Tag Archives: best of

Getting In On The Act: Introducing The Acting Lists

What makes a great acting performance?  Some would say, “You can’t tell he’s acting” or “She vanishes into the character.”   For some of us, it is easier to pick out the bad performances: wooden, uninspired line delivery, a lack of realistic interactions with other characters and reactions to events that don’t seem credible.  The ‘ham’ makes it obvious to all that he is ACTING, thus making it impossible for us to suspend our disbelief and accept the film or play as real (at least on an emotional level).  Of course the actor may not be wholly responsible for a ‘bad’ performance.  Except in a wholly-improvised situation, there is a writer who created the character and wrote all or most of his lines.  It takes an especially gifted actor to give a three-dimensional performance of a two-dimensional character.  To confuse matters further, writers may deliberately draw attention to the artificial nature of the play or film – think of Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill on the stage and Jean-Luc Godard in film (or Groucho’s frequent asides to the audience).  Or a writer may deliberately create a character who is acting in their own life (Tennessee Williams was famous for this).  I have occasionally reevaluated an acting performance halfway through a movie when I realized that it wasn’t the actor who was disconnected, awkward and seemingly out of place, it was the character.

The Hollywood star system added another layer of complication.  During the Golden Age of the studio system (roughly 1920-1960), actors who had become stars had their movie roles carefully selected.  The studios felt that in order to preserve the box office appeal of their stars, they had to play roles that fell within a fairly narrow range.  Furthermore, for the leading men and ladies, they were not supposed to “disappear” into their roles a la Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, but to inhabit them while also continuing to project their star persona.  In a classic example, the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) was altered to avoid giving the impression that Cary Grant’s character had murdered his wife.  In today’s post-studio system, the audience plays a similar role by refusing to accept its stars in roles that clash with their personae.  When comic actor Bill Murray attempted to move into serious roles with 1984’s The Razor’s Edge, the audiences stayed away in droves.  It took another 20 years for Murray to achieve success in the tragicomic roles which he now excels at.

Even in contemporary performances, there may be a wide variety of acting styles, from The Method to a more instinctive approach.  There may be a variety of opinions from observers as well – an unscientific review of Internet postings reveals Daniel Day-Lewis as everything from an overacting ham to the greatest actor alive today.  And then in the case of film, there are the “performances” of the director, editor, cinematographer and others who take the actor’s performance, chop it into bits and rearrange them, decide on long shots or close ups, add music to manipulate our emotions, etc. So, while we can do better than “I know it when I see it” in evaluating good and bad acting, finding a list of objective criteria that applies generally appears unrealistic.

Before introducing my new lists of the best film actors of all time, I need to talk about procedure.  First, as always, I was limited by the lists I could find in books and on the Internet.  These were almost exclusively limited to film actors, so I left out actors who exclusively performed on the stage (no room, then, for Sarah Bernhardt, Lunt and Fontanne, and my favorite stage actor, Mark Waldstein).  As for the lists of film actors, there were more lists of men than of women, more contemporary actors than actors from the past, and, as usual, a pro-US and English-language bias.  I did my best to find lists that included actors from all over the world, but there were few such sites (at least in English).  Knowing that India’s film industry is one of the largest in the world, I went out of my way to find lists of Bollywood actors and include the best-regarded names, even though my knowledge of Bollywood films is essentially zero.  As a result, the lists include only the very best known actors from India and non-English speaking countries, while they include some English-language actors whom I do not personally feel merit a place on a “Best Actors” list (I’ll let you decide which ones I’m talking about).  While my original intent was to use only lists of “best” actors, I did include some lists of “most popular” and “most famous.”  I also included several lists of “best performances” in an attempt to get away from the famous/popular bias.  I did draw the line at lists titled “Hottest” or “Sexiest” or “Most Beautiful/Handsome” actors, which I refused to include on principle.  Despite all the procedural drawbacks, the resulting list has a lot going for it – I’ve arranged the actors in rank order, and divided it up into two pieces: the first starts with the actors on 22 lists and ends with those on 4 lists.  Part 2 includes all the actors on 3 lists.  For each actor, I’ve included some biographical information, a selected filmography and a still from one if the films (click on it to enlarge the picture).

