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.

MOVIES:

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.

BOOKS:

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.

MUSIC:

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.

TV:

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!

BB-8

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!!!

Advertisements

IRON MAN 3: You’ll nevverrr seee itttt comminnggggg

The first of the summer 2013 blockbusters, Iron Man 3 gets the season off to a tremendously invigorating start. With a cracking script co-written by the creator of the highly sarcastic, superhero-deconstructing Brit TV show No Heroics, Drew Pearce, and genre king Shane Black, who also directs, this is a big, beautiful blast of pop culture awesomeness. That it just happens to handily redefine the superhero movie along the way is just an added bonus.

Spoilers

Spoilers

As many have pointed out, this looked like it was going to be something of an Iron Man Into Darkness kind of sequel, with all those previews of Tony talking about his nightmares, and getting his ass kicked. As it turns out, the movie is much more fun than those trailers would have had you believe. And the way it flips EVERYTHING on its head halfway through is fantastic, a scene of such staggering disbelief that you almost can’t take it in as you’re watching it. It’s a genius move from the writers. A twist that changes the movie, and the genre, that’s somehow also completely hilarious and brilliant. That, along with the live-wire one-liners that electrify pretty much every scene (with trademark Shane Black inclusivity, everyone from Tony to bit-part henchmen who only appear in one scene get great dialogue), make this a non-stop, old-school thrill ride.

It’s that combination of old-school banter, new-school psychological deconstruction (wait, come back!), and particularly post-postmodern meaningful twistiness and playful sincerity that formed the filmmakers’ answer to the big, giant, frankly terrifying question that loomed before them like Thanos himself: how the HELL do you follow The Avengers?

Bringing together the dry, wry British comedy stylings of Pearce with the 80s-soaked action/banter genius of Black was the beginning of the journey. They are the twin strands of Iron Man 3‘s ludicrously entertaining DNA. Its soul (we’re just going to proceed with some good old fashioned Cartesian duality here, m’kay?) is Robert Downey Jr. Because Black & Pearce can write the hell of out Tony Stark’s dialogue, but it’s Downey Jr that whips those words off the screen with the ultimate in nonchalant panache. Downey Jr IS Iron Man, to be honest. He’s the fortunate beneficiary of one of the strongest Marvel scripts yet, which gifts him with continued emotional complexity, and some stunningly inappropriate and therefore wonderful zingers.

He’s surrounded by extraordinary talent: Gandhi, Mike from Neighbors, the creator of GOOP… I mean it though: Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebecca Hall, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau… It’s a brilliantly deep bench of talent which, along with Black’s utter assurance as a director, keeps this movie moving, and ensures that it’s always robust.

From the big set pieces (the attack on Tony’s mansion, the climactic mega-battle), to the smallest of moments (Tony’s rapport with and utter condescension to his little sidekick;  Favreau’s running Downton Abbey gag), this movie will put a big, silly grin on your face. And, if you’re especially geeky, the closing credit sequence, which is a very 80s style recap of all three movies to date, will make that grin even bigger. Such is the genius of this movie that even its post credit sequence is simultaneously a funny throwaway moment, and also the key to the entire film.

Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E., the reboot

Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E., the reboot

The only downside is the somewhat under-cooked nature of the female roles: it’s particularly disappointing to see Pepper Potts reduced to a screaming, Fay Wray-style helpless woman in distress, especially since she was so sharp and impactful in Joss Whedon’s take on her. But few are as great as Whedon at gifting women with incredible roles in movies and TV. Still, a little more oomph in her character here would have gone a long way. Hall isn’t bad, but she is more of a catalyst than a protagonist. For someone of her talents, that’s a shame.

That aside, this is a brilliant movie, which is relentlessly entertaining, and a highly worthy follow-up to the most successful superhero movie of all time. It’s the only move Marvel could have made; just another indicator of how smart Marvel has been in building this cinematic universe.

