2011's best -- so far!

Check your cultural literacy -- and catch up on the best movies, TV, books, music and more you've missed

Published July 4, 2011 3:01PM (EDT)

OK, it's a little more than midyear at this point. The days are already getting shorter, and that stack of books on your nightstand is only getting taller as your DVR queue gets longer. It's time to concentrate on what matters. So we've asked our crack culture team to pick what you need to experience to be the well-rounded, culturally fluent smarty you want to be, and ordered them by importance. See how many you've already checked out, and dive into the rest.

You'll be better for it --  and seriously entertained.

URGENT (Do this right now!)

WATCH "Poetry," directed by Lee Chang-dong. It's taken some time, but word has gradually spread about this beautiful and moving story of death and life from Korean academic-turned-filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. With apologies to Terrence Malick's many defenders, "Poetry" is the  movie released so far that has the pure cinematic craft, human appeal and  emotional depth to be called a masterpiece. You almost couldn't invent a less sexy or less trendy film: "Poetry" is a leisurely character drama about a dotty, girlish 66-year-old woman who may have early-stage Alzheimer's and her relationship to her rude and lumpish grandson, who may have committed a terrible crime. I won't mislead you by claiming this is a thriller, but as this silly, vain and resolute grandma struggles to do the right thing and to write the first (and perhaps last) poem of her life, she seems to speak for all of us, caught between birth and death, remembering and forgetting, with only a few precious moments to grasp and then let go. --Andrew O'Hehir

READ "The Pale King," by David Foster Wallace. Wallace's third and final novel was unfinished at his death in 2008 and assembled from completed portions and notes by his longtime editor. You'd never know it. In Wallace's earlier fiction, it could often be hard to pick out the figure in the carpet -- and at the same time very easy to enjoy the individual sections. With "The Pale King," the reader is off the hook, and free to take each part of this funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying and profound book as it comes. As has often been repeated, "The Pale King" is "about boredom," although that is only where it starts. It's also about the transformation of America from a stakeholder society in which citizens view themselves as active, responsible participants into a consumer market in which people simply demand value for money. And it's about existential dread and loneliness, which the main character, "David Foster Wallace," suspects of being the reason people fear boredom, and drives themselves to distraction, seeking "enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there ... Right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size." -- Laura Miller

WATCH "Game of Thrones" (HBO). In retrospect it seems unthinkable that HBO's lavish adaptation of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" debuted around the same time as AMC's "The Killing," a remake of a hit Danish procedural, but was taken far less seriously by critics. Why? Maybe because AMC's series was set in something resembling "reality," where "Thrones" unfolded along pop culture's J.R.R. Tolkien/Dungeons and Dragons axis, upon which movies and TV series are still considered zit-inducing ComicCon crap no matter what their artistic pretensions. But where "Thrones" slowly kept a phenomenal number of characters, motivations and plotlines straight, sparking arguments about its sex scenes and narrative density, all the while building and building to a stunning finale, "The Killing" made hash of just one story, and eventually collapsed under the weight of its own bad-faith contrivances. "Thrones," meanwhile, felt like fantasy fiction's answer to the first two "Godfather" films, with bleak, often ironic commentary on love, sex, family and power, plus warring kingdoms, barbarian Bacchanals, secret incest, slumbering supernatural menaces, undead stalkers, assassinations, beheadings and dragons' eggs that were ported about from episode to episode like big green plot grenades. -- Matt Zoller Seitz

WATCH Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids." You're already not having too shabby a year when you're the titular costar of a hit sitcom. But with her scene stealing turn in "Bridesmaids," "Mike and Molly" actress Melissa McCarthy took what could have been a one-note, horny big girl shtick and created a character who runs rings of sanity around Kristin Wiig's self-loathing flake. No wonder she's reportedly set to star with Jon Hamm in Judd Apatow and Paul Feig's next comedy. Bonus: When asked about Maura Kelly's hateful Marie Claire piece last year on TV "fatties," she sagely told EW this spring, "I thought, what a sad, troubled person." Score: match point to McCarthy. -- Mary Elizabeth Williams

LISTEN "21," Adele. The London crooner can seem old beyond her years, and her voice sounds like a tool from some forgotten age of pop music: a real instrument. Say the critics: "Adele ... [towers] in the same landscape where some of her contemporaries, beehived or not, have lost all their bearings" (LAT); "Timeless" (EW); "[If] you're looking for a record that'll make you wanna trash your beloved's belongings and have make-up sex amid the ruins, 21's your jam" (Spin).

