A Few of the Best Things I Read and Watched in 2015
As with most years, 2015 had its highs and lows, depending on which day or location you were considering. The news was littered with stories of never-ending wars, horrific acts of violence, and people being persistently belligerent, but there were bright spots for those paying attention, many in the realm of books, film, and television.
But that’s not reality, someone might say, to which I would reply that yes, it is the real world, or at least a compelling version thereof. After all, the art we choose to create, consume, and discuss says as much about us as the other actions we make our bodies perform on a regular basis. Trust me on this.
That said, here are some of those bright bits, a few of the best things I read and watched in 2015. Some of them actually released in 2014, but the important thing is that I experienced them during 2015. What can I say? There are only so many days in the year, but this time around, I promise to do better.
Okay, let’s do this.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: When I first heard the buzz surrounding this novel, I thought the premise sounded encouraging: a devastating flupocalypse, a ruined society, and a traveling group of Shakespearean performers trying to bring art back to a broken world. Where could I sign up? Also, I was intrigued by the way the novel’s narrative transitioned back and forth between the pre- and post-flu worlds. Yes, it’s a story-telling technique that can wear thin in the wrong author’s hands, but when it works well, it can transform an otherwise adequate book into a mesmerizing page-turner.
Station Eleven’s pages all but turn themselves, you’ll be happy to hear, and I mean that in the best way possible. In an all-too-real world flooded with post-apocalyptic novels wherein indistinguishable protagonists encounter comparable situations and resolve them in similar ways, a fresh work like Station Eleven stands out. Mandel approaches the end of civilization from a unique position, showing us less of the apocalypse and more of the aftermath. The center of the story, a performing group called The Traveling Symphony, with their motto, “Survival is insufficient,” travel through a wounded land, embodying the idea that art not only demonstrates our humanity, it is essential to making us human.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: Back during the late 1980s-early 1990s, when Neil Gaiman’s DC/Vertigo comic series The Sandman ran, I thought he was one of the most innovative story-writers I’d ever read. I’d devoured comics since I learned to read, but Gaiman was the first to write stories that affected me so forcefully.
When someone gave me his 1998 short story collection Smoke and Mirrors, though, I wondered if he could pull off the whole prose thing. To this day, I feel like an idiot for questioning the man’s writing abilities. Two story collections and five novels later, and he’s still one of my favorite writers. Gaiman has many strengths, but his greatest is one he shares with another of my favorite writers, Ray Bradbury. Above all else, on top of the cool concepts, weird characters, and beautiful prose, he excels at the thing every storyteller longs for, that ability to procure the fantastic out of the mundane, tapping into the child’s mind that still lives in us.
Here’s a wonderful quote from the book’s epigraph, taken from an interview with the great Maurice Sendak: “I remember my own childhood vividly . . . I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the mundane is a mysterious group of women who live down the street from our young unnamed narrator. The fantastic, “terrible” thing is a family secret that goes back to the beginning of the universe itself. Yet in the end, it seems like it could happen in your own neighborhood.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North: Like I did with Station Eleven, I jumped to the conclusion that this novel’s premise sounded interesting, but in this case I thought it might be a little predictable. Here it is: Harry August dies, over and over again, but each time he is born again with the knowledge he gained from his previous lives. Sort of like an extended version of Groundhog Day, yes? Actually, no.
Not to criticize Groundhog Day, which is among the finest feats of contemporary cinematic achievement, but Harry August’s story is a different game altogether. It carries shades of Groundhog Day, yes, but it’s also a bit like a John LeCarre novel in that Harry spends most of his lives trying to determine who he is, whether there are others like him who may be out to get him, and most of all, why he keeps coming back for more lives. The novel is like a literary version of a Russian nesting doll, with layers of intrigue and mystery hiding other layers, and so on. Unlike with Groundhog Day, Claire North tries to explain the protagonist’s situation, and she does a nice job.
The Railway Man: I remember watching a preview of The Railway Man before one of the few films I saw in a theater during 2013, and then I heard nothing else about it for around a year. It’s based on the autobiography of the same name by Eric Lomax, a British soldier who was forced to work on the Thai/Burma railroad during World War II. In the film, Lomax is in middle age and just as damaged by his experiences as he was years earlier. Now, though, he has the chance to find the man who hurt him and make things right.
The entire cast performs beautifully, boasting heavy hitters like Stellan Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman, but Colin Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada, who portray Lomax and his wartime torturer, are the focal point, bringing unexpected levels of complexity to their characters. Yes, this film is about violence, war, and revenge, but trust me, it doesn’t go where you think it will.
What We Do in the Shadows: If I’m honest, I would’ve seen this one because it features Jemaine Clement, half of the New Zealand novelty musical duo Flight of the Conchords. On top of that, it has Rhys Darby, another New Zealander who played the Conchords’ manager Murray. I was sold, in other words.
As it happened, the film released internationally in 2014 but wouldn’t come to the U.S. until the following year. The Bad News: I had to endure reading promos and glowing reviews for nearly a year before the film showed up. Yes, I was miserable. The Good News: When it did come stateside, I was lucky enough to watch it with my wife at the coolest venue in Colorado Springs, Kimball’s Three Peak Theater.
