Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mark’s 2013 Scrapbook of All the Things

So I’m a dad, which means that half of the stuff on this list was released in 2012 or before, but I finally got around to reading/watching/listening to it this year. I'd like to preface this by saying that at no time have I ever watched a show concerning the manufacturers of high-quality waterfowl lures, nor am I completely sure what the fox say. Nevertheless, even up to my eye- and earballs in PhD coursework and teaching my own first semester's load of classes, I managed to absorb my share of sweet, sweet brain candy this year. And because I'm just that narcissistic, I think I'll share it with you. In a ranked list. Because the internet doesn't have enough of those. 
Without further ado: here’s the best of what I came across in 2013.

The best film I saw this year:

Melancholia (2011) - Lars von Trier’s halting apocalyptic masterpiece is beautifully filmed, well acted, and, as his other films, deeply affecting. As usual, von Trier seems to cast his films by taking one person he's worked with before, one aging character actor, and throwing open a copy of E! Magazine to random pages to choose the rest. As if eliciting startlingly good performances from Kiefer Southerland and Kirsten Dunst weren't enough, Melancholia is as suffocatingly slow and bursting with inexorable dread as the rest of von Trier's films. Except this time, for once, the world really does end. Along with Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men and Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, I think this is one of the best sci-fi films of the 21st century so far, and it will stay with you for a long time after you watch it.

Other excellent choices:

Oblivion (2013) - A miscast and unevenly-paced film that nevertheless manages to be balls-out gorgeous. One of the most visually-impressive films I’ve seen in a very, very long time. It’s like watching a concept artist’s portfolio come to life.

World War Z (2013) - A rare instance where I felt the film improved on the book. I liked, but didn’t love, Max Brooks’ novel, and I thought the film was a superb adaptation. Zombie fiction is about far more than just thrills and gross-out horror, and is quickly becoming the thinking-person's horror genre. To a successful extent (if not as much as The Walking Dead) World War Z taps into what catastrophe means to an economically-fragile, globalized, late-Capitalism world.

Elysium (2013) - I remember enjoying District 9, but feeling like Neill Blomkamp could have pushed his plot layering a lot harder and written scenes that interacted more fully with his premise than he did. Elysium goes the distance, and it’s glorious. Many scenes where actors interact with humanoid robots are some of the most realistic-looking scenes of that sort ever filmed, and Matt Damon is terrific. Jodi Foster, of all people, manages to sound the only sour note in the film.

Ender's Game (2013) - I’m still not 100% sure how to feel about this. It felt to me somewhat like the film adaptation of The Road. A great movie faithfully adapted nearly verbatim from a great book ends up feeling like a zero-sum game somehow. Watch it with the confidence that it does the book justice, but don’t expect it to improve in any way upon the book. Is that a recommendation? I don’t know.

Film that was way better than it had any right to be:

Dredd (2012) - On paper, this film should have sucked badly, but it turned out to be one of the more entertaining surprises that I came across this year. Innovative cinematography, pitch-perfect pacing, a Blade Runner-like look, and cameos by Lena Hedley and Wood Harris sold me, Olivia Thirlby put in a solid performance, and Karl Urban stayed out of his own way. I know, I know. Judge Dredd. Just trust me.

The best TV I watched this year:

The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and Girls - Despite the general bitching on Facebook that the plot of The Walking Dead drags at times, and the villains in Sons of Anarchy become more and more cartoonish as the show progresses, I think these first two shows put together some of the most consistently entertaining and meaning-laden television out there this year, eclipsing even some other great offerings from HBO, AMC, and Netflix. These two shows, more than any other, are encapsulating what life as an American in the Great Recession is all about. Girls is amazing for other reasons. It, too, is a Great Recession austerity narrative, but it's much more unevenly plotted and focused on a smaller scope. For smart scripts, great acting, and some of the most biting satire around, you’ll not find a show better than Girls.

Other great TV to check out:
The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, Archer, Family Guy, Downton Abbey, Hell on Wheels, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Justified and Lilyhammer.

