The year of our Lord (Space-Christ) Two Thousand and Sixteen, was by far, the worst year of my entire life.
The year, also known as SURVIVAL INTERVAL 28, commenced, as it might have for others, in the throes of debilitating, psyche-altering heartbreak (of the romantic variety), delivered via the time-honored tradition of the "When Harry Met Sally Dystopia" scenario. Later, the Reaper came for a beloved family member of mine and I was forced to grapple with more intensity than usual the notion that every single person I know will die. And finally, to punctuate this morbid, pitiful trip around the sun, I witnessed the ascension of an anthropomorphized cheese-doodle to the highest power a humanoid can attain on this plane of existence.
Oh, and I added at least 500 hours of sitting in a chair (while commuting to my day job), which has no doubt crushed my colon into a withered meat-tube.
But misery and defeat are not enough to cease my absorption of great (and not so great) works of film, television, literature, comics, and video games.
What follows is an honest accounting of every single thing that I read, watched, played, and listened to (for the first time) in 2016 (even if the item was not released in 2016). It is an exhaustive list with but a single caveat: To be included here, the work must have been, at the time of absorption, released in a “complete” fashion (a full season of television, volume of comics or an entire record, for example) and had to be processed in its entirety (which means I left out everything I did not finish).
This list will serve as my final word on 2016. It is, in its own way, A Map of the Year Most Savage and Cruel. Of all the methods I can use to describe to you the events of these past twelve months, this will be the most explanatory, of that I am certain. After all, as Rob from High Fidelity (played by the honorable Sir John Cusack*) once said, “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films—these things matter. Call me shallow but it's the fuckin' truth.”
(Please note that the uneditorialized list of items itself can be viewed here. Every item on that list is bolded below. If the item in question is simply italicized, then it was absorbed in previous years.)
Film: with the talking and the action and the music all nice and together-like
In the grand tradition of Armageddon/Deep Impact, two films emerged from 2016 with very similar plots and themes. They were, of course, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War.
By all the standards with which we are to assess cinema, Civil War (arguably one of Marvel's greatest films, second only to 2014's Winter Soldier) utterly destroyed Dawn of Justice (easily one of the worst superhero movies ever made).
The politics insinuated by A) the character conflict in both films and B) the fan conflict surrounding these films cannot be ignored when we talk about 2016 as The Election Year. Spend some time on the internet and research the rhetoric, memery, and general aesthetic associated with the Alt-Right and Tea Party political movements. Overlay this on the misspelled anti-intellectual ravings of militant BvS fanatics and you will find a very close DNA match. Then of course consider Batman's role in this film as something of an open-carry gun nut absolutist. And Superman, now fully incapable of understanding how his actions are perceived on a global scale—I mean does any of this sound fucking familiar to you?
Other superhero films of note: Deadpool and Suicide Squad. There's a through line here of stakeholder vision intersecting with audience appeasement. By all accounts Deadpool director Tim Miller and star Ryan Reynolds made the film they wanted to make by harnessing the power of a rabid nerd-base.** Suicide Squad, on the other hand, represents a compromised artistic vision. Your mileage may vary with David Ayer (I am firmly in the pro-Ayer camp) but it is clear that his original endeavor was tampered with, to the film's detriment, in an effort on the part of Warner Brothers to Frankenstein a work that audiences presupposed to be more in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy and less like Ayer's End of Watch (another movie where the "heroes" get fucked up and/or die at the end).
Three other genre sectors dominated my watchlist this year: Horror/Suspense, Spy/Detective, and Mythological/Fantasy Epics.
I had the supreme displeasure of watching both Spectre and the Point Break remake; the former, an effective franchise assassination and the latter, another misfire in a long line of remade genre classics. Man From U.N.C.L.E., a solid film that I missed in 2015, proved that Henry Cavill can be both charming and interesting—something he fails to do every time he puts on a red cape. Bridge of Spies, another 2015 film, is late-period Spielberg at his best—I wonder how it will look to audiences after our new president and Vladmir Putin crack the world wide open and drink from its juices. Bourne Legacy, a bloated "sidequel," managed to keep me entertained and injected some intriguing sci-fi elements into the Bourn-i-verse. And, The Nice Guys, well, it's Shane Black, so it's fucking great. (Fat Russell Crowe = Best Russell Crowe. Feel free to @ me, bruv.)
