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2015 in Review: Entertainment & Literature

Favorite Books, Movies and TV of 2015

Every year I like to look back at my favorite moments and photos from the previous twelve months.  My “Best of 2015” list is coming soon, but in the meantime  I may as well devote a little time to others’ work.

In this case, I’d like to pass along some of my favorite works in movies, television and literature.  I’m inspired by all forms of art, and love going to movies and devouring books.  I have my favorite genres, so naturally I don’t get to all the “good” stuff, and due to my travel schedule and limited amount of time I try to be pretty judicious about the entertainment and literature I consume.  Reading reviews typically helps me pick and choose fairly high quality, or at least entertaining, works, but there are certainly some misses along the way.

Okay, let’s get on with it.

 

The Best Books I Read in 2015

I generally read a lot, but the genres I focus on fluctuate.  It used to be that I’d read nothing by fantasy and sci fi, until I started running out of good stuff.  I’ve expanded my range to include crime thrillers (e.g., the works of Jo Nesbo and Deon Meyer) and non-fiction, among other things.  In 2015 I read a ton of books, close to 50 by last count (being in India for a month helped in this regard!).  This included the entire Harry Bosch series and many of the Lincoln Lawyer books by Michael Connelly—most of which were good—and also the latest entries in the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey (which I always enjoy)… but none of them stand out enough to nab an individual place on my Best Of list.  As a result, I only listed a few titles that were truly memorable.

4) The Martian
, by Andy Weir: I never thought I’d get into an overly-“sciency”/technical book (see below), but Weir managed to find the right balance of technical jargon, drama, and wit to keep things moving along.  Perhaps the most entertaining book I read all year.

3) Golden Son, by Pierce Brown: The second book in the Red Rising trilogy, which doesn’t necessarily deal with new themes, but handles them quite well.  I’ve already read plenty of stories involving teenagers forced into battle (Hunger Games, Battle Royale, The Testing), as well as worlds based on a color caste system (Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey), but Brown’s series remains pretty gripping, and manages to infuse more sci fi than those other similar stories.  There’s much more at stake when we go into space.

2) Nemesis Games, by James S.A. Corey: Speaking of a high stakes space adventure, Nemesis Games is the epitome of one.  This is the fifth–and best–book in the Expanse series (which has been turned into a new show on the SyFy TV network), and actually follows what I consider to be the weakest volume.  The authors (Corey is a pseudonym) changed things up dramatically by amping up the action and political drama in the solar system, but also by splitting up a team of characters that has become very familiar to readers.  It was a much-needed and rewarding change of pace.  If you can get into this series with book one (Leviathan Wakes), Nemesis Games makes all the reading worth the effort.

1) Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: I’ve been reading a lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature the last few years.  Station Eleven is different from most of the other (very good) books I’ve read in this genre.  It’s definitely not as plot-driven as the rest, but the writing is beautiful, and, despite being filled with less detail than those other stories, the world in this one somehow seems more fully realized.

Biggest Disappointment:  As I mentioned, I do try and get a sense of what I’m buying by reading reviews.  Usually, a consensus can lead to some pretty sound choices when it comes to books and movies.  One big miss this year was The Three Body Problem.  A Chinese science fiction novel which, unlike The Martian, was overly technical and a tremendously boring slog.

 

My Favorite Movies Seen in 2015

I’ll try to keep this list restricted to new releases.  I love seeing movies, but I don’t get to nearly as many as I’d like.  So it’s not surprising that a lot of what follows is “popcorn fare.”  Unlike last year (Whiplash, Birdman, Boyhood) I didn’t see nearly as many smaller independent films.

5) Inside Out: I’m an unabashed Pixar fan, and am fond of everything that doesn’t involve Cars.  But in the case of Inside Out, which many folks consider one of Pixar’s best films, I had to go back and rewatch it to really appreciate it.  After the first viewing I thought it was well done, but very similar to so many other quest-based films that have been churned out over the years.  The second time I experienced a deeper, more emotional connection (which is appropriate, given the premise of the movie).  As I’ve mentioned in past Musings articles, I can be a bit sentimental, so Inside Out certainly struck a chord with me.

