Best-Of lists! Do those deserve an exclamation mark? Probably not!
I sought out comics the least this year than any year I can remember. There were definitely times when I'd put down a book I hadn't connected with and just think, "Am I done? Maybe I'm done. Maybe it's been a good run but now's the time to just be finished with all this."
I'm getting old, and historically, comics are aimed at mediocre folks in their early-to-mid 20's. Any illusions I had about what comics could be like if it "got its act together", those got themselves pretty dead-- there's a Dorothy Parker quote I love more than anything: "Nobody on earth writes down. Garbage though they turn out, Hollwood writers aren't writing down. That is their best. If you're going to write , don't pretend to write down. It's going to be the best you can do, and it's the fact that it's the best you can do that kills you." Comics: this is just the best they can do, the poor things. That narrative that powered me there for a couple years of "I'm watching a great medium rise up from shackles that were wrongly put on it historically" I don't think I believe anymore-- it wasn't "shackles" making faces at Marv Wolfman while he was on the witness stand at his trial to try to reclaim his ownership of Blade, trying to distract him from giving potentially life-altering testimony; it was John Byrne. Most folks want to believe he's some exception to the rule, but you know... Why? Why believe that?
Plus: I got insulted some this year by folks-- most of that I brought on myself for forgetting how the game works for a moment; some of that was pretty deserved and reasonable; I'm pretty good at letting shit roll-off. But there were a couple moments that gave me pause, a couple times where just the low quality of the people I irritated just made me tired. Batman's the most popular superhero because he's got the best rogue's gallery; you don't get stronger lifting the lightest weights; there were a couple times this year where I felt like I could have spent my time irritating a much better class of person.
All that shit's starting to wear off though these last couple months; fuck it, comics are rad and having stone-cold dummies dislike you is brilliant; but even at the low-point, here's the thing-- I was still coming across great comics routinely. There's no avoiding them now with social media, with the internet, with everyone being interconnnected. Comics are everywhere; comics are unavoidable; it's incredible what we've all built with each other. This comic-- I don't know how I found it, and I don't know anything about who made it or why or for what, but I just think it's great.
I like how it constantly heightens the emotional deadness of airline safety cards to increasingly bizarre new levels, the speed of it, how quickly everything goes fucking haywire in it. It's not enough that nudity immediately descends to casual fucking-- it's that in the next panel, they're making vases like Patrick Swaye in Ghost. The comic's also a fun example of the audience plusing a joke, adding a perfect punchline the creators hadn't gotten to. For that to have happened, this comic had to have found its perfect audience, and so knowing that happened was a great encouragement, in many different respects.
- You might also want to check out: Godendeemster, by Theo van den Boogaard and Wim T. Schippers.
9. Prophet #42 by Ron Wimberly / Brandon Graham / Giannis Milonogiannis / Joseph Bergin III.
Aaah, shallow pleasures. This comic just looked fucking dope. Which maybe doesn't sound like a lot to you, but (a) it's comics, stupid-- that's pretty, pretty important, and (b) 12 months later, it's still in my memory of this year, which is the biggest shock. How difficult is that? I forget everything I look at anymore-- comics, people, places; this stuck; it's got to mean something, right?
- You might also want to check out: I thought that issue of Sex Criminals where the guy was depressed was a pretty solid comic, if you're shopping at that end of the store. I still run pretty hot-cold with that comic overall. I went into that issue (#6?? around there) thinking that guy character was a pile of hot garbage (was that just me? I never see people talk about that, but man-- that dude gave me a pile of hot garbage vibe from the get-go)-- it didn't get me to like him anymore, but it at least made him interesting.
8. Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley, Jason Fischer, Dustin Harbin, and Nathan Fairbairn
This was a weird experience, how people wrote about this book when it was about to come out as compared to actually reading it. I felt like everyone who wrote about it focused on Seconds as a hijinx-y Scott Pilgrim follow-up, or a book about coping with life after your Hollywood movie comes out.
But then the book itself? I only read it the one time, but it felt like that book was a real raw nerve. Characters trying desparately to fix everything to make a relationship perfect and constantly failing-- wanting a thing and fucking it all up by wanting it so much. Characters feeling lost in their homes, alienated by their own homes that they'd spent years building. Infidelity and regret, and all the hopes pinned to dream homes slowly crumbling in the distance. That book felt like a heartbreak album, but all the writing I saw about the book beforehand were about mushrooms and zippy happy super-fun times; it just seemed fucking crazy. Comic people like to be polite and "why not just be positive" all the time, but with this book, that attitude really just seemed indiscernible from being functionally illiterate.
