Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Best of 2019: The Best New Movies I Saw

Over the past 365 days, I saw 38 new movies, plus plenty of old ones.

Although there were some notable 2018 movies I didn't see until this year--The Favourite, Can You Ever Forgive Me, Isle of Dogs, The Mule--I believe there are only two that I watched that I couldn't have reasonably seen anywhere in Chicagoland in 2019:

Cold War and Capernaum.

I think those are the only films on my list below--or that I considered for inclusion--that were officially 2018 releases.

I will cite documentaries separately as I didn't see that many (and even the top one below was more just a concert film than a true documentary).

So before I get to my main list, these were the:

Best New Documentaries I Saw in 2019:

1. Western Stars (Bruce Springsteen) 
2. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
3. Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest
4. Echo in the Canyon

As in years past, after my list I will also include the Top 10s of my friend Dave and Brad, who tend to see a wider swath of art films than I do.

I won't take the time to spell out which films are still in theaters, on Netflix or other streaming service, rentable or whatever else, but have found an app called Just Watch is quite valuable in this regard. 

Best New Movies Seen in 2019 (Feature Films)
(F = Foreign; 18 = Officially a 2018 release)

1. Little Women
2. The Irishman
3. Jojo Rabbit
4. Cold War (F, 18)
5. Parasite (F)
6. The Peanut Butter Falcon
7. Wild Rose
8. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
9. Ford v Ferrari
10. The Two Popes
11. Blinded by the Light
12. Hustlers
13. Marriage Story
14. The Farewell (F)
15. Long Shot
16. Capernaum (F, 18)
17. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
18. Us
19. Dark Waters
20. Everybody Knows (F)

Honorable Mention (in preference order)

Transit (F), Dolemite is My Name, Always Be My Maybe, Knives Out, Rocketman, Booksmart, The Souvenir, Hotel Mumbai

Notable 2018 Movies Not Yet Seen
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Joker, Pain and Glory, Harriet, 1917, The Lighthouse, Judy, The Report, Queen & Slim, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, John Wick 3, Midsommar, Ad Astra, Toy Story 4, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, American Woman, Fighting With My Family, Bombshell, Under the Silver Lake

Notable Movies Seen But Not Cited Above
Uncut Gems, The White Crow, The Aftermath, Yesterday, Captain Marvel

Dave's Top 10 Movies of 2018

1. Parasite (F)
2. Transit (F)
3. The Irishman
4. Pain and Glory (F)
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
6. Marriage Story
7. Little Women
8. Synonyms (F)
9. Cold War (F)
10. Queen & Slim

Brad's Top 10 Movies of 2018

1. Parasite (F)
2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
3. The Lighthouse
4. The Irishman
5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (F)
6. Western Stars (Doc) 
7. Marriage Story
8. 63 Up (Doc)
9. Avengers: Endgame
10. Us 

Monday, December 30, 2019

Rather Fairly Foul: Ronnie Marmo Provides a Fine Glimpse in 'I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Lenny Bruce' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

I'm Not a Comedian ... I'm Lenny Bruce
written and starring Ronnie Marmo
directed by Joe Mantegna
Royal George Theatre
Thru Feb. 16

This review--of a fine one-man show about controversial comedian Lenny Bruce--is the last one I'll write this decade.

So it's somewhat apt that it presents--once again, not initially--the trickiest conundrum I've had in writing a thousand or so reviews of theatrical performances, rock concerts and assorted other shows.

The "trickiest" conundrum, not the "thorniest," for the latter has been how to delicately and deferentially frame sub-par critiques of shows I was invited to attend and review, particularly when I requested the invitation.

Fortunately, it hasn't happened often, and I've taken the tack of just being honest: that I admired the efforts that went into the production, but it didn't connect with me.

That is not the case here.

I very much enjoyed I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Lenny Bruce, a 90-minute monologue written and performed quite well by Ronnie Marmo under the direction of Chicago stage legend and Mamet film favorite turned TV star, Joe Mantegna (the piece has also had runs in New York and Los Angeles).

If I was just a guy who went to see the show with a friend--as I did--I would easily say that it was "really good" and that it furthered my understanding and appreciation of Lenny Bruce.

My conundrum is whether it merits @@@@ or @@@@1/2 (out of 5), which over the past decade of regularly writing reviews has been the trickiest delineation to make.

A @@@@@ show is absolutely phenomenal; one that I can effusively praise and recommend to just about anyone.

@@@1/2 or @@@ means I wasn't as engaged or enthralled as I would've liked, though the work was more good than not, even if only nominally.

But both @@@@1/2 and @@@@ connote a show I was very much glad to have seen, and--understanding that different folks have different tastes--would gladly recommend, but not insist others see to quite the degree of a @@@@@ performance. (Not that my insistence likely sways all that many.)

In either case, there was something not quite perfect--to me--often in a rather intangible way. But it was far more good than not.

In I'm Not a Comedian, Marmo is excellent as Bruce, sometimes delivering comic routines, sometimes giving biographical insights.

But I wished there were a few more bits and I would've valued some more knowledge.

