Thursday, December 29, 2011

THE BEST OF 2011 - The Best MOVIES Of The Year


THE YEAR IN FILM, 2011:

- At some point this Fall, I had a feeling ... as far as movies go, this was going to be one of those years. This was going to be a year where my personal picks for the year's best films didn't necessarily conform to what other critics picked. This was going to be a year where a lot of my favorite films were, inevitably, going to be ignored come awards season. Without any unanimously-praised new-classics, this was going to be a year where people were sharply divided as to the year's best. 2011 saw many fantastic films, but few that were truly titanic. I don't think there was any one film this year that was on the same level of greatness as recent Best-Of picks like The Social Network, The Hurt Locker, or No Country For Old Men. And yet, I still rank 2011 as a great year for movies because, over and over again, I found myself surprised by just how much I enjoyed any number of movies that, over the course of the year, seemed to come out of nowhere and make a huge impression.

Who would have thought, going into this Summer, for example, that of all the big blockbusters set to hit theaters ... who would have ever thought that RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES would be far and away the best? Not only did Apes shock me with just how awesome it was, but it now, in my mind, stands as one of the best overall action-blockbusters of the last several years.

Who expected, earlier this year, that a little movie called ATTACK THE BLOCK would be the cult-favorite, word-of-mouth sensation of the Summer? Before this Summer, I had never heard of Joe Cornish. Now, after his directorial debut with Attack The Block and co-writing credit on THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, I can't wait to see what he does next.

Who knew that there was another Olsen sister who was a phenomenal actress and breakout star in the making? Regardless of her last name, Elizabeth Olsen blew me away in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE.

Speaking of breakout performances, I had never heard of Demian Bechir before this year. After reading a glowing review of A BETTER LIFE, I looked him up and saw that he was primarily known for a supporting role on the TV show Weeds. But in A Better Life, Bechir delivered an absolutely stunning turn as an illegal immigrant forced to track down his stolen truck, his only possession in the world of any value.

Who could have guessed that at the end of the year, we'd be talking about a silent movie throwback as one of the year's best and most beloved films? Up to the moment that the movie began to play in the theater, I was skeptical about THE ARTIST and its ability to keep me entertained. But by the time the credits rolled, I had been completely won over.

However, if I had to point to one overwhelming trend at the movies this year, it's that 2011 was a year in which pure cinema was celebrated. Many of the year's best films were primarily visual - reminding us of the very basic joys of the motion picture. THE ARTIST took us back to the days before spoken dialogue. HUGO was also, in its own way, a tribute to the silent era, and the way in which the movies of that time evoked such a raw feeling of wonder and imagination. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN was Steven Spielberg using motion-capture animation to create a living, breathing cartoon world in three dimensions. Even the much-maligned SUCKER PUNCH was, in my opinion, a visual tour de force - a next-level dreamscape that brought videogame-like aesthetics to the movies. Most of all, there was DRIVE. I think that Drive is going to remain a divisive movie, because its sensibilities are just so different from what we're used to seeing in mainstream films. Everything about it is big, larger-than-life, and hyper-stylized. It's a visual, ultra-cinematic movie. It's less about weaving an intricate plot than it is about creating a particular mood, a certain, intangible feeling of pure, cinematic cool. That might not be everyone's cup of tea, but for me, well, it left me floored. In a way, it reminded me of some of the great 80's-era genre movies like Blade Runner or Raiders of the Lost Ark - in addition to the classic film noirs, those movies were the spiritual forebearers of Drive - they too were visual films, all about creating a particular feeling. Today, a lot of movies have lost that ability - f/x look increasingly generic, movies increasingly feel cookie-cutter and created by committee. But from moment one of Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn declares that this movie had style, this movie had atmosphere, this movie was something different.

In past years, there were movies like The Hurt Locker or The Social Network that I felt could and should be recognized come Oscar time. I advocated both films as Best Picture picks, and both were in the running to win Oscar gold, with The Hurt Locker surprising some and receiving top honors. This year though, I feel like there's little chance that a lot of my favorite films will have that opportunity. Many of my favorite movies of 2011 probably just aren't Oscar material. Even DRIVE ... it's probably too hyper-stylized, too pulpy, too rock n' roll for Oscar. A BETTER LIFE probably should be right up there in the conversation about the year's best films - and it's actually the kind of socially-relevant, emotionally-charged movie that in other years might be an awards-season frontrunner. Unfortunately, the movie never gained traction at the box office, and ended up staying under many people's radars. Who knows, maybe the movie will make a late-in-the-game rally and it or star Demian Bichir will get a much-deserved Oscar nomination. But it goes to show how much politics and campaigning can play a part come awards-season.

But you know what? 2011 was a reminder that sometimes, you have to just say "screw it," go against the grain a little, and support the movies that you're passionate about. I've always defended great blockbuster movies as worthy of recognition, and I'll argue that RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is right up there in the conversation of the year's best. Maybe some won't take it seriously. But there were few moments at the movies this year that gave me chills like APE's climactic scene where Ceaser - amazingly played by Andy Serkis - finally speaks, well, screams: "Nooooo!" That was a movie moment for the ages. And here's another opinion that more pretentious critics may not agree with: CAPTAIN AMERICA was one of the best superhero movies ever made - a fun, action-packed, inspiring adventure. Few other movies in 2011 left me smiling and pumped-up like this one did as I exited the theater. I felt similarly joyful after seeing KUNG-FU PANDA 2. Sure, the name sounds silly, but the movie is gorgeously animated, funny, tells a good story, and features spectacular action. Same goes for the kickass WARRIOR. Perhaps its MMA subject matter turned off some, but this was a classic fight movie as good as any we've seen in recent years.

I'll give one more shout-out here, to a movie that I've actually seen pop up on a couple of critics' Worst-of-the-Year lists - YOUR HIGHNESS. To that I say, are these critics high? Okay, maybe it wasn't for everyone, but Your Highness had me laughing hysterically from beginning to end. It was the rare high-concept comedy that expertly parodied the source material on which it was based. It kills me, because critics are so quick to trash a movie like Your Highness and lavish praise on something like Bridesmaids. In her Entertainment Weekly column on the year's best movies, critic Lisa Schwarzbaum went so far as to call Bridesmaids the #2 movie of the year, and went on the explain why. She said that comedies should be judged by the same criteria as other movies - essentially saying that the qualities of a great comedy are the same as in a great drama. I couldn't disagree more. A hilarious movie is a great comedy - period. And movies from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Young Frankenstein to Airplane to Anchorman help to prove that theory. Comedies can have great character development, or strong emotional components, or social satire - and those are elements that can contribute to a comedy being good or great. But they're not necessary at all. I'm sick of attitudes that say otherwise, but that's what we see as the conventional wisdom from critics and awards shows over and over again. Bridesmaids was a very good, very funny movie. But in my opinion, Your Highness was funnier. So was the amazingly funny and frenetic 30 MINUTES OR LESS. There's another one that seemed to be graded more on the merits of its premise and less on the quality of its jokes. This is why the great comedies - from Wayne's World to Wet Hot American Summer - have year after year been terminally underrated by the establishment. They just don't get it.

By the same token, I won't pretend to love certain movies just because they have a certain arthouse appeal. I think you'll find that my Best-Of list is pretty eclectic and diverse. I love all kinds of movies, from big-budget blockbusters to quirky indie flicks to oddball foreign films. But try as I might, I just can't include TREE OF LIFE in my Top 10 list. I actually really enjoyed the film, and I'm glad I took the time to see it in theaters. But it also never 100% worked for me. As thematically ambitious as it was, I don't know that it ever all came together in a truly meaningful way. And sometimes, that's just a judgement call and a personal opinion. Maybe there was something about Tree of Life that really resonated with you, and that's cool. But I also wonder if there's a certain level of dishonesty in reviews of the movie, where some critics call it Film of the Year just because it seems like a movie that had ambitions of being Film of the Year. Personally, I'm more inclined to rave about a film like MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, a film so intense that it took my breath away with its absorbing intensity. I feel similarly about a movie I really wanted to love - TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. I keep seeing it pop up on Best-Of lists and part of me totally gets it - it's got an amazing cast, great atmosphere ... but it just didn't work for me as a narrative. Conversely, the spy movie that did really knock me out this year was the intricately-plotted, amazingly-acted, tension-filled THE DEBT, which seems to be getting overlooked by many.

So here are my picks for the best movies of the year. On this list, you'll find likely Oscar nominees as well as movies that many would dismiss. There's action, comedy, drama, and animation. There are badass B-movies and highbrow critical darlings. But ultimately, these are the movies that resonated with me most in 2011.


DANNY'S BEST MOVIES OF 2011:


1.) Drive

- A cinematic tour de force from director Nicholas Winding Refn, Drive marks the emergence of a major new voice in film. With a pulsating 80's-synth soundtrack driving the action, Drive is dripping with atmosphere and style. It's a big, pulpy, larger-than-life movie, with an iconic lead performance from Ryan Gosling and memorably villainous turns from Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman. Drive was one of the few movies this year that just flat-out blew me away - a beautifully-shot symphony of violence, sadness, and neo-noir fatalism.


2.) A Better Life

- Talk about powerful, A Better Life packs an emotional punch like few other films I've ever seen. On one level, this film is about the very real plight of illegal immigrants in America. It doesn't take sides, it just shows a stark depiction of these families living in poverty, in constant fear of deportation, hoping that, somehow, there's something better ahead for their children and children's children. But more than that, A Better Life is a story about a father and son, and the adventure that the two go on together to fight for their family. This movie made me misty-eyed, it made me want to stand up and cheer, and it kept me on the edge of my seat. And Demian Bichir knocks it out of the park, in what I think is the best performance by an actor in a movie this year.


3.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

- Scoff if you like, but Apes to me was a truly awesome blockbuster event - a movie that thrilled me with its incredible action, gave me an emotional punch to the gut, and provoked my imagination with its high-concept sci-fi premise. Director Rupert Wyatt - where did he come from? - delivered absolutely amazing action, gradually ramping up the scale and the stakes until the movie became all-out mayhem. And Andy Serkis - what he did with his work as Ceaser the ape - it's mind-blowing. This was the surprise smash of the Summer, and deservedly so - all hail Ceaser!


4.) The Artist

- It took me a little while to adjust to the wordless rhythms of The Artist, but soon enough, I was totally absorbed in its black-and-white world. The Artist is an homage to the silent movies of old, but it's also a wryly funny meta-commentary on the history of film. More than that though, it just has an old-school sense of movie magic. It makes us appreciate the sheer wonder of the moving picture, absorbing us in a classic tale of a man fallen from grace and the love that brings him back from the abyss. A unique gem of a movie, The Artist is a crowd-pleaser of the highest order.


5.) Martha Marcy May Marlene

- What a debut for writer-director Sean Durkin, and for actress Elizabeth Olsen. This harrowing psychological-thriller about a girl who manages to escape from a cult was ultra-intense, uber-creepy, and just plain disturbing. Durkin creates an atmosphere of near-oppressive tension as we flash between Olsen's time in the cult - where she's brainwashed to complete emotional numbness - and her time post-escape, where she lives in constant fear that she might be dragged back to that horrible place. But even more scary is the third possibility - that Olsen is so damaged that she might go back of her own volition. Gripping and thought-provoking, this movie left me breathless.


6.) Young Adult

- What an encore for the writer-director team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman. I loved Juno, but Young Adult is in some ways more impressive - less stylized, more raw, it's a movie that will absolutely hit home for anyone who's ever hoped that they could go forth from their humble origins and make something of themselves in this world. Young Adult is, for one thing, hilarious. Charlize Theron kills it as Mavis Gary, a former high school mean girl who returns to her hometown to win back her old teenage flame. But Young Adult, even as it's making you laugh, will also have you wincing in recognition at the various characters that populate the film. There's an air of lived-in authenticity here that very few movies achieve. So many films that try to tell authentic human stories end up feeling to polished and distant. There's no distance here - Cody and Reitman cut right to the heart of Mavis Gary, and the results are both funny and poignant.


7.) Warrior

- Blame the marketing. The promos for Warrior made it look like the first Spike TV original movie. But in fact, Warrior is an emotion-packed fight film that channels the energy, spirit, gravitas, grittiness, and adrenaline-packed-action of films like Rocky and The Wrestler. This tale of two estranged brothers who each enter an MMA tournament as underdogs, only to come face to face with each other, just goes for broke - tossing everything plus the kitchen sink at you in order to build up its characters. By the time we reach the movie's climactic fight, we truly feel like we've been on an epic journey, and that we now have ringside seats to a grudge match of near-biblical proportions. But give credit to the trio of top-notch performances that really make this movie sing - Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte each tear the house down to create a film of true championship caliber.


8.) Hugo

- Martin Scorsese might not be the director you'd expect to create a living, breathing 3D storybook with an inspiring message about creativity and imagination. But that's exactly what he does with Hugo - a visually-stunning film that also serves as a surprising lesson on the history of film. But the educational aspect of Hugo is also its most entertaining, and that's because of Scorsese's passion for the subject matter, which emanates from every frame of the film. What starts out as the simple tale of a boy and a mysterious robot soon spirals into a love-letter to cinema. By the film's end, Scorsese seems to be speaking directly to us through the words of the figure at the center of the movie, the real-life movie pioneer George Melies: "I address you all tonight, as you truly are. Wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers ... Magicians!" "Come ..." says Scorsese through Melies, "... and dream with me." And so we do.