Besides thematically, while the narration occasionally felt a little unnecessary, I really liked the character designs, especially the main character who's like a cross between Sonic the Hedgehog and Lina Inverse from Slayers but I still feel like I've met people who have looked like her; neat trick.
- You might also want to check out: Written in Bones, by Christopher M. Jones & Carey Pietsch.
7. Weapons of Mass Diplomacy by Abel Lanzac, Christophe Blain, & Edward Gauvin
Wrote about Weapons of Mass Diplomacy here; still haven't seen the movie version but it's on Netflix.
- You might also want to check out: Jules Feiffer's Kill Your Mother. Not a political book, but another hefty graphic novel-- the first one? not really, but we're all pretending-- focused primarily on the foibles and neuroses of its characters, this one by an artist who manages to be both a widely-celebrated legend and still somehow underrated. Unwieldy sometimes-confusing execution-- Feiffer could have used more of a helping editorial hand on some of his page layouts, but enough of Feiffer's strengths shine through to have made for an entirely pleasant time.
It's difficult to imagine the kind of person who'd read this and not find some charm to it, or some value in the jokes. One of those rare all-ages comics that actually live up to that description-- and genuinely pretty funny, which is the rarest thing of all. I would like this as much as a little kid as I do now-- not oodles of things that can be said of. One of the few comics where I want to see it adapted into other media-- I want to see the Pixar version; I want to buy a DNA Profiling Kit for my nephews.
- You might also want to check out: The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo, by Drew Weing. More of a pure kid's comic, but mysteries; handsome drawings; fun sense of color.
Smarter people than me are all focusing on Davis's book How to Be Happy. Happy's a collection of short evocative pieces concerning characters for whom some numinous moment is slightly just out of reach, comics more concerned with capturing a feeling of yearning than any particularly narrative. It's a strong showcase for Davis's different styles.
But look, I only got that book because Eleanor Davis's Cartoonist Diary over at the Comics Journal was so great. Is any comic artist as perfect for a long scroll webcomic as Davis? Most webcomics, year after year, are just not readable because the people who've made them are so tied to the conventions of print comics, so what a pleasure Davis's work by comparison. While her diary comics don't feature any of her facility with color-- obviously a big selling point for Happy-- I love the immediacy of her figures. They have a little more volume to them than other cartoonists give their characters. Combined with the mostly thick line Davis uses for these, there's a confidence to those figure-drawings, such that it's hard not to feel like I'm in safe hands as a reader immediately upon looking at them. All of the details feel essential, rather than decorative-- there's so little waste to these, but still such lively drawings. And then the contents themselves, despite the limitations of the project, sill manage moments that are striking or portentous, especially in Day Four which I would think is the highlight of those diaries. I think they're pretty fucking rad.
- You might also want to check out: Leslie Stein's diary comics. I just think they're so fun to look at. I don't know that any one installment towers over the others, but following these comics has been a highlight of the year.
4. Copra by Michel Fiffe.
This has been on my year end lists for a couple years now, probably, but I've never really written about it. I've been wanting to do that, but I don't want to just slop something out here. Uhm: I will say that it shifted to a higher gear this year with the single-issue stories, though. The pleasures of Copra have always been the single-issue experience of it, more than some overall narrative, and so this year, it felt like Copra really honed in on its biggest strength.
There were some o-kay serialized comics this year-- the resumption of Stray Bullets and Astro City; I thought the Fade Out's started promisingly; that first issue of Bitch Planet's pretty well-executed if you want something pretty recent. But Copra's still the only thing I really get excited about when it shows up, the one I'm not on autopilot for.
- You might also want to check out: If you're in the mood for action comics, I think Wes Craig's art on Deadly Class are worth a look. That comic is pretty-whatever overall-- there are interesting bits but then, like, also other stuff. Mainstream comic book self-pity weak-boy stuff you've probably seen enough of before. (The "it's a 1980's period piece" bit hasn't paid off much at all). But Craig's action pages are usually worth a look.
3. Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple
There was a book last year that I really was not into called Hair Shirts by Patrick Mceown. This book had a similarity but just succeeded where Hair Shirts didn't connect for me. It's a book about abuse, the imprecision of memory, and pop culture as a hiding place and defense mechanism-- but one spoken purely in a vernacular somewhere between a Liefeld-era New Mutants comic, Marc Laidlaw's forgotten cyberpunk short story "400 Boys", the "Explore an environment" fantasy experiments of mid-00's art comics, and obviously, Jonathan Lethem's Brooklyn novels (with whom author Farel Dalrymple had notably worked with before on Omega the Unknown). Sometimes a slippery comic to connect with emotionally-- I'd commend to your attention the lengthy discussion of the book by the Wait What guys, as they really dug into it-- but not a book that skimps on the surface pleasures of comics, even if suspicious or perhaps disenchanted with them.
