50 Wonderful Things From 2014
I am not a great maker of lists. Unless pressed, I will make exactly one each year, and this is it.
This is a list of 50 of the wonderful things that wandered through my field of vision in 2014. It is not a definitive list of the best things. It is not merely subjective but sublimely subjective. It leans away from (but doesn't entirely avoid) what's been most highly praised and what seems to have been most rewarded.
Also: It is cultural things, not all wonderful things. (Whenever I make this list, someone says something like, "How about a walk in the woods, huh? How about that?" Yes. I like the woods. This is not that list.)
Without further ado, and with gratitude to all of you for reading this year and all of these great folks (and lots of other great folks) for making such good stuff, let's get on with it.
1. The way director Gina Prince-Bythewood presents Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker in bed together – not just having sex, but lolling about idly – in the gorgeous Beyond The Lights. She has had a tremendous feel for physical closeness going back to her great 2000 sports romance Love And Basketball (which had a good year itself, including a screening in L.A. hosted by Bad Feminist writer Roxane Gay) and this film continues her sharp observation of, among other things, how it feels to be truly comfortable in the company of another person.
2. Julie Schumacher's tragicomic epistolary novel, Dear Committee Members, which traces the emotional downward spiral of a profoundly frustrated English professor through the darkly funny, self-sabotaging letters of recommendation he drafts for others.
3. Marc Maron's November conversation with cartoonist and writer Allie Brosh for his podcast, WTF. Brosh has written and drawn evocatively about battles with depression and anxiety, but the alliance the two created over the course of their discussion – which touched on some extremely dark developments in her life – blossomed into an unexpected and deeply humane examination of how it feels not just to have depression, but to come to terms with having it. (Also: Maron's conversation with Dr. Drew Pinsky, which highlighted the latter's neurosis and compartmentalizing, as well as compassion and good intentions.)
4. The great television director Michelle MacLaren, a veteran of Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Leftovers being tapped to direct the upcoming Wonder Woman movie. She becomes the first woman given a job at the helm of one of the highest-profile superhero films, but that's not even the reason it's such encouraging news. It's encouraging news simply because it places a franchise that could stand a good shot at succeeding in the hands of a gifted director. You can read more about her in this profile in New York Magazine.
5. I am so glad I made room in my year – and mind, and heart – for Jacqueline Woodson's extraordinary verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, which won a National Book Award and deserved every one of the many recommendations it received this year. Achingly specific and yet in some respects utterly universal, Brown Girl Dreaming is a book about being a black girl growing up in both South Carolina and New York City in the 1960s, but is also a book about finding your voice and being at peace with your history, whatever it may be. Perhaps the book's most important lines are these: "I didn't just appear one day. I didn't just wake up and know how to write my name."
6. Jenny Slate's empathetic portrayal of the young protagonist in the funny and thoughtful romantic comedy Obvious Child, written and directed by Gillian Robespierre. There is a disarming giggly quality in parts of Slate's persona that lies atop a wonderful, gravelly laugh and a keen sense of the shyness and excitement that accompanies meeting someone you really like.
7. Anna Kendrick's straightforward performance of the song "I'm Still Hurting" at the beginning of the musical The Last 5 Years (which appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival and will open in theaters in February). The most important thing in any movie musical is to respect the music (here by Jason Robert Brown) and stay out of its way, and the film's focus on Kendrick, who proves early that she can act and sing at the same time, helps it settle into its fairly minimalist groove.
8. The look – looks – on Rosamund Pike's face as she sits on a sofa at a crucial moment in David Fincher's adaptation of Gone Girl. There is such a complicated, oddly funny succession of emotions flitting across her face as she watches Ben Affleck as her husband Nick, and they're all necessary for the story to work.
