Monday, December 29, 2014

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2014

The end of another year means yet another series of lists of my favorite reads, sights, and sounds from the year that was. Since this is the 10th edition, I tried to think of doing something special for it, but ultimately I preferred to stick with my usual approach. Numbers aren't really rankings per se, but you should know that by now.

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2014

1. The Magician's LandI have been a big fan of Lev Grossman's The Magicians series since reading the first book of same name several years ago, which could be called the edgier college version of Harry Potter crossed with parts of The Chronicles of Narnia. Since experiencing that first book, I've eagerly anticipated each follow-up, first with The Magician King in 2012 and finally this conclusion to the trilogy. Here, Quentin is piecing his life back together after events from the second book, but just as he is finding his way again, certain figures he thought long gone from his life reappear, throwing everything into chaos all over again. This was as satisfying conclusion to the trilogy as one could hope for, and I'd rather this series get chosen for movies over and against certain other ones Hollywood has been picking up lately.

2. Learning to Walk in the Dark - Barbara Brown Taylor explores our traditional notions of darkness and how we associate it with fear, evil, and despair, preferring light instead, which we associate with safety, goodness, and joy. She challenges this binary, suggesting instead that a "solar spirituality"--one that seeks easy paths and may deal in simple answers--should be complemented by a "lunar spirituality:" one that ventures into the darkness rather than avoids it, as that is where depth and growth may occur. She incorporates biology while discussing bodily rhythms and their need for night and darkness, as well as astronomy, particularly in her final chapter written as an ode to the moon. If you're looking for some kind of how-to book about entering into darkness, you'll be disappointed. Taylor writes this more as an invitation to reflect with her on these themes and think about how they may play out in one's own life.

3. The Inexplicables - This is the fifth in Cherie Priest's series of steampunk novels collectively known as The Clockwork Century. We meet Rector "Wreck 'em" Sherman, an orphan who was also a companion to Zeke Wilkes, a major character from Boneshaker and recurring smaller character from subsequent books. After being released/kicked out of the orphanage, Wreck is compelled to venture into the walled-off city of Seattle to make peace with part of his past, meeting up with the whole cast of characters from past books who are going to need to work together to fend off a new threat to the city. I continue to love everything about this series: the alternative history, the steampunk sensibility, and of course the zombies. Priest's books continue to be an awesome gateway into the steampunk world.

4. Lila - This is Marilynne Robinson's third in what has become a trilogy, first with one of my all time favorites in Gilead, and the follow-up, Home, which in some ways is the same story from another character's perspective. In this third installment, we focus on Lila, the mysterious young woman who wanders into John Ames' church one Sunday, and eventually marries him. The reader is given hints of who she is in the previous books, but this one fleshes her out immensely. We learn about her past, which certainly has not been an easy road, as well as her attempts to settle into life in Gilead as a preacher's wife (also not an easy road). Robinson paints a word picture of a woman whose finding a community begins to make gentle her deep scars and trust issues. I think I liked this one more than Home, but Gilead remains my favorite of the three.

5. Resurrection City - Using a jazz analogy to illustrate how people of faith are meant to build on what came before, Peter Goodwin Heltzel weaves a thread through a long line of prophets to show how improvising on existing structures has made new expressions of justice and peace possible. The message of this book has really stuck with me over the past several months since reading it, and is an important and accessible call to daring faith.

Honorable mention: City of God by Sara Miles

Five Movies I Enjoyed in 2014

1. The LEGO MovieChris Pratt voices Emmet Brickowoski, an ordinary construction worker in a LEGO world governed/ruled by President Business (Will Ferrell). President Business places high value on uniformity, and accomplishes this by lulling the citizenry into blissful ignorance through popular media and overpriced coffee, maintained by strong encouragement to follow pre-issued instruction manuals (which recall the booklets that come with LEGO sets). Emmet eventually discovers the Master Builders--consisting of many familiar playset figures--who want people to have creative freedom and who want to thwart President Business' secret evil plans to establish permanent sameness. There is some overarching commentary on how society placates itself through consumerism, which could also be taken simply as encouragement to be creative and original, and a celebration of how these toys--for generations now--have allowed people to do just that.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy - I'd been wanting to see this ever since viewing the first trailer, and finally saw it the last weekend of the year. To me, a list like this without even giving myself a chance to consider this film would have been a travesty. Chris Pratt stars as Star-Lord, a loner thief whose latest job featuring powerful cargo causes him to have a run-in with Garmora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin for the evil Ronan with plans to double-cross her boss. Then comes Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and the walking tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Finally, as the four are taken into custody, they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, better known to wrestling fans as Batista). Each has his or her own motivations, and none of them are exactly what you'd call honorable. The way they solidify as a team over the course of the movie is like the anti-Avengers, complete with a bar fight. They certainly don't stand up and fight for truth and justice at all costs so much as move beyond their own ambitions and hang-ups enough to do the right thing when they realize they need to. The movie is humorous, action-packed, and is very akin to Blade Runner visually. I'm glad I made it a point to see this before the calendar flipped.

