As the year draws to a close, and critics everywhere are drawing up their “Best Of” lists, we thought we’d enlist the PBS NewsHour mindshare to give us their picks for their favorite books, films, concerts and plays of 2009.
These were a few of their favorite things…
Books: “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” and “Let the Great World Spin”
Hard to pick among many excellent novels. So I think I’ll go with two writers who were new and therefore most exciting to me this year: Daniyal Mueenuddin, author of “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” and Colum McCann, author of “Let the Great World Spin.” Both were finalists for the National Book Award; McCann won.
Film: “An Education”
Extremely well written and acted, is the one I’ve most enjoyed recently. Most fun — and most surprising — blockbuster this year for me was the new “Star Trek” movie.
Theater: “Exit the King”
Geoffrey Rush as the mad King Berenger slowing losing his mind and his life in a revival of the Ionesco play. Absurd and hysterical and then painful and profound; a work that has new meaning in the age of Alzheimer’s.
Music: Pearl Jam at Austin City Limits
A great rock band that typically plays in large arenas blasts away for several hours in a tiny, acoustically vibrant venue for about 250 of us. Plus my son was there and got to take it in five feet from the stage and meet Eddie Vedder afterwards. What’s not to like?
Honorable but very worthy mention: the Arabesque Festival at the Kennedy Center
Ambitious, illuminating and entertaining — arts center programming at its best. It was great to meet up with and see in performance some of the artists I’d profiled in their homelands for the NewsHour.
Book: “Revolutionary Characters”
I realize I’m three years behind — and fully intend to read Gordon Wood’s newest book, “Empire of Liberty,” about which he recently talked to our own Jeffrey Brown. But I just got around to the earlier one, and am delighted to recommend it. Wood distills the work of other historians and adds his own analysis and fresh observation to give us a new take on what drove the founding fathers — what set them apart, what shaped their character. Of John Adams, he wrote, “almost a half century before Tocqueville made the same penetrating observation, the urge for distinction was even stronger in America than elsewhere.” Quoting Adams: “In a democratic society ‘there can be no subordination.’ A man would see his neighbor, ‘whom he holds his equal,’ with a better coat, hat, house or horse.’ He cannot bear it; he must and will be upon a level with him.’”
Adams wouldn’t have been surprised by the credit boom that led to the market crash of 2008-09.
Art: “Pompeii and the Roman Villa” at the National Gallery of Art
I took my then-19-year-old daughter in the spring to see that magnificent display of life among the Roman well-to-do in the first century B.C. We marveled at the paintings and decorative arts that were part of their daily surroundings, and tried to imagine how much work and talent had gone into sculpting the realistic folds of the garments that hung gracefully on tall marble figures. We had fun imagining what was originally in the mosaic tile floors, that 2000 years later, were missing wide chunks. And we wondered at the effort that went into excavating these exceptional pieces just a couple of hundred years ago. I decided if I hadn’t gone into journalism, archaeology might have been exciting. My daughter wasn’t so sure!
Film: “Sunshine Cleaning”
Try as we might, our family sees few movies together, partly because we have such a hard time deciding what to see — our tastes run in five different directions. But somehow three of us found ourselves watching this little-remarked on film, and I couldn’t get it off my mind afterward. It’s the story of two sisters, leading hardscrabble lives, who do some pretty unconventional things to make a living, like running a business to clean up crime scenes after the deed is done. Think blood spatter on the shower wall. One sister has a son with learning disabilities; she’s driven by her determination to get him into a private school. The story is mainly about the relationship between the sisters, a reminder that good things happen in the grittiest of places. Corny, I know, but I really liked it.
Books: “Trading Dreams at Midnight” and “The Battle for America 2008”
My favorite technology discovery this year is my Kindle, which allowed me to carry dozens of books with me at a time as I traveled on planes, trains and automobiles on book tour. That’s how I read “Trading Dreams at Midnight” by Diane McKinney-Whetstone. But when I’m home, I prefer holding a book in my hand and turning the pages. That’s how I read my favorite political junkie’s book of the year, “The Battle for America 2008,” by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson.
Theater: The revival of “Ragtime,” now on Broadway.
Music: Steely Dan in concert performing their “Aja” album.
Theater: Seven.11 Convenience Theatre
I thoroughly enjoyed what may perhaps be the last season of the Seven.11 Convenience Theatre, a wonderful series of 7 minute plays set in a 7-11 that friends have been organizing for years.
Film: “In the Loop” and “Up”
While I remember thoroughly enjoying the spoils of winning my Oscar pool in 2009, I think my chances will be slimmer this year partly because I’ve hardly seen any movies at the theater. I remember enjoying two in particular – “In the Loop,” a British political satire/farce, and “UP,” just because the animation was stunning in a very different way than, say, James Cameron’s “Avatar” will be.
Music: DJ Tiesto and FC/Kahuna
It’s been a year of unabashed surfing and discovery thanks to Pandora (though I’ve been told I need to switch to Playlist or Grooveshark or Spotify). I’ve been inclined to put together more incomprehensible adrenaline music for when I write scripts or bike, with the likes of DJ Tiesto (tracks like ‘Adagio for Strings’ or “Jess and Everything”). I’ve been finding slower tempo tunes through artists like FC/Kahuna.
Books: Christopher Hitchens and Jared Diamond
The nightstand stack of books continues to rise, with a mix of Christopher Hitchens, Jared Diamond and some esoteric Hindu texts but I keep thinking one day, I’ll actually sit in bed and read.
TV: “Battlestar Gallactica,” “Scrubs,” “House”
This year I binged on the “Battle Star Gallactica” series, I pined for anything as brilliantly written as “The Wire,” sadly bid farewell to “Scrubs,” and relished the misanthropic genius of Hugh Laurie’s character in “House.” I also enjoyed the great British mini-series “State of Play” (2003), which is worth netflixing.
LINDA WINSLOW, Executive Producer
Theater: Helen Mirren in “Phedre”
I was secretly dreading the whole thing — Greek tragedy often doesn’t translate well to modern times. In this case, an amazingly believable performance, exceedingly well-staged. Another terrific ensemble performance.
Theater: Cate Blanchett in “A Streetcar Named Desire”
Great director (Liv Ullman), terrific cast, and most of all, an incredible actress. I heard lines I never noticed before — and I’ve seen “Streetcar” eight or nine times.
Music: Sonny Rollins in a really exciting performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Seemed like an odd venue at first, but he was very hot and soon overcame the distance created by the big stage. I loved the way the audience was thoroughly engaged with the performers (he played with a five-man group). It was one of the most completely integrated audiences I’ve ever seen at the Kennedy Center, both in terms of age and of race.
What were your favorite things from 2009?