The Chair’s 10 Best of 2014

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Of course 10 best lists are bogus. After all, what exactly is “best?” Even the first dictionary definition itself can’t decide. It states:

BEST

  1. 
of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.

I don’t know about you but I find there is a hell of a lot of difference between excellent, effective and desirable. In fact, the moments in my life I can remember being at my most desirable in no way made me the most excellent person in the room – especially when that number was two. Truth be told and given what usually prompts human desire, I’d actually argue that the exact opposite was true.

I can recall once or twice being so excellent at something that it is hard to imagine someone wouldn’t have found me equally desirable. But wait, let’s forget that. If you’ve been in the presence of any writer at his or her most excellent you’d know it’s not a pretty sight. Hair askew, loved ones, friends and usually hygiene totally ignored. Not to mention common courtesy. Meaning – don’t even THINK about interrupting, much less BREATHING, because I will KILL YOU. Or worse, BLAME YOU for stopping the flow. Not to mention what the world will do to you if any more of this genius is lost from its most excellent source – Me.

I have no idea what you're talking about Chairy

I have no idea what you’re talking about Chairy

Finally, we’re left with effective and nothing about the word effective comes close to evoking best. Michael Bay is probably one of the most effective filmmakers to ever work in contemporary Hollywood but, uh – best? Well, you see how words deceive. And yes, he can take it. He married us for it. Which only proves that Edward Albee is the all-time best.

Here then in no particular order are my 10 best of the year. I define best as jarring, original, memorable and cool – to me. There is nothing scientific about it. It’s a purely subjective list. As are all those that deal in bests.

FILM: Birdman and Boyhood

Looking up

Looking up

No one except a few film critics, most of whom do not partake fully in life because they don’t have the time, have seen every film in any given year. But at least I see a lot. And I say these two stand above and beyond the pack for different reasons.

In the case of Boyhood, the feat of shooting a film with the same actors aging over a 12 year period, rewriting as you go, and emerging with anything coherent – much less emotionally affecting – is nothing but the best. It takes drive, focus and talent. Richard Linklater has always been an interesting and adept filmmaker but in this case he’s managed to circumvent the Hollywood system with a truly original approach to a universal story. Anyone can pick apart the movie’s faults, but no one in the narrative commercial world has had the nerve to take a path this original lately. In 2014, that’s my equivalent of the B word.

Birdman has stayed with me for months and I’m not quite sure why. I liked the film yet in teaching screenwriting have certainly been one of those jerks to – yes – pick it apart. Still, there is something about watching Michael Keaton, a former megastar of the eighties who my college age students now barely know, play an outlandish version of his public persona so heartbreakingly that it makes me occasionally want to weep. Yes, weep. I’m not a total cynic. This is a project that for all of its faults could have gone horribly wrong. Credit director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, another fearless chance taker, and a cast of actors working at the top of their game, for keeping the high wire act alive more times than not to its pretty thrilling results.

THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE: Malala

Yes, you are

Yes, you are

You’re a smart teenage girl from Pakistan who got shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out for other girls and their education. You then endure a bunch of surgeries and manage to not only survive but to continue to speak your mind as you gain intelligence and, well, even more nerve (Note: As if that’s possible). Then several weeks ago, these same Taliban types shoot up a school and kill 141 people, mostly children, and you still continue to speak out. Not with speechifying anger but with calm wisdom and directness. This is why you win the Nobel Peace Prize before you are old enough to vote. And how the world begins to slowly change.

AMERICAN POLITICS: Elizabeth Warren

America's truthteller

America’s truthteller

Let’s have a show of hands – how many of you are still pissed off at the big banks and Wall Street but don’t know what to say or do about it? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) does. This time she might have been unable to stop Congress from passing a bill several weeks ago that will once again deregulate Wall Street and allow major banks to engage in the kind of risky investments that almost brought down the economy more than six years ago, but that doesn’t mean she will the next time. She’s like the best and smartest teacher in school that you always remember because she was able to take a subject you never could understand and present it in a way that not only made it clear but made you became engaged. The reason for that is that for years she actually did teach at Harvard and innately understands how to simplify unnecessarily complicated principles to undergraduates – meaning the rest of us. Like all the best academics I have ever met, now Sen. Warren doesn’t fall for the fancy linguistic tricks or ill-conceived arguments the establishment class in her field consistently tries to pass off as absolute truth. She questions so we, in turn, learn to question. This is why she probably always gets high evals at the end of every year.

