2011 was what I consider The Year of the Departure.
Oprah, Regis, Meredith Viera, and Susan Lucci all said goodbye to their daytime audiences. Katie Couric peaced out on the CBS Evening News. Harry Potter finally bid adieu to Hogwarts. The Walker clan danced into that good night on Brothers & Sisters (to Lady Gaga no less). Steve Jobs and Amy Winehouse left us too soon. And yours truly left a comfy position at Anonymous Content after four-and-a-half years of working in commercial production. It seems like wherever you turned, someone was embarking on a new chapter of his or her life, whether voluntarily or not, in the first year of this new decade.
Joining the unemployment ranks, I did what any jobless/freelance schmo would do - buy an iPhone 4, go to Vegas, and accumulate enough fast-food receipts to form a sizable pile on my desk at home. 2011 was the year I got in touch with my "inner artist" and attempted to live the life of a writer - whatever that is. In theory, it's a romanticized period spent sitting with my laptop in different coffeeshops every week, meeting a handful of deadlines, taking in a few movies here and there, going to the gym on my own time, and having the liberty to pursue whatever (or whoever) I want. In reality, it involves getting increasingly familiar with daytime television (I'd like to have lunch with Wendy Williams and Anderson Cooper - at the same time), maintaining my dignity with an occasional ramen noodle dinner, fighting with my bank to refund an overdraft charge or two (or seven), and ignoring the incessant phone calls from student loan collectors. But hey, at least someone was crazy enough to give me my own TV column!
And I must admit that getting a chance to meet and interview the likes of Justin Timberlake, Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Will Ferrell, and Henry Cavill for that other little blog of mine proved to be a sweet perk I enjoyed throughout the past year.
In other words, I've collected tons of fodder for future memoirs. But this being the end of another year, as usual, I'd like to look back and revisit the facets of the popular culture that has, in the words of Mother Monster, "become our religion."
Who's ready to reflect and pray with me?
FILM PICKS OF 2011
- Jill Roberts, Scream 4
Besides Harry Potter breaking records in July, I broke my own personal record in moviegoing attendance (80+ films in theaters - granted, one-third of these included press, festival, and premiere screenings...and yes, I keep a log of when and what I see). And after sitting through hours of cinematic treats (Gwyneth Paltrow dies in the first ten minutes of a film!) and treacle (Really? Edward eats out Bella's baby? Wait, that didn't come out right), I've come up with ten particular movies that stood out and captivated me. These are the films that did more than just tickle my fancy. They inspired, they broke ground, and they re-instilled my belief that Hollywood hasn't totally fallen into the crapper with its relentless reboots, reunions, and regurgitated ideas:
1. Weekend - This little indie that came out of nowhere gave moviegoers one of the most heartbreaking and honest portrayals of contemporary romance. Writer-director Andrew Haigh's intensely intimate British love story is the Before Sunrise for the Grindr generation, a three-day glimpse into the lives of two Nottingham blokes (Tom Cullen and Chris New) that reassures us - regardless of religion, race, or sexuality - the most tender and the most important connections made are human ones. Clearly demonstrating that the struggle for an authentic life is universal and comes in all forms, Weekend is ultimately about the search for identity and the importance of making a passionate commitment to one's life. The New York Times said it best: It's "astonishingly self-assured, unassumingly profound, and one of the most satisfying love stories you are likely to see on screen."
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 - An enormously satisfying conclusion to the biggest franchise in film history, Harry & Co. went out with several bangs, plenty of deaths, and an emotional wallop that stayed with us long after the final credits rolled. Every story, every bit-part player (Emma Thompson gets three seconds of screen time, and we're still blown away!), and every magical nook and cranny came together with expert precision like cogs in an enchanted machine. All in all, a 10-year investment (2001-2011) that definitely paid off. Easily the best experience I had in the theater all year.
3. Beginners - Christopher Plummer will most likely be overlooked by the Academy for his gentle performance as Hal, a 75-year-old man who discovers his true self, in Mike Mills's semi-autobiographical character study. Ewan McGregor and the magnetic Melanie Laurent respectively give fine performances as Oliver and Anna, Hal's struggling son and the woman he falls for. And three cheers for that subtitle-communicating Jack Russell Terrier.