9.) The Ides of March

- Here was a political thriller that truly thrilled, a twisty, purposeful film that crackled with sharp dialogue and an absorbing plot, all the while holding up a funhouse mirror to the very real absurdities and tragedies of modern political theater. Ides of March popped thanks to a star-studded, perfectly chosen cast. Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Marissa Tomei, Paul Giamatti, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all delivered fantastic performances. Clooney's direction was sure-footed and gave the story of election-year scandal a constant sense of driving, forward momentum. And the script was one of the year's best - brilliantly structured and elegantly constructed. A great cautionary tale about how hubris can bring down even the most promising of political prospects.


10.) 13 Assassins

- 13 Assassins, a Japanese import directed by the prolific Takashi Miike, is a period-piece samurai flick that just plain kicks ass. One one hand, the movie tells a fascinating historical parable about the waning days of the samurai - torn between a sense of honor and justice, and a still-strong loyalty to their country's increasingly corrupt rulers. On the other hand, this is a movie that just delivers complete and total ownage - after its first half expertly builds up the movie's team of assassins and the evil threat they face, its second half erupts into all-out carnage - a massive, epic battle for the ages. Miike proves a master at giving gravitas the movie's quieter moments while bringing jaw-dropping brutality to its action sequences. Seek this one out (hint: it's on Netflix) and bask in the badassery.


THE NEXT BEST:


11.) Captain America: The First Avenger

- Filled with old-school adventure, two-fisted action, and heroes and villains that leap off the screen, Captain America stands as perhaps my favorite Marvel Comics movie adaptation to date. Chris Evans shines as Steve Rogers, and Hugo Weaving is fantastic as The Red Skull. Perfectly capturing the fun and pulpy sensibilities of the original comics, Joe Johnston and co. have crafted a superhero story that does Simon and Kirby proud.

12.) Attack the Block

- "Allow it!" Attack the Block is an awesome debut film from Joe Cornish, who channels the visual inventiveness, irreverent humor, and biting satirical edge of his friend and producer Edgar Wright to create a hugely entertaining action-horror-comedy. When aliens invade a poor London neighborhood, a ragtag gang of scrappy street kids band together to defend their turf. The result is a movie filled with action, humor, and a surprising amount of heart.

13.) The Adventures of Tintin

- Steven Spielberg cuts loose in this visually-dynamic animated film. Working off of a fun, funny script from Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, Spielberg mastefully channels the pulpy spirit of adventure of the Belgian comics on which the film is based. Tintin is simply a rollercoaster ride from start to finish, and it once again proves that nobody does action/adventure quite like Mr. Spielberg.

14.) The Debt

- The Debt is a thematically-rich and completely riveting thriller about a botched attempt by a covert Israeli spy team to assassinate a former Nazi. Flashing back and forth between the 60's and the 90's, we see the spies' attempt to carry out their mission, and then, thirty years later, the realization that old mistakes, long swept under the rug, might come back to haunt them. The Debt is packed with tension and action, but it's also a haunting reflection on the emotional scars of the Holocaust that still reverberated for decades after the fact. With killer peformances from actors like Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren, and Tom Wilkinson, The Debt is a must-see.

15.) 30 Minutes or Less

- A crazy, kinetic action-comedy from the director of Zombieland, 30 Minutes Or Less stands as one of the most underrated movies of 2011. The story of an aimless 20-something slacker who suddenly finds purpose when two crooks strap a bomb to his chest and force him to do their bidding, the movie goes to some pretty dark places, but also keeps the laughs coming. Jessie Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari make for a hilariously neurotic comedic duo, and Danny McBride and Nick Kroll kill it as the pair of bumbling thugs and would-be badasses who torment them. With some of the craziest humor I've seen in any comedy in a while, 30 Minutes Or Less is a twisted and frenetic comedy that may just be a cult classic in the making.

16.) Beginners

- Christopher Plummer delivers an incredible performance in this lyrical, moving dramedy. Plummer plays an elderly man who finally comes out of the closet after years of self-repression and finally begins living his life as he's always wanted, only to find out that he's been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Meanwhile, his son, played by Ewan McGregor, does what he can to support his dad, even as he grapples with his own relationship issues. Beginners is a sad, funny, slightly surreal film about making the most of the time we have.

17.) My Week With Marilyn

- Michelle Williams is a knockout as Marilyn Monroe, in this entertaining and fascinating look at Hollywood history. William's performance is transcendent - she makes Monroe at once larger than life but also human and vulnerable. We see the legendary icon's ability to turn on the charm and become this goddess-like symbol, but we also see the emotional and physical toll that this unprecedented level of fame takes on her. This isn't a Marilyn biopic though - what sold it for me was the fact that, really, it's a story about a wide-eyed kid, an average Joe, who gets to hang out and hook up with the world's most famous woman. It's a great little story about big Hollywood dreams come true.

18.) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

- While there's a lot of plot packed-in to David Fincher's moody adaptation of the popular crime novel, the real power of this movie is that it's a stunning, rock n' roll intro to Rooney Mara as goth-punk savant Lisbeth Salander. With style and aplomb, we meet perhaps the definitive version of the new queen of the badasses, and with her as our guide we get taken on a dark and grimy journey into her world of killers and crooks and men who do bad things.

19.) Kung Fu Panda 2

- Featuring eye-popping animation and incredible action scenes, Kung Fu Panda 2 improves on the original film in every way. It delves into the mysterious background of our lovable hero Po, but even as the movie's mythology expands, it takes the time to deliver a heartwarming story about the importance of family and friends. But make no mistake, this is no mere cuddly kids movie - the kung fu is strong in this one, with a bevy of legitimately badass action set-pieces that are among the year's best, animated or otherwise.

20.) A Dangerous Method

- David Cronenberg has always specialized in the psychological thriller, so it makes sense that his latest film explores the relationship between two of the iconic innovators of psychological study, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Cronenberg shoots the film in a straightforward, clinical manner, which makes the increasingly deviant behavior of Michael Fassbender's Carl Jung all the more eyebrow-raising. Fassbender delivers a great performance here in what has, clearly, been a breakout year for him. So too does Kiera Knightly as the traumatized patient that gets entangled with Jung. And of course, Viggo Mortensen - Cronenberg's go-to great actor - is reliably fantastic as Freud.

21.) The Descendants

- In Alexander Payne's sweet and funny film, the director ponders the way in which one generation inherits the world from the one before it. What lessons have we learned from our parents, and how does that shape us, and in turn cause us to shape those who come after? That sounds like a lot of headiness for a quirky little film about a father and his kids who go off in search of the man who his comatose wife had an affair with ... but hey, that's sort of what I took from it. Regardless, The Descendants is a movie with thematic depth, but also with a lot of great little moments of humor and heart. George Clooney does his best to play a schlubby dad, but the breakout here is likely young actress Shailene Woodley, who does a great job playing his teenaged daughter - whose bad attitude and rebellious nature slowly gives way to a more adult understanding of the world.

22.) Sucker Punch

- Okay, here's a film that many hated, that was a box-office flop, and that inspired a lot of heated discussion and debate upon its release. I guess I am part of a small and semi-vocal minority that really dug this movie. To me, this film works purely as a visual showpiece for directory Zack Snyder. It's sensory overload, delivering future-shock dreamscape visuals that combine the aesthetics of videogames, comics, and Japanese anime that mesh into a sort of geek nirvana. I think too many people tried to watch this movie as a more traditional narrative, and got too caught up in deciphering the plot and decoding the subtext, questioning whether it was more about empowered girls kicking ass, or just arrested-development male fantasy brought to life. To me, Sucker Punch wowed me as, quite simply, an awesome piece of fantasy-art-in-motion.

23.) Your Highness

- Sure, perhaps Your Highness is only a great comedy if, like me, you grew up on a steady diet of cheesy-yet-amazing 80's sword n' sorcery movies. Maybe if the likes of Krull and Beastmaster aren't a part of your cinematic vocabulary, then you won't fully appreciate the sheer levels of comedic awesome that Your Highness reaches. And yes, perhaps parts of the movie are just too ridiculous, and maybe some of the jokes occasionally fall flat. But mostly, this one had me rolling in laughter. The inherent absurdity of Danny McBride's blue-collar inflection in a high fantasy world straight out of Conan cracks me up just thinking about it. The stoner-hero over-the-topness of James Franco in this one results in numerous moments of hilarity. And with Natalie Portman as a warrior princess, and Zooey Daschenel as a medieval maiden, I think the real question might be: how is this *not* on more people's Best-Of lists?

24.) Tree of Life

- Here's the thing about Tree of Life ... to me, if it was just a movie about a family in the 50's, a film about how the idyllic facade of suburbia often disguised lives of trauma and tragedy - well, maybe then it could have been a great film. Certainly, Bradd Pitt is great as the stern, slightly unbalanced father, and Jessica Chastain is similarly excellent as his repressed dreamer of a wife. In those small-town-America scenes of postwar angst, Terence Malick crafts a story that is, in-and-of-itself, a powerful and nostalgia-swept coming-of-age story. But I just couldn't make the connection between this - the bulk of the movie - and the maddeningly disconnected scenes of cosmic odyssey. They are, taken on their own, awe-inspiring. But I don't feel that Malick effectively connects them to his main story. Same goes for the bookends with Sean Penn - I had to really stretch to imagine how Malick intended the movie to come together as a cohesive whole. But as I've said before, Tree of Life is impressively ambitious, and it was indeed one of the more absorbing, thought-provoking, and beautifully-shot movies I saw this year. It's essential viewing, I think, but I just can't bring myself to rank it higher on this list.

25.) Drive Angry 3D

- And finally, here's my wild-card pick - a B-movie, instant-cult classic that is just pure, unadulterated, completely ridiculous insanity. Nicholas Cage is in full-on madman mode here, as a back-from-the-dead dad determined to wreak unholy vengeance on the evil cult leader who killed his daughter. William Fichtner is endlessly entertaining as Satan's too-cool accountant, intent on dragging Cage back to the underworld. And Amber Heard shows bonafide B-movie chops, kicking ass with style as a blonde bombshell who gets caught up in Cage's revenge-quest. Is Drive Angry in any way a conventionally good movie? I suppose not. But is it all kinds of awesome? Hells yes.

Runners Up: Rango, Colombiana, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Paul, J. Edgar, War Horse, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Bridesmaids, Super 8, Cars 2, Source Code, Midnight In Paris, Super, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, The Muppets, Moneyball, The Sitter, Real Steel, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Pariah


INDIVIDUAL AWARDS:


BEST LEAD ACTOR:

1.) Demian Bichir - A Better Life

2.) Jean Dujardin - The Artist
3.) Ryan Gosling - Drive
4.) Michael Fassbender - A Dangerous Method
5.) Tie: Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy - Warrior


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

1.) Christopher Plummer - Beginners

2.) Nick Nolte - Warrior
3.) Ben Kingsley - Hugo
4.) Kenneth Branaugh - My Week With Marilyn
5.) Viggo Mortensen - A Dangerous Method


BEST LEADING ACTRESS:

1.) Charlize Theron - Young Adult

2.) Michelle Williams - My Week With Marilyn
3.) Elizabeth Olsen - Martha Marcy May Marlene
4.) Rooney Mara - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
5.) Jessica Chastain - The Debt


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

1.) Berenice Bejo - The Artist

2.) Evan Rachel Wood - The Ides of March
3.) Carey Mulligan - Drive
4.) Shailene Woodley - The Descendents
5.) Helen Mirren - The Debt


BEST DIRECTOR:

1.) Nicolas Winding Refn - Drive

2.) Michael Hazanavicus - The Artist
3.) Martin Scorsese - Hugo
4.) Sean Durkin - Martha Marcy May Marlene
5.) Chris Weitz - A Better Life

Runners Up: Rupert Wyatt - Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Steven Spielberg - The Adventures of Tintin


BEST SCREENPLAY:

1.) Young Adult
2.) The Ides of March
3.) A Better Life
4.) Martha Marcy May Marlene
5.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes
6.) A Dangerous Method
7.) Attack the Block
8.) The Descendants
9.) Beginners
10.) 30 Minutes or Less

So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Personal favorites, disappointments, or surprises? Already, it's looking like 2012 is going to be an absolutely stacked year for great movies. January alone is looking jam-packed with potentially cool films, and looming on the horizon are, among others, The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, and The Hobbit. So here's to another great year at the movies.

