McGinnis: The best stuffWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A look at the year’s great and not-so-great
Best Movie: “The Social Network.” Told you so. It was actually a fairly weak year for films, with only the past few weeks bringing any consistent level of quality to moviegoers. And yet, even in the strongest year, David Fincher’s biopic of Mark Zuckerberg would stand out as a remarkable achievement. More than just an examination of the early days of Facebook, the film looks at how one man can change everyone around him, while never finding the ability to change what he dislikes the most — himself. They’ll nominate nine other movies on Oscar night, but if anything else wins Best Picture, it’ll be highway robbery.
Best Farewell: David Tennant leaving “Doctor Who.” The makers of the BBC’s brilliant re-launch of the classic sci-fi series have long been dogged by the specter of the Doctor’s past. How could they hope to find someone who would be able to stand up to the memory of Tom Baker and the others? But in Tennant, they cast a performer who would lead the character to new heights of popularity, becoming a new standard by whom all Doctors to follow would be judged. And when it was time for him to leave, in a two-part finale that climaxed last New Year’s Day, he was sent off with one of the most emotional and spectacular departures ever. Fortunately, Matt Smith, the man who has followed in Tennant’s shoes, has proven more than worthy of the title — but still, Tennant is missed.
Best Video Game: “God of War III.” Fans of “Red Dead Redemption” will scream bloody murder at this choice, but I stand by my earlier criticisms. While the world of x“Dead” was a beautiful creation and there are many wonderful moments in the game, they could not overcome the crushing disappointments found in the game’s story. Meanwhile, the final adventure of Kratos set new standards in graphical beauty, cinematic majesty and plain excitement. And the overriding story proved surprisingly deep, arriving at an emotional climax where Sony’s ultimate anti-hero decided to turn his rage and lust for vengeance on his ultimate target — himself. A fitting close to a gaming series that changed the industry.
Best Television SNAFU: The Leno/Conan debacle. Anyone with half a brain and the ability to understand television should have been able to see the train wreck coming a mile away. In other words, everyone but NBC programming executives. It started as a half-hearted effort to appeal to a younger audience by installing a new host of their flagship late-night program, and ended with the network’s entire schedule being restructured around placating one ego. The end result was that NBC made a hugely sympathetic figure and cult hero — out of the guy who left, that is — and made themselves and the now-restored “Tonight Show” host look incredibly bad, both in and out of the industry. Bang up job, Peacock.
Best Video Game You May Not Have Played: “Pac-Man Championship Edition DX.” One of the best examples of re-imagining a classic gaming experience while delivering something wholly new. Namco’s homage to the first true gaming icon is instantly fun for anyone who ever played the original game — in other words, everyone — but then amazingly deep once you start to understand the strategy that is now involved. Until you’ve done it, you don’t know how satisfying it is to be chased around the screen by 30 or more ghosts, then to grab that power pellet and chomp them down in a huge row. And at just ten bucks to download on both XBox Live and the PlayStation Network, there is no excuse to not buy this one.
Best Addiction: Netflix. I’m late to the party on this one, but better late than never. And oh, what a party it is. A pop culture paradise, the service would be well-worth the price for just the home-delivered DVDs alone. But then you add in the instantly-streaming content available, and it completely changes the way one watches entertainment. I’ve been able to catch up on films that I never thought I could track down, and television series that it would have been costly to catch up with, all with remarkable ease. And with the looming showdowns over net neutrality — one which Netflix’s bandwidth usage is a big part of — the service will only continue to grow in prominence and importance in the months to come.
2010’s Best Thing, Period: CHIKARA
For any art form to survive, it must evolve. If it remains stagnant, time will pass it by, and quickly. For the uniquely American brand of performance art known as professional wrestling, that level of toxic sameness has persisted for far too long. The fruits of this condition have been reaped in ever-dwindling interest from fans and record-low numbers on pay-per-view for the industry’s domestic leaders.
But evolution is happening. And like most true change, it is grassroots, homespun, earnest. It is being done away from the meddling influence of the bigger budget companies. It is under the guidance of people who seem to genuinely love what they are doing. And it is bolstered by a rabid fan base hungry for something new.
It is called CHIKARA, and in my eyes, it was the Best Thing, Period of 2010 in pop culture.
Founded in 2002 by independent wrestling stars “Lightning” Mike Quackenbush and Tom “Reckless Youth” Carter, the company began simply as an outlet to showcase the students that Quackenbush and Carter were training at their wrestling school in Pennsylvania. But as time passed and Carter departed, leaving Quackenbush as the main creative force, something new and wonderful began to take shape.
CHIKARA is more than just a run-of-the-mill wrestling promotion. Its influences in storytelling are myriad. It draws inspiration not just from other companies, but from comic books, cartoons, sports, video games, movies and more. Watching a CHIKARA event is like experiencing the whole of pop culture, filtered into one wrestling ring.
Its characters are audacious and over-the-top, even for pro wrestling. There is the Colony, a group of heroic “ants” who march to the ring to do battle. Or the Super Smash Bros., a pair of video game characters come to life — but have to be wary of someone hitting the pause button, lest they be left defenseless. Or the Egyptian team the Osirian Portal, made up of Amasis, the “funky pharaoh,” and Ophidian, a half-human, half-snake grappler.
These characters do battle in wildly entertaining contests that both satirize and revolutionize the presentation of pro wrestling. One minute, fans are thrilling to perfectly executed aerial moves by CHIKARA’s performers. The next, they’re roaring with laughter as broad comedy is performed. It all fits and it’s all in context. Quackenbush and his wrestlers have crafted a world where they can do almost anything, and it will almost always work.
It is that level of freedom that helped lead CHIKARA to its best year of storytelling yet in 2010. The whole of the year was dominated by an uncharacteristically serious storyline where the company was threatened by an evil outside force. “Invasion” stories are commonplace in wrestling, but rarely — if ever — executed as well as the one CHIKARA put on.
The emotion generated by the invasion among CHIKARA’s fans was palpable. You often hear discussion of the “suspension of disbelief” necessary for the audience to invest in fiction. For a whole year, CHIKARA — a company built on mainly on satire — was able to generate in its audience more true passion than any story the big league companies have put on for a long time. And when the invasion reached its climax in December, the reaction of the fans was the most genuine I’ve heard in years.
But there are bigger issues at work. At the risk of putting too much weight on such a delightfully light entertainment, CHIKARA is doing something important. Modern wrestling has been beset by tragedies in the past decade. Many companies have encouraged an environment where importance is placed on physical appearance and/or placating a “hardcore” audience enthralled by bloodlust. The end result is an increasingly disturbing trend of deaths at a young age.
CHIKARA stands in direct opposition to these trends. Their shows are largely full of smaller performers, ones who big league promotions would never dream of looking at. Yet because they’re playing such over-the-top characters, there is no pressure to build muscle (through either natural or unnatural means) to stand out. And CHIKARA has always promoted a product that shuns the trend of “extreme” wrestling, while still presenting a thoroughly entertaining and exciting product.
“It was always our goal to attract younger fans first,” Quackenbush told me in an interview earlier this year. “Everything else is just gravy.” But like the best family entertainment, his company can be enjoyed by kids of all ages.
For being family entertainment done right, for firing on all cylinders as storytellers, for presenting something unique in an industry of copycats, for standing in opposition to dangerous trends in its business, and for simply being great fun — CHIKARA is 2010’s Best Thing, Period.
E-mail Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com