This week’s listmakers: David Anderson, Andrew Bankin, Robin Beery, Jen Bingham, Traci Cumbay, Carol Divish, AJ Doherty, Brian Furuness, Carrie Gaffney, Matt Gonzales, Nick Honeywell, Ken Honeywell, Damon Jordan, Sarah Layden, Alex Mattingly, Claudia McCowan, Christopher Newgent, Chris Overpeck, and Lou Perry. We watched, listened to, and read a lot of stuff this year. Here’s what we liked.
Andrew Bankin: Bad Grandpa. Yes, I know that Inside Llewyn Davis gave us a stunning portrait of an artist that could have been while encapsulating a time and place with equal parts romanticism and brutal honesty in a way that only the Coen Brothers can, further solidifying their place as the defining cinematic innovators of this generation. BUT Bad Grandpa had an old man shit himself in a diner, and that made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen in years.
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Jen Bingham: Philomena. This movie is sharp and sweet. You’ll love it for the inexpertly applied face powder on Judi Dench’s Philomena, for vivid flashbacks to the conception and birth of her snatched-by-nuns son. You’ll love it for the interplay of innocent Philomena and world-weary journalist Martin Sixsmith. You’ll love it because Steve Coogan plays bastard-with-a-heart like no other.
Traci Cumbay, Philomena. This has nothing to do with my Steve Coogan crush. Philomena will find that little part of you that isn’t dead inside and milk its tears. There’s plenty that’s biting and curmudgeonly for the rest of you.
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Carol Divish: Blackfish. The documentary film exposing the dangers of the orca captivity business was a hit at several festivals and one of 2013’s best. Including video footage of animal attacks on trainers and interviews with orca experts, Blackfish manages to build a solid case while still being a thrilling watch.
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AJ Doherty: The Great Gatsby. I love Baz Luhrmann films but his version of The Great Gatsby wasn’t as weird as I had hoped. The film was colorful and made me actually like Tobey Maguire. Artists can’t go wrong depicting unrequited love because it fucking sucks and so do snobby elitists like Daisy and Tom.
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Ken Honeywell: American Hustle. Pretty much the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a couple of years (excepting this year’s most entertaining documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom). The story is serviceable, but it’s kind of beside the point. Although it’s overlong, I’d have stuck with these characters for another couple of hours. Amy Adams steals the film, and Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in.
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Nick Honeywell: The Conjuring. The Conjuring is the best horror movie I’ve seen in years, and the best film of 2013. Relying on suspense rather than gore, it harkens back to a more cerebral age of horror defined by well-crafted storytelling and clever camerawork. If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock or John Carpenter’s early work, don’t miss this masterpiece of the genre.
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Sarah Layden: Before Midnight. Before viewing the latest in Richard Linklater’s trilogy, we rewatched the first two: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Celine and Jesse didn’t disappoint, and the three films in a chunk make a complex story. Smartly written and acted, these characters have aged along with us, reminding us of who we were, well, before.
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Chris Overpeck: Blood Brother. Rocky Braat was a disenchanted middle-class American who wanted a change. This is not an original idea and can be fodder for serious eye-rolling, but this powerful documentary gets it right. Braat travels to India to work at an orphanage for children infected with HIV. His connection with the children is genuine and profound, and the moments he faces at the orphanage vacillate between gorgeous and absolutely gut-wrenching.
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Lou Perry: Only God Forgives. Lots of people hate this movie. And I get it. I really do. It seems overly long at only 90 minutes. The red and blue hues are pervasive and sort of numbing. And it’s violent. Really violent. But it refuses to be scared of itself and it trusts its audience—which seems to be something we’re losing in filmmaking. It’s not a neat or convenient story, but it’s stuck with me more than any movie I saw in 2013.
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David Anderson: One Shot at Forever, by Chris Ballard. Lynn Sweet arrived in Macon, Illinois in 1970 to teach English and coach baseball—the hippie version of Norman Dale, arranging desks in a circle and conducting silent infield practice while drawing small town scrutiny of his coaching and pedagogical style. More than just a recount of a magical season, Ballard provides a time capsule for a culture war and prompts a reflection on the best and worst of sports in the community.
Andrew Bankin: Last Girlfriend On Earth, by Simon Rich. Once considered a wunderkind, the now simply prolific Rich’s books have been aging along with him. His writing has grown more vulnerable, and his superb comedic talents allow heartbreak and absurdity to mix seamlessly in a manner few others have been able to accomplish. His uniquely nuanced sensibilities are a big reason why his new FX show of the same name is so hotly anticipated. Also, Simon, if you’re looking for writers on that FX show, I wrote a pretty nice little blurb for you there, eh? Pretty nice little blurb. Eh?
