Stephen King: My Top 20 of 2011
20. ''Rumour Has It,'' Adele
In spite of her amazing voice, not everything on 21 spoke to me. This tune did, partly because of the chanted chorus, mostly because of the echoing backbeat.
19. The Walking Dead, AMC
No romantic zombies (good), and a terrifying premiere episode set in a traffic jam outside of Atlanta (better). I only wish the survivors weren't quite so talky. In all those weighty conversations about the Meaning of Post-Apocalypse Life, I sense AMC chintzing on the budget.
18. The Hour, BBC America
This import tails off a little in the final episode, but for the most part it's a suspenseful spies-'n'-murder story filled with textured characters and counterpointed by a sweetly unusual love triangle. Dominic West (The Wire) plays against type as a bumbling, philandering newscaster, and Romola Garai, the female lead... let's just say that if I needed heart medicine, I would have doubled up when she appeared in that body-hugging red dress.
17. Final Destination 5
The Destination movies ?are basically Road Runner cartoons with splatter, and this one, in cheerfully grisly 3-D, is the best since the first. The actors are wooden (they have that twenty-something polished look that fright flicks seem to specialize in), but you gotta love the eye-popping bridge-collapse sequence in the first 20 minutes. Not to mention the worst acupuncture session in the history of the world.
16. The White Devil, Justin Evans
Want a good English ghost story to read by the fire on a cold winter night? This tale of a malevolent ghost haunting a troubled American student at Harrow will fill the bill. It gathers you in lovingly, then takes you in a strangler's grip with its escalating horrors.
15. ''Get that snitch,'' Mikis Michaelides
A rap both sinister and hilarious (Uncle Stevie's favorite line: ''I am so cold, blud, I s-?-?- snow'') from the Attack the Block soundtrack. Great beat and attitude: ''Get that snitch...brap-?brap-brap.''
14. The Lincoln Lawyer
I knew Matthew McConaughey was going to be great as the cynical, always-one-step-ahead lawyer Mickey Haller; the surprise was the clarity and suspense of John Romano's script (from ?the novel by Michael Connelly). It's a pleasant throwback to the Harper private-eye movies of the '60s and '70s.
13. The Tree of Life
How peculiar was this Terrence Malick film? I saw it in Boston with a full house, and when the film broke and the screen went dark, nobody moved for 15 minutes — we thought it was part of the movie. Yet this story, in which all of creation is summed up by one unhappy family in a dusty Texas town, is emotionally resonant and full of gorgeous imagery. Even the 15-minute Darkness Break worked.
12. The Accident, Linwood Barclay
If you think that knockoff purses of the sort you see being sold on New York sidewalks can't be exciting, you haven't read this tension-filled novel. It's written with élan and populated by people you care about and feel you know. With this book, Barclay vaults to the top of the suspense pantheon.
11. Revenge, ABC
Guilty-pleasure TV, thy name is Revenge. There hasn't been a nighttime soap opera this cool since the early days of Dallas. The filthy rich at play in the Hamptons get a big dose of payback from Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp). Watching Emily — a steel fist inside a velvet designer evening dress — face off against ice queen Victoria Grayson (the marvelous Madeleine Stowe) is the most fun you can have with a bowl of popcorn in your lap. Special kudos to Ashton Holmes as the Creepiest Best Friend in the World.
10. Crossers, Philip Caputo
A New York financial whiz loses his wife in the 9/11 attacks and flees to Arizona to rethink his life. There he falls afoul of a Mexican drug queenpin named Yvonne Menéndez. The result is a mix of Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, and John D. MacDonald. What I'll remember most clearly are the wrapped packages of high-powered cocaine stamped ''This Is Our War on the North Americans.''
9. Talk Talk, T.C. Boyle
Dana Halter is a schoolteacher with a good life and a handicap (which she refuses to think of as a handicap): She's deaf. Everything changes when she's pulled over after failing to come to a complete halt at a stop sign. Instead of the ticket she expects, she's handcuffed and taken to jail. What follows is a richly written novel of escalating tension and a character study of an amoral identity thief you may never forget.
8. Ready for Confetti, Robert Earl Keen
No weepy violins here; Keen is an ironist with a soft spot for both strivers and losers. What makes this his best album is the giddy, sunshiny way it mixes up the genres — the reggae-and-pedal-steel mix of the title track, for instance, or the hypnotic rhythm of ''I Gotta Go.''
7. The Debt
Adapted from an Israeli film of the same name, this is a crushing drama about the difference between the stories the newspapers print and the secrets the people actually involved in those stories keep. Helen Mirren shines as Rachel Singer, who's keeping one of those secrets, and so does Jessica Chastain as the much-younger Rachel, who went after a Nazi butcher in East Berlin during the Cold War. Best of all is Jesper Christensen as the loathsome Dieter Vogel.
6. Sky Full of Holes, Fountains of Wayne
If you're a purist, the Fountains are dismissible. If you love pop music, they are indispensable. The hooks are tasty, and the lyrics (the best ones here in ''Richie and Ruben'') are full of delightful snark. How can you not like a group that starts a song (''Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart'') with the line ''Starin' at the sun with no pants on''? It's not all snark, either; sample the simple sweetness of ''A Road Song'' if you don't believe me.
5. Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
At 660 pages it's probably a little long, but this is still one terrific coming-of-age story, full of humor, pathos, and downright weirdness. Skippy dies right away (in a doughnut shop), but the hows and whys are filled with humor and unexpected beauty.
4. Sons of Anarchy, FX
The biker-club drama has found its admittedly besmirched soul again just as Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) is losing the last remnants of his own. The story may be a bit farfetched at times, and the Sons' repeated narrow escapes stretch credulity, but these people and their dusty middle-class surroundings feel real. Kurt Sutter has found the heart of American darkness, and it has a Harley engine.
3. How Do You Do, Mayer Hawthorne
I was first led to Hawthorne's blue-eyed soul by the bouncy tune ''Your Easy Lovin' Ain't Pleasin' Nothin' '' from A Strange Arrangement (catch the yummy video ? on YouTube). Is his stuff derivative? Sure, but anyone who can channel Barry White, the Five Stairsteps, and Curtis Mayfield with such perfection is close to, well... can you say ''genius''?
2. Margin Call
Here's the movie The Ides of March could have been. First-time director J.C. Chandor creates a tight and claustrophobic high-rise hell where high-flying business execs (Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, and Kevin Spacey in the best performance of his career) face the looming stock-market crash of 2008. This film explains the causes and consequences of the historic meltdown — moral as well as financial — in ? 109 minutes. Of special note is the preternaturally handsome Zachary Quinto as the company newbie who discovers the ticking mortgage bomb is about to go off.
1. Breaking Bad, AMC
This season, Breaking Bad was more than a good thing; it was a great thing where performance, direction, concept, and hallucinatory New Mexico location photography all came together with the power of a bomb wired to a wheelchair. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul turned in the best performances I've seen in years, and Giancarlo Esposito (as Gus Fring) is simply the best villain ever on a continuing TV show. The ultimate showdown between Gus and Walter is mythic, the outcome simultaneously satisfying and completely surprising. Breaking Bad has now surpassed The Sopranos, and, although I love Steve Buscemi, HBO's Boardwalk Empire isn't even in the running. Breaking Bad is an American classic.