What was best in 2014?

December 18, 2014

SocialistWorker.org asked our readers to share their favorite books, movies, streaming content and music in a couple threads on our Facebook page, and the discussion was...vigorous! Here, we collect and excerpt some the contributions we received.

Best books

Danny Katch: My pick is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. It's a novel that begins in Jamaica in the mid-1970s and ends up in New York in the early 1990s, and is narrated by dozens of characters, most of them gang members from Kingston, but also politicians, CIA agents, Rolling Stone reporters and a ghost.

It centers around the plot to assassinate Bob Marley in 1976 because he was getting too close to uniting Kingston's warring gangs that were connected to the country's two main political parties. Every character has his (mostly) or her own unique voice and vocabulary, but they are all poetic and funny. It's a long book that probably could be 100 pages shorter, but I was hooked from the first page.

Adriano Contreras: I don't know how much SocialistWorker.org is willing to bend its rules, but I'm going to go ahead and include graphic novels (and collected comic book issue trade paperbacks) as part of the "book" category.

The best thing I read that was released this year is Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky. The first trade paperback of this new series was released in June 2014 by indie publisher Image Comics, and it collects the first five issues of this widely acclaimed story.

Solidarity on the march in Pride
Solidarity on the march in Pride

Borrowing a synopsis from Wikipedia: "Suzie, a librarian, and Jon, an actor, meet at a party and, after sleeping together, discover they share the ability to freeze time when they orgasm. As their relationship develops and their sexual histories are explored, they decide to rob the bank where Jon works in order to save Suzie's endangered library."

There is so much to enjoy here. Matt Fraction's writing is really fantastic. Alongside witnessing the superpower orgasm that freezes time and the ensuing escapades, we get some of the best, honest and funny sex-positive fiction I've ever read. And Zdarsky's art is bright, colorful and fun to look at. It's not wildly pornographic and tasteless.

Trish Kahle: I second Danny Katch's nomination for James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. In terms of non-fiction, my favorite new book I read this year is Miriam Frank's Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America. It goes between queer contributions to the labor movement, connections between labor struggles and LGBTQ struggles, as well as how experiences of work and discrimination helped to formulate LGBTQ identities. She does a wonderful job (thanks to more than a decade of field work and research) of giving voice to queer leaders in their workplaces and the struggles they faced.

Alexander Billet: My pick is Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Originally written in 1971 by the Russian brothers, and widely regarded as one of the greatest postwar science fiction novels ever, it was republished this year in a new edition featuring a preface by the formidable Ursula K. LeGuin. The new version is significant, as it is the first one in English to not be based on the heavily bowdlerized text allowed by the Soviet censors. This English translation is the truest to the authors' original vision.

Fans of Andrei Tarkovsky will recognize the novel as having much in common with the director's masterful film Stalker. The Strugatskys wrote the screenplay for that film, basing it loosely on their own book. It is an extremely odd and frequently ambiguous novel: a book about the aftermath of an alien invasion, where no UFOs or extraterrestrials ever appear, and by the end, you're as much asking whether there is any point whatsoever to existence as you are wondering whether the protagonist will be consumed by some terrifying inhuman force.

The plot is difficult to sum up, but briefly, it takes place several years after a visitation of extraterrestrial life-forms. The areas they touched down on (large swathes of land known as "Zones") have been left not just uninhabitable, but completely disrupted. Artifacts left behind defy the basic laws of physics, flora and fauna have their properties drastically altered, and those who visit the Zones (including "stalkers," who then sell what they collect on the black market) also end up changed (for example: their children end up mutated in macabre ways or their relatives return from the dead).

What makes Roadside Picnic so frustrating and yet so oddly satisfying at the same time is that you're left with more questions than when you started. Chief among them being: On the precipice of oblivion, is there any point in striving for meaning or contentment? Is there even any fulfillment to be had in a world whose basic fabric is disintegrating? At the risk of gilding the lily, I'd imagine that a great many are asking these same things now, 40 years after the Strugatskys finished writing the book.

