The Newcritics Year in Review

In this quirky, personality-driven, iconoclastic corner of the media universe, any kind of year-end list-building runs up hard against two competing factors that tear at any kind of universality: as middle-brow armchair critics, our tastes are rather catholic, but our production is – in the kindest sense – distinctly idiosyncratic.

We write about what we want to write about in these precincts, with neither fame nor money at stake (I’ll resist the obvious jibe about the market-driven and Internet-enabled trajectory of all critical journalism these days).

Nonetheless, newcritics.com faces its second anniversary much as it did the first: committed (very loosely, but still) to a cultural conversation that binds us to a shared experience in film, television, literature, music and all the related art forms. This is no academic forum, however. It’s a collection of media-obsessed consumers who gather around the smoking hearth of opinion, poured neat and without the trappings of a higher calling.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer a few year in review highlights from the newcritics database – you can add your own in the comments, or just wander off on any tangent you choose. And by the way, if you’re a regular here and would like to become a blogger with full posting privileges, just drop me a line.

And so, to the “awards” – they’re based on popularity, acuity of newcritics blogging, and my mood on this particular December morning. As Chuck Tryon notes in his own year-end list of lists post: “Favorites matter. We find solidarity with others who share similar tastes.”

2008 Movie of the Year (tie)
The Dark Knight
Quantum of Solace

In brief:  we’re Bond fans through and through, and we loved the Joker. No two films elicited the response that these two blockbusters did in 2008 – at least among movies actually released this year (more on that in a moment).  Of Bond, M.A. Peel wrote in a decidedly mixed review that “QOS is still big time Hollywood in its excess best. It’s slick, polished, and exhausting to watch.” And NYC Weboy summed it up well, I think: “This is not your father’s Bond; this is not your brother’s Bond, either. And, frankly, we are better for it … The gin-sozzled, dapper dressed, gadget-y plaything of the past doesn’t suit our times, or our cultural needs.” Chris Nolan’s already-iconic The Dark Knight wore more passionate reviews and comments. Jason Chervokas called it “modern Gothic eye candy of the highest order” and argued that TDK ” is almost certainly the best Batman movie that will ever be made, up there with the best Batman stories of Steve Englehart and Frank Miller.” Blue Girl also dug the flick, but she posted a review worthy of The Catwoman anyway, ticky-tackying some feline flings at some of the performances: “If that’ll bother you because you must be so serious about The Batman, please click away so your delicate psyches are not damaged for all eternity.” Meoww!

1967 Movie of the Year
Bonnie and Clyde

This was a close one: our wildly-successful Wednesday Night at the Movies series kicked off with a 1967-themed film fest, keyed to Mark Harris’s revealing Pictures at a Revolution on the five Best Picture nominees from that revolutionary year. Thanks to Lance Mannion and the Self-Styled Siren, the first newcritics virtual fest was a box office smash and we all spent countless comments on DVD classics – for my money, Bonnie and Clyde‘s bullet-riddled commentary eked out top honors over In the Heat of the Night and The Graduate, the two other ’67 classics that elicited the most passionate discussions. I enjoyed going back and just reading the comments about Bonnie and Clyde (including some New Left insights from Nixonland author Rick Perlstein) and Lance’s primo, quote-filled introduction – a great newcritics moment. Here’s a taste via a comment on the famed death scene from the Sireen: “…they die as the result of institutional corruption and a low trick, and they die in a manner that’s simultaneously beautiful and gruesome, like a saint’s martyrdom. No Code movie would have countenanced the way law enforcement is portrayed there, as simple murder.”

Best Picture – New York Precincts
Rear Window

Our second filmfest was curated by the Siren (hence the more traditional, old-school Hollywood title for this category), with a hand from Mannion and me. And I think the discussion of Hitchcock’s almost over-hyped soundstage thriller edged out the pure LOL appreciation The Apartment and the bloggy ramble through the dark Manhattan of The Sweet Smell of Success. (You may, of course, disagree! It was a great series indeed). Rear Window has always been a favorite, but I really discovered some new territory in the Siren-led discussion. Typical of the eye-opening comments was Tony Dayoub’s: “What I really enjoyed about the “NY” location is its artifice. It really contributes to this being the landscape of the apartment-bound Jeff’s mind. Each little window is a peek into a nightmare Jeff has about commitment to Lisa or the loneliness should they break up.”

Best Dramatic Television Series
Mad Men

We loved it. We hated it. We loved to hate it. In truth, AMC’s Mad Men was almost universally acclaimed by the so-called professional critics – and panned, in a strangely respectful and admiring fashion, here at newcritics. But it was the conversation that made it so damned fun, the gathering here each week (even in the age of Tivo, for all love) to live-snark the stylish series, captained by M.A. Peel or yours truly. The thing is: both Ms. Peel and I always loved the ambition of Mad Men, the basic idea, and the setting. We just parted ways with Matthew Weiner on the execution, particularly in the writing around the two central characters, the pretender Don Draper and his psychotic mannequin wife Betty. Though we dug the ensemble, work-a-day cast a Sterling Cooper. Still, the gathering was the thing – as Ms. Peel captured so well in a September lede: “It’s been a week of certifiable madness. Stock market insanity; bank and company failures on an epic scale; the dollar amount of 700 billion said with a straight face. And now the maddening reality of the loss of Paul Newman, who embodied the sea change of generational sensibility that is rocking Don Draper’s world…”