Lenny Bruce died--as this show reminds--naked in a bathroom, in August 1966, so before I was born.

Over the years, I've heard him heralded as a sharp-witted though foul-mouthed comedian--not that obscenity bothers me--who clearly influenced the likes of Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Howard Stern.

I've seen the 1974 biopic, Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman, and an acclaimed 1998 documentary, noted his being name-dropped by R.E.M.--in "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine"--embodied on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, ranked as the #3 comedian of all-time by Rolling Stone (behind Pryor and Carlin) and otherwise celebrated.

I've listened to clips of his on YouTube and at various points may have better recollected some of his material, but heading to the Royal George what I really didn't know was this:

Was Lenny Bruce hilarious or just daringly incisive?

Marmo pretty clearly shows that he was the latter, that Bruce's "blue" material often pushed the envelope to make audiences think about things society should've been uncomfortable with: racism, sexism, homophobia, religious dogmatism & hypocrisy, etc.

And certainly, much of what Marmo delivered as Bruce--from a bit about Christ & Moses to a dissection of the phrase "to come"--was funny. 

But as conveyed by Bruce (via Marmo) while he was defending himself against obscenity charges, he didn't really "have an act," he just talked about his life, "telling the truth."

So I somewhat perceive that, as Lenny became more and more harassed by police--which many ascribe to leading directly to his OD death at 40--his performances were all the more about defense and diatribes.

And for all that is good about I'm Not a Comedian ... I'm Lenny Bruce--and much of it is terrific--it left me wondering what seeing a performance by its namesake would have been like, say in 1957 and then in 1964.

I'm also left pondering if I should consider him a counter-culture martyr--soon after his death, American youth would, for the first time in history, stand up to the government and essentially say "Fuck your war"--or really just more of a coincidental footnote.

I guess I wanted to learn just that much more about Lenny Bruce than what Marmo and his deft script told me.

But doing enough to make me think about it seems to be worth 1/2@.

And heck, it is my last review of the decade.

Note: This review comes after a barrage of "Best of" lists covering both the decade and 2019. I'm Not a Comedian...I'm Lenny Bruce merits an Honorable Mention on The Best of 2019: The Best Plays I Saw as well as on The Best of the Decade 2010-19: My Favorite Solo Theatrical Performances.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Best of 2019: The Best New Albums I Heard

Western Stars is far from the best Bruce Springsteen album I've ever heard. He's had so many great ones.

In truth, though I think the album he released this year--his first studio recording since 2014's High Hopes--is pretty stellar, simply in terms of listening pleasure it's not even my favorite Springsteen album to come out in 2019.

That would be his latest archival live set, recorded on December 15, 1978 at San Franciso's Winterland.

But Springsteen put together a new album of material recorded as far back as 2012 that sounds remarkably cohesive, while also sounding like little he's ever released.

As you'll see below, another old favorite, The Who, surprised with a late 2019 album that--again--not ranking close to their all-time best, is solid enough to rank high this year.

Sadly, I only heard of my #2 album below because the man mainly behind it, David Berman, took his life shortly after its release and just before he was to start a tour. A shame, as while it isn't exactly filled with uplifting lyrics, it's a rather powerful last testament.

Anyway, of what I heard--which really wasn't that much nor that diverse--here's what I've determined to be: 

My Favorite New Rock Albums of 2018

1. Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars (Spotify link)

2. Purple Mountains - self-titled (Spotify link)

3. The Who - Who (Spotify link)

4. The Twilight Sad - It Won't Be Like This All the Time (Spotify link)

5. Mannequin Pussy - Patience (Spotify link)

6. Miranda Lambert - Wildcard (Spotify link)

7. Tool - Fear Inoculum (Spotify link)

8. The Black Keys - "Let's Rock" (Spotify link) 

9. Fontaines DC - Dogrel  (Spotify link)

10. Cage the Elephant - Social Cues (Spotify link)

11. Beck - Hyperspace (Spotify link)

Honorable Mention

Wilco - Ode to Joy (Spotify link) 
Coldplay - Everyday Life (Spotify link)
Billie Eilish - When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go (Spotify link)
Taylor Swift - Lover (Spotify link)
The Muffs - No Holiday (Spotify link)

Reissues, Live Albums, etc.

R.E.M. - Monster (25th Anniversary) (Spotify link)

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - Live Archive Recordings
Available via live.brucespringsteen.net and Nugs.net. These are the ones I purchased:

● Tampa 4/22/08
● Los Angeles 9/27/85
● Passaic, NJ 9/19/78
● San Francisco (Winterland) 12/15/78
● Houston 5/6/14
● Coventry, UK 6/3/16

Of these, San Francisco 1978 would be my top recommendation.

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Best of 2019: The Best Plays I Saw

Representing 14 of Chicago’s fine theater companies, plus touring or special engagement shows, as well as a piece of Kabuki Theater in Tokyo, I saw 33 plays in 2019.

This does not include musicals, revues or operas, although a good number of plays did feature live music, just not in a storytelling way that connotes musical theater.

