Dan’s Top 25 of 2010

I have a confession to make, and that is — despite my love of movies and music and television and books and video games and the like — I tend not to be very up to date on my media consumption. There’s simply too much for me to pay attention to, and it usually costs more money if I acquire it right away. So my efforts are focused on sifting through the best of older media. It’s just a better use of my time and energy.

However, thanks to more disposable income and free time post-graduation, 2010 was a large step toward the present for me. I saw a lot of movies, bought some video games, and even listened to some of this year’s albums which, in the past, was practically unheard of but for a few bands.

Despite this, my coverage is not great. Consider this a warning that the upcoming list — loosely defined as “My Top 25 Favorite Pieces of Entertainment and Art That Were Published in 2010” — is flawed in a variety of ways, the most notable of which is that I simply haven’t seen or listened or read or played everything* in 2010.

*Notable holes in my coverage include: all TV drama, most non-blockbuster films. I will catch up on these eventually.

Also, in case the title didn’t make this clear, this is an account of my personal taste. What follows is a list of things that moved and engaged me. I make no contention that these selections represent what I believe would be valuable to the mass public or even my close friends.

Yes, it’s boneheaded to combine all different media into one list. Each format of art and entertainment is incompatible with the others. But I couldn’t get respectable lists out of any individual medium, and I wanted to honor my favorites across the board, so I decided to mash all of them together.

Anyways, let’s just get on with this mess. Without further adieu, my top 25 favorite movies, albums, TV shows, books*, video games, and other thingies from 2010.

*There are actually NO books on this list. I read a lot in 2010 but little to none that was published this year.

25. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

By design unsatisfying, the seventh Harry Potter movie is still in many ways the best of the series to date. It’s beautiful, engrossing, scary, and ambitious; perhaps it’s TOO ambitious. My one complaint about the movie, other than the fact that it made me hungry for a complete story, is a nagging feeling that it’s trying too hard to be dramatic. Nonetheless, I loved it just enough to consider it a favorite of 2010.

24. Imogen Quest

It’s rare for a newspaper comic in 2010 to either challenge me intellectually or make me laugh, but Imogen Quest’s all too brief run in the Washington Post managed to do both. Granted, I’m a bit biased because I know writer Olivia Walch from high school. But she won the Next Great Cartoonist competition with good reason: Her writing, which makes heavy use of meta-comic humor, is sharp, funny, and requires above a seventh grade reading level.

23. Speak Now – Taylor Swift

Is it uncool that I like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift? Whatever — I gave up trying to have a cool taste in music some time around the twentieth time I listened to *NSYNC’s third album back in my sophomore year of high school.

Honestly, Swift had an up and down year in 2010. She almost ruined all of the goodwill I had for her from the infamous “Imma let you finish!” incident with a few missteps: a nigh-unwatchable appearance in Valentines Day; tabloid-friendly affairs with Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, and now Jake Gyllenhaal; and an over-dramatic performance of “Innocent” at the latest VMA’s.

On the plus side, there’s Speak Now. While it’s not nearly as much fun as Fearless and it borders on self-indulgence and over-seriousness, it’s still quite a good pop record. She ponders love in ways that only she can, pulling out magnificent tracks that are rambly (“Dear John”) and mellow (“Mine”) and effervescent (“Speak Now”) along the way.  The album starts to wear out its welcome by the end, but not before it proves that Taylor is getting better as she gets older.

22. Sins of a Solar Empire Trinity

This choice is kind-of-cheating because I don’t really care for Sins’ 2010 content. But it was this 2010 package that first got me hooked on the game. Cerebral and slow-paced, this real-time space warfare and colonization game is a compelling hybrid unlike anything I’ve ever played. It makes up for a lack of a campaign or a story with excellent AI and addictive multiplayer matches.

21. Zero Punctuation

I’m sure that most people who tune in to the weekly series of the video game review videos over at The Escapist do so for the frequent penis jokes, the irreverent illustrations, and the overall bitter attitude of host Yahtzee. Certainly those people get their fill, week in and week out.

