Best Songs of 2011

The Rules: The songs need to have been released this year and not be on any album that makes my best of the year list.

Final Fantasy - Hard to Explain

The internet has become great at facilitating bizarre cover songs. Thanks to blogs trying on Magazine-size scope and ambition, compilations of strange and marginal bands covering the hits they were influenced by has become something of a reliably pleasant surprise every few months. Several of those covers made have the sort of unrelenting pleasantness that make them unforgettable, a kind of pocket of urgency because the band needs to not only justify his inclusion in a Nirvana tribute record, but also justify the whole endeavor. Owen Pallett taking on The Strokes' "Hard to Explain" sounds utterly mad until you listen to it and indeed your glad Stereogum bothered paying tribute to a record that has amounted to a promise delivered broken regarding one of Rock's great unrealized debuts. But between those furiously sawing violins and Pallett's beautiful whine, this song is, to me, even more essential than the original.

Telekinesis - On A Plain

Except knowing that the AV Club adored them I'd no idea who Telekinesis was or why they were deemed important enough to cover one of the most highly regarded modern albums. Now, I don't go around singing the gospel of Nirvana. I'm a casual fan at best and I can only listen to them in waves. Yet something about Telekinesis' straight forward take on one of the band's lesser hits grabbed me in just right the way. It's simplicity is its saving grace, delivering the hook with a little of the band's personality as a filter, and passing it's running time quickly and with a kick.

Dum Dum Girls - September Gurls

It wouldn't be a best songs list around here without something from AV Undercover, the AV Club's great idea-turned-phenomena where they invite bands into their round room to play something from an ever-dwindling list of songs. The highlight this year (narrowly beating out Of Montreal doing "Fell In Love With A Girl," Sloan doing "Cars," The Fruit Bats doing "The Other Woman" and The Decemberists playing "If I Can't Change Your Mind") was definitely the sunglass-clad Dum Dum Girls doing a better job on Big Star's "September Gurls" than Big Star. The icy reverb that the girls seem to keep in massive store serves them splendidly as they harmonize their way through the easy rocker.

The Kills - Future Starts Slow

I wanted to like The Kills' new album more than I did because I'm sick to death of The Dead Weather and want everyone to go back to where they came froml; respectively The Greenhornes, The White Stripes and The Kills. I like those bands better than the sludgy side project they've become mired in. The White Stripes are no more and the Hornes are erratic at best, so I was definitely looking forward to the new Kills album. And I do really like it, but just not enough that it made my top twenty. Some of the group's best material is hidden throughout, including the growling opening number, which "Howls, screams and wails" in just the right way. This is what I want from Allison Mosshart.

The Chemical Brothers - Container Park

The Chemical Brothers joined Daft Punk in that odd section of purgatory labeled Bands Whose Soundtrack Work Kicks The Shit Out Of The Film It Was Composed For when they delivered a vibrant and angry electronic album to support the horrendous actioner Hanna. The film was a mess, a rash of embarassing stylistic choices, horribly earnest performances and cringe-inducing dialogue, but the score came this close to redeeming it. Take the film's unbearably pleased-with-itself action set pieces. In what should have been a thrilling, high-stakes fight scene Hanna and some thugs have it out in a Spanish shipping yard. Instead it barely registers because you everyone can't stop letting us know that they're making a film. The blistering song beneath the fight scene almost saves it. Almost.

Austra - The Beat & The Pulse

Austra's Feel It Break was almost compelling enough to make it on the list and I still love it dearly, for when the former Opera hopeful gets it right, it's a thing of beauty. "The Beat & The Pulse" is a dark wave wet dream, a latex-coated fantasia both old and thrillingly new. And when Katie Stelmanis goes for the full-throated chorus, my spine melts.

Susanne Sundfør - Black Widow

I didn't know anything about Sundfør when Cooper McKim handed me her album The Brothel. After hearing it, I chose not to do any research because the majestic otherness of songs like "Black Widow" might not have the same edge to them. I want to keep a blindspot up in front of her face so that I can continue to be confounded and tempted by her gorgeously warped voice and compositions.

My Morning Jacket - Circuital

After Evil Urges I'm just thankful that Circuital wasn't a goddamn tragedy. Better still, there are great songs on this new record, most notably the rollicking title track which starts as smoke wafting through mirrored halls until it explodes into the kind of rocker I'd come to expect from the hairy southerners captaining the ship known as My Morning Jacket. It's good to have them back, even if it's only for seven awesome minutes.

Radiohead - Staircase/Little By Little [Shed Remix]

As it wouldn't exactly be fair to give two spots to songs by band whose album made my best of the year list, I've decided to split it halfway between their b-sides and gargantuan remix album. There was enough Radiohead to fill a cruise ship this year and though it wasn't all gold...a lot of it was. "Staircase" is my favourite of the non-album tracks and never more entrancing than when they performed it on SNL. And from the Remix album, I like Shed's remix of "Little By Little", maybe the least genius song on the album. To see it given a make-over that me appreciate its original context better was rather exciting.

Feist - Undiscovered First

Feist came this close to nailing the album form this time around, but someone keeps telling her to put those watery jazz numbers in between her soul-scorching rock songs. There are great songs on Metals ("The Bad in Each Other," "Graveyard," "How Come You Never Go There," "A Commotion") and then there's "Undiscovered First," which I'm prepared to say is her best song. Primal, loud, boisterous and catchy, it's everything she's good at, cranked up loud enough to kill someone.

Sondre Lerche - Private Caller

Yes, it's a wafer-thin little pop song, but sometimes that's all I need from Sondre Lerche. He's already given me an album that is a fusion of his best instincts in Phantom Punch, so I can't ask him for another masterpiece and am just thankful for every little gem like "Private Caller". God speed you beautiful Norwegian boy. Your pop songs make me smile.

We Avalanche - Ornette

Admittedly I don't know when this song was actually written, but I'm including it because I heard it for the first time this year and the band's only got one album, so I'm calling it kosher. The three folk shredders of We Avalanche are never more fleet fingered than on this song and Brady Custis' voice soars over the weaving and winding string playing, all deft, brazen and warm.

Devotchka - All The Sand In All The Sea

It's a hundred miles from what their known for, but the echoing, screaming, galloping "All The Sand," the song that properly kickstarts DeVotchka's little loved but pretty great 100 Lovers, is just as heartsick and loveable as their best early material.

The Decemberists - Calamity Song

For the record, no I don't hate or even dislike The King Is Dead, it's just a massive comedown from the nerdgiastic heights of The Hazards of Love. Hazards was a career-defining epic that outdid and expanded on everything they'd ever done. It's probably their best album to date. So no it's that there's anything wrong with The King Is Dead, per se, it just isn't nearly enough after The Hazards of Love. The case in microcosm is "Calamity Song". It's a great little pop song with its guitar sound borrowed from early R.E.M. albums (indeed they even borrowed early R.E.M.'s guitar player to do it) and it's impossible not to hum after you've heard it, but it sounds like it could have been written and recorded at any stage of the band's career. It sounds like it could have been a Tarkio song. Which, when you consider how massive a step The Hazards of Love was after The Crane Wife, is as good as a step backwards. They can do better than this, even if they don't have to. They sound good when they tread water, I just wish they'd tackle giant waves again

Dan Mangan - Post-War Blues

I don't know what you'd call the production on this song, it's definitely its own thing and dozens of artists have adopted the sound before, but I don't know what to call it. Anyway, Mangan's "Post-War Blues" is like a classic Dylan tune supercharged and shot through space. I love its momentum, I love Mangan's voice and how it builds on top of itself.