9. The performances of the three wives on Trophy Wife: Malin Akerman, Michaela Watkins, and Marcia Gay Harden. The show sadly is no more, but while it was on, it provided a weekly reminder that archetypes need not be stereotypes, and that within every good character are contradictions and surprises, not just broader and broader versions of the original premise rendered at increasing volume. All three of these great women, as well as series creators Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern and the other actors, including Bradley Whitford, Bailee Madison, Natalie Morales, Ryan Lee and especially the small and singular Albert Tsai, deserve to find blissful futures elsewhere.
10. Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Captain Holt, played by Andre Braugher, hearing that his guess about the whereabouts of Amy Santiago was correct and intoning – for all time – "Hot damn!"
11. The new show that critics probably got the most unanimously behind this year was Jane The Virgin, the surprising, wonderful CW comedy-drama created by Jennie Urman that lovingly bends and adapts the tropes of the telenovela to tell the story of one young woman – warmly and endearingly played by great find Gina Rodriguez – who finds herself in most unusual circumstances. Worth watching for the super-dramatic voiceover alone, the show is an absolute blast as well as a much-needed punch of good-natured warmth.
12. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, which spoke out strongly for diversity of books and authors at BookCon (an event for readers and enthusiasts full of panel discussions). The hashtag is now an organization, and this spring, BookCon will feature two panels specifically curated by the folks behind it.
13. Wesley Morris' film writing, including his thoughtful, crucial take on the dumb comedy Let's Be Cops and his review of the treacly, moralistic Kevin Costner race drama Black And White, which contains one of my favorite sick burns of the year: "It's like Tyler Perry's Crash."
14. Allison Tolman's performance in Fargo as Deputy Molly Solverson. Rarely does a single character come to hold so many of my hopes and dreams for a show, and rarely does my fear for her become such an overwhelming part of the show's suspense element. Tolman was pretty much unknown to me (and many others) before this role, and has since gone in a far more purely comic direction on The Mindy Project, where she was also terrific.
15. Emily Blunt's turns in both Edge Of Tomorrow and Into The Woods. She hasn't had her blockbuster Now You Can Open Whatever Film You Want moment yet, but she really should, because she's thoughtful about everything she does and hugely appealing. Edge Of Tomorrow, critically well-liked and commercially disappointing, is a frustrating film that seems to suggest blockbusters perform in ways utterly unrelated to how good they are, but Blunt finds a lot of comedy in an unusually good female lead role in an action movie.
16. John Cho's game effort to elevate ABC's canceled comedy Selfie. The show was promising at times but maddeningly uneven, had trouble getting air under it and ultimately was forced to play out its run on Hulu. But Cho was charming, sexy, funny and different, and he ought to get another shot at romantic comedy pronto. He's made for it.
17. Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow, the mom-slash-doctor on ABC's Black-ish. Sitcom mothers are so often left with no comic identity of their own, left to shake their heads or scold or sigh, to be wise and infallible rocks there to ground the antics of others. Bow is her own peculiar weirdo, just as much as her husband is, and their relationship isn't just one of equals in terms of respect, it's one of equals in terms of comedy and personality.
18. Nanette Burstein's great, sad, weird 30 For 30 documentary The Price Of Gold, about Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding's very different experiences surrounding the 1994 Winter Olympics. Stubbornly resistant to any simple narrative, it nonetheless upended the understanding of the event that a lot of us have long had.
19. Even for those who don't care a whit about fashion, it was a joy to absorb Lupita Nyong'o's entire flawless awards season. This includes her Oscar speech, but not just her Oscar speech. As the Fug Girls so wisely put it, "a global style crush was born."
21. I enjoyed Serial a lot, but I also enjoyed both the Funny Or Die parody (appearance #2 for the super Michaela Watkins) and the Saturday Night Live one (featuring Cecily Strong in an even more meticulous copy of the format, now pegged to Santa). Who could have guessed?
22. Jenny Offill's Dept. Of Speculation, a novel that's formally experimental and narratively classic. It's a story of a courtship, a marriage, a child, and the appearance of peril. But Offill's assembly of the story from short paragraphs bound not by a typical storytelling structure but by the emotional strings that tie them together makes it both a relatable read and a very unusual one. Everything – point of view, sentence length, everything – changes throughout the book, not for show or for self-conscious edginess, but for a purpose.
