Thursday, December 25, 2008

Forager's 2008 Big List of Stuff

I usually don't get around to finalizing my annual "Best" lists until after I've had a chance to catch up with all of the year's releases. Going by past experience, that means my 2008 Best lists wouldn't be ready until May 2009.

Here's something different for this year: a big, fruit salad list of my favorite arts/culture stuff from 2008* that I've seen/read/experienced in 2008.

I wanted to annotate each of the entries, but I also wanted to make sure I posted this before I went on my Christmas vacation - so there are some "blanks" here that I might come back to fill in later.

No music here, because I've mostly given up on listening to new releases, although I did like the Coldplay album quite a bit. No novels here because I'm a couple of years behind there, too. No a(r/l)t comix either, for the same reasons: I'm always playing catch up!

I'm on Christmas vacation now, so I'm not sure when I'll get a chance to respond, but questions and comments are always appreciated.

1. Lost Season 4 - In certain RPG circles there's a recurring debate that goes something like this:

On the one side, you have people saying that Star Wars is cool because of all the spaceships, aliens, and powers, so an RPG about Star Wars needs rules for all of the cool spaceships, aliens, and powers. On the other side, you have people saying that Star Wars is compelling because of its underlying dramatic and thematic concerns, so an RPG about Star Wars needs rules to help address these dramatic and thematic concerns. People on this side of the debate tend to dismiss all the powers, spaceships, and aliens as "mere color"- i.e. trappings that you could get rid of and still have something that was Star Wars-like (i.e. something that had the same kind of pulpy feel and mythic reach).

I take a middle ground: Star Wars is compelling and cool because of the virtuous cycle set up between its unique sci-fi trappings (the specific spaceships, powers, and aliens) and its thematic concerns. I think all of the best fantasy and sci-fi manages to find this kind of "sweet spot" where the "rules" of the mythos (i.e., how the Force works, how the Republic is organized politically, etc.) creatively constrain and shape the action and themes.

Sometime during it's second season I started describing Lost as a series that moment-for-moment was one of the most entertaining shows on television, but on a larger, "seasonal" scale was extremely unsatisfying. In other words, they couldn't find that sweet spot. All the little bits and pieces worked, but they didn't seem like they added up to anything and it was frustrating because it seemed like they were supposed to add up to something. In his piece on the Season 4 finale, Sean argued that getting too concerned about the big picture was, perhaps, not the best way to watch this show. But it's hard not to get caught up in all the details of the Lost mythos, since they're interwoven so completely into the action. Anyway, I think it wasn't until the end of Season 3 and (especially) the entirety of Season 4 that the Lost team perfected the balance between micro and macro: moment-to-moment the show was as strong as ever and the slowly but steadily emerging outlines of the "big picture" helped to ground these moments and give them greater thematic resonance because of the way they fit into the mosaic of the mythos.

2. Profit motive and the whispering wind - I want to write something of my own, but for now read this.

3. Cartooning class with Matthew Thurber - Taking this course was definitely one of the best decisions I made all year. Matt is a very good teacher and the class was laid back and a lot of fun. Plus, I learned a lot and even ended up getting to make my own minicomic. I've been a comics/cartoons fan for just about as long as I can remember, but the last time I ever really tried to draw a comic was back when I was in the third grade. What's interesting to me as a guy who spends a decent percentage of his spare time thinking about/writing about comics is how much insight making even a pretty basic minicomic gave me into comics in general. It was an eye-opening experience. Like - I love that part in Donald Phelps' essay on Gould's Dick Tracy where he talks about the way Gould uses blacks, but it wasn't until I tried (and failed) to get a similar effect that I was able to grasp exactly what Gould had achieved.

