Monday, December 28, 2009

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2009

Since last Friday was Christmas, our Year-End Roundup comes on a Monday this year. Items are numbered for convenience purposes only. I thought about doing a decade-end list, but that'd end up looking pretty predictable for people who know me.

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Jesus Wants to Save Christians - This is Rob Bell's latest, not including Drops Like Stars which I am pretty much refusing to buy or read. At any rate, Bell addresses this book to the church, calling it back to a sense of true mission and evangelism. The question that he poses that has stuck with me is near the end: "If your church closed, who would mourn it? Just the members, or the surrounding community as well?" That's a paraphrase, but it's basically what he asks. I found that question powerful, and I've shared it with my own church too.

2. Founding Brothers - Joseph Ellis explores the complicated relationships and arguments among the Founding Fathers by looking at seven specific events or issues that they wrestled with and disseminating letters they wrote, speeches they gave, and works that they published. This includes the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, George Washingon's farewell address and the issue of whether to tackle slavery while still trying to solidify this new nation. Thomas Jefferson ends up looking like a jerk, but this is a well-done work regardless.

3. An Altar in the World - Barbara Brown Taylor seeks to eliminate the line between spirituality and "real life" by exploring how the two are actually intertwined. Taylor suggests that you don't go to church to be spiritual and then leave that aspect of your life in the sanctuary. Instead, she explores how everyday activities can be spiritual: working, resting, hanging laundry, gardening, walking through the woods, suffering, and going to the bathroom, among so many others. Taylor is a very gifted writer besides.

4. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle - I never heard of this book until I read about it at Nachfolge, and now I'm glad that I did. When Coffeewife asked me what it's about, I simply repeated Scott's description: "It's Hamlet set in Wisconsin." Which it is. And if that makes one skeptical, I invite you to read it for yourself before judging. David Wroblewski interweaves the features of Shakespeare's classic into the story of a family of dog breeders who receive a visit from Edgar's estranged uncle. In a sense, the story degenerates from there. It took a while for the book to really get going, but once it did I couldn't put it down.

5. Home - Marilynne Robinson gives a different perspective on the characters from Gilead, telling the story through Glory's eyes. She also writes in the more traditional novel format, as opposed to Rev. Ames' journalwriting. Here, we're able to get the Boughton family's take on things, particularly Jack's homecoming and all that surrounds it. Here, we meet a family struggling through issues of reconnecting and reconciliation and, in Jack's case, redemption.

Five Movies I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Wall-E - At times funny, at times depressing, this is the story of a robot on a waste-infested Earth going about his cleanup duties in solitude until he meets EVE, another robot sent to Earth to look for signs of natural life. For the vast majority of the film, there isn't a lot of dialogue, but through Wall-E's actions we meet an earnest, lovable robot and not only understand what's going on but get sucked in. The movie has a strong environmental message as well as a message of temperance when it comes to human use of technology.

2. Waiting - A workplace comedy set in the family restaurant Shenaniganz, Ryan Reynolds and Justin Long play best buddies leading the rest of the crew in wacky hijinks. One need not have experience in the foodservice industry to get the jokes, but I think I laughed a little harder than I would have otherwise. Long's character is the one struggling to get out; other characters cope with their feelings of stuck-ness in other ways.

3. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - Michael Cera stars as Nick, a lovelorn sad-sack in high school who is unable to get over his self-absorbed ex-girlfriend. The entire group of friends go on an all-night adventure in downtown New York City (the movie doesn't bother to ask about the parenting wisdom, or lack thereof, that goes along with this). The movie's title hints at the common bond that Nick and Norah share, that being music. One of the subplots of the movie is the entire group searching for an elusive band that leaves clues as to where they'll play next. Another is that Norah's father owns a recording studio originally built by Jimi Hendrix. Mostly thanks to its setting, the movie is able to put a new spin on some well-worn qualities of similar movies. The soundtrack is good, too.

4. The Wrestler - Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler who, while enjoying a legend-status sort of reputation in the wrestling world, has a broken-down body, lives in a trailer, is struggling to make rent every month, has a daughter who hates him, and whose only friend is a stripper he visits every few weeks. The combination of these things makes for a pretty tragic story about a guy who turns to the only thing that provides any sort of meaning or comfort for him, even after he should. Some analyses provided by people who know wrestling suggest that this movie showcases the addiction that wrestlers acquire for the limelight and the cheers, but to me it was more clear that for "The Ram," wrestling was simply the only thing in his life that was a sure thing; that made sense. He says as much near the end. It was an excellent film in many respects...just not a very uplifting one.

5. Forgetting Sarah Marshall - In the mold of Judd Apatow's films (whether he directs, produces, writes, or whatever), a slacker everyman is crushed after his actress girlfriend leaves him. He takes a trip to a Hawaiian resort to help forget her, but it turns out that she's there with her new rock star boyfriend. What follows are riffs on relationships and life in general, all with a certain amount of raunch. But again, like other Apatow films, it finds ways to balance the raunch with heart.