The reason that I watch the exemplary Zero Punctuation, though, is that — behind the crudeness and dark wit — the series is a rare example of actual criticism in the video game journalism industry. So much game media is either consumer advice or geeky circle-jerking or glorified ads. Yahtzee is more ambitious than the rest: He takes the time to actually think about why we play games and what value they bring to our lives, albeit sardonically. Though not for everyone, Zero Punctuation is game journalism at its most enlightening and entertaining.

20. Inception

I will maintain until the day I die that Inception is not a four-star movie (or is it?) and that it’s vastly overrated by most movie fans. But that’s not saying much, as it absurdly sits at #6 on the IMDb Top 250 as of the posting of this article.

Credit where credit is due: Inception is ambitious and brainy and well-acted and complex where most summer blockbusters are bland. DiCaprio puts in one of the best performances of the year (though just his second best of the year) and a skilled cast admirably populates this film even as the script does its best to complicate the movie’s promising premise.

19. Sports Guy’s World / Tuesday Morning Quarterback

Traditional sportswriting follows the format of “I like/dislike this coach/athlete/team/trend. Here’s a one-sided explanation of why I feel this way. Along the way, I will find three or four different ways of saying my main point again.” The formula is not entirely useless, but it grows tiresome quickly.

And so my two favorite writers from ESPN Page 2, bundled together as one item here, are a breath of fresh air. Both have voices unique in the realm of sports journalism, and both write long-form, analytical pieces that deconstruct current sports paradigms in fun ways. Neither is perfect — Bill Simmons occasionally fits logic around his opinions (instead of the other way around) and Gregg Easterbrook rambles a bit too much on the same notes — but both are great reads.

Side note: That is a picture of me meeting Bill Simmons at his book signing.

18. Pinkerton (Deluxe Edition) – Weezer

Another entry on this list that could be reasonably argued as cheating, the re-release of Weezer’s second album sits on the short list of all great albums as far as I’m concerned. My love is this album is mostly because it gave me another reason to listen to the ten year-old product at the core of the package (which would be at or near the top of the list if this was an original release), but the bonus material included is not at all shabby.

On the second disc are a smorgasbord of goodies: There are B-sides, alternate versions, remixes, live takes, acoustic live takes, and miscellaneous noodlings. Bits of it warrant little more than one cursory lesson, but parts of it reach the heights of the original studio album. Weezer fans eager to revisit the band’s glory years have never had a better opportunity: along with this re-issue, the band is going on a throwback tour where they’re playing Blue and Pinkerton in their entireties. Awesome.

17. Shutter Island

Critics largely shrugged at it, but I think Shutter Island is a harrowing brain trip. Scorsese crafts a sense of brooding that is matched by DiCaprio’s powerful performance as the film’s lead. The ending provoked much discussion between me and my friends, and I still contend that this is a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces. But the ambiguous sanity of the characters of this film make for a mystery with some satisfying tricks up its sleeve.

The faint of heart probably should steer clear, not because of the gore but because of the overwhelming suspense. But if you are brave and willing to plumb the depths of the mind, go see this movie. (If you need more convincing, you can visit Grant’s review, which remains one of the better pieces ever written for this site.)

16. Better Off Ted

Imagine the zaniness of Arrested Development, but a workplace comedy. Better Off Ted satirizes common workplace issues and has the funniest fake commercials in the history of the universe. Though it lacks the dense web of callbacks that AD used, Better Off Ted shares the tone and the pace — and even an actress — with the king of cancelled comedies.

B.o.T.’s second and final season aired in 2010, and it matches the first season almost step for step in quantity and severity of laughs. I’m not usually a laugh-out-loud type, but Better Off Ted had me hunched over a few times an episode. In particular, props go to lab researchers Phil and Lem who give a fresh take on the tired “great book smarts, limited social smarts” trope.

And did I mention the fake commercials? Pure brilliance.

15. All Day – Girl Talk

If you’ve never listened to Girl Talk, congratulations! Today will be a good day for you. Go visit Illegal Art’s site where you can download for free (legally, despite the label’s name) any and all of the DJ’s mashup albums.

