This year's pleasant surprises

Ah, that glorious time of year when best-of lists abound! I even made one. What could possibly be better than talking about the best? Nice surprises, that's what. It's super exciting when I get to run out to the bookstore, say, and pick up a much-anticipated new novel. But it's even more exciting -- and amazing, and kind of touching -- when someone else does that for me. The pleasant, unexpected thing is kind of the best.

This year was chock full of pleasant surprises when it comes to pop culture -- the kind of stuff that makes me go, "Awww, yeah, I loved that!" when I think of it. Here are some of the things that might not have necessarily made a best-of-2015-T.V. or Top Movies of This Year list, had I made one, but nevertheless brought me great joy.

maxresdefaultiZombie: To be able to change one's mind is a wonderful thing. When I first saw promos for the CW's new show iZombie,  I thought it looked like a dumb show trying to smoosh two popular television standbys (zombies and procedurals) to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Boy, was I wrong. From the creators of Veronica MarsiZombie features the same snappy dialogue as its predecessor, along with the same bubblegum exterior barely concealing darker concerns. Both the characters and the actors portraying them are infinitely appealing (particularly Rose McIver as the titular zombie Liv Moore [I know] and Rahul Kohli as her medical examiner buddy, Ravi Chakrabarti). Every week, this is the first television show I want to catch up with. (Also, it's got a pretty killer credit sequence.)

Gilmore Guys podcast: Some things take a little warming-up-to. For me, Gilmore Guys was one of those things; I didn't get into the first couple of episodes, possibly because the hosts of the podcast, Kevin Porter and Demi Adejuyigbe, hadn't quite found their groove yet. But a second try got me hooked, and now I binge-listen to the two guys recapping episodes of Gilmore Girls with the help of a different guest each episode. As a bonus, I'm pretty sure Kevin and Demi single-handedly brought about the upcoming new season of Gilmore Girls, no matter how adamantly they insist otherwise.

Krampus_posterQuality horror: The BabadookIt Follows, The Visit, and Krampus. Holy Krampus, has this been a fantastic year for horror movie fans! The Babadook and It Follows delivered with legit scares paired with thoughtful explorations of grief and sexual trauma, respectively. Then M. Night Shyamalan pulled his own head out of his ass, kept to the writer-director's chair (instead of sneaking into the actor's trailer) and delivered laughs and frights with The Visit. And, just in time for Christmas, we got the wicked ghoul-fest, Krampus, a delightfully nasty, Gremlins-esque holiday horror. Clearly, Santa decided that I was at least halfway decent this year.

150209_r26115-1200Hamilton: Hey, you guys! Have you heard about this cool new musical, Hamilton? Probably not, right? Ugh, I am so not cutting edge. Earlier this year I polled my Facebook friends for new running music, and one of them suggested the Hamilton cast album. "Please," I scoffed. "I can't run to Broadway tunes. What will happen when I get to the inevitable sad ballad." Well, apologies are due to Anna Whiteside because six months later, I'm eating my words. Actually, I'm garbling my words as I try to keep up with the rap and hip-hop rhythms of Lin-Manuel Miranda's ear-wormy musical -- which is, as it turns out, actually great to run to. What I really love about this show -- in addition to the music itself -- is the way it takes this big, abstract concept (creating a nation) and humanizes it through the characters, their relationships, and their own ambitions.

Rufus Wainwright in Anchorage: Living in Alaska has its drawbacks, most of them tolerable. But one of the big bummers is that not a lot of musical acts decide to take their tours this far north. This year, though, I got two see two pretty fantastic shows. First, Garfunkel and Oates played at the University of Alaska. No offense to those funny ladies, but the second show I got to see could never be topped:  Rufus Wainwright came to Anchorage! The venue was kind of intimate, the seats were actually fantastic, and he played most of my favorite songs when he wasn't complaining about the "tassels" on his mountain-man-type shirt.

blackishBlackish: I don't know why I just generally don't watch half-hour comedies. After Parks and Recreation ended, I wasn't sure I'd be including any non-animated comedies on my DVR roster (Bob's Burgers would have made this "pleasant surprises" list, except that I was pleasantly surprised by it about two years ago.) But nothing consistently makes me laugh as hard as Blackish, which has a crazily stacked, hilarious cast -- including four child actors I actually don't hate.

