Friday, December 28, 2012

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2012

It's the last Roundup of the year, which of course means my top picks for what I've experienced over the past 365 days or so. Numbers are for convenience purposes only. [And the movie section has been updated. - ed]

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2012

1. Bossypants - In this at times funny, at times touching memoir, Tina Fey recounts her early life as well as the span of her career by mixing hilarious self-deprecating anecdotes and more serious lessons that she has learned, all with an easy-flowing writing style and great humor throughout. Fey particularly focuses on her experiences as a woman in comedy, which many still consider a man's world, gently exposing some prejudices and giving advice for any female readers looking to break into the business, as well as her discoveries as a mother. I could easily hear her voice as I read, which somehow added to the book's whimsy.

2. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - In this work of historical fiction (obviously...or is it?), Seth Grahame-Smith presents his story as if he had been given privileged and unprecedented access to Lincoln's personal journals detailing his battles with vampires that he not only fought in his younger years, but that determined his actions as president, including reasoning behind needing to win the Civil War and giving the Emancipation Proclamation. I found it incredibly enjoyable and engrossing, and the author did a masterful and imaginative job of weaving his story with real historical events.

3. Still: Thoughts on a Mid-Faith Crisis - I received a free, personalized autographed copy of this spiritual memoir by Lauren Winner at a clergy event this past summer. In a series of brief chapters, she shares stories and reflections related to her own faith crisis. There isn't necessarily a common thread or a clearly detectable rhyme and reason to what she shares, but in my experience that mirrors what one goes through during a faith crisis pretty well. I found the book thought-provoking and great sermon fodder, and there may come a time when I use it in a small group setting.

4. Bo's Lasting Lessons - Co-written by Bo Schembechler and John U. Bacon, this book is part memoir and part lessons on leadership: Bo recounts memorable moments from his entire coaching career and extracts general tips on being a leader from them. So, for example, the first few chapters tell of his early years learning from guys like Ara Parseghian and Woody Hayes, and he parlays that into some general thoughts about the importance of having good mentors. A little later, he tells of his first season at Michigan and establishing what you're about right away while at the same time respecting the institution's history and tradition. This book was entertaining, informative, insightful, and caused me to reflect on my practices as a pastor more than once. One of the best parts is that it's told in Bo's "voice," which added to my own personal enjoyment of it.

5. Boneshaker - As soon as I heard that author Cherie Priest had combined steampunk and zombies, I was sold. Set during the Civil War, Seattle has been walled off after a drilling disaster that unleashed some kind of toxic gas into the air, which causes death and reanimation. We meet Briar, whose husband caused the disaster many years earlier and who carries the stigma of that event with her, as well as her son Ezekiel, who wants to prove his father's innocence by going into the city to look for evidence that it was an accident. Briar has to follow to retrieve him, and they have to navigate this dangerous place individually and then together. While it wasn't the first steampunk novel I read this year, it showed me more what well-written steampunk looks like and had me hungry for more.

Five Movies I Enjoyed in 2012

1. The Hunger GamesThere's always something that has to be minimized or cut in a film adaptation of a book, but of course the visual element--one artist's rendering of something you're encouraged to imagine yourself--is added. The violence is portrayed well, acknowledged without being graphic or celebrated. Jennifer Lawrence does a great job as Katniss. Donald Sutherland, of whom I was skeptical as President Snow, brought me around particularly through some added scenes between him and Seneca. Coffeewife and I enjoyed it enough to see it twice more in the theater before it was all said and done.

2. The LoraxI was a little skeptical heading into this, because movies based on Dr. Seuss just haven't been all that good. This, however, was something else. We meet a boy named Ted, who lives in a city called Thneedville: a plastic, fake version of the world with no real trees. He goes in search of a real tree and meets the Once-ler, who tells the story of how the desolate existence outside the city happened, which is the story in the book with some alterations. Not only do we see the Once-ler's face, but we meet him as an idealistic young man who just wants to share his invention with the world. However, success turns him into a cold, uncaring version of himself, and it's not until he destroys the beautiful place he discovered that he realizes what he's done. The movie has such great pacing and storytelling; it never tries to be overly clever, it never seems like it tries too hard to keep the adults interested. It was a wonderful adaptation.

3. The Dark Knight Rises - In this third and final installment by Christopher Nolan, the ruthless mercenary Bane arrives in Gotham to terrorize. But before all of that really gets going, we catch up with many of the other characters eight years after the events of The Dark Knight: Bruce Wayne has retired Batman and has become a recluse, his body still feeling the effects of what happened. People still believe Batman to be responsible for Harvey Dent's death, yet at the same time the lie that Batman and Commissioner Gordon vowed to keep has done wonders for the containment of organized crime. Bane showing up upsets all of that, of course, the results even more catastrophic than what The Joker attempted in the previous film. The ending, which I promise not to spoil here, is as well-done as one would hope it could be. I had a few gripes, mainly not always being able to understand Bane when he talked, and sometimes longer dialogue and explanations seemed to weigh things down. But as third movies in trilogies go, this was a strong effort.

