Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of the Rest - 2010 Edition

Over the past few days, I’ve shared with you my picks for the ten best albums and songs of 2010. But what about the rest – movies, television, and books? I had to do more in 2010 than just listen to music, right? So here a few of my other “Best of…” selections that colored last year.

BEST MOVIE: It was trippy, hallucinogenic, artfully directed, and buoyed by a pair of stellar performances. I’m speaking, of course, of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant psychosexual suspense thriller revolving around a young ballet dancer performing dual roles in Swan Lake. Natalie Portman catapulted herself onto Hollywood’s A-list with her powerful turn as Nina Sayers, the driven ballet ingénue who finds her rise to stardom within a New York City ballet company complicated by one hell of a nervous breakdown. Barbara Hershey turns in a career-best performance with her role as Nina’s stage mother-from-hell, a relentless, driving force of maternal over-protectiveness who’s sporting some serious baggage of her own. Filmed with a stylistic franticness by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Black Swan is an outlandishly melodramatic throwback to 70’s-style giallo that’s visually arresting, intellectually captivating, and just plain nail-bitingly good.

BEST BOOK: It was hard to make a call on a “best” book this year. There were so many great titles in 2010 that I really enjoyed, making my third year of book reviewing duties at Dark Scribe Magazine more of a pleasure than ever. There was Sparrow Rock, Nate Kenyon’s seriously creepy apocalyptic chiller about teens trapped in a bomb shelter after a nuclear attack. And Lisa Morton’s spooky debut, The Castle of Los Angeles, about a haunted theater and the ghost of a serial killer who decides to upstage a production based on his crimes. There was The Wolf at the Door, Jameson Currier’s gorgeous elegy to gay midlife wrapped within a traditional ghost story narrative set at a haunted New Orleans gay guesthouse. In the same vein (albeit a different genre), there was Stephen McCauley’s Insignificant Others, another beautifully rendered look at gay men at the crossroads of their lives and the myths of monogamy. John R. Little continued his trend of making me cry at the end of every one of his brilliant time-slip novellas with Dreams in Black and White. Peter Straub and Stephen King both added to their impressive – and ever- expanding – bibliographies with A Dark Matter and Full Dark, No Stars, respectively. Needless to say, neither was a disappointment.

But the best book of 2010, hands down, was also the weirdest and hardest to categorize. With magicians and sorcerers (here referred to as “hexslingers”), gods and monsters, western shootouts, and more audacious gay sex than anything you’ve likely read last year, A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files is one of those novels for which no number adjectives is adequate in describing it. But I’m going to try! That this ambitious, wildly imaginative, Aztec mythology-laden slice of genre-defying speculative fiction set in the post-Civil War American West is a debut novel makes its merits even more noteworthy. Everything here in Files’ debut is carried out with sheer precision – language, dialect, setting, mythology. The very definition of enthralling. Best part: This is part one of a planned trilogy.

BEST TELEVISION SHOW: Yes, True Blood and Dexter continued to deliver with stellar new seasons this year. Modern Family continued to make me howl with laughter, while freshman comedies Hot in Cleveland and Mike & Molly harkened back to a time when sitcoms were actually funny. And, yes, even an old(er) ratings stalwart like Desperate Housewives showed what a quick trip to the ladies powder room (in this case, the cast addition of the delectably slinky Vanessa Williams) could do to freshen up a tired face starting to show its age. But it was a gory, plot-light little survival drama on a basic cable network that gets my vote as last year’s Best Television Show.

The Walking Dead – based on the long-running monthly black-and-white American comic book series of the same name – turned out to be the water cooler show of the year and the most watched show in AMC’s history. The story is simple: In the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, a group of survivors travel across a ravaged American landscape trying to dodge the shuffling, flesh-eating undead while attempting to wrap their heads around immense personal losses and their own seemingly insurmountable odds. While the former offers nothing new – we’ve seen and read about the decaying dead noshing on the living ad nauseum since 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – it’s the latter that makes this show the unlikely hit it has deservedly become. While the show – the brainchild of frequent Stephen King adapter Frank (The Mist, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) Darabont – has taken some heat for its uneven writing, this is still a surprisingly engaging, moving drama about people and their relationships with each other and the (in this case, quickly dying) world around them.

A few unfinished pieces from the music-oriented “Best of…” lists:

BEST MUSICAL RETURN: Jennifer (The Power of Love) Rush returned to fill the power-diva void left by the late Laura Branigan and Celine Dion, who has unwisely opted to curtail her vocal acrobatics on more recent recordings. Although the material on Now Is the Hour – her first album of new material in more than thirteen years – may be Euro-generic in spots, Rush’s distinctive throaty warble is like the return of an old friend.

BEST GREATEST HITS COMPILATION: After releasing eight albums and selling more than 57 million copies of them worldwide, it’s a head-scratcher why the UK’s Robbie Williams isn’t a bigger draw here stateside. He’s got photogenic, boy-band good looks, possesses a terrific, multi-octave singing voice, oozes charisma and that British wink-wink wit we seem to gobble up, and has that outlandish bad boy image that keeps him in the media spotlight for myriad vices and oddities including chain smoking up to 60 cigarettes a day, prescription pill addiction, alcoholism, and drug-induced UFO sightings. By all accounts, the guy’s the male equivalent of Amy Winehouse. So, if you’ve yet to experience the former Take That member’s solo efforts, may I humbly (albeit strongly) suggest that you pick up a copy of his superb second greatest hits compilation, a comprehensive, marvelously packaged three-CD set called In and Out of Consciousness: Greatest Hits 1990–2010? Includes 39 songs that explore William’s diverse pop sensibilities, his ear for clever hooks, and his talent for some of the most witty, engaging lyrics in the modern pop era.

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