Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: The year in reviews

Would you believe it? It's that time of year where I reveal what I've enjoyed most over the last 12 months (and a little bit about what I haven't, because it's always fun being a bit of a hate-bomb). To be honest it doesn't seem like a year since I wrote the last one of these, so I can only assume either someone's playing an elaborate joke on me or time is accelerating. Either way, let's press on!

I think we all know that I love a good book, and once again I've read a fair few of them this year which once again made my task here a smidgeon more complicated than it would otherwise be. My full reading list for the year will be up tomorrow as is traditional, but in the meantime, this is my top three:

03 Black Jesus by Simone Felice
I actually won this book, but that in no way influenced its position in my top three. This short novel was written by a singer/songwriter, which from my past experience with Willy Vlautin's novels can only be a good thing, and helps explain the almost poetic flow of words that craft this lovely little tale. Black Jesus follows the life of an injured soldier returning from war to his small hometown full of a unique cast of characters and a troubled young woman named Gloria who is escaping from her past. It's a quick read - I got through it in just over a day - but to be fair it's not so much the book's length that contributed to this, but the fact that I was utterly absorbed by the story and couldn't put it down. I thoroughly enjoyed Black Jesus, and can't wait to see what Felice delivers next.

02 The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Sommerville
I've made it clear in the past that I love short story collections, and this was one of the finest I've read in recent years. The Universe in Miniature in Miniature is a collection of tales that seem to share some sort of link, but one that only really becomes apparent in the final story, the almost novella-length The Machine of Understanding Other People, which ties everything together brilliantly and is itself a fantastic tale of epic scope. In fact, it was the way The Machine of Understanding Other People connected everything together so well - so much so that it actually had me zipping back to earlier stories to confirm the link - that helps elevate Sommerville's collection from merely very good to gobsmackingly brilliant. Highly recommended.

01 Things I Like About America by Poe Ballantine
Poe Ballantine is by far my greatest literary find of the year, so thanks to Foyles in Westfield for putting this collection of essays and biographical tales on display so prominently earlier in the year. Things I Like About America collects together some of Ballantine's real life stories from the years he spent wandering around the United States, moving from town to town and job to job. Some are downbeat, others inspiring and uplifting, yet all are utterly absorbing and heartfelt. Ballantine paints a wonderful picture of the people and places he encountered on his travels, and the result is a book I enjoyed from the first page to the very last. Not only that, but I was so engaged by Ballantine's work that I immediately picked up his other books - a second collection of true-life stories entitled 501 Minutes to Christ, and two novels, The Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire and God Clobbers Us All - all of which I cannot recommend highly enough.

(Honourable mentions go to Invisibly Yours and Frisco Pigeon Mambo by C.D. Payne which both employed a similar sense of anarchic humour as the author's earlier Youth in Revolt series; Love and Rockets: New Stories Vol. 4 in which Jaime Hernandez wrapped up one ongoing storyline with perhaps the most shocking conclusion I've ever read in 30 years worth of LnR; The Essex County Trilogy, an epic 500 page graphic novel by Jeff Lemire that told a wonderful story involving multiple characters across multiple decades; Ico: Castle in the Mist, a frankly astonishing work of fantasy based on the old PlayStation game; and RASL, the new work from Bone author Jeff Smith that is without doubt the most enthralling science fiction tale I've read in years and didn't make the top three purely because the story is left incomplete at the end of this volume)

Y'know what? I thought this was an awful year for movies. With each passing year I'm growing more and more tired of big budget blockbusters and the belief that CGI spectacle is a worthy substitute for a decent story and interesting characters. That said, there were some movies I enjoyed the hell out of in 2011:

03 Thor
Having just moaned about blockbuster movies, I begin my top three with … a blockbuster movie. I'll be honest: I went into Thor with a sneer of derision safe in the knowledge that I'd leave the cinema with plenty to complain about - after all, I've always *hated* the character in comics. But y'know what? I enjoyed the shit out of this movie. I'd probably go so far as to say it's my favourite Marvel comics film so far. So what did I like? Well, first of all, I loved how the Norse mythology was weaved together with a storyline on Earth that made sense, and also tied in with the greater Marvel Universe plot that's been unfolding across the studio's previous films and culminating in next year's The Avengers. I thought it was cast brilliantly - Chris Hemsworth in particular - and I appreciated the nice line in humour that played out over the course of the film. Most of all, though, I liked how the filmmakers took a character I'd always considered a bit dorky and pointless and made me care about him. Basically: GOOD JOB MARVEL.