The "Pandering" article:  You know when someone writes something, and you read it, and you go, "Damn, this woman is expressing everything I feel at this very moment in time"? Claire Vaye Watkins's "On Pandering" is that, except I only felt that way about 50 percent of the article; the other 50 percent made me go, "Oh, I need to be more aware of this kind of thing and pay attention to it and think about it all the time."

A Dark Room:  I'm only not a gamer because I didn't get into gaming early on and now I feel like an old dog that just does not have time to learn new tricks that require you to press a combination of A+Up+Right+Right+C. Which is why A Dark Room is perfect for me: It's a completely text-based game that has you gathering fire wood and building traps and wondering what those the strange creatures are that keep stealing your bait. The less you know going into A Dark Room, the better, because the game unfolds like a story as you continue to steadily work and make discoveries.

The cats and cucumbers viral video: I don't understand why it's funny. And yet IT IS.


RuVealed: This was year I discovered America's actual greatest top model show, RuPaul's Drag Race, which is excellent on its own. But I've gotten a lot of joy out of watching RuVealed on Logo, which is just a re-airing of old seasons, with the addition of RuPaul providing commentary, Pop Up Video-style. I love how Ru loves a cheesy joke.

The Shining Girls and Fates and Furies: Both these books made my Top Whatever list this year, but these are the two that really surprised me. I figured both would be good, but I wasn't prepared for how much I would love them.

Limetown-logo-SQ-LargeLimetown: Billed as "Serial, but fiction," Limetown is a story told episode by episode, in the guise of an NPR-type longform investigation. Its host, Lea Haddock, tries to find answers to the mysteries surrounding a small town whose entire population vanished. While later episodes didn't hold up quite as well as the early ones, I still looked forward to each new installment and really loved hearing the story unfold.

TheBillfold's "How Gilmore Girls Do Money" posts: I'm not normally a fan-fic reader, but I've been loving Nicole Dieker's "How Gilmore Girls Do Money" posts, which imagine each character years after the show's end and how their financial situations impact, or are impacted by, their lives now.

Jessica-Jones-posterMarvel's Jessica Jones: Now that I've finished the new Netflix series, it's hard to remember a time when this show wasn't a sure-fire hit for me. But my history with superheroes is this:  I like them at the movies, not so much on my T.V. I tried Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and couldn't get into it; I really liked Marvel's Agent Carter (particularly Hayley Atwell's performance), but it got lost on my DVR and I never bothered to return to it after the first two episodes. But Jessica feels like an altogether different creature, and I love it. Can't wait for season 2 -- and in the meantime, it actually convinced me to give Daredevil a try.

Pocket: No I will never stop trying to make Pocket happen. I just won't. Because it's amazing. It's the simplest thing on earth, and yet it has changed how (and when) I read things on the internet. Just download it. Do it.

Pontypool: The very definition of a pleasant surprise, since I knew nothing about this movie before watching it, as I chronicled here.

The "It's Going to Be Okay" post from The Oatmeal: Imagine you're having a bad day. Then imagine you read this. Yeah. Everything's going to be okay.

friday_night_lightsFriday Night Lights: I KNOW. It took me a really long time to finally watch FNL. I think I actually started watching the show with my friend, Sara, earlier than 2015, but we finished up this year. And even though I'd heard from every T.V. critic in the world how great this show was and how it wasn't really about football, I was still surprised at how much I came to love Dillon, Texas, Coach and Mrs. Coach, the Dillon Panthers and the East Dillon Lions, Matt and Street and Tyra and Vince and Tim Riggins. And Lance! The motto might be "clear eyes," but mine were pretty misty by the time the last end credits rolled. (This piece on Vulture, which describes how the kids on the show were cast, was also a nice surprise.)