THE BEST OF 2011 - The Best GAMES Of The Year


THE YEAR IN GAMING, 2011:

- Oh, to be young again. I know, I say that at the ripe old age of 29, but in the world of videogames, that's practically ancient. Here I am, a guy who grew up in a long-ago age of 8-bit sidescrollers and fancy pixel-based graphics, and it's a new era of motion-control, open-world gameplay, downloadable games, and online competition. Whatever happened to the days when games were about the simple act of avoiding falling into bottomless pits? Who am I kidding though ... I'm jealous of the kids who have all the time in the world to play and master the new generation of kickass games. These days, I tend to avoid playing games sometimes, if only because I get frustrated when I get really into one and then don't have time to just immerse myself in it for days on end. Over my short-but-sweet Christmas break, I finally had a couple of days to devote to some quality alone-time with my PS3 and XBOX 360, and man, I felt like a kid in a candy store, getting lost in games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City. The way things are now, these big-budget, blockbuster games clearly are massive undertakings to create, and so the market often seems devoid of big, new games - and then, suddenly, flooded with 'em. And that's how it was this year - with only a trickle of must-play games in the front-end of 2011, suddenly, the holiday season saw an onslaught of marquee releases. Who can play 'em all? And when will the game companies learn to spread things out a bit? Spread the love, guys. In any case, this ended up being an absolutely huge year for games, in more ways than one.

Most importantly, this was just a great year for gaming in terms of quality releases. The amount of triple-A titles that came out is pretty staggering - Batman: Arkham City, Skyrim, Uncharted 3 ... and those are just the tip of the iceberg. There were also a ton of cool, innovative downloadable games this year as well. Whatever other issues or challenges the industry faces, it always, always comes down to the games, and so regardless of anything else, it was a great year to be a gamer.

That said, there's no question - the gaming industry is at a crossroads, and things are going to get interesting. For Sony and Microsoft, it's going to be business as usual for another year or two - until the next console cycle comes along. But for now, the XBOX 360 and PS3 have plenty of life left in them. XBOX continues to sell well, and Sony is catching up - thanks to a stacked lineup of exclusive, first-party games and a reduced price point for the console. Now, both Sony and MS are facing challenges with their attempts to launch motion-gaming and make it a major part of their console ecosystem. Kinect is doing better than Move, but Microsoft clearly has more at stake here. They've positioned Kinect as a major part of their XBOX strategy going-forward, and are heavily invested in its success. Sony less so with Move, where it's being positioned as a fun but non-essential peripheral. But in both instances, there's so far been a lack of killer apps, or games that have convinced the core gamer to embrace motion control. With Wii, that wasn't necessary - plenty of families and kids enjoyed the Wii on its own merits, and it sold like hotcakes because of it. But the XBOX and PS3 historically cater to a different audience, an audience that tends to be more interested in games like Skyrim than Just Dance. But I will say this: I bought a Kinect as an impulse-buy recently, and the thing is pretty darn cool. No, I'd never pick a random Kinect party game over an Uncharted, but still ... it is what it is. I don't know that Kinect needs to have hardcore action games to be worthwhile, but to rack up big sales with the XBOX crowd, it might. In any case, MS's focus on the Kinect may actually have seriously hurt it in 2011, as a lack of exclusive core games caused XBOX to lose some valuable ground to the PS3. It's something that could come back to bite MS in 2012. We'll see.

Sony has its own challenges though. The big one in early 2012 will be the launch of the portable successor to the PSP, the Playstation Vita. The Vita looks amazing - a portable system packing the power of a PS3. But the question is - is that something we want or need in today's market? I know for me, I love my DS and PSP, but ultimately, for big, complex games, I'd rather play them at home and on a big TV. The Vita has a definite cool-factor, but if I only have so many opportunities to play it on the go, then is it essentially like buying a second PS3? Plus, there's the Apple factor, and that might be the biggest one of all. Apple has not-so-quietly become a major presence in the world of gaming in the last year or two. The iPhone is the #1 platform by which people play games on the go these days, and the iPad is becoming sort of a powerhouse in its own right. When you've got exclusive franchises like Infinity Blade on your platform, then yes, you are a legitimate force in gaming. And that's a huge problem for Sony, and also for Nintendo. It's ironic, too, because Apple is sort of doing the reverse of what Sony did with the PS2 and PS3. With those consoles, Sony sold people on the gaming, but used them as trojan horses to get people invested in DVD and blu-ray. And it worked like gangbusters. Now, Apple is doing something similar - selling people on the iPhone and iPad for all sorts of things not having to do with gaming, but then sneakily becoming a major player in games because of the gaming capabilities of those devices. Personally, a touch screen is never going to be my ideal way to play a game. But plenty of people are happy to get their gaming fix - particularly their portable gaming fix - from an iPhone or iPad. It will be interesting to see the impact of this on the Vita. Sony is coming out of the gates with a stellar lineup of launch titles - but will that be enough?

Already, the impact of Apple has been felt in a big way by Nintendo, especially since there's a lot of crossover between the two company's more casual gaming demos. The launch of the 3DS this year was supposed to be a no-brainer win for Nintendo. For years now, they've dominated the portable market with the DS and been virtually unchallenged, selling millions and millions of units worldwide. But the times, they are a-changin'. The failure to launch of the 3DS can be blamed on a lot of things - a lack of killer launch titles, too high of a pricepoint, initially - but still, the Apple factor is undeniable. For longtime gamers, this is troubling. Nintendo has given us years of great games and consoles - no one wants to see them fail. Apple, conversely, has not really embraced the core gamer, except for the fact that they've secured some big, exclusive titles like Infinity Blade. But Apple doesn't go to E3 (and on a personal sidenote: I did once again get to go to E3 this year, and it was awesome!), Apple doesn't have a first-party game development studio, Apple doesn't design its devices to be optimized for gaming (no buttons!), and Apple doesn't set up pricing structures that really make sense for the gaming business. At some point, Apple will have to decide: do they go all-in, or do they remain a disruptive but ultimately peripheral player?

Either way, Nintendo is in some trouble. The Wii's sales are slowing down drastically, and Nintendo's support for the console has been weak. There's been one great game for the Wii in recent months - Zelda: Skyward Sword - and that, frankly, isn't enough. Nintendo already seems to have turned its focus to its next console, the Wii U. But that is still a long ways away - what happens between now and then? Inevitably, Wii users will migrate over to the PS3 and XBOX 360, which is not good for Nintendo's longterm prospects. In the past, Nintendo could count on strong portable sales to offset slow periods for its home consoles, but now, that's not necessarilly true. The 3DS, even with some big titles finally seeing the light of day, still has an uphill battle ahead of it.

So are games as we know them all-but-dead? Will triple-A, big budget console games become an endangered species, supplanted by $5 iPhone games and free-to-play Facebook games? Good lord, let's hope not. But the good news is, games like Arkham City and Uncharted are still out there to remind us what great games are capable of, and to show us that it's still worth it to march forward and not look back. I want the games of 2012 to look and play like, well, what I dreamed the games of 2012 might look and play like circa 1992. I want the future to be filled with even more mind-blowing graphics, even more innovative gameplay, and more games that live up to the full potential of the medium. Back to basics is good, sometimes. But I only need so many wordgames, retro arcade games, and HD remakes. Gaming has always been about the new, the boundary-pushing, the future. I say let's keep it that way.


THE BEST GAMES OF 2011:

Note: As I hinted at above, it's impossible for me to play everything, and there are dozens of games I wish I'd gotten the chance to play this past year. So the list below is by no means definitive - just my personal picks for the year's best games.


1.) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

- Skyrim is powered by gorgeous graphics, cutting-edge technology, and an expansive open-world. But in many ways, it feels like a throwback to the old days, when games were less story-driven and more about simply getting lost in a huge fantasy world. It took me a little while to warm up to the game. At first, I got bogged down in the controls, the combat mechanics, and the camera - but as I played more, those things became less important. Because Skyrim has a lot of little issues, bugs, and quirks - but the sum is much greater than the parts. At the end of the day, Skyrim is simply awesome because everything comes together to the point where you just feel like you're a warrior on an epic quest in a giant and far-away kingdom filled with caves, castles, villages, and monsters - and that's a great feeling. Few other games have managed this level of total immersion.


2.) Batman: Arkham City

- Batman: Arkham Asylum was awesome, but it just needed that extra little layer of polish to become truly great. Enter Arkham City, which elevates the franchise to true triple-A status, creating an amazing, immersive world for you to play around in. In this game, you simply are Batman. And that, my friends, is pretty freakin' badass. The gameplay is tighter, the world is bigger, the graphics sharper. And the storytelling is about as good as it gets. With a superlative voice cast (does it get any better than Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as The Joker, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn?), the story of Arkham city is legitimately one of the best-told Batman stories in recent memory, in any medium. That's a testament to where we're at now with this franchise and with games in general.


3.) Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

- Uncharted might just be the best franchise in gaming of this generation, and Uncharted 3 seals the deal. Nobody does blockbuster, set-piece action in gaming like Naughty Dog, the geniuses behind the Uncharted games. And no game series better matches great original characters - like the already-iconic Nathan Drake - with phenomenal gameplay that makes you feel like you're controlling the best Summer adventure movie that's not actually a movie, but something better. Uncharted 3 is another masterpiece from Sony and Naughty Dog.


4.) Tie: Bastion / Rayman Origins

- I had a hard time choosing between these two titles, because both wowed me with a blend of classic gameplay and eye-popping, hand-drawn visuals. Of the two, Bastion is the more original - an isometric adventure that matches a Zelda-like adventure with a mysterious and surprisingly somber tone. A haunting, unseen voice narrates your every move, and it's a unique addition to the gameplay. It makes it feel like you're playing through a fairy-tale, and there's a sense of urgency as you try to urge the hero on to a happy ending. A super-innovative and beautifully-crafted downloadable game on XBOX. Meanwhile, Rayman Origins is a cartoon come to life. It's incredibly vibrant, and the gameplay flows like a dream. This is just a classic take on the old-school 2D platformer that's a must-play for those who still appreciate the genre.


5.) L.A. Noire

- Finally, Rockstar's open-world detective title L.A. Noire is a little rough-around-the-edges at times, but I give it huge points for innovation and uniqueness. For one thing, the graphics are incredible - particularly with regards to the facial muscle-capturing techniques used, to sculpt characters who have the most realistic and naturalistic faces and expressions I've ever seen in a game. Secondly, the game just does a great job of immersing you in a classic film noir storyline. Even when the gameplay is a bit slow or awkward, the overall world created here is amazingly rendered and realized.


And there you have it, my games of the year. I know that there are a ton of great games I didn't talk about here, so be sure to let me know your personal picks. Happy gaming.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

THE BEST OF 2011 - The Best COMICS Of The Year


THE YEAR IN COMICS, 2011:

- 2011 was, for comics, the real-world equivalent of the Crisis On Infinite Earths. For those not well-versed in geek-speak, this was a year where things got shaken up in a big, big way. For one thing, the digital revolution is happening in comics right now. Faster than a speeding bullet, comics have gone day-and-date digital, and suddenly, getting new comics each week is a simple matter of a few taps on one's iPad or Kindle Fire. That, to me, is awesome. Like I've said before, nothing can beat reading comics the old-fashioned way. But - there's also definitely something to be said for the benefits of digital. Digital comics means saving space. It means that comics - even more obscure ones - are available to people without easy access to a comic shop. It means that those with a curiosity about the medium have the ability to quickly and easily sample a title or two. In short, digital comics means that more people can read more comics. I'd even go so far as to say that digital could be the way in which comics finally go mainstream.

Now, do us true-blue fanboys even want comics to go mainstream - that's another question entirely. Personally, I think any paradigm change that gives the medium a little bit of a kick in the pants is a good thing. For too long, comics were just catering to an increasingly small, rapidly aging demo - and that was not good for anyone. It meant that comics companies like DC and Marvel could bleed the fanboys dry with thirty-five-part-crossovers that took advantage of the collector's completist tendencies. It meant that, rather than giving us new ideas and new characters, DC and Marvel would just constantly go back to the well, reviving concepts from the 60's, 70's, and 80's ad nauseum. I was lucky - I was a comics-reading kid during the last time that the biz was really experimenting with game-changing storylines and all-new characters - the 90's. Love 'em or hate 'em, the 90's birthed a new generation of characters that felt like "our" versions of the classic heroes.

In theory, DC's relaunch that occurred this past September was supposed to bring back that same level of creativity and newness - a fresh jumping-on point for new readers, and a lineup of reimagined characters that a new generation would take ownership of. Sales-wise, DC's New 52 has been an undeniable success story ... so far. It will be very interesting to see if sales hold up, and to what extent DC's been successful in hooking new readers, and not just getting the core comics market to snatch up a bunch of new #1's. Creatively, I think the New 52 has been a decidedly mixed bag. What's frustrating is that the titles that tend to be telling the best stories are the ones that are building off of past continuity - Batman, Green Lantern, etc. - or, the ones that could just as easily have launched pre-reboot - Swamp Thing and Animal Man come to mind. Less successful have been the titles that have done a hard reboot and started over from scratch - Superman, Teen Titans, Justice League International, Green Arrow, and more. It makes you wonder if the way in which DC went about things was slightly misguided. Instead of ditching continuity, why not embrace it and utilize it in a way that makes sense for new readers, but rewards longtime ones as well? Look at how successful writers like Geoff Johns have been with soft reboots of properties like Green Lantern and The Flash - instead of erasing those characters' histories, Johns made those histories seem cool, and rich, and fascinating.

