BLOG OF THE YEAR: The 2013 Review

First of all, thank you for consciously clicking on the link that took you to this post. It means a lot. Really, it does. It gives me warm fuzzies of validation inside. You've taken the time from your busy Facebook/Twitter feeds to see what this 2013 Review is all about, and I appreciate it.

If you're new to these parts, welcome. And if you're a First Echo regular, then welcome back; you probably know what you're in for -- a whole lotta critique and commentary on the portions of popular culture that pinged on my packed radar this year. I've got a list of items as long as Miley Cyrus's tongue.

In a year full of royal babies, upsetting trials (George Zimmerman), WTF celebrity deaths (Cory, Paul, et al), and viral sensations (enough with the Harlem Shake), there was plenty to talk about. 2013 didn't fail to supply the goods. For every Buzzfeed list celebrating the nuanced facial gestures of pop artists, there was an inspiring, faith-restoring clip on Upworthy. And for every 12 Years a Slave, there was a Lone Ranger (or After Earth).

As for yours truly, it was certainly a transformative year. But at the risk of sounding like one of those lengthy "holiday update letters" you receive from friends and relatives you rarely see anymore, I'll just list everything -- in one long, random stream of consciousness -- that made my 2013: new car, new job, new bed (thanks, Ellen Degeneres!), 15 airplanes, 13 celebrity interviews, 7 cities slept in (including 1 mountain forest), 3 countries visited, and 1 addiction to Scandal. Of course, there were some not-so-happy moments (A root fracture! Continued debt! The loss of a friend), but why dwell on the negative? If anything, this was the year I truly understood the meaning of gratitude. I never thought I'd write this, but here it is: It took a trip to South America to make me realize how grateful I should be - and am. It's more than just looking on the bright side of things; it's a matter of counting every blessing, big or small, and constantly reminding yourself to soak up all the good stuff while it lasts. But enough with the inspirational chatter (there'll be more on my experiences in Peru when I publish my travel feature next year).

Once again, I've gone ahead and listed what I've thoroughly enjoyed during these last 365 days (give or take). Please allow my attempts to infotain you before you get drunk at the next holiday gathering and make a fool of yourself...

*based on what I've viewed at press time

1. Before Midnight - The art of conversation is rarely exhibited in cinema, especially in a soundbite culture that has whittled down dialogue to 140 characters or less. Richard Linklater's third entry in his Jesse-and-Celine saga revels in those intimate moments of lengthy chatter, refuses to romanticize anything about the trappings of relationships between men and women, and dares to voyeuristically place the audience in a marriage that is far from perfect.

2. The Spectacular Now - A "teen" movie without the gloss, without the pretense, without the obnoxious pop soundtrack. Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller shine as a pair of high school seniors who form an unlikely relationship in Small Town, USA, and the result is an intimate and resonant drama of John Hughesian proportions.

3. Philomena - Six words: Judi Dench can do no wrong.

4. Prisoners - It's dark, Domestic Drama crossed with brutal Revenge Flick, but what director Denis Villeneuve, writer Aaron Guzikowski, and the brilliant cast (headed by a fierce Hugh Jackman) ultimately do is hold a mirror up to an American culture seeped in violence and simmering rage. What's fascinatingly disturbing is the film's subtle way of telling its audience that anyone -- anyone -- is capable of evil.

5. Gravity - A stunning technical achievement from the man behind Children of Men (a top 10 fave from 2006), this immersive space thriller is a tale of survival that hooks you at the first frame.

6. The World's End - Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's exhilaratingly entertaining pub crawl uses a sci-fi trope like an alien invasion to wryly comment on friendship, nostalgia, the state of the world, and the absolutely frightening process of getting older.

7. August: Osage County - Meryl Streep, in a role that will undoubtedly earn her an umpteenth Oscar nod, is the morose centerpiece in this ensemble drama that takes family dysfunction to darkly comedic new heights. Witness Julia Roberts unleash a rage unlike any character she's ever played. See a devastatingly vulnerable Benedict Cumberbatch fall in forbidden love. And marvel at Margo Martindale's broken soul of a sister.

8. The Place Beyond the Pines - A meditation on the relationships between fathers and sons and the legacies they leave behind, Derek Cianfrance's drama is cut into three powerful acts, set over a 15-year timespan, that respectively showcase three magnetic performances from Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and relative newcomer Emory Cohen.

9. Blue Jasmine - Cate Blanchett commands the screen as a woman of privilege who loses her cushy life (thanks to her Bernie Madoff-esque husband, played by Alec Baldwin) and gradually starts to lose her mind. Jasmine is a character desperate to cling on to what she once had, and watching her fall apart is at times funny, heartbreaking, and beautifully tragic.

