Wednesday, January 18, 2012

2011 End of Year Wrap-Up

Well, it's finally come to a point where I can't put it off any longer. There's still a film or two I'd like to have seen, but we're almost 3 weeks into the new year, and I think I've pushed it too far. So, without further ado...


Movies are my bread and butter with this blog. I love movies, all kinds of films, but I also confess, I am a real fan of films that never forget that entertainment is part of the equation. I deeply admire films that have things to say, while also making me clap and cheer. I'm a populist.

The Best

10 - Captain America: The First Avenger
A good, old-fashioned, feel-good action film. What was most heartening about Joe Johnston's film was the deep understanding of exactly who Steve Rogers/Captain America is, and why the ultimate physical change into a super-soldier was only releasing a hero that was already there. Johnston's perfect execution of a film of the 40's should be no surprise, after all, this is the man who made the sadly underrated The Rocketeer. Chris Evans absolutely nails a role that could so easily have spun out of control.

9 - Crazy, Stupid Love
Romantic comedy can so easily become embarrassing. It's so painful when you see stories cobbled together from other movies, with a "new twist" that really amounts to zilch, and a cast that you just know are there because their agent told them they needed to up their Q-rating with women. It's almost a shock when you see one populated with real characters, and the complications (while still a little coincidental) stem from the characters, rather than needing to engage a plot point. Steve Carrell, and Ryan Gosling are fantastic, and matched point-for-point by Julianne Moore and Emma Stone.

8 - Win Win
I love watching Paul Giamatti. I just do, there's something utterly compelling about the way he inhabits men on the verge of utter destruction. The way he can play a man doing despicable things, but put enough soul and heart in his eyes that you see why he has to. Here we find him as a near-destitute lawyer engaging in a scheme to embezzle money from an aging client, and then surprisingly finding himself a surrogate father to the man's grandson. It sounds like soap-opera, tear-jerker claptrap, but Giamatti finds the anchor to allow us to believe, and root for him to start healing not only the boy, but himself. Newcomer Alex Shaffer also shines as the boy.

7 - Moneyball
The last thing I expected to happen during a movie about applying mathematics to baseball was for me to start crying. This was the last 2011 film I considered for this list (saw it yesterday), and I was really unprepared for how emotional I got about it. Brad Pitt shines as Billy Beane, and Jonah Hill finally distinguishes himself as something other than "that fat kid that likes to draw penises." I've seen some criticisms about the events that this film dramatizes as "making baseball about computers," but I think the film makes a hell of a point that those computers, and the different mode of thought they pointed to, allowed players who had been deemed "useless" to shine again. Personified so well by Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteburg. Well done, made me want to read the book and learn more.

6 - The Guard
The film on my list I'd guess you are most likely not to have seen. Really, it lives and dies on the amazing performance by Brendan Gleeson. He is, simply, extraordinary. He inhabits Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a small-town Irish cop, who loves his dying mother, as well as prostitutes, isn't above letting a few things slide, but also knows the score in his town better than anyone. Gerry is content, he's set up a comfortable existence for himself, but with the arrival of FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) events begin to close in, and conspire to drive Gerry to make a choice, and take a stand. Brilliantly funny, wonderfully acted, and also deeply moving.

5 - Warrior
I'll fight for this one. It's not a rip-off of The Fighter. It's not a do-over of Rocky. It stands on it's own as a story of a damaged family and how, even years after the fact, love can run deep, and be displayed in the strangest and most unexpected of ways. There are at least three powerhouse performances here, Nick Nolte as patriarch Paddy Conlon, and Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy as brothers Brendan and Tommy. Hardy, in particular, is a force of nature in this film, his objective is set, and he simply smashes his way right to it. It's breathtaking, and I found myself, again, marveling that this is the same actor that played Jean-Luc Picard's clone in Star Trek: Nemesis. Absolutely thrilling to the final minutes.

