Best Album of 2014
Her character Osha the wildling may have failed to make an appearance in this year's season of Game of Thrones, but the multi-talented Natalia Tena managed to keep busy with her other main gig. Her band Molotov Jukebox released their first full-length album, which was funded by a PledgeMusic campaign. I intended to contribute to the project when back it was announced, but I regret that I never got around to it... because Carnival Flower turned out to be quite excellent. Their music is hard to pigeonhole, a sort of freestyle reggae Spanish gypsy polka pub rock, distinguished by Natalia's sultry vocals her exuberant accordion, and a potent brass section. At first listen I was disappointed that the new album is not quite as frenetic and wild as their previous EPs Double Dare and Bang, but soon I came to appreciate the greater richness and maturity in the songwriting. The bawdy lyrics recall the clever innuendos of Ian Dury, and the catchy arrangements drill right into your brain. There are new recordings of two older songs, "Sexfoot" and "Trying," which each benefit from revisiting, and even the one risky tune where Natalia turns over the microphone to a dude in the band (violinist Sam Apley) turns out to be pretty damn great. It's a shame that Molotov Jukebox operates almost exclusively in the UK, so it may be a long time until I ever see them live. But since I've been known to travel a bit, let's never say never.Honorable Mentions:
Phantom Radio and No Bells on Sunday, Mark Lanegan
Songs of Innocence, U2
Best Live Recording of 2014
UK Tour Downloads
I have to give special mention to Caro Emerald's huge gift to her fans this year. Following her October UK tour, her official web site posted quality MP3 recordings of the shows for download. For free. I had only seen some fan-shot YouTube videos from the shows and had a hankering to get my hands on some kind of good recording. I would have been perfectly happy to pay for all these downloads, but thanks to the generosity of Caro and Grandmono Records, I got them for nothing. After listening to all of the different shows, I've evaluated the Manchester gig and the huge show at the London O2 to be the best ones. The high points are a super-theatrical arrangement of "I Belong to You" as the show opener, and a blazing cover of Shirley Bassey's "History Repeating." Between them, those two serve as Caro's audition for the next James Bond theme. Hey, SPECTRE producers at Sony, have your hacked computers recovered long enough for you to get these free downloads?Honorable Mentions:
Caro Emerald Live at Glastonbury (BBC Broadcast)
Best Movie of 2014
The Zero Theorem
I generally say that my favorite film, aside from Star Wars and anything Japanese, is Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Ever since that 1985 masterpiece, Gilliam has been disappointing in my book, with nothing really decent since 1995's Twelve Monkeys. But I'm delighted to say the old visionary genius isn't washed up yet. Nearly 30 years later, he's finally delivered the follow-up to Brazil that I always wished for. By no means is The Zero Theorem a retread, but it shares a lot of common elements with its spiritual predecessor. Like Sam Lowry, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) lives a life of solitary discontent in a mad dystopia, working under an incompetent supervisor and an intimidating chief executive. Both characters accept new job assignments to further personal dreams and find themselves escaping into fantasy. And both stories involve an elusive and mysterious blonde love interest. Beyond those similar frameworks, The Zero Theorem develops its own identity, its own tone and a different set of predicaments and answers. The film's colorful palette and density of visual detail belie the fact that it had the smallest budget Gilliam has had to work with since his Jabberwocky days. It's filled with images that stick in my mind as instant cinematic classics, and the whole of it grows richer with each new viewing. A tremendous and affirming achievement, in a year when Gilliam otherwise embarrassed himself in that geriatric Python legal-debt fundraiser. It's just discouraging that it was only released in about five theaters in the United States and I had to watch it for the first time via cable on-demand. I hope this virtually invisible film will find the cult audience it deserves in years to come.Honorable Mention:
Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn
Best Blu-ray Disc of 2014
Batman: The Complete Television Series
