Best Movies of 2015 So Far

The movie industry is exploding in 2015. Movies have made more this year to date than any other year in at least five years. A lot of that is owed to just two movies: Furious 7 and Jurassic World. However, the surprising, sustained success of last year’s American Sniper crept into 2015 and contributed, as have expected hits Fifty Shades of GreyAvengers: Age of Ultron, & Inside Out. I consider it a good year for movies when any of those top grossers appear on my best-so-far list. This year’s list contains three of them, so let’s consider 2015 a success- so far.

Movies

bestsofar01Avengers: Age of Ultron: My wife thinks I’m crazy, but I think this one is even better than its predecessor. I just rewatched the first one yesterday with her, and I’ll admit, it’s a tough movie to top. But Ultron is far more polished as an action movie and much more purposeful about its story.

bestsofar02Furious 7: If you follow my blog religiously (as everyone should if they desire forgiveness for their pop culture transgressions), you know that I watched every Fast/Furious movie in anticipation of the seventh’s release, and I fully expected to think each movie was total garbage. Boy was I wrong. They gradually improved with every installment, and Furious 7 was up there with Fast Five as the best in the franchise.

bestsofar03Inside Out: I bawled like a baby, but apparently everyone is. God willing, I’ll be a parent someday. But after my experience watching Inside Out, I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it without weeping daily.

bestsofar04Mad Max: Fury Road: It’s perfectly okay to effusively praise Fury Road. While some people may think calling it the best movie ever made is hyperbole, you won’t find any protest from me. I’m ready to give Fury Road all the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, ESPYs, state fair blue ribbons, soccer trophies, gold stars, cookies, etc.

bestsofar05Paddington: My perspective on this movie may be a little clouded, since my wife and I just bought a puppy named Paddington. Come to think of it, he looks a lot like the dog in the movie’s poster…hmm, that can’t be right. At any rate, Paddington was a superb children’s movie, which are often preferable to superb grown-up movies.

Performance

Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road: Maybe I just haven’t seen as many movies this year as past years, but there’s really only one performance I’ve found worthy of distinction, and that’s Theron’s knockdown, drag-out turn as Imperator Furiosa in George Miller’s fourth Mad Max; she cold-bloodedly steals that movie from Tom Hardy’s man hands in the name of women everywhere.

Most Anticipated Movies of (the rest of) 2015

Bridge of Spies (10/16)You say Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and I start weeping uncontrollably, so sign me up.

The Hateful Eight (12/25): This is a snow western, so I’d have to see it even if it weren’t directed by Quentin Tarantino, since the snow western is my favorite genre of moving picture.

The Last Witch Hunter (10/23): LOL JK.

Silence (11/27)Martin Scorsese is undeniably the greatest living American director, and his next movie is about two Jesuit priests facing persecution in Japan in the seventeenth story, which sounds fascinating.

SPECTRE (11/6): After Skyfall, I trust director Sam Mendes implicitly with the James Bond franchise.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (12/18): I basically never grew up, so I’m committed to all future Star Wars installments on principle.

Best Music of 2015 So Far

Welp, it’s 2015 and Taylor Swift is still dominating music. As much as rap tends to dominate the airwaves, it’s earnest pop music like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith that continues to have staying power in album sales. Swift has been in the Billboard Top 10 for 35 straight weeks, and it appears she’s averaged out at position #2 for that whole time, so we might as well call it a year. She’s reaching 2011-2013 Adele levels of world domination, though Adele was in the top 10 for a total of 80 straight weeks, so T-Swift’s still got a long ways to go. But considering she’s still in the top 5 after 9 months, we might as well call it a year. Pack it in, music industry. Taylor’s won. The next five albums may as well function as my Top 5 for the whole year. Seeya in 2016, pop music. Bye.

