Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Best Movies We Watched During 2011

Once again, time for our best movie list from the past year. These are movies we watched last year, not necessarily movies that came out last year. Do you really care?

Once eight choices this year. I only put those films that really rocked our world and there just weren't ten of them like in previous years.

We watch movies on Netflix and Hulu Plus. Most of the choices below are movies we saw on Netflix, but not streaming. Of course, Netflix continues to expand its streaming collection, so check to see if the one you want to see is there or not. I'd love to stop doing the DVD-by-mail thing and just stream everything. I know that's where Netflix is going, I can't wait until the movie studios catch up to their thinking.

August Rush

An extremely emotional film. August Rush tells the story of a young boy who does not know his mother and father, but feels that they speak to him through the music that he hears. Even though he has no musical training, he finds that he is able to play guitar and other instruments just by tapping on the wood and plucking the strings. A street musician (Robin Williams) finds him and helps him improve. The boy continues to think of ways he might get to meet his parents, whom he is sure are both musicians themselves (they are). The back story shows how his parents met and the decision they had to make about giving the boy up. A lovely story, great acting (especially by Keri Russell as the mother) and wonderful music throughout.

Hot Fuzz

An ambitious London police officer gets transferred, against his will, to a small English village. Just as he is mourning the lack of action, he notices some strange events occurring that can't be coincidental. This film is a combination of raucous police action and very funny characters and scenes in the village.


Another musically-oriented movie, and another heartwarmer. Elderly people get together to sing an interesting mix of rock and roll hits, including songs from the Clash, Chuck Berry and The Ramones (imagine a bunch of old codgers singing "I Wanna be Sedated"). It's a documentary of a real group that has been touring for several years. Well done, and you'll really get to like the old folks making people laugh and enjoy the music.


Asking the question of all of us "What lengths would you go to for your sibling?" this movie is based on the real-life situation of a sister who puts herself through law school for the sole purpose of freeing her (she believes) innocent brother from jail. Hilary Swank is in top form (when isn't she?) and Sam Rockwell has always been one of our favorites. Puts you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.

Country Strong

I guess this was the year for musical movies for us. Country Strong features a country singer (Gwyneth Paltrow) who has been in-and-out of rehab and is trying to put her career back together. Along comes a young, beautiful, talented songstress (Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl) and trouble starts brewing. Both women are amazing performers and the movie rocks (or twangs) from the first song to the last. Neither my wife nor I are big country music fans, but we can recommend this film to anyone who enjoys American music.


Set in South Africa at the time when Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman, of course) is released from prison and subsequently becomes president of the country. He is looking for ways to unite the whites and blacks and seizes on the Rugby World Cup coming up. Black people are surprised at this since the team is entirely white, and the team is just as surprised to find out they will be a political tool in this way. Matt Damon plays the captain of the rugby team. The film helps us think about ways we can all pull together as one team, one country, one people. Very, very worthwhile movie --- you will enjoy it deeply.

Never Let Me Go

A movie based on one of those science fiction novels that gives us a picture of what could happen in the future if governments and corporations go whacko (not entirely fictional). Several young people appear to be students in a strict, parochial school. But they are actually part of a grand experiment, cruel, disgusting and inhumane. The students find out and try to find a way out. Keira Knightley stars. It's beautifully done and very touching.

Breast Picture

I'll have to ask all my female blog readers and friends to forgive me, but this movie was really, really good. My wife liked it too. It's about a porn director who almost accidentally writes a great non-porn script. He has no intention of making the movie, but is convinced by several co-workers to give it a try. He sneakily fits scenes of the non-porn into the filming of his latest porn, and chaos ensues. The acting and writing is quite good, the premise is silly and the characters are lovable. I'm trying to remember if there is an actual nudity in the movie --- I think there isn't. It's a gas.

Google Chromebook Review

My motivation for trying the Chromebook was that I realized that I live in Google's world. I use Google search, maps, Android, Gmail, Docs, Calendar, Google Apps at work, YouTube - everything Google. I even switched from iTunes to Google Music recently. Realizing this caused me to think about using the Chrome OS and the idea of a nice, light ultrabook with no data on it was also very appealing.


Let's look at the laptop first. This Samsung Chromebook (white), first of all, is gorgeous. Well, the outside shell is. The keyboard and screen bezel are very utilitarian once you open it up, but the outer shell is amazingly beautiful. This is true for the white version, I think the black versions are not as nice. (Update: last I checked the white Samsung is no longer being sold.)

