In the fading days of 2015, it’s time for our annual smorgasbord of culture: best this, best that. Of course, almost all our writers are in their 30s or older so the cool train left the station long ago, but hey WE STILL HAVE OPINIONS. With that in mind, we’ll start with two hidebound standards: movies and books. In regard to the former, apparently the folks at Tropics of Meta really liked Mad Max and Ex Machina… or did they? As for the latter, it’s a wide ranging list from a site that enjoys grazing from a wide range of landscapes. If you don’t put up any fences, we’ll eat your tomatoes, drink your milkshake, raid your pantries, you get the idea.
Charles Lee: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Interesting for the critique of “folk politics” alone.
Lauren MacIvor Thompson: I got nothin’. #dissertationproblems
Rob Baker: Alice Goffman’s On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (U. Chicago Press, 2014). This is the book written by an ethnographer that taught us about a neighborhood that may, or may not, exist in Philadelphia and about the people who live there and what they experience and what they think in events that may have happened, except that many of the details were changed in order to protect the innocent which, we learned later, is okay, because individual facts don’t matter so much in ethnography. Also, the author of the book may, or may not, have conspired to commit murder with several of her subjects.
Cherie Braden:The 16th Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style came out in 2010. For the most part, I continue to play by intuition in the editing game, but Chicago never fails to improve my skills when I bother to look something up. It is by far the most logical and comprehensive style guide in history. I used to sleep with the 15th edition in bed next to me, but then I went and got married. 16 is a lover I keep on the shelf. Everyone should own it.
By far the best work of fiction I read this year was Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s 2013 epic Americanah. The twin stories of Ifemelu and Obinze—Nigerian teenage sweethearts who try their luck abroad, with staggeringly different results—offers a tale of immigrant life and Americanization to rival Junot Diaz’s new classic The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Adichie’s heroine is a difficult character, brilliant and passionate and stubborn—she starts out seeming like she might be a flat type, an immigrant naïf trying to get out from under a repressive traditional culture and make her way in America, before developing layer upon layer of complexity. The other main characters exhibit the same kind of depth and uniqueness, as Adichie avoids making anyone a caricature; indeed, the book is almost Dickensian in its panoply of distinctive, memorable characters. (Doris was my favorite.) Along the way, Americanah explores topics such as differences of attitude and perspective between African Americans and African migrants to the United States, American concepts of blackness and whiteness, class, nostalgia, blogging, diversity, and infidelity. The book is one of the most richly drawn fictional works I’ve read in a long time.
Adam Gallagher: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Don’t expect to go into the book and get some sort of catharsis or something. Coates is really unflinching in his pessimism. In interviews I’ve heard him, flipping MLK on his head, more or less say that he thinks the moral arc of the universe bends toward chaos. More than anything, he attempts to valorize “The Struggle” while simultaneously acknowledging that there is a certain futility to it. One other thing that struck me was his emphasis on the personalization of the individual black person. Liberals in America so often talk about slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism in the broadest of terms, rather than really wrestling with what it’s like to be a black person living day to day under these oppressive forces.
Larry Grubbs: Between the World and Me. We are going to look back on this as the most influential book of the year. Coates, whose writing for Atlantic had already established him as one of the nation’s foremost stylists and original thinkers, dispels cant and illusions about American racism like no one else:
We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity has done to the world.
Coates warns his son not to “arrange your life around them, and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness,” for time is “too brief,” black “bodies are too precious.” The Dreamers are “white” Americans trapped by a belief in their innocence. Coates has been criticized for counseling despair. What he offers is struggle, and if that sounds like a departure from the language and faith of the 20th century Black Freedom Struggle, you might need to revisit that era. Liberals wary of Black Lives Matter and this semester’s nationwide campus protests should read this book. Then, read it again.
Joel Suarez: Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life in the Antebellum Slave Market (Harvard, 1999), which should be recommended every year.
Ryan Reft: For all you policy people out there (all two or three of you), I have two suggestions. One involves your daily commute and the other national security, so totally related. Ethan Elkind’s Railtown: The Fight for Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City. Believe it or not, L.A. has a public transit system and it operates better than you might think: the most used light rail system in America, a burgeoning subway network that works fairly well and a bus infrastructure matched by few other cities. Elkind captures all this and the battles that were required to bring them to fruition. L.A. has a long way to go in this regard but at least it’s on the path. Second, for those of you interested in the intersection of the military and social welfare, Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The Rise of the Military Welfare State (review to come soon to ToM) does a great deal of work to document the incredible policy and societal change the all volunteer military has witnessed. Having researched the military for the last seven years, Mittelstadt provides an invaluable overview of an institution that gets a lot of play on NFL broadcasts and rhetorically in culture but one which the public really does not understand.
Charles: Mad Max: Fury Road. The campy Mad Max saga continues with a exciting female action lead, hilarious stunts, Clockwork Orange-style theme gangs, chrome-leather metal-mayhem and shout-outs to the 99%.
Lauren: Pitch Perfect 2. Obviously.
Rob: Hands down, God’s Not Dead (2014, but released to Amazon Prime in 2015). Director Harold Cronk delivers a heartfelt, multifaceted epic about the withering persecution suffered by Christians in the United States. Shane Harper plays nubile college freshman Josh, who is presented with an ultimatum on the first day of his philosophy class—sign a binding contract admitting that God is dead so that the class can skip its religion unit. The students, apparently eager to get out of a week’s worth of work, all sign on at the urging of the Atheist Professor, played with contemptuous intensity by Kevin Sorbo. (You remember Kevin Sorbo, right? He played Hercules in Xena: Warrior Princess back in the late 1990s). Shane Harper refuses to renounce his God despite intense pressure applied by the entire class and even by his girlfriend, who worries about his academic career and, possibly, his future earning potential, although this last point is more implied than explicit, and I’m fairly sure that they are not sleeping together yet and believe me, that makes for some erotic but understated sexual tension that can only be understood by adults so it won’t poison young adults or children, and it doesn’t matter because she dumps him anyway, and there’s a lesson in there which I think has to do with having the courage of your convictions. Anyway, Shane refuses to renounce his God, and so Shane is then ominously told that he will have to defend his beliefs in front of the entire class, presumably while being taunted by the Atheist Professor. We can presume this because when Kevin Sorbo is not bullying undergraduates with his secular dogma and demanding that they abandon the free inquiry and rationalism that is so essential to Christianity, he is shaming his evangelical girlfriend in front of his atheist professor friends. Subplots abound! An atheist Chinese exchange student converts; a reverend minister feels the hand of God when his car won’t start (repeatedly); and a Muslim girl goes all apostate on everyone’s ass. In the end, Shane Harper is figuratively frogmarched before the philosophy class to debate the Atheist Professor, whom he smacks down with a series of unanswerable arguments, like “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible” (hat tip to some Russian guy) and “you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist” (oh snap!). Kevin Sorbo maintains his sneer throughout Shane Harper’s tidy powerpoint presentation proving God’s existence, but Shane finally gets Kevin Sorbo to lose his shit, and he blurts out that he doesn’t just not believe in God, he actually hates God because God did something bad to his mother, which actually means that Kevin Sorbo doesn’t not believe in God even if he hates God for the thing with his mother! This dovetails nicely with several of the subplots and allows for some extra zingy writing, like when the evangelical minister tells the apostate Muslim that God will honor her sacrifice, or when the caretaker woman who is also Kevin Strabo’s girlfriend chooses to leave him because he tries to take away her dignity of choice in whether to believe in God (the same dignity he robbed his students of). This is more than just feel-good Christianity, though, as it foreshadows Kevin Sorbo’s fate, which is to be killed in a car crash close to the end of the film. Spoiler alert: the caretaking-woman/Kevin-Sorbo-girlfriend doesn’t really get anything tangible in the movie, which is kind of sad, except maybe that she gets to feel good for taking care of her dementia-stricken mother, BUT, the demented mother does get to tell her prodigal son, who is a wealthy and successful businessman but contributes nothing to the care of his mother and even refuses to visit her until the almost very end of the movie, and when he does visit her he is callous and rude and just plain awful to his dementia-stricken mother, and the prodigal son’s girlfriend, by the way, is a left-wing blogger who writes mean things about Duck Dynasty, although you shouldn’t worry about this because God strikes her with cancer, prompting the prodigal son to break up with said left-wing blogging girlfriend; the mother gets to tell her prodigal son that all of his money comes from Satan. There’s a Christian rock band too. This movie literally has everything! And don’t worry—God’s Not Dead 2 is due out in 2016. According to the trailer, the movie is about a school teacher who tells her high school class that “what makes nonviolence so radical is its unwavering commitment to a nonviolent approach” and she is asked by a student if that is what Jesus meant when he said “Love your enemy,” and she answers yes and quotes Jesus back at the student, and then these guys in suits, who are in a boardroom in what looks to be some kind of high rise building or something, commission the ACLU to take her to court so that religion can finally be proven to be false, and after a number of protests (it is not clear whether these protests are at a courtroom or at a legislature or some hybrid building) in which evangelical preachers are arrested, there is a trial, kind of like in the first God’s Not Dead but this one in an actual courtroom and therefore more important; and the lawyer for the Christians proclaims, Al Pacino-like, that “if we are going to demand that a Christian’s right to believe is subordinate to all other rights then it is not a right” and the judge (who is black, but I don’t think that has any significance at all in the film, because you also see black people on the side of the Christians, although I don’t know if those black people have prominent roles or are there as tokens because I haven’t seen the film I’ve only seen the trailer, and the only prominent black character in the trailer is Judge Robert Stennis, whose name we know, by the way, because he keeps a placard that says “Judge Robert Stennis” right in front of him on the bench while he is conducting the trial, in case the attorneys forgot his name or something) tells the Christian lawyer that he is OUT OF ORDER and he charges him with CONTEMPT OF COURT and the Christian lawyer says that that is just fine with him, he accepts the contempt charge because he has nothing but contempt for these proceedings. And the Christian rock band makes an appearance in the trailer, so it looks like God’s Not Dead 2 will have everything (everything!), just like God’s Not Dead did.
Alex: Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is probably the best thing I’ve seen all year—the most sobering and serious take on artificial intelligence in a long time, and one that puts the comparatively light-hearted romantic comedy Her to shame. Oscar Isaac turned in one of his two best performances of the year (the other as doomed boy-mayor Nick Wasicsko in HBO’s Show Me a Hero), while Alicia Vikander stole the show with her endlessly subtle embodiment of coquettish faux-femininity as ladybot Ava.
Mad Max emphatically does not make my list. The plot is about as complex as that time I forgot my wallet and made it halfway to work before turning around to go back and get it. The movie has style for miles, for sure, but it’s still stupid as hell. Seriously. Drugged-up rock guitar players marauding through the desert with souped-up pyrotechnic dune buggies is one thing; distributing a scarce resource like water through a giant spigot to people holding little cups and buckets just doesn’t make any damn sense. It’s like the Rocky Horror Picture Show of oriental despotism.
Adam: All in all, I’d say 2015 was a pretty bad year for movies. From the more obvious, well-known category, I thought Ex Machina was excellent, especially since Oscar Isaac puts on another fantastic performance. I also really enjoyed Force Majeure, a Swedish film about a family on holiday at a ski resort. An avalanche occurs at the resort and the father of the family pays attention to his own safety first, leading to some intensely dramatic scenes, as well as a few good laughs. Plus, the actor who plays Tormund Giantsbane in Games of Thrones is in it, and he’s always a blast to watch.
Ryan: My high school history teacher was great; dedicated, stern, funny … and perhaps the most conservative instructor I’ve ever had. When he described a historian as “revisionist” it was almost with a sneer. Needless to say, I’m guessing he would blanch at my selections for best movie, each of which tweaks well worn formulas perhaps falling under the nebulous category of neo-[insert noun]/revisionism. This of course assumes he still watches film. It’s possible he stopped back in the 1970s.
First up? Slow West, directed by John Maclean, a film staring Michael Fassbender and Kodi-Smit Mcphee, the former as an amoral Clint Eastwood mercenary type and the latter a naïve Scottish immigrant searching for a girl he believes he loves. Without beating the audience over the head with “message”, Maclean finds ways to convey the tragedy, violence, and promise of the “old west” while highlighting its diversity. One of the first lines of the movie captures its meaning, “Wearing a dress don’t make her a lady,” a statement that in eight words functions as a metaphor for the falsity of memory, collective and individual alike: we all live with myths some personal and some as part of the public consciousness. Slow West shows us how both sustain and undermine us all at once.
Anyone who enjoys film noir will be familiar with two common but problematic tropes of the genre: the idea of the dangerous woman and yellow peril. Even the best noirs, like the 1970s neo-noir Chinatown traffic in these stereotypes. David Boyle’s Man from Reno (okay, technically a 2014 release but it only became available on Netflix this year) turns both on their head placing Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitania), a famed female Japanese mystery author at the center of a typically confusing story of intrigue. Here Japanese American and Japanese culture hardly seem foreign or exotic other but rather the rational heart of the film. Of course, the plot is almost indecipherable – a head of lettuce in a suitcase for example serves as a central plot point – but the journey is well worth it. Boyle makes San Francisco elegant and mysterious as Aki and the fictional San Marco County sheriff Paul Del Mora (Pepe Serna) try to figure out the story behind the disappearances of two different individuals. Hint the turtles are a red herring, or are they?
Honorable mention: Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that amounts to a two hour chase scene replete with traveling heavy metal guitarists. The fact that it also stars a tough minded, one-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) meant it was always going to be a winner; that no one bats at eye at her gender or disability as she goes on to best Immortan Joe in a typical Mad Max battle of insanity only adds to its epicness. George Miller flips the script on the entire Mad Max enterprise.