Best-of Lists! Because when I think back on 2016, it's just going to be a highlight reel of movies and comics, and I'm probably going to remember sweet nothing-else. "I sat on a throne of Dirty Grandpa merch and played my fiddle while the world burned. Dance to my fiddle music, Oberon-- let the decadence set your feet alight! Twingly-twang-twang-twang-twang."
I didn't want much to do with comics this year. A few times this year, I heard the old music playing in my head, but mostly, I'm a little exhausted.
I don't want to dilute out a list to get to 10 comics I don't feel strongly about. So: here's the top 5 that survived my apathy/melancholy.
5-- What is Evil by Benjamin Marra
Two pages. Sixteen panels. It's the efficiency of "What Is Evil", that gets me. How the panels and the words don't connect right-- a car comes up to a sign, but in the next panel when a man is walking by the sign, it only comes up to his knees. How the narration shifts tone when it goes from the sanity of the caption boxes at the top of a panel, to the insanity of the free-floating text at the bottom of a panel. How the final panel is this jagged cut to the present, with all the juicy bits of the story left in the gutters.
A descent into sin, and then a slow dawning realization that things have gone too far, a whole technicolor horror story for your head, all in two pages, sixteen panels.
4-- On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
I'm behind on this so maybe the later chapters prove me wrong, but...
A thing I've noticed about The Young People that I think is different from the Way Back When: there's a bunch of the young artists that seem to pay more attention to a kind of experience that is less about classic two-fisted comic-book conflict (good, evil; thrills, chills), drama or what have you, than a kind of serenity when you experience it. I see the indie game kids talk about self-care a lot when talking about their ideal experiences, in particular. I don't entirely know what that's about 100%, but I find it fascinating.
In comics, I find myself thinking about that with On a Sunbeam. There are dramatic events in the plot. If there's any question whether Walden has a drama gear, it would probably be answered by a bit in the 4th chapter where Walden cuts effectively between crescendo-events in two different timelines.
But the overall feeling I get from On a Sunbeam is more a sense of peace. It all sort of drifts through the air, seemingly in no hurry to get to any particular destination, all liminal, almost like a long sigh. The art's just a wisp of a line, delicately exploring science fantasy spaces. And its careful use of color-- Walden doesn't overload a page with color, usually only sticking to a few colors, and applying them only when appropriate, equally satisfied to leave white space on the page. It's relaxing just to look at-- it never feels like it's trying to impose.
Alternative cartoonists some years older than me all shot for this kind of anal-retentive quality in their work-- it was going to look exactly a certain way, and that was going to be true from tip to toe, line by line, panel after panel. On a Sunbeam feels no less deliberate about its choices, but the result is completely different. In a year where I think that other kind of comic would have felt truly suffocating, Walden's work felt like a breath of fresh air.
3-- Pascin by Joann Sfar
Here's a thing I like about Joann Sfar: he has a major part of his career that's been dedicated towards French artists who are super-good at getting laid. Picasso had his blue period? Well, Sfar has has had his French cocksman period. I know which I want to hear more about, so suck it, Pablo.
Pascin is about the painter Jules Pascin, but it's a biography focused a bit on sex. We meet characters that (I think) are the basis of Two Friends, and they're hookers who rush off to watch a Prefect "gobble" down a pot of piss at a whorehouse. Most of the time Pascin's talking about how he'd rather draw girls than have sex with them. The rest of the time, we follow Pascin's friends getting off instead of him-- fucking art models; fucking art mannequins; none of this is pornographic-- it's got stuff on it's mind, about art, violence, perversion, men. But still: it's a hoot, this comic.
Sfar's the star attraction, of course. This was all drawn back in the 90's apparently-- it's just how I like a comic to look. Ink's splashed and slashed onto a page; none of the drawings feel planned out, worried over, ruined by some egotistical desire to fuss over an image too much; it all seemed like it came to life on a drawing table, and they got it out to you with the ink still drying on the pages. It looked like a blast to make.
2-- Four Kids Walk into a Bank by Matthew Rosenberg, Tyler Boss, and Thomas Mauer
A comic that's funny still seems like a little miracle to me.
And sure, plenty of comics have been funny -- I hate any kinda review that does that "comics usually aren't __, but this one is!" shit, as if comics haven't been doing every-other-fucking-thing since gee-damn forever.
But it's a grind, comic book comedy: there's no audience to play off of; the physical lizard-brain reaction of watching a person acting foolish or outrageous, you don't get that with a comic; getting the timing on a comic generally is hard-- doing jokes (which are all about timing) on top of that???
I have this Old Man Conversation with folks sometimes, and it goes basically like this:
"Is it us? Maybe it's us. Maybe things are still great and we're just too old now. Maybe it's not them-- maybe it's us. Maybe we've seen it all and we're jaded now, and the comics are as good as they've ever been, and it's us, we're aging like a bowl of spaghetti that's been left out on a porch."
But then a comic comes along like 4 Kids that's funny, that's funny in a character-centric way, funny because it has characters you enjoy seeing interact with one another, funny because it's got dialogue with a voice to it, funny because it has rhythm...?
