The Best of 2011

Reason writers on books, movies, music, & more


Tim Cavanaugh, managing editor,

While it was only a fair crowd-pleaser (denounced by one Amazon reviewer as an "annoying and pathetic movie that drags on for hours of tedium without remorse"), Cedar Rapids won me over by taking the business conference as its setting. The movie dispenses plenty of naïf-in-the-wide-world jokes, and Ed Helms' performance as an insurance agent so rustic that Iowa's second city seems to him a modern Gomorrah is funny enough. But the movie's real subject is the anxiety of an annual industry confab—a sensation that is widely familiar to Americans but rarely if ever depicted on the silver screen. Is your purpose at a business conference to work, to party, to make connections, to get laid, to explore a new locale, to prove yourself, or some excruciating combination of all of these goals? The movie resolves all this through a favorite movie trope—the ad hoc family of misfits. And its cast includes the kind of low-wattage actors (John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root) I think of as the real supernovae of the Hollywood firmament. But I like it because it captures the truth that every business conference starts out in dread and ends in unalloyed relief. 

Brian Doherty, senior editor

The plenitude of a dying record industry brings us the ultimate "beat the bootleg" package—the five-CD Beach Boys Smile Sessions box set. It's the great American pop-opera of discovery, the frontier, and naming your favorite vegetable, as unfinished as the American experiment itself (this is not a finished Smile—just all of its glorious rubble), and as I wrote in 2004 when Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson issued his own sort-of finished version, "listening to this heartwarmingly gorgeous slab of vocal melody pop, the final processing of the ambitions of a young Southern California man with lots of money…ambition, and…love for the sound of American voices (particularly the voices of his brothers, cousin, and school chum) raised in song—from old work songs to western ballads to turn of the century pop to doo-wop—makes all the myths of genius…thwarted…seem a whole lot less interesting than adding this music to your day." This is all the more true of this surfeit of finished tunes, vocal experiments, studio chatter, and joyous repetition, starring the impossibly rich, grand, sweet, homey, and moving voices of the Wilson Brothers, their cousin Mike, and their high school chum Al working at their most complex, demanding, and hilarious level.

Nick Gillespie, editor in chief, and

When it comes to policy books, Peter Schweizer's Throw Them All Out is not just an irresistible read but an infuriating one. He details how politicians have openly enriched themselves in ways that would trigger insider-trading investigations in the private sector. If you need unquestionable proof that Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are in fact the same person, grok this dissection of crony capitalism. Better still are chapters on folks such as Warren Buffett, who promoted TARP, the stimulus, and other big-government boondoggles as part of an altruistic "social compact" that directly fattened his bottom line. Buffett, writes Schweizer, "is a financial genius. But even more important for his portfolio, he's a political genius."

Paul Levitz's 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking came out slightly more than a year ago, but if you're at all a comics nerd or a design geek, it'll take you 12 months to sift through a coffee table book that's the size of an actual coffee table. Lushly produced and intelligently written, it's as much a scrapbook of the nation's collective unconscious as it is the definitive reference work about Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and (god help us all) Aquaman.

David Harsanyi, columnist

Preposterous premise. Incomprehensible plot. The second season of the BBC television series Luther was even more refreshingly implausible than the remarkably far-fetched first season. This time some seriously twisted sociopaths, a self-destructive porn actress, and her nefariously cougarish mom have suicidal anti-hero Idris Elba tied up in knots.

Reading Neal Stephenson's last book Anathem felt like taking a crash course on the history of science, philosophy, and religion on a really boring alien planet. Though his latest, ReamDe, isn't exactly a return to form (it's the least ambitious Stephenson novel since Zodiac) it probably is more thought-provoking than most things you're bound to read. It's a thriller of sorts, pivoting on a huge multiplayer online game, but more importantly, if you enjoy hundreds of pages of geeky discourse on currency, mobsters, and video games, you'll be happy to have Stephenson writing on the 21st century.

Since I'm old and hopelessly nostalgic, I was excited to hear Merge Records had reissued Archers of Loaf's excellent first album Icky Mettle. The real value, though, is that the re-issue includes the EP (a word we used to use to signify short albums) vs. The Greatest of All Time, which finds the band at its heaviest and most boisterous.