And that's why I wonder - do we really need to read Superman's origin for the upteenth time? Do we really need to erase the history of the Teen Titans for no good reason? Was it really necessary to revert Barbara Gordon, a great character as Oracle, back to a version of Batgirl who was most popular almost 50 years ago? I think that continuity reboots are overrated - you're just back to where you started from within a few years anyway. But I think that what DC is learning from fan reaction is that there's something else at work in the comics-reading community that's much bigger than a desire for reboots - it's a desire for new characters, for diverse characters, for strong female characters, and for a universe that better reflects our modern world and the modern comics fanbase. Most of DC and Marvel's most famous characters were created in the 30's, 40's, 50's, and 60's. Most of the heroes are square-jawed white guys who were distinguishable more for their powers and costume colors than for their personalities. That's why younger fans expressed frustration as newer characters like Wally West and Stephanie Brown were discarded as part of DC's reboot - Wally West had become and awesome character, so had Stephanie Brown. In turn, they made The Flash and Batgirl, respectively, into better characters. To see them tossed aside in favor of more generic versions of those heroes - why would anyone want that, other than out of some sense of nostalgia?

At this year's San Diego Comic-Con - the modern mecca for all things comics and pop-culture - the outcries of the fans were clear: it's time for a new generation of heroes. That doesn't mean that you need to mess with Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent - those guys are classics. What it does mean is new female characters defined by more than skimpy costumes. It means racially diverse characters who can stand toe to toe with Superman or Batman. It means comics that are written for a wide audience, without losing the intelligence, imagination, and sense of infinite possibility that makes the medium unique.

Of course, the comics medium is capable of so many diverse types of storytelling. It's cool to think that, with the advent of digital, whole new masses of people can discover the classics like Y: The Last Man, Preacher, and Watchmen. In terms of new stuff, there is plenty of fantastic non-superhero stuff out there for all kinds of readers. Personal favorites include Sweet Tooth, Fables, All-Star Western, and of course, The Walking Dead.

Honestly, the DC reboot has been kind of jarring for me. I've been reading DC Comics since I was a kid, and the DC Universe has always been sort of a comfort for me. It was a place whose history I'd read about for years. I'd collected back issues and trade paperbacks of old stories to fill in the gaps. I knew all of its ins and outs and characters and contradictions. To pick up a book like the new Action Comics, or Justice League, and see all of those years of history suddenly erased? Well, it was definitely a weird feeling. I think, for better or worse, that feeling of detachment is making me more picky in the books I'm buying on a regular basis. Before, I might pick up a new Superman book just because, like I said, it was comfort food. It was a new chapter in a story I'd followed in some capacity for years. Now, if a new comics isn't grabbing me - even if it's a story about a character I might previously have had some attachment to - then I'm not wasting my money. Suffice it to say, I sampled the first issue or two of a large portion of DC's New 52, but very quickly, I dumped any books that didn't completely hook me - just as I would with a new TV show during the Fall season.

I think that, ultimately, the new accessibility of comics will make the medium better. Already, new fans are asking the questions that longtime fans took for granted. Why aren't there more great female and racially diverse characters? Why aren't there more *new* characters in general? Do we really need *so* many superheroes? And if we do, then can we at least get stories featuring characters with distinct personalities, interesting supporting casts, and plotlines that keep us coming back each month? Luckily, a new crop of writers seems to get it, and it's been awesome to see the speedy rise of great talents like Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire to the top of the heap in the last year, joining the top-tier that includes writers like Robert Kirkman, Ed Brubaker, Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, and Gail Simone. But these guys can only write so many books - there's still a need for more like them.

2012 should be a huge year for comics. We'll see how DC's New 52 pans out, and which books keep up the momentum from 2011. Brian K. Vaughan is set to return to comics with a new book at Image. A new Fables spin-off is coming. More comics than ever will be available digitally, and tablets will be more numerous and less expensive.

The good news is this: if you're new to comics, you're in luck -- there's a whole universe of amazing characters and fantastic stories awaiting you.

- Before I move on to talking about the the best comics of the year, I do want to take a minute to mention some of the great creators that passed away this year, as unfortunately the comics industry lost some true titans in 2011. The legendary Joe Simon - co-creator of Captain America and many other heroes of the Golden Age. The equally legendary Jerry Robinson, one of the defining Batman artists, and the creator of The Joker. This one was especially sad since I got to meet Mr. Robinson two years ago at Comic-Con, where he signed a drawing of Batman and Robin for me. Gene Colan, the great horror artist of books like Tomb of Dracula. And maybe the one that hit me the hardest - Dwayne McDuffie - who died way too young, only in his forties. One of the premiere writers of this generation, McDuffie helped usher in a new age of diversity in comics with the creation of the Milestone universe - a new world of ethnically-diverse characters, including the popular Static Shock. He also penned some of the great episodes of DC's animated universe, writing classic episodes of Justice League Unlimited, as well as animated movies like Batman: Under the Red Hood.

Comics have a rich and amazing history, so even as we enter a new era for the medium, let's remember those who helped build the foundation.

- And now, my picks for the BEST in comics from this past year ...


THE BEST COMIC BOOKS OF 2011:


THE BEST SINGLE ISSUES:

1.) Jonah Hex #69

- Before the DC Reboot, Jonah Hex was one of my favorite books month-in, month-out. Every issue, writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray delivered great, gritty tales of the Old West, starring the scarred bounty hunter Jonah Hex. But with issue #69, the second-to-last issue of the series before it was rebooted as All-Star Western, the writing pair delivered an absolute classic, a haunting, intense standalone tale in which Jonah Hex finally comes face to face with his father, who lies dying. Illustrated by Jeff Lemire, of Sweet Tooth and Animal Man fame, the issue is one of the most powerful single issues of a comic I've ever read - an emotional, dark, tale of a scarred man confronting his past and the sins of the father.


2.) Secret Six #36 (series finale)

- The shame of the DC reboot was that it seemed to happen so suddenly, that most books didn't bother with a true ending or finale before wrapping up. But writer Gail Simone, it seems, knew the end was approaching for cult-favorite book Secret Six, and holy crap, did she go out with a bang. In the epic two part series-ender, Batman villain Bane, determined to reclaim his status as a premiere force of evil and destruction, recruits the Six to launch an all-out assault on Batman and his allies. With one swift stroke, Bane aims to once-and-for-all take down the Bat. But, it turns out that the heroes of the DC Universe have been tipped off to Bane's plan, and so they come to the aid of Batman against the Six. What transpires is all-out war - The Six vs. Everyone Else. The Six know they're doomed, but they'll be damned if they don't go down fighting. My god, what a way to close out one of the best series of the last decade.


3.) Batgirl #24 (final issue)

- The end of the old DC meant the end of some beloved series, and the potential ending for some beloved characters. One of the saddest endings was for the Stephanie Brown version of Batgirl, who would be written out of the DC Universe during the reboot, replaced by original Batgirl Barbara Gordon. What I - and I think others - liked about Stephanie was that she was a character who seemed to scrape and claw her way into the limelight. Introduced years ago as The Spoiler, an ally of Robin, Stephanie was the daughter of a two-bit criminal who decided to defy her father by becoming a hero. Even though DC continually tried to write her out of the storylines and keep her sidelined - even killing her off at one point - Stephanie kept coming back, seemingly only because fans really dug her. She was the girl-next-door as superhero, and who doesn't love that. Anyways, Bryan Q. Miller, against all odds, crafted a great series around the idea that Stephanie had now graduated to the role of Batgirl. It was a fantastic series, and the final issue was amazing and heartbreaking -a glimpse at the future that we'll never see - a series of flashforwards that posited what might have happened to Stephanie had she enjoyed a long career in the cape and cowl. The finale seemed to directly address the fans upset with the impending reboot. "It's only the end if you want it to be," Stephanie told us. And with those words, a great run and a great character rode off into the sunset.


4.) Detective Comics #881 (final issue)

- To make a long story short, for the past couple of years, pre-DC reboot, Dick Grayson, the original Robin, had become the new Batman. A lot of good stories were told with Dick as Batman, but the best was in the pages of Detective Comics, where writer Scott Snyder wrote an arc called "The Black Mirror," in which Dick was confronted with a Gotham City that seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. What started out as a standard mystery soon became a personal case for Dick - it turned out that Gotham's newest murderer was in fact a key member of the Batman supporting cast. This revelation was shocking, disturbing, and downright creepy. And the finale of this arc, in 'Tec 881, was a doozy - a page-turner of the highest order, and a worthy finale to one of the longest-running and most legendary comic books of all time. With this storyline, Scott Snyder cemented himself as the new, premiere writer of Batman.


5.) Animal Man #1

- The issues above are all pre-DC reboot, but here's one that was probably *the* defining moment of the New 52 relaunch, the moment where fans stood up and said "hey, there may be some damn good comics to come out of this whole shebang." With one issue, writer Jeff Lemire and artist Travel Foreman established a mood of unsettling horror and creeping dread. Because, from the get-go, we could see the contrast forming between Buddy Baker - family man, activist, and part-time superhero - and the world of horror that he was about to enter. Even as Buddy spent quality time with his wife and kids, a terrible evil lurked around him. With one issue, Lemire declared that Animal Manm perhaps unexpectedly, was the must-read book of the New 52.


THE BEST ONGOING SERIES:

1.) Sweet Tooth

- I didn't mention Sweet Tooth in my best single-issues list only because the series reads like the weirdest, most awesome HBO TV series you'll ever see, with one storyline flowing seamlessly into the next. Sure, the series had some truly standout issues in 2011, like one surreal chapter where the title character goes on a dream-quest in which he remembers his own origins - beautifully-painted by writer-artist Jeff Lemire. I've also absolutely loved the recent flashback arc where we see the backstory of the virus that brought about the apocalyptic plague that set up the premise of the book. But Sweet Tooth is just this amazing tapestry of ideas, characters, and ongoing plot developments - it's always my #1 must-read comic book these days. For those not in-the-know, Sweet Tooth is an ongoing book from DC's mature-readers Vertigo imprint, written and drawn by one of the rising stars of the comics industry, Jeff Lemire. The book takes place in a near-future where the world's been decimated by a plague. Humanity has been all-but-decimated, and the remaining people live in a world ravaged by violence and chaos, just trying to survive. In the aftermath of this plague though, a strange thing has happened - a wave of babies born since the plague have been mutants - strange human-animal hybrids, who are immune to the still-spreading plague virus. One of these hybrids, Sweet Tooth, is seen by some as the key to curing the plague, as he's the first known hybrid to have been discovered. And so began a mystery in which Sweet Tooth, accompanied by his badass guardian Jeppard, travels the globe in search of answers as to his origins. It's an epic, sprawling tale filled with action, mystery, and horror - and to me, it's the best book out there right now.


2.) Animal Man

- I talked earlier about what Jeff Lemire (there's that name again) has done with Animal Man, but I'll add this: even though he's a lesser-known character in the mainstream, Animal Man has quite the legacy in comics. Back in the day, Grant Morrison had a legendary run on the character. Even recently, there was a really good miniseries - The Last Days of Animal Man - that looked at the character as a middle-aged hero facing retirement. So for Lemire to come in and do a new take on the character that a.) incorporates what's gone before, but b.) feels totally new and unique ... it's quite an accomplishment. What's more, the book really set the bar for the New 52 - it showed that whatever issues people might have with how some of the more high-profile titles were handled, at the least, the new DC would be home to titles like this one - the kind of offbeat, dark, edgier stuff that DC was known for in the 80's and 90's, but that it had gotten away from in recent years. If there's one great thing about the new DC, it's that books like Animal Man now have a home there.


3.) Invincible

- One of my big reading endeavors of 2011 was to finally catch up on Invincible - you know, that *other* book from Robert Kirkman that isn't The Walking Dead. I did a marathon reading session through the various volumes that collect the comic's run to-date. From what I can gather, this is the way to go to catch up on the book, because there've been some delays in its monthly output. But reading it in trade format, man, I found myself totally hooked on Kirkman's funny-yet-epic superhero story. Kirkman just keeps upping the ante for Mark Grayson, aka Invincible, and as with The Walking Dead, he's never afraid to shake things up or throw us some major curveballs. And it doesn't get more major than The Viltrumite War, an star-spanning saga that began in 2010 and raced towards its blockbuster conclusion in 2011. It was in many ways the ultimate Invincible epic - Mark and his morally-questionable dad defending the earth from their own alien race, who are intent on enslaving earth. But what makes Invincible so addicting is the way that Kirkman writes it as both a traditional superhero story but also as something that feels 100% different from the books at DC or Marvel. The characters feel modern and well-defined, there's quirky humor, there's lots of imagination, and there are bouts of brutal violence that remind you that yes, this is a book where serious $%&% goes down. If you haven't jumped onboard yet, be sure to check out Invincible.


4.) Detective Comics and Batman - by Scott Snyder

- After writing one of the best Batman arcs in recent years during his run on Detective Comics, Scott Snyder picked up right where he left off, quality-wise, on the New 52 relaunch of Batman. A lot of people were worried about the fact that the reboot was prematurely ending Snyder's 'Tec run, starring Dick Grayson as the new Batman. But as it turns out, Snyder proved equally adept at writing Bruce Wayne. His Batman run kicked off with a bang, pitting Bruce against a secret cabal of Gothamites with a longstanding vendetta against the Wayne family (a thread that also ties nicely into Snyder's earlier Batman: Gates of Gotham series). Snyder's also had the help of some kickass artists i bringing his Bat-books to life. The dark, moody art of Jock helped make Detective as good as it was, and the lighter, more kinetic art of Greg Capullo has been a huge part of making the latest Batman arc feel like a big-budget blockbuster put to page. In short, 2011 was the year where Snyder became DC's MVP - especially when it comes to Batman.


