Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2014

"Great TV comes in all shapes and sizes."  That's become my motto over the course of this year, and something I want people to remember when they find themselves pre-judging a show based on some arbitrary standard.  We're increasingly moving away from the idea that every good drama has to be an antihero show in the vein of The Sopranos and every comedy has to be something fast-paced and single-camera like Arrested Development.  Now, we're living in an age where the best new series of the fall is a CW show based on a telenovela (watch Jane the Virgin, people!) and one of the best comedies of the year is a charming little Australian show that airs on a network called Pivot (watch Please Like Me, people!).  Say it with me now: Great TV comes in all shapes and sizes!

2014 was not quite as good of a year for television as 2013, which I consider the best year of TV since I started following the medium closely.  Last year featured a breadth of terrific new shows, but some of them faltered a little bit in 2014 (Masters of Sex, Orphan Black).  Even still, there are so many great shows popping up out of new places.  For example, this year saw Amazon solidify themselves as serious content creators with Transparent, Jill Soloway's shaggy, intimate tale about family and identity.  As a result of this continued expansion of the medium, I watched more television than ever this year -- the number of shows I followed completely in 2014 was a whopping 104.

There was quite a bit of turnover between my list last year and the one this year, with 14 of the shows that appeared on 2013's list being absent on this one.  Even what I consider to be some of my favorite shows are missing.  Game of Thrones had a fourth season that had some astonishing individual moments, but the show as a whole feels like it's increasingly spinning off its axis.  For every time Girls was brilliant in season three, it was just as maddening a scene or two later.  Orphan Black was fun and exciting while it was airing, but a bit of a mess when viewed in hindsight.  Justified had a chance to go down as one of my favorite dramas of this generation -- and it still does, if it sticks the landing -- but it's hard to see this year as anything other than a misstep for the show.  And I've thoroughly enjoyed the final season of Parenthood, but NBC chose not to air the entire run in 2014, so the material that would've likely pushed it in to the top 20 won't appear until next year.

Another trend I noticed is that this year was a better year for comedy than last year, if my lists are anything to go by.  Last year only featured two pure comedies, while this year has triple the amount at six.  So don't let anybody tell you that TV isn't cyclical.

The rules: Shows are considered for this list based on the episodes that they aired in 2014.  This is a pretty plain and simple rule for cable dramas, where full seasons usually air within a single calendar year.  However, it gets slightly messy when considering network shows, which usually air the first half of their season in the fall and the second half starting January of the next year.  So something like, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine would be judged based on the second half of its first season (which aired at the beginning of the year) and the first half of its second season (which started in the fall of this year).  As for what constitutes a TV show, anything that airs on, you know, a TV station counts.  But shows that air exclusively on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon count too.  Unfortunately, "web series" don't qualify (but watch Jules and Monty anyway, because it's great), even though that distinction is becoming harder and harder to make.  Okay, everything clear now?  Good, let's get this list started...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My 20 Favorite Films of 2014

My end of the year list for films is always my most incomplete list, because so many films come out at the end of the year in New York and Los Angeles and nowhere else, simply to qualify for the Academy Awards.  So as always, here is a list of films that could have made my top 20 if not for the fact that I have no ability to see them yet: Mr. Turner, Inherent Vice, Selma, Two Days One Night, Song of the Sea.  This pisses me off.  And until I quit making this list, die, or move to New York or LA, I will keep complaining about this.  I mean, I can't see Inherent Vice and Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite director.  It's an outrage, I tell you!

Looking back at my top 20 list from last year, I noticed that there were more heavy-hitter directors that popped up.  Paul Greengrass, Edgar Wright, Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, Richard Linklater -- they all appeared on my list last year.  While 2014 doesn't have the pedigree to match that, I'd say that it was still a pretty great year for film, and I'm very satisfied with my top 20.

The rules: As long as a film got an official release in 2014, it was eligible for placement on this list.  This is an important thing to remember, since many of the films that appear in my top 20 premiered at film festivals in 2013, but didn't get released in theaters until this year.  And in the case where a film got no theatrical release, then a VOD debut in 2014 will make it eligible.  Now that all of that has been cleared up, on to the actual list...

Monday, December 29, 2014

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2014

Last year, I wrote about how many different narratives there were for music in 2013.  On the other hand, 2014 was a year that seemed to have no narrative at all (which maybe was a narrative in and of itself?).  Coincidentally, this was not a great year for music.  It was one full of good albums, because every year has good albums, but much less great ones than previous years in this decade.  There were also no real event albums like there were last year, which gave us Yeezus, Modern Vampires of the City, and Random Access Memories, among others.  And even the ones that got many people talking this year -- like Benji or Lost in a Dream -- I wasn't crazy about.

