Top 10 Reads of 2016

The 2016 year brought with it many, many changes for me. I moved–internationally, back home to the United States after four years abroad–and I had an intense, hectic end to that time overseas. I don’t love change. So, when change comes as it always does, I like to retreat into the warm embrace of familiar books. To wit, 2016 was filled with rereads (some following rewatches, such as a full Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine rewatch). However, included here are no rereads, only new ones.

One of my goals for the year, which I partially succeeded in, was starting to dive into major Science Fiction and Fantasy series which I’d only read about but knew were influential: Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, David Eddings’ The Belgariad (which you won’t find on this list), and Terry Brooks’ Shannara books, for example. I also attempted to dig deeper into The Wheel of Time series (which has taken four years to get as far as I have) and The Expanse books (of which I read four this year). Obviously, I also read as many of Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere books as I could, including the commentaries within Arcanum Unbounded.

In 2017, I hope to build upon my goal: adding to the Farseer books, maybe (but not likely) finishing The Wheel of Time, starting Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, as well as L.E. Modesitt’s Recluce books. Of course, other books will wheedle their way in, but I’m OK with that. I’m just hoping to really dig into the major influential Fantasy and Science Fiction texts

So, here goes: my Top 10 Reads of 2016.

1. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aurora was easily my favorite read of 2016. It presents a common enough story–humanity’s attempt to colonize another planet–in a fresh way. It’s more about the journey than the arrival, but it speaks about humanity in an honest manner, understanding and presenting our foibles in a clear way. Even more, its narration is executed uniquely, though I can’t speak more directly about that without spoilers. Suffice it to say, the point of view and the subsequent perspective is handily worth the price of admission.

2. Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

It’s rare for the fourth book in a series to be the best. I know I’m likely not in the majority of reviewers who think that, but what I appreciate about this entry in The Expanse series is the tight, narrow focus of the storytelling. This is space opera, yet after literally expanding all too widely the universe of The Expanse in Abaddon’s Gate (book 3 in the series), they have almost a locked-room (more like a locked-planet) story on their hands in Cibola Burn. I read this in almost one sitting–you should do the same.

3. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

One of the Fantasy subgenres I particularly appreciate is the David Copperfield-esque narrative. Among these are The Name of the Wind and The Lies of Locke Lamora (which you’ll notice is among the top ten here). I like these because it provides shifting perspectives of whichever world the author has built: from childhood to young adult to adulthood. Each of these points of view show the readers an in-depth revelry in every nook and cranny of the worlds in which our protagonists find themselves, and I relish it as well.

4. Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

Funnily enough, what made this such a great read was the opposite of Cibola Burn: rather than the tight focus on the crew of the Rocicante in one isolated location, we see them split apart across the solar system, each one dealing with his or her past. And obviously some explosive brilliance occurs.

5. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

This historian fiction doorstopper of a novel is Downton Abbey meets A Song of Ice and Fire. This was not a newly published novel, yet it was one that has fascinated me for quite awhile. I read Fall of Giants while on a short term missions trip to Borneo, and I was captivated throughout. The prose is frank, nowhere near the poetry of George R.R. Martin, and the scope is world-wide. It’s the first book in The Century Trilogy. There is a slight content warning; it’s not pervasive, but there are a few scenes of sexuality.

6. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Like Assassin’s Apprentice and The Name of the Wind, the world Scott Lynch created is immersive and deep and a pleasure to explore. I particularly enjoyed the con artistry and the italian-leaning world-building aesthetic. I look forward to reading the rest of this series,

7. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson

This is another year in which I plowed through Brandon Sanderson—this time it was his short(ish) fiction set in his Cosmere. This felt wildly different from the rest of his stories in so many ways, and it left me wanting to read more from this world. It’s about the biggest, highest stakes date on which God-Emperor Kairominas has ever gone.

8. Poetics by Aristotle

I reread this in preparation for a class I’m teaching this year, and it stimulated great discussions there. What I realized, however, is that this was missing from my MA in Literature. At no point was this essential text about the creation of literary criticism included in a curriculum about literary criticism. That being said, I got a great deal out of this, and it will be required reading in any literature class I’ll teach.

9. The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

This is the second entry into Terry Brooks’ Shannara universe, and it’s much more developed than the first. We’ve moved further into the timeline on Shannara and begin to understand the magic system much more. The story is also compelling and has much higher stakes. Worth it.

10. Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson

Originally included in the Dangerous Women anthology, edited by George R.R. Martin, this novella follows Silence Montane who must protect her family and not become a Shade. Once again, Sanderson proves himself a head above everyone else. This may require multiple readings, but it’s worth it.

Some Reflections upon Star Trek

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Because this year marks the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek, I’ve been making my way through the series and films, and even some of the books. I knew at the beginning of the year that, with my busy schedule, I wouldn’t be able to commit to an insane “all series and all films in a single year” challenge (though I’d have loved that). But with my summer a bit more free (or at least flexible), I started The Next Generation just to see how far I could get, and I binged like I never have before, plowing through the entirety of TNG in just about a month. I’ll move onto Deep Space Nine soon, after finishing the TNG films. With the school year starting, I’ll not be able to go as quickly through DS9, but I still plan to try. And after that will come Voyager, and after that Enterprise–I’m excited to continue this trek.

I grew up watching Star Trek. It’s probably been the most influential aspects of pop culture for me (of course followed closely by The Lord of the RingsStar Wars, and Harry Potter). But Star Trek has been with me the longest, a fast and reliable friend. I’ve journeyed countless times with the crews of the starships Enterprise, most often with Captain Kirk and his crew, but often enough with Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is almost exactly one year younger than me–our birthdays are both in September–and my father has been a fan of The Original Series since before syndication, collecting the Bantam and Pocket Book novels and novelizations, all of which became my reading material growing up. Even more, he subscribed to a VHS-a-month club which sent us a new videocassette with two episodes of The Original Series on it. Because of his fandom, the VHS tapes and books on the shelf, I was inundated from birth. I didn’t stand a chance. I’m not saying I remember watching the TNG premiere, but I might as well have, because I was there from the beginning and right through until the end.

Only once have I gone chronologically through Deep Space Nine (we didn’t watch it as much when I was a kid, because they didn’t do as much exploring as Picard’s Enterprise did), though I have regularly caught episodes enough to have seen most of them two or three times. I clearly remember watching Voyager‘s premiere: there was a storm that day which messed up the TV signal, and I was furious because who knew when it would be on again. Likewise, I’ve watched through Voyager only once chronologically on DVD, though during its original run I recorded as much as I could on used-and-reused VHS tapes, which I horded and watched again and again, though never really in a cohesive order. It wasn’t until college where my local library’s DVD collected brought me a full rewatch of each series.

The first time I ever tried my hand at creative writing was Star Trek fan fiction, somewhere around the age of ten. I produced (bad) fan art, long before DeviantArt was a thing. I read and reread the books (many of which I inherited from my father, who introduced me to Star Trek), pored over technical manuals, the compendiums, the Encyclopedia. The first websites I remember going to, early in the 1990s, were Star Trek fan sites, with people in chat rooms and message boards creating their own crews, and role-playing or proto-LARPing. When the Next Generation movies came out I remember going to the films’ websites, waiting impatiently for a poor-quality video to load at a glacial pace, hoping for a glimpse of the new Enterprise-E, or just seeing the cast I adored in uniform once again.

I endlessly played make believe with action figures and props from each of the incarnations, coercing my friends (and, more reluctantly, my brother and sister) into both reenacting missions from the series and then creating our own. I did not keep my action figures in their packages (only a little to my current-self’s chagrin)–they were well played with, their batteries constantly wearing out, and when they did, I provided the much more varied sound effects.

There are bad episodes of Star Trek out there: “Spock’s Brain” and “The Turnabout Intruder” from The Original Series, “Code of Honor” and “Genesis” from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine’s “The Emperor’s New Cloak” and “Move Along Home,” Voyager’s  “Threshold” or “The Thaw,” and from Enterprise “Two Days and Two Nights” and “A Night in Sickbay.” Other people will have other episodes on a “worst of” list. Yet for every poor episode or eye-rolling moment (and there are many), there’s exponential redemption in some of the best Science Fiction on television: “The Best of Both Worlds,” “All Good Things,” “The Inner Light,” “Trials and Tribble-ations,” “The Way of the Warrior,” “Year of Hell,” “Blink of an Eye,” “Carbon Creek” or “Regeneration.” I know some will dispute this list, and that’s fine.

Good Star Trek is science fiction at its best. Sometimes its just fun technobabble (oh, those flighty tachyons and the hijinks they get up to), and sometimes its an exploration of humanity, of our nature, of the great things science can do–or the treachery to which over-dependence on technology can lead.