4. Super 8 - My favorite action film of the year provides a much-needed reminder of how magical movies - particularly summer ones - can be. Featuring the best young cast since 1986's Stand By Me, every scene of J.J. Abrams's Spielbergian mash-up of Close Encounters and The Goonies is a thrillingly paced, character-driven adventure. It's also a tender portrait of a pre-XBox, pre-YouTube, pre-iPhone generation that once created their own fun rather than constantly consumed it.
5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Besides featuring an opening credits sequence that would rival any 007 intro, David Fincher's masterfully balanced adaptation of the international bestseller is packed with so much info, so much character, so much story, none of it is ever lost on the audience - a cinematic miracle. Fans of the original Swedish trilogy who feared a sterile Americanization should breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing's been compromised; the nasty bits have been kept intact, and Rooney Mara is a solid Lisbeth Salander. You can say otherwise. Just don't fuck with her laptop.
6. Page One: Inside the New York Times - A top-notch, suspenseful thriller about the impending doom of a global institution...and it's a documentary. Andrew Rossi's unprecedented inside-look at the most famous newspaper in the world also paints a portrait of the faces behind the renowned content and reveals just how endangered of a species print media is. Journalist David Carr, whom most of the film follows, supplies some tasty soundbites as we watch his career, and those of his constituents, hang by a thread.
7. The Help - Or, what I like to call The Fried Green Tomatoes of the 2010s. This southern-fried, feel-damn-good drama earns bragging rights for featuring the best ensemble of the year. Each actress in Tate Taylor's sharply executed adaptation gets a well-deserved moment to shine. Viola Davis, just when I thought you couldn't top yourself after your scene-stealing moment in Doubt, you blow me away here. And Octavia Spencer? You had me at "Eat my shit."
8. The Descendants - Sure, Clooney does another sterling job, this time as Matt King, a Hawaiian land owner who must come to terms with his comatose wife's infidelity reevaluate his sense of fatherhood, but it's newbie Shailene Woodley (from ABC Family's The Secret Life of an American Teenager? Really?) who supplies the breakthrough performance in Alexander Payne's so-poignant-and-real-it-hurts family drama.
9. Midnight in Paris - If you had told me at the beginning of the year that I would be placing a Woody Allen film on this list, I'd probably stare you down for several minutes, eventually brush you off, and try to remember the last time I enjoyed a movie from the neurotic auteur (that would be Manhattan Murder Mystery). But thankfully I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon this love letter to literature in which an enjoyable Owen Wilson becomes an unassuming time traveler in Paris and mingles with the literary giants of the 20th century. For any writer, bibliophile, or fan of nostalgia it's a decadent fantasy worth revisiting, especially if it only involves few minutes of waiting on a street corner for an antique car to come whisk you away to a local speakeasy.
10. Bridesmaids - The moment Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph's characters sit down over coffee for a round of effortless, off-the-cuff girl talk, I knew something special was going on here. Bridesmaids, disguised as a gross-out chick flick (who knew those two words could work together?), is really a sweet statement about friendship and the challenging changes that sometimes threaten it (relocating to another city, losing a BFF to a fiance). And thank you, Judd Apatow, for introducing us to the absolutely charming Irishness of Chris O'Dowd, an unassuming romantic lead who makes for the best romantic lead.
TV PICKS OF 2011
- Alex Dunphy, Modern Family
The kids were defintely not all right in 2011. While MTV birthed an American version of Skins, pretty girls with ugly problems dominated the news (I'm looking at you, Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox), Jersey Shore continued to kill brain cells (this time bringing the bronzer overseas), and the good old Family Television Council had another bone to pick with Glee. The great news is that females were delivering better than ever on the "boob" tube. Wives were Good, Girls were Broke, and Zooey Deschanel used her adorkable powers for good. Oh, and Sarah Michelle Gellar wisely returned to the medium that made her. I could go on and on (I mean, really, I could spend an entire night discussing the improvements of The Real Housewives of New Jersey), but let's get to it: Here are the ten pieces of television that titillated, tantalized, and thoroughly entertained my ass during the past 12 months...
2. The Killing (AMC) - True, most episodes left me wanting to reach for a raincoat (and that finale may have been a cop-out), but the first-rate ensemble and killer writing brought life to this dreary tale of a murdered Seattle teen and those affected by her gruesome death (Michelle Forbes, I always knew you'd get Emmy recognition). And special kudos goes to Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman for their dynamic chemistry as Linden and Holden, the most original and watchable pairing since Mulder and Scully.
