I did, watched, and played so many great things this year, it's going to be tough to contain myself to a manageable list. I fear I don't feel as strongly about any of my "Bests" as Der Koosh did about his best TV show, but I have significant affection for lots of stuff I purchased and experienced. Every time you pick a leisure activity, you're gambling with your time, and often your money... and I'd say that in 2012, I came out way ahead.
But how do I pick, goddammit? Take film... I've got a list of 50 or 60 movies I saw, and genuinely enjoyed, and it's tough setting my filter to exactly the right granularity. How much is enough enjoyment to qualify? And once it qualifies, is that enough? I think, in order to narrow it down, I'm going to write this as a list of discoveries... things that made -- not just a strong impression -- but an unexpectedly strong impression, things that I ran across while scanning outside the standard frequencies. That way, I'll avoid repeating the top entries in everybody else's top ten lists and best-of-in-history lists.
So that makes for a slightly more manageable question: what were my best discoveries of 2012?
The strongest, freshest cinema memory I have is Skyfall (discussed here), which destroyed most of my other in-theater viewing experiences this year. But that's not really a discovery, is it? I knew I liked Sam Mendes's eye for photography, and it was getting excellent reviews long before I got to see it. There's been enough tribute-writing on Skyfall. Same with the rest of the tentpoles... The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, Cloud Atlas. I guess I "discovered" a lot of older films, like Reds, Boogie Nights, and House of Flying Daggers, but generally, I appreciated them without really falling in love with them. To really qualify as a discovery, I needed to pick a film I'd loved unexpectedly, a film that stopped me for a second to ask for the time, and then charmed me into going home with it. It can't just be a film that the critics and the marketing teams threw at me like a mortar shell... I needed to think of a film that had discovered me. The only one that really qualifies is:
BEST MOVIE DISCOVERY
Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie, December 2011)
In his second installment of the RDJ-as-Sherlock-Holmes series, Guy Ritchie found his stride. I wrote a whole blog post on why I think it's a strangely wonderful popcorn action flick, a sort of theater-of-the-absurd superhuman Victorian burlesque. I've thought about it from time to time since then, and I'm continually impressed by the way they handled the final showdown between Holmes and Moriarty: a whole physical exchange playing out in their heads, like they're supercomputers playing chess, anticipating every possible move, and computing every inevitable outcome. They treat choreographed martial-arts combat like a strategy game... an elaborate match in Starcraft or Risk... where the player that can anticipate the other's actions most accurately, project furthest ahead, and logically outflank their opponent is destined to be the victor. It's a stroke of genius that Holmes knows he can't win this fight, and a further stroke that he's only saved by the unexpected intervention of Watson (the kind of event that simply couldn't have been anticipated) -- in a way, this is an argument that friendship and the loyalty of his comrades is the wild card Holmes holds that breaks his stalemate with the evil Doctor.
Sherlock Holmes is the kind of under-the-radar discovery that I treasure as a niche media connoisseur. I didn't fall into it wholeheartedly, like I do with some highly-regarded films, TV shows, and video games... the merit of the film crept up on me and busted through my natural skepticism toward post-T2 action flicks. Few franchises can boast of that kind of hooking power, because so many franchises are already pre-judged by the blogomediajournosphere, and I just get to relax and watch for the things that other people really like about them.
For instance, take Game of Thrones and Skyrim. I had a wonderful, sublimely self-indulgent weekend over the summer, during which my wife and I watched the entire first season of Game of Thrones, in one straight shot. That's... what... 12 hours of dark, cynical fantasy produced by the nigh-insurmountable talent at HBO? And then, the next day, I spent the whole day playing Skyrim, which was one of the richest, most immersive interactive fantasies I've ever made the time for. That was my exhilerating, violent, escapist, clangy medieval weekend of 2012, and when I came out into the real world on Monday morning, it felt like a Jules Verne novel of the future compared to the Tolkienesque reality I had just left behind.
And yet, I'm not going to cite either of these as Best of 2012, because again, I didn't really discover them. The World discovered them. Skyrim has been a meme-factory and an outsized video game award winner, and Game of Thrones has everyone breathless for Season 3. You can't open a browser window without tripping over a Game of Thrones recap. Both of these were already tidal waves of enthusiasm... I just had to ride them into shore.
