Best of the Arts 2012

The Bureau editors, contributing writers, and illustrators pick their 2012 favorites in music, movies, videogames, and more.

Louis CK, sweating and clawing at his belly in a black t-shirt and jeans, embodies man’s paradox: he is doomed to aspire to greatness, but possess a butthole — a tragedy brilliantly rendered in the Late Show arc of Louie, wherein a viral turn on The Tonight Show gives Louie a shot at the big time, suddenly, after twenty years in the biz (mirroring his viral turn on Conan). His existential guide is Jack Dahl (David Lynch), who, after an absurdist dose of coaching, stopwatch in hand, demands Louie “make me laugh.”

Louie balks (“I’m not that kind of funny”), and turns to leave the room, his face contorted with fear, sadness and shame, but stops to plead: “This is either a door or a wall for me.” Exhorted again, Louie spins around angrily and yells, “You’re just a … pencil … PENIS par-ADE,” breaking into a ridiculous, infantile, all-too-brief dance/belly rub. For a beat, the two men are silent. “You’ve bought yourself another week,” Dahl deadpans.

This GIF alone ought go down in television history, but the conceit is genius. The scene turns on a dime from tragedy to comedy. After two decades’ apprenticeship, Louie’s comedic legacy is fart noises and insulting a heckler’s penis. (See: “My daughter is a fucking asshole.”)

To try to be funny and fail is “to die” in standup parlance; here Dahl is asking for Louie to take that leap for a shot at immortality (of sorts), though the thousandth death hurts as much as the first. “Look them in the eye and tell them the truth,” Dahl advises Louie; also: “You have to go away to come back” — shown in the choreography of this scene. Yes, this was so much more than a dick joke. — Janet Manley


I wasn’t allowed to watch television as a kid, and as a result I have zero impulse control and do things like watch five episodes of Nashville on a Tuesday night. Thanks, parents! This year for me included a couple of lost weekends to HBO’s Game of Thrones, and for me the best thing on television in 2012 was Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister.

Thrones is better than it looks — if you can surrender to the tired tropes of fantasy, most of the characters are complexly rendered and interesting — but Dinklage is the star. As Tyrion, he’s the show’s antihero and the lynchpin of an enormous cast. The role would likely be compelling even in the hands of a lesser actor, but Dinklage elevates it to the bar set by performers like James Gandolfini and Bryan Cranston (as already noted by many other critics).

The schlockiness of some of Thrones makes Dinklage shine brighter, but it also makes me want to see him capitalize on the audience he’s built to return to more sophisticated projects, like 2003’s The Station Agent. Thrones is good fun, but Dinklage has a real audience now. I anticipate watching him write his own ticket. — S.J. Culver


At first glance, Veep’s Jonah Ryan seems like he’s going to be a typical wonky government stooge, albeit an obscenely tall one. He’s sauper-psyched to work at the White House, and when he’s not casually rattling off the number of times he spoke to POTUS that day, he says things like, “The President of the United States of America is very keen that your going to the fundraiser should be fundamentally the sequence of events that does actually take place this evening.”

But over the short season’s eight episodes, a rich portrait of an idiosyncratic d-bag emerges. Timothy Simons’ political sleazeball always refers to women as numbers signifying their attractiveness, but he’s gloriously inept at speaking with them (and also everybody else). The fructose-intolerant wonk always has broad, Kramer-style entrances — “Whazzuuup, as they say in the late ’90s” — their unfunniness underscored by the lack of laugh track, which is, of course, what makes them funny. He likes a metal band so extreme they don’t even have a name, and his similes always have a gross sexual component that would make anybody uncomfortable. He’s a cringe-humor folk hero. There are moments where we’re almost made to feel for Jonah, in the way that Dwight from The Office became less repugnant over time, but then the very next thing he says is a reminder that in real life, some people are irredeemable. Never change, Jonah. — Joe Berkowitz


Solange’s “Losing You” is among my favorite songs from the past year, but when it comes to the music video for “Losing You,” nothing else I’ve seen is even in the running.

