The Best Pictures that I’ve seen this year

Last week I was in Taiwan — more on that to come — and thanks to jet lag, I only made it through half of the Oscars on Sunday night. I recorded the rest, but when I woke up at 4 a.m. the next day, Facebook spoiled me for the big awards. Ah well.

I’m happy for all of the winners, but having now seen 4 out of the 8 Best Picture nominees, I do think Selma was snubbed in several categories, and I can’t for the life of me understand why.

Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. Sigh.

Anyway, in the awards season spirit of honoring great storytelling, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the “Best Pictures” that I’ve seen this year.

The Imitation Game

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I actually mentioned this one earlier. Basically: it’s solid and well-made in every way, and I appreciated the historical context.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a good job differentiating Alan Turing’s social obliviousness and vulnerability from the social indifference and snobbery of Sherlock Holmes. I never quite forgot that Keira Knightley was Keira Knightley, but she portrayed Joan Clarke well nevertheless. Matthew Goode was both excellent and dashing. Why is he not in more things?

Grand Budapest Hotel

the-grand-budapest-hotel-posterCaught this one on cable. I find Wes Anderson to be interesting but a bit overrated, and Grand Budapest Hotel did nothing to change that impression for me. The movie is amazingly crafted, every detail impeccably styled. But for all its prettiness, the story seemed a bit pointless to me. It’s a bromance, I guess? And it makes some sort of commentary on an old-fashioned sense of honor and doing things the “right” way? I dunno. The plot and themes seemed to be afterthoughts, simply there to justify the aesthetic.

Selma

I was afraid Selma would be out of theaters by the time I got back from Taiwan, so between errands and packing, I squeezed in a weekday matinee.

Selma was, in a word, powerful. David Oyelowo deftly carried the weight of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, but he was also supported by a superb cast. In particular, Carmen Ejogo shone, along with Stephan James as the young civil rights activist and future congressman John Lewis, and Keith Jackson (from Short Term 12) in the heartbreaking role of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

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At this point I would say that Dr. King is known for his idealism and inspiring speeches, but I loved seeing the strategic side of his movement too — as well as having that balanced out by people who didn’t fully support him, and understanding why. In addition to being moved to tears many, many times, I felt liked I learned.

For better or worse, I had the entire theater to myself, so I was able to capture a couple of my favorite quotes on my phone:

No citizen of this country can call themselves blameless for we all bear a responsibility for our fellow man.

Boyhood

Andy and I watched this one together on the flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo. Thank you, Delta in-flight entertainment system.

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The production of this film is a fascinating story all on its own. Filmed during one month of every year for 12 years, with an overall arc in place ahead of time, but with specific scenes being written each year based on how the lead actor has grown and on what had come before. A unique and ambitious project, for sure.

I liked the idea of following a character through such a formative period in his life — and there was definitely something special about it being one young actor growing up before our eyes, as opposed to casting multiple actors to play the same character at various ages.

In some ways, nothing really happens. There isn’t some big plot to follow. It’s just life. But in spite of that — or maybe because of it — Boyhood is strangely compelling.

Also, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are both outstanding.

12 Years a Slave

urlLast year’s Best Picture winner. Better late than never.

I watched this one by myself, on the flight from Tokyo to Detroit. At first I didn’t enjoy how the beginning jumped around in time, but then I thought about the way it reflected Solomon Northrup’s longing for home, and his precious memories of his family and freedom, and I decided it was a good device.

All of the performances were pretty stellar, especially Lupita Nyong’o. Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch might actually have been the weak spots, which is both unusual and not that bad of a problem to have. Chiwetel Ejiofor was his usual awesome, understated self, and Michael Fassbender (who I will no longer call my Hollywood Boyfriend, because I’ve outgrown that phase) was his usual creepy, unhinged self. I’m not sure what it says about him that he always takes these roles, or that he always does them so well… Hopefully nothing!

I actually watched several other movies and TV shows traveling to and from Taiwan (36 hours each way!) so you may be reading more about them in the near future. Right now, though, I have a manuscript to get back to. And jet lag to combat. And a million loads of laundry to tackle.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES by Jasmine Warga

My Heart and Other Black HolesI don’t typically observe “book birthdays,” but this one is special. Today is the day that my dear friend Jasmine Warga celebrates the release of her debut novel.

It has been such a fun and valuable experience watching Jasmine’s journey to publication over the past year and a half. More importantly, it has been a pleasure getting to know her, talking with her about writing and the creative process, and bonding over our halfie experiences and immigrant parents. She is always so thoughtful and grounded, so purposeful and generous. Without question, Jasmine has been a positive influence on me, and for that I am immeasurably grateful.

I think her book will be a positive influence on its readers, too. MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES is the story of two teens who feel irrevocably broken, but who find a spark of hope when they meet one another. It’s an unflinching look at sadness of various kinds and degrees. It shows how depression can isolate you and warp your perspective. It’s about not fitting in, and the human need to feel connected.

