TIME’s Favorite Cultural Moments of 2011

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Left to Right: NBC; Everett; Paramount Pictures

Allie Townsend, Social Media Editor

1. Rooster’s Final Act

Mark Rylance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron in the play Jerusalem. His entire performance is incredible, but there’s a scene, the very last of the entire play, where a bloodied Rooster crawls from a trailer and begins to begins to beat on an African drum, chanting and calling out. This goes on for no more than a minute, but it was probably the best moment of live theater I’ve ever seen.

Steve Snyder, Senior Editor/Movie Writer

1. The end of Melancholia

From UltraViolet DVDs to day-and-date video-on-demand streaming, considerable effort was expended in 2011 devising business models for a post-movie theater era. Meanwhile directors like Steven Spielberg (Tintin), Martin Scorsese (Hugo) and Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible) were creating experiences – immersive 3D, soaring IMAX cinematography – that could only be truly enjoyed on the silver screen. The king of the purists, though, was Lars Von Trier. In the deafening transcendent closing minutes of Melancholia, a massive interstellar body crosses paths with Earth and Kirsten Dunst joins hands with Charlotte Gainsbourg, both realizing the apocalypse has arrived.

Many viewers opted to watch this scene on their television screen (Melancholia was available for streaming a month before it arrived in theaters), but no home theater setup could have matched the theatrical intensity of this doomsday. As the planet grows larger and larger overhead and as the atmospheres of the two planets temporarily merge, the swirling musical score pairs perfectly with the escalating emotions and violent visuals. And then a deafening roar of bass blasts through the speakers as the planets collide, the resulting shockwave obliterating not only our heroines, but engulfing our senses. It was overwhelming and brazen, and unshakable — proof that the movie theater is still the only venue where you can evoke a certain sense of cinematic awe.

2. Hanna and her music

The aim of the typical movie soundtrack is to underscore and enhance emotions — to draw audiences more fully into the cinematic holy moment. But someone forgot to pass along that memo to the Chemical Brothers. Their soundtrack for the dark thriller Hanna was bleak, bold and unmistakable, an audacious backdrop against which we see a blond teenager (Saoirse Ronan) slaughter the government agents who are targeting her and her father. Abrasively electronic and rhythmic, the music doesn’t just call attention to itself but demands recognition, and there are many sequences in the film where it appears as if the action has been cut to fit the music (not the other way around). The band positions its harmonies somewhere between playful-sweet and aggressive-sinister, and in this way the score parallels the enigma of the film’s heroine — we’re never quite sure if we’d hug Hanna or run as far away as possible. The result is a hypnotic, strange,one-of-a-kind soundscape that does anything but lull you into the story; it jolts you awake.


3. Michael Shannon’s Meltdown

Few movies this year were as haunting as Take Shelter, the story of small-town family man Curtis (Michael Shannon) who’s fighting a losing battle against his psychological demons. Curtis’ paranoia about the approaching apocalypse has gone beyond a weekend hobby. It’s now cost him his job, put him at odds with his best friend and has left his wife worried that she may have married a very sick man. It’s when Curtis makes an appearance with his family at an annual Lions Club dinner that the train goes off the rails. Catching dirty looks from his former friends, and sensing that the room is gossiping about him — as well as the bomb shelter he’s been renovating — Curtis snaps. He screams at the top of his lungs, lunges at his enemies, and then storms to the middle of the room, scanning the room with wild eyes: “You think I’m crazy? Well, listen up! There’s a STORM COMING!” As a man fighting with all his might to keep his disease in check, Curtis emerges as a surprising hero and then he crumbles, publicly and violently, right in front of our eyes It’s a heartbreaking, horrifying implosion.

4. Viral Video as Cinema: Man In A Blizzard

Less than 72 hours into 2011, I was already watching my favorite viral video of the year. Technically, “Man In a Blizzard” hit the web during the last week of 2010. But I was offline between the holidays and, like hundreds of thousands of others, finally caught up with the work on Jan. 3 — thanks in large part to a fawning review by film critic Roger Ebert. Filmed during the Dec. 26, 2010 blizzard that left New York City paralyzed, what’s most notable about the short film was the swiftness of its production. Shot, edited, synchronized to music and uploaded to the web over the span of only 48 hours, the result is a hypnotic, deceptively beautiful collage of a city grinding to a halt under the strain of snow.

A meticulous homage to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent film Man With a Movie Camera, there’s something soothing about filmmaker Jamie Stuart’s stately depiction of a city ensnared by the elements. What begins with a trickle, as a gradual daytime distraction, becomes a far more formidable obstacle as the city slides into evening and the sky turns white.  Accented by a pulsating track from The Social Network soundtrack, the short film is deceptively simple in its subject and approach. But the closer you follow the editing rhythms, take notice of how this natural spectacle is framed, and follow the slow-motion battle being waged between a neighborhood and Mother Nature, the more “Man In a Blizzard” becomes a meditation on what defines a city. I happened to be traveling when the blizzard hit the city, but all I needed upon my return was Stuart’s elegant record of events to feel as if I had been there all along.


Lev Grossman, Book Critic

1. Kate Beaton’s retelling of The Great Gatsby

It’s pretty rare that you run across a book that introduces a sophisticated, totally unique, completely realized comic sensibility straight out of nowhere (actually Nova Scotia). Basically it never happens. But it happened this year in the form of Beaton’s nonsensically titled collection of cartoons Hark! A Vagrant. One of the high points is her retelling of The Great Gatsby in the form of a series of three-panel comic strips. You’ll miss two-thirds of the effect without the artwork, but it’s worth quoting the dialogue from one anyway:

TOM: You can never be like us, Gatsby. We’re old money.
GATSBY: Well, how old?
TOM: So old. Old as balls.


2. An accountant explains heroism in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

Wallace’s posthumous novel about IRS employees is a mess, a train wreck — or not even that, it’s a train that never left the station. But it contains some of the most glorious passages and painfully beautiful moments that appeared in print this year. Here an accounting professor explains to his pupils that their future career is a heroic one, but not the kind of heroism they imagined — not the heroism of knights and romance:

“The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all — all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience… Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality — there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

Of course, there’s another kind of hero who fights alone at a desk: a novelist. Wallace was one of them, and one of the best.

3. Ser Barristan Selmy in George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons

Selmy is a white-haired old knight whose unbreakable loyalty has brought him in his last years from the cold continent of Westeros to a bizarre, exotic eastern country. A minor character, his melancholy reflections on his strange, tangled fate make up a whole novel unto themselves. Here, late in the book, he girds himself for what may be his last act of heroism:

“Armed and armored, the old knight waited, sitting in the gloom of his small chamber adjoining the queen’s apartments. The faces of all the kings that he had served and failed floated before him in the darkness, and the faces of the brothers who had served beside him in the Kingsguard as well. He wondered how many of them would have done what he was about to do. Some, surely. But not all… Outside the pyramid, it began to rain. Ser Barristan at alone in the dark, listening. It sounds like tears, he thought. It sounds like dead kings, weeping.

Then it was time to go.”

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