Well, 2014 is over, and I’m thrilled, quite honestly. This was a fairly difficult year for humanity in general, what with the steady decline of America into a dystopian state, widespread harassment of all sorts of non-white-male social groups, institutional bickering and discrimination, police brutality and obstruction of justice, ongoing environmental disaster and downfall, the rising actual threat of cyberattacks and hacking (as opposed to the in-retrospect adorably kitschy threat of the same in early 90s movies) and a whole host of other things.
I’m actually looking forward to 2015 because I hope to finish out my coursework for my PhD with strength and pizzazz (or whatever the academic version of pizzazz is, I dunno). I’ve got a wedding to plan, a book to write (at least a bunch of stories), a lot of friends to get back in touch with, and all around a lot of potential for good things. Which is a great turnaround from 2014, where I encountered some serious growing pains as an academic and learned that there are certain constraints of the academic life, personally and professionally, that I have to deal with while not at the same time retracting myself into a shell that consists of myself, a giant jar of cheese balls, and my PS3.
Another thing I’m looking forward to in 2015: getting caught up on all the crap I missed out on in 2014. I read pretty much nothing published in 2014, and barely watched any movies released this previous year. I’ve got my work cut out for me. To be fair, I march to the beat of my own drum when it comes to choosing what I want to consume, artistically. My choice for first movie to watch for 2015? Samurai Cop, because it looked hilariously awful and I wanted to watch it. That was my reasoning. Seriously.
What follows is a semi-recap of stuff I liked or didn’t like in 2014. Make of it what you will.
Best Album No One is Talking About Now: Present Tense by Wild Beasts. This one came out earlier in the year, and I’ve returned to it again and again as the year went on. The restrained disgust and propulsive drive of “Wanderlust.” The sensuousness of “Nature Boy” and “Mecca.” The pure pop of “A Simple Beautiful Truth.” The foreboding darkness of “Daughters,” which is the best digression on the apocalypse I’ve heard in song form. It’s all sublime.
Best Explanation of Why Reading is a Great Art, and Also Potentially a Lost One: What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund. This book is an excellent art object in and of itself, cleverly juxtaposing text and visuals within an innovative format to both discuss and demonstrate the relationship between the depiction of people, settings, and things in prose and how we imagine these things through perceptive filters in our minds – and also how our imaginative processes are cancelled out or even oppressed by the adaptations of prose we see in TV, film, illustration, and other mediums. At its core, this book isn’t just a love letter to reading, but a call to arms.
Best Obscure Text I Unearthed and Read: The Cross of Carl by Walter Owen. I discovered this story in The Darkening Garden by John Clute, where Clute kept referring to it throughout the book as a notable example of postwar horror. The Cross of Carl is out of print now, and it has assumedly been out of print for a long time. This is a shame, because once you move past the now-archaic prose style and vocabulary, this is an engrossing and even horrifying story of war and the worst potential of humanity against itself. In particular, the story takes several dark turns that foreshadow the horrors of the Holocaust, despite the fact that The Cross of Carl was published in 1931. One day, I would love to bring this book back into print somehow.
Best Series Finale (And I Will Fight Anyone Who Says Otherwise): The Legend of Korra. It’s already been written up to hell and back very well, in a variety of publications, going beyond the normal genre circles even to places like AV Club and Variety. Those who took offense with the implications of the very very end of the show may, to put it bluntly, suck it.
Best Song Featuring Kendrick Lamar That is Not Actually Kendrick Lamar’s: “Never Catch Me,” by Flying Lotus featuring Mr. Lamar. Looking forward to the (likely) new LP from Lamar in 2015, but his collaboration with Flying Lotus (on my personal pick for album of the year, You’re Dead!, barely edging out Run The Jewels 2 and St. Vincent) whets my appetite in the meantime.
Best Song That is Also a Not-So-Sneaky Diagnosis of Contemporary Life: “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent. The lyrics are pretty on-point in describing how people engage with each other and themselves through the Internet and direct messaging tech. I won’t quote the song; just do yourself a favor and listen to it if you haven’t yet, and then read the lyrics. I’d love to see what Annie Clark would do with writing a sci-fi novel, honestly. (In all seriousness, I think she may become my generation’s David Bowie.)
Best Song Title: “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck” by Run The Jewels, featuring Zach de la Rocha. The song itself, and the album it comes from, fully lives up to the awesomeness of that title.
Best TV Show It Somehow Took Me Way Too Long to Get Around To: Black Mirror. I’ve known about this show for almost two years now, and I’ve known how to track it down online if I ever wanted to watch it. And yet, it took Netflix acquiring it for me to finally get around to watching it. Given my views on science fiction and technology – and more importantly, given my admiration of great writing and storytelling, period – this show is basically perfect for me. Better late than never.
