Thursday, January 7, 2010

2000-2009 Media Review

Well, I'm waiting to see a couple of movies before I can give the full 2009 breakdown, but since those movies will likely not wind up in the decade-best list, I thought I'd go ahead and jump-start the decade-best conversation with my take on the popular entertainment from 2000-2009. This is, naturally, a snapshot of my psyche right now, and this list will probably look very different with a few years' hindsight. But, nevertheless, it is what it is. My 2009 media review will be forthcoming, but until then, I now present:

a list that means something to--and was compiled by--Adam Palmer

|| Books ||
I read a lot of books, but not many I would consider life-changing enough to include in a list like this. So, these aren't judgments of really the "best," these are all books that had an impact on me this decade, enough of an impact to direct the course of my life, however small.

I Am America (And So Can You!), Stephen Colbert
The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, John McWhorter
Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
The Pleasure of My Company, Steve Martin
Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix, JK Rowling

10) The World Without Us, Alan Wiseman [I didn't really understand the environmentally necessary ways our culture needed to change until I read this fascinating "thought experiment." The idea: what would happen to the world if mankind suddenly disappeared? The conclusions are mind-bendingly not what I expected.]
9) What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (A Novel), Dave Eggers [Valentino is a real guy. He was one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan. He wanted to tell his story. Dave Eggers helped him. By writing it as a novel. Heartbreaking and intense, this is a pretty good glimpse into the differences between the African and American cultures.]
8) Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris / The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman [Both of these gentlemen are very, very funny, and both of these books exposed me to new ways to write hilariously.]
7) The Road, Cormac Mccarthy [Always a favorite at parties.]
6) Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, NT Wright [I think about heaven very differently now that I've read this book. It's both challenging and liberating, and would be the best God book of the decade were it not for...]
5) Red Moon Rising / God on Mute, Pete Greig [Both of these books hit me right where it hurts, while simultaneously giving me comfort in all my doubts and weaknesses. Odd.]
4) The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, Gregg Easterbrook [I can think of nothing to say other than this: read it and be astounded]
3) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay / The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon [Chabon (pronounced shay-bahn) is a bit of a show-off sometimes, but he's so good he gets away with it. I am constantly floored by this man's ability to tell a story in a way that is very uniquely his own.]
2) The Complete Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson [My first official cheat of this list, but a worthy one. Yes, Calvin & Hobbes ended its run in 1995, but Andrews McMeel did the right thing in 2005 and released this complete collection of every strip. The strips are all presented in the original aspect ratio that Watterson drew them in, making it all the easier to savor his art, wit, and humanity. Calvin & Hobbes was a gift to us, a gift that I treasured in my childhood and that I'm passing down to my kids.]
1) Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke [Rival magicians come to the aid of the British Empire to defeat Napoleon. Yes, it's that, but it's so much more. Even though it's a daunting 782 pages, I promise you that every character counts, every plot thread is there for a reason, and it will all come together, deliciously, satisfyingly, in the end. Absolutely astounding.]

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown [I'm a little "meh" on all the theological controversy--I was just over-awed by the truly bad writing. You know that Seinfeld episode where Tim Whatley converts to Judaism so he can tell Jewish jokes? And then Jerry goes to a priest to talk about it? The priest says to Jerry, "This offends you as a Jewish person?" To which Jerry replies: "No, it offends me as a comedian." The Da Vinci Code offends me not as a Christian but as a writer. (And a very wealth-challenged one at that.)]

The Shack, William P. Young [This book offends me as both a Christian AND a writer. I don't even know where to begin. The serial killer element is manipulative and off-putting; the main character is a murderer, plain and simple, and it's never brought up or dealt with through the whole story; the theology is sketchy at best; the so-called "insights" are trite and shallow; and by the end of it all, Young has forgotten the very lesson he was trying to teach us all along. It saddens me that so many people are finding inspiration in this. I sure didn't.]

|| Music ||
Like everything else, this list is a snapshot of my tastes, likes, and emotional state today and would likely change tomorrow. I can say without reservation, though, that all these albums are golden from start to finish; I didn't allow an album that I liked only a few songs from and instead saved those for the "Honorable Mentions" below.

