The best of 2010

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Drama | Album | Game | Comedy | YouTube Video | Book | Film | Gadget

Best Drama: Mad Men

© AMC

American dramas have come a long way in the past 10 years, with the art form slowly evolving from being mostly cheap, mindless entertainment of the Miami Vice variety into epic, profound and crucial pieces of work. Chief amongst these in recent years has been AMC’s Mad Men, which has risen from being a little known cult TV show for connoisseurs of U.S. drama into a cultural trendsetter, whose influence extends beyond the narrow confines of its medium, becoming an important influence on not just TV writers and producers, but also film makers and fashion designers.

Strange, really, considering the show’s subject matter. When one hears about a TV show focusing on high paid advertising executives at the start of the 1960s, one imagines a show with a somewhat – ahem – selective audience. A dramatised version of Dilbert, perhaps, filled with boring board meetings and situations only relevant to people in the 9-5 grind of everyday life. Instead, what Mad Men offers is one of the most engaging TV shows of all time, rife with pathos, humour and believable, likeable and realistic characters, the biggest of which is the era the show is set in.

Setting the show in the 1960s and choosing to focus on characters one would normally think of as square coupled with the show’s rigorous adherence to historical accuracy has allowed Mad Men to become an important window into a time where culture was changing. The establishment was being rocked, cigarettes were being demonised and Mad Men’s characters are not at the centre so much as on the sidelines, putting on a brave face to the world and pretending that they are in control of the situation in both their personal and professional lives. Rarely, if ever, is this the case and the self-doubt, self-aggrandizement and self-preservation of Mad Men’s characters has made for incredible viewing across each season. This year’s Season Four was the best so far.

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Best Album: The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

2010 was, for the most part, a love it or hate it year for music. Lady Gaga was at the forefront of an over hyped and much talked up supposed pop revolution. Kanye West’s brilliant My Dark Twisted Fantasy took hip-hop into the realms of the psychedelic and progressive. But for many, the effect was polarizing. You either loved 2010’s auto-tuned, pre-programmed chaos or rejected it and viewed it as another nail in the coffin of modern music, which is, the naysayers argued, destined to spiral into an emotionless, technology-obsessed abyss.

At least that would have been the case were it not for Arcade Fire’s best album yet The Suburbs, an inventive, organic and carefully constructed indie-pop indictment of modern hipster culture. With eight members, one would think that most of Arcade Fire’s work would sound cluttered and convoluted, but surprisingly this isn’t the case. All instruments blend together perfectly to develop a soundscape with enough depth and complexity to keep listeners coming back for more, but not to the extent that it starts to sound like a cacophonic indie symphony.

Previous albums Funeral and Neon Bible showed promise for Arcade Fire, but stopped short of greatness in terms of consistency and songwriting. Great tracks like Keep The Car Running were broken up in between less memorable efforts and the tracks on the album never felt as much a part of a whole as they do on The Suburbs. The album captures the mood of its title, spoken from the point of view of a small town bohemian dreaming of greater things and is equal parts hopeful, pessimistic, sarcastic and anthemic. With much of the trend in 2010 being towards the emotionally hollow, it was refreshing to hear something so vibrant and colourful. Let’s hope this sort of thing becomes more commonplace.

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Best Game: Red Dead Redemption

The criticisms are obvious. It’s glitchy as hell, the storyline is too short, the ending is an anticlimax and most of the game is spent following people around on horses. Red Dead Redemption is certainly not perfect. But it’s still the best game of 2010 for one reason: immersion. The world that Red Dead Redemption brings you into feels like a genuine place in time, with people, wildlife, churches, prisons and characters – all feel at home in the turn of the century America that Red Dead Redemption offers and delivers.

In a way, it’s an unorthodox choice. Most of the Grand Theft Aunto clones of recent years have tended towards faster vehicles, more and more densely populated environments (for maximum random carnage) and bigger explosions. A sandbox game with slow horses, lots of empty desert and low tech early 20th-century weaponry seems counter intuitive, but it’s pulled off thanks to the detailed Western outback environment which captures the lawlessness and anarchism that the best Spaghetti Westerns portray.

