Monday, December 27, 2010

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2010

We've come to the final Pop Culture Roundup of 2010, which of course means my top lists for the year. Categories are numbered just because.

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2010

1. Turtles All the Way Down - Gordon Atkinson, aka Real Live Preacher, published his second collection of RLP essays, this time inviting readers not only to suggest which ones to be included, but basically to help in the editing and publishing process from beginning to end. This book has been every bit of influential on me as his first, as he explores topics of faith, church, fatherhood, and life in general. He fleshes out a few Biblical stories to explore what could have happened in more detail. One of my favorite essays describes a character called the Caganer, which I happily shared with my church leading up to Christmas (I'm not saying any have to look it up). This collection was every bit as thought-provoking, engaging, and irreverent, which are all things that I appreciated about his writing. Too bad he's moved on from the blog, though.

2. Idiot America - Charles Pierce delineates how American society has bought into a mentality where experts are to be suspected and reviled, and everyone knows everything because it feels right to them. These days, he observes, true experts are marginalized as "elitists," and everyone trusts what their gut tells them. He presents some of the biggest cultural events of this very young century, and explores how in each case experts in their field have been pushed aside or demonized by people aiming to score points for the conclusion that they've already reached without really knowing anything about the issue, usually for political gain. I found this book both insightful and infuriating, especially when you realize just how cynical and destructive these political tactics are, as well as how successful they've been. This book has had a lasting impact on me, particularly as I've been able to see more clearly how these tactics are still being used.

3. The Magicians - Lev Grossman presents a world akin to Harry Potter, except it takes place in college and the characters are deeper and grittier. The main character, Quentin, is a directionless sad sack at the top of his high school class who one day finds himself in a placement exam for Brakebills, a college for kids with magical gifts. The characters are incredibly flawed; incredibly human. They indulge in typical college-kid exploits. At times they're jealous of, resentful over, or passive-aggressive toward one another. While HP could get dark and the characters would show emotion at times, this is something else entirely. A major theme is seeking ultimate meaning for one's life - not in a religious sense, but in an existential sense. As magicians for whom the world is basically yours for the taking, what kind of purpose do you find in that? Some take a nihilist/ hedonist approach, some try to stave off boredom by indulging in pointless projects, others try to contribute to the betterment of the world. Eventually, the group does find something, but it leads them to question whether it's worth it. I found this book engrossing, easy reading.

4. American Gods - In this novel by Neil Gaiman, the premise is that when various groups of settlers, immigrants, explorers, and occupiers came to America, they brought their religion and, in a literal, tangible sense, their gods with them. Then over the centuries as these religions died out or lost devotees, these gods became stranded in America, many of them looking like us and most of them older and more frail, lacking energy due to not being worshipped. Other gods on the rise such as those of media and technology make appearances as well, and want to rid America of these older gods. An ex-convict named Shadow gets caught in the midst of all of it. It gives lots of good commentary on what America worships, and also an interesting take on religion and how gods survive. Gaiman's writing is just as good, if not better, here than in his Sandman comics.

5. The Millenium Trilogy - I've loved all three of these books by Stieg Larsson featuring Lisbeth Salander, a computer genius who is incredibly distrustful of others due to a horrific past. It isn't until the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, that we learn much about that past. In the first book, Lisbeth teams up with journalist Mikael Blomkvist to solve a decades-old murder case, and then they need to rely on one another in subsequent books in various ways. Lisbeth is quite a unique heroine: she often ignores social pretense and the law, especially if she or another is threatened. In that sense, as Blomkvist observes, she actually has a very highly developed sense of morality, cast in very black and white terms: if you abuse someone, you don't get to be shown a whole lot of courtesy. Larsson's books call attention to the abuse and exploitation of women, and it is actually cathartic reading about the way Salander handles the guilty parties. I can't remember the last time I was this engrossed in a book series.

Five Movies I Enjoyed in 2010

1. Up in the Air - George Clooney plays Ryan, who spends most of his year on the road in airports and hotels, and who absolutely loves it. He mostly stays out of contact with family, he racks up frequent-flier miles, and he loves not being tied down to anything or anyone. Then he meets a fellow traveler and kindred spirit and begins to fall for her, as well as a young efficiency expert who wants to change his business' methodology such that his lifestyle would be threatened. The film is an excellent study of isolationism and what happens when human beings insist that they need no one else to survive. The soundtrack is very good, too.

