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Josie’s Best of 2013

2013 was an odd year for me personally, and I as I’ve been putting this list together I can see how my anomie has affected what I have—and what I haven’t—enjoyed both on-screen and off. This list might say more in what it doesn’t contain than what it does. Yet here we go...

Best in TV

Breaking Bad. After a rough start with Breaking Bad many years ago, I was fully prepared to dislike it despite Billie’s recommendation. A season and a half in, I realized the show was not asking us to root for Walter White (although the so-called “bad fans” will disagree with me). I came to realize that Breaking Bad is an intimate portrait of what Hannah Arendt calls the “banality of evil” in a different context: In Breaking Bad, it’s not Walter White’s bureaucratic participation in state activities that make him evil. Instead, the state’s lack of support (healthcare) forces him to an evil practice which, in turn, opens him up to the lure of a nihilistic will to power that has damning and complex consequences for those around him. Tautly acted, written with a clockmaker’s precision, and beautifully shot, Breaking Bad is exactly what I’d discussed last year: the transformation of a popular genre into high art.

Hannibal. Although we don’t review Hannibal, I wish we did. Hannibal is a haunting meditation on the effect of evil, violence, and trauma on the psyche that goes far beyond the gruesome cannibalism for which Thomas Harris’s book series (and movies based on that series) is best known. Hannibal is beautiful to watch, with a ghostly gray palate mimicking the starkness of the moral effects of violence both physical and mental, and a slow pace that teases out those effects in a realistic yet poetic manner. If you have not watched this show for fear of it being too in-your-face shocking, please do check it out. Like Awake, which made my list last year, it is so much more than its description would indicate.

Person of Interest. Both Breaking Bad and Hannibal center on damaged men operating in a damaged world; although that is one of my favorite themes, I often wish that there were more stories about damaged women in a damaged world—and operating beyond the roles of wives and mothers to the damaged (male) protagonists meant to stand for the universal human. Person of Interest has many strengths, but one of its most surprising is the incorporation of women (Shaw, Root, Carter, Zoe) into precisely the roles typically taken by men: superstrong spy, evil genius, vendetta-ing cop, professional fixer. Of course, the inclusivity of this show is not its main draw, perhaps because it does so without fanfare. The issue of personal responsibility and liberty in a government and corporate surveillance state is one of the most fascinating big ideas this show grapples with; the problems and thrills of AI is another. And Michael Emerson? Yeah, still awesome.

Best in Books

The Goldfinch. After discovering Donna Tartt’s The Secret History over the summer, I was on tenterhooks for the release of her newest novel, The Goldfinch. A bildungsroman about a young boy who undergoes a terrorist attack, steals a painting, and wanders the world without realizing he is searching for something stable to hold on to, this Dickensian novel is all over the best-of lists for 2013, and with good reason: it is, just like The Secret History, a fully immersive experience in one character’s traumatized engagement with others and with himself. Although the book has some flaws (the narrator’s classism, especially compared to some of the passages in The Secret History, seems to reveal more about Tartt than about the true experience of being lower-class in modern America), they pale in comparison with the deft characterization, nuanced language, and sheer unputdownability of this story.

Life After Life. Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series may have made her famous, but this one-off exploration of the power of life and of death in the twentieth century is fascinating and addictive. It is no spoiler to say the main character lives and dies numerous times with various awful and wonderful consequences to each life she lives; the true power of the book comes from the sense that each individual life is governed by a series of small coincidences that can change everything or nothing.

Best in Movies

Much Ado About Nothing. I have a disinterested appreciation for Shakespeare as much as the next person, but I was surprised to discover just how much I loved Joss Whedon’s interpretation of this charming romantic comedy. The film, shot in luscious black and white at Joss’s own house, is sweet and affecting in a way that Branagh’s 1993 version never quite was. After watching the film, I read the play for the first time and have found it to be one of Shakespeare’s most relatable and human texts.