Some works were world premieres and others rather recent, a few can be considered classics and one was by Shakespeare.

A few plays featured just a single performer, while others had rather large casts.

Many were dramas, though I also saw a good number of comedies. 

More than two-thirds of the plays I saw merit recognition on this Best of 2019 post and EVERYTHING I saw was valuable and worthwhile, even the handful of works I gave @@@ (out of 5) or less on my Seth Saith rating scale.

So as much as a ranking of “The Best” per my tastes and whims, please see this list as a celebration of live theater--I also love musicals and posted this list yesterday—and particularly the remarkable work being done virtually every day on a stage near you, especially if, like me, you reside in the Chicago area.

The Best Plays I Saw in 2019
All were in the Chicago area. New/recent works are denoted with an *.

1. Every Brilliant Thing - Windy City Playhouse
written by Duncan Macmillan; directed by Jessica Fisch
(my review)

2. Wiesenthal - Touring production at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts
written and performed by Tom Dugan

3. Cambodian Rock Band* - Victory Gardens Theatre
written by Lauren Yee; directed by Marti Lyons

4. Equus - Aston Rep Theatre 
written by Peter Shaffer; directed by Derek Bertelsen
5. How I Learned to Drive - Raven Theatre
written by Paula Vogel; directed by Cody Estle
(my review)

6. Black Ballerina* - Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and Piven Theatre
written by Stephen Fedo & Tim Rhoze; directed by Tim Rhoze
(my review)

7. The Undeniable Sound of Right Now* - Raven Theatre 
written by Laura Eason; directed by BJ Jones
(my review)

8. John Leguizamo - Latin History for Morons* - Touring production
written and performed by John Leguizamo
(my review)

9. Oslo* - TimeLine Theatre
written by J.T. Rogers; directed by Nick Bowling
(my review)

10. A Map of Myself* - Touring production at Stage 773
written and performed by Sara Abou Rashed; directed by Larry Smith
(my review)

11. Sweat* - Goodman Theatre 
written by Lynn Nottage; directed by Ron OJ Parson
(my review)

Honorable Mention
(in alphabetical order)

The Crowd You're In With - Aston Rep Theatre
written by Rebecca Gilman; directed by Derek Bertelsen
(my review)

Four Chords and a Gun* - Touring production
written by John Ross Bowie; directed by Richard Ouzounian
(my review)

Into the Breeches* - Northlight Theatre
written by George Brant; directed by Jessica Thebus
(my review)

Landladies* - Northlight Theatre
written by Sharyn Rothstein; directed by Jess McLeod
(my review)

Lottery Day* - Goodman Theatre
written by Ike Holter; directed by Lili-Anne Brown
(my review)

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - Writers Theatre
written by August Wilson; directed by Ron OJ Parson
(my review)

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein* - Lookingglass Theatre
written and directed by David Catlin
(my review)

Mother of the Maid* - Northlight Theatre
written by Jane Anderson; directed by BJ Jones
(my review)

The Niceties* - Writers Theatre
written by Eleanor Burgess; directed by Marti Lyons
(my review)

Tiny Beautiful Things* - Victory Gardens Theatre
adapted by Nia Vardalos; directed by Vanessa Stalling
(my review)

True West - Steppenwolf Theatre
written by Sam Shepard; directed by Randall Arney
(my review)

The Winter's Tale - Goodman Theatre
written by William Shakespeare; directed by Robert Falls
(my review)

-- If re-posting list or highlighting selections, please attribute to: Seth Arkin on SethSaith.com

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Best of 2019: The Best Musicals I Saw Onstage

Unlike my recent Best of the Decade list of favorite musicals, this one is not exclusive to newly-created shows.

Although I did see a few brand new works that had some nice moments, I didn't get to New York this year and have not seen Hadestown, the latest Tony winner.

And, as opposed to several years, Broadway in Chicago's slate of musicals didn't include any pre-Broadway tryouts.

So it's been a rather lean year for me in terms of "new" musicals, but as a yearly category I've always used this one to celebrate the best musicals of any vintage or level I saw over the previous 12 months.

Any show making my list was quite good and especially in terms of older musicals, I'm really gauging the productions as much as the source material, though the two obviously blend together in terms of my enjoyment.

I believe my Top 6 musicals below were shows I awarded @@@@@ (out of 5) when I posted a review to Seth Saith.

So not a lot separates them, and in terms of rankings, I do give a bit of weight to recent shows, just to celebrate the freshness of something newly terrific.

Nearby is a graphic showing all 25 musicals I saw onstage in 2019, and quite honestly, I enjoyed them all.

Some were better than others, but there was really nothing I didn't like.

Not included for consideration here are several shows I more consider--and were generally marketed as--"plays with music," rather than outright musicals. It's not an easy delineation, especially as some of these were about Nina Simone, The Ramones, Ma Rainey and Cambodian rock music.

But I will soon be doing a post of My Favorite Plays of 2019, and will provide citation there for shows meriting it.

Also not eligible here, but perhaps of note to some, are concerts by Hugh Jackman and Barbra Streisand, which included considerable Broadway music. 