Best Reality Television Series
Project Runway

For sheer snipery set on the West Side of Manhattan, nothing turned the fashionista amplifiers to eleven like the tear-laden, back-stabbing, playground of ambition that was Project Runway – and for part of its run (how we mourned when it didn’t last!) newcritics was fortunate in having Claire and Jennifer as our intrepid guides and weekly hosts. Here’s Claire before last season’s finale: “Have the contestants been suitably humanized so that you care who wins or loses? Has that crazily-haired Christian burrowed his way into your hard little hearts? More importantly, are you ready for Posh Spice guest judging? Frankly, that last bit, I am not. Posh both frighten and annoys me. Plus I think she has dreadful fashion sense.” Let’s hope PR blogging returns in 2009 – maybe we’ll give Tim Gunn and call and see if he can persuade our newcritics?

Record of the Year
Your Playlist

Just before he nominated The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive as the best record of 2008 a few weeks back, Jason Chervokas wrote this: “There’s just too much new music released every year to an audience too scattered for a marketplace too micro-targeted and boutiqued for me to claim I can tell anyone what’s best.” Exactly. In terms of new music, there’s precious little that those of us above the Jonas Brothers demographic all share anymore – and that sharing (of blockbuster movies and TV shows) is what tends to populate the best threads on newcritics. So, this year’s winner (as it may always be) is simply the playlist in your iPod or on your laptop. And in that area, we had many, many great music posts this year. Our most prolific music blogger, Jason covered the work of the Columbia band Vampire Weekend and he wrote this about the George band, The Whigs: “It doesn’t take virtuosity, genius, or even that much ingenuity, just well conceived parts working together–melodic choruses, guitar hooks, bass parts you can sing along with, drum parts that breakup and orchestrate a song, the processional hand clap or tambourine for color and propulsion.” True that. We also loved M.A. Peel’s sexy ode to Bing Crosby, Levi Asher’s insistence that modern hiphop is alive and well and rhymin’,  Robert Stein’s post on Johnny Cash photography, NYC Weboy’s piece on critics and philharmonics, Dan Leo’s appreciation of Little Steven’s garage music movement and his controversial list of best male rock vocalists, and the Viscount’s terrific review of Joe Jackson’s comeback album, Rain and his post on Ian Hunter. Needless to say, however, that nothing can touch actual music created by that intrepid pair of newcritics, Blue Girl and Neddie Jingo, who once again teamed up across the digital miles on a song that brought on a smile.

Epitaphs
Newcritics Remember

Finally, we all wrote our share of fond obituaries during the last 12 months, as befits our average age and cultural era – here are a bunch of good ones to remember by:

Suzanne Pleshette (Bob Stein)

William F. Buckley (Tom Watson)

Roy Scheider (Self-Styled Siren)

Richard Widmark (Bob Stein)

Charlton Heston (Lance Mannion)

Earle Hagen (Tom Watson)

Sydney Pollack (NYC Weboy)

George Carlin (Viscount LaCarte)

Bo Diddley (Jason Chervokas)

Jo Stafford (M.A. Peel)

Paul Newman (Robert Stein)

Levi Stubbs (Jason Chervokas)

Harold Pinter (Bob Stein)

Almost despite itself – and in defiance of a helacious mid-year hacking attack – newcritics carries on as a small-scale center of middlebrow cultural attutide and conversation. It’s been a great year, thanks to all the bloggers and commenters and readers and linkers. Let’s do it again, shall we?

Earle Hagen, 1919-2008

If it had only been the whistle, Earle Hagen would have qualified for major send-off from TV Land. That’s his own windy pursed lips at the beginning of The Andy Griffith Show as Andy and Opie head to the fishing hole, and it’s his tune as well. But Hagen, who died this week at 88, was a prolific television themesman. He also wrote the opening riffs to The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Gomer Pyle USMC, That Girl, I Spy, Eight Is Enough, and The Mod Squad.

Quite the line-up. His Mayberry theme and Dick Van Dyke work open two of the great sitcoms, instantly recognizable. But Hagen also scored Call Me Madam and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, played trombone with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Ray Noble, and wrote Harlem Nocturne as a tribute to Duke Ellington.

So in Earl’s whistling honor, a list of sorts – please add to it. My favorite television theme songs, in no particular order:

– The Rockford Files (Mike Post)
– Sanford and Son (Quincy Jones)
– The Honeymooners (Jackie Gleason)
– The Dick Van Dyke Show (Earle Hagen)
– The Bob Newhart Show (Patrick Williams)
– The Odd Couple (Neal Hefti)
– The Andy Griffith Show (Earle Hagen)
– The Sopranos (Rob Spragg)
– The Office (Jay Ferguson)
– Underdog (Ortala le Clerc Germaine)
– Dragnet (Miklos Rozsa)
– Chico and the Man (Jose Feliciano)
– Miami Vice (Jan Hammer)
– Fat Albert (Herbie Hancock)

Dead Rock Stars: Heaven’s Best Pick-Up Band (Or Hell’s)

Saw a headline right out of The Onion today: Rock Stars More Likely to Die Early. Yes, it was an actual study conducted by academics in England, the blockbuster follow-up to their famed Drunks More Likely to Suffer From Liver Maladies work. No kidding around, this was a real study:

A study of more than 1,000 mainly British and North American artists, spanning the era from Elvis Presley to rapper Eminem, found they were two to three times more likely to suffer a premature death than the general population.

