In the spirit of awards season, here’s our top 5 everything from 2011.
I felt generally that 2011 was one of the all-time great years for television, but a weaker year for movies. I didn’t play many games, but the ones I did were great, and the music was great if you knew where to look. Let’s start with the games.
Like the best casual games, Minecraft puts up a front of simplicity that hides a deeply complex system of gameplay, leading unwary players into inescapable addiction. Dropping players into a randomly generated world with nothing to their name, Minecraft asks the player to do nothing but explore.
4. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Full disclosure: I didn’t play many games in 2011, so I haven’t actually played very far into my number four pick, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. But good god is this game fun. At the very end of the console’s lifecycle, Sword finally realizes the squandered potential of the Wii in its fluid and intuitive motion controls while building a fantastic and fun world. (My favorite Zelda, by the way? Wind Waker.)
3.Super Mario 3D Land
MARIOOOOOOOOOOOOO! You can’t beat the king, and he’s at the top of his game in Super Mario 3D Land. As someone who grew up playing Super Mario World and Super Mario All-Stars, I love the way 3D Land combines the 3D world of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy with the game mechanics and level design of Mario’s 2D adventures. Plus, 3D Land does something I thought was impossible by actually integrating the 3DS’s 3D successfully. It just goes to show that the geniuses at Nintendo can do anything.
2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
What can I say about Skyrim that hasn’t been said already? It improves on its predecessor, Oblivion, in nearly every way, and it offers potentially hundreds of hours of thrilling sword-and-sorcery. While other games are content to create stories, Skyrim creates a world.
1. Portal 2
Portal 2 is an titanic achievement for gaming. In an era when games are continually being dumbed down to keep players from having to think (Here’s looking at you, self-playing Nintendo games and Kirby’s Epic Yarn), Portal 2 offers incredibly deep and rewarding puzzles; players may not easily understand what to do at all times, but the sense of achievement that comes from solving the game’s more difficult puzzles far outweighs the frustration. More importantly, however, Portal 2 tells a story rivaling 2011’s best movies and television shows; the colorful writing behind the infamous GLaDOS and newcomers Wheatley and Cave Johnson helps validate the argument that games can be art.
I didn’t see as many movies this year as I would have liked, so anticipate some glaring omissions.
5. Winnie the Pooh
In a world where children’s movies often simply compete amongst themselves to see which can bombard audiences with the highest number of flashing lights and shit jokes per minute (Cars 2), Winnie the Pooh takes a step back, says “AW HELL NO,” and succeeds through clever storytelling, surprising humor, and timeless characters. Kung-Fu Pandas and talking gerbils will come and go, but Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and all their friends in the Hundred Acre Wood are forever.
4. The Adventures of Tintin
Fuck that Shia LeBeouf swinging around on trees with monkeys bullshit. This is Indiana Jones 4.
3. The Artist
All style, The Artist portrays the life of its main character George Valentin with all the glamor and slickness of the 1920s Hollywood it celebrates. It may not have been 2011’s most substantial movie, but it sure was one of the most fun.
Hugo is a personal love letter from Martin Scorsese to film, and we audiences are lucky enough to be allowed to watch. In its embrace of the way movies affect people and bring us together, it manages to tell a great story of its own as well.
1. The Tree of Life
Aww, you didn’t like that The Tree of Life made you think? Fuck you. Terence Malick has possibly made his magnum opus in this film, in which he contrasts the turbulent lives of a suburban Texas family with the birth and development of meaning in the universe. In choosing to explore his story through symbolism and imagery rather than literal depictions of events and heavy dialogue, Malick wisely emphasizes his characters’ inner lives and feelings, creating an epic story out of an intimate subject.
2011 was a great year for music, both mainstream and underground.
5. So Beautiful or So What
In So Beautiful or So What, a 69-year-old Paul Simon steps up to the plate and shows everyone how it’s fucking done. Simon has maintained a staggeringly high level of quality throughout his five-decade career, and So Beautiful catches him at a calmer and more introspective point than almost any of his other albums. The cold, delicate power of his voice and guitar stay with you after many flashier albums have faded.
“You know life is what you make of it/so beautiful or so what”
4. Helplessness Blues
With Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes have expanded on the charming, rustic sound they first showcased on 2008’s Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant, creating a folk-pop opus. Their songs are simultaneously withdrawn and epic, turning frontman Robin Pecknold’s lonely inner ruminations into powerful, instrumentally-driven masterpieces.