Nay, for Video Game, I'm going with something older, a sleeper hit that I'm still playing. It's been a fresh, rejuvenating balm for my couch-sitting time at the end of the day, and I've ripped through the game in a mere 10 days or so. My wife and I are addicted to it like you get addicted to a fun, cheesy anime series, so that you look forward every night to another couple episodes. It's not award-winning or iconic, but the people who have run across it love it, and I count myself among them. Ladies and gentlemen, it's...
BEST VIDEO GAME DISCOVERY
Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, 2008. For the Playstation 3)
I'm currently in the middle of watching Band of Brothers, and I'm ashamed to admit: it's competing directly with an under-the-rader video game for best war-themed thing in my life right now. Valkyria Chronicles is a cinematic anime-style war game that takes place in an alternate-universe World War II, a clash between The East Europan Empire (the generic communo-fascist autocratic bad guys) and the Allied Federation of Western Europe. Err, Europa. Or whatever it is. You are a native of Gallia, a small country in the North, that's bearing the brunt of the clashes between the two world powers. You are a lieutenant in the Gallian militia, commanding a small squad of soldiers from your tank-cum-command-HQ, and of course, your personal quest to defend your homeland becomes bound up with the war that's swept over the continent. The whole thing is romanticized as a war of tyrants versus freedom-loving natives, but there are also overtones that this is a war of natural resources. This whole world runs on something called Ragnite, and as luck would have it, Gallia is rich in the stuff.
The plot is fluff, with all the subtlety and gritty realism of Shonen anime, which is to say, none at all. Lots of primary colors and simplistic emotional cues... you don't consume this type of stuff for its psychological depth. What Valkyria Chronicles does that's so fantastic is very primal, just like that anime-style storytelling... it provides a buoyant cinematic experience as we follow the characters through their heroic journey, and it provides a visceral, often frustrating tactical combat experience, padded with extensive cut-scenes. The gameplay combines leveling and inventory management (a concept familiar to RPG players) with turn-based overhead war simulation, giving it the feel of the Warcrafts and Starcrafts, or the Warhammer tabletop games, but with a more intimate, microcosmic feel to it.
There's a KEY difference between those games and Valkyria Chronicles, though. In all the War-(etc) games, you generate troops by the dozens or hundreds and send them to war in droves to be mowed down by war machines. Each figure is a generic plastic or pixellated copy of some standard type. In Valkyria Chronicles, you assemble a 20-person regiment from among 50 or so recruits, and every single one of them has a unique face, body, name, and brief backstory, including variations on skills, merits, flaws, and relationships with the other cadets. You then send these 20 hand-picked soldiers into battle in groups of 4 to 10, and try to coordinate their battlefield maneuvers under heavy artillery and sniper fire.
If you're like me, you'll spend a few hours just browsing through your troops and reading their short biographical snippets. Then, when you send them into combat, you'll start developing relationships with them... you'll rapidly identify Catherine as your best sniper, you'll find Rosie and Ted effective but annoying with their snarky banter, and you'll be shocked and happy when Dorothy manages to pull off an objective without stumbling into enemy fire. When you're deploying these soldiers to their positions, you will call them by first name. And then, rarely but occasionally, they will DIE ON YOU, on the field, and you'll never be able to use them again (without starting the game over from scratch, at least). Most annoyingly, this often happens with your favorite characters, because they're the ones you feel you can rely on... the first you put into dangerous situations.
It's not the game of the century. Skyrim is a vast, bold, complex, and intensely immersive experience, and if I was magically forced to choose one game to play for the rest of my life (WHAT CRUEL GOD WOULD MAKE SUCH A DEMAND?!?), I'd choose Skyrim over Valkyria Chronicles. Still, Valkyria Chronicles has been a refreshing discovery, and from here on out, it will serve me as a go-to example of creativity and elegant execution of a video game experience.
