Saturday, December 31, 2011

20+11 Things I Liked in 2011: Part 1

Another year is coming to a close, and it’s time for the second annual 20+… Things I Liked, a year-end pop culture round-up.

I’m no critic, I’m just a pop culture fan. I like network television and young adult novels. There are lots of well-reviewed movies of 2011 that I have yet to see. I don’t watch Louie, for no other reason than that I have no idea what channel it’s on. But I like stuff. And here are some of the things I liked in 2011.

If you have favorites from 2011, feel free to share them in the comments!

Optimism: sitcoms, various channels
The economy sucks. The environment is in trouble. A bunch of douchebags are running for president. But goldarnnit, we’re Americans and Americans try to look on the bright side. That’s probably why there are so many sitcoms these days about people who find joy wherever they can: in a cobbled-together family (Community) or a real one (Modern Family); in local government (Parks & Recreation); in suburbia (Suburgatory), or in small towns (Raising Hope). The half-hour comedy has come back in a big way, shaking off the overly-ironic P.O.V. that dogged humor during the early aughties, and turning to holy fools who are just trying to do the best they can. (See also: How I Met Your Mother, The Middle, Up All Night, The New Girl)

Lonely Boy: song by the Black Keys
Yeah. My dad dances like this guy.

Let England Shake, by PJ Harvey
Back in the days when Sassy was still a magazine, any self-respecting riotgrrrl had PJ Harvey in the tape deck of her beat-up Hyundai (that was my sister. I was not cool). Polly Jean is still cranking out throaty primal yells and haunted melodies. This year, Let England Shake shook up “Best of” lists and iPods with its musical meditations on war and peace. I read one review that claimed the album was like “homework.” I don’t know what school that guy went to; if I’d gone there I might not have felt the need to repeatedly ask my teachers: “Why are we learning this again?” In a year of revolt, PJ schooled us in the need to keep the consequences of our government’s actions at the forefront of our minds. Best tracks: “On Battlefield Hill”, “In the Dark Places.”

Speaking of tape decks and riotgrrls…

Women Who Rock (and rap), various artists
In the same decade that my sis was rocking out to PJ Harvey, we were also sitting in the grass at the Columbia Gorge Ampitheatre, “rocking” out to the Indigo Girls and Natalie Merchant at Lilith Fair. The attempted resurrection of Lilith Fair this summer might have been a bust, but you can create your own substitute on your iPod, because women have put out some of the best music of the year (and some of the most profitable). While Adele’s 21 and Florence + the Machine’s Ceremonials racked up the radio play, 2011 also saw major new music from St. Vincent, Feist, Lykke Li, Nicki Minaj, and female-fronted outfits like Cults and Wye Oak. I’m sure that my friend Andy is glad to receive a reprieve from the annual drubbing he gets when his year-end compilation CD doesn’t contain any female artists. I’m betting he’s not the only one whose “Best of” list will be looking a little friendlier toward the XX chromosome combo.

Michael Fassbender
Any one of the five people who saw Michael Fassbender in last year’s Fish Tank knew that he was about to tear up the movies. When Jane Eyre came out earlier this year, a comment of, “Michael Fassbender is great,” would have received blank stares, and in X-Men: First Class, he was the less famous guy in a lead role. It wasn’t long though, before Fassbender began to get the acclaim he should have gotten for earlier roles, and there’s even talk of Oscar for his role in Shame (which I haven’t seen yet, because: bummer). Fassbender brings an adult gravity and masculinity to his roles that many American actors just don’t seem to have; plus, you know, he’s easy on the eyes.

English Country Houses (Jane Eyre, Downtown Abbey, The Hours)
Michael Fassbender might have been stomping around one of the most famous fictional English Country houses when he encountered Jane Eyre in the corridors of Thornfield Hall, but 2011 was a big year for other drawing rooms as well. On PBS, Downtown Abbey brought new vigor to the upstairs-downstairs drama, while on BBCA’s The Hours, a key episode made great use of the immature frivolity that accompanies the “weekend at the country house” plotline. Why are these once-musty tropes being spruced up? Maybe it’s because in our sour economy, open acknowledgement of class in these dramas seems refreshing. Or maybe we just love a good waltz. (Or the Grizzly Bear… you DA fans know where I’m comin’ from, yo!)

The Beginning and the End (The Tree of Life and Melancholia)
Serious spiritual concerns are often absent from the movies, but this year two major directors turned their lenses on the metaphysical, illustrating the beginning of our world and its end. Terrence Malick showed us the evolution of life on earth, connecting the macro to the micro as he linked the life of a Texas family to the motions of the universe. Malick’s movies always explore our inner conversations with God, and the Tree of Life had the same whispered monologues that are a hallmark of his work (despite all the praise for this movie, I still don’t like it as much as Malick’s The New World, which is probably my favorite movie). Lars von Trier, in Melancholia, ventured into another territory: the terrible silence of God in our modern world, and the ferocious pull of depression, which can be as inexorable as gravity. Both films, however, gave us transcendental cosmic images that had the massive scale of the best action movies but the moral heft of two of cinema’s deepest thinkers.

This Party Just Took a Turn For the Douche, Garfunkel & Oates
You know who else gets metaphysical? Effin’ John Donne, as the adorable Kate Micucci points out in this hilarious, allusion-filled video. You probably recognize Micucci and her partner in comedy, Riki Lindhome, from their many TV roles, but if you don’t know their comedic song stylings, however, get thee to YouTube immediately!

Yeah, yeah. Cute girls, like Garfunkel & Oates, can be funny. Pretty women can be funny too. Big women and little women. Old and young. All can be funny. The press seemed to be totally surprised by this fact, as evidenced by the rapturous essays that were produced in reaction to the movie Bridesmaids, heralding a transformation in America’s taste in funny. But seriously, what is there to be awestruck about? People like good movies with funny people in them. They like stories about people, rather than stock characters. The pundits should just shut up and laugh along with the rest of us.

Robyn’s Body Talk Tour, Houston Warehouse, February 19, 2011
I don’t think I’ve ever danced so much in my life. But none of the dancing from the energetic audience could compare with the hyperkinetic moves of the Swedish chanteuse herself.

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