Monday, December 18, 2017

best of 2017: movies

Finally, it's time for my favorite movies of 2017!  A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2017, but that's when I saw 'em.
  • Aside from the first movie listed, which was definitely my favorite of the year, these aren't in any particular order.
  • If I see anything else before the end of the year which belongs on here, I'll update accordingly. 
  • There are a few miscellaneous tidbits at the end of this entry too.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary.

1. Logan:  In the near future, Logan (aka Wolverine) is slowly losing his regenerative powers.  (He even has to wear reading glasses, which I thought was a nice touch.)  All he wants to do is save enough money to buy a boat where he and Professor X can safely live out the rest of their days, but he reluctantly finds himself charged with getting a young mutant (newcomer Dafne Keen, who's really good) to safety.  It's violent, dark, exciting, often quite funny, and the performances are terrific.  (Patrick Stewart deserves a supporting actor Oscar nomination.)  And ooof, the feels.  So many feels.

2. Wonder Woman:  After learning of a massive war from a pilot who crashes on her island, Diana leaves home to help out.  I was going to give this a double star until the last third, where it stumbled a bit, but it was still extremely enjoyable.  

3.  Lady Bird:  The title character is actually named Christine, but she's renamed herself Lady Bird in an effort to stand out.  She lives in Sacramento with her family, but she wants nothing more than to break away and move to New York City.  A wonderfully true look at the love/hate relationship between mothers and daughters, with exceptional performances by Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf as her harried mother.

4. Arrival:  When aliens arrive on Earth, a linguist (Amy Adams) is hired by the government to figure out their language and what they want.  Intelligent, heartbreaking, and a wonderful cast.

5. The Edge of Seventeen:  Surly Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has always lived in the shadow of her super popular older brother Darian.  She finds comfort spending time with her best friend Krista, but her world falls apart when Krista and Darian start dating.  Excellent performances and a great script; it was like an updated John Hughes movie.

6. A Monster Calls:  Trying desperately to cope with his mother's impending death, young Conor (Lewis MacDougall, who's terrific) is visited by an enormous tree creature who promises to tell him three stories in exchange for the truth that Conor can't bring himself to admit.

Ooof...JFC.  I can't imagine anyone not being touched by this movie, but if you've ever loved someone with a terminal illness, it's going to fucking WRECK you.  It's one of the most honest depictions of grief I've ever seen.  It bombed hard at the box office, probably because it was sold as a fantasy film for kids, but honestly, I think most kids would be traumatized by it.  For adults, though, it's beautiful and cathartic.

7. Baby Driver:  Baby (Ansel Elgort) works as a getaway driver for a group of bank robbers, but when he falls in love with a pretty waitress, he wants out.  Stylish as all hell (check out that uninterrupted shot near the beginning) and a whole lot of fun.

8. The Handmaiden:  A Korean woman is hired to serve as a rich Japanese woman's handmaiden, but she's secretly conspiring with a con man to steal all of her money instead.  Gorgeously shot, clever, and erotic.  I was also really impressed by how they adapted Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith; they kept the meat of the story but added a very unique spin.

9. Rogue One:  In this very dark Star Wars prequel, the Rebel Alliance learns of a flaw in the Death Star and sets out to steal the plans.  Great casting and exciting action sequences made this a very fun afternoon at the movies.

10. Moana:  After demigod Maui's antics put her island in jeopardy, young Moana sets off across the sea to right his wrongs and save her people.  Beautifully animated and quite charming.

Bonus stuff!

SEEN IN THE THEATER:  Rogue One, Logan, Thor: Ragnarok, Lady Bird, Star Wars: The Last Jedi


MADE ME CRY (OR AT LEAST TEAR UP):  Rogue One, Finding Dory, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Logan, Moana, A Monster Calls, My Life as a Zucchini, The Zookeeper's Wife, Colossal, Wonder Woman, Born in China, War for the Planet of the Apes, Wind River, Your Name, Kedi, Lady Bird, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

PLEASANT SURPRISES:  Life, The Great Wall, T2 Trainspotting, Passengers, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, My Life as a Zucchini, The Handmaiden, Finding Dory, The Villainess

