Best Movie Of The Year? I Review Black Swan

 Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky.

 Remember that scene in Empire Strikes Back where Luke goes into the cave on Dagobah and finds Darth Vader? He fights Vader, cuts off his head, and then discovers that he was fighting himself the whole time?

 Black Swan is like a two hour version of that scene, but with more tutus and less lightsabers.

This has been a tough year for film. At the box office, sure, but most importantly in terms of quality, at xenozoic.jpgleast in my opinion. Although there have been films that impressed me on a technical level (127 Hours, Social Network, Inception), there have been very few movies that have moved me on a personal or emotional level, and isn’t that what movies are supposed to do? So I went into my Black Swan screening with some hope, but mostly with trepidation. This year has been full of films that overpromised and under delivered, and while I LOVE Darren Aronofsky’s films, I’m extremely wary of hype.

I’m happy to report that my fears were unjustified. Although this is a bold statement to make about the guy that made Requiem For A Dream, I believe that this may be Aronofsky’s best film to date

 Here’s the skinny: Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, an up and coming ballerina  finally on the verge of success after years of hard work. However, as she gets close to achieving her goals, she finds that the price for achieving artistic perfection might be too high. An overbearing mother, an overly strict director, and new, younger competition in Mila Kunis all contribute to the melodrama.

 This is a stunning film. I can’t think of a single level that this film doesn’t excel in; from Aronofsky’s extremely tight but fluid direction, to Portman’s career-best performance, to Clint Mansell’s exquisite score, this movie outdoes itself at every level. Even the sound design is amazing.  I want to use the word groundbreaking for this film, but that’s not quite accurate; we’ve seen similar work from directors like Polanski and Malle, and even Aronofsky himself. It’s just that we haven’t seen anything quite like it in so very long. This movie sets the bar high as to what film can achieve, and it’s a master class in how to create tension for film. I just hope there are other directors and movies willing to step up to the plate.

Although it’s still early in the season, this will probably end up being my pick for best film of 2010, which also means that it will probably get shut out at the Oscars, leaving me to curse wildly at my television this spring.  

Rating: A+

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Favourite Comics of 2010: Best Collections, Translations, & Reprints

As the end of the year is looming, it’s time for all of those annoying annual “best of” lists you don’t care about. My plan is that I’ll do separate lists on movies and music as well, but since my main focus this year has been comic books, I’ll be doing multiple lists for that medium (Best mini, best ongoing, best graphic novel, etc). Some lists may be “Top 10”, some may be “Top 15”, “Top 3” etc. Depends on the list. Also, this shouldn’t need saying, but this is MY opinion, and MY opinion only.  What’s “Best” is highly subjective, and so I give you my favourites.

My first list is quite vague, but what I’m referring here are collections of existing or rare material, or English translations of existing work.  It doesn’t matter when the source material was originally published, and so the inclusion of a title on this list could be because of the quality of the original material (20th Century Boys or Xenozoic comes to mind), or it could be because of the design of the collection itself (Batwoman, Beasts Of Burden, Wednesday Comics). In addition, some of my choices here have some new material in them as well, and  many of these are the first time much of this work has been collected for western audiences.

15) King Of The Flies Vol. 1 by Mezzo and Pirus (Fantagraphics)

This is an oversized collection of loosely connected short noir/horror stories, originally published in France. Fans of the witty writing and eccentric art detail of Charles Burns will find much to love here,

14) Tumor by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Noel Tuazon (Archaia Press)

With all of the press that greeted this last year as the first graphic novel created expressly for the Amazon Kindle, it became easy to overlook the fact that this was an extremely well-written, hard-boiled crime noir. Lovers of Criminal, or The Last Days Of American Crime should run to pick this up.   

13) Tall Tales by Tom Sniegoski and Jeff Smith.

Those of you who have been waiting for new Bone material for the past 6 years might want to wait a little longer; There’s new material here, but not a lot. What this is, is essentially a reprinting of “Stupid Stupid Rat-Tails”, a prequel of sorts to Jeff Smith’s hugely influential Bone series, with a new “framing” story, and some other new adventures featuring that mythical figure mentioned in the original series, Big Johnson Bone. While there is enough new material to justify owning both versions, I would only recommend this to die-hard Bone fans.