“Losing You” is relaxed, washed in an Instagram filter-like retro tint. Surrounding Solange are Congo’s Le Sapeurs, a society of chic men elegantly dressed in a bright palette of handmade suit jackets, dress shoes, and fancy hats. The flamboyance of their apparel is a stark contrast to the homes in the impoverished slums of Cape Town. It’s this tension that suits “Losing You” so well. Lyrically, Solange details the heartbreak of an inevitably doomed relationship (“I don’t know why I fight it/ clearly we are through”) over celebratory samples and upbeat instrumentation. There’s also an aesthetic dynamic between the organic beat of African drums and the ominous, droning synth that haunts the periphery of the melody.

But what comes through most in the video is Solange’s personality — playful, goofy, stylish, undeniably cool. No article about Solange will ever be able to ignore that she is the little sister of this decade’s great diva. But at least now they’ll refer to her as Beyonce’s younger, hipper sister. — Kevin Nguyen


Yael Levy


The Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan opens with handclaps and humming, and spends the next 42 minutes adding layer upon layer of tone and texture. The sound is somehow both stripped down and rich, crisp but tactile. When I listen to it I can picture drum sticks bouncing on a snare, fingers sliding across a fret board, vocal cords straining slightly to hit the highest notes. But after a few spins you stop thinking about what instrument you are hearing, or how many voices comprise that harmonic chord. Everything melts away and you’re left with twelve deceptively simple and accessible songs with melodies that linger for days.

 

The subject matter varies from track to track — some clearly sing of love, one addresses oil industry abuse, another questions the point of making music. But most are pleasantly enigmatic, at least for me, after 40 listens or so. Like many great albums, concrete themes are slow to reveal themselves. When I catch myself thinking too hard about the meaning of a lyric or song, I come back to these lines from “Dance for You,” the album’s sixth track:

“There is an answer
I haven’t found it
But I will keep dancing ‘til I do”

Ryan Abbott


I was lucky enough to see Dr. Dog in concert earlier this fall when their tour, in support of their album Be the Void, took them through Boston.  For the first part of the show, I thought their strongest asset was Scott McMicken, who looks on stage like a cross between Gilligan and Issa, the Palestinian terrorist from the Munich Games.  His cool confidence was a nice juxtaposition with his reedy voice.  But then I heard Toby Leaman perform “Lonesome,” one of my favorite songs of the past twelve months.  Leaman’s voice alone is so growlingly primal and convicted, but to see him lean into it, to see him mean it from the soles of his feet, as though his whole body were wet clothing being wrung to the last — it was the most sincere performance by any artist I got to experience in 2012. — Josh Fischel


If you or someone you know has ever been wrapped up in a dramatic on-again off-again relationship, you know there’s a triumphant eye of the heartache/rage storm. It’s the moment you realize you (or your friend) realize life is full of possibilities once you wash your hands clean of this torturous mess forever! But then the ex apologizes or TNT plays You’ve Got Mail and suddenly peacetime is over. Any previous promises of sane avoidance are dashed to shreds. Tragic to experience, horrific to watch.

If only there were a way to bottle that conviction of Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together”! Enter Swift and her hit that you can put on repeat until iTunes crashes. A good musician inserts a new sound into culture. A great musician inserts a new idea into society. Everyone is at risk for repeated dilly-dallying with the wrong person, but especially young women, Swift’s most popular demographic. I admire her message to teens. 1.) It’s not condescending, it’s accessible. 2.) While Swift jabs at the other romantic party, the real focus of the song is celebrating your own emotional health. It puts the responsibility on the listener to have control of her own issues. Things have changed a lot since my middle school days of Britney Spears’s “I Was Born to Make You Happy.” 3.) Similarly, Swift doesn’t play the gender blame game. No “boys suck” or “girls rule”; just “some people don’t belong.” 4.) The song is so much darn fun. What can top that “NOOO!” post-bridge? It will never get out if your head, in a good way. Never ever ever. — Alice Stanley


I was all ready to talk about the clever little details that make Fez awesome. Then a friend walked into my apartment, watched me play for about two seconds, and said, “Wow, that’s really cool. What game is that?”

And I realized, for all its subtle charm, the real greatness of Fez is on the surface.

Fez is a 2D platformer, like the original Super Mario Bros. The twist is that the game’s world is actually three dimensional, and you can spin it around on its axis, 90 degrees at a time, to reveal a new 2D face. This is the mechanic that impressed my friend, and for good reason. The first time you spin the world, it’s pretty mind-blowing. The new face looks familiar, but because of the Looney Tunes-esque logic of 2D gaming, the way you interact with it changes completely. A platform can be all the way on the other side of the screen from one view, then right next to you when you rotate it. What looks like a tiny stub reveals itself to be ten times longer from another perspective.