What I’ve always loved about Star Trek is the idealism, the code of ethics they pursue with each and every mission. They fail at times, yes, but they pursue some greater good throughout each series, striving to stand for something. During the turbulent 1960s they subtly yet powerfully advocated for racial tolerance, dealt with the futility of the Cold war in the 1980s, and told tall tales of great themes that would make Shakespeare proud. They struggle (and often fail) with relativism, often allowing beliefs to stand even when they are wrong, all in the name of tolerance. Quite often, tolerance is equated with acceptance or endorsement–and yet time and time again, a standard of Right is maintained.

This is why I watch Star Trek. As we move into this series’ 51st year and beyond, I hope that Star Trek‘s roots are maintained. We’re about to have a new series: I say push boundaries, say new things, go new places. But, stay with what is Right. I hope the more serialized nature of Discovery will tell brilliant stories of that Final Frontier. However, Star Trek does not need to be Breaking Bad. We don’t need anti-heroes and dark, brooding shows (though of course there is an excellent place for that in today’s TV canon). We need inspiration in our pop culture, a return to optimism, to pursuing what is right and good, to taking us on exciting and fun adventures, to hope.

Oscars 2016: Predictions

This has been a crazy year. We had planned another series of posts like last year’s, detailing each of the Oscar nominees and our predictions, but time got away from us, as it is wont to do. That being said, it has also been a crazy year for film. So, this will be a long read, but it’s one that has been on my mind for a long while now. And one that I’ve been looking forward to writing. I will offer brief thoughts (or maybe not so brief, at times…) on the films in each of the big categories. (Sorry, short films), then who I predict Will Win and then who Should Win. The Should win category may bring in films I believe should have been nominated or actors who should have been tapped by the Academy, or just the ones I think should win based on the nominations.

BEST PICTURE

The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Room

This is a crowded category, as it has been for awhile. Each one of these films deserve its spot at the top, and they all got there for widely disparate reasons. I could make arguments for each one, except maybe The Big Short, which maybe was nominated for the sheer audacity of making a non-boring film about the housing bubble. Bridge of Spies is a long-awaited reminder of Steven Spielberg’s greatness, and who could fail when pairing a Cold War legal grilled with Tom Hanks? Brooklyn, penned by Nick Hornby and starring the brilliant Saoirse Ronan, is just solid and good and beautiful, a classic from the start. Mad Max: Fury Road is the crowd favorite, blowing the doors off of all expectations that anyone had, though I was slightly underwhelmed (maybe it was all the hype?). My favorite film of the year was The Martian, for sheer rewatchability and utter excellence, through and through. The second most likely film to take the Best Picture is The Revenant, which is an excellent movie, constructed and executed with brilliance; if I’m choosing between the two, The Revenant will win over Mad Max, but as we know the Academy doesn’t choose back to back winners.  Spotlight, for its subject matter echoing All the President’s Men, cries out for acknowledgement for the justice they sought. Ultimately, hands down, Room should win for sheer power and heart-wrenching storytelling and acting. 

DIRECTING

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Room

Spotlight

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller

Should Win: The Revenant – Alejandro Iñárritu

Again, and not for the last time, we are torn between Mad Max and The Revenant. Both of these films demonstrate the power of the director’s will, with Iñárritu’s Fitzcarraldo-like wilderness epic and Miller’s resurrection and transcendence of a cult-franchise, blowing it into the mainstream and redefining the action genre. Both deserve this win, yet because of Iñárritu’s previous victory, his chances are low here.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

Matt Damon, The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio

Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio

I mean, if Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win this, I think the Internet will burn down. He put forth an astonishing performance, putting everything physically (literally) possible into this role, and he fully deserves it. On the other hand, Matt Damon and Michael Fassbender can both hold their own. If it wasn’t for that bison liver…


ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Will Win: Brie Larson

Should Win: Brie Larson

I’m not going to spend time on the subpar performance that the normally brilliant Cate Blanchett gave with Carol, and Jennifer Lawrence’s perfectly good Joy. It’s all about Charlotte Rampling, Saoirse Ronan, and Brie Larson, each of whom handily deserve to take the win. 45 Years is led by Rampling’s complex portrayal of a woman during a troubling time in her marriage. Saoirse Ronan is honest and conflicted in the story of an immigrant girl trying to find her place in the world. And then Brie Larson steals it all as Ma, who must care for her son while trapped indefinitely in a room and deal with all the ramifications attached to that predicament.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Christian Bale, The Big Short

Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Will Win: Sylvester Stallone

Should Win: Sylvester Stallone

Stallone brings with him all the weight of history as Rocky Balboa at the end of his career, without ever feeling like a gimmick or pandering. It works completely, and Stallone outshines his competition, followed closely by Tom Hardy (whoever thought anyone could speak less clearly than Rocky?) and Mark Rylance.


ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight

Rooney Mara, Carol

Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Will Win: Rooney Mara

Should Win: Jennifer Jason Leigh

Despite the fact that this is the year of Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara seems to be a lock for Supporting Actress in the overrated Carol, though staring seems the key component of that film. Kate Winslet did a great job, arguably the best of the bunch here, yet Jennifer Jason  Leigh  cackled her way to the top of the pile as. The only woman among a group of other burly, manly men and holding her own with memorable ease.


WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

The Big Short

Brooklyn

Carol

The Martian

Room

Will Win: Room

Should Win: The Martian

Both of these films are excellent adaptations of their source material, and while Room maintains the emotional impact of the book, The Martian does this and more. Instead of falling into the bleak territory of Castaway, it keeps the drama of it while keeping the essential humor from the novel.

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

Bridge of Spies

Ex Machina

Inside Out

Spotlight

Straight Outta Compton

Will Win: Straight Outta Compton

Should Win: Ex Machina

Following the recent controversy, Straight Outta Compton seems a shoe-in, and it certainly deserves the honor. However, Ex Machina is a truly excellent piece of science fiction mixed with a locked room psychological thriller.

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

Anomalisa

Boy and the World

Inside Out

Shaun the Sheep Movie

When Marnie Was There

Will Win: Inside Out 

Should Win: Inside Out

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)

Amy

Cartel Land

The Look of Silence

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Will Win: Amy

Should Win: Cartel Land

CINEMATOGRAPHY

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Sicario

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: The Revenant

Once again, another face off between these two films, and the most common reason for Mad Max‘s inevitable victory over The Revenant is the recent win by its director.  Both films have distinctive visual styles, but Iñárritu’s challenge to only use natural light makes his feat all the more impressive.  

FILM EDITING

The Big Short

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Spotlight

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Embrace of the Serpent

Mustang

Son of Saul

Theeb

A War

Will Win: Son of Saul

Should Win: Son of Saul


MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

Bridge of Spies

Carol

The Hateful Eight

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: The Hateful Eight

Should Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Quentin Tarantino’s films rank among my favorite, particularly for their distinctive music. However, this holds no candle to  John Williams’ long-awaited Star Wars or Carter Burwell’s haunting score to Carol (the only good part of the film). Burwell’s deserves a place in the Should Win column here, but my money is on Star Wars due to  a combination of nostalgia and brilliance.

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

“Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey

“Manta Ray,” Racing Extinction

“Simple Song #3,” Youth

“Til It Happens To You,” The Hunting Ground

“Writing’s On The Wall,” Spectre

Will Win: “Til It Happens To You,” The Hunting Ground

Should Win: “See You Again” from Furious 7, though of the nominees, Sam Smith earned it. 

COSTUME DESIGN

Carol

Cinderella

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Revenant

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Cinderella

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Mad Max: Fury Road

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared

The Revenant

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

PRODUCTION DESIGN

Bridge of Spies

The Danish Girl

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

Will Win: Bridge of Spies

Should Win: The Martian

SOUND EDITING

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Sicario

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road

SOUND MIXING

Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

The Revenant

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Will Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Should Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)

Bear Story

Prologue

Sanjay’s Super Team

We Can’t Live without Cosmos

World of Tomorrow

Will Win: World of Tomorrow

Should Win: World. of Tomorrow

DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)

Body Team 12

Chau, beyond the Lines

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness 

Last Day of Freedom

Will Win: Body Team 12

Should Win: Body Team 12


SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)

Ave Maria

Day One

Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)

Shok

Stutterer

Will Win: Shok

Should Win: Shok

Top 10 Reads of 2015

2015 was a big reading year for me, as I found a way to get some reading done in my spare time, whenever I was able to. I stumbled on quite a few new ones, but I also tried to knock a few outstanding books off of my To Read Shelf. Take a look on Goodreads to see more specific stats for my reading year. You’ll notice a hefty amount of Brandon Sanderson, who has quickly become one of my favorite authors of all time. I made it another one of my goals to try and finish all of his Cosmere novels this year–his YA offerings aren’t really to my taste, but I’ll try again. Also, not listed here are rereads of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

