Saturday, December 31, 2016

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2016

It has become a ritual now to talk about how there's too much TV at the beginning of these year-end lists.  You would think the bubble would burst eventually on the amount of content there is out there, but it hasn't yet.  But while the amount of networks and original programming continues to increase, my personal watching bandwidth has finally started to taper off.  After regularly watching 125 shows in 2015, my numbers were down slightly to 115 this year.  Overall, it has had a positive effect though.  I may have watched less TV in 2016, but it mostly just meant that I watched less shows that I thought were okay or even actively bad.

Even still, my plan for 2017 is to watch even fewer shows by cutting down on series I'm getting sick of.  That means after its head-scratching second season, I'm giving the axe to Fear the Walking Dead.  I've been hesitant about dropping Arrow and The Flash because I feel like I need to watch them for DC completionist reasons even though their obnoxious melodrama reduced me to watching every episode at half attention, but I've finally made the decision after their mid-season finales that I'm removing them from my life.  I'm even considering nixing something like Bojack Horseman, which I've tuned into out of critical obligation, since everyone goes nuts over it, but I don't enjoy very much.

I'm not sure how well this will fare for me, since my TV-related fear of missing out is overwhelming. After all, I just got finished cramming Sweet/Vicious and Crazyhead into the last week of the year because people I trust said they were good and I wanted determine if they were eligible for my list.  Watching less TV is just going to lead to more potential instances of me passing up a show and then hearing it gets great, or quitting a show right before it turns things around.  That terrifies me!

All of this is a way to say that TV is in a wonderful place right now, and trying to manage your intake and still devote enough time to movies, music, and living life is a good problem to have.

The rules: Shows are considered for this list based on the episodes they aired in 2016.  This is a pretty plain and simple rule for cable dramas, where full seasons usually air within a single calendar year.  However, it gets slightly messy when considering network shows, which usually air the first half of their season in the fall and the second half starting January of the next year.  So something like, say, Black-ish would be judged based on the second half of its second season (which aired at the beginning of the year) and the first half of its third season (which started in the fall of this year).  As for what constitutes a TV show, anything that airs on, you know, a TV station counts.  But shows that air exclusively on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon count too.  The line is getting more blurry every day, but I'm still counting out independent YouTube webseries (though I recommend the excellent Pantheon University anyway).  Okay, everything clear now?  Good, let's get this list started...

Friday, December 30, 2016

My 20 Favorite Films of 2016

I'll start this post as I always do, by mentioning the films I haven't seen yet and are therefore ineligible for this list.  Many of these were released in November or December for Oscar purposes, but only in New York and LA. So with that being said, here are a few films that I still haven't seen yet: Silence, 20th Century Women, Live By Night, The Handmaiden, Elle, Toni ErdmannYour Name, and Paterson.  It's a shame too, because I'm very excited for these films, especially Silence.

2016 was the year where the film community seemed to split in two over whether or not this was a good year for movies.  So many different pieces were written about the death of cinema that it started to get nauseating.  (And for some reason, many of these complaints popped up around the time the show Stranger Things was gaining buzz and dominating the conversation, so people tried to draw correlations.  Yeah...2016 was a weird year.)  But the truth is, movies aren't dead and probably won't die any time soon.  2016 doesn't quite match the quality of last year, but there were still many gems to be found.  What critics are saying when they write a piece about 2016 being a bad year for movies is that it was actually just a bad year for big-budget studio films.  There were so many quality mid-budget and genre films that it seems blinkered to complain about the state of movies.

In conclusion, cinema is alive and well.  So let's get down to celebrating it.

The rules: As long as a film got an official release in 2016, it was eligible for placement on this list.  This is an important thing to remember, since many of the films that appear in my top 20 premiered at film festivals in 2015, but didn't get released in theaters until this year.  And in the case where a film got no theatrical release, then a VOD debut in 2016 will make it eligible.  Now that all of that has been cleared up, on to the actual list...

