Saturday, December 26, 2009

The End of the 00's: The Year and Decade in Culture

Given that I started this decade as an aspiring journalist and ended it as a media professional, I've consumed a fair share of media over the past 10 years and rather enjoyed remembering much of it. If this was a political and economic decade from hell, there were at least a number of high points artistically, including in this final year. I've tried to recount them in my following lists on the decade and year in culture:


The Best Albums of 2009

This year was a pretty good one for music, with some promising debuts and solid albums from reliable favorites. The big surprise for me is that I don't have any hip-hop on this year's list -- I just didn't warm to some of the better hip-hop albums of the year from the likes of Kid Sister and Raekwon. Fortunately, there was plenty of other music to keep me entertained. Below are my 25 favorite albums of the year (note -- you shouldn't have to but you may be prompted to sign-up at to listen to the songs. It's a painless, free process and will allow you one listen of every song here):

25) Thao with The Get Down Stay Down - Know Better Learn Faster
The fourth album from Thao Nguyen and her backing band is a record about a bad break-up, but it doesn't sound angry. Instead, most of the songs on this disc are bright, raucous fun.
Best tracks: "When We Swarm", "Body"

24) Neon Indian - Psychic Chasms
Some of the best electronica to come out this year, Neon Indian's hazy electro-pop is a trippy, great time. I didn't quite warm to the washed out aesthetic that was in vogue this year, but Neon Indian's melodies manage to shine under the haze.
Best tracks: "Deadbeat Summer", "Psychic Chasms"

23) Metric - Fantasies
As always, this Toronto-based band produces a sound that is somewhere between punk and power pop. On their fourth album, the infectious melodies are more polished -- sometimes a bit too much so -- but Emily Haines' impassioned vocals continue to sting.
Best tracks: "Gimme Sympathy", "Help I'm Alive"

22) Rihanna - Rated R
Rihanna's post-Chris Brown album features none of the bouncy pop hits she is most known for. Instead, this bleak disc is comprised of songs that bristle with anger and hurt, and while she never explicitly discusses her abuse it is clear she is channeling her pain on songs like "Stupid in Love" and "Cold Case Love." The end product, while not entirely consistent, can be fascinating.
Best tracks: "Cold Case Love", "Russian Roulette"

21) Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
Chicagoan Andrew Bird is an entirely unique artist, as his music combines acoustic, plaintive sounds with grand arrangements to produce dazzling chamber pop. If his latest album didn't quite reach the heights of some of his earlier ones, it was still a work of wonder.
Best tracks: "Fitz and Dizzyspells", "Oh No"

20) The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
I found the Avett Brothers' previous albums to be a bit digressive, but their major label debut is a focused work of beautiful southern folk-rock. The melodies are simple and elegiac, with the brothers' harmonies sounding very elegant.
Best tracks: "I and Love and You", "And it Spread"

19) JJ - JJ n 2
There's something in the water over in Sweden -- that country has a singular ability to produce gorgeous pop music. JJ is the latest Swedish export to boast lush melodies and beautiful vocal arrangements and this 26 minute album is a delight from beginning to end.
Best tracks: "From Africa to Malaga", "My Love"

18) Brad Paisley - American Saturday Night
Country has had its fair share of female crossover stars, but few men. Hopefully that will change with Paisley, who writes effortless songs that exude charm and likability. It's the only album to feature a full-fledged Obama anthem, "Welcome to the Future".
Best tracks: "Everybody's Here", "The Pants"

17) Lily Allen - It's Not Me It's You
Lily Allen writes breezy songs that are as cheeky and annoyed as they are catchy. Her second album features some of the best hooks of the year, coupled with some very funny, pissy lyrics. It's a perfect mix of sweet and sour.
Best tracks: "The Fear", "Everyone's at It", "Fuck You

16) St. Vincent - Actor
I was a big fan of Annie Clark's (Aka St. Vincent) first album, so it's no surprise I was charmed by her follow-up. Her melodies get even more gorgeous on Actor, filled as they are with orchestral strings, affected vocals, and quirky percussion. She's a very inventive musician.
Best tracks: "The Strangers", "Actor Out of Work"

