2011’s Best Of The Rest includes dragon-killing and the world’s dirtiest podcast

I made a mention of a Girl Talk concert the other night on Twitter… well, actually, that’s not true.  I RT’d someone else’s mention of the show, and I got a surprised response from someone who seemed amazed by the idea that I have any other interests than film, which is fair.  When you spend as much time writing and talking about one subject, it would seem to be the defining thing about you.

But of course, there are other ways I spend my time, and other things I give my mental real estate to, and music and games and books are all part of what I feel keeps me sane and interesting and engaged each and every year, all of them ingested for different reasons and in different ways and in different quantities.  I decided that the last thing I run every year should be this article, the one that bats clean-up for all the other End-Of-The-Year pieces.

The big one, of course, in terms of time spent putting it together and considering it, is my Ten Best Films of 2011 list.  And I think that turned out pretty well.  My piece about the next ten film, the Runners-Up, was also solid, I thought.  And then there was my list of The Ten Worst Films of 2011 as well.  All of those took time.

I also spent time writing up a gallery that I collaborated on with Gregory Ellwood about the films we’re looking forward to for 2012, which was a big project.  I’ve had to build out my Sundance schedule so I could turn in a ticket request.  I’ve just plain been busy.  But there’s still room for one last article that allows me to tip my hat, digitally speaking, to the people and things that made my 2011 so interesting.

10 / Sunrise Little League

We’ve tried various organized activities with Toshi before, but this year, baseball became the first thing he loved doing, the first thing he was excited about, every single practice, every single game.  We never once had to tell him to get ready twice.  He was always ready.  And part of that was due to his coach, a great guy, Coach Mark, who managed to not only take a bunch of five and six year old kids and turn them into something that looked surprisingly like a real baseball team, but who also turned a bunch of parents into a group as well.  One of the rough truths of being a parent is that you end spending time with other parents based on your children, so frequently you end up hanging out with people you have nothing else in common with, a situation that can be very uncomfortable.  With Sunrise, we got the bonus plan, because the parents were great, the kids had a blast, and by the end of the season, we were all sad to see it end.  We may have been ruined for other sports by this experience, which set the bar high, but at least we’ve got the spring season to look forward to.

9 / “Archer”

I think Jon Benjamin may be my favorite animated voice actor ever, and on those occasions where I see him do live-action work, it looks wrong for that voice to come out of that guy.  Instead, I think of Archer, the lead character in this sexually degenerate, frequently offensive, almost always hilarious look at the worst spy organization in the world, as the “real” owner of that voice.  People have made fun of spy shows before and we’ve seen plenty of movies that lampoon the archetypes of spy movies, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like “Archer.”  It is astonishingly dirty at times.  Just for Judy Greer’s character alone, I’m amazed a TV channel lets this air.  But it’s not just empty shock.  The show, much like “The Venture Brothers,” is slowly building one of the strangest mythologies of any show on TV, and it’s intoxicating to see what they come up with from season to season.  Bonus points for finally giving Aisha Tyler the best role she’s ever had, and bonus points on top of those bonus points for actually making her animated character hotter than she is in real life, no easy feat.

8 / “WTF With Marc Maron”

Talking about comedy can be deadly, because nothing ruins a joke quite like explaining it.  Doing interviews with comics can also be deadly, because the natural instinct of a comic is to make a joke out of everything.  It is incredibly impressive, then, to listen to the results week after week as Marc Maron’s “WTF Podcast” has defined itself as the single best show out there about the very serious business of being funny.  Maron’s always been a smart, cynical voice in the world of stand-up, but he seems to have found his calling with this particular format.  He has on other comedians, and the conversations are personal, revealing, and illuminating.  Listen to his talks with Louis CK or Andrew Dice Clay or Aubrey Plaza from this year and you’ll hear what I mean.  He manages to get to the real person behind the persona, yet he never strips them of their comic weaponry.  There are a number of podcasts I listen to, but this one is worth archiving for future fans of comedy to listen to, a cross-section of the industry unlike any other.

7 / “Rome”

This album by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi became the soundtrack for many of my writing sessions this year, and I love it dearly both in concept and execution.  Basically, it’s the soundtrack to a spaghetti western that never existed, and it makes wonderful use of guest stars like Jack White and Norah Jones.  It is evocative and dreamy and the only way I could love it more is if someone took the challenge that the album lays down and actually makes the film to go along with it.

6 / “The Astounding, The Amazing, and the Unknown”

Paul Malmont is one of my favorite working writers, and his latest novel is an unlikely sequel to his equally-unlikely work of wonder, “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril” from a few years back.  That one dealt with the various creators of the pulp fiction of the ’30s caught up in a real-life pulp adventure.  This time, Malmont jumps forward to the days of WWII, and while we see some of the same characters, the focus this time is on the nascent field of science-fiction, meaning this adventure ropes in indelibly etched characters like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and, once again, L. Ron Hubbard.  It’s a ripping yarn, a great adventure story with global implications, and one of the most subversive things about it is how it manages to serve as a superhero origin story for Scientology even as it keeps all the other narrative balls in the air.  Even in a year that saw the publication of the very good “Ready Player One” by Ernie Cline, which you really should read, this stands as the Geek Novel Of The Year for me.