12) Torpedo Vol. 1 & 2 by Enrique Sanchez Abuli & Jordi Bernet (IDW Publishing)

Torpedo is a series of gritty, but fun little crime tales that feature a thoroughly deplorable, yet highly entertaining villain. No, not Gordon Campbell. The stories are set in depression-era, crime-ridden New York, and Abuli and Benet hold a master class on how to tell small, action packed crime stories. Very good translation as well.

11)  It Was the War Of The Trenches by Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics)

Although Jaques Tardi is probably most well-known for his Adele Blanc-Sec series of comic books, it’s the War Of The Trenches that has solidified him as one of the world’s premier comic book creators. Objectivity is NOT the point here, and it’s one of the best treatises about the horrors of war that I’ve seen in comic book form.

10) The Original Johnson Vol. 1 by Trevor Von Eden (IDW/ComicMix)

Yes, THAT Trevor Von Eden. Of Batman, and Green Arrow fame. The Original Johnson was a recent discovery for me, and I’m so glad that I stumbled across it. It turns out that Von Eden has been busy creating this original graphic novel for the past few years for the ComicMix website. This paperback edition collects the first half of the series for the first time. It’s the story of Jack Johnson, a staggeringly important figure not only in the history of American boxing, but also in the history of American race relations. Readers familiar with Geoffery Ward’s magnificent Unforgivable Blackness won’t find much new here, and one gets the impression that Von Eden isn’t really interested in critical analysis so much as he is in penning a love letter to one of his heroes. That being said, the revelation of Von Eden as major force to be reckoned with in the field of graphic biographies is exciting news, and I would say that this is one of the best looking books of the year, despite the simplicity of the soft cover edition. I can’t wait for volume two, which promises material not released online yet.

9) The Amazing Screw-On Head And Other Curious Objects by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse)

There aren’t many single issue stories that justify the hardcover treatment, but this seminal 2002 humour/horror/adventure story is definitely one of them. Although I can’t say this that owning this would be essential if you already own the original, the inclusion of other rare Mignola material was more than enough to include it on this list.

8) Xenozoic Tales by Mark Shultz (Flesk Publications)

Another recent discovery by me, and one that I’m kicking myself for having missed out on for so long. This is a softcover collection of a fantastic late mid to late 80’s adventure series by Mark Shultz. It has everything you’d want a post-apocalyptic adventure serial to have: Curvy women, muscle cars, and rampaging dinosaurs. I loved the hell out of this book, and the Tarzan influences throughout made this one of the most entertaining adventure comics I’ve read this year. Perfect for new and old readers alike, as it contains all of the original run.   

7) Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams (DC Comics)

This Detective Comics arc was one of the most critically acclaimed comics of 2009, and for good reason. First of all, let’s discuss the art: Game changing. Seriously. J.H. Williams has raised the bar here in regards to how superhero comics can (and arguably should) look. Second of all, let’s talk about the art some more: It’s not many artists that can upstage Greg Rucka’s tightly plotted scripts. That’s not what happens here, but this is arguably one of the best looking superhero comics in recent memory so you can see how people would get that impression. In regards to the writing: Rucka’s Kate Kane is a likable, engaging character, with back story leaking from every page, and while I’m looking forward to the new series that JH Williams is doing next year, I worry that it won’t be the same without Rucka. This new hardcover edition is essential for superhero fans.

6) Beasts of Burden – Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson (Dark Horse)

Another one of 2009’s most recognized mini series is finally collected, this time with the original BOB stories from Dark Horse’s vaunted “Book Of….” Horror Anthology series from a few years back. The gist of this concept is this: Gang of talking dogs fight team up to solve paranormal crimes. Goofy right? Yes. But no. These stories ooze heart, and if you can read these without shedding a tear or two it’s quite possible that you don’t have a soul.

5) The Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kershl (TX Comics)

 One of the most amazing comics on the interweb finally gets a hardcover collection. This one might be tough to track down, but it’s worth the price and effort. It deals with the adventures of a mute Sasquatch, and the talking animals that live in his forest. Fans of Bone, LOTR, or Narnia, would be well advised to give this a try, and Kershl is quickly becoming one known as one of the most unusual artists in the medium for a reason.