What I love most about MHAOBH is its authenticity. You can tell that Jasmine poured her heart onto these pages. The book isn’t designed to romanticize the problems that these characters face. It doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties that lie ahead for Aysel and Roman. It’s hopeful, but truthful too.

You’re like a gray sky. You’re beautiful, even though you don’t want to be.

Beyond the poetry of this sentiment, I also just appreciated the shoutout to “gloomy” weather, which I happen to love.

It’s funny how once you like someone, even the unattractive things they do somehow become endearing.

So true. Andy has one bad habit in particular that I could do without, but mostly his quirks just make me laugh. If you took them all away, he’d be a different person. Or at least, a blander version of himself.

You know, it’s probably worth turning that gentle, appreciative gaze on ourselves too.

Maybe we all have darkness inside of us and some of us are better at dealing with it than others.

I don’t think there’s any “maybe” about it.

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Overall I would say that I’m a pretty upbeat person. (Or at least even-keeled.) But there was one time in my life that sadness threatened to squash me. And for a short while, I let it. I carried that boulder and let it push me down, bend my back, until I was almost sinking into the ground.

Then one day I realized it wouldn’t stop. Not on its own. I had to decide to be stronger than my sadness, because it for sure wanted to be stronger than me.

The decision was instantaneous, but the strength wasn’t. It took months to build myself back up, to push off the boulder, to be happy and healthy again. But I did it. It’s possible. And it’s so worth the effort.

I wonder if that’s how darkness wins, by convincing us to trap it inside ourselves, instead of emptying it out.

I don’t want it to win.

Of course, battling sadness isn’t a one-and-done kind of thing. But every victory counts. Every victory helps.

Week in review (Feb 3, 2015)

As an experiment, I’m doing away with the bullet points, even though they’re like a security blanket for me. “Oh, this is just a list, not a real blog post.” But what does that even mean, lol? What’s a fake blog post? And why do I have to take everything so seriously?

transparent-posterTransparent

Like Jane the VirginTransparent jumped to the forefront of my attention after its Golden Globes wins. I binge-watched all ten episodes on Sat, Jan 24, thanks to Amazon making them free to stream for that day. (Normally the series is only available to Amazon Prime members.) And just so you know that I’m not a total slug: I was cleaning while I watched.

Transparent felt like an HBO show to me — a bit like Girls, actually — in the sense that it’s well-written, well-acted, and well-produced, but not something that would probably appeal to the mainstream. Not because the topic is niche (though I suppose some would argue that it is…) but rather because the tone of the show just isn’t easy to swallow. It’s a dark comedy (meaning there’s humor, but not the kind that makes you laugh out loud) starring a fairly “unlikable” family. They’re all messed up and abrasive, and they make a lot of bad decisions.

That said, you do sympathize with them, because they love each other, and they’re doing the best they can. The acting is excellent, and there’s interesting storytelling at work too. Flashbacks that parallel the present storyline, or enhance it with revelations. Unreliable narration, or arguably magical realism, depending on your interpretation. Also, the sets are kind of old-timey and gorgeous.

For the most part I do enjoy the show, but I wish there were at least a couple well-adjusted characters. Partly because it would just be a nice contrast, but mostly because I worry about the (false) implication that a trans person can’t have a “normal” family. That by being trans — even (or especially) when she was closeted — Maura irrevocably damaged the people who she loves. I know that isn’t what Transparent is trying to say, but I fear that (so far) the show is sort of saying it anyway.

Krohn Conservatory

On the same day that I was streaming Transparent, an old friend came into town, so I took a break and we went to see the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired garden show at Krohn Conservatory. It was small, but smelled amazing. Wasn’t too bad to look at, either.

Small but beautiful exhibit at Krohn Conservatory, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A photo posted by Kristan (@kristanhoffman) on

Note to self: Get a plant. Something green and alive to freshen up your home.

MV5BMTI0NjEwNDgwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwOTI1NTA3._V1_SX640_SY720_Mona Lisa Smile

Believe it or not, I’ve never seen Dead Poets Society, but I know the gist of it, and I’m pretty sure Mona Lisa Smile is the female version. Forward-thinking teacher inspires brilliant but hesitant young minds? Check!

Personally, I very much enjoyed the movie and its overtly feminist messaging. I also liked the entire cast, including the somewhat divisive Julia Roberts. (You either think she’s gorgeous or has a toothy horse face. I am in the former group.)

There aren’t any surprises in this movie, but that’s okay. It’s about character. My favorite moment, hands down, is when a heartbroken Betty (Kirsten Dunst) viciously lashes out at Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for being a slut with daddy issues, and Giselle just gathers her screaming, crying friend into her arms, and they hold each other.

Broomball

Usually Andy and I just play flag football from Sep to Nov, but this year the team wanted to try a few other sports in addition. Right now it’s broomball, which is like hockey without skates. And “brooms” instead of sticks. And a ball instead of a puck.

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Yeah, it’s weird. But also surprisingly fun!

Writer Unboxed & the Super Bowl

Speaking of sports… Since my latest Writer Unboxed post fell on Super Bowl Sunday, I decided to spotlight 3 football players and share what I’ve learned from them about pursuing dreams.