Gods of Egypt, Warcraft, and Noah—films that failed to register with the greater moving-going population during their theatrical runs—were all at least entertaining, and I found a lot to be interested in across the board. For example, are you aware that Noah features an army of ten-foot tall angels who have all been forcibly encased in rock armor by the Creator (a de-Jewished Abrahamic god, essentially)? Or that Alex Proyas (of Crow and Dark City fame) directed Gods of Egypt? And that Warcraft has Ben Foster playing a wizard?
Green Room, for all of its gore-soaked misery porn, unfortunately proved to be rather prescient, providing us with only a slightly exaggerated, steroidal view into the world of white supremacy. It looks like we progressive Americans are the doomed punk band stuck inside the woodland Nazi club. The Purge trilogy, covers other political terrain, and as far as B-Movies are concerned, each subsequent outing is better (and more ridiculous) than the one that precedes it. The Shallows, while beautiful, is just a two-hour advertisement for you to watch Jaws. I also finally got around to seeing It Follows and then chided myself for having missed it in 2015. For me, sex has always been accompanied by sheer horror in one form or another, so this really pushed many of my buttons.
I submitted myself to several alien attacks this year as well. Dennis Villeneuve's Arrival—a meditation on language, memory, and loss—proved that there is still some room for smart science fiction these days, at least at the mid-budget level. I'm now confident that Blade Runner 2049 is in good hands. 10 Cloverfield Lane had...nothing...?...to do with the original Cloverfield, but who cares because Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman are operating at peak performance here. And then there was Star Trek Beyond, an undercooked denial of the very principles that once defined the Star Trek franchise. "Fast and Furious in space" was the most accurate assessment of this Star Trek sequel, and let us be clear, it was an indictment, not a reason to head off to la cinema.
And, what kind of insane person would it have made me if I had missed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story? It was a refreshing thing to see a prequel that actually functions as it should, telling a solid story that leads directly into the events of another film—something that has obviously never been achieved before with a Star Wars cinematic outing. But there's more. The scale of the action in this movie is quite staggering: A Star Destroyer slowly slowly slips out of the shadows of space. The Death Star nukes the Empire-occupied city of Jedha. Outnumbered Rebel forces battle Shoretroopers on the beaches of Scarif. There are flashes here of Nazi Germany, the War on Terror, Vietnam and so forth. It's nothing new, but we're seeing it all through the "grunt's eye view" now, something we really haven't ever been privy to in the grand opera of the Skywalkers. The experience of Rogue One is very much of a kind with the feel of some of the great (and now defunct) Expanded Universe Star Wars books, games, and comics. We're finally getting a look at the corners of the thing.
Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western (or "Southern" as Tarantino might say) set in a region of America hit hard by predatory banking fuckery, was one of the best films of the year. Pine and Foster are electric here, all wound up and seething with sorrow and self-destruction and blind hope.
And finally, some questions: Can anyone explain to me how society functions in the world of The Jungle Book? These are all sentient animals, essentially people, right? And the wolves hang out with the panther and a human child? Who eats who? (Also how do the cars in Cars procreate? Do they fuck? Do they get sick? Specifically, do they get car-cancer?) Can anyone also explain to me why Anthony Weiner thought it would be a good idea to let the Weiner filmmakers (heh) hound him night and day, cataloguing his pathological need to show his penis on the internet? Or what Terrence Malick was trying to achieve in Knight of Cups?*** Perhaps he's asking that age-old philosophical question "What if Christian Bale walked around California aimlessly for two hours?" I can say, definitively, that I did not like the answer Malick provided.
TV: like the movies but longer and with commercials sometimes
The first season of HBO's Vice News has proven itself to be the kind of smart, daring, and entertaining reporting more people should have watched before they gave the nuclear codes to a guy who wants to bang his daughter and dissolve the Department of Education.
Westworld emerged this year at the white-hot intersection of fan-theorizing, too-cool-to-like-what-everyone-else-likes reflex, and vicious, unstoppable hot-takery. Almost every single conversation I've had about this show has been downright insufferable. I quite like it, but the need on the part of viewers to guess ahead of the show every week was exhausting and indicative of the rampant fan-entitlement that we've been swept up in of late. Like those who support the James Bond "Codename" "theory," these fans will do everything in their power to ruin a show by pulling at strings that aren't there or manufacturing them from whole cloth. And of course the think pieces that reduce Westworld (and others like it) down to a single political utility, and then judge it against this newborn straw man, are the reason why I stay off the internet on Monday mornings.
