Movies (including DVD and Blu-Ray releases):
Peter's picks -
Captain America: Civil War
It was another banner year for Disney, which was responsible for four of the titles comprising my admittedly skimpy list this year. The Captain America series only gets better with each installment, taking big chances and distancing itself from the mindless Iron Man and Avengers cashgrabs. I was pretty pissed when I heard that the powers-that-be had opted for adapting the Civil War saga rather than the rumored “Other Cap and Bucky” story line. Turns out my anger was for nought; Civil War built upon the foundation laid in the excellent Winter Soldier and took us into really dark territory. Doctor Strange was another animal altogether, more along the lines of Guardians of the Galaxy (a film I thought was so-so), elevated by the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mads Mikkelson. A good time at the popcorn palace.
Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal
This engrossing documentary chronicles the hate/hate relationship between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley during the 1968 Presidential election. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you grimace, it’ll make you think a whole lot and, in the end, it’ll make you wonder why TV isn’t this good anymore.
Director’s Jean Renoir’s first American film is an odd swamp drama headlined by a very young Dana Andrews and the smoldering Anne Baxter centering on a missing old man in the middle of the Okefenokee. Swamp Water shows the obvious influence John Ford had on Renoir in both the tone and characterizations. Twilight Time has done a marvelous job cleaning up this overlooked masterpiece without taking too much of the muck out of the black and white swamp.
Ghostbusters IMAX 3D - By no means the best film of the year, seeing Ghostbusters in IMAX 3D is the first time I’ve walked out of an IMAX 3D screening saying that it truly improved upon the experience. A combination of amazing visual effects (the ghosts are fantastic) and a great implementation of 3D (elements regularly break the 2.35:1 anamorphic frame as they literally pop off of the screen (example below, though the 2D image doesn't do the technique justice). The good news is the home video version in Blu Ray 3D retains these enhancements, making it a must own film for Blu Ray 3D enthusiasts. As for the film itself, I found it entertaining, and suspect I would have been far less impressed with a 2D presentation.
Neon Demon - Last year I called out Under the Skin and It Follows as two of my favorite films, and this year, Neon Demon is the latest in that thread of unique, thought-provoking indie horror films. It looks and sounds beautiful; the Dario Argento inspired visuals are often breathtaking. And like many of Argento’s films, the audio-visual experience makes up for any shortcomings in the story department.
This movie, about a gifted high school poet who finds herself becoming attracted to her English teacher, a man she sees not just in a romantic context but a means to absolve herself of an empty life with a single mother and a troubled little sister, is a harrowing tale viewed through gentle eyes, a delicate portrayal of indelicate turmoil. The kind of movie that discomforts you and saddens you then buoys you with hope because of how unadorned and plainly real it all feels.
Based on the famous experiments of social psychologist Stanley Milgrim, Michael Almereyda’s fractured biography is preoccupied with the implications of Milgrim’s obedience tests and the ways in which humans can be manipulated rather than the minutiae of its subject’s life, and for that it is all the richer and more provocative.
The Family Stone (2005)
My wife has been singing the praises of this holiday film for years and I only just got around to watching it with her the other week. Suffice to say, her tastes can be pretty impeccable. Heart-warming without being schmaltzy, life-affirming without being forced, and tenderly subtle in all the right places, Thomas Bezucha’s story unfolds like a compact stage drama where you become deeply invested in every whole-and-breathing character and are swept up in the moments of snowy quietude that allow you to pause, sit back, and take in your life and all the beautiful and tragic things that come along for the ride.
Though mostly known for his work as a radio dramatist, Arch Oboler took several forays into the world of cinema on occasion, of which this is his fourth as director. Framing a tale of the apocalypse in a black-and-white no man’s land that feels prescient of the barren vistas later seen in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Carnival of Souls (1962), this moving piece manages to feel full of heart in one moment and completely unsentimental the next, as apt a mood as anything else to depict the fickle nature of dumb, blind Fate working in the wake of man's self-immolation.
The Goodbye Girl (1977)
I was turned on to this title after reading excerpts from Neil Simon’s memoir, The Play Goes On. Something about the way he related the effusive charm of lead actors Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss just made me want to seek this one out, and I’m glad I did. Their scenes together produce the same snap-crackle-pop effect as those of Grant and Hepburn, the ritzy glamour of those old Hollywood stars traded in for a more immediate earthiness in keeping with 1970s cinema. And damn it all if I wasn’t just as overjoyed as Marsha by the movie’s ending.
While the scrambled egg that was Dust Devil (1992) left me a little cool on Richard Stanley’s filmography, I delved into what might be considered the filmmaker’s most widely-revered title after hearing some good word of mouth from trusted sources. This is another movie that depicts a dying world, but one populated by the kind of scroungers, shysters, and overall degenerates that we’ve come to associate with this type of menagerie. Add to that steaming mix an intelligent robot-cum-art piece that like the Terminator will just… not… stop… moving but unlike that famous android goes about his killing business with much more rampant glee and arterial spray and you have a toxic sludge cocktail that’ll scramble up your brain-pan in all the best ways.
If I had to winnow down a list of dramatic moments that remain endlessly compelling to me, the One on One scene would probably be at the very top. What do I mean when I say that? Think of all those wonderful exchanges you get when you put Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty in a room together, or Batman and the Joker. The clash of Big Ideas and opposing ideals. Drama boiled down to its primary molecule. The fact that Michael Mann’s Heat has one of the best One on One scenes easily made it an entrant on this list, but it has more than enough class and precision and thrills to secure a spot in anyone’s esteem.
I’ve only seen one other film directed by Danny DeVito—the still-adorable Matilda (1996)—but watching Hoffa has made me want to fill in the few remaining gaps left in his oeuvre. Conducted with the same visual flair and one-two punch of dialogue that characterized Old Hollywood, this film is a more “traditional” biography than the Almereyda that courses the (literal) trials and tribulations of the historic union-enforcer, a role played to the perfect degree of brashness and dignity by Jack Nicholson. Even though I knew how everything would pan out, relatively speaking, the ending still grabbed me by the short hairs.
