One of the best things about writing about multiple media is that you’re not subject to the tyranny of Best Of lists. I could no more decide between Shame and Hugo for a numbered slot than I could pick between Revenge and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (though can we please get Kanye writing rhymes for and about Emily Thorne? I need an update on Snoop Dogg and his Sookie Stackhouse obsession). However, there were a lot of things that made me happy this year, and because Oprah’s not rockin’ it anymore, here is a semi-chronological-but-unranked list of my 26-odd favorite things to consume or discuss in 2011. A similar list of my least favorite things will follow tomorrow.
1. Frank Ocean makes us all hurt so good: I’m more irritated than anything else by the antics of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. But it’s worth it for Frank Ocean, who rocks specific melancholia like nobody’s business. “Novacane” was one of my favorite songs of 2011.
2. Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch: Before y’all accuse me of getting all Armond White up in the business, let me be clear. I don’t think Sucker Punch is an affirmatively good movie or that Snyder is a visionary director (though I appreciate that he actually has a distinctive visual style). But as aestheticized meditation on the horrors of lobotomy, a frightening and overlooked part of American mental health history, I found it unexpectedly moving. Plus, Snyder circumvented a ban on female leads with the movie.
3. Cedar Rapids sets Ed Helms loose: Up In the Air, but for people who actually live in flyover country, and Parks and Recreation with a deeper undercurrent of bitter darkness and isolation. There should be more popular culture about the struggle to be fundamentally decent.
4. War photographers movie The Bang-Bang Club and HBO’s biopic of the Louds, Cinema Verite: After the death of Tim Heatherington and as Joao Silva recovered from his injuries, The Bang-Bang Club offered a look at what it takes not just to put yourself in danger as a war photographer, but at what it means to be an observer rather than someone who intervenes. Conversely, Cinema Verite went back to the invention of reality television to explore what it means to be watched — and dissected — by a mass audience.
5. Game of Thrones is brilliant, and even the frustrating A Dance With Dragons is grist for the mill: I worry that George R.R. Martin’s universe is spiraling completely out of control, too big for any series to contain. But the first season of the HBO adaptation featured great performances, particularly by a host of very young actors and a smart sense for cuts and world-building. I don’t know if we’ll reach the end of this fascinating, maddening saga any time soon. But the ride looks like it’s going to be delightful.
6. Stanley Nelson’s PBS documentary Freedom Riders: If The Help, the movie adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel about a kindly white lady who kickstarts the Civil Rights movie in her Mississippi town is a disease on thinking about race and liberation in America, Freedom Riders is the cure. A fascinating look at the internal politics that prompted the rides, the costs paid by the riders, and what it actually meant for white people who believed in the causes of the Civil Rights movement to be in solidarity with their black counterparts, the movie is raw, funny, decidedly un-Hollywood and vastly better for it.
7. The Supreme Court’s video game censorship decision: The Supremes made the right call in striking down California’s video game ban. But its decision was also a delight to read, from the vision it conjured of Justice Alito playing video games in chambers as part of his research (those lucky clerks) to the epic argument between Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas about children’s literature.
8. Louie on FX and Louis C.K. live and in person in Baltimore: Do I need to explain this one? C.K. is on an insane role, creating the most form-pushing show on television other than Community while simultaneously providing one of the best, funniest, most vulnerable long-running discussions of American masculinity maybe ever.
9. X-Men: First Class nails gay rights metaphors and kicks off the Year of Fassbender, while Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ends it with a rueful look at many of the same themes: Building on a script by Friend of the Blog Zack Stentz and his writing partner, Matthew Vaughn made superheroism not just badass but sexily stylish by sending the X-Men back to the 1960s, complete with turtlenecks, vintage burlesque bars, Nazis hiding out in South America and women struggling to break into the intelligence community. And in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I’ll review on Friday we see some of the same things: the women the intelligence community marginalizes at its peril, a world ready to tear itself apart — though crumb by crumb rather than all at once — and painful loves that are never quite forgotten.
10. Archie Comics goes all in on equal rights for gay characters: First, they introduced Kevin Keller. Then, they had him come out. And talk to his father about joining the military in a post-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era. And meet his future husband while on duty overseas. Archie Comics didn’t just successfully introduce a new character — they offered a master class on how to update an old brand to accommodate new realities and generate strong new storylines in the process.
11. Luther makes me reconsider The Wire — and Idris Elba: It’s an awful shame that American Horror Story got as much attention as it did when Luther is the best horror show on television, grounding the monstrous in a grittily realistic London, and in its most sympathetic character.