Jen Bingham: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. This book contains: every lonely part of childhood, the first hurts you don’t forget, the times your parents turned into monsters. And an ending that left me tingling with rage yet filled with recognition that it was the perfect way to end the story. Go to hell, Neil Gaiman. Also, I love you.
Traci Cumbay: The Dinner, by Herman Koch. I quit my life to read this book. It’s creepy and tense and realer than you’d want it to be. If I know you at all, I’m looking at you differently since I read this book. That kind of worldview shakeup is my hope on every page 1, but so rare.
Ken Honeywell: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. The Dinner was more fun and Jess Walters’s collection of short stories, We Live in Water, was terrific. But Life After Life was a marvel. A baby is born; a person lives her life until it ends. Then it starts over, until it ends again, at which point it starts over again. Atkinson’s novel lays bare the downstream effects of the circumstances of our lives. It’s fascinating to see how things change and how they don’t, and why. In the end, the book may be as much about writing a novel as it is about anything, which should make it even more interesting to writers–but you don’t have to be a writer to be seduced.
Damon Jordan: Snapper, by Brian Kimberling. Snapper has everything a Midwesterner could want: Tornadoes, trucks, elusive women, run-ins with the Klan—you name it. If you grew up in Indiana—or anywhere in the Midwest, really—it’s a must-read; if you didn’t grow up in the Midwest, well, what are we going to do with you, anyway?
Sarah Layden: The Dinner, by Herman Koch. Two couples meet at an Amsterdam restaurant to discuss an incident involving their sons. Each course of the meal brings new plot complications, revealing a narrator who is increasingly—and frighteningly—unreliable. Cheery it’s not, but suspense, drama, and mayhaps some allegory kept me reading (and recommending) this book.
Christopher Newgent: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (best re-read). In anticipation of what turned out to be a meh-pic Hollywood debut, I snagged a copy of Ender’s Game from the local library. I know, I know: Orson Scott Card has proven himself to be a bigoted prick in recent years. But what’s more interesting is how the thematic elements of his Ender series—empathy, acceptance, forgiveness—stand in such stark contrast to the personal views of its creator. It’s a textbook example of “Death of the Author”style literary criticism.
Lou Perry: North American Lake Monsters, by Nathan Ballingrud. 2013 was a great year if you’re into literary horror. There was Laird Barron’s The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, John Langan’s The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, and Stephen Graham Jones’ Three Miles Past. Ballingrud, however, outshone them all with his debut collection featuring struggling, flawed blue collar characters and the (occasional) werewolf or vampire. Don’t let the subject matter fool you: this is a collection of the highest caliber and it’d be a shame if you missed it.
Andrew Bankin: Deltron 3030, Event II. This is like the Chinese Democracy for people who ate mushrooms a lot at a liberal arts school between 2000 and 2012. It’s finally here!
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Robin Beery: The Arcade Fire, Reflektor. As a suit of new clothes for an empire of earnest souls, Reflektor had its bare spots: “Flashbulb Eyes,” “Supersymmetry,” eight minutes of ethereal noodling at the end. What thrilled was the arrangement of threads in the cloth, the strident, if undanceable, rhythms. I’ll enjoy wearing it out.
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Traci Cumbay: David Bowie, The Next Day. Duh. Runner-up: Mosquito, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This is a 2011 album, but I heard it for the first time this year. And then heard it 273 more times immediately, because yeah.
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Alex Mattingly: Those Darlins, Blur The Line. Those Darlins released two damn fine records before this one, but they also felt frustratingly incomplete. Blur The Line kicks more ass, swallows more razors and spits more blood. All the sorrow and joy of a bottle of Old No. 7.
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Carrie Gaffney: Houndmouth, From the Hills Below the City. During the summer of 2013, my husband and I drove our two kids to Bloomington, Indiana. We did the usual: got re-tweeted by IU basketball players, ate at Dylan Thomas’s booth at Nick’s English Hut, and then headed to Landlocked Music, where we drank warm Upland beers (well, not all of us) and listened to Indiana’s own Houndmouth play from their debut album—and my favorite album of the year.