3. Cinema Verite (HBO) - One of the year’s most pleasant surprises was seeing The Secret Circle’s Thomas Dekker effortlessly play Lance Loud (his best role to date), the out-and-proud son of America’s first reality-TV family in 1973. Diane Lane, Tim Robbins, and James Gandolfini also shine in this fantastic fictionalized behind-the-scenes account of the groundbreaking PBS documentary series, An American Family.
4. American Horror Story (FX) - Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's enjoyably twisted take on the haunted house genre was everything I expected from the minds behind polar-opposite Glee. Jessica Lange couldn't have chewed enough scenes this season as Constance, the next-door neighbor with plenty of secrets up her sleeves, and Evan Peters brought it as the tortured Tate, television’s chilliest teen.
5. Homeland (Showtime) - Who knew little, angsty Angela Chase would grow up and return to television in a political potboiler? Clare Danes is pitch-perfect as a conspiracy theorist, and what the dynamic drama does best is balance both sides of the character coin. Who’s good? Who’s bad? The fun is all in the guessing.
6. The Hour (BBC America) - Even the Brits are feeling the Mad Men Effect. This densely plotted, richly written chronicle of the BBC's early days is equal parts 50s spy thriller and journalistic drama. And the alluring trifecta that is Dominic West, Ben Whishaw, and Romola Garai is an engaging piece of casting. No wonder why The Playboy Club flopped and Pan Am is floundering. The Hour has a style and intelligence all its own.
7. Hot in Cleveland (TV Land) - There’s something very 80s about this comfortably traditional sitcom. These three golden boomers (and one Golden Girl) hit their stride during the cable-com's second season, and the undeniable charisma of this cast of comedy veterans is what drives each episode. Get in on the fun – the third season just started.
8. 2 Broke Girls (CBS) – Hipster-hating Max (the sharp-tongued Kat Dennings) and spoiled-rich Caroline (a bubbly Beth Behrs) are the breakout duo of the TV season in this Whitney Cummings concoction (not to be confused with her other, shoulda-been-canceled-by-now sitcom). Girl power has never been this funny.
9. The Oprah Winfrey Show (ABC) - The void Oprah left in daytime television will certainly be felt for some time to come, and we will forever be grateful for the 25 enlightening years the talk show titan gave us. In the weeks leading up to her poignant farewell, watching Winfrey was like experiencing a greatest hits collection. Every show, every guest, was impressive, provocative, and ultimately satisfying. And as for that lecture-filled finale? I'm still soaking up those memorable life lessons.
10. Revenge (ABC) – For all intents and purposes, this suds-filled drama about rich people with problems shouldn’t have made this list (boring billboards, lackluster promos), but after experiencing the first ten episodes, I became a convert. Why does it work? While Desperate Housewives satirized primetime soaps (and suburbia), Revenge refreshingly plays it straight. Icy glares. Delectable dialogue. And enough twists (Tyler’s a hustler?!) to make us shiver with anticipation for the next episode. That said, welcome back Madeline Stowe.
The Royal Wedding (all networks) - As inescapable and overdone as the coverage was for William and Kate's regal tying of the knot, Americans couldn’t help but swoon over the tastefully done fairy-tale production of this historic affair.
MUSIC PICKS OF 2011
- Lady Gaga, The Edge of Glory
American Top 40 in 2011 sounded more like an Ibiza soundtrack from 2000. For every house-inspired beat, there was a synth-driven chorus striving to be everyone's anthem, and for every lyric commanding us to dance until the world ended, there was another telling us to throw our hands up in the air and just "have a good time" (thank you, LMFAO). But not all was gloss and glitter. The following gems made impacts that will far outlast any spotlight-hogging, AutoTuned fart machine:
1. 21 by Adele - Exquisite. Cathartic. Soul-baring. Gorgeous. The list of shining adjectives that have been applied to the 12 songs that make this brilliant collection are endless. And for those late to the party, there was that stirring live rendition of "Someone Like You" at the VMAs that scored the girl new fans; the song quickly shot to #1 on the charts, making her only the 15th British artist to top the list in the past 20 years. And it's no surprise that the girl's been adorned with multiple Grammy nods, including - just as I had predicted - Album of the Year. The singer who made her pain our pain succeeded in crossing generations (finally a pop star both teenyboppers and grandparents have in common!) and standing out amidst all the synths and dubsteps that permeated the charts. To quote one Cathy Dennis, is this for real, or is this just another dream? 21's standouts: "Rolling In The Deep," "Rumour Has It," "Set Fire to the Rain," and "Turning Tables". A true future classic.