5.) The Walking Dead

- I just recently caught up on the latest volume of The Walking Dead, and the same thing happened to me that always does with this book - I sat down intending to read just a portion of the story, and before I knew it, I read the whole thing in one sitting. The Walking Dead has a sense of forward momentum like no other comic out there, and it's also more unpredictable - I never know what Robert Kirkman has in store for these characters. That said, I felt like the latest batch of issues played things a little safe. After the shocking events of the previous volume, we got a lot of character stuff that was a little repetitive at times. It's funny, because I also definitely recognized some elements of the TV show beginning to find their way into the comics - which is both good and bad. One of the key romantic developments has probably been a long-time coming now, so that was cool to finally see happen. I just hope that the book doesn't tone itself down at all to be accessible to fans of the show. The Walking Dead grabbed me because it was intense, violent, dark, and often, just plain #%&$'ed-up. Let's hope it stays that way. Still, this remains one of the true modern-classics, and I'm always curious to see what happens next.


6.) Swamp Thing

- Scott Snyder does it again. Much like Lemire did with Animal Man, Snyder took a character that enjoyed a legendary run in the 80's (courtesy of Alan Moore), and brought him back into DC proper with a take that felt familiar yet fresh. What I'm loving about the new Swamp Thing is that Snyder is bringing back the weird horror and gothic romance of the Alan Moore run, but also delivering some great new twists. Most noticeably, the book so far has featured Alec Holland back to being a normal guy, with only vague memories as his time as the Swamp Thing. This makes for a strange relationship with his former love Abby Arcane, who's grown cold and hardened since we last saw her. I also love the lush, bold artwork from Yanick Paquette. And by the way, one cool thing about the new Swamp Thing and Animal Man books - both are working in tandem to plant seeds for an upcoming, epic crossover storyline. In some cases, that might be annoying, but with guys like Lemire and Snyder at the helm, you know you're in for an amazing story.


7.) Batgirl - by Bryan Q. Miller

- There's a certain kind of comic that tends to get underrated, and Batgirl was of that type. It was a comic where, sure, some big storylines would happen once in a while, and we'd get some big action and epic heroics. But month to month, the thing that made the book so endearing was simply that Bryan Q. Miller made Stephanie Brown feel like a friend that we'd check in with and just hang out with for a bit. The fact that I felt sort of buddy-buddy with (okay, and maybe had a slight crush on) a costumed adventurer sounds weird, maybe, but that's a testament to the writing of Miller. When his run on Batgirl ended, it felt like an old friend had gone away. But this was a book that was just really enjoyable - cool, clean art, fun adventures, fleshed-out characters, and a spunky, likable protagonist who was the rare (relatively) well-adjusted person in the always-dysfunctional Bat-family. It's only the end if you want it to be, Miller wrote, and this was an end that I definitely did not want. Let's hope that Ms. Brown resurfaces sooner rather than later in the new DCU.


8.) Secret Six

- Secret Six was one of the great comics of the last several years - a twisted take on supervillains where, somehow, writer Gail Simone made us root for a group of some of comicdom's darkest souls. Simone combined fan-favorites like Deadshot and Bane with also-rans like Catman and new characters like Scandal Savage. Somehow, she made those also-rans into awesome characters, those new characters into great ones, and made us remember why we loved those fan-favorites in the first place. This book was the place where Simone's writing was at its best - darkly funny, delightfully twisted, and action-packed. The two-part finale that I talked about above was a mini-epic for the ages. And, in the New 52, this book's absence left a huge void - a testament to its status as one of the best books on the stands from start to finish.


9.) Batman, Inc.

- Part of me cringes when I read Grant Morrison's psychedelic acid-trip take on Batman. My preferred Batman is a dark, grim character who lives in a neo-noir world. But Morrison's take on Batman-as-James Bond-on-crack was so entertainingly weird that I couldn't help but enjoy it, and his unique style and dense, cryptic narratives made Batman, Inc. a must-read for me each month. Yes, I sometimes read this stuff and wonder if you have to be on mind-altering drugs to fully comprehend what Morrison's going for. But that's also what makes these stories so mind-bendingly cool. Morrison just seemed to be in his own little corner of the universe - with near-indifference towards what was going on elsewhere in the DC Universe, Morrison was just doing his thing, telling his own sprawling, acid-washed epic in which Batman forms Batman, Inc. - franchising the war on crime so as to fight a global war against a terrorist organization known as Leviathan. Somehow, Leviathan is linked to the last several years' worth of Morrison-penned Bat-stories, and the various web of plot threads and crazy characters practically requires an encyclopedia to decipher (and in the recent Batman: Leviathan special, there actually is a giant appendix that tries to make sense of the story so far!). But that's the fun of it. Who else is doing comics like this these days. Morrison is basically saying screw accessibility, and screw mainstream interpretations of Batman - here's a Batman story that's insane, near-incomprehensible, and completely off-the-wall. In other words, god bless Grant Morrison for daring to be different.


10.) Batwoman

- First thing's first - there's no better artist working in comics today than J.H. Williams III. Each month, he makes new issues of Batgirl into works of modern art, crafting gorgeous pages full of beautifully-painted panels. His work is, quite simply, mind-blowing. What other artist changes style completely depending on whether the title's crimson-haired hero is in costume or in civilian garb? Williams is operating on a higher plane these days - it's crazy. But, we knew that Williams was a phenomenal artist. What we didn't know was that he could write - continuing the adventures of Kate Kane - the new Batwoman - that were so elegantly penned by Greg Rucka previously, and doing so without missing a beat. Williams' stories have a more surreal, dreamlike quality than Rucka's more hard-boiled crime stories, but Batwoman is still a great read. And it's one of the must-read books of DC's New 52 - buy it for the art, stay for the cool characters and intriguing plotlines.

Runners Up: Fables, Jack of Fables, Red Robin, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Jonah Hex, Green Lantern, All-Star Western


THE BEST MINISERIES AND SPECIALS:

1.) Flashpoint: Batman - Knight of Vengeance

- This summer's Flashpoint event was billed as a huge, universe-altering storyline designed to bridge the gap between the old DCU and the new. As it turns out, the series itself was only okay, but some of the surrounding, spin-off series were, in fact, excellent. The best of the bunch, by far, was Batman: Knight of Vengeance. In this twisted series from noir writer Brian Azzarello and his frequent collaborator Eduardo Risso, we enter a world where Bruce Wayne is dead. Instead of Bruce's parents being shot on that fateful night, a young Bruce was tragically killed, and in response, a traumatized Thomas Wayne becomes the Batman. The story is a fascinating what-if scenario, and the reveal regarding who, exactly, is the Joker of this world is one of this year's great shockers.


2.) Unexpected

- Every so often, you'll see these giant short-story compilations come out, and you're never quite sure what you're going to get in these comic book equivalents of a box of chocolates. But this one-shot special from Vertigo was an awesome surprise, packed to the brim with cool sci-fi and horror stories that were the kind of wonderfully weird tales that made me love Vertigo in the first place. A strange story of zombie love and a cautionary tale of climate-change-gone-apocalyptic are just two of the highlights of this unexpectedly awesome special.


3.) Tie: Superior / Kick-Ass 2

- Give Mark Millar credit, the bombastic writer of Kick-Ass knows how to write comics that get people talking. Unfortunately, some of that talk inevitably revolves around the delays that his books tend to suffer, with several months sometimes passing between issues. But, towards the end of the year, Millar seemed to get his books back on track, scheduling-wise, and they also picked up some narrative momentum as well. Kick-Ass 2, for me, sometimes walked a fine line between entertainingly over-the-top and just plain offensive. But at the end of the day, I have to admit that I've been thoroughly enjoying the sequel to Kick-Ass for its sheer, brazen audacity and ridiculousness. Meanwhile, Superior has been an interesting read - a story about a disabled kid who is suddenly granted the powers of his favorite fictional superhero, but only gets to keep them by paying a steep price. Both books have their flaws, but Millar nonetheless makes them feel like must-read events.


4.) Batman: Gates of Gotham

- Here was a cool, clockwork mystery from Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins - a story that delved into the history of Gotham City, and how it reflects back on the modern day. The story flashes between the past and present, with a villain terrorizing Gotham whose roots go back to the city's founding. And so we learn about how the city was built, with its five most prominent families (including the Waynes, of course), making decisions that would forever alter the foundations of Gotham - literally and figuratively. Great writing by Snyder and Higgins, this was the rare must-read Batman miniseries, and it helped set the stage for Snyder's later run on Batman proper.


5.) Spaceman

- Spaceman is still in the middle of its 9-part story, but I feel confident that, by the time it wraps up, it will end up as one of the more intriguing and memorable series to come out of Vertigo in a long while. This dystopian sci-fi story from Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (of 100 Bullets fame) is an atmospheric story of a future in which an environmentally-ruined earth is now breeding genetically-engineered, neanderthal-like grunts to do all of the dirty work that regular people don't want to have to deal with. Spaceman is the story of one such grunt who somehow gets caught up in a web of lies, crime, and scandal - far more than he usually deals with in his simple, blue-collar existence. Azzarello infuses the book with rhythmic future-slang that makes this dstopian world feel alien-yet-familiar, and Risso delivers his usual simple-yet-suggestive art. A highlight of late 2011, and certainly a book to keep an eye on in 2012.

Runners Up: Jimmy Olsen One-Shot, Flashpoint: Grodd of War


THE BEST SUPERHERO MOVIES OF 2011:

1.) Captain America
2.) X-Men: First Class
3.) Thor


BOOKS ON MY READING LIST FOR 2012:

- There's more good comics than one person can possibly read in one year, so there are a lot of books on my radar that I hope to get around to soon. One such book is LOCKE & KEY, which I've heard great things about. All I can say is, the first trade paperback has been purchased, and it's ready to be read. I've also heard amazing things about Ed Brubaker's crime book CRIMINAL. Since I'm a huge Brubaker fan, that is another one on my short-list.

- I also want to mention a long-time-coming book that just came out - a trade paperback that, finally, collects perhaps my favorite comic book of the 90's - CHASE - into one handy volume. Chase was the story of Cameron Chase, a dogged agent at the D.E.O. - the Department of Extranormal Operations. Chase's job sees her investigating the true motives and identities of heroes like Batman on behalf of the government, and in doing so, finding out a lot about her own intrigue-filled past. Chase was an amazing but tragically short-lived comic, but its influence is still felt today. In fact, Cameron Chase and the D.E.O. have been popping up of late in Batwoman, whose writer/artist J.H. Williams III cut his teeth as the artist of Chase back in the day.

- One other shout-out, in terms of great books I caught up on this year. If you have any interest in World War II, I can't recommend Garth Ennis' WAR STORIES highly enough. Collected in two volumes, these are short stories that cover all aspects of the war, with a mix of humor, horror, and extensively-researched historical detail. Check 'em out.


THE BEST WRITERS OF 2011:

1.) Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Animal Man, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.)
2.) Scott Snyder (Detective Comics, Batman, Swamp Thing)
3.) Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Invincible)
4.) Geoff Johns (Green Lantern, The Flash, Flashpoint, Justice League, Aquaman)
5.) Brian Azzarello (Batman: Knight of Vengeance, Spaceman)
6.) Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (Jonah Hex, All-Star Western)
7.) Grant Morrison (Batman, Inc.)
8.) Bryan Q. Miller (Batgirl)
9.) Gail Simone (Secret Six, Birds of Prey)
10.) Kyle Higgins (Batman: Gates of Gotham, Nightwing, Deathstroke)


THE BEST ARTISTS OF 2011:

1.) J.H. Williams III (Batwoman)
2.) Jim Lee (Justice League)
3.) Ryan Ottley (Invincible)
4.) Andy Kubert (Flashpoint)
5.) Yanick Paquette (Batman Inc., Swamp Thing)
6.) Marcus To (Red Robin, Huntress)
7.) Eduardo Risso (Batman: Knight of Vengeance, Spaceman)
8.) Travel Foreman (Animal Man)
9.) Charlie Adlard (The Walking Dead)
10.) David Finch (Batman: Dark Knight)

And that's it for the Best Comics of 2011. Excelsior and happy reading!

THE BEST OF 2011 - The Best ROCK Of The Year


THE YEAR IN ROCK, 2011:

- The state of rock n' roll in 2011 can, sadly, be summed up by what's been happening to the legendary KROQ here in Los Angeles. When I first moved to LA, one of the things that I immediately loved about the city was that I had a great rock radio station to listen to, something I'd been lacking since my days in Boston. I discovered a lot of great music and a lot of great bands by listening to KROQ. And sure, the station tended to become overly trendy - overplaying whatever rock fad was hot in a given year. But hey, at least hey played new music. In 2011, tune into KROQ at any given moment and you're much more likely to hear a 90's-era song from Nirvana, Alice in Chains, or the Chili Peppers than anything new. It's 2011 - I love 90's rock, but it's now, officially, classic rock, and there are other stations for that. Now, it's a rarity to find new music on the station. Sadly, LA is probably lucky at this point to have a couple of stations that play any sort of new rock music (and in LA's defense, a couple of scrappier stations have risen up to try to fill the void now left by KROQ). In many places in the country, however, new rock is totally absent from the airwaves. And man, that sucks.