4. The revival of Last Year at Marienbad at Film Forum - What a difference a print makes! Fred Camper, one of my favorite film critics, always emphasizes that if you've only seen a movie on video, you haven't really seen it. After having first seen Last Year at Marienbad, years ago, on a pretty lousy VHS tape, watching it on a beautiful print at the Film Forum was a revelation. On video, the image was cramped and fuzzy. The subtitles were barely readable and incomplete: I could comprehend French well enough to know that stuff was left out, but not enough to follow the twisty-turny narration. At the Film Forum, everything was clear. This is a beautiful, clever movie - and it's also pretty funny.

5. The Fold - A funny, super smart erotic, sci-fi thriller webseries (co-written and produced by my friends Ray and Polly, but I'd recommend . Erotic, not so much because it's made to turn you on (although it might), but because, unlike most fiction, it acknowledges that the part of us given to erotic fantasizing isn't completely compartmentalized from the rest our lives. It's filled with lots of smart, sci-fi-ish observations about the way Web 2.0 has affected our sense of the border between public and private life and how that, in turn, has affected those fantasies.

6. Burn After Reading - I wrote about this movie already, here.

7. Tim and Eric's Awesome Show Great Job Season 3 - I've written a little bit about Tim and Eric before, here. This season of their show had some of their funniest moments, but it's also probably their most inaccessible body of work, in that it's more self-referential than ever, more focused on exploring its own little world. This has a downside - guests and bits trotted out seemingly as "fanservice" - but it also allows for stuff like the "Jim and Derrick" episode, one of the best takes on MTV-style youth culture since Beavis and Butthead.

8. Wall-E - I like that A.O. Scott has to qualify his praise of Milk as being the best live action mainstream American movie he saw all year.

9. Slam Dunk Vol. 1 - I've gotten back into reading manga, but on most of the series I'm following I'm waaaaay behind. Slam Dunk is the only "new" manga I've started and Vol. 1 is the only manga I've read that was actually released this year. So this was the first year ever that the bulk of my comics-reading enjoyment came from manga, so I'll Slam Dunk stand in for all of the stuff I read and enjoyed.

10. Jason Statham - Almost singlehandedly keeping the action movie alive.

11. The "Brand New Day" and Beyond Era of The Amazing Spider-Man - I read some comics that I thought were better than these and a few comics that I enjoyed more, but I really dig what the writing/editorial team is doing with this book. Which is, as I've written before, trying to elaborate and expand on the John Romita/Stan Lee run without straying too far from what makes the character and concept work. In theory, I'm all for wild and woolly super-hero comics that make no sense to outsiders and I genuinely like those idiosyncrasies of super-hero comics that get filed off when they get turned into super-hero movies, but, in practice, the decisions made by the Spidey Team have led to better super-hero comics (in just about any way you want to define "better") than the weirder/more ambitious ones made by the folks over at DC or in Marvel's "Event Department".

Anyway, this has gotten me back in the comic store on a weekly basis, something I couldn't have imagined happening at this time last year.

12. Rambo - I want to write about this movie, but don't have time to do it justice right now. I'll just say that I think this movie is a kind of inversion of Saving Private Ryan, esp. in terms of how salvation relates to warfare and in terms of how it addresses the question "what good can come of the kind of mechanized violence that rips people to shreds". It's The Wild Bunch for the new millennium. (And this reminds me that I still need to see JCVD.)

13. The Happening - I wrote about this a couple of times.

14. Black Summer by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp - I wrote about this comic already, here. I'm not as into their follow-up, No Heroes - it's #0 issue was really great, the next two issues were a bit of a let down - but I still think Ryp is one of the few guys drawing super-hero comics who'd be worth following no matter who was doing the writing. Frank Quitely would be one of the others. Luckily, they both tend to work with guys who know how to write these kinds of things.

15. All of the classic comic strip collections that I hope to either get as Christmas gifts or get for myself with any B&N gift cards I might recieve - Kind of cheating since these aren't things I've actually read. But it definitely makes me very happy that there's the distinct possibility that I'll be able to spend New Year's Eve pouring over that Scorchy Smith collection.

*More or less: I always allow for some wiggle room.

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