This is what people do, right? The old year has slipped away, now just another thread in the vast tapestry of history, we face the promise and fear of future things unknown - it’s nice to indulge in a bit of nostalgia, isn’t it? It’s nice to look back, to take stock of what we’ve experienced and how we’ve grown, to categorize everything we’ve seen and heard and watched and loved in the past year. Because, when you think about it, the coming of a new year represents something slightly unsettling: uncertainty. We’re not certain and we never can be certain of what triumphs, what defeats, what losses, what gains, what pleasures, or what pains the future will bring. Now of course the dawning of 1 January is not fundamentally any different from the dawning of any other day – the turning of the year is, in fact, a pretty arbitrary distinction. But still, New Year’s represents for us the fear and possibility that plays such a prominent but generally ignored role in our lives, and it’s an opportunity for us to acknowledge and face and embrace the dual-faceted nature of uncertainty. So as we stand upon the brink of a new year, it’s helpful to look back, to take stock, and to categorize, all in the hope that we can somehow hang on in the new year to all that we loved in the old = the hope that the past is not truly gone or lost, but can be retained in some way.
And how better to do that than with that time-honored staple of New Year’s – the top 10 list? I’ve been meaning to make this list for a while now, focusing on the year in culture. But it’s been hard, you know? How do you distill a year of culture into such a limited number of primary, representative elements? Well, I actually don’t think you can, at least not in any meaningfully objective way. And I definitely don’t think I can make any sort of “best of 2010” sort of list, because, in the end, there’s just way too much shit that’s gone down this year that I simply have not paid any attention to. Really, when it comes down to it, the only way I’d feel comfortable saying “these things represent the best of culture in 2010” is if I were some sort of cultural critic paid to watch every TV show, listen to every new album, read every new book, see every new play, and attend every new concert - since I’m not, I really just can’t offer any meaningful objective assessment of the past year. What I can do, however, is list what 15 things (yes, 15, I couldn’t not include any of them) represented meaningful intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic experiences for me personally in 2010. So that’s what I’ll do. The 15 things on this list – which are drawn from the worlds of television and art and theatre and music and literature – didn’t necessarily occur or originate in 2010 (though a lot of them did), but each of them was, in some way, significant for me in the past year. So even though we’re already more than a week into 2011, just indulge me as I cling to 2010 for a little bit longer.
15. Michael Wood’s Documentaries
Michael Wood has been making historical documentaries for the BBC since the early 1980s, but I only first discovered his work in 2010. And honestly, he’s is amazing. He studied Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford. He speaks like seven languages. In his documentaries, he’s broken down the Trojan War, the life of Shakespeare, all of Western Art, and the entire country of India for the masses. He’s from Manchester but doesn’t have the slightest hint of a Mancunian accent. And he looks very good reading archaeological publications by candlelight. He is the ultimate intellectual badass. Watch his documentaries.
14. Mad Men
I can’t believe I didn’t discover this show before 2010. My god, it’s fantastic. The acting, the writing, the meticulously designed sets and costumes – everything comes together to immerse the viewer in the world of the show and create a dramatic and aesthetic experience like I’ve honestly never seen before on television. The 1960s of Mad Men is not the clichéd 1960s of so many shows; it’s an intensely real depiction of the era. But Mad Men isn’t just about life amidst the cultural and social change of the 1960s – really, it’s about identity. How do we know ourselves? How do we define ourselves in a society that’s constantly seeking to define us? How can we know what we truly want when we are constantly being told what we want? Can we reconcile the disparity between who we are and who we want to be? Those questions, I think, are at the heart of what Mad Men seeks to explore. And it’s the show’s nuanced and intelligent discussion of those issues that makes it so intellectually rewarding. So Mad Men, then, engages us emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually – it’s the complete artistic experience. And Season 4 epitomized that: from the central question of “who is Don Draper?” to the brilliant acting and writing of such dramatically and aesthetically masterful episodes as “The Suitcase” (which I think is one of the most exquisitely perfect hours of television ever produced), it honestly represented Mad Men at its very best.
