The continually horrific events of 2016 seemed almost coordinated to a young college graduate like myself. As I ventured out of the safety net of academia the world suddenly became a lot more complicated than I had anticipated. I think it resulted in a rapid change of my personal tastes. Things that were once goofy action fun had become gratuitously violent. Comedy I had once found funny suddenly seemed misguided or in poor taste. On the other hand, certain things that once seemed boring and pointless suddenly peaked my interest with rich layers of meaning beneath the surface. TL;DR My tastes grew up this year. A lot more than one might in a typical calendar year. More than I wanted them to, really.
When I look back at the stuff I watched / read / listened to this year, I see equal amounts of escapism and innovation. For every groundbreaking piece I consumed that changed the way I thought about everything, there's about twenty episodes of an old TV show watched with absolutely no current artistic value at all. It's the balance that a year like this requires: The comfort and revitalization of old favorites and the new groundbreaking challenges that allow us to grow as people.
My picks below represent this balance. An equal amount of self care and new ventures. You'll probably be able to guess which is which.
You're The Worst
After I graduated college my parents moved to LA, so with every 10 hour round trip to visit them I attempt to expand my pop culture library in some way. To my surprise, watching the first season of You're The Worst in a small seat several thousand feet in the air was one of my favorite experiences of this year. Since then I've gone through the entire second season and watched the third as it aired this fall.
The show, starring three horrifically selfish people and one very kind person, sounds unbearable on paper. But after the initial few episodes the show delves deep into the backgrounds and psyche of each character. It seems insistent on, if not making us like them, at least having us understand why they are who they are. Naturally this leads the show to delve into somewhat dark subject matter for a half hour comedy, but it handles these themes with such care and craft that it never seems exploitative or demeaning. It's also very, very funny.
The show is near-perfect for it's entire three season run, but a particular highlight comes in the larger arc of the second season in which the show delves deep into one character's struggle with chronic depression. Lesser shows here would become melodramatic, but You're The Worst makes a point to never let the humor die while simultaneously understanding the uncomfortable reality of a condition that few people really understand.
How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines
Improv has been one of the most important things in my life since I was 16. It brought out the performer and the writer within me and without it I could assure I'd be a much more boring person today. But I've also struggled a lot with improv post-college. I stopped enjoying the moment and I found myself making moves I thought coaches or teachers would want instead. Additionally, The competitive scene of NYC leads to less performance time and it can be demoralizing to put money towards crafting a skill that you rarely get to demonstrate.
Hines' book is not for beginning improvisers. It's for people like me, losing love for the form that originally brought them so much joy. He writes from a perspective of someone who considers himself not so much outwardly talented at improv, but someone who has paid attention and worked to make himself the best over years and years of practice. His advice is invaluable because it comes from someone who seldom relied on charm or god-given gifts to get where he wanted to go. He struggled with his own insecurities and hang-ups, and he overcame them by tackling them one by one.
The book functions well as back pocket advice. Read a chapter a day (especially if you have show or a practice) carry the mantra with you. I noticed myself having more fun, feeling more confident, and more assured in my own voice. Most importantly, I enjoyed performing improv again. And that's invaluable to me.
I'm a working playwright (in theory) but rarely do I get to see actual plays, especially new plays. Make no mistake: I've been to plenty of readings this past year, but high ticket costs limit me to one or two Broadway or Off-Broadway productions a year (Off-Off Broadway I'm there though. Especially if tickets are less than $15!).
I was so excited then, when a friend had spare tickets to Dan Lefranc's new play, Rancho Viejo. Lefranc had previously written Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, which remains one of my favorite modern plays to this day. I eagerly sat down for a Saturday matinee, which took place of three hours and included two intermissions.