3. American HustleChristian Bale and Amy Adams play con artists who are busted in an undercover op by an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and forced into helping him work to take down a New Jersey politician (Jeremy Renner). Jennifer Lawrence is also involved as Bale's manipulative and dysfunctional wife. There's actually plenty of manipulation to go around, and I often wasn't sure who was conning who, which made for some extra fun. There was also an underlying theme that we often con ourselves into seeing what we want to see, whether it's actually true or not, which various characters play to their advantage as well. The film is well-acted with great performances all around: Bale and Adams as old pros trying to survive, Cooper as the agent increasingly desperate to make his operation work, Lawrence as the wife who refuses to be left behind or left out but also not very self-aware. I still wish I'd seen this sooner, but I was also rewarded for my patience.

4. X-Men: Days of Future PastSet in the future, government-commissioned robots known as sentinels are hunting and killing mutants, as well as human sympathizers. A small band of survivors including Professor Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine, Storm, Iceman, and Kitty Pryde come up with a plan to send Wolverine back in time to help stop the sentinels from ever being created. To do so, he has to find younger versions of Xavier and Magneto, as well as Mystique, who is the lynchpin of the whole thing. It would have been really easy to screw this up with so many moving parts, but I think this movie hit the right mix of character formation and story, sticking with the main task at hand. It is a little darker, but conveying the desperate, bleak situation of the future mutants entailed that. The past reality into which Wolverine is cast--the nation just coming to grips with the end of the Vietnam war--comes with its own challenges and uncertainties. All in all, this was a very well-told story with excellent performances from all involved.

5. A Late QuartetChristopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir star as members of a string quartet that has been together for 25 years. When Walken's character is diagnosed with Parkinson's, it sets off a series of dynamic shifts among the other members that threatens the continuation of their group. Each not only deals with the news of their friend's health and the inevitable affect it will have on their quartet, but each also wrestles with issues related to ego, desire, and their place among the others, some of which have been bubbling under the surface for quite some time. And yet it is their commitment to the quartet, something larger than themselves, that serves as their reference point while dealing with these other issues. I don't recall this being a very widely-distributed or publicized film (the only way I even heard about it was a preview on a DVD), but I thought it was a well-done exploration of relational dynamics, as well as a love letter to classical music.

Honorable mention: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Five TV Shows I Enjoyed in 2014

1. Doctor Who - I was introduced to this show in elementary school, when my friend showed me a few episodes from the Tom Baker/Fourth Doctor era. I never really picked it up on my own, but enjoyed what I saw back then. Near the beginning of this year, after a few years of good intentions, Coffeewife and I began making our way through the newer (2005 and onward) seasons. As of this writing, we still have a little way to go before we're caught up, but we're total Whovians now.

2. Orange is the New Black - This show was stronger in its second season, as it was given more of an edge in several ways. First was the arrival of Vee, an inmate who has certainly been around the block a few times both in and out of prison, and knows how to manipulate and intimidate her way around the other women. Second is the guards trying to be tougher on the inmates in order to search for contraband and generally send the message that they can't be walked over. But the heart of the show is still the relationships and backstories of the inmates; we still get plenty of drama between them and also see what from their past brought them together. It's just that this time around, the whole thing was more driven by an overarching narrative. 

3. The Walking Dead - This show is about surviving the zombie apocalypse, but a big component of that is surviving ourselves and the others left alive. And sometimes that survival involves horrible, tragic decisions. Whether it's the dissension and differing philosophies from Season 2, the survive-at-all-costs approach of The Governor from Season 4, or the outright brutality of the Terminus group in Season 5, Rick and the group have had to wrestle with what we become when there are no more rules; no more need for decorum. That's really what has always given this show its power.

4. Parks and Recreation - I couldn't wait for the latest season of this show to appear on Netflix, as I was still binge-watching the others back when it was actually airing on NBC. It has the perfect balance of zany humor and heart, with each character quirky yet grounded enough for the viewer to care about each. This really is an ensemble effort, as each contributes to the feel of the show and plays off one another so well. I'm looking forward to new episodes airing in 2015, but also lament their being the show's last.

