Friday, December 21, 2007

2007's Top 10 Visual Aids

10) NY 77: The Coolest Year in Hell (VH1)
I was all of seven-years-old when the “Son of Sam,” the first great blackout, Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin and the Boss I heard of before Bruce Springsteen, George Steinbrenner collided all over the cover pages of the Daily News in the summer of 1977. So this other production based upon Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City was a good way to fill in the gaps in my childhood memory. Unlike the ESPN series The Bronx is Burning (starring John Tuturro’s prosthetic ears), NY 77 gives a wider cross section of all the events and scenes that breathed life (and a hefty body count) through the city. The Koch-Cuomo-Beame-Abzug mayoral contest, Studio 54, the birth of rap and the great lineup of bands from CBGB are all told with insightful commentary from the people who were there. I certainly didn’t know about Studio 54, hip-hop and punk when I was seven, so much of what is described I discovered for myself years later. But NY 77 still delivered some great surprises, such as turntable crews in The Bronx exploding after the blackout because everyone stole DJ equipment during the looting and the, um, swinging time to be had at Plato’s Retreat. The ads for this club are a must see on YouTube. And the most amazing part about NY 77? It was aired on the same channel that delivered reality shows with Scott Baio, Brett Michaels and some woman who sparred with Flava Flav. Whoever got the budget to make this film (the archival footage they dig up must have cost a bit) from that Viacom property is one smooth talker and is the person I want in more corner when I pitch the reality show about my office.

9) Superbad (Columbia Pictures)
The office of comedy producer extraordinaire Judd Apatow will soon be the place for actors who starred in critically acclaimed sitcoms shot down by network execs before their time. Case in point: the comedic genius that is one Michael Cera. His entire run on the late (sigh) Arrested Development was shining example of the comedy of uncomfortablity (and I know that’s not a word but seems perfect to describe it). Cera doesn’t stray too far from that type of comedic tone in this exceedingly filthy film, giving costar Jonah Hill a wide berth to be completely over the top. Some of the lines that come out of Hill (the stand in for co-writer Seth Rogan) are so dirty I was surprised this movie made it out as an R film in this uptight age. I was also shocked I didn’t pull a muscle laughing.

8) Lost (ABC)
Where to place Lost on this list? Do I subtract about 1000 spots due to perhaps the lamest first half of a season of any show I’ve ever enjoyed? Or do I move it all the way up to the top because of the stunning set of four episodes that closed out the series third season? I tell you, dear reader; it’s a question I pondered for at least two subway rides as I read over pages of fan postings discussing the mind-blowing season finale. I must admit I had no idea until the last five minutes that the usual flashback spots were actually flash-forwards. After hating what the writers did to Matthew Fox’s character all year, Jack’s complete breakdown in the future redeemed him as well. The twist and turns and deaths (sorry Charlie) and (gasp) actual plot points that explain some questions but opening up It might be the best season finale I’ve ever seen. And now with the eight months wait in between seasons almost over, I have no idea what the show runners are going to do next. (Well, besides picking up more “On Strike” signs.) They could go almost anywhere with this flash forward premise. And having a set number of episodes left to produce, they really could map out a series finale in 2010 that will actually live up to its billing and won’t just stop in mid--

7) How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
Except for The Late Show with David Letterman, I haven’t regularly watched anything on CBS since the days of Northern Exposure. The network always seemed like the home for clean cut old folks shows. (Touched By an Angel was a Top 10 show in this country for four years—God bless the Midwest, indeed.) So imagine my surprise last fall when I was flipping through the channels and heard a snippet of Nada Surf’s “Inside of Love” being played on Ch. 2 (the local affiliate here in New York). I dropped the remote and got very close to the TV just to make sure I hadn’t gone completely insane, and sure enough two of the characters were having what looked like a Friends-like conversation on a fake New York rooftop. The idiot box (wow, I can’t believe that old expression just came into my head) certainly doesn’t need another rip-off of Chandler and crew, so I didn’t expect to come back the next week. But I did and stayed attached to the show because it’s not a Friends rip-off at all. It’s a fast paced comedy that plays with reliability of its narrator (the love seeking Ted as played by Josh Rador) who’s explaining the events of each episode to his kids, relies on the audience to store nuggets about previous episodes (such as ending last season in the middle of a line and having the new season pick up right where they left off) to further the story and has two of the best comedic actors working in TV today—Jason Segal (from the criminally overlooked Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared and a member of the Judd Apatow posse) and Neil Patrick Harris. Yes, Doogie Howser has taken the self-parody he played in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and channeled it into ladies’ man who never fails at delivering some of the most over the top lines I’ve ever heard on a sitcom. Get this guy an Emmy. Oh, and did I mention the Ted of future is voiced by Bob Saget. If a show can overcome that unfunny and incredible filthy man, they must have some inventive and funny people behind it.

