Friday, December 20, 2013

In praise of minor deities

People often wonder why December is called that, when words like "decimal" refer to our base 10 system and yet December is plainly the twelfth month of the year. The answer of course is that the month is named for Decembrion, the ancient Roman god of Top Ten Lists. Clearly, the last lunar cycle of the calendar is when people, since time immemorial, have trotted out their retrospective rankings of things which occurred in the preceding year, usually in sets of ten which is a nice round number. Hence, December. (duh.)

Far be it for me to break from this mythic tradition! Although I will bend it slightly, by presenting a list of ten superlatives pulled from varying categories, with little to no ranking of apples and oranges. Also, please note that as always I am running behind and in catch-up mode, so while a few of these were technically released in the previous 12 months, many more of them were not (and occasionally that is kind of the point). But they are all things which I encountered for the first time this year. And finally, in the interest of keeping this post from going on too insanely long (and saving some content in reserve for next week, when Christmas vacation will likely keep my blogging at a minimum) I will break things up and present the conclusion one week from today.

Herewith, in arbitrary order, are (the first six of) my own personal Top Ten Points of Pop Culture for 2013.

1. Best Non-Fiction Book I read: Marvel Comics The Untold Story by Sean Howe (Runner Up: Damn Yankees by various)

Clearly, seeing as I was inspired to write not just one review but a series of posts in response to Sean Howe's chronicle of the dominant American superhero-publishing force in my lifetime, the book impacted me a great deal. It is essentially required reading for anyone who has progressed beyond casual interest in the Marvel Universe, especially those who appreciate the life/art imitations arising from decades of young, hungry creative types collaborating on a grandiose fictional construct custom-tailored to accommodate outsize imaginations, which by the way was always trying to make enough money to remain viable. It's extremely insider interest stuff, but to those with an affinity for the comics in question it's a fascinating document.

Damn Yankees narrowly edges out The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. (The only other non-fiction books I read this year were Hallucinations by Oliver Sachs and Super Graphic by Tim Leong, both just kind of OK.) Both Damn Yankees and Devil in the White City are great, but Larson's work is weighed down by his own stylistic tics, such as trying to evoke thematic narrative threads from historical facts that don't necessarily support them. And Damn Yankees pulls ahead in sheer readability because it brings together so many different voices meditating on the 27-time world champs, a subject extremely near and dear to my heart.

2. Best Novel I read: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Runner Up: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wacker)

I love books about baseball, especially the players' perspective, since I never played the game myself and the on-field mindset is terra incognita for me. I also love books about college English departments and the meanings of classics like Moby Dick, since I very much immersed myself in that world and know and love it still. The Art of Fielding brought all that and more together marvelously.

I spent a good chunk of this past year re-reading the first four books of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, so that I could read for the first time the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons (which was pretty good, notwithstanding the unavoidable baggage of being a middle chapter in a saga which I am eager to reach its end). But I did manage to fit in another ten or so novels, and the other stand-out besides Art of Fielding was The Golem and the Jinni. It's simultaneously a period piece about the immigrant experience in early twentieth century New York City (albeit focusing on Jewish and Syrian communities, rather than the old standby Irish and Italian stereotypes) and a fable about two fantastical creatures trying to determine whether or not they can pass as human, and whether or not that's an aspiration worth wanting.

3. Best Comics I read: Dial H by China Mieville (Runner Up: Hack/Slash by Tim Seeley)

I wasn't a big fan of DC Comics' decision a couple years ago to completely reboot their entire superhero universe, but some good things have come out of it. Specifically, some projects given to competent and independent-minded creators managed to succeed largely because they were set on the fringe of the New 52, rather than being deeply embedded in the all-new-but-totally-recycled world. Dial H is one of those peripheral titles, concerning an everyman who discovers a strange device which transforms him into a different superhero every time he uses it, each larger-than-life identity more bizarre than the last. It's a concept that can only really work after the tropes of superhero comics have been well-established and can be deconstructed at will, and the fact that rather than being written by a DC stalwart it was handed to novelist China Mieville means it can and does go in truly mad directions. (So of course it was cancelled this past summer, but I still have a second volume of collected issues I can look forward to, at least.)

