Saturday, January 10, 2009

Two Cents Doesn't Go As Far As It Used To

With the ending of an old year, there always comes the inevitable plethora(a word, by the way, that should never grow old or lose its usefulness) of best-of lists, highlighting what that particular individual critic or pundit felt was the most newsworthy or awe-inspiring or can't-miss event of the year. So, with that in mind, I thought I'd throw in my two cents, for whatever its worth, though I will limit myself to just what I considered the best of the year in terms of what I saw on television and in the movies; heard on the radio; and read, when I thankfully had the chance. Starting off with movies--

Unlike most people and film critics, I was unable to see a lot of movies this past year, unfortunately, much to, I feel, my detriment and chagrin, because I love films and to hear others raving about movies that I have yet to see or probably will never see, especially around awards time, kills me. But I did manage to see a few, and thankfully, they were well worth the time and money spent, especially the one I consider to be my favorite of the year just past:

The Dark Knight--is there any more that I can say about this film that hasn't already been said, ad infinitum? Even if you took the Batman out of the equation, it made for one of the best crime dramas in quite some time. The fact that it was a Batman film just gave it an extra dimension. And needless to say, but I will say it anyway, Heath Ledger's amazing transformation as the clown prince of crime, just put the film into a whole other stratosphere--dare I say, one of the defining acting performances of our time. Taken along with the previous film, "Batman Begins"(who says it's impossible for sequels to improve on or surpass the original?), is there any doubt or question that Christopher Nolan should be the de facto director for any subsequent stories in the Batman ouevre? To quote from an icon of another comic book entity, nuff said!


Tropic Thunder--two words, Tom Cruise! Though not to be outdone, Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance as an obsessed Australian method actor who undergoes a radical, transformative skin surgery, is a standout performance, among many in his career, including one in another runner-up, I'll mention later.(Is it possible for him to qualify for an NAACP image award or would that be asking too much? Just a thought.)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall--it is possible to be sweet, thought-provoking, and raunchy at the same time. Not unlike "Knocked Up", and to a certain extent, "Superbad", before it, we were treated to three-dimensional characters who you could actually care about in realistically funny and touching situations.

WALL-E--This film just took animation to a whole nother level. I would like to rewatch this film, because I wasn't able to give it my fullest attention, but I was absolutely amazed by the lifelike animation and the sweet story between two very different robots. It also showed that you can speak volumes in your film without saying a word of dialogue--there are certainly some live-action films I've seen which could take a note or two from this film in that regard.

Kung-Fu Panda and Bolt--Two more animated films, which like the live-action "Tropic Thunder", and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall", made me laugh harder than I've ever laughed in the movies in a long time. And the fact that they were animated says a lot, because too often, animated films are made to be too cutesy and are geared towards kids, without taking into account the adults who are inevitably going to be, and have to be, in the audience. And I can never say enough about an animated film that respects my intelligence while also tickling my funny bone--also an attribute that can be applied to the film, "WALL-E".

Miracle At St. Anna--This was an overlooked film by a lot of people and critics, and like a lot of Spike Lee's films, a very ambitious one, that seeks to provoke thought, as well as show a side of African-Americans we don't see in films. Especially in regards to those who fought in what's considered by American history(or at least Tom Brokaw), "the great war". There was a lot going on in this film, some of which I would put up against any foreign film; some of which reminded me of the scenes in Sicily depicted in "The Godfather"; a few things that may or not have worked(no film is perfect), but you can never accuse Spike of not at least trying to tell a good story, certainly one that needs to be told.

Milk--A lot of praise has been given towards this film and it's made a lot of best-of lists. I wouldn't say, personally, that it's one of the best films I've seen, though I wasn't disappointed in it and certainly not in the story it was trying to tell, of a little-known figure in our nation's history, one which, especially given the time we're living in, more people should expose themselves to. I will say, however, that the film, without question, is anchored by yet another transformative performance by an actor and that actor is Sean Penn, who as far as I can tell, and judging by the accolades he's been given thus far, I'm not alone in saying this, becomes the man he is honoring with said portrayal, San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk, the first gay man ever elected to public office. And if, nothing else, it's a reason to see this film.

Iron Man--Whereas "The Dark Knight" was dark and brooding, this movie was just fun and cool. And it certainly made a difference that it starred the aforementioned Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role. I look forward to more outings of the oh-so metallic one(though I think the studio is making a huge mistake in recasting Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle--no disrespect!)

Moving on to TV:

Dexter--Who knew a series about a serial killer who kills for good would be, in my opinion, one of the best shows ever put on television? This show just gets better and better with each episode. It's like watching a mini-movie every week, one which you don't want to end, and for which, it's hard to muster the patience for each subsequent episode. This is a show, which I don't think gets enough accolades, like say, a show like "The Sopranos", and that's a shame, because I feel, the writing is some of the best there is--featuring some of the best characterization there is, and not just including its main lead, played brilliantly by Michael C. Hall. An extra special dimension was added this past season by the introduction of a character, played by the always excellent and dependable Jimmy Smits. If you have not caught this show, which is an excellent reason to subscribe to Showtime, you are missing out on what is truly "must-see TV".

The series finale of The Shield--Is it possible for a cop show to become almost Shakespearean in its telling? After watching the nearly two hour end of yet another groundbreaking police drama, I would answer with an emphatic yes. This episode, more than any other, featured some of the best writing and acting I've ever seen on television. Heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, edge-of-your-seat drama, with resolutions for each character that actually made sense and gave you a sense of closure, unlike some other series finales(at least one in particular, which shall go nameless here). Definitely one that should not only be remembered, but commended with full honors come Emmy time later this year.