Here's what that means: IT'S NOT US! It's them! It was them all along-- in the Hallway, with the lead pipe, I think I just won this game of Clue! If some comic I never heard of from some people I never heard of published by some yahoos whose name I can't remember can still stick the landing on a $4 serial comic-- IT'S THEM. And I'm going to be young forever!
1-- Sir Alfred by Tim Hensley
I've written about this comic a couple times this year. It's a sort of biography of Alfred Hitchcock, or of the legend of Alfred Hitchcock at least. It's hard to say, which is what I like about this comic so much: it's a cartoon about a real-life person ... but a real-life person who had in our collective memory of him already become a sort of cartoon.
What was the "real" Alfred Hitchcock like? I wouldn't pretend to know -- but I know that I do have a fictional Alfred Hitchcock in my head, an amalgamation of biography, anecdotes, rumors, and a mythology that Hitchcock himself purposefully created as part of his marketing. I know that Hitchcock isn't the "real" Hitchcock -- but at some point, does it matter that I "know" that? Does it make a difference if the Alfred Hitchcock that's really "alive" for me is my fake version?
And isn't that process true not just of Hitchcock, but almost every historical figure? Isn't it true of people right now, alive right now-- what's the difference between how people think about celebrities, politicians, our various elites and a cartoon character?
The comic strips featured in Sir Alfred are funny, cute, gag strips of a kind that comics used to truck in more frequently in the way, way back when. But behind that funny surace is a sort of bigger and more troubling concern: how time and speed boil down every human being until they've become two-dimensional, symbols, sketches more than flesh, blood. And consequentially, how little we know about each other or can connect with each other, ultimately.
Hensley's comics, for me, it's how they unpack in my head after I've read them. None of them are inscrutable or mystery boxes -- at the beginning, there's a certain amount of confusion about what he's up to, why he'd bothered, why so much precision is being directed towards recreating a vernacular held in such disregard (and probably correctly so). But by the end, they all make sense for me. There's a point where his work just unfurls, blossoms, and some bigger thematic picture eeks out from its cocoon-- a thematic picture that's thorny and interesting but always presented in a way that's light-hearted, joke-y, tongue firmly in cheek, and deeply of comics.
His work is just about the best thing going.
World War 3, published by Ace Comics in 1953, authors unknown.
The comic I got most tickled by this year, an oldie-but-goodie that I'd just noticed had been floating around the internet for years, not nearly trumpeted enough. More the very first story in the comic, "World War 3 Unleashed", than the follow-ups.
But that first one...
It's just panel after panel of bangers.
Crazy-making sincere. Heartless. Paranoid. Dirty-feeling.
There's something that just feels stupid and wrong about it.
So, yeah: this is the good shit.
Apocalypse-comics fans might also want to check out Sneak Attack from Ace Comics 1952 publication's Atomic War #1:
There is an alternate history of comics where little kids in 1952 and 1953 realized which way was up and got behind Ace Comics in a big way.
Easy money says that history would have been 10,000 times more rad.
I'm looking through my notes of what I read this year. Nothing jumps out as especially bad, as especially upsetting. I didn't care enough to get angry about anything, which makes me sad, but.
Mostly, my notes reflect that reading comics in 2016 for me was mostly a story about an oppressive tedium. Of feeling asleep. Of wanting to read stuff that'd wake me up. Of wondering if there was something wrong with me. And just wading through a whole bunch of yawns, trying to find something to care about.
If I'd read a bunch of Marvel comics, I'd be talking about Marvel comics. But I mostly read a bunch of Image Comics.
So my notes are filled with (and this all very nearly verbatim) "Renato Jones: The One -- that was a pile of shit; just really fucking dumb" and "Seven to Eternity: shitty-- like a grocery-store fantasy novel ... underwhelming" and "Velvet: did something go wrong?" and "Sex Criminals: the creators showed up in-comic ala Grant Morrison's Animal Man except to talk about a tumblr post??" and "The Fix: I was just really bored for 95% of it. It was sort of like 'oh yeah this is what I've been avoiding'" and "Why can't Image publish more comics for 9-11 truthers?"
I'm not sure what the common denominator to all these things are, besides me. I wasn't a good audience this year. I wasn't interested in people telling their little stories.
So: worst thing about reading comics I guess this year was me, the reader...???
Well, not counting all the scumbags at DC and Dark Horse. And not counting that time comic people were full-throated yelling how "Devin Faraci is right -- all you comic fans are scum-- we deserve better than you" and then it IMMEDIATELY turned out Faraci had sexually assaulted a girl -- nice choice of hero bros whooopsie-doopsie. And not counting that time Jack Davis and Richard Thompson died on the same day-- not counting the fucking Grim Reaper. And not counting that time Peter David went gonzo-racist at a convention.
Actually, looking at my list again, maybe the worst thing in comics was just Image Comics full-stop, because man, Renato Jones-- that really was pretty terrible-- that was just stone dumb. I felt pretty embarrassed for the entire mother-loving Planet Earth, reading that sucker. Image Comics could have stopped that from happening.
Image Comics could have done something, said something, told somebody!
