It’s that time of year when “Best of” lists litter the landscape like pine needles. Here at Storyboard, we decided to do something a little different to commemorate 2014. We asked a handful of terrific storytellers to tell us their five favorite stories of the year. Not necessarily the “best” stories or the ones they thought would win awards, but the stories they couldn’t stop thinking about, the stories they told their friends to read — the stories they loved. And we said they could choose any kind of story, in any medium. Because great narrative is everywhere. Their choices will surprise and inspire you.
Here are our guest editors and their picks:
1. “Breaking Madden: The Mark Sanchez Century,” Jon Bois, SBNation.com. “Breaking Madden” is a series where Bois pushes the John Madden NFL video game to its limits, creating freakish players and nightmare seasons and misguided quests that all turn out to have a strange beauty. In this episode he takes Mark Sanchez, one of the league’s worst-rated quarterbacks ever, and tries to win a Super Bowl with Sanchez in charge. And tries. And tries. And tries. By the end Tom Waits is singing, and everything’s in slow motion, and I’m not ashamed to say I cried a little for stupid Mark Sanchez, and for Bois’ brilliant imagination.
2. “Serial, ” executive producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, “This American Life.” The first lesson of “Serial” is that people will always be drawn to great stories, no matter the length or the format. The second lesson is that transparency in storytelling is not a bug, but a feature. Koenig stumbles down wrong roads and doubts her sources and questions the whole enterprise, and all this makes the story more compelling. That’s important to know for journalists who try to hide what’s behind the curtain.
3. “Tim’s Vermeer, ” director Teller, Sony Pictures Classics. Tim Jenison, a millionaire who made his fortune in computer graphics, is fascinated by the art of Vermeer. He comes to believe that Vermeer used mechanical devices to create the photo-like feel of his paintings. So Jenison sets out to prove it by trying to duplicate a Vermeer. Teller (yep, from Penn and Teller) tells the story of the places where art and technology become so close that it no longer matters which is which. Jenison is so smart and funny that you’ll gladly follow him down the rabbit hole.
4. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux, ” Jeremy Collins, SBNation. com. A raw and beautiful story of pain, friendship and one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. The stories I chose for this list are the ones that lingered in my mind and heart, and this story lingered the most. I still think about it.
5. “Our Song,” director Lance Acord, Apple. This is not just fiction, it’s fiction designed to make us buy stuff. I don’t care. It’s a beautiful, complete story, told in just a minute and a half, and it chokes me up every time I watch. The look on the old woman’s face when she hears her voice … I’ll never forget that look.
1. “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic. A stunning and deep look at the history of America’s racial crimes. Likely the most penetrative look at the roots of this country’s current racial imbalances. More important, the history lesson here is propelled over and over by deeply illustrative, narrative storytelling – about victims of discrimination, seekers of compensation for the wrongs they were done, and about the author himself.
2. “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words,” director Peter Kunhardt, HBO Documentaries. If you never believed Richard Nixon was his own worst enemy, this film would almost certainly change your mind. Using thousands of hours of tape-recorded White House conversations, the filmmakers wraps Nixon’s rants and raves (about everyone from his perceived political enemies to racial and religious minorities) in news context, illustrating what was happening at the time Nixon was speaking. It is at once chilling and fascinating. Worth more than one watch.
3. “More Plot Twists than ‘The Maltese Falcon,'” Kathryn Shattuck, The New York Times, Nov. 28, 2014. This edition of the “Vows” wedding column reached the heights readers hope for each week. Love long lost, then reunited, across miles and decades and a wide range of emotional highs and lows. It helped that the groom was the son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but the love story would have arced perfectly on its own, even without the star quality. I read all the way to the end. Then read it again.
4. “The Song that Never Ends: Why Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ Sustains,” producer Dan Charnas, NPR “Morning Edition.” You know you want to get up and dance. As Charnas points out in this wonderful, whimsical piece, right from the opening horn flourish, this song makes people feel good, and move their backsides. That’s why it’s one of the most popular selections at wedding receptions, more than 30 years after it was recorded. The piece wins with for the gravel-stained voice of the song’s female writer, explaining how sure she was that the repeating line, “Ba-dee-ya” was unacceptable gibberish, rather than the song’s most memorable refrain.
5. “Dehumanizing Ferguson,” Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post. This column’s opening line, “The name Ferguson should become shorthand for dehumanization,” set the tone for a remarkably powerful venting of African-American frustration with the cheapening of black life embodied, for many, in the failure to indict officers who kill. Robinson’s prose is flawless, and sucks you in over and over.
1. “While the World Watched,” Wright Thompson, ESPN. This story – which I avoided for a while because, you know, soccer + torture — brought me places I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t look away. In it, the cheers from Argentina’s 1978 World Cup victory merge with the screams from its Dirty War torture chambers, and ghost of all of it lingers over the city preparing to host another World Cup while reconciling with its past. While I was reading, I kept hearing my daughter say, “Time to eat, Mommy. Mommy? Time to eat!” and I couldn’t stop. When it was over, I wasn’t hungry.
