Once again, it’s that time of the year in which I pick out my favorite stuff I’ve enjoyed over the past year. Just like the past few times I’ve done this, I’d like to remind everyone that this isn’t necessarily a list of my favorite things released this year. There were a handful of movies, TV shows, albums, games, and comics that I didn’t get around to last year. So if you see something released previously that’s on this list, it’s because I wasn’t exposed to it until 2011.
I’ll also remind you that there’s probably a ton of good stuff I missed, and possibly some things on this list that you’ll likely disagree with. And that’s fine. These things represent a list of my favorite things from 2011, not necessarily those that I thought were best. If you’ve got any recommendations for anything else or want to tell me why I’m an idiot for listing something, by all means leave a note in the comments.
11. X-Men: First Class – Oddly enough, this was a great year for period genre movies. I wish more properties and new ideas were able to as adeptly fit their narratives into the period they originated from, because the new X-Men movie has a great sixties vibe all throughout. It’s a bit predictable and does have a few too cheesy moments, but it’s still a lot of fun.
10. The Tree of Life – If you’ve at least heard of this, you’ll know that you’ll either love it or hate it. It’s not a movie that even attempts to tell a story in any traditional sense, and instead plays out like a dreamy two hour trailer. I really loved what Terrence Malick was going for here, but I think it could have stood to have been about a half hour shorter.
9. Source Code – A really great sci-fi movie that goes a long way to restrain itself from being more than it can chew. I think Duncan Jones is capable of way more than what the studio experience confines him to, but it’s great that he got a lot of credibility in that space while managing to make a great movie.
8. The Muppets – It’s cheezy and stupid, and also a heck of a lot of fun. I wouldn’t want the Muppets any other way.
7. Shutter Island – It’s hard to talk about what makes this movie great without giving away exactly what makes it great. But I will say that this movie is two for the price of one, since it’s a totally different film altogether when you watch it the second time.
6. Black Swan – I think the narrative of this wasn’t as fresh as everyone seemed to think, someone descending into insanity isn’t exactly new. The Shining already did it perfectly decades ago. But to see someone as frail and graceful as Natalie Portman doing it (and doing an amazing job of acting at selling it) was what made this awesome.
5. Adventures of TinTin – This was a way better Indiana Jones movie than Crystal Skull ever could have hoped to be. It’s better to be surprised at how fun this movie is, so I won’t give too much away. But I will say that the one-shot chase scene in the latter half of the movie is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in a CG motion capture film, far surpassing anything that Avatar ever did.
4. Attack the Block – I was tempted to put this way farther up on the list, just by nature of it being the most fun movie that I’ve seen in a long time. It certainly is the most kinetic, since so much fun stuff happens within just a span of an hour and a half. Even within that time frame, you go from despising the group of kids to seeing them as heroes by the end of the movie. Attack the Block was even unwittingly a great social commentary, as it was released about the same time as the London Riots early in the Summer.
3. Captain America – This has probably turned into my favorite superhero movie, simply by nature of how optimistic and upbeat it is. Chris Nolan’s Batman movies have been great because they’re realistic and gritty, but far too many other comic movies have tried to follow this formula too closely. Captain America throws aside that dogma completely and follows the template of an Indiana Jones movie far more closely than a comic movie. Steve Rogers is a guy who actually wants to be a superhero, and isn’t doing it to avenge anyone. (No pun intended.) It was also awesomely refreshing to see a leading man who was unashamed and proud of his country without silly jingoism or political implications.
2. 127 Hours – My favorite Danny Boyle movie since Sunshine. Most of his other movies have taken on a grand scope, whether it be post apocalyptic or involves the mood of an entire country. Instead, he makes this essentially a one man show that forces you to take his point of view. It’s tedious and excruciating, and is great because of it.
1. Super 8 – This is one of those movies where I’m convinced that a group of writers and producers sat down in a boardroom and said “let’s make a movie that Daniel will really love.” It’s no secret that I love a lot of the movies that came out of the 80’s, so I was instantly drawn to this when JJ Abrams announced this as his next project after Star Trek. I don’t think it entirely accomplished the goal of looking like a movie that came out of that era, but it still absolutely feels like one.