6) Knocked Up (Universal)
If I mention Judd Apatow one more time in this list, I think I get a role in one of his films next year! Seriously, the guy and everyone he’s associated with seem to be able to do no wrong. He covered virginity with The 40 Year Old Virgin, pregnancy with this film, raising kids in Freaks and Geeks and sending them off to college with Undeclared. What cycle of life will be next? Maybe a comedy set in a funeral home is on deck for 2009. And if it is, I’m sure Seth Rogan could make it incredibly funny. He’s perfected his everyman stoner persona since starting on Freaks and Geeks and in Knocked Up he gets to show off a wider range of his acting skills as the emotional center of the film. The supporting cast is stellar, especially Paul Rudd. He delivers one of my favorite lines of the year with the perfect look of disdain mixed with comfortable resignation—“Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn't last 22 minutes. It lasts forever.” And any film where a crucial scene takes place during a baseball fantasy draft would secure a place in my brain forever. As does the surprisingly graphic birth scene near the end of the film. If I ever had second thoughts about not wanting children, those 10 seconds erased them permanently.

5) Burn Notice (USA)
I believe USA has taken over from HBO as the king of new summer shows. Monk, The Dead Zone and Psych are all great for watching when I have to have the A/C at about 60 degrees so the paint doesn’t peel off the hallway near my bathroom. Burn Notice just might the best this network has offered up yet. The plot seems taken from a ’70s or early ’80s action show—Michael Weston (played by the sly Jeffery Donavan) is a spy disavowed, a.k.a. given a burn notice, by the U.S. government and dumped in Miami after his final flawed mission. Weston then uses his training to help others in trouble with prodding from his Mom (Cagney & Lacey’s Sharon Gless), and ex-IRA gun runner (the amazingly attractive Gabrielle Anwar) and an old C.I.A buddy (played by the man, the myth, the chainsaw toting legend Bruce Campbell). These four actors know they’re not breaking any ground with this show, so they play the numerous light-hearted moments to the hilt and seem like they are having a genuinely good time. Campbell is so perfect as a retired spook that it’s a wonder someone hasn’t come up with a starring vehicle for him in the past seven years. (At least he’s had work in those Spider-man films.) Burn Notice has echoes of Magnum P.I. and MacGyver (especially all the homemade devices Weston comes up with) and that’s perfectly fine with me. I loved watching those shows in summers past. Burn Notice goes perfect with a huge pitcher of iced tea, a cold sandwich and a pint of Ben and Jerrys. Dammit, now I’m hungry. Time for a lunch break.

4) Chuck (NBC)
Now I’d like to put my doctorate in TV (okay, okay, my bachelor’s degree) to work with a new theory I’d like to call the Adam Baldwin Factor. This actor has a knack for appearing in shows that I absolutely love. (Or he’s got a damn good agent who happens to have a camera hidden in my living room.) Baldwin first caught my eye playing a bad guy on The X-Files. When I say bad, I mean able to kill everything in his path bad because he was “super soldier.” (That whole “super solider” thing was a plot development I still don’t quite grasp.) The next season he was cast member on overlooked Western set in space Firefly playing a trigger happy crew member who had a knack for one liners. After Firefly went to the DVD box set in the sky, Baldwin moved to another show run by Joss Whedon, Angel. Again Baldwin played someone purely evil…who had a way with one liners. After that show’s demise, he did voice work for Cartoon Network’s Justice League Unlimited (yes, I liked it too) the video game Halo 3 (don’t have Xbox 360) and was a regular on two other series, The Inside and Daybreak (in my mind neither shows exist, and I’m sure FOX and ABC execs would agree with me). Now here comes Chuck, a story about a highly intelligent nerdy guy (a well cast Zachary Levi) who accidentally holds all of the government’s secrets in his brain. He’s guarded by a sexy CIA agent (Yvonne Strahovski, who wears a hot dog vendor’s outfit better than any other human in history) and a gruff, trigger-happy NSA agent, who has a way with one liners…played by Adam Baldwin. This guy has found his niche and has worked it well. Baldwin notwithstanding, this latest show from the creator of The O.C. is the best new program on network TV. Its chock full of funny supporting characters that have become deeper and more nuanced as the season has rolled on. (It’s hard not to like a show where one character’s name is Captain Awesome.) I hope this strike is settled at some point soon so the Adam Baldwin Factor, I mean Chuck, can return to the airwaves.