It was, however, a good year for women, at least judging by my list.  12 of the picks on my list are either by women or bands fronted by women.  So shout out to the ladies, I guess!  (Anti-shout out to rap music, which didn't fare as well.  Only one of the albums in my top 20 is a rap release.)

The rules: Due to the constant changing of the way music gets released, anything can be an album for the sake of this list.  You especially have to play fast and loose given the fact that many rap mixtapes function as albums anyway.  So LPs, mixtapes, 40-minute songs, EPs if they're good enough -- they're all albums to me!  If something got released in another country in a previous year, but got an American release this year, it works on a case-by-case basis (we'll see an example of that later).  Otherwise, the eligibility window is that the album has to have been released between January 1, 2014 and today.  That means Beyonce's self-titled album, which came out during the last week of 2013 but will probably appear on one or two 2014 lists, is not eligible for this one.  (Spoiler: it wouldn't have made it anyway.)  So now with that bit of business out of the way, on to the actual list...

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Great 2014 songs from albums that won't make my top 20 list

On December 29th, my "20 Favorite Albums of 2014" list drops, but there's so much good music out there that one list couldn't fully represent what the year had to offer.  It's hard to make an album that's consistently great from start to finish, especially in an age where individual songs are given more and more importance.  So this list is intended to pay lip service to some great standalone songs.  All of these come from albums that won't be on my top 20 list, either because it's a great song on a mediocre album, or one on an album that's good but not quite good enough to crack the top tier.  So, without further ado, here's a list of thirty standalone songs, listed in alphabetical order:

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Episode of the Week: Black Mirror - "White Christmas"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

2014 Christmas Special

Thanks mostly to Ryan Murphy (I never thought I'd say that), who at the end of American Horror Story's first season announced that the second would tell a completely different story, anthologies have had something of a resurgence lately.  Now we've got True Detective, Fargo, and the upcoming American Crime Story too.  But those aren't anthologies in the truest sense, since they tell one story in a full season, before moving on to another one.  The UK's brilliant, subversive Black Mirror is a classic anthology, recalling the days of Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, telling single-episode short stories with completely different actors, characters, and tones.  Over the course of seven episodes, this series has reminded us how satisfying that model could be.

The basic logline for Black Mirror is that it's "the sci-fi version of The Twilight Zone," and that's mostly pretty accurate.  The "black mirror" in question is every blank screen -- phones, laptops, tablets, televisions -- that people of today are slaves to, and each episode aims to tell a story about the power of technology in some way.  In creator Charlie Brooker's mind, technology is an amazing advancement that has improved our lives in many ways, but the overreaching power that it has can also be horrifying and suffocating.  What's smart about these stories is that he takes aspects that are already prevalent in our culture and stretches them to extremes, presenting a world that could plausibly exist as a result of unchecked progress.

A few weeks ago, the show finally arrived on Netflix, allowing those in America who didn't already acquire it illegally to watch and see what all the hype is about.  Without a doubt, the buzz about the show has never been higher, as publications that had already seen the show have been posting articles about why you should watch and newcomers have been fervently tweeting about their experience.  So whether it was deliberately planned this way or a matter of pure serendipity, the Christmas special that aired this past week in the UK (and will be shown in America on December 25th) couldn't have come at a better time.

"White Christmas" is wickedly structured, functioning like a mini-season, broken down into three segments that serve as mini-episodes.  Brooker is a great ideas man, and each of these segments feel like they could sustain an entire episode, but the fact that he condenses them doesn't make them any less satisfying.

But before it reveals its true nature, the episode plays it coy at first.  It starts off like it's going to be some post-apocalyptic story, as we meet Joe (Rafe Spall) and Matt (Jon Hamm), two men who have apparently been in a cabin in the middle of some snowy landscape for five years.  That half decade has been marked with very little chatter between them, but on this particular day -- which is Christmas, to be exact -- Matt tries to make Joe open up by telling him a story of how he came to take this "job" that they're on.

In this world, every human has been given something called a Z-Eye, which allows their eyes to serve as camera, among other things.  Matt uses this feature to start up a service where he helps awkward guys get dates by using watching them through the Z-Eye and giving them tips through an earpiece.  With Matt at an offsite location, he's free to look up information on women to give the men an extra advantage.  He helps Harry (Rasmus Hardiker) who infiltrates a random office Christmas party and hits it off with Jennifer (Natalia Tena).  "White Christmas" deftly lays out its reveals, even the smallest ones, like the one where we find out that not only Matt, but a whole group of men, are watching Harry.  And perhaps if Harry wasn't trying to tick boxes on a mental checklist he's been given, he'd be able to tell that Jennifer is suicidal before she takes him to her home and forces him to drink a mysterious liquid that kills him while Matt and the others are watching.

