Hey, it’s been a whole year since I wrote a blog! Look at that! And what a year! It was a year where distractions from the grim spectacle of global politics were extremely welcome, and once again I kept track of what my favourites were. Not all of it came out this year, but 2016 is when they made their way into my sphere of existence.
The list this year is a blend of utter despair and fragile hope, which I think reflects 2016 pretty well. Everything is listed in the order that I ingested it. Let’s hop in and think about anything other than the outside world for ten minutes.
One swell element to Google Play is the ease of downloading and listening to podcasts, so I did a lot more podcast listening this year– mostly in the spooky tales category. I listened to 8 different podcasts (some entire series, others just a few episodes before getting bored), and this is what caught my attention.
This fictional podcast about a journalist’s investigation into the mysterious disappearance of over three hundred people in a small gated town in Tennessee doesn’t have a second season slated for a long time– which sucks. It is extremely good. The story yanked me down into its world with almost terrifying force. The production quality makes it a standout– it seems so real. If you’re like me and like your scares slow and creeping, treat yourself to Limetown.
Alice Isn’t Dead
Another offering from Night Vale Presents, this time by Joseph Fink and narrated by Jasika Nicole, Alice Isn’t Dead is the CB radio narrative of a woman who has taken work as a long-haul trucker to search for her wife, Alice, who just disappeared one day, but who is not dead. Full of love and unsettling details, I started listening to this one on the bus to Montreal, and can highly recommend it for road trips.
Within the Wires
This new podcast from the Night Vale Presents team, written by Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson (who also narrates), is presented as an instructional cassette series on relaxation. As you listen, however, the narrator lets slip more sinister details of where you are, and why you are where you are, and what to do next. The guided visualization and breathing elements were quite fun to breathe along with, making the listening experience more fully immersive.
Yeah, I know, I’m super late to this party. I’ve now absorbed dozens of 99% Invisible podcasts, walking through streets across Canada listening to Roman Mars, and I’m still not all caught up. Which is fine. I love learning, and 99PI makes my conversations more interesting.
Runner-Up: The Thrilling Adventure Hour, but only the Beyond Belief episodes. I just can’t get into the other storylines, but drunk society mediums making weird jokes? Absolutely.
Video games! Computer games! Tabletop games! I played 29 different games this year. I’ve gradually been getting more into video games as I find ones that emphasize story rather than the ability to shoot the thing or jump over the thing. Here are the five I liked best.
Baby’s first Diablo! This was a wind-down standby for my partner and I. I liked that I could battle monsters with a minimum of precise button skills, but that I got to choose my winning combo of tricks. We’ve made it through story mode, but our Crusader and Demon Hunter are still going, occasionally summoning herds of warrior cows.
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
A great cooperative game in which one player has to defuse a bomb, and another player– or several!– gives instructions from a bomb defusal manual. Oh, and only the defuser can look at the screen. So you have to yell instructions and what you see to one another. It’s tense, brain-testing work that requires sharp verbal communication skills. Super nerdy. I first played this in 2014 at the final installation of Gamercamp on a VR headset. Turns out, playing it on a desktop is way less irritating, and you can still create the sensation of isolation by sitting across the room.
Game of Thrones
Telltale is a company that loves to make you make terrible decisions. Game of Thrones is a series that loves to destroy everything regardless of how you feel about it. And lo, Telltale’s Game of Thrones is exactly what you’d expect. You play as multiple characters from House Forrester trying to defend your house and livelihood. More so than any other Telltale game, I felt so doomed by every decision I made– and I usually was. I would have been dead in Westeros in five minutes. Two in Essos.
Tales from the Borderlands
Hey, more Telltale! I’ve never played any Borderlands games proper, but this may get me into them. The story (why, by the way, has WAY fewer life-ruining decision than Game of Thrones) is told from the perspective of two characters: a Hyperion employee gone rogue, and a Pandoran hustler. So, when we played, my partner and I traded off the controller when the characters changed. This is a very fun way to play and I highly recommend it. The writing is unbelievably funny, the humour is dark, and there’s robot friends. What more could you want?
Johannes Sebastian Joust (as part of Sportsfriends)
Pokémon Go may have got people moving this year, but Johannes Sebastian Joust was just more fun to move to. It’s the PS4 version of the egg-on-a-spoon game, where your goal is to knock down your opponents’ eggs while protecting yours. The catch here is, you have to move in accordance to the speed at which Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto is playing. It’s shrieky fun, tricky, and a great way to make friends into enemies at a party– an attempt was made to install a “no ninja kicks” rule and it may have been my fault.
