My Top 10 Notable (or Surprising) Media Successes of 2011

About a week ago, I posted my Top 10 Media Disappointments of 2011.  Now, however, it’s time to look back at last year a little more positively, and give you my personal Top 10 Notable (or Surprising) Media Successes of 2011.  Note that I’m not just making a simple list of “Wins” to counter last week’s “Fails.”  These elements are all either noteworthy successes in the field of media or contain some measure of surprise.

Feel free to voice your opinion on my choices below.

Off we go!

10. Super 8

Much like last year, it was difficult to list the final success on this list.  Very few TV series impressed me this year, and even the number of groundbreaking, original movies was low. In the end, I gave the edge to J.J. Abrams’ project Super 8, not so much because it was groundbreaking or original (though it had slight elements of both), but because it was a well-done movie with a good story and great characters.  To say the marketing of Super 8 was mysterious would be an understatement.  Teasers hardly revealed anything about the movie — other than some train crash involving a monster.  What we got, however was more akin to The Goonies than a sci-fi monster movie.  Super 8 follows a group of kids in a small town attempting to film their own zombie movie for a film festival.  While filming, however, they witness a train crash in which some creature…thing… escapes.  The movie contains a variety of thriller, mystery, and action elements, as this creature heavily influences the story, but the film mostly centers on the kids and their attempt to make a movie amidst the chaos.  Super 8 is a sort of love letter to movie-making in general, but specifically regards the movies of the 80’s with much fondness.  The characters (as with most Abrams’ productions) take center stage over the special effects, as we see the kids learning to deal with one another, their parents, and, of course, some invading presence.  Nevertheless, despite being a movie with a lot of heart,    it’s still got some pretty great-looking sequences.  Combining both the old and the new, it’s a nostalgia-laden film that still manages to present its own story, and, for that, it deserves some recognition.

Naturally, it's not a true J.J. Abrams movie without a gratuitous amount of lens flares.

9. Google Plus

Now, before you jump on me and state that “no one really uses Google Plus,” hear me out on this.  At the beginning of 2011, there were really only two social networks (three, if you feel the overwhelming urge to count the somehow-still-alive-but-dying-anyway MySpace).  Google made plenty of halfhearted attempts in the social sphere in the past, but they were all either unsuccessful flings or outright disasters (Wave anyone?  How about Buzz?).  Whenever anyone else tried to make the “next Facebook,” it would usually end with a whimper.  It’s with this history in mind that Google Plus can be considered a success.  No, it hasn’t been (and won’t be) a so-called “Facebook killer,” but is that really the point of the network?  When G+ premiered, it was hugely admired by a small, but vocal minority of “techies.”  The adoption rate of the network is actually quite high, with 62 million users reported last month.  Most of all, however, the product wasn’t some rushed cash-in, like so many of Google’s other… endeavors.  Google Plus actually managed to introduce a few thoughtful and very useful features — some of which even Facebook has gone on to adopt.  True, the site doesn’t necessarily see the same kind of activity that you might on Facebook, but that all depends on your perspective (Be honest — most of the activity you see on Facebook you don’t care about anyway).  Personally, I use G+ to follow a lot of tech analysts, and they usually manage to post something interesting almost daily.  Google Plus may not be the best social network to come along, but, more than anything else, it forced the rest of the social networks to innovate through some well-executed (and much-needed) competition.

The simple logo indicates that the network isn't bloated with a plethora of unnecessary features (at least, not yet)

8. The Lytro “Light-field” Camera

This year, a startup company called Lytro unveiled a pretty fascinating piece of technology – the “Light field camera” (or, “plenoptic camera”).  Essentially, this camera captures light information in a 4D space.  In layman’s speak, this means that the camera doesn’t take a picture, per se; it captures light.  Through the distances, changes, and sources of light, the camera can work out spacial relationships between the objects you photograph.  All this works together in such a way so that you can take a picture with the camera and then adjust the focus on the picture after it’s already been taken.  That is a pretty huge achievement.  The lack of having to focus the camera means that pictures can be taken in quick succession, merely to be adjusted later.  The camera, developed by Lytro, went on sale in 2011, and the first shipment should be sometime soon this year.  Granted, this technology is so new that it has a number of shortcoming — low resolution and file limitations being the worst.  Nevertheless, with development, this technology could fundamentally alter the way we understand “point and shoot.”  I’m not even a camera person, and I kind of want one.

