120 Days: Iraq and Underexposure

I’ve decided in response to the current administration’s decision to ban refugees from Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, I am going to watch (and maybe write about) a movie by or about one of those seven places. Movies are among the easiest and most popular form of escape in our world, giving us the ability to transport ourselves to all sorts of places and, perhaps most importantly, into the perspective of another. While they only paint small visions of the world we live in, they expand what we think is possible and what we know of people.

underexposure

My second viewing in this series is Underexposure, a 2005 Iraqi film. I am discovering that the film culture in a lot of these places is not as prevalent as I might have hoped for an exercise such as this, but in a way this makes it almost better. The story of this movie coming to be is almost as exciting as the movie itself. The filmmakers got the film used to shoot the movie from looters in the wake of America’s occupation in Iraq. It’s expired, something they note in the movie’s title, and it gives the whole thing a yellowish tint throughout. They had to sell their possessions to raise enough money to complete the movie, which would end up being the first film to be made after the fall of Sadam Hussein.

Works of art can serve as a purging of oneself. The film features a group of guys trying to make a documentary about their town in the midst of occupation. Its main character, Hassan, speaks in long voiceovers, using poetic language to express the pain that appears with every bomb or from every person he learns has passed. For him the film serves as a way to free himself from it all, to reckon with his surroundings–to purge this great sorrow. The great lengths the actual filmmakers went to in order to get this movie made cannot be separated from the visions Hassan has, it’s all too meta not to be. This is how everyone involved in this production chose to find meaning in their lives.

Hassan grapples with the suffering and death that surrounds him, small people in his life pass on and you cannot help but note that this could be anyone, your neighbor, those acquaintances you once had. This is truly the empathetic power of movies, they drop you into an experience, giving a perspective of someone you’ll never know. You escape your worldview, if for but a moment, relating to and even siding with those opposite of ourselves.

As noted above, most of the characters in the film are commoners, they’re apolitical, trying to make a living in their town which has been destroyed by an irredeemable government and a group of outsiders who don’t like or trust them. There is no common sentiment displayed by the film, other than sorrow, yet resentment rides high, the logical reaction to those who have wrecked all you know. This is both us and them, though. Humanity is wont to act in self-preservation, grabbing onto to the narratives we are given and using them as motivation to get through our lives. And in this is the deepest of commonalities. We live in a world of imagined divides, with walls that we have been told exist, but exist solely in our collective social constructions as those above us gain off our broken backs.

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January 2017

Some people wonder how I’m able to keep track of everything I’ve consumed throughout the year, it’s by doing nerdy things like this. Inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s own lists, I’m keeping track day by day of the films, television episodes, sports games, live performances, books I’ve completed, and anything else that’s easy to keep track of.

TV Shows are indicated by season and episode, books have the author listed, live performances have the venue indicated, films are left plain.

1/1 – A Bigger Splash, Divines

1/2 – Swiss Army Man, Our Little Sister

1/4 – American Honey

1/7 – Hidden Figures

1/8 – The Good Place (S1, E10)

1/9 – Mad Men (S4, E3), NCAA Football National Championship

1/10 – Mad Men (S4, E4,5,6), Presidential Farewell Address

1/11 – Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E6)

1/12 – Hacksaw Ridge

1/13 – Amelie at the Ahmanson

1/15 – Southside With You, NFL Playoffs (x2)

1/16 – Selma

1/17 – Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E7), The Good Place (S1, E11)

1/19 – Mad Men (S4, E7), Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E8)

1/20 – Bad Moms, The UCB Show (S2, E1)

1/21 – The Good Place (S1, E12), Asssscat at UCB Franklin

1/22 – NFL Conference Championship Games (X2), The Good Place (S1, E13), Hunted (S1, E1)

1/24 – Fresh Off the Boat (S3, E6,7,8)

1/26 – Fresh Off the Boat (S3, E9); Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E9)

1/27 – Mad Men (S4, E8)

1/28 – 20th Century Women

1/29 – The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Silicon Valley (S2, E2), Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

1/30 – The White Helmets

1/31 – Mad Men (S4, E9), Crazy Ex Girlfriend (S2, E10)

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120 Days: Syria and The White Helmets

I’ve decided in response to the current administration’s decision to ban refugees from Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, I am going to watch (and maybe write about) a movie by or about one of those seven places. Movies are among the easiest and most popular form of escape in our world, giving us the ability to transport ourselves to all sorts of places and, perhaps most importantly, into the perspective of another. While they only paint small visions of the world we live in, they expand what we think is possible and what we know of people.

whitehelmetedit

The first film in this series is The White Helmets, a 2016 documentary short about a group of people in Syria who run into bombings to save anyone possibly injured in the wreckage. The film has made news in recent days, because the heroes it features are no longer eligible to enter the country, not even to potentially receive the Oscar for which the film that features them has been nominated. I should also note that there are some who argue against the featured group, laying out all sorts of reasons why they are illegitimate, it doesn’t seem to be from any serious sources, but has certainly lowered the IMDB score of the film. It serves as a good reminder that all documentaries should be taken with a grain of salt though.