4)  Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales and Juajo Guarnido (Dark Horse)

This is a collection of 3 stories originally published in Belgium and France. While 2 of them have been published in North America before, the third is seeing an English translation for the first time. Sucks if you already have the first two (guilty!) but awesome for new readers. Don’t let the talking animals  distract you: These are slick, but gritty detective stories that any noir fan could appreciate, not to mention featuring some of the most beautiful artwork that you’ll see in a comic book this year.

2 & 3) Pluto/20th Century Boy by Naoki Usawa (Viz Media)

These are two VERY different series, with very different subject matter. But because they are by the same creator, and because they are being seen by western audiences by the first time, I thought it made sense to put them together (Pluto is 8 volumes, and the last of those came out this year, 20th Century is about 12 volumes into a 22 volume story). Pluto is a reimagining of the seminal Astro Boy manga from the early ’60’s, while 20th Century Boys is a slow-building, conspiracy laden potboiler, with secrets and mysteries on every page. Highly recommended for those who love their mysteries peeled back slowly, but this is about as good as mystery comics get.

1) Wednesday Comics by various creators (DC Comics). This beautiful hardcover collection of one of 2009’s most exciting mainstream comic book experiments is one of the most beautiful books I own. Truly indispensable, not only for its experimanental exploration of the medium by some very interesting comic talent (Paul Pope, Karl Kerschl, Brian Azzarello, and many more), but also for some truly engaging superhero stories that are superior to most of what’s on the stands right now.

Next up: My favourite comic book mini series of the year!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 21: DC Comics – Nightwing, The Outsiders, and Plastic Man

Nightwing –   The Chuck Dixon trades: A Knight In Bludhavem, Rough Justice, Love And Bullets, A Darker Shade Of Justice, The Hunt For Oracle, Big Guns, On The Razor’s Edge, Year One

Although most non-comic book fans wouldn’t be able to pick Nightwing out of a line-up of Dancing With The Stars contestants, he’s actually one of DC’s most important characters. He’s Robin, or to be more accurate, the first Robin. (For those of you who are counting, we’re on number 5 right now). Currently, he’s Batman. Well, one of them. Long story. And not a good one.

Although there had been couple of mini-series featuring the character, this was the first Nightwing ongoing, and it ended up lasting over 150 issues, which is an eternity for a superhero comic book these days. The writer for the first 70 or so of those issues was Chuck Dixon, and a strong case could be argued that the series ended the minute he left the book.

The main reason is that no matter how dark, and how gritty Nightwing’s adventures got, Dixon never forgot that this was a character that thrived on enjoying life to the fullest. He was fun, and his outlook on life was fun. That enjoyment of life is what gives (and still gives) this character such a unique place in the DCU. I also must mention the kinetic intensity of Scott McDaniel’s artwork in much of this run. No one draws acrobatics like McDaniel, and to this day I don’t think anyone has drawn this character better.


NightwingMobbed Up, Renegade, Brothers In Blood, Love And War, The Lost Year, Freefall

Unfortunately, the praise I gave Dixon’s run can’t be shared with most of the other

Nightwing finally realized how bad his book was

writers who followed him. The book quickly devolved into a dark, and thoroughly un-entertaining depress-fest. I like grim and gritty as much of the next guy, but this was the wrong character to deconstruct. This book kept getting worse, and worse, and I’m still not sure why I kept collecting this as long as I did.


OutsidersLooking For Trouble, Sum Of All Evil, Wanted, Crisis Intervention, The Good Fight, Pay As You Go, Checkout

I wrote in an earlier post how much I loved the original run of Batman and the Outsiders as a kid. And although there had been several attempts to resurrect the team, most of them were awful at best. Until now. Judd Winick’s version of the Outsiders was (and still to my mind is) everything modern superhero comics should be: Edgy, entertaining, and well-executed. Not only did he find a home for long-misused characters like Arsenal and Black Lightning, he created a flock of new and interesting characters that are still used by DC today. The book had tonnes of action, and some well-planned character development. Although the book didn’t take long to get sucked into the vortex of continuity-nightmare that is the DC universe (The Crisis Intervention arc should be avoided), it started extremely well, and most of this series holds up quite well today.

