By Anthony Kuzminski
Running in conjunction with antiMUSIC
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"Come and dream with me"
-Georges Méliès from 'Hugo'
The circle of life is driven by the credence in a system where the universe corrects wrong turns, mistakes and ill-fated circumstances. To this very day I am amazed by the creeds people define their lives with. They have no reason to believe in a higher power or karma and yet they find a way to live each and every day with unbridled buoyancy. However there are two sides to every story. The flipside includes individuals who have accepted defeat. They run from their past, try to disregard it but it’s always there. They’re dejected and often are so broken they view their lives as unsalvageable. The only thing that keeps them is the moving heartbeat within; they have stopped believing, fighting and for all intent purposes are dead to the world. Never have I encountered more dispirited, lost and bewildered people than at this moment in time. The events of the world over the last half decade have made us all resident of the island of misfit toys. Many of us have been displaced by circumstances beyond our control and as a result we’re more fearful and uneasy than we’ve ever been. In many ways, art is more vital to our survival than it’s ever been before. We need to be reminded of the good in the world and maybe more significantly that there are saints out there and they’re sent to us at our darkest hour.
2011 was a great year for movies. As always, there were many disenchanting films but the high points of the year are marvelously high and there seemed to be an underlying theme of redemption in all of them. In studying most of the films that made my year-end list, I noticed all contained characters that have been rescued from despair from an unlikely source. Whether it was the broken baseball players recruited by Billy Beane in Moneyball, the film pioneer Georges Méliès in Hugo who is reminded that joy infuses life, the driver from Drive who is more than a stone cold machine, but someone who puts himself in harms way to help his neighbor and her son, Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes who rises to the occasion when a caregiver riddled by Alzheimer’s is berated by someone and then there’s the silent film star who is left in financial and emotional ruins after the invention of talking motion pictures who is saved by an angel in The Artist.
Below you will find fifty-two (52) films I hope you seek out. Why fifty-two? I deem each film below has the power to renew your devotion to the medium of film. For the next year, you can be reminded that it’s our most important art form by having one film a week to be moved by. Even more astonishing is there are several films I never was able to see before my Oscar cut-off including Shame and A Separation so I urge you to seek those out as well. I can’t think of a time in recent history where there hasn’t been a greater need for these films than right now. This is one of the strongest slates of films to ever represent the human condition from the studio stages of Hollywood to the train stations where cinema masters appear to be forgotten to the baseball diamond where beaten men are given another chance to earn a livelihood and prove their worth; the films of 2011 embody the human need for faith in one another.
If you're looking for more information on the films, check out these links:
The Internet Movie Database
Number One: Drive
There is no greater sensation than watching a film and being sucked into its vortex. It’s rare air where your mind ascends to a higher mental consciousness. As I watched Drive I was pulled into its world like no other film in 2011. Nothing distracted me and I was altogether engrossed in the characters onscreen. Drive is a neo-noir mystery romance with Ryan Gosling in the starring role as a stunt car driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals. His steely cool demeanor grips you. We see him go through his life without ever winking an eye, until he lets his heart go to his neighbor. This choice leads to a series of cataclysmic events that leave you both shocked and awed. Characters like “The Driver” (who is nameless and is played to absolute perfection by Gosling) are rarely seen on screen anymore. Gosling’s performance is the type that makes careers. You simply can’t teach someone to act this cool, threatening and vulnerable in the course of two-hours but he does it with ease. Much has been made of Gosling’s performance in Drive but equal credit must be given to director Nicolas Winding Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini for not just creating the character and the story, but the style with which it was delivered. The opening title sequence is in hot pink font tipping its hat to a decade often ridiculed for its over-the-top nature. However, as Drive unfolds, you see specifically what they were attempting to accomplish. There is an 80’s inspired synth-pop soundtrack that should sound dated but isn’t. Drive is simultaneously a nightmare and a dream evoking the feeling of undying love while throwing the sick and violent nature off the real world in your face. Studios would normally demand more action, more over-the-top dialogue and a story that would be sacrificed in favor of special effects. Drive took the alternate self-sufficient route where it was created on a shoe string budget but it has as many thrills as any action film I’ve seen in the last several years. Drive has never left my consciousness since seeing it; it didn’t just mesmerize me, but haunted me as well.