There have been far too few movies since that time that featured a realistic portrayal of kids as their main protagonists. I’ve missed this because using those kinds of characters as your POV is a great way to drive an adventure narrative forward. When you become older and jaded, plowing headfirst into challenges by pure virtue of curiosity seems less realistic. (I doubt anyone in Oregon in their mid 20’s would ever go underground looking for a pirate ship of gold.) Super 8 brings back that kind of awe and adventure that even Speilberg himself has abandoned for whatever reason for the past twenty years. I had hoped that this would bring back that sort of trend in movies, but at least it will still be an awesome example of what something like this can accomplish.
5. Foo Fighters: Wasting Light – I’m not as big as a fan of this album as most music blogs and magazines have been, but it is great to hear the Foo Fighters go back to their mid-90’s sound somewhat.
4. Sleigh Bells: Treats – I’m a little late to the game on this one, but I got to see this band at SXSW this past March and loved their unique sound. I’ve been hooked on this album ever since. The latter half drags a little bit, but I love the first few tracks enough to forget that.
3. Rolling Stones: Some Girls – This is something that I probably wouldn’t have listened to if there wasn’t hype around the re-issue (of if it wasn’t on Spotify), but I’m glad I gave it a listen. Most of the time when you go through something old that was groundbreaking at the time, it’s tough to understand why it’s great because everything else has copied it since. Not the case here at all.
2. The Dead Weather: Sea of Cowards – In the year that Jack White broke my heart by disbanding The White Stripes, he also made an awesome record with one of his million other bands. Dead Weather has an otherwordly and grungy sound that might not be for everybody, but that’s why I like them.
1. Arcade Fire : The Suburbs – An absolute adventure of an album. It’s a kinda-concept album that has a overarching story that’s hard to follow, but the themes of being jaded in the false dream of success in the suburban sprawl is one that struck a big chord with me.
Green Day covered this ground already in American Idiot, but they chose to take a purposefully artificial and far fetched approach that dealt more with political turmoil than anything. That story was far better suited for their kind of populist punk rock. Arcade Fire looks at it way more realistically, and puts their own completely unique sound on it. The story they tell throughout the album finds a great way to reflect the aloofness and loneliness that anyone can find themselves in when living in the suburban sprawl that they take two songs to describe.
4. Fallout 3 – I was very late to the party with this game this year, mostly because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I’ve always through the graphics in this game were merely a step or two up from N64 era, which probably held me back. I’m glad I was able to get past it though, because I love these sort of “choose your own adventure” role playing games. And yes, I know Skyrim is out there from the same developer. As soon as I finish some other games up, I fully expect to be lost in it for months.
3. Portal 2 – There’s not a whole lot that I could say that hasn’t already been put out there about this. It’s a mind bending, genre breaking game with a fantastic story that could only be accomplished in a game. If Call of Duty games are the equivalent of Michael Bay movies, Portal 2 is the kind of movie that comes out at Christmas and ends up getting a dozen Oscar nominations.
2. Skyward Sword – This is almost certainly the last great Wii game, and probably will turn out to be the best. Instead of trying to be graphically more than it really is, it embraces the hardware limitations and makes up for it with a fantastic art style that invokes an impressionist painting instead of realism. It’s also a direly needed breath of fresh air for a formula that has forced itself stale by variating on the same thing since Ocarina of Time. I’m not 100% sold on the motion controls, but that could change since I’m only about halfway through the game as I write this. But this is still one of those great games that sticks in your head, even in the time that you’re not playing it.
1. Mass Effect 2 – I’m surprising even myself by putting this above Zelda. But I’d be discounting what this game accomplished by not honestly acknowledging how mind blowingly awesome it really is. It might not be the case for anyone, but a free roaming game that lets you play it the way you want inside a Ridley Scott inspired sci-fi universe is exactly the sort of thing I want out of a game.
10. Community – I’ve still mostly missed out on this, but I’m putting this in the list mostly based on the fact that Remedial Chaos Theory was the best half hour of TV I’ve seen this year.
9. Parks & Recreation – I’ve always loved the premise of this show, because it’s great to see warm and cheery people actually doing their best (although often failing) to make their small town better. But in the recent seasons, they’ve managed to give these well meaning characters an almost surreal hilarity that’s made it the best comedy on TV.
8. Futurama – I’m mainly putting this in here because of one episode, The Late Phillip J. Fry, which is a perfectly summed up thesis of everything that’s cool about the show. It takes a wild sci-fi idea with a funny twist and explores the emotional and hilarious consequences of it. Anything more that I could say about this episode apart from the fact that everyone involved deserves an Emmy would spoil it, so just seek it out yourself.