STARE AT A WALL FOR 2 HOURS INSTEAD, IT WILL BE MORE ENTERTAINING:  Independence Day: Resurgence, Jack Reacher: Never Look Back, Rings, Jason Bourne 

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

best of 2017: miscellaneous

Now it's time for my favorite miscellaneous things from 2017!  A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these things first came out in 2017, but that's when I first played/read/watched them.
  • In years past, both video games and manga/graphic novels got their own posts at the end of the year, but I didn't have enough contenders in either category this year to warrant separate posts.  (My OCD won't let me make one of these lists unless there are at least 5 entrants.)
  • These aren't in any particular order.
  • As ever, your mileage may vary.

1. Dead Rising 4:  The latest installment of the survival horror franchise is set during Christmas, and although it's certainly not one of the best DR games, it's still worth playing for the sheer thrill of plowing through thousands and thousands of zombies.  Bonus points for a combo weapon called the Gandelf, a magical staff that shoots exploding lawn gnomes.  (Xbox One)

2.  Telltale's The Walking Dead: Michonne:  The backstory of TWD's beloved katana wielding badass.  (PS4)

3. The Santa Clarita Diet:  Drew Barrymore plays a real estate agent who's got a big secret: she died and was mysteriously revived, but now she has to eat humans to survive.  Her husband (Timothy Olyphant) reluctantly helps her track down deserving victims.  Extremely funny, and the leads have great chemistry together.  (Netflix streaming)

4. Erased by Kei Sanbe:  Satoru is an aspiring manga artist who has a special ability he calls Revival, which allows him to go back in time and prevent tragedies from occurring.  After his mother is murdered, his powers kick in and he goes 18 years in the past, when he was 10 and three of his friends were murdered.  With his previous knowledge of the situation still in place, he's determined to stop the killer and save his friends and his mother.  The art isn't the greatest, but the story is fantastic.

5. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda:  This series is difficult to sum up, so I'm going to copy Wikipedia's synopsis here:  "The series is set in a matriarchal 'alternate Asia' riven by war between the Arcanics, magical creatures that can sometimes pass as human, and the Cumaea, an order of sorceresses who consume Arcanics to fuel their power."  The art is absolutely stunning, the world building is terrific, and it not only features talking cats called Nekomancers (in case you don't get the pun, neko means cat in Japanese), but a fox girl named Kippa who's one of my favorite comics characters ever.

6. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris:  A stunningly illustrated graphic novel in which a 10-year-old girl named Karen tries to solve the murder of her upstairs neighbor.

7. Telltale's The Walking Dead: A New Frontier:  Another beautifully written and highly emotional installment from Telltale.

8. Persona 5:  I reviewed this in my November media update, so I won't repeat myself here; I'll just say that it's not only my favorite video game of the year, but one of my top ten of all time.  (PS4)

9. Mindhunter:  In this series, FBI special agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench interview serial killers in hopes of learning information that will help solve other cases in the future.  The first two episodes are by far the best, thanks to David Fincher's direction and an award-worthy performance by Cameron Britton as notorious killer Edmund Kemper.  (Netflix streaming)

10. Westworld:  A Western theme park for the rich and (occasionally) depraved, filled with sentient androids, starts to fall apart when the "hosts" begin to turn on the guests.  I apologize for mentioning that there's a twist, because I consider that a bit of a spoiler, but I have to mention it because it literally left my jaw hanging open.  (HBO)

Monday, December 04, 2017

best of 2017: nonfiction

And now it's time for my favorite nonfiction books of 2017!  A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2017, but that's when I read them.
  • Aside from the first two, which were definitely my favorites for a year (and #1 beat out #2 by the tiniest of margins), these are in random order.
  • If I read something by the end of December that belongs here, I'll update accordingly.
  • And as always, your mileage may vary.

1.  After the Eclipse by Sarah Perry:  When the author was 12, her mother was brutally murdered as Sarah hid in the next room.  Sarah spent the next several years being shuffled between family members and trying to cope with her immense loss.  Alternating between "before" and "after", this memoir is beautiful and heartbreaking; to quote a blurb on the back, the author wrote her mother back into the world. 