MANDATORY (Worth faking a sick day for)

READ "Townie," by Andre Dubus III. The Avenues, the New England mill town neighborhood where Dubus -- a novelist best-known for "The House of Sand and Fog" -- grew up, was a domain of swaggering bullies and weak, negligent or absent authority figures. As a boy, he resolved to "get so big I scared people, bad people, people who could hurt you." Dubus' memoir, "Townie," recounts his sojourn in the kingdom of violence, and its counterpoint, the time he spent with his father, Andre Dubus II, an acclaimed author of austerely beautiful short stories about the anguish of working-class life. For Dubus, salvation lay in getting at the stories imprisoned within a reality that at first seemed merely brutal and mindless. This is an unusual story of the making of a writer, and a completely unforgettable one. --LM

WATCH "The Tree of Life," written and directed by Terrence Malick. From the origins of the universe to the first stirrings of prehistoric reptilian compassion (a phenomenon unknown to paleontologists) to a memorable portrait of a mid-century Texas family presided over by a severe but loving Brad Pitt (giving his greatest acting performance) to an almost alarming vision of the afterlife,  Malick's long-long-gestating "Tree of Life" offers more to chew on and disagree about and be baffled by than any American film since "Mulholland Dr." I've been publicly on the fence about "Tree of Life" since first seeing it, but I also don't kid myself that I've mastered the film or that I'm done thinking about it or that I know what I'll make of it in five or 10 years. --AOH

WATCH "These are the decisions that keep you alive": Coverage of a natural disaster had never been more brutally captured by camera than when the 8.9 earthquake sparked a tsunami that swept into Japan. Perhaps the most mesmerizing video originating from Japanese network JNN, and recrafted by Britain's TBC Channel 4, that showed the critical ways a news crew -- and assorted other survivors including a father and his two small terrified children -- managed to escape being swept away to a certain death in Sendai, Japan. -- Kerry Lauerman

READ New York Post headlines on Weinergate. Give a Murdoch newspaper an unfortunately named Democrat and a tawdry sex scandal, and it's like Christmas every day. --MEW

READ "It's the Inequality, Stupid," 11 charts by Mother Jones. Nothing fuels awareness of class inequity and the staggering gap between rich and poor than recessionary times. And nothing can fuel your understanding -- or your rage -- like this illuminating, handy breakdown by Mother Jones. --KL

WATCH "Friday,"  the Bob Dylan-spoof version. When Rebecca Black's bubblegum pop anthem "Friday" hit YouTube  and became a sensation, parodies were inevitable; the best was surely New York singer-songwriter Mike Bauer's version, arranged, performed and recorded in the style of Bob Dylan circa 1965. On top of its already formidable bona fides as a fetish object -- check out the period-accurate Columbia Records 45 RPM logo! -- it inspired what is, without question, the funniest and most imaginative YouTube comments thread of the year to date -- an ongoing in-joke between the performer and the listeners, who play along with the ruse and insist that, yes, this really is a Dylan tune.

"I think what Dylan ment by 'Friday' was any means people use to escape the reality and avoid seeing the truth. For some it could be booze and for some it may be drugs. What Dylan wants, is us to stop. Do not let your personal 'Friday' to come." "I was contemplating suicide when this version of 'Friday' came on the radio. I dropped the razor blades & started crying at the simplistic & awe-inspiring beauty of the lyrics." "I remember returning from the Grenada war in 1983. This song was playing over the loud speaker at the airfield when the wheels of our C-130 touched˛ down in Homestead Florida. The war had been 2 hours and 28 minutes of sheer horror and all I could think about was those that I loved the most but I didn'twant to go home yet so I called a $5 hooker and enjoyed the beach, this song, and some pretty good ass for 10 days. I was so happy when I made it home to my wife. My sunburn was getting bad."