So here they are:

Best Film Actors & Actresses of All Time, Part 1
Best Film Actors & Actresses of All Time, Part 2

Kill Da Wabbit: Introducing the Opera Lists

Without realizing it, we listen to opera all the time – snippets of opera music are found in movie soundtracks, television advertisements and in the background of Web pages.  My first introduction to opera came via Chuck Jones, Elmer Fudd and Buggs Bunny, whose archly clever spoofs of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and The Barber of Seville got funnier as I got older. But Bugs Bunny didn’t invent opera.  Opera was born in Florence, Italy at the very end of the 16th Century.  Throughout the Renaissance, courts in the various city states of Italy put on plays and festivals for royal weddings and other events.  In keeping with the era’s fondness for all things classical, the plays were often Greek and Roman.  But by the mid-1500s, the princes had begun to commission musical interludes to spice up the Latin and Greek poetry.  A group of Florentine composers and musicians, having seen these interludes, decided they needed to go further and create a new art form in which the words and music were linked together, similar to what they believed the Ancient Greeks had done.  The first composer to attempt such a work (in Italian, oper), was Jacopo Peri, whose all-singing Daphne debuted in 1597 at a court event in Florence.  The first true masterpiece of opera came ten years later, when Claudio Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo for the Mantua court in 1607.  Audience members at this and other early operas received a little book (in Italian, libretto) with all the words so they could follow along. Like other early operas, L’Orfeo used a specialized type of singing, called recitative, that was less dramatic than full-throated singing but more melodic than speech.  Monteverdi’s operas also explored the use of full singing for certain musical sections, called arias and arioso.

In 1637, opera moved from the royal court to the public arena when the first public opera house opened in Venice, Italy.  For the next 300 years, opera would be one of the most popular art forms in Europe, as it spread out of Italy, first to France, England and Germany, and then to all of Western Civilization.  Baroque opera, while it could be sublime in the hands of someone like Purcell (Dido and Aeneas), Handel (Julius Caesar in Egypt) or Rameau (Castor and Pollux), quickly developed some troublesome affectations.  Female parts were usually sung by castrati, men who had been castrated before puberty to keep their voices high, and the operas became showcases for their voices.  These superstar singers (Farinelli was the most famous) would stop the show by singing every aria twice (a practice known as da capo) and they would improvise on the written music in order to dazzle the crowd with their technique.  As a result, the dramatic content of the opera became overshadowed by vocal acrobatics.

Enter a German composer named Christoph Wilibald Gluck.  Gluck took on the task of reforming opera so the music and words once again carried fairly equal weight, eschewing excess and frilly overkill.  He achieved this lofty goal with his first reform opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, from 1762.  Also around this time, it became much more common for women to sing opera roles, much to the relief of the young castrati-to-be.  When Mozart produced a series of masterpieces between 1781 and 1791 in every major type of opera then existing (e.g., opera seria, opera buffa, singspiel), he put the crowning touch on Gluck’s reforms (e.g., The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute).

The major development in the first half of the 19th Century was the bel canto (beautiful songs) style promoted by Italians Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti in The Barber of Seville, Norma and Lucia di Lammermore.  In some ways, bel canto was a return to some of the best aspects of Baroque opera singing.  The next step was the magnificent productions of grand opera, promoted by Gounod (Faust) and Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots) in France and Giuseppe Verdi (Don Carlos, Aida) in Italy.  The Germans (e.g., von Weber’s Der Freischütz), meanwhile, practiced romanticism, which reached its culmination in the work of Richard Wagner.  Wagner sought to create Gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art, a journey that would culminate in the four operas making up Der Ring des Nibelungen. His operas were longer and more serious, with few arias, but elaborate sets, costumes and complex and challenging orchestration.  Wagner was the first to insist that the audience quietly watch and listen, and so, for the first time in opera history, the house lights were turned down. Later in the 19th Century, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and others in the verismo movement sought to bring the real world to opera audiences with true-to-life characters, instead of stories from fantasy and mythology (e.g., Madama Butterfly, Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana).

While opera was still centered on Italy, Germany and France, by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Century, national opera movements had arisen in Russia (Glinka – Ruslan and Lyudmila, Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov, Borodin – Prince Igor, Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin, Rimsky-Korsakov – The Golden Cockerel) and what is now the Czech Republic (Janáček – Jenůfa, Dvořák – Rusalka, Smetana – The Bartered Bride).  Later on in the 20th Century, important operas came out of Hungary (Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle, Kodály –
Háry János)
and Poland (Szymanowski – King Roger).

In 1905, German Richard Strauss took Wagner’s experiments with complex tonal structures and applied them to a daring and scandalous retelling of the story of Salome and John the Baptist.  Four years later, he did it again with Elektra.  But then Strauss backed away from controversy with a delightful comedy, Der Rosenkavalier.  Twenty years after Salome, Alban Berg applied the new atonal approach to the story of a murderous protagonist in Wozzeck.  At the same time, Benjamin Britten revived English opera with his masterwork Peter Grimes, which managed to be wholly modern without abandoning tonality.  For one thing, Britten had all but abandoned the recitative/aria dichotomy, a path most modern opera composers would follow.

While most of opera’s development has occurred in Europe, in 1935, George Gershwin penned the first all-American opera, Porgy and Bess, although its portrayal of black Americans offended some.  The Americans came into their own later in the century, when minimalist composers Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach) and John Adams (Nixon in China) created critically-acclaimed operas.  At the same time, Judith Weir of the UK composed A Night at the Chinese Opera, making her one of, if not the first woman opera composer of the modern era.