15) Cymbals Eat Guitars - Why There Are Mountains

One of the best debuts of the year, Cymbals Eat Guitars evoke bands from Beulah to My Bloody Valentine on this album without ever sounding derivative. It's an album about malaise that sounds anything but disengaged.
Best tracks: "And the Hazy Sea", "Share"

14) Ida Maria - Fortress Around My Heart
Yet another Scandinavian pop gem, this time from Norway. Ida Maria's debut album was released in Europe last year to wide acclaim but only got a proper release here this year. It's an energetic thrill-ride, full of vital, very catchy pop songs.
Best tracks: "Oh My God", "Louie", "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked"

13) The Rural Alberta Advantage - Hometowns
A very enjoyable slice of folk rock, this debut from Canadian band RAA couples vibrant melodies with lead singer Nils Edenloff's emotive vocals to produce songs that sound both raw and urgent.
Best tracks: "The Ballad of The RAA", The Deadroads"

12) Florence and the Machine - Lungs
This British band's debut generated quite a bit of hype in England and it turns out the buzz was entirely deserved. Singer Florence Welch belts these irresistibly catchy melodies with an almost religious fervor. Consider me a convert.
Best tracks:
"Dog Days Are Over", "You've Got the Love"

11) Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer
Spencer Krug's second best band (after Wolf Parade) put out another excellent album this year, one more accessible and rollicking than any of the band's earlier works. Track "You Go On Ahead" is probably my favorite song of the year.
Best tracks: "You Go On Ahead", "Idiot Heart"

10) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz
Karen O and her New York band trade their garage rock roots for a more disco-oriented, new-wave sound and the results are addictive. Karen O's typically primal screeching may be more subdued, but the irrepressible ferocity is still in full force.
Best tracks: "Heads Will Roll", "Skeletons"

9) Grizzly Bear - Veckatimist
Brooklyn-based Grizzly Bear released this very well-crafted album to deserved acclaim this year, as their intricate melodies featured an impressive combination of technically brilliant instrumentation, gorgeous choral harmonies, and a fair bit of genre eclecticism. If the album is slightly lower on my list than it is on others, it's because their experimentation can sometimes leave me cold -- but even in those cases I'm in awe of their talent.
Best tracks:
"Two Weeks", "Southern Point"

8) Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
I have soft spot for Phil Spector-esque female pop, and no one is doing that kind of music better than Scottish band Camera Obscura. Like their fellow countrymen Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura make beautiful, lush melodies that expertly veer from delicate and heartbreaking to euphoric and cheerful. My Maudlin Career, their fourth album, is their best yet.
Best tracks: "French Navy", "James"

7) Passion Pit - Manners
Passion Pit's debut EP, released last year, featured my favorite song of 2008 in "Sleepyhead". Needless to say, my expectations for their full length LP were sky high but the band had no trouble meeting them, as Manners boasted a number of wondrous dance tunes and dazzling beats.
Best tracks: "Sleepyhead", "Moth's Wings"

6) The XX - XX
The best debut of a year that featured a number of good ones, The XX write romantic, melancholic music that feels startlingly intimate. The two lead vocalsts, one male and one female, sing as though they are a perfectly in-sync couple, quietly sharing their feelings with one another. Fortunately, we get to listen in.
Best tracks: "Crystalised", "VCR", "Heart Skipped a Beat"

5) Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Neko Case's voice has always sounded like a force of nature so it makes sense that one of the best albums of her long career would find her conjuring up images of tornadoes and vicious animals. If the voice is feral, the melodies themselves are beautifully orchestrated and well-grounded alt-country tracks.
Best tracks: "I'm an Animal", "People Got a Lotta Nerve", "This Tornado Loves You"

4) Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
No band does a better job of collecting such a swirling array of different noises, instruments, and voices and turning them into an utterly original pop confection than Animal Collective. The inventiveness on display in this album is astonishing, particularly on "Summertime Clothes" and "My Girls", two of the best tracks to come out this year.
Best tracks: "Summertime Clothes", "My Girls"