POP CULTURE LOSSES: Joan Rivers, Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman 

Gone but not forgotten

Gone but not forgotten

This is not the best but the WORST. Still, it needs to be included because of the ripple effect their deaths seemed to have had across the world. Doing great work in the field of entertainment puts you in public view and when you do it over a long period of time the world feels as if they really knew you and mourns accordingly. And perhaps we all did know them – at least partially. It’s an element of what made them all such outstanding artists.

Still, it is quite odd for three such unexpected celebrity deaths to occur in such a relatively short period of time by less than natural means. Flip the channels on television or the peruse the shelves of a film DVD library and you can’t help but run into these three and marvel at the talent as you simultaneously consider the sudden loss.   JR was in her early eighties, RW was in his early 60s and PSH was in his late forties. Yet in their own very individual ways they each were among the very best at what they did. Which is all any of us can hope for at any given moment in time.

TELEVISION: Lisa Kudrow and HBO’s The Comeback

Oh how we "cherish" you (sorry, couldn't help myself)

Oh how we “cherish” you (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

There is nothing currently on television that evokes the humor, pathos and general uneasy brilliant comic drama that Lisa Kudrow brings to her portrayal of actress/reality star Valerie Cherish on HBO’s The Comeback. And when I say nothing I mean her performance is unlike anything I (or you) have ever seen on TV (nee HBO) or pretty much anywhere.

This series has returned ten years after being cancelled after only running a year the first time around. That alone is remarkable. But nothing prepares you for the eight episode arc of the new season as you watch Valerie/Lisa endure the indignities of rising towards the top of a profession that often leaves little room for any real dignity (Note: How may professions do?). Or maybe she just chooses wrong. (Note: Who doesn’t sometimes?). Whatever the reason, she is simultaneously the underdog and her own worst enemy and it’s sad, recognizable, funny and uncomfortably cringe-worthy. Most of all – it’s real.

I will miss Valerie Cherish for everything she is and everything she is not. If you haven’t tuned in, do so. And for god sakes, given Lisa/Valerie the Emmy.

MEDICINE: Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox

You ride that bike, girl.

You ride that bike, girl.

What can you say about a nurse who goes voluntarily to Africa to fight a deadly disease, returns to the US where she is put into mandatory quarantine by New Jersey governor Chris Christie (even though she showed no symptoms and did not test positive for the virus) and then publicly stands up to said well-known political bully without cursing him out or punching him in the face? That she’s my kind of gal? Needless to say.

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch...

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch…

For those who don’t recall, Gov. Christie insisted on quarantine for Nurse Hickox in a makeshift tent when she returned to the U.S., which caused her to go public and take a stand against the governor by defying his quarantine and returning home to Maine. She did all this with calm determination and the backing of medical facts despite the hysterical witch-hunts and political grandstanding that began swirling around her.

Then once she got to Maine, she and her boyfriend dared to take a bike ride while being hounded by a gaggle of media. And remain polite and calm. I shudder to think what I would have said. #GetChristieNoLove

MUSIC: Annie Lennox, Nostalgia

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

In the 1980s, Annie Lennox was the lead singer of The Eurythmics and known for huge hit records like Would I Lie To You. Once I saw her in concert where she leaned so far into the stage on one foot with her mic that I thought she’d fall over as she hit a note so raw and pitch perfect that you could hear an audible gasp throughout the entire concert hall. Some years later she went on her own and won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal for No More I Love Yous from her second solo album Medusa. She followed that with an Oscar some years after that for best original song, Into the West, from the last of the first three Lord of the Rings movies.

All that being said, it should come as no surprise that for me the best CD/download/album or whatever you want to call it of the year is hers. In Nostalgia she takes classics like I Put A Spell On You, You Belong To Me, Georgia on My Mind and Billie Holliday’s haunting song of the lynching of Black men in the Deep South, Strange Fruit, and presents them all in stripped down versions unlike anyone you have ever heard before. There are so few true real artists these days with worldwide commercial success. She’s one.