So, I took on the difficult task of ranking the books I read this year. They did not have to be published this year–I was trying to check off books from my long To Read list. Here are my Top 10 Reads of 2015:

The Martian novel1. The Martian by Andy Weir

This is probably the best book I’ve read this year. The Martian is thrilling, suspenseful, and hilarious. Mark Watney’s narrative voice is utterly readable and memorable–almost addictive. This is a fantastically compelling story of a man and all that he will do to keep on living.

Hero of Ages2. Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

At the close of the Mistborn trilogy, Brandon Sanderson brings everything together with a heartfelt, satisfying (albeit surprising) ending. It took me awhile to finally pick this up after I finished Well of Ascension, and I regret not immediately continuing on to this epic finale.

Words of Radiance3. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Another Brandon Sanderson, I know! Don’t worry, it’s not the end by any means. This hefty tome took a long, long time for me to finish: over a year. From March 7, 2014-March 12, 2015, I slowly waded through it, picking it up and putting it down, because I wanted to give it my full attention. I was rarely able to do so, which meant that each time I picked it up again I had to back up a bit. Eventually, I powered through and finished. I loved it, and it was a pleasure to work through.

Armada4. Armada by Ernest Cline

It must be difficult to follow Ready Player One, which was such a unique smash hit a few years ago, but Cline did it. Armada is funny, thrilling, and packed to the gills with deep pop culture references. It’s Space Invaders meets Ender’s Game, but without the subterfuge (sort of). I read it in just about 24 hours–I could not stop.

the magicians5. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This is one of those books I didn’t know I needed to read. People had mentioned it, but no one had really described it well, other than it’s “adult Harry Potter.” While that’s certainly true, it’s more like: Harry Potter goes to college and then goes to Narnia to defeat Edmund. This was engrossing (no pun inte
nded) and mind-bending at times. I totally loved it.

Alloy of Law6. Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

I don’t think he’s the first to do this, but he’s the first I know of: while most fantasy novels are just medieval and stay there, age after age, Brandon Sanderson takes us beyond that level of culture and technology to the Victorian era. This isn’t steampunk–it’s still Scadrial, just naturally developing from where Hero of Ages left off. It’s a swashbuckling, shoot ’em up adventure, with wit and, as always, a great magic system.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

This is another book that took me just a day or so to read. It’s The Fault in our Stars meets Perks of Being a Wallflower, with some of the wit of Paper Towns. It’s a great example of high school life and dealing with impending tragedy in different ways. The narrative style also varies throughout, from script to prose narration, which adds a unique flavor to this fun story of friendship.

Gray Mountain8. Gray Mountain by John Grisham

This surprised me, I’ll be honest. Maybe that’s why it’s so high on my list. It had been a long time since there had been a really excellent Grisham novel: maybe not since 2007’s Playing for Pizza have I really loved a new Grisham. Gray Mountain dealt with current economic and environmental issues while keeping it close and personal. This could easily be optioned as a TV series, and it could be a cross between Justified and The Good Wife.

Do Hard Things9. Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris

Do Hard Things impacted me personally this year, as I was working more closely with my students on trying to impact the world around them. We discussed the challenges offered by this book, which encourages teens to defy the low expectations that people have of them and to step up and be a part of the world they’ll soon inherit. I loved it.

Invisible Man10. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I’m surprised I hadn’t read Invisible Man before this, but I picked it up on a friend’s recommendation and I blew through it on the flights back home for Christmas. It’s completely relatable, with an easy narrative voice, and it demonstrates the wide breadth of struggles that the African-American community has faced from Reconstruction to the 1950s.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

  1. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  2. Finding Truth by Nancy Pearcey
  3. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
  4. Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
  5. Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
  6. Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
  7. It by Stephen King
  8. Giants Beware by Jorge Aguierre
  9. We Were Liars by e. lockhart
  10. Damsel Distressed by Kelsey Macke
  11. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
  12. Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson
  13. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
  14. Alias, Vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis
  15. Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith

 

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

  The Martian is Castaway in space.
Astronaut Mark Watney is marooned on Mars and is left to survive on his own for hundreds of days. He needs to deal with a diminishing food supply, as well as the innumerable hazards that come with being the only inhabitant on a lifeless planet. This is the epic story of survival and humanity banding together to save a man’s life. 

