Favorite Movies of 2014

I’m squeaking this last list in just under the wire. Of the two I’ve already done, this one definitely comes with a couple of caveats. First, there are several films I would have liked to have seen, but short theatrical runs aligned poorly with time I had free to go to the movies. That’s a problem that comes around pretty much yearly, though the trend of films getting to VOD or streaming faster definitely helps alleviate that. Second, there’s a slew of films out now in limited release I haven’t gotten to, and most likely won’t until the open slightly wider in the beginning of 2015.

Those factors might change one or two titles here, much the way eventually seeing The Raid 2 knocked John Wick off this list, but overall I’m extremely happy with the movies I saw this year. As ubiquitous as these lists tend to be, for myself I find it a helpful exercise to engage in. With movies particularly the trend is for most award-worthy films to come at the end of the year, and that sometimes leads to an assumption that the months before were filled with dreck. The attention movies such as Trans4mers and TMNT got helps contribute to that feeling, so it’s nice to take a moment and reflect on the actual good movies I saw, and that I’ll happily rewatch, and that I’d recommend you track down (if you haven’t already).

Snowpiercer and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Can we start talking about what a great actor Chris Evans really is? First with Cap 2, where Steve Rogers continues to embody everything we want in a hero. In a world where heavy surveillance and pre-emptive strikes against possible enemies can so easily be misused, Evans grounded the larger-than-life patriotism and heroism of Cap (Also, it’s interesting that one of the few cultural commentaries on US military policy this year came in the form of a blockbuster superhero film). Then in the even more overtly political Snowpiercer, where his Curtis is the perfect inversion of Rogers, a coward forced into action when all hope has been stripped away.

Guardians of the Galaxy and Edge of Tomorrow – Where Cap 2 got it’s structure from emulating paranoid 70’s political thrillers, Guardians seemed to steep itself in tropes I associate with 80’s action films; building off outsized characters and a script chock full of quotable lines to make something purely escapist and fun. Meanwhile, the criminally underseen Edge (or Live. Die. Repeat., or whatever the title morphs into next) makes me hope Emily Blunt keeps getting action roles, and reminded me that the sheer effort Tom Cruise puts into being a star really pays off in the right film with the right director (see also: Ghost Protocol).

The LEGO Movie and Big Hero 6 – I nearly added the caveat that I only saw these because I have a kid, but honestly I would probably have gone to both regardless. Both were far more playful and inventive than I expected, with LEGO subverting the “Chosen One” cliche nicely, and Big Hero centering itself on a hero whose greatest power is compassion. Bonus points to LEGO, for including the best big-screen Batman since Michael Keaton’s run.

The Guest and The Raid 2: Berendal – Where The Raid: Redemption was a tight, focused action sequence occasionally paused for character moments, Berendal sprawls. The wider scope ends up working nicely, offering more breathing room between brutal fights and heart-stopping chases. The Guest, on the other hand, has fewer, faster moments of violence, and focuses instead on building an air of constant threat. Adam Wingard uses Dan Stevens’ considerable charisma well, building a character who’s equal parts charming and frightening, a palpable danger you never feel betrayed by, because you’re shown early on he’s capable of anything.

Blue Ruin – You can find this movie on several streaming services, and I highly recommend you do. A slow burn piece of noir, Blue Ruin is a breath of air, particularly among all the stylized violence most of the other films I watch present. This is about the actual consequences, the gutting of lives and the stain violence leaves behind. It’s a film with a lot of weight that never feels heavy to watch, and I’m eager to see what comes next from Jeremy Saulnier.

Boyhood – I have a deep and abiding love for Richard Linklater’s movies, he constantly impresses me with the simple humanity of his characters and the effortless charm of his writing and directing. Boyhood topped many “best of” lists this year, and it would be easy to dismiss that based on the gimmick of filming in stages over twelve years. What keeps that from feeling gimmicky to me is the way the story stuck with me like actual memory, rather than simply recollecting a film. To offer one example; I worked in a bookstore for several of the Harry Potter releases, and the scene of young Mason dressed as Harry for the Half-Blood Prince launch felt like my own memory those nights. Many other moments and flashes felt like my own childhood, and what I see and hope to see as my son grows up. the “gimmick” of Boyhood never feels artificial or unnecessary, just as the nine year breaks between Before movies never felt forced. Where other films I saw this year used CGI, or music, or established stars, Linklater used time, in a beautiful, perfect way.

Favorite Music of 2014

Rather than explain why these albums were my favorites of 2014, I’ll just leave a sampling from each here so you can see for yourself. Enjoy!