As long as we're talking about the continuum of reference to reality... wait, you didn't realize we were talking about that? Band of Brothers as drama via pseudo-documentarian reenactment? Valkyria Chronicles as fantasist revision of 20th century military history? Anyway, it leads me pretty directly to my next choice for this list, which is: Best Literary Discovery in the wide world of Fiction, wherein I happen to have chosen another drama of characters and emotions known to recorded history. I ran across this book via the NYRB Classics list, and picked it up because it related to some academic interests of mine. It was everything I could have asked in a random book choice.
BEST LITERARY DISCOVERY: FICTION (WITH A FACTUAL GLOSS)
The World As I Found It (Bruce Duffy, 1987)
The World As I Found It is a rich retelling of the life and times of Ludwig Wittgenstein, weaving together his younger days as a brilliant student at Cambridge, his troubled relationship with his father in the context of his brothers' suicides, his aesceticism and eventual service in World War I, and the professional and academic relationships that shaped his life. Bertrand Russell becomes a key POV character, acting as a mentor and a foil for Wittgenstein, and G.E. Moore is the third player in this philosophical trio.
The historical arc of The World As I Found It is epic, weaving through London and Vienna and Paris as Europe swings from optimism and enlightenment to war and self-destruction. It is the breeding ground for heroes and villains and soldiers and sadists, people driven by ambition, moral righteousness, compassion, and love for their homelands. What makes Wittgenstein such a fascinating figure against this background is the fact that he is a creature -- indeed, a behemoth -- of ideas: pure, neuron-twisting, intensive treatments of the fundamental meaning of truth, and existence, and knowledge as a determining factor in the human condition. I have read a lot of cerebral literature, and I've never read any book that demonstrated so viscerally the obsessive, gut-wrenching power of philosophy in the mind of its luminaries. If you ever wanted to know what it takes to be a true pioneer in philosophy (and, by analogy, in any field whatsoever), this book will show you: you have to be able to cheer, weep, and rage against nature because you've found some clever solution to some arcane paradox, or because that paradox has reemerged as a knot in your most elegant proof.
The history and power of ideas was really a thing for me this year, I guess, given my pick for my next category. It's a series of lectures that described a broad cultural movement in European intellectual history, which I knew was interesting, in a detached academic way... but I didn't realize it could FEEL so interesting in words. That is, until I discovered:
BEST LITERARY DISCOVERY: NON-FICTION
The Roots of Romanticism (Isaiah Berlin, 2001, adapted from his 1985 lectures)
I played another excellent game this year, Team Ico's classic Shadow of the Colossus, and as I was playing, I had an intuition that this game sort of mirrored the way Romantic thought in European culture was turned inside-out into the pseudo-heroic military aggression of fascism. So I picked up some books on the subject and started reading. The best one, by far, was a series of lectures by eminent cultural historian Isaiah Berlin, transcribed and edited into six chapters by Henry Hardy, called The Roots of Romanticism. I was excited to read up on this, but I didn't anticipate discovering one of the most engrossing non-fiction books (at least for my tastes) that I've ever run across.
In these lectures, Berlin was tackling an incredibly complex topic. Romanticism was a movement that developed over 150+ years, spanning all types of art, and seeping into the values of all of European society, to varying degrees based on the locality. It's full of contradictory impulses, and its implications have burrowed so deep into Western culture that it's hard to separate the Romantic ideas from basic conventional wisdom about creativity and individuality. Berlin starts with an incredible historical knowledge, an understanding of all the core thinkers and marginal critics of the Romantic movement, including its precedents and eventualities, and he takes this ridiculous volume of facts and names and dates and generalizations and shapes it into something like a silhouette. After reading through a few chapters, we can step back and see where the Romantics came from -- the frustrations of German intellectuals, the resentment towards French vogue, the historical trauma of the Thirty Years War -- and we can see how this developed into something that was simultaneously transgressive and traditionalist, soaringly hopeful and morbidly cynical and paranoid. Berlin weaves his history from the words and accounts of a whole cast of intellectuals, and he renders Romanticism in both its complexity and its comprehensibility.
Berlin's prose is kept very conversational, and this is part of the book's appeal. His digressions and elaborations play out like a measured soliloquy, and he capers deftly between hard facts and informed interpretations. Like some of my other list-picks, Berlin expertly evokes the subtle life of the ideas he is exploring, convincing me every step of the way that they were both personal and universal, resonant and disruptive enough to shake the whole world at the outset of the 20th century, and echoing even into our own time. It was what I needed for my paper (let me know if you want to read it), but it was also just a great, edifying read.