Yeah. Yeah, I want to change my answer-- I'm never the problem! I'm going to be young forever!
Never saw: Ex Machina, Midnight Special, Hell or High Water, Always Shine, Moonlight, Silence, Manchester by the Sea, or 20th Century Women.
Here's what I dug:
10. Don't Breathe
This slot was never going to go to Arrival or Toni Erdmann or Nocturnal Animals-- I just wasn't too into any of those movies (Animals, in particular, I had zero use for). It could've gone to 13 Hours or my beloved, beloved Now You See Me 2, but I saw this flick the other night-- and I'm not really a horror guy, but I just thought it was a gas. I just thought it was a fun little horror-thriller flick that hit exactly the mark it had set out to hit-- except for one scene which was too stupid for words.
Sure, probably an easy movie to dismiss, but I particularly liked how it was all visual storytelling, all editing, all about these physical performances, instead of just gore or knife-kills or whatever. It felt more like a kung fu flick or a dance movie that way. Plus, look: the premise just makes me laugh.
This was a movie that turned up on Netflix in 2016. I'd never heard of it. I had no idea what it was about. I just put it on randomly, completely randomly, while I was cooking up some food-- I like to put stuff on for noise because I'm slow at cooking, not being very good at it. It didn't even sound like anything I'd like-- I just remember thinking the Netflix images looked weird.
So this was a memorable movie experience for me. Terrible acting-- I mean, terrible. Right on the nose metaphors. An abject lack of subtlety. A not particularly well executed episode of a Twilight Zone vibe to it all.
But I totally bought in. It got me at the right time. It got me at the right place. I got suckered in. It had a cool idea, and then I laughed when I saw where it took it.
Was Arrival a better movie than this, say? Absolutely. But two-thirds of the way into Arrival, I left my seat to go to the bathroom, and I took my sweet time while I was gone. I wasn't in any hurry to get back. I don't like lists that are like "here's my pronouncement from the mountain tops" -- I just like to rank the experiences...? This was one of my favorite ones.
(Though from an experience standard, I walked out of Now You See Me 2 higher than just about any other fucking thing, but ... I just can't even pretend that's because it's a "Great movie" so much as just how that movie filled me with a great love for humanity, that humanity managed to make a Now You See Me 2, at all. For me, Woody Harrelson playing dual roles as his own evil twin brother whose magical gibberish-powered hypnosis powers somehow rival his own was a small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind...)
8. Shin Godzilla
What is more boring and takes fewer risks than franchise movies?
So, I was so happy how this took this old, storied franchise and repurposed it to make a movie about bureaucracy. Godzilla doesn't fight Megalon-- Godzilla fights a department of office workers.
My favorite shot in action movies is when a camera slowly pans over a table full of guns, that swagger of filmmakers telling the audience they mean business. This movie had those shots-- for photocopiers, staples, file folders.
This movie's directors created a formula when they worked at an anime studio named Gainax: (a) take a classic science fiction nerd-genre and (b) insert the characters you'd LEAST want handling fantastical threats, the least qualified, the most inept. Which is clever: it makes you have to root more for the good guys to win. Good-looking people don't need you to root for them -- God already rooted for them. But wastoids? You better go buy some pom-poms.
Seeing them use that formula here, watching them figure out that the people you'd least want to see fight Godzilla are modern bureaucrats... The results were wildly imperfect, sometimes astonishingly boring, but overall, I just found watching that formula in action for a Godzilla movie invigorating.
Because if you believe it doesn't matter that "it's all been done before," if you believe that things having been "done before" shouldn't stop artists from being creative and finding new places to take things, if you believes those things, well, then these are dark times. And Shin Godzilla's a nice rare sigh of relief.
7. Green Room
I think one of the characters says the word "meatgrinder" out loud, which sort of sums up the whole appeal and aesthetic of this movie. Relentless; unsympathetic; heart of ice.
A pretty-much-all-British cast plays American nazis, and it doesn't matter because the real star is an adorable puppy and the healing power of music. Mr. Holland's Opus finally has the unauthorized-but-equally-uplifting sequel we were all waiting for.
6. High Rise
Kinda feels stupid to say a lot about this movie. It's not really a subtle one. It'd be like writing an essay about that time I got punched in the eye. I got punched in the eye- it felt a certain way-- the end.
This was my favorite trailer this year-- I laughed and laughed and laughed. So when the movie came out, I went to check it out, expecting to just giggle and shake my heads and go "oh those kids, with their teen romance internet-thrills party movies...".
At some point during this movie, did I stop laughing at it and start going along with it completely? Did it win me over and I had to go "no this isn't something to laugh at-- I care too much about these characters"?
No. No, the reason I like Nerve so much is that by the end, I 100% cared about the characters, but I never ever ever stopped laughing at this movie. It did both those things simultaneously.
4. Hail, Caesar!
My favorite writer-directors on fuck-around gag mode. A lot of people hated this one-- underrate it, I think, though it certainly has its imperfections (I'd have liked more of a resolution for Alden Ehrenreich's character, though it's hard to guess if the Coens knew they'd gotten lucky on that casting). But where I think they lost a lot of people is that it's a gag movie, but they never really spell out the gag for people. You just have to key into this movie's wavelength, on this one.