Plastic Man80 Page Giant Annual, Jack Cole & Plastic Man: Forms Stretched To Their Limit

Plastic Man was, and still is, one of the great comic book characters; he’s a character that could only be created for comics, and Jack Cole’s rubbery creation still stands up today as an example of how fun superhero comics can be. And while each of these reprint collections (though the second volume actually is more of a biography of Cole than anything else) have some nice moments, there is also a lot of cheese to wade through, and you’d be better served by picking up one of DC’s Plastic Man Archive hardcovers.


Next up: Power Girl, The Question, and Robin.

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 20: DC Comics – Legion Of Super-Heroes, Lex Luthor, and Manhunter

Legion Of Super-HeroesAn Eye For An Eye

A quick synopsis of the Legion: It’s a group of super powered teenagers from a thousand

The future is so bright, you've got to dress up in a stupid costume and fight evil aliens.

years in the future, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a nice place to be from if you are a super powered teenager. They are so influenced by the stories of Superman that they decided to dress up, call themselves by silly names that end with “kid” and “lad” and “boy”. They also fight crime. They’re fun, and well-loved by DC fans.

Paul Levitz’ run on the title in the ’80’s is still held up as a highlight for the Legion, and I remember loving this run when I was a kid. But like his run on Justice Society, when I gave this a second glance I couldn’t help but think it was written by a man who struggles with his source material. On  one hand, he’s trying to put together a fun, harmless adventure. On the other, he’s trying to write a grim and gritty drama of death and betrayal. In his effort to tame both genres, he fails at both. Unfortunately, this really doesn’t hold up that well, despite it being a story about the death of one of my all-time DC favourites, the non-ironically named Karate Kid.


Legion Of Super-Heroes The Mark Waid trades (Teenage Revolution/Death Of A Dream)

Although I’ve never been a huge fan of the Legion, I am a fan of Mark Waid’s, and since this followed his unappreciated run on Fantastic Four, I felt it was only fair that I give this a chance. I’m glad that I did, and although more serious Legion fans may

Adults are EVIL!!!!

disagree, I think it holds up quite well. The approach he takes here (Legion as anarchy-happy teen rebels) is a fresh one, and Barry Kitson’s iconic art is perfect for this type of story. I can’t say as much for its sequel, which featured Supergirl, but I’ll leave that for a later post.


Lex LuthorMan Of Steel

Your enjoyment of this is probably dependent on how much you enjoy the John Byrne reinterpretation of Lex Luthor as an evil businessman. It’s a story of his early years, and while I can’t say it’s essential, it’s still worth a reread.


ManhunterStreet Justice, Trial By Fire, Origins, Unleashed, Forgotten

I struggled with this title more than any other on this project. When this title came out a few years ago, it got more praise and adulation than a hundred Neil Gaiman novels. For a while, it was the most critically acclaimed superhero book on the stands.

So what’s my problem with it?

My problem is that it’s not very good.

Actually, what I mean to say is that it’s not very great. There is some good here. What I think people responded to was the character, rather than the actual comics that character was in. Kate Spencer was and is, very different from most of the lead characters that are found in DC comics these days: She smokes, she occasionally kills criminals, and she has a vagina that children have exited from. Common qualities to have if you’re the governor of Alaska, but not if you’re a superhero. I’ll give Marc Andreyko a lot of credit. He came up with one of the most original characters DC has seen in years in Kate Spencer.

Unfortunately, I just don’t think he had the writing skills to really do his creation justice. From a plotting perspective, this thing is an absolute mess. Plot points simply happen one after another, with no build up whatsoever: Woman is DA. Criminal gets off. She steals weapons. She kills criminal. Ta Da, now she’s a superhero! Yay! Now she has superpowers. Now her grandmother was a superhero. So now her son has superpowers. Yay! The entire run of the book is like this, with different crazy weirdness just dropping out of the sky, with no rhyme or reason.

That being said, Andreyko does have a great knack for characters. It’s obviously his strength, and he’s great at creating interesting, 3 dimensional characters that the audience can responds to. That, and an absolutely amazing costume design for Kate Spencer’s Manhunter is what puts this is the keep pile for me, although just barely.


Next up: Nightwing, the Outsiders, and Power Girl!