UPDATED Jan. 4
In sitting down to pick my top movies/albums/etc. of the past year, I realized I would have a difficult time picking 10 in any particular category, which is kind of a key component in any top 10 list.
So, instead of the usual “best of” format, I’m going to borrow from Stephen King (who happens to be on this list) and include the things I loved in 2011. Other than being grouped by category with a No. 1 leading the way for each, they’ll be in no particular order.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you …
The 2011 List of So … There I Was’ Favorite Things
Breaking Bad: This is not only my favorite thing in television of 2011, it’s my favorite piece of entertainment in any field for the year. It’s also now on my very short list of Favorite TV Shows of All Time, and based on how it wraps up the series next year, it could very well find itself atop that list. No other show combines acting, directing, writing, cinematography, musical selections and editing quite like this piece of cinematic television. In the fourth season, every actor on the show gave an award-worthy performance, and fans were rewarded with a stretch of episodes so intense it was common form to yell at the TV or pause to allow emotions to cool.
Louie: The first season was great, but this second season achieved brilliance few shows have ever reached. The comedy is often so dark, it’s not always easy to watch, but it’s always worth watching.
Parks and Recreation: Funniest show not starring Louis C.K. (who, as it happens, is returning in a guest role to Parks and Recreation in 2012).
Community: I didn’t like the first season, mildly enjoyed the second season and fell in love with the third season just in time for NBC to unceremoniously yank it from the midseason schedule without any clear indication as to when it will return. If it’s any consolation, Community, keep in mind Arrested Development only got three years, too.
Childrens Hospital: This 15-minute show packs more gags, one-liners and general outrageousness (and, of course, laughs) in one episode. Surreal and really funny.
Fringe: OK, so the current season is, well, not that great, but the third season was awesome enough that a letdown was all but inevitable.
Modern Family: It’s getting hit with a backlash that was to be expected after back-to-back Emmy wins, but the show still causes massive guffaws on a weekly basis.
Cougar Town: Yes, everyone (including the creator) agrees the title is still terrible, but the show has turned into one of the best ensembles on TV. When it returns, give it a chance and learn to love Pennycan.
Happy Endings: For a late-season fill-in for Cougar Town that was promoted as a raunchier Friends, Happy Endings has quickly become a consistent comedy, led by the fantastic chemistry of its cast. The Halloween episode (“Spooky Endings”) was an instant Hall of Famer.
Homeland: This Showtime drama is the season’s best new show, and I hope more people soon catch up on a well-acted look at terrorism in the U.S.
Friday Night Lights: The final season brought total closure to the series that you might have thought was about Texas football but was really about life in a small town and relationships. Clear eyes, full hearts …
Men of a Certain Age: Unceremoniously canceled by TNT, this drama showcased fine, subtle acting from Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula. It was one of the best looks at adult male friendship I’ve ever seen.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: If only for the “Palestinian Chicken” episode, which is likely going to end up the funniest in the show’s illustrious (and hilarious) history.
The Whole Love by Wilco: First of all, anyone who knows me knows this pretty much a “duh” pick, but in Wilco’s defense, it’s pretty much a masterpiece. The album’s bookends (“Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning”) are among the finest songs the band’s ever recorded, and the entire album feels like a band simultaneously settling into a groove and pushing beyond its limits.
Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and Kanye West: Expectations were, to say the least, high. Still, they somehow delivered, with both master showmen combining to make an album about living the excessively rich good life somehow relatable to those who are not.
So Beautiful or So What by Paul Simon: I’ve always respected Paul Simon, but I wasn’t a huge follower of his records, but after seeing him perform a couple of tracks on Saturday Night Live, I was hooked with this new work. It’s musically and lyrically amazing.
El Camino by The Black Keys: Just straight up, balls out blues rock as consistently made as ever by the pride of Akron, Ohio. The band has never sounded more alive and unleashed.
David Comes to Life by Fucked Up: The growling vocals take some time to get warmed up to, but once you do, you start caring less what he sounds like and more about what he’s saying. You’ll have the phrase “dying on the inside, dying on the inside, dying on the inside” stuck in your head for a long time.
The King of Limbs by Radiohead: OK, I realize this is going to sound very hipsterish, but I mean it in the most sincere way possible – for those of you on the fence about the new Radiohead record, listen to a vinyl copy and tell me you aren’t captivated. It truly comes further to life in that format. It’s worth noting I hate skinny jeans.
