Wow, it’s been a while since the ole blog has seen any action! Consider this LONG post covering my favorite artistic creations of the past year a partial remedy. It’s broken up into sections by medium, but is otherwise fairly disordered — no rankings, and no rules about dates of release or publication. They are all things I experienced for the first time in 2015, though.
Selma (2014) — An account of the historic marches in 1965 that helped pave the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. David Oyelowo seems like he is channeling the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Truly amazing oratory. I love how this story focuses on many people of the civil rights movement, including members of the SCLC and SNCC as well as King and his wife. The Black community is not portrayed as monolithic – there is a true diversity of viewpoints and opinions that makes it clear how important a figure King was: a person who could bring others together at least long enough to get some groundbreaking things done.
The Wind Rises (2013) — Supposedly Hayao Miyazaki’s last film, this is a fictionalized biographical picture about Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero, Japan’s most famous and lethal fighter plane in World War II. For a renowned pacifist like Miyazaki, the subject matter is inherently charged: how does one reconcile the creation of something elegant or beautiful in an aesthetic sense with the destruction that it might cause? As far as I can tell, the film leaves this question unanswered, but there are obvious empty spaces that draw attention and really make you think. And the disaster scene in Tokyo (depicting the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake) is genuinely hair-raising!
The Martian (2015) — After Ridley Scott’s last few misfires, I didn’t think he had any more good movies in him. I was happy to be surprised! A lot of the credit is due to Andy Weir’s very entertaining space-shipwreck novel (on which the screenplay is based), but the movie is given some warmth and nuance by its actors (especially Matt Damon and Chiwetel Ejiofor) that the book doesn’t quite achieve.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) — I was on board from the high concept: Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as centuries-old vampire lovers. But I was surprised at how stylish and fun this movie turned out to be, especially as it was filmed entirely at night and focused a lot on ennui and world-weariness. Ultimately, its absurdist humor and love of literature and music added up to something quite lovely and life-affirming. Special props to Jeffrey Wright for his small but hilarious role as a doctor Hiddleston’s character clandestinely buys his blood from.
Lilo & Stitch (2002) — This Disney animated movie came out over 10 years ago, and though I have heard generally positive comments about it, I had never watched it until Christmas Eve, while I was visiting my sister’s family, and we were scanning through Netflix looking for some random entertainment. I was gripped the entire time, and so moved at points that tears dripped down my face. Quite a surprising experience!
A number of things set this film apart from other Disney kids’ fare: a setting (Hawai’i) that is culturally specific, but not stereotyped. Some hard edges. A moving bond between sisters. People of color! Unusual character design – Nani’s legs are enormous! (No Barbie figures here.) A fascinating oddness about the way Stitch moves – he’s like an insect, or a spider, rather than a mammal. And there is a real antic sensibility – the havoc that is wreaked by Stitch and the aliens is not merely “cute”, it’s destructive in a way that makes you cringe even as it amuses. I’m not sure how this odd little film got past the gatekeepers of mass entertainment, but I’m happy it did.
The Fall, series 2 — A continuation of the first season’s death dance between a serial killer (Jamie Dornan, who subsequently became famous for the dire 50 Shades of Grey) and the police detective (played by Dana Scully herself, Gillian Anderson) who is pursuing him. The underlying themes of kinship between them are subtly done – there’s no question that Spector is a monster and that Stella wants him apprehended, but the final scenes of this season left me wondering if she was tumbling down into an abyss of dark fascination. I’ll certainly be watching series 3, but I also like ending on a question and would be happy if this were the show’s conclusion.
Mad Men, season 7.5 — We’ve been waiting 10 show years for Don Draper to clean up his act, and in the end, it’s really not clear if he has. But at least he seems to understand himself better and to have developed some genuine compassion. For a show that often seemed to be about the impossibility of escaping dysfunctional patterns even when you have the best of intentions, it was a surprisingly optimistic ending. And we also got Peggy Olson sauntering down the hall, sunglasses on, cigarette dangling from her lips, and a painting of “an octopus pleasuring a lady” under her arm – finally confident enough to not give a damn. Instant classic.