Gaming, it is often said, has still yet to evolve into an art form which is comparable to literature, music, poetry, etc. The film critic Roger Ebert has compared gaming in its current form to etchings made on cave walls by early human beings. He may be right, and most games are still at the B-Movie action level of entertainment (even the best written ones), but games like Red Dead Redemption are a welcome sign of the way things are going. More and more attention is being paid to character development, dialogue and script writing (just as well, considering how much time you spend following people around) and that, coupled with Red Dead Redemption’s immersive qualities are what allows one to forgive its many faults and why it is the best game of 2010.

Drama | Album | Game | Comedy | YouTube Video | Book | Film | Gadget

Best Comedy: 30 Rock

© NBC Universal

Why is Alec Baldwin so funny? The actor best known for serious, intense dramatic roles doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice for one of the central characters in a Tina Fey created sitcom, but fortunately he is the best for the role of Jack Donaghy, Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for General Electric. Each line is given deadpan delivery and superb comic timing that gives the late Leslie Nielsen a run for his money.

Set behind the scenes of the live sketch comedy show TGS with Tracey Jordan (a comedy show which is basically Saturday Night Live), 30 Rock has remained consistently hilarious throughout its four years. The main character, Liz Lemon (played by series creator, Tina Fey) is a classic buffoon, her life a series of failed relationships (two of her ex-boyfriends subsequently went to clown college) and poor hygiene decisions (she occasionally wears full-length swimsuits instead of underwear). She’s surrounded by idiots and incompetents, played by a great comic cast, many of whom were brought along by Fey from her days as a writer on Saturday Night Live.

The show is really about the one-liners and is as readily quotable as a Will Ferrell movie (a good one) or an episode of The Simpsons (again, not one of the crappy ones). Sure, there is a story behind the jokes, but it’s never quite as important as the brilliant, laugh-a-minute script. In fact, this is a point in favour for the show, as a storyline which requires constant attention would hamper anyone that wants to just dip into a random episode. TV sitcoms have come a long way in the past decade, but 30 Rock has created a new standard, which keeps getting better with each series. Series five began in 2010.

Drama | Album | Game | Comedy | YouTube Video | Book | Film | Gadget

Best YouTube Video: Red Letter Media Reviews

[youtube link=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxKtZmQgxrI”]

It’s difficult to decide on what the best YouTube video is of any year – after all, most of them are short clips of animals doing funny things or drunk celebrities. But awarding best viral video of 2010 to a cat playing the accordion or Cheryl Cole farting on X Factor would have seemed unjust, so the award instead goes to Red Letter Media, a small independent film company that has taken nerdy YouTube film reviews to a new level of insight, hilarity and, dare I say it, sophistication.

Most film fans have a readily available film in mind for their biggest disappointment. For some, it’s Godfather Part 3, for others it’s the sequels to The Matrix. For most film lovers of this generation, though, the three Star Wars prequels were the moment where hopes for cinematic greatness were dashed in a horrible combination of poor storytelling, shoddy acting, weak dialogue and tasteless CGI. Red Letter Media’s reviews of the Star Wars prequels are approaching the length of the films themselves (the review for The Phantom Menace is over 70 minutes long), but they remain entertaining thanks to a brilliant method of comedic delivery, a macabre serial killer sub-plot and superb film-making 101 insights.

YouTube is cluttered with people offering their two cents on what makes certain films bad, but for the most part they consist of nerds talking directly into the camera and listing what they personally find tasteless about the 2009 version of Star Trek. Red Letter Media’s reviews have taken internet criticism to a whole new level, managing to be equal parts judicious, entertaining and hilarious. It’s difficult to get over two and a half million people to watch anything, let alone a review of Star Wars that is over an hour long. It’s a testament to the quality of Red Letter Media’s criticism that the reviews have proved so popular and they set a new standard for internet criticism.

Drama | Album | Game | Comedy | YouTube Video | Book | Film | Gadget

Best Book: A Journey by Tony Blair

Best might be the wrong word for this one. It wasn’t the most read book (Stieg Larsson’s series of novels would have to take that crown) and it certainly wasn’t the best written. Rather, Tony Blair’s eagerly awaited memoirs was the book that had the most amount of impact on the widest audience, causing even people who hadn’t even read it to take notice of its existence, purely because of the person writing it and the disappointing absence of any serious reflection on the Iraq war.

