Thursday, December 27, 2018

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2018

I decided to try a different thing with my long-running Roundup feature this year, moving to a system where I post selected summaries of stuff I've experienced every few months rather than every month, which effectively would have ended this annual cumulative listing of my absolute favorites from over the entire year. And then I decided to abandon the new way because I still want this post to be what it's always been. So here we go.

Books

1. The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas tells the story of a black teenager named Starr who lives in a poorer inner city neighborhood but who attends a wealthy predominately white private school. When she's witness to the shooting of one of her friends by a police officer, she finds herself not only embroiled in the investigation but in how the community and her family and friends react to and process the legal, social, and cultural issues involved. This book has many parallels to current events and is not only timely in that way but wonderfully and powerfully written as a story.

2. The Sacred Enneagram - I really got into the Enneagram this year, and this new resource by Christopher Heuertz was the best book out of the several that I read to learn more about it. Heuertz explores this personality tool from more of a spiritual perspective. While he doesn't present a test to determine one's type, he offers enough background and description of each from different angles for the reader to narrow it down for themselves.

3. I'll Be Gone in the Dark - This is a posthumous work by Michelle McNamara about a series of killings and rapes around California in the 70s and 80s, theoretically by the same person. He went by several names such as the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker, but McNamara and others eventually dubbed him the Golden State Killer due to the large amount of the state that he covered. McNamara paints an engrossing picture of a terrorizing presence through evidence examined and law enforcement interviews. I found it hard to put the book down.

4. My Own Devices - Dessa shares this memoir of her experiences as a rapper/poet, which is a combination of road stories, reflections on science and math, and the ups and downs of relationships she's been in, especially one that has been on-again, off-again for years. I was taken with Dessa's wit and depth the very first time I heard her interviewed on a podcast a few years ago, and everything from her music to her writing since has only reinforced my love for her work. This book is brilliant and funny and at times tragic and I think everyone should read it.

5. Severance - Ling Ma offers an original twist on the zombie apocalypse genre as well as a commentary on consumerism. Candace is a young woman trying to make a go of it in Manhattan, but is dissatisfied with various aspects of her job prospects, her love life, and the increased gentrification and rising cost of living happening where she wants to live. A strange bacterial fever begins to overtake the population, which doesn't so much make the world dangerous so much as lock people into familiar routines for as long as their bodies' muscle memory will keep them up. Candace falls in with a group of survivors that has a sinister side to them, and she finds herself asking what real living looks like in this new world.

Honorable Mention: Vital Vintage Church by Michael Piazza

Movies

1. Silence - This is based on the book of same name, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as two Portuguese priests who travel to Japan to look for their friend and mentor, Father Ferrera (Liam Neeson), whom they heard apostatized his faith. The film does well at building a world of small peasant villages who go to great lengths to show devotion to the priests and their secret religion, as well as a regime trying to snuff it out. It explores questions of what real dedication might ask someone to do, what forms "suffering for your faith" might take, and what saving others really means in the eyes of the church vs. in the eyes of God. It does not present any easy answers to these issues, but instead leaves the viewer (as the book does the reader) to wrestle with them. It's a beautiful, complicated movie that I'm glad I finally got to see.

2. Black Panther - The year's first MCU entry picks up shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War. T'Challa is still mourning his father, but also preparing to take the mantle of king of Wakanda. He soon picks up on the whereabouts of a longtime nemesis of the country, and in his pursuit discovers some alarming secrets about his family. These secrets are personified in the arrival of Killmonger, who raises some legitimate objections to how T'Challa and Wakanda conduct themselves, especially given his own history. The movie has some stunning visuals and tight fight sequences, but also touches on some of the social issues being widely talked about today. It was one of the deeper movies of the MCU, with some very touching scenes and relevant commentary.

3. Avengers: Infinity War - This ambitious ensemble movie brings together almost every notable
character from ten years' worth of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to battle Thanos, the most formidable villain introduced in that span. Thanos' big goal is to collect the six Infinity Stones and wipe out half of all life in the belief that those who remain will enjoy greater prosperity and resources. Our heroes team up in various configurations that bring some fun interactions, but the movie always leaves hope just beyond the viewer's reach, with a cliffhanger both surprising and gutwrenching. Thanos is one of the most well-developed villains the MCU has had, and I can't wait until next May to see this story's resolution.

4. Deadpool 2 - Ryan Reynolds' title character has settled into a life of living with his longtime girlfriend while working as an international-level assassin. But after things take a tragic turn, he finds himself without direction or purpose until a teenage mutant boy needs his help, and he faces a new threat in the form of time-traveling half-cyborg supersoldier Cable. While the movie has a lot of the same irreverent humor and fourth wall-breaking as the first, there's a certain weight and heart to this movie that the first one didn't have.