3) The Simpsons Movie (20th Century Fox)
Remember how good The Simpsons was during seasons 4 through 7? Well, this movie recaptures all of that and more. Seeing my favorite characters ever on a big screen was simply a blast, and the way director David Silverman took the Springfield template and made it even bigger than I ever imagined before was no small feat. The multitude of writers that worked on the script got back to what I always thought was the heart of the series—the struggles the family would go through and how Homer and Marge’s love for each other would win out in the end. The best Simpsons episodes were never the ones that had gag after gag that didn’t really relate together. They always had the family’s troubles at the core, and the movie solidly plants itself into the dynamics of the family. Oh, and it’s also kind of funny. I mean barely able to sit up and catch my breath and sweat through my shirt and draw looks from other people in the theater because I’m guffawing at the top of my lungs at inside jokes that only me, my old roommate and fellow Simpsonsaphile Joe and four other people in the audience caught because we have seen every episode and own every DVD of every season they’ve released so far. (Whew, gotta catch my breath after that run on sentence.) And I’m surprised to say it, but I think that storytelling and that mindset of expanding the scope of Springfield visually has bleed into the current season of the show. I’ve enjoyed this season more than any of the past three. It’s good to know that Homer and company aren’t done yet.

2) Flight of the Conchords (HBO)
What Spinal Tap did for heavy metal acts, Flight of the Conchords does the same for comedic folk duos…or something like that. More than a few critics compared this HBO series to another one that debuted a decade ago, Tenacious D. While both shows feature the trials and tribulations of less than successful duos, the Conchords’ subtle humor ages better than the in your face acting of Jack Black and Kyle Gass. It helps that Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie write songs that would be catchy even if they didn’t have absurd lyrics about David Bowie, Frodo and being a part-time model. Each of the videos they made for these songs are hysterical by themselves, but how they carry along the storylines is pure genius. In fact, my favorite episode of the entire season, titled “What Goes on Tour,” featured no videos at all, just a horribly bungled “tour” booked by their manager Murray. Rhys Darby has a breakout role here as Murray, a grunt worker at the New Zealand consulate who calls band meetings and takes attendance when its only the three of them and is perhaps the least qualified band manager in history. And Kristen Schaal is a scene stealer as their one fan, Mel, a stalker who conveniently runs into the guys everywhere. Stalking has never been this funny. This first season of the show used most of the songs Clement and McKenzie had written for their act when they took it on the road, so my only fear is that they won’t come up with enough good songs to drive next season’s plots. But as long as their fictional selves keep failing at success, I’ll be watching.

1) No Country for Old Men (Paramount Vantage/Miramax)
For most folks you could boil down this latest project from the Coen Brothers as Fargo meets 1980 Texas. That would be giving this year’s best film a short shrift. Based upon the Cormac McCarthy novel (and ripping pages and pages of dialogue directly from the book), No Country is an amazing meditation on good, evil, our penchant for violence and the changing state of morality in America the past 25 years. And it does so without offering a tidy ending, just one of the main characters ruminating upon the state of our world. That character, Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is the closest link to Fargo. He spins out some folksy lines about crime with a bit of a twinkle is his eye. When Jones and a deputy encounter a gory scene (I don’t want to give away any more plot than I already have), the deputy says, “It’s a mess, ain’t it, Sheriff?” and the sheriff answers, “If it ain’t, it’ll do ’till the mess gets here.” Jones is joined in his Oscar-caliber acting by one-time Oscar nominee Javier Bardiem, whose Anton Chigurh is one of the most evil characters to appear on the big screen, and Josh Brolin, who deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a cowboy whose moral dilemma puts him directly into harm’s way. As I write this it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen No Country and I’ve been tempted to go back just to watch the acting clinic these three put on. As cliché as the phrase is, I have to say this is a must see movie. It’s the rare film that will leave an impression upon you for a long time.

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