Here’s the premise: A film crew follows a trio of flat-sharing vampires as they do their thing, living their neurotic little vampire lives. That’s pretty much it, but it’s more than enough. Not every mockumentary can be This is Spinal Tap, but watching these three vampires go through what passes for the minutiae of their lives is offbeat, at times laugh out loud hilarious, but always mesmerizing. You can’t not watch.
The Bottom Line: Often, due to the improvisational nature of the performances in these films, there’s a good deal of content that doesn’t make it into the final cut. Bearing that in mind, I would have sat in that theater and watched every second of that unused footage, and that’s saying a lot, considering how much soda I’d had that day.
Calvary: This film starts with a mystery parishioner threatening to kill Irish priest Father James the following Sunday, and then the story plays out as we watch Father James going through his week, shepherding his flock, all while we ponder the identity of the potential killer. As the priest, Brendan Gleeson is the heart of this film, but the enduring strength is the cast, the self-absorbed, needy, cynical, and often cruel people who populate the town, the ones who help us see the real Father James.
And speaking of those people, they just happen to be played by some of the brightest lights in contemporary Irish cinema: Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Kelly Reilly, and even, briefly, Gleeson’s own son, Domhnall. Legendary actor M. Emmet Walsh also puts in a masterful performance as an American writer. The film was marketed as a black comedy, and it fits that description, but it’s also a touching, sophisticated, and unflinching look at the intersection between real life, sin, and faith.
The Television Shows
Jessica Jones: As I mentioned before, I’ve been a fan of comics since I was a kid, so when Netflix released Daredevil, I was down in the front row, feet propped, waiting for the curtain to open. It was an excellent show, too, taking the blind vigilante that Frank Miller revamped back in the 1980s and giving him a new direction for today’s even grittier sensibilities.
When Jessica Jones released, though, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was somewhat familiar with the Alias comics from Marvel, and this series looked compelling and visually engaging. Plus, I’d enjoyed Krysten Ritter’s brief but intense run as Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend Jane in Breaking Bad. So, I thought, maybe I’d try it, but there was no big rush.
Then I started reading all the buzz on Twitter, stories about people losing sleep and abandoning social relationships just so they could finish binge watching Jessica Jones. For the sake of science, I dove in and gave it a shot, and luckily for me, I didn’t have any pressing commitments that week. (Twelve episodes in two days, in case anyone’s interested.)
There’s much to talk about with this show, but one of the most appealing characteristics is the low-key way in which it takes on the idea of being a superhero—or more accurately in Jessica’s case, not being one. Other than the fact that Jessica never seems to change clothes, there are no costumes, her life features more complications than conveniences, and she doesn’t want to help people. She really doesn’t.
One other thing: Any discussion of Jessica Jones would be incomplete without a mention of David Tennant as the villainous Kilgrave. Sure, he’s creepy and misanthropic, and he does awful things, as any good villain should, but there’s something else that makes him one of the most effective and believable bad guys in recent memory. Kilgrave honestly believes he’s a good guy, a victim. Is he really, though? Come on, you know I can’t tell you that.
Better Call Saul: Prequel, spin-off, and companion series and movies are often a mixed bag of the good, fair-to-middling, and downright unwatchable. To be fair, they’re a tough feat to manage. How does a writer tell a story that rewards previous viewers while telling a solid tale that can stand on its own legs? How can that writer create suspense about a character’s future when the longtime devotee already knows the ending?
Here’s why I mention this: Two questions have plagued me since 2009, when seasons two and three of Breaking Bad came out. One, what could have happened to create the slick, glib criminal attorney Saul Goodman, and two, how did Saul’s enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut become, well, Mike Ehrmantraut? If you don’t know these characters, by the way, you have two tasks ahead of you. First, you need to watch Breaking Bad. Second, the following week (BB is only five seasons), check out Vince Gilligan’s prequel/spinoff/companion series Better Call Saul.
Gilligan, it seems, can still do no wrong with these desert-noir stories, and the cast of Better Call Saul, well, it’s just killer. While no one was looking, the unreasonably funny Bob Odenkirk managed to add pathos to his already impressive repertoire, Michael McKean is a surprising delight as Jimmy’s sort-of agoraphobic older brother Chuck, and Jonathan Banks transcends time and space as the prickly yet somehow loveable Mike.
Speaking of Mike, the Better Call Saul episode “Five-O,” in which we learn more about his origin story, is one of the best episodes of anything on television, ever. (That statement is guaranteed to contain zero traces of hyperbole.)
There they are, a few of the book, film, and television highlights of my 2015. It isn’t a comprehensive list, but let’s face it, that kind of thing would take time, space, and bandwidth none of us have. The sheer breadth of the creative work out there today is staggering and, frankly, sometimes intimidating. It’s a blessing, though. Twenty years ago, if someone had told me I’d have easy access to the current amount of quality content we now possess, I’d have laughed in their face and gone back to connecting my VHS player to my three-hundred-pound television.
So here’s to 2016, making more great art, and, just as important, taking the time to enjoy it.