2016 Book, Music, & Film Highlights

With 2017 two-thirds over, I feel it’s safe to put up my 2016 book, music, and movie/TV highlights without fear of temporal-proximity bias…

Books

In some sense the “best” books I read in 2016 were—

  • The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford by Hansen. Novelization of the end of Jesse James, later turned into an excellent film. Difficult to read James in anything but Brad Pitt’s voice & face now, but that’s ok, the movie was pretty good. The novel has a somewhat detached, documentary feel to it, just like the movie does. That works well though for the gritty, mean, enclosed lives all the characters lead. Sits well with James’ belief in out-of-the-body travel as well. The climax comes somewhat early, but the closing sections are just as good. They’re basically a quick retelling of Deadwood, with different historical characters. Very different themes throughout the book from an actual “Western.” There’s relatively little about the landscape, freedom, etc.. These guys are just all about easy money and killing, and they die cheaply and often because of it. The really big question set out implicitly by the novel is just how much did James plan and foster this end? Not just at the last moments, but from the very start?
  • No Country For Old Men by McCarthy. Excellent read about a drug deal gone bad and the multi-layered pursuit set off across city and desert. The film portrays the novel impressively and very faithfully. Notably, like in his other books, McCarthy does a lot with syntax and presentation to make the whole setting feel really off, and I think the film does similar via techniques like using music very sparingly. Both of them do a lot of things like only show you the aftermath of a scene, not the actual fight, etc.. In the film version there’s basically 1 minor character cut, a little bit of backstory cut from the Sheriff, and 1 death changed in a small but critical detail. Otherwise it’s almost identical in any meaningful comparison.

However, the book that stuck with me the most is:

  • Flight Behavior by Kingsolver. An interesting novel about climate change as well as science and elite society from the view of the downtrodden. I didn’t know anything about the story going in, so I had no idea where it was going until a good bit in. I recommend that approach to heighten the soft air of rural fantasy. By the end the novel gets very preachy and overt, but overall it’s still interesting.

Flight Behavior definitely gets too heavy handed by the end. However I really liked the perspective of poor rural people looking at not just scientists, but the scientific enterprise. The characters generally all feel well realized and have stuck in mind longer than I expected for such a quiet, uneventful story.

Music

The household pre-k contingent’s vote for music of of the year is Feist’s visit to Sesame Street and subsequent rendition of 1, 2, 3, 4:

New-to-me music I listened to the most this year includes:

“Best” of the year though for me I would have to say are:

Jidenna’s brief appearance was by far the highlight of Netflix’s so-so Luke Cage series, which is how I really came across him (no doubt like many others).

Sleeping At Last is kind of fascinating as a business/music venture. It’s basically one guy who had some early mainstream success promoted by Smashing Pumpkins, but has since backed off into steady, smaller releases. Much of his ongoing commercial success seems to come from covers he does, as well as his own music, being used frequently in TV shows. Along the way though he’s been developing this concept compilation Atlas, which I believe is now spread across multiple volume-years, which includes East and Sun. East to me is a great sketch in the styling of a young children’s book of an adult looking back at life. Sun is the song I’ve found that best captures the feeling of being a parent looking at your child.

Film

Standouts from previous years’ highlights, both Justified and Person of Interest came to an end in 2016. Both actually managed to conclude very satisfactorily. I highly recommend both series in their entirety.

Other quick mentions: I finally saw The Martian and thought it entertaining and shiny, but not super memorable; the book left me feeling the same. The Expanse I really enjoyed and thought it much much better than the novel(s) because it provided more depth and background to a number of characters, e.g., notably the Martians from the Donnager. The Big Short stuck with me due to all the arguably autistic and asocial personalities.

TV

In episodic viewing: Better Call Saul I really liked and thought masterfully done, but have had an extremely hard time following it into Season 2 because Saul is just so relentlessly self-defeating.

I’ve felt somewhat similarly about Mr Robot. The first season was incredible and I recommend it highly. It does an excellent job at atmosphere and traditional but just short of annoyingly cliched hackers. The ostensible big reveal was too heavily telegraphed to be actually surprising, but the whole show is so well done that its appeal wasn’t diminished. It’s still worth revisiting earlier scenes and re-evaluating in that context. All that said, I have not yet watched the follow-on season(s) because I just don’t know if they’re necessary. Sure there’s more plot to unravel, but do I really care? The show is all about characters, not plot, and I feel like I already got from them what I wanted.