Thursday, December 29, 2016

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2016

There were two prevailing narratives in 2016.  The first one, obviously, was the amount of deaths we had from legendary musicians.  David Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Leonard Cohen -- the list goes on.  2016 was a rough year all around, and these deaths didn't help matters, but at least there was comfort in knowing that many of these artists left behind terrific final albums.

The second trend from 2016 is how much consensus there seems to be when it comes to top 10 lists.  Year-end lists can sometimes be a useful tool for finding interesting albums that you may have overlooked in the last 12 months, but take a look at the best-of lists from every major publication and you'll see the same 10-12 albums on almost every single list.  Once you scroll down on this post you'll see that even I fell victim to that, which is a little disappointing, but hey, you can't help what you like.  Still, it's a shame that there were so few surprises in 2016.  From January 1st, it could've been predicted that people like Beyonce, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Radiohead would take the top spots on critics' lists at the end of the year if you were told that they were releasing albums. The only album from a big name artist that seems to be considered a disappointment is Drake's underrated Views.  Poor Drake.

But let's not breeze by the most important bit of news from this year: despite dominating the political sphere, white people are losing when it comes to music.  The last few years have been marked by the larger music community declaring the death of indie rock, and while that hand-wringing feels a little too paranoid, it's hard not to notice that rap and R&B artists are beginning to occupy the critical conversation more and more.  After all, six of the seven artists at the top of Pitchfork's Best of Albums of 2016 list are black, something that would've been unheard of 10 years ago. Eight of the albums on my list are by black artists as well (11 if you count honorable mentions).  So shout out to black people for now.  You've got to imagine the dudes in The National are sitting around plotting their revenge though.

The rules: Due to the constant changing of the way music gets released, anything can be an album for the sake of this list.  You especially have to play fast and loose given the fact that many rap mixtapes function as albums anyway.  So LPs, mixtapes, 40-minute songs, EPs if they're good enough -- they're all albums to me!  If something got released in another country in a previous year, but got an American release this year, it works on a case-by-case basis (although there are no examples of that this year).  Otherwise, the eligibility window is that the album has to have been released between January 1, 2016 and today.  So now with that bit of business out of the way, on to the actual list...

Sunday, December 25, 2016

50 Great Songs From 2016

On December 29th, my "20 Favorite Albums of 2016" list drops, but there's so much good music out there that one list couldn't fully represent what the year had to offer.  It's hard to make an album that's consistently great from start to finish, especially in an age where individual songs are given more and more importance.  So this list is intended to pay lip service to some great standalone songs.  All of these come from albums that won't be on my top 20 list, either because it's a great song on a mediocre album, or one on an album that's good but not quite good enough to crack the top tier.  So, without further ado, here's a list of fifty standalone songs, listed in alphabetical order (with one exception, I limited myself to one song per artist):

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A few thoughts on The Edge of Seventeen's fascinating protagonist

Reviews for The Edge of Seventeen have been overwhelmingly positive, with critics citing it as a classic teen movie, the first in a long time.  That's true, the film is fantastic and sure to be very high on my best-of list at the end of the year.  It's funny and heartbreaking, with a generous script that allows all of its characters to be fully formed and go through their own little arcs.  But at the center of it all is Nadine (played by Hailee Steinfeld), a perennial outsider still coping with the death of her father four years ago, who finds herself angry and alone when she breaks up with her best and only friend Krista after she starts dating Nadine's brother.  There's something that really stuck with me about Nadine's character and her journey, so I wanted to write some semi-scattered thoughts about her.

Nadine has many hateable qualities -- she's rude, impulsive, selfish, inconsiderate...the list goes on -- but I found myself loving how hateable the film was willing to make her.  There are a few questions I asked myself when trying to figure out if Nadine was a good protagonist: 1. Would this movie be better if she was more likable?  2. Is the film aware that she is unlikable?  Really, both are tied together, as it feels like the answer to the second answers the first as well.  The film is very aware of her unlikability.  It's very pointed and deliberate that every character in it tells Nadine that she's kind of a trash person at one point or another.  She's never treated like the hero, the way that alot of stories about teen outsiders would.  And I think that's why it's essential for her to be unlikable, because the entire story is about examining that unlikability.

