Let’s be real: this year was goddamn awful
But we’re part of the human race and we do our best to endure. One of the ways we can do that is shout about the culture that deserves to be praised. I understand that’s been something which has been tough to do in the past couple months. I’ve struggled with finding the balance between talking about present-day problems and shouting about the stuff that I love, lean too much on the former and I’ll fall down the rabbit hole of darkness, lean towards the latter and it looks like I’m using art to ignore the real world. While I can understand why some want to be able to watch TV and ignore the trash fire of the outside world, I can’t get behind it in any capacity. The best art takes a look at the world and allows us to try and make sense of it all. It can bring beauty into our lives and deliver hope. At the very least I hope that the stuff I rave about here will give you something which can help you with that.
Early on in this process, I was half tempted to put Creed, Room and Spotlight on this list considering they released here in early 2016, but if I was going to do so, I’d be including one too many technicalities and it’s also unfair to the movies that were released in general in 2016 which are phenomenal.
Another technicality that I won’t be including is Spike Jonze’s ad for Kenzo World:
Basically if Duck Amuck can count as a movie than so can this dammit, but it would also mean not being able to write about one of the movies that are on the list below and once I’d made the list sans Jonze’s commercial, I realised I wanted to write something about all of those movies.
Let’s kick this off with an honourable mention for Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, a technical masterpiece that blended CGI with live-action, retained the soul (and songs) of the original and consisted of a stellar cast that all delivered solid performances. Despite this it didn’t wholly blow me away, but the technical aspects are impressive enough that it deserves to be in the end of the year conversation.
Movies that just missed the cut: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Everybody Wants Some, Finding Dory, Ghostbusters, Hail Caesar, Other People and Sleeping with Other People.
The movie that I know for a fact I won’t be able to stomach: Green Room
Movies that I missed: American Honey, Hell or High Water
And part of me is grateful that Jackie, La La Land, Moonlight, Silence and The Handmaiden don’t come out until next year here because those would have made the list harder to whittle down, but at the same time I wish I could have seen them already. Onto the top 10:
10. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week
The Beatles were the first band that made me actively listen to music. It’s cliche, I know, but it’s a cliche because they’re a band that really is that good. Obviously, the fact that I’m nineteen means that I’ve never had a chance to see them live or get swept up in the phenomenon that they caused back in the Sixties, but Ron Howard’s documentary, combined with the restoration to the Shea Stadium footage is the closest you’ll be able to get to doing both of until we invent time travel. To focus on Howard’s work first, it’s a well paced timeline of how the Beatles started through to how they ended, it avoids talking about the extraneous details of the Fab Four’s lives because it’s more so about them as the band, over everything that happened when they spent time away from each other. It showcases their rapport and bond, but also how these started to wain. And then I also got to watch around thirty minutes of the Shea Stadium concert in 4K, which to my knowledge was only available when watching the movie on the big screen. If you didn’t catch it in cinemas, then you’ve made a misstep there because it’s just so damn incredible to see a band in their heyday in near perfect condition. In some moments, we may have seen it better than the people who were actually there.
9. The Neon Demon
When Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest premiered at Cannes, it was booed. When I heard that, I thought that would be exactly what Refn would want. When I saw it, that sentiment was confirmed. The most evocative pieces of art inspire reaction, regardless of what reaction that may be. It has a lot of elements going for it, Cliff Martinez’s synth score, Refn’s eye for framing and Natasha Braier’s cinematography creating glamourous catwalks and scenes of horror. The technical qualities of Refn’s movies have never been in question, it normally comes down to the story being told. Here, Elle Fanning’s Jesse moves to LA with the intention of becoming a model who becomes ensnared in the industry and it’s obsession with youth. The message of the movie and its dialogue is blunt and at times makes Knight of Cups look dense by comparison. And some won’t like this, thus is the nature of art-house. But for those like me, which do engage with the movie, will be struck by the tale it tells and ask themselves whether that’s the point. Refn might have said this is his way of finding the sixteen year old girl inside him, but I think for everyone else, it allows us a chance to find our way into his head.
Continuing the Disney Animation renaissance of the 2010’s comes Byron Howard and Rich Moore’s Zootopia which invites the characters and us to engage with their internal biases. Ginnifer Goodwin’s Judy Hopps moves from relative safety in Bunnyburrow to Zootopia, a vibrant and wild city filed with more than two of each and every animal. Teaming up with Nick, a fox voiced by Jason Bateman, they uncover a conspiracy that runs through multiple districts of the ‘animal utopia’. It’s a fairly standard detective/cop story structure, but the startling thing is how it engages with ideas of prejudice in a world where predator vs. prey has been the norm for so long. Largely the movie moves at a swift pace, like the train ride which introduces us to the city, it spends enough time in each area to gain relevant information and then moves on, but it still has time to take a beat and linger in the world of sloths. Deftly funny with a message, Zootopia continues to prove that Disney might make animated movies, but they are by no means just kids movies.
7. The Odyssey
The first technicality of the list because while you’d be correct in stating that Florence and the Machine released the first chapter of The Odyssey back in 2015, the full film from Vincent Haycock was uploaded back in May strings the various chapters together with some transitional spoken word segments. Unlike Donald Glover’s release of Clapping for the Wrong Reasons and the screenplay for Because the Internet in conjunction with the titular album, The Odyssey is more spiritualistic, tracking Florence on a journey she makes, both physically and within herself, post-breakup. Haycock’s camera is in near-constant motion, always moving in some direction, much like we are in life. Sometimes it’s steady, when it tracks Florence as she sings How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, while the What Kind of Man segment sees it lurch from side to side as if looking for an escape from the wall of people that’s closing in. Ship to Wreck is the most technically spectacular sequence of the piece, using a Steadicam to weave in and out of rooms as the relationship deteriorates. Some choice camera cuts give it a forward momentum, always scanning for the next event. Boasting an unusual lighting set-up, the segment turns the lens inwards as time goes on and eventually Florence is attacking a version of herself, which goes to show how the movie asks that you not only allow emotion to come out, but to look deep to find exactly how you truly feel.