Sidenote: For a very good 7-minute riff on the hackers/finance side of Mr Robot, check out this Axel Thesleff music video for Bad Karma:

Movies

Rounding out my highlights for 2016 are two really excellent movies—

Rogue One. My favorite Star Wars movie, and possibly the best one. A timely recovery from the deeply lackluster second half of Force Awakens.

On first viewing I thought Rogue One moved too fast and there was both too much crammed in and yet not enough material. Subsequently though I’ve revisited that and think what’s there is largely what should be there. The movie is essentially a classic ensemble WW2 movie from the early ’60s, but with robots and lasers and executed with modern effects and pacing. A ton of character background isn’t needed, and if you watch closely we do get just enough for each of the main figures. We see Cassian kill two Rebel-aligned people. Chirrut notes that Baze used to be the most devout, and now the latter is clearly fighting heartbreak with jokes and pretending the temple didn’t fall. Rook we know a lot about: He was an Imperial pilot, he spent time with Galen, he had a conversion just like tons of famous Rebel figures. There is more supported explicitly by the text of the movie than it might at first seem. It just moves along so quickly that it’s easy to miss.

That said, I do think the movie needed just a few minutes of Jyn fighting with Gerrera and his terrorists, establishing her as both a true Rebel and a natural leader. Her emergence at the end as a militant freedom fighter and inspiring figure then wouldn’t be an abrupt shift but rather a return to her roots and neglected abilities. Again, you can see some of this in what is actually present in the movie, e.g., how heads turn in the transport headed in to the final battle when she says she fought alongside Gerrera. But that background could stand to be conveyed on screen more fully. It would also flesh out the rich sketch of Gerrera and his supporting figures quite a lot.

That shortcoming aside, Rogue One is a great, self-contained, satisfying story that is all the better for not being required to leave enough openings for continued spin-offs and sequels. It fits almost perfectly into A New Hope, setting the stage for that story and filling in many details to reward fans (e.g., the death of Red 5 creating a slot in the pilot roster for Luke), but stands very well on its own as a classic ensemble war movie set in the Star Wars universe. Bonus points for the female lead and ethnic character diversity.

Arrival. I saw this movie somewhat randomly, and don’t think it really needs to be seen in theaters but was glad I did. A quiet, understated film that really has a lot going on. A number of scenes really stuck with me well afterward, most especially the pivotal scene with the Chinese general at the party. This was an instant sci-fi classic that should also have broader appeal.

A small but important note, I appreciated that the aliens are vague and yet very concrete. There’s a very fine balance to this kind of alien presence and I think most movies don’t do nearly as well. Far too often they’re either too abstract or too human, too understandable or too random. Giant elephant-skinned squid things in the mist is among the best presentations I’ve seen for this kind of story.

It should also not go unemphasized that this is a movie about communication. Of course up front it’s about communicating with the aliens. But again and again Arrival hits that theme in big and small ways: The governments all cutting off discussion with each other, the troops not knowing what’s going on, the Chinese general keying in on his wife’s last words. Most importantly, much of the subtext is about Ian’s inability to communicate and express himself. This gets hits just a couple times, quietly, most notably when he explicitly says something to the effect of if he had to do it all over again he wishes he would express himself better, and again when it becomes clear they break up because he can’t talk about how Louisa could have their baby knowing what would happen. This thick layering of the theme of communication elevates Arrival from a very good sci-fi movie to a good movie above genre.

Bonus points again for the female scientist lead. On that note, Arrival is an excellent heir to Contact, which over time has unexpectedly become one of my favorite movies. They’re remarkably similar without in any way being duplicative: Two great sci-fi movies, with strong female scientist leads, that are all about communication both in the surface story and in the sub-plot relationships between people. Each warrants both repeat and general audience viewing.

It came somewhat unheralded out of nowhere, but I found Arrival deeply satisfying and engrossing, and it was certainly my movie highlight of 2016.

 

2015 Movie Highlights

I mostly wrote this early in 2016 and never got around to finishing it. Now that we’re almost into 2017, I feel comfortable saying that any trace of late-in-the-year bias must have been eradicated by now, so I can safely evaluate and reveal my movie and TV highlights for 2015. As usual these are not necessarily new, but merely new to me.

Sidenotes

First, a couple items not on the “new for 2015” list—one in a good way, one bad.

