This week’s question:
Every year-end holiday season brings a flurry of best-of-the-past-year lists. But what about all the neglected art from every other year? What older films, books, games, TV shows, artists, etc. did you experience for the first time, or come around to loving for the first time, in 2013? (See also our 2012 list of the best entertainment we discovered that year, and our corresponding 2011 and 2010 lists.)
I read a bunch of books that I’ve been sitting on for months—like Wolf Hall, The Brothers Karamazov, and Notes On A Scandal—all of which were wonderful and worth reading in their own ways. But I feel the best about reading My Ántonia, by Willa Cather—an astonishingly modern novel that takes place in Nebraska, back when Nebraska was a red and forbidding frontier. Cather is one of those authors you know you’re supposed to read, but her work is hard to break into if you’re not independently interested in pioneers and manifest destiny. But her prose is easy to digest, and she brings a sense of interiority to even the vast American prairie. The first half is probably stronger than the back half, but it’s all intoxicating, quietly offering its female characters a voice while delving into the mysterious process of growing up, which is the same the world over. It’s almost 100 years old (first printing was in 1918), but it’s a fine find for 2013.
Netflix recently added the 2006 British comedy series Snuff Box to its streaming library, and when I gave it a try, I discovered a dark sketch show with a rhythm that was truly its own. The show ostensibly follows the life of a sneering professional hangman (Matt Berry) who hangs out with his assistant (Rich Fulcher) in a gentlemen’s club for hangmen. But that premise is merely the nexus around which it weaves surreal flights of fancy that are often dark and crude and almost always fascinating. Snuff Box is so unusual that for the entire first episode, I struggled to get my bearings, in part because Berry and Fulcher tend to smear each sketch into the next, so it’s hard to tell whether you’re coming or going. Many sketches start out with a simple game that transforms into something far more elaborate—such as a sequence in which yelps of profanity from people on a park bench are woven into a five-part harmony. Other times, Snuff Box will juxtapose disparate pieces that would be moronic on their own and lend them a giddy strangeness by treating them as routine. One recurring gag sees Fulcher traveling back in time to chat with an ancestor hangman who has two specialties: black magic and prostitutes. This isn’t mere “random” comedy—what makes the weirdness so strong, in fact, is the incongruent yet unblinking sense of purpose that Berry and Fulcher bring to it. A show this bizarre is destined to be a cult affair. I’m just glad to be part of the Snuff Box cult.
Thanks to the surprisingly on-point algorithms at Spotify—and, no doubt, some promotional magic—I finally listened to Eduard Artemyev’s scores for Solaris, Stalker, and The Mirror, just in time for them all to be reissued on vinyl. In retrospect, it seems sort of obvious I’d be drawn to Solaris, considering I’m already a fan of Cliff Martinez’s score for the Steven Soderbergh remake, as well as the 2011 Solaris tribute from Iceland’s Daníel Bjarnason and Ben Frost. (Frost is a frequent Tim Hecker collaborator whose hypnotically unsettling industrial drones I’m also glad to have discovered this year). For decades now, Andrei Tarkovsky’s moody sci-fi meditation has inspired music that similarly balances futuristic landscapes with human vulnerability, so it’s no surprise Artemyev’s original is equally worth hearing on its own—not only for its inventiveness, with the Russian composer filtering classic Bach chorales through some of the first-ever synthesizers, but for its continued emotional resonance. The new, lovingly packaged editions of that, his work on Tarkovsky’s Stalker and The Mirror, and Artemyev’s own 1989 re-recording of Solaris using new technology, have all been on constant late-night rotation at my place for most of the fall.
