Monday, December 15, 2014

Best of the Year 2014

Another year has come and gone, and it is time to get the best books, movies and TV shows of the year up on the blog – you read that right!  The Best of the Year is expanding to include other pop culture beyond books.  Strap in for a ride down through the year…except for the fact that not all of the books, movies or TV shows necessarily need to be made in 2014; this is simply when I got to them.

Movies –

Admittedly, I do not watch too many movies but I saw three that are in contention and given the types of movies I generally enjoy they are pretty surprising choices;

Guardians of the Galaxy; Captain America: Winter Soldier; Snowpiercer

The first two movies are, obviously, Marvel movies but that does not take anything away from them.  Both Guardians and Winter Solider are more subversive Marvel movies, particularly the dark take on Captain America.  They are outsized and incredible and Guardians is one of the funniest movies of the year.  Each actor stole scenes from one another and the performances are off the charts.  Captain America is a 70’s style conspiracy thriller where the entire US government and their policies around terrorism are basically the “bad guy” – not to mention it is an intense and tightly packed action movie.  It is so good and intense that I actually watched it twice.

Snowpiercer on the other hand, is a stunning movie that is gruesomely, and punishingly dark and brutal.  It is a relentless take on the apocalypse in a frozen world where the only survivors live in a horrific class system aboard a never stopping train.  Additionally, there are characters who speak only Korean…and there are no subtitles.  It is not an easy movie to watch but it is incredibly filmed…but also tinged with nihilism and a subtle hope that things can be better.


TV Shows

I watched several good TV series this year: True Detective, The Knick, Utopia…but as I struggled to figure out what my favorite show of the year was, it smacked me in the face.  While each of the other shows had indelible features (Utopia the way it is filmed; The Knick with its incredible sense of place; True Detective with one of the most amazing tracking shots of all time) none of them sucked me in so completely and totally as The Missing. 

The Missing is both thrilling and meditative.  It is punishing and powerful and the performances are absolutely magnificent.  A simple plot rundown: a five year old boy goes missing, and we track the family in the immediate aftermath and eight years later when the father phones his (now) ex-wife and says simply, “I found something.”  From that moment, the viewer is drawn into an amazingly haunting and intricate world of shattered people in the past and present.  Each piece slots into every other piece like a puzzle the viewer simply cannot see in its entirety.  Stylistically, the colors contrast beautifully, from the  washed out palate of the present to the vividness and vibrant brightness of the past.  One of the reasons this is so successful is the fact it was an eight episode miniseries and there is nothing more or less than perfection.  One scene which stands out: a full on car chase from inside the police car that speeds with futility through the streets of a small town French village.  Then the episode ends with an explosive revelation that powers much of the next episode: but, none of it feels fake or cheap, but genuine and powerful.  An indelible viewing experience and one I highly recommend.

To the books!

Page Turner of the Year:

Fiction: Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly – Try putting down a Michael Connelly book, he draws you in and powers you through a tale of moral corruption as fast as you can turn the pages. 

Non-Fiction: Showtime by Jeff Pearlman – An amazing book about the history of the Showtime, LA Lakers and all the gossip that flowed through the era.  I never thought I would rethink my opinion of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, but this book gave it a good shot.  A great, soapy and fun sports book that covers all five championships.

Smartest Book of the Year:

Brilliant Orange by David Winner – Try comparing the Swiss Watch abilities of Dutch football players to the versatility of the floor of Schipol Airport and you will have some idea of exactly how brilliant this book is.  This was a great world Cup primer, and not many authors could make the way the team uses the space on the field interesting.  Another fascinating feature was the incredible description of how much Dutch people hate the Germans, and why losing to them in the World Cup was the psychological equivalent of being invaded again.  Unreal and a must read.

Most Disappointing Books:

3) High Crimes by Michael Kodas – After reading other books about Everest and Mountain Climbing in general, this one was a terrible disappointment.  Do not go in expecting Krakauer because it is not even on the same planet.

2) The Racketeer / The Appeal by John Grisham – Both are entertaining reads and make you want to get through them quickly because Grisham is a great storyteller…but…both feature ghastly endings.  Grisham has apparently forgotten how to end a book with any semblance of decency other than the false feeling idea of “the bad guy wins”. 

1) Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Berry – It is about a long baseball game, and while it was entertaining at points…it is about a 33 inning baseball game. 

Topic of the Year

Part 1: Football Books – Specifically, books about football being bad: League of Denial, Against Football and King of Sports were three of the books I read which basically make the argument that the NFL is big tobacco and needs to radically change. 

Part 2: Futbol Books- Specifically, books about futbol!  I read about Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, tactical football, Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life, Inverting the Pyramid, and the business of football, The Football Business (a notable book for its harrowing and brilliant chapter about Hillsboro).  All are recommended highly, especially in the next World Cup or Euro year.