The film reminds me of the saying attributed to Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s a modern rendition of Hacksaw Ridge, with only their helmets and short training the heroes run into the danger zone, saving life after life.

The filmmakers, for their part, dive straight into the action, with more than one cameraperson knocked aside in the midst of chaos due to an explosion of some sort. They follow each of their subjects as they enter into war zones, responding on a moment’s notice—at the first sound of explosions. Each White Helmet shows extreme dedication to their cause, filled with part adrenaline, part duty. They frantically try to make sense of what has happened, running about trying to figure out what their response should be, yet there’s a normalcy to it all—this is what they do.

There’s no sense of triage here, they’re there to rescue anyone with any chance, moving forward with fiery, throwing all naysayers aside. This lack of fear and unbridled bravery has lead to them saving thousands of people—when it comes to saving human lives, sometimes all logic should be thrown aside.

There’s a moment where one of the people in the film states ”All lives are precious and valuable”, bringing to mind a saying that’s often uttered in strange defiance by that collection of trolls; if they had any integrity then perhaps their lives would look more similar to the quoted man whose life embodies everything spoken.

But our lives are so easily shaped by where we’re born, the circumstances in which we’re raised, and the opportunities we’re given. In the movie there’s a moment where they literally snatch life from death’s grip, miraculously pulling an infant out of the rubble. It’s in that moment that I could not help but think of what would become of that child’s life or any child living in those times. This child serves as a beacon of hope for those brave men risking their lives, and because of this, likely would be given everything he needs to make it in this world.

But what for the child whose parents are killed in the wreckage by bombs from the west? What of the children of the White Helmets whose parents are constantly at risk? What if they make that impossible choice to leave Syria, joining alongside the millions of others who have chosen to flee the danger that is insurmountably presented to them on the daily, and what if they find themselves rejected at the border as our policy has forced us to do?

The absolute obliteration of war and a world without hope causes people to make choices, to blame outside forces that were seemingly playing war games at their expense. Would it be any surprise to see these individuals choose religious extremism? It’s the only choice they have. This is where the executive order goes wrong, creating largely unwarranted fear in Americans, and letting broken individuals stew in their suffering with no path to redemption.

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Best Films of 2016

My last list in the best of the year lists is always the movies, because the end of the year is always loaded with films getting their debuts in last minute in order to qualify for varying awards runs. That being said, there are quite a few films that I either missed their run in my town or they have yet to make it here. Some of these films include: Toni Erdmann, Paterson, Silence, 20th Century Women, The Handmaiden, Certain Women, Elle, Camera Person, Things to Come. I plan on updating this list as I see these films, so expect it to be fluid (and keep checking it out because you’ll never know if there’ll be a new number 1!).

One other note I wanted to make before beginning this list was to acknowledge the lack of diversity amongst the stars and directors in my top 15. Last year’s #Oscarssowhite controversy certainly didn’t seem to really affect the hype train among critics, whose opinions I usually try to keep up with. Only Pablo Larrain (from Chile) and Hirokazu Koreeda (of Japan) are non-white males in my top 10. Some of you may roll your eyes at my acknowledgement of this and others of you may care, but I think it’s important to watch films by people who are not white males and I will try to be more cognizant of this moving forward. My 16 through 22 picks are all about or directed by people outside this realm, but just couldn’t crack into the movies that impacted me most (an arbitrary process, I know, but I try to rank them according to what I felt was the best combination of skill and personal impact). Movies are meant to transport you into someone else’s experience and it’s so important to make that experience be told by someone outside of the the small viewpoint it is so often told from. Here’s to more films by people of color and women going into 2017.

25. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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24. Krisha

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23. High-Rise

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22. Moonlight

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21. The Club

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20. Moana

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19 Divines

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18. American Honey

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17. The Fits

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16. Kicks

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15. Embrace of the Serpent

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14. Love & Friendship

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Whit Stilman takes his dialogue-heavy wit to the Victorian era in what is a pretty straightforward period adaptation of a Jane Austen short story. It’s one of the most cleverly written scripts of the year, using the complex social dynamics of the time to craft what almost becomes a sort of screwball comedy. Kate Beckinsale gives one of the best performances of the year as a manipulative socialite making her way through the world. If you can keep up with it’s sharp dialogue you’re bound to enjoy it.

