The best of 2012 so far
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We’ve passed the halfway point of 2012. What are your favorite 2011 books, movies, albums, songs, TV episodes, etc. to date? What’s likely to turn up on your year-end favorites list?
I’m not sure Paul Tobin’s Prepare To Die! will make my year-end best-of list, because it’s an admittedly flawed and pulpy, lightweight superhero novel. But it’s definitely the book I’ve most recommended and/or passed around to my friends this year, and it’s the novel all the other superhero books and comics I’ve been reading in the wake of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie have to live up to. I still don’t think you can beat the premise of a supervillain telling a defeated hero “Prepare to die!” and the hero taking him at his word, and asking for a month to put his affairs in order before surrendering for execution. Speaking of The Avengers, though, I don’t expect there to be a better summer movie this year, in terms of action, humor, surprise, and sheer fist-pumping fun. My runner-up for movie that’s most stuck with me this year is another Whedon-related project, The Cabin In The Woods, which I saw three times in a month just so I could drag friends and family along; I’m sorry it didn’t find its audience in theaters, but I’m looking forward to it hitting home video so I can expose more people to it. Man, it’s been a pulpy, populist year for me so far, and I need to buckle down and take Scott Tobias’ 2012 film checklist seriously. But one thing I’ve seen that he hasn’t that’s really stuck with me—Ben Dickinson’s First Winter, a chilly Martha Marcy May Marlene-esque debut feature about a group of yoga students trapped in a very different kind of cabin in the woods in winter, with dwindling supplies and morale. Of all the Tribeca premières I’m still hoping get wide distribution, this one still tops the list.
The films that really spoke to me this year benefited from a wonderful sense of cultural specificity. After the tepid but warmly received Me And Orson Welles, Richard Linklater made a fine return to form with Bernie, an incongruously tender, warm-hearted, extremely funny and human tale of murder inspired by a true story. It’s as much about the sleepy Texas small town where the killing occurred as it is about the murder itself. Jack Black is ideally cast as a beloved town fixture so sweet and kindly that no one wants to believe he’s capable of murder, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, while Matthew McConaughey (who is having the year of a lifetime between Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, and Eastbound & Down) proves a formidable nemesis as an oily-slick and greasily pragmatic prosecuting attorney. Todd Solondz’s unblinking but not unfeeling Dark Horse is similarly distinguished by a terrific sense of time and place. The bittersweet comedy-drama is a character study of an entitled, emotionally stunted, middle-aged man-child lost in suburbia, and it’s arguably Solondz’s most empathetic film to date. I was similarly blown away by the music-box perfection and exquisite melancholy of Moonrise Kingdom, as well as Joss Whedon’s crackerjack genre romps Cabin In The Woods and The Avengers; the latter lived up to some impossibly high expectations while smoothly working its way through enough exposition for half a dozen superhero epics.
I’ve done more than enough to sing the praises of awesome seasons of Girls, Mad Men, and Game Of Thrones that aired this spring, and I hope that time is kind to Luck, since it was so idiosyncratic and beautiful that it deserves to be remembered for more than the unfortunate events surrounding its dismissal. It will also surprise precisely no one to know that I thought the second half of Community’s third season was really strong. But the show I really want to praise is a little-watched Hulu “original” (in that it’s something the company picked up from the UK) called Rev. Simultaneously warm, witty, and poignant, the comedy is about a small-town vicar who takes over an inner-city parish in London and is forced to deal with his own doubts and inadequacies, even as he attempts to build a better community for the members of his parish. It’s a lyrical little show, and I wish more people would find it. And outside the world of TV, I was blown away by John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, which turns the most manipulative material possible (teens with cancer!) into an honest, gut-wrenching, emotionally harrowing novel. I may read a better novel this year, but I doubt I’ll read one that prompts a stronger reaction.
As a Steven Soderbergh fan who’s spent a lot of time lately appreciating the idea of Steven Soderbergh more than the reality, I’m especially grateful for Magic Mike, which shows his experimental-filmmaker side and his crowd-pleasing commercial-entertainer side working together more harmoniously than at any time since Out Of Sight. (If Matthew McConaughey continues to perform at the level seen here and in Richard Linklater’s hilarious Bernie, I may have to finally learn to spell his last name.) For its powerhouse fourth season, Nurse Jackie leads in the hotly contested category of TV shows I am honored to be able to write about on a week-to-week basis even though no one else watches them. I love the new albums by Beach House, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Death Grips, and that weird Serengeti-Sufjan Stevens supergroup EP. But my big music-related pleasure so far this year was also my favorite read: RJ Smith’s James Brown biography The One. That would go to the top of my list just for the scene where James attends the première of Black Caesar, for which he was credited as having written the original score. When he hears (for the first time) the music his right-hand man Fred Wesley wrote to flesh out the two, count ’em, two songs JB contributed to the enterprise, he fires Wesley on the spot, lest he get a big head. (Then he immediately hired him back. Just because James Brown was crazy doesn’t mean he was stupid.)