"What the Flula?!": Game of Thrones is a pretty incredible show. But this might actually be more incredible.

MST3K anticipation: We won't get the new episodes until next year, but the massive success of the Kickstarter campaign means we get fourteen to look forward to -- with Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the Mads.

Adventures at the movieplexEverest and The Martian. Seeing The Martian may have been one of the funnest times I had at the movies this year; seeing Everest might have been one of the most sweat-inducing.

1087-M-What-We-Do-in-the-ShadowsWhat We Do in the ShadowsMockumentaries are a little played out, so maybe I can be forgiven for not expecting too much out of this goofy remedy to another played-out trope: vampires. Shadows has quickly become the kind of movie my friends and I can put on the T.V. as "background noise," then quickly succumb to, spending the rest of the evening asking each other if we would "like some basghetti."

Black_Mirror_The_National_Anthem_TV-511261979-largeMore Black Mirror is coming!: Black Mirror might be the best show that virtually no one else I know seems to know about. But you've got time to catch up on this British answer to The Twilight Zone -- the original run is just six episodes, all of which are available on Netflix. And then, after you've become completely dazzled and shocked by the series, you can thank Netflix for reviving the show for another 12 episodes, which should hit the internet sometime in 2016. (There may actually be nothing in this world that can top the very first episode of Black Mirror -- another viewing experience you should try to have without knowing anything about it beforehand, by the way -- but I'm anxious for the new episodes to give it their best try.)

Halloween-o-Thon 2015

halloween3_buddyTVAs I have made clear in the past, Halloween is my favorite holiday. I’ve long outgrown trick-or-treating, and while I enjoy a good costume party, somehow every year I feel like I fall a little short of my dress-up aspirations. No, I’m not in it for the costumes and candy. I love Halloween for the scares. More specifically, Halloween is the one time of year when there’s a bounty of horror movies—for free!—on television. In an era of on-demand t.v. and Netflix streaming any ole time you like, this is less special than it used to be; if I want to watch all eighty-six installments of Friday the 13th back to back, I can do it whenever I please, without even getting up from the couch to run down to my local Blockbuster (RIP). But I get a certain amount of delight when I’m channel surfing on a random October evening and I come acrossblockbuster_placeholder horror flicks on a dozen different channels, all there for my choosing. It’s like going to a buffet and realizing someone put out all your favorite foods.

Throughout October, I also get to be normal. When I tell people that I regularly lull myself to sleep at bedtime by watching The Exorcist because I find it familiar and comforting, I get nothing but side-eyes and raised eyebrows. But if I mention that I spent a random October Saturday afternoon comparing The Ring with its Japanese predecessor, Ringu, no one thinks anything of it. October is the time of year when my year-round love of horror movies isn’t deemed weird; it’s perfectly natural to indulge in a few spine-tingles as Halloween approaches.

A few years ago, inspired by Joe Reid (of Extra Hot Great Mark 1 fame), I decided to embark on a horror-movie binge-watch. In episode 4 of EHG, Joe had talked about watching as many as 17 horror films in one October week; his only criteria for the movies he watched was that they had to be available on t.v. for free — no DVDs, no Netflix instant streaming, no iTunes rentals. My quest, I decided, would be a little different:  I would watch scary stuff in any format, but I wouldn’t limit myself to just one week. I would, instead, watch one horror movie every single day in October. Thus, the Halloween-o-Thon was born.

AwakeningThe first year, I managed something like 26 movies — fairly respectable. The next year, I decided that not only would I aim for a horror movie a day; I would only watch films I’d never seen before. That year, I discovered great, new-to-me movies like The Awakening and House, MST3K-able trash like Ghost Ship, and classics like Carnival of Souls and April Fool’s Day. But I still only managed to watch about 20 movies that month.