6. The Nice Guys
A buddy cop movie from Shane Black. You know what to expect. If there is something surprising about this comedy, it’s that Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy and Ryan Gosling as Holland March work so well as a comedic duo. But as is the nature of Shane Black to find what works in a movie despite the many absurdities he includes as well – this is a movie involving Hannibal Buress playing a CGI bee. Healy and March are on the case of tracking down a porn star, previously thought dead, and uncover something larger along the way involving a missing child. While not necessarily a bold new experiment for structure or a hugely inventive redesign of the genre, this is a buddy cop movie from Shane Black. This should be enough to understand that the movie does what it does exceptionally well. It’s consistently funny, thanks to Crowe and Gosling and through Black’s work with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, a vivid picture of life in 1970’s Los Angeles is created within those opening, sweeping shots of the area and continues to exist in every inch of the frame moving forward. A neon-noir movie if there ever was one.
5. Nocturnal Animals
If Tom Ford wants to take 7 years between movies, then as long as each of them achieve this quality, that’s absolutely fine. Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is living the dream in Los Angeles as the owner of a high end gallery, with a charming husband, Hutton, played by Arnie Hammer, but she’s unhappy with life. Her former husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhall) sends her a manuscript of his most recent novel entitled Nocturnal Animals. From there Ford mixes three narratives – one about Susan in the present day, one centered around her and Edward’s courtship, and the novel’s, which provides an allegory for their relationship as well as Edward’s response to it ending.
I watched this movie pre-Trump’s America and I have no idea how it plays now with its exploration and condemnation of toxic masculinity. Adapted from a book released back in 1993 by Austin Wright, who knows if they could guess how the themes would have been so relevant. With this focus alone it would be one of the most striking movies of the year, but it’s also a movie made by Tom Ford who proved back in 2009 that he could create an intricately designed movie. Working with Seamus McGarvey, Ford constructs a world as opaque as his winter collection. There’s a lot of moving pieces on the board for the duration of this movie, but Ford’s eye means they all weave together to form the wider tapestry.
After this godforsaken year, I never want hear about Anthony fucking Weiner’s fucking weiner again, partly for political reasons (anyone aware of what happened in the final days of the election should understand why), but also because I’m not sure I could bear to remember any specific details of his life after having experienced some of it in horror thanks to Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. For context, Anthony Weiner was a member of Congress who was quickly gaining attention for his impassioned approach to government back in the early 2010’s. Then pictures of him in his underwear appeared on Twitter and tarnished his political standing. Kriegman and Steinberg started the documentary with the intention of following his campaign to become Mayor of New York in 2013, only another scandal broke as they were filming. Somehow, he allowed them to carry on filming. Essentially about a man who doesn’t know when to stop, the camera (and the audience) gain front row seats to this horror show and it only becomes more excruciating as time goes on. Not just for us obviously, as his wife Huma Abedin is also present during these events, having stood by her husband. Forget the VVitch, this is truly the horror movie of the year and even begins to feel like an exploitation film, even more so than the Neon Demon borders on that genre, mainly because you can’t tell if this is going too far over the top. Then again, maybe that makes it the fitting movie to represent this god damn year.
This was the first movie I saw after Trump’s America became reality. It broke me. Not because of the tragedy that the movie makes apparent at the start regarding Amy Adams’ Louise and her daughter, but because it showed a world where we can work together and even now, a month after seeing it, that idea feels like even more of a dream than it did the Monday after the election. Adapted from Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, it sees twelve alien crafts arrive on Earth and humanity’s attempts to understand what’s going. Working with Jeremy Renner’s Ian, Louise is tasked with doing so thanks to her extensive study of language. Through this, director Denis Villeneuve finds humanity’s greatest asset – communication. Simply by talking to each other we can move to solve problems and prevent the worst, the latter of those notions coming together within the movie’s stunning climax which sees screenwriter Eric Heisserer reveal his hand and thus the true nature of the screenplay’s structure which creates this grand unifying narrative that is sure to speak to you in some way.
The second technicality on the list. When I first started putting this piece together I was unsure about how much I’d have to fight about putting Beyonce’s opus and testament to black culture of past & present on here. Since critics have started publishing their pieces, I’ve felt fairly vindicated knowing that I’m not the only one who believes this should be counted as a movie. The sixty minute movie is rich with colour and is comprised from eleven distinct segments that flow from one to the next, while still having their own distinct emotions, no one is going to confuse the poignancy of Daddy Lessons with the quiet rage of Sorry. Even though the former of those spoke to me more, to pick a favourite would feel at odds with the fact it’s such a cohesive piece. Provocative and unapologetic, this is Beyonce at her best and it’s easily worth fighting with Tidal’s esoteric streaming service in order to experience this.
I have never seen a Jim Jarmusch movie before. I wanted to, believe me I did, but I missed out on Only Lovers Left Alive back in 2014. Since seeing Paterson, I don’t think I’ve stopped thinking about it in some way. Paterson stars Adam Driver as Paterson, who lives in Paterson as a bus driver, writes poetry and adores William Carlos Williams, who published a collection of poems entitled Paterson. That’s a lot of Paterson, sure, but also demonstrates what the movie has at it’s core, the city of Paterson. Jarmusch is content with letting the silence of the scene linger as Adam Driver walks to work, drives the bus or nurses a beer at the bar, over the course of seven days (and one morning) of his life. From just these facts I could understand you turning your head at why this is on the top of my list, but at the same time I ask you watch this in order to understand why. In essence Paterson is about an objectively good person and how through idiosyncrasies and people, we seek to fill our lives in order to make them whole, while at the same time being content with the silence that occupies the space we can’t fill. That is true for Driver’s Paterson, but also Golshifteh Farahani’s Laura, his wife who spends her days dreaming of businesses she desires to run while slowly giving their house a make-over. They both have their quirks and don’t fully comprehend the other’s, but they respect each other enough to let them have them.