23. [My friend] Pam Ribon's book Notes To Boys. Mortifying to read. Great to read. It's the circle of life.
24. Kim Of Queens, the goofiest self-improvement pageant reality show I have ever sort of loved. It's like Dance Moms if the teacher actually did love the students. Every cultural diet needs an occasional ice cream sandwich, and you should at least make it a good one.
25. Cristin Milioti as both the mother on How I Met Your Mother and the lead on A to Z. Both of those projects had problems – particularly her run on HIMYM as it careened toward its disappointing finale – but Milioti herself can convey warmth, humor, intelligence, confidence, weariness, wariness and hopefulness. Many of the things, in other words, a heroine needs.
26. The moment in which NPR's own Gene Demby of Code Switch referred to Macklemore as "MC Bearhugz," which might be the most observant thing said this year about a very, very over-discussed dude. We chatted more with Gene about this on Pop Culture Happy Hour; he had a lot of good stuff to say.
27. The story of Ava DuVernay's friendship with Roger Ebert, as told in the documentary Life Itself. As her film Selma comes to theaters, it's particularly sweet to recall their bond. (Part of the story is excerpted here.)
28. [My friend] Audie Cornish chatting in some extra audio from All Things Considered with Chris Rock about hip-hop artists, the fact that many hits are pretty good, the possibility that Aretha Franklin could figure out a way to approach "All About That Bass," the undesirability of rewarding dysfunction, and lots more. It's just people talking, and it's kind of great.
29. Sarah Baker's performance on the lauded episode of Louie called "So Did The Fat Lady." Louis C.K.'s script did all it could to try to speak for the feelings of women in the position of the waitress Baker played, but without her ability to absorb his writing and translate it in her performance into something that felt organic, it would just be one person transparently presuming to speak for another. It was a fine example of writer-actor collaboration that should do as much for her as it did for him, and he won an Emmy.
30. Amy Schumer in general. Her Sorkin parody in particular. Its closing line, "Bestowed upon you by Aaron Sorkin" in particularly particular.
31. One of the most sorely needed pieces of critical writing I saw this year was Emily Nussbaum's piece on True Detective, which was rather cuttingly called "Cool Story, Bro." Whether you precisely agreed with it or not, the piece was an example of getting outside a developing critical consensus enough to not merely be disappointed in something widely lauded, but to make fun of it, to be frank about it, and to – for lack of a better term – deflate it and bring it back down to earth where it could be discussed like any other television show.
32. Jolie Kerr's great book about housecleaning, My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag. Funny and useful, Kerr's writing has a fearless understanding of the way people live, combined with a proud commitment to the idea that never should being busy require you to live with things that are gross.
33. Mad Men has been long criticized for its failure to address itself to race, and it's not in a position yet to earn any medals for that on the whole. But one of the pleasures of the first half of the seventh and final season was the conversation between Dawn and Shirley in the episode "A Day's Work," in which we learned that the two women are friends and loose allies who wryly call each other by their own names to mimic the office's inability to distinguish two black secretaries from each other. The scene, between Teyonah Parris and Sola Bamis, at least gave these two characters a moment in which the story really was about them, and about the office from their point of view.
34. The episode of Jesse Thorn's excellent Bullseye that featured RuPaul and Terry Crews. Both fascinating people of different kinds, the guests were a great example of what Thorn does well: get people chatting in ways both hilarious and profound. It's not the first time RuPaul has said "You're born naked and the rest is drag," but it comes here in the context of a more searching conversation than most hosts have with guests. And if you don't come away wanting Crews to be your best friend, you're a stronger person than I am.
35. Jill Soloway's Transparent, which instantly made Amazon creatively relevant and which featured absolutely stunning performances from actors like Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass and Judith Light. A show about a transgender woman finding her way, yes, but also a show about a whole family.
