Oscar Week: Best Scenes

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The Academy Awards are approaching at the end of this week, so I present to you Oscar Week! These are my own movie awards from 2014, celebrating my favorite performances and scenes of the year.

There are spoilers all over the place of this article, so make sure you skip things you don’t want to be spoiled on.

Top 10 Scenes of 2014:

10. Guardians of the Galaxy – Prison Break Scene/The Lego MovieGood Morning Manual

A tie to start it off because I couldn’t choose between either of the Chris Pratt-fronted scenes. The Guardians prison break scene is the height of that film’s comic tone, chaos ensues leading to joke after joke as each character does his or her role to escape prison, even if their role is not entirely needed.

The Lego Movie‘s introduction to Emmett through a manual of how to live each day is packed with jokes big and small and is absolutely delightful, culminating in one of the year’s best movie songs “Everything is Awesome”.

9. Blue Ruin – Waiting in the House

I don’t think there was a more tense moment I experienced all year than either of the scenes where Dwight is anticipating his enemies coming into the house that he is staked out in. He knows it could very well be his life on the line, and the film builds those stakes to a near unbearable level.

8. Gone Girl – A Murder Occurs

Truly one of the year’s most disturbing scenes, but it is shot so well by director David Fincher, with Amy seducing her latest captor only to kill him mid-coitus. Reznor’s score elevates it as her second plan begins to fall into place.

7. The Immigrant – Confession Scene

Ewa has had to do a lot to come to America. Her sister is sick and is not allowed into the country, her family has rejected her, and she has given up all of her ethical guides to make a living in the US. Here, she finally breaks down in a confession booth, admitting her sins and hoping that grace can still come her way.

6. Foxcatcher – Brothers Wrestling

We don’t know much about the characters at this point. Channing Tatum’s Mark seems one-note, he’s quiet and reserved; Mark Ruffalo’s David has all the charm, he’s more successful, and surrounded by a family who loves him. The two brothers spar here, slowly going after one another more aggressive until they are full on wrestling. The scene is completely silent except for the sounds of their movements. Director Bennett Miller shoots it in such a way that–though unspoken–tension, emotion, and brotherly love shine through.

5. Whiplash – The Ending

Miles Teller’s Andrew has opened up again to the teacher who made him have a nervous breakdown, joining him for a concert performance where he could have a chance to get recruited to something bigger–his lifelong dream. Yet JK Simmons Terrence Fletcher does not exactly have his best intentions in mind–or does he? This scene is a back and forth, what the whole movie has been building toward. Andrew seems to get his revenge on Fletcher, but has this been Fletcher’s plan all along? It’s intensely packed, filled with drum solos, exasperation, and at last some smiles.

4. We Are the Best! – The Big Performance

The movie has been building to the three lead girls being able to perform one of their songs live for the first time. However, when they finally get to play, it doesn’t turn out exactly as they expect it to. Lukas Moodysson takes the typical big final performance so common in music movies and turns it upside down, having the girls incite a riot where the lyrics of the song are changed and they are fighting with the crowd. It’s hilarious in the most punk way possible.

3. Snowpiercer – Fish Fight

Room after room aboard the train has brought unexpected, but mostly safe discoveries. As they approach the next room, Bong Joon-Ho slows everything into slow motion, the doors slowly open and a group of sword carrying men dressed entirely in black appear, lined up and ready to stop the coming rebellion. Intensifying the film further, the man in front proceeds to grab a fish, slowly slice it in half–letting the blood drip down as if to warn them of what is to come. It’s a visceral experience.

2. Under the Skin – Black Room

Scarlett’s character serves as a predator, taking men home as if to sleep with them, but instead they enter into a completely dark room and as they begin to undress they slowly sink into a murky black substance, slowly evaporating into a state of nothingness. These are scenes where you can never be sure what is exactly happening, but all of its aesthetic wraps you up like the dark ocean the men fall into. The musical score in these scenes is not only the best of the year, but might be up there with my favorite of all time.

1. Interstellar – Videos from Home

Returning from a planet that has cost him decades off the lives of everyone but himself (he spends only a few minutes there), McConaguhey’s Cooper watches the backlog of videos left by his family over the years. He sees them grow before his very eyes, sees his grandchildren, the choices they have made, and all their doubts and fears as to why they haven’t heard from him in so long. Here the cost of the mission he is on is fully realized and sorrow and regret creep into his soul as he is reduced to tears. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking scene and shows what height Interstellar was capable of soaring to despite its various flaws.

Oscar Week: Best Actor

The Academy Awards are approaching at the end of this week, so I present to you Oscar Week! These are my own movie awards from 2014, celebrating my favorite performances and scenes of the year.

Looking through this now completed list, I think I may have underrated Michael Keaton a bit–I haven’t seen Birdman in a while, so my memory of him is only in being out-acted by Edward Norton when in actuality he’s probably pretty good. He deserves a mention here, but I really do like my list and think it a finer crop of performances than the Academy pulled together.

Top 10 Actors of 2014:

10. John Lithgow, Love is Strange

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Playing an aging man who must move out of his house due to his husband losing his job, Lithgow is sweet, semi-aware of the pain he is causing his loved ones and knowing he can do nothing about it.

9. Chris Pratt, The Lego Movie

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Without Pratt voicing lead character Emmett there is no way The Lego Movie is half as good as it was.

8. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

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It’s a very flashy role and Redmayne does a good job with it, maybe the fact that the film was lackluster or that they probably thought about Redmayne winning the Oscar every day on set prevents me from rating it higher.

7. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler

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I wrote in my short review on Letterboxd that I don’t think this character is very well written–he’s creepy, conniving, and sociopathic–and for some reason felt one-note and uninteresting, but I do think Gyllenhaal plays him really well.

