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Archive for January, 2010

Brooklyn Cookie Jar Porter

January 29th, 2010 by Aaron Goldfarb | 6 Comments | Filed in Brewer: Brooklyn Brewery, Country: America, Grade: B plus, Style: Porter

7.8% ABV on tap

I’ve recently started using my Twitter account to highlight, on a daily basis, the dumbest, most asinine, most asocially pathetic threads over on Beer Advocate.  It’s easier than you think.  Like today’s post by a guy fretting over how to pronounce the acronym for Double India Pale Ale (”Is it di-pah or die-pa?  Dee-pay?!?!?”).  Or yesterday’s post from a guy wondering if he’s allowed to drink a beer even though he’s just gotten over a cold.  Or last week’s pathetic thread par excellence from a guy concerned with drinking too many barley wines at a party, asking advice for whether he should spit out the potent potable after each taste so as to avoid ending the night doing the hokey-pokey by himself.  Now I may be a (shudder) anarchist libertarian, but I’m starting to understand why the government endorses nanny stateism so thoroughly.  How would these people know when to even wipe their asses if not for asking a message board of complete strangers?

One frequent thread topic that comes up though, which you make think is incredibly dumb or incredibly important, is whether some beer is “worth” whatever it costs.  For me, a beer I’ve never had is always worth paying for at least once.  And there’s no way I won’t shell out for each new release from Brooklyn’s tap-only Brewmasters Reserve Series.  Garrett Oliver has lately become obsessed with creating beers that taste like “other” things (i.e. cocktails or bacon or Indian food), and the idea behind this newest release, just out this very week, really tickled my fancy.  Take it away, Garrett:

“Last winter, while the Brooklyn brewing team sat around a peat fire drinking some inspirational drinks, brewer Tom Price mentioned that his friend’s bakery made some very fine oatmeal cookies. Before long, we were all talking about oatmeal cookies and how good they are with beer. Pretty soon we’d somehow decided that the cookies should actually become a beer. Funny, the things people come up with while drinking in front of a good fire.”

I loved this idea because I’ve long had issues with the fact that nearly all “oatmeal” stouts, whether delicious or awful, have virtually no oat-y taste in them at all.  Alas, here would finally be one that stuck the landing!  So earlier this week I popped into Rattle ‘n’ Hum for an afternoon chin chin.  I was the only one in the place aside from a handy man changing light bulbs and two bartenders comparing their manicures.

My Cookie Jar Porter was served surprisingly frigid and in a pint glass.*  Honestly, I expected a bit of a cookie sweet dessert beer and this tasted nothing like my expectations.  Quite frankly, I didn’t even much like Cookie Jar at first as I found it shockingly tart for a porter as the bitter raisins were over-powering me a bit, and not in a pleasant way as in Dogfish Head’s delectable Raisin d’Etre.**  Eventually, as the beer warmed, the oatmeal cookie flavors (courtesy of Jersey City’s Feed Your Soul Bakery) start coming out more, especially on the back-end with hints of brown sugar and vanilla.

I wish the whole beer had tasted like the finish, but really this ended up being somewhat of a standard porter.  I really don’t think if you didn’t know the story of Cookie Jar would you even take a sip and go, “Wow, what is that?”  I greatly admire Brooklyn’s ambition, but just like another recent Brewmasters release, Manhattan Project, this is a bit of a mildly flawed effort.  Nevertheless, please keep ‘em coming, Brooklyn!

Now back to the is it “worth it”?  I paid $8 for this pint, a high-average price for a pint in New York.  So would I rather have my $8 back?  OF COURSE NOT.  Then I would just be a guy with $8 still curious as hell how good this crazy Cookie Jar porter is, anxious to try it.  Now I’m a guy $8 poorer, that knows that Cookie Jar Porter is a…

B+

*I’ve never had a problem with the Rattle ‘n’ Hum’s serving glassware or temperature, but I think the JV was working the noon-time shift.

**Re-reading that review–wow–was I a tougher grader back in the day.  Now I’m all “YAY BEER!” on everything.

Terrapin Hopsecutioner and Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout

January 23rd, 2010 by Aaron Goldfarb | No Comments | Filed in Brewer: Terrapin, Country: America, Grade: B plus, Style: IPA, Style: Stout

Drunk Promises

Nothing’s worse than waking up after a night of hard core drinking with that awful, awful feeling.  No, not the feeling of being hungover.  No, this feeling is even worse.  The feeling of recalling a drunken promise you made.

Now, sometimes drunken promises can be between a guy and girl, but usually these promises are made between two or more guys.  Late at night, more like early in the morning, 3 AM or so, when the bar has cleared out, there’s just you and a friend or two, and you guys are shit-faced.

It starts with someone bringing up an innocuous point.

“Yeah, these mojitos are pretty good, but you know where the best mojitos are?  This little Cuban restaurant on Miami Beach.”

“Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to Miami.”

“You’ve NEVER been to Miami?!”

“No, but I’ve always wanted to go.”

“That’s it!  We’re all going tomorrow!”

“Yeah!”

“We can borrow my brother’s car.”

“I’ll call in sick for work!”

“Let’s leave by noon.”

“I’m in!”

“I’m in!”

“I’m in!”

You wake up the next morning, hungover, and with a certain existential dread.  Fuck!  Did I really agree to road trip to Miami today?!  I can’t road trip to Miami today.  I don’t want to road trip to Miami today.  I got plans, shit to do.

You spend the whole morning fretting, praying your other drunken promise friends don’t call.  “Hey, Aaron, I’ve picked up the car and I’ll be by in an hour to grab you.”  Because we’re guys, and even when we make drunken promises, promises we’d never make sober, we refuse to break them.  We would have to go to Miami.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t pray that one of our friends breaks the drunken promise to get us off the hook.

However, after years of regretful drunken promises, I’ve finally learned a secret:  no one wants to uphold them.  So I no longer regret drunken promises.  I no longer spend the entire morning after a drunken promise fretting that I may have to do something I don’t want to do.  Drunken promises aren’t really promises.  They are just manly bluster.