2. The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich:  The author had always been against the death penalty, so when she started an internship working to help people accused of murder, she was shocked when she learned about a case and instantly wanted the defendant to die.  She decided to dig deeper into the case of Ricky Langley, convicted of murdering a young boy, and in the process started to come to terms with her own complicated past.  Absolutely gripping.

3. How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell:  The author is a trainwreck, and before you chastise me for saying that, she'd be the first to agree.  This memoir covers her life of magazine jobs, pill popping, alcoholism, bulimia, and stays in both rehabs and psych wards.  I'd say it needed tighter editing, but the stream of consciousness style works really well because it's like she's telling you all about it in person.  Exhausting and occasionally frustrating (so many enablers!), but---please pardon the pun---addictive.

4. My Fair Junkie by Amy Dresner:  A memoir about the author's struggles with drugs, alcohol, and sex addiction.  She doesn't come across as particularly likeable or sympathetic, but I still found this book worth reading.

5. American Fire by Monica Hesse:  A riveting account of a string of arson incidents in rural Virginia.  I knew I was going to like it as soon as I read this paragraph on the opening page:  "I spent the next two years trying to understand why he did it.  The answer...involved hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms, intrigue, and America."

6. Oh Joy Sex Toy by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan:  A delightfully illustrated series about sex, covering everything from sex toy reviews to interviews with sex workers.  Inclusive, charming, and often quite funny.

7. All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers by Alana Massey:  A collection of sharp and thoughtful essays combining personal anecdotes with examinations of how we view female celebrities, ranging from Sylvia Plath to my true boo Britney Spears.  There's also an essay that perfectly encapsulated why I had a problem with The Virgin Suicides, an impassioned and deeply sympathetic defense of Anna Nicole Smith, and a great line where the author is talking about her time as a stripper and how she'd hear sob stories from the guys there, and she addresses their significant others thusly:  "I took their money, but I took your side."

8. Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood:   After a medical crisis wiped out their finances, the author and her husband Jason moved back in with her eccentric family, including her guitar playing, frequently semi-naked father, a Catholic priest.  (Despite being married with children, he got ordained through a loophole.)  Extremely funny, and practically every page has a quotable line.  (One of my favorites: Jason sees an extremely gory crucifix on her parents' dining room wall and says "It looks like someone screamed into a ribeye.")

9. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby:  Another outrageously funny (and occasionally heartbreaking) collection of essays by the Bitches Gotta Eat blogger.  I was reading this in bed while suffering from a massive allergy attack, waiting for the Benadryl to kick in, and there was one scene where her cat was hugging and kicking her dildo and she was screaming "Give me back my dick!" and I started laughing so hard I was weeping.  As I began passing out,  I was still chuckling intermittently, which is honestly a pretty terrific way to fall asleep.

10. Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America's Greatest Unsolved Murder by Piu Eatwell:  A new look at the 1947 murder that scandalized America, with a closer look at a suspect the author thinks committed the crime for sure.   She provides plenty of compelling evidence to support that theory, too.  I know it's too late for justice for Elizabeth Short, as the murderer(s) is/are long dead, but it would be nice closure if the case could be solved once and for all.  It will probably never happen, though, thanks to the cover-up mentioned in the subtitle and the fact that so much evidence was "lost".

Friday, December 01, 2017

best of 2017: fiction

I can't believe it's December already, which means that it's time to start posting my "best of 2017" lists!  First up is fiction, but a few notes first:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2017, but that's when I read them, so they belong on this list.
  • Aside from the first two books listed, which were definitely my favorites, these aren't in any particular order.
  • These were all written by women, which is pretty cool!
  • If I read something between now and the end of December which belongs here, I'll update accordingly.
  • And as always, your mileage may vary.

1. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker:  Mel(ody) and Sharon are two friends and animators who create a movie based on Mel's childhood that becomes a critical hit.  After Sharon suffers from a traumatic incident, she returns to her own childhood home to confront something in her past.  It's a beautiful exploration of female friendship, both incredibly funny and devastating, and it made me think about interesting things like whether confessional (in the non-religious sense) is always a good idea.

