What I Watched In 2014: Book & Film Recommendations

I canceled my cable TV account about a decade ago, quickly discovered I didn’t miss it, and have never had TV-reception since then. Since I don’t go to the cinema*, this means that I don’t see anything until it’s available via DVD or streaming video. Which is fine, because even when something I want to see, like Game of Thrones, takes a year after its TV/cable broadcast to be released, there are over 300 items in my Netflix queue I can spend my time watching, not to mention what I can see on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu.com, YouTube, or from my local library. So, no, I still haven’t seen Joffrey’s wedding and I also haven’t seen Outlander, but since I’ve got plenty to watch, I’m not grinding my teeth about it.

(*I only go to the cinema about once a year, and only because someone else wants to go and I’d be a real spoilsport to refuse. I have terrible luck at the movies, typically winding up seated near someone who insists on narrating the whole movie for everyone else’s benefit, or who has some sort of extremely noisy problem with his false teeth, or who decides that a seat near me is a good place to unzip and expose himself, or who keeps checking text messages and getting calls, or who evidently has dysentery and needs to visit the bathroom half a dozen times during a 100-minute film. Occasionally a basketball player decides to sit in front of me, and sometimes the projector breaks down halfway through the movie or there’s a fire drill. (You think I’m kidding?) Considering that experiences like these additionally require me to attend the film based on the cinema’s schedule rather than my own convenience, and that a movie, drink of water, and serving of popcorn at the cinema cost almost enough $ to fill the gas tank of my car… I’d really much rather stay home to watch a movie. Also, I find that there’s a lot more good TV than good films these days, anyway.)

ANYHOW, here’s what I watched in 2014, listed by title, (year), and country of origin:

Murder On the Orient Express (1974); UK

Saving Mr. Banks (2013); US

Sherlock, S3 (2014); UK

Confucius (2010); China

The Pickwick Papers (1952); UK*

Hitchcock (2012); UK

Les Misérables (2012); US/UK?

Prime Suspect, S3-S7 (1993-2006); UK*

Game of Thrones, S3 (2013); US*

Europa Report (2013); US

Poirot: Murder On the Orient Express (2010); UK

The Hours (2002); US

The Central Park Five (2012); US*

Farewell, My Concubine (1993); China

In the Mood For Love (2001); China

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013); US

The Dirty Picture (2011); India

Talaash (2012); India*

Ravaan (2010); India

Chennai Express (2013); India

Jab Taak Hai Jaan (2012); India

Rosemary & Thyme, S1-S3 (2003-2006); UK*

Much Ado About Nothing (2012); USA

Lawrence of Arabia: Battle for the Arab World (2003); UK

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013); US

The Monuments Men (2014); US

Blue Jasmine (2013); US

The Awakening (2011); UK*

The Fall, S1 (2013); UK

Argo (2012); US

The Fifth Estate (2013); US

Too Big To Fail (2011); US*

Twelve Years A Slave (2013); US

The Bletchley Circle, S1-S2 (2012-2014); UK*

Midsomer Murders, S14 & S15 (2011-2012); UK

To Rome With Love (2012); US

Miss Marple: 4:50 From Paddington (1987); UK*

Miss Marple: The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side (1992); UK*

Miss Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (1987); UK*

Miss Marple: They Do It With Mirrors (1991); UK*

Miss Marple, S1-S2 (1984-1986); UK*

Happy Valley, S1 (2014); UK*

Sleepy Hollow, S1 (2013); US*

Marco Polo, S1 (2014); US

Broadchurch, S1 (UK); 2013*

Julia (1977); US

30 Rock, S1-S4 (2006-2010); US*

(*I’ve put an asterisk next to anything I particularly enjoyed and definitely recommend.)

I watched a number of recent high-profile and/or well-reviewed movies in 2014, and I found most of them so mediocre or bad that I may give up on doing that, since this has been my experience several years in a row now. I thought Les Misérables, Blue Jasmine, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, The Wolf of Wall Street, Europa Report, Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Monuments Men, and To Rome With Love all landed somewhere between disappointing and unwatchably awful.  I thought The Fifth Estate, Twelve Years A Slave, Argo, and Saving Mr. Banks were worth seeing, but nonetheless lauded beyond their merits–perhaps because they were good films released in a sea of really bad and disappointing ones.

Looking over my list, I see that my favorite movie of the year (meaning: of the ones I watched in the safety of my own home; not: “of the ones released  to cinemas in 2014”) was Talaash from India. Starring Hindi film legend Aamir Khan, a fine actor who’s made a number of (for Hindi commercial cinema) cutting-edge films, this is a compelling drama about a respected police officer who’s investigating the death of a Bollywood star who drove his car off an empty city street and into the bay one night, for no reason that anyone can discern. His investigation leads him into the underbelly of Bombay, in a story that involves sex trafficking and blackmail, and which ultimately weaves together with the cop’s own repressed guilt and grief over a recent bereavement. The story solution is one I didn’t see coming, but the clues are well planted all along the way. (A similarly well-constructed Indian thriller I highly recommend, with an equally surprising (though completely different) sort of ending is Kahaani (2012) starring Vidya Balan.)

A couple of other stand-alone films I really liked were The Awakening, which is an English ghost story (traditional, not gory, and well done); and The Central Park Five, a very compelling documentary about five young Harlem men who were imprisoned for a brutal rape they did not commit.

Most of my favorite viewing this year, though, was–surprise!–British mystery series. Why yes, this is in perfect keeping with most of my reading this year. Obviously, I’m on a kick here.

Directly due to my Agatha Christie reading binge, I watched all the Miss Marple TV episodes made with Joan Hickson in the 1980s–and I loved them! As has been said before, Hickson’s performance really was the best portrayal to date of Christie’s Miss Marple (though I enjoy the others); and these were the closest to the books of any TV or film adaptations so far.

I also really liked The Bletchley Circle, a suspense series about a group of women who start investigating neglected crimes in their frustrated desire to use their brains and skills in a society that has confined them to a very narrow existence in the backlash years after their highly-classified codebreaking work during WWII. And I found Broadchurch very compelling. It’s the story of how an apparently contented small town full of seemingly happy people starts crumbling when a child is murdered there and police start investigating.

Unquestionably my favorite discovery in British mystery, though, was Rosemary & Thyme, an absolutely charming British “cozy” mystery series about a couple of professional gardners/landscapers who keep stumbling across dead bodies and solving the crimes. It’s a combination of two very likeable lead actresses in their late 50s (an age at which very few American TV shows feature a woman in the lead role), good guest performers, light mysteries (no gore), and gorgeous garden settings for every episode (in France, Spain, and Italy, as well as England). I wound up watching many of the episodes twice, they were so pleasant.

Like many others, I enjoy Sleepy Hollow’s gothic/historical tone in a contemporary setting with paranormal premises, but my big discovery in American TV this year was 30 Rock. (Which series  ended a couple of years ago. I tend to “discover” most things years after everyone else does…) Tina Fey was the lead actress and also the head writer for this series about the head writer of a comedy-sketch show (which was Fey’s previous job, on Saturday Night Live), and 30 Rock is probably the first American sitcom I’ve liked since Frasier. It’s funny, feminist, odd, irreverent, and usually very well written. I was about halfway through the whole series by the end of 2014, am still watching it, and have recently listened to Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants, on audiobook–a good book with a lot of food for thought about being a working writer, about writing comedy, and about being a woman in a workplace  or profession that’s traditionally male-oriented.

So what were some of the best things that you watched in the past year?