Media Favorites 2008

Like a lot of bloggers I admire, I’ve been reflecting again this year on the arbitrariness and subjectivity of “best of” lists.  Given that many of the movies that aspire to the be the “best” Hollywood has to offer aren’t released to flyover audiences until mid-January at best, I’ve missed a lot this year.  And because I’ve been especially preoccupied this year by following the election and finishing the book, I’ve seen far fewer movies this year than in the past.  If it weren’t for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, I would have found it even more difficult to compile anything resembling a top ten list.  I’m still reluctant to focus solely on film in that I have strong opinions on–or deep investments in–other media, and in fact, television, with its 24-hour news cycle, and political blogs, with their constant updates, have probably been the media texts that will stay with me the most from 2008.

So instead of pretending to compile a top ten list for film or TV (or viral videos for that matter), here is an arbitrary, non-alphebatized list of media texts that mattered to me in 2008.  In some cases, I’m listing them because they were what I believe to be among the best films or TV shows.  In others, I’m searching for something slightly more elusive: texts that seemed to reflect the zeitgeist of 2008, at least as I experienced it.  There are a number of excellent top tens already out there (Jonathan’s lists of top ten TV shows, readings, etc. are a great place to start), but I’m interested in using the list format to make sense of the past year, to contextualize it through the popular culture texts that worked for me.  Favorites below the fold and read through all of them because I saved some of the best for last.

Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water provided, for me, one of the most compelling depictions of the Hurricane Katrina crisis and aftermath so far.  The film depicts the struggles of Kimberly Roberts and her family to survive as they hide out in the attic of their Lower Ninth Ward home, the wind and water of the hurricane crashing against them, all of it recorded by Roberts and her family on a camcorder she happened to purchase a few days earlier.  Once Lessin and Deal join Roberts, they return to the Lower Ninth and reflect on the long recovery process.  Trouble the Water was, as it deserved to be, one of the most well-received films at Full Frame, a powerful story of survival and a scathing indictment of an administration that failed its citizens.

Also at Full Frame, I caught James Marsh’s compelling Man on Wire, which told the story of Phillipe Petit’s improbable 1974 quest to walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center on a high wire.  Marsh captures the initial fascination these building held in the public imagination when they were first built, but what I loved most was the detailed, often humorous, account of the preparation for the high wire walk, as given by Petit and his crew, turning the beautiful image of Petit walking against the sky into something like a hesit film.  Man on Wire sometimes risks engaging in nostalgia for more innocent times, but Petit’s self-described “art crime of the century” was breathtaking fun and often more stunning than any CGI effect you could imagine.

Other Full Frame films that continue to stick with me in a variety of ways: Peter Gilbert and Steve James’ At the Death House Door, the story of Carroll Pickett, a former death row chaplain turned anti-death penalty activist; Margaret Brown’s Order of Myths, which subtly documents the racially-segregated Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama; Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s insightful documentary about Fidelis Cloer, who sells armored cars at immense profits, Bulletproof Salesman; and Eric Metzgar’s Life.Support.Music, which describes the recovery of New York-based guitarist Jason Crigler after he suffered a brain hemorrhage while playing on stage.  The film is a musical, touching portrait of one family’s amazing support for Crigler (and each other).

While I generally remain indifferent to most of the sketches on Saturday Light Live, I actually watched episodes as they originally aired, just to see Tina Fey’s uncanny depiction of Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin, a series of sketches that culminated in Palin actually appearing on the show, leaving viewers to ponder whether Palin was self-effacing or simply oblivious.  A distant second, although still very funny, David Letterman’s righteous indignation at being jilted by John McCain when the Republican nominee briefly “suspended” his campaign.  If you look closely, you can see several electoral votes turning blue as Dave delivers his monologue.

As the Fey/Palin sketches vividly illustrated, the 2008 election provided a goldmine of material for political satirists, and Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart (and their writers) continued to provide much needed comic relief from a stressful election, a collapsing economy, and two ongoing wars.  They also continued to hold broadcast and cable TV pundits accountable in often startling ways while also expressing and giving (very funny) voice to many of my frustrations about this year’s election coverage. I don’t have any specific sketches in mind here, but both shows were consistently good.

