In somewhat festive partridge in a pear tree fashion, here’s our top books, movies, TV shows, albums, and a special final category.
5 Awesome Books
It was a banner year for books by famous people who don’t normally write books. Sure, ’tis the season for such things—every year we get a glut around this time of celebrity memoirs—but this year, there were three that really stood out as special.
Anna Kendrick, whose acerbic, snarky, and essential Twitter feed has been showing us for years that she knows her way around a finely honed sentence, gave us Scrappy Little Nobody, a brilliantly titled collection of essays covering her life from childhood to Broadway debut to Twilight to Up In The Air and beyond. What many of these books lack is a point of view; that’s not something Kendrick has an issue with. Bracingly honest, her often savagely funny and poignant stories are fascinating and hilariously told, and what becomes very clear is that her Thanksgiving and Christmas parties would be the absolute best.
Not to be outdone in the Dorothy Parker-esque observational acting category, Lauren Graham, already a novelist as well as an actress, dropped Talking As Fast As I Can, which focused mainly on filming the Gilmore Girls, both the original run, and the revival. It’s a breezy, chatty, very, very funny read, and if you’re still basking in the warm glow of the revival, this will absolutely keep it going just a little longer. Graham has a smart, hyper-self-aware, quick-thinking, and warm view of the world, and she can tell a story with the best of them (one of the reasons why she’s such a perfect fit for Amy Sherman-Palladino’s quick-fire, storytelling dialogue… but—spoiler—more on that shortly!).
As brilliant as those two books were, there was one more autobiography that truly shone, to the extent that it’s a contender for book of the year (or maybe of the decade). The mighty Bruce Springsteen brought forth one of the greatest autobiography/memoirs ever written with Born To Run. It was full of thunder and subtle profundity. Every sentence was poetic, hard-won, hewn from life’s granite face of truth and wisdom. The hyperbole is deserved. Nobel Prize, anyone? It should be no surprise; Springsteen has spent the last 30 or 40 years writing tough, beautiful and grittily evocative stories of American life, and he knows how to make every turn of phrase feel true, hit hard, and make you dream.
In the world of novels, Dark Matter by Blake Crouch was a welcome slice of atmospheric quantum techno-thrills, which took the concept of multiple universes and turned it into an unstoppable page-turner which was equal parts mind-bending, haunting, and terrifying. Deftly written but morally hefty, it made you think and feel and gasp, and the consequences of it all reverberate for long after you stop reading.
But, when all’s said and done, at the end of the day, there was a novel that might just have to be the book of the year. Even more universe-shatteringly awesome than Dark Matter was GEMINA, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff‘s epic, EPIC, follow-up to last year’s book of the year, ILLUMINAE. Now, that book was huge. Momumental. It changed your perspective of what fiction, sci-fi and books could be. But GEMINA is bigger, and better (HOW?! What sorcery is this, Kaufman and Kristoff???). It takes place during and after the timeline of ILLUMINAE, which followed the Alexander as it tried to escape the pesky Beitech attack, and shows us what went down on Jump Station Heimdall. With a mix of all-new characters (and some old faves), it spins a thrilling, massive tale. It’s even more unputdownable that ILLUMINAE. It has all the action you could want, snark and sarcasm to spare, so many laugh-out-loud moments, and FEELS, man. SO. MANY. FEELS. Kaufman and Kristoff are sick, twisted puppetmasters… and we love them for it. GEMINA, folks. Book of the year. So, no pressure for the next one, you guys 😉
4 Kick-Ass Movies
2016 was an interesting year for movies. Not many achieved greatness, it has to be said. There were many pretty good movies, and a decent amount of pretty disappointing ones, but for us, four stood out above the rest.
