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2010 had some bright moments in TV, music, movies

| Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011

Looking back at 2010 for my usual year-in-review at the movies, I'm struck by two things -- I haven't seen enough good movies for a decent top 10 list, and this may not actually be the movies' fault.

For a host of reasons, the gleaming marquees and lingering scent of rotting popcorn just didn't beckon to me as they once did. Objectively speaking, it was a lousy year for movies, but that rarely stopped me in the past. But a confluence of reasons, some personal, some recession-related -- the theater in walking distance of my house closed -- largely kept me away in 2010.

So, I thought I'd widen the lens to take in all the audio-visual culture I took in this year, which makes the task a bit easier. While I found few memorable movies this year, 2010 was pretty decent for music and television, in particular.

The critical consensus that congealed quickly around a few things this year -- "The Social Network" and Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" -- generally left me cold.

Still, there were plenty of bright spots. Here are my 10 for 2010, in no particular order:

1. "Breaking Bad." While AMC's "Mad Men" gets most of the attention, the third season of "Breaking Bad" featured two of the best performances on television and a story that somehow found new ways to shock, surprise and obsess every week. This story of a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth to put his family on solid financial footing when he's gone speaks directly to the anxieties of a recession-rattled time -- and its intelligence, humor, complexity and compassion for its characters as they slide into a moral abyss doesn't waste a minute of a 13-episode season.

2. VIA Audio/Visual Festival, night one. Up until the moment I walked into the airplane hangar-sized steel mill-turned-movie studio in the Strip District, I was a little worried this would end up being some kind of rave, which really isn't my thing.

Instead, the debut of Pittsburgh's massive international electronic music and art festival simply blew me away, in its scope, ambition and sheer technical accomplishment.

It was the collaborative aspect that really set this festival apart. Every performer was set up with a different electronic visual artist, crafting film, video, light shows or animation that reacts to sound or movement. And somehow, there were no technical glitches until rapper Freddie Gibbs' set at 4:30 a.m.

3. "The Pacific." Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' HBO miniseries really tells only the story of three young Marines, following them through a few grim island campaigns against a vicious enemy whose motives they only dimly comprehend. It's about both real heroism and pointless slaughter. "The Pacific" took a lot of chances -- oddly juxtaposing the placid normality of the home front with the surreal savagery of combat -- which largely paid off.

4. The Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs." As the music industry continued its slow slide into oblivion, weird things happened. At one point, Arcade Fire, introspective, glockenspiel-and-violin-toting indie rockers, actually held down the No. 1 spot on Billboard. This massive, sprawling concept album crafts Springsteen-like anthems for a downwardly-mobile middle class.

5. Janelle Monae's "The Archandroid." In a more just alternate universe, Janelle Monae would be a pop megastar. This bizarre Afro-futuristic science-fiction concept album exhibited a David Bowie-like ambition, and Monae actually has the pipes and musical chops to pull it off as she moves between hip-hop, cinematic strings, psychedelic rock, off-the-wall cabaret and soulful R&B.

6. "Toy Story 3." It seems almost every critic witnessed grown men weeping at Pixar's final installment of the animated toys-come-to-life trilogy. I held out until the last five minutes. Hilarious, action-packed, computer-animated with a warmth that rivals classic hand-drawn Disney, the movie had a surprisingly affecting, melancholy undercurrent about growing up, moving on and putting away childish things.

7. "Treme." No, I don't know what it means to miss New Orleans. But now, at least, I know a bit more about why the place is so beloved. This HBO series about musicians struggling through the post-Katrina blues sprawls in all directions, but creators Roger Simon and Eric Overmyer (of "The Wire") kept their ears to the street. With cameos and performances by real New Orleans musicians, the jazz-funk-cajun-soul-stacked soundtrack is simply unstoppable.

8. "The King's Speech." Colin Firth gives the performance of the year as the tongue-tied, stuttering King of England, desperate to project confidence as his country faces down Hitler's legions.

9. Joanna Newsom's "Have One on Me." Indie-folk oddity Joanna Newsom finally toned town her considerable eccentricities just enough -- her squeaky voice is deeper and more confident, her whimsically arcane lyrics slightly more comprehensible. The virtuoso harpist makes music that seems curiously disconnected from time, place or genre, crafting surprising, inviting little songs that reward many repeat listens.

10. City of Asylum Jazz/Poetry Concert . Weather forced this amazing annual concert out of its customary Sampsonia Way alley into the New Hazlett Theater. Avant-jazz legend Oliver Lake led an incredible large ensemble, performing with and between readings by City of Asylum's exiled and persecuted writers, like Khet Mar and Huang Xiang.

It was the best jazz concert I've seen in years.

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