It's a simple and not entirely attractive device, but, given enough development, could change how we view "point and shoot."

7. The Conclusion of Harry Potter

Love it or hate it, Harry Potter is a force to be reckoned with.  This year saw the release of the eighth and final film in the series, and it is now the third-highest grossing movie of all time (and the ninth film to gross over $1 billion).  While not exactly the most original work, the Harry Potter books and movies managed to capture the imaginations of millions of people the world over, and the fact that they’ve been immensely successful is unquestionable.  Harry Potter represents storytelling in its purest form, and the books and films have managed to ignite (or reignite) a love of fantasy that had long lain dormant for many people.  What’s more, the people involved in the movies themselves spent ten years of their lives working on them.  Ten years!  For the younger actors, that’s about half their lives playing a character.  That’s dedication.  While the movies occasionally diverted from the books, they were generally pretty faithful adaptations.  The final two movies were especially close to the books (with a few, mostly minor, differences).  Last year’s final film was everything a conclusion should be — exciting, stunning, and satisfying.  Many are now wondering what WB will do without new movies in one of its most successful movie franchises ever, but, for now, the studio should feel proud of all the hard work that went into its eight very successful movie adaptions.

"It All Ends.... until the inevitable reboot."

6. Rayman Origins

What an undiscovered gem this game is!  At the start of last year, no one was sure if this game was even going to exist.  Originally planned as an episodic, downloadable title, info on the next Rayman game ceased around the start of 2011, and only a few months before release was it announced that it would, instead, be a full-fledged retail game.  Most were rather surprised by the news — having had his career essentially hijacked by the “Raving Rabbids,” many weren’t sure if we’d ever see a proper Rayman game again.  When it did come out, however, we got a fun, quirky, and absolutely gorgeous platformer.  Releasing just before Thanksgiving and during the mad rush of quality, big-budget videogame launches this year, Rayman Origins was, tragically, overlooked by the gaming world at large.  What it missed out on was something incredible.  Not only is it one of the most beautiful videogames you’ll ever see (due to its gorgeous art style), but it’s also one of the best-playing platformers of this generation.  Tough but fair, Rayman Origins doesn’t shy away from giving you a challenge — even as you laugh at some of the zany depictions onscreen.  The controls are tight and responsive, and you’ll keep wanting to play just one more level.  It came out on all three major consoles; so, if you enjoy unique, creative, and challenging old-school sidescrollers, you owe it to yourself to pick up this overlooked wonder.

Yes, this is gameplay. It all looks this good.

5. The Muppets

Let’s be honest — we haven’t seen a classic, good Muppets movie in quite awhile.  Relegated to the realm of pop culture from yesteryear, the Muppets haven’t felt particularly relevant for today’s audience.  Oh sure, adults look back on them with fondness (as do any children with a proper upbringing), but stamping “the Muppets” onto something doesn’t guarantee instant success like it once did.  Interestingly, the creators of last year’s The Muppets actually used that very topic as the subject for their movie.  In it, the Muppets are brought out of retirement by their “biggest fan” and attempt to raise $10 million in order to prevent their old studio from being destroyed.  It’s a pretty basic setup, but it allows for the characters themselves to shine, as they deal with complex issues like change, moving on, irrelevance, and, of course, belonging.  It’s a surprisingly heartfelt film, given that it stars a bunch of puppets (and a couple of real actors — but you don’t care as much about them).  Of course, it wouldn’t be a real Muppets movie without some self-referential fourth-wall breaking, and The Muppets have that in spades.  The film has plenty of serious moments, sure, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and you will often find yourself laughing at many of its quick-witted lines.  Best of all, The Muppets managed to nail the feeling of a Muppets movie — making it a welcome return-to-form for both newcomers and longtime fans alike.

"I can't remember the last time a Muppets movie was this good." "I can't remember the last time any Muppets movie was good." Doh ho ho ho ho ho ho!

