Looking Back at 2016: A Year of Pop Culture Favourites

I’m a little bit late to the game, but… it’s that time again. The time of year when top (ten/twenty/100) lists can be found in abundance. Time to reflect on the year that was. Time to look forward to the year that will be. And time to celebrate (of course) the stuff of pop culture that managed to entertain me, challenge me, occupy my mind, and move me over the course of the past year.

I must confess, I look forward to these lists every year.
This year, I am sticking with the tried and true process of a Top 20 list of books, movies, and music that stood out for me, albeit with a couple caveats. First, I did not restrict my entire list to projects that were released in 2016. Rather it is a reflection of what I actually read, watched or listened to this year, regardless of release date. Secondly, there are a host of movies, books and t.v. that I am certain would be solid candidates to make my top list which I have yet to see (including Rougue One, Moonlight, Loving, Fences, Manchester By the Sea… just to name a few).

So with that in mind, here is my list, some of which surprised me, some of which followed a theme, all of which happened to stand out for me for one reason or another!

wicked-river20. Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin (book)

Having taken the opportunity to travel the GRR (Great River Road) three years ago, I have since been immersing myself in material that can help me understand it’s culture and history from a more informed perspective (our trip left me fascinated by the River). The book “Wicked River” managed to strike the perfect balance of history and folklore, lesser known stories and big picture context. Having just spent time getting used to Twain’s more anecdotal and literary “Life on the Mississippi”, it was refreshing to engage with Sandlin’s camp-fire approach, whom seems content in getting lost with a few side trips, exploring the nooks and crannies of the river itself while having a rollicking good time in doing it.

Sandlin tells a river tale that includes everything from pirates to earthquakes, sieges, a tragic boat-sinking (that was shockingly forgotten by the pages of history), and a once vibrant river life that is absolutely contagious in his retelling.

Lee gives mention of course to the influence of Twain on the romanticizing of the river’s lore, a man who gave the river relevance in the American landscape, but he notes that much of Twain’s memoir is colored by sentiments of a river that once was, a result of his return to the Mississippi in the aftermath of its heyday. Lee is interested, rather, in painting a truer picture of the river in it’s prime, and the most fascinating part of the book is the way he puts us up close and personal to the river (and it’s past) itself, a river that, for those who once navigated it in the early years of America, was a living, breathing and ever-changing entity, a character in the story that that not only protects some of the most fascinating moments in American history, but brings with it memories of adventure and the thrill of those who navigated it. And as Sandlin shows, the river’s past might be gone, but the river’s future is still ripe to be written.

19. Sia- This is Acting
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In a world saturated with pop music of all kinds, Sia continues to prove why she is still a major player in the game. Most noted about this recent release is that it feels a lot more fun and upbeat than her previous, and (in my humble opinion) a more complete record as a whole. It is a change in tone, and it works rather well at showing another side of the multi-faceted artist. Sia is an honest to goodness musician with a wealth of talent to bring to the table.

The album might lose a bit of steam before we arrive at the final track, but there are plenty of hooks and relevant themes to be found between the pages. Definitely one of the more worthwhile albums of 2016.

Honorable Mention: Adele-25
Her new album dropped with much fanfare, and although her stardom might have it’s share of critics, there is no denying that Adele, much like Sia, continues to demonstrate the wealth of her talent. There are several standout songs on the album, including the initial single “Hello” (overplayed but still breathless and timeless). I admit, I have gotten quite a bit of playtime out of this one over the course of the year.


18. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (book)

I was introduced to Hill as “Stephen King’s son”. NOS4A2 helped introduce me to “Hill” the writer. imgres-1The guy brings his own style to the table, and this book provided me with the perfect way to pass the time between the seasons of Halloween and Christmas. The book is unique, if bizarre, but most notably I found it really hard to put down. For every turn of the page he invested me a little bit more into his twisted vision of Holiday horror. His knack for character and the flow is impressive. While not technically a 2016 release, this is the book that now has me anticipating his most recent release, The Fireman, which is now just a few months old.


17. 10 Cloverfield Lane (film)

This was actually a pick that surprised me. The biggest reason 10 Cloverfield Lane makes it on to my top 20 is because of the way the film managed to pave it’s own path, arriving with little in the way of advertisement (and actually intentionally advertised as a different film altogether), and the way it manages to be a (not really sequel) that is something entirely different than it’s predecessor. imgres-3That and it is worth considering both the performance of Goodman and the film’s anything can happen direction, two elements of the film that make it worthwhile. It is darkly humorous, but not overly dark. Fun but serious and introspective, tense but not brooding. And the subtle attention to detail (especially in the secluded setting) is fantastic. Classified as a horror film, likely more of a thriller, 10 Cloverfield Lane was one of my favorites of the year, and the short running time has me appreciating it all the more.