13. The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol
What little recognition Gogol is given usually goes to his most famous work, Dead Souls. But his short stories are utterly brilliant. Really, they’re at once funny and somber, realistic and surreal, humanist and misanthropic, virtuosic and unpretentious – stories like “The Overcoat” and “Nevsky Prospekt” are literature at its very best. What I love most about Gogol’s short stories (at least the ones I’ve read so far), though, is their immediacy. Gogol’s best stories don’t seem to have been crafted with any overarching literary tradition in mind, and they definitely don’t conform to any sort of preconceived artistic or even rational basis – instead, they represent something profoundly real and unconstrained by the shackles of literary or logical propriety. They’re genuine, not contrived. They’re immediate, not detached. They represent an artistic sensibility that’s been incredibly rare in the Western world since Shakespeare, an artistic sensibility that is fundamentally personal (and by personal I mean idiosyncratic, the product of a person not a tradition) and, thus, fundamentally original in a way that few works of literature in the Early Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern eras have been. That immediacy is something that I think is essential for all great art (and something that I think defines the #1 item on this list), so finding it in Gogol’s short stories this past year was an absolute revelation.
12. David Attenborough’s Nature Documentaries
British naturalist filmmaker David Attenborough is awesome. His documentaries – like Life, which aired on the Discovery Channel this past spring – strike a masterful balance of the sublimely beautiful and horrifyingly violent, showing us that while nature is sometimes unpleasant, it’s nonetheless supremely real, and fundamentally true to itself – if truth is beauty, and beauty truth, there surely is no higher art than the natural (yes, I’m purposely misquoting Keats here, because I’m saying pretty much the exact opposite of what he was in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”). They allow us to experience the emotion and drama that’s a part of not just the human experience but the experience of all life, of every sentient creature. And in the end, they’re just awesome. Really, seeing an ibex effortlessly scale a sheer cliff or watching the stunningly beautiful courtship ritual of the western grebe is just a truly amazing, indescribable experience – it just makes you happy to be alive, happy to exist in this glorious, impossible, beautiful, incomprehensible world of ours.
11. Wreckorder - Fran Healy
It is absolutely criminal how little recognition Fran Healy gets. His band Travis played an arguably more influential role in creating the modern rock and indie scenes than anyone else – but no one acknowledges it. And he has written some of the best songs of the past two decades (just listen to “Funny Thing,” “Luv,” “As You Are,” “Slideshow,” or “Why Does It Always Rain On Me”) – but no one really knows them. So neither the obscurity nor the brilliance of Wreckorder, the solo debut album Healy released in October, was surprising to me. Really, from the seemingly simple but harmonically complex upbeat pop of “Buttercups” and “Anything” to the melancholic folk of “Rocking Chair” to the syncopated rhythms and brilliant vocals of “Sing Me to Sleep” (which features Neko Case), Wreckorder is just a fantastic musical experience. For me, though, the album’s best track is “As It Comes,” a song whose relatively simple harmonic and melodic structure are elevated by a fantastic backing track (featuring an absolutely perfect bass line from Paul McCartney, which creates a beautiful counterpoint with the vocals while still reinforcing the song’s rhythm) that gives this story of an elderly couple a sort of blackly humorous tone. Now I admit, I didn’t really know Fran Healy’s music too well until I saw him concert in October 2009 and again in August 2010, but honestly, the man is a musical icon, and, with music as good as this, it’s a real pity that so few people are listening.
10. Francois Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups
This film is an intensely personal story about the pain of adolescence, and its every aspect serves to underscore that central theme: the harsh black and white cinematography, the intense realism of the filmic style, Truffaut’s directorial juxtaposition of fluid motion with restrictive stasis, the detached performance of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine, the screenplay laden with elements of youthful social disaffection and sexual awakening – all emphasize the very real angst of coming of age. But honestly, that’s not why I love this film so much. What I think it really remarkable about this film is its sheer beauty. From the film’s opening shots of Paris through the windows of a moving car to its iconic final zoom to freeze-frame shot of Antoine on the beach, Truffaut’s elegant and nuanced direction transforms the child protagonist’s visceral pain into an ecstatic aesthetic experience for the viewer. And that’s really what elevates Les 400 Coups. That’s what makes it such a truly incredible, artful film. So even though Truffaut’s masterpiece turned 51 years old in 2010, its intensely personal thematic core and its exquisite formal beauty most definitely represented a significant artistic experience for me when I saw it for the first time this past year.
