Welcome all to the second annual end-of-year roundup of various media I consumed this year. This year I kept a list, so this is guaranteed to be comprehensive. Instead of alphabetical order, entries are listed in the order read (within each category). As in last year, recommendations are in bold. Mini-reviews provided below entries, as applicable. Starred entries I only read part of, usually books of short stories. Note: also includes movies!
Fitzhugh, Louise – Harriet the Spy – 1/7
I enjoyed this book as a kid and I was pleased to discover that it holds up just as well, if not better, read as an adult. If you’ve never read it, go get it now, no matter how old you are.
Keyes, Daniel – Flowers for Algernon – 1/17
Short story version is probably still my favorite, but it’s worth a look.
O’nan, Stewart – Wish You Were Here – 1/27
A good example of a book in which nothing happens. The story is driven entirely by its characters.
Updike, John – Problems and Other Stories*
Millhauser, Steven – The Knife Thrower and Other Stories*
Millhauser is weird and fun.
Miller, Rand and Robyn – Myst: The Book of Atrus – 2/14
Jin, Ha – A Free Life – 3/13
Keret, Etgar – The Nimrod Flipout*
Murakami, Haruki – 1Q84 – 5/6
Murakami is writing some of the best surreal stories around, and this gargantuan novel is possibly his best yet. Don’t miss it.
Miller, Rand – Myst: The Book of D’ni – 5/9
Maxwell, William – So Long, See You Tomorrow – 5/19
Kress, Nancy – Steal Across the Sky – 6/23
Possibly Nancy Kress’s worst book. Most characters are all right, but the story falls flat on its face in a mire of overused tropes and credibility problems. Avoid.
Lethem, Jonathan – The Fortress of Solitude – 8/03
First Lethem I’ve read and I didn’t realize he was a magical realist at first, which made the introduction of magic somewhat jarring. Some very good writing here.
Gregory, Daryl – Pandemonium – 8/22
Nice debut SF novel. Not perfect, but still good.
Dick, Philip K. – A Scanner Darkly – 9/04
Strangely enough, I’d never read this PKD before but it has to be one of his best. Very little in the way of actual futurism, just a psychological and jarring exploration of a bizarre drug that does not (yet) exist and the characters who are affected by it.
Miller, Rand and Robyn – Myst: The Book of Ti’ana – 9/12
Murray, Paul – Skippy Dies – 9/29
An interesting novel from a new Irish writer. Comic in general, but also insightful and at times deeply moving. Definitely worth a look.
Shriver, Lionel – So Much for That – 10/13
This book is a big mess. Strong characters, except for the ones who are cardboard, and lots and lots of soapboxing about the failures of the American healthcare system. Still, I do intend to check out some of her other books, because if this one is just a fluke than the others are probably quite good.
Powers, Richard – Gain – 10/26 *quit
I often like Powers, but this one always sounded boring to me. Turns out it was.
Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice – 11/19
Jane Austen here provides a terrific moral for all fiction writers, and indeed for life in general: there are as many sides to every story as there are people involved in it.
Seena, Danzy – Caucasia – 12/3
One of the strongest novels I read this year. Strong characters, insightful exploration of contemporary issues, an incredibly good title…what more could one want?
Oates, Joyce Carol – My Sister, My Love – 12/23
VERDICT: Top recommendation has to go to Murakami’s 1Q84. Whether you enjoy literary fiction, fantasy fiction, or both, you will probably love this book. Least favorite, alas, must go to Kress’s Steal Across the Sky. I have high expectations of Ms. Kress and this book is simply not up to her normal standards.
Heins, Marjorie – Not in Front of the Children – 2/3
Freinkel, Susan – Plastic: A Toxic Love Story – 2/25
Interesting exploration of plastics and their significance to our society. Worth a look.
Levy, Stephen – Hackers – 6/15
This early history of hackers is filled with colorful characters and anecdotes, but what really makes it fascinating is to read it in the light of all that’s taken place in the thirty or so years since publication. No Internet here, no open-source movement, but you can see the seeds being sown. Highly recommended.
Paterniti, Michael – Driving Mr. Albert – 7/9
It’s a philosophical road trip with Einstein’s brain! The philosophical part is the big problem, though. A largely tedious book which tries to be much more than it is. Skip.
