Their favorite things

Writers, filmmakers and other notable figures tip us off to the stuff that most excited them this year.

By Eryn Loeb - Compiled by Megan Doll

Published December 13, 2007 11:16AM (EST)

Yesterday we revealed our favorite fiction and nonfiction books of 2007. As part of Salon's book week, we also asked a selection of our favorite writers, filmmakers, musicians, actors and chefs to tell us what books, music, movies (and other assorted cultural material) got them excited this year.

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Tom Bissell (author, "The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son and the Legacy of Vietnam")

Book: I read a number of books this year that impressed me (Joshua Ferris' "Then We Came to the End"), frustrated me (Robert Draper's "Dead Certain"), moved me (Dave Eggers' "What Is the What") and delighted me (Jack Pendarvis' "Your Body Is Changing"), but the best book I read this year was Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke." Publishing a book about Vietnam in the same year as Denis Johnson, as I did, leaves one feeling a little like being crucified next to Jesus: in other words, nice try. Not only does it have the most impossibly beautiful and devastating first two and a half pages I've ever read, it creates a world that seems less imagined than opened for entry.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention my rereading of a great book I first read more than a decade ago: "Of a Fire on the Moon," Norman Mailer's account of the 1969 moon landing. Whether he is describing the blandly similar attractiveness of male astronauts' wives, the inner workings of rocketry, or the first thrilling moments human beings walked on what Mailer calls "the pale graveyard of sleep," the prose is never less than slightly crazy and totally astonishing. A month after I finished the book -- which is, ridiculously, out of print -- Mailer went unto the white creator. May he sleep well.

Video games: "Bioshock," an insanely intense shooter that a) imagines an underwater city ruled by an Ayn Randian overlord and b) sets out before the gamer a series of decisions and quandaries that, for maybe the first time in video game history, felt somehow inescapably ... moral. While I would hesitate to call "Bioshock" a legitimate work of art, its engrossing and intelligent story line made it the first game to absorb me without also embarrassing me for being so absorbed. Also, it's awfully hard to dislike a game in which you smoke cigarettes and drink vodka to regenerate your attack energy.

Edwidge Danticat (author of "Brother, I'm Dying")

Music: I'd recommend Wyclef Jean's "Carnival Vol. II, Memoirs of an Immigrant," his follow-up to his 1997 album "The Carnival." The album opens intimately with Wyclef's voice speaking over a throbbing rock-inspired beat as his daughter cries in the background. "Come on, Angie," he says. "Let Daddy finish writing." What Daddy ends up writing, and singing and rapping, is truly marvelous. With collaborators such as Norah Jones, Mary J. Blige, Paul Simon, Akon and Shakira (glorious once again), this is an album not to be missed.

Amy Bloom (author, "Away")

Book: The best book I did manage to read this year -- every single thing by Philip Pullman, a wonderful writer for adults and young people, heroic atheist and sensible man. What I can't wait to read: the new book by Ha Jin ["A Free Life"] and the new book by Nathan Englander ["The Ministry of Special Cases"]. Best collections of poetry were "After" by Jane Hirshfield and Mary Jo Bang's "Elegy."

Music: "Back to Black" by the completely and amazingly fucked-up Amy Winehouse.

Josh Schwartz (screenwriter and television producer, "Gossip Girl" and "The O.C.")

Book: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." The culmination of a series that simultaneously reminds me of when I was 10, and makes me wish I still was just so I could experience it as a kid. In a time of fracturing cultural touchstones, it's nice to have one that brought so many people together and was so imaginative, satisfying and fun. Also -- "Then We Came to the End" by Joshua Ferris: A really funny, smart book from a really promising first-time author. Can't wait to read what's next.

Music: "Boxer" by the National. As you hit 30 it gets harder to find music that feels like it's speaking to your experience, but this is a really emotional record full of great songs that would speak to any guy in his 20s and 30s trying to figure out growing up. And "Cease to Begin" by Band of Horses. Their first record had some truly great songs, this one is great through and through. Ben Bridwell has one of the great voices out there. A beautiful record.

Movie: "No Country for Old Men" is a return to the "Blood Simple," "Miller's Crossing" type of simpler but gripping storytelling. Javier Bardem's Chigurh is as frightening as Hannibal Lecter was when he first appeared on-screen. And "High School Musical 2." They were showing it on a plane I was on and everyone on the plane, young and old, were watching. That's some pop cultural power.