I think the gag is this: the movie is like one of those Fables shows where fairy tales are all real and talking to one another-- you know, Once Upon A Time, Little Red Riding Hood Except Modern, ABC's What's Bleeding Into My Underwear, etc. But instead of being about old-school fairy tales, it's about the mythology of the Golden Age of Hollywood. What if every myth about that time was true? "The cowboys are the good guys. The studio boss is a tough guy with a heart of gold looking out for his talent. Danny Kaye's got a hairy back. The famous movie actress is a brassy dame who just needs to find a nice, normal boy and settle down. The writers are all stinking commies."
It's a movie about a movie about religion that's actually a movie about the religion of movies. It's the Coens throwing around big silly set pieces (e.g., Channing Tatum tap-dancing) where they tell you flat-out how the set piece hokey, they ain't hiding the hokiness ... but they also know you can't help but like the set piece anyways. Because sure, it's silly, but what's the alternative? In the Coen universe, the alternative always tends to be sitting in a Chinese restaurant looking at a photo of a Bomb.
Plus, the Ralph Fiennes scene is probably the funniest scene all year.
3. Swiss Army Man
Daniels!! I have loved this music video directing team for years and years-- and it was exciting that their big screen debut continued in the themes that had made their music video work so exciting. Namely, Daniels does body horror comedies.
Example: this movie's better known by the internet as "the farting corpse movie."
There aren't a ton of body horror comedies-- there's Splash. There's some Steve Martin movies. There's all the body-flip comedies, or movies where men wake up as women or whatever. But most of the body horror comedies really skimp on the horror bits. Most don't involve a corpse.
Not for everybody. One, farting corpse. Two, it's the kind of thing people who like it will call whimsical and people who hate it will call twee as fuck hipster shit. But Daniels just commits so fully to the body horror, the confusion, this premise, these characters, that they end up with a movie about self-acceptance that I don't think more timid artists could match.
Self-acceptance is some tricky shit to think about; tricky shit to talk about; maybe boldness is required.
A three hour Adam Curtis documentary released before the election about the last 40 years of history, with consideration paid especially to Libya, Syria, Trump and Putin. It's just helpful because Curtis tries to focus on, articulate and explain something that people tend to overlook or dismiss or take for granted while treating things like a horse race-- that things have stopped making sense.
The pitch: Hypernormalisation is a term that describes how before the fall of the Soviet Union, people knew that something was wrong with their system, but accepted all the wrong as "normal" anyways-- until it all collapsed. Now, our own system, horrible things happen-- financial crises, wars based on fake intelligence, control slipping away from ordinary people in countless ways-- but nothing changes and no one is held accountable. And we all know there's something wrong with that, but we also just accept it as normal.
The movie tries to explain what happened. I don't know if it succeeds 100%. But that's a heck of a goal. As a particularly disorienting example, after you see it, Trump winning feels like it makes sense, at least narratively. I don't know if I'd describe that as comforting...? But the movie takes a stab at a real and sane explanation for what's happening, which seems to be in short supply.
Plus: I just think it's fun as a movie. Curtis puts on some tunes, and shows some Jane Fonda workout videos. The way he makes these isn't some dull lecture or dumbed-down Michael Moore harangue. He just washes footage over the viewer-- sometimes making points or telling smaller stories that don't seem germane to his points (a stretch about a Japanese gambler, say)-- and lets the cumulative effect say what it has to: we're fucking suckers.
1. The Nice Guys
Audiences didn't go. There probably won't be more like this in a while, so I went twice. The audience gasped the same gasps in the same places both times. I feel like this is closer to the kinds of movies I really loved as a kid than that Rogue One, than any of these big noisy movies, but this movie failing, maybe that's the death knell. That's some horn sounding. Time to die.
I don't get it. I just thought there was everything to like about this one.
Shane Black, finally resurrecting a script I'd read years and years ago, "the Lost Shane Black movie."
Shane Black on full-on unapologetic Shane Black mode.
Russel Crowe, finally in an action movie I can get behind -- I wasn't into Gladiator, so I've been waiting for that since LA Confidential.
Ryan Gosling, playing one of Black's damaged hero characters-- throwing all his charm and likability behind a shitty alcoholic dad who'd destroyed his family and his life, someone the audience would have every reason to hate... and pulling it off.
Detectives. Mystery. Girls on the run. Keith David.
No one told me about Michael Keaton bravura performance, in a room all by himself in 2014's Need for Speed, playing a street race enthusiast podcast billionaire.
Did he win the Oscar for Need for Speed? Technically no-- he won in 2014 for Birdman, and the Infinite Sadness. But did some Oscar voters see his performance in Need for Speed, and realize that voting for Keaton for that dopey movie was their only way to reward true excellence?
My gut says yes.
Here is Feel the Need for Speed, my loving 12 minute fan-edit of Need for Speed. I made a fan-edit because I don't know how to sculpt marble. Or what a Need for Speed marble sculpture would even look like.
