2014 in Review: My Year in Pop Culture | “A Year of Gods, Aliens, and The Unknown”

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It’s that time of year, when critics like myself attempt to look back at the past twelve months and try to rate the events, people, media, and notable occurrences on some arbitrary scale. As Quail Bell Magazine‘s film critic, I wanted to try and publish a best of list for the films I saw in 2014. My plan was to find the ten best movies I saw, write a small critique of each, and give an idea of why I felt these films were worth remembering in the years to come. As I attempted to rank the films I saw, I came to a shocking (well, for me) realization: I haven’t seen enough movies this year.This is an issue that comes from being a 22-year-old film critic who doesn’t get paid to see movies (Quail Bell writers are volunteers, but your shop purchases could change that) and lives in an area that does not get enough foreign or art house cinema within the year. Because I live in Hampton Roads, Virginia, I do not have places to see films like Winter Sleep, Maps to the Stars, or Two Days, One Night that places like New York City or Los Angeles would get easily. Because a lot of the award buzz films come out in late December or early January for wide release, it also means I won’t get to see them until 2015, which makes it impossible to rate for a 2014 list and disqualifies them from a 2014 list. I’m not noteworthy enough to get screeners, and most of these films are difficult to find online if I want to cheat the system. Because of that, I can’t see films early to have a review ready for when the film comes out.The other issue I had was when I tried to remember what I saw this year. For these kinds of lists, I try to make sure it’s specifically films I saw in 2014 and in theaters. This meant that some films I saw (like Her, Nebraska, and The Wind Rises) are disqualified because I didn’t see them in 2013 when they were originally released. That meant I only saw 12 movies in theaters this year. While I didn’t dislike any of those films, I came to realize that I couldn’t put some of them on a list because I didn’t believe I would put them on the list if I had managed to see films likeBirdman or God Help the Girl this year. So while I enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon 2, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, The Fault in Our Stars, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Mockingjay Part 1, I honestly don’t think I would put them on an end of the year list.

But what about the films I did see that I would put on the list? That created another problem. When I started writing movie reviews for Quail Bell, I approached it as a chance to write about movies I thought the audience should know about, and that included films I saw in theaters. While I could rank those, the truth is that most of the films I would put on the list were things I’ve already written about. I would put Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gone Girl, and Dear White People on a list of the best movies I saw this year, but my opinions of them haven’t really changed since I wrote about them, so I don’t want to rehash my thoughts on those films when you could easily read my reviews of them and get the same information.

If you’ve been counting, that leaves three films I haven’t mentioned. These are films I really liked, but I never wrote about for Quail Bell, even though I think there are among the best films I saw this year. Because of that, I decided to widen my net and try to look back on what 2014 meant for me as a consumer of popular culture. Aside from the three films I still need to review, there were some books, TV shows, songs, and figures I really got into that I am really glad I got exposed to this year. I’m going to go over what I was introduced to and what I’ve really become interested in this year, some of which is 2014 related, some of which isn’t. Thus, here’s a look back at the media I should have written about in 2014, and what I’m hoping will continue to be relevant years from now.

Best Animated Film I Saw: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no monogatari)

I went to New York City back in November, and while I had a free day to walk around the city, I stopped by IFC Cinemas, an independent movie theater in The Village area. Some friends of mine recommended the theater, and looking at their selection, I realized that this was a theater where I’d be able to see movies I’d be unlikely to watch in Virginia. With that, I decided to watch The Tale of Princess Kaguya, an anime film by Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli.The film is a straightforward adaptation of an ancient Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. An old bamboo cutter discovers a tiny young woman in a bamboo stalk he cuts down, so he and his wife adopt the girl, later naming her Kaguya. Kaguya brings luck to the family, the bamboo cutter soon finding gold in the stalks he cuts down, allowing the family to become more prominent. The film is largely plotless, showing how a country girl like Kaguya has to adopt to being a lady of high Japanese society in ancient Japan and the struggles that come with it, especially as her supernatural origins seem to come into play.The film is one of the prettiest animated films ever. The entire film looks like a fluid watercolor painting, making everything look very soft, colorful, and fantastic. The English dub was really good, with Chloe Moretz doing an incredible job as Kaguya. It’s really a visual experience, full of tons of emotion and atmosphere. It’s a treat for animation fans, and a really good film to come from Studio Ghibli.