3) The Handsome Furs - Face Control
This album is not going to appear on any other critics' lists and I understand why: lead man Dan Boeckner (who, with Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown, also helms Wolf Parade) and his bandmate/wife Alexei Perry produce pretty conventional, straightforward rock-and-roll music. But Boeckner's music, while uninventive, is utterly thrilling -- this album is a rip-roaring experience from beginning to end. My friend Sam likes to argue that Boeckner and Krug are the Outkast of indie music -- Krug, like Andre 3000, gets all the critical plaudits since his constant experimentation can produce some incredible sounds. Boeckner, on the other hand, is just like Big Boi, less concerned with the experiments than with providing consistently engaging entertainment. Face Control is the embodiment of that virtue, a great rock album that keeps your heart pumping all the way through.
Best tracks: "Evangeline", "Radio Kaliningrad", "I'm Confused"

2) Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I've been a Phoenix fan since 2003, back when their fantastic single "If I Ever Feel Better" made its mark (see my songs of the decade list). This is the first time, though, when the band has put together an album chock full of exciting dance-rock singles, from opening track "Lizstomania" to the finale "Armistice". Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a breakthrough album from a band that always made such an achievement seem inevitable.
Best tracks: "1901", "Lizstomania", "Lasso

1) The Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
When I first heard the The Dirty Projectors, I admired the artistry in their music but cooled to the pretension. I then saw them perform live and was blown away by the band's musicianship and their creativity, both of which are on display in this magnificent album. Lead man Dave Longstreth shares more vocal duties with his female bandmates and the band is better for it -- for once, all his musical experiments become both accessible and fascinating. I've heard this album described as everything from pop to prog rock to R&B, which gives a sense of all the ideas being played with on Bitte Orca. It may not be a record for everyone, but for me it was the best album of the year.
Best tracks: "Stillness is the Move", "Two Doves", "Cannibal Resource"

The Top Ten Songs of 2009

As always, this year's songs list is comprised exclusively of songs that are not on any of the discs on my best albums list since, as one would expect, most of the best songs of the year came from those albums and I figure there's no point in repetition. Below are ten of my favorite songs of the year and a couple bonus tracks from bands I adore:

10) Miley Cyrus - "Party in the USA"
Say what you want about Miley Cyrus, but this song is dumb, good fun. It's got an insanely catchy melody (not surprisingly, the producer is a Swede) and earnest lyrics that sound quite convincing coming from Cyrus' slightly country voice.

9) Blue Roses - "I Am Leaving"
Laura Groves, aka Blue Roses, is a 21 year old British singer-songwriter with a great deal of promise. This is her best song to date, a beautiful tune that combines acoustic guitar with accordions and glockenspiels.

8) Cam'ron - "I Hate My Job"
An anthem for our recessionary times, Cam'ron's rap vividly captures the frustrations of marginal employment and the difficulties of re-entering the job market. Who would have expected a rapper to give voice to the laid-off underdog?

7) Mika - "Good Gone Girl"
Mika's music tends to be too kitschy for my tastes and his constant aping of 80's styles from Elton John to Queen can be grating. But he is capable of producing the occasional irresistible melody, and this piano-driven song is an example of that talent.

6) Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes - "Home"
The 12 or so musicians who make up the Magnetic Zeroes (there is no Edward Sharpe) are the kind of hippy musical collective you want to make fun of. It's tough to do that, though, when they produce songs as delightful as this one.

5) The Big Pink - "Dominos"
The protagonist of this song sounds like a sleazebag -- he takes pride in sleeping with women and dumping them the next day. He puts on a good show, though, when he sings the refrain, "These girls fall like dominos", which is supported by a bombastic, killer hook.

4) Amadou and Miriam - "Sabali"
This musical duo from Mali have been making great music for over 30 years, with their latest album, Welcome to Mali, their best received yet. The opening single on that album, produced by Blur's Damon Albarn, is a gorgeous track that beautifully melds their distinctly African sounds with more western pop influences.

3) R. Kelly - "Echo"
At this point, we can assume that any new song from R. Kelly is going to be ridiculously crude, overtly sexual, and most likely very enjoyable. "Echo", Kelly's best song since "Ignition", is a hyper-sexualized, humorous song about his insatiable carnal appetite. Plus he yodels.

2) Lisa Hannigan - "I Don't Know"
I saw this talented Irish singer perform this song on The Colbert Report and was taken aback -- it's a beautiful melody coupled with sweet lyrics about new love. Hannigan is apparently best known for her vocal contributions on Damian Rice's albums, but this track suggests she's capable of making great music on her own.