Hopsecutioner

7.2% ABV bottled

There’s so many beers I want to try but it’s getting harder and harder to find them.  It’s likewise getting harder and harder to find “noted” breweries I have yet to try.  In a recent trade with The Drunken Polack, he luckily sent me my first beers from a brewery I’d been looking to explore:  Terrapin Beer Co. from Athens, Georgia.  I just love their labels, funny little scenes of terrapins doing stuff best befitting the beer name.  Hopsecutioner is their newly released single IPA–their first ever single IPA, coming on the heels of a successful DIPA release.  Unfortunately, Hopsecutioner is just so-so.  Mild in taste, with only a slight bitterness, I would have sworn this was just a normal pale ale.  Average body, average carbonation, average flavor.  There’s nothing bad about Hopsecutioner, but no there’s no wow factor either.  And in today’s exciting craft beer climate that’s just not quite good enough.

B+

Coffee Oatmeal Imperial Stout

8.1% ABV bottled

I’d unfortunately missed Terrapin’s much-ballyhooed Depth Charge Espresso stout so I was excited to try this “cousin” of a beer.  And it was pretty good.  Roasted, bitter, very coffee-infused but a little thin.  A well hidden ABV makes this a terrific light stout, though, again, no real wow factor.

So I wasn’t floored by my first two Terrapin beers, but I feel like they got enough “there” to make me curious to try more of their offerings.

B+

Cigar City Jai Alai Cedar Aged IPA - Humidor Series

January 19th, 2010 by Aaron Goldfarb | 11 Comments | Filed in Brewer: Cigar City, Country: America, Grade: A regular, Style: IPA

7.5% ABV on cask

I was dining with a friend’s family at a nice joint when I ordered a Scotch.

“Mmm…I just had my one Scotch for the month last night.”

It was my friend’s grandpa, Mr. Gibson, a 91-year-old but fit as a fiddle, he still walked on his own, drove short distances, and had an incredibly sharp memory.

“Your one Scotch for the month?” I inquired.

He explained that though he was very healthy, all things considered, once you get old you simply shouldn’t drink that much, if at all according to his doctor, but since he loved his Scotch, there was no way he was going to completely nix that from his life.  So he came up with a solution:  one single glass per 30 days.

Wow I thought, how delicious must that single monthly glass taste?  Surely better than anything I ever drink.  He must savor every last drop of that Scotch, inhaling it with all of his senses, understanding aromatic and flavor complexities that an over-consuming hedonist like me quickly glosses over as I dump the liquid down my gullet.

I decided to try and take inspiration from Mr. Gibson by abstaining from drinking more frequently, by trying to make each great drink I have more special.*  I’m getting better.  One beer I explored recently was perfect for this focused task.

Now I hadn’t been overly wowed by the “standard” version of Jai Alai–even got in a little friendly e-mail tiff with Cigar City founder Joey Redner–but I’d been really excited to try something from their Humidor Series.  Nowadays there’s so much invention in beermaking that there’s paradoxically almost no invention.  Not that I don’t love many if not most of them, but when all breweries are oak-aging, Brett-ing, chocolate nibbing, and bourbon-, wine-, rum-barreling their beers, these things no long really seem that special and you start to wonder if there is any new ground to break.  With the Humidor Series, Cigar City shows there clearly is.

Humidor Series beer are aged on the rarely-utilized cedar which the brewery itself believes has a more “subtle” effect than a more oft-used beer-aging wood like oak.  I actually thought the flavor wasn’t that subtle but I loved it all the more for that very reason.  The tropical fruitiness and floral hop aromas still come through, and you never doubt for a second that this is clearly an IPA, but that cedar just makes it so much more interesting.  Off cask and uncarbonated the flavors just came together so beautiful and I think I really prefer the cedar to oak.

I’m a big cigar smoker and this one tastes just like a liquidized cigar you’ve pulled fresh from your humidor, evoking pleasant memories of relaxed evenings lazily smoking with friends.  Now I’m sure that kinda sounds gross to you but the cigar “taste” is more a result of mind association than actual beer content.  I really hope to try this again, along with the rest of the series, hopefully with an actual cigar in my other hand this time around.  Though that is probably impossible in a bar due to NYC’s draconian laws, so perhaps I’ll have to figure out a way to acquire some Humidor Series for home-usage.  This beer is truly one of a kind.

A

*Says the author, having just gotten loaded for six straight days and nine of the last ten.

Alpine IPAs

January 15th, 2010 by Aaron Goldfarb | 16 Comments | Filed in Brewer: Alpine, Country: America, Grade: A plus, Grade: A regular, Style: IPA

A year ago at this time I’m not even sure if I’d heard of Alpine Beer Co.  That seems hard to believe now–now that they have four beers on the Beer Advocate Top 100–but even just a year ago they were a tiny tap-only outfit near San Diego worshiped by locals, not really known by outsiders.  Luckily, just last summer, a great man named Jesse the Hutt insisted I let him send me a growler of Alpine’s Nelson and my IPA world was rocked–it was probably the best I’d ever had.

Alpine finally started bottling stuff in the last few months, and in a recent trade, when Jesse asked what I wanted sent to me from the other coast, I pretty much just screamed:  “EVERY SINGLE ALPINE IPA POSSIBLE!”  And, indeed, last week I received Alpine’s four bottled IPAs, all of which I drank as fresh as possible last weekend.

Pure Hoppiness

8% ABV from a bomber

Seemingly Alpine’s flagship brew, I started my Friday night with this “mega-hopped” bad boy which uses hops in the boil, more hops in the giant hopback, plus an incredible amount of dry-hopping.  Honestly, I wasn’t that blown away at first, but just like Nelson, the more I drank it the more I noticed its complexities and really started to enjoy it.  Pure Hoppiness is a very citrusy hop bomb with just a tad note of sweetness. An odd but not unpleasant thin, cask-like mouthfeel too allowing it to go down easy with minimal bite.  I loved it, but was not OMG floored.

