Faves, 2009

A decade's end brings on excesses of listmaking and nostalgia for the present and recent past. I am not very tempted to join in this aughts-defining frenzy, which gives unnecessary weight to an arbitrary period of time (though I concede I have a hard time understanding the past without carving it up into arbitrary periods of time), assumes that the present and past can be judged together (like it makes sense that 2000 and 2009 can be evaluated comparatively right now at the end of 2009), and seems with rare exceptions to confirm present prevailing wisdom and taste rather than to challenge it. So we hear now that this was the decade of cable dramas and viral videos, Pixar and reality TV, J.J. Abrams and Beyoncé, as if we didn't know that already! And yet I have, despite my intentions to avoid them, been reading these lists pretty avidly. Some friends of the blog have been making their own, or aggregating those of others (like Jonathan, Jason, Amanda, Chris), and I admire the long view and comprehensive attention these tasks require.

I have been collecting annual faves for a few years now on this blog, and the above reservations on the occasion of the end of the decade give me a bit of pause this time. But I am going ahead partly because I've been saving up these items to share with you and don't want my effort wasted, and partly because I'm a fan of lists, both the making of and the looking at, in spite of what I see as their ideological functions. I don't propose these are the best or most important of anything, they're just the things I like the most. I didn't see very many new movies and I read hardly any new books this year, so I hope you won't think I've lost interest in these beloved old media. (Many of my favorite movies of 2008 are ones I saw in the first few months of 2009 as they made it to the theaters in my town, or were released on video, and I'm expecting something similar to happen again this time.) I also haven't been discovering much new music, and what I have liked I don't think of as my favorite of anything, though I do really admire Taylor Swift's songwriting and vocals, and Lady Gaga's videos amuse and even fascinate me. Finally, I don't offer myself as a critic who has seen everything and picked the best of it all -- I'm glad that's not my job!

As in years past, these are offered in no particular order. (Previously: faves 2007, faves 2008.)


Media scholar blogs: the field has developed to the
point that there are a good number of well-written and topical blogs,
and it's great to have them. These are some I read regularly and
always look forward to: Just TV, The Extratextuals, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, The Chutry Experiment, Judgmental Observer, Media Industries (and other stuff), Ludic Despair, News for TV Majors, Antenna, Category D, and Flim Studies for Free. Of course, Confessions of an Aca/Fan and Observations on Film Art are monumental, models for scholarly blogging in the humanities.

The White House photostream on flickr (also The Awl's annotations thereon -- for that matter, The Awl is a big fave too.) It's hard to take a photo of Obama that doesn't tell a compelling story. I especially like the casual, downtime images of the Pres as an extraordinary ordinary guy, like this shot of the Obamas and guests wearing 3D glasses while watching a commercial during the Super Bowl, and this one of the Obamas, accompanied by a Stormtrooper and a Chewbacca, greeting trick-or-treating children on the North Portico steps.

Fan Secrets, a tumblr site of fan-submitted images, à la Post Secret, confessing secret shippings and OTPs (one true pairings).

Greeting Card Emergency, a series of videos which make me appreciate the literary and visual art of the greeting card.

My Parents Were Awesome, another community-driven tumblr of snapshots of the parents of generation Y back before having children and advancing age drained them of cool. (Also see Awkward Family Photos.)

Fuck Yeah tumblr sites like Fuck Yeah Anne Hathaway, Fuck Yeah Dresses, Fuck Yeah SNL, Fuck Yeah Polar Bears, you get the idea. Kind of random.

Shit My Dad Says, the most genius use of Twitter yet. Fake AP Stylebook is a runner up.

Know Your Meme, e.g., episodes on Auto-Tune and Imma Let You Finish ("Imma Let You Finish," the phrase/meme as recycled into jokes is another fave, e.g., the tweet from @fmanjoo "Yo Barack, I'm really happy for you and imma let you finish, but Morgan Tsvangirai was one of the most peaceful dudes ever.")

Old Jews Telling Jokes, an online video series preserving a dying art. (Do you are anyone you know regularly tell jokes at parties, over dinner, etc.? Why has this essential form of conversation come to seem hokey, passé?)

This Recording, especially their Mad Men recaps. I would like to blog more like TR, with the same approach of combining images, links, brief observations in a knowledgeable and sophisticated but not pretentious tone, and music.

Of course Mad Men is still among my very favorites -- it's by far my favorite TV show of the moment -- and The Footnotes of Mad Men are pretty good too. I didn't think season 3 had any bad episodes, and I enjoy the ones that are slow-paced, where character relationships are set up for future scenes weeks or months away. I wasn't sure where the British ad agency storyline was going, but it resolved masterfully in the finale. "My Old Kentucky Home," an episode with several song or dance scenes including a devastating blackface number, was particularly brilliant, and "Guy Walks Into an Ad Agency" had the most shocking and darkly comical scene of the series so far captured in the Mad Men Animated GIF for the ages). I could list favorite moments forever, but a few more in addition to those above: Sal singing the Ann-Margaret number, the Maypole dance, the scene where Betty confronts Don about his secret, Peggy smoking pot, any scene with Sally, and anytime Don cooks or prepares drinks.

Letters of Note, a blog of old snail mail that makes me wish I wrote and received more personal correspondence the old-fashioned way, with ink and paper.