Much as I’d like to claim that 2013 was the year I finally tackled Ulysses, it was a different portrait of heavy drinkers that occupied my sparse spare time these past 12 months. Why, I now wonder, did it take me so long to get into Cheers? For years, I harbored sight-unseen indifference to the long-running NBC sitcom, as though cultural osmosis had told me all I needed to know about it. So it was surprising how quickly I fell for the show’s wit and charm once I finally sampled it: The pilot, which I watched on a whim one restless night, reminded me more of Neil Simon than most of what I had seen of the era’s other small-screen comedies. Like the perfect watering hole, Cheers is immediately inviting; by the third or fourth episode, its cast of characters—know-it-all Cliff, wise fool Coach, brassy Carla—had become old friends. I also dug the show’s one-setting purity, so much so that I felt a little betrayed when the show cut to Diane’s apartment at the top of season two. Cheers, it’s clear to me now, established the template for most of the sitcoms I’ve loved over the past two decades. But none of the great shows it spawned have cultivated such a warm, welcoming sense of community—not even Community, which totally owes the initial Jeff and Britta dynamic to Cheers. Also, an added bonus: I can finally, with confidence, say that people have a Sam-and-Diane thing going.
I didn’t see nearly as many new movies as I should’ve this year. Put the blame on lack of effort—though I could just as easily say that no number of fresh cinematic offerings could stack up to the experience of seeing Playtime in 70mm. As the pop culture we consume becomes increasingly bite-sized, it’s fascinating to see a film that goes to such lengths to capture so much: the undulating waves of activity in a crowded restaurant, the carnival-like atmosphere of a Parisian traffic circle. There’s a lot of information crammed into the frames of Jacques Tati’s impishly satirical masterpiece, to the point that it merits multiple viewings—too bad repertory screenings in its original format are so hard to come by. If I ever get the chance to see Playtime again, I feel like I could see an entirely different movie by focusing on different parts of the screen, just the kind of glance beneath the surface encouraged by the film and its glass-and-steel mazes.
Thanks to Spotify and Rdio, I’ve been getting less into playing the tracks I want to hear, when I want to hear them, and more into throwing all of the music I like into a giant blender and seeing what happens. This means that I’ve been getting a lot more into Spoon in the last year. Now, I can’t say that I didn’t know about Spoon, or listen to them before this year. They have several tracks I’ve always loved. But this was the year when a song would come on my giant shuffle list, and it would be something I really loved, and it would inevitably be by Spoon, and I would say, “I should really listen to more Spoon!” I think this marks the band as the ideal indie rock act for this digital age: parceling out greatness into tiny morsels and dropping them along a breadcrumb trail for all of us to find.
I’ve been a longtime lover of Heart Of The Ages, the 1995 debut album by Norway’s In The Woods…—an ambitious, melodic, harrowing descent into black-metal madness. But until this year, I’d never checked out Heart Of The Ages’ divisive follow-up, Omnio. I done fucked up. Released in 1997, Omnio reflects a staggering progression from Heart Of The Ages: vaster, darker, more deeply steeped in myth and emotion, it’s a record that might take me years to fully unravel. It’s funny that fans blow a gasket when bands like Opeth decide to mellow out, play pretty, and go progressive; extreme metal has been dealing with this phenomenon for decades, although rarely with the intensity and vision that In The Woods… mustered two decades ago. Blackened goth-prog? Sounds horrible on paper, but in the hands of In The Woods…, Omnio is nothing short of head melting.
As Mike D’Angelo wrote in his review of A Band Called Death, the “Obscure Musical Artist Rediscovered” documentary genre is definitely on the upswing. Films from Anvil! The Story Of Anvil through last year’s Oscar-winning Searching For Sugar Man have uncovered long-forgotten artists and brought them a delayed resurgence in popularity. But though I found most of those films intriguing, I never got into the actual music being revived until this year’s wider release of A Band Called Death, which tracks the short-lived career of Death, the lost early punk trio of brothers from Detroit. The 2009 EP For The Whole World To See collects all the completed tracks recorded during sessions from the band’s aborted debut album, and if only for giving me “Politicians In My Eyes,” I am thankful that the documentary re-popularized Death to the point that I could add some fuzzy, barreling punk to my library.