This is probably the best book I’ve read this year. The Martian is thrilling, suspenseful, and hilarious. Mark Watney’s narrative voice is utterly readable and memorable–almost addictive. This is a fantastically compelling story of a man and all that he will do to keep on living. 

Finally, other than the excellent writing, I appreciated the accessible hard science fiction here. Like Michael Crichton, Andy Weir has made this a book that doesn’t dumb down the technical aspects but brings the readers up to what they need to understand while also not wasting time on the minutiae.

The Martian is a rare book, and I look forward to seeing how the film adaptation treats it. The one thing they can’t leave out (which the trailer seems like it may…) is Watney’s irascible sense of humor. It’s an essential aspect of his character that should not be lost. It’ll be hard to replicate the “captain’s log” inner monologue format, but that helps keep the book from getting too dark. 

Tyler’s Top Ten Films of 2014

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Up front, let me be clear that this my list of my favorite films of 2014. This is not necessarily a list of which films should be nominated for any Oscars in particular. When I’m thinking of a list like this, I’m focusing on enjoyability, as well as rewatchability. I can watch a film and recognize that someone has a particularly outstanding performance , or that the film overall is technically superb, or even those few films that are so clearly, wholly phenomenal that they should garner an Oscar nod. Thus, this list may overlap with those we’ve been talking about this past weeks. However, I have to expand a bit: just because a film gets–and deserves–an Oscar nod doesn’t mean that it’s enjoyable or that I’d watch it over and over.

I’m looking for a whole moviegoing experience. Would I recommend it to others? Is it impactful or particularly important? Was it fun? Visually appealing? Obviously, this is largely a matter of taste, and it’s an incredibly unscientific process to formulate a result.

Here goes, in order:

1. Chef

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Chef might be my favorite film of 2014. It’s not the best, most technical film. I didn’t break new ground in cinematography; it didn’t have an actor contorting himself into a wholly different persona; it didn’t hit new heights of sexuality; and it won’t win Best Picture this Oscars Season. But I think it’s my favorite anyway–it’s just a joyful film. From the addictive, upbeat soundtrack to the redemptive relationship between a nearly estranged father and son, it hits on all cylinders. It’s a truly heartwarming film, yet it doesn’t fall into the cheesy category, something that I think has been missing of late.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

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3. American Sniper

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This film reminded me of Zero Dark Thirty, which is a film I can watch and rewatch. I see that happening here. It is still an intriguing film, well-made and thoughtful. Bradley Cooper’s intense and true portrayal of PTSD, as well as the juxtaposition of war life and home life was poignant and significant. The quickness of the film was needed to highlight the blur of war, and the struggle that soldiers and their families must go through during transitions.

4. Gone Girl

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Gone Girl was a crazy, intense film. First of all, I almost never like a film more than the book from which it is adapted: Gone with the Wind, the Bourne Trilogy, The Godfather, Parts I & II, and The Hunger Games series. In this case, it’s hard for me to decide which I liked better, because this film is quite faithful. The book is deeply mysterious and emotional, as is the film, yet the film was more visceral and impactful than the book. Usually I don’t think that, because my imagination is pretty vivid, but in this case it was more gripping.

5. Interstellar

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Interstellar was one of those movies that I wanted but didn’t even know that I wanted. I love films like this: films that mess with time travel and space travel, that explore the ideas of what lengths we might have to go to in order to preserve the human race. That, combined with McConaughey, Chastain, and Hathaway’s stellar acting sells the gravity (puns intended!) of the situation that they’re in. Finally, add in Hans Zimmer’s rich organ-oriented score and the captivating visuals, and you have a perfect storm of a film.

6. Whiplash

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I had to pick my jaw up from the floor at multiple points throughout Whiplash. It was a deeply dark and disturbing film, but one that also probes the depths of passion and perseverance. This isn’t an inspirational film, but it is a film that readily delves into the dark corners of the drive to achieve greatness, not necessarily for the love of the creativity of art, but for the notoriety of that greatness. I loved the film, but I would have to think twice before getting ready to sit through it again, because it brought me to a dark place. The opening scene, however, is maybe the most precise and concise piece of characterization I have seen in a long time.