2. I Love You, Man - Paul Rudd plays a sensitive career-minded guy who basically has no guy friends. When he realizes that he'll have no best man at his wedding, he embarks on a search for some dudes to hang out with. Hijinks briefly ensue before he meets Jason Segel's character, a man-boy who loves Rush. I'm a Paul Rudd fan, so it was easy for me to like this movie. Besides that, I say "SLAPPIN' DA BASS!" all the time.

3. Inception - Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the leader of a group that enters people's dreams in order to retrieve information. They're eventually hired to enter someone's dream in order to plant an idea in his mind and thus get him to make certain decisions once he wakes up. Along the way is a lot of discussion about how dreams work and what elements within them mean. There are enough things that happen that causes the viewer to wonder when dreams stop and reality begins for the characters, just as some of the characters wonder themselves. It was a very heady, trippy, well-done film. I actually couldn't wait for it to come out on DVD so I could watch it again.

4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 - The second-to-last HP movie was also one of the best, mostly because they could afford to slow dow and develop the mood and the plot. There's so much to be included in this last one that, while the cynical explanation of "oh, they just wanted to squeeze every last dollar out of this franchise" may be correct at some level, they could also make a quality two-part film. Certain other HP movies suffer, I think, from trying to cram too much into a set amount of time, and this one didn't have to.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - Scott Pilgrim falls in love with Ramona, but in order to be with her he must defeat The League of Evil Exes. The pacing and wit of this movie is very fast, the fight sequences set up like classic fighting video games. This movie will not appeal to everyone due to heavy doses of surrealism, but I kind of liked it for the same reason. The viewer is invited fully into this wacky universe, and only those willing to do so will enjoy it. This was, I thought, an original story about love and self-discovery, and I may have to track down the graphic novel on which it was based.

Five TV Shows I Enjoyed in 2010

1. Pawn Stars - Very early in the year, Coffeewife and I were introduced to this show about a pawn shop in Las Vegas run by a guy, his father, and his son. The main thrust of the show is the stuff that people bring in, including weapons from the Civil War, documents signed by figures from the American Revolution, classic musical instruments, and antiques. They get into the history of each item a little, as experts are called in to authenticate them. It's like Antiques Roadshow, except not boring.

2. Phineas and Ferb - While rooting around on the Disney Channel for shows for Coffeeson to watch, we stumbled upon an episode of this show featuring stepbrothers who want to make each day of summer vacation count. In order to do so, they build a rollercoaster one day, become one-hit wonders another day, built a giant lawn bowling set another, and so on. This all happens along with their pet platypus Perry wandering off every day because he's a secret agent, and their hijinks colliding in unintentional ways. The show has a style of humor that appeals to a wide age range, some great original songs, and a whole lot of very clever writing. Coffeewife and I get just as excited to watch this as Coffeeson does.

3. Entourage - Two of the major storylines this season were Vince spiraling down into a hard partying lifestyle that includes a cocaine habit and Ari's treatment of his employees coming back to bite him and his marriage. Unlike previous seasons that presented a problem but then tied it up in a nice happy little bow in the finale, this season followed these things to their natural conclusion, with Vince being confronted by police after they find a small bag of coke and Ari's wife moving out. They reportedly have one last abbreviated season and possibly a movie to explore what happens next, and as horrible as the characters are doing at the moment, I actually feel more satisfied by this show right now than I have in a while.

4. True Blood - Can it be possible to still enjoy a TV show despite being incredibly bored and annoyed with its two main characters? I think it can, Exhibit A being my still liking this show after three seasons. I hate the on-again, off-again, on-again I-hope-this-is-the-episode-where-he-finally-gets-staked relationship between Bill and Sookie, but the stories of the other characters have kept me interested: Sam dealing with his birth family, Jason trying to do the right thing, Lafayette's budding relationship with a male witch, Eric generally being a badass, and the political side of the vampire world.

5. Boardwalk Empire - Ever since The Sopranos ended, I'd craved another show to follow with the same intensity of interest. The other HBO shows included on this list, while fun to watch on their own terms, don't fill that void for me. Then I started seeing commercials for a show about politics and crime during Prohibition based on real figures from that era, and I began to feel that Sopranos-level excitement again. This show needed a few episodes to establish itself, but it only got better through the season. I look forward to its return next year.