Number Two: Moneyball
Moneyball is more than a film about inventive baseball maneuvering; it’s about finding your place in the world. What happens when your life doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped? Can you trek down a divergent path? It’s these detours that define us and often that lead us to the road we were always meant for. The baseball players general manager Billy Beane (played magnificently by Brad Pitt) recruits are viewed as damaged goods and no one sees any value in them. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) devises a new way to build a ball team and spins the sport on its head. However, Beane renews their faith in themselves and shows the world that we all have something to offer, we sometimes just need someone to remind us of what we hold inside.
Number Three: Hugo
This is a film that has confused as many as it awed. I don’t have the answers or meanings outlined here for you, but I was taken back to when I was a child and playing in the summer sun with parents. It evoked that feeling of a perfect summer day and also the terror of adulthood. Brad Pitt once again delivers a sterling performance where his face does most of the acting. There’s the scene of him holding his newborn son and the look of wonder and then there’s the look of terror as he tries to find his way in life after his job does not provide what he thought it would. Was the film a dream or a nightmare? I still don’t know and maybe that’s the point. Maybe it is a metaphor for our times how death, destruction and ultimately renewal come and go and we need to make our way through it. What I do know is that you allow yourself to surrender the conventions of storytelling you are used to and let the emotions hit you like a giant wave from the ocean; you will find a story to cherish for all time.
Having a soft spot for silent films, I couldn’t help but be enchanted by this film; in a method of film making I believed to be dead. The film traces a silent film star at his peak and as the talking pictures become a reality, he falls upon hard times. But there’s an angel who is keeping an eye on him from afar. We witness the highs and lows life can give us and just when we think it’s all over, someone is sent to us to pull us from the debris of our life, to instill faith and above all to love us. I could go on and on how the actors reflect vast emotions without the use of language, or the fertile black and white cinematography or the terrific direction, but this more than a film about the past but how troubles and heartache have always existed, it follows us decade-to-decade and how we will survive it.
Woody Allen has created an extraordinary and magical film, not unlike The Purple Rose of Cairo. Every generation believes the one that preceded theirs was better. Owen Wilson plays a writer looking for inspiration when a late night walk takes him back to the 1920’s where he interacts with his favorite writer’s including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Marion Cotillard plays the woman of his dreams during this setting. Midnight In Paris is a rare film where you will smile continually from the first to last frame of the film. This isn’t just one of Woody Allen’s best films of the last decade, but one of his best ever.
A small film many missed with such heartfelt performances by Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor and the endearing Mélanie Laurent (from Inglorious Basterds). It follows a man coming to terms with the death of his mother, his father’s coming out (after his mother’s death) and his search for happiness. Plummer delivers a gem of a performance but so does McGregor, who always tends to be overshadowed by his co-stars. The film houses a brilliant mechanism covering love and life over several generations and how their lives look and felt. This ingenious device elevates the film and draws us closer to the relationship at the center of the film.
One of the year’s wryest and most uproarious films with Brendan Gleeson playing a corrupt cop who is a good man at heart. Some may be put off by the thick accents, but this is what the subtitle option on your DVD player is for. I promise you, The Guard induces more warm smiles than anything else you will see this year. Don Cheadle plays a straight laced FBI agent who is paired with Gleeson to help uncover a giant drug deal about to go down on the Ireland shore. The two compliment each other in one of the great modern film pairings.
This is a reboot I could not have imagined. It’s bristling with human emotion, second chances and profound sense of love throughout. It may have been sold as an action flick but this film had more humanity in it since the original Apes film more than four decades back. The performance of Caesar by Andy Serkis was Oscar worthy and full of incredible emotion.
This was a highly personal choice I will explain in greater detail once it’s out on DVD. It includes a powerhouse performance by Matt Damon not to be missed. It’s a tale of finding yourself through an implausible dream. It was created out of the old Hollywood model that Frank Capra made famous. While it has all the elements of crowd pleasing holiday fare, the film’s heart goes deep. Damon plays a widower with two children who buys a Zoo. On paper it may appear to be clichéd but on film, it’s full of wonder and optimism. The final scene of this film pushes it over-the-top and is specifically why it snuck into the top-ten.