A. Barton Hinkle, columnist

Those who enjoy hard-boiled detective fiction mourned the 2010 loss of Robert B. Parker, the author of the Spenser series and several others. What Raymond Chandler, who influenced Parker greatly (Parker even finished Chandler's last book) wrote in The Simple Art of Murder sums up Parker's protagonists well: "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony….But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Parker's work is formulaic, but his formula is like that for KFC or Coke: It satisfies. So while Sixkill, a Spenser tale and the last book Parker completed before his death, is not his strongest, it's still a good yarn full of Parker trademarks: spare prose, dry laconic wit, boxing lessons, gunfights, undertones of allegory, and meditations on manhood. (Another Spenser novel, Painted Ladies, was published last year but came out in paperback in 2011. Check that one out, too—we won't tell.)

Bill Kauffman, author of Bye Bye, Miss American Empire

The wisemen of of post-republic America—Wendell Berry, Gore Vidal, Edward Abbey, Dorothy Day, Christopher Lasch; the list is long, which is one of many reasons hope abides—have understood that militarism subverts communities and destroys liberties. 'Twould be pretty to think that John and Yoko were right that war is over if we want it, but under the current dispensation war will never be over. Until, that is, we dismantle the goddamned anti-American Empire. Andrew Bacevich, a West Pointer out of the Midwest, a retired colonel, and now a professor at Boston University, is among today's wisemen, and in 2011 he came bearing the gift of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War. Read it and weep for our lost republic. (Okay, I'm cheating; the paperback was issued this year, the hardcover the year before. But if Cher could turn back time, so can I.) I was also mightily impressed by Susan J. Matt's Homesickness: An American History, a keen, even heartwrenching account of the dislocations—often due to big-government policies—that have fed the cancer of American rootlessness.

Kurt Loder, author of The Good, The Bad, and the Godawful: 21st Century Movie Reviews

Great little movie: Like Crazy, a sweet-and-sour transatlantic romance that's too smart to pass as a standard romcom. With Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, and breakthrough star Felicity Jones (already a winner at this year's Gotham Awards). The picture's still in theatres, or you could wait (but why?) for the DVD. 

Best book: Late as usual, I discovered the great Oslo crime novels of Jo Nesbo this year. His complicated cop is Harry Hole (think Norwegian pronunciation); the plots are as lurid as necessary and totally engrossing. Martin Scorsese is onboard to turn last year's The Snowman into a major motion picture, due out 2013. 

Best club show: Thanks to Greg Gutfeld for dragging me off to Brooklyn to see Tobacco, the solo incarnation of the mysterious Thomas Fec, leader of the Pittsburgh mind-melt band Black Moth Super Rainbow. The swirling low-budget majesty of Fec's sound is conjured up out of antique synths and effects gadgets. You might call it "neo-psychedelic," except that he has actual tunes. Might also say it recalls the first two Pink Floyd albums—although not any Pink Floyd album that followed. Last year's Maniac Meat is the one to have.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, managing editor

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is an impressive feat: Reams of data, digested into a single (surprising) conclusion by Harvard neuroscientist and hair model Steven Pinker. Namely, violence has been on the decline for millennia, and the world is more peaceful today than it has ever been. Makes a great, if potentially incendiary gift for pessimistic and paranoid relatives and friends. But, as Pinker points out in a recent interview with Reason, "people cutting off each other's noses, stabbing each other over the dinner table in response to an insult—there seems to be less now than there was then." Huzzah and happy holidays!

George Orwell floats lightly over Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, a story set in 1984 about a world that is—and isn't—our own. The title is a play on words: The Japanese word for the number nine is pronounced "kew." Originally released in Japan in three volumes, 1Q84 features a deadly, sexy lady protagonist not unlike Stieg Larsson's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, but with two marked advantages: 1) far, far better writing, and 2) an author who is not dead, and will (presumably) produce more of his beautiful, gripping books for future Festivus gift giving.