36. The happy year for fans of Essie Davis, who continues to delight on Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, and who also stars in Jennifer Kent's well-reviewed horror film The Babadook, which I will absolutely see once I can convince myself I won't die of fright. I spoke to Davis in March of this year, and things have only gotten more interesting for her since.
37. I had mixed feelings about Jon Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater, but it has unexpected and interesting moments that stuck with me long after I saw it in Toronto. One shows Maziar Bahari, the imprisoned Iranian-Canadian journalist played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, dancing in his cell. Bernal's performance finds a wonderful variety of notes in this story, and the dance may be the one that has lingered most.
38. The beautiful and unusual ending of the Chinese drama Coming Home, directed by Zhang Yimou and featuring a stunning performance from Gong Li as a woman whose separation from her husband has tragic consequences. Rarely have I seen a film so purely curious about what exactly it means to love another person, to lose another person, and to sacrifice for others. It's a stunner, and the entire cast, particularly Gong Li and Chen Daoming, is divine.
39. Staying at the Toronto International Film Festival for another moment: David Gulpilil's performance in Charlie's Country, a story about an aboriginal man who, driven from his life by police, resolves to live out in the bush as his ancestors did. The film takes a series of unexpected turns, but it is Gulpilil's performance that creates its intimacy and impact.
40. A moment for perhaps my favorite thing NPR did this year: the Borderland project, an absorbing multimedia presentation with photography as beautiful as its audio.
41. Kumail Nanjiani's performance in the HBO ensemble comedy Silicon Valley, one of my favorite new comedy turns of the year.
42. The performance of "Fugue For Tinhorns" from Guys And Dolls that was slipped in between segments into an episode of NPR's Ask Me Another when Kristin and Bobby Lopez, who wrote the music from Frozen, were on the show. For whatever reason, this little dip into Broadway history with the show's resident musician, Jonathan Coulton, delighted me to the point where I still go back and listen to it now and then.
43. David Rees' Nat Geo series Going Deep With David Rees, a show that truly understood the profound weirdness of its own tone and used it to its advantage. Created by Rees along with producers Jo Honig and Christine Connor, Going Deep was your reliable source on shoe-tying, hole-digging, and even door-opening. All the things you already think you know all about, you actually don't. It's a show with curiosity, humor, and actual learning, and you can't beat that.
44. The way Nicki Minaj showed up all year at things like the VMAs and casually, confidently owned whatever she was doing. Perhaps strolling out on stage with her dress unzipped was planned ahead of time and perhaps it wasn't, but either way, she killed it. Perhaps it's even wittier if she did it on purpose.
45. Before we get off award shows: let's take a moment for the completely bizarre but utterly candid way Sarah Silverman opened her purse on the red carpet and said, "That's my liquid pot." Don't get me wrong – I'm not saying liquid pot itself is wonderful. But if red-carpet hosts are going to do something as stupid as asking women to open up their purses, they deserve to occasionally get a conversation that brings a little more realness to the moment than they were expecting.
46. The comic actress Retta, who is both a hilarious presence on Twitter and the portrayer of one of my favorite characters on television: Donna Meagle. Follow her for great live-tweeting of television, Duke basketball fandom, and much, much more.
47. The remembrances of Joan Rivers that women in comedy provided after she died, including a great one from Caissie St. Onge.
48. The Mindy Project's deft navigation of the fraught world of a new relationship. If anything, that show has gotten better as Mindy and Danny have become more of a real couple, and it has lost absolutely not one step comedically. They're funnier together than they were apart, and it's well worth remembering that the idea that that can't happen is mostly bunk.
49. Shonda Rhimes, in addition to having great sway over an entire night of ABC television, seemed to decide this year to talk a little more freely and abundantly, which has been all the better. Chatting with her about her writing staffs, her process in Hollywood, and her experiences using diverse casts on her shows was a great pleasure.
50. The opening sequences of The Lego Movie and Guardians Of The Galaxy, both of which rely heavily on the easy charm of Chris Pratt, who had one hell of a year.
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