Of course I watched Game of Thrones season 6, and of course I liked it. There is absolutely nothing to say about this show that hasn't been said (although my last point about the reductive criticism surrounding Westworld fits the bill here as well).
Stranger Things season 1 was a top-notch show for a variety of reasons, but I think the most impressive thing about it is that the showrunners were able to cast a small army of talented child actors in a world where you're usually only lucky enough to get one.
Black Mirror seasons 1 through 3 was feel-bad television at its most effective. Men Against Fire, from season 3, with its shades of Haldeman and Heinlen, was a standout episode for me.
And Bloodline season 1 & 2 acted as a sort of delivery mechanism for Ben Mendelsohn performances, and I consider that medicinal. You should swallow a teaspoon everyday.
Comics and prose: those things with the paper inside and the words and sometimes pictures but also maybe sometimes the whole thing is on your phone
Let's start with Moon Knight, shall we? I've now written about this guy professionally on two separate occasions, so it's safe to say that I'm a fan. (You can read those pieces here and here.) Warren Ellis is partially responsible for relegitimizing this character after another creator had his horrid way with him, so it's only fitting that Ellis should clean up Sam Mendes' mess too. Ellis' two James Bond stories, Vargr and Eidolon, are real palette cleansers, giving us a classic Bond for a modern age.
I was very briefly convinced to start reading DC Comics again, based solely on the strength of DC Universe: Rebirth #1, a book that reminded me of a simpler time, when DC Comics were y'know, good. But then the rest of the Rebirth titles crawled out from the muck of the New 52, revealing themselves to be more of the same unfiltered mediocrity that DC has become known for. Speaking of, Tom King's Batman is an exercise in plodding decompression, with each issue doling out just a smidgen of the story. And his Batman, who can't help but literally crunch numbers while solving complex trigonometric equations aloud as he goes about his superheroing, just doesn't sound right. I understand what King is going for here—he wants his Batman to sound and act like a genius, which is the way it should be, but there are probably better ways to do it. And that nonsense about Bruce Wayne attempting suicide as a child? That gets a triple "Nope" from me. That being said, King's Vision series from Marvel is easily one of the best comics of the year. What is that saying? Ah yes: "Get you a man who can do both." Unfortunately, it seems Tom King is not my man.
Benjamin Marra’s American Blood, a collection of his out-of-print stories like Gangsta Rap Posse and Zorion: The Sword Lord, is pure trash-genius—the kind of stuff you wish you could’ve drawn in your notebook in eighth grade instead of the stick figures.
Neil Gaiman’s return to the creation that put him on the map: The Sandman: Overture, featuring the incomparable work of artists JH Williams and Todd Klein, was fantastic. Brian K. Vaughan’s Paper Girls and We Stand on Guard both scratched a variety of genre itches. Paper Girls is especially nice when paired with a viewing of Stranger Things, as they cover similar ground. And as far as “pairings” go on this list, David Rubin’s The Hero vols. 1 & 2, a sort of modern day retelling of the myth of Herakles, would go quite nicely with my Mythological/Fantasy Epics movie section. And finally, Rick & Morty vol. 1, is probably the closest a licensed comic has ever come to the source material. You’re basically getting more episodes of the show while you wait for Season 3 to come out. Wub-a-dub-dub-dub!
Since I love comics so much I sometimes like to read books about comics, as was the case when I devoured Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in the Dark Knight and his nearly eighty year history. It’s also a incisive look into the corrosive world of Nerd Culture and explains why someone like me, who likes nerdy things, never self-identified as a nerd.
This is embarrassing, but I finally read Slaughterhouse Five. Better late than never.
Because of Alex Garland’s upcoming movie of the same name, I tore through Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Wonderful piece of world-building, that book. I’ve heard it called “enviro-horror” and that fits the bill—it’s quite beautiful in places, but always deeply unsettling. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get through the second book in the trilogy. Andy Weir’s The Martian, while not horror in the classic sense, certainly has its fair share of environment-based scares. It's always lovely when a good book leads to a good movie and the pieces compliment one another.
And finally, to impress a girl, I tried to memorize some of the stuff in a book of Selected Poems by e.e. cummings, but that all led to disaster, and I wound up not even liking the poems anyway, but I do like how the guy spelled his name without capital letters, so there’s that.
Music: that thing with only the sounds, no images, unless it is a music video
I am totally ill-equipped to discuss music in any capacity beyond “this sucks” or “this doesn’t suck.” So here’s the list, with very minor notation:
Favorite Worst Nightmare & Whatever People Say, That's What I'm Not, Arctic Monkeys (These guys have seriously tapped into the condition of modern romance.)