The King of Comedy (1983)
A rare black comedy with actual teeth, Scorsese’s film piles one terribly awkward moment upon the other like a house of cards, one that can collapse at any second from the faintest breeze. And with Rupert Pupkin as our Everyman, we kind of wish that it would at times, if only so that this sad, annoying little joke-slinger could get the reality check that he so desperately needs. If it weren’t for that unmistakable voice, there’d be little to tell that this preserving creep was played by Robert De Niro, so unusual is Pupkin from the actor’s other roles. The NY thespian accomplishes here that most enviable balance, that of repelling the audience with his fanciful ignorance and gall yet still managing to allow them to recognize in him every crazy dream and whim they ever entertained.
Guy Ritchie proves again his affinity for and considerable skill at crafting an engaging buddy actioner in the spirit of his Sherlock Holmes films. One needn’t be familiar with the original television series on which this is based to enjoy this swanky popcorn flick, as I was not. Ritchie has a real eye for high-octane set pieces, and while there isn’t anything here that will literally take your breath away, you still have to give the man props for orchestrating and coordinating a climactic car chase that is not only expertly paced but also (thank the Lord!) comprehensible. The repartee between Henry Cavill as the suave CIA agent and Armie Hammer as the brusque KGB operative are a heck of a lot of fun, as is much of the movie.
Sticking to the major facts in the case of Aileen Wuornos, the infamous serial killer who haunted the Florida interstate from 1989 to 1990, Patty Jenkins’ film is justly lauded for the Oscar-winning performance from Charlize Theron as the titular criminal, but Christina Ricci delivers an exceptional performance in her own right, playing Aileen’s lover-on-the-lam Selby, a young woman desperate to prove herself capable but who becomes caught up in a ceaseless torrent of deceptions and realities that she doesn’t have the strength to face. Scott Wilson, who himself played a banally evil killer in In Cold Blood, makes a heartbreaking appearance as one of Aileen’s victims.
Martin McDonagh is the madman of Broadway. Having penned uncompromising and delirious plays like The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, he tried his hand at filmmaking with 2008’s In Bruges, a movie I enjoyed considerably. Seven Psychopaths brings back Colin Farrell from that film and Christopher Walken from the playwright’s 2010 psychodrama, A Behanding in Spokane. Seven Psychopaths has all the requisite profuse swearing and sharp violence of McDonagh’s other work, but what enthralls the most is the self-effacing manner in which the director uses the film to comment on all the tropes beloved to himself and the crime/action genres while also being an example of that very thing. Meditative, mordantly funny, and quite definitely mad in its own charming ways.
Deathtrap, another entry from my beloved subgenre of the “stagey” thriller, made my Best Of list last year, so it only seems fitting that Sleuth, the other Michael Caine mystery vehicle, should appear in this 2016 list. Caine takes on the role of debonair Lothario for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play here, playing opposite Laurence Olivier’s flamboyant, archaic writer of fuddy duddy detective fiction. The tension isn’t drawn out quite as exquisitely as in Deathtrap, and the “second act” hinges on a deception that will seem fairly obvious to most, but things come to a nice scalding boil during the climax when one can’t be sure just what is the truth and what is all part of the great game.
The Witch (2015)
Seldom is the chance that I get to go to the local cineplex on my birthday to see a film that I’m genuinely interested in, so far be it from me to have taken this special opportunity for granted when a bedeviling, literate horror film reared its horned head at exactly the same time I was set to celebrate my 25th year on this earth. Folks might have found Robert Eggers’ film a little too classical and simmering to qualify under their classification of horror—as did some of the companions who attended the showing with me—but if you ask me this is the kind of approach the genre deserves: restrained, measured, lofty, with an eye for the beauty inherent in even the most loathsome subject, punctuated by bursts of profoundly unsettling imagery. Word on the street is that Eggers has been appointed to helm a remake of Nosferatu, and while the notion of recycling used goods might put a damper on others’ enthusiasm for his next outing, I’m of a confident mind that Eggers will deliver something quite special. Now let’s just hope it gets released in time for my 27th birthday.
The Finest Hours. The true story of a heroic rescue by the Coast Guard off Cape Cod during a terrible storm in 1952. Chris Pine and Casey Affleck star in an exciting period piece with great scenes in the ocean.
Eye in the Sky. Helen Mirren stars in a topical story about the ethics of drone warfare. Alan Rickman’s last film and a worthy sendoff for a talented actor.
Sing Street. My favorite movie of 2016 and the only one I saw twice, this coming of age story is set in the 1980s in Dublin. A teen aged boy tries to impress a pretty girl by asking her to be in his band’s new video. When she tentatively agrees, he has to put together a band from misfits in his school. A very funny and heartwarming film with a terrific soundtrack. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading and do so now!
Finding Dory. My second favorite movie of 2016, the sequel to Finding Nemo is a delight from start to finish. Pixar has a knack for creating great characters and telling wonderful stories and this film is one of their best. And that’s saying something!
Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortenson plays a man who is raising his kids alone off the grid. His wife dies of cancer and he has to decide whether to re-enter American society and take the kids to the funeral. This is a thought-provoking film about how we raise our children, what we do to them and why.
Julieta. Pedro Almodovar is one of the great filmmakers working today and this is his best film in years. A middle-aged woman who has not seen her daughter in years thinks back through the events of her life and we slowly learn how things got broken. Pedro is in a thoughtful mood this time around and the film avoids the craziness of some of his more extreme work. The acting is great and there is a scene on a train at night that will haunt you.
Sully. Who would have thought that Clint Eastwood would turn out to be one of our most talented and reliable directors in his later years? Tom Hanks stars as the airline pilot who managed to land a jet on the Hudson River when both engines were wrecked by birds. The investigation into whether he could have made it to an airport is harrowing and the film is satisfying from start to finish.
The Magnificent Seven. Antoine Fuqua remakes the 1960 western and improves on the original, with Denzel Washington leading a diverse cast and Chris Pratt on hand for comedy relief. The gunfights are exciting and the final battle a real treat. Not many westerns get made these days, but this one is a lot of fun.