It’s a movie which despite the structure suggesting monotony, quickly informs you to have no expectations. A conversation with a set of wannabe gangsters quickly offsets what you’d expect from a scene like that in almost every other movie. When Paterson gets caught eavesdropping, no one comes off having been insulted or physically harmed, instead the characters involved share a brief conversation and part, better off for having talked. The moments in the bar are subdued (bar one), but are rich with character. From Barry Shabaka Henry’s Doc who plays chess with himself to William Jackson Harper’s Everett, these are all people trying to get by and suffer setbacks on occasion. I’ve watched just over a week of Paterson’s life in Paterson (in Paterson), but if I’m going to be completely honest, that one week made me feel as if I’ve vicariously lived a complete life. And it’s quite a life.
BEST COMIC BOOK MOVIE
Captain America: Civil War
Being completely honest with you, this award wasn’t that difficult to decide. I mean DC’s output was some of the worst stuff to ever grace cinemas, Deadpool didn’t land with me and even then it didn’t do anything genre-breaking despite calling attention to tropes, X-Men: Apocalypse had a certain visual style to it, but a narrative that comes two years too late to avoid being called out for it and Doctor Strange also had a visual style, but has a ridiculously thin narrative.
Which leaves Captain America: Civil War, a movie I enjoyed immensely at the time, but am scared to go back to in case I find my minor flaws that I have with it currently are bigger than I thought. Even with that and mind, the Russo Brothers, Markus and Mcfeely delivered one of the strongest blockbusters of the year drawing lines between the heroes of the MCU and asking them to duke it out for our pleasure. The conflict isn’t perfect, but the Russo’s handle the large cast reasonably well, giving them all moments to shine, even if the focus is on RDJ and Chris Evans, a sentiment which is especially true when it comes to the airport sequence, one which will become synonymous with Marvel moving forward.
Starting again with an honourable mention, we have Gravity Falls which aired just one episode this year ‘Weirdmageddon 3: Take Back the Falls’, the show’s finale. After a long delay between it and the previous episode, it had a lot riding on it when it came to providing a suitable send-off for this weird and charming show from Alex Hirsch. Luckily it did, providing some fan service without going overboard in addition to a conclusion to the overarching plot while also saying goodbye to the town without closing every single door. The highlight is perhaps the heartfelt battle between Bill and Stan as the latter’s memory starts to fade. If you haven’t seen the show then I implore that you do, I would have felt wrong not mentioning one of the strongest animated shows I’ve ever seen in this end of the year round-up, but couldn’t bring myself to include a single episode on the list.
Before we kick off with the list, let me just note which other shows were also in contention for a spot: Better Things, Bojack Horseman, Catastrophe, Girls, Insecure, iZombie, Lady Dynamite, Love and Person of Interest. Now let’s start the countdown:
10. Search Party
I expect that this show from TBS will pass by many and that’s a gosh darn shame because it’s truly unique, even if it doesn’t necessarily appear to be from the outset. Much like Girls, it opens at brunch, but quickly switches gears when the four main characters – Dory, Drew, Elliot and Portia start discussing the disappearance of Chantal Winterbottom, someone they once knew at college. Very quickly this show shifts into a mix between millennial character study, examination of millennial shows and procedural. There are multiple instances when I gasped at what the show did, but not in response to dynamic reveals which shake up the whodunnit, more so instances like the establishing shot to the vigil which instantly aids an air of Fincher to the episode. The final episode of the season is also particularly damning of Dory, Alla Shawkat’s character, which is a ballsy move for a show to make after spending so long charting said character’s journey.
9. Better Call Saul
WARNING: HOT TAKE ALERT
I’m going to be honest with you here, I think that I like Better Call Saul more than I ever did Breaking Bad.
HOT TAKE HAS PASSED
Don’t get me wrong, Breaking Bad is an incredible achievement in almost every regard, but Better Call Saul seems to be having more fun with Jimmy McGill’s downfall. That and I’m not being told that Better Call Saul is the best thing ever made every few minutes I spend on line. Maybe that’s because a lot of people appear to be content with how Breaking Bad came to a close and decided that they didn’t want more, but they’re wrong. Better Call Saul is just as much must-see TV as Breaking Bad was as creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have taken everything they learned while making that to put them ahead of the curve that was Breaking Bad’s trajectory.
One could have been content with the exploration of Jimmy McGill’s life and just that, but the pair and the rest of the talent behind the camera and in the writer’s room have fleshed out this shades-of-grey world with other characters like Chuck McGill, Howard Hamlin and Kim Wexler to create a vortex rather than downward spiral as each character falls further and further into the abyss, with these subplots being far better intertwined into the core story of Bob Odenkirk’s character than examples from Breaking Bad like Marie’s kleptomania.
Amazon Studios honestly doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to their streaming content, but Transparent continues to blaze a trail and making their other shows look worse in the process. Jill Soloway’s exploration of being Trans became more artistic this season, amping up the spirituality and letting this drive the characters on their separate journeys for which they don’t necessarily know the destination, finally bringing the Pfefferman clan back together in the finale for a cruise. It’s a show about exploration and finding not only who you are in the world, but where in the world you fit. This is inherently obvious from Jeffrey Tambor’s portrayal of Maura who’s journey since the start of the show has been looking for initially acceptance of their identity, but it can also be seen in Josh’s realisation he could buy a house elsewhere or Shelley’s desire to find her brand. Much like Bojack Horseman Season Three, it’s not as tight of a web as their second seasons were, but this seems to works when it comes to Transparent which concurs that the end result may not be a perfect fit, but it’s good enough of one that you can be happy.