Darcey Steinke (author, "Easter Everywhere")

Book: "Love Is a Mix Tape" by Rob Sheffield. This book centers on Sheffield's wife, Renee, who died young and suddenly. It also details Sheffield's lifelong obsession with music, from the tape he made for his junior high dance to the songs that haunted and sustained him after his wife's death. Before Sheffield wrote for Rolling Stone he was working on a Ph.D., his thesis on the poet Mina Loy. "Love Is a Mix Tape" is a weird hybrid, an elegy, both poetic and hilarious, that details one man's faith in the restorative power of music.

Music: "White Chalk" by PJ Harvey. Driving to pick up my daughter at school I've been playing this album. It has a hypnotic pull; the songs are both fragile and ragged and remind me of the tunes an 1840s songstress might play as she traveled by wagon from town to town. The are spooky, partly because of the echo effects and the gothic tint to the lyrics but also because Harvey seems to be lamenting her escape from darkness. Besides Harvey, only Johnny Cash has written so well about the melancholy of maturing, that tinge of nostalgia for a darkness that has left.

TV: "My So Called Life," starring Claire Danes and created by Winnie Holtzman, was released this year on DVD. I missed it the first time around when it ran for one year from 1994 to 1995. Recently I watched all 19 episodes with my daughter, Abbie, who was born the year the show aired and is now 12. Claire Danes' Angela is a great role model. A spooky-smart high school girl, who questions the need for a definitive personality, thinks Anne Frank was lucky and, most endearingly, is ridiculously in love with Jordan Catalano, a dim but beautiful boy played by Jared Leto.

Alex Ross (author, The Rest Is Noise")

Music: The year produced a sizable stack of classical CDs that I strongly recommend: the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's heart-rending 1998 recital from Wigmore Hall, the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble's thrilling version of Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," and Paavo Järvi's punchy interpretations of Beethoven's Third and Eighth symphonies. But my record of the year came from outside the classical field. Radiohead are filed under rock, but to me they are collectively one of the most interesting composers in contemporary music. The secret weapon on "In Rainbows" is Phil Selway, drumming intricate, tricky, spiky patterns under the surface of what seems to be a lush, almost romantic album. Was there some story about the price? I forget: "Videotape" puts me in another world.

Mary Harron (director, "American Psycho" and "The Notorious Bettie Page")

Movie: I loved a lot of movies this year: "Control," "I'm Not There," "Michael Clayton," "No Country for Old Men," "The Savages," "Superbad." My greatest film experience happened on a rooftop in the desert in Jordan. I was there taking part in the Sundance Middle Eastern screenwriting lab, and every night they showed us movies under the stars. One night they showed us Yousry Nasrallah's 1999 film "El Medina." Set in Cairo, it showed a city that was sexy, turbulent and alive in a way New York was 30 years ago and is no longer. Watching it, I felt a new world opening up.

Malcolm Gladwell (author, "The Tipping Point" and "Blink")

Book: This past year I got what every fan of thrillers dreams of: a new Joseph Finder ["Power Play"], a new Lee Child ["Bad Luck and Trouble"] (maybe his best yet), a new and brilliant Daniel Silva ["The Secret Servant"] and, best of all, Robert Harris' "The Ghost" -- his finest book since "Fatherland."

Dean Wareham (musician, "Back Numbers," and author, "Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance")

Music: "Sound of Silver" by LCD Soundsystem. This took me back to about 1981, with hints of Arthur Baker, Talking Heads, New Order and Liquid Liquid. Great songs like "Someone Great," "North American Scum" and "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down."

Movie: "Margot at the Wedding." I was a music consultant on this film, which perhaps disqualifies me from commenting. Still, I loved it. It is hard-hitting and fast-paced, intelligent, and very, very funny.

Video: Laura Miller discusses two new Vietnam books

Miranda July (author, "No One Belongs Here More Than You"; director/writer, "Me and You and Everyone We Know")

Book: Israeli writer Etgar Keret's book of short stories "The Nimrod Flipout." I read this book in bed beside my boyfriend who was reading a much less interesting book and I kept shouting "Wow" and "No way" and "Oh my god" and my boyfriend would say, "What? what?" and I'd shake my head and say, "You wouldn't get it. You just have to read it." After I finished the book I immediately became more deadpan, more ridiculous and more in touch with my own mortality. My boyfriend was impressed with the new me and I told him, "It's that book, 'The Nimrod Flipout' -- it's opened up a whole new world for me." Now he's reading it, just so we can stay on the same plane of reality together.

Junot Díaz (author, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao")

Book: I have to break my own rules and recommend for the 1,000th time Mohsin Hamid's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." Just one of those achingly assured novels that makes you happy to be a reader.

