Mid-year musts: The best of 2014 – so far

We're halfway through the year, so no better time to catch up on the movies, books, TV, music, etc. you've missed

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Mid-year musts: The best of 2014 – so far

“The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’” by Kevin Birmingham: Joyce’s modernist masterpiece changed not only literature, but the legal history of censorship in America. Kevin Birmingham’s astute and gorgeously written account of how the novel came to be both written and published recounts how a handful of brave souls — a surprising number of them women — defied police, anti-vice crusaders and the courts to bring it to the English-speaking world. –Laura Miller

“The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking” by Olivia Laing: Laing, a Brit with a ravishing knack for evoking a sense of place, took the train across America, trying to puzzle out the role of alcohol in the lives of several of this nation’s greatest writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Tennessee Williams and John Berryman. Fear not that Laing falls into what she calls “the honey-trap of romanticism,” when it comes to screwed-up artists; she does not romanticize alcoholism, which shattered her own childhood. She is, however, radiantly good at writing about the web of an author’s life and work, and the impossibility of ever completely separating them. An eccentric form of literary criticism, perhaps, but it works, even if you’re not a particular fan of of her subjects. Laing helps you see them and art and America anew.  –Laura Miller

“Euphoria” by Lily King: Based on a period in the life of pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, this novel of ideas — about how we understand other people and cultures, about “civilization” and its discontents — has a vibrant pulse. At its center is a romantic triangle among brilliant scientists holed up in a hut on the Sepik River of New Guinea during the rainy season, as they remake their discipline for the 20th century. Smart as it is, this is nevertheless a story that begs to be consumed in one or two luxurious binges.  –Laura Miller



“Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World” by Mark Miodownik: Miodownik is a materials scientist, and this slim book of essays is a paean to the secret charms of concrete, glass, porcelain, paper, graphite (aka pencil lead) and stainless steel, among other substances. If that sounds dull, you couldn’t be more wrong. “Stuff Matters” makes the seemingly banal objects of our everyday lives into an endless source of wonder, dreams and possibility. Miodownik writes a splendid sentence and communicates the often recondite basics of his discipline with enviable ease. He may start out with bricks and coffee mugs, but by the time he’s done, he’s thrilled his readers with invisibility cloaks, bionic human limbs, exploding billiard balls and an elevator to outer space.  –Laura Miller

“Snowpiercer”: Harvey Weinstein was ultimately persuaded not to chop up Bong Joon-ho’s claustrophobic action-thriller, set aboard a high-speed train as it circumnavigates a frozen planet – but the unanswered question is how many Americans will show up for a trippy, futuristic nightmare that avoids most of the genre’s clichés. Bong (director of the Korean monster-movie hit “The Host”) gets an international cast headed by Chris Evans as the leader of a French Revolution-style uprising aboard the caste-divided train and Tilda Swinton as a supercilious minister tasked with defeating him. Furthermore, Bong makes spectacular use of an ample special-effects budget and delivers a dynamic political parable about power, oppression and revolution with echoes of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” trilogy. –Andrew O’Hehir 

Nymphomaniac”: The audience for Lars von Trier’s sexual picaresque apparently got lost on the way to the theater, confused by the VOD options for watching the two-part film and the question of whether it was or was not hardcore porn, as the director once vowed. (A hefty serving of male frontal nudity and a handful of explicit sex scenes aside, it wasn’t.) If anything, the 19th-century medical title should alert us that “Nymphomaniac” is almost an anti-erotic odyssey, the “memoir of a woman of pleasure” (to cite “Fanny Hill,” an obvious influence) who has great difficulty finding any. The mixture of farce, philosophy, spirituality and filth is almost premodern, suggesting both Laurence Sterne and the Marquis de Sade, but the setting is sanitized postwar Europe, where sex is easy to find but love and any form of fulfillment almost impossible. This isn’t von Trier’s masterwork (that remains “Melancholia”), but it’s an indescribable, bittersweet and sui generis film that will withstand repeated viewings, complete with a terrific cast – Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater and a memorable cameo from Uma Thurman – along with digressions into the theory of fly-fishing and on-screen parallel parking diagrams. –Andrew O’Hehir 

