December 27, 2014

Spending time with culture, 2014.

Life gets busy, sometimes.

I’ve been doing a better job of relaxing, resting, and being still this year, but life can get busy. Between planning an engagement, a vacation, and a wedding, on top of work and choir and all the other stuff that pops up from time to time, I have to make a conscious effort to relax — luckily, this year, I’ve been fairly successful at making that effort.

Most of the time, LB and I just hang out, spend time with each other talking, or cooking, or taking a stroll through the neighborhood. Sometimes, however, we watch television, or read, or watch movies, or even dance a little in our pyjamas. In recognition of those times — and because everyone is doing a best-of-2014 post so I might as well join in — here are a few lists of threes that I thought I’d share.

The best books I read this year.

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher: The three best books I read this year were diverse: one fiction, one graphic novel, one non-fiction. Schumacher’s epistolary novel leaps to the top of the list not just for its unique format — any narrative that revolves around letter-writing will automatically appeal to me — but because she is able to pack such depth and poignancy into a short, punchy, and oft-hilarious book. I wrote a short review of it here. You should read it now.

Essex County, Jeff Lemire: Essex County is actually a collection of three separate graphic novels, but taken together, they are a perfect encapsulation of life growing up in and around Windsor, Ontario. The area has a special resonance for me, and seeing it captured so evocatively in text and images reminded me how many stories hide behind our lives and make us who we are.

Consider The Fork, Bee Wilson: For someone that doesn’t cook every day, I think a lot about cooking and eating instruments. I read a lot about knives and pots and stoves and all sorts of things that help turn recipes into meals, ingredients into nourishment. Consider the Fork looks at various cooking and eating instruments and goes through their histories to show the evolution of what we eat, how we eat it, and how that forms our societies today.

The best movies I watched this year.

Boyhood, Richard Linklater: I feel cliché naming this as my favorite movie of the year, mainly because everyone else seems to be doing the same. Here’s the thing: it’s really good. Sure, it has flaws (the depictions of minorities is troublesome if not mostly absent) but it is wildly ambitious and mostly delivers on that ambition. I don’t often see film aspiring to be this big or this different, and that aspiration alone makes me really enjoy Boyhood for what it is trying to be.

The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom: Two friends driving around Italy, eating delicious food, and making jokes that sometimes miss and sometimes have you holding your sides in laughter. What could be better?

Gone Girl, David Fincher: Want to be deeply disturbed but still enthralled? Yeah, go watch this movie.

The best television shows I watched this year.

Hannibal, NBC: When I heard that Mads Mikkelsen (my favorite actor since I saw him in that glorious Susanne Bier film) was going to star on an NBC television show, and would play a well-dressed, elegant doctor who had the kitchen of my dreams and would make delicious meals, I knew immediately that I would love it. Luckily, the show doesn’t just hinge on Mads being wonderful, but on pretty strong writing and some of the most beautiful photography (albeit gruesome at times) I’ve ever seen on television. You could watch this show on mute and still be blown away.

Sherlock, BBC: I’m a sucker for a mystery, and love a buddy comedy when it’s done well. BBCs Sherlock is perfectly that: the dynamism between Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is excellent, the banter is witty and fun, and the mysteries (most of them) are engrossing. Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty is especially delicious for a villain.

House of Cards, Netflix: The first season was excellent, but the second season outdid itself. Just when you thought Frank couldn’t get more ruthless, Zoe couldn’t get more annoying, Remy couldn’t get more dashing, and Claire couldn’t get more, well, perfect, they take everything up to the next level. There is some serious sinisterness that hides behind the humor on this show, and it is that darkness that makes it so compelling.

The best albums I listened to this year.

Black Messiah, D’Angelo & The Vanguard: D’Angelo bumped Prince off my top-three list with his end-of-year release of Black Messiah, which is fitting, because this album is obviously heavily influenced by the genre of funk that Prince popularized. It makes you want to move and think and make love all at the same time, which reminds me of some of the great funk and soul of my youth (though much of that music came out before I was born) and easily catapulted it to the top of my list. Jay Smooth said it best:

Was it worth the 14 year wait? Yes, undoubtedly.

1989, Taylor Swift: Here’s what I can’t do when any song from 1989 is playing: sit still. Taylor Swift’s foray into pop is catchy, bounce-inducing, and is exactly the kind of levity this year needed. Is she afraid to poke fun at herself? No. The opposite, in fact, and that’s what makes this album so endearing: it’s fun.

White Women, Chromeo: If your album can make me dance, sing along, and laugh at the wittiness of the lyrics all at the same time (see 1989, above), then you’ve won me over. These two boys from Montreal know how to make good music that I’ve had on repeat all through the year.

The best podcasts I listened to this year.

Do You Like Prince Movies, Grantland: Wesley Morris and Alex Pappademas are funny, insightful, have great voices, and share many of my interests and views on life. Listening to this podcast is like listening to two friends talk about movies and music for an hour every week or so, and that’s never bad.

Gastropod: A mix of food, sociology, anthropology, and pop culture. If you like the blog Edible Geography (who doesn’t?) then you’ll love this podcast, which is basically like the blog, come to life.

The Gist, Slate: Mike Pesca is smarter than me. He might be smarter than you. He’s also funny, incisive, articulate, and has a vocabulary that makes me jealous. I could listen to this man opine about stuff every day — and I do.