9. Night Train - Keane
Most people have an absolute disdain for Keane and everything they represent. I don’t. I honestly think that Keane are the best band making music today. It’s true, they are decidedly mainstream. Their lyrics are (I admit) a little trite. They haven’t got any sort of hipster credibility. They’re not even remotely alt. But their music is some of the best out there today, and their 2010 EP Night Train is the perfect example of that. “Back in Time” is a complex track that presents variations on an established theme, turning a relatively simple harmonic progression into a truly brilliant piece of music. The crisp guitar textures and masterfully performed falsetto passages of “Clear Skies” elevate the an interesting (if relatively basic) musical structure. And “Your Love” uses 80’s synths not just to flesh out the absolutely gorgeous melody but to manifest the lyrics’ sense of elegiac longing. Now, Night Train isn’t a cohesive album; it’s not meant to be. But it is a collection of some fantastic songs that represent everything I love about Keane. Because, for me, music isn’t about atmosphere or alt cred or even rhythms or lyrics or any of the things that most seem to think are the fundamental constituents of good music - it’s about structure and technique, notes and chords, melody and harmony, performance and execution. And I think Keane embodies that sort of music more completely than anybody else. They’re my favorite band. And I’m not ashamed to say it.
8. David Tennant in Hamlet
This is honestly one of the most riveting, compelling performances I have ever seen by any actor in any role. Tennant’s physical and manic performance in this Royal Shakespeare Company production (which was staged in 2008 but aired on PBS in April 2010) masterfully and captivatingly evinces Hamlet’s anger, pain, doubt, and madness. And Tennant never gets lost in the poetry – he gives even the most familiar passages an air of improvisation and reality. Really, his Hamlet is just profoundly real in a way that most Hamlets aren’t. And his thematic interpretation of Hamlet is pretty much the manifestation of the way I’ve always interpreted the character in the play’s text – as a man who desperately desires some measure of agency and wants simply to act in some meaningful way, but is constrained by his doubt and crippled by his uncertainty, even to the point of madness. Of course, there were things about this production of which I wasn’t too fond – like the security camera conceit, or the exclusion of my favorite lines from the play (“since no man, of / aught he leaves, knows what is’t / to leave betimes, let be”). But, on the whole, this is, for me, the definitive Hamlet. And experiencing it was a definite cultural highlight of 2010. I only wish I could’ve seen it performed live.
7. Anna Netrebko in La Traviata
I’ve been pretty much in love with Anna Netrebko since I first heard her 2003 debut album Opera Arias. It’s true, her technique isn’t always exactly what you’d expect from an international opera star. But her stage presence is remarkable, and her timbre is the richest, most beautiful I have ever heard from any singer. In a very real way, she represents the absolute pinnacle of what opera really is: the union of theatre and music, the artistic marriage of sight and sound, the complete aesthetic experience. And her performance as Violetta in this 2005 Salzburg Festival production of La Traviata (my favorite Verdi opera, and one of my favorite operas in general) is the synthesis of all those elements that make her such a fantastic opera singer: she owns the role of Verdi’s doomed courtesan both musically and dramatically, embodying the character’s vitality and sexiness in a way that so many sopranos simply haven’t. Take the Act I finale, for instance: Netrebko’s phrasing is nuanced and absolutely perfect; her breath control is magnificent; her acting is fantastic; and even though she doesn’t go for the coloratura passages, her vocal performance is rich and fluid and powerful and vulnerable and beautiful and, I think, utterly unparalleled. So even though this production of La Traviata is already five years old, how could experiencing the brilliant performance of my favorite opera singer in my favorite opera for the first time not be a musical highlight of 2010 for me?
