Thursday, January 1, 2015

Our Favorites From 2014

We proudly present our favorites from 2014!*

Movies (including DVD and Blu Ray releases):

Peter's picks-

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - I didn’t think much of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (too slow-moving, ponderous and James Franco-fied) so I wasn’t expecting much of the follow-up but was pleasantly surprised. This one grabs hold of the best elements of Conquest and Battle and invests its ape characters with even more soul than in the originals. Oh sure, the human characters get left by the wayside (just like in the originals) but who needs ‘em when you’ve got two captivating simians like Caesar and Koba (a scene-stealing Toby Kebbell)? A third picture has already been announced but where can this series go now that it's reached its obvious conclusion? 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - More proof that Marvel knows exactly what it’s doing and seemingly cannot miss the bull’s-eye. Appropriate that Three Days of the Condor star Robert Redford should play the shady Alexander Pierce since Winter Soldier obviously owes quite a bit of its atmosphere to 1970s conspiracy theory films like Condor (an underrated classic), Executive Action, and The Parallax View. The film runs out of gas about twenty minutes before the climax and resorts to big blown up machine things and explosions and fire and people running but for a couple hours previous this is one glorious ride. Rumors are flying that Steve Rogers will meet his maker in the third film (a gimmick I caution against), an adaptation of Marvel’s mega-mini-series Civil War, due in May 2016. With Winter Soldier’s directors, Anthony and Joe Russo back to helm, I’m in a theater seat opening day.

20 Feet From Stardom - Backup performers come to the front of the stage. What a concept. A fabulously enthralling documentary, featuring interviews with the back-ups and the stars they bolstered. Being a Stones fan, the high point, for me, is obviously Merry Clayton and Mick Jagger relating the story of “Gimme Shelter,” featuring perhaps the greatest backing vocal of all time (okay, well, maybe tied with Clare Torry’s belting on “The Great Gig in the Sky”). 

X-Men: Days of Future Past - How the hell did Bryan Singer assemble such a star-studded cast and then actually give them a story worthy of their talents? I give up. I gave this series up for dead after the vomit-inducing third film and the first Wolverine solo snoozefest but then Matthew Vaughn knocked my socks off with First Class and, suddenly, The X-Men were watchable again. The most complimentary thing I can say about Days of Future Past is that, despite a very complicated storyline, I managed to keep up with the events transpiring. That’s worth a couple stars right there.



Inside Llewyn Davis - Best Soundtrack of the year. Star making turn by Oscar Isaac. And I’ve never seen a film that included Justin Timberlake that I didn’t want to shut off immediately... until now. Yep, the story of a folk singer in the early 1960s is that good.

Grand Budapest Hotel - The best new film I saw this year, GBH is a breath of fresh, insane, and wacky air after all those big-budget explosion trailers we had to sit through this year. You’ll never know what will befall Ralph Fiennes’ character next but, chances are, you’ll find it just as funny as the last kick in the teeth he had to live through. Best use of star cameos in years (especially Jeff Goldblum).


I've always been a thrifty media buyer; I'll wait until a DVD or Blu has hit rock bottom price-wise before shelling out but my Blu-Ray shelf has seen the addition of some pricey discs this year: the double feature of Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror was a gimme as Tales is one of my favorite horror flicks of all time and Vault is in its uncut form for the first time ever in the US. Scream Factory (nice name that) has done a fabulous job with the restoration and now I'm primed for their March release of Blacula/Scream Blacula Scream. Shout Factory (the parent company of Scream) does an equally good job of cleaning up The Legend of Hell House, an underrated haunted house gem from the mid-70s starring Roddy McDowell and Pamela Franklin. And rounding out my Shout! list this year is the Blu of the greatest musical horror film of all time, Phantom of the Paradise. I've seen this hoot at least a dozen times over the years and it never grows old. The concert scene, with The Undeads performing "Somebody Super Like You" has never looked better than it does in high def.

I'm not a big fan of Twilight Time's "limited release" discs that usually end up in the filthy paws of speculators on their way to a high-end sale on eBay but I was lucky enough to nab two of TT's releases this year: the woefully ignored Jimmy Stewart-Richard Widmark western, Two Rode Together, and the original Rollerball. Two Rode has one of Stewart's finest performances (and that's saying something), as an unlikeable sheriff who heads off with Widmark to find whites who have been captured by the Indians. Rollerball features the always remarkable James Caan in one of those semi-big-budget futuristic films that made the mid-70s so much fun (Soylent Green, Silent Running, Godzilla Vs. Megalon, etc.). Caan had a run of great roles in the 1970s and this was one of them.



John's picks-


About Time - From the folks who brought us Love Actually, this equally heartfelt, humorous British rom-com is based on an interesting time travel premise. Bill Nighy is the family patriarch who passes on word to his son that he too shares an ability to travel through time.

Guardians of the Galaxy - A surprise entertainment that far exceeded the low expectations I brought to the table. Who could have guessed a talking raccoon and tree-creature would have been two of the most memorable character performances of the year. While not perfect, the film holds up on repeat viewings, which explains why it's the highest grossing film of 2014. If you've been avoiding it due to all the hype - give it a watch. It's a fun ride.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - Following the surprisingly good X-Men: First Class, this mixes in the young and old crews thanks to the time travel nature of this tale. I'll admit to being worried about the handling of this, a personal favorite tale from the Chris Claremont/John Byrne era of the comics, particularly after how the Dark Phoenix storyline was fumbled in the third X-Men feature. Bryan Singer's return shows us that he might have done that tale right, and one of the best things about this great new entry into the series (which deviates from the original comics while maintaining the tone and themes of the comic) is that it sets things up allowing for another shot at that tale (if they choose to take it).

Under the Skin - A polarizing film to be sure, but for David Lynch fans, this was a much loved strange exploration into extraterrestrial activity. Scarlett Johannson does a great job as the stranger in a strange land, and does much more than just take off her clothes. The film inspired me to search out the book, which while providing much more in the way of explanation, I ultimately found less fulfilling. And my wife, whose initial impression was not positive, is still talking about the film months later, and has even discussed revisiting it. The title proves appropriate for several reasons.

