2012 Highlights

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2012 Highlights

2012 Highlights

As usual, these are highlights of items new to me in 2012, not necessarily new in 2012.

Movies/TV

Movies and TV were somewhat limited for me in 2012 with being abroad and traveling most of the summer. There were a few standouts though. Additional notes on movies and shows are here, some with links to extended reviews.

Top three most notable movies and shows for me in 2012, no particular order:

  • Everything Must Go. Will Ferrell turns in a great performance that would be suprising if I at all bought into the conventional view that great comedy is somehow lighter or easier acting than drama. I'm not Ferrell's biggest fan, his movies are very inconsistent and often don't hit their potential, but this is a really touching drama with a lot of depth to it.
  • The Hunter. The NetFlix summary makes this sound like the most schlocky B-grade sci-fi imaginable, but it's actually a really quiet, excellent drama featuring Willem Dafoe. It has a fairly novel premise and a fascinating, exotic setting for American audiences. Several plot line components aren't quite hit strong enough, there are a couple connections that are easy to miss. However, it's a great, tight little view on the couple of characters in its spotlight of a somewhat quixotic mercenary coming to grips with what he does and his attachment, or lack thereof, to the world.
  • Luther. Series 1, 2. Many people would probably write this off as a standard police procedural that's just a bit too weird to be comfortably watchable. But I think it's excellent if you accept some of its world logic, essentially viewing Luther as a superhero. Certainly Idris Elba brings a lot of appeal to the titular role, and many of the supporting characters like Alice are great as well. Some of the primary themes, like police ethics, are a bit cliche, but it has a lot going for it. There's also some really great imagery throughout the series, and a stupendous soundtrack. I have a long review here.

Honorable Mentions

The following were also good or really really good:

  • Skyfall. A few misteps, but undoubtedly a great movie with a lot of great themes about England, empire, aging, and the Bond franchise. My longer review discusses a lot more.
  • The Dark Knight Rises. The latest Batman trilogy inverts the convention wisdom about the quality ordering of trilogies. Though less compelling than the middle episode, the finale has a lot of really great reflection on superheroes and aging.
  • Sherlock. Series 1 and 2. Amazing adaptation of the classic stories to the modern era.
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes. James Franco remains super annoying, but is compensated by Andy Serkis' excellent motion capture acting. I assumed this would be terrible, but it's actually a really good prequel and has a lot of good sci-fi themes around animal uplifts.
  • The King's Speech. Excellent drama, with a lot of good but often overlooked historical context surrounding an in-depth look at a couple characters.
  • Freaks and Geeks. Great little TV show, almost certainly the best high school sitcom that I've seen. Longer review.
  • The Grey. I'm not totally sure how this will hold up over time, but I actually think it was a shockingly good movie with a fair amount of depth to it amongst the ridiculousness.
  • Special. This is definitely not for everybody, it's uncomfortable in theme, depressing in tone, and low-budget in execution, but I thought it was really good and a novel spin on superhero and superhuman sci-fi.
  • Coriolanus. Takes a lot of attention to watch, or possibly multiple viewings, but is really good for Shakespeare fans.
  • Today's Special. A really good, non-standard, growing-of-age romantic comedy with some nice ethnic diversity.
  • Take Me Home. A quiet, understated romantic comedy, with some great music.
  • Adventureland. Substantially better growing-of-age movie than most.
  • My Boys. A light but good sitcom. Caitlin and I had a really good time watching together.

Books

In contrast, being away helped make 2012 a great year for consuming a fair amount of fiction. Notes below are from my initial reading. Additional thoughts on other works are here.

Top highlights for fiction new to me this year:

  • Heart of Darkness. Conrad. This is probably one of the best novels I have read, and its place in the English canon is well deserved. I don't agree with the Achebe line of criticism. Even setting aside the question of Conrad's personal beliefs, which don't necessarily accord with Achebe's assesment, I think it's hard to argue that the book is anything but negative on the European, colonialist outlook. It is true that you could read and celebrate the brutality and dehumanization of the Africans herein, but to do that you would have to overlook a lot of the text. Obviously not at all coincidentally, it would be similar to but more willfully ignorant than people taking Apocalypse Now as a pro-war movie. On that note, I strongly look forward to the movie or book that, much like Coppola did for Vietnam, presents an explicit adaptation of this book to American brutality, exploitation, and imperialism in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think this book should be taught in more high schools so that more people are exposed to its commentary on those kinds of affronts.
  • Starfish. Watts. This is a brilliant, captivating, beautiful novel, though dark and uncomfortable to read at times. There's nothing particularly explicit in here, but almost every character is a lifelong victim of sexual or physical abuse. Many of the themes and much of the plot revolve around those. A lot of the novel's appeal indirectly comes from that though. The characters individually and collectively act different. This is not a team of super friends who band together to save the world. Nor is it a plucky group of misfits that just needed another chance. These are dysfunctional people that operate in a completely different fashion. They all stand out from most sci-fi characters. The world is also riveting, though I admit to a particular appeal for deep sea settings. I think the interplay of these broken characters with that world is ultimately what sells the book. Watching them adapt and adopt, then in many cases finally fully embrace is fascinating. It's captured well enough to be beautiful, the lights and darkness swirling and dancing about the sea floor. All of this is set with just enough sci-talk to be reasonable and textured, and the surface plot is good. Finally, though the series continues, it does so weakly and ends here at a good point; Starfish fully stands on its own and the sequels actually only largely detract. Another of Watts' novels, Blindsight, has really stood the test of time for me. I originally thought it good but not great, but some of the closing imagery has really stuck with me. I think this is possibly even a superior book, with deeper and longer imagery. Notably, like all of Watts' novels to date, it is available on his website in its entirety.

Honorable Mentions

Similarly very good writings, in no particular order:

  • Embassytown. Miéville. Excellent, very original novel. Some of it's hard to really really wrap your mind around because it's so metaphysical, but the book moves well enough to not stall on those points. It does a good job of getting at a truly alien experience. Most appropriately for this particular tale, Miéville also shows a great way with language, employing both uncommon but standard words that make the text sparkle, and whole new constructions that make clear the gulf in experience between our time and the text's.
  • Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1--5). Howey. This is a really good novel. The world, essentially set entirely inside a post-apocalyptic mega-bomb shelter, feels relatable and familiar to us from both fiction and reality, but has a fair amount of novel spin and elaboration on it. It has a strong mystery to it that is revealed well. Characters are not particularly nuanced, especially beyond Wool 2, but engaging enough. Notably though, it opens strongly on the character front with several almost elderly characters, an uncommon demographic, especially in scifi. A number of important and bit roles are also filled by women with technical or political power. Overall a highly recommended read. It also highlights well the rapid eclipse of professional publishing; there are fewer typos and typesetting problems (none? I literally saw nothing except an extra space at one point...) and tighter grammar and editing than any "pro" published book I've read recently, print or otherwise.
  • Anno Dracula. Newman. This is a great Victorian sci-fi, horror, fantasy, crime mashup. It skirts the edge of being overweighted by its references, but keeps sailing along. A few plot points are left a bit vague and the ending chapter is just a touch weak, but otherwise this is a great story with some great characters. Great touches abound, like why Sherlock Holmes isn't around to help fight the Ripper or Dracula. The two main characters are both likable and complex enough. Bonus points for a strong female protagonist. I am a little pessimistic that the followups can meep itup, but also look forward to them.
  • Neverwhere. Gaiman. I cannot recall having previously heard of this novella; I think it has been far overshadowed by American Gods among Gaiman's novels. That is a shame as it is excellent. A fast reading adventure fantasy with a good dose of real life London thrown in for good measure. As usual, Gaiman's worldbuilding and idiosyncratic characters are wondrous. I will have to check out the miniseries to which this is a companion. For a very similar premise and read, I recommend Brennan's A Star Shall Fall.
  • Kraken. Miéville. Awesome modern day magical cult London with some marine biology thrown in! I guess this is New Weird? This is a somewhat light toned adventure through the London we all wish it was (maybe is?), with powerful ley lines, magicians, and true religions on all sides. Lots of great characters and a good, non-predictable plot. Highly recommended to fans of Gaiman and such.
  • Old Man's War. Scalzi. This is a really good novel. It reads, I think by intention, an awful awful lot like Heinlein's Starship Troopers, updated a bit for more modern tech and with less, though still quite a bit, overt political discourse. It also has a good bit of Haldeman's Forever War, again by design. The philosophy kind of falls between them, more optimistic and less cynical than Haldeman, more cynical than Heinlein. Interestingly, I think a lot of this is determined by at what percentage in the book each presents their equivalent of the Skinnies. Great read for people who liked either of those novels at all.
  • The Dig. Siemsen. This is a surprisingly good novel. The modern day characters are a bit flat and predictable, but interesting enough. Importantly, they have just enough plot surrounding them to keep those sections alive. The pre-history component though is really well done. The world is revealed slowly and mysteriously, bringing you in. The two main characters are actually great, roundly conceived and at several points take actions warranting real thought about them. The pre-history ending is also fantastic. Definite page turner.
  • Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2011. Collection. Almost all of these short stories are very good. Several are particularly excellent, either for concept such as the opener about predestination, entertainment such as the '30s noir+robots story, or themes such as Turtledove's Shtetl Days. Highly recommended.