2. The Dry by Jane Harper:  When he was a teenager, Aaron Falk and his father were run out of their small Australian town by people who thought Aaron was responsible for the death of a local girl. Now a federal agent in the "big city", Aaron has reluctantly returned for the funeral of his old friend Luke, who killed his wife and young son and then himself...or did he?  Aaron's determined to find out, but the locals are still convinced that Aaron's a killer, and they're not very happy to see him again.

I'm about to give The Dry two major compliments: it reminded me of Tana French, and at one point I had full energy in Hidden City, which I was still massively addicted to at the time, and I READ THIS BOOK INSTEAD.  That ought to tell you something right there!

3. Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love:  Lola's boyfriend Garcia is in a gang called the Crenshaw Six, which has recently partnered with a Mexican drug cartel.  Everybody outside of the gang thinks Garcia is the leader, but the Crenshaw Six knows the truth: Lola is the boss, and when a drug drop goes horribly awry, Lola has to use her street smarts and the cartel's ignorance of her true status to survive.  The author is a screenwriter, which probably explains the super sharp dialogue.  An addictive page-turner that practically begs to be made into a movie.

4. The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones:  A lethal tick-borne virus leads to an extreme new form of tourism where the rich pay to tour what's left of nature, knowing full well it could lead to their deaths.  A group of tourists is kidnapped and taken to a camp outside the safe zone (aka the salt line), where the residents have special plans for them.  Really engrossing; if the movie rights haven't already been snapped up, then someone's sleeping on the job.

5. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt:  A fictionalized version of the Lizzie Borden murder case that reads like an exceptionally creepy fever dream.

6. Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough:  Lonely single mother Louise meets a super hot dude in a bar one night, and they share a passionate kiss.  Unfortunately, when she goes to her new job a couple of days later, it turns out that the dude is her boss David, and he's married to a beautiful woman named Adele.  It would be a crime to ruin this book, so let's just say some REAL mindfuckery goes down.  Without getting too specific, I'll just say that one particular thing, though absolutely vital to the plot, was so goofy that I didn't wind up giving this two stars.  But man oh man!  If you have any interest in this book, read it before it gets spoiled for you.  Anyone who says they could tell where it was going is either the author or a complete liar.

7. What You Don't Know by JoAnn Chaney:  Jacky Seever was beloved by his community until the discovery of 33 bodies in his crawl space.  He's now on death row, but the effects of his crimes still continue to reverberate with the cops who arrested him, the reporter who wrote about him, and his unsuspecting wife.  Then new victims with ties to Seever start showing up, and everyone's lives are thrown into turmoil again.  It reminded me a lot of early Lehane; it's terrific.

8. Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach:  Ava fled her dysfunctional family and moved to France, but she's forced to come back home when she finds out that her twin sister Zelda has died in a fire.  She hadn't spoken to Zelda for two years, and she's convinced Zelda is really alive and just playing an elaborate game on her, so she starts following the clues she thinks Zelda left behind.  It took a while to hook me, but MAN does it get good at about the halfway mark.  One of the best last lines I've read in a while, too.

9. The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel:  When her mother commits suicide, 15-year-old Lane Roanoke is sent to live with her grandparents and cousin Allegra on their huge estate in rural Kansas.  Lane enjoys her new life until something happens that forces her to flee.  She never plans on going back, but eleven years later, her grandfather calls to say that Allegra is missing, and Lane reluctantly returns to see if she can find the cousin she left behind.  The big secret won't come as any surprise, and to her credit, the author doesn't draw out the suspense, but it's still good; imagine a beautifully written V.C. Andrews novel.

10. Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips:  Joan and her 4-year-old son Lincoln are getting ready to leave the zoo when Joan sees a man with a rifle.  She grabs her son and runs back into the zoo to hide, hoping they can survive until the police get there.  A tense thriller that explores some tough moral questions as well.  My only real gripe is that Lincoln seemed too articulate for a 4-year-old, but I'll admit that I don't have much experience with kids of that age, so I could be way off base on that.  Anyway, it's fantastic, and I think it would make a great movie.  I can see Naomi Watts as Joan, although good luck finding a child actor that young who could pull it off.