Coldplay - Hurts like Heaven

I'm not the biggest fan in the world of Coldplay's latest album, but shit can they write a pop song when they care to. "Hurts Like Heaven" is what I've taken away from Mylo Xyloto and if it was the only song on the album, it'd still be an achievement. I love how sweet Jonny Buckland's guitar sounds when he plays the lead-melody thing after the first chorus. And there is a hugeness that these guys just get right everytime. That pre-chorus instrumental build-up is unbeatable. The chorus itself ain't bad either.

Lykke Li - Silent My Song

Lykke Li's Wounded Rhythms was 21 on my list. It's very good. My only issue was that all the songs weren't as good as "Silent My Song". And frankly my issue with that song is that it doesn't sound as good on the record as it does live. I've listened to her performance on the Late Show at least a dozen times since I ripped it from a youtube clip. Her well-deep voice carries you ever downward as the brilliantly minimalist arrangement clangs in the deep, half-whale song, half-bell from hell.

The Dears - Thrones

I feel for The Dears. They make consistently great albums that are constantly compared to their first album, as if somehow they've been tarnishing their own legacy. Fuck that. Every album since No Cities Left has been achingly human and heartbreaking and stays with me for a long, long time. "Thrones" has a huge chorus that's not even as good as it's paranoid verse. A fine song in a career full of them, as always under-appreciated.

Cults - Abducted

Cults are occasionally too saccharine for me, but "Abducted" has enough sneer to cut through the sweetness. This is hands down my favourite song from their self-titled debut, a will-they-won't-they tale of hearts stolen and lost again.

Ok Sweetheart - Before You Go

Ok Sweetheart are a little out of my area of expertise and if it weren't for tragic news I'd never have heard of them. TCM's touching In Memorium segment was scored by the Tulsa, OK band's sweetly melancholic "Before You Go" this year and something about it stuck with me as I was watching the faces of actors I'd never work with, craftsman I'd taken for granted and directors who I'd never be able to tell how much they meant to me.

Honors, 2011

Before the Oscars go and fuck it up, I thought I'd offer my own version of who deserves what and for which.

VIP - Joe Swanberg

Joe has done more to inspire me than anyone else this year. He's released some five odd films, acted in and produced a few others besides and done so for next to no money. He's never at rest and even when his films are less than entirely successful, they are constantly evolving, exploring and unraveling the world as he knows it. He gave us two masterpieces this year about the artistic condition, revolutionized self-distribution with the help of Factory 25 and shows no signs of stopping. To me and my friends, he's the spirit of independent film embodied and he's the person who's done the most this year for modern film and made it seem like our dreams of becoming filmmakers is attainable.

- Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil
- Submarine
- 13 Assassins
- Neds
- Super 8
- Princess of Montpensier
- Contagion
- Hugo
- Arthur Christmas
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Margaret
- A Separation
- Carnage
- Too Big To Fail

- Jonny Greenwood, Norwegian Wood, We Need To Talk About Kevin
- Alexandre Desplat, The Tree Of Life
- Michael Giacchino, Super 8
- Chico & Rita
- Cliff Martinez, Contagion/Drive
- Jeff Grace, Meek's Cutoff
- John Williams, The Adventures of Tintin/War Hors
- Mychael Danna, Moneyball
- Hans Zimmer, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
- Sonic Youth, Simon Werner A Disparu

- Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
- Conor McCarron, NEDS
- Mathieu Amalric, On Tour
- Javier Bardem, Biutiful
- Joel Courtney, Super 8
- Samuel L. Jackson, The Sunset Limited
- Sermet Yesil, Kosmos
- Sam Riley, Brighton Rock
- Ryan Gosling, Drive
- Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
- Peter Mullan, Tyrannosaur
- Woody Harrelson, Rampart
- Michael Fassbender, Shame
- Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
- Antonio Banderas, The Skin I Live In
- Chris Hemsworth, Thor (he's just so dreamy)

- Rinko Kikuchi, Norwegian Wood
- Pollyanna Mcintosh, The Woman
- Kate Lyn Sheil, Silver Bullets
- Kate Winslet, Mildred Pierece
- Yoon Jeong-hee, Poetry
- Melanie Thierry, Princess of Montpensier
- Michelle Williams, Meek's Cutoff, My Week With Marilyn
- Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
- Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur
- Carrie Mulligan, Shame
- Anna Paquin, Margaret
- Zoé Héran, Tomboy
- Yun Jung-hee, Poetry
- Tilda Swinton, We Need To Talk About Kevin
- Elle Fanning, Super 8
- Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In/Hierro
- Rooney Mara, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

And were it not totally immoral, I'd give a slot to Alexandra Maiorino for her role in my film I Need You. She's brilliant all by herself in that film, so I don't feel like I'm being too ridiculous.

- House of Pleasures
- Super 8
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- 13 Assassins
- Margaret
- A Separation
- Melancholia
- Drive
- War Horse
- Bridesmaids
- The Way Back
- Le Havre
- Carnage
- Albert Nobbs
- Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
- Simon Werner A Disparu...
- Contagion

Note: The titular Three Musketeers are wasted by their moron director, but in Luke Evans, Matthew MacFadyen and Ray Stevenson we had the most virile and entertaining actors to take the roles in years. It's just a shame they were so let down by their fool director who forgot the movie was about them and not their unwatchable co-stars.

- Tomas Alfredson, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Trần Anh Hùng, Norwegian Wood
- Terence Malick, The Tree of Life
- Jim Mickle, Stake Land
- Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist
- Takashi Miike, 13 Assassins
- Richard Ayoade, Submarine
- Peter Mullan, NEDS
- Reha Erdem, Kosmos
- Stephen Soderbergh, Contagion
- Nic Winding Refn, Drive
- Lech Majewski, The Mill & The Cross
- Roland Emerich, Anonymous
- Martin Scorsese, Hugo
- Steve McQueen, Shame
- Lynne Ramsay, We Need To Talk About Kevin
- Bertrand Bonello, House of Pleasures
- Pedro Almodovar, The Skin I Live In
- Fabrice Gobert, Simon Werner a Disparu...
- Guy Ritchie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
- Gabe Ibáñez, Hierro
- Joe Swanberg, Silver Bullets/Art History
- Tarsem Singh, Immortals
- Steven Spielberg, War Horse
- David Fincher, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

