J.G. Walker: My Favorites of 2013

montageGenerally, 2013 was an okay year–not bad but not exceptional, either–but it was a decent year for entertainment, at least from my perspective. To anyone who claims there’s nothing good to read or watch out there, I say they’re not looking in the right places. Or they’re not looking at all. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite books, movies, and television experiences of the year.

The World’s End
worlds-end-poster-2If there was one film I couldn’t wait to see in 2013, it was this one, the final installment in the Cornetto Trilogy. It’s not often that I buy tickets for the day a film releases, but buy them I did, and it was well worth it.

The World’s End was fun, visually amazing, and it featured a superb cast. But that goes without saying, right? At least, that is, if you’re familiar with the previous collaborations of Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Nick Frost: SpacedShaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz. And movie Nick Frost can bar fight like nobody’s business. (See my review of The World’s End here.)

The Series Finale of Breaking Bad

breaking-bad-season-5It seems strange to say that I actually looked forward to the end of what I believe to be one of the best serial dramas I’ve ever followed, but there it is. Come on, though–everyone who enjoyed the adventures of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman knew from the beginning that this story was headed to an end. The only question was how? With the last episode, we found out, and what an end it was.

As I’ve said before, Breaking Bad is an excellent contemporary example of writers who let their characters get themselves into seemingly unsolvable situations, but not due to the characters’ stupidity. In fact, show creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan has gone on record as saying that he and the other writers find themselves surprised at where their characters have gone. Too often, writers create conflict by having their characters make incredibly stupid decisions, but not Breaking Bad. Hubris, now, that’s a different story.

George Saunders’ Tenth of December
tenthI haven’t yet met anyone who disliked this collection of short stories. That’s not to say those folks aren’t out there, because I’m sure they are. In fact, I’m certain there are quite a few. After all, Saunder’s Tenth of December is weird, challenging, and risky, and it’s probably not for everyone. To me, it was a joy to read. It occasionally had me turning back a few pages to make sure what I thought was happening was actually happening, asking myself, “Did I just read what I think I read?”

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Saunders’ gift for language, telling, unique details, and understated humor reminds me of Vonnegut, and, in case you don’t know me, that’s steep praise. And he stays with you. I always enjoy hearing fellow Saunders readers saying “Remember that story where (unusual character) did (unusual thing)?” or “Remember the one about that (weird guy)?” And everyone who’s read the book just nods and smiles.

Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove
vampiresLike Saunders’ collection, this one is weird, challenging, and memorable. In fact, I’ve been meaning to write a review of this one since I read it a few months back, but I don’t know where to start.

The situations and characters in Vampires in the Lemon Grove range far and wide: a vampire and his wife live in an Italian lemon grove; a frontier family shares a window with their neighbors in hopes of obtaining a deed for their land; a group of high school bullies find a scarecrow who may be a surrogate for a boy they abused; young Japanese girls are recruited to work in a silk factory they call Nowhere Hill, where they produce the silk from their own bodies.

Are all of the stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove created equally? No, but they’re all imaginative, unique, they’ll stay with you, and the ones that stand out are truly special.

Man of Steel
manofsteelYes, I liked Man of Steel. So what?

A lot of the criticism of MOS I read had to do mostly with the violence, but you know what? Superman isn’t perfect, nor does he need to be. I grew up reading comics–lots of comics, many of them Superman-oriented–and the only times I grew disenchanted were when Superman put on the boy scout mantle. Also, in Man of Steel we get to see Clark Kent learning how to be Superman, making mistakes, taking chances, doing his best.

And that last thing, with General Zod? Yeah, Supes did the right thing.

Sleepy Hollow
sleepyhollowMy wife and I waited to watch this series, not really out of choice but rather because there was a lot going on when it debuted. Funny thing is I can’t remember now exactly what was happening. Once we got started watching it, though, it was essentially a repeat of our catching up on the first three seasons of Lost. Late nights, constant reassurances that we’d just watch one more, that kind of thing.

Sleepy Hollow is creepy, funny, suspenseful, it boasts a killer cast, and will have you spinning out theories long after you should be asleep at night. Is it historically accurate? A little. Is it imaginative? Yes. Is it good television? Absolutely.

The Americans
americansThis is another series I waited to watch, keeping it on my DVR until after the season finale had aired. Talk about tension. Not only are Kerri Russell and Matthew Rhys entirely believable and, yes, occasionally sympathetic as a Cold War spy couple, but the supporting cast is also solid. Noah Emmerich is excellent as the FBI agent/across-the-street neighbor who’s always about two seconds away from catching the spies, and Richard Thomas (yes, John Boy Walton) is just as good as his no-nonsense boss. I’m looking forward to this one returning in 2014.
Arrested Development Season Four
adfourThis was an excellent continuation of one of the funniest television series in history. I’ll admit that a lot of my enjoyment of this season relied on my love for the first three. But it was still good. The pacing lagged at times, the timing wasn’t as impeccable as before, and it needed more Tony Hale (Buster), but I’d still put Arrested Development Season Four up against any other comedy released in 2013.
Honorable Mention: Things that Weren’t Released in 2013 but that I Belatedly Discovered in 2013 (So, to Me, They Really Happened in 2013)
Robot & Frank (2012)
robotfrankHere’s another one that stays with you. For one thing, the trailer for this film revealed very little about the movie’s actual content, which is a rare thing these days. For another, the actual film is nothing like what you might have expected from that trailer. For a third, the actual film happens to be a surprising gem. Yes, it’s definitely about a man finding a friend in a mechanical companion, but it’s also about much more: friendship, love, family, and the fragility of memory.
The Grey Zone (2001)
220px-GreyzonetheThe Grey Zone was a genuine surprise. I wasn’t surprised that it was good, mind you. Though I’ve long been a fan of Tim Blake Nelson the actor, I’ve only recently begun watching his directorial efforts, but I’ve enjoyed them all. The surprise with The Grey Zone was at how good it was.

Directed by Nelson and starring Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, and David Arquette, The Grey Zone examines the lives of the Sonderkomando, Jewish people who were forced to work in German concentration camps during World War II. It also features a powerful performance by Kamelia Grigorova as a young gas chamber survivor who barely speaks a word.

Much of the film deals with the prisoners’ day-to-day-lives and the guilt they feel over what they perceive as helping to harm their own people. However, the plot also turns on an opportunity to strike back at their captors. The Grey Zone is bleak, powerful, frightening, yet somehow inspiring.

Eye of God (1997)

eyeofgodThis film barely made it onto my 2013 viewing list. Here’s why: After watching The Grey Zone, I ordered this one from Netflix and, as discs sometimes do in our house, it sat atop the Blu-Ray player for nearly a month. A couple of nights ago, I finally pulled it down and popped it in. What a treat.

Eye of God is a small town story that takes place in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, where a young girl begins a relationship with a man who recently received parole. Nick Stahl turns in an understated performance as the emotionally disturbed Tommy, Martha Plimpton mesmerizes as the young bride Ainslee (which is a good reminder of what a capable dramatic actress she can be, considering her recent success in comedy), and Kevin Anderson quietly menaces as her newly-released-from-prison husband Jack. Also, it has Hal Holbrook and Richard Jenkins, so there’s that in its favor.

As with The Grey Zone, Nelson isn’t afraid to let his characters talk, and talk they do. They almost always say and do unexpected things. Here, Nelson also jumbles the narrative timeline, allowing the narrative to unfold in a precise manner to tell the story the way he wants.   

To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997)
Connie_Willis_-_To_Say_Nothing_of_the_DogConnie Willis is my new obsession. Well, I’m obsessed with her writing, anyway. This was one of those novels I’d heard of thousands of times but never managed to pick up. With To Say Nothing of the Dog, Willis manages to incorporate time travel, romance, history, a cat, and a dog, all with a P.G. Wodehouse approach to social interaction. It’s smart and genuinely funny, in a sophisticated way. Connie Willis is one of those writers who proves that “genre” doesn’t have to be a four-letter word.

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