1) N.A.S.A - "Gifted"
Somehow the hip-hop DJ duo N.A.S.A was able to produce a debut album with more than a dozen guest stars, ranging from David Byrne to Tom Waits to M.I.A. Sadly, most of the collaborations were less than the sum of their parts. The exception is "Gifted", a propulsive song featuring Kanye West, Lykke Li, and Santogold. West starts it off with some standard Kanye showboating before handing off the chorus to Li and Santogold, who take the track to another level.

For ease of use, I've compiled all these songs into a playlist (excepting the Blue Roses one, which I couldn't find on below and added two others I wanted to share from two of my favorite bands. The first is a great track from The National that was featured on the Dark Was the Night charitable compilation and the second is the first single from the upcoming Vampire Weekend album. Both are worth giving a listen.

The Best Television Shows of 2009

Considering the writers' strike did major damage to last year's TV season, it was only natural that this year would see a resurgence in good programs. What I did not anticipate, however, was the bounty this season would offer -- from cable to broadcast, networks programmed their schedules with a number of eminently watchable, well-conceived series. I had so many great television experiences last season that I decided to split up my lists into best shows and episodes -- and I've purposefully tried to limit overlap between the two. Below are my favorite television shows and episodes of the 2009:


10) Bored to Death (HBO)

Writer Jonathan Ames created this comedy about a writer's block-plagued novelist (Jason Schwartzman, playing Jonathan Ames) who decides to become a detective on the side. But the show is less about the cases than about Jonathan's relationships -- whether they be with his best friend (a hilariously neurotic Zach Galifanakis), his George Plimpton-esque editor (Ted Danson, doing some of the best acting of his career) or the string of women who invariably reject him after he falls for them. The show is still getting its sea legs -- early episodes were very hit or miss -- but by the season finale Ames had started to get a strong grasp on his vision. I'm excited for the show's return.

9) Better Off Ted (ABC)

No one is watching this show, which is a real pity, both because it's one of the best comedies on broadcast television and because its biting, extremely funny satire of corporate America should be welcome in these hard economic times. Following the exploits of an R&D executive (Jay Harrington, an able straight man) and his team of scientists and product testers at the soulless, often incompetent company Veridian Dynamics, Better Off Ted finds black comedy in the kinds of corporate initiatives and marketing-speak that anyone who works in business can appreciate. The show also produced one of the best episodes of the year, "Racial Insensitivity", about the company's effort to reduce costs by installing motion detectors at headquarters -- only to discover that the detectors could not see black people.

8) It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)
Focused on a gang of deeply immoral characters who run a bar in Philadelphia,
this FX series has been on the air for 5 seasons and a large part of the show's madcap charm is its loose, emphatic comedy. But a consequence of the show's casual style is that it can be very inconsistent -- a typical season generally has a .500 batting average. This latest season, however, may be the show's best yet -- not only was it a riot from beginning to end, it featured some delightfully skewed comedy, particularly in the episode above where the gang takes on a fraternity in a game of flip cup.

7) Friday Night Lights (DirectTV/NBC)

Few shows have the courage to hit restart – which is why most series set in high school keep their characters in school for much longer than logic would dictate. Friday Night Lights, to its credit, decided to end its last season with Coach Eric Taylor (the great Kyle Chandler) forced to coach a new high school in the same town, and the resulting challenges from the new setting have proven to be very entertaining. The show continues to set the bar for realistic, deeply affecting depictions of adolescence and small town community – one recent episode in particular, about the loss of a student’s father, is among the most powerful shows the program has ever done.

6) Modern Family (ABC)
I’ve actually cooled on this comedy a bit – its sentimentality is starting to wear – but when Modern Family keeps its focus on getting laughs instead of pulling heartstrings (which is most of the time), it can be extremely funny. Using a mockumentary format to follow three very different branches of an extended family, Modern Family succeeds by taking standard family sitcom tropes and updating them for the 21st century.

5) Big Love (HBO)

The last season of this HBO drama about a polygamous family upped the stakes by introducing a new potential wife for the Henrickson clan and by wreaking havoc on the fundamentalist compound where much of Bill Henrickson's extended family still resides. The show has grown quite a bit from its initial gimmick -- the Henricksons may be polygamists, but their problems and flaws turn out to be both compelling and deeply moving.

