Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical science fiction.


Cinematic Interpretations

Let's take a break from politics to talk about one of my favorite subjects, the movies. As a writer, I'm fascinated by the various methods of transition from words on a page, whether from a bestselling book or that hot new screenplay some Hollywood upstart typed into Final Draft on his laptop in Starbucks, to thousands of video screens all over the world. I follow a huge stack of beloved novelists, but I also track the work of such reliable screenwriters as Frank Darabont, Lawrence Kasdan and Steve Kloves. They've succeeded at something I was never able to do, which is break out as a professional screenwriter. That's a triumph, yet one that all too often goes unsung.

But what about those words that can't be shaped into cinematic or televised images? What about movies imported from countries where English isn't the primary language? What about languages spoken by non-English-speaking characters in American movies? Today we're going to talk about the subtle art of turning non-English words into video communication.

Subtitles in movies are almost as old as movies themselves. They evolved organically from the intertitles used to display dialogue between the live-action clips in silent movies. But until fairly recently, the technology used to inscribe subtitles onto moving images made them hard to read, hampering American's interest in and enjoyment of foreign films. I still remember watching The Bicycle Thief in a grad-school film history class. I gather it's a masterpiece but, thanks to the ghostly subtitles on black-and-white backgrounds, I still have little idea what that movie is about other than, apparently, some kid gets his bicycle stolen. Ideally, one should come away from a film viewing knowing more than what he could've gathered from the name of the movie.

Maybe that's one reason the subtitles in Star Wars (1977) are so effective. Keyed in bright yellow rather than the standard white, they're easy for even young moviegoers to take in. Yet for some reason producers' fondness for white lettering persists, albeit sometimes with thin, black borders or wider, black boxes around the white letters. Hey, movie studios: Any chance you could give those plain, white titles a rest for, like, ever? I think many of us would appreciate that. And by the way, subtitles need to be bigger. I know, I know, the middle-aged guy is griping the letters are too small, but hear me out. Titles that read perfectly well on a movie screen are almost impossible for most of us to make out on even an HDTV across the room. I'd love to be able to watch foreign movies on Netflix without having to scrabble around for my glasses.

Better yet, a few recent filmmakers and distributors have gotten truly creative with the banal art of subtitling their movies. Hopefully by now you've seen the Russian vampire thriller Night Watch (2004), but if you haven't, get on that. Its international cut not only subtitles the movie in readable English, it even plays with the layout of those titles to reflect what's happening on screen. They're not just consistent sentences at the bottom of the screen. Instead, they might be red letters that dissolve like blood underwater. They might be revealed in a wipe as a vampire slides across the screen. It's a fun movie, and for once, the subtitles are almost as much fun to watch as the action. It's more expensive, sure, and requires more creativity, but it helped Night Watch and its sequel earn millions in the U.S.

Even American filmmakers sometimes get to play with fancy subtitles in their own, primarily English-language movies. When Egyptians speak their own languages in the 1999 Mummy starring Brendan Fraser, the subtitles appear to be in the Papyrus font. See, papyrus is Egyptian! And they're speaking in Papyrus! And it's Egyptian! Get it? I suspect somebody took a victory lap around the office that morning.

There have even been movies in which the characters appear to notice the subtitles with which they share the screen. In The Impostors (1998), a character hiding under a bed can understand a foreign, non-English-speaking character by simply reading his subtitles. This joke echoes one in Fatal Instinct (1993), in which spies can follow a Yiddish conversation by reading. Other similar jokes include a subtitled horse in Men in Tights, subtitled conversational subtext in Annie Hall and a bar conversation amplified via subtitles in Trainspotting. In both Riff Raff and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, standard-English subtitles are used to clarify characters who are speaking English but in impenetrable accents. And in an episode of the sitcom Green Acres, Lisa (Eva Gabor) is not only able to read the English subtitles when she converses with her mother in Hungarian, she complains they're not accurate: "No, no, no, I said you hadn't changed a bit. We have a lot of trouble here with subtitles."