The current state of opera is mixed.  Even though new operas are composed and staged every year, the operas most often staged for public consumption consist of a fairly narrow range of older masterpieces.  Surveys reveal that the most produced operas in recent years have been: La traviata (Verdi, 1853), La bohème (Puccini, 1896), Tosca (Puccini, 1900), Madama Butterfly (Puccini, 1904), The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart, 1786), Don Giovanni (Mozart, 1787), The Barber of Seville (Rossini, 1816), Carmen (Bizet, 1875), The Magic Flute (Mozart, 1791), Così fan tutte (Mozart, 1790) and Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti, 1835). On the other hand, farther down the list are more challenging and more recent works, indicating that there is still a place in the repertoire for operas of all sorts.

All this history forms the preface for my latest lists, which, as you might have guessed, have to do with opera.  I hope you enjoy them:

The Best Operas of All Time – The Critics’ Picks
The Best Operas of All Time – Chronological
The Best Operas of All Time – By Composer

 

What’s Up? Docs.

The documentary film has been around as long as the movies.  When the Lumière brothers filmed their workers leaving the factory at the end of the day in 1895, that was a documentary: a depiction of real people engaged in non-fictional activities.

When the Lumières filmed a train arriving at a station, that, too, was a documentary – it was a real train and a real station with no script or actors – but there was a twist: they filmed the train at such an angle that it looked like it was going to crash through the screen and into the theater, causing some to run, according to some accounts, or at least jump in their seats.

The documentary, or non-fiction film, then, often creates the illusion of giving us a glimpse of the truth, of real life, but the Lumières showed that choosing the perspective (literally or figuratively) for presenting the subject involves conscious or unconscious choices on the part of the filmmakers.  We easily identify Triumph of the Will as Nazi propaganda, but propaganda comes in many forms.  When propaganda happens to promote a viewpoint that you already agree with, it just seems like common sense.  And maybe it is.  Politically-charged documentaries like those of Michael Moore (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) and Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight; Inside Job) lead some to cry foul, while others (myself included) find them rousing indictments of a corrupt system.  But one important role of the viewer is to separate facts from opinion and understand that the emotional impact of powerful images can cause us to leave our rational minds behind us.

The techniques of documentary filmmakers are myriad.  Some take found footage created by others for other purposes (newsreels, home movies) and fashion them into contemporary accounts of personal lives or historical events.  Alain Resnais shaped World War military films into a haunting memorial of the Holocaust in Night and Fog.  Some interview participants or others with a personal connection to the facts and present their subjects as ‘talking heads’ (e.g., Errol Morris’s The Fog of War.)   Others, as in One Day in September, The Thin Blue Line or Touching the Void, recreate events using techniques ranging from low to high tech.  Nature documentaries like Planet Earth, Winged Migration and Microcosmos involve dozens of technicians working all around the globe using the most sophisticated equipment.  Personal essay films like Tarnation require only a camcorder and a computer with a movie-making program – plus a willingness to bare your soul and expose all your family members’ deepest flaws.  Many documentaries follow some sort of narrative – often chronological – while some, like Man with a Movie Camera, are free-form or even surreal in their structure and imagery.  Cinéma vérité filmmakers like the Maysles brothers (Grey Gardens), D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back) and Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies) reject traditional documentary formats, eschewing narration and explanatory titles in an attempt to present reality, unadorned and unjudged, for the viewer to interpret.  Other documentarists (e.g., Werner Herzog in Encounters at the End of the World), insert themselves consciously into their films to emphasize the subjectivity of the creative process.  Essay films like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, where a fictional narrator reads letters from a fictional traveler while we watch documentary images, blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.  Of course, many documentaries combine several of these techniques.

The goal of the documentary filmmaker may be to inform, to educate, to challenge, to expose evil, lies and hypocrisy, to speak truth to power, to amuse and entertain, to celebrate, to warn, to question, to present the artist’s personal creative vision.  Rarely do the best documentaries simply document reality.  The conscious and unconscious choices of these filmmakers inevitably shape that reality, creating art in the process.

Here, then, are my documentary lists:

BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF ALL TIME – THE CRITICS’ PICKS
BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF ALL TIME – CHRONOLOGICAL

My Favorite Books and Films Read or Seen in 2013

BOOKS

The obsessive-compulsive folks (and their algorithms) at Goodreads.com tell me that I completed 24 books in 2013.  My stats page helpfully points out that the longest book I read this year was The Visual Arts: A History, by Hugh Honour, at 992 pages.  (Curiously, no ‘shortest book’ stat is provided.)  Most of the books I read this year come from two meta-lists I created: (1) Best Fiction Since 1900; and (2) Best Literature of All Time – Chronological.  Of the 24 books I read in 2013, I gave the following seven a five-star rating:

Great Dialogues of Plato (c. 400 BCE).  By Plato.  Translated by W.H.D. Rouse.
I’m cheating a little here – I only read the Apology, the Symposium and the Crito.  I read The Republic, too, but in a different translation (Grube).  But I did read several of the other dialogues in a philosophy course in 1979, if that helps any.  It is interesting to watch Plato go from Socrates’ chronicler to a philosopher with his own ideas (which he nevertheless continues to attribute to Socrates – an early example of branding?).