Screen clarity and brightness is very readable. Brightness is adjustable to any room lighting. The keyboard is very comfortable. People talk about how large the trackpad is, which is true, but the extra wrist-rest is very convenient. The trackpad is not stellar. I find it a bit laggy, but it is useful enough. Much more important is that the trackpad supports multitouch gestures. This is a MUST for me being a former MacBook Pro user.

The laptop is 3.3 lbs, which seems featherweight to me, but then again I use a giant black HP laptop at work, so anything would feel light after using that.

Battery life is absolutely stellar. I've been using the computer for hours today unplugged and I am down to 64% remaining, which is about 4.5 more hours. I've never used a laptop with battery life this good. It must be because of the solid-state hard drive. Anyway, Samsung, nice job on the battery life. I am totally impressed (and this is a do-or-die feature for me on laptops).

Graphics quality is excellent. I played 720p videos in YouTube, Netflix and Hulu and none showed the slightest lag or jerkiness. Once I tried 1080p video, it started to get jerky.

Chrome OS

But what about the operating system, Chrome OS?? I like it. It reminds me of Jolicloud, which was an operating system that was meant to operate "in the cloud" several years ago. It never got popular, but I tried it for a while. It was too buggy to be useful, but I liked the idea of it.

Well, Chrome OS is Jolicloud done right. You can "install" apps from the Chrome store, but they are really just "links" on the splash page of the Chrome browser. The closest you get to actual apps is some of them get installed as Chrome browser extensions. What did you expect? The browser is the OS. Stuff like Settings is just another browser tab. It is genius. Simplifies things greatly. I probably spend 85% of my time inside a browser, why not make it 100%?

As for the advertising and hype, I am here to tell you that Chrome OS on the Chromebook really does boot up in 8 seconds. I timed it. Friggin' unbelievable. That changes everything. Turn off your computer whenever you are not using it, because it takes no time at all to bring it back up. This isn't some "sleep mode" like on Windows PCs, this is really "OFF." So it is 8 seconds until you see your user login, then another 2-3 seconds after logging in and you see the browser. Super fast.

I am blown away by the variety of apps in the Chrome Store. I was expecting I would have to live without the functionality of my MacBook Pro in certain areas, but that turned out not to be true. Astoundingly, I found a GIMP-like app in the store called Pixlr. It does layers, filters, the whole bit. I haven't dug into it yet, but I use GIMP a lot (GIMP is an open source alternative to Photoshop) and I'm so happy to still have at least some of that functionality. Also, Netflix and Hulu work GREAT, thank you very much. No problems at all. No goofy plug-ins to load, they just work. And Hulu sees the Chromebook as a computer, not a mobile device, so you have a much wider variety of programming. The Chrome Store even has Angry Birds! (sorry I mentioned it). It makes you realize that "apps in the cloud" are going to be so much cooler than the crap we load onto our local hard drives. Sky's the limit.

My employer uses Google Apps corporately, so I use two Chrome logins, one for my personal Google ID and one for work. What I used to do on my MacBook Pro was to have the Chrome browser and Firefox open at the same time and be logged in to one Google ID on one and one on the other browser. This was very fast and easy, just flip between spaces on the Apple desktop. With Chrome OS, it is not as easy. You have to log out of one Google account and log in to the other. (You can actually have two IDs in a single browser but it doesn't seem to work well for me.) I'm being picky here, because it is probably a 10 second process total, but still a lot slower than what I'm used to. A good side-effect is that that extra hassle actually keeps me focused on work when I need to be focused on work, and also focused on my personal stuff instead of constantly checking work e-mail and notifications. I'm sure I'll get used to it.

You can actually have multiple windows open on Chrome within one login. Two is the maximum, I think. I guess this would be useful if you have too many tabs open at a time, so you can spread them across two windows. There's also a nice extension called "Too Many Tabs" that lets you take browser tabs offscreen and then you can bring them back anytime. Another possibility for multiple windows is if you want one window as normal and the other as "incognito," which is Chrome's word for no tracking, no history.

The idea of the "desktop' is really gone now. Well, sorta. The landing page when you start the machine (or open a new tab) is your "desktop." It shows icons for all your apps and you can easily click on the one you want.

Now, after owning a Chromebook for three months, I am really loving it. Obviously, I cannot use Word or Excel documents very well. Google Docs is great for unformatted stuff, but if I need to create a proposal for a client, I have to be using MS-Office on Windows or Mac. But for the rest of my work, this Chrome cloud-world is just fine. Preferable, even. And the freedom of not loading anything locally feels so good. My MacBook Pro crashed, so even though I had everything backed up with Carbonite, I still keenly felt the vulnerability of having data locally. I guess I'm a cloud guy now. And dangerously close to being an annoying Google fanboy.

I mean, Chromebook? Seriously??