I often feel self-conscious about writing a year-end culture wrap-up because compared to a lot of people, the current pop culture I consume is rather incomplete. The name of this blog is, in a way, copping to that fact: when I see a movie, I might not see it right away, or when I listen to an album for the first time, it might be after the album is a few months or even years old. This cultural incompletism has only been exacerbated in the last few years, as two kids and increased duties at work have sapped both my ability to find new things to watch/read/listen and my time to write about said things.
But then I remembered that this is my website and no one pays me to write anything here, so I can do whatever I want! Here’s what I found most enjoyable or meaningful this year.
Top Five Movies of 2016
5. La La Land
I think I could have liked this a little more if writer/director Damien Chazelle had made a few little tweaks – maybe add a few more scenes of Ryan Gosling being a tool and lay off just a bit on the masturbatory “ain’t Hollywood great” stuff (I understand that that’s kind of the point of the movie but there’s a song toward the end where Emma Stone literally sings “That’s why they need us” and even as someone who believes in the value of entertainment to enrich lives, I rolled my eyes super hard).
Still, though, I did enjoy this one quite a bit, mostly for its embrace of artificiality. Even aside from the obviously fake sets the characters occasionally visit (I got a real “The Magic Store” from “The Muppet Movie” vibe during the final dance sequence), a lot of other places the characters go seem fake or stagey, but in a way that’s an homage to the stagey musicals this film so wishes to be. I haven’t read a lot of criticism about “La La Land,” but I think that artificiality serves as a kind of metacommentary on the story – that this is the kind of story that we want to be real, but that’s not how life really works, or maybe about how these characters want to imagine that their lives are free of compromise, but that’s a facade. It made the ending really land for me.
Plus, this movie has one of my favorite scenes of 2016 in it, when Ryan Gosling tries to explain to Emma Stone why jazz is good and she keeps asking questions like “What about Kenny G?” and he gets so, so frustrated. It’s such a well observed, funny recreation of a conversation about music I’ve seen play out so many times, where one person is so passionate about the subject and the other person just misses the point entirely.
4. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
I love Tina Fey, and I love her work with Robert Carlock (“30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and I love journalism movies, so I was smack dab in the middle of the Venn diagram for this one. Fey, in one of her deeper acting roles, stars as a war reporter in Afghanistan not long after “Mission Accomplished.”
A lot of criticism about this movie centers around the fact that it basically makes the war into a self-actualization for Fey’s character. I think that’s kind of the point, though: “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a well-observed look at how reporting on bad news can become kind of an ego trip, dehumanizing your reactions in pursuit of getting the best scoop. I’ve never been in a war zone, but as a reporter, I found the themes of desensitization pretty relatable, and a few tone-deaf moments aside, it’s a well-acted, playful film overall.
3. Star Trek Beyond
By far the best “nuTrek” film, perhaps my second favorite overall after “The Voyage Home.” Simon Pegg is the screenwriter on this one, and he gets the characters in a way that Abrams and the other writers never did. Lots of good action setpieces in this one, too, thanks to “Fast and Furious” alum Justin Lin.
Probably my favorite thing about the movie, however, is that the things it cares about and wants to talk about feel like themes from an old original series episode. Sean Witzke at the “Travis Bickle on the Riviera” podcast derisively said that the bad guy is fighting against the idea of teamwork, and while that’s an oversimplification of the antagonist’s goals, anyone who’s not on board with a Star Trek movie being a paean to teamwork and creativity is perhaps not the right audience for a Star Trek movie. Some purists derided the finale, which involves a return of The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” but used diegetically, I enjoyed it. In this movie’s oversized way, it’s the same as the the whale-call climax of “The Voyage Home,” a triumph of creativity over destruction, of innovative thinking over fisticuffs.
2. Rogue One
I’m still trying to figure out what to say about this one; I should probably think of something soon due to the fact that I ostensibly run a Star Wars website. It’s hard for me to talk about this movie without comparing it to “The Force Awakens,” which regular readers might recall me not being particularly fond of; I think the reason is that for my money, this movie is so diametrically opposed to that one.
There’s a lot of talk about how “Rogue One” is utterly fan service in its intentions – the way it “fixes” the issue of the Death Star flaw (a nitpicky complaint that never needed fixing), the seeding of old characters like Red Leader and Bail Organa, a shoutout to George Lucas’s original name for the saga – but those aren’t the things I really liked about the movie. What I really enjoyed was that, despite its corporate control and seeming status as a gap filler, “Rogue One” is really trying to create new things in the Star Wars universe and doing so with a sense of joy and love. It’s a movie that knows what makes Star Wars good but goes about accomplishing those goals in a different, exciting way.
