2012 In Review: 50 Wonderful Things From The Year In Pop Culture
1. Early shots of Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, as then-blissful couple Neil and Marina, walking on the oddly elastic silt in Terrence Malick's To The Wonder. While the film ultimately suffocates in its own self-seriousness, Malick remains a gifted purveyor of natural images.
2. "You and me at the edge of the world," the words that introduced me to Kishi Bashi, a musician who began the year not even getting an official spot at South By Southwest and ended it in a Microsoft commercial for the best possible reason: the irresistibility of that song, "Bright Whites." (Also check out his Tiny Desk Concert.)
3. The dance at the end of "For Fanny," the second episode of the first season of ABC Family's excellent new series Bunheads. In the episode, the young dancers embrace and salute their grieving teacher, Fanny (Kelly Bishop), with a brief, gorgeous performance set to Tom Waits' "Picture In A Frame." Just in these two episodes, the show had established dance was the language all these people spoke, and that for some people, you make a cake, and for some people, you dance.
4. Rainbow Rowell's luscious, delicate novel Eleanor & Park, which tells as vivid a story about young love, mix tapes and comic books as you're likely to read. Already out in the UK, it will be released in the US in February.
5. A scene in Richard Linklater's Bernie in which a Texas native describes the parts of the state. I saw it in Austin at the South By Southwest Film Festival, and believe me when I tell you, the house exploded with glee and recognition to the point where I had to watch it later to hear some of the words I lost in other people's laughter.
6. "The diary, yes!" I had no more purely pleasure-filled reading experience this year than Gillian Flynn's audacious, addictive Gone Girl.
7. A brief tag at the very, very end of Sarah Polley's documentary Stories We Tell, which is the complicated story of her own family. The film contains multitudes: sadness, joy, love, disappointment — and then comes this tag, this tremendous tag, which punctuates the story and reiterates its most important lesson: that you just never know about people until they sit down to tell you about themselves, and even when they do, they just keep surprising you.
8. The Downton Abbey Season 2 Christmas special, and particularly its swooning, snowy conclusion to one of the series' most tortured stories. Downton has been at times uneven, but when it opens up the hoses and does the thing it does, it does it very well.
9. Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed A Dream" in the divisive film adaptation of Les Miserables. Even the film's detractors have generally noted that what Hathaway does here is the best use of what director Tom Hooper is trying to do with both the super-close-ups and the live singing. It's not the prettiest rendition of the song by a longshot, but it returns the grief and desperation to a number that somehow often comes off, quite wrongly, like a light, pretty sigh.
10. The pivotal moment in the pivotal episode of Parks And Recreation this season took place in an empty house in an episode somewhat misleadingly called "Halloween Surprise." It allowed its two characters their happiness but also their fundamental, undeniable weirdness, keeping in mind throughout that no two people are the same, so no two experiences between people are the same, however heavy the clichés that seem to apply.
11. Glee has yet to win back many of those who have abandoned it in recent seasons, but it made a valiant effort with the very fine episode "The Break Up," which built to a fine scene between Finn (Cory Monteith) and Rachel (Lea Michele), and then to an even better, simply staged performance of Coldplay's "The Scientist." There's nothing about these elements that should have been anything special, but it was.
12. The mashup of Fred Rogers from PBS Digital Studios that they called "Garden Of Your Mind." Lovable and just right.
13. I didn't much like the dopey comedy The Campaign, but there's a scene in which Jason Sudeikis acts out the Lord's Prayer to prod the clueless Will Ferrell, and that scene is really, really funny. (And, like everything else in it, really tacky.)
14. The performance by Rayna (Connie Britton) and Deacon (Charles Esten) of the intriguingly twisted ballad "No One Will Ever Love You" on ABC's Nashville. The show has had its ups and downs, but that song didn't leave my head for days.
15. Some Oatmeal comics are great and some are not, but many writers I know found a lot that they recognized in Matthew Inman's (language NSFW) comic about writing online. I'd never seen anyone nail the issue contained in the "This is easy" "This is not" panels quite so well.