Weber, Katharine – The Memory of All That – 7/17
VERDICT: Not a big non-fiction year for me, as you can see. Top pick: Hackers, for reasons mentioned above. Anti-recommendation: Driving Mr. Albert, for reasons mentioned above.
Amir and Khalil – Zahra’s Paradise – 1/10?
Burns, Charles – X’ed Out – 1/12
Larson, Hope – Mercury – 1/18
Bechdel, Alison (ed.) – The Best American Comics 2011 – 2/17
various – Kramers Ergot #5 – 2/19
Seth – It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken – 2/24
Small, David – Stitches – 2/26
I’m always suspicious of graphic memoirs, but this one was quite good on a lot of fronts.
Clowes, Daniel – The Death Ray – 3/10
Huizenga, Kevin – Curses – 3/23
Burford, Brendan, ed. – Syncopated – 3/24
An anthology of non-fiction comics by many different creators. Terrific stuff.
Burns, Charles – Big Baby – 3/29
Fun weird short stories from earlier in Burns’s career.
Robinson, Alex – Tricked – 3/29
Griffith, Bill – Lost and Found – 4/30
Sturm, James – Market Day (re-read) – 6/3
Klenell, Johannes (ed.) – From the Shadow of the Northern Lights vol. 1 – 6/19
Clowes, Daniel – Caricature – 6/30
Clowes is better in this short story form. Concise and memorable.
Nilsen, Anders – Big Questions – 7/1
Not necessarily a good book, but definitely an interesting one. In general I don’t like the kinds of stories that have cryptic philosophical morals, as this seems to, but beyond that aspect it’s an interesting sort of 900-page mood piece. Nice drawings too. Worth a look.
Piskor, Ed – Wizzywig – 8/18
This story of a typical hacker would have been a lot more enjoyable if I hadn’t just read Hackers, which was basically the same thing in much more detail, featuring real people.
Miller, Frank – The Dark Knight Returns – 9/03
It seemed like about time I read this classic of comic book literature. Sigh. The panel arrangements and artwork are quite nice, I’ll admit, but… maybe I just don’t get Batman. The story did nothing for me, and I got tired of Gotham TV. I’m sorry.
Ware, Chris – Building Stories – 10/31
Chris Ware outdoes himself with this big box of depressing stories told through over a dozen different page formats.
Backderf, Derf – My Friend Dahmer – 12/5
Derf’s account of his childhood friend, serial-killer-to-be Jeffrey Dahmer, is disturbing, engrossing, and raises a lot of questions. His unmistakeable art style completes the package.
Bechdel, Alison – Are You My Mother? – 12/31
I was rather disappointed by this book. Bechdel stresses throughout the book that it was difficult for her to write, and sadly, it shows. It’s advertised as a book about her mother, but it’s far more about Bechdel’s own psychoanalysis sessions.
VERDICT: Of course Chris Ware is going to win any list he appears on, because that’s how it works. Building Stories changes what a graphic novel can be, but doesn’t lose track of its story in doing so. Read it immediately. Loser: I’m almost afraid to say that the title is going to have to go to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. I know it’s a classic, I can see why it’s a classic, but I just didn’t enjoy it that much.
MOVIES and other things that move
The Iron Giant – 1/1
Neon Genesis Evangelion (original series) – 1/2
The People vs. George Lucas – 1/7
Who owns a work of art, and who has the right to change it? A fun documentary about George Lucas with heavy implications.
Oldboy – 1/9
The Science of Sleep – 1/13
What a dislikeable protagonist. I hated him so much that my hatred for him is now the main thing I remember about this movie. I guess there was also some cool animation?
Nausicaa – 1/14
A very disorganized but still engrossing early Miyazaki film.
Magnolia – 1/17
Wow. Just wow. It is hard to imagine that a film could have so much potential and manage to botch it as badly as this one. A dozen or so strong characters, all going through potentially interesting events in their lives, and still it’s a disaster. Why? Well, you can start with plot threads and montages that serve no purpose. If that’s not enough you can add some synchronized song sequences. Still not satisfied? FINE. Watch frogs rain from the sky, pickypuss. If wasted potential was the only condition, this could be the worst movie ever made.
Brazil – 1/21
This SF film, basically 1984 played as a comedy, deserves to be seen by everyone. Why it isn’t more well-known is a mystery to me.