12. The quiet sadness and dueling Michael Caines of The Trip: Two guys get in a car, go hiking, drink amazing wine and eat great food, fight over who gets the nasal tones of late-stage Michael Caine right, and explore who’s happier: the less successful married man with a new baby or the big, but lonely star.
13. Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes on dementia — and our sense of superiority: As diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons increasingly affect populations that are living longer, research into them will be critical, even if it doesn’t lead to the rise of a race of super-intelligent apes. And as motion capture technology gets more common and even more sophisticated, it’ll challenge our understanding of the relationship between acting and technology. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is at the crux of both issues, and it’s a thrilling action movie besides.
14. The Hour makes journalism positively swoony: Luther wasn’t the only show that made me reconsider an actor from The Wire this year: Dominic West makes one hell of a seducer as a privileged vulnerable news anchor. Romola Garai has curves to compete with Christina Hendrickson and a job that makes real use of her intellect. And the country houses looked great.
15. David Liss’s The Twelfth Enchantment: People riff on Jane Austen all the time. Rarely do they play with the idea of a grown-up Lydia Bennett taking revenge on Lady Catherine de Bourgh and standing up for decent treatment of workers amidst the rise of the Industrial Revolution.
16. Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion is the perfect September 11 anniversary movie: It stars Jennifer Ehle. It celebrates public servants and smacks down vaccine deniers. It’s an apocalypse movie where the scariest thing in the world is leaving the house. And it frames the apocalypse with a tremendously tender human story.
17. Breaking Bad levels up: I’ll admit it. I was put off by the coldness of Breaking Bad through its first three seasons. But by going back into Gus’s past and providing one of the most stunning revenge stories in recent memory, and having Walt pull back only to go all in, the show tapped into a seething vein of emotion. And the show has never looked more gorgeous, from the sun and clouds over Albuquerque to the bikinis of women fleeing a massacre in Mexico. Television may be on small screens, but that doesn’t mean the picture can’t be incredibly rich.
18. An evening at The Moth with the USA Network: I spend ages in front of screens. It’s rarely been so gratifying to get away from them and to just concentrate on some deeply moving stories, told by tremendously gifted people without the benefits of either scripts or multiple takes.
19. Shame and Young Adult take down gendered fantasies: I have a longer piece on this coming on Friday, but two of the best, most difficult-to-watch movies of the year take on the stereotypes of the lothario and the perfect romance and drive them straight into toxic territory. Fassbender will likely get more attention and awards for Shame, but the two movies really should be considered together.
20. The new Islamic art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: I spent an afternoon in the revamped Islamic art galleries in November, and could have spent a day there, wandering between continents and time periods. If you care about calligraphy, abstract art, state sponsorship of artists, and cross-cultural influences, this masterful exhibition is a must.
21. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: The Grammy snub is unconscionably dumb. The album is great. No more to say.
22. Leslie Knope runs for office: I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Parks and Recreation‘s affirmation of the value of public service, its insistence on the value of friendship, and its exploration of the challenges of balancing work and family have been tremendously rewarding. The show’s so square it comes out feeling revolutionary.
23. Carrie Mathison is crazy — and brilliant — and the most lovable spy on television: I know not everyone has access to Homeland, but it’s the rare show that’s actually worth a network subscription. If Claire Danes doesn’t win an Emmy for her portrayal, which is everything from a thoughtful depiction of mental illness, to a depiction of a woman in a man’s industry, to a vulnerable lover and mentee, there is no justice. And that’s before we even get to the men, the show’s subtle and intelligent treatment of Islam, and the way it holds its cards close on questions of loyalty and motivation.
24. Hugo is the best family film in ages: Martin Scorcese’s family film is the first I’ve seen that makes a genuinely compelling case for 3D, at the same time that it draws its emotional power from the first days of movie innovation. Asa Buttefield proves he’ll knock it out of the park as Ender Wiggin. Chloe Moretz continues her streak as awesome. And Ben Kingsley as a broken-hearted innovator makes the case for why it’s not just enough to have a job: we all long for meaningful work.
25. The soapy glories of Revenge: Even critics have to take breaks sometimes. And even camp, controlled catfights, and bandage dresses can reach true glory when deployed correctly. Revenge is delightful, one of the best new network dramas of the season. And bisexual tech genius and unsuccessful moral compass Nolan Ross is the breakout character of the fall.
26. A Better Life and Miss Bala explain why we can’t wait for immigration reform: As I wrote earlier today, A Better Life is one of the best and most over-looked movies of the year. It’s also has a perfect companion in Miss Bala, which will be Mexico’s entrant in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards. If A Better Life is about what immigrants hope for when they get to the U.S., Miss Bala is about what they leave behind.