- Norwegian Wood
- The Tree of Life
- Submarine
- Les Amours Imaginaires
- Meek's Cutoff
- 13 Assassins
- Beginners
- Biutiful
- Stake Land
- The Strange Case of Angelica
- Miral
- Jane Eyre
- Brighton Rock
- Kosmos
- Contagion
- Melancholia
- Marcy Marcy May Marlene
- Anonymous
- Immortals
- J. Edgar
- Hugo
- Shame
- Hierro
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- The Conspirator
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

- Norwegian Wood
- Super 8
- Tree of Life
- 13 Assassins
- Beginners
- Contagion
- Hugo
- Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
- Attack the Block
- Immortals
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

- The Princess of Montpensier
- Mysteries of Lisbon
- 13 Assassins
- Les Amours Imaginaires
- Captain America
- Stake Land
- Anonymous
- Hugo
- Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
- The Mill & The Cross
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Immortals

Supporting Actor
- Guy Pierce, Mildred Pierece
- Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
- Paddy Considine, Submarine
- Ti West, Silver Bullets
- Kyle Chandler, Super 8
- Colin Farrell, The Way Back
- Lambert Wilson, The Princess of Montpensier
- Christopher Plummer, Beginners,
- Will Patton, Meek's Cutoff
- Jared Harris, The Ward, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
- Geoffrey Wright, Source Code
- Adrian Brody, Midnight in Paris
- Sean Bridgers, The Woman
- James McAvoy, X:Men: First Class
- Edward Hogg, Anonymous
- Ben Kingsley, Hugo
- Jean-Pierre Leaud, Le Havre
- Mark Strong, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Peter Mullan, War Horse
- Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
- Sacha Baron Cohen, Hugo
- Tom Hardy, Warrior/Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Supporting Actress
- Lesley Manville, Another Year
- Paulina Gaitan, We Are What We Are
- Hiam Abbas, Miral
- Trieste Kelly Dunn, Cold Weather
- Vanessa Redgrave, Anonymous
- Imelda Staunton/Ashley Jensen, Arthur Christmas
- Yasmin Paige, Submarine
- Lea Seydoux, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
- Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method
- Evan Rachel Wood, Mildred Pierce/The Ides of March
- Jennifer Ehle, Contagion

I'd give this to Rae Mathias for Tron Wayne Gacy, but I must recuse myself. She is something marvelous.

Production Design
- Norwegian Wood
- Jane Eyre
- Stake Land
- Mysteries of Lisbon
- Mildred Pierce
- Super 8
- Beginners
- NEDs
- 13 Assassins
- Tree of Life
- Anonymous
- Immortals
- J. Edgar
- Hugo
- Le Havre
- Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
- House of Pleasures
- The Mill & The Cross
- The Turin Horse
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Art Direction
- Mildred Pierce
- Rango
- Jane Eyre
- Captain America
- Chico & Rita
- The Illusionist
- Les Amours Imaginaires
- Meek's Cutoff
- On Tour
- Submarine
- Anonymous
- Immortals
- Le Havre
- House of Pleasures
- We Need To Talk About Kevin
- The Mill & The Cross
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
- Miral
- Attack The Block
- The Skin I Live In
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Visual Effects
- The Troll Hunter
- X-Men
- Harry Potter
- Cowboys & Aliens
- Super 8
- Tree of Life
- Immortals
- Hugo
- Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
- Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Ostracod bioluminescence

The sky is pink and orange and looks like a postcard. I'm swimming out into the ocean just as the sun is setting. I can feel myself shivering. I can barely see a thing. All I hear are our flippers splashing against the water. This seems like a truly insane thing to do. Anything could happen to us, but we trust that it won't- that we're safe. It's getting darker by the minute. This really starts to feel crazy now. I know that I will remember this forever, that I will retell it over and over.

Darkness- completely soaking wet and waiting. I look down and see unsure shapes in the darkness beneath the water. We go on forever like this. I hold tight the hand of someone I can't see. I don't dare make a sound. The time has passed to change my mind. I'm here in the ocean with nothing to protect me but my wetsuit, and it's full of holes. Suddenly, I think I see a spark, like a firefly.

Why can't all types of love be this beautiful? This secret? I am frozen with my whole face submerged, when the water starts to light up around us. Trails of blue light travel upwards, like fairy lights. It's everywhere at once. I'm floating in-between a coral reef, and a sky that goes on forever (there's no ignoring that anymore) and these tiny creatures are reflecting the velvet, endless sky with its many stars.

We have to name this phenomenon; we have to categorize and understand these creatures, otherwise how can we stay sane? How can we pretend to know anything at all?

No one turns their flashlights on. We are all aware of each other and of ourselves, and the display is only becoming more joyous, more impossible. Patterns emerge, flashes lengthen and join together. It's nature's fourth of July sky. Light spreads out horizontally from a single point. None of this seems real, yet it's impossible to deny, shut your eyes and find your way to solid ground. How can we pretend to understand anything? No wonder I can't sleep.

Luck Leaves Nothing to Chance

So the other night HBO decided to do a bit of a sneak preview by airing the pilot for Luck a new series coming in January from the creator of Deadwood David Milch. Being an ENORMOUS Deadwood fan I've been waiting for this show to premiere for months now and after watching the pilot I must say I'm even more excited. Normally I wouldn't write up a post about one episode of a show that isn't even on TV yet but the other name that was thrown into the mix was Michael Mann who came on to executive produce and more importantly, direct the pilot. Here we go.

The show centers on a number of intersecting lives at a horse race track. Going into the series I saw a lot of potential for crime and gambling themes in this setting but the horse racing itself sort of left me wondering if I would enjoy it. This is where I'll start talking about Michael Mann.

Mann hasn't been doing much lately. He made Public Enemies a few years ago now and that film was far from perfect. Though I'm madly in love with a number of the action sequences. So I'm trying to treat the hour long Luck pilot like a true Michael Mann film. The nice thing is, I think Mike did the same. This thing reeks of Michael Mann....liness. Mann has great switches from handheld to stable photography throughout the film and his music cues are fucking perfect. As good as they ever were in Heat or Collateral. He utilizes these great distorted guitar riffs that simply bleed cool and really help to build an awesome atmosphere to have all of these characters walk around in.

The real power of Michael Mann's involvement though is the horse race photography. Keeping cameras right up in the faces of horses running as fast as they can is no easy feat and the fact that he does this with razor sharp accuracy is something that should be lauded and applauded. That isn't to say that the cinematographers shouldn't be because in this case they hold just as much sway. The episode actually had two. Stuart Dryburgh and Lukas Strebel. My guess is that one was resposible for the race photography though I can't actually find that information. Let's just say that the crew on this shoot deserve plenty of praise.

David Milch was the head writer throughout Deadwood's production and I actually saw a lot of him in this first episode. He's got a town's worth of intersecting lives at this tiny race track and after seeing the snippet at the end of the pilot forecasting that's to come in the series I see even more of him. The promise of crime, corruption and pretty edgy intrigue surrounding the owners, gamblers, jockeys, and pretty much every possible character to fill every possible position at this race track only reminds me of the best moments in Deadwood. With any luck at all, the show will get a longer life than Deadwood and HBO will actually appreciate the revenue and fans it brings to the table.

