Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The Year That Was

Well, 2010 is about over. Like most bloggers, I see this as a superb time to stop reflect on the year gone by. I'm not a gap toothed late night host though, and I can't rattle off a bunch of top 10 lists. Instead, I'll list some significant events, from my point of view, within the realms of movies, TV, books, and news. I have absolutely no doubt that experts, critics, and a good portion of the public, will disagree with some of the following inclusions and opinions. That's OK. This is simply how I saw 2010.

I saw my share of movies in theatres this year. Yet, out of everything I saw, I only gave 5 stars to two new releases. And before you ask, no I didn't see either animated feature, being hailed as contenders for movie of the year. As much as I like Steve Carell & Tom Hanks, I simply couldn't bring myself to shell out $9.50, or more, for a cartoon. Nor, could I get excited enough to pay to watch the remake of a John Wayne classic, or a movie chronicling the founding of Facebook. It's not that I thought they'd be bad movies, I simply didn't care. Rooster Cogburn will always be John Wayne to me, and as much as I use Facebook, I'm not interested in its nuts and bolts.

My first 5 star pick is The American. If you've ever seen Get Carter with Michael Caine, this is the same kind of quiet tough guy movie. George Clooney plays Jack, an assassin, who's seeking a respite from violence in a small Italian country town. When his vacation's cut short by an assignment, he struggles to keep his newly found romantic interest, played by Violante Placido, away from the brutality of his profession.

We never learn if Jack's working for our side, or not. Yet, thanks to his relationship with the local priest, we see that he believes his role as a killer allows him to make a positive contribution to the world, even though the acts themselves are evil. This duality defines the character, and makes for a very entertaining film.

Then we have my other 5 star pick, Black Swan. Natalie Portman deserves an Academy Award for her powerful portrayal of Nina Sayers, a dancer, who becomes obsessed with the lead role in Swan Lake. The way they blurred the line between reality and her psychotic delusions was brilliant. Complicating matters, was the jealous madness of Nina's mother, played by Barbara Hershey. The mother's fits made Nina seem almost normal by comparison. Once the mother is off the screen, the audience is lulled into relaxing, only to JUMP at just the right moment of surprise.

On an interesting note, while the story was about dance, and embraced major sexual themes, feet were never shown in an erotic, or sexy, way. They were always shown to be stiff aching cracking tools of the trade. Not being privy to the inner workings of director Darren Aronofsky's mind, I can't be sure, but I'd wager he chose to depict feet as he did in order to add to the dark ambiance of the movie.

While I couldn't give it 5 stars, what may very well be Michael Douglas' farewell performance definitely deserves a nod here. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a decent sequel to its 1987 counterpart, but isn't quite as focused as the original. There was too much emphasis on trying to redeem Gordon Gekko, the same way Terminator 2 brought the T-500 back as a hero. However, they did a great job in explaining what caused the current fiscal crisis.

I remember a guest on Fresh Air describing the middle of the night board meeting which resulted in the sale of Bear Stearns for pennies on the dollar. Even though the bank's name was different in the movie, it was crystal clear that they were portraying the same events the radio guest had reported on in real life. It's this believable retelling of recent history which earns the film 4 out of 5 stars from me.

Inception is the mind bending tale of corporate espionage performed within the dreamscape of the target. The film featured excellent special effects, making it The Matrix of 2010. The fun of the film comes in trying to keep track of a dream within a dream within a dream and trying to remember which level of dreaming you're watching. 4 out of 5 stars.

Other movies of note include The A-Team and The Expendables. Neither of these will ever be nominated for awards, and rightly so. However, they're both fun good vs. evil combat pictures, which feature high speed car chases, generous doses of gun use, and explosive action scenes. The end results of these movies are never in question; we know from the moment we buy our tickets that the good guys will win. However, the movies deliver the promised two hours of pyrotechnic thrills, which is the point.

I'm a TV junkie, denying such would be pointless. 2010 seemed somewhat uneventful in the TV realm though, unless you got wrapped up in the late night saga. Frankly, I think too much was made of the Conan vs. Leno conflict, and the whole debacle became a bad joke. In other news, we saw the cancellation of the long running Law & Order. Chuck jumped the shark when the CIA bought the Buy More. Plus, new shows such as Chase, Undercovers, and The Event (NBC's answer to LOST) proved to be mediocre at best.

