Seen and Heard, 2008

In lieu of a numbered list, here you’ll find a bulleted list — well, several of them — covering my favorite books and movies of 2008.  And, because I’m slow, a goodly number of them will be of items released before 2008.  But that’s when I saw them.  So there.  Enjoy!

In Theaters:


  • Let The Right One In – Easily the best vampire movie of 2008, and likely the best of the past few years (if not longer).  ‘Let The Right One In’ was bizarre, brooding, bloody, and just right — if frequently in an uncomfortable, awkard sort of way. [imdb]
  • The Quantum of Solace – ‘Casino Royale’ set a high standard, of which Quantum fell short; but it was still worlds above the most recent Bond movies prior to ‘Casino Royale’.  Also, I tend to have a soft spot for supervillains with credible plans (which is to say, impossible plans, but at least plans that don’t aim for total world domination… right away).
  • There Will Be Blood – I was sold from the opening dissonance.  Not an easy movie by most standards, but well worth the challenge.  Dry, solid, menacing.  Powerful.
  • The Dark Knight – What’s to say?  It’s mostly been said.  Superb.  Almost pitch-perfect, although I could have done with a slightly more subtle Two-Face.
  • Tropic Thunder – I was completely startled by ‘Tropic Thunder’, which I did not expect to like at all.  Not only was the movie hilarious, but — well, mostly it was just hilarious.  Disconcertingly so.  Also, disconcerting.
  • Tell No One – Not necessarily what you’d expect from an American mystery re-written for France… but surprisingly excellent.  The premise — a widower, years after his wife’s death, receives an email (sort of) indicating that his wife might still be alive — starts off weak, but is worked into the otherwise tightly spun plot.  Tension-filled, confusing, and humane. [imdb]
  • Iron Man – This was just spectacular, big screen superhero sci-fi fun.  Well put-together, well told.  And shiny.



  • The Man from Earth – I watched this based on a recommendation, but without knowing what it was about.  You should too. [imdb]
  • Triplets of Belleville – An off-kilter cartoon, at turns sad and brilliant, that takes you on a brilliant romp.  Worth it for the dog alone.  The dog!  The animation is gorgeous to watch, and the scenery (and plot) is wild. [imdb]
  • The Orphanage – Standard-issue horror movies tend to be crap — sometimes by design (which can work quite well), but just as often not; it’s the rare horror movie that’s earnest and atmospheric and really compelling.  The Orphanage is one such movie.
  • Redbelt – I will say right away that I’m a fan of David Mamet.  I enjoy the unique… cadence of his dialogue, and his films.  Some people do not warm to the style, and ‘Redbelt’ is likely not for them.  I enjoyed ‘Redbelt’ quite a lot.  By comparison, I’d say ‘Redbelt’ is better than ‘Spartan’ or ‘Heist’, but not as complete as ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ or ‘House of Games’. [imdb]


Wild Trees, by Richard Preston

There are few stand-outs from among the books I read in 2008.  Unusually, I have few fiction recommendations to pass along — and none that were published this year.  I look forward to reading through some outstanding fiction this year.  We’ll see how that goes.

  • Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh [nonfiction] – Despite not having read Freakonomics (which, apparently, uses anecdotes from Venkatesh in its telling), I was intrigued by the premise of this book — a sociologist drawn into a gang.  I was surprised by how humanizing and “impartial” (though that’s not the right word) Venkatesh manages to be while still remaining true to the basic facts of the places he hangs out.  You’d think “visits” would be a more appropriate verb, but you’d be wrong.  A surprising book, if not totally worldview-shattering.
  • A Night in the Cemetery, by Anton Chekhov [fiction] – (Mostly) early short stories by Chekhov, stories of foreboding and murder and mystery.  A collection of crime stories that manages to be much more.  A really solid group of stories.
  • Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt [nonfiction] – Maybe you spend enough time in traffic during the day, and couldn’t care less about why it exists — and maybe you wonder.  Maybe you’re curious why people drive like they do; sure, you know why you drive the way you do, but–well, maybe you don’t.  A fascinating look at traffic, built on anecdotes and research, stories and experiments.  A (startlingly) fun read, quick, entertaining, and quite possibly useful.
  • The Year Million, edited by Damien Broderick  [nonfiction] – An anthology of speculative nonfiction examining what the far future will look like.  Not 100 or 200 years into the future but, as the title suggests, orders of magnitude more.  The writing is uneven — not surprising, given the wide assortment of authors — but the unabashed creativity and imagining is not: regardless of what ends up being true, the writers here have created a magnificent (and daring) work of speculation.
  • Out of Eden, by Alan Burdick  [nonfiction] – You may hear people speak disparagingly of alien mussels and invasive shrubs and non-native weeds.  It’s doubtful you’ve traveled as many places as Alan Burdick has specifically to talk about those things, however.  And you probably haven’t uncovered the nuances between the terms, or the tensions among different groups of people and how they conceive of such species.  If you’re concerned about invasives, you’ll learn a lot from this book — although you may walk away from it with a more sophisticated appreciation for the different ways species mix in our world.
  • The True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey [fiction] – True history is misleading, though the book is based on a historical figure — 19th Century Australian outlaw/folk hero/bandit Ned Kelly and, you guessed it, his gang.  Told in many different ways, in wildly creative “dialogue” (and dialect), ‘True History’ is a compelling, fast read.  (Although you ought to look at the first few pages, and see if the style is something you can tolerate — because if it’s not, the book will be truly unbearable and, worse, unfinishable for you!) 
  • Wild Trees, by Richard Preston [nonfiction] – A look at the eclectic communities of climbers and researchers structured around the mysterious, giant trees of coastal California.  You wouldn’t expect the world’s largest things to be as secret as some of them are — it turns out to be much more difficult to figure out the height of these giants than you’d imagine.  A curious turn for the writer of The Hot Zone, but one to which he’s clearly committed — the time and effort spent on this book are clearly impressive.