Friday, December 26, 2008

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2008

And once again, we come to the last Pop Culture Roundup of the year, which features those pieces of media that I enjoyed the most from 2008. They're numbered, but that doesn't mean anything unless I say different.

Five books I enjoyed in 2008

1. The Buzzard - A memoir about the rise and glory days of Cleveland radio station WMMS, written by former production manager John Gorman. He details the steps that he and others took to build up their station through various promotions and concerts, their competition with other stations whom they'd usually easily get the best of, and the eventual internal politics that led to their becoming "just another radio station." I mused back when I read this that it's amazing how little malice Gorman shows for those who sabotaged the station from the inside. At any rate, I found the story of building up and running a radio station fascinating.

2. The Final Season - Another memoir, this time by Tom Stanton, and chronicling his experiences while attending every home game at Tiger Stadium during the last season of its use. Stanton tells of meeting many Tiger legends and their experiences at the park, as well as those of longtime workers. There's a subplot involving Stanton's relationships to his father and son, and how they relate in various ways to attending games together. It's both a wonderful testament to a classic ballpark, as well as a personal illustration of what it has meant for one family.

3. Finding Our Way Again - Brian McLaren's introduction to spiritual disciplines, apparently the first in a series (not from McLaren...he just provides this first piece, I think). One of McLaren's main points involves the relationship between the inner life and outer life; how spiritual practices relate to and influence how we interact to the world around us. It helped that I largely read this book while overlooking a Florida beach, so my soul was prepared for a book like this.

4. Founding Faith - An analysis of the various Founding Fathers' views of religion, both as it affected their own lives as well as how each believed it should interact with government. Steven Waldman's main points include noting that this group of a half-dozen or so early American figures weren't nearly as unified on the subject of church and state matters. Jefferson and Franklin were perhaps the only Deists among them, Madison was possibly the most devoted Christian among them but also the most well-spoken when it came to keeping religion out of government, and Washington certainly invoked a Higher Power, but was hesitant at times to profess anything explicitly Christian. Waldman also provides a look into the early colonies that attempted to operate as "Christian states," and the oppressiveness that they exhibited against non-Christians or "wrong" Christians. The whole thing is quite illuminating for people looking for a serious look at such issues.

5. Recreating the Church - A very concise look at the issues facing mainline churches. Richard Hamm provides a great introduction to such matters for any church looking around and asking what happened. He's not necessarily as quick to dole out practices to "fix" things, but nevertheless helps to name what we're dealing with: changes in the larger culture, changes in how younger generations relate to one another, changes in how people organize themselves, and so on. I've used parts of this book with my church recently to help them understand what's happening, with great results.

Five movies I enjoyed in 2008

1. Hot Fuzz - I put this at #1 on purpose because I'd guess that, out of all the movies I've seen this year, I've probably sat down to watch this the most. Not only do we own the DVD, but it's been on HBO a lot and I've never felt compelled to change the channel when it's been on. This is a parody of cop action movies from the same people who made Shaun of the Dead, which was a parody of zombie movies (and which showed up on this list a few years ago). Simon Pegg plays a by-the-book police officer relocated to a small village that doesn't seem to have a great deal of crime until he begins to dig a little deeper. What follows are a whole lot of self-aware over-the-top action sequences. It's brilliant.

2. Juno - Coffeewife and I were initially attracted to this movie for the presence of Arrested Development alums Michael Cera and Jason Bateman, but it's really a good story from the perspective of an outcast teenage girl who becomes pregnant after a one-off evening with her best friend. A lot of people decry this movie because they think it "advocates" teenage pregnancy, or at least irresponsibility since she decides to give the baby to a couple who are unable to get pregnant themselves. She decides against abortion, she seeks out a particular couple so that she doesn't have to dump the kid in an orphanage, and she recognizes that she's too immature to care for it herself. I see a tremendous amount of responsibility there. What more do people want?

3. American Gangster - I like a good gangster movie. This is a good gangster movie. Based on a true story, Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, a crime boss who rose to prominence in 1970s Harlem by running heroin. Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the detective who ran the investigation against him. The movie is actually very sympathetic to both characters...Lucas isn't portrayed as a two-dimensional ruthless crime lord whom you want to see get his by the end. Instead, he's shown as someone who values family and who ultimately recognizes when he's in over his head.

