If you thought 2014 was a bumper year for movies, and it was, then 2015 is shaping up to be every bit as big and varied with brilliant blockbusters, heartfelt indies and a panoply of other films all jostling for our moviegoing attention.
Given the sheer volume of movies scheduled for release next year, narrowing my list down to just 10 was a big ask but I somehow managed it … barely.
I, of course, reserve the right to rave and wax lyrically about far more than these 10 movies in the ensuing 12 months.
You have been warned – best get your popcorn now and make yourself comfortable …
Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) is bringing Philippe Petit’s astounding August 7, 1974 high-wire walk between the two World Trade Center towers to life in The Walk … Twelve people have walked on the moon, but only one man has ever, or will ever, walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers. Guided by his real-life mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), and aided by an unlikely band of international recruits, Petit and his gang overcome long odds, betrayals, dissension and countless close calls to conceive and execute their mad plan. (synopsis via Coming Soon)
WHY I WANT TO SEE IT: A well told bio flick is always worth spending time going to see especially when it’s about someone as idiosyncratically audacious as Philippe Petit, portrayed by the inestimable Joseph Gordon-Levitt and directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Structured like Annie Hall, the film opens with Shirin (Akhavan) sifting through her life after breaking up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson).
As Shirin is forced to move in with pretentious artists and goes on a string of painful one-night stands, the film flashes back to tell the story of Shirin and Maxine’s relationship in an effort to examine what went wrong. Akhavan, who wrote the film after a real break-up, takes embarrassing details from her own life to create her own unique brand of awkward comedy. (synopsis via Hollywood Reporter)
WHY I WANT TO SEE IT: I am a sucker for any and all awkward indie comedy/dramas especially if they have an entirely fresh take on this well-worn sub-genre like Iranian-American Akhavan does.
Every child comes into the world full of promise, and none more so than Chappie: he is gifted, special, a prodigy. Like any child, Chappie will come under the influence of his surroundings – some good, some bad – and he will rely on his heart and soul to find his way in the world and become his own man. But there’s one thing that makes Chappie different from anyone else: he is a robot. The first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself. His life, his story, will change the way the world looks at robots and humans forever. (synopsis via Coming Soon)
WHY I WANT TO SEE IT: I have loved everything Neil Blomkamp has done so far – the visionary District 9, the greatly underrated Elysium so I have every confidence Chappie will be every bit as touching clever and engrossing.
SNAPSHOT Jupiter Ascending is written and directed by filmmaker siblings Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski, the duo behind Bound, the Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas just last year. In a universe where humans are near the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, a young destitute human woman is targeted for assassination by the Queen of the Universe because her very existence threatens to end the Queen’s reign. (synopsis via First Showing)
WHY I WANT TO SEE IT: I have always a loved big epic truly imaginative films (as opposed to empty blockbusters) and the Wachowskis deliver more often than they don’t. Plus who doesn’t love a big, all-enveloping space opera?
wenty-two years after the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar, off of Central America’s Pacific coast, now features a fully functioning dinosaur theme park, Jurassic World, as originally envisioned by John Hammond. This new park is owned by the Masrani Global Corporation. Owen (Chris Pratt), a member of the park’s on-site staff, conducts behavioral research on the Velociraptors. At the corporation’s request, the park’s geneticists create a genetically-modified hybrid dinosaur to boost visitor attendance, but it soon runs wild on the island. (synopsis via Wikipedia)
WHY I WANT TO SEE IT: The latest instalment in the venerable franchise looks like a return to the past glories of Jurassic Park (1993) plus Christ Pratt! And velociraptors! And no doubt no expense being spared!
The story of Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s Minions begins at the dawn of time. Starting as single-celled yellow organisms, Minions evolve through the ages, perpetually serving the most despicable of masters. Continuously unsuccessful at keeping these masters—from T. rex to Napoleon—the Minions find themselves without someone to serve and fall into a deep depression. But one Minion named Kevin has a plan, and he—alongside teenage rebel Stuart and lovable little Bob—ventures out into the world to find a new evil boss for his brethren to follow. The trio embarks upon a thrilling journey that ultimately leads them to their next potential master, Scarlet Overkill (Academy Award® winner Sandra Bullock), the world’s first-ever female super-villain. They travel from frigid Antarctica to 1960s New York City, ending in mod London, where they must face their biggest challenge to date: saving all of Minionkind…from annihilation. (image via official Minions site)
WHY I WANT TO SEE IT: They were adorable, funny and pretty much stole the show in Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 so an entire movie full of the fun-loving if evil master-serving Minions should be an absolute joy.
In The Avengers: Age of Ultron Earth’s Mightiest must reunite and work with newcomers Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to battle new antagonist Ultron, who receives an all-new origin story, while dealing with a new level of inner conflict amongst the team. Quicksilver & Scarlet Witch may not necessarily agree with The Avengers and Tony Stark may be responsible for the creation of the new villain. (synopsis via Screenrant)
WHY I WANT TO SEE IT: The first Joss Whedon-helmed Avengers movie was well nigh perfect, a pleasing balance of action and humanity and all indications are the sequel will follow in the same vein.
Noah Baumbach’s exploration of aging, ambition and success stars Stiller and Watts as a middle-aged couple whose career and marriage are overturned when a disarming young couple (Driver and Seyfried) enters their lives. The film also stars Charles Grodin, Maria Dizzia, Adam Horovitz and Ryan Serhant. (synopsis via Coming Soon)
WHY I WANT TO SEE IT: Noah Baumbach, like Wes Anderson, is one of those clever, singular-vision directors who produces consistently engaging work that you just go and see no questions asked. It helps that While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and the awesome Adam Driver.
SNAPSHOT The Last Five Years follows Cathy (Anna Kendrick), a struggling actress, and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, of Broadway’s “Newsies” fame), a successful writer, throughout the titular time period, from the moment they meet, to falling in love, getting married, and the relationship’s ultimate unraveling. That story is told from both characters’ perspectives, as Cathy sings about the end of their marriage and works backward to their beginning; Jamie, meanwhile, sings about their relationship in sequential order. (synopsis via Moviefone)
WHY I WANT TO SEE IT: It takes me a while to catch on to the magic of musicals – I used to revile them when I was young mocking the synchronised singing and hackneyed plots – but I am now a big fan. Done well, and The Last Five Years looks it’s done exceedingly well, they’re a great way to tell a story.
But somehow in the last few years I lost the habit, partly because I was frantically busy at work and barely had time to watch the TV shows I love and movies I wanted to see, but also because somehow, and I have no idea how this happened I kind of fell out of love with reading temporarily, convinced it took up too much time.
Fortunately sanity reasserted itself late last year and I decided I would spend 2014 reading as many books as I possibly could, a mix of newly released titles and what I like to call Aspirational Reading titles, books that had sat on my shelf for years, doing little but gathering dust.
It’s been, as anyone who loves reading will know, a sublime delight getting back into the habit of reading, escaping into worlds both all too real and fantastical, and discovering the delights that lay between the covers of the books that had so caught my eye in the bookshop.
You will notice that this is not a Best Books of 2014 list; rather it is a mix of books, some new, some old but all of which were read this year and which I loved, or which impacted me significantly in some way.
I plan to continue this mix of the new and old next year since why does a book exist but to be read, and though there are many books released each year that I would love to read – I have a folder full on my computer of photos taken of book covers in bookshops this year – I can see no point in simply buying a book to be decoration.
So here we go, the old and the new, the deeply loved and the impressive, the books I loved most in 2014.
The Middlesteins are not the happiest or the easiest people to be around but in the end, thanks to Jami Attenberg’s rich, descriptive writing, you’re glad you got to spend time with them.
Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:
“The Middlesteins is a delight from start to finish, full to the brim with wisdom, wry humour, and pithy insights about life and family and the frailities and messy complications of both, written with an obvious love of words and their power to vividly bring a story to life.
“So well-wrought, and beautifully brought to life are The Middlesteins that even though the family may not be all that appealing at times, and you may shake your head in wonder that these people manage to stay in the same room as each other let alone the same city, you can identify closely with them and are happy to spend as much time as possible with them.
“And yes, in the tradition of all deeply insightful and beautifully written books, you mourn parting company with The Middlesteins, which underlines with honesty, blunt humour and dancing prose that family, flawed though it may be, is what defines, messes up, saves, and ultimately give us a meaningful framework to navigate this messy and unpredictable thing we call life.”
Ever since I read my first Calvin and Hobbes strip back in the ’90s I have been a huge fan of the work of Bill Watterson, a reclusive cartooning genius of whom little had been written until Nevin Martell’s richly-detailed and wonderfully-written book and perfectly filled the void.
If you love the comic strip then you must read this book.
Simple as that.
Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:
“Looking For Calvin and Hobbes is packed full of fascinating tidbits of information, presented as an adventure hunt of sorts, the very kind of quixotic journey that Calvin and Hobbes themselves would have not hesitated a second to embark on.