Godzilla - I've watched every Japanese Godzilla film, and have always appreciated them for what they are. After the 1998 debacle, I was obviously concerned about a new American G film. One of my biggest issues was his design. While a redesign of the creature was a certainty, the early concepts that leaked had issues, from stubby feet to a pinhead. Fortunately, Gareth Edwards (whose Monsters was certainly a fine audition for the job) found the right balance with the final design, and they dropped him into a compelling tale. While I'd never complain about getting MORE Godzilla footage in a Godzilla movie, I felt the balance was consistent with the Japanese films. And at the end of the day, I think this film stands up amongst the best of the Japanese film. Can't wait to see where they take him next, and also look forward to the new Japanese films we'll see in the wake of the film's success.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Perhaps the first Marvel movie that stands up as a great movie without the qualification of it being a Marvel movie or a comic-book movie. It's an impressive feat to not only make me want to see the next film in this series sooner than the other Marvel movies in the current phase first, but to also make me interested in checking out the Agents of Shield TV show. And more Scarlet Johannson is never a bad thing.

P!NK Truth About Love Tour - I saw this show as it passed through town twice in the past two years, and count it as one of the best live music presentations I've ever seen, so I didn't hesitate to pick up the Blu Ray of the release. While many artists put so much of their energy into putting on a 'show' that they have to resort to lip-synching, Pink manages to provide a Cirque de Soleil level show while never skimping on the main reason why the audience shows up.

Just to clarify, I haven't yet seen my most anticipated release of 2014 yet - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - we're scheduled to watch it as part of our two-day New Year's movie marathon catch up (where we watch 12 movies over two days). I'm hoping it will vault to the top of my list for the year.

Gilbert’s picks­-

TNT could have had dynamite on their hands had the network handled Mob City with care. Covering the same hardboiled historical territory as the 2013 action film Gangster Squad, only with the realism of the 1997 Oscar-nominated L.A. Confidential, Mob City was the only thing to come along on television that could be called authentically “film noir,” at least until David Fincher puts together his James Ellroy 1950s crime drama for HBO (if that ever happens). Still no DVD release for this cancelled series, but 2014 saw episodes available through Amazon Instant Video. For the full story, read the exclusive bare•bones interview with two of Mob City’s writers, David J. Schow and Michael Sloane.

Big Sur, a little film from independent director Michael Polish about Jack Kerouac’s later life that got lost in the shuffle last year, was probably eclipsed by the more vaunted On the Road adaptation which beat it to theaters by a year. The latter film, from Walter Salles, overemphasized the adolescent quest for experience at the expense of the transcendence which Kerouac seemed always to be seeking. It reduced Keroauc’s earnest search to mere “kicks.” On the other hand, Big Sur, adapted from Kerouac’s 1962 novel, spiritually diagnoses the author’s nervous breakdown. Polish expertly find images to match Kerouac’s own prose as provided by actor Jean-Marc Barr’s voiceover so that the film does not feel like just a static, narrated novel. Incidentally, Big Sur, California, is supposed to be the scene of the crime in the upcoming True Detective second season about “the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.” It will be interesting to see if Pizzolatto, a former literature professor known for his sinister literary allusions, finds room for a Kerouac reference or two (“...I’ve seen the Cross again and again but there’s a battle somewhere and the devils keep coming back—”).

It makes sense to release a Diamond Edition of Sleeping Beauty in the same year Maleficent comes out, making the original the perfect antidote to the revisionist remake take on the evil fairy. At least this time, by going back to the 1959 classic, you can skip the rewritten desperate nonsense that Aurora’s father King Stefan is the real villain of the piece. Next up from Hollywood: King Stefan, where we get his backstory about what happened to him to make him such a bastard?


Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery on Blu-ray. In the 1970s and ’80s, Police Story and Hill Street Blues, and later Crime Story and L.A. Law, pioneered the now-standard long-form storytelling format for primetime series television, paving the way for the 1990s Gothic soap Twin Peaks which weekly revisited the question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” (Following on its heels were Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue, all the way up to today’s True Detective and Hannibal, the latter of which admits a stylistic influence from David Lynch, not to mention long form series like the aforementioned Mob City, The Americans, The Knick, Tyrant and, to a lesser extent, Person of Interest.) This particular package, for the first time including the series pilot, the European feature film cut, and the prequel movie Fire Walk With Me, contains a grab bag of extras and will make good prep work for Showtime’s upcoming sequel series which capitalizes on Laura Palmer’s prophecy to “see you again in 25 years” and reunites David Lynch and Mark Frost for every episode, something that could not be said about all of the old series’ episodes. (All this foretold a year in advance of the official announcement by some Agent Cooper-worthy detective work at Crimespree Magazine, first on Oct. 15th, 2013, then on Oct. 16th, 2013.)

While Planes is set in the “World of Cars,” it is technically Disney, not Pixar, and for the first half-hour or so is missing the old Pixar magic. Characters are not crisply and vividly introduced, but once it does pick up it takes flight. Stacy Keach stands out as a grizzled old World War Two Navy Corsair, Skipper Riley.

Spike Jonze’s Her is part science fiction and part romantic relationship film. Some have argued it is romantic comedy, but despite the fact that its lead, Joaquin Phoenix, finds the funny spaces in his existential condition, sad is a better word for the world it depicts. (Phoenix continues to prove himself a versatile actor who can play a variety of characters.) It also may not be as science-fictional as its surface suggests, considering our technological age, evolving (devolving?) human behaviors, and resultant inexplicable phenomena such as “cyberships,” cyberstalking, virtual sex, and “catfishing.” By exploring technology and artificial relationships and the place where they intersect, Her comes to some disturbingly ambivalent conclusions about the old mind-body problem, human interaction, and alienation. Society may be headed in Her’s direction, if it is not there already there, if in a less exaggerated form perhaps (at least for the moment).


Jack's picks-

American Hustle-I saw this at the beginning of January, so it counts for 2014! This is the only movie I paid to see twice, if that tells you anything. Amy Adams can do no wrong and the 1970s NYC setting really worked for me.

The Past-An outstanding French film with Berenice Bejo. Director Asghar Farhadi's prior film, A Separation, was also great.