4 - The Trip
I haven't laughed more in a theatre this year. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel across England, enjoying elegant meals (ostensibly for a magazine article), and driving each other crazy. The film itself is culled from a BBC television series, which I hope, eventually, gets a US release in some form, because I'd like to see more. Ultimately, I'm going to tell you to see it because it's drop-dead funny., but it also contains volumes about friendship, jealousy, family and relationships. Plus, they both do pretty wicked Michael Caine impressions.

3 - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
You want to know when you're watching a really good period film? If somebody told me Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had actually been made in 1979, I'd believe them. Wonderful performances all around, anchored by the amazing Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a gripping spy yarn that hangs on watching people do their jobs really well. No explosions, no sensationalism, violence that it truly horrific, and a personal story that reverberates to engulf the entire world. In many ways, that is the coolest thing in the movie. Seeing how tiny choices affect and alter the massive game of chess that was the cold war between the East and the West.

2 - Rise of the Planet of the Apes
There was a part of me that said, "you can't do that. You can't put that at number two, not that high." I moved it down , I moved it up, I thought long and hard about it. It doesn't matter that it's a remake/reboot of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (although, technically, I think of it simply as a prequel to the 1968 original). It's one of the best experiences I had in a theatre this year, and, yes, that might be partly because I wasn't expecting it. Andy Serkis does tremendous motion-capture work as Caesar, the hyper-intelligent Chimp that will eventually lead an escape of his brethren. That's actually one of the things I most loved, the ultimate goal of the apes here is really not much more than crossing a bridge, while other factors swirl to show the mounting forces that will, ultimately, change the world. It's sharp, forward-thinking franchise building, all while actually making a point about treatment of animals, class warfare, and any number of other allegorical subjects. Terrific blockbuster filmmaking.

1 - Hugo
Ah, Marty, you glorious softie, you. Nothing I've seen this year approaches the beauty of what Martin Scorsese created with elegant GCI, and subtle, precise 3-D. It's immersive and never jarring, the train station where Hugo lives is full of life, and seems to swirl around us. Even beyond the technical artistry on display, Hugo is such a huge-hearted love letter to early cinema, and the great Georges Meilies, in particular, that the idea that Scorsese is pushing the medium seems absolutely correct. (I can imagine that Melies would've absolutely flipped at the idea of 3-D). The performances are exquisite, the story simple but emotionally gripping, with a clear plea for the love and protection of art. It is, simply, everything I love about film.

Close, but no cigar list:
(No particular order)
War Horse, X-Men: First Class, The Descendants, The Artist

I Know I'm Gonna Kick Myself For Not Seeing It

Every year there's a film I just, somehow, fail to see that, when I do see it, I just kick myself for hours. The Hurt Locker is a great example from the past. If I had seen that film when I put together my 2009 list, It would've likely been number one, but I hadn't.

Love Ryan Gosling. CByrd wanted to see this, being a huge fan, but, knowing that the film was far more violent than the ad campaign let on, I kind of waved her off. Of course, some idiots also got the idea it was some sort of The Fast and the Furious clone, and think that's a reason to sue. (God help us) I always figured I'd see it at some point, but I didn't. I'm certain it's very, very cool, and I look forward to the Blu-Ray.

The Worst 

As I usually say each year...I try not to see bad movies. Occasionally, I do, and I'll spotlight that/those films here. Otherwise, I take this space to point out movies that actually got made, people invested money in them, a studio said "yes, let's put this out!" and our world is poorer for it.

One last thought; Green Lantern has lots of problems, but anyone who thinks that was the worst movie of the year, needs to be held down to watch a Martin Lawrence film on a loop for 12 hours.

Season of the Witch (Nic Cage, as you've always wanted: in a LOTR wanna-be)
No Strings Attached (Portman and Kutcher in a casual sex comedy..and she doesn't get naked!)
Justin Beiber: Never Say Never (**hurp**)
Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (Who wanted this film? WHO?)
I Am Number Four/Beastly (If we put this kid in two movies that come out within 3 weeks of each other, he'll just automatically be a star, right?)
Red Riding Hood ("From the Director of Twilight"  **double hurp**)
Sucker Punch (Zach Snyder's "vision" means cribbing from every anime he's ever seen)
Arthur (You, sir are no Dudley Moore, or even Liza Minnelli)

Jesus, I can't even go on...this is too depressing.


