2016 in Review: The Best + Worst Films

Thanks to my membership in GALECA, I got to see a lot more movies than I ever have before in my years as a critic. There were lots of hidden gems (Blue Jay) and pleasant surprises (Swiss Army Man), but when the big movies flopped, they flopped hard (looking at you, Suicide Squad). That’s probably why so many dubbed 2016 a “bad year.” That’s a total lie, especially compared to real cinematic droughts like 2005. So with so much beauty in a very ugly year, here are my top 10 films of the year, along with 25 honorable mentions.

Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann in 20th Century Women
10. 20th Century Women (dir. Mike Mills)
Mike Mills’ long-awaited follow-up to Beginners is a quasi-tribute to his mother. Annette Bening is quietly astonishing as Dorothea, the 55-year-old single mother trying to raise a teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) amid the death of punk, changing social mores and what President Jimmy Carter calls “a crisis of confidence.” One of the rare movies that could have been longer, 20th Century Women is beautiful, flaws and all.

Two re-enactors in Tower
9. Tower (dir. Keith Maitland)
Breathtaking in its innovation and humanity, Tower re-tells the tragedy of Aug. 1, 1966 and barely even mentions the name Charles Whitman. Instead, director Keith Maitland assembles his first- and second-hand accounts to ensure we focus on the heroes and the fallen of that day, and not the troubled ex-Marine responsible for the worst mass shooting in the U.S. until 2016, which also tragically saw campus carry laws go into effect in Texas on the very anniversary of the horrific murders.

The cast of Sing Street
8. Sing Street (dir. John Carney)
Pure, unfiltered John Carney. While Once could have drowned in its misery and Begin Again was too excitable to keep its story tight, Sing Street strikes exactly the right tonal balance. Plus, the songs are even better. This is nostalgia done properly.

Temple Baker, Blake Jenner and Quinton Johnson in Everybody Wants Some
7. Everybody Wants Some (dir. Richard Linklater)
The year’s ultimate hangout movie. While not as profound as Boyhood, pitch-perfect as Bernie or bone-deep as the Before trilogy, this is as relaxed as can be, which is a nice change of pace. Saved from being too bro-y by a game cast and characters that (occasionally) have more on their minds than baseball and ladies, this movie eschews most if not all college comedy clichés.

The cast of Captain America: Civil War
6. Captain America: Civil War (dirs. Joe & Anthony Russo)
Miles ahead of where DC is, and not just because they had a major head start, Civil War grapples with the cost of being a superhero, and whether the collateral damage is justifiable in protecting the planet (and soon, the galaxy). It also asks a pressing question that we may be asking ourselves sooner rather than later: How much can you trust a government that has continually proven itself to have nefarious intent? Did I also mention it has the best action set-pieces of the year?

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What I Watched This Week: 1 Jan 2017

Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “The Fugitive” (B+)
Sometimes I miss NBC’s “super-sized” episodes that weren’t quite double-length. That would have been perfect for this episode. Its subplots are superfluous, but its main story of hunting down escaped convicts with the help of Doug Judy (returning guest star Craig Robinson) is aces as usual. But I am all in on Terry using reading glasses and a shawl while eating Cream of Wheat. It’s just too bad the show’s going on hiatus until the spring.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “The Gang Turns Black” (A+)
I don’t like to be hyperbolic, but it’s possible this is the greatest episode the show has ever done. It’s certainly in the top 10. A musical episode that’s also a body-swap comedy/Quantum Leap homage (complete with Scott Bakula cameo!), the gang switches places with African-American people who look nothing like them, then learn a horrifying lesson that they promptly un-learn, because this is Sunny we’re talking about. It’s an early front-runner for episode of the year.

The Good Place – “Chidi’s Choice” (A)
Throws a good half-dozen twists at the audience, but in a way that each one feels completely organic. My friend has a theory that one of the things the show will challenge is the idea of soulmates. I think we’re clearly seeing that in a way that, like the show, has zero cynicism.

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2016 in Review: The Best Songs

As I mentioned in the intro to my list of the best albums of the year, I listened to an obscene amount of music this year, which made deciding on my 10 favorite LPs was a herculean task. One upside to that, though? I had plenty of songs to pick from for the best songs of this year. So I decided to share 50 songs that I listened to a lot this year, that covered the emotional highs and lows and nearly every genre imaginable. It’s a lot, but this year was pretty daunting. Enjoy.