6. Dan Stevens, The Guest

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Stevens brings an insurmountable amount of charm in his role as yes a guest in the household of one of his military comrades (well, maybe). As things begin to unfold and his actions escalate in troubling ways, his charisma remains so abundant I would probably invited him into my home regardless.

5. Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice

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Phoenix plays a stoner hippy detective, which might not usually account for a performance worthy of writing about on these types of lists, but without all the effort Phoenix puts in here I think Vice falls flat. His comic reactions to the things happening (or are they?) around him are truly inspired.

4. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Other than the lobby boy and his girl (which were both mentioned on previous lists) Fiennes was the other best part of Budapest. He is a suave oddball, very particular about his lifestyle, and strangely reverent about hotel processes. He is a lot of fun to watch.

3. Tom Hardy, Locke

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Without Hardy’s performance Locke would have been an awful movie, literally as he is the only person to ever appear on-screen throughout the movie. He contributes with the way he handles the dialogue and is able to express every stressful moment he is going through while essentially driving his car away from everything he’s ever made for himself.

2. Brendan Gleeson, Calvary

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Gleeson plays a priest who must be faithful (to his duties and to his God) despite everything in his life being moments away from coming undone. He is a pious character, able to comfort, to question, and to laugh with his parishioners. Gleason displays all of these qualities in a way that is darkly comic and sincere.

1. David Oyelowo, Selma

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Oyelowo had a lot of pressure on him to get this character right–Dr. King is among the greatest people in American history and no movie has ever really been made about him. In Selma Oyelowo contributes to a fully flushed out character, one filled with the great heroic leadership that he portrayed in his booming speeches, but also conveys his doubts, insecurities, his reactions to petty arguments. For my money it was the best performance I saw all year.

Oscar Week: Best Actress

The Academy Awards are approaching at the end of this week, so I present to you Oscar Week! These are my own movie awards from 2014, celebrating my favorite performances and scenes of the year.

Another category of acting performances that I am fairly out of touch on as far as seeing some of the nominees. Julianne Moore is the apparent favorite in Still Alice, a film that sounds interesting for her performance, but other than that is not too intriguing. Reese Witherspoon is supposed to be good in Wild, but again that movie seems to be too much like Oscar bait. I did see Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything but (as you will see) I can name eight other performances I liked better than hers–it’s funny that she gets on a nomination for what is a fairly straight forward performance while most others who do the same get ignored; I think her nomination only comes at the hands of that pretty Theory of Everything/Stephen Hawking package.

10. Emily Foxler, Coherence

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A relatively unknown actress in a small budget sci-fi movie, Foxler’s performance–especially near the end–is what really won me over.

9. Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive

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Swinton is great in everything and her turn as immortal vampire Eve is no exception.

8. Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida

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A less flashy role than that of her aunt, Trzebuchowska’s quiet holiness that eventually turns to curiosity helps to hold the film steady.

7. Essie Davis, The Babadook

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The Babadook features Davis’ character transitioning from being viewed one way to a complete other by the end of the film, let’s just say that Davis can play exasperated mother in quite a few ways.

6. Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant

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Playing a Polish immigrant, Cotillard has to go through hell to get into the United States and to make a life for her and her sister. Cotillard captures all the pain and the regret and the doubt that comes with every decision she makes (that confession scene is beautiful).

5. Emily Blunt, The Edge of Tomorrow

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Blunt’s character is not your typical female action archetype, she’s tough–tougher than Cruise’s character–experienced, and smart. The whole movie depends on her and Blunt deserves equal credit with Cruise for helping to make such a wonderful film.

4. Lisa Loven Kongsli, Force Majeure

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She brings a strong presence to this family drama/masculinity in crisis film about an incident that changes the way an entire family sees itself. Loven Kongsli has a tough role to play, somewhere between playing the martyr and being a martyr; her experiences are legit, but is her reaction correct? Loven Kongsli plays with this tension in a way that is necessary.

3. Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

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Playing some sort of alien life form, Johansson switches off between being charming and emotionless, seductive and dead-eyed. She uses the former traits–ones she is probably most known for–minimally, showing that she is truly alien to the human experience.

2. Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

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A lot of big performances feature one or two scenes where an actor or actress must rise up, giving an emotional scene–one they will hopefully play when the Oscar nominees are announced during the show. Here Cotillard is forced to carry this emotional heft with her in pretty much every scene, making us feel the weight of what she is going through without causing us to feel drained emotionally; she nails it.

1. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

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SOME SPOILERS AHEAD: For the first half of the movie or so I didn’t know if I really liked Pike’s portrayal of Amy Dunne (I had read the book prior to seeing the movie), it was dreamy and unrealistic. Well turns out, that is exactly how it should have been and the second half she comes alive as information is spilled and the sociopathic Amy is revealed. Pike is incredible as the cold hearted and manipulative Dunne and really helped to create a cinematic character that will live on as one of our greatest villains.

Oscar Week: Best Supporting Actor

The Academy Awards are approaching at the end of this week, so I present to you Oscar Week! These are my own movie awards from 2014, celebrating my favorite performances and scenes of the year.

The Best Supporting Actor category is a top-heavy one and four of the five Oscar nominees I concur with being among the best (The Judge? Really?). The rest are mostly really fun performances and one surprising one that though it may be ridiculous had to be on here.

My top ten supporting actors of 2014:

10. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice

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Brolin is riotous as the police officer/frenemy of Doc Sportello.

9. Kristopher Hinvju, Force Majeure

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Hinvju comes into Force Majeure seemingly as a voice of wisdom between the two fighting couples, but he too proves to be a sort of bumbling fool when it comes to dealing with his own masculinity.