Season in Review: Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire went into its second season utilizing the standard three act structure. The second season being the second act where quite literally everything goes to shit. Every relationship that was developed in the first season is put to the test either through murder, infidelity or in one case incest. The writers of the HBO series set up a number of dominoes that fans expected to fall in the sophomore season and even though Boardwalk never did miss any of its connections this season, it took way too long to get to some of them.

Sitting here writing this while watching the season finale, I'm subject to all the story lines coming to at least temporary closes. The most prevalent actually being a story line that began twelve episodes ago. Chalky White plays the leader of the black community in Atlantic City. Many of whom were gunned down in the season's premiere. The problem is they've had about three scenes throughout the season to tide this storyline over so that they could save it for the finale. HBO is the king of the slow burn series but this is simply bad writing. There needs to be a reason why story lines take so long to be resolved other than the fact that the writers didn't feel like it. The other trouble that this season ran into is that the series' main character Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) is so goddamn boring it hurts. His storyline is turned into a brilliant Shakespearean drama at the end of the first season as we watch the King of Atlantic City see everything he's taken for granted suddenly put up for sale. Viewers expected to see Nucky wheeling and dealing his way through twelve episodes and ultimately getting back his throne. Instead Nucky whines a bunch, drinks even more, makes a quick trip to Ireland, and finally just sort of tries to have a nice talk with the man who robbed him of his throne to begin with.

Kelly McDonald is joined to Nucky at the hip but her storyline is even less interesting then it was in season one. She plays the wife to a mobster and and a mother to a polio stricken daughter. Though the scenes with the ill little girl are beautiful and tragic they end up ultimately just slowing down whatever momentum that episode has already built itself.

The only real compelling storyline is Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). He very rapidly becomes the Prince of Atlantic city and is forced to take the stand as a leader rather than a hired gun. His responsibilities overtake him and we have to watch him keep his wits about him as he negotiates with killers of every kind. But even Jimmy's storyline stumbles a little bit. The show even with this incredibly slow burn manages to gain a hell of a lot of momentum over the course of ten episodes. At the conclusion of the tenth an enormous bomb is dropped but instead of directly carrying everything over, the eleventh episode is almost entirely told in flashback and it focuses on material that really has no bearing on the season's current plot line.

One of the cute little moments of the show though is that late in the finale, Nucky Thompson finally get the appropriated funds he's been looking for so that he can build a highway from New York City to Atlantic City. HBO may burn slowly but they've got nothing on the government.

While all this goes on, one of my favorite characters, Arnold Rothstein, played by the brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg, is pushed into a corner. This treatment is not different from the first season. Rothstein is a genius of sorts who directs his efforts into organized crime. He spends the season off screen unless he's needed. It doesn't really negatively effect the show's storyline but I just love his performance so much that I want him to get more screen time.

Although I've been ranting and raving this whole time I do really love this show and the last ten minutes of this episode are a work of art. Good going Tim Van Patten. Good going writers. Good going HBO.

Glass Half Empty: Movies that Almost Worked, 2011

I like to think of myself as an optimist, in my more lucid moments. At least culturally. My friend and indiscriminate grouch Dan Khan told me that he was having a hard time coming up with his ten best films of the year. When I met him earlier this year Aaron Katz seemed stunned that I was able to list 100 films I really enjoyed in 2010. I'm going to go ahead and admit that I watch more movies than are made in a given year, so perhaps I have a bit of an edge on everyone else, but I will give naysayers credit enough to say that there are as many missteps as successes in a calendar year. And that's a medium spanning defeat. Just look at this year's albums. I've spent hours now agonizingha over the records to include in my top 20 because so many of them are jam-packed with great moments, but so few of them are the kind of perfect record that I can listen to all the way through without skipping tracks. Look at Feist's Metals. She has found a beautiful new edge for her sound and two songs in, I was certain we were given a complete reinvention, full of jagged singalongs and stomping percussion, a more feral, alive sound. Then the watery keyboards, upright bass and noodling bells came in and I felt like we were right back where we started. The songs that weigh down her new album sound identical to those that kept her last two albums anchored. What's so infuriating is that one half of Metals is one of the best albums of the year and it's almost good enough to make up for the fact that the other half does positively nothing for me. Can I in good conscience include an album that only works half the time? Frankly I'd almost give it a spot for the song "Undiscovered First" alone. But that wouldn't be fair to Strange Mercy by St. Vincent, a record with ten times the risks taken and twice as much payoff. So I've decided to set aside a few films that, like the lovely Canadian chanteuse's latest opus of almost, kinda sorta worked and then, as Charlie Wilson put it, fucked up the end game. And I've asked the others to join in as well.

My Week With Marilyn: I don't care what anyone says, Michelle Williams is fan-fucking-tastic as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh even better as Olivier. Other than that this film is entirely worthless and I hate it because it wastes those command performances. In my head I dreamt of a Lynchian detachment applied to a velvety look at the corrosive effects of fame. I got a bullshit nostalghia piece. So fuck the producers of this movie. Nic Winding Refn should have directed it. Then it would have been perfect. As it stands I have absolutely no idea why they made this movie or bothered getting all of the combined power of performances if they're going to hang the film on a gawky charisma vacuum who does nothing but stare and lie the whole film. I fucking hate this movie.

The Woman: If I had to pick one sequence that stood out as among the best of the year, I'd pick the wordless introduction to Lucky Mckee's bloody satire The Woman. We see images of the feral girl who'll make up the film' s backbone, killing wild animals, living in darkness, knowing only how to kill to live. For those moments, watching Polyanna McIntosh communicating a lifetime of conditioning without ever uttering a word, I was convinced I was watching one of the best horror films ever made. Then the terrible soundtrack kicks in and ruins the film. The Woman admittedly has more problems than that, but it's the biggest one of the lot by quite a fair margin. I was so devastated when the endless overbearing cock rock sucks the life out of scene after scene and turns this movie into a tonally confused mess. Sean Bridgers and McIntosh deliver some of the finest performances of the year but McKee keeps shooting himself in the foot by underplaying monstrousness and overplaying scenes that mean nothing at all. The too-strange editing of the ending scenes put the final nail in the film's coffin, and so rather than sharing company with the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist, it's one of the most maddening fiascos this year.

Vanishing on 7th Street: This year was not what I'd call a champagne year for horror, to once again give a shout out to St. Vincent. There were many I rather enjoyed despite a lack of ambition (at least where America's concerned) but some that just missed the mark. Vanishing on 7th Street promised a return of the mighty Brad Anderson, whose time spent working on TV (directing episodes of Fear Itself and Masters of Horror) had erased some of the sharpness he brought to The Machinist, Session 9 and Transsiberian. And alas, my fears were validated when Vanishing on 7th Street turned into a well-mounted episode of The Twilight Zone with none of Rod Serling's rug-pulling moralization. There's not much beyond a competence that's frankly outdone by each new episode of The Walking Dead. And frankly I want more from someone as talented as Anderson. Hayden Christensen as the film's ostensible hero didn't help much either.

