Occasional bouts of murderous rage aside, I'm usually a pretty positive guy. And every year, during the holiday season, I like to call attention to certain bits of culture I have absolutely, 100%, unreservedly, want-to-take-it-behind-a-middle-school-and-get-it-pregant loved.
I've done this two years now and and have decided to keep the good times rolling. I know the format is a bit intimidating but peruse it at your leisure and let me know in the comment section if I should try something new next year. Thanks for reading, all, and enjoy the rest of your 2011!
"I am the one who knocks." - Walter White (Bryan Cranston)
I figured I should start with Breaking Bad so I could explain the "rules" of the column a little bit. Whenever possible I try to get specific with my picks. For instance, I like to highlight performances or directors when referencing TV shows or movies. But occasionally when something exhibits pure ownage like season four of "Breaking Bad," I just have to honor the show itself. Having said that: how good was "Breaking Bad" in 2011? You know the answer if you watch the show...and if you don't watch, then I hope you're enjoying your self-imposed cultural outcasting. One aspect that sticks out to me about "Breaking Bad" is its incredible and versatile pacing. For the past three years, "Breaking Bad" has taken three different but equally effective approaches to story-telling. Season 2 was bookended by poignant and horrifying black and white images and had a real sense of predetermination, to the point where its conclusion felt inevitable but unexpected. Season three was really improvisational and was essentially split into two halves, each of which defied expectations. And season four? Season four was just the slow burn. I imagine the experience of watching season four on DVD straight-through would be like having a noose around your neck tighten, tighten and tighten ever so slowly before turning into a giant coma and biting your face off. And speaking of face-off, here is a link to a spoilery YouTube video for you to enjoy.
Foster the People - "Pumped Up Kicks"
"Better run, better run, outrun my gun."
The best pop song about a violent school-shooting ever. You know something had to beat P.O.D.'s "Youth of the Nation" eventually.
"How can you not get romantic about baseball?"- Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)
"Moneyball" is one of my absolute favorite books but truly seemed unfilmable. The whole idea is to strip away the sentimentality of performances in favor of the cold hard truth of statistics. How can one translate that to an inherently sentimental and shiny medium like movies? Pretty easily, as it turns out. Brad Pitt is a wonderful Billy Beane and Jonah Hill makes the best of his fat nerd-ness one last time. Bennet Miller's movie taps into an interesting aspect of "Moneyball" that only exists in hindsight. It's possible to be the absolute best at what you do, make all the right decisions and still somehow never win. It weirdly reminds me of "Amadeus" in that regard. Good stuff.
"Have a week!"
I've written about the smart business model of Kevin Smith's podcast before, but it's time to make my unabashed love more explicit. Filmmaker Kevin Smith and his producer friend Scott Mosier created a weekly podcast back in 2007 where they talked about whatever popped into their heads (usually boners and/or Hitler) and it was captivating. I believe the podcast over any other medium captures the intimacy that all other media strives for. It's the equivalent of being involved in a conversation with close friends where you just happen to say nothing. The advent of the 24-hour podcast network has brought even more gems including Smith's ongoing conversations with his wife and shows like Hollywood Babble-On and Tell 'Em Steve-Dave.
"I made a decent penny in boiled denims." - Hoss Bonaventure a.k.a Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day) on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia)
All I can say is thank God FX President John Landgraf greenlit "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" all those years ago. It's opened the floodgates for shows like "Archer" and "Louie." "Sunny" and "Archer" are an impressive 1-2 punch that make me laugh harder than any other hour on television. "Louie" is a very impressive Charlie Kaufmanesque dramedy that is accomplishing things the television medium has never seen. I know it's kind of a cheat to include them all under one entry but there is not much to say beyond "they make me laugh."
