Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2009's Top 10 Visual Aids

10) 30 for 30 (ESPN)
HBO has had a stranglehold on the title of best sports documentary producers for at least a decade now. They're always well written. The wide cross range of people they speak to (athletes, sportswriters, fans) usually have interesting things to say about the chosen topic. And each doc has the dulcet tones of Liev Schreiber as your not-voice-of-god-but-kinda-close narrator. It’s a winning formula, and whenever a new one debuts I make sure to record it. This year THE sports network woke up and decided, “Hey, we can do just as good a job as them—and much better than our SportsCentury series.” So ESPN ran with the suggestion of doing 30 films to mark the network's 30th anniversary from an employee who knows about connecting with sports fans—“The Sports Guy,” Bill Simmons. His idea of 30 different directors picking topics that haven't been told to death was inspired. What are the chances we'd get an entire hour on Jimmy the Greek without Simmons’ brainstorm? (I’d lay odds on it in tribute to the NFL Today linesmaker, but I lay off gambling when I'm writing the list each year.) 30 for 30 grabbed some excellent directors (Barry Levinson, Peter Berg) who tackled fascinating topics (the Baltimore Colts marching band after the team left town, Wayne Gretzky being traded to Los Angeles) and spun them into some great work. Two of the 30 for 30 films, Without Bias and Muhammad and Larry, are almost painful to watch. In one you see someone’s potential snuffed out in one fateful night and in the other you witness the downfall of a great champion who should have not been in a ring in 1980. (Watching Ali train in that film compared to six years earlier in When We Were Kings is especially troubling when you see how his speech and movement had slowed down during that time. No wonder his fight doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, quit Ali's corner in disgust in 1977.) 30 for 30 continues in 2010 and is a must see series for any sports fan.

9) Ace of Cakes (Food Network)
This year I found myself going off the beaten path cable network-wise. It was my desperate attempt to be entertained on weekend afternoons in that annoying time after football playoffs end and before spring training games. One Sunday afternoon I stumbled upon the Food Network and a show called Ace of Cakes. What I saw was this huge cake that looked like it must not be a cake. (I can’t recall exactly what it was, but it had to be about four feet tall.) I was memorized by this tasty treat in front of me and I watched the rest of the episode. I started watching the Sunday shows even when baseball season began. And when the new season debuted in July, I was totally hooked. I can even ignore the fact that “reality” show about Charm City Cakes in Baltimore has a writer listed in the credits each week. What makes this “reality” show better than most is that the people at Charm City cakes don’t look like they’re from central casting. The head chef, Duff Goldman, is a big dude with a shaved head and an infectious laugh. The sous chef Geof is a soft spoken guy with a knack for creating exact representations of famous buildings—and perhaps the driest wit of any person on TV not working for The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Obviously all the bad and mundane things that happen at the bakery are left on the cutting room floor. And yet the final product doesn’t seem too manufactured. These people look like they actually enjoy working with each other and being in front of cameras all the time hasn’t transformed them all that much. Oh, and it’s a SHOW ABOUT CAKE! How could I not love it?

8) Robyn Hitchcock: I Often Dream of Trains in New York (Sundance/Yeproc)
In the fall of 2008 Robyn Hitchcock did a tour performing his 1984 album I Often Dream of Trains in its entirety. For some stupid reason I cannot recall, I passed on going to this show when it played at Symphony Space in Manhattan. After I saw this documentary on the Sundance Channel this summer, I literally slapped my forehead in disgust for being so stupid. It’s hard to believe that almost 25 years after its release, Hitchcock sounds better singing these songs now than he did on the original recording. All the performances are stellar and he even throws in a great new song (“Up to Our Nex”) at the end. What moves I Often Dream of Trains in New York above the standard concert film are the interview segments with Hitchcock. He talks—in a way only he can—about the songs, their meanings and a bunch of other topics that are fascinating and head scratching at the same time. And he does it all on an Amtrak train from Washington, D.C. to New York. It’s the best press Amtrak has gotten since…well, it’s the only good press Amtrak has ever gotten. Of course, if the director John Edginton wanted to capture a true Amtrak trip, he would have gotten Hitchcock on a morning train from Chicago to New York that’s probably running 3 hours late as I write this. Fucking Amtrak.