4. The Avengers - Thor's brother Loki is conspiring to bring an army from another world to start a war on earth, so Nick Fury has to gather his newly formed team to stop him. The film was written and directed by Joss Whedon, so they couldn't go wrong on that front. Besides that, the effects were good and the actors had good didn't seem like it was a bunch of stars thrown together to make a summer blockbuster. At its heart it is a big silly action movie; with so many characters there isn't a whole lot of time to delve into subplots too deeply. The closest we get is Bruce Banner's hesitancy to become the Hulk, as well as a little about Black Widow's past as an assassin. The larger story is whether such a diverse group is able to work together to defeat a common enemy. And of course one has to keep watching during and after the credits for some additional stuff. Again, it was well-balanced given the number of characters, and Whedon's humor and direction was quite evident in places.

5. This Is 40 - How does a couple keep a marriage working after so many years together? Judd Apatow's pseudo-sequel to Knocked Up shows us that it doesn't happen like magic. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann return as Pete and Debbie, the far-from-perfect married couple trying to keep themselves and their family together in the midst of the perpetual chaos that is raising children, keeping up with bills, managing careers, dealing with extended family, and dealing with each other. Some parts got a bit too heavy, but in the context of what it tried to go for, I understood. There's no clear ending or neatly-tied bow, which is true to the subject matter. Coffeewife and I certainly don't yell and carry on as much as these characters do, but we otherwise found plenty of truth in the wackiness, occasional need for improvisation, frustration, exhaustion, and tenderness portrayed in what they experience together.

Five TV Shows I Enjoyed in 2012

1. Mad MenAfter getting through a season or two of this show, I decided that this is my Sopranos replacement rather than Boardwalk Empire. Don Draper is not the most honorable guy in the room by any means, but he's played in such a way that I like rooting for him, just like a certain pasta-loving Italian from North Jersey. I do have to make caveats, such as the era in which the show is set having particular attitudes toward women and minorities, but then again, I put up with that on The Sopranos, too.

2. Wrestlemania 28There were hits and misses, as every Wrestlemania has. Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus was all of 18 seconds long with Sheamus becoming the new World Heavyweight Champion, although in the long run Bryan has done pretty well for himself. Undertaker/Triple H was less a match and more of a drama, as the story was bigger than the specific moves. Eventually, Undertaker extended his Wrestlemania undefeated streak to 20-0 and the three involved (Shawn Michaels was the guest referee) had a great final bow together afterward. Chris Jericho and CM Punk also put on a great match, although the storyline was a bit overcooked. And then of course there was John Cena vs. The Rock, a year in the making, to close things out. I was pleasantly surprised when Rock won, and he indicated on RAW that he isn't done yet. All in all, it was one of the more enjoyable Wrestlemanias that I can remember. It was the most I remember looking forward to a wrestling event in quite a while.

3. The Newsroom - When popular inoffensive news anchor Will McAvoy finally lets loose with his real views during a panel discussion at a university, big changes begin to happen in the workplace that includes his staff being gutted and his ex being hired as his new executive producer. Their first newscast together is breaking the news of the BP oil pipeline crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, during which Will asks probing and incisive questions of his guests, signaling a new approach for him and his staff. It was a pretty good first episode, which was pretty glaring in its insistence that this is The Way News Should Be. In fact, the show got a little preachy more than once about that point. But aside from that, it was a fun first season.

4. The Walking Dead - Ever since I read The Zombie Survival Guide a few years ago, I've developed kind of a thing for zombies. As soon as I heard about this show starting on AMC, I got really excited about it, but then never sat down to watch it before a few months ago. There is, as one might expect on a show about people doing their best to survive in a post zombie apocalyptic landscape, a bit of a hopeless air about the show. The survivors' only real source of hope is each other, but even that gets dicey at times.

5. Boardwalk Empire - Despite this show not being the Sopranos replacement that I thought it would be, I've still greatly enjoyed this prohibition-era drama. Nucky has gone full gangster while maintaining some helpful political ties and keeping a public image as a philanthropist. In fact, this season made it clear that it's taking a turn into much more of a straight-up gangster show, now that Nucky no longer needs to balance the line with his political office. As the dearly departed Jimmy told him, "You can't be half a gangster." I guess that goes for the show as a whole, too. I wasn't sure how much I was going to like this season with Jimmy gone, but they did more than enough to keep me engaged.