Number Eleven: Bridesmaids
The year’s raunchiest film but also delivered more gut wrenching laughs than any other film. A dynamite cast and tip-top script. It proved to the world that comedy is not a male dominated genre.
Number Twelve: The Muppets
Jason Segal brought the Muppets back to life. He captured the spirit of the early films and their television show and injected that spirit into this film while even introducing a new character in the process, Walter. You couldn’t help but root for Kermit and his friends. Many of the innovators of the Muppets spoke out against the film, but I found their journey more aligned with what our lives truly reflect. We are tight-knitted but life gets in the way, we drift apart and often forget what came before. However, there will be a time where we regroup, collaborate and remind one another how much we missed each other when we were apart.
Number Thirteen: The Adventures of Tintin
Despite being computer animated The Adventures of Tintin is a full-on action adventure flick that finds Steven Spielberg at home evoking 20th Century adventures he’s best known for with the Indiana Jones series. In fact, top-to-bottom TINTIN is a better overall film that the The Crystal Skull. Despite American audience’s lack of familiarity with Tintin, this is first rate entertainment I can’t see anyone not being impressed with.
Number Fourteen: War Horse
Spielberg’s non-animated contribution to 2011 is another throwback to the past about a horse who defies odds, lives through great horrors and how one boy’s life (all everyone who encounters it) is defined by this horse. This is a film that could have been a calamity as it simply could have veered towards manipulating emotions, but Spielberg does the film justice with a tight story and vast and sprawling war scenes filmed magnificently by Janusz Kaminski.
The film no one wanted to see. I found Mel Gibson’s performance fearless. You utterly believe every scene he’s in even when he is expressing himself through a beaver puppet on his hand. This seems implausible but Gibson’s performance teeters on comedy and drama and never ventures into ludicrous waters. Gibson’s performance and Jodie Foster’s austere direction gives the character an emphatic value. Every bit of this film should be preposterous but it ultimately proves to be redeeming and rewarding.
Number Sixteen: Captain America: The First Avenger
2011 found numerous comic adaptations but this one was the finest. Once again taking us back to a time and place when heroes were desperately needed, it spends more time on the human element of the story rather than the stalwart action sequences. The film finds the perfect balance between battle field action and the hero’s journey. At its core, above all else, we care about the characters and this is something lacking in other recent super hero films.
Number Seventeen: 50/50
This is a truly authentic and heartfelt comedy-drama with convincing performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogan. There are numerous laughs but the way they handle the lead character’s cancer story is filled with so much life, it makes you view the road in front of you with hope rather than dread. Despite the drama and despair we encounter, we are often fortunate enough to be anchored by those who love and care for us and that is what has stayed with me long after my viewing of this film.
Number Eighteen: Super 8
J.J. Abrams taps into the youthful spirit of Steven Spielberg the same way Jack White taps into the defining musical artists of the 50’s and 60’s. It’s not necessarily revolutionary but their love and admiration for what has come before is so pure you can’t help but be swept up in it all. Abrams direction of the children in this film, which takes place in the early 1980’s, is spot-on and the film works not because of the adults, but because of the kids with whom we relate.
This was a tough film to watch because it speaks to many truths. Charlize Theron is wickedly oblivious in a film where her thirty-something character is trapped in a teen existence where she dares to take part in childish games in an adult world. The results are not what she expects. The final twenty minutes of the film are as uncomfortable as any in 2011. Most films find characters in extreme situations we may or may not encounter in our lifetimes, but everyone has spent time with these characters and this is what makes the film all that much more disheartening.
Number Twenty: We Need To Talk About Kevin
Tilda Swinton’s performance is for the ages in a film that is downright disturbing, demented and a one you will never forget. I can assure you that this is a film that you will never want to view more than once. Swinton’s journey as a parent who senses something awry with her teen son ends in tragedy but by no means did the filmmakers exploit the situation. They dive in deep to the emotions beneath, the trauma caused and the aftermath of a tragedy that affects not just those in the hurricane middle of the tragedy but those that circle it as well. This is an important film that should encourage dialogue.