"I look at a giant block of marble and I cut away everything that doesn't feel the Need for Speed." -Michelangelo, sculptor/party dude.
Ghostbusters: Answer the Call.
I had this thing I believed: that people had been programmed by their society with ideas, beliefs, thoughts that were external to them; that this was wrong-- that any meaningful freedom includes being free of any kind of external brainwashing; that this programming included a lot of ideas about men and women that were really pretty silly if you spent any time thinking about them, all gussied up with bullshit psuedo-science-- but ideas that are also unfortunately profitable to some terrible fucking monsters; that if people talked to each other about those silly ideas, and how those silly ideas get taught, reinforced, expressed (including culturally), that this was good because it could get people to question their programming, and more cognizant of how grotesque people are profitting from that programming.
And that sure, sometimes those conversations could get pretty messy, but people were challenging themselves and helping each other realize their programming, and well, that was worth some headaches.
That was what I believed.
But then, this fucking Ghostbusters movie happened.
Yes, yes, yes-- some of the worst people in the world were obnoxious about this movie. Anime nazis were angry, and it's fun to make fun of them since they're so mentally damaged and unfuckable. And YES, they were obnoxious for stupid-ass reasons-- some made-up nonsense about childhoods they've plainly needed to outgrow for a long, long time.
But this time, a machinery responding to those folks really went into overdrive. And what it felt like for me at least, was that something broke. Something went totally out of control.
I felt like there were parts of the internet where every day, a few times a day, you would see people sarcastically ranting how anyone-- ANYONE, not just anime nazis, anyone-- who didn't want to see this movie, had any issue with this movie, had any doubt that this movie was a good idea ... was flawed, corrupted, broken, misogynist. All Men Unenthusiastic About Watching Middle Age Women Ghostbust were SCUM. And this machinery that wanted to incessantly parade this unearned sarcasm, they were the ONLY GOOD PEOPLE awake to how the world should really be.
Why, they were going to see Ghostbusters TWICE so that they could drink the tears of All Males Ever.
It wasn't fun sarcasm -- it wasn't persuasive sarcasm -- it was a grinding, repulsive sarcasm. And I enjoy sarcasm. I was sarcastic once, many years ago, and I think it went well, except for the punching and the crying and the running. But this, it just felt like it was incessant. And misguided.
"We need more female-lead action-comedy franchises" is worth fighting for. It's weird there aren't more of those. But a Ghostbusters remake? Worth fighting for? "Big budget special effects-driven remake that is intended to transform preexisting property into a multi-revenue stream franchise that will invariably crowd original ideas out the marketplace" seems self-evidently too tainted at the outset to argue that it has much moral progress to it.
There is a distinction there that I think people started to ignore, that got drowned out, that somehow became "besides the point." And none of this seemed honest after a while. The first trailer looked like shit? The sarcasm grew louder. The second trailer looked like worse shit? The sarcasm grew louder. The movie bombed? "Well, the Democrats will play it on a jumbotron during the inauguration, so take that, patriarchy!"
I remember at one point, every single one of these people on the internet stopped and in unison started screaming at ONE WHOLE RANDOM YAHOO who put out a youtube video saying he didn't want to see the Ghostbusters movie. One guy! One entire guy putting out one entire Youtube video! But a crowd of people: "How dare one entire guy dissent?? EEEEEEEEEE."
How did that level of insecurity and moral panic come to seem healthy and normal to so many people?
This all felt like it stopped being about people questioning their programming, or trying to provoke other people into questioning theirs. And it became something else. "I'm a feminist who's going to beat all the other men at feminism and win the feminism trophy. You can bet with that mentality, I've always treated all kinds of women with respect!" -- Devin Faraci and an all-star calvacade of the internet's shittiest dudes. (SPOILER WARNING: No). Are these My-Brand-Is-Fightin'-for-the-Ladies He-Men Oh-Whoops-They're-Creepos an aberration, or an inevitability in this context?
This would have been a toxic conversation around a good movie. But the Ghostbusters movie wasn't a good movie, not by a mile, which made it all the worse.
It wasn't funny. It wasn't fun. The characters mostly weren't memorable. The racial politics were not ideal (which was made pretty unavoidably noticeable considering, you know, everything else). Some of the biggest gags in the movie were lame and dull and missed any kind of mark (e.g., Hemsworth). The villain stunk-- a complete drag; unnecessary, uninteresting, not compelling. It didn't get at all what made the original work, but replaced that with no new insight or worthy angle on the material. The story was sluggish and uninvolving. Too many special effects rather than comedy ideas. Too much corporate franchise fan service-- "Here's a scene where the Ghostbusters' logo gets created! Here's a scene where we explain how they get a hearse! Here are cameos, cameos, cameos, instead of spending time taking characters you care about through a meaningful story."
Fans talked up one particular action scene, but it only lasted approximately 10 seconds, 5 of which were in the trailer.
It was a slog to get through-- it was unpleasant and unentertaining to watch.
I hear infant girls like it because it taught them they can someday ghost-bust. That's nice. But that could've happened with a movie with functioning jokes in it. This movie had Debarge references instead.
