Most Adventurous TV Shows of 2012

There were actually a lot of good shows this year: Suburgatory, Bob’s Burgers, Modern Family, Arrow, Supernatural, Parks and Recreation, Dexter (for the first time in a while), Boardwalk Empire, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Luther, 30 Rock, Girls, Ben and Kate, Veep, Luck, Hunted, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Cougar Town, Elementary, Southpark, Californication, Regular Show, Futurama, The Good Wife. All of these shows had their strong points. But the watermark of truly great art has always been how effectively it challenges the audience, how far the artist can push the viewers outside of their expectations while still abiding by the basic rules of the format.

It is my opinion that the highest goal an artist can achieve is to compel viewers to adjust their perceptions of the world. Television provides a particularly fascinating opportunity to critically examine art because the format is so rigid. Telling a long, complicated story in the form of a dozen shorter, contained stories requires far more rigid rules than those of today’s popular books, films, or video games. In television you have only a half hour (or an hour) minus commercial breaks and credit sequences to tell your story. The cast is recurring. Plots are predictable. The object is to entertain, with as little innovation as possible.

But occasionally - even after you’ve seen so many shows that you know all the rules, all the tricks - the idiot box does something else entirely: It surprises you (Of course, just being surprising isn’t enough. Beauty and the Beast surprised me by how awful it was.) For a show to be great it has to throw a curveball while simultaneously showing a complete mastery of the rules of television. In short, execution counts as much as imagination. With that in mind, I have made some ground rules for my list of 2012's best TV shows, weighing two qualifiers equally: Imagination and execution. Creativity and skill. Out of the box, in the box.


Imagination: 9
Execution: 6
Total score: 15

Fringe hit a pretty even stride midway through Season Three. It delivered the freak-of-the-week stories with confidence, and it had no difficulty exploring new, fascinating and disturbing corners of science fiction. It had a decent ensemble and managed to, at the very least, get good ideas out - only occasionally in a ham-fisted manner. But it was clear that the writers wanted more. So they gave their show something new for an episodic science fiction show: A long memory. Instead of throwing every case of the week into a box sandwiched between The Ark of the Covenant and that creepy alien fetus from The X-Files, they used each new episode as a building block towards a larger story.

It was midway through Season Three that I noticed that everything that had ever happened to these people was relevant to the plot of each episode, which was a tall order. But it seemed this bored the writers, because they decided it would be fun to retroactively remove one of the main characters from their universe and examine what effect that would have on the other characters. It was a bold move and while it made for some very lofty and interesting ideas, it also cheapened some of the show's key relationships.

It didn’t help that every episode contained a rushed, exasperating final scene, always cramming in as many overused emotional platitudes as possible to somehow wrap up their bizarre ideas. It was messy, but the writers certainly kept me on my toes. And once everything got tidied up at the end of Season Four, I was left wondering, how are these guys going to surprise me now?

Lo and behold, Season Five picked up 25 years in the future. Suddenly, we’re plunged into a dystopian world where our Fringe team has to liberate humans from their cybernetic time-traveling oppressors. On top of the insane left turn the show has made, they’re also toning down the show's more heavy-handed notes. Yes, there’s occasionally the painfully expository monologue or by-the-book final speech but the constant, unrelenting world-building keeps the show busy enough to avoid lingering on its weaker moments. In short Fringe has somehow managed to constantly throw the rules out the window while simultaneously never forgetting where it came from. It’s a tricky balancing act. And they pull it off.


Imagination: 7
Execution: 9
Total score: 16

Homeland’s first season blew me away. Its first few episodes gave us an engrossing enigma: a man who might or might not be a terrorist but who certainly did have PTSD. It showed his everyday routine and asked us to watch closely to see if we could discover his true identity.

As we watched all these sad, confusing, engrossing and always very personal moments transpire, Claire Danes watched them with us. Homeland became a subtle and profoundly affecting look at voyeurism and the very nature of television. Then, after three episodes, the show threw that theme out the window. Suddenly, the show was about the tumultuous yet completely magnetic relationship between these two deeply broken people. Then, in an equally rapid shift, it wasn’t. It was about a madwoman and a suicide bomber. By the end of the season it was about sheer desperation.

On top of these rapid shifts the acting was brilliant. Every episode seemed like a new and exhilarating challenge for Claire Danes. The writers would continuously throw her into the depths of shame and desperation just to see if she could claw her way out. It was a thing of beauty. And I was totally unprepared for it.

When Season Two premiered, I was ready. I knew what I was getting into. This was a show that religiously threw its own concept out the window. And now that I knew that, how could it possibly surprise me? For a while the answer was far simpler than I thought it would be. They simply moved the plot along very quickly. They wasted no time sloughing off all the leftover premises of the first season while continuing, in a natural way, each character’s personal story. The concept changed a few more times; constantly shifting and pivoting under the immense weight of the show's stakes. And for a while I was impressed with how well everything seemed to be building, like a titanic weight on everyone’s shoulders, ready to crash.

Then, they simply changed the theme one too many times and, all at once, I felt like I was watching 24. The writers started throwing entirely random events at the side characters for no other reason than to give them something to do and the bad guy trapped our hero with a brilliant plan that was literally the same master plan from Season one of 24. I’m not kidding.