Of the 31 books of assorted lengths I read this year, these ten stood out.
Fun Home (Alison Bechdel)
In advance, let me say I don’t know the musical at all but I hear it’s great. The book is extraordinary. A brutally self-deprecating comic/autobiography that explores Bechdel’s difficult relationship with her closeted father and her own queerness. The story as she tells it loops back on itself again and again, and gets richer with every pass.
The Giant’s House (Elizabeth McCracken)
Picked up on a whim from a little free library, it caught me off-guard. A young librarian content to sit with her loneliness falls first in fascination, then later in love with a boy who grows into a giant in their small seaside town. Her quiet pain as she shyly (perhaps misguidedly) weaves herself into his own confusing life is poetic and simple.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
I’m scared about what the world is turning back toward. This dystopian book about women’s roles being built around reproduction illuminates some of those fears. Enough said. BACK TO DISTRACTIONS
This One Summer (Jillian Tamaki/Mariko Tamaki)
Another graphic novel about a girl on the cusp on puberty, spending a cottage vacation with her family. The story catches her family and friendships at an achy pivotal point; and her awkward hormonal urges, internalized misogyny, and frustration were all very relatable.
All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)
A woman whose life feels perpetually in shambles tries to convince her suicidal “perfect” sister to stay living. I don’t have sisters, but the push and pull between them was fascinating to read. I also enjoyed the matter-of-fact approach to a dark subject from a narrator whose life is steeped in it.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell)
At the end of the 18th century, a clerk with the Dutch East India Company comes to Dejima (then Japan’s only port to the outside world) and finds his morals tested after meeting an intriguing midwife. The details in this novel are so lush; you can sink right in. The characters are just as rich: almost everyone has a backstory, and one way or another, their histories are shared.
The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro)
In post-Arthurian England, an elderly couple set out to visit their son– a difficult task, as a fog that clouds everyone’s memory. It’s a legend, with knights and dragons and monks and warriors, but one that circles its own truth and slowly dusts off layers of itself. Critical details come out in throwaway sentences, and the characters try their best to just take care of each other. Most of all, it’s a love story.
Peace is Every Step (Thich Nhat Hanh)
A good introduction to mindfulness from a respected teacher that falls into three rough sections: introducing mindfulness into your daily life, dealing with difficult emotions through mindfulness to move toward healing, and directing mindfulness outward to take action in the world. This book gave me hope and peace during November when I really needed it.
Downtown Owl (Chuck Klosterman)
A narrative dissection of a few months in the lives of three people, before tragedy strikes, in small-town Owl, North Dakota. I really dug Klosterman’s somewhat unpredictable writing style, and as someone from a small city, I found the descriptions of Owl life familiar and moving. I also laughed out loud while reading more than is probably reasonable.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
A quick and affecting book. A man visits his childhood home and is flooded with unsettling memories of the past. Come for the fantastical realm that is Neil Gaiman’s brain, stay for the deeper story about how we learn to cope as children– and as adults.
I watched a lot more TV this year, and a lot fewer movies. The access to bingeable, really damn good television with the potential for longer, more developed storytelling has shifted my focus a bit. Out of the 14 full seasons and 6 partial seasons, these are my five faves.
I’ve been told I look like Tatiana Maslany. I don’t think that’s accurate. But if I have even an ounce of the acting talent that she does, I’ll take the compliment. I finally got around to watching the first season of Orphan Black and her work is outstanding. The development of the storyline feels very BBC (though I’m not sure I can explain what that means?) but I’m looking forward to watching the next seasons.
When I started watching the show, some of the acting didn’t jive with me. But it’s settled in now. Things that seemed false or overdone (to be clear, there wasn’t a lot of it) now match the ideas of artifice and complicity and humans being “hackable”. Plus, I cannot get over the brilliantly disturbing cinematography on the show, and the small details hiding in the background. We got through season one, and I can’t wait to see where that little cliffhanger picks up.
I know, I know, we all loved Stranger Things. But what wasn’t to love? It was a campy yet creepy, formulaic yet surprising homage to the brilliant “family” sci-fi/horror films of the 80s. With practical effects! And those kids were all such great actors! They’re so good it makes me mad! May they never grow self-conscious with age.
And, just to be contrarian… The one quibble I had was the constant touting of how great and girl-powery the women’s roles are. Sorry, the women in the roles did great work with them, but they were still stock female characters. I have high hopes for the next season, though.