6. Mt. Desolation
I’ve got to say, I don’t generally like today’s country music scene. From Keith Urban to Taylor Swift to Carrie Underwood, it all seems to me like pop just disguised as something else. What’s great about country music – real country music – is how truly real, how spontaneous, how genuine it is. Really, it’s American folk music. And that folk sensibility is something that I think has been mostly lost. So it’s absolutely fantastic (and ironic) that British band Mt. Desolation has attempted to re-embrace that fundamentally American country tradition of Bill Monroe and Hank Williams and Patsy Cline with their eponymous debut album, which was released in October 2010. Really, songs like “Departure,” “The Midnight Ghost,” and (hidden track) “Halo of Fireflies” embody that spontaneous, unpretentious country aesthetic – from the traditional melodic and harmonic structures to the wholly acoustic instrumentation to the vocal styles to the decidedly rough production values, this is real American country music. But what makes Mt. Desolation an even more remarkable album is its combination of imitation and originality, of tradition and innovation. Yes, Mt. Desolation embrace the structures and techniques of classic American country, but they bring a unique (and complex) musical sensibility to these traditional forms. That’s why their songs feel both old and new, both familiar and exciting, both carefully crafted and exhilaratingly raw. And that’s why, in spite of general feelings towards country music, Mt. Desolation was my favorite album of 2010.
5. The Photography of Robert Doisneau
Robert Doisneau was a technical genius – his photographs are some of the most brilliantly composed I’ve seen from any photographer. But, honestly, that’s not the main reason that I love his photography. For me, the true brilliance of Doisneau’s work lies in its expression of a profound love for life and the sense that, by capturing the spontaneous miracle of every instant, we can somehow grant to even the most fleeting moments a sort of artistic permanence. That, I think, is the soul of photography - the recognition of the immeasurable art and beauty of each transient moment. And we see that in “Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville,” we see that in “Paris la nuit,” we see that in “Coiffeuses au soleil,” we see that in “La pluie d’été.” Doisneau said that ”there are days when simply seeing feels like happiness itself…you feel so rich, the elation seems almost excessive and you want to share it.” And that encapsulates what I love about his work (and photography in general). And that’s why, when I first encountered his work in 2010, he pretty much instantly became my new favorite photographer.
4. Friday Night Lights
I’d never really felt too much of an inclination to watch this show before I decided to give it a try on Netflix just before Christmas. I don’t know why, I guess I though it looked banal and formulaic and essentially vacuous. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. In a lot of ways, this show reminds me of Mad Men: from its masterful writing and brilliant acting to its meticulous recreation world of small-town Texas, Friday Night Lights is a similarly immersive and moving dramatic experience for the viewer. And how can you argue with its premise? There is, I think, a certain drama to football that you can’t find in any other sport, and Friday Night Lights encapsulates that masterfully. Where this show really excels, though (and where, I think, it’s even superior to Mad Men) is in its incredible emotional richness. Really, Friday Night Lights seems to understand all the tragedy and victory, sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, hate and love of our human experience, and that’s why there’s a sort of exaggerated realism to its characters and situations, an intensely real emotional reality that makes it a profoundly emotionally rewarding experience in a way that few other shows are. So really, Friday Night Lights is not some formulaic drama or banal teen soap opera – it’s a truly great TV show, and a really fantastic dramatic and emotional experience.
3. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal
“And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” It’s from that passage from the book of Revelation that The Seventh Seal gets its title, and it’s that “silence in heaven” – the silence of God – that lies at the film’s heart. How can we put our faith in a God who refuses to show himself to us in any meaningful way in our lives? What place is there for God in an existence defined by the certainty of death? How could we possibly make sense of death and all the ugliness of the human experience without God? Really, those are the questions that this fundamentally mediaeval (when I say mediaeval, I don’t just mean in terms of its setting or characters – I mean truly mediaeval, in terms of its iconography, its dialogue, its concerns) filmic allegory seeks to address. And Bergman treats that essentially philosophical thematic core with an artistic sensibility of astounding nuance, depth, and beauty: from the high-contrast black and white cinematography, to the cryptic and multi-layered dialogue, to such carefully composed, iconic, and haunting images as the chess match between Death and Antonius Block, the flagellant procession, and the chillingly beautiful totentanz (dance of death) of the film’s final frames, every aspect of The Seventh Seal is both a philosophical component of the film’s allegory and an aesthetic element of its incredible artistry. And the scene with the milk and strawberries is, I think, one of the most exquisitely perfect scenes ever recorded on film: when Antonius Block shares with Jof and Mia a sort of communion of fresh milk and wild strawberries, it’s both an allegorical representation of the possibility of reconciling the difficulties of religious faith with the ugliest realities of the human experience and a scene of stunning complexity, delicacy, grace, and beauty. Really, I think that The Seventh Seal is the best film of all time. And though it originally came out in 1957, its timeless allegory and transcendent beauty were just as fantastic a cinematic experience for me when I first saw it in 2010 as I imagine they would’ve been 53 years ago.
2. LOST Series Finale - “The End” (Spoilers)
LOST, I think, was always about the question of whether or not all the pain and loss that the castaways experience on the island (and we as humans experience in our own lives) can ever have any sort of meaning, of whether or not our suffering can be redeemed. And “The End” didn’t answer that question with science or faith or any aspect of LOST’s vast mythology – it answered it with the assertion that human relationships, not some ineffable good, imbue suffering with lofty meaning. So, really, “The End” re-contextualized of all of LOST, reframing virtually every aspect of the show up to that point and establishing a cohesive worldview for the show in a way that no other ending could have: it gave the complex mythology a thematic purpose, representing both the culmination of not only the characters’ experiences on the island but also our own experiences with the series, and our own realization, along with the characters, that the only true sources of meaning in a strange, harsh, inscrutable world are the relationships that our experiences in that world allow us to form. And “The End” did all of that with stunning formal beauty - from the poignant recollection scenes to Jack’s heart-breaking yet uplifting death (which I think is the most poetic and beautiful death scene ever set on film), the acting, writing, direction, and music made the LOST series a finale a truly rewarding emotional and aesthetic experience. Really, it cemented LOST’s place in my mind as a work of truly great art, whose mind-boggling complexity serves to illuminate a truth that is both beautifully simple and eminently profound - as the most fundamental truths ultimately are.
If you’ve even taken a cursory glance at the rest of this blog, this one should be obvious. Community is masterfully written. It’s brilliantly acted. It’s clever, it’s warm, it’s hilariously funny. And it’s prodigiously intelligent. Really, at its core, Community is making a very serious and philosophically complex point: that there are some things that transcend reality. Our senses are fallible, our reason is limited, and we can’t truly know the world in which we find ourselves, not in any absolute way. But we can know our experiences, our relationships, and our very selves. And, Community seems to say, if we embrace those – and if we embrace the profound emotional truth that we can only find in other people, in a community – maybe we can perceive more fundamental truths, discern a more real reality, live a more meaningful existence. That, I think, is what Community is really about. And that’s why we get episodes like Contemporary American Poultry or Modern Warfare or Epidemiology or Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas - these intensely real emotional stories juxtaposed with absurdly outlandish situations manifest the idea that our internal truths are more meaningful and more real than the ‘truths’ of any external standard. And no other show on television could even approach such a complex philosophical topic, let alone express it so artfully and so hilariously. Community’s whole, though, is greater than the sum of all of its intellectual, dramatic, and aesthetic parts. With its brilliantly talented ensemble cast and writing that deftly balances character development with some pretty bizarre scenarios, effortlessly combines prodigious intellect - its culturally hyper-literate pop-culture referencing, its deft meta-commentary, its fantastically clever writing, and its thoughtful examinations of fundamental problems of the human experience - with genuine heart in a way that I have never seen before on television or, honestly, in any medium. It’s an intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic experience like no other. And that’s why I don’t just think it’s the best TV show ever – I think it’s truly great art.