10. American Hustle - Admission: Part of the thrill of this rollicking crime drama is seeing its A-list talent dress up in late 70s garb and act like the crazily greedy figures they're portraying. It's a period piece that feels very now, populated with people who do bad things for semi-good, understandable reasons. Sure, it's blatant Oscar bait -- and it doesn't give a shit.

You're Next (A fabulously frightful family slasher film)
Disconnect (Crash with chat rooms and identity theft)
G.B.F. (Or, what will easily be nicknamed Mean Gays)
Trance (An art heist film by way of Danny Boyle channeling Christopher Nolan)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Popcorn perfection).

During my first year without cable, I managed to keep up with the Kardashians Joneses and transform myself into a proud, streaming couch potato. Thanks to HuluPlus, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Go, I was able to binge my way through shows about lawyers (finally finished Damages), imprisoned lesbians, and adorkable British blokes.

1. Orange Is The New Black (Netflix) - A great show works on so many levels, and OITNB touches upon a plethora of issues few dramas tread on. Effortlessly and ingeniously blending themes of sexuality, female friendship, identity, psychology, redemption, fate, and corruption (especially within America's prison system), Jenji Kohan's behind-the-bars drama isn't as dark and heavy as you'd expect, but it's not light either. Taylor Schilling, who embodies a J.Crew-and-Whole-Foods prepiness, surprises as Piper Chapman, a traditionally pretty fish-out-of-water who reluctantly succumbs to her harsh environment; it's the most compelling de-evolution of a TV character we've witnessed since being introduced to Breaking Bad's Walter White in 2008. As for the rest of the brilliant ensemble, there aren't enough Emmys to dole out for the amount of diverse talent that carries this show.

2. Breaking Bad (AMC) - Delivering one of the most satisfying (and inevitable) final episodes in TV history, Vince Gilligan & Co. brilliantly tied up the tragic saga of Walter White, a character destined for the TV Icon Hall of Fame. The final 8 episodes delivered several one-two punches we never saw coming, propelling the story towards its deadly denouement. Television drama has never been so tense, so poetic, and so gorgeously cinematic.

3. Orphan Black (BBC America) - The outrage over star Tatiana Maslany's Emmy snub back in August was inevitable...and totally called for. The Canadian actress blew me away with not two, but seven portrayals of women who discover that they're key players in a cloning conspiracy (Take that, Toni Collette circa United States of Tara). The puzzle pieces have just begun to come together, and I can't wait to see where this intricately plotted story is going.

4. House of Cards (Netflix) - Kevin Spacey covets a role he was destined to play in a series that is destined to further change the way we watch television. This David Fincher-produced political potboiler is sinister in all the right ways, and actor Corey Stoll is truly the revelation of the year as Congressman Peter Russo.

5. Enlightened (HBO) - Laura Dern, in a criminally ignored performance on a criminally neglected show, is brilliant as Amy Jellicoe, a David going up against a Goliath, which happens to be the corrupt corporation she works for. Mike White's highly addictive tragicomedy brilliantly says so much about so much -- the state of the corporate world, the treatment of mental health, the trappings of fortysomethinghood -- with so little.

6. Scandal (ABC) - Having binged on this deliriously delicious drama's first 20 episodes back in the spring, I am now a full-fledged fanatic, live-tweeting during episodes and following most of the cast on Twitter. I haven't been riveted by such crazy cliffhangers and plot twists like this since the early days of Alias, and before that, Melrose Place. OMGTV indeed. Shonda Rhimes, you crazy.

7. American Horror Story: Coven (FX) - Ryan Murphy knows his powerhouse actresses. And thank the gods that he brought Angela Bassett to television. There was never a dull moment in AHS's third go-round, and much of it was due to the cast's razor-sharp performances and the sinfully scrumptious scripts.

8. Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central) - Vagina jokes have never been funnier...or more intricately layered with biting social commentary. Schumer is a welcome addition to the Funny Ladies Club (see: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling).

9. The Americans (FX) - You may or may not remember 1999's disturbing yet highly engrossing Arlington Road (starring Jeff Bridges as a man who suspects his neighbors are terrorists), but if you do, you'll find brilliant shades of it in this awesome Cold-War-in-the-80s series that sees Felicity (Keri Russell) turn into an ice queen with a gun and the gay brother from Brothers & Sisters (Matthew Rhys) transform into an ass-kicking soldier torn between honoring his home country and saving the one he's slowly adopting as his own.

10. The Blacklist (NBC) - I feel like patting NBC on the head and saying, "Well done, Peacock! Well done!" for giving network audiences a thriller that's thisclose to rivaling those found on cable. And hello, Megan Boone, who may very well be the next Jennifer Garner.

HONORABLE MENTION: Family Tree (HBO) - From the improvisational mind of Christopher Guest comes this quiet underdog of a comedy that delivered one of the best gags of the season: Nina Conti as Bea Chadwick...and her hand puppet Monk (due to a childhood trauma, Bea needs to express her emotions through a stuffed monkey, and the side barbs the little creature spits out are hysterical). It's awkward, it's heartwarming, it's unapologetically British.

A pop diva-filled fall (Katy! Gaga! Britney! Beyonce!) couldn't distract us from the fact that the rest of the year featured some musical standouts from artists who came out of nowhere and dared to change the game...

1. In A Tidal Wave of Mystery by Capital Cities - Sure, Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian's ubiquitous "Safe and Sound" is nice and all, but there's so much more to discover on their magnificent debut album (and previously released EP) like: their hypnotic cover of Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" and the electro trumpet-filled "Kangaroo Court," which needs to be played on more radios (see below). These former commercial jingle writers also win the award for Best Song Title of 2013: "Farrah Fawcett Hair," a spectacular track that unpredictably combines narration from NPR's Frank Tavares, soulful, gospel-like theatrics...and Andre 3000.

2. "High Society" by Betty Who - A great pop song is one that can be played on repeat without getting tired, and that's what this irresistibly breezy, all-consuming love song excels at. The Australian singer, who made waves with her song appearing in that Home Depot marriage proposal video earlier this year, delivers some easy-on-the-ears vocals and silk-smooth lyrics. She's like Robyn without the Euro-quirk, Katy without the excess. Her next collaboration with producer Peter Thomas, "All of You," should propel her into a bigger spotlight. Because this girl needs to own 2014. Listen for yourself:

3. Ice On The Dune by Empire of the Sun - The eclectic duo from Down Under elaborate on their electronic soundscapes and deliver a sophomore album that electrified the summer (sorry, Daft Punk).

4. Heartthrob by Tegan & Sara - Talk about a delayed breakout: this twin sister act has been around for a decade, but it took the excellent pop production stylings of Greg Kurstin to propel T&S to new heights and earn them new fans - myself included - with this sparkling gem of an album.

5. "Sweater Weather" by The Neighbourhood - Surfer noir rock and all of its melancholy glory:

6. "My Heart Is Refusing Me" by Loreen - The Swedish pop tart with pipes gave listeners a riveting, EDM-driven single that is equal parts pulse-racing, emotionally cathartic, and quite transcendent. Arguably the best dance track of the year:

7. Bad Blood by Bastille - Fronted by singer-songwriter Dan Smith, this London-based group is delivering some early 90s alternative pop-rock realness blended with a unique yet familiar sound that is very early 2010s. And any band that un-ironically mashes up Corona's "Rhythm of the Night" with Snap's "Rhythm is a Dancer" to evocative effect is A-OK in my book.

8. "Chocolate" by The 1975 - Consider The 1975's breakthrough single a slice of alt-rock-pop from 1995. It rolls along and builds up towards an anthemic bridge you'll want to sing along to while downing a few pints at the pub with your mates (even though you may not be able to decipher the heavily-accented lyrics).

9. "Royals" by Lorde - While the Women of Pop were busy roaring and living for the applause, this teenager from New Zealand snuck in and basically changed the game. With awesome lyrics that shame pop for celebrating the vapid and shallow tropes often found in Top 40, it's an anti-establishment anthem that thankfully doesn't get bogged down with cynicism.

10. "Same Love" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Stewart - The long-neglected category of Pop Music With a Message came back during a time when this country needed it. The headline-making rap duo surprised with this marriage equality anthem, bravely taking hip-hop to new heights and exposing the genre's embedded prejudices and hypocrisy.

"Wake Me Up" (Avicii feat. Aloe Blacc)
"Mirrors" (Justin Timberlake)
"We Can't Stop" (Miley Cyrus)
"Change" (Churchill)
"Good For You" (Icona Pop)
"Her Favorite Song" (Mayer Hawthorne)
"Gypsy" (Lady Gaga)
"American Girl" (Bonnie McKee)
"You Will Leave A Mark" (A Silent Film)
"The Wire" (HAIM)

Happy Holidays, kids.

And here's to having 2014 kick 2013's ass.



Unknown said…
i'm digging the Zen pic :)
Unknown said…
digging it the lists!!
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