7) The Lost Son of Havana (ESPN)
After making the film festival rounds for six months, ESPN picked up this documentary to air after a Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers Monday night game. Being that it was an American League game, it was no surprise it stretched to almost four hours and pushed the start time of the film back to almost 11. It’s a shame that The Lost Son of Havana wasn’t aired in primetime on the East Coast because a story this compelling deserved a wider audience. The film focuses on Red Sox legend Luis Tiant, who left his native Cuba for pro baseball in 1961 and hadn't been back in 46 years. In 2007, after diplomatic finagling through back channels, Tiant and director Jonathan Hock got to fly into Cuba under the guise of a baseball team looking to play some exhibitions. (Hock and his crew posed as part of a ball team and played against Cubans during the trip.) Tiant’s return is a bittersweet affair, as the reunions with his surviving relatives are emotion-filled moments where they’re happy to see him and talk glowingly about his accomplishments and at the same time upset that he never returned sooner. The Lost Son of Havana is a look at Cuba most of us have never seen before and is well worth seeking out on Netflix even if you’re not a baseball fan.

6) Community (NBC)
The best new show of the 2009-2010 season (sorry Glee fans) is—shockingly—on NBC, the network that’s acting like it doesn’t want to be a network. I was hooked on this comedy set at the fictional Greendale Community College from a moment in the pilot when sleazy and smooth-talking lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) talks about how he got professor a DUI acquittal by connecting it to 9/11. “You did seem less into integrity the day that I convinced 12 of your peers that the day you made a U-turn on the freeway and tried to order chalupas from the emergency call box, that your only real crime was loving America.” The professor (played by Daily Show correspondent John Oliver) insists, “Well, I do love America. I love it very much. I love chalupas.” And from that hilarious start, Community has only gotten better with each episode. And this is a show that co-stars Chevy Chase. And he’s good. Seriously. The writing staff has played off of Chase’s rep as a prick by making that an essential part of his character Pierce, who boasts of having invented an “award-winning moist towelette.” And they’ve also worked in his talent for pratfalls and made them funny. It’s a transformation to behold. Danny Pudi is the biggest discovery in the rest of the mostly unknown cast, as his Abed has no internal censor and says whatever comes into his mind. Abed also has the biggest pop culture knowledge of any character on TV, which allows the writers to come up a multitude of gags that recall everything from The Breakfast Club to An American Tail. (Seeing two of the characters singing “Somewhere Out There” to find the mouse from their lab experiment is the funniest thing I’ve seen on TV this year. Well, it’s almost as funny as Kanye bum-rushing Taylor Swift.) Discovering Community makes me glad the band doesn’t have gigs on Thursday nights any more.

5) Lost (ABC)
With just one more season to go (oh, I can’t wait for February 2nd) Lost’s fifth season continued the creative rebirth that started at the end of season three. The whole time travel aspect was a bit mind-fogging at times, yet it gave us a compelling pairing of characters with Sawyer and Juliet shacking up to play house in the 1970s. The on-screen chemistry between Josh Holloway and Elizabeth Mitchell was tremendous and makes me wish that (spoiler alert) that Juliet didn’t die when the a-bomb went off in the season finale. I’m going to miss my favorite show of the oughts when it ends in May. I guess I’ll have to pick up the DVDs then and relive it over the summer.