02 Super 8
I was intrigued by the Super 8 teaser trailer that was released in 2010, and wandered into a cinema in August 2011 not really knowing what I was going to be watching aside from the fact it was supposedly reminiscent of the old Amblin movies of the 1980s. And by God, it was. Super 8 is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as movies such as ET and The Goonies, which made it by far my favourite film of the summer. I loved the 1970s small-town setting, the unfolding sense of dread as we and the main characters realise something untoward is happening, and I REALLY loved the fact that their was actual dialogue between the characters and emotion and depth - all things that are lacking from a lot of contemporary movies. This was a joyous, heartfelt, engrossing film told the old-school way with some new-school tricks, and I loved it.

01 50/50
Films about cancer aren't generally a barrel of laughs, but 50/50 managed to be just that: a comedy about someone who is diagnosed with cancer - and the result is my favourite film of the year. Let's not exaggerate the word comedy, though; 50/50 isn't a slapstick movie, but there are moments of genuine hilarity in this film - and moments of genuine emotion. I remember one scene in particular being so sad that I almost began crying when I saw it; seconds later, however, the funniest thing happened and my attempts to choke back tears were replaced by a desire to laugh very loudly. Unfortunately, the confusion of my emotions meant that I just ended up honking like a seal. There's not many films that can make me do that, but 50/50 is one of them. So it's a great film with a brilliant story, and perhaps most of all, a sterling performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 50/50 is also worthy of praise for actually making me like Seth Rogen, who for a change is not his usual annoying Seth Rogen-y self. A wonderful movie.

(Honourable mentions go to Captain America: The First Avenger - another brilliant Marvel Studios film, and one that took the brave move of telling a story set entirely in World War II; Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was a brilliant sequel/prequel/reimagining of the long-running Apes franchise; The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn which brought Herge's famous character to life in a brilliantly authentic way for the big screen that was just pure fun; Another Earth, which was a lovely little character drama based around the idea of a parallel Earth appearing in the sky, and which I had the pleasure of interviewing its director about; Final Destination 5, which I just thoroughly enjoyed; and Drive, which was by far the coolest and most stylish movie of the year)

TV Shows!

While I thought there were a lot of sucky movies around this year, I'm spoilt for choice with TV shows - so much so that as I'm writing this I'm still dithering as to what exactly I'm going to put where, so…

03 Smallville
A long-time favourite of mine and a regular sight on these Year in Reviews posts over the years (it claimed the number 1 spot in both 2009 and 2010), Smallville takes third place here for its tenth and final season. Unlike many long-running shows, Smallville's done a tremendous job of evolving over the years, changing from the small-town villain of the week series it once was to a show with a grand scope and season-long story arcs. For me, Season 10 didn't quite reach the giddy heights of the last few years - the eighth season in particular remains a significant highpoint for me, one which I cite as a prime example of how a television show can and should use a season-long story to great effect - but it nevertheless remained a compelling show. The main story arc for this final year was Clark Kent coming to terms with his destiny and becoming the main the world needs him to be: Superman. This - together with the writers' knowledge that they were wrapping up the show's storyline - led to some lovely moments of nostalgia: a homecoming episode that saw Lois and Clark return to Smallville High, the return of some old characters (Jonathan Kent, Lionel Luthor, and even Lex in the season finale), and some gentle flashbacks to earlier moments in the series' run. The big news, of course, was the finale, and for the most part I thought it lived up to expectations. OK, some characters didn't really get an appropriate send-off (Green Arrow, for example, is last seen looking up into the sky), but this was a show about Clark Kent and I thought it wrapped up his storyline perfectly. You could complain that we didn't really get to see Tom Welling as Superman that much, but all things considered I thought an appropriate balance was achieved in how much we saw of the Man of Steel, and that on the whole one of my favourite television shows ever was brought to a satisfying conclusion.