8. Luke Wilson, The Skeleton Twins

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Seemingly too perfect as a sort of country nice guy, but throughout The Skeleton Twins Wilson shows himself as truly sincere and loving, especially in the face of the manic-depressive insecurities of Hader and Wiig’s characters.

7. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

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Carrell has gotten a lot of flack for being overrated at this point that I believe that he is actually quite underrated now. Technically he has been nominated in the best actor category, but that really belongs to Channing Tatum. Carrell is good playing out of type as the somewhat creepy, somewhat sad John du Pont.

6. Tony Revolori, Grand Budapest Hotel

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How else would we know what a lobby boy was without the shining example of Tony Revolori in Grand Budapest Hotel. He brings all the necessary charm and quirk needed in an Anderson role and is an exciting actor to watch.

5. Bradley Cooper, Guardians of the Galaxy

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My favorite character in Guardians of the Galaxy and my favorite Cooper performance of the year come in the form of a CGI raccoon. Cooper absolutely nails it, adding a truly unbelievable amount of charisma and charm to, again, a raccoon.

4. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

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Every time Ethan Hawke comes on-screen in Boyhood he drives the movie forward in such wonderful ways. He may have the easier job, as a dad who drops into his kids’ lives in order to take them out to fun things, compared with Arquette who must be steady, and Coltrane who has the whole film based around him, but sometimes the fun dad is so much fun it doesn’t matter.

3. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

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I don’t really know what it is about Ruffalo in Foxcatcher, his character isn’t flashy at all, but is based in steadiness and having a true love and commitment toward his family. For me he and Tatum’s scenes together really were the best part of the movie and much of that was thanks to the gruff kindness and devotion exhibited here by Ruffalo.

2. Edward Norton, Birdman

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Ed Norton is always good. In Birdman, playing a sort of version of himself (as most of the film’s characters do), he’s on fire. While Ruffalo was so good because he wasn’t flashy, Norton gives a passionate performance, using all the flashiness to his advantage.

1. JK Simmons, Whiplash

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Simmons is the favorite here and he is is absolutely deserving of it. Playing a fierce, quasi-abusive, and manipulative drum teacher Simmons escalates and deescalates with ease, driving Teller’s character above (and beyond?). I get a form of PTSD just looking at that picture above, but I also–you know–feel like giving my all.

Oscar Week: Best Supporting Actresses

The Academy Awards are approaching at the end of this week, so I present to you Oscar Week! These are my own movie awards from 2014, celebrating my favorite performances and scenes of the year.

This was a weak year for Supporting Actresses and of the Academy’s picks I have not seen Laura Dern in Wild, Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game, or Meryl Streep in Into the Woods but I doubt any of these I would really think are top contenders. Because of this, I think I came up with a more creative (and perhaps ridiculous) list of my favorite performances of the year.

Here are my top 10 supporting actresses of 2014:

10. Lorelai Linklater, Boyhood

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The kid’s have gotten a lot of grief for their acting, but I found both to be charming over their 12 year performance. Linklater isn’t given a lot, but I always liked what she was adding on screen.

9. Marisa Tomei, Love is Strange

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Another small performance that stuck with me, Tomei plays the niece-in-law to John Lithgow and really serves to highlight both the attachment to the central characters and the growing frustrations that come with being surrounded by people you love.

8. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

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A bit overrated in my book, but still a performance worth talking about. Arquette does get the unemotional film’s most emotional scene and really does nail it.

7. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl

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Coon’s character brings a lot to Gone Girl, bringing in humor and emotion in a film that is cold and calculated both in production and in content.

6. Saoirse Ronan, Grand Budapest Hotel

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Grand Budapest Hotel is a film I was disappointed by, but I think the part that was the most moving to me was the relationship between lobby boy Zero and Ronan’s Agatha whose young love really did feel beautiful.

5. Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar

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Mackenzie Foy pretty much out-acts Jessica Chastain as the younger version of Murph, Matthew McConaughey’s daughter in the movie. There is so much emotion in those early scenes and Foy is a delight.

4. Emma Stone, Birdman

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Perhaps the toughest performance Emma Stone has had to give–one where she doesn’t have to rely on all that natural charm–Stone is aggressive here and really keeps up with Norton who is at his peak.

3. Katherine Waterson, Inherent Vice

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Waterson is excellent as the mysterious and somewhat-sultry “vice” of Phoenix’s Doc Sportello. She is presented as a near-apparition, being the core of the mystery that Doc attempts to uncover–Waterson is charming enough to make us believe that she really is worth chasing after, despite her lack of clear devotion.

2. Agata Kulesza, Ida

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I was expecting Ida to be a serious film, perhaps overly serious, it is in fact a black and white shot Polish film about religion and the holocaust, but instead it features jokes, charm, and fun jazz songs–most of which is thanks to Kulesza. Kulesza plays Wanda Cruz, the irreverent judge polar opposite to her niece, Agata Trzebuchowska’s righteous Ida. She is bitter and hedonistic, but, as we discover, has faced great pain, some of which is too great to bear.

1. Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer

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Watching Snowpiercer I convinced and unconvinced myself four different times that Mason was and was not played by Tilda Swinton. Turns out she was in an absolute riot of a performance as Wilford’s assistant and the face of villainy to those living amongst the poor on the Snowpiercer train. She is an evil character, but also self-serving enough to connive her way through any scenario. Swinton really disappears here in a way that is absolutely magical.

Coming Tomorrow: Best Supporting Actors of 2014

Counting the Cost: The Theme of Sacrifice in the Films of 2014

If you’ve been following along, you may have seen the 12 or so best of 2014 lists I’ve made so far this year. Lists are fun and often easy ways to think about what popular culture has been consumed and at times can lead to deeper insight about what we enjoyed and why we enjoyed it. Sometimes various themes and trends can be noticed and in thinking about the movies I’ve seen this year one theme has appeared across a fairly wide margin of movies. I wanted to reflect on that theme here, though not necessarily to posit reasons as to why it might show up here and now–only time can tell I suppose–but to look into something that for some reason resonated amongst several films.

