2015: TV of the Year

I made a concerted effort to watch a lot of TV this year. With so many must-see shows, many fell by the wayside, so if it’s not on the list, I either didn’t watch it or didn’t like it as much as you! But for what it’s worth, here are ten favourite shows of the year, plus the next fifteen in briefer detail, all in no particular order within their separate quality brackets. And it wouldn’t be an end of year list on this blog without an evening’s work of sloppy photoshop work too.

THE TEN TV SHOWS OF 2015

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Fargo
With series one, Noah Hawley defied all logic and sense and turned a critically acclaimed and award-winning movie by a pair of master film-makers into one of the most entertaining shows of 2014 (indeed, my favourite of that year). That series two would end up being just as good, maybe even better, is unbelievable. Wisely going forward by going back (some 30 years before the ‘true story’ first time around), a great cast all bring their A game to a tale of warring gangsters, an oblivious couple caught up in the cross-fire, and a police force trying to make sense of it all, with so much to enjoy amid the ensuing carnage. May ‘The History of True Crime in the Midwest offer more stories to come.

Mad Men
So much has changed in the televisual landscape since Mad Men first debuted (on BBC Two – remember when the BBC showed American drama?), it was no longer the sixties setting that made it feel like a product of another time. The end of Mad Men as such feels like the end of an era. And while this second half of its final series wasn’t quite as strong as the first, it finished off its run in some style. That the last few episodes would feel deliberately aimless was a reminder that dream-like, nomadic journeys of self-discovery was as much a part of its DNA as pitch meetings, office and social politics, and the evolving wardrobe of its characters. Mad Men leaves us in a better place (at least in terms of the variety of TV out there and the ease of accessing it), and it was worth sharing the ride with it.

Better Call Saul
The Breaking Bad spin-off that was much talked about and hugely anticipated quickly established itself as its own thing, exceeding expectations and being perhaps even better than its forebear. I’d go so far as to recommend it to those yet to see Breaking Bad (so long as you skipped the first 5-10 minutes), as it has all the fun and tension of seeing a slippery central character trying to get out of various legal scrapes, but with not quite so much killing and nastiness which might otherwise be off-putting.

The Jinx
True crime documentaries have been as much a staple of television as the detective shows that form the fictitious flipside of the coin. But few have such access to its central suspect, let alone one as high profile (at least in the US at the time – I’d never heard of the case beforehand) as millionaire Robert Durst and his connections to a string of murders and disappearances. Even if you know the much-discussed ending (a deeply chilling final shot that recalled Ghostwatch of all things – while we’re on the subject, I’d also recommend The Enfield Haunting if you have an interest in said show), the whole series was one of the most engrossing watches of the year.

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Fortitude
Despite the publicity onslaught at the time, it seems all the media attention evaporated for Sky’s big original production with its impressive international cast (including Michael Gambon, Sofie Gråbøl, Stanley Tucci, and Christopher Eccleston) soon after, which is a shame, as Fortitude was my favourite new drama series of 2015. What made it especially compelling was how it was never quite clear what kind of show it would become – was it a detective mystery, a serial killer thriller, a supernatural investigation, a sci-fi horror? That it ended up being all those things to an extent, and more, while maintaining a consistent tone is remarkable. If you’re partial to the likes of The Returned and Twin Peaks but with a touch of The Thing thrown in for good measure, then Fortitude’s grim, strange delights may be just the thing for you.

This is England ‘90
Another successful film-to-TV transfer, the four-part mini-series and likely conclusion to the adventures of Shaun, Woody, Lol, et al packed in many laugh-out-loud moments as well as its fair share of heartbreak and trauma too. It could be accused of turning up the misery to the point of incredulity, but having become so invested in the characters over one film and three series (not quite #sixseasonsandamovie), I think it earned its bruising toughness, counterbalanced with a sense of hope and optimism (well, not for all of them). Tears, both happy and sad, were indeed shed.

Show Me A Hero
For those intimidated or put-off by all the hype for The Wire and unsure whether to invest the time and energy would do well to check out Show Me A Hero, also from David Simon. At six episodes, it’s a fully contained and manageable story, based on real events, and while it doesn’t sound like an exciting proposition (public housing in Yonkers, New York, in the late 80’s), its cross-section of individuals directly and indirectly affected and involved with the issues has all the drama and social commentary of its bigger brother. Great use of music and attention to sound mixing too (the noise of the public debates was particularly striking).