Best Documentary I Saw: Life Itself

I’m able to see classic, foreign, and art films at the Naro Cinemas in Norfolk, VA, but in September I got to see something really neat. The theater presented Life Itself, a documentary about film critic Roger Ebert, with the director present. Steve James, director of documentaries like Hoop Dreams, was at the theater to show the film and also do a Q&A after.  James was a former resident of the area who graduated from James Madison University, so it made sense to bring the film to the area he got his start.The documentary itself was really good. It showed Ebert in his early days, to when he achieved fame with At the Movies, and showed him in his last few months of life, especially as his physical condition began to worsen. It showed his personal life, particularly his marriage to the wonderful Chaz Ebert, and really allowed the viewer to get an idea of how important this man’s life was and how influential he was as a critic and journalist. It made me cry (a lot), and it reminded me of why I love to be a critic, so I’m very glad I got to see it.

Best Art Film I Saw: Under the Skin

 I did review this movie for another project that didn’t come to fruition, but I’m still interested in talking about it. The film follows an alien played by Scarlett Johansson as she roams around Scotland picking up men to…devour? Experiment upon? It’s not really clear, but then again, nothing in the film is. It’s very abstract, moving from one scene to the next without any clear idea of what’s going to happen next. That doesn’t mean the film gets boring though. In fact, it’s quite fascinating.Johansson owns the film, and she’s slowly becoming one of my favorite actresses and probably the most successful actress in 2014 thanks to roles like this, Captain America 2, and Lucy. She says so little, and she’s very hard to read, but she’s incredibly fascinating to watch. Even though she looks like a normal woman, you get the idea of how alien she is by how she wordlessly reacts to things around her. You’re watching her try hard to understand the world around her, and you’re waiting to see what she’ll do next.This was a movie that required me to spend a lot of time thinking about it after I saw it. I saw this when I was still living in Richmond and would walk to the movies. The day I saw this, I decided to take a different way home from the theater, letting myself absorb the city around me. It was pretty incredible, and it was definitely something I could only experience from a film like Under the Skin.

Favorite New Actor/Actress of 2014: Lupita Nyong’o

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When I first saw her in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, I was intrigued by Miss Lupita Nyong’o. It’s exciting to see a new actress appear on the scene and immediately take everyone by surprise. Her role as Patsey the slave brought the Kenyan/Mexican actress to the public eye and soon everyone was talking about her. She started picking up accolade after accolade, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, which she even dedicated to the real life Patsey.Since then, Lupita has been on a whirlwind tour. She was named People‘s Most Beautiful Woman, landed roles in the upcoming Star Wars film, an adaptation of The Jungle Book, and an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and done lots of modeling work, gracing the cover of Vogue and landing a deal with Lancome. She’s also spoken against the development of a new minor league baseball stadium in the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood of Richmond.What’s really charming and inspiring about Lupita is her dedication to image and representation. As a dark skinned African woman, she’s spoken about how she didn’t feel beautiful as a child because of her skin. However, thanks to people like Whoopi Goldberg and supermodel Alek Wek, she’s embraced her appearance, speaking about the importance of young black girls liking their skin, even on Sesame Street. This was also the year I really started paying attention to fashion, and Miss Lupita proved herself to be one of the most glamorous celebrities around, killing it in Prada, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, and more.

Lupita is already shaping up to have a fantastic career, and I’m really hoping she has a long and exciting one. She’s someone who I admire a lot and think will be very inspirational in the years to come. Here’s to hoping she keeps at it.

Best TV Miniseries I Saw: Over the Garden Wall

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I didn’t watch True Detective this year. I had someone trying to get me to watch it, but I never got around to it. I know that’s the miniseries everyone was raving about, but I never found enough cause to look into it, even though I’ve managed to avoid spoilers for it (somehow). I do also regularly watch American Horror Story, but to be frank, that’s never going to be a best in anything, especially not on a list I make.Thankfully, I found Over the Garden Wall, a ten episode animated miniseries on Cartoon Network. Created by Patrick McHale (whose previous animation credits include work on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and Adventure Time), the series follows two brothers who are lost in a fantastical woods and are trying to find their way home, running into various characters and settings that blend Grimm’s Fairy Tales with early 1900’s Americana and a touch of Hayao Miyazaki.It’s a gorgeous series, one full of great animation, music, and voice acting, including a voice cast that includes Elijah Wood, Christopher Lloyd, John Cleese, and Tim Curry. It’s also fascinating to me because it has so much rewatch value. There’s tons of foreshadowing to the story’s big reveal and of other details relating to some of the characters. It’s also a series that’s helping to usher in the new wave of animators that sprung out these last few years that are all weirdly connected to each other, namely Thurop Van Orman (Flapjack), Pendleton Ward (Adventure Time), Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls), Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe), and Natasha Allegri (Bee and Puppycat). I really like all of those shows, and Over the Garden Wall has simply become another series for me to really enjoy as animation changes over this decade.