(Note: There may be minor spoilers for Selma, American Sniper, Interstellar, Calvary, Whiplash, and Two Days, One Night below)

The idea of sacrifice seems to have resonated this year. Of course the idea of living for something bigger than oneself is one that is oft-talked about. It’s something most people will cling to and is probably the most universally satisfying ethic; able to be translated across cultural, moral, and religious boundaries. The films this year cover this, but reflect on the sacrifice necessary to do what is right. To join in on the larger movement; fully committing oneself. There is a Biblical idea that talks of “counting the cost”–coming to terms with what having a belief and acting upon it may cost you. Cinematically filmmakers showed just what this might look like across all sorts of stories and genres.

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Selma and American Sniper, two films whose main characters’ ideologies are somewhat diametrically opposed, show their lead characters struggling with the cost of their commitments to their causes. Dr. King is the wise leader of the civil rights movement, having already made tremendous steps forward, and has the president’s ear when it comes to policy decisions, yet he finds himself conflicted in how much he can give to the movement he is spearheading. Director Ava DuVernay not only shows King in his glorious speeches, but also in back room conversations with his wife, who must suffer the brunt of his work. King’s choices not only may end his life (as they eventually do), but cause his family to struggle. The Kings know the pursuit of justice is never-ending and the cost of that decision haunts them even in the best of their moments.

American Sniper‘s Chris Kyle too weighs his family life with the duty he feels toward his country and his comrades. He chooses to risk his life for what he believes will protect his country. As he goes on tour after tour both his life and mental health are put at risk. When his wife reminds him of his manly duties to be there for his family, Kyle retorts that he is in fact doing them good by participating in something that will not only protect them, but others as well.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar features another man abandoning his family in order to save the greater population. The dystopian future doesn’t look good until Cooper discovers that there may be a way to save his family and the rest of humanity. Using skills that he is uniquely qualified for, he leaves his family (and Earth) behind to save the day. Nolan shows the toll this takes on Cooper in one of the year’s best scenes that will absolutely wreck you.


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Is the calling to do something great worth the cost that it might entail? Heroism certainly extends beyond great acts of sacrifice, the day in and day out support of friends and family is beautiful and probably necessary. Is it then irresponsible for those who do great things to force their loved ones to take on the cost they have come to terms with? Should they avoid this altogether?

Whiplash‘s Andrew certainly believes this to be true as we see him getting into fights with his family about what true greatness means and even breaking up with a girl because he knows she’ll hold him back. He’s seen the lives his musical heroes have lead and knows that to achieve greatness you have to give up on certain things. While probably the least heroic and most unwise of all the characters mentioned thus far, Andrew recognizes the cost and gives up the parts of life that seem normal, but he knows will not lead him to where he is trying to go. In a way he has done the most responsible thing by not allowing his loved ones to experience the pain he knows he will cause them.

Yet this is altogether unsatisfying. I would more likely take a moment of unconditional love accompanied with a lifetime of pain, than to avoid it altogether. They say it’s better to have love and lost than to never have loved at all.

Father James of Calvary has experienced this. The movie opens up with the threat of death by an unknown parishioner. James’ duty is to love and guide people according to the calling he feels he has from God. Like Jesus though, he is rejected by his group of unfaithful church attendees who delight in making him uncomfortable and rejecting his silent pleas for righteousness. His own inner turmoil leads him to have to make a decision to continue pursuing these people, even at the cost of losing it all for nothing.

Finally, the Dardennes’ latest, Two Days, One Night lowers the personal stakes for protagonist Sandra, instead flipping this idea of cost onto her coworkers who must decide whether they want to keep her on the company payroll or to give up their bonus–1,000 Euros. As Sandra goes to each one, they must–in a moment–decide what to do. For some the cost is extraneous things, for others the cost would be insurmountable, causing themselves to go under. They must consider whether they consider her to be a friend and if she is, what then are they willing to give to her. They must consider their religious and ethical beliefs and if these override the desire or even need to hold onto money that is rightfully theirs. Eventually the tables are turned and Sandra too must make a decision about what is important to her and what she is willing to sacrifice.

Our jobs, goals, desires, relationships, and needs are a mishmash of priorities–usually all consisting of good things. When there is a call to something else, something greater, we must decide what it is that’s worth keeping and what is worth giving up. It’s a haunting question, one that puts to shame so many of our daily activities, but when the time comes it demands an answer.

Top 30 Albums of the Decade (so far)

I recently recorded a podcast with one of my good friends (check it out here) on it we discussed our ten favorite albums of the decade thus far. In preparation for it, I decided to go further and put together a bigger list of my favorite albums. To hear my process and thoughts on many of them make sure you download the podcast either at the given link or on iTunes.

And feel free to leave a comment with your own ten.

