Friday, December 9, 2011

The Best of 2011

Another year has nearly come and gone, so it's time to reflect on the best and worst of 2011.  Yeah, there are a couple of weeks left in December, but it's an American Tradition to do these things this time of year.  So apologies to "Sherlock Holmes" and "Americanized Dragon Tatoo," you are ineligible for this list.  Now, onwards and upwards with my favorites in movies, books, music, television, politics, and sports.


2011 saw a plethora of comic book movies released, but surprisingly, those weren't my favorite films of the year.  Before you shred my film choices, remember, my tastes are low-brow, and I freely admit this.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I have to admit, I dreaded this movie.  I grew up a as huge fan of the original films, and since the 1980's I've been craving a good reboot.  (Tim Burton's attempt was not good.)  Early reports were not good, but this movie had it all:  the special effects were spectacular, the story moved briskly, and given the subject matter-the actors involved did a splendid job.  Unlike the big super-hero tent-poles, I felt like Rise had real heart, and by the end I was about ready to jump out of my seat so I could cheer on Caesar and the apes.  Can't wait for this to come out on DVD next week, it really deserves a good three or four re-watchings (sorry Ari).  Kudos to Andy Serkis for giving what deserves to be, an Oscar nominated performance.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part Two
Since reading the book, I've been looking forward to the climactic final battle at Hogwarts, and I'm happy to admit that I was not disappointed   The screenwriters did a nice job of simplifying all of the wand crap that goes on in the book too, the result is a movie that mostly makes sense and provides a satisfying conclusion to one of the greatest movie franchises of all time.  Yes, the "twenty years" in the future coda looked pretty ridiculous, and while I thought it worked in the book, it probably should have been cut out of the movie.

The Muppets
I grew up a huge Muppets fan, so it's been disappointing to see them as part of history's dustbin. After several horrible movies that lacked the heart of the original Jim Henson overseen three, it was nice to see Jason Segal get the Muppets 100% right.  This was the most fun I've had in a theatre in years.  The jokes are good, the nostalgia hits just right, and the songs are memorable.  It's good to see Kermit and the gang back up where they belong-on the big screen, also also as a part of the national conversation.  I've been trying to find a quibble with this film since seeing it at Thanksgiving, and I can't find a weak point.  Even the human actors involved are great, and it's nice to see so many of my favorite actors (Jack Black, Chris Cooper, and Amy Adams) involved in bringing The Muppets back to life.

Yes, TV rots your brain and stifles your creativity.  That's why Ari and I still manage to read about fifty books a year.  Just think if we didn't watch TV we could read a 100 a year!  Anyways, now that your judgement is out of the way, it's time to talk boob tube.  All in all, I thought this was a good year for television, and it was hard to narrow it down to three shows, but I want this post up by Christmas, so that's how it's got to be.

I liked, but didn't think they should be in my top 3:  The Walking Dead (aka The Talking Living), Happy Endings, Cougar Town (don't laugh-you've probably never watched it), and The Office.

I remember watching Arrested Development back in the day, and lamenting the viewing public's inability to like quirky, intelligent comedy.  After it was cancelled, I promised myself I'd never fall in love with another show like that again.  Obviously I failed, because Community has evolved into my favorite show, even though it's the kind of smart, not for everyone, low-rated humor that I know is going to break my heart (and not just because I'm in love with Allison Brie).  This show had me on May 6, 2010 with the original "Paintball" episode (a jaw droppingly hilarious 22 minutes of television), but it made me a fan for life with the "Dungeons and Dragons" episode earlier this year.  Unfortunately the internet's favorite show has now been put in hiatus until Goddess knows when, yet Two and a Half Men remains highly rated.  Shoot me now.  

Parks and Rec
Didn't really care for Parks and Rec its first season, and didn't really start to like it until the end of its second season.  In the third season everything came together, and Parks and Rec began to reach heights rarely seen on broadcast television.  With the small screens best cast (narrowly beating Community), and primetime's best character, Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, Parks and Rec has evolved into must see television.  There's not a weak link on the show (though the writers seem to be floundering with Rashida Jones' character), and if you aren't a Mouserat fan by now, you don't deserve to walk in Little Sebastian's shadow.   