The fact is, I don't listen to a lot of new music. I don't. I prefer older artists, and that's pretty much the way it is. 

The Best 

10 - Mastodon - Live at the Aragon 
At the heart, it's just a live performance of their last album, but I found it quite exciting to listen to. Yeah, in some cases it exposes a certain weakness, vocal-wise, but I admire that the band is willing to let that just hang out there, and not try to "fix" it.

9 - Jeff Bridges - Jeff Bridges
For me, just a fun album to listen to. Bridges has a nice, understated delivery, and the "What a Little Bit of Love Can Do" single is really catchy and fun. A comfort album, I admit.


8 - Dropkick Murphys - Going Out in Style 
Ah, Boston Irish punk rock. Infectious in it's power and energy. Picked it up mainly for the "Peg 'o My Heart" duet with Springsteen. Very, very glad I did. Too much fun.


7 - Black Country Communion - 2 
A huge improvement over the first album, which seemed a bit too calculated and manufactured. With the second disk, I feel the band itself taking the reins from producer Kevin "Caveman" Shirley, and it's a good thing. Much more organic and natural.


6 - Chickenfoot - III 
Seasoned players having a good time together. That's what the first album was, but now they've upped their game for the sophomore release. More cohesive, better lyrics, and Michael Anthony just comes alive on bass after years being in everyone's shadow. One of the more fun albums to listen to this year.


5 - Rush - Time Machine: Live in Cleveland 2011 
Did y'know I love Rush? I'm not sure if I've made that, y'know, clear to folks. Simply it's a terrific live set from one of my absolute favorite bands. The boys are playing spectacularly, and they do "Marathon!!"

4 - Foo Fighters - Wasting Light 
I really missed the boat on the Foo Fighters the first time around. It's only in the last few years that I've really grabbed onto them. While this isn't my favorite Foos record, it's a damn fine album. Yeah, yeah, recorded analog...

3 - Black Label Society  -
The Song Remains Not The Same
I am a huge Zakk Wylde fan, but I've alwasy had a hard time with the Black Label Society records. I think, as I've moved beyond my "all metal, all the time" days, I've really longed to hear him experiment more in the Pride & Glory southern rock and Book of Shadows acoustic vein. Well, here we have BLS re-cutting acoustic versions of some of their tracks, as well as a few really nice covers. (Zakk Wylde sings "Bridge Over Troubled Waters?" Who knew? Well, I did, but that's beside the point.) A welcome return to this sound.

2 - Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy - Live in Stoke
I have a great love of Slash. I think he's a solid rock guitarist, not flashy, but committed to groove and bringing some power with blues-based riffing. You can't argue that much of the greatness of Appetite For Destruction came from his guitar work. Here's a live set with his solo touring band, featuring Myles Kennedy, who's fast becoming one of my favorite vocalists. There's nothing new here, but it's a solid live album with a lot of talent involved, recorded well with a lot of great songs. I've spun it a lot since it's release.

1 - Mastodon - The Hunter
Mastodon came out of nowhere for me a couple of years ago. I had written them off as yet another "cookie monster vocal" metal band, but, with Crack the Skye, I started to see more vocal progression, and I liked it a lot. What I can happily say is that The Hunter continues the evolution. It's a stripped-down album, no large concept, just a collection of truly killer tracks. The playing is impeccable, the production clean a crisp, and the songs offer a wide range of feels and styles. Everything from the southern-rock style "Curl of the Burl" to the elegant (I almost want to compare it to Pink Floyd, but that doesn't quite fit) "The Creature Lives."