Sometimes subtitles are used to translate languages that don't even really exist, as when Greedo speaks "Huttese" to Han Solo in that Mos Eisley cantina. This proved so compelling that Star Trek was obliged to up its game. When the opening scene of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was shot, its Klingon characters spoke English dialogue to each other despite the fact that no Terran-English speakers were present. Actor James Doohan, the Canadian who played engineer Montgomery Scott, volunteered to create "Klingon" phrases that sounded plausibly alien but also matched the shape of the actors' mouths as they spoke. In some cases, the English subtitles were then rephrased so the overdubbing wouldn't be as noticeable to moviegoers with any facility for lip reading. A few years later, when the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan included an elevator conversation between aliens, linguist Marc Okrand (then working on closed captioning for the Oscars) was recruited to turn the actors' English-language lip movements into a plausible Vulcan sound library. That gig led to Okrand designing the Klingon language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a task complicated by the need to incorporate the few phrases Doohan had already devised for episode I. Obviously, nitpicky Trekkers would have noticed any possible discrepancy. Interestingly, Okrand complicated his own job by deliberately excluding forms of the verb "to be" from the Klingon language, purely as a private linguistic challenge to himself. Imagine his dismay when the script for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country included an extended riff on Shakespeare's "To be or not to be speech" from Hamlet ("You have not experienced Shakespeare," one alien character boasts, "until you have read him in the original Klingon").

Now it's standard practice for filmmakers to devise self-consistent languages with complex vocabularies and syntax for fictional races and alien species. Consider, for example, the "Dothraki" language devised by linguist David J. Peterson for Game of Thrones. If you find this stuff as interesting as I do, allow me to recommend the book In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent, a fun read by an author who not only teaches linguistics at the University of Chicago but has also earned her first-level certificate from the Klingon Language Institute (an actual thing). She's not to be confused with Marc Okrand, however, whose Klingon Dictionary was featured prominently on my bookshelf until the year I realized it was scaring away potential girlfriends. In point of fact, I only know a handful of Klingon words and phrases, including the standard greeting "nuqneH" -- "What do you want?" Friendly!

A special storytelling challenge occurs when characters speak to each other in a language that isn't English, conveying story points that English-speaking viewers still need to understand. It doesn't make sense to imply, for example, that all the Russian seamen aboard the Krasny Oktyabr in The Hunt for Red October (1990) would speak to each other in Russian-accented English. Director John McTiernan got around this problem in a memorably clever way. On page 15 of a screenplay draft by Larry Ferguson, a Russian character is reading from Revelation chapter 22, verses 12 and 13. McTiernan swaps that passage for Revelation 16:16, which refers to "a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon" (King James Version). Since that place name is the same in Hebrew, English and Russian, McTiernan's camera closes on actor Peter Firth's lips until he says the word, then backs away. At that point, the movie shifts from spoken Russian with English subtitles to spoken English (except in later scenes in which Americans share their environment). Even better, the movie's international cast members speak, for the most part, in their own accents: Sean Connery in Scottish, Stellan Skarsgård in Swedish and New Zealander Sam Neill in — well, Russian. I admit I've never figured that one out.

McTiernan was inspired to do this by a scene in Stanley Kramer's 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. In that movie, Maximillian Schell plays German defense attorney Hans Rolfe. There's quite a bit of business in early scenes to establish how the plot's trial is being conducted in both English and German, including translators and translation headphones. (Ironically, there's also some business with translation headphones in Star Trek VI.) Soon, however, the camera closes on Schell's lips as he speaks German, then backs away as he switches to English. We know he's actually speaking German, the other characters on screen "hear" him in German, but we get to hear him in English. This saves the audience the trouble of reading hours' worth of subtitles, something American audiences are notoriously loath to do under the best of circumstances.

My wife prefers it when foreign-language films have been dubbed into English. I do, too, but only when that's been done exceedingly well, as in the Disney re-releases of Japanese-language films animated by Hayao Miyazaki. Otherwise, I feel I'm getting only part of the movie, because I'm missing the vocal performances of its actors. I'm an actor who believes the way I say something matters at least as much as how I look when I'm saying it, and I don't necessarily trust another actor to translate that for me. For my money, creative solutions are always the best ones. I hope American film directors and distributors will continue to look for new ways to address these challenges, making the cinema produced by increasingly wealthy and well-crewed studios in countries all over the world more accessible to movie lovers right here at home.