Arguably the biggest TV milestone this year was the finale of LOST. On September 22, 2004, Oceanic flight 815 crashed on a mysterious island. Since then, die hard fans have followed the metaphysical adventures of the plane’s LOST survivors. With a heavy dose of foreshadowing, the story took viewers on a wild ride through time, and even into the afterlife itself. Fans were promised an ending which would answer all their questions. The writers of the show definitely broke that promise. The ending was an exciting tale of heroes over villains. However, a number of questions still remain annoyingly unanswered.

The biggest let down of the year was NBC's outlandishly bad Outlaw. Forget the fact that a bed hopping casino dwelling gambler could never have passed the vetting process and been appointed to the Supreme Court to begin with. The real problem with the show was its rushed pace. In the first 10 minutes, we saw his honor, Jimmy Smits, being presented with a capitol case, wrestling with it, ruling, and resigning. Those 10 minutes, could’ve easily been an entire episode, in which he wrestled with the idea of truth vs. procedure, argued with the other justices, and explored the issue. The time could’ve been used to really create the character and make the audience think. However, they had to gloss over that part to make time for the sexy P.I. to sexually tease the ultra-conservative law clerk.

If this year had a TV high point, it was unquestionably the premiere of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name, this show follows the exploits of Atlantic City's Treasurer, Nucky Thompson, a fictional version of Enoch Johnson, during prohibition. Even though Thompson is a political boss, bootlegger, and racketeer, Buscemi gives him a human side. We see a man who wants to do good, but who's willing to employ any means to stay in power and line his pockets. In contrast to the lead character, Michael Shannon plays a Bible driven federal agent who's willing to use similar methods in order to do what he sees as God's work, even at the expense of his and his wife's happiness.

People have compared this series to The Sopranos for obvious reasons. In my mind, the key difference between the series lies in the attitudes of the leading ladies. Carmela Soprano, Edie Falco, was content to live in denial of her husband's criminal dealings, as long as money was coming in. On the other hand, Margaret Schroeder, Kelly MacDonald, finds herself drawn to Nucky, partly out of a single mother's need for financial security, but she constantly wants to know what kind of enterprises Nucky's involved in. Her penchant for nosiness, and attempts at investigation, have created some dramatically tense moments. Viewers don't want her to get caught rifling through Nucky's desk, but they don't want Nucky to get nailed either.

This is perhaps the most subjective category. With movies & TV shows, even if one doesn't care for the subject matter, the person can still acknowledge the quality of the acting, effects, set design, etc... Conversely, even if the prose are expertly crafted, if a reader doesn't identify with a particular book's subject, they won't buy it. I'm the same way. I partake of thirty to forty books a year, but few of them are new releases. The December 10th New York Times' Book Review Podcast lists the best books of 2010, none of which I've read. Yet, some things have occurred within the literary world, which have caught my attention this year.

A few months ago, I did a review of Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. It's worth mentioning here too, if only because I am such a fan of Anthony Bourdain's epicurean musings. This book was written ten years after its mate Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Unlike its forerunner, which was written from the point of view of an insider struggling to find his place within the epicurean realm, this book was written from the perspective of a well known and respected culinary commentator with a virtual backstage pass to the world of cuisine. Even with the various tales of shoulder rubbing, and shots at people who’ve irked him over the years, there are quite a few morsels of gastronomic wisdom for the eager foodie to devour. Thus, even though Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook pales in comparison to its predecessor, it’s still definitely worth reading.

Anyone who's known me for any length of time knows I'm a big fan of Robert B. Parker's hard boiled fiction. Sadly, we lost him on January 18th of this year. Yes, I know we lost J.D. Salinger the same month, but Parker was in the prime of his career when he died at his desk. In fact, with more than a book a year to his name, since 1973, three of his last works, Split Image, Blue-Eyed Devil, and Painted Ladies were released after his death. His final novel Sixkill is due out in early 2011. While it can be successfully argued that Parker's writing style had become somewhat formulaic in recent years, most readers would agree that the stories themselves remained fresh and consistently entertaining. Mystery fans around the world will definitely miss the annual contributions of this prolific talent.

2010 saw another notable author published post posthumously. I'm, of course, referring to Samuel L. Clemens A.K.A. Mark Twain. As legend has it, Clemens spent the last part of his life writing his autobiography, but stipulated it was not be published for 100 years, so he wouldn't face the repercussions of writing about his peers. His request was honored, and Volume 1 of 3 was published this last November.

The book sold more than a quarter of a million copies in its first few weeks in stores. I was eager to get my copy, and was less than 24 hours from doing so, when I ran across Garrison Keillor's review of the book. Keillor came right out and called the book a fraud. According to his review, "sandwiched between a 58-page barrage of an introduction and 180 pages of footnotes, is a ragbag of scraps, some of interest, most of them not: travel notes, the dictated reminiscences of an old man in a dithery voice..." While I tend to trust the word of Lake Wobegon's favorite native Lutheran, I can't help but be amazed that Clemens can top the best seller list, 100 years after his death, solely on the merits of his past work.

Of course, one could write for weeks and not document every significant event of 2010. For 69 days, millions of people around the world watched in hopeful anticipation as rescue workers struggled to free 33 Chilean miners from a cave in. The world spent the summer in soccer fever as The World Cup played out, and everybody learned what a Vuvuzela, or stadium horn, was. The term "robo-signer" was added to our vocabulary when it was discovered that some banks were illegally foreclosing on properties. While not to down play any of these stories, or others, there were a few key items which defined 2010, at least for me.

In 2010, the New York City Daily News listed WikiLeaks first among websites "that could totally change the news", and Julian Assange made a name for himself in the realm of political activism. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, he did so by publicly releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents pertaining to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The release lead to him being criticized for compromising international diplomacy, jeopardizing national security, and failing to safeguard civilians by excluding their names from the releases. However, when certain companies severed ties with his site, supporters launched cyber-attacks to crash the sites of those companies.

Some see Julian Assange as an activists who's making information accessible to the masses. Others see him as a reckless criminal who's willing to endanger the lives of soldiers for personal gain. What's undeniable though, is that the legal upheaval he's created will eventually lead a clearer border between what will be considered legitimate journalism and what can be classified as treason.

By the last week in October, most of us had become sick to death of commercials trying to solicit our votes in November's midterm election. This was the first national election to be held since the Supreme Court softened restrictions on campaign contributions. While corporations still couldn't give money directly to candidates, they were free to produce their own political ads with no cap on spending. Under some circumstances, they were even allowed to produce such ads without disclosing funding sources. This last little loop hole had the unintended result of allowing foreign interests to produce political ads, influencing our election, without the public realizing it.

As a result the election itself, the GOP took control of the House of Representatives. While Democrats held control of the Senate, Republicans made enough sufficient gains to be able to hinder President Obama's agenda for the next two years. In my home state, while Democrats traditionally rule the roost, Oregonians voted in a gubernatorial nail-biter, which lead to Democrat John Kitzhaber narrowly winning over, relative political new comer, Chris Dudley. While some may argue that these results are a consequence of the aforementioned Supreme Court ruling, the inescapable conclusion remains that public sentiment has shifted hard to the right in just two years.

This is not to say that lefties have not made substantial strides in their right, however. Two such victories come to mind. First, and perhaps most importantly, was the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which became law on March 23. The Act, when fully activated over the next four years, will expand Medicaid eligibility for people making up to 133% of the federal poverty level (FPL), subsidize insurance premiums for people making up to 400% of the FPL, and ban insurance providers from denying coverage to applicants with preexisting conditions. To safeguard insurers from patients buying policies at the eleventh hour, the Act was going to make health insurance mandatory for all Americans, but this portion of the act has been deemed unconstitutional by the courts.

The second landmark victory took place just a few weeks ago, when the U.S. Senate voted to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The 65-31 vote means gays and lesbians will be able to serve openly in the military, and will increase our credibility when we advocate for human rights around the world.

Wow, what a year!

1 comment:

  1. Bravo!! That was great! I haven't seen or read everything on your list, but you did a fantastic job reviewing what you liked.

    I am about to jump into Patti Smith's book "Just Kids" this weekend, and I have a feeling it will be on my list of great books of the year.