It also looks beautiful. “Rogue One” has a great sense of scale that it utilizes again and again while never feeling old.
1. The Nice Guys
This is by far the funniest movie I saw last year, and the most stylish. Ryan Gosling is hilarious here, (both physically and verbally), Russell Crowe is also very funny, and the rest of the movie is packed to the gills with amusing and interesting characters. The dialogue also sings (“Don’t say ‘and stuff.’ Just say ‘There are whores here.’”), and the plot is sublimely twisty without ever losing the viewer. There’s not really much else for me to say. This movie didn’t do very well at the box office, and it’s not hard to see why; “violent comedy mystery about the murder of a porn star” doesn’t really check most people’s boxes, but I loved it.
Top Five Comics of 2016
5. Black Widow
The Waid/Samnee/Wilson trio isn’t quite doing it for me on “Black Widow” the same way it was on “Daredevil;” I miss the former series’s vibrant color palette and sense of humor. The plot is something of a slow burn, too. It’s something I think I could really like once it gets going, and I think it’s reasonably engaging now, but it seems like it’s still trying to get going even though we’re on issue 10.
That’s a lot of negative, but none of that takes away from the positive: Chris Samnee is the best artist working in mainstream comics today, and each issue is a new chance to watch his skills improve. The first issue justly received a lot of praise for essentially being a Bond-ian cold open, full of car chases and skydiving and spy-on-spy violence. Samnee also uses his great line to convey emotion silently but effectively, suggesting the pain behind the eyes of Black Widow’s reserved assassin exterior. But my favorite panel of the run is one of those “only in comics” moments: the depiction of a brain losing its ability to process information at the moment of death.
“Demon” is a comic of superb excess. It takes an interesting premise – man discovers that whenever he dies, he “possesses” (hence the name) the body of a different person – and then keeps finding new ways to expand the premise in hilarious, often disgusting, ways. I followed “Demon’s” publication on creator Jason Shiga’s website, but I’ll definitely be buying the collections now that they’re being published in print form from First Second. The fight scene issue in particular is an innovative, funny, must-read for fans of the form – who also laugh at truly gross-out sex jokes.
Depending on the portrayal, Superman has often felt like the dad of the DC Universe, and the publisher’s recent decision to make him into an actual father has been working splendidly (if this was a top 10, I may have sneaked “Superman: Lois and Clark” by Dan Jurgens and various artists onto the list). One of superhero comics’ best modes is outsized personal drama, and writer Peter Tomasi does a great job here, using the manifestation of superpowers in Superman’s preteen son, Jon, as a metaphor for how the love between fathers and sons is often impeded by intimidation or fear. Despite the undercurrent of uncertainty, the book is by turns beautiful, heartwarming and action-packed, depending on which of the stellar pencillers – Patrick Gleason, Jorge Jimenez or Doug Mahnke – is on duty in a given issue.
2. The Omega Men
This was writer Tom King’s year, and while “The Omega Men” might ultimately be the least loved book of his unofficial “Trilogy of Good Intentions,” but I couldn’t put this dense read down when I picked up its hefty 12-issue trade paperback. This book is ostensibly set in the DC Universe, but there’s more hard sci-fi than superhero here, especially since King uses the tome to ruminate on the morality and spiritual cost of war. The ending doesn’t sit well, but in a good way – it’s a sense of discomfort that will leave you thinking afterward.
When DC Comics announced a rethought relaunch of the Hannah Barbera titles in the spring, most of it didn’t look promising – including this title, an adult satire set in Bedrock. However, the creative team showed promise: Mark Russell, previously of the excellent (and gone-too-soon) “Prez” relaunch, and Steve Pugh, a solid, cartoony-yet-realism-skewing penciller.
What followed was inspired weirdness as well as surprisingly fitting satire, turning the prehistoric TV show’s setting into an absurd, outsized reflection of modern society. It’s also a comic that posits that Fred and Barney committed genocide and occasionally diverges into one-page stories about the existential despair of the show’s famous sentient appliances. Its continued existence is a mystery that I don’t want solved.