Most Disappointing 

Anthrax - Worship Music & Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn of Events

In both of these cases, the bands were returning after some strife and personnel shake-ups. In both cases, I wanted to really like these records, but now, months later, I can't say that either one of these records has made any real impact with me. The Anthrax release, in particular, just dies on the vine in my opinion, and I'm fairly baffled by the year-end kudos that some folks have heaped upon it. Dream Theater was a case where I couldn't, personally, even tell that any change in line-up had happened, at all. Sadly, DT was as hit-or-miss as they usually are with me. (I still love Falling into Infinity more and more). I wanted to be wowed, and I just wasn't.

Favorite Single

Easy. "Curl of the Burl" off Mastodon's The Hunter. It's, literally, the only song this year that, upon first listen, I sat up and said "I want that album."

Books/Comics/Reading Material

Generally speaking, 2011, with my fantastic birthday present of a Kindle, represented a re-awakening of my desire to read. I have been inhaling books since I received the Kindle. Now, relatively few of them were from 2011, so this section is going to be kinda sparse. I hope, now that I've, once again, been schooled in the joys of digital media, I can have a more up-to-date reading list in the future.

The Best Books

4 - Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt is "my" comedian. His observations and humor are aimed right at me. This is a very slight book, it was a quick read, but it was also a book that I identified with and found moving and hilarious. It's not great literature, but it's a book that felt like a reflection of my life. Others might completely write it off, but this is my list.

3- It's So Easy (and Other Lies) by Duff Mckagan
I simply trust this book more than any of the unauthorized bios that have come out about Guns 'N Roses, and I think Duff just has a clearer picture of what went on than Slash. Mckagan presents a pretty clear picture of who he is, and how he got there, the work he had to do on himself to make it turn out as well as it has. It's a rather inspiring book. He comes off as sweet, hard-working and loyal. The kind of book that makes you feel you sat down with a friend and shot the shit.

2- Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison
A truly odd book, but also a book that asks us to believe as fervently in the power of our superhero myths as the author does. Morrison is a believer, and he lays out a history of comics concurrent with his own beliefs about alternate worlds and the power that they can exert over our own. It's heady stuff, hard to swallow, but I also don't think Morrison overly cares. His platform is to, basically, say that these characters are designed to show us how to be better people, they can still do that, and will always do that, as long as we get the hell out of our own way and believe in them. Not necessarily as "real people," but as concepts and symbols. It's a powerful statement.

1- Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert
It was pretty easy to come up with the book that moved me the most this year. Don't be put off by the fact that much of the material in Life Itself started as blog entries, because Ebert's expansions and explorations of the concepts that started in the blog are truly moving and wonderful. As his body has become less able to express for him, Ebert's skills and talent as a writer have exploded. This book left me in tears several times, and laughing out loud even more often. His insights have only grown sharper, and his ability to convey those insights is truly astounding. I marvel at this man's life, and I hope that, when my twilight years approach, I can look back and see as much as Ebert does. Sadly, I doubt that will be the case. A must read.

Comics - An Overview

Warning: I am mainstream publisher-centric

DC Comics

2011 will probably, at least for the foreseeable future, be known as "The Year of the New 52." DC comics took the aggressive step of rebooting it's entire line of books, cancelling every title, and restarting with 52 first issue titles. Some series showed little upheaval (Green Lantern, the Batman titles), while others were torn down to the foundation and rebuilt (Superman, Wonder Woman). It was such a massive undertaking that I think people don't give Dan Didio and the company enough credit.

Yes, there were some duds. There were titles replaced with less than stellar results (All-Star Western is a fine book, but Jonah Hex was brilliance on toast), but, overall, the team managed to reinvigorate the line, and spike interest, in terms of sales. People act like a few non-starters in a field of 52 is a unacceptable failure rate. It isn't.

Sure, some things are still playing out. I still don't really have a handle on what Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's Justice League is going to be like, and Grant Morrison's Action Comics is just grinding, as far as I'm concerned. That's OK with me when Scott Snyder is kicking ass and taking names over on Batman. I'm willing to let the stuff play out, and see what the long game is.