5 / “Louis CK – Live At The Beacon Theater”

I’m going to cheat and use this space to also suggest that if you haven’t seen the FX show that Louis CK writes and directs and edits and stars in, simply called “Louis,” you are missing out.  Go.  See it.  But as much as I love his series, I wanted to take a moment to highlight the amazing experiment that he conducted over the last month, as a way of addressing some very strident comments that were made to me when I posted my “Ten Worst Films Of 2011” list.

Louis has a great way of approaching his act as a comic.  Each year, he starts from zero.  He throws out his old material and then works for a year to develop and hone a good hour or two of material, and then at the end of the year, once he’s got it polished and perfected, he shoots it for a special or, in the case of “Hilarious,” a film, and then he retires it for good.  This year, he shot his set at the Beacon Theater, and instead of doing it through a network or a studio, he paid for everything himself.  He paid for the theater, he paid for the filming costs, and when he was done, he released it himself on a custom-built website, and he charged a grand total of five dollars.  And inside of a month, he personally cleared a million dollars from people legally purchasing his product.

When people say that my reaction to “Red State” had anything to do with the message that Kevin Smith delivered at Sundance, it infuriates me because my writing over the past decade completely disproves that.  I have said repeatedly and often that Kevin Smith is a genius at creating community, servicing a fan base that feels like they are personally invested in the entire Kevin Smith Brand, and at this point, if you really want to carve out a niche career for yourself, that’s what you have to do.  I have pointed at Smith as a model to be emulated over and over.  I had specific problems with the shell game he ran on a room full of industry professionals during Sundance and with the actual movie “Red State,” but even so, I still am perfectly willing to admit that the idea of exploring new models of distribution is a worthwhile one.

What Louis CK proved is that you don’t have to be an asshole to make it work, and you don’t have to mislead anyone and you don’t need to throw a loud and offensive publicity stunt to make people pay attention.  Louis went the other direction, understated to a fault, and he cleared a million dollars inside of a month.  For a $5 product.  That’s amazing to me.  And it inspires me.  It makes me believe that all of the talk of how things are falling apart, which I hear frequently from people inside the ossified power structure of Hollywood, is just talk.  Things aren’t falling apart… not really.  Instead, they’re evolving, and the door is wide open for anyone who is smart and who can build an audience and who is willing to really put in the legwork to flourish without ever having to compromise their message or work for someone else.  You can put the money in your own pocket if you’re enterprising enough these days, and you can tell the stories you want to tell, and you can do it without asking anyone for permission.  True, Louis CK (and Smith, for that matter) built his audience over time, and this wasn’t his first time reaching out to fans, but he’s still fringe enough that I think this proves there is life outside the mainstream for those who want it.

And on top of that, “Live At The Beacon Theater” is brutally funny, an amazing piece of writing and performance from the guy who has become the best working comic in the world by simply stripping his act down and telling the truth, relentlessly.  I feel like my Id got hold of a microphone every time I watch Louis CK work, and i feel honored to be a fan during the era where he’s actually turning out new material on a regular basis.  Make no mistake… this is one of the all-time great comics, and he’s in his heyday.  Right now.  This is Pryor before the explosion.  This is Martin selling out concert arenas.  This is Carlin… well, pretty much always.  Louis CK proved himself as a comic again and as a businessman in a big way, and seeing commerce and art collide to such thrilling effect is one of the highlights of the year for me.

4 / “Walking The Room”

Dave Anthony and Greg Behrendt sit in a closet and talk about the slow-motion slideshow of failure that is their lives.  That’s it.  That’s pretty much the entire premise behind their weekly podcast, and I am mesmerized by it every single week.  They are unrelentingly filthy, they seem horrified by most of the rest of humanity, and if I were someone in their lives, I’d live in constant fear of being referenced on the show.  Yet I find myself eager to listen every Sunday night.  I relish my time in the closet with them, and I’m aware of how much of the particular vocabulary of their friendship has worked its way into my own vernacular.  There are times when it sounds like Anthony is struggling not to strangle Behrendt to death and then shove him up his own ass like a frosted-tip doughnut, but that’s just part of the pleasure of the show.  I’m not sure either of them is ever quite as funny on their own as they are together, and hopefully we’ll have “Walking The Room” around for years to come so we never have to test that theory.

3 / “The League”

One of the newest omnipresent TV archetypes is the “smiling sociopath,” or more precisely, groups of them.  Ever since “Seinfeld,” it’s become acceptable to throw a bunch of misanthropic creeps together and call it a sitcom, and I’ll admit… I’m particularly susceptible to this idea.  I like “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” precisely because not one of them could be described as a decent person in any way and it’s fun to watch them run wild over normal folk.  Hell, the animated series I mentioned earlier, “Archer,” is the same thing, but with guns and spy gadgetry.  “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has gotten lots of mileage out of Larry David’s love of hatred of humanity.  But for me, the best group of people I’d never want to hang around with in real life has got to be the fantasy football addicts who make up FX’s “The League.”  Mark Duplass, Nick Kroll, Jonathan Lajoie, Stephen Rannazzisi, Paul Scheer, and Katie Aselton fire joke after joke after joke over the course of each half-hour, and the show revolves around the various ways they find to torment one another during each season of fantasy football.  It takes the drive to rivalry that is present in any competition and turns it into the very oxygen these people breathe.  Everything they do, everything they say, they are always one-upping each other, always scoring points, always keeping score.  I laugh more in one half-hour of “The League” than I do in most feature-length comedies, and harder.  It is diseased, and i love it.  Besides, any series that would cast Jeff Goldblum as Nick Kroll’s dad should run for a thousand years.

