TuffGnarl.com’s Best of 2015
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
I don’t think I could’ve said it any better, Mr. Dickens.
Here are TuffGnarl.com’s staff picks for the best pop culture offerings of 2015.
Jesse Scheckner – Mad Max: Fury Road: No other movie released this year, save for perhaps J.J. Abrams’ superlative Star Wars: The Force Awakens, felt as much like a two-hour roller coaster ride from the second it opened to when the credits rolled. Other movies have action set pieces and chase sequences—segments which separate plot exposition from the deeds that propel the story forward. Not Fury Road. George Miller, the guy behind the original three films in the Mad Max saga, returned with an absolute masterpiece. If you missed it, fix that gross oversight, pronto.
Runners-up: The Hateful Eight, Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Chuck Livid – The Hateful Eight: What makes this film so wonderful is the script and the actors spewing Tarantino’s wizardry dialogue using some of the best camera work I’ve seen in the last 20 years. The Hateful Eight will go down as one of Tarantino’s finest films, his The Shining. It should also be watched in theaters, in glorious 70mm film projection, as it was shot using Ultra Panavision 70 film stock. In an age of 3D films being pushed down people’s throats, it’s nice to enjoy a film in one of its original formats. It reminds the viewer of a certain truism—no matter how easy digital cinematography may seem or how much cheaper it is to create with it, it cannot hold a candle to stock 70mm wide angle film.
Runners-up: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina
Matthew Forster – Ex Machina: Artificial Intelligence is well-worn territory in the world of science fiction, but writer and director Alex Garland gave fans of the genre the type of film we’ve always wanted. This film is so intricately layered—there are themes upon themes upon themes—that each viewing gives viewers a deeper perspective. Childhood prodigy-cum-reclusive billionaire Nathan Bateman (played by Oscar Isaacs) carelessly treads into the territory of Gods by creating life. Though that deeply debatable theme is probably the most significant, Garland’s Ex Machina is a true masterpiece as it can be viewed in a variety of ways and even the fan not interested in post-mortem dissection can enjoy and engaging story, smart acting, and a very fun ending.
Most overrated film of 2015: The Martian
David Hildebrand – Star Wars: The Force Awakens: This shouldn’t be a surprise. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was arguably the most anticipated film of the year, and also one of the last ones to come out. While destroying box office records, The Force Awakens rekindled the world’s love affair for the Skywalker family set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Runners-up: Straight Outta Compton, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ted 2
Bruno Bravo – Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Put down your pitchforks! Yes, I realize that Star Wars was not high art, but from a purely selfish and subjective place it was unequivocally my favorite movie of the year. Borrowing heavily from A New Hope and, wisely, from key plot points of the Star Wars expanded universe, The Force Awakens did what few movies from the uninspired plot mill that Hollywood has become could; it entertained.
Runners-up: Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road
Adam Huss – Mad Max: Fury Road: At first I was slightly skeptical, as George Miller returned to the helm, seeing as he has been known for children’s films in the 2000s. I quickly lay my skepticism to rest, as Miller exceeded all expectations. Brutal action sequences, displayed through amazing cinematography, made for a thrilling movie that was so visually beautiful it’s going to be hard to top.
Runner-up: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
WINNER: Tie: Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
BEST TELEVISION SHOW
Jesse Scheckner – Fargo: Though I enjoyed the last season more than this one in terms of developments, twists and memorable performances, I wound up going with Hannibal as my pick for best TV show last year. However, Hannibal, facing down the barrel of cancellation, felt somewhat a shell of its former deliciously diabolical self—at least until it passed the halfway mark of the season, when a certain Francis Dollarhyde showed up, that is. Fargo, on the other hand, stayed fresh, fun and kinetic throughout and was an absolute blast to watch. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for next season.
Runners-up: Making a Murderer, Louie, Better Call Saul
Chuck Livid – Master of None: Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have crafted one of the finest television shows to take on everything from dating to kids to ethnicity to immigrant family struggles. My personal favorite episode, “Parents,” delves into how easy American kids have it today. A strong supporting cast, including Ansari’s own parents, make Master of None worthy of your binge-watching efforts.
Runners-up: Fargo, Silicon Valley
Matthew Forster – Fargo: Fargo’s second season magically exceeded Season One in its brilliance, as Noah Hawley’s creation was dark, humorous, clever, poignant, and nostalgic. The obvious callbacks to Cohen Brothers’ films were at worst highly entertaining and at best goose-bump-inducing. The callback to H.I.’s dream of the future in Raising Arizona was brilliantly redone, as the terminally ill Betsy Solverson imagines her husband’s future (with a cameo by the stars of Season One) as one that is full of light and hope, though quickly beset by a prophetic vision of an unstoppable force of evil in human form, vis-a-vis Hanzee Dent, one of the greatest and most intricately complex villains in television history. The juxtaposition of Patrick Wilson’s Lou Solverson (played by Keith Carradine in Season One, who frequently recalls the “Souix Falls Massacre” that occurs in that season) on the lighter end of the spectrum with Zahn McClardon’s Hanzee on the other end creates a world in which the morally ambiguous Blumquist couple, played brilliantly by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemmons, opportunistically dwell somewhere in the middle. The good, who despair at the late 1970s malaise, hope for a return to the clear-cut morality of earlier times, while the bad see the world for what it truly is: kill and be killed.
Most overrated show of 2015: Orange is the New Black
David Hildebrand – Silicon Valley: This was a hard pick for me. It seems that TV shows are getting bigger budgets and casts that help them compete with major motion pictures, but not Silicon Valley. The only thing I don’t like about the show is that each season is so short. The cast is fun and you never know how each season will end, but you always want more.
Runners-up: Daredevil, House of Cards, The Affair
Bruno Bravo – Louie: I suppose my very favorite part of Louie, a show that has quietly endured for five years, is that it always has a way of surprising its viewers despite a fairly predictable bag of tricks. The most recent season was no exception. Awkwardness, failed romance and general melancholy abounded, but Louie delivered these with the kind of heart that few shows can ever hope to emulate. Compare this to Aziz Ansari’s soulless rip-off, Master of None, and you’ll see that there is for more than luck to Louie‘s winning formula.
Runners-up: Daredevil, Ash vs. Evil Dead, Veep
Adam Huss – Ash vs. Evil Dead: This is 30 minutes of perfect, campy, gore-soaked humor. Picking up years after the original Evil Dead movies and Army of Darkness, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are delivering a 30-year-old cult classic to a new generation as well as the army of fans that still follow their work. With some great young actors in supporting roles and the reemergence of Lucy Lawless (YES! Xena is back and she’s still a mega-babe!), this show was already green lighted for a second season before the pilot even aired.
Jesse Scheckner – J.D. McPherson: Let The Good Times Roll: I stumbled upon this little gem while perusing the “New Releases” section on Spotify earlier this year. Let The Good Times Roll is very much a throwback in terms of sound and substance, but its high-fi, often upbeat and infectious melodies are memorable not only for their catchiness, but how they deposit images in your minds of dance halls filled with people falling in love with music, energy and each other. Every single song on this album, whose tracks recall prime Sun Records and Motown, is absolutely fantastic.
Runners-up: Sun Kil Moon: Universal Themes, Bob Dylan: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12
Chuck Livid – Bleubird: Lauderdale: Produced by Death Jam alum and West Palm Beach rapper Mister Belvedere, “Lauderdale” hits hard as Bleubird’s loudest and most to-the-point release in his 10-plus year career. Tracks like “BLKBOI,” “Salt Lyfe” and “Lauderdale Squad” are easily in the top 25 rap songs of the last five years. Everyone from Swag Toof to Astronautalis to Otto Von Shirach makes appearances on the record. From start to finish, Lauderdale does not disappoint. Here’s to the future of rap.
Runners-up: 210: Extinction Event, Jon Cougar Concentration Camp: Armageddon Party EP
Matthew Forster – Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit: Back in March, I thought this album by Aussie Courtney Barnett had a good chance of being one of 2015’s best, and it was. I’ve no great gift of prognostication—it was arguably a pretty weak field—but most people know good music when they hear it and this album was not only great, it was the best. Barnett eschewed the Moog-heavy indie sounds that have become synonymous with indie rock (don’t get me started on “indie” as a sound) and delivered well-written songs with musicians who play actual instruments and play them well.
Most overrated album of 2015: Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
David Hildebrand – Dr. Dre: Compton: While filming Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre felt inspired to record a few tracks after reliving his past while on set. That inspiration turned into an album, his first since 1999. Compton is as different from 2001 (1999) as 2001 was from The Chronic (1992), yet you can still hear many of the same things that make it a Dre album.
Runners-up: Drake: If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, AWOLNATION: Run
Bruno Bravo: — The Internet: Ego Death: Ego Death, The Internet’s third album, is a soulful and earnest compilation of songs dedicated to love and loss. Yet, rather than painting a morose and overly dramatic tableau, there is an effortlessly cool vibe to the story being told. Despite essentially bearing witness to the devolution of a relationship, listening to Ego Death was a largely comforting experience, familiar and sad; not unlike commiserating with an old friend. And that, my friends, is music.
Runners-up: Grimes: Art Angels, The Dead Weather: Dodge and Burn, Passion Pit: Kindred
Adam Huss – City and Colour: If I Should Go Before You: Admittedly, I don’t get the opportunity to check out new music too often. The majority of my iPod is filled with music from 2006 or earlier. While I enjoyed albums from Father Misty John, Lucero and Frank Turner this year, City and Colour once again brought together a perfect blend of depression and endearment. The way the opening track “Woman” hits your ears truly shows how Dallas Green has continued to evolve as an artist. Especially due to my distaste for Hurry and the Harm, I was very pleased with this album.
Runner-up: Ryan Adams: 1989
WINNER: Inconclusive. Unsurprising, considering the varying tastes among our staff. However, a 3-2 tally does indicate that hip-hop was the dominant genre this year.
Jesse Scheckner – James Robinson and Greg Hinkle: Airboy: This book is everything that a work of experimental fiction should be, and more. Think Adaptation with R. Crumb, embarrassment humor and genuine gravitas thrown in for good measure. Over the course of four issues, the oft-maligned James Robinson, whose fall from grace in the wake of the dreadfully bad adaptation of Alan Moore’s beloved League of Extraordinary Gentlemen sent him into a seemingly endless tailspin of self-doubt, works on his demons while making even the most outlandish of his in-print creations seem human. Hilarious and touching. Mandatory reading.
Runners-up: Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham: Miracleman, Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows: Providence, Rick Remender and Mateo Scalara: Black Science
Chuck Livid – Marc Steven Bell: Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone: Marc Steven Bell, better known to the world as Marky Ramone, has scribed what may go down as the greatest account of what it was like to tour and hang around the Ramones. Stories of his growing up in New York and playing drums in a small bedroom next to the stinky trash bins, or the joy he experienced as a child when he got his first pocket transistor radio, were not only great character stories, they’re heartwarming foreshadowing to the man Bell would grow up to be: a flawed but secure recovering alcoholic, a true friend and one of the greatest drummers the world will ever know. The book delves heavily into New York rock history during the ‘60s and ’70s, which was nice. It’s also appropriate that he brought up short histories of both Dust and The Voidoids, two legendary rock acts that Bell also performed with, although for me Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone’s last chapter had me in tears. As the lights dimmed on Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee, I can’t imagine how hard it was to put pen to paper for those stories.
Runners-up: Kim Gordon: Girl in a Band, Aziz Ansari: Modern Romance
Matthew Forster – David Mitchell: Slade House: David Mitchell is one of our best living writers for a multitude of reasons, but the two most obvious are his absolutely brilliant style and an uncanny ability to tell massive stories in economic fashion. Slade House is a return to the sort of mysticism set among British modernity (similar to The Bone Clocks and Black Swan Green) that has exemplified Mitchell’s skill as a writer and storyteller. Like all of Mitchell’s books, we feel as though we intimately know his characters after a few short pages in which he gives very little (and always anecdotal) background. Fans of writing as an art form will again be wowed by the author’s ability to make us care, whether we like the character or not.
Most overrated books of 2015: Jonathan Franzen: Purity, Carrie Brownstein: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
David Hildebrand – Brad Meltzer: The President’s Shadow: The President’s Shadow is third book in the Culper Ring series by Meltzer. The series focuses on an archivist at the U.S. National Archives who accidently becomes entangled in America’s oldest and arguably most successful spy ring. This series is a favorite of mine, as archivists and librarians have very similar degrees and are sometimes known as professional cousins. Though this is a work of fiction, Meltzer does his research with former Secret Service agents, archivists at the National Archives and even former president George H. W. Bush.
Runner-up: Jeff Lindsay: Dexter is Dead
Bruno Bravo – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples: Saga: Like last year, I found there to be a general dearth of good books to sink my teeth into. Still, that is likely more telling of my priorities than of the quality of material out there. I would be remiss, however, if I did not continue to sing the praises of Brian K. Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’ Saga. While it is unmistakably an epic space opera, the lasting power of this book is really more a function of its brilliantly written characters and unexpected twists and turns. It is a sheer pleasure to read.
Runners-up: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo: Batman; Bryan Hill, Matt Hawkins and Isaac Goodhart: Postal, Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams: The Sandman: Overture
WINNER: Inconclusive again. Sorry folks. Maybe let us know what you think we missed in the comments section?
BEST VIDEO GAME
Jesse Scheckner – Call of Duty: Black Ops III: Yes, it’s mindless, repetitive, silly and addictive to the point of possibly making some list that doesn’t have the words “best of” at the top of it, but Treyarch has succeeded in topping themselves on a multitude of levels when it comes to what’s become the hallmark game in the annual series whose prefixal namesake they share with Infinity Ward. The addition of wall runs, booster jumps, boosted slides and the implementation of playable “specialists,” whose unique abilities serve as added perks to the already generous “pick 10” system they introduced in Black Ops 2, make this my tentative selection. Full disclosure: I have yet to truly run through this year’s pickings and am in no hurry to play Fallout 4, as I’ve traversed both the Capital Wasteland and New Vegas previously and prefer to revel in p4p madness for the time being.
Chuck Livid – Fallout 4: Bethesda Software have really outdone themselves with Fallout 4. The sheer scope of this open map goliath of a game is masterfully executed with amazing visuals, a storyline worthy of Hollywood and countless hours of immersive gameplay.
Runners-up: Batman: Arkham Knight, Super Maro Maker
Matthew Forster – Fallout 4: A late-year release, Fallout 4 delivers to us the world we’ve always wanted to play around with. Adapting aspects of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim that made it enjoyable for hundreds of hours of gameplay, Bethesda has given players the same open-world fun, only with shotguns and feral irradiated freaks instead of swords and hagravens. Linear games, while still fun, do not afford players the ability to immerse themselves the way wholly open-world gameplay does. The ability to weather the apocalypse according to one’s own moral code (while occasionally dabbling in the main quest) with brilliant graphics and fun weapons makes Fallout 4 the sort of game players can truly make their own, as it is beautifully interactive entertainment at its absolute finest.
Most overrated games of 2015: The Order: 1886, Call of Duty: Black Ops III
David Hildebrand – Star Wars: Battlefront: If I had made this list at the beginning of the year I probably would’ve picked Call of Duty: Black Ops III, but I would’ve been incredibly wrong. I bought FIFA 16 at the same time as I bought Battlefront, put Battlefront in and still haven’t even unwrapped FIFA. That’s how good the game is! For the Force-sensitive fan, Star Wars: Battlefront is something special. For me, the game awakened a yearning that I’ve had since I was a child: to fly an X-Wing Fighter or control an AT-ST Walker.
Runners-up: Call of Duty: Black Ops III, FIFA 16
Bruno Bravo: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain: Perhaps the finest game in the series, Hideo Kojima’s swan song (a safe bet this time, I think) is nothing short of sublime. With its open world map, breathtaking visuals, robust resource management simulator and obligatory operatic narrative, The Phantom Pain delivered a magnificent, if somewhat controversial, final act.
Runners-up: Batman: Arkham Knight, Destiny: The Taken King, Life is Strange
WINNER: Fallout 4.
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