A Horrible Way To Die: Adam Wingard troubles me. He seems hellbent on taking up Joe Swanberg's time on projects that are beneath him. Their directorial collaboration, Autoerotic, felt like a Mad Magazine pastiche of Swanberg's best work and the fact that Swanberg acts more and more for Wingard makes me concerned that he won't keep making films at the alarming pace I've grown accustomed to. I'm already in a dry spell, for heaven's sakes. So I had hope that A Horrible Way To Die would be a revelation, but alas, moody lighting and a pervasive calm is not enough to set this apart from most serial killer films. Wingard's lighting initially seems different, but when he keeps shooting his bedroom scenes from behind christmas lights, I realized he hadn't put quite as much thought into it as I thought. But there's was one thing that saved it from being a total buzzkill. The ending. Now, in order to not spoil it for those who might seek out it's company on a lonely night, I'll say skip to Bellflower. For those who will never see it, I'll spell it out in bold. The whole movie we're lead to believe that the serial killer we keep seeing as he flees from prison to make his way back to his girlfriend is doing the opposite of what it initially seems he's up to. It's not much but it put a sliver of decency into a movie about creeps and killers and I walked away feeling happy enough.

Bellflower: Now, this one's on me, but I took my friend Lina to see this film only knowing the general outline of what it was about. And in the end it meant having an enlightening and pleasant discussion about gender roles, so I can't say it was a total wash, but it certainly felt that way as we were walking out. The first half of the movie is sort of like a pug in your lap, dumb, cute, lovable and beautifully ugly (I give director Evan Glodell and his crew credit for devising that wonderful camera). Watching two chubby dreamers with go-nowhere existences fall in love in a kind of dopey, sexy fashion in the front seat of a whiskey-poruing muscle car was, as Glodell's protagonist puts it, "nice". And then it devolves into a misogynistic slog. Whether or not Glodell believes in the horseshit his characters spout in the final orgy of blood and violence and misanthropy is irrelevant because I can't say I ever want to sit through it again and it left rather a bad taste in my mouth. I initially thought having a girl with an atypical body type and look was a ballsy choice on Glodell's part, but then he makes her a villain, outright, no shading, no glimmer of humanity. All of a sudden I felt like I was watching The Room. I wanted very badly to leave.

Road to Nowhere: Earlier this year I got the chance of a lifetime, something that many cinephiles might have killed for. I got to interview Monte Hellman. I love his westerns, his b-movies, I even love his shaggy late-period work. And he had a new film out that I got to ask him about firsthand. It was amazing and I'll never forget being able to talk to a legend, a man who was artistic soulmates with Warren Oates, a man who turned genres on their head. And as I'd already been excited for his latest, Road to Nowhere, this just lit a match in my soul. You know where this is going. I finally chased the fucking thing down, at a lovely little place called Indiescreen in Brooklyn, who always seem to have the films I'm looking for when no one else will play them for more than a week. Admittedly I missed a pretty crucial opening minute, but the problems with the film stem from its cinematography, not necessarily the narrative. Hellman shot the whole thing on the Canon 5D, which made it pretty, to be sure, but not like a proper feature. My issue is that I'd just come from Emerson College, where everything is shot on a 5D or 7D and Road to Nowhere doesn't look different enough from a student film. And worse still his lead actors weren't good enough to set themselves apart from the students I'd seen in films shot on the 5D (except Fabio Testi, who is cool as shit). In fact, on its face, the only things setting Road To Nowhere apart from some of the most awful student films I've ever seen were feature length and better-than-average production values. I couldn't help thinking that taking a twenty year break from directing actors was the kiss of death for this film, but then I watched Trapped Ashes. Hellman directed a beautiful short film as part of the omnibus film Trapped Ashes in 2006 that ranks among his best work. So I guess casting's pretty crucial, then. But there was one thing that I fucking love about it. There's a crucial scene, it's towards the end and it involves a lot of dead people. If, based on my glowing recommendation, you decide to see it, stop reading here, because I'm really going to spoil the shit out of this one. I've been made fun of before for filming everything I see (I filmed our arrival the Las Vegas Film Festival as we were being filmed) and so this had particular relevance for me. The director of the film within the film has just seen his girlfriend shot and killed. He's in shock and heartbroken and in ruin. What does he do? He picks up his camera and just films the room and all the bodies in it. That was a bit of a funhouse mirror moment. Christ I could so see myself in that scene it was frightening. That Hellman could still pull of a moment of true cinematic power like that means that waiting as long as I did and getting excited as I did wasn't entirely in vain and that maybe he still has another masterpiece up his sleeve.

Action movies in general this year have been mostly fumbled (with one obvious scorpion-jacket-clad exception). Not train-wrecks but certainly not the crisp, intelligent stomp fests we’ve been spoiled by over the years. Ever since The Bourne Identity we’ve begun expecting a little more of our action movies. Slowly, over time this expectation has turned into a trend leading us to a decade of really solid dramas for the thinking man who also wants to see people’s limbs get wrenched in awful ways. With Casino Royale breathing new and frightening life into the Bond series, Iron Man making the theater safe for nerds and laymen alike, and Taken just kicking all the ass ever, action movies have really turned over a new blood-speckled leaf. So here we are in 2011 and I was pumped for a whole host of action movies that looked brilliant. And at the end of the day most of them just barely missed the mark.

Source Code: This one’s easy. Everything that is wrong with this movie happened all at once right at the end, leaving a really nasty taste in my mouth when it was over. See, this movie had a really killer premise. Time travel and consciousness were called into question, Jake Gyllenhaal did that thing he does where he gets all wide eyed and manic, and at the end it turned into one man’s very honest, very touching quest to be allowed to die with dignity. I really loved this movie’s way of adjusting time to generate emotion and they pulled this off so perfectly… and then ruined it by having him live. I’m not one of those guys who think that happy endings are for sellouts, it’s just that you have to earn your happy ending. If all your character wants to do is live and be happy, then sure give that to your audience, they’ll love you for it. But the point of this movie was that he wanted to die. He didn’t want his body to be used as a tool for someone else’s well being…so he took someone else’s body and used it for his well being.

Thor: Thor had so many good ideas and frankly, not enough time. But that didn’t bug me the most. My buddy Kenny B managed to get so much mileage from the little scenes he got that in the end I felt all the emotional beats I was supposed to and everything was OK. Where this movie really dropped the ball was the actual action scenes. Say what you will about Captain America (and I will, shortly) it had killer fight scenes. Fast, creative, brutal, sometimes funny. Rag-dolling Nazi’s that gave the Combine from Half Life 2 a run for their money. But Thor’s action was slow and awkward. It wasn’t over the top comic book fun, but neither was it fast paced shaky cam brutality. It was just uninspired. I wasn’t really surprised, I mean, Branagh isn’t an action guru, and his great work with Hemsworth and Skarsgård made up for it, for the most part. I just really wish I’d been more pumped about Thor punching people than I was.

