I’ll return to the classic Western sound series soon, I promise. At the moment, it’s time for another year’s worth of “bests.” I did this for the first time last year, and felt like doing it again.
Best book I read in 2011. This is tough because I read so many books, yet I think of them in terms of whether they help my dissertation, not whether they are “great” books. By that standard, the best book I read in 2011 was Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James, which fundamentally altered how I think about my dissertation. Is it the best book I read in 2010? Probably not, but it’s a damn good one.
The other book I should mention here is Roger Ebert, The Great Movies, Vol. I. This spawned a mad rush for classic films on my part, and I’m looking forward to Vols. II and III, which I got for Christmas.
Best article I read in 2011. David Von Drehle, “150 Years after Fort Sumter: Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War.” Imagine that — a cover article on history in a major trade publication that interviews the major figures in Civil War memory studies, discusses historiography (including a just condemnation of William A. Dunning), and acknowledges that racism is deeply embedded in our understanding of the Civil War. Hands down the best article on history I’ve ever read in a non-peer-reviewed publication. I’d recommend this to anyone as a general introduction to Civil War memory.
Best recording I listened to in 2011. Winner: The Secret Garden, by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman. A magnificent and generally overlooked musical that actually improves on the timeless novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Mandy Patinkin as Archibald Craven, Rebecca Luker as Lily, and Daisy Egan as Mary are standouts; also listen for a surprisingly showstopping Dickon from John Cameron Mitchell, now better known as an actor/director. One sour note is Robert Westenberg’s inferior voice as Neville; I would have preferred Philip Quast in the role (he performed it in the original Australian cast).
Runner-up: Kan R. Gao and Laura Shigihara, “To the Moon” Soundtrack. A gorgeous soundtrack from Kan Gao (one track is by Shigihara) for a comparatively-simple indie adventure game. Professonal games would be lucky to have this soundtrack. You can listen to the entire thing for free at the link, but do Gao a favor and buy a copy when you’re through.
Best game I played in 2011. Winner: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. A large and fascinating game that has stood the test of time. Well worth playing if you haven’t yet.
Runner-up: Jade Empire, also by Bioware. A prettier game, but with less-developed characters (particularly the female characters — this is a real problem). Still fascinating and expansive, though.
Best film I watched in 2011. This is difficult for me because I’ve seen a number of good movies made this year, but no truly great ones. The only time I left the theater thinking I had seen a masterpiece was with the inspired Rango, but it hasn’t worn well with me. I saw two of the films likely to be nominated for an Oscar this year: The Help and Moneyball. I found The Help dreadful and Moneyball excellent but inferior to Aaron Sorkin’s previous creation, The Social Network. Other than Rango, the only films that exceeded expectations were Water for Elephants (largely on the strength of the acting) and Tintin (largely on the strength of the CG). Neither was a great film.
The best films I saw this year were made before 2011. They include The Social Network, the documentary Hoop Dreams, and the 1950s Indian art film Pather Panchali. None of them makes my all-time top 10 list (the last film to do that was Up, in 2009), but all are great films and well worth watching.
Best acting performance I saw in 2011. Winner: Christoph Waltz, Water for Elephants. This is an actor who has made two films in the United States. His first role won him an Oscar; this one won’t, but should. Waltz has the uncanny ability to fill an entire shot with his menacing, hulking presence. You simply cannot take your eyes off him for as long as he is in the frame. He reminds me of no one so much as Orson Welles. Anyone who can steal every scene he shares with Reese Witherspoon is a talented actor indeed.
First runner-up: Justin Timberlake, The Social Network. I was quite impressed by the scene-stealing performance of the actor who played Sean Parker in the film, but I was floored to discover afterwards that it was Timberlake. Here is a man with no acting training who outdoes professionals such as Jesse Eisenberg. Simply a phenomenal talent; I can’t wait to see what he does in subsequent roles.
Other runners-up: Simon Baker, The Mentalist; Pruitt Taylor Vince, The Mentalist; Julia Ormond, Law & Order: Criminal Intent; Robert Picardo, Star Trek: Voyager; Treat Williams, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (episode: “Spiraling Down”). I could add others; I’ve seen a lot of great performances this year.
Best TV Show of 2011. Winner: The Mentalist. Producer interference has taken this show down a notch since the start of the new season, but the second half of Season 3 was amazing. The season finale was some of the best television I’ve seen in years.
Runner-up: NCIS. This show has only gotten better with time, particularly once Donald Bellisario left and the new writing team decided to jettison the show’s sexism and conservatism while keeping the excellent characters and chemistry. This year featured some fascinating backstory on one of the show’s most underrated and interesting characters, NCIS Director Leon Vance.
Best non-sexual chemistry on film. Winner: Julia Ormond and Vincent D’Onofrio, Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In a series of scenes over the show’s eight-episode final season, D’Onofrio’s mercurial, unstable Detective Bobby Goren matches wits with Ormond’s sly and self-possessed psychologist. The screen fairly crackles with electricity when the two of them are on screen together. If USA Network put together a DVD featuring only their scenes together, I’d buy it.
Best blog of 2011. Winner: AZ Snakepit. As I’ve gotten back into baseball this year, the ‘pit has been my lifeline when I couldn’t watch or listen to a game. Excellent analysis, conversation, and news.
Runner-up: Independent Political Report. After years of reading the Web’s premiere third-party blog, I became a poster there a few months ago. As a lifelong supporter of third parties (I was a fan of Ross Perot when I was eight years old), I enjoy the horserace aspects of third-party politics as well as its potential to cater to unique, more principled ideas than do the the two major parties. I’m looking forward to casting my first presidential vote for a third-party candidate (likely Green Party nominee Jill Stein) in 2012.
Best new cause. Winner: <a href="http://www.350.org350.org. I’ve been looking for an organization dedicated solely to big-picture work on solving the politics of climate change, and Bill McKibben’s organization fits the bill. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in solving the only political issue that will matter to our future if it’s not solved soon.
My best blog post of 2011. The only one that fits the bill comes from early January: Historians under Attack: A Response to Anthony Grafton. This one got me noticed in Grafton’s February column in Perspectives. There may not be a category like this one next year, though. I don’t know that I’ll be doing so much blogging in future, and I envision this being more of a personal blog than a history-oriented one.
My greatest achievement of 2011. I don’t know that I can answer this one; it doesn’t feel as if I’ve accomplished too much this year. Probably the work I’ve done on understanding myself better (I’m being deliberately vague here) would rise to the top. I think I’ve been a pretty good partner this year. As far as my academic work goes, this has been a year of study and thought; hopefully I’ll have more to show for myself next year.
My favorite moment of 2011. There are several I won’t be getting into on the blog, but one I’ll mention is seeing my three uncles in the same room together for the first time in over 35 years. The occasion was incredibly sad, but that was a sight to behold. I wish that could happen more often.
Other than that, there have been moments when I’ve simply looked around at the trees and the sky and been really happy to be alive. Those are good moments. And when my partner is around, that’s always a best moment.
Feel free to add your own “bests” in the comments. What kind of year have you had?