“If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see/of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak”
3. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
BEASTIE BOYS! After an oh-too-long hiatus after their previous album, 2004’s To the Five Burroughs, and a cancer scare from MCA, the Beasties came roaring back with Hot Sauce Committee. Perhaps the most laudable aspect of Committee isn’t that the Boys’ rhymes “age like wine as [they] get older,” as MCA assures us on “Make Some Noise,” but that the album sounds completely fresh. Committee‘s heavy, electronic sound is unique from anything the Boys have ever done, yet maintains a consistently high quality to the end; the Beastie Boys may be older, but they certainly aren’t done innovating.
“Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision/i’ll cut out the part of your brain that does the bitchin’/put it in formaldehyde and put it on the shelf/and you can show it to your friends and say ‘that’s my old self'”
2. David Comes to Life
I’m a sucker for rock operas, and the Quadrophenia-inspired David Comes to Life doesn’t disappoint. Fucked Up’s 18-song hardcore punk opus about the tragic relationship between a lightbulb factory worker and a protester is about as epic and ambitious as a single rock album can be without imploding on itself and becoming a black hole.
“Sun rises above the factory but the rays don’t make it to the street/through the gates come the employees, beaten down and dragging their feet/a group of lefties hand out pamphlets to the workers coming in/for two people on the pavement life will never be the same again”
1. Wild Flag
In a world where mainstream rock ‘n’ roll is nearly dead and the only charting rock artists are slushy mumblers like Nickelback and Staind, Wild Flag come to liberate us with their debut album. Wild Flag‘s driving, powerful rhythms and catchy, jangly guitars combine the best of classic rock ‘n’ roll with modern indie sensibilities and creativity.
“Hey, hey, can you feel it? The way it sways you/the hum in your chest/you make my feet move, you turn my head loose/that’s why I love you the best”
2011 really was one of the best years ever for television. With so many great choices, creating a list of 5 was not easy.
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm
It’s always a special year when Larry David deigns to give us more Curb, a show that’s even risen above Seinfeld in some of its most genius moments. Season eight didn’t disappoint, as social assassin Larry, unarguably one of television’s greatest characters, fought Israeli-Palestinean tensions, vows of silence, and Michael J. Fox with his trademark tactlessness and strangely appealing bluntness. I like to think there’s a little Larry David inside all of us.
Best episode: “Palestinian Chicken”
Television didn’t need another spy parody, but Archer overcomes its cliched premise with what has to be the funniest writing team on TV; Archer has a higher laughs-per-minute ratio than any other show on television by far and rewards multiple viewings simply because the jokes come so fast that they’re easy to miss. Season two also fleshed out the pencil pushers and lab rats behind the titular super-spy, and now the show features one of the best casts on TV; Cheryl, Pam, Ray, and Krieger help make up a community that rivals Parks and Recreation’s. Did you see Regis this morning?
Best episode: “Placebo Effect”
Louis CK uses Louie less as a comedy show than as a chance to experiment with short films, as a result, it’s the most original show on TV right now. You’ve never seen anything like Louie. Season 2 was a collection of unexpected vignettes about life, the universe, and everything, all tied together by the dumpy, quiet man caught in the middle who’s unprepared to deal with them.
Best episode: “Come on, God”
2. Breaking Bad
In Breaking Bad‘s fourth season, the three-year-in-the-making tension between Walt and Gus Fring exploded into open conflict as Gus slit Victor’s throat with a box cutter in the season’s first minutes. Each episode piled on astonishing twists and showed Walt heading further to the dark side until the unbelievable final moments, which moved Walt and his family past the point of ever returning to normalcy. Assuming the final season, airing this summer, sticks the landing, Breaking Bad may go down as the greatest televised drama in history.
1. Parks and Recreation
In its abbreviated third season, Parks transitioned from a great show to the best comedy on television. The show’s feel-good humor, sharp writing, and, most importantly, incredible cast of characters, not only bolstered by the additions of Chris Traeger and Ben Wyatt, but by the show’s increased focus on the bizarre citizens on the fringes of Pawnee, create not just a great show, but a vivid, deep world that viewers are all-too lucky to be allowed to enter every week.
Best episode: “L’il Sebastian”
I’m really bad at picking lists and ranking things, and honestly, I don’t really like ranking because my opinion changes every day. And unlike Alec, I’m not going to rank TV or video games, as I didn’t really play any video games last year and honestly, I didn’t watch much current TV either. So here, in alphabetical order, are my picks of 2011.
Despite whatever negative feelings the Oscar backlash this year may have created, The Artist is a great picture, one that is a nice break from so much of the cynicism associated with the Hollywood movie machine. If you don’t appreciate it for anything else, appreciate it for its pure joy and for its graceful style.
The reason I like Hugo is the reason I like movies in general, because it is a way to show pure love and joy. Martin Scorsese’s brief flirtation with whimsy shows us not only how much he loves the cinema, but how much we love the cinema as well.