I’m already looking forward to the blowback I’ll get from readers when they see how high I’ve ranked Spartacus: Vengeance on my year-end list, but that’s fine. Having to recast its lead should have undone the entire endeavor, but the program came back as strong as ever, with Liam McIntyre taking over for the late Andy Whitfield. The show’s refusal to take off the narrative breaks at any point provides thrilling, emotional television that is miles beyond the T&A show non-viewers assume it is. From a personal perspective, probably the best thing I personally got to work on was this entry in the TV Summer Roundtable, in which Noel Murray led a discussion on The Andy Griffith Show’s “Opie The Birdman.” True, this episode originally aired nearly 50 years ago. But that episode knocked my socks off, and the discussion we had among ourselves was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my short time writing for this website.
I love a loud guitar—and in that regard, 2012 has not disappointed. From The Men’s Open Your Heart and White Lung’s Sorry to Screaming Females’ Ugly and Heartless Bastards’ Arrow, the past six months have been a cornucopia of rock ’n’ roll cacophony, tuneful though it may be. On the darker end of the distorted spectrum, Pallbearer’s Sorrow And Extinction and Abigail Williams’ Becoming have taken their own unique, twisted paths to metallic oblivion. Some veteran artists have released great, late-career albums recently, too, including Napalm Death’s stunning Utilitarian and Killing Joke’s eerily epic, chillingly topical MMXII. And then there’s Jimmy Cliff’s Rebirth, a soulful, joyously gritty comeback for the reggae legend—not to mention Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, who produced, co-wrote, and played on the album. As for books: Although it came out late last year, I didn’t get my hands on a copy of Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings On Fire until January. I kicked myself for not snatching it up in time for my best-of-2011 list. In the book, Hermes takes a core sample of New York’s mid-’70s musical renaissance, and he emerges with a vital, insightful portrait of that much-documented, over-mythologized scene. Novel-wise, Brian Francis Slattery’s Lost Everything has wowed me most with its resonant, dreamlike vision of post-collapse America. Hey, this is the year the world ends, after all.
A lot of what I liked from this year has already been mentioned. I enjoyed Michael Ian Black’s book You’re Not Doing It Right: I’ve read so many nonfiction books by humorists lately that seemed half-assed, largely generated by a book deal, so it was refreshing to read a book by a comedian that was funny, but also substantive and vulnerable and honest and sad. Oh, also, I don’t know if a comedy sketch counts, but last night, I wound up talking to friends yet again about Conan’s Weiner’s Circle sketch featuring Triumph the Insult Comic dog. I was lucky enough to be at the show when it taped, and I was amazed and delighted by how much insulting, absurdist humor was packed into those eight minutes. If you’re familiar with the Weiner’s Circle, the whole bit felt almost dangerous, but in the end, it had a happy ending—by which I mean all the customers at the Weiner’s Circle got vomited on.
Smuggled out of Iran in a cake and shot partially on a iPhone, Jafar Panahi’s meta-movie This Is Not A Film is a bold act of protest, but it’s also funny, warm, profound, and in the end, just so achingly sad. Panahi, sitting under house arrest in his apartment with his laptop as his daughter’s iguana crawls up his shoulder, turns himself into the glumly human face of artistic persecution and compels viewers to think about what it’s really like to be silenced and tucked away out of sight. The film has almost nothing in common with another of my favorites from the year, Joss Whedon’s smashingly clever genre reinvention Cabin In The Woods, except that both achieve the near-impossible balancing act of being brilliantly self-reflexive while also having enough substance to succeed as their own stand-alone works of cinema.
This year has offered ample joy in every pop-cultural arena. The best thing on television so far has been Archer, which kicked off its third season this January (not counting last year’s excellent three-part “Heart Of Archness” part, which was really more like a coda to season two, or a stand-alone miniseries). The animated spy comedy really seemed to hit its stride this year, outpacing the uneven (but at times brilliant) Community to take the pole position. Musically, Beach House’s Bloom is the undisputed champion of the year’s first half for me, thanks to the fact that the band’s songwriting finally rose to the level of its gorgeous, ethereal sonic sculpting. At the movies, I was completely smitten by the smart comedy-horror of Cabin In The Woods, which felt like it was made just for me (or at least just for nerdy horror fans like me) and by the [REC] series unexpected turn toward comedy with [REC] 3: Genesis, which injected humor into the dark series to great effect. But the best best thing of the year? The likelihood that the real best is yet to come, with my most-anticipated TV series (Breaking Bad) just starting, and my most-anticipated album (Yeasayer’s Fragrant World) still a month from release. 2012 is going to kick ass, even if the world does end on Dec. 21.