Anyone who has insight into one of the book's final mysteries is invited to speak up because that's still bugging me.
- You might also want to check out: I'd suggest looking into Roman Muradov's work; if you can track down his zine The Yellow Zine-- there's not a lot of similarity with Wrenchies content-wise, but there's an intensity to the art that I would wildly guess you'd be sympatico with if you were into Wrenchies.
2. SEXCASTLE by Kyle Starks
Sexcastle is the only comic on this list that I immediately do-not-pass-go drew (lousy) fan-art for after I finished reading it. #1 on a list of Top 10 Comics that Are Awesome, written by me, age 13, Sexcastle is a daydream of the greatest 1980's action movie ever made ... that somehow doesn't suck; my god, there are so many ways this could've sucked. Kyle Starks may not be in the running for that Russ Manning Award, but this was the most purely-fun comic I've read in a long, long time. I got it off Kickstarter, following a random recommendation on an impulse-- I'm not sure where else it's sold, but a new edition is coming from Image next year. If The Tick or Giffen-era Lobo or (I'm too old for Deadpool but whatever the good Deadpool is?) all happened at the same time, were all published in the same year, this comic would just piss all over those. Fall in love.
- You might also want to check out: Ryan Cecil Smith's S.F., another handmade love-letter, this one to an era of manga/anime most often associated with Leiji Matsumoto. While much more oriented towards younger audiences than Stark's book, this might be a good fit for you if you over-idealize one-man bands trying to put on a big show. I do.
1. Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann, Kerascoët, and Helge Dascher.
I wrote about it here. Never in question; always obviously the very best book of the year.
- You might also want to check out: Kerascoët had another book out this year, through NBM's Comic Lit imprint, written and colored by Hubert, entitled Beauty. It's not quite the triumph that Beautiful Darkness is-- pleasant visually, like all of their work, but a little too on-the-nose with how it's using the medium; doesn't have the same subtlety. But it's still a fun time, a sort of kissing cousin to one of those fantastic Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons that they used to have on the old Bullwinkle cartoons, though little more than that. Doesn't really stick the landing.
"Bottle of Wine" by Russ Heath.
Let me start by noting that Russ Heath is by any formulation a comics legend. A Russ Heath comic worth tracking down? I really think the work he did with Dave Sim on Creepy, Shadow of the Axe, is as beautiful a comic as that magazine ever featured. The internet calls it a "forgotten masterpiece" and I have no great disagreement with that. Even this comic, made by Heath at the age of 84, still shows a facility with the craft of comics that is admirable..
And so when I say I hated the discussion around this comic, the way people received it and discussed it, let me be 100% clear that my problem lies not with Russ Heath or his work or the specifics of the comic itself.
But goddamn. Hearing dumbasses talk about this comic was like having all my nose hairs plucked out one after another. Comic book people and their multi-decade war with Roy Lichtenstein's art is the dopiest, most exhausting bullshit that... It's never going to stop! Lichtenstein's become a Dick Tracy grotesque villain to comic book dopes, whose intellectual incuriosity and constant unfounded sense of victimization both intersect in a perfect marriage where Lichtenstein is concerned. There's Fredric Wertham, then there's Lichtenstein, then there's some high school gym teacher that wasn't nice enough to you weaklings. It is never going to stop. It's exhausting. You're exhausting.
Here's what Larry Marder had to say in a two-page letter to the Comics Buyer Guide in 1989, when comic people were bitching and moaning about Lichtenstein -- a letter Marder reprinted in 2011 because people were still bitching and moaning about Lichtenstein twenty-two years later: "Over the years, I've met and had conversations with many famous gallery artists (but not Lichtenstein). Quite a few knew and appreciated the art of comic books. But I've never yet had a conversation with a comic book artist who had anything less than a sneer for almost all modern artists. It's a pity."
There are people for whom the only "true" writing is fiction, who are quick to sneer about any kind of criticism as being somehow inherently less-than. But with criticism, an author can express themselves, can craft interesting phrases or sentences, can effect an audience emotionally or intellectually. It's all writing. Criticism is just writing about writing. That's it. That's all it is. Pop Art? It's still paintings-- it's just paintings of images, instead of a bowl of fruit or Jesus's creepy virgin-momma. Not only is there not anything inherently less than about that, in the context of the time Pop Art was a major movement, that was arguably an interesting thing to question-- what did art mean once images had become mechanized, industrialized, corporatized, constant and anonymous?