Aesop Rock – “Blood Sandwich”
Mike Adams at His Honest Weight – “The Lucky One”
ANHONI – “Crisis”
Ashanti feat. Ja Rule – “Helpless”
Band of Horses – “Casual Party”
Beck – “Wow”
David Bowie – “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Car Seat Headrest – “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia”
Chance the Rapper – “Same Drugs”
Childish Gambino – “Redbone”
Crowder – “My Victory”
De La Soul feat. Snoop Dogg – “Pain”
Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – “Stranger Things”
Ramin Djawani – “Light of the Seven”
Father John Misty – “Real Love Baby”
Gallant – “Weight in Gold”
Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone – “City of Stars”
Tim Heidecker – “Ghost in My Bed”
Japandroids – “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “First Time”
Jimmy Eat World – “Sure and Certain”
Junkie XL & Hans Zimmer – “Is She with You?”
The Knocks feat. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Love Me Like That”
Michael Kiwanuka – “Love & Hate”
Lake Street Dive – “Call Off Your Dogs”
Ray LaMontagne – “Hey, No Pressure”
Lecrae feat. Propaganda – “Gangland”
Lizzo – “Good as Hell”
Local Natives – “Fountain of Youth”
The Lonely Island feat. Pink – “Equal Rights”
M83 (feat. Mai Lan) – “Go!”
Bruno Mars – “Versace on the Floor”
James Vincent McMorrow – “Rising Water”
Merchandise – “I Will Not Sleep Here”
Modern Baseball – “Just Another Time”
Mumford & Sons – “There Will Be Time”
Conor Oberst – “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out”
Frank Ocean – “Nikes”
Anderson .Paak feat. ScHoolboy Q – “Am I Wrong”
Radiohead – “Burn the Witch”
Corinne Bailey Rae – “Stop Where You Are”
Rihanna – “Same Ol’ Mistakes”
Saint Motel – “Move”
Sing Street – “Drive It Like You Stole It”
Solange – “Cranes in the Sky”
Regina Spektor – “Bleeding Heart”
The Struts – “The Ol’ Switcheroo”
Swet Shop Boys – “No Fly List”
Two Door Cinema Club – “Bad Decisions”
Kanye West – “30 Hours”

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2016 in Review: The Best Albums

I overdid it this year. In my quest to hear nearly everything I could, I ended up not spending a much shorter amount of time with a lot of albums that needed to be experienced four, five, six time to be truly appreciated. I agonized over how to rank my list, wondering how many ties I should include – given the thematic and personnel overlap of a lot the year’s best – and whether I should just list everything alphabetically. I finally decided on 10 (well, 11) albums that are loosely in order of preference, gave mention to another dozen that almost made the cut, then listed 50 (OK, 51) more albums I enjoyed quite a bit. You’ll probably notice one major omission, and that’s Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, which struck me as his first misfire. It contains at least four of the year’s best songs, but at 18 tracks, it’s a tonal mess and features some of Ye’s worst lyrics and laziest beats. Anything else you’re thinking should be on there I almost certainly heard, but it failed to connect with me as much as these other albums.

La La Land (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
10. La La Land (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
The movie hit me right in my pleasure centers, while also punching me in the gut. The songs, even without the colorful visuals, are still the best kind of eagworms: songs that burrow deep inside you and bring a smile to your face whenever you hear them.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Official Soundtrack)
9. The Lonely Island – Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Official Soundtrack)
They may be comedians, but their talent is no joke. Continuing to skip across genres like it’s nothing, the trio has only gotten more mature (only in their ability; there are still plenty of dick jokes) and the soundtrack to this soon-to-be cult classic is their best album yet.

And the Anonymous Nobody We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
8. De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody | A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from here… Thank you 4 your service
Two legendary hip-hop groups came back when we need them most. While A Tribe Called Quest’s last hurrah (RIP Phife Dawg) feels more urgent at this fraught moment in our nation, De La Soul’s grand return is no slouch either. Their more chipper style is just as valuable right now.

7. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
While hip-hop’s most prominent stars continue to settle for mediocrity (Drake) or tinker so much with their gifts they break them (Kanye), Anderson .Paak promises an inviting future. All the things that people saw in Kendrick Lamar that I didn’t quite see – the lyrical prowess, the adaptable flow, the uncanny intuition – I find in .Paak. A multi-instrumentalist in addition to a fantastic writer, he’s the musician I’m most excited to follow into the future.

6. Gallant – Ology
With Prince gone, I’m finding more than ever I long for emotionally vulnerable singers with glorious falsettos, hence my love of Miguel. But Gallant is far more introspective, with a voice even more impressive than the “Adore” singer.

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2016 in Review: The Best Performances – Television

I realized that in my awards giving, I’ve neglected to highlight the best performances in years past. That changes with these highlights, in drama, comedy and limited series/made-for-TV movies.

Best Actor and Actress in a Drama Series

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in The Americans
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell – The Americans
The real-life couple turned in their best performances to date as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, whose lives take a turn for the worse after several close calls. Their subtle digs at each other over the season’s first half gave way to intense desperation as going on the run looks to be their only option. That’s off the table (for now), but their marriage and partnership only grew deeper, a turn that’s only possible with this pair continuing to out-act just about everyone on TV.

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

John Lithgow in The Crown
John Lithgow – The Crown
John Lithgow is hardly the first renowned actor to take on Winston Churchill. Timothy Spall, Albert Finney and Brendan Gleeson have all chomped down to play the British Prime Minister in the past 15 years. But few have been as dedicated to devouring every last ornate chair and table like Lithgow has. Donning heavy prosthetics to get the svelte American to look like the hefty Brit, and he takes every opportunity to play Churchill as the outsized character he was. While the rest of the cast is appropriately restrained, Lithgow gets to let loose and bring more life to the show.

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

Alison Wright in The Americans
Alison Wright – The Americans
It was nice that someone other than Margo Martindale finally got noticed for this show, but ignoring Alison Wright this season was a straight-up travesty. All Martha’s vulnerability, eagerness to trust and hesitation to lie was completely betrayed, as she was used as a pawn by both the KGB and the FBI. She’s off in Russia now, and who knows if we’ll see her again, but she took a stereotype (the mousy secretary) and made her a tragic figure.

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2016 in Review: The Best Shows – Honorable Mentions

Even by including this list, I only scratched the surface of what I watched, which barely scratched the surface of the veritable buffet of options I could have partaken of this year.

2016 Tony Awards
70th Tony Awards
So maybe “Love is love is love is love” reads as a little corny now. But the night after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, love was what we needed. The most consistently entertaining of all awards shows kicked it up a notch, paying tribute to Broadway’s past while looking toward the future, and honoring Hamilton, the biggest and best musical in a very long time.

The cast of The Carmichael Show
The Carmichael Show – “Fallen Heroes”
For some reason, a reboot of All in the Family is in the works. Besides desecrating a classic instead of forging ahead with an original idea, there’s another reason such a project is unnecessary: We’ve already got The Carmichael Show, which takes the same dynamics, updates the talking points for 2016, and executes it with a game cast. The show peaked early, with this episode about that most sensitive of topics: what do we do with Bill Cosby knowing what we know now? There aren’t any easy answers, but at least the discussion was lively and hilarious.

Tommy Dewey, Michaela Watkins and Tara Lynne Barr on Casual Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda on Grace and Frankie
Casual – “The Great Unknown” | Grace & Frankie – “The Party”
These two streaming dramedies about life after divorce had some highs and lows in their second seasons. But both turned in their strongest episodes yet with finales that forced their characters – both the laid-back and the high-strung – to deal with the death of a loved one, and all the complicated feelings that stirs up. If they turn out more episodes like this, and fewer of the overplotted episodes that bogged down their middle sections, they’ll be among the best shows on TV in 2017.

John Lithgow on The Crown
The Crown – “Act of God”
The Crown very nearly made my top 10, but it was a little too stately and repetitive to earn a spot there. But this episode was the season’s true highlight for me, as Churchill refuses to believe the smog can be as bad as people say (in an echo of politicians who deny climate change today), only moved after his beloved secretary is killed by a bus whose driver couldn’t see her in the gray.