 

16. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God by Timothy Keller (book)
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Every so often I seem to arrive at a place in my life where the subject of prayer re-emerges. Usually this renewed interest accompanies a transition or a circumstance, and this year has been no exception.

The last time I found myself in this place I ended up picking up Yancey’s “Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?”, a philosophical exercise that exposes Prayer as an intently human struggle. In Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God, Keller is upfront with his frustration that the current collection of available work on prayer tend towards specialized interests rather than a complete and holistic exposition of the topic in it’s full philosophical, theological, mystical, liturgical, contemplative and practical setting. This is the book he desires to write, and it is very easy to feel like he is writing it more for himself than anyone else.

Keller’s prayer makes my list not because it is a ground-breaking theological work (it is good, but it is certainly not exceptional), but rather because it left its mark on my spirit over the course of this year. I have always had a complicated relationship with the idea of prayer, and certainly, in terms of prayer as a spiritual practice, I have found it incredibly challenging to adapt in a serious and committed way. I am not good at understanding it, nor at embracing it wholeheartedly in my own life, and yet, as I look back over all of the figures and relationships that litter my own history, some of those whom I respect the most I would consider among the great “prayers” of my world.

What Keller opened up for me is just how vulnerable the practice of prayer really is. It is easier to consider spirituality and theology as a construct and an intellectual exercise, but much more difficult to enter into the practice of prayer, a practice that requires our theology to submit to a certain degree of personal abandon. Prayer humbles us. Prayer expects that who we are praying to and what we are praying for can make a difference. And prayer makes us honest, calling us to put all of our cards on the table, and to submit all of our struggle with selfless and selfish motivations, to this difference making relationship.

Above all though, it was Keller’s unashamed commitment to a practical approach to prayer that really stuck with me. Ideas like morning devotions can sometimes feel like suggestions from an outdated past, certainly when theological discourse and intellectual exercise have taken the front row seat for so long. And yet this is precisely where Keller leads the reader, freeing us up to engage in the devotional life without fear of abandoning our sense of theological integrity. Further, as Keller admits that “prayer must be one of the hardest things in the world”, he moves into an examination of the different approaches to prayer (mystical, prophetic, practical) with a sharp exposition on the power and place of the spoken word as the most unique aspect of the “Christian” practice. This is what turns the “theology” of prayer into “experience” of a living God. This is what moves the inward tendency of meditation towards the outward flow of liturgy. It is the spoken word that keeps prayer from merely being self-reflective, and it is the spoken word that makes it active, even in the face of the challenging circumstances that might make it feel inactive.

This was a two-fold learning for me: first, that I am not good at verbal discourse, and even less good at verbal-discourse with God. Keller not only helps give added weight to the place of liturgy to aid us in the formation of this verbal-discourse, but he also helps show me that it is not how we speak (or how well), but it is that we speak that remains the most important. In a tough year for many (it would seem), this is a good reminder. In a tough year for me, this idea has been life changing.

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15. The Witch (film)
Perhaps the most impressive element of The Witch is the fact that it is a directorial debut and a low budget drama that also managed to inspire so much great conversation. A glorious example of a period piece done well, the film is an intimate look at a 17th century Puritan family struggling to find their way as a family in a new land after being expelled from their community and being relegated to face their fears alone.

The film is a wonderful mix of layers, both as an introspective spiritual reflection and a genuine family drama, even as it delights in representing itself as a bonafide horror film. But what remains most intriguing, especially in its more intimate portrayals, is the way the film uses the theme of forgiveness to move us back and forth between the family dynamics and the individual struggle, and then ultimately outwards onto their forming perception of God and the devil, good and evil. It is a powerful exposition that sets us on a journey towards coming to terms with forgiveness when distrust and uncertainty begin to falter. imgres-2

As crops start to fail, animals begin to fall, and some of the children begin to disappear, we are only ever given a glimpse of the evil that appears to be pushing in from the outside and that seems to be tearing them up on the inside. Instead, the director points us towards the individual’s own sense of desperation as they fight to carry on with a sense of normalcy even as the threat of winter continues to loom on the horizon and the family seems to be falling apart. The glimpses of evil that we are given sat with me and festered and formulated, and by the time I reached the shocking ending, I found myself just sitting and staring at the screen in silence. For a period piece, much of the introspection and many of the prominent spiritual themes present in this film have an uncanny sense of timelesness. The family dynamics represent something more than just an outdated religious worldview, and the struggle of sin and forgiveness feel as relevant now as it was in their Puritan context. This is all a part of what allows The Witch to remain so memorable and earn a top pick of the year on my list.