Jenny Lewis The Voyager

The Hold Steady Teeth Dreams

https://soundcloud.com/washingtonsquaremusic/the-hold-steady-i-hope-this

Shakey Graves And the War Came

Cory Branan The No-Hit Wonder

Shovels & Rope Swimmin’ Time

Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires Dereconstructed

Against Me! Transgender Dysphoria Blues

King Tuff Black Moon Spell

Perfect Pussy Say Yes to Love

FKA Twigs LP1

Favorite Books of 2014

2014 got away from me as far as blogging goes, and posts have been… sparse around here. How much that changes in 2015 is still up in the air, but until then I wanted to at least finish the year with the ever-ubiquitous Favorites lists. I don’t have any intention to present this (or the movies and music ones that’ll follow) as comprehensive or definitive, it’s just nice to gather a list of those works I happened to particularly enjoy this year in one easy to access spot. These are the books published in 2014 I most enjoyed, and a couple published previously that also blew me away. I recommend each one unreservedly.

Shovel Ready: Adam Sternbergh’s debut about a hitman in a post-apocalyptic New York City is as razor sharp as the box cutter Spademan uses to dispatch his victims. The spare, near poetic style of the writing is visceral, shot through with pitch black humor. It’s doubly worth picking up before the next installment hits in early 2015.

One Night in Sixes: I’m admittedly a sucker for Fantasy stories with a Western setting, but Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson’s debut mixed the two far better than most. The way she used language and dialect to mark different classes of people was very well handled, and the scenes of frontier life and cattle drives read like McMurtry.

The Three-Body Problem: Cixin Liu’s award-winning novel (the first in a trilogy, with parts 2 and 3 coming very soon) is now available in English, thanks to a fantastic translation from Hugo and Nebula winner Ken Liu that ably brings a new audience all the complex science and heartfelt prose that made this a bestseller in China.

Broken Monsters: Possibly the most astute piece ofsocial commentary I read this year was woven into a dark and twisted piece of horror fantasy. Broken Monsters is what The Wire would have been if David Lynch had written it. Between this and last year’s The Shining Girls, fans of Stephen King who are still unfamiliar with Lauren Beukes need to rectify that gap in their reading.

Afterlife with Archie: Hands down my favorite comic currently running, the combination of Francesco Francavilla’s distinct artwork and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s efficient scripting makes the zombie apocalypse’s arrival in Riverdale more horrific and heartbreaking than you’d think possible, and elevates this run well past the gimmick it appeared to be when it was first announced.

The Last Policeman: Ben H. Winter’s fresh take on the police procedural didn’t come out in 2014, but it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and certainly worth inclusion, regardless. The final book in the trilogy actually did come out this year, and if that Henry Palace adventure’s even close to this one, it’s a lock for one of my favorites next year.

Phantom Instinct: Meg Gardiner deals strictly in barn-burners. Every book of her’s I’ve read flies along with a wicked mix of breakneck action and clever banter, and Phantom Instinct is no exception. The combination of a former cop with trust issues – thanks to a disability that makes his judgment suspect – and a heroine with a hell of a past makes for a seriously entertaining read.

Silent City: I started Alex Segura’s debut shortly after takeoff on my flight back from Ireland this summer, and don’t look up until landing. I devoured this Miami set mystery, and really want to see more Pete Fernandez stories in the future.

The Martian: Originally self-published a couple of years back, then released traditionally to great fanfare earlier this year, Andy Weir’s book deserves all the praise it’s gotten. The varied ways Mars tries to kill Mark Watney, and his humor and determination in the face of each one, had me grinning almost constantly as I read.

The Girl with All the Gifts: I was reluctant when I wrote about this earlier to give details, and that hasn’t changed. I still think this book is best approached knowing as little going in as possible, but I will say that, even among this list of excellent books, The Girl with All the Gifts is flat out the best thing I read all year.

So what’d you all enjoy reading this year?

Favorite Movies of 2013

I didn’t make it to the movies nearly as often this year as I have in the past, time was more of a crunch and frankly, there was so much good television available. Between shows like Sleepy Hollow and Hannibal it was more entertaining to stay home. Not really what Hollywood wants to hear per se, but true. But even though I didn’t check off everything from my anticipated list, the movies I did manage to see included some truly great ones, along with some that were pure fun. Hopefully studios trend more towards these offerings next year.

10. Star Trek: Into Darkness: There was a ton of backlash over this movie, and I can’t say a whole lot of it wasn’t deserved, but it was still highly entertaining. Coupled with the 2009 film, and with the biggest Classic Trek villain (solo category) nicely dispatched, they hopefully move past the trend of the Earth is in peril storytelling and focus on more intimate, episodic films. Star Trek really does come out of the same era and culture as The Twilight Zone, and is well designed for philosophical storytelling. Focusing on the same “The Planet’s About To Blow!!” story is a lot like using an iPad to play solitaire. You’ve got a charismatic, attractive cast and a premise that lets you go literally anywhere, it’ll be fun to see what’s possible if they really use those tools.