7. The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Despite my annoyance that Fargo’s second season (the best season of television from the last ten years, at least) was largely sidelined in lieu of this when it came to award, I always knew this was going to end up on this list. Observing the lives of the many personalities that played a role in this infamous trial, from Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark, who shone in the season’s strongest showing, to Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran, an ever present force of nature to David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian whose line reading for the word ‘juice’ could lighten any scene While Cuba Gooding Jr. never truly steps into the role of O.J. Simpson, this is in part due to the caliber of the rest of the cast being so impressive.
That single minor quibble aside, the story is just as shocking now as it was when it was playing out in real time back in the 90’s, bolstered by Ryan Murphy, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s immediate re-contextualisation of the case with regards to racial tensions in the 1990’s, sparked by the murder of Rodney King. This opening montage sets the table for the season moving forward as implicit racial and sexual biases are noted and interrogated. The direction throughout the season is something which can be considered truly interesting with the way the camera rushes forward, like a press pool reporter rushing to the defendant leaving the courthouse, towards the characters as startling revelations are uncovered. This energy and sense of motion goes to highlight how this is a show that doesn’t let up.
Also, try out O.J.: Made in America, the 5-part ESPN documentary which provides even more context before running concurrently with the events covered in People vs. O.J..
6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh Mckenna’s musical comedy reminds me a lot of Veronica Mars. Make no mistake, this are inherently different shows, but to me they both shouldn’t work. Veronica Mars took a Nancy Drew type character and put them in a hard boiled noir town with a sun drenched filter obscuring some of the seedier details of the story, but resulted in one of the strongest shows to ever air.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend follows suit by charting a Mr. Chips to Scarface journey, much like the one Vince Gilligan pulled off on Breaking Bad, but does this through a screwball musical comedy that mixes up the formula each and every week. Rebecca Bunch, played by Bloom, is clearly not sound of mind and a hazard to all in her immediate space and moves to West Covina following an encounter with a boyfriend from years ago. Since returning in the early months of 2016, the show has understood the niche it fills within the TV landscape, providing a unique arc for Rebecca, only possible on a show like this. In it’s second season, the arcs for her and the supporting cast have continued to reach new heights and all of this is in addition to coming up with original songs each week. From the Lemonade-influenced ‘Love Kernels’ which kicked off the sophomore season to ‘Friendtopia’ which takes the concept of squad goals and the militarastic ideals the concept confers, and throws them into a Spice Girls song.
5. The Girlfriend Experience
Again I expect this show to pass people by. Taking it’s name from Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film, Logan Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz pen and direct a story about Christine, a young woman in law school who turns to the world of escorting. Their incredibly hands-on approach means the show has an immediate feeling of auteurist style and Shane Carruth’s omnipresent electronic score gives it an arthouse quality, one that could be felt in his movies. It avoids being simply sexploitation or Game of Thrones-esque sexposition, seemingly anticipating this reaction and takes steps to preclude you from saying this once you’ve watched a few episodes. Riley Keough gives a haunting and threatening performance, rolling with the show’s transitions into other genres like in the ninth episode ‘Blindsided’ where the show becomes more of a thriller. In the finale ‘Seperation’ I have no idea what it becomes, but it’s so unabashedly engrossing. In addition to all of this, it succeeds a streaming drama in being expertly paced, which helps to be an engaging show and experience like no other.
4. You’re the Worst
I’ve spoken at length about this show on here (I recapped the entire season and wrote about the connection I have to Gretchen, linked below) so I won’t spend too long here repeating myself. Regardless, coming into this season I was apprehensive after that cathartic second season that it something would be missing and it initially felt like that, however once it makes clear that the season wasn’t about therapy or communication, but family, it immediately starts to soar again. Now, family doesn’t necessarily mean a blood bond though, it can be with the friends who are there for you, most evident in Edgar’s arc and the conversation he shares with Lindsay in ‘The Last Sunday Funday’ which featured one of the most beautiful scenes to air this year. Stephen Falk and his room have created a truly artistic show, some of it’s messy, but it’s fitting for the lives these characters lead, so once again, thank you Stephen Falk. Thank you Aya Cash. Thank you everyone involved for giving me a show that has helped to understand myself.
3. Horace & Pete
The final of the shows that will pass a ton of people by and that’s almost by design. From Louis C.K., the first episode was released back in January on his website and announced via a newsletter. As a result it didn’t necessarily slip under the radar, more so appear in our base, blending in with the rest of the high quality TV, causing some people to gloss over it.
As writer, director, editor, actor and distributor, Louis C.K. moves past the traditional notion of what an auteur is to deliver a ten part narrative about a bar in Brooklyn, which has always been run by a Horace and a Pete. In this case, these characters are played by Louis C.K. and Steve Buscemi respectively, but other magnificent actors like Alan Alda and Laurie Metcalf stumble into the bar along the way. It’s such a feat that I find it hard to talk about, I know on one level that it’s one of two streaming dramas (other being The Girlfriend Experience) which has the appropriate amount of plot for the running time of each episode, but beyond that there’s so much going on both on screen and in how the show was produced that I just find myself enamoured by it all.
Back at the TCA’s in the summer, Donald Glover expressed a belief that his auteurist comedy-in-theory Atlanta was Twin Peaks with rappers. That phrase took the discussion of the show by storm when it premiered, within the hour of the show airing people were overanalysing what that guy on the bus with the sandwich meant. But they were going about it the wrong way from where I was sitting, a sentiment that was backed up the following week when some questioned why the show wasn’t dealing with Brian Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi being involved in a shooting. Theories about what would happen to Paper Boi were thrown back and forth, about the guy who shouted “Worldstar”, about which gun was actually fired, but again people missed the point. By calling it Twin Peaks with rappers, Glover indicated that while the show may at first appear to be concerned with a murder, both care about all of the other goings-on so much more.
