This year, I decided to take my well-documented desire for organization and order one step further and keep a catalog of all the books, movies, music and TV I consume. I typically develop grand plans like this, adhere to them for a week or two, and then laziness sets in and the plans just fall by the wayside. But this year has been pleasantly different, and my catalog of consumables stands long and proud on that menu bar above.
As of June 30th, I have read 29 books, listened to 34 new albums, watched 51 movies and viewed 15 seasons of television this year alone. (Those figures are a little unsettling, but I promise I am also a productive member of society in addition to being a pop culture fiend. Also, most of those TV shows were not full 22-episode seasons.) I figured it would be a worthwhile exercise to whittle down the list to a few favorites in each medium, and what list would be complete with an honorable mention to the worst entry as well?
(I should note that the lists below are not made up of books, movies, shows and albums that have necessarily been released in 2012; rather, they are simply the books, movies, shows and albums I’ve read/watched/listened to in 2012.)
3. Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin – Epic fantasy how it should be written. A healthy dose of political intrigue, an abundance of believable (and badass) characters, and awe-inspiring world building, all conveyed in evocative, direct prose. And there are swords.
Key Scene: The events at the Great Sept of Baelor, late in the novel.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood – A classic of dystopian fiction. Atwood takes impulses found every day in our modern American society and creates a frightening and appalling future from them. Her sparse writing style and the novel’s epilogue are the cherries on an unsettlingly delicious sundae.
Key Scene: The interactions between Offred and Ofglen.
1. The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon – This novel contains some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Zafon’s Barcelona practically jumped off the page into my living room, immersing me fully into the novel’s seductive world. I never wanted it to end.
Key Scene: The Tale of Nuria Monfort.
Bringing Up the Rear: Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins – I freely admit that I enjoyed the first novel in the trilogy immensely, but I thought the second started to diminish in quality a bit. Then I picked up this travesty, and I truly understood what it means to diminish in quality. The illogical plot, the lack of interesting characters, and the overwhelming annoyance of Katniss made this book nigh painful to read. It didn’t help that Collins’s writing, which was passable in the first two novels, took a serious nosedive with this entry. And don’t get me started on the ending. It’s stupid/contrived at best; vomit-inducing/atrocious at worst.
3. Out of the Game, Rufus Wainwright – I was a big fan of Poses, Wainwright’s 2001 tour de force, but I haven’t really liked anything he’s done since. Thankfully, this album came along. Heartfelt lyrics, slick (but not too slick) production, and beautiful, accessible melodies.
Key Track: “Montauk”
2. O, You Sinners, Eliza Rickman – I had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Rickman open for David Wax Museum live last fall and I loved her pure tone, innate sense of melody and sparse song arrangements. She’s not very well-known, but this exquisite album proves that she should be. Toy pianos for everyone!
Key Track: “Coming Up Roses”
1. Hadestown, Anais Mitchell – On paper, this album sounds rough: a folk-opera adaptation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, set during the Great Depression. But pressing play reveals a lush, fully-realized world bursting with melancholy beauty. The songs are excellent as stand-alone pieces, but the whole album is just a work of art.
Key Track: “Our Lady of the Underground”
Bringing Up the Rear: Hello, Karmin – Sigh. I had such high hopes for this album. (Well, at seven tracks, can it really be called an album?) Karmin rocketed to fame with their hip-pop YouTube covers featuring the pair’s endearing musicality. Unfortunately, Hello wound up being nothing more than a pastiche of forgettable pop songs with some frenetic rapping thrown in occasionally. The only song worth a second listen is “Brokenhearted,” and lyrically, the tune could have been written by an eighth-grader. Here’s to a better sophomore effort, Amy and Nick. Ditch the “swag-pop” and go back to your acoustic roots; you guys were much more compelling then.
3. The Cabin in the Woods – When done right, satire becomes one of the most entertaining genres; the trick is finding the balance of humor and story. No one was really surprised that Joss Whedon struck that balance perfectly. One of the smartest horror-comedies in years, mixing both terror and laughter adeptly.
