I love a good list. One of my favorite things about this time of year is that everyone seems to be releasing their list of favorite things from the past twelve months. I know that this may be perceived as a gimmicky way to sell magazines without actually having to do any new research, but I choose to view it in a different way. I think (for the most part) that these list-writers are attempting to share their experiences with their readers. It's a way of saying, "There are some things that I enjoyed this past year, and if you missed any of them, let me point you in the right direction." I'd say that every year I read at least one "Best Music" list and end up buying an album based on the article (It usually involves Paste Magazine. Last year, my list-related discovery was The Arcade Fire's album Neon Bible, which I have enjoyed tremendously). And so, I'm going to construct a series of lists of my top 5 favorites from 2008. This is not to be pretentious or to declare that my opinions are synonymous with the gospel truth (although I probably secretly believe this); this is merely my attempt to share my experiences, which, in all reality, is the very nature of any blog. So, here we go:
TOP 5 MOST SIGNIFICANT LIFE EVENTS
I'm going to start with the big stuff and move my way down to the less life-changing items. 2008 was a pretty big year for me (quite possibly the biggest). I don't think that I've ever lived through a single year with more significant changes than this one. While this is the case, I suppose all of them can be traced back to a single event (or the anticipation of said event)...
This year, I made the biggest (read: best) decision of my life. I married Caroline Laing. Again, there are other items on this list that are a direct connection to this one, but this is the hub of the wheel. The music was great, the weather was cooperative, and the food was excellent (or so I'm told). I cannot say enough about this day to do it justice. I will merely say that I have never been happier than I have been since August 9.
2) Engagement (March 15)
Obviously, these first two items go together like a wink and a smile (as Harry Connick, Jr. is in the habit of saying). I won't go into all the details that went into this moment, but believe me when I say that it took a significant amount of planning and secret-keeping. I am grateful to and impressed by everyone who was able to keep this secret. To read more about the actual engagement story, Caroline wrote about it on her blog back in March.
3) Appendectomy (December 3)
This item deviates a bit from the marriage theme of this list. One may have expected my honeymoon to have appeared in the Number Three spot and this to have shown up later in the list. There is one single and simple reason for this to gain placement over my honeymoon: I have traveled outside the U.S. before, but prior to December 3, I had never in my life had surgery and spent the night in the hospital. The whole experience was way more stressful than trying to clear Customs or catch a train from Venice to Florence. However, thanks to the surgical brilliance of Dr. Melvin Elieson (Don't make fun of his name. The man saved my life), the wonderful staff at Baylor Grapevine Hospital, and the best painkillers Insurance will buy, this was far less traumatic than I had expected it to be. Still, it remains at number three because I am one body part lighter than I was a year ago, and I have the scars to prove it.
4) Honeymoon in Italy (August 10-18)
This was an amazing trip. Caroline and I spent two days in Venice, another two days in Florence, and finally three days in Rome. We took a gondola ride on the Grand Canal in Venice, stood in the presence of Michaelangelo's David in Florence, walked through the Coliseum in Rome, and ate pizza virtually every day. Obviously, there were many, many other things that we did to truly experience Italy, but, like all of these items, there is not enough space to truly do justice to the trip. It was simply amazing.
5) Leaving My Job (August 31)
In any other year, this would have easily been at the top of an otherwise uninteresting list. The placement of fifth does not take away the significance of this moment. If this were a list of Most Difficult Decisions of 2008, this would have made the top of the list with no competition. I had worked at the same church for over eight years, and I had done well for myself. For quite a while, I had begun to feel that I was approaching the time that I would need to venture out and pursue a vision for a new kind of church that I have been fostering for quite some time. It was an incredibly difficult decision, but in retrospect, it was the only right choice that I could have made in terms of my life and career. What has happened in the months that followed this moment has been truly amazing: we have started a new church and a new journey that will surely be the subject of next year's top 5 list. I'm looking forward to seeing what is in store for the upcoming year.
And now, onto the fluff...