X-Files

One small mention, not a new highlight, is that I once more watched through the X-Files oeuvre. It remains excellent. My favorite episode continues to be S7E17: “all things.” It’s arguably hippy-dippy and soft compared to the vast majority of other episodes, relatively uneventful on the surface, and mostly revolves around a previous relationship of Scully’s and so-called “feelings” that I guess people have while not fighting aliens and monsters. But I really like how it perfectly slips in the reveal that Mulder and Scully are together now, instantly normalizing what’s effectively the culmination of the series, the emotional payoff for the whole thing. It also cements the series as being decisively about Scully, no matter how much more Fox paid Duchovny. Notably, this episode was the first and only directed by Anderson herself.

Scully and Mulder Netflix-and-chill between alien invasions.

Scully and Mulder Netflix-and-chill between alien invasions.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Another sidenote, notably missing from my highlights is Stars Wars: The Force Awakens. The first third or so of the movie I thought was good, interesting and engaging with a lot of neat worldbuilding in the background. Then most of that got thrown away in favor of replaying Episode IV. The first time I saw the movie I thought it was incredibly boring and was literally looking at my watch to see how much more there was. My expectations having been re-calibrated, the next go in theaters was better. But still, I rate it on my scale somewhere between an 8, “Definitely a good movie, but maybe not quite engaging enough or a little flat.” and a 7, “An ok movie; watchable, entertaining, not something to really come back to.” I am though excited about the prominent and even action-oriented roles for several female characters.

Honorable Mentions

A couple movies all got credit for being great, quiet character studies in 2015:

  • The Station Agent. A surprisingly compelling, essentially plot-free view of a bunch of quirky people forming a small community surrounding an abandoned railway station.
  • Robot and Frank. A good exploration of aging and robotic personalities as the titular Frank “befriends” Robot and brings the latter into his life of crime.
  • All Is Lost. Notable for having only one on-screen character, essentially no dialog, and basically a single set, this is a really good disaster movie of Robert Redford lost in a sea of both water and regrets.

Another honorable mention is Attack on Titan. The series is really goofy at times. Repeatedly in the early going I came super close to turning it off due to all the cliched anime screaming and posturing. Later episodes pull some punches too on a couple characters that weakens it a bit. But the overall story is novel and intriguing and the show manages at times to capture a strongly emotive take on young people caught and dying in a bleak, losing war.

Nope, not a good day.

Nope, not a good day.

Highlights

Moving on now to the top TV and movie highlights of 2015.

Automata

At first I was somewhat conflicted on Automata. My initial review:

8/10. I had big hopes for this, and it has a lot of promise at the start and in the plot overall, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s almost a sketch, with a lot of ends not quite connected and the movie counting on their basic familiarity to carry them through in the viewer’s mind. In places it just doesn’t make a ton of sense either, e.g., why the enabled robots don’t take more actions to defend themselves. The visuals though are really good, the robots look great, and the movie starts off with a lot of promise, basically a sci-fi noir with Spanish actors, made in Bulgaria? After about halfway through though it loses steam. It just doesn’t really quite motivate things enough. Maybe? I’m super torn. The opening is really good though. Not the initial boilerplate about the solar flares, but the police officer’s interaction with the robot and then the black & white montage. Definitely problems and shortcomings, but the more I watch it the more I like it.

Unfortunately it shows that this is a foreign production. It just moves with a different sense of connectedness and necessary context, as if something is lost in translation though I don’t think anything literally is. However, the movie grew on me quite a bit. The effects and scenery are luscious and many of the small details like the rain jackets are great touches. The ennui of the protagonist and really especially his wife is very affecting, and a good frame and foil for the larger plot. That larger plot though is very good, an exploration of our future selves. It’s a great looking sci-fi movie and the themes really stuck with me. I think of it from time to time after not having seen it for some time, so ultimately I give Automata very high marks.

Mad Max: Fury Road

My initial reviews for Mad Max: Fury Road just say “Goddamn.” Each time I saw it.

I’d argue it’s as close to a perfect action movie as you can get: Taut action, inventive world building, a good dose of progressive politics, and incredible technical competency. Cinematography, coloring, editing, effects, in every single aspect of filmmaking it’s a cut above. The action is more understandable, more suspenseful, more meaningful, and more fun than every other such movie of late. The plot is simple, but that’s fine, it merely sets the stage for everything else. And forefront on that stage are very feminist themes. The movie is overt and unapologetic about that, but also doesn’t fall to becoming preachy on the topic. The women just kick ass.

