My favorite films of 2015

Ranking movies is a fool’s game. I make these silly lists, partly because it’s fun and partly because I like to compare my picks to those of film critics and other movie nerds. But how does one really decide where a movie “ranks” – especially when movies are so different from each other, trying to do so many different things? Ultimately this is all a very arbitrary process, and influenced by irrelevant factors like when a movie came out or what kind of mood I was in when I saw it. I’m always questioning myself – like “would I have ranked Timbuktu higher if I hadn’t watched it on an eight hour airplane trip with a toddler kicking the back of my seat the whole time?”.

That said, there’s something irresistible about making these lists. You should try it! Even if you only saw five movies this year, put ’em in order and save it on the ol’ hard drive. In twenty years you can look back and laugh at how shitty your taste was.

On to my list! Usual disclaimer: I have no idea what I’m doing and no one should take my opinions seriously. Click titles for trailers.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road. I have zero nostalgia for the original Mad Max movies from the eighties (although I do like to quote “two men enter, one man leaves!” when hosting my local fight club). I generally hate GenX nostalgia and reboots in general. So I would not have believed you if you had told me a year ago that not only would a new Mad Max movie be the critical consensus for best film of the year but also my favorite film of the year as well. This was the perfect action movie: visual spectacle, amazing action sequences seamlessly blending practical effects and CGI, great humor, and powerful emotional moments. Unforgettable.
  2. Spotlight. This film about a team of journalists investigating sex abuse allegations in the Catholic church belongs to one of my favorite sub-genres of cinema: movies depicting competent professionals doing their jobs.  This movie could have gone big with the melodrama inherent in its subject matter, but instead chose to carefully parcel out the emotion in between riveting sequences showing how real journalism works and why its so important. Bizarrely, director Tom McCarthy also made one of the worst movies of the year – the Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler.
  3. Inside Out. I’m not normally a Pixar fan or a big enjoyer of children’s films in general. But I thought they knocked it out of the park with this revelatory exploration of human emotion. I’ve said before that I love films that make me feel something or make me think something – here’s a film that made me think about feeling and feel about thinking. RIP Bing Bong.
  4. The Martian. Here’s another one that tickles that part of my brain that loves watching competent people solve problems. The Martian is a film about problem-solving, a celebration of science and human ingenuity. It’s a wonderful antidote to the mysticism of movies like Interstellar and a reminder that we all have an amazing capacity to overcome adversity through determination and rationality.
  5. Spring. The films above are mainstays of critic top ten lists and will probably get at least some consideration at the Oscars. But I think I’m on my own with my love of Spring – a movie that no one has heard of and received zero votes in the Village Voice critics poll. It’s about an American guy travelling in Italy who falls in love with a beautiful girl who may or may not be some kind of alien or monster. It straddles the line between comedy, science fiction, and horror, while also being surprisingly romantic. I’m a sucker for a good love story, especially if it has a high body count.
  6. Sicario. This is a film that (for me at least) is about powerlessness – and the way violence tends to perpetuate itself despite the best intentions of well-meaning people. In some ways it’s the antithesis to The Martian but both films contain some truth. Sicario turns all of the “hero” tropes of movies like this and shows that in a chaotic world, sometimes being a hero doesn’t get you anywhere. Also, I’m a big Emily Blunt fan so her movies almost always get a ranking boost automatically.
  7. Steve Jobs. Many critics hated this but I’m a sucker for Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue (excepting The Newsroom). Danny Boyle is a director who I normally dislike, but here he seems like a good match for Sorkin’s acidic prose. The “three product launch” structure is genius, allowing the film to avoid the kind of biographical overload that makes most movies about real-life famous people feel like reading a long Wikipedia article. Plus you can’t stop the FASSBENDER.
  8. The Duke of Burgundy. Who knew the world needed a bedroom bondage drama about two lesbian lepidopterists, filmed in the style of 1970s European erotica? This movie feels like it came from some kind of parallel universe, but under its strange exterior it’s surprisingly relatable. Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship and struggled to please their partner will find something familiar in this movie. Love requires us to assume roles that may not always be . . . comfortable.
  9. Phoenix. It’s funny how sometimes you can be a little bored watching a movie and checking your phone and then one scene just knocks you so hard in the gut that you can’t even breathe.
  10. Magic Mike XXL. OK, I know that I’m going to take some shit over this one and have my sexuality questioned, but y’all have to trust me on this – Magic Mike XXL is terrific. It put a smile on my face that didn’t fade until the next day. You don’t have to like male strippers (if it helps, Amber Heard is crazy hot in this movie), you don’t have to like Channing Tatum, you don’t have to like the first Magic Mike (which was a very different type of movie). This is just a joyous celebration of performance, similar to Pitch Perfect or The Blues Brothers in its “put the band together and put on a show” kind of story. Put your squeamishness about the subject matter aside and just watch it.

The next five: Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Clouds of Sils Maria, It Follows, Youth, Creed.

Deserving of the inevitable Oscar nominations: Carol, The Big Short, Room, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn.

Interesting indies: Maps to the Stars, Tangerine, ’71, Appropriate Behavior, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Beasts of No Nation, Faults, Experimenter, Ex Machina, The Voices.

Foreign finds: Timbuktu, Goodnight Mommy. (This is a tough category for me because I usually catch up with foreign films after the new year).

Competent comedies: What We Do in the Shadows, Spy, Trainwreck, Pitch Perfect 2.

Long live big budget franchise movies! Avengers: Something or Other, The Hunger Games: Something or Other, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Ant-Man, Mission Impossible: Something or Other, Fast & Furious 7.

Death to big budget franchise movies! Terminator: Something or Other, Jurassic World, Spectre, Tomorrowland, Star Wars: Something or Other (sorry everyone).

The western lives! The Hateful Eight, Slow West.

Bad but also kind of interesting: Child 44, Aloha, Blackhat, Jupiter Ascending, Focus.

Worst of 2015: Minions. OK, I haven’t actually seen Minions. But it has to be the worst, right?

I still need to see: Anomalisa, The Revenant, Joy, Son of Saul, 45 Years, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Assassin, James White, Heaven Knows What, The Tribe, Court, a bunch of other stuff I’m probably blanking on.