Rancho Viejo is an incredibly intimate epic about the existential struggles of four late-middle-aged couples living in a pleasant dessert town in California. There's no yelling, not much crying, and there's no major betrayals or dramatic twists. It's a slice of life narrative in which the characters spend most of their time casually philosophizing at parties. Yet the play remains endlessly fascinating, as the long run time allows small things to grow exponentially in meaning. What may begin as a fun distraction for one character eventually grows into the purpose for their existence. Something as small as attending an art fair becomes the valuable social capital that these characters strive to give and receive from one another.
Rancho Viejo ended it's short run on December 23rd. I don't know if it will be published or performed again, but that long afternoon spent with those characters has stuck to my mind like glue in the past few weeks.
I will eternally acknowledge that my perception of Moonlight might be skewed. I entered with little knowledge to what it was about, and after being deeply moved by it, got to see a surprised Q&A by director Barry Jenkins who had been present the whole time. Much different than many of my peers who had been hearing hype from critics for weeks before finally being able to see it.
Moonlight has it's flaws, mainly in how little we get to know about the main character, Chiron, as we see him in three different phases of his life. But as someone who's always been more concerned with writing and narrative structure than visuals and production (Sorry La La Land), I found myself amazed at how rich of a visual vocabulary Moonlight offered me. So often I see beautiful movies that fail to contribute anything to the narrative besides visual style. Moonlight is that rare movie where each shot contributes to not only the atmosphere, but the story being told. It's one of the only instances I can remember where a shot of character's eyes speaks louder than most of the dialogue I've seen this year. It's one of the only movies I saw this year where the visual medium of film is not only justified, it's absolutely necessary.
My favorite two movies this year come between Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea, but Moonlight wins here because of it's dedication to the medium. Lonnergan's writing may overtake Jenkins' in a few areas, namely dialogue and flashback structure, but it's long running time prevents the pure frame for frame perfection that Moonlight delivers. This is all just my opinion of course.
The Holy Fuck Comedy Hour
The days after Donald Trump were elected president were some of the strangest I've ever had. A huge cloud seemed to perpetually hang over New York City as we collectively began to understand what just happened and what it all meant. The first time I truly felt all right again after the election was when I went to go see The Holy Fuck Comedy Hour that Thursday night.
Holy Fuck is a brand new show every week, like SNL, only way with a way smaller budget ($0) and way more room to improvise (almost every sketch goes completely off script). The result is inconsistent, but the regular performers there are responsible for some of the hardest belly laughs I've had in recent memory. It is not uncommon for me to leave the show with an aching jaw from how much laughter was being expelled from my mouth.
The other advantage to a brand new weekly show is the ability to tackle current events as they happen. Just like South Park or SNL, Holy Fuck often has the ability to tackle a subject from an angle before most comedians enter the writer's room. Though the show never goes out of its way to talk about current events, they inevitably play a part in the weekly show's many sketches.
The week of the election was one of the best Holy Fuck shows I'd ever seen. It was raw, honest, hilarious, and ultimately positive and uplifting. It was a comforting reminder of the healing powers of comedy and I headed home with a more optimistic outlook on the world.
I go to Holy Fuck as often as I can, especially in the particularly rough or trying weeks this year has served up. It's cool to know that however bad the days get in the upcoming years, there will be people making comedy somewhere for free on a Thursday night.
In terms of best value per hours of entertainment this year, Rocket League is the clear winner for me. For $20 I've spent many (so many. an embarrassing amount of) hours playing this game side by side with my roommate. It's a near-nightly ritual for me and him to play a game or two when we both get home late at night.
The concept is simple: soccer played with small rocket-powered cars. As a competitive online game it has that amazing easy-to-get-into, hard-to-master-quality that gives room for consistent improvement in skill while never taking away the fun. Add that to an amazing matchmaking system that almost always succeeds in placing you with similarly skilled players and you have the perfect amount of challenge that keeps me and my roommate coming back time after time.