As a result, the show can be elastic, whatever Donald Glover and his friends who helped write and direct wanted the show to be about that particular week. Sometimes this meant we’d follow the character played by Glover, Earn, in his struggle to stay on his feet, at others it could be about Season MVP Darius (Keith Stanfield) going to a gun range and finding out he couldn’t shoot a target of a dog, while others could shoot human targets. It could be about a fake talk show or Zazie Beetz’s Van as she works out how to pass a drug test. Deftly funny in one moment, morose in another, sly social commentary throughout, nobody can truly know what Atlanta will be week to week and that’s exciting beyond belief.
1. The Americans
The Americans is a show that can pull of a time skip in the eighth episode of it’s season and keep going without missing a beat. That’s enough reason to consider this TV’s best show, but at the same time, there’s so many other nuances which provide further proof. Focused on Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), two Soviet agents in Washington, who have to contend with their KGB missions in addition to staying on top of their responsibilities as a family with their two kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), the former of which has been roped into the un-American activities of the Jennings.
From Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, it tells the story of a family caught in the push and pull of American life and continues to get better and better each and every year. Themes are deftly layered within the writing and direction – note the voyeuristic camera in the season premiere showing what it’s like to be out the outside looking in or vice versa, which makes a return in the final shot of the season, the show provides shocks from week to week in how it effortlessly pulls off a plot twist or how it sets up what becomes perceived as a Chekhov’s Gun, only to brush it aside, having snuck else by you while you were distracted. Right now we know that there are 23 episode of The Americans still to come. Right now I can’t tell you with any certainty what’s going to happen in those. What I can tell you right now is that it’s one of the finest shows being made today and already deserves a place in the pantheon.
For anyone wondering which shows didn’t get included in this conversation then for your reading pleasure:
Worth Watching: 11.22.63, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, X-Files S10E03 ‘Scully and Mulder Meet the Were-Monster’, The 100, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Good Place, Supergirl, Easy, Take My Wife, Stranger Things, High Maintenance, Black-ish and Black Mirror S03E04 ‘San Junipero’
Toes the Line: Divorce
Misfires: Star Wars Rebels, Archer, The Flash, Mr. Robot, The Expanse, the rest of Black Mirror S3, The Night of, The Get Down, Vice Principals, Bloodline, Arrow
Real Disappointments: Daredevil, Luke Cage, The X-Files S10, Legends of Tomorrow, Westworld, The Walking Dead, Sherlock, Vinyl, UnReal, Flaked
BEST BRITISH TV SHOW
Phoebe Waller-Bridge has produced one of the most intriguing pieces of work from this year. Developed from a one act play she performed at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, the show is an exploration of a woman’s life in modern-day London who we’ll only know as Fleabag. Along the way we come into contact with family and friends. The show establishes itself as something special early on, opening on Waller-Bridge talking to us about the response to a guy coming over, when he arrives at the house she switches between their conversation and snarky offshoots for us. This in itself gives away that this was once a play, where the stage allows the characters to relay information directly to the audience in the form of monologues or soliloquies. The show is both open, dealing with all manner of sexual content as you’ll see from the opening few minutes, and simultaneously closed off as certain pieces of the narrative have been withheld purposely. When all of the cards are finally laid out on the table, your perception of the character of Fleabag changes. Then it goes a step further, your perception of Fleabag, the show, changes.
And if you want two other recommendations then try Crashing and The Night Manager.
I considered doing ten episodes for both Best Half Hour and Best Hour Long Shows, but after looking over my list for both, I think it would better to discuss the
BEST EPISODES OF TV
from this year all together because there’s no reason to segregate the two formats. Also I’m going to try and keep these short and punchy so I don’t try to write a thesis of the episodes. So cracking swiftly on:
10. Person of Interest S05 E04 – 6,741
After some time away, Shaw gets reunited in an episode which spotlights her relationship to the various members of the team, primarily Amy Acker’s Root. It’s heartfelt, smart and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the episode’s conclusion. Playing with the idea of being in control, 6,741 is directly linked to the core ideas of Person of Interest and makes for the standout episode of the season.
9. You’re the Worst S03 E06 – The Last Sunday Funday
Having written about this in the form of a recap, I’ll be brief. Edgar’s journey within this episode is cathartic, the fireworks scene is a piece of art and the episode would still rank on the list if it was solely focused on this. Instead it layers this in with a scavenger hunt for the core four that keeps the laughs flowing thick and fast.
8. Fleabag S01 E04 – Episode 4
Fleabag and her sister, Claire, take to the country for a female-only, silent retreat. It doesn’t stay silent for long, and over the course of the retreat, Fleabag is brought back into connection with characters from earlier in the season, following up on ideas seeded and treated as throwaway jokes prior. This in itself highlights the extent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s talent as a writer as she’s able to return to something and give it a renewed focus, while also continuing ideas that have persisted through the series like the sisterly relationship.
7. Horace and Pete S01E03 – Episode 3
I don’t really want to discuss this one beyond surface details, because I feel it should be up to each viewer to discover this one for themselves. What I will say is that opening with a nine minute monologue performed by Laurie Metcalfe sets the stage for a tour-de-force performance from everyone involved as you sit, transfixed by the story.
6. The Girlfriend Experience S01E09 – Blindsided
This is where the show becomes a thriller as Christine’s work as an escort is outed. In an instant everyone seems to be talking about her and her actions. Both her clients and bosses are concerned with the information they learn. In essence, her sex and her having sex are turned against her in a power play which takes the ruthless undercurrent the show has had thus far and brings it to the forefront for the third act as everything starts to crumble.
5. The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story S01E06 – Marcia, Marcia, Marcia
Like many episodes on this list, Marcia, Marcia, Marcia provides a spotlight on one particular character – in this case Marcia Clark played by Sarah Paulson. This episode is very much an examination of her experience over the course of the trial, showing how her work on the case begins to invade her home life, not to mention how difficult the trial is to contend with. It’s the show’s finest hour, which says a lot considering this is also a season that contains the episode ‘The Race Card’ and functions as a summation of the series, noting how OJ’s trial was messed up from the get-go and got progressively worse as it dragged on.