FLCL (finished) – 2/1
Firefly (finished) – 2/22
All that stuff people say about Firefly? It’s all true. Watch it.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – 2/25
Black Swan – 2/26
The Headless Woman – 2/29
Serenity (2nd time) – 3/7
Au hasard Balthazar – 3/10
The Secret of the Grain – 3/15
A story of a family starting a restaurant which starts almost torturously slow and builds toward an incredibly suspenseful climax. It’s not for everyone, but I thought it was terrific.
A Series of Unfortunate Events (2nd time) – 3/21
Jim Carrey gets more than a little annoying, and the movie adaptation decrees that girls are helpless, but the visuals are phenomenal. Especially the closing credits animation. (That is not sarcasm, the closing credits are terrific.)
Fullmetal Alchemist (finished) – 4/12
If you’ve never watched an anime before, this would be a good place to start. Very suspenseful and detail storyline with lots of good characters. It starts off rocky, but once it’s good, it stays good.
Fullmetal Alchemist Movie – 4/14
The same cannot be said of this dismal followup. A big dose of Just Add Nazis, plus a number of other blunders (gypsy singalong ten minutes in?!) spells disaster.
Time Bandits – 4/21
Young Frankenstein – 4/29
First time I’d seen it, and I found it to be surprisingly overrated.
Bill Cunningham New York – 5/9
An interesting documentary about an interesting character. There should be more like this.
Inland Empire – 5/14
Okay, David Lynch. You’re insane. We get it. (Can’t say I didn’t enjoy it in a weird way.)
Samurai Champloo (finished) – 5/19 (12:45 AM)
Another top-notch anime series. Plays fast and loose with feudal Japanese history, and does so with daring gusto. Good characters, strong plot, and lots of action.
Star Wars IV (probably 3rd time?) – 5/24
Lynch One – 5/26
This documentary is broken. Feels less like actual information and more like watching David Lynch through a window.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (2nd time) – 6/10
Marie Antoinette – 6/16
An unorthodox look at one of history’s most vilified figures. Very underrated, in my opinion.
Wild Strawberries – 6/24
The Straight Story – 6/30
Address Unknown – 7/2
A stark and disturbing drama taking place in the aftermath of the Korean war. Strong characters and some really memorable visuals.
Between the Folds – 7/25
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (finished) – 7/26
Don’t blink or you’ll miss a crucial plot development! Whoops, you missed another one! Seriously, stop blinking, we need to get in a dozen plot developments per second here.
The Weight of the Nation (finished) – 7/28
L’Avventura – 7/04
Pride and Prejudice, BBC miniseries version (finished) – 8/20
I’d always thought of this seven-hour Austen adaptation as the punchline to a joke, but it’s really well-executed. Good actors and a good script.
Wings of Desire – 8/21
There Will Be Blood – 8/28
An underrated power-play between a greedy tycoon and a manipulative preacher. Fireworks in every line of dialogue, and an incredible score.
Coraline – 9/12
Terrific stop-action animation. Somewhat predictable script. Dismal performance in feminist terms (supposedly strong female protagonist needs to be saved at last second by hapless loser boy).
Julie & Julia – 9/15
Here’s a tip, writers. If you make the protagonist’s boyfriend be a total asshole, we won’t want him to come back when he leaves her. We will, in fact, be praying for the protagonist to murder him every time he appears onscreen. WE WILL HATE HIM AND WANT HIM TO GO AWAY.
Bowling for Columbine – 9/19
Barry Lyndon (2nd time) – 10/6
Pan’s Labyrinth – 11/24
Not a perfect movie. But not a bad movie. My main complaint is that the villain is too evil.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – 12/15
A promising start to the new trilogy. Gollum scene is impeccable.
Yi Yi – 12/22
Ending the year on a good note, this Taiwanese film has characters galore and terrific visuals.
VERDICT: Tough choice, but I’m going to say Address Unknown was the best movie I saw this year. It’s not something I’d recommend to everyone, but if it’s the kind of thing you like you shouldn’t miss it. Worst movie award must go to Magnolia. It’s like taking a good movie and mixing in every bad idea imaginable. If two-thirds of it had ended up on the cutting-room floor, it might have been something great. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.
BONUS ANIME VERDICT: Fullmetal Alchemist and Samurai Champloo tie for first place. Both are very good for different reasons. Neither are perfect but both come close. Worst: the Fullmetal Alchemist movie. One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Still better than Magnolia, though.
That’s all for 2012! See you all back here in a year.