While I am sorely disappointed by some of these turns, looking back it seems like it was only a matter of time. There was no way they could keep it up. And while Claire Danes’ performance has become somewhat rote over the course of Season two, Damian Lewis got his turn this season, producing a performance so beautifully fragile and raw I was actually winded on multiple occasions.


Imagination: 6
Execution: 10
Total score: 16

I have a theory. And bear with me here. Archer is like a far more vulgar, animated version of Arrested Development. A lot of what made Arrested Development such an immaculate sitcom is present in Archer. The constant, tight, insular jokes, the circular plot lines, the tightly threaded stories, the razor-sharp wordplay, the humorous sociopaths, not to mention the presence of Jessica Walter and Jeffrey Tambor.

But I feel that Archer succeeds in exactly the ways that Arrested Development did not – namely, its limitless ability for expansion. Animated TV shows have become the new venue for the world’s most adventurous artists. (I’m going to talk more about this later.) The budgets of animated shows allow room for the type of adventures that live action shows simply can’t afford. So, while Arrested Development had to work around its budget limitations to make an episode about going to Mexico (a personal favorite of mine) Archer can go into outer space without changing production costs in a substantial way.

Now, I’m not saying that a show’s creative lifeblood is wholly dependent on the amount of scenery changes it can make. But, by allowing the writers that type of freedom, Archer has produced a season of ridiculous madcap adventures that never get mired in familiar waters. From the aforementioned season finale in space to a car chase with Burt Reynolds to a Justified parody to an episode aboard a train and then to one that takes place entirely in Archer’s mother’s apartment - the show takes full advantage of its incredibly funny cast of characters by never being limited in where they go next. Put simply Archer has found a way to shrug off every obstacle that might stand between the writers and unmitigated hilarity.


Imagination: 8
Execution: 8
Total score: 16

In many ways, Breaking Bad hasn’t changed much since its inception. The things I like about it – the use of symbolism and subtext – are consistent. The things I don’t like (namely every single thing Skyler says or does) are consistent as well. But, if there was ever a good opportunity for Breaking Bad to tweak its tone, it was Season Five, episode one. And they did it. There is an electric quality to Season Five. A jittering, swelling, fist-clenching kind of energy that goes well beyond nerve wracking.

So far, the show has expertly balanced its sense of humor with its sense of danger. There have always been absurd underpinnings and riveting stakes. But, after the explosive Season Four finale, the dust has very much settled. The half nail-biting, half-laughing viewing experience that has taken us this far has subsided. And now that there was no longer a big bad guy for Walter to kill with science, I was ready for the inevitable bad guy of Season Five: Walter himself. It was, of course, the only possible conclusion.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which Gilligan and his gang are leading Walter down that path. It’s not through greed or paranoia or betrayal or any other tired mobster cliché. Walter’s tragic flaw has been there all along, peeking at us from beneath those iconic glasses. Walter has been forced to look at his life and, like most Americans, he is not happy with what he’s made for himself. His life is not a failure, just an uneven collection of missed opportunities.

The American Dream is nowhere more a burning question than in television. Walter wants it all because that’s what he’s supposed to want. His descent into villainy is so profoundly affecting because it is so mundane. It takes so little to push him from mild-mannered schoolteacher to scheming mobster. Season Five ends on this note: How much is enough? And of course, Walter’s ultimate undoing, the great American tragedy, is his almost too predictable answer: Nothing. Nothing will ever be enough.


Imagination: 7
Execution: 9
Total score: 16

Game of Thrones’ first season was almost too good. It was a startling achievement in both the practical and conceptual challenges of creating a fantasy epic for television. The solution it seems is to focus on the political dealings, to give the characters a lot of space to breathe and to rely on a rich tradition of storytelling. This allows for a great many scenes in which two people can sit in a lush, beautifully decorated room and talk. For a long time. Of course, a healthy amount of gruesome murder in each episode gets the audience hooked, but it’s the touching moments, the fearsome threats, the melancholy admissions, all made behind closed doors, in stillness, that really suck you in. And after a shocking, totally engrossing thrill ride of a first season I was looking forward to season two. But once again (you’ll start to notice a trend here), I was a little bit disappointed.

While the show continued to give its characters new life, new stories, and new possibilities, the veneer started to slip, revealing the cogs beneath the surface. The format became too transparent. As we watched the show, I started whispering to my friends, “Here comes a monologue” with increasing accuracy. Of course, I won’t lie, some of those monologues I saw coming were truly beautiful. They were poetry in a way that is totally absent in most television. But the show, on a whole, felt very much like it was treading water. The characters we loved continued to be lovable, the boring ones, boring.

That is, until the second to last episode, which, in traditional Game of Thrones fashion, rocked me, hard. Not only did I finally find out what they’d been saving their budget for – a killer epic sword-and-shield beach battle with exploding boats – I also got to witness the Game of Thrones' take on battle. Once again, it was not the scores of murders that got my attention. It was the quiet moments: as the women huddled in their bunker, waiting for possible death, the queen slowly got drunk.


Imagination: 8
Execution: 8
Total score: 16

I do not envy the writers of Justified. They wrote a second season so beautiful, so artful, so epic, so much a modern King Lear, that there was literally no possible way they could follow it up with anything nearly as good. And I think they knew that.

So, what do you do when you’ve already painted your masterpiece? You have fun. That’s what Justified did this season: They had a good time. The symmetry of Season Two, the poetic notions, the grander statements, all went up in smoke. And it was probably the best thing the writers could have done.