A

Duet

6.75% ABV from a bomber

Saturday afternoon I lugged Duet and Nelson over to an NFL playoff party at a friend’s apartment who, though he is a bit of a beer connoisseur, just doesn’t dig on IPAs.  Has never been able to enjoy that certain hops bitterness we all love.  I, of course, am constantly trying to force-feed him great IPAs and figured I’d give it one last go with these beauties, assuming that if couldn’t enjoy these, he truly would never enjoy hoppy beers.

My gamble paid off as Duet opened his eyes to the brilliance of the IPA.  It opened my eyes too.  I’ve drank hundreds of IPAs in my life, but never anything like this before.  An incredible smell of Simcoe and Amarillo hops “in harmony” (hence the name.)  Sticky and sweet, Duet is one of those great hoppy beers that causes two side-effects that you would think would be bad, but which always seem to denote a great IPA:

1.  Burping–hoppy beers always make me belch as the bitterness tickles the back of my throat and, you know, it’s not entirely unpleasant to keep “re-tasting” a great hoppy beer long after you finished drinking it.

2.  Phlegm production–hoppy beers can also be like a really pulpy glass of  fresh-squeezed OJ which causes the insides of your mouth to form sticky spiderwebs of throat snot, make it a struggle to just open your mouth.

Remarkable how much body and complexity comes out of a “mere” 6.75% beer.  I don’t like to quibble between single and double IPAs, but it’s hard to believe a single IPA could be better than this.

A+

Nelson

7.1% ABV from a bomber

My first time to have Nelson from a bottle and it totally stacked up to it straight from a fresh growler.  Much lighter and fizzier than Duet, almost looks like a macro beer in fact on the pour.  It’s amazing how different two IPAs of similar strength from the same brewery can be.  Nelson is far more bitter and grapefruity than Duet and lacks that sweet tinge of a finish that Duet has, but this is still a masterpiece and definitely a hallmark for those that prefer their IPAs drier.

A+

Exponential Hoppiness

10.5% ABV from a bomber

I saved them granddaddy of the all, the brilliantly named (it uses multiple kettle hop additions with the technique of doubling the hop amount each addition, thus exponentially) and beautifully labeled Exponential Hoppiness for last.  I saved this one for me, me, and only me, as my macro-swilling friends drank some Bud Light tallboys on Sunday afternoon.

Bluntly put, this is now the best IPA I have ever had.  It’s like a boozier Duet.  Sticky sweet with a bitter finish and the slightest hint of the oak chips its aged on.  Can Pliny the Younger seriously be better than this?!?!  I truly hope to find out in the next month or so.

A+

My final rankings:

1.  Exponential Hoppiness
2.  Duet
3.  Nelson
4.  Pure Hoppiness

and the first three would probably be in my top 5 or so IPAs of all time.  Alpine is the KING of IPAs!

On Monday I e-mailed Jesse to praise Alpine and ask him if they made any more delicious IPAs.  He quickly rattled off “O’Brien’s IPA, Bad Boy, Sippin on the Dock of the Bay, Tuatara, and a steam IPA called California Uncommon.”  Unfortunately, all tap-onlys.  I’ll try ‘em one day.

Doug’s Very Noddy 40th Birthday Lager

January 12th, 2010 by Aaron Goldfarb | 4 Comments | Filed in Brewer: Buckbean, Country: America, Grade: A-, Style: Bock

10.5% ABV self labeled can

What’s the point of life if not for lame achievements, especially ones you conquer near unwittingly?  It’s been about sixteen months since I last examined how many of the fifty states I’ve had a beer from.  Back then I’d had a beer from twenty-nine states but since then I’ve added Arizona (Crazy Ed’s Cave Creek Chili Beer, oy!) Georgia (various from Sweetwater), Hawaii (Maui and Kona), Indiana (Three Floyds can I get a witness!), Montana (Big Sky), North Carolina (Duck-Rabbit), Utah (Uinta), and West Virginia (Mountaineer).  That puts me at thirty-seven down, thirteen to go.

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Buckbean Brewing Co. asking if I’d be interested in getting sent their newest offering for review.  Why thank you very much!  No need to twist my arm.  Oh, by the way, Buckbean is from Nevada.  Thirty-eight down, twelve to go.*

I really didn’t know a whole heck of a lot about Buckbean but I was charmed by the tallboy “silver bullet” self-labeled can I received in the mail.  An Imperial schwarzbier according to the can–a style that doesn’t seem to “officially” exist really–with double the malts and hops of their standard Black Noddy Lager, which I unfortunately haven’t had.  Since I hadn’t really heard of this brewery, I didn’t expect much but I found Very Noddy to be pretty damn good.  I’m going to call it a doppelbock and in that case it’s one of the sweetest doppelbocks I’ve ever had.  A nice malty but not cloying sweetness, like in a better barleywine.  A very nice “Americanized” example of the style.  Silly drinkable for such a potent ABV, you could put several of these back before the alcohol caught up to you.  All in all, quite enjoyable and Nevada folks are lucky to have this brewery in their backyard.  I look forward to hopefully trying more Buckbean stuff and I believe I might just send an e-mail back to the company asking for a little help on that.

A-

*Those twelve:

Alabama
Alaska
Idaho
Iowa
Kentucky
Mississippi
Nebraska
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Dakota
Tennessee
Wyoming

Central Water Brewhouse Coffee Stout

January 11th, 2010 by Aaron Goldfarb | 7 Comments | Filed in Brewer: Central Waters, Country: America, Grade: A-, Style: Stout

AVB unknown, bottled

I Need to Get Paid Now

I’m always looking for easy ways to make money and by “easy” I mean:  getting paid to write shit.  Thus, I was pretty excited when a company called I Need a Paper Now hired me to write term papers and essays for high school and college kids too dumb and lazy to do the work themselves.  Though I personally never cheated in academics–too many dummies around me, who in the heck would I possibly cheat off of?!?–I have no compunction with facilitating other people’s cheating and in fact gladly signed off on a contract they made me peruse which had lines in it such as this:

You must first understand that what we do is the actual homework for college students. Some people think that what we do is dishonest and unethical and with that said, if you too feel this way then we thank you for your interest and we wish you all the best in your writing endeavours (sic). If you think like we think, everyone needs help at some point in time, then please feel free to move one.

