No year in entertainment has ever been all good or all bad, but 2011 pushed to some extremes by anyone's standards. Cinema had it pretty rough for the first eight months, with only a few highlights amidst the gloom of disappointing blockbusters and underwhelming indies, but September onwards were among the best four months for movies of all varieties in recent years. There were plenty of big-name videogames released, many to critical acclaim (some significantly more deserved than others), but virtually all of the best ones were sequels, leaving innovative and compelling original software thin on the ground. Much the same was true for television and even music, where the heavy hitters continued to hit their usual high standards and beyond, but with few newcomers making a major impact.
Instead of doing separate Best Of lists for Movies, Gaming and Television (which would take too long when there are so many other things to be writing about), this week will see me run through my top eleven entertainment highlights of last year - six today and the top five tomorrow - and make predictions for what will represent the best of 2012.
The original Deus Ex was a perfect game for the new millennium when it was released in 2000: drenched in conspiracy paranoia, fears of out-of-control technological advancement and Matrix-esque cyberpunk stylings combined with thrillingly experimental sandbox shooter gameplay mechanics, it was a game of its time, signalling the arrival of a new era while refining the very best aspects of the old. Its sequel, Invisible War, was an abject shambles to put it lightly, but 2011 saw the series return in top form with Human Revolution.
As with Warren Spector's original, the game weaved itself around some very modern concerns - genetic modification, social upheaval, corporate power - while staying true to its predecessor's spirit with freeform FPS play that differentiated it from the myriad Call Of Duty / Killzone clones already on the market. The game struggled a little in its final third and was rather too generous in doling out its upgrades (only the most haphazard players weren't fully equipped by the end), but Human Revolution succeeded at that most difficult of tasks: being both a faithful update and engaging experience in its own right.
10. Mission: Impossible hangs out at the IMAX
The Mission: Impossible movies have been weirdly schizophrenic, with each so different from one another and with only the original managing to find the right balance between story, character and thrills. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol pretty much jettisoned the first two entirely in favour of sheer blockbuster entertainment, a canny move considering the series' startling lack of consistency. It also helped that the action sequences were so ambitious in their sheer ridiculousness, none moreso than Ethan Hunt's exterior escalation of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
The sequence is a standout on a standard cinema screen, but becomes jaw-dropping when blown up to IMAX proportions. Brad Bird of The Incredibles shoots it brilliantly, taking every available opportunity to emphasize the vertigo-inducing drop awaiting Hunt should his less-than-reliable suction gloves literally let him down, while tight editing keeps the tension constant. If the camera technology can be sufficiently refined, IMAX is looking like the best avenue for improving on the standard cinema experience and fully worth the inflated ticket price. A 20m tall Paula Patton is not a prospect to be sniffed at.
9. The Warfield audience sings to Sara Bareilles
Okay, I'm cheating with this one because the tour in question was from late 2010 and the song from even earlier, but what the hell. Footage was released early in 2011 of Sara Bareilles' gig at the San Francisco Warfield and while Bareilles is renowned for her live shows and a joy to listen to at the best of times, her rendition of her heartfelt ballad 'Gravity' was remarkable for the audience deciding to take over and do some singing of their own.
It's the kind of moment that anyone who does creative work would dream of, with fans making the song their own and Bareilles so clearly touched and delighted to let them do it. Even for those who don't count themselves among Bareilles' fanbase, its a rare demonstration of intimacy between artist and audience. Jump to around 2:22 in the video to see it.
8. Martin Scorsese makes 3D work in Hugo
3D is a contentious technology at the best of times, one which I am definitely not a supporter of. If it was going to work in anyone's hands, though, it was going to be Martin Scorsese. True to form, he knocked it out of the park in his very charming Hugo. Though the film is set in the kind of fantastical world where the artifice of the depth effects can fit into place relatively easily, Scorsese uses the technique for storytelling purposes rather than visual gimmickry. He layers the screen in much the same way that George Meliés' most famous films did, delivering spectacle that feels appropriately respectful to the era of filmmaking which the story and its director are so obviously in love with.
His more subtle work also deserves to be recognized, particularly one gorgeous shot where Sacha Baron Cohen's Inspector Gustav seems to be leaning through the screen, emphasizing how terrifying he is to the two children he is interrogating. Scorsese has spoken at length in promotional interviews about how even the earliest filmmakers experimented with 3D effects to create depth in their images and while I disagree with him that the technology will one day become standard (let's hope not, anyway), he is the first man to make a credible case that it has something to offer after all.
7. Annie Edison shoots A Fistful Of Paintballs
If there's any benefit to Community being put on hiatus, it is having the opportunity to go back and revisit all the wonderful moments that have made the series such a pleasure, and a tragedy more people haven't been watching. For many viewers, the episode that sold them on the series was 'Modern Warfare' from the first season, a spoof action movie involving a paintball battle overrunning the college. When it was announced that the two-part second season finale would be going back to the paintball well, there was considerable trepidation that reaching the original episode's heights for a second time would prove too difficult a shot.
As it turns out, not only did 'A Fistful Of Paintballs' match its predecessor in every department from big laughs to character development, but outdid it in scope and style. Moving from action movie to spaghetti western made the humour slightly more niche, but that has never been a problem for Community fans before, especially when it provides an excuse to watch the divine Alison Brie in such an outrageously sexy cowgirl outfit for half an hour. Apart from her obvious aesthetic wonders, Brie also proved an ideal lead, filtering the bad-ass attitude of Leone's heroes through the sincere but neurotic mind of Li'l Annie Adderall. For all its brilliance, the Star Wars-themed second part, 'For A Few Paintballs More', ended up feeling weak by comparison, a Return Of The Jedi to 'Fistful's Empire Strikes Back.
6. Nicole Atkins takes us on a tour of Mondo Amore
It took four years for Nicole Atkins to follow up her incredible debut album Neptune City, during which time she lost her label, her band and her boyfriend. Despite the title, the result is a much angrier and more cynical sound, laying out its intentions on opening track 'Vultures', which grits up Neptune's ethereal beauty and set Atkin's charcoal voice aflame. 'Hotel Plaster' is a moving plea from a soul lost in identical hotel rooms, without any place to call home - Atkins also moved back to her hometown of Brooklyn during the album's development - while the country-sounding surface of 'My Baby Don't Lie' belies the frustration espoused in the lyrics.
Truth be told, Mondo Amore doesn't quite hit the same heights as Neptune City and lacks any one song so spectacular as that album's title track, but even an Atkins firing one cylinder below maximum is enough to leave any competition choking in her dust. Where Neptune had a relatively consistent aural identity and delivered a supremely accomplished package in every respect, Atkins aims for a much wider range of sounds on Mondo and has to settle for 'merely' being very, very good on all of them, without quite being exceptional at any one. The depth of feeling comes through in every note, though, and it's a credit to Atkins that while the album might be a minor disappointment in view of her barnstorming debut, any other singer would consider it an unqualified success.
You can read my choice of 2011's top five entertainment highlights here. Come back later in the week for predictions on what to look out for in 2012.