4) Party Down (Starz)

From creator Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) and actor Paul Rudd, this Starz sitcom about a Los Angeles catering company comprised mostly of wannabe actors and writers is biting, cynical, and consistently hilarious. Each episode focuses on a different catering event, allowing the series regulars (led by Adam Scott, as a former actor determined to leave showbiz behind) to engage with a different set of guest stars every week. Starz doesn't have wide distribution, but the network has made the wise decision to make the first season of Party Down available on Netflix Instant Streaming -- it's a good way to quickly lose 5 hours of your life.

3) Lost (ABC)

This island drama became deeply weird in its 5th season, which was a boon to die hard fans who relish the series' many Sci-Fi mysteries. Most notable among those mysteries was the question of time travel and, specifically, whether the past can be changed. While such questions were being debated, Lost also offered new dimensions to old characters such as Josh Holloway's Sawyer, who demonstrated surprising leadership when he was forced to live with the Dharma Initiative. Many have noted that Lost is facing an uphill battle as it enters its final season since there is probably no way to tie up this story while pleasing everyone. At this point, I'm not sure it matters -- all I know is that I'll be watching.

2) The Office/Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Parks and Recreation

The Office

This pair of NBC comedies, both from creator Greg Daniels, complemented each other perfectly during 2009, with The Office reaching a creative high point in the first half of the year before suffering a bit of a decline in the fall, while Parks and Recreation got off to a slow start but became the best comedy on television by the end of the year. The strongest episodes of The Office dealt with a storyline that had Steve Carell’s Michael Scott start a rival paper company after becoming disenchanted with the management at Dunder Mifflin. The venture was a spectacular failure but provided ample moments of both hilarity and heart. Parks and Recreation, about a small-town parks department, hewed too close to The Office model at first, with Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope seeming like a cheap Michael Scott knock-off. Over time, however, the writers started to understand the character and the backdrop better and came up with wickedly funny episodes that capitalized on all the humor to be found in government bureaucracy. Of particular note: Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, the head of the department and Leslie’s boss, who steals every moment he’s on the screen, particularly in the episode featured above.

1) Mad Men (AMC)

Even though it started off feeling like it was telling a story we've heard before -- Don Draper has a wandering eye, Betty is alienated, Peggy is lost -- the last season of Mad Men turned out to be a pretty momentous one for the characters at the Sterling Cooper ad agency. Don made clean breaks in both his personal and professional lives, as he finally spilled the beans to Betty while also navigating a thrilling escape from his new bosses at the ad agency (both instances providing opportunities for Jon Hamm to prove he's the best actor on television). The season ended on a surprisingly optimistic note -- leaving us desperately hoping that things will still be okay when this brilliant drama returns.


10) The League - "The Bounce Test" (FX)
FX's new comedy, about a middle-aged group of high school buddies who compete in a very competitive fantasy football league, features a number of up-and-coming comics and scripts that get better with every episode. The best episode of the short season was centered around Ruxin, a selfish character played wonderfully by Nick Kroll, and his desperate attempts to get his wife to sleep with him.

Community - "Spanish 101" (NBC)

One of the best new shows of the fall, Community has yet to reach the heights of its Thursday night counterparts on NBC, but it has a great cast (led by The Soup's Joel McHale) and funny scripts about life at a community college. This episode culminates in one of the best set pieces the show has done to date -- a hilarious Spanish presentation given by McHale and fellow castmember Chevy Chase.

8) House - "Wilson" (Fox)

House is a very frustrating show – the producers seem intent on focusing their attention on lame subplots and secondary characters when the most compelling parts of the program are the main character (superbly played by Hugh Laurie) and his best friend Wilson (an understated and very effective Robert Sean Leonard). In this episode, we saw the world of House through Wilson’s eyes, and the change of focus made the show seem fresh and interesting again.

7) The Big Bang Theory - "The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary" (CBS)

The only sitcom with a laugh track on any of my lists, The Big Bang Theory has become a reliable source of laughs whenever it puts socially awkward, demanding scientist Sheldon Cooper at the center of its stories. That's primarily because actor Jim Parsons is one of the best comedic actors on television, as he demonstrates in this episode as he attempts to best a childhood nemesis.