13. Midnight Specialmidnight-special

Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite working directors and his first feature of 2016 (he also made the respectable civil rights tale Loving) was a sci-fi thriller that doubled down on Nichols’ consistent exploration of family and manhood. The film follows a father (Michael Shannon) as he tries to protect his son from both the government and a cult of religious obsessives as they try to figure out the strange powers his son has. The central mystery of this boy’s purpose is intriguing, the chase aspects are thrilling, but ultimately the film is most interesting in what it means to be a family with Nichols’ putting his characters in unique situations to examine this question (as he also did brilliantly in Take Shelter).

12. Everybody Wants Some!!

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Everybody Wants Some!!, on its face, seems like an effort to try to recapture the magic of Dazed and Confused, but in reality it’s so good that there’s no way anyone can accuse Linklater of trying to capitalize off of old successes. It takes place in the 80s, following a group of baseball players in their first few days before college begins. Linklater is a master of having his characters sit around a discuss ideas, allowing for dumb jocks to be the smartest people in the room, and capturing in totality the excitement and uncertainty of youth. No other director is better at making you feel like you’re sitting around chilling with your pals.

11. Hell or High Water

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This is essentially ‘Texas: The Movie’ and perhaps the most representative story of what is now Donald Trump’s America. It follows two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they try to save their family’s ranch by stealing from the bank that’s about to foreclose on them. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham star as two cops trying to catch the brothers, their tenuous but loving relationship guiding them along. The film follows both sets until its final culmination of complicated and unfortunate violence. Director David Mackenzie captures a certain American spirit, one of disparaged people caught in a bad place and desperate for a wave of goodwill to move through their lives. It’s a distortion of the American dream, one filled with plenty of laughs, and that will leave you dumbfounded as to how we got here and where we go next.

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane

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This prequel to Cloverfield was shrouded in mystery, with little known about its plot or that it was even coming out. The team behind this film were satisfied to take a fairly successful existing property and create something within its world without really caring about the world of the existing property. The known entity of there being some sort of monster attack brilliantly exists in the background while Dan Trachtenberg chooses to heighten tension within the house where Mary Elizabeth Winstead finds herself. It’s more psychological thriller than monster movie and Winstead (and the viewer) have no idea whether to be terrified or thankful for John Goodman’s presence (he’s terrifying, and great). It was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me and it pays off brilliantly.

9. Our Little Sister

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Hirokazu Koreeda is one of my favorite working filmmakers, he crafts small scale family stories where tensions run low, but spirits often run high. This isn’t to say his characters don’t go through a lot, they certainly face situations with high stakes, but the viewer never feels like these characters won’t be anything other than alright. Our Little Sister is about three sisters whose father, who had abandoned them years earlier for another woman, passes away. At the funeral they learn of their step-sister and eventually decide to take her in. The film then fairly simply follows the four of them as they reside together, experiencing those pieces of life that are most important–small disappointing and joyful moments that when placed together make up one’s being. It’s beautiful, like a cup of green tea warming you from the inside out.

8. Manchester By the Sea

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Early on Manchester By the Sea decides it’s going to wreck you, with Casey Affleck’s brother dying and the introduction of Affleck’s nephew who he is now in charge of. From there Kenneth Lonergan puts you through heart break after heart break as the circumstances of Affleck’s morose Lee Chandler are slowly revealed. This would all be utterly devastating (and it still is) if Lonergan didn’t make the film equally as funny as it is depressing. Lee’s relationship with his nephew Chandler is often ostentatious–they are two depressed people trying to get by, neither afraid to say how they feel–leading to often vicious and brutal snipes that actually help to relieve the tension quite well. The ubiquitous phrase all the feelings has never felt more appropriate than it has here, for good reason, Manchester will likely exist in our collective vernacular for quite a while.

7. The Nice Guys

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This is the funniest movie that came out this year, even if on its face it’s not a straightforward comedy. The Nice Guys follows Ryan Gosling’s private detective Holland and Russell Crowe’s fixer, Jackson, as circumstances force them to come together. Shane Black is able to pull off perfectly constructed slapstick as the two bumble their way throughout Los Angeles trying to find a missing girl. Gosling is surprisingly a comedic genius here. Ultimately, and similar to Inherent Vice, the movie is about decency, the idea that goodness exists in the world even if it is found in the seedy places one wouldn’t expect. The world is a corrupt place, but somewhere out there is an awful detective who really just wants to make things good for people.