Finally, Rocket League succeeds in being one of the few remaining games to have split screen multiplayer. As I get older and have less and less time to partake in the huge long-winded experiences that video games offer, I can't help but fall in love with games that are easily accessible for me and any friends that might be strolling by. I hope there will be more like this in the future, but in the mean time my roommate and I are no where near exhausting our love for Rocket League.
Cardinal by Pinegrove
I have bad taste in music. I have a variety of theories for why this is, but let's chalk it up to me never really playing instrument besides the trombone and not particularly everenjoying playing that instrument. It's not that I don't enjoy "good" music, I can definitely listen to it, especially live. But for some reason I'll always prefer to listen to the lyrically charged (but rhythmically simple) sounds of Pop-punk or folk-punk (my most listened to albums of the last 3 years have all been by The Front Bottoms).
How refreshing is it then, that Pinegrove arrived this year with an easily accessible but rich debut album that is somehow simultaneously country and emo. With vocals similar to Colin Meloy, lyrics as intricate as the best of The Front Bottoms, and a Montclair, New Jersey origin story, Pinegrove fast became my new favorite band this year. And on top of all of that I think they make genuinely good music. I could be wrong though. I have terrible taste.
I recommend checking out the song Old Friends first. If that doesn't do it for you, it's probably a band best left for my listening pleasure.
I have listened to this little podcast since I was fifteen years old. It's gone through changes in format, name, and hosts since then, but it has remained consistently my favorite podcast of all time. It's really simple: Three hosts and a special guest sit down to talk about what they've been watching, film news, and close each episode out with one movie review. It's something I've looked forward to every Tuesday for almost ten years.
This year the /Filmcast got a little deeper though, as the hosts began to make apt comparisons from the things they were watching to the country's current political climate. They also added a brand new segment: /Filmcourt where people write in with moral dilemmas regarding the world of film and they judge accordingly.
It's nerdy, but I have gone out of my way to see the films they review, just because I love listening to them talk about films so much. It's the kind of bond I have sustained with few pieces of media in my life, and I hope there's many more years of the /Filmcast in the future.
I was not a Simpsons child. I discovered Family Guy first and that became my go-to immature adult cartoon for most of my early teenage years. Not to mention I came of age long after the "golden era" of the Simpsons and there was never an easy way to watch them.
Thank god for FXX bringing a streaming service that allows me to watch every episode of The Simpsons ever created. This year I came close, or at least close in the first eight seasons. There's literally nothing left to be said about the Simpsons. But I'll say this: the way this show manages to be smart about it's dumb humor is something that never gets old. Also just an incredible demonstration of how individual characters and their comedic deals can be used in harmony like a beautiful piece of comedy music.
I know I'm on the cusp in terms of its decline, but I am eternally thankful for the nights where my insomnia kicks in and I have a huge library of episodes to choose from. We'll see how I feel next year though.
This is last on the list because I'm almost afraid of recommending it to people. This three hour German screwball-comedy is by far the weirdest thing I have seen in theaters this year. It also seems just impractically up my alley: the tale of a dad who loves doing bits so much that he creates an extended character to cheer up his workaholic daughter. It sounds like an Adam Sandler movie but it remains grounded even through its strange premise.
The thing I loved the most about Toni Eerdman, perhaps even more than how much it made me laugh, is its dedication to the present moment at hand. For a movie about a father and daughter, it relies on almost no information in the past and instead chooses to live entirely in the actions you see played out. It ultimately leads to a commentary on the passage of time and living in the moment. It's the exact kind of movie I needed for the end of 2016. A film that demands one stop living in the past or worrying about the future and asks you simply to exist with these characters for a while. It's also unrelentingly positive in a year full of negativity, death, and violence.
It will be too boring for some, too strange for others, but if you manage to catch it, give it a chance. Toni Eerdman is one of the most unique movies I've had the pleasure of seeing in years.
Annie Baker's John, Manchester By The Sea, Atlanta, Better Things, High Maintenance, We've Got it From Here Thank You Very Much by A Tribe Called Quest, The Handmaiden, and The Wind Waker.