But for whatever it's worth, and however unscientifically determined, here are my picks of:

The Best Musicals I Saw On Stage in 2019:
(Note: All theaters in Chicago proper unless noted; in some cases the theatrical company is cited rather than venue. New shows are denoted with an *)

1. Dear Evan Hansen - Nederlander Theatre / Broadway in Chicago (my review)

2. Come From Away Cadillac Palace / Broadway in Chicago (my review) 
3. Les MiserablesCadillac Palace / Broadway in Chicago (my review)

4. The Producers - Paramount Theatre, Aurora (my review)

5. West Side Story - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)

6. Into the Woods - Writers Theatre, Glencoe (my review)

7. Bright Star - BoHo Theatre (my review) 

8. A Chorus Line - Porchlight Music Theatre (my review)

9. The Music Man - Goodman Theatre (my review)

10. Next to Normal - Writers Theatre, Glencoe (my review)

11. The Band's Visit - Cadillac Palace / Broadway in Chicago (my review)

Honorable Mention
In preference order

- Oliver - Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire (my review) 
- The Simon & Garfunkel Story - Broadway Playhouse / Broadway in Chicago (my review)
- The Light in the Piazza - Lyric Opera of Chicago (my review)
- Matilda - Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (my review)
- A Bronx Tale - Nederlander Theatre / Broadway in Chicago (my review)
- Head Over Heels - Kokandy Productions / Theater Wit (my review)
You Can't Fake the Funk Black Ensemble Theater (my review)
Falsettos- Nederlander Theatre / Broadway in Chicago (my review)

-- If re-posting lists or highlighting selections, please attribute to: Seth Arkin on SethSaith.com

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Best of 2019: The Best Rock Concerts I Attended

Foreseeably, I will continue going to rock concerts--in one form or another--for as long as I can figure out how to get to them, and comfortably enjoy them.

Although as you can see in my list below, I have continued to see huge, historic acts in football stadiums and hockey arenas, and not just in the Chicago area, my caveat of "in one form or another" is not meant lightly.

The majority of my favorite rock artists--the ones that haven't yet passed--are at least 70 years old, and some are soon retiring from the road.

So even if my health continues to allow me to attend big shows, I may be resigned to seeing tribute bands in bars and parks (this year I saw tributes to ABBA and the Beatles, as well as a student ensemble covering several artists). And especially if one includes cover bands as theatrical performances (such as Simon & Garfunkel and The Ramones this year), this might become an even bigger part of my live rock and roll fix.

But for now, I've been lucky to see enough non-tribute rock shows--26 in 2019--to put together a fairly solid lists of the best ones.

Somewhat beyond the rock realm, I also really enjoyed concerts by Hugh Jackman (my review) and Barbra Streisand (my review). And even what I'm considering as "rock" ranged from a solo acoustic Bruce Cockburn to Cher with numerous costume changes to George Clinton with some assemblage of P-Funk on a crowded stage.

But as best I can recall, these were:

My Favorite Rock Concerts of 2019
Artists seen multiple times ranked just once; venues in Chicago area unless noted.

1. Paul McCartney - June 8, Lambeau Field, Green Bay (my review) 

2. The Who (w/ The Arkells, Reignwolf) - May 9, Key Center, Buffalo; May 21, Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Tinley Park (my review)

3. The Killers (w/ Death Cab for Cutie) - July 5, American Family Insurance Amphitheatre, Summerfest, Milwaukee (my review) 

4. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band (w/ Anthony Rosano & the Conqueroos) - October 19, United Center (my review 

5. The Rolling Stones (w/ Whiskey Myers) - June 25, Soldier Field (my review)

6. Bob Mould (w/ Beach Bunny) - February 23, Metro (my review)

7. Elvis Costello & the Imposters - November 22, Chicago Theatre (my review)

8. Kiss - March 2, United Center (my review)

9. Diana Ross (w/ Rhonda Ross) - July 10, Chicago Theatre (my review)

10. Liz Phair  (w/ Juliana Hatfield) - June 22, Out of SPACE at Temperance Beer Co., Evanston (my review) 

11. Willie Nile (w/ Brad Ray) - October 19, SPACE, Evanston (my review)

Honorable Mention
(in preference order)

- Wilco (w/ Robyn Hitchcock) - December 15 - Chicago Theatre (my review)
- Bruce Cockburn - May 8, Asbury Hall at Babeville, Buffalo, NY (my review)
- The Waterboys - September 29 (early show), Old Town School of Folk Music (my review)
- Peter Frampton (w/ Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience) - July 28, Huntington Bank Pavilion (my review)
- Lucinda Williams - June 14, Old Town School of Folk Music (my review)
- REO Speedwagon (w/ Charlie Farren) - August 3, Rosemont Theatre (my review)
- Mumford & Sons (w/ Cat Power) - March 29, United Center (my review)


If re-posting lists or highlighting selections, please attribute to: Seth Arkin on SethSaith.com

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Best of 2019: My Favorite Songs of the Year

After Best of the Decade posts covering 14 categories, I'm moving onto The Best of 2019. (Although I hope to do one more Decade post.)