6. Sing Street

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Sing Street is a frontrunner for the movie I’m most likely to put on during a Sunday evening when I just want to be comforted. It’s a John Hughes-esque teen comedy directed by the guy who gave us Once and featuring some outstanding original music. Cosmos is a teenager in Ireland, he’s just been forced to change schools, his parent’s marriage is falling apart, and he’s reached that age where his identity is beginning to be discovered. And then he sees a girl and decides to commit everything to impressing this girl. Following his brother’s advice he starts a band, inviting the girl to star in his music video, and through the new wave bands he sees on MTV, his interactions with this girl, and his keen ability to actually write songs, he begins to reach self-discovery. It’s fun, sentimental, and is actually able to capture all the excitement and importance of music–particularly to the lost teenager.

5. Jackie

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“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is a lyric and the main theme in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. This is the quote that most profoundly ran throughout my head while watching Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, his English-language debut, which follows Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s death. It’s a tale of personal tragedy, Jackie is dealing with the loss of her husband, the father of her children. But it’s so much more than this, she must deal with the legacy of who her husband is, not only her personal and complicated relationship with him, but how the entire country will view him for years to come. Larrain portrays all of this with a meandering camera, his grainy cinematography is probably more beautiful than anything else I saw on the big screen this year. The personal and the national intertwine in an absolutely devastating tale of loss.

4. La La Land

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From its opening moments, featuring a Los Angeles traffic standstill that quickly turns into a stage for a giant musical number, I was hooked by La La Land. It’s simultaneously a throwback to Hollywood musicals, while also capturing  a modern feel. That opening number, which makes a celebration out of the most tumultuous parts of Hollywood–the never-ending traffic and sunshine that won’t go away–captures the dreamlike notion of the movies. And boy does it do so, vibrant colors splash off the screen, characters are always exquisitely dressed, and perhaps most importantly it stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone who will charm the socks off of you. Damien Chazelle lets us believe in the unbelievable bliss of romance. Yet, things can never be all good and Chazelle brings us back to reality. As the characters dreams come true, their romance slowly dissipates, but, lest we forget all the magic that preceded it, we get treated to one final glorious sequence that utterly nails everything that could have been, all the dreams that we experience and the magic that lies therein, whether or not they come true.

3. Hail, Caesar

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Hail, Caesar is a tribute film to films and this, while on its face is fairly annoying, is pulled off brilliantly here. The Coen brothers tell the story of their love of cinema through the lens of a crisis of faith. Josh Brolin stars as a old timey Hollywood fixer who must consider if the work he does (mostly trying to make sure his ill-tempered movie stars do what they’re supposed to do) is worth it. He’s been offered another job, one that will pay more and be easier, but there’s just something about movies… The Coens lovingly pay tribute to all sorts of films as we see Scarlett Johansson in a water set piece, Channing Tatum tap dance his way through a musical number, and breakout star Alden Ehrenreich try to transition from cowboy pictures to a prestige drama. At the center also lies a comical mystery in the disappearance of George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, which helps tie together the existentialism that Brolin faces. While the crisis facing Brolin is about the power of movies, it also doubles as an affirmation that movies do have a spiritual worth that can lead us into a better well being–good thing too, because I keep watching them.

2. The Lobster

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Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut offers up a wacky dystopian world, one in which people without romantic partners are forced to live together in a hotel and if they do not find love within 30 days they are turned into an animal of their choosing. It’s a subtle and often dark comedy that parodies our Bachelor watching culture that is obsessed with finding “the one”. As the film progresses though, the nature of the parody changes a little, showing that the opposite of a ridiculous belief, when taken to the extreme, can also be awful. It’s a strange movie to be sure, but was one of the most fun stories to watch play out.

  1. The VVitch

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The Witch succeeds not by giving us supernatural frights (though that is there), but by heightening tensions in what is, at its core, a family drama. Robert Eggers’ horror flick shows us a horror not brought about by explicit evil, but by bringing us into hyper-religious colonial America, a world devoid of grace. In this world where blame out signifies love true terror is allowed to breed like wildfire. The film could almost be titled “How to turn your child into a witch” for it so perfectly captures the idea of how something like this could come to be. To boost, the film is beautifully shot and Anya-Taylor Joy gives an outstanding performance. The ending is extremely dark, let that be known, but it hammers home that idea that when we don’t allow for grace in our lives, it is the most horrid of all evils.

