What if I told you that you missed one of the best movies of 2014? What if I also told you that you never even heard of it? Luckily I didn’t make that mistake so I don’t want others to make it, either.
There’s only so much one can say about The Guest without starting to spoil the film’s many finely-crafted layers of plot revelation. But the setup in itself was intriguing enough for me to want to watch it, along with the knowledge that this comes to us from the extremely humorous, twisted, and subversive team of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett who also brought us the excellent You’re Next (review).
When there are horrible things happening in the world (and there always are), it might seem frivolous to discuss popular culture. But that’s what we do here at Popshifter, albeit with eyes, ears, and minds attuned to how that pop culture has a symbiotic relationship with those very horrible things. Rather that list all the ways in which those who create, consume, and critique pop culture contributed to that horribleness, I’d like to champion the aspects of pop culture that made my life worth living this year.
Here is some popular music I have been absorbing this year. Some on this list came out this year and some didn’t.
Cloud Becomes Your Hand, Rocks Or Cakes (Northern Spy)
Swans, To Be Kind (Young God)
Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence (Polydor)
Pye Corner Audio, Black Mill Tapes Vols 1-4 (Type Recordings)
Mica Levi, Under The Skin OST (Milan / Rough Trade)
Tredici Bacci, The Thirteen Kisses EP / Vai! Vai !Vai! (Bandcamp)
Ákos Rózmann, Twelve Stations six-CD box set (Mego)
Arca, Xen (Mute)
Kavinsky, Outrun (Universal)
Klara Lewis, Ett (Mego)
Ben Frost, Aurora (Bedroom Community)
Winged Victory For The Sullen, Atomos (Kranky)
The Advisory Circle, From Out Here (Ghostbox)
Gesaffelstein, Aleph (Vinyl Factory)
Anna Calvi, One Breath (Domino)
Lawrence English, Wilderness of Mirrors (room 40)
Athanor, Vos Cites Sont des Tombeurs (Le Chene Creux)
Katie Gately, Pipes (Blue Tapes)
Elysian Fields, For House Cats and Sea Fans (Ojet)
Child Abuse, Trouble In Paradise (Skin Graft)
Stars in Battledress, In Droplet Form (Believers Roast)
David Bowie, “Sue (or in a season of crime)” (Columbia)
Coh, To Beat (Mego)
Mario Diaz de Leon, Hypnos (Shinkoyo)
Ghost Of A Sabre Tooth Tiger, Midnight Sun (Chimera)
Bryce Dessner, St. Caroline By The Sea (Deutsche Grammophon)
Goat, Commune (SubPop)
I went to dozens of concerts and events in 2014. Here are some of the most notable. All in NYC except where noted.
Jan 30: Tatsuya Nakatani Gong Orchestra @ Jack
Feb 7: Bee Mask @ Issue Project Room
Mar 22: Colin Stetson @ Ecstatic Music Festival, Merkin Hall
Apr 1: Kraftwerk @ United Palace
Apr 4: Demdike Stare / Phill Niblock @ First Unitarian Church
Jun 2: Jana Winderen Installation @ Park Avenue Tunnel
Jun 4: Francisco Lopez @ Issue Project Room
Jun 14: SURVIVE @ NMASS Festival, Austin
Jun 21: Meshuggah @ Best Buy Theater
Jun 27: Ashcan Orchestra @ Issue Project Room
Jul 5: Cloud Become Your Hand @ Knockdown Center
Jul 13: King Buzzo @ Santos
Jul 18; OOIOO @ Rough Trade
Jul 25: John Luther Adams @ Lincoln Center Plaza
Jul 26: Mahmoud Ahmed @ Pioneer Works
Aug 30: Hal Wilner @ The Stone
Sep 10 & 11: Phillip Glass and Steve Reich @ BAM
Sep 19: Andy Stott / Demdike Stare @ The Bunker, Output
Sep 21: King Crimson @ Best Buy Theater
Oct 16: Xylouris White @ Union Pool
Oct 25: De Player @ Fylkingen, Stockholm
Oct 30: Liturgy / Child Abuse @ Death By Audio
Oct 31: Silent Servant DJ set @ Bunker, Trans Pecos
Nov 2: Todd Rundgren @ BB Kings
Nov 2: Deerhoof @ Death By Audio
Nov 7: Yarn Wire / Marcus Schmickler @ Issue Project Room
Nov 11: Raul De Nieves The Fool Opera @ Issue Project Room
Nov 13: Dan Deacon @ Death By Audio
Nov 21: Battle Trance @ Issue Project Room
Nov 25: Maja S.K. Ratkje with Mivos Quartet @ The Stone
Nov 29: John Zorn’s Cobra @ Roulette
Dec 2: George Lewis / Pamplemousse @ Columbia
Dec 5: Carl Michael Von Hausswolff, Swedish Energies Festival @ Issue Project Room
Dec 12: Swans / Liturgy @ Warsaw
Dec 19: Sparks with Heritage Orchestra @ The Barbican, London
Films I dug:
Under The Skin
Nymphomaniac, parts 1 and 2
Abuse Of Weakness
Dawn of the Planet Of The Apes
I also keep a Tumblr blog where I talk about events I check out and other cultural obsessions.
For more on JG Thirlwell, please visit Foetus.org.
I am terrible at lists and ranking art against other art, so I’m taking some liberties with the concept of “Best of 2014” and sharing six comics and five films that I enjoyed or found thought-provoking in 2014.
Alex + Ada (Image, ongoing) Sarah Vaughn, writing; Jonathan Luna, art/story.
After a rough break-up, Alex’s aunt gives him a female android for “companionship.” Alex is disturbed by Ada’s seeming humanity and takes her to an underground network to have her sentience illegally unlocked. Alex + Ada cleverly subverts the fembot trope, exploring the complexity of relationships and being human, passing, being closeted, and the history of dehumanizing people into property. Luna’s calm artwork is perfect for an android coming into her own in a world terrified of her.
Gotham Academy (DC) Becky Cloonan & Brendan Fletcher, writing; Karl Kerschl, art.
If you like girl detectives in creepy old private schools, Gotham Academy might be for you. At Gotham City’s fanciest private school, Olive Silverlock investigates strange goings on, including a ghost, and her sorta-ex-boyfriend’s little sister Maps tags along. It’s Manga-influenced with neat coloring and just plain fun, and if you like girl detectives, you’ll probably like Gotham Academy.
Red Sonja (Dynamite) Gail Simone, writing; Walter Geovani, art.
Like Saga, which I wrote about last time, Red Sonja is a comic I read every month. Unlike Saga, I never expected that. It’s a subversive, funny, and action-packed barbarian comic. Read as Red Sonja duels a master swordsman, rescues a beautiful dancer (who is also a gay man), refuses to bathe, and desperately tries to get laid. And always make sure to get Jenny Frison’s covers. Her work is gorgeous. (She’s also doing some great covers for Revival.)
Showa: A History of Japan (Drawn & Quarterly) by Shigeru Mizuki.
Showa is a stunning achievement. Mizuki presents the history of Japan from during the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926 – 89) in four volumes. He covers Japan’s descent into fascism and Imperialism, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the American occupation, post-War unrest, and Japan’s rise as an economic power. Mizuki’s draftsmanship is extraordinary, rendering his personal history and Japan’s history in almost photorealistic drawing and in expressive cartoons. And his writing is almost transparent, smoothly presenting a tremendous amount of material that mixes the personal and the political, local and global, the supernatural and the mundane.
The Wicked & The Divine (Image) Kieron Gillen, writing; Jamie McKelvie, art.
The Wicked & Divine comes across as almost a sequel to Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram—books about people whose magical power derived from music. Pop music. Club music. But where Phonogram was a testament to the personal power of music and to a certain time in the London club scene, The Wicked & The Divine is more cosmic in scope. Every 90 years, gods return to earth. They live for three years, putting on amazing concerts, and then they die, only to return again 90 years later. This time, someone dies when the Bowie-esque Lucifer snaps her fingers, turning humans against the gods, and the gods against each other.
Velvet (Image) Ed Brubaker, writing; Steve Epting, drawing; Elizabeth Breitweiser, colors.
Velvet is almost the secret life of Miss Moneypenny, if Miss Moneypenny were framed for murder and, possibly, treason. She’s been working as the secretary to ARC-7′s director, she’s still a deadly field agent, and she uses all her skills to find out who framed her and why. After years of paperwork and dealing with flirtatious, hotshot agents, her colleagues underestimate Velvet, but only for a little while. If you’ve always wanted to discover that Miss Moneypenny has a secret life, you’ll probably like Velvet. As with Brubaker’s Fade-Out, Fatale, Criminal, and Incognito, it’s worth buying Velvet in single issues to get each issue’s closing essay.
Cold In July (2014) dir. Jim Mickle, starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepherd, Don Johnson, and Vinessa Shaw.
Richard (Hall), a husband, father, and framing store owner, shoots and kills a burglar in his home. When the burglar’s father, Ben (Shepherd), shows up at the funeral and threatens Richard very congenially, Cold In July seems like it will be a straightforward revenge thriller. Then the story doesn’t so much take a twist as it takes a turn and the next thing you know, Jim Bob (Johnson) is walking into Richard’s store looking to get a pin-up framed. The chemistry between Hall, Shepherd, and Johnson is fantastic and Don Johnson does some engaging and entertaining work with his character, Jim Bob. Cold In July might be my favorite movie of 2014. It’s based on a book by Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale, which always helps. Jim Mickle really comes into his own with Cold In July. The visuals are a nice blue and red homage to late Eighties film. The exposition isn’t overstated. And the soundtrack is almost perfect, and leaves some room for silence.
Snowpiercer (2014) dir. Bong Joon-ho, starring Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ko Ah-sung, John Hurt. . . and it’s probably best to go check IMDb.
Snowpiercer is a satisfying dystopian film serving as an allegory for general global inequality and state violence as well as a very particular criticism of South Korean politics and society. Curtis (Chris Evans) leads an uprising of the train’s tail end lumpenproletariat against the elite in the front of the train―with a little help from Namgoong Minsoo (Song Kang-ho). Bong Joon-ho is one of my favorite directors and he made two of my favorite films, The Host (2006) and Memories of Murder (2003). But while Snowpiercer is not as good as either, there are two things I love that put it on this list: Song Kang-ho and Bong Joon-ho’s idea of a “cinema republic.” I am so excited to see these actors working together in an adaptation of a French graphic novel shot in the Czech Republic with South Korean and American writers and producers, a British action choreographer, a Korean cinematographer, and a cast of fine actors from all over the world. It’s like Bong Joon-ho picked every every actor he ever wanted to work with and put them on a train hurtling toward the cinema republic. In a time with so many bland blockbusters inspiring bland imitations in global cinema (*cough* China’s bloated historical epics *cough*), Snowpiercer is just plain heartening.
The Duke Of Burgundy (2014) dir. Peter Strickland, starring Sidse Babette Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna.
An homage to the ”Eurosleaze” films of the 1960s and 1970s, The Duke of Burgundy quietly subverts its genre. Cynthia (Knudsen) and Evelyn (D’Anna), colleagues in the study of insects, explore their kinks in a small village. The film explores how fantasy is negotiated in relationships and how relationships, like D/s scenes and films, have their scripts. And I find it remarkable that a film focusing on formal film structure can be so warm and compassionate when so much formalism comes off as cold and misanthropic. (There is also “specially designed furniture” and mole crickets.)
The Raid 2: Berandal (2014) dir. Gareth Evans; starring Iko Uwais, Arafin Putra, Yayan Ruhian, Tio Pakusodewo, Oka Antara, Alex Abbad, Cecep Arif Rahman, Julie Estelle, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kenichi Endo.
The Raid 2 gives everyone all the amped-up fighting we were looking for, with brutal new twists: Hammer Girl (Estelle) fighting half a dozen yakuza brothers and killing them with her two claw hammers; an amazing karambit-carrying silat master (Cecep Arif Rahman); prison shivvings; and harrowing car stunts. But Raid 2 is much more of a thriller in the mould of John Woo’s Hardboiled (though without the whimsy) or Andy Lau’s Infernal Affairs. Rama (Iko) survives the events of The Raid only to go undercover in one of Jakarta’s most powerful gangs. Rama serves two years in prison to earn the trust of Uco (Arifin Putra), son of the gang’s boss. But things get complicated, as they always do. There’s another Jakarta gang plus the yakuza involved, and the police themselves might be setting Rama up. If you were curious, Mad Dog (Yayan) might not have survived that fluorescent tube through the throat, but Prakoso (Yayan) really seems to take after Mad Dog in terms of his skills and his singular focus on fucking people up.
What We Do In The Shadows (2014) dir. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement; starring Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Rhys Darby, Jonathan Brugh, Jackie Van Beek, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, and Stu Rutherford.
Deacon, Viago, Vlad, and Peter are vampire roommates in Wellington, New Zealand. A documentary crew follows them as they deal with daily life, encounter stinky werewolves, make friends, try to get into Wellington’s clubs, and prepare for the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball, bringing the vampire, zombie, and witch communities of Wellington together. Who knew the undead community in Wellington was so active? Clever, fun, and hilarious.
Besides writing about comics for The Cultural Gutter and movies for various places, Carol Borden’s short story, “The Itch of Iron, The Pull of the Moon” was just published in Fox Spirit Books’ anthology, Drag Noir.
Climate change. Isis. The police. A growing feeling of insignificance. These are the monsters we live with every day of our increasingly fragile lives, and in 2014 it affected our art in a very pervasive way. If it can be said that pop culture is the dream of our society, an expression of our collective unconscious scribbled onto our paper and video discs and maybe—I don’t know—Netflix’s data centers, then it can also be said that we’re starting to have an increasingly monstrous societal nightmare.
Now, that cultural nightmare, while increasingly scary, is also becoming more beautiful and deftly created every year. With the emergence of horror genre television, the return of weird fiction, and just the general exploration of the more unthinkable aspects of life in all entertainment media, it is becoming clear that those of us who live life connected to the cultural sphere have a very close relationship to the things that would otherwise keep us up at night. It’s also a great time to be a fan of horror.
Here are my picks for most notable monsters that haunted our cultural dreams in 2014.
Notable Monsters: Vampires, a werewolf, Dr. Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster, Dorian Grey, plague, heartbreak, the entity inside Vanessa Ives, probably a mummy
Primary Fear: We fear the monster inside of us.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Most Exciting New TV Series
Penny Dreadful, which is my bid for most exciting new TV series of the year, is a pulpy gothic literature mashup in which the protagonists are plagued by the monsters within themselves. It’s an internal conflict that for some characters is explicit and obvious (a woman possessed by a demon, a werewolf), while for others it is poetic (Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein), and for a few it’s particularly nuanced (a cholera patient, a father haunted by the death of his son and the abduction of his daughter).
In Penny Dreadful the primary struggle involves a group of allies, each suppressing an inner monster, who wage war on the dark forces invading its fictional Victorian London. The most heroic action that can be taken in the show’s world is to acknowledge that you are a monster and then choose to fight monstrosity. As a viewer, this is an empowering and freeing message.
2014 was filled with myriad reasons to stand up and fight for what’s right, but for certain white, straight, and male demographics, the first step in most of those struggles was understanding one’s role in perpetuating the problem. Penny Dreadful acts as a pulp parable in this regard, showing us heroes that are well intentioned yet plagued by the fact that they contain within them some of the same evil that they are fighting.
Notable Monsters: Petyr, Nick, Vladislav, Deacon, Viago (vampire roommates); Anton and his pack of werewolves
Primary Fear: It’s tough being a monster these days.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best Movie
The New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, despite having very few human characters, is a variation on the same theme as Penny Dreadful, albeit more optimistic (it is a comedy). Each monster character, from the vampire roommates to the werewolf pack lead by Anton (Rhys Darby’s micromanaging alpha male), is a piece of monster history trying to live and love in modern day Wellington.
I’m including What We Do In The Shadows here not because of its ability to illustrate a major fear, but because of what it says about all the other dark and despairing feelings on this list (also it was my favorite movie of 2014). Shadows avoids taking any sort of moral stance on monsters, electing instead to say, “OK, we get it, we’re monsters. But we still have to pay rent, right?”
Notable Monsters: Area X
Primary Fear: A world that is indifferent to us.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best Novel(s)
Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy of novels were all released this year, causing many readers and critics to declare the return of H.P. Lovecraft-style weird fiction. The books are an excellent experiment in narrative framing, each one changing format to keep the right things hidden to produce a premium sense of the uncanny and sublime. That said, the most remarkable aspect of VanderMeer’s trilogy is its central monster: Area X.
The Southern Reach books deal with an enemy that is difficult to comprehend. Cordoned off somewhere on the East Coast of the United States (I think), Area X is probably best described as a topographical anomaly which is creating a pristine wilderness out of our human world. It just does what it does, and if you are unlucky enough to bear the curiosity that might bring you close to Area X, it’ll do what it does to you, too. Area X would still create its perfect geography without humans, and it probably will continue to once it assimilates us all.
True to weird genre form, all three books do an excellent job of painting a picture of the unknowable. There are no answers in Area X, because answers are human. The Southern Reach trilogy uses horror and Jeff VanderMeer’s confidence to defy a reader’s lust for answers. Like a hurricane, flood, melting ice cap, or rogue asteroid, the terror of Area X is that it doesn’t require our definition to be hostile. The conflict is on a planetary scale, and we’re too small to matter. Area X will just change us and that’s something we have to accept.
Notable Monsters: Lisa (ghost); talking foetus in a sink; yourself
Primary Fear: There is no escape from this nightmare we’ve created for ourselves.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best Video Game
The playable teaser for the upcoming video game Silent Hills, known officially as P.T., was the best video game I played all year. It’s legitimately unsettling like no game has felt, potentially ever; it tells a heartbreaking story completely through simple gameplay; and it subverts the survival horror genre in a very upsetting way. That is to say, in P.T. you have no choice but to survive.
P.T. will not let you die. In previous Silent Hill entries, I always had a sense that the characters would be better off dead than be made to face their custom-tailored punishment. Character death always felt like a sort of emotional escape hatch, even if it was only ever just a frustrating illusion (obviously death is not an option in a narrative that has your character come to the end of the game).
In P.T. there is no “game over” screen. If you are murdered by the abused-to-death ghost of your wife Lisa, you wake up trapped in the same hall. All the doors are locked, even the morbid metaphorical doors, so the only choice (other than standing still) is to keep descending those spiral hallways haunted by the sins of your past.
Notable Monsters: @thereallisaching
Primary Fear: All meaning is created. Nothing matters.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best New Comedy
Review with Forrest MacNeil is the funniest new show of 2014 and a great example of how elements of horror are even invading half-hour comedies. The titular character has taken on the ambitious task of reviewing life itself on an item-by-item basis. After reviewing some of the more difficult parts of life—cocaine addiction, eating 15 pancakes, divorce, eating 30 pancakes—Forrest is confronted with the horror of reviewing the unknown.
A Twitter user named @TheRealLisaChing submitted a request that Forrest review bubble baths, but thanks to a computer glitch the intrepid critic is sent on an odyssey to the end of human meaning.
Forrest is driven temporarily insane on his quest to decipher the meaning of “There All Is Aching” (a broken up version of Lisa’s Twitter handle submitted by the non-existent @bubblebaths). It’s not long before Forrest is being treated to shock therapy, ingesting boatloads of prescription medication, and plotting an asylum escape plan with fellow inmate Emo Philips.
The positive way to look at There All Is Aching is how Forrest reviews it, before the reveal that he should have been soaking in warm, bubbly water instead of being electrically and chemically lobotomized: There All is Aching is a symbol of the struggle of our need to find meaning in randomness. When the glitch is revealed to him, though, it’s clear that no matter what we tell ourselves after experiencing the horrible chaos of the universe and surviving, it can only ever add up to, at most, a three-star experience.
Notable Monsters: Hannibal Lecter
Primary Fear: We are weak and don’t know what to do.
Obligatory Best Of Classification: Best. Just The Best.
So, if the world is terrible randomness and absurdly horrific, what are we to do? If you’re Abigail Hobbs in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, you do what Dr. Lecter tells you.
The second season of Hannibal is the best piece of 2014’s media I consumed all year. It’s beautiful to behold, intricately written, and does perfect justice to the modern king of monsters, Hannibal Lecter. Beauty and craftsmanship aside, the show’s second season strikes such a heartbreaking chord with its bloody climax that you feel terrifyingly weak as a human.
The entire series is a nightmare love story, and Hannibal Lecter, though not necessarily the main character, is the dark sun around which all the action orbits. He is both the prime mover and the perceived object of every main character. Whether they want revenge, like Will Graham; justice like Jack Crawford; fulfillment like Alana Bloom; or some kind of perverse vindication like Mason Verger, they all need Hannibal to tell them how to get it as the high-functioning psychopath dangles their greatest desire just out of reach.
Lecter is an anti-god, not motivated by the sadistic, but out of active curiosity and pride. Hannibal is an effective representation of our need for some sort of higher being and the fear that the one we put our faith in might be more interested in our mutilation, humiliation, and wine pairing than our actual well being.
We are all living scary lives, and the monsters we love to watch help us know our fears. Hannibal Lecter is an example of how those fears can be at once beautiful and paralyzing.
Peter Counter is a freelance pop culture and technology writer. He writes about TV and video games for Dork Shelf.
You might have missed these recent installments of The ScreamCast. Now’s your chance to catch up.
Episode 41 – Silent Night Deadly Night (1984)
Includes a critique of Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release and a rundown of other holiday-themed movies.
Episode 42 – Tales From The Crypt (1972), The Vault Of Horror (1973) & Trancers (1984)
Brad, Sean, and Brian discuss the Scream Factory releases of Tales From The Crypt and The Vault of Horror as well as Full Moon’s Trancers reissue.
Episode 43 – The Device (2014) & The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
Director John Portanova joins the crew to talk about his latest film The Device as well as Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of The Quatermass Xperiment and a list of Top 10 Alien Abduction/Invasion flicks.
Chad Thompson has recently created his first short film, Victor. Over a couple of days during the summer, he and his cast and crew shot the seven-minute film and Chad, who works with Cinema 4D and After Effects as an animator and motion designer, did all of the post-production over the next year. We talked to Chad about the ideas behind the film and what he hopes to create next.
I love all genres but I’m more partial to horror and that’s what I’m better versed in when it comes to film. There are some other genres that I’m quite knowledgeable about but I really lack when it comes to film from the ‘50s and ‘60s. There is just so much out there that it’s a little overwhelming and I don’t know where to start. Luckily, there are companies like Olive Films that are picking the great ones and bringing them to the table, sparking renewed interest in the films, and giving them new fans such as myself.
Watching filmmakers and writers grow is a beautiful thing. Through the past couple of years I’ve kept my eye on a few filmmakers like Adam Wingard, Ti West, Adrián Garcia Bogliano, Eric England, and many more. As far as more recent filmmakers, I’ve been following Jeremy Berg and John Portanova. A little while ago I reviewed their directorial feature debut, The Invoking (review). I was highly impressed with the direction they took with The Invoking and it falls into my category of “story horror” which I’ve described in detail in the past. So when I got word of them doing another horror film, and one involving aliens, I was down.