Rick and Morty
My two favourite TV shows this year were dark, nihilistic cartoons– which, when I think about it, is kind of my whole creative aesthetic goal. Rick and Morty landed solidly in second place. Hilarious, grim sci-fi with off-the-cuff dialogue that makes me guffaw– like if Doctor Who was drunk and belligerent and amoral. The voice performances are so well done, and hysterical. And under it all is a philosophical depth full of ethical quandaries.
Why wasn’t it my favourite? For lack of a better answer… Dan Harmon causes me internal conflict. A few too many rape jokes in season one (which, to their credit, they toned down in season two), a hint of bro-y can’t-you-take-a-joke-ism… I just feel like he’s smarter than that sort of humour. (Then, there’s the union issues… but that’s another thing.)
That said… jazzed as hell for season three. Rick and Morty forever, a hundred years Rick and Mortys and… things! Dot com.
I started BoJack Horseman at the beginning of the year, got a couple episodes in, thought “ehn”, and gave up. Then my friend Andrew yelled at me to watch the rest. So I did. I finished all three seasons in a few days. It’s the best TV I’ve seen in recent years, if not ever. Thanks, Andrew!
Animation has a similar magic to puppetry. The stories we create with drawings, or bits of fabric and wood, exist in their own world, apart from ours. It’s easier, safer for us to dive into them with our whole hearts. Bojack‘s bright, half-human-half-animal world of Hollywoo is a perfect stage for stories that– amid lots of goofy animal puns– get brutally real. Also, we live in a world where satire gets flung up as a defense for lazy humour all the time. BoJack Horseman is proper, whip-smart satire. It has a lot to say, and what it says is often scathing. The “Hank After Dark” episode, a clear parallel to the Cosby allegations, is a masterwork of making (painful, painful) comedy out of the truth.
This isn’t a feel-good cartoon. BoJack hits you hard in the feels after you’ve fallen over laughing. And it’s brilliant. I now rave about it at parties to anyone who will listen.
Runner-up: RuPaul’s Drag Race + Untucked, because Seasons 7 and 8 were like whaaaaaaaaaat. (And I’m sorry, but Violet Chachki won Season 8 too with that finale look.)
It was another Fringe year (possibly the last for a while), so another year of theatre overload. 95 shows in total, and these ten were the ones that stuck with me. Also, I spent too much time talking about BoJack Horseman (as per usual) so I’m gonna try and tighten it up from hereon out.
Germinal (Halory Goerger & Antoine Defoort/World Stage)
Hooray for World Stage! They bring in the neatest work, honestly. This piece cheekily explores the development of human consciousness and communication with four people doing so in real time. Witty dialogue, careful progress, and a destructible stage– delightful.
Kiss & Cry (Kiss & Cry Collective)
Hand puppetry, onstage film magic, live projection, masterful music choices– this reflection on love was an utterly unique theatre event. It was stunning. My date, who is ambivalent about theatre on a good day, said it knocked his socks off. It’s really something special.
Cold Blood (Kiss & Cry Collective)
More live filmmaking magic from the Kiss & Cry team. if Kiss & Cry is a romantic drama, Cold Blood is a series of black comedy vignettes. Different, but still fascinating.
Portraits in Motion (Volker Gerling/World Stage)
Hey look, more World Stage! Volker Gerling takes long walks across Germany– like, over a period of months– and makes animated flipbooks of some of the people he encounters on the way. The show is basically a thoughtful narrated presentation of these flipbooks, but the way they reveal everyone’s quiet humanity is beautiful.
Naked Ladies (Thea Fitz-James)
The first thing Thea does is walk out naked. Then she deconstructs our relationship with the naked female body, hinting throughout at her own trauma. When I reflect on this show, sometimes I really like it and it’s very important, and sometimes it makes me frustrated in a way I can’t articulate. Which I think is good. And regardless, the show is smart as hell and deeply intriguing.
Me, the Queen, and a Coconut (Andrew Bailey)
A storytelling show on here! How dare! But Andrew’s story about his time spent working at Windsor Castle amid a crisis of faith is engaging, funny, inquisitive, and never overwrought. It’s just a darn good story.
Curious Contagious (Mind of a Snail)
I love the Snails. They are always weird and wonderful, and their latest show, about germs within an enterprising corporate unicorn, is (obviously) no exception. Mind-meltingly creative shadow puppets, a cautionary environmental tale, and a killer soundtrack.
Space Hippo (Mochinosha and The Wishes Mystical Puppet Company)
Climate change spells our doom, and to soothe the public, politicians send a hippo into space to “block the sun”. Space Hippo proceeds on many adventures trying to get back to her baby on earth. So, remember what I was saying earlier about puppets reaching people in a different way? I sat in a full house and joined everyone else there in both screaming with laughter and openly crying at this amazingly crafted space odyssey. For a strange, strange story (with thrilling soundtrack by Elliott Loran), it got right to our hearts. Also, LIZARD MAAAAAAAAN.