Posted in Best of 2016, Cinephilia, Top Ten List | 2 Comments

Top 10 Albums of 2016

Unranked Honorable Mentions:

Jeffery by Young Thug

Blank Face LP by ScHoolboy Q

Cashmere by Swet Shop Boys

Emotion Side B by Carly Rae Jepsen

Freetown Sound by Blood Orange

The Dream is Over by Pup

Rot Forever by Sioux Falls

Paradise by White Lung

Cody by Joyce Manor

I Had a Dream That You Were Mine by Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam

As you can tell by the long list of honorable mentions above there was a ton of pretty good stuff that came out this year. I considered almost every one of these for my number 10 album of the year and even as I sit here I’m not satisfied with everything I’ve mentioned, so here are a few more that I also enjoyed (A Seat at the Table by Solange, Puberty 2 by Mitski, WORRY. by Jeff Rosenstock, Stage Four by Touché Amore, plus The Hamilton Mixtape which I didn’t even count for this list). It was a good year for music, one that I felt was pretty balanced–I doubt that very many of these will make my best of the decade list, but I enjoyed so much of them.

10. iiiDrops by Joey Purp

joey-purp

From the opening moments of iiiDrops Joey Purp speaks with a purpose. There’s an urgency both in his raps and his beats, which make you feel as if he’s standing on a soapbox preaching to anyone who will listen. That’s not to say it’s all sincere, he’s got a fun track with Chance the Rapper which was his biggest hit of the year (“Girls @”), but for the most part he’s socially conscious, speaking out about Chicago, and the ups and downs experienced there. “Photobooth” is the best song on the album, but “Cornerstore” exemplifies the urgency Purp brings to it.

9. Moth by Chairlift

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This is the first album I ever really listened to by Chairlift, a duo who announced their separation just weeks ago, ultimately a shame because their final album is a wonderful work of synth influenced indie pop. Moth throws together a collection of wonderful melodies matched with grooving, uplifting beats. “Crying in Public” was a constant go to for me (I named it my number two song of the year)–it’s a incessantly calming song, filled with positive vibes, while “Polymorphing” probably gives the best overview of the electronic catchiness of the album as a whole.

8. Leave Me Alone by Hinds

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Hinds is a Spanish indie rock band, their debut album is filled with loosely constructed garage-y songs that get by on the band’s enthusiasm. It’s a wry rock album, drifting from solo to chorus and vocalist to vocalist but always feeling more fun than sloppy. I would play this on any beach day even if the band’s approach is antithetical to the tight construction of the Beach Boys. “Warts” has a fun and memorable guitar lick and features the band almost obnoxiously singing “ba da ba da ba ba” in a way that will make you smile.

7. Goldman’s Detective Agency by Martha

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Every review I’ve read of this record loves to mention the Canadian group’s progressive politics, perhaps because it’s not immediately noticeable in the band’s Warped Tour pop-punk vibe. Catchy pop-punk like this is not known for its anarchic perspective, even if that’s where the genre evolved from. Martha’s views are probably why it’s garnered success in the indie scene, and they certainly deserve it for pushing those boundaries, but this album thrives on how perfectly catchy it is. It makes use of alternating vocals from its male and female vocalists (though they might argue there’s no need for gender distinctions) to make perfectly layered guitar-driven pop songs. “Ice Cream and Sunscreen” features both vocalists in a song that brilliantly crescendos from sunny strumming into full pop-punk.

6. Hopelessness by ANOHNI

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The bleakness of ANOHNI’s album title is squeezed out into every second of her album here. She truly believes in expressing that sentiment and uses slowly drawn minor electronic music to do so. It’s an ethereal experience, lamenting the state of the environment, Obama’s presidency, and the government’s spy tactics. It’s sorrowful all in all, with “Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth?” reaching peak existential cry.

5. Blackstar by David Bowie

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There’s no better way to describe Blackstar than haunting. It’s an album filled with references to life’s culmination, regret, and resurrection, released just days before Bowie would end up passing. Musically it soars, meandering through long songs with jazz interludes and that classic Bowie performance. Donny McCaslin and company are the backing band, offering up some of the best musicianship on any album that came out this year. “Blackstar” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are both reflections on life, filled to the brim with pathos.

4. TIE: Lemonade by Beyonce; Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper; The Life of Pablo by Kanye West

Okay a bit of a cheat here, but these three albums are pretty inarguably the biggest representations of popular music this year. All three released albums to great accord and fanfare, pushing boundaries and reclaiming the album as a viable option in 2016. I looked forward to each and listened to each as much as anything else this entire year, yet I find major flaws and sections I don’t really like in each. Their songs filled my best songs of the year lists, but I find stretches of each unignorable-y skippable. I figured why not combine them all in one big cheat, both recognizing their brilliance and how cautious I am to label them my favorites of the year.

