by Matt J. Popham
Best-Of-the-Year lists have sort of become compulsory in the internet age, but I’ll be honest:
I hate them.
They are always limited and, often, largely arbitrary. No critic in the world – no matter how much time they have or how well-paid they are – can possibly have seen EVERY worthy film, heard EVERY worthy album, etc. And I have significantly less time and less of a salary than most. So, not only can I not even begin to claim that I have seen, heard, read, or even encountered EVERY artistic offering worthy of consideration, the truth is I have barely seen/heard/read ANY of them…
Which means this is not – and should, in no way, be confused with – a “Best-Of-the-Year List.” I can’t even begin to pretend that I’ve absorbed enough of last year’s offerings to be any kind of authority on the subject. No, think of the below as something like an aesthetic travelogue: As I zigged and zagged my way through 2014, these were the releases and publications that made an impression…
I. SPEECHLESS CINEMA
UNDER THE SKIN – Jonathan Glazer’s icy, alien meditation on identity and sensuality features a masterfully layered performance from Scarlett Johansson as an extra-terrestrial predator who becomes lost in her own borrowed skin. A corporeal cousin of Kubrick’s 2001, Under the Skin lingers over the surfaces of its story and central character, exploring the possibilities of both the human and the cinematic form. Full review here.
MR. TURNER – Less a biopic than an impressionistic character study of one of my all-time favorite artists, Mike Leigh’s magnificent Mr. Turner capably steers clear of the clichés that afflict so many films about painters, effectively becoming a dazzling, touching, and unique piece of visual art in its own right. Beautifully portrayed by Timothy Spall, Turner lurches brutishly through the film, grunting and growling inarticulately, and yet, in every scene, is revealed to be a man of tremendous perception, sensitivity, and feeling. The opposite of the stereotypical tortured artist, Leigh’s Turner is a man in love with the light, devotedly translating it into powerful realizations of his inner life. His vivid, passionate paintings are his only true mode of expression, but rather than fetishizing his work, Leigh keeps his focus studiously on the man, brilliantly illustrating the line between deceptive appearances and visions of truth.
LOCKE – An intense, confined portrait of a man in existential free-fall, showcasing the sublime talents of Tom Hardy, Locke was short-sightedly dismissed by a number of critics as a “gimmick” film, due to the fact the action takes place entirely within a moving car. But doing so overlooks both the thematic necessity of the location and the remarkable visual inventiveness of director Stephen Knight, who allows his protagonist to believe he’s in the driver’s seat, while highlighting the illusory nature of so many of his ideas about himself and his choices. Full review here.
CALVARY – All at once, deeply tragic and darkly comic, John Michael McDonagh’s portrait of a lone decent priest struggling to be a good shepherd to his hostile and disillusioned flock in the wake of the Catholic church’s abuse scandal sympathetically questions the value of forgiveness in the modern world. After a former abuse victim threatens to murder him as an act of symbolic vengeance, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle visits each and every troubled member of his small-town Sligo congregation, attempting to offer them absolution before he meets his demise. Gleeson imbues Father James with a charismatic balance of warmth and wisdom, but in a way, it is precisely those characteristics that provoke the ire of those around him. It’s not just that they view him as a representative of a corrupt and crumbling institution; they resent being judged by someone whom, despite their cynicism, they cannot help but see as both a moral arbiter and exemplar. McDonagh has a native’s understanding of just how profoundly the abuse scandal shook Ireland’s cultural foundations, and to his credit, Calvary neither defends nor condemns Catholicism. If anything, the film is critical of any and all sweeping, simplistic judgments, championing a more complex, humanist understanding. And as the haunting finale suggests, if forgiveness is to have any worth at all, it has to go both ways.
GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE – Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most fluent and sophisticated cinematic linguists in the world. A filmmaker who has reinvented himself and his art several times over, the density and intricacy of his artistry has only increased over the decades. So when, at the age of 84, he makes his first foray into 3-D and titles it, “Goodbye to Language,” it’s a safe bet it will be puzzling, challenging, provocative, and significant. Abstract and experimental – even by Godard’s standards – Goodbye to Language tangles narrative film with essay, erratically cross-cutting and interweaving scenes of a couple at the decaying end of an adulterous affair, a wandering canine (played by Godard’s own dog, Roxy), contemporary life in the age of the smartphone, various scenic exteriors, and fragments of newsreels and classic films. There is an assortment of literary quotations, presented dramatically and in voice over, and even an enigmatic hint of unexplained political intrigue. If it all sounds like cinematic cryptography, well… It’s Godard, so… Yes, it is. But that’s part of the point. His trademark captions and title cards functioning as something of a cipher, what emerges seems to be a series of juxtapositions and paradoxes dissecting the breakdown of communication on both an intimate and a global scale. There is a recurring motif of contrasted extremes – Nature vs. Metaphor, Reality vs. Language, Infinity vs. Zero, Nudity vs. Attire, Sex vs. Death – which are then exposed as false dichotomies (it’s worth remembering – though never specifically mentioned – that in France, sex is often colloquially referred to as “le petit mort”). The film warns us that language can shape reality to its own ends, but then reminds us that the reverse is also true, ultimately suggesting that our greatest misunderstanding may be the way in which we define language in the first place. Summarizing Godard, especially in an encapsulated review, can never be anything other than hopelessly reductive, but if there’s a message to be distilled, I think it’s something like this: Those who do not understand the nature of language, or the language of nature (if, in fact, they are even distinct entities), are condemned to be enslaved by both.
GONE GIRL – David Fincher’s GONE GIRL is a dull, dour, sluggish adaptation of a sharp, fast, and funny book. It’s not just that the characters, who should be grinning, self-satisfied narcissists, come off like they just swallowed handfuls of barbiturates, or that Flynn’s screenplay of her book feels rushed rather than distilled. It’s that Fincher has taken a book ABOUT emptiness and made it into an EMPTY movie. A glossy, blank bit of celluloid as hollow as the houses and humans that haunt Flynn’s novel. There’s nothing more disheartening than watching one of your favorite directors phone it in…
II. FEARLESS TELEVISION
TRUE DETECTIVE – Those who eagerly tuned-in to Nic Pizzolatto’s dark, spiraling noir series, obsessively following its trail of obscure, occult literary breadcrumbs, and expecting a mind-blowing payoff to the show’s murder mystery weren’t just missing the point. They missed the show. A riveting portrait of two men fighting monsters, internally and externally, and staring into abysses, within and without, True Detective never presented itself as a typical Whodunit or even a typical police procedural. And that was its strength. Boasting career-zenith performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, for all its familiar genre trappings, True Detective’s true narrative focus was the relationship between its dueling protagonists. Its true reveal was the smallness – and the importance – of their victory. And its true investigations were not forensic or judicial, but philosophical, existential, and deeply human.
THE AFFAIR – The entertainment industry usually takes a simple, reductive stance when it comes to infidelity. And sitting for five minutes in front of Hagai Levy’s and Sarah Treem’s The Affair will leave you with no doubt as to why. A complex and agonizing vivisection of two imploding families, and the infidelity that connects and divides them, The Affair refuses to sit in moral judgment of its characters, unflinchingly poring over the pain, the conflict, the confusion that motivates – and results from – one spouse cheating on another. Dominic West and Ruth Wilson are both astonishing, simultaneously evoking our sympathy and our outrage. And someone please give Maura Tierney her long overdue Emmy already! The season finale did little to nothing to resolve the, at times, awkward murder mystery framing device, but I’m hoping that – as with True Detective – its function is symbolic and narratively inconsequential. The series’ gloves-off confrontation with the complicated truths of ordinary domestic life are so powerfully affecting that veering into noir would be an infidelity in its own right. As it stands, The Affair is something unique and challenging. All at once poetic and raw, it is heartbreaking, hard to watch, and worth every torturous minute.