I’ve taken a couple years off since the last Halloween-o-Thon, but I’m giving it another go this year. The rules have changed a little, though. In the past, I posted a couple thoughts on Facebook after watching each movie. This year, however, I have a blog, so I thought I’d use it to talk about each movie I watch. And since those ideas will probably take the form of a few paragraphs instead of one sentence — and since I also have a job and a book to write and a life — I’m not going to shoot for a movie a day for 31 days. Instead, I’m going to try and watch five movies each week of October, for a total of 20 movies that month. My goal will be to post something about each film the day after I watch it. This Halloween-o-Thon will cover both new movies and movies I’ve seen dozens of times. The main criteria for a film will be whether I think I might have something to say about it that’s worth reading (hopefully).

So stay tuned for scares! Like the titular “it” in It Follows, Halloween-o-Thon is slowly, inexorably coming your way.


Freedom Is Overrated: On limitation as a catalyst for creativity

the-exorcist-pea-soupA couple months ago, I walked out of my local movie theater and into a dusky night, chatting with my friend about the movie we’d just seen, when I noticed a man walking behind us. A little thrill danced up my spine. The next morning, I would discover that my friend had noticed the guy, too, and had the same two thoughts I’d had:  He’s following me and I wonder if anyone else can see him? The movie we’d just seen was It Follows, and our sudden paranoia came from the film’s plot—a simple concept that finds the protagonist followed by a ghoul that can take the form of anyone (living, dead, strangers, people she knows). That’s it. It’s just a ghost, and it follows her around—and it’s the most unnerving horror movie I’ve seen in a good handful of years.

In a lot of ways, It Follows is a throwback to the movies made during a period I think of as horror film history’s “sweet spot”:  from 1968, when Rosemary’s Baby hit theaters, to about 1982, when John Carpenter gave us The Thing and Stephen Spielberg teamed up with Tobe Hooper for Poltergeist. The movies made during this period have a lived-in, authentic feel that modern movies don’t quite deliver. Even with ghosts invading The Fog’s Antonio Bay and John Hurt giving birth to an eyeless, silver-toothed squid in Alien, movies from that era manage to feel realer to me than anything studios have come out with in the last twenty-odd years.

In his excellent book on this period of horror movie-making, Shock Value, Jason Zinoman provides a clue to why I find the scary movies of the 1970s and ’80s so effective. “[Special] effects back in the seventies were expensive and what was possible was limited,” he writes. “[…] There was an element of innocence about the business in the low-budget films of the seventies that allowed the directors to do things differently, to take chances and try crazy ideas.”

Or to put it another way:  Cool shit happens when you’re faced with limitations.

In the horror movies of the ’70s and ’80s, limitations of budget, technology, and the experience of young filmmakers led to both authenticity and creativity. The special effects back then weren’t always so special. The pea soup that demon-Regan vomits in The Exorcist, for example, flowed through a tube attached to Linda Blair’s mouth, whereas nowadays, FX teams would digitally add green spew in post-production. But the hands-on, jury-rigged, soup-out-of-a-tube method allowed for an in-the-room realness CGI could never conjure:  When the pea soup shot across the room and hit actor Jason Miller (as Father Karras) in the face (instead of the chest, like it was supposed to), his disgusted, shocked reaction is 100% genuine. The honesty of his surprise reverberates from the screen and becomes a way of drawing the viewer into the scene more deeply.