30. Beirut “The Rip Tide”

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29. Jenny Lewis “The Voyager”

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28. Arcade Fire “Reflektor”

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27. Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels II”

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26. D’Angelo “Black Messiah”

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25. Cloud Nothings “Here and Nowhere Else”

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24. Parquet Courts “Light Up Gold”

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23. Frightened Rabbit “The Winter of Mixed Drinks”

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22. Titus Andronicus “The Monitor”

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21. Chance the Rapper “Acid Rap”

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20. Manchester Orchestra “Simple Math”

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19. Sufjan Stevens “The Age of Adz”/”All Delighted People Ep”

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18. Chvrches “The Bones of What You Believe”

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17. Right Away, Great Captain “The Church and the Good Thief”

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16. Earl Sweatshirt “Doris”

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15. Kanye West “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”

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14. Beyonce “Beyonce”

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13. The Tallest Man on Earth “There’s No Leaving Now”

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12. Vampire Weekend “Contra”

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11. Lost in the Trees “A Church That First Our Needs”

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10. The Avett Brothers “The Carpenter”

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9. The War on Drugs “Lost in the Dream”

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8. Makthaverskan “II”

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7. Lady Lamb the Beekeeper “Ripely Pine”

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6. Florence + the Machine “Ceremonials”

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5. Japandroids “Celebration Rock”

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4. Arcade Fire “The Suburbs”

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3. Bon Iver “Bon Iver”

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2. The National “High Violet”

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1. Vampire Weekend “Modern Vampires of the City”

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Top Films of 2014

Alas my favorite films of the year, I hope you enjoy it, I’ve spent quite some time considering and writing about each one. Again, do not take these as recommendations, they are reflections of my taste and what I see as great.

Before we continue I must of course lay out a few I haven’t had the chance to catch up with that would have had a chance to be contenders: Two Days, One Night; Leviathan; Nightcrawler; Mr. Turner; Love is Strange; Citizenfour; Starred Up; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; Listen Up Phillip

25. Interstellar  Interstellar astronauts explore new planet

Nolan’s latest sprawling epic features some truly grand and spectacular moments as well as some beautifully touching small ones. It uses space and time to explore what it means to be human, the choices we have to make as humans, and whether love can transcend evolutionary impulses to survive. Not every note hits, but Nolan continues to dazzle as a blockbuster artist.

24. Snowpiercersnowpiercer

Bong Joon-Ho made one of my favorite films from a few years back, Mother, a Korean-language movie, and Snowpiercer is his American debut. His cross-genre stylings serve him well in this tale of a dystopian future that takes place entirely on a train. The lower class citizens start a revolution and as they move from train cart to train cart Joon-Ho uses the different genres to create a wide range of tone which is brilliantly executed and so much fun. Its talkier parts do drag (except for the scene where they talk about the arms, which was absolutely captivating to me), but it features the best action sequences of any film this year.

23. Happy Christmashappy-christmas-melanie-lynskey-joe-swanberg

The latest small, improvised film that Joe Swanberg likes to crank out continues the wonderful relational dynamic that his previous work, Drinking Buddies, brough. While even smaller in scale, it is in its smallness and little touches that the film thrives. It’s not a Christmas movie by any measure–as its title would indicate–but it is a movie about family, young people, and marriage, which are things that invade our daily lives, making it–in a way–the most Christmas movie of all.

22. 22 Jump StreetJonah Hill;Channing Tatum

22 Jump Street really surprised me, not that anything Miller and Lord do should anymore, but I found it comically and absurdly delightful. They do fairly broad comedy, but it comes at you in a way that is unexpected, clever, and subversive. Tatum and Hill’s chemistry of course drives the whole thing and I can only hope they do continue to make more of them.

21. Chef

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Chef is like the Christmas song the Who’s sung that melted the icy heart of this movie Grinch. It is such a sincere movie, on ehtat a typical cynic like me would love to absolutely crush, but instead I adored its positive sensibility. It’s about a chef who is going through a midlife crisis and ends up starting a food truck with his son. Although it’s based in rom-com tropes, it never really throws itself into them. Instead, the movie chooses to focus on people mostly getting along and having a good time, becoming a celebration of life rather than a melodramatic romantic comedy.

20. The Trip to ItalyRob Bryden and Steve Coogan … too self-aware?

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are back at it once again, road tripping to beautiful locales, eating delicious food, and attempting to outdo one another with hilarious comedy bits and impressions. It’s a really funny movie (though the first one is funnier), but really works because of its melancholic tone. Each, playing a version of themselves, is wrestling and discovering with who they are in the world of entertainment and as members of a family. It’s a wonderful sequel and at this point is starting to look like Linklater’s Before trilogy with a comedic edge.

19. A Most Wanted Mana-most-wanted-man-philip-seymour-hoffman-6

The world of A Most Wanted Man is grim, focusing in upon main character Gunther (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last leading role), a depressed and world weary agent in Germany. The world of spies and international politics is played out and each character makes decisions in order to advance their cause. Everything builds toward a spectacular finish where all hopes and dreams of reasonable negotiation for peace are dashed in light of the selfishness that pervades those in charge.

18. The ImmigrantThe-Immigrant1

Marion Cotillard plays an immigrant in the early-1900s forced to choose between her ideals and the opportunity that America can represent for her. Which moral and religious lines is she willing to cross to enter into the home of the brave and the land of the free? Director James Gray paints America and the immigrant experience as a shady, compromising one, but ultimately shows that sacrifice and love can come out of it.

17. The Edge of TomorrowALL YOU NEED IS KILL

An exciting, clever, and funny action movie that is essentially the action version of Groundhog Day. Tom Cruise stars as a high ranking rarmy officer placed among the grunts of battle as a stint by his commanders. However, after the first day of battle each time he dies he wakes up to relive the day over again. Eventually he meets up with Emily Blunt–a top tier warrior–and the two team together to try to defeat the alien army that has invaded earth. The strength of the film is that it can rely on its central conceit for both humor and to skip across tropes that would otherwise bog it down. It’s also quite interesting as a love story, that by not being allowed to pay off, does so immensely.

16. Blue Ruinblue+ruin+4

A sort of Southern Gothic revenge tale about a man who commits a violent act, unleashing chaos in his life. Jeremy Saulnier creates some of the most gripping scenes of the year with Dwight–really an amateur when it comes to violence–forced to fight against an entire family who will not let things go. Violence and justice are often seen as intertwined, but as Dwight discovers they only grow bigger and bigger until there is nothing left.