Print This Post Print This Post


I read a lot of news magazines in the summer of 1980. I had only just turned 12, but I was soaking up information about The Empire Strikes Back because my dad insisted we should wait till a family trip to L.A. to see it at the drive-in. I imagine that's how I first heard about Cosmos, a show about science that would air on PBS in September. It promised to use new "video technology" to make science more exciting and compelling than ever before. The host was an urbane fellow I'd seen on The Tonight Show, a patch-elbowed academic with a hyponasal voice and distinctive way of pronouncing the word "human." That charismatic personage was Dr. Carl Sagan. His TV series would do much to change the course of my life.

It was Dr. Sagan who first showed me evidence for natural selection in a positive, non-combative way. I'd never seen that before. Oh, sure, I'd had plenty of exposure to the theory of evolution, but always at the hands of folks who were dead set against it. Dr. Sagan began by blowing my mind with the cosmic scale of timespace, then rebuilt my worldview from the ground up by showing me how nature used its enormous breadth of time and space to full, rich effect. Without the supernovae that spattered dense guts of stars across the universe, Dr. Sagan explained, the calcium and iron in my blood and bones could not exist. "We," Dr. Sagan insisted, "are made of starstuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself." There's no coming back from a statement like that. It makes all of us cousins to everything.

Things that didn't exist when Cosmos's 13 unforgettable episodes first aired: the Internet. Dr. "Indiana" Jones. Justin Timberlake. Panera Bread. Epcot. MTV. Natalie Portman. The IBM PC. Beyonce. Things that did: Mork & Mindy. Bob Marley. Sambo's restaurants. Natalie Wood. Snail mail correspondence. Rotary phones. Planet Pluto. The world has experienced such a paradigm shift over the last 34 years, all at the hands of technology, that you'd think our knowledge of science would've expanded along with it. It hasn't. Most of us think of science as a punishing subject we struggled through in high school by cheating off the kid with the Trapper Keeper notebook. Any molecular residue of scientific reverence or joy has been beaten out of us by apathetic, inarticulate babysitters masquerading as teachers. We need Cosmos now more than ever.

So here it is. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and frequent Daily Show guest, is stepping into Dr. Sagan's comfy loafers beginning this Sunday night. Ann Druyan, Dr. Sagan's widow and writing partner, is writing for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey as well; it's produced by, of all people, Seth "Family Guy" McFarlane. Based on an advance screener of the pilot episode, Dr. Sagan's legacy is in the best possible hands. If you don't believe me, wait for the closing moments of that hour.

"The Cosmos," a familiar voice explains in the pilot's opening seconds, "is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be." A hand releases dandelion fluff into the air, and it whizzes past Dr. Tyson on a picturesque bluff. That fluff will be a recurring image in the pilot episode, reminding us older folks of Dr. Sagan's scintillating "ship of the imagination."

"It's time to get going again," Dr. Tyson announces, smiling, and off we go. After a quick summary of the scientific method, we're whisked on a tour of the solar system and beyond. Do you know your cosmic address? You will 15 minutes later. You'll also be looking around the room for the top of your head, which popped off somewhere back around the Virgo Supercluster. "Feeling a little small?" Dr. Tyson asks. "We may just be little guys living on a speck of dust floating in a staggering immensity, but we don't think small." He proves this by taking us back to "New Year's Eve of the year 1600," where a hero of mine, a "natural-born rebel" named Giordano Bruno, is languishing in an Inquisition prison cell.

Casual viewers will find themselves offended here, as the next few minutes address fundamentalist opposition to science directly. But if religious adherents listen closer, they'll discover a man who believed in God fervently. Bruno argued, not that God didn't exist, but that our conception of Him is off by galactic orders of magnitude. Bruno's "lucky guess" about the immensity and transcendence of Creation was even truer than he knew.

If Dr. Tyson's exploration of space didn't make you feel small enough, he uses an updated version of Dr. Sagan's "cosmic calendar" to compress all 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang into a single 365-day year. If you had to guess, on how many such calendar days would you expect to find human beings? Let's put it this way: our species's wardrobe wouldn't need autumn flannels.