2012 has been a boon year for great entertainment. Mad Men, Community, Game Of Thrones, Veep, Archer, and Justified were all highlights for me in the first half of 2012 on television. On the big screen, The Avengers was a blast, while the quirky Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts Of The Southern Wild offered the opposite. But it’s quietly been a great year for music, too. Ty Segall and Japandroids each had terrific hard-rocking releases; Of Monsters And Men’s debut album finally hit these shores, and it was the polished folk-pop gem of the year, and the group’s fellow Icelanders in Sigur Rós did not disappoint with their stellar new album, either. Chicago bands Hollows and Gold Motel had terrific summery pop-gem albums of their own. The Tallest Man On Earth polished up his act, and the results were fantastic. Spiritualized returned, and Jason Pierce embraced pop (or his version of it) on the terrific Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Fiona Apple’s return was equally enjoyable and cathartic. New Orleans’ Galactic put out Carnivale Electricos, a surging carnival album that makes it feel like the best Mardi Gras party of the year every day. Theresa Andersson provided the Ash Wednesday come-down. Those Sugar reissues are astounding. And hip-hop had some great releases, but for me, the best are the trio of Action Bronson, whose Blue Chips mix-tape gets regular play several times a week; Big K.R.I.T., who keeps getting bigger and bigger; and the more political-minded Killer Mike, who has the best hip-hop take-down of Ronald Reagan ever. Oh, and there were also worthwhile albums put out by Frank Ocean, Bad Veins, Kelly Hogan, Right Away Great Captain, ’Allo Darlin, Hot Chip, Dr. John, Cloud Nothings, Schoolboy Q, Alabama Shakes, and Andrew Bird. And there’s still nearly half a year to go.
This has been a banner year for space-prison-escape movies, the obvious lead contender being James Mather and Stephen St. Leger’s Lockout. There’s been a bit of handwringing this year about “What happened to the American action film?” mostly following Adam Sternbergh posing that question in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. Lockout seems to say “They’re over here! In France!” Produced by Luc Besson, Lockout hearkens back to a bygone era of wisecracking action heroes (in the form of Guy Pearce’s terminally smirking Snow) while also responding to the post-Matrix, Dark Knight, Inception, etc. backslide into somberness and self-seriousness. (Lesson to genre filmmakers: set your prison movie in outer space. Also, if your third act lags, send your space-prison careening toward Earth.) And as with his previous production, Taken (whose sequel I await with a tongue-out slavishness most people reserved for Nolan’s new cape movie), Lockout seems to embrace the form of the American action film while also subtly ribbing American opulence. Just as Taken worked as a satire of American foreign policy while critiquing the ineffectuality of French domestic policy, Lockout presents a dystopic United States that appears to be 90 percent freeway and 10 percent underground bunker, fraught with government corruption and cynicism. At the same time, it also earnestly, nostalgically (and, perhaps ultimately, conservatively) pines for the simpler days of American action heroes, and American action movies. No capes required.
I feel like I’m too far behind on movies to name a best at this point, and I still need to do a major music catch-up, too. I’m pretty well up to date on TV, though, and rather than merely repeating the names of everyone’s favorite shows, I’d like to speak up for one network programming block: ABC’s Wednesday-night sitcoms. Well, most of them, anyway. Modern Family suffered a pretty steep decline this season, but nearly every other comedy ABC has slotted into Wednesday—including The Middle, Happy Endings, Don’t Trust The B—— In Apartment 23, and my favorite new series, Suburgatory—has been exemplary, combining eccentricity and crack comic timing with real heart and even some measure of relevance to how people live in the America of 2012. The characters on these shows deal with money issues, relationship woes, the perils of modern technology, and our evolving popular culture, and do so in ways that have made the Wednesday ABC lineup one of the few I feel obliged to watch pretty much immediately, rather than letting these shows accumulate on my DVR.
I recently wrote a checklist piece on the best films of 2012 so far, so my likes and dislikes are pretty well known, at least on the “Essentials” list, which includes early Top 10 contenders like Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, an austere, otherworldly film about life on the precipice; Terence Davies’ crushing adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea; Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, a part-procedural/part-landscape film that’s particularly haunting in its first half, and the endlessly clever Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard meta-horror comedy Cabin In The Woods, among many others. Just before writing this, I saw The Dark Knight Rises, which completely fulfills Christopher Nolan’s three-part repository of the defining anxieties of life in the 21st century, all while kicking the requisite ass. Currently drafting death threats to all my fellow critics who didn’t care for it.