6) Top Chef - "Vivre Las Vegas" (Bravo)

This season of Top Chef featured the best chefs of any season to date – I would have happily eaten in any of the finalists' restaurants. If the season lacked drama because of the lack of parity (4 contestants were head and shoulders above the others), it at least featured some pretty interesting challenges, like in this episode where the chefs had to demonstrate their French cooking skills by serving a meal for chefs Daniel Boulud, Hubert Keller, and the don of French cooking, Joel Robuchon.

5) Curb Your Enthusiasm - "The Table Read" (HBO)
The Seinfeld reunion revitalized Larry David’s comedy since it provided a very funny conceit – Larry agrees to write a Seinfeld reunion in the hopes of winning back his ex-wife by giving her a role in it – that helped give focus to the whole season. Also, it was a blast watching the various Seinfeld parties fall back into their natural rhythms with one another.

4) Eastbound and Down - "Chapter 5" (HBO)

There were only six episodes of this very funny HBO series about a washed-up baseball player (Danny McBride) who is forced to return to his hometown and become a substitute teacher to pay the bills. A large part of what made the show so enjoyable is that the main character, Kenny Powers, seemed to have no redeeming qualities. This episode almost made him sympathetic as Kenny began to come to terms with his fading glories, only to reverse course due to a spectacularly gruesome twist that was as funny as it was disturbing.

3) Chuck - "Chuck vs. The Best Friend" (NBC)

Chuck, about an electronics store employee who becomes an accidental secret agent when a super computer is implanted in his head, is dumb fun in the best possible way. This episode was the strongest of its very strong second season, as Chuck had to once again balance his secret spy world with the needs of his family and, in this case, his best friend.

2) 30 Rock - "Dealbreakers" (NBC)
30 Rock had a very erratic 2009, as many episodes felt like they were trying too hard to get laughs. That was not the case with this very funny episode of the new season, where Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon gets her own talk show and begins to crumble under the pressure of being a performer. Fey gives a fantastic performance, particularly in the scene where she tries to talk “performer Liz” down from a cliff.

1) Flight of the Conchords - "Unnatural Love" (HBO)

Flight of the Conchords second season wasn’t as delightful as its first, but that was because the duo of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie set such a high standard with both their comedy and music the first time around. The best episode of the second season, about an ill-fated courtship between Jemaine and an Australian, was my favorite television episode from last year. Directed by filmmaker Michel Gondry, it also featured some very good songs, like “Carol Brown” (above).

The Top Ten Movies of 2009

It was a fairly mediocre year in movies, particularly at the multi-plex -- we lacked any really thought-provoking mass entertainments like last year's The Dark Knight or Wall-E. Still, there were a number of small movies that attempted to pick up the slack. Below are my top ten films of the year:

10) Up in the Air

I'm frankly a little surprised at how much swooning the critics are doing over this very enjoyable but fairly lightweight film. I suppose its recession-era themes -- George Clooney plays an HR consultant who travels the country firing people for a living -- adds some resonance, but in general Up in the Air is a conventional crowd pleaser. Still, it should be appreciated for its clever script, fluid direction, and stellar cast, led by Clooney giving a nuanced performance as a man who claims to be most at home when he doesn't have one.

9) The Informant!
Steven Soderbergh took the bizarre tale of Mark Whitacre, an Archer Daniels Midland executive who helped uncover price-fixing in the company but turned out to have his own secrets, into a sly, off-kilter comedy. Told from Whitacre's skewed point of view, The Informant! is both mordantly funny and very sad, as we start to discover that the biggest victim of Whitacre's deceptions is himself. The film is an acting showcase for Matt Damon, who proves to be a very able comedic performer.

8) Precious
I agree with the detractors that Precious can be ham-handed at times -- director Lee Daniels does spend a bit too much time rubbing our faces in the miserable life of his main character. But the constant moments of melodrama make Precious' eventual escape from the misery all that more cathartic, and Gabourey Sidibe (as the title character) and Mo'Nique (as her mother) give performances of such ferocity that it's impossible not to be moved by this story.