4) Taking Chance (HBO)
Taking Chance is a tearjerker, no doubt about it. I’m not one to usually watch this type of film, but Kevin Bacon’s performance (and the simple and spare way the story is told) made it hard to turn it off. Bacon plays Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a Marine veteran whose journal served as the basis for the script. Strobl served in the first Gulf War but had worked a desk job throughout the current war in Iraq. Feeling guilty over being at home while so many servicemen were risking their lives, he volunteered to escort the body of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps to his final resting place. The film covers every part of that journey, from Dover Air Force base to Wyoming, with stops in Philadelphia and Minneapolis along the way. Taking Chance is filled with details of this trip (like a shook up flight attendant who thrusts a gold crucifix into the hands of Strobl or former Air Force pilot announcing to the passengers on his Northwest flight about the honorable soldier they’ve been carrying) but really Chance and Strobl are just representatives of the thousands of service members we've lost and the men and women who carry them home. The point that every lost service member is treated with this kind of respect is shown during an extended sequence at the Dover mortuary. It shows the attention to detail that goes cleaning, restoring and dressing each body, and then the salutes given to each departing hearse, not just by the service members but by any civilians who happen to be there that day. And if the scene where everyone at the Minneapolis airport stops and salutes the coffin doesn’t grab the heartstrings, then you’re probably Dick Cheney. Perhaps best of all, Taking Chance has no political agenda. No one in the film is for or against the war. But in presenting what happens when our soldiers and Marines killed over there come home, it serves as a powerful reminder that their lives indeed mattered.

3) Flight of the Conchords (HBO)
I usually feel kind of ticked off when a show I love ends seemingly before its time. But I’m not angry about the early December announcement that Flight of the Conchords would not go into a third season. At the end of their second season the duo was deported back to a New Zealand sheep ranch, and manager Murray was either deported as well—or he simply joined them because he has to keep managing the band. It’s a fitting (and very funny way) to close out a show that upped the quality of its writing its second year. Brett McKenzie and Jermaine Clement seemed to have a better grasp on what they wanted out of the show comedy-wise; the secondary characters were more sharply drawn and were much funnier; and even when the songs weren't that memorable, the quality of the videos was significantly higher. (The Michel Gondry video for “Carol Brown” is by far the best they ever did.) On the other hand, the songs were the weakest part of this season. (Which makes sense, as the duo admitted that they’ve plowed through their back catalog for the show.) I could see how coming up with new songs and new scripts at the same time could be too much to bear. I'd love to watch it a couple more seasons, but I don’t want the quality to drop off a cliff. There’s something to be said for knowing to quit while you’re ahead.

2) Burn Notice (USA)
Burn Notice is one of those rare shows that has, with all apologies to Bill Simmons and his Book of Basketball that’s taken me forever to get through because of the 7,809 footnotes, made “the leap.” It started as a summer diversion, moved into the steady viewing realm with the first half of its second season, and then became essential with its’ stunning second season finale and the almost as good third season summer finale. The choices Michael Weston (the amazing Jeffery Donavan) has made in trying to recover his spy career have felt, well, for lack of a better term, epic. The killing of the show’s villains from the past two seasons (Carla the “handler” from season two, Michael’s sleazy intelligence contact Strickler in the summer finale) have raised the stakes for all the characters in a way I couldn’t have imagined watching the first season in 2007. And again, any show with Bruce Campbell and his chin will always be worth watching.

1) Chuck (NBC)
As with Burn Notice, Chuck made “the leap” in its second season as well. Perhaps it’s the fact that both shows dove deeper into their mythology (Burn Notice with the far reaching plot of Michael being burned, Chuck with who created the intersect in Chuck’s head) that made them seem more essential. There are programs on TV that are more complex, have much tighter plots, and are better as strict comedies, but none of them are this much fun. Any season finale that features a climactic shootout set to two characters covering Styx’s “Mr. Roboto”…at a wedding…well, that will be saved on my DVR until the damn thing melts down on top of my TV. If Chuck was just a slapdash collection of in-jokes and ’80s references, then it would be Family Guy. (Without the talking dog.) But what makes Chuck special—and inspired thousands of fans to go to Subway on one day in May it hopes of spurring its renewal—is that beneath all the references there is a warmth and humanity. You can tell that this group of fine actors have the utmost love and respect for their characters, which makes the jokes that much more satisfying, the action cooler, and the Tron and Rush references more enjoyable. So let me wrap up the Visual Aids list by making a plea for you to watch it when it has its season premiere January 10th. It’s not too late to jump in on the best show on NBC.

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