It was a year of dance pop and girl power on the radio, loads of laughs but low ratings on television and a mixture of franchise-heavy laziness and ambitious spirit in moviemaking. 2011 was, in many ways, a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of year in pop culture: fantastic in some ways, tragically bad in others.
Nowhere was this split more evident than in the multiplexes and art house theaters across the country. There were visionary directors taking major risks and crafting near-masterpieces throughout the year - all in the same year that the top ten highest-grossing films belonged to franchises, led by the final installment in the behemoth "Harry Potter" merchandising machine. The non-franchise film that performed the best in the box office was "The Help," which was based on a best-selling novel written by Kathryn Stockett.
In the film business, however, dollars and cents rarely add up to quality. At the Academy Awards next month, it's likely that "The Artist" will be crowned Best Picture. It's a fine choice, and it represents the tenacity and ingenuity of filmmakers not aiming to create a movie about a superhero/wizard/vampire/toy this year. A French film directed by Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist" is a tribute to the golden age of cinema, filmed in black and white and almost entirely as a silent movie. It joins Martin Scorsese's 3-D thrill "Hugo" and the Michelle Williams-starring "My Week with Marilyn" in a trio of films released this year obsessed with the creation of cinema.
Joining "The Artist" among my personal favorite movies this year is "Drive," an ambitious, gritty character study directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. The film stars Ryan Gosling, truly the man of the moment with two other fantastic performances in "The Ides of March" and "Crazy, Stupid, Love," and features superb supporting performances, including a villainous turn by surefire Oscar nominee Albert Brooks.
The biggest surprise in cinema during 2011 was how excellent so many of the comedies were. No film exemplified this more than "Bridesmaids," the brilliantly written and masterfully acted wedding comedy starring co-writer Kristen Wiig, showing true depth and range when freed from the "Saturday Night Live" mold. "Bridesmaids" was one of two films (the other being "The Help") that exemplified a truly impressive female ensemble, with Melissa McCarthy, of "Gilmore Girls" fame, leading the charge all the way to a Screen Actors Guild award nomination.
While cinema saw safety rewarded despite massive risks and tenacity among filmmakers, music saw quality and popularity reach a rare meeting point with the supremacy of British songstress Adele. Her album, "21," and the lead single from said album, "Rolling in the Deep," were Billboard's number ones in their respective fields for the year. Adele herself was rewarded with six Grammy nominations for her work. "Rolling in the Deep" charted in a record-setting nine different formats, making it a crossover phenomenon.
Adele led the charge in what became a blockbuster year for women in pop music. Katy Perry tied Michael Jackson's record with five number one singles from the same album. Rihanna released her 20th top 10 single, "We Found Love," an impressive feat considering her first came just six years ago. Lady Gaga sold over a million copies of her album "Born This Way" in just one week. Beyoncé, despite a lack of hit single or album success, still captured the zeitgeist with impressive live performances of her songs "Run the World (Girls)" and "1+1." Finally, Nicki Minaj had incredible success of her own, independent of all other artists, with the infectious summer jam "Super Bass." Considering the musical monopoly of rappers and groups like the Black Eyed Peas in the past few years, the dominance of women in pop was a refreshing change.
The trend of women on top and a resurgence of comedy continued into the realm of TV, where sitcoms were in style once more and some of the most appealing new protagonists were of the fairer sex. Fall saw hits in the Zooey Deschanel vehicle "New Girl," as well as the less high profile but still successful "2 Broke Girls" and "Suburgatory." Drama series were less successful, with high profile series like "Pan Am" and "Prime Suspect" floundering in the ratings. However, the soapy "Revenge," starring strong women in the roles of both protagonist and antagonist, was a sleeper success, becoming the buzziest new show on television. While several shows failed to make an impact, including the expensive and high-profile "Terra Nova" and "The X Factor," the successes outnumbered the embarrassments for the first time in several TV seasons.
All in all, it was a solid year for pop culture. There were few phenomena that demanded your attention, such as "Black Swan" in theaters in 2010 or the Black Eyed Peas on radio two years ago, but pop culture was almost universally enjoyable for the first time in a while. Here's to 2012 keeping up the general quality while upping the "must-see" and "must-hear" factor all around.
This is the opinion of Kevin O'Keeffe, a sophomore screenwriting major from Austin, Texas. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.