7) Fantastic Mr. FoxTurns out that Wes Anderson is an ideal director for animated films, as his delicate stagings and precious characters find their most natural home in a setting that is altogether unreal. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, he finds a kindred spirit in Roald Dahl, whose children's books feature the kinds of precocious protagonists and humorously adult themes that Anderson imbued in his previous films. The pairing results in the best children's film of the year, an impressive feat given the number of standout children's films in 2009.

6) District 9A strikingly original science fiction film from debut director Neill Blomkamp, District 9 fits well within the tradition of Sci-Fi that blends wild imagination with political allegory. Set in a Johannesburg where aliens have landed on earth but live as second class citizens, District 9 is bracingly unconventional thriller, at least until the last third of the movie when it becomes a more standard action film. Like Avatar, it's a case of an outsider who goes native, except this time the conversion is hardly welcome. Blomkamp is a real talent -- how he produced such impressive effects on a supposedly modest budget is beyond me. Here's hoping Hollywood gives him a chance to work his magic on an even bigger scale.

5) Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino's revenge fantasy has proven to be very polarizing, though I think people who either love or hate the film are taking it too seriously. As a whole, I don't think the movie is exploitative trash or a daring masterpiece -- it's too uneven to be either. It works best in scenes that feature Tarantino's typically exquisite dialogue and sense of pacing, such as the anxiety-inducing tavern scene or the opening moments on the French countryside. As SS officer Hans Landa, Christoph Waltz gives one of the best performances of the year, turning his menacing and opportunistic Nazi into a completely magnetic figure.

4) In the LoopThe most fun I had in a theater all year. Armando Iannucci's wickedly funny satire of the run-up to the Iraq War took shots at everyone -- the feckless British diplomats who were too scared to stand up to the bull-dozing Americans, the careerist generals and state department officials who went along with a war they never really believed in, and the PR handlers and communications officials who played the press like a fiddle. The most expert player is Peter Capaldi's staggeringly profane, uproarious Malcolm Tucker, a man with so much verbal dexterity his words seem more explosive than any number of IEDs.

3) A Serious Man
The Coen brothers look back on their childhood and find plenty of humor in their Jewish traditions and more than a little angst. As a man struggling to understand the big questions about God and existence, Michael Stuhlbarg is the walking embodiment of tsuris -- he's so wound up and so desperate for answers we know his search can't end well. If you expect the Coens to offer up one of their patently glib punchlines, you'll be surprised -- A Serious Man, like No Country for Old Men before it, suggests the maturing Coens are actually interested in the deep questions, even if they think searching for the answers may be a waste of time.

2) Summer Hours
A beautiful film about globalization and our profound generational differences, told through the story of a family that must distribute their inheritance after the death of a beloved matriarch. Director Olivier Assayas' very French film recognizes that the global changes around us are having a major impact on our day to day lives and quietly suggests that some seemingly outdated values may be worth remembering.

1) The Hurt Locker
The Iraq War has proven a difficult subject for filmmakers -- from In the Valley of Elah to Redacted, political messages tend to get in the way of good storytelling. Katheryn Bigelow's exceptionally well-made film eschews politics and is better for it, for she knows we don't need moral hectoring to realize the extremely dangerous position we placed our troops. Focused on an elite squad of bomb detonation experts, The Hurt Locker is both a riveting action film and a powerful demonstration of the drug-like effects war has on the men who fight it. The Hurt Locker is an immersive war movie -- you feel like you're right on the front lines, sharing in the stress, anxiety, and relief that abound there -- and an unforgettable experience.

Runners Up: Where the Wild Things Are, Drag Me to Hell, Adventureland, Up

The Top Ten Albums of the Decade

It's easy to look at the numbers -- like the astonishing decline in physical CD sales, or the fact that the highest selling album of the decade was produced by N'Sync (!), or that the number one rock act of the decade was Nickelback (!!) -- and think that the music business went to hell in a handbasket in the 00's. I, however, have nothing but good words for the decade in music -- this was the first decade I really started following new music (thanks Napster!) and it offered an awesome introduction for a neophyte music collector. Below are my favorite albums of the aughts (note -- you shouldn't have to but you may be prompted to sign-up at to listen to the songs. It's a painless, free process and will allow you one listen of every song here):

10) Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (2005)
The second album in Sufjan Stevens' 50 state project -- he aims to produce a CD for each state in the US -- could be the last in the series and the project would still be considered a success. It's ironic how well Stevens captures the ethos of a rough-and-tumble state like Illinois through mellifluous, delicate melodies and quirky lyrics. Ranging from the majesty of "Chicago" to the heartbreaking "Casimir Pulaski Day," Illinois is a magnificent achievement from an artist whose ambitions are bound to lead him to even greater ones.