Game of Thrones
As a fan of the books, the TV show is all that I hoped for and more.  From the casting of the characters, to the storytelling, Game of Thrones is what every fantasy fan has been waiting for since Lord of the Rings.  It's a relief that Martin's books ended up on HBO too; now they can stuff all the sex and violence they want into the show, and take their time selling the story.  I know how every episode is going to end, and it's still gripping.  The adaptations made for TV have been well though out too, there's no way Dany could be 14 on celluloid.  About my only problem with the show is that nearly every piece of extended exposition seems to involve naked women, not unpleasant mind you, but often gratuitous.
I did not find 2011 to be a banner year for music.  There was a lot of stuff I liked, but nothing that made me sit up and go "That's a game changer."  For the most part, I found myself liking the same old, same old, with one exception, the band Blood Ceremony.  Who cares if the lyrics are mildly Satanic?  It's doom rock with a flute, and female vocals!  I'm in heaven (or hell).  When an album has a song entitled The Great God Pan how can I not become instantly obsessed?  Check out Living With the Ancients to get your demon flute groove on.   

While Blood Ceremony was one of those bands that was "new to me"it's not like the style of rock was all that original.  It has that fuzzy, recorded on eight track analog equipment sound that it takes it right back to 1970.  If anything, Blood Ceremony is the bastard step-daughter of an infernal union between Black Sabbath, Black Widow, and Epica.  While that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, it would be quite a threesome.  

Without a doubt, the best party rock album of 2011 was The Spade by Butch Walker and the Black Widows.  This thing rocks and swings, mixing the best element of classic rock, glam rock, bubblegum pop, and hair metal.  It's hard to describe Butch, he's such a chameleon musically, but there's no denying the pop genius.  After a long hard road in under appreciated bands like Southgang and the Marvelous Three, Walker found a pathway to fame by writing and producing songs for artists like Pink and Avril Lavigne.  He seems to have become comfortable with the idea of never being a household name, and now just makes music without giving a shit about what anyone else thinks.

After the disappointment that was Roger Clyne's last real studio album, No More Beautiful World, I was worried that my favorite artist of the last twenty years might be losing it.  My fears were unfounded, as Unida Cantina, the latest from Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, was solid from top to bottom.  Featuring high energy rock in the mode of The Refreshments (Roger's old band), with some of the more subtle influences that have marked Roger's best work, Cantina is a worthy addition to the Clyne cannon.  If there was any justice left in the world, Love is the Road, would be the run away hit single it deserves to be.  Yes, my love of Roger Clyne does cloud my judgment from time to time, but the guy really is one of the best American songwriters of the last fifteen years.  If you haven't bothered to give him a listen yet, pick this up, or better yet, my favorite album of all time, Fizzy Fuzzy Big and Buzzy, from Roger's days leading The Refreshments.  

One of the problem with "books" is that I tend to read lots of things over the course of a year, without worry or care about when they were published.  As a result listing my favorite three books of 2011 is a challenge, because most of the ones I read this year were not published this year.  As a reader of fantasy novels, I'm also inclined to give higher grades to series read in a given year.  For example, I had never read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire until this year, as a result I want to say that A Dance With Dragons was one of the best books of the year, and it might have been, I don't know, but my mind is certainly clouded by reading 4000 pages of Martin in 2011 (and watching the TV show).  

While not quite as engrossing as 1491, 1493 is still a captivating greed.  Mann takes up the enormous task of documenting the results of the collision between the Americas and the rest of the world, and the tale is not quite the one you expect.  Mann managest to take rather mundane sounding topics, like the evolution of the potato, and turn it into something riveting.  Mann finds little forgotten corners of history, and paints a picture illustrating their importance in the grander scheme of things.  It's hard to put this book into words, and in some ways the scope of the subject is bigger than any one book can hope to tackle, but if you love history and great writing this should be high on your "must read list."

Lev Grossman's The Magician King continues in the vein of his earlier work The Magicians, and that means that Grossman once again takes all the cliches of Contemporary Fantasy and punches them in the face.  His last work was more a grown up version of Harry Potter than anything else, this book takes a different tack, and focuses on deconstructing C. S. Lewis' Narnia, and succeeds brilliantly.  One of the best parts of Grossman's work is that he captures the fear and danger that should be inherent when journeying to a magical world or trying to conjure up a god.  When reading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe did you ever really think that a major character might die?  Did it ever piss you off that noble Aslan mostly just sits on the sidelines while he has teenagers do his dirty work?  Grossman addresses all of those questions, all while creating extremely flawed characters you find yourself caring about.  The Fox Network is adapting Grossman's first two books into a television series (which will probably be horrible, these books should be movies-the stories aren't so long they need a TV show), so go out and read them now before they are ruined forever.

Top News Stories of 2011

 Obama gets Osama Bin Laden
It pisses me off to no end that even when President Obama accomplishes truly great, all the Right can do is piss all over his accomplishment.  Yes, we all know that it was our brave military men and women who ultimately pulled the trigger, but Obama was the one to give the orders, and make the brave decision to enter Pakistani air space to do it.  This was a true Obama victory, and showed just what can happen when you bother to read an intelligence report correctly.  It's ridiculous to hear GOP blowhards like Mitt Romney argue that we aren't spending enough on the military and that we've somehow become "weaker" under Obama.  Since taking office in 2009, Obama's foreign policy has resulted in the deaths of of 22 out of 30 top Al Queda leaders.  Give the man his due.

