Monday, December 26, 2011

American Wolf’s The Best of 2011

Best Movie: Super 8

A love-letter to Steven Spielberg’s late-’70s/early-’80s us-against-them, kid-featured supernatural adventure thrillers that we all grew up with (think: The Goonies, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and in its own way, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Spielberg now serves as executive producer for writer/director J.J. Abrams, who shrewdly sets his Super 8 in the late-’70s to mirror his own youth spent making Super 8 films (the teenage Abrams was so proficient in the medium that he was called in to help restore the early Super 8 films made by Spielberg, who was then enjoying his commercial breakthrough as a major film director). The combination of Abrams’ own youthful filmmaking and the Spielberg movies that inspired him power this tale, about a group of young teenage kids who accidentally witness (and film) a supernatural event while making their own zombie movie on a handheld Super 8, with a rare passion and attention to detail. But make no mistake – this is no tween-friendly Disney utopia; in this movie, kids swear, show hormonal lust, and are poor – in other words, they act like real kids. Seeing the film reach its exciting ragtag kids-against-the government climax, I began to wonder if I would see a better film all year. And then, as I watched a full cut of the kids’ Super 8-filmed zombie during the closing credits, I knew that I wouldn’t. In these moments, Super 8 outdid its influences and subject-matter to become a film about the joy of making film.

Best Television Show: Parks & Recreation

In a year that often felt like an endless parade of everything wrong with American government came a television show about everything right about American government – the fictional small town of Pawnee, Indiana, in which the pro-big government, liberal deputy director of parks and recreation, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), works under the antigovernment, libertarian parks director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). The show’s central joke – that is, even though she is below him, Leslie effectively runs the entire department because Ron favors a hands-off, non-approach to government – could have worn out long ago had it not become a portrait of two people with very different political perspectives checking their egos and ideologies at the door when it comes to what’s best for their town and friendship. It also doesn’t hurt that they are rounded out by the finest ensemble cast on television, with scene-stealers like dim-witted shoeshine-boy/man-child Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), life-loathing, deadpan intern-turned-secretary April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), and overzealous, entrepreneurial super-striver Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari). (You know a cast is superb when actors as fine as Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe fail to make a stream-of-conscious shortlist.) All of these characters stand united behind Leslie, who in turn works hard to ensure that the government does its best to serve the people it represents. And how many real-life governmental organizations can you say that about?

Best Album: 21 by Adele

Throughout human history, suffering has driven artists to some of their finest achievements. Pop music is no exception – out of the Beatles’ bickering came Abbey Road, out of Bob Dylan’s wrecked marriage came Blood on the Tracks, out of Bruce Springsteen’s almost being dropped by his label came Born to Run, out of Fleetwood Mac’s stormy inter-band relationships came Rumours, out of U2’s near-breakup came Achtung, Baby. And add to that list out of Adele’s heart getting broken by her first true love came 21. Adele had gotten a lot of attention for her debut album 19, which was fine, but not earth-shattering; she seemed to get nearly as much attention about her fuller (i.e., not a stick) figure as she did about her ability to write a killer pop song and deliver it with a hard-earned, whiskey-soaked croon that sounded like everything that Norah Jones was supposed to sound like but never quite did. A few years and one breakup later, she delivered 21, which marks her arrival as a major recording artist. From the pop-soul explosion of opener “Rolling in the Deep,” with a soulful funk that was equal parts Carole King and Aretha Franklin, through the somber piano closer “Someone Like You,” 21 was the rare album that you simply could not get sick of, an album in which every song could have been a single. As a result, it is also that even rarer album that was both the finest and most popular album of the year – perhaps the best example of this we’ve seen since Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Best Song: “Being a Mockingbird” by Bobby Long

2011 was a good year to be a British singer-songwriter with a deep soul and American sensibilities. While Adele ruled the pop airwaves with a broken heart and an unbroken resolve from the moment 21 came out in late January, Bobby Long’s debut for ATO Records, A Winter Tale, slipped by unnoticed one week later. Like Adele’s first album, it was a perfectly fine (if not terribly memorable) debut that placed him squarely in the postmodern folk-realm like a British Josh Ritter. However, towards the end of the album, came its finest (and shortest) song, “Being a Mockingbird,” a lilting waltz that channels both Elliott Smith and Woody Guthrie, with a lyrical assist from Bob Dylan (how else to explain the cryptically perfect opening line “And the night, it rests like a hammer-blow” – which plays like the offspring of Dylan’s own “The wind howls like a hammer”?). What makes the song go from great to transcendent is the female voice that joins in on the choruses with a counter-harmony that is almost heartbreaking in its beauty; I’d go so far to say that this is the finest guest female vocal on a song since Monica Queen popped up on the title track of Belle and Sebastian’s 1997 EP Lazy Line Painter Jane. I just wish I could figure out who the female singer on Long’s song is – there are at least three female vocalists listed in the credits of A Winter Tale, among them Nona Hendryx, one-third of the disco-pop group Labelle – but I can’t seem to get to first base on this one. But in the end it doesn’t matter – between Long’s lyrics, the female singer’s harmonies, and the rich-yet-simple folk instrumentation, “Being a Mockingbird” is the kind of song that feels so timeless it defies the laws of memory and order, a piece of music so instantly-familiar it seems impossible that there was ever a time in which it didn’t exist.