They grabbed a handful of bad guys as terrifying as they were hilarious – some of them stragglers from Season Two – put them in a bag and shook it. Then they put Raylan in the mix and had him do what he does best, try not to get involved. The episodic nature returned but with a little bit more confidence. The one-offs had more of a punch, certainly more laughs, resulting in whole season that felt increasingly like the hillbilly noir the writers intended it to be.

The finale was a little haphazard, jumping from the show's most gruesome, hilarious moments to its most heartfelt with barely a moment to breathe. But there was conclusive sense of sadness that had a very profound effect on at least this viewer when it was all over. In a lot of ways Justified’s third season was like a rebound relationship, a palate cleanser, a way for the show to get its confidence back between more serious commitments. I can’t wait for Season Four.

4. Community

Imagination: 9
Execution: 8
Total score: 17

If Homeland is the jazz of the TV world, Community is the prog rock. The writers of Community love television. They love the all its tricks and tropes, so they've made a show solely for the purpose of playing with them.

When the show started, Abed’s occasional TV reference was as self-aware as they got, but as the show grew and gained confidence, the writers began experimenting with the degree to which Abed actually knew he was in a TV show. Now, 3 seasons later, Community has finally hit its boldest stride, moving beyond the occasional self-referential moment to becoming a sitcom for sitcom junkies.

If you are familiar with a “bottle episode” or a “flashback episode” or any of the myriad sitcom formats, this is your show. In fact, at this point, the writers of Community are no longer limiting themselves to taking apart the sitcom genre. They will take apart a procedural mystery or a convoluted conspiracy with the same kind of loving self-awareness as they do a sitcom. The show that was once a love letter to the sitcom has graduated to becoming a love letter to all genres, to the idea of genre. And what I find most impressive is that in all their meta-tomfoolery they’ve yet to sacrifice their characters. Somewhere amidst all their bizarre exploration of genre, the writers of Community managed to tell some of the most honest and touching stories I've seen all year.


Imagination: 10
Execution: 7
Total score: 17

When talking about 2012’s most adventurous TV, how could I not mention Adventure Time? The show is a constant unmitigated expression of childish wonder. It's like that feeling you had when you were nine and you’d rush into the backyard. It was the same yard as yesterday, but your imagination would turn it into a jungle or a snowy moon in a distant solar system. There were no limits to your imagination.

This is what it’s like to watch Adventure Time. I remember the first seven-minute short they released back in 2010. It was absurdly funny, but in a viral video way. I couldn’t imagine it spawning a compelling TV show. But it did. It became a fun, childish excursion that slowly turned into a massive world-building endeavor. And by Season Two it was most assuredly the strangest and most gloriously unpredictable show in the world.

But after three seasons of explosive randomness, I was beginning to grow weary. It was still unpredictable, but its volatility had become, in itself, predictable. I could see clearer than ever how random is not the same as adventurous. But then the show did something truly innovative. The writers decided to slow down the show’s tidal wave of world building, and instead focus on steady and compelling character growth. They realized they could tell stories without constant injections of the bizarre, focusing instead on telling honest personal stories. I was actually surprised by how moved I was by the fourth and fifth season of Adventure Time. These silly characters, who had been introduced seemingly at random, began serving a deeper purpose. The show realized that in a world with no humans and mostly animated candy, they could still tell a profoundly affecting coming of age story.

2. Mad Men

Imagination: 8
Execution: 10
Total score: 18

I don’t know if it’s because I’m young and I haven’t seen enough history unfold, but I feel like America is entering its most self reflective time period. The 90s, even the aughts, seemed to barrel forward, clinging to the framework that had gotten them this far. But, perhaps due to the recession, it seems as if we Americans no longer trust our own traditions. Or, at the very least, we’ve begun to examine them more thoroughly than before. In this time of economic shriveling we’ve begun to call into question everything that makes us who we are, including the American Dream. What’s always impressed me about Mad Men is that it’s always stuck to its thesis. Back in episode one of season one, it was clear that this was a show setting out to dissect the American Dream. And what better way to do that than make a show about advertizing, an industry that subsists entirely on the ideas of the American Dream (Life, liberty, and the pursuit of more stuff), set in the 1960s, an age of opportunity where America was forming its most distinguished identity?

Now that we’ve finished Season Five, Mad Men hasn’t strayed from its original goal. It is still more than ever a show about selling an American Dream that doesn’t exist. But this season impressed me more than any previous season. In a lot of ways it’s due to the show's willingness to try new things and change its core character relationships. This goes hand in hand with its willingness to let the times change. The show started in 1960 and has moved to 1967. The décor has changed, the music, the fashion. The whole mood has shifted. But the thesis remains intact. This season we’ve seen what people are willing to do for the principles of our country. For money, or freedom, or in pursuit of their dreams.

The show has really bared its teeth this year and it was a great move for them. So many times, we watched as characters experienced the effects of wanting it all, and getting nothing. There came a great quote at one point that sums up my feelings towards the show. "Not every little girl gets to do what they want; the world can't support that many ballerinas." It perfectly encapsulates the feeling that the world they inhabit is crumbling under the weight of so many American Dreams.