Zinoman also points out that limitation can be a catalyst for outside-the-box thinking. In some ways, the young filmmakers behind Jaws and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were tumblr_m7wqe0PEri1ql8mddo1_500limited by their own inexperience. But, as Zinoman points out, the fact that Wes Craven didn’t know what a dolly was or how to use one meant that he used a handheld camera, instead, to film The Last House on the Left, giving the film a documentary feel that made it one of the most gut-wrenching films audiences had ever seen. Steven Spielberg didn’t initially set out to keep the shark in Jaws hidden for most of the movie, but when the mechanical shark created for the film kept malfunctioning, the director was forced to shoot scenes without it. Not only did not seeing the shark intensify a sense of dread and suspense in the audience, but it forced Spielberg to figure out how to use his camera to convey movement and point of view in a way that’s now studied by film scholars.

This is the advantage of limitation:  When you’ve got an obstacle, you’ve got to find a way around it. A lot of times, the solution ends up being more interesting than anything you’d planned on doing before you discovered something standing in your way.


Robbie Pickering: You get creative with what you actually have. Limitations are actually great.

David Huntsberger: But do you limit yourself in script writing? Like, “I want to write one where it takes place way out in space…” Or I know I have no money, so I’ll cram a guy into his apartment, there’s no location changes, not a big cast.

Pickering: …I think it’s good to do that…I think sometimes putting those limitations on yourself in writing can help.

- From Professor Blastoff, episode 206

In theory, writing should be the easiest thing in the world. All you need is a piece of paper, a pen, and an idea. But the apparent ease of writing doesn’t account for the fear that 99% of people feel when faced with the dreaded Blank Page. I feel it. Every time I sit down to write something new—be it a short story, a book, the chapter of a book, the first sentence on a new page—I stare at the vast expanse of blankness and think, Why is this so hard? Just write words, dummy!

But Zinoman’s got the answer to this mystery, too:  “A little freedom can be a good thing, but too much can paralyze.”

If you can do anything, how do you know where to start? When micro-budget filmmaker Robbie Pickering recently visited the hatch on the Professor Blastoff podcast, he talked about how small budgets and limited access to equipment often result in better or more creative filmmaking. “I hate having that much freedom…I actually think all the bells and whistles, it gets to a point where, if you can have everything you want, it’s actually not as good—you don’t get as creative.”

Limitation: Not only does it foster creativity; it can lessen the fear and paralysis of unlimited possibility.

But the difference between filmmaking and fiction writing, as Professor Blastoff’s David Huntsberger alluded to, is that when you’re making a movie, the parameters are usually set for you by an outside source. The era you live in hasn’t developed CGI yet, or you’ve got a set budget, or you have to get all your principle shooting done in so many weeks. When you write a story or a novel, though, no one’s setting limitations on you. So you’ve got to create your own.

Another way of thinking about limitations is in terms of rules—and people who write science fiction and fantasy, in particular, are probably acutely familiar with the importance of establishing the rules of how things work when building a world. But even if you’re writing a realistic drama set in the modern-day real word, you have to establish certain rules—and, in doing so, you begin to place limitations on your characters, and yourself, that can create obstacles, advance the plot, and lead to ideas that end up surprising you.

improve-my-writing-skills-bear-attackSometimes, the very circumstances of your initial idea create their own limitations. When I started writing my first novel, I knew the main character would be a thirteen-year-old girl who lived in rural Alaska. This established several limitations immediately:  My protagonist couldn’t run to a neighbor’s house for help if someone was coming after her. The setting and climate meant she faced obstacles (intense cold; wild animals) anytime she stepped foot outside. Even her age created difficulty: one major hurdle she faces throughout the book is how often her own actions result in her father grounding her or the local school threatening to suspend or expel her.

Setting limitations isn’t just about the nuts and bolts of plot, though. It can foster creativity in prose, too. Another limitation I gave my protagonist—who also happens to be the narrator of her own story—was her voice. She has a very particular way of speaking and of seeing things. Nearly everything she cares about is related to the natural world; nearly everything she’s learned has come directly from the time she’s spent outdoors. Having established this, I knew there were certain references she’d never make, certain modes of description she wouldn’t have access to. This meant that there were a lot of things I couldn’t write, and a lot of old writing tricks I couldn’t rely upon. But it also forced me to really think about how my protagonist would interpret the world—the comparisons she would make, the metaphors she would come up with. Limitation, as a result, forced me to break free of certain tics I’d developed over time and helped enliven my writing.