“Talent, Perseverance, and Hard Work: Lessons on Writing from Football”

Fred Jackson may never end up in the Hall of Fame, but he’s got heart and soul, and he’s the reason I fell in love with football again. Although the odds of him making it to the NFL seemed grim, he had faith in himself, and passion for the sport. He is living his dream because he looks at every step of the process as an opportunity to improve and impress.

That’s the kind of writer I want to be.

A long way from home

1.

We are two old friends catching up in a busy café. The smell of fresh bread wafts over the lunch crowd, everyone abuzz with pent-up energy from the rainy day and waning holidays. My friend is so tall that I feel like a child sitting across from him. But I listen attentively as he describes the various heartaches and struggles he has faced over the past four years.

Needing distance and a change, he has decided to leave our hometown and strike out on his own. I’m proud of him for making such a bold and difficult decision. I’m excited for him and all the new things he will experience. But I’m also sad that it has come to this, that he couldn’t find what he needed in the place where we grew up, with the people who were supposed to nurture him. He’s strong for all the wrong reasons.

Now he’s taking that strength and heading out a long way from home.

2.

When I left home over ten years ago, it was for college, not forever. At least, not intentionally forever. Now, I don’t know. I don’t know when — if — I will go back. I’m not opposed to living there again, but I’m not drawn to it either. I guess only time will tell.

Meanwhile, it’s harder than I expected to live far away from my parents. I worry about them a lot. About their age and their health. About their house and their cars. I worry about them working too hard and not eating very well. Most of all, I worry about whether or not they’re happy. And I worry about them worrying about me.

If you could put all of our worries into physical form and lay them end-to-end, maybe they would cover the the hundreds of miles that separate me and my parents. Maybe that’s their purpose, in a way. To bridge the gap. To connect us. To keep us intertwined, in each other’s hearts and minds, even when we’re far apart.

3.

This year, my mother and I will return to Taiwan for the first time in over a decade. I’m excited, and I’m scared. I can’t wait to see the teeming capital, taste fresh scallion pancake from a street vendor, smell the damp green mountains and the smoky sulfur pits. But what if Taiwan doesn’t live up to my treasured memories? Or worse: What if I don’t live up to Taiwan’s expectations of me?

I don’t know if everyone has these kinds of complicated feelings about their grandmotherland. I only know that I’ve been battling a sense of inadequacy my whole life, when it comes to my Asian heritage. Yet at the same time, it’s such a strong part of me. My values, my personality, my experiences. I don’t speak much Mandarin, but I sense there’s a deeper sort of language that I share with the place where my mother was born.

Maybe going back will prove that. Maybe not. I have to remind myself that either way, that’s not what this trip is about. This trip is about visiting with family, both living and dead. It’s about walking the same streets that my mother walked as a child, and listening to her stories. It’s about introducing my husband to one of my favorite places on earth. It’s about reacquainting myself with the part of my heart that lies an ocean away.

daughters-are-listening

Stuff worth reading

I’m well beyond the point where I believe that anyone else’s process can offer me a magic path to or through my own. But hearing about how other writers work can still be interesting, informative, and inspiring.

In “Writer’s Block, Schmiter’s Block,” Marissa Meyer offers some really smart strategies to get yourself writing.

Then, in “From Idea to Finished,” she generously details her entire process in 9 posts.

This conversation with Chris Rock is fantastic. It covers everything (comedy, politics, creativity, being a father), and it completely reinforces my belief that being funny requires an incredible amount of intelligence.

(Note: I’m not saying he’s right about everything. Just that he’s thoughtful and smart.)

To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

Last but not least, two great rants from my fellow “Wexlerites.” (Meaning that they are also represented by my agent Tina.)

“I See a Book and Get Angry and Write a Thing” by Anne Ursu

As Jensen says in an excellent essay: “Being fat isn’t a disability. Being fat is a physical state of being.”

Nobody tells you this when you’re growing up, but you can be fat and feel good about yourself. You can be fat and healthy. You can be fat and strong. And fat is just a word, that’s all—not an insult, not a feeling, not a moral failing.

What they might not know is the person next to them is sick—that the words they use warp into nourishment for a dormant eating disorder. What they might not know is they’re teaching the girls who listen to hate their bodies.

Your daughters are listening.

“Beware the Bitter Women” by Laura Ruby

When reviewers use gendered terms and expectations to review female writers, they reinforce stereotypes. That women—and their girl characters—should be quiet. That women writers should be non-confrontational. That women writers should be subtle or gentle or funny or absurd or ironic or even ridiculously vague in order not to alienate…well, who exactly?

Art exists not just to entertain—but also to challenge, to provoke, even to disturb. And no matter how funny/satirical/absurd/beautiful/heartfelt your writing is, when you’re asking thought-provoking questions that challenge the status quo—the way a sexist culture demeans girls, the way a racist culture endangers brown people—some readers might be lost in the process. Some might even find your work “hyper” or “preachy” or “strident,” oh my. But what if those readers aren’t the ones you’re writing for?