There are good mash-ups, and then there are Girl Talk albums. He uses hundreds of songs per album and creates a textured amalgam that is compulsively listenable and danceable. The selection ranges from 60’s pop to recent Billboard rap hits, yet the songs never line up in awkward or jagged ways. When this year’s album, a 71-minute opus, reaches its denouement — a combination of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and UGK’s “One Day” — you’ll be spent and moved and on the verge of tears. This is a mashup masterwork which pushes the hobbyist, skill-based medium into something that sounds a lot like art.

14. Chuck

2010 was a big year for the cult hit spy-comedy show Chuck. Not only did we get to see to see the aftermath of the stunning ending of season 2 (“Guys… I know kung-fu”) but Chuck beat Superman, he spilled his beans to his best friend and his sister, and he got the girl. Season 3 was not quite as giddy as the phenomenal sophomore season — in particular a midseason slump known as “Chuckocalypse” due to huge fan backlash — but it pulled itself together by the finale and maintained its status as one of the most entertaining hours on television.

Chuck might have had a shot as scraping up a few slots higher on this list, but I haven’t kept up with the fourth season at all. I hear good things about it, and can’t wait to set aside some time and catch up.

A few of season 3’s highlights: Chuck’s awesome though brief chemistry with Hannah, Morgan’s discovery of Chuck’s true identity, “Chuck vs. The Other Guy,” and a thrilling conclusion that nearly matched the heights of season 2.

13. The Sims 3 Expansions (Ambitions, Late Night)

Why would anyone want to play The Sims? It’s a valid question. What could be the appeal of a game that routinely requires you to go to work, use the bathroom, cook dinner, and rearrange furniture? This is the stuff we play video games to avoid (well… except going to the bathroom… I hope).

I can respect a certain cynicism towards The Sims premise. But that doesn’t stop it from constantly engaging me. The third iteration vastly improves on the previous two by adding a breathing town around you that ages and changes and evolves as your own characters do. That, along with vastly improved skill and career systems make The Sims 3 a sort of digital crack cocaine that keeps me up until 3 AM. Just one more promotion, one more skill point, I tell myself.

Pushing the game’s addiction factor into the stratosphere are the expansion packs. Where the core title was shallow on content, the three expansions add enough to the point where I feel like I’ll never fully explore it all. And more expansions coming. It’s open-ended addiction that will continue into 2011 and beyond.

12. How To Train Your Dragon – Original Soundtrack – John Powell

Here’s my theory: The difference between How To Train Your Dragon’s 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and something like an 82% is the soundtrack by John Powell. If DreamWorks had produced the rich, exciting movie that it did, thrown in a few OK Go songs, and called it a day, the movie would’ve felt a lot more average and a lot less magical.

Powell pulls a feat worthy of Williams and gives us a score you can listen to on repeat, outside of the context of the film. A half dozen themes float in and out of the tunes, and a few tracks have cracked 40 or 50 spins on my computer. There are no lulls, either; I’m only willing to listen to a few movie soundtracks from start to finish, and this is one of them.

In short, the How to Train Your Dragon original score competes with my favorite scores ever. The palpable wonder and amazement built into it are no small feat. Here’s a sampling.

11. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Reactions to this film varied wildly, but mine was quite simple: “Awesome.”

Scott Pilgrim is probably the coolest movie of all time, with style bursting at the seams and just enough substance to make it feel like a meal and not just dessert. The acting is solid, the script is funny, the video game premise is cute, the general nerdgasm surrounding it is fun to follow, but this is really a movie that has to be seen to be understood. Preferably on a big screen.

Props to Edgar Wright for not backing down from what must have been a challenging, daring film to make. This film doesn’t skimp on the tricks or the treats when it must have been tempting to neuter it into something less likely to overwhelm your senses. Thank goodness he didn’t. The world is a better place with Scott Pilgrim’s off-the-charts awesometivity in it.

10. 99 Songs of Revolution, Volume 1 – Streetlight Manifesto

I must admit I initially felt a bit of disappointment with this album upon its release, not for what it is, but for what it isn’t: This isn’t the long-awaited set of originals to follow-up “Somewhere in the Between.” Yet I’ve probably listened to no album more these past twelve months than this collection of covers, and there’s a reason for it: They’re diverse, exciting, and really really good. They do not bring down the Streetlight standard of excellence.

