Best of 2015 – Sensitive Skin More Better Favorites

The Editors

This was so much fun last year, I thought we’d do it again. (Two of my favorite books of the year were ones I picked up from last year’s list: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, recommended by Deborah Pintonelli, and The Wind-Up Bird, by Haruki Murakmi, as recommended by Ron Kolm. Thanks!) So here goes, the Second Annual Sensitive Skin More Better Best of 2015. Me first!

Bernard Meisler

My favorite TV moments:

1. Boyd and Raylan’s jail cell conversation in the series finale of Justified
2. Don Draper’s satori in the series finale of Mad Men
3. The billboard scene from Better Call Saul (Bob Odenkirk was so much better in this than I expected; I was pleasantly surprised at how well he carried the show)
4. The 5-minute, black-and-white, faux-Mexican-masked-wrestler-vs-vampires horror movie from The Strain
5. Escape from zombie island on Game of Thrones
6. Bruce Campbell’s cameo as Ronald Reagan in Fargo Season 2 was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. His preparing for “date night” in the first five minutes of episode 1 of Ash Vs. the Evil Dead, to the dulcet strains of “Space Truckin'”, might be even better.
7. The scene in Narcos where they’re out in the jungle turning coca paste into cocaine and somebody says ‘we’re out of ether,’ and somebody else says, ‘ah, just use kerosene.’ The best review of Narcos was from Andy Greenfield on his sadly defunct Hollywood Prospectus podcast): “stepped on Scorcese.”
8. Funny: Nathan For You. Check out The Movement episode, and buy the book too! The interview with the book’s ghostwriter starts at 3:48.

But there was really, IMHO just one truly great TV show last year – Mr. Robot. They had me at Eliot’s “fuck society” speech –

Therapist: “What is it about society that disappoints you so much?”

Eliot: “Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it’s that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit? The world itself just one big hoax, spamming each other with our burning commentary bullshit, masquerading this insight; our social media faking this intimacy. Or is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money. I’m not saying anything new, we all know why we do this, not because Hunger Games books makes us happy, but because we want to be sedated. Because it’s painful not to pretend, because we’re cowards. Fuck society.”

I was like, wow, they can say stuff like this on TV? On commercial TV?

Books: Besides the Murakami and Mandel, I finally got around to Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Great stuff if you like your post-apocalyptic futures literary. I also tried to read Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, but the less said about that endeavor the better. I only mention it because it was part of my second funniest interaction with a bookstore clerk this year:

Me: “Do you have Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle?
City Lights Clerk: “Oh man, we’re out right now. Can’t keep that one on the shelves. Though it seems more people steal it than buy it.”

I can’t mention the funniest one because this is a family blog.

I’m still confused by Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. I can’t tell if he’s a Marine Le Pen wannabe, or else man was his tongue jammed hard into his cheek. Either way it was an engaging read that I finished in two or three quick sessions. Speaking of Game of Thrones, I really, really loved City of Thieves, about the siege of Stalingrad, by David Benioff (best known as one of the two showrunners of Game of Thrones). Joshua Mohr’s All This Life was terrific…

Movies: The films I saw this year that I really enjoyed the hell out of: Max Max Fury Road (shiny and chrome), Sicario (upscale Narcos), Bone Tomahawk (Sid Haig!) and The Revenant (my wife’s comment: “This cinematography makes it obvious that god exists, but also makes it obvious that he doesn’t care about us.”) I also strongly recommend a double feature of The Wrecking Crew followed by Love and Mercy.


Any movie with Richard Jenkins automatically gets an instant star. This was like a mash-up of The Searchers, Fargo and The Evil Dead.

Music: I know there’s great new music being made somewhere, but three old recordings, officially released in 2015, that I listened to a lot were:
– Grateful Dead, 30 Trips Around The Sun. The 2-CD version, which just picks one live song from every year in their 30-year career, really works. That is, the first CD and first 15 years. Skip CD 2.
– Bob Dylan – The Cutting Edge. Do you have what it takes to listen to the 18-CD version? Get the 2-CD version and you’ll be very happy.
– Velvet Underground – Live from the Matrix. This was like a gift from god.

Other stuff I listened to a lot: Miles Davis In A Silent Way, Joanna Newsom’s new record, Fripp/Eno Heavenly Music, the eye-opening (ear-opening?) Talking Heads 5:1 down mixes of their first four albums, Herb Alpert/The Lonely Bull, U-Roy/Trenchtown Rock, various symphonies by Mahler, Beethoven and Shostakovich.