So this is what I do now when I’m confronted with a blank page:  I take something away. I say no. I take a look at the idea I have and I ask myself, “How can I make circumstances more limited for this character?” Another way of phrasing the question might be:  “How can I make things worse?” Because if you ever seen a horror movie, you know things are going to get worse before someone figures out how to escape the serial killer, how to exorcise the demon, how to banish the poltergeist. The phone is going to go dead. The killer is going to turn out to still be alive. Every room is going to be locked, and ever road is going to be a dead end. All the options will be taken away, and that’s when things will start to get interesting. That’s when the cool shit happens.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

71st Annual Golden Globe Awards - ShowHaving made my feelings about Christmas widely known, I’d like to make at least a small stride toward proving that I’m not the world’s crankiest curmudgeon by sharing with you, Anonymous Eyeballs, my passion for what I consider the third best American holiday (the first being Halloween, the second being Birthdays). Ladies and gentlemen, I am talking about Awards Season.

Specifically, I’m talking about everything beginning with Prestige Season, that wondrous time of year when Hollywood releases all its awards-bait-y films into the wild, at just the right moment—not so early in the year that the nominating committees forget about them—running into the earliest film critics’ awards (New York, Los Angeles), which I don’t care much about but still half-pay attention to, through your Golden Globes and your SAGs, right up until the Big Night Itself:  the Academy Awards.

What’s the point? you may well ask.  It’s just a bunch of rich and famous assholes congratulating each other on the piles of money they’ve raked in over the last year by duping us all into forking over $15 a pop for every movie we bothered to leave the house for.  Or, at best, each ceremony is an exercise in frustration as the judges bestow trophies on the least deserving, least likely-to-endure films (I’m looking at you, 2006 Best Picture Academy Award winner Crash) and performances, while, at home, I rage at my television.  (Seriously, how did Crash best Brokeback Mountain, which at least earned Ang Lee a Best Director, but STILL.  Have you WATCHED Crash recently?)

Well, that kind of is the point.  Who doesn’t love to scream at the television?  Starting with the ridiculous red carpet ceremonies all the way through to the trainwreck potential of each years’ hosts (cough Franco and Hathaway cough), every awards night is an opportunity to indulge in some quality MST3K-worthy riffing.

Sometimes, though, there’s genuine entertainment to be found.  The last three glorious years have given us the gift of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosting the Golden Globes, and the Dynamic Duo has managed to approach this duty the way they approach just about everything:  with an insouciant goofiness.  And because the initial airing of these ceremonies is also typically live, there’s room for actual surprise—mistakes that we can laugh at the next day, like the infamous Adele Dazeem moment:


Or heartwarming bits like the one Amy Poehler organized at the 2011 Emmys:


Or straight up WTF moments:


These shows are glitzy, sometimes self-congratulatory celebrations, but they’re often also tinged with a note of nostalgia, given that they’re commemorations of the best of what’s already passed.  Although I’ve got a beef with Christmas, I sort of love the turning of the new year, not just for its symbolic, new-leaf implications, but for the opportunity to indulge in a little nostalgia, even for things that just happened.  Sometimes the montages (particularly at the Oscars) get a little heavy-handed, or there are three too many of them, but ask me who’s going to be crying as soon as they fire up this year’s In Memoriam reel.  (Based on Philip Seymour Hoffman alone, I will not be able to hold it together.)

But the best part of Awards Season is discovery.  All my life, I’ve lived in towns and small cities—places with theatres that always get the blockbusters and family films, show an artsy-fartsy independent film occasionally, and nearly always miss out on a handful of movies I’m dying to see every year.  In Anchorage, we’re fortunate to have Bear Tooth Theatrepub, which books a lot of great independent films and hosts an arthouse Monday.  But as informed as I am and as many movies as I see, I always miss out on something.

