Dear reader, you’re probably as exhausted as we are from this month’s onslaught of Top Ten lists. (Don’t worry, we have a couple more we’re rolling out later this week.) But those deal with the macro. Here’s a bit of the micro — our favorite book, music, movie and television moments from the past 360-some odd days. We’d love to hear yours over at our Twitter page.
James Poniewozik, Television Critic
1. Ron and the Eternal Flame
I could probably suggest 15 moments from Parks and Recreation alone. 14 of them would involve Ron Swanson. But the one that comes instantly to mind is this one.
It has everything in there: the hilariousness of his character, the genuine if weird sentiment of Pawnee for deceased local hero Li’l Sebastian (a small horse — not a pony, a small horse!) and just the flat-out funniest moment of TV slapstick this year. All the funnier for the fact that it happens in the background, out of focus, and is punctuated by Leslie, Jerry and Ben’s awkward attempt to cover it up with overeager, horrified applause.
Mary Pols, Movie Critic
Lillian, the film’s blushing, food-poisoned bride (Maya Rudolph), races out the door of a bridal salon, frantically looking for an unoccupied bathroom. She’s wearing a strapless confection as white and puffy as a marshmallow; it couldn’t be more pristine. Then in the middle of the street, she realizes she it’s too late and sinks, swan-like, to the pavement, her dress pooling around her. At the moment of the ultimate humiliation, there’s Lillian, trying desperately to maintain her composure and live up to the absurd power of The Gown. Kate Middleton probably had a knowing laugh about that one.
2. A Better Life
His teenaged son asleep in the apartment’s only bedroom, gardener Carlos Gallindo (Screen Actor’s Guild Best Actor nominee Demian Bichir) tucks himself into a makeshift bed on the couch, still wearing the same clothes he’s been working in all day. This is the regular routine for the illegal Mexican immigrant – sacrificing for his mostly ungrateful kid, always exhausted and yet always at the ready to head back to work again at dawn. The narrow couch epitomizes Carlos’s tentative status in America; he’s a long-term houseguest, trying not to take up too much room but grateful for somewhere to lay his head.
3. The Artist
But for music, The Artist is soundless for 30 minutes and 35 seconds. Then silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) puts down his highball and the glass hits a smooth surface — click. He’s just seen his first talkie and laughingly dismissed it, via title card, “If that’s the future, you can have it.” Now his dog barks, the phone shrills and the laughter of chorus girls taunts him; yet he can’t make a sound. George is only dreaming and the movie quickly mutes itself, but the notion that sound was a vulgar intrusion, painful even, now makes sense, even to those of us trained on car chases and thundering explosions.
4. Young Adult
The horrible heroine played by Charlize Theron strips out of her soiled designer dress and stands naked but for her pantyhose and a pair of chicken cutlet-shaped silicone pasties cupped to her breasts. She’s just humiliated herself in public and is prepared to debase herself with a man (Patton Oswalt) who is actually too good for her. It’s always an event when Theron makes beautiful look ugly, but this time, the Monster was inside her. Not since Isabella Rossellini stumbled naked across that lawn in Blue Velvet has a beautiful woman offering herself looked so frightening on screen.
Claire Suddath, Music Writer
1. Sleep Clown, Modern Family
“Some people have been known to sleep walk or even sleep drive on that medication. Cam’s reaction is much worse,” says Mitchell, of his husband’s absurd condition.
2. Adrien Brody in Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen’s charming comedy is his best work since — hell, I don’t even know. It’s been decades since he made something I enjoyed this much. There are so many delightful characters in this film, but my favorite was Adrien Brody as surrealist painter Salvador Dali, who repeatedly declares that he wants to paint Owen Wilson’s character as a rhinoceros. Much of the humor comes in the way he pronounces…ree-noss-eruss.