Instead, what we got was a sometimes insightful, sometimes unsurprising and often bizarre look into the life and psychology of one of the most loved and most reviled political figures of our times. A large amount of the book was dedicated to hating on Gordon Brown, which was to be expected, but it came too late in the game to actually have any serious impact on the political landscape in Britain. Nonetheless, political gossip hounds had an early Christmas present in the portrayal of Brown as a politically manipulative and vindictive power-obsessed curmudgeon, who wasn’t beyond a little bit of blackmail if it meant getting his own way. Not that any of that came as a surprise or a shock, but to have it written down in some permanent form was interesting.

The most puzzling aspect of Blair’s memoirs is what they omitted. Whatever one says about Blair, it is clear that he is in some respects an man of serious convictions. With that in mind, readers could have done with some serious reflection on why exactly the great communicator failed to connect with the British public on the most serious and substantive issues of his premiership. Instead, we got the one thing we didn’t want – detailed descriptions of the Blairs’ sex life. Gross, tasteless and profoundly bizarre.

Drama | Album | Game | Comedy | YouTube Video | Book | Film | Gadget

Best Film: Scott Pilgrim vs The World

© Universal Studios

2010 brought us some great cinematic gems, from Scorcese’s Shutter Island to Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 3. We travelled to a magical world in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and looked behind the scenes at Facebook in The Social Network. However, the best film of 2010 wasn’t a a big budget box office hit, but a cute and quirky flick from Edgar Wright. Based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim vs the World hit the cinemas in August.

From the opening of the film, an 8-bit Universal logo and Nintendo style theme, Scott Pilgrim vs the World is no less than awesome. Michael Cera stars as the socially awkward yet lovable geek, Scott Pilgrim, bassist for Sex Bob-bomb. Scott meets the girl of his dreams, the mysterious Ramona Flowers, and falls in love with her. He must defeat her seven evil exes if he is to date her, all whilst competing for a record contract.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World is a haven for videogame geeks, adorned with retro pastiche. Wright’s comedy works wonderfully with the original story making it a very enjoyable watch. The fight scenes between Scott and each of the exes are entirely stylised, paying homage to the choreography of retro games. With features such as a pee bar and videogame style combat, Scott Pilgrim is definitely one to watch for some light hearted fun.

Whilst the role of Scott is certainly no challenge to Cera, known for his awkward teenager comedy, he excels as our loveable hero and I cant imagine an actor more fitting for the character.

If you’re looking for something a bit different, highly entertaining and laugh-out-loud hilarious to watch over Christmas, Scott Pilgrim vs the World is the one to watch. The DVD is released on December 27, something to spend those HMV vouchers on.

Drama | Album | Game | Comedy | YouTube Video | Book | Film | Gadget

Best Gadget: iPad

There are so many things wrong with the iPad. Apple’s horrible app market restrictions. The fact that it’s completely closed to any innovation unless Apple give the go ahead. The totally partisan decision to exclude flash player (among other video formats). In fact, I could probably fill this article with reasons why the iPad is one of the worst things to come out of 2010. But I also think the iPad is one of the most beautiful, elegant and downright intelligent things that Steve Jobs has brought into the world and it is for those reasons that – despite its worrying pitfalls – it is SCAN’s gadget of the year 2010.

A lot of the iPad’s initial appeal came from its “holy crap, it’s beautiful!” factor – the endlessly shiny, strikingly minimalist design may just be an inflated iPhone, but there’s no denying it looks amazing. Yet there’s no way it would have had so much impact if it was just a looker – it’s packed with innovation too. The excellent touchscreen controls and the mind-blowing selection of apps are the first things to come to mind. Sure, lots of the apps are absolute tripe, but they can be forgiven – the best ones are bloody awe inspiring. Turn an iPad into DJ decks with Groovemaker? Yes please! How about creating masterpieces (or just drawing HD penises) in Sketchbook Pro? Or, even better, playing the campest game in history – Robot Unicorn Attack – in glorious HD widescreen? There’s no denying the genius of the app store.

Yet the iPad really succeeds because it does basic stuff extremely well. It’s a beautiful device where Twitter, emails and that history essay you’ve not done yet can exist in perfect harmony. People said the iPad solved a problem that didn’t exist by bridging the gap between phones and laptops, but Apple has managed to solve that nonexistent problem with such aplomb that it’s made me think whether or not we even need laptops or phones when there’s such a perfect middle ground.

Drama | Album | Game | Comedy | YouTube Video | Book | Film | Gadget

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