True Blood--The title says it all. I wish there was as much furor over this particular vampire saga as there is for that other one(come on, do I really have to tell you which one?). Creator Alan Ball has added another winner to his already impressive resume, which includes his last HBO series, "Six Feet Under", and his Oscar-winning film, "American Beauty", one of my favorite movies. And as with both of those projects, we are treated to irrepressible human (and vampire, of course) characters who stick in the mind like some of the clothes that stick to the body because of the Louisiana humidity, which is the setting for this ongoing tale of vampires trying to assimilate into mainstream society. Kudos to an excellent cast, headed by the lovely Anna Paquin; but my high praise is reserved especially for newcomer Rutina Wesley as the irascible and very outspoken Tara--definitely one of my favorite characters from the past year.

Runners-up(and this, by the way, isn't to diminish their quality or my appreciation of these shows--there is no order here.):

30 Rock
The Office
Boston Legal(which also ended its series run in fine fashion--allowing us to say goodbye to one of the best onscreen TV couples in our time, Denny Crane and Alan Shore, wonderfully played by William Shatner and James Spader, respectively).
American Idol(thank God for David Cook giving this show some much needed fresh air!)
So You Think You Can Dance(hands down, the best dance show on the air right now, especially based on who the competition was and who actually won!)

And now we move to music, which I will keep brief, because as with movies, I missed out on a lot of album releases last year, but because of public radio(thank you, KCRW!), I was exposed to some really good music. I'll just list here two standout songs in my mind:

Another Way To Die by Alicia Keys and Jack White--My official kickass song of the year. It's the theme song from the latest James Bond release, "Quantum Of Solace", starring Daniel Craig(which, I'm sorry to say, is one of the films I missed out on from last year). I fell in love with this song well before the movie came out(again, thank you, KCRW!) and have it as my ringback tone for those who call me on my cell phone. This song just rocks and it certainly doesn't hurt to have the likes of Jack White, from the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, and the always amazing Alicia Keys. Again, nuff said!

And my favorite song of 2008:

Chasing Pavements by Adele--There must be something in the water over in Britain, at least as it pertains to women, because it's produced some wonderful female artists in the past few years--from Joss Stone to Amy Winehouse(yes, I said it! In spite of her troubles, she can still carry a tune. Ever heard of Billie Holliday or Etta James?!)to Duffy(who also had a great hit last year with the song, "Mercy"). And now Adele, who should well be on her way, at her young age, to be a major force in the music world. This song was just infectious from beginning to end and reminiscent of early 60's R&B, which is always a plus in my book, if it's pulled off well. And Adele certainly pulls it off well on this song--I can't wait to hear the rest of the album, which is simply titled, "19", for the age she was when this album was produced, as well as her subsequent work in the years to come.

And lastly, on to books:

Most of the books that I read last year were not released in the previous year, but I will list here two that stand out in mind as some of the best reading I've ever enjoyed this or any other year--

Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants by Kareem Abdul Jabbar--yes, that Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Aside from his very impressive record as an NBA Hall of Famer, he is also widely recognized as a writer and historian, particularly of the African-American experience. Both roles are brought to bear in this book, which he uses to chronicle the Harlem Renaissance of the 20's and 30's, and the many prominent members that came up out of that artistic and social explosion, as well as its effect on his life and career. Very readable and very necessary, for a period in our nation's history that should not be overlooked by any means.

Incognegro by Mat Johnson--Graphic novels seem to be the wave of the future or at least should be, especially in terms of literature. They certainly are when it comes to the movies, as evidenced by recent films like the upcoming "Watchmen", and "American Splendor", from a few years ago. This is one that should be added to that illustrious list and hopefully soon. As with the Jabbar book, it depicts, in a fictional, yet no less dramatic or poignant way, a chapter in our nation's history that should not be forgotten or brushed aside or swept under the rug--the epidemic of lynchings that were commonplace throughout much of the South during the latter part of the slavery era on past the turn of the century and well into, as recently as the 60's. It also deals with the very real phenomenon of those in the African-American community who accomplished what is called "passing", which many of those of the lighter persuasion partook of, some of whom for the benefit of the race in order to bring to light some of the horrors of said lynchings and other atrocities that were being perpetuated on blacks of this time. The central story of this novel revolves around such an individual, who as a reporter, is able to go undercover(incognegro, if you will, hence the title), in order to record the exploits of his findings. It is very possible to be swept away and into a story depicted in this graphic art form, especially with the benefit of brilliant illustration, which is why comics are still with us, and for that reason alone, should be, in my opinion, considered no less a part of literature than any traditional novel. Hopefully, you'll get to check this one out, especially if, and I think it's a strong possibility, this one gets picked from the pile of destined-to-be produced films.

And that, as they say, is a wrap. Here's hoping 2009 produces more quality and noteworthy artistic expressions, especially now with an artistic minded president taking up residence in the White House. If you need reminding, Marvel has already celebrated this fact in one of their recent issues of "The Amazing Spiderman", with a cover story featuring our president-elect. I also just saw recently Will-I-Am's latest video of his song, "It's A Brand New Day", which celebrates the recent victory. I'm hoping, at the risk of tooting my own horn, that my poem, "Barack Means Blessed", gets some momentum in the ether as well. On that note, nuff said!!

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