Looper. Although this movie came out in 2012, I didn’t watch it until January of this year. (I’m always behind on movies.) Is this the best movie of 2012/3? No. But it was, for me, one of the most fun: a thrilling engagement with the mechanics of time-travel rather than time-travel as an excuse for watching a fish flop around outside of his temporal waters. Watching Looper put me in the mood for more time travel films, and one of the most interesting that I discovered was Primer, a low-budget and often ugly film that loops in on itself so many times that loyal viewers have made charts. Since I am often underwhelmed by movies, which simply can’t cover as much ground as TV series, I was quite pleased to discover two fun brain-teasers in one year.


  1. I started watching Hannibal and gave up on it simply because my DVR runnethed over. I keep being told that it is one to watch, so I may have to catch up with it sooner rather than later.

    Really interesting list. Live After Life sounds like something I will love.

  2. Interesting piece, Josie. I'm so, so pleased that you gave Breaking Bad another try. I'm looking for something good to read, too, so I just might give those two titles a try.

  3. Chris and Billie, Kate Atkinson is wonderful. She wrote a series of books about the private detective Jackson Brodie; the first book in the series was made into the miniseries Case Histories with Jason Isaacs (from Awake). Despite the premise (a private eye series), her books are in no way stuck in that paint-by-numbers genre; she's brilliant.

    I didn't put this on my list because it is not one of the best books I read this year, but Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things is a very fun long read. Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love, which I haven't read. This books is, from what I understand, much different: it is about an intelligent young woman coming of age in the 19th century who is deeply interested in botany but not much good at relationships. It has a sort of Victorian feel to it that is appropriate to the time period it covers.

    It also has a weird, slightly creepy take on what women want that definitely was part of why I kept it off this list. That flaw, and the occasional overexuberance of the narrator, is the only one.

    I'm not the only person in the world who loves long books, am I? Short books feel thin to me, beyond the page count, the same way many movies do. They also feel like a waste of money. For $15, I want more than 3 hours entertainment.

  4. Josie,

    I am going to have to watch Hannibal now. I watched the first episode and was very intrigued (I remember visually the episode was stunning) but afraid to invest time because I feared it somehow become a procedural, case of the week show that the basic networks love to do. I'm glad to hear the rest of the season held up and I"m excited to watch it.

    Also, I'm so glad to hear someone else giving some love to Looper. I went into the movie with no expectations and was definitely floored. I thought it was very well done and found myself invested in the story. Time travel done right.

  5. Miguel, please do watch Hannibal. I think many people who would love this show are avoiding it for fear that it is too procedural (like a CSI) or too enamored of its own gore (like The Following). It is neither of those things.

    It is stately, haunting, sedate, restrained, and mature.

  6. I'll give it a try. I was worried about the gore, but if it gets the Josie seal of approval, I'm willing to give it a shot. Also, I'm beginning to think I should stop picking books to read on my own and just ask Josie for a list every few months.

  7. I am a compulsive recommender of books, Sunbunny. Nothing would make me happier. :-)

  8. Sometimes I'm afraid that I need a bigger brain (or a second one) to begin to understand "Primer" (even with the charts haha)....

  9. Lorogomo, you don't need a second brain. Just use the time-travel machine to duplicate your existence in the present numerous times until you have so many copies of your own brain that it starts to make sense.

    I think that's how it works. :-)

  10. Everyone, you should all listen to Josie and give Hannibal a chance. It is the best new crime series this year.

  11. I have tried Breaking Bad several times and I just can't seem to watch it so I gave Hannibal a pass as well. In the future I will give Breaking Bad another chance and will try Hannibal as well. I worry that 'The Walking Dead' takes up all the examination of pain, trauma and evil space in my brain. I will also read the books - I've looked at them several times but just haven't bitten. As for small books, I thought Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" was magical.

  12. I think I quite liked Primer, too. It was originally billed as an adult Donnie Darko. It had time travel in it, but that was about it. A very complicated film, hampered, I think, by a competent but unspectacular cast.

    I challenge anyone to watch it once and then explain exactly what it was about.


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