It's not Roy Lichtenstein's fault that comic art was anonymous industrial product; comics itself wouldn't print the fucking names of the people who made them in the books for decades.
Is Roy Lichtenstein a "thief"? Well, to believe that you have to ignore that DC Comics had stolen all the rights to Russ Heath's life work for themselves before Lichtenstein had ever shown up. DC Comics were the only people who could've made a legal issue of Lichtenstein's appropriations because DC Comics is the true and exclusive "author" of those comics in any Court in this country-- not Russ Heath. Is that right? No, it's not-- it sucks; it sucks; but that's not Roy Lichtenstein's fault either. P.S. when there was litigation to question whether that's how we want society to work, how many comic creators did you see side with the creators of Superman? Long list...? Shya'right.
And hey, incidentally, how much did DC Comics share what it made off Russ Heath's art with him? How much does it do that now? DC, through its sponsorship of the Hero Initiative, I guess helped chip in to buy a bottle of $2 Buck Chuck for the guy, and I'm supposed to be grossed out by Lichtentsein and think about what heroes DC are...?
And incidentally, the painting that Heath is complaining of, Whaam!...? Per Wikipedia at least, it's based on an Irv Novick panel, with elements taken not only from Heath but also from a Jerry Grandenetti panel potentially...? Which is just weird. It's "weird" that the people who should be educating the audience as to that point so that the audience can contextualize what Heath is saying failed to even so much as look at the Wikipedia for Whaam! But that weirdness isn't Lichtenstein's fault either-- none of Lichtenstein's paintings are called "hey, comics journalists, don't bother to do any more than the bare minimum every single time" (though, if any were, he'd probably have stolen the art from Nick Cardy, so... the whole vicious cycle would've just started back up again).
There is a difference between looking at a panel of a comic in a comic book, and standing before paintings the size of a Lichtenstein. There is a difference between getting a flood of noise and someone stopping and saying "No, stop and have a visual experience with just this one moment, with just this one image, divorced of any commercial context." There is a difference between preferring one experience to another, which is entirely valid, and claiming that the latter experience is fraudulent, which is the nonsense of fanboys.
Would it have been a more moral world if Lichstenstein had shared generously with Heath and Novick and others he took from during the extremely-brief period of time where Lichtenstein was doing comic-based paintings (which p.s. not even remotely his whole career... if only someone had invented a google where you could google basic information necessary to reach an informed opinion)? Yes. Absolutely. That would have been the more moral choice and I wish he had made it. Could Lichtenstein have questioned the manufactured image without appropriating specific instances of comic art? Maybe; maybe not; I think that something essential would have been lost if he had used his own images, but I can understand the argument. Is Russ Heath's expression of his frustrations a legitimate way for him to feel? Absolutely. Again, Russ Heath is a great artist who deserved better, and certainly has everybody's respect and admiration; that he ended up in a rough spot is fucking terrible and far too common. Could and should Lichtenstein have done a better job promoting the artists he took from? Okay. I don't think that's really his job, actually, but that'd have been nice of him, too, if we're making up our Dream Boyfriend. Is Lichtenstein a plagiarist? Sure, yeah-- I also heard Quentin Tarantino ripped off a Hong Kong movie one time, and that the Beastie Boys didn't make all the noises on Paul's Boutique themselves, if you want to go get angry about that too, heroes. But sure, is this the best of all possible worlds? It is not. Do Lichtenstein's recreations suffer in comparison to the original work? I think so-- I think there are things about the comics source drawing that Lichtenstein's work loses in their recreations, to their detriment, though I do think I feel why he made those choices when I've look at his paintings. I'm not saying that there aren't valid criticisms of the guy to be made, with a reasonable temperament-- though I don't think any of those criticisms remotely rise to the level of "interesting".
But if we're going to have hear about this asshole for the next 22 years, can you just at least try to have a better conversation about it than this last round? Pop Art artists weren't just pirates with a xerox machine. Art museums aren't in a conspiracy against comics. And the Hero Initiative is a band-aid on a gushing wound that wasn't the fault of Roy Lichtenstein.
For most interesting bit of acting to watch this year, there's a strong argument to be made for Jake Gylenhaal in Nightcrawler. But me, I'd go with Brendan Gleeson in this little-seen Martin McDonagh movie about the state of the scandal-ridden Catholic Church in Ireland. Nightcrawler's very much my kind of movie, a sinister LA crime thing, and Gylenhaal's pretty fun to watch in it. But Calvary? Calvary's not at all my kind of movie. It's a movie about Gleeson playing a priest in a small surfing town under attack by members of his community who have run amuck in no small part because of the Church's moral decline. I could give a shit about the Catholic Church or Ireland or faith or morality or any of that, but I still didn't want to stop watching Brendan Gleeson for a second.