Khury Peterson-Smith: My favorite 2014 book is Showa 1939-1944 by Shigeru Mizuki, which is the second volume in Mizkuki's "Showa" series. The four-volume series is Mizuki's graphic history of Japan's Showa period, from 1926 to 1989. Mizuki is an award-winning cartoonist and leading figure among Japanese manga artists.

In Showa 1939-1944, Mizuki offers a critical perspective on Second World War-era Japan by someone who lived through it. Readers of Keiji Nakazawa's classic Barefoot Gen series will find the perspective of Showa familiar: Uncompromising in its portrayal of a ruthless and incompetent Japanese ruling class, without ceding an inch to the imperial violence of its rivals in the U.S. and UK.

The volume weaves an overarching history with Mizuki's personal narrative. As a young person during the war, Mizuki described the weight of death hanging over the heads of Japan's youth as they were drafted into the imperial military. He recounts his alienation under an increasingly repressive state, and his isolation among a patriotic population. In the end, Mizuki himself is drafted.

The book skillfully switches back and forth between this individual account and Japan's lightning campaign across the Pacific, its seeming invincibility at first, only to see its victories become defeats as the tide turns in favor of the U.S. Written with Mizuki's dark humor, fast-paced and gripping storytelling and breathtaking artwork, Showa is perfect for lovers of realistic comics and critical histories of Japanese empire.

Gary Lapon: No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal is my pick. It paints a devastating picture of the disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan while humanizing the Afghan people through telling the stories of three actors on different sides of the conflict (a pro-US warlord, a Taliban commander, and a housewife who re-enters the public sphere).

Eric Ruder: Ali Abunimah's The Battle for Justice in Palestine, published by Haymarket Books, is a 2014 must-read. It provides a comprehensive introduction for anyone looking to understand the issues at the heart of the Palestinian struggle, but it goes beyond that. It unearths the pro-Israel networks that operate throughout the U.S.--on campuses, in the cultural sphere, and within the political establishment.

And perhaps most importantly, it makes the case for solidarity and unity between different movements--a crucially important lesson that is being given concrete form already by the many strands of solidarity linking the struggle against police violence in Ferguson and across the U.S. to the people of Gaza and their struggle against racist policing and oppression by a colonial-settler state.

Michael Hirsch: The best book published in 2014 was John Tully's Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labor Movement.

Why did I like it? Not only is it a sobering treatment of how hard workers fought to unionize, but it pulls all the strands of British working-class history together to tell not just a tale of one doomed strike, but of how workers organized themselves against one of the most powerful corporations of their day. This is how history should be written and rarely is. Kudos to Tully.

John McDonald: I'm going to throw in for Daniel Bensaid's memoir An Impatient Life, which came out at the start of the year and is absolutely superb. Other more capable reviewers have pled the book's case in various left publications, so I won't drone on about it, but will say that the combination of its literary flourishes and a participant's look into the political life of Europe's revolutionary left makes for a gripping and insightful read.

Alex Equality Read: I'm going to throw my limited weight behind Zealot by Reza Aslan. If you haven't read this, the author is probably best known for his interview on Fox News in which he defended his ability to write a historical analysis of Jesus because he's a Biblical scholar, even though his heritage was from a family of "lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists."

Aside from the insights Jesus of Nazareth as a radical preacher in the 1st century in Roman-occupied Palestine, the book is a good example of historicity and context. The author argues strongly that we must view Jesus within the context in which he lived. To understand him and his teachings, it's important to understand that he was Jewish, lived under occupation and lived in a world in which the highest levels of his faith were colluding with the occupiers.

Certainly, this book was a revelation, if you will, to someone for whom Jesus was introduced as a Western Christian figure. Additionally, it was a reminder of how important context and the dialectical nature of history is.

