This has been a strange year for me. On one hand, I got married this March and have spent the remaining weeks and months in relative marital bliss. Professionally and personally, this has been a stellar year, and the first where I consider film criticism to be a second career, instead of a mere hobby. On the other hand, 2016 become a pop culture phenomenon of its own, an anthropomorphized killer of dreams that robbed us of our heroes. I wasn’t immune to this meme, despite all my happiness, and so these two ideas of 2016 seeped into my relationship with culture. Before I get to lists, I want to highlight a few noteworthy films, shows, books, albums, and plays (in chronological order):
45 Years (viewed on January 20th). No other filmmaker is as sympathetic and ruthless toward romantic relationships as Andrew Haigh. While technically a 2015 release, this film left a strong impression on me. Love, trust, and seething resentment often coexist in the exact same moment.
The Witch (viewed on February 12th). This is the rare horror film that is more creepy than scary. It was strange, even a little funny, that I saw a damning allegory about puritan patriarchy on the same day I happened to head to the courthouse and pick up my marriage certificate.
“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara (finished on February 19th). While I did not love this novel, it has stuck with me throughout the entire year. Yanagihara is remorseless on her readers – her book is about nothing less than the tragedy and profound suffering of her hero – but the commitment to her premise demonstrates her unwavering sympathy for him.
The Americans, season 5 (started in March). Television’s best serialized drama is a thriller that internalizes the aching sacrifices of all its major characters. This is also a show that remembers when “Russia” was a four letter word. After the events of the past year, we will watch The Americans in order to better understand our future.
Catastrophe, season 2 (viewed on April 9th). Rob Delaney and Sharon Hogan’s blistering comedy is also the most romantic show on television. The year’s funniest TV scene was when Rob, in a flurry of vicious righteous spite, ruins the evening of a woman who hurt his wife’s feelings. I hope to be that heroic for my wife one day.
Green Room (viewed on April 20th). At the time, Jeremy Saulnier’s claustrophobic thriller felt like a blast from the past – a film full of punks and neo-Nazis. After I watched a band from Northern Virginia take on doughy white supremacists and prevail, I attended a secret Dag Nasty show in a performance space near the theater. It was a great evening, and cumulative feeling was that we have made progress.
“Silence” by Shusaku Endo (finished on May 12th). I read this slim, intense novel in anticipation of Martin Scorsese’s new film (which I still have not seen). It left an impression on me, using the clash of East and West to ask probing questions about Christianity, forgiveness, and sacrifice.
OJ: Made in America (viewed in June). It’s ultimately immaterial whether this counts as TV or film. Ezra Edelman’s documentary uses OJ as a jumping off point for an ambitious, searing indictment of America in the twentieth century.
“Blisters in the Pit of My Heart” by Martha (heard on July 1st). This young Irish punk band put out of the year’s best rock records. The riffs are infectious, and the lyrics are both witty and sincere. They also put out my favorite music video this year, and not just because it’s set in the park where I got my wedding photos taken.
The Looking Movie (viewed on July 23). Also directed by Andrew Haigh, this coda to the HBO TV series Looking is delicate, specific, and hopeful.
“British Road Movies” by Kate Jackson (heard on August 22). The former vocalist for The Long Blondes takes a census of rock sub-genres to create the year’s best album. There were plenty of David Bowie tributes this year, but none were better than “Metropolis.”
Angels in America by Tony Kushner (viewed part 1 on September 18th, part 2 in October 2nd). I had seen the HBO miniseries years ago, but this was my first time seeing it on stage. Roundhouse Theater put on a stellar production, with a dynamic LED display that would overlay images of Reagan and Gorbachev. In the weeks since the election, I found myself turning snippets of dialogue in my head as if they’re a mantra.
Moonlight (viewed on September 20th). I had been a longtime fan of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s plays, but I didn’t think they could ever be adapted to film. Barry Jenkins did an incredible job – his film never once feels stagey – and the transition from act 2 to act three is the most daring choice of the year. Like Arrival, a very different film, Moonlight has the wisdom to see time how time flows in both directions.
“Bonito Generation” by Kero Kero Bonito (heard on October 28th). The year’s best pop album is also one of the weirdest. The mix of synth and J-pop is just so much fun, and every song is an earworm.
I Am Not Your Negro (viewed on November 13th). This is the year’s most important film, documentary or not. While it’s set primarily in the 1960s, James Baldwin is a fountain of wisdom for 2017 and beyond.
La La Land (viewed on November 22nd). Even before its theatrical release, Damien Chazelle’s lovely musical had hardened partisans. The film is not without its flaws, but then again, it’s too much to expect a masterpiece. I’m glad I’m not so hardened that its simple, confident charms won me over.
20th Century Women (viewed on November 26th). Mike Mills’ follow-up to Beginners sort of snuck on me. I was in love with it as I was watching it, but that feeling soon faded. But in the weeks ahead, especially after Vulture’s amazing interview with Mills, I realized the film balances a gentle, sharp tone masterfully and never once veers into becoming too precious.
“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty (finished on November 30th). A hilarious, profane, angry book, and an excellent companion to I Am Not Your Negro. Like Baldwin, Beatty suggests we cannot address our future until we reckon with our history.
Toni Erdmann (viewed on December 1st). There is a gag in the midpoint of this film that is as surprising and funny as anything I’ve seen all year. Also, having spent my entire life around Romanians, I can attest that they really can get that weird.
That’s it! This has been a fun project, one that I plan to restart for 2017. I’m not much of an archivist, so this diary is an chance to chronicle what I think, care about, and ultimately defend. Now, onward to the lists!
End of Year Stats
- 207 films, 27 books, 72 seasons of television, 122 albums, and 10 plays
- Total average: 3.52
- Averages by medium:
- Films: 3.46
- Books 3.56
- Music: 3.56
- TV: 3.66
- Theater: 4.05
End of Year Lists
- “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner (seen at Roundhouse Theater)
- “The Flick” by Annie Baker (seen at Signature Theater)
- “The Nether” by Jennifer Haley (seen at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company)
- “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar (seen at Arena Stage)
- “Fun Home” by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori (seen at Circle in the Square Theater)
- “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty
- “Silence” by Shusaku Endo
- “The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman
- “The North Water” by Ian Mcguire
- “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
- “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara
- “Annihilation” by Jeff Vandermeer
- “Washington Square” by Henry James
- “The Likeness” by Tana French
- “British Road Movies” by Kate Jackson
- “ANTI” by Rihanna
- “Blackstar” by David Bowie
- “We Got it from Here… Thank You for Your Service” by A Tribe Called Quest
- “Blisters in the Pit of My Heart” by Martha
- “Bonito Generation” by Kero Kero Bonito
- “Lemonade” by Beyoncé
- “The Bride” by Bat for Lashes
- “The Hanging Valley” by Cold Pumas
- “Bland in DC” by Puff Pieces
- Catastrophe, season 2
- The Americans, season 5
- Atlanta, season 1
- Silicon Valley, season 3
- The People vs. OJ Simpson
- High Maintenance, season 1
- Crazy Ex Girlfriend, season 1
- Making a Murderer
- Bojack Horseman, season 3
- The Fall, season 3
- I Am Not Your Negro
- The Witch
- OJ: Made in America
- 20th Century Women
- La La Land
- The Looking Movie
- The Handmaiden
- Love and Friendship
- Toni Erdmann
- Green Room
- The Fits
- Kubo and the Two Strings
- Hell or High Water
- Manchester by the Sea
- Hail, Caesar!
- Zero Days
- Rogue One