4. The Dark Knight - I looked forward to this movie from the moment it was announced. Like many others, I was a little skeptical of the news that Heath Ledger would be playing The Joker, and I've been saying penance ever since. Ledger is absolutely brilliant...I had to remind myself that it was him, actually. That's how deep he goes into this deranged, anarchic character. The movie as a whole explores humanity's desire for a hero to believe in, as well as the sometimes unexplainable nature of evil. My main wish after watching was that the door be left open for Two-Face to get his own movie; his own shot at Batman. Alas, that is apparently not to be.

5. 3:10 to Yuma - It's just been a Christian Bale/Russell Crowe kind of year, I guess. This time, Crowe plays a charismatic outlaw who needs to be transported to a prison train by a small posse. Among them is Bale's character, a down-on-his-luck farmer who desperately needs the money for his family. Along the way, the two strike up an interesting relationship whereupon Crowe's character ultimately decides to help Bale's after hearing the particularities of his story. Both are redeemed, the former in the eyes of the audience, the latter in the eyes of his oldest son, who doesn't exhibit a lot of respect for him until he's close to completing his task.

Five TV shows I enjoyed in 2008

1. WWE Pay-Per-Views - I ordered four of them this year (actually five, but for some reason the cable wasn't cooperating): Royal Rumble, No Way Out, Wrestlemania, and SummerSlam. The first two are the "road to Wrestlemania" events, the events that largely set up their biggest of the year. I consider the road to Wrestlemania to be the most interesting time of the year in the WWE, and the Royal Rumble is my favorite event besides. This year saw a surprise return by John Cena, the retirement of Ric Flair, The Undertaker win another World title, and Floyd Mayweather have a garbage match against the Big Show. It was a decent year wrestling-wise, at least January through March.

2. Entourage - I tend to be hard on Entourage at times. Sometimes it seems like they resolve tensions too easily, and one never really doubts that the guys will always be friends with Ari as the agent. Even when Ari got fired last year, it was only a matter of time before they were back together. The latest season had a lot more tension and uncertainty to it, with Vince struggling to find anyone to work with and then conflicting with the director once he did find something. The season ended on a happy note, but the series showed great development and signs of maturing.

3. The Daily Show - I watched a lot more of this show this year, and I credit the presidential election for that. Jon Stewart and crew certainly had plenty to work with. I think that the most clarifying reason for why I like this show was shared in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, where both Stewart and Stephen Colbert were interviewed and shared that what drives their programs is anger at all the BS that both politicians and the media feed us on a daily basis. One of them used an analogy of a bunch of guys sitting in a bar where one is telling a story and someone else yells from the back of the room, "That ain't what happened! You're full of sh*t! I saw what you were really doing!" These two shows strive to be the guy yelling at the back of the room. I love it.

4. The Colbert Report - Pretty much what I said above. Except Colbert has segments like The Word, which is usually hilarious. More of his guests seem to be catching on with his schtick, which has made for less awkward interviews...they play along pretty well. If Stewart and Colbert are fueled by anger, Colbert gets to be more blatant about it through his character, and it's obvious that he relishes it.

5. Ghost Hunters - This is, surprisingly, the first time that this show has made this list. I really couldn't tell you why, because it's a show that I've been watching steadily for four years now. I don't think I've ever explained my interest in ghosts very much, and I won't do it here...I also don't mean horror movies and jump-out-at-you Halloween houses. I mean the type of stuff that Jay and Grant do with TAPS: the investigation of houses where people have experienced strange, unexplainable things. And actually, part of their method is to try explaining it; try debunking it. They're able to sometimes: faulty wiring or plumbing, the wind, etc. But then there are those other times when they catch voices or figures or somebody gets knocked off their feet (it's happened at least twice). I think it's liable to compel people to sit back and evaluate their opinions on the subject. So after four years, it's time this show got a nod on this list.

Five albums I enjoyed in 2008

1. The Trumpet Child, Over the Rhine - This was a band that the blogosphere helped me discover. A few others that I read occasionally mention and/or rave about them, so I first listened to their Christmas album through their website. For one reason or another, I wasn't very captivated. A little later, I heard their Ohio album (with a name like Over the Rhine, who knew they were from here?), but it was The Trumpet Child that really hooked me. OTR combines jazz, blues, folk, and rock among other things for a unique sound. The title track is my favorite, though this entire album is strong.