TOP 5 MOVIES
1) Slumdog Millionaire (R)
I have been to India, and I will tell you this with no hesitation: there is no dramatic embellishment in Slumdog Millionaire. I always find it odd when people claim that they actually prefer Reality TV because they want to watch something that's true, rather than all of that fictional stuff that's not true (to be perfectly honest, I've only really heard one person say this, but it did prompt me to think about what he was saying). In truth, a great work of fiction can offer enlightenment on truth better than any contest involving who can eat the most cockroaches or something like that. This is one of those stories. This film is a reminder of how beautiful and significant cinema can truly be. When people look down at frequent movie-goers like myself and claim that it's all trash and there's nothing interesting or good to be seen in a movie theater, I wonder if they've ever had the pleasure of seeing anything this good. I've already seen it twice, and I will be among the first to purchase it on DVD (the soundtrack is also quite good).
2) The Dark Knight (PG-13)
I love good comic book adaptation films. I thoroughly enjoyed this year's Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Hellboy 2 (it was a good year to be a comic book fan). I have seen every Spider-Man and X-Men movie on opening day. And I absolutely loved Batman Begins, to which this film is a sequel. With this understanding, I will say this with no hesitation in my typing: The Dark Knight is the best comic book adaptation that I have ever seen. I heard Richard Roeper's review on this film, and he made an excellent point when he said that this felt less like a straight-up superhero movie and more like an amazing crime saga (on par with something that might have been directed by the great Michael Mann) that happens to feature a well-known superhero. I couldn't agree more. I've seen it three times.
3) Gran Torino (R)
Clint Eastwood scares the crap out of me. He plays the angry, bitter old man better than anyone. He also directs amazing movies (two of the films in this list were directed by Eastwood). I don't want to say too much about Gran Torino other than this: it is much more than it appears to be. At face value (in other words, when you watch the previews), it looks like Eastwood is attempting to channel Charles Bronson and just be a grizzled and hostile old guy with really violent tendencies (or even a retirement-age Dirty Harry). I don't want to take away from this element, because there really is a sense that Clint Eastwood could beat up anyone he pleases (when he growls, "Get off my lawn," it's about as intimidating as when the killer in Scream asks Drew Barrymore what her favorite scary movie is), but this is not what makes Gran Torino a great movie. The beauty lies within the relationship between Eastwood's character and the Hmong family that lives next door. This movie was better than I expected it to be, and I expected to love it.
4) Changeling (R)
This is the other movie in the list directed by Clint Eastwood. I know that this has not appeared on many other "Top" lists from this year, but Changeling left a real impact on me. It is a true story about a woman in 1920's Los Angeles whose son mysteriously disappears. What follows involves issues of mistaken identity, police corruption, and other events that all somehow weave into the same story. The compelling nature of this film lies in the fact that it is true (I spent hours online reading about this case after seeing the movie). Like Gran Torino, I don't want to say much about the actual story. When I saw the film, I knew very little about the story--only what I have already written. With every twist and turn, it helped me to not have known what other events took place within the context of this story, because it enabled me to experience these things alongside the tortured mother who is masterfully played by Angelina Jolie. This story reminded me once again that truth can be just as strange--or even as awful--as fiction.
5) Kung Fu Panda (PG)
Even though nobody has offered any sort of criticism in my inclusion of this movie in my list, I feel that I need to get preemptively defensive. I realize that this is in no way a brilliant and artistic film. I suppose it would have seemed more high-brow of me to include Frost/Nixon, Milk, or In Bruges (all excellent films) in this list rather than an animated movie about a Panda who wants nothing more in life than to be a Kung Fu master. In fact, when I first saw a preview for Kung Fu Panda, I really thought it was going to be awful. I thought it was about a decade late if it wanted to be in that group of kids movies that somehow centered around martial arts (I think the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inagurated this movement, which was followed by 3 Ninjas, Surf Ninjas, and a slew of others). But when it began to receive good--no, great--reviews, I became curious. As I sat in the theater, I was amazed at the visual accomplishments of the animators (there is a scene where a character escapes from an inescapable prison that was incredible to watch on the big screen). And most importantly, I was entertained (sometimes, that's all I want when I go to the movies). I was never bored, and I laughed throughout the entire film. By the end, I found myself secretly hoping that they will eventually make a sequel.
