Every year-end holiday season brings a flurry of best-of-the-past-year lists. But what about all the neglected art from every other year? What older films, books, games, TV shows, artists, etc. did you experience for the first time, or come around to loving for the first time, in 2012? (See also our 2011 list of the best entertainment we discovered that year, and our corresponding 2010 list.)
It took me a while to finally get around to reading Connie Willis’ paired 2011 novels Blackout and All Clear. She’s a longstanding favorite of mine, but the 1,100-plus page count was intimidating, and the story, involving university-academic time travelers trapped in England during World War II, seemed like an amalgam of topics she’d already covered adequately from different angles in other books. But once I finally got started, I couldn’t put the books down. They’re so breakneck and breathless, while being richly researched and detailed to the point of feeling educational—a weird response to have to books about cranky time travelers. On the film tip, I finally rectified some longstanding gaps in my film knowledge by watching Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Yojimbo for the first time. Both are stellar, but Ikiru was the one that really struck me as an immensely powerful statement and one of the strongest Kurosawa films I’ve seen. And I finally got around to following up on Genevieve’s long-ago recommendation of the disturbing, hilarious, frank British series Misfits, about a bunch of low-life teen bangers who gain superpowers (of sorts) after a freak lightning storm, and mostly find they complicate things and lead to tragic personal choices. It’s a hugely entertaining, trashy series, and it ends in an unforgettable place. I can’t want to pick up the next season now that the end-of-year film catch-up crisis is over.
This isn’t that old, but I missed it the year it came out: Chad Harbach’s The Art Of Fielding. Sometimes I get into this weird mode where I’m reluctant to read the thing everybody else is reading, but after my father unsubtly sent me a copy, I finally cracked it and discovered it was one of those books that made me look forward to going to bed at night so I could read more. I loved the characters, the love stories, and the way it was about baseball but wasn’t, not to mention Harbach’s treatment of (sports-related) choking, which is a fascinating but relatively unexamined topic. The fact that my dad loved it so much (including its less-than-traditional love story) made the book even more special to me. I also finally got around to watching Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense this year. What I enjoyed about it is how alive the concert film feels, thanks to the energy of the musicians—especially those backup singers. It makes me wonder whether concert films from your Katy Perrys and Madonnas and Beyoncés will age nearly as well. I never exactly thought of Talking Heads as creating dance music before, but now I can’t disassociate that vibrant energy from their music.
Although I do my best to keep up on as many music-related books as I can, it pathetically took me until 2012 to read Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise. Okay, I have a pretty good reason: The book, which was published in 2007, is about classical music. And I don’t listen to classical music, let alone review it. Still, I’ve always been fascinated with classical as a cultural phenomenon and barometer. The Rest Is Noise amplifies those aspects of the genre, but that’s only the beginning. With an aesthete’s eye and a historian’s rigor, Ross unveils the evolution of classical in the 20th century—from the most conservative Romanticism to the most austere avant-garde—with a sympathetic light on those who struggled and sometimes suffered to create it. And what do you know, the book touches on music I do listen to, from Kurt Weill and Duke Ellington to The Velvet Underground and John Coltrane. Ross weaves these threads together with an eye on the larger picture: the development of Western civilization, for better and worse, throughout the past 100 years. On a strictly wonky level, though, I love The Rest Is Noise for the geekiest of reasons: Ross’ inventive, mouth-wateringly sumptuous descriptions of music, which rival any I’ve ever read.
Though I usually read a lot of film books in a year (sometimes it feels like I read film books exclusively), I generally avoid general histories of the medium. First of all, I know all about “Train Pulling Into A Station” and the changes in editing rhythms in the ’60s, and how blockbusters murdered the movies, and all that. Also: Wikipedia. But after watching the 15-hour documentary adapted from Mark Cousins’ 2004 book The Story Of Film, I decided to seek it out. Even though I’d already been exposed to many of the ideas Cousins plays with via his exhaustive documentary series, it was one of my favorite reads of the year: highly informative and effortlessly entertaining. Without making some marked effort to overturn established wisdom, Cousins looks at the evolution of the medium across continents and production contexts, eagerly connecting the work of filmmakers plying their trade outside established (i.e. Western) models of production, distribution, and reception. Perhaps most remarkably, Cousins has the nerve to regard film as an art form first. His pet concept is “innovation,” and more specifically, how film’s evolution historically arose from filmmakers who deviated from established schemas. That model fundamentally informs Cousins’ conception of cinema’s history, more so than considerations of star systems or other bottom-line concerns. Even as a compliment to the doc, which is due on DVD shortly, The Story Of Film is a rewarding, well-informed page-turner.