“While some might find Martell’s “failure” to meet the Watterson himself disappointing, I found the recounting of his grand quest wholly engrossing, one of those rare books that in daring to pursue a passionate dream to fulfil one mission, ends up fulfilling quite another, and emerges all the richer for it.
“Given the odds of any of us ever meeting Bill Watterson in person, reading Looking For Calvin and Hobbes is the next best option, as true a reading of Bill Watterson and his legendary comic strip as we are ever likely to get, short of Watterson himself coming forth from the enigma into which he has happily retreated, to the endless fascination of everyone concerned.”
The mysterious and the supernatural are all the rage with now and Jason Mott’s book, The Returned, which details the return of dead people to their family and friends, unscarred by any knowledge they died, is a largely successful rumination on life, death and that curious thing called the human condition.
Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:
“Mott’s writing is mostly heartfelt and lyrically poetic, retaining an appealing descriptive beauty even when he is discussing the most troubling of events, only flagging when it commits the cardinal writing sin of stating rather than showing, which tends to rob the narrative of some of its intense vivacity and power to affect.
“The Returned also shows a tendency towards the end to favour action over introspection, veering into rather less substantive Hollywood thrills and spills instead of the philosophical and relational richness it mostly sticks to, and this does jar more than a little.
“But overall, it is a beautifully written, engagingly thoughtful read, rich in a million and one possibilities and ideas, a worthy attempt at pondering what we would do if we could have exactly what it is our regretful hearts are asking for.”
It’s not often that a book comes along that asks us to consider, really consider, who we are as a people, and does it in a way that it is as accessible as it is beautifully written.
But Existence by David Brin is such a book, and though it can get a little dense at times in its exploration of ideas, it is worth reading each and every page, soaking in it and let your mind ponder where we came from, who we’ve become and who we could be.
With aliens and spaceships thrown in.
Here’s how I summed the book up in my review:
“In that respect, Existence is a masterful and quite accessible philosophical treatise on the nature of what it means to be.
“Is it enough so simply scrape by? Can we expect our civilisation to endure in glorious perpetuity? Will it be derailed by things we know about it or something else entirely? And should we be presented with an opportunity like that of the so-called Havana Artifact and its galactic inhabitants, will it harm us or help us?
“And most importantly should our continued existence rest upon a “do no harm” mantra inclusive of all, or is it every man for themselves with a few spared, along with our vast array of hard won knowledge?
“The fact that Brin is able to pose these questions at length and in exquisite detail without only rarely bogging down in intellectual pondering is a rare feat, rendering Existence as an engrossing, narrative-rich book with the soul and mind of a cabal of Nobel Prize scientists at its core.
“It dares to envisage a future neither ideal nor rampantly dystopian, in which the least of our worries may be emissaries from the far flung corners of the galaxy.”
If you had told me before I read this remarkable book that there wasn’t a lot left to be said that was even remotely original about the zombie apocalypse, I would have readily agreed with you.
But The Girl With All The Gifts turns this idea on its undead head, providing us with an emotionally-nuanced, highly intelligent and deeply thoughtful novel that dares to ask if the survival of the human race at its stands now is really the best thing for us all?
Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:
“While every bit a thriller, with the sort of shocks, scares and impossible to escape situations that make The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later such compelling viewing, The Girl With All the Gifts is at its heart the profoundly moving, and thought-provoking tale of one young thoroughly different girl who simply wants to be loved, and the woman who overcomes a myriad of fears, to give her that love.
“It is never mawkish or overly-sentimental – its setting puts paid to any temptation to render the relationship in those terms very early on – always staying true to the idea that humanity could survive the apocalypse, just not in the way we imagined.”
I am so glad I finally found the time to read this beautiful book.
At turns whimsical, magical and deeply lyrical, at others deeply, painfully real and brutal, it is a paean to the power of stories to establish our identities and bind us closely one to another.
The writing is every bit as poetic and alluring as its themes, each page packed with phrases that dance off the page with cadence and meaning.
Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:
“The two most charming things about Téa Obreht’s assured debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, a captivating mix of real life and the delightfully fantastical set in what was once Yugoslavia, are revealed almost immediately by the evocative, descriptively-rich opening paragraph:
“In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park. Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open in his knee all afternoon while he recites the passages to me. Even though my grandfather is not wearing his stethoscope or white coat, the lady at the ticket counter in the entrance shed calls him “Doctor.”
“We have barely met Natalia, and have not even learnt her name, but already we are aware of the great love she holds for her grandfather, a man of great learning, who is devoted to his patients and defined by his love for his beloved wife, daughter and, of course, his fellow tiger-centric granddaughter.
“It is this enduring affection, tested thought it is at times by the usual ambivalence-laden rites of passage such as teenage years and the early twenties, for the man from Galina, friend of the mysterious Deathless Man and protector of the titular Tiger’s Wife, who remains nameless throughout, that is the focal point of this extraordinary tale.”
Let’s be honest – life is rarely as magical as we want it to be.
In fact as Jonas T. Bengtsson makes clear, it’s often far from that and we can emerge scarred at the other end, angry at the people who were supposed to be looking after us but somehow failed to do so.
But what if, he asks, those people were simply doing their best they could, trying to make life as magical as possible?
Yes they might have failed but life is unforgiving and should they be condemned for that and how much of a grudge should we hold?
Here’s how I summed the book up in my review:
“In this regard, Bengtsson, and Barslund, who does a masterful taking the author’s beautifully poetic but grittily real prose from one language to another without loss of emotional depth or fluid readability, has crafted a deeply impacting tale of the toll taken on one life by the well-intentioned but ultimately deficient parenting of the only person they have ever known in any truly meaningful way.
“He evocatively brings forth the sense that though the childhood was a fairy tale of sorts, and the bonds between father and son run deep throughout their lives even when they are later separated, that his time with his father deleteriously impacted his ability to engage properly with the wider world later on in life.
“Even so, in the end A Fairy Tale is a gripping story of one man’s realisation that though his childhood was less than ideal, and that he will likely always be tainted and affected by a fatherly bond that was as much a benign nightmare as it was a fairytale, that there remains the possibility, or at least hope, of redeeming it in the future, that we are not in the end doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers.”
Another magical tale of sorts but one in grounded in the idea of a man, much like Benjamin Button, living his life physically in reverse.
In every respect he is a normal man who longs for unconditional love and acceptance of his authentic self but he can never achieve this in any ongoing normal fashion because he is never allowed to be his real self, save for with one special friend.
It is poignant, deeply affecting and all too human, a reminder of the fact that real happiness in life must be fought for, and even then, may not pan out the way we would like it to.
Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:
“And yet Max is so much more than ordinary in one crucial sense – he has to fight for every last inch of happiness in his life far more than any of the people around him who take life’s ups and downs with an almost casual air of resignation or acceptance.
“Whether this manifests itself as an almost endless road trip across USA with his best friend Hughie (who reveals in one part of the book that he has just as much to hide as Max does rendering him in Max’s parlance, a fellow “monster”) to find his long-lost Alice, or assuming an identity that is not his own and effectively killing himself off in order to win his much-treasured prize of true love, it is an all or nothing proposition, a passionate affair with love itself that does not diminish over time, even though there is much that comes against it, not the least the unforgiving passage of life itself.
“It’s one thing to disguise oneself for an afternoon tea or carriage ride; it’s quite another to keep a lie for the length of an affair or, more improbably, for the lifetime that I hoped to be with Alice. I might change my looks and words to suit her, but how could she really love me when my truest self was buried under the floorboards?” (p 138)
“Max is accused at times, most affectingly by Hughie towards the end of their lives when the former’s decision to give everything up to have Alice close to him has devastating effects on the latter’s life, of being selfish; but then he is almost forced to be more selfish than the rest of us since he lost so much before he had barely left the womb.
“The real genius of The Confessions of Max Tivoli is that its protagonist does not ultimately emerge as the monster he often accuses himself of being but rather an ordinary man in search of love, life and happiness, who is forced by a most extraordinary set of circumstances to do everything he can to gain the very things the rest of us take for granted.”
We often make the mistake of thinking that the big epic moments in our lives are the only ones that have any real meaning.
But Gabrielle Levin, delightfully and compellingly makes the case in The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry that it usually the smaller unremarkable parts of our lives that come to mean more to us as time goes by, the small almost unnoticed events that assume real importance especially as we gaze back at the end of our lives.
Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:
“As much a love letter to the possibilities of life, as to reading, literature and the importance of bookstores, which are sadly fast disappearing from the landscape of our lives, The Collected Works of A. J. Fikry is a sweet, without being cloyingly sentimental, ode to the small and the unremarkable and the way they can grow into something magnificent and meaningful if only we will pay them some attention.
“Filled with a passion for the written word, and dialogue that sparkles with the sort of wit you find in old Spencer/Hepburn romantic comedies, with a cast of secondary characters every bit as vital as Fikry and his “collected works” of people he loves, Levin’s charmingly unassuming book is one for the romantic at heart, for people who appreciate the real romance of life happens when we’re least expecting it, in the nitty gritty realities of everyday, often unremarked upon life.”