15. The Guest theguest

I don’t think this is really a movie that can be thought about too in depth, but I also don’t think it’s meant to be. Instead, The Guest is a multi-genre feature that is amazingly well layered. It’s about an ex-marine who comes to visit the family of one of his deceased comrades, but there is always something else under the surface. Director Adam Wingard has such a skill of knowing perfectly where and how to place each scene for maximum entertainment and the whole thing is a riot.

14. Dawn of the Planet of the Apesdawn_a

A surprisingly moving continuation of the Planet of the Apes series. This time the focus is so ape-centric, creating genuine emotion for the apes and their world. Of course this is helped by the brilliant motion capture acting that Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell do. It all centers around the conflict between apes and humans and the misunderstanding that comes when two cultures clash–a pretty typical and perhaps over-mined storyline–but they are able to pull it off in a way that feels fresh.

13. Gone GirlGone-Girl-Affleck-Pike-Kiss

I read the book just before I saw the movie, so I certainly had a different experience than those who had already seen it, but Fincher certainly did it justice. The twists hit hard and Fincher brings to life what I see being one of the greatest female characters for years to come.

12. The Babadook babadook3

A haunting movie that brilliantly flips its story about halfway from that of a demon-child to a possessed mother controlled by her past. Its sound design and aesthetic make it rise above most horror films, actually making it look and feel interesting. Its ending is also quite fun in the most frightening way. As the plot conceit unfolds the rest of the movie can be seen in a different light and the director uses this to actually tell a quite moving tale about the pain that comes with loss.

11. Birdmanbirdman

This film is a romp if you take what it’s saying and look as a portrait of celebrity culture. Michael Keaton plays a washed up actor trying to create his passion project and gain all of the credit and acclaim that he so desperately wants. As the project ensues, he loses grip with reality, haunted by the hero that he used to be, and gets lost amidst the desires for fame and success. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot the whole thing to make it look like one consecutive take, increasing its manic energy and the chaos surrounding the production. Edward Norton puts up one of the best performances of the year as an actor who tries to bring a realistic take to the play. Birdman got hated upon for some of the things it tried to say about criticism and contemporary culture, but I say ignore those parts and it really is a brilliant farce.

10. Whiplash

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An intense drama following a dedicated music student trying to make it in the music world, specifically his music school as a jazz drummer. Miles Teller and JK Simmons play student and teacher in a relationship that is constantly redefined thanks to writer/director Damien Chazelle’s brilliant choices. Their tumultuous relationship drives the film which throws into question ideas of dedication toward a craft and what it takes to create something great.

9. We Are the Best!WE ARE THE BEST!

Lukas Moodysson again delivers an honest and heartwarming tale of teenage girls, this time focusing in on three girls in the 80s with an affection for punk and its counterculture. He writes each character so well and uses their interests in starting a punk band not only to show their rebellion against having to do PE, but to tell a story about things that all teens have to go through, whether their punk or not. Moodysson’s film is sweet, charming, and often hilarious.

8. Lockelocke-movie-photo-3

A character study feauturing Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, a concrete supervisor, who in one night makes a choice that turns everything upside down. We watch as he drives in his car, making phone calls that slowly unveil pieces of his life, his past, and what exactly the choice he is making means. Hardy is unbelievable, relied upon to carry the entire load of the movie and delivering completely. Locke is a man with strong convictions, respectable and consistent. Those virtues have made him into the man that he is, but will they also destroy him? As he tries to right his mistakes and overcome the insecurities that haunt him, the complexities of right and wrong are shown, demonstrating that a life void of grace is destructive.

7. Inherent Viceinherent_a
Paul Thomas Anderson focuses on the comedic in this stoner noir featuring Joaquin Phoenix as Doc a not-so-hardboiled detective. Inherent Vice is hilarious with its hazy plot reflecting the drug addled state of its protagonist. Yet Doc is truly the hero of the story, with the most pure of intentions. As he somehow unlocks each part of the mystery he is presented with an increasingly corrupt image of the world is shown. Each level of the world is greedy, willing to do whatever it takes to advance themselves. In the middle of this Doc stands alone, a holy figure simply trying to transcend the ugliness brought by the man.

6. Ida ida

Ida is a young woman about to commit her life to becoming a nun. She carries out her duties solemnly with the rest of the sisters. Before she takes her vows, the sisters suggest that she her last remaining relative, an aunt who she has never met before. Her aunt–an eccentric and unbridled hedonist–is her mirror image, but they journey together making discoveries about their past that throw everything into question for both of them. Shot entirely in black and white, the film is amazing looking and while it is a stark tale of a dark period of history, there are moments of lightness and of beauty that really bring it home.

5. CalvaryBrendan Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd in John Michael McDonagh's Calvary.

A Catholic priest has his life threatened by a parishioner bringing into light the entirety of his life, the work he does for God, and the sacrifice required by faith. While that might sound overly serious, Calvary brings with it a wit and dark humor that John Michael McDonagh is known for. Brendan Gleeson is wonderful at representing this holy figure who seems like he could snap at any moment, doing his best to bear with each admitted sinner purposely trying to aggravate him within his community. It takes place in gorgeous Ireland and ultimately is a tale of grace, faith, and sacrifice.

4. Selma

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The most timely picture of the year, essentially a Martin Luther King biopic, but mostly a concentrated story of the protest at Selma for voters rights. Ava DuVernay displays King’s life in all its aspects, as an American hero, a leader of an oppressed people, a tired individual, and flawed husband. It shows the incredible courage it took to nonviolently take on the hate of millions and the never ending sacrifice required for justice.

3. Only Lovers Left Aliveonlylovers

A vampire movie where the main focus is the primacy of art and humanity’s abuse of the world they’ve been given. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as immortal lovers Adam and Eve, dealing with the modern world and lamenting the mess that has been made. It’s a gorgeous and well written movie driven by the charisma between Hiddleston and Swinton, with Hiddleston’s suicidal pessimism and Swinton’s caring love for her husband. Lest we get too self-serious Mia Wasikowska shows up as a portrait of youth, but also to bring things back to reality, declaring the pretentiousness of everything they stand for.

2. Boyhoodboyhood-bike-boyhood-an-american-epic

Richard Linklater’s latest film was fascinating at the least because of the way he chose to make it–filming the same cast of people over 12 years to tell a long term story of a boy and his family. But it is also so much more than a portrait of the last 12 years. It is about life and how the small moments–which Linklater wisely chooses to focus in on–build upon one another to create who you are. Typically there is no grand narrative, just bits and pieces of smaller stories that make you who you are. Mason has bad things happen to him, good things happen to him, and small things happen to him. He has people constantly coming in and out of his life trying to tell him how to live and though their influence is important, it is his story. Boyhood is a beautiful story about life and everything that goes into it.

1. Under the SkinFilm Review Under the Skin

The film that relies most heavily on pure cinema released this year. Director Jonathan Glazer uses the old adage “show not tell” to create a film that entirely shows you what is about rather than dragging itself through long periods of plot explanation. He allows you to put together for yourself exactly what is happening while the themes of image, vulnerability, and what it means to be a human come forth. Scarlett Johannson is great in a subdued performance as some sort of alien figure who preys on humanity’s weak. Yet as she begins to grow in curiosity about the things humans choose to do, our pleasures, desires, compassion and the evil we are capable of, she changes allowing herself to accept this humanity in a decision that she ultimately has to pay for. And that’s just my take on it. Oh and did I mention that it probably has the best visual effects and sound design of any movie of this year and potentially the last few?

And a few more that just missed: Guardians of the Galaxy, Big Hero 6, Foxcatcher, Force Majeure

Top 14 Albums of 2014

The second to last list of the season! It’s coming a little later than expected, but I have other stuff I’ve been working on for those of you who care. Music is a hard thing to write about, so I’ve done my best to express my feelings about what I loved below. I struggled with the top three, but ultimately came to a balance of what I think I will love for a long time and what my heart is telling me in the moment.

As always I don’t recommend all of these albums, some may have objectionable content for your conscience.

Top 14 Albums of ’14

14. Joyce Manor “Never Hungover Again”

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“Never Hungover Again” is a great party record if you’re into loud punk-heavy rock songs. They are fast and often short (the whole album is only 19 minutes long), but this doesn’t stop it from being a great album and one that does have depth to it.

13. Cymbals Eat Guitars “Lose”

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A great indie rock album lead by the unique high pitched vocals of Joseph D’Agostino, but equally matched by the guitar driven sound of the rest of the band.

12. Hospitality “Trouble”

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A late in the year discovery for me, Hospitality hits hard at this women-led raw indie rock phase I’ve been going through lately. Though the band is divided between a tougher indie rock group and a more synth-y indie pop band, the songs that lead toward the former are some of my favorite of the year.

11. tUnE-yArDs “Nikki Nack”

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tUnE-yArDs’ brand of eclectic, world tinged pop music won’t be for everyone. It’s not even for me half of the time, but those times it does hit, it hits hard.

10. Parquet Courts “Sunbathing Animal”

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Parquet Courts will likely continue to crank out their post-punk, garage rock, laid back rock ‘n roll music year after year and I will likely buy into it every time. I’m not sure if “Sunbathing Animal” is quite as good as “Light Up Gold”, but it is more of the same witty rock tunes.

9. The Hotelier “Home Like No Place is There”

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This piece of new wave emo and pop-punk brought me back to my high school days where I got plenty of that sound. The Hotelier tend to transcend that genre (not that it really needs to be transcended) through poetic lyrics and songs that have emotional payoffs.

8. Iceage “Plowing Into the Field of Love”

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Iceage took a step into a new direction this year, bringing their post-punk sound a more alt-country feel and to me this was an improvement. The songs retain all the heaviness of their last albums, but add a unique change and wit to them.

7. Vince Staples “Hell Can Wait”

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Staples was one of my favorite discoveries this year and though this is technically an EP it was one of my records to listen to all year. “Blue Suede” and “Hands Up” got all the credit they deserve around the internet for their look into Staples’ life and commentary on current events, as well as their absolute musical brilliance and the rest of the album keeps up with those two standouts.

6. Jenny Lewis “The Voyager”

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A solid pop/rock album from the former Rilo Kiley lead vocalist. Here she lays herself bare while also making catchy and witty tunes.

5. Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels II”

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A fierce barrage of a hip-hop album offering non-stop and brutal verses from El-P and Killer Mike. It’s surprises you at every corner and does so in the most brilliant of ways.

4. D’Angelo “Black Messiah”

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I wasn’t some big D’Angelo fan before this year, sure I had heard the story, but it did little more than pique my interest. When the new album dropped I waited a couple of weeks before I even ventured to listen. Once I did listen, I guess you could say that the groove took a hold of me. This album is all groove and it is infectious.

3. Cloud Nothings “Here and Nowhere Else”

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A great rock ‘n roll album, Cloud Nothings reached their peak for me this year with songs that reached anthemic heights with their fuzzed out guitars and impassioned vocals. “I’m Not Part of Me” was my favorite song of the year, but the rest of the album was nearly just as good.

2. The War on Drugs “Lost in the Dream”

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This one is a continuous grower for me with his folksy elongated tracks breezing through my ears in its soothing fashion. It’s strangely reminiscent of Dylan for me, though more calming than his work is known for being. I can’t help but think when asked to point to a great album of the decade that this one will be toward the front of my mental catalog.