Captain America: I can’t help but lump Thor and Captain America together in my mind. Not only did they come out so close together, but they were so obviously aware of all the ways the other film didn’t work, and seemed to try to counter balance each other. Which was nice, and not nice. Like I’ve already stated, this movie was a ton of fun to just watch. I loved all the Nazi tossing and explosion jumping. But the ball that was this films strongest emotional beat was not only dropped, it then landed in a worm hole where it would drop forever (yeah, so my metaphors are getting a little loose, it’s late). The movie ends with a nice scene where Rogers talks on the phone with his British girl friend about a date they will have as he is plummeting towards certain doom. Then he wakes up seventy years later and when asked if he’s ok. He says “I had a date.” The girl looked about thirty when he saw her last so seventy years later, odds are she’s crazy dead now. Thus, this is a totally crushing last line. But the moment doesn’t feel crushing. Nothing about the framing or setting implies a sense of loss or regret. And the moment is given mere seconds before being stamped out by bold patriotic music over WW2 propaganda images. If you think this is a relatively minor complaint, given that it’s only the last 3 or so seconds of a two hour film, you misunderstand. This is a HUGE fucking complaint. Not only did it ruin the ending but when I thought back it all sort of unraveled like a ball of smelly yarn. Every profound emotional beat dealing with loss and death was rushed and trampled on a by a sea of explosions and pie eating (there was no actual pie eating). And it wasn’t as though the downer moments were badly acted or badly written. I just felt as though the director was standing around checking his watch on the days they shot those scenes wondering when he could get back to flinging more Nazis out of airplanes.

X-Men: First Class: There’s a special place in my heart for Patrick Stewart so I was skeptical of a non-Stewart X-Men. That’s not so say that I don’t have a place in my heart for Macavoy. I do. It’s just smaller and not as well furnished as Stewart's place. But McAvoy did not disappoint! He didn’t shine like Fassbender or flounder like that blue kid, but he did not disappoint. The problem was in the story. Or stories. There were too many of them, and they didn’t seem to notice all the other stories that were also happening. One thing Thor and Captain America had to their advantage was they had one, possibly two plots going on that they had to work with. X-Men had, let’s see, crazy holocaust survivor revenge quest (best plot, by the way), CIA working with new mutant division, coming of age/accepting who you are story, Cuban missile crisis, various personal arcs of people learning to control their power, and then the staple plot line of persecution and the paths to peace. This myriad plot lines combined with the dozens of characters and drop-of-the-hat allegiance switches made for a convoluted-as-fuck ending. And while I didn’t really dislike any of the plot lines I just felt that none of them were done a favor by having to get squeezed in with all the others. Also, that blonde girl from Mad Men cannot act to save her life.

Mr. Danvers
Jane Eyre is a successful adaptation, but the film missed some subtle (and not-so-subtle) moments from Charlotte Brontë's novel that I was excited for. For the record, I believe adaptations of books should stand on their own and not be chastised for making changes or cutting from the source. Different mediums have different styles. However, I'd hope that when someone has the chance to film a classic scary scene in literature (i.e. The one where the protagonist wakes up to find a crazy lady dressed in her wedding gown watching her sleep) they would use it. At times, I felt the film was afraid of allowing the source to speak for fear of camp. Personally, I think a woman in a house with cackling coming from an indeterminate source is screaming for screentime. Also, Mr. Rochester has very clear deformations at the end of the book. He doesn't look like a hipster in the country. Again, I understand artistic choices. But, he's missing a part of his arm and one of his eyes. That's right: A hook and an eyepatch and Mr. Rochester looks like a pirate. I wanted a sexy pirate! And, making his deformations less severe lessens the beauty of Jane's acceptance and understanding. But, on the whole, I LOVE THIS MOVIE!!

Fox Johnson
Sarah's Key came from the novel of the same title. The problem is that it seems to have been adapted too faithfully. The "A" story of the film is incredibly engaging. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a journalist who is investigating the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup where French police in German-occupied Paris in 1942 rounded up thirteen thousand Jewish emigres to be sent to Auschwitz. The film often switches to the perspective of Sarah, a girl who was rounded up but managed to escape and her journey back to Paris to find her forgotten little brother. The scenes following Sarah are incredibly powerful and truly succeed at illustrating the power of the human spirit.
The problem is very little of the information provided about Sarah's past is actually earned by Scott-Thomas' character Julia. All of Sarah's story just sort of spills itself all over the screen and luckily for the audience it comes at all the right times. Julia's plot is actually incredibly boring but I get the feeling it wouldn't be as bad if I were reading it rather than watching it. She deals with a husband and children from his previous marriage. She herself is having difficulty bearing children and the film seems to think that Julia's complication is more interesting and important than the mystery of Sarah and her titular key. It works in a story thats allowed to be three to five hundred pages long but for a two hour film it just becomes needless fluff.
In accordance with the theme of these articles Sarah's Key quite literally is broken in half by quality. The first half of the film, though occasionally meandering, flows very well. The audience learns Sarah's story and it's all accomplished very well. The problem is that the main mystery of Sarah's story (the location of her brother) is solved at almost exactly the halfway point of the film. Then the audience is forced to sit through another hour of more or less useless extrapolation. Sure a little more is told about where Sarah went after finding her brother but it all seems sort of needless since the point of Julia's intended article was to find out what happened to these two people and SPOILER ALERT by the time she actually comes upon her answer the two Jewish siblings are both dead.

Sarah's Key was definitely one of those films that I rewrote on my ride home from the theater. It sets up a ton of great looking plot arcs in the first half but fails to deliver on more or less all of them. The real shame is that it's far from a lost cause. There's quality and beauty in the filmmaking and Kristin Scott-Thomas is brilliant as always.

Sean Van Deuren
The Ides of March fits this description perfectly for me. Dropped. The. Fucking. Ball. With the whole intern plot. . .

Also, Incendies. Didn't really drop the ball, but also was really close to being great in a lot of different ways that it didn't fulfill completely.

Television's Overachievers for 2011

The year is coming to an end so we at Film Punk decided to talk about what we think is the best television of 2011. We decided that rating Comedies and Dramas in the same basket was completely daft so we each made two separate lists.


I'll say now that I'm not a TV person, which is strange because the fucking thing is never off in my house. The deal is I've got my broken computer hooked up to the television to constantly watch films, I'm addicted to TCM and haven't totally lost faith in TV being as good as film. I'm one of the last few who doesn't think that TV has surpassed film in writing or direction. It just hasn't. Look around you. Everytime someone makes the argument that TV is where good ideas are coming from, I'd like to ask them the last time they watched a film from West Africa, Romania, Iceland or Argentina. I would then wait about ten seconds and then say "yeah, that's what I thought." But, all the same I do enjoy my stories when they come on. Every week, usually via Skype, Dizzy and I watch Parks & Recreations because it's the funniest show currently on television. Beyond that is the emotional chutzpah to back up even the tiniest throw-away gag. These guys have it down in a way they never quite got out of The Office. Children's Hospital gave it stiff competition, but as the show is only 9 minutes of absurdity, it can't quite compete with reigning heavyweight Parks, though goddamn if they don't come close. NTSF:SD:SUV was nearly as good as Children's but I wanted more from bit players like Peter Serafinowicz and Rebecca Romijn. The Heart, She Holler came and went amicably enough but has nothing of Delocated's immediacy or charming charmlessness. And as ever I remain a loyal and loving fan of the degenerates on It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, who continue to outdo themselves even as I keep thinking they can't possibly. Up All Night is lightweight, to be sure, but it feels lived in and gentle and I greatly enjoy spending time with the three tame nutjobs at its center.