A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay
Kid A, Radiohead
In Your Honor, Foo Fighters
The Invisible Band, Travis
Veni Vidi Vicious, The Hives
The Beautiful Letdown, Switchfoot
Give Up, The Postal Service
O, Damien Rice
The Photo Album, Death Cab for Cutie
Sea Change, Beck
Turn on the Bright Lights, Interpol

10) Birds of My Neighborhood / Christ Is My Hope, The Innocence Mission [Its beauty is its simplicity. The Innocence Mission released 7 records this decade, and three of them (maybe four--their lullaby album Now The Day Is Over is compulsively listenable) vied in my mind for inclusion on this list. But in the end, I decided to go with these two, which had the most profound impact on me personally in the aughties.]
9) Divine Discontent, Sixpence None the Richer [A brilliant piece of pop art from start to finish.]
8) The Beginning Stages Of... / Together We're Heavy / The Fragile Army, The Polyphonic Spree [I don't consider these to be three separate albums; instead, I think of The Polyphonic Spree as creating, and continuing to create, a work of art that has now spanned over three separate sections. I will be heavily invested in anything this band does in the future.]
7) Vrioon / Insen / Revep, Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto [Once again, an ongoing musical work of art, this time between a German "electronic artist" and a Japanese composer. Noto makes all his sounds from scratch, and Sakamoto elegantly seasons them with simple piano. Whenever I need to focus on getting some writing done, these are my go-to guys for background music.]
6) Time (The Revelator), Gillian Welch [Technically, her music is considered bluegrass, but in my world, I just consider it awesome. Mellow, slow-burning, and about as close to country as Antarctica.]
5) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco [A towering artistic achievement, this is the album that introduced me to the excellence that is Wilco. Goes great with its companion documentary film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (available on DVD from the Tulsa City-County Library)]
4) All That You Can't Leave Behind, U2 ["Beautiful Day." "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of." "Elevation." "Walk On." And that's just the first four tracks. If I throw out my nostalgia for The Joshua Tree and look at it as objectively as I can, I can see this being the best of U2's many excellent albums.]
3) The Last Broadcast, Doves [Just absolutely blew my mind, and the more I listened to it, the more of my mind it blew. And the hardest-to-believe thing about it? This band is a three-piece.]
2) ( ), Sigur Ros [Lead singer Jonsi Birgisson was once asked why their music was so hard to dissect. My paraphrase of his response: "In order to dissect something, it has to be dead first."]
1) Drunkard's Prayer, Over the Rhine [When I began to compile this list, I knew I was in for a tough task. Except for this slot. I knew #1 immediately. OtR is a husband-wife duo, and this album, chronicling the intersection of their marriage and their artistry and the conflict therein, came out at the exact same time my own wife and I, a husband-wife duo, were chronicling the intersection of our marriage and our artistry and the conflict therein. It speaks to me on a personal level that no other album will probably ever achieve, but beyond that, it is, in every sense of the word, perfect.]

Anything affiliated with American Idol [More commentary on this abomination of a television show below...]

|| Television ||
I know, I know: I should watch House. And The Wire. And Dexter and The Sopranos and Mad Men and Curb Your Enthusiasm and all those other shows that everyone says are so great. I'll just let you in on a little secret: I don't care. Television is like those marshmallow Peeps that come out around Easter time. I see those, and I usually think, "Oh, yeah. I like those." And then I eat one, maybe two, and then I'm good until next Easter. I have no inclination to gorge myself silly on them, and I don't crave them year-round. So, in the same respect, a little television goes a long way for me. Hence, out of this entire decade, I only have eight shows to list. And they are...