My favorite TV of 2015

If it feels like there are more TV shows than ever before, it’s because there are. With over 400 scripted primetime shows airing this year between broadcast, cable, and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu – we are certainly living in Peak TV in America. Even professional TV critics can’t keep up with the river of content, so amateurs like me with day jobs can only hope to dip our cup in.

By the way – many people see the crazy number of shows on my end-of-year lists (and there are a bunch of shows I watched that don’t even appear below) and assume that I have no life and never get up from my couch. This could not be farther from the truth! The trick is multi-tasking. I watch shows while working out (exercise bike in the living room), while working (second monitor in my office), while dating (bring TV to restaurant and set it up in front of date), while driving (TV mounted on hood of car),  and while sleeping (glue eyelids open and take six Ambien).

To the List!

  1. The Leftovers. My favorite show of 2014 is also my favorite show of 2015. HBO’s slow burn drama about people living in a world where 2% of the population mysteriously disappeared only got better this season, with a move to Texas and a slightly lighter tone (people who found season 1 too depressing have reported liking season 2 better). Last season the show’s best episodes were the ones that focused on a single character and told a complete story without jumping around to see what the other characters were doing. Season 2 doubles down on this approach by ensuring each episode focuses on one or two characters and keeps the focus for maximum emotional impact. With most other dramas madly hopping around between several characters and plotlines within each episode (looking at you, Game of Thrones), this focused approach is a breath of fresh air. It’s like each episode is a small, perfectly crafted movie.
  2. The Americans. Yep, my #2 pick is the same as last year too. I promise that subsequent picks will branch out a bit. Not much I can say here that I haven’t said in previous years. Coming in to this season I only had one complaint about this show – that they didn’t give us enough time with the “robot” (more like a motorized shopping cart) that delivers mail in the FBI office. Well, this season gave us a whole episode centered around the mail robot, so I guess the show is perfect now. The fact that neither Matthew Rhys nor Keri Russell have even been nominated for an Emmy should be the biggest issue of the 2016 presidential election.
  3. Mr. Robot. Speaking of robots, here’s the best new show of 2015. It does not feature any actual robots. What it does feature is gripping storylines, visually striking direction, and the most realistic depiction of computer hacking ever on television (sort of the TV equivalent of WarGames). This is the show I recommend to people who miss Breaking Bad, as the two shows capture a similar tension and narrative propulsion.
  4. Fargo. Season 2 of this midwest noir jettisoned the characters of season 1 and brought the action back to 1979. I took a while to warm up to it but by the end of the season I was just as enthralled as last season. Initially annoying characters (like the one played by Kirsten Dunst) were revealed to have surprising and interesting depth. Also, this is a very violent show, which is a plus for me.
  5. Rick and Morty. I missed the first season of this animated comedy about a mad scientist who drags his reluctant grandson on a series of traumatizing adventures, so I got to watch two seasons this year. The show is brilliantly hilarious, but also poignant and sad at times, like all my favorite comedies.
  6. Mad Men. To tell you the truth I was slightly disappointed here. We only got seven episodes in the final season (due to AMC’s desperate need to milk the series out) and I feel like we wasted a lot of time on another Don Draper road trip. Still – Mad Men is Mad Men. Peggy Olson roller skating around the empty Sterling Cooper office is my favorite image of the year.
  7. Silicon Valley. This show espouses a vital truth that I’ve learned in my career – that people in the tech industry are just as full of shit as everyone else. The second season improved on the first season both in comedic and dramatic terms, building on the characters and creating more suspense between episodes.
  8. Bojack Horseman. An animated Hollywood satire with talking animals seems like an odd place to explore the elusive nature of happiness, but Bojack delivered again this year. The highlight of the season was the game show episode (the show within a show is called “Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities – Do they Know Stuff? What Do They Know? Let’s Find Out!”) which was the funniest 30 minutes of TV all year, hands down.
  9. Justified. I left it out of the top 10 last year but the final season of one of my all-time favorite shows came roaring back with an electrifying final season featuring some heavy hitting guest star villains and a finale which brought the saga of Raylan Givens to a deeply satisfying conclusion.
  10. You’re the Worst. It may say something about my interests and personality that at least six of the shows on this list are explicitly about depression and/or other types of mental illness. Gretchen’s depression arc on You’re the Worst lent some gravity to one of the best “dramedies” on television.

The next five: Better Call Saul, Man Seeking Woman, Parks and Recreation, iZombie, Show Me a Hero.

Other shows I enjoyed a lot, in no particular order: UnREAL (yes, I watched a whole season of a show on the Lifetime channel), The Good Wife, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Girls, Outlander, Game of Thrones, Veep, Togetherness, Halt and Catch Fire, Hannibal, Last Man on Earth, Deutschland ’83, True Detective (season 2 was a letdown but didn’t deserve the drubbing it received from critics), Orange is the New Black, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Fortitude, Catastrophe, The Brink, Homeland.

Shows I like but haven’t had time to finish: Master of None, The Expanse, The Man in the High Castle, Wolf Hall, Review, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, Wet Hot American Summer, Moonbeam City, Survivor’s Remorse, The Returned, Casual, Transparent, Neon Joe: Werewolf Hunter, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Another Period, Rectify, Sense8, Narcos, Broad City. There’s never enough time.

Why did I watch an entire season of this: Zoo.

If you don’t see your favorite show here, it might be because I haven’t gotten around to watching it. Or maybe I hate it and I hate you for liking it! Hit me up on twitter (@timcrockett) to find out which.

Why I Hate Star Wars

(EDIT 12/29/15 – see bottom of this article for additional comments now that I’ve seen the movie)

Recently there was an article by Adam Rogers in Wired describing the Star Wars franchise plans currently being cooked up over in Disney-owned Lucasfilm. The article describes the “industrialization” of Star Wars and contains this sentence: “The company intends to put out a new Star Wars movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets.” Hearing this might elicit one of three responses:

A) A new Star Wars every year! I’m literally salivating with excitement.

B) *Shrug*. I don’t really care, it’s not my kind of movie.

C) This chills me to the very bone.

I’m firmly in Group C. And if you care about movies, you should be too.

Let’s be clear – I have no problems with the original Star Wars trilogy. I loved them as a kid, and still enjoy them today. I even like the prequel trilogy. And I will probably go see the new movies when they come out (at least for a while – by 2020 I may be suffering from lightsaber fatigue). The new Episode VII: The Force Something-or-Other will probably be competent and entertaining, like most films from director JJ Abrams. I doubt it will be groundbreaking or awe-inspiring, but it won’t be Transformers.

My beef is not with Star Wars the movie, or Star Wars the series of movies. What draws my ire is Star Wars, the Beast That Ate Pop Culture.

Even under normal circumstances, Star Wars is pretty ubiquitous. It accounts for 60% of internet humor, 47% of Halloween costumes, 32% of humorous bumper stickers, 71% of toys, 49% of video games, and 92% of science fiction book sales. I made those numbers up, but admit it – they seem reasonable. Now that we’re a month away from the first new Star Wars film in a decade, the whole culture has gone into full Star Wars mode. I recently opened up ThinkGeek to do some nerdy holiday shopping and found to my dismay that they apparently only sell Star Wars paraphernalia now. Most of the movie or sci-fi related sites in my RSS feed have been shoving Star Wars news down my throat at an insane rate for a year. Every day there is a new scene, or a new trailer, or a new Mark Hamill quote, or a new piece of news about which actor or director is now attached to Episode XXIV or whatever. You can escape Star Wars mania by avoiding pop culture altogether, but if you want to hear more about the next Coen Brothers movie, you’re going to have to wade through 600 articles about Episode VII before you find what you’re looking for.

The movie Clerks came out in 1994 and featured a scene where two characters have an ethical debate about Return of the Jedi. When I saw this as a teenager, it blew my mind. Here are two normal, not-too-nerdy guys talking about science fiction like other guys talked about football. Just like my friends and I did! I think a lot of adults today can remember back to when we were teenagers and sci-fi/fantasy/comics/etc were our things, the interests that set us apart from other kids at school.

But it’s not 1994 anymore – it’s 2015, and now everyone talks about Star Wars. Kids grow up on it, sci-fi is mainstream and no longer the domain of a few kids hanging out in the AV room after class. Which is great – I have no problem with something I like becoming popular. I’m not trying to sound like some hipster who’s upset because a band I like went mainstream.

Star Wars didn’t just go mainstream, it metamorphized into a lumbering giant shitting out product after product all over the pop cultural landscape. We haven’t gotten a new movie in a while but we’ve gotten a cornucopia of books, video games, comics, animated series, toys, and even sleeping bags. I don’t understand how people who are excited about the upcoming movie aren’t sick to death of lightsabers, Jedi, droids, X-Wings, etc. The iconic John Williams music is great, but when you’ve heard it literally thousands of times in your life, doesn’t it get old?

I highly recommend Mark Harris’s article last year in Grantland where he talks about Hollywood’s “toxic addiction to franchises”. He mostly takes aim at Marvel but the same criticisms could be leveled at Star Wars as well. Essentially, the major film studios are only willing to spend major cash on a film if it can be commodified and turned into a recurring franchise. Many film critics have bemoaned the death of the “mid-budget” film – small, low-budget films can still get funding, giant blockbusters can still get funding, but everything in the middle is toast. If you want $100 million for a movie that isn’t part of a franchise – your last name better be Spielberg or Scorsese.

Obviously, great films still get made. Even great non-franchise science fiction gets made – in recent years we’ve gotten terrific big budget standalones like Oblivion, Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, The World’s End, Interstellar, Gravity, and The Martian in addition to great indies like Attack the Block, Snowpiercer, Ex Machina, Coherence, and Primer. A couple of those films even made a lot of money. But as Harris points out, “the evidence that good movies survive…is a bit like saying that climate change is a hoax because it’s nice out today.” No one expects to see franchises crush non-franchise moviemaking entirely, but we don’t have visibility on all the movies that don’t get made because some studio exec vetoed a pitch due to a lack of franchise potential.

And, as Shakespeare said, “the fault is not in our Star Wars but in ourselves”. You can’t blame Hollywood – they’re just making the stuff we want to buy. Disney is funneling all of their cash into Marvel and Lucasfilm because fans have voted with their wallets and their feet and their tweets. As a culture we have collectively decided that what we want is more of the same: more Star Wars, more Avengers, more Batman, more Ghostbusters, more Indiana Jones, more of all the stuff that we already know we like. Great movies like Edge of Tomorrow eat dust at the box office because people don’t know what to expect – it doesn’t have the safety of an existing property.

I often hear people bemoaning all of the sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes flooding theaters these days. But the same people who will roll their eyes when they hear about a new Robocop reboot or a new take on The Smurfs will drool over every morsel of news regarding Star Wars. Many reboots fail, but the box office for Jurassic World shows that if you tap into the right vein of nostalgia, it doesn’t matter how mediocre your movie is.

Science fiction fandom should be about celebrating the huge diversity of the genre, the incredible originality, the blossoming of a thousand new ideas all the time. Instead, conversation inevitably leads back to the same old franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings. Personally I would rather watch and discuss misfires with originality (like Elysium or Jupiter Ascending – movies that are bad but at least trying something a little different) than the next franchise movie. It seems like what most people want is small variations on things they already know they like. They want to go to the theater and know, before they get there, exactly what they’ll be getting.

When Star Wars came out, it represented something new and original. The trilogy resonated with people because it felt unique and daring and outsider-y. In 2015, Star Wars represents commodification, corporatization, and conformity. It’s the output of a moviemaking process that starts with marketing and works backwards to a script. The new movies might be good, or they might be crap. But what they definitely will be is safe. They won’t challenge us or our view of the world, and they won’t take the kind of risks that produce truly great films. Because Disney isn’t going to take any chances with their $10 billion dollar franchise.

Addendum 12/29/15 – I’ve now seen The Force Awakens and it was more or less what I expected. I liked the new actors and there were some fun action scenes, but the movie as a whole seems to be entirely playing off nostalgia. It assumes that Star Wars fans want to be coddled with lots of stuff that they’ve already seen before, and based off the box office it appears that it assumes correctly. Other writers have done much better than I could in describing how much this movie steals from the original. In addition to the constant recycling of moments from the original trilogy, I was also annoyed by the thin plotting and the lack of world-building. I was hoping for a decent explanation of the political situation – if I have to go home and Google “difference between Republic and Resistance in Force Awakens” then there’s been a screenwriting failure.

Look, I don’t expect (or want) a Star Wars movie to be Citizen Kane. But as seen by other big-budget action movies this year like Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s possible to do a big fun adventure movie while still having a plot that feels original and unfolds organically. I think the best comparison to The Force Awakens is last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, another franchise installment about a group of misfits having adventures in space. Guardians is better than The Force Awakens in every way – it has better characters (and better character arcs), more originality, funnier jokes, better serious moments, and a far more emotionally moving climax. The only thing it doesn’t have is lightsabers, TIE fighters, and a John Williams score designed to return us all to our eight-year old selves watching A New Hope for the first time. The real question will be if the nostalgia mining will be enough to sustain fan interest in 2019 when we’re watching the fifth new Star Wars movie in five years.

My favorite films of 2014

I’ve been called “cynical” a few times in my life (actually I think technically the word used was “asshole”). I couldn’t possibly comment on my own disposition, but I’ll admit that when it comes to movies, I have a definite love in my heart for the cynical, the bitter, the unsentimental in filmmaking. Especially when it comes to the endings of movies. There are just so many Hollywood endings out there giving us the emotional catharsis that we crave: punishment for the bad guys, hope and redemption for the good guys. Sometimes I worry that American audiences are too used to that immediate emotional gratification they’re used to getting at the end of a film. So it fills me with hope,  ironically, to see something as dark and cynical as Gone Girl do well at the box office.

That’s not to say that I don’t like happy endings – there are certainly some uplifting and sentimental endings in my top 10. But happy endings are best when filmmakers show the cost of a happy ending – what price the protagonists had to pay to get where they needed to be. That’s why I’m so enamored of a film like Selma, which portrays MLK as a great man staggering under the human cost of his victories. Or an ending like that of Birdman, where the main character both literally and figuratively gives up a piece of himself in pursuit of his art.

Wow, this is getting pretentious – on to the top 10! Usual disclaimer: I am purely an amateur film critic (and not a particular good one) so don’t take any of this too seriously.

  1. Whiplash. One of my favorite films of all time is Amadeus (thirty years old this year!). Whiplash reminded me a lot of Amadeus in exploring how creating great music can exact a terrible toll. This movie is about a young jazz drummer who suffers at the hands of a sadistic music teacher. The film gradually forces us to ask ourselves whether the abuse this kid endures is actually exactly what he needs to become the musician that he desperately wants to be. Terrific film all around and unquestionably my favorite of the year (last year I wavered on what #1 would be, this year it was no contest). I’m really hoping it picks up a Best Picture Oscar nomination this week.
  2. The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s a great video series called Every Frame a Painting. In the case of this movie, I think that sentence is literally true – there’s not a single shot of this movie that isn’t carefully composed and beautiful. The amount of work that Wes Anderson puts into each and every scene is staggering – I really could frame almost any shot and hang it on the wall (maybe not the one where Jeff Goldblum’s fingers get chopped off).
  3. Selma. This film wins the 12 Years a Slave award for “Most Essential Film of the Year” – meaning the movie that I wish every American would go out and see (runner-up: Citizenfour). But putting aside the historical importance, this is just a great human story and also a fascinating explication of how protest movements work.
  4. Nightcrawler. Remember when I said I like my movies with a healthy dose of cynicism? They don’t come more cynical than Nightcrawler. One reviewer called it a “dose of jet-black bile”. Although it sometimes feels like the best film of 1974 (does anyone even watch local news anymore?), it has a lot to say on the way in which our society rewards terrible people for indulging our fears and desires.
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy. No cynicism here – just good old-fashioned popcorn movie fun. I got in an argument a few months back over whether this was a better film than Interstellar. Interstellar is a more serious and ambitious film on every level, but I believe in judging movies on what they are trying to do – and GotG succeeds at what it’s trying to be (a rousing sci-fi comic book action comedy) far better than Interstellar succeeds at what it’s trying to be (too many things at once).
  6. Inherent Vice. I’ve tried to read like six of Thomas Pynchon’s books and this is the only one that I’ve actually finished. Paul Thomas Anderson predictably does a great job capturing the book’s mix of drug humor and melancholy. It’s basically like a stoner Chinatown.
  7. Gone Girl. Any literary adaptation is going to lose something from page-to-screen, and this is no exception. Compared to the book, I thought the movie did a worse job of humanizing the Amy character and exploring her motivations and character conflicts. That said, the movie gained something from the book – the intense perfectionist eye of David Fincher, a director who I’ve never been able to love but always admire.
  8. Birdman. This movie is pretentious as all get-out, and I intensely dislike the director’s earlier work (ugh, Babel). But it won me over on the strength of great performances and bravura cinematography (the whole film appears to be one long, unedited take). I like a good dose of surrealism, and will take the bizarre strangeness of a movie like Birdman over the low-key realism of a Boyhood any day.
  9. Wild. This verges on being too saccharine for me. It probably helps that I saw it on the same weekend as The Theory of Everything which is sentimental enough to make Wild look like Nightcrawler. The narrative where a character finds their true self in the outdoors is tired, but I really enjoyed the vibe of this movie and the way in which it crafted flashbacks that felt like real memories.
  10. Coherence. I love small, cerebral sci-fi movies. It’s hard to discuss this movie without spoiling it, but I highly recommend it for fans of thought provoking science fiction. Terrific cliffhanger ending as well.

Honorable Mentions: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (best superhero movie of the year), John Wick (best action movie of the year), Ida (best nun movie of the year)

More Honorable Mentions: Hmmmm. How about Muppets Most Wanted, Blue Ruin, Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, and Top Five

C’mon you got more honorable mentions than that: More?  OK, let’s see. Noah, Hunger Games: Something or Other, Veronica Mars, Boyhood, They Came Together, We Are the Best!

Still not enough honorable mentions. Goddamn it, fine. The Lego Movie, Cheap Thrills, X-Men: Whatever Whatever, Under the Skin, Proxy, The Imitation Game, Locke, Big Hero 6, The Guest

Worst of the Year: I, Frankenstein

My favorite TV of 2014

I feel like every year I start this column by saying “This was an amazing year of television”. Maybe if every year is an amazing year of television, then actually no year is. Or maybe it’s something like what Peter tells his therapist in Office Space – “Each day is a little worse than the one before it, so every day you see me you’re seeing me on the worst day of my life.” The current situation with television is the opposite of that – every year that goes by is a little better than the one before it, so every year is the best ever year for television. There are just more quality shows in more places than ever before, more than any human has time to watch. I think several of my Honorable Mentions would have made Top 5 a few years ago.

Usual disclaimer: I make no pretense of being even an amateur critic; I just like TV/movies and I like making lists of things. If you think my choices are ridiculous, you are probably right. Also, I don’t consider non-fiction TV for my lists, even awesome shit like Something Something with John Oliver.

  1. The Leftovers. This show snuck up on me in a big way. I was skeptical of the premise (2% of the world’s population vanishes one day, and everyone else goes a little bit insane over it) and not anxious for another sci-fi mystery from Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof. After the first couple of episodes, I was still not that into it and almost bailed at one point. Thankfully I stuck with it, and it gradually became my favorite show of the year. Incredible performances from Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon (who was the center of my favorite TV episode of the year, “Guest”) anchored a tightly-crafted meditation on the ways in which people cope with loss. It was depressing as hell, in the best way possible, and it stayed with me for weeks, popping into my head while I drove to work or took a shower. The best shows haunt your thoughts long, after you’ve turned off the television.
  2. The Americans. This show about two Russian spies living in America in the 1980s was on my list last year but came up even better this in 2014. It’s very difficult to create a good family drama, and very difficult to create a great spy show. Doing both at the same time seems nearly impossible, but this show pulls it off. I especially enjoy how the show weaves current events from the era (Reagan getting shot, the Iran-Contra affair) into the story in a believable way.
  3. Happy Valley. This British crime drama (available on Netflix) deals with the fallout from a kidnapping in rural Yorkshire. The main character is a middle-aged police sergeant (played by Sarah Lancashire) who is beset by past tragedies, family problems, and the soul-deadening weight of doing her difficult job day in and day out. The show is tense and thrilling at times, but the reason it stuck with me was its exploration of how being a good person and doing right by ones family and community can be both the most difficult and the most important thing in the world.
  4. The Good Wife. This show has been a mainstay of my top 10 lists for years and I’ve run out of good things to say about it. You know what’s weird? This is the only show on my list that airs on the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW). There’s one other in Honorable Mentions (Parks and Rec). That’s it – of my 25 favorite shows only two are network shows. Tough times for traditional broadcast.
  5. You’re the Worst. This acidic comedy, about two hateful people who sleep with each other and then grudgingly start a relationship, entertained me from start to finish. I don’t like comedies that don’t have some dramatic elements (pure joke delivery machines like Family Guy aren’t my thing). This show brought me in with the clever punchlines but kept me coming back by keeping me invested in the characters. I also like the idea that there’s somebody out there for everybody, even if you’re a complete jerk. Even assholes deserve soul mates! (see also: Bojack Horseman)
  6. Mad Men. One of my all-time favorite shows, Mad Men was hurt a bit by AMC’s dumb decision to split the final season up and only show seven episodes this year. Seven episodes isn’t inherently a problem (Happy Valley only had six) but these seven felt like half a season. I loved these episodes though, and can’t express how much I want to grab a bite at Burger Chef with Don, Peggy, and Pete. Also I want to know if Ginsberg was right about the computer talking to him.
  7. True Detective. It’s possible that the ranking I gave this show was hurt by the fact that it aired back in January and my memory of it is slightly fuzzy. I definitely raved about it at the time, thinking it had a strong chance at being #1 on my end-of-year list. The fact that I later saw six shows I liked even better says something about TV in 2014. Of special note is the amazing directing work of Cary Fukunaga, especially the astounding long-take scene in the fourth episode.
  8. Fargo. The world definitely didn’t need a TV version of the most overrated Coen Brothers film (don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan. It’s just not one of their best in my opinion). But creator Noah Hawley crafted an intricate tale that both paid homage and in some ways surpassed its film origin. Billy Bob Thornton plays one of the more memorable on-screen badasses of all time. You betcha!
  9. Orange is the New Black. I liked season one better, mainly because the season two “big bad” character played by Lorraine Toussaint didn’t really work for me. Still this remains one of the absolute best shows on television (or the internet, as the case may be). I love how the show manages to humanize and deepen even the most villainous people on the show (like the female warden) so that you really do feel compassion for people you never thought you could empathize with.
  10. I can’t decide! No that’s not the name of a show (not even a wacky game show). I really can’t decide. Seriously, any of the Honorable Mentions below could go into this spot, but none of them I liked unequivocally. I had Game of Thrones here, but then I thought about the things I don’t like about that show, so I replaced it with Bojack, then with Girls. Argh! Screw it, it’s a top 9 this year.

Honorable Mentions:  Game of Thrones, Hannibal, Girls, Louie, Bojack Horseman

More Honorable Mentions: Justified,  Olive Kitteridge, Review, Transparent, Silicon Valley

Seriously, Have a Few More Honorable Mentions: Masters of Sex, Chozen, Parks and Recreation, The Honourable Woman, Outlander

Too Many Cooks Honorable Mentions: Veep,  Orphan Black, Boardwalk Empire, Broad City

Stretching a Bit Here: Archer, Arrow, Homeland (pending next week’s season finale), Downton Abbey

Why Did I Watch the Full Season of This: House of Cards, The Newsroom

Super Bowl bets I have made

Go Hawks!
Go Hawks!

My favorite NFL team, the Seattle Seahawks, are playing in the Super Bowl this Sunday. They are playing against the Denver Broncos, a team with many fans in my social circles. I hail from eastern Idaho which is farther from Denver than you’d think but still a hotbed of pro-Bronco sentiment since the local TV stations always show the Denver game if they have a choice. I know many, many Denver fans. As a “gambling man” (some might say a “degenerate”), I recognized this as a perfect storm of betting opportunity. Below I have enumerated the various Super Bowl bets I have placed with friends and family.

  • Bet with my friend Marcus: $50
  • Bet with my cousin Dave: $100 and a bottle of the winner’s favorite libation (In Dave’s case, Glenlivet 18 Year Scotch. In my case, Diet Pepsi)
  • Bet with my coworker Pradeep: $87.36 and the loser must wear the winning team’s jersey to work the next day.
  • Bet with Steve, manager of my local 7-11: If Steve wins, he gets free business consulting including process optimization, technology enablement, and IT services. If I win, I get free Big Gulps.
  • Bet with my friend Manuel: Loser must loudly tell all their friends and family members that they “just watch the Super Bowl for the commercials” and act as if they genuinely believe that they are the first person to ever say this.
  • Bet with my neighbor Angie: Loser must post an unpopular political opinion on Facebook (example – “The only way to solve our obesity epidemic is to mandate liposuction for chubby babies”) and fully defend that position in the ensuing comment discussion, including answering every single comment, no matter how long the thread gets.
  • Bet with my cousin’s husband’s brother Brad: Loser must go see the film “I, Frankenstein” and write a six page essay (double space, normal sized font) reviewing the film and discussing it from the standpoint of postmodern deconstructionist theory.
  • Bet with my ex-girlfriend Rachel: Loser must lavishly praise the winner’s lovemaking abilities, to everyone, all the time, forever.
  • Bet with my pharmacist Gary: Winner gets naming rights to loser’s firstborn child.
  • Bet with my friend Aaron: Loser must film a sex tape and post it online. Both participants in said sex tape must be wearing uniform of winning team including helmet and pads. At the climax of said sex tape, loser must scream out either “BEAST MODE” (if I win) or “OMAHA” (if he wins).
  • Bet with my coworker Ted: Loser is required to give up on all his hopes and goals in life. Loser must accept that his best days are behind him, and it’s time to face the long, slow decline into old age and obscurity, never having accomplished all the things he dreamed of doing in his younger days. Loser must confront head-on the fact that the current daily grind is actually as good as it’s going to get. Winner gets to persist in the delusion that a better life is around the corner.

My favorite films of 2013

Bye bye Sandra
Bye bye Sandra

Every year I post this list and someone asks me how I have time to see so many movies. I’m something of a data nerd and I like to record data about my activities, which comes in handy for answering questions like this. In 2013, I watched 107 movies, of which 57 were 2013 releases and therefore eligible for the end of the year list. That’s basically one trip to the theater and one home rental a week. I’m sure that’s more than most people, but it doesn’t seem that crazy to me (especially because the theater is two blocks away). I may not have much of a social life, but it’s not because I watch too many movies (it’s actually because most people are intimidated by my good looks).

Usual disclaimer – I’m not much of a film critic and my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. A grain of salt which, when viewed under a microscope, contains the inscription: “THIS ASSHOLE WOULDN’T KNOW A GOOD MOVIE IF IT HIT HIM IN THE FACE.”

  1. Gravity. This movie is amazing. A supreme technical achievement, a sphincter-clenching thriller, a first-rate acting showcase, and possibly the first movie since Avatar that I thought was worth wearing those dipshit 3D glasses for. I’ll admit the story and script are a bit weak, but no film this year rivaled it for sheer spectacle. This movie went up and did not come down.
  2. Her. When I heard the premise of this movie (“Joaquin Phoenix plays a sensitive man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system”) I had to suppress a gag reflex. This film is about a thousand times better than you would think based on the ridiculous-sounding plot. It was a really tough choice to pick between this and Gravity for the #1 spot.
  3. Upstream Color. This is a small, independent film that few people saw (from the director of Primer, another fantastic, little-watched film). Like Her, it’s nominally science fiction but really at its core about relationships and their aftermath. It’s also incredibly weird (the main characters may or may not be psychically linked to two pigs), and you will definitely spend time on the internet afterward trying to figure out exactly what you just saw. Well worth your time!
  4. Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m a nut for the Coen brothers and even though I consider this probably one of their lesser works, I’m unable to place it any lower than #4. There’s not much plot here, it’s a film focused on character and music and setting (Greenwich Village folk music scene in the 1960s). I’m not a fan of folk music but I enjoyed spending some time hanging out with a classic Coen character. Also a great movie for cat lovers.
  5. Before Midnight. The third of Richard Linklater’s “Before” movies, this continues the story of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s decades long romance. I still think Before Sunset is the best of the three, but I love all three. Here’s hoping they make another one in nine years.
  6. No. As a former political worker, I thoroughly enjoyed this Chilean film which explored the intersection of advertising and politics in the last days of the Pinochet regime. The movie is shot using the VHS cameras of the time, so it really has the feeling of watching history.
  7. The World’s End. Edgar Wright’s conclusion to his “Cornetto Trilogy” (begun with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) is hilarious, but also the most poignant and sad of his films. Completely relatable for any of us who feel like we maybe haven’t grown up enough since leaving high school.
  8. American Hustle. This movie was very well done, very funny, very sly. I can’t escape the feeling, though, that it’s just a bit slight. There’s not as much going on under the surface as there are in the other films on this list. I think it made it on the list just because of Louis CK as the FBI middle manager.
  9. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I’m a little embarrassed to have this on the list but I honestly love this movie. I thought it was far better than the first Hunger Games movie and had a lot going for it. It’s a fun adventure but also a trenchant political film. Jennifer Lawrence glaring at the camera in the final scene may by my favorite scene of the year.
  10. Oblivion. This is my “most underrated” film. I love science fiction, especially ORIGINAL science fiction, based on a new idea and not just pumping some moribund franchise for more money (*cough* Star Trek *cough*). Critics didn’t love it but I found this to be surprisingly well made. Great action setpieces, thought provoking ideas, and gorgeous cinematography. Don’t worry, I still hate Tom Cruise.

Honorable Mentions: Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Drug War, Frances Ha, Frozen, Stories We Tell, The East, Computer Chess, Side Effects, Iron Man 3, Stoker, and, oh fuck it, Pacific Rim

Most Essential Film of the Year: 12 Years a Slave. I struggled with where to put this one on the list, as I have very mixed emotions about it. This is a great film, perhaps the best of the year. I hated watching it. Every American should see this movie (especially politicians who compare our national debt problem to slavery). I never want to watch it again. This movie is rich and complex and important and really really brutal and horrifying. I’m glad I saw it, but at the end of the day, I’m not a fan of horror films. This movie teeters on the edge between historical document and torture porn. Ultimately I couldn’t call it one of my “favorite” films so I had to make up a category for it.

Disqualified for Moral Reasons: The Wolf of Wall Street. There was so much to love here. It was funny as hell, the dialogue and acting were fantastic, the cinematography daring and who couldn’t love the Quaalude scene. But I can’t condone a movie that’s just going to help create another generation of Wall Street assholes. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio insist that this movie is a critique of the lifestyle depicted in the film, but when you watch the movie it feels more like a celebration. The character DiCaprio plays is a real life guy, Jordan Belfort, who was inspired by Gordon Gekko from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Wall Street is far more critical of Wall Street than The Wolf of Wall Street, yet dickwads like Belfort still revere Gordon Gekko as a hero. Imagine how many finance douches will be quoting from Wolf for the next thirty years. I can’t be a part of it.

Biggest Disappointments: A Good Day to Die Hard, Elysium.

Least Favorite of 2013: Man of Steel

My favorite TV of 2013

Walt and Hank up to wacky hijinks
Walt and Hank up to some wacky hijinks

I thought this was an incredible year for television – a lot of my favorite shows came back strong and some great new series popped up in some unexpected places (e.g. Netflix, the Sundance Channel). This year I had to install a workout bike in front of my TV so I could have time to watch all the shows I wanted and also exercise have something to hang clothes on.

Usual disclaimer: I make no pretense of being even an amateur critic, I just like TV/movies and I like making lists of things. If you think my choices are ridiculous, you are probably right. Also, I didn’t rate non-scripted TV (it’s apples and oranges to compare these shows to something like The Daily Show).

  1. Top of the Lake. As much as it pains me to move the final season of Breaking Bad to number two, no show in 2013 stuck with me like this Sundance Channel miniseries created by director Jane Campion. Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss plays a detective who returns to her New Zealand hometown and becomes involved in the case of a missing girl. The show is an absolutely gut-wrenching look at the long-term effects of sexual violence. I also commend this show for being what so few shows dare to be these days – a one-shot miniseries with no plans to go additional seasons. At six hours, it’s the perfect length for the story it wants to tell.
  2. Breaking Bad. It was amazing how popular this show got in its final season – it seemed like everyone I know either watched it this season or was rushing to catch up. While the snobby hipster part of my brain may be disappointed (“I liked this show before it was cool!”), I’m very glad that this show finally got the cultural attention it has always deserved. This was an incredible season of television and the perfect capstone to one of the greatest series of all time. In the same way that people remember where they were during major world events, I’ll always remember where I was when I watched “Ozymandias” (my parents’ weekend condo in Driggs, Idaho). That episode was like getting punched repeatedly in the stomach, but in a good way.
  3. Orange is the New Black. I almost didn’t watch this women’s prison show because of the stupid title and because it was a Netflix Original (House of Cards was decent but disappointing – it felt like the show Netflix’s computers wanted to make rather than an actual person’s artistic vision). Anyway – OITNB. It’s both moving and hilarious, and justifies a one-month Netflix subscription  by itself. If you’re on the fence about whether to watch this show, consider these actual episode titles from this season: “Tit Punch”, “Lesbian Request Denied”,  “Fucksgiving”.
  4. Mad Men. Sometimes I feel like Mad Men is getting too repetitive – the Don Draper arc this season felt very much like a retread of Don Draper storylines we’ve seen before. That said, this is still a terrific show and created some interesting new situations for some of my favorite characters. Lots of good stuff this season for Peggy, Sally, and Pete (not enough Joan or Roger though in my humble opinion). Plus the episode where everyone was running around high on amphetamines.
  5. The Good Wife. I’ve always enjoyed this show but 2012 was a down year and as of this time last year I considered this an above-average show that had maybe been on the air too long. Then The Good Wife ripped off a string of great episodes to end season four, and season five so far has been even better, as the law firm at the center of the show has erupted in civil war. At this point I’m ready to declare this the greatest lawyer show ever (sorry, L.A. Law). This show has a particular genius with guest casting – they have a way of finding great actors to play clients, judges, or opposing lawyers and investing them with more character than you usually see in people who show up for one or two episodes.
  6. The Americans. This Cold War spy drama was one of the best new shows of the year. I loved that even in the midst of the complicated spy games, the show took time to show the complications of the main characters’ marriage and by the end of the season, I was as invested as to whether or not they would stay together as I was to whether they would get caught by the FBI.
  7. Orphan Black. This little Canadian sci-fi cloning caper quickly became one of my favorite shows of the year on the strength of Tatiana Maslany’s amazing performance (playing several different characters), a terrific sense of humor, and approximately 35 thunderous plot twists per episodes. This show burned through more plot in a season than some shows do in six, and yet the writers were able to maintain the breakneck pace without falling on their face.
  8. Game of Thrones. Worth watching this season just to enjoy the internet have a collective panic attack in the wake of the Red Wedding. I thought this was the strongest season of GoT yet and featured the best fight of the year between a one-armed man and a bear.
  9. Girls. Not sure I liked this season as much as I liked the first one, but still a very original show with vivid characters and a true-to-life vibe. I especially enjoyed the Patrick Wilson episode that a lot of other people seemed to dislike.
  10. Bunheads. RIP Bunheads, one of two shows in 2013 that I would put in the “Cancelled Too Soon” category (the other being the similarly delightful Family Tree). I tried to evangelize this one but it’s tough to convince my friends (most of whom are, like me, straight men) to watch a ballerina show.

Honorable Mentions: Justified, Hannibal, Broadchurch, Rectify, Masters of Sex, Boardwalk Empire, Family Tree, Parks and Recreation, Venture Bros., Archer, Veep, the last few episodes of Homeland.


My favorite films of 2012

moonrise kingdom
Lots of good films to be spied this year.

The most irritating thing about making a year-end list of favorite movies is that so many of the top-releases (especially those considered “Oscar Bait”) are jammed out in the last month of the year, and if you miss them in theaters there’s no way to see them until spring. Zero Dark Thirty is the film critics’ consensus film of the year, but it’s only open in NY/LA right now and won’t even come out here until Jan. 11th. It’s irritating to read a bunch of critics’ top ten lists and see several movies that I couldn’t even see now if I wanted to.

Anyway, it was a good year for movies! Here is my list. Usual disclaimer – I’m not much of a film critic (not even much of an amateur film critic) so don’t take my opinions too seriously or anything. These are just the movies that tickled my fancy.

  1. Moonrise Kingdom. I run hot and cold on Wes Anderson so when I heard that this was his “most Wes Anderson-y” film I prepared to dislike it. Instead it was both the funniest comedy and the most heartfelt romance on screen this year. I love Anderson’s visual sense of humor – his ability to tell jokes just by juxtaposing things in the frame. Key Ingredient: Bill Murray.
  2. Life of Pi.  Another one I thought I wouldn’t like. Perhaps low expectations are the key to maximum enjoyment? This film was incredibly lush and beautiful, especially in 3D. I’m not ashamed to say I cried a little at the end. Key Ingredient: tigers.
  3. The Master. Don’t ask me to explain the themes or symbolism of this movie. I found it beautiful but frustratingly opaque and I still don’t think I understand it very well. But I saw it twice in the theater and couldn’t get it out of my head for several weeks – a mark of a great film, no? Key Ingredient: moonshine liquor made out of boat fuel.
  4. Haywire. Those first three are at the top of a lot of peoples’ lists, but I feel like I may be alone with this one. But I love a well-made action movie and Steven Soderbergh made a great one with MMA star Gina Carano. The AV Club review of this movie called it a “delivery system for ass-kickings” but I think it was more than that. Great camera work, well-told story, and a few hilarious surprises. Key Ingredient: watch out for that moose!
  5. The Avengers. Another one that’s not exactly Citizen Kane, but I try to grade movies according to what they are trying to accomplish. Joss Whedon set out to make a smart, funny, tremendously entertaining superhero movie and he nailed it. It’s amazing how characters that annoyed me in previous films (Thor, Captain America) took on new life with better writing. Key Ingredient: HULK SMASH.
  6. Sound of Noise. I watched a fair number of foreign films but this was the only one to crack my top 10. It’s a Swedish film about a tone-deaf cop trying to catch a group of anarchist musicians. A must-see for drum players or fans of “Stomp”. Key Ingredient: metronomes.
  7. Lincoln. Spielberg, Day-Day Lewis, it was exactly what we thought it would be. I found it a little drab but it was too well-constructed not to make the list. Who knew parliamentary procedure could be so thrilling? Key Ingredient: “harrumph”s from the gallery.
  8. The Cabin in the Woods. Clever premise, unpredictable plot twists, and a veritable plethora of great monster effects. If you change the ending, it would make a great pilot for a TV show. Horror films have been deconstructed before but never as cleverly as this. Key Ingredient: hot girl making out with taxidermied wolf head.
  9. Looper. One of my favorite movies of all time is 2005’s Brick, which was also directed by Rian Johnson and also starred Joseph Gordon Levitt. So I was pumped for this movie. While not as good as Brick, this twisty time travel tale was both thought-provoking and a lot of fun. It reminded me a lot of another favorite of mine, 12 Monkeys. Key Ingredient: Evil Jeff Daniels.
  10. Premium Rush. Third movie featuring JGL in my list (with one more in the Honorables). What a year for the little kid from Third Rock from the Sun. This is another movie that scores high marks for being terrific genre entertainment. It’s a fast-paced chase movie about bike messengers featuring great bike stunts and a deranged villain performance from Michael Shannon worthy of Nicolas Cage. I was on the edge of my seat. Key Ingredient: fixed gears.

Honorable Mentions: Cloud Atlas, Silver Linings Playbook, Damsels in Distress, Goon, The Dark Knight Rises

I Also Enjoyed: The Loneliest Planet, Ted, Django Unchained, Lockout, Casa de Mi Padre, Bernie, Dark Shadows, Seven Psychopaths, Argo, Safety Not Guaranteed, Seven Psychopaths, Wanderlust, Flight, Magic Mike, Skyfall, Oslo August 31st, Sound of My Voice, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Sleepwalk With Me, Chronicle, John Carter, 21 Jump Street, The Hunger Games, Beasts of the Southern Wild, parts of Prometheus

Meh: The Hobbit: Something Something Something, Men in Black 3, Brave, Savages, The Deep Blue Sea, The Bourne Legacy, Miss Bala, The Campaign, other parts of Prometheus

Bleh: Safe House, One for the Money, Amazing Spider-Man, Total Recall

Worst Movie I Saw This Year: Snow White and the Huntsman

That’s literally every 2012 release that I watched this year. There’s a lot more films that I liked than ones I didn’t like. I think this is because I read reviews and try to avoid most movies that I won’t like. For instance I did not go see Twilight: Moons Over My Hammy: Part 4 or Tyler Perry’s Madea Said What Now?. Then again I did go see Total Recall so obviously I’m not perfect.

Still to be seen: Zero Dark Thirty, Elena, Ruby Sparks, Killer Joe, Cosmopolis, Compliance, For a Good Time Call, Arbitrage, Smashed, Berberian Sound Studio, Holy Motors, Wreck-it-Ralph, The Man with the Iron Fists, Anna Karenina, Killing Them Softly, Deadfall, Les Miserables, Save the Date, Amour, This is 40, Barbara