After much suspense, here are my top five things of 2015, including what I recognize is a hopelessly idiosyncratic number one that nobody who reads this will ever check out. But I’ve tried to be honest with myself about what I got the most enjoyment out of this year, and there’s really nothing that compares. Here are five incredible things:
No. 5 — Mad Max: Fury Road
Here is how fight scenes in movies generally work: there are two sides, the two sides fight, and one of them wins.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a scene where Max and Furiosa fight over a truck. They don’t know each other, and neither one necessarily wants to kill the other, but they both need the truck and they’ll do what they have to do.
There are a few complications. Firstly, Max is chained to Nux: an unconscious man who wants both combatants dead. There are five women standing by, who have nothing against Max, and who Max is not attempting to harm. Nonetheless, they need Furiosa to win. They aren’t trained fighters, so if they’re going to contribute they need to work together and be crafty. Also, Furiosa has one arm, though it’s doubtful whether this is actually an encumbrance for her.
Midway through the fight, the hostile unconscious man wakes up.
There are so many moving parts, here. Eight people, two gradations of combat expertise (Max, Furiosa and Nux as opposed to the other five), three separate allegiances (Max to himself, Furiosa and the five women to their own cause, and Nux against them all), and a chain holding two key combatants together.
The entire movie’s like that. Plots and motivations occur in miniature over the course of the extended chase scene that the whole movie basically is. I’ve never seen anything like it.
When I started writing this, I told myself I wouldn’t use this movie as a stick to beat other action movies with, but screw it. The reason Mad Max: Fury Road is the first proper action movie to get nominated for Best Picture in my lifetime is that it’s the only one that’s remotely deserved it. The entire genre seems lazy and vapid by comparison.
Self-evidently the best movie of the year.
No. 4 — Sunless Sea
Since this is the only game on the list, indulge me in a few extra words.
If 2014 was the year when I rediscovered video games, 2015 was the year when I realized the limits of my own tastes. Of 2015’s most notable games, there were many that I either had no interest in, didn’t love, or couldn’t run. Fortunately, the one game that I really adored this year is so vast that you can (and I did) spend a tremendous amount of time with it and be consistently enthralled. Sunless Sea, for the unfamiliar, is a game that’s approximately equal parts text adventure and roguelike. (I am now the kind of person who knows what that sentence means.)
In the game, you’re the captain of a vessel on a vast underground ocean. You’re living in a version of the 19th century where London was sold to a consortium of devils, fell far beneath Earth’s surface, and became a hilarious Lovecraftian parody of itself. As a captain hailing from this Fallen London, you spend the game making journeys of various lengths from home to a huge number of other creepy, surreal ports, and back. Your journeys from place to place allow you to freely explore the “Unterzee” in your craft, in a beautifully designed top-down view. But when you make port, the story is told entirely through text, aside from a few very expressive illustrations.
This ingenious design choice means that the game’s many stories can take some incredible turns. In Sunless Sea, it’s possible for the writers to include an island where time collapses: they just need to write all of their sentences in different tenses.
Sunless Sea has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention for its inclusiveness: there are characters of all races, genders and sexualities, and the game makes no impositions on your own character’s particular traits or background, or with whom you seek out relationships. (I play as a genderfluid poet, though I am neither of those things.)
It’s also gotten well-deserved attention for the superlative quality of its writing. Oftentimes, when we say that a game’s well-written, we’re grading on a very steep curve. Not here. Sunless Sea boasts top-flight comedic prose, and when the story turns dark or frightening, the writing shifts to adapt. The game speaks in a consistent, stylized voice, right down to the format of the names of characters: the Alarming Scholar; the Irrepressible Cannoneer; the Tireless Mechanic. It’s that attention to detail that makes Sunless Sea so convincing.
