Scannáin na hÉireann

Long before I ever stepped foot in Ireland, I’ve loved Irish literature. When I was a kid, I had an audiobook on cassette tape with a number of classic ghost stories, including Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’, which I listened to incessantly. In college, I found a love for Irish plays as well, reading several (including Translations by Brian Friel, which became an all-time favourite) in a historically-focused theatre course. Naturally, this played into my motivations for applying to an MA in Literature & Publishing in Galway, and once I moved over I discovered so many wonderful contemporary Irish authors from Donal Ryan to, of course, Sally Rooney.

Ireland has an outsized cultural influence, with an incredible amount of internationally-acclaimed art in every medium considering the relatively small size of the country. Some of the world’s best poets, musicians, and more hail from the Emerald Isle. And as I’ve lived here I’ve gotten to know a lot of work by artists of different types.

But one medium that I feel has passed me personally by a bit for the most part is Irish cinema. I’ve seen a few of the most well-known Irish films across a number of genres — The Commitments, Once, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Quiet Man — but there are far more iconic Irish films that have passed me by. On this list, for example, I’ve only seen six.

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Media and Misc of the Year (aka the obligatory Best of 2014 review post)

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Films

  1. Boyhood, dir. Richard Linklater – Filming over 12 years could have turned out gimmicky, but Boyhood was a moving and beautiful story of family and growing up. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so emotional while watching a film.
  2. Calvary, dir. John Michael McDonagh – The preview for this Irish film made it out to be a dark comedy, but despite actors such as Dylan Moran, Chris O’Dowd, and even star Brendan Gleeson (in maybe his best ever work), it’s a heartwrenchingly dark film with moments of humour.
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson – I’ve loved every film I’ve seen of Anderson’s, but for some reason hadn’t watched one since The Life Aquatic. This was a good place to start back, with his typical aesthetic and great performances.
  4. Gone Girl, dir. David Fincher – I read the book in one frantic weekend before seeing the film, and the twists and turns and madness of it all still shocked me. Though not as much as it shocked the person sitting behind us who couldn’t stop saying “What the fuck” at the end.
  5. Obvious Child, dir. Gillian Robespierre – A sweet, funny little film about a stand-up comedian who gets pregnant and has an abortion. The characters feel like your friends.

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Music

  1. The Antlers, Familiars – This album is one of those where the sound just fills the room when you listen to it. There are so many layers combining beautifully with strange, sad lyrics.
  2. Alt-J, This is All Yours – Speaking of strange, among other oddities Alt-J’s second album samples Miley Cyrus, and somehow it really works. They also put on one of the top 3 live shows I saw this year (and in fairness, the top 2 are my favourite bands, The National and Arctic Monkeys).
  3. St. Vincent, St. Vincent – I’m declaring this the year of the excellent self-titled album. And St. Vincent’s is the best of them, with an album that is both strange and wonderful.
  4. Hozier, Hozier – You’ve probably been hearing “Take Me to Church” all the time for the past 6 months, unless you’re in Ireland in which case you’ve been hearing it all year. And it hasn’t gotten old yet.
  5. Taylor Swift, 1989 – Part of me can’t believe that Taylor Swift of all people is bumping my forever girl Shakira off my Best Of list, but most of me thinks that “Blank Space” is such a jam I don’t even care.

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Actors and their Surprising Career Choices that Actually Worked

I haven’t been keeping up with the award show season too much this year, mainly because I’ve only seen eight Oscar-nominated films, three of which were in the Visual Effects category. But I have been paying enough attention to see that there was a lot of hype around Dallas Buyers Club, particularly for star Matthew McConaughey. I read that he lost 30 pounds for his role, a level of dedication usually seen by method actors like Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis. And his work is getting rave reviews, including nominations or wins from the SAG awards, the Golden Globes, and of course the Academy, where he is the frontrunner to win Best Actor at the Oscars tonight.

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To an extent, this surprised me. While I know he’s taken serious roles in the past (and is currently getting equally positive attention for True Detective), when I think of Matthew McConaughey, I think of a shirtless, bongo-playing, “I get older and they stay the same age,” How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, stoner-surfer-sort-of-actor, and I’d guess a lot of audiences thought the same. After the reviews I read prior to seeing Dallas Buyers Club, I wasn’t shocked by how good he was, but I still find it a bit hard to reconcile McConaughey’s portrayal of Woodruf with, say, his similarly-named character Wooderson.

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Then again, this certainly isn’t the first time an actor has broken out of their trademark style of role and done a remarkable job. Here are nine other actors who managed to surprise me with their roles:

Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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Like McConaughey, Jim Carrey had done some serious roles before Eternal SunshineThe Truman Show is hardly slapstick, after all. But he was certainly more well known for movies like Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty. Then he played Joel to Kate Winslet’s Clementine in a film that never fails to make me feel joyful and depressed at the same time.