Now, where's that Green Arrow spinoff I've been demanding these past few years?

02 Franklin and Bash
Another long-standing favourite in my Year in Review posts was Boston Legal, but when that show finished back in 2008 I was left with nothing to fill the anarchic legal drama void - until now. Franklin and Bash is essentially a younger, sexier version of Boston Legal focusing on the characters of Jared Franklin and Peter Bash, two rebellious yet charming young lawyers who come to the attention of a legendary attorney called Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell basically playing William Shatner's Denny Crane from Boston Legal) and are subsequently hired to work at his firm. It's a short season - only 10 episodes in the first year - but there's plenty of stuff crammed in here, made all the more fun by Franklin and Bash's penchant for taking on unusual cases and a cast of eccentric characters. Definitely one to checkout ahead of 2012's second season.

(For a longer insight into what I like about Franklin and Bash, checkout my review over on HeyUGuys)

01 Justified
If there's one show I've just gone on and on about this year, it's Justified. My God, this is a brilliant show made even more wonderful by some utterly fantastic performances. Justified is based around U.S. marshall Raylan Givens (a character created by author Elmore Leonard), who is sent back to his home state of Kentucky after shooting a Miami crime lord without provocation. Once there he's faced not only with a variety of redneck crime families, but also the continued fallout of his relationships with his own family and ex-wife. While I thought the first series of Justified was brilliant, it was the second year, in which Givens goes up against the Bennett clan and its matriarch Mags in a season-long story arc, that really made me realise just how great this show is. Add to that a stellar performance from leading actor Timothy Olyphant who is just the epitome of cool as Raylan, and you have a show that I'm more than happy to proclaim as the best thing on TV at the moment.

(Honourable mentions go to Archer, the hilarious animated spy comedy that I just can't get enough of; Southland, the gritty police drama that is really coming into its own and telling some wonderful stories (and was just pipped to third place by Smallville); Supernatural, the sixth season of which I thought wasn't quite as focused as previous years, but still highly entertaining; John from Cincinnati which utterly confused me while I was watching it, but remained with me long after I'd finished the DVDs; and the reimagined version of Thundercats which against all expectations does for the classic 80s cartoon what the new version of Battlestar Galactica did for its 70s predecessor)

For the last few years this category has been named Albums! but for 2011 I'm giving it the more nebulous title of Music! Why? because two of the three top spots are taken by live performances.

03 The Californian debut album
If you've read my mix CD post (and those of previous years) you'll know I'm a big fan of the surf rock inspired sound of The Californian, and this year saw the band release their self-titled debut album - and *engages caps lock* WHAT AN ALBUM. The Californian's album is that rare thing: a collection of songs that are by turn beautiful, heartfelt, melancholy, uplifting and inspiring - all of which was done without the resources and backing of a major record label. I can't say enough good things about this album, which advances the sound of the band's earlier recordings in new, increasingly more wonderful ways, and I urge you to check it out: it's available to stream on their website, where you can also buy it (or get it from iTunes). Trust me, it's a gem.

(If you want to read more of why I love The Californian's album, click HERE)

02 Panic! At the Disco live
I saw Panic! At the Disco perform live three times this year: once at Bush Hall, then at the Shepherds Bush Empire, and then a couple of weeks later in, of all places, Norwich. Each time they were just brilliant. I've written before about how I think Panic! have grown as performers ever since the band was split in two a few years back, and I genuinely believe the current incarnation is one of THE BEST live acts playing today. Seriously; I don't go to see a band play three times in the space of four months unless I think they're exceptional. And each of those three gigs is memorable for different reasons: the Bush Hall gig came at a time when I was utterly stressed out at work, and I only managed to get a ticket at the last moment; the Shepherds Bush Empire one was the first show of my epic Month of Gigs; and the Norwich show … well, I made the spontaneous decision to go to Norwich! A fantastic band and three incredible concerts: good times. And I get to see them again in February!