Unfortunately, I Need a Paper Now did not make me sign any non-disclosure agreement about how shitty of company they are, and thus, I will now tell you (hoping you got to this entry after Googling something like, “i need paper now legit or moronic shysters???”)

Firstly, I probably should have been leery after seeing INAPN’s shoddily designed website.  And let me tell you, what you’re seeing in the previous sentence’s link is a redesigned and better website.  The website they had when I was hired a few months ago looked like some 1999 Geocities-hosted monstrosity.

I should have also probably been leery considering the guy (or gal?) who e-hired me never used a name of any kind, wrote e-mails like a 14-year-old texts, and frequently misspelled words.

Alas, the pay was good, the workload minimal, the illicitness enticing, and I had no easier way to earn a buck at the time.  Then I got my first assignment, reprinted in full below:

The Final Exam shall be an applied research project. Learners are provided a case, current topic, or actual archived data to diagnose the T & D problem and present a training & development solution. Learners are to use new knowledge gained from this course to prepare a comprehensive training protocol spanning needa particular occupation of the student’s (learner’s) own choosing. Creativity and application of sound training and development principles shall be drawn upon to draft up to 5-single spaced pages professional training and development schematic. Should be done in APA format.

That’s all the info I was provided.  I reread it about fifteen times.  It made no sense to me and I have a very wide breadth of knowledge.  I figured I’d be given assignments like, “What I did during my Martin Luther King Day vacation (500 words)” or “What was the one moment in your life that best exhibits your decision-making abilities? (5 pages, double-spaced)” or “Discuss why Daisy Buchanan was such a fickle cunt in ‘The Great Gatsby (7 pages).”  But this assignment actually seemed kinda hard.  Kinda above my knowledge and pay grade.

I wrote my nameless boss, asking for some further clarification on the assignment so that I might possibly be able to attempt it.  He/she responded, again, reprinted in full below:

Good question!  Here you are:

EMPLOYEE TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT
STRATEGIC TRAINING
NEEDS ASSESSMENT
THEORIES AND PROGRAM DESIGN
TRANSFER OF TRAINING
TRAINING EVALUATION
TRADITIONAL TRAINING METHODS
E-learning and Use of Technology in Training

I didn’t quite understand how that had further elucidated what my assignment actually was, but that didn’t matter any more for I was now able to attempt the assignment.  You see, I now knew I was dealing with a fucking retard.  It’s always exciting when you realize you’re dealing with a fucking retard in any aspect of life because that means that your work performance can not only be at the level of fucking retard, but should be at the level of fucking retard lest you confuse said fucking retard with too much erudition.

I recall having one of those flighty, dykey, pothead English professors back in college who never said anything that made a goddamn lick of sense.  Who always cited Derrida and post-modernism and “the male gaze.”  Who made us deconstruct shit and write poems about Duchamp and often taught the class outside on the quad as we all sat Indian-style (though she would probably have called it Aboriginal-Americans-Disgustingly-Slaughtered-By-Rich-White-Imperialists-style).  I struggled in that English class for the first few weeks until one day I realized, “Oh my god, Professor Miller is a fucking retard!” and “Sitting Indian-style on dirty grass is far less comfortable than sitting in a chair!”

From that point on, any time I got a class assignment, I would simply pour myself a tall cocktail–I drank 7 and 7s at the time because I admired Martin Scorsese and was a poor hick–and then write my papers for her as quick as humanly possible.  Upon finishing, I wouldn’t even go back to reread the assignment or correct any errors.  I didn’t want to make the paper any more lucid than possible.  Not surprisingly, I got all As employing that strategy and became such a superstar in the class that the prof often made me read my weekly essays aloud as my fellow classmates rolled their eyes.

Thus, to attempt my first assignment for the yutzes at I Need a Paper Now, I employed the same strategy.  I excitedly poured myself a snifter of Central Waters Brewhouse Coffee Stout, generously sent to me by The Captain.  A BA top 100 beer from Wisconsin, I never thought I’d get to try and am so glad I did.  Chocolaty and coffee-infused but not too roasted.  A little sweet and silky with kinda a thin mouth.  This is a great beer, but probably not a complete  world-beater.  I’d still seek it out though, and I hope to try some more Central Waters stuff soon.

I drank and drank until that ridiculous assignment actually made sense to me and then I began writing.  I was expected to produce a five page paper and about 45 minutes after I put my fingers to my keyboard I had produced such a paper, chock full of ambiguities and nonsensicals and stupid buzz words.  It was probably the worst thing I had ever written in my life.

Of course, since I was dealing with a fucking retard, not an hour later I received an e-mail from my nameless boss, he simply writing:

“Perfect!”

I was pretty jacked at how easily I had made $95.  You couldn’t quite say I’d made $95 for 45 minutes of work since I’d spent about 15-20 minutes fretting over the stupidity of the question and sending clarification e-mails to my fucking retard boss and had spent another 45 minutes drinking a coffee stout, but still, I’d made a lot of money for the most minor sitting-around-in-my-underwear, TV-still-on, pounding-beers of an effort.  I thought I might like to start writing essays for lazy rich kids full time.

