Today’s question was inspired by all of our Best Of 2015 so far pieces this week:
What wins your personal best of the year so far across all categories?
Due to its (tenuous, as it turns out) association with the M. Night Shyamalan anti-hit machine, as well as some misleading early descriptions that made it sound more like Twin Peaks than it actually is, I wasn’t planning to watch Wayward Pines. But after some not-so-subtle cajoling from my co-worker Alex McCown and other positive early indicators, I caught up with the first four episodes on Hulu. I sat and watched them all in a row, my inner monologue evolving from “This is kind of weird, I’ll give it a chance” to “WHAT THIS SHOW IS CRAZY.” Then that fifth episode aired—you know the one—and now I can’t wait for more.
I’ve watched a lot of great television this year, and a lot of it is impossible to compare—do lighthearted CW shows really stand a chance against prestige dramas? I think they do, and the season finale of iZombie is why. The show started off as fun but not terribly substantial, and it begged a lot of “Veronica Mars but with zombies” comparisons (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). Though the final half of the season slowly raised the stakes, the final episode, “Blaine’s World,” was where the show really turned it up to 11: Liv’s secret comes out against her will to another major character; and as that comes to a head, so do other life-and-death-and-undeath quandaries. The season finale had a number of natural end points, but the script kept going, pushing each natural ending a little further. It was a little bit risky, but the result is something more poignant and more compelling than a simple cliffhanger ending. Maybe iZombie doesn’t have the budget or gravitas of, say, The Americans, but the final episode proved that it has the character development to be a lot more than just another mystery of the week.
As a long-time admirer of the works of satirical journalist Jon Ronson, I’ve always loved the way his books consistently derive their humor from a place of empathy, with Ronson sometimes going to some very interesting places—mental hospitals, KKK camps, Bohemian Grove—to find the humanity inherent in his subjects. But that same empathy is what makes Ronson’s most recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, such an effective horror story for the modern age. As someone who’s made a lot of dumb jokes on the internet, it’s distressingly easy to see aspects of my own life in someone like Justine Sacco, who was essentially destroyed after she hit send on a poorly considered tweet. Ronson’s book doesn’t necessarily get hold of the grand unifying principle of shame it spends its last third or so grasping for, but it did make me reevaluate my approach to internet outrage and public shaming, taking a step away from the mob and locking my pitchfork away. As someone who’s constantly looking for ways to feel less angry and anxious about the world, that’s been a pretty huge boon, and I’m grateful to Ronson for delivering it.
I saw Ex Machina in May, at the end of a big-screen binge that also included Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road. That’s kind of the perfect order in which to see all three films: Following bigger, louder theses on artificial intelligence, feminism, and humanity, Ex Machina runs those themes through the Turing test and comes out with a product of greater poignancy and longer-lingering dread. Despite the impressive makeup and effects that transform Alicia Vikander into a robotic vodka mascot, Ex Machina is as small-scale as cinematic speculative fiction gets, a neat throwback to heady ’70s sci-fi with distinct reflections of our modern age. Oscar Isaac recasts Drs. Frankenstein and Tyrell in a Steve Jobs mold; Domhnall Gleeson plays a coding whiz who lacks the vision, foresight, and empathy to come up with a sentient iPod of his own. The future Star Wars stars give great turns, but it’s Vikander who walks away with Ex Machina, her performance its own test of the boundaries that still separate man and woman and woman and machine. It’s a good match with the first blockbusters of summer 2015, but it’d make an even better sweet-and-sour double feature with Her.
A tipster gave me a heads up about Sleater-Kinney a good year ahead of when the band announced its reunion, but the details didn’t go beyond a tour. Imagine my delight, then, when Sleater-Kinney announced a tour, a new album, and a ferocious new single, “Bury Our Friends.” I think the band went on hiatus on a career-best note with 2005’s The Woods—then my album of the year—and there’s always a danger that groups have a lost a step when they reunite, but Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love picks up perfectly where The Woods left a decade ago. No steps have been lost—if the results could always be this good, I’d tell all of my favorite bands to take a few years off.