The Book of Disquiet (1935). By Fernando Pessoa.  Translated by Richard Zenith.
I read this book from my Best Literature list out of chronological order because of our April 2013 trip to Portugal.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Pessoa’s narrator (Bernardo Soares, one of his many avatars)  is an early existentialist (whole passages of Sartre’s Nausea appear to be cribbed from Disquiet) or perhaps undiagnosed depressive whose thoughts and emotions impart a dark-flavored energy onto everything in his exterior and interior world.  He seems to find comfort in describing the minute details of the view from his office window or the surface of his desk.  I can see why bookstores in the university towns of Portugal sell Pessoa t-shirts, even now, 75 years after his death.

Memoirs of Hadrian (1951).  By Marguerite Yourcenar.  Translated by Grace Frick.
A Roman emperor looks back on his life with a well-developed sense of himself and his opinions, a remarkable recall for names, places and events, and an uncanny ability to objectively assess both his strengths and weaknesses.  Hadrian was a real emperor and this narrative is steeped in the facts of his life and times as they have survived.  And yet while there is little (perhaps no) dialogue in Hadrian’s recitation, there is no question that it is a work of fiction and not history.  Changing from the third person to the first person is not merely a grammatical change – we hear a historical character speaking to us through time.

Molloy; Molone Dies; The Unnameable (1951-1953). By Samuel Beckett.
It may be some kind of aesthetic crime to try and describe Beckett’s trilogy in my lazy prose.  Each of Beckett’s sentences seems hewn in stone – it is impossible to imagine them any other way.  He is postmodern in the sense that he doesn’t believe you can read a novel without knowing that it is a fiction, created by an author, for a reader, and therefore all these concepts – “fact” “fiction” “character” “author” “reader” “novel” – are subject to change without notice.  Is the protagonist of all three novels the same character?  Is there a protagonist or character, in any previously-understood sense, in the third novel at all?  And, finally, how many stones does it have in its pocketses?  This is one of those rare books, like Moby Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow, that I look forward to re-reading, and re-re-reading, and so on, for there seem to be endless depths to plumb.

A Death in the Family (1957). By James Agee.
With its shifting narrative perspectives, carefully-drawn scenes; and an ability to convey powerful emotions without manipulation or sentimentality, this story is at its heart a simple story about a boy and his father.

Invisible Cities (1972).  By Italo Calvino.  Translated by Willliam Weaver.
Marco Polo describes to Genghis Khan the amazing places he has seen on his travels.  One is more fantastic than the next.  Each description is a little prose poem.  Borges comes to mind.  But if the cities aren’t ‘real’, are they nevertheless real in some other sense?  And what do these conversations mean to Polo and Khan?

Conversations with Scorcese (Paperback edition, 2013). By Richard Schickel.
In the old days, directors denied that they had any agenda, any intellectual underpinnings or philosophical outlook.  John Ford and Howard Hawks would tell you they just want to tell a story – point the camera and turn it on.  Of course, these were deceptions, but while reading reviewer/documentarian Richard Schickel’s conversations with Martin Scorcese on life, the universe and Goodfellas. I wondered if there can be deception in a wall of words, a mask hidden behind the appearance of revealing secrets, telling all.  Here we learn details about Scorcese’s childhood and life as a director, as well as stories about each of his movies, and his thoughts on more technical aspects of moviemaking.  I raced through it and wished for more.

FILMS

I didn’t see any five-star movies in 2013 (excluding David Lean’s Great Expectations, which I’d seen before), but I did see quite a few movies that rated 4.5, which is often as good as it gets these days.

Pickup on South Street (Fuller, 1953)
San Soleil (Marker, 1983)
I Shot Andy Warhol (Harron, 1996)
The Piano Teacher (Haneke, 2001)
Ten (Kiarostomi, 2002)
Dogtooth (Lanthimos, 2009)
Marwencol (Malmberg, 2010)
Amour (Haneke, 2012)
Frances Ha (Baumbach, 2012)
Before Midnight (Linklater, 2013)
Blue Jasmine (Allen, 2013)
Nebraska (Payne, 2013)

It’s the Most Wonderful Time – For Listers

The month of December is high season for listers and those who love lists.  Because December is the time that arts critics in every newspaper, magazine, website, blog, TV or radio station look back over the past year and make lists (usually Top Ten lists, but not always) of the best accomplishments from the past 12 months.  I’ve been collecting these lists – specifically for films, music and books – since 2002, and collating them to find out which items are on the most lists, and then making my own meta-lists.  Why do I do this?  One (somewhat inexplicable) reason is that I enjoy the process.  But a better reason is that I believe it exposes me to the best of these three arts.  Each list becomes a set of recommendations that I trust and that pushes me beyond my comfort zone.  I know that some folks don’t trust critics and reviewers to guide their choices of what to see, what to read and what to listen to, but to me the critics’ lists are the best option available, given that you can’t read/watch/listen to everything and must make choices.