Bill Mullen: I recommend Mary Helen Washington's The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s. Washington pulls back the curtain on the Cold War and shows us how Black writers and artists like the painter Charles White and the novelist and playwright Alice Childress (author of A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich) operated within or close to the orbit of the Communist Party. She also shows the radical roots of iconic Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks in a chapter titled "When Gwendolyn Brooks Wore Red."

The book reminds us of the importance of Black artists speaking up to fight the power of capitalism and racism.

Jane Moster: I choose Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide. I went to the bookstore to read Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, but found Greenwald's first and picked it up. I went to the cafe to read and didn't move for hours. The book is written first like a spy novel, and you can't help but keep turning the pages. Then, Greenwald goes through the findings Edward Snowden gave him, their importance, etc. He spends the last third of the book talking about the importance of privacy in the current political climate. It was one of the best books I've ever read, definitely worth at least an honorable mention.

Best movies

Eric Le Roy: The Lego Movie was pretty good politically, with the themes of hating the police and fighting against an evil corporate dictator. But the best thing about it was how much it pissed off the right!

Patman Meade: Mockingjay Part 1 gets my vote. Panem is in a revolutionary upheaval, and we see mass resistance to the oppression of the Capital. It's impossible to watch the film without thinking of events that are happening in the real world today, whether it's the destruction of Districts 8 and 12 in the film mirroring Israel's ruthless bombing of Gaza, or the strikes and riots of Panem mirroring the current resistance against police brutality we're seeing in solidarity with victims of police brutality in Ferguson and New York. It's easy to relate Panem's fictional struggle with our own. Even the propaganda coming from the Capital denouncing rebels as extremists and agitators is something the left is all too familiar with.

Even MTV used the film as an opportunity to bring up the role that riots have historically played in bringing about social change, and the protesters in Missouri have linked the two as well.

Amy Muldoon: There were many important, serious movies that came out in 2014; Captain America: The Winter Soldier wasn't one of them.

I'm submitting it as the best movie of 2014 because in a movie culture dominated by mega-budget franchises, with endless special effects that often substitute for character or good writing (I'm looking at you, Peter Jackson), the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been producing fun, solid entertainment that doesn't require you to put aside your better radical judgment to enjoy. And strikingly, the makers of The Avengers, Iron Man and Thor are pushing the envelope around building up ensembles of characters who are not just a handful of uber-powerful, rich, white dudes (and gods).

The message of Winter Soldier is an indictment of pre-emptive military strikes and the use of surveillance and meta-data to assess and eliminate "security risks" (in other words, kill lots of people). It makes the unusual-for-mainstream observation that the deeper covert ops go, the less there is a distinction between "Good Guys" and "Bad Guys." Of course, this is a comic book movie, so the Bad Guys include a Nazi scientist's consciousness embedded in 1970s computer tapes, and some of the Good Guys are just well-intentioned, extremely ruthless killers who have run amok.

The plot is true to the transformation of Cap from a Hitler-punching patriot in his original inception in the 1940s to a conflicted character, who on numerous occasions turned against the U.S. government in the name of protecting freedom (tune in for Captain America: Civil War in 2016 for a fuller treatment). Flaunting mainstream common sense, Winter Soldier has: a man and a woman who are friends who don't have sex; three active female agents and one retired (none of whom have to strip down in the name of freedom); the Black Nick Fury; and it introduces the Falcon, the first Black superhero in the history of comics (which means there are--count them--two major Black characters in a superhero movie).

Bill Mullen: My pick is Pride, directed by Matthew Marchus. It's the true story of how Mark Ashton, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and a group of LGBT activists in London raised money for Welsh miners during the 1984 strike against Margaret Thatcher's brutal government. Their group, Lesbians and Gay Support the Miners, won back the support of the miners as the AIDS crisis peaked in Britain. It's hard to choose my favorite scene, but Dominic West's breakout dance to Shirley and Company's "Shame Shame Shame" was right up there.

