2015 Highlights

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2015 Highlights

Highlights 2015

At long last, my highlight for 2015. These are also in prettier form on my gaming blog:

Movies

I mostly wrote this early in 2016 and never got around to finishing it. Now that we’re almost into 2017, I feel comfortable saying that any trace of late-in-the-year bias must have been eradicated by now, so I can safely evaluate and reveal my movie and TV highlights for 2015. As usual these are not necessarily new, but merely new to me.

Sidenotes

First, a couple items not on the “new for 2015” list—one in a good way, one bad.

X-Files

One small mention, not a new highlight, is that I once more watched through the X-Files oeuvre. It remains excellent. My favorite episode continues to be S7E17: “all things.” It’s arguably hippy-dippy and soft compared to the vast majority of other episodes, relatively uneventful on the surface, and mostly revolves around a previous relationship of Scully’s and so-called “feelings” that I guess people have while not fighting aliens and monsters. But I really like how it perfectly slips in the reveal that Mulder and Scully are together now, instantly normalizing what’s effectively the culmination of the series, the emotional payoff for the whole thing. It also cements the series as being decisively about Scully, no matter how much more Fox paid Duchovny. Notably, this episode was the first and only directed by Anderson herself.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Another sidenote, notably missing from my highlights is Stars Wars: The Force Awakens. The first third or so of the movie I thought was good, interesting and engaging with a lot of neat worldbuilding in the background. Then most of that got thrown away in favor of replaying Episode IV. The first time I saw the movie I thought it was incredibly boring and was literally looking at my watch to see how much more there was. My expectations having been re-calibrated, the next go in theaters was better. But still, I rate it on my scale somewhere between an 8, “Definitely a good movie, but maybe not quite engaging enough or a little flat.” and a 7, “An ok movie; watchable, entertaining, not something to really come back to.” I am though excited about the prominent and even action-oriented roles for several female characters.

Honorable Mentions

A couple movies all got credit for being great, quiet character studies in 2015:

  • The Station Agent. A surprisingly compelling, essentially plot-free view of a bunch of quirky people forming a small community surrounding an abandoned railway station.
  • Robot and Frank. A good exploration of aging and robotic personalities as the titular Frank “befriends” Robot and brings the latter into his life of crime.
  • All Is Lost. Notable for having only one on-screen character, essentially no dialog, and basically a single set, this is a really good disaster movie of Robert Redford lost in a sea of both water and regrets.

Another honorable mention is Attack on Titan. The series is really goofy at times. Repeatedly in the early going I came super close to turning it off due to all the cliched anime screaming and posturing. Later episodes pull some punches too on a couple characters that weakens it a bit. But the overall story is novel and intriguing and the show manages at times to capture a strongly emotive take on young people caught and dying in a bleak, losing war.

Highlights

Moving on now to the top TV and movie highlights of 2015.

Automata

At first I was somewhat conflicted on Automata. My initial review:

8/10. I had big hopes for this, and it has a lot of promise at the start and in the plot overall, but it doesn’t quite work. It’s almost a sketch, with a lot of ends not quite connected and the movie counting on their basic familiarity to carry them through in the viewer’s mind. In places it just doesn’t make a ton of sense either, e.g., why the enabled robots don’t take more actions to defend themselves. The visuals though are really good, the robots look great, and the movie starts off with a lot of promise, basically a sci-fi noir with Spanish actors, made in Bulgaria? After about halfway through though it loses steam. It just doesn’t really quite motivate things enough. Maybe? I’m super torn. The opening is really good though. Not the initial boilerplate about the solar flares, but the police officer’s interaction with the robot and then the black & white montage. Definitely problems and shortcomings, but the more I watch it the more I like it.

Unfortunately it shows that this is a foreign production. It just moves with a different sense of connectedness and necessary context, as if something is lost in translation though I don’t think anything literally is. However, the movie grew on me quite a bit. The effects and scenery are luscious and many of the small details like the rain jackets are great touches. The ennui of the protagonist and really especially his wife is very affecting, and a good frame and foil for the larger plot. That larger plot though is very good, an exploration of our future selves. It’s a great looking sci-fi movie and the themes really stuck with me. I think of it from time to time after not having seen it for some time, so ultimately I give Automata very high marks.

