Thoughts on life after the PhD
Is 2016 fucking over yet?
I said recently that my pre-election social mediaverse looked like that sweet first date video camera footage that they accidentally recorded an alien apocalypse over in Cloverfield. Or maybe the pre-apocalypse, bathed-in-golden-light scenes from The Road. And it still feels that way, particularly when it comes to humor. There was a lot of great pre-election humor, but it feels tainted now, as if we were so distracted by our own cleverness that we didn’t see the tsunami of awful that was heading our way. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have existed–satire helps us make sense of the world–but it’s just really, really hard to laugh at it now. Hard to laugh at any political humor, really, in a post-Trump world.
But of course good things did happen in 2016, even if they all feel a bit shrouded in ash these days. Really, really good things. Here are a few of my favorite things, unranked.
Movies (including some made before 2016)
I wanted to up my movie tally this year, but I ended up seeing 73 to last year’s 78. TV got in the way, as did teaching an extra class in the fall semester. For a list of my favorite Japanese movies of the year (and for full reviews of the ones on this list), check out that post over at Eiga Files.
I watch a lot of movies where meandering and lack of focus pass for depth, so I always find it refreshing to watch something that’s tightly structured and shot with a clear sense of purpose. Carol had a texture to it, something akin to a cashmere sweater, all deep colors and soft lighting and delicately coiffed hair. Beyond its beautiful story and stellar performances, so many shots were perfectly infused with meaning, like a moment in which the young Carol, recently single, stands in the window of an apartment next to a woman who’s clearly interested in her. Framed from outside the building, they’re each standing in their own window, right next to each other but seemingly worlds apart.
I forced my husband to watch this (he isn’t a Matt Damon fan) and he loved it as much as I did. Something he said stuck with me: “I kept forgetting that it was fiction.” Another one that’s flawlessly structured and full of actors who completely inhabit their roles. Yes, we’ve probably seen enough “saving Matt Damon” movies, but this is arguably the best of the bunch.
I fell for this one so hard. It’s got charm coming out of its chemical-ravaged pores, and the love story was genuinely one of the sweetest that I’d seen in a long time. Superhero movies are usually at least 45 minutes too long, but at an hour and forty-eight minutes, this one was just right.
The Look of Silence
The title says it all. The sight of Adi Rukun, whose brother Ramli was murdered by the Indonesian government during the “Communist purge” of 1965, staring silently at video footage of his brother’s killers bragging about the act, is one of the most wrenching and riveting images in modern cinema. Where Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing focused on the murderers (many of whom are still in power) and their bizarre compulsion to revisit, re-enact, and brag about their crimes, Silence focuses on one man’s dangerous, determined quest to find out the truth–from the men themselves–about what happened to his brother. The long shots of Rakun looking at video footage, pain etched onto his face, are impossible to look away from.
I can’t say that I genuinely *enjoyed* Evolution, but it has certainly stuck with me. I admire director Lucile Hadžihalilović‘s willingness to construct a film with no clear narrative, just a series of images and events that the viewer is invited to piece together in their own way. It’s risky, and it’s not for everyone, but it’s bold.
2015 brought us both It Follows and The Babadook, so 2016 was going to be hard year to beat in horror. But it delivered in spades, first with this slow burn of a drawing room thriller that has one of the most terrifying final shots I’ve ever seen. Having lived in L.A. and attended more than a few dinner parties with odd vibes, it was also amusing for me to think that no, these people probably wouldn’t realize something was very, very wrong with their dinner party until it was way too late.
I was a bit puzzled that so many people seemed to feel let down (scare-wise) by this movie, which did arrive with a lot of hype. It scared me plenty, mostly with the occasional image that gave you just enough information to let your imagination fill in the remaining (horrifying) details. It’s also wonderfully consistent in tone, with careful attention to detail concerning clothing, architecture, props, and that bizarre way that early settlers had of speaking (much of the dialogue was taken from 17th century diaries).