What  are the other options for choosing what movies to see, books to read, music to listen to: (1) recommendations of friends and family; (2) following one particular expert, critic or reviewer; (3) critics’ reviews in newspapers, magazines and websites, or on radio or TV; (4) recommendations of people who sell movies or CDs or books, like Amazon; (5) trailers or other types of ads; (6) crowd-sourced websites like Goodreads or reviews on Amazon or other sites by ‘regular people’; or (7) meta-data sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes that collect critics’ reviews and assign ratings.  I have tried most of these methods myself, and I find that – except for (7), which is very similar to what I do – they all leave me disappointed.  I end up feeling like I have either adopted someone else’s tastes; sold out to The Man; ended up in a solipsistic spiral of stuff I know already, or that I’m just being exposed to the winners of various popularity contests judged by people completely unlike me who can’t spell and seem to base their opinions on completely irrational criteria.  So instead I rely on the critics and reviewers – people who analyze works of art for a living and may know more than I do about their subject.  While I may not agree with the tastes and judgment of each one, there is a pretty good chance that if several of them (or 10, 20 or 30 of them!) agree that a book is worth reading, a film is worth seeing, or an album is worth listening to, they are right.  Plus, when you pool the lists of many critics, you get a much wider variety than under most of the other available methods.  Taking this approach has led me to find masterpieces of artistic expression – from low to highbrow – that I would never have found had I just listened to what my friends’ recommended.  And while the critics’ top ten isn’t always my top ten, I have never regretted a choice I’ve made based on these lists.  (Even in the rare case that I don’t ‘like’ a highly rated book, recording or movie, I can appreciate the artistic qualities that led to its high rating and thus I benefit from it.  I just won’t be watching/reading/listening to it again any time soon.)

Here are the 2013 lists and Happy New Year:

Best Films of 2013
Best Books of 2013
Best Music of 2013

 

Make ’em Laugh: The Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time

I haven’t researched it, but my guess is that stand-up comedy has been around as long as humans have lived in groups.  Sitting around the fire in the cave, one person would say, “Those Neanderthals are so dumb…” and the rest would respond (in unison), “How dumb are they?”  I can imagine a comedian regaling a crowd in the ancient city of Babylon: “You know, after Nebuchadnezzar’s latest round of executions, the hanging gardens are really the hanging gardens, if you know what I mean.”  Entertainment venues across time and all over the world have sponsored comedians as part of their repertoire, but for me the world of stand-up comedy came first through the magic of television.  The Ed Sullivan ShowThe Tonight Show.  SNLLetterman. HBOComedy Central.  Now I usually find new stand-ups through YouTube.  I’ve also been fortunate enough to see some great live comedy – I’ll never forget my first time at Catch A Rising Star in New York City in the 1970s, with Richard Belzer as the emcee.  (Then again, I have also been subjected to racist, misogynist, homophobic ‘humor’ at comedy clubs.)  Then there were the few times I shelled out the big bucks to see big name headliners – Steve Martin (in his arrow-through-the-head days), Larry Miller (at Cambridge’s Catch a Rising Star), and Jerry Seinfeld (with a then-unknown Louis C.K. as opener) – and was not disappointed.  (Recent fave:  two live shows at the Wilbur Theater in Boston seeing the incomparable Maria Bamford!)

All of this is prologue for my latest list – Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time.  I collected 12 lists of “Best Stand-Up Comedians” off the Internet and combined them into one list.  Here are the results, ranked with the most-listed comics first.  The numbers in bold indicate the number of lists the comedian is on. Comics who are on the same number of lists are organized by date of birth.  This list contains all the comics who were on at least three of the 12 original source lists.  I was a little surprised at the results – most of the comedians are American men.  I can understand that there might not be a lot of comedic crossover between cultures, but there have been many funny women over the years, so that was a disappointment.  None of my current crop of favorites made it: Maria Bamford, Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, Mike Birbiglia – too new, I suppose.  Still, the results cover a lot of time periods, comedic styles and personalities – take a look to see if your favorites are there.