Mad Max: Fury Road

My initial reviews for Mad Max: Fury Road just say “Goddamn.” Each time I saw it.

I’d argue it’s as close to a perfect action movie as you can get: Taut action, inventive world building, a good dose of progressive politics, and incredible technical competency. Cinematography, coloring, editing, effects, in every single aspect of filmmaking it’s a cut above. The action is more understandable, more suspenseful, more meaningful, and more fun than every other such movie of late. The plot is simple, but that’s fine, it merely sets the stage for everything else. And forefront on that stage are very feminist themes. The movie is overt and unapologetic about that, but also doesn’t fall to becoming preachy on the topic. The women just kick ass.

Beyond the movie itself being so good to watch though, I also just greatly enjoyed that fact itself: It was good. Forget being a sequel, this is one after a 30 year hiatus that came storming back in rare form at the top of the game. Competence is so rare in our world that a huge part of what I enjoyed about this movie was just that, its visible, obvious excellence. Every part of Fury Road showed the hand of masters at work, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

Person of Interest

This last bit I’m finally writing in late 2016, so I can say with confidence that the most consequential film new to me in 2015 was a relatively unheralded TV show: Person of Interest. Fury Road was the “best” in terms of production and so on. It didn’t lack in meaning either. There’s really something to small scenes like Furiosa taking the rifle from Max. But Person of Interest is nearest and dearest to my heart.

I had barely heard of it when I started watching, prompted to do so by some Netflix recommendation. I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. Granted, it gets a little goofy at times. Surely there would be a more serious response to the sudden massive epidemic of kneecappings in New York. By midway through season two John’s brain must be turning to mush from all the head injuries. But the show balances action and investigating, has appealing characters with their own moments of depth that you want to see develop, women feature prominently in protagonist and antagonist roles, and the overall plot is great. By and large it starts off as a solid pop culture exploration of the surveillance state. Halfway through the seasons it’s also riffing really well on artificial intelligence and the big question of what comes next, what is the next age. The show is fun to watch, compelling to keep watching more, and I think incorporates some interesting ideas along the way.

Notably, I think the tech is also circumspect and realistic for a TV show. As a sidenote, in a number of scenes you can see there’s “real” code flying by on the screens and so on. It’s all toy code and meaningless of course, but it is actually related: Finch is actually doing trivial database manipulation and so on related to whatever’s going on in the scene, etc.. It’s a nice touch and says something about the advisors behind the show. But, bigger picture, I think the show overall is in a sense fairly realistic. Obviously Finch manages to hack into all sorts of things at impossible speeds, many devices are connected that I would not expect to be in the current day, and so on. But the broad strokes are reasonable. Pervasive networked surveillance is already here. Facial detection and voice recognition is already very useful and getting stronger and more nuanced all the time. The algorithmic learning roots of The Machine seem feasible even from where we stand today. If anything, I don’t think the show goes far enough. For example, there’s only a few uses of drones throughout the entire run, but they’re quite likely to be ubiquitous in the not so distant future.

Long story short, Person of Interest is a rare find that has really stuck with me.

Music

Continuing from the movie & TV entries in my long lost highlights from 2015, this is the music I acquired and listened to the most in 2015. Again, these aren't necessarily new to the world, and in some cases very much not so. The twelve entries here are in increasing order by play count. There's some concern there about normalizing for when in the year the music was acquired and thus how much opportunity it had to be played. But that's both taking this too seriously, and for the most part the counts are dominated by the first couple months or so after acquisition anyway.

Honorable mentions here go to Hey Mama by David Guetta and Nicki Minaj, probably the raunchiest song on the radio last year, and Trap Queen by Fetty Wap.

With that, the top dozen are:

Reading

Wrapping up my belated 2015 highlights, we come to books. I didn’t read as much in 2015 as I do some years, but a bunch of what I did was excellent. These are the top highlights, following on from my movie and music entries. As usual, these are by no means necessarily new in 2015, just new to me.

The Wind-Up Girl

First honorable mention goes to The Wind-Up Girl by Bacigalupi. This is a compelling, quick read. It did not at all work out how I thought it would, which is great. None of the story is amazingly novel or super memorable. It’s largely a plot driven book without an especially distinctive plot. But it is a fun read for all that, and it is great to have a sci-fi book intrinsically set in a culture outside western European and Japanese lineage.

