Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008: The year in reviews

Well would you look at that: it's that time of year again where I cast my eye(s, I do have two don't ya know) back over the stuff I've liked over the past 12 months, and make a frowny face at the stuff that I didn't like - although to be honest that could just be the result of gas from the leftover turkey. Either way we shall find out in my REVIEW OF THE YEAR!!!

Let's crack on!


03. Abandoned Cars by Tim Lane

From the first time I saw this book I instinctively knew that I was going to enjoy it. This graphic novel collection of film noir-style short stories is both brilliantly told and beautifully illustrated. There's an air of melancholy about the stories it tells, punctuated throughout with a dark humour - and (I kid you not) a series of cut-out standees, from the local tramp to two versions of Chuck Berry. And by no means least, it's also a superbly packaged book that is a joy to behold. This is Tim Lane's first collection of stories, and on this basis alone I can't wait to see what comes next (check out his blog here).

02. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
2008 is the year I discovered - horrifically late, I hasten to add - the work of John Steinbeck. I dived in at the deep end with all 700-odd pages of East of Eden … and loved every minute of it. I don't really know where to start in an attempt to try to tell you how much I loved this book, and I'm pretty sure it's all been covered before. Basically, it's one of the most epic stories I've ever come across, spanning decades in the lives of the Trask and Hamilton families; I was surprised to discover that the film (which I saw a few months before reading the book) covers only the last 200 or so pages of the book. And what surprised me was that it was an incredibly easy book to read; I thought it might be quite a difficult read, but Steinbeck's prose is so descriptive and light that I tore through the pages like a tornado through a cornfield. And I loved it so much that I've now got two more Steinbeck novels sitting in my book stack. Basically, if you've never read East of Eden I implore you to buy, beg, or borrow a copy (I don't condone stealing - sorry). It genuinely is a book that everyone should read.

01. Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I found this book during a week off work when I just happened to catch sight of the cover. It was on display on the staircase in Borders in Kingston, and I was immediately drawn to it (I heartily disagree with the whole 'don't judge a book by its cover' thing); it was a hardback book made of thick, rough cardboard, but the cover had been cut down to the same level as the page block, which I thought was pretty cool. I read the synopsis, liked the sound of it, and so I bought it (a signed copy, no less). Then I left it on my book stack for a few weeks. When I finally got around to reading it I was completely blown away. Knockemstiff is a collection of interconnected short stories focusing on the inhabitants of the small town of Knockemstiff, going all the way back to the mid 20th century and coming pretty much bang up to date. Like Abandoned Cars, the stories are dark - and in this case often unrelentingly grim - but shot through with humour, while the characters are imperfect, rough, and painfully human. You know you've found a great book when you can't put it down; I must've got through this in just a handful of days. It was an absolute joy to read (check out the author's website here).

(Honourable mentions go to The Three Paradoxes by Paul Hornschemeier which I loved, the immense and gripping Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw, The Learners by Chip Kidd which continued the story of art school graduate Happy from his previous book The Cheese Monkeys, and, of course, Fantagraphics Books' ongoing The Complete Peanuts series. A special mention also goes to anything Love and Rockets related: after naming books by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez as my number one choices over the last couple of years I decided it was time to give everyone else a chance this year. Nevertheless, their books, from the final installment in the new compact edition reprints range to Jaime's The Education of Hopey Glass and the first volume of Love and Rockets: New Stories remain among my very favourite books and I really do suggest you check 'em out)


03. Shine a LightI love the Rolling Stones, and I love cinema, so a Rolling Stones concert movie was pretty much two hours of heaven for me. Between rattling through all the hits you could want along with a load of more obscure, but nevertheless brilliant numbers (I *love* their version of Just My Imagination for example), and the sight of Mick Jagger dry-humping Christina Aguilera, this was the next best thing to actually being at a Stones concert (but with better seats and cheaper tickets). And you know a concert movie succeeds when you feel like applauding between songs, eh? 