LISTEN "Anna Calvi," Anna Calvi. "Sumptuous, seductive and a little bit scary, this velvety debut will stalk your dreams," (NME).


ESSENTIAL (Skip "family time" if you have to)

WATCH "Southland" (TNT). This tough, smart series about beat cops interacting with the public in Los Angeles debuted on NBC in 2009, then got booted to cable to make room for Jay Leno's disastrous prime-time talk show. Its large, ethnically diverse cast of beat cops, detectives, top brass, city officials, civilians and perps sparks fond memories of "Hill Street Blues," the early seasons of "Homicide: Life on the Street" and the novels of Joseph Wambaugh ("The New Centurions," "The Choirboys"). Granted, there are more altercations and chases than any real police force would ever see in a week, but in every other way, this is the most realistic cop series on American television. Its second season finale was one of most moving, horrifying, bleakly funny hours of TV in a very long time. Catch up now. -- MZS

READ "The Tragedy of Arthur," by Arthur Phillips. Like the narrator of this novel, the real-life Arthur Phillips has written a novel titled "Prague" and has the same editor, agent and publicist as his fictional doppelgänger. Presumably the real Phillips is not also the son of a small-time con man and the reluctant editor of a play that experts have anointed as a long-lost work by Shakespeare. Presented as Phillips' skeptical introduction to the play, this treat of a book is an elegant tribute to Vladimir Nabokov (whose "Pale Fire" clearly inspired it) as well as the story of a man whose self-inflicted, tragicomic woes are as affecting and wincingly believable as those endured by the hero of any more conventional novel. -- LM

READ "Obama's Young Mother Abroad," the New York Times Magazine. Janny Scott's portrait of the president's late mother (an excerpt from her book, "A Singular Woman") is not only a story of the woman who gave birth to great hope and a million conspiracists, it's the distinct story of a woman of her generation charting a fascinating, difficult and previously unimaginable new path for herself. -- KL

SEE "The Book of Mormon," by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. A Broadway musical about America's favorite homegrown brand of Christianity from the genius misfits of "South Park" and "Team America," and Robert Lopez, the raunchy composer of "Avenue Q," could be expected to be irreverent. But in the same season that the star-powered "Spider- Man" became the Great White Way's biggest punch line, how did "The Book of Mormon" win over not just "South Park" fans, but the matinee-going out-of-towners, the New York Times and, ultimately, the Tonys?  It might mock the arbitrary absurdity of organized religion or the gruesomeness of a place where a cow carcass marks the town square, but it does so with all the abundant sweetness of a Latter Day Saint's coffee hour. --MEW

READ "The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology," by Lawrence Wright,  Feb. 14, 2011, the New Yorker.

WATCH "The Lincoln Lawyer," directed by Brad Furman. A would-be career-relaunch for star and producer Matthew McConaughey, "The Lincoln Lawyer" was a relative flop when it was released in March. But this stylish and gripping L.A. crime drama has steadily grown in the rearview mirror. There are even whispers that (gasp!) McConaughey's performance as the sleazy, charming Mick Haller might sneak into the Oscar race. (The DVD comes out on July 12.) -- AOH

WORTH IT (Neglect your Facebook and/or Twitter)

WATCH Margot Martindale as "Mags Bennet" on "Justified" (FX). FX's modern western about a Kentucky-born U.S. marshal (Timothy Olyphant) investigating drug trafficking and racketeering in his kudzu-choked home county, is a terrific show in its own right. But the acting puts it over the top, and this season's scary, lively, narcotics-smuggling bad guys, the Bennet clan, were truly memorable. But they are all overshadowed by their big, bad mama, Mags Bennet. She was a master of multitasking, playing a land-grabbing mining company against an environmentally skittish citizenry, plotting and executing complex criminal schemes, negotiating truces between rival crime organizations and her own squabbling sons, all while doting on her adopted granddaughter, the only child of a man she murdered with poisoned moonshine. As played by Margo Martindale, Mags was the best kind of villain: one who thinks she's the hero, and conducts herself with a twisted sense of honor that demands wary respect even as it makes your blood run cold. -- MZS