The year kicked off with the brilliant surprise release of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a not-quite-a-follow-up to 2008’s Cloverfield. It introduced the concept of the “Clover-verse”, a series of movies set in this slightly off-kilter world set up by Matt Reeves’ handheld monster movie. So, definitely not a sequel. What it was, was an awesomely nail-bitingly, twisty-turny, what-the-hell-is-happening thriller, full of paranoia, horror, loss… and maybe the best third act of any movie this year. No spoilers here. You just have to see it. John Goodman gives a hulking, towering performance as the guy who has Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr trapped in his nuclear bunker. Is he telling the truth? Are they safe, prisoners, or something else? The excellent script (rewritten by Whiplash and La La Land’s Damien Chazelle from an original by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, with extra polish from Gennifer Hudson, and writer-on-set Daniel Casey), TAUT direction by Dan Trachtenberg, and surely Oscar-worthy sound design by Robbie Stambler, Will Files and Lindsey Alvarez (and team), made this an epic experience.
Also sneaking under the mainstream radar was Hunt For The Wilderpeople, although writer-director Taika Waititi’s forthcoming assignment as director of THOR RAGNOROK (and his previous form with What We Do In The Shadows), meant this had anticipation and buzz amongst those in the know. And how deserved that was. Wilderpeople is one of the hidden, must-see gems of 2016, a beautiful, achingly funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately joyous experience. Julian Dennison, in absolutely the breakout role of the year, plays Ricky Baker, an unloved kid bouncing from foster home to foster home in New Zealand. He ends up with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (played by a brilliantly none-more-grumpy Sam Neill) in what seems to the aspiring Tupac-wannabe to be the middle of goddamn nowhere. Things do not go well to start with, with Ricky hating every second of it, but when Hec and Ricky have to go on the run through the wilderness, things begin to change. It’s a beautiful meditation on life, loss, love, finding your family, and finding yourself. It’s also desperately hilarious. And a thriller. Wonderful through and through.
Also somewhat out of nowhere (definite theme here!), despite its heavyweight creative team, Arrival was one of the most beautiful, haunting, and mind-blowing movies, maybe ever. From a wonderful script by Eric Heisserer (adapted from a Ted Chiang short story), eerily and evocatively directed by Denis Villeneuve (currently working on Blade Runner 2049), with a profound and chill-inducing (but sadly not Oscar-eligible) soundtrack by Jóhan Jóhannsson, and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, Arrival told the story of first contact. 12 alien craft appear above a series of seemingly random locations… and wait. The movie tracks what happens as Adams’ language specialist and Renner’s scientist are forced to work together to understand who the aliens are, and what they want. To say any more would take away from the experience, but this is a gorgeous, melancholy, and thrilling movie, and it truly is full of surprises and revelations.
Adams gives a nuanced, career-best performance, as does Renner, and the whole thing is just mesmerizing. An extraordinary experience.
Not so much with the under the radar, Captain America: Civil War was Marvel’s biggest behemoth yet. And lo, it was AWESOME. Jam-packed with Avengers, Civil War did a radical thing for a Marvel movie these days — it put the epic battle halfway through (and what an epic battle it was), and made the third act deeply personal. And it was a much more effective movie for it.
We can credit the overlord Kevin Feige, directors the Russo brothers, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for that. The Russos—and Markus and McFeely—gave Captain America a welcome edge in Winter Soldier, and they hone that edge here. Cap has become a gritty, hard-headed warrior in a boldly smart franchise, and with Civil War, it’s a genuine contender for one of the best trilogies of all time. The script expertly wields a huge cast, giving them all compelling moments, scenes and sequences, all while keeping the story rolling with ever increasing emotional momentum. The Russo brothers direct it all beautifully and deftly, and thrillingly. Plus, Spider-Man!
3 TV Must-Sees
A strong year for TV—again!—had three standouts: One out of nowhere, one that had potential, and one that people had been clamoring for, for almost a decade. Let’s start there, with the Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life revival.
One of the most feel-good TV stories of the year, for sure. Ever since the non-Palladino season 7 ended without those final four words, fans have been wondering when and if the show could ever return. Cue Netflix. With a building tide of momentum (the ATX festival reunion, the original seasons streaming on Netflix), the explosion of joy and goodwill when the revival was announced was almost tangible. And when it aired? You know we watched all four in one day. It was wonderful. Not consistently, mind you, and there were issues (no real-time musicals next time, please), and some concern about Rory (that whole being a terrible journalist/sociopathic monster thing)… but those weren’t the things to focus on. It was a hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream kind of experience. Wintry, cozy, warm, and fun. Hearing Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel saying Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue again… Just wonderful.