02. Half Nelson
I recorded this film off the telly back in the summer, and had it sitting around on my PVR for months. Finally, around late September I had nothing better to do so I thought I'd give it a whirl, figuring that if I didn't enjoy it I'd turn it off and delete it. Turns out it was brilliant. Half Nelson is about an inner-city school teacher (Ryan Gosling, he of Young Hercules fame) who gets caught smoking crack by one of his pupils (stunningly portrayed by newcomer Shareeka Epps). She, in an unrelated series of events, gets drawn into the world of drug dealing, ultimately leading to their paths crossing when she winds up selling drugs to her teacher. It's a well written, sublimely-acted story that's obviously rather dark in places and doesn't pull any punches, but it's ultimately about redemption. It's so good, in fact, that I actually asked for it on DVD for Christmas and I'm genuinely looking forward to watching it again.

01. The Dark Knight
Oh come on, how could I possibly pick anything else as my favourite movie of the year? The Dark Knight propelled the Batman mythology way beyond it's comic book origins, transforming it into a stunning, epic crime thriller that just happened to have a guy dressed as a bat in it. It's a complex, multi-layered film that demands your attention and engages your brain like few other summer movies. Beyond the wonderful story, of course, The Dark Knight is a perfectly cast movie; Christian Bale is pretty much the perfect Batman - strong, intense, conflicted - while the supporting cast - Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman - may not all be the biggest 'star' names, but they're all perfect for their roles. Most memorable of all, though, is Heath Ledger's Joker, a sadistically brilliant take on the character that made me all but forget Jack Nicholson's version from the 1989 Tim Burton movie. It's a shame we'll never get to see him reprise the role. To sum up, the 1989 Batman movie has long been one of my favourite films; The Dark Knight is an immeasurably better film. If the Batman comics were as gripping as this I'd more than likely still be buying them…

(Honourable mentions go to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which I know pissed off a lot of Indy fans with its *ahem* unusual ending, but it was an enjoyable roller coaster of a movie getting to that conclusion, and was worth the price of admission just for the first 15 minutes or so. What else? Oh yeah, Iron Man was good fun, and I'd like to defend The X-Files: I Want to Believe which in my humble opinion was a compelling little thriller rather than an action blockbuster and suffered for being released at completely the wrong time of year. Any others? Oh - the Star Trek trailer because *NERDGASM!*)

TV Shows!

03. One Tree Hill
Here's something I didn't expect: One Tree Hill fast-forwarded four-and-a-bit years and became one of the best shows I'd watched in a long time. I'd always enjoyed it, but more in a 'it's on, I'll watch it' sense; with the fifth season I was riveted to the screen, and eagerly awaiting each episode. OK, there were a few cliches scattered around (Nathan getting injured, loosing out on his career as a basketball player, growing his hair and getting all grumpy), and it dipped a bit towards the end of the season, but I'm willing to forgive that because the first half was really bloody good. Even the little kid playing Nathan and Halley's son wasn't annoying! I can't wait for the sixth season to start over here…

Do you think any of them got prosecuted for defacing the basketball court? I'd say at least a few hours of community service were in order…

02. Smallville
I've been a fan of Smallville since it started; it's fun, bright, and well-written, and the seventh season, which I've just watched on DVD, really did serve to remind me why I like it so much. The series has moved far beyond it's original 'meteor freak of the week' plotlines, and now delivers complex story arcs that play out over many episodes - and often across entire seasons. And the cast of characters has expanded to keep everything fresh as the years go by. Last year Green Arrow was introduced, and this season brought us another familiar face: Kal El's cousin, Kara. Laura Vandervoort ably took on the part played most famously back in the 80s by Helen Slater (who herself made two guest appearances on Smallville as Clark's Kryptonian birth mother, Lara), albeit with a bit more sass and cleavage. And of course everything that I previously loved about Smallville returned; the worsening relationship between Clark and Lex, tech-wizard Chloe and her brash cousin and future Supes-squeeze Lois, and my future wife Kristen Kreuk as Lana. All in all, top stuff.