I was told future assignments–depending on length and research necessitated–would pay anywhere from $100 to $1000.  Of course, I decided not to attempt paper #2 until I had been paid for paper #1 and, a month later, I still sit here having not been paid.  I was supposed to be Paypal’ed the money after every assignment I completed, but that $95 never entered my account and the nameless guy or gal boss who had been pulling the strings on me quit responding to my e-mails.  I’m not mad about the minimal effort I put in nor the minimal amount of money I was stiffed, and I’m downright amused at the thought of some poor schnook having turned in the piece of shit essay he paid for and I wrote, but that still doesn’t mean I didn’t feel like wasting another 45 minutes of my time drunkenly punching out another essay, which I again won’t go back to reread and edit, to tell you about a fucking retarded company called I Need a Paper Now, hoping that this very essay will now appear on the first page when any future lazy writers Google search them.

Now…what legitimate company or person wants to pay me some dolla dolla bills to write some shit for them?!

A-

The Vice Blog’s Year in Movies 2009

January 6th, 2010 by Aaron Goldfarb | 2 Comments | Filed in Lists

As the lights were going down, the high school doofus leaned over to his girlfriend and whispered:  “I hope this doesn’t suck.”  I would have mocked his childish ennui but I had to admit he was right.  This year, instead of entering movies hoping for a little greatness, a masterpiece even, the best we could do was think:  “I hope this doesn’t suck.”  I’ve been waking up early on weekend mornings and heading hungover to various midtown Manhattan cinemas to steal double- and triple-features for the last decade and this is the first year I can remember where it felt like a chore.  I used to relish my 9:30 AM hoofs to the AMC 25 or the Lowes Lincoln Square 13 to sit alone in the dark all morning, but not this year.  There were no masterpieces this year–probably–and even the good films from 2009 had at least one flaw, but here are a few movies that didn’t suck.*

TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR

1.  CRAZY HEART

Admittedly, this movie doesn’t reinvent cinema.  It has no directorial bells and whistles, a simplistic plot, nothing on screen we’ve never seen before, and you could even call it this year’s “Wrestler.”  But damn if it didn’t resonate with me more than anything else this year.  “Crazy Heart” may be your standard down-on-his-luck-old-dude-perseveres story but first time writer/director Scott Cooper’s tale is pitch perfect without even one false note.  The script is taut, never superfluous, no bathos whatsoever (something tougher to achieve than you’d think in this kind of picture), and, most importantly, the vastly underrated Jeff Bridges gives his best performance ever (yes, even considering The Dude).  The crucial T. Bone Burnett soundtrack is also a standout and “The Weary Kind” is my favorite movie song since “Once”’s “Falling Slowly.”  I’m usually a “brain” movie guy over a “heart” movie guy–a Kubrick fan over, say, a Capra fan–which would lead you to believe I’d pick #2 over #1 on my list, but in this year, heart won over brain for me.  For once.

2.  UP IN THE AIR

We’ve taken Jason Reitman lightly for too long.  At first we assumed he only had a career due to nepotism.  Then, we discredited “Thank You For Smoking.”  Of course it was good, but it was adapted from a new classic of fiction.  And yeah “Juno” was cute but we based that on Diablo Cody’s iconoclastic script.  But now, with “Up in the Air,” we have to admit that Reitman is one of the better directors working today.  Able to work within the studio system while making uncompromising “indie”-feeling movies, no small feat at all.  One of my movie critique pet peeves is when an actor is criticized for “just playing himself.”  Yeah, and you know how George Clooney is when he’s “just” being himself?  It’s always the effortlessly cool guys–Bogie, Cary Grant, McQueen, and now Clooney–that get criticized for just “playing themselves,” but if it was so easy to be so effortlessly cool onscreen, then more actors would surely excel at it.  This role is right in Clooney’s wheelhouse and he completely delivers.  A paradigmic movie for the times and–this probably sounds ludicrous to you–I think it could define the end of the the first decade of the 2000s in the same way “Fight Club” defined the end of the final decade of the 1900s.

3.   UP

I’m a shameless sucker for Pixar films but they never fail to delight (assuming they don’t involve cars.)  The first act of “Up” is an absolute clinic in storytelling, something that should be studied in film schools for years to come, and it features a montage (in telling the heart-wrenching backstory of Carl Fredericksen’s life) which would stand as my favorite singular “moment” on screen in 2009.  I was lucky I had 3-D glasses on to hide any possible tears.  True, the movie drags a bit during the tad lengthy second act, but it gets back on track to finish strong with Carl and his clan’s arrival at what would be one of the best sets–an eccentric thought-dead hermit billionaire explorer’s zeppelin–in movie history if it were live action.  Ed Asner as the star of a major, major hit in the year 2009?  Wow.

4.  INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Like all Tarantino releases I was amped for this one. And, after seeing it, a friend asked if it was what I expected. Well of course not, are Tarantino movies EVER what you expect?! That’s why he’s THE master. He’s one of the few filmmakers alive–I’ll include Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and Paul Thomas Anderson–that can still surprise and shock you. “Basterds” is a display in scene craftsmanship. The opening farmhouse scene and the second act basement bar scene are instant classics and could act as short film standalones. The writing, pacing, the characterizations, and the tension in both these scenes is remarkable. But the movie is also funny. Hysterically funny. All Tarantino movies are funny in that “Am I supposed to be laughing?” kinda way, but this one takes the cake. Pitt slays as the hillbilly/Apache lieutenant, but Christoph Waltz as the seductively evil Jew Hunter steals the show. One of the best on-screen villains in quite awhile, he should without question get a Best Supporting Actor win. Minor quibbles would be that the plot moves at a bit of a slapdash pace, there’s not quite enough of the Basterds–go figure, we’ll have to await a hopeful prequel–and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the 2.5 hour movie is too short. I actually wanted more. I’m not sure if this movie completely lives up to the final meta-prophetic line uttered by Pitt before the credits, but goddamn is it good. I think it will only gain esteem with future viewings.