Midnight in Paris
It’s interesting how the alphabetical order lined up, but the three films that wax most with nostalgia on my list are all in a row. Midnight in Paris is a lot like Woody Allen’s version of Hugo in that it shows us how much the director loves something, in this case Paris and the culture of the early 20th century. The film’s ensemble cast is delightful, and the light pasty that is this movie really is a treat, even if it is just because Ernest Hemingway talks like he writes.
Actually, you know what, nevermind, the first four movies on this list are pretty nostalgic and past-y. I really love this movie. And honestly, I’m not sure why. I totally acknowledge that it is not perfect, and there are a few things about it I don’t like. But for some reason it feels like the closest anyone has ever gotten to making a movie of my life, as absurd as that sounds. I saw it twice when it was in theatres, and I can’t wait to watch it again, over and over, because it makes me so happy. AND JAMES CARVILLE IS IN IT. If I had to pick a favorite movie of the year, it would be tied between this and my next pick, which are two selections not related to each other in the slightest, except in how transcendent they make me feel and how personally they speak to me.
The Tree of Life
I cannot add to anything Alec said about this movie, except that Terence Malick is a genius and I bow down to his hermit feet. I am just really glad this movie exists and I had the opportunity to see it.
You probably haven’t heard of this last movie and I don’t blame you for it; it probably came nowhere near your local theatre, and I only saw it on Netflix Instant. But this slightly off-the-wall foodie road movie/BBC documentary series/sort-of sequel to Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story/Famous Actor Impersonation Hour is an enjoyable film, something unexpected and brilliant in its spontaneity and simplicity. I feel like I repeat myself on this blog when talking about movies, but sometimes a movie can become good or achieve greatness by being so simple, and The Trip definitely does this. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are two incredibly talented actors who deserve more recognition here in the states. But for now I’m content with their renditions of ABBA songs until they find a larger audience.
Bad As Me
Marc Maron pretty much destroyed the nail and its head when he said that it “sounds like Tom Waits had the history of music stuck in his throat and he clears it on this new record.” Mr. Waits has been around for a long time and produced stupendous album after stupendous album, conquering everything from sleazy heart-attack lounges, nudist junkyards, expressionist motels, honky-tonks, Eastern European carnivals, and the piano bar in the Holiday Inn off of Exit 36 on Highway 21. This album goes down among the damning body of evidence that proves Tom Waits is probably one of America’s greatest living songwriters, if not up there among Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young, and the like. I tell you, whether he’s covering the Ramones, doing his best Disney song, singing about a broken camera, or comparing himself to graffiti of Jesus, this man can do no wrong.
“What sounded like fireworks turned out to be / just what it was”
I was a little sad to see Childish Gambino’s first signed-to-a-label record fly a little low under the radar, because it seemed like besides “Bonfire”, it came and went quickly. But this album is great. Donald Glover has an affinity for rhymes and beats that few maintain or even come close to having, and the way he puts, in his words, his “soul on the track” and lays down everything he’s feeling is truly magnificent. In one of his earlier songs, he says that Tina Fey taught him that everything that is good comes from honesty, so maybe we have her to thank for this great album? But no matter who’s responsible, Childish really is a mastermind.
“I always wanted to get picked on the cool team / But alone is exactly how I should be”
Drive Original Soundtrack
Can I put a movie soundtrack on here? Like Alec said a bit ago, this is my blog, I can do whatever I want. So yeah, I’m putting this on here. Even if you cut out the original movie tracks and it was just a collection of electronic songs, I’d still dig it, because it’s so great. It thumps and jives and moves, and the original songs are amazing as well. Most people don’t seem to enjoy movie soundtracks on their own, and if anyone tries to pull that trick on you, show them this.
“You have proved to be / a real human being / and a real hero”
Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
I’ll be honest, I’d never really listened to the Beastie Boys much until Alec showed me this. I knew it was coming out but wasn’t all that interested, but this is a really sensational record. For a group that’s been around so long in a genre that seems to have no tolerance for the “old school” anymore, the Beastie Boys have kept their foot down and prove their still capable of great things. That seems to be a common theme this year, with Tom Waits, Paul Simon, and the Beastie Boys each making a great case for relevance, and Childish Gambino making a great case as well for why he should be taken seriously. But I digress. This album is great.
“The best is yet to come / And yes, believe this”
Just watching Tune-yards, it seems like they’re/she’s having more fun than anyone else in music today. If Fela Kuti, Paul Simon, and Vampire Weekend had a child, it would be this. Actually, that’s probably not an apt comparison. Maybe tone down the Vampire Weekend, turn up the Fela, throw in some Graceland and folk-iness, John and Alice Coltrane, Flying Lotus, Pharaoh Sanders… I can keep making comparisons, but Whokill is a wholly original record that is unlike anything else.
“Anger in his heart / But he’ll never be a gangsta”