"I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become," Dr. Tyson remembers. Dr. Sagan would be proud, of both his student and his groundbreaking series's namesake. Throughout this pilot episode, Dr. Tyson's hushed voice reflects a reverence for nature--the same awed, diminished, expanded, illuminated worldview we gain from watching Planet Earth or the original Cosmos or, I suspect, giving birth. This is a show you should watch with your children. You and they will enjoy it; you and they will learn much; you and they will be stunned. This is top-drawer, spectacular entertainment that makes us all better, smarter people. I can't wait to geek out with the rest of you here about upcoming episodes.

Sunday at 8 p.m. on Fox--simulcast on NatGeo and eight other channels, including HD

Print This Post Print This Post
Filed under: TV No Comments

A Healthy Reminder

I want you to think back and remember a verb you once used with no irony or self-judgment: enjoy.

Here are things I used to enjoy: Star Wars. Burritos. Pinups, burlesque, and other pretty girls in minimal outfits. Comic book movies. Billy Joel. Pizza. Hard rock. Ender's Game. Music videos. Indiana Jones. Battlestar Galactica--the 2004 version, natch. Wine coolers. Standup comedy. I still enjoy all those things now, but in each case, I've been told my affections are silly, perhaps even misguided. Well, maybe the killjoy crowd does have a point or two. It's hard to knock Jar Jar without noticing what an effeminate prat C-3PO was from an adult perspective, so maybe all six of those movies were stupid. They are stupid. But I enjoy them. I've watched each of them dozens of times and I'm probably nowhere close to finished. I like Citizen Kane and The Godfather, too, but not as much as The Empire Strikes Back or Aliens. Pop culture talked me out of loving some of my favorites for a while, but now I've reached an age where I just want to be happy and love the things I love.

I don't care how much you hated Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I really don't. You thought that monkey scene was stupid? So did I. I physically cringed. You embraced the phrase "nuked the fridge?" Can you think of a better way to survive a 20-megaton bomb blast? You thought the aliens came out of left field? I submit to you: magic rocks. A wooden cup that makes you live forever if you drink out of it. A fancy gold box God uses as an apartment. Okay, you hated those things. Y'know what? Good for you. Aren't you smart? It won't affect my enjoyment one little bit. You go, Dr. Henry Jones...Junior.

I also want you to know that while I do think it's great women have breasts and look pretty and smell like vanilla sometimes, I also recognize they have minds and desires of their own. I consider them every bit as valuable as myself, and I can't imagine why anyone would think anything else. My unabashed heterosexuality does not impede my political or moral judgment. I support equal rights for every American citizen and wonder why it's even debatable in 2013. It saddens me that some young women feel their best way to get ahead in life is to get naked on the Internet, but that's their choice and I'm not gonna lie, nude women are beautiful. I'm not somehow unaware of that just because I'm a feminist.

I know pizza is bad for me. I've paid for my transgressions vis-à-vis the mozzarella arts with a thicker midsection, higher cholesterol levels, and countless nights interrupted by heartburn. I still like it. I try to enjoy it in moderation these days, but your definition of moderation and my definition of moderation are probably two different things.

I don't care what you love, as long as it doesn't hurt another unwilling person. If you like getting high on a Friday night and watching reruns of Futurama, then knock yourself all the way out. If you think the Transformers franchise is on a par with the collected works of Sidney Lumet, then Godspeed, my robot-loving friend. You have at it. I don't understand this Gen-X insistence on crapping on the things we used to love. Sadly, it's a cancer we've passed on to Generation Y. It must be killed now before it hardens into a permanent part of the American psyche.

If you'd asked guys of my generation two years ago who their favorite young movie directors are, among the top three picks would be J. J. Abrams. We loved that guy. We loved his show Lost till we decided it was cooler to act like we were over it. We loved his revival of Star Trek so much we couldn't even pretend we were too hip to like it. And then...he was given the reins of Star Wars. Suddenly we couldn't dump on him fast enough. And that doesn't hurt him, it hurts us.

Only us!

