Best-of-2010 lists have been filling the entertainment pages of my recent morning papers (yes, I still read the paper on paper, preferably newsprint manufactured with a large proportion of long-fibred northern spruce pulp, which renders it less susceptible to tearing) and, I figure, why not play along? So:
Best book: Shakespeare’s Freedom, By Stephen Greenblatt. This slim volume, just 139 pages, will still be a thrilling read long after most of the ostensibly weightier books of 2010 no longer matter. The title tells you how Greenblatt links his chapters on Shakespeare’s approach to authority, beauty, hatred and autonomy. The plays never cease to prompt us to rethink our own times—witness the BBC’s recent Hamlet, in which Elsinore castle bristles with security cameras. Greenblatt is most provocatively up-to-the-minute here when he links the anti-Jewish paranoia Shakespeare tapped to create Shylock with the present anxiety over Muslims in our midst in the West. “Now, more than ever,” Greenblatt writes, “The Merchant of Venice has a weird, uneasy relevance, a sense at once fascinating and disagreeable that it is playing with fire.”
Best album: Constant Companion, By Doug Paisley. Come to think of it, this is a slim volume, too, of a sort. In a year of big, ambitious records, these nine quiet songs might easily be drowned out. But there’s something about Paisley’s bluegrass-tinged, singer-songwriter classicism that won’t be denied. “Fell out of love, wandered around,” he sings, “Wore out my shoes, went to the town.” Not much to that except the guitar is so pretty. There’s old Garth Hudson playing organ here and there to remind you explicitly of this music’s roots, and Feist singing a soulful country duet with Paisley on “Don’t Make Me Wait” to reassure you that this sound isn’t disconnected from the now. And just when you think you’ve got the record figured—tasteful, tuneful, restrained—the piano line on “O Heart” takes off, Paisley’s voice in tow, toward one of those emotional pop moments that certain rock collectives seem to require so much more firepower to even attempt.
Best movie: Despicable Me, Directed By Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud. Darned if I haven’t picked another seemingly slight offering. I mean, this is just a very amusing cartoon. The animation isn’t even particularly great—certainly not up to the lofty standard Pixar maintained in recent years with movies like Up and Ratatouille. Yet Gru, the super-villain main character voiced with a supple, insinuating Russian accent by Steve Carell, made me laugh so hard that I can’t think of a better couple of hours spent in a multiplex in 2010. (It probably helped that I happened to catch Despicable Me in Winnipeg, where one tends naturally to be attuned to Eastern European inflexions.) As well, in a year when the screen was crowded with anti-social anti-heroes we, of course, end up liking anyway—think Jesse Eisenburg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit—it seems to me that Carell’s Gru more than holds his own. For instance, I’d put the scene where Gru reads a saccharine bedtime story, complete with sotto voce critical asides, to the cute orphans in Despicable Me up against, say, Rooster recounting his life story from horseback to young Mattie in True Grit.