Just the warmth, disappointment, sadness, and intelligence he has-- I don't know how acting works, how a person does that, but whatever that thing is, this is the movie where I was like the most impressed by it.
- (Tangent: Top 10 lists from movie critics this year more often have the Polish nun movie Ida, but I just really don't think that was as interesting. That one felt like a much safer movie than Calvary, a movie with easier villains to condemn (hint: it's set after World War 2), a much easier conception of "evil" or human frailty to draw a smaller circle around. Nothing in Ida was as blistering or charged as the scene with the little girl in Calvary, at least to me. Ida was just in black and white).
There's better movies that could and should take this spot-- Nightcrawler, We are the Best, Force Majeure; I think this was a pretty great year for movies, actually. But I'm going with this movie because when I saw it, unlike those other movies, it had been largely unheralded so it caught me much more by surprise, and was a more exciting experience, as such. I think I'm going to remember the experience of this movie surprising me after the memory of those movies fade away. (I'm only going to remember one shot in Force Majeure, though dang, it's a really, really good one).
It wasn't a movie a lot of people were into, very understandably-- it's a largely improvised puzzle-movie about alternate realities whose biggest star is Nicholas Brendan (Xander from the old Buffy the Vampire Slayer show), made for no money. It's a gimmick movie. Force Majeure had the best premise of a year; We are the Best had one of the best endings; Nightcrawler will probably be far most obsessed over by film geeks in future years. I imagine most folks will find Coherence annoying. But I just felt like I watched this movie more actively than almost anything else I saw this year-- it's the movie I most often tried to guess what was going to happen, and most often guessed wrong. I enjoyed playing along at home.
Also, I just like that this year was a pretty cool little year for science fiction movies. Coherence, The One I Love, Interstellar and The Edge of Tomorrow were all imperfect, but taken together, it felt like an unusually interesting year for what's usually a severely disappointing genre. I want there to be more independent science fiction movies like this-- that genre being left in the hands of big Hollywood studios would be the worst of all possible worlds.
8. Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson-- plus Nazis! Go figure.
7. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
My first draft of this bit was an apology for featuring a dumb comedy on a list like this. Since writing that, though, dumb comedies are under attack, again, with plenty of people all too eager to say "Well, but I don't care this time because dumb comedies are worthless".
And I just emphatically don't agree with those people.
This was co-written by Armando Iannucci who also made In the Loop, the Thick of It, and Veep. Steve Coogan made it around the same time he made Philomena, a movie nominated for Best Picture at last year's Academy Awards. Some pretty clever people got together and made a movie about a character who is sublimely dumb -- clever people sat at a table, thinking up completely ridiculous ways for a character to stupidly bumble and fail his way through a situation, like a complete idiot.
And I think that is true because there is something of value to the dumb comedy. I think that people are basically ridiculous and stupid and absurd. I think people who don't believe that or forget that are draining and miserable and sometimes-dangerous. I think dumb comedies are valuable and worth defending for reminding people that life is a dumb, stupid mess, and that they're taking themselves too seriously. And I think what the kind of person who says something like "oh who cares if there's one less dumb comedy in the world" fundamentally doesn't understand is that I will always want to see a dumb comedy if the alternative is listening to them, know-it-all chucklefucks and their dumbass sub-Blart-ian opinions.
6. The Rover
I think about society falling apart a bunch, and I think when that happens, it's basically going to look a lot like this movie. It's an Australian post-apocalypse movie but nobody dresses up in football cosplay or spikey Ayatollah-of-rock-n-rolla costumes because the movie keys in on the key bit about the whole apocalypse thing: nobody's going to give a shit about anything anymore. Folks not caring is enough to make it all feel like the apocalypse, to begin with. Just look around!
5. Inherent Vice
Here's what an angry review of the movie sounds like: "How long will you remain engaged with a work that seems to purposely challenge the viewer to understand what the filmmaker’s getting at?"
Where things lie, at the end of 2014: people who write about movies now openly get angry at a movie for "challenging" them.
4. The Raid 2
The best audience experience.
3. Top Five
Another very imperfect movie. And boy, Chris Rock doing a "one-crazy day" movie on paper should not have been a fun thing-- this time, last year, that would have been something to avoid. But I love how it just felt like everything on his mind made it into the movie somewhere, how it felt like it was overflowing with topics he wanted to talk about. There's a romantic comedy story in there, and there's a Sullivan's Travel story in there (the equivalent of the Mickey Mouse scene in Top Five was definitely the biggest movie laugh I had this year), but there were parts of the movie where it was neither of those things, flashbacks in neither of those worlds especially. Even if that made for a mess sometimes, I just appreciated how it just had so much life to it.
