5:36 PM EST, December 20, 2012
Years ago when I was a student at Northwestern University, a handful of executives at America Online came to my class and explained that you, I and everyone we know would soon find ourselves pleasantly stranded on "information islands." We nodded, though we didn't entirely understand. What they meant was that broadcasting would soon end and nichecasting would take over. Your island would become a mirror of yourself, what you knew, liked and watched, and you would rarely have the incentive to venture off of your narrowly prescribed landmass.
This, of course, happened. It's somewhat the reality of the Internet Age — somewhat. What information-island theorists hadn't considered, though, became one of the cultural themes of 2012: the second screen. Tending to your island, while simultaneously monitoring other islands and what the world was saying about your island, necessarily requires second islands. How else to trawl for all the culture floating past?
So woe to the year-end list-maker.
Even with a second island, we need a third, a fourth, an archipelago, to keep up now. Being a pop-culture watcher in 2012 is a multidisciplinary task. We're big on moments, fleeting images and snippets. What follows are — to borrow a phrase from that Oak Park teen oracle, blogger Tavi Gevinson — literally the best things ever from 2012. Or rather, the moments, snippets, stuff that I felt, if only for a blink of time, were the best things ever.
One island would never hold it all.
Watching Fiona Apple during her Chicago Theatre concert in July inexplicably wander off to the edges of the stage, then kneel down before her band and rock in place as though she were either praying or nauseous.
Riding past "Sunder Planet," the odd, Death Star-like sculpture on the lakeshore bike trail from DePaul University professor Stephen Luecking, one of more than 50 pieces of public art installed along the lake in the fall.
Playing the well-written "Walking Dead" video game on Xbox 360 (and skipping the spottier AMC series).
Reading Ben Fountain's funny and sad "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," my favorite book of the year.
Cringing at the scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," where Joaquin Phoenix, working as a department store photographer after World War II ends, toys with a customer until a fight breaks out.
Not hating on often-hated-on rapper Childish Gambino during his Lollapalooza after-show at the Vic.
Wanting Channing Tatum's sweaters in "The Vow" for myself. (What? They're nice clothes! So what?)
Watching singer Frank Ocean hit a home run in his TV debut on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" in July.
Unpacking the giant box of books and pamphlets and newspapers — 14 pieces in all — included in Chris Ware's remarkable art object/graphic novel "Building Stories," about the life of a Chicago apartment building (and unlike anything else).
Admiring the guts of the lonesome season finale of FX's "Louie," which begins on Christmas and glides though an emergency room, an airport and an impromptu New Year's trip to China without breaking a sweat.
And admiring the smartly designed first issue of the revived Chicagoan magazine. (But where's No. 2?)
Catching one last look at the red, polka-dotted tentacles in Louis Vuitton's Michigan Avenue store window.
Love/hate-rewinding (over and over) Apple's iPhone commercial with Zooey Deschanel until I was certain that, yes, she was standing before a window and asking a talking phone if it was raining outside.
Watching NBC anchor Brian Williams' droll, spot-on editorializing about pop culture ("exhausted by the prospect of changing out of her pajamas, (Zooey) asks for the weather while standing next to a window, shares her desire for tomato soup, then just declares the day a total loss").
Attending my first "Nutcracker," opening night of the Joffrey's 25th anniversary "Nutcracker," not really understanding what was going on (So, wait, what happened to the soldier mice again?) and not minding.
Seeing Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Second City-trained comics with an eponymous hit Comedy Central series, express a country's frustration with its placid president through their "Obama's Anger Translator" skits.
Reading Ty Burr's "Gods Like Us," his incisive, widely ignored history of 20th-century stardom.
Considering the five to-scale copper shreds of the Statue of Liberty scattered outside the Art institute of Chicago — a fragment of a heel, an ear, etc. — part of artist Danh Vo's "We the People" project.
Squirming in happy unease through Clint Eastwood's Republican National Convention chat with a chair.
Laughing at the insanely badass (and plainly insane) ending of "The Grey," which concludes with a shot of Liam Neeson strapping broken mini-bar bottles to his knuckles and facing down a giant wolf.
Finding myself between Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall at this summer's Pitchfork Music Festival as both acts, on opposite stages, addressed each other with affection (and Segall ended with a rousing AC/DC cover).
Watching Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" video and finally getting (and liking) her.
Realizing that the elderly woman seated next to me was twisting and fidgeting and ducking low in her chair at Steppenwolf's "Good People," pushed into this by the delightfully painful, class-conscious awkwardness on stage.
Being genuinely surprised by the never-saw-it-coming left turn of Joss Whedon's "The Cabin in the Woods."
Wishing, regardless of whether the theater framework of Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina" or the vast overambition of the Wachowskis' "Cloud Atlas" worked for you or not, that more films took go-for-broke chances.
Listening (in a suddenly hushed performance space) as Chicago Reader critic Miles Raymer told an audience during the Hideout's game show "Shame That Tune" about the time he made out with pop singer Ke$ha.
Finally watching "Adventure Time" on Cartoon Network, a kid's show with an underground cartoonist's heart.
Knowing that Jennifer Lawrence had became a big star earlier in the year ("The Hunger Games"), but realizing in "Silver Linings Playbook," as she launches fearlessly at Robert De Niro's character (and De Niro meets her with a small smirk of respect at her gumption), that she was probably a superstar now.
Groaning with hunger throughout Smart Museum of Art's weird, absorbing, unprecedented "Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art," about the little-considered use of meals in art.
Discovering the joy of same-day-as-theaters on-demand video with "Goon," a disarmingly melancholy hockey comedy, and "How to Survive a Plague," a first-rate documentary about pioneering AIDS activists.
Standing mesmerized through Neil Young and Crazy Horse's stomping "Walk Like a Giant" at the United Center, a 20-minute feedback squall that hit on all the classic Young themes, namely regret and dead hippies.
Seeing Oak Park's Cecily Strong, new at "Saturday Night Live" this season from iO Chicago, become a presence on the show in her first at-bat (and her "Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party" didn't hurt either).
The happy shock of coming across Logan Square's City Lit Books, the city's first significant new bookstore in years.
Speaking of Logan: Sinking into the soft leather lobby couches at the lovingly renovated Logan Square Theater.
Watching the cast of "44 Plays For 44 Presidents" devour an entire loaf of white bread while simultaneously reciting facts about Millard Fillmore during the Neo-Futurists' revival of its 2002 salute to the White House.
Not being sure what to think about the surprising, fourth-wall-breaking ending of David Chase's fantastic feature debut "Not Fade Away," then reminding myself that the creator of "The Sopranos," he knows how to end.
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