Friday, December 30, 2011

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2011

And so, it's time once again for the final Roundup of the year, where I recap my favorites from the past 12 months. Numbers are for convenience purposes and not really "rankings."

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2011

1. Apparition and Late Fictions -In this collection of short stories (and one novella), Thomas Lynch clearly bases his writing somewhat on his experiences as a mortician and funeral director. I think that such a profession, like ministry, affords one a lot of time to ruminate on the human experience, the nature of relationships and emotions and actions. I guess I find him a kindred spirit in that way. His stories are very good: one concerns a man who takes his father's ashes fishing, another is a woman who teaches at the University of Michigan who takes an extended vacation, and another is about a divorced pastor who becomes a best-selling author. They're not the happiest, though. So you've been warned.

2. The Hunger Games trilogy -In a version of the United States where the country has been recalibrated into twelve districts, Suzanne Collins tells the story of Katniss, who finds herself about to participate in the contest for which the book is named. In order to prevent an uprising, the government has started a program where two kids between the ages of 13 and 18 are chosen from each district to take part in a televised battle to the death. Katniss volunteers after her young sister is chosen. I really thought that I wouldn't like it given the themes, but by the end I couldn't put the first book down, and hurried to read the other two as well. I found myself rooting for Katniss and being genuinely in suspense during the Games themselves. Collins' writing made me care, pulled me into the bleak situation into which the 24 tributes are thrown. The violence is not graphic, but it is presented in unsentimental fashion, the way it should be. Characters do not die honorable or romantic deaths; you very much get the sense that they die as expendable pieces of a game that the government is playing.

3. The Pastor - Eugene Peterson has written a landmark memoir of his life as a pastor, and his evolving understanding of what a pastor is. He eventually ends up defining pastoral ministry as pointing out where God is, calling people to attention to the divine in the midst of their harried, exhausted, boring, or insulated lives. This understanding permeates the rest of the book, through his continued interactions with parishioners who come and go, through the congregation's plan to construct a building, through his burgeoning writing career. Peterson constantly and consistently resists more recent models of pastoral ministry, calling instead for something more humble and contextual. I recognized some themes and stories from other books, but this is a great summary of his conclusions based in experience.

4. Three and Out - John U. Bacon was given unfettered access to the University of Michigan football program the entire time that Rich Rodriguez was head coach. As a result, Bacon has a unique insider's perspective on the fumbled hiring process that brought RichRod to Ann Arbor, the fallout with West Virginia, the crummy games and seasons, the Detroit Free Press's hackjob and subsequent NCAA investigation, the infamous final Football Bust featuring Josh Groban, and the end shortly after. The main thrust, of course, is what Rodriguez goes through and how he reacts to every new dramatic turn, as well as how his staff and players handle it. In delineating all of this, two of Bacon's main points seem to be that 1) Ever since Bo died, there hasn't been anyone to keep the entire program unified and focused, which made the fracturing of the department, alumni, and fanbase all the easier during these three years, and 2) Neither RichRod nor Michigan did enough, publicly or privately, to make this a happy marriage. This was one of the most engrossing books that I've read in quite a while. I can't remember the last time I tried to take advantage of every free moment to read another chapter.

5. The Magician King - This is the sequel to Lev Grossman's excellent and engrossing The Magicians, which I read last year. We pick up pretty much right where we left off, with Quentin and his three friends kings and queens of the magical Narnia-ish world of Fillory. Quentin is getting bored: he has incredible powers in both the magical and royal sense, and life is very easy for him. Longing for a challenge, he eventually sets off in search of the Seven Keys, the incredible importance of which he slowly discovers even if initially he'd just wanted a quest. We also learn about Julia's background, which was probably the more fascinating part of the book for me. The characters face the same questions as in the first book concerning identity and purpose, and there's even a certain desperation on Quentin's part in answering them. I don't know that I'd call this book as good as the last, but it's still up there. The ending is unsatisfying, but it's obviously setting up the reader for the eventual third book of the trilogy.

Five Movies I Enjoyed in 2011

1. The Town - Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner star as bank robbers who've lived their entire lives in Charlestown, an apparently notorious neighborhood in Boston. After pulling off a job, they realize that the assistant bank manager that they'd briefly abducted lives right in the neighborhood and may end up recognizing them. So Affleck's character tails her and eventually befriends her in order to see whether they're really in trouble that way. Of course, he ends up falling in love with her, and that greatly complicates things. Affleck also directed, and he captured the feel of the city and set the mood very well. There was a certain hopelessness to some of the characters, like they could never be or do anything other than what they knew. Not the happiest movie, but a very good one.