My drama choices remain limited by my family being dirt poor and my not having the drive to download whole seasons of television. So yeah I missed Game of Thrones. I watched Mildred Pierce, but let's face it, that was a fucking movie and so it'll show up in my year-end movie round-up. Anyway, I enjoyed Pan Am because I'm a gentleman and the chance to watch four adorable women dressed as Pan Am stewardesses in a blue-screen version of the 60s is not something I can pass up. Or as I told Andrew Nigrosh, it's like a 60s Toy Store and everyone's on a shopping spree. I'm watching Hell on Wheels because I recognize it as a Western and it's trying to win me over and I'm letting it because I like watching people in the costumes trying out the accents while the creators attempt to combine every fifth western ever made into a cohesive unit and unsurprisingly can't quite do it. It's better than Bonanza, anyway, right? And I like The Walking Dead even though no one else but me and Jonathan Maberry seems to. It's a touch like a 70s road movie with zombies, which is all I could ask for from this show. And it got me to like Jon Bernthal and Norman Reedus, who I was definitely not a fan of in Season 1. But the series many directors have let them fill out their characters and this has become as kind of lovely and pastoral as a zombie serial can be, so I have a great time every sunday with those three. I always save Pan Am for last as a kind of pick-me-up. And of course The Closer, another show which has much in common with movies I like, namely a cast filled with fantastic character actors who never got nearly enough to do in movies. Watching the team work together/bicker is the reason I keep coming back and I will be ever so sad to see it go.


1. Parks and Recreation has achieved a status in my mind that only 30 Rock has ever had (and it lost it last season). When an episode of Parks and Rec starts I know it will be good. I know it. I don't have to worry one bit. It's got an amazing cast of incredibly talented funny people who manage not only all the right comedic timing but also manage to play each character with real heart. The writing team only adds to this great recipe with just the right balance of serious storyline and absolute absurdity. Literally every one liner, every fake tv ad, every accepted fact in the world they created is funnier than anything on almost any other network and most of them are treated as throwaway jokes.

2. When they weren't busy kicking the Tony's asses, Matt and Trey were creating another kickass season of South Park. The show definitely has its ups and downs but when the duo are at the top of their game, their satire is both razor sharp and incredibly funny. And when they don't feel like getting political they'll spend 22 minutes on some of the most obscene fart jokes to every be heard, and its still brilliant. This season they actually went for a pretty serious turn by having Stan's parents get divorced and ending their half season with a downer. A lot of people were confused but the message the boys were sending was clear. If you take life too seriously, your whole world will be shitty. After 15 seasons they're still damn near perfect.

3. Curb Your Enthusiasm sent Larry back to his homeland of New York City this season. Most of the humor was fairly similar to what the show has done in the past but they brought in a number of great actors to help add to the improv storyline including Ricky Gervais and Ana Gasteyer. The new environment invigorates Larry a bit and his jokes and humor are a lot more fresh than previous seasons.

4. It's Always Sunny in perfect. Always.

5. Workaholics was a recommendation from a bunch of people I would never trust. That said this show is incredibly stupid but just so damn funny. It definitely borders on stoner humor but the self awareness of the writer/actors puts it just over the bar that Family Guy and modern Simpsons seems to have fallen under.


1. Since Breaking Bad has made its way onto Netflix I've got every Tom Dick and Harry coming up to me and asking me if I watch the show. I politely tell them to go fuck themselves. I discovered it. It's mine. You can all go die. In truth I have been watching the show from the beginning and even though I've been madly in love with it since day 1 I can definitely point out flaws (Particularly in season 2). But luckily for the television community, season 3 came along and really showed off what the show had to work with. What's nice is this year in it's fourth season, Breaking Bad built on all the greatness it had already made for itself. Though getting off to a slow start, the amount of amazingly tense moments they create on the show leaves your hair gray. Not to mention creating a villain so terrifying that you see him at night when you close your eyes. I agree with Tim that it's a tad stagnant in the middle but I think all of the seasons suffer from that. I think more than anything though, this season left me really wondering how the show is going to conclude in its fifth and final season.

2. What can I say about Game of Thrones that hasn't already been said? Its shot beautifully. It's resurrected brilliant actors that I thought would never see the light of day again. And it's got CGI that should make most filmmakers shoot their own dicks off. Now I've read all the novels and I've never seen a screenplay so closely adhere to it's source material. They sold the show to HBO not just because its good, but its because it's got a built in audience of probably millions. It's got minor flaws like everything else but I'm happy to say that I really don't think the show could have gotten off to a better and more complete start.

3. Boardwalk Empire was the definition of the HBO slow burn last season and their style hasn't changed much. What they did come into the second season with though, was an established cast of great characters. Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson fell flat with almost everyone that watched the show but not to the fault of the actor. The writers just accidentally made all the tertiary characters far more interesting. This season has followed Nucky, the king of Atlantic City, lose control of his town to his son figure Jimmy Darmody. The 2nd season has set up what I hope will be a Breaking Bad-esque 3rd act and by that I mean a shit show. An all out war for control of the titular Boardwalk Empire. It may seem unfair to list the show before its season actually concludes but the 9 or so episodes that have already aired have proven the show worthy of a best of list. It's acting is beyond flawless and its less is more style of photography just helps viewers to pay attention to the story and characters which are both pretty damn complicated.

4. I've never been more at odds with a television show then I was with Walking Dead this season. AMC knows its their cash cow at present so watching it on tv is all but insufferable. They put in far too many commercials that aren't even scheduled to be part of the episode but I guess that shouldn't fault the show itself. The writers gave me enough to talk about. The show had 7 episodes that really centered on two plot points. One being the rescue of Sofia, a little girl who disappears in the first episode. The problem is that the show was incredibly stagnant this season. They found a farm house and didn't leave it. They're still there in fact. I can't even really decide why I've put it on this list. I yelled at the tv all for seven weeks but at the end of the day I kept coming back to the show for some reason. I hate all but 3 characters and was furious at the story line the entire time. But the midseason break did end well and I'll be happy to return to it when it comes back on tv next year.

5. Now Mad Men would have been on this list but all that contractual bullshit kept it from entering it's 5th season in 2011 so there that is. I'm only 3 episodes into Hell on Wheels and its far from a perfect show but its got the makings of something wonderful once it actually finds its groove. I won't call it one of the best of the year but I will call it promising enough to keep your eyes on it.