With one exception (a meh version of “Punk Rock Girl”) none of these covers are predictable. From Radiohead to NoFX to blues legend Louis Jordan, the original contributors are done justice. There is no novelty or irony despite this being a “ska cover album,” a term that would draw derision from plenty of music fans.

It’s hard to choose a peak from such a consistently strong selection, but I’d have to give the title to The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” which immediately enters the pantheon of Streetlight songs, and runner up honors to stripped-down reinvention of NoFX’s “Linoleum” that reveals it to be a beautiful, moving composition.

9. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West

What could I write about Kanye West here that hasn’t already been repeated a hundred times elsewhere? Everyone has something to say about the rapper turned icon, including you, probably. I’ve even written about him on this site before, almost exactly a year ago.

While I would slightly revise what I said last December, my main thesis still stands: He’s way overhated. He’s a big, arrogant baby who cares too much and speaks too quickly — and nothing worse than that. People make him out to be the Antichrist, especially whenever the words “Taylor” or “interruption” are brought up, but he’s not. He hasn’t killed or raped anyone. He’s simply a spoiled genius who is a once-in-a-generation influence on rap music.

I’ve resisted the following conclusion for months and months, but it’s becoming harder and harder to avoid. I’m really starting to fear that a lot of the Kanye-hate is… eek… a race issue. He’s black and he bitches about how the president hates his skin color and he steals the mic from that sweet little white country girl. I think his appearance, his music, his behavior, and his general aura challenge and awaken some dark feelings in the wealthy white populace that dominates celebrity and music media. He both confirms and shatters racial stereotypes. He’s a douche while doing so, and that really rubs some people the wrong way.

Fortunately, West has taken all of these complexities and contradictions about his public persona and transformed them into a thrilling masterpiece of hubris and contemplation and sorrow and pleasure. It’s the culmination of his career to date, both his music and his public image. From the epic 9-minute “Runaway” to the tribal/psychedelic fusion of “Power” to the jaw-dropping “Monster,” Fantasy evokes some strange emotions and sound pictures.

But if you read any music criticism, you know all of this. Everyone, myself included, always seems to think they have Kanye and his career figured out. Yet nobody quite has it. Maybe that’s the continuing fascination with him: He defies any single explanation with a never-ending well of twists and paradoxes. He has more to say — and more can be said about him — than just about anyone.

8. It’s Kind of a Funny Story

How many top ten lists will Funny Story be on in the coming weeks? Any? Probably not. And those critics would be right. By most measurements, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is far from the best film of year. Yet there is one particular metric I care about in this list: How much a particular piece moves me and engages me. When I evaluate It’s Kind of a Funny Story on that scale, it’s one of the best of the year. The particulars of Craig’s situation and the film’s philosophies line up with so many of the difficult crap I’ve dealt with in the past three years.

Oh, and then there are sequences like this one. And Zach Galifinakis’ Oscar-worthy performance. And Emma Roberts’ winning chemistry with Keir Gilchrist. It’s a lighter, angstier One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with no Nurse Ratched but some demons that hound the main characters nonetheless. By the end, it’s heart-warming and inspiring and more profound the more I think about it.

A lot of people will have no patience for a film largely about a depressed, talented, wealthy white boy, as I indicate in my intial review. But I’m not one of those people. The authentic story of a young adult straddling the line of depression and contentment reminded me of where I was not even a year ago. I battled some of the demons Craig battles and, though I never felt tempted by suicide, I felt like each of Craig’s victories in this film were my own.

7. The Social Network

I was a believer in The Social Network from the stunning trailer, and I remain a believer to this day. Its trajectory — from mocked concept (“Facebook movie? Ha!”) to a curiosity to one of the most critically acclaimed movies in years — is well-documented, so I won’t go over it right here. What I will say is that The Social Network managed be both great and entertaining while it captured the spirit of an age. It has a voice and a tone that is truly unique. When was the last time all of these things happened in one movie? Network? The Graduate? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

I don’t mean to say that The Social Network is in the same league as The Godfather and Citizen Kane. Those types of evaluations take some time and numerous re-watches for proper perspective to develop. But the mere fact that some of the highest-regarded minds in movie criticism deem it worthy of that talk says something to the film’s stature.