Manchester By the Sea. Every year, dramas get released just in time for the Oscar nominations, and this one is certainly going to be a contender. Casey Affleck carries the film and yes, it’s another trip to the blue-collar side of Bahston, Mass., but the emotional weight carried by the story is undeniable.
Jungle Book. Disney continues its streak of adapting its cartoon archive into live action, and there is plenty of action on display in this latest adaptation – interpretation, really – of the Rudyard Kipling classic collection of tales.
Knight of Cups. Easily Terrence Malick’s most demanding film to date, Knight of Cups stars Christian Bale as the thinly-veiled Christian from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. Bale’s character, an up-and-coming filmmaker, moves through a dream-like L.A. landscape that corresponds to Bunyan’s City of Destruction, encountering a variety of women, which makes the film at times feel a little like Malick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Like in the Stanley Kubrick film, the question is whether the main character will wake from his nightmarish dream, and if so, wake up to what?
TV crime dramas just seem to be getting darker and darker every year... and that's okay. I prefer my murder grimy and gritty rather than solved by the two old ladies and their cat and these four shows (all returning series save newcomer Marcella) offer up the best and the bleakest. The other constant in all four is the presence of a strong (in some cases, brutal) female lead, perhaps none better than Caroline Poust in Spiral, who balances a screwed-up private life and a not-much-better work ethic.
Friday Night Lights
How in the world could a show as dark as Bloodlines get even darker? Surely, climaxing your first season with your main character murdering his own brother is about as grim as a drama can get, no? No. In the second season of Netflix's Bloodlines, we watch as John Rayburn, piece by piece, goes just a little madder with each succeeding episode. You can feel a little isolated when your co-conspirators in murder plot against you but when those former allies are your sister and surviving brother, it can lead to more than just awkwardness at the Thanksgiving table. Performances are stellar all-around but Kyle Chandler is the obvious stand-out here as the cornered John; with the law closing in and his siblings offering him up, he has no choice but to... The third season can't get here fast enough.
Watching Kyle Chandler in action again made me more than just a bit nostalgic for one of my favorite shows of all time, Friday Night Lights. Yep, it's been gone for over five years now but FNL has lost none of its luster for me; if anything it gets better with age. Over a three-week period (with breaks only for work, eating, and this boring writing stuff), I relived all 76 episodes from Coach Taylor's inaugural season with the Dillon Panthers to his new beginnings in Philly and loved every minute... except for most of the minutes that made up the horrid second season but let's forget about that. As noted, I love grim and dark TV but there's something special about this show and its ability to make you forget all the bad shit happening outside your front door, without the pandering most "family dramas" commit. For all the wonderful things that happened in the series finale to all these characters we grew to love, I want more. I want to know what Matt and Julie are up to in Chicago, if Tyra and Tim are still together, and how many States Coach Taylor has won in the interim. Are you listening, Netflix? "Clear eyes, full hearts... can't lose!"
Perhaps the best discovery I made this year, as far as home video goes, was Shout Factory's release of the first season of The Defenders. Unjustly forgotten fifty-five years later (in fact, if you do an IMDB search on the title, the upcoming Netflix superhero show gets all the love), the courtroom drama ran only four seasons and was Emmy-nominated for Best Show every year (winning three consecutive trophies), with lead E.G. Marshall also taking home the prize for Best Actor twice. Creator Reginald Rose sidestepped the Perry Mason approach and gifted his two lead characters (father and son defense attorneys) with faults, indecision, and open eyes. The show tackled pretty heady stuff for Kennedy-era TV, including abortion, pedophilia, and war crimes. I'm hoping the reception given to this first set nudges Shout to release the remaining three seasons as I've heard the show only gets better!
Scott and Bailey
Full disclosure: I am in love with Suranne Jones, star of Brit dramas Scott and Bailey and Doctor Foster. Unfortunately, Suranne's bodyguards know all about me so the closest I can get to the gorgeous brunette is my TV screen. For now, that will do. It's been said that the fifth season of S&B is the final one, which is a shame since it seems like it was just getting to the good stuff, but at least Foster (a huge hit for the Beeb) has been greenlit for a second series in '17.
Con Man - I had the pleasure of meeting Alan Tudyk last year, before he would be forever linked to a character he played in a Star Wars film, at an event celebrating the DVD/Blu Ray release of his web series, Con Man. I hadn’t previously heard much about it, but after watching an online trailer I thought it was right up my alley. It didn’t disappoint. If you were a fan of Firefly, and have any experience in the Comic/SF convention scene, you’ll find plenty to appreciate in this series. There are a number of great cameos along the way, but credit must be given to Tudyk, who is great in this semi-autobiographical role of a former star of a hit sci-fi series relegated to making convention appearances between the occasional acting role.
Black Mirror - I had long heard about Charlie Booker’s series Black Mirror, and it took me a while to pick up the show and make time to watch it. I was quite pleasantly surprised that it not only lived up to the high marks given to it by a number of friends, but it managed to exceed my expectations. The first two series were three episodes each, followed by a feature length special. It deserves better than to just be described as a Twilight Zone for the digital age, but that at least gives you a sense of what to expect. The best episodes are fantastic, and my least favorite of the initial two series were still better than most genre television. I have yet to sign up for Netflix to check out the newly produced third series episodes, but I’m confident that they will not disappoint, either.
Without a doubt one of the most satisfying viewing experiences I had this year was when I finally undertook Breaking Bad in its entirety after vicariously seeing bits and pieces of it during my wife’s first go-round with the show. I was frequently in awe of it, of its constant propulsion, of its unflinching standards of never giving its characters the easy way out. It’s the televisual equivalent of a rabid page-turner, legitimately Tragic in its dramatic arc. I can’t tell you how much it pleases me to be in the grip of a story like this; few feelings in the world can match it. Quite wisely, the prologue to our tale, Better Call Saul, doesn’t try to match Bad tit for tat. It’s smaller and more intimate in its own way, not quite as focused on the gritty machinations of the criminal underworld (at least not for now), but it still has that arid desert noir cinematography from Bad that I adore, all those piercing blue skies and sharp shadows and opaque sunlight that instantly bring me back to the scant three months I lived out in California and Arizona. Even with the stakes relatively lower by comparison, Better Call Saul proves that it’s got enough intrigue and genuine, meaty plotting to give you the same high as its lauded sister show.