Life of Pablo, Kanye West (I think more artists should release music from their own websites.)
Depression Cherry, Beach House (This album makes me wish I still smoked weed.)
Small but Fortunate, Heartland Nomads (These guys came to my uncle's house for Rosh Hashanah and their music is very good. Those two statements are unrelated, mostly.)
Bury Me At Makeout Creek & Puberty 2, Mitski (My favorite song of the year is Best American Girl.)
Cleopatra, The Lumineers (What a glorious sophomore outing.)
Adore Life, Savages (It was savage.)
Sounds & Color, Alabama Shakes (You do not have to shake if you do not want to, but sometimes it happens involuntarily.)
To put it simply, it all didn’t suck.
Videogames: like the movies but you make the stuff happen, usually with the pew-pew and various whooziwhatsits
So, Tomb Raider comes out in the 1996 and gives people that Indiana Jones video game experience they’ve been craving, with the added bonus of large, bouncing, polygonal breasts, which many of those same people have also been craving. Then, eleven years later, Uncharted comes out, which trades the breasts for a living, breathing character that people enjoy using to murder hundreds of faceless archaeology-obsessed villains. But the Tomb Raider developers weren’t having any of that, so they started making their games more like Uncharted, and while 2013’s Tomb Raider was fun, 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider was really more of the same, that is, less fun. But Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was precisely the ending the Uncharted franchise deserved****, giving players a story about brotherhood, sacrifice, and non-stop, guilt-free murder in the pursuit of buried treasure and everlasting glory.
Speaking of everlasting glory, I think Titanfall 2 presents the best multiplayer experience I've had in nearly a decade. There's a finely-tuned mobility to your avatar that feels empowering and lethal, with a real attention to verticality in the level designs. I will admit to breaking my own rules a bit here, as I did not finish the measly five-hour single-player campaign. This is because it featured some of the worst enemy A.I. I've seen in my entire life and starred yet another caucasian, generically named grunt. Jack Cooper? Really? I'd like, just once, for a AAA video game to star a 13 year old goth lesbian or something, anything...
Dishonored 2 was a flawed experience, but immensely enjoyable when it hit its stride. A little too much focus on great design (the world of Dunwall is grimy and beautiful) and not enough on characters or an interesting narrative. And I must say: In stealth games where discovery by your enemies is assured through junky design (hiding places aren't really hiding places, enemies have Daredevil-style hyper-senses, etc.) you better damn well give the player some entertaining combat to help get themselves out of an encounter. This game doesn't allow for that, instead opting for dizzying first person sword battles that are cheap and repetitious.
And finally, the unicorn (or "Trico" as it were). I've gone from high school to college to the professional world, lived in three different boroughs of New York City, endured two semi-serious to full-on serious romantic relationships, crashed two cars, and have lived under two federal administrations waiting for this video game to come out. I'm happy to say that The Last Guardian is everything I had hoped it would be, despite its one rather glaring shortcoming (a control scheme that will make you grit your teeth at times). I'm still confused as to what took Fumito Ueda and his team so long, but this game, which you could consider a pet simulator in addition to a Uncharted-style platformer, capped this year off with a bit of mystery and heart and genuine comedy. It was much needed. I look forward to whatever Ueda does next. I only hope that it doesn't take another decade.
This is it, this is the end, we are all dead
You will now find yourself at the final destination on my little map of 2016. Apologies for its winding tributaries and dense jungles. But now it's over. Have we learned anything? Who can say really? What I will say is that whatever we went through this year seems small compared to what lies ahead. So, let's all try to be better people in 2017. Let's all try to watch as many movies, read as many books, listen to as many records, and play as many video games as humanly possible. And let's try to be kind to one another. To stick up for one another. To just give a damn about something.
I hope we all survive what comes next. Happy New Year.
*Yes, I read the book. And yes, I know the quote from the film is partially based on a similar passage, but it’s not the same, goddamit.
**Although, news of Miller terminating his involvement with the Deadpool sequel leads me to believe that we're in for another disastrous actor-cum-producer scenario the likes of Hugh Jackman's misguided turn as the dominant power behind the Wolverine franchise—a scenario that may be upended by the new Logan film, which looks promising.
***This is the second movie I've actually gotten up and walked out of. The first was Ghost Rider.
****NOT! They just announced more Uncharted is on the way.