Imagination: 10
Execution: 9
Total score: 19

Louie may just be the greatest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen on television. Season One was a wonderful scattershot biography. A look inside the life of one of comedy’s bottomless goldmines. Season Two was less about Louie’s life, and more about his point of view, but both seasons were done in a series of vignettes that had little care for consistency. In fact, Louie would regularly recast the two girls playing his daughters, or recast the woman playing his ex-wife. He would even change who these characters were between episodes. For example, Louie’s mother changes, not just in the woman playing her, but her entire personality. In this way, Louie is trying to tell us that each story is meant to be totally stand-alone.

Louie was giving you snapshots; he had really no interest in world building.

So, imagine my surprise when Louie decided that this season he would tell a long story. He kept the characters consistent (at least within the season) and more importantly he kept the theme consistent. He narrowed his focus down to one constant thematic force: communication: the ways we chose to communicate and the things that get in our way. Every episode, from having to speak with his father, or being unable to break up with his girlfriend, presents the same problem. Louie can’t seem to communicate; why? The answers range from being too self-conscious to being afraid of death and everything in between.

But it goes deeper than that. There’s a terrific moment in the third season where Louie gets out of his car and gets in a shouting match with a Bostonian. His Boston accent comes out and the two of them holler at each other until the other man notices Louie’s nose is bleeding. The other man gives him a rag for the bloody nose but never ceases calling Louie a “queer.” Then they hug it out and go their separate ways.

To me, this is such a touching, loving scene about the brief, fleeting moments of human connection that make life worth living. Those moments when you realize that we are, in fact, all in it together. And that’s the thing I found most surprising about season three – its optimism. In a show so with a main character so constantly marred with bad luck, so unable to overcome his flaws, it’s odd how reassuring and uplifting it was.

Here’s another example of not only the show's message, but also how brilliantly structured the season is on a whole. The first scene of the third season consists of Louie and another man looking at a very convoluted New York City parking sign, trying to figure out if they can park there. The sign post is littered with confusing signs that read, “6am to 5am Mon-Fri,” and “Parking of Vehicles Only Authorized.” This is a simple breakdown in communication that I, for one, deal with daily (especially in L.A.). The final scene of Louie, without revealing too much, ends with him in the household of a family that speaks no English, having a really good time. These two moments perfectly demonstrate the long arc of the season but also the cyclical nature of TV. We always, in a way, wind up where we start. It’s a question of how we feel about it. And sure, Louie still can’t really figure out the world around him but we see the ways in which just letting go of the constant need to understand everything is a surprisingly liberating experience. I’d say it’s an adventure. One we could all learn to go on more often. 

Best Songs of 2012

The rules are all the same: No song that appeared on my best albums list. I've expanded from my usual ten this year because there was just that much excellence to be reckoned with. One is a bit of a cheat, but as we're simply sharing wealth, I hope you can pardon me. More than most this year have some association with film, which shouldn't exactly be news, but I do love that films have been a consistent source of other artistic pleasure this year.

The National - "The Rains of Castamere"

Written to cap off one of the most anticipated and striking hours of television in the history of the form. How best to quell the truly beastly things we'd been witness to than with a dirge, something that forced the audience to contemplate what happens when men decide to go to war. Game of Thrones had been a serviceable allegory before the Battle of Blackwater, but never before had it turned to the blackest part of political manuevering and showed the human cost with such gut-wrenching (often literally) force. The National get dark, but rarely in their own songs had they reached so far down into human cruelty and come away with something so striking.

Ren Harvieu - "Nobody Does It Better"

I admit it was Radiohead covering the Carly Simon-sung, Marvin Hamlisch-penned Bond theme that kept it in my brain. Could Thom Yorke really love it that much? I suppose I just hadn't heard the right version. Until this year. The right version, for me, it seems is the one performed by one of England's many well-kept secrets, Ren Harvieu. Her version of You Only Live Twice earlier in the Bond And Beyond Celebration hosted by film critic Mark Kermode and presenter Simon Mayo (and Hello to Jason Isaacs!) was pretty stellar, but this has the feeling of destiny in it. She sells the heartache like few others can.

Adele - "Skyfall"

From one Bond theme to another. I'd completely forgotten how much I love this song (more so isolated than with the dispiritingly banal opening title sequence it accompanies) until after publishing. I've sung it to myself once a day since seeing Skyfall. Calling Adele the Shirley Bassey of our day is probably less a compliment than an obscurity countdown, so I'll just say that the song, like the film, has real staying power. 


Scott Walker - "Epizootics!"

There's a moment in every music fan's life when they realize that the Scott Walker crooning "30th Century Man" at the end of The Life Aquatic, the fellow from the Walker Brothers, and the Scott Walker with the haunted moan who scored Pola X and gave the world the sound of its own death rattle in the album The Drift, are the same person. The avant-garde phases of Walker's career has got to stand as one of, if not the most, drastic reinvention in the history of music. I've loved his latest works starting from Tilt in 1995, but I think I may have found a favourite song from any point in his career, and it comes complete with a fabulous black-and-white movie to go with it. This Scott Walker is fearless.

The cast of The Hobbit - "Misty Mountains"

Or whatever... Look, maybe it's unforgivably nerdy of me to include this song, but I do know that it was during these ludicrous-on-paper musical numbers that I realized I was watching a movie that was going to stand the test of time. Haunting harmonies from the cast, who through nothing but intonation communicate generations of despair and fatalism. Ask anyone, I was completely indifferent to this whole film and everything it stood for before I saw it. This song is a big part of what changed my mind.