While that might sound like a lot to wrap your head around, the game has another feature that keeps it in balance: its atmosphere. Fez is serene. It takes place in a world of lush, surreal landscapes rendered in gorgeous pixel art. Sometimes, you’ll just want to sit and gawk at it, and since its gameplay is rooted in the puzzle-platformer tradition, it will never rush you. There aren’t enemies to kill; just mysteries to unravel. And you can go about that at any pace you like.

There’s a lot more to Fez (like, I’ve listened to its soundtrack as much as any album this year), but in some ways its all beside the point. If a game has a world that’s a joy to be in and interact with, the rest is gravy. — Nick Martens


Elizabeth Simins


I was apprehensive about Sleepwalk With Me because I’d become so familiar with comedian Mike Birbiglia’s material about his REM behavior disorder and worried that I’d be bored by the film. I shouldn’t have been concerned, though, because even diehard Birbigs fans will find a wealth of new content in this charming and incredibly well-produced chronicle of Mike’s early years in comedy. Sleepwalk With Me had such a powerful effect on me that I can almost forgive the filmmakers for taking so long to bring the movie to Canada. — Avery Edison


Films set in regions that have traditionally lent themselves to caricature — the deep South, Appalachia, Long Island — too often traffic in condescension, exaggerating the residents’ accents, mannerisms, or folksy ways either for dramatic or comic effect. Richard Linklater easily could have done the same in his film Bernie.

Set in Carthage, a small town in East Texas that seems ripe for lampooning, Bernie hinges on a real-life murder committed by a gregarious assistant funeral director, but its true focus is on the curious ways that residents of Carthage reacted to this crime. Linklater, himself a native of the Lone Star state, smartly created space in the film for actual residents of Carthage to voice their ambivalent feelings about Bernie’s actions. These talking-head clips portray the residents neither as wholesome eccentrics nor as uncultured yokels but as opinionated members of a rather insulated community who have cumulatively rendered an unorthodox verdict on the crime. For as good as Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey are in Bernie, the Carthage residents really steal the show. I could have listened to their distinctive drawls for ninety minutes and enjoyed the film just as much. — Luke Epplin


This year, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook seduced me. Partly because Bradley Cooper seduced me: not as a man (never), but finally as an actor. He plays Pat, a bipolar sub teacher who has just finished a stay at a mental hospital. He enters having assaulted his wife’s lover; he leaves determined to revive their love. In his quest to win her back, he meets a mutual friend’s sister (Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence), who’s gone through some shit herself.

He wants his ex; she wants to win a dance competition. They agree to help each other, at first in transactional terms, but ultimately out of heart. Here, Cooper’s performance rivals Lawrence’s: it’s choppy, manic, and steered away from the macho swagger he’s known for. Their characters, unhemmed and fraying, run on the stifling discomfort of not being the person you want to be. They’re both aggressively self-centered, but we’re witness to the small transitional pockets of tender empathy peeking through. That’s something to really fall in love with — at least for me.

To many, this is a movie about mental illness: everyone has their particular brand of neurosis. And by that reading, Silver Linings Playbook might fall short. It’s probably clinically inaccurate, and a little politically dodgy — most films on mental illness are serious dramas for a reason. But to me, it was simply about messy people, trying to find their own sense of order. So they find it in each other’s snags and tangles. We’ve all been there. — Tracy Wan


I watched Jason Moore’s Pitch Perfect on a Friday afternoon alone. It would be two days before I’d see it for the second time in theaters. A day too many, you say? Perhaps, but my mom wasn’t feeling it that Saturday, and I was pretty adamant she go with me. Dear reader, you likely are not my mother, but I still urge you to see Pitch Perfect if you haven’t — and in theaters if possible. It’s the best cinematic representation of collegiate a cappella yet — and I really do mean yet, since Moore’s film will hopefully spur Hollywood on an all-vocal-instrumentless renaissance (and not that kind). Oh, and let’s not talk about Kay Cannon’s incredible screenplay; let’s sing about it. It’s been nearly three months since Pitch Perfect premiered and I miss the emails friends would send after their viewings, such as this one: “Is it just me or was there not enough singing in this movie? That there was not a musical number over the credits ruined my life, basically.” It’s not just you. So Universal, what do you say? Let’s remix this business. — Jane Hu


Cloud Atlas was the only 2012 movie that felt like Calculus class. It was a grand differential equation that, ultimately, signified nothing — or Nothing — or, maybe, Something. I guess the point was that everything is connected and recurring. The universe is set on an infinite spin cycle in the Laundromat of Life. Cloud Atlas was a shallow pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. The less you contemplated it, the better it was.