Daniela Sea (actor, "The L Word," "Itty Bitty Titty Committee")

Book: Jim Harrison's "The Beast That God Forgot to Invent." In this book of three novellas, nature seeps out from every line. It was at the same time painful and inspiring to read such open and frank truths written in the poetic language he is famous for. My heart was elated and broken apart all at once.

Music: La Monte Young's "The Well Tuned Piano." These records are amazing and move me so fundamentally. They are like nothing I have ever heard before ... truly magical, all on a differently tuned piano.

Movie: "Away From Her," directed by Sarah Polley. I saw this movie for the first time at the Berlinale Film Festival and was truly amazed. Sarah Polley is my hero for making this her directorial debut. Julie Christie, one of my all-time favorites, plays a woman who is dealing with Alzheimer's. It's one goodbye after another, as her mind's lights slowly go out.

Christine Vachon (producer, "I'm Not There")

TV: "Aliens in America" is the funniest show I've ever seen -- awkward and sharp and adolescent. I love all the actors and think the teenage casting is spot-on, but the parents rock too.

Luc Sante (author, "Kill All Your Darlings" and "Low Life")

Book: "The Long Embrace" by Judith Freeman. This creatively obsessive study of Raymond Chandler's marriage restores literary biography to what it stopped being long ago: a genuine engagement with the subject's soul.

Music: "Untrue" by Burial. Shards of dance-hall music stretched and twisted until it sounds like a heap of ruins, but shot through with elegiac shafts of light. I hear jungle in this, of course, as well as, weirdly, a vein of English classical music, from Purcell to Vaughn Williams.

Movie: "Out One," by Jacques Rivette. Yes, it was shot in 1969 or so, but it wasn't shown anywhere until recently, and not in the U.S. until this year, and it's so much deeper and more ambitious than any current commercial release it's not even funny. It's a collective portrait of disillusioned revolutionaries, a treatise on the art of acting, a mystery story in which you first have to find what the mystery is, and much, much more.

Eric Roth (screenwriter, "Munich" and the forthcoming "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

Book: I have been a longtime admirer of the author Denis Johnson and there was no finer experience for me than reading his "Tree Of Smoke," which reminded me again that deception defines every human in every war, and that I could only wish I was half the writer he was. Philip Roth's "Exit Ghost" is just that, the perfect stage direction for us all. "John Fowles, the Journals, Vol. II," because you know before he does what his life is to become, and you watch with fascination, affection and horror, as it unfolds. A helluva good read is "Caught Stealing" by Charlie Huston, which just keeps kicking the holy shit out of you.

Movie: In the area that I have worked for far too long, the movies, of what I have seen to date I would name five: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," for its stark realization of Ron Hansen's non-narrative muse on the price of fame. David Fincher's "Zodiac," for the movie's respect for the rule of law ... probable cause as a forgotten linchpin of democracy. The Coen brothers for their "No Country for Old Men," because they understand we are defined by our landscape, for good or for evil. "The Darjeeling Limited," which made luggage as important as "Sullivan's Travels" did. And "Knocked Up," because Judd Apatow knows his dick from a hole in the ground.

Tom Colicchio (restaurateur and head judge, "Top Chef")

Book: "The Many Lives of Tom Waits" by Patrick Humphries -- a glimpse into the life and art of one of my favorite musicians.

Music: Iron & Wine's "The Shepherd's Dog" -- Sam Beam's most orchestrated album. Reflective and cool.

Movie: "American Gangster" -- New York City in despair and disorder, and two actors at the top of their game.

Van Hunt (musician, "The Popular Machine")

Book: "Mr. Untouchable." I enjoyed the read. I could empathize with the anguish of a person who, though because of his own actions, is at the mercy of his failing relationships.

Music: Bach cello suites. This is simply the most complete musical statement that will ever be made with one instrument.

Fenton Bailey (director/producer, "Inside Deep Throat" and "The Eyes of Tammy Faye")

Book: "The 4-Hour Workweek." We all know that workaholic America could never embrace European-style idleness. So Timothy Ferriss does it by packaging it as a do less, get-rich, self-help regimen, kind of like eat yourself thin. A fabulous heresy that dares to declare e-mail is pointless, shopping a waste, and modern life rubbish.

Music: "Blackout" by Britney Spears. This is not a perverse choice. "Blackout" is a near-perfect concoction of Disco Noir and is a record you can actually listen to and -- if so moved -- write a thesis about. With a lurid self-exploitational feel that's compellingly icky, it explores the Matrix-like layers of Hollywood narcissism. An album I bet that both the Pet Shop Boys and Madonna wish they had made.