In March, Ke$ha and Lady Gaga released music videos for their songs “Blow” and “Born This Way.” Oddly, they both included unicorns. “Are unicorns a thing,” I thought I watched the clips. “Should I do a unicorn trend piece?” But no more unicorns popped up, and then Chris Marrs Piliero, the director of Ke$ha’s “Blow,” even came out and said the videos’ similarities were just a coincidence. Kind of like the two Snow White movies that are going to come out next year, I guess. That’s too bad. I would have liked to write about unicorns.
4. Downton Abbey
It’s British. It’s an upstairs-downstairs-type period drama set on an English estate just before World War I. Maggie Smith is in it. If any of these descriptions appeal to you and you haven’t yet seen the miniseries, please remedy that right away. Preferably before Jan. 8, when season two airs on PBS.
5. Portgual. The Man, In the Mountain In The Cloud
This album didn’t make my year-end list, but it came very, very close. The Alaskan psychedelic folk-rock band’s cleanest, most cohesive record to date deserved far more publicity than it received. There are plenty of stand-out tracks on In The Mountain In the Cloud, but my favorite is “So American,” which just might be the first song that out-Bowies David Bowie.
6. When Saints Go Machine, “Kelly”
Young love. First kisses. Pop music’s 80s synth revival. This song has it all. Every time I listen to it, I smile.
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Allie Townsend, Social Media Editor
1. Rooster’s Final Act
Mark Rylance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron in the play Jerusalem. His entire performance is incredible, but there’s a scene, the very last of the entire play, where a bloodied Rooster crawls from a trailer and begins to begins to beat on an African drum, chanting and calling out. This goes on for no more than a minute, but it was probably the best moment of live theater I’ve ever seen.
Steve Snyder, Senior Editor/Movie Writer
1. The end of Melancholia
From UltraViolet DVDs to day-and-date video-on-demand streaming, considerable effort was expended in 2011 devising business models for a post-movie theater era. Meanwhile directors like Steven Spielberg (Tintin), Martin Scorsese (Hugo) and Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible) were creating experiences – immersive 3D, soaring IMAX cinematography – that could only be truly enjoyed on the silver screen. The king of the purists, though, was Lars Von Trier. In the deafening transcendent closing minutes of Melancholia, a massive interstellar body crosses paths with Earth and Kirsten Dunst joins hands with Charlotte Gainsbourg, both realizing the apocalypse has arrived.
Many viewers opted to watch this scene on their television screen (Melancholia was available for streaming a month before it arrived in theaters), but no home theater setup could have matched the theatrical intensity of this doomsday. As the planet grows larger and larger overhead and as the atmospheres of the two planets temporarily merge, the swirling musical score pairs perfectly with the escalating emotions and violent visuals. And then a deafening roar of bass blasts through the speakers as the planets collide, the resulting shockwave obliterating not only our heroines, but engulfing our senses. It was overwhelming and brazen, and unshakable — proof that the movie theater is still the only venue where you can evoke a certain sense of cinematic awe.
2. Hanna and her music
The aim of the typical movie soundtrack is to underscore and enhance emotions — to draw audiences more fully into the cinematic holy moment. But someone forgot to pass along that memo to the Chemical Brothers. Their soundtrack for the dark thriller Hanna was bleak, bold and unmistakable, an audacious backdrop against which we see a blond teenager (Saoirse Ronan) slaughter the government agents who are targeting her and her father. Abrasively electronic and rhythmic, the music doesn’t just call attention to itself but demands recognition, and there are many sequences in the film where it appears as if the action has been cut to fit the music (not the other way around). The band positions its harmonies somewhere between playful-sweet and aggressive-sinister, and in this way the score parallels the enigma of the film’s heroine — we’re never quite sure if we’d hug Hanna or run as far away as possible. The result is a hypnotic, strange,one-of-a-kind soundscape that does anything but lull you into the story; it jolts you awake.