This means that in order to find the good stuff, you have to seek it out. And when you seek it out, you run into platforms like iTunes that filter content and only promote a limited number of bands. Take a look at the iTunes rock charts - bands like Journey and Bon Jovi top the Top 100, and nary a new rock song ranks highly. Things get even more bleak when you look at the general music Top 100, where rock is a minimal presence these days.

So why do we no longer seem to want to rock? I don't know, it sort of baffles me. I see my peers into the likes of Adele and Coldplay and I wonder ... what happened? Did Gen Y just mellow out to the point of being lamer than our Baby Boomer parents? I'm not saying there's anything wrong with, say, Adele - she seems uber-talented and I give her credit, she's an original. But I also see her popularity as a sign of the times ... a time where, sadly, we're a country of Adele-loving, American Idol-watching, Dancing With the Stars-obsessed wimps. Has America forgotten how to rock and/or roll?

Maybe it's the lack of new music on KROQ, or maybe it's the fact that Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem to have faded out of the mainstream, replaced by the likes of Dance Central and Just Dance in the world of party games. Maybe it's the fact that Steven Tyler is hosting Idol even as it's been almost a decade since Aerosmith put out a new album, or that Nickelback is somehow a top rock act. Maybe it's that The White Stripes broke up way too soon or that R.E.M. called it quits and didn't get the mainstream accolades they deserved. But something is in the air. "The End of the World as We Know It" ...? Still, despite the doom and gloom, there were, of course, plenty of reasons to feel fine.

For one thing, the void in rock discoverability was partly filled by shows like Late Night With Jimmy Fallon - where not only are The Roots the house band, but all manner of new and legendary rock acts found a place to play. Other late night shows - from Letterman to Conan to SNL, seemingly sensed the void as well, and jumped to fill in the gap. Some of the best moments I saw in rock this year were on late night TV - from Foster the People tearing the house down on SNL, to the Foo Fighters and Joan Jett tag-teaming on "Bad Reputation" on Letterman. For another, new music services like Spotify have risen up to help the music fans find the good stuff. While the initial wave of uber-annoying Facebook updates about what people were listening to helped to turn me off from the service for a bit, Spotify is definitely on my list of things to explore in 2012.

As for me, 2011 was a year where I was lucky to attend a couple of awesome live shows. In February, I saw Ozzy Osbourne live in concert for the first time ever. Lucky for us, the gods of rock smiled down on the Prince of Darkness that night, and infused Ozzy with moments where he seemed to be channeling his younger self. Seeing the Ozzman, backed by an awesome band, play his legendary tunes was a night I'll always remember. Not to mention, the opener was the legendary Slash, with singer Myles Kennedy. The two rocked the house, playing a mix of excellent new songs and classic GnR rockers. In March, I saw the 80's-rock-themed musical Rock of Ages live at the Pantages theater in Hollywood - my first visit there. It was a great time, and I couldn't help but get caught up in the nonstop barrage of 80's mash-ups and classic power ballads. In April, I visited Seattle for the first time ever, on a work trip. But while there, I got to visit the Museum of Pop Culture, where an awesome exhibit on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana was on display. Even though I was in the city for work, in a way, my trip to the birthplace of Grunge felt like a pilgrimage years in the making. Then, in the Summer, my friends and I once again visited the OC Fair-grounds, where for the second time, we saw the man, the myth, the legend - "Weird" Al Yankovic, in concert. Al once again put on an amazing show that had fans young and old singing along to Al's hilarious parodies and original jams. I've had "CNR" (Charles Nelson Reilly) in my head ever since. Then, in September, my brother and I saw two legendary bands in a double-bill at Universal's Gibson amphitheater - Def Leppard and Heart. I had seen Def Leppard before, and once again, they were a ton of fun. But man, Heart was the real surprise - the first ladies of rock n' roll were in top form - blowing the audience away with soul-rattling renditions of their top songs. Finally, I was fortunate enough to snag a pair of free, VIP tickets to see none other than Cheap Trick at the famous Greek Theater. I got myself to the Greek and enjoyed up-close seats to see the classic rockers rip through one song after another as part of their Dream Police tour - backed, no less, by a full orchestra. Epic barely describes it. So yeah, all that stuff I said before about rock n' roll fading away? After thinking back to all of the great music I saw in 2011, I'm tempted to take that back, and declare that rock is very much alive and kicking.

As for new music released this past year, well, the album of the year for me was - similar to last year - a return-to-form tour de force from a legendary classic rocker. This year, that rocker was ALICE COOPER, and the album was WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE, a sequel of sorts to the 70's album that first declared Cooper as the fearsome king of shock-rock. Last year, I saw Cooper live for the first time, and after that I really began studying up on his history and back catalogue of lesser-known records. It was fascinating to see how the band had evolved over the years - at various periods, they dabbled in Frank Zappa-esque weirdness, New Wave, and hair-metal. But to me, it was fitting that in 2011, the same year that the original Alice Cooper band was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, Cooper released probably his best album in years - appropriately enough, a wildly eclectic mix of styles. Welcome 2 My Nightmare has classic rockers, dark symphonic ballads, Vaudevillian-novelty songs, and even a pop-rock mash-up with Ke$ha. And yet somehow, it works, and plays as an awesome medley of ghoulish music to get down to.

Otherwise, there were definitely a number of tracks from more modern rockers that grabbed me. I thought the Foo Fighters put out one of their best-ever albums this year. Rise Against had a pretty strong album with a couple of great songs on it. The Black Keys had another excellent showing as well. A couple of new groups like Grouplove and Foster the People struck it big out of the gate, and had some of the year's most instantly-catchy rock songs ... we'll see if these guys stick around. I'll also give a shout-out to some of the great music that came from the movies this year. From Karen O's searing cover of Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, to the pulsating, 80's-style soundtrack of Drive, a lot of my favorite movies this year were made all the more awesome by being not just great films, but rock n' roll films.

Sadly, as mentioned, 2011 also marked the end (or so it seems) of one of my favorite bands of the last decade, The White Stripes. This to me was sort of a tragedy, because all indications were that the band was still at the top of their game, and had years if not decades of great music still to come. Jack White is clearly not going to just retire or go away or anything, but to me, none of his side projects have ever enjoyed quite the same alchemy as he and bandmate Meg had. Maybe the Stripes will reunite someday, but man, their absence leaves a huge, potentially irreplaceable void in the modern rock scene.

Speaking of which, 2011 also marked the breakup of one of the great modern rock bands, R.E.M. Like just about anyone who grew up in the 80's and 90's and was plugged in to MTV at that time, R.E.M. was a huge, huge influence on me. I still remember buying the single to "What's the Frequency, Kenneth" and just playing it over and over on my tape-deck back in the day. R.E.M. was, for me, the soundtrack of the transition from kid to teen, from innocence to angst (not to sound melodramatic or anything, but let's face it - is there any more defining moment of 90's pre-teen/teen angst than Angela from "My So-Called Life" walking through the street as "Everybody Hurts" plays?"). Sure, the band seemed to fade from relevance a bit as the years went on, but for me, albums like "Green," "Out of Time," "Automatic For the People," "Monster," and "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" are all undisputed classics that stand the test of time. I'm glad that the band was able to put out a very solid final album in 2011. While I didn't love the album as a whole, there were one or two songs that felt like classic R.E.M. - my favorite of which, "Discoverer," was a rockin' rallying cry that was vintage R.E.M.

So yes, despite some of the grim overtones in my intro, I do think that there are signs of life yet in the world of rock, and I have a lot of hope for what's to come in 2012. Already, I'm psyched that one of my favorite bands of the last several years - The Darkness - has reunited, is touring, and has a new album in the works. I've got my tickets to see them in LA in February. And who knows what else is to come in the new year. All I know is, may 2012 be a year of rock n' roll rebirth!


DANNY'S TOP ROCK SONGS OF 2011:


1.) "Walk" - Foo Fighters

- I think I first heard this song over the closing credits of the movie Thor. I remember thinking, "okay, this is an instant-classic." To me, this is one of the Foo's best songs in years - a catchy yet emotionally-charged ballad that might just be their best since the days of Everlong.

2. ) "I'll Bite Your Face Off" - Alice Cooper

- I love this song - it's twisted, funny, and yet has the sound of a classic rock relic in the style of The Rolling Stones. The song lulls you into thinking it's a typical love-story, with the twist being that the object of Cooper's affection is actually one of the living dead - a ravenous woman who wants nothing more than to, well, bite his face off!

3.) "Discoverer" - R.E.M.

- I've always liked R.E.M.'s more upbeat rock tracks, and this one spoke to me with its rallying-cry call and piercing vocals by the great Michael Stipe. This was one final great rock song from one of the all-time great bands.

4.) "A Real Hero" - Drive soundtrack - College feat. Electric Youth

- As soon as I heard this song in Drive, I knew I had to buy the soundtrack. Ultra-moody, the song's pulsating 80's beat perfectly captures the feeling of driving at night in a neon-lit cityscape, and also evokes the movie's themes of a lone-wolf hero struggling with his own humanity. Music to drive to, to be sure.

5.) "Help Is On the Way" - Rise Against

- I said this a while back, but I'll say it again - this song would be perfect to accompany the new Superman movie trailer. It's a rousing rocker from Rise Against, who can't help but make each of their songs a tale of epic proportions.

6.) "Lonely Boy" - The Black Keys

- The Black Keys are the current standard-bearers for stripped-down funk-rock, and this is another great jam from them, perfect to boogie down to. Great guitars and a cool vibe make this another great one from the Keys.

7.) "What Baby Wants" - Alice Cooper feat. Ke$ha

- It shouldn't work, but it does - the original Shock Rocker teamed with the current queen of ironically-detached pop-princess sleaze. But the interplay between old and new makes for a funny and super-catchy collaboration, with Ke$ha becoming the object of Cooper's been-there, done-her disdain.

8.) "Make It Stop (September's Children)" - Rise Against

- Another epic from Rise Against, this melodramatic fist-pumper is just a soaring, sweeping power ballad that gets your heart pumping. In an age where so much rock is stripped-down, I love that Rise Against always goes big and bombastic.

9.) "Colours" - Grouplove

- Here's a catchy, fun tune that took a little of the pain away from the White Stripes break-up, as it's a Stripes-esque garage rocker that gets in your head and doesn't go away, with clever wordplay to boot. Very curious to see where the group goes from here.

10.) "Pumped-Up Kicks" - Foster The People

- The surprise pop-rock anthem of the year, this song seems upbeat at first, but it's actually a pretty dark song about schoolyard violence. In any case, what sold me on it was the band's rockin' performance earlier this year on SNL, where I saw that, perhaps, Foster the People might be the real deal.


And that's it for 2011. What were your favorite songs of the year? Let me know, and as always: for those about to rock, I salute you!

THE BEST OF 2011 - The Best TV Of The Year


THE YEAR IN TV - 2011

- There was a lot of great television in 2011, but you had to know where to look to find it. More than ever, the quality offerings on the major networks were few and far between, with cable increasingly becoming the home for top-tier scripted content. Perhaps not everyone agrees, but to me, Fall 2011 was one of the weakest Fall seasons - in terms of great new shows - that I can remember. But a mix of great Spring and Summer TV, and returning hits hitting their stride, ensured that I was glued to the tube just as much as ever. That said, this was also a year in which I found myself watching way too many middle-of-the-road series. I'm usually an optimist when it comes to certain sorts of TV, and if I see a spark of potential, it's hard to give up on a show early in its run. At the same time, with so many legitimately great series on the air, I realized that I no longer had the time or patience for shows that were only okay. I began dropping series midway through the Fall, and never looked back. Between new and old favorites, TV on DVD, blu-ray, Netflix, and Hulu, and competition from movies, videogames, books, and the interwebs, I just wasn't going to waste time on TV that I didn't feel passionately about. But 2011 was a year of new TV discoveries, new insights into what I do and don't like, new ways of watching my favorite shows, and a year in which - for me - the very bar of what great TV can be was raised. So here's what the year in TV was to me:


- The Year Of Breaking Bad: Late last year, I finally dove in to Breaking Bad, and I've never looked back. This year, I powered through the entirety of the series to date in preparation for the then-upcoming Season 4. It was almost a come down, to watch only one episode per week and not be able to marathon the show as I had with the past seasons. But Breaking Bad was so good, so incredible, that I actually felt sort of embarrassed that I hadn't begun watching it earlier. Breaking Bad was THE event television of 2011, and I suspect the same will be true of 2012. Quite simply, the show raised the bar for what I want out of a TV show. The writing is so unpredictable, the acting so good, the production so lush, that I began looking at other, lesser shows with a more critical eye. Not every show is going to be as good as Breaking Bad, but now, the standard has been set, and any new TV drama in development had better take notes.