Dance/Performance Art: Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors as ballet

Ron Kolm

Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell (Vol. 3), by Javier Marias.

I not only think you don’t have to read Javier Marias’ trilogy in order, I actually think it’s much better to start with the third and final volume. The events that befall the main character, Deza, all happen in the third book. And after reading about them, you get a thirst to find out why they occurred, and this propels you back to the second book, then the first one. The vehicle for all of this is the voice of Deza, which is, of course, Marias’ — he analyzes everything in such minute detail that you begin to see the world the way he does; his mind never stops spinning; it’s like a tiny perpetual motion machine in a sealed box. Once you get trapped behind Deza’s eyes and actually feel the way he thinks, you won’t be able to put this book down.

Mark Netter

This is the year that TV, in its newly morphed form of streaming on Netflix, Amazon, HBO Go, Hulu Plus etc seems to have crossed the Rubicon into cultural supremacy over movies. The boundaries of suitable content seems to be gone – what kind of world are we in when a Marvel-branded property on Netflix, Jessica Jones, features plenty of cursing, explicit all-but naked sex, and lines like, “I was inside of you!” not to mention buckets of blood.

Luke Cage’s bar from Jessica Jones, aka Vazac’s, aka 7B, aka the Horseshoe Bar.

While I loved the ultra-action-meets-social-commentary of Mad Max: Fury Road, the straightahead simplicity to tell the appalling story of Spotlight, the beauty of Brooklyn, the sci-fi noir of Ex Machina and the refreshingly new musical biopic wrinkles of Straight Outta Compton, it feels like the real must-sees of the year were mainly the episodic serials.

Here’s to the decade-ending close of Mad Men, the Goodfellas-style history lesson of Narcos, the increasingly awe-inspiring Game of Thrones and, the big discovery of the year, the mind-fucking modern genius of Mr. Robot – which featured the biggest slam-you-back-through-your-couch plot twist and my favorite line of the year, “Elliot, I need you to tell me who you think I am.”

With our world increasingly reliant on interface experiences and marijuana on a rapid legalization roll whether medical or recreational, Mr. Robot seems to capture the increasing psychic dislocation of contemporarily life. How long before we’re all asking, begging: I need you to tell me who you think I am.

Kym Ghee

Loved:
Canadian Photographer Edward Burtynsky at Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles.
Brilliant global industrial landscapes in an exhibition, “Nature Transformed.”
Thievery Corporation at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
Culture of Fear Tour. Collection of guest singers from around the globe and DJ’s Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. Intelligent and timely lyrics with excellent musicianship

Carl Watson

Some books I did read or reread and these were my favorites:

The Voyage of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allen Poe

Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag

Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Meir

Films watched: I don’t watch movies except David Lynch reruns:

Mulholland Drive
Inland Empire

Thad Rutkowski

I enjoyed a dance performance by the contemporary ballet company Complexions at the Joyce Theater in New York City a couple of weeks ago. I went with my family, who are dancers, while I’m not. But I was amazed and uplifted by the mood and movements.

I liked a stand-up comedy show last week at the Gotham Comedy Club–a benefit for our daughter’s high school. Among the comedians were Judy Gold and Dave Attell. A doctor in the front row got the most ribbing, because he was still wearing his staff scrubs. I had too much to drink, but I had to take the freebies. On the way home, I had a one-sided drunk conversation with Steve Dalachinsky, who we ran into on the subway.

The movie that sticks in my mind is Fruitvale Station, with Michael B. Jordan. I was expecting a documentary, and the first scene is in fact from a newscast, but the movie did a great job of dramatizing the main figure’s last day before he meets his fate at this BART transit station.

I am reading Alice Munro’s Runaway, and I saw a YouTube interview with her as I was looking through Nobel winner clips for class. Someone said her writing is like “candy.” I agree.

D. James Smith

Movie: There Will Be Blood (2007) starring Daniel Day Lewis. A masterful example of narrative film-making with lush fidelity to realism, this film lingers like the best of books or dreams. Cunning, patient, admirable in his amoral clarity of mind and purpose, the main character builds an oil empire in turn-of–the-century America. In the end, the will to prevail and the skillful striving to satisfy the self leave the protagonist, wealthy, bricked-up inside himself, and free to indulge even murderous rage—power rather than love as life essence. Yet this is a complex morality tale that offers no easy pointing to evil as simply a distortion of good; note that viewers may be haunted by the satisfaction they feel when the protagonist beats a hypocritical Christian preacher to death in the film’s culmination.