I will start with the most unique Best of the Year category, as it is not ranked and is interactive.

The Spotify playlist below allows you to not only see 25 of the songs I most enjoyed this year, but actually hear them. You'll need a basic Spotify account, but it's free.

As noted, these are not presented in preference order, simply as what I found to be an enjoyable listening experience.

Though I did try to stretch a bit beyond my penchant for hard rock, I certainly don't pretend my tastes represent everything that was good or inspired this year.

But from what I heard, this is what I liked.

You can play the songs through the interface below, but can also find/bookmark the playlist online through the URL:


And should you happen to care, past yearly playlists of favorite songs can be found by clicking each year: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014


My Favorite Songs of 2019 

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Best of the Decade 2010-19: The Top Movie Directors per Brad Strauss of The Director's Club Podcast

I (Seth) recently posted My Favorite Movies of the Decade, and could probably have a good go at a list of the film directors I felt did the best work across the decade.

But it seemed wise to invite my friend Brad Strauss to cite his picks instead.

I know Brad primarily via the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group, whose lunch Meetup discussions he long hosted.

Brad and another leader of that group, Al Kwiatkowski, have hosted The Director's Club Podcast for three years and 44 episodes to date.

Coming up is a deep dive into Ingmar Bergman, across three podcasts, and a look at the oeuvre of Brian De Palma.

I've often included Brad's choices in my Best Movies of the Year posts (such as for 2018) and he helped me out with this post about one of the top directors included below. And while it could use some updating, in 2012 I posted his picks of Alternative Best Picture Oscar Winners for every year to that point.

Clearly, he's well-equipped to choose:

The Best Film Directors of the Decade
as selected by Brad Strauss, indicating their best movies from 2010-19

1. Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Roma)

2. Afsghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past, The Salesman) - Seth's note: Everybody Knows is also worthwhile.

3. Frederick Wiseman (Boxing Gym, At Berkeley, Ex-Libres: The New York Public Library)

4. Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master, Inherent Vice, The Phantom Thread)

5. Richard Linklater (Bernie, Before Midnight, Boyhood)

6. Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

7. Martin Scorsese (Silence, The Irishman) - Seth: I also loved Hugo and liked Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street and George Harrison: Living in the Material World.

8. Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Parasite) - Seth: I also enjoyed Okja and love Mother, a 2009 film that didn't get wide U.S. release until 2010.

9. The Russo Brothers (Captain America: Winter Soldier/Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame)

10. Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Burning)

Seth's Additional Choices (in alphabetical order)

Sean Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project)
Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Black Panther, Creed)
The Dardenne Brothers (The Kid with a Bike, Two Days One Night)
Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th)
Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk, Moonlight)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame, Widows)
Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, Loving, Midnight Special)
Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dunkirk, Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises)
Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Cold War)
Christian Petzold (Phoenix, Transit)

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Best of the Decade 2010-19: My Favorite TV Shows

The greatest thing I saw on television over the past 10 years aired on the evening of November 2, 2016.

It had everything anyone could want:

Anticipation, pathos, rising action, crisis, concern, prayer and, ultimately, jubilation.

Oh, and a fortuitous rain delay.

While my beloved Chicago Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 won't top my list below, it does speak to my TV-watching habits over the past decade.

It was somewhat different earlier in the '10s--when there were some broadcast TV shows I would tune into each week--but at this point, sporting events are about the only thing I watch when initially shown.

Everything else I watch on-demand, often in binge sessions.

And I really don't watch all that much.

A lot of shows that were widely acclaimed--Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Americans, The Walking Dead, Veep, True Detective, Fleabag, Dexter, Downton Abbey, Shameless, Transparent and more--didn't really capture me. At best I saw a few episodes of some of them.

Even shows I did like, some making my list below, I only watched for one or perhaps a few seasons; very rarely have I seen an entire series. And in terms of network shows, perhaps I only caught occasional episodes.

My criteria for consideration is that I watched at least one full season--even if it contained as few as 6 episodes--or 10+ random episodes in this decade. (If the program began before 2010, I am only judging the quality within this decade.)

If you've been reading my barrage of my Best of the Decade posts, hopefully you've caught on that I don't claim to be an expert on anything. These are just my opinions, which I'm happy to share and discuss, but am also publishing largely to have a personal resource I can look back upon.

With great regard for quality television well beyond what I opt to watch, in no way am I suggesting that these were really the Best TV Shows of the Decade. Rather just...

The Best Television Series
I Watched This Decade

(for at least one full season or 10+ random episodes)

1. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
2. The Good Wife (CBS)
3. Stranger Things (Netflix)
4. Modern Family (ABC)
5. Jessica Jones (Netflix)
6. Friday Night Lights (NBC)
7. Burn Notice (USA)
8. Person of Interest (CBS)
9. Making a Murderer (Netflix)
10. Homeland (Showtime)
11. Love (Netflix)

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)

Catastrophe (Amazon Prime)
11/22/63 (Hulu)
The End of the %#!#! World (Netflix)
The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)
GLOW (Netflix)
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Amazon Prime)
Mindhunter (Netflix)
Mr. Robot (USA)
Royal Pains (USA)
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Home for the Holidays: Opening Winterlude on the 'Ode to Joy' Tour, Wilco Is Helped by One of Their Heroes -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Robyn Hitchcock
Chicago Theatre
December 15, 2019
(also playing 12/16, 18, 19)

Over what is now a 25-year-career, Wilco has done quite well for themselves, putting out many acclaimed albums, selling out numerous Chicago shows and playing all around the world.