Number Twenty-One: Terri
John C. Reilly plays a principal who befriends an overweight kid in his high school who comes to school in his pajamas. Another film few saw but one that is full of real people and real situations. However, the entire film from the screenplay to the performances hit all the right notes. Terri isn’t so much sympathetic as he is intriguing. You can sense his intellect and his strong sense of morals. It’s a rare film where I wish I could spend more time with these characters.
Number Twenty-Two: My Week With Marilyn
Watching this movie, I truly felt as if I was beside the characters in the film. When an actor embodies other well known actors, they walk an incredibly thin line where their performance can either be a characterization of who they were or as a living breathing entity. Meryl Streep did this with Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady but fortunately for Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh, they’re the benefactors of a well manicured script and direction that never wavers. We don’t see these two actors as playing Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, but their performances make them indistinguishable within the context of the film. Many films I watch and enjoy and yet mere weeks later I have a hard time remembering even the most basic of details. My Week With Marilyn has remained fresh in my mind. If I had seen this film more than once, I believe it would rank higher on this list.
Number Twenty-Three: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A rich dialogue-heavy film that you can’t take your eyes off of, literally or you may be lost. Much has been said about the film’s complex plot and while it’s not laid out for the viewer, it makes for a mind twisting game of whodunit. Despite what some may have heard the richness of the film lies in these minute details and how minor nuances can derail a whole mission. Gary Oldman is subtle and superb in the lead role and he’s supported by an all-star British cast including John Hurt and Colin Firth. I highly suggest you take the time and watch with a keen eye for one of the year’s greatest mysteries.
Number Twenty-Four: Tabloid
Errol Morris may be the most intriguing documentary filmmaker ever. His subjects are quirky, serious-as-a-heart-attack and in Tabloid, downright ridiculous. His uncanny ability to peel away layers at these individuals’ lives, without the help from some key people in the story is astonishing. This isn’t fiction which makes its triumph all that more impressive. If you allow yourself to sit through the first five-minutes of any Errol Morris film, you will not take your eyes off the film, this I guarantee you. The tale of a former miss beauty queen, a Mormon, kidnapping, British tabloids, a risqué past and the cloning of a puppy named “Booger” is as absurd as you can imagine and what’s even scarier? Every scene is true.
Number Twenty-Five: Win Win
Win Win under-the-radar film that exudes charm in a simple but highly effective story. There should be a rule where every Paul Giamatti film is mandatory viewing for all movie viewers. His choice is scripts are exquisite. Here he plays a lawyer in financial straits who befriends the grandson of a client who he takes in. The kid turns out to be a star wrestler, but there is greater depth to this film including financial trauma, family hardship and a stellar performance by Giamatti.
Number Twenty-Six: Hesher
Joseph Gordon-Levitt solidifies his ranking as one of the best actors working today in a role that makes you feel dirty…in a good way. His character (who eerily looks like Metallica’s late bass player, Cliff Burton) is electrifying every second he’s on screen. A burn-out and terror one moment and a source of strength the next, it’s a film few will seek out but should. Natalie Portman plays against type as a pretty-but-she-doesn’t-know-it cashier at a grocery store whose friendship with the pre-teen at the center of the story is downright charming.
Number Twenty-Seven: X-Men: First Class
This is an infinitely better reboot than the Wolverine flick from 2009 with really wonderful performance by Michael Sheen as Magneto and James McAvoy as Charles Xavier. A great genesis story with immense potential for future films in this series.
Number Twenty-Eight: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
A dazzling modern day noir directed with great care by David Fincher. Its main fault is that it was done masterfully in Sweden previously. It’s a startling film where the bigger production is skillfully showcased on snowy white landscapes and small European locales, but what makes the film a worthy remake is the acting. Daniel Craig is every bit as suave as he’s ever been while Stellan Skarsgard is reserved yet devilish, Christopher Plummer’s face is devastating as a man who is haunted and Rooney Mara offers a praiseworthy performance of Lisbeth Sandler that differs from Noomi Rapace’s in the Swedish films.