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is baaaaack. Creepy more than lives up to its title. Like so many Kurosawa movies, though, it’s not just a horror movie–it’s also a portrait of the fragile bonds of family and society, and the very thin line that sometimes separates the psychotic from the decent. Full review here.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Another perfectly structured, taught thriller with great performances. As I get older I’ll admit to being a bit relieved when I see that a movie’s running time is less than two hours (and I’d argue that 90-100 minutes is the perfect horror movie length). This one does great things with its confined space and is it real / is it all in your head question. I was also relieved that for once that a plot about a man who kidnaps a young woman didn’t center around a threat of sexual violence (John Goodman portrays the character quite convincingly as wanting a replacement for his daughter, which is certainly creepy in its own right, but at least not stale or trafficking in throwaway rape subplots).
Under the Shadow
But this…this may have been my best horror of the year. It’s not enough to be trapped in a city where bombs are literally falling through the roof of your apartment building, the bombs in question may have brought in malevolent spirits. Or maybe those spirits are manifestations of your conflicted feelings about autonomy and motherhood. Or maybe it’s both. Either way, Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi give amazing performances as a mother and daughter terrorized by forces both real and supernatural. Also manages to tell its gripping story in less than 90 minutes. (Am I harping on length too much? Maybe. Whatever. I am really, really tired of movies that drag on way longer than they should.)
The Great British Bake Off
Where has this show been all my life?
I will fight anyone who dismisses this show as “girl porn” (as if shows with sex scenes that focus on female pleasure are somehow inferior to shows with just…lots of fucking). With its second season Outlander reveals that isn’t afraid to tackle very tricky issues–the aftermath of rape when the victim is a man, the morality of leading decent people into danger to save people close to you in the future. There may be less hot sex this time around, but the show certainly doesn’t suffer for it–its central relationship is still gripping, its lead actors still turning in amazing and often heartbreaking performances. All those gorgeous costumes and well-toned bodies might make it look like eye candy, but it’s eye candy with a very meaningful heart.
There are a lot of good things to say about Black Mirror, even if not every individual episode is up to the standard of the best ones. For me, what really makes it stand out is the unnerving portrayal of how these characters–and by extension all of us–have completely surrendered to invasive technology without any real thought toward the long-term consequences. For that reason, as others have pointed out, it was nice to see the benevolent side of technology in San Junipero, even if the truly terrifying Men Against Fire and the deeply disturbing Shut Up and Dance might have been my favorites this season.
Invented language? Check. Inter-planetary corruption and intrigue? Check. Badass female characters? Check. Thomas Jayne with a very odd haircut? Okay, that isn’t usually on my list, but it added to the fun.
On a set of $100 deer antler candlesticks: “That’s $160 to stick a fucking antler in the center of your table, like a deer ran into your home and hid under your dining table and then heard a frightening noise and then jumped up and impaled his stupid antler IN your table. FESTIVE. Anyway, if I’m putting any antlers on the table, they’re gonna be real. None of these poseur antlers for me. I’m taking down Bambi’s mom and then making her head the centerpiece of my turkey dinner. Eat up, children. Don’t mind the deer head looking into your soul.”
Petri nails something that has been driving me crazy post-Trump: people’s unwillingness to call a spade a spade. “Listen, when we need to denounce an actual racist, anti-Semite, white supremacist, Islamophobe, you name it, I will be there. I promise. I will not hesitate to do that, when the time comes, clearly and appropriately labeled. I have yet to see one, but when I do, boy, I will light into him! It will be something to see. This is not that. I have no doubt that a real racist sexist chauvinist white supremacist will be easy to spot. ‘I am coming for minorities now,’ he will say. ‘I am an actual racist. I am, literally, Hitler, or at the very least Goebbels.'”