Five Albums I Enjoyed in 2010

1. Gov't Mule, By a Thread - It took a little bit for me to warm up to this new disc by one of my favorites. Looking back, I don't exactly know why. New bassist Jorgen Carlsson brings a harder, more dirty element to the band that I've enjoyed. The dueling solos between Haynes and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons on "Broke Down on the Brazos" is awesome, "Any Open Window" is a great instrumental track, and I love the introspective slow build of "Forevermore." Whatever it was that made me hesitant about this album when I first got it, it's gone now.

2. The music of Skillet - I rediscovered Skillet this year, particularly their three most recent albums where they've shed the post-grunge and techno sounds of earlier years for a more straightforward hard rock sound. I could have put any of those three CDs on this list, but I couldn't single out any of them. Collide is the hardest of the three, and the title track may be my favorite song of theirs. Comatose has some shallow, lazy lyrics at times, but the music itself makes up for it, particularly "Rebirthing" (the song that brought me back around to them to begin with). Awake may be the weakest of the three, but I love songs like "Hero" and "Awake and Alive" all the same.

3. The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards - I was hoping that this band wasn't just a one-and-done side project for Jack White, and thankfully that hasn't been the case. They serve up more tasty blues-rock, a little more mellow than their first, but I'm not complaining. Whether it's White's tight drumming, Alison Mosshart's attitude, or Dean Fertita's crunchy guitar playing, I pretty much love everything that this band does.

4. The Inspector Cluzo - I discovered this band by accident. I was looking around on Youtube for bass solos, and ended up watching a live performance of them playing a song that actually shows their disdain for bass players. They're just a guitar-drums duo that play a combination of rock and funk, with heavy doses of humor. In a way, they're France's answer to Tenacious D, except this album is nothing but music instead of like three songs and a bunch of stupid comedy bits.

5. Blakroc - I went back and forth about which Black Keys album to include on this: their newest album Brothers, which features their familiar stomp-rock sound, or this collaboration with a dozen or so hip hop artists. In the end, obviously, this won out. I'm far from an expert in the hip hop genre, but those more knowledgeable than I say that this has a more classic hip hop sound. I loved this whole album save one track; it's full of strong, funky beats, yet also manages to have a laid-back groove feel to it.

Six Blogs I Enjoyed in 2010

1. MGoBlog - After yet another disappointing Michigan football season in 2009, I once again clung to MGoBlog for signs of hope that the next year would be better. I read daily on the goings-on of the team. As always, Brian Cook offered grounded, well-informed insights mixed with humor. The past couple years, this blog has been what keeps me going as a fan. Seriously. It has helped me stay more rational about the state of things, particularly during the second half of the 2010 season when I was ready to grab my torch and pitchfork and join the angry mob.

2. A Church for Starving Artists - Longtime readers of my blog had to have seen this coming. Jan continues to be a thought-provoking voice as she and I both seek to answer the question, "How do we do this church thing in this new time?" I draw strength and guidance from her exploration of applying emerging ways of being the church to a mainline context. Would that I knew of more such blogs out there.

3. Rachel Held Evans - I read Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town earlier this year, about her journey out of fundamentalism into a sense of faith that is more comfortable with doubt and mystery. I saw more than a few parallels to my own faith journey. Eventually I began reading her blog, where she further expounds on such thoughts and exploration. Hers became a fitting near-replacement for another blog that I've long read expressing similar sentiments. More on that below.

4. Internet Monk - I have this on here in tribute more than anything else. Michael Spencer died of brain cancer in early April. For over four years before that, I enjoyed his essays on the post-evangelical wilderness, complete with critiques of church practice, suggestions for reform, and an appreciation for a breadth of ancient and modern spiritual and liturgical practices. While a half dozen or so writers have committed to continuing his legacy at that blog, I have not visited there with nearly the same regularity nor read with nearly the same satisfaction. I was enriched a great deal by the original Internet Monk, and such a mention needed to be on this list.

5. Real Live Preacher - This, too, is here in tribute. After resigning from his church a few months earlier, RLP eventually decided to retire his blog as well. It was understandable, since the main focus of his blog was his reflections and experiences as a pastor. I think a lot of people saw the end of the blog coming. There's no question that he's had an influence on me; I've returned to his two books of essays so many times to be used in my own ministry or just for my personal edification. And now, like the original iMonk, he's gone too.

6. Catalog Living - I couldn't help myself. I had to include this blog on here and I didn't want to scrap any of the other choices. The premise of this is very simple: the authors post pictures from various furniture and decorating catalogs and add captions to them, imagining what life must be like for the family that actually uses such setups in their houses. The results are often hilarious, and visiting this blog has always brightened my day a little.