Albums

bestsofar01Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color: Alabama Shakes’s Boys & Girls was a perfect slice of a beach party, mixing the pathos of the blues with the chill of surf rock. Sound & Color is what happens when the bonfire gets out of control. Even if rock as we knew it is basically dead, on Sound & Color Alabama Shakes have delivered an explosion of the genre at its best.

bestsofar02Jimmy Needham, Vice & VirtueBefore this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking Jimmy Needham was soft. Speak, his bitingly blunt debut album, was released way back in 2006, so it was easy to forget how lovingly rebuking his songs could be. After the funky Vice, you won’t mistake him for anything but hardened by the ravages of sin and emboldened by the mercy of the empty tomb.

bestsofar03Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: With great expectations comes great responsibility, and Kendrick has more than lived up to his end. Expectations were sky high after the cinematic good kidButterfly rocketed past them as very personal and yet somehow universal.

bestsofar04Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & LowellWe’re fifteen years into Sufjan’s career, ten years removed from Illinois, and five from Age of Adz. We’ve gotten scads of Christmas EPs and a symphonic meditation on a highway. And Carrie & Lowell is the first time I feel like I’ve seen the real Sufjan.

bestsofar05The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is HomeMaking changes to one’s sound is always risky, and the breakup album seems like the most volatile time to make an attempt. But that’s exactly the hill Kristian Matsson determined to climb with Dark Bird. He expanded his sound from provincial folk to play around the edges of synth-rock, all in the name of purging his demons.

Songs

Fetty Wap, “Trap Queen”: That Furious 7 song will probably earn “Song of the Summer” honors at the end of August, but as far as I’m concerned, “Trap Queen” is the Song of the Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall.

Kendrick Lamar, “i [Album Version]”: The version of “i” that Kendrick Lamar was great enough, but the song that appears on the album sounds like a cherished bootleg copy with an added verse that functions as the epiphany of the whole brilliant record.

Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”: Sufjan has penned beautiful acoustic folk songs before, but none have ever had the emotional power of this single about dealing with his mother’s death.

The Tallest Man on Earth, “Sagres”: The warmest song Matsson has released to date; it’s also his most vulnerable, as he ponders whether hope is really worth it.

The Weather Station, “Way It Is, Way It Could Be”: A simple song, to be sure, but it’s haunted me more than any other this year.

Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of) 2015

Gungor, One Wild Life: Soul (8/7): The eclectic band is releasing three new albums soon, the first of which is One Wild Life: Soul and is hopefully going to move in a more solid direction after 2013’s scattered I Am Mountain.

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free (7/17): This will be the best songwriter in alt-country’s second album as a sober man, and arrives in anticipation of his first child with wife Amanda Shires, who will appear on the album.

Joan Shelley, Over and Even (9/4): If Isbell is alt-country’s best songwriter, Shelley might just  be alt-folk’s.

Sara Groves, Floodplain (9/11): Groves has never released an album I haven’t loved, and I don’t expect Floodplain to break that streak.

Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy (7/31): This will definitely be the best five-act rock opera of the year.

Best Movies of 2014 So Far

Now 2014 has been a terrible year for music, but a wonderful year for movies. Especially blockbusters. Month after month, big movies have impressed both creatively and financially. Only one of my favorite movies so far this year isn’t a blockbuster, and it was pretty popular in its own right. But see for yourself:

Movies

bestsofar1Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The strongest outing from a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet, except The Avengers, which is in its own class. The plot deftly takes every one of their franchises in a new direction, the action is the clearest we’ve seen yet in terms of execution and motivation, and Chris Evans continues to fill out the boundaries of Cap’s underratedly nuanced character. Now where’s our Black Widow movie? It can’t be any worse than Lucy.

bestsofar2Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Fascinating combination of visual effects and legitimate drama. The year’s best movie so far is about talking apes, and you can’t help but take it seriously. We live in strange times.

bestsofar3The Grand Budapest Hotel: Peak Wes Anderson is still 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom for me, but Grand Budapest Hotel comes close. But Kingdom was Anderson harnessing his powers; Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson unleashing them.

bestsofar4Guardians of the Galaxy: So remember how I said The Avengers is in its own class? Well, Guardians is in the same class, and it just set the curve. The Avengers sequel is gonna have to cram hardcore or pull several all-nighters to top this one. Pure chaos in a film reel. Or, I suppose, a USB drive, nowadays…

bestsofar5The Lego Movie: Speaking of chaos, I felt like this movie had enough for a whole year of movies. But, like James Gunn with Guardians, directors Lord & Miller know precisely how to modulate the craziness. It’s the kind of craziness a kid can relate to, but it all builds into a sweetness that isn’t sickly at the end, avoiding the trap most animated movies fall into.

Performances

Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy: Look, he’s not getting nominated for the Oscar or anything, but it takes a special performer to get the audience on your side when there are characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot on the screen. People are calling him the new Han Solo, which let’s all slow our rolls for a second, but give this movie a little time and I may come around on that. That’s how charismatic he is.

Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: He won’t be getting nominated either, but it’s only because there’s too many layers between his performance and what we see onscreen. The effects department obviously deserves some credit, but if you’ve seen Dawn, the fact that there is a real person emoting as Caesar is undeniable, and that emoting is magnetic for the entire movie.

Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars: Ansel Elgort has the flashier performance, but what Woodley has to do is more challenging. Her character, Hazel Grace, keeps the story grounded from its potential for sap. And it’s her appreciation for love in the end that allows the story to bring you to tears.

Most Anticipated Movies of (the rest of) 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings: After Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, the trailer for Ridley Scott’s Exodus makes me think this could be a banner year in great biblical epics directed by people who don’t believe the Bible.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1: Hard to top Catching Fire, but I’m excited to see Lawrence & Co. try.

Interstellar: I’ll follow Christopher Nolan anywhere at this point.

The Interview: I wonder if Kim Jong-Un will make a cameo.

Unbroken: I was skeptical of this sports-war movie, but the trailer blew me away. If they can give Louis Zamperini’s live even a modicum of the justice he deserves, this will be worth seeing.

Best Music of 2014 So Far

Slow year for music so far, huh? And by “slow” I mean “terrible”. Of the albums charting in the Top 10 on Billboard this year, five of them have been worth buying. That’s out of close to a hundred albums. Maybe two of them (Crowder’s Neon Steeple and Miranda Lambert’s Platinum) have been truly great. There have been at least twice as many as that in each of the past four years through about this time. But that doesn’t mean there’s been nothing to celebrate. You just have to dig a little deeper than the charting albums. Here are the five best albums of 2014 so far:

Albums

bestsofar1John Mark McMillan, Borderland: McMillan has always been more than the “How He Loves” guy, but this album is the fullest, most complete manifestation of his brilliant vision so far. His always poetic lyrics are matched by the most inventive worship music of the past few years. It all points to the torn feeling we have between this world and the next, knowing we belong in one and not the other.

bestsofar2Liz Vice, There’s a Light: If McMillan’s Borderland has staked out the thoughtful worship corner of 2014, Vice’s There’s a Light takes the pure joy corner. We’ve heard R&B artists give praise to the Lord before (all the way back to Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers), but it’s been decades since the praise has been this direct and full of life. Vice seems to understand that the finer points of soul music were originally about declaring the wonders of God, and to that end she gives herself over completely.

bestsofar3Miranda Lambert, Platinum: You can have your Kacey Musgraves and your Ashley Monroe. I’ll let you take your Carrie Underwood and your Taylor Swift. I won’t miss them. Give me a Miranda Lambert, someone who, after she’s already in, conquers country music and all its clichés with one album.

bestsofar4Sharon Van Etten, Are We There: Listening to Are We There is like listening to a world being created. Van Etten on this album reminds me of Laura Marling last year on I Was an Eagle, constructing her songs layer by layer until she had gradually built intricate architecture within her songs. Both albums are about broken relationships, but where Marling’s was a slow burn, Are We There is a slow explosion.

bestsofar5The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream: There’s no better-titled album this year, that’s for sure. Listening to Lost in the Dream’s distorted guitars is like being lost in the best kind of dream, but only if your dreams were totally honest with you about the direction your life is going. Songs like “Under the Pressure” and “In Reverse” couldn’t be more appropriate for someone in my stage of life, just out of college and finding his way in a new job.

Songs

5 Seconds of Summer, “She Looks So Perfect”: Better than candy.

Ariana Grande, “Problem (feat. Iggy Azalea)”: The kind of pop hit Mariah wanted to nail but never could. Yeah, I said it.

Duck Sauce, “NRG”: Better than coffee.

John Mark McMillan, “Future / Past”: A pure declaration in both the music and the words of God’s sovereignty.

tUnE-yArDs, “Water Fountain”: Better than water from water fountains.

Most Anticipated Albums of (the rest of ) 2014

Ariana Grande, My Everything: Her last album was sublime, and “Problem” bodes well for this one.

Hiss Golden Messenger, Lateness of Dancers: My excitement for this album grew when the band re-released their lost 2010 album in January, and early single “Saturday’s Song” is incredible.

The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers: I haven’t been so hot on their past couple of albums, but if the title track is any indication, the NPs are back to their bruising pop ways.

Robert Plant, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar: This is here because he’s dating Patty Griffin, I think, and I’m hoping she shows up on this album.

Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams has been better as of late, and I hope he continues the trend.