Best Website of the Year: Deadspin. Their reviews of the Netflix Action Canon are regularly insightful and amusing, and their new Beerspin feature is a great tour through small breweries across America. But what brings me back to the site again and again is their sports journalism, which is not only hilarious and biting in a way that major sports journalism publications simply refuse to be anymore, but also is genuinely investigative and important. And they’re great at writing about more than just sports; their article about #GamerGate was possibly the best and most damning read about the movement for the whole year. Speaking of…
Biggest Fandom Disgrace of the Year: #GamerGate. What, did you honestly think the answer to this part wouldn’t be #GamerGate? Everyone involved with this movement should be ashamed of themselves. I would (sarcastically) thank the #GamerGate clowns for making genre douchebags look tame by comparison, but I think there might be some overlap in their respective memberships.
Biggest Clusterf#$% of the Year: Sony Pictures. Duh. I’m not referring to them getting hacked so much as the dirty laundry that got aired after the fact. Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to describe the way they work. Youch.
Coolest Concept for a Novel: Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix. Here’s the pitch: an Ikea knock-off called “Orsk” is haunted by spirits from a long-ago penitentiary, led by their abusive warden. The concept goes a long way in this novel, which is written in a very direct, unadorned style. It’s a quick, fun read. Seriously, though, walking through an Ikea store is a bizarre experience in and of itself. It’s not much of a stretch imagining one that’s haunted.
Favorite Movie: The LEGO Movie. Granted, I have only seen 5 of the 100 movies from 2014 Buzzfeed had in their latest quiz (which I will not link to because I hate Buzzfeed). That said, The LEGO Movie was far and away my favorite movie of the year. The animation is spectacular, and the world of the movie is inspired, allowing a free-for-all mashup of all my favorite things in an environment where such a thing is legitimate based on the rules of said environment. The voice-acting was just as fantastic as the animation, and the writing was sharp and inspired. Bravo.
List of Movies That I Still Have Yet to See, But Want to, So Don’t Ask What I Think of Them Yet: Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Under The Skin, Whiplash, The Babadook, Birdman, Only Lovers Left Alive, Gone Girl, Nightcrawler, Snowpiercer, Selma, Interstellar, Big Hero 6, Coherence, Obvious Child, the latest Hobbit movie, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, X-Men: Days of Future Past, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (or for that matter, Rise), The Guest, Frank, A Most Wanted Man, I Origins, 22 Jump Street, John Wick, Edge of Tomorrow. And others, I’m sure.
Favorite New TV Show: Rick and Morty. Just a tremendously great, demented, funny cartoon with a surprisingly poignant emotional core. It kicks me right in my sweet spot for weird, gross-out sci-fi shenanigans that cuts straight to the chase of whatever strangeness it wants. Can’t wait for the next season to start up.
Favorite TV Show: Hannibal. I get that a lot of people can’t watch this show because it’s bloody and violent, and it’s definitely not for the squeamish. It actually doubled down on a lot of the more stomach-churning aspects of the first season this year, which is remarkable considering I don’t know how they got away with broadcasting the first season. The thing about the show’s darkness and visceral inhumanity is that it’s so freaking beautiful. Hannibal is perhaps the best dark fiction on the planet right now, in any medium. One of the ballsier season finale cliffhangers I’ve ever seen, too. Only Hannibal would play it that way.
I Throw My Hands Up In The Air Sometimes, Saying “Why Can’t You Be a Consistently Good Storyteller, Ryan Murphy?”: American Horror Story: All of It. Just, all of it. I watched the entirety of the show this year, and it’s basically a hot mess overall. I feel like AHS typifies the worst tendencies of the new-era storytelling style of “mash up tropes and references to prior materials to see what happens.” It’s evident that Murphy and his writers genuinely love the stuff they write, but the show constantly defeats and ignores the rules it establishes for itself, which makes what actually happens in the show, in pretty much every season (but particularly so in Coven and Freak Show), feel inconsequential. In all honesty, I’m probably done with AHS once Freak Show wraps up. In fact, I’ve already given up on it with three episodes to go in my viewing, and I don’t miss it one bit.
Most Batshit Crazy Viewing Experience That I Still Enjoyed: The Ruling Class. I discovered this one through the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus. This one is weird in a truly inspired way: Peter O’Toole plays the mentally deranged son of a British lord (who was also pretty much deranged) who inherits his father’s estate, but is unable to be fully recognized due to his belief that he is Jesus Christ. Hence his gold-digging family’s attempts to “break” him of his delusion. Also, it’s a musical. And it gets way, way weirder from there. In all honesty, this movie shouldn’t hold together as well as it does, but it boasts fantastic imagination, great acting, and truly biting satire about the British class system.
Most Batshit Crazy Viewing Experience That I, Sadly, Did Not Enjoy: The Visitor. The description from Drafthouse Films was so promising: “An intergalactic warrior battles alongside a cosmic Christ figure against a demonic 8-year-old girl and her pet hawk, as the fate of the universe hangs in the balance.” And so many talented people involved, including Lance Henriksen, John Huston, and Franco Nero (from the fantastic spaghetti western Django). And it’s a “cult classic,” which is typically catnip for me. The problem is that all of these cool disparate parts never cohere together in an imaginative, interesting way. Also, the bulk of the movie is really about the little Anti-christ girl mentioned in the synopsis, so the marketing for this movie is somewhat misleading in the end. It has some cool psychedelic scenes and set pieces, but these do not add up to a properly psychedelic movie.