Movie: "Julia Attacks!" is a TMZ video in which Julia Roberts chases down and gives a telling off to a paparazzi. Julia -- absent from our screens for too long -- is completely convincing in this role as an angry mom. The car chase is excellent and the cinematography visceral and immersive. Some moviegoers might be disappointed that this movie is less than a minute long because Julia has her costar turn off the camera before she delivers her speech about children and paparazzi, but most movies are too long anyway.

KT Tunstall (musician, "Drastic Fantastic")

Book: "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey. Gave me insight and deeper empathy toward drug addictions. Apparently the book -- which was purportedly an autobiography -- was slightly fabricated, which caused a big furor, but I don't think that affects the power of it. It's harrowing, but worth it!

Music: "Iodene" by Halfcousin. I played in his band a few years ago and he remains a huge source of inspiration. A brilliant mix of punk and folk. This guy definitely puts the mental into experimental.

Movie: "No Country for Old Men" by the Coen brothers. Amazing script, amazing actors, and plenty of time to digest it all with brilliant pauses. I love a bit of dark humor, and these two directors always deliver that with their excellent films. Some of the best one-liners I've heard since "Pulp Fiction."

Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket, author, "A Series of Unfortunate Events," and musician)

Book: Desperate, spooky and lively, the best book of poetry I read this year was Cate Marvin's "Fragment of the Head of a Queen."

Music: A conflict of interest prevents me from touting "In Our Bedroom After the War" by Stars as the best album of the year, so I'll go with the Dirty Projectors' glorious "Rise Above," which grabs the backing choir from Prince's "Kiss" and makes them the Pips to David Longstreth's passionate if tipsy Gladys, chops in some guitar from South Africa, muddles around with a little cruise ship percussion and whips the whole thing up into the sort of album Sufjan Stevens would make if he wanted to rock your ass. I listened to it five or six times before learning that it's a cover of an entire album by Black Flag. I never listened to Black Flag in my life -- back in the day there were too many Human League 12-inch singles to buy -- and I love this thing to death. Hands down, the dance-around-in-your-underwear album of the year.

Movie: The best film of the year is the two-minute thing on YouTube of Doris Lessing learning she's won the Nobel Prize. I watch it over and over. It's an inspiration.

Bobby Flay (restaurateur and "Iron Chef" star)

Movie: "American Gangster." I love seeing the New York of the '70s and '80s that I remember growing up. All the details were perfect, especially the wardrobe. And I love Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

Jack McBrayer (actor, "30 Rock")

Book: "Ant Farm" by Simon Rich. This book is insanely funny. I am such a fan of Simon Rich. Plus it's broken up into small pieces for easy, short-attention-span reading ... that's what I'm talking about.

Music: "Odessey and Oracle" by the Zombies. My brother-in-law turned me on to this one. It's from 1968 and has stereo and mono versions of the songs. My only regret is that I wasn't as familiar with them earlier. They are a phenomenal group.

Movie: "Knocked Up." This Apatow fella I've heard so much about can do no wrong. I loved the story, and all of the performances were so hysterical. I must say, though, that Kristen Wiig could just sit there and still crack me up.

Christopher Noxon (author, "Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up")

Music: My favorite CD this year was Beirut's "The Flying Club Cup." In a pretty great year for music, one record I can't shake is a new one from the maddeningly young New Mexican gypsy-bandleader trumpet god Zach Condon. Shambling, sweet and waltzy, it's a gorgeous sound. Runners-up: Feist's "The Reminder" and Radiohead's "In Rainbows."

Movie: I've had long debates about it since, but hands-down the best time this year at the movies was seeing "Superbad" in a big suburban multiplex opening weekend. A badass combo platter of rude and sweet. I haven't felt that kind of unhinged hilarity in a movie house in forever. Lingering worry: that a supposedly candid look at how today's teens actually talk was really just a front for the in jokes of middle-aged Jewish comedy writers, just like "Sex and the City" was less about go-go Manhattan ladies than bitchy urban homosexuals.

Hesta Prynn (musician, Northern State, "Can I Keep This Pen?")

Book: "No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy. I heard wonderful things about this book and knew the movie was coming out. I brought it on tour and was captivated every night. It's a short book, but Cormac McCarthy is a very dense writer as anyone who's read his work knows, so it took me most of Canada to read. Haven't seen the movie yet but I will.

Music: "Baby 81" by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Coolest band ever. Awesome album. Listening till my iPod explodes.