Ida (2013)The Wind Rises-Hayao Miyazaki's beautiful animated film about the inventor of the Japanese Zero fighter plane was his last before retirement. Too bad, because no one is making movies quite like he did for the last ten or fifteen years.

Ida-A beautiful black and white film from Poland about a young woman in the early 1960s who is about to take her vows as a nun. She visits her hard-drinking aunt, who used to be a judge in the Communist government, and learns something surprising about her parents that causes her to take a journey of self-discovery. Highly recommended.

Boyhood-Richard Linklater's three-hour chronicle of a boy growing up lives up to the hype. I didn't want to see it but then I went and I was glad I did. Probably the best American movie of the year.

Wild-A late arrival in mid-December, Reese Witherspoon's movie about the troubled woman who hikes 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail was enjoyable and inspiring.


Jose's picks-


This year as every year, horror tended to outweigh most of my other cinematic experiences. I got a chance to visit older films that I’ve heard about for years and newer selections from the landscape of terror. I tend to stray from most material that’s any younger than me, but I was taken with some contemporary recommendations like Mike Flanagan’s chilly take on the Three Billy Goats Gruff, Absentia. Also surprising was Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which played like a lot of good, modern horror fiction reads: damp with foreboding and dark insinuation, with a splash of cold viciousness to cap things off. The not-as-badly-dated-as-you-think Brotherhood of the Wolf was also a lot of fun, a nice mixing of period drama, creature feature mystery, and martial arts actioner (!!) all rolled into one. Probably best of all was a suggestion made by a good friend of mine to watch Lucky McKee’s May. My wife and I took it in one October night and though she usually ditches me before my viewing choices even get a chance to start we both sat on the couch enraptured by the terribly sad story of poor Angela Bettis searching for the perfect companion in a friendless world. That final image made me cheer because McKee actually did it but it made me shudder just a little bit too.

As always, though, I cloistered myself in my beloved abbey of classic horror. Some new favorites came to me thanks to the fine folks at Kino Lorber. The Black Torment was a deliciously Gothic treat that some people might pass off as faux-Hammer and while that may be partially true it’s got an edge all its own. The fact that it has both one of my favorite “Gotcha!” moments of the year (a troubled wife sees her husband take off for a carriage ride and enters the mansion only to hear his voice reverberating from another room!) and a dashing sword fight climax allow it to easily beat out the competition. Another English thriller, Pete Walker’s Frightmare, was a favored watch for both me and my wife: we are now official Sheila Keith fans.

Other spooky highlights included Night of the Creeps (a gore-splattered comic book with Tom Atkins giving a cult icon-performance); Paranoiac (from my Hammer Horror Collection set, letting Oliver Reed froth all over the screen with a creepy pre-Alice, Sweet Alice figure haunting the background); Rituals (a wonderful, nail-biting man vs. man story with a stellar cast); and The Sadist (sweaty drive-in thriller much better than its presence in the bargain bin would have you believe).


Showtune-musicals and theater are another passion of mine, and this year saw me taking in Fiddler on the Roof, All That Jazz, and Topsy-Turvy for the first time. The first film is marvelously staged and rustically charming, with songs that feel alive and real as life, while the other two are potent glimpses into the worlds of legendary music men, examining their fractured and frayed relationships with the glitz and sensationalism of show business.

Some memorable theater-going experiences included the animated cutesiness of Big Hero 6, the dynamic chance of getting to see Godzilla in his full and proper fire-breathing glory, and digging the groovy beat of a righteously-realized Marvel Comics offshoot, Guardians of the Galaxy.

This was also a significant year of documentaries for me. Cropsey was unsettling in its depiction of a shadowy serial murderer’s grip on a community both during and after his reign. Deceptive Practice was really cool for getting the chance to scratch the surface of a magician’s methodical craft. Nightmare Factory showed a craft of a different kind: special makeup effects. A treat to see Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger’s company go about the business of making realistic innards a hot commodity.

As a general rule I really don’t seek out action movies, especially what passes for “Hollywood blockbusters,” but I admit I was bowled over and almost deliriously happy with Dredd. I’ve never read a single strip from that venerated comic or seen Sly Stallone’s infamous version, but for me this was exactly what a good comic book movie should be: colorfully violent, gritty without losing an ounce of fun, and simple. Pete Travis needs to do the next iteration of Batman, and I wouldn’t have any complaints if Karl Urban donned the cowl himself.

On the Disney front, Frozen might have had the better songs, but my wife and I had a much better time with Tangled.

Some other notable watches from this year included Chandu the Magician (Bela Lugosi awesome as a turbaned supervillain); Charade (twisty suspenser that makes for a great cocktail meatball dinner date with your significant other); The Lineup (Eli Wallach, you will be missed); The Lion in Winter (it’s like all of the volatile holiday moments you had with your family done by Shakespearean actors); Oliver Twist (the refreshingly dark and almost noir-esque version done by David Lean with the stupendous Alec Guinness as Fagin); and The Stranger (Welles might have hated it, but darn it if it ain’t a good ‘un).

Not a bad year all around!


TV series:

Peter's picks-

The Americans
Endeavour
The Good Wife
Happy Valley
Justified
The Killing
Low Winter Sun
Sherlock
True Detective 
Henning Mankell's Wallander

Thanks to the glories that are Netflix and Amazon Prime, who needs Prime Time Television anymore? Waiting a week between episodes is so five years ago. I discovered many new (to me) shows by just taking chances and clicking on icons. If I liked what I saw (those above), I watched another... and another... If the show did nothing for me (Top of the Lake, Last Tango in Halifax, Hinterland, Scandal), I've invested no more than an hour, and out of my queue it does go. The Americans was edge-of-your-seat intrigue; Endeavour a fabulous prequel to a show I could never get into (Inspector Morse); Sherlock's third season got off to a rocky start but redeemed itself with the return of an old "friend" and the single best TV episode I saw all year ("The Sign of Three"); Happy Valley and Low Winter Sun were dark cop shows that blurred the lines between the good guys and the bad guys; True Detective had the feel of a really great HP Lovecraft horror novel rewritten by Joe R. Lansdale (except that Joe would have found a better way to finish it up); Wallander concluded its run with a heartbreaking season that saw its brilliant detective face an enemy he couldn't vanquish: Alzheimer's; and Tim Olyphant continued to amaze me with his Eastwoodian ways in Justified, a series that just gets better every season (and if they ever get around to remaking Dirty Harry, it better be Olyphant in Clint's shoes). All these shows kept my attention throughout the year but one show ensnared me in its evil trap and just would not let go. That would be The Good Wife, a show I spent the longest time avoiding due to its courtroom trappings. It was only at the urging of a friend that I gave the first season a shot and that began a very long spiral into the abyss of the subsequent four seasons, only coming up for air between episodes. Honorable mentions to The FollowingHouse of Cards, Luther, and Orange is the New Black.


