Overwhelmed by the copious numbers of “Best of 2015” lists every publication is putting out? Forget the other guys. We’ve got you covered with our favorite books, movies and music of 2015.
Playing favorites is hard for me, and my first instinct is to do some cop-out, like: this was my favorite goofy comic that made me laugh on a bad day and this was my favorite classic I never read before, and this was my favorite memoir and on and on and on, until I mention every awesome book that I read all year and fill up an entire post. So, even though it is causing me more than a little mental anguish to do so, I’m going to stick with one nonfiction pick and one fiction pick. For nonfiction, I’m going with Daring Greatly, a book all about the importance of vulnerability and human connection; it’s not an exaggeration to say that reading this book changed parts of my life. It was definitely a “right book, right time” situation. As for fiction, I’m giving my top honors to Code Name: Verity, a thrilling, page-turning, plot-twisty YA adventure set during WWII. (Neither of these books were published in 2015, but that’s when I read ’em, so by my rules, they totally count).
This was a pretty great year for films, some of which I’ve reviewed on this very blog and some of which I wanted to review but never got around to. About Alex was a nice update of films like The Big Chill and Return Of The Seacaucus Seven. Comet was a great love story that seemed to be the product of a three-way between (500) Days of Summer, Mr. Nobody and The Fountain. At this point it would be repetitive and redundant to gush about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl once again, so I present two other faves of 2015–Before We Go and The End of the Tour.
Before We Go feels like the little brother of Before Sunrise and Roman Holiday. Whimsical and hopeful, first-time director
Captain America Chris Evans has given us a quiet, character-driven drama. I was immensely impressed at what Evans did here and look forward to more of his directorial endeavors. And he might actually be a good actor as well, trading in punches and shield-shucking for pathos and a turn resembling the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Plus he and Alice Eve are both beautiful people, so even if the film had sucked—which it didn’t—I would have been fine looking at them for ninety-five minutes.
Another favorite was the equally quiet The End of The Tour. Based on David Lipsky’s book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, the plot, in its most basic sense, is just two guys talking. That kind of film has the potential to be a boring mess, but not in this case. Credit must be given to director James Ponsoldt for getting such a great performance out of Jason Segel as the prolific author of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. He’s entrancing as he imbues the part with a reserved kind of sadness hidden just below the surface. I always thought Segel was a good actor; he was arguably the heart of the otherwise mundanely mediocre How I Met Your Mother and shined in Jeff, Who Lives at Home. This film confirms my thoughts.
As a tangential point, The End of Tour and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl both close out with Brian Eno‘s “The Big Ship.” The track on its own fills me with a kind of melancholic joy. I get a similar feeling when I watch movies like Before We Go and The End of the Tour, and I invite you to watch them too. When the weather is cold and the sun is hidden behind clouds pregnant with rain, watching these kinds of movies is like a warm hug to me. Savor the quiet films. They have the potential to be explosions in your heart.
It’s usually always hard for me to pick favorites when it comes to books, movies, and music, but I managed to narrow down to one for each part of this post.
For favorite book, I chose Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is a very powerful book from start to finish. Even though it’s only 152 pages, it packs a punch that’s worthy of the length of a Harry Potter novel. The book is told in the perspective of the author talking to his son about his experiences growing up as a black man in America. It’s considered a biography, but I would also consider it a call to action (if such a genre existed). A must-read for, well, everyone.
I’ve seen some great movies this year, but my favorite was Straight Outta Compton, the biopic about the hip-hop group N.W.A. This movie was a slight obsession for me after I saw it. I’ve been impatiently waiting for the movie to come out on Blu-Ray. It comes out on January 19th (late birthday present!). I fell in love with the cast and thought that the movie was excellent. All of the actors made me believe that they were the real people they were portraying. I was impressed. Until the movie is released on DVD, you can check out the group’s album with the same title as the film.
Speaking of albums, boy was this hard for me. I already put a spotlight on Adele’s fabulous new album, 25, so I decided to put the spotlight on another album that I enjoyed this year, which was Jazmine Sullivan’s Reality Show. This album was Sullivan’s first in 5 years. I was very excited about her comeback and this album was well worth the wait. Sullivan brought back the raw delivery and powerful vocals that is somewhat missing in today’s R&B. Reality Show was nominated for some Grammies (much deserved). Take a listen, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
I saw one new movie in 2015 and I’m not admitting to which one it was. I’m not a huge music person. I did read! It is hard to choose—should I chose that depressing book, that really depressing book or that other depressing book? For someone with a generally sunny outlook, I read a lot of sad books. I narrowed it down to four (semi) depressing books.