Unlike Scout, I watch a ton of TV. I subjected myself to watching every pilot this fall, and religiously keep up with my old standards. This year was a really great year for television. I am in the camp that firmly believes that TV gets better every year and is quickly catching up with films. My camp regards Scout's camp like that strange Mennonite commune across the river from our dock. We sometimes watch them toiling in the sun, cutting wood and such, while we sip our martinis and blast Cee-lo from our party boat. Anyway, I digress. Here are my picks.


5. Community, in my opinion, sort of lost its way in season 2. I started feeling like the writers were too smart for their own good and their quest for constant self awareness had started to seem more like a gimmick and less like something that naturally came from the characters. It still had some great high points, and was at times funnier than it’s ever been, it just wasn’t very consistent. This season still has all the meta story telling tropes from last season but now I feel like their being used to really tell us about the characters. With the strongest ensemble on television, I’m glad to be back with them.
Best Episode: Remedial Chaos Theory

4. South Park started to get on my nerves a couple of years ago. It’s not that it had gotten worse, really. South Park never really deviates far from the norm. It was that I had changed. I vividly remember the awful sinking feeling the first time I didn’t laugh at a South Park episode. But this season in what almost looked like an attempt to sabotage their own show, Matt and Trey did something really unusual: they let their characters grow. They allowed Stan to get depressed and lose faith in what is basically the show’s premise. In his own way, even Cartman began growing up. In the twelve or so years I’ve been watching this show, the one thing I never expected is for it to become an earnest tale of children growing up. But have no fear, the tasteless Penn State jokes are still included.
Best Episode: Ass Burgers

3. Parks and Recreation is amazing. I didn’t start watching it until recently actually, because the first season just seemed like a terrible The Office rip off. Since then the show has grown so much, becoming one of the most consistently funny shows on television, with a more grounded personal arch that 30 Rock, but a more straightforward approach to humor than The Office or Modern Family.
Best Episode: I'm Leslie Knope

2. Archer really impresses me with its ability to generate effortless humor. So often when watching sit coms I get that nagging feeling that everyone is trying too hard. Archer manages to crack me up but at the same time I get the feeling that the writers really don’t care if I laugh or not. If a joke sinks, there’ll be another one in about half a second.
Best Episode: Swiss Miss

1. Adventure Time is, I kid you not, the best comedy on television in my opinion. It is pure uninhibited imagination. All the best moments of iconic kid’s shows like Invader Zim and Spongebob Squarepants paired with the dark undertones from Ren and Stimpy make for probably the most effective kids show I’ve ever seen. There’s one scene in particular that really sums up why this show is brilliant. Finn lands by his treehouse being carried by a flock of smiling balloons. He thanks them for the ride and then promptly released them from their blood oath. They respond by squealing with delight and shouting, “finally we can go to the stratosphere to die!” The show is filled with childlike adventure but underneath it you can’t help noticing the dark truth behind the stories. Like, why is Finn the last human on the earth? The show sometimes hints at the fact their used to be many humans. In fact they used to rule the world. But now in this strange trippy kingdom populated by talking fruits and dogs that can enlarge their livers at will, the humans are gone. All but Finn. I’m not sure if Adventure Time will ever explain these questions, but even posing them strikes me as remarkable in a show meant for 11 year olds.
Best Episode: As another testament to this show's integrity, I can't pick a best episode. They all impress me equally.


5. Last year Justified was probably the best cop drama on television. It should be noted that the cop drama genre has become a really small pond these days, filled with those three eyed fish from The Simpsons that I call NCIS, so Justified wasn’t really that big a fish. But it had everything I wanted from a good cop drama: Cops and robbers each with fun character flaws, having at each other in manageable one hour blocks, usually culminating in someone getting shot in the face. It was a simple show that gave me exactly what I wanted, and nothing more. This year, though, Justified managed to completely transcend its cop drama roots and tell a story about family, and loyalty, so deeply human and tragic that I found myself riffling through my Shakespeare collection, trying to find which play it was ripping off. The focus of the show was still on the rather rigid Timothy Olyphant, but decided to use him to tell other people’s stories instead of telling his own. The show became about a place, so much more than about a person, and in the end I found myself enjoying even the episodes that didn’t end in someone being shot in the face.
Best Episode: Bloody Harlan

4. Doctor Who had a terrific season last year. Stephen Moffat finally took over as head writer and suddenly the show was jumping into seriously uncharted territory with some of England’s cleverest writers. This season, the old crew is back, same every place, same every time, but a little bit of that freshness that kick started season five is lacking. A part of me thinks I’m getting sick of Amy Pond, another thinks that maybe the writers have gotten a little too hung up on trying to confuse their audience. Either way they took a slight step down this year. Regardless, it’s still one of the best shows on television. The writing is sharp and the plot twists while sort of torrential in their delivery, are still well thought out and very very clever.
Best Episode: The Doctor's Wife

3. Breaking Bad, like Doctor Who, found itself coming off an exquisite previous season. And much like Doc Who, it couldn’t keep the momentum it built last year. We ended season three in somewhat of a pickle. We began season four with this pickle being resolved, in as much as a pickle is ever resolved on AMC. But then for about five episodes, I kept feeling like the writers were saying “now what?” Jessie got his opportunity to shine, but Walter just sort of stagnated. He became pathetic, much like season two Walter. I felt like the show had taken one giant step backward, and I was frustrated. Now, it should be noted that the last four episodes of the season are brilliant, but a part of me felt like they weren’t really earned. I wanted Walter to be a badass the whole season and when he finally was (and boy was he) I had a hard time figuring out why it took him this long.
Best Episode: Face Off (Also, best pun)

2. Homeland has completely reformed my ideas about what television is. Usually a show is only as strong as its premise. Star Trek TNG worked so well because its premise allowed for infinite variation. Seinfeld worked because its premise was the anti-premise, a sort of Sartre-esque limbo with a laugh track. Homeland on the other hand is like an exercise in rejecting its own premise. I spent the first few episodes ready for a show about vicarious living, a show where the characters reflect the vicarious nature of television by spying on each other’s personal dramas. But soon that was abandoned and suddenly the show was about the relationship between the hunter and the prey. A sort of cat and mouse game between the two main characters, but soon the game was suddenly over and I was presented another new premise. And while it would seem like this should confuse and enrage a TV viewer, it didn’t. It was fitting, in fact it was inevitable. I couldn’t imagine a show about the CIA that ever let anything be as it appears.
Best Episode: The Weekend

1. Game of Thrones has a truly expansive universe. In a way that no other show I’ve ever seen has ever had. When Catelyn Stark took Tyrion Lannister to see her sister at that crazy cliff castle place I didn’t feel like the writer had invented a new place for his readers to go. I felt like this crazy castle had been there the whole time only in the periphery, not yet in focus. When Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark recount old battles they fought together it seemed impossible that these pasts were invented by the writer but instead that these back stories were always inside them, just waiting for the moment to come out where we, the audience, could see them. This immersive sort of world coupled with some truly complex and engaging character relationships (my favorite being between Robert Baratheon and his bat shit crazy evil wife) made for my favorite show of the year and probably the best fantasy series ever made.
Best Episode: A Golden Crown