Many acts would kill to be able to fill four shows at the Chicago Theatre, and in the annals of alternative rock I think it's fair to call them a "major band."

But it does seem a bit surprising, to me if no one else, that Sunday's show at the splendiferous Chicago Theatre was the 14th time I've seen Wilco live.

OK, so that includes a 4th of July free show at Grant Park in 1996 when I really just heard them from the lawn, and an opening slot for R.E.M. in 1999. But it doesn't count one of the coolest gigs, when I got to see Wilco's singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy perform Wilco songs (alongside various assemblages of music students) in the living room of my friend's sister, as a benefit for Chicago's venerated Old Town School of Folk Music. I even got to meet him and chat a bit.

Robyn Hitchcock
So heck, let's call it 15.

That's more than I've seen anyone live except Bruce Springsteen, U2, Pearl Jam and Wilco's Chicago brethren, the Smashing Pumpkins (in various incarnations).

And it's now more than I've seen the Foo Fighters, Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and the Who.

I love Wilco, but not as much as any of those acts. 

They have many stellar songs, Tweedy is an amiable if at times crusty frontman and the band's diverse musicality--led by guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche--is fantastic.

They're local heroes, and I'm glad to have seen them as often as I have, including once again.

Yet compared to the other artists mentioned and some other favorites of mine, Wilco just isn't that exciting.

In part this is because--especially at this point on several recent albums--they traipse in folk and country stylings much more than what I would call hard rock.

From the stage on Sunday, Tweedy spoke of the band's knack for doing "waltzes and laments" and that even when they get the party started, it's mostly "mid-tempo rock."

I still love their harder-charging late '90s albums--Being There and Summer Teeth--when they reminded me at times of The Replacements, and my favorite Wilco shows have been ones where they've largely rocked out.

But to be clear, I didn't attend on Sunday expecting them to do.

Not every concert need blow my head off, and I certainly didn't mind that in being comfortably seated in the last row of the balcony, no one in front of me was inspired to stand. 

Wilco is touring on their 11th studio album, Ode to Joy, which is a rather sedate set and still settling in for me.

Eight of the show's 28 songs--see the setlist here--came from the 2019 release, and particularly early on, set the relaxed tone.

They mined their catalog for several gems--"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "War on War," "Hummingbird," "Via Chicago," "Box Full of Letters," "I'm the Man Who Loves You," "I'm Always in Love," "California Stars"--and the overall vibe was of a strong, but fairly typical Wilco show.

I've given most Wilco concerts @@@@ or @@@@1/2 (out of 5) and really could have gone either way on this one.

I settled on the latter for a couple main reasons.

First, was the band's hand-picked opening act, Robyn Hitchcock, a veteran literate British singer/songwriter once in The Soft Boys and later backed by the Egyptians.

Hitchcock is one of those guys whose name I've long known, but whose music I've never acquainted myself with as much as I should have.

I did once catch him opening for R.E.M. 30 years ago, and was intending to see him last January if something--weather, illness, ticket prices, can't quite recall--didn't intercede.

But I've never owned any albums, nor in these days of streaming, sought to explore much of his vast output.

And I forgot he was opening this show until I got there, so I didn't Spotifamiliarize myself with anything ahead of time.

Still, with Robyn solo on acoustic guitar, cheekily telling the audience that he was "incredibly old" and sharing odd stories about his cats, hens and other such stuff, Hitchcock's half-hour set was a delight.

His setlist isn't published, but I think "I Pray When I'm Drunk," "My Wife and My Dead Wife," "Queen of Eyes," "Madonna of the Wasps" and "I Want to Tell You About What I Want" covers most, and perhaps all, of what he played.

I don't typically loop the opening act into my rating of a headline artist, but not only did he speak of being there expressly because the Wilco guys were longtime fans, Hitchcock made a cameo--get it?--on the last two songs of the night.

With Robyn on lead vocals, first was a cover of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," followed by a great "I Wanna Destroy You" from the Soft Boys' highly acclaimed 1980 album, Underwater Moonlight.

So this was a case where the opening act demonstrably abetted my overall enjoyment.

And while, even with a few late rockers, Wilco were largely their laid-back selves, when they did get thunderous--such as the cacophony that erupts in "Via Chicago," some brilliant guitar playing by Cline, which turned "Impossible Germany" into an unexpected highlight, the escalating anxious rattle of "Misunderstood"--it was truly blissful.

And served to reiterate why I keep coming back.