With Awards Season, though, comes not just the bestowing of trophies but a whole conversation about the films that came out over the course of an entire year.  Now that the Lord gave us the internet, it’s a lot easier to be part of—or, at least, audience to—that conversation, too.  Movie critics, directors, actors, reviewers, writers, and even the average joe weigh in on what the film world gave to us each year, and from those musings I learn about movies I never would have heard of otherwise.  When it comes to foreign films, especially, I’d never see most of them if not for the publicity Awards Season lends them.

Just this past month, I watched Love is Strange purely on the basis of the recommendation of a film critic on a podcast I listened to.  The One I Love couldn’t have made my personal best-of-2014 list without an Awards Season-adjacent shout out.  Likewise, I’ve added Two Days One Night, Force Majeure, and Ida to my must-see list thanks to the recommendations that have come out of awards conversations.

Do film awards ultimately mean anything?  My inclination is to say yes when it comes to films and performances I’ve found deserving, and no when something like Slumdog Millionaire wins (I’m sorry; I just can’t with that movie) or when absolutely nothing that’s nominated seems worthy.  But Awards Season can be meaningful when it results in creating wider audiences for those movies that don’t get any play on screens in Middle of Nowhere, U.S.A.

So bring on the glitz and glam, the weepy winners and the endless lists of thank-yous.  Bring on the Jack Palances doing onstage push-ups and the host-interrupting streakers.  (Dude, how amazing would a streaker at this year’s Oscars be?)  Bring on my inevitable disappointment when Birdman beats The Grand Budapest Hotel for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) at this Sunday’s Golden Globes.  Bring it all, this bounty of movie-related conversation! I am ready to celebrate the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

2014 Picks: Movies and Television

hannibal1_2553735bIt’s that time of year again: Time for critics to post their best-of lists, closing out another year by trying to rank five or ten or twenty of the greatest accomplishments in popular culture; time for readers of magazines and websites to glean titles they might have missed and leave hyperbolic comments about how they CAN’T BELIEVE that SUCH-AND-SUCH didn’t make this list, YOU MORON. I love it. Not so much for the comments but for the gleaning. I always discover some new movie, show, or book that I completely missed out on, which is a fun and exciting way to start another new year—by catching up on the fun stuff I managed to overlook.

Throughout the year, though, I do manage to consume an ungodly amount of stuff made to entertain the eyes and the brain, and this year I feel like I managed to devour a few things that might not have gotten a ton of mainstream attention. I’m not going to bother to try and rank the things I derived pleasure and entertainment from, but I thought I’d offer up my five picks for the movies and television shows that I liked best but didn’t hear a lot of people talking about. Here goes.


The Babadook – And now I’ll immediately renege on what I just said about people not talking about these selections because lately The Babadook has been getting an ungodly amount of coverage on the sites I frequent, which is particularly unusual given that it’s a) a horror film, b) an independent film, and c) barely playing theatres (though it’s available to rent on iTunes). Maybe this movies is kicking off a great era of independent horror movie appreciation. Better yet, maybe it’s kicking off a great era of independent, female protagonist, horror movie appreciation. Whatever’s happening, I loved this meditation on the nature of grief and motherhood. Essie Davis is haunting and affecting as a flawed mother who struggles to cope with a troubled son and the storybook monster he claims is terrorizing their house. I can’t wait to see what director Jennifer Kent comes up with next.

The One I Love – An eerie love story straight from the Twilight Zone, The One I Love stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a married couple who goes to a retreat recommended by their therapist (Ted Danson) only to discover themselves. Literally themselves: There are two people who look and act exactly like them and claim to be them. The fantastical conceit allows both characters to encounter their ideal partners and to ask themselves what they want out of their marriage.