Music

Top albums in no particular order:

  • Nero: Welcome Reality (dance/dubstep). I can't say enough about this album, almost every song on it is super solid. The thematic concept also manages to come through really well. Despite the very limited lyrics, there's a great story being told across the tracks if you apply a little sci-fi imagination. Reaching Out and Crush on You are incredible, with several other tracks close behind.
  • Chamber Orchestra of London, Alfie Boe, Mary Jess: Downton Abbey (classical). This whole album is really good, but the vocal version of the Downton Abbey theme song, Did I Make the Most of Loving You, is really beautifully sad and urgent.
  • Piano Tribute Players: Piano Tribute to Skrillex (piano). This is definitely not everybody's cup of tea, but I find it darkly awesome. Combined with some of the other Piano Tribute Players singles below, I've frequently left this to replay for extended periods of time.

Top singles grouped by genre and very roughly ordered within, best at the top of each:

  • Piano Tribute Players: Empire State of Mind, Dirt Road Anthem, Born This Way, Radioactive (piano).
  • Cold Specks: Blank Maps. (alt rock). This was and might still be a free download on Amazon that I grabbed on the whim, but it's an incredible song that's gotten a ton of play on tjradio. Holland is also really good. I super highly recommend this track.
  • Sia: Breath Me (alt rock). A quiet, depressed song, used extremely well in Luther.
  • Angus & Julia Stone: I'm Not Yours and The Devil's Tears (alt rock). These are both excellent songs. Down the Way on the same album is also good.
  • Battleme: Hey Hey, My My (alt rock). This is an absolutely beautiful cover, bringing a super quiet, folk rock sensibility to the classic. It's employed amazingly well at the end of Season 3 of Sons of Anarchy.
  • Of Monsters and Men: Dirty Paws and Mountain Sound (alt prock). The former esecially is pretty offbeat in the lyrics, and both of these are great musically.
  • The New Pornographers: Hey, Snow White (alt rock). Surprisingly affecting given the minimal, repetitive lyrics. This is used in probably the only really emotional moment of the entire Burn Notice series.
  • The Black Keys: Little Black Submarines. (alt rock). Great rocker with a really nice quiet opening hook that pulled me in.
  • Jack White: Love Interruption (alt rock).
  • Gotye: Somebody That I Used to Know (alt rock).
  • Randsburg: Eighteen and Sweet Samantha (folk rock). These are both very energetic and great, though somewhat offensive. Carolina Breathes Easy is quieter but also good.
  • Flo Rida: Good Feeling (pop hip hop). Still getting a ton of radio play, this is a really nice song to listen to in the bright sunshine.
  • Rihanna: Where Have You Been and We Found Love (pop).
  • Drake: Take Care (hip hop pop).

Honorable mention singles:

  • Citizen Cope: Healing Hands and Bullet and a Target (alt rock).
  • Band of Horses: The Funeral (alt rock). Haunted, quiet.
  • Ed Sheeran: Small Bump (easy listening alt rock).
  • Bootstraps: Road Noise (alt rock).
  • Gregory Alan Isakov: The Stable Song, Big Black Car, 3 A.M. (folk).
  • Jonae': Traffik and The Beast (folk).
  • Kelly Clarkson: Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You) (pop).
  • Scooter: Ti Sento (dance & DJ). This is one of my new favorite raceday-opening tracks.
  • Kaskade: Don't Stop Dancing (trance dance).
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