But, its real genius is that, rather than allowing itself to be governed by a single narrative throughline, Sunless Sea sets up hundreds of intertwined story threads for you to pull on depending on what interests you at any given time. I can see myself returning to this game for years to come. In a year where there was almost nothing in this medium of interest to me, Sunless Sea made me glad to live in a time when people can make a thing like this.
(If you’re considering shelling out for this, try the browser-based game Fallen London first. It’s not as immersive, but it’s free and features the same style of storytelling.)
No. 3 — Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: An American Musical
I once made the mistake of trying to sell a friend on Hamilton by calling it “a hip hop musical about America’s first treasury secretary.”
To be fair, that is how Hamilton tends to be sold. They hook you with the novelty of “history through rap.” But that one-liner does Hamilton a tremendous disservice. This isn’t a novelty; it’s the greatest work of musical theatre since Sondheim was at his peak.
There’s a point to telling the story of Alexander Hamilton by way of hip hop — I mean, as opposed to choosing some other story. First off, Lin-Manuel Miranda (the MacArthur genius who built this thing from the ground up) saw a classic hip hop narrative in the story of Hamilton: an immigrant who made it to George Washington’s inner circle through sheer grit and ingenuity.
But also, by telling this story by these means — and, crucially, with a multi-racial cast — Miranda is able to drive home one of the most important ideas in modern America: that the content of history depends entirely on who gets to tell the story.
Hamilton isn’t just a great musical. It’s also a more insightful historical narrative than the film and television industries have been able to muster for some time.
No. 2 — The Memory Palace
My favourite song of the year isn’t even a song; it’s an episode of The Memory Palace.
I can listen to “Craning” over and over, and it never loses its impact. It has specific turns of phrase that get lodged in my head for days. I take notice of a new detail every time. I can’t listen to it when there are people around because I can’t be sure I won’t cry.
“Craning” is about the launch of Apollo 11, but that doesn’t begin to cover what it does. No summary of any episode of this show can actually reflect the experience of listening to it. Nate DiMeo, the guy who made this podcast with no assistance until a couple of weeks ago, is the best writer in podcasting. Nobody can match his ear for an effective phrase, or his ability to imagine details in tiny moments in history. At the launch of Apollo 11, L.B.J. isn’t just there; he’s there in a blue suit and no sunglasses, “just that Hill Country squint.”
I’m going on about this one episode, but that’s just the one that hit me specifically. Nearly all of them are brilliant. You might enjoy the story about the first American woman to file a patent. Or, the one about the turbulent relationship between an ornithologist and his aristocratic wife. Or, the one about men who went mad from inhaling toxic gasses in the factories where they worked.
Something from The Memory Palace will hit you, and it won’t stop spinning around in your head for a while.
No. 1 — David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life
My favourite kind of non-fiction tells a huge story through a narrow lens. David Cavanagh’s second book is the best example of that I’ve ever seen.
The story he’s telling is the story of counterculture in England between the late ’60s and the early ’00s. Hippies, punks, indie kids, goths, rappers. It’s a story of political radicalism and incremental social change. It’s the story of how modern Britain came to be a place whose margins are strangely intertwined with its mainstream.
The lens that he tells it through is the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.
It is impossible to communicate what a masterstroke this approach is without throwing up your hands and saying “just read it.” The various incarnations of Peel’s radio show were all kaleidoscopic showrooms for the deepest, strangest music from out of England and elsewhere. So, Cavanagh just picked 265 of Peel’s shows from across more than three decades, and used them as a map to trace the path of British culture.
Cavanagh is as compelling a tour guide as you could hope for, tying each show in with the day’s news, the politics of the BBC, Peel’s personal life, and the state of the music industry.
I’m not selling this. I couldn’t possibly. Go to Amazon and read the free excerpt right now. They give you the whole introduction. No music geek — no person interested in culture in any capacity — will not love this.
Nothing else I consumed this year inspired, informed and entertained me like Good Night and Good Riddance. I feel like I need to find something else like this immediately, but I also know that it doesn’t exist.