Music: My nod actually goes to another film, The Big Easy Express (2014) a documentary of the Indie music scene as embodied by a train tour of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Mumford and Sons, and The Old Crow Medicine Show. Reminiscent of Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz, though celebratory rather than elegiac, this film captures these musicians channeling the joy of the ’60s folk-rock culture. From the deep root of American music another genuine flowering.

Book: Young Stalin by Simon Sebeg Montefiore (2007.) Stalin’s childhood and twenties is replete with surprises; he writes poetry, enjoys free love, and, an intellectual, truly believes in the revolution. And too, in telling detail, we witness his more familiar traits: his genius for terrorism, theft, and the manipulation of the Mafioso-like networks of Russia. It can leave the reader wondering if his is a story of a ready-made psychopath lacking free will or more that of a man evermore corrupted by evil. A must-read for those who enjoy overturning rocks to see the many ugly, struggling creatures living there.

TV: Life Below Zero, Nat Geo. (2015.) If the driving myth of wilderness as expressed in American lit. is that the frontier offers the freedom for the building of utopia, then this program is that theme’s latest incarnation. At times humorous to watch as some of the characters’ egos inflate to the point they state with great profundity matters universally obvious like, “Now I am filling the bucket with water. Later, I drink the water. Out here: no water, no life, man. Can you… understand? ” This delivered with an authoritative, piercing look into the camera. Yep, genuine mindkerflooey fun to watch committed hermits enjoying 24/7 surveillance while talking seemingly non-stop. Yes, there is the undeniable pleasure of natural beauty spread across your tv screen and satisfaction in identifying with this version of reality as emblematic of anyone’s life as he goes from task to task to survive in his own particular wilderness. For this viewer it also suggests it might not be all bliss living in the dirt and say, one back injury away from enduring one’s old age on public assistance in the certain wilds of some city ghetto.

Larissa Shmaillo

Roland Barthes’s narrative codes from S/Z, the fact that people are digging my novel Patient Women published this year, my new Telecaster, my spoken word tour of South Louisiana and New Orleans, the way Abraham says “Here I am!” to God like a little kid playing hide and go seek with a beloved parent in the KJV Genesis (and Sarah is really his sister, they share the same father), Stephen Dedalus’s theory of Hamlet, the Oche Nash (the Our Father in Church Slavonic), recovery.

Franklin Mount

I’m going to send in just one: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

A very moving and informative documentary that lays out some little-known facts and dispels some myths. Starting with its beginnings in Oakland in 1966 to its persecution by the FBI, followed by the Party’s sad decline and fall into addiction and even Reaganism, you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Even the Panthers’ use of terms such as “Minister of Information” makes sense. And the film beautifully portrays the romance of revolution.

Honorable mentions:

The restoration of The Third Man.

Best of Enemies, about the 1968 “debates” between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.

Peter Blauner

Some things are not as good as the way you remember them. But sometimes they’re better. I spent a lot of time this year listening to two collections. Otis Redding’s The King of Soul and the Velvet Underground’s The Complete Matrix Tapes.

First, the Otis collection. Great as I might have thought he was before, he’s actually greater in retrospect. For a start, he has the coolest back-up band in history, Booker T. and the MGs. Killers to a man and sharp-dressers (I remember watching Duck Dunn pluck the bass strings with a lit cigarette between his fingers during a live television appearance). And then Otis himself. Total conviction and commitment on every single song, even “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” A few tracks I’d never heard or paid attention to before, like “I’m Sick Y’All” (soul punk before there was punk) and “Lovey Dovey” with Carla Thomas (one of the sexiest voices ever recorded).

As for the Velvets… Much as I love John Cale, Live 1969 (on which he’s replaced by Doug Yule) was always my favorite record. Funny, intimate, literate, relaxed – something about the small audiences and the low volume brought out the best in Lou Reed songs. The Matrix Collection includes some of the tracks from the earlier collection, cleans them up audiowise, and supplements them with many additional performances. But for once, the extra tracks are a revelation. The epic thirty-six minute version of “Sister Ray” would have been worth the price of admission alone, go from folk-blues to bop poetry to a downtown theater piece to a frenzied guitar rave. If that was all the new material, then as Lou’s people say dayeinu. But no. There’s a full-on punk version of “White Light, White Heat,” a hushed embryonic “Sweet Jane,” a thrashing version of “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and the hits (which were, of course, never hits) keep coming.

In terms of of books, the new novel the I enjoyed most this year was Preparations for the Next Life by Atticus Lish. I have more sympathy these days for people who find certain stories “too dark.” And this unlikely love story between a damaged veteran and a young Chinese immigrant goes to some pitch-black places in Queens. But if you can get there, you’ll find the rewards of great descriptive writing, pungent honesty, off-kilter humor, and ragged outer borough beauty.