Music I heard for the first time this year included, unbelievably, ABBA’s Arrival and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Both are awesome, but since I am apparently the last person in the United States to hear these songs for the first time, let me instead talk up The Vels’ Velocity. The Vels’ frontwoman was Alice Cohen, whose fine new album from this year (Pink Keys) led me back to the start of her career. This is a perfectly delightful 1984 LP which screams “new wave”; producer Steven Stanley co-produced Tom Tom Club’s debut, as a roughly appropriate frame of reference. There are hooks and bridges galore, bouncy basslines à la Liquid Liquid, and a general sense of flawless craft, all of which has been lost to time: Velocity never even made it to CD. My personal favorite, “Coming Attractions”—a springily wistful number about flirting at an afternoon matinee, conjuring up a totally bygone era of filmgoing—isn’t on YouTube, but the nearly as enjoyable single “Private World” is. “Got myself a table,” Cohen beams, “got a place to think.” It’s the small victories.
Alan Freed’s Rock N’ Roll Dance Party. Have you all heard this shit? We all know that early rock ’n’ roll was a seismic eruption in popular culture, and that culture heroes like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard upended traditional categories of show business and accepted human behavior, but maybe because I grew up in a time when it was considered acceptable for aspiring celebrities to do their best to pass for slavering maniacs, this is the stuff that sounds alien to me: The new teen music as soundtrack to slow-dance nirvana, with ballads, novelty catchphrases (“See you later, alligator!”), and the occasional honking sax rave-up, held together by the force of one man’s leather lungs. It’s like hitting a button at iTunes and downloading the missing link, a bizarre humanoid primate with six toes on one foot, wearing an eye-rotting checked sports jacket and singing like Johnny Mathis. Honorable mention: Bobby Bare’s 1975 Cowboys And Daddys, a country concept album by a man whose own contribution to that nutty rock ’n’ roll fad, the classic Elvis tribute “The All-American Boy,” has been cruelly forgotten, partly because the record, which went to No. 1 in 1958, was mistakenly credited to one “Bill Parsons.”
I’m always late to the videogame party. Part of that has to do with finances (wait long enough, and those $60 price tags suddenly plummet to much more manageable prices), but primarily, it’s my busy schedule. So it was only this fall that I got to play Saints Row: The Third. This game, which came out in 2011, is filthy, appalling, and morally reprehensible. It was also my favorite game all year. A violent, open-world sandbox game that opens the now-serious Grand Theft Auto series to the wildest extremes possible, Saints Row: The Third is also a fantastically conceived game that never takes players’ time for granted. In an age in which spending hundreds of hours to complete every quest is the norm, this outing respects the limited time people like me have to actually play games. And once I found time, I found I could do as much or as little as I liked within the fictional town of Steelport. While I finished the story mode to completion, I had as much (if not more) fun completing side quests that allowed me to level up my character to my heart’s content. And while the writing is puerile, it’s intentionally so, falling under the “So stupid, it’s actually fairly brilliant” category. How much fun was this game? My wife, who generally feigns ignorance when I’m neck-deep in Skyrim or Mass Effect, sat with me through almost the entire playthrough, helping me spot enemies to kill or properties to purchase.
One of the greatest things about the rise of streaming TV is being able to catch up with older shows in one fell, butt-numbing swoop. Which is how I ended up watching all three seasons (18 hourlong episodes) of Slings & Arrows in about two days this summer. The Canadian TV series tells the story of brilliant, unstable actor-director Paul Gross, who, upon the death of his former mentor and one-time betrayer Stephen Ouimette, returns to the New Burbage Theater Festival where he made his name, back before both men’s former lover, Martha Burns, did all that betraying. Each season, Gross directs a different Shakespearean drama, and the show’s ability to work in meta commentary on each play while still being true to the practical and artistic demands of live theater is a joy to watch. A supernatural-drama black-comedy soap opera, funny and gentle and brutal by turns, Slings & Arrows reminded me how much I used to love performing, and made me wonder why I ever gave it up. It was a wonderful 18 hours to get lost in, and I was very sad to see the final curtain fall.
While researching my Primer on the classic era of power-pop, I kept finding new bands I’d never really spent much time with before, but the act that caught me most by surprise was The Toms, the home-recording project of commercial songwriter/producer Tommy Marolda. The late ’70s were a boom time for regional DIY power-pop, but The Toms’ self-titled 1979 debut is unusually smart, full of catchy little numbers like “Hook,” which comments on the pop formulas that compel listeners to head to the record store.
The late stages of my wife’s pregnancy gave us a lot of time to watch TV, and we used them to finally jump headfirst into How I Met Your Mother, which turned out to be an incredibly entertaining experience, even though it’s a pretty traditional sitcom in most ways. We’ve devoured the first five seasons so far, and still haven’t lost interest. It also gave us a new reason to love Neil Patrick Harris—as if we needed another reason. Almost makes me wish I’d been watching from the beginning, but at least I never have to wait to watch a “new” episode. Our other new-to-us, old-to-some favorite is Alphas, SyFy’s low-budget, surprisingly smart superhero show. I’ve become something close to a superfan of the show, evangelizing it to all my friends who will listen. They’re as skeptical as I was before I started watching, but it really is one of the best superhero TV shows ever—maybe the best. I sometimes wonder how the hell SyFy got actors of the caliber of Ryan Cartwright (as the EMF sensitive autistic Gary) and David Straitharn (as their non-superpowered leader Dr. Rosen), but then I remind myself to just be glad they did and enjoy it while it lasts.
Various pieces I’ve written this year have given me a chance to dive into early-’60s television, particularly dramas, and I’ve been quietly blown away by some of the stuff I’ve found during that period. The Defenders was the epitome of a stand-alone, case-of-the-week show, but it had impressively dark plotting and lots of great character moments, as well as a social conscience that would be hard to smuggle onto TV today. Route 66 was a sometimes-baffling, sometimes-brilliant show that had a production process unlike any other I’m aware of in a scripted drama. (The camera crew and actors actually traveled to a new city every week, making the show a wonderful time capsule of vintage Americana.) And the more I dive into Naked City, among other cop series from the era (though this one’s more properly situated in the ’50s), the more I think the cop drama has ossified somewhat from what it was in the past. And those are just three I can talk about in brief! Look, TV on average is probably better today than it’s ever been before, but there are tons of great shows in the medium’s past, and every time I go looking for them, I’m more than rewarded and ever more hesitant to proclaim whatever we’re in right now as the so-called Golden Age of the medium.
Most of the non-2012 material I absorbed this year came as a result of a limited budget sending me into the realm of thrift stores more regularly, but it’s given me an excuse to pick up some older albums that I always considered buying, but wasn’t willing to take the plunge for at full price. Okay, I admit that it sometimes gets a little depressing when I hit a store with a stockpile of really cool stuff that’s all from the same genre, because I immediately think, “Dear Lord, someone has died, and their family has donated their CD collection.” But if you can get past that, the finds can be awesome. This year has provided me with the opportunity to finally educate myself properly on Nancy Sinatra’s Sugar, Rainbow’s Down To Earth, and a highly enjoyable Carl Perkins collection called Go Cat Go! I also should mention that I finally delved properly into Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue this year, which has given me yet another reason to hate Mike Love—as if I needed another one—because every spin leaves me wondering how much better the Beach Boys’ albums in the ’70s (let alone beyond) might’ve sounded if they’d given Wilson a chance to shine within the group, rather than putting him in a position where he felt he had no choice but to do a solo album. But with that said, oh, what a glorious solo album it is…