3. Michael Shannon’s Meltdown
Few movies this year were as haunting as Take Shelter, the story of small-town family man Curtis (Michael Shannon) who’s fighting a losing battle against his psychological demons. Curtis’ paranoia about the approaching apocalypse has gone beyond a weekend hobby. It’s now cost him his job, put him at odds with his best friend and has left his wife worried that she may have married a very sick man. It’s when Curtis makes an appearance with his family at an annual Lions Club dinner that the train goes off the rails. Catching dirty looks from his former friends, and sensing that the room is gossiping about him — as well as the bomb shelter he’s been renovating — Curtis snaps. He screams at the top of his lungs, lunges at his enemies, and then storms to the middle of the room, scanning the room with wild eyes: “You think I’m crazy? Well, listen up! There’s a STORM COMING!” As a man fighting with all his might to keep his disease in check, Curtis emerges as a surprising hero and then he crumbles, publicly and violently, right in front of our eyes It’s a heartbreaking, horrifying implosion.
4. Viral Video as Cinema: Man In A Blizzard
Less than 72 hours into 2011, I was already watching my favorite viral video of the year. Technically, “Man In a Blizzard” hit the web during the last week of 2010. But I was offline between the holidays and, like hundreds of thousands of others, finally caught up with the work on Jan. 3 — thanks in large part to a fawning review by film critic Roger Ebert. Filmed during the Dec. 26, 2010 blizzard that left New York City paralyzed, what’s most notable about the short film was the swiftness of its production. Shot, edited, synchronized to music and uploaded to the web over the span of only 48 hours, the result is a hypnotic, deceptively beautiful collage of a city grinding to a halt under the strain of snow.
A meticulous homage to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent film Man With a Movie Camera, there’s something soothing about filmmaker Jamie Stuart’s stately depiction of a city ensnared by the elements. What begins with a trickle, as a gradual daytime distraction, becomes a far more formidable obstacle as the city slides into evening and the sky turns white. Accented by a pulsating track from The Social Network soundtrack, the short film is deceptively simple in its subject and approach. But the closer you follow the editing rhythms, take notice of how this natural spectacle is framed, and follow the slow-motion battle being waged between a neighborhood and Mother Nature, the more “Man In a Blizzard” becomes a meditation on what defines a city. I happened to be traveling when the blizzard hit the city, but all I needed upon my return was Stuart’s elegant record of events to feel as if I had been there all along.
Lev Grossman, Book Critic
1. Kate Beaton’s retelling of The Great Gatsby
It’s pretty rare that you run across a book that introduces a sophisticated, totally unique, completely realized comic sensibility straight out of nowhere (actually Nova Scotia). Basically it never happens. But it happened this year in the form of Beaton’s nonsensically titled collection of cartoons Hark! A Vagrant. One of the high points is her retelling of The Great Gatsby in the form of a series of three-panel comic strips. You’ll miss two-thirds of the effect without the artwork, but it’s worth quoting the dialogue from one anyway:
TOM: You can never be like us, Gatsby. We’re old money.
GATSBY: Well, how old?
TOM: So old. Old as balls.
2. An accountant explains heroism in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King
Wallace’s posthumous novel about IRS employees is a mess, a train wreck — or not even that, it’s a train that never left the station. But it contains some of the most glorious passages and painfully beautiful moments that appeared in print this year. Here an accounting professor explains to his pupils that their future career is a heroic one, but not the kind of heroism they imagined — not the heroism of knights and romance:
“The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all — all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience… Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality — there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”
Of course, there’s another kind of hero who fights alone at a desk: a novelist. Wallace was one of them, and one of the best.
3. Ser Barristan Selmy in George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons
Selmy is a white-haired old knight whose unbreakable loyalty has brought him in his last years from the cold continent of Westeros to a bizarre, exotic eastern country. A minor character, his melancholy reflections on his strange, tangled fate make up a whole novel unto themselves. Here, late in the book, he girds himself for what may be his last act of heroism:
“Armed and armored, the old knight waited, sitting in the gloom of his small chamber adjoining the queen’s apartments. The faces of all the kings that he had served and failed floated before him in the darkness, and the faces of the brothers who had served beside him in the Kingsguard as well. He wondered how many of them would have done what he was about to do. Some, surely. But not all… Outside the pyramid, it began to rain. Ser Barristan at alone in the dark, listening. It sounds like tears, he thought. It sounds like dead kings, weeping.