TOP 5 WORST MOVIES
This is my only "worst of" list. But I sat through some pretty bad movies this year and, in order to validate that experience (and expense), I feel that it is my sacred duty to write about it. I try to avoid movies that I think will be bad, but nobody who goes to the movies as much as I do can possibly avoid them all. I'm going to begin at Number 5 and work my way down to the worst movie that I saw all year. Just for fun, I'm also going to include the Rotten Tomatoes rating.
5) The Happening (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 19%)
After I watched this, I chastised myself for not liking it more than I did. I accused myself of not "getting it," which is what true fans of artists are supposed to say when someone has the audacity to dislike their work. I even left the theater believing that, upon deeper thought about the movie, that I would like it more than I did initially. But this did not turn out to be true. In reality, the more I thought about this movie, the more I disliked it. This was a tough decision for me, because I've always kind of been an M. Night Shyamalan apologist. I defended The Lady In The Water when everyone that I knew said that they hated it. I believe that Shyamalan has the potential to be our generation's Hitchcock, but I don't think it's going to be because of movies like this one.
4) Vantage Point (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 36%)
In terms of action movies, Vantage Point committed the unpardonable sin: it bored the crap out of me. I found myself constantly looking at my watch and counting in my head how many of the characters' "perspectives" we had seen the movie from so that I would know how much longer this piece of garbage would go on. It tries way too hard to be clever (and fails), the story-line is ridiculous, and the dialogue is laughably bad (my favorite interchange in the movie was when the president has been shot--or has he?--a massive explosion has just sent a mob of people running in panic, and, in the midst of the chaos, Secret Service Agent Dennis Quaid turns to Secret Service Agent Matthew Fox and says (yells), "This wasn't supposed to happen!" Fox: "But it did happen. And it happened on our watch." Quaid: "I can't live with that." He then proceeds to run into the fray like Superman). If you want a good action movie, there are plenty out there. I assure you that this is not one of them.
3) Step Brothers (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 55%)
I don't care what 55% of the critics say, this movie is terrible. I really like Will Ferrell and think that some of his movies are truly hilarious. Step Brothers looked like it might be one of those movies. This is because it had a great trailer. I laughed hysterically when I first saw the preview for Step Brothers, and I really looked forward to seeing the movie. The problem was that I had already seen literally every funny scene when I saw the advertisement. What was left is basically a really long (and generally unfunny) SNL sketch. Let me pitch this screenplay to you: We'll take two grown men who live with their parents and are both somehow (without explanation), socially incapable of relating to anyone else. The parents get married, so the two idiots have to now live together. So, here's where the joke is: one of them will do something to irritate the other, the irritated person will start screaming out a string of profanity that any fifth grader could construct, this will eventually escalate into violence (with the violence, we can substitute any number of objects such as a shovel, drumsticks, or a bicycle. It doesn't matter. Just so long as they're beating each other up with something), eventually one of them will get really hurt and the parents will come in and express their displeasure. They will promise to try to get along. Wait five minutes with useless storyline. Repeat previous cycle. Like it? I think I can get Will Ferrell to star.
2) Made Of Honor (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 11%)
Please don't think that I'm including this movie because it's a romantic comedy, and I'm a guy who can't enjoy one of those. I assure you that this is not the case. I have seen and enjoyed plenty of so-called "chick flicks" (including this year's Definitely, Maybe). No, I have including Made of Honor in this list because it is, without question, unwatchable. It has all of the earmarks of a lazy screenwriter: a plutonic relationship between two best friends of the opposite sex, a wise-cracking group of friends with whom the male protagonist regularly plays basketball and discusses his fear of commitment, and, of course, the obligatory wedding-interruption moment where the hero (spoiler alert) declares his love for his female best friend in front of the entire wedding party (I find it funny that Patrick Dempsey now gets to be the guy formulaically bursting into the wedding when it was only a few years ago that he played a character who fell victim to this very same cliche in Sweet Home Alabama). When I see a movie and I think, "If I were thirteen years old and had only seen 1980's romantic comedies, I would write something quite similar to this," it might be a really bad movie.
