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?

The Girl With All the Gifts Not-Quite-Review

It might be folly, as I’m sure many other reviews have already given away the first reveal of M. R. Carey’s new novel, The Girl With All the Gifts, but I’m going to try and avoid detailing it here. This makes my thoughts on the book a little more difficult to form, but hopefully they’ll still make sense.

My reason for not exposing that first twist is to hopefully preserve for you the genuine moment of being struck dumb by it, and fully enjoy the compulsion to see how the rest of the story unfolds from there. There are very few stories I sincerely wish I could experience again for the first time, and this one shot straight to the top of that list. Carey does an incredible job, very similar to the way Shirley Jackson often did, of coaxing you in with his strange, off-kilter depiction of a world before you find yourself unable to resist continuing deeper into it. He builds a desperate desire to know what happens next by employing a genuine empathy with, and fascination for, his characters.

Those opening pages form a skillfully crafted trap. Not only do they present a fascinating lead character in Melanie, the young girl we’re initially introduced to, but they provide the perfect setup for the horrors that unfold as the book continues. Carey builds a delicious air of dread, presenting the reader with a situation that isn’t remotely tenable, and teasing it out with immense care for as long as possible until that tenuous balance is shattered. This is a violent book at times, with furious bursts of action. Those scenes are orchestrated and executed with skill and precision, enhanced by the emotional investment we’ve developed for the characters through the intimate details he’s built into them during the quieter moments.

The entire story builds to an incredible crescendo, and a satisfying and strangely (unsettlingly) hopeful conclusion. The only thing stopping me from going immediately back and rereading the book again is the knowledge it won’t be exactly the same experience, which is why I sought to give as little away as possible. That makes this piece more my general impressions rather than a complete review, but I hope it still convinces you to try it, and have that first-read experience for yourself. Because those first few pages are most assuredly a trap, but they’re an enticing one you’ll deeply enjoy stepping in to.

Afterlife With Archie 1-5

I think the last time I read an Archie comic I was in middle school. Even then, it may have only been cursory, flipping through the book because it was a gift and it was there rather than really getting into the story. In the intervening years, Riverdale has changed a lot.

While Afterlife with Archie is a special case, it’s built on the frame of that reinvigorated Riverdale. The Archie line’s picture of everytown America is a place where class, race, gender, and faith differences aren’t whitewashed. They’re all woven into the adventures of the characters, a part of the total picture that enhances the story, rather than ignored or tacked awkwardly on out of a socially conscious sense of obligation.

As a result of that solid foundation, Afterlife is able to hit the ground running. The first issue snaps into the action, focusing at first on Jughead and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and their attempts to save and then revive his beloved Hot Dog. The characters in this series have, for the most part, been around since the Forties in one form or another, so even if you don’t know them from reading the comics themselves, they’ve become an ingrained part of pop culture. That allows Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla to waste no time revisiting who these people are and how they overlap.

That keeps the scripting razor-sharp, and the pacing breakneck. Aguirre-Sacasa establishes early he’s applying the traditional horror story law, that anyone can die at any time. Adding to that intensity is the flat out gorgeous artwork from Francavilla. From covers that evoke classic era monster movies to interior art with rich motion, the cells practically deserve framing. Each issue is a work of art.

The first three are all kinds of wonderful, but for me their perfect convergence is in the fourth issue. Here they’ll break your heart twice when Archie is first saved by a loved one, and saves a loved one at great cost. It’s a beautiful, crushing installment. The fifth issue’s focus on the Lodge’s loyal butler Smithers is both moving and clever. It ranges from a pragmatic accounting of which survivors remain in the group, to presenting a lovely tribute to his devotion and care of Veronica, to reminding us why these characters still work after seventy plus years. It also sets them on the road from the town they love and know so well, as it burns and is overrun.

From what I’ve been reading, it’s been a successful run, enough so they’ll be doing the same thing with Sabrina the Teenage Witch beginning in October. It’s a welcome reinvention, and a reminder of how the appropriately-maligned concept of a “gritty reboot” is supposed to work. For all the violence and horror in these issues, they never lose the heart that made Archie an icon in the first place. These five issues conclude the first wave of a series I hope goes on for a while.

John Hornor Jacobs’ The Shibboleth

First and foremost, if you’ve not picked up The Twelve-Fingered Boy you need to go and do that, and quickly. Seriously, the book is one of the best books I read last year, a truly stunning work. It’s also essential to read it before picking up the recently released second book of Jacobs’ trilogy, The Shibboleth.

And you’re going to want to pick that up, because The Shibboleth is amazing. Jacobs picks up shortly after the events of TFB, with Shreve Cannon back in Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center. His friend Jack is in the clutches of Mr. Quincrux, training with a secretive group to face the mysterious force gaining strength on the East Coast.

That force is affecting people worldwide now. An epidemic of insomnia is eating away at society. Violence is up, people are falling apart, and the world’s on the edge of burning. The other wards of Casimir Pulaski are being effected as much as anyone, and they’re directing a lot of that violence towards Shreve. He’s under near-constant assault from those around him, who all seem to believe he’s a thief. He’s not afflicted like the others, a result of him using his powers to pry into people’s minds. This allows him to soothe himself with their happier memories. He soon learns that he can now “eat” people’s memories, taking thoughts out as well as manipulating their actions.

