Roger Ebert wrote a gloomy article at the start of the summer movie season, called "Pirates and 26 Other Sequels This Year: Are Hollywood Execs Ruining Movies?" And he had a right to be skeptical. This year saw a record number of sequels, and movie franchise math has always stated that your expectations should be divided by the number at the end of the title. Sequels are for people who don't care about originality, so why bother making them good, right?
But this time, imagine he's making funny noises in a slightly warmer climate.
But something weird happened once the sequels actually started coming out: they weren't terrible. Many of them were the best reviewed movies in their franchise. While 2011 wasn't the first year that originality appeared to be dying at the movie theater, it was the first year to make the case that originality's death might be fun to watch.
Fast Five was the best example of this radical new thinking. It wasn't a great movie, but it was way better than every film in the franchise up to that point. It reminded you less of a fourth sequel than a good TV series finding its footing after a handful of episodes.
Watch the first season of The Simpsons for an example (provided you
don't find the use of the word "dude" hilarious when spoken from atop a skateboard).
Fast Five didn't make drastic changes. It was still a stupid movie, but there was a different quality to its stupidity. The first four movies didn't make sense in the insulting way a dumb person doesn't make sense when trying to talk their way out of a speeding ticket. Fast Five didn't make sense in the awesome way that Wu-Tang Clan lyrics don't even try to make sense. The first four movies failed to ask the all-important question, "What if we rubbed melted butter on the Rock and told him to pretend to be Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive?" Fast Five asked that question, and had the good sense to realize the answer was, "That would be goddamn hilarious!"
The problem with real law enforcement officials is that they just aren't greasy enough.
In his article about how sequels were going to ruin the year in movies, Ebert pointed out that "This year includes five fifth sequels (Fast Five; Final Destination 5; Puss in Boots; X-Men: First Class; Winnie the Pooh), two seventh sequels (The Muppets; Rise of the Apes) and the eighth Harry Potter movie (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two)." He did this to highlight just how screwed we were, but every single one of those movies is currently certified "Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes. Over half of them are the best reviewed movies in the history of their franchises -- suggesting a new, more complex sequel math where franchises don't really get going until part five.
I'm not going to deny that Hollywood went overboard this year: Heading into December, the seven highest grossing movies of 2011 were all sequels. There are enough sequels still coming soon to a theater near you (and lots of foreign audiences who, it turns out, like mindless bullshit even more than American people) that it could be an all-sequel top 10 by the end of the year. For now, The Smurfs -- the most successful non-sequel of the year -- is holding strong at number eight.
But after years of TV shows becoming more cinematic, movies seemed to take a page from the best TV shows, realizing that you can still do good work while giving audiences the familiar characters they know and love.
And also Antonio Banderas.
For the uninitiated, the Real Housewives are a series of reality TV shows that take bored, rich women from various geographical locations and film them being mean to each other until someone has a mental breakdown. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is the best of the bunch, as the women are better at being mean to each other and capable of withstanding more psychological trauma than any other cast, or human being. For optimal effect, the show is best viewed in out-of-context snippets, preferably from the other room, while telling your wife that you can't believe she watches this crap.
Once she goes to bed, it can also be watched from the couch while muttering
that you can't believe she watches this crap quietly to yourself.
Everything that's strange about this period in American history is on display in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The characters throw lavish "benefits" for charity that seem specifically designed to mock the needy, or the verb form of the word "need." We follow one perpetually slurring woman into a plastic surgery appointment and witness the shocked face of her doctor as she lists the bewildering cocktail of antidepressants she's on. Like the characters in Margin Call -- the critically acclaimed movie about the 2008 financial collapse, and probably the smartest movie I saw this year -- the people on the show seem to scoff at the idea that anyone actually deserves this much money. Margin Call shows them admitting it behind closed doors, and The Real Housewives shows those same people doing their best to deny it while interacting in polite society.
"Polite" relative to Somalia, maybe.
Both the show and the film are remarkable for making you feel like you're watching a historical document about the modern world that feels as alienating as one from hundreds of years ago. I'm not sure if future historians will watch The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but I'd recommend it. The show gives you the chance to watch the world disintegrate around a species that will never exist again. And if I had to bet, the video footage of the eventual crow uprising probably won't be nearly as funny.
When I first heard "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)," I assumed it was a parody of the Rebecca Black song "Friday" that was tearing up the charts among people who are just kidding when they listen to music (Dave has more on that, "Friday" being his Song of the Year). The video for the song even features Black as the cool girl and Perry as a nerd with amazing breasts and striking blue eyes. But it turns out Perry wrote and recorded her ode to Friday before Black recorded hers, and meant every goddamn word of it.
