Saturday, December 31, 2005

Favourite diversions of 2005

My idiosyncratic best of TV, movies, websites, music, and books

I can't add to the "Best of the Year" lists that crop up annually around this time, not because I don't want to review the year myself, but because I don't like that word "best" - it's just as subjective as "favourite," but with an unwarranted air of authority. My "Best of 2005" would be from a too-limited sample, anyway, since I can’t watch or read or hear anywhere close to everything that’s out there, and some of the items that most entertained me this year were released earlier. Plus, I can believe in my head that a movie, television show, or book is superior in overall quality, but it might not engage my heart the way another, more flawed piece of entertainment does.

So with those multiple disclaimers, here’s my totally subjective list of favourite diversions of the past year, three in each category:


It’s the show that corrupted me, leading me to discover the joys and horrors of online fandom when I was desperate to talk about one of my new all-time favourite shows, but no one I knew was watching. It’s the show I can’t stop analysing and admiring, whether it’s talking about it with old friends I’ve now converted, new ones I’ve made online, or writing about it for the Blogcritics House column. I’ve written ad nauseam about why I love the show itself, but it’s also become more than a show for me – it’s a community, too. And why do I love the show? Whatever its flaws, it has the most appealingly funny nasty-but-noble, slightly tragic, largely infuriating lead character, biting sarcasm, intelligence and wit along with juvenile humour, an affinity for rationality and logic and a disdain for easy answers, plus bizarre medical stories.

My Name is Earl
On paper, it didn’t sound like something I’d enjoy - a small town Southern hick makes amends for past wrongs. But Earl is clever and sweet in its idiocy, and treats even its stereotypes with compassion and good-natured humour. The dumb brother isn’t only the butt of jokes, Randy is Earl’s best friend and, sometimes, conscience. The trailer trash ex-wife isn’t just a vindictive bitch, Joy’s a long-suffering, often-vulnerable foil for Earl. And the pretty immigrant chambermaid isn’t just the object of Randy’s affections, Catalina’s an ethically challenged but usually brighter-than-the-boys companion.

Grey’s Anatomy
I watched the pilot last season because of my love of medical shows and the interesting ensemble cast, including the wonderful Sandra Oh. But it didn’t leave much of an impression, and I saw only bits and pieces of later episodes until finally getting completely hooked sometime this season. It’s a perfectly addictive blend of fluff and emotion for a Sunday night, with sharply drawn characters interacting in humourous and poignant ways. I missed too much of the McDreamy-Meredith affair to care about the will-they-end-up-together romance, and Meredith herself is less interesting than Cristina, Bailey, and Izzy, but this is the rare ensemble where none of the characters are short-changed in stories and depth.


The Squid and the Whale
The Squid and the Whale was by far my favourite of the movies I saw at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. Ignore the fact that I only saw two. Writer/director Noah Baumbach's Squid is one of my favourites of any movie I've seen this year, anywhere. It's both charmingly bitter and bitterly funny, with compulsively watchable characters of varying degrees of unlikeability, and beautifully textured performances from the cast, including Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney.

At a couple of points, I felt as though I should feel that Paul Haggis' Crash was trying too hard to be a social lesson, with snippets of conversation that seemed like the screenwriters' voice rather than the characters', and coincidences that turned its realism into fable. But I loved it – it entertained me, surprised me, moved me. Great performances from the entire ensemble, including from some unexpected sources.

Good Night, and Good Luck
I loved the intimacy of this film, directed and co-written by George Clooney, which focused tightly on its subject in plot and camerawork. I knew only the basics about Edward R. Murrow or the McCarthy hearings, but rather than be annoyed that the movie didn't explain its context or secondary characters more fully, I was sucked into the story, its critique of both government and media, and a moral - "we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty" - that sadly resonates today.


Behind-the-scenes blogs
I love movies and television, of course, but I also love hearing about the making of movies and television. Whether I’ve seen their particular products or not, these writers’ blogs give great glimpses into the behind-the-scenes process. Oh, and professional screenwriters are pretty good at, you know, writing, so many of them (especially these ones) tend to be entertaining even for a non-screenwriter:
Television Without Pity
I’d never had much interest in online forums, and still have mixed feelings, but back when I was looking for somewhere to chat about House, I passed through a few scary places before finding intelligent, friendly, and funny discussion here. Apart from the House forums, the vintage West Wing recaps let me relive the glory days with the bonus of added snark, and the Grey’s Anatomy recaps are also a perfect blend of snark and appreciation.

I’m not much of a web surfer – I tend to visit only my favourite sites, and learn about new ones through recommendations or when I’m searching for something specific. But StumbleUpon is a procrastinator’s dream, letting you land on random sites that are at least slightly in line with your interests. My most notable random stumbling was one I've since come across from other sources, too - PostSecret, a sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, sometimes creepy collection of actual postcards people have made, disclosing their biggest secrets.


The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A touching and compulsively readable tale spanning over 500 pages and the lifetime of its protagonists, Clare and Henry. The book is part high-concept - Henry suffers from a condition that causes him to involuntarily time travel, so that he first met Clare when he was 28 and she 20, but she first met him when she was six and he 36. But mostly, it's a finely realized love story focusing on fate, the pain and relief of being left behind, and the pain and excitement of leaving.

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
Heartbreakingly, hysterically funny Nomi Nickel is the wry, confused narrator of Toews' novel about a 16-year-old Mennonite girl whose mother and sister have both disappeared, leaving her to live with her bewildered father in a town that suffocates her with its religious restrictions and limited opportunities. While the book offers fascinating insight into a community that has turned its back on much of the modern world, it's easy to identify with misfit Nomi.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Haddon gets into the mind of an autistic 15 year old boy, who's a mathematical genius, but can't understand emotions and hates to be touched. When his neighbour's dog is murdered, he investigates and finds answers to questions he didn't know he should be asking. Told in the first person, as Christopher writes a book of his investigations, The Curious Incident is by turns heartrending and intriguing.


iTunes player, iTunes store, iPod
I know it should be the music that’s the actual diversion, but this year I fell in love with the iPeople for making it so much more convenient to listen to my favourite songs from my favourite CDs along with my favourite songs from digital sources — at home and everywhere I go. Well, almost everywhere. So maybe it’s a cheat, but rather than picking three favourite songs or artists, thanks to the iThree above, I’m picking them all … and putting them on shuffle.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)