A grand adventure, chock full of ruminations on the meaning of life by a young boy no less, filled with deeply poetic and funny passages and fabulous illustrations and sidebars that are almost as entertaining as the main text.
If you want a book full of whimsy and meaning the Larsen has written just the book for you.
Here’s how I summed up the book in my review:
“What gives this delightful, emotionally-resonant and exquisitely well-written book so much power is that for all the grand adventures that T.S. goes on, and for all the maps, diagrams and side bars that fill the edges of the book (giving both further insight into the young man’s world and making the book an object of unique pictorial beauty in and of itself), is that it is, in essence, a universally-understandable tale of one person’s quest to find a place to which they can belong.
“That T.S realises by the end of the book that he has always belonged with his family, and may not yet be ready to belong completely to the fabled once-promised land of the very-adult scientific community he once uncritically revered, is drawn out with such sensitivity, sweetness and mostly matter-of-fact sentimentality that you can’t help but warm to this impressive young man, and the remarkable journey, both exterior and interior, that he undertakes.”
Much like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, Big Hero 6, directed with a vivacious sense of fun and deep sense of poignancy by Chris Williams and Don Hall, is that rare Marvel-sourced movie that manages to transcend the well-established bonds of its comic-book antecedents.
Not that there is anything wrong with the comic books and movies that have gone before it, of course; they have given us a slew of wonderful stories well-told, of humble men and women discovering powers great and small that have elevated them from the ranks of mere mortals to those capable of taking on the darkness and travails of life and effecting some momentous change, both for themselves and for humanity at large.
But there is a pattern in place, and it is slavishly followed, all of which means a consistent product sure, much like McDonalds but one which feels more than a little bit been-there-done-that-got-the-LEGO-tie-in after a while, however enjoyable it may be.
Like the Chris Pratt-starring juggernaut before it however, Big Hero 6, based on a couple of little-known Marvel comic book miniseries, has seen fit to play with the formula just enough to render itself as a wholly distinctive film fairly brimming with deeply-affecting sadness, giddy, warmhearted fun, and a sense that justice can prevail after all, even it it doesn’t heal the still-open wounds of loss and grief.
Much of the film’s appeal lies with the main hero of the story, a puffy marshmallow son-of-Michelin-Man Baymax (perfectly voiced by Scott Adsit), a delightful, sweet-natured robot created by robotics genius Tadashi Hamada (Daniel Henney), whose sole overriding imperative as a “healthcare companion” is to apply band-aids or heart defibrillators or simply to help heal a broken heart with hugs and the gathering together of someone’s friends for love and support.
When Tadashi is killed in tragic circumstances, Baymax is left to languish until Tadashi’s younger brother, Hiro (Ryan Potter) overwhelmed by grief and unable to re-engage with life despite the loving entreaties of his cafe-owning extrovert aunt and guardian Cass (Maya Rudolph), hurts himself, triggering Baymax’s operating system and ushering in a whole new chapter in his short 14 year old life.
Quickly fashioning Baymax into a warrior of sorts – the addition of some killer karate moves do little to diminish Baymax’s overall hug-ability and lovability – he sets off after the Kabuki-mask wearing villain who controls an army of stolen microbots which Hiro created, who he believes is the one responsible for his brother’s death.
While this leads down reasonably predictable paths – the sword of vengeance is beaten into the plowshare of love and understanding, the gathering together of Tadashi’s old university colleagues into a ragtag group of superheroes and the big climactic fight with the villain in the finale, Baymax manages to transform every scene he is in into one of whimsy, sweet silliness and deeply-affecting emotion, subverting the Marvel formula so that Big Hero 6 becomes much more than the sum of its derivative comic book hero parts.
The sheer adorable nature of Baymax aside, with whom Hiro shares more than one deeply touching scene – the one where they remember Tadashi together is especially moving – is paired to perfection with the willingness of screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson and Jordan Roberts to wear the heart of the movie’s storytelling DNA very much on its sleeve.
The death of Tadashi, and the subsequent temporary loss of another major character later on, are not simply grist for the film’s narrative mill; rather they suffuse almost every scene, not in some heavy handed, emotionally-manipulative way but as the motivation for just about everything the characters do throughout the story.
They are the reason why Hiro and the rest of his wisecracking, possessed of more scientific nous than street smarts team, do what they do and it results in an immensely emotionally-rich and pleasingly layered film that has the sort of substance that turns what could have simply been another join-the-dots comic book action film into something wholly different.
All of these pleasing narrative and character flourishes are augmented by the highly-colourful, imaginative look and feel of Big Hero 6, set in the near-future fusion-tropolis of San Fransokyo, which blends East and West together into a visual template that beguiles the eye and gives it a distinctive look, with trolley trams and Victorian rowhouses sitting happily cheek-by-jowl with brilliantly-lit animated signs, noodle houses and futuristic transport systems.
It’s a setting that lends the movie its own, one-of-a-kind universe in which to play and it features heavily, with all the action taking place in and around and over it, and which matches to a tee the thematic willingness of the film’s producers to mix things up quite a bit in their pursuit of a genuinely different film that while it is made up of a whole lot of off-the-rack Marvel parts, is a wholly distinctive creation of entrancing fun and emotional authenticity, much like Baymax himself.
* It is worth taking the time to get to Big Hero 6 nice and early to catch the delightful short by Patrick Osbourne (Paperman) which precedes it, Feast, the sweet story of one man, a rescued orphaned Boston Terrier with a big appetite and love, beautiful love, and to stay right to the end of the credits to take in the wonderful sequence right at the end, a Marvel staple which Big Hero 6 uses well to great effect.
Another year, another PVR up in smoke trying to cope with the insane numbers of programs I ask it to keep track of and record.
Seriously it didn’t go up in smoke but it came close, damn close, with a multiplicity of new and old shows competing for my attention, and even more on the way.
This bounty of TV viewing choices has forced some uncomfortable choices on me with highly regarded shows like The Knick and Game of Thrones (this will likely change in 2015 as my friend’s boyfriend is determined I will LOVE this show and has set aside a weekend to make it happen) having to give way to other shows that for whatever reason proved more of an attractive option for me.
There is a certain amount of guilt attached to this “lifeboat” policy since it means walking away from water cooler shows that everyone else is talking about but there are only so many hours in the day and I need to juggle the time needed to watch the shows that do manage to make it onto my schedule with all the books I want to read, the movies I’d like to see and music I can’t wait to listen to.
Still, for all the shows I didn’t quite get around to watching, there were an awful lot that did get viewed and I have picked the 10 favourites and 10 runners-up that made this viewing year a most happy and satisfying one.
Homicide investigator Nick Burkhardt of the Portland Police Department learns he is descended from a line of “guardians” known as “Grimms”, charged with keeping balance between humanity and the mythological creatures of the world called Wesen, the German word for being or creature (pronounced as “vessen” in the show). Throughout the series, he must battle against an assortment of dangerous creatures, with help from his reformed Wesen friend Monroe, and his partner Detective Hank Griffin. (synopsis via NBC)
From episode one, I have loved this show’s intelligent and highly imaginative mix of police procedural, postmodern fairytale re-telling, supernatural meets the natural and challenging of the established order of things.
It’s one of those rare shows that has never wavered in its commitment to fully-realised characters, fascinating story arcs and beguiling case-of-the-week plots, the proof in the Wesen pudding being the uniformly great episodes of season 4which is currently underway.
This is how television should be – comforting and challenging all at once.
Set in the fictional 99th Precinct of the New York City Police Department in Brooklyn, the single-camera series follows a precinct team of detectives and a newly appointed captain. (synopsis via Wikipedia)
This is such a funny show.
I wondered if I would ever find a sitcom that tickled the funny bone in quite the same way that shows like Frasier, Friends and the soon-to-depart-our-screens Parks and Recreation did and are doing.
But Brooklyn Nine-Nineis a classy, stupendously well-written ensemble comedy that gives equal time to each of its characters, somehow manages to balance their personal lives, police work and flights into the absurd in 22 gloriously good but all too short minutes and achieves that rarest of feats, making me laugh out loud more than a few times an episode.
SNAPSHOT The Walking Dead is an American post-apocalyptic horror drama television series developed by Frank Darabont. It is based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard. It stars Andrew Lincoln as sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes, who awakens from a coma to find a post-apocalyptic world dominated by flesh-eating zombies. He sets out to find his family and encounters many other survivors along the way. (synopsis via Wikipedia)
My housemate had to work hard last year to talk me around to watching the pilot of the series, a show I didn’t want to view because of my abiding hatred of horror in any form, but once I realised how well-written and acted the show is, and how effectively the zombies and the collapse of civilisation are used to examine the human condition, I was hooked and haven’t looked back since.
In fact, it is now one of only two shows who are accorded the honour of having every episode reviewed – the other is Falling Skies – and I eagerly await the arrival of each episode via satellite from the U.S. like a kid waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
SNAPSHOT Fargo is an American dark comedy-crime drama television series created and written by Noah Hawley. The show is inspired by the 1996 film of the same name written and directed by the Coen brothers, who serve as executive producers on the series. It premiered on April 15, 2014, on FX. Future seasons will follow an anthology format with each season being set in a different era along with a different story, cast and set of characters. (synopsis via Wikipedia)
It’s not easy to mix black humour and drama together but creator Noah Hawley and the producers of Fargo manage it perfectly, in the process offering up a show that is witty, clever, engrossing, visceral and beautifully, imaginatively shot.
The protagonist, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) starts off all aw-shucks-sweet but soon reveals himself as a man so amorally ambitious you get the impression, initially at least that he is shocking himself with his dark behaviour.
His accomplice in crime, a sociopath who is an accessory to more crime than you poke a blood-tipped spear at, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and the police officers who do their best to bring them to justice, Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Officer Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) plus a host of supporting characters who are as absurd as they are chilling, lend Fargo the air of an intensely-arty film noir but with the easy accessibility of one of the Law and Order shows.
And it looks so gobsmackingly beautiful, Matthew J Lloyd’s cinematography so evocative, that staring at unending silent vistas of snow for minutes at a time is almost meditative.
Helix is an intense thriller about a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control who travel to the high-tech Arctic BioSystems above the Arctic Circle to investigate a possible disease outbreak, only to find themselves pulled into a terrifying life-and-death struggle that holds the key to mankind’s salvation or total annihilation. (synopsis via Helix wiki)
Another show trading on dark, fearsomely bad expectations of the future that kept the tension high without shrill gimmicks throughout the first season, choosing to spend its storytelling energies on a far reaching mythos, three-dimensional characters (and that included the villains of the piece, who turned out to be almost everyone) and tautly-constructed narrative.
While the diseased humans acted somewhat like zombies, and were every bit as terrifying, they weren’t the main game in town.
The real action was the show’s unflinching examination of 1001 twisted variants on the human condition, the way in which even good intentions can be cajoled into something so horrible that you wonder how the people involved can sleep at night.
The answer? The majority are so blindly committed to their cause that all they see is a bright and shiny future where the rest of us see likely apocalyptic oblivion.
In the hands of the talented team which includes Ronald D Moore (Battlestar Galactica) that way absorbing, gripping drama lies.
SNAPSHOTFalling Skies is an American science fiction post-apocalyptic dramatic television series created by Robert Rodat and executive produced by Steven Spielberg. The series stars Noah Wyle as Tom Mason, a former Boston University history professor who becomes the second-in-command of the 2nd Massachusetts Militia Regiment, a group of civilians and fighters fleeing post-apocalyptic Boston following an alien invasion that devastated the planet six months before the events of season one. (synopsis via Wikipedia)
What a turnaround Falling Skies demonstrated in season 4 under new showrunner David Eick, with tighter, more dramatic storylines, and a sense of focus and consistency that was a considerable improvement on the up and down nature of previous seasons.
It’s not that Falling Skies had ceased to be an eminently watchable show; it’s simply that it often seemed to waste its meagre allotment of just 10 episodes a season, a restriction which should have concentrated minds on producing punchy drama with few fallow scenes, on episodes that went nowhere, that contributed little to nothing to the show’s examination of humanity fighting not just for their lives but their entire civilisation and planet.
Season 4 however made full use of its premise, putting characters, and humanity as a whole, in harm’s way, making it feel like we were actually watching a show about the apocalypse with life-or-death stakes around every corner.
And the fact that the producers have opted for a fifth and final season to wrap the show up on their terms speaks of the new disciplined approach the show’s producers have adopted, one that should see Falling Skies go out with a bang and not the previously-feared whimper.
SNAPSHOT Ninety-seven years ago, nuclear Armageddon decimated planet Earth, destroying civilization. The only survivors were the 400 inhabitants of 12 international space stations that were in orbit at the time. Three generations have been born in space, the survivors now number 4000, and resources are running out on their dying “Ark” – the 12 stations now linked together and re-purposed to keep the survivors alive. Draconian measures including capital punishment and population control are the order of the day, as the leaders of the Ark take ruthless steps to ensure their future, including secretly exiling a group of 100 juvenile prisoners to the Earth’s surface to test whether it’s habitable. (synopsis via Pog Design)
I must admit I approached this show with some hesitation, largely because I thought I fell outside of its core demographic by, say, a decade or three.
But surprisingly, rather than a stew of teenage angst in space and on an irradiated Earth, although being a CW show there is more than a little of that, The 100 is a clever bringing together of post-apocalyptic survival tales, power politics and Machiavellian intrigue, all bundled up with some LOST-like mysteries and two-headed deer.
I expected to last just an episode or two but as I saw things come to a head in the final episode of season 1, I realised that watching season 2 when it premieres in Australia in January is all but inevitable …
Barry Allen was just 11 years old when his mother was killed in a bizarre and terrifying incident and his father was falsely convicted of the murder. With his life changed forever by the tragedy, Barry was taken in and raised by Detective Joe West, the father of Barry’s best friend, Iris.
Now, Barry has become a brilliant, driven and endearingly geeky CSI investigator, whose determination to uncover the truth about his mother’s strange death leads him to follow up on every unexplained urban legend and scientific advancement that comes along. Barry’s latest obsession is a cutting edge particle accelerator, created by visionary physicist Harrison Wells and his S.T.A.R. Labs team, who claim that this invention will bring about unimaginable advancements in power and medicine. However, something goes horribly wrong during the public unveiling, and when the devastating explosion causes a freak storm, many lives are lost and Barry is struck by lightning.
After nine months in a coma, Barry awakens to find his life has changed once again – the accident has given him the power of super speed, granting him the ability to move through Central City like an unseen guardian angel. Though initially excited by his newfound powers, Barry is shocked to discover he is not the only “meta-human” who was created in the wake of the accelerator explosion – and not everyone is using their new powers for good. In the months since the accident, the city has seen a sharp increase in missing people, unexplained deaths and other strange phenomena. Barry now has a renewed purpose – using his gift of speed to protect the innocent, while never giving up on his quest to solve his mother’s murder and clear his father’s name. For now, only a few close friends and associates know that Barry is literally the fastest man alive, but it won’t be long before the world learns what Barry Allen has become…The Flash. (synopsis via Screenrant)
As I’ve noted many times before, I was never a card-carrying member of the superhero comics pack growing up, preferring quirky British comics and Hanna-Barbera tie-ins.
But as an adult I have watched many of the Marvel movies like Thor and Iron Man, the DC adaptations like Batman and Superman and even some of the TV shows to date like Smallville, and while they haven’t completely rocked my world, I have enjoyed them sufficiently to keep watching them as they come out.
The Flash however is the first TV superhero show, of which there are now a plethora, that I have really truly enjoyed – while I appreciate the look and feel of Gotham and Arrow to name just two, both failed to make that important personal connection with me that’s needed to keep me watching – and it’s got a great deal to do with the likability of the cast, chief among them Grant Gustin as The Flash who combines just the right amount of geewhiz innocence and growing capability and awareness of his powers.
I am also enjoying the various relationships he enjoys with people like his stepfather Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) and stepsister Iris (Candice Patton), his imprisoned father, the mysterious Dr Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) and his team, and the growing mythos building them. This is a show that clearly intends to make something substantial of its premise and I am more than happy to race along with them.
Set in Miami, the series details the surprising and unforeseen events that take place in the life of Jane Villanueva, a hard-working, religious young Latina woman whose family tradition and a vow to save her virginity until her marriage to a detective is shattered when a doctor mistakenly artificially inseminates her during a checkup. And to make matters worse, the biological donor is a married man, a former playboy and cancer survivor who is not only the new owner of the hotel where Jane works, but was also her former teenage crush. (synopsis via Jane the Virgin)
It’s a very rare thing indeed to come across a show that warms the heart, titillates the inner love for gossip, drama and over-the-top action that so many of us have, and yet manages to stay wonderfully grounded somehow.
After all, it’s an outlandish premise if ever there was one, reflective of the telenovela genre which inspired it, and it’s a tribute to showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman that they successfully managed to combine a crazy premise with a show that is infused with palpable poignant humanity.
That is nothing short of miraculous, and essential to the show’s survival since as we all know, a hilarious premise can only take you so far as a viewer and you need something of substance added in or you simply won’t care for the characters or their ongoing situation.
But Jane the Virgin has it all – the incomparable Gina Rodriguez as Jane, over the top premise, wonderful characters, witty dialogue and narration, and all the warmth and humanity you could possibly want.
SNAPSHOT Z Nation starts three years after the zombie virus has gutted the country, when a team ofeveryday heroes must transport the only known survivor of the plague from New York to California, where the last functioning viral lab waits for his blood. Although the antibodies he carries are the world’s last, best hope for a vaccine, he hides a dark secret that threatens them all. With humankind’s survival at stake, the ragtag band embarks on a journey of survival across three thousand miles of rusted-out post-apocalyptic America. (synopsis via Cosmic Booknews/Television)
I really didn’t want to watch Z Nation when I first heard about it.
After all, it’s from Asylum Productions, the same people who brought us the deliberate schlock of Sharknado and Sharknado: The Next One, who, while wearing their so-bad-it’s-good cred proudly, didn’t seem like they were the sort of people who could pull off an entire series.
A short, sharp, movie yes but an entire 13 episode run? No thank you, I have The Walking Dead.
And while I am still very much convinced their aesthetic leaves a lot to be desired, there is something insanely likeable about Z Nation and it’s irrepressible silly sense of humour that just works.
I am not entirely sure how honestly but for all the dodgy CGI effects, habitually over-the-top scenarios and just plain silly action sequences, you get sucked into a show that somehow miraculously manages some poignant heartfelt moments with characters you actually begin to care about quite contrary to initial expectations.
Bring on season 2 I say! Yes I just said that …
And now for the 10 runners-up, a number of which were prime contenders for a Top 10 position but just missed out and are arranged here in alphabetical order (just so you know I am not playing favourites with them) …
Henry Wordsworth Longfellow once observed that “Music is the universal language of mankind.”
Never has that been truer than in the second decade of the 21st century where digital technology has allowed music artists across an ever-splintering multiplicity of genres, whether they be an emerging band in Brooklyn or a bedroom-recording soloist in Bhutan, to release their music to the world, and eager music fans to download and listen to it.
People everywhere are discovering and embracing music that would have previously never even crossed their radar, creating a shared experience of discovery even if the old mass shared fandom has largely disappeared, with the exception of artists like Taylor Swift, Coldplay and yes, even One Direction.
Keeping up with all this bounty of wonderful new music of course is a challenge of monumental proportions, with the reality being that it is impossible to ever even less to a fraction of it.
Which is why I have very deliberately worded the headline of this post as “The 10 songs I loved most in 2014” – they aren’t necessarily the best songs of the year nor representative of the full spectrum, which is vast, of songs released this year; they are though the 10 songs plus 10 runners-up that truly struck a chord with me this year, that demanded to replayed over and over, that lifted me emotionally or made me really think about what they were saying.
This moving outpouring of the Australian artist’s struggle with addiction was a justifiable hit this year.
Raw, deeply personal, highly dramatic, stirring, it brought home the fact that coping with addiction is a day-to-day proposition, a poignant reminder that there is a cost to the escapist good times, one that can derail your life.
This intensely personal outpouring came with music and vocals so powerful that Pitchfork rightly described it as “a jaw-dropping vocal performance”.
As I noted in my review:
“It is quite simply one of the most passionate songs by anyone ever about the ensnaring and pitiless hold of addiction, a song that creeps into the chorus with an almost despairing “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, drink” before exploding into a chorus so intensely emotional that very few people could adequately keep pace with it.
Sia handles it effortlessly, her voice soaring effortlessly into the stratosphere, the pain of personal experience writ large on every note, every last swelling string.”
This is catchy as all get-out, luxuriant rich pop with a beating heart that has you dancing, feeling deeply and thinking all at once.
It was yet another pop gem from an artist who has used the internet effectively to disseminate her music to the masses, working assiduously to build a dedicated following off the back of her impressive talent:
“A dedicated Twitter user who actively interacts with her fans, Jessica Anne Newham as she’s known to her parents, is a musical force of nature, brimming with enthusiasm, joie de vivre and songs that just beg to be played.
“Case in point is her new song ‘Heartbreak Dream’, a deliciously dark mix of bright, shiny 80s-inspired synth melodies and romantic complexity, infectiously upbeat music with thoughtful, introspective lyrics, that evokes that Scandinavian sensibility, so evident in their music, of balancing the good and the bad, the yin and yang of life.”
This is a deliciously complex multi-layered piece of pop.
Infused as much with lyrical melancholy as with sheer danceability, the song “announces itself with a bouncing, pulsing beat, gleefully distorted harmonies and a lead vocal that sounds world-wearily exuberant all at once, much like the best ’80s New Wave bands.”
It makes for addictive, compelling listening from a band that though they have been around since 1995, still apparently have a lot to say yet.
This is an insanely addictive song that stirs the heart and gets you singing along like a manic teenager all while compelling you to leap up and down in time with the insistent, earworm worthy beat, proof that Australia isn’t done yet with producing amazing music that the world will want to sing along to.
There is a huge amount to like about “Geronimo” as Vulture Magazine pointed out in their review of the song:
“Relentlessly catchy, with a real foot-stomper of a beat, it’s not hard to imagine people belting out “SAY GERONIMO” or “BOMBS AWAY” at the top of their lungs at gigs or singing into a hairbrush if they want to be cliche about it. The instant anthemic quality is something we expect from the band since their track ‘Let Me Down Easy’ was a resounding success and such a bloody infectious song to boot. With sweet dual vocals from George and Amy Sheppard, a simple yet perfect chorus, thumping drums, gorgeous piano and an acoustic backbone, Geronimo has all the ingredients for an indie smash hit and a great start off point for the band to stake their claim in the overseas markets and in our hearts.”
You will not be able to stop singing it, trust me and that is, unlike many other earworm songs, an entirely good and wonderful thing.
My lord but didn’t get this song get me singing and dancing along like a fiend this year.
You honestly can’t help but smile as you listen to it, a definite case of life imitating art, a tribute to the coming together of producers Bloodshy, aka Christian Karlsson, and Style of Eye, aka Linus Eklöw who clearly know their way around music that moves the masses.
It’s indisputably dance music but with a soul and substance as Stereogum pointed out so well in their review of the song:
“They’ve got a new single called ‘Smile’ that bridges the gap between Imogen Heap, Sam Smith, and Calvin Harris. That is to say, it bangs… emotionally. ”
And it comes with a NSFW video full to the brim with couples making each other, um, “smile”.
As I noted in my review of TĀLĀ and her immensely evocative, lush, chilled pop masterpiece “The Duchess”, “it’s a rare day when an artist makes you sit up, stock exactly what you’re doing and listen intently to their breathtakingly unique new music … TĀLĀ, a British-based singer/songwriter/musician/producer of Iranian descent, has managed such a feat, shaking away any lingering sense that I have heard everything musical under the sun.”
The song is utterly seductively mesmerising with The Ripe rightly observing:
“There’s an element of TĀLĀ’s Iranian influence haunting among the vocal melody in the very beginning of the track that then completely disappears to build to a contemporary, feel good sound. The uplifting and at times ambient nature of the distorted vocals brings light to the otherwise ominous bass that defines the majority of the track. It’s this combination as well as the electronic dance beats that give it such a distinctive sound overall.”
And everything she’s released since has confirmed that my sit-up-and-take-notice reaction was not a one-off.
TĀLĀ is here for the long haul and I couldn’t be happier.
Separately Robyn and Röyksopp (Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland) are two of the greatest shining lights of the currently vibrant Scandinavian music scene which means, of course, that together they are a powerhouse to behold.
While every song on their 5 track EP was worth a listen, including the moodily epic grandeur of “Monument”, it was the title song “Do It Again”, a lamenting of the power of an unhealthy but compelling relationship to make you do things you really shouldn’t even if they feel good in the moment, that really made its mark on me.
“‘Do It Again’, which is anchored by Robyn’s intensely heartfelt vocals, a maelstrom of synths and a pounding beat that matches the songstress’s achingly passionate voice note for note … is a musically upbeat but lyrically tortured track [that] embodies that peculiarly Scandinavian flair for mixing the buoyant and the blue, the marvellous and the melancholic in one soul-stirring perfect pop package.”
And yes it is worth playing again and again and again, unlike the relationship at its centre.
I first fell in love with the music of Danish/Canadian artist ÁLI back in April, 2013, when I discovered her song “Cocoon”, a refreshingly different sound that brilliantly blended opera and pop to intoxicatingly beautiful effect.
The now ardent love affair continued with the song “Breakout Breakfree” which continued her distinctive sound and confirmed that her first single release was no flash in the plan but rather proof of an emerging talent of uncommon singularity:
“Proof that she is onto something distinctively her own, is her newest song “Breakout Breakfree” which thunders along with all the melodic and vocal pop power you could ask for while still incorporating the operatic flourishes that have become her hallmark.
“It is a winner on almost every count, powerfully surging forward with a hard almost tribal synth beat that is never in any danger of overwhelming her crystal clear, beautifully enunciated vocals.
“The bridge builds and builds with goose bump-inducing intensity, amping up the sheer exhilaration of a song that will not be denied and the finish to the song is happily suffused with ÁLI’s divinely-inspired soaring operatic flourishes.”
This atmospheric slice of good old-fashioned disco funk by New York-based producer duo The Knocks (B-Roc and JPatt) instantly transports you to Studio 54’s star-studded, energy-fuelled dancefloor, as I noted in my original review of the song:
“From the opening countdown 1-2-3 that opens the even-then energetic song to the sweeping funk of the opening bars and the first notes of vocalist Powers aka Crista Ru summertime sultry vocals, “Classic” takes you back to the glory days of disco, with a heavy measure of funk and ’90s clubland melodies thrown in for good measure.
“It’s well nigh impossible to listen to this song without imagining yourself at some picturesque beach in the south of France, champagne in hand, lost in the music and dancing as if this is the only thing that matters.”
You can’t help but feel alive, free, abandoned to the music, which it turns out is exactly the response the two talented men wanted to engender in listeners:
“We have found that the best way to successfully traverse the current landscape of the music industry is by releasing music that invokes some kind of emotion in the listener. We want our music to take you to whatever place we were in while we were creating it so that there is a true bond created between the listeners and what they are listening to … With “Classic” we tried to create a well of nostalgic energy that anyone could easily access by simply pressing play.”
I’d advise you to press play and let yourself time travel back to the glory days of disco, if only for the three minutes or so the song lasts.
What I love most about this song is its enormous reserves of will-not-be-denied energy.
It bounces and surges along, a deliriously uplifting musical tour de force “that demands you dance from pretty much the first bar … barely [pausing] for breath or joyful exuberance throughout its all too short running time.”
It’s the latest pop gem from talented real life Californian couple, Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn who have delighted me with each and every song they have released, whether it be one of their own songs, a cover or a clever mash-up, since I came across in February this year and waxed lyrical about them in Now This is Music 23(February 21, 2014) and then just a week later in The delightfully quirky indie joy of Pomplamoose.
Lifted from their uniformly excellent album Season 2, “Fight Back” is an infectious song that will not be denied, a soundtrack to all those times you need a little energy to keep moving forward, further confirmation that finding Pomplamoose has been one of the musical highlights of my entire year.
AND NOW WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, HERE ARE THE 10 RUNNER-UP SONGS (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER THAT HAVE ALSO RECEIVED A LOT OF PLAY TIME …
Now if you don’t have time to listen to all the songs, or a lot of them anyway, that came out this year, DJ Earworm has you covered with his United State of Pop 2014 as Stereogum explains …
“Every year, DJ Earworm releases a massive mashup of the year’s biggest hits. The 2014 edition is here, and it’s a thing of wonder. “United State Of Pop 2014 (Do What You Wanna Do)” contains traces of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Iggy Azalea & Charli XCX’s “Fancy,” Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go,” Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong,” Maroon 5′s “Animals,” Pharrell’s “Happy,” Katy Perry & Juicy J’s “Dark Horse,” Passenger’s “Let Her Go,” Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” Hozier’s “Take Me To Church,” Ariana Grande & Azalea’s “Problem,” MAGIC!’s “Rude,” Jeremih & YG’s “Don’t Tell ’Em,” DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What,” the Jessie J/Grande/Nicki Minaj track “Bang Bang,” and maybe more I didn’t spot. Try to pick out as many as you can — or just enjoy it, because it is enjoyable.”
It seemed like every time you turned around, taking great care not to spill your oversized jumbo pack of popcorn or smear your choctop onto the blouse of the lady next to you, there was another engaging indie drama, entertainingly clever animated film or fun-filled blockbuster that didn’t suck your brain out of the back of your head.
The reason it felt like that was not just because this was a big year numerically for movies with some 650+ being released overall – but because so many of them were such well-crafted love letters to cinema’s power to entrance, move, envelop and utterly capture your attention.
Here then are the 10 films that meant the most to me, with an additional 21 runner-up films in alphabetical order.
* Please note that I have picked movies that came out in Australia this year which is why Nebraska for instance made the cut despite its 2013 release stateside.
It wasn’t simply the elegant starkness of the black and white filmography that captured my attention to such a degree that I felt like I didn’t breathe through the whole movie.
What is so arresting about Nebraska is Alexander Payne’s willingness to talk about life as it really is with precious few heartwarming bells and whistles.
Life is hard, and people make mistakes, and you can see the effects of all that flawed living in the faces of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who is obsessed with getting to Nebraska to pick up non-existent lottery winnings, his last chance he believes to make something of his life, his fed-up wife Kate (June Squibb) and their son David (Will Forte), who bravely sets out with his him on this decidedly quixotic road trip to seemingly nowhere.
Nebraska, I noted, “never delves into cheap and easy accessed answers or emotions, it’s happy ending of sorts rooted quite firmly in the bleakness and monochromatic nature of life, where every victory or sweet moment is hard fought for, and all the more worthwhile for that.”
Oddly it took me a few films to fully warm to Wes Anderson’s gorgeously retro style but once I did there was no turning back, with The Grand Budapest Hotel the latest, and I would venture to say, the most complete fulfilment of his vision to create stories that don’t just speak to the human condition but do it in a way that is quirky, funny, meaningful, visually stunning and populated by characters so charming, madcap and verbally delightful that you can’t help but like them, or at least be intrigued by them.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, which focuses on world class concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) determined though whimsical efforts to clear his name after he is wrongly accused of the murder of one of his favourite customers and occasional lovers Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton), with the help of his resourceful protege Zero Mustafa (Tony Revolori), is a delight from start to finish with nary a visual effect, joke, or insightful observation out of place.
As I noted in my review, the film sparkles with a “candy coated lunacy that suffuses the whole undertaking, a darkly-filled confection of slapstick comedy, artfully constructed yet wholly delightful and accessible wordplay and fantastical flights of fancy that somehow manage to co-exist quite happily within a reasonably linear and thoroughly entertaining narrative.”
Calvary is grim, desperately grim in so many ways and yet for all its wringing of hands about the human condition, watching it is a transcendent experience, thanks to a mesmerising performance by Brendan Gleeson who invests his central character of Father James Lavelle with a world-weary but moving humanity that is never less than utterly engrossing to watch in action.
Fallible though he is, Father Lavelle is a “good priest”, a man that doggedly keeps tending to his flock of broken, almost fatally-flawed parishioners, despite the fact that one of them, via the anonymity of the confessional, has vowed to kill him in a week’s time.
The film’s great value lies, I observed in my review, “in its willingness to ask the big questions, and answer them with an well-considered and far from glib affirmation that though there may be evil in this world, there is also goodness and hope (embodied in people like Gleeson’s majestically-rendered Father Lavelle), that though imperfectly expressed, is worth holding onto even if it costs you more than you could have ever expected.”
Filmed over 12 years by writer/director Richard Linklater, and using the same group of actors who gave up a couple of weeks each year to pick up where they left off the year before, it tells the story of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) journey “from video games and daydreaming into the early stages of manhood and college in real time”.
The story itself may not be so remarkable, a reasonably by-the-numbers recounting of the usual ups and downs of life as viewed by a young man just starting to make his way in the world but with Linklater’s deft direction, a smart, literate script, and a host of talented actors including Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette, Boyhood is an unforgettable experience, a home movie without parallel that offers a unique commentary on growing up.
I will be honest – I am not a massive fan of comic book-sourced superhero movies, even though I have found a number of them such the Iron Man franchise and the Avengers film to be wholly entertaining, far more substantial than first appearances might suggest viewing experiences.
But there was something about Guardians of the Galaxy which grabbed me from the opening scene and never let me go, that had me grinning my long lost 12 year old inner self after he’d just seen Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time in 1977.
It’s greatest asset was its ability to be both a comic book superhero flick and an affectionate send up of one at the same time, very much channelling the irreverent spirit of The Princess Bride, a film that took the best of Marvels’ undoubted gift for crafting intelligent blockbuster movies and added in all manner of sly wit, verbal slapstick, deep, touching humanity and space bound thrills-and-spills to devastatingly entertaining effect.
You may not think there is much a story to be told about a woman going door to door over the course of one weekend to convince 9 of her 16 workmates to vote for her continued employment at the solar panels factory where they all work, over a sizeable bonus they all need, but in the hands of director brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and with the towering presence of Marion Cotillard inhabiting the role of factory worker Sandra, it is richly dramatic tale that is impossible to ignore.
Barely recovered from an emotional breakdown, Sandra is just hanging in there, held aloft only by the unwavering love and support of her husband (Fabrizio Rongione) and close friend Juliette (Catherine Salée), her fight to keep her job, an “up hill and down dale fight of emotionally-epic proportions, the great gravity of which is only enhanced by the sheer suburban ordinariness of her surroundings, the day to day reality of peoples’ hanging-on-by-a-thread lives forming the backdrop to her David and Goliath fight for job survival.”
This is drama writ large in the most ordinary of settings and all the more powerful and impacting for it.
Reaching For the Moon is one of those movies that reminds how passionate, how intense, how all-encompassing true love can be, and how it can all go so horribly wrong in the hands of people ill-eqipped to be loved so purely and so well.
Anchored by superb, moving performances by Australian actress Miranda Otto and Brazilian actress Glória Pires, the film recounts the love story of “brilliant American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) and the visionary mind behind Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo park (which contains the moon-like lights from which the movie partly takes its name), Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires).”
It is a beautiful, immersively moving film that can’t help but have a profound impact on you.
As I noted in my review:
“Reaching For the Moon is that rare creation of modern filmmaking, possessing a literate script, subtle nuanced directing, and performances so across-the-board impressive – Treat Williams is also noteworthy as poet Robert Lowell while Luciana Souza sparkles with acerbic wit as Joana – that if there is not talk of awards for both Otto and Pires, and healthy audience numbers throughout the film’s run, then we will have definitive proof that the modern world has profoundly and chillingly fallen out of love not just just with good stories well told but with, I think, love itself.”
Another film rendered in black and white, Ida is a quiet, contemplative cinematic outing, a movie that relies every bit as much on the endlessly malleable facial expressions of first time actor Agata Trzebuchowska as it does on the sparsely-worded dialogue that punctuates the long, beautifully shot scenes of near silence.
Ida, which tells the story of a Polish novice nun in 1962, one week away from taking her vows who is forced to meet up with an aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), she didn’t know she had only to find out she is not the person she thought she was, is all about choices – what happens when life turns out to be an entirely proposition that you once thought it to be?
Do you dump everything you are and embrace the new you with gusto or quietly and rhythmically observe it, live a little and then go on as you originally meant to?
The genius of Ida, a breathtakingly beautiful film in every way, is that you’re never quite sure which way this remarkably introspective young woman will go.
I have been a LEGO fan ever since I was old enough to successfully click one brightly coloured Danish plastic brick into another but even I, thrilled though I was at the prospect of a movie all about my favourite childhood toy, was a dubious about how good a movie this would be.
After all, as The Transformers franchise has shown all too clearly, nostalgia and a robust fan base do not always an enjoyable movie make.
Here’s to expectations defied!
“A deliriously happy grin-inducing concoction, The LEGO Movie manages to channel the endlessly imaginative possibilities that anyone who has ever played with the legendary Danish blocks will easily recall, surrounding them with witty, well-rounded characters, gags aplenty and a much needed reminder that life can indeed be mind-blowingly fun and yes, of course, awesome.”
There is an arresting poetic beauty and authenticity to Charlie’s Country, Rolf de Heer’s latest feature film with legendary actor David Gulpilil, that is starkly evident from the silent second to opening shot of the movie in which an introspective Charlie sits in his humpy, lost in mumbling introspection, a tattered photograph held tightly in one hand.
You can help but be touched by this thoughtfully-introspective, sometimes mischievous man who for all his much-reduced circumstances and advanced age, decides that he will be better off “in country” than he is in the small, poverty-stricken township of Ramingining in the Northern Territory of Australia.
As I noted in my review:
“It is this constant resilient drive to return to the country from he was literally birthed, and which sustains him still even when he is far away from it, both spiritually and physically, that lends this deeply-affecting, haunting and and richly-rewarding tale so much of its lasting impact and meaning and which stays with you long after Charlie’s final knowing gaze has disappeared from the screen.”
Hard to believe another 365 days of movie and TV and song and book-filled wonder has passed and we’re here once again greeting Santa Claus with cookies and milk (and likely a zombie, a twerker and faulty stars too).
Given it is almost the end of the year, it seems like just the right time to thank everyone who reads this blog, shares its contents and otherwise supports me for adding to the creative joy I get from bringing my blog to life 10 times a week, and to wish you all manner of great and wonderful things.
When I bought my first Christmas tree as an adult in 1992 – I was technically an adult for about a decade before that but it took some money and a mindset change before I got around to acquiring my own tree; for years, in my mind at least, the only valid tree was the one at my parents’ place – I grabbed a demure 4 foot tall plastic pine tree (we love artificial trees here in Australia), some cheap colourful pieces of tinsel, a smattering of baubles and 4 or 5 Hallmark ornaments.
None of them were particularly pop culture-oriented but that was OK with me – I was happy just to have a tree up and decorated in my own apartment, just like a real grown up.
But as time went on, and I acquired more and more ornaments (and more and more and more ornaments …. you get the idea), I began to oh so subtlely and then with quite deliberate intent, buy ornaments that reflected my interests which were, and are, heavily weighted to TV, movies, books and music.
That’s not to say I didn’t start without any pop culture ornaments – Ernie and Bert, Big Bird and Grover were there from the word go, and remain with me still – but the collection increasingly came to be dominated by ornaments that featured characters from cartoons I watched growing up (lots of Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters) and movies and TV shows I watched now, and it felt like a natural evolution even if it didn’t divulge from the look and feel of a traditional Christmas tree.
Once I got over the fact that it wasn’t going ever to be a traditional tree largely because I am not, in most respects, a traditional person – save for my sentimental attachment to Christmas, the devotion to which knows no bounds – I became obsessed with tracking down Star Wars and The Muppets and Peanuts ornaments, Sesame Street tree toppers and stocking holders and Christmas plush toys from a host of retro and up to the minute cartoons.
I expected no one but myself to really enjoy the direction my tree decorating had taken but to my surprise people who visited my apartment during the festive period, which often included a New Year’s Eve party, loved the concept, partly due to nostalgia I suppose but also because the tree just looked like an immense amount of insanely-colourful fun.
Now I have in all actuality, decorated the tree long before this – as soon as my birthday is celebrated in late November, it’s time to “Deck the Halls, the tree, anything that moves and doesn’t” – but as in previous years, I thought I’d feature five of the ornaments and talk about why I love them, why the characters matter to me and how they came to be on the tree.
One of the first shows I ever watched on my return to Australia in mid-1970 – I came back from Bangladesh, where my parents had been stationed as missionaries, at the age of 4 1/2 and had no idea what TV even was; I was even, believe or not, scared of it at first! – was Sesame Street, a then-relatively brand new educational show for children, having only broadcast its first show on November 10, 1969.
Ernie and Bert actually pre-date the public launch of the show, having appeared in the pilot episode of the show in July 1969, which didn’t test well with audiences save for the cheeky rapport between the two best friends and housemates who naturally enough stayed for the first official episode and never left.
While I always felt a little sad for poor Bert who could never catch a break, and had a unnatural attachment to his pigeons, I couldn’t help but laugh at Ernie’s cheeky, blissfully unaware of the consequences antics, probably because my personality, though hemmed in at the time by the demands of being a Baptist minister’s son (trust me even then my true personality was curtailed!), very much matched his exuberant persona.
They were in fact one of the first characters to make their way onto my tree, or at least near it, after I discovered a delightful stocking holder of the pair sitting on a sleigh; but they found their own special place on the tree itself when I discovered these Grolier ornaments via Ebay which perfectly encapsulated the personalities and instructive mishaps of the hilarious twosome.
Thanks to the sheer number of ornaments I own, not every ornament makes it onto the tree every year; the exception, along with some other special characters, are these two which make it onto my tree year after year without fail.
JOE COOL aka SNOOPY
Snoopy is a bona fide legend.
One of the stars of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, which began publication on October 2, 1950 – it had its origins in an earlier panel strip called L’il Folks in the 1940s which featured a prototype of Snoopy and multiple anonymous characters called Charlie Brown depending on the day – he pretty much stole the show on many occasions with his refusal to act like a garden variety, everyday dog.
Gifted in 1952, after being silent for the first two years in the comic strip, with the ability to think and “verbalise” his thoughts – he never spoke out loud but everyone seemed to know what he was thinking and saying – he soon took on all manner of eccentric, anthropomorphic qualities including a vividly imaginative fantasy life where he embodied characters like a World War 1 Flying Ace forever battling the Red Baron, a “World Famous” writer (“It was a dark and stormy night …”), grocery clerk and Olympic figure skater, and of course, Joe Cool.
I loved pretty much every persona that Snoopy adopted – Charles Schulz noted in a 1997 interview with Comics Journal that he took on these fanciful identities due to the fact that “He has to retreat into his fanciful world in order to survive. Otherwise, he leads kind of a dull, miserable life. I don’t envy dogs the lives they have to live.” – but one of my great favourites, apart from the writer one naturally, was Joe Cool.
Oh to have his confidence, his cool factor, his ability to be the centre of attention and not feel the least bit self-conscious (by contrast, living in the goldfish bowl of pastoral life, I was acutely self-aware every minute of my existence) – oh how I envied him!
So there was no discussion to be entered into when Hallmark came out with a Joe Cool ornament in 2012.
He might have been too cool to sit chemistry exams as hung around the Student Union but he looks perfectly at home on my tree.
I cannot express how I love the child-like joyful goofiness of Fozzie Bear.
There are many members of The Muppets of whom I am most fond – Animal, Gonzo, Kermit and Beaker to name a very few – but somehow I keep coming back to Fozzie (created and developed by the legendary Jim Henson and Frank Oz), would be Vaudevillian stand-up comedian and goofball supreme, who first appeared on the debut season of The Muppet Show in 1976, instantly winning hearts everywhere with his folk-ish charm, and sweet enthusiasm for his chosen profession, even if truth be told he wasn’t really that good at it.
No one cared really, beyond Statler and Waldorf, how funny he was or wasn’t when he performed his routine since he was, hands down, one of the sweetest, most likeable, loyal and endlessly optimistic characters that Jim Henson and his amazingly talented crew ever produced.
Having him on the tree was a non-negotiable but finding just the right ornament took some time until one day on Ebay, a collection of The Muppets characters appeared – no maker noted nor box supplied so to this day I have no idea how to track down more of the series – including Animal and Gonzo (who I also snapped up), and my beloved Fozzie.
As per usual when these one-of-a-kind opportunities present themselves I didn’t have a lot of spare cash but there was no way this ornament, which channels the joyful can-do spirit of Fozzie better than any other I have seen, wasn’t going on my tree.
Among my most cherished childhood memories are the visits my family used to make once or twice a year to visit my grandparents who lived about 11-12 hours away from us (we were in Alstonville NSW, a small town 20 minutes south of Byron Bay), first in Sydney and the on the Central Coast.
While the drive getting there wasn’t a whole lot of fun – I am a destination kind of person, not so much a lover of the journey to get there – the idyllic ten days or so we would spend there would be filled with BBQ fish, chips (fries) and salad, Sara Lee Cheesecakes, long swims at the beach … and early morning cartoons starting at 6am that included The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-1964).
The brainchild of Jay Ward Productions, it featured a cast of delightfully offbeat, one-liner rich characters such as Dudley Do-Right, Mr. Peabody and Sherman (“Peabody’s Improbable History”), and of course the titular protagonists Rocky the squirrel and Bullwinkle the moose who were forever being unsuccessfully chased by Eastern European-esque spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.
The animation was brisk and colourful, the humour insanely clever and all it was all I could do not to laugh out loud when my sister and I were watching the show, especially when well-meaning but a tad clueless Bullwinkle was having to be saved yet again by the more astute and capable Rocky.
My delight then in finding that Carlton Cards had released a Rocky and Bullwinkle ornament – this was way back in 1997 which seems so long ago now – was thus beyond measure.
The only problem was that I was in Australia and the ornaments were in Canada in an era before e-commerce had really taken off so I did what any self-repsecting Christmas obsessive would do and I flew to Vancouver for a holiday.
Kidding. I was going anyway but getting this ornament was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
Back when I was a kid, everyone still fully believed that by the then far-off year of 2014, we would be living in futuristic towers, have robots at our beck and call, and travel everywhere by rocket pack or fast-as-lightning spaceships.
Sadly this didn’t come to pass in all its retro-futuristic glory but I always soothed my disappointment with the idea that I could always watch Hanna-Barbera’s The Jetsons (1962-63, 1985-87), the original series of which was composed of just 24 episodes (although another 51 were made in the ’80s) and imagine what might have been.
Watching George and Jane Jetson, their kids Elroy and Judy, dog Astro and Rosie the Robot living an unimaginably exotic life in the far future was a fun way to escape the fact that I still have to walk everywhere, didn’t have a hoverboard to my name and had to wait for the food to be cooked rather simply have it pop out of a machine (oh the indignities!).
And even though the future may not have arrived in quite the form I had expected it to, there was no reason I couldn’t have it just as Hanna-Barbera had imagined it by picking up the ornament Hallmark produced in its honour in 1996 (I later acquired Rosie the Robot too making the set complete), and so I did.
Now if I could just get the tree to decorate itself … kidding again … there is no way I would forgo decorating the tree, one of the highlights of any year, which has become not simply a way to mark “the most wonderful time of the year” but to celebrate all the joy and happiness that all these pop culture have brought my way.
If ever there was a word with which we all need to be familiar at this time of the year, it’s “Resist”.
But like Cookie Monster, who doesn’t quite get the concept, the idea of it evades many of us as we saunter off for another bathtub of eggnog, or our 10th serving of turkey and all the fixings.
Which is why we, and our seasonally expanding waistlines, should be eternally glad that Sir Ian McKellen decided to pop by and explain what the word “Resist” means, which he defines as controlling yourself and stopping yourself from doing something you really want to do.
Like eat your entire body weight in Santa-shaped chocolate.
Not that I ever be remotely tempted to do that of course #YESyesIhave
After failing to get the concept across to Cookie Monster using a “precioussssss” gold ring – wherever did he get the idea for that one from I wonder? Hmmm – he has more success with a cookie, something with which Cookie Monster is naturally quite familiar and the eating of which he really, REALLY, wants to do.
Of course while the meaning of “Resist” now rings crystal clear, that doesn’t mean that Cookie Monster, who admits the cookie is “calling me name” is a big fan of the word, clearly regretting opting to help out on this particular segment.
And yep you guessed it, the cookie gets it in the end.
Pretty much like my mother’s delicious, sumptuous Christmas buffet.
I may try to start resisting all that food sometime around January 2 I think …
“I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you; humbug.”
Christmas is without a doubt a most magical time of the year.
Of course if you’re Nick Grimm (David Giuntoli, his girlfriend Juliette (Bitsie Lee Tulloch), friends Monroe (Silar Weir Mitchell) and Rosalee (Bree Calvert) or police partner Hank (Russell Hornsby), you could well argue that life is pretty magical every single day of the year, such are their Wesen-fuelled less than ordinary lives.
Or nightmarish; you know, same same.
In the case of “The Grimm Who Stole Christmas”, it’s a bit of both with some eggnog-soaked odd and tinsel-garlanded strange thrown in, as what appear to be goblins romp their way through the gaily-decorated homes of Portland, smashing giant decorative candy canes here, pushing over immaculately-festooned Christmas trees there, and even roughing up one of the inhabitants who was unfortunate to get in their over-exuberant, naughty way ( no prizes for guessing which list Santa has these mischief makers on, assuming he has any idea what they are).
With one man in hospital from his injuries, and some very traumatised home owners on their hands, it’s up to Nick and Hank, and by extension Monroe, Rosalee and Juliette to figure out what they’re dealing with, and put a stop to it before any morning festively-decorated homes end up looking like a post-Christmas decorations bargain sale.
Given the world they work and live in, the first assumption is that they are Wesen but neither Monroe nor Rosalee recall seeing these small bauble-crushers before, ruling out them being part of some as yet un-encountered species.
This leaves the unsettling idea that they are non-Wesen creatures of myth, the likes of which Nick has come across before – think La Llorona and Volcanalis (season 2), or Krampus (season 3, whose origin was not definitively proven) – but some time at the trailer rules this out too, leaving them scratching their heads until a further trawl through the treasure trove of Grimm manuscripts uncovers references to Kallikantzaroi, goblin-like beings which appear for the 12 days of Christmas before disappearing never to be seen again.
So now there’s a name for them, an explanation for why they are running rampantly destructive in a circular pattern around an old Greek church in the centre of Portland and even a pointer to the Wesen from which they spring, Greek-originated Indole Gentile, a species who Monroe remarks have to be one of the nicest Wesen species around but whose pubescent children can, in a small number of cases, turn into monstrously mischievous beings over the Christmas season.
While they prove almost impossible to capture, track down or keep in a cage, they do have one achilles heel – a fondness for fruitcake so great that they can’t resist going after it wherever it might lie, in this case a whole van full of it (yes Portland has fruitcake vans; well if they don’t in real life, they should get one, seriously).
This then is how Nick, Hank and the others capture the three Wesen pubescent terrors, end their 12 days of Christmas terrorising of good decoration-loving citizens everywhere and promote the virtues of fruitcakes, as reviled a festive food as any you can think of (but nowhere near as bad as people seem to think, trust me).
What makes this light-and-frothy decidedly festive episode so charming, even if it is not as robust a story as last year’s “Twelve Days of Krampus” (season 3), is the way the producers of Grimm seem to have gone all out to create the kind of over the top Christmas wonderland, the goblin-ish crime notwithstanding, many of us would love to indulge in if only we had the time, money and a house big enough to do it justice.
It’s not only Monroe that is getting into the spirit of things this year, although as always he has pulled out all the stops, his endearing and infectious love of the season also now having spread to new wife Rosalee who admits to Juliette that Monroe’s given her the childhood she never really had; Nick and Juliette’s home is tinseled up as as are all the houses the goblins drop messily in on.
It seems Christmas is everywhere – even the goblins aren’t truly evil; just very naughty, hormonally charged boys with hygiene issues – as are all manner of narrative arc-advancing sub-plots.
Juliette may or may not be pregnant, Monroe and Rosalee are still being hounded by the the Secundum Naturae Ordinem Wesen, who object to the couple’s mixed-species marriage, something Trubel (Jacqueline Toboni) and newly-arrived in Portland friend Josh (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) find objectionable and do their best to stop but alas not before departing permanently to Philadelphia, and Sergeant Wu (Reggie Lee) is increasingly suspicious about the unexplained creatures he keeps seeing, making it clear to Nick via less-than-veiled comments that he knows something is up (“strange is your speciality”).
That’s a lot of moving of the narrative chess pieces, meaning that “The Grimm Who Stole Christmas”, which on balance was mainly a whole lot of fun and frothy silliness, just what the festive doctor ordered in fact, also functioned as a way of positioning the show for its final episode of the year “Chupacabra”, which frankly would be best eaten with some fruitcake.