1) 88 Minutes (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 5%)
As a rule, I tend to love Al Pacino. Some of my favorite movies of all time were Al Pacino films (The Godfather films, Scarface, Scent of a Woman, Heat, etc.). That's what makes this movie so sad to me. Pacino has clearly stopped reading the scripts that his agent is sending him (I didn't even see the critically panned Righteous Kill. I just couldn't take the disappointment). This movie is so absurd, you would think that someone made it as a practical joke. It actually feels a lot more like they had a "ridiculously overused movie plot cliches" lottery, and this movie was the big winner. And then, for no rhyme or reason, they threw all of the pages of the script on the floor of the editing room and then invited someone's three year-old child to pick them up and re-sort them. Why did I go see a movie that everyone said to avoid? Because of Al Pacino. Because--before I saw this piece of cinematic garbage--I still believed that Al could make an okay movie into a good movie. I was wrong, and I want my nine dollars back.
(Bear in mind that I didn't see a lot of movies that have made the "Worst of the Year" lists. I did not see movies like The Love Guru, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, The Spirit,, and Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanomo Bay. I just believed people when they told me to stay away.)
TOP 5 NEW MUSIC ALBUMS
1) Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings (Counting Crows)
There are very few bands that I enjoy more than Counting Crows. I doubt there are five lyricists alive who could rival the poetic prowess of Adam Duritz. This album has been a long-anticipated release for fans of the band, who's last studio album (Hard Candy) was released six years ago. This album is not on this list simply because I am a mindless fan who will consume anything that this band will produce (okay, maybe a little bit); I genuinely believe that Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings is a musical triumph by an unbelievably talented band.
2) And You Were A Crow (The Parlor Mob)
The Parlor Mob is a new band that was one of the featured acts at this year's Lollapalooza festival. I read one music critic say that for those who thought that the sound that made rock 'n' roll so great was endangered, this band will bring new hope. I could not agree more. The Parlor Mob sounds remarkably like a neo-Led Zeppelin in all the right ways. I've had And You Were A Crow on my iPod for months now, and it continues to find a place in the regular rotation.
3) 'Til We See The Shore (Seabird)
This is another new band who's first full-length album was released in the middle of this year. They've got a really nice British piano pop sound (think Keane). This is an album worth owning.
4) Hello (Tristan Prettyman)
This placement is a bit of a sentimental choice. I am a huge fan of Tristan Prettyman. I loved her first album, Twenty Three, and one of the best live music experiences of my life was when I saw play her in a small club in the spring of 2006. This album continues her work of high quality songwriting, singing, and guitar playing. I can listen to this CD effortlessly from beginning to end, and that is truly the mark of a very good album.
5) This Is The Life (Amy MacDonald)
Like Tristan Prettyman, Amy MacDonald is a great vocalist who can also write a good song and play the guitar. This album is slightly reminiscent of K.T. Tunstall (particularly her first album, Eye To The Telescope). She can write a catchy tune that you'll be humming for the rest of the day. I hope she is able to produce more work that is this consistent and rich.
*Also worth mentioning: Seeing Things (Jacob Dylan), Mudcrutch (Mudcrutch), Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (David Byrne & Brian Eno), Gossip in the Grain (Ray Lamontagne), Perfect Symmetry (Keane), Accelerate (REM).