Number Twenty-Nine: Source Code
Duncan Jones made the serene yet morally ambivalent Moon a few years back and this time around he’s delivered a off-the-rails mind bending adventure that makes your heart race and your mind work overtime. This could have been a paint-by-numbers action flick here today and gone tomorrow, but there are several layers to the film and Jones meticulously crafts the situations without confusing the audience but challenging them at the same time.
Number Thirty: Hanna
Another under-the-radar film filled with intrigue, action and bristling performances by Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan (from Atonement and The Lovely Bones). If marketed differently, this could have found filled multiplexes in the summer months. Hanna is a skilled and emotionally involving film that is a surprising crowd pleaser.
Number Thirty-One: Pearl Jam Twenty
In celebration of the Pearl Jam’s twentieth anniversary, friend and filmmaker Cameron Crowe has created a festive, invigorating and highly affecting love letter to them entitled Pearl Jam Twenty. Make no mistake, this was done as a partnership between him and the band, however, it also houses several thorny moments in their career that other acts would choose to gloss over or refuse to even acknowledge exist. This is precisely why Pearl Jam Twenty is more than a run of the mill music documentary. It doesn’t merely tell you an A-Z story or even cover the writing and recording of every album, but it explores the band’s soul and how they managed to make it through two decades of inconceivable triumph and equally extreme trauma.
READ THE FULL REVIEW HERE
Number Thirty-Two: From the Sky Down
Looking back two decades on their celebrated reinvention, U2 recounts and discusses what makes them tick. The breadth of Davis Guggenheim’s film (best known for the Oscar winning Al Gore documentary on the environment An Inconvenient Truth) is wider than your typical music documentary. The scope of the film is grander, more mysterious and earnest than a straightforward documentary would normally be. U2 achieved more than anyone could have imagined with Achtung Baby. They didn’t just create a weighty record that sold millions of copies and influenced a whole generation of artists but its release allowed the band to reinvent themselves. This film takes us inside the nightmare of reinventing themselves, the creation of “One” and how more than two decades later the same four individuals are still trying to push the envelope.
Number Thirty-Three: Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol
I never imagined that the fourth Mission Impossible film would be its best. It serves up a perfect balance of intrigue, sly humor and truly awe-inspiring action sequences.
Number Thirty-Four: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
A worthy conclusion to a film series that if anything was underrated critically. Years from now we'll look back on the films with awe and wonder at just how high of a quality these films were made and with break-neck speed over a decade.
A young girl makes a mistake that derails her life path and that of another man. Years later, she seeks out the man to make amends but she doesn’t know how. However slowly, the two grow closer, but she harbors a secret that could unravel everything. There’s an added dimension to the film where a second Earth appears in the sky. These two parallel stories intertwine and slowly come together in an invigorating final act. This low-budgeted science fiction film houses ideas which are more grand than any Michael Bay action sequence.
Number Thirty-Six: Trust
David Schwimmer of Friends fame tells a twisted tale of dual identifies and manipulation. This is a disturbing film about online friendships that will cause parents to lose sleep. So as to not ruin the plot of the film, I will only tell you that Clive Owen’s performance as the father of a teenage daughter is unhinged in just the right places. Owen’s transformation from a successful ad man to an angry father full of rage to a vulnerable and fragile shadow of his former self is tough to watch. This would make a dour yet devastating double feature with We Need To Talk About Kevin.
Number Thirty-Seven: A Better Life
The guilt within ate at me while watching this film. The little things we take for granted are triumphs for hard working immigrants; buying a car, an unexpected gift for your child and the pride in a job are all on display here. When the Oscar nominations for Best Actor included Demián Bichir people were surprised, but happy. Bichir’s performance is full of strength, terror and above all else, heart. He’s a good man trying to make a better life for his son and we follow his journey over a few gut-wrenching days that derail his current existence.
Number Thirty-Eight: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog captures one of the world’s great discoveries in mouth-gaping 3D. Even without the 3D it’s still an awe-inspiring view of the treasures uncovered on our own planet.