John McDonald: I totally agree with Amy Muldoon's arguments around Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but since he loses points out of the gate for wearing an American flag as a costume, I'm going to vote for Maleficent instead. For one thing, it's probably (heresy of heresies!) the most visually appealing use of CGI in a fantasy movie to date. The fusion of graphics and make up/animatronics combine to make some amazing fairy monsters.

Second, and more to the tastes of SocialistWorker.org readers, its alt-history approach to Disney's archetypical princess story is unabashedly feminist. Without giving too much away, imagine that the authors of the S.C.U.M. manifesto were sprinkled with fairy dust before setting pen to page and you start to get an idea of what Angelina Jolie's Maleficent is all about.

Third, the fact that it's a Disney release just makes the political overtones all the more jaw dropping.

Danny Katch: I vote for a mash-up of Pride and Interstellar, where time slows down each time lesbians and gays who support the miners travel to Wales. When they plan a big fundraiser in a club to support the strikers, they're shocked to learn that all the bands they signed up to play are now in their 50s and retired. On the positive side, Maggie Thatcher is dead.

Laura Durkay: Honestly, this was a really good year for political movies, from indies (Obvious Child) to blockbusters (Mockingjay). But I'm going to have to go with a tie between Pride and CITIZENFOUR. Pride because in addition to being funny, moving and a beautifully written and acted ensemble piece, it shows how class struggle and movements against oppression can support and transform each other in a way that's rarely seen on screen. CITIZENFOUR because it's such a compelling human portrait of the people behind the biggest national security story in recent memory. It plays out like a spy thriller, and it's beautifully shot.

Andrew Friend: Snowpiercer is a brilliant allegory about revolution in a class society; CITIZENFOUR is the fly-on-the-wall documentary about Edward Snowden's revelations about how the "Five Eyes" security states scoop up info on everyone; Birdman, for sheer technical brilliance, amazing acting and a healthy skewering of art critics. But hands down, my favorite film of 2014 was Pride, an epic film about solidarity across the artificial lines drawn between parts of the working class based on sexual orientation and conservative social traditions.

Best things to stream

Nicole Colson: One of the most unsettling--in a good way--viewing experiences I've had in a long time was discovering the six episodes of the BBC science fiction series Black Mirror on Netflix.

The show has rightly drawn favorable comparisons to Rod Serling's classic American series The Twilight Zone. Perhaps my favorite episode--and the one I found the most disturbing--is season one's "Fifteen Million Merits," in which it is the job of young people to act like hamsters on a wheel--pedaling on exercise bikes (we are never told why) to earn points for basic necessities like food while subjected to a constant barrage of consumer advertising (not watching commercials causes you to lose points), as well as sexist pornography and shows in which fat people--those who "don't pull their weight" in society--are attacked and humiliated.

Without giving too much away, the central dilemma of the main character--who by his altruistic gift to a woman he cares for effectively traps her into a world of debasement--comes down to whether it's possible to escape a society which has the ability to instantly commodify everything, including radical acts of dissent. Black Mirror is an excellent addition to the list of speculative and science fiction works that raise troubling questions about capitalism and the world we live in today.

Andrew Friend: Season 2 of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black again easily portrayed women behind (minimum security) bars as sympathetic protagonists, and their captors as systemic villains. Most of the lesbian, trans and even straight characters are incredibly complex and tragic, as are their relationships with each other and the system.

Amazon Prime's Transparent was so moving for me. It portrayed an aging father's difficult coming-out and transition from Mort to Maura with such sensitivity that his selfish adult children coping with the change seem like the real monsters. While limited to economically comfortable whites and not representative of the hardships of trans people of color, a cast of other gender-role-challenging supporting characters nonetheless round out this "dramedy" into a show with real heart. (Note: Balance whether you want a second season with the fact that Amazon is evil to workers and doesn't deserve your money)

In science fiction, my two favorite shows in 2014 were season two of Orphan Black and season three of Continuum. On Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany performs multiple roles all similar (due to her characters being clones), but each completely unique, even when one impersonates another. On the Canadian show Continuum, the third season finally brings the political changes to lead character Kiera we've been waiting for, the open questioning of strategies and tactics of anti-corporate activism, the ascendency and alliance of Big Brother companies and the police state--and it quite possibly delivers the best time-travel plot ever created for television.