You can keep your Christian Bale, your Michael Keaton, and God knows your Ben Affleck. In my book, Adam West is the best. The classic Batman was profoundly significant in my kindergarten years, forming the foundation of my lifelong interest in superheroes and comic books. As a teenager I disowned the series for being too stupid and haven't had much opportunity to revisit it since, considering the lack of any home video release. This long-delayed "Holy holy grail, Batman!" set finds me in my elder years when I can appreciate the series on its true merits. Sure, the scripts are dopey as hell, and there is some hideous acting. But the show is just plain fun, and it does accurately capture the cornball tone of the DC Comics of the '50s and early '60s that the hip upstart Marvel reacted against. And now I can appreciate the charms of Julie Newmar and Yvonne Craig (and their tight, shiny costumes) in ways the pre-pubescent me never did. Plus, vintage TV shows are one of my favorite things on Blu-ray. Crystal-clear, color-popping HD transfers on classics like Star Trek, The Prisoner and now Batman give my eyes that thrill that has dissipated from modern-day releases, where we take Blu-ray quality for granted. And the deluxe box with the Batmobile and trading cards just completes the childhood nostalgia package for me. A pure class presentation for a show often dismissed as pure crap.Honorable Mention:
Judex (The Criterion Collection), Georges Franju
Best TV Series of 2014
Game of Thrones
The best show on television holds onto its crown for the fourth straight year. Memorable Game of Thrones highlights from this season included King Joffrey's delicious wedding cake, Arya's steady progress toward becoming a ruthless assassin, revelations of treachery orchestrated by Littlefinger, Oberyn Martell vs. the Mountain, Brienne vs. the Hound, and Tyrion Lannister's final argument with daddy Tywin. My only complaints are nitpicky: I don't like the replacement actor playing Daenerys' sellsword suitor Daario, and I was disappointed that the Battle of the Wall didn't end with the White Walkers and their zombie army joining the fray. The fourth season leaves me with a slight concern that Game of Thrones may have peaked. Now that most of the likeable and/or interesting characters have either fled Westeros or died, what will keep the story moving in King's Landing? Will Cersei Lannister's struggles against the Tyrells be enough sustain it? And as the show catches up to the books, and David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, are most likely forced to diverge in their own direction, will there be a dip in quality? Let's count on Game of Thrones keeping up its established strong suit: the element of surprise and unpredictability.Honorable Mention:
Jane the Virgin, The CW
Best Netflix Discoveries of 2014
I've got to give a quick Lard Biscuit shout-out to Netflix for continuing to turn me on to some real television gems that I'd previously overlooked. Here are the great shows I've become hooked on this past year, better late than never:
- Happy Valley
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars -- The Lost Missions
- Orange Is the New Black, Season 2
Best Book of 2014
This handsome and hefty volume collects the complete Luther Akwright saga in a much-deserved oversize deluxe edition. Bryan Talbot began his magnum opus in 1978 with the first installment of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, which is considered the first British graphic novel and one of the most influential works in comics history. In 1999 Talbot returned to the story with a sequel, Heart of Empire: The Legacy of Luther Arkwright, which focuses on Arkwright's daughter, the Princess Victoria. Prevailing opinion has it that the original graphic novel is the true masterpiece, and Heart of Empire is an unessential follow-up, but I disagree. I see them as one unified work. In fact, years ago when I first attempted to read The Adventures, the nonlinear, alternate universe-hopping storytelling was so dense and impenetrable that I couldn't get through the book. When the more conventional and accessible Heart of Empire came along, I found my entry point and got totally hooked. After reading it, I went back to the first volume and more readily digested the backstory on the characters and situations that I had become familiar with. That's how I would recommend new readers tackle the formidable epic, and for that reason I'm glad the two books are joined together as one for posterity. Hail Britannia!Honorable Mention:
What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetic Questions, Randall Munroe
Best Video Game of 2014
Geometry Wars 3