Of course, that's assuming Katy Perry ever really means anything. Her most noteworthy trait seems to be her studied, almost aggressive inauthenticity. She is not the first female musician to flaunt her sexuality with a wink and a nod, but she would appear to be the first to use her boobs for the purposes of prop comedy.
Uh, my eyes are up here, girls.
Part of the time, she seems to be mocking the teenage girls who are her biggest fans. In the video for the song "Firework," which is about babies who are fireworks, we get footage of child cancer patients, and then fireworks start shooting out of her boobs.
So, y'know ... chin up, kid.
Katy Perry owned popular music this year the way Michael Jackson owned popular music for the year and a half after the Thriller album came out. Think I'm exaggerating? When "Last Friday Night" hit #1 over the summer, it became the fifth #1 hit off of her album. Thriller is the only other album to do that.
I don't think that we'll be choreographing prison dances to "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" years from now, but I do think that Katy Perry was clapping to the beat of both the best and worst musical trends of the year. For the worst trends, it's unclear if "Last Friday Night" inspired Rebecca Black or predicted her, because you can't pay me enough money to research Rebecca Black's artistic influences. Either way, Perry's song had some connection with the worst song to gain mainstream acceptance since "The Super Bowl Shuffle."
If she makes it into history books, the written word has failed us.
But "Last Friday Night" is also the perfect song to describe what I think is the healthiest trend in popular music of the past few years: the death of authenticity. We used to require artists to believably embody their music. Rock fans stopped liking you when they got the sense that you were no longer authentically angry. Tupac was a dancer who went to art school, and yet he wound up dead because we expected him to live the thug life that he rapped about. If you sold out (Metallica, Pearl Jam) or didn't shoot anyone (MC Hammer), you were laughed off the charts.
But in the past two years, Kanye West and Drake have released great albums about the difficulties of being a famous douchebag. My favorite song of the year, "House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls," is fun hip-hop with Bret Easton Ellis-flavored lyrics about sexual depravity and drug use. It's the first kickass party jam whose singer I would never want at a party with me.
There's really no point of intoxication where whatever is going on here looks attractive.
The same goes for Katy Perry. I'm sure there are some confused girls out there who think they idolize Perry, but it's difficult to idolize someone who never fully occupies a single persona. She's a pop star, and the meaning of that changes depending on what she finds interesting at any given moment -- which is a pretty good description of how we listen to music these days. In the era of week-long music libraries on shuffle, worrying about what's in the heart of the people singing in our ear buds is an exhausting pain in the ass. In a weird way, Katy Perry is about the music because she's about nothing at all.
Brains off, America. It's time to coast.
In an episode of 30 Rock that aired in March of 2011, Aaron Sorkin complained that "Our craft is dying while people are playing Angry Birds." Normally, this would have scanned to me as "Our craft is dying while [VIDEO GAME REFERENCE]." I've been video game abstinent since my Mario 64 habit caused the saddest intervention anyone has ever had to organize for a high school student.
This year, I found my wife playing Angry Birds on her phone and decided I could handle this, and soon after realized I was wrong. I've seen entire nights disappear while I tried to kill what I have to imagine are the least intimidating video game villains of all time (are there other video games where the bad guy is a limbless, paralyzed blinking torso? I honestly don't know).
This is what the mainstream looks like, gamers.
After a decade of video games occupying a collection of niche markets that I'd managed to slalom between, Angry Birds made me feel like I was missing out on something. I think there's a reason this happened. Angry Birds is not just another video game. My wife was playing the game because my wife is a person, and Angry Birds officially conquered that demographic this year.
The head of Rovio, the company that makes the game, believes they can be bigger than Mario and Mickey Mouse, and I half believe him. (The Mario half.) They gave smartphones an adorable mascot the way Mario became the first mascot for home gaming. Mickey Mouse would seem to have a pretty giant advantage over anything born these days, the same way George Washington is always going to be the most popular president. Then again, if Mickey Mouse was released today, he'd be just another cartoon character. Angry Birds' ability to dominate a world of cartoon characters, apps and touch screen games all engineered to addict us might mean that they're a superior species.
They certainly translate into cupcakes better than the cast of StarCraft II.
Any attempts to expand them into a feature length film (in the works) or anywhere off our smartphones could be disastrous. But whether they become the new Mario or the future California Raisins, they will always have the past few years. Just ask the most unflappable player in the NBA, Kevin Durant, who is apparently way more flappable when he's trying to kill non-ambulatory, cartoon pigs.