As a child in the mid-80s, I vividly remember thinking that the girls–and the dancing–in this movie were the absolute coolest. And then I re-watched some clips, and I was bowled over by how…bizarre the dancing was. ” ‘Dance like no one’s watching’ takes on new meaning in this movie, which features people dancing not only as though no one was watching, but also as if they’ve never seen dancing in their lives, and were instructed to make it up from scratch. And make it up they do, from the initial audition scene starring a cast of hundreds and an outdoor stage perfect for doing every type of dance imaginable, especially once the competition begins. (Apparently Dance TV needs ballet, in the eyes of some.) It’s difficult to say how this tryout was organized, but it’s executed with the smooth precision of a mass lemming suicide.”
Discovering Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees and A Little Life was like discovering a new way of breathing. The former is completely immersive and reads like an autobiography, with a voice so disturbingly specific that I kept having to remind myself that the story was fiction (though loosely inspired by the life of a famous physician). The latter is a modern epic filled with so much pain and loss that in the hands of a lesser writer it would be dismissed as melodrama. In Yanagihara’s hands, though, it’s just brilliant. If I’ve made both books seem like artful chores, they’re not–they’re glorious pieces of prose that are also completely riveting from start to finish.
The Fifth Season
NK Jemison’s fascinating story of a world regularly ripped apart by natural disasters and the gifted (or cursed) individuals who can manipulate the very structure of the planet might seem like an obvious parable for tolerance. The tricky part is that this particular group of outcasts ARE genuinely dangerous–this may not justify their terrible treatment, but it makes us more than a little sympathetic toward those who fear and ostracize them. As usual, Jemison fills her story with fully realized characters of many races who are frequently queer or gender-ambiguous, something that’s sadly still rare in sci-fi and dystopian fiction. It’s gripping, heartbreaking stuff, and I couldn’t help jumping for joy when it won the Hugo.
“Perhaps Labyrinth was preparing its audience for the explosion of YA, the teen as self-possessed heroine inheriting the Earth, scorched though it may be. Sarah does the right thing, as the Katnisses and Bellas and Hermiones do the right thing: Though their audience screams at them to choose fantasy, choose adventure, choose yourself, they go back to family and home and responsibilities every time. Just as I never understood why Dorothy Gale left the wonderful world of Oz and returned to flat, hot Kansas, I didn’t understand why Sarah went back from the Goblin City, to be a babysitter, an ordinary teenager. And I don’t think I ever forgave her.”
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
(Full disclosure: Colin Dickey is a friend and former grad school classmate.) And I’m thrilled that Ghostland has made more than a few Best of 2016 lists. It’s about ghosts and hauntings, sure, but as the subtitle indicates, it’s more about the U.S.’s complicated history concerning race, class, and gender, and how ghosts and hauntings provide both a means for the maligned dead to speak and a means of obfuscating the horrifying crimes committed against them. It’s especially fascinating to learn how the stories told to tourists visiting famous haunted places–like the Winchester Mystery House and the story of Sarah Winchester’s compulsion to keep building it out of guilt over the deaths caused by the guns her husband manufactured–have little basis in fact. As usual, the truth is often messier (and more interesting).
Of all the very good Trump reporting that came out before and after the election, this one somehow best captures the empty, gristle-chewy underbelly of the Trump brand.
Not surprisingly, they’re making a movie about this one.
One of several exhaustively researched pieces produced this year that shows why we should all be paying for good journalism.
It irked me that everyone focused on Patti Smith’s “fumbling” of the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as if it somehow harmed her performance at the Nobel ceremony. If anything, it just made a raw, vulnerable performance that much more raw and vulnerable. That last verse feels like a primal scream. I cried.
This is one that I can’t really watch anymore because it hurts too much. At the time, though, it was a beautiful piece of poetry sung by one of the greatest Broadways voices around.
In the Dark
True crime podcasts and TV programs like Serial and Making a Murderer have gotten some (somewhat) deserved flack for turning real-life tragedies into sensational entertainment (and for indirectly encouraging vigilante justice). In the Dark, though, feels like a very different bird. For one thing, it’s produced with the full cooperation of the many victims of both convicted murderer / child molester Danny Heinreich, as well as victims of the utterly incompetent Stearns County sheriff’s office. It also seems to have begun as a genuine journalistic effort to uncover the facts behind one of the longest-running unsolved child abduction cases in the U.S.–the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling. What Peabody Award-winning reporter Madeleine Baran discovers–about the many unsolved murder cases in Stearns County before the Wetterling case, about the abysmally low rate of solved crimes in police departments all over the U.S., and of the lives ruined by reckless accusations and incompetent police work–is so mind-boggling, so enraging, that it doesn’t seem real. It’s gripping as hell, but it’s also vital information for anyone who just assumes that their local sheriff’s office will do their most basic duty if someone goes missing.
(A man whose son went missing was told by the sheriff’s office [who had essentially done nothing to find him] that the son might have been eaten by turtles. Eaten. By. Turtles.)
Crimetown, an ongoing series about organized crime in different cities, certainly falls more into the sensational category of true crime reporting (favorite quote: “He never hurt anyb–…He helped a lot more people than he hurt.”). But there’s a lot of relevance to the present day here as well, particularly in politicians’ brazen attempts to do and say whatever they want with impunity.
“Not for foodies, for eaters” is a good description, because you won’t find any stories on the latest hipster food trends or five-star restaurants on this podcast. Instead, you’ll get fascinating conversations about eating–mouthwatering memories of favorite childhood foods, the fraught politics of eating and cooking anything, and what it’s like to do Christmas in the U.S. as a first-generation American. Their wonderful series “Who is this restaurant for?”, which contains plenty of great insights into the not-so-subtle messages of inclusion and exclusion that all restaurants send, is a great beginning.
2 Dope Queens
Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson are like a warm blanket–their banter is hilarious but also sweet, and they have wonderful conversations with a variety of guests. The stand-up comedians who populate their usually 45-minute long shows are a bit hit or miss, but the quality has improved a lot in the last few episodes, and kudos to them for giving a platform to lots of women, queer comedians, and comedians of color who might otherwise be shut out of the standup scene.
I was never a huge fan of The Oprah Winfrey Show, but if you grew up in the U.S. during the 1990s, it was utterly impossible to escape its influence. This podcast is a fascinating look at the show’s conception and development, from its early days featuring skinheads and cheating husbands to its many awkward forays into spiritualism and questionable medicine to Oprah becoming one of the most influential and trusted people in the country. Oprah herself is interviewed extensively, and it turns out she’s very open and self-reflective about the whole thing (of course she is, she’s Oprah).
My Dad Wrote a Porno
Bad erotica is low-hanging fruit for comedy, but oh my, this is special. Mostly because of the wonderful rapport between longtime friends Jamie Morton (whose dad actually wrote Belinda Blinked, the erotic novel of the podcast’s title), Alice Levine, and James Cooper, who make Belinda Blinked funnier than it ever could have been on its own, sometimes just by dissolving into peals of laughter. It’s hard to pick a favorite moment, but Alice and James’ gleeful “monster dick” song might be mine.
You Must Remember This
If there’s one lesson to take away from Karina Longworth’s exhaustively researched podcast about the “secret and or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” it’s that nobody ever lived the idealized Hollwood life of glamour–every star from Humphrey Bogart to Katharine Hepburn was essentially chewed up and spit out by the insatiable monster that was the film industry. How it all happened, though, makes for fascinating listening. “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” is a great opener, examining the huge cast of characters directly or indirectly connected to the murder of Sharon Tate and others by the Manson family.
I’d heard about Abigail Washburn, the Chinese-speaking lawyer-turned-banjo player, via NPR and TED, but I’d never seen her perform live until she and frequent collaborator Wu Fei gave a performance at the 2016 Association for Asian Studies Conference in Seattle in March. And it was one of the most revelatory performances I’ve ever seen. Video can’t capture it at all, but click the link above to hear them perform one of the songs they performed that night.
I got married. That was pretty great.
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