Thursday, February 16, 2012

Media Review 2011: Top Motion Pictures.

While my book-reading didn't have much of a spiritual component this year, my movie-watching sure did. I don't know if this was intentional on the parts of the filmmakers or if I just imported a lot of my faith into the theatre with me, but many of this year's film's spoke to me in a deeply spiritual way. That said, while I had a deep admiration for many of 2011's offerings, I only loved three of them to the degree where I couldn't stop thinking about them for days afterward. The fourth and fifth slots of this year's top five could well have been filled by many of the movies that wound up as "Honorable Mentions." Which, by the way, are:

The Adventures of TinTin
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Ides of March
Midnight in Paris
Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
X-Men: First Class

5) The Artist AND Hugo [Both of these movies are so steeped in nostalgia that I watched them with a big, dumb grin on my face. I have a feeling that Hugo will wind up standing the test of time better than The Artist, but either of them is worth the throwback factor. Oh, and both of these films broke the unbreakable rule: if a film has a cutaway of a dog putting its paw over its eyes in shame, then that film is a giant hunk of not-worth-it. Way to buck the system, movies!]
4) Super 8 [The first coming-of-age film I've seen that takes place roughly during the time period when I came of age. I'm officially old enough that my nostalgia is also becoming the nation's nostalgia. I was so very, very on board with this movie the whole time I was watching it. Just completely top-notch.]
3) Source Code [Basically, this film hit all my buttons. You know when you're scratching your dog's tummy and you find that spot where they kick their leg, wag their tail, rub their back against the carpet, and loll out their tongue at the same time? That's me watching this movie.]
2) Cave of Forgotten Dreams [A documentary on prehistoric cave paintings. Sounds scintillating, right? It actually is! Werner Herzog never makes a boring film, and he uses the conceit of these paintings to ask all sorts of questions about humanity, artistry, spirituality, and where all these things come from. Plan lots of time afterward for contemplation and/or discussion.]
1) The Tree of Life [It will have to be a strong, strong contender to knock this one from the top spot when I compile my "Best of the Decade" list in 2020. I cannot adequately describe how I feel this movie, so I'll quote film critic Walter Chaw instead: "...It's true in a way that has nothing to do with what happens in it and everything to do with what happens in me while I watch it." Exactly.]

A Separation
War Horse
The Mill and the Cross

The Help
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Albert Nobbs

Cars 2 [Man, was this thing disappointing. I doubt Pixar had any real creative reason to dip back into the Cars well, and it showed in a film that tried to preach that same worn-out message of "Be yourself" and wound up adding the parenthetical, "Even if you're a pretentious jerk with no cultural sensitivity." The upside is that it led to a great post-film conversation with my kids about how we all need to grow and learn and put aside our more coarse impulses.]

Transformers: Dark of the Moon [I can trash this all I want and I still won't be able to top the masterful review from (again) Walter Chaw. Go read it (warning: swears).]

Tomorrow: nothing! The media review is over!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Media Review 2011: Top Television.

I'm oh-so-gradually starting to recognize that television may have more to offer me than I've allowed in the past. This year I started watching two new sitcoms, both of which have some critical acclaim and both of which made my top five. A definite step up, since I didn't even bother with this part of the media review last year.

5) Phineas & Ferb [I marvel at how this Disney cartoon manages to be so consistently fresh and funny. I wish I was one-tenth this inventive.]
4) 30 Rock [Part of me hopes this is the last season, because this show is treading water and losing steam. Still, when the rapport is on between Jack and Liz, it is on. Alec Baldwin may be a failure as a human being, but darn it all if he's super-great on this show.]
3) Modern Family [I'm new to this show, so I don't know yet if it will hold up (it seems like the dynamics haven't changed or developed much since I started watching), and it still hews pretty closely to a lot of sitcom conventions, but on the whole it tends to deliver at least a couple of good laughs every episode. And the character of Phil Dunphy is pretty genius.]
2) The Daily Show/The Colbert Report [I'm really looking forward to the 2012 election with these guys.]
1) Community [GOOD GRAVY BOATS IN HEAVEN THIS SHOW IS AMAZING! Completely blew my mind the first time I watched this. Finally, at long last, I found a show to fill that big Arrested Development-shaped hole in my heart, and then NBC goes and "benches" it. If you weren't watching it already, do yourself a favor and find it whenever NBC puts it back on the air.]

Phineas & Ferb: Across the Second Dimension [A made-for-TV movie that my kids forced me to watch when they earned it as a reward--and I wound up loving it. It actually made me look forward to the inevitable theatrical Phineas & Ferb movie (coming in 2013).]

The Cosby Show [I actually watched this as a kid, but now that I'm a parent of five, it is funny on a completely new level. I always identified with Theo back in the day (and harbored a secret crush on the much-older Denise), but now I'm all about Cliff and how he relates to his kids while treating Claire with true love and respect. You've set a high bar, Mr. Cosby. A high bar indeed.]

Whitney [I wish I could use Are You There, Chelsea?, but since that debuted in January of this year, it's off the table until next time. I could only stomach about the first 10 minutes of Whitney's completely humor-free pilot before I turned it off, disgusted that it's staying on the schedule while Community languishes on "the bench."]

Tomorrow: the media review concludes with my favorite category--top motion pictures!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Media Review 2011: Top Music.

Where the good books of 2011 were generally a thin group, the good music is bursting with multiple candidates for the top spots. I could easily fill out a top 20 if such a thing were wanted. But the rules for this game are a top five, and so it goes...