Of course increased attention leads to increased criticism. I get utterly perplexed when Catwoman, a character and title that's almost entirely about sexual repression (Batman's) is suddenly "over the line" by doing exactly what every creator has done with the character since the 1940's. Yeah, they took it further with an actual sexual relationship between Batman and Catwoman, but still.

DC did make an attempt to expand the character roster, with, for the first time in a long while, titles headlined by characters of color. It remains to be seen if Mister Terrific or Blue Beetle will hold up in sales enough for that to last, but, if they don't, is that DC's fault? Or is it the fault of the fanbase?

At the end of the day, the New 52 really has to be seen as a positive move. I don't really see any downsides, other than in fanboy grousing about how they changed Red Robin's costume, or whatever. I endured months of that Batman: Incorporated "James Bond Batman" stuff, deal with it.

Oh, Batman: Incorporated is coming back? Great.

Marvel Comics

Don't they just make movies now?

I kid, but, truly, the only moves on Marvel's part that really excited me this year were the death of the Ultimate version of Peter Parker, his being replaced by Miles Morales, a *gasp* half-African-American/half-Latino kid, and Mark Waid making Daredevil great to read again.

Really, there is no under-selling what Brian Bendis pulled off with Ultimate Spider-Man. He gave Peter a hero's death that felt so very, very right, and introduced us to a new kid, who we quickly became enamored with. Not in the least because his entire desire to become Spider-Man (I won't go into origin details) stemmed from his respect and admiration of Peter Parker. We feel an intimate connection between Miles and Peter that makes the passing of the mantle feel right. What might've seemed cheap and exploitative at the announcement was justified when we actually read the books.

And how much shame I felt over the pure racist bullshit that bubbled out of fandom over this? More than I can even deal with sometimes. Aren't we supposed to be the inclusive ones?

We also had Mark Waid beginning a run on Daredevil that's the first time I've enjoyed the character in years. With his artist Paolo Rivera, he's made Daredevil FUN again, and tied him into the Marvel universe in ways that feel organic, and also cement DD as a power player. The only complaint I have is that I didn't want to pick up another title.

Oh, and Marvel put Steve rogers back in the Captain America suit again, where he belongs.

Just in time for the movie...amiright? Amiright?


  1. Nice film list. I agree with your choices and have a lot of crossover in mine (and yes, you will kick yourself when you finally see Drive).

    As for the new 52, have you been reading Swamp Thing and Animal Man? Yes, both Batman & Detective have been great, but those two titles are the absolute best thing happening in comics right now in my humble opinion. I'd like to hear your thoughts, if you have read read them.

    1. Thanks for the confirmation...I'll get my "you idiot" boot ready.

      I have heard nothing but good things about Swamp Thing and Animal Man. I have not read them, as I've been trying to keep my pull list under some sort of control. My intention is to pick up trades, because they've both been recommended so highly.

  2. Nice list as always! I don't see many movies anymore. For one, after working in a video store as long as I did. There's too much mediocre stuff out there and I just can't excited about half the stuff unless it's Superhero movies and movies about Ape takeovers. Capt America was probably the most enjoyable Super Hero movie I saw this year. I also enjoyed the X-Men First Class(but it just kinda fell through the cracks for me) Thor felt like a 2 hour set up for the Avengers movie. Music-wise...Sorry you didn't like the Anthrax. But, then again, I have a feeling (going into that one) that you wouldn't like as much because of your love of John Bush(kinda like my disdain for Dave Grohl's drumming on TCV) I actually listened to some of the Mastadon -Hunter album and really liked what I heard. I liked the Rush - live album. But, let's have that new album...please. The Slash live album is really good too. I'm anxious to hear new material from this touring band too. I have yet to hear the new BLS/Zakk Wylde album. I sampled some of it online and it sounded more like the solo "Book of Shadows" stuff. I really wish he would go back to the P&G sound. I just have a hard time accepting him in this all-leather image tough guy stance considering his different looks over the years. As always, it's nice to see what's been revving your engine lately.