Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best of 2014

It's that time again! What time is that? you ask. The time when Mark shares all of the best stuff he came across this year, most of which is actually last year's stuff because he's a graduate student and luxuries like being culturally cutting-edge are for actual real people with lives and money. Nevertheless, even in an otherwise dogshit year like 2014, I found some pretty rad stuff you should check out. Here it is! On with the stuff!


Films
The best film I saw this year:

Her (2013) - I've often thought that there have been only three truly great science fiction films of the 21st century so far: Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, and Lars Von Trier's Melancholia. This year, though we got a fourth. Spike Jonze's Her isn't just an amazing science fiction film, it's an amazing comment on the world we live in, period. The best way to describe it was that watching it the first time made me feel the same way I did the first time I saw Fight Club. For some people, this will either mean nothing or will mean something negative, but for those GenX/Millennial cusp-ers like me who know what I'm talking about, this film interrogates the world in a way that almost no film ever does. A brilliant script, terrific acting by Phoenix, Johanssen, and Amy Adams, and a premise that manages to say something profound about the loneliness of a digital world in perpetual Recession, while simultaneously providing the best critique I've ever seen of the Millennial generation. A once-in-a-decade film, and a must-see.

Other excellent choices:
Under the Skin (2013) - I almost gave Under the Skin a tie-spot with Her but I decided not to for one very good reason: Whereas I've seen Her about 20 times, I'm not in a hurry to re-watch Under the Skin. Not because it isn't brilliantly acted (it is) or incredibly well-directed (oh baby, is it), but because it's absolutely terrifying. Not in a horror-movie sort of way, either. Have you seen, for example, Lars Von Trier's Anti-Christ? It's that level of terrifying. It makes you want to crawl out of your skin to make that deeply unsettling feeling it generates stop. Very few films have this effect on me, and comparisons of Jonathan Glazer to Stanley Kubrick are not at all unwarranted. See it, because it's incredible, but be ready for it to unnerve the shit out of you.

The Wall (2013) - A gorgeous adaptation of Marlen Haushofer's book Die Wand, which I also discovered this year and included here below. It's not a perfect adaptation of the book, but this doesn't in any way take away from the brooding and innovative photography, and the tremendous acting by Martina Gedeck. While a dark and slow meditation on solitude and connectedness with the world, it still manages to somehow feel light and enjoyable alongside Under the Skin. If you're a fan of Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler but you're sick to death of wading through the endless sludge of rah-rah YA dystopias and their mediocre film adaptations, this film (and especially the book it's adapted from) will be a breath of fresh air to you.



Film that was way better than it had any right to be:
Europa Report (2013) - I was pretty sure I was in for another generic low-budget crap-fest when I queued up Europa Report on Netflix about a week after I wrote last year's "best-of" list, but I was very wrong about that. It is sort of low-budget in a hard-to-define way, but it's also incredibly smart, claustrophobically thrilling, and succeeds aesthetically far beyond the quiet release it got. Everyone raved about Gravity which I thought was a fluff-heavy and forgettable film, but Europa Report I will watch again for sure. I won't ruin the plot for you but if you want to watch something smart, different, and with some genuine bite, Europa Report delivers.




Books
The best books I read this year:

(NOTE: So this was an unusual year for me. With almost every good novel or short story I read being written before 1900 there's only a few of note that you either haven't already read or, as in the case of things like Dracula, need my recommendation to go ahead and pick up on your own. I DID read a few particularly great books this year, though, and here they are.)
Ignatius Donnelly’ Caesar's Column (1890)
Just when I thought I'd read every (or even most) of the early American dystopian novels, I finally had a chance to read Caesar's Column which had been on my reading list for years. It's a little bit hokey, a little bit scary, a heaping dollop of satirical, and surprisingly a whole lot of good plain fun. Doomsday airships, poison-knife wielding revolutionary sex slaves, secret societies of unselfconsciously racialized everymen, and an apocalyptic distaster-porn ending that puts Stephen King to shame. What's not to love? A novel just as crazy (and crazily awesome) as its author, and definitely worth your time.




Cormack McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005)
This book as the distinction of being one of the few novels which have actually endangered my personal safety. I was listening to it while driving to Milwaukee and I was so engrossed, hands on the steering wheel but mind a thousand miles away, that I very nearly ran out of gas in the middle of Route 94. I mean the gas light was blinking and the car was dinging and trying to flash and get my attention and I noticed that the gas pedal suddenly didn't accelerate the car anymore. I was literally running on fumes. You will be too. You were warned.



Ben Tanzer's Lost In Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again (2014)
People who know me know I had a bumpy Spring term at UWM; personal stuff, financial worries, anxiety over high-pressure hoops to jump through for the program, a bottomless reading list, etc... Anyway, after Spring term I found I could barely stomach even looking at a book for about three months, and one of the few things I did successfully read over the summer was Ben Tanzer's new book about fatherhood. It's a fast read, and a humanizing one, and what father-slash-overworked grad student couldn't use a dose of that? If you liked Ben's other work, you'll love this.


Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903)

I had read this book before as a kid, but I discovered on re-reading it this year that it actually does hold up to the hype that it continues to generate 112 years later. I remember reading once that Junot Diaz said Octavia Butler was his favorite author because she'd written three "perfect" novels. I'm not sure if such a thing as a "perfect" novel exists, but if it does I'd be inclined to hesitantly point to The Call of the Wild as a candidate. "The pride of trace and trail were his, and sick unto death he could not bear that another dog should do his work." Amen, Jack.


Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand (The Wall) (1963)

A novel with a very simple premise: a woman visiting friends on top of a mountain discovers that a transparent wall now separates her from the rest of the world, which appears, from what little she can see through the wall, to have ended. A deeply moving meditation on human-ness, solitude, aging, stewardship, and responsibility. This one will stay with you for weeks after you read it. Like I mentioned above, if you're as bored as I am with YA dystopian novels but you've already read everything Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have written, this book is for you.

Other excellent choices:
Herman Melville's Typee, Robert E. Peary's The North Pole; it's discovery in 1909 under the auspices of the Peary Arctic Club. Frank Norris's McTeague. Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. William F. Nolan's Logan's Run, J.M Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why we Expect More From our Technology and Less from Each Other, and Margaret Morganroth Gullette's Aged by Culture, Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey, and Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Theater
Favorite stage show of the year:
It isn't a new play, and it was one of the only plays I saw this year, but This is Our Youth directed by Anna D. Shapiro (full disclosure, I'm related through family to Anna) was nevertheless a wonderful trip through a very Generation-X-friendly postmodern wasteland. Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin have long been favorite actors of mine, and they didn't disappoint live, though the Chicago-native firecracker Tavi Gevinson positively lit up the stage and gave them a run for their money. Highly recommended.





Games
Favorite video game of the year:
I toyed with the idea of reducing this annual list to just two things, because those two things more than any other had the biggest impact on me this year, the film Her and this video game, Naughty Dog Studios' The Last of Us. If you play one video game this year, you MUST play The Last of Us. The story concerns an aging smuggler/killer and his adopted daughter Ellie as they traverse a long-collapsed United States thirty years after a super-virus kills most of the people on earth. They trek through the burned out and overgrown wreckage of 21st century suburbia, trying to scavenge to stay alive, but more importantly, trying to bridge the gap of age and era that separates them and the horrific demons of their pasts. Be warned that this game is incredibly, almost unrelentingly bleak, and the first twenty minutes will have you sobbing with the horror of everything these two have to deal with. If you've ever read Cormack McCarthy's The Road or you know why Carol tells Lizzie to look at the flowers in The Walking Dead, you will find more, much more, of the same here. There are no easy "good" or "bad" characters, just a world of desperate, awful collapse as inevitable as it is terrifying.

Many things about The Last of Us are utterly groundbreaking: the game is easily the most photorealistic video game I've ever played, with environments, objects, and characters rendered with such care that they outstrip even the heart-stopping visuals of games like Skyrim, and all but the most recent Pixar films. The Last of Us feels incredibly real, from the curve of a beanbag in the corner of a forgotten teenager's bedroom to the way that the controller vibrates heavily when your character falls or punches something. It is a visceral, violent, and gripping game that you will want to play in the dark in the middle of the night with the best sound system you can get your hands on. Immersive doesn't even begin to cover it. It can be loud, frightening, and cacophonous one moment, and then hauntingly silent and intimate the next; The Last of Us is a milestone of modulated storytelling for the medium of video games, and one whose major downside is that it makes all other games seem instantly shallow, obsolete, and one-dimensional in comparison.





I was so blown away by Joel and Ellie's story, and this game in general, that I immediately made plans to include it in the book of critical essays I'm working on regarding narratives of parenting in austere times. More on this soon, but it suffices to say that the subtexts in play include biting comments on fatherhood, stewardship of civilization, and what it feels like to inherit the ruin of a once-great civilization, ideas spectacularly relevant and timely just now, and presented here with a narrative flair unlike I've ever seen in any other video game. I can't stress enough how amazing this game is, and I would almost go so far as to say it's worth purchasing a PlayStation console solely for opportunity to play it.

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