7. Birdman

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Birdman was a singularly immersive experience. From the opening moments, I was enraptured by almost every element: Keaton’s (dare I say) breakout performance, the single-take conceit, the seamlessly woven play within a film, and the slow psychological burn that underpins everything we see. Each performance was spot on, though not all are nomination-worthy. This film will battle for Best Director as well, and I think it may deserve both awards (as well as Keaton’s Best Actor nod). However, no other film on this list tries to do what this one accomplishes, nor possibly leaves such an impact.

8. Selma

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I was riveted by Selma, from the bombing early on to the frenetic, emotional riots and brutality throughout. This move easily deserves its place on this list of nominees, if only to balance out The Imitation Game‘s shortcomings. The acting is superb from all angles (every actor is British, except for Common and Oprah), the music accents everything emotionally, the story is relevant and impactful, and they didn’t have to hit anyone over the head with the message of peace and equality. It does it on its own without being underscored by epigrams at the end.

9. Jodorowsky’s Dune

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Jodorowsky’s Dune is a film that is many things at once, and they all work together to form a compelling narrative about a madman’s dream about a hippie’s trippy novel about drugs and war. It was described as the greatest movie never made, an influential film that preceded seminal movies like Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner. To see the inner workings of the making of this film, as well as the exploration of Jodorowsky’s film career, is like a bit of a film history class, but the most exciting one you’ll ever take.

10. Still Alice

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Still Alice was excellent, and Julianne Moore is the quiet, yet standalone winner for me. Even with the other good performances on this list, Moore is clearly at the forefront. Where Felicity Jones is the rock next to Redmayne’s deteriorating academic husband, Moore is both the rock and the quicksand, clasping desperately at sanity, hoping that it will remain, and preparing herself and her family for the inevitable. It was a heart-rending performance, and one that is all-too applicable to audiences today.

Runners Up:

I understand that, with some of the films above, you may be scratching your heads a bit. There are some surprises on my list. To comfort you, here’s my long list (in no particular order) of the top films of the year overall. Remember that I was looking for rewatchability, more than simply the greatness of the film itself.

  • Foxcatcher
  • Boyhood
  • Theory of Everything
  • Begin Again
  • Fury
  • Big Eyes
  • The Judge
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
  • The Lego Movie
  • Babadook

Film Review: Chef (2014)

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Chef might be my favorite film of 2014. It’s not the best, most technical film. I didn’t break new ground in cinematography; it didn’t have an actor contorting himself into a wholly different persona; it didn’t hit new heights of sexuality; and it won’t win Best Picture this Oscars Season. But I think it’s my favorite anyway–it’s just a joyful film. From the addictive, upbeat soundtrack to the redemptive relationship between a nearly estranged father and son, it hits on all cylinders. It’s a truly heartwarming film, yet it doesn’t fall into the cheesy category, something that I think has been missing of late.

Jon Favreau, the always exceptional writer, director, and lead, goes even further by going back to his indie roots. Favreau is Carl Casper, the lauded head chef of a successful LA restaurant, and he’s about to be reviewed by the notorious, pretentious food critic and vicious blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). When Carl’s boss (Dustin Hoffman) won’t let him bring in a new menu to wow the critic, despite the fact that Carl feels he’s grown creatively stagnant, he is eviscerated by Michel. This leads to a Twitter war (a nice motif running throughout the film), then a loud public meltdown. Carl has long been a workaholic (as many chefs are), which led to a divorce from his wife Inez (Sofía Vergara) and to little contact with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony). He travels with them to Miami after he loses his job, where Inez finally talks him into buying a food truck. Carl, along with Percy and his former sous chef (John Leguizamo), travel from Miami back to LA, selling Cuban sandwiches, reinvigorating Carl’s passion for food, as well as reforging his relationship with his son along the way.

At times, Chef exemplifies what Anthony Bourdain has called food porn, where the audience salivates over every lingering shot. It is an ode to delicious, beautiful food and how it brings people together. More than simply loving the idea of food, Chef illustrates food’s central place in so many cultures and families. It at first tore Carl’s family apart because he made it about the business of food. His time was spent working on the construction of food, rather than on his passion for it, and his family suffered and broke apart for it. He needed to rekindle that relationship, and it is food that does it. He becomes a good dad, teaching his son about his passion, about how to work for it and not lose yourself in it.

It’s rare enough these days to get a touching film that is also well made. Something that exemplifies the reality of family life and the sacrifices that a father must make in order to keep his family together, and that you’re never too far gone to come back home.