Nova Swing

Next honorable mentions go to Light and Nova Swing, both relatively short novels by Harrison.

Light I’m admittedly at best lukewarm on. It’s super trippy and very stylish, but I think very forgettable despite its forced uniqueness. Tons of the usual post-singularity claptrap of augmented bodies, physical algorithms, changing sexual conventions, and so. Very little actual plot. The story has a whole bunch of new, interesting characters, but none of their development goes anywhere conclusive.

However, that setup pays off a bit in Nova Swing. It follows from and addresses many of the issues of Light by actually having a plot that goes somewhere reasonably concrete. That grounding makes it a lot more interesting, and a number of characters actually start to exist as characters, with an actual rememberable story and at least some depth. The setting here, including post-singularity punk rock pirate mercenaries traipsing off into the unknowable afflicted zone trying to map it out and steal treasures, is compelling and enjoyable to read. Just don’t expect much of that setting to be explained or to make a lot of real world sense.

The Explorer

The Explorer, by Smythe, is followed by The Echo, and I gather two other books making up “The Anomaly Quartet” but I have not seen those. These short novels are flawed, but surprisingly good, particularly The Explorer. Don’t read anything about it before giving it a shot! There’s a substantial twist about halfway through. The overall plot didn’t go where I thought it was going, and definitely took a more unique direction than expected. Following that shift are a number of smaller but no less critical, unexpected reveals.

It’s worth noting that these books are considerably flawed. A major problem is that the physics seems to make no sense, and I’m not talking about weird anomaly physics. Just the everyday basic science is frequently very incorrect, like a spaceship frequently coming to “All stop,” or gross inconsistencies in simple notions of how far away is the anomaly. These kinds of errors are obvious enough to lightly break suspension of disbelief and detract from the story. In The Explorer these can be maybe explained by the narrator being untrained (he’s a journalist) and unreliable, but The Echo is narrated by a highly trained engineer so that rationale doesn’t fly. In addition, both books end on very ambiguous terms. They’re not especially unsatisfying, but you’ll know little more about the surface plot than you did at the start.

All that said, they’re well worthwhile. The Explorer features a solid sci-fi premise that spins into a horror story in the telling. It’s worth giving a chance if you’re interested in some claustrophobic outer space psychological horror with a compelling main character. The Echo is a little less eventful, but features a character with a more interesting backstory and relationships to actual other people. The Explorer especially has stuck in my mind surprisingly well despite its flaws, so I recommend it.

Oryx and Crake

Arguably more meaty, and certainly well known among sci-fi readers, is the Oryx & Crake or MadAddam trilogy by Atwood, comprised of the titular Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAdam. The first novel is dystopian flashbacks and post-apocalyptic current day in a near-future driven by corporations and biology. Given the hype it’s unsurprising, but this is a great novel. It’s framed well to drive you forward with the basic mysteries of the plot. There’s really only two characters, only one of which has any substantive depth at all until the very end when suddenly there’s a lot of questions to be had about the other. Women in particular are non-existent except as props. Much of the world building is also fairly standard. But the story works well and is not belabored. It’s an excellent read.

The second book parallels that story from another perspective, and the third backs up to fill in important history while also wrapping up the conclusion. There are more characters in these and all three storylines intertwine well, though these books are understandably a bit less memorable than the debut novel. However, they are also good reads and the trilogy as a whole very good science fiction with a biology bent.

Lonesome Dove

The final fiction entry for 2015 is the incredible Lonesome Dove by McMurtry. I note that I have never seen the small collection of TV miniseries and movies based on and extending this novel that are well known though probably mostly by the generation just before mine. It is interesting though that the book started life as a screenplay treatment for a Stewart, Wayne, Fonda blockbuster that never got made. The author eventually bought the screenplay back, turned it into a novel, and then when that became very successful it was re-converted back into several shows. I have also not read the couple related books which lead up to and follow Lonesome Dove chronologically, although it was the first authored by some years.