The only work that’s surpassed Mad Max: Fury Road in the ability to bowl me over with the amount of craft and consideration it displays at any given moment is Bloodborne, the PlayStation 4 game from the sadistic geniuses at FromSoftware. I’ve already worshipped at its feet with my review, but I won’t ever be able to shut up about how alive its world feels. Normally, that line of praise is reserved for colorful games with bustling populations or detailed, intimate experiences. Bloodborne has a different kind of liveliness, one rooted in malice, secrecy, and self-defense. The deep, dark mythology and considered Gothic architecture give its setting an incomparable history and unsettling air, but it’s the way the city and its unfortunate inhabitants lash out to repel you—an invader, an other, a problem—that lends Bloodborne a believability and life unlike anything else.
I like horror movies and I see a lot of them, but it’s relatively rare that one gets in the running for my year-end list. Unless the second half of the year goes gangbusters, though, there will be a place on the 2015 version of that list for the best movie I’ve seen so far this year: It Follows. I really liked David Robert Mitchell’s earlier film The Myth Of The American Sleepover and had heard great things about It Follows (including from our own A.A. Dowd), but I still wasn’t fully prepared for how much I wound up loving Mitchell’s expert evocation of both dread and a certain kind of woozy nostalgia. Many of its late-teenage and early-20s characters, trying to fight off a sexually passed curse that causes a ghost-like force to stalk Jay (Maika Monroe), aren’t necessarily better-developed than their counterparts in other horror movies or teen movies. But Mitchell pays so much attention to little details and gestures that his world (which, like Sleepover, seems to exist in no particular time period) feels familiar and alive in a way so few movies in either genre ever accomplish. It’s a spellbinder.
I’ll have plenty of future opportunities to gush about all the great movies I’ve seen this year—and anyway, Jesse already mentioned my current favorite of 2015. So let me use this space instead to sing the praises of a non-cinematic highlight, albeit one with a very close relationship to a movie: Amy Schumer’s brilliant, episode-long spoof of 12 Angry Men. As parody, the thing is unimpeachable, expertly mimicking the tone, the rhythm, even the specific shot selections of Sidney Lumet’s jury-room classic. (Holy shit does Nick DiPaolo look like Lee J. Cobb.) Beyond that, though, it’s also a cutting commentary on the sexism of the entertainment industry, specifically the way both the powers that be and the audiences they feed link an actress’ value exclusively to her appearance. Like the best satire, it scores big points and big laughs simultaneously, and I’ve watched it half a dozen times, in part to just to marvel at its existence.
I’ve read a lot of fantastic books so far this year, but the one I keep coming back to is The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. Translated to English and imported to the U.S. this year, it’s a haunting yet quirky story about a young woman who returns to her small Finnish town to unravel a mystery. But the mysteries of Rabbit Back aren’t contained to a single story thread like a lot of murder-mystery type books, with a semi-secret society, paranormal occurrences, and a disappearance contributing to the eerie narrative without really pushing it forward. It’s a spiritual companion to Twin Peaks in that Jääskeläinen presents a seemingly normal small town, inhabits it with odd personalities, and makes some crazy weird stuff happen. But what I love about this book is that the author never answers the questions he raises; he gives readers enough information to piece it together themselves, if they take the time to consider the clues planted throughout the book. It’s not easy, but it’s a lot of fun to crack the mystery for yourself.