Stars Shine in the Florentine Night: Renée Fleming and Others Add Sparkle to Lyric's 'Light in the Piazza' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Light in the Piazza
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru December 29

In early 2004, I saw a pre-Broadway tryout run of The Light in the Piazza at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Though the musical adaptation of a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer that became a 1962 movie had premiered in Seattle in 2003, it was a rare Broadway bound musical to run in the Windy City without being under the auspices of Broadway in Chicago.

But although Broadway stars such as Victoria Clark--she would win a Tony Award after the show hit NYC--Kelly O'Hara and Celia Keenan-Bolger well-delivered Adam Guettel's delicate score, I didn't love the work. (I wasn't writing reviews back then.)

While I relished the Italian setting in Florence and Rome, which I had visited about 15 months prior, I found the show more passable then sensational.

And I saw it twice to be sure. (In part because the first time was interrupted by an audience member's medical emergency.)

I recall critics, both in Chicago and then regarding the Broadway run, raving about the score by
Guettel, who happens to be the grandson of the legendary composer, Richard Rodgers.

But while a lot of Guettel's music is quite lovely--he also wrote the lyrics--too many of the songs seemed instantly forgettable.

The show wasn't a smash hit on Broadway, but had a solid 500+ performance run, so I was eager to re-investigate upon noting a production at the wonderful Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Starring the remarkable Renee Fleming, no less.

And while I still wouldn't rank it among my favorite musicals, once again found that most tunes didn't really stick with me and would've liked Fleming's character to allow for her to sing a bit more, there were enough ravishing elements to make the affair delectably entertaining.

In the guise of Margaret Johnson, a wealthy wife from the 1950s American South who takes her daughter Clara to Italy for a summer, Fleming sounds exquisite on songs like "Statues and Stories," "Dividing Day" and "Fable."

And just her overall being is effervescent, even as Margaret is often vexed by how to do best by Clara (Solea Pfeiffer, who is terrific, including in delivering the title tune), a beautiful young woman whose mental maturity was stunted by an accident at age 12.

Clara, who really doesn't seem simple or slow until it's pointed out, is beguiled by Fabrizio (Rob Houchen, whose voice is superb), a local who is equally smitten by her.

With Clara and Fabrizio quickly falling head over heels, abetted by a couple well-rendered Italian songs--the Lyric would be wise to employ supertitles as it does for operas and even some English-language musicals--Margaret feels compelled to put her foot down, for fear of Clara's impairment being discovered by Fabrizio's family, led by his dad (well-played by Alex Jennings of TV's The Crown and much decorated British stage work).

Phone calls between Margaret and her overbearing, under-caring wealthy husband Roy (Malcolm Sinclair) go about as well as one might expect.

I won't reveal more about what unfolds, other than to mention that Fabrizio's brother Giuseppe (Alex Sciotto), sister-in-law Franca (Suzanne Kantorski) and mother (Marie McLaughlin) get a fair amount of stage time and are well-embodied, with Sciotto being especially fun.

Robert Jones' set design is impressive, though ideally it would've been a bit more malleable. Nothing distinguishes Florence from Rome save a statue being rotated.

And with Pfeiffer, Fleming and all the women wearing some really great dresses, the costuming by Brigitte Reiffenstuel certainly abets the quality of this rendition.

There are times when things get a tad dull, and though I listened to the Broadway Cast Recording in advance of Saturday's performance, I'm not inspired to put it on again anytime soon.

But The Light in the Piazza has enough going for it--including a narrative resolution I liked but won't divulge--that with an incandescent cast at the Civic Opera House, much more than not it's quite a de-Light.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Best of the Decade 2010-19: My Favorite Architecture

Since I was 4 years old, I have loved architecture.

That may sound young, but in 1973--when I was 4--The Sears Tower opened in Chicago as the tallest building in the world. (A title it would hold for many years; it is now officially known as The Willis Tower.)

This was after many great skyscrapers had risen in Chicago, including the signature John Hancock Center.

So tall buildings have always fascinated me, and cool structures of all types. I've long been a fan of the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright and saw and even toured several houses he designed again during this decade.

In 2013, I even stayed in the Park Inn in Mason City, Iowa, a hotel he designed which was beautifully restored after decades of various changes for differing uses.

The restoration was completed in 2011, so it could theoretically qualify among my favorite architecture of the decade, but instead I'll focus on:

The Coolest New Buildings I Noted Over the Past 10 Years
These aren't all works I've seen in person and most photos are not by me.

1. The Louis Vuitton Foundation - Paris - Designed by Frank Gehry

2. WTC Hub (The Oculus) - New York - Santiago Calatrava

3. The Shard - London - Renzo Piano

4. National Museum of African American History and Culture - Washington, DC - Freelon Group/Adjaye Associates/Davis Brody Bond

5. The Broad - Los Angeles - Diller Scofidio + Renfro

6. Shanghai Tower - Jun Xia

7. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum - MSU, East Lansing, MI - Zaha Hadid

8. One WTC (Freedom Tower) - New York - David Childs

9. VIA 57 West - New York - Bjarke Ingels Group

10. Louvre - Abu Dhabi - Jean Nouvel

11. Writers Theatre - Glencoe, IL - Studio Gang Architects

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Best of the Decade, 2010-19: My Favorite Sports Stories

Although I've never actually lived in the city of Chicago--just the suburbs--and resided in Los Angeles for 3 years at the start of the 1990s, in terms of sports fandom I consider myself a lifelong Chicagoan.