4 out of 5 Iron Men Suits

Breathless Reads Tour Recap

I was recently very fortunate to attend one of the dates on the Breathless Reads tour. This was Penguin Teens awesome lineup of YA sci-fi authors Marie Lu (LEGEND) and Beth Revis (ACROSS THE UNIVERSE), and YA fantasy authors Jessica Spotswood (BORN WICKED) and Andrea Cremer (NIGHTSHADE). I’m pretty sure you won’t find a smarter, more talented or more charming group of writers anywhere else. These ladies kept the crowd entertained and engaged as they talked about YA, writing, their inspirations, being writers, and their books. It was a great event for fans and aspiring writers alike.

It’s always interesting to hear what inspires great writers. Unsurprisingly, they all have great taste in TV — there’s a serious overlap between the breathless, fast-paced, what’s-going-to-happen-next qualities of the best YA, and the greatest TV dramas. Marie Lu singled out Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad, while Andrea Cremer & Beth Revis both gave props to Doctor Who (Harley in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is based on David Tennant), and Joss Whedon (Revis credits him with teaching her how to kill characters, while Cremer says he taught her how to write dialogue). Revis is a huge fan of Firefly and Serenity, and via Nathan Fillion, she loves Castle too. Cremer is a devotee of Buffy. Jessica Spotswood namechecked a pretty awesome mashup of Downton Abbey, Revenge, and The Vampire Diaries.

With their genre credentials firmly established, the writers talked about why they like writing in the YA sci-fi and fantasy genres. Lu and Spotswood made the great point that this kind of fiction really allows you to explore issues without coming across as preachy, while Revis and Cremer dig the fact that you can transcend the usual boundaries of “boy books” vs. “girl books”. As Revis put it, “there should be good books, and everyone should be able to read them.” Lu praised Penguin for marketing LEGEND based on its sci-fi content, rather than directing it at boys or girls.

They all take different approaches to writing:

Revis — “I laugh wickedly when I kill off my characters.”

Cremer — “I cry a lot when I write my books.”

And they all picked different “theme songs” for their books:

Lu — Europe, “The Final Countdown”

Revis — Chameleon Circuit (a Doctor Who fan band), “Everything Is Ending”

Cremer — Florence + The Machine, the entire “Lungs” album

But they all feel blessed to have the opportunity to be published:

Spotswood — “It’s amazing.”

Revis — “Even after two books it’s still shiny and new.”

Cremer — “It’s extraordinary to be able to do this… I’m still trying to keep close to how extraordinary this is.”

Revis in particular has cause to still feel enthralled about the process of being a published author: prior to writing ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, she’d written 10 novels over 10 years, and had nearly 1000 rejections. Her will to make this happen was a testament to believing and following your dreams. Marie Lu had a similarly long path, having received her first query rejection at the age of 15 (for “a book that was basically LORD OF THE RINGS, but not good”). Cremer was at the other end of the speed spectrum: she had her third novel published a year after she started writing her first. It seems traditional publishing has two speeds: geologically-paced slow motion, and warp factor 8. But there’s only one type of attitude for writers: unflinching dedication to the dream.

Cremer had great advice for aspiring writers: “stop chasing new ideas — pick one and finish it.” Revis’s advice was possibly more lighthearted, but no less practical: “you need a spinning chair.”

And it was Revis who gave the best description of how YA should be seen: “YA isn’t a recommended reading level, it’s a style of writing: interesting characters, interesting setting and a fast-paced plot.”

What came across from all these inspiring and talented women was the belief that good books are good books, regardless of genre or gender. Writing is about creating great stories that reach people and move them, take them to different worlds (sometimes literally), and change how they see our world.

Many thanks to Marie Lu, Beth Revis, Jessica Spotswood and Andrea Cremer for taking part in the Breathless Reads tour, and kudos to Penguin Teens for organizing it, and for bringing writers and readers together.