It’s going to be tough to mention things that others haven’t already, so I’m not going to try. I’m on record as loving Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… (if anything, I love it more now, after seeing her perform it twice), and Jack White’s Blunderbuss and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange are almost assured spots on my year-end list, along with some possible dark-horse contenders in the forms of Rye Rye, Santigold, Azealia Banks, and Niki & The Dove. TV-wise, I’m going to skip over the sure-thing “legacy” shows that are guaranteed a spot on the best-of lists of myself and many others (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, Community, Parks And Rec, Happy Endings) in favor of a couple of new series that won my heart this year. Girls gave me more capital-F Feelings every Sunday night than I had the rest of the week combined; I’m aware of your argument against the show, whatever it is, and I don’t care, I love it unequivocally. Similarly, while I can see the flaws in the excellent summer trifle Bunheads, I can’t think of another show that makes me smile like a goon for a full hour every week the way that corny-ass show does. On the movie front, like everyone else I’ll throw in my vote for Cabin In The Woods and Moonrise Kingdom, as well as Brave, which I think is at least 10 times more effective if you see it with your mom. And after just getting out of a screening of The Dark Knight Rises less than an hour ago, I can say I loved it even more than The Dark Knight, though that could be the residual adrenaline talking. Oh, and also all the other things I’m definitely forgetting; those are on the list too.
My favorite album of the year so far is Nada Surf’s The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy because it makes me feel better about feeling weird about getting old, and my favorite song of the year so far is Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” because it makes me feel better about wanting to be young again.
I can and will heartily recommend Sharon Van Etten’s album Tramp, because it’s beautiful and sad, and The Walkmen’s Heaven because it’s beautiful and happy. Those are probably my two most-played records this year so far. And I will unabashedly show love for Moonrise Kingdom, because I am a forward-thinking man who is not afraid of his own emotions and does not shy away from whimsy. Metalocalypse has been joyously weird in 2012 as well, and not at all whimsical. And finally, that show about dragons.
Pitchfork 2012 provided a chance to see the bands responsible for my three favorite albums of the year so far: Cloud Nothings, Japandroids, and Beach House. All three records are stellar, but I’ve been listening to Cloud Nothings’ Attack On Memory for a solid seven months without stopping. It’s one of those rare albums I can put on and never want to skip a track, reveling in the building feral energy. And it doesn’t hurt that they killed at A.V. Fest last year. I’ve watched way too much television this year, and could go on and on about shows I loved just as much as everyone else, but instead, I’ll pick out a single episode that I’ve returned to over and over for sheer repeat watchability: Community’s “Digital Estate Planning,” the 8-bit videogame episode where the study group helps Pierce fight for his inheritance against Giancarlo Esposito. It’s just a delightful tribute to a style of videogame I find endlessly endearing, and the continued efforts of open-source designers to recreate Journey To The Center Of Hawkthorne, the adventure game within the episode, is a consistently entertaining diversion as new features are added with each beta release. As for books, I’d go with Nick Dybek’s haunting debut, When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man, a painfully dark coming-of-age tale set in a Northwest fishing community full of absent fathers, distant mothers, and children forced to leave childhood behind too quickly as they deal with the shambles of a community on the verge of economic collapse.
Whenever I pull together a list of this sort, it generally only serves to underline how much of my pop-culture interests tend to be steeped in the past rather than the present, and this one will, for the most part, be no exception. Let’s go ahead and get the most embarrassing admission out of the way first: I’m really enjoying the new Asia album, XXX, even if its title seems to be designed less as a celebration of the band’s 30th anniversary and more of a fuck-you to anyone who might try to Google it. (No wonder only Asia’s most diehard fans are still buying its albums.) As a fan of the Swedish power pop band the Merrymakers, I’m thrilled that former member David Myhr finally got around to releasing his debut solo album, the strong, catchy Soundshine. The biggest but most fun surprise for me was the album by Buck Satan And The 666 Shooters, Bikers Welcome, Ladies Drink Free, which I think may be the first thing Al Jourgensen’s done in almost two decades that I’ve given a shit about. I also really like the new Willie Nelson album, Heroes. In spite of offering a predictable guest vocal by Snoop Dogg on the track “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” it also features some nice duets between Willie and his son, Lukas Nelson. On the TV front, I often feel like I’m the only one, but dammit, I really thought Starz’s Magic City turned out to be an enjoyable period drama that only got better as its first season progressed. Lastly, maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I loved The Avengers. Totally worth the wait.
I don’t think any television show surprised me so consistently—up to a kind of baffling season finale—as Girls, which each week was somehow hilarious, poignant, and completely unsparing, treating its young protagonists with a great deal of sympathy and little forgiveness as they fumbled through the world of grown-ups. As for films, I’m in no way surprised I loved Moonrise Kingdom and The Kid With A Bike, but that doesn’t stop me from being delighted. And I can’t stop playing the Andrew Bird album Give It Away months after its release.