Most movies diminish when I remember them, but my affection for this one has really just grown and grown since seeing it. It's just such a well-crafted piece of entertainment, just the zip of it, how it constantly changes shape, outraces the audience, but still ultimately fits together. There's an old saw about endings, that what makes endings so difficult to write is that a great ending have to be both completely surprising as you're watching but at the same time, after they've happened, completely inevitable. This movie, to me, was one of those rare movies that lived up to that. Hollywood summer movies now all have an identical ending-- "then, they prevent the end of the world". Hollywood summer movies have found an audience so undiscerning, that so doesn't give a shit, that they'll watch a movie that ends with Captain America pushing a candy-red "turn off the evil machine so end of world doesn't happen" button as long as there are enough special effects there. A good movie makes it all look so effortless, in comparison.
Plus, it's hard to think of characters I had as much affection for this year as the characters in this movie-- one character I think I held my breath everytime he was on screen past a certain point, I was so worried for him.
It's rare not to see younger filmmakers try to process their influences-- part of the fun of Attack the Block, say, was watching the filmmakers process a John Carpenter influence. Housebound felt very inspired by early Zemeckis, early Raimi, and the early Peter Jackson that hadn't discovered computers graphics yet and whose work was still possible to enjoy and respect. (The point of those books was not to succumb to the lure of technology, you CGI doofus!) Usually the folks who take from those guys? They take the wrong stuff. They miss what made those filmmakers' early work feel special.
Housebound, it just felt like it got it right.
1. Gone Girl
David Fincher's version of the First Wives Club or Kill Bill. The most fun movie to see people react to, both in a theater and definitely out of a theater.
In the theater itself, for me, the joy of that movie was in how much it got me to root for the so-called "villain" of the piece to rampage through that movie. There is a part of this movie where the villain is about to do something horrible to another human being, and I don't know... I don't know the last time I rooted to see something so horrible happen as much as I did then and there, before that moment ensued. Getting to watch other people experience that, to feel an audience around me having those same emotions, that was a distinct pleasure.
Out of the theater, in terms of living with a movie afterwards, and hearing people have really vigorous opinions about a movie, nothing came close to this movie. And usually the movies that do that are, like, shitty Star Wars movies or whatever because we have to listen to nerds complain that Michael Bay raped their childhood when Spock didn't shoot first, or somesuch stupid bullshit. "What did you think the end of The Dark Knight Rises meant?" "It meant that you wasted a lot of money on college-- might as well have burnt it in a bonfire." Hearing people talking about this movie, though-- it was always something interesting to me, however much it may have revealed how polarized and/or maybe-cartoonish some folks' gender politics can be, or how complicated those questions get for even the most well-meaning people after they see a half-second of Ben Afflecks cock.
I don't know the answers to those questions myself. Does art reinforce people's toxic worldviews? If so, does art have a responsibility to avoid certain topics-- even if those topics are things that actually do happen in reality? Or does the topic get rendered radioactive if the "things that happen in reality" are statistically more rare than toxic people's prejudices would predict? Are people confusing statistics with science, and how much weight should we give to statistics-- which are inherently endlessly debatable-- when thinking about what kinds of stories should be told? Doesn't even thinking about that confuse art with vitamins? Is any kind of high-minded discussion of "art" just the luxury of those not under assault to discuss, or is that kind of argument just a debate-ender that makes the person making it feel good at the expense of actually persuading anyone of anything? Is this kind of discussion all a circus to distract people from "real issues" or are creating circuses like this actually an important function for popular entertainment? There are people for whom these questions are easy-- they have pretty rad tumblr blogs-- but I have days where I'm not all that sure.
My favorite reactions were the people who talked about the movie like it was a grocery-store paperback thriller that stumbled into the questions, stumbled into themes it didn't even know it had-- that A-List filmmakers spent years working on a project and never spent any time thinking about what they were working on actually meant-- sure, sure, left that to some no-name schmoes on twitter to explain Life to the rest of us. Sometimes I think that does happen-- you look at what happened with that Batgirl comic the other day; sometimes, people guess and miss. But I took Gone Girl differently-- I took it to be a deliberate provocation, and so I took seeing people provoked and talking out the issues raised by that story as a sign of the movie's success, as a part of the design of the piece and not some corrective, not as the Internet filling in some cracks in that sidewalk.
