2013 Highlights

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2013 Highlights

2013 Highlights

As usual, all of these items are new to me, not necessarily new for 2013.

These are broken out into blog form with pretty pictures and such:

Movies/TV

This year I saw a number of great movies or shows for the first time. Among the more literary are Barton Fink, Sleepwalk With Me, Life of Pi, The Rum Diary, Drive, Into the Wild, and Looper, with Pacific Rim, Dredd, and Alphas leading the more genre-defined. Notes on all these and more are in my 2013 movies log.

I wouldn't actually say these are all "the best" in some more objective sense, but these are the movies new to me in 2013 that I most want to highlight:

  • Downfall. This is a tough movie to get excited about, in that it manages to bring out the humanity of absolute monsters. Even just for that regard though it is an excellently accomplished movie. Further, it does a good job of highlighting the banality and cowardice of those monsters, and what would be their otherwise comic flaws if it weren't so real. If you really want to go into this with a lot of background of what's happening, I strongly recommend Beevor's World War Two.
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Bear with me here. This movie is, of course, totally over the top and ridiculous. It starts moving out of B movie territory though with excellently choreographed fight sequences. More seriously though, this is a more credible movie about slavery, the South, and the Civil War than any number of other movies ostensibly hitting on those topics. The vampire allegory cuts much harder to the truth, and more successfully conveys the true ramifications and scope---moral and economic---than the vast number of efforts that effectively brush slavery off as the south's "pecular institution" or the Civil War as a battle over abstract "states' rights."
  • Redemption. This is an awkward movie in many ways. If you ever wanted to watch Jason Stratham get it on with a nun, well, you've found your outlet. But it's a very solid, intriguing movie, much deeper than almost all of Stratham's other movies. The characters are complex and it doesn't resolve prettily, but there's really no way it could have. Further, the moments that I find particularly troubling---e.g., why does the Arab thug get the shit kicked out of him much worse than his white compatriot???---make sense on re-viewing more carefully, and literally put another shade on Stratham's character, adding to depth even as it strips sympathy.
  • Flight. A gripping movie, from the excellently done opening crash sequence to the closing hearing. Denzel Washington does a great job with a character simultaneously very sympathetic and deeply flawed. The movie also never strays into melodrama or pulls punches, at least until the very end. Further, it's stylsh all along the way, with a soundtrack of classic rock staples backed up by great looking suits and entrances that is admittedly all fairly conventional, but feels great at first and then later brings another layer as you question the presentation and show of these characters' lives. I would have preferred that the movie ended earlier, but it's excellent.
  • Senna. An absolutely incredible documentary. Some of the imagery and symbolism is beautiful, e.g., Senna gets his first real F1 gig and there's a great shot of other cars pulling aside as he comes through to the starting line. Similarly, he gets his first taste of F1 politics and the film cuts to a view of him putting in his earplugs. It keeps its punch going by having no modern-day footage, using solely contemporary video with voiceovers for the interviews. There are a lot of dramatic literary aspects to the story as well---the dueling rivalry with Prost, Senna's doubts about his own safety overcome by ambition and drive, the broken friendships as he switches teams for better equipment. On top of all this is an awesome soundtrack. Absolutely incredible film.

Music

This year was an absolutely fantastic one for music. I don't keep a music log, but if you've been at an ECCC race this year you've heard---and danced to!---many or all of these.

The New Old

First, some old stuff I just discovered:

  • The Tragically Hip's Bobcaygeon
    • I have to confess I haven't fully decipher all the meaning and references here, but I heard this first on a 3am drive through New England, and it's perfect for that.
  • Archive: Bullets
  • Storm Queen's Look Right Through
    • Some college station in State College, PA was playing the full ~40 minute album mix collection of this while we were setting up bootleg camp way up near the firetower in Rothrock one night, incredible...
  • Curxes' 1996 remix of Chvrches Recover
    • I confess to being a bit behind the times with this one but it's really good.
  • Anna Kendrick's Cups
  • Alex Clare's Too Close