Coloring Book

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Chance was the breakout star of pop music this year (though you should check out my best albums of 2014 list, which includes his wonderful mixtape Acid Rap in my top 10– *humblebrag*) and Coloring Book saw a lot of traction. There’s good reason for this, it’s a gospel-filled sincere rap album with guests from Lil Wayne to Kirk Franklin to Justin Bieber. At first I didn’t like some of the production choices (particularly on the intro to “All We Got” which I felt was really messy), but I kept returning to it over and over. Some songs grew on me (like “No Problem” which ended up being one of my favs from the year), while others I still find kind of boring (“Summer Friends”; “Mixtape”; “Juke Jam”). There are parts of this album I will forever return to and others I probably won’t listen to again.

The Life of Pablo

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Kanye consistently promised us the world with this record and by making so many promises he kinda shot himself in the foot. He rushed its release and as a result it… feels rushed. There are a lot of great ideas throughout the whole thing, but some of them end before they have any right to, while others seemingly drag on forever. “Ultralight Beam” is the song of the decade and its flashes of brilliance show up throughout a lot of the album, but Yeezy should’ve cut out some of that filler, let some songs live in the bonus material realm, and come in with a nice tight 12 track album. But for now we can use the skip button and wait for that Trump/Yeezus ticket that we’re bound to have four years from now.

Lemonade

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The most fun I had on Twitter this year was reading people’s reactions to the release of Lemonade on HBO, it was hyped up and met everyone’s expectations for what a new Beyonce album should be. I think the issue I have here is I wanted it to be more similar to her self-titled record which was an absolute I’m the emcee here feminist hip-hop anthem. Lemonade obviously is a singularly focused album about a supposed infidelity and all that comes with it–and that part works–but I didn’t enjoy her stray into more bluesy, Americana songs as much as I like what she was doing previously. It’s a personal preference and one that really only shows up on about a third of the album.

3. untitled unmastered. by Kendrick Lamar

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Leave it to Kendrick to unexpectedly drop an album of B-sides and have it be one of the best things that came out all year. It’s not as tied together as his two full-lengths, and you can certainly see where each song might have fit if it had made it to Butterfly or MAAD City, but this allows for nine songs to come together in untethered bliss.

2. 22, A Million by Bon Iver

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When I named Bon Iver’s self-titled album my favorite of 2011 I figured it was a cliche pick from an artist who had peaked in popularity, but I couldn’t ignore how brilliant the album was. This is exactly how I feel about 22, A Million which further elevates Justin Vernon’s project into the avant-garde. He used special technologies to layer his vocals here, pushing his sound into a textured wonderland that is both worlds away from his twee acoustic debut, while somehow managing to capture the same tone. The whole thing is beautiful and I appreciate his willingness to push to the fringes of music. It’s been rewarding every time.

  1. Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest

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Will Toledo’s indie rock project is a masterclass in rock ‘n roll for the internet age. Born out of the DIY Bandcamp scene and having released something like nine albums across the past six years, Headrest shows what is possible for indie rock in 2016. While self-produced quirky lo-fi jams are a bastion of rock music, Headrest expands those ideas to their fullest, creating huge anthems that pull together vast ideas. His music is a like a well curated Tumblr blog, featuring references to all sorts of things, poetic ramblings, and memes alike. Like someone who grew up with the internet, Teens of Denial is an ironic piece of sincerity–there are tongue-in-cheek moments and others where you have to ask if Toledo is even trying, but it all pulls together in an amazing effort.  Most importantly the songwriting is brilliant, these are rock songs that can stand alongside anything that’s ever been written and is why Teens of Denial is my favorite album of the year.

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Top 10 TV Shows of 2016

I watched more new television this year than any other year. There is just so much of it out there these days, from network shows that surprise, to streaming only originals that get the budget of full on movies. Some of our best creators have moved to TV, because that’s where both the money and acclaim lies, so keeping up with all the latest shows is essential for any pop culture connoisseur. That being said, there are still so many shows that were on last year’s list that didn’t return this year, making this list even more diversified than it would have been. None of Nathan For YouMaster of NoneReview, or Fargo (which were all in my top 10 last year) released a new season this year, which means they will likely come out in 2017, making my year all the more busy.