While I continue to have a love-hate relationship with the vast majority of cable news programming, The Rachel Maddow Show provided a much needed respite from all of the bluster while also remaining consistently informative.  As Mike points out, Maddow’s self-awareness regarding the “phoney visuals of TV news” actually allow her to shine in that we sense that authentic self just beneath the surface, gently mocking the artifice while also using the platform to comment on some of the most importnt issues of the day.  Maddow and Eugene Robinson were always the strongest elements of the early-evening news commentary shows, and I’m glad that MSNBC came to their senses and saw Maddow for the smart, engaging host that she is. Now about those “doc blocks…”

Few political junkies could have survived 2008 without Nate Silver’s, and my obsession with the election and the poll numbers brought be back to Nate’s site several times a day.  Nate’s statistical model for predicting election results, both during the primaries and the general election, was nothing short of uncanny, but I think that what was genuinely valuable about the site–other than reassuring me that Liddy Dole would no longer be my Senator–was the pedagogical element of the site, the degree to which Nate’s number-crunching and his ability to narrate his calculations taught me (and I’ll guess many others) about how elections are run.  It’s an amazing resource and I can’t imagine following elections the same way ever again.

In addition to political blogs, web video became a crucial element in mediating the 2008 election.  It’s almost impossible to single out one or two videos, but because I’ve written about these videos elsewhere, I’ll try to keep it short.’s “Yes We Can” remix, with its use of celebrity endorsement, affect, and craftsmanship, belongs almost in a category by itself.  But I also found Paris Hilton’s response to McCain’s “Celeb” ad to be remarkably savvy.  Whether Hilton intended it or not, her video completely deflated McCain use of the attempt to portray Obama as a frivolous celebrity.   Finally, the L.A.-based comedy group, the Public Service Administration, provided some of the best political satire on the web, mocking everything from Hillary’s 3 AM ad to McCain’s impromptu performance of “Bomb Iran.”

In terms of music, this was kind of a lost year for me.  Because of my work on the book, I haven’t taken the time to discover new music, but I did like the new Gnarls Barkley album.  And I loved The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive for reasons pretty much already covered by Jason Chervokas.

Two other key texts for me are more difficult to define.  First, I’ve become even more appreciative of Twitter and Facebook status updates.  Both texts serve different, but related, purposes.  The latter, as Jonathan points out, allows me to keep track of well over 200 friends, something that became even more fascinating as my 20th high school reunion came and went (I was unable to attend).  Twitter, however, became something much different, providing both a kind of “ambient intimacy” and a powerful social-organizing tool, one that allowed me to step into both local and academic communities.  I certainly understand why Twitter doesn’t work for some, but I’ve found it to be a productive conversational space.

Finally, the most important “text” for me has been the distributed DIY film production community.  Because there are so many filmmakers and commentators involved in reimagining what indie film can be and how independent filmmakers can survive and thrive, it would be impossible to single out one particular site, but I continue to be fascinate by the experiemnts and conversations that are taking place.  Among the more compelling examples: From Here to Awesome, the discovery and distribution festival curated by Arin Crumley, Lance Weiler, and M. Dot Strange, which not only tutors filmmakers in pitching and promoting their films but also takes into account the many platforms where we view movies (including theaters).  The Workbook Project, a similar tutorial on making and distributing films for DIY filmmakers.  The research conducted by the Independent Television Service exploring some of the key case studies in digital distribution. These texts fascinate me not only because of the degree to which they are involved in reimagining the film text but also because they consistently theorize the conditions of their own production and distribution, while also rethinking the relationship between the filmmakers and their audience.


  1. Posts about Top Ten Ways or Things as of January 3, 2009 | The Lessnau Lounge Said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    […] about Top Ten Ways or Things as of January 3, 2009 Media Favorites 2008 – 01/03/2009 Like a lot of bloggers I admire, I’ve been reflecting again […]

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

    FYI, the comment here criticizing At the Death House Door was deleted because it is essentially identical to a comment on the original entry and appears to be a press release copied and pasted into the comment box. I don’t mind my choices being criticized, but I don’t consider that action to be a genuine form of engagement.

  3. Joanna Said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 8:43 am

    I plan to see the documentaries you list because I missed them in the theaters-thanks for the reminders. For me, because I don’t have cable, this year’s media event was watching all five seasons of The Wire online, via Chinese YouKu; once I started I was unable to stop, and had to see the whole thing. I then bought the entire boxed set on sale at Amazon so I can watch it again at my leisure (probably not until summer). I keep using it as an example with my students. The “media event” for me was being able to watch TV without my TV, something a lot of people have been doing for ages, but which is still relatively new to me.

  4. Chuck Said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    I keep hearing amazing things about The Wire, so I may do something similar and watch it from beginning to end via Netflix (or something similar). I actually enjoy watching shows in large doses like that…it’s a great way to experience “television,” and watching TV (or movies) without a TV is cool, too.

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