Five Albums I Enjoyed in 2012

1. A Badly Broken Code, Dessa - Dessa is an MC based in Minneapolis and is part of the Doomtree hip-hop collective, but also does her own thing. She reminds me a lot of Ani DiFranco: she has a background in slam poetry but also mixes it up with a range of of instrumental and vocal styles. The interview/performance I first heard from her also showed her to be an incredibly intelligent, clever person who's a natural wordsmith even when she's just having a conversation. I first heard her latest album Castor, the Twin, which is actually a collection of previously released songs with more instrumental arrangements, but I found that I preferred A Badly Broken Code which features more traditional hip hop backing tracks.

2. The music of Abney Park - A trend has developed in recent years where an artist strikes me in such a way that I end up spending the majority of the year immersed in their music. Abney Park earned that distinction this year. Dubbed the "quintessential steampunk band," Abney Park combines goth-metal elements with folk and rock for a unique sound. On top of that, they tell stories (many of which are fleshed out in lead singer Captain Robert's novel The Wrath of Fate). If I had to pick a favorite album, it would probably be The End of Days, with Lost Horizons a close second.

3. Away From the World, Dave Matthews Band - This is a return to form for the band in a lot of ways not heard since Busted Stuff. They hinted at such a return on Big Whiskey, but this is a much more satisfying album to me. Boyd Tinsley's violin is much more prominent than it's been in a decade, and Jeff Coffin's saxophone reminds me so much of LeRoi Moore. Tim Reynolds' guitar could be overpowering at times on Big Whiskey, but he's been reigned in. Producer Steve Lillywhite hit the right balance, and the band as a whole nailed it. This ranks just behind the Big Three albums for me.

4. Babel, Mumford and Sons - This long-anticipated follow-up did not disappoint as the guys once again delivered driving acoustic tunes featuring Mumford's slight growl overtop. The title track hits pretty hard right off the bat and they don't let up for the entire album. There seems to be a latent "fist-pumping" quality to this one that perhaps betrays the spirit of folk, but that's where their more rock side takes over I guess.

5. Carry the Fire, Delta Rae - I happened to see the video for this band's song "Bottom of the River," which very much had a country-blues vibe to it, and wanted to hear more. This band's sound is quite diverse, pulling from those two styles along with rock, folk, and Americana. Besides the song that served as my introduction to them, I especially enjoyed the reflective "Country House" and the uplifting "Dance in the Graveyards," the video for which sealed the deal for me.

Five Blogs I Enjoyed in 2012

1. MGoBlog - It's on here every year, and probably will be for as long as both of our blogs exist.

2. A Church for Starving Artists - Long-time readers probably know how much I appreciate Jan's musings about the state of American Christianity and mainline denominations. She comes at these topics from an emerging perspective grounded in her experiences as an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and has been able to see things from a different view since beginning to serve as a judicatory minister. She always raises great questions that poke at the We've Always Done It This Way culture of mainline Protestantism in gentle, whimsical ways.

3. Black Coffee Reflections - I can't recall how I happened upon this blog by Tim Ghali, although I'm sure the name had a lot to do with it. Tim blogs on a variety of topics including ministry, theology, politics, and pop culture. He has an eye toward what both church and society need to be about in this new century; I've so far enjoyed his thoughtful and creative take on such things. Also: coffee! Woo!

4. Rachel Held Evans - Rachel's blog is back on the list this year as my near-obligatory token place to read post-evangelical insights from someone daring to question that subculture. At least, that's what I think her appeal was initially for many people. This past year, as she completed her "Biblical womanhood" project and published her book based on that experience, she has transcended that emerging evangelical subculture in which I think a few other well-known writers and speakers have become stuck and has begun asking bigger questions of the church and of Christian faith, including how we treat women, minorities, and non-Christians. She strives regularly to encourage dialogue and understanding through her "Ask a..." series and in other ways, and is fast becoming one of the premier voices advocating for a broader discussion about what American Christianity should be about, and what we need to let go.

5. Steampunk Theology - At first, I didn't "get it." I clicked on a link to this blog and wasn't immediately able to wrap my head around what these guys are doing. I didn't understand steampunk and I didn't see how they're merging it with theological reflection. It was, I admit, an acquired taste for me. But what helped was one post where they introduced steampunk artists in pop culture, including Abney Park, and as I checked out some of those people and groups, I was able to get a better handle on the worldview and subculture out of which they operate in order to craft their reflections. And now I'm continuing to enjoy this genre in music and books. Look what they started.