4) Ex Machina:
It took me a while to get around to this, after hearing a lot of buzz earlier in the year.  In some ways, it reminded me of a prolonged episode of Black Mirror, one of the best things to hit TV in the past decade.  What I really enjoyed was the way it was shot.  What a gorgeous film.

3) Star Wars VII: “Good, but flawed.”  That’s how I’ve described The Force Awakens to people.  It was far from perfect, from some surprisingly bad CGI to a very hammy performance by the normally steady Domnall Gleeson, to a retread of familiar Star Wars story lines.  But it felt so good to be back in this world and see what felt like a real Star Wars film (after the disaster that was I-III).  Overall, it was a good looking movie with some great humor and outstanding performances.  It felt like Star Wars again, and I really hope Lucasfilm can use this momentum to craft a brand new and unique story for Episode VIII.

2) The Martian: The Martian again?  Loved the book, and the film was just as great.  In fact, it’s pretty remarkable that Ridley Scott was able to craft a movie that equaled the book in terms of mixing science, suspense and humor just right.  It’s the third recent big time space movie (Gravity, Interstellar) in the last three years, and probably the most entertaining of the bunch.

1) Mad Max: Fury Road: This was a big surprise.  I’ve seen George Miller’s previous Mad Max works, and never really got into them (Thunderdome, believe it or not, was my favorite as a kid).  So I didn’t have high expectations for the fourth installment.  And let’s face it, this series has never been big on plot.  Fury Road is no exception, as it’s one big car chase.  But what a fantastic chase.  The action never ends and the visuals are incredible.  It was a real pleasant surprise and a real treat.

Others I Enjoyed: Beasts of No Nation, Spy, Mission Impossible 5, The Hateful 8, Sicario, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

Biggest Disappointments: Jurassic World, Trainwreck and Spectre… three box office hits that weren’t bad, but didn’t live up to the considerable hype.  In all cases they were either retreads of previous films in the franchise or similar films in the genre.  Jurassic World and Spectre really suffered from this.  Trainwreck simply wasn’t as funny as I was expecting, given Amy Schumer’s talent.  All three films felt watered down.

Wish I’d Seen: Room, Red Army, Spotlight, The Big Short, Creed, Carol, The Revenant (which doesn’t open here until 2016)

 

The Best Shows I Watched in 2015

We’re still in the Golden Age of television, as far as I’m concerned.  There’s so much good stuff on the small screen right now that it’s impossible to keep up with all of it.  At some point I expect to binge-watch a number of series I’ve yet to devote any time to, but for now I’m doing my best to squeeze in the following, among other shows.

10) I’ll Have What Phil’s Having: A travel/cooking show… on PBS!  We just discovered this recently, and it’s a treat.  Phil Rosenthal created Everybody Loves Raymond (a show I never watched), so now he has enough money to devote to documentary passion projects… which happen to focus on him.  He did a film called Exporting Raymond, where he tries to sell the show in Russia.  And now he’s got a camera crew following him around the world while he eats.  And eats.  So yeah, it’s sort of a Bourdain thing, but there’s a laid back, gentle humor to the whole thing that makes for an entertaining hour.  Phil makes eating fun.

9) Catastrophe:
A short series created by comedians Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney about a week-long tryst that ends in disaster (i.e., pregnancy).  It’s a situation that brings together near-strangers and different cultures (she’s Irish, he’s American), so there’s really nothing new or groundbreaking here, but the humor hits just the right note, and it’s got a bit of heart to it as well.  Amazon picked it up after the show first ran in the UK.  Another six episode season will hopefully be on the way soon.

8) River: I stumbled across this crime drama on Netflix only recently.  Like many other BBC productions, it’s short (a standard 6 episode run) and excellent.  It’s the latest in a long line of other BBC drama productions (Black Mirror, Top of the Lake, Happy Valley) that I’d count among the best TV shows period that I’ve watched in recent years.  In this case, it’s a little less standard procedural and more of a character piece or psychological thriller.  Stellan Skarsgård does a wonderful job of playing the mentally-scarred lead detective.

