The Worst Of 2012 (and 20 things you can safely ignore)
Hi there, everyone! Well, it took almost until the end of January, but I’m finally ready to reveal the best and the worst of 2012. It’s not an easy task. It means sitting through dozens of books, television shows, software installations, movies, and so on, as well as hundreds of albums. I swore to myself that I would not write these posts until I finished Zero Dark Thirty, which I now have. (However, since some of you may not have seen it, I won’t reveal whether or not Bin Laden is killed.)
1. The Critics
Yes, we critics (collectively) were the single worst thing about last year. Here’s the thing: we didn’t do our jobs. We didn’t advise people about what to watch, and what to ignore. We showered appreciation on nearly everything in sight, and not just a little appreciation, but maximum, extreme appreciation. I know Homeland got a 98/100 on Metacritic, and Breaking Bad scored (as far as I can remember) a 94/100. The Life of Pi was greeted with the kind of fanfare that would be appropriate for the Second Coming. Gone Girl was taken seriously. Kendrick Lamar was compared to hip-hop legends he only faintly resembles. Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball was Rolling Stone‘s #1 album of 2012, even though in a couple years it will be totally forgotten.
Eventually, this kind of non-stop lovefest produces a wretched state of exhaustion. You can’t keep up with everything out there, all of which is supposed to be just so goddamn amazing, and as you fall further and further behind, you end up missing the pieces of art and culture that would have solaced and inspired you. And when that happens, the blame lies with the critics. When they open all the sluices, like they did this year, the dam simply bursts.
2. Windows 8
It’s very satisfying to note that Windows 8 is posting horrible sales figures. Even Microsoft’s ad campaign seems a little pissy about it: “Windows 8 is here. What are you waiting for?”
What started out with a series of great gestures — making betas of Windows 8 and Office 2013 available to consumers at no charge — turned into one of the year’s greatest debacles. First of all, the basic design concepts were lame. All Microsoft really wanted to do with Windows 8 was put a candy shell on top of Windows 7, so that you could use Windows on a touchscreen. Then, taking a cue from Apple, they tried to use hot corners to make important computer functions more accessible (for example, the lower right corner gets you Networking and Power commands, and the lower left can open the Task Manager). All of this is laudable, although it’s pretty thin compared to MacOS X Lion.
My guess is that Microsoft tried to spend as little money as possible on developing these ideas into a usable operating system. You could sense their unwillingness, throughout the beta process, to introduce a single new feature. The betas themselves were awful: they were incompatible with major programs, such as iTunes, and a lot of native stuff (hardware, etc.) was either incompatible from the start or ceased to work. What had seemed like a partnership between company and consumer was really Microsoft using its customer base to avoid paying for decent product testing. The product still doesn’t work. All kinds of bugs now plague my Dell Inspiron that were never an issue before (for example, sometimes it just gets bored of being connected to my wireless network). Even the biggest names in apps, such as Evernote and Netflix and Amazon, can’t come up with Windows 8 apps that work as well as their desktop and/or web apps. The native apps are also incredibly slow, considering how little they do — personally, it feels to me like a return to the days when you’d wait for Myst to load up from a CD-ROM. The store is junk. It’s expensive, buggy, slow, and not searchable. Yes. You heard me. You can’t search the app store.
I hope the drubbing they are currently taking lasts a very, very long time.
Sure, Homeland was a well-written show, with some nice plot twists and great acting. But it was a bad show. It was right-wing to the core: it pitted white military officers and white intelligence officers against evil African-Americans and evil Muslims. The bad guys were professors and journalists (and, of course, under pressure, the Oxford-educated journalist becomes a snarling, incoherent terrorist dog). I cannot take it seriously as a political statement about anything.
That was not even Homeland‘s biggest problem. Sure, I’ll watch some xenophobic, hawkish piece of garbage if it has a lot of cleverly-done hijinks. However, during Season 2, the writers were so eager to beat their own personal bests that they went over the top and around the bend. Tons of plot arcs went nowhere (one great example: Brody being “investigated” by his former comrades). Supposedly “chronic” problems came and went (Carrie’s bipolar disorder, her medication regimen, Brody’s PTSD, etc.). Characters acted in ways that made no sense, especially the two main villains. The dialogue, once so sharp and surprising, turned into soap-opera mush. The actors were often so bewildered that they simply started borrowing from other films, such as Damien Lewis borrowing from Marlon Brando in The Godfather as he tries to make sense of a very improbable climax.
The gigantic super mega-twist at the end was absurd. Without spoiling it for anyone, I can say that several key steps in the terrorists’ plan go off without a hitch while the audience remains completely in the dark. It’s not even clear to me that the writers knew Season 2 would be the final season, because presumably if they had known, they wouldn’t have created such anticlimactic endings for numerous characters. By the end, there wasn’t much drama or food for thought. What little Homeland did accomplish was diluted by Zero Dark Thirty, which had similar writing and an identical female lead.