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Swiss writer Joel Decker, is a boisterous, fast-paced thriller with a love story, a murder and surprising plot twists. I read it in one day at the pool. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is a coming of age story set during the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I also relate to the main character, as I wrote about here last month. Cue all the crying.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by investigative journalist Jon Krakauer follows the Justice Department’s investigation into the rape crisis at the University of Montana. He follows two acquaintance rape trials with vastly different outcomes, both devastating in their own ways. Although it is non-fiction, the writing is gripping, nuanced and evocative. Krakauer has never shied from complex subjects (Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven) and his approach is no different in Missoula.
Finally, my most recommended book: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by British journalist Johann Hari. Rarely does a book completely change my mind on a subject and this book did. Starting with the story of Billie Holiday’s untimely death (murder?) and the creation of the DEA (which is so shady) it is a comprehensive investigation into the failed “War on Drugs” and what other counties and cities are doing to end it. The Rat Park drug experiment transformed the way I think about drugs and drug use.
Maybe in 2016 I’ll read something happy.
How well do you ever really know your spouse? Are you absolutely sure that events have happened the way you think they did and for the reasons you believe?
There are two sides to every story and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is the story of the marriage between Lancelot (Lotto) Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder. On the surface, they seem to have it all. They’re an attractive young couple, very much in love at the beginning of their lives together. But under it all, they both have pasts filled with events and secrets that continue to haunt them. The couple’s actions, decisions and future are ultimately shaped by their past. But while Lotto is an open book, Mathilde keeps everything to herself. You don’t know this for the first half of the book, Lotto’s story. You’ll get to know the real Mathilde when you read her half. But you’ll end up loving them, and their marriage, just the same.
Just FYI, President Obama named Fates and Furies his favorite book of 2015.
My top picks for 2015 are Eighty Days of Sunlight by Robert Yune and All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. Both, in different ways, deal with suicide. Yune’s novel delves more into the lives of those left behind by a suicide, while Toews explores the torture of knowing that someone you love wants to die and the ethical implications of assisted suicide. Both novels are beautiful, poignant character studies, and both, at points, made me want to cry, or fling the book across the room, or stay up all night until I knew what happened.
I also enjoyed reading a few brilliant comic series: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Weibe and Roc Upchurch and Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. The first, I’ve written about previously (volume five came out fairly recently). The second is a Dungeons & Dragons-style romp with diverse and awesome female characters, and the last is a funny, heartwarming and beautiful love story that touches on sex, mental illness and of course, crime.
It never fails. I read a lot of excellent books all year long, but then one swoops in at the eleventh hour and knocks me sideways. This year that honor goes to Strangers Drowning: Grappling With Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help, by Larissa MacFarquhar. The question on the table is, how much responsibility do we have for strangers? Some people feel called to go above and beyond normal acts of charity and goodwill and perform larger acts of service, such as adopting 22 children, donating 50% of their salary to charity, or offering a kidney to someone on the transplant list they don’t even know. Known as “extreme altruism,” this practice has been explored through history via philosophy, psychology, and literature, mostly in terms of discovering whether or not being that good is a good idea (spoiler: sometimes it backfires horribly). Profiles of various “do-gooders,” as MacFarquhar calls them, alternate with debates on the ethics of altruism; the title refers to a classic ethical dilemma in which a person has a choice between saving one person they love, OR two strangers, from drowning: which is the correct choice? Drink a lot of coffee and be prepared to stay up all night debating with your friends: Strangers raises more questions than it answers, and is guaranteed to make you put the book down and say “Oh my God,” at least once.
On the fiction front, I fell in love with Alex Marshall’s A Crown for Cold Silver because of its unusual heroine. Zosia, a warrior queen, gets tired of court politics, fakes her death and abdicates her throne in favor of a peaceful country life. Fast forward a decade or so to when new queen finds out Zosia isn’t really dead and tries to assassinate her, forcing the reluctant warrior to pick up her sword again and round up her companions. Given that everyone’s older now, and somewhat the worse for wear, this isn’t going to be a picnic. However, Zosia and her generals still have a lot of fight left in them, and don’t give up so easily. A middle-aged woman who just wants to be left in peace but is constantly dragged back into drama? Sold to the lady in black. Also a good pick for anyone who likes Game of Thrones in theory, but prefers shorter sentences and more action sequences in practice. If you enjoy it, keep an eye out for the sequel, A Blade of Black Steel, coming in May 2016.
I’m a complete and total fangirl for Colum McCann, so it should come as no surprise that his new collection of fiction has landed on my favorites list. Thirteen Ways of Looking represents some of McCann’s best work to date and is an extraordinary example of how shorter works have the capability to conjure up a range of emotions. McCann leaves his reader reeling, almost breathless at the end of the title novella. Forget 2015—yes, please, and don’t let the door hit ya—this one has earned a place among my favorite books ever.
– Melissa F.
What were your favorite books, movies and music of 2015? Let us know in the comments!
-Team Eleventh Stack