Last night, I've come to understand, a 20-year-old woman ground on a 36-year-old man for the MTV Video Music Awards, an evening of light entertainment with a title not only redundant but also oxymoronic and on the wrong channel. Be that as it may, the man in question is famous for a song about how a particular woman is "the hottest bitch in this place," meaning sexually attractive. The young woman is famous for having a dad who wore a mullet and for singing a song about how dancing to pop songs is popular across the USA. Together, the two are often seen on a channel devoted to older men capitalizing on the looks (and sometimes talents) of younger people. I didn't see the act, being otherwise engaged at the time (I was watching Breaking Bad like an adult), but I gather from EVERYTHING I LOOK AT THIS MORNING that she wore a pair of shorts so tight they somehow bifurcated her entire midsection. The Internet has gone crazy. This lowbrow dance number was the top story on this morning. The top story! It was more important than anything else that happened yesterday anywhere else on the planet! Take a step back, Mumbai and Damascus!

Now, when I was close to this woman's age, we made more sensible choices. We went to nightclubs in timeless fashions like jeans with suspenders or blazers pulled up to our elbows. We ground on each other's midsections like intelligent people, to a song called "Rump Shaker," by a group whose name was spelled Wreckx-N-Effect. Now, even I can't bring myself to reproduce the lyrics to "Rump Shaker" here, but I invite you to Google them for yourself. That song was all the rage in dance clubs in 1992, when I was 24 years old, and it's about a man telling a woman he simply wants to penetrate her in, shall we say, the back 40. Most of the women I knew loved that song, even after they noticed its lyrics. I wasn't fond of it myself, but I did enjoy the consequences of DJs playing it in dance clubs: namely, women would back into me and pretty much do exactly what Hannah Montana did to Growing Pains Jr. last night.

I've seen the dance act called, not just embarrassing, but an all-out career-ender. I've seen it called a minstrel show. That's right, it destroyed equal rights for black people, who apparently have an ethnic monopoly on simulated rear entry. And what all these people are forgetting is it took place on MTV, where Beavis and Butt-Head are now regarded as elder statesmen.

Set aside the question of why Miley Cyrus is said to be acting "slutty" and Robin Thicke isn't. Set aside the repercussions of moving your lower back that fact. (You're only given one spine, kids. Use it wisely.) The real question is, why can't we just admit that sometimes pop music is sexy and fun and ridiculous and all of that is perfectly okay? She's of legal age. Let her dance in a teddy bear hat. Who gives a rat's ass in latex panties? (Fun fact: I couldn't wear those. I'm allergic. The result might be a party in the USA, but not in my pants.)

So just enjoy what you freaking enjoy. Quit trying to act above it all or contextualize it or make it more politically correct or pretend it has apocalyptic impact. Just enjoy it. Recognize Star Wars was a movie for nine-year-olds, and so were all its sequels and prequels. If seeing a Star Wars movie or TV show or even that godawful holiday special makes you feel young again, great. If it doesn't, no big deal. If you like singing along with the radio, sing. Don't get embarrassed if that hipster on his recumbent bike sees you jamming along with "Sweet Cherry Pie." Of course it's a terrible song. So what? It won't change the course of modern feminism. It doesn't mean you consider women equivalent to a tasty dessert. It just means it's Monday and you needed a pick-me-up and that's what came on the stupid oldies rock station you like because it reminds you of easier times.

From now on, I intend to quit second-guessing the things I enjoy. I encourage you to do the same. If Zack Snyder wants to cast Ben Affleck as Batman, let him do it and stop all the faux-entitled whining. It's his franchise now. He may very well have a good reason, same as Tim Burton did for casting Beetlejuice and Christopher Nolan did for casting that guy who played Snowy Bowles on Sweat. He may not. Will it ruin your enjoyment of Batman if Zack Snyder turns out a bad movie? My DC-enraptured friend, may I gently remind you of pretty much every other Batman movie ever made?

For the love of God (and by God I mean Steven Spielberg), can we please remember what it felt like to unironically enjoy things? Would it really be so damn difficult? I plan to be first in line for Star Wars, Episode VII, and in the meantime, how long as it been since you listened to The Bangles' Greatest Hits? Well, mister, that's too long.

Print This Post Print This Post

Cold Turkey

When the DVR was invented--back then we called it TiVo, in the same adoring murmur we reserved for words like "Adonai" or "Double Stuf Oreos"--I knew it would change my life, by which I meant it would eliminate my need for a life. I worked for Warner back then, hallowed be its name, but my social interactions at night or on weekends were minimal. I had nothing to do, and I hadn't yet considered the option of a gym membership or any other variation on "movement." I piled on TiVo season passes like I was running amok for a game show shopping spree. This habit stuck with me for years, till it was not uncommon for me to watch a couple of dozen shows every week, every episode, all season long, nine months a year. I ballooned like someone shot me with a Dig Dug gun.