Five TV Shows I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Flight of the Conchords - The second and apparently last season of the series aired this year and, while not as strong as the first, featured plenty of good humor and music. By the end of the season, the guys are deported back to New Zealand, fittingly thanks to a gaffe by their manager. It was fun while it lasted.

2. Scrubs - Let's be clear about something with this one: I enjoyed watching syndicated repeats, and the 8th season that featured the perfect ending to the series if people had had the good sense and decency to leave well enough alone. I DO NOT include the new revamped version of the show that debuted this December, because it's awful. Old Good Scrubs - humor, heart, and characters I'd come to love and root for. New Crappy Scrubs - humor only because of Dr. Cox, heart only because of J.D., and new characters who are two-dimensional and unlikable. In conclusion, Old Scrubs = WIN, New Scrubs = FAIL.

3. Entourage - It may be due in large part to inertia that this show is on the list, because oddly enough the show seemed to go on inertia this past year as well. This season seemed to meander with the exception of Ari buying out his mentor-turned-rival. The last episode was hopeful for next season, though, as Drama is going to get his own TV series and Eric got engaged. So we'll see. I'll still tune in, because it's what I do. Not a ringing endorsement, but I also didn't watch that many TV shows this year.

4. True Blood - When the first season of this show ended, I wondered why I watched it and whether I'd keep watching. As it turns out I did keep watching, and I was rewarded. The second season was much stronger than the first, as each character had more direction and the campy fun and humor was ratcheted up as well.

5. Better Off Ted - I didn't watch much of this show the first season, but I saw enough to want to make it a point to watch the second. This is an office comedy, yet it doesn't attempt to be The Office: it's more superficial and screwball. Portia de Rossi is excellent as the icy, controlling boss, and I always root for Arrested Development alumni. The show even shows fake commercials for the company during breaks, which are hilarious.

Five Albums I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Way to Normal, Ben Folds - Folds is his usual quirky, hilarious, incredibly talented self in this album that he released last year. But it was new to me this year.

2. Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, Dave Matthews Band - This CD just came out, and I'm already prepared to call it my second favorite DMB album after Before These Crowded Streets. I was skeptical after hearing the first single, but my mind was quickly changed after hearing the entire thing. There's an attitude and creativity on this one that I found very refreshing.

3. Horehound, The Dead Weather - Jack White plays drums for this third of his bands, which has a dirty blues-rock sound to it. I was ready to call this one of my favorites of the year shortly after I first heard it.

4. Civilians, Joe Henry - The comparisons to Dylan are to be expected. Henry is an engaging songwriter and storyteller, and I can't believe I never heard of him before this year.

5. Them Crooked Vultures - Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, and John Paul Jones come together to show people the meaning of the phrase "power trio." It'll sound a lot like Queens of the Stone Age to many, but is that that bad of a thing?

Five Blogs I Enjoyed in 2009

1. Internet Monk - I know, he ends up on here a lot. But this past year when clicking other blogs on the roll, I noticed after a while that he was the one I checked every day. So I knew that he had to be on here. If you don't know by now, Michael Spencer is a Southern Baptist evangelical who is quite critical of his own denomination and tradition, seeking a deeper "Jesus-shaped" faith than what he typically finds offered up in those circles. But as he does so, he's in dialogue with Catholics, Orthodox, mainliners, and whomever else.

2. Questing Parson - In the vein of Real Live Preacher, Questing Parson shares thoughts both honest yet gentle about life in ministry. The difference is that he shares them through brief pieces of fiction that are no doubt grounded in real life. Some of these stories include blowing off one of the church's perpetual complainers, praying with an atheist in a hospital waiting room, and unwritten rules about animals in the church building.

3. MGoBlog - Leading up to the start of the 2009 college football season, I clung more and more tightly to the analysis and reassuring words of MGoBlog. MGoBlog offers excellent analysis including breakdowns of every game, stats for both current players and recruits, essays on themes like tradition, hope for the future, players and coaches, and all with a humor that is at times dry or self-deprecating or just goofy. It was also a great place to go around the time of the practice "controversy" right before the season, where Brian and others thoroughly destroyed Rosenberg's article. It was also the blog to which I turned for comfort after the 2009 season. In short, this is THE source to which I turn for info on Michigan athletics.

4. Letters from Kamp Krusty - Brant disappeared for a while this year, and left a notable void in my blogreading. Kamp Krusty regularly features my kind of humor, as well as commentary on Christian culture. I was very glad when Brant resurfaced and took up his keyboard once again.

5. A Church for Starving Artists - Jan makes the list once again. She's one of the few that I make sure to check daily for new insights about the church as it is and the church as it should be. I find in her a kindred spirit in terms of introducing emerging themes into mainline contexts.