Friday, January 2, 2009

The Best of 2008

Let's start with the event of the year: Sen. Barack Obama being elected as president! I knew that I'd see this happen during my lifetime, but I was never sure when. It's good to know that it occurred before I became 30. Now I'm 1 for 3 with presidential elections.

I enjoy making and reading these end-of-the-year lists since they often serve multiple purposes. The first is that they are a record of the American cultural zeitgeist. What did the critics enjoy and what did the general public enjoy? Where do I fall in this spectrum? Most hip-hop has been lacking this year. I don't follow the blues, jazz, country, metal, or R&B too closely or at all.

I think back to David Foster Wallace's introduction for the 2007 edition of the Best American Essays. He talked about Total Noise and Deciders (his caps) and what it meant to be a responsibly informed adult in the U.S. nowadays. He argued that it's impossible to read every published essay in the U.S. as a precursor to deciding on what's the "best." All any of us can hope to do is to be intelligent enough to know what we don't know and to approach such personal ignorance with a sense of humility so that we may begin to improve ourselves. Wallace's revelation echoes of Socrates, Mengzi, and the Buddha. I can only hope that I have been able to explore and map my own ignorance with these lists.

I haven't watched that many movies since August thanks to my job at the Daily Wildcat, but many of the movies I have watched have been great overall. However, there was a clear, definite winner.

Best movie: WALL-E
How brave is it of Pixar to take a chance on starting a movie with a 30-minute opening sequence with no dialogue? And with a big budget, "mainstream," animated film, no less. Beautiful animation, a story full of satire and playfulness, WALL-E boasts some great moments of humanity from characters made of pixels. I would even go so far and say that this movie is near flawless.

Next best movie: The Dark Knight
Another great movie that provides the new standard for superhero movies to come, and a good example of how make a better sequel. Christopher Nolan's version of Batman hits all the right notes: Bruce Wayne's conflict between his civilian life and his life as Batman; supervillains; gadgetry; and so on. Yet the movie transcends previous superhero movies in that the situations are grounded in situations that not only test Batman's sense of morality but also those in Batman's life such as Jim Gordon, Alfred Pennysworth, and Harvey Dent.

Best movie reissued this year: Chungking Express (Criterion Edition)
OK, so the special features aren't all that special, which is surprising since Criterion usually does a great job in this area. But the movie still holds up really well after all these years.

Other notable movies: Iron Man, Hellboy & the Golden Army,

I've been trying to catch up on all the music released since the summer. Thankfully, many of the year's best albums have been spread throughout the seasons rather being unloaded during the fall and winter, which was the norm in recent years.

Albums (in no particular order)
- Hercules & Love Affair - Hercules & Love Affair
- Jamie Lidell - Jim
- Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
- Lykke Li - Youth Novels
- M83 - Saturdays = Youth
- Quiet Village - Silent Movie
- Q-Tip - The Renaissance
- Santogold - Santogold
- She & Him - Volume One
- Sigur Ros - Incredibly Long Title
- Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend

Songs (in no particular order)
- Vampire Weekend - Oxford Comma
- Shelby Lynne - I Only Want To Be With You
- Santogold - L.E.S. Artistes
- The Roots - Rising Down
- Portishead - The Rip
- Estelle - American Boy (feat. Kanye West)
- Hercules & Love Affair - Blind
- Sigur Ros - Gobbledigook
- The Juan Maclean - Happy House

Happy House - The Juan Maclean

This is somewhat new for me. I've always been lifelong voracious reader and the greater availability of a faster Internet connection has translated to many hours spent reading multiple online publications. Yet reading an article on a computer screen cannot compare to the tactile experience of reading something in my hands. The weight, texture, and even the smell of paper held in my hands is an experience that cannot be replicated with metal and electricity. (Sorry Kindle.) In spite of a shrinking publishing industry, a global economic depression in which we have yet to see the bottom and numerous cultural items that demand our attention, I don't think book reading will see a great decline in my lifetime. What may decline are the venues through which new writing may disappear, a different issue altogether. With that said, here are my book discoveries and delights of the year:

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman
A great look into how doctors think, how they make mistakes in their thinking, and the consequences of these cognitive errors and assumptions.
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
A companion book to The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan distills nutrition advice into 3 simple tenets while providing the layout of the battle (and collusion) between business and nutrition.
Usagi Yojimbo Volumes 1-8 by Stan Sakai
Following the adventures of a ronin rabbit, Stan Sakai's comic book series is tasty melange of heroism, history, culture, and mythology.
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
Bolland's recoloring of his collaboration with Moore adds to the tense, occasional banal atmosphere of the story. Great ending.
Doom Patrol Volumes 1-3 by Grant Morrison and various artists
People have talked about the deconstruction of the superhero, but few have carried it out to the same extent as Grant Morrison. "Fighting" a living painting was the most normal "villain" that the Doom Patrol faced in these volumes.
De/Compositions by W.D. Snodgrass
Speaking of deconstructions, a chance discovery at the university library yielded this collection of poems compiled and reinterpreted by Snodgrass. His versions of poems from renown poets demonstrate that the parts can indeed be greater than the whole. It also reveals the importance of editing.
Modern English Grammar by Bryan A. Gardner
Which brings me to this selection. Less repressive than Fowler but better than Follet, Gardner's approach to usage and grammar makes for a entertaining read, even if you don't care all that much about grammar. The mini-essays sprinkled throughout the text are interesting discussions into what makes English English. This book, and the following, proved invaluable during my time as the Daily Wildcat's copy chief.
On Writing Well (30th Anniversary Edition) by William Zinsser
A man who claims William Strunk and E.B. White as direct influences, Zinsser brings verve to his pages in his ongoing quest to perfect his writing. Reading his prose alone is a lesson well served on how to write simply and carefully.

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