My picks for the best in media for 2016. I pared the list down to as small as I could make it but still ended up with 26 items. Here they are, unranked, but roughly in order of preference.
BoJack Horseman - “Fish out of Water”
The fourth episode of BoJack Horseman’s third season was an inspired journey. The underwater setting for this story - claustrophobic, isolating, weighed by a pervasive pressure - was the perfect metaphor for the stifling mental territory traveled by BoJack. This series is astounding in its emotional depth, and this episode in particular brings a pathos and poignancy you’d never expect from an animated show about a sitcom star with a kiddie art style. With its second and third seasons, BoJack joins the likes of Don Draper and Walter White as one of the most psychologically compelling antiheroes of television.
Mr. Robot VR short film / Comic-Con experience
I already posted at length about this, but, the TL;DR version: the Mr. Robot VR experience opened my eyes to a new world of cinematic possibilities for virtual reality filmmaking. Like the transition from silent cinema to the sound era, or black and white to color, seeing a smart filmmaker take advantage of a new storytelling medium was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Atlanta - Season One
No show on television took more risks than this one, and audiences were rewarded with a fully-realized world that’s just a bit off. With a David Lynchian view, where the ‘normal’ world is shifted to an askew angle, ‘Atlanta’ is populated by oddities - but familiar ones. Brian Tyree Henry should win every acting award possible this year, with his stellar supporting role as the underground rapper Paper Boi. Not since James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano has an actor been able to convey so much with the slightest of eye-rolls or eyebrow-furrows.
Game of Thrones - Season Six
For a show that’s garnered a reputation for events so shocking that it’s become common for people to record their reactions on video, the finale for this season, titled “The Winds of Winter,” opened with a jaw-dropping sequence of horror executed with unparalleled aesthetic beauty. The “Battle of the Bastards” showcased some of the best stunts and war-choreography ever captured in moving images. “The Door” delivered an emotional wallop that unleashed thousands of Tumblr memes.
Stranger Things - Season One
I just loved everything about this Netflix series. The kids. The period details. The geeky homages. David Harbour’s incredible performance as Chief Hopper, the pained, rumpled and reluctant hero. Millie Bobby Brown, the casting find of the year, a prodigy with a debut performance of mystery, innocence and supernatural fury as Eleven.
Black Mirror - Season Three
This dark series exploring the frontiers of dystopic near-futures grappling with the consequences of technologies run amok continues to amaze. I enjoyed every episode, but there were three classics this year - ‘Nosedive,’ a tale of social-media credit scoring with Bryce Dallas Howard; ‘San Junipero,’ about a virtual world with Mackenzie Davis; and ‘Hated in the Nation,’ a feature-length episode about dystopic social media and terror with Kelly MacDonald.
Hamilton Soundtrack / Hamilton Mix-Tape
OK, technically the soundtrack came out in Fall of 2015 and I was late to the party. I was holding out hope to see the show live before hearing it, but couldn’t wait any longer. The intelligence and passion in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s telling of Alexander Hamilton’s story is a work of genius, imbuing the founders with a contemporary vitality in Shakespearean fashion. Can’t wait to see the show when it comes to Houston.
March: Book Three
This essential American classic concludes with a final chapter filled with power and impact. Congressman John Lewis’s journey in the civil rights movement reaches its destined steps across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with devastating effect.
A Hundred Thousand Worlds
My favorite novel of the year. A road-trip story with a mother and son, traveling the country navigating the comic-book convention circuit. Its depiction of modern con culture is exceedingly well-observed. Filled with a cast of characters across the comics/sci-fi community, a greek chorus of cosplay girls, but centered on a wonderful and complicated relationship.
La La Land
Up until this year, I think I’d be on record as pretty much hating the musical genre. I could never get past the whole “breaking into song” transition. But this film is a transcendent delight. In a year filled with a pervasive sense of dread, this tale of starry-eyed lovers pursuing their passions is welcome invitation into a world of dreams.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
No chance at an ubiased view here. I’m an unapologetic Star Wars fan and this was one of the best movies in the history of the series. The final 30 minutes are pretty damned flawless; some of the best space battles ever put in a sci-fi movie. And that scene where you-know-who does you-know-what was a heart-pounding thrill.