2. From the Corner to the Block, Galactic - Galactic is usually known for their funk-rock stylings and have endeared themselves to the jamband scene in particular. On this album, however, they take a new turn after the departure of their frontman Theryl DeClouet, exploring more of an old school hip-hop sound with a host of guest rappers such as Chali 2na, Juvenile, and Ladybug Mecca. I'd only heard of one, maybe two, of these artists before listening...they all make excellent contributions to an album from a band that in way may have made one wonder why they haven't done more of this.

3. Plans, Death Cab for Cutie - My first real brush with Death Cab for Cutie was when I saw the video for "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" on VH1 and I was reminded a little of The Decemberists, except DCfC is more modern in their lyrical approach. Their ability to paint such vivd imagery is probably the primary reason why they're on this list. "What Sarah Said" describes the scene in a hospital waiting room while people say their final goodbyes to a loved one, while "Brothers on a Hotel Bed" uses that metaphor for a couple that is drifting apart. Having been struck so much by these and other images, I had to put them on here.

4. The Night, Morphine - I'd only heard this album once before this year, and that was via a seminary friend who's a huge fan. I don't remember much from that first listen, but I do remember really liking what I heard. So this past year I picked it up again, and after the first few notes I remembered why I liked this to begin with. I can't define Morphine's sound very well. There's some jazz and some funk in there, but it's not just that. It's...Morphine. I dunno.

5. Begin to Hope, Regina Spektor - Spektor is my musical crush of the moment. I knew the name, but wasn't sure what song of hers I'd heard before listening to the whole album. Each song is very different from the next, showcasing a wide variety of interests and influences. Some find this troubling, but I love artists that like to experiment and don't feel compelled to stay within any expected or imposed boundaries. Spektor's lyrics are smart, fun, and quirky as well.

Five blogs I enjoyed reading in 2008

1. MGoBlog - The third Michigan sports blog that I've added to the list (I've since removed Maize N Brew). This is a blog much heavier on breaking news and covering the very latest in UM sports, which was illustrated particularly well on National Signing Day when the site was updated all day long, as well as detailed previews and breakdowns of each football game this fall. The writer, Brian, sprinkles his reports with humor and rants as well. This became my main source for UM news this past year, moreso than the Detroit Free Press, which is overrun by Buckeye, Spartan, and West Virginia fans constantly ruining every discussion thread and just features Drew Sharp and Michael Rosenberg ripping on the program besides. In other words, MGoBlog is a great news source for people who actually like Michigan and aren't constantly praying for its failure.

2. RealLivePreacher - RLP is back on the list this year. When I tackled my Big Serious Blogging Experiment this past Lent, I used his blog as inspiration. He's just an excellent, honest writer, and I strove to be the same when I took on that discipline.

3. A Church for Starving Artists - Jan is also back on this list, her second year in a row, and I made the decision to include her early in the year. I think that noting that is significant because she and I as mainline pastors are both interested in incorporating missional/emerging ideas into established institutional contexts in order to reach a new age. By the middle of February, she had already written so many posts with which I resonated and that I found inspiring that I knew she should be included here. So thanks, Jan. Yours is truly one of my favorites.

4. Street Prophets - My new liberal-leaning theopolitical blog. Pastor Dan's stuff in particular is a favorite read. This is an offshoot of the popular liberal political blog Daily Kos, which I actually don't read very often. I find most political blogs of either "side" to be amazingly humorless places that just tend to suck the life out of me if I spend too much time reading them. Nevertheless, Street Prophets comes at various issues from a faith standpoint, and yes, Virginia, Democrats and liberals CAN be faithful Christians and reason out their beliefs theologically. It should be noted, however, that SP strives to be interfaith. I don't think there are many of other traditions there, but there are some.

5. The Naked Pastor - I've seen this blog listed on many a sidebar, but I only started reading it for myself in the past month or so. David Hayward features both entries and cartoons (he's actually known more for the cartoons) that usually deal with church life and its eccentricities and failures. His interview at the Internet Monk blog was also very insightful. The name is derived from Hayward's stated desire to be as transparent as possible with parishioners, rather than putting on a pastoral mask. I can dig that, even if I'm not in an internal place to embrace that practice for myself, at least to the extent that he seems to.