2. Megamind - Will Ferrell voices the title character, a villain constantly battling Metro Man (Brad Pitt) for control of Metro City. Megamind finally succeeds, only to find his life empty and meaningless without a hero to fight. As a result, he seeks to create a replacement with strands of Metro Man's DNA...and it goes horribly wrong. Tina Fey voices reporter and love interest Roxanne Richie, and Jonah Hill is her doofy cameraman. As many times as I've seen it, it's a really fun movie, the voices are perfect, and the soundtrack features quite a few classic metal tracks from the likes of Ozzy, Guns 'N Roses, and AC/DC.

3. Chaos Theory - Ryan Reynolds stars as Frank, an efficiency expert who is incredibly organized and punctual for everything. His wife, meaning to set the clocks ten minutes forward in order to help him be on time for a big presentation, sets them back instead and makes him late, which starts a domino effect of events that disrupt his entire life outlook. Or at least, that's the premise. First off, reading that description caused me to expect something along the lines of Yes Man: overly cautious guy learns to let go and try new things. I was pleasantly surprised that this is a far more weighted film: it does have some humor, but what happens to Frank is far more upsetting and serious. Reynolds, of course, pulls it off very well. Second, the fact that he's ten minutes late is not necessarily the reason why what happens next happens - it could have happened whether he'd been on time or not, but that didn't bother me too much. At times, there isn't really a likable character to be found, but that's part of the messiness that the movie portrays.

4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 - This was a great finish to the franchise. It had a lot of action, mostly consisting of the final battle at Hogwarts. But it also managed to hit the right dramatic notes when presenting Snape's background, Harry's preparation to meet Voldemort and accept his initial fate, and the overall chaos of battle that includes the loss of beloved characters. It managed to be a well-balanced movie that way, never feeling slow but also never feeling bogged down with the action sequences.

5. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Robert Downey, Jr. returns as the legendary investigator and Jude Law as his friend, foil, and partner Watson as Holmes faces off with his arch-nemesis Moriarty. I liked this film better than the first (although the first was very good, too): the acting, script, and directing was all quite superb, and the Holmes/Moriarty plot gave it more of a traditional feel than its predecessor. Guy Ritchie has a great eye and feel for pacing, making for an action movie with intelligence, style, and artistry. The ever-present chess metaphor was apt as these two were very much evenly matched throughout, which made for a great story.

Five TV Shows I Enjoyed in 2011

1. NY Ink - Ami James has left his Miami shop and has come back to New York to start a new gig. The shop itself looks like an art gallery, which James made a point of doing as he shares that he wants to be seen as a true artist. This first show had some drama, particularly between two of the shop managers, but moreso between Ami and an artist who basically seems to walk off the street and ask him to return a favor from back in the day. Ami lets him stay, and he immediately clashes with everybody else. The bulk of the season was the drama between Ami and this other artist, but also on the tattoos people get. This was more Miami Ink than LA Ink, and that's a good thing.

2. The Daily Show - This was one of those years where I just became especially fed up with the way government figures and pundits have been acting, and at the same time more fearful of where we're headed as a country. Jon Stewart was a shining light for me as he skewered all of it nightly. It's not that I didn't enjoy his show before now, I just seemed to cling to it a little more in the face of constant indications of Washington's love of politics over people and the media's love for entertainment over information. Stewart et. al. laid it bare four nights a week, and as I watched I hoped that people were paying attention.

3. WWE Money in the Bank - In the mid to late aughts, I began questioning why I still watch professional wrestling. In these years, the WWE has been dominated by John Cena and Randy Orton, but at least in those years we still had Triple H, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, and cameos and one-offs by other superstars of years past. But since Michaels and Taker have retired and/or just disappeared, there was a void; no clear current star for whom I could cheer, and Cena & Orton had become very stale, thus rendering the whole product stale. Enter CM Punk, whom I'd always kind of liked but who really captured my interest this summer with his promos calling out Cena and CEO Vince McMahon, and dropping old school appreciation for actual wrestling along the way. He and Cena main-evented this summer's Money in the Bank pay-per-view, which was an electric storyline lead-in and match featuring an excited crowd. CM Punk and this show breathed new life into my fandom.