5.  THE HURT LOCKER

I’ll admit, I didn’t want to like this flick.  It’s why I intentionally skipped it during its theatrical run despite the early acclaim.  (Another war movie?!) But after a certain point, whether you “want” to watch a movie or not, when it completely enters the zeitgeist you have to see it lest you be excluded from the cultural conversation.  And, luckily, I found a theater still showing it just last night.  Good thing I did.  From its shocking opening salvo of a scene, “The Hurt Locker” is the most unflinching look at war ever, save maybe “Generation Kill” and that David Simon miniseries was just a little too erudite and arcane for my pea brain to enjoy.  Even the best war movies–my two favorites are “Apocalypse Now” and the “Band of Brothers” miniseries–are romanticized.  Full of charismatic characters that always have a funny aside to say during the heat of battle, photography meant to beautify the grisly subject matter, and a soundtrack enjoyable enough to download to your iPod.  But not “Hurt Locker.”  This is a side of war we’ve never see.  I have no idea if it’s an accurate portrayal of these men of brass balls–an explosives disposal team–but I don’t care, I loved every minute of it.  This is a very tough to digest movie and completely inaccessible to the movie-going public at large.  It may be the Best Picture favorite right now, but I see absolutely no way it will win for those reasons alone.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

6.  JULIA

I honestly hadn’t even heard of this 2009 release until just a few days ago when a friend implored me to watch it.  Thank god for Netflix Instant.  No stranger to great performances, Tilda Swinton manages to give her best one ever here in this tale of an alcoholic slut who gets involved in a kidnapping ransom plot which ultimately finds her on the loose in Tijuana.  Yeah, the movie’s about as over-the-top as a movie can be yet the scenarios somehow never seem implausible and Swinton’s performance never seems hammy for even a second.  Swinton is sexy, scary, manic, crazy, annoying, lovable, and heartbreaking at various times throughout, and you can’t take your eyes off her.  I’ll be honest, I kinda think I loved this movie because Swinton’s character reminded me of a girl I dated earlier this year.  And that shouldn’t be a good thing, though I’ll never forget that sexy lunatic and I’ll never forget Swinton’s Julia.

7.  DISTRICT 9

I thought the days of a new and interesting alien movie being released were long past.  Shit, I’m not sure if I’d even enjoyed an alien movie since all the way back to The Fresh Prince one-two punch of “Independence Day” and “Men in Black” and even those two weren’t that good.  But damn if Canado-African director Neill Blomkamp doesn’t make one helluva film in “District 9.”  The first act of the movie is one part Ricky Gervais’s “The Office” and one part “Blair Witch” in its mockumentary/cinema verite format.  It has the amazing ability to go from hysterical to revolting back to hysterically funny in a matter of seconds.  And, Blomkamp even has the ability to make you care for some of these disgusting prawn-like aliens in a way we haven’t cared for an alien since that crossdressing alien buddy of little Drew Barrymore’s.  Amazing effects throughout and a real nice message about, uh, not hating black people?  (If only the Springboks from “Invictus” had gotten to play the “District 9″ aliens in rugby while Mandela cheered them on.)  Unfortunately, the great themes and intrigue of the movie fall apart in the third act which just becomes a standard shoot-’em-up, but nevertheless, the other 75% of the movie is so damn good I have to give “District 9″ high praise.

8. ANVIL:  THE STORY OF ANVIL

People keep comparing this movie to “This is Spinal Tap,” but for me it more evoked memories of “American Movie.”  I understand the comparisons to “Tap.”  For the first thirty minutes of the movie I really could not figure out if this was a documentary or mockumentary.  What with icons like Slash and Lars Ulrich hailing the greatness and genius of Anvil, I found myself thinking, “I was alive in the 80s and I sure as fuck do not remember this band!”  Sure enough, though, Anvil was, apparently, one of the big metal bands of the early 1980s.  This hilarious and pathotic story tells of their huge fall from the top and their countless derailed attempts to get back to the hair mountain through incredible perseverance, tenacity, and, perhaps a delusional belief in themselves.  Anvil lead singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow is one of the great screen philosophers of all-time, a balding mulleted Canadian Marcus Aurelius–I will never forget him.  I would have never guessed that a documentary about guys that play songs with such titles as “666,” “Hair Pie,” and “Thumb Hang” would provide for me some of the greatest life lessons I would see on screen in 2009.

9.  FANTASTIC MR. FOX

Wes Anderson was neck-and-neck with Paul Thomas Anderson and Tarantino in the best filmmaker alive standings at the start of this decade but unlike those other two, Wes seemed to lack an ability to mature in his work (I know what you’re saying:  “Tarantino has matured in his work?!?!”).  After the apex of his young career with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Wes unfortunately lost a bit of his touch and continued to make visually ornate pictures completely devoid of human relatability that “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums” had. Sure, “Life Aquatic” and “The Darjeeling Limited” looked swell, but they just fell flat in emotional resonance.  Was this due to his swapping of writing partner Owen Wilson with Noah Baumbach?  I’m not sure, but that was the one constant that changed.  I’d written him off for good but he got back on track strongly with “Mr. Fox.”  It’s no surprise that it looks marvelous–it will give “Up” a run for its money in the Best Animated Picture category at the Oscars–but this is also his first film since “Tenenbaums” with characters you actually like and relate too.  And they’re fucking stop-motion anthropomorphized furry creatures!  Clooney is terrific voicing the titular Mr. Fox, perhaps even better than his “Up in the Air” performance, and this quick taut movie flies by from the great opening scene (set to the music of my favorite Beach Boys’ obscurity “Heroes & Villains”) all the way to the end.  Hopefully Wes Anderson has triumphantly returned, or maybe his whimsy and childlike wonderment just lends itself better to stop-motion anthropomorphized shit.  Whatever the case, glad to have him back.