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Catastrophe
Sharon Horgan teamed up with Rob Delaney to deliver another great comedy that’s as good if not better than Pulling. Frequently hilarious, Catastrophe had the kind of frank, disgusting but authentic dialogue that rarely emerges from behind closed doors, but, you guessed it, a beating heart under the profanity-strewn surface. Apart from some side characters that still feel out of place after two series, it was something really special. A very whistleable main theme too.

Hannibal
So long, for now, Dr Lecter. After three series with ever-shrinking audiences, NBC pulled the plug on one of the most imaginative and beautiful programmes ever made. And how do you make the most beautiful show on television even more beautiful? Take it to Florence, that’s how! It seemed its fate was sealed as soon as it went full Eurotrash and became a ‘funny’ accent extravaganza. And granted, the first few episodes felt even more languid than usual, as it recalibrated itself following the second series finale. But once friends, enemies and frenemies are reunited, it offered much to savour. That it also managed to fit in The Tooth Fairy – now in its third filmed adaptation after Manhunter and Red Dragon – and still managed to surprise and feel fresh is testament to just how good Hannibal was, and hopefully one day may be again. Fingers crossed for a movie, but not just any movie. A full-blown, over-ripe, nightmarish, gorgeous, movie musical is about the only way I can see it going. And yes, Mads Mikkelsen can sing. Kind of.

Hunderby
Despite its BAFTA and British Comedy Awards, I thought we had seen the last of Hunderby given it being tucked away on Sky Atlantic and lack of mainstream attention. But hush-ho! We were blessed with two glorious, disgusting specials in December. The relationships became ever more convoluted, the plot increasingly contrived, all in the grand traditions of the literature of course, and Julia Davis’ vulgar vernacular made my eyes fountain with laughter and locked my face in a grin throughout. Very silly and in exquisitely bad taste and all the better for it.

AND THE NEXT FIFTEEN…

Wolf Hall
Lots of people looking miserable in dark rooms and creaky corridors is how I imagine the Tudor period, so Wolf Hall is probably a rather accurate depiction of historical events.

Inside No. 9
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s second post-League collaboration after Psychoville mirrors its predecessor by following a good first series with a great second one.

Penny Dreadful
Still not essential viewing, but the second series of John Logan’s gothic mash-up found itself a sense of humour, and with it became far more entertaining.

Broad City
Comedy Central UK finally woke up to the fact that it might actually be a good idea to show some of the much-praised original programmes from the U S of A, so while Key & Peele, Kroll Show, Nathan For You, Review and more remain unshown, at least we finally got to see Inside Amy Schumer and this, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s very funny misadventures as they struggle to deal with the real world in any way, shape or form.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Not read the book and I gather chunks were understandably excised, but it didn’t affect the story-telling or character as I saw it. An enjoyably weird and unpredictable tale that offered some startling stuff.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Given how much I didn’t get on with the film when I watched it for the first time only this year, I’m pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed its prequel some 14 years after the original was made. Great new additions round out an original returning cast that has its fair share of stars already, and its goofiness is infectious.

The Returned
The second (possibly final?) series was as atmospheric as ever, though had a different feel and agenda to what came before. Less focus on character and mood, more on twists and revelations, but managed a tricky balance of being both satisfying and ambiguous.

W/ Bob & David
The team and talent from Mr. Show (which I still have not seen) reunite for a mini sketch series that not only knows how to squeeze the best out of a great set-up, but has the performances to back it up. Digital!

And Then There Were None
Superior Agatha Christie adaptation with a stellar cast, so you end up feeling extra upset when your favourites from stage and screen start dropping like flies.

Master of None
Aziz Ansari wrote the book on modern romance (literally), so it’s no surprise Master of None (co-written with Parks and Recreation’s Alan Yang, and originally developed with the much-missed Harris Wittels) would be a witty, articulate and accurate depiction of relationships (and much more besides) in this day and age.

Doctor Who
I still think this gets better year on year. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman settle more comfortably than ever into their roles, and the good-bad story ratio was the highest it has been post-comeback.

The Great British Bake Off
Nadiya – QUEEN. Comfort food telly of the highest order.

Ash vs Evil Dead
I have a feeling I may end up writing a more in-depth review once I finish off the series, but, a few misgivings aside, this is a largely successful (and quite frankly still amazing that it ever happened) resurrection. Lively, boisterous, and very, very bloody.

Rick & Morty
Maybe not as strong as the first series, but still a remarkable, rule-breaking animation that can run rings around supposedly serious sci-fi fare. With extra dick and fart jokes.

Peep Show
As the El Dude Brothers ride off into the sunset, let’s just stop to appreciate just how such a cringe-inducing, uncomfortably accurate comedy of social embarrassment and despair with a bizarre first-person gimmick became one of the longest running sitcoms in British TV history? Just as good as ever.