Would this have been a more palatable movie without this horrible stew that got cooked up around it (and again, yes, a stew that really got fired up because of ludicrous and hideous-souled anime nazis overreacting to Ghostbuster casting)? Was watching this movie poisoned by the conversation? I think. But I don't think I'd have even seen the movie but for that conversation either. I'd have steered pretty far clear after that second trailer, entirely.
Look, there's no question one side was worse in this-- involuntarily celibate anime fans have all decided to be nazis now; they love something called Rourouni Kenshoo and hate minorities; I don't claim to fully understand it. But in the long-term, this Ghostbusters "over-correct" didn't feel like it was just a one-off aberration. It felt like a horrible New Normal. Maybe that was just because of the election (where that same sarcasm was undeniably present -- PS another bellyflop, The Good People: 0 for 2 in 2016); but I have doubts that's true. Sure, the implications of all this may not have me as worried as NAZIS-- NAZIS kinda skew things. But it's still not really in the neighborhood of good. It's not desirable.
And it's far, far off from where I'd hoped things would go, which is people waking up to the fact that we've all been victimized, we are all the playthings of sinister people very intent on manipulating us to fight each other so we keep ignoring them, and that we are all letting those sinister folks win when we play the games they've very much programmed us to play.
So that's another possible explanation for why I didn't like seeing Kate McKinnon dance around meaninglessly to Debarge. Who's to say...
10. Line of Duty-- Final Episode, Season 3
I hadn't seen seasons 1 or 2 of this British crime drama-- I hadn't heard anything too good. But I just skipped to Season 3 after seeing fans react to a moment online-- a bit with a text message.
The rest of the show's got good bits and weak bits-- a little generic overall. But the text message was worth it. And even if that hadn't been there, look, the whole experience was worth it because it brought the dude pictured above into my life, definitely my favorite character of 2016. He's a constantly-disapproving head police-type guy who is frowning and very upset with every other character on this show because they let him down.
I don't know that I've ever seen a dude on TV be better at being disappointed by other people as this guy is.
I don't want to follow this guy's adventures in a TV show. I want more than that. I want this guy to come to a gym with me, and yell at me if I don't work out hard enough. I want an alarm clock app of this guy waking me up, by telling me that my father expected more from me. I want him to be able to push a button that randomly slaps food from out of my mouth at random and unexpected intervals. I want him to show up Max Headroom-style on Pornhub, and set me straight on the birds and the bees. That's what I'm paying the license fee for, Queen Fancypants, so tell the Beeb to get on it and make that happen!
9. BrainDead -- "Notes Towards a Post-Reagan Theory"
When I've forgotten most of the TV on this list, I think I'm still going to remember the sex scene in this episode. There's an explanation for what's going on but I suspect it's just as good to wath it without that explanation.
8. The Good Place - "Jason Mendoza"
This year a lot of people fell in love with Westworld, a show with slow, long running storylines that gradually moseyed their way to some pretty obvious twists. And I was okay with Westworld, I guess. But for serialized television, I think the better game in town is this NBC sitcom.
Each episode has built on the previous ones, and the twists for me have been more unexpected, more satisfying, especially in this episode where the audience gets to meet Jason Mendoza.
Plus: the thing I got annoyed by sometimes with Parks & Rec was how everyone became such goody goodies over time. But I kinda dig how that's this whole show's schtick. I dig that they turned into the skid, rather than try to be something they're not. They hired Kristen Bell-- almost all the characters by definition are great people-- one character literally starts giving lessons in how to be a good person on this show. And it works. I think it's fun. At least, I want to find out what happens next more on this show than I ever did with the cowboy one, where I mostly just rooted for nudity.
7. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's Election Specials
"I'd rather hear stuff like that than your little foo-foo tag lines that don't make sense."
For me, there was approximately ZERO good televised political comedy this year, besides these Triumph shows. (Well, and the Eric Andre convention videos).
6. Gilmore Girls - "Summer"
I think this is the fans' least favorite episode because it has a half-hour musical in it about incest and Stars Hollow, but this one is my favorite episode because it has a half-hour musical in it about incest and Stars Hollow.
5. Cunk on Shakespeare
"That's the basic difference between Hamlet and Taken -- Liam Neeson makes up his mind."
4. Black Mirror-- "San Junipero"
A fast, all-thrills episode? No. Predictable? I guess, if that matters.
But I just liked the big technicolor emotions of this one. All the adolescent swooning and the teen ache of it. The Saved by the Bell aesthetics and the way characters's big intellectual stances don't so much change as just sort of erode-- heart vs. brains, brains are going to lose that every time.
I liked that Black Mirror put all of what Mallory Ortberg calls "what if phones, but too much?" of the show aside, and just went for this romance-- and that it made a counter-argument to the other episodes about technology, the way all the dystopias Charlie Brooker has posited might all be worth it because of how technology has let people who've been denied a voice find people and places where they can belong, how the spiritual-emptiness of of technology can sometimes be its biggest blessing, considering what absolute twats "spiritual-minded" people can be.