I always find this question difficult, mostly because I can’t remember what I read, listened to, and saw earlier in the year. Everything blends together so fast. I do know I finally finished Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (with some help from my friends here), and picked up John Cale’s Fear, which came pretty close to knocking out Paris 1919 as my favorite album of his. But the nearest thing in my mind is the TV I started catching up on, most recently with The League (you know, that show on FX that is neither Archer nor Louie). My brother-in-law has been quoting the show for years, but only in the past few weeks have I actually sat down and watched it. My biggest regret is taking so long. Not many series make me burst out laughing on a regular basis, but the disgusting (usually improvised) wit of The League’s main players is a wonder to behold. It’s a foul, funny, half-heartedly warm-hearted look at male companionship, and I can’t wait to finish it all.
World cinema is an awfully big answer, especially considering how much I’d seen before 2013. But thanks to TCM, my friend’s Hulu account, some DVDs, and one theatrical distribution that actually made its way to Houston, this was the year I encountered a number of firsts. In just one day in November I saw my first Cuban film, my first (sub-Saharan) African film, and my first Saudi film—indeed the first film shot entirely in the Kingdom. I finally saw movies by Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, and Hiroshi Teshigahara—whose freaky anthropology thriller Woman In The Dunes is the second best movie I saw this year. The best is Andrzej Munk’s Passenger, an Auschwitz psychodrama told in flashback when the camp’s overseer catches a glimpse of one of her prisoners several years later on a cruise liner. Munk’s death left the intended film unfinished, but that just adds more texture to the story, the narrator trailing off like Kafka in the middle of that sentence.
I didn’t do as much reading this year as I would’ve liked—I never do—and large chunks of my time were taken up by big books that only occasionally paid off. Rick Perlstein’s Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater And The Unmasking Of The American Consensus, a thrilling, fast-paced examination of the rise and fall of Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, was a treat. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 was less so, although as with all Murakami novels, it lingers. But I think my favorite book I read this year was one I’d never even heard of before: Douglas Adams’ Last Chance To See, the writer’s 1990 account of his journeys across the globe with zoologist Mark Carwardine as the two men attempted to track down some of the most endangered animals on the planet. It’s a lovely, funny, and deeply compassionate piece of writing, and Adams’ wit, compassion, and deep love of nature come through on every page. Without resorting to lectures or harangues, the author makes the essential point that life in all its fascinating variations is precious, and that it’s our duty to protect what we can, even as our actions threaten to throw the world still further off its balance.
When it comes to TV, I’ve always been a major geek about a lot of things, but something that I find particularly fascinating are pilots for shows that were never picked up. For every show that secures a slot on a network schedule, there are dozens and dozens of pilots that end up being kicked to the curb and are generally destined to be forgotten. I’m usually not surprised when someone tells me about one I’m unfamiliar with, but I did raise my eyebrows when I learned that famed Simpsons scribe John Swartzwelder had written one in 1996, a western spoof called Pistol Pete that Fox declined to move forward with. To this day, I’ve yet to see the thing, but just the knowledge of its existence sent me into a researching frenzy to try and learn everything I could about it, up to and including writing a message to Swartzwelder himself. The thought of what might have been still makes me sad. Yet, at the same time, the knowledge that it exists has given me a new pop culture Holy Grail to search for.
I’ve spent a lot of time this year using streaming sites and YouTube to catch up on some movies that in some cases I’ve been trying, and failing, to find on video or at revival houses for decades. A remarkable number of these obscure finds turn out to be obscure for damn good reason, and should ideally be preserved under a rock someplace. However, I am grateful to Fandor for finally giving me a chance to check out the weird early films of the writer-director Mark Rappaport, which I’ve been curious about since seeing his weird later films Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From The Journals Of Jean Seberg in the mid-’90s. I especially appreciate getting to finally see 1979’s Imposters, which features a rare glimpse of the legendary Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatre Company and guiding spirit of theatrical high camp in the ’70s and ’80s. He died in 1987, before the best-known of his precious few screen appearances in The Big Easy made it to theaters, and it was worth inventing the Internet just to know that he’s still around and cavorting on it someplace.