- The Year of Summer TV: TV got a kick in the pants this past Summer when Game of Thrones debuted and promptly redefined the TV landscape. TV had never been this epic, and the show, I think, may just usher in a new era of genre TV, along with other high-concept series like The Walking Dead. But overall, this Summer had nearly as much good TV as the Fall. With shows like Game of Thrones, Louie, Futurama, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Children's Hospital - my DVR was pretty much filled to capacity.

- The Year I Dropped Glee and Gave Up On American Horror Story: Confession time, people - for a few years now, I've watched Glee. And in its first season, despite the show's ups and downs, I looked forward to each new episode. The show had an entertaining, unpredictable mix of subversive humor and teen melodrama, and I thought it was a fascinating example of how a hit TV show can offer up something new and different in a landscape of sameness. Glee was something totally unique, and for that, I kept watching. But this year, I got fed up. I was sick of the show's overbearing angst and preachy lessons, it's weird sensibilities and lack of likable characters. Once, the fact that the show was so different week to week was a strength - now, that just translated to no plot or character consistency, and no compelling plots to latch on to. The show had simply settled into a pattern of trying to have each episode top the last in terms of randomness, shock-value, and grating moralizing. Interestingly, the exact same thing happened to Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuk's other show, American Horror Story - only at a much more rapid rate. After a weird but intriguing pilot episode, the show just became a freakshow of absurd moments and nonsensical plotlines. I had learned my lesson - there would be no reward for investing in the show for the long haul - no payoffs, no justification to keep watching except to be part of the conversation of "what weird, random, obnoxiously stupid stuff is going to happen *this* week?" Thanks, but no thanks. I'd rather be watching legitimately great shows like Breaking Bad and Justified.

- The Year of Going Out With a Bang: It's funny, this past Summer, if you had asked me about the state of two of my favorite shows - Chuck and The Simpsons - I would have not been very kind to either. Chuck had a boring, plodding Season 4, and The Simpsons was in the midst of an extended streak of mediocrity that really and truly made me want to see the show receive a mercy killing. Much to my surprise, both shows have managed a turnaround in recent months. Chuck's fifth and final season has been fantastic so far, with a winter finale that ranks among the show's best-ever episodes. The Simpsons has, remarkably, strung together several great episodes, something the show hasn't done in years. It's nice to be reminded of why I loved these shows in the first place.

- The Year of Don't Call It a Comeback: Who would have ever, ever thought that Beavis & Butthead would be on the air with new - and hilarious! - episodes in 2011? Not I. Even for me, someone who grew up with the show, the show now only existed to me as a hazy memory from back when I lived and breathed all things MTV. But lo and behold, Mike Judge's crude cartoon creations are back, and man, has it been fun to watch their triumphant return. Funny as ever, it' a blast to see Beavis & Butthead riff on the latest and not-so-greatest in pop-culture.

- The Year of High-Concept Fall Failures: Trust me, I had enough TV shows to watch that part of me was hoping that there wouldn't be a lot to like in this year's Fall TV offerings. But I never expected that, when all was said and done, when the smoke cleared, there wouldn't be a single new Fall TV show that 100% won me over. I had been excited by several new shows, but almost all turned out to be creative flops, if not also ratings flops. Terra Nova was the one I couldn't wait for, but after watching three episodes, I quickly realized that watching this sci-fi dinosaur series would be an excercise in pain. I tried to watch Once Upon a Time, but it just didn't measure up to the level of quality I look for if I'm going to commit to a weekly serialized show. On the comedy front, I liked Suburgatory at first, but it quickly fizzled into standard sitcom fare. 2 Broke Girls intrigued me thanks to Kat Dennings, but I was rapidly turned off by its lowest-common-denominator laugh track-infused attempts at humor. The only new Fall TV show I'm still watching? New Girl. I don't yet love it, but there's some smart writing, a good cast, and it seems to be slowly but surely finding its comedy legs.

- The Year TV Went Full-On Geek: Game of Thrones solidified it: TV can now do just about any genre, and in some ways, it can do 'em better than the movies. I mean, movies have their limitations. They're one-and-done. Even with an ongoing franchise like Harry Potter or The Dark Knight, you miss out on a lot of the richness and detail of the books or comics. But Game of Thrones showed that longform storytelling is often where it's at for geek-friendly adaptations. Walking Dead also made a compelling case. And both proved that we no longer have to talk about TV geres in terms of boring old cliches like medical drama, law drama, cop drama, etc. - now, add zombie apocalypse and high fantasy to the list.

- The Year That Steve Carrell Left The Office: There were some great episodes of The Office in 2011, but overall, the show felt all-over-the-place as it struggled to figure out how to handle the departure of Michael Scott. The send-off episodes were a mixed-bag, with a guest stint from Will Ferrell disappointing. So far, this season has felt directionless, with Ed Helms' Andy character still trying to find a consistent voice. There are still glimmers of the old Office hilarity here and there, but time will tell if the show still has one last great run ahead of it.

- The Year That The Friday Night Death-Slot Kills and Kills Again: Fringe is one of the best shows on TV, but it's been relegated to an obscure Friday night timeslot where few watch it, and even fewer watch it live. Some might say that the lowered expectations of Friday nights actually help the show to survive, but to me, it's just sort of a shame. Even as FOX pushed the heck out of new show Terra Nova, it continued to all but ignore its best drama, and one of the best series on network TV. I don't know what the future holds for Fringe, but I do know that it deserves better than Friday nights.

- The Year That Smallville Ended: I wrote a long retrospective peice about Smallville over the summer following the series finale, so I won't go into too much depth about the show here - but certainly, the end of Smallville was the end of an era. Though the show never matched the potential of its best episodes with any degree of consistency, it still opened the door for more high concept series that would follow in its footsteps. What will the next big superhero TV show be? 2012 may hold the answer.

- The Year That Cable TV Takes Over: The best shows on TV in 2011 were inarguably on cable. AMC, FX, HBO, Cartoon Network, and other nets housed the best shows of the year, by and large. But therein lies a problem. Cable TV is pricier than ever, with premium networks like HBO and Showtime adding even more heft to absurd cable bills. Something has to be done, whether it's a la carte channel packages, over-the-top subscription services, or shortened windows for DVD and blu-ray release. Cable TV has never been more creative, but it's also never been less consumer-friendly. Something's gotta give.

- The Year That FX Cancelled Great Shows: It's hard to fault FX for cancelling a terminally low-rated show, but man, it was a double-dose of pain early this year when, only months after unceremonously axing the great Terriers, a similar fate awaited Lights Out - yet another critically-acclaimed but low-rated FX drama. FX is to be credited for developing high quality shows, but man, what can they do to get people to watch? And on that note, this was ...

- The Year That Comedy Kicked Ass, And Nobody Watched: What is with you people? Sorry, don't mean to be accusatory, but it just hurts me that amazing comedies like Community and Parks and Recreation garner such relatively low ratings, even as every pile-o'-crap show with a laugh track or celebrity dancing proves to be a hit. In 2011, these two network comedies were so good that they vaulted into the upper-echelons of the all-time greats. But their ratings stagnation proves a couple of points: a.) people are stupid, b.) older people are stuck in their comedy ways, and won't watch shows that don't feature a chorus of fake, annoying laughter that follows every overly-telegraphed joke, and c.) the younger people who like shows like Community aren't watching it on the air, which means lower Nielsen ratings. Interestingly, Community was just the recipient of a first-of-its-kind deal with Hulu, who paid a hefty sum for the rights to make available past seasons of the show - which shows the value of the show in the world of online streaming. This whole phenomena is nothing new this year - we've seen young-skewing shows like Family Guy, Arrested Development, Veronica Mars, and more all get the axe due to low ratings, only to find post-mortem success in other mediums. And this is a trend that stretches across all genres. Shows like Breaking Bad, Justified ... these are modern classics, but they are watched only by niche audiences. It's all part of the fragmentation of modern TV, I know, and it's probably only going to get worst from here. But dammit, it's still sad to me that a show like Community doesn't get the recognition it deserves in the here and now - except from bitter critics and bloggers like me.

- The Year Where The Fall Felt Like Only a Prelude to The Winter of 2012: Like I said, this Fall's crop of ne shows was mostly underwhelming, but more and more, it felt like the Fall TV season was only a warm-up to mid-season, when a lot of the big-guns will be unleashed. Not only are great shows like 30 Rock, Justified and Eastbound & Down set to return, but high profile new series like Alcatraz, Touch, The River, and Smash are all set to debut in the new year.

- The Year When The Next Big Thing Was Right Around The Corner: We've already seen a lot of changes to the way we consume TV - and now, for many of us, things like DVR, Netflix, and Hulu are a regular part of our television diet. But still, there is a sense that these services are in some ways a prelude to the next major paradigm shift. That shift may involve the a la carte cable packages I mentioned earlier. It may involve a company like Apple or Microsoft circumventing the cable companies and offering some kind of competitive service (already, we're seeing the seeds planted for that with some of the new services available on XBOX). Or it may be the cable companies reestablishing some relevance with things like TV Everywhere (see: Comcast Xfinity as an example). Who knows. And it may not happen in 2012. But soon enough, the other shoe will have to drop.

It was a year of highs and lows to be sure, but now it's time to honor the year's best. I didn't see everything of course (I hear great things about Homeland, and I'm behind on True Blood!), but I did see a lot, and I think that's reflected here. So here they are ...

DANNY'S TOP SCRIPTED TV SHOWS OF 2011:


1.) Breaking Bad

- Season 3 of Breaking Bad ended on one of the most intense, nail-biting cliffhangers I've ever seen, and Season 4 picked right back up and never lost an ounce of narrative momentum. Season 4 was a giant chess game, between Walter White and Gus Fring, between Fring and Walter's brother-in-law Hank, between Skyler and her scheming boss Ted, between on-edge Jesse and the hard-to-read Mike The Cleaner. Everything eventually came to a head in one of the most amazing season finales I've ever seen, with Walter finally getting the best of Gus. In this season, Walter in fact became "the man who knocks," and in witnessing his transformation, we're witnessing one of the great American stories of a good man gone bad. Funny, action-packed, completely unpredictable, and intense-as-hell, Breaking Bad this year was the best thing on TV, bar none. We already knew it was great - in 2011, it became legendary.


2.) Community

- Explosively funny, mind-bendingly clever, and unfailingly ambitious, Community will do anything and everything in the name of comedy. This year, the show parodied everything from Apocalypse Now to Glee, and in between it packed in more gags, references, and witty asides than I could count. This was also the year where each and every member of the Community cast finally felt fully formed. Jeff, Britta, Annie, Piere, Troy, Abed, Chang, and The Dean - joined by a calvacade of great side characters and bit players. There hasn't been a world this full of awesome concepts and characters - or a show this sharply and smartly funny - since the heyday of The Simpsons. If you're not watching Community, then you're not watching the best comedy currently on TV.


3.) Louie

- As good as Community is, Louie is so fresh and unique that it was close to coming in at #2. Louie isn't always laugh-out-loud funny, but when it is, it's gut-bustingly hilarious. Louie isn't always poignant and dramatic, but when it is, it's as powerful as any drama on the air. What Louie is, always, is a gloriously unfiltered look into the mind of comedian Louis CK, and it just keeps getting better and more must-see as it goes on. In a world where so many TV shows feel processed and created-by-committe, it's amazing to see a show that is this raw and the product of so singular a voice. And what a voice it is.


4.) Justified

- Justified was great in Season 1, but man, did business pick up in Season 2. The show's sophomore season upped the ante by pitting hero Raylan Givens against the veangeful Bennett clan, led by the formidable villainy of Mags Bennett (brought to life by a phenomenal performance from Margo Martindale). Jeremy Davies was a standout as Mags' loose-cannon son Dickie, and Walton Goggins continued to be a scene-stealer as the unpredictable Boyd Crowder. This was an awesome season of TV - 100% certified badass.


5.) Boardwalk Empire

- Boardwalk Empire has a deep, deep bench of talented actors that comprise its sprawling cast, but it wisely ended its second season by refocusing on the central conflict between its two leads - Steve Buscemi's bootlegging kingpin Nucky Thompson, and Michael Pitt's emotionally-scarred prodigal son Jimmy Darmody. To that end, the final few episodes of Season 2 were so good that I had to reevaluate my thoughts on the show. To me, the exploration of Jimmy's tortured past in S2's penultimate episode, followed by his shocking confrontation with Nucky in the finale, put this show over the edge for me. Boardwalk Empire is now, officially, one hell of a show. The standout performances on the series are simply too numerous to mention, the characters too uniformly great to single out just one or two favorites (though I'll echo others and say that Richard Harrow is the man). I can't wait to see where the show goes from here.


6.) Fringe

- Fringe ended last season with a total shocker: in an effort to bridge the gaps between two parallel earths, Peter Bishop somehow blinked himself out of existence, becoming unstuck in time and space. Now, after having seen numerous alternate worlds and realities, we were confronted with yet another - a world where an adult Peter never existed. At times, learning all the ins and outs of yet another reality became a bit tiring, but even when the overall mytharc faltered, Fringe was still awesome sci-fi drama. John Noble remains underrated - in Walter Bishop he continues to create one of the best-ever characters on TV - funny, tragic, and entertainingly insane. Anna Torv continues to impress, playing multiple iterations of Olivia Dunham without missing a beat. And Fringe is still capable of delivering amazing standalone episodes that are pure sci-fi goodness: witness this past November's memorable ep "And Those We've Left Behind," guest starring Stephen Root in a time-travel mind-bender. It was proof that Fringe is still on top of its game.


7.) Parks and Recreation

- Parks is another show that, to me ... well, it's crazy that more people aren't watching. What they're missing is a show that's clever, hilarious, filled with great characters, and that even has plenty of heart mixed in with the irreverant humor. The cast of Parks & Rec continues to amaze me, and it feels like each week I have a new favorite character. The show smartly has evolved to take full advantage of its ensemble. Sure, Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope is still front and center, but she's surrounded with the best group of funny people on TV - Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones ... the talent here is insane, and the writing is up to the level of the talent. A modern-day comedy classic.


8.) Game of Thrones

- It took me a little while to learn to love Game of Thrones. After watching the pilot, I was literally on Wikipedia trying to figure out who all the characters were. But the show's creators had faith that, in time, the show's sprawling storylines would start to gel into a cohesive whole ... and gel they did. By the second half of the season, GoT became must-watch TV, a fantasy epic marked by several fantastic performances. By the time we got to the amazing finale, I was 100% hooked and dying for Season 2. This show simply felt epic. From the amazing production value to the huge scope of the storylines, this show was not only awesome, but redefined kinds of stories are possible on TV.


9.) Children's Hospital

- I've always hated the notion that comedy can only be great if it incorporates the elements of conventional drama. I don't buy the idea that comedy has to adhere to traditional notions of plot or character to be great. I love absurdist humor - to me, when done right, it's as praiseworthy as any other type of comedy - and no one is doing it better than the mad geniuses behind Children's Hospital. In short, fifteen minute episodes, Rob Cordry and co. pack in more crazy gags and jokes than most shows do in twice the time. Anything can happen, and usually does. And the comic timing of the cast is the best in the biz. Rob Cordry, Megan Mullally, Ken Marino, Rob Huebel, Erinn Hayes, Lake Bell, Malin Ackermann, Henry Winkler, and a parade of guest stars make for a veritable comedy dream team.


10.) 30 Rock

- 30 Rock has been off the air since early this Summer, but man, the second half of Season 5 was so good that I had to put the show in my Top 10. For a while there, it seemed like perhaps 30 Rock had lost some of its comedic mojo. But Season 5 was a return to form, and the show absolutely nailed it with a strong of classic eps to close out the season. Even with tough competition from shows like Parks and Community, 30 Rock remains perhaps the most quotable show on TV - when the show is on its A-game, there's no better written comedy out there. And the cast remains amazing - there are few people on TV who reliably crack me up more so than Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan.

THE NEXT BEST:


11.) Lights Out

- Here's one that I'm sure is going to fly under-the-radar of a lot of Best-Of-2011 lists, as it premiered way back in January and ran through the Spring. But man, Lights Out evolved over the course of its single season into one heck of a show - the first time I've ever seen a TV show that encapsulated the big-fight feel of the Rocky movies, but with the story expanded to a season's worth of drama and build-up. For whatever reason, this FX show failed to pick up a big audience, and it was a little slow coming out of the gate. But man, once Eamonn Walker joined the cast as an ultra-intense trainer, the show began firing on all cylinders, and it rode that wave of momentum all the way up to its awesome series finale. Holt McCallany was fantastic as our hero, "Lights" Leary as well. This was a show that deserved a bigger audience.


12.) Curb Your Enthusiasm

- I love Curb - it's one of the best comedies of all time, but I have to admit it had something of an inconsistent season. When it was up, it was really up - witness the instant classic "Palestinian Chicken" episode. But even when it was only okay, there are always little gems - conversations, one-off jokes, musings, and Larry David-isms - that make Curb one-of-a-kind. More, please.


13.) Beavis & Butthead

- As I said earlier, it's a complete trip to have this show back on TV and on an MTV that is a universe away from what it was during the duo's 90's heyday. But while MTV has changed, B&B haven't, and thankfully so. Mike Judge's playground to mock culture and society remains as sharp and hilarious as ever.


14.) The Walking Dead

- Season 2 of The Walking Dead struggled at times, and though there were moments of awesomeness, certain plotlines dragged, and the show had a hard time making its characters truly pop. The same characters that I loved from the comics too often felt boring or annoying on the show. But there were signs ... as the season went on, the show picked up some serious steam, all culminating in a legit-awesome mid-season finale that gave me hope for what's to come. Can't wait to see where things go from here.


15.) Chuck

- Chuck is almost at its end, so as a longtime fan of the show and its endearingly geeky world, it pleases me greatly to say that Season 5, so far, has been pretty great. Season 4 was often a struggle to get through, no question. But Season 5 has been getting better with each episode, and the recent Christmas episode, which saw the return of Brandon Rough as arch-villain Shaw, was absolutely awesome - a reminder of just how great Chuck can be. It also reminded me that, man, I am going to be sad when this show is done. Even through the rough patches, Chuck's got some of the best characters on TV, and I've always been happy to spend time with them through thick and thin.


16.) Tie: Futurama / The Simpsons

- Okay, I decided to double up on this one, but I'm happy to do so given how cool it is to see these shows putting out great episodes here in 2011. Futurama continues to have a great run following its return to TV, and The Simpsons is in the middle of its best season in years. Craziness! Futurama has some duds this past Summer, but it had several awesome episodes as well. As for The Simpsons ... okay, so the first couple of episodes of the seasons weren't that great, and the Halloween episode was a mess ... but over the last several weeks, the string of "The Food Wife," "The Book Job," "The Man in the Blue Flannel Pants," "The Ten-Per-Cent Solution," and "Holidays of Future Past" were each legitimately great episodes. How did this happen? Is it a fluke? Will the rest of the season go back to nu-Simpsons mediocrity? I don't know, and I'm trying not to question it. For now, I'm just happy that the greatest TV show of all time still has a little gas left in the tank.


17.) Modern Family

- Modern Family has slid a bit in my estimation since it's breakthrough first season, but it's still one of the best comfort-food shows on the air - a show with great characters and an always-awesome cast. I think the show is getting repetitive in its storylines (how much bickering do we need between Mitch and Cam?), but the brilliance of Ty Burell as Phil Dunphy always makes the show reliably funny and entertaining.


18.) Eagleheart

- If you haven't seen Adult Swim's oddball action-show parody starring Chris Elliott, then it's time you tune in to one of the most delightfully wacky shows on the air. From a team of former Conan O'Brien writers, this show puts its Walker, Texas Ranger-esque lead in all sorts of insane situations, and gets a ton of laughs from the always-great Elliott and a very funny supporting cast.


19.) New Girl

- New Girl has been the one new comedy of 2011 that's been reliably funny and that shows a lot of potential. So far, the cast is strong, the writing has glimmers of real wit, and the show seems to be finding its legs after a bumpy first couple of episodes. This could definitely be one to watch in 2012.


20.) Mildred Pierce

- Okay, so it was a miniseries and not an ongoing show, but I wanted to give a shout-out to this HBO drama. It featured some fantastic performances from the likes of Kate Winselt, Guy Pierce, and Evan Rachel Wood, and it morphed from conventional period drama into a truly twisted tale of love and revenge. Certainly, a memorable miniseries from HBO.


OTHER TOP TV:

- A lot of what I make a point to watch on television is scripted, but every so often, something off the beaten path catches my eye. One show that was a total must-watch for me in early 2011 was AN IDIOT ABROAD. The brainchild of Office creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, An Idiot Abroad sees the pair send their beleaguered buddy Karl Pilkington off on one globetrotting adventure after another. Karl, a man who barely likes to leave his house, is totally out of his element, and his reactions as he visits each of the fables Seven Wonders of the World are always hilarious. Karl's everyman insights are often boneheaded, yet at times oddly brilliant in some strange, simplistic way. The great thing about Karl is that he has no pretentions of culture whatsoever. He'll never be in awe of something just because - and sometimes, that makes him a moron, yet sometimes, you can't help but admire his simplistic worldview. The cool thing about An Idiot Abroad is that, even though it's hilarious, it also functions as a fantastic travelogue, with great scenes of world culture and historic sites. Mostly though, there are few things that crack me up more than the idiot-savant mad genius of Karl Pilkington. A second season of An Idiot Abroad premieres on the Science Channel in early '12, and personally, I can't wait.

- I thought that CONAN had a pretty darn good year, particulary this past winter when he really brought his A-game. His series of shows in New York were consistently hilarious, and he finished out the year with some strong new comedy bits (the Human Centipede Menorah, anyone?) and the return of some old favorites (Clutch Cargo!). Conan is still my go-to choice for late-night hilarity.

- That said, I've also got to hand it to LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON. Jimmy's show has been getting better and better. He's got the best band on TV in The Roots, and his comedy sketches, musical parodies, and guest bands are increasingly becoming the best in late night. The writing on the show is very, very strong, and Jimmy keeps getting better as a host. Mostly though, Late Night has, in the last year, become the source of more buzzworthy comedy clips than any of its competitors.

- Of course, even if I don't watch them as much as I'd like, I once again have to hand it to John Stewart and THE DAILY SHOW, as well as Stephen Colbert and THE COLBERT REPORT. In these tumultuous political times, Stewart and Colbert are the one-two-punch that helps to bring some sanity back into the national political discussion. There is so much absurdity in national politics at the moment, it's nice to know that Stewart and Colbert are there to make sure it doesn't go unnoticed.

- I still feel like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE can be wildly inconsistent, but I will say that I've enjoyed seeing a new wave of talent slowly but surely take over the show, even as old hands like Bill Hader continue to impress. Hader's Stephon is probably the best and most consistently hilarious recurring SNL character in years, and few other things on TV in 2011 made me laugh harder than the always-awesome club recommendations of Stephon.

- Finally, here's the Best Show I Watched on DVD/Blu-Ray This Year: DEADWOOD. In 2011, an episode or two of Deadwood became a weekly tradition, and I came to admire the show's Shakespearean drama and Old West grit. The cast of the show - maybe even more so in retrospect - was absolutely stellar. And Ian McShane's Al Swearengen has quickly shot to the top of my list of all-time great TV characters. Okay, I'll admit - sometimes a few minutes of Deadwood go by and I'll realize I have no idea what the characters just said (even if I can tell their mood from some strategically-placed expletives). But in general, it's been a pleasure to immerse myself in David Milch's Old West epic.


INDIVIDUAL AWARDS:


The Best TV Heroes of 2011:

1.) Hank Shrader - Breaking Bad
2.) Raylan Givens - Justified
3.) Ned Stark - Game of Thrones
4.) Olivia Dunham - Fringe
5.) Patrick "Lights" Leary - Lights Out


The Best TV Villains of 2011:

1.) Gus Fring - Breaking Bad
2.) Mags Bennett - Justified
3.) Dickie Bennett - Justified
4.) Walternate - Fringe
5.) Gillian Darmody - Boardwalk Empire


The Best TV Anti-Heroes of 2011:


1.) Walter White and Jesse Pinkman - Breaking Bad
2.) Nucky Thomspon, Jimmy Darmody, Richard Harrow - Boardwalk Empire
3.) Boyd Crowder - Justified
4.) Tyrion Lannister - Game of Thrones
5.) Daenerys Targaryen - Game of Thrones


Best Actress in a Comedy:

1.) Gillian Jacobs - Community

Runners Up: Alison Brie - Community, Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation


Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy:

1.) Jane Krakowski - 30 Rock

Runners Up: Aubrey Plaza - Parks and Recreation, Erin Hayes, Malin Ackermann, and Lake Bell - Children's Hospital


Best Actor in a Comedy:

1.) Joel McHale - Community

Runners Up: Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock, Louie CK - Louie


Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy:

1.) Donald Glover - Community

Runners Up: Danny Pudi - Community, Nick Offerman - Parks and Recreation, Adam Baldwin - Chuck


Best Actress in a Drama:

1.) Kelly MacDonald - Boardwalk Empire

Runners Up: Anna Torv - Fringe, Emilia Clarke - Game of Thrones


Best Supporting Actress in a Drama:

1.) Margo Martindale - Justified

Runners Up: Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad, Gretchen Mol - Boardwalk Empire


Best Actor in a Drama:

1.) Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad

Runners Up: Sean Bean - Game of Thrones, Steve Buscemi - Boardwalk Empire, Holt McCallany - Lights Out



Best Supporting Actor in a Drama:

1.) John Noble - Fringe

Runners Up: Dean Norris - Breaking Bad, Giancarlo Esposito - Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad, Peter Dinklage - Game of Thrones, Mark Addy - Game of Thrones, Michael Shannon - Boardwalk Empire, Michael Pitt - Boardwalk Empire, Jack Huston - Boardwalk Empire, Eamonn Walker - Lights Out


- And that wraps up my coverage of the best in television of 2011. Thoughts? Comments? Critiques? Hit me up - and stay tuned for further coverage of the Best of 2011!