9. Thor: The Dark World:  Thor continues to put the lie to DC’s claim Wonder Woman’s too complicated a property for a feature film. Further, at a time when David Goyer and Zack Snyder are claiming their tone-deaf Man of Steel ending was designed to make Superman mythic in tone, Thor showed how actual mythic heroes don’t need to be heartless – in every possible interpretation – to be entertaining.

8. Iron Man 3: Marvel is clearly now to superhero films as Disney proper is to animated musicals, in that they’ve got their formula locked down and running on all cylinders. In terms of tone and attitude, Shane Black proved a perfect fit for the Iron Man series. What I particularly like about the Marvel movies is the way each is now intended to move these characters into position for Avengers films, but never at the cost of being entertaining on their own. Now if only they can figure out how to do that with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

7. Much Ado About Nothing: Joss Whedon’s downtime project between principle filming for The Avengers and effects supervision of the same ends up being an interesting object lesson in what happens when a vanity project is made by a team whose vanity is fed by entertaining others. What could have been an insufferable indulgence ends up being absolutely delightful entertainment.

6. The Heat: Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock leading a cast packed with excellent character actors and a whipsmart, vulgar as all get out script by Paul Feig was nearly the most fun I had watching a movie all year. Also, if we could find a way to have a movie where Melissa McCarthy and Peter Capaldi just swear at each other for 90 minutes, that’d make me very, very happy.

5. Pacific Rim: Pacific Rim was, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve had at the movies. Outsized in all possible ways, Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham put together an incredible, entertaining movie. While there were definitely parts one could quibble should have been better, the areas where they excelled far outweigh any nitpicking.

4. The Conjuring: It’s possible the Warrens, the ghost hunters at the center of The Conjuring, are the most functional married couple we’ve seen in movies in years. Loving and supportive of each other, even in the face of truly harrowing demonic possessions. By starting with a sense of genuine concern for likable characters, James Wan makes a nearly no-gore horror movie that’s frightening, but also quite moving.

3. The World’s End: The capper in the Wright/Pegg/Frost Cornetto Trilogy, the tale of Derek King and his merry men’s return home for one last hurrah was the perfect balance of bitter and wry. While the lower profile Shaun of the Dead gets more praise right now among those looking to burnish their “before it was cool” cred, I believe World’s End is only going to grow in esteem over time.

2. Gravity: Alfonso Cuaron put every technical filmmaking trick to excellent use to create a beautiful masterpiece of a film, anchored by a perfect human performance from Sandra Bullock. It’s worth noting that while both of Bullock’s major movies were arguably sold on other qualities (the raucous, Bridesmaids style comedy for The Heat, jaw dropping effects for Gravity), you can make an equally strong case neither would have succeeded without her sharp acting to humanize them.

1. Before Midnight: Another third in a series, but in this case hopefully not the last. Richard Linklater has created a beautiful, smart film about what happens when the romantic dream settles into reality. Hard but not harsh, worn but not stale, just genuine and true even if it’s not always happy. Of all the movies I looked forward to this year, Before Midnight exceeded my wildest expectations by far.

Favorite Music of 2013

Both on this blog and in everyday conversation, I use music analogies to an almost uncomfortable degree. In large part I do this because music is an important touchstone to me; I spend quite a lot of my time with some kind of music playing. These ten albums are only the tip of the sizable iceberg of stuff I listened to last year, but they’re my favorites by a long stretch.

10. The Next Day – David Bowie. A David Bowie album with Tony Visconti producing, and Bowie in top songwriting form. More artists should release albums out of the blue like he did at the beginning of the year.

9. mbv – My Bloody Valentine. I was actually dreading the thought of a new My Bloody Valentine album, in large part because I didn’t know how you top Loveless. Thankfully, they didn’t try, instead producing a strangely warm, intense, fog of emotion to act as a lovely counterbalance to their previous masterpiece.

8. No Blues – Los Campesinos! If you’re only familiar with their song “You! Me! Dancing!,” you owe it to yourself to listen through their catalog, and particularly this most recent release. Hearing them refine their sound while staying true to the energy of that first single is remarkable.

7. Magic Hour – Luscious Jackson. Luscious Jackson was sort of washed over in the wave of Nineties Alternative acts, but their clever songwriting and ease at crafting hook-laden songs always made them stand out for me. I’m glad to see them still putting out new stuff that’s as sharp as their earlier output.