Shows you can skip:

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Getting On, and the Netflix reboot of Arrested Development. Boardwalk Empire has been limping on for two seasons after the series-crushing departure of Michael Pitt, and there’s very little sense to any of it anymore, and Getting On is like watching Nurse Jackie if Nurse Jackie wasn’t funny and smelled like a nursing home. I’m not sure why I don’t like the new season of Arrested Development. It’s just noticeably less feisty than the older episodes, and the cast seems not to interact as well as they once did. Which is sort of a bummer, really.

The best book I read this year:
George Saunders’ Tenth of December (2013)
If I had to pick a favorite, and I don’t like to, but if I had to, this would be it for me for the year. Not only does every story in this collection swing for the fences, but it had my favorite short story of the year (“The Semplica Girl Diaries”) in it, as well. I got to interview Saunders last winter, and he’s just as charming, witty, unpretentious, and brilliant as his fiction. If you only read one thing this year, read Tenth of December.

Runners up:
Cormack McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985)
A late addition to the list, as I just finished it yesterday, but this book totally blew me away. One of those books that you use to mark your maturation as a reader. As in “this was the first book since so-and-so that changed the way I look at novels.” I didn’t give it the top spot because it’s so fresh in my mind and because I need more time to digest it and think about what it means and how or whether I’m going to allow it to inform my own work, but it’s easy to see why so many critics regard Blood Meridian as a game-changer of a book.

James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941)
Despite its dull premise, Cain (who also wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice) managed here to write one of the most sharply mimetic female protagonists I’ve ever seen. Mildred, the down-to-earth and likable lead, is saddled with an exceptionally gifted daughter named Veda, with whom she has a turbulent relationship. Set in the tail end of the Great Depression, when economic hard times dragged into the better part of an entire decade (sound familiar?), I found this, and the novel’s eponymous main character, impossible not to like.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011)
I was certain—absolutely certain—that this book was going to suck. After all: I AM a gamer dork from the late 1980’s, and I didn’t think any dopey parody of it was going to be able to tell me anything about those years and growing up at that time that I didn’t already know. I was so wonderfully, hilariously wrong. This book (and I read the audiobook version, narrated by Wil Wheaton of all people), had me laughing and smiling and giving myself unselfconscious air high-fives from almost page one. It also has a remarkably poignant dystopian message about net neutrality and the commodification of leisure. Highly, highly recommended for anyone who grew up in the 80’s. This book is like a little energon cube of fun.

Other excellent choices:
Daniel DaFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Jack London’s The Star Rover, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of A Dangerous Idea, and Angela Pneuman’s short storyOccupational Hazard.”

Biggest disappointments:
Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010) and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011). These two came highly recommended to me by several sources and they were both just wretchedly terrible. Cronin’s bloated, thousand-page mess read like it was written by a hormonal Mountain Dew-guzzling teenager fresh off a Dean Koontz/Mad Max binge, and Zone One was like reading the lifeless, book-length backstory of the corporate villains from a Paul Verhoven film. Given that Cronin and Whitehead are both Ivy League academics with eye-popping intellectual pedigrees, someone at some point should have known better than to greenlight these books.

My favorite musical discovery of the year:
PHOX- A late addition to Lollapalooza this year, and evidently a huge hit there, they opened for (and slightly outshined) Jose Gonzalez’s band Junip when I saw them at Lincoln Hall earlier this year. Their EP Confetti is terrific, and they’ve got some of the best YouTube music videos I’ve ever seen. Imagine a multi-instrument ensemble playing nerdy, Pink-Floyd-infused-Mumford jams with an adorable lead singer who sounds vaguely like Nina Simone, in all the best senses of whatever the hell that is. When I complained via Twitter that their EP had disappeared from Spotify, one of the band members immediately tweeted me back recommending I pirate the tracks I wanted. PHOX is awesome.