Cuddly Cloud Atlas actor Ben Whishaw recurred as “Hipster Q” in the Bond film Skyfall, complete with a mop of hair and the not terribly cinematic ability to type on a keyboard intensely. If you watch the Bond 50 box-set in random order, you basically have Cloud Atlas. The same characters waltzing across time in different garbs and genres and yet remaining essentially the same.

The very best example of knotting up old genre-tropes to crochet something new was The Cabin in the Woods, easily the best film of the year. Cabin didn’t just recycle material (‘80s horror flicks) but brought it to new orgiastic, cathartic, anarchic heights. Also, Sigourney Weaver. — Jonathan Gourlay


I keep high hopes for the Palais de Toyko, the unapologetic brat of a museum that shares a courtyard with Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne. The place boasts no permanent collection, its walls constantly shifting around to accommodate what comes next. Though I’m often left disappointed, between the arrogance and the “artspeak,” simply being within the space is often enough. Sometimes, it’s the best part.

The place is strangely romantic — it was once the site of the Polish Embassy, and Nazis used the basement to store pianos stolen from aristocratic Jewish families. La Cinémathèque française, the world’s largest French film archive, was even based there for a while. Sipping wine above the courtyard’s fountain while fire-breathers rehearsed became a weeknight ritual of mine.

After sitting in a state of disrepair for a few decades, the basement has since been renovated to a modernist’s standards. The space served as host to a rare exhibition this past spring, however, construction still in full force. Tarps strewn about, it was a bizarre juncture of past and future. Sounds of piano keys echoed against the raw concrete, a nod to a past life. It felt like a privilege, a secret. It was the finest exhibition they’ve had in five years. — Tyler Magyar


Alan Clay is an IT consultant on business in Saudi Arabia, preparing for a presentation to King Abdullah. If it goes well, his client will be awarded a juicy contract and Alan’s commission will allow him to conquer his mountain of debts and keep his daughter in school. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers is a contemporary parable packed with other parables. It’s a lean tale told with humor and sympathy that touches on the Plinko-like effects of outsourcing and globalization, a sort of Waiting for Godot for the modern era. Anyone who has ever waited for an important person to show up so a meeting can start, or experienced technical challenges of the audio-visual variety, or wondered why the West doesn’t manufacture much anymore, should consider this novel required reading. — Ryan Abbott


At worst, art criticism can read like notes from a wine tasting: opaque, adjective-laden, and reeking faintly of bullshit. You probably know what I’m talking about — reviews that say “I loved it I loved it I loved it” in eight different ways, that tell you lots about the reviewer and only superficial things about the piece under review. So I’ve tended to regard writing about art as more hoax than criticism, more a question of fraud than expertise.

In Glittering Images, Camille Paglia is the voice in the wilderness — the strict but dazzlingly knowledgeable art teacher I wish I’d had. From ancient Egypt to the modern cineplex, she takes the reader through 29 works that were not just worthy technical achievements but cultural watersheds. Why, for instance, a painting of a broken ship getting swallowed by the Arctic ice represented an artistic paradigm shift. Why it’s not surprising that Art Deco became the look and feel of steampunk and Civilization V and, as a result, got ignored by the high-art world. How to read a Mondrian, for those of us who are more familiar with his style in cake rather than canvas form.

Some caveats: yes, the book is Western-centric and yes, Paglia has strong, sometimes off-putting opinions. This is not a book for specialists, who will demand more detail. But you have to start somewhere, and for those who wonder what the big deal is over Cubism or Abstract Expressionism (and who are the sort to find Wikipedia articles not quite enough), let Paglia be your guide. She has produced an art historical survey that is neither pandering nor boring — a rare feat. — Darryl Campbell


Title illustration by Hallie Bateman