7) Parks and Recreation: Another show that I was sad to see go.  I don’t do much TV comedy in general.  Most of the network sitcoms that are out there are rather lame, to be honest.  Other past shows, like The Office, relied on uncomfortable humor that rubbed me the wrong way.  I’d heard that Parks and Rec started out the same way, so when Jenn and I decided to give it a try, we skipped Season 1 (based on everyone’s recommendation).  By the second season, the show’s creators had re-tooled the humor and it became a comedy that wasn’t so mean-spirited, and something that actually had heart.  So we buzzed through the rest of the episodes, managing to catch up in time to watch the final season as it unfolded.  For a comedy, this really was a feel good show, and I’m sad to see it go.

6) Daredevil: I enjoy superhero movies, but the genre hasn’t always translated well to television.  In spite of the clout of Marvel and Disney, shows like Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter have only been mildly entertaining, as best.  So Daredevil was a nice surprise.  Netflix made the two best superhero TV shows to date (Jessica Jones is up there as well and almost made my Top Ten), shows that are much darker and grittier than we’re used to, with excellent fight choreography and acting.  In some ways, it’s rekindled my interest in comic book adaptations on television.

5) Key & Peele: It was sad to see this creative duo end their run.  As far as sketch comedy shows go, K&P was smart and funny, but also superior from a technical standpoint.  The production values, directing and acting was top notch, elevating the show beyond, say, an equally funny Inside Amy Schumer.

4) Justified: Of all the series that ended in 2015, this was the hardest one to let go.  Justified is one of my all-time favorite shows, and one that’s severely underrated.  It’s usually the first show that I recommend to folks, in part because it’s been largely ignored during its run on FX.  It’s hard to find a better mix of action, drama and humor out there.  The writing was consistently brilliant, and it was nice to see the show bounce back from a subpar penultimate season and go out with a bang.

3) Mr. Robot: The biggest surprise of the year on television may well be Mr. Robot.  Who’d have thought that a mid-summer debut on USA, with a silly title to boot, would turn out to be one of the best shows of the year?  Thanks to an excellent lead performance Rami Malek and some really unique direction (something that’s normally difficult to notice in television shows), this ended up being one of my favorites this year.  Like Justified it’s probably a show I’ll have to keep pushing onto other people, because it won’t get much attention on its current network.

2) The Knick: I missed the debut of Steven Soderberg’s latest project when it aired on Cinemax, but now I’m finally catching up.  Perhaps it says something when you can hold onto a single director for an entire season of television.  When that happens, and you pair the director with a great story and fantastic leads, the results can be amazing (see True Detective, Season 1).  The cinematography, pacing and even an atypical soundtrack for a period drama (scored by Cliff Martinez, who also scored Drive) make for consistently engrossing episodes.

1) Fargo: Season 1 of Fargo was good.  Slow, methodical and quirky, much in the style of the Coen brothers’ original film.  Season 2 took a big leap.  The humor and quirky characters of the upper Midwest were still there, but the pace and action picked up, with plenty of small town mayhem to be had.  For a drama, this show is a lot of fun, and pulled off what True Detective failed to do.  It lived up to and exceeded the high standards it set in its first season.

Others I Enjoyed: Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, Jessica Jones, The Man in the High Castle, Master of None, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Walking Dead, Whose Line Is It Anyway? Danger 5

Biggest Disappointments: I’ve already referenced it a few times: True Detective, Season 2.  I suppose after reaching such heights with Season 1, a drop in quality would be inevitable, but this was a serious letdown.  The performances were pretty solid, actually, but boy, the story and dialogue had issues.  Even had Cory Fukunaga returned for the second season, I’m not sure he could have rescued this mess of a script.

Wish I’d Seen: The Americans, Transparent, Last Man on Earth, Rectify, The Leftovers

Favorite Performances in No Particular Order: Stellan Skarsgård (River), Ryan Stiles (Whose Line), Kirsten Dunst (Fargo), Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle), Jonathan Banks (Better Call Saul), Remi Malek (Mr. Robot), Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), David Tennant (Jessica Jones), James Spader (The Blacklist)

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