4.  Game Developers

I’ve highlighted two specific games in this list, but game developers on the whole deserve to be included for all the quality work they produced last year.  Yes, the “Big Three” game companies may have let me down, but the individual studios were arguably at the top of their game.  Gamers never had it so good last year.  2011 saw an insanely high amount of quality videogames released — so much so that you would have to possess quite the time and money to fully experience them all.  To name just a few big releases from last year, we got Super Mario 3D Land, Uncharted 3, Portal 2, inFamous 2, Gears of War 3, Halo Anniversary, Resistance 3, Skryim, Battlefield 3, Batman: Arkham City, Rayman Origins, LittleBigPlanet 2, and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.  And those are just the big budget, really well-received games!  Granted, many on this list are sequels, but so many of these sequels either tried something new, perfected what came before it, or were just so much fun that it didn’t matter.  In 2011, we also saw the indie sphere of gaming take off, as more and more original games were produced by very small groups of people.  As it gets cheaper and easier to produce games, we’ve seen some very talented artists rise up and produce their own very unique works.  I have high hopes for the indie gaming world, and 2011 definitely proved them a force to be reckoned with.  There’s no doubt that 2011, in general, left me with a large backlog of games that I plan on experiencing.

Entirely relevant, if you attempted to keep up with all of 2011's big games.

3. Twitter

Twitter has been growing in popularity for years, but the social network really came into its own in 2011.  There can be no doubt that the world receives its news differently than it did even 10 years ago, but Twitter proved to be at the forefront of news-gathering with nearly every major event this past year.  Often beating the news cameras by a solid few hours, more and more people heard of events through Twitter before “traditional media” had even begun covering it.  The big example of 2011, of course, is the death of Osama bin Laden.  Long before any official statement had been made, millions of twitter users had already spread the word.  The social network was also used to spread information during times of crisis — as we saw during the Norway massacre last year.  Twitter has been influential in the ongoing “Arab Spring,” as it is one of the social networks to have been used as a means of communication and organization.  Live-tweeting (much like blogging before it) has the ability to turn any bystander into a journalist of sorts.  There’s no doubt that news organizations now think of Twitter as a serious method of information spreading.  That’s pretty impressive for a service many thought would only be used for sharing what kind of sandwich you had for lunch.

2. Portal 2

Four years ago, Valve gave us Portal — a clever and addicting puzzle game.  The game itself was very short, but it left an impression that inspired a huge following (I challenge you to find someone who has not heard the phrase, “The cake is a lie.”).  It was challenging, witty, and highly original — even if it was more of an experiment than a full-fledged game.  Despite this, nobody was sure how exactly Valve could pull of a sequel without it feeling more like “Portal, but with more puzzle chambers.”  Part of Portal‘s beauty was its simplicity, and adding too much might strip away what made Portal so brilliant.  Well, as it turns out, those fears were completely unfounded.  When Portal 2 launched in April of last year, gamers were blown away.  The story was far more complex and involved, yes, but it was also far more engaging and hilarious.  The new gameplay mechanics were seamlessly integrated with existing mechanics from the first outing, and despite having far more substance to it, Portal 2 still retained the simplicity of its predecessor.  Everywhere you looked, the game oozed with creativity and originality — completely surpassing everyone’s expectations.  Nowhere in the game was Valve afraid to try something new, and yet, it never struggled to challenge you just enough with its mind-bending puzzles.  Despite running on an old engine, the game looked great thanks to some gorgeous art direction.  What’s more, the game boasted some of the best co-op I’ve seen in a videogame.  Ever.  Portal 2 is not only an absolute delight to play, it might just be the best videogame to come from 2011.

Part of the beauty of Portal 2 is that it made you connect with characters who weren't even technically "alive."

1. Brown v. EMA

Notable for both game developers and consumers alike, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association was a Supreme Court case in which the Court definitively stated that videogames fall under First Amendment protection.  It was a landmark victory for the credibility and creativity of videogames.  The case found its origins in a Californian law that banned the sale of violent videogames to minors.  The law was challenged and appealed multiple times until it made its way to the Supreme Court.  In a 7-2 ruling this past June, the Supreme Court struck down the law, ruling it as unconstitutional.  Not only did they rule that it was the parent’s responsibility to determine what his or her child consumed  (the ESRB provides ratings to help with that for a reason), but the Court ruled that videogames fall under the same protections as books, plays, and movies.  Thanks to the Supreme Court, videogames are officially a protected part of free speech — capable of communicating ideas and messages.  It’s both a source of excitement and challenge for game developers.  Excitement because they can use the medium to creatively tell their stories how they want to tell it; challenging because, now that the medium is seen as a “legitimate” and protected means of communication, it is that much more their responsibility to use it wisely and effectively.

Gamers, meet your heroes.


~ by digitallysmitten on January 10, 2012.

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