10. Bajillion Dollar Properties (season 1 and 2)

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The launch of Seeso by NBC this year provided a platform for comedians to do shorter and smaller things with little need to draw in huge audiences. Bajillion Dollar Propertie$, a parody of high end real estate shows, launched with the network and has already come out with two seasons of its ridiculous and improvised satire. Each episode, for the most part, follows a pretty standard routine–each broker has some new client or goal to meet, we are introduced to them (typically played by someone from the UCB/Earwolf crowd) and learn about whatever abhorrent idea they have of what they want in a home. Add in some office hi-jinx and you’ve got the show in a nutshell. It’s not groundbreaking, but if you enjoy funny rhythms and indie comedians then it’s a must watch.

9. The Night Of (Limited Series)

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HBO jumped into the crime story rage this year with The Night Of, a gritty tale about a young Pakistani adult who experiences one awful night and the aftermath of all that happens. Part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, it expertly draws out this tale across six episodes, intensely bringing you into Naz’s life as his experiences slowly change him. I didn’t find the pilot as gripping as some, but I found the conclusion more satisfying than others.

8. The Good Place (Season 1)

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The latest from show runner Michael Schur (Parks and Rec; The Office; Brooklyn 99) takes place in the after-life. Like all of his previous shows, it’s a workplace drama, filled with wacky but sincere characters who work together to get by–only this time it’s all in heaven–or as they call it in the show, “the good place”. It’s a clever show and heartwarming, like Schur is great at doing, but is also highly serialized, featuring very specific rules for the world that has been built. It’s one of those shows that you can only hope they have an idea of where they want it to go (and apparently Schur and co. do), but for now it’s been a great ride.

7. Brain Dead (Season 1)

Wake Up Grassroots: The Nine Virtues Of Participatory Democracy, And How We Can Keep America Great By Encouraging An Informed Electorate

CBS released BrainDead this summer, where it was promptly ignored by both critics and audiences alike. The network, which is the biggest network in the US due to its pervasive knowledge that most of America really just wants to watch Kevin James, cancelled it after this season, and ultimately ignored that it had one of the most unique and strangest shows of the year on its hands. It’s a political satire that tries to explain the partisan state of our union through the premise of bug aliens invading our brains. It stars Marie Elizabeth Winstead (who crushed it this year) and Aaron Tveit (of Broadway fame) as its two impeccably charming and good looking leads who fall in love despite being across the aisle politically and in the middle of an alien invasion. It recaps every episode with a new song from Jonathan Coulton and at one point has a US senator eat someone’s brains. If any of this at all interests you, I recommend watching it, because we need more weird things like this on mainstream television.

6. Crazy Ex Girlfriend (Season 1)

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The comedy auteur is alive and well and the fact that CW gave Rachel Bloom the resources to fund what is a pretty raunchy musical comedy is shocking. It’s about a woman facing a mid-life crisis of sorts, who, upon running into a high school fling decides to upend her successful life in New York to move to West Covina, California. The show turns into a crazy love triangle and while it mocks many of Rebecca’s decisions, is thoroughly feminist and progressive. All of this madness takes place intertwined with big bombastic musical numbers that cover every genre of music. It’s delightful for the comedy and musical theater nerd alike.

5. Veep (Season 5)

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Veep came back in full force this year, creating electoral circumstances that at one point in time (maybe January of 2016) might have seemed crazy. It’s the best straight up comedy on television, satirizing our politics in a way that has never felt more essential than right now at this moment.

4. The Americans (Season 4)

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The Americans continues its run of being the highest stakes drama on television. This year saw Phillip and Elizabeth, two Russian spies living undercover in America, continue to deal with the tensions that come with their job and the very real feelings they’ve developed for the people around them and the place they live. As the stakes rise for the show, each character grapples with the tasks they’ve been given and whether the orders they receive are worth following through. Russia’s interventions in US elections and our leader’s man crush on its autocratic leader should only make this show more interesting and poignant moving forward.

3. Catastrophe (Season 2)

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I put this Amazon original on on a whim this year (accidentally watched the second season before the first) and it became an instant favorite. It’s a shame (and a blessing) that each season is only six episodes, but what results is a raunchy realistic romp about two people forced together by a pregnancy who manage to make it work in brutal, conflict ridden honesty.

2. Lady Dynamite (Season 1)

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I think this is perhaps the best spiritual successor to Arrested Development since the show ended its initial run in 2005 (maybe even more so than the critically mixed fourth season–a season I will admit to enjoying quite a bit). From the same producer as ADLady Dynamite is a fictionalized account of Maria Bamford’s comedy career and time spent in recovery for bipolar disorder. The show is abstract, filled with minute jokes and zany bits as it jumps from time period to time period (each aided by its own color palette). It’s a true pleasure for any comedy nerd, one that is sure to reward those who come back for rewatches, catching every callback and pop culture reference. It’s a weird show, no doubt, but I found it both hilarious and delightful.