As it turns out, that love guru business is not even Matt's job, which we learn when he launches into another story.  This segment passes it over to Greta (Oona Chaplin), a woman who is undergoing a procedure to take out a chip that has been in her brain for a week collecting data about the way she thinks, and putting it in a "cookie" that will be able to virtually do household tasks that Greta herself is too lazy to do.  By all accounts, this copy is just like Greta.  She thinks like Greta, she feels like Greta, she has the same preferences as Greta; and it's Matt's job to train this copy.  Here's where the genius of Jon Hamm truly comes in.  We're so used to seeing him on Mad Men playing Don Draper, who even at his worst, always has a cool restraint to him.  As Matt, he's an oozing jerk, and it's wonderful to watch.  The way he tortures this "cookie" Greta into realizing her purpose is absolutely horrifying.  "It'll be much easier if you just comply" is enough to send chills down spines.

After having heard two of Matt's stories, Joe is ready to open up about he came to take this job at the cabin.  Once again, it's important to note how masterfully constructed "White Christmas" is.  Though these three segments are separate stories, their ideas and themes are all swirling around the same drain, and concepts that get introduced in one segment carry over into a later segment.  In Matt's first story, we learn about "blocking," a legally binding process that makes it so that anybody you block appears as a muffled white blob, and vice versa.  It's another example of Brooker pushing an existing part of our culture to its extreme, since blocking is something we already do on Facebook and Twitter all of the time.  But this is much more frightening and powerful.

As Joe tells it, once he found out that his girlfriend Bethany (Janet Montgomery) was pregnant, they got into a fight because she didn't want to keep it, and in a fit of rage she blocks him.  They remain apart until he sees a silhouetted blob walking down the street one day, pregnant.  Because the blocking extends to offspring, he can't see his child either -- the only hope he has is to watch the two of them from afar every Christmas when they visit Beth's father's house.  One year, however, Joe is watching the news when discovers that Beth died in a tragic train crash, thus lifting the block and allowing him to see his child.

The nesting doll of twists just keep unraveling, as Joe does his yearly Christmas visit, only to discover the little girl he can now see is Asian, and actually the child of somebody Beth had an affair with.  Confused, he confronts Beth's father about this and Joe is so enraged that he accidentally kills him.  You start to see where the next twist is going before he does, which just makes the whole thing more agonizing.  It turns out that Matt is interrogating a cookie of Joe because the real version is in jail and won't speak.  Once Matt gets the confession out of Joe, he thinks he'll be absolved of the crimes he committed in the stories he told Joe, but the police decide to put him on "The Register" (the parallels with a registered sex offenders list are clear), which blocks him from everybody in the world.

This episode isn't without its flaws.  Matt's punishment seems a tiny bit too cruel, when all is said and done.  (Though could it be an intentional callback to the themes of the show's best episode, "White Bear"?)  And if you think about the Z-Eye and the concept of blocking for too long, plotholes begin to appear.  Blocking seems more impractical than helpful, but that and Matt's punishment work on an emotional level.  The whole episode is structured like a two-hander between Joe and Matt, and in the end they're both imprisoned and isolated, the former in his own head and the latter in the real world.  "White Christmas" also holds up to multiple viewings, providing different pleasures each time, like the best Black Mirror episodes.  The first time around you're left guessing where the story is going, but the journey is so compelling that the twist doesn't feel like the ultimate goal.  On second viewing, all the ways in which Joe and Matt's conversation is clearly an interrogation enrich the experience.  ("It's a job, not a jail," Joe says at one point.  "Often the same thing," responds Matt.)

Those three mini-stories connect the episode with some pretty powerful themes, chiefly the idea of people using technology as a shortcut to real emotions.  Randy uses the Z-Eye to hit on girls instead of trying to forge a genuine, honest connection with them.  Greta gets a cookie to do everything for her.  Beth blocks Joe so she doesn't have to tell him the truth about her pregnancy.  It's also all about people not knowing the full implications of their actions.  The Z-Eye, the psychological torture of the cookie, the totality of blocking -- they're all things that these people have easy access to, so they don't really put much thought into the grand effect.  And when you think about it, are we any different?

If this all feels a little familiar, that's because it's supposed to.  "White Christmas," is clearly and cleverly riffing on ideas presented in previous episodes of the show.  The Z-Eye functions in a similar way to The Grain in "The Entire History of You," the idea of having a not completely real but close enough copy of a person was explored in "Be Right Back," and using illusions to make criminals come to terms with their crimes was presented in "White Bear."  In that way, this episode does what Christmas is supposed to do: provide comfort and remind you of the things you love.  It turns out I love Black Mirror very much.