Other excellent choices:
"Nashville" Noah Gundersen, “Who You Love” John Mayer feat. Katy Perry, "Annabel" The Duhks, "Some Nights" Fun, "Walking Lightly", "Line of Fire" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" Junip, "The Lost Boy" Greg Holden, "Coal War" Joshua James, "The Final Trawl" Back of the Moon, "Bothan airigh am braigh raithneach," Julie Fowlis.

Guilty Pleasures:
This was also evidently the year I stopped being much of a music snob, or the year that poppy female starlets started producing unusually good music. I say it with some sheepishness, but I listened to quite a lot of Katy Perry, Lorde, and Miley Cyrus this year. Their respective new albums managed to be just catchy and punchy enough to strike the right tone for a twice-weekly commute to Milwaukee in a car by myself. I’ll wait a moment while you picture me singing along.

Favorite stage shows of the year:
Wicked (the Broadway in Chicago cast, at the Oriental Theater) - It seems like I always get to see musicals onstage long after their heyday. I missed two chances in the late 80’s and early 90’s to see Les Miserables and Miss Saigon with Colm Wilkenson, Alan Ball, Frances Rufelle, and Lea Salonga, some of the greatest stage talent of their generation and the originators of the roles. And of course I missed Kristen Chenowith and Idina Menzel’s Wicked when I had the chance, sadly. I’ve seen Les Miserables twice since then, and Miss Saigon, with alternate (and far inferior) casts, and I was pretty sure I was in for the same with the current cast of Wicked in Chicago, but Allison Luff and Jenn Gambatese owned the living hell out the show, and made it so much theirs that it sent me to YouTube to find their version to listen to rather than the original. Gambatese was hilarious throughout and she and Luff got the loudest applause I’ve ever heard at a musical after her rendition of “Defying Gravity.” Her Elphaba seemed far more girlish, vulnerable, likable, and lived-in than Menzel’s stiffer (if maybe 5% vocally stronger) Elphaba. It’s a toss-up which cast is “better” but the new cast doesn’t give an inch of ground in the quality department and the current tour of Wicked is one of the most thoroughly entertaining things I’ve ever seen on stage.
The Steppenwolf production of Stephen Adly Gurgis’ The Motherfucker With the Hat, starring Jimmy Smits and John Ortiz was also tremendous. Full disclosure: I’m distantly related to director Anna Shapiro, but this was a wonderful departure for Shapiro in terms of both content and pacing, and seeing her stretch her usual wheelhouse to accommodate Adly Gurgis’ snappy, raunchy, and clever script was one of the most impressive creative wins I saw this year. The set design was terrific and Ortiz, in particular, was great. I don’t know anyone who saw this that didn’t enjoy it.

Favorite video game of the year:
I’m not even sure this deserves its own category, but this was the year that John and I discovered Minecraft, a deceptively simple-looking game that turned out to be one of the most fun video games I’ve ever played. Ostensibly plotless, Minecraft sets you down in the middle of a cartoonish but fully-interactive world and dares you to survive. During the day, blocky clouds drift past, trees can be chopped down to make shovels, pickaxes, hoes, and various other basic tools, and you can even start a little farm for crops and livestock. When the sun goes down, though, the monsters come out. Zombies, giant spiders, skeletons, and terrifying Enderman and Creepers lurk in the darkness and you’ll need a sword, armor, a bow and arrow, dynamite, and plenty of torchlight to keep them at bay.
And here’s the beauty of Minecraft: despite it’s blocky and primitive appearance, you can interact with every single object in it. Every piece of ground can be delved into, every pool of standing water can be scooped up in a bucket, every animal can be tamed, bred, befriended, ridden, or hunted, and you can build, as if you had the world’s largest box of Legos, anything you want. Want to make an entire castle out of transparent glass? Done. Want to recreate King’s Landing? Can do. Currently the world that John and I have built (because the game is much more fun in multi-player mode) contains a town of interconnected towers, a massive farm, a seaside-town, a skyscraper, a pirate ship, a minecart roller-coaster, a floating pyramid, several castles, and of course miles and miles of underground mineshafts and paths that we’ve cut into, around, and through the massive, endless wilderness of Minecraft. Fun for all ages, especially 35.

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