Obvious Child – This movie gets called a rom-com, and I guess it is, given that there’s a couple that meets cute and ends up dating. But the meet-cute culminates in a pregnancy and the refreshing thing is there’s no debate over what a woman should do with her body and there’s no “abortion/shmishmorshon” avoidance, a la Knocked Up. Instead, Jenny Slate as Donna Stern simply decides to have an abortion, and her friends and family support that decision. (Friend Prize of the year goes to Gaby Hoffman, who plays exactly the kind of friend you’d want around while you take a pee test—not just in this movie, but in Wild, too.)

Snowpiercer – The symbolism of a train that never stops running and in which the lower classes live in the end cars while the upper classes live near the engine is a little ham-handed, but, boy, was this movie fun. As the rebellion of the lower classes moves its way through the train, every battle grows more intense and more surprising, and the set pieces become more colorful and zanier. While I couldn’t get on board with director Bon Joon-ho’s mixture of horror and humor in The Host, Snowpiercer struck the balance perfectly.

Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow – Yes, the revised title is almost as dumb as the original title. Yes, this movie was virtually ignored during the summer box office. Yes, it stars Tom Cruise. But for all you Cruise-haters, please hearken to my words: You get to watch Tom Cruise die again, and again, and again, and again. What’s not to like about that? The action is fantastic and Emily Blunt is a total badass as she and Cruise try to save the world from aliens that have given Cruise the ability to start his life over at one specific point every time he dies.


The Americans – I’ve sung the praises of this FX show more than once, and season two was no disappointment. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are doing phenomenal work as the Jenningses, Russian spies posing as Americans in the 1980s. The Americans offers perhaps the most interesting exploration of marriage on T.V. right now, and season three promises to delve deeper into family dynamics as the KGB insists on trying to recruit their daughter. (This show also gets a shout-out for Least Annoying Child Characters, Paige and Henry Jennings.)

The Chair – My only must-see reality show this year, Starz’s The Chair featured two first-time directors working from the same script to make his or her own film. The close look at what it takes to mount a film production from rewrites to theatrical release would be interesting enough on its own. But The Chair also offered a unique level of transparency, giving viewers a glimpse not just of how a movie is made but of how a reality show is made, as participants bitch about the lack of funding and creator Chris Moore describes how the show is evolving even as it’s being filmed.

Orphan Black – While this show premiered in 2013, I binged both seasons this year and am happy to report that season two holds up to the bonkers premise, white-knuckle action, hilarity, and surprise of the first. Have you heard of Tatiana Maslany? No? That’s because the stupid awards-givers behind ceremonies like the Emmys apparently don’t watch sci fi, but one of these days Maslany is going to claim all the prizes because she is doing such phenomenal work playing multiple clones of her Orphan Black protagonist, Sarah, imbuing each with careful, microscopic detail, that I actually kind of wonder if this woman suffers from some sort of multiple personality disorder.

Black-ish – This half-hour comedy was a real surprise for me. I don’t watch a lot of sitcoms (and my heart will always be yours, Parks and Recreation!), but I gave Black-ish a shot and was delighted to find that it’s not only hilarious, but offers a thoughtful look at race and class in America. Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow Johnson is doing fantastic work as what is easily my favorite televised portrayal of a real mother and woman—not your typical harried-but-smart-but-exasperated-mom caricature, but an actual human.

Hannibal – PRETTIEST. SHOW. EVER. I’m not kidding. Granted, you have to find waves of blood and human corpses pretty, but I’m telling you, Hannibal would be on this list for set design alone, so gorgeous is this show. Happily, it’s also a ridiculously fun and smart and scary drama, with a stellar performance from Mads Mikkelson (my Official Crush of 2014 and winner of Year’s Best Cheekbones). Season two really ramped things up several notches by putting Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in the slammer for Hannibal’s crimes, then turning the tables by the end of the 13-episode run. This show can’t start its third season soon enough.