4. Entourage - The guys came a long way during this show's eight-season run, yet didn't: there was never any serious long-term storyline where any friendships among them were strained, Ari was fired for maybe half a season, and things never looked too bleak for Vince's career despite a major film bombing and his struggles with a cocaine addiction. The show always kept things from getting too serious for too long; people looking for some authentic look into Hollywood lifestyles were bound to be disappointed, save perhaps for the ups and downs of Drama's career. Otherwise, the show always shot for light and fun even in darker moments. To its credit, I think that it was fairly up front about that very early on, so many of those who thought it should be something else probably lost interest a long time ago. I obviously stuck with it even as I was heavily critical of it, because it was fun for what it was.

5. Boardwalk Empire - There was an incredibly dark cloud hanging over the entire cast this season as Nucky dealt with the new adversaries who'd emerged from his inner circle. Over the course of the season, some had sins come back to haunt them, others had to cover up new ones, and some simply followed them to their natural conclusion. The finale made me angry in a way that a TV show never has, but in part it was because there was no other way for things to play out. People made their choices and inevitably became victims of those choices at the hands of the ones holding all the cards. Unfortunately for the series and for many viewers, one of the most sympathetic and complex characters is now gone, leaving me to wonder who I'll be rooting for in season three.

Five Albums I Enjoyed in 2011

1. The King is Dead, The Decemberists - One of my favorite bands put out an album this year that is much more straightforward than their last two with simple arrangements and a country/folk feel, with some help from Gillian Welch and REM's Peter Buck. Aside from the first single, "Down By the Water," the fightin' words of "Rox in the Box" and the aptly named "January Hymn" have become favorites for me.

2. Sigh No More, Mumford and Sons - I was first exposed to this band through their performance at the Grammys, and thought, "Wow, I should check out more of their stuff." And then I didn't for a couple months. When I finally downloaded their whole album, I've enjoyed their high-energy brand of British folk-rock. The two singles, "The Cave" and "Little Lion Man" are good, but "Dust Bowl Dance" is another favorite and is pretty apropos for the situation our country finds itself in nowadays. But really, the whole album is very good.

3. The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales - I came across this artist and album by sheer chance one afternoon while surfing the web. Chilly Gonzales is the alter ego of Jason Beck, a skilled pianist and composer, who raps to orchestral arrangements. This was easily the most quirky and creative album that I heard this year.

4. Obadiah Parker Live - I walked into my favorite coffeehouse and heard Parker's acoustic cover of Outkast's "Hey Ya," and was immediately hooked. I downloaded this live EP which includes the song as a bonus track. The entire album is excellent, mixing elements of blues, funk, rock, and folk for kind of a jamband sound.

5. El Camino, The Black Keys - The Keys are a late entry, only because they released this album near the beginning of this month. This is a more playful offering for them, still featuring crunchy guitar riffs and stomp-rock drum beats. "Lonely Boy" is a fun uptempo tune, and "Little Black Submarines" has an anthemic "Stairway to Heaven" feel to it.

Five Blogs I Enjoyed in 2011

1. Jesus Needs New PR - Matthew Paul Turner has a great deal of experience with Christian schlock, and now he compiles it from around the web in one convenient location. Besides that, he also offers reflections about what the church should really concern itself with, and wondering why we Christians don't concern ourselves more with it instead of trying to out-crazy each other.

2. Tertium Squid - Gordon Atkinson re-emerged with another blog after stepping away from RealLivePreacher and pastoral ministry. This new venture still features a bit of ecclesiological decompression, but Gordon's talent as a wordsmith, of calling out the poetry that is all around us, remains firmly intact. His writing has influenced me a great deal, and I'm glad to be able to continue reading new offerings.

3. Brant's Blog - Brant Hansen also re-emerged with yet another new blog after changing radio station jobs. It's the same old Brant, though: thoughtful reflections about God, the church, and culture in general, delivered with a great deal of humor and gentleness.

4. Jamie the Very Worst Missionary - Jamie Wright is a missionary in Costa Rica. She offers stories of her experience, calls people to greater awareness of what the poor really need, emphasizes relationships with others, and has a very awesome, very dry sense of humor.

5. MGoBlog - After so many years, do I need to explain this one any more?