9
George Carlin (1937-2008)
Richard Pryor (1940-2005)
Steve Martin (1945- )
Eddie Murphy (1961- )

8
Bill Cosby (1937- )
Jerry Seinfeld (1954- )
Chris Rock (1965- )

7
Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004)
Lenny Bruce (1925-1966)
Robin Williams (1951-2014)
Bill Hicks (1961-1994)

6
Louis C.K. (1967- )
Dave Chappelle (1973- )

5
Redd Foxx (1922-1991)
Don Rickles (1926- )
Bob Newhart (1929- )
Woody Allen (1935- )
Lewis Black (1948- )
Steven Wright (1955- )

4
Jack Benny (1894-1974)
Bob Hope (1903-2003)
Milton Berle (1908-2002)
Johnny Carson (1925-2005)
Sam Kinison (1953-1992)
Denis Leary (1957- )
Ray Romano (1957- )
Paula Poundstone (1959- )
Eddie Izzard (1962- )
Jim Carrey (1962- )

3
George Burns (1896-1996)
Henny Youngman (1906-1998)
Phyllis Diller (1917-2012)
Joey Bishop (1918-2007)
Buddy Hackett (1924-2003)
Jonathan Winters (1925-2013)
Alan King (1927-2004)
Mort Sahl (1927- )
Jackie Mason (1931- )
Flip Wilson (1933-1998)
David Brenner (1936- )
Billy Connolly (1942- )
Richard Belzer (1944- )
Dick Gregory (1946- )
Richard Lewis (1947- )
David Letterman (1947- )
Billy Crystal (1948- )
Andy Kaufman (1949-1984)
Garry Shandling (1949-)
Jay Leno (1950- )
George Wallace (1952- )
Dennis Miller (1953- )
Tim Allen (1953- )
Larry Miller (1953- )
Freddie Prinze (1954-1977)
Gilbert Gottfried (1955- )
Dana Carvey (1955- )
Sandra Bernhard (1955- )
Bill Maher (1956- )
Richard Jeni (1957-2007)
Albert Brooks (1957- )
Ellen DeGeneres (1958- )
Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay (1958- )
Damon Wayans (1960- )
Jon Stewart (1962- )
D.L. Hughley (1963- )
David Cross (1964- )
Martin Lawrence (1965- )
Adam Sandler (1966- )
Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005)

Best Buildings in Boston and Cambridge?

Because I’ve been spending so much time on architecture lists these days, I decided to collect some “best buildings” lists for my local environs, specifically Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I was shocked to discover that the building on the most “Best Boston Buildings” lists is almost universally reviled by the general public: Boston City Hall.  What do the experts see in it that the average person is missing?  Or is it a case of the Emperor’s New Architecture?

Also, despite Boston’s reputation for being a city with a lot of history (at least by American standards), there are very few old buildings on the list – and nothing before 1700.  

5
Boston City Hall, Boston, MA: Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles (1963-1968) – BrutalistThe much-maligned Boston City Hall topped the charts.
The much-maligned Boston City Hall topped the charts.

4
Massachusetts State House, Boston, MA: Charles Bulfinch (1795-1798); Charles Brigham (1895); Sturgis, Chapman & Andrews (1917) – Federal
Paul Revere covered the dome with copper roof after the wood one began to leak.  The gold came later.
Paul Revere covered the dome with copper roof after the wood one began to leak. The gold came later.

Trinity Church, Boston, MA: Henry Hobson Richardson (1872-1877) – Romanesque RevivalA gem in Copley Square.
A gem in Copley Square.

Boston Public Library, Boston, MA: McKim, Mead & White (1887-1895) – Renaissance RevivalPhilip Johnson's modernist addition didn't make the cut.
Philip Johnson’s modernist addition didn’t make the cut.

Baker House, MIT, Cambridge, MA: Alvo Aalto (1947-1948) – ModernBaker House is a dormitory for MIT students.
Baker House is a dormitory for MIT students.

MIT Chapel, Cambridge, MA: Eero Saarinen (1955) – Modern
Theodore Roszak's spire and bell tower were added in 1956.
Theodore Roszak’s spire and bell tower were added in 1956.

The interior.
The interior.

John Hancock Tower/Hancock Place, Boston, MA: Henry N. Cobb/I. M. Pei & Partners (1968-1976) – Minimalism
At first, the windows were falling out, but the problem was fixed eventually.
At first, the windows were falling out, but the problem was fixed eventually.

3
Faneuil Hall, Boston, MA: John Smibert (1740-1742); Charles Bulfinch (1805) – GeorgianFaneuil Hall, in a slightly smaller iteration, was the site of many Revolutionary activities.
Faneuil Hall, in a slightly smaller iteration, was the site of many Revolutionary activities.

Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard, Cambridge, MA: Le Corbusier (1961-1964) – Modern
Harvard's Carpenter Center is the only Le Corbursier in the United States.
Harvard’s Carpenter Center is the only Le Corbursier in the United States.

Simmons Hall, MIT, Cambridge, MA: Steven Holl (2002) – ModernSimmons Hall at MIT.
Simmons Hall at MIT.