It’s a tool he can use to help, removing their pain and taking away their insomnia. It also puts him back on Quincrux’s radar, now that he might be useful to his cause. With this new understanding of both what he can do and the continuing threat Mr. Quincrux poses, Shreve sets out to find and free Jack. He’s captured, and forced to join Jack in training as Quincrux and his operatives refine a group of super-powered children they’ve taken to calling “extranaturals,” or “Post-Humans.”

The Shibboleth is darker by a fair margin than TFB. Jacobs doesn’t shrug away from the more painful fallout when Shreve chooses badly, or when more powerful people assert themselves on him or his friends. This is still a young adult book, but on the decidedly more intense end of the YA spectrum. No punches are pulled, no quarter is given. Shreve still has his humor, but it’s taken a world-weary edge. His voice as a character just as strong as it was in the previous book, but also more interesting in the way he “borrows” turns-of-phrase or cultural references from the minds he delves into. He carries not just his experiences, but the emotional toll that accompanies the memories of those he’s near.

Once he’s taken into Quincrux’s clutches, he finds a group of allies and friends among the other kids being trained. Their mix of powers are being honed to face a terrible evil, and failure is not an option. Severe consequences await those who aren’t up to snuff. The mix of new allies takes some of the weight off Shreve; he’s much less isolated than in the first half of the book, but no less aware of how much danger surrounds those he loves. Widening that circle of people he cares about becomes both a blessing and a curse. Not being so alone also means having much more to lose, after all.

By the end we’re left with more of a cliffhanger than the first. This is in all ways a middle portion. In the same way The Subtle Knife or The Girl Who Played with Fire suffer if you haven’t read The Golden Compass or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’d be difficult to jump in here without having read the first part. Also the end will definitely leave you eager to read the conclusion, which is thankfully due next year.

John Hornor Jacobs is fearless in his execution, taking the fascinating world-building of the first book and guiding it deeper into a dark and dangerous world. You’re anxious going so far down into the pitch black territory he goes. It’s completely worth it, and you’ll be left desperate for more.

Waiting Vs. Binge-Watching

I mentioned recently how much I’ve been enjoying True Detective. I binge-watched the first five episodes, and watched the last couple within a day or two of their debut. Sunday is the finale, the capper to the impressive first season. Sunday also happens to be the day the new iteration of COSMOS debuts, at the same time.

When we heard that COSMOS was being relaunched, we immediately decided it would be perfect for family viewing. My son loves science in general, and space in particular, and so this is a perfect opportunity for us to sit down together and watch the same show at the same time. So I’m delaying watching that last episode of True Detective. It’s not even a hard decision, given why I’m delaying it. (I did the same thing with the seventh, attending a yearly Oscar party with friends instead of holing up with Marty and Rust). I’m anxious about spoilers for the conclusion, but not nearly enough to skip watching COSMOS with the family.

Last week Hannibal also returned to television. That is a show I’d struggle more with giving up (still not really a struggle, just slightly more difficult), though not because it’s necessarily better than True Detective. I feel that way in part because it’s been a while since the first season ended, and I’ve had to wait to watch this particular story continue. And, now that it’s back, I still have to wait, week after week.

I like the experience. I’ve actually missed it, as I’ve fallen more into binging shows. Even House of Cards – which is excellent – doesn’t hold the same kind of pull because I can watch all of it now if I chose. I know that, as an original Netflix show, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Hannibal, on the other hand, only has so many episodes on demand at a time. Then there’s a lag between the show’s end and DVD release. I could stream the episodes, but I seem to find it easier to pause or stop a streaming movie or show and walk away, whereas when I watch on disc or while it’s being broadcast I give a show more attention. Hannibal, like True Detective, benefits greatly from that attention. It’s filled with details and entendres and implications that tease the viewer, all in service of drawing out the tension exquisitely. It’s that feeling I crave. That sense that the inevitable is waiting, but I’ll have to wait longer for it to play out.

Binge watching is still entertaining, but it feels more like speed-reading. Like I’m doing it to catch up, rather than savoring an unfolding story for myself. I know where the larger plot of Hannibal is going, everyone does. Lecter’s going to end up in a cell. At some point Francis Dolarhyde may arrive, possibly even Agent Starling will appear down the road. Even with this season, the show runners opened with a brutal fight between Lecter and Jack Crawford before jumping back in time twelve weeks. Now the run of season two will be about seeing the bulk of those weeks unfold, and not knowing the resolution of that battle until the season finale.

I appreciate that we’re in an era where we can save up episodes, and descend deeply into a show for days. It’s comforting to know missing or skipping an episode doesn’t mean it’ll be months before getting the chance to see it. But none of that detracts from the opportunity to watch as a show brilliantly teases out a story. Sometimes waiting can be difficult, but sometimes that anticipation is just what I’m looking for.