Halt and Catch Fire, season 2 — This show about the world of personal computing in the 1980s really comes into its own with this season’s focus on Cameron and Donna’s startup game company, Mutiny. Season 1 leads Gordon and Joe both have interesting storylines, but they are no longer at the center. Instead, we get to see two women with very different personalities and skill sets working together in the world of tech on something truly groundbreaking and exciting. All is not sweetness and light between them, though – their disagreement about the place of “Community” (a multi-room chat feature) is interesting both because it illuminates their characters and because it presages the creation of social networking sites two decades later. Very interesting stuff.
Sense8 — This Netflix-produced show is co-written by J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) and the Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame; let’s not talk about the sequels), and has an intriguing premise: eight people in countries around the world suddenly find that they are having each other’s experiences, and seeing the others when they are not physically there. Are they going crazy? Or is something even weirder going on?
It’s fashionable these days for genre fiction to be grim and full of betrayal, antiheroes, and loneliness. Sense8 is the corrective to all that. It dares to posit that true “human nature” (or “sensate nature”?) is not angry vigilantism or existential emptiness, but connection and oneness. The most rapturous scenes in the first season all involve members of the “cluster” (did Straczynski choose this inelegant word just so he could use the term “clusterfuck” later? stay tuned…) spontaneously connecting and sharing an intense experience – a song, some great sex, even recovered memories of birth! The potential is obviously there to focus much more on the sharing of bad experiences, or even psychic rape (the character of Whispers is a nightmarish example of this), but that does not seem to be what the show’s creators are really interested in. A placard held by someone in the credits sequence seems to resonate much more with their message: “Kindness is sexy.” Amen to that. And gorgeous cinematography, a very pretty & diverse cast, and great action scenes don’t hurt.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries — A glamourous and liberated woman in 1920s Melbourne, Australia solves mysteries because she can and damn well wants to. Phryne Fisher does not experience angst. She just does her thing with confidence and style and takes the rest of us along for the ride. (She drives, and drives fast.) True comfort viewing.
The Knick, season 2 — A continuation of season 1’s story of the (somewhat fictionalized) Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City at the dawn of the 20th century – and the people connected to it, who are variously sympathetic, funny, or low-down dirty mustache-twirling scoundrels. Not quite as electrifying as season 1, but still gripping – and hide-your-eyes grotesque on multiple occasions. This season delves into new historical territory: black consciousness-raising, eugenics, birth control, a medical model of addiction. The ending seems very final in some respects, but there is talk of a possible third season regardless. How will they manage it? I’m interested to find out.
Milky Chance: Sadnecessary — Relaxing, reggae-inflected folky electronica – made by Germans! A surprise and a pleasure.
Grimes: Art Angels — Following up on her mostly wordless (or verbally incomprehensible) Visions (also a favorite), Grimes goes for more conventionally structured poppiness here, but still with an off-kilter idiosyncratic approach. Exhibit A: the most catchy, uptempo song on the album, “California”, has some of the most depressing lyrics I have ever heard! Top 40, this is not. But I dig it.
Hamilton: the Musical — A hip-hop infused musical about the life and times of our most unjustly obscure founding father? Bring it on! No joke: the genius of creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has made me more interested in the early days of my own country than I have ever been before. If history teachers know what’s good for them, they’ll be assigning this in class. Or maybe they should be using the ole reverse psychology trick and forbidding their students to listen to it? Whatever works to get it in their ears will result in far greater understanding of our nation’s founding – and a lot of entertainment to boot.
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie — The conclusion of the story that began with the wonderful Ancillary Justice. The highlight is the various ship personalities – especially Sphene, who is a hoot! The end might be more properly considered a version of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” than a sweeping victory, but that is fine with me. Space opera does not have to be power fantasy.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates — Coates has many hard words for the clueless and privileged in this book – all of which are justified and enormously affecting. The many recent police killings of black people – and the subsequent failures to admit any wrongdoing, let alone punish the perpetrators – have reached such a level of outrage that even those most in denial about racism in the United States must be dimly realizing that something is Not All Right in the present day. But Coates makes clear that it has always been Not All Right, ever since the days of slavery, and that the everyday lives of black people are marked by fear in a way that many white people simply cannot understand. This is a sobering and important testament.
But what struck me even more than this grim reckoning was Coates’s depiction of his own curious and skeptical mind developing over time, and his willingness to point out the mistakes and misunderstandings of his younger self. The book ends up being both a clear-eyed statement of what is, and a somehow hopeful testament to the possibilities of what might be, in the unknown future, beyond the visible horizon.