2015 in review

2015 was a great year for pop culture — even aside from the multi-platform global pop culture-consuming behemoth that was Star Wars, this year was inspiringly full of rich, exciting and immersive books, TV shows, music and movies. And awesome droids.

So let’s get to it.


Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens. Could the movie of the year have been anything else? Spoiler: no. It was beautiful, full of wonderful old and new characters, and so many emotions. And no, Rey wasn’t a Mary Sue — she was a complex, capable woman whose entire life had prepared her to be ready when the call to action came (if you don’t believe me, read Greg Rucka’s excellent Before The Awakening, which gives you backstories for Finn, Rey and Poe. Rey’s is particularly engrossing — she really is one of the great characters of the Star Wars universe. (Here’s my full spoiler-free Star Wars review)

Kingsman: The Secret Service. This was fresh, inventive, stylish, witty, engaging, with rich characters and a propulsive story, and a genuinely and gloriously bonkers sense of fun and glee. It also showed us how devastatingly great a Matthew Vaughn-directed Bond movie would be… but if he had made one of those (he came close to making Casino Royale), we wouldn’t have this. And we needed this. Colin Firth kicked ass entirely convincingly, and newcomer Taron Egerton delivered a swaggering, young Han Solo-like breakout performance. Genius all round.

The Martian. Yes. Yes yes yes! Ridley Scott scienced the shit out of this, giving us one of the great space movies of all time, taking Drew Goddard’s sharply funny script and giving it the bad-ass disco soundtrack we never knew it needed. Expertly shot, brilliantly acted by Matt Damon (the majority of whose scenes were alone and direct to camera), and the best Lord of the Rings reference you’ll ever see.

Inside Out. This was Pixar to the power of infinity. This was heart-achingly emotional, which you’d expect since it’s a movie about emotions, from the company who brought you the most emotionally devastating opening to a movie EVER (Up). What you might not expect was how heartfelt, humorous and bitter-sweet it all was, plus how the mesmerizing story managed to be utterly profound as well as relentless entertaining. Warning: contains achingly funny moments, and some that are utterly gut-wrenching. You will cry.

Straight Outta Compton. Director  F. Gary Gray delivered a breathlessly gritty and fiercely kinetic look at the birth, rise and fall of Compton’s NWA, from their loose beginnings to the evolution of their personal empires (Dre’s Beats, Cube’s movie career). The heart of the movie was Jason Mitchell’s cherubic, charismatic and ultimately heartbreaking performance as Eric “Easy E” Wright; his story is the true center of the movie, with the others woven tightly around it. It gives you the thrill and danger of the music, the harsh realities that made it necessary, and the often uncontrollable dynamics within the band. A great script kept tight control over the sprawl of events, and excellent performances from the actors playing the band (including Ice Cube’s son playing Cube) made this utterly gripping.

Honorable mentions:

Avengers Age Of Ultron / Ant-Man. Marvel’s two movies this year both came with some serious baggage. Ultron had to follow up the massive success juggernaut that was Avengers, but do it even bigger this time, while Ant-Man had a hugely troubled production with the removal of Edgar Wright weeks before filming was due to start. Both films were mandated by the studio to fit the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: oddly, Ant-Man fared better with this, given extra resonance and benefiting from being bolted into the MCU, while Ultron seemed to suffer from one extra layer too many in a movie that was jam-packed with too much greatness — it’s a long movie that actually would have been better with an even longer four hour extended cut. There’s just so much Joss Whedon genius-level awesomeness to love and not enough time to truly love it. Ant-Man, on the other hand, was short, sweet, quick on its feet, and full of Edgar Wright DNA (no one handles exposition like him. No one!). Both movies were fun; Ant-Man was just a little more so. But Ultron was still a wonderful Whedon-fest, and a towering achievement of screenwriting and direction.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The best of the MI bunch. Written and directed by Chris McQuarrie, this was tight, entertaining, and it barreled along through plot points and set pieces without ever releasing its grip on us. A huge amount of fun, with crowd-pleasing performances, hair-raising stunts, and the type of twisty-turny plotting you’d expect from the man behind The Usual Suspects.


Book of the year: Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This was one of those books that make you realize all the many beautiful possibilities of what books can be. Composed of emails, security logs, and many other things that I won’t spoil, this was an utterly engrossing sci-fi story, rich with complex characters you immediately care about, viscerally thrilling space stuff, and fiendish plotting. Totally unputdownable. Full review here.