8) Flight of the Conchords [The natural progression from Arrested Development, which itself was a natural progression from Seinfeld. I've only seen season one on DVD, but I've watched it so much I can sing almost all the songs verbatim.]
7) 24 [Yeah, they ran out of ideas pretty quickly, but seasons one through three were, you have to admit, pretty awesome. And let's bear in mind that, when this show debuted, pretty much all television, save soap operas, was episodic. Sure, you'd have your cliffhangers every now and then, but mostly everything was wrapped up in the hour. The big to-do about 24 when it debuted was whether people would tune in every week to see the story continue, and this show's success made it the progenitor for other long-form shows, from LOST and even to The Office and 30 Rock. Mock it if you must, but 24 was a pioneer.]
6) The Office [I know nothing about this current season, but what I've seen indicates this show is now treading water. But at least it's good water to tread, I suppose. I had my doubts, because the British version was a thing of beauty, but doggone it if Steve Carell didn't manage to top Ricky Gervais in making his take on the dumb boss less of a caricature and more like a human being. A wayward, immature, hilariously clueless human being.]
5) 30 Rock [Remarkably consistent and still funny, this show merges absurdity and sophistication almost as well as Arrested Development did. Alec Baldwin belongs in comedy, and I can now no longer watch him in serious roles (especially The Departed and Glengarry Glen Ross) without thinking he's hilarious.]
4) Seinfeld on DVD [I know just about every line of every episode from memory, and this show still makes me laugh. It very well could be the best comedy ever put on television. Anyway, Sony did the right thing this decade and made it available on DVD, which was great while we were in Uganda, because we could still enjoy our nightly Seinfeld fix.]
3) The Daily Show with Jon Stewart / The Colbert Report [My disgust for 24-hour news channels is thinly veiled, so I all the more appreciate the way these gentlemen turn the media establishment on its ear.]
2) Arrested Development [In some ways, it's good this show only lasted three seasons, because I fear it might have run out of steam and become either stupid or offensively bawdy or both. As it is, it's 53 rip-roaring episodes--that's an approximate 1,166 minutes of running time--and maybe five or ten of those minutes are unfunny. My wife rolls her eyes and finds something else to do whenever I begin quoting this show with a friend, because she knows I'll be there for hours.]
1) LOST [In a word, ambitious. It just keeps getting better and better, and I can't wait to see how it wraps up its final season (beginning in just a month!). If this thing goes out like I think it will, I will hold LOST in high regard for being not just the greatest show ever to air on television but also for being one of the greatest pieces of popular art ever created.]

American Idol [Here's an idea: let's invent this huge behemoth of a show that holds mentally challenged people up to ridicule while simultaneously celebrating so-called "artistry" by making it into a competition. And the winner of that competition? The person who can appeal to the broadest section of our audience. Yes, we will give the crown to the person who can be, by definition, the most average. America, you voted... and created a terrifying phenomenon.]

|| Motion Pictures ||
Such a tough time narrowing these down, but I'd say this part of the list was the most fun to compile. And here they are, complete with geeky year-of-release notations:

The Departed (2006)
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Finding Nemo (2003)
Grizzly Man (2005)
Children of Men (2006)
The Bourne Supremacy (2002)
United 93 (2006)
WALL-E (2008)

