Regular readers of TuffGnarl.com are aware that we cover all bases. Our staff is comprised of former record execs, musicians, and novelists, but we are—most of all—fans, in the truest sense of the word. One can almost feel intimidated by the sheer volume of information and opinions that exists on matters of pop culture and, often times, critics of pop culture resort to being serial (and aggressive) contrarians or become so esoteric in their preferences that they alienate others.True enough, what is popular isn’t often good, but on the other hand what is good can sometimes be very popular.
At TuffGnarl.com, we don’t judge something based on it’s popularity and that cuts both ways. We don’t torpedo something simply because it’s a wide-release film, network show or Billboard Top 100 album, but we often praise independent music, low-budget films and shows with relatively small viewership. Perhaps I’m being self-aggrandizing but if you look at the wide array of topics that we cover, you’ll see true fandom and it is with that being said that I present the Best of 2014 from members of our staff.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, 2014 represented just the most recent step towards mass cultural overstimulation. An example: the phrase “two screen experience” didn’t exist a few years ago, and for good reason—it’s a crazy and cognizance-muddling concept. Now, however, its widespread acceptance grows with each mark off of the calendar. Conversely, the highlighted items listed below exist in direct conflict with that. They grasp your attention tightly, allowing for no division while the rest of the world slips away, blurred in the glow of their individual brilliance.
Best Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel
For my money, there was no better experience at the cineplex than this comedic clinic on quirk and charm by arguably the king of the genre, Wes Anderson. The Academy rarely recognizes comedies—and this certainly qualifies not only a comedy, but among the finest in recent memory—so don’t expect to see this win an Oscar. Few films, however, have as capably evoked tears of both laughter and moroseness as this kinetic, inspired adventure revolving around concierge Monsieur Gustave H. and Zero Mustafa, his bellhop and protégé.
Runners-up: Gone Girl, Birdman
Best Television Show: Hannibal
Hands down, nothing made the hairs on the spine stand straighter, the pupils become more dilated and the flesh crawl so creepily as Bryan Fuller’s superlatively sinister series based on the pre-Francis Dolarhyde (read: “The Tooth Fairy”) relationship between the titular Dr. Lecter and FBI Special Agents Will Graham and Jack Crawford, played nimbly by Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishbourne, respectively. From the surrealistic macabre murder scenes to the tasteful use of double entendres synonymous with earlier Thomas Harris adaptations, this delightfully perverse series is a masterwork in the making. And while previous Graham portrayer William Petersen’s fingerprints are all over Dancy’s interpretation of the character, Mikkelsen’s Lecter is a new monster altogether. That his version is perhaps better than Anthony Hopkins’s iconic, Academy Award winning construct is further testament to how damn good this show truly is.
Runners-up: Fargo, Louie, The Walking Dead, The Simpsons, The Killing, The Newsroom
Best Album: Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Back in April, I was perusing Spotify in search of something new to listen to and I happened upon Benji, a rather inconspicuous record released two months earlier by SKM fulcrum Mark Kozelek. I played the first track and my jaw dropped. The second track continued, and I knew I was listening to something truly special—something vulnerable, raw, revealing, impactful and, most importantly, enduring. It’s the kind of album that stays with you for years, eroding your emotional boundaries. In its own way, through its almost assaultive lyrical plainness, Benji approaches life’s everyday existential truisms more directly than ever before. Read my original review here.
Runners-up: Scott Reynolds – Stupid World, Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else, Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams, Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2, Fugazi – First Demo, St. Vincent – St. Vincent, Chuck Ragan – Till Midnight
Best Book: N/A
It wasn’t until 2014 entered its final quarter that I actually purchased a book published during the calendar year. Though I have anticipated the release of a few choice novels this year, I just can’t justify spending upwards of $40 when the cover price will drop by as much as 80% if I can just wait six to eight months. And no, comics don’t count.
Best Film: The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is director Wes Anderson’s tour de force. With its outstanding cast, great story and beautiful cinematography, this film was the best release of 2014. Ralph Fiennes better get an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of M. Gustave.
Best Television Show: True Detective
The runaway hit in television for 2014 goes to HBO’s True Detective. I had never cared for Matthew McConaughey as an actor. I’d always thought of him as a beefcake typecast throwaway performer. Boy was I wrong. His performance as Detective Rust Cohle is mind blowing. Co-starring Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart, a stereotypical high-school-jock-turned-cop-turned-retired-detective, the show hits on all the whodunit cues while philosophically shattering every ounce of every cop drama before it. I quickly picked up Mud on blu-ray and watched Interstellar opening weekend in support of Mr. McConaughey. You, sir, are one of this generation’s finest actors and I owe you my deepest apologies.
Best Album: The Jellyfish Brothers – Sentinels of the Space Age
Miami’s Jellyfish Brothers have gone through some changes since they dropped this LP in May. They’ve replaced bassist/vocalist Janette Valentine with Snakehole’s Kc Tomil and singer/songwriter Greg Alvarez ditched his guitar for a synthesizer in a move which I question as a music journalist solely due to Alvarez’s domination of the stringed instrument. In any case, Sentinels of the Space Age stopped me dead in my tracks with its psychedelic arrangements and unquestionably genial instrumentation.
Best Book: As You Wish
Cary Elwes first-person account of the making of The Princess Bride is one of the funniest and heartwarming reads I’ve had in a long time. The interviews with actors Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Mandy Patinkin and director Rob Reiner make this book a must-read for any fan of the film.
Another year, another belly-full of pop culture consumed. Some of it was savored, some of it was spat back out. The bottom line is that it’s been a fantastic year for art and we should rejoice in the fact that, at any given moment, while The Voice plays on television and people line up to see Transformers 4 and hurry to download Maroon 5 on their phones, you can change the channel, go to the next theater, or sample the newest album with ease and find something amazing. Television is better than it has ever been, movies are working to keep up, and music has become something else entirely. Below are a few of my favorites from this year and choosing the best, in some cases, could have come down to the flip of a coin.
Best Film: Grand Budapest Hotel
Perhaps choosing a Wes Anderson movie as my top pick of 2014 will automatically set me at odds because it simultaneously looks too pretentious and not at all elevated. This is the perfect Wes Anderson film because his quirky, misplaced humor is prevalent throughout an engaging story that becomes convoluted enough to be funny but not to the point where it distracts from the characters. At times, the plot almost becomes secondary to the characters themselves in a highly amusing way.
Runner-up: Gone Girl
Best Television Show: True Detective
This was the hardest to select because television has far exceeded movies in terms of quality writing and casting, and a serialized nature greatly adds to that. It will be nearly impossible for True Detective to duplicate what it’s done in the first season because it delivered week after week and, in my opinion, gave viewers the most thrilling ten minutes of television ever at the close of episode 4, “Who Goes There.” McConaughey’s Rustin Cole has already become the stuff of television legend, to the point where he completely overshadowed a fantastic role played by co-star Woody Harrelson.
Runners-up: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story: Freak Show
Best Album: Gary Clark Jr. – Gary Clark Jr. Live
This was another hard choice, but nothing got under my skin as much as this live album by Clark. He’s a guitar player and his music is Austin, TX. His guitar is ambitious but he’s not a show-off, his presentation is sophisticated without being pretentious (Pitchfork will never understand that latter concept), and his album makes you feel as though you’re there, having a Lone Star and sweating it out with everyone else at Antone’s.
Runners-up: War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream, Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence, Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright in the End
Best Book: The Bone Clocks
David Mitchell’s novel was the runaway favorite for me this year. It’s so perfectly Mitchell-esque: a story which spans decades but doesn’t seem too spacey, half-fantasy, half-literature, and hilarious doses of metafiction. Though the ending was a bit of a letdown, there is simply no comparison to Mitchell as a storyteller.
It seems that despite many odd proclivities and a general dearth of good choices, I have survived yet another year on planet Earth. Fortunately, this unexpected longevity has afforded me both the privilege and pleasure of sharing some of that time with the incredibly talented and gracious staff of TuffGnarl.com. I also managed to pick up a PhD in “Happening” in the interim. This is important for two reasons: I now have a legitimate reason for insisting people refer to me as “doctor” in casual conversation, and I am able to pass judgment on pop culture with the kind of impunity typically reserved for precocious toddlers. In fact, it is under the auspices of such privilege that I present to you all my contribution to TuffGnarl.com’s best of 2014 list.
Best Film: Jodorowsky’s Dune (Documentary)
The true majesty of Jodorowski’s Dune lies not in the tale of a movie that never came to be, but in the revelation of its director. More than any other film this year, it made me marvel at the mind of an artist who, whether genius, narcissist or madman, seemed to speak with a candor and earnestness one does not often experience in quotidian interactions.
Runners-up: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The LEGO Movie
Best Television Show: True Detective
Although Nic Pizzolato’s post-show interviews reached Zap Branigan levels of self-regard, it was not enough to undermine the quality of writing, acting and direction of this outstanding series. More than any other show in 2014, True Detective rewarded its viewership with intelligent and interesting characters while maintaining a strong and cohesive narrative that allowed its protagonists to develop beyond standard TV cop tropes.
Runners-up: Gotham, Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Arrow, Flash, House of Cards
Best Album: FKA Twigs – LP1
FKA Twigs, an artist I am largely unacquainted with, caught me completely off-guard with this incredible trip/dream-hop offering. Just about every song on this album is a successful exercise in chill-the-fuck-out ambiance. Few albums this year provided such a consistently satisfying experience.
Runners-up: TOKiMONSTA – Disderium, Spoon – They Want My Soul, Cibo Matto – Hotel Valentine, People Under the Stairs – 12SP
Best Book: Broken Monsters
In an age when torture porn has become de rigueur for the horror set, Broken Monsters reminds us that nothing works better at scaring than hell out of someone than careful plotting and atmosphere. Intelligently written and suitably creepy, this book was a breath of fresh air in what was a fairly book-deficient year for me.
Runners-up: Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe – Yumi Sakugawa
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