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2015: Films of the Year

Here are ten films I saw in 2015 that I liked a lot with some comments too (some lazily culled and edited from earlier reviews), with some fairly arbitrary ranking (I could probably swap around the top five each day). Given how film release schedules work (or don’t in one particular instance) and festival screenings and the like, it’s somewhat fluid what constitutes a 2015 film (a couple of international releases date from 2013 and 2014, one other film here isn’t out in the UK until March), but if you want the full context of my tastes and habits to avoid a “Where’s [BLANK]?”-athon, I’ve got a Letterboxd account now, which I plan to make full use of in the New Year. So now you can judge everything I watch or do not watch! Enough preamble, on with the list!

 

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1. The Look of Silence

A companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, this time telling the story of the Indonesia genocide from the point of the view of the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Here, an optician whose brother was murdered before he was even born confronts those responsible, but this is far more complex than a straightforward revenge story.  In fact, while this may be a more accessible work than The Act of Killing in many respects, it is even more essential. Playing something like a documentary version of Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s chilling, eye-opening and powerful, and carries with it, in its main subject and his family, an emotionally engaging centre through the horror.

2. The Lobster

Though absurd in its set-up and often very funny, The Lobster has a lot to say about our own reality, namely love and relationships, and the weird rituals, mechanics and quirks that make no sense taken out of context and viewed dispassionately – even if there is something strangely moving about the central character’s own quest for companionship. Though this is his first film in the English language, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dry deliberate tone and stilted dialogue fits well with the international cast.  It’s weird, sad, dark and hilarious, reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Jam if anything, and one of the best films of the year.

3. It Follows

There is so much about David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows to talk about, it’s hard to know where to begin (I go into more detail here). For all the talent taking place on screen and off (especially when it comes to its score and cinematography), a recommendation would be hard to justify through style alone, but It Follows’ substance runs deep. It feels timeless yet current, it presents a gimmick and vague set of rules but allows an uncertainty and ambiguity to the premise to unsettle you further, and it plays on multiple themes explicitly but doesn’t vocalise them in a way to make them seem so heavy-handed. A trashier version of the film, played more for yuks and scares, could exist somewhere – and would probably be very entertaining – but as it stands, It Follows feels fully-formed and left me much impressed.

4. Carol

Carol is a simple story – in the best possible sense – impeccably performed and elegantly told. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara put in their very best work, even given their tip-top standards, and you can almost smell the smoke and perfume pouring off the screen. Every glance feels electric, every touch momentous, and every creative detail perfectly judged.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

There were arguably better films released this year, but Mad Max: Fury Road was the talking-point movie of 2015, ten tonnes of unfiltered crazy from a singular vision in George Miller, age having done nothing to dull his sensibilities. As blockbusters get baggier and bleed into each other through ‘cinematic universes’, this is world-building done right, with exposition that cuts to the chase, characters that speak through their actions, story that is inferred without sacrificing pace. Instantly iconic.

 

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6. Force Majeure

A family skiing holiday is punctured by a sudden incident and a split-second decision that has deep personal ramifications. Sounds like a thriller, yet Ruben Östlund’s hilarious comic tale manages to create simmering tension while maintaining an excruciatingly funny vein of humour. If you can bear the cringe-inducing awkwardness of it all, Force Majeure is a biting and witty dissection of the roles and responsibilities of men and women in their social and domestic relationships. The great expanse of the Alps has never felt so claustrophobic.

7. Snowpiercer

Included here as something of a protest vote, Snowpiercer remains without a UK release due to meddlings from the Weinstein Company. A shame, as it means audiences here have been denied a chance to see another fine film from Korean master director Bong Joon Ho (his first – mainly – in the English language) on the big screen. In spite of this, Snowpiercer is a compelling addition to the future dystopia social satire sub-genre, charting an uprising aboard an intercontinental train perpetually travelling through a post-apocalyptic Earth turned icy wasteland. As with Bong’s earlier work, it can smartly juggle grim reality and sudden violence with dark humour and emotional weight, and a great cast commit themselves to the outlandish premise (Tilda Swinton particularly memorable as a Roald Dahl-esque villain). Absolutely worth seeking out.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Big space movies are back. Gravity, Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, even Prometheus has something to answer for (well, a lot of things to answer for). Ridley Scott’s attempt this year to make an all-together decent off-world offering was very close to finding its way into my top ten – the hugely enjoyable The Martian – but Star Wars: The Force Awakens managed to not only course-correct a franchise that had lost its sheen, but do so in such an entertaining fashion. And it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia. In fact, I was having such a good time with its trio of new characters (plus Ball Droid), it was a bit of a disappointment when Han and Chewie show up. The Internet can nitpick away at its flaws; JJ Abrams for all his success at nailing the tricky stuff does have a habit of fumbling story and speeding through leaps of logic (which makes the next instalments and spin-offs more exciting now the groundwork is out of the way). But fewer better times were had at the cinema this year.