The Old Woman (John Grady)
Oops, two storytelling shows! But really, it was more of a poetry/dance hybrid. With soft words and a sharp tongue, John Grady drew me deeply into his reflection on his mother’s final months. It was a delicate, almost fragile look at mortality, and his final dance had me in tears.
Mouthpiece (Quote/Unquote Collective/Nightwood Theatre)
What shapes how we as women move through the world? Who are our voices speaking for? In this challenging physical piece with a powerful vocal score, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava tear apart this question in the context of a woman who just lost her mother. It inspired… a lot of reflection.
Runners-up: The Orbweaver: a Dark and Twisted Folktale About a Mildly Far-fetched, Highly Illegal Immigration Across Metaphysical Borders (Once Once Producciones) for being the most thoroughly-realized Fringe show I’ve ever seen, and This is the Point (Ahuri Theatre/The Theatre Centre) for making space to share honest work about disability.
73 movies this year, a mix of features and shorts. There was some really amazing work that seemed to break through what Hollywood has traditionally offered. All of my tops were features that still rattle around in my head.
The book was one of my favourites in 2015, and the movie certainly lived up to the expectation. Extraordinary performances, and a claustrophobic feel to the cinematography that matches a small human who’s lived in a small box his whole life.
Under the Skin (2013)
Weeks after I watched this slow, unsettling sci-fi, I sent a sudden excited message to my partner after realizing something about the opening sequence where ScarJo takes the clothes from a dead woman. My brain needed that space to unravel it, which I think is pretty cool.
A movie that, like Ex Machina last year, falls into the Domhnall Gleeson Ruins Everything category. The Doors-like music is phenomenal, and what the movie says about true, spontaneous creativity and isolation is achy and delicious. And it’s funny.
Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut is a powerful movie in so many ways, but what struck me the most is how genuine the five teenage sisters were: moody, joyful, full of awkward hormones, both silly and trying to act mature as they’re married off one by one.
The Little Prince (2015)
Full disclosure: The Little Prince is one of my all-time favourite books. I read it when I need some inner peace. So I was a bit nervous about the new interpretation. As it turned out, it nailed it: the story itself was animated beautifully, and the outside story about holding onto your young heart is just the right extension.
It’s a stop-motion movie by Charlie Kaufman, which almost guarantees I’ll like it. It’s a great story (a man who makes a living telling others to treat customers like they’re special sees everyone in the world as the same boring person), and the care that went into animating the mundane details of a hotel conference is terrific.
Operation: Avalanche (2016)
Seeing this film was sold to me on two points: we knew the cameraman’s girlfriend, and they faked their way into NASA to film segments of the movie. As it turns out, the Zapruder Films gang knew how to work a small stunt for publicity, but also how to build it into a film that goes from goofy to intense in a very short time. (Also, favourite car chase scene ever. It’s like something out of a nightmare.)
I had the absolute privilege of seeing Moonlight at the TIFF Lightbox and being in the audience for a Skype Q&A with director Barry Jenkins, which gave even more scope to the yearning exploration of a young, queer black man’s identity. It’s a truly vital movie, and every element from makeup to design to the performances falls stunningly into place; I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.
Smart sci-fi with a genuinely good twist, an interesting female protagonist, and the “what if” question built around communication: what’s not to like?.
Hidden Figures (2016)
I saw a sneak preview screening (once again at the Lightbox– those guys!) of this movie at the end of the year, and I flipping loved it. Not only because it’s a fun, inspiring movie that finally gives credit to the black female mathematicians who got NASA into orbit. Also because, to be frank, it’s a feel-good movie featuring women of colour demonstrating black excellence in an super-racist environment (segregated Virginia in 1961) that didn’t seem to be made for a white audience to feel okay about racism. Which is great.
Runners-up: Lemonade (2016) for being a stunning, multi-layered piece of art, Monsters University (2013) for showing that course correction is okay in life, and Whiplash (2014) because it was a great movie that made me SO MAD about how we perpetuate abuse in arts training as “inspiration”.
That’s all she wrote! AND IT’S A LOT. Thanks for reading my opinions on things that don’t really matter too much at a time when the world is full of opinions on things that matter a lot. Be great to each other, and let’s try and make 2017 a good place.
Failing that, at least we can darkly say that the art will be great. Ha haaa, right? Who wants a drink?