NRA mascot Eddie Eagle and Samantha Bee on Full Frontal
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
The first show I can say I’ve watched entirely on my phone. Sam Bee’s righteous fury was never afraid to “go there” without coming off as smug, a rare feat. I may not agree with all her positions, but that would be beside the point. She’s hilarious, daring and active, dammit. My favorite segment would definitely be the one pictured above, in which Bee strives in vain to obtain the costume of the NRA’s mascot. The requirements to get it are a mile long, and even then you can be denied use of the costume for any reason. As opposed to an actual firearm, which her staff repeatedly show can be obtained as easily as meeting up with a dude in a Walmart parking lot and paying him cash. It’s hilarious and infuriating, which is an accurate state of American politics today.

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2016 in Review: The Best Shows

Everything I wrote last year about not having enough time to watch everything – the rapid expansion of “Peak TV” – got even worse in 2017. I have a tie on this list AND I’m capping my honorable mentions at 10, and that doesn’t even cover everything I did manage to watch. Literally dozens of shows started this year that I wish I could have watched, but could only have done if I spent every waking hour watching that and nothing else. So here are my 10 best series that I actually saw through to the end and blew me away. While my tie for first place, as well as my second-place show are secure, any show in 3-10 could have moved its way up or down.

Andre Braugher, Andy Samberg and unidentified guest star on Brooklyn Nine-Nine
10. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Still the best “traditional” network comedy, with an impeccable ensemble that can be split apart as necessary. And as half-hour programs continue to shift to a more melancholy and challenging place (to quote a classic, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”), no show on TV provides more laughs and bigger laughs than the squad of the 99th Precinct.
Standout episodes: “Hostage Situation,” “Bureau,” “Coral Palms, Part 2”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Fleabag
9. Fleabag (Amazon)
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s astonishing adaptation of her one-woman show could have been vulgar for vulgarity’s sake, but Fleabag is far too warm and conflicted to let the darkness and crudeness overshadow the big-hearted, guilt-stricken mess at its core.
Standout episodes: “Episode 1,” “Episode 4,” “Episode 5”

Kristen Bell on The Good Place
8. The Good Place (NBC)
An extremely high-concept comedy from MVP Michael Schur (Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) that tackles the afterlife, but in a way no one in pop culture has pictured it yet. Side-stepping most religious issues, The Good Place is much more about philosophy and whether we are fated to be good or bad people, or if we can actually change. And does being one or the other limit how interesting a person can be? These are heady questions for a network show, but The Good Place keeps you thinking while you’re doubled over in laughter.
Standout episodes: “Everything Is Fine/Flying,” “Jason Mendoza,” “Most Improved Player”

Brian Tyree Henry on Atlanta
7. Atlanta (FX)
Having Atlanta this low should not be taken as a knock on one of the most inventive shows of 2016. It’s just that its fluidity – its greatest asset – also meant it wasn’t as consistent week-to-week as some of the shows higher on this list. In fact, only a handful of Atlanta‘s 10 episodes move the narrative forward in a way most of us would come to expect. But when the show was on its A-game (especially when it decided to just go for it), it hit the highest highs.
Standout episodes: “Value,” “B.A.N.,” “Juneteenth”

John Turturro on The Night Of
6. The Night Of (HBO)
I know the show mistreated some of its characters, including having them make some supremely stupid decisions. But I don’t often think about those errors. I think about those dead-on moments: Bill Camp’s stoic repartee with suspects and colleagues, John Turturro’s endless quest for a proper eczema treatment, Fisher Stevens’ sarcastic pharmacist, Jeannie Berlin putting her tennis shoes on the table after losing her case, any time Riz Ahmed and Michael K. Williams shared the screen, the runner of a suspect named Duane Reade, and the devastating image of Peyman Moaadi turning up as a delivery guy. The mystery was the least important part of a story that touched on prejudice, religion, prosecutorial misconduct and the hellscape of Rikers Island. And we got all of that in only eight episodes.
Standout episodes: “The Beach,” “Season of the Witch,” “The Call of the Wild”

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Netflix Picks: January 2017

Miss Sharon Jones! – 1/7
Sharon Jones’s 2016 death really hurt, especially since this documentary – which showed her struggle to recover from and (temporarily) overcome cancer – gave me hope that she’d be back on the stage and performing for another decade at least.