Judge Andrew P. Napolitano, author of It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong

I try to read two to three books a month, and in 2011 I got through about 25 books. The two most memorable were Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues, by Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., and With Malice Aforethought: The Execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, by Theodore W. Grippo.

In Ten Universal Principles, Fr. Spitzer, who is a world-class philosopher and a former president of Gonzaga University, presents basic building blocks of thought with which few can disagree, and extrapolates them into a brilliant defense of the natural law and of human life at all its stages. If you are looking for a traditional Thomistic defense of human dignity and personal freedom, footnoted to classic and unassailable sources, this is it. Fr. Spitzer also offers the most powerful and rational defense I have seen for the proposition that life begins at conception; and you needn't be Catholic to accept his arguments.

In With Malice Aforethought, Ted Grippo, a very accomplished and now-retired Chicago trial lawyer, demolishes the government's case against Sacco and Vanzetti. That case is truly one of the most egregious government-orchestrated injustices of the 20th century, in which bias against immigrants, manipulation of evidence by the trial judge and the prosecutor, and institutional corruption condemned two innocent men to death. Grippo has scrutinized every word of the trial transcript and all the pre-trial and post-trial filings and appeals and has built a case that highlights some of the most serious violations of due process I have ever seen. Even though the outcome is well-known, this book reads like a fast-paced thriller that will leave you breathless. It made me weep.

Mike Riggs, associate editor

John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead has only been out a month and already earned a comparison (courtesy of The New Yorker's James Wood) to David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. The latter book is the gold standard for modern essay writing, its navel-gazing pop cultural theorizing is often imitated (see: Chuck Klosterman), but seldom matched (see: Chuck Klosterman). Sullivan's Pulphead, a collection of essays and reported features that span the topic spectrum from Michael Jackson to a Christian rock concert, doesn't deserve the comparison. Quite simply, Pulphead is a better book—infinitely more pleasurable to read than Wallace's long-winded (and allegedly fabricated) anthology, and featuring more elegant prose and tear-inducing insights.

Damon Root, senior editor

Nick Tosches has written indispensable books about country music, Dean Martin, blackface minstrelsy, and organized crime. He doesn't cover all that stuff in Save the Last Dance for Satan, but he comes close. His focus here are the "hipsters and hoodlums" who created the business of rock & roll in the rowdy decades after World War II, a time when "numerous little labels were founded by men and women who smelled money in what was happening." Among those on the scent was the velour jumpsuit-wearing Ewart Abner of Vee-Jay Records, whose roster included John Lee Hooker, The Dells, and, for a brief spell in the early '60s, The Beatles. At the other end of the spectrum was the Emby Distributing Company, which held an exclusive license to sell Wurlitzer jukeboxes, and which also just happened to be secretly controlled by mafia kingpins Frank Costello and Meyer Lanksy. And what history of American lowlife would be complete without Jack Ruby? As Tosches reveals, the Dallas nightclub owner and future slayer of Lee Harvey Oswald was also an occasional promoter for rhythm and blues singer Joe Johnson, who gifted the world with his 1959 song "Gila Monster," helpfully characterized by Billboard as a "novelty blues" that "describes the Gila monster, looking like he wants to do the rock and roll."

Thaddeus Russell, author of A Renegade History of the United States

While politicians of the left and right prattle on about the glory of the American family and the state continues to prop up the institution with myriad marriage-supporting policies, Louis CK gives voice to all our dark and dirty thoughts about the home front. Though CK is a master of the comedic craft, his FX television series Louie is funny not because of timing or delivery but because, like all great comedy, it sets free our most illicit secrets.

Michael Moore and all the liberal gun-control moralists should be forced at the point of a sawed-off shotgun to read Adam Winkler's Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. They'll find that they are the political descendants of the Ku Klux Klan, Ronald Reagan, and a long line of reactionaries who regulated guns to keep the people—especially black people—down.