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle: I’m not sure anyone alive today can right a better love song. Or a protest song. Or a song about New Orleans recovering from Katrina. Or any type of song.
Elsie by Horrible Crowes: The side project of Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fellows, Horrible Crowes quiets most of Gaslight’s electric guitars for a quieter look at love (both good and bad). The final track, written for his wife, will haunt you long after the album ends.
Celabrasion by Sleeper Agent: Highly energetic punk pop (or is it pop punk?) debut from a Kentucky band. Go buy this now.
J Roddy Walston (Newport, Louisville twice and Nashville): I traveled with friends to see a show in Covington, but after learning that was sold out, we decided to head over to Newport to see J Roddy based solely on a random reference from an acquaintance. The opening act was pretty terrible, and my friends and I sat in the balcony level hoping something, anything, would liven the night.
And as soon as J Roddy Walston and the Business took the stage, I made the correct decision to get down among the small but faithful crowd, where my friends joined me soon after. We danced and shouted, and when it was over, we vowed to catch him anytime he came anywhere close to the area.
Three shows later, we still haven’t regretted that decision.
Wilco (Nashville): Back-to-back nights at the historic Ryman Auditorium? That pretty much says it all.
Steve Earle (Lexington): Great seats. Great friends. The man continues to impress.
The Week of Legends: It all came together too perfectly to pass up, so the first week of August, I saw a Beach Boy on a Tuesday, a Beatle on a Thursday and a Bob on a Friday.
The seats for two of the shows weren’t too bad, either.
In the span of five days, I saw Brian Wilson (second row), Paul McCartney (great seats but not that close) and Bob Dylan, (front row). Yeah, I was pretty happy.
Movies (note: I haven’t picked a favorite movie yet)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2: The epic battles might have brought to life the visuals JK Rowling’s writing had created in our heads, but the quiet, personal moments showcased the franchise’s true heart. The discussions immediately following the film weren’t too bad, either.
The Tree of Life: I’m not going to pretend that I understood what it all means, or, in this case in the hands of Terrence Malick, What It All Means, but The Tree of Life was pure visual poetry.
Hugo: In the hands of master filmmaker Martin Scorsese, Hugo shows how 3D can be used to enhance a film instead of being a cheap novelty designed to milk a few extra bucks from the audience.
The Descendants: Honestly, I’m not sure how to fully rate this film because I never got the emotional payoff I expected at the end of the movie. This was not the film’s fault, though. Instead, I blame it on the guy who conducted not one but two phone calls during the movie’s climactic final moments. Thanks, dude.
Bridesmaids: Too much was made about how “it’s not a chick flick” and “women can be funny, too.” Who cares about all that? Funny is funny, and Kristin Wiig (and particularly Melissa McCarthy) provided the best laughs of the year.
Super 8: J.J. Abrams’ ode to Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi movies of the late ’70s and early ’80s reminded me of the joys of teenage summers. Pure fun from start to finish.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol: It’s the best action movie of the year, with nothing coming close to the sequence on the hotel skyscraper or the fight in the parking garage.
War Horse: Yes, it is probably the most manipulative movie I’ve ever seen, with every scene designed to elicit an emotional response, but it works. Oh, does it work. Director Steven Spielberg has created an old-fashioned family film, a throwback to the 1930s and ’40s, in terms of acting, sets/locations and emotions. It also contains a sequence that might very well be the most visually stunning piece of filmmaking Spielberg has ever put on film.
Life Itself by Roger Ebert: The rest of the world is discovering what Aaron Saylor and I have known for years – Roger Ebert is one of America’s best writers. You don’t have to like movies to enjoy his book; you just simply need to enjoy a master writer having his way with words.
11/22/63 by Stephen King: King goes straight up sci-fi with this tale of time travel and alternate timelines. I’m sure King, who was a huge fan of Lost, had a blast writing this one, at least when his head wasn’t hurting while trying to maintain a clear, plausible narrative.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: Set at a small, Midwestern college, Harbach’s debut novel is a character study featuring baseball and the pursuit of perfection (and of the things we can’t have). It brings to mind the works of John Irving, who just happens to be my favorite author.
Fantasy football: I claimed my third title in a rowe and fourth in five years. Go Jedis!
Karaoke: For the first time in my life, I sang karaoke (it’s worth noting I as stone-cold sober), with an, um, interesting reaction from one “fan” (read about it here).