This book is gorgeous to look at; fantastic cartooning in service of a delightful period piece about adolescence and musical obsession. If you enjoyed “Scott Pilgrim” you’ll probably love this one.
This demented Mad Max with a cyberpunkian twist was an orgy of incredible visuals - an onslaught of imagery. This dystopian mix of information-addicted masses exploited by a debauched elite class spoke to the year 2016 perhaps better than anything in entertainment this year.
Rick Remender and Wes Craig's ongoing series continues to be among the best in comics. The artwork is extraordinary every time. The most recent arc sees a turnover in the main cast and the choices were exciting and unexpected.
Love Addict: Confessions of a Serial Dater
This graphic novel memoir of a young man becoming addicted to contemporary dating apps is darkly humorous, filled with cringe-inducing moments of honesty worthy of a Ricky Gervais or Larry David show.
This book answers a question you never knew that you desperately wanted answered: what if the “Family Circus” cartoon family was real, three-dimensional, filled with ennui, dread, and various mid-life crises? Hilarious and moving.
Michael Chabon’s novel/memoir about his grandfather’s life as a World War II soldier and rocketry enthusiast who was doomed (or gifted?) to fall in love with a mysterious woman with strange behaviors stemming from mental health issues is yet another example of Chabon’s mastery of language and narrative. It’s a slow-building, meandering family drama that culminates in some amazing revelations which illuminate not only Chabon’s family life but several of his themes and obsessions over the course of his literary career.
Madeline Ashby’s sci-fi novel about a security agent on a rig city is densely packed with incredible speculative concepts and fascinating transhumanist meditations. The central character navigates a cyberpunk underworld of sex workers from a strong feminist perspective.
Viggo Mortensen is mesmerizing in this film about an uncompromising parent struggling to raise a family off-the-grid. Mortensen brings a sense of righteousness, principle, passion, intelligence - but conflicted by melancholy and doubt.
The Night Of
HBO should have deleted True Detective Season 2 from existence and retitled this mini-series and released it as the real True Detective Season 2. This mini-series managed to breathe life and originality into the tired crime procedural format. Two of the best performances of the year were in this show: Riz Ahmed’s numbed and post-traumatic “Naz,” and John Turturro’s lumbering and eczema-plagued John Stone. The showcase scene in the template for this genre, the defense lawyer final argument, has become so weighted with cliches and terrible examples, it was amazing to see The Night Of reclaim this trope with a truly original, well-earned example that belongs in the final-argument pantheon alongside Gregory Peck’s “To Kill a Mockingbird."
Denis Villeneuve has a solid claim as the top-ranked pound-for-pound champion in the arena of cinema, and his musical collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson brings another hypnotic score. Arrival is a rare sci-fi film that manages to capture what’s best on the literary side of the genre - ideas, mystery, and humanity.
The Nice Guys
Movies are always a delight when Shane Black is at the top of his game, and this is one of the best films written by the Ur-Tarantino. “The Nice Guys” is hilarious, an engaging mystery and authentic period piece rolled into one, anchored by Gosling’s charm and Crowe’s menace.
Manchester by the Sea
A deeply moving film about loss, Manchester’s drag of melancholic gravity is enlivened with a dark wit. Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges all give Oscar-caliber performances. Lonnergan is almost invisible as a director, never employing camera tricks or edits that bring attention to themselves, managing to bring the intimacy of a dramatic theater performance to cinema.
Orange is the New Black - Season Four
“OitNB” continues its streak of excellence, with each season an arguable contender for best in the series. This year’s was no exception, and culminated in a final trio of devastatingly brilliant episodes.
Everybody Wants Some
Richard Linklater’s latest combines a number of things I love: the ‘80s, baseball, Texas; exploring them in meandering, philosophical conversations about competition and authenticity.
Halt and Catch Fire - Season Three
This season was filled with unexpected turns and bold choices. There’s a lot to love in this show, but I just want to single out supporting actor Toby Huss, the weathered, plain-spoken Texan that provides a calming center to this show’s erratic leads. When he calls bullshit on something, he’s right - and does it with Lone Star style.