01. Gilmore Girls
Go on, I don't care! Brand me a teenage girl! WHATEVER! But wait! Before you do, let me justify why I think Gilmore Girls is such a great series. I'd known of this show for a long time, but never seen it before catching an episode on E4 back in August. Since then I've been recording them every day, and we're now just a few episodes away from the finale. I don't know what I'll do without my daily dose of Stars Hollow shenanigans. Gilmore Girls is such a warm-hearted series - when I first watched it I was stunned that there was so little conflict in it, guessing that it would be more like The OC or One Tree Hill. But no - it's more like a gentle comedy with the humour arising from the characters that populate Stars Hollow (a town in which, I'd like to add, I would very much like to live), and in particular the Gilmore Girls themselves - Lorelai and Rory. Their fast-talking, often nonsensical dialogue is something to behold, with Lauren Graham in particular being an absolute joy to watch. Gilmore Girls is the televisual equivalent of a comfort blanket: flick on the TV, curl up on the sofa, and escape to an idyllic world where dogs are called Paul Anka and Friday night dinners are always … highly amusing. I think it says it all when I tell you that I've managed to convince about five skeptical friends to watch Gilmore Girls, and they were all hooked after one episode.

The ongoing rumours of a Gilmore Girls movie have me squealing with excitement.

(Honourable mentions go to Flight of the Conchords which was HI-larious, Boston Legal, which continues to be both intelligent and very funny, Battlestar Galactica, which maybe isn't quite as good as it used to be but is still miles better than most other shows on TV, Supernatural which remains highly entertaining and massively underrated, Josh Schwartz's Gossip Girl and Chuck which weren't quite up to the high standards of The OC but were still highly entertaining, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles which all of a sudden got very, VERY good. Finally, a special shoutout goes to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; this was very close to being in my top three, but I ultimately decided to bump it to honourable mentions because I thought One Tree Hill's radical improvement deserved to be highlighted, while IASIP has always been consistently brilliant - as well as very crude, and very funny. And in Charlie Day I think I've found a new hero.)


OK, let's pause here. From what I can remember I've actually only been to three gigs this year. Well, four, but two of them were Nada Surf, so I kinda count them as one. The other two were Panic at the Disco and The Walkmen. That being the case, I'm going to replace the Gigs category with an Albums one, because I've bought *loads* of albums this year.

(But if you were interested, I'd order the gigs in this way: 03. The Walkmen, 02. Nada Surf, 01. Panic at the Disco)

Where were we? Ah, yes!


03. Shine a Light by The Rolling Stones
This is the soundtrack to the Rolling Stones concert movie that took third place in the movies category, and pretty much everything I said about it there stands here - except that you can't see it, but you can sing along to it in the car. Good times.

02. Raise the Dead by Phantom Planet
As I said in a previous post, 2008 was both a good and bad year for Phantom Planet fans; good because they released their fourth album, Raise the Dead, bad because they split up went on indefinite hiatus. But Raise the Dead definitely saw them go out on a high, because it was packed full of perfect pop-rock songs. What I love about Phantom Planet is that each of their albums has had a distinct feel, and you always got the impression that they were progressing as musicians and as a band, and were eager to try new things; their first album was very bright and breezy, the second more melodic and characterful, while the third album was a proper rock effort - very loud and thrashy, but still full of cracking tunes. Raise the Dead feels like it draws together all the strings from the previous albums, but adds its own distinct flavour as well. I think it's their best effort yet, and it's a damn shame they're calling it a day (if only because I never got to see them perform live again - I caught them back in 2005 and it remains one of my favourite gigs).