READ "State of Wonder," by Ann Patchett. With audacity and ambition, Patchett has transfigured the story line of "Heart of Darkness" by setting it in the present day and turning both the seeker and the sought-after into women.  "State of Wonder" follows a Midwestern research pharmacologist who is sent up the Amazon to check on a brilliant and imperious doctor developing a fertility drug in a remote village where the women are reputedly able to bear children into old age. As with "Heart of Darkness," the seductions and corruptions of power haunt this novel, but it is the power of the Bad Mother -- in contrast to the Bad Father embodied by Conrad's Kurtz. Maternity is the awesome totem at the book's center, the dubious object of Swenson's research and an elemental power, capable of possessing Patchett's dueling doctors, compelling them to do terrible things. -- LM

WATCH "Beginners," written and directed by Mike Mills. Mills really did have a gay dad, who came out of the closet with mixed results and then died a few years later (he talked about it in this great "Fresh Air" interview) and that has resulted in the funniest and most loving portrayal of homosexuality ever created by a straight person. It's rare to encounter a film that's so formally audacious, so heartfelt and so beautifully acted, but this one's three-for-three, anchored in hilarious but understated performances from Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer. Don't even get me started on Mills' slide show on the history of homosexuality in America, or the moody Jack Russell terrier who communicates with subtitles: "Tell her that the darkness is about to swallow us if we don't do something." -- AOH

WATCH "Nuclear Boy," by Kazuhiko Hachiya. A Japanese artist explains nuclear meltdown in the simplest terms possible for his littlest audience members: through poop and farts. -- Drew Grant

WATCH "We need to go faster, it's coming straight at us." Home video of a tornado in Tuscaloosa, Ala. After watching the awe-inspiring footage taken by two teens in their car when the tornadoes touched down,  you'd be hard-pressed to find a more powerful example of nature's terrifying thaumaturgy this year. -- DG

LISTEN "Bon Iver," Bon Iver.

EXTRA CREDIT (Better than anything on Bravo)

SEE "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty," New York's Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. The unlikeliest hit of the season has already been seen by over 350,000 people who waited up to two hours to say they were there.  The stars? A bunch of dresses. Even before his suicide in 2010, Alexander McQueen could fascinate and exasperate with his provocative, highly charged approach to haute couture. He tattered and splattered his clothes, festooned them with horns and feathers, made them as torturous and romantic as a Byron poem. On display at the Metropolitan with Paul Treacy's wild haberdashery -- and featuring an audio tour that includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Sarah Burton and Naomi Campbell -- his defining works prove the art of fashion, and create a glorious tribute to a sartorial one of a kind. -- MEW

READ Roseanne Barr's New York magazine essay on the continued sexism, classism and pure, nauseating awfulness of the TV industry.

WATCH Those twin babies, talking to one another. Seventeen-month-old twins Sam and Ren McEntee became YouTube stars after their parents put up a video of the two holding an intense conversation in baby talk, confirming our deeply held suspicion that babies know more than they are letting on. -- DG

WATCH "Natalie Portman Cries a Lot," Screenrant. This mashup was neck and neck with this year's other big Natalie Portman viral video: a loop of her odd laugh during the Golden Globes. But ultimately Screenrant's supercut of tears wins out, because once you watch it, you can never watch a Portman movie again without wondering when the waterworks start. -- DG

WATCH "Portlandia," IFC. The most outstanding Internet success story started as a series of viral videos for ThunderAnt, starring the unlikely duo of "Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armisen and his friend, Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein. IFC picked up "Portlandia" for six episodes. Cult classic from episode one. -- DG

By Salon Staff

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