Here are some other things that I really enjoyed in 2015. Some of them (the movies) you can easily track down. Others (the shows) you’ll have to work a little harder to replicate.
I saw at least 85 movies this year, roughly half in the theater & the rest at home. Here are my fifteen favorites from among the ones I saw in the theater:
I’m just old enough to remember Evel Knievel as a cultural force, but young enough to not really know that much about him, or exactly why he was so huge. After watching this documentary, I know a lot more about some of those things, although his celebrity still kind of baffles me.
This should pretty much always be watched as a double feature with JC Chandor’s Margin Call, so make sure you plan your day accordingly.
Unless you’re already a scholar of 20th-century Black Revolutionary thought, this movie will completely change your understanding of the Black Panthers, and the massive governmental effort to discredit them.
Weird, hilarious, loose; an intentional cross between House Party and Boyz N the Hood, with a little bit of Scott Pilgrim thrown in for good measure.
An all-access-granted documentary of Glen Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s during his farewell tour. Hugely affecting even if you don’t acknowledge Campbell’s brilliance as a musician.
I have an enormous weakness for documentaries about phenomenally fashionable old ladies who tell it like it is (see also: Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel; Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me). This also has the (unhappy) distinction of being the last film Albert Maysles finished before he died.
When you’re done watching this profoundly spooky (and brilliant) movie, go ahead & watch director David Robert Mitchell’s previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, which is a quietly funny end-of-summer story set in the same suburban Detroit milieu as It Follows.
I’m aware that there are some people who don’t care for the Beach Boys, or Pet Sounds. If I had to guess, I’d guess that those people would probably also not care for this movie, in part because of all the wonderful time it spends recreating the recording sessions for so much of that brilliant music.
It is a remarkable thing, 100+ years into the history of motion pictures as an industry, to be able to say that the greatest action movie ever made just came out last year.
Director JC Chandor has made exactly three feature films, all within the past 5 years: Margin Call, an incredibly tense movie about the exact moment of the 2008 financial meltdown; All Is Lost, an almost entirely dialogue-free movie featuring 76-year-old Robert Redford alone on a slowly sinking sailboat in the middle of the ocean.
And this one, an early-80s period piece about one man’s struggle to keep his heating-oil business out of the hands of the mafia. All three of these movies are utterly gripping & completely brilliant. We are so blessed that thus far, Hollywood has continued to allow him to make the movies he wants to make, instead of the next Avengers movie.
2014 was a good year, movie-wise, but that still doesn’t excuse the award nominations snub that this movie received. David Oyelowo, in particular, was robbed.
I have this sense that nobody went to see this movie, which is a pity, because it was hilarious and good-natured and intermittently batshit crazy. Stream this one. Seriously.
The other day I was thinking about this movie and realized that it’s kind of the absolute polar opposite of The Hateful Eight. Tangerine was shot on an iPhone, stars mostly black transwomen, and is 100000x better than Tarantino’s piece of racist, misogynist trash.
Tragedy, frustration & pain have always bubbled just below the surface of Nina Simone’s music. This documentary starts to unpack all of the reasons why that is.
Just . . . just watch it. Budget a couple of hours & free yr mind & just watch it. Preferably without reading anything else about it before you do.
I don’t go out to shows as often as I used to, and nowadays when I do, they’re somewhat more likely to be seated shows, with start times closer to 7:30 than 10:30. This list definitely reflects that reality. I saw a lot more than this in 2015 (8 or 9 theatrical things, roughly 80 bands), but these are the things that stuck with me.
Alabama Shakes @ Koka Booth Amphitheatre
I knew going into this, academically, that Alabama Shakes were a great band with a phenomenal frontwoman in Brittany Howard. Now I KNOW it, know it.
Maria Bamford @ Carolina Theatre
Maria Bamford is a hero for life. The best comedy has always been about fearless self-exposure, but Maria takes it to a whole new level.
Ian William Craig @ Hopscotch
I just sat in the dark and cried for half an hour.
Davidians @ Duke Coffeehouse
Within five minutes of the start of their set, I had a new favorite Triangle guitarist in Colin Swanson-White, who fearlessly applies wacked-out chorus and other heretofore verboten effects to punkrock.
Frazey Ford with Phil Cook @ Duke Gardens
I didn’t hear Frazey Ford’s 2014 album Indian Ocean until sometime in the spring of 2015 (thanks to this brilliant video for the amazing “Done”), which is the only reason it wasn’t at the top of my 2014 list. I guess if I weren’t such a stickler, I’d have put it near the top of my 2015 list.
Anyway. Going into this show, I assumed that I had come late to the party, and that everyone else at this show was there, like me, to see Frazey. Turns out I was wrong — I was actually slightly ahead of the curve in being only 8 months behind. It was wonderful to hear Frazey — backed by Phil Cook & his Guitarheels — play her amazing music, and equally wonderful to feel everyone in the audience rocked back on their heels at the same time.
Fun Home @ Circle in the Square, NYC
Somehow, despite not being musical theatre people, we keep going to Broadway musicals. We can probably stop now, however, because nothing’s going to top this beautiful thing.
Sarah Louise @ Hopscotch
I wrote about this over on my favorite albums of the year list.
Cecile McLorin Salvant @ Baldwin Auditorium
This was the best show I saw in 2015. Everything they say about Cecile McLorin Salvant is true: her voice is reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, her song selections range from the dirty blues of Bessie Smith to the high art of Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes, plus a lot of golden-era vocal classics. But I was completely unprepared for her stage presence, and for her inside-out ownership of her material. She could sing it straight, or she could interpret the hell out of it, and it all Just Worked. Incredibly well. And she’s just 26.
Kamasi Washington @ MotorCo
What a crazy evening. Kamasi Washington is the name on the marquee, and on the cover of the massive 3-hour album, The Epic, that got all the attention this year. But he’s the polar opposite of the Jazz Autocrat. He took great pains to make it clear that the folks onstage were his posse, and that they all had albums in the works, like the Wu-Tang Clan of west-coast jazz funk. Everybody in the band played at least one song of their own, and Kamasi at times seemed more like the emcee than the nominal bandleader.
Kamasi’s stuff was the best, though.
Yo La Tengo @ Carolina Theatre
Still the champions. To be honest, I didn’t spend all that much time with their new album — it felt like Fakebook outtakes, or something. But this show was magical, due in large part to Dave Schramm’s guitar. YLT are still the greatest power trio of the modern era, but this classic quartet configuration was something else.