Number Thirty-Nine: The Help
Viola Davis astounds in this film as does Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain and Emma Stone. It’s a powerhouse of a story elevated by the gut wrenching performances by these four women. I would have nominated all four if possible.
Number Forty: The Descendants
George Clooney will probably win the Best Actor Oscar and it’s well deserved as he balances the emotion of dealing with a wife in a coma, a rebellious daughter, impossible in-laws and the news that his now coma stricken wife was cheating on him. I adore Alexander Payne’s previous films (Election, About Schmidt and Sideways) and The Descendents is a very good film, but I rank it lower on this list simply because I love the aforementioned ones more.
Number Forty-One: The Music Never Stopped
This was an incredibly touching story about the healing power of music that slipped through the cracks. A father and an estranged son come together through music -specifically the Grateful Dead. The son has a condition that does not allow him to make new memories and despite their differences in the past, the father does everything he can for his son and somewhere along the line, despite the fact that new memories can’t be produced, they create a bond that is unbreakable. The song “Touch of Grey” appears several times throughout the film and its last appearance is the most freeing.
Number Forty-Two: Attack the Block
Why is it alien invasions always seem to take place in America? The team behind Attack the Block changed this viewpoint as London is invaded and their street gangs face the alien invaders head-on. There is a cultural difference in the film that may not translate to everyone, but it’s thrilling, highly comedic and spins the sci-fi genre on it’s head in a absolutely inventive film.
Number Forty-Three: A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas
This is highly hysterical film where they truly utilize the 3D medium and poke fun of it as well. You may be inclined to roll your eyes, but each Harold and Kumar film delivers big laughs and this one could become a cult classic any time of the year.
Number Forty-Four: Thor
While it didn't ascend to the heights I had hoped, the film has too much for me to like. The script is lacking but Kenneth Branagh steers the story well enough to make you impressed with the special effects and become emotionally involved with Thor, his family and those he spends time with on Earth.
Number Forty-Five: Crazy, Stupid, Love
A surprising romantic comedy that wasn’t what I expected. Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Marissa Tomei and Ryan Gosling are all top-notch. I came to care for these characters and each actor, despite the lighter material, really shines in a film that easily could have been undistinguished but is eminent by their ability to make the audience believe their romantic struggles.
Number Forty-Six: Contagion
Stephen Soderbergh can create tension like few others in film. Every time I go to open a door in public it makes me want to wash my hands immediately after seeing Contagion. A horror drama with an A-grade cast directed and edited with great gusto.
Number Forty-Seven: The Debt
Oscar winner John Madden tells a tale taking place over a thirty year period where a trio of agents attempts to capture a former war criminal but when it goes awry, they plan a cover-up. The films best scenes involve Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson as adults coming to terms with their past.
Number Forty-Eight: Warrior
If you loved The Fighter then I’d suggest Warrior. I don’t want to ruin the plot for those who have not seen it, but this is much more than standard action fare, but a fighter story with heart that I guarantee you
Number Forty-Nine: Paul
Take the male leads from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and throw in an alien voiced by Seth Rogen and you have a highly entertaining film. It may reach the heights of the two aforementioned films, but Paul is still highly enjoyable and not your standard sci-fi fare.
Number Fifty: Rango
Johnny Depp voices a wholly unique computer-animated film about a chameleon that is misplaced and winds up in a western town where he’s made sheriff. This is the film most deserving to win the animated Oscar.
Number Fifty-One: Everything Must Go
Will Ferrell plays a man who loses his job, has his wife leave him and finds out he must sell all of his belongings within a twenty-four hour period. Based on a Raymond Carver short-story this film gives new meaning to having a bad day. However, Ferrell in a more restrained performance anchors the film with both humility and heart. Films like these remind us that even though we may be in dire straits it is momentary and we can strive forward.
Number Fifty-Two: Limitless
Limitless may be cinematic fluff for many, but I was rather enthralled with the execution of the story. It kept me guessing, took me places I did not expect and ended in a way I had not foreseen. Bradley Cooper flexes his acting chops here and is more than a pretty face. He leads the pulsating beat of the story.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter