young son and daughter following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth.

After his daughter is nearly swept out to sea one night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother in the city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few days with grandma they make a run for it. Before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a succession of characters that seem to have popped out of one of the traditional Irish fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to tell him as a child.

Moore’s film has a timeless quality and a visual aesthetic on par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is something in Moore’s hand-drawn animation that I find sorely lacking in the computer-generated “product” glutting multiplexes these days: genuine heart.

Pre-Oscar marathon: The top 10 “Best Picture” winners

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2024)

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I’m sure you are aware that the Academy Awards ceremonies are this Sunday. As an alleged “movie critic”, I sheepishly admit I have only seen 1 of the10 nominees for 2023’s Best Picture: Oppenheimer, if you really must pry (“I must! I must!”). Then again, it’s been years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards. I don’t think my aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

This is my way of explaining in advance why you may notice only one “Best Picture” winner from the last several decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 95 Academy Awards. Or perhaps it’s just my long-winded way of saying “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”. And keep the hell off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) – 86 years on, Frank Capra’s movie version of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play (adapted for the screen by Robert Riskin, who was nominated) still resonates in light of our current economic woes.

A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity abounds, fueled by contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non-conformist. There’s tons of slapstick, and in accordance with the rules of screwball comedy, nearly the entire cast eventually ends up standing before a judge (en masse) with a lot of explaining to do.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still folds in social commentary about the disparity between the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it feels like a warm-up for It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also picked up a Best Director win.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie? Michael Curtiz directed; Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch adapted the screenplay from a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953) – Even though James Jones’ steamy source novel about restless G.I.s stationed at Pearl Harbor was sanitized for the screen, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still relatively risqué and heady adult fare for its time.

Montgomery Clift was born to play angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons).

And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (he won Best Actor in a Supporting Role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed. At that point of Reed’s career, it was considered casting against type to have her portray a sex worker, but it paid off with a Best Actress in a Supporting Role win.

Zinnemann won Best Director, screenwriter Daniel Taradash picked up a Best Writing (Screenplay) for his adaptation, Burnett Guffey won for Cinematography (Black and White), and William A. Lyon took home a statue for Best Film Editing.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)- Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise co-directed this classic musical drama (with a screenplay adapted by Ernest Lehman from the stage version). You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of myriad viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962) – Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. Or how commanding and charismatic 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role.

O’Toole delivers a larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their literate screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s overall epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars).

Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without acknowledging Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967) – “They call me Mister Tibbs!” Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder.

Poitier really nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message).

Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969) – “I’m WALKIN’ heah!” Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to earn Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking, idiosyncratic character study Midnight Cowboy (1969) also ushered in an era of mature, gritty realism in American film that flourished from the early to mid-1970s. The film was Schlesinger’s first U.S.-based project; he had already made a name for himself in his native England with films like A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Darling, and Far From the Madding Crowd.

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Warhol’s “Factory” regulars in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. Taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece (with screenplays co-written by the director with Mario Puzo) is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

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Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977) – As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he found his voice as a filmmaker.

The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film was back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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No Country for Old Men (Best Picture of 2007) – The bodies pile up faster than you can say Blood Simple in Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully constructed neo-noir (which earned them a shared Best Director trophy). The brothers’ Oscar-winning screenplay (adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel) is rich in characterization and thankfully devoid of the self-conscious quirkiness that has left some of their latter-day films teetering on self-parody.

The story is set among the sagebrush and desert heat of the Tex-Mex border, where the deer and the antelope play. One day, good ol’ boy Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) is shootin’ at some food (the playful antelope) when he encounters a grievously wounded pit bull. The blood trail leads to discovery of the aftermath of a shootout. As this is Coen country…that twisty trail does lead to a twisty tale.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a wonderful low-key performance as an old-school, Gary Cooper-ish lawman who (you guessed it) comes from a long line of lawmen. Jones’ face is a craggy, world-weary road map of someone who has reluctantly borne witness to every inhumanity man is capable of, and is counting down the days to imminent retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…).

The cast is outstanding. Javier Bardem picked up a Best Supporting Actor statue for his turn as a psychotic hit man. His performance is understated, yet menacing, made all the more unsettling by his Peter Tork haircut. Kelly McDonald and Woody Harrelson are standouts as well. Curiously, Roger Deakins wasn’t nominated for his cinematography, but his work on this film ranks among his best.

Beautiful losers: The Top 10 Oscar snubs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 2, 2024)

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Winning isn’t everything. Consider tonight’s Top 10 list, compiled in honor (or in spite) of the upcoming Oscars (March 10th). Each of these films was up for Best Picture, but “lost”. So here’s a bunch of losers (in alphabetical order) that will always be winners in my book:

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Apocalypse Now– “Are you an assassin, Willard?” This nightmarish walking tour through the darkest labyrinths of the human soul (disguised as a Vietnam War film) remains director Francis Ford Coppola’s most polarizing work. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness by Coppola and John Milius, it’s an unqualified masterpiece to some; bloated, self-important nonsense to others. I kind of like it. In the course of the grueling shoot, Coppola had a nervous breakdown, and star Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Now that’s what I call “suffering for your art”. And always remember-never get outta the boat.

Year nominated: 1979

Lost to: Kramer vs. Kramer

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Chinatown – There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”.

Here are my top 3:

1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.

2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they  last long enough.

3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a master screenwriter (Robert Towne), lead actors at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it with a perfect music score (Jerry Goldsmith), you create a film that deserves to be called a “classic”.

Year nominated: 1974

Lost to: The Godfather, Part II (A tough call, to be sure).

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece (co-scripted by Terry Southern and Peter George) about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that one wonders why the filmmakers bothered to make this up.

Year nominated: 1964

Lost to: My Fair Lady

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La Grande Illusion-While it may be hard for some to fathom in this cynical age we live in, once upon a time there were these things called honor, loyalty, sacrifice, and basic human decency. Ostensibly an anti-war film, Jean Renoir’s classic (which he co-wrote with Charles Spaak) is at its heart a treatise about the aforementioned attributes. Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich van Stroheim head up a fine cast.

Year nominated: 1938

Lost to: You Can’t Take It With You

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The Maltese Falcon-This iconic noir, adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel by John Huston (his directing debut), is embedded in film buffs’ neurons-so suffice it to say that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” Humphrey Bogart truly became “Humphrey Bogart” with his performance as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade. Memorable support from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Peter Lorre as ‘Joel Cairo’ (“Look what you did to my shirt!”).

Year nominated: 1941

Lost to: How Green Was My Valley

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Network– Sidney Lumet’s brilliant 1976 satire about a fictional TV network that gets a ratings boost from a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time” (Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Best Actor statue for his turn as Howard Beale).

48 years on, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay not only foresees news-as-entertainment (and its evil spawn, “reality” TV)-it’s a blueprint for our age. Fantastic work from a cast that includes William Holden, Faye Dunaway (Best Actress win), Ned Beatty, Robert Duvall, and Beatrice Straight (Best Supporting Actress win). But alas…no ‘Best Picture’ statue.

Year nominated: 1976

Lost to: Rocky

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Pulp Fiction-With the cottage industry of Pulp Fiction clones that spewed forth in its wake, it’s easy to forget how fresh and exciting Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film was. Depending on who you ask, what exactly was it? A film noir? A black comedy? A character study? A social satire? A self-referential, post-modern homage to every film ever made previously, jacked in to the collective unconscious of every living film geek?

The correct answer is, “yes”.

Year nominated: 1994

Lost to: Forrest Gump (Still difficult for me to accept.)

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Reds– It’s a testament to Warren Beatty’s legendary powers of persuasion that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less!). Writer-director Beatty plays writer-activist Jack Reed, and Diane Keaton gives one of her best performances as writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (as Emma Goldman) and Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O’Neill) are fabulous. And Beatty deserves special kudos for assembling an impressive group of surviving participants; their interwoven recollections provide a Greek Chorus of living history. The film is at once a sweeping epic and intimate drama.

Year nominated: 1981

Lost to: Chariots of Fire

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Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.

Year nominated: 1950

Lost to: All About Eve

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The Thin Man-A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old (I just took it for an umpteenth spin the other night, and laughed as if I was watching it for the first time). The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators through the years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, et.al.).

Year nominated: 1934

Lost to: It Happened One Night

Arousal, Valence, and Depth: 10 Essential Albums of 1974

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2024)

“They” say that your taste in music is imprinted in your high school years. Why do you suppose this is? Is it biological? Is it hormonal? Or Is it purely nostalgia? According to a 2021 study, it may have something to do with “arousal, valence, and depth”. Say what?

Have you wondered why you love a particular song or genre of music? The answer may lie in your personality, although other factors also play a role, researchers say.

Many people tend to form their musical identity in adolescence, around the same time that they explore their social identity. Preferences may change over time, but research shows that people tend to be especially fond of music from their adolescent years and recall music from a specific age period — 10 to 30 years with a peak at 14 — more easily.

Musical taste is often identified by preferred genres, but a more accurate way of understanding preferences is by musical attributes, researchers say. One model outlines three dimensions of musical attributes: arousal, valence and depth.

“Arousal is linked to the amount of energy and intensity in the music,” says David M. Greenberg, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University and the University of Cambridge. Punk and heavy metal songs such as “White Knuckles” by Five Finger Death Punch were high on arousal, a study conducted by Greenberg and other researchers found.

“Valence is a spectrum,” from negative to positive emotions, he says. Lively rock and pop songs such as “Razzle Dazzle” by Bill Haley & His Comets were high on valence.

Depth indicates “both a level of emotional and intellectual complexity,” Greenberg says. “We found that rapper Pitbull’s music would be low on depth, [and] classical and jazz music could be high on depth.”

Also, musical attributes have interesting relationships with one another. “High depth is often correlated with lower valence, so sadness in music is also evoking a depth in it,” he says.

“They” may be right…I graduated in 1974, and the lion’s share of my CD collection/media player library is comprised of  (wait for it) albums and/or songs originally released between 1967-1982.

The music of 1974 in particular looms large in my memory; not only because that is the year I graduated, but that was also the year I landed my first steady radio gig, hosting the midnight-6am shift on KFAR-AM in Fairbanks (it’s one of the oldest stations in Alaska).

At the time, KFAR’s  format was Top 40. When I came on board in July of 1974, I was spinning then-current hits like “Rock Your Baby” by George McRae, “Annie’s Song” by John Denver, “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation, “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” by Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods, “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot, “On and On” by Gladys Knight & the Pips, “Rock and Roll Heaven” by The Righteous Brothers, “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies, and so on.

While mid-70s Top 40 fare was nothing if not eclectic, there was a demarcation between music I was being paid to play (and feign enthusiasm for), and what I preferred listening to during off-hours.

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Off-hours, 1974.

That said, on occasion the twain would meet; after a few months on the job I began to sneak in a deep cut here and there from my personal LP collection. That was all hi-ho pip and dandy until the night the PD happened to be monitoring at 3am when I played “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground. I wasn’t fired, but he made it quite clear that I was never to play that cut again (several years later at another Fairbanks AM station I worked at, the music director admonished me for playing “Marakesh Express” by Crosby, Stills, & Nash; he cited “…blowing through the smoke rings of my mind”…oy.)

Arousal, valance, and depth…oh my!

Anyway, here are my top 10  LPs of 1974 (note “the next 10” below).

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Autobahn – Kraftwerk

HAL 9000’s cruisin’ jams. While they already had three albums under their gürtels, Autobahn marked the debut of Kraftwerk’s now-signature “sound” (i.e. drum machines, synths, and robotic vocalizing). The album’s centerpiece is the hypnotic title cut, which eats up Side 1.Profoundly influential on a broad spectrum of artists, from Bowie (it informed his “Berlin period”) to seminal hip-hop acts.

Choice cuts: “Autobahn”, “Morgenspaziergang”, “Kometenmelodie 1”.

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Court and Spark – Joni Mitchell

In 1976, a friend and I caught the L.A. Express at The Troubadour. I remember being disappointed to learn that the group’s founder, legendary sax player Tom Scott, was no longer with them (ditto ace guitarist Robben Ford). Not that the musicians who replaced them were slouches (David Luell and Peter Maunu, respectively). Still, it was a tight set (all the members were top echelon session players).

Near the end of the evening, Luell took the mic and said, “Hey-we’d like to invite a couple friends up to sit in on a number or two.” I nearly had a heart attack when Robben Ford and (wait for it) Joni Mitchell casually sauntered onto the stage. I was so in thrall that I can’t even remember what songs they did (I’m not a New Age kinda cat, but believe me when I tell you Joni Mitchell had an aura. Wow).

Singling out the “best” Joni Mitchell album is a fool’s errand, but her 1974 release Court and Spark (backed by most of the original L.A. Express personnel) is damn near a perfect “10” in my book.

Choice cuts: “Court and Spark”, “Help Me”, “Free Man in Paris”, “People’s Parties”, “Car on a Hill”, “Just Like This Train”.

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Feel – George Duke

Like many other rock fans, I was introduced to jazz player/vocalist George Duke via his affiliation with Frank Zappa from the early to mid-70s.  But when I heard this album (his fourth), I realized he was no mere side player; Duke was a tremendously gifted artist in his own right. A strong set of funk, hard fusion and smooth jazz, fueled by Duke’s distinctive keys and bass synthesizer. Duke enlists some heavyweights: Brazilian musicians Flora Purim (vocals) and Airto Moreira (percussionist), and a guitarist credited as “Obdewl’l X”- aka Frank Zappa (“Love” features one of his best-ever solos).

Choice cuts: “Love”, “Feel”, “Cora Jobege”, “Yana Aminah”, “Rashid”.

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Phaedra – Tangerine Dream

Like  fellow German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk (see above), 1974 was the year that Tangerine Dream found their “voice”. The magic number for them was album #5, Phaedra. The (figurative and literal) key was sequencers; a then-emergent technology Pink Floyd had  flirted with on Dark Side of the Moon (and not really popularized until Donna Summer’s sequencer-heavy 1977  hit “I Feel Love” ). Tangerine Dream opted for a more ambient, textural approach than Kraftwerk. With its mesmerizing, cinematic soundscapes Phaedra has held up well as a “headphone album”.

Choice cuts: “Phaedra”, “Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares”, “Movements of a Visionary”.

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Pretzel Logic – Steely Dan

I still marvel at how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were able to find such massive commercial and critical success without compromising their willfully enigmatic and ever-droll worldview.  While the duo were famously fastidious and nit-picky from the get-go, this was (to my ears) their last album with an organic “band” feel; successive efforts, while all top-shelf product, had a more clinical vibe (as the saying goes on my favorite coffee mug: “The race for quality has no finish line, so technically it’s more like a death march.”)

Choice cuts: “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, “Night by Night”, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”, “Pretzel Logic”, “With a Gun”, “Charlie Freak”.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal – Lou Reed

Lou Reed’s “stadium rock” album. Sporting only 5 cuts (4 Velvet Underground classics and one cut from Berlin), its a pure slab of heavy metal thunder, largely propelled by the dynamic guitar duo of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner (the arrangement of “Sweet Jane” approaches prog). Lou sounds like he’s having…fun? Regrettably, I never caught Reed in concert, but I did see Hunter and Wagner in 1975, backing Alice Cooper on his Welcome to My Nightmare tour.

Choice cuts: “Intro/Sweet Jane”, “Heroin”, “Lady Day”.

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Sheer Heart Attack – Queen

It was a bit of a tough choice here, considering that Queen released not just one, but two fine albums in 1974 (the other was Queen II). What I like about Sheer Heart Attack is how it strikes the perfect balance between the band’s hard rock foundation and its harmony-driven pop sensibilities (the latter of which would dominate in subsequent releases, and not always for the best, I’m afraid).

Choice cuts: “Brighton Rock”, “Killer Queen”, “Now I’m Here”, “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Misfire”, “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettoes)”.

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Sweet Fanny Adams – The Sweet

Dismissed by many at the time as a novelty bubblegum act (not completely unfounded, considering early U.K. hits like “Funny Funny”, “Co-co”, “Poppa Joe”, “Little Willy”, and “Wig Wam Bam”), this 1974 U.K. release (featuring some tracks that would appear later that year on the U.S. version of Desolation Boulevard) proved that lurking beneath all the glitz, glamour, and shag haircuts was a ballsy, hard-rocking quartet of superb musicians. Years later, bands like Def Leppard would cite this fine album as a major influence.

Choice cuts: “Set Me Free”, “Heartbreak Today”, “No You Don’t”, “Rebel Rouser”, “Sweet F.A.”, “Restless”, “Into the Night”.

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Todd – Todd Rundgren

In a post I did back in 2020 regarding that year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, I made my case for Todd Rundgren’s induction:

It’s shocking to me that the Hall waited until last year to nominate Todd; he had my vote (it didn’t take…they never listen to me). After all, he’s been in the biz for over 50 years, and is still going strong.  He is a true rock and roll polymath; a ridiculously gifted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer extraordinaire. He is also a music video and multimedia pioneer.

Granted, his mouth gets him into trouble on occasion (he is from Philly you know), and he does have a rep for insufferable perfectionism in the studio-but the end product is consistently top shelf (including acclaimed albums by Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf, The Tubes, Psychedelic Furs, and XTC). Whether he’s performing pop, psych, metal, prog, R&B, power-pop, electronica or lounge, he does it with flair. A wizard and a true star.

Todd finally did get inducted in 2021; but true to form, he crankily refused to accept it in person (he is a long time critic of the Hall). This 2-LP set is one of the highlights of his substantial catalog.

Choice cuts: “I Think You Know”, “A Dream Goes on Forever”, “The Last Ride”, “Useless Begging”, “Heavy Metal Kids”, “Don’t You Ever Learn?”.

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Veedon Fleece – Van Morrison

Speaking of cranky geniuses, 1974 saw the release of two of the finest albums of Van Morrison’s career: the superb live album Too Late to Stop Now, and this equally superb studio effort (another coin toss decision). While I have to hold my nose regarding his anti-vaxxer shenanigans of recent years, I still get lost in this beautiful, soulful and pastoral set of songs. The muse was strong here.

Choice cuts: “Fair Play”, “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights”, “Streets of Arklow”,  “You Don’t Pull No Punches, but You Don’t Push the River”, “Cul de Sac”.

Bonus Tracks!

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Here are 10 more gems from 1974 worth a spin:

Bad Co – Bad Company
Crime of the Century – Supertramp
Fullfillingness’ First Finale – Stevie Wonder
Here Come the Warm Jets – Brian Eno
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway-Genesis
Mysterious Traveller– Weather Report
Odds ‘n’ Sods – The Who
On the Beach– Neil Young
This is Augustus Pablo – Augustus Pablo