Most Promising Subgenre Discovery: “Folk Horror.” As a subgenre, folk horror is actually a pretty recent codification, thanks to Mark Gatiss in A History of Horror, who identifies Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man, and Blood on Satan’s Claw as formative “texts.” The themes and characteristics of this subgenre-in-codification appeal to me: an emphasis on rural environments, an overwhelming feeling of strangeness and ancient power, and the conflict between old and new religion and history, among many other things. It’s a surprisingly flexible subgenre, I think, and it dovetails nicely with a lot of my own research and storytelling interests. It may even find its way into the stories I end up writing this year. Who knows?
Most Surprisingly Heartbreaking Graphic Novel: Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan. It’s a highly science-fictional concept at work: all at once, chickens are uplifted to a level of intelligence similar to humans. The bulk of this story, though, is split into two gritty, emotionally grueling tracks of narrative: in the past, a family of chickens tries to escape some truly vicious speciesist violence from angry humans, and in the present, a somewhat mainstreamed chicken is examining the memoirs of his father (the main character of the past track) while considering his own place in a more “accepting” human society. There’s a lot more to it than that, and much of the story’s richness is found in the characters, whose struggles are far too relatable for many of us. Given recent cultural conversations and screeds about race and race relations, I would consider Elmer required reading for everyone.
Most Traumatic Character Death: Oberyn Martel from Game of Thrones. I screamed so hard at the TV when The Mountain squashed Oberyn’s head in like a ripe tomato. Partly because it was the most brutal death scene I’ve ever seen on TV, and partly because this season on Game of Thrones, Oberyn was by far the most interesting character. Killing him off killed much of what I still cared about on the show.
MVP: Peter Capaldi. The man made Doctor Who watchable again for me, for God’s sakes. I loved his crusty, unreliable, untrustable, conflicted performance, which brought some much-needed bristliness to a role that had fallen into twee arm-flapping and googly eyes (god, that last Matt Smith season was horrible). He brought the best out of his costars as well, and he made it easy for his writers (who were still, um, inconsistent overall this year, but better at the same time).
My Favorite B-Movie: Phase IV. I wouldn’t even really consider it a B-movie, in terms of overall quality. It’s more like a weird, thought-provoking indie SF movie that’s more interested in exploring the potential of nonhuman collective action and evolution than anything more explicitly humanistic. The visuals of the movie revel in geometric beauty and natural art, while also demonstrating just how foreign and foreboding nature can be. What a shame it was the only movie Saul Bass ever got to direct.
My Favorite Sequel, and also My Favorite Action Movie, and also My Favorite Crime Drama: The Raid 2: Berandal. I loved the original (The Raid: Redemption), but Berandal improves on the original in every way. The writing and characterization are vastly better (mainly because they’re there), and the plot is actually fairly inventive when it needs to be. The action, however, is simply amazing. The final hour of the movie is more or less one giant action scene, which segues between different magnificent set pieces efficiently. The car chase is one of the best in recent memory, and the near-climactic one-on-one fight between Rama and an assassin in a fully-stocked kitchen is perhaps the best fight of its kind I’ve ever seen. Fair warning: the movie is also bloodier than the original, which was not a lightweight to begin with.
My New Favorite So-Bad-It’s-Good Movie: The Manitou. I laughed the whole way through this misguided adaptation of Graham Masterton’s novel of the same name. Although I suppose it’s a pretty straightforward depiction of what would happen if a charlatan fortune teller’s ex-wife was somehow possessed by the spirit of a Native American shaman/dark warlock that then manifests as a fetus growing in a tumor on the back of her neck, which in turn gives birth to itself as a dwarf with magical powers who can access the most evil forces in the universe. You can feel the shame of everyone involved just radiating out of this movie, and it’s great fun.
Single Best Episode of Television: “Lemonhope Parts One and Two” from Adventure Time. A miniature heroic monomyth journey set in the most imaginative fantastical universe in any media right now, centering around a character who was fairly minor and only appeared in one prior episode as a resident of Castle Lemongrab (ONE MILLION YEARS DUNGEON!). All it takes is this double-sized episode to establish Lemonhope – a fairly faithful bard archetype – as a hero in his own right. The real crowning point, however, is the stunning, emotionally wrenching finale, which flashes forward to the literal end point of Lemonhope’s journey and quite frankly almost made me cry.
The Scariest Thing I Have Watched in a Long Damn Time: Ghostwatch, by a wide margin. I’m notoriously hard to scare or unsettle, but this genuinely creeped me out thanks to great writing and excellent use of the mockumentary format to exploit the dramatic potential of viewers catching things in the house – haunted by ghosts, supposedly – long before the characters do. The closer you pay attention, the more you get freaked out. Easily the best “scary” movie I’ve seen since Lake Mungo. I don’t have a clip or anything, but you could watch the whole thing here.
Best Line of the Year, Which Should Also Be Our New Personal Creed if We Hope to Make It Through the Next Year and the Rest of Our Lives in One Piece: “We are Groot.”