This Is Us was in the “had potential” category — an intense character-based drama from Dan Fogelman, with Milo Ventimiglia (in his second appearance in this list, making him the TV MVP?), Mandy Moore and Sterling K. Brown… seemed intriguing. The reality was so much more. This Is Us is a show with extraordinary writing. The scripts slam you with emotional body blows when you least expect them, make you cry at least five times per episode, take unexpected turns and twists that leave you breathless, and basically give the actors some of the greatest lines and scenes of their careers, on the regular. And those actors… wow. Incredible performances all round.
Special shout-out to Ron Cephas Jones: after his scene-stealing in Luke Cage (necessary, since he barely had any lines there and had to hit hard with the ones he did get given), he takes center stage here with a magnificent and magnificently understated performance. He commands the screen and the show. Which is saying something, because Brown, Ventimiglia and the rest all bring it, hard. Brown in particular has been DESTROYING this year, with this, and The People v.OJ Simpson; he’s one of those actors… if you can get him in your show, get him in your show.
One of the greatest TV experiences this year came out of left field (or out of the upside down).
Created by the Duffer brothers, Netflix’s Stranger Things was the incredible, 80s set, 80s geeky nostalgia-fest that we never knew we needed. From those utterly perfect opening credits, with their gorgeous synth score by SURVIVE’s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and those crackly, wobbly Terminator-esque titles, to the Spielberg-esque cast, to the Stephen King-esque thrills and scares, everything about this show just worked. We’ve written about it at length elsewhere, but suffice it to say, this might just have been the TV event of the year. Glorious storytelling at its finest.
(Quick moment of silence for Galavant!! This was a truly remarkable show, created by Dan Fogelman and with songs by Alan Menken, was one of the funniest, cleverest, most joyful, straight up FUN shows on TV. Season 2 was amazing, and ended with King Richard getting a DRAGON. It’s now streaming on Netflix… wonderful, beautiful Netflix…. so please, Netflix, give us more Galavant! Did we mention the dragon?)
2 Epic Albums
Two albums really tore through the endless stress of 2016 in joyous fashion. Starboy by The Weeknd was full of sci-fi soul-pop, taking the spacier, more Blade Runner-like elements of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and leaping off into a set of tightly constructed, gleaming, epically catchy monster tracks. The lyrics revolve around cars, drinking and women, but the overall effect is a futuristic haze full of epic hooks and android funk. Assists from Lana Del Rey on a couple of tracks add to the woozy, dreamy factor, giving the whole thing a “robot from Westworld having a long fever dream” type atmosphere. Hard to stop listening to.
Or it was, until Lin-Manuel Miranda went and dropped that little Hamilton Mixtape he’s been talking about. Yowzers. Expectations were SKY HIGH. And it more than delivered. After the, uh, events of November 8th, Miranda realized we needed these tracks, so he started releasing them a couple at a time, until the Mixtape dropped in early December. one of those early tracks, Immigrants, turned out to be one of the absolute highlights. Featuring blistering verses by K’naan, Snow Tha Product and Residente, the track TORE IT UP. But it wasn’t done, because Riz MC (AKA Riz Ahmed, rapper in the Swet Shop Boys, and actor in the likes of The Night Of and Rogue One) also dropped a verse that was pure fire. The track crackled with rage and determination, and fully repped the rest of the mixtape, which took key moments from Hamilton and built off them to create something entirely new and thrilling. Ja Rule and Ashanti brought it on Helpless, the track that Miranda wrote that was inspired by them, while elsewhere Busta Rhymes roared through My Shot, Kelly Clarkson somehow added more emotional layers to It’s Quiet Uptown, and Jill Scott gave a sultry and memorable update to Say Yes To This. There were too many highlights to name. With overall production from Questlove and Black Thought, it was, simply, as epic and essential as you’d think.
And A Baby Groot In A Pear Tree*
*Not actually in a pear tree
As the year drew to a close, there was one more awesome surprise in the form of James Gunn dropping the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 trailer. It was glorious. Not just to see the band back together. But because of Baby Groot. If you haven’t beheld its awesomeness yet, here it is in all its glory, with all its promise of a beautiful 2017.