JD King

Reading: 2015 favorites were books by Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, John O’Hara, Joan Didion. Some were rereads, others fresh.

The White Album by Joan Didion
Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

And since my New Year’s resolution was vinyl-only in the house, I bought no new music. Favorites to revisit were The Beatles, Duke Ellington, T Rex, The Ramones, The Stooges, Andre Segovia,The John Coltrane Quartet, Ars Nova performing Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale,” Archie Shepp.

Jazz LPs:
“Back to Back” Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington
“Whistle Stop” Kenny Dorham
“Jazz Impressions of Japan” The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Rock ‘n’ Roll LPs:
“T Rex” – T Rex
“Rubber Soul”- The Beatles
“This is the Modern World” -The Jam

Classical LPs:
“A Soldier’s Tale” – Igor Stravinsky perfomed by Ars Nova
Kammermusik Nr 5 and 6″- Paul Hindemith performed by Concerto Amsterdam

Patrick O’Neil

Film:

The Seven Five – (documentary): Dirty cops on the streets of New York City circa 1980s – on the take and on the make, shaking down dope dealers, selling drugs, and working as bodyguards for major criminals. No wonder NYC used to be such a fun town.

The Wolfpack – (documentary): nothing depicts the state of humanity like a good dysfunctional family drama – siblings locked up in a four bedroom Lower East Side apartment by their crazy father experience real life through watching and reenacting videos and in the end apparently think reality is a Tarantino film… and after watching the recent GOP presidential circus perhaps they are right.

Sicario – America’s love affair with drugs on a unauthorized/unchaperoned tinder date in the barrios of Juarez where it all goes a little off the rails.

Tangerine – (best Indy shout out): trannies running crazy on the streets Hollywood – shot with an iPhone, first time actors, and obviously below low budget. Two thumbs up for keeping Indy films alive.

Art:

The Visitors – Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s video instillation (now at The Broad museum, Los Angeles) 64 minute nine-camera single take of nine musicians playing the same song in separate rooms of a decaying mansion shown on nine screens simultaneously—unbelievably haunting, inspiring, and beautiful. I even got a little teary eyed.

Books:

The Cartel – Nobody demystifies the Socioeconomic/Political/Narco tangle of Mexico like Don Wilson. I’m always confused as to what the hell is really going and Winslow gives a little insight into the insanity of narco-politics. The news media never makes any sense of what is happening south of the border (basically they just ignore it), so it’s sort of reassuring that someone does. This is the sequel to Winslow’s awesome The Power of the Dog, which if you haven’t read, you should—both are listed as works of fiction (yeah right, whatever)—orale compañero, mierda no es nada…

Black Hole – Bucky Sinister’s Black Hole is designer drugs so new they haven’t been outlawed. It’s dead end jobs, douchebag dot com’ers, punk rock heroes, gentrification, and a self-depreciating jones climbing on your back like a proverbial monkey in a cheap suit. Bucky Sinister nails the incomprehensible demoralization of the addict’s existence. Hell, he nails it so well you won’t have to try it for yourself. If Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs had somehow conceived a 250-pound-bad-ass-kettlebell-swinging-menace-to-society—he’d have been Bucky Sinister.

How To Grow Up – when I grow up I want to be Michelle Tea. Awesome memoir on realizing one’s self-worth in these times of materialism and depreciating economy. Ever wanted to splurge on that cool leather jacket and thought you weren’t worthy of it? Read this book and then go buy that jacket.

Music:

Transfixiation – A Place To Bury Strangers: Jesus and the Mary Chain meet Joy Division meet some kids in a garage band—not that it’s never been done before, they just have a cool sound. Unfortunately APTBS sucks live.

Man Plans God Laughs – Public Enemy: nowhere near their classics like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Yo! Bum Rush the Show. But it is good to hear and see Chuck D. and PE back in action.

Music/Performance Art:

A Lot Of Sorrow – The National: played the same song (Sorrow) for six hours in a collaboration with the aforementioned Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, that resulted in a box set composed of nine clear vinyl LPs—perfect gift for the holidays, and a better investment than a million dollar Wu-Tang album.

Television:

Better Call Saul – The prequel to Breaking Bad. Took me a few episodes to get into it, but by the final three shows I was there. Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk are amazing. Besides, there’s no more Breaking Bad, so this is as close as you’re going to get. Waiting for season two.