Lucy Steigerwald, associate editor

Kate Beaton's web comic Hark! A Vagrant has been turned into a proper paper book and thankfully her Quentin Blake-esque lines are as funny in ink as in pixels. Beaton is best known for making her deadpan jokes through the mouths of historical figures, and some characters do necessitate a research trip to Wikipedia. More familiar faces like the Bronte sisters, Teddy Roosevelt, and Napoleon also appear, as do affectionate jabs about Canadian niceness and American square-jawed hunks being solely responsible for the Allied victory in World War II (says a dying soldier: "You tell old Hitler…you tell him I was pretty"). Beaton's sly feminism also comes out when she draws a weary Louis Lane unable to investigate thanks to Superman's constant rescuing, as well as when Beaton mockingly reimagines the suffragette movement for the Sex and the City crowd. ("True friendship is more important than any vote," one woman tells another as they tearfully embrace.) Beaton's deceptively simple art, humor, and sincere love of history come through in every panel. She's another reason not to mourn the death of the newspaper too much. 

Peter Suderman, associate editor

Tired of your own life? You can have a new one, or 10, in Skyrim, almost certainly the most expansive open-world, single-player role-playing game ever released for a console. Even in the choice-and-openness obsessed world of contemporary video game design, Skyrim embraces open-ended, practically aimless gameplay with unusual vigor. Sure, there are missions and objectives and bad guys to kill—good guys too, if that's your thing—as well as a labyrinth of side-quests to get lost in, many involved enough to count as separate games. But mostly the game offers endless exploration and experience, immersion, and incident; you can play for 100 hours, maybe more, and not run out of sights to see, people to meet, places to go. Indeed, it's a game that sometimes seems designed to provide evidence to hecklers who ridicule gamers as losers with no lives. But that's the point. With Skyrim, you'll hardly need one. 

Jacob Sullum, senior editor 

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created shows that globalization has been going on much longer than WTO protesters seem to think, accounting for such once-novel phenomena as apples in America, tomatoes in Italy, coffee in Colombia, and hot peppers in China. Journalist Charles C. Mann does not paper over the destructive aspects of the "Columbian Exchange," such as the deadly microbes that fostered the African slave trade and devastated America's indigenous population. But he also shows how much richer the world is as a result of intercontinental trade in goods and biological material, which has created the very patterns of life that today's localists seek to protect against outside influences.

Jesse Walker, senior editor

J. Hoberman's An Army of Phantoms looks at the early years of the Cold War through the lens of Hollywood and at '40s/'50s Hollywood through the lens of the Cold War. The result is a thoughtful and entertaining portrait of an America beset by fear, not just of the Russians but of advertising, TV, juvenile delinquents, the mafia, and more. Along the way we encounter Communist propaganda, anti-Communist propaganda, UFO sightings, HUAC hearings, prestige pictures, monster movies, westerns, a war in Korea, and a cast of characters that ranges from Ronald Reagan to the film critics at the Daily Worker, who manage to describe both The Fountainhead and For Whom the Bell Tolls as "openly fascist." Hoberman even explores the politics of Biblical spectaculars, which turn out to be more pointed than you'd probably expect.

Matt Welch, editor in chief

Have you ever self-diagnosed a jammed-wrist situation and thought you could ameliorate it by buying one of those generic over-the-counter doo-hickies at your local every-other-block pharmacy? Think again, old people! The Titan Wrist Brace, given to me by a doctor at Howard University, is a lace-up, eminently adjustable (and fashionably jet-black) problem-solver, perfect for work and sleep alike. I mean, if your wrist really hurts.

(Note: I'm not kidding)

For parents of toddlers, or adults who occasionally put themselves into situations where watching non-verbal Communist-era cartoons about a comical mole is like the funniest thing ever, Krtek Little Mole 1, or any other collection of the classic and beloved Czech television series (whose creator, Zdenek Miler, died at the end of November) is a surprise and a delight.

Since baseball movies are by definition the only genre more debased than political cartoons, and since the terrific Michael Lewis book Moneyball (which I reviewed in 2003) was followed by an ambivalent real-life epilogue, the movie version's tale of revolutionary nerdboyism and management assholery seemed doomed from the start, and yet it wasn't. In part, that's due to Brad Pitt, but the filmmakers were also wise to let a little of the ambivalence hover in the air at the end. Being the first one through the door does damage your shoulder, and sometimes you don't really get past the doorway.