7. Doctor Who – Yet again something I’m late to the game on, but holy crap I’m so glad I’ve got on board. I’ve mostly been watching Tenth Doctor stories on Netflix, which I’ve totally fallen in love with. David Tennant’s obvious enthusiasm for the role is contagious, and you can’t help but share his geeky curiosity and excitement for anything and everything.
6. The Clone Wars – The recent batch of episodes have proven that the show has finally allowed itself to be more adult and moody. Most of the earlier half of Season 3 was a mess, but the latter half that dealt with some of the more dark mythology of the Star Wars universe was absolutely mesmerizing. Season 4 has so far gone this same route, even dealing with some of the deeper moral aspects of what it means to be a clone or Jedi. This series has always had great animation and action, but the plots and writing have now far surpassed anything that the live action prequels ever hoped to be.
5. The Walking Dead – I considered rating this a little lower because the search for the little girl really drug on for most of the new episodes we got this year, but then I remembered how mindblowingly awesome the first and last episodes were. The writers have gone out of their way to show that they aren’t going to be bound by the storyline of the comics, but they’ve absolutely kept the mood. Just like in the books, anything can happen at any time. Just because a character or status quo has proven to be popular doesn’t mean that they will stay.
4. Mad Men – The fact that my favorite show is this far down the list is a testament to how much great TV there was this year. The latest season of Mad Men was the best since the first. It was awesome to see the characters go through so much change this year, while still keeping to what makes them great.
Don went from being an old fogie to being pertinent to his time again, and it’s so much fun to see Peggy become more and more powerful on Madison Avenue as time goes on. I love how the show has become just as much about her as it is about Don, and I can’t wait to see whats going to happen for them as it turns into the “real” sixties when everything starts going to hell.
3. Friday Night Lights – The first and third seasons of this show are still my favorite, but the last that aired this year would come right behind those. The writers clearly got away from network interference and got to tell the story they wanted without too many distractions. I do have some problems with the final fate of some of Dillon’s students being out of character, but it was still great to see the show conclude on it’s own great terms.
2. Sherlock – I can’t even watch the Robert Downey Jr. movies after watching the BBC modern day version. It’s even hard to picture Holmes as a Victorian era character any more. The stories are written so well and the beats are made so fresh that other retellings pale in comparison.
1. Game of Thrones – A little more than ten years ago, the kind of scale and production value for this sort of show was absolutely unheard of. Lord of the Rings managed to convey it, but that was a billion dollar franchise that both critics and popular audiences all loved. The fact that such a high fantasy episodic show of ridiculous proportion exists in the first place is a unprecedented feat. The fact that it’s as great as it is, even more so.
I haven’t read the books, so I’m unaccustomed to the kind of story that it tries to tell. I’ve heard from many who have that the show closely follows it, which amazes me even more that they’ve accomplished such a great translation to screen.
Action Comics – They way that DC is retroactively introducing some of it’s characters in their vast reboot has been clever, but the best example is how they’ve chosen to re-invent Superman’s origins. In this, he’s just a cocky guy in a t-shirt and cape who can’t even fly yet. He’s a way more interesting character when he’s stripped down like that.
Spider-man: Spider Island – This past year has been an eventful one for Peter Parker. He scored a sweet new job, became an Avenger, became one of the Fantastic Four (or whatever they call themselves now), and did a million other things in related books that’s impossible to keep up with. I do think Marvel has stretched him too thin and has made him lose his strongest characteristic in how identifiable he is to much of their audience, but the Spider Island arc did a lot to solve that problem.
We already know what it is like to be Peter, because every college kid or young adult has too much stress like he does. The concept of giving everyone spider-powers seemed stupid at first, but dealing with the consequences of everyone suddenly wanting to be a do-gooder like Spidey was brilliant. What would we do in that situation? To me, comics are at their best when they use their characters and universe to try to answer those kinds of questions.
Ultimate Comics: Spider-man – I was extremely skeptical of this at first, and for two reasons. First, it felt like a smack in the face that Marvel would get rid of their most cherished character. Second, I didn’t think it would be permanent anyways. But what they’ve done so far is really promising. Instead of playing United Nations by putting in a minority character, they’ve made him more relatable to a younger audience without pandering to them.