Welcome to Smugglivus 2015! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2015, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2016, and more.
Please give it up for Genevieve!
A Feel-Bad Guide to 2015
Halfway through making notes for this post, striking out possibilities left and right, I realized that a significant percentage of the media I enjoyed in 2015 had a glimmer of the dismal in them. (My Best of the Year list is a lot more balanced, but right now we’re going with the things that kept me up at night, many of which I haven’t talked about elsewhere.) The other thing most of them share is a streak of magical realism, as if the sheer weight of it all plucked some supernatural string so hard it snapped and sliced them; guess it’s just been that kind of year. In the spirit of long, dark nights, here are some of my favorite things.
The Witch of Lime Street
I’ve had to caveat everybody with “The ectoplasm specifics get kind of weird,” so consider yourself warned, but this book’s kind of great. A battle of egos at Scientific American, a magician whose crusade against Spiritualism would ruin Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from ever having another good night’s sleep, and a society wife in Boston who was, depending on who you asked, the greatest fraud on the Eastern Seaboard, or the cleverest witch of her age. Has a very odd, very slow-burn subplot that would singlehandedly take care of the Gothic angle even if the rest of it wasn’t literally about pining for news from ghosts.
A TV series that can, at times, revel in its wretchedness—but that’s no bad thing. The behind-the-scenes machinations of “The Suitor” that form the spine of the show’s plot veer between I-knew-it satisfaction and gently-rising horror watching the show’s producers (Rachel and Quinn as its fixtures, but anyone who gets within a mile of the show is tainted by association). They fling themselves into the vampiric demands of keeping a show like this running with the sort of manipulation so totally ruthless and morally bankrupting that you almost can’t fault the contestants for falling for it: even you, who know exactly what’s going on, can’t help but hope maybe this time they’re acting in someone’s best interests. Rachel’s downward spiral in particular is one of the most blunt antihero arcs on TV this season, and makes for a finale that literally gave me chills.
Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange
These tales—taken from a thousand-year-old manuscript uncovered in a library in Turkey, in the usual manner of magical manuscripts—are sometimes epic, sometimes oddball, and sometimes eyebrow-raising. (In one story, a king is cured of his grief for a dead daughter when someone reminds him how deceitful women are, which is amazing in its own way, but there’s a reason the introduction to this collection is so thorough.) Often, though, they’re poetry. I prefaced my NPR review of it with “I have come in search of a gazelle with white feet or a man in a shirt,” and still can’t think of a better epigram for anything, ever. The sort of book you get happily lost in. It’s worth reading the entire thing for the moment the maiden finds herself stranded, and God folds up the desert to bring her home again.
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter
There’s dismal, and then there’s Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, which is like sinking into dark water on a dark night. There are grim laughs scattered through the film, which is based on an urban legend about a Japanese woman who travels to Fargo, ostensibly to look for the abandoned money left in the snow at the end of the film—though the movie is mostly visible in the visual interplay of claustrophobia and agoraphobia, and aching moments of attempted human connection doomed to failure. In the center of it all, a nearly wordless Rinko Kikuchi delivers one of the year’s most magnetic performances; still, only watch it if you feel like drowning a little.
You’re the Worst, “LCD Soundsystem.”
Though I enjoy it, I’ll admit this series can lean hard on the psychological recesses of its cringe comedy. (I made a cup of tea during a few scenes of a character confronting her ex-husband, just so I would be a few feet farther away from something so painful.) But “LCD Soundsystem” is one of those episodes a TV show gets to do when the network has faith in the creator and the creator has faith in their story. Focused almost entirely on a pair of one-off characters, and featuring what might be rock bottom for one of its main characters, the last five minutes of are painfully uncomfortable and indispensable to the tenor of the season.
Show Me a Hero
Not a supernatural bone in its body; just the intricacies of small-town government weighted on the wrong side of history, which ratchet up the stakes until the wait for a city council meeting to start gets your heart pounding. Almost universally amazing performances (Winona Ryder looks as if she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing there, and she is correct), refreshing frankness about race and class and the tiny weights that crush you, and ruthless enough to present everyone as human and let the chips fall where they may.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Essentially a two-hander that traps Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in a mountain cabin and forces them to duke out their identities in ankle-deep in encroaching mortality and knee-deep in textual and emotional meta about the play Binoche’s character is presumably prepping for. The sort of id navel-gazing of a person too complex for likability to matter; still rare for women, and even rarer for women over 40, with often-uncomfortable execution sublimely delivered. I felt almost elatedly wretched at the end of it, which I know makes me sound like a Victorian heroine just on the cusp of dying of consumption, but is also the only real descriptor.
I Await the Devil’s Coming
Of all the memoirs by 1901 teenage girls who kinda want to fuck the Devil, Mary MacLane comes out the winner. Her diary hums with vitriol and longing, confidence and self-doubt, essays about her habit for theft, and the ongoing undercurrent of a girl half in love with easeful Death, whose Victorian love affair with Satan is going to be a doozy.
Penny Dreadful, “The Nightcomers.”
Penny Dreadful’s signature is that it aims so marvelously, campily high (to reconstruct and deconstruct the Victorian penny dreadful in parallel and somehow not become League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on one hand, or LXG on the other), and falls so terribly when it falls. (Season 2 sidelined two marginalized characters in ways that, barring twists next season, verge on unforgivable.) Undoubtedly, though, it’s given Eva Green the role of a lifetime. The disparate ensemble works better than it has any right to, but there’s also the sense that if anyone (Simon Russell Beale excluded) makes it out of an Eva Green scene alive, it’s because she let them. That was before Patti Lupone in “The Nightcomers.” A one-off origin story for Vanessa, it’s also a deliberately stagey passion play for two that delivered what felt like three episodes’ worth of character work. The season’s best.
I’d caught half a sound byte from Blunt during a press tour about approaching depth of character with bewildered film types by suggesting her character be written as male and then renamed; I went into Sicario uncertain if this was one of those. It’s not; what she suffers is gendered, one of the many layers of tail-swallowing injustice Sicario constructs with no hope of easy fixes. (Any fixes. Any hope.) Benicio del Toro does his best work in years as a wild card amid official ops; Blunt, crucially underinformed but with a gaze like a laser, watches him until it forces him, finally, to be honest with her. Riveting, queasy. (Honestly, I’ll watch Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro do practically anything in the same frame; I saw The Wolfman in theaters twice because I liked them so much together. The Wolfman.)
Mad Max: Fury Road
The opposite of nearly every other movie on this list; here because it’s a necessary counter. Visually stunning (which I couldn’t shut up about), thematically pleasing, and proof positive of the visual vocabulary of the movies; sometimes words pale in comparison to a wide vista and a melodic series of grunts.
Oh, this movie; this Kodachrome bouncy castle of the High Gothic, this rotting hundred-layer cake delivered right to your door. Obviously, the costumes; obviously, the score that starts at 11 and never dips lower; obviously, Mia Wasikowska, who’s quickly becoming a Hollywood go-to for someone who looks like an ingenue and gets increasingly, endlessly weird as the world sours around her. I’ve talked at length about how much I love its dedication to its cinematic family tree, and though I understand why it isn’t for everyone, it’s so deeply felt within itself that it feels just right to me.