I know I like a movie when everything I say afterward is punctuated by exclamation points. After I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I spoke so rapidly and so excitedly about it that my jaw began to hurt. Its feminist backbone is incredible, positing a hero like no other seen in movies, tough without being devoid of womanhood. It’s also beautiful to look at for being so brutal, its visuals on a plane that few other movies could reach. But what really made Fury Road great was that you could feel it while you watched it. The movie vibrated in my bones as I inched to the edge of my seat, just wanting to be that much closer to the screen. I felt spent after it was over. There aren’t many movies that can make you feel what its characters are feeling. Mad Max: Fury Road forced its audience to do so and we are the better for it.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of the most buzzed-about stuff of the year from Mad Max to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Ex Machina to Daredevil. So in an attempt to share the wealth a bit, I’ll celebrate my best surprise of 2015: the British murder mystery series Grantchester. It didn’t make a huge splash when it debuted on PBS in January, probably because it looks like any of the other dozens of period mysteries the network has showcased over the years. But Grantchester stands out thanks to its fascination with exposing the less glamorous side of its 1950s setting—from homophobia to racism to class divisions. It’s also buoyed by a spectacular central performance from James Norton who plays Sidney Grantchester, a sexy Anglican priest with a knack for investigation, a healthy dose of World War II-induced PTSD, and a potential alcohol addiction. Neither the comedy nor the drama are ever overplayed and while it’s not mold breaking by any means, Grantchester is a great example of an enjoyable format done really well.
My openness to post-apocalyptic stories has been stretched thin over the past couple years, especially when it comes to books. But the current glut of post-apocalyptic novels (which I’ve already read far too many of this year) couldn’t stop me from loving Kirsty Logan’s debut novel, The Gracekeepers. It helps that The Gracekeepers is only technically a post-apocalyptic novel. Set far in the future, after the world has become almost entirely inundated with water, the book traces the paths of two women—one a performer on a floating circus, the other an isolated, island-bound psychopomp—who begin to feel their loneliness take on a deeper resonance as their fates slowly intertwine. Rather than trying to exhaustively fill in all the details of how the world got the way it is, Logan leaves most of those specifics hauntingly unexplained and unexplored. It’s not a cautionary tale, either; operating more on the level of a science-fiction folktale, The Gracekeepers helped remind me that post-apocalyptic literature still has so much potential and richness left to unearth.
Since Jesse and Molly already referenced two of my favorite films of the year, I’ll go in a different direction entirely. Every morning for the past couple months straight, I get out of bed, feed the cat, turn on my wireless speaker, and have a celebratory dance party to “The Art Of Getting By (Song For Heaven’s Gate)” off The Scene Between, the new album from The Go! Team. It’s as perfect a distillation of celebratory indie pop as I’ve heard in 2015, and it’s an impossibly addictive beat. First, I found myself involuntarily dancing along to it when I would do the dishes, or sweep the floor, until I soon realized it was the soundtrack to almost every activity that allowed me to move around. So, I gave in. And both my cat and I are closer for having danced along to it continuously these past months.
A new Kazuo Ishiguro novel is always cause to celebrate, and The Buried Giant was his first since 2005’s Never Let Me Go. (His 2009 short story collection, Nocturnes: Five Stories Of Music And Nightfall, was elegant but thin.) I’m not sure of The Buried Giant is going to be one of my favorite Ishiguro books—his ambiguous narration is generally more powerful when it’s married to a strong, heartbreaking premise, like in Remains Of The Day or Never Let Me Go. Giant’s mixture of fairy tales and Arthurian legend leads on symbolism and mystery for much of its length, but the central relationship—an elderly married couple on a quest to visit their estranged son—is strong enough to provide structure even in the narrative’s most esoteric sections. And it’s never that esoteric; Ishiguro uses the foundation of monsters and chivalry and classic adventure to keep things thrilling even when the real meaning behind events isn’t entirely clear. It’s the sort of book I know I’ll have to read again, just to see what more I can learn from it. Given how devastating the ending is (devastating in the sort of way that keeps creeping up on you for weeks), I think I may wait a couple of years on that, though.
It would be hard for me to pick just one moment from what’s shaping up to be a terrific year for television and film, and my “wait for the paperback” mentality keeps me perpetually behind on books. But musically, there’s one album that towers over the past six months: To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick Lamar’s musically, lyrically, emotionally complex album is a towering achievement, the kind of album that draws you in completely on first listen, but can take months to fully unpack. Musically, it plays like a distillation of a century of African-American music, with jazz, funk, soul, and hip-hop all sharing the stage, a roster of guests that stretches from George Clinton and Ronald Isley to Pete Rock to Snoop and Dr. Dre, and “King Kunta” alone combining samples from “Smooth Criminal,” “The Payback,” and “We Want The Funk.” That Lamar and his army of producers combine all of these elements seamlessly is an achievement in itself, but it’s all secondary to the lyrics, in which the rapper wrestles with weighty issues of racism and morality without pretending he has any answers to the tough questions. It’s a landmark album that would be a high-water mark in any year. The bar has been raised high for the rest of 2015.