Justified: Season 6 – yes, I watch Justified. I also read John Grisham novels. Don’t judge me. Plus Leonard Chang writes this show, and the man is brilliant.

Rob Hardin

This year, the work I loved proved more sorrowful than scary. How can characters fear death when their lives become too empty to endure; when inertia feels like their last shot at companionship? They wish to be reduced to desiccated things among things. To decompose and mingle. To touch and be touched even though they can’t feel any of it.

When you’re denied intimacy and acknowledgment – when no one actually sees you – you retract into yourself like a spider in peril, though the primary danger is of total retraction that becomes negation. To trace the cuts on your body with your fingers and feel like a discarded plastic doll whose shape is defined by lines of excess left by the two halves of the mold. Hoping that when you’re dead, something else will find you at last and play with you. That they’ll get some use out of the vessel you couldn’t inhabit because you never felt as though you had a self.

Best New Species
The Moroccan Flic-Flac Spider:
best of 2015 new species

Prose
L’insecte, by Jules Michelet (translated by W. H. Davenport Adams)
Cosmos, by Witold Gombrowicz
The Melancholy of Resistance, by László Krasznahorkai
You Animal Machine, by Eleni Sikelianos
Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect, by Denise Riley
The Conspiracy against the Human Race, by Thomas Ligotti
Interactive Composition Strategies, by V.J. Manzo and Will Kuhn

Poetry
Hal Sirowitz’s unpublished poem about the cat and the condom.

Music
Aulis Sallinen: Chamber Music I-VIII, performed by Jyväskylä Sinfonia, Ville Matvejeff, Ralf Gothóni (Ondine, Finland)
Henrik Nordvargr Björkk: Sigillum EE A.K. (music for a sigil ritual)
Richard Devine: Ascension

Performance
Hans Werner Henze: Kammermusik 1958, performed by Cantata Profana at St. Peters Church.

Film
The Babadook, by Jennifer Kent

Vidgames
Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Bloodborne begins by looking as literal as many other quaintly archaic horror games, then overtakes them with ambiguities that manage to be more resonant than vague. Films rarely do that anymore.

TV
The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
As unkind to its characters as its story is implausible, The Strain gets creepier with each episode despite the pilot’s direction by del Toro. The cheery characterization and overly accommodating female characters give way to intricate monsters’ morphology, baroque mutilations and special kiddie anxiety that has to be tongue-in-spleen. After all, Hollywood assures us, lovable children are never supposed to die – especially twice. When it doesn’t employ tropes from Nosferatu, The Strain refs del Toro’s own Chronos, lending slimy sensuousness to changelings tonguing blood-spattered marble.

David West

Concerts
The Liminañas with Pascale Comelade at Le Maraquinerie Paris , October 9 2015

Ausmuteantes at Villette Sonique Paris June 2015

Expositions
Musée d’Orsay: Splendeurs et misères. Images de la prostitution, 1850-1910.

Dust / Histoires de poussière d’après Man Ray et Marcel Duchamp at Le Bal, Paris.

Fragonard Amoreaux. Galant et Libertin At Le Musėe du Luxembourg Senat, Paris.

Justin Clifford Rhody

Films:
Camera Buff by Krzysztof Kieślowski
Ain’t Nothing Like Being Free by John Meyer
It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra (Hittin’ harder than ever!)

Books:
Test Tube, a graphic novel by Carlos Gonzalez
My Friend from Memphis, photographs by Huger Foote
Wall Street, photographs by Charles Gatewood

Music / Live Performances:

Oracle+ are my favorite every single time I see them perform

Angelo Harmsworth live in a hole in the ground, in the middle of the desert in Northern New Mexico.

Pharoah Sanders live at SF Jazz Center, San Fran, CA

Odwalla 88 live at Vacation in San Francisco

Norf Norf, Vince Staples

Cube – Fade To Beige Cassette

Jake Head & Corey Hucks live collaborative performance at the Center for New Music, San Francisco CA

Art / Exhibits:
Everything that I’ve ever seen by Maya Bush
1-800-Whooops by Jen Shear & Vinnie Smith at Ladybug House, San Fran, CA
Group Show II, curated by Claire Staples at Sgraffito, Oakland, CA
The Whiteness of the Whale by Paul Graham at Pier 24, SF CA
Projecting found 35mm slides for Vernacular Visions into the drained pool of a motel in Joshua Tree, CA.
Parting Is Such Sorrow Until We Meet Again Tomorrow, Long Story Short and every other show hung at Creative Growth Art Center, Oakland, CA