Best Book: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I have not read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Like Isaacson, I rarely spend my time with contemporary figures, preferring the relative safety of historical figures who have long since proven their worth. At least, this is what Isaacson implies in his lovely obituary for Jobs in Time Magazine, in which he describes how he originally turned down Jobs’ offer to write a definitive biography of him, saying that he only worked in the realm of historically great minds like Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. But Jobs eventually wore him down, and the result is a rare feat – the finest living American biographer given full reign to the life of perhaps the most influential living American, right up to and through his young death. (In this light, the only document that comes close to Isaacson’s biography is Alex Haley’s legendary “autobiography” of Malcolm X.) But as I watched on Christmas Day as three generations of family gathered around the children’s new iPad presents with all of the idealized spirit and wonder of a Norman Rockwell painting, I began to think about just how much one man can – and did – alter the way we live in the world. For this reason, I plan to read Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I’m just probably going to read his biography on Benjamin Franklin first.

Best Broadway Show: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

The Actor Formally Known As Harry Potter made a name for himself as plain-old Daniel Radcliffe as he anchored a sly, Mad Men-influenced revival of this classic Broadway musical. It’s said that he spent endless hours perfecting his American accent, and it shows – he has gotten to the point where he sounds so completely and off-handedly American that one of the show’s most thrilling moments came after the musical had ended, when Radcliffe came onstage to promote a benefit charity in his native-born accent. Turning to co-star John Larroquette to continue the pitch, Larroquette looks at him with utter shock and says, “You’re British?!” It was the flawless timing of moments like this that made John Larroquette the real star of the show, at least for me. I had grown up watching him on Night Court, pitied his misuse on The John Larroquette Show, welcomed his return-to-form on The West Wing and Boston Legal, and now found him as hilarious and charming as ever in this, his Broadway debut, for which he would go on to earn a Drama Desk Award and a Tony. The show may have been Radcliffe’s breakthrough – and indeed, it was a major reason for him winning the title of Entertainment Weekly’s Entertainer of the Year – but it was Larroquette’s career apex.

Best Reissue: The Centennial Collection by Robert Johnson

There was a secret about Robert Johnson’s platinum-selling, Grammy-winning, National Registry-making 1990 double-disc breakthrough The Complete Recordings: It was no fun to listen to. The compilers went for historical accuracy over listenability and put all of the songs in strict chronological order, which meant that for many of Johnson’s songs, a near-identical alternate take played after them. To mark what would have been Johnson’s 100th birthday earlier this year, Sony Legacy overhauled The Complete Recordings as The Centennial Collection, putting the songs from his first sessions in 1936 (16 masters followed by 6 alternate takes) on the first disc and the songs from his second sessions in 1937 (13 masters followed by 7 alternate takes) on the second. Also added was an alternate take of “Traveling Riverside Blues” that had been discovered after The Complete Recordings had been issued. Just as welcome as the new running order is the new sound. Robert Johnson has never sounded so clear, so immediate, and so full. He jumps to life like he never did on the comparatively flat sound of The Complete Recordings, while containing a minimal amount of hiss found on his more robust-but-scratchy vinyl reissues. Throw in newly updated liner notes and information about the master records’ history and remastering, and you have an anthology worthy of its legendary subject.

And One Final Year-End Shout-Out: Frank Buckles (1901 – 2011)

On February 27, 2011, Frank Buckles, the last known living American World War I veteran of the one million “Doughboys” who fought in the war, died at the age of 110 years and 26 days. With him went America’s final surviving link to the Great War, an event of cataclysmic importance and influence that has been overshadowed by the more immediate World War II. His final years were spent raising awareness for World War I (and its long-neglected 1931 memorial on the National Mall), an event that was once known as “The War to End All Wars.” Born a little over six months before President Theodore Roosevelt took office, his funeral was attended by President Barack Obama. If that isn’t an epic life, I’ll never know it.

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