Top Five TV Shows of 2016
5. Griffin McElroy’s web video empire
I discovered the McElroy brothers this year, and as you’ll see when we get to the podcast section, I went all in. Griffin’s sundry video series for Polygon – I don’t watch his “Hearthstone” games, but any “Monster Factory,” “Amiibo Corner,” “Car Boys” or “Nuzlocke” episode is appointment viewing for me – are inevitably the funniest thing I watch in a given day, thanks to his twisted improv skills and perfect delivery (not to mention the equally excellent work done by his brother Justin on “Monster Factory” and Nick Robinson on “Car Boys”). What’s more, the series aren’t content to just be funny; they’re ambitious as well. Griffin and Nick have essentially grafted a weirdly emotional mythology onto BeamNG.drive, ostensibly a simple car crash simulator, while “Griffin’s Amiibo Corner” has become more and more serialized. That Griffin can do all of this while still making me cry with laughter seems like a tough feat, but he does it: “Just Like Bart” is one of the funniest half hours of television in 2016, hands down.
Now, wait a second. Is “Timeless” really the fourth best TV show of 2016? Well, no. But it’s the goofiest, funnest show around, and I love it. In a case of the week format (kind of like “Quantum Leap,” but if they screw up the timeline every episode instead of save it), a historian, a scientist and a soldier travel to different eras of American history, trying to keep the past from being manipulated by a terrorist who is trying to preemptively murder a secret organization behind some of America’s greatest atrocities. Taking the baton from the dearly departed “Fringe,” “Timeless” establishes its premises by asking “What if?” and engaging in a number of logical leaps that don’t always make the most sense but are always tons of fun.
The show is frequently stupid – it changes each historical event the team visits so that it can fit nicely into the ongoing narrative – but the cast is solid all around, and the writing staff barrels from plot point to plot point so quickly and unreservedly that the whole thing is carried off on charm. Plus, the pilot is one of the best network pilots I’ve seen since I started watching all of them each fall. Those cliffhangers!
3. Silicon Valley
I’m constantly impressed by how dense “Silicon Valley” is. It packs more plot into its half-hour chunks of comedy than most dramas do with double the time, every scrap of content is later repurposed into an ongoing plot point, its cliffhangers are irresistible – basically, it does everything a good serialized drama should do, while also being a well-observed, hilarious comedy. I’m flummoxed trying to think of another show that can so aptly make cringe comedy work while also deftly orchestrating a long-term plot.
“Silicon Valley’s” comedy and drama both work so well because the show has made you intimately familiar with these characters. When they say or do something, it may still be surprising, but it’s also completely in line with who we know these characters to be. That most of the characters are possessed with a large but unique mixture of hubris and insecurity makes for an even better driver of jokes and plot twists.
2. The Grinder
Rest your case in peace, “The Grinder.” This Fox comedy about a TV lawyer who comes home to the law firm run by his real lawyer brother, starring Rob Lowe and a “why doesn’t he act in more things?” Fred Savage, was the funniest thing by far on network TV in the 2015-2016 season, and then, after one glorious season, it was canned. The ensemble cast was brilliantly funny, including the kids, and the writers and actors were great at essentially stringing out two jokes – Lowe’s Dean is incapable of realizing how out of his depth he is, while almost the entire cast fawns over him and disrespects Savage’s Stewart – into new variations across an entire season.
There isn’t a lot to say about this one, honestly, other than to praise the performances. Savage’s straight man routine is perfect, and as his and Lowe’s co-workers and/or family members, Natalie Morales, Steve Little and William Devane all give solid turns. However, the show’s secret weapon was Mary Elizabeth Ellis, whose commiseration with and joking puncturing of Stewart made her on-screen marriage to Savage simultaneously real and funny.
1. The Americans
As usual, “The Americans” is unparalleled. The performances are consistently great (especially Matthew Rhys, Holly Taylor and Alison Wright), and the plot, somehow, continues to wind more and more tightly. The writing is superb, with each episode able to capture both the general anxiety Russia and the U.S. experienced at the end of the Cold War as well as the personal struggle of a family fraying due to competing goals.
“The Americans” is about those things and a lot more, but at its heart, it might be most about humanizing those we’ve dehumanized while illustrating how they – and we – dehumanize others for “the greater good” or to get the job done or to accomplish anything that might otherwise make us uncomfortable. Watching Wright’s Martha go from horrified that she married a Russian spy to actively justifying murder or seeing the FBI agents confront a Soviet agent and finding him, surprisingly, just some guy, exposes the barriers people create between each other to keep their consciences clean. The good guys aren’t really that good in the world of “The Americans,” but that doesn’t make the bad guys any better.