The Netflix efforts of Marvel Studios consistently please, and this season’s debut of Luke Cage into the fray certainly continued the trend. Appropriately it has more swagger than either Daredevil or Jessica Jones, which keeps it from ever getting too turgid, and we thankfully get a break from ninja cults and super-powered megalomaniacs to concentrate instead on the question of what exactly makes a hero. (Many comic book stories translated to the screen, whether it be the silver or the small, tend to promote and pimp their lineup of villains and their inevitable clash with the hero, and while that can be quite enjoyable, those confrontations rarely if ever emphasize the emotional qualities needed for the hero to put themselves in harm’s way time and time again.) And even though we have our standard crooked politicians and nightclub-owners-cum-gangsters standing in for the mutant monstrosity we would normally see, the conflict in Luke Cage really boils down to how the world reacts to the badgeless enforcer. The “martyr or menace” dichotomy isn’t new to this kind of story at all, but Luke Cage manages to make it feel fresh and even vital at times, particularly in touching and affecting scenes like when Cage faces down a gunman outside a Crispus Attucks monument and the scene of the NYPD honing in on suspects that essentially match the description of “black man in a hoodie.” In more ways than one, this is a Marvel story with soul.
The other show where Bryan Cranston plays a crazed husband and father. This was always a program that I remained tangentially aware of but never bothered watching because I figured it was probably the same kind of comedy fluff with the occasional chuckle that proliferated cable television. The defining quality and key word that I would say separates Malcolm from all those other programs is "manic." Roles are played big and at high decibels for comedic effect, yet the show frequently manages to be pretty damn witty and even poignant at certain times, particularly during scenes when Malcolm, our Narrator through this familiar town called Family, is made to face his own pettiness and self-righteousness, proving that the road to maturity is often riddled with reflective pit stops that force you to examine the ugliness in your own heart. So, in other words, it's hilarious!
Like United States of Tara, a top TV pick from my Best of 2015 post, Nurse Jackie secures a place of honor in my annual assessment on the strength of the performance from its leading lady, in this case being the contributions of Edie Falco. Through seven seasons we watch as Falco’s titular caregiver consistently wheedles and deceives and seduces just about everyone within her circle of family and friends in order to get the fix of painkillers to which she has become so hopelessly addicted. And though she shows just about as much remorse for her actions as Bryan Cranston’s drug baron from Breaking Bad, we also see Jackie perform incredible acts of kindness and mercy throughout her tenure at All Saints’ Hospital, a profession to which she seems to have been truly made for, so in the end we cannot loath her entirely for her bouts of mania and manipulation. Like all great stories, Nurse Jackie forces us to stay the stones in our hands and find the human within the failure.
A Young Doctor’s Notebook
This quirky series from the BBC was one of the more interesting discoveries the wife and I made when we started watching it on a whim one night. Based on the autobiographical short story collection by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, A Young Doctor’s Notebook follows the hellish and comedic (frequently both simultaneously) travails of a smooth-faced whelp fresh from university who gets stuck with the onerous task of manning a hospital in the frozen wastes just outside of Nowhere, Russia, an assignment that leads him to deal with the isolation by taking frequent doses of morphine. Daniel Radcliffe, who had yet to really leave an impression on me with any of his work, proves himself quite adept at comedy in his role as the over-tasked and under-stimulated Young Doctor while Jon Hamm acquits himself admirably as the drugged-out Older Doctor. For viewers who enjoy television that dips into the pools of black humor and tragedy at a frequent pace and can never be depended on what will happen next, this show is just what the physician ordered.
Broadchurch. I wondered how there could be a follow up to the first series, which was outstanding. Leave it to David Tennant—who seems like he can do no wrong—to lead a second series that was just as engrossing as the first, as the townspeople of Broadchurch deal with the fallout and trial of the (alleged) child killer.
Happy Valley. Another show that kept up the quality in its second series, this one managed to surprise me at every turn. Sally Wainwright’s scripts are adult without always being dark and depressing, despite some very troubling subjects. Sarah Lancashire is fantastic as Catherine Cawood and James Norton is chilling as Tommy Lee Royce. It was very difficult to see him as the gentle country vicar on PBS’s Grantchester after seeing him on Happy Valley.
Doc Martin. Thank goodness they went ahead and made a seventh series, because Doc Martin is consistently one of the funniest and most enjoyable shows on TV. Martin Clunes and Caroline Catz are perfect as the unhappily married Martin and Louisa and the setting on the coast of Cornwall is gorgeous.
Scott & Bailey. Peter turned me on to this great detective series, starring Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp as police detectives in the north of England. Each of the five series has an overarching storyline and the characters are flawed but fascinating. Sally Wainwright again showed how good she is at writing scripts featuring interesting female characters.
Elementary. One of the few network shows I still watch, Elementary is like visiting with old friends every week. Jonny Lee Miller is a great Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson is smart and funny. The mysteries are never very hard to solve but at this point it doesn’t matter, since it’s the interplay among the regulars that makes the show worthwhile.
Flash. Seasons 2 & 3 have not lived up to season 1 but, as with Elementary, it’s the regular characters that count. When Flash went to Earth-2, my DC-comics loving heart leaped in my chest, and Tom Cavanagh is a revelation as various versions of Harrison Wells. His current character, “H.R.,” hails from Earth-19 and is a riot to watch.
Call the Midwife. Is there a more emotionally affecting show on TV? Not in my book. The 5th series brought the midwives of London’s East End into the early ‘60s, as they started encountering thalidomide babies. This is the only show that brings me near (or to) tears on a regular basis.
Person of Interest. Like my dear, departed Fringe, Person of Interest managed to produce a 5th season that was only half as long as usual, but it was worth it. Despite CBS’s bizarre decision to run the shows twice a week and get them over with as quickly as possible, the conclusion of the story of Mr. Reese and Mr. Finch, with the added characters of Root and Shaw, was eminently satisfying. America may be safe for the time being, but this show was always strangely prescient about the dangers we face in a world where everything is electronically connected. And is there a more exciting female character on any show than Amy Acker’s Root?