Kylie Minogue - "Who Were We?"

It takes a genius to get the world to notice Kylie Minogue for who she can be: one of the most heartbreaking singers out there. And the song, penned by Carax himself with Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy, seems lifted from a Judy Garland musical, but with a sadness and tragic hope lacking from the best of Meet Me In St. Louis or even A Star Is Born.

Pharaoh Overlord - "Rodent"

Falling just shy of the apocalyptic grandeur of the latest Godspeed record, Pharoah Overlord's Lunar Jetman nevertheless had "Rodent," one of the most crushing, haunting and electrifying rock songs in history. Part swamp rock, part doom drone, part black metal journey, for those ten minutes "Rodent" makes you feel alive.

The Walkmen - "Angela Surf City"

The Walkmen have a pass for life at this point and so as long as they're going to give me a toe-tapper in this vein for all their soul-searching and concept records, I'll follow them wherever.

Jesca Hoop - "Hospital"

She may be one of the world's most thoughtful songwriters and studio craftsman, but when she puts on the guise of pop star, Jesca Hoop really comes alive. It's a put-on and she knows it, but there's something to indulging our collective guilty pleasure, especially when devised so deliciously by someone with Hoop's ear for a hook. The lyrics betray her intelligence - if she's going to deliver top 40 fodder, it's going to hurt.

Lee Ranaldo Band with J Mascis - "Albatross"

And what would one of my lists be without a single song from a tribute album. They're largely wrectched endeavors, never the sum of their parts. But there's rarely one without at least one point of interest. Case in point: two of the world's greatest guitarists putting a distinctly 80's spin on one of the best guitar tracks of all time.

Laura Jorgensen - "The Climb"

Oh Laura, my dear, dear friend! You continue to fill my life with joyous, heartfelt music. I don't know if this is your best song, it could very well be (you've not exactly made it easy on those of us trying to decide these things), but that opening is among the sweetest sounds I've ever heard. Don't ever stop.

The Bootleggers - "White Light/White Heat"

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis' music may not have exactly been what the movie Lawless needed, but I can't complain because otherwise they'd never have recruited Mark Lanegan to sing just out of his range. The voice he adopts, attempting to reach the highest register he's perhaps ever gone for, is worth the movie being less than it could have been. This song has been in constant rotation since the film's premiere this summer.

Spiritualized - "Hey Jane"

I maintain that this is Spiritualized's best song. Other opinions are available.

JJ Doom - "Banished"

Release after release, MF Doom remains an enigma. While the world waits for Madvillainy 2, he continues to spin webs of gloomy hip-hop in whatever direction catches his fancy. The fly he caught this time around would be Jneiro Jarel, a beat-maker of almost equal dexterity to Doom himself. Relegated to just the man at the mic, Doom doesn't disappoint, least of all on "Banished," which has the most eccentric flow of any modern rap song perhaps ever. What would be marbles in the mouths of lesser MCs becomes liquid gold, spat with his usual wink-wink impudence.

Les Surfs - "Tu Seras Mi Baby"

Now, this is disingenuous, I confess. This song in its original incarnation (writ by Phil Spector, sung by The Ronettes), and even this version, are decades old. But I'm willing to bet the world at large was largely ignorant of its existence, as I was, until we watched Miguel Gomes' Tabu. I could thank the man for making a beautiful movie all day, but really I must thank him in person some day for introducing me to this song.

The Best Records of 2012

Dan Khan

1) Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
2) Beach House - Bloom
3) Grizzly Bear - Shields
4) Four Tet- Pink
5) Jack White - Blunderbuss
6) The Helio Sequence - Negotiations
7) The Walkmen - Heaven
8) John Frusciante - PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone
9) David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant
10) Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas
11) Rufus Wainwright - Out of the Game
12) Metric - Synthetica
13) Ty Segall - Twins
14) Sleigh Bells - Reign of Terror
15) Sigur Rós - Valtari


1. School of Seven Bells - Ghostory

        - Maybe there were better albums this year, but none that burrow into my soul and sit there, forcing me to feel things I don't always want to. Their music can, at its best, pull emotions out of your lowest depths. This is their most complete album and can feel like it lasts for days and days.

2. Father John Misty - Fear Fun
        - Whatever name he chooses, he's still one of our best songwriters, and this is a bigger canvas for him to paint on, so his voice gets to roam, his guitars get to play dress-up, and we get to enjoy the beautiful, haunting, unforgettable show again and again and again. I've listened to this maybe a hundred times this year and I'm still not sick of it.

3. Patrick Watson - Adventures In Your Own Backyard
        - I can't even imagine how much time he spent on each of these songs. What a fucking brain on the guy! You get lost in the gorgeousness of his songs and this album is especially bountiful. 

4. Beak> - >>

5. Crocodiles - Endless Flowers

6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

7. Grizzly Bear - Shields

8. The Ty Segall Band - Slaughter House
        - Hearing any of Ty's albums is like discovering Rock music all over/for the first time/whatever. He's a mad genius and his lab is constantly exploding. Ty made three albums this year and I just like this one best. That second song, holy shit. This album is like watching an artist 'slash his canvas' to coin a phrase. 

9. The K-Holes - Dismania

10. Bahamas - Power Chords
        - I call having loved him first. Afie must be having the time of his life right now and he absolutely should be. He's so good at this, he was born to do this, so I'm glad people noticed.

11. Disappears - Pre Language

12. David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant

13.   Chromatics - Kill For Love

14. We Avalanche - Time Travels
       - Like Elliott Smith doing Lomax. They're going to get huge, these fellows. They play music in the vein of a lot incredibly popular bands, but they put so much care into the texture and nuance of every moment, while others are content to just play the song. They have the precision of scientists which doesn't diminish from the awesome force they use to shred. 

15. Screaming Females - Ugly
        - All my heroes are getting huge. Soon I'm not gonna have anyone left to myself. Which is almost sad. 

16. Tindersticks - The Something Rain
        - Their best album as a band. Such a great way to spend a rainy night. 

17. Rocket Juice & The Moon - Rocket Juice & The Moon

18. Guillemots - Hello Land!

19. Rufus Wainwright - Out of the Game

20. Moonface - With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery

Fox Johnson 
(I could annotate, but I like the minimalist format chosen - Ed.)

The Almosts of 2012

As we near the end of the year and the unveiling of our Best Of lists, we return to one of my favourite exercises around here, listing the films that almost made it, but for one or a few glaring issues. I like these because they get at what we, the amateur critic, look for in our films. They say as much about us as the films we love and offer insight into our expectations and biases so that our choices for what were great make more sense to you, the reader. I realize that posting this before the release of The Hobbit and Django Unchained is a mistake because I can almost guarantee they'd end up here, but we have to shift our focus onto the year as a whole and start constructing our lists. So, here are the almosts.

Noah Aust

Cloud Atlas could have worked... maybe... but it's like the directors tried to compensate for their totally screwball narrative structure by making every mini-narrative really trite and concise. I didn't feel like they believed any of it. Cloud Atlas was built on a great idea, and part of me feels like that should be enough. These guys made a $100 million experimental film—that takes balls. My problem is that they stopped there. It’s like they didn’t want to go too creative so they backpedaled: they tried to compensate for their totally screwball narrative structure by making every mini-narrative really pat and concise. I didn’t feel like they believed any of it.

Cloud Atlas also fell victim to this emerging trend of information overload. Cinematic language has evolved so much that it’s possible to cram an insane amount of info into a couple hours of screen time. (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is probably the best example I’ve seen of this. That should be required film school viewing—it easily uses every cinematic device ever created to cram a phonebook’s worth of action, character development, plot, dialogue, and historical theorizing into the confines of a popcorn movie.) But just because filmmakers can cram a lot more stuff into their movies doesn’t mean they should. Cloud Atlas offers tantalizing glimpses at six stories, but everything’s rushing by so fast that we don’t get a chance to live in any of them. The characters are Brechtian cutouts that only stick around long enough to promote a thematic idea, and then woosh—off to the next one. It’s like watching six trailers for really cool movies.

Every so often you get these “mainstream art-house” type pictures that have one progressive gimmick. They’re just experimental enough to make mainstream audiences feel sophisticated. “Oooh—District 9 is a metaphor for apartheid,” ignoring the fact that it’s basically just an alien shoot-em-up. Here’s an idea: try watching Cloud Atlas as a horror movie, where a global disease is gradually turning everyone into Tom Hanks.

Fox Johnson

Alright lets see. Trying to remember the discussion on Bourne Legacy I had months ago with Scout, I'm pulling the larger points. I'm an enormous fan of the Bourne films so I rushed out for this one. I love the new actors they grabbed up to populate it's world and got ready for a new ride. Tony Gilroy gets the film about half right. Quite literally actually. About half the film is interesting. The other half, is too much information. The sequence where we follow Jeremy Renner over the mountain, having to deal with the elements, wolves, and even a new spy character whose scenes with Aaron Cross (Renner) are super stressful in all the right ways. The problem though is that they're cross cut with footage of government agents in their tiny, dark computer rooms watching his every move. At first it's a surprise and honestly an intriguing one. But the more they switch back and forth between the two timelines, each one loses it's power. If we were stuck sitting with the government boys, miles away, watching a situation that's almost entirely out of their hands (save the missile they fire at Cross later in the scene) that'd make for some really great stuff. Really wondering what this new Bourne-esque character is going to do next. And on the other hand, if we were stuck with Aaron through his journey and his white knuckle encounter with the wolf, the spy, and a missile that would suddenly appear rather than having us as the audience know exactly when it's coming, it'd be even more of a treat. In fact, it'd be much more like the first Bourne film where around every turn is a new surprise simply because the scope of the film limits itself to one person's viewpoint at a time. Basically this issue repeats itself throughout the film taking a lot of energy right out of it. And thats quite a strain when you're watching a film thats about 20 minutes longer than any of the other Bourne films and has less action than any one of them.

Also a quick aside about Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai. I really did enjoy myself watching that film but I think with a few tweaks it could be legendary the way that 13 Assassins quickly became to me and everyone else who matters. It slipped under the radar for most of us I think. Mainly because its nothing like 13. Miike went for a much quieter and emotional film after creating one of the best action films I've ever seen. I'd be willing to put up with literally the entire thing if the ending were a little less anticlimactic. I won't spoil anything but there's a pretty solid sword fight at the end (duh, samurai film) but in my humble opinion not nearly enough people die. The story sets up a lot of people in your mind as perfectly evil bastards who quite deserve to lose their heads but you really don't get enough of it. Wanting violence at the end of the picture really defies what the message of the film is all about but goddammit I just wanted these people to die so badly!

Tim Earle

Skyfall may be one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen in my life. It also features an absolutely stellar performance from Daniel Craig, not to mention yet another instant classic in the expanding repertoire of Javier Bardem. It’s smart, witty, well-paced and thrilling. Unfortunately, the plot is really bad. REALLY bad. It’s tough to notice, your first time around, how bad the plot is because everything that’s happening is really awesome looking and Daniel Craig is staring at things and deadly lizards. But it’s terrible. The bad guy's master plan is to get captured so he can kill M even though he has already proven he can just blow people up with computers (which is a thing people can do, naturally). Bond Girl #1 is a terrific agent who decides to sit behind a desk, completely sabotaging her character for the sake of clinging to the franchise and being cute. Bond Girl #2 is entirely useless. And in the end, Bond’s master plan is to fight Bardem in a Scottish mansion with a shotgun and the car from another movie, and Albert Finney is there, because why not.

What I loved so much about Casino Royale is how it subtly referenced every Bond cliché while subverting them at the same time. I love the stripped down torture scene (get it), the “Does it look like a give a damn?!” approach to his martinis, and the devastated look in his eyes when he realizes the dead girl in the hammock is only dead because she slept with him. But Skyfall made explicit every implicit observation in Casino Royale. For example, Q and M, and Draco Malfoy’s mom all ranting about how the times are changing and technology has made old fashion spy craft obsolete over and over again. We get it. If we were paying attention, we would have gotten it while watching Casino Royale. And while Skyfall certainly has its delightful fan service, constantly nudging and winking while it shows you sports cars and Moneypenny, it makes no effort to subvert those tropes, or even play with them. Instead it just shows you the car so you’ll cheer and clap and maybe not notice how bad the plot is.

Hayao Miyazaki has at this point all but invented a genre. His odd blend of steam punk and fantasy, with elements of Japanese folk lore and a love of all things quaint was originally a slight yet excellent twist of traditional anime, eventually becoming a strikingly new force of artistic vision once it landed in American theaters. But as his films kept landing, each splash bigger than the last, his style became its own sort of brand. His later films (Howl’s Moving Castle in particular) found themselves recycling old ideas, visuals, even key plot points, for the sake of sticking within the wheel house. But, Miyazaki isn’t just original; he’s quite simply an exquisite director. His visuals - no matter how over-used - are completely riveting to watch. His characters are always superbly nuanced and his themes are timeless and touching, no matter how often he expresses them. The problem with The Secret World of Arriety is simple. It isn’t directed by Miyazaki. Yes, it’s a Ghibli production, and yes it’s penned in part by him. And, of course, it’s riddled with so many charming structures, and nature loving ideologies, but without Miyazaki’s graceful touch all these elements wind up a little awkward (sometimes bordering on creepy), and the emotional beats don’t hit home like they should. On top of all that, the ideas don’t seem fresh for the obvious reason that they’re not. I can’t say I’ll ever get tired of Miyazaki trying to tell the same story over and over again, but I can tell you exactly how quickly I’ll get tired of anyone else trying to tell that story. Five minutes. That’s how long.

The Bourne Legacy took me by surprise. After so many trailers and promos and BOURNE FIGHT FIGHT RENNER FACE images all over everything, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t anything like I was dreading it would become: a rehashing of old ideas, once again, with a new face. Instead it was a true Tony Gilroy film. Gilroy has always had a hand in the Bourne films and his influence has always been clear, but not until this film was it clearly in the hands of one incredibly cynical artistic vision. I’m a huge Michael Clayton fan and I started having glorious flashbacks by the ten minute mark of this film. Gilroy’s love of making murder into a sort of bureaucratic nightmare, everyone coldly tallying numbers and sorting out the details as they execute their fellow man, it always makes me a little giddy. And then, when the actual Renner plot kicked in, it was such a tender new take on the classic super spy plot line. I was really moved. Gone was the confusion and the amnesia, and for the most part, the conspiracy. It was just about a man desperately trying to cling to the drugs that made him special, that made him intelligent. It was a story of a man trying to cling to his own mind. I was loving it.
But then, about three quarters of the way through the film, came the requisite small vehicle car chase, and building parkor fight scenes and it all became so stereotypically Bourne. Normally this isn’t so bad, except it felt like Gilroy wasn't that into it. It was by the books. No flair, no fuss. All the skill Gilroy possesses in the nuance of spy intrigue, he totally lacks in his ability to conduct a frantic action sequence. We expect certain amounts of action from a Bourne film, but in this film the action seemed far less to serve the plot and far more to serve the franchise.

Dan Khan

You know you're in trouble when the short film at the beginning of every Pixar film is ten times better than the film that follows it. Brave is simply a mixed bag. The storyline is pretty thin, the movie shifts tones and the pacing is a bit slow not to mention a drag at times. The fact that there is no romantic element or a major villain is only somewhat of the problem. After the useless and awful Cars 2, Pixar is really losing its momentum. Of course Brave is watchable and at times quite fun, but I expect more of a studio that has given some cinematic treasures. Perhaps hype is maybe a problem, since Pixar seems to outdo itself nearly every year. Brave, I am not sure who will appeal to as it's too slow, too long and a bit dark for children, but it's a bit too well written and superficial for adults. It's just a misfire Despite some great voicework by using pretty much everyone in Hollywood who is Scottish or can do a good Scottish accent and some fun action scenes, this is a chore. In short, see the Pixar short, La Luna and skip Brave, unless you're brave enough to see it! Ha! [ed. the film punk staff are paid by the pun]

I agree with the above regarding Bourne Legacy. I think Gilroy is part of the problem really. Say what you will about Greengrass, but he at least brought some excitement to the proceedings. Not to mention he knew how to pace a movie.

Scout Tafoya

Haywire just didn't have enough in it to justify its aimless rambling between breath-taking fight setpieces. Not with The Raid: Redemption practicing a much more muscular filler a few weeks later between its truly dazzling action sequences. Haywire has, I believe, six of these sequences, many last only seconds, and I just could not be bothered with Lem Dobbs' purposely exhuming the espionage thriller until all that remained were rags and bones. Mainstream comedies didn't have a great year and despite laughing quite a bit at The Campaign, Wanderlust and The Dictator (viva Jason Mantzoukas!), I can't say they were all that compellingly made. My vote for funniest film of the year would have to be Expendables 2, though not in the way Sly intended. Red Dawn and Stolen are nearly as good, and though I missed Atlas Shrugged Part 2, I feel like that one would have been a howler... Horror anthologies V/H/S and The Theatre Bizarre both had a few great segments sandwiched between some decent if forgettable ones. Props to David Gregory for his downright Kubrickian closer in the latter film, as well as Jeremy Kasten's pleasantly warped wraparounds, and in V/H/S David Bruckner's segment gets the most points for effectiveness and Radio Silence comes in second for actually sticking to the film's ostensible gimmick and doing so with charm to spare. And then there are always films that can't quite make my best of the year list and I feel duty bound to protect them. To Rome With Love was perfectly harmless and a lovely diversion which nevertheless some people seemed to really hate. Bait was a welcome return to Brecthian horror from producer Russell Mulcahy that I feel like no one saw/appreciated. Mary Harron's The Moth Diaries attempted to tell a YA story with a style and perspective befitting its intended audience and somehow got worse reviews than all of the Twilight films combined. It was a bold move that I respect greatly as my sister, whose own YA book is due sometime in the next two years, has given me a new appreciation for the whole genre, and to get the tone right while respecting the source and intended audience is tough. But I think for fans of the sort of novel she was adapting, it was perfectly on point. As was Jo Sung-Hee's A Werewolf Boy, which has to be Korea's answer to Twilight. If filmed on 35mm and with a little less reliance on cliche (and without that horrible soundtrack - even the best directors can't seem to shake the industry standard score) this could have been as effecting as anything I saw this year. Sentimentality alone, however, just isn't quite enough. So close to being great. I found myself wishing Bong Joon-Ho had directed, or Park Chan-Wook, but then I remembered they'd probably have added body humour and killed more people and it would have lost that mass market appeal that allowed it to play in an AMC an hour from my house, which has to be the wierdest premiere circumstances I've seen all year. In the theatre for a 10:00 showing were myself and two korean women. We all seemed to enjoy it. 

Less great, so long as we're talking about Twilight also-rans, is Jack & Diane. Juno Temple and Riley Keough (who couldn't look more like her grandfather, Elvis Presley; perhaps you've heard of him as I believe he was a foodie of some note) star as two young women who fall in love in New York one summer, or as much in love as two girls who have zero interest in maturing past their stunted adolescence. And every once in a while one of them turns into a wolf. Or does she? It ultimately doesn't fucking matter. I have to assume that director Bradley Rust Gray's third film was meant as a Twilight corrective/alternative for the arthouse set, and though he does get some details of their courtship achingly right, the rest he botches with such panache, it approaches Twilight territory. For a start the music is distractingly terrible, a grey mix of boring techno music that was old when it was new. More damning is that the werewolf/sexual awakening metaphor doesn't go anywhere or do anything and seems nakedly like an excuse to hire the Quay Brothers to interrupt the narrative every few minutes. Their stop motion, while interesting and a hell of a lot nicer to look at than the scrappy puppet thing that occasionally shows up to gnaw on Keough's leg, serves zero function and it's never even entirely clear what we're looking at. It also changes from Temple to Keough whenever Rust Gray feels like scaring his audience - something a lesbian romance really oughtn't be so concerned about in this climate, what with the whole "most of America is full of hatred towards gay people because they're different" thing. It feels less groundbreaking and more reductive, which I get is unintentional, but seriously.

Also pretty unnerving is the fact that neither Rust Gray, Keough or Temple ever makes a visible effort to age the girls into adulthood, so their sex scenes lose their intimate charm and begin to feel exploitative and deeply uncomfortable. Never has Temple's willingness to get her kit off been put to more troubling use; the fact that she looks like a live-action anime character here ain't helping, either. The moments that make the movie worth watching, the believably awkward and romantic meetings between Keough and Temple are surrounded by tonal shifts that go further than undermining the emotion - it makes it as pointless as any of the film's many, many aimless tangents and clumsy aborted motifs. In a film more focused, perhaps Jack coaxing Diane to admit she has to use the bathroom would register as cute and not bewildering. And I sincerely wish that Gray would learn to bring his camera closer than his medium shots because it keeps us at arm's length from two people we're never encouraged to understand. And so we sit, bemused, wondering when this is all going to make sense and though it's frequently too touching and real for words, it never gets around to doing that.