2. "Helena Beat" by Foster The People - The hipster trio that was on everyone's party playlist surprised the music industry with the popular, un-Top-40-like "Pumped Up Kicks" (seriously, did it have to play at every Hollywood afterparty, boutique opening, Comic-Con event, and barbershop?), but it's their second single that truly delivers the goods, making hopelessness sound so...glorious. And the delightfully twisted Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-Mad-Max video provides plenty of offbeat visuals to accompany such an epically offbeat yet harmonious jam:
*And may I also recommend the equally mesmerizing "Houdini"?
3. "The Edge of Glory" by Lady Gaga - Easily the best single to come off Born This Way, "Glory" outshined the album's title track simply by being unassuming with its message and employing the late and great Clarence Clemons, who delivers an epic sax solo that raises the song to new heights of, well, glory.
4. "Young Blood" by The Naked and Famous - Another epic anthem of 2011 came from this alternative bunch. Taking cues from MGMT's 2008 "Time to Pretend," "Blood" rejoices in its quest "to find the in-between" and revels in its airy synths, creating pop music you can dream to:
5. "No Light, No Light" by Florence and the Machine - Leave it to good ol' Flo to kick it up a notch on her glowing sophomoric effort, especially with this second single from the majestic Ceremonials. What starts out as a timid response to a demanding lover transforms into a groundshaking and liberating declaration. Those thundering drums, that rousing chorus - this is pop music that causes its listeners to have a religious experience. Get down on your knees and worship, dammit.
6. "Princess of China" by Coldplay feat. Rihanna - The collaboration that should have never worked...works. Whether or not you think this was the British superband's jump-the-shark moment in an attempt to guarantee radio airplay and consistent sales, you can't deny the soaring and unexpected awesomeness of this single. To Chris Martin & Co. I say: Kudos for upping the electronic quotient in your repertoire and evolving your sound without completely veering off your musical course.
7. How Do You Do by Mayer Hawthorne - He could be Adele's (or Robin Thicke's) geekier long-lost brother, a white boy with soul who's bringing Motown into the 21st century and garnering support from the likes of Mark Ronson. On "The Walk," the first single from How Do You Do, Hawthorne plays a man scorned and content with saying "So long, you did me wrong" to the lady in his life. "A Long Time" is both a brilliant homage to Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" and a storied history of Hawthorne's beloved Detroit, followed by a duet - yes, a duet - with Snoop Dogg on "Can't Stop." Someone get this guy booked on a talk show.
8. "Stay Awake" by Example - The London rapper delivers a hard-hitting and resonating dance single with a message for the world, one that also poses the most intriguing question ever asked in pop music: "Did we chase the rabbit into Wonderland?"
9. "Shield and Sword" by Clare Maguire - If Gaga, Adele, and Florence had a three-way and used Annie Lennox as the surrogate then...well, that should clearly tell you what this Welsh broad is like. Witness it all here.
10. "Moment 4 Life" by Nicki Minaj - Yes, "Super Bass" was great and all (and followed you wherever you went in 2011), but here is where the Gaga of Hip-Hop created something rare: an existential rap single. Oh, and the Drake cameo ain't too bad either.
Whistles - Britney's "I Wanna Go," Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks," Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" (feat. Christina Aguilera).
The Saxophone - Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night," Gaga's "The Edge of Glory," Alexandra Stan's "Mr. Saxobeat," Dev's "Dancing in the Dark".
1. Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (TGIF)" - A crowd-pleasing exercise in 80s nostalgia. And bonus points for the Debbie Gibson and Corey Feldman cameos.
2. Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend" - A ridiculously simple yet effective piece in which the Swede With The 1991 Bowl Cut lets loose and dances. Her. Ass. Off. In one take!
3. Swedish House Mafia's "Save the World" - A funny, touching, and random ode to the the four-legged superheroes in our lives (by the way, the single is nominated for a Best Dance Recording Grammy, and rightly so):
And that just about does it.
See you next year,