Harper Lee Award (Best Female Author)

Non-Fiction: Night Games by Anna Krien – Few authors, let alone female authors, have the gall to take on the role of rape and sexual assault within the culture of elite athletes.  This was a remarkable book about the depths our heroes feel entitled to sink to and how little we understand about the crime of rape itself.

Fiction: Code Name Verity / Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein – Heartbreaking and beautiful books about friendship amidst horrible circumstances during World War II.  One features resistance fighters in France, the other a pilot who ends up in a horrific concentration camp.  Both are well written and will pull all the strings of your heart. 

Best Books of the Year:


5) The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy – Rare is the author who can create and destroy a character like James Ellroy.  This is the one classic book he wrote that sat on my shelf for more than three years.  I finally dug in and it was more than worth the wait.  Brutal, dark and graphic, this is a crime story more complex than anything anyone else can put out.  Read the entire LA Quartet and Underworld USA Trilogies for the full effect.

4) Silo Saga (Wool / Shift / Dust) by Hugh Howey – An apocalyptic vision of a world underground and run by the most brutal of dictators, these novels are riveting and hard to put down.  The absence of hope pervades throughout and these books are melodic and beautifully written stories of an unimaginable (but frighteningly plausible) future. 

3) The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – For years I avoided this book because I was scared it would be too depressing; well, spoiler alert, the book chooses to embrace life rather than focus on death.  This is an incredible book that stretches far beyond simple teen fiction.  Read it and enjoy.

2) World of Trouble by Ben Winters – Now seen in its entirety, Ben Winters, The Last Policeman Trilogy is one of the great achievements in pre apocalyptic fiction (probably the only one) and a series of amazing crime stories to boot.  The central focus of the series has been how people react to a world that is going to end, and frighteningly soon.  The first book was stunning in its originality, the second, slightly hopeful and melodic.  This one is all about the end, literally.  As the world counts down, and the reader wonders whether or not it will all be over, Winters takes his main character, Hank Palace on a desperate quest to find his wayward sister.  Palace is a man who cannot idly sit by and wait for the end, and there is always a mystery to solve.  How does it end?  All I will say is this: Winters could have phoned it in, or struggled, but instead saved some of his best writing for the final paragraphs.  A stunning achievement I cannot recommend highly enough.

1) Troubles Trilogy by Adrian McKinty – Mix Ireland in the 80’s, with its troubles, with a modern detective who solves ingeniously plotted crimes amidst a terrorist state.  Stir it all together and you get a haunting, stylistic and thought provoking meditation on Ireland and its difficulty reconciling with the past.  These books are my Fiction Book Championship Belt Holders for 2014. 


5) Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben – Many authors write about survival scenarios, but few discuss the aftermath and the cost of survival so eloquently. 

4) Griftopia by Matt Taibbi – On small planes in Africa I read about how the world financial market has been manipulated and controlled and I was completely captivated.  An awesome book and one which will help you understand the world in a whole new way.

3) Down by the River by Charles Bowden – An obsessive quest to solve a murder seemingly unrelated to Mexico’s burgeoning drug trade destroys the life of a DEA Agent, while across the border a shadowy Cartel boss and his empire traffic in death, blood and misery.  An amazing, hypnotic read.

2) Going Clear by Lawrence Wright – Having already read a great book about Scientology I tucked into this one feeling like I probably knew it all.  This blew my mind because, like Reitman’s wonderful Inside Scientology, Wright presents a sobering picture of exactly what Scientology is…and the depths it will sink to.  The difference being that he draws the horror out slowly, and methodically, showing exactly how much L. Ron Hubbard actually believed what he was doing was true at the outset, before being rejected and turning into a money making cult.  Fascinating and well worth the time.

1) Spillover by David Quammen – The 2014 Book Championship Belt Holder (Non-Fiction) has been at the top of the list since January.  Rarely have I ever wanted to read a book twice in the same year but I resisted the urge with this one.  Given how much coverage Ebola has gotten in the news, an astute reader would pick up this meditative and authoritative volume which combines wonderful writing with science facts.  It is not often that I want to re-read something about zoonotic diseases, but try putting this book down.  Also: please do yourself a favor and read Laurie Garrett’s fantastic The Coming Plague to fully understand Ebola and the dangers we face. 

Books I am Looking forward to in 2015:

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killing (Everything about this book sounds awesome)

James Ellroy – Perfidia (Return of the grand master)

Don Winslow – The Time of the Wolves (One of my favorite books of all time gets a sequel?!?! And it is released right before my summer vacation?!?!? I know what I am doing on June 23rd…)

Robert Kurson – Pirate Hunters (One of the greatest Non-fiction authors ever releases a book for the first time since 2008!  Again, my summer reading schedule is filling up)

Dennis Lehane – World Gone By (The conclusion to the series he started with The Given Day and a direct sequel to the great Live by Night)

Marcus Sakey – Brilliance 3 (I have not written enough about this incredible series, but cannot wait for the third book after two incredible reads: Brilliance and A Better World.)

What did I miss?  What else deserves to be on the list?  Was Station Eleven a pantheon novel?