For my first column of 2011, I decided to make one last list, one to close out the year just past. I thought I'd cover some television programs I really liked, plus highlight a few movies that I also enjoy -- some I've mentioned before, some I haven't. (Please indulge my occasional redundancy; some things just bear repeating.)
Pawn Stars, History -- If you would have told me last year that I'd be hooked on a show about the people who work at a Las Vegas pawn shop, I wouldn't have believed it -- until now. Packed with colorful characters wheeling and dealing on both sides of the counter, this comic reality series is a happy -- and addictive -- surprise.
Cougar Town, ABC -- A show that I didn't really like when it started is now one of my favorites. I admit to being somewhat disappointed that it seems to be getting overlooked at year-end awards time, but if a program doesn't grab critical and commercial attention early, it doesn't tend to grow too much. (See -- if you can -- the sadly lost Better Off Ted, which was cancelled in early 2010.) I wish more people would give it a shot.
Chopped Champions, Food Network -- As much as I like the original Chopped -- where professional chefs from all levels of expertise take on the challenge of preparing three courses with a series of mystery ingredients while racing a clock during each course -- I enjoyed this special tournament of champions version even more. Over a period of five weeks, 16 winning chefs returned to the show's kitchen to compete for a $50,000 prize. The usually tough-to-figure ingredients became even more difficult to work with, cranking up the pressure on the contestants and bringing out their best. The finale, in particular, was a rollercoaster ride of cooking action and raw human emotion, with a result as satisfying to the soul as any first-class meal.
Toy Story 3, Disney/Pixar -- Call it a great comic adventure. Call it a surprisingly emotional, tender and poignant paean to the end of childhood. Call it one of the best family entertainments of the decade. But don't call it a cartoon -- that diminishes and dismisses a truly great film.
Conan, TBS -- Conan O'Brien's first episode of his post-"Tonight" effort was not his strongest; he seemed nervous, a little unsure of himself. From episode two on, he found the footing. From wearing a pair of "jeggings" for an entire show to having a giant inflatable chicken sandwich as part of his set's Christmas decorations, this viewer is glad to see Conan's style of absurdist comedy back on TV.
True Grit, Paramount -- Jeff Bridges is in fine form as Rooster Cogburn, to be sure. But the film has many more pleasures beyond his work. Featuring rich performances from Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper and -- in her first major role -- Hailee Steinfield, along with dialogue that sounds like Shakespeare-meets-dime novel and vistas that are at once beautiful and stark, True Grit is a flat-out terrific movie. Joel and Ethan Coen, once again, present a gem.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX -- Edgy, daring and exceedingly clever. An example: other comedies might have characters hint at making their own Lethal Weapon sequel, but only Sunny would show you the actual finished product.
127 Hours, Fox Searchlight -- A film of soul-shaking intensity. James Franco has a supreme actor's challenge in this film; not only does he have the lead role, he's on-screen for virtually the entire running time -- and for much of that, he's in essentially one very uncomfortable position. Franco, however, is more than up to the task, delivering a multilayered, Oscar-worthy performance as a man who survives a physical peril by overcoming his own hubris.
Modern Family, ABC -- What else can I say about this show that I didn't say a few weeks ago in this very space? How about the fact that even the reruns make me double over with laughter?
Breaking Bad, AMC -- A dark, action-packed (and increasingly blood-soaked) tragedy of lives and souls twisting deeper into jeopardy, oftentimes thanks to their own decisions. As the chemistry teacher-turned-meth manufacturer Walter White, who seems more and more likely doomed to be swallowed by an evil he himself created, Bryan Cranston continues to deliver a performance for the ages, while receiving outstanding support from fellow castmates Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn and Dean Norris. It's not always easy to watch, but Breaking Bad is definitely worth the time.