David Cronenberg (director, "Eastern Promises")

Book: I read a Henry James novel published in 1897 called "What Maisie Knew," about a child of divorce who bounces back and forth between her soon-remarried parents like a tennis ball. The relationship of James' language to the psychology of his characters and then to their actions is dense and fascinating and pleasurable. It is also a very emotionally charged story, something you almost don't notice until it flattens you. The experience of reading the book was enhanced by the fact that I was reading an edition published in 1947 that came from my father's library. I loved it.

John Darnielle (musician, the Mountain Goats, "Get Lonely")

Music: "Songs for a Dark Horse" by Bowerbirds. I toured with them twice this year and heard their songs every night: never got tired of any of the songs. Seriously. That's how good the melodies are.

"The Adventures of Ghosthorse & Stillborn" by CocoRosie. "Werewolf" delivers the best wash-that-man-right-outta-my-hair jam since "I Will Survive"; most divisive band around, which ought to and does count for something.

"Phantom Limb" by Pig Destroyer. This is like the new rosetta stone for riffs. There are so many of them. And they're so good. And the nature of the aggression is kind of tempered differently than it was on "Terrifyer." Amazing album.

Curtis Sittenfeld (author, "The Man of My Dreams")

Book: The best book I read this year is the novel "The Cottagers" by Marshall N. Klimasewiski. It's about two academic-ish couples who rent a house together in the off-season on remote Vancouver Island, and then something goes horrendously wrong. A lot of the reason I loved this book is that you can really sink your teeth into it -- it's the opposite of glib or breezy. Klimasewiski calmly and persuasively goes into many characters' heads, including the locals, and he's great at evoking a sense of place. It's a novel that's suspenseful, psychologically smart, and extremely well-written.

Gary Ross (director, "Seabiscuit" and the forthcoming "The Free State of Jones")

Book: "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas" by Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher. This biography of Thomas should not be confused with his weak rebuttal in the form of an autobiography. Merida and Fletcher set out to answer one of the imponderable questions of our age: How did a poor black kid from "Pin Point," Ga., raised by a single mom, helped by affirmative action, ever turn into Clarence Thomas? You might have more luck dwelling on the origins of the universe. But these authors tell a vivid and compelling story that grips you and doesn't let you go. It's like reading a mystery and watching a train wreck all at the same time.

"Redemption," by Nicholas Lemann. This chronicle of Adelbert Ames, a "carpetbagger" governor of Mississippi, attempts to set the record straight about one of the most crucial and misunderstood periods of American history: Reconstruction. Almost a hundred years ago, D.W. Griffith lied to us in "Birth of a Nation" and no one has tackled the era in a popular narrative since. Lemann tells the truth: that Reconstruction ended with a genocidal pogrom visited on black people by the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, the Knights of the White Camelia and other white vigilante groups who never stopped fighting the Civil War. Some of this is hard to read, especially for Civil War junkies who would rather indulge the gentlemanly mythologies of Robert E. Lee. That's all the more reason to pick up a copy.

Movie: "In the Shadow of the Moon." This surprisingly moving documentary about the 12 men who went to the moon was more about the wisdom of aging and the bravery of youth than it was about the Apollo program. You see this group of men literally gain perspective on the tiny, fragile planet where they live. It was marvelous.

"Persepolis." A complicated and nuanced portrait of a modern girl fleeing the repression of fundamentalist Iran. Beyond showing us that animation can easily be an adult medium, it paints a rich character study without ever devolving to polemics. She experiences as much turmoil in Paris after her flight as she ever did inside Iran. It's a beautiful movie, subtly told and richly drawn in black-and-white.

TV: "Kitchen Nightmares." The Gordon Ramsay "reality show" is one of the few in that genre that is actually "real." Despite the amped-up drama at commercial breaks, cheesy narration and cloying music, you see people struggling to save their restaurants every week, and this "life and death" drama could never be feigned. Ramsay is a brilliant chef, compassionate mentor and tough SOB who really seems to care about the people he is helping. We never miss an episode with our kids.

"Man vs. Wild." We were watching this show when they still pretended that the hero, Bear Grills, did all these feats of survival without assistance. Then they had "Man-vs.-wild-gate" and it was revealed that Bear had spent a night or two in a four-star hotel. I don't really care. I've seen this guy start a fire with a rock in the middle of a swamp, climb inside a dead sheep to stay warm, use his wristwatch as a compass and save himself from quicksand. He deserves a night in a hotel. This is a great show.

Eryn Loeb

Eryn Loeb is a staff writer at Nextbook.


Compiled by Megan Doll

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