Best of 2011

The year's not quite over yet, but there's nothing really notable on the horizon for the last few weeks of 2011. So I'm going to go ahead and dish out my picks for the things that I liked most this year.

Best book: The Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen

Yes, he's related to Sacha Baron-Cohen (they're cousins). But this book isn't satirical; it's an exceptionally well-researched exposition on human empathy that moves important questions about morality (how can people be cruel?) away from religion and into the empirical sciences. This is one of those books I consider essential reading for non-believers; it's by no means a polemic, and he even states late in the book that he does not have a "Dawkinsian anti-religious agenda", but it's the kind of book – like A Brief History of Time, Primates and Philosophers or Religion Explained – that takes a Big Question traditionally monopolized by religion and demonstrates not only that the religious explanation is inadequate, but gives us a way to move forward using science and rational inquiry. 

Best movie: Super 8

Most of the movies I liked this year were action movies. Thor was great fun, as was Captain America: The First Avenger. I was also pleasantly surprised by Bradley Cooper in Limitless, and I really dug the visual intensity of Immortals. But looking back, I really enjoyed Super 8 the most. JJ Abrams never ceases to wow me; he's done Lost, Star Trek, and Fringe, all of which I love. Super 8 is a touching, humorous and exciting throwback to 80s movies like E.T. and The Goonies with great characters, impressive set pieces and just-right pacing. It's maybe not perfect, and I doubt that a throwback could ever be remembered as fondly as the movies to which it's paying homage, but I loved it anyway. The end credits, where the kids' 8mm movie is finally played, is absolutely hilarious.

Best game: The Witcher 2

I won't lie... this is a really hard toss-up between this game and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Right now I'm playing Skyrim, and loving every minute of its huge, open, beautiful world.

But The Witcher 2 has a sense of focus that Skyrim ultimately lacks. In Skyrim, your character is for all intents and purposes totally generic. Your decisions have little or no impact on the events unfolding around you, and on all of the major quest lines you're more or less simply along for the ride. There's a definite loss of urgency when you're tasked with saving the world, but can then wander off for weeks exploring the wilderness and looting dungeons.

The Witcher 2 isn't an unrestricted open world, but it's still very large. The game takes place in three acts, each which has a large central town encircled by large areas of wilderness that are rife with side quests. And unlike in Skyrim, the decisions you make in The Witcher 2 can completely change the outcome of the game. There's a real moral weight to many of your choices, and the tensions and conflicts always seem relevant. If there's any weakness, it's that sometimes the game gets a little Tolkien-like in its exposition and tries a little too hard to flesh out the lore, leading to some conversation trees that are bogged down by historical minutiae. But there's still a great story here with plenty of memorable characters.

It's also a real challenge. Most games allow you to ignore this or that and still coast by. But if you plan on beating The Witcher 2 on anything above "easy", you have to make use of all the resources available. You have to make potions, upgrade your equipment, and keep a healthy stock of ranged weaponry. And even though you're stuck with playing one guy – Geralt – the skill customizations allow for a satisfying variety of play styles.

It's also one of the prettiest role-playing games ever made. Yes, it looks much better than Skyrim. It's got its share of minor flaws and controversial design decisions, but it's still an immensely engaging, rewarding and fun game. And while Skyrim is a refinement of the four games before it, The Witcher 2 takes more risks and ultimately feels more original, so it ever-so-slightly takes the edge as my game of the year. Oh, and did I mention it has boobs?

I'll save the world later.

Best album: Assimilate Regenerate by Paul Wardingham

2011 was a great year for metal, and I've definitely been captivated by the new releases from Scar Symmetry and Opeth, among many others. But my pick for best album is a bit unorthodox – it's instrumental. Paul Wardingham is a guitarist from Australia, who primarily works behind the scenes as a producer. But his guitar ability is positively jaw-dropping, and he has the ability to write music that's complex and technically demanding while still being emotive, nuanced, and memorable. His style is also very unique – he employs a kind of "outside sound" using unorthodox scales and chord progressions that, fused with some touches of electronica, gives the whole album a distinctly futuristic sound. He's already back in the studio recording his next one, and I can't wait.

Best concert: Opeth @ Granada Theater, Dallas TX

I didn't love that Opeth forsook their metal roots on the new album, even though the songs are fantastic. And I was skeptical that I'd enjoy this show as much as I had enjoyed them when they came to Tulsa a few years back. But the show was absolutely awesome. They sounded phenomenal, and played a great set list – even going to an acoustic interlude for several songs. It doesn't hurt that I was there with my Favorite Person Ever, but it was definitely a memorable show.

Best new memory: Vegas

I'd never been to Vegas before, but man was it awesome. I don't even know how much of it was Vegas per se, but just the fact that I was there with five awesome friends. It was a long few days filled with lazy mornings, unholy amounts of amazing food, volleyball at the pool, and getting hosed and/or goofing off. I can't wait to go again.

Best cat: Alexi (of course), for the second year in a row!
Must... keep... eyes... open....


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