Top Five Podcasts of 2016
This one ended this year, but the not as famous sister podcast to “Star Wars Minute” was a ton of fun. Like SWM, by the time you get deep into the catalogue of Beatles songs discussed in alphabetical order, you’ll be deluged in callbacks and inside jokes, but the show remains eminently listenable, with the four hosts eager to spotlight lesser known trivia about the Fab Four and unafraid to spout unpopular opinions about beloved hits.
4. The Flop House
There isn’t much to say about “The Flop House” that hasn’t already been said over the course of its long run. It’s still the funniest bad movie podcast out there (don’t let “How Did This Get Made?” partisans tell you otherwise), and what might be most notable after 2016 is that its quality remains so high even as the hosts sometimes seem to tire of doing it. Every now and then, stray remarks by one of The Original Peaches (the self-styled name of hosts Dan McCoy, Elliott Kalan and Stuart Wellington) hint that personal issues have rendered the podcast more inconvenient, but the hosts are incredibly funny almost by accident, with any stray remark capable of launching tangents both hilarious and surprisingly insightful.
3. My Brother, My Brother and Me
The McElroy brothers are so funny that I get jealous. Their unmatched riffing ability is remarkable mostly for how easy they seem to make it. Occasionally, one of them (usually Griffin) will criticize their jokes for being too dumb, but I have no such complaints; such remarks usually come after I’ve doubled over laughing.
In their years of doing the show, the McElroys have become more polished while continuing to loosen up the format. I often can no longer remember which questions lead to which of the brothers’ best bits, and that’s OK: the phenomenon of “Which One Vapes?” doesn’t need to have clearly elucidated origins to be funny.
The iFanboy trio is a rarity on the comics internet: an intelligent, funny bastion of criticism that also lies outside of the insular, often controversy-driven, online community where most of comics’ other best critics reside (the only other group like them I can think of off the top of my head are the “Comic Books Are Burning In Hell” guys, even though I’m sure they disagree on a lot of the issues of taste). Apparently, being smart, funny and actually focused on the work rather than distracted by the baggage surrounding it is a hard Venn diagram to land in the middle of when it comes to comics, but Josh Flanagan, Conor Kilpatrick and Ron Richards do so with an ease and confidence that comes from working on their show for a decade. Every Sunday night, I start refreshing my podcast subscription list obsessively, and iFanboy is the reason why.
1. The Adventure Zone
“The Adventure Zone” excites me, inspires me, and makes me laugh like few other podcasts do. What once was a primarily joke-based DnD show has slowly morphed into a narrative-driven, mechanically experimental role playing adventure that still manages to be eminently accessible and funny. The show got off to a slightly slow start this year as it finished “The Crystal Kingdom” arc, which ran a little long and didn’t offer the show’s three adventurers – played by Travis and Justin McElroy and their dad, Clint, with Griffin McElroy acting as dungeon master – as much narrative choice, but it more than made up for it with the ambitious “The Eleventh Hour” arc and the flamboyant, outrageous “The Suffering Game,” as well as some solid live episodes. I’m always left wanting more.
Top Five Articles of 2016
I don’t read as nearly as many books as I used to/am comfortable with admitting, but 2016 was the year I feel like I really started reading good essays online consistently. Special thanks in this section to Abhay Khosla, whose tumblr is one of my most-visited spots on the internet and who links to a lot of great stuff in addition to his great writing.
A terrible, inspiring recounting of the unseen ways politics make our lives harder and how some dedicated people are working to overcome those limitations.
O’Neil’s assessment of her life, a revelation about herself and how that revelation recontextualized her entire conception of self is riveting and thought-provoking.
VanDerWerff’s strengths are in his empathy and honesty. This piece captures a moment in time with no attempt to justify or explain away; just to tell.
The very best of the many “maybe the Left’s intolerable smugness has finally caught up to it” articles to come out last year.
Khosla’s voice, especially when he’s throwing himself into a piece, is wholly unique and caustically funny. There’s a line in part one of this article referencing a moment of She-Hulk’s… self-reflection that I’ve looked up several times in the year since I first read this, and I laugh every single time. A scathing, wonderful look at a screwed-up industry.
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