Best TV Series Finale: The Legend of Korra

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This just ended, but I really need to talk about it. This year, The Legend of Korra faced episodes getting leaked, Nickelodeon airing two episodes a week, the new episodes being moved entirely online, and for only two months between the third season and the fourth (and final) season of the show. It meant that the viewers had less time to take in the adventures of Korra and her allies as they faced various enemies in an attempt to keep balance in their world.Despite the fact that Nickelodeon completely botched their handling of the series, the third and fourth seasons of the show were some of the best of the entire Avatar franchise. The show did get a lot darker, but it did so in a manner that was very mature and showed a real willingness to challenge what you could do in a children’s animated series while still telling a compelling and mature story. These were the seasons that dealt with anarchy, totalitarianism, political assassination, torture, post traumatic stress disorder, and more.More importantly, the series reached its peak because it really showed what kind of story this was. It was about Korra, and how she had to grow into the role of the Avatar. These seasons are brutal on her, and we actually see her at her most depressed and downtrodden. However, she manages to grow through all of that and become a much more actualized being. The Korra of the first season is nothing at all like the Korra at the end, and the viewer can realize that they watched a teenage girl evolve into a confident, diplomatic, and strong woman.

Also, the very last scene of the show got me. I’m not a shipper, but I was so happy with how they ended it. The show really pushed the envelope in many respects (which is probably why it’s been entirely online for the last season and a half), but for them to pair two female characters together, make them realistically attracted to one another, and to have it so accepted by the fanbase is amazing. Both creators have confirmed on their blogs that the pairing is canon, so I’m glad they ended the series with confirmed bisexual characters and in a relationship that is heavily supported by the characters and their history together on the show.

Favorite New TV Personality: Bianca Del Rio

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Of all the reality comptetition series on television, RuPaul’s Drag Race is honestly the best one. It’s got a great mix of camp, drama, humor, and emotional resonnance. One thing that helps it stand out is that it tends to avoid one of the pitfalls of reality competition programming: that the people who compete fail to find success after the show. While many American Idol winners have faded into obscurity and only one Project Runway contestant can put himself in the same league as designers like Donna Karan and Betsey Johnson (Christian Siriano), most contestants on Drag Race manage to find post-show success. They use the publicity and the boost from the show to be able to tour the country and perform in drag bars, some of whom are even able to break out into television acting, web series, and release albums.If this is the case, then this year’s Next Drag Superstar will hopefully find her own career rising to something great and entertaining. Bianca Del Rio, the drag character played by Roy Haylock, managed to survive weeks of competition, never receiving a low score in a challenge or having to lip sync for her life. This record is demonstrative of the kind of persona Bianca created for herself.Bianca entered the competition as an insult comic who wasn’t there to make friends. Instead of alienating all the contestants and becoming the bitch of the season, Bianca showed tons of versatility and humanity. Sure, she’d read someone to filth, but she’d also compliment that person when they won a challenge or revealed a serious issue from their personal history. While Bianca was on the show, she even allowed some of her fellow contestants to blossom under her guidance, particularly Trinity K. Bonet and fan favorite Adore Delano. After winning, Bianca managed to gain more of a social media following, managed to successfully crowd fund a film on IndieGogo, and recently launched a web series with World of Wonder.

It was during her run that I also began to look up some of Bianca’s stand up videos online. The character of Bianca Del Rio is a “take no prisoners” kind of comic. She won’t be nice, she’ll not take things easy, and she’ll say whatever she wants in order to shock and bring a laugh. It might not be safe for work or the most politically correct form of comedy (and since when was drag ever that?), but it’s hilarious, and it shows just how much depth and personality a performer like her can have.

Best New Author I Discovered This Year: Gillian Flynn

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This year, I wrote a review of Gone Girl, aware that it was going to be one of the biggest book-to-film adaptations of the year. Before I saw the movie, I made sure to read the book. What I found was a very unique spin on disappearance stories, with a blend of noir and psychological drama that made one of the most complex and dark novels of recent years. This was all achieved by one of the best new contemporary authors around, Gillian Flynn.A former Entertainment Weekly writer, Flynn has written three books to date, with Gone Girlbeing her most successful. It’s a story that dives into the psychology of marriage, presenting two fundamentally screwed up people and how their marriage was challenged by a recession and infidelity. It’s a story about how difficult it is to truly know someone, and the kinds of roles people chose to assume rather than be open and honest. This is best illustrated through the “Cool Girl” monologue that people really took from the story.While Gone Girl proved to be a very compelling read, I was also given the recommendation to read Flynn’s debut novel, Sharp Objects. Sharp Objects is very similar to Gone Girl in that it’s a spin on a detective story and with plenty of Midwestern elements, but had an interesting mystery to it. A reporter is given an assignment to return to her hometown and write about the deaths of two preteen girls, who both died under similar circumstances. Writing about this story forced her to confront dark aspects of her past, particularly involving her estranged mother and her weird half-sister.