Stata Center, MIT, Cambridge, MA: Frank Gehry (2004) – ModernMIT sued Gehry when the building developed leaks, cracks and mold after heavy winters.
MIT sued Gehry when the building developed leaks, cracks and mold after heavy winters.

2
Old South Meeting House, Boston, MA: Robert Twelves (1729) – GeorgianIt was here that the American colonists planned the Boston Tea Party.
It was here that the American colonists planned the Boston Tea Party.

King’s Chapel, Boston, MA: Peter Harrison (1749) – GeorgianThe 18th Century congregation of Kings Chapel mostly opposed independence from Great Britain.
The 18th Century congregation of Kings Chapel mostly opposed independence from Great Britain.

Old City Hall, Boston, MA: G.J.F. Bryant & A.D. Gilman (1862-1865) – Second EmpireKnown as old City Hall, this building was erected on the site of the first public school in America.
Known as old City Hall, this building was erected on the site of the first public school in America.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA: Willard T. Sears (1903) – 15th Century Venetian Palazzo.
The courtyard of the museum, which was designed to look like a 15th century Venetian mansion.
The courtyard of the original museum, which was designed to look like a 15th century Venetian mansion.

Kresge Auditorium, MIT, Cambridge, MA: Eero Saarinen (1950-1955) – Structuralist ModernMIT's premier performance space bears some resemblance to Saarinen's famous TWA Terminal.
MIT’s premier performance space bears some resemblance to Saarinen’s famous TWA Terminal.

Holyoke Center, Harvard, Cambridge, MA: Josep Lluis Sert (1965) – ModernHarvard's Holyoke Center was designed by the-then Dean of the Design School.
Harvard’s Holyoke Center was designed by the-then Dean of the Design School.

Design Research Headquarters, Cambridge, MA: Benjamin Thompson (1969) – ModernBenjamin Thompson designed this building to house his company, Design Research, which went bankrupt in the 1970s.
Benjamin Thompson designed this building to house his retail store, Design Research, which went bankrupt in the 1978.

Christian Science Plaza, Boston, MA: Araldo Cossutta/I. M. Pei & Associates (1968-1974) – Brutallism
I.M. Pei's design for the Christian Science Church Plaza includes several buildings, fountains and a reflecting pool.
I.M. Pei’s design for the Christian Science Church Plaza includes several buildings, fountains and a reflecting pool.

Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Boston, MA: Benjamin Thompson (1971-1976)The development of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market into a tourist-friendly area with shops and restaurants spawned imitators around the U.S.
The development of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market into a tourist-friendly area with shops and restaurants spawned imitators around the U.S.

Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA: Diller Scofidio + Renfro (2009) – ModernThe new ICA building in South Boston was almost universally lauded by the architectural community.
The new ICA building in South Boston was almost universally lauded by the architectural community.

More Lists About Buildings and Food (Actually, Just Buildings)

When I was compiling the “Best Works of Art” lists a few weeks ago, I noticed every once in a while that there would be a building on someone’s list.  I was focused on painting and sculpture, so I mostly ignored these references to architecture.  Until now.

In some ways, architecture is the crowning achievement of the visual arts, in that it incorporates aspects of painting and sculpture, but within the overall context of designed structure in space, so I decided that architecture needed some lists of its own.  As I collected over 20 lists of “Best Buildings” and “Best Architecture”, I found that most of the items on the lists met my common sense notion of architecture: Buildings that people use to live, work, play, worship and learn in.  But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the scope of architecture went beyond my original conception.  The first obvious exception was bridges – you don’t normally go inside them, like buildings – you travel over them.  Yet bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate and the Millau Viaduct are some of the most spectacular architectural achievements of the modern era.  But the listers also included the Statue of Liberty and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which I thought of as giant sculptures (in fact, the Statue of Liberty is on my paintings and sculptures list).  At least those two items meet my first definition because they are hollow and people can go inside them.

So I revised my working definition of architecture to: Man-made structures that people can go inside, underneath or on top of.  But I saw an immediate problem: this definition was too broad: it would make roads, patios, empty refrigerator boxes and even cruise ships and automobiles into architecture.  Even more perplexing were two items that turned up on multiple “Best Architecture” lists that didn’t seem to fit any reasonable definition I could come up with: the Great Sphinx of Giza and the giant statues (called “moai”) of Easter Island. You can’t go inside them (unlike the nearby pyramids, for example); you can’t go underneath them and, unlike bridges, they are not designed for people to travel over them.

So I turned to my Internet resources.  The online Free Dictionary defines architecture, in part, as: (1) The art and science of designing and erecting buildings; (2) Buildings and other large structures.  The first definition is problematic because it excludes not only the Sphinx and the Moai, but also bridges, which are not normally thought of as buildings.  But the second definition, while simple, seems to do the trick, especially when we recognize that the word ‘structure’ is related to ‘construct’, which implies a controlling mind and would exclude natural arches or rock formations.  One hitch: my new working definition of architecture would include large structures made by animals (non-human animals) – giant termite mounds, for example – but that’s a list for another day.