My allegiances have never lied elsewhere.

But while this will make some of my favorite athletic happenings of the past 10 years Chicago-centric, this won't just be a list of the best seasons had by local teams.

Nor should this be construed as my picks of the Best Athletes or Best Teams of the Decade, though some of those are certainly represented.

Rather, from a decidedly personal point of view, these can be considered:

The Best Things to Happen in the
World of Sports over the Past Decade

1. 108 is Enough: Cubs Win!
Quite simply, though maybe a touch hyperbolically, the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series in 2016 after an 108 year drought was the greatest thing to ever happen. I attended three Series games--the first two in Cleveland and Game 5 at Wrigley Field--but though it almost killed me, Game 7 was my favorite.

2. Hat Trick Kane: Blackhawks Win 3 Stanley Cups
I was fortunate to be at Game 1 of the 2010 Stanley Cup and all three title runs were thrilling, though I missed seeing almost all of the 2013 Cup--including the famed 2 goals in 17 seconds against the Bruins--because I was in Europe.

3. The Quiet Superstar, U.S. Edition: Mike Trout
To this day he could probably walk through a shopping mall almost anywhere in America without being noticed, but a guy taken with the #25 pick in 2009 has decidedly been the best player in baseball since his first full season at the age of 20. Now 28, he's won 3 MVP awards, come in second four times and fourth once.

4. The Quiet Superstar, World Edition: Lionel Messi
I'm not a huge soccer fan but I have friends who are. And though he hasn't helped his native Argentina achieve the highest heights on an international level, with his club team, Barcelona, Messi has been among the best players anyone has ever seen.

5. Loyola's Final Four Run, Second to Nun
This is seemingly a highly Chicago-centric pick, but Loyola University was a #11 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament yet reached the Final Four. And their #1 fan, Sister Jean Schmidt--then 98 years old--helped make much of the country cheer on this Cinderella story.

6. Leicester Defies the 5000-to-1 Odds
Again, soccer, this time concerning the English Premier League. But prompted by some pals, I paid attention as the Leicester City Football Club--which began the season with 5000-to-1 bookie odds against doing so--won the league title in 2015-16. Some have called it the most shocking season result in sports history.

7. Lightning Bolt
Certainly, some U.S. athletes--Michael Phelps and Simone Biles among others--were remarkably impressive in the Olympics this decade, and merit great admiration. But Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, having established himself as the fastest human being with gold medals in the 100m and 200m at the 2008 Olympics, again won those two races, plus a relay, at the 2012 and 2016 Games. And he seemed like the world's coolest human being in doing so. 

8. Halcyon Times in Tennis
Their greatness goes back to the past decade, but it's been tons of fun watching the continued runs of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. The 38-year-old Federer has won 20 Grand Slam singles titles, but 33-year-old Nadal with 19 and 32-year-old Djokovic with 16 are right on his heels for the all-time men's record. And with 12 Slam singles wins this decade, Serena Williams' total of 23 are the most of anyone in the Open Era. She also has 14 Grand Slam Doubles titles with her sister Venus.

9. Tiger Roars Once More
I used to love watching Tiger Woods during his years of golf dominance. But in addition to showing himself not to be a great husband, he also made me believe he likely isn't a great person. Still, after years of injuries had, at times, made him among the worst players on the PGA Tour, it was undeniably thrilling to see him win the Masters this year at age 43.

10. USWNT Has a Ball
For all kinds of silly reasons--their looks, haircuts, sexuality, celebrations, goal differentials, confidence, boldness and more--the U.S. Women's Soccer Team seemed to engender a lot of hate from many corners. But at the 2019's Women's World Cup, they proved they were the best team in the world. 

11. The Perfectly Unlikely Phil Humber
On April 21, 2012, Philip Humber, a journeyman pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, threw the 21st perfect game (27 up, 27 down) in major league history. It was just his 12th career win. After that game, he would earn just 4 more wins, with an ERA over 7.00 and be out of the majors after the 2013 season. Still, one shining moment. I was lucky to see the end of the game live on TV. 

Honorable Mention

- Ageless Tom Brady Leads the Patriots to 6 More Super Bowls and 3 More Titles
- Cleveland Finally Gets to Celebrate as LeBron Leads the Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA Title
- After Decades with No Horse Racing Triple Crowns, American Pharaoh (2015) and Justify (2018) Both Win
- Loaded with Talent, the Golden State Warriors Win 3 NBA Titles in 5 Straight Finals Visits, Led by Likable Shooting Guard Stephen Curry
- After Losing Superstar Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals Win the World Series the Next Year, Beating Multiple Favored Teams
- In Chicago, the Bears and Bulls Had a Few Good Seasons, Led by the 2010-11 Bulls in Derrick Rose's MVP Campaign