 The Worst Crop of Candidates Ever Fielded by a Major Political Party
It's not just the complete failure of the GOP to come up with a credible candidate for the 2012 election, it's the crazy-ass positions these troglodytes have been forced into by the frothing at the mouth Tea Party.  With the exception of Jon Huntsman, all of these guys (and Michelle) seem to enjoy spitting in the face of science.  Listening to these "candidates" I can't tell if they are running for President in 2012 or 1912, they are all just that ass backwards.  I don't know how you can tack that far to the right and hope to win a general election.

In addition to this horrible crop of candidates, the amount of money being spent, the endless "debates" (where GOP "facts" are never questioned by the moderators, please remove your mouths fron Newt's ball sack), it's the early primary season that bothers me too.  There is no reason for the Iowa caucuses to be held in January (and even less reason for the Iowa caucuses, too much power is being given to a state that is not representative of the whole country), these marathon campaigns just result in more blood money being handed out to candidates.

I'll admit that I don't agree with everything that "Occupy" does, but they have changed the debate in this country.  People are beginning to realize just how big of a problem income inequality is in this country.  Oh, I said income inequality, I must be a socialist.  Go read a history book, the last time income inequality was so great in the United States was right before the Great Depression.  It's a real problem, and one worth fighting.  

In addition to the income inequality debate, Occupy has opened America's eyes to the amount of corporate money currently in our political system.  Efforts to pass a Constitutional Amendment to reverse the horrible "Citizens United" Supreme Court decisions owe their existence to Occupy.  I had a friend tell me that the Tea Party and Occupy have nothing in common, because stopping corporate bailouts is nothing.  The majority of Americans also agree with many of the principles of the Occupy Movement, and if our friends on the right could get past the Fox News rhetoric many of them not in the 1% would find themselves agreeing to.

The Year in Sports
 This year's NBA Finals cemented one legacy and further eroded another.  Watching Dirk Nowitzki lead the Dallas Mavericks to their first title was reminiscent of Drew Brees doing the same thing in the Super Bowl a few years ago, it put him in the Hall of Fame, and his name on the short list of "all time great players."  For Lebron James of the heavily favored Miami Heat this year's Final further enhanced his reputation as a player who chokes in big situations.  While I have no doubt that Lebron will eventually win a title, it was still nice to have a Championship Series with a clear villain (James) and a whole stable of good guys (the Mavs).

Despite a thrilling NBA post-season (NBA Basketball has been on a tear the last couple of years in terms of entertainment and compelling match-ups), the league and its players had one of the most contentious lockouts of the modern era.  With billions of dollars in TV, licensing, and gate dollars, it was disgusting to see millionaires battle billionaires while 48 million Americans don't even have a job.  While I found myself mostly siding with the players, I am worried that NBA basketball is going to turn into something like Major League Baseball-a with a handful of quality teams and a bunch of bottom feeders.  While the owners managed to create a system that will pay them more, they didn't bother to fix the competitive balance issue, which means players will continue to flock to large media markets and avoid the smaller ones.  It will be possible for teams to make a run for a few years, but eventually all of the stars are going to end up in New York and Los Angeles.

 While it's never fun to watch your team lose in a Super Bowl, the emergence of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers has mostly been fun to watch.  Rodgers is simply playing quarterback at a higher level than I've ever seen someone play quarterback, ever, and that includes Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, and Dan Marino.  Can he continue to do it for another eight years?  That'll be the test of true greatness.

We also all owe Aaron Rodgers a big thank you for ending the Bret Favre story.  Favre was a great quarterback, but his constant need to be in the spotlight the last few years was tiring.  Rodgers' Super Bowl win takes Favre out of the spotlight, at least until his Hall of Fame enshrinement in five years.

Unlike the Mavericks/Heat matchup this year's Super Bowl didn't really have a villain.  Both the Steelers and the Packers represent the NFL's old guard, original teams with national devoted fan bases.  You couldn't ask for two better organizations to meet in a Super Bowl.   

 Head Injuries were a big story in sports this year, in both hockey and football, and no athlete brought more attention to the issue than Sidney Crosby.  When the best player in your sport goes down for eleven months because of a concussion it's obvious that your sport has a serious problem. More and more scientific evidence is pointing to the long-term effects of concussions as well, and it's good to see sports leagues realizing that this is a serious problem.

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