Beyond the movie itself being so good to watch though, I also just greatly enjoyed that fact itself: It was good. Forget being a sequel, this is one after a 30 year hiatus that came storming back in rare form at the top of the game. Competence is so rare in our world that a huge part of what I enjoyed about this movie was just that, its visible, obvious excellence. Every part of Fury Road showed the hand of masters at work, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

Person of Interest

This last bit I’m finally writing in late 2016, so I can say with confidence that the most consequential film new to me in 2015 was a relatively unheralded TV show: Person of Interest. Fury Road was the “best” in terms of production and so on. It didn’t lack in meaning either. There’s really something to small scenes like Furiosa taking the rifle from Max. But Person of Interest is nearest and dearest to my heart.

I had barely heard of it when I started watching, prompted to do so by some Netflix recommendation. I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. Granted, it gets a little goofy at times. Surely there would be a more serious response to the sudden massive epidemic of kneecappings in New York. By midway through season two John’s brain must be turning to mush from all the head injuries. But the show balances action and investigating, has appealing characters with their own moments of depth that you want to see develop, women feature prominently in protagonist and antagonist roles, and the overall plot is great. By and large it starts off as a solid pop culture exploration of the surveillance state. Halfway through the seasons it’s also riffing really well on artificial intelligence and the big question of what comes next, what is the next age. The show is fun to watch, compelling to keep watching more, and I think incorporates some interesting ideas along the way.

Notably, I think the tech is also circumspect and realistic for a TV show. As a sidenote, in a number of scenes you can see there’s “real” code flying by on the screens and so on. It’s all toy code and meaningless of course, but it is actually related: Finch is actually doing trivial database manipulation and so on related to whatever’s going on in the scene, etc.. It’s a nice touch and says something about the advisors behind the show. But, bigger picture, I think the show overall is in a sense fairly realistic. Obviously Finch manages to hack into all sorts of things at impossible speeds, many devices are connected that I would not expect to be in the current day, and so on. But the broad strokes are reasonable. Pervasive networked surveillance is already here. Facial detection and voice recognition is already very useful and getting stronger and more nuanced all the time. The algorithmic learning roots of The Machine seem feasible even from where we stand today. If anything, I don’t think the show goes far enough. For example, there’s only a few uses of drones throughout the entire run, but they’re quite likely to be ubiquitous in the not so distant future.

Long story short, Person of Interest is a rare find that has really stuck with me.

 

2014 Movie Highlights

Six months later, I finally present my list of movie and TV highlights for 2014. I figure that delay just means they’re not biased toward entries from the end of the year. As usual, these are items new to me in 2014 and not necessarily new to the world that year, though in most cases they actually were or nearly were.

Runners Up

Last year was a great one for movies; even the runners-up were strong, including:

  • Bojack Horseman. Amazing intro in the vein of David Lynch, overall tends to not pull punches on Bojack or evolve quite as expected.
  • Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. Much better than I expected, doesn’t pull its big punches.
  • Pain And Gain. Ridiculously off the wall and by far the best Michael Bay movie I’m aware of, with some depth and interesting characters.
  • Blackfish. A compelling documentary; I am not inclined to believe SeaWorld’s counter-claims of fabrication and embellishment.
  • Walking Dead (season 4). Gets back to its character development roots.
  • Her. Deep, lusciously done and very relevant sci-fi but I unfortunately just didn’t actually find it totally engaging.
BoJack_Horseman Seeking_a_Friend_for_the_End_of_the_World_Poster Pain_&_Gain_film_poster
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Honorable Mentions

A few of the more notable movies and shows I saw.

  • Mud. A drama about boys growing up in the poor south and relationships you can’t let go of. The movie is not at all what I expected: By the end it’s pretty gritty and realistic, while I was expecting a lighter romance. It’s surprisingly good, with strong and complex character interactions.
  • In A World. A quirky movie about Hollywood trailer narrators that’s part romantic comedy but mostly family drama. It’s generally not laugh-out-loud funny, though some bits generate chuckles. The characters and plot though have just enough nuance and depth to make it interesting. Plus, ever since seeing it I’ve been applying the catchphrase to all manner of topics—In a world… where we’re out of orange juice!—and people just look at me funny.
  • Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Modern Southern fantasy mythology. A great movie that’s brilliantly done but I think doesn’t have a ton of staying power. It’s more forgettable than it should be. I haven’t decided if it glorifies alcoholism and poverty, but you can’t deny that it treats its subjects as humans.
  • Dredd. Solid live action version of the dystopian fascist comic character. The movie is very contained, largely limiting itself to a single complex within Mega City One. That’s a bit of a bummer, but what we do see of the larger city is well done. The action and plot here are similarly scoped but solid. It’s just a tightly well done, somewhat small action movie that knows its limits and uses them rather than pushing them. What really makes it good though is that both the villain and the co-lead protagonist are pretty good female sci-fi action movie characters, particularly Judge Anderson the psychic cop.
  • Longmire (seasons 1 & 2). A modern Western about a small town sheriff with ties to native beliefs and dark secrets. An excellent show, much better than the novels it is based on due to tighter inter-character drama; the election plot is done much better here. Great blend of different lives, between modern white western, reservation life, and historical native culture. I thought it was going to head darker and take a more Shakespearean turn at several points, and it says something positive that the show easily could have. That would have been good for its intellectual appeal over a season or two, but crippling to the long term likability of several characters so I can understand why the creators pulled back. Still, it retains a fair amount of conflicted tension between several main characters and is good stuff.
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Top Movies & Shows