4. Bojack Horseman S03 E04 – Fish Out of Water
Bojack’s version of Hollywoo has always been one filled with character. Part of this is down to the cast’s stellar voice performances, but it’s also due to the eye-popping visuals and visual comedy that lines the boulevards. The third season’s fourth episode transports Bojack, the character underwater, while retaining the visual qualities of Bojack, the show. An exploration of loneliness in a world sans communication, Bojack is able to find a physical connection between him and a baby seahorse which takes him through a variety of locations, including a hotel and a taffy factory. Building to one of the show’s best punchlines, the silence that builds to it is perhaps the most affecting moments of the show thus far as it questions what can we say when we don’t know how to?
3. You’re the Worst S03 E05 – Twenty-Two
Again I’ve written about this in a recap. Much like Season 2’s ‘LCD Soundsystem’ Stephen Falk writes and directs an episode focused intently on one character getting to the heart of their issues. Last season it was Gretchen, now it’s Edgar as he copes with a PTSD episode. Featuring some expert framing, subversion of scenes we’d already witnessed the week before and the air of that scene from The Hurt Locker where Jeremy Renner’s character is buying groceries, this is a respectful, but illuminating piece of television.
2. Atlanta S01E07 – B.A.N
I mentioned this episode before. It sees Paper Boi appear on a fictional talkshow, Montague, to discuss transphobia and masculinity. Rather than treating it as something where we stay with Paper Boi the entire time, it’s treated as an episode of Montague combining these discussions with out of the studio segments and a variety of fake adverts. A damning critique of society that will take more than one watch to understand exactly what you think of it, but that’s not an issue. As one of the year’s most captivating episodes, it would be disappointing if rewatching didn’t yield a richer understanding of everything the creative talent involved were trying to put forward.
1. The Americans S04 E08 – The Magic of David Copperfield V:
The Statue of Liberty Disappears
Losing a character is always hard. When it comes to The Americans it should be expected really, but as a result of the high body count, we, as viewers, brace for the kill. So when The Americans says goodbye to a character in silence and without killing them it stands out. The cold open of this episode does exactly that and it’s a truly impressive sequence, but Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields (as well as everyone else involved) aren’t content to just do this, the episode continues to surprise you and eventually comes to the time-skip. Thanks to this, there’s an overlapping of sorts as Season Four essentially comes to a close in this moment and it skips over the pieces on the board being shuffled around. This economical approach shows that Weisberg and Fields respect the length of stories and let them play out with the appropriate amount of focus. Keri Russell may have the most eye-popping scene thanks to her ocular vein being particularly present during her outburst as Holly Taylor’s Paige, but Matthew Rhys gets his moment in the c0ld open as he, and the show say goodbye to a character. As viewers we don’t necessarily know for sure if we’ll ever see the character again, but for Rhys playing Philip Jennings, he seems to have come to terms with this farewell knowing it’s easier to expect he won’t see them again rather than hope that one day he will.
Our final TV Award is the
an award that no-one wants to win. But somebody has to, especially after a year like this when there were multiple shows that missed the mark (for me).
So getting the contenders out of the way: Flash for cannibalising the arc from Season One, only retelling it less effectively, Daredevil for having a horribly unfocused season which may have made me dislike Season One, Agent Carter for losing something in the coast-to-coast move and Mr. Robot for admittedly giving it everything and throwing everything to see what stuck, but sadly not a lot did.
Which means that UnREAL Season Two is our victor, and us the viewers, certainly the losers having to endure what was a dark, twisted and manipulative show in Season One, seemingly forget what made it so good in order to move towards shocking events for ratings. What may have seemed like a possible intention of the creators in keeping with reality TV became down right offensive and shockingly awful with the season’s sixth episode ‘Casualty’ which when suggests it’s going to deal with the very real problem of a black man being shot by a cop in a traffic spot, only to then move away from this to focus on Rachel’s grief. It’s simply a horribly mismanaged narrative that stands out in a year when Atlanta had a fake cereal advert which dealt with the idea with far more nuance is such a brief pocket of time.
In the post-Serial podcast age, you need to do more to stand out and Homecoming does so by functioning as a radio play for the modern era, with stars like Amy Sedaris, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer, and top notch production values to boot. I’ll say nothing about plot, but it’s a harrowingly thought provoking thing to behold and with only six episodes released (at the time of writing), it’s a perfect afternoon’s worth of entertainment.
BEST THING I LISTENED TO
This category is here, not because I’m going to make the claim that I’m a music expert, but because I haven’t had an opportunity to shill Carly Rae Jepsen’s E.MO.TION Side B in a while.
‘But what about Lemonade?’ I hear you cry. Well yes, Lemonade is absolutely incredible and probably Beyonce’s finest work, but being honest I haven’t listened to it a second time. I haven’t even straight up listened to it once. And that’s because I think it’s designed as an audio/visual presentation over being a straight up LP/album/music lingo that I don’t know.
But back to Carly. Last year, the song Boy Problems from E.MO.TION proved that she’s Cyndi Lauper reincarnated to make pop better for all of us and the vibe that can be gleamed from that song (and there are even hints of it in her 2012 album Kiss) is ever present in Side B. It contains some of the songs she chose not include on the original album (and she had like 200+ to choose from, so I’m looking forward to sides C-Z, he said crossing his fingers) and they fit the dynamic that she cemented back in 2015. How many other artists do you know that you could make a song about heading out to the Store and never coming back without it being a poor Robin Sparkles parody? This is to say nothing about Fever or Cry which could have become summer hits, if only people hadn’t written her off after I Really Like You.