The Night Manager. A 6-episode mini-series based on a novel by John LeCarre, this was smooth, great to look at, and addictive. Tom Hiddleston showed that he’s much more than just Loki and Hugh Laurie showed how charming evil can be. LeCarre’s ability to ratchet up suspense was on display.
Dr. Foster. Suranne Jones, from Scott & Bailey, was great as the title wife who begins to suspect her husband of infidelity when she finds a blonde hair on his coat. Watching her slowly come unglued is fascinating, and there is an extended family dinner scene that would make anyone squirm. I can’t wait for series two!
Funniest TV scene of the year was Fox Mulder eating mushrooms and dancing to "Achy-Breaky Heart" on a bizarre sequence on the X-Files:
The Shadow in Review by John Olsen. For his massive look at the legendary pulp character, author Olsen read every one of the Shadow's 325 pulp adventures twice! Olsen gives us synopsis, critical commentary, and bits of trivia on each one of the stories. You have to admire the dedication and then you have to support this kind of mania. 530 trade paperback pages for a lousy ten bucks! Buy it here.
Forgotten Horrors Vol. 8: The Resurrection of Edgar Allan Poe by Michael H. Price. The eighth in the long-running Forgotten Horrors series chronicles horror flicks from 1960 and 1961, with a special emphasis on Roger Corman's Poe flicks. Forget the "Forgotten," as this pretty much covers it all, from the obscure (Ma Barker's Killer Brood) to the well-remembered (Bava's Black Sunday). Price mixes humor with intelligent commentary and cooks up an entertaining and educational read.
Noir City Annual 8, Edited by Eddie Muller. My Best-of list wouldn't be complete without Muller's latest, another compilation of the best reviews and examinations of Film Noir, past and present, culled from his quarterly e-zine. Two highlights (among many) are Steve Kronenberg's insightful argument for Dirty Harry as neo-noir (I, for one, concur) and Vince Keenan's roundtable discussion with five female noir writers. Cover to cover, Noir City is always thought-provoking and informative; I keep a notepad nearby and it's filled with new "wants" by the time I've digested Noir City's bulk.
70s Monster Memories, edited by Eric McNaughton. An exhaustive 400-page, full-color paradise that will have you reading well into the morning hours. McNaughton, editor of the British horror fanzine, We Belong Dead, manages to squeeze in what seems like every single detail concerning horror in the 1970s: films, mags, music, comics, you name it. The single best book I bought this year.
The Babadook - Two years ago, I walked out of a screening of The Babadook saying, someone really needs to make a copy of the pop-up book prop from the film. A quick online search led me to a campaign by the filmmaker to do just that. While I had missed out on the initial signed/numbered edition, I was able to spend $80 to get an identical copy, albeit just signed and not numbered. That was a nice bonus, but certainly not as critical to me as having a copy of the book. Well, almost two years later, the book landed on my porch last month, and I have to say, with the help of the folks at Insight Editions, they did an amazing job. So much so that copies that went up on eBay were quickly selling for hundreds of dollars (and in at least one case, a thousand dollars!).
Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie - Full disclosure here - I served as a consultant on this project, having worked with Ralph McQuarrie for 16 years and published a number of books of our own on his Star Wars and non-Star Wars art. But putting that aside, I can say without question that this two volume, 800 page monolith is the most comprehensive collection of Ralph McQuarrie Star Wars artwork you will ever see. And while it is not inexpensive, it is worth every penny for fans of Star Wars, Ralph McQuarrie, or anyone interested in the artistic process. Hundreds of pieces of artwork appear in this volume for the first time, and even the most familiar drawings and paintings have been meticulously rescanned expressly for this publication. In addition to details about the particular pieces throughout the book, quotes from published and previously unpublished interviews are spiced throughout the book, both from McQuarrie himself, as well as George Lucas and a number of colleagues that he worked with on the film. It has been called the most important Star Wars art book published to date, and as an owner of all of the previous Star Wars art books (and the publisher of a few), I cannot dispute that claim.
I’ve been in love with David Lubar’s Weenie books ever since I discovered his first, In the Land of the Lawn Weenies, during my freshman year of high school. The author has a sense of humor that goes through the entire comedic spectrum, from deliciously sharp to wickedly dark and then right smack dab into lovably goofy. Pair the cruelty of Roald Dahl with the punning joviality of Robert Bloch and you’ll begin to have a pretty good idea of Lubar’s métier, but the stories collected in this volume and others pulverize the works of those masters for sheer volume of wild and woolly ideas. Transitioning from a bonkers story like “Into the Wild Blue Yonder” where an obnoxious twerp gets blended into sausage meat by a carnival ride to the genuinely disturbing “Put On a Happy Face” that finds a boy being groomed for a lifetime as a circus clown illustrates just how joyously unpredictable Lubar’s tales can be. If you have kids who think reading is gross, give them these books. They’ll love you forever.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
As a library assistant with a strong focus on teen services, I occasionally dip into YA literature, but still not nearly as enough as I’d like to. Paterson’s seminal classic has been on my must-read shortlist for some time, and I’m incredibly glad to have finally got around to it. The story of Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke distills friendship to its most basic and endearing tenets, of learning to give gifts and time and patience to those who you love the most, of dropping pretense and knowing in those all-too-brief and blissful moments what it’s like to be able to “be yourself” in the presence of another. The turnings of the plot are likely well-known by this point, but I can tell you right now that even with knowing what I was getting into when I started this book, I was still left shaken by several lines in the concluding chapters. If you are ever wary of delving into “children’s literature,” I suggest you get acquainted with this novel.
As hard-bitten and merciless as the harsh Northern terrains that her characters populate, the stories that compose Annie Proulx’s landmark collection are charged with incredible power. There are plenty of teeth and sharp-edges, to be sure, covering everything from the concussive shockwaves delivered by bull-riding and the dynamics of a mother-son relationship (“The Mud Below”) to the macabre horror that comes with the discovery of a corpse-stuffed attic (“55 Miles to the Gas Pump”), but there are also moments of chilling beauty and even downright awe-inspiring strangeness (“The Half-Skinned Steer,” “The Bunchgrass at the End of the World”) that leave you a little changed than when you first came to this raw, rough country.