Pathetic...but at least I never had to worry about feeling left out of water cooler conversations about Lost or The West Wing or BSG.

God, I miss Lost, The West Wing and BSG.

Now I'm happily married. My wife works during the day, so you might assume I spend weekday afternoons watching Dr. Phil while eating chili cheese everything. The truth is I've been busier these last few months than I was when I worked for Cengage. I watch TV during lunch, but even then I lay on the Fast Forward button like a speed demon. I've become acutely aware that I no longer have the time nor the inclination to sit in front of the tube by myself three hours a day. If Amanda doesn't like a show, it's all but impossible for me to stay committed to it. I need to break this addiction. Come to Papa, sweet freedom!

Which brings me to Mad Men. I started watching Mad Men because all the critics told me how amazing it was. They were right. Mad Men was and is an intelligent, multilayered, convincingly acted look at life in the mid-1960s. It tackles sexism, racism, homophobia, and the rise of youth culture without ever resorting to superficiality. It's addictive, and the many failed attempts to copy its period and style merely emphasize how singularly brilliant it is.

It's also a damn soap opera.

Do I need to be this loyal to a soap opera? Really? My wife doesn't care for the show (no particular reason), so it's inconvenient to watch when she's around. When she isn't, I'm busy. If I stopped watching Mad Men now, would I suffer in any way? How often am I asked how I feel about Mad Men? Is there some great unresolved plotline like the nature of the Island or how Starbuck came back from the dead? (Both explanations turned out to be lame, by the way.) Will Jon Hamm come to my house and beg us to return? I'm sorry, Amanda: the answer to that question is no. So what if I just...stopped?

What if I stopped watching 30 Rock? I know that season finale was funny, but the season which preceded it had about as many laughs as a Jerry Lewis telethon--from his fat years.

How 'bout Community? Ooh, tougher call. I love that show, but NBC just inexplicably fired its showrunner, Dan Harmon. Cram it up your cramhole, NBC.

The Office hasn't been worth a flip since Steve Carrell left, and it wasn't outstanding the year before that. So see you later, Ed Helms and weird British lady! Even James Spader bailed on that show, and he's starting to look like the Quaker Oats guy.

What if I only watched one Anthony Bourdain show? Sorry, Layover. You'll be missed...but how much?

What shows have you stuck with out of sheer DVR addiction? I promise, no judgment...unless you say Toddlers & Tiaras, in which case how the hell are we still friends?

Print This Post Print This Post
Filed under: TV No Comments

My Favorites of 2010

I'm cooking up a diatribe on the expression "TMI"--spoiler alert, it's not one of my favorites--but first, here are ten things I dug in 2010. I should warn you at least one of them is not family-friendly.

1.) Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky

Not only did Natalie Portman leave Annette Bening in her dust for Best Actress, she gives one of the best performances of the last five or ten years. I've actually seen it derided as mousy, when that was the nature of the character--at least until the movie's pulpily thrilling final act, when her Black Swan emerges at last. Aronofsky is now officially one of our most gifted directors, even if his tastes often run more nihilistic than mine do.

2.) Cee-Lo'

Well, let's put it this way: The radio version of Cee-Lo's delightful kiss-off was called "Forget You," and it just wasn't the same. There are two versions of the extremely Not Safe for Work video, and I like 'em both. If you still haven't seen either video, the version with the lyrics is here, and the official "diner" version is here. Of the content of the song, all I'll say is we've all felt that way at least once.

3.) Community

Why aren't more of you watching this meta-hilarious show? Did the paintball episode, "Modern Warfare," not convince you? "Basic Rocket Science," the episode about the KFC space simulator, was great, too. By the way, speaking of sitcoms, Modern Family is really as good as they say.

4.) Antoine Dobson, "The Bed Intruder Song"

I loved Antoine when he was just that guy on the YouTubed news report. Then, thanks to AutoTune the News, he became the lead vocalist on the catchiest song of the year. (Yes, even catchier than Cee-Lo's.) Hide your kids, hide your wife!