9. Enemy

While Sicario has garnered justifiable praise, it’s Dennis Villeneuve’s previous film (released in the UK on 2nd January 2015, so just sneaking in here) that left the greater impression. Enemy is an engrossing head-scratcher that lingers long after watching, not just as you unpick the plot but with the weird sense of dread that seeps through it. Almost a year after watching it, there’s still stuff in here I’ve yet to shake off. Jake Gyllenhaal is just as good here as in Nightcrawler (though played very differently), and if Villeneuve can combine the atmosphere and paranoia of Enemy with the tension and action of Sicario, then his forthcoming Blade Runner sequel may shift from ‘approach with caution’ to ‘very exciting indeed’.

10. Anomalisa

Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is naturally as Kaufman-esque, for want of a better word, as previous favourites, witty and strange and emotionally engaging. But in teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson, together they have also crafted a quite remarkable animation to boot. The use of animation serves many functions here, especially as our lead character, a relatable but crucially not necessarily likeable writer (played by David Thewlis) is surrounded by a sea of identical faces, be it man, woman or child, all voiced by Tom Noonan. To describe what Anomalisa actually is would perhaps reveal too much as the story itself is slim and contained, but the directions it takes and the choices it makes offer much to take away for further thought and reflection. For any fans of his previous films, it is essential viewing.

 

And for making it this far – a reward! Here’s my annual Spotify playlist of favourite pieces of scores and soundtracks from 2015. Stream below or click here to open separately.

 

2015: Music of the Year

As much as I love music and seeing music being performed live and sharing the music I like with people, it’s finally dawned on me that I actually suck at writing about it. I have no sense of how to describe how something sounds, and my working knowledge of terminology, or coming up with comparisons, or even placing bands or songs into subgenres, is pretty ropey. It’s a pain to write, it’s not entertaining to read, so let’s cut to the chase, and present – largely without comment – my favourite albums released this year.

1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell

I will just say something about this, out of all the gigs I saw this year (admittedly not many, but some good stuff at Glastonbury, Future Islands/Beck/The Strokes at Hyde Park, Garbage at Brixton Academy…), Sufjan Stevens at Royal Festival Hall was a highlight. Impeccably performed renditions of the latest album, but when Sufjan finally got chatting with the crowd, what could have been a beautiful but sombre occasion became filled with remarkable levity, cracking jokes, fluffing lines as he got the giggles. And to cap it off, a finale that made full use of the venue’s pipe organ filled the hall with a swirling rumble that felt like a UFO landing. Extraordinary and memorable.

2. Grimes – Art Angels
3. The Dø – Shake Shook Shaken
4. FFS – FFS
5. Hot Chip – Why Make Sense
6. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
7. The Go! Team – The Scene Between
8. John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
9. Tame Impala – Currents
10. Lianne La Havas – Blood

And what with a music wrap-up be without one of my Viewing Gum Listening Posts? Largely compiled from my VGLP playlists, this bumper edition will hopefully in the grand tradition offer a little something for everyone. Stream below or click here.

 

 

And that’s not all, for in my occasional duty as resident DJ of GamerDisco, I also listen to a lot of chiptune, synthwave, video game remixes, soundtracks and more. And so I also compile a Spotify playlist with some of the best tracks that you might hear at our events. Please enjoy!

 

 

Today is one year away from when Marty McFly arrives in the future in Back to the Future Part II

What's the date today?

What’s the date today?

Today is October 21st 2014. That means in 365 days it will be October 21st 2015. A date of immense significance, at least in terms of fictional future narratives, as it is that date on which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) arrives in a future Hill Valley in Back to the Future Part II.

The Back to the Future films continue to cast a long popular culture shadow, the kind of mainstream family-friendly adventure comedy that only really exists nowadays in animated form or as long as a superhero is involved, Guardians of the Galaxy probably the closest example (and it can’t have escaped studios that a large part of its success was down to finally releasing a film that was actually ‘fun’). As a cornerstone of nostalgic entertainment among the current generation, it’s only parallel is probably Ghostbusters in terms of popularity. And while BTTF2 is generally considered the weakest of the trilogy, its reputation is unfair considering just how much it manages to cover in its running time – including an alternative present (technically past at the time of release) and a clever intricate return to the 1955 stomping grounds of the first film.

