My Favorite Things in 2014

2014 Trophy Award Icon

Bruce Springsteen Live Recordings (Music)
Springsteen started releasing full show recordings in 2014, a few days after each concert. The quality was pretty good – better than a lot of bootlegs – and the price was decent (9.95 for MP3, a bit more for lossless and HD). Then the catalog was pulled, and it looked like that might be all. Suddenly in November a new live download site was announced, including all of the 2014 shows previously available PLUS periodic “archive” shows. The first one didn’t seem to excite diehards, but it was a treat – Springsteen’s 3/9/12 concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The release version was mixed by Bob Clearmountain and mastered by Bob Ludwig, and it’s wonderful. The Apollo only seats 1,506 people, so Springsteen doesn’t have to bellow – plus, it was the first concert on the Wrecking Ball tour, so his voice was in great shape. To my ears, the recording is one of the best Springsteen concert documents available. Then in December, another release came out of the vaults, this time the 8/9/78 performance at Cleveland’s Agora. Again, fans griped (“we already have this one!”) but the new recording was mastered from 15 inch-per-second tapes run through the Plangent process (corrects for speed variations and tape noise) recently used to remaster Springsteen’s early albums (those remasters also became available this year.) These latest releases were all priced under $10, a terrific bargain.

Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis (Books)
A true story of contemporary Wall Street, in the style of John Grisham and twice as gripping. They can’t make up better stories than this, and Lewis is at the top of his reporting game in telling it. Flash Boys will make you angry, and have you cheering – there are genuine heroes and villains, and a happy ending (of sorts) that’s moderated with just the right amount of foreboding.

The Gilmore Girls on Netflix (TV)
This finally became available on Netflix in October 2014, so I started watching the show I’d been peripherally aware of for years. The main reason to watch is the fantasy-perfect mother-daughter relationship between Lauren Graham and (adorably marble-mouthed) Alexis Bledel. (I tried making a drinking game out of catching all of the rapid-fire pop-culture references, but then I had to re-watch episodes because I couldn’t remember them later.) It’s not a masterpiece – the quirky humor can be twee or on-the-nose, and way too many plot points are dragged out beyond interesting, let alone realism. Still, props to a female-dominated show that dares to allow its women to be fickle, smart, conflicted, horny, selfish, and in charge of their own destinies. That’s kind of radical.

The Goldfinch Controversy (Books)
Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I didn’t love it, but I loved reading critics falling over themselves to deride or defend it. The thought exercises were interesting to me, as someone who loves reading criticism above everything else. For the conversation it inspired, more than for itself, I’m happy The Goldfinch won.

The Good Wife (TV)
A really good show for two seasons, that (in my opinion) dropped the ball in the third. So I quit. But then it got freaking great again in Season 5 (starting with S5 Ep. 5 Hitting the Fan) and now is suddenly better than ever in season 6. I can’t think of another show that’s hit a creative peak this late in its run. The Good Wife is the best topical-technology drama out right now, regularly exploring up-to-the-minute legal/ethical issues concerning tech; it’s also a superbly acted legal melodrama with the deepest bench of guest actors out there. In particular, Juliana Margulies gives an acting master class week after week – particularly in S6 Ep. 6 Old Spice, where she is forced to publicly defend her faith (or lack thereof). Essential TV viewing.

Ida (Movies)
One of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen – a short list that includes The Godfather and Citizen Kane. It’s that good. Director Pawel Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal consistently amaze with their startling and revelatory compositions; also, the female protagonists played by Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska (her debut performance reminds me of Claire Danes) re-examine the Madonna/Whore complex in fascinating ways. Quickly: Poland, 1961. A young novice meets her aunt for the first time, a judge and communist party official. It’s a coming-of-age story that dares to ask questions – about faith, identity, family – and leave them unanswered. I imagine ten people seeing this film will have ten different reactions. Best film not only of this year, but of recent memory.

Jane the Virgin (TV)
A comedic melodrama that premiered on The CW (a cable TV network, I assume) in October; based on the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen. Nine episodes in, it’s amazingly assured and consistent in tone and execution. Gina Rodriguez plays the eponymous Jane, who is accidentally inseminated during an OB-GYN exam. She is fabulous, and anchors the show with her uncynical, wide-open performance. The other performers are in her orbit, but they follow her lead – the show is contrived and silly because it mimics a style (in some sense it’s a parody), but it’s not ironic and it all feels fresh. The editing, costume designs and cinematography are also wonderful.

Mad Men – S7, Ep. 7 Waterloo (TV)
Mad Men is on a historic tear. In my opinion, a better show than Breaking Bad, which has gotten much more attention. Waterloo is the mid-point in the “final season” (it’s actually the finale of the seventh season, but nowadays cable TV series have an odd vocabulary.) In any case, Robert Morse’s sock-footed soft-shoe performance of The Best Things in Life Are Free (as a ghost/hallucination!) is the single best thing I watched on TV all year.

Life itself (Movies)
Steve James’ documentary about film critic Roger Ebert. The movie concerns three love stories – Ebert’s love of movies, his partnership with rival critic Gene Siskel, and his late-in-life marriage to Chaz Hammelsmith. It’s a startling tear-jerker, and the best documentary film I saw in 2014.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man (Movies)
I think I will always remember receiving the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, which came via text message from my cousin as I walked my dogs on a cold February afternoon. He was such a towering, terrifying inspiration to me. Watching A Most Wanted Man, by myself in a deserted cinema in late August, is when I finally said goodbye. He was magnificent.