MOVIE: The Place Beyond the Pines by Derek Cianfrance
An ambitious, three-part, multi-generational look at the rivalries of a stunt motorcyclist-turned-bank robber (Ryan Gosling) and a cop (Bradley Cooper). The film is a bit unruly in its overly dramatic twists and turns, but savor Gosling’s performance—among his last, with Only God Forgives, before his self-imposed sabbatical from acting.
MOVIE: A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhangke
Leave it to Jia, perhaps the best director on the planet today, to find a new way to critique China as it becomes like the Wild West, a corrupt land full of outlaws and people pushed to the brink. Leave it to Jia to make an updated wushu movie, in the same year that Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai made an actual period wushu movie. Jia’s work is funny, sorrowful, exciting, and stinging, and amounts to a courageous commentary on Beijing politics.
MUSIC: Daftside: Random Access Memories Memories by Darkside
This was the summer of Daft Punk, but check out this remix of Random Access Memories. It’s not as revelatory as Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album years ago, but it is perhaps even more fun than the original.
MUSIC: The Electric Lady by Janelle Monae
Speaking of fun and original, in a year of loud releases by Katy Perry, Gaga, Miley, Brittany, and Beyoncé, Janelle Monae quietly broke the sophomore curse to release a second studio album that’s even more eclectic than her first, The ArchAndroid.
BOOK: The Virgins by Pamela Erens
A devilish narrator looks back on his boarding school days, when he and another young man develop an obsession with the new girl on campus. But he tells their story in a voyeuristic way, to make this one of the most troubling and serpentine novel of the year.
TV: Masters of Sex, Showtime
Nobody has Showtime, but if they know a Showtime show, it’s Homeland. But Masters of Sex has quietly become one of the most entertaining, well written, and superbly acted series on TV. And who doesn’t want to watch a show about doctors studying human subjects about sex, and all the psychological and social aspects of physical love?
DOC: 20 Feet From Stardom by Morgan Neville
A loving documentary on backup singers like Merry Clayton, who made The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” the apocalyptic chiller it is. Also check out The Girls in the Band, chronicling the stories of women instrumentalists whose roles in jazz have been left untold until now.
BOOK: White Girls by Hilton Als
Hilton Als’s collection of his groundbreaking New Yorker pieces is a master class in cultural writing, featuring his now-classic takes on Richard Pryor, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, and Malcolm X. This is how criticism is done.
GAME: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
A pair of brothers must find the Tree of Life and bring back the Water of Life to their dying father. This is one of the most moving games ever made, and the creators built a gorgeous world.
TV: Children’s Hospital, Adult Swim
We thought Children’s Hospital would have dried up by now, but actually it keeps getting better. In its fifth season it might very well be the funniest show on TV.
BOOK: Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges was not only a creative genius, producing magical little allegories that only he can offer. He was also a genius, period, and this collection of 25 lectures that Borges gave at the University of Buenos Aires in 1966 attest to that, as he gives an idiosyncratic overview of English literature that only he can give. Despite his insistence that he has a bad memory when it comes to specific dates and names, he doesn’t get a single one wrong, and here’s the remarkable part: it all came from memory. Borges was blind by then, and he delivered the lectures without any notes.
DOC: The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer
In the 1960s, Indonesian death squads massacred at least half a million of its people, many of them suspected Communists and the ethnic Chinese. Joshua Oppenheimer invited some of the perpetrators, now old men, to restage their crimes. This might seem like a conceit, but the end result is both troubling and overwhelmingly powerful.
MOVIE: Beyond the Hills by Cristian Mungiu
The director of the devastating 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is fast developing an attraction to stories that are without solace. If you know his last work you are wise to approach his films with cold sweat and cold feet, all the more so because his new one is set in a convent in the dead of winter in Romania, and based on a true event, an exorcism gone awry. Mungiu gives viewers so much to ponder with just a single shot of, say, a cold monastery window or a forbidding hill, while the two orphaned girls at the heart of the movie are overwhelmingly passionate, though one for love and one for God. But this is Mungiu, after all, and there’s no refuge from the fact that we’re on our own.
MOVIE: Caesar Must Die by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani
This unclassifiable near-masterpiece uses actual maximum security inmates of the Rebibbia prison outside Rome to stage a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But this is not a documentary nor simply a stage adaptation, as the “actors” act out the Taviani brothers’ script. Filmed mostly in black and white, this multi-layered, almost dizzyingly complex conceit is still austere and controlled despite its nonprofessional actors, as if the Tavianis, like Mungiu, are confirming the legacy of Robert Bresson.
MUSIC: Acid Rap by Chance the Rapper
It began as a mixtape, but Chicago MC Chance the Rapper has put together something rich and wild, establishing him as a creative force, and the future of underground hip hop.
TV: Four Courses With J.B. Smoove, MSG Network
Four Courses With J.B. Smoove is hard to catch, since it’s only on the MSG Network. And who wants to watch guys sitting around a table having dinner and shooting the shit about sports? If it’s guys like Judah Friedlander, John Salley, Larry Johnson, Nick Cannon, and Colin Quinn, then bring on the hilariousness. Smoove and his cast of buddies are natural storytellers. Make it 12 courses.
GAME: Gone Home, PC
A game that requires you to put yourself in the shoes of a young woman who has returned home from abroad to an empty mansion, and she must find out what happened to her family by looking for clues and piecing together the story. If you can make a video game as profound as a novel, Gone Home would be it.
MOVIE: Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve
A disturbing, moody drama about the disappearance of two girls and the search for them, Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Melissa Leo deliver profound and searching performances that are Oscar worthy if the film were released closer to the award season rather than in the summer.
MUSIC: Wakin on a Pretty Daze by Kurt Vile
No, not Kurt Weill, although Vile does make edgy, catchy indie pop, which is another way to describe “Mack the Knife,” the edgy, catchy indie pop of its time. Vile’s fifth album is more ambitious than any of his work before, seeing him open and end with his most epic songs yet. This is indie rock growing up.
TV: Rectify, Sundance Channel
Is Rectify the best new show on TV? Probably. Although Top of the Lake is even more innovative and mind-blowing, it isn’t so much a show as a mini-series. Whereas Rectify, a Southern Gothic about a man named Daniel Holden who’s returned to his hometown after being released from prison thanks to new DNA evidence, has been renewed for another season. It’s a gritty and spare character study that will very likely open out and get better with another 10 episodes.
BOOK: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
Penelope Fitzgerald held her rich experiences in ransom, until she began releasing them like hostages at the age of 60, when she proceeded to publish masterpiece after masterpiece. The Blue Flower might be the closest thing to a modern classic in English letters, and you can see her influence on everyone from Julian Barnes to Hilary Mantel. Here is her remarkable life story, long overdue.