I've seen some of the more negative reviews of The Edge of Seventeen that have made fun of the scene where Nadine goes on a rant to her teacher (an amusingly cantankerous Woody Harrelson) about how much she isn't like the other girls at school, how she likes old music and movies.  But all of that trite special snowflake garbage isn't an endorsement of Nadine, it's the film pointing out a clear defense mechanism of hers.  She presents herself as different from her peers as an excuse to not have to make any real connections.  (It also creates some hilarious irony, because as much as she tries to argue for her uniqueness and inner coolness, she still has a crush on the lamest, most cliche mysterious boy ever.)

A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine who didn't like the film as much as I did.  She's a little bit younger than I am, so Nadine is more of a peer to her, and one of my friend's big issues with the film is that there are many moments where Nadine acts in ways that no teenage girl ever would.  So she felt like it was frustrating that this film that was touted as "THE movie for this generation" would get so many details of what it's like to be a teen girl wrong.  I thought she brought up some very astute points and I'm certainly not an authority on this matter, so I can't really speak to Nadine's realism as a teenage girl, but I found her intensely relateable at times.

More than anything, Nadine seems like a deeply angry person, and something about that anger resonated with me.  I'm not as mean as she is, but that feeling of always being so angry all the time hit so close to home.  Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, with the help of a terrific performance Hailee Steinfeld, does such a wonderful job of sketching out the way she masks feelings of pain and insecurity with anger and careless comments.  It's a delicate and difficult thing to do, but you could always recognize the thousands of complicated emotions nested under her mean surface.  In a weird way, even when Nadine's actions aren't understandable, that lack of being understandable feels understandable.

And though it's never quite explicitly stated in such terms, it seems that Nadine is suffering from anger and depression issues that go beyond simple adolescent angst or even grief from the death of her father.  I think it's telling and crucial that four years have already passed after her dad's death when the film starts.  Not to say that four years is enough to completely get over something like a parent's death, but that detail -- plus the flashbacks showing that she's always been sullen, standoffish, and angry -- indicates that her problems existed regardless of the tragedy in her life.  Her father's death merely exacerbated them.  Another key moment is when we see her taking a pill and we learn a few scenes later that it was an anti-depressant when she explains it to Erwin, the nerdy guy who has a crush on her.  She explains that they were given to her because of her dad's death, and then she remarks "usually people only take it for like a month..."  It's an exaggeration to try to downplay the fact that she's on medication, but she also brings up a good point.  If this medication was solely given to her to cope with the aftermath of her father's death, would she still be taking it four years later?

There are even tiny little aspects of her character that point to deeper issues, like the fact that she offhandedly jokes about suicide three different times in the film.  Sure, adolescence is typically characterized with melodrama but the frequent suicide references, even in a casual manner, is something that felt very recognizable as a fellow depressive type.  The big emotional moment comes near the end of the film when Nadine reconciles with her brother revealing the intense self-loathing that she's been holding in.  "Sometimes I feel like I'm floating outside of myself...and I hate what I see."  It's a devastating scene, one that really seems to cross off the last slot on the mental illness bingo card.

Whether my possible crackpot theory is off or not, what I'm saying is that it's interesting and daring that the film makes Nadine so messed up and doesn't run away from it.  That's why if I do have one gripe with the film, it's that the ending feels a little too pat.  I would have much preferred if it concluded in a way that mirrored Erwin's short film, with her finally coming to her senses and him rejecting her because she's too late.  Or would that have felt too on the nose?  Maybe, but it would have done a better job of cutting down the simplistic "Nadine came to terms with her issues and now she's nice and thoughtful and happy" impression of the ending we get.  Still, that's one little blemish on an otherwise sublime film.  I don't know if it's the essential movie of this generation, but it did feel like a movie specifically for me.