Key Scene: The bits with Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.
2. Prometheus – Not only did Prometheus look awesome (That moon! That alien ship! That attractive cast!), it was one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen in ages, not to mention one of the best arguments I’ve seen for science-fiction-film-as-literary-text I can think of. Michael Fassbender was mesmerizing as David the android.
Key Scene: The introductory sequence; David’s interactions with the crew of the Prometheus.
1. The Artist – Just thinking about the movie puts a smile on my face. It was just pure joy distilled onto a movie screen. Nobody expected a black-and-white silent film to make such a splash in 2011, but Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are winning leads and Michel Hazanavicius directed the film with a deft, sure hand. You are legitimately missing out if you haven’t seen it.
Key Scene: Peppy Miller in George Valentin’s dressing room.
Bringing Up the Rear: Antichrist – Oof. Watching this movie is like being punched in the stomach repeatedly by a knife-wielding sadist. (Too far? Don’t watch this film, then; you’ll regret it forever.) The excellent performances from Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg don’t make up for the vague, meandering story that the film takes so seriously and the unflinching scenes of sex and violence that stick with you like an unwanted spiderweb. I loved Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, but Antichrist is just too gratuitous in too many ways. Though the film could be praised from an acting/artistic standpoint, I just don’t think the acting and art direction outweigh the overwhelmingly graphic nature of the work.
3. Sherlock, Season 1 – As a rule, I find reboots, remakes and reimaginings to be fundamentally trite and tired. But the BBC’s Sherlock is the case the proves the rule. It shows up all other modern-day revisionings, becoming a thoroughly entertaining twist on the police procedural. Like Cabin in the Woods, the show is almost too clever for its own good and Benedict Cumberbatch is a revelation as Sherlock.
Key Episode: “A Study in Pink”
2. Game of Thrones, Season 2 – This show has become a phenomenon, and rightly so. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show that tries to keep so many balls in the air and succeeds miraculously. The acting and production design are top notch, the writing is taut and sharp, and the narrative structure of the episodes flows in a surprisingly natural fashion. And who doesn’t relish in Peter Dinklage’s one-liners as Tyrion Lannister or love to hate Jack Gleeson’s malicious boy-king Joffrey Baratheon? You don’t have to be a nerd to love Game of Thrones.
Key Episode: “A Man Without Honor”
1. Downton Abbey, Season 1 – Speaking of television phenomenons, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention everyone’s favorite British early-20th-century period drama, Downton Abbey. Like Game of Thrones, Downton features a large cast of well-realized characters, including one spitfire with killer one-liners (“What is a week-end?” cemented Maggie Smith as a British national treasure). The show also showcases some really excellent class commentary as well as spotlighting a fascinating time in English history. One of the smartest moves the show makes is grounding its history in the personal lives of its characters. This season (not Season 2, however) was a near-perfect season of television.
Key Episode: “Episode Seven”
Bringing Up the Rear: Portlandia, Season 1 – Portlandia came so highly recommended from so many avenues: critics, friends and celebrities alike. But when I sat down to finally watch the first season, I was completely underwhelmed. There were occasional flashes of genius (“Put A Bird On It,” Kyle MacLachlan as the Mayor), but overall, I found the entire season to be disappointing. There were too many sketches and bits that all struck the same humor chord, and I felt that I missed out on many jokes due to my lack of familiarity with Portland. Sorry, Fred and Carrie: I just don’t get it.
Coming up with that list was much harder than I was expecting it to be. If the second half of 2012 merits entertainment anywhere close to the caliber of the first half, deciding on my favorites for the entire year will be nigh impossible. I suppose that’s better than the alternative, however. Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Did Fiona Apple and Kimbra deserve spots on the album list? What about Veep and Spaced on the television one? Let me know how you feel in the comments and share your top picks for 2012!