10) Downfall (2004) [A German true-story movie about the last days of Hitler, told from the point-of-view of one of Hitler's secretaries. I grew up thinking that all Nazis were evil people, and many of them were, but this movie helped me to understand that most of them were humans, following orders, sometimes against their will, doing the best they could to live a clean and upstanding life. It may sound cliche, but this movie honestly went a long way in showing me that God really does love everyone. But Hitler was still a bastard.]
9) Memento (2000) [I watched it at a late showing at the AMC (I think it started at 10:30 or 11:00), then came home so wound up from it that I had to watch another movie (I think it was The Princess Bride) just so I could get some sleep for the rest of the night. It's the only movie on this list I haven't revisited recently, but I feel confident it would hold up over time (unlike, say, The Matrix and its sequels, which are noticeably absent).]
8) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) [I'm pretty sure every line in this epic undertaking is quotable, and every time I watch it, I come away with a new favorite (currently: "Mister? Some o' yer foldin' money's comin' unstole."]
7) The Fountain (2006) [A treatise on life and death that asks a lot of questions and answers almost none of them. Naturally, this ambiguity made it box-office poison. I've watched it several times since and every time it still leaves me pondering the mysteries of life for days. Probably the most thought-provoking movie of the decade. Well, one of them (see also: #3)]
6) X-Men (2000) / Batman Begins (2005) [Okay, we can all agree that X2 was better than the first X-Men, and yet it isn't listed here. Why? Because, if you'll recall, the last major superhero movie we had before X-Men was the deplorable Batman & Robin, and just a year previously, superhero movies had been written off as comedy in the satire Mystery Men. And then along comes Bryan Singer to not only make the genre profitable, but to ground it in a sense of reality apart from the comics. Storm had normal hair. Their outfits were matching leather ("What were you expecting? Blue and yellow spandex?"). Actual actors with gravitas were in major roles (except for Halle Berry). This movie changed superhero movies forever, and all the Iron Mans and Batmans and Spider-Mans would not be here without it. Now, Batman Begins took that reality grounding and ran with it into legitimate character development and the darker sides of the superhero personality. And honestly, though it pains me to say it, it's a better overall film than The Dark Knight. There. It's out now.]
5) The Harry Potter movies (2001-2009) [Totally cheating on this one, but these have gotten so progressively good that there's no way to separate them. Plus, the idea of making this franchise into something so consistently good (and profitable--all six pictures are in the top 60 moneymakers of all time) is truly a remarkable feat of production. If I had to pick a favorite, it'd split between #3 and #5, but really the films build so well on each other that I have to include them as a bunch.]
4) The Incredibles (2004) [The best superhero movie of all time. I cannot watch this without being emotionally affected, and I've seen it dozens of times (including New Year's Eve, when my kids picked it for our final movie of 2009). Such a humdinger of a script, real honest-to-God character development, and so very, very many laughs. Pixar movies are always a triumph (well, maybe not Cars), but this one tops them all.]
3) No Country for Old Men (2007) [Typically quotable dialogue from the Coen brothers, but the line that always gets me comes from a minor character, Ed Tom's cousin (I think) Ellis: "What you got ain't nothin' new. It ain't all dependin' on you. That's vanity." Oh, and it has the perfect ending. The Academy got it right when they gave it Best Picture (those of you with long memories will recall I listed it as my second-favorite movie of 2007, after Once. I have since re-watched both pictures and have reversed their order).]
2) The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) [I think film historians will look back several years from now and realize that Wes Anderson is my generation's defining director. Even when he has an off day, like The Life Aquatic, the movie is still good. Yet this film hits all the right notes and no wrong ones, with perfect performances all around, notably from Danny Glover and Gene Hackman. Combine it with a double feature of The Darjeeling Limited, which is almost a Tenenbaums sequel, and you have a quirk-filled night of films that are about something. "I'm talkin' about putting a brick through the other guy's windshield. I'm talkin' about... takin' it out. And choppin' it up."]
1) The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) [Was there any doubt?]

Crash (2004) [There were many, many bad and mediocre films made in this decade, but none so warmly and openly embraced by the public as being worthy of artistic merit. Don't get me started on this contrived, cliche claptrap masquerading as something sensitive and insightful. This film creates a series of stereotypes who interact solely on the basis of the stereotype standing in front of them, and then pats itself on the back for being so smug and condescending. Whoop-de-freakin'-doo. I shall end with the words of film critic Walter Chaw, excerpting his review of the movie: "[Don] Cheadle... opens the film by saying that the people in the City of Angels are so disconnected that they crash into one another 'just so we can feel something.' I wrote something like that in a journal as a fifteen-year-old. Pathetic then, pathetic now... [It's easy] in a fiction to reduce the great unsolvable, immutable complexities of the world to a series of meticulously manufactured dialogues spoken by machine-tooled automatons in a gunmetal universe as slick and un-mysterious as a snake-oil salesman's huck-and-jive." Agreed.]

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) [It's not just poorly written, poorly acted, and poorly directed (though it is all that). It's also vulgar, revolting, disgusting, misogynistic, racist, incoherent, contemptible, illiterate, insipid, masturbatory, vile, self-indulgent, tone-deaf, obnoxious, immature, soul-deadening, a travesty of cinema, and a sign of the coming Apocalypse. It actively hates its audience. If you liked it, please tell me why so I know how to pray for you.]