Best music

Mat Ward: Punk old-hands Rancid continue to defy their name by sounding as fresh as ever on their eighth album. Honor Is All We Know touches on the usual themes of brotherhood and solidarity over a rollicking soundtrack that shuffles from punk to ska, all the way back to punk again. For their more political fans, the standout tracks will be "Power Inside," complete with its homage to the "power in union," and "Raise Your Fist", which urges: "A pathetic revolution, people gone put to sleep. / If the people'll wake up, there'll be riots in the streets. / Raise your fist--raise your fist!--against the power--raise your fist!--the oppressive power that exists."

Alexander Billet: There's rarely much of a challenge in finding music that speaks to the moment. Far more challenging is finding music that sounds like the moment.

For that reason, I would have to choose CLPPNG, the debut album from LA experimental hip-hop trio clipping, as this year's best. The group isn't especially political, though the track that they released in the wake of Mike Brown's murder was unmercifully poignant and spot-on. What makes their music matter, however, is probably best summed up by how the describe it on their own website: "party music for the club you wish you hadn't gone to, the car you don't remember getting in, and the streets you don't feel safe on."

The beats that clipping provide are an unforgiving mix of rusty drills, static, clangs, abrasions and shredded concrete. MC Daveed Diggs' words are delivered in a breakneck staccato; they are brutal, sometimes gruesome and always nihilistic. They are also--fair warning--sometimes more than a bit sexist; this isn't to be ignored or dismissed, but hopefully, it communicates what an engaging experience it is to listen to clipping, despite that massively glaring flaw.

What one is left with is a work that brings with it all the decay, menace, anxiety and cynicism of contemporary life. There is nothing sugarcoated here. You're not left feeling good at the end of it all, but you are left with something that stunningly cuts through all the treacle that tells us "look on the bright side" when things are undeniably getting darker.

Melissa Rakestraw: My choice is St. Vincent's, St. Vincent. Annie Clark ranges from ethereal to bone-crushing, often times in the same song. What's not to love about an album with a song titled "Huey Newton?" Additionally, Killer Mike's onstage reaction to the Wilson non-indictment was notable and his collaboration with El-P on Run the Jewels 2 is one of the year's best.

Alan Maass: I definitely also would put St. Vincent on my list, along with tUnE-yArDs' Nicki Nack. But my best music of the year was having a chance to see Stevie Wonder in concert. By itself, that was one thing I never expected to check off my musical bucket list. But even better, he played the whole of Songs in the Key of Life, his double album from 1976.

That was one of the first records I ever owned. It cured me of fledgling jazz snobbery, mostly because Stevie could keep up and surpass anything I was listening to. I've come to love the album for lots of other reasons when I revisited it every few years since then--including the inspiring spirit of Black pride and resistance that gives a glimpse back to a time when the struggle was, if not at its height, then not too far from it.

Right now, I'm appreciating the total mastery of every kind of pop music, which hasn't lost a single step, to judge from the concert. There were 38 or 41 other musicians on stage, but it was downright awe-inspiring listening and watching Stevie play harmonica by himself. So that's my pick for this year: a 38-year-old album from a 64-year-old guy that couldn't feel more at home in 2014.

Erik Wallenberg: Hurry for the Riff Raff! I mean really, you need to check them out. Their new album Small Town Heroes is great and political.

Less political, but even better music is Old Crow Medicine Show's Remedy and Neko Case's new album The Worse Thing Get... Neko is on fire on the new album, and if you haven't seen and heard her comedy/benefit song with Kelly Hogan, "These Aren't the Droids," do yourself the favor and listen to it.

Further Reading

From the archives