And I like that it was this frilly love story without for me at least (and mileage varies on this one) being too, too saccharine-- because the episode leaves space for the hard bits. There's other people in that episode who do not seem like happy people-- the long term prospects of those characters seem like they might end up being pretty sinister. It leaves space for the idea that we might be lucky to be leaving the characters at their happiest moment, that there's reason for concern ahead, that nothing's perfect forever.
I like that it's not a perfect ending-- imperfect endings are usually the happiest endings most of us can manage.
3. The Girlfriend Experience-- "Blindsided"
The fun of the Girlfriend Experience: it's a show about watching a woman who 99% of the time is completely opaque about what she's thinking or feeling, insincere, lying, while she has sex, for money, while also working as an intern at a prestigious law firm. The character never tells you what she's thinking -- and if you think she does, she's usually playing you.
Riley Keough plays the woman, and pulls off the bit the show really needed for it to have worked: you have to believe there's something underneath that opaque surface, something dark, something fucking angry. She had to give the viewer some reason to want to keep watching to see if when that surface cracked, what would be underneath. I don't know anything about acting, but it seemed like a pretty impressive trick to me, anyways, Keough's work here.
I don't want to spoil the show, but "Blindsided" is the episode where that surface cracks the most. It doesn't last for very long-- this isn't the final episode of the series by any means, though it definitely feels like it as it's happening. But the most the show gives the viewer usually is just getting to watch as something clicks behind Keough's eyes, some lizard-brain instincts kicking in. And that's not this episode. They give the viewer a little more to watch on this one.
2. Documentary Now -- "Parker Gail's Location is Everything"
This is the only thing on any of these lists I've seen like 4-5 times, that I made it a point to rewatch and rewatch and rewatch and rewatch.
I loved those Spalding Grey movies in college, so a parody as loving and exact and affectionate and critical and dubious as this was +1,000,000 to start out with for me. But even setting that aside, this was just a great half hour of comedy -- peak Bill Hader, John Mulaney work on the script; just that same thing that made the Grey movies so great-- getting to just watch a guy behind a table tell a crazy story, without any clutter, the inherent energy of that. For something so short, there's an awful lot I could point to that makes it great (e.g., the ways they find to blow up the Grey formula).
Documentary Now wasn't my favorite show in the first season. I admire the amount of weird comedy Fred Armisen has put out into the world, but I'm still not fast to sign up as a huge Armisen fan, for different reasons. The jokes tended to be a little too cutesy, and not have much teeth to them, except for maybe the Blue Jeans Committee two-parter. But the second season I thought became more effective -- with this episode; with the season finale, another Hader-Mulaney joke machine, recreating the Kid Stays in the Picture.
1. Fleabag -- Final Episode
I've just talked and talked about this show, but it's my favorite anything this year. I liked this more than any of the movies or comics listed above, anyways. It just ...
It's not one thing. Sometimes it's depressing; sometimes it's funny; sometimes it's kind; sometimes it's cruel. It's dirty; it's silly; it's got real sadness to it. It's sympathetic-- I didn't feel like it was a judgmental show, which is where a lesser version could have so easily gone wrong. None of the supporting characters know they're supporting characters-- all of them seem like they're trying to muddle through, same as the main character, even characters you assume are completely insignificant when you first meet them.
It's all anchored by the show's very likable writer/star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who just always seems to go all out (though in certain respects, maybe not as much as the curry scene from Crashing-- like from a laundry perspective, at least?). And I just like how it just kept poking at the audience. "How do you feel about the main character? Oh. Well, NOW, how do you feel about the main character? Oh. Well, okay, okay, NOW how do you feel about the main character?"
There's never one answer, except by the end, just wanting her to be okay, just wanting her to be okay.
I mostly just watched a lot of Psych this year, though.
John Oliver - The Post-election Episode
What does a comedy show do when life stops being funny?
The team at John Oliver had a brilliant answer to that question: also stop being funny, at all, don't even try to be funny, forget being a comedy show, and instead spend a half hour lecturing viewers like they were stupid children about how they should subscribe to the New York Times, America's leading source for fake news in the run-up to the Iraq War, like that'll do any goddamn thing whatsoever.
Or wait-- tell people to just repeat "this isn't normal" because that's what we need-- more viral content. "Make America Drumf again. Say 'this isn't normal a bunch,' like a braying jackass. Star Wars Kid dancing! Memes!"
It's not that sincerity is the enemy. Stephen Colbert was sincere on election night and watching him react to the news in real time restored a lot of my enthusiasm for that guy that had gotten lost when I was watching him try to be Carson, Letterman, someone he wasn't. I'm back on board with Colbert because he let himself be a human being, having human being shit happen on his face.
That last Oliver show wasn't vulnerable. It was just more partisan rancor. Which just seems like the opposite of vulnerability.
And the tragedy is how that rancor has ruined the show for me to some extent. When Oliver started, the thing that made it thrilling for me at least was that he wasn't talking about the news of the day -- there were other stories going on, that most people were ignoring, and he could take this platform HBO had given him, and refocus people on something besides the one-issue carnivals of the rest of the media.