While I pride myself of my film-geek prowess, I was humbled and envious of the self-directed film education laid out by Patton Oswalt in his filmgoer’s memoir Silver Screen Fiend, even as I, like Oswalt, recognized that a life like the one detailed therein is a little sad. Like Oswalt, I, too, spent an ungodly amount of time in half-empty theaters, watching anything and everything I could in search of… something. Like him, I rushed home after each screening to dutifully (some might say obsessively) highlight every movie I saw in The Psychotronic Video Guide or Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books or his aptly titled Guide For The Film Fanatic, each checkmark a tally against my own ignorance, an imagined baby step toward self-worth. In Oswalt’s lovely, funny prose, that quest for movie knowledge (only accelerated to full-blown obsession with the coming of video stores, in my case) became an end in itself, one that, he acknowledges, superseded enjoyment of the films themselves. Silver Screen Fiend is a poignant examination of how an enthusiast can lose himself in his obsession, but it never loses sight of the value of movies as art, independent of what use we make of them.
Anybody who follows my writing has probably picked up on the way I was completely bowled over by Scott McCloud’s nine-years-in-the-making graphic novel The Sculptor: I used it as a jumping-off point for an NPR essay, interviewed McCloud for Chicagoist, and then interviewed him again months later for The Comics Journal, solely to talk about the controversial ending. All this is because I just couldn’t get the book out of my head. The story of a callow young NYC artist who makes a deal with Death, cutting his lifespan down to 200 days in exchange for a sort of art-related superpower, feels like such a massive achievement to me. McCloud takes the story in a variety of directions, as his protagonist finds fame is both harder to achieve than it looks, and not necessarily the right venue for the legacy he wants to leave behind. It’s an incredibly ambitious book, and a flawed one, but the sheer detail of the art, the intensity of the emotions, and the unpredictability and specificity of the story are all so impressive to me. It’s one of those books I can’t stop loaning to people, just so I can talk about it with them afterward.
Although it came out in the U.K. last year, John Lydon’s Anger Is An Energy: My Life Uncensored saw a U.S. release just this April. As someone who felt like his life was changed as a result of hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time, it was a book that was well worth the wait. Unlike his first autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, which featured Lydon’s reminiscences about his past alongside those of friends, family, and fellow musicians, this volume is pure, unadulterated Johnny, and that’s definitely not a bad thing, especially given the way it explores more than the Pistols this time around, detailing his work with Public Image Ltd and other endeavors, including his work in front of the camera. Sure, he’s got an ego, and he’s never afraid to express his opinion, which means you’re unlikely to make it to the end without rolling your eyes on more than a few occasions, but you’ve got to hand it to Lydon: He’s entertaining even when he’s talking complete bollocks.
While it seems destined to live on in TV infamy as “the pegging episode,” Broad City’s “Knockoffs” is a stunning episode of comedy that deserves more context than that one moment. Like I wrote in my review, the best part is that the script doesn’t go for the obvious laughs by making pegging and the people who enjoy it the butt of the joke (pun not intended, but if I’m going to live with it so are you). Instead, the episode celebrates sexual frankness and layers joke on top of hilarious joke without any judgment. There’s even room to spare for introducing Ilana’s family, composed of the inspired casting choices of Bob Balaban as her dad, her real life brother Eliot Glazer, and Susie Essman as her doppelgänger mother. Some of Broad City’s best episodes have come from the writing team of Lucia Aniello and Paul Downs (recently tapped for a female-driven 21 Jump Street), but their script for “Knockoffs” is a particularly surreal and unapologetic triumph.