5.) Exit Through the Gift Shop, directed by Banksy

Sorry, Joan Rivers, this was the documentary of the year...or was it? There are persistent rumors the whole movie is a hoax. But even if it is, that doesn't make it any less entertaining--perhaps even more so. Plus it'll make you think long and hard about the definition of art, and if you care about art at all, that's never a bad thing. It's available now on Netflix or at a video store near you.

6.) Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Hands down, this was the page-turner of the year (sorry, Mockingjay). It's nonfiction, yes, but soapier than fiction, with more colorful characters and the fate of a nation hanging in the balance. There's not a person in that race you won't feel different about after reading it, and that goes double for the late, lamented Elizabeth Edwards. If you're addicted to either Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow, this is an absolute must-read.

7.) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by Edgar Wright

Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News named it the best movie of the year, because he can. I can't...but it was the popcorn movie I loved most. (Sorry, Iron Man 2 and Tron: Legacy. You let me down.) This is my favorite Wright movie by far, and given that his previous features are Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, that's saying something. (I'm also a fan of his Simon Pegg TV series, Spaced.) Available on video now.

8.) Storm Chasers

It's my favorite show on TV, even when the producers try to break up the sausage-fest with a pointless meteorolgess (TM Christian Carvajal 2011). Heck, I don't even consider it a guilty pleasure anymore, I just love it. Y'know how much? It's as good as Top Chef Desserts was unwatchable. Yeah. That much.. Also, it's the least scripted reality show, because it's pretty hard to set call times for tornadoes. Reed Timmer, you magnificent tool.

9.) The Social Network, directed by David Fincher

Okay, this was my favorite movie of the year, not least because everyone in it including Justin Timberlake is amazing. I credit Aaron Sorkin, who's redeemed himself for my woeful devotion to and ultimate disappointment with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I've never been able to act in a Sorkin project before, but maybe that'll change this April, Katy Shockman. (Cough.) The Social Network hits DVD and Blu-Ray this Tuesday. (In the meantime, check out The Secret in Their Eyes, a terrific Argentine drama that hit American video last year.)

10.) A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

If you were at all amused by my attempts in Lightfall to write in odd formats and from a variety of first-person voices, then this is the novel for you. Not only was it my favorite new fiction of the year, it introduced me to Egan, a talent so undeniable I immediately went out and grabbed her previous novel, The Keep. Then it was so amazing I'll read everything she ever wrote. So congratulations, Jennifer Egan: You're my first new literary crush since the heyday of Haven Kimmel.

Print This Post Print This Post
Filed under: Movies, TV No Comments

Clip Show: The Best TV of the Decade

Let's face it, this was the decade when TV got great, maybe even better than movies. For every show that made my list, there was a Firefly or Project Runway or Friday Night Lights or Deadwood or Flight of the Conchords or Glee that you'll argue should be on the list instead, and you may be right. Again, this is my list, reinforced by video clips to justify my DVR season passes. (P.S.: I've since removed those clips to hasten load times for the rest of the page.)

30 Rock -- As the Onion's A.V. Club points out, it wasn't supposed to be good, at least not as good as Aaron Sorkin's similarly themed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Tina Fey was a funny writer but no actor--Sarah Palin was still on the horizon (see below). But 30 Rock is consistently funny, week after week, and if Alec Baldwin does retire in 2012 as he promised Playboy, it'll be as crummy a moment as the Mayans predicted.

Honorable mention: Saturday Night Live -- but only when talking about the 2008 presidential race, and really only when [Tina Fey skewered Sarah Palin.]

But I [also enjoyed] Ben Affleck as Keith Olbermann.

The Amazing Race -- Not only is the show consistently thrilling, but we also explore unfamiliar cities and cultures. It's edutainment! This is the show that taught us running at "Level Five, Level Five!" can make awesome TV.

Arrested Development -- There had never been a sitcom like it, and now there are several (e.g., Better Off Ted). Consequently, the world is a happier place. Tobias Fünke forever!

Battlestar Galactica -- Take one cheesy Star Wars knockoff. Remove everything that didn't work and a few things that did (e.g., Starbuck). Then add a big pile of awesome and the best visual effects in TV history. Repeat as necessary.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart -- The Colbert Report is hit and miss, frankly, but Stewart has literally become our most trusted newsman. Yet never has he been more emotional and flat-out necessary than on his first show back after 9/11. Don't watch this one at work; it's a tear machine, even eight years later.