There’s just not a weak part to The Social Network. Its acting, writing, look, direction, music, plot, editing… I can’t think of something I don’t love about this film. The weakest segments of the film involve the Winklevoss twins, but even those are solid at worst. This film is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking. Thank you, Sorkin and Fincher, for taking seriously a concept that could have devolved into farce.

6. Party Down

For two glorious seasons, Party Down aired gem after gem of priceless comedy. And almost nobody watched; the series actually bottomed out around 50,000 live viewers which is beyond abysmal. That’s historically low for an acclaimed television show. Oh well. I guess that happens when it’s aired on Starz, at an awful time slot, and with no marketing.

The premise of the show is that a collection of struggling actors and writers and comedians are waiting for their break — or just drifting — by working at a catering company in Hollywood. Each episode, these caterers get sucked into the lives of the party guests, and hilarity always ensues. The writing is original and unpredictable (and gleefully R-rated), the actors are perfect for their roles, and the entire package crackles. There’s an air of authenticity about the show in the different ways the characters respond to their continued lack of success as they continue to pursue a dream.

Party Down’s second season aired in 2010, and it’s a hair worse than the first season, mostly for one reason: Jane Lynch’s absence. She got picked up by Glee and became a household name while Party Down replaced her with Megan Mullaly who is decent but doesn’t hit the spot the way Lynch does. Fortunately, the series ends with an all-time classic episode which re-examines the central character’s life view and ends, ultimately, on an uplifting note.

I can’t recommend this show enough. Twenty near-perfect episodes. If it had aired a few more episodes and not missed the presence of the excellent Lynch, Party Down could have peaked even higher on this list.

5. How to Train Your Dragon

In my initial review for this film, I wrote

This movie has my unconditional recommendation, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s something better than perfect: It’s magical.

I absolutely stand by that assessment. I’ve seen HTTYD five times, and I’ve liked it a bit more each time. Not only is the film adventurous — a wild, man-vs.-nature western at heart — but it has substance and dramatization to it that’s unheard of in DreamWorks animated films.

But I don’t want to oversell the film as art because it’s just a damn fun thing to watch. It looks beautiful — with some absolutely stunning flying scenes and a dragon-on-dragon battle at the end that has a tremendous sense of scope — and it has a riveting pace. The beautiful music sucks you in (as I’ve already mentioned), the excellent voice actors keep you riveted, and the vibrant world will have you wishing you could see more of it.

The core of the film is the Hiccup-Toothless relationship, and the scenes by the lake (e.g. the one depicted in the concept art above) are tremendous. The filmmakers, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, wisely take their time in these moments to really develop the connection between man and beast.

There are certainly flaws to the film — the ending ties up a bit too neatly, the Hiccup-Astrid relationship develops too quickly, and I get a nagging sense that the movie could have been stronger had it been fleshed out for another fifteen minutes — but I prefered HTTYD to the near-perfection of The Social Network and the sprawl of Inception and the mental labyrinth of Shutter Island for one reason only: it energized me like I was little kid.

How to Train Your Dragon fills me with an uncommon joy and I would be lying to myself and to all of you if I put it any lower on this list.

4. Parks and Recreation

Do you have any noises that immediately make you feel happy? A certain voice or song or sound that just puts your body at ease and fills your brain with delight?

I do, and it’s the Parks and Recreation theme song. (Bonus points if it’s the Jabba the Hutt version.)

The second season of Parks and Rec was so brilliant, consistent, warm, and fulfilling that I would like to take a moment and defend it from the people who dismiss it as “basically the Office Part 2 with Amy Pohler instead of Steve Carrell,” as one commenter put it. “Why would I watch a show I’ve already seen?”