TOP 5 BEST BOOKS THAT I READ IN 2008
This is the only list that is not exclusively devoted to things that originated in the year 2008. I believe that books are different in the sense that they are timeless. A great book can grab us from whenever it was written and it very rarely loses its power as it ages. In fact, I very rarely read a book in the same year that it was written. Thus, these are not (at least not exclusively) books that were written in 2008, but rather books that I personally read in 2008. Thus, this a list that could only truly apply to me. I read over 50 books this year (I counted), and these were my five favorites:
1) Jesus Wants to Save Christians (Rob Bell & Don Golden)
Okay, this one was released in 2008. I've already talked about this book in an earlier post, so I'll spare you the rehash. I'll only say this: If you haven't read this book yet, you should. What it has to say matters a great deal and will challenge anyone who reads it.
2) The Source (James Michener)
Again, I've already written extensively about this book, so I'll spare you. But it was great, and it deserves a spot on the list (plus, I devoted enough time to it for it to earn two spots).
3) Fargo Rock City (Chuck Klosterman)
I actually just finished this book today. I wanted to legitimately be able to include it in this list. In fact, I knew within the first twenty pages that it would make the list. I love Klosterman's writing, and this actually his first book. It is one part autobiography, and one part heavy metal apologetics. Klosterman's primary claim is that, while heavy metal is generally considered to be a mindless and juvenile musical genre that offers nothing to the artistic landscape, it actually matters a great deal, at the very least because it matters to him. As a music lover, I enjoyed this book very much.
4) Surprised By Hope (N.T. Wright)
This is, by far, the most theologically heavy book on this list. One of the theological questions that I have always wrestled with has to do with the concepts of heaven, hell, and death in general. Wright delves deeply in these questions. I not only enjoyed this book, I'm grateful for it.
5) Watchmen (Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons)
This book is generally considered to be the be greatest graphic novel of all time. I can see why. The story is interesting, and it actually has something to say. Watchmen challenged me in ways for which I was not prepared. This was a good read, and I hope that the upcoming movie adaptation can do it justice.
TOP 5 TV SHOWS OF 2008
1) The Wire
Just when the writer's strike was getting unbearable, HBO began airing the final season of The Wire. Like Slumdog Millionaire, this is a show that actually has something to say. We are shown, in a panoramic way, how all of the pieces of any given system can influence all of the others. We see how a decision made in City Hall can have repercussions for an inner city kid in foster care. This was not just a cop show; it was social commentary of the highest caliber. I can't wait to see what the writers (Ed Burns and David Simon) will do next.
2) The Shield
Another show that ended its run this year, The Shield was perhaps the most consistently intense dramatic television program to ever be aired (and this is being written by someone who has watched every season of 24). Just a few weeks ago, we were finally given closure on the story of Vic Mackey and his corrupt crime fighting ways. And it was deeply satisfying (or at least I thought so).
3) Friday Night Lights
This has to be the most underrated show on television. It has been threatened with cancelation ever since the beginning of its first season, and somehow it continues to prevail. It is filmed near Austin, and clearly has a deep understanding of the culture that it is meant to represent (that is, rural communities and football in Texas). I wish more people watched this show simply because I want people to experience the highest level of quality from their television watching experience. If you have not been watching Friday Night Lights (and I suspect that you haven't), then you have been missing one of the best kept secrets on TV.
I don't care what anybody has to say, I love Lost. This is one of the only shows that, once I know that it has been recorded to my DVR, I need to watch it like a junkie needs a fix. I can't wait until the new season starts in just a few weeks. You may have given up on this show, but I remain unapologetically devoted to this show. I just think it's awesome.
5) How I Met Your Mother
Another show that is loved by critics, but lacks the viewership of a clear "hit," HIMYM is one of the most consistently funny shows on television. As a rule, I don't typically enjoy sitcoms that still use the laugh track technique. Before I started watching Mother, I felt like Seinfeld was the last great show to employ this device. But I take it back: this uses the laugh track, and it's great.
So, there it is. My Top 5 of 2008. It's pretty comprehensive, and maybe you didn't read it all (I wouldn't blame you). Feel free to leave any of your own top 5 lists in the comments section. I'd love to hear what everyone else liked/disliked this year. Also, if you can think of a list category that I did not include, post it. I'm always curious.
Have a happy New Year!