2. “The Witness,” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly. I’ve seen a man die by lethal injection, but not like this. Through the eyes of Michelle Lyons, who witnessed 278 Texas executions, we see the death penalty from both sides of the glass. We are close enough to hear their last breaths, and we have enough distance to feel the accumulated injury of so many needle pricks, to our society, to our best selves. Lyons’ long relationship with Death Row allows for a nuanced, unflinching and unsentimental reflection on capital punishment.
3. “Away,” Chris Jones, Esquire. In space, callouses slough off your feet and fire floats like tiny suns. As we ponder outposts on other planets, first we have to find out what living in space does to us. Jones profiles an astronaut preparing to spend a year away from his family, his planet, his gravity in all its forms. He will return with his life and body transformed. A story on what it takes, with an ending that makes it hard to breathe.
4. “The Lost Bones,” Ben Montgomery, Tampa Bay Times. I keep thinking about the little boys. Buried – discarded – in a shoddily marked cemetery at a hellhole of a reform school in the panhandle of Florida. They lay forgotten for decades, until the trees grew up over them and their bones rotted into the dirt and the people who put them there had died and the people who remembered them were almost all gone. They would have stayed there forever maybe, had Ben Montgomery not worked for six years to expose a century of torture at the school, to shut the place down, and to follow the archeologist who finally brought the boys out of the ground, matched bones with names, and delivered them to their families. I’m close to this story – I edited its prequels, including “For Their Own Good” — but if this story doesn’t represent best of what we do, I don’t know what does.
5. “Beer, Breakups and Babies: Six stories of the Ikea coffee table phase of life,” Jessica Contrera, The Washington Post. This story reminds me of so many other stories I’ve loved over the years but rarely see anymore: of red plastic cups, plastic porch chairs and containers and Yankee Candles. It feels deeply true. Not unlike an Ikea coffee table, it is simple and not showy, surprisingly sturdy, more than the sum of its parts. It is made for this moment, and not for forever, but it tells us something about life and how we live it, right now. I’ll teach it this semester, and I’ll make notes on my copy on the Ikea Lack table in my campus office.
Lisa Pollak won the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and worked as a producer for “This American Life” for nine years. Last semester, she taught a course called “Storytelling for the Ear” at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
1. “Boyhood,” director Richard Linklater. This film about a boy coming of age was filmed in real time, over the course of 12 years, so even though it’s fiction, the changes we see happening to the actors are real. The plot has upsetting moments, but what ultimately made me cry was the way Linklater captured the passage of time itself, and all the beautiful and sad ways that time leaves its mark on us.
2. “StartUp,” Alex Blumberg, Gimlet Media. I will never forget the feeling of walking down the street listening to this podcast series and marveling at the fact that a story about a guy starting his own company could be so riveting and emotional — hilarious at times, poignant at others. Alex (a former colleague of mine) even finds a way to make the ads compelling.
3. “Behind the yellow door, a man’s mental illness worsens,” Stephanie McCrummen, The Washington Post. I think this is one of the most gripping stories on mental illness and what it does to families that I’ve ever read.
4. “Help Wanted,” Luke Malone and Robyn Semien,”This American Life.” A painful, eye-opening and unforgettable story about a young man trying to deal with his attraction to children by starting an online support group for pedophiles, like himself, who haven’t committed crimes and don’t want to harm children. It’s alarming to learn how little help and research exists for this young man, and heartbreaking to hear about his quest to help himself. This piece won the “Radio Impact” award at the 2014 Third Coast competition.
5. “Heart-Rending Test in Ebola Zone: A Baby,” Sheri Fink, The New York Times. It’s hard to choose just one piece from the NYT’s Ebola Ward series, but this story — and really, the headline says it all — is the one that I can’t stop thinking about.
And, finally, I’ll add a few favorites of my own. I second the nominations for “Serial” and “Boyhood” both of which I enjoyed for many different reasons but which share a patience in the approach to storytelling that conjures up a rare sense of subtlety and depth.
After living in Chicago for more than two decades, I’ve read and watched and listened to more reports than I can count about the terrible toll of violence in my beloved city. This year, though, I thought a single photograph told one of most nuanced — and painful– stories. This image by Scott Strazzante, a Chicago Tribune photographer who now works for the San Francisco Chronicle, stands apart from the familiar images of bereft mothers holding aloft snapshots of their lost children or crowds gathered around a lumpy body bag on a street corner. Words can’t do justice to the expression on that police officer’s face.
Sarah Stillman at The New Yorker reports on social issues ranging from ebola to Ferguson to civil forfeiture with an unparalleled intelligence and grace. Her story on for-profit alternatives to incarceration was a compelling exploration of a little-known, profoundly unfair phenomenon.
My concluding recommendation is hardly fair to share because it’s a museum exhibit and disappearing in matter of days but nothing made me think harder about construction and deconstruction of story this year than the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s show “David Bowie Is.” The exhibit is an utterly immersive narrative experience, with Bowie speaking or singing in your ear through the geographically responsive headphones as you approach various displays and artifacts that include, among dozens of other items, scraps of handwritten song lyrics and the set of keys to his apartment in Berlin. And, of course, the show examines through Bowie’s various personas the concept of the creation of individual narrative that we all undertake in some form or another. I didn’t encounter a more beautifully built story this year — and I’m not even much of a Bowie fan.
What were your favorite stories of 2014?