5. Molly's Game - Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, a former skier whose Olympic hopes are dashed after an accident and tries to hit reset on her life in Los Angeles. She finds work as an assistant to a powerful person entertainment who runs a poker game, and who enlists her services to keep track of the buy-ins and earnings. Molly eventually begins her own high-stakes games, with ups and downs along the way, several "downs" of which involve being threatened by mobsters and raided by the FBI. Chastain is brilliant in the title role, and the supporting cast includes fantastic performances by Idris Elba, Michael Cera, and Kevin Costner as well.

Honorable Mention: Ant-Man and the Wasp

TV Shows

1. Black Mirror - This Netflix show is an heir-apparent of The Twilight Zone, with every episode featuring situations for its characters that at least begin positively or strangely, but by the end have twisted into something dark or unexpected. The stories often center on some form of technology that has somehow dictated how the characters live but present or lead to damaging consequences either personally or relationally. With very few exceptions, I've enjoyed what is a well-written, thought-provoking series, and I'm often left pondering each episode for days afterward.

2. Penny Dreadful - I might call this my #1 favorite show from this past year. Originally airing on Showtime, it was a series set in Victorian London that combined characters from many of the classic horror stories such as Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, Dracula, and Van Helsing, along with many original ones as their tales intertwine to tell new ones together. Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, and Timothy Dalton head an incredibly talented cast that bring these stories of vampires, witches, werewolves, and demons to life. When I got to the end, I was sad that they'd ended it after three seasons. It deserved 3-5 more and I gladly would have watched all of it.

3. Cloak and Dagger - The first season of this Marvel comic adapted for the Freeform Network was an origin story, placing both as teenagers just discovering both their individual powers and their connection to each other. Each is also working through personal tragedy, as Tyrone (Cloak) is trying to prove his brother's murder and Tandy (Dagger) is trying to find out what happened during a fatal accident that killed her father. It was reminiscent of the Netflix Marvel shows, with its "street-level" vibe, albeit perhaps geared toward a slightly younger audience. I thought it was well-done, and look forward to season 2 next spring.

4. Ozark - I thought the first season of this money-laundering Netflix drama was overly dark and I wasn't sure whether I'd tune in for the second, but I ended up devouring it because I finally admitted how good this show is. We catch up with the Byrd family, where Marty (Jason Bateman) is still cleaning money for a Mexican drug cartel while also trying to satisfy the terms of a deal with a much more local operation. In order to get what they need, the Byrds become involved in Missouri state politics, which in particular sees Wendy (Laura Linney) come into her own as a dealmaker and influential figure in the community. In fact, many of the women really take center stage as shaping their surroundings. This was a great step up from what was established in the first season.

5. The Haunting of Hill House - A family who once lived in an old haunted house is still tormented by it years later until they finally have to reckon with it and one another. This series used both creepiness and jump-scares to perfect effect; I was stressed out quite often while watching. But it also explores family dynamics and the way people cope with trauma and loss. It was quite scary, but also at times could be heart-breaking or heart-warming. I'm wondering how or whether they'll make a second season given the resolution, but I'll look forward to finding out. If Penny Dreadful was my favorite series of the year, I'd rank this #1A.

Honorable Mention: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, seasons 1 & 2

Albums

1. The Greatest Showman soundtrack - It finally dawned on me that what I love the most about this movie is not really the plot, but its soundtrack. From the pining of "Never Enough" to the resolve of "From Now On" to the self-loving empowerment anthem of the Oscar-nominated "This Is Me," there really isn't one bad song on this album. There's so much here to mine in terms of content, but the music is often so powerful and uplifting.

2. Dessa, Chime - As I've already mentioned, I like pretty much everything that Dessa does. News of her publishing a book this year was a bonus after discovering that she was going to release new music. This is probably her strongest album yet, with songs like "Fire Drills" as a forceful expression of what most women have to deal with on a daily basis, and "Good Grief," which reflects on the perspective and growth gained by adversity over time. For me, "Say When" is a hidden gem near the end of the album.

3. Bishop Briggs, Church of Scars - I've been a Bishop Briggs fan ever since I first heard "River" and "Wild Horses" a couple years ago and greatly enjoyed her self-titled EP. Much like what came before, this album is high-energy and defiant, and features the same forceful electronic-based sound that hooked me back when I first encountered her.

4. Dave Matthews Band, Come Tomorrow - The album encompasses a wide selection of previously unreleased songs and brand new ones, with four different producers credited with helping. The sound from the band's earliest work is gone in favor of a more straightforward rock sound, with simpler arrangements and at times with anybody besides Matthews nowhere to be found. After losing violinist Boyd Tinsley, some of this was to be expected. Whereas the last two albums seemed to promise a return to an earlier beloved sound, this one presents their current incarnation.

5. Amy Shark, Love Monster - Some of my favorite albums come about from chance discoveries, and that was the case here. I heard "I Said Hi" on my favorite radio station and tracked down the album later. Shark's style is similar to Bishop Briggs in that it makes strong use of electronic and hip-hop arrangements. "Adore" and "I Got You" are favorites as well.

Honorable Mention: The Decemberists, I'll Be Your Girl