2 / The Cannes Film Festival

I love traveling for festivals every year, and one of the things that really changed for me since moving to HitFix is that I can now count on Sundance, SXSW, Fantastic Fest, and Toronto every year.  This year, we added Cannes to the mix for the first time, fulfilling a life-long dream of mine, and the results were pretty wonderful.  The top three films on my top ten list were all seen at the fest for the first time, and two more of the top ten also played there.  What a remarkable batting average.  Even if that wasn’t true, though, the sheer experience of being in France, of finally sitting in the Grand Palais theater, of walking the streets of a small French town at the end of the days, all sorts of international cinema bouncing around in my head, is one I’ve waited for my whole life, and it did not disappoint.  I have no idea if this will be a regular thing or not moving forward, but I loved it, and as first experiences go, it was ideal.

1 / “Skyrim”

I am the Arch-Mage of Winterhold College.  I am the Harbinger of the Companions.  I am the Listener, the new leader of the Dark Brotherhood.  I am a Nightengale, the leader of the Thieve’s Guild.  I am Dragonborn.  I have killed Bandit Marauders and Restless Draughrs and Ice Wraiths and countless dragons, Elder and Frost and otherwise.  I am hours and hours and hours into the game, and I still feel like I’ve just barely scratched the surface.  I am a “Skyrim” addict, and I couldn’t be happier.

I only really have about an hour at the end of each day when I can play a game.  My deal with my wife is that I do not play video games at all while the kids are awake, because that’s not an example I want to set.  Besides, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.  I never have the spare time.  I never have “spare time,” to be honest.  But there is something about gaming that I find meditative and restorative, and they are a valued part of my cultural diet.  No game this year had anywhere near the same hold on me that “Skyrim” did, though.  For about the first hour or so that I played, I was sure I’d turn it off early and never play again.  But it started to get its hooks into me, and then suddenly, after I’d managed to kill my first dragon, I found myself thinking about the game at odd times, ready to get back to it, eager to solve this quest or that mission, genuinely compelled by the various narratives at play.  Not even the remarkable “Fallout 3” had this kind of hooks in me.  This is what they call an open sandbox game, meaning you can go anywhere and do pretty much everything, and you spend enough time character building that for each person, the world they play and the story they live will be different.  Yes, you will encounter the same things I do, but how you encounter them and when and what you do and how you handle them and what they mean to you… that’s all different from person to person.  This is about as far as we’re going to go without actual holodecks, and frankly, anything that is more immersive than this scares me, because it would be very easy to get lost in a fantasy world like this.  I remember playing “Dungeons & Dragons” back in the ’80s and loving it, but always wishing I could play a “real” version of the game, something without all the mechanics of dice and paper, where I could simply believe in the fantasy world completely.  That’s “Skyrim,” and for the first time ever in gaming, it feels to me like someone sent me a window that I can use to slip into a real alternate world, one where I can loose a verbal command that turns a room full of evil undead to ash, one where I have stood toe-to-toe with ancient gods and bested them, one where even mighty dragons fall before me within moments of our first contact.  It is a power fantasy, sure, but it’s also a powerful one, and I have no doubt there are many hours of “Skyrim” ahead for me in 2012 as well.

After all, Alduin isn’t going to kill himself, now, is he?

SPECIAL MENTION / “Star Wars” on Blu-ray

This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone who read the Film Nerd 2.0 series I wrote this year, but when I think of 2011, “Star Wars” will absolutely be a part of that for me, and the experience I had with my sons as we shared the films is something that I think all three of us are going to carry forever.  Already, I see the way the films have wormed their way into the every day conversations of the boys and into the fantasy lives they live out with their toys.  More than that, it has given my wife and I an invaluable tool to use when discussing moral choices with them.  When you can frame a choice using examples from art, it makes it easier to see the choice as more than just “what do I want?”, and the boys are starting to really understand the idea that the choices you make have implications for the people around you.  I’ve always loved the fantasy worlds created by George Lucas, but this year, I saw that they had an impact on the real world I live in, and in the lives of the two most important people to me, and for that, I treasure them now more than ever.

And with that, I say goodbye to 2011, and I start getting ready for what I hope will be a happy and productive 2012.  I am grateful to have a daily outlet, grateful to have a readership that challenges and enlightens me, and thrilled to work with a team that supports me in all the ways I need.  I am a lucky man, and I know that, and all I hope is that I am able to use this tremendous platform to do good for the art that I love, warn you about the art that concerns me, and share the ongoing conversation that makes being a film fan so much fun.

Happy new year, everyone.