Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues"
The Ramayana is one of the most significant works in the Indian literary canon. It is also, to animator Nina Paley, "the greatest break-up story ever told." As she interweaves the classic story of Sita, the most codependent woman to fall for an avatar of Vishnu, with that of Nina, a modern-day San Francisco illustrator whose marriage is falling apart, Paley creates a narrative that's at once timeless and utterly original. That she did it single-handedly, on her laptop, just makes it all the more astonishing. Combining the bubbly vocals of 1920s singer Annette Hanshaw, supersaturated visuals, wry humor and devastating heartache, Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" has been making the film festival rounds, and is playing this weekend at the Seattle Interational Film Festival. If you're not near the Pacific Northwest, you can watch the eye-popping trailer online, and clamor for the full-length version to get the wider distribution it deserves. -- Mary Elizabeth Williams
Robert Forster's "The Evangelist"
I've never met anybody who knew the music of the Australian band the Go-Betweens and felt lukewarm about it, and although I'm sure those people are out there, I prefer to believe they simply don't exist. "The Evangelist" is former Go-Between Robert Forster's first solo album in 11 years, a direct and intensely heartfelt response to the death of his longtime bandmate and writing partner, Grant McLennan, in 2006. "The Evangelist" is replete with the glorious, swirling guitar sound the Go-Betweens, in their various incarnations over the years, were known for. But what's most affecting is the cracked, beautifully weathered quality of Forster's voice: This is a heavy-hearted record that somehow, amazingly, manages not to be heavy-spirited. -- Stephanie Zacharek
"Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth" by David Browne
During their 27-year career, noise rockers Sonic Youth sculpted post-punk into alternative rock, using tools like feedback, controlled chaos and primal rhythm. Few bands could approximate their imaginative song structure, screwy guitar tunings or earsplitting volume -- perhaps only Royal Trux and Dinosaur Jr. count as direct descendants. But the Youth's art world sensibility set the ultracool, ironic pace for the alternative nation, and leaders Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon lured Nirvana and Beck to the minor major label DGC, securing mainstream success for their protégés, though never quite themselves. If "Goodbye 20th Century," David Browne's rollicking, epic biography of the band, which hits stores Monday, lacks lurid tales of drugged-out rock-star misbehavior, it's not the author's fault. Despite their wild, experimental anti-aesthetic, the group has lived shockingly normal lives. Moore was nicknamed Opie as a kid and married the Warholishly detached Gordon when they were in their early 20s. New York scared Lee Ranaldo so much at first that he ditched his apartment and ran back upstate. Steve Shelley was embarrassed to tell his parents that he played in a band called the Crucifucks. Faced with such straitlaced bourgeois bohemians, Browne cannily opts to tell, in a crisp, novelistic style, the compelling story of the cultural tornado of galleries, rock clubs and unique personalities (Lydia Lunch, Kurt Cobain and Chloë Sevigny, to name a few) Sonic Youth swirled around in, the band's ongoing fight to maintain the purity of their vision, and above all, their shared passion for new ideas and sounds. -- James Hannaham
"Cranford" on DVD
With gas prices soaring, a political campaign on the verge of turning toxic and the housing market in free fall, sometimes you want to escape to a place where the event of the week is the arrival of the spring gloves. "Cranford," a five-hour miniseries based on novels by Elizabeth Gaskell and just released on DVD, depicts life in a small town that's the 19th century British equivalent of Mayberry, RFD -- except that Cranford is run by formidable ladies instead of amiable hayseeds. Best of all, those ladies are played by a premium assortment of actresses: Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton, among them. Actually, Cranford sees its share of tumult (death, crime, a new doctor) but all of it is handled with a deft, gentle humor and a sense of abiding sanity and decency that makes this series balm for those rubbed raw by the present age. -- Laura Miller
Death Cab for Cutie's "Narrow Stairs"
They're the dependably catchy band you almost hate to love, with the insult of every chafingly melodramatic lyric ("I spent a week in Silver Lake, the California sun cascading down my face") adding to the baseline injuries inflicted by Ben Gibbard's oversensitive-boy voice. Despite unforgettable, moving songs like "A Movie Script Ending," sweet little ditties like "Passenger Seat" and catchy tunes like "The Sound of Settling," it's tough not to be haunted by the fact that this fey alterna-rock is custom-made for the "O.C." soundtrack. Perhaps sensing their burgeoning popularity among a new generation of faux-hipsters who consider "Snow Patrol" edgy, Death Cab's latest album features the same heartfelt love songs, but with darker, heavier instrumentation that calls to mind the best guitar rock of more reliably raucous bands like "Built to Spill." "Narrow Stairs" marks the undeniable evolution of an earnest standby; cast aside your prejudices and you'll find one confident, intricately crafted, beautifully arranged song after another. -- Heather Havrilesky
Patricia Arquette's "Medium" wake-ups (watch the video!)
Sure. Any actor can win props for mastering Shakespeare or Chekhov, but over four seasons of "Medium," NBC's creepy-cheesy ESP procedural, Patricia Arquette has conquered a far more specialized skill: the act of waking in terror. Her character, Allison DuBois, is a police-employed medium visited every night by extremely detailed scenes of mayhem. (In her spare dream-time, she also catches her husband in a compromising position with his business partner.) These visions invariably jar Allison from her slumbers, which means that Arquette has to "wake up" an average of three to four times an episode -- that's edging up to 100 rude awakenings a season. It's true that, in each instance, the same basic arc is observed: Allison lurching upward from her pillow, her face clouded with second sight. But to this seemingly straightforward task Arquette imparts a near-infinite timbral variety: gasps, whispers, groans, shudders, hisses, sighs and the occasional gulp of revelation. Not even Ravel could have spun so many variations from a single theme. Arquette has already won an Emmy for her work on "Medium." Let's give her what she really needs: a year's supply of Lunesta. -- Louis Bayard ******
What's on your list to read, watch, do this week? Share your recommendations with other readers.
Catch up on recent Salon Critics' Picks.