16. Marion Cotillard's performance in Rust And Bone.
17. The resolution of the documentary Paul Williams Still Alive. Opinions have varied on whether the filmmaker should be as much a part of any documentary as director Stephen Kessler is here, but for me, it all paid off in the closing section, when Kessler received some assistance he wasn't expecting from Williams in completing the film.
18. The very tasteless, potentially really offensive, NSFW-in-several-ways Funny Or Die video called "The Sad Off With Samuel L. Jackson And Anne Hathaway." The way this video goes noisily stomping right into every awful thing it seems like it might stumble into is very high-risk, but winds up being high-reward as well.
19. Cloud Atlas co-director Lana Wachowski received an award from the Human Rights Campaign after speaking about her experiences with a gender transition — a phrasing, she says in her terrific acceptance speech, that she doesn't like but accepts as useful. In that speech, she spoke about that aspect of herself, but also talked about Hollywood, budgets, media narratives, and a lot of other really important things. It's sad, touching, and really, really funny.
20. My favorite short, one-moment joke on all of television this year was a fake NBC promo that went by on 30 Rock advertising "a full hour of Gary Sinise's band!"
21. Ben Affleck's facial hair in his great thriller, Argo. There's just not enough '70s dude hair, both on heads and on faces, floating around out there right now.
22. Tig Notaro's now-legendary set, "Tig Notaro: Live" (that rhymes with "give"), delivered after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. For reasons that have been exhaustively detailed elsewhere, it's a loose, spontaneous outpouring of compassion both for her and by her, as well as a really funny exploration of what hard times feel like.
23. Emma Stone at the Oscars. Somehow, some way, Emma Stone infused the Oscars telecast with life, which is hard to do. She committed utterly, which rescued her bit alongside Ben Stiller from the usual problem of everything on stage at an awards show seeming dead on arrival. Stone is a funny, loose-limbed actress as well as a beauty, and it played to her strengths impeccably.
24. Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect. Wilson is a joy in everything, pretty much always, and this film was a fine showcase for her. (Runner-up for this same slot: Anna Kendrick's delightful performance of what a thousand YouTube how-to videos just call "the 'Cups' song.")
25. Giancarlo Esposito and Aaron Paul having the best hug in the history of the Emmy Awards after Paul won the category in which they were both nominated. Much awards graciousness comes off as rather ridiculous. This did not. (Runner-up for this same slot: the delightful video that surfaced of Paul as a young contestant on The Price Is Right yelling "YOU'RE THE MAN, BOB!")
26. The New Normal hasn't often lived up to the promise of its weirdest moments, but once during its first season, for reasons unknown but warmly welcomed, young Shania (Bebe Wood) decided to impersonate Little Edie from Grey Gardens. If the whole show were this bent, people would probably like it a lot more.
27. A few months before writer David Rakoff died in August, he appeared at a live event for This American Life and told a story that culminated in, of all things, dancing. It may not be what you expect from a familiar radio voice like Rakoff, but if you haven't seen it, I will come as close as I ever will to saying: you must.
28. The way Jamie Foxx delivers Quentin Tarantino's jokes in Django Unchained. There's a lot to love in Tarantino's wackadoo revenge fantasy, but Foxx finds in all that madness a quiet, considered, settled approach to what he's given in the manner of punch lines. Pairing him with Christoph Waltz, who also takes a relaxed approach to Tarantino's highly stylized words, makes for a nifty comedy team. And there is a small gesture Foxx makes to Waltz late in the film that made me instantly tear up in a film that otherwise had my mind in a very different place. (Runner-up for this same spot: Wesley Morris' outstanding discussion of the film.)
30. I have no idea who decided that The Roots should become "Black Simon And Garfunkel" on Jimmy Fallon's show, but that is weird, it is wrong, and it makes me laugh.
31. The end of the fight between Hulk and Loki in The Avengers. There's a mischievous, profoundly silly rhythm to it, right out of vaudeville almost, and it's effortlessly and unexpectedly funny.
32. The closing performance by Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes, and Old Crow Medicine Show in the music documentary Big Easy Express, about the bands riding the rails together for a series of performances. Call it the NPR-Music-iest documentary ever made (you should; it is), and call the performance of "This Train" a little bit literal (you should; it is). But that number is positively ecstatic and constantly threatens to spill out into the audience, rolling through and past them and eating the world alive with the sheer force of its tambourines and banjos.
33. The most magical-rainbow-ish impaling in The Cabin In The Woods, about which I really can't say more than that, but believe me anyway.
34. The opening conversations in Your Sister's Sister. It's a film that, for me, has some plot issues, but there is a gathering of friends followed by a meeting between near-strangers, and both of those scenes contain some of the best natural dialogue writing I've ever heard.
35. Dan Kois' profile of writer Lois Lowry. Beautiful.
36. The lipdub marriage proposal. Yes, I am a sap. WHATEVER.
37. The opportunity to watch the great Larry Hagman twinkle as J.R. Ewing again before his death a few weeks ago. Hagman had, when Dallas was rebooted by TNT, every bit of mischief and snarl and wink that he ever did in the show's first run, and it was a great treat to visit with that most indelible of TV villains one more time.
38. The bonkers styling in Lifetime's otherwise execrable Taylor-Burton movie Liz & Dick. Look, everything else about it was a complete disaster, but the caftans! The hair! The eyeliner! Getting all those things right, unfortunately, brought out everything that the biopic got wrong, which is to say, "everything."
39. The hand-kissing (?) (??) scene between Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss on Mad Men. Not everything about this season worked for me as it did for others, but those two are perfect in a room together, always.
40. Lindy West's happy, sad, dispiriting, inspiring, defiant, terribly vulnerable (NSFW language) story of learning to manage the uglier parts of the internet.
41. This throwaway joke from Happy Endings: "My one-man experimental band, Yoko Uno." When Happy Endings is working, what works about it is a dizzying collection of odd character beats, physical comedy, and just plain jokes. Jokes, like "Did you hear the one about...?" You remember: jokes! There aren't always enough of them in comedies, and this one show sometimes seems to be trying to spit out enough for everyone. (P.S. Months later, I can tell you this tweet was about Adam Pally.)
42. Dave Itzkoff's profile of Ricky Gervais in The New York Times, particularly the brilliant observation that his comedy is "loaded with potentially outrageous elements that will reliably offend some portion of its viewership, or at least titillate them with the idea that somewhere else, someone is being offended."
43. Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker, spiritedly squashing what he calls the "arrantly stupid" practice of arguing about musicians' "authenticity."
44. All the parts of Let's Pretend This Never Happened, the memoir of Jenny Lawson (known online as The Bloggess), that made me laugh so hard I kept having to put down the book.
45. A comment that A.V. Club writer Todd Van Der Werff left on his own recap of an episode of Lena Dunham's Girls, in which he extended people who hate the show the right to hate the show, but expressed what so many sometimes think and feel about the sometimes sorry state of discourse: "You don't have to make the world a worse place. You don't have to make that joke. It's not worth it. You can be a bigger man. You can be a better person. And you're just not." (I also got to see Todd make an omelet with Martha Stewart during press tour. So.)
46. Veteran TV writer Ken Levine's take on the firing of Community showrunner Dan Harmon. Insightful, nuanced, and blunt. (Harmon does, in fact, now have other projects in the works, though there's obviously a long distance from "in the works" to your next big success.)
47. Yes, you can call me a homer, but: British Ambassador Peter Westmacott playing Not My Job on Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! was just about the most charming thing I saw this year. (I happened to be at that taping live, so it's possible I am biased.)
48. Jennifer Weiner's billboard parodying Jeffrey Eugenides. And her book, The Next Best Thing. And her participation in a number of very helpful debates about gender, literature, and criticism.
49. David Letterman's videotaped acceptance speech to the Television Critics Association, which gave him a Career Achievement Award, in which he said that he would have loved to come out to L.A. to accept, only "it's the night I eat glass."
50. People. All kinds of people — in person, in comments, on Twitter, via e-mail — wrote to me or talked to me or otherwise communicated with me about all the other things on this list. You probably have some of that experience yourself with people you know (although perhaps with different things, obviously). I can't make You the Person Of The Year like Time once did, but with culture in general and especially with popular culture in general, if you had to take it all in by yourself, it would be a lot less fun.