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Matt Gonzales: The Weeknd, “Kiss Land” (best track). At first, “Kiss Land” appears to be a mundane chronicle of 23-year-old singer Abel Tesfaye’s sexual conquests set to a fantastically moody electronic soundtrack. But as the song unfolds over seven-and-a-half neon-lit minutes, Tesfaye makes you feel his existential pain. The late-night tale of sex, loathing, and isolation culminates in Tesfaye repeating, “This ain’t nothing to relate to, even if you try.” It’s the purest, most gripping expression of youthful nihilism that was put to wax this year–and if that ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, what is?
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Ken Honeywell: Mark Kozelek and Desertshore, Mark Kozelek/Desertshore. Kozelek released a bunch of stuff this year, including the excellent Perils from the Sea, a collaboration with The Album Leaf. The Desertshore collaboration featured the same sort of stream-of-consciousness lyrics, but the music was both noisier and more intimate, evoking Songs for a Blue Guitar-era Red House Painters. It’s funny and sad and deeply personal, like most of Kozelek’s best work. To hell with escapism. This one feels like life.
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Nick Honeywell: Ludovico Einaudi, In a Time Lapse. Ludovico Einaudi is an Italian composer and pianist who writes classically-influenced, minimalist pieces with a pop sensibility. In a Time Lapse stands among his best work, and provides an unforgettably cathartic experience. Graceful and pensive, this is music that speaks deeply without a single word. Check out “Waterways,” “Time Lapse,” and “Walk.”
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Christopher Newgent: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, F♯ A♯ ∞ (favorite “Oh yeah, I’ve not listened to that album in years” album. In college, I was that asshole who would pour a glass of wine and sit alone in on my couch listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s album F♯ A♯ ∞…on vinyl. Good lord, I was such a pretentious little shit. I wouldn’t even let myself enjoy the Harry Potter series. Either way, F♯ A♯ ∞ is an incredible album, and I rediscovered it this year while unpacking my records after a move. For ol’ time shits-and-giggles, I popped it on, poured myself a glass of wine, and kicked back with eyes closed.
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Chris Overpeck: Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. Jonathan Rado and Sam France formed Foxygen when they were kids. Now, eight years later, they’re still pretty much kids. They have a reputation for disjointed, bratty, drug-addled live shows, which tend to be either very good or very bad. But this psychedelic/pop/Jagger-swagger record is 37 minutes of pure brilliance.
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Lou Perry: Jason Isbell, Southeastern. Isbell has come a long way from his whiskey-fueled days with the Drive-By Truckers. His songwriting packs an impressive punch. In fact, for my money, I’m not sure there’s a better singer-songwriter working today. Is Spotify a verb? If so, go Spotify the standout tracks “Elephant” and “Cover Me Up.”
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Bryan Furuness: Hell on Wheels. Movies are so twentieth century. We’re now living in the new golden age of long-form television, featuring such killer series as The Wire, Homeland, and Downton Abbey. But I didn’t come here to flog series you’ve probably already seen. I’m here to push Hell on Wheels, the most underrated and underwatched dramatic series on television. Set in the period just after the Civil War, it’s about the construction of the transcontinental railroad. But really, it’s about the unlikely friendship between the ex-confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon and the ex-slave Elam Ferguson. But really, it’s about the struggle between revenge and redemption. But really, it’s about time you got on board.
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Ken Honeywell: Black Mirror. Charlie Brooker’s British anthology series is The Twilight Zone for the digital age. It’s the scariest, most shocking, best-written, best-acted, mind-blowingest thing on television–eleven times more inventive than anything on American TV. I’m not going to tell you how you can watch it. I’m just saying you should go find it now and every episode.
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Claudia McCowan: Game of Thrones. Best entertainment of the year, hands down: The reactions of unspoiled viewers, friends and strangers alike, to the infamous Red Wedding. I’m not proud of how much I enjoyed your pain and sorrow—I’m no Ramsay Bolton—but thank you. Your tears were delicious.
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Other Noteworthy Stuff
Damon Jordan: Moby Dick: or, The Card Game is the perfect excuse you have been looking for to get back into Melville’s classic novel about impermanence, loss, revenge, monomania, lost causes, and that-one-time-Queequeq-woke-up-cuddling-Ishmael. It’s fast-paced, looks great, and satisfies that too-often unquenched desire we have to harpoon a sea-mammal.
Christopher Newgent: Favorite On-a-Whim Netflix Find: Red Cliff. On a slothful, Netflix-addled evening this year, I came across John Woo’s Red Cliff. This isn’t a handful of samurai jumping all nimbly-pimbly from tree to tree a la Crouching Tiger. This is a smart, fantastic story combined with grandiose battle scenes, wrapped up in those perfectly Zen scenes that contrast the calm serenity of Asian tea ceremonies with the brutalities of war.
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