Freaks and Geeks -- High school in the '80s was exactly like this, only duller. Judd Apatow began his decade-long reign of terror with this show, and long may he live. This show is literally the reason I first got Netflix, and it'd sure make a fantastic application of yours.

The Late Show with David Letterman -- There's still only one Uncle Dave, and he's still funnier than Jay Leno, and he's still getting trounced thanks to people who aren't as brilliant as us. We'll turn on the tear machine again for the clip [from 17 September 2001].

Lost -- Scripted network TV got better as a direct reaction to J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and Lost. It's as simple as that.

Mad Men -- My mom and I watch this show together. She's addicted. Maybe that explains some of my attachment to a show that's been accused of dragging, but the stellar opening credit sequence is a big factor as well. And then there are episodes like the Kennedy assassination episode below (directed by Barbet Schroeder), followed by the lightning-fast season 3 finale, "Shut the Door. Have a Seat."

The Office, U.K. -- "I don't give shitty jobs," David Brent assures us, the first line of a Ricky Gervais performance that is among the richest characters ever invented for TV comedy. I love the American version, too (see below), but I cherish the nights my friends and I would gather to chortle at this show on DVD. I've included the first scene of episode 1, but don't forget the Christmas special and David's jaw-dropping music video.

The Office, U.S. -- It's a different show, yet exactly the same in its ruthless assault on office logic. I also admire its willingness to discomfit rather than amuse, a trait it inherited from its BBC predecessor.

Planet Earth -- My family hasn't been this excited about a nature documentary since the glory days of Marlin Perkins. I'd include a clip, but Planet Earth needs to be in HD. Some would argue it's why HDTV was invented.

The Sopranos -- I know, you're annoyed by how it ended. (Tell that to Galactica fans.) Am I alone in actually kind of liking the series finale and its singular blackout? But no, that wasn't the best episode ever. I nominate either "Pine Barrens" or...well...heavy spoiler alert if you're still catching up on DVD...

Survivor -- Yes, Mark Burnett basically cursed us with a thousand reality shows, but at least he produced one terrific one first. I could name a lot of favorite competitors, episodes, and ad libbed diatribes; but really, it all comes down to this...

Top Chef -- I've been an Iron Chef fan from way back, both Japanese and American, and Food Network is pretty much my go-to diversion, but Top Chef is the best food show since Julia Child, maybe ever. I know most people's favorite season was the second (with Ilan and Marcel), but man, I'm all about Hung Huynh from Season 3. He slices, he dices! Just don't let him near your truffle oil.

Undeclared -- A little-seen Apatow gem. What Freaks and Geeks was for high school, Undeclared was for my undergraduate college years. By the way, both shows starred a super-young, super-awkward Seth Rogen, and are worth seeing if only for that. Amy Poehler turns up as an R.A. ("No judgment, only pizza"), and Loudon Wainwright III stars as the protagonist's haplessly sensitive dad.

Weeds -- Yeah yeah yeah, the show is very well written and acted, blah blah blah. Mostly, though, it's on my list because it stars Mary Louise Parker, the sexiest woman on Earth. Uh, next to Amanda, of course. The show really is brilliant, though. Seriously. I mean that. Juvenile drooling aside.

The West Wing -- Let's forget about most of that final, Aaron Sorkin-free season, shall we? No show has ever made me feel smarter, while simultaneously reminding me how much I failed to learn in high school civics.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts -- I damn near put this on my movie list. Spike Lee tells it like it was, and we watch as the America we thought we knew falls apart before our eyes. We're still trying to get it all back, one dream deferred at a time. Rather than include a clip from that show, which would only make you bawl like an infant, I've attached the most memorable news interview of the decade [Anderson Cooper in New Orleans].

The Wire -- A lot of people think it's the best series in television history, and if you haven't seen it, then Netflix awaits, Gentle Reader. Each of the five seasons is different, each stunning, each a classic. My personal favorite is the last.

Guilty pleasures? Reno 911, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Family Guy: Blue Harvest, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

So what are your favorite shows and episodes of the last ten years?

Print This Post Print This Post
Filed under: TV No Comments