01 Sufjan Stevens live
Another concert in my Month of Gigs was the long-awaited opportunity to see Sufjan Stevens play live and he delivered above and beyond what I expected. The show, based for the most part around his Age of Adz album was just the most incredible two and a half hours of neon-infused insanity and awe-inspiring music that I've ever had the privilege to behold. I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed this show or what it meant to be there for that remarkable night, but let me just say this: this isn't just my number one musical highlight of the year, it was the best concert I've ever been to and an utterly unforgettable night.

(Honourable mentions go to Panic! At the Disco's third album Vices and Virtues; Trent Reznor and Karen O's cover version of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song for David Fincher's film adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and OK GO's live show at Koko which was a brilliant evening of great music and confetti cannons)

Other stuff!
Let's see … well, Bikram yoga continued to play a big part in my life, and now more than ever I can't imagine NOT going to that brilliant studio in Chiswick at least a handful of times each week. Amazingly, losing my job was also a highlight - the last project I worked on at the company really took it out of me as I worked nonstop for almost the entire first half of the year (including weekends!), so ironically it came as something of a relief to find myself being made redundant. And while I do miss the security of a monthly wage, I genuinely feel like I'm doing some brilliant and worthwhile work in other areas now that I find both challenging and exciting. Publishing my book was also a memorable moment. Has it made me rich? No, of course not, but it's nice to know that little story I worked so hard on for so long is finally out there and it seems for the most part that the people who've read it really did like it, which is always good to hear. Finally, iPhone 4S - the best iPhone yet, and it charges in my car unlike my 3GS, so it's a winner on that basis alone.

And the losers…
I'll start with a cinematic failure: Green Lantern was, for me (and virtually everyone else, it would appear) a massive missed opportunity. For one of my favourite comic book characters to be taken and made into a movie so bad was just a crying shame. I never thought I'd say this, but DC and Warner Bros. really should look at what Marvel are doing to see how they should bring their key characters (Christopher Nolan's Batman films being the exception, of course) to the big screen. Also, echoing something I said last year, can the whole 3D thing be over now, please? On TV, I totally lost interest in Doctor Who and stopped watching about halfway through the latest series (which is a real indication of how much I dislike it now as I rarely give up on shows); dull story lines, an awful attempt at shoehorning a season-long story arc into each episode, and characters I stopped caring about: after enjoying the Doctor's adventures since I was a young kid, I'm done with TV's favourite time lord.

And I think that's about it. Last year's prize giver Erica Durance did such a sterling job in her star-spangled bikini that I've invited her back again this year to hand out the 2011 trophies to the winners; the losers, meanwhile, are being shipped off to a marathon screening of every episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians as their penance *shudder*. Let that be a warning to you all for 2012…

Same time next year?


Anthony Lamb said...

I'm sorry to see you give up on 'Who', but in all honesty I can't blame you. The latest series was a massive misfire in my opinion. Too self-indulgent for one thing. I don't even recall what happened anymore...

Tim said...

To be honest I was never *that* sold on New Who anyway, but it did keep me mildly entertained on a Saturday evening. But this last year? God…

Tara said...

Wasn't Season 2 of "Justified" awesome? I became a huge fan of Margo Martindale who played Mags Bennett. I didn't realize she was also on "Dexter" for awhile!

Season 3 of "Justified" starts next week. I'm so excited. I'm also hooked on the U.S. version of "Being Human". That starts the same week, thankfully not the same day!

Tim said...

Yes! She was amazing!! I'm so jealous that the new season starts over there so soon. It'll be MONTHS before we get it over here. *HUMPH*