All of the characterizations here are really distinct, the conversations and dialogue appropriately Postbellum, and the plot pretty good. A number of the characters and their interactions are really interesting and illuminating. The story also breaks from cliches and predictable plot line in several key places. It meanders and wanders and doesn’t really ever wind up where you might reasonably expect it would. Great read for fans of a good Western, I didn’t want it to end. There’s just so much going on with the characters, and so much between them all. The book also ends on several softly heartbreaking notes. It’s solidly in that class of Westerns and related stories that come to an end where and how life drives them, and that typically doesn’t line up with how a Hollywood blockbuster would end. True Grit is another example of this. Not all heroes make it, not every couple pulling at fans’ heartstrings gets together, and after all the drama, if you made it through, somehow life has to just keep going on.

This is a somewhat long, fairly dense novel, but Lonesome Dove is well worth luxuriating in for as long as you can.

Postwar

My final reading highlight for 2015 is the non-fiction Postwar by Judt. It’s a thorough factual recounting of Europe from the end of World War II to just about the end of the 20th century. Refreshingly, much attention is paid to the Eastern European nations. This is both a history of Europe, and a history of “Europe,” the concept. A good amount of time is therefore spent on the question of dividing lines and Western Europe and Eastern Europe and what is “Europe.”

This is far and away the best writing I have come across as an American to really start to understand “Europe” and the European Union and a lot of the dynamics in play in that sphere of the world. Having spent a non-trivial amount of time in Europe (including one summer traveling there, another living in the Czech Republic, and a number of other trips), this was an extremely informative read to fill in both a lot of the surface history and the meaning behind it. I can’t recommend the book enough if you’re going to spend any time in some of the critical locations. It’s one (great) thing to go or have been to Prague. It’s another to stand in Wenceslas Square and know the history large and small. The experience becomes deeply meaningful.

To that, finally finishing this review in late 2016, knowing that history and dynamics is both more important as we enter squarely into what seems to promise to be a very perilous age, and more tragic as so much of what was built over the course of this history now seems so near to unraveling. Closely related, these were my thoughts immediately following the UK referendum to reject EU membership:

Of course it could play out a lot of ways from here, and there is even a plausible argument that today’s events will counter-intuitively foster the opposite outcome, but the unraveling of the EU would be deeply sad beyond even the immediate, considerable additional human misery likely to result.

I don’t live there and don’t have to deal first hand with the many flaws and shortcomings it absolutely has. One of the bits of personal mental imagery even I associate with the EU is a collection of Magritte-esque bureaucrats in bowlers striding furiously in circles every which way. But I also find its plain, ugly little flag surprisingly cheery and encouraging. There are three or four artifacts that I value as the most inspiring and hopeful examples of modern human invention and imagination. The EU is actually one of them.

I mean that in exactly the same fashion I would list the space shuttle, which was a deeply dubious idea in practical terms that was questionably implemented, never met expectations, and should have been canceled long before it was. But what the space shuttle fundamentally represented was the simple idea that spaceflight should be an everyday occurrence, a bus into orbit. And that was a beautiful, worthwhile dream to follow—not only despite the failings, but even beside the many actual accomplishments.

The EU has innumerable shortcomings. But it explicitly represents the basic idea that Europe had been in a near constant state of direct warfare for millenia, that entire generations were lost in the past two open conflicts, that the next one is quite likely to lead to the literal end of humanity, and, critically, not only the recognition that we should do something to prevent that, but the belief that we can. There’s Europe the continent, Europe the organizations, and “Europe” the concept, a colossal communal exercise in striving to rise above our history and our worst selves.

Unfortunately it increasingly seems that these are not the kinds of ideals most people hold important. We’ve come so low that it’s not just that most people don’t believe in a better future, but that they aren’t even prioritizing safeguarding that we have any future at all. Sadly it is all too likely that America as well will soon coronate and enshrine this same nihilism.

Five months later it would indeed turn out that an empowered minority in America would choose for it to embrace ugliness and a lack of vision.

Much of my understanding of what the EU means and what it represents, why and how it is so much more than bureaucrats in Brussels driving up gas prices, comes from reading Postwar. It’s important to recognize that the title is a play on words: It’s a history of postwar Europe, but also a history of the dream and the attempt to make the world truly post-war. This is to a very large extent the history of the greater project of enlightened Western civilization, of which so so many people seem to have lost sight or never knew. The book is dense, there are several less important digressions, but I emphatically recommend that everyone make the effort.

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