Believing that something good comes out of people talking about their experiences-- well, that wasn't an easy thing to believe in 2014; 2014 wasn't exactly The Year the Internet had Worthwhile Conversations. But everybody needs some comforting fairy tales to make it through the day, and as comforting fairy tales go, I guess that's the one I'm going with.
Honorary Mention: Detention
Not a 2014 movie, but it came to Netflix in 2014. This was the movie I felt compelled to see 3 times in a week, just to try to get my head around it. This was the movie I had to read every interview with the director to find out what he was thinking. The movie that's the hardest to talk about coherently, without question.
I haven't read Pax Americana yet, but I saw a page of Grant Morrison arguing that deconstruction somehow murders the pleasure of a thing under examination. Maybe Pax Americana makes the point more persuasively as a whole, though those sorts of reductive readings of Watchmen have never found much purchase with me and seem especially uninteresting to me all the way in 2014; I just think that's a load of malarky, personally. Detention rips to sheds every youth-oriented movie in sight, but from those parts assembles something strange and invigorating and endlessly surprising, a more persuasive and joyous love-letter to the scuzzy weirdo pleasures of teen exploitation sub-genres than any umpteenth John Hughes-ripoff could ever hope to be. It's a pixie-stick of a movie, all rush, all teen hormones-- even after three times, it made my head spin. Rip everything to shreds; find out how things work; don't listen to company stooges who tell you not to think-- I'm on Detention's side.
Also: the most accurate villain.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: I just had the worst reaction to this movie. I can't remember a movie I was as physically unhappy sitting in a theater watching this year. I just don't like watching special effects act. I don't give a shit about Andy Serkis under almost any circumstances. It constantly felt sloppy-- especially in the zero-dimensional human characters who flitted in and out of the movie meaninglessly-- nice job playing "Some Useless Random-ass Woman," Keri Russell! And I just couldn't guess what I was supposed to find entertaining about its story of unsympathetic aboriginal savages facing the violent consequences of not being sufficiently nice to occasionally-misguided-but-fundamentally-well-meaning white invaders; p.s., yikes. Basically, I was on Koba's side, at least before the movie devolved into watching special effects punch other special effects while the guy from Zero Dark Thirty stood around and contributed nothing meaningful to the story whatsoever. A physically unpleasant movie to watch for me-- I basically wanted to run for it.
Most Overrated: Birdman
Interesting to look at, interesting performances, some spectacular bits here and there-- fun while watching it, but a movie that's soured in my memory of it, for just being too phony at its core. Phony about art, phony about the theater, phony about Broadway, phony about critics, phony about "authenticity", phony.
Did the movie have anything interesting to say about anything? I'm not sure that it did, or that if it did, it was anything I care about much, let alone agree with. Yeah-- "there are too many superhero movies"; I'm 100% sympathetic with that, though the movie barely made even that point in an especially interesting way; but if the only alternative the movie can posit is a completely dopey idea of high art (name-dropping Raymond Carver), then who cares about the entire enterprise at all? Just stay home and read books.
Nothing in that movie felt like it really stuck a point-- oh okay, maybe Emma Stone's speech if you're generous enough to believe that speech wasn't carefully crafted to tweak the middle-aged upper-middle-class audience the movie's designed to appease with its Vanity-Fair-magazine-middlebrow bromides about New York Theater. Maybe that. At least for the 10 seconds where Emma Stone got to be an interesting character before becoming Ed Norton's boner-muse. At least for the 10 seconds where he got to be an interesting character before inexplicably disappearing from the movie altogether.
Not a bad movie-- Michael Keaton rushing through Times Square in his underwear's too memorable to call it a bad movie. But a movie that seems exactingly designed to end up winning Most Overrated for 2014.
I had as many great episodes of television that got left off this list as made it on-- Mad Men, Broad City, etc. Plus, supposedly great television still in the hopper for me (Happy Valley, Fargo, etc.). I've been really exhausted from work all year; watching television has been good to me in 2014; this list was a tough one.
10. The League- "When Rafi Met Randy"
9- A Trip to Italy- "Da Giovanni, San Fruttuoso" - Episode Two
The ridiculous immaturity, temporary pleasures and lasting sadness of middle-age. Matt Singer wrote that he was more invested in Steve Coogan & Rob Brydon taking melancholic Trips places as a franchise than Star Wars or Harry Potter. He's not wrong.
8- Person of Interest - "Prophets"
The best comic book TV show or movie going, though a distillation of the frantic pleasures of serial comics rather than a cheap knock-off of any one property. This episode went the furthest the show has ever gotten in what can only be described as superhero angst and superhero spectacle, all within the narrow confines of a CBS Dad Show! Like reading the X-Men as a 13-year old boy.