Other contenders that struck me this year include Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! and Tegan and Sara’s Love You To Death. Anyways, enough about me pretending that I can talk about music for an extended duration of time without reaching the point where he’s looking for Almost Famous quotes to alter.
2016 was also the year that I made a point to read more prose as well (No, it wasn’t just to seem academic now I’m at uni, you’ll realise when you see my number 2 pick). Like with music, I’m not going to try and claim that I’m well aware of everything that came out this year, and these stood head and shoulders above everything, but out of the ones I read (Star Wars novels, I admit it, they were mainly Star Wars novels), these three are certainly worth your time.
3. TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American TV Shows of All Time – Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz
You may have guessed from the list of shows above that I am heavily invested in the medium and I like to think that I’ve consumed a lot of TV, but it’s nothing in comparison to how much revolutionary critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz have watched. Having been writing about TV since the 90’s, this is perhaps a summation of what their careers have been leading up to – an encyclopedia on the best of the best. While some may be steered away by the long title, taking it to be obtuse academia, you should know that shouldn’t be a concern as both Sepinwall and Seitz’s writing styles are highly accessible.
TV (The Book) is something which can be given to anyone; regardless of if they’re in the trenches when it comes to PeakTV or if they just watch what takes their fancy week to week. It’s an expert discussion on TV, past and present, looking back past the current Golden Age and avoids just being a list that someone could post on a WordPress blog as it delves into what criticism should be, explaining why shows deserve to be on the list. In addition, there’s material on shows currently airing (and thus unable to be included within the Top 100) as well as the shows which the pair desired to discuss, but couldn’t put on the list. These elements all add up to create what could and should be used as a defining text for the medium.
2. Star Wars: Bloodline – Claudia Grey
I said I’d read primarily Star Wars novels so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Earlier in the year, I caught up with the Star Wars canon and so I read Lost Stars, also from Grey and that’s a phenomenal novel which takes a star-crossed lovers narrative and spreads it wide across the stars and through the era of the Empire. Once I read that, I was on board for what ever she was going to write next for the Star Wars canon and I expected a high quality novel in Bloodline, but I didn’t expect that Bloodline would not only exceed my expectations this much. Bloodline follows Leia, five years before the events of The Force Awakens, as she works to keep the senate together as secrets, both personal and political are laid bare.
Leia has always been a character who’s had moments in which she’s shined, but they’ve also been within the confines of an ensemble group. Here she gets the spotlight (primarily) to herself. The central narrative keeps pushing along, but Grey is content to take her foot of the gas for a beat in order to deal with smaller, more character focused moments. This allows the book to retain a sense of steady momentum, but also give you something to think about when you’re waiting for the next active question about the conspiracy to be answered. If you need more convincing then you should know that this book turned what I thought I knew about the sequel trilogy on its head, I’m literally back at the drawing board now trying to assemble the pieces we have. This is what’s most special about the book – the way it effortlessly slides into the canon, there are callbacks to a character from the Clone Wars and it provides some set-up for the political situation come Force Awakens, all of which go to show that the Story Group at Lucasfilms have a plan, it’s not as clear cut as one could assume after watching Force Awakens and this could very easily be the central pillar from which all future revelations can be traced back to.
1. Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Sadly we didn’t get Fargo S3 this year, but we did get a project from Noah Hawley in Before the Fall, a book which he started prior to Fargo S1. The novel centers on a plane which crashes after departing Martha’s Vineyard and the people who survive, but also jumps back in time to examine each passenger’s life one by one, eventually giving way to the true cause of the crash. Instantly engaging, this structure allows Hawley to dig into backstory without the need for characters to deliver exposition in the present day in addition to providing a critique on how various sections of the media respond to disasters like this.
What startled me the most about the novel is how the synopsis that you can find on Amazon presents the inciting incident of the plane crash and who survives in very plain terms, but there’s still so much to tell. Unlike Westworld, for example, which deals heavily in backstory (and falters massively with how it melds this and the present day together), Before the Fall slowly uncovers the past to create a tightly strung narrative web. Going in depth would probably spoil it, so in summation, Hawley’s prose is as gripping as his screenwriting, goes above and beyond being a simple airport thriller thanks to the unique way in which it tells the story and will more than tide you over until 2017 which looks set to be Hawley’s best year yet.
Having a job at Newsarama means I’ve written a metric boat tonne about comics in the second half of the year (at the time of writing, I’ve filed my 50th review). This post was primarily to talk about movies and TV, so I’m going to keep this as brief as I possibly can.
3. The Flintstones
After the disappointing cancellation of Prez, Mark Russell appears to have taken all of the biting political satire he had cooked up for that series and transported it to Bedrock alongside artist Steve Pugh. Having engaged with notions of friendship, elections, the end of the world, war and marriage, the team have made this a measured, but consistently funny book.
Superwoman took me by surprise and I’m not just referring to the ending to issue 1. Out of everything I’ve sampled from DC’s Rebirth initiative, this is the series which I’ve found has responded to the core idea of the new line the most, blending the old with the new and moving forward as it does so. Regardless of if Phil Jimenez is handling both the script and pencils or if Emanuela Lupacchino is on art duties, the book has a uniformity to it, creating a modern Metropolis which is large and expansive and bolstered by the ability of both to find the heart and motion of the story, even in the dialogue heavy scenes, which are themselves expertly blocked.
1. The Omega Men
I consider Omega Men this generation’s Watchmen. It’s what spurred me to create this blog, I’ll link my endorsement below because I don’t think I can say it any better than I did there.
As a book that’s completely gobsmacked me in the back half of this year, I’ve felt compelled to write about the book with every chance I get. As a result I have 3 glowing reviews up at Newsarama, and I’m just going to link them here because quite frankly if they won’t convince you then I don’t know what will.