The Cook by Harry Kressing
Speaking of strangeness. I’ve long wanted to meet this book ever since reading Bentley Little’s essay in Horror: Another 100 Best Books. A strongly Gothic fairy tale concerning a chef’s insidious gastronomic takeover of an entire picturesque hamlet? Sign me up! I had good expectations for Kressing’s novel going into it, and the preceding story lived up to every one of them. There is very little overt horror in terms of actual content for most of the book, but to say that percolating, insidious atmosphere is anything but horror would be a fool’s gambit. This is a work of the genre solidly in the school of Shirley Jackson, that fantastic Neverland just to the left of reality where malignant forces are constantly at work to suffocate you. You may take that as my heartiest of recommendations.
Llewellyn has made a considerable name for herself in the years since the publication of this, her first collection of fiction, which is all the more impressive when one realizes that her reputation has been built entirely on short stories, a credit that puts her talent up there with that of Thomas Ligotti. Her prose is not unlike that of Angels Carter, luxuriously detailed with hefty chunks of adjectives, and while that might leave the reader laboring through one or two tales, the author’s imaginative scope is as wondrous as it is scintillating. The baroque and incredibly sexual manifestations of “The Engine of Desire” and “At the Edge of Ellensburg” match the puncturing bleakness of “Horses” and “Jetsam” ounce for ounce. And this doesn’t even cover the fleshy trees, or the gargantuan, or the amphibian people. This is the face of Weird fiction in this day and age.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James
Having only read one or two of James’ spectral tales in the past, I resolved to give this winter season the proper justice by undertaking the famed medievalist’s first volume of Yuletide specials. (My motives were twofold: with temperatures reaching a seasonal 85 degrees Fahrenheit down here in sunny Florida, I needed all the help I could muster to get in the proper chilly mood.) Reading these stories was like settling into a pair of old, beloved shoes, entirely comforting and tinged with a faint patina of nostalgia. But the coziness engendered by scenes of fusty antiquarians mulling over ancient engravings and piecemeal architecture only enhance the perverse entry of the supernatural all the more. James’ specters are bracingly visceral, great hairy, mucky, crawly abominations that completely obliterate the notion of the wispy, chain-clanking stereotype that proliferates in other works of the time. You can never bet on what hideous shape the author’s demons will take next, from the linen-faced bedroom scarecrow of “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” to the cackling amorphous spirit that rooms in the scarlet-hued “Number 13.” With the apparent sole mission of tickling our heroes’ skin and giving them a good fright, this cast of creepers makes for the perfect chill-inducing chaser to all the sugarplum sweetness of Christmastime.
Hey, I like to laugh just as much as anyone else. It’s not always apocalypses and gentleman frogs for this cat! Years ago I somehow picked up on David Sedaris’ name and eventually came across a video from one of the Late Shows that had him reading an excerpt from this book called “Jesus Saves.” I knew after that point that I had to nab a copy of one of his essay collections, and luckily enough this volume came into my crosshairs during my last thrift store binge. And yes, it did make me laugh. Quite a bit. Aside from having that kind of casual, off-hand humor that seems to come so naturally to comics, Sedaris reveals through each successive essay that any kind of ideal upbringing and life are essentially a myth and that the kind kooks, misfits, weirdoes, characters, and smartasses that make up his family and circle of friends are a helluva lot closer to reality than any nonsense that we might see in popular culture. If nothing else, Me Talk Pretty One Day teaches us to embrace the crazy jackass inside all of us. And all the ones around us, too.
Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters by John Langan
Though comparatively slight when compared to other collections by number of contents, Langan’s debut more than makes up for it not only in the amount of words but in all their accumulated muscle. The five novellas herein act as a meshing of two carnival staples, the creaky old spookhouse seen through the refracting eyes of the funhouse’s mirrors, inverting and slightly altering the timeless tropes of the horror genre to see how far they can twist and bend and what new, wonderful creatures might be wrought from the marriage. Thus the Jamesian (Henry and Montague) framing devices we find “On Skua Island” and in “Mr. Gaunt,” the altered breed of lycans that parade through “Episode Seven: In the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers.” Langan’s approach is pleasingly academic, and even if the preceding tales left one a little wanting the author scores a pitch-perfect slam dunk with his final piece, “Laocoon; or, the Singularity,” an immensely satisfying exploration into Updike-levels of realist drama and Kafka-esque body horror that in time will hopefully be inducted into the literary canon of dark fiction.
This book has got quicksilver running in its veins, and it remains just as potent now as it did when it was published in 1934. Cain draws us into the vortex of his plotting lovers and lets us study them like a chemical reaction, the heat turning up by degrees in more ways than one. This isn’t the kind of thrill-a-minute, what-will-happen-next school of suspense writing championed by contemporary bestsellers as much as it is the doomed, world-weary dread that bubbles up from the pit of your stomach when you know that our lovers’ Big Plan is a lousy one from the start and fated to end very, very badly for the both of them. Is it any wonder then that this tone was to be later adopted by Hollywood as the calling card for their shadowy genre of noir films? Yes, I think I see the postman now. He’s burning a hole in the mat and he’s got a deaths-head grin. And he’s not going away.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Certain stories seem to come around at just the right time in your life. Married with a wife and child and another on the way all before he’s cracked a quarter of a century on this earth, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is a man whose life and more specifically whose mindset bears a discomfiting likeness to ideas and notions that have run through my own head. But I doubt that you have to be in Rabbit’s exact situation or even one close to it in order to sympathize with his cracked logic. Many of us feel his restlessness more than once throughout our lives, the allure of shrugging off obligations as easily as a dirty coat and striking out for whatever bright promise comes our way. Updike achieves the same “envious balance” that Scorsese manages with Rupert Pupkin, that magnetic tango of repel-and-attract, his Rabbit not much more than an aimless deadbeat who steps on cracks in the sidewalk and breaks everybody’s backs all with a blissful ignorance, and yet… And yet we can’t help but covet that ignorance, if only a little, and know the exhilarating rush that comes with turning away from your domesticated cell and running the other way.