01. Pretty. Odd by Panic at the Disco
Let's make no bones about it: Pretty. Odd, the second album from Panic at the Disco, is one of my favourite albums. Period. Well, actually Raise the Dead is too, but Panic at the Disco made such a 360 from their previous album with this one that it really seemed like you were listening to a completely different band. And initially I wasn't too sure what to think. I knew that I loved the first single, Nine in the Afternoon, but I think I was expecting something a bit more like what I'd heard on A Fever You Can't Sweat Out. But after a couple of listens something clicked and I just *got* it. And since then it's been a permanent fixture on my CD player in the car. Well, up until the weekend just gone when I bought Panic's new live album - which is, y'know, full of live versions of Pretty. Odd's many wonderful tracks.

(Honourable mentions go to The Walkmen's latest album, You and Me, White Denim's Workout Holiday, anything and everything by Hotel Lights, and Jason Mraz's latest, We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things because it's got the beautiful song I'm Yours on it, and iTunes were selling a bonus edition with an entire extra live album for just £6.99!) 

Other stuff!
Well, I finally got my hands on an iPhone which continues to astound me with how brilliant it really is, and even the arrival of iPhone 3G three months after I bought mine didn't upset me because the one I have does absolutely everything I could want and more; Scrabble on Facebook - I'm completely addicted; Westfield - because it's always nice to have Europe's largest inner-city shopping centre 15 minutes walk away from work; writing - because I think for a while there earlier in the year I lost my novel-writing mojo, but I totally got it back during the summer, and now I keep getting ideas that I need to jot down; and finally, friends, family and blog-pals, because it's always a pleasure to chill out and spend time with your nearest and dearest, ain't it?

And the loosers…
God, Heroes - the first season was awesome, but it's all been massively downhill since then. Season Two was d-i-r-e, and while Season Three's pulled it back a bit, it's still nowhere near as good as it was, or should be; similarly, My Name is Earl really dropped the ball this year, so much so that what was once one of my favourite shows became a complete chore to watch - let's hope it improves with its fourth season; Facebook scrubbing Scrabulous, then making me wait months until unleashing the official version - which I can't play with people in America because of some rights issue! And finally: the credit crunch, because no-one wants to turn on the TV and hear about people losing their jobs by the thousands, and surely we all worry enough about money as it is?

So there we have it - my winners and losers of 2008. Imaginary trophies of rainbows and kitten sneezes are winging their way to the winners, while jiffy bags full of smelly bum-gas are on their way to the losers. No one goes home empty-handed here - good times!


Tara said...

That's a nicely diversified list of reviews there! The Jack Nicholson Joker is still one of my favorites, but Ledger's Joker wins. Plus, he looks better in a nurse's costume than Nicholson would.

Oh and I finally did see "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and should probably write a review about it!

CyberPete said...

I have to say, Heroes season two was a chore to watch. How it could go from complete awesomeness to utter shit still baffles me.

Can't wait for the Gilmore Girls movie although I'm a little worried about that. They could easiely fuck it up. The youtube video was hilarious.

the projectivist said...

I'm a sucker for the cover artwork on books too - and there are some good ones there alright.

Made me think of this:

i want one of those!

watch*paint*dry said...

The Dark Knight wins for me too. And i always judge books by the covers and sometimes I really really shouldn't have.

I do the same with wine bottle labels. I am always attracted to the labels, it hasn't always worked out well either, but then i just get too drunk to care!

Tim said...

Tara - Nicholson was ace as the Joker, wasn't he? But for me Ledger's portrayal was simply stunning to watch - I couldn't take my eyes off the screen when he appeared!

Cyberpete - I really hope they do actually make the Gilmore Girls movie, but part of me thinks the format worked best as a series. Only time will tell, I suspect!

The Projectivist - Whoa! That frame is awesome! I somehow think East of Eden wouldn't quite fit in it though… Cool nonetheless -I might have to pick one up!

Watch*Paint*Dry - Ha ha ha! You ol' lush, you!!

Inexplicable DeVice said...

*NERDGASM!* - Hee!

WV is diciding. Diciding what, I wonder? How to spell?

Courtney said...


The day they stop making that show is the day I lose part of my soul!