Here they are,, the new “Best Architecture” lists – with lots of pictures:

Best Architecture of All Time – The Critics’ Picks (in rank order – best buildings first)
Best Architecture of All Time – Chronological (from Stonehenge 2000 BCE to Dubai 2010)

Too Big to Fail: The Best of 2008

A global financial crisis in the middle of a U.S. presidential election toppled financial institutions and triggered government bail-outs.  In the midst of it all, Americans elected their first African-American President, Barack Obama.  In other news, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan and the Olympics were held in Beijing.  Take a trip back to 2008 – the year that was too big to fail.  I’ve compiled lists of the best films, music and books of 2008, according to the critics and bloggers who make those “Best of the Year” lists every December.

Best Films of 2008
Best Books of 2008
Best Music of 2008

Not Averse to Verse – The Best Poetry Ever

I’ve compiled a new list – The Best Poetry of All Time – The Critics’ Picks.  It includes the best poems by dozens (hundreds?  I didn’t count) of poets, both named and anonymous.  I organized it by poet, chronologically by date of birth.  Because that seemed like the thing to do.

To give you a sampling of what’s in store when you peruse the list, I’ve created two mini-lists from it: Best Epic Poems and Best Lyric Poems.  The numbers in bold indicate how many of the original lists the poem was on.

BEST EPIC POEMS
Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2000-1200 BCE) – Anonymous
The Iliad (c. 750-650 BCE) – Homer
The Odyssey (c. 750-650 BCE) – Homer
The Aeneid (29-19 BCE) – Virgil
Ramayana  (c. 500 BCE – 100 CE) – Valmiki (attrib.)
Mahabarata (c. 800 BCE – 300 CE) – Vyasa (attrib.)
The Book of Kings (Shanameh) (1010) – Ferdowsi
Beowulf (c. 700-1025) – Anonymous
The Divine Comedy  (1265-1321) – Dante Alighieri
The Canterbury Tales (1343-1400) – Geoffrey Chaucer
Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton

BEST LYRIC POEMS

10
The Tyger (1794) – William Blake

9
My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose (1794)Robert Burns
A Noiseless Patient Spider (1882) – Walt Whitman
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (1951) – Dylan Thomas

8
A Poison Tree (1794) – William Blake
Ozymandias (1818) – Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Canti (1835) – Giacomo Leopardi
O Captain! My Captain! (1865) – Walt Whitman
Dover Beach (1867) – Matthew Arnold
Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923) – Robert Frost

7
Holy Sonnet 10: “Death Be Not Proud” (1609) – John Donne
Jerusalem (1804-1810) – William Blake
The Raven (1845) – Edgar Allan Poe
When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer (1867) – Walt Whitman
I Hear America Singing
(1867) – Walt Whitman
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers (c. 1850-1886) – Emily Dickinson
The Road Not Taken (1916) – Robert Frost
The Waste Land (1922) – T.S. Eliot

6
Daffodils (I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud) (1807) – William Wordsworth
How Do I Love Thee? (1845) – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Jabberwocky (1871) – Lewis Carroll
The Listeners (1912) – Walter de la Mare
When You Are Old (1892) – William Butler Yeats
The Darkling Thrush (1901) – Thomas Hardy
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) – T.S. Eliot
Dulce et Decorum Est  (1917) – Wilfred Owen

5
Sonnet 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” (1609) – William Shakespeare
Sonnet 30 “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought” (1609) – William Shakespeare
Sonnet 65 “Since neither brass nor stone”  (1609) – William Shakespeare
Sonnet 73 “That Time of year thou mayst in me behold” (1609) – William Shakespeare
To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough (1785) – Robert Burns
The Garden Of Love (1794) – William Blake
The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (1798) –  Samuel Taylor Coleridge
She Walks In Beauty (1814) – Lord Byron
Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819) – John Keats
Ode on Melancholy (1819) – John Keats
Ode to a Nightingale (1819) – John Keats
Two in the Campagna (1855) – Robert Browning
Remember (1862) – Christina Rossetti
Because I could not stop for death (c. 1850-1886) – Emily Dickinson
Anthem For Doomed Youth (1917) – Wilfred Owen
The Bridge (1930) – Hart Crane
Lullaby (1940) – W.H. Auden
Death Fugue (1948) – Paul Celan
We Real Cool (1959) – Gwendolyn Brooks
Those Winter Sundays (1962) – Robert Hayden
Daddy (1962) – Sylvia Plath
The Cantos (1917-1969) – Ezra Pound

Since this original post, I have arranged the poetry list in chronological order: Best Poems of All Time – Chronological.