7- Friday Night Dinner - S03E03
Friday Night Dinner is so goddamn beautifully made. It's a family show, and because it's a family show, every episode is exactly the same. The jokes are even mostly the same, in a way I haven't seen since Married with Children. Most of the stories don't even leave the one setting, of the house. There's rarely any guest actors. There's something about that consistency, and the characters stuck in that consistency, that make for something extremely special.
The dad who refuses to wear his shirt at home isn't funny because he's got his shirt off and he looks kind of gross; he's hilarious because every goddamn episode, he has his shirt off and it's driving everybody crazy but he's going to have his shirt off this episode, next episode and the episode after that. And ultimately you love that character doesn't have his shirt on because, look, that's who he is and what, you want him to change-- well, he's not going to change so what choice do you have, let him have his shirt off?
There's something about how that show is buit that seems more deeply and honestly funny about the annoyances and weirdness of families that I just don't know what I would even compare it to. I just think that show's remarkable and weirdly beautiful over the long term, despite being somehow completely and resolutely ordinary episode by episode...?
There is one very big exception to the no guest actor rule, and that is horrible Mr. Morris, who might be one of my favorite sitcom characters of all time. Goddamn, that character makes me laugh.
6. You're the Worst- "What Normal People Do"
The best new comedy show in a long time. A Los Angeles show. A dirty-minded romantic comedy. Misanthropic and weird and sexy and funny. This episode was the one where you see Aya Cash's apartment-- it just always seem so specific that show. They're not trying to tell a story about generic people who live anywhere and work in non-descript offices, under some mistaken belief that making a show more generic will make it more relatable to a greater number of people. They're telling a story about these two particular characters who live in these particular places having their own particular romance-- it's just really fun thanks to cable, getting to watch shows that understand why that is so much better.
5. Rick & Morty- "Something Ricked This Way Comes"
The last scene. Perfect.
4. Hannibal - "Mizumono"
Weird and uneven season, but an apeshit finale. Too apeshit not to admire deeply.
3. Inside Amy Schumer- "A Chick Who Can Hang"
Hello, M'Lady. The Aaron Sorkin Foodroom parody. I haven't been this excited to see a sketch show since Dave Chappelle.
Youtube comment to the Hello, M'Lady sketch: "There are enough tears in this comment section to fill a whole fedora."
2. Review - "Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes"
1. John Oliver - The Net Neutrality Episode
Conan O'Brien-- The Scrapisode: a deep dive into comedy nerdery, but one I wish they'd do every year; and...
Black Mirror-- White Christmas. A TV movie by the Black Mirror team, starring Jon Hamm, Rafe Spall, and Oona Chaplin-- who was in Inside No. 9's best episode (though maybe a little transphobic, that episode? I'm no expert on that kind of thing)-- A Quiet Night In. Black Mirror's regular episodes are now on Netflix where I understand it's finally gone viral-- it's worth a look, especially if you like the Twilight Zone or being really sad about people.
LEAST FAVORITE TELEVISION
True Detective - "Form and Void"
Man, do you really want to hear anybody say one more thing about that show? I sure don't! Shut the fuck up! The best thing I can say is that when people started telling me about Serial, I could at least say, "I remember you fuckers from True Detective. Fuuuuuuuuuccckkkk thhaaaaaaat." Thanks, Nic Pizzolatto!
BEST ONLINE VIDEOS
The best comedic performances of the year. (EDITED: I just realized that items 3 and 4 aren't actually online videos! They're just TV on youtube! I'm a moron. Anyways, imagine I said ... uh, You Are Not a Storyteller and Skateboard Cop Episode 7 instead. Also: imagine that I'm wearing a ski mask, and no pants. I think that's a pretty hot look. So. Yeah. I blew it.)
Too Many Cooks was more popular and probably more entertaining, but as discombobulating horror movies go, this one jangled my nerves a little more. (EDITED AGAIN: Wait, was this... does this count as tv or... AAAAAAAAAAAA!!!! Okay, imagine I titled this section "Best Short Little Videos You Can Watch on Youtube or Vimeo or a Site Like That, but Whose Origins may or May not Come from Television..."? Saved it!)
1. "Our Robocop Remake - Scene 27 on Vimeo" by Fatal Farm
NEWS OR NON-FICTION ARTICLES I PARTICULARLY ENJOYED
I don't know that I agreed with everything this guy had to say but I thought it was a fun polemic.
2. "Girls Fight Out"
And that was 2014.