COSMOS: A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY – I chuckled every time I heard someone dismiss last year’s sequel to/update of Carl Sagan’s milestone miniseries as “over-produced.” Visually resplendent, strikingly detailed, and stunningly beautiful, Cosmos’ effects-heavy aesthetic captured the breathtaking, awe-inspiring, infinite complexity and elegance of the universe better than any onscreen rendering since 2001: A Space Odyssey (the show’s updated subtitle even offers a knowing, confident nod to Kubrick’s masterpiece). You might as well call the universe, itself, over-produced. I was less good-humored about the controversies surrounding the program’s alleged anti-religious agenda. On the one hand, it’s nothing short of appalling that anyone, in this day and age, lives in such willful, fearful ignorance that they could feel so threatened by a simple science program. On the other hand, they’re right to be afraid. Because, for all the even-handed denials on the part of Cosmos’ creators, there IS a not-so-subtle agenda evident in the show’s narrative framework: Each episode pointedly chronicles the struggles of science and scientists against the forces of fear, ignorance, and repression. Those forces aren’t always religious, but they often are. Other times, they are political. Sometimes both or neither. But they exist in every age, up to and including our own. And Cosmos, by design, fearlessly takes them on, making it more than just a dazzling, inspiring, and informative look at the universe (which would have been enough), but also an ideological call-to-arms, championing such virtues as curiosity, exploration, and discovery. Which really shouldn’t be such a controversial stance to take…
LAST WEEK TONIGHT – I have not kept up with Last Week Tonight as avidly as I would like. But I saw enough of it last year to know that the bar for political commentary/satirical news shows has been raised, and raised incredibly high. Former Daily Show correspondent (and once-upon-a-time expected heir apparent to Jon Stewart) John Oliver hasn’t revolutionized the format so much as the tone. Taking full advantage of the freedom offered by HBO, Oliver unforgivingly skewers media, government, and even his audience, mocking the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, deceits, and, above all, the passivity and intellectual laziness exhibited by anyone claiming to take an interest in the world or its welfare, with his singularly British mix of bite, absurdity, and charm. Oliver doesn’t just want us laughing, he wants us angry – at ourselves, above all – about the state of things, and gleefully provokes us into participating in his inspired, activist jape. I don’t know that satire can save the world, but once a week – for half an hour, at least – I believe it’s possible.
GAME OF THRONES (Season 4) – Game of Thrones is so consistent in quality and cohesive in its storytelling, it’s difficult to praise one season over another, especially for those of us who haven’t read the books. That said, while most will probably have the shock and awe of Season 3’s “Red Wedding” forever seared into their consciousness, I found Season 4 to be far more wrenching, affecting, and memorable. No matter how many corruptions, cruelties, inequities, and injustices we witness, the series’ somehow never loses its ability to shock and upset us with reminders that Westeros is just as cruel, corrupt, and unjust as the world we live in. And episode 8, “The Mountain and the Viper,” might be the best and most disturbing episode of the series so far, with its stark (haha) rendering of the vagaries of human brutality, and its “pride-goeth-before the fall” reminder of just how easy it is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory…
DOCTOR WHO (Season 8) – And, of course, I have to mention Doctor Who. What began as a shaky, uncertain regeneration – for both the Doctor and the series, itself – eventually solidified into one of Doctor Who’s strongest and most unique to date. I will forever miss Matt Smith (in the same way that I will always miss Tom Baker and Christopher Eccleston), but Peter Capaldi has done a superlative job, creating a Doctor that is uncommon, complicated, and compelling. While most have focused on his rough, gruff, Glasgow exterior, what has struck me most is the uncertain, childlike vulnerability that lurks behind it. He is unsure of himself, in a way that only a newly regenerated Time Lord can be, not only questioning who he is, but what it means, on a larger level, to be the Doctor. And the writing has kept pace with him, each episode offering obstacles and opponents that challenge his – and our – conceptions of how the Doctor should react and respond. But if Capaldi’s Doctor has emerged as the show’s unlikely heart, Jenna Coleman’s Clara has stepped up to the plate as its soul. Finally allowed to be a fully-formed, three dimensional character, Coleman’s Clara matches Capaldi’s Doctor in fire, cleverness, and heroism, often saving him from himself, as he saves the universe from various threats. She has become as much a partner as a companion, and their dysfunctional father-daughter chemistry has the potential to evolve into one of the most interesting and irresistible pairings in the series’ history…
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Season 2) – Season 1 pulled off an amazing feat of subverted expectation by putting us in the shoes of our protagonist – an unlikely, white, middle-class prison inmate – and making us gradually grow to despise her, and love the initially intimidating inmates around her, by the season finale. Season 2 continues the story but, seemingly, without direction or purpose. With no prejudices or preconceptions left to tackle, the series is just spinning its narrative wheels.
III. LOSSLESS MUSIC
LE BUTCHERETTES, “Cry is for the Flies” – Not a surprise to anyone, as I have been overselling this band and this album to anyone who will listen (and many who would probably prefer not to) all year long. Teri Suarez’s uncompromising descent into the maelstrom of guilt, grief, rage, and self-doubt she has carried since the death of her father is not only one of the best albums of the year. It is a relentless, challenging sonic statement heralding her artistic maturation and cementing her status as a musical force to be reckoned with. Forget Best of the Year. It’s one of the Best of the Decade. Full review here.
BENJAMIN BOOKER, “Benjamin Booker” – A 25-year old, Florida-born, New Orleans transplant, Benjamin Booker burst out of the bayou in 2014 to become the most badass bluesman this side of the century. Starting with the stripped-down style and structure of Delta blues, attacking it with a punk ferocity, adding hearty helpings of grunge’s sludge and gravel, and occasionally slowing it down to engage in shoegazing introspection, Booker’s phenomenal rough-and-tumble debut simultaneously evokes Gun Club, the White Stripes, and Junior Kimbrough while also sounding entirely new. “Always Waiting” sounds like juke joint blues jumped up on Dexedrine, while the driving “Have You Seen My Son” slides into a thumping, acid rock jam, and the aching (and fantastically titled) “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” breaks your heart before erupting into a light-speed blues-punk coda. Balancing raspy howls with thick, soulful whispers, his guitar buzzing and crunching as effectively as it wails, it might be hyperbole to say that Booker’s reinventing the blues, but he’s certainly reinvigorating it.
TV ON THE RADIO, “Seeds” – Last year, TV on the Radio bounced back from the death of their bassist, Gerard Smith, with what might be their best album yet. Focused, intense, mournful, and soulful, “Seeds” boasts some of their most tightly structured, purposeful songs, while sacrificing none of their trademark ambience or evocative atmosphere. From the dejected groove of “Happy Idiot” to the heartrending acknowledgements of “Love Stained,” to the expansive, philosophical reassurances of “Ride,” to the weathered attempts at hope in the haunting “Trouble,” every song features a range of beautifully layered sonic stylings drawn from the band’s diverse musical influences, folding them into a poignant, textured chronicle of crisis, coping, and catharsis. Simultaneously a dirge and a new beginning, “Seeds” is a powerful document of a band struggling with their future…
WHITE LUNG, “Deep Fantasy” – Not since Western Addiction has a band so successfully resurrected the blunt-force attack of 1980’s hardcore, channeling it through today’s more melodic punk aesthetic. After two solid, eardrum battering efforts (2010’s “It’s the Evil” and 2012’s “Sorry”), “Deep Fantasy” finds magnetic frontwoman Mish Way and frenetic guitarist Kenneth William striking a sublime balance, trading command of each song, weaving new textures, structures, and counterpoints into their churning, sonic onslaught. William’s nimble, upper-register frenzy slices and dices its way through the Gatling gun assault of Hether Fortune’s and Anne-Marie Vassilou’s rhythm section, while Way’s voice hardly ever breaks, eschewing the raw-throated histrionics of hardcore in favor of a flat, disaffected snarl. Her biting restraint anchors the band’s theatrical chaos, playing as a novel stand of punk defiance in a world gone mad: “You will not make me lose control.”
THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS, “Brill Bruisers” – The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman has described the supergroup’s latest effort as “a celebration album… After periods of difficulty, I am at a place where nothing in my life is dragging me down…” The result is a cascade of glorious, galvanizing music, and the New Pornographers’ most consistent – and consistently enjoyable – album since 2003’s “Electric Version.” Which is not to say the album is uniformly or gratingly cheerful. “Champions of Red Wine” is achingly wistful and melancholic, as is the brief, but affecting, “Another Drug Deal of the Heart.” But if tracks like “Dancehall Domine” and “You Tell Me Where” don’t bring you exultantly to your feet, you might be missing a music appreciation gene or two. Even the frequently meditative Dan Bejar gets into the groove with the eccentrically catchy “War on the East Coast.” In fact, the only truly sad note on “Brill Bruisers” is the fact that it marks the swansong of Pornographers’ percussionist and secret weapon, Kurt Dahle, who announced his departure after the album’s release. Dahle has been the high-energy, propulsive heartbeat of the band since “Mass Romantic,” and it’s hard to imagine their signature sound without him.
STIFF LITTLE FINGERS, “No Going Back” – After seven years of struggle, the departure of longtime bassist Bruce Foxton, and the return of founding bass player Ali McMordie, Belfast’s punk veterans Stiff Little Fingers finally managed to release “No Going Back” last year. Their first album in over a decade, it was well worth the wait: a full-blooded, energetic record, brimming with punk passion, but produced with professional rock ‘n’ roll polish. Often dismissively described as “the Irish Clash,” SLF was always both more musically accomplished and more sincere than their British cousins, and “No Going Back” is a testament to their ability and integrity. Bursting with stylish riffs, singalong choruses, and stinging lyrics straight from Jake Burns’ scrappy social conscience, the album shows off everything that made the band great, without ever becoming mired in the past. The band has grown and evolved musically, but (minus “Throwing It All Away” which is appallingly reminiscent of Starship) sacrificed none of their edge. “Looks to me like nothing’s changed,” Burns sneers on the caustic “Since Yesterday Was Here.” But it’s not entirely true. As their latest effort proves, some things have gotten better…
BUDOS BAND, “Burnt Offering” – Losing not an ounce of the funk/soul strut that has been their claim to fame, “Burnt Offering” finds The Budos Band incorporating the ominous tones of early-70’s Sabbath-esque doom-and-gloom rock into their sound. The blend is so seamless – to say nothing of superlative – it’s kind of a wonder no one attempted such a hybrid before. All at once hip-shaking and earthquaking, “Burnt Offerings” is deep, dark, heavy, and irresistibly infectious. Given the choice, this album would provide the soundtrack to my every move…
WU-TANG CLAN, “A Better Tomorrow” – In light of the creative conflicts that surrounded its recording and release, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that “A Better Tomorrow” sounds so muddled and awkward. Despite the RZA’s increasingly lush, layered, and soulful production (we’re two decades and a long way from the sharp, punchy punctuations of “Enter the Wu-Tang”), the Clan never really seems to come together in any unified, cohesive way. Rather than dramatically diverse, the lyrical offerings seem disjointed, and even a bit half-hearted – perhaps the result of some members’ ambivalence towards the project and the artistic differences that have only grown during the Clan’s downtime. There are some great tracks – “Ruckus in B-Minor” and “Ron O’Neal” among them – but, for most of the album, they just can’t seem to get it together. Though it seems unlikely, “A Better Tomorrow” leaves one hoping that there might, in fact, be one. Because it would be a shame if the best hip-hop act of the past twenty years were to simply crumble away…
IV. BROKEN BOOKS
I’m a hard-sell on contemporary fiction, but thanks to various recommendations, I made quite a few forays into more recent, and even current, literary offerings in the last year. Most notably, I finally got around to reading Zadie Smith, who has ceased to be my favorite author that I’ve never read, and become, instead, one of my favorite authors of all time. But, though I read a lot of her in the last year, she didn’t publish anything, so I’ll have to discuss her brilliance elsewhere… Nonetheless, I did come across a few books from 2014 that really struck me…
A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride – Despite making a number of “Best of the Year” lists, Eimear McBride’s debut novel has developed a reputation as a “difficult” book. And it is. But not because of the alleged “stream of consciousness” style that seems so off-putting to so many readers. What makes McBride’s novel difficult is that it is a harrowing, heartbreaking, 205-page emotional assault. Chronicling the coming of age of a young Irish girl and her relationship to her brain damaged older brother, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing brutally pummels you from page 1 and never lets up, immersing you in its vivid, relentless renderings of trial and trauma, conflict and confusion. Though certainly influenced by Joyce, McBride’s prose is not so much stream of consciousness as the broken, inchoate syntax of a wounded mind struggling to find coherence in a chaotic world, veering between sense and sensuality, comprehension and contempt. Masterfully crafted, her writing flows with a liquid logic, plunging into smeared emotions, erupting sporadically into poetry, and receding into tragic fragments. It’s a book you need to give yourself over to entirely, letting it carry you into its evocative, cathartic depths.
DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jennifer Offill – Far less divisive than McBride’s book, though no less interesting stylistically, is Jennifer Offill’s staccato self-portrait in the throes of domestic crisis, Dept. of Speculation. Much has been made recently of our contemporary culture’s inability to engage in deep, immersive reading, and intentionally or not, Offill has offered an answer. Dept. of Speculation is a novel written in fragments… Or maybe aphorisms… (Status updates…? Tweets…?) It seems almost designed to be digested in bits and bites, over quick cups of coffee, in the all-too-brief moments between the all-consuming obligations of our modern lives. Whether, and in what ways, her approach is inherently a good or bad thing is debatable; the real question is whether it’s effective. And while Offill’s book exhibits so many of the aspects I despise so much in post-modern literature – self-conscious, self-centered, self-satisfied – there’s no denying that it makes for an engaging, curiously affecting read. Somehow, her roughly sketched anecdotes, blunt self-examinations, and prayers to Rilke cohere into a cross-section of an intellect desperately groping to find method and meaning in its suffering.
ME, MYSELF, AND WHY by Jennifer Ouellette – Bringing self-interest down to earth, Jennifer Ouellette’s Me, Myself, and Why circumnavigates the latest advances in the science of identity, examining the ways in which we formulate our ideas of ourselves. From the information coded in our genomes, to the questionable merit of personality metrics, to the virtual selves we create in cyberspace, and even the ways in which hallucinogens affect our perceptions of individuality, Ouellette thoroughly and entertainingly investigates and questions some of our most instinctive notions of who we are and what makes us that way. And if you really want to have your hair blown back, I recommend reading Ouellette’s book back-to-back with Bruce Hood’s 2012 offering, The Self Illusion, which covers some of the same ground, but delves more deeply into the science of its subject, revealing our unified concept of selfhood to be little more than a cognitive construct assembled from discrete internal processes. You’ll never see yourself the same way again.
ETHICS WITHOUT MORALS by Joel Marcks – It’s not really fair to call Marcks’ book a disappointment. It’s a scholarly, insightful, well-written, expertly argued, and best of all, deeply personal deconstruction of morality that offers a rational and realistic conception of ethics as an alternative. A reformed Kantian who had a philosophical epiphany late in life, Marcks attacks his subject energetically and exhaustively. Even, dare I say, exhaustingly. And that’s the thing… If you’re a disillusioned Kantian – or, really, a disillusioned moralist of any kind – looking for a new ethical framework, I imagine Marcks’ book is pretty revelatory and inspiring. But for those of us with our philosophical roots firmly planted in Nietzsche, existentialism, and naturalism, reading Marcks’ book can be a frustrating, wearying effort. Glad as we may be that he’s come around, we watch him take the long way to get there, building arguments of great length and breadth to arrive at common sense, rational positions where we’ve been impatiently waiting. It’s not that it isn’t a worthwhile book, or that it’s lacking in compelling ideas. It’s just that those ideas aren’t always quite as groundbreaking as he seems to think they are.