This year has probably been my worst so far for keeping a consistent blogging presence, so it seems both efficient and incredibly cheap for me to make a summary post of a year in which I didn’t share all that much you, dear reader.
I’m not doing Top 10 lists for all the forms of media I consumed (that seems a little indulgent, though I’ll likely at least do one for my favourite movies on Letterboxd, which you’ll find somewhere around here), but I have compiled a year-end list that encompasses all of the things I enjoyed, raved about or cried most at during 2014.
[Some of them may not have strictly been released in 2014, but just assume I didn’t know about them until this year, okay?]
Without further ado, and in the hopes that the following will entertain or illuminate in some measure, I end as I always do: wondering whether or not I crammed enough good stuff into the past twelve months (and whether or not it was worth avoiding all the work I ought to have been doing).
In no particular order, these are my highlights of 2014:
10. The Wolf of Wall Street
Yes, it counts because I’m British, dammit: Martin Scorsese’s depraved and joyous ode to New York’s degenerate stockbrokers was released on the 17th January in the UK. In the spirit of the rule-bending nature of Scorsese’s most refreshingly vulgar and energetic movie in at least a decade, I’ve never paid to see The Wolf of Wall Street.
Trees by Warren Ellis & Jason Howard
My favourite new comic of 2014 comes, somewhat predictably, from my favourite comics writer (Warren Ellis) in a year when he came back to the graphic medium – after a sojourn in literary and audio/visual realms – with a trio of equally acclaimed but incredibly different books: Moon Knight, Supreme: Blue Rose and Trees.
The latter trumps the other two, for me, because of the ambitious scope of its fascinating sci-fi story: One day, alien structures landed all over the world. Ten years later they haven’t budged, and humanity has to deal with that. The plots of the first arc span many continents, races and attitudes towards the trees and other humans, and as the final issue of the year lands on New Year’s Eve I can’t wait to see how Ellis (and his partner in crime, Jason Howard, who can flit from bustling Chinese street scenes to desolate wintry landscapes in the turn of a page without ever seeming like he’s struggling) sets the stage for next year’s stories. Read it if you aren’t already.
If you know me personally and we’ve ever had a conversation about podcasts then I’ve probably raved to you about how great This American Life is. If you don’t know me personally (or you do and I just haven’t mentioned it to you) then imagine that we’ve had that conversation. And start listening to the silky tones of Ira Glass immediately.
Anyway, Serial took the world – or Twitter, at least – by storm when it started its first season three months ago, and having the backing of This American Life surely contributed in no small part to that popularity. The story host/producer Sarah Koenig tells is, as you might have gathered from the title, episodic in nature and entirely gripping from start to finish. It’s a real-life mystery that’s 15 years old and full of humanity and emotion and tragedy and I pretty much started crying on a bus like a crazy person when I finished the last episode. I don’t really want to ruin it for you so I think you should just go and check it out now. It’s truly an immersive story and endlessly fascinating, and I consider both of those things to be of enormous value.
Listen to it here.
HhhH by Laurent Binet
This is the first of several items on this list which were actually released way before 2014. I read HhhH this year, however, so my conscience is clear.
Put simply, HhhH is the best piece of historical fiction I’ve ever read. (That means so very little when you know how little historical fiction I’ve actually read.)
Put less simply, Laurent Binet’s first book doesn’t contain a trace of fiction in it (except the fabrications and embellishment that he willingly admits to committing) and is one of the most honest and compelling explorations of someone’s fascination with an unbelievably true story since…well, I would say Serial but I guess that would be kind of anachronistic.
HhhH is about the assassination of The Butcher of Prague, Reinhard Heydrich, by two Czechoslovakian parachutists in 1942. It’s also about the author’s struggle to tell the story with all of the facts intact, even when his writerly instincts pull the story in other directions. The part I always sell the book with to other people is the passage in which Binet compares his collapsing relationship with his girlfriend to the devastation he imagines a Russian general must have felt upon losing a crucial battle with Poland in 1919.
Which I suppose might say a lot about me. Anyway, it was probably the best book I read this year, and I read a lot of great books in 2014.
Okay, that’s kind of a big thing to have as one point, I guess, but it’s my list and I’ll do what I like with it.
I did some travelling on the mainland over 10 days in the summer – Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland, not necessarily in that order – and it was illuminating in a great many ways, not least of which being the fact that I’d never actually travelled east of the English Channel before. The details of HhhH were in my head as I walked through war museums in Berlin and Amsterdam and coloured in the cold statistics and stark photographs I saw. I revelled in the anonymity being in a foreign land with a million other tourists gave me, although I wasn’t alone in my travels.
As with any worthwhile trip, not everything that happened in my time abroad was positive. I left the U.K. in a relationship with the person I was sat next to on the plane and returned as a single man – but still sat next to that same person. Now isn’t the time to go into such matters, but let’s just say that what happened in Luxembourg was for the best. And that thing I said about illumination still applies here.
5. The Leftovers
The most depressing, emotionally devastating TV show of the year came courtesy of HBO and the man who many blamed for the follies of some of the most questionable blockbusters in recent years: Damon Lindelof. The screenwriter of Star Trek: Into Darkness, Prometheus and the co-creator of Lost, Lindelof looked to be struggling to achieve anything approaching a coherent creative goal until The Leftovers hit my screen with a gut-punch I won’t soon forget.
Taking the current zeigeist of rapture/end-of-the-world scenarios and twisting the premise to focus not on where the ‘saved’ people have gone but where those left behind can possibly go now, the series based on Tom Perotta’s book of the same name got its hooks into me early with its mix of stomach-wrenching character drama, beautiful camerawork and stellar soundtrack and left me howling with despair at season’s end. Not just for the series’ cast and their respective parades of misery (Christopher Ecclestone’s embattled preacher and Carrie Coon’s truly tragic Nora Durst are particular standouts), but also because I was going to have to wait nearly a year to find out what happens next.
Not that there’s all that much of a cliffhanger, mind; Lindelof seems to have gotten that bad habit out of his system, at least for now, and The Leftovers’ first season ends in a narratively satisfying manner. I just want to see all the characters again so I can hug them all…even though I know it wouldn’t make anything better.
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
The best-soundtracked movie of 2014, and in a year when Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross scored one.
Inside Llewyn Davis is probably my favourite movie of the year, for more reasons than just the music – though that’s a huge, inextricable part of it. The titular musician is a tragic, unsympathetic character who I still ended up rooting for, his journey an absurd and occasionally mythic one, his friends like ghosts he’s all but forgotten the moment he slips out of their lives once more. And the songs themselves? Like all good musicals, the numbers tell us everything that Llewyn won’t tell anyone in person, which makes his public engagements all the more heartbreaking when you really actually listen.
Oh, and it’s hilarious from beginning to end. But it’s a Coen Brothers movie, so you already knew that.
3. Young Avengers/The Wicked + The Divine
Gillen and McKelvie went from strength to strength this year, and boy do they know it. For those out of the comics loop, writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie ended a universally-praised run on Marvel’s Young Avengers at the beginning of the year, tying up what Gillen had referred to as his defining statement on teenagers. We laughed, we cried, we cooed at McKelvie’s uncanny ability to turn floorplan layouts into slick action scenes and we mourned the closure of one of Marvel’s freshest books in recent memory.
A couple of months down the line the duo returned with a brand new comic about a pantheon of gods reincarnating once every 90 years and the 17-year old girl who gets mixed up with them. So they’re not quite done with teenagers yet, although The Wicked + The Divine certainly tackles heavier themes than Young Avengers (which was itself by no means angst-free).
The Wicked + The Divine
Anyway, people went banana-balls crazy for WicDiv and it’s not hard to see why: not only are McKelvie’s fashions sharper and his subjects more beautiful and nuanced than ever, but the story itself digs into those most intertwined of subjects: fame and death. Though that’s perhaps putting it a bit glibly, those are the twin focuses of the comic – how people react to fame (both having it and wanting it) and what it costs them. Oh, and the gods are basically rock stars, including a Lucifer who’s basically a female David Bowie. That part’s fairly important.
And having it told from the perspective of another teenager is a great excuse for Kieron Gillen to be overly verbose and mess around with captions in the way that only Kieron Gillen can get away with. The talented bastard.
If any of that sounds interesting to you, I’d recommend picking up the first trade, The Faust Act, which collects the first five issues. It just came out so you’ve time to catch up before the second arc kicks into high gear.
[Sidenote: I was going to fill half of this item with spite directed at the above creators for not coming through on their long-awaited third volume of Phonogram this year, but they’ve given us so much brilliant new stuff that it seems ridiculous to punish them for not retreading the old. Still: the bastards.]
2. Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”
Yeah, I don’t know how I’d never heard this before. I listened to the first couple of tracks on Spotify, then bought the album, then didn’t take it out of my CD player for three weeks.
Yes, I still have a CD player. I don’t know what to say about The Suburbs, really – I’ve never been good at writing about music, much like I’ve never been good at playing it – except that listening to the album feels like you’re inhabiting a world that Arcade Fire have created in its entirety, complete with broken swings, childish dares and 20th-century pipe dreams. It’s a record of adolescence in all its naive beauty and contradictions. And I think that’s kind of special.
Special enough, I guess, to include a 2010 album on a ‘best of 2014’ list. What can I say? I’m an iconoclast.
[And yes, I am aware that Reflektor came out last year. I’ve heard the title song, but it’s likely to be 2017 before I give the whole thing a whirl. I’ll probably still have to put it on my CD player.]
What better way to segue from The Suburbs, a collection of childhood stories and hopes than Boyhood, a coming-of-age story in which we get to see the lead character’s hopes shift and fade (or become a reality) that was being filmed over the entire length of Arcade Fire’s entire career so far? I’m sure you can come up with dozens of better ways, but I didn’t exactly plan this far so I’m happy with what I’ve got.
Richard Linklater is a master chronicler of changes in people over time, and that’s no more apparent (in very different ways) in his Before trilogy and Boyhood. The titular young man, Mason, is shown growing up over 12 years in real time, with some characters staying firmly rooted in his life and others drifting in and out of view, as happens in real life. I connected with the story, characters and emotion of the film in a profound way, and I grew up in decidedly different circumstances (well, if you ignore the fact that both Mason and myself are white, male millennials with artistic leanings), which I believe is a testament to the universality of Linklater’s masterwork. Again, I cried.