I managed to read all of Sharp Objects in one sitting (God bless eight hour train rides), and I didn’t want to put it down. The mystery was very unique, and had that sort of Twin Peaks vibe where the murders come to reveal a lot of darkness lying beneath a quiet rural town. The heroine, Camille Preaker, is also interesting because of how Flynn characterizes her. Camille is someone who wants to do her job right, but due to past trauma is incredibly self conscious and prone to self-harm, something that makes it very difficult for her to connect to others.

Thanks to these two books, I’ve managed to read two-thirds of Flynn’s bibliography, and now I want to check out Dark Places. Flynn has also managed to receive acclaim for writing the screenplay for Gone Girl, including a Golden Globe nomination, and will write a miniseries for HBO called Utopia. She’s a writer worth checking out and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Best Authors I Knew About and Finally Got Into This Year: Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami

Knowing I’d be on a train for over sixteen hours over a weekend, I decided to buy some books to read in order to pass the time. Sharp Objects was the first, but it was also in this time I decided to try and read books by authors I had been meaning to check out for the longest time. Because of that, I purchased copies of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. These were authors I wanted to check out for a while, and I was very satisfied with what I discovered.
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The first I read was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I purchased because it was the only Murakami book I hadn’t spoiled for myself (blame bored nights surfing the internet for that). The book follows Toru Okada, a house husband in 1980s Japan whose cat goes missing. Soon, his wife goes missing as well. The story involved Toru trying to make sense of everything that happens, as he meets a pair of psychic sisters, a morbid teenage girl, a war veteran, a dirty economist, a fashion designer and her mute son, and other strange characters. The story drifts between the fantastic and the mundane, with no clear idea on why some of this stuff is happening, all while offering a commentary on the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the state of Japanese people’s lives in the 1980s.
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After that was American Gods. The book follows Shadow, a convict who is released from prison only for his wife to die in an accident before he gets home. He is soon hired by a man named Mr. Wednesday to act as a bodyguard, driver, and errand boy. Shadow soon learns about that all gods, mythological figures, and beings created by belief and fantasy truly exist in the world, and that a war between the old world gods (including Odin, Anansi, and Czernobog) and the new American gods (including the Internet, the Media, and Government Conspiracy) is brewing.It was interesting to read both books in a short span of time simply because of how the authors wrote their stories and showed their unique spin on doing so. Both authors wrote in first person, making it so the reader can only know as much as their characters. Since both stories carry a fantastic element to them, that means that some aspects of the tale are impossible to explain. They’re also both experiences and journeys for their POV character. Toru and Shadow both have defined arcs and are noted for how they react to the world around them. They’re both ordinary, but they each possess unique attributes that allow them to react and exist in the strange worlds they’re caught in.I was very happy to read both books and hope to read more of their works in the future. Murakami released a new book this year (Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) which received tons of acclaim and sold millions of copies. American Gods is being adapted for a pilot for Showtime by Bryan Fuller of Hannibal fame. These books are good gateways for getting into their author’s work. They might not work for everyone, but since I took a gamble on reading these books, I’m very pleased with what I read, and I hope to look into more of their work in 2015.

Favorite 2014 Pop Song: “Froot” by Marina and the Diamonds

I might be cheating a bit on this one because the album for this song doesn’t come out until next year, but it was released digitally this year, so I’m counting it. I really got into Marina and the Diamonds this year, something I’ve already written about for this site. Her music appealed to me, and it had a lot of interesting composition, lyrics, and subject matter that I thought was interesting. This was notable in her Electra Heart album, which played with the problems from fame and being a current pop star.Marina released the first song from her upcoming album of the same name, “Froot,” on October 10, her birthday, and I quickly got hooked. The song starts with a guitar riff before going into the electronic. The song, which plays a lot on fruit/sex imagery, is very catchy, including great lines like “I’ve been saving all my summers for you” and “Living la dolce vita, life couldn’t get much sweeter.” It don’t really have a ton of reasons for why I like this song beyond the fact that it came out at the right time for me. It came when I was really getting into the artist, and it’s giving me an idea of what her next album will be like. It’s catchy and fun, and I want to hear more.
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