APP: Aaron Paul’s YB

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For free or by paying 99 cents for a more advanced version, you can download an app where actor Aaron Paul’s resonant baritone speaks phrases like Yo, bitch or Happy Holidays, Bitch or See ya, Bitch any time you want. Yes, I find this exciting.

See, when Breaking Bad ended its series run we also lost Paul’s Jessie Pinkman, the dumb as a fox crystal meth-cooking sidekick whose signature phrase, Yo Bitch, became a national obsession. A multiple Emmy winner and fan favorite, Paul raised almost $2 million for his wife’s charity, Kind Campaign, which helps young women in need, with a series of contests and giveaways that coincided with the final season. But after being stopped on the street, emailed and tweeted by thousands of people imploring him to curse them out with variations of his signature phrase he gave in and decided to generate some cash with it – for charity and, hopefully, for himself. Because even cursing people out loses its thrill after a while – and especially when they ask you to.

SOCIAL ACTIVITY: Protests 

Sad realities

Sad realities

The consecutive deaths of too many young Black males in the last year in numerous states by law enforcement has created both spontaneous and planned nationwide protests across the country. In the moment it feels as if this is doing nothing but letting off steam yet through the lens of history one can clearly see this is the American way to social justice and evolution.

I would not have thought this was quite true decades ago. But having been born at a time when the civil rights movement first began taking hold, and then living through the Vietnam War, Kent State, women’s rights, gay rights, AIDS, homelessness, nuclear proliferation and marriage equality, I’ve seen how it works. Societal shifts are only fueled through provocateurs that have a real and righteous point about injustice. Therefore it’s our job to take it to the streets, talk about it, write about it or even just write a check in order to make something happen. It moves at a snail’s pace but things ultimately evolve when we don’t give in or give up. #ICantBreathe.

NEWBORN BABY: Sam Van Buren

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Who is Sam Van Buren, you might ask? Well, the coolest, snappiest and best-dressed baby I’ve ever seen – who happens to be the firstborn of my blog cohort and dear friend Holly Van Buren and her husband Michael.

Holly chooses the images and writes the captions for Notes and it might surprise you to know that she literally gave birth two months ago without missing a single week of choosing images, tagging and posting the blog. How is she able to do this along with everything else she is responsible for in her life – I HAVE NO IDEA!!   

It helps when Sam the Man looks like this...

It helps when Sam looks like this…

Sam the Man, as I call him, takes great photos because he is able to both smile and come off as a hipster all at the same time. Again, I have no idea how to do this. But it does give me hope that one day as he gets older he might teach me. That is if I am not too old. Do not say – too late.

GQ baby of the year

GQ baby of the year

For myself, Holly and our marketing director Samantha Rabstein – who has a few surprises in store for 2015 – that’s all he wrote. In 2014, that is.

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Black, White and Mute

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I wrote the following paragraph back in August – a few days after teenager Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson on an otherwise ordinary summer day.

As a white person you shake your head at the television screen when you watch the police in Ferguson, MO tear gas mostly black protestors who are on the street because an 18 year old African American male with his arms raised in the air was shot six times and killed by a white patrolman who seems to have been allowed to vanish into thin air.

We have since learned and experienced quite a bit. Among them is the officer’s name, location and story of what happened – which directly contradicts that of several eyewitnesses, one of whom law enforcement officials did not bother to interview until many days later.

... what Amy said

… what Amy said

We have also gotten to know Mr. Brown’s family through numerous television interviews and statements (well, as much as you can) and have seen their pain publicly projected across the world courtesy of our uber-advanced, ever-evolving global communications systems.

We have done even more.

We have observed as numerous political figures from white and black communities have demanded that once and for all we attempt to address why it is so many young black men seem to be getting shot these days by white male authority figures while we have noticed almost simultaneously the white male authority figures in Missouri, led by Ferguson’s district attorney and the state’s governor, digging in their heels and indignantly railing against the protestors who dare to question and cross the line in frustration as their anger explodes through the streets.

Asking the right questions

Asking the right questions

We have also participated, virtually and otherwise, as this anger spreads to most major cities across the country where other indignant authority figures are no doubt lying in wait trying to control events from their offices and court houses so as to avoid the inevitable next racial and very public catastrophe.

As if the latter is even possible – especially with that strategy.

So what is next and advisable? On the former point, probably a lot of chatter and attempts at some legislative adjustments until the next shooting happens. What is advisable? Well, shutting up and listening without speaking would be a start. This is not cynicism but merely fact based on recent history. And it’s mostly directed to the white people reading this.

The New Yorker nails it with their recent cover

The New Yorker nails it with their recent cover

As a very white person I’m angry and, quite frankly, don’t even know what to think or do about any of this. After all, Ferguson, MO, like Sanford, FL, the city where another black male teenager, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was murdered last year by a neighborhood watchman, is not Alabama or Mississippi – the historical epicenters for the gunning down of unarmed young black men in the U.S.   Heck, neither one of them are even in the Deep South.

I don’t know what you do or think about all of this if you’re black – especially a young black male. Though I would imagine back in August that at the very least I’d have been on the streets and would probably have stayed there past midnight. (Note: Even before I first became a teenager at the tail end of the turbulent 1960s, curfews were never my strong point). After the exoneration of the man who shot Trayvon Martin, followed by exoneration of Officer Wilson from any wrongdoing in the shooting of Michael Brown, which, only several days later, was followed by the shooting of a 12 year old black boy in Ohio by a police officer because the guy thought the toy gun the kid was pointing was real – well, at the very least I’d now not only take to the streets but would try to destroy something, or even someone. Though in my case, it would probably be through nasty, sarcastic, cutting words. This is understandable because those are the weapons I grew up around and have been trained with. Had I had another kind of life, well… who can say?

A different version of "bad breath"

A different version of “bad breath”

What I did do in desperation was email a former student and friend/writer colleague of mine – who happens to be tall, African American, male and in his mid-twenties – and pled with him in a caring yet somewhat humorous way to “please, please, please be careful.” I did this because I felt as if I had to attempt something concrete other than to rant and rave. Besides, I know that sarcastic, cutting words are, to a large extent, also his weapons of choice. And he brandishes these weapons quite well, almost as well as I do. My fear is that as a journalist covering those events, or as a twenty-something guy in the Midwest buying a smoke or even a soda at his local convenience store, he’d launch his ammunition in exactly the wrong direction. I couldn’t let that happen. In my mind, this was perhaps one small thing I could prevent. Though in retrospect my gesture feels awkward and ill-advised. Still, it’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. Or will do in the future.

gBx185u

To those who want to categorize my musings as pseudo liberal crap or white guilt (or both) let me brutally honest. I respect both the law and law enforcement and imagine that being a beat cop in any city in the US is a scary proposition these days. And let’s be even more blunt, it’s probably more than a little bit scary for white guys who patrol black neighborhoods given how these white guys are perceived and dressed. And given reality. But what also seems a given, more than a given, is that if you are a trained policeman there is no reason in the world to shoot an unarmed 18 year old 6-10 times (the latter being the number of bullet shells found in the area) in order to prevent him from…well, doing anything. I would think three or four plugs from a decent officer would do it and even if he weren’t a very good shot. Wouldn’t you?

That being said – here’s the truth. I’m sickened and embarrassed for my pigmentation. Seriously. As a gay, Jewish, somewhat short guy (Note: That’s triple minority status), I have tried through the years to reason with fellow whites on the privilege of being in the majority and the marginalization of “the other.” I particularly did this with my parents’ friends when I was younger and as you can see – well, a lot of good that did. I have even continued to do so through the years though nowhere near as vehemently. Then again, you find that as time goes on you don’t have the energy to do everything – or really, anything – quite as vehemently.

... and social media only makes it worse

… and social media only makes it worse

That being the case let’s try a new tactic. And that would be to spread the word for white people – and particularly our political leaders in Missouri, Florida and Ohio (the latter being the location of the most recent shooting of that pesky 12 year old) – to NOT SAY ANOTHER WORD. Rather, hand over the stage to the protestors – preferably the non-white kind, and HEAR what is being said. Do not simply listen, but HEAR. And then, HEAR some more. Continue on and then… ZIP IT. Zip it GOOD. Because now you need the time to THINK AND REFLECT. Make that a long time.

I have no idea what to tell the black community to do at this point. Which should be a welcome relief to them – especially coming from a white guy.