I don’t get out on the town that much anymore, other than my season’s tickets to the National Ballet (young kids are such a bummer). Even so, there was still lots of arts and culture that moved me in 2015. And since it’s already into February in 2016, without further ado, let’s get to the list!
TV / Webseries
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a webseries on Youtube.
This 2013 production takes Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and updates it to the current modern era and format with aplomb. Lizzie Bennett is a video blogger (aka vlogger) and through her semi-weekly videos (each usually lasting between 3 and 5 minutes), the story unfolds. It’s not necessary to know the plot of Pride and Prejudice to enjoy this series, but it does give an extra layer of enjoyment to be able to anticipate the plot, and compare the adaptations. It even won an Emmy! I love that Charlotte and Bingley/Bing Lee are Chinese! I love the costume theatre! (you’ll see) I missed this web series during the original publishing back in 2012, so I did lose out on the interactive trans-media aspect of it, but it was no matter, I was hooked all the same and binge watched this in two sessions. If you’re a romantic, give it to episode 7, and see if you too aren’t hooked for the count.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, on Netflix.
The premise of this show seems so ridiculous that it’s a wonder they were able to sell a pilot, much less a whole season. Would the release and reintegration of women who’d been kidnapped and held captive for 15 years seem like good fodder for a show? But I’m so glad they did. This show is populated with hilarious characters brought to life in broad strokes by the talented cast with the balance to prevent them from being annoying and unlikable.
So many hilarious nuggets in this show, the best being Ellie Kemper’s portrayal of Kimmy Schmidt, the determined bright optimist, in face of the cynical world.
This is Water, David Foster Wallace
This is actually the text of the commencement address that Wallace gave at Kenyon College class of 2005, the only one he gave. It’s highly accessible, humourous, and opens a number of doors to introspection of your own values. It underscores the hard and constant work it is to be empathetic. The subtitle of this work when found in print is, “This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life”.
As someone who is agnostic and doesn’t follow or practice a particular religion or dogma, I sometimes feel envious of those who are actively follow an organized religion, because they have such clear guidelines and parables on how to live “a good life”. There is a religious leader who constantly reminds them of the hard and constant work it is to be empathetic to others. Without this provided structure, like for me, it’s easy to lose sight of that hard and constant work and be swept up into the singular view of the importances in my head. This is Water will be a regular touchstone of mine going forward.
Link to a Youtube video recording of the speech: https://youtu.be/8CrOL-ydFMI
Yes, it’s a teen romance novel, and perhaps you think you should be reading more sophisticated material. You’d be missing out. It’s so well done, with unconventional characters and a gripping story of forces impacting them beyond their unlikely romance, that I still think back on the scenes now, even nearly 12 months later. Rowell does use a lot of short chapters as she switches perspective between the two characters, reminiscent of the MTV video style of editing. Some may find that annoying, but I didn’t mind at all. My earlier review.
The Fifth Gospel, Ian Caldwell
My favourite mystery/thriller book in recent years, miles ahead of the others like Death Comes to Pemberley and Girl on a Train. Not only is there a mystery to be solved, looming danger, and very human characters, there was a lot learned about the Vatican City, Western and Eastern Catholic priests in the Vatican, and Catholic religious history. All this and the writing was wonderful—the main characters were fully dimensional, the location springs to life, and complex history was made clear. The resolution was satisfying and logical, and yet I did not see the ending coming. It took Caldwell 10 years between this and his first book (The Rule of Four, co-authored with Dustin Thomason, and also one I highly enjoyed), but it seems like it was time very well spent.
Inside Out, animated movie by Pixar.
Wow. This is a true piece of storytelling art, a masterful accomplishment by Pete Doctor and the team at Pixar. Like really, how do you explore the concepts of emotions, memory, how the two interact to influence personality behaviours, AND make it a compelling story to follow? I would think it’s damn near impossible, but somehow they pulled it off.
The emotions characters are brilliantly rendered and voiced. There is multi-layered humour in different formats, appealing to both kids and adults. There is drama and tension in Joy and Sadness’s hero journey back to Mission Control. There is the sadness of losing a friend you care for, and the empathy you have for someone who has to wrestle with these large feelings. I certainly cried in this movie, and E1 and E2 both were so overcome with the feelings they couldn’t deal and “had to go to the bathroom” to escape the theatre.
I say phooey to those people who nitpick for shortcomings in this movie. Who cares if it’s not exactly matching all the current understanding of psychology? That this movie arms kids (and adults) with the awareness of their emotions and a vocabulary to articulate it makes it powerful movie. That it’s also entertaining and accessible pushes this into the realm of highest art, in my opinion.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I loved this movie. If I can turn off the overly-analytical/critical/cynic part of my brain, this movie was freakin’ amazing. I’ve made up my mind that it is great in spite of some flaws that I’ll choose to ignore. I think of it as a kind of reboot of the series for the current youth generation, while respecting the storyline of the first 6 episodes. (we totally needed a palate cleanser to rid our memories of Episodes 1, 2 and 3) JJ Abrams had a lot of different balls to juggle to try to satisfy peoples’ desires, and I think he got it mostly right.
It has a kickass heroine Rey, who does all these incredible feats that is often rote in a male protagonists of action films. (Sledding down a sand dune mountain! Kicking ass with her staff! Piloting the Millennium Falcon at first try! Rewiring the spaceship! Fighting with a lightsaber without training!) Who cares if it’s improbable, it’s great fun to see her so hyper-competent. I’m curious about her back story, and excited to see what she does next.
Finn is a great “Everyman”, in a way the audience’s proxy to being a part of this fantastic world. His sense of decency, wry sense of humour, and brave actions in spite of the fear he has, makes him also a character to root for. You want to be his best friend.
Daisy Ridley and John Boyega have done an excellent job bringing these two characters to life. I’ve fallen in love with them and actually care about what happens to them in the next episode, which is miles from the feelings I had coming out of the theatre after seeing Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 1999.
Hello, by Adele
This clearly was a monster song from the moment it was released in November. It’s at turns intimate, pleading, powerful, and cathartic, all within the same song. In a few sparse lyrics an entire backstory is filled in and you’re invested in her story. It’s like I’m listening in and eavesdropping on her emotional conversation and the hairs just stand on the back of my neck because of the sheer emotive power of Adele’s voice. It’s a full romantic drama in less than 4 minutes, and even now I still get the shivers.
Warpaint, by Ivory Hours
This was an instant ear worm for me the moment I heard it in the car. The driving syncopation, pop melody, interesting guitar line and snappy tempo just grabbed my ear and hasn’t let go. I’ve really enjoyed their whole album (yes, it’s on Spotify). Go CanCon!
Kate Beaton, Hark a Vagrant
I only discovered Kate Beaton in 2015. She posts her web comics at http://www.harkavagrant.com/ covering historical figures and their stories with a modern sense of humour. Sometimes she pokes fun at the historical person themselves, but often if it’s someone she does really admire or respect, she pokes fun at the absurd people around them. Some of my favourites:
- Edward, the Black Prince
- Mary Shelley, Lord Shelley and Lord Byron
- Katherine Sui Fung Cheung
- Lady of Shalott
- The Invasion of Canada (Feinian raids)
For 2016 I’m really hoping to add some live theatre to the list. After re-watching some episodes of Slings & Arrows this week I realized how much I miss seeing a live show.
In the meantime, there are already two things I’ll be adding to my 2016 list: the Making a Murderer documentary series on Netflix, and Serial—Season 2 podcast.
On with the show!