But it is in its depiction of a future 30 years from Marty’s time that the film remains most memorable. Indeed, it’s arguably the most popular segment of all three films, and a large part of the success of the section, and the trilogy as a whole, can be put down to that date. In the past couple of years, a spate of memes circulated, tricking people into thinking that today’s date was the day Marty arrived in the future. There are even websites set up specifically to both generate your own hoax-date or to countdown to the actual date that appears in the film, while istodaythedaymartymcflyarriveswhenhetravelstothefuture.com is pretty self-explanatory.

The real date, in case you were wondering.

The real date, in case you were wondering.

However, I’m not so much interested in this being one year before the events of BTTF2, or to demand where my hoverboard is, or wonder how we’re possibly going to squeeze in 15 Jaws films within 12 months. Rather, my interests lie in asking: why this date? Why is it so important to us?

Other pop culture properties mention key dates and would have been ripe for jokey anticipation. In Terminator 2, Judgment Day is set for August 28th, 1997. But there wasn’t so much hoo-ha when that came and went, perhaps because while a fictional SkyNet should’ve been waging war against mankind, our own internet access wasn’t quite as extensive, and meme culture was hardly widespread. Besides, it was all superseded by the very real (okay, not so real) threat of Y2K.

And once 2015 has been and gone, we still have the world of Blade Runner (November 2019) to look forward to. But we don’t get endless Shortlist articles asking when we can expect to have our own ESPERs, or when off-world colonies will be set up, or synthetic owls will be available to the rich and powerful.

These are more adult examples obviously, but that’s not to say that fascination with the future of BTTF2 is purely an exercise in nostalgia. Yesterday’s kids may be the grown-ups of today, and so they bring with them their own childhood experiences and interests. But I was already working out I would be 30 by the time BTTF2 rolled around when I first saw it, about 4 or 5 years old. The anticipation for that future was an instantaneous one, not something that has happened as it has gotten closer, at least for me. Then again, I once got my Dad to drive at 88mph on the motorway in the hope we would travel back in time (of course, forgetting we didn’t even have a flux capacitor). Even still, will kids count the days until the events of their favourite films are set to take place? Do films set in the future even have dates now? I must admit I have stopped paying attention. A generic THE FUTURE or 20XX may suffice, but there is something about having a specific date that both maintains interest in the run up to calendars aligning, as well as seems kind of cute in retrospect. If sci-fi films of the 90s, 80s, 70s and earlier are to be believed, the world should have ended/been invaded/turned into a maximum security prison several times over by now (something retro-futuro parody game Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon plays on with its tagline: “The year is 2007. It is the future”). 1984 and 2001: A Space Odyssey carry with them a potency in their titles, even after the titular years have long passed, as they represent something about the time in which they written, as well as suggesting a milestone as part of a wider framework, the greater progress of civilisation and mankind’s journey.

Maybe it’s because none of these future visions are quite as much fun and optimistic as Hill Valley, 2015. It’s highly unlikely that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale would’ve expected the fanciful creations of BTTF2 would come to pass in the timeframe allotted (though an 80’s revival and hands free videogaming are totally things right now). Flying cars and rehydrating pizza machines and self-tying Nikes are pure wish fulfilment, whereas the near-futures seen in the likes of Blade Runner and Children of Men, while even more vivid and detailed, are hardly happy and hopeful.

Even if in the future, jerks still exist.

Even if in the future, jerks still exist.

All this though is probably missing the key point, in that the Back to the Future films are all about time-travel. The dates are more than just a nominal background setting or arbitrary dressing, but foregrounded and essential to the narrative. The closest equivalent I can think of when it comes to time-travel comedy adventures of the period are probably the Bill and Ted films, and while the San Dimas of 2691 A.D. as depicted in the start of Bogus Journey is amusing in its dayglo aesthetic, it’s just not as intrinsic to the story nor is enough time spent in that period to really make an impact. Plus, 600 years into the future is just not as tangible. Watching BTTF2 as a kid, knowing that, all things being well, I would experience that date in my lifetime, fired off more sparks in my imagination. I won’t even be around to see the establishment of Bill and Ted University (2425 A.D. if you must know).

And so, in just one year’s time, that burning sense of anticipation, of childhood wonder, will have been extinguished by the cold hard wind of reality. But hey, let’s not end on a downer! Let me know what’s the next future date to look forward to. What might I have missed?