During SPOOKTOBERFEST of this year I sampled a horror-comedy comic called Hack/Slash by Tim Seeley. I had intended to blog about it at some point but I never did, largely because I didn't have a ton to say about it. I enjoyed reading it, mostly for the way it both celebrated and acknowledged the absurdity of horror movies, hitting a lot of the same points about the breed that I have in various posts round these parts. But looking back I have to admit it was one of my favorites and I'm already eagerly anticipating incorporating another volume of it into next year's Halloween-themed entertainments.

4. Best Classic Movie I (finally) saw: Sunset Blvd (Runner Up: Vertigo)

So I gushed about this movie back in June and I stand by that initial reaction 100%. It was the rarest of all cases, an enshrined legend which actually lives up to the hype. I should probably own it; I would sit down and watch it again in a heartbeat.

(You might have noticed, if you've let your eye linger on the shiny new banner I put together for the blog, that Sunset Blvd. and Seven Samurai are the only two images taken from earlier than 1980 to make the collage. Dead giveaway there, really.)

I've had almost the entire year to re-evaluate my take on Vertigo, but I'm confident that it holds up as well. I didn't fall in love with Hitchcock's highly regarded tour de force the way I did with Wilder's masterpiece, but I certainly was duly impressed by it. That probably says more about me than either of the two movies in question: one is mainly about a writer, the other about a cop-turned-private-investigator, and I am a sucker for creative-arts protagonists.

5. Best New Movie I saw in the theater: Gravity (Runner Up: Iron Man 3)

Not terribly hard to narrow down the choices in this category. I went to the theater exactly three times this year. Once was to see Man of Steel, which I did not care for. (Now let us never speak of it again. Until the sequel.) Of the other two excursions, Gravity was far and away the highlight experience, both in terms of the venue (the incomparable Alamo Drafthouse) and the film itself. As other year-end lists have been coming out this season I've seen a fair amount of backlash for the film, criticisms that the script is a thin justification for what's basically a glorified showing off of cinematographic technique and immersive special effects. Don't believe it.

So that leaves my only other cineplex outing, Iron Man 3, as the runner up. Fair enough, really. It was a solid popcorn flick, inevitably a bit of a let-down after The Avengers (though impressively dedicated to dealing with narrative consequences from that epic) but with a Robert Downey Jr. as charming as ever and even Gwyneth Paltrow rendered sympathetic.

(Incidentally, my wife and I are planning on heading to the Alamo again this weekend to see The Desolation of Smaug, which might have edged out Iron Man 3, but timing is everything. But I'm excited to have managed four theater trips in a single year!)

6. Best Trashy Movie I saw: Machete (Runner Up: Attack the Block)

In addition to sitting in darkened auditoriums in front of the big screen, I watched over 50 movies this year on DVD or my Kindle. And while the vast majority of those were part of the overall effort to chip away at the mountain of 1001 Films I've never seen (but Must!), several of them were purely self-indulgent. Which is coincidentally a good word for describing Robert Rodriguez's Machete, which was the most gratuitous, exploitative, loud and violent flick I've caught in a long time. It also happened to be one of the most fun, exhilarating movie experiences in a while, too. Machete manages to walk that fine line between savagely parodying the excesses of a genre and brilliantly embracing and embodying those over-the-top elements. It's tempting to call it a turn-your-brain-off movie, except that's not right at all, because the movie is able to engage a certain mindset on multiple levels. It's very smart about just how stupid it chooses to be.

Attack the Block isn't as deliriously trashy, but it's still easy to dismiss as yet another disposable sci-fi matinee. That would do the film a genuine disservice, though. It puts a compelling twist on the old alien invasion monster movie template by having the creatures first show up not in the vicinity of a military installation or a scientific research outpost but in the London equivalent of the projects, thus making the default heroes a bunch of punks and hooligans. And from that premise it spins a legitimately clever script punctuated by visceral action sequences and underscored by social commentary. Another one I should probably own, and make an annual tradition of watching on Bonfire Night or something.

NEXT FRIDAY: The senses-shattering conclusion!

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