Then it was time to go.”
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Gilbert Cruz, Entertainment Editor
1. The opening credits to American Horror Story
I’m a big fan of David Fincher’s Seven, and this is a credits sequence that flagrantly rips off from that film’s dingy Nine Inch Nails/serial killer vibe. Not a surprise given that the same group that worked on that movie’s opening worked on this show’s. Every week, when I was on the fence about whether or not to continue watching this glorious mess of a series, it was this approximately 60 seconds that sucked me in every time. With its abrasive water-dripping and chainsaw-punctuated soundtrack (co-written by a former Nine Inch Nails member) to its disturbing pig fetus in jars imagery to the creepy vintage photographs (what is it about vintage photographs?) to the fantastic choice of typeface (Rennie Mackintosh, for those curious), this short film worked its magic every single time.
2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo teaser trailer
I’m a fairly preppy, fastidious guy, so I’m not sure what it means that I also loved the very dark teaser for Fincher’s version of the Stieg Larsson novel. Set to the Trent Reznor (more Nine Inch Nails, who I don’t even like) and Karen O cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” I first saw this clip in bootleg form on my tiny iPhone screen while riding in the back of a car. The quality was terrible. Yet the extremely simplistic (yet effective) manner in which each visual cut is timed to a drum hit, the yowling of Karen O, and the ominous first-person perspective that slowly, but unstoppably, approaches that white mansion — it was all so very entrancing.
3. The piano part on Eleanor Friedberger’s “Roosevelt Island”
It was this summer when Friedberger’s Last Summer came out, and I felt no shame in listening to an album with so obvious a title. I had never been able to penetrate much of the music from quirky duo The Fiery Furnaces, which is made up of Friedberger and her brother Matthew. But the wonderful poppiness of this, her first solo effort, made it my summer album. At first, I thought my favorite song would be the near perfect opener “My Mistakes” — it was bouncy and jaunty and if I was going to sweat my ass off in the middle of July, I might as well do it while bouncing to something jaunty. Then I heard “Roosevelt Island,” which for me seems to exist only as prelude to the piano part that arrives at 4 minute and 25 seconds. The bulk of the song has this hard, earthbound funk thing going on, and then the piano arrives and the song and me and everything seems to just float up into the sky.
4. This line from The Adventures of Tintin:
“He’s a light sleeper on account of the tragic loss of his eyelids. Aye, that was a card game to remember.”
Craig Duff, Director of Multimedia
1. A Masked My Brightest Diamond
When Shara Worden set out to create her latest recording with her project My Brightest Diamond, she had a few rules, according to her label’s website:
1) Every sound would be created acoustically.
2) She would play as infrequently as possible.
3) If she did play, the instrument must fit in a suitcase.
At the CMJ festival record release party for the album, All Things Will Unwind, the classically-trained singer and songstress stayed true to all three. At an intimate Brooklyn venue on stage with yMusic, the gorgeously hip chamber ensemble that backs her on the album (they’ve also released a notable recording this year, Beautiful Mechanical, featuring several pieces in collaboration with indie acts), Worden added some percussion, strummed the autoharp and plucked the mbira, an African thumb piano. The tunes and words on Unwind resonate deeply with these economic times (“When you’re privileged, you don’t even know you’re privileged. When you’re not, you know.”), but it’s the theatricality of Worden’s voice and stage presence that most connect and surprise. In the first song, she had the audience doing a round on the chorus “love binds the world.” Soon after, she donned a Japanese goddess mask, a mysterious disguise from behind which her lush vocals rang out. It was the first of many quirky moments of a brilliantly quirky show and album.