Probably my all-time favorite PlayStation 3 game is 2007's Super Stardust HD, an addictive twin stick shooter. Geometry Wars 3 has a very similar play mechanic, but it differs most notably by changing up the game arena. Super Stardust is essentially a 2D shoot 'em up wrapped around a sphere that you can traverse in all directions to blast thousands of enemies. Geometry Wars 3 is the same basic deal, but the shape of the world changes from round to round: it can be a flat rectangle, a curved dish, a cube, a cylinder, or any sort of object the word geometry would suggest. Another cool thing is that you can choose which levels you want to replay, so I skip the pain-in-the-ass levels and keep trying to beat my score in the fun ones, like Sausage Smash and Peanut Dreams. The game is retro-styled, challenging but not infuriating, and very entertaining. In the newfangled age of the PS4, I fear that new PS3 games appealing to my tastes may soon cease to be. If so, Geometry Wars 3 makes a suitable grand finale.Honorable Mention:
Race the Sun (PlayStation Network)
Hottest Chick of 2014
Yes, Caro Emerald has won my heart and stands to sweep this award for the foreseeable future. Even with the birth of her daughter in March, by the time summer came she was back to work and tearing up the pyramid stage at Glastonbury, looking as beautiful as ever. Tough luck to all the gorgeous plus-size models out there, and my apologies. Caro is the best. I belong to her.Honorable Mention:
The 2014 Lard Biscuit Person of the Year
People who question whether Stephen Colbert is the best possible choice to succeed David Letterman on the Late Show are just as wrong as the people who questioned whether his Colbert Report shtick could sustain that show for more than six weeks. The guy is a remarkably talented and versatile comedian, although it seems like only his hardcore fans (and CBS executives) have recognized that. As a longtime Letterman viewer, I never imagined I could be so perfectly satisfied and excited about the next guy to take over the Ed Sullivan Theater. I have no doubt his show will be great. For nine years Colbert wrought comedic gold under the handicap of a narrowly defined character, and with the new freedom to go out there and flex his full range of improvisational skills and creative dexterity without structural restraints, he's going to be a total dynamo. Sure, "Middle America" may never warm up to him, but they can stick with Jimmy Fallon's bland, hashtag-optimized song and dance pabulum. I know I'll have a hilarious and intelligent host to keep my late nights entertaining for years to come.
The 2014 Lard Biscuit Disappointments of the Year
I think I'm going to discontinue the "Asshole of the Year" award, because these days there are just too damn many assholes to choose from. So instead, I'm going to point out a few things that coulda been, shoulda been, better than what they were.
Star Wars Rebels. I was really looking forward to this show, and actually thought it had potential to be more worthwhile than the J.J. Abrams movie. From the same talents behind the Clone Wars series, who could stretch their wings with new characters instead of being tied to Anakin and Obi-Wan, and the Ralph McQuarrie inspired character designs looked really cool. As it turns out, the series thus far is really vapid, childish, and yes, Disneyfied, with blah characters and yet another "train the young Jedi hopeful" storyline. Maybe it will get better?
Sia. As a longtime fan of Sia, I was excited about what promised to be her breakthrough album this year. About half the songs on 1000 Forms of Fear are decent, and the other half mediocre, in comparison to her past work. But I really got my fill of Sia's overinflated ego, and her whole "I'm no longer showing my face in public, for I do not wish to be seen" drama queen business. Performing with your back to the audience isn't charming or quirky. I'm over her.
The DC Cinematic Universe announcements. DC/Warner's desperate, half-baked plans to replicate the mighty Marvel money-making machine are just plain sad. While there might turn out to be some good movies in there somewhere, things don't look promising. Mistake #1? No, not Batfleck. It's the damn fool decision that the DC TV shows won't be connected to the movies. They've got some really good stuff happening in Arrow and The Flash, and just think how cool it would be to see Stephen Amell and Grant Gustin in a Justice League movie! But no, they're tossing all that potential fan interest right out the window. Morons.
Lack of Japanese film releases in the U.S. By my reckoning there were zero classic Japanese films out on Blu-ray in 2014, if you set aside any reissues that were previously on DVD. Now that AnimEigo is practically dead, there is no one specializing in legitimately licensed samurai/yakuza films anymore. I've given Criterion some slack since they went all out with the Zatoichi dream set in 2013, but now it's time to pick up the katana again. Somebody give me some good jidai-geki in 2015!