Finally, following awkwardly behind all my self-consciously offbeat choices for the other categories, I've got a fairly obvious pick for television. I've watched a lot of good TV... some Mad Men, some Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Dexter, the 1994 ABC miniseries of Stephen King's The Stand, and whole seasons of Project Runway, American Idol, The Voice, and The X-Factor. There were high points and low points in every show, but none of them really called out to me or worked much seductive magic. For this category, I have to give a fairly predictable shout-out, and it's almost as much a nod to last year's season as it is a genuine endorsement of this year's:
BEST TELEVISION DISCOVERY
Homeland (Showtime, 2011-2012)
I've been a little hot-and-cold on Homeland in recent weeks, but the show's first season and a half were so brilliant, it has an enormous amount of credit to burn with me. The show exhibits a lot of the same merits as Louie, its "comedy" counterpart: it keeps a genre in its purview (in this case, the spy thriller genre), but it defies convention so aggressively, with such grace and self-awareness, that it becomes a category unto itself. I know lots of people who kept wanting Homeland to give them big twists or shocking reveals, and this expectation ramped up as the final episode of the first season approached. Would we learn the identity of a mole in the agency? Would Carrie turn out to have been faking her illness? Did Brody have multiple personalities? And Homeland just laughs at us: in real life, these official mechanisms are so complex, the loyalties sorted out and anticipated so far in advance, that there are no redemptions or sudden twists or moments of catharsis. Instead, there are unplanned contingencies and bad decisions and lucky breaks, everything with its procedure, all depending on the relationships and professional commitment of a network of well-connected people.
In this byzantine bureaucratic universe, the characters of Carrie and Brodie and Saul get to emerge in all their grace and inadequacy and doubt. Carrie herself is a beautifully-rendered high-level operator who draws on a sort of intractable confidence at pivotal moments, and her bipolar disorder is written with sensitivity and subtlety. Like any disease, it affects her performance in unpredictable ways, occasionally giving her what seems like a distinct cognitive advantage... but the writers know that it's not the mania that makes Carrie a brilliant analyst, but her deep, sensitive knowledge of her subject area, and her ability to focus and communicate. Carrie's bipolar symptoms are something she has to work through, a wild card in her interactions with people around her that she has to accept and control to the best of her ability, knowing it will always push her to the margins of her community.
The laser-like focus of the first season was trained on the bureaucracy of military intelligence in all its (paradoxical) clumsiness and subtlety... and on the quiet turbulence of a soldier whose convictions have been entirely upended... and on the jarring cycles of bipolar disorder and the way it affects goal-seeking and social behavior. This focus has waned in the second season, and the veneer of plausibility has chipped away a bit. That's why some of the show's most ardent defenders are now talking about how it should be read as a "character show," instead of a wet dream of realism in plotting and suspense. The writers have allowed the drama to bloat into more fantastical territories, with moments of contrived irrationality and unlikely contingency, but they are still doing two things right. First of all, they are still trying to evolve their characters and the situations they're faced with to reveal new dimensions of the show's primary personalities (frankly, I think Quinn is about to supplant Carrie as the most interesting and dynamic character). Second, they are still resisting the tiresome plotting and pacing and emotional cliches that plague the rest of screen entertainment. In particular, the development of Brody's situation in episodes 16 through 20 are some of the most convoluted and unpredictable of the show so far. Season 1 won the show a permanent place in my entertainment annals, and I'm content to sit back and see how long it can go before it implodes or loses my interest.
As I read my list of prospective media for this accounting, I can see that I had a really solid 2012. I hope some of you know these media artifacts, and I've given you a chance to smile and nod and understand why I thought they were so great; and for those of you who haven't experienced them, I hope I've given you something to enrich your 2013, or 2020, or 2050... or whenever you get a few minutes away from your amazing job and beautiful family to engage in some blissful media consumption. Now, onward! my friends, for more sights and sounds and moving pictures await us.