The most notable movies and shows I saw newly in 2014:

  • Justified (seasons 1–4). A modern Eastern, if that’s a thing, essentially about current day rumrunners, heroin dealers, in Kentucky. Specifically, fabled Harlan County. The later seasons degrade a fair bit as they lose some of their particular Kentucky trappings—once a crime show moves baddy headquarters into a strip club, it’s in pretty generic territory. But they still have solid villains and are very watchable. The first two seasons though are incredible. Very specific to the locale and with wild characters and taut tensions among a number of them. Highly recommended, and definitely better than the novels with tighter character interactions, conflict, and ambiguity, especially around Raylan and his nature and innocence. Walton Goggin’s performance is incredible and the first season really something with a lot of unique characters and settings. The second season follows up by surprisingly managing to introduce equally compelling new antagonists.
  • Django Unchained. Essentially a superhero action antebellum spaghetti Western. Not something to watch over and over. Not even a movie I’d want to watch with people. I can’t really imagine seeing it in a crowd, I’m so sure that most people are not really processing it in any meaningful way. The rampant use of “nigger” throughout strikes me as completely non-controversial, in fitting with the times, but that’s what most people have talked about, carefully ignoring any discussion about slavery or its legacy. To that end, the violence throughout the film is over the top, but used in smart ways: While the violence against the slaveowners is comic, that against the slaves is uniformly not though nonetheless dramatic. Django also seems compromised, limited; he’s doing it all for himself and his wife, not all the slaves. What to make of the d’Artagnan scene? All in all, I think this is a deep movie. That said, it is not without flaws. For example, despite the violence projected against the slaves, I think it significantly pulls its punches at times, particularly so of sexual violence.
  • Edge Of Tomorrow. A time-loop concept piece of a sci-fi invasion action movie. I was not at all disappointed by this after the hype and then rapid fade. Tom Cruise delivers another great sci-fi movie after just missing on his previous effort, the interesting but not great Oblivion.  Edge of Tomorrow is really good. The action is superbly well done. Everything just looks amazing, moves amazing. None of it’s particularly novel I guess but it just looks good, tons of detail to soak in each time—which is a good thing given the structure of the movie. The plot is similarly not super novel but it’s solid. More importantly, there’s just enough to the characters to make it more than just a straight action movie, though the squad admittedly should have been developed more. Combine all three parts—looks, plot, characters—being pretty solid and you’ve got a really good movie. It’s also somewhat notable for having a superstar female combat veteran as the lead fighter and trainer through much of the movie.
  • Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson’s take on junior high summer camp. I watched it at least six times the first week I saw it, and appreciated it only more each time. The music, the colors, the big actions, the small actions, the dialog, it’s perfect. Each of the characters just has so much humanity, and things mostly wrap up well for all without being saccharine.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel. A trip through essentially mid-20th century Eastern Europe courtesy Wes Anderson. This is probably his most polished and complete movie yet. I hesitate to say my favorite, that’s either this or Moonrise Kingdom, but either way it’s extremely good. Again there’s just so much to the characters; Gustave is one of the great ponderables in recent cinema. Combine with Anderson’s usual stylishness and it’s an amazing movie.
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Others

As usual, quick notes on everything I watched are in my log. For the record, the worst movie of the year was Riddick. Previously I was really on board with the franchise’s unique, in-depth mythology, and this entry opens with a really novel sequence of Riddick alone again on an inhospitable planet. But it’s also offensively, disappointingly, and shockingly misogynist and gay hating. Details in my log entry.