Adam Boretz is a writer, a contributing editor at The Millions, and an editor at Publishers Weekly. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. His fiction has appeared most recently in The Literary Review, Fawlt, and Encyclopedia.
Need to know how to tell if someone is or is not dead? How to leave a party gracefully? How to avoid the plague? Luckily the writers of the Middle Ages had a how-to book for everything, even if that advice does include killing bed bugs by "Spread[ing] Gun-powder, beaten small, about the crevices of your bedstead" and then lighting it.
The Oscars, for as long as I can remember watching them, have been a tangle of thorns. The bramble invariably bears fruit, but the berries are often difficult to reach, or worse yet, unripe. Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire was not the worst movie to win Best Picture—let us not forget Crash, Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby, just to name three from this decade—but it was still green: a simple film in the basest sense, one that glanced at big themes like poverty and class warfare, but refused, ultimately, to scrutinize them. As I wrote in a review of a much better film last year (Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre): Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars. The Best Picture award, expanded this year to ten nominees, seemed at first like an ecumenical gesture on the part of the Academy. I loved the idea that more small films, hypothetically, would get to stand beside the studio epics. And though The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man made the cut, so did Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side, suggesting to me that the dilution of the category was more a wink and a nod to thoughtful filmmakers than a sincere unification with them. Where was A Single Man? Where was Antichrist? Why was Up nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature? The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving until they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently. Along with The Messenger, which I reviewed for The Millions, I saw The Hurt Locker as a testament to what “popular” cinema should strive to be. Just because I love Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and feel that, stylistically and ethically, it’s one of the most important films of the decade, doesn’t mean I expect it to ever find a broad American audience (it’s in black and white, for one, and for another, the actors speak German). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, combined with the suspense of more traditional action fare (say, The Bourne Identity) the moral quandaries of Dr. Strangelove and the chauvinistic camaraderie of The Decline of the American Empire, all without delivering a simple message. In The Hurt Locker, war is both despicable and intoxicating. Some soldiers can’t wait to get home, and others dread leaving the battlefield. And yet it was popular amongst servicemen and critics alike. Emily Colette Wilkinson, who commented on my review “The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic,” wrote that her sister in Afghanistan loved The Hurt Locker. “It seems to have really connected with soldiers.” All of this is to say that, from a commercial and an artistic perspective, The Hurt Locker was a revelatory example of the kind of film that could be made near Hollywood, if not exactly inside it. If it were to beat out Avatar, somehow, the Academy Awards were no longer a circle-jerk (as a friend of mine so quaintly put it), but, if briefly, a coronation ceremony for some damned fine art. Before the show began, I was convinced that Avatar would win, though in retrospect that conviction came from the fact that everyone else seemed convinced it would. I have friends who enjoyed it, and I even lunched with two acquaintances a month back who thought it was not only the best film of the season, but perhaps the greatest achievement in cinematographic history. But, as my roommate Ty (who was born around the time Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record and was named, somewhat ironically, after the great, morally bankrupt Cobb) put it, to paraphrase, the Avatar champions were confusing spectacle with good storytelling. Avatar was a miracle if you saw it stoned in 3-D IMAX and ignored the performances and the dialogue, but a disaster if you paid attention to the actors and the lines they delivered. A technological marvel does not a best picture make, one could say. Avatar deserved every special effects award it got nominated for. But how, phenomena aside, can a film that garners no writing or acting nods possibly be an appropriate candidate for Best Picture? Fundamentally, shouldn’t a great film be an amalgamation of writing, acting, photography, and direction? The Hurt Locker was nominated, in addition to sound editing and mixing, for acting, writing, photography, and directing, as well as for the overall product. Avatar, on the other hand, was up for sound, special effects, cinematography, and directing, but received no acknowledgments whatsoever for its screenplay or the actors—digitally rendered or otherwise—who brought those stale lines to half life. This polemic (for what else could you call my assault on James Cameron?) may seem a little cruel in the wake of the awards. Avatar, as it turns out, lost to The Hurt Locker on all the narrative fronts, and some of the technical ones, too. It won for best special effects, cinematography, and art direction, but The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Perhaps I’m in shock still, and expect to read in a few days that all of Kathryn Bigelow’s accolades got rescinded and heaped upon the Na’vi. But I think my unrest, or at least my disbelief in The Hurt Locker’s success, is grounded in my fear that the 82nd Academy Awards were an anomaly rather than the birth of a trend. Last night’s ceremony was, undoubtedly, an unprecedented victory for small films. The Hurt Locker cost $14 million to make, and Avatar $2 billion, if I’m misremembering my figures correctly. And James Cameron doesn’t lose many contests he’s expecting to win, especially to his ex-wife. My hope, in the end, is that the incessant hype around Avatar didn’t simply annoy voters until they voted against it, out of nothing more than spite. My dream is that the republic of Hollywood, in its lovely dresses and tailored tuxedos, realized that a poor story poorly told papered over with handsome colors and textures is still nothing more than a poor story. Avatar has revolutionized, one suspects, the way big movies will get made in the future. But it did nothing to illuminate the human condition. The Hurt Locker, though, will haunt moviegoers long after Cameron’s virtual camera technology is commonplace on Monday Night Football broadcasts. Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.
Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year. After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we've seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read--how the reading shaped the year. There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry. - Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen. Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life. Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House. Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You. Nell Zink, author of Mislaid. Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus. Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate. Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector. Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books. Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise. The Book Report, everyone's favorite literary show. Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic. Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven. Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions. Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions. Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions. Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen. Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning. Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale. Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician. Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood. Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything. Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart. Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker. J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence. Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls. Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies. Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh. Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City. Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays. Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty. Justin Taylor, author of Flings. Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami . Dave Cullen, author of Columbine. Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions. Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions. Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions. Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear. Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You. Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California. Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer. Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper. Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts. Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race. Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God. Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind. Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World. Sady Doyle, a writer in New York. Patricia Engel, author of Vida. Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark. Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders. Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City. Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network. Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review. Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home. Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age. Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?. Brian Etling, intern for The Millions. Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions. Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions. Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning. Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War. Kerry Howley, author of Thrown. Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow. Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts. Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People. Kate Harding, author of Asking for It. Year in Reading Outro. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.