6. Hesitation Marks – Nine Inch Nails. After so many years at the cutting edge of industrial and electronic music, Reznor shouldn’t have to prove he’s the equal of younger acts. I’m glad he recognizes that and uses that knowledge to focus on being surprising with his albums, rather than trying to overwhelm.

5. Days Are Gone – HAIM. I’ve been waiting for this album since “Forever” came out LAST YEAR, and I’m thrilled the rest of it’s just as catchy and quick as that song.

4. Muchacho -Phosphorescent. I only discovered this closer to the end of the year, but wow, is it a good record. Just listen to “Song for Zula,” where the vocals have the same perfect mix of understatement and strength you’d find all over Astral Weeks era Van Morrison, while the band builds to something approaching majesty.

3. Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend. Speaking of catchy, Vampire Weekend put together a true gem of a record this year, with all kinds of energy and verve.

2.The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You – Neko Case. Neko Case has one of the most grand, magnificent voices in music today, and the harmonies on this album are nothing short of perfect.

1. Stay Reckless – Austin Lucas. This is a record that’s probably going to be forgotten among the heavier hitters that came out this year, and that’s a real shame. Austin Lucas puts out country music more influenced by Husker Du than Hank Williams, but with an authentic voice that really resonates beautifully. With Glossary – another favorite band of mine – backing him up, he hits a stride here that really deserves a lot more attention than he’s getting. This is my small contribution to the effort to get him in more people’s ears.

 

Favorite Books of 2013

As we leave the month marked by rough first drafts and apparently not shaving, we now find ourselves in a time of reflection; where we look back over the first eleven months and sum up the high points. Yes, we’ve reached the time when bloggers’ Best of Lists abound. This is the first of the lists I’m planning, and I’m starting with books. It’s possible I’ll come across something in the next couple weeks that I’ll wish I included but, given how what I’ve got stacked next on my TBR isn’t a 2013 book, I think I’m safe. I’m also going for “favorite” rather than “best,” because my reading wasn’t comprehensive enough this year to die on that particular hill. I will say with certainty you can’t go wrong with any of these selections; 2013 had scads of great books, and these were my favorites.

10. The Big Reap – Chris F. Holm. I haven’t reviewed this yet because I actually haven’t finished it yet (I’m definitely far enough in to highly recommend it). I’m taking my time, and really savoring the way Holm mixes horror and hard-boiled crime writing.

9. The Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Stories – Connie Willis. Kind of says it all in the title, but what I particularly enjoyed about this collection were the afterwards she wrote for each story, pulling back the curtain a bit for the reader.

8. SAGA. – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Rich storytelling, brilliant artwork, and a willingness to push every button possible make SAGA unmissable each month.

7. The Twelve-Fingered Boy – John Hornor Jacobs. Strange, dangerous powers roiling in damaged adolescent boys is a hell of a starting point for this new YA series.

6. Locke and Key vol. 6, Omega and Alpha – Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. The magnificent symphony of fantasy writing and art Hill and Rodriguez have been performing since 2007 is coming to a stunning close, and it’s been glorious to watch.

5. The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao – Wesley Chu. I read Lives near the beginning of the year and Deaths near the end, and both are so loaded with action and great characters, I had to include both.

4. The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes. A serial killer who travels through time, being pursued by one of his victims. Beukes’s book practically begs to be read with a premise like that, and her talents as a writer are more than up to the task of exceeding the promise of the concept.

3. Under the Empyrean Sky – Chuck Wendig. Cornpunk YA stuffed to bursting with honest to god young adults, Wendig’s doing everything a great dystopian story should excel at.

2. NOS4A2 – Joe Hill. It’s thickness makes the word “distilled” an odd choice, but this is everything Hill does well, boiled down to it’s richest possible permutation.

1. Country Hardball – Steve Weddle. Hands down the best book I read this year.

List: 94 Asian Speculative Fiction Authors (with links)

Carrie Cuinn has assembled an excellent list of Asian SFF authors. A lot of great writers to check out here, have a look.

Carrie Cuinn

Updated to add suggestions from the comments/email/Twitter. All authors mentioned prior to 8/18/2016 are now included. If you’re not on this list but should be, or you’re on it but want me to link to a more recent story or current website, please comment below.

I’ve been wanting to expand my reading to include more international speculative fiction, and more non-white American authors. I am privileged to know a couple of brilliant writers who also happen to be Asian, and that seemed a good place to start my reading*. I put together a list of work I’d been meaning to explore, and then solicited ideas from Twitter and the SFWA forums. Most people suggested the same couple of names over and over again… while it’s, honestly, wonderful that we’ve reached a point in SF/F where these authors are being read and discussed at all, there’s so much more diversity in our…

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