Coming in just under the wire for 2016, this impressive tome still stands as the yardstick by which all literary evaluations of fringe pop culture should hold themselves to even 18 years on from its original publication. Books like Skelton’s and Bensons extensive overview of Serling’s second (and still undervalued) fantasy series for television that were issued prior to the mass accessibility of information on the Internet are made all the more notable for their depth of coverage and attention to detail. In spite of Night Gallery being a network program that achieved an appreciable fanbase during its original run and even during the bastard years of syndication, Universal’s treatment of the series was negligible to say the least, and yet from this mire of inattention and misinformation Skelton and Benson came along to not only set the record straight regarding the show’s substantial quality but to provide a staggering amount of data and anecdotes, the majority of them delivered from a truckload of first-hand sources ranging from actors to assistant directors, that ensured that this book was the final word on Night Gallery. Fans of this terrific anthology series and anyone who aspires to take on similar literary endeavors owe it to themselves to take this after-hours tour post-haste.
The Skull of Truth by Bruce Coville
Going off of the candy-hued, overly literal cover art that adorned many-a juvenile paperback from the 80s and 90s, you could be forgiven for thinking that most of those musty chapter books were nothing but vigorous time-wasters. But there were just as many if not more working scribes who sought to elevate the literary value of the field as those pulpsters who kept the bar at a nice, limbo-unfriendly level. One of them was Bruce Coville, a beloved fantasist of dozens if not hundreds of novels and stories whose droll wit, humanist approach, and love for all that was magical made him a favorite amongst young readers. The Skull of Truth is the fourth in the author’s series of “Magic Shop” books (think a more benevolent of the antique store from Friday the 13th: The Series), and reading it not only acted as a nice refresher of the time I consumed the first entry, The Monster’s Ring, in one afternoon during elementary school but as surprising revelation as to how refined and delicate a craftsman the author was. Within the fantastic context of the story—the bewitched skull of Yorick (yes, that Yorick) entrusted into the hands of a compulsive liar now compelled to profess the truth when in the skull’s presence—Coville manages to explore bracingly mature tangents like our hero’s processing of his uncle’s sexuality and the far-reaching consequences of his actions, actions that don’t appear as wholly right as they did upon conception. Heady content (pun intended) for a little Accelerated Reader, but Coville’s writing stands as a fine testament to the uncharted terrain that can be explored—and the care it can be explored with—in the field of children’s literature.
When I first sealed shut the covers of Highsmith’s invasive psychological study upon completing the book, I thought that I had enjoyed my stay in sun-bathed Venice with the inimitable Mr. Ripley well enough but wouldn’t necessarily call the reading experience an exemplary one. But since that time I’ve discovered that Mr. Ripley is a most bothersome ghost. He comes back into my head when I least expect it, this American nobody whose gradual decision to evolve from symbiote of well-off, handsome friend Dickie to the host himself sounds like the most natural reasoning in the world before you take the time to consider what that means. It’s Ripley’s nearly-complete emotional disengagement from the events—he only really expresses passion when faced with possible opposition—that allows us to drift through his deceptions and killings as if we were lazing on a gondola waiting to drop us off at the next chic café. It’s only when we get our heads out of the sun and look closely at Ripley that we sees what lurks beneath the cracks in his assured masquerade: the American nobody, the alien, hungry for your skin.
The Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One edited by Michael Kelly and Laird Barron
Readers who are uncertain of how best to tread the new blood that composes the current Weird fiction scene and all the various genres that huddle under its black, scabby umbrella are warmly invited to seek out these annual volumes from Undertow Publications. Editor Michael Kelly’s imprint has been doing good work for many-an equinox and this series, co-edited by himself and a guest editor every year, ensuring that the series’ overview of the field is vast and attendant to the quirks of each compiler’s personal tastes. The first volume, curated by Kelly and modern grandmaster Laird Barron, offers a cornucopia of strangeness big and small, including a harrowing portrait of substance abuse and gargantuan monstrosities (Paul Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks”), a gently romantic ghost story of perseverance during the Second World War (Anna Taborska’s “The Girl in the Blue Coat”), and a darkly whimsical mecha-world of humanoid automatons (John R. Fultz’s “The Key to Your Heart is Made of Brass”), not to mention mighty contributions from friends-of-the list, John Langan and Livia Llewellyn. Those who feel that genre literature has grown staid within the last few years need only to crack the spine on any one of these expansive anthologies to know for certain that we have only just begun.
The Art of Joe Kubert by Bill Schelly. A thoroughly enjoyable large format book that traces Kubert’s career from the early days in the 1930s to the post-9/11 era, filled with great illustrations and just enough biographical detail to keep it interesting.
The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. What was everyday life like in England at the turn of the last millennium? This very readable book goes into detail in an entertaining and easy to read fashion. It’s lots of fun and I had no trouble reading the whole thing during a day at the beach!
Clinging to the Wreckage by John Mortimer. The creator of Rumpole of the Bailey tells the story of his life in a hilarious memoir that is hard to put down. His self-deprecating humor is quite winning.
This Hallowed Ground by Bruce Catton. A one-volume history of the Civil War, this book is so well written that it made me feel like I should just quit trying! Catton has such a great way with turns of phrase and knows what details to include to make every aspect of the conflict worth paying attention to.
The Thirty-First of February by Julian Symons. I just read this as part of my work on the Hitchcock TV series and it’s a classic crime novel: funny, frightening and disturbing at the same time. I liked it so much that I picked up another Symons novel for a buck at the used book store.
Since I'm constantly reading a/ Marvel Comics of the 1970s, b/ DC War Comics of the 1960s, or c/ EC Comics of the 1950s, I don't have much time to casually read funny books these days, but I did get turned onto Ed Brubaker's Criminal (art by Sean Phillips) by an interview I read in the aforementioned Noir City Annual 8. Brubaker's anthology-style title is pretty grim stuff, pulling no punches in its story or art. My comics guru, John Scoleri, managed to get me a copy of the 10th Anniversary Special, wherein a young boy is taken on a cross-country crime spree but finds time to read the adventures of Fang, the Kung-Fu Werewolf (a brilliant mash-up of Werewolf by Night and the execrable Deadly Hands of Kung Fu). Equal parts hilarity and hardcore crime, Criminal is my big discovery of the year.