John's picks-

Game of Thrones - Still compelling, this is the only show we have a dedicated schedule to watch (and a large group of friends who join us). We’re so hooked on this, that each week while the show is on, we start with a repeat of the prior episode before watching the new episode. Will they be able to keep it up as they approach the end of the established road of GRRM’s books? I certainly hope so.

Justified - Still loving this show, and I’m going to miss Raylan and Boyd when the series wraps up at the end the 2015 season. They’ve done a great job carrying on the Elmore Leonard spirit following the creator’s passing. And I still think Olyphant would be an ideal Roland Deschain in an adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga (with Clint Eastwood as the old Roland).

The Newsroom - Aaron Sorkin’s latest (and last?) TV show became a favorite these past few years, and in my opinion wrapped things up perfectly in the final season. Who would have thought a show on a TV newsroom could be this good. Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised considering the great job he did with Sports Night and Studio 60.

Battlestar Galactica (German Blu Ray) - I have always had a soft spot for the classic Galactica, and it has never looked better than it does on this German import set. Fortunately, for those who don’t have all-zone playback capabilities, it’s coming to the US in 2015. It’s important to note that the episodes are being cropped to fill a 16x9 HD screen size (WHY? WHY!), but there will also be an edition with the original uncropped versions in HD, too.

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery - The greatest TV show of all time finally made it to Blu Ray this year, along with the incredible feature film Fire Walk With Me, and the bonus feature that for many of us was worth the price of admission - the long awaited release of the scenes shot for Fire Walk With Me that did not make the final cut - edited into a feature length presentation on their own. This would have been the icing on the cake for Twin Peaks fans if it wasn’t followed with news of the return of Twin Peaks to Showtime in 2016, with nine new episodes written by series creators Mark Frost and David Lynch, and all directed by Lynch. This is more exciting than the return of Star Wars to the big screen, and I’m a huge Star Wars fan.

Batman The Complete Television Series - Back in 2011, Peter and I embarked on one of our episode-a-day blogs of the Adam West/Burt Ward series (To The Batpoles). I think we both had fun with it, and the only down side was that we had to rely on the available quality off-air versions of the show that were readily available. When we got around to the feature film, I watched that on Blu Ray and was not only impressed with the quality, it made me further appreciate how much more I would appreciate the TV show if it were available in similar quality. Flash forward to 2014, and we finally have the entire series on Blu Ray. While Peter had his fill going through the show, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to add it to my library.




Gilbert’s picks­-

The Americans, airing on FX.  Last season ratcheted up the espionage and left viewers with a finale that could change the direction of the upcoming third season.  The dynamic between the two leads is clever – the wife a hardened KGB true believer, the husband simmering with doubt and secretly attracted to the American lifestyle.  The love story subplot between the FBI agent and a Russian femme fatale mole played out like a tragic Russian novel, while the cover life of the two Soviet agents, parents to two all-American children, is almost a parody of American family life.  While the series does not always feel as 1980s as it should, this past season benefited from 20/20 hindsight as the Russians try to steal the ARPANET (forerunner to today’s Internet).  Besides the sleeper cell/sleeper agent enemy-among-us analogy to current events, the series gained an unexpected relevance from an ascendant Vladimir Putin flexing his muscles in headlines since the show’s inception. 

In Hannibal’s second season on NBC, Bryan Fuller continues to cannibalize Thomas Harris’ books and mix the ingredients into a familiar yet new stew.  (Harris may disapprove, but he has not gone on the record with his opinion.)  Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen is an excellent addition to the underworld pantheon of actors who have portrayed the most villainous mastermind since Professor Moriarty and Doctor Mabuse.  His Dr. Lecter, understated but charismatic, stands in interesting contrast to Anthony Hopkins’ theatricality and the underrated Brian Cox’s chipper killer in Michael Mann’s Manhunter.  This past season debuted a new character, Mason Verger (from the third novel Hannibal, to which the De Laurentiis family owns the rights).   In the role of the vile Verger, Michael Pitt puts his Boardwalk Empire Scorsese realism aside in a performance wildly unrestrained but riveting.  The epilogue to the season two finale cuts and pastes from Harris’ third novel, and next season’s casting of Tao Okamoto as Lady Murasaki’s attendant means more reworking from Harris’ pages, this time his prequel novel Hannibal Rising.  Meanwhile, publicity photos released of the upcoming third season with Gillian Anderson in Florence suggest more samplings from the third novel.  (The series seems to be coming in and out of its source material –in the novel Hannibal, but not in the film version,  Agent Starling startlingly flies to Buenos Aires with Lecter after a rocky relationship; here in the series, Anderson’s ambivalent association with Lecter unexpectedly climaxes in a shared jet jaunt to Florence. 

Person of Interest (CBS).  Read no further if you are not caught up...  With the third season departure of Taraji P. Henson’s NYPD Detective Joss Carter, the Jim Gordon of creator Jonathan Nolan’s superheroes-without-costume series (as previously discussed elsewhere), there went Person of Interest’s future Commissioner.  This fourth season, the first without Carter, began with the foursome on the lam from Decima, then upped the stakes in December’s last episode (“The Cold War”) in which Finch ominously forebodes, “This is the calm before the storm” – CUT TO: Root strolling around Wall Street, scene of the unrest in Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises.  In that film, Selina Kyle warns Bruce Wayne, “There’s a storm coming,” a portending that could describe downtown Manhattan for the past 13 years up till today (a fact both Nolans are mindful about in their work).  Person of Interest began as mostly stand-alone episodes in season one only to become gradually more dense, byzantine, and serialized in the third and now fourth season, not unlike how executive producer J.J. Abrams slowly ratcheted up his stranded-on-an-island series Lost into something eventually cosmic.  The year’s last episode, setting itself up for January’s “Person of Interest Trilogy,” feels like it is positioning itself for a Colossus: The Forbin Project showdown of sorts.  All of this means no more tuning in casually – and you know who you are! 

Tyrant, from Gideon Raff (the Israeli Prisoners of War and the American remake series Homeland), creates a cauldron of contemporary court intrigue in the Middle East –The Borgias or The Godfather in Arab garb.  Whichever one, the Machiavellian Mideast power politics makes for compelling and relevant drama.  The fictional nation of Abbudin stands in for Saddam Hussein’s secular Arab state of Iraq, though it could as easily be Syria. American expatriate doctor Bassam Al-Fayeed (Hunted’s Adam Rayner) seems patterned after real-life Bashar al-Assad if Assad had not returned to Syria to become a butcher after medical practice in the West (though it could still happen to “Barry” if his character arc aligns with that of the actual Syrian dictator); Jamal (The Kingdom’s Ashraf Barhom) is Uday Hussein if Uday had not been killed by American forces and instead succeeded his father Saddam; and of course, in flashback, the family patriarch Khaled Al-Fayeed (played by 24’s Nasser Faris) parallels Hafez al-Assad, or Saddam Hussein himself had the Iraqi autocrat survived regime change. A family of tyrants, in other words.  There are surely more parallels if one digs – the so-called Arab Spring, the election protest movement in Iran – and presumably more to come as it has been renewed for a second season.  (Jamal’s chunky son Ahmed may even be Kim Jong-un if Kim Jong-un had been born in Hussein’s Stalinist Iraq-like state instead of Marxist–Leninist North Korea – luckily, unlike Seth Rogen’s The Interview, FX’s series airs on living room televisions, where there is no danger of the Korean dictator fomenting September 11th-type violence in theaters.)

Cinemax’s new cable series The Knick takes the timeworn medical drama and transports it to turn-of-the-century Manhattan in order to make something completely fresh.  Creator-producer Steven Soderbergh cannot resist flying his Che colors at intervals, but in between those moments it remains absorbing drama with the old Knickerbocker Hospital as its backdrop.  By setting it in 1900 when X-rays and hernia operations were cutting edge procedures, The Knick makes every case study feel like something out of House, and Clive Owen as the genius Dr. John W. Thackery (based on the historical Dr. William Stewart Halsted) gives Dr. Gregory House a run when it comes to bad beside manners and addiction.  42’s AndrĂ© Holland inspires as Dr. Algernon Edwards, a black surgeon willing to suffer the abuse and indignities of prejudice from colleagues and patients alike with one mission in mind: “I’m not leaving this circus until I learn everything [Dr. Thackery has] to teach.”  Peripheral characters and subplots involving a lone shark pimp and a mysterious Chinatown opium den operator ensure that no one will ever mistake The Knick for Marcus Welby, M.D. 

HBO’s True Detective.  Anybody could be forgiven for thinking that a series promising to be a gritty cop drama starring the dim bartender from Cheers (Woody Harrelson) and an actor known for his clownish press persona (Matthew McConaughey) as its two leads, all created by a relative unknown plucked from obscurity to be showrunner (Nic Pizzolatto), could not possibly be any good.  But for all the twists and turns of its sprawling plot, True Detective’s biggest surprise is that it defies expectation to become one the most compelling and addictive police dramas in years.  True Detective – titled for the pulp periodical of the same name, though not based on any of the magazine’s stories – stays true to its magazine roots by presenting itself as an anthology series, which means that the finale wrapped things up once and for all, and next season brings a whole new case and cast.  With just a single breakout season under its belt, there is now no reason to be skeptical at cast-against-type funnyman Vince Vaughn as next year’s heavy. 

Sons of Anarchy final season and finale on FX.  Mayhem lands, and lands hard – read no further if you have yet to see the last episode.  Jax and the series live up to the SAMCRO club motto “Ride Free or Die.”  SAMCRO founder John Teller’s last wishes for his son skip a generation, or do they?  (Note the club rings.)  Creator Kurt Sutter lays on the Christ-martyr imagery ridiculously thick, almost forgetting the words he himself put in Jax’s mouth in the very same episode: “I’m not a good man.  I’m a criminal and a killer.  I need my sons to grow up hating the thought of me.”  (Shades of Angels with Dirty Faces?)  One thing remains true – father and son pass each other on a California highway, hopefully headed towards opposite destinies, and Jax’s date with fate memorably takes the form of a “Mackey” truck on the very stretch of road his father rode, mounted on his father’s very own Harley.  


Jack's picks-

Person of Interest-In its fourth season, this continues to be an entertaining show. The four main characters had to take on new identities after the government made a secret deal to buy a machine that watches everyone, all the time.

Elementary-The end of season two and the start of season three have been very good. The leads are always excellent and Rhys Ifans was strong as Mycroft Holmes.

Fargo-The best series of 2014, no question. Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman were two sides of a horrible coin and the show was just gripping.

Mad Men-Season seven was great even though I can't remember what the heck happened. More Roger!

The Flash-My favorite new series! Much lighter in tone than Gotham and more fun. They have teased us that Gorilla Grodd will show up eventually, which I have to see.

Masterpiece Mystery-Kind of a down year for Mystery, though Endeavour and Inspector Lewis were good, as usual.

Call the Midwife-One of the few shows recently that is almost a guarantee to have my eyes welling up by the end of an episode. Very well acted and a great setting in late '50s/early '60s London.

House of Cards-Season two was mind-blowing, especially the death of Zoe. The second season was even better than the first, so I watched the UK original and can't wait for the US season three!

Detective Montalbano-The latest batch of four came out on DVD this year and was wonderful, as always. Between Inspector Morse and Detective Montalbano, all my mystery reading and viewing needs have been and will be met for years.


Jose's picks-

There’s no cable television at my house, so all of my boob tube selections come from the boon that is the Internet. 

I have a love-hate relationship with American Horror Story, in all its iterations. (Overall, I think Asylum has been the season I’ve enjoyed most.) There are times when I feel that it’s got its head in the right place and is creating horror of true quality and resonance and then it goes off and shoots itself in the foot and then chews on it for the audience because AAAGH SCARY! Fourth season Freakshow hasn’t had any of these howl-inducing moments (yet), but I was totally gaga for the Edward Mordrake storyline that had the two-faced killer strolling through the green mist to Jessica Lange’s rendition of “Gods and Monsters.” More of that please.


You know what else I can’t get enough of? Bob’s Burgers. It started out as one of those “Hey, this is something that keeps popping up in Netflix’s ‘Recommended’ section so let’s try it” whims and quickly escalated into full-on charbroiled love. This is one of those brilliantly written animated comedies where almost every uttered line inspires a solid belly laugh. There’s no slouching in the voice acting department either. It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite character. 

I haven’t been indulging my British comedy infatuation as much as I’d like, but my recent chance to begin Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder has been enough to give me my fill. I really dig the concept of a foolish, slimy ne’er-do-well resurfacing throughout history, and the stint we spent in Medieval England (better as the series goes on to finish off with a dastardly, rib-tickling climax) has lead into some very amusing buffoonery during the Tudor period from what I’ve seen of the second series. 

Boy is Hannibal sure pretty to look at. Bryan Fuller’s darkly psychological world of latent demons and unholy appetites is a savory dish of nightmares that takes Thomas Harris’ characters and gives them a classy, deranged spin, especially by virtue of its gore-geous art direction. Now that Lecter has revealed his true colors to Will Graham and the Gang, I’m eager to see how the next season pans out now that he has solidified himself as the Great Evil. 


Thanks to Netflix, I finally itched an old scratch to see the Granada Television series of Sherlock Holmes adventures starring the incomparable Jeremy Brett. The actor has become the definite representation of the character in my eyes and I was mightily pleased with how closely the episodes hewed to the original tales. We also caught the latest season of the modern iteration, BBC’s Sherlock, earlier this year and enjoyed it as always. Martin Freeman continues to be an excellent Watson, but oh how I wince at the fact that we’ll be seeing more of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in the future!

For my birthday I bought myself the complete series of Thriller after pining for it for years and hearing some guys on the Internet talk about it. As you’re likely to hear from anyone who has seen the program in its entirety, there are some wonderfully atmospheric and just plain excellent entries that you’ll take with you to the grave (“The Grim Reaper,” “The Incredible Dr. Markesan,” “The Cheaters”) that are bookended by some bewildering, boring, and just plain boorish episodes (“Rose’s Last Summer,” “Girl with a Secret,” “Man in the Cage”). Thus is the nature of anthology programs, but I can still say with confidence that it’s worth the purchase.



2014 also marked the year that we plunged into the tantalizing world of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. (And not a moment too soon, seeing as how the program will be coming back for a mini-revival in 2016). Right from the moment the beautiful, cold body of Laura Palmer is found on the rocky shore and Angelo Badalementi’s sorrow-choked theme music kicks in, I was sinking into this world as if in quicksand. It’s the kind of intoxicating strangeness that Lynch is known for filtered through a gripping mystery made for network television with a potent dose of soap operatics thrown in the mix for good measure. Deserving of its cult and essential viewing. 



Books:


Peter's picks-

Only a few books jump out at me this time around:

The American Comic Book Chronicles: 1950s (TwoMorrows) is a nice primer for the most tumultuous decade the funny books ever faced, all written in Bill Schelly's usual easygoing fashion. I always feel like I'm sitting around the campfire with a bunch of comic fans when I read a Schelly tome. Beautifully illustrated as well.

Noir City Annual 6: The Best of Noir City Magazine 2013 (Film Noir Foundation) collects the best pieces from the non-profit Film Noir Foundation e-zine, Noir City. Here you'll find actor retrospectives (Dan Duryea), essays on the obscure, interviews, and reviews of noir, both past and present. There is a ton of info here if you're into the shadows and darkness of noir and its occupants.

Forgotten Horrors Vol. 6: Up From the Depths (CreateSpace) continues the exhaustive survey of "forgotten" horror films throughout the 20th Century, this time covering the years 1954-1957. Though I might ordinarily argue with some of the choices here (Plan 9 From Outer Space is far from a "forgotten" movie), I would instead applaud Michael Price, John Wooley, and Jan Alan Henderson for squeezing as many horror and science fiction flicks into this volume as they could. The package has the same feel as Bill Warren's Keep Watching the Skies, mixing stats, press material, personal recollections, and critical commentary. This was the first Forgotten Horrors I picked up but I'll be returning to the well before too long.

In addition, I became aware of a new trend: the Amazon printed zines. Little publishers who couldn't afford to take the chance of printing a minimum of thousands of copies of a zine that. chances are, would lose a bundle, suddenly have the tools to unleash their inner monsters once again. Two such zines,Monster! and Weng's Chop have gone right to the top of my "Must buy each new issue" list. Both zines are the handiwork of Steve Fenton and Tim Paxton, two guys who have seen their share plus everyone else's share of horror movies. Monster! is a bit more lighthearted and fun (a la Famous Monsters) whereas the meatier Weng's Chop goes for the gusto (hardcore porn, slashers, Star Wars rip-offs, and foreign horror ala Paxton's previous zine, Monster International!). Both fanzines have managed to maintain a regular publishing schedule. This kind of venture bodes well for the future of monster magazines.


John's picks-
 
Giger's Alien Diaries
- There are a number of books out related to the making of Ridley Scott's Alien. I know, because I have them all. This limited edition import was added to my collection this year, and is extremely cool. It's a reproduction of Giger's original diaries, with sketches and polaroids. While it would be worth it for the images alone, the book does include an English translation of his notes.

Star Wars Costumes by Brandon Alinger
This long overdue, in-depth, lavishly illustrated book on the costumes of the original trilogy is not only nice to look at, it’s one of the most thoroughly researched Star Wars book of the past several years.

On Set With John Carpenter
by Kim Gottlieb-Walker
An essential collection of behind the scenes photos from several of Carpenter’s greatest films. Worth the price of admission for the sections on Halloween, The Fog and Escape From New York.

Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot: Studies in the Horror Film
Edited by Tony Earnshaw
Full disclosure - I contributed a section of photographs of the filming locations in Ferndale, California for this book. But putting that aside, I was thrilled to add a book length work on this personal favorite to my library. Another beautifully designed book from Centipede Press (and an even more lavish hardcover edition was published), it collects previously published and all new interviews with cast and crew.

Aurora Monster Scenes
by Dennis Prince
A must-have for fans of monster model kits, this great book details the history of the controversial Monster Scenes kits produced by Aurora. A fantastic, detailed history with many full color illustrations throughout.


Stephen King's Revival I think King is always good for an entertaining read, and this was no exception. The story went in several directions that I wasn’t expecting it to, which was a pleasant surprise. While advance word had me expecting this to be King’s love letter to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I should have paid closer attention to the epigraph. 


Jack's picks-

Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo. A fascinating book about the most important battle in American history. Very well written and not dull at all.

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust. Yes, the one about the madeleine. Finally read it this year, free on Kindle.

The Son by Philipp Meyer. A novel that sort of tells the history of Texas through the ups and downs of a family.

The Snack Thief, Voice of the Violin, Excursion to Tindari by Andrea Camilleri. Still reading my way through the Detective Montalbano novels, set in Sicily. Camilleri really understands people and these books are great fun.

Five Came Back by Mark Harris. WWII through the eyes of Hollywood as seen by the experiences of five great directors. 

Full Circle by Henry Cecil. He was a British judge who wrote many novels; this is his first and it's actually a series of linked short stories about a judge who falls and suffers a head injury and can't stay on track with the lectures he gives to his students at law school.  He becomes very popular because he always ends up telling a funny story instead.

Illustration by Clifford Harper/Agraphia.co.ukThe Golden Bowl by Henry James. A great novel by the American expatriate in which everything happens between two couples but it's all incredibly subtle and between the lines. A master class in how to describe emotions.

The Ark Before Noah by Irving Finkel. I listed to this on CD, read by the author. Would you think that a book about ancient cuneiform would be absolutely gripping and at times hilarious? Believe it!


Jose's picks-

The scant amount of reading I get done in a given year, especially when compared to the amount of movies I watch, truly depresses me. There was once a time when I would voraciously read anything that came into my hands. Now the number of books on my shelves only serve as an embarrassing reminder of my neglect. Still, I did manage to squeeze in enough volumes that merit some mention.

I won’t lie; I mainly read George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm because it was so short! At 140 pages long, it seemed less intimidating than some of the other doorstoppers I had, but of course the content is anything but fleeting. Wisely told in the pared-down form of a fairy tale or Aesop fable, Orwell’s book largely affected me in the way it depicted the machinations of its pig characters as so sinuous and sneaky as to be undetectable. Evil never comes out and says what it is on the surface. It insinuates itself slowly and convinces you that you’re working for the greater good when in reality you’re doing exactly what They want you to do. Don’t be fooled by the animalistic faces that populate this story; this kind of chilling deception can only be the work of man.

Maybe I’m a little late for the bandwagon, but if you need any further convincing that Greg Mank’s Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff book is vital to any film lover’s collection, allow me to it offer it here. Mank is a historian and critic but, like other superb scribes like David J. Skal, he uses his passion to write in the engaging voice of a consummate storyteller rather than expounding parchment-dry academic essays. A tremendous amount of research has gone into this, but Mank makes it come to life with a shock of electricity. A terrific resource and companion. Get it now.

More and more, I find myself gravitating towards anthologies and short story collections when it comes to fiction. It’s all I seem to have time (and, let’s be honest, mental energy) for these days. If it’s a particularly good collection, I’ll pick it up every chance I get like I did with Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Taking the treasured fairy tales of our youth and reawakening all of the buried darkness and sensuality that years of pop culture sanitization has suppressed, Carter’s retellings stir with lush horror and eroticism in her purple, cutting prose. I read this during a family vacation and I couldn't put it down. 

During this same trip I was reading Kim Newman’s study of modern horror cinema Nightmare Movies. With so much focus given to the classic period spanning the days of the silents all the way to the sixties (no complaints meant there), it’s nice to see a writer of Newman’s pedigree dig into the fare that was offered in the days of the grindhouse and the initial boom of the home video market. The book is divided into sections that tackle the films thematically, and Newman cuts such a wide swath (what the book might not have in depth it certainly makes up for in breadth) and covers movies that fall outside of the genre’s immediate parameters but still retain the chemistry of nightmares that you’ll find yourself scrambling for pen and paper to start jotting down all the titles you need to catch up on. 


In July my wife and I got the chance to see Alice Cooper and Motley Crue, her favorite band, on their final tour when they came through Tampa. In preparation for the date, she asked that I read their combined autobiography, The Dirt, written in collaboration with Neil Strauss. And in a bid to really win me over, she invited me to read the chapters aloud before bed, indulging a love of oration that she knew would get me to go along with it. So it became our evening entertainment to dive into the various tales of drugs, dames, and debauchery that our intrepid heroes Vince, Nikki, Mick, and Tommy extolled to the audience. I preferred Nikki’s chapters the most, and we both struggled through tears during the time spent detailing the death of Vince’s infant daughter from cancer. A wild ride with detours to humanity. 

Comics:


Jack's picks-

Fantagraphics keeps making my dreams come true with two new volumes a year of The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library!

The internet also makes my dreams come true by making The All-Star Archives affordable. I wanted these books all through the '90s and '00s and they finally came down in price from the cover price of $50 to the internet price of $20 or so. I'm up to volume nine and things are getting really good!

Image result for best american comics 2014The Best American Comics of 2014 was a library find--who knew this series existed? I read the whole thing, though I admit I skimmed through some parts. Favorites were the Robert and Aline Crumb strip, which was hilarious, and the Jamie Hernandez strip (also hilarious), which made me head back to the library to check out Love and Rockets. I am lucky to have a very hip library nearby.


Maus I & II finally made it into my reading pile courtesy of my daughter, who had them on her bookshelf from a college course. Terrific books!

Sandman 1-20 were collected in a very large and heavy volume that I also found at the library. I thought the series started out well but got confusing somewhere along the way. I was not excited enough to look for more. And what's with those weird covers?


John's picks-

While the issues are slow to trickle out, the return of Neil Gaiman to his magnum opus can't help to be the highlight of my comic picks. The pairing with artist J.H. Williams III on Sandman: Overture is brilliant (I loved his work on Batwoman), and it's nice to see Dave McKean doing what he does best on the covers to these books. Normally, for such a short series, I would have waited until the run was complete to start reading them so I could avoid the delay between issues. But this was such an important event that I couldn't wait. And Gaiman, as always, does not disappoint.
 
In the last few years I discovered the work of Steve Mannion in his continuing character Fearless Dawn. I've supported a number of Steve's Kickstarter campaigns, because I love his sense of humor and his artistic style. While it's a style all his own, it had the same instant appeal as the first time I saw artists like Dave Stevens and Larry Welz. 

Licensed comics are more often than not disappointing, so I was pleasantly surprised at the work being done on Clive Barker's Nightbreed from BOOM! Studios. In the first year, we've been treated to interesting back stories on so many of the 'breed we're familiar with from the film. While I understand the series will be wrapping up with the 12th issue, I'd rather see a short, quality run than another that drags on for dozens (or hundreds) of issues on the strength of the property alone.

Jose's picks-



Besides research for bare*bones, there hasn’t been too much comic-viewing on my end, but I did finally get a chance to complete my reading of Watchmen. I only had one or two chapters left to read when I borrowed the book from a friend in my senior year of high school but I never got done with it. The book hardly needs any more lauding, but I will say going through it cover to cover, reassessing panels and letting phrases sink in couldn’t help but register how much planning went into this work and how beautifully harmonious it all came out in the end. I’d hate to denigrate all other comics by implication, but Watchmen makes it abundantly clear why it’s considered by many to be a literary classic.

I also snatched up a copy of the first volume of Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which reads exactly like you hope it will: solid and highly imaginative fan fiction with rogues and heroes alike of Victorian aged literature converging on one scene in a plot that could have been taken from an old Republic serial. If you think any of those descriptors are negative, then you’re in the wrong funny book.

I was able to borrow some graphic novels from a friend of mine, of which I only ended up reading one, Brian Azzarello’s Joker. Lee Bermejo’s chiaroscuro art is perfectly impressive by itself, giving us the filthy and grungy Gotham City that we have come to know from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the recent video game releases. The Clown Prince of Crime seems especially reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s version, and though the tale is ambitious for trying to give us peripheral insight into the psychopathic criminal, its best moments, including the righteous ending, detail the endless chase and symbiotic relationship of the Joker and his most dogged pursuer. 



Music:


Peter's picks-

I don't listen to the radio (or whatever it is these days) so the only new music I get turned onto comes via my young, hip girlfriend or as background to the TV shows I watch. From Orange is the New Black, I discovered The Duchess & The Duke and their genuinely eerie  "Living This Life", the closest 1960s music I've heard since the 1960s. Equally amazing is "Far From Any Road" by The Handsome Family, better known as the theme from True Detective, a song that may make your bumps goose.

I picked up some fabulous box sets this year that should be mentioned: Where The Action Is! and Love is the Song We Sing, Action features tunes from Los Angeles bands circa 1965-1968 (standouts: "Don't Say No" by The Oracle and an alternate take of The Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains"). Love showcases a different California scene of the same era, San Francisco, with stellar tracks by Count Five ("Psychotic Reaction") The Charlatans (the superb "Alabama Bound"), Moby Grape ("Omaha") and Kak ("Lemonade Kid"). All told, between both boxes, 178 hunks of pure ear gold presented by the good folk at Rhino.

John's picks-

Rose Ave., the first album from You+Me—Pink's collaboration with Dallas Green—seemingly came out of nowhere and instantly appealed to my love of musical harmonies. It's been a while since I popped in a CD for the first time and really liked every song on it.

Goin' Your Way was a fantastic collaboration recorded by Neil Finn and Paul Kelly. Finn has always been a favorite, from his tenure in Crowded House, his solo work, and even his early work with Split Enz. I stumbled across Paul Kelly when he opened for Neil many years ago, and became an instant fan. This collaboration is great in that they not only play their own songs, they use the opportunity to sing each others songs as well. I only wish they had toured with the show.

Loreena McKennitt released a greatest hits album in February, The Journey So Far, and despite already owning all of her albums I had to pick this up for a second disc of live tracks. If you're a fan of Celtic music you're probably already aware of McKennitt, and having seen her live several times I wanted to add another live recording to my collection.


Jack's picks-

Midnight Train to Georgia: The Best of Gladys Knight and the PipsI'm showing my age here. Ever since they stopped making CDs as a regular thing and people switched to iPods and iPhones I've pretty much stopped buying new music. I listed to Lana Del Rey's CDs this year and they were OK but I wouldn't buy them and may not listen to them again.

I was kind of hooked on Taylor Swift's song, "Shake It Off," but that's a little embarrassing, isn't it?

My favorite music to listen to is either classical or hits from the 1970s on YouTube. "Midnight Train to Georgia" and "Hooked On a Feeling" are always a mouse click away.


Jose's picks-

Friday nights at the Cruz residence
Say what you will, but I was definitely on the “All About That Bass” train this year. It’s a song championing full-figured women, specifically in regard to their butts, and it’s got a dopey sixties shoo-wop thing going on that sweetens the whole thing with a little nostalgia. 

My affection for this song was met with the same type of raised-eyebrow reaction from friends and family as my fondness for “Habits.” During a trip to Disney World with another couple, I tried explaining to everyone why the song was so heartbreaking but everyone was stuck on that lyric Tove Lo sang about her vomiting in the bathtub. Go figure.

A constant companion throughout this year as in the past has been my favorited Youtube mixes that compile dance and techno songs from the 90s. I know, I know… they all sound the same. But they make for great accompaniment to writing (like putting together a “Best of the Year” list) and for whatever reason the stuff has oozed its way into my DNA to the point that when I hear a song like “No Limit” or “Bailando” or “Sweet Dreams” I just gotta get up and shake it.

I don’t know if any of it is good music, but I know what I like. 


*Our favorites of, in some cases, may not actually be from 2014, but we saw or read them in 2014.


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