Destroyed, Moby
Holy Ghost!, Holy Ghost!
Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, M83
Join Us, They Might Be Giants
The King Is Dead, The Decemberists
The Long Surrender, Over the Rhine
Metals, Feist
Nothing Is Wrong, Dawes
Safari Disco Club, Yelle
TRON: Legacy Reconfigured, Daft Punk & others
Zonoscope, Cut Copy

5) Biophilia, Bjork [Bjork's last couple of albums have felt like a hodge-podge of song ideas; this one is practically a full-blown symphony, well-thought-out and arranged, allowing each track to be distinctive while still building on the whole. This one's a triumph of artistry, but you have to be down with Bjork in the first place to enjoy it.]
4) Wasting Light, Foo Fighters [Don't give me any of that Black Keys nonsense--this is still the best straight-ahead rock-and-roll band on the planet. Only one subpar track, which I simply unchecked in my iTunes so I never have to listen to it.]
3) Tamer Animals, Other Lives [Their arrangements almost seem counter-intuitive, but man do they make it work. Another album that appears to be carefully thought-through, which makes it all the more impressive. Makes for great listening while you're reading The Sisters Brothers, by the way.]
2) Build a Rocket Boys!, Elbow [The missing comma in that album title aside, this was the most musically satisfying album of 2011, starting strong and only getting stronger as it goes. "I'll miss your stupid face," indeed.]
1) The Harrow & The Harvest, Gillian Welch [Emotionally enriching and sonically devastating, the sparse arrangements, careful songwriting, and heartbreaking performances on this one demand attention. I can't do anything else when this album is on--it forces me to listen to it. God's honest truth: the first time I heard this, I was at work and I just sat there, stared at my computer, and wept for 45 minutes. Oh, and "Hard Times" was my theme song for the year.]

21, Adele
Barton Hollow, The Civil Wars
Bon Iver, Bon Iver

It's a Corporate World, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Drive, Tycho

Loveless, My Bloody Valentine (1991) [How did I never get around to listening to this album until 20 years after its release? How?! (Oh, and I don't wish to alarm anyone, but The Joshua Tree turns 25 in 2012.)]

Showroom of Compassion, Cake [I know the slacker ethic is kind of Cake's thing, but if they aren't going to put any effort into their albums, then why would I bother to listen to them?]

Tomorrow: I chime in with a category I didn't even bother with last year--top television programs. Things are getting better on the small screen!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Media Review 2011: Top Books.

Well, it's been a long time coming, but I just had so many films I wanted to see and books I wanted to read before I finished up my annual media review. There are still some out there (especially in the book world), but I can delay no longer. So with that, here's my list of:


Let's start with the printed word. Not a whole lot to say about the books of 2011, other than very few of them really moved me in a memorable way. I read a lot of supposedly humorous stuff this year, and I'd just about give up entirely on humor as a viable genre of book were it not for Tina Fey and John Hodgman. Also, an astonishing low number of Jesus books passed in front of my eyeballs this year, which was not intentional. Just not a whole lot tickled my fancy. Anyway, here goes.

All Is Grace, Brennan Manning
Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), Errol Morris
Bossypants, Tina Fey
The Four Holy Gospels, Makoto Fujimura [You owe it to yourself to at least check this link out and watch the video about its creation. Stunningly gorgeous]
Life Itself: A Memoir, Roger Ebert
One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp
That Is All, John Hodgman

5) Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick [The follow-up half-art/half-prose book from the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which a certain ten-time Oscar-nominated film was based on). This one builds on his storytelling style, but instead of combining stark, detailed chiaroscuro drawings and writing to tell one story, Selznick tells two (eventually) intersecting stories, one with pictures and the other with words. Captivating and creative.]
4) Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell [I had no idea the history of Hawaii could be this interesting, especially when told by perennially white-skinned and nasal cityfolk like Vowell. I will forever be indebted to her for writing this sentence: "For Americans, Acts 16:9 is the high-fructose corn syrup of Bible verses--an all-purpose ingredient we'll stir into everything from the ink on the Marshall Plan to canisters of Agent Orange."]
3) Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Rob Bell [I really don't like Bell's writing style, nor his whole "ain't-I-a-stinker?" approach to marketing himself, but kudos to him for getting the nation talking about this very important topic. Also, this book holds a special place in my heart, because I was reading it when I found out Osama Bin Laden had been assassinated.]
2) The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt [Imagine if the Coen Brothers wrote an original Western novel with a slight sci-fi twist. Now stop imagining, because it exists! It just was written by Patrick DeWitt instead of the Coens.]
1) A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor [This guy is the director of the British Museum in London. He took 100 different objects from the museum and used them to draw the line of human history from our beginnings to now. This one never stops being fascinating, covering parts of history I've never even heard of before. It's a little daunting, but I had no problem finishing it before it was due at the library. Oh, and the pictures are nifty, too.]

Write More Good, The Fake AP Stylebook
Newspaper Blackout, Austin Kleon

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [I'd read at the Holmes series several times in my life, but this was the first year I read one of the books from cover to cover. Thoroughly engaging material, even though it's been copied and re-copied by just about every mystery author since.]

Zombie Mommy, M.T. Anderson [Mediocre things don't generally wind up in the "worst" category for me--it's usually media that is hugely popular for a reason that eludes me (see Transformers: Dark of the Moon) or media from an author whose work I admire but who has begun to tread the water of mediocrity. This is a case of the latter. M.T. Anderson's Pals in Peril! series is a magnificent invention of supreme cleverness and insightful hilarity, but this latest entry is neither clever nor even very funny. It's just aggressively boring, and that makes it the worst.]

Tomorrow: Top Music!