I am pondering writing a 1500 word analysis of this very topic some time before the January 20 debut of the third season of P&R. Here’s the shortest version: Parks and Recreation is a much warmer, colorful, more open show. It does not use any squirmy or awkward humor as a staple. Where The Office holds contempt for its central workplace, Parks and Rec is a love letter to the valuable service that local government can provide.

So please don’t tell me you won’t watch it just because it was originally conceived as a thematic partner to The Office. Also, please don’t tell me you won’t watch it because of the mediocre first season. Every TV critic has played this story out, but it’s still true: Parks and Rec improved massively from the first season to the second one. It’s almost as if those six episodes from the first half of 2009 were a rough draft.

The show miraculously batted a thousand in 2010; there were no bad episodes and many great ones. The crew’s hijinks at a telethon, in the face of spending cuts, in making a catalog cover, etc. were all worth watching.

There’s also no disappointing individual components of the show. There are no characters I dislike seeing on screen. It’s hard to choose a favorite character from so many great ones. The writing is roundly phenomenal. The single-camera production is always solid.

On second thought, it isn’t hard to choose a favorite character. Ron Effing Swanson.

Ron Effing Swanson.

Seriously, would it be premature to declare him one of the top ten characters in the history of television after just 31 episodes? If there is any character I’m comfortable making that claim for so quickly, it is Ron Effing Swanson. Everything that comes out of his mouth is pure gold, and Nick Offerman absolutely hits the role out of the park. There are too many great moments to hone in on any defining one, but a few of my favorite are the foot rub moan, the “brown haired women and breakfast food” monologue, and his absolute glee at cutting the budget in the season finale.

All of this is my long-winded attempt at convincing you to try and watch this polished, consistent, warm, satisfying, gut-bustingly hilarious show. Even if you dismissed it as an Office clone or shrugged at its topic or gave up after a forgettable first season, you’d be doing yourself a serious favor by seeking out the second season of one of TV’s best.

Why is it #4 on this list and not higher? Two reasons. The main one is that Parks and Rec was foolishly held off of the fall season by NBC and so has not started its new season, and, consequently, has a lot fewer episodes than other shows. Next, some of the show’s highest peaks came at the end of 2009. If Greg Pitikis, The Camel, Ron and Tammy, and Hunting Trip had snuck into 2010, I’d be hard-pressed to put Parks and Rec anywhere on this list but #1.

3. Community

Now we’re to the top three, and it was almost impossible to choose between them to pick a favorite cultural thing for 2010. I’ve shuffled the order a few times. Any of them could have ended up at the top of the list. But the contract says that there can’t be any ties, so I had to settle on some order.

Community is my favorite show on television right now and has only been rivaled by Parks and Recreation in 2010. It’s an example of the right show hitting me at the right time. I’ve grown just weary enough of network TV to appreciate something with a bit of self-satire and meta humor, but not quite cynical enough towards sitcoms to ignore Community’s lion-hearted, loving core.

The title of Community is apt in many regards. First, the characters attend a community college, but, more importantly, the show examines the components of a community of people. The show catalogs the highs and lows of this complex set of relationships all while firing jokes a mile a minute.

There’s also a broad community of styles in this show; from small to epic, dark to syrupy, traditional to unconventional, snarky to sincere, Community can nail just about any tone at any given point. Credit the writers but, most especially, the versatile cast that includes several breakout stars.

The first season was, for the most part, a lot more reined in, but the most out-there and strongest episodes of the season aired in 2010. There was the gonzo absurdity of “Physical Education” and the hilarious character interplay of “Romantic Expressionism” and the wild-blue-yonder semi-finale of “English as a Second Language.”

Then there was “Modern Warfare,” the most epic and most brilliant and most perfect and best episode of any television show in 2010. In just a half hour, Community adapted every apocalyptic action movie stereotype with phenomenally cinematic direction and production. It also packed in one of the show’s biggest character moments of the entire series.

Modern Warfare set a high bar, and the second season has done its best to match it. Almost every episode of season 2 has had a hook; it’s easily shaping up into the most ambitious and cinematic and varied season of any network sitcom ever. There are big touches, like a stop motion animated episode, and there are small touches, like a silent Abed subplot entirely in the background of an episode.

