Last week I posted my favorite films of 2015. Here is part 2 of my ‘best of’ list:
Only 3 of the many books I read this year make the list… but wow, are these three terrific:
A MONSTER CALLS
No other narrative in 2015 affected me as deeply as this heartbreaking, brutal yet beautiful novel. My good friend Shay handed me A Monster Calls, recommending it highly, and, with no other warning from her, I made the mistake of reading it on a plane. I can’t imagine what the passengers in the surrounding 5 or 6 rows were thinking when, during the last third, I audibly fell apart and then could not pull myself together when I finished. And I don’t cry. (Too much a man… you know…) Patrick Ness’ exquisite prose with deep emotional insight and stunning illustratations by Jim Kay create a book, an experience, that will be with me a long, long time. I will return to it often.
WEST OF SUNSET
If you love 1) Old Hollywood 2) Movies and/or 3) F. Scott Fitzgerald, you will be in heaven reading this near perfect rendering of the last year or so of Fitzgerald’s his life as he struggles to survive in the film business and the world at large. I’ve read and enjoyed a number of author Stewart O’Nan’s novels but nothing prepared me for the beauty and craft of his latest, and best. The book is fictional, yes, but based largely on the actual facts of Fitzgerald’s life. Peppered with other real life characters such as Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart and Hemingway, this was pure pleasure to read, even though recounting perhaps the darkest era in the famous author’s life.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
Touted by critics as “this year’s Gone Girl‘, Paula Hawkin’s debut novel is even better and, if you can believe it, even darker. A stunning thriller with one of the most complex main characters I’ve encountered in a while, The Girl on the Train blew me away. I read it in two days then immediately read it again, knowing all the secrets, to appreciate Hawkin’s mastery at deception and the best use of an unreliable narrator I’ve ever encountered. Unsurprisingly, the movie is currently filming with a terrific cast, though the movie’s switch of locale from London to New York is baffling and irritating. Read the book, don’t wait for the movie.
As for television, I wish I had more time to watch shows, given the amazing golden age of television in which we happily find ourselves . That said, I was lucky enough to watch some of the best TV in years:
SHOW ME A HERO
Hands down the best of the year. This critically acclaimed 6 episode mini-series was also the one HBO series no one seemed to watch. I can only hope it will slowly gain traction through word of mouth because this masterpiece absolutely slayed me. Based on the true story of a battle to create public housing in Yonkers, New York in the late 1980’s, Show Me A Hero is an unflinching, complex, thought-provoking drama about politics, race, ambition, betrayal, redemption… well, in its six episodes Show Me A Hero covers the gamut of almost every human emotion, foible and experience. While a period piece, everything in the miniseries has incredible resonance in our current climate. Spearheaded by The Wire’s David Simon, the miniseries showcases some of the best acting I’ve seen by an ensemble in a long time. With so many performers doing peerless work, I hesitate to single out actors, but mention must be made of Oscar Issac, who has become by far the most interesting and dynamic actor alive today. His work here is outstanding and holds the story together. And then there is Catherine Keener. I didn’t even recognize her for a couple of episodes. Her character, a woman fiercely opposed to the housing project, becomes the most fascinating character in the story with a subtle, beautifully realized arc that is one of the more surprising aspects of the series, which contains a number of shocking surprises. Given it is based on real life, nothing plays out as you would expect. I binged all six hours on a 14 hour flight and was transfixed the entire time. Whether you binge the series or, as I might recommend, take it slow to let the weight of the themes settle in before another episode, I encourage you to give this critically acclaimed but low rated series a look.
Until I saw Show Me A Hero, The Jinx was easily my pick as ‘best of the year’ and, honestly, I might as well give them both the top berth. A six episode documentary about a murder mystery, The Jinx is riveting. I’ve seen it three times and will watch it again. Each time, in fact, I’ve watched it, with friends, in one sitting. Not only is it a suspenseful and shocking mystery, it’s brilliant use of what I call ‘disclosure of information’… how each piece of information in the story is laid out for maximum effect. This is a narrative I will teach in my screenwriting classes for years. The director, Andrew Jarecki, also directed one of my favorite documentaries of all time, Capturing The Friedmans (a must watch) and he builds on his craft to create something even more gripping in this stunner. You will not be able to turn it off.
MAKING A MURDERER
Netflix dropped another stunning true crime documentary at the end of the year and as the Christmas holidays rolled into New Years, social media exploded as everyone binged the series and began to post theories about it. The less you know the better, and watch it fast as it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid spoilers. While I would say watch The Jinx if you are only going to watch one, you really don’t want to miss this either. Both The Jinx and Making A Murderer have created controversy by the manner of their storytelling and the real life implications that have erupted because of the narratives. More power to the filmmakers, I say. Both are brilliant.
Oh and be ready to get angry. Very angry.
NOTE: If you, too, loved The Jinx and Making A Murderer, find Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, the best true crime documentary ever made. A movie that, by breaking the traditional form of documentaries, is the grandfather of every modern doc that came after, The Thin Blue Line is another stunner, a movie that truly changed my life when I saw it in the theatre. It, too, was controversial at the time and, like this year’s duo, it had an enormous social effect when it was released.
Last year, Season One of Fargo astonished most everyone by being the best piece of narrative fiction on TV in many years. Many critics found Season Two even better. While I myself don’t think Season Two quite reaches the dizzying heights of the first, this flashback to the 70’s and the life of one of the characters from Season One was still better than most of the other terrific shows on TV this year. Perfectly cast, audaciously directed and, like all things Fargo, hilarious and gruesome, if you have not seen either season move Fargo to the top of your binge list. You won’t be sorry.
GAME OF THRONES
Still the best TV show I’ve ever seen. ‘Nuff said.
Let us know your favorites! And, as always, thanks for reading. Here is to an equally terrific 2016!