Rest In Peace, Homeland. We’re better off without you.
4. The Idler Wheel Something Something You Know Blah Blah Blah Whatever, Fiona Apple
This one inspires great personal sadness. I’m not a fan of Microsoft or Homeland or other critics per se. I am a huge Fiona Apple fan, and I still like her a lot, but this album was just not enjoyable.
Here’s what I stand for: DELIGHT. If something doesn’t bring delight, it’s probably not worth the excursion away from the real world. My problem with increasingly brutal shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead was that they just weren’t any fun, at all, and the same goes for this album. Yes, it was a fairly convincing piece of musical performance art, evoking Fiona Apple’s anxious and self-destructive tendencies. But what about the jazz? What about the rock ‘n roll? “Extraordinary Machine,” “Paper Bag,” and “Shadowboxer” are anxious songs about self-destructive behavior, and they also manage to be beautiful and propulsive. There were no singles on this album, and even though the bedroom is a spooky, scary place, I’m just not sure we need any more concept albums about that. Remember when the editor of Rolling Stone tells the kid in Almost Famous that “we already have a Hunter Thompson”? Well, sorry, Fiona, but we already have an Atlas Sound.
5. Several of “the best movies of the year”: The Life of Pi, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, etc.
I know this seems like a repeat of #1, but I’ll get specific about the Tarantino and David O. Russell films. (I don’t really have anything to add about The Life of Pi, which I reviewed here. Thanks to the many alert readers who pointed out that there totally is a python in the first scene.)
Quentin Tarantino peaked with Kill Bill. (Death Proof was also good, but it was a minor accomplishment covering well-trod ground.) In both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, he’s taken his trademark scene — one where two opposing parties have guns pointed at each other, figuratively or literally, and discuss trivialities — and made it so infinitely long that you just feel sorry for everyone holding a gun, since their muscles must really start to ache. I timed one of the conversations between Jamie Foxx, Christopher Lasch, and Leonardo DiCaprio at over 700 minutes. Furthermore, Django Unchained is a deeply racist film. It confuses contemporary urban violence with the violence of the old West. Hollywood is fond of doing this (see also The Wire), but it’s never legitimate. This is not because violence in the old West was a form of heroism. It was ugly then, too. It’s because the two historical situations have very little (other than guns) in common. When you reduce a modern city to “the Wild West,” you miss the systemic ills that produce violence, and poverty, and all the other varieties of sickness and rage that drive people to kill each other.
For the most part, Silver Linings Playbook is merely stupid. It’s a dumb meet-cute that leads to a predictable, overly whimsical romantic comedy. Yet it is more than merely stupid; it is also offensive. It’s one of (what is still) a very small number of films to focus on mental illness, anti-depressants and other psychiatric meds, and hospitalization. Unfortunately, it’s all over the place. Doctors do things they would never, in real life, actually do, such as playing a triggering song in a waiting room to see how a patient reacts. Characters pop in and out of the hospital like kids playing hooky from school. Any serious emotional turbulence is undermined by a persistent zaniness that is — how else to put it? — completely fucking manic. You can see the Big Lessons and the Ironic Reversals coming from a mile away.
In Silver Linings Playbook, a bunch of bipolar people never read, obsess about music, become cinephiles, or watch truckloads of television. I’d guess that the author hasn’t known many other bipolar people besides himself… except that not once, but twice, characters triumphantly throw books out of houses, suggesting an intellectual who loathes his kind. I would like to have a physical copy of the screenplay. If I had one, it would bring me great joy to throw it out of a window. To really get a sense of how lame this film is, wash it down with Limitless, where Cooper and De Niro are far better even though the conceit is goofier.
I’m going to go easy on the book-hating here, because it wasn’t a great year for books. If you managed to read anything, good for you; at least you didn’t spend the whole year puzzling over the supposed genius of this or that cable television show. But, in conclusion, here is my list of The Top Twenty Things You Can Safely Ignore, No Matter What They Say:
1. Mad Men, Season Five
2. Breaking Bad, Season Five
3. Channel Orange, Frank Ocean
4. good kid, M.A.A.D. city, Kendrick Lamar
5. Raising Hell, Season Two
6. Shields, Grizzly Bear
7. Zero Dark Thirty
8. 30 Rock, Season 7
9. Essential Mix, Rustie
10. NW, Zadie Smith
11. The Map and the Territory, Michel Houellebecq
12. The Haunted Man, Bat For Lashes
13. The Money Store, Death Grips
15. The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
16. Parks and Recreation / Modern Family, current seasons (both for the same reason — excessive sentimentality)
17. Bloom, Beach House
18. The Amazing Spider-Man
19. Hulu+, unless you are actually going to sit there and watch The Criterion Collection
20. Glee, Season 4