2. The Wicked + The Divine
Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson and Clayton Cowles delivered one of the best summer events in the fourth arc of this pop culture examination. Bold and expressive, the team brought a conflict to a close, setting the stage for something which could go in any direction. The fifth arc, Imperial Phase includes the first instances of interiors with Kevin Wada and is one of the strongest uses of prose in comics since Watchmen. And to cap it off, the series also had a one-shot with art by Stephanie Hans which is simply divine.
1. Casanova: Acedia
We only got three issues of Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, Fabio Moon and Cris Peter’s opus this year, but boy howdy were they fantastic, building towards the mid point of the seven volume epic. It’s a book which fascinates me because I don’t think we’ll truly know what it’s about until long after it’s finished. Right now it appears to be a book about change, with Acedia, specifically, being about the darkness trying to pull you back in.
3. The Ultimates
In the wake of Secret Wars, the Marvel Universe needs a team that’s there to handle the larger threats. Enter: The Ultimates by Al Ewing, Kenneth Rocafort, Travel Foreman Christian Ward and Dan Brown. The team, comprised of Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Miss America, Monica Rambeau and Blue Marvel, got to work turning Galactus into the Lifebringer. Since then, Ewing continues to build his cosmic saga, picking up pieces from pre-Secret Wars continuity and effortlessly navigating around events like Civil War 2. While the second arc of the series was a slight decline as a result of having to tie-in to the event, Ultimates^2 gets the series back to what it started as and it looks like the problems and wider story being told are only going to get bigger from here.
2. Black Panther
This is Ta-Neishi Coates’ first time writing comics, but he’s no stranger to them having been a fan for a large portion of his life. Now he gets the chance to work with Brian Stelfreeze, Chris Sprouse and Laura Martin to present a Wakanda in disarray. Dealing with themes presented in his book Between the World and Me, notions of afro-futurism and references to hip-hop, I’m not the most qualified person to tell you the exact nuances contained within the covers. Starting out as a slow, but steady burn, it gains traction quickly when a certain character shows up and hasn’t let up since.
The final chapter of Tom King’s Best Intentions trilogy (alongside Omega Men and Sheriff of Babylon), he, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles take the Vision, give him a family, transport him to Washington D.C. and let everything go wrong from there. What starts as an homage to the Vision and the Scarlet Witch miniseries of the 1980’s, it fast becomes a Lynchian inspired piece of suburban Americana, issue #7 delves into the Vision’s history with art by Michael Walsh. It’s the best issue in a run of 10/10’s that continually builds the tension and your expectations higher with each turn of the page.
3. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers
I watched various iterations of the Power Rangers as a kid, but this is the first time I’m willing to say that a Power Rangers piece of media is legitimately good. From Kyle Higgins, Hendry Prasetya, Matt Herms and Ed Dukeshire, this series is set shortly after Tommy joined the team as the Green Ranger, taking all the conflict you’d expect from this in it’s stride. A narrative which encompasses a multitude of Rangers canon with some stunning and kinetic art, I’m eager to see how this year long narrative concludes in the coming months.
2. Sheriff of Babylon
The second of Tom King’s books to deal with US Interventionism in the Middle East, taking a harsh look at the Iraq War from the perspective of a CIA officer, but also people who live there. While both The Omega Men and Vision deal with real world concepts, this grounded take on the war sets itself apart from those by explicitly dealing with the ideas. To speak of the art, Gerards is no stranger to this style of book having worked on both The Activity and The Punisher, but Sheriff features his finest work to date – it, like the general tone of the book, feels muddy in places. At the moment it’s just a 12 issue miniseries, but the pair should be back for Season 2 (and beyond) in the near future.
1. Giant Days
Esther, Susan and Daisy are students at Sheffield University. Hijinks ensue. That’s all you need to know going into John Allison, Max Sarin, Liz Fleming, Whitney Cogar and Jim Campbell’s Boom Box series. Allison has been writing webcomics for years so he knows exactly how to set up multiple laughs on a page, while also layering in enough plot to make each page necessary. Surprisingly dense, Giant Days is a book which can take even the most standard of situations for English university students and draw as much humour as possible out of them.
THE JOKE (THERE’S ALWAYS A LITTLE BIT OF HONESTY IN JOKES) AWARDS
BEST ESSAY TITLE I NEVER GOT CHANCE TO USE
Westworld isn’t Worstworld, but that doesn’t mean it’s Bestworld.
BEST SUBHEADER THAT I NEVER GOT TO USE
To be honest with you, it’s really Meh-stworld.
BYE FELICIA AWARD
The Walking Dead
So yeah, S6 Cliffhanger and S7 Premiere. I rest my case.
BEST CHASE SCENE AWARD
The one involving the McDonald’s at the tail-end of Weiner.
This wasn’t an exceptional movie by any means*, but it does have some stuff that worked (which puts it above the DC movies and Deadpool honestly) – in particular the Phoenix sequence at the end. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some atrocious stuff in here, like Magneto ripping up Auschwitz for scrap, but no movie this year (that I can think of) had a tunnel as extravagant as the one here. It takes you through centuries of history in one fluid, non-stop, except-for-the-moment-where-you-slow-to-turn-your-head-and-look tour to that magical X-locked door.
*Maybe a case could be made that Apocalypse is this year’s Spectre, in that you can watch the first five minutes and the opening sequence, then turn it off and be alright.
So that’s it.
~7500 ~10000 words on this year’s pop culture. I thank you for reading if you’ve read all the way, if you’ve scrolled down to see how long this goes on for, only to decide you don’t have time to read this all, then ha ha, I still get the click. I guess the best way to leave this off is by saying that I don’t really know what’s going to happen to this in 2017. I have a movie that I’m in the process of plotting right now, with the intention of getting it written in late January/early February, I have my standard job over at Newsarama to do and essays for class. I’d like to return here momentarily to do reviews of movies and TV shows once they finish, any other topics that capture the zeitgeist, but I can’t promise anything. Still thanks for reading. If nothing else, then I’ll see you here in twelve months.