2. A Cunning Little Vixen
I have a thing for foxes. Growing up in the rural Midwest, it was a thrill to spot them on occasion in the woods or fields nearby. I love that Robin Hood in the Disney version is a fox (voiced by Brian Bedford). And I laugh out loud when I think of the Fantastic Mr. Fox as imagined by Wes Anderson. I’m also a fan of a great orchestra doing bold things. So when I learned that Alan Gilbert would lead the New York Philharmonic in The Cunning Little Vixen, the Janacek opera about the life of a female fox called Sharp-Ears, I was excited. (Even more so having seen the previous season’s triumph in the staged version of Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre.) From the first bars of the score, as the forester enters and the woods come to life with vivid creatures designed by director Douglas Fitch, I was enchanted. When soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian sings her first bars as the vixen, her ears perky and tail flowing behind, I was totally hooked. Beautifully played by the orchestra, the production only further proves that the choice of the Philharmonic’s native son, Alan Gilbert, is taking the orchestra places few others would venture. And we get to go along.
3. Kate Bush F@%ks a Snowman
Kate Bush fans (myself included) have had a good year. Her song “Wuthering Heights” enjoyed a hilarious reprisal in the Steve Coogan road movie The Trip. In May, she released her re-tooled Director’s Cut of songs from two earlier albums (The Red Shoes and The Sensual World). And, just as the autumn leaves were turning brown, Kate breezed in with a wintry swirl of an album: 50 Words for Snow. In the title cut, she convinces Stephen Fry to list the 50 words (in a few different languages) for the snow that falls constantly across the album’s seven songs lasting more than an hour. Listing words should not be surprising to Bush fans. This is, after all, a woman who sang the number pi to 150 decimal places on her previous album of original material. Fans will also recognize how she assumes characters – be it a falling snowflake, or a lost dog of the same name. In one tune, she shags a snowman. Let’s just say the affair doesn’t last.
Keeping a leisurely pace, with snowy dustings of piano and percussion, the album’s highest point is in a duet with Elton John. In the song “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” Bush and John are timeless lovers, first connecting in Ancient Rome and surviving calamity after calamity over millennia, including the Holocaust and 9/11, but somehow finding it hard to stay connected. The moment John goes an octave higher in the chorus, pleading “I don’t want to lose you again,” it’s the most emotional and impassioned phrase he’s sung in more than a decade.
4. Lady Bracknell’s Entrance
Brian Bedford is not the first man to inhabit the frocks of Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. But on his first entrance in the Roundabout Theatre Company production (by way of the Stratford Festival in Canada) it is clear that his is a singular performance. This is not an actor in drag playing a campy rendition of Wilde’s overbearing matron. This is an actor fully immersed in a character (as well as some rather large dresses and hats). And on her first entrance, when the Lady’s eyes first notice the young Jack Worthing, a man she deems unworthy of her nephew’s company, the palpable upper crustiness crumbles the soul.
5. Gérard Depardieu Does Berlioz
There is a moment in Lélio, or the Return to Life — the lesser-known follow-up to Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique — when the narrator (the artist/protagonist of the original symphonie) turns around to speak to the players and singers on stage, directing, complimenting and admonishing them: “You, gentlemen, who occupy the last steps of the risers, stand guard against your tendency to delay!” It takes a large presence to say that to an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony, especially with a giant like Riccardo Muti standing at the podium. Happily, for those of us attending the double bill of Lélio, preceded by the Symphonie Fantastique, French actor Gérard Depardieu was as big as a chateau. Big enough to take over Carnegie Hall from a small addition to the stage furnished with an armchair. The barrel-chested actor ranted and lamented in French as English subtitles read out the translation overhead (not always to pace… sometimes the laughs came before the lines were even uttered in French).
A quick glance at the program notes for Lélio gives an immediate clue to why the piece is rarely performed: it’s a collection of works stitched together with a somewhat flimsy premise. But in the hands of such a charismatic actor standing in front of one of America’s best orchestras (some say the best), it was a delight.