It all shapes up into the most exciting comedy on television, one that’s ambitious and daring and self-aware and downright thrilling to watch. If you’re not tuning in at 8:00 every Thursday, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

(Side note: I started and have sporadically kept up with a Community fan site, Priority Registration. I have some features planned for the coming month, so now might be a good time to subscribe.)

2. Toy Story 3

Since June, one of my goals has been to write a review of Toy Story 3 that accurately represents all of the beauty and power that I see in the movie. Thus far, I have failed.

In short, aside from being massively entertaining, Toy Story 3 perfects the series’ premise by turning it into a commentary on mortality and community and love and loss and, really, everything that makes us human. And the contradiction there — that a movie about toys is teaching us about humanity — permeates through the whole film in hilarious and touching ways.

There’s incredible scene after incredible scene, and it never lets up. From the horror-filled encounter with the kids in the caterpillar room to the prison break to the mad dash for survival at the dump, there’s hardly a moment to breathe and take it all in. The laughs are plenty (if cheap from time to time at Ken’s effeminate nature) and they derive from well-established characters and writing, not empty gags or brainless pop culture riffs.

And, of course, there’s the ending, something that needs to be experienced and felt by anyone who has ever had to say a difficult goodbye or deal with the impermenance of human connections. There’s a tremendous religious imagery built in to those final thirty minutes, of hellfire and reincarnation and purgatory, that evokes a severity to counter the zany energy of the opening sequence.

Kudos go to director Lee Unkrich; this movie is a work of intense planning and deliberate creativity. The shot selection and editing (along with the jaw-dropping visuals, but that’s pretty much a given at this point for any Pixar movie) are the best I’ve ever seen in an animated film. Every scene is filled with terror or regret or comedy, whatever is just right for that moment.

There also needs to be a shoutout to Randy Newman, who is certainly underappreciated. His score for the film is sensational, particularly for the gut-punch of a finale (take a listen). And his You Got a Friend in Me has become more powerful and relevant with each iteration of the series.

Long story short, Toy Story 3 is everything that it could have been. It’s a masterpiece, alive and real and moving. It’ll take some time before I really figure out where it ranks with my all-time favorite movies and with Pixar’s filmography. But there’s no doubt that Toy Story 3 is my pick for the best movie of 2010.

1. Mass Effect 2

I spent the past ten minutes trying to single out what element of Mass Effect 2 — a game that holds together as a complete package better than any game I’ve ever played — is the most impressive. I finally settled on the characters. It’s easy to run away with hyperbole, especially when making a list like this, but these words are carefully measured: The eleven members of your squad are each as compelling as any character from any movie, TV show, or novel. There isn’t a boring character in the entire cast.

For anyone who hasn’t played the game, I’m sure it’s difficult to buy that characters in a video game could carry a level of substance or depth to match characters in other media. But BioWare pulls it off: from the writing to the voice acting to visual details, the members of Mass Effect 2 are as memorable and distinctive as the characters in Star Wars or Harry Potter or The Office. You’ll root for them and fall in love with them and hate them and, ultimately, wish you could spend more time with them.

Here’s the kicker: They respond and react to you. As the central character of Mass Effect 2, you have to make difficult decisions that alter the lives of these characters. Some of these decisions are tactical: a wrong move at the wrong time could result in somebody’s death. Others are ethical: when do the ends justify the means? These decisions give the game a sense of urgency and weight.

Every character tackles some sort of thematic trope of science fiction and does so in a fresh way. With eleven characters, it’s impressive how little overlap there is (though I’d complain that there’s a bit too much emphasis on parenthood and generational differences). Yet they are unified in that each one struggles with some sort of cultural gap — whether across species, age, wealth, ability, religion, background, or geography — and some amount of past demons which are revealed at a slow and satisfying rate.

These disparate characters collide in a balls-to-the-walls ending that almost defies description. Characters will die. Fates will be altered. Revelations will be had. The final boss is a good payoff. For the entire hour-long ending sequence, my heart was pounding the entire time; it’s tense and exciting and brilliantly crafted. The final cinematic is a worthy denoument and teaser to what will hopefully be an excellent threequel.