There was an episode about chicken farming. Municipal violations. Stadiums. Food waste. Civil asset forfeiture. The world is filled with so many important issues that go ignored, or only get "reported" in the most boring way possible, the easiest way to tune out possible. Oliver felt valuable.
And they threw that all away so they could yell Drumpf over and over into people's silly bubbles. Do you believe the exact same shit all your friends do? Congratulations on John Oliver destroying all right wing people ever-- there aren't any more right wing people anymore, he destroyed half, and Samantha Bee screeched the other half of them into oblivion. You win (warning: side effects of right wing people being "destroyed" may include you losing all power everywhere to right wing people in every possible capacity).
They turned a funny show that I think was doing something genuinely exciting into just more impotent noise. By the end, there weren't any jokes. There wasn't anything to laugh about. People who probably do need to hear about payday loans, public defenders, financial advisers, etc. had a reason to turn off, tune out, dismiss. And not enough people were persuaded for any of it to have been even a little worth it.
I don't really like to talk about the fact I like games, because I'm at an age where it feels like a shameful thing to like. But this has been a pretty damn great year for games. AAA games, Indie games, weird online gag-games-- it's just kind of been an unusual embarrassment of riches. Here were the high-points for me:
10 - Can You Have Sex with the President of the United States?
A Clickhole choose-your-own-adventure novel finally asked the question that I've always wanted to know the answer to.
The answer was yes.
This was all way more fun to imagine before Trump, though. Did Rouropo Kooshi didn't warn you about that, anime nazis? Did it??
9 - Quadrilateral Cowboy
Brendon Chung's hacking game-- a quick cyberpunk puzzle romp, but one that swerves at the very end away from all those hijinx and lands somewhere very sweet, very gentle. I liked that the hacking cyberpunk puzzle game ended on such a human note.
8 - Dishonored 2.
Playing this now. I never played Dishonored 1, and the game's overarching story seems like some pretty dopey nonsense-- you're playing a character desperate to continue subjugating the poors under some kind of feudal monarchy. That isn't a fantasy I've ever personally gotten much juice out of.
But that's just the game's story-- the player's story is loads better than that. It all takes place in this gorgeous high-budget game world where every inch of it feels fussed over, layered, attended to with fake histories, hidden narratives, incidental world-building. And the game encourages you not to kill, so if you play along, each encounter can become a suspenseful rush with a million things that can go wrong. If you want to play along. Or you can go in guns blazing. Or you can sneak past everybody. And so on-- the game lets the player choose their own story to an impressive degree, and the rest of the game seems remarkably responsive to the choices the player makes.
7 - Oxenfree
Comics' Adam Hines (Duncan the Wonder-Dog) and a small team of gamedevs put out this small adventure game this year. Not everything about the story worked, but ... Other games have tried to focus on dialogue, but usually you kinda just try to skip past the dialogue as fast as possible to get back to the bits where you can play. With Oxenfree, they managed to have the dialogue not be so much at the expense of gameplay. Which made interacting with the characters feel like a reward for a change, or the point, instead of some box to check, a chore to get to the next level.
6 - Hitman--Sapienza
Hitman was sold on an episode-by-episode basis unless you bought a season pass. And when the first episode came out, I remember thinking they were in trouble because there was so many things wrong with how that game felt. Most notably, there were these crippling load times, that made experimenting and trying different things way too hard. It was kind of a bummer.
But then the second Hitman episode came out, Sapienza. All the things wrong with the first one? Still true of the second episode. The load times are horrendous. Except Sapienza is just such a superb level. It's this entire Italian resort town, filled with these little narratives that you can interact with; disrupt. Tourists watch a clown perform. Churchgoers pray quietly at pews. Family yell at each other from their apartments. Buddies have lunch with each other. Cooks stir spaghetti sauce. Fishermen stand at docks, and wait for a tug on their line.
It just feels good to walk around Sapienza.
5 - Firewatch
This game was all about being a lonely fire-lookout employee in 1980's Wyoming, and interacting with another, more senior employee by radio. Pretty to look at thanks to contributions from painter Olly Moss; well acted thanks to a cast that included Mad Men's Rich Sommer. Yes: the story had major issues. But getting to play this "relationship" with the other firewatch employee felt new and the execution on at least the relationship I thought was surprisingly strong.
4 - Stardew Valley
Oh god. This game was the time evaporator. It's a farm simulator. Which is never a genre I thought I would be into. But I just spent hour after hour blissed out, growing imaginary fruit and buying coffee for the lonely people in my imaginary farm town.
I think what got me so invested was just the beginning. The game opens with a character in a cubicle who hates their life, throwing their hands up and moving to the family farm to get away from modern life. So everything in the game is built around that idea that you've escaped something when you play it-- the escapism is just soaked into the premise.
3 - Uncharted 4
Naughty Dog makes my favorite games, and I thought this one was another big step forward. And the last scene landed perfect with me.
2 - Kentucky Route Zero Act 4
Just the most interesting games being built re: writing, themes, world.
1 - Inside
I just thought this was a perfect game.
I like Journey more but that's the only thing I'd even think to compare it to.
No Man's Sky.
SKETCHES AND SHORT INTERNET VIDEOS
4. The Answers.