 

14. The Brave by Nicholas Evans (book)imgres-4
Ultimately The Brave is about the ways we tell our stories, and the lies and the truth that can get muddied along the way. On the surface is the essential mystery that unfolds in the early going as Tommy’s character kind of gets upended in an unexpected fashion. Underneath this is the ensuing relationships between the different characters that all have a past and all hold secrets in some form, secrets that cause them to struggle with the truth.

It is the muddied middle ground between the lie and the truth that leads us to a somewhat bittersweet conclusion in the story, and ultimately it is about the ways we learn to confront and deal with this muddied middle ground within our own selves as well, understanding that every choice we make writes our story in a certain way, and that in making these choices often timing is everything in determining one path over another. Being brave in the end is about making these choices even when we fear making the wrong one.

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Sharing a similar setting with another book I read this year, The Son (The Old American West) and a similar theme with Beautiful Ruins (the move from home to Hollywood), The Brave manages to avoid the heavy religious and literary symbolism of those aforementioned novels in exchange for good old-fashioned storytelling. As the writer of The Horse Whisperer, this is a book on my list that helped renew my interest in an author I had forgotten I really enjoyed.

 

 
13. Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck (book)
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The reason Walkable City makes my list is rather simple- It transformed so much of the way I view cities (and the architecture and city planning that shapes our cities) that I can never look at a city in the same way again. It is a book that, after reading, I immediately wanted to share with others, but also a book that is rather likely to foster some level of angst and hostility for some. Frankly, his ideas for how we shape our cities are challenging on the surface (primarily in the way it challenges our view of the automobile and road construction), but in reality (underneath the surface) also liberating and incredibly sensible underneath.

I paired this book with another one titled Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson, another book that tackles the subject of urban development, but Walkable City was by far the more accessible and entertaining.

I will likely never hear the word “traffic study” again without the need to respond with an eye roll, and, to be honest, since reading this book I find myself seeing it’s criticisms and possibilities at virtually ever intersection of our city that I pass by. What Speck does is unveil how city-planning works, why it works and how it can encourage us in one direction or another. For Speck, successful cities don’t allow one entity to have a monopoly, and successful cities allow themselves to maintain a good amount of shared space, which comes through adapted architecture, safe and interesting landscape, and the presence of diversity.

Walkable City fuelled my love of the city, and it helped me to see the city in a whole new light. It’s something that I think will continue to add to my joy of experiencing new places, along with re-experiencing the place in which I live, as well.

 

 

 

12. Norah Jones: Day Breaksimgres-1
If I am honest, I had a hard time with Jones’ previous release, Little Broken Hearts. It’s good, but I found it a decidedly inventive and experimental turn in what has arguably been a calculated journey away from her jazz roots.

Day Breaks feels like a return to her earlier career, familiar and jazzy, but at the same time pushes the boundaries of that persona at the same time in more comfortable ways. It takes the jazzy undertones that she excels at and surrounds it with some funk notes and pop music structures. It does bog down in the middle, but the songs on either end manage to showcase what I love about Jones’ style, and she is willing to change it up with some toe tapping moments, some feel good melodies, and some soothing soul along with way.

 

 
11. Sing Street (film)

If you haven’t seen Sing Street yet, see it. I’ll be honest, I was not the biggest fan of Once, a previous and popular work from director John Carney, but Sing Street (a bigger budget and more polished narrative) was so infectious it was impossible not to include it on this list. Whereas Once seemed to be telling a story from the outside looking in, Sing Street seems to be flowing out of the directors own inner experience.imgres
Sing Street might be about the power of music, but I think even more so it is about the power of creating and creativity in helping us deal with the challenges of life. It might be about self-expression and finding yourself, especially as Conor is coming of age, but even more so it is about the connections that this creating can develop. In a world where the two polarazing social ends of home and school appear repressive and challenging and isolating, it is the healing power of the social relationship and community that he finds in the middle ground.

 

This is a film that can remind us that we are not alone in our struggles, and do so by helping to put a smile on our face at the same time. One of the best films of 2016.