Steve Carell, Little Miss Sunshine

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As far as I know, Steve Carell was solely a comedic actor for the better part of his career. AnchormanThe 40-Year-Old VirginThe Daily Show, and of course The Office: he’s brilliant at all of them, but although he has some touching moments as Michael Scott, and although Little Miss Sunshine is probably, technically a comedy, his role as Olive’s gay, suicidal uncle still came out of left field and blew me away.

Maya Rudolph, Away We Go

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I don’t know if actresses are less typecast than actors or if it’s the opposite—that they are typecast but find it harder to break out of their original genre than male actors—but actresses who reinvent themselves are more of the child-star-who-didn’t-become-Lohan-esque variety. But Maya Rudolph (and John Krasinski) in Away We Go proved to be an example of a funny woman who can do serious—and wonderfully bittersweet.

Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad

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For a lot of actors, the role they played in a late-90s/early-00s television show is the role they’ll be known as for good. Sarah Michelle Gellar will always be Buffy, Zach Braff and Donald Faison will always be JD and Turk, and James Van Der Beek will always be crying Dawson Leery. So who would’ve thought that Malcolm (the role Frankie Muniz will always be known for)’s silly dad Hal would end up being known as one of the most intense, terrifying television characters ever.

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Best of 2013 in books, films, albums & television

I know you are probably wondering what I’ve been getting up to in Ireland (New Year’s resolution: update at least every other week), but for right now, the requisite Best of 2013 post. Unlike all the music publications who put out their Best Albums of 2013 lists at the start of December and got egg on their faces when Bey caught them slippin’, I’ve waited until the very last day of the year to avoid any chance that I’ve missed the best of the best. And because I’ve been busy/am lazy, take your pick. Anyway, without further ado, my favourite book, film, album, and television show of 2013. And my first post since September; I’ll do better next year, promise.

By the way, if anyone out there feel like they’ve got a story (or poem, or play, or art piece) about “home” they’ve been dying to tell, the literary journal I’m working with, ROPES, has just extended its submissions deadline to January 10th. Find out more information at the ROPES Facebook page.

Book of 2013: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Honourable mentions: Joyland by Stephen King, Red or Dead by David Peace

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I don’t generally tend to read too many books in the year of their release, mainly because my to-read list is a mile long so I’m constantly catching up. Even when I’m excited about a book, like Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 this year or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue last year, they still have to take their place in line. But I did manage to read a couple new books this year, and it was just yesterday that I finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I had high expectations for it, since I read her novel The Secret History last year, loved it, and immediately recommended it to everyone I know, but The Goldfinch not only surpassed my expectations but absolutely left them in the dust.

This novel isn’t a light read; it’s dense, heavy, and while it doesn’t make as many obscure references to Greek and Latin as The Secret History, it’s not something you can just pick up and put down when you feel like it. Luckily, once you start reading it, you won’t want to put it down. If I hadn’t been reading it over the holidays where I had the occasional obligation not to be totally anti-social, I probably would’ve read the whole thing in one marathon sitting. As it is, the closer I got to the climax, the harder it was for me to stop reading to do minor things like eat and sleep. A friend said she thinks she read the last 150 pages without blinking; I’m pretty sure I read them without breathing.

But—and I may be acting a bit melodramatic here, but only a bit—who needs air when you have this perfectly crafted, emotionally devastating novel? It starts off like your typical tragic child novel—Theo’s mother dies in a terrorist attack in a museum in New York city—but takes a series of wild turns that completely changes the atmosphere and characters of the book. I bet the kid in that Jonathan Safran Foer novel about 9/11 doesn’t grow up anything like Theo Decker does. There’s corruption, scandal, art, and possibly one of my favourite supporting characters of all time in Theo’s partner in (usually literal) crime Boris Pavlikovsky.

 

Film of 2013: Before Midnight dir. Richard Linklater
Honourable mentions: Pacific Rim dir. Guillermo del Toro, Frozen dir. Chris Buck

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Maybe I’m too much of a cynic for movies, but usually those typical happy endings to films make me think “Yeah, okay, you’re in high school, I’m sure this relationship is going to last you until marriage/the rest of your lives.” That’s one reason I liked the first film in Richard Linklater’s trilogy: in Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine don’t end up together; they spend the night talking and then go their separate ways. When they meet up again in Before Sunset, the coincidence is a bit unbelievable, but their relationship still plays out in a realistic way.

Released nine years after the second film and nearly two decades after Before Sunrise, I was definitely curious to see what had become of Jesse and Celine. In Before Midnight, they are married with children, but the realism of their relationship hasn’t changed. They still have long, deep conversations that are beautifully written (the stars of the film, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, wrote the script with director Linklater). More importantly, their relationship isn’t perfect.

The cynical side of me always wondered if things could actually work out for two people who knew barely anything about each other. As it turns out, they have their fights and their issues, and Before Midnight is definitely a darker film than the previous two films. But it’s a beautiful movie about love and family, and a satisfying conclusion to one of my favourite trilogies. 