George R.R. Martin ("Game of Thrones," "A Dance with Dragons")
"What do we say to the God of Death? Not today." - Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou)
I didn't really want to watch Game of Thrones. I'm not really a fantasy person per sé. I enjoy The Lord of the Rings (definitely the movies, and the books to a slightly lesser extent). I played Warhammer for years. If you don't know what Warhammer is, Google at your own risk. But for whatever reason, the commercials and promotional materials were doing absolutely nothing for me. I even paid a visit to the HBO store last spring and was disgusted to find costumes and props from the show on display. "Ughh. Why couldn't it have been Boardwalk Empire or something cool?" If I could go back in time and choke myself to death for even entertaining that thought I would. I loved Game of Thrones. I loved Game of Thrones so much it was frightening. Every moment of the week that I was not watching Game of Thrones was a waste. Near the end of the season, I got my girlfriend to watch it and rewatched all the episodes with her. Then about a month ago, I watched all the episodes for the third time. Game of Thrones may not have been the best show of the year (though it was close) but it was certainly my favorite. Then I read the books over the summer. Holy shit. I blew through books one through four over the summer, then finished book five in the fall. Now that the dust of my obsession has settled (don't worry, I still check out several articles on A Wiki of Ice and Fire every day just to stay sharp) I can safely say that I may have never enjoyed any book/TV show/movie/album/play more in my life. I could expand upon the reasons why but I still have 14 other entries to get to. Just trust me. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is good.
Adele - "Someone Like You"
"Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead."
Oh Adele, you horrible, horrible bitch. You and this song exist just to make me cry. The SNL video below has it right: this song is just a bullet filled with sadness shot directly through your heart.
Micahel Fassbender and James McAvoy (Magneto and Professor X in "X-Men: First Class")
"We have it in us to be better men." Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)
"We already are." - Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbener)
Sometimes I think Great Britain has an inexhaustible supply of badasses. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart did an exemplary job in portraying Magneto and Professor X, respectively, in the original X-Men series. They did so well that one would imagine that when it came time for the inevitable prequel, director Matthew Vaughn would take a look around and realize "oh wait, I forgot that it's impossible to replace two Shakespearian-trained, multiple-award winning ballers." But nope, Britain is just able to fire up its fresh young actor pods (they look like the eggs in "Aliens") and spit out two immensely talented and handsome young chaps. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are not only perfect for their roles (Fassbender in particular looks creepily like McKellen) but have effortless and even exciting chemistry. All I can ever really ask for from a movie is to see one convincing relationship onscreen. X-Men: First Class gave me this with a heaping of not-so-subtle homoeroticism. Mission accomplished.
Fucked Up - "Queen of Hearts"
"Hello, my name is David. Your name is Veronica. Let's be together, let's fall in love."
Christ, this song is song. Well the entirety of Fucked Up's third album "David Comes to Life is excellent but...oh man, this song. This song to me sounds like the purest expression of love I can possibly imagine. Love isn't a hipster girl with an acoustic, love is an obese, bearded and shirtless Canadian man screaming desperate pleas into a microphone while walls and walls and walls of guitars crash all around him. A writer on A.V Club (I can't remember who it was so I'm linking to the whole website, which you should be reading every day anyway) said that even if "David Comes to Life" was just 59 straight minutes of the guitars running scales in the last minute of "Queen of Hearts," it would still be the best album of 2011. I'm inclined to agree.
Dead Island Trailer
Speaking of awesome songs. I'm torn between "Queen of Hearts" and the somber piano piece from this trailer as my favorite song of the year. Seriously. When I first it, I figured the marketing company behind the trailer just had someone record a long-known Mozart creation. As it turns out, it's just an original creation from a composer named Giles Lamb, who you know from: likely nothing. Somebody nab a profile with this guy quick because he is going to Giacchino the fuck out of all of us in 2012. Music aside, the rest of the trailer is fascinating and bold. Want to kill some zombies? Great! You just have to watch this family be killed by their undead daughter first. I never ended up playing Dead Island but heard it was a bit of a disappointment. That makes sense. I can't imagine clearing the bar the trailer sets.