Jim Gaffigan: Cinco – 1/10
More jokes about food and having too many kids? I’m in.

Jen Kirkman: Just Keep Livin’? – 1/3
Coin Heist – 1/6
Degrassi: Next Class (Season 3) – 1/6
Growing Up Coy – 1/6
One Day at a Time (Season 1) – 1/6
Tarzan and Jane (Season 1) – 1/6
A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1) – 1/13
Clinical – 1/13
The Investigator: A British Crime Story (Season 1) – 1/13
Neal Brennan: 3 Mics – 1/17
Frontier (Season 1) – 1/20
Take the 10 – 1/20
Voltron: Legendary Defender (Season 2) – 1/20
Cristela Alonzo: Lower Classy – 1/24
Gad Gone Wild – 1/24
Terrace House: Aloha State (Season 1, Part 1) – 1/24
Bill Burr: Stand Up Special – 1/31

Real Detective (Season 1) – 1/1
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Season 11) – 1/3
Mar de Plastico (Season 1) – 1/6
Wartime Portraits (Season 1) – 1/15
Señora Acero (Season 3) – 1/15
Bates Motel (Season 4) – 1/21
Ripper Street (Season 4) – 1/28

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What I Watched This Week: 11 Dec 2016

The Simpsons – “The Nightmare After Krustmas” (B)
As usual for latter-day Simpsons, it’s funny but never great. The multiple nightmare sequences are directed brilliantly, but it’s not going to endure like other Christmas episodes.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “Captain Latvia” (B-)
A decent parody of Jingle All the Way, which was never that great to begin with. Confident Boyle is always fun, and he has plenty of awkward turns of phrase, but this is truly the weakest episode of the season.

Designated Survivor – “The Oath” (B)
A bit better than last week’s cliché cliffhanger (see below), but this one goes and pulls its own cliché cliffhanger: shots fired, but we don’t know who, if anyone, takes the bullet. I’m still intrigued enough to find out, but there are a ton of new shows starting in 2017 and this will be the first to go if it gets too crowded.

Designated Survivor – “The Blueprint” (B-)
Was on its way to redeeming itself from last week, then went and pulled the laziest cliffhanger ever: the sudden car accident. Boooooooooo!

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Oscar Picks: 15 Dec 2016

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Hidden Figures

La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Falling off: Live by Night, Loving, Sully
Rising star: Hell or High Water
The skinny: With the precursors out of the way, the window is narrowing for a lot of movies. The only reason Silence is still on here is that Scorsese has been nominated for five of his last six movies. It hasn’t gotten any preliminary awards, outside of a few stray notices from critics’ groups. It may have just entered the game too late. The others seem like safe bets, with Hidden Figures jumping into the pack thanks to its SAG ensemble nomination. The only remaining films that could surge late are Hell or High Water and Hacksaw Ridge.

Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone of La La Land
Denzel Washington, Fences
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence

Falling off: Jeff Nichols
Rising star: Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
The skinny: With Loving being all but forgotten (except by the Golden Globes, who aren’t always a reliable analog), Jeff Nichols slips, giving Kenneth Lonergan the edge. But if Hacksaw Ridge becomes a Best Picture nominee, and especially if Silence doesn’t, Mel Gibson could easily take Scorsese’s spot.

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Falling off: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hanks
Rising star: Robert De Niro, The Comedian
The skinny: With that SAG nomination (and a surprise ensemble nod to boot), Viggo is officially in this conversation. SAG has far more members than the Academy, but its largest voting bloc is by far actors. And if enough of them have gushed for it to get nominated for SAG, it’s got extreme popularity. That’s not always enough to get an Oscar nomination, even if your movie is popular (just ask Diane Kruger), but in a surprisingly weak year for lead actors, it should be enough to get in.

Natalie Portman in Jackie
Amy Adams, Arrival
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Falling off: Annette Bening, Ruth Negga
Rising star: Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train
The skinny: This is going to be an extremely tough category. It breaks my heart to bump Annette Bening, so magnificent in 20th Century Women. But Meryl Streep is too powerful, and with a guaranteed Golden Globe nomination (and less guaranteed but somewhat expected SAG nod), as well as her immeasurable popularity, she’s going to be one of the nominees. I still think Huppert makes her way in, bumping other fine actresses out of the way.

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