Close competition: Patrick Ness’s The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and Robert Galbraith’s Career Of Evil (Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling). Two perfect five star novels here. Ness delivered his usual blend of thrills and compassion, while Rowling gave us her most exciting Cormoran Strike novel yet, with an absolute kicker of a throw-the-book-across-the-room ending. *shakes fist at J.K. Rowling!!*

Honorable mentions:

Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray; The Weapon Of A Jedi, by Jason Fry; Smuggler’s Run, by Greg Rucka; Moving Target, by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry; Before The Awakening, by Greg Rucka. AKA, the Star Wars novels. Lost Stars (reviewed here) was stellar, Jedi, Run and Target were beautifully written standalone adventures featuring Han, Luke and Leia during the Original Trilogy, and Before The Awakening focused on key Finn, Rey and Poe backstories. Fascinating, entertaining stuff.


Two artists dominated: Adele with her insanely anticipated beautiful powerhouse of an album, 25, and Carly Rae Jepsen with her EMOTION album, which was light years ahead of her previous effort. While Adele did exactly what you’d expect her to (albeit brilliantly, beautifully and flawlessly, of course — with I Miss You and The River Lea as particular standouts ), it was Jepsen who delivered the year’s biggest surprise: an extraordinary, gorgeously 80s, mesmerizingly hook-y set that didn’t have one filler — full of massive choruses drenched with bittersweet melancholy and honesty, all delivered with gloriously soaring vocals. Why this wasn’t on more year-end best-of lists is a mystery. It’s brilliant.


Special mention for Downton Abbey‘s magnificent final season and majestic final ever episode, which was this year’s Christmas special (for those who have seen it… it airs in the US in January). The perfect send-off, full of warmth, wit, and, yes, feels.

Supergirl. This show is bright, beautiful, full of verve, grit and hope — all about finding your truest self and being it. Melissa Benoist embodies all of that in a vulnerable, complex, utterly engaging performance. She brings Supergirl to life in a way that makes perfect sense.

Jessica Jones. Epically gritty, dark and messed up, but sweetened with some killer sarcastic putdowns, a damaged and soulful performance from Krysten Ritter, and a horrifyingly charming villain in David Tennant’s brilliantly played Kilgrave. Thrilling TV throughout, perfectly paced, full of heart and rage and loss and becoming the person you’re meant to be.

Supernatural. 11 seasons in, it’s still slaying. Here’s my breakdown of why this show STILL kicks ass.

Honorable mentions:

The Walking Dead. This half of the current season delivered three monster, high octane, real-time  episodes that were likely the greatest consecutive episodes in the show’s run… then pulled out of that very suddenly and slowed things way down for the standalone Morgan flashback episode, before reconnecting with the current storyline again. Although Here Is Not Here contained great writing, beautiful character work, and killer acting, it really did stop the momentum in its tracks at a particularly tense moment, and consequently the show took a while to pick up speed again. But by the mid-season finale, it was BACK. It’s the best it’s ever been, and that’s saying something.

Quantico. One of the greatest new network shows in a long time, this is gripping, unstoppable, incredibly tense, and twist and turns and twists and turns, and then does that some more. The cast gives deeply accessible and charismatic performances, and the story just does not quit. Very, very addictive, very tightly written (the show has two ongoing strands, past and present, which interweave and comment on each other and keep the story flowing), and very addictive.

But, if I had to pick the ultimate “things of the year”….

  • Star Wars
  • Illuminae
  • Jessica Jones
  • Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION

And, if I could only pick one thing overall… It’s pretty clear… this little guy won 2015!


The breakout star of Star Wars (with fierce competition from the fresh and energetically  great performances of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver), BB-8 owned 2015. The little droid was the heart and soul of Episode VII, and we loved him. Let’s be honest, we would all happily sit there and watch a  two hour movie that was JUST BB-8 AND NOTHING ELSE. Search your feelings… you know it to be true.

So, hope you enjoyed 2015… Have an awesome 2016!!!

2010: A Year Of Black Swans

2010 has been a unique year in culture. It was a year of chaos and a million little details, the year of Twitter and hashtags, the year of ‘that Facebook movie.’ It was a year of significant endings, notably with Lost and 24 coming to a close after six and eight years respectively, and the publication of Mockingjay closing out the Hunger Games trilogy.

It was also a year of wonderful discoveries and surprises. This post is dedicated to those cultural events: moments that seemed to defy expectation and hope, or seemed to come out of nowhere, but in retrospect, made absolute and wonderful sense. Cultural items that approached the status of perfection in the midst of an unruly, chaotic year. Seven cultural moments that captured and defined this element of welcome surprise.

These are the Black Swans of 2010.