10.  FUNNY PEOPLE (first half)

I’ve been a Judd Apatow fan since his “Larry Sanders Show” and “Freaks and Geeks”/”Undeclared Days” but I’d grown tired of him lately.  The teasers for “Funny People” were so lame that it would be the first of his films I didn’t see in theaters.  You can imagine my surprise when after begrudgingly deciding to watch it on DVD, I actually paused the disc an hour into the feature to send a lengthy text to another movie buff friend about how fucking awesome this picture was.  Seth Rogen is terrifically nervous and dopey in this tale of a young comedian trying to make it on the stand-up circuit and Sandler gives a performance even better than his one in “Punch Drunk Love” as a hedonistic, depressed, and dying version of…well, himself.  Unfortunately, what could have been the best film of the year absolutely gets derailed with some terribly hubristic directorial decisions.  Enjoy the first half of this movie deeply, but once you see Leslie Mann appear on screen, eject the DVD from your player, put it back in the Netflix envelope and pretend the movie ended.  If you do, and imagine that lame-o second half is actually part two of a sequel you never watched, you will easily be able to call this one of the best films of the year.

Special mentionTHE CLASS

A French film released there in May of 2008, never fully released in America, but released briefly and limited in NYC on December 18th, 2008, under my own rules this film would have and should have been considered for last year’s list.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen it by then.  Hadn’t even heard of it by then.  That’s not strange, it usually takes me til the middle of the next year to see every single release from the previous year, especially foreign films, but since I rarely miss anything big before one calender year is up, I rarely have to revise my previous year’s list.  Not in this case.  “The Class” was a huge, huge surprise in spinning the plotless tale of a French high school classroom.  Heartwarming and life-affirming, as realistic in feel as a documentary, it’s hard for me to fully elucidate why this is such a masterpiece.  This isn’t one of those Hillary-Swank-teaches-troubled-minority-youths-how-to-turn-their-enthusiasm-for-hip-hop-into-a-love-of-literature high school movies.  No, this is just a “year in the life” featuring the typical ups and downs of probably 99% of classrooms in the western world.  Plus,  the kid actors in this movie are just fantastic.  I can’t implore you to see this enough.  It would have been my #1 movie of 2008 or 2009, whichever year I considered it for.

Special justificationAVATAR

It’s not typical for critics to justify why they didn’t put a particular movie on their “best of” list, but “Avatar” is clearly not a typical movie.  Universally beloved almost instantaneously, one of five movies ever to make a billion dollars (it will probably finish #2 all-time to that other James Cameron movie), and the most publicly-discussed movie I can recall in years; I thought I might as well justify why it didn’t make my top ten list just to stave off the nerds from yelling at me (they still will).  The world created in “Avatar” is remarkable, yes.  The 3-D effects are mind-blowing, yes (they are also retina blowing–Christ my eyes were sore for a few hours afterward.)  But the movie is not without some major, major flaws.  Everyone knows the story is pretty weak, but it didn’t have to be.  The idea of using a surrogate avatar body is a pretty cool one and I wish that had been explored more than on just a cursory level.  But what made me most uneasy about the movie was how the Na’vi were depicted as the classic noble savages.  Look, I have no problem with “white people suck” movies, nor do I have much issue with over-the-top “white capitalistic bad guy” archetypes, but I did have a problem with the Na’vi society being depicted as flawless.  I can attest that no matter the town, city, group, community, tribe, flock, or pack there are always gonna be some assholes amongst it.  Except amongst the Na’vi I guess.  Yeah, Tsu’Tey was a tad truculent before he got to know Sully a little better, but he wasn’t an asshole.  If Cameron had just given me a few Na’vi assholes–you know, some blue guy that preferred smoking weed in his tree hammock to doing chores around Pandora–then I would have liked “Avatar” a whole lot more and it would have been a much better movie.  If you don’t believe me, just compare “Avatar” to the vastly superior sci-fi epic “2001:  A Space Odyssey.”  Now that was a movie full of assholes.  Asshole apes, asshole astronauts, even an asshole robot.  Kubrick understood.

Notables (alphabetical order):

An Education
Assassination of a High School President

Avatar
Away We Go
The Blind Side
Bruno
Coraline

Extract
The Informant!

Precious
The Road

Sita Sings the Blues
Tyson

TOP PERFORMANCES

1.  Tilda Swinton  (”Julia”)

2.  Jeff Bridges (”Crazy Heart”)

3. Christoph Waltz (”Inglourious Basterds”)

4.  Mo’Nique (”Precious”)

5.  George Clooney  (”Up in the Air” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”)

6.  Carey Mulligan (”An Education”)

7.  Sharlto Copley (”District 9″)

8.  Gabourey Sidibe (”Precious”)

9.  Viggo Mortensen (”The Road”)

10.  Adam Sandler (”Funny People”)

WORST FILMS OF THE YEAR

I’m not one of those MST3K-esque people that actually gets a charge out of watching terrible movies.  No, to me terrible movies are just terrible movies that are wasting my time I could be watching good movies.  So, suffice to say, I see as few terrible movies as possible and if I’m watching a terrible movie at home I have no compunction with having a little cinema interruptus and stopping it halfway (I curiously never walk out of theaters though–ah, the cheap Jew in me.)  These are the worst things I accidentally saw in 2009:

Dishonorable mentionTHE HANGOVER

Look, this was in no way one of the worst films of the year and I’d even give it a marginal thumbs up, but the rapidity with which it has entered the classic comedy canon is just stupefying to me.  This simply isn’t that great of comedy and, after three total viewings, I’m still really flummoxed why people love it so. People in my theater were laughing their asses off, rolling in the aisles, and they even applauded when it was over. I’m not saying it’s terrible or anything, it’s just not funny. I didn’t LOL even once. (Which, I guess if it’s a comedy and it’s not funny then that means it IS “terrible,” but I digress). If you saw the trailer, you literally know everything about the movie. Good comedy should be shocking and surprising and there’s not a single surprise in this entire movie. Compare that to the great “Up” which surprised me every few minutes with its wonderful ideas and hilarious scenes. I think the concept of three dudes trying to piece together a crazy hungover night is a pretty good one. But their lost night–and the movie doesn’t even have the balls to allow them to attain that lost night through actual legitimate means, ya know, hardcore drinking (they’re unwittingly roofied instead)–is nothing but a lame, paint-by-numbers pastiche of non sequitor shit that uber-hack Todd Phillips must have thought would play well in trailers. Ohmigod, badass Mike Tyson singing a lame Phil Collins song! A tiger in the bathroom! How’d a chicken get in the room?! (Actually, come to think of it, I’m not sure we ever learned that. We never learned why the room was trashed either for that matter.) Seriously, what is funny about any of those things? And I’m not exactly Mr. PC Morality but mining a lost and neglected baby for comedy? Perhaps I wouldn’t be offended if that was actually a funny gag. But of course it isn’t. Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms and even Bradley Cooper are winning and likable and I hope those three continue to headline movies, but there’s not much they can accomplish when they’re reading words written by the authors of “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “Four Christmases” and stuck in Phillips’s lame plot. As I was watching the movie it wasn’t like it was cringeworthy or anything, nor was I begging for it to be over, and it’s not a deplorable “dumb” pratfalls comedy or anything either, it’s just boring and predictable.  Flat.  I would have much rather watched Galifianakis, et al actually get wasted and then actually go do things in Vegas. Actually, I’d rather hear any of my besotted friends tell me about what kinds of decadence and depravity they got into just last night.  Yet another squandered good idea turned into triteness by Phillips.  It still haunts me to this very day that countless millions consider this to now be a classic.

5.  FUNNY PEOPLE (second half)

I’m sure Judd Apatow is one of the great family men in Hollywood, but could the motherfucker please stop shoe-horning his fucking wife and kids into his pictures?  Not since David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon has a filmmaker so insisted on unnecessarily inflicting the women he fucks on us.  Now don’t get me wrong, Leslie Mann is both prettier and far more talented than Pidgeon, but she ruins Apatow’s movies just the same.  Whereas in Mamet’s case the fault lies with Pidgeon, in Apatow’s case the fault lies with him.  There’s absolutely no reason for Leslie Mann’s character–and her and Apatow’s kids no less!–to play such a major part in this movie, but there they are, absolutely torpedoing what could have easily been a dark comedy classic.  Look Judd, you inspire all us fat, hirsute, neurotic Jews to dream that if one day we just make comedy classic after comedy classic after comedy classic then we too will get to marry a blond bombshell, but now that we all know who you have intercourse with, could you please leave it at that?  I’ve never so wished for a filmmaker to get a divorce.

4.  JULIE & JULIA (Julie parts)

Based on Nora Ephron’s rendering and Amy Adam’s portrayal, Julie Powell must truly be one of the most annoying cunts on planet earth.  And that would be fine if only her friends, family, and the fat lonely chicks that read her poorly-written book had to deal with her, but when she ruins what could have been a pretty bang-up biopic about Julia Child, that’s when I have to take umbrage.  Personally, I hate biopics unless they involve George C. Scott playing George S. Patton, but if anyone deserved one, the force of nature Child is a gal that did.  Even in this stinker of a movie, the Julia parts are still quite good and Meryl Streep knocks another role out of the park (is there anything she can’t do?!).  You spend 50% of the movie wishing you were watching the other 50% of the movie.  Heck, even Julia supposedly hated Julie before she died.  It’s no wonder Julie’s second book is about how her husband left her.  Save your time and instead spend it on hilarious clips of Child available on YouTube.

3.  THE INFORMERS

While working on my own novel this year I decided to reread all of Bret Easton Ellis’s works for inspiration.  For all the acclaim he gets, Ellis is amazingly still a much underrated novelist and “American Psycho” is much better than it even gets credit for.  “The Informers” is probably Ellis’s worst work though still worth reading I suppose.  Of course, while dicking around on Netflix, I was pleased to notice an adaptation of “The Informers” and as a huge fan, a mild fan, and a so-so fan of Ellis’s other three books-to-film (”Rules of Attraction,” “American Psycho,” and “Less Than Zero” respectively) I summarily rented it.  I mean, with a script by Ellis and performances by a motley crew of acting notables spanning from Billy Bob Thorton to Mickey Rourke to even Brad Renfro’s final performance, how could it not be great?!  Well, after only ten minutes of viewing this, I realized it was a truly awful film and after twenty minutes I realized, “Holy shit!  I’ve seen this film before!”  Yes, “The Informers” was so goddamn awful that I rented it twice in 2009, obviously repressing the painful memory of the first time I saw it.  Though I will say that this movie has probably the best onscreen nudity of the year.  But please take my word for it and please don’t rent this dreck just to see some titties.

2.  OBSERVE & REPORT

Just a despicable picture, and not in a good either.  You will meet people that tell you this movie is hilarious, that you don’t “get it,” and maybe they’re right–there were plenty of now legendary comedies it took me a while to “get” (most notably “Office Space” and “The Big Lebowski”)–but I just don’t believe this is one of those, and I was so disgusted by the movie that I really don’t want to give it another go.  How did Jody Hill, the co-genius behind “Eastbound & Down,” a true comedy masterpiece–think this was a funny idea for a movie?  Seth Rogen as a fat slob mall cop goes Travis Bickle on everyone?  Paul Blart was the funnier mall cop this year and that’s just fucking sad.

1.  THE SOLOIST

Easily the most excruciatingly boring movie ever made about a mentally ill musical genius starring two of the best actors alive.  Joe Wright made one of my most beloved films of the decade in the absolutely beautiful “Atonement” but here he’s totally out of his comfort zone.  Just a panderingly awful movie–movies featuring mentally ill people or bums usually are, and this features both!–even the great Robert Downey, Jr.’s roguish charm can’t rescue this major misfire.  Stick to corsetted costume dramas based on classic novels and starring that skinny British chick, Joey.

So what were your picks for the best and the worst in cinema 2009?

*Notable 2009 films as yet unseen:  The 35 Rums, The Beaches of Agnes, Big Fan, Brothers, The Damned United, Food, Inc., Good Hair, Moon, The Messenger, Paranormal Activity, Ponyo, The September Issue, Sugar, We Live in Public, Where the Wild Things Are, The White Ribbon, You, the Living.