 

 
10. The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (book)

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This is the kind of book, like Walkable City, that I immediately wanted to read again in the company of others once I finished it, albeit with a focus on spiritual development rather than urban development (although I won’t lie, for me two worlds often meet).

What is funny about this book, is that I had just finished The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove before reading Awakening of Hope, but I never realizeed they were written by the same author. “Wisdom…” was my introduction to the New Monastic movement, and after realizing the two books shared an author, I was shocked I didn’t catch the connection earlier.

What I love about this book is the way it steers clear of a spiritual to-do list, and instead focuses on the question of why. Why do we believe and why do we engage in the particular Christian practices that we do? In looking at the question why, it then probes the nature of hope as a distinctly faith-driven proposition.

The book makes my list because, far from an apologetic, it is a faith-forming exercise that poked at some of the struggles I personally carried through this year. Hope is an evasive exercise, and yet Hartgrove shows the exercise (in a sort of catechism of sorts) can provide a way of re-awakening it on a daily basis. He represents why the New Monastic approach can be so enriching, and as one of the top books I read this year, it definitely enriched my own sense of faith and hope.

 

 

9 The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhii (book)imgres

This is by far the best book on Ukrainian History that I have encountered. It pushes boundaries, dispels myths, challenges perspective, and helps bring proper definition and life to a problematic and suffering Ukrainian heritage. One of the most important books I have read this year, as it helped me to really understand my recent journey in Ukraine.

Ukraine, it is clear, is both a special and important place in our global story. And although the relationship between memory and recorded history is difficult, what remains clear is that the people of Ukraine continue to inspire many of us (in other nations around the world) to take our own histories more seriously. This is true for the latest contests for Ukrainian land, and it was true long before they became an official nation, and this book is a helpful and timely reminder of this truth.

 

 

8. Sho Baraka: The Narrative (music)

Sho Baraka is a great rapper, but more so he is a smart writer. He interweaves a strong theological disposition with intelligent grooves and rhythms, and manages to prove why he is a welcome voice in the hip-hop genre. He keeps from being type-cast, stays far from generic, and stays intently eclectic in his approach. It all comes together to create one of the best albums of the year.
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Honorable Mention: Lecrae- Church Clothes 3 (music)
Once a game changer who sat at the crossroads of faith and hip-hop, Lecrae remains as relevant as ever for blurring these lines and challenging our perceptions of what the “Christian” artist really looks like. This is mostly because he continues to offer a great product. It is his unabashed honesty that keeps him at the forefront, and he is as willing as ever to speak to a mix of faith and social issues without abandon. Add to this a record full of great groves and his recognizable style, and he continues to shape the music scene for the better.

 

 

 

7. Sully (film)
Sully is one of my more surprising picks on this list. I have enjoyed Eastwood’s direction in the past, but I did not expect Sully to represent one of his best works in recent memory. The way he takes a familiar story and infuses it with such a strong sense of perspective leads to a film that is compelling as an experiment in story-telling method. It also manages to be unexpectedly intense, as Eastwood uses Sully’s personal perspective (as the captain dealing with the trauma of the experience) to heighten our sense of the tension. In doing this, the competing forces of being hailed as a hero on one hand while also being put on trial for a failure to do his job (a fact that sets his retirement, his life, his family and his career in the balance), reveals the ebb and flow of the narrative that Eastwood looks to pull out of the near tragedy.

The scenes on the plane are intense and feel all to real, but Eastwood’s real focus reflects the inner journey of Sully himself, as he finds himself being pulled in the direction of the competing forces both on a public and  private level. It is here where Hanks provides Eastwood with one of his most understated and tempered performances of his career, an impressive feat given his star power. A worthy film that might fall under the radar but deserves any attention it can get.

Honorable mention: Eye In the Sky (film)
I wanted to give this one a mention here not because the two films are thematically similar, but rather because they are similar stylistically. They are both shorter films with a similar attention to developing the tension in an upwards fashion.

The film plays out of the point of view of those in their respective military chairs, bringing us in and out of their unique vantage points and revealing the more intimate shots that of the emotional process in light of their individual responsibilities to engage in the kind of war that can change lives from the comfort of their seats. In this sense we get a feel for the sort of distance in relationship that exists between the players and the target, a fact that is intended to leave us uncomfortable and unsettled, not only as we are watching it all unfold in what feels like real time, but also as the film fades from view. This gives us a sense of how all of the different elements, political, personal and moral responsibility, intersect, and it keeps us from being able to come to any sort of clear, cut conclusions about what is right or wrong in the moment.