On the horizon: the wrap-up of Marvel University exploration of the 1970s in March; 26 more installments each of DC War and EC Comics; and our first foray into the printed universe with an overview of Harvey Horror.
Black Science by Rik Remender and Matteo Scalera / East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta
My watching and reading habits essentially live and breathe on the good testimony and recommendations of friends and acquaintances, so when I heard author Nathan Ballingrud pitch these two titles one day I resolved to snatch up the first volumes of each during a trip to Orlando. While I only read the opening chapters to each of these series, the first volumes show promise for much robust adventure to ensue while also being wholly pleasing in their own right. They each operate on the level of pulp adventure while never pandering to their audiences, offering up tales of chronological and dimensional wormholes bursting with pale riders and lightning-tongued toads and enough laser blasters and six-shooters to shake a… well, a gun at and offering up meaty storylines and complex characters that combine to keep the brain engaged and the action bone tickled. I hope to get around to reading the rest of these serials some time in the future.
I love it when a story takes a hold of me. That wonderful moment when you subconsciously concede all control to a narrative and let it wrap you up in its swirling currents. Some stories will gently push you along, lulling you into a soft dream before safely depositing you back onto the shore. And there are others that will dash you on the rocks. Repeatedly. From Hell is a masterwork of horror, and though I may generally be more effusive in my praise than most, I can assure you that I don’t bandy about that phrase lightly. Its terror is consumptive, its dark cosmicism crippling in implication. It takes the infamous murders of Whitechapel, endlessly dramatized and ceaselessly drained of their immediacy, and manages to make them feel as if they have occurred in our time, in this moment, the smell of blood just outside our door now and forever. There were occasions during the reading of this beautifully brutalizing comic that I felt genuine chills snaking across my skin. A book that can elicit visceral reactions and long, silent moments spent gazing off into the corners of the ceiling is something special indeed. I am sure I’ll read it again someday; I'm looking forward to the rocks.
The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library. Fantagraphics keeps making my dreams come true by reprinting all of the Carl Barks duck stories in color, in hardcover volumes at an affordable price. This year brought Terror of the Beagle Boys and The Ghost Sheriff of Last Gasp. I’ve loved this stuff since I was a kid and I think Barks was one of the two greatest comic book creators ever (with Will Eisner).
All-Star Comics Archives. I finished collecting the set this year and finally got to read all of the Golden Age Justice Society stories. I wanted these books when they came out but the $50 price tag was too steep. Years later, I could get them for half price or less and now I finally can display them proudly on my shelf along with the Barks books.
Justice League of America: The Silver Age, Volume One. DC put out a paperback of the original JLA comics in color at a very affordable price. Now if they’d only get with it and put out volume two, which has been delayed a couple of times. I don’t want to buy the $70 Omnibus version in hardcover because it’s too darn heavy to read anywhere but sitting at a table.
EC Comics. Peter, Jose and I have been reading through the EC line month by month and blogging about them. We’re in 1952 now and they’re starting to get really good. My favorite artist is Johnny Craig, whose work reminds me of Eisner’s.
DC War Comics. Peter and I are closing in on our 100th post in our never-ending journey to read all of the DC Big Five war comics from 1959 to 1986. We’re in 1967 now and things are in a bit of a rut, but Neal Adams has just appeared on the scene, which has to be a good thing.
Crowded House 30th Anniversary Deluxe Reissues - What better way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their debut than deluxe, two-disc releases of the seven albums making up their catalog (Crowded House, Temple of Low Men, Woodface, Together Alone, Afterglow, Time on Earth and Intriguer). I was introduced to their first album in 1986, and became a fan for life after seeing them live in April of 1987. Neil Finn’s songwriting, the band's harmonies, and the unique experience of their live shows (no two are alike) have made them one of my all-time favorite bands. While they suffered a great loss with the suicide of former drummer Paul Hester, the band re-formed to release two additional albums in the last ten years. Despite an ever-growing collection of live recordings to keep me going, I was thrilled to have the vaults opened up, giving fans a ton of previously unreleased material, including many early demos of songs that were reconfigured into their famous tunes, as well as several would-be classics that never made the final cut on a particular album. Personal favorites include an early rendition of “Now We’re Getting Somewhere”, and several new songs I love including, “My Legs Are Gone”, “Be My Guest”, and “Tail of a Comet”. While I couldn’t imagine not getting them all, if you were a fan of a particular album, such as Woodface or Together Alone, rest assured you’ll love the bonus discs specific to each of those albums. Great stuff all around, which I’ll be listening to for years to come.
John Carpenter Live - In the last few years, John Carpenter has released two albums of Lost Themes (consider them music for movies he never made). If you’re a fan of his films and their music, you’ll definitely want to pick up both of them, but even more importantly, if the chance arises again, go see Carpenter perform them live, do it. He toured with his band this year (including his son, as well as the son of Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies), and they put on a great show comprised of his most popular soundtrack themes and a number of songs off of the two recent albums. It was quite clear Carpenter was having the time of his life in the role of rock star. I do hope we’ll have another chance to see him perform in the future.
Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl - Growing up, one of my favorite things to check out from the library was the Beatles album, Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I have since been to the Hollywood Bowl, and can imagine what it must have been like when the four lads from Liverpool played there back in the day. Coinciding with the release of Ron Howard’s documentary, Eight Days a Week, the Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl was released on CD. It also contains a number of bonus tracks, and sounds far better than I can recall the original album sounding.
This was the year I got an iPod and signed up with Spotify, which is the best thing to happen to my music in many years. Now I can type in just about any song I've ever heard and there it is at my fingertips. I can't remember listening to anything new in 2016, but my 1970s playlist keeps growing!
Best musical performance of the year was Kelly Clarkson on American Idol: