Monday, December 26, 2016

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2016

I've been compiling this year-end list for a very long time now. I've been doing it so long, in fact, that after I finish a book, show, movie, or album, I've taken to asking myself, "Is it top five?" It's partly a game that I play with myself to see what will make this list, but it's also a method of evaluating what I'll most likely return to down the road for one reason or another. To me the question means: did it strike me, move me, stick with me, impact me deeply enough that I'll carry it inside long after I've finished it? So here are the ones for which this year the answer was "yes." Numbers are for convenience and not actually rankings.

My Top Books of 2016

1. Between the World and MeWritten as a letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates recounts his experience as a black man living in America. Part history lesson and part contemporary commentary, Coates shows how racism is still alive and well in both personal and systemic forms, in part due to the concept of "race" still being held in place by those in power, and any semblance of a solution going further than declaring oneself "color blind" due to the benefits and privilege that the current system distributes and withholds. I found it jarring, eye-opening, and convicting, and can now join my voice to the many others who are calling this an important work for our day.

2. The Ex-Heroes Series - I read this entire series by Peter Clines this year, which tells the story of a group of superheroes caring for a large group of survivors after the zombie apocalypse. It's a pretty brilliant mashup of two genres with some great new takes on each. The heroes are flawed and have their own struggles while trying to maintain a positive inspiring face for their charges, while the zombies in this particular story provide some unique and extra-terrifying challenges for the group. Each book builds upon the last and often recalls characters and episodes from previous installments. I found each so addicting that I couldn't wait to read the next.

3. When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi was a neurological surgeon who, after a terminal cancer diagnosis, decided to write about his experience going through the process of receiving treatment and preparing for death. The two sections of the book are a "before" and "after" of his receiving the news; the epilogue is written by his wife Lucy, who beautifully describes Paul's final weeks, and the love that he both showed and was shown during that time of farewell. This book doesn't romanticize or dramatize death, nor is it a simple encouragement to "make the most of your life." It simply describes how the specter of terminal illness changed a person's life, and what he did to manage through it.

4. Ready Player One - Ernest Cline sets his story in the year 2044 where the real world is slowly decaying and most people turn to a vast virtual reality universe called the OASIS instead. Before his death, the creator of this online existence left a series of hidden clues to his substantial inheritance and ownership of and caretaking responsibilities for the OASIS. As the main character, Wade, and others get closer to finding the prize, he finds himself increasingly the target of an organization that wants the treasure for its own nefarious reasons. The book is filled with references to all manner of geeky fare from the 1980s, which is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story. Even besides, I found the plot engrossing and I was actively rooting for Wade and his friends. 

5. Good Christian Sex/Love Warrior/Very Married - This trio of books by Bromleigh McCleneghan, Glennon Doyle Melton, and Katherine Willis Pershey set me on an unexpected journey of reflection this year about relationships, identity, intimacy, trust, respect, and love. Each tackles its subject matter from a unique angle with heavy doses of the author's own journey sprinkled in (Melton and Pershey's books are memoirs, so of course they do). Melton's book has probably stuck with me the most, but McCleneghan's caused me to revisit untruths I believed as a younger person still figuring himself out and Pershey's gave me great fodder for thinking about continuing goals for marriage. You don't have to read all three together, but you wouldn't be sorry if you did.

Honorable Mention: Foy by Gordon Atkinson

My Top Movies of 2016

1. Deadpool - I started laughing during the opening credits of this film and never looked back. Deadpool is known for his one-liners, breaking the fourth wall, and violence, and this had all of those in abundance. After being diagnosed with cancer, Wade Wilson volunteers for a program that gives him the mutant power of fast healing but also leaves him horribly scarred all over his body. From there he embarks on a mission of revenge which only becomes more complicated when the guy who did it kidnaps his girlfriend. The whole thing is fast-paced, witty, and even at times touching.

2. Captain America: Civil War - Steve Rogers is still concerned for his longtime friend Bucky, aka The Winter Soldier, who's back on the radar for a bombing at the U.N. As big a problem as this is, his larger one is the Sokovia Accords, a new agreement to regulate and limit the actions of the Avengers due to the mass casualties their missions have caused. Tony Stark, wracked with guilt over these deaths, is on board whereas Rogers is much more skeptical. Sides are taken, and the main battles are between hero factions rather than heroes vs. villains. As much as part of the marketing was to get people to choose a side, the movie does a good job of presenting both points of view equally.

3. Spotlight - This film follows a small team of reporters from The Boston Globe known as "Spotlight," which investigates special stories. Shortly after the Globe gets a new editor, he assigns the team a case concerning molestation by Catholic priests and coverups by the church. The film is not only an exploration in how reporters go about their investigative work, but how an entire system can work to cover up wrongdoing in order to save face. Stanley Tucci's character sums it up: "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one." The cast is top-notch and the story is both disturbing and riveting.

4. The Fundamentals of Caring - Paul Rudd stars as Ben, a retired writer who is both going through divorce and dealing with the loss of his son. After becoming certified as a caregiver, he meets his first client Trevor, an 18-year-old suffering with a form of MD. It takes the two a while to begin bonding before embarking on a road trip that eventually includes a runaway (Selena Gomez) and a very pregnant woman. Moments and conversations ensue that bring the foursome closer to each other and to themselves in different ways. I'm pretty much a fan of everything Rudd does; this film struck a wonderful balance of serious themes and humor, which is a unique talent that he brings to many of his roles.

5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - This newest movie chapter in the Star Wars universe is an in-between story that tells how the Rebel Alliance secured the plans for the Death Star that led to their ability to destroy it in A New Hope. At the center is a misfit band whom either the Alliance recruits directly or who end up tagging along for the duration, including the daughter of the one who helped build it. There are a half dozen or more allusions or homages to the original trilogy, and Darth Vader has an incredible (and horrific) fight scene near the end. I'd rank it right up with the original movies and maybe even above at least Return of the Jedi: it has a great balance of action and gravity, and blends perfectly into the movie it's meant to precede.

Honorable Mention: Forced Perspective

My Top TV Shows of 2016

1. Jessica JonesPlayed by Krysten Ritter, Jones is a superhero trying to make a living in Hell's Kitchen as a private investigator while also dealing with PTSD. The latter is from her past entrapment by Kilgrave, a powerful villain who can control people's actions by suggestion. David Tennant plays Kilgrave with equal parts humor, vindictiveness, and creepiness, and the series explores themes of recovery and trust, among others. It was a strong first season that I hope leads to more.

2. The Walking Dead - Both season 6 and the first half of 7 saw the show endure a big shift where the main group went from wandering nomads to taking charge of the fortressed community of Alexandria. We were also introduced to other established groups of survivors including The Kingdom and The Saviors and their violent charismatic leader, Negan. We finally got the resolution to the season 6 cliffhanger, and the follow-up featured a lot of establishment of new characters and their interactions for what should be an explosive second half of the current season.

3. Stranger Things - The first season of this show is about a group of four boys who enjoy all manner of geekdom. After one of them goes missing, various members of the town including the kids' families and a worn-down sheriff become pulled into several interlocking mysteries that involve experimentation, shadowy creatures, and a strange girl. The show has a Goonies or E.T. vibe, right down to the aesthetic of the '80s-style opening credits sequence and background music. Those were nice touches that, beyond the well-told story, made the whole thing more enjoyable.

4. PreacherThe first season of this show follows Congregationalist (!) pastor Jesse Custer as he fulfills a promise to his pastor father (!) to return to his hometown and lead the congregation he grew up in. It turns out that Jesse has a criminal past, and that past comes back to haunt him in several ways including the reappearance of his old girlfriend/partner in crime Tulip. We also meet a good-hearted vampire, several angels on a different mission, and a town full of colorful characters trying to make sense of life. The supernatural components were fun without being hokey, the humor dark and dry, and the drama and action well done. 

5. Orange is the New Black - Season 4 picks up right where we left off where the number of prisoners has doubled, among other predicaments for individual inmates. One prominent story involves the continual changes brought about by Litchfield becoming for-profit, which in addition to the larger population includes harsher tactics by guards, inmates forced into manual labor projects, and heightened tension between prison groups. The season also gives a nod to current events with some subplots related to prejudice, racism, and privilege, but keeps them within the general world of the show and specific setting of a prison becoming increasingly crowded, hostile, and violent.

Honorable Mention: Daredevil, season 2

My Top Albums of 2016

1. Esperanza Spalding, Emily's D+EvolutionI enjoyed Spalding's first outing, but never really got around to her second. When I started hearing previews for this one, I was amazed at the jazz arrangements fused with crunchy guitar riffs. The songs are creative, incredibly dynamic and interesting, and Spalding's voice is a delight. Highlights include the driving "Good Lava" and the pensive "Unconditional Love."

2. Jack Garratt, Phase - Garratt's song "Worry" is on regular rotation on the community radio station I listen to, and it was enough to get me to take in the whole thing. Garratt's work is chill/electronic with a taste of rock sprinkled in, making for a lot of smooth, reflective cuts with driving grooves. It's the type of music you'd put on while waking up with coffee or winding down with wine. Besides "Worry," I also especially like "The Love You're Given."

3. Beyonce, Lemonade - I never thought this artist would appear on this list, but here we are. This is not "Bootylicious/Single Ladies" Beyonce. This work is incredibly eclectic and rich both musically and lyrically; expressing the full range of human emotion. The presenting issue on this album is a troubled relationship, but repeated closer listens reveal that there are deeper themes at work concerning identity, pride, courage, and freedom. I especially like "Sorry," "Freedom," and "Formation."

4. Phantogram, Three - I loved this group's previous album Voices, and the first single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" told me this new offering was going to be another great one. And it has been: "Same Old Blues" is a lament about lingering memories, "Cruel World" is a final farewell as the singer cuts off ties, and "Run Run Blood" describes the ways we indulge in various forms of escape at our own expense. The beats and arrangements are strong and crisp. This was a favorite months before its release.

5. The Hamilton Mixtape - I am very late to loving Hamilton. I listened to the songs for the musical around the middle of the year but didn't absorb them. A few months ago that changed and I've been playing them regularly, loving how clever, original, and well-arranged they are. So if that wasn't enough, here comes this album of covers and remixes by a slew of incredible artists such as The Roots, Dessa, Common, Queen Latifah, Sia, Ingrid Michaelson, and many others, which has even more energy and originality than their source material. "My Shot" and "Immigrants" have been transformed into songs of empowerment while Kelly Clarkson's take on "It's Quiet Uptown" is pensive and melodic. I'm so glad I finally got on this bandwagon.

Honorable Mention: Marian Hill, Act One

My Top Blogs of 2016

1. New Sacred - Yes, I'm a contributor to this blog. But I am one of about 15 and I only average one post per month. I've learned a lot from my fellow writers, as they come from so many different perspectives and backgrounds and have such diverse interests and passions. No one voice dominates. I'm grateful to continue being part of this project, and for what they've taught me.

2. Cultural Savage - Aaron Smith writes regularly about his struggles with depression and his ongoing striving to be a disciple in a messed-up world. He posts less often than many I read, but his is very much a case of quality over quantity, as his writing can go quite deep.

3. Momastery - Glennon Doyle Melton is incredibly gifted, incredibly inspirational, incredibly brave in her vulnerability. And hey, she's UCC! I've enjoyed her online writing since I finally started reading last year, and as mentioned above, I found her memoir to be just as engaging.

4. A Church for Starving Artists - If you've been around a while, you knew this would be here. Jan Edmiston offers thoughtful critique and dares to dream about what the church can be today. She was elected to a very important position in the PCUSA this year, so now such thoughts have a larger platform and greater potential to get people to dream with her. I'm excited for her and glad for her voice.

5. MGoBlog - This is one of the few blogs I check every day. I am not only a Michigan fan but I am a fan of the crew that writes for this space because they're just great writers. I've said all of this many times.

Honorable Mention: Tertium Squid