9) Kanye West - College Dropout (2004)
He seems so ubiquitous these days that it's easy to forget that Kanye West was once an unknown record producer yearning for attention and recognition. That all changed with this debut album which, despite some wonderful follow-ups, remains his best album to date. The flowing rhymes and infectious beats we know him for were all on this album, along with a little of the braggadocio that hadn't quite yet blown up into his current megalomania.

8) The National - Alligator (2005)
Does part of my affection for The National stem from the fact that most of the band comes from Cincinnati? Sure. But that doesn't make the third full-length album from the group any less impressive. Between lead singer Matt Berninger's smoky vocals and the powerful melodies of such songs like "Secret Meeting" and "Mr. November", Alligator showed that The National were the best entertainers to come out of the 'nati since George Clooney .

7) Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
I don't consider myself a huge Wilco fan, but there's no denying the incredible craftsmanship and beautiful sounds on this album. For an album that takes on such somber subjects as death, drinking, and loss, the album's melodies are all surprisingly catchy. I tend to think Wilco's best days are behind them, but YHF shows that the band at its best was better than practically anyone else.

6) Spoon - Kill the Moonlight (2002)
In terms of pure consistency across a large number of albums, I think Spoon are probably the musical artists of the decade. It's tough to choose a favorite from their catalog, but this 35 minute gem features all the signature hooks and beats that typify a great Spoon album. Songs like "Paper Tiger" and "The Way We Get By" demonstrate that great melodies don't necessarily need bombast or majestic instrumentation -- for Spoon, simplicity is stunning.

5) LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)
Dance rock tends to be pretty superficial, which is part of what made this album so remarkable. Songwriter and DJ James Murphy turned his attentions to the challenges of aging and loss on Sound of Silver and produced mesmerizing results. The album features two of the best songs of the decade, "Someone Great" and "All My Friends."

4) Radiohead - Kid A (2000)
Before heading off into less fruitful directions with
Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief, Radiohead's penchant for experimentation found its' most clear success story with this exceptional album. Thom Yorke's warped vocals are perfectly complimented by the different tones and textures Radiohead play around with on Kid A, leaving the listener with a music experience that is completely sui generis.

3) The Strokes - Is This It (2001)
In many ways, the reception of this album represented all that is wrong with indie rock culture: it was greeted with massive hype that soon turned into harsh backlash, aimed at artists who probably didn't have the stature to warrant the debate. I haven't given up on The Strokes as important musicians just yet, but even if they disappear from the landscape Is This It will still be an important landmark in the decade's music if only because it heralded the mix of garage and post-punk sound that now defines much of the indie scene. The Strokes' debut was the best of the genre, with hazy melodies and a disaffected lyrics that seemed to perfectly embody the downtown New York scene they came from.
Is This It - The Strokes

2) Outkast - Stankonia (2000)
It was always the curse and blessing of Outkast that Andre 3000 and Big Boi, the two musicians who make up the band, are individually two of the most talented songwriters and performers to enter the music industry. A curse because it caused their growing separation this decade, which by now seems essentially complete. But the blessing was their initial willingness to collaborate, which produced such magnificent discs as
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and this masterpiece. On songs like "B.O.B" and "Ms. Jackson" we see how the whole far exceeds the sum of its parts.

1) Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)
What made this album so astonishing when it first appeared wasn't merely the "communal euphoria", as Pitchfork deemed it, that this Canadian band could generate -- it was the utterly primal nature of the sounds. Songs like "Rebellion (Lies)" and "Wake Up" are so unbridled and wild that it was almost like someone was orchestrating a coup in your ears. Bursting with ambition and energy, Funeral represented the music of the decade at its best -- inspired, technically brilliant, and utterly original.