Childish Gambino - "CAMP"
"Rap's stepfather: you hate me but you will respect."
For the majority of 2011, I wasn't really in a rap mood. I think I just started to fall out of love with the genre. The problem is that it just requires too much focus for me. Music is a background activity in my life. I'll listen to it in conjunction with something else. I'm actually listening to Fucked Up as I write this now. And rap demands your attention. You have to listen closely to the lyrics or your'e left in the dust. And the whole genre is so self-referential that if you don't hear a rap song for two months, all of a sudden you begin to sound like your grandfather. "Who is this Big Sean fellow that Nicki Minaj is grinding on and why won't he get off my damn lawn?" But in many ways Childish Gambino felt like a fresh start in 2011. Granted his nerdy style isn't anything groundbreaking but his rhymes were simple, accessible and just a lot of fun. I've listened to CAMP is already one of my most listened-to albums of the year and it's only been out for about a month. Nice work, Troy Barnes.
"I'm sorry, but you've been chopped." - Ted Allen
Everybody's pop culture palette must include a handful of "main events" surrounded by a collection of background noise or "I'll watch it when it's on" fare. "Chopped" is the king of "when it's on" entertainment. If I'm flipping through channels and "Chopped" is on, I almost have no choice but to watch it. The format is consistent, the tension is strangely high and the food looks fantastic. Plus, my all-time favorite contestant made his triumphant return this year and won the competition after a devastating loss in the dessert round last year and...oh my God I sound ridiculous.
Damian Lewis and Claire Danes (Nicholas Brody and Carrie Mathison in "Homeland")
"I'm gonna be alone my whole life, aren't I?" Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes)
Saying that "Homeland" was the best new show of the season is a little like saying Heinrich Himmler was the nicest of the Nazis...it can kind of seem like a meaningless back-handed compliment. But I have a hard-time believing that "Homeland" would be anything but the best new show of the season in absolutely any season. It's rather similar to "Game of Thrones" in that it comes out of the gates confident and swinging, like its entering its fourth season and not its first. Part of this is probably because creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are already familiar with both solid post 9/11 espionage thrillers (seasons one and five of "24") and awful post 9/11 espionage thrillers (every other season of "24"). But it's also because they found two of Hollywood's most under appreciated actors who absolutely deserved an hour-long drama to finally showcase their ability in Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. Claire Danes is always watchable in anything (she's a weirdly captivating Juliet in Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet") and Damian Lewis once redefined the concept of badassery as Major Winters in "Band of Brothers." They both inhabit their characters beautifully and maintain solid chemistry despite sharing shockingly little screen time.
"There's something inside you. It's hard to explain." - Kavinsky
I think 2011 proved definitely that a good movie can become a great movie merely through a soundtrack. I know Ryan Gosling is dreamy and all and "Drive" provides some violent flare but the movie was style over the substance...in the best way possible. And 95% of that style comes from the soundtrack (3% is the font choices and 2% Albert Brooks). The heavy synths and angelic choruses un-ironically celebrate the '80s and provide an intriguing discord to what's appearing onscreen. I heard "Drive" compared to "Pulp Fiction" more than once this year, and while I think that comparison is a little absurd ("Pulp Fiction" is one of the best five movies of the last 30 years. "Drive" might crack the top five of this year), they do share uniquely stylish soundtracks. I imagine any "Drive" parodies out there will be made 100-times easier by the immanently recognizable music.