5. Boardwalk Empire - I wanted this show to be my next Sopranos (The Walking Dead eventually filled that need) but it never quite worked out that way. There were stretches where the plot moved slowly, which allowed for deepening of various characters, and you have to hold to certain rules when people are based on real historical figures. This makes it sound like I didn't enjoy the show, but I did. This last season, a brisk 8 episodes, jumps ahead to the Great Depression where several major characters have either died or stepped back. And since this is a gangster show, we had to have some big characters die along the way as well. But besides all that, we get flashbacks to Nucky's gradual rise through the ranks of the Commodore's Atlantic City operation and the lessons he learned along the way about how to get ahead; the connections he made in order to get there. This was an entertaining series and I'll miss what it provided on fall Sunday evenings.

Honorable mention: Derek

Five Albums I Enjoyed in 2014

1. Gary Clark, Jr., Blak and Blu - A couple years ago, I heard "Bright Lights" on the radio, vowed to check out more of what I was hearing, and then lost track. This past year, Clark showed up on some big stages, and thus I finally decided to check out more of his music. It didn't take long for this album to hook me. At times it's that stomp rock a la The Black Keys, but elsewhere he's using more of an R&B sound. The guitar work on "When My Train Pulls In" just completely floored me, while "The Life" is a smooth jam about finding one's focus. I'm glad I finally picked this up.

2. Phantogram, VoicesAs with Clark, I heard "Fall In Love" on the radio and vowed to hear more, except my follow-up was much more immediate. Phantogram is an electronica duo, and while such a sound can be hit-and-miss with me, I found this incredibly captivating. "Black Out Days" is my favorite, although "Fall In Love" and "Bad Dreams" have also been on repeat for most of the year, too.

3. The Black Keys, Turn BlueAs with their past few albums, the Keys worked with producer Danger Mouse here, continuing their evolution from stomp-rock into something more soulful and funky while retaining that base sensibility. The opening track "Weight of Love" is a bit spacey and reminiscent of Pink Floyd at their peak, the title track is a great soul-inspired ballad, and the first single "Fever" is also a favorite (as is the video).

4. Wussy, AtticaI heard "Beautiful" on one of my favorite podcasts and I was taken by it so much that I wanted to listen to the entire album from which it came. It's quite an eclectic album, as you get dirty driving rock on "Rainbows and Butterflies," and then comes the wistful country sounds of slide guitar and piano on "North Sea Girls." One song is so incredibly different from the next, which is an easy way for an artist to reel me in.

5. Grace and Tony, November - During a Spotify search, I stumbled upon this self-described "punkgrass" band from Tennessee. They might remind people a little of Mumford and Sons, although there's something a little more raw and intimate about their sound. I first heard the title track, but have also greatly enjoyed "Grassphemy," which seems to be their answer to critics claiming they don't play bluegrass the "right way." There's a great deal of whimsy in their sound, making for quite a feel-good, toe-tapping album.

Honorable mention: Ingrid Michaelson, Lights Out

Five Blogs I Enjoyed in 2014

1. A Church for Starving Artists - Jan's blog has appeared on the majority of these Year-End Roundups over the years, and it should come as no surprise that it's here again. She continues to offer quick, provocative posts on church life, challenging church folk to think about what we do in new ways. She always has a pretty good read on the culture and how the church needs to adapt. I've always been glad for her voice.

2. Rachel Held Evans - Whether she remembers or not, Rachel gave me a boost back in January by sharing one of my posts and helping it go viral, resulting both in a few opened doors and in a renewed energy for writing that carried me through the entire year. So I am grateful for that. In the meantime, she continued to push back against some of the damaging aspects of evangelicalism, helping give voice to the marginalized and offer a new perspective.

3. Confessions of a Funeral Director - I'd been following Caleb Wilde for a while on Twitter, but it wasn't really until this year that I started reading his blog, which offers personal anecdotes and reflections on his chosen profession. Some are a bit painful to read, but most are quite enlightening. Part of me has always wanted to be a funeral director, so there's kind of a personal pull here for me.

4. A High Five Should Boost The Morale Around Here - Five Iron Frenzy frontman Reese Roper started a blog this year, meant in part to be his explanation for some of the band's song lyrics. But he also wrote quite a bit of reflective pieces about his experiences as an RN, his faith, and a host of other topics. He's a gifted writer in addition to being lead singer of one of my favorite bands.

5. MGoBlog - Brian Cook's blog continues to be my one-stop shop for all things related to Michigan sports. Not only is his analysis and commentary a cut above other Michigan blogs (and, I'd argue, most other sports-related blogs, sites, and TV networks for that matter), but he's just a fantastic writer. I even used one of his posts in a sermon this year. That's how influential his stuff has been for me. As long as he's writing, this blog will be on this list.

Honorable mention: Carey Nieuwhof