Honorable Mentions

Next, some newer honorable mentions included:

  • Emeli Sande's Next To Me
    • This is a great video, BTW.
  • The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Subway
  • Robert DeLong's Global Concepts and One And The Same
  • Drake: Started From The Bottom
    • The non-explicit version and without the weird non-music bits in the video is actually way better.
  • Lana Del Rey: Summertime Sadness
  • Imagine Dragons' Radioactive
    • The video doesn't fit the song well in my mind, but it's interesting and well done. Pretty awesomely, and quite correctly, listeners on a local radio station voted these guys to the top of the station's 2013 "Best of" and "Should Give It A Rest" lists simultaneously.

The Best

Now the best of the best music for 2013:

  • Leila Moss: Here's My Boy
    • The backstory of this is actually fascinating: The song is from Beck's Song Reader collection of sheet music, from which many many people have posted a wide variety of interpretations of the different songs.
  • Rihanna: Stay
    • Despite ridiculous airtime I don't think this ever managed to get old.
  • Break and Die: Slow Down
    • This was released in 2010 but it just came across my radar and is incredible. Sadly there's no actual video as far as I can tell.
  • Avicii: Wake Me Up
  • C2C: Le Banquet, Down the Road, The Beat, Delta, and Happy
    • These guys absolutely killed it with their late 2012 release Tetra. "Highlights" include all of the above, literally half the album.
  • Kavinsky: First Blood, Protovision, Roadgame, and Nightcall
    • Some of these songs have been out before, but the new collected album OutRun is amazing. Highlights include the above, but the overall concept and some of the songs like Pacific Coast Highway that work best within that framework are also noteworthy.

Books

Finally, for me 2013 was also a great one for reading. Notes on these and many more books are in my 2013 reading log.

Short Stories

I generally read most of the short stories posted on Tor.com; some highlights from this year:

Non-fiction

History books had a surprisingly great year:

  • The Second World War. Beevor.
    This book is almost overwhelming, but in the end does a comparatively comprehenisve, emotive job of capturing what World War II meant on the ground, particularly for women and civilians. It also gets credit for appropriately shifting much of the focus away from the US and UK.
  • What Hath God Wrought. Howe.
    Almost certainly the best history book I've ever read. It captures both the sweep and the telling details and personalities of the period, while also being imminently relatable to the modern day. Even setting aside its staging for the Civil War, Howe provides tremendous background to understanding huge pieces of modern America, such as the current Republican party and its policies.

Fiction Novels

Apparently I read a lot of science fiction... Notables for 2013!

  • Mechanique. Valentine.
    This is a beautiful steampunk story about a traveling circus. Valentine's short story Terrain is actually on the list above as well, and what they share is a real depth of characterization, original elements, and being sci-fi/fantasy/steampunk without forcing the issue. Mechanique takes it a step further be being really impressive stylistically. I could see many people being turned off by its poetic, lyrical style, extremely loose storytelling, weird punctuation, and extended asides, but I thought it was incredible in both presentation and characters.
  • Betrayer. Dembski-Bowden.
    You almost certainly need to be into Warhammer 40,000 in one way or another to appreciate this novel. But within that milieu it's excellent, probably [[http://www.rocketshipgames.com/blogs/tjkopena/2013/11/book-review-betrayer/ | the best in the Horus Heresy series]], and that has a number of good, somewhat deeper tales. Betrayer does an amazing job of taking a historical plot with known outcomes, a bunch of previously boring & flat characters, and making it all really compelling.
  • Red Mars. Blue Mars. Green Mars. Robinson.
    This trilogy is hard to read. I almost put it down at a number of points, and skipped massive swaths of pages. In general I am definitely not on the Robinson hype train. Here he spends an insane amount of time detailing the geological processes and features at work. But the whole work is incredibly detailed, well thought out, and does have serious characterizations that make it worthwhile. Despite being literally and metaphorically being buried in rock in both the story and text, a whole bunch of them still manage to stand out brightly as people, with complex interactions and motivations. If you want to read an in-depth historical account of the colonization of Mars and the fascinating people involved, decades before it might even begin to happen, these are your books.
  • Cloud Atlas. Mitchell.
    Perhaps due to being a programmer, I was not as blown away as many reviewers by the simple recursive structure of the text, but it is an elegantly constructed piece of art. The handoffs are subtle and work nicely. More importantly, several of the six sections are incredible, and the rest are solid. The early 20th century Belgian components are amazing in terms of feel and characterization. The Sonmi sections are very excellent as well, really capturing a near future with a completely different though very plausable world, and a great character and their development. Highly recommended. Don't watch the movie first; I watched it afterward and was not only disappointed, but feel it would ruin much of the suspense.
  • King Rat. Perdido Street Station. The Scar. Railsea. The City and the City. Miéville.
    Having only read two of his books previously, I went on a serious Miéville tear this summer. All of these are excellent. ''The Scar and Perdido Street Station'' are related but don't really depend on each other. The latter gets all the press and has a stronger morality quandary as a closing central thread, but I thought the former a better story, and definitely more taut. They're both equally as deep though and have as strong characters. Scar carries a classic south seas nautical pirate adventure feel with fantastical elements, while Perdido brings those elements to European continental political revolution intrigue.
    Railsea is essentially what you get if you take Moby Dick, cut out all the rampant unnecessary bloat, and place it into a completely landlocked steampunk world. The ending's a bit weak and overt, but the opening sections introducing the world and characters are just plain fun storytelling. Great young adult adventure tale.
    The City and the City was particularly meaningful for me having spent last summer in Prague. It is essentially a modern fantasy novelization of a personification of the Eastern Europe/Western Europe border, and has a great noir feel with fantastical elements.
    King Rat is an earlier effort and that shows the comparatively somewhat short length and relative simplicity, but neither is by any means a bad thing. The book's been overshadowed by his later successes, but King Rat is a standout in the somewhat crowded modern-fantasy-London genre. As with many of Miéville's book, the styling and language is unique and excellent.
  • Altered Carbon. Broken Angels. Woken Furies. Thirteen. Market Forces. Morgan.
    These are all related, and should be read in chronological order of publication (as listed here).
    The first three of these are explicitly a trilogy. Altered Carbon is incredibly good cyber-bio-noir that pokes at some really good, serious ideas about the future. Broken Angels and Woken Furies aren't quite as strong, but they're both very good science fiction featuring some great settings. More importantly, especially toward the end they start to develop more refinement to the Takeshi Kovacs lead character, lending some introspection to the body-swapping ultimate mercenary-slash-detective. It's almost offputting that there are major revelations made which seemingly have no later effect, but that actually makes sense and puts another light onto both the character and the world: As he and many other people slip through the decades, what does it really matter?
    The other two books Morgan denies as being follow-ups, but they're much better off interpreted as set in the far past of the Carbon trilogy's 26th century. Thirteen, titled Black Man in Europe, is set somewhere in a future just slightly distant from us and is just strong through and through: Great plot, settings, mystery, sci-fi, and characters. It opens with a classic but well done sci fi spaceship horror mystery and rolls on from there. The commingling of Martian and South American exploitation is excellent and thought provoking. Beyond that, the alternate UK and US titles are no coincidence and quite telling; the story gets pretty hard at racism, exclusion, and genetic modification.
    Market Forces is the most uneven of this whole sequence. Set in the very near future it has a basically ridiculous premise straight out of some '80s SEGA game: Lawyers and businessmen compete for contracts in highly ritualized vehicular freeway combat... I almost had to put it down. Once you get past that though, it's actually a great profile of the descent of a character, and by the end doesn't actually seem as outrageous as when it started. There's a lot here about violence, economics, and the thin difference between.
    All these are worth it, but if you had to pick two, go for Altered Carbon and Thirteen.
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