Between 1956 and 2005 there were 100 deaths among the 1,064 musicians examined by researchers at the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University.

Turns out that rock stars are “at a disproportionate risk of alcohol- and drug-related deaths.” Color me gob-smacked. But it was a good excuse to start a list. The ten best rockers to depart before their times. No oldies: Carl Perkins, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, even Jerry Garcia (53), Roy Orbison (52), George Harrison (58), Johnny Ramone (56), and John Entwhistle (whose coke-inspired demise came at 58) and the like all had their time. So, sub-50, taken from us. In their prime. In order. Here goes:

1. John Lennon
2. Elvis Presley
3. Otis Redding
4. Johnny Thunders
5. Duane Allman
6. Keith Moon
7. Buddy Holly
8. Kurt Cobain
9. Jimi Hendrix
10. Gram Parsons

Elvis is the only guy (and they’re all guys though Nico almost made it) over 40. He still had so much to give. Who’s on your list in the little outfit I call, The Great Hereafter?

Ward Cleaver’s Club: the Great TV Dads

Ward CleaverTomorrow, I shall take my breakfast under the covers – a twice-yearly occurrence around case Watson (birthday, too!) – and I shall enjoy the mild but heartfelt tribute to my fatherhood. Later, I’ll give my old man a card and a gift, and char a few burgers in his honor. And I will feel well-satisfied at having appeased the greeting card holiday gods for another year.

But the arrival of the joyous Father’s Day season (rough on the orphans or the abandoned amongst us, I must agree) also got me thinking about how the role of “father” is laid out in the cultural scripture of the land. By which I mean television, of course.

So to the wordpress I dashed to throw down a few words: first off, it’s clear that our common idea of how fathers should behave begins with Ward Cleaver and his clan. Secondly, single fathers actively raising the children would seem to greatly outnumber those found in the general population on a percentage basis by a wide margin; indeed, it appears to be the inverse of single moms – of which there are many in the real world, but relatively few in the Shirley Patridge mode.

The single fathers list is huge: Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray), Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen), Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), Fred G. Sanford (Redd Foxx) – not to mention the Bachelor Father (John Forsythe) and Eddie’s Father (Bill Bixby). The small town of Mayberry supported two single fathers during its decade-long run on the backlot: Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and Sam Jones (Ken Berry). Single dads have held a wide variety of jobs – the professor to Juliet Mills’ dishy Nanny (Richard Long), a gun-flipping Rifleman (Chuck Connors), a Florida park ranger who befriends a ridiculously smart dolphin named Flipper (Brian Kelly), and a judge (Tony Randall).
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Rock’s Greatest Covers II: Bob Dylan’s Progeny

DylanA few years ago, the Rolling Stones covered the greatest song in the history of rock n’ roll. No, this list isn’t about that. It’s about the guy they covered – probably the most covered song-writer in the last 45 years: Bob Dylan, of course, our national poet. And if the Stones didn’t get the irony of covering Like a Rolling Stone (they probably thought the song was about them, didn’t they, didn’t they?) they certainly knew they were joining a long, long list of musicians who’ve found musical inspiration and lyrics worth repeating Dylan.

To follow up on the weekend’s excellent thread of greatest rock covers, I thought I’d drill down here on the man whose works were mentioned the most by newcritics readers.

OK, so most people would say All Along the Watchtower is the greatest Dylan cover. The Hendrix version rearranges the Dylan original, famously adding the cigarette-lighter slide licks and some screaming wah-wah solo work. It was the only Top 40 song of Hendrix’s living career. Heavy virtuosity aside, the song remains essential Dylan – the joker and the thief, the evocative chapters and the overall set piece. And that’s true of all the Dylan covers. Continue reading

Rock’s Greatest Covers: Patti Tops the List

HorsesJesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine…

When Van Morrison wrote the classic Gloria as the B-side to Them’s 1964 hit Baby Please Don’t Go, he couldn’t have suspected what a kid from New Jersey would do with his song a decade later. But I suspect he was thrilled. After all, Patti Smith’s cover of Gloria on her incredible 1975 debut album Horses stands as the greatest rock cover performance (studio release) of all time.

At least, that’s my choice. You may cue up something else. But consider the guidelines: we’re talking post-Beatles, singer-songwriter era. And we’re talking interpretation, ownership, stye. And Patti’s Gloria leaps to the top. Even now, 30 years after I first heard it, the song can bring chills – that opening, the free-form poetry, the anger and sexual tension, the drive of the band, as it swings in and around Smith’s lyrical riffs. Christ, it is rock. No matter that Patti didn’t write the song – she wrote the track.
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