So, yeah, the characters in Mass Effect 2 are awesome. What else is awesome about Mass Effect 2?

  • Gameplay. Cutting out the horrid vehicle sections of the original, Mass Effect 2 is left with lots and lots of third-person shooting gameplay. The variety comes from the characters’ powers. Each of the six classes you can choose for your main character plays entirely differently. Whether you’re curving biotic warp balls around walls as an Adept, cloaking yourself and sniping opponents as an Infiltrator, etc., the combat is thrilling. The gameplay itself is so fun and challenging that I’ve replayed the game multiple times at higher difficulties. I’ve never done that. Ever.
  • Story. The continuation of the epic is bare-bones in comparison with the original, but fleshes out the dynamic world and the overarching plot in important ways. Revelations about the Reapers’ overall goals and the fate of the Protheans add to the compelling mythology developed by the series.
  • Sound. The music is moody and memorable, but it’s the voice acting that really stands out. From the celebrities — Martin Sheen!? — to the unknowns, the emotion in the delivery of the words matches the range of the writing.
  • Visuals. This is the game big screen TV’s were designed for. Aside from being absolutely beautiful in the traditional video games sense (details, polygons), the level of design and cinematic prowess present in some of the cut scenes matches what you’ll see in good movies.
  • Consequences. The most hyped feature of the game was excellent (if not as pervasive as I’d hoped): Assuming you played the original, you can import your save game and the consequences of decisions you made — who lives, who dies, and the political state of the galaxy — still exist in the world. It’s a sweet feature that really makes you feel like your actions matter.

It all adds up to something deserving of the title “masterpiece.” The Mass Effect series is my favorite science fiction property since Star Wars. This second game is, dare I say it, my favorite game of all time and my favorite “thing” of 2010.

So, there you have it. My six thousand word treatise on my favorite stuff of 2010. I hope you enjoyed it. Be on the lookout for some new content in early 2011 and maybe even a new guest writer or two. Happy holidays!

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

8 thoughts on “Dan’s Top 25 of 2010

  1. I’m deciding on whether to comment on this or the post itself… xD

    But I’ll do this since it doesn’t involve putting my email into a bar >.>


    That comic was cute; I’m so jealous you know someone famous! (as in, they get their stuff published) That’s so awesome. I wish I could be one of those people. I’ll give myself some credit to recognize the reference though… not that most people wouldn’t have gotten it …

    I’m surprised/sad you didn’t mention Back to December – I definitely was listening to that song on repeat during finals week because I needed something pretty but not too pretty or else I’ll get tired and not be able to study 10 hours a day (even though I love classical music, I always start falling asleep when I hear it because I used to play classical music when I would go to bed). Granted, I suppose you didn’t like the whole affair with Taylor Lautner so maybe that’s why you didn’t like it… or maybe you just don’t like it. xD But “Dear John” and “Speak Now” weren’t singles were they? Maybe I’m wrong since I barely understand the concept of singles… /sigh

    Omg. Sims 3 = divine. I love Sims! I also stupidly decided to start playing Sims 3 again during Finals week. Worst mistake ever. Regardless, I can definitely relate to the whole “Just one more” thing. I told myself that and I ended up playing for another hour or so. Whoops.

    Hah. Kanye West… lots of drama involvin’ that fellow…

    It makes me sad, however, I can only comment on 4 things.. out of 25 because I haven’t listened/played/watched/watever the others 😐

    I feel like I should say how great of an article…? list? Yes… that word… anyways, it’s great. I wish I could write something as … umm… well… as enunciated? Sure, let’s go with that – as enunciated as this. This is probably why I never could have made it as a writer even though I wanted to…

    Anyways, it turns out I did end up posting it here instead of facebook and God do I ramble… I should edit some stuff out…

    Anyways, good work Dan!

  2. Finally got 99 Songs Vol. 1 today and LOVE it. thanks for the recommendation. I think I agree with you on your choices of best songs (my jaw dropped when the intro to Such Great Heights began playing; just amazing) though I would add that I quite like Birds Flying Away and the arrangement of Troubador…not that I’ve heard either original.

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