The whole thing is a breathless ride that explores the impact that such a scary, problematic form of technology brings to one of the most problematic elements of our world. For as much as it is about this technology, it is also incredibly human, something that all of performers embody, with Powell leading the way.

 

 

 

6. Kubo and the Two Strings (film)
It would have been very easy for me to put Zootopia on this list (spoiler alert: it didn’t make it), a sharp social commentary (and also an entertaining animated feature). But it was the spiritual epic Kubo that kept coming back for me.

From the animation studio Laika, the ones who brought us Coraline (one of my favourites) and ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings is yet another example of what great animated art can do when given the freedom to forge it’s own path. The way it fuses two animated styles in order to tell a “story within a story” was ingenious, and it becomes symbolic for how the story is told overall.
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There is no qualifying franchise here, and no feeling that it will brand any unnecessary sequels. What we do sense is it’s ingenuity and honesty. This is a film that is as emotional as it is engaging, an interesting study of how we interpret Eastern mysticism through our Western eyes (much in the way that Dr. Strange does as well).

There is a haunting presence to the way the film plays with our senses of what is real and what is not. There is mystery, even as we push towards a conclusion that leaves us bridging the symbolic with strong sense of emotional realism. It leans on the cultural push towards family over individual, which represents a narrative that leads us less towards the characters themselves and more towards the image of community. This might be feel like an odd trajectory for Western eyes, as we only really get to understand who these people are from the context of their connection to someone else, but I think it offers an approach to storytelling that we can learn from (for those of us speaking from a Western influence). The power of our story comes from creating “our” story together.

Undoubtedly my favorite animated feature of the year.

Honorable Mention: Moana (film)
This is old school Disney with a modern flare. An amazing soundtrack, some solid performances, a less than traditional story, and some great animation anchor this film. It is a feel good experience, and one that I felt was worth every moment.

 

 


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5. NeedtoBreathe- Hard Love (music)

I admit that my engagement of new music this year fell by the wayside, for one reason or another. Out of the handful of new albums that I did manage to pick up, Needtobreathe’s Hard Love definitely is at the top of the list.

Hard Love is an interesting study in the band’s evolution. Musically it pushes away from the familiar melody of previous works and toys with some experimentation (including some more accentuated funk influences and some well placed choir additions). As a whole, the band has quietly made it’s mark on the musical world by keeping the Christian music industry at arm’s length (on one hand), even while their previous, and somewhat surprising, success of “Rivers in the Wasteland” actively blurred this line in it’s upfront, spiritual nature.
It is interesting to note, from a recent interview, that the band perceives “Rivers…” as an effort born out of intense turmoil and emotional disconnection (in their life as a band). It was a record that was written in very short time frame, and, in a stark confessional, was not one of their favorites. According to the band, Hard Love is a clearer picture of who they are as a band, and it returns them to the more subtle world of spiritual metaphor. God is not mentioned in Hard Love, even as the songs remain full of spiritual significance.

Songs like Happiness explore notions of what it means to be forgiven (and to live a forgiven life), while the title track, Hard Love, uses lines like “Trading punches with the heart of darkness” and “You’ve got to burn your old self away.” The rest of the album moves between themes such as grief (Be Here Long) and relationship (When I Sing, No Excuses), but the most revealing song might be the song Money and Fame. There is something honest about the way this song seems to take a look underneath the band’s own personal journey, and seems to push us in the direction of seeing this album as almost autobiographical. How much so is up for speculation, but there is little question that Hard Love is at least committed to being a more honest depiction of the band themselves.


Honorable Mention: Switchfoot: Where The Light Shines Through (music)
Hand in hand with Needtobreathe is the story of Switchfoot. It is no secret that Switchfoot is one of my favorite bands, and Where the Light Shines Through is a welcome addition. It doesn’t live up to Hello Hurricane, still one of the best albums of their career in my opinion, but it brings together a more joyful and positive expression than 2014’s Fading West, something that infuses some bright new dynamics into what is otherwise a traditional mix of Switchfoot anthems and ingenuity.

 

 

 

4. BFG (film)

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I have written extensively in this space about BFG earlier in the year, so I will keep this brief, but for as much as BFG seemed to be largely overlooked by audiences this year, the way it harkened me back to Spielberg’s old fashioned commitment to story and the magic of filmmaking stuck with me in very particular way. The film’s imperfections become a part of its charm, and the story is an endearing hold over of the child-hood classics of an age past. The way that a short story is reimagined as a larger and more realized intertwining of worlds (between the giants and the humans) was captivating, and the inspiring picture it creates of the human struggle to belong is emotionally striking. It is one of the more magical films that I saw this year.

