This week’s listmakers: Robin Beery, Traci Cumbay, Carrie Gaffney, Damon Jordan, Alex Mattingly, Briane Pagel, Nick Honeywell, Ken Honeywell, and Dave Shapiro. We watched, listened to, and read a lot of stuff this year (most of it real, some of it fake). Here’s what we liked. Check ’em out and add your own suggestions in the comments.
Traci Cumbay: Skeleton Twins. This movie is outright stupid at some points but still hilarious, goofy, touching, frustrating, and overall satisfying. Mostly because Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are incredible. Runner-up: The Trip to Italy. I’ll always love you, Coog.
Alex Mattingly: Chef. A labor of love from Jon Favreau, Chef has the humor and self-deprecating charm that marked some of his best and earliest work. Whether you’ve worked in a kitchen or not, anybody who’s gone after their passion (and fucked it all up) will recognize something of themselves in this film.
Nick Honeywell: Edge of Tomorrow. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow won’t win any big awards this year, but this ambitious Tom Cruise vehicle encompasses everything I love about movies. Fast-paced and twisty, it’s a sci-fi/action romp revolving around a simple but clever concept that—despite a predictable ending—pays off nicely. But most important, it’s just plain fun.
Ken Honeywell: Boyhood. Richard Linklater shot footage over the course of 12 years with the same actors and put together the most beautiful story about growing up in America ever committed to film. The transitions between time periods are unexpected and flawless. And even though nothing much happens and it’s nearly three hours long, I’d have happily watched Boyhood for another three.
Robin Beery: Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel. Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel with its thespians roving a disease-ravaged Midwest was both irresistibly quirky and hauntingly plausible. I was also blown away by Teju Cole’s essay “Black Body,” which reconsidered James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village” in light of events in Ferguson.
Traci Cumbay: The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt. Did this come out in 2014? Did I read it then? I have no idea. My whole fucking world’s been a daze since I sat in my car, crying, shaking, and reading those last 20 pages.
Alex Mattingly: Ghouljaw – Clint Smith. It was a decidedly good year for weird horror. But if you’re looking for a book to read after you finish the Southern Reach Trilogy, I recommend Ghouljaw. Smith’s stories are profoundly unsettling, for reasons that range from the unease of silent apparitions to the visceral creepiness of bodily transfiguration.
Briane Pagel: Tigerman – Nick Harkaway. Like his first two books, Tigerman deals with (an) end of the world, but here he boils it down to the end of what amounts to the world for a group of people living on an island sitting atop what amounts to a toxic volcano. It’s a science fiction book that’s light on science and feels more true than a lot of fiction, but I wasn’t able to stop reading it until I finished, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Ken Honeywell: The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell. Like Cloud Atlas, this is a creative tour de force—a book writers may love right up until they hate David Mitchell for being such an assured prose stylish. Unlike Cloud Atlas, the fantastical elements all add up to something that makes some kind of sense. It’s an epic battle between two gangs of immortals played out against many decades of humans being humans. But the fantasy is a bonus. It’s Mitchell’s muscular-yet-delicate style that makes it so much fun.
Robin Beery: Dark Arc – Saintseneca. If the Pixies were reincarnated by an Appalachian luthier, they might sound like Columbus, Ohio band Saintseneca, whose new album, Dark Arc, was my favorite this year. Spoon’s dose of blue-eyed soul and psych-rock licks, They Want My Soul, sounded as fresh as ever, too. Close call.
Carrie Gaffney: New Basement Tapes. In 1967, Bob Dylan and the Band went to Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York, to get away from it all, write, and record, resulting in the original basement tapes. In 2014, T-Bone Burnett acquired some of Dylan’s unused lyrics from that time period. He asked Elvis Costello, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Marcus Mumford from Mumford and Sons, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens from Carolina Chocolate Drops to come together to read these lyrics and write original music to accompany them.
I am obsessed, especially since I saw the documentary that accompanies the recording of the album. Anyone who has participated in the creative process will have a deep appreciation for what these musicians went through as they collaborated. And the result is incredible. Listen to it. And keep listening.
Alex Mattingly: Very Good Bad Thing – Mother Mother. Listening to Mother Mother’s fifth album, Very Good Bad Thing, is like having a drunken stranger waffling between hugging you and sticking a knife in your gut. While some tracks are sheer aggression, others have a drugged airiness that invites you drop your guard more than may be prudent.
Ken Honeywell: Benji – Sun Kil Moon. No other album made me weep openly while vacuuming the living room. I also loved the new TV on the Radio album.
Dave Shapiro: Run the Jewels 2 – Run the Jewels. It’s nonstop, for-real hip hop, and my favorite album of the past five years. It’s smart, sharp, intense, willing and able to speak truth to power, and nearly infinitely replayable. Killer Mike and El-P are obviously having a blast; their enthusiasm is infectious, and their album is free.
Nick Honeywell: Piñata – Freddie Gibbs. Hailing from Gary, Indiana, Freddie Gibbs had a memorable 2014. He contributed a verse to Old English, a well-received collusion with weirdo up-and-comer Young Thug—and there was also a widely publicized attempt on his life. But what really brought Gibbs into the spotlight this year was Piñata: his collaboration with rap-producer-extraordinaire Madlib. It’s savvy, articulate, intelligent—and oh-so-very gangster.
Robin Beery: The Americans. It was a stressful season for Soviet spies Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings and their FBI neighbor Stan Beaman. But the tension, writing, stakes raising, and wigs paid off big. Amazon’s original series Transparent was a strong new show, another well-written drama about family and secrets.
Carrie Gaffney: Black Mirror. I attempted to binge-watch many series in 2014. None of them took until Black Mirror. The show, a British import that is available on Netflix, is a Twilight Zone-like series that explores the intersection of technology and morality within the timeline of a near/alternate future. The cast is ever-changing, the subject matter incredibly uncomfortable. Be warned, though: there are only six episodes available currently. Also, it is not safe for kids. (Sorry, twelve-year-old son who got an eyeful and earful of stuff we had to explain later.)
Damon Jordan: Fargo.
In Bimidgji (and Duluth), a young woman,
as a sleuth, thinks the Hobbit is a man
not to be trusted. Corrupted Billy Bob
puts pig blood in a shower: His evil job
(with throwing knives for power) makes blackmail
against the man who finds money from a tale
buried with an ice scraper by Showalter—
the man who found his solace in a chipper.
Best Reality Show Featuring Babies Left to Fend for Themselves A Deserted Island
Dave Shapiro: Goo Goo Lagoon.