  1. Atlanta (Season 1)

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Atlanta was the year’s critical darling, drawing comparisons to everything from Twin Peaks to The Wire, while blending a deadpan comedic tone throughout. It’s Donald Glover’s project, he stars as Earn, a poor 20-something (more like young poor rather than poor poor, though certainly most of the spaces he occupies are not known for their wealth), trying to navigate his life vocationally, while also taking care of his daughter and trying to figure out his relationship with his (ex-?) girlfriend. He becomes the manager of sorts to his cousin, Paper Boi, an up and coming rapper in Atlanta. Despite what may sound like a straightforward premise, the plot is all subtext to whatever Glover and his crew feel like showing on screen. There is little serialization here and each episode takes place entirely in its own context. There are episodes that are all about Paper Boi, there is one that focuses entirely on Van (Earn’s girlfriend) and what is going on in her life, and there are some that parody various things within the rap community (drug deals, the club). It’s a show where anything can happen at any moment and after I finished each episode, I immediately wanted to watch it again.

Shows that just missed the cut: Fresh Off the BoatStranger ThingsGilmore Girls: A Year in the LifeLoveUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

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2017 Pop Culture Goals

I mentioned yesterday that I failed to meet 1/2 of my goals, and the year before that I think I failed pretty spectacularly, but casting aside this evidence that I should just give up on creating pop culture goals for myself, I am doubling (even tripling, probably) down on what I want to do. These goals, for the uninitiated, are purely pop culture oriented–I don’t publish any list where I lay out actual goals for myself, that would be too revealing and would probably garner way more clicks than this blog is used to.

This is the part of the year where we begin to grin and bear these sorts of things, we believe that the world is our oyster and with the grand resetting of our year, comes a utopian view of the future. With my sights set on this heavenly narrative these are my goals for the year.

Side Note: Every year I ask myself if this will be the year I try to read David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, the answer this year is no, but we’re getting there…

The Goals:

Rewatch ten of my favorite films from 2007

Ten years ago this year is when I first started really watching movies, making a conscious choice that this was something I was going to do. I was aided by Netflix, which at the time was providing their DVD service–a feature I miss quite a bit–and by the fact that it was a monumental year for cinema. Many of the titles from that year are some of my all time favorites.

I would like to celebrate this anniversary of sorts by rewatching ten of my favorites from that year, seeing how they hold up after this amount of time, particularly now that I am quite a different person than the 17 year old who made the decision to be a cinephile all those years ago. The movies I plan on watching: There Will Be BloodThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordThe Diving Bell and the ButterflyThe King of Kong: A Fistful of QuartersChop ShopLars and the Real GirlGone Baby GoneMichael ClaytonNo Country For Old MenFour Months, Three Weeks, Two Days

Read 3,000 pages

Toward the end of this year, in order to finish one of my goals for the year, I set up a reading plan for myself. I enjoy reading, but often find myself distracted by the current-ness of the moment, checking Twitter and refreshing The Ringer or Stereogum to see what new pieces they’ve come out with. But books, both fiction and non-, are important pieces of longform thought that deserve to be disciplined into my life. Having a scheduled regiment for myself was helpful and I’m hoping that giving myself a goal this year will push me to read more.

The goal that I’ve set for myself is 3,000 pages–or, roughly, 8 pages a day–something I hope will get me to read around 10 books this year. I figure 10 books is a good amount to give me a mix of novels and non-fiction pieces, both new lit and classics I’ve never read, diverse authors, and religious works. It’ll give me the chance to finish things I never got around to finishing (looking at you Guns, Germs, and Steel/Crime and Punishment) and will leave me more well-read overall.

Some things I hope to read: Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim; Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; The Nix by Nathan Hill; Americanah by Chimamada Ngozi Adichie; The Plague by Albert Camus

Watch 5 films from my watchlist 

It’s easy to get lost trying to keep up with all the new stuff coming out, but it’s essential to see the classics, noting where we’ve been, and what has influenced us all along (plus then I won’t have my film nerd card revoked!). I figure watching five old things from a list I have is a good goal to have. A sample of things I would really like to watch: Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest; Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi; Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love; Jacques Tati’s Playtime; Tarkovsky’s The Mirror; Bergman’s Persona

Finish television series I am in the middle of

There are a couple of shows that I absolutely adore, but I have pushed them to the back burner in order to keep up with shows that I enjoy less. This is dumb, right? This year I will finish Mad Men, I’ve just started season four, and the Korean highbrow reality show The Genius, where I am in the middle of its second season.

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