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: Those who feel alienated by Wes Anderson’s overstylized, overdecorated and self-conscious productions can carry on doing so, but for my money Anderson’s last two films – this one and “Moonrise Kingdom” – have simultaneously maximized those tendencies and pushed through them to new levels of emotional power. Anderson has no interest in the visual conventions of naturalism or the drama of psychological realism, and “Grand Budapest Hotel” is a candy-coated 1930s-style comedy, set in an imaginary resort hotel in an imaginary Eastern European nation. This establishment is run by a scoundrelly, rakish concierge called M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in one of his most enjoyable and mysterious roles), described in the film as a man who belonged to an era that had ended before he came along. Only one of the similarities between M. Gustave and Wes Anderson! Amid all the gloriously staged high jinks, hilarious supporting characters (Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, F. Murray Abraham, et al.) and gorgeous cinematography, you might not notice that this movie is a tragedy about the destruction of Old Europe and the unlikely nature of heroism. –Andrew O’Hehir 

“The Wind Rises”: At first it seemed like a strange retirement movie for the revered Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki – not a spiritual fable or an ecological allegory in the mode of “Spirited Away” or “Princess Mononoke” but a historical-biographical tale about a real person with a complicated legacy. Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the U.S. release) was the idealistic aircraft designer behind the notorious but magnificent Mitsubishi Zero, a lightweight and maneuverable fighter plane that enabled many early Japanese victories in World War II (including the Pearl Harbor attack). No one who actually sees this film can possibly believe Miyazaki is apologizing for Japanese war crimes; indeed, the subject of this immensely subtle work of visual genius is the contrast between Jiro’s wide-eyed dreams of flight and their dreadful consequences. Some viewers may be frustrated that “The Wind Rises” doesn’t have a simple-minded antiwar message that can be boiled into a single phrase, but to me it’s something close to a final masterwork, a meditative epic about Japan’s journey into modernity and a complicated allegory about the dark side of human imagination. –Andrew O’Hehir 

“Finding Vivian Maier”: She was one of the most brilliant – and enigmatic – street photographers of all time. She was a seemingly ordinary and by all accounts pretty grumpy nanny who hid her extraordinary body of work her entire life. But when John Maloof uncovered her collection at an auction in 2007, he made one of the most important art finds of recent years. Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s documentary about the woman and her unique vision was a quiet springtime gem, a complicated portrait of an intensely provocative artist –  and simply one of the most intriguing films of the year thus far. –Mary Elizabeth Williams

“Obvious Child”: Billed as the first “abortion rom-com,” this movie could not be more charming. Jenny Slate, of “Marcel the Shell” and short-lived SNL fame, plays an aspiring comedian named Donna Stern who gets pregnant after one blurry night out on the town. The film’s most revolutionary stroke, of course, is that it is fully predictable, with the pat, happy-making arc of a Nora Ephron movie, while still turning everything we expect from our rom-coms on its head. Gaby Hoffmann is typically great as Donna’s best friend, and Slate manages to instill even Donna’s most outrageous shenanigans with a warm, appealing relatability. The underwear dance scene is a highlight.  –Laura Bennett

“Game of Thrones” season finale, “The Children”: Narrowly edging out the “Louie” flashback special “In the Woods” and “Veep”’s final moments for the title of single best TV episode I watched so far this year was the “Game of Thrones” season finale. In the season’s penultimate episode, we were trapped at the wall with boring old Jon Snow, but this finale did what the show does best in terms of conveying the sweep of Westeros and beyond. MVP honors go to Tyrion, who movingly brought to life moments that George R. R. Martin’s book dealt with quickly, and Arya, a character whose story could all too easily grow dull were it not shot and written so remarkably. –Daniel D’Addario

Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves on CMT: Kacey Musgraves – the star best known to the public, if she’s known at all, for beating Taylor Swift to a Grammy win earlier in the year – is far from the country singer the genre’s deluded detractors imagine. The star has both progressive-minded lyrics (her biggest single, “Follow Your Arrow,” preaches tolerance) and catholic music taste. Whether or not she crosses over to mainstream success, she’s fascinating. And her talents made even a pop star as artificial as Katy Perry seem genuine in the CMT special during which the pair traded off verses on one another’s songs. It was a match made in heaven and, along with Miley Cyrus’s recent “Unplugged” and the successful if overlong Grammys, an argument for more live music on TV; the whole thing felt, as it was unfolding, weird in the best way.  The combination worked. Musgraves got a hit of Perry’s pop-world legitimacy, while lending the more famous star some grit. And they sounded great together on “Teenage Dream.” – Daniel D’Addario

Lena Dunham on “Saturday Night Live”: “SNL” had a difficult season, transitioning to a post-Seth Meyers, post-Fred Armisen period, and figuring out which of the many, many new standard-issue white male cast members might end up staying on – a deeply uncomfortable prospect. But Dunham’s episode was a surprising bright spot in the season – surprisingly enough, given the “Girls” star’s lack of history with live performing. Dunham didn’t veer too far from her established persona, but took it to weird new settings, as in a pitch-perfect sketch in which she played a slacker assistant who’s the only person able to call “Scandal” protagonist Olivia Pope out on just how overscheduled she is. Here’s hoping Dunham comes back next season. –Daniel D’Addario

Arthur Chu on “Jeopardy!”: I miss him so. Arthur Chu shook up “Jeopardy!” with unorthodox clue-picking and wagering strategies that were unanticipated enough to earn him 11 wins on the game show. Chu’s low-energy demeanor concealed hidden depths; like Ken Jennings before him, Chu is building a media career, with a sharp column for The Daily Beast responding to the Santa Barbara killings this year. He’s a breakout star whose time on TV happily isn’t over – his Tournament of Champions appearance later this year will be a must-watch.  –Daniel D’Addario

“Fargo”: A gorgeous, sprawling exploration into the Minnesota world first created by the Coen Brothers in 1996, the film isn’t as dark or deep as FX’s 10-hour-long television show. While the show attracts big names, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Bob Odenkirk, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele and Colin Hanks, the true star of the show is newcomer Alison Tolman, the vigilant detective set on cracking a series of murders no matter how many obstacles stand in her way. --Prachi Gupta

Elena from “Billy on the Street”:  Despite the series’ celebrity stars, which have included the likes of Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Olivia Wilde this season, regular New Yorker Elena is still the best guest to have ever appeared on Billy Eichner’s hilarious “Billy on the Street.” Elena made her debut on the show in 2012, and this year has appeared alongside Lena Dunham and played the “For A Dollar” game with Billy. And yes, we still want more Elena next season. --Prachi Gupta

Amy Schumer’s military sexual assault sketch: Amy Schumer’s sketch comedy, which has lampooned everything from Aaron Sorkin to moms, has also become the funniest feminist sketch show. She routinely takes on the double standards that women face in media and society at large, perhaps best exemplified by this sharp satire/critique of rape culture. We’re so happy she’ll be back for a third season.  --Prachi Gupta

Songwriting ladies: 2014 has already been a banner musical year for smart songwriting ladies. Tori Amos articulated the personal-as-political struggles and triumphs modern women face on her new LP, “Unrepentant Geraldines,” while Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny perfected her band’s ’80s gothic girl-group swoons on “Too True.” But it’s two artists operating in alt-country circles that stand above the rest. Columbus, Ohio’s Lydia Loveless came into her own on her third album, “Somewhere Else.” Her ragged voice and road-worn musical style — roughly, a cross between Lucinda Williams and Stevie Nicks — bruises with its aching vulnerability. Loveless sings effortlessly about being wounded by distance — the space between heartbreak and bliss, for example, or the longing that goes hand-in-hand with being apart from a beloved. Nikki Lane, meanwhile, falls on the sass-and-twang vocal continuum somewhere near Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson or Neko Case. But on her Dan Auerbach-produced LP ”All Or Nothin’,” Lane prides herself on confounding expectations. Her pedal steel- and organ-augmented songs feature unexpected influences; for example, the woozy waltz “Out of My Mind” is a co-write with Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce. Plus, their easygoing, country-meets-classic rock vibe mitigates the sadness of Lane’s romantic desolation. –Annie Zaleski

Power-Pop Explosions
: When done right, power-pop strikes a balance between wistful nostalgia and the joy of possibility. That’s certainly the case with Split Single and its debut LP, “Fragmented World.” For this album, frontman Jason Narducy — a longtime Bob Mould band mate who was also in the underrated Chicago band Verbow — enlisted Spoon’s Britt Daniel on bass and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums. Naturally, “Fragmented World” combines bulldozing power-punk snarls, ’90s indie-rock grit and summery pop whispers. The results are at once dogged by melancholy and sweetened by optimism. On the lighter flipside, Sweet Apple — the project of Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis, his Witch bandmate Dave Sweetapple and members of Cleveland retro-fabulous rockers Cobra Verde — are ’70s arena-bombast acolytes with a knack for striking glam riffs, Stonesy swagger and mesmerizing stoner grooves. The group’s second LP, “The Golden Age of Glitter,” is the ideal soundtrack for long, debauched nights full of cheap beer and illicit substances. But unlike many of their influences, Sweet Apple executes their rock & roll with a knowing wink — just check out the canned crowd noise augmenting “Boys In Her Fanclub.” –Annie Zaleski

Veteran chameleons: Two of rock music’s most notorious (and successful) chameleons, Beck and Bob Mould, return with albums that demonstrate their commitment to creative forward momentum. The latter’s “Beauty & Ruin” stares down mortality with a steely gaze and then a boot to the head. Musically, the record nods to all eras of Mould’s career — including the turbocharged punk howls and amped-up riffs of Hüsker Dü and Sugar’s acoustic bloodletting and alt-rock slow burns — while amplifying the harrowing, non-airbrushed introspection for which he’s known. “The War,” a song on which he sorts through the emotional wreckage left by his father’s death, is particularly affecting. Beck’s “Morning Phase,” meanwhile, has frequently received surface comparisons to 2002′s heartbreak song cycle “Sea Change” — mainly due to its similar band lineups, as well as its shimmers of dusty folk and a faded-denim, ’70s country vibe. But these comparisons do both records a disservice: “Morning Phase” isn’t fatally hampered by loneliness or self-absorption, only trying to figure out exactly where to go after hitting bottom. And its subtle musical expansion beyond Laurel Canyon — everything from Pink Floyd’s lilting psychedelic sounds to whiplashed electronic programming — fits like a glove. –Annie Zaleski

Femme-Punk Ferocity: In punk circles, women are also leading the musical discourse, which has led to important (and provocative) dialogue about sexuality, gender politics and violence. Leading the pack is the Vancouver-founded band White Lung, whose latest LP, “Deep Fantasy,” squeezes frenetic sounds — scabrous riffs, head-spinning drumming and Mish Way’s seething vocal battle cries — into compact hardcore and punk songs. Way is also an insightful cultural commentator who touches on topics such as body image, toxic relationships and sex, all from an unapologetically feminist perspective. Just as inspirational and incisive is the wiry punk of the Washington, D.C. quartet Priests. The group’s “Bodies and Control and Money and Power” EP combines the minimalist tension of early Sleater-Kinney and lo-fi sheen of early post-punk, with a dash of their hometown’s strident DIY spirit and ethos. Still, it’s the magnetic vocals of frontwoman Katie Alice Greer — a theatrical singer who does X-Ray Spex-like shrieks and soul-punk bellows equally well — that elevates Priests’ ruminations on politics, theory and societal ills. Honorable mention goes to Candy Hearts’ “All The Ways You Let Me Down,” a ’90-inspired pop-punk collection whose treatises on heartache and heartbreak are universally appealing, wickedly clever and just as vital to have in any musical conversation. –Annie Zaleski

Clickhole: What The Onion has brilliantly done forever with news (remember its epic post-9/11 edition?), it this year did for non-news – namely, exactly the kind of eyeball bait content that is quietly tearing apart the fabric of civilization, one “What Kind Of Bear Are You?” quiz at a time. Though parodying the already absurd, desperate-to-be-viral listicle genre might seem an impossible task, it took Clickhole zero time whatsoever to nail it, with perfectly Upworthy headlines like “We Took An Israeli Child And A Palestinian Child And Put Them Together In The Same Room. And We’re Going To Keep Them” and quizzes like “How’s Everybody Feelin’ Tonight?” and “Can You Name These Celebrities Based Only On Their Faces?” Though stories like “Can Somebody Tell Me What Monsanto Is So I Can Hate It?” feel a little too Oniony, Clickhole nevertheless shows tremendous promise as the year’s greatest waste of time.  –Mary Elizabeth Williams

Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”: Every year there’s one must-see art event, and you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger contender for 2014′s than an enormous sugar sphinx surrounded by melting, molasses children. Kara Walker’s large-scale installation, currently deliquescing at Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory before the building is turned into yet more Williamsburg housing, is described as “Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes” and is, like all of Walker’s work, a powerful meditation on race and gender. The figure looms large, graceful and strong, even as the more clueless visitors joke uncomfortably about her breasts and buttocks. And when she melts away, she’ll be nothing but a haunting memory.  –Mary Elizabeth Williams

Rihanna’s CFDA dress: Was it, as Flavorwire has cannily suggested, “a clever form of protest” over Instagram’s draconian anti-nipple policy? Was it a stunt determined to drum up the maximum attention for the minimum amount of coverage? Or was simply a shimmering work of sartorial art, a sensationally appropriate choice for a woman receiving a fashion award? However you look at it – and you looked it, yes, you did – Riri’s sparkling, super-sheer Adam Selman ensemble, adorned with 230,000 Swarovski crystals, was the boldest red carpet moment in years. Who says brazen can’t be beautiful? –Mary Elizabeth Williams

#yesallwomen: The stories came in tweet-sized bursts. Tales of extreme violence and everyday sexism, reports from the workplace and the home front. In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting at Isla Vista in May, women – and men – the world over refused to the let the conversation about misogyny become another “Not all men…” series of excuses. Whether it ultimately succeeded as a form of activism is debatable, but as an act of collective grief and outrage, the result was poignant and potent. –Mary Elizabeth Williams

Hello Flo’s “First Moon”: The menstrual accoutrements delivery company scored last year with “Camp Gyno,” a two-minute ad about a girl who’s the first at her summer camp to see red. This year it went in the opposite direction, chronicling the saga of a girl who fakes a first period and whose mother teaches her a lesson via a mortifying “First Moon” party. It’s got everything – uterus piñatas, bobbing for ovaries and a punchline involving the word “vagician.” “Lady days” have never been so fun. –Mary Elizabeth Williams

The return of Dave Chappelle: The legendary “Chappelle Show” comic, who maintained a low profile for the past seven years, returned to late-night television and opened up to David Letterman about his highly publicized departure in June. He also popped up on the “Tonight Show“ to talk about his first encounter with Kanye West, who later dropped in on one of Chappelle’s live shows at Radio City Music Hall. The interviews provide a rare glimpse into the personal life of one of the generation’s most influential comedians. For comedy fans, they’re a must-watch; who knows how long Chappelle will stay in sight? –Prachi Gupta

Internal companywide email chains going viral: A night-time security guard named Greg, of UK-based company Arcadia, asked his boss for a vacation; the boss mistakenly emailed 3,500 employees about Greg’s vacation request. Before long the hashtag “#givegregtheholiday” was trending on Twitter, and Greg had been awarded a free Las Vegas trip and some fancy toiletries from companies looking to attach their brands to his three seconds of fame. And then Buzzfeed, smelling viral potential, decided to play the same game. A staffer accidentally forwarded an email to the whole company explaining that he would be late for work because his hot water was  broken;the rest of the staff piled on with an endless reel of jokes (“Today we are all Justin’s hot water”), and the whole Internet read about it in a too-meta Buzzfeed post. Now we’re one viral company email chain away from a trend piece. –Laura Bennett

Robin Thicke goes from campy-creepy to ominously creepy: It’s no secret that Robin Thicke is a proud creep: First he released a sexed-up music video that enraged the Internet, then he let 20-year-old Miley Cyrus twerk on his black-and-white-striped groin, prompting his mom to complain to a reporter that she could “never unsee” said twerk. But then came his latest album, “Paula.” With songs like “Still Madly Crazy” and “Whatever I Want,” and a video for “Get Her Back” that features his face streaked with blood, this one’s going to be tough to recover from.  –Laura Bennett

Seth Macfarlane’s movie career: Not a great first half of the year for this guy. The concept and cast of “A Million Ways to Die in the West” seemed auspicious — a Western spoof combining the miscellaneous talents of Jamie Foxx and Liam Neeson and Sarah Silverman — but, alas, the film was a doozy. While “Ted” was Macfarlane at his weird, creative best, “A Million Ways” is a gassy ego trip (he wrote it, directed it, and starred it) full of meaningless mischief-making that runs for about an hour too long. “Ted 2″ is currently in the works, but at least Macfarlane will likely stay offscreen. –Laura Bennett

“Conscious uncoupling” jokes: As soon as Gwyneth let fly that perfectly Paltrow-esque press release about her marriage’s peaceful drift into nothingness, the media gave a gasp of schadenfreudic delight. The Daily Beast wrote a “Game of Thrones” recap titled “Conscious Coupling.” The Times ran a piece about a pharmaceutical company headlined “Conscious Uncoupling for Drug Makers.” Here was the culturesphere’s dream: punny self-referentiality with a light undercurrent of GOOP-bashing. A meme was born in “Keep calm and conscious-uncouple.” And more than three months in, the references are still flowing freely, as the phrase has uncoupled itself from Gwyneth and taken on its own life. The Economist even used a “Conscious Uncoupling” headline on an article about reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.  –Laura Bennett

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