 

Album of 2013: AM by the Arctic Monkeys
Honourable mentions: BEYONCÉ by Beyoncé, Trouble Will Find Me by The National 

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Picking honourable mentions for best album was difficult (I could’ve added Josh Ritter’s latest, the new One Direction album, and several others) but choosing a number one gave me no trouble at all. Since the Arctic Monkeys released their fifth studio album in September, my housemates can attest to the fact that I’ve listened to very little else. It’s the band’s best album since their debut, Whatever People Say I Am… (and I might even like it better), but it’s not the same style. The music is slightly more downbeat and the importance of production is a lot stronger—listen to the start of my favourite song on the album, “Do I Wanna Know?” and the hand claps/foot stomps digitally enhanced to create the beat.

AM is one of those albums where you think you know which songs you like the best but then you listen to one of the tracks you didn’t think you liked as much, and suddenly you have to reevaluate your ranking. Just the other day I was talking to a friend about it and I said that my favourite songs are “Do I Wanna Know?”, “Stop the World I Wanna Get Off with You” (even the b-sides are amazing), and “Snap Out of It,” then immediately realised I’d forgotten “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” Even right now, looking at the tracklisting, I’m not sure if I should’ve dropped one of those picks for “I Wanna Be Yours” or “Mad Sounds.” I didn’t think I loved “Knee Socks” originally, but I’ve been listening to it the most over the last few days.

Pretty much everything about this album is perfect. The lyrics are clever, the influences of every genre from Motown to rap are evident, and the rhythms of every song are the kind to get in your head and refuse to leave. I’ve listened to AM more than any other music this year, released in 2013 or otherwise. It’s my favourite album of 2013, but also one of my favourites in a long time.

 

Television show of 2013: Breaking Bad, the final season
Honourable mentions: Orphan Black, season 1; Elementary, season 1-2

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In any other year, Orphan Black would be the clear winner in this category on the strength of star Tatiana Maslany’s acting alone, but this year nothing was as important as finding out if Walter White was going to get what was coming to him. The series finale of Breaking Bad was the television event of the year (and judging by the internet’s reaction to it, possibly the event of the year for entertainment overall) but the entire final season was full of last-minute plot twists and turns that made every episode more thrilling than most shows’ sweeps week episodes.

There’s an episode a few before the finale in which the final scene was full of action and totally changed the direction the plot was going up until those last few minutes. When my neighbour came over the day after it aired and said she just had a few minutes to go in the episode, my roommate and I were incredulous that she managed to leave before it was finished. “Have you caught up on Breaking Bad?” was a common conversation starter among, oh, everyone I know.

This was for good reason. The season finale was one of the best and most satisfying final episodes of a television show I’ve ever seen, but the whole last season was pretty amazing. The writing was tight and well thought-out, and the acting, particularly from Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, was fantastic. Add this to the joy of endless speculation about how it would end, and great moments like showrunner Vince Gilligan calling out internet misogynists for hating Skylar White, and there could be no other choice for tv show of 2013.

Let’s Go to the Movies

Roger Ebert died this week. And I’m glad to see that in the countless articles and blog posts eulogizing him, he is never referred to “only” as a film critic. As someone whose dream job used to be entertainment critic, I’ve sometimes felt like my ambitions were less serious than my peers who dreamed of parachuting into a war zone armed only with a notebook and a tape recorder, even of dedicating their lives to small-town papers to report on their city council meetings.

But entertainment journalism, although it has the potential to be “soft” when reporting on the comings and goings of D-list celebrities, has its place. As the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, Ebert demonstrated not only the value of film itself in reflecting or subverting the values of society, but also in discussing and critiquing film and the way it reflects or subverts those values.

1365105444_roger-ebert-articleIn the thousands of reviews he wrote over four and a half decades at the Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets, he was never afraid to digress into a commentary on social and political issues. Ebert was criticized over the summer for speaking out in favour of gun control in the wake of the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and many of his opponents said that he should stick to talking about movies. But as Ebert so often proved, there are so many times when you can’t talk about movies without talking about life.

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10 Films for 2013

Some years I see a ton of films. I think the record was in 2010, when I watched 31 films in theatres, but being in Spain for the first couple months of this year meant that my numbers were a lot lower. When there was only one theatre in Sevilla that showed original language films, and it mostly played almost-entirely-silent filmThe Artist while I was there, I didn’t have much motivation to go to the movies (not to mention I was in Spain; I had better things to do than watch The Vow dubbed into Spanish). So although I did see a few films in theatres this year, and several more excellent movies for the first time, I’m not going to make a list of my favourite films of 2012. Instead, here are 10 films I’m looking forward to in 2013.

Note: I’m not including 2012 films that I’m still hoping to see in theatres, like Les Mis and Django Unchained. Only films to be released in 2013.

Honourable mentions: Gangster Squad, Oz the Great and Powerful, Iron Man 3, The Great Gatsby (trainwreck syndrome), Pacific Rim, Anchorman 2

Before Midnight

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I don’t think anyone even knew this film was happening until suddenly it had a release date, but hopefully this follow-up to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset is the one in which Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s characters end up together for real.

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