Honorable Mention: Pete’s Dragon (film)
Pete’s Dragon remained a contender on this list for reasons similar to BFG. Simple story that is brave enough to use the subtle complexity of the child’s struggle to push us into an un-abandoned sense of joy. For as much as we need films that embrace the darker stuff of life, sometimes we also need more films like this that embraces the happy ending and straight up child-hood wonder. It’s a film about a rather large dragon that keeps simple and small, a film about a powerful creature that is revealed as unexpectedly vulnerable. And it is a story that displays strong religious symbolism (written by Jewish converts to Messianic Judaism) through a dragon who’s real power is the act of becoming invisible, and a kid who faces the challenge of becoming visible. At the heart of the story is not believing in the dragon, but of allowing the existence of the dragon to transform their lives and the way they view the world around them

 

3. Stranger Things (t.v.)

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It’s a show that shouldn’t have worked as well as it did, and yet it ended up working so well. There is plenty of theory floating around out in the pop culture universe as to why- the nostalgic factor, the way it redefines the horror genre for the greater public as something other than horror, the simple story.

Whatever it was that allowed this show to connect with viewers this year, one thing is for sure- I’ll be watching season 2.

I should mention, there is one factor that make this show’s presence on my list a legitimate contender. I have been a vocal critic of Netflix’s oversaturation of the market (it can take me a while on any given day to scroll through the numerous entries of Netflix originals that rarely ever prove to be worth my time… unless it is called The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but even then, season 2 was a bit of a step backwards).

What is strange about Stranger Things is that it succeeds despite the fact that it is not the most well scripted show, it is not hesitant to embrace certain tropes, and it does take some shortcuts in the narrative along the way. All of this gets circumvented though by a story that breathes new life into everything that was great about the storytelling of the 80’s. That it even goes so far to utilize the look and the feel of eighties filmmaking is a part of its charm. It’s a show that has mystery, that’s a lot of fun, is full of childhood adventure, and works for a wide arrange of audience (and so makes for a good family viewing).

Honorable Mentions: This is Us/Timeless
Two other new shows that didn’t quite make my top list but nearly did, This is Us hits all the right emotional marks, while Timeless continues to sit on some great creative potential. Although Timeless has faltered since  it’s first four episodes, This is Us cotinues to go strong. I am still pulling strong for Timeless to really find it’s form, and I will be curious to see what direction it takes in the fall.

 

 

 

2. Once upon A Time (t.v.)
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I continue to be a cult-follower of Once Upon a Time, a show that, perhaps defying it’s cult status, was once-upon-a-time the highest rated show (in terms of viewership) on Netflix. It finds a spot on my list largely because of the way it found new inspiration after last season’s less than stellar bump in the road (the underworld had so much more potential than it lived up to in the end).

This season finds the show returning (symbolically, thematically) to season 1, with such intention that I would not be surprised if this is the show’s final goodbye. Thankfully so much of what it managed to do this fall is also a return to what made the earlier seasons so great, including a welcome return to the character of the evil queen.

Honorable Mention: Survivor (t.v.)
No one should be surprised. Survivor definitely qualifies as cult-fan status when it comes to my dedication to the show, and is equally a mainstay for me. I am including the lastest season on this list (Gen-X vs. Millenials) because of the way it took a questionable theme and made it so intriguing, and because this latest season provided one of the best crew of new players in a while and some of the best episodes in recent memory. Further, every once in a while a season comes along that redefines the show for the emerging generation of players. This one qualifies, and it provided plenty of intriguing fodder for the evolution of the show and where it goes from here. Survivor fan for life.

 

 

1. Hail, Caeser (film)

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It might not be the Coen Brother’s best work, but it just might be their most personal. Billed as a love letter to Old Hollywood, and Hail, Caeser manages to be a wonderful mix of nostalgia, irreverence, and tribute to the industry that helped shape them. It is a passion project that feels content with the unconventional, pushing us into subplots of subplots and weaving the central existential question of the film, which is about the undercurrents of building moral conviction and understanding right and wrong, with poignant political commentary and an acute awareness of the trappings of the Hollywood financial machine.

Partnered with some inventive performances, the film is interesting, at times incredibly funny and revealing, and, as a love story for those who love the power of story, really helps to unmask why we make and view art (and more specifically film). My favorite film of the year.

 

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