"A bunch of young offenders develop super powers and not one of us think to use them to commit crime? Shame on us." - Nathan Young (Robert Sheehan)
Great Britain gets "Misfits." The U.S. gets "Heroes." It's enough to make me want to time travel back to the late 1700s and halt the Revolution. Seriously though, American TV needs to get its shit together. The U.S. is still the king of western entertainment but if even cable channels are going to be slaves to censors (and let's be real: the FCC is the largest organization devoted chiefly to censorship on the planet) it's not going to stay on the throne for long. "Misfits" is more entertaining than 97% of all American shows because of its dogged support of the ugly. The characters are realistic and captivating because of their ugliness and shortcomings (they're not necessarily physically ugly, but they probably would have a hard time cracking an American network TV shows). The situations they are thrust in are as grungy and realistic as a show about superpowers can provide. It's a riotously funny show that also holds up to scrutiny, maybe not necessarily literary scrutiny but at least logical scrutiny. Hallucinogenic drugs cause opposite of their powers? That makes sense. The storm gave powers to a gorilla too? That makes sense.
"I had every intention of living a simple life." - Mags Bennet (Margo Martindale)
A lot of attention was given this TV season to the once-in-a-lifetime awesome showdown between Walter White and Gus Fring on "Breaking Bad." It was undoubtedly the coolest mano-a-mano on TV this year and maybe even the past several years. But unfortunately I think it made us forget just how awesome the matchup between Raylan Givens and Mags Bennett was on "Justified" this year. I didn't watch season 1 of "Justified." I actually only watched season two because I needed something to review for The Post (which is also the only reason I gave "Game of Thrones" a shot). Thank God, I happened to luck into a show that reached its full potential the moment I started to pay attention to it. Season two of "Justified" has a great sense of history and consequently a great sense of consequence. And Margo Martindale is a phenomenal enough actress to just step onscreen during episode one and immediately convince us that she is the latest and most dangerous soldier in a long series conflicts between between the Givens and the Bennetts. The right amount of violence hits hard on television...as does family drama. Season two of "Justifed" was the perfect recipe of each.
Nicki Minaj - "Super Bass"
"Don't you hear that heartbeat coming your way?"
I'm a sucker for songs that recast the human heart as a percussion instrument. Therefore, it's impossible for me not to get excited when Nicki asks about that old "boom da boom da boom boom bass." I'm not sure "Super Bass" is the best representation of Ms. Minaj's talents (count me among the crew that wished she would, you know, rap more on her first album) but it is an undeniably joyful pop song...which is all the radio really ever needs.
The Book of Mormon Soundtrack
"Hasa diga Ebowai."
Like pretty much everyone else, I was dying to see Trey Parker and Matt Stone's first Broadway foray but didn't have the money or luck to. Luckily there was a cheaper option: the soundtrack. "The Book of Mormon: soundtrack is quite cinematic and gives the listener about as clear a picture of the overall plot as possible. There is a real sense of direction throughout each song, to the point where there is almost no point in picking or choosing specific songs. Just listen to the whole thing and be told a story. And what an awesome story it is! "The Book of Mormon" is hysterical, catchy and surprisingly touching...or at least the soundtrack is. I get teary eyed every time the Africans sing the opposite of "Hasa diga Ebowai" (shame on you if you don't know what that means). Here's to hoping that I see the actual play next year so "The Book of Mormon" can have an encore on "All You Need is Love 2012."
Andy Serkis (as Caesar in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes")
Because everyone loves monkeys. And nobody likes to see actors onscreen.
Parks and Recreation
"Give me all the bacon and eggs you have." Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman)
I considered an NBC comedy section simliar to my FX comedy section but "The Office's" truly spectacular dive bomb into mediocrity made that impossible. So then I thought about pairing "Parks and Rec" with "Community" but even that didn't seem fair to how truly fantastic I believe season three of "Parks and Recreation" was. TV comedies are getting better at marrying heart with humor. I would even say that the American version of "The Office" and "South Park" were at the forefront of this. But "Parks and REc" now stands alone in its ability to put its viewers through the emotional ringer. The cast in the best on TV: comedy, drama or otherwise. Ron Swanson continues to be a once-in-a-generation gem of a character. The world of Pawnee continues to get larger and richer and "Parks and Rec" just gets better and better.