The trailer for A Serious Man, with its brilliant rhythmic soundtrack and editing. Haven't seen the movie yet, but at least I can admire the trailer. I'm confident that if I had seen it, it would be a big fave. (Honorable mentions of tantalizing trailers for movies I haven't yet seen, but really need to see very badly -- trailers that make me want to see them all the more: Inglorious Basterds, Where the Wild Things Are.)

30 Rock, a show some people seem to think has declined in quality, which I totally fail to understand. I fall over from laughing during every episode, and the cleverness of the dialogue and situations is undiminished over the seasons. The second-funniest comedy on the air.

Curb Your Enthusiasm, the funniest show on the air (very subjective, I know -- I mean the one that makes me laugh the most), which continued mining the most outrageous human foibles for comedy. What startles me most about Curb is how unlikable Larry is, and yet how much sympathy he garners. The Seinfeld reunion arc was very well executed -- it worked both as a Seinfeld revival, reminding us of how much we miss its sensibility and characters, and as an arc for Larry and Cheryl.

Glee, the most exciting new show of the year. I really hope it becomes a huge hit when it gets American Idol's lead-in in the spring. It does have some fairly well documented flaws (musical overproduction, clunky situations that take too long to play out), but I gladly overlook them because the musical comedy pleasures are so intense and rewarding. And Rachel, Mr. Schu, and Emma have fast become some of my dearest TV friends.

Modern Family, which I look forward to for its satirical take on contemporary bourgeois roles and mores, and in spite of the smug mockumentary conceit and style, which is my least favorite thing in contemporary TV comedy.

American Idol, which served up an electrifying golden-voiced gay glam rockstar god in Adam Lambert. I don't like the music on Idol very much, and to me its appeal is much more in the mishmash of variety show entertainment, criticism, and delicious schlock aesthetics, but the biggest reason to watch is to see nobodies transformed into stars by us, the audience.

Up, another enchanting Pixar
masterpiece. I also liked Coraline a lot.

(500) Days of Summer, which some people seem to have disliked on account of its quirky, cute sensibility and its calculated appeal to hipsters and cool kids. Which is like hating a horror film for trying to frighten you! I thought it had a brilliant script and sweet performances by a charming, attractive cast. I even liked the parentheses and the scene where he draws on her arm. My second-favorite summer comedy was The Hangover (and we still need to see Brüno).

I Love You, Man, the best film Judd Apatow never made and the dictionary definition of bromance, a hot cultural trend.

The Beatles Rock Band, which we have not played through entirely, but which is a fascinating blend of commercial promotion, documentary narrative, game, and musical performance. I'm no connoisseur of video games, but the visual design of this one, blending animation and photography, strikes me as pretty inspired. I'm also a fan of Rock Band/Guitar Hero vids (and videos of people playing video games more generally). Individually they don't make such a big impression but when you watch an hour or two of them, the effect adds up. E.g., here is one of a guy playing the drums in "The End" by The Beatles. Such casual perfection, at once show-offy and totally ordinary.

Pre-Makes, a form of remix video culture that knows of a cinema that existed before George Lucas.

The one-sheet poster for The Girlfriend Experience with its mysterious out-of-focus and the surface play of colors and shapes suggesting both voyeurism and formalism. (I did find the film interesting, but not enough to call it a fave. I really didn't buy the premise of rich guys paying Sasha Grey to tell her about their idiotic problems.)

Hipster Runoff, a hilarious example of sociological culture criticism by Carles, a well-honed persona of fauxthenticity.

Maira Kalman's NYT blog And the Pursuit of Happiness, mixing illustration, handwritten lettering, prose, and photography in a way I have seen on no other blog -- the handmade quality is what I admire most -- and inspiring a welcome liberal patriotism. (I also like Chris Neimann's NYT blog.)

Phineas and Ferb, an animated show on Disney Channel aimed at older preschoolers and tweens, with original character design (all of the heads are based on shapes -- Candace is a circle, Phineas is a triangle, Ferb is a rectangle), outrageously convoluted, Simpsons-esque plotting and references, and brilliant original songs. In the tradition of Sesame Street, a show that tries to offer something for the parents as well as for the kids. Check out this "Squirrels in my Pants" clip, a big fave in our house (this is a bit of a cheat since the episode is from 2008).

And last but not least, my iPod touch, which was not new this year but which I learned to use in new ways, with new apps (news, games, TweetDeck, and so on) and new habits of reading and consuming many forms of media. Since having a baby on November 20th we have been up at all hours and even during daylight have been reduced to one-handed navigation of the world. Being able to read the morning news at 3:00 am without turning on a light, paging around with only a single thumb while cradling the baby in my other arm, is pretty nice. So is keeping tabs on friends by mobile Twitter and Facebook. And playing games, which Leo likes as much as anyone else in the household. I'm not generally the kind of dude to go nuts for gadgets, but this one is really, as they say, life-changing. (More on the beauty of one-handed computing and the media habits of new parents is at Kottke.org and more on the virtues of an iPod as a nighttime e-reader is at this highly recommended New Yorker article about the Kindle by Nicholson Baker, which just might be my favorite piece of prose I read all year -- I also liked everything I read in the NYer by Ariel Levy, like this Nora Ephron profile.)