(1) Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

The fierce intelligence of Natalie Portman’s haunting performance alone would put Black Swan on this list, but there was so much more to talk about in Aronofsky’s always surprising, moving and terrifying ode to the relentless search for perfection. It’s a favorite theme on this blog, the lengths to which an artist must go to bring us the truth, the extent to which they must go into the darkness to bring back the light (particularly here, and here). Aronofsky’s beautiful, painful retelling of Swan Lake is a near-perfect capturing of this struggle, this destructive of question of how far we are willing to go for art, for the thing we love. The screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin was a deft reworking of the tale, and Clint Mansell’s wonderful score masterfully interwove Tchaikovsky’s themes with a darker, more electronic menace.

(2) Wolf Hall.

Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary novel told the life of Thomas Cromwell in luminous, preternaturally poetic prose that had a rawness and directness as she incisively laid bare the brutal psychology of the man and his world, turning the events of Henry VIII’s time with Anne Boleyn into a superior, terrifying and ultimately haunting thriller. The sheer brilliance on display is staggering. The only response as a writer is to bow down before it, and then raise your game accordingly. One of the most best written, plotted and executed novels of all time; this is no exaggeration.

(3)(a) Colin Firth’s revelatory performance in The King’s Speech.

This wasn’t surprising in itself – the man is a fantastic actor, who sublimates the full panoply of human emotion into such subtle, compelling renderings – but what was surprising was the way it took him from his habitual under-the-radar brilliance to a more publicly noted recognition, which hopefully will result in an Oscar for Firth, who seems to be criminally underrated at these events.

(3)(b) Colin Firth’s sparring with Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech.

It was a huge pleasure to watch Firth’s tightly-wound, emotionally fraught monarch-in-waiting go up against the magisterial ease and laconic skill of Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist. Watching these two highly skilled performers go at it was never going to be anything other than excellent, but their scenes together truly elevated the movie. Both are extremely skilled technically, but both know how to submerge all that in simple truth, beautiful details that reveal soul, a life of emotional pain in the flickering of eyelids, a cry for help from a man with no voice, the response from the man with many who needs to find which is true. Exhilarating.

(4) Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’s score for The Social Network.

The way David Fincher used this brilliant electronic score to add the most important layer to The Social Network, giving it a deep, dark sci-fi edge, and adding the thrilling, exhilarating element of creativity and innovation happening before our eyes. The screenplay was beyond outstanding, one of Aaron Sorkin’s best, and Fincher was absolutely at the top of his game in the way he layered in the speed of thought, the scheming psychologies, the sheer sense of invention – but it was the score that made this movie exceptional.

(5) Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

I blogged extensively about this album here. Simply put, this album was a raging against the light, a paean to creativity and innovation unleashed and uncensored. Thrilling to listen to, it laid out Kanye West’s interior world in all its fabulous, deranged and joyous glory. Given the darkness from which West had to emerge, it’s simultaneously all the more remarkable and all the more likely that he would return with a barnstorming, take no prisoners set of tracks is likely his opus, his masterwork.

(6) The rise of Emma Stone.

Her warm, witty, engaging ascension to stardom with her never less than brilliant performance in Easy A elevated Stone from her previous roles as cute, funny girl who stole scenes, to her natural arena: owning a movie from start to finish, and marrying a raw emotional soul to a killer sense of comedy and goofiness. Smart, engaging, warm, and funny as hell. It wasn’t unexpected, in fact it was long overdue, but the way it happened was one of the more happy surprises of the year. A true leading lady.

(7) The renewal of Southland.

I blogged about Southland when it first started on NBC here, and why TNT should renew Southland here. Despite the show’s diamond-hard brilliance, its brutally unsentimental yet deeply moving shooting, acting and writing style, such a renewal was not guaranteed. The show had a rough beginning, getting canceled by NBC mid-production on season two, but thankfully TNT realized they had hold of one of the sharpest, most real, raw and immediate cop dramas ever made, and did the right thing. The renewal was a true black swan event, seemingly impossible yet utterly necessary. It was above all a huge relief: in so many ways, Southland is unparalleled in the world of TV drama. Season three commences on 1/4/2011.

Honorable mentions:

AMC’s The Walking Dead, Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

The one…

If I had to choose one of these seven black swans to truly represent the defining cultural truth of 2010… well, that would be a tough choice. Of these, which was the most thrilling, exhilarating, perfectly detailed and beautiful moment of the year? Perhaps unsurprisingly, my choice would be Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which said everything about beauty, perfection, drive, talent, and creativity, and did it all with a melancholy and ferocious brilliance.

Next time, on Dreaming Between The Lines...

Coming soon in 2011… a review of Southland season three, a look at YA fiction, the state of TV drama, and more.

Happy New Year!