1. Makthaverskan “II”

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Maybe this won’t hold up whenever I look back at this ten years down the line, but for now Makthaverskan’s blend of punk and 80s new wave has got a hold on me. They are at times aggressive, at times melodic, but always emotionally bare. Its breadth of style and sound makes me interested in what will come next from the band, but also makes the album really work on multiple levels.

Honorable Mentions: FKA Twigs “LP1”, YG “My Krazy Life”, Jessie Ware “Restoration”, White Lung “Deep Fantasy”, Sharon Van Etten “Are We There”, First Aid Kit “Stay Gold”

Top 10 Podcast Episodes of 2014

I released my best podcasts of the year not long ago, but wanted to do more with them, so I tried to keep track of my favorite episodes I listened to throughout the year. This proved to be very difficult, but I think I came up with a wide range of some of the year’s best. As always some shows are explicit in content so proceed with caution.

Two more best of lists left for 2014; best albums and best films. Look for best albums this weekend and best films later next week.

10. Hang Up and Listen: “Superfest East”

Featuring all members of Slate Gabfest podcasts (Hang Up and Listen-their sports talk, Political Gabfest, and Culture Gabfest) this live episode is like a podcast celebration. Each show does one segment, with others interceding at various moments, and then each competing in a mostly funny debate. Slate has jumped fully into the podcast world and this show highlights all they are doing in the world.

9. Rob Has a Podcast: “Cochran Breaks Down the Final Four”/Dom and Colin Podcast: “A Closer Look at Cagayan with Tony Vlachos”

Both of these episodes are deserving of being in the top 10 by themselves, but I didn’t want Survivor commanding two of the top 10 so I put them together. The first is Rob Cesternino’s recap episode in which he interviews John Cochran–superfan turned player turned winner turned CBS screenwriter–Cochran delivers as he usually does, but this time both get into their personal history with the show and how their fandom evolved after being so successful on it.

The second is Dom and Colin whose podcast centers on hardcore strategy talk doing a “Retrospective” with winner Tony Vlachos. The Retrospectives are typically fascinating looks at the entire thought process behind a person’s experience on the show, with the hosts breaking down each and every decision made by a contestant, but here the format is elevated by the incomparable Vlachos. Vlachos explains every detail of every single thing he did with the manic energy that made him one of the best winners the show has ever seen. He is so enthusiastic about explaining himself that even three hours in he is begging the hosts to continue the interview.

8. Comedy Bang Bang: “Oh, Golly! You Devil”

This is the second part of an episode that saw Scott Aukerman and guests Jason Manzoukas and Andy Daly end their show on a cliffhanger with the Apocalypse hanging in the balance. This episode features a tour-de-force performance by Andy Daly who acts out a battle of good vs. evil while being ten different characters each of which joins a different side. The entire show is improvised and to hear Daly go through such a wide range of characters without ever missing a beat is incredible.

7. Improv4Humans: “Shoehorn A Shoehorn Story”

Improv4Humans is a podcast that takes suggestions from Twitter and other topics to create improvised scenarios–doing their best to bring Improv comedy to the podcast format. It’s typically hilarious, but hard to pick one over another. This one however stuck in my mind for so long that I had to include it on the list. Every segment kills it, but particularly the segment about the 2014 Emmys–one of the funniest moments on a podcast all year.

6. Benjamin Walker’s Theory of Everything “1984 (the year not the book)”

Benjamin Walker does an interesting form of podcasting that includes a sort of typical public radio style of interviewing alongside a piece of fiction that he himself usually writes and performs to create an interesting thematic hybrid. Here Walker uses real events in the past with a made up journal from his younger self to talk about youth, growing up, and the year 1984.

5. This American Life: “Tarred and Feathered”

My heart starts beating faster just thinking about this episode, the central theme being people who are “tarred and feathered” in some way. They choose to focus a segment on a group of people who claim to be non-practicing pedophiles who have formed an online group to deal with their problem and to hold each other accountable. For those who can handle the subject it is a captivating look into people who will never (and should never) be accepted in society. It brings questions of how we should deal with such a thing and tells the story of a young person who seems to be doing a lot of good. I don’t know if I could ever listen to it again, but that one time it was an incredible piece of radio.

4. U Talkin’ U2 to Me: “Slowing It Down”

In my opinion the funniest of the U2 podcast, Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott don’t actually discuss any U2 albums and instead go over listener feedback and just chat with one another. The episode also features perennial podcast guest Paul F. Tompkins who, as always, adds to any podcast he is on.

3. Start Up “How to Divide an Imaginary Pie”

Start Up is so good because of the transparency that Alex Blumberg brings to the process. The podcast is documenting Blumberg attempting to start his own business, a podcasting company, and this episode tells of him trying to get a business partner. Blumberg finds a person and then must deal with choosing how to split the company with his partner. It’s a document that shows how difficult and cringeworthy business decisions can be, especially when one doesn’t have a knack for that sort of thing.

2. Serial: “The Alibi”

I wouldn’t say that any episode of Serial really stands above the rest, so the pilot gets the nod for introducing us to the story that would captivate listeners for 12 weeks.

1. Radiolab: “For the Birds”

This is my favorite episode of the year because of the deep impossible questions that it poses. Radiolab presents a situation that cuts deep into our humanness asking whether it’s okay to choose something that helps our loved ones at the cost of larger world issues. At what point should we choose logical conclusions over the ones we love? These questions have stuck with me and definitely deserve to be asked, even if they can never be answered.

Honorable Mentions:

The Goosedown